21 of the Most Visited National Parks in America

Whether planning to camp under starry skies, take a scenic drive, or chase thrilling outdoor adventures, these parks are sure to please

Approximately 237 million people visited the national parks in 2020, representing a 28 percent year-over-year decrease attributed to the COVID pandemic. To determine the most popular national parks in the United States, I’ve compiled data from the National Park Service on the number of recreational visits each site had in 2020.

President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 signed the act creating the National Park Service to leave natural and historic phenomenons “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Since then, national parks have welcomed visitors to experience some of the best the country has to offer and showcase America’s natural beauty and cultural heritage.

Today, the country’s 63 national parks contain at least 247 species of endangered or threatened plants and animals, more than 75,000 archaeological sites, and 18,000 miles of trails.

Keep reading to discover 21 of the most popular national parks in the United States, in reverse order. And be sure to check with individual parks before you visit to find out about ongoing, pandemic-related safety precautions.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

48. Pinnacles National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740
Percent of total national park visits: .24%

Pinnacles National Park in California was born after several volcanoes erupted forming the unique landscape of the park which is packed with canyons, rock spires, and woodlands. When the park was established in 1908 it was only 2,060 acres but has now grown to 26,000. Because of hot summer temperatures, Pinnacles is most popular in the winter months.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

45. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 183,835
Percent of total national park visits: .27%

Located in southern New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s 119 caves were born when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone millions of years ago leaving behind a treasure trove of caverns. The Big Room in Carlsbad Cavern is the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America and takes an hour and a half to cross, according to the National Park Service. Birders from around the globe flock to Rattlesnake Spring to see some of the 300 documented bird species.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

42. Mesa Verde National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 287,477
Percent of total national park visits: .42%

Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado protects nearly 5,000 archaeological sites that have preserved the history of the ancestral Pueblo people. They inhabited the land for almost 700 years building dwellings into the cliffs and establishing communities before moving away. Visitors can see and explore several of the cliff dwellings through tours and hiking trails.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

38. Petrified Forest National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 384,483
Percent of total national park visits: .57%

Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona is home to the gorgeous Painted Desert and Crystal Forest where petrified logs shine with quartz crystals. The site in the park known as Newspaper Rock contains more than 650 petroglyphs between 650 and 2,000 years old. The landscape of the park features mesas and buttes created by erosion.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

37. Big Bend National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 393,907
Percent of total national park visits: .58%

Big Bend National Park in Texas offers spectacular views of the Chihuahuan Desert landscape as well as the Rio Grande. Visitors to the park can even enter Mexico through the park’s Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry. Big Bend has more species of birds, bats, and cacti than any other national park in the United States.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

34. White Sands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 415,383
Percent of total national park visits: .61%

The park is aptly named, featuring wavy white sands over nearly 300 square miles in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin. This is the world’s largest gypsum dunefield and the park preserves a major part of it. Visits can include the park’s historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Lucero Ranch on the shore of Lake Lucero and the White Sands Missile Range Museum and Trinity Site, where in 1945 the first atomic bomb was tested.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Canyonlands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 493,914
Percent of total national park visits: .73%

Utah’s Canyonlands National Park features a unique landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes formed by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Even though the park is considered a desert, its high elevation gives it a varying climate; temperatures here can fluctuate as much as 50 degrees in a day. This, combined with the low annual rainfall, make the park a perfect home for drought-resistant plants such as cacti, yuccas, and mosses.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

29. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 542,274
Percent of total national park visits: .80%

Each rock at Lassen Volcanic National Park in California is a result of a volcanic eruption given that the park has been volcanically active for 3 million years. The world’s four volcanic types—shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome—are all present at the park and located in close proximity to each other. Park visitors can also check out the park’s several fumaroles, mud pots, and boiling pools.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

28. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 551,303
Percent of total national park visits: .81%

Located in North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s dominating feature is the badlands which are colorful, rolling hills consisting of rock that are millions of years old. Erosion and other natural processes like lightning strikes and prairie fires continue to shape the badlands today. The park is of course named for the U.S. president who first came to the Dakotas in 1883 to hunt bison.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

24. Saguaro National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 762,226
Percent of total national park visits: 1.12%

As its name suggests, Saguaro National Park in Arizona protects giant saguaro cacti, a symbol of the American West. The average lifespan of one of these cacti is 125 years old and it produces sweet fruits. The park is also home to a variety of animals many of which can only be found in the southern part of the state including kangaroo rats, roadrunners, and horned lizards.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Sequoia National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 796,086
Percent of total national park visits: 1.17%

Sequoia National Park is adjacent to Kings Canyon National Park in California and was the first park established to protect a living organism: its native sequoia trees. Since World War II, Sequoia and Kings Canyon have been administered jointly. In 2014, Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the park for the first time in 100 years as part of a recovery effort for this endangered species.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Badlands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 916,932
Percent of total national park visits: 1.35%

The striking landscape of Badlands National Park in South Dakota contains one of the world’s richest fossil beds. At one point, it was home to the rhino and saber-toothed cat. The Badlands were formed nearly 70 million years ago by erosion and deposition of sediment when an ancient sea was located where today’s Great Plains are.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Capitol Reef National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 981,038
Percent of total national park visits: 1.44%

Capitol Reef National Park in Utah is famous for the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline extending almost 100 miles and considered a “wrinkle on the earth.” The fold was formed 50 to 70 million years ago as a warp in the Earth’s crust and erosion has exposed the fold at the surface. The park has some of the darkest night skies in the United States, so much so that it has been designated an International Dark Sky Park.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

19. New River Gorge National Park & Preserve

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,054,374
Percent of total national park visits: 1.55%

New River Gorge National Park & Preserve consists of 70,000 acres along the New River, a whitewater river in southern West Virginia that despite its name is one of the oldest on the continent. From the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, the sides of the valley fall almost 900 feet into the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can go whitewater rafting or canoeing, rock climbing, bird watching, camping, hiking, or biking along an old railroad grade.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Arches National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,238,083
Percent of total national park visits: 1.82%

Arches National Park in Utah lives up to its name and has more than 2,000 natural stone arches, the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world. These sandstone geological formations are the result of erosion and a thick layer of salt beneath the rock surface. The arches are impermanent, however; the 71-foot Wall Arch collapsed in 2008.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Bryce Canyon National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,655
Percent of total national park visits: 2.16%

Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah has the world’s largest collection of hoodoos, pillars of rock left standing after erosion. Bryce Canyon contains a series of natural amphitheaters and bowls, the most famous being Bryce Amphitheater which is full of the park’s iconic hoodoos. The park is one of three national parks to house the Grand Staircase geological formation which is a giant sequence of sedimentary rock layers.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Shenandoah National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,666,265
Percent of total national park visits: 2.45%

Just 75 miles from the nation’s capital, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia showcases the Blue Ridge Mountains and is home to 90 perennial streams, many of which turn into cascading waterfalls. While many native species have been lost over time, today the park has more than 200 bird species, 50 mammal species, and more than 35 fish species. The park is popular with hikers with 500 miles of trails including 101 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Joshua Tree National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,399,542
Percent of total national park visits: 3.53%

Joshua Tree National Park in California was named after its picturesque, spiky Joshua trees. Mormon immigrants named the trees after the biblical Joshua after noticing that the limbs looked as if they were outstretched in prayer. Many of the park’s animals including Scott’s orioles, wood rats, and desert night lizards depend on the tree for food and shelter. Keys View in the park offers an incredible view of the Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, and San Jacinto.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Grand Canyon National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,897,098
Percent of total national park visits: 4.26%

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is synonymous with its world-famous canyon that is 18 miles wide and 1 mile deep. The park encompasses more than 1 million acres and consists of raised plateaus and structural basins. The Grand Canyon is considered one of the best examples of arid land erosion in the world. It has a rich and diverse fossil record and the land offers a detailed record of three out of the four geological eras.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Zion National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 3,591,254
Percent of total national park visits: 5.29%

Zion National Park was Utah’s first national park and is famous for its landscape of giant colorful sandstone cliffs. Around 12,000 years ago the first people to visit this land tracked mammoths, giant sloths, and camels until those animals died about 8,000 years ago. Because of the range in elevation in the park, it has more than 1,000 diverse plant species.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 12,095,720
Percent of total national park visits: 17.81%

Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee is the most biodiverse park in the National Park system with more than 19,000 documented species. The Smokies are among the oldest mountain ranges in the world. On average, more than 85 inches of rain falls in the park each year fueling 2,100 miles of streams and rivers that flow through the park.

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

A Journey of Incredible Beauty: Trail of the Ancients

Take your time and savor the sights—and along much of the route…the silence

Far too often we consider the roads that we travel purely as a means to get from point A to point B. Most spend far more hours in their cars commuting and running errands than truly enjoying what lies beyond the edge of the asphalt or concrete. But once you hit the road in your recreational vehicle, why not get off the roads most traveled and take in the breath-taking splendor of America’s system of scenic byways?

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Trail of the Ancients, a federally designated National Scenic Byway circles through the ancient Puebloan (Anasazi) Country of southeastern Utah, providing opportunity to view scenic landscapes, archaeological, cultural, and historic sites, as well as Natural Bridges and Hovenweep (also in Colorado) national monuments, Monument Valley, Edge of the Cedars State Park, and Manti La Sal National Forest. It’s a land filled with 250-million-year-old rock formations, mysterious Anasazi ruins, and remnants of long-ago Mormon pioneer families, all but undiscovered by crowds of tourists. An extension of this route continues into Colorado to Mesa Verde National Park, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, and Ute Mountain Tribal Park.

Take your time and savor the sights—and along much of the route…the silence. Attempt this 482-mile drive (366 miles in Utah; 116 miles in Colorado) in a single day or two and you’ll miss the point. This landscape took thousands of years to create; you’ll never appreciate it at 65 miles per hour. Instead, take a week or more, stopping to walk through the numerous parks, preserves, monuments, and unnamed places whose beauty defies categorization. Start at any point along the route.

Utah Highway 261 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway enters Utah east of Monticello on U.S. Highway 491 and continues to the junction in Monticello with U.S. Highway 191. Turn south onto U.S. 191 and travel to Blanding where you’ll find Edge of the Cedars State Park and Museum, a good stop for an introduction to the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) pre-history of the area. Visitors can walk the paths through the ruins and climb into the kiva via a ladder, just as the original residents did. Exceptionally rare and well-preserved artifacts are at the heart of the museum exhibits.

Utah Highway 261 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Blanding the route follows U.S. Highway 191 south to the junction with Utah Highway 95 and continues west on Highway 95 to Utah Highway 261 passing Butler Wash Ruin, Mule Canyon Ruin, and Natural Bridges National Monument. Butler Wash Ruins, about 10.5 miles west of Blanding, has cliff-type dwellings located under rocky overhangs in a lush green valley along the river. An easy half-mile hike allows closer views. Eight miles further west along Highway 95 brings you to Mule Canyon Indian Ruins at milepost 101. Adjacent to the road, the site contains dwelling units, a reconstructed open kiva, and round tower—all made of stone.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just a few more miles and you’re at Natural Bridges National Monument about 35 miles west of Blanding. Located atop a 5,500- to 6,500-foot mesa a nine-mile, one-way, paved loop road winds through the park, revealing spectacular views of deep pinyon-filled canyons with scattered ancient cliff dwellings and three of the world’s largest natural stone bridges. Bridges differ from arches in that they are created primarily by stream action; whereas arches are created primarily by rain and wind.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bridges in this monument are all easily viewed from overlook areas along Bridge View Drive, or you can hike down into the canyon and walk under them. Interpretive signing is present at each overlook. Horsecollar Ruin Overlook Trail is mostly level and leads over the mesa to the edge of White Canyon. The small cliff dwelling is unique in that it is still plastered. The doorways to the two granaries are shaped like the horsecollars used in harness equipment. A small campground is limited to RVs less than 26 feet but an overflow area on the edge of the park has plenty of room.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Natural Bridges National Monument, the Trail of the Ancient Scenic Byway turns south at the junction with Highways 95 and 261. Along this route you’ll find access to Grand Gulch Primitive Area and hiking trails on the mesa top. Prior to dropping off the Moki Dugway is County Road 274, a 5-mile remote dirt road leading to Muley Point which has been listed by National Geographic as one of the most outstanding views in America. From its magnificent overlook you’ll peer deep into the San Juan River Canyon and onto Monument Valley 25 miles or so in the distance.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The infamous Moki Dugway is a 3-mile stretch of unpaved road that descends 1,000 feet down tight switchbacks from the edge of Cedar Mesa into the Valley of the Gods. The dugway itself is a historic part of the trail, built during the uranium boom to accommodate ore trucks that traveled from the mines on Cedar Mesa to the mill near the Navajo community of Halchita across the San Juan River from Mexican Hat. Never planned for public use, Moki Dugway is not recommended for RV travel.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the bottom of the Dugway our journey continues past the entrance to the little-known Valley of the Gods and onto the junction with Utah Highway 316 which leads to Goosenecks State Park. Although Valley of the Gods is not listed as a site on the Trail, it is worth visiting. The 17-mile loop drive on a native surface road leads among sandstone monoliths which have been given fanciful names such as Seven Sailors, Southern Lady, Rooster Butte, and Battleship Butte.  The valley allows a close-up look at towers and mesas of multicolored sandstone and other sedimentary rocks in subtle shades of pink, red, gold, orange, and purple. The sandstone monoliths here are reminiscent of Monument Valley. This route puts travelers on Highway 163, between Bluff and Mexican Hat.

Goosenecks State Park is another adventure in geology revealing the skeleton of the earth in the layers formed by the San Juan River 1,000 feet below. The Goosenecks of the San Juan River is one of the most striking examples of an “entrenched river meander” in North America. Like a snake the river twists and turns and coils back on itself for a distance of over six miles while advancing only 1.5 miles west as it flows toward Lake Powell. Over 300 million years of geologic activity is revealed from Goosenecks State Park. Located at the end of Highway 316, Gooseneck is a wilderness park encompassing 10 acres.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah Highway 261 continues to the junction with U.S. Highway 163 and the town of Mexican Hat. Founded in the early part of the 20th century during an oil boom, Mexican Hat has a population of less than 100 and functions mostly as a stopover point for visitors on their way to Monument Valley or as a base for river expeditions.

At the junction turn right to enter Mexican Hat and on to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park where sandstone buttes, mesas, and spires rise majestically from the desert floor. Monument Valley offers the quintessential Western backdrop made famous in countless Western movies directed by John Ford. An unpaved, and at times rough, road loops through the park. Several overlooks offer spectacular views of the wonders of Monument Valley.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley’s towers, which range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet, are made of de Chelly sandstone, which is 215 million years old, with a base of organ rock shale. The towers are the remnants of mesas, or flat-topped mountains. Mesas erode first into buttes like the Elephant, which typically are as high as they are wide, then into slender spires like the Three Sisters.

After exploring the wonders of Monument Valley retrace your route for 21 miles to Mexican Hat on U.S. Highway 163 and continue east to the pioneer-era town of Bluff on the edge of the Navajo Nation. Snuggled up against the San Juan River, the town was settled by the famous “Hole-In-The-Rock” expedition of Mormon pioneers in the 1880s. Continue past Bluff and travel east on Utah Highway 262 towards the town of Aneth and follow the signs to Hovenweep National Monument.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Known for its square, oval, circular, and D-shaped towers, Hovenweep National Monument protects six prehistoric clusters of Native American ruins. Established in 1923, the villages date from the Pueblo period of the mid 13th century. They are spread over a 20-mile area along the Utah-Colorado state line. Unlike the large ruins at Mesa Verde, these are approachable and the visitor can wander among the fallen walls and consider the people who built them.

From Hovenweep return to Aneth and drive southeast on Utah Highway 162 and Colorado Highway 41 to the Four Corners and northeast on U.S. Highway 160 to Ute Mountain Tribal Park. Part of the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation, the Ute Mountain Tribal Park has been set aside to preserve remnants of the Ancestral Puebloan and Ute cultures. The Park encompasses approximately 125,000 acres around a 25 mile stretch of the Mancos River. Within the park are hundreds of surface sites and cliff dwellings, Ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs, and historic Ute wall paintings and petroglyphs.

Mesa Verde National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Ute Mountain, drive north on U.S. Highway to Cortez and Mesa Verde National Park. Fourteen centuries of history are displayed at Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde offers an excellent opportunity to see and experience the life of the Ancestral Puebloans. Spectacular cliff dwellings and mesa-top villages were built between A.D. 450 and 1300, when the Ancestral Puebloans migrated from the area. 

The park is split into a series of sub-mesas all bearing different names. There are thousands of archaeological sites across the park and excellent interpretive loops and scenic pullouts. Hiking and climbing ladders in and out of cliff dwellings is one option, or walks through less rigorous self-guided routes are also available. 

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On this note we end our fascinating discovery of an ancient land of incredible beauty.

Worth Pondering…

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.

—Marcel Proust, French novelist

7 Incredible Ancient Ruins to Explore in National Parks

Here are my top 7 picks for the best places in America to see ancient ruins

Originally established to conserve and preserve some of the most beautiful and unusual wilderness places in America, the National Park System (NPS) grew to include archaeological and historic sites. The first park to preserve “the works of men,” as President Theodore Roosevelt put it, was Mesa Verde, established in 1906. Others followed, preserving and showcasing ancient ruins and archaeological sites throughout the country. Most are in the Southwest—and for good reason.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

People of the Southwest built their homes and cities in stone, carving them in soft sandstone crevices or building structures up to four stories high from clay and mud bricks. In the bone-dry environment of the desert, these ancient structures baked in the sun but stayed preserved. Visible for miles in the wide-open spaces, they were easy to find, and as settlers moved into the area they started visiting them—without regard to their preservation. Vandalism threatened to destroy structures that stood centuries in the desert sun. To protect and preserve the past the NPS incorporated them to help preserve them.

The following are a few of our favorite national parks preserving ancient ruins in the Southwest.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Hundreds of cliff dwellings pepper the walls of the canyons and more stand-alone structures sit on the rims of Mesa Verde in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. The best-preserved ancient ruins in the country, some of them date from as far back as 600 A.D. They not only started the preservation of ancient monuments in the U.S. but are also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The mesa-top sites are easy to access and visit on your own. Older than the cliff dwellings, these are the sites where the Ancestral Puebloans lived before moving down into the canyon. You’ll find them at the Far View Sites Complex, the Cedar Tree Tower, and the Square Tower House and Sun Temple.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The cliff dwellings are even more spectacular though you need to join a ranger-led tour to visit most of them. Cliff Palace is the most spectacular; others include Balcony House, Spruce Tree House, and Long House. Stop at the Visitor Center to learn more about each tour and sign up for the ones you want to join.

You can spend at least two days in the park, especially if you want to take multiple tours. Overnight lodging includes camping at the Morefield Campground and rooms at the Farview Lodge.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Montezuma Castle, near Camp Verde, has nothing to do with Montezuma, nor is it a castle. We owe the name to early pioneers who thought this five story pueblo was of Aztec origin. In fact, the superb masons who constructed this cliff dwelling were likely ancestors of the present day Hopi and Zuni. Spanish explorers called them Sinagua (“without water”) because they were dry farmers, coaxing their crops of corn, beans, and squash from the arid desert soil.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sinagua built the five-story, 20-room structure about 1150 but abandoned it in the early 1400s, almost a century before Montezuma was born. Montezuma Castle is built into a deep alcove with masonry rooms added in phases. A thick, substantial roof of sycamore beams, reeds, grasses, and clay often served as the floor of the next room built on top.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

If you wonder why an ancient archaeological site in the Southwest is named Aztec, you are not alone. The name is a misnomer; people who built this ancient city had nothing to do with the Aztecs. They were the Ancestral Puebloans, members of the same people group that built Chaco and Mesa Verde. The ancient city is in fact considered an outlier of Chaco and if you visit Aztec Ruins, you’ll see the same features on a smaller scale. However, from a visitor’s perspective, Aztec Ruins National Monument in the town of Aztec is much more accessible. All you have to do is drive to the end of a neighborhood street in town. Clearly marked signs point you in the right direction.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built and inhabited between 1100 and 1300, Aztec Ruins features a “great house” you can walk through and several other structures and kivas. The highlight of the site is the only reconstructed ceremonial kiva in the Southwest. Walking inside this kiva gives you an idea of what the originals would have looked like. Once inside, listen to a recording, adding to the ambiance. Even the Visitor Center is a museum here, set in the original house archaeologist Earl Morris who reconstructed the kiva lived in while he worked at the site.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casa Grande National Monument, Arizona

Casa Grande ruins sits in the middle of a surrounding flat desert in Coolidge just a short drive south of Phoenix. Part of a larger archaeological site featuring a few smaller structures and a ball court, this “big house” is part of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. The largest known structure built by the Hohokam, the four-story-high “house” is protected from the intense Arizona sun by a metal roof.

Built by the ancestors of the present-day O’odham people the site was an ancient farming community and according to the oral history of their descendants, a ceremonial center. Walk through the indoor museum to learn about the ancient people of the desert who lived here, and their ingenuity in making a life in the Sonoran Desert. Then walk through the site and experience the desert yourself.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

If you want to visit ancient ruins in the middle of nowhere without driving on dirt roads Hovenweep National Monument fits the bill. The word Hovenweep means deserted valley and that is exactly what you find as you drive to the site on the Colorado-Utah border in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. The site is actually in both states but you wouldn’t be able to tell which one you are in.

Hovenweep features a few tall structures along a small canyon. The largest, called Hovenweep Castle, sits on the rim comprising a few structures. The two-mile round-trip trail leading to the ruins takes you along the rim of the canyon. Besides the castle, it passes several other structures and offers views of the Square Tower inside the canyon. The paved trail from the Visitor Center to the start of this trail is fully accessible and leads to Little Ruins Canyon Overlook. From here, you can see most of the structures.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Tuzigoot National Monument preserves a site on top of a hill overlooking the Verde River, cliffs and ridges in the valley, and the Tavasci Marsh, a natural riparian area surrounding an old curve of the Verde River.

The ancient village on the hill, the Citadel, inhabited between 1100 and 1400, comprised 110 rooms by the time its builders and those who lived there abandoned the site. A paved, fully accessible trail leads to and around it, giving you a good idea of what it would have looked like. Though the views from the ruins alone are worth the walk, one room is reconstructed, and if you are there at the right time, you can enter it and see what it would have looked like when inhabited.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo, who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor. People have lived in the canyon for more than 5,000 years, archaeologists believe, making it the longest continuously inhabited area on the Colorado Plateau. Ancient ruins are tucked along its cliffs, as are centuries-old pictographs.

Don’t miss the White House Ruins. This is a superb hike. Long ago, hundreds of people lived in the structure built into the cliffs. Now the walls are a reminder of how life once thrived in the canyon.For your efforts you’ll get an up-close look at White House ruins, mentioned in the Navajo Night Chant as “white house in between”.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things To Keep In Mind When Visiting These Archaeological Sites

The ancient people of the Southwest who built the structures mentioned above, made their home in an inhospitable environment and built civilizations here. For a long time, the view was that they mysteriously “disappeared,” leaving these elaborate structures behind.

In fact, they were all ancestors of the present-day Native tribes of the Southwest. When visiting any of the ruins, please be respectful of this. For some of us, these people’s stories may be an interesting piece of history, but for the descendants of people who built them, they are part of their cultural inheritance. By learning about their history and protecting and respecting these sites, we learn about the Native people of the area, and are richer for the experience.

Worth Pondering…

We didn’t inherit the earth; we are borrowing it from our children.

—Native American Proverb

Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years

Step into the past and experience the lives of one of America’s oldest cultures, the Pueblo people

Most of the national parks in the Southwest are about the landscapes, but Mesa Verde in southern Colorado is more cultural than natural. There’s still plenty of rugged scenery, but there are also more than 5,000 archaeological sites contained within Mesa Verde’s boundaries.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde, Spanish for “green table”, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from AD 600 to 1300. Today the park protects these sites, some of the most notable and best preserved in the U.S.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These master builders constructed elaborate complexes tucked into sandstone cliffs. Some held just a few people, while others, such as the Cliff Palace and Long House, have 150 rooms and could have housed up to 100 people.

Unique in the park system, Mesa Verde is the first and only park created for the protection and preservation of archaeological resources and is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Colorado. Conde Nast Traveler chose it as the top historic monument in the world, and National Geographic Traveler chose it as one of the “50 places of a Lifetime— the World’s 50 Greatest Destinations”, in a class with the Taj Mahal and Great Wall of China.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde does not lend itself to a hurry-up visit. It takes time to savor the magic of its eight centuries of prehistoric Indian culture. As a vintage slogan at the park advises: “It’s a place where you can see for 100 miles and look back in time 1,000 years.”

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The intricate architecture is as awesome to behold today as it was when cowboys and ranchers first saw it. Two men looking for lost cattle, Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason, came upon the most spectacular site, the 150-room Cliff Palace, in 1888. Mesa Verde National Park was established 18 years later, in 1906.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way of acquiring a feeling for Mesa Verde is to follow the 6-mile Mesa Top Auto Loop Road which traces Pueblo history at 10 overlooks and archeological sites.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But for an intimate look at the kivas and actual living accommodations take the short hike from the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum to Spruce Tree House, the only major Mesa Verde site available for self-guided tours. The paved trail leads to the 114-room, eight-kiva structure—the one initially discovered by Wetherill. One popular feature is a reconstructed and roofed kiva visitors can access by ladder.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tickets to tour other popular larger structures—Cliff Palace, Long House, and Balcony House—must be obtained in advance at the Far View Visitor Center (15 miles south of the park entrance). Tour groups are limited in size.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Immediately south of the Visitor Center, a farming complex dates to about 1050. Two large surface pueblos—Far View House and Pipe Shrine House— and smaller settlements make up the complex.

From Mesa Verde’s entrance a two-lane paved road winds upward 2,000 feet through piñon-juniper forests and canyons. At Park Point, on the northern edge of the mesa at 8,600 feet, the visitor is treated to a panoramic view of the Montezuma Valley to the west, and the Mancos Valley, framed by the 14,000-foot San Juan and La Plata mountains to the east.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Far View, the road divides. The west fork leads to Wetherill Mesa and a number of major cliff dwellings, including Long House, second largest at Mesa Verde. The south fork leads to Park Headquarters on lower Chapin Mesa and the major cliff dwellings of Cliff Palace, largest in the park, Spruce Tree House, Balcony House, Square Tower House, and others.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Near Park Headquarters is the outstanding Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum. With scores of exhibits and five unique dioramas, the museum provides a comprehensive overview of the area’s ancient people.

Mesa Verde offers great camping just 4 miles inside the park at Morefield Campground. Because there are 267 sites, there’s always plenty of space. The campground rarely fills. But if you want one of the 15 full-hookup sites, reservations are a must.

Our brief visit whetted our appetite for more. In the words of another time traveler from the future…I’ll be back.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

(The cowboys’ discovery of Cliff Palace) was the beginning of the mystery which is still a mystery. Who were these people, where did they go, and why?

—Diana Kappel-Smith, Desert Time

Circle of Ancients: Ancestral Puebloans

Ancestral Puebloans and their world

The sites of the Ancestral Puebloans are many and include Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Hovenweep National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Aztec Ruins National Monument. All combine to form The Circle of Ancients—a theme some have spent a lifetime exploring.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 1,400 years ago, long before Europeans explored North America, a group of people living in the Four Corners region chose Mesa Verde for their home. For more than 700 years they and their descendants lived and flourished here, eventually building elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Then, in the late A.D. 1200s, in the span of a generation or two, they left their homes and moved away. Mesa Verde National Park preserves a spectacular reminder of this ancient culture. Archeologists have called these people Anasazi, from a Navajo word sometimes translated as “the ancient ones” or “ancient enemies.” We now call them Ancestral Puebloans, reflecting their modern descendants.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first Ancestral Puebloans settled in Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”) about A.D. 550. They are known as Basketmakers for their skill at the craft. Formerly nomadic, they were beginning to lead a more settled way of life. Farming replaced hunting and gathering as their main livelihood. They lived in pithouses clustered into small villages usually built on mesa tops.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About A.D. 750 they began building houses above ground with upright walls made of poles and mud often with a pithouse or two in front. (Pithouses would later evolve into kivas.) From here on, these people are known as Puebloans, a Spanish word meaning “village dwellers.”

By A.D. 1000 the people of Mesa Verde had advanced from pole-and-adobe construction to skillful stone masonry.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Between A.D. 1100 and A.D. 1300, the population may have reached several thousand. It was mostly concentrated in compact villages of many rooms, often with the kivas built inside the enclosing walls. These stone walls are regarded as the finest ever built in Mesa Verde.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About A.D. 1200, another major population shift saw people begin to move back into the cliff alcoves that sheltered their ancestors centuries before giving rise to the cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is most famous. Using nature to advantage, Ancestral Puebloans built their dwellings beneath the overhanging cliffs.

Most of the cliff dwellings were built from the late A.D. 1190s to late A.D. 1270s. They range in size from one-room structures to villages of more than 150 rooms such as Cliff Palace and Long House. Ancestral Puebloans lived in the cliff dwellings for less than 100 years. By about A.D. 1300, Mesa Verde was deserted. When the cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde left, they traveled south into New Mexico and Arizona, settling among their kin who were already there.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In about 1110, a wandering band of Anasazi, a skilled farming people looking for a new home selected a high ridge along the west bank of the Animas River, opposite the present town of Aztec, New Mexico. They constructed a large dwelling of sculptured and fitted stones. Built over a four-year period, it was an E-shaped structure of about 400 rooms and 24 kivas that reached three stories high in places. About 85 years later, the residents of Aztec abandoned the region, and Aztec lay deserted.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 1225, a group of Mesa Verde people left their high mesa and deep canyons in southern Colorado to move into the abandoned Aztec complex. Despite their considerable efforts in refurbishing Aztec, the Mesa Verdeans didn’t stay long. By about 1275, they also began to drift away and by 1300, the stone dwellings on the Animas had been abandoned.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Around A.D. 900 a group of Anasazi Indians left Mesa Verde and settled 100 miles west at what is now called Hovenweep National Monument, which straddles the Utah-Colorado state line. A Ute word meaning “deserted valley”, Hovenweep is the site of six separate pueblo settlements and probably more considering that most of the 784 acres at Hovenweep have yet to be excavated. The pueblos tell of a sophisticated knowledge of a sun-Earth relationship.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By 1300 the site was deserted and the Anasazis had probably gone to other sites in northwestern New Mexico or northeastern Arizona.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While Chaco’s heyday had come and gone by the end of the 12th century, many other communities continued to thrive until the late 13th century, such as those found in the canyon walls of Navajo National Monument, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Mesa Verde National Park.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes

Visit a National Park but Skip the Big Name Ones

America’s big name parks are attracting major crowds. Here’s where to avoid them.

As summer creeps into full swing and cities across America do the dance of easing and then reinstating COVID-19 restrictions, people are clamoring to be someplace—most anyplace—besides their own homes. While there is no form of travel that’s 100 percent safe right now, there are certainly more responsible options than others for scratching the itch.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks with their wide-open space are more befitting a socially distant vacation than, say, popular resort towns or theme parks. But even vast wilderness expanses have potential for riskier areas—visitor centers, for one, and popular trailheads near crowded parking areas. And then there are the crowds at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful or the scenic drive at Zion National Park which has been so popular since reopening that the park had to cap access at 6:30 a.m.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now more than ever, this is the time to visit some of America’s lesser-known national parks. Steering clear of the hoard of tourists at Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains, exploring new territory provides a sense of discovery with the added benefit of fewer people. The adventure doesn’t stop at park boundaries, either, as these less-famous parks are often surrounded by small communities rich with their own charms.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As enticing as all this sounds, it’s important that travelers tread carefully in and around all national parks since these smaller gateway communities are not equipped to handle a potential outbreak brought in from visitors. It’s a double-edged sword for small businesses that rely on tourism dollars to survive. That is why it’s important to maintain the same caution on your road trip as you maintain at home. Wherever you are, social distancing and adherence to health mandates are important in order to support these communities while keeping them safe.

So, with safety top of mind, here are some alternative parks to consider for your 2020 summer escape.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Judging by the fact that Congaree sees about 3 percent of the annual visitors of parks like Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain, it seems many people don’t even know this South Carolina park exists. Located in the middle of the state, the swamp-like terrain feels part Everglades and part Sequoia with the tallest trees east of the Mississippi and intertwining waterways ripe for paddling.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park’s front and backcountry areas are open including all hiking trails, Boardwalk, restrooms, picnic shelter, Cedar Creek Canoe Trail, and canoe landings. Note that parts of the Boardwalk and Weston Lake Loop Trail remain closed due to flood damage. Cedar Creek is a narrow waterway that weaves through hardwood forest so tall and dense that it blocks out the sun. For easy hiking, out-of-the-way trails like the River Trail and Oakridge Trail are currently accessible. The park is within 20 miles of the state capital of Columbia. The Barnyard RV Park in nearby Lexington offers a convenient home base for exploring the area.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

This sprawling west Texas park has plenty of room (nearly 1 million acres, in fact) to spread out and explore from Chisos Mountains hikes and hot springs to the Santa Elena Canyon, a vast chasm offering shaded respite along the meandering Rio Grande. Due to its sheer size, geographic diversity, and faraway locale, this is the perfect park to immerse yourself in for a week with plenty of sights and activities to keep you busy.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The surrounding communities are rich with character but low on crowds like the dusty ghost town of Terlingua which is emerging as a tranquil artist’s enclave and the peaceful riverside town of Lajitas. There are several campgrounds and RV parks in Big Bend and surrounding communities.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park is once again beckoning visitors itching to hike, drive along the Mesa Top Loop Road, and marvel at the park’s famed cliff dwellings and structures. At just over 50,000 acres, the park is perfect for its mesa-skimming scenic drives and hiking trails that make you feel like you’re traipsing through the clouds surrounded by panoramic views of the surrounding valley.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park has reopened using a phased approach. Some areas are open on a self-guided basis while other facilities and areas remain closed. Cliff dwellings are closed and tours are canceled until further notice. But there are many superb viewpoints along the Mesa Top and Cliff Palace Loop Roads

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Badlands, petrified wood, bison, pronghorns, and wild horses make it clear what endeared President Theodore Roosevelt to this tranquil part of the country. And you’re more likely to encounter chirping prairie dogs on your hike than people.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is comprised of three separate areas of land. The North and South Units feature scenic drives, eroded sandstone formations, wildlife viewing, hiking, visitor centers, and the meandering Little Missouri River. The undeveloped Elkhorn Ranch Unit preserves the site of Roosevelt’s “home ranch” in a remote area along the Little Missouri River.

Visitors can access South Unit Visitor Center, trails, picnic areas, roads, and backpack camping. Painted Canyon and North Unit visitor centers and all campgrounds remain closed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

The world-famous caverns—brimming with stalagmites, stalactites, and a colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats—has partially reopened. The visitor center is open from 8 am to 5 pm daily. For social distancing entrance tickets to the cavern are limited to 575 visitors per day and available on a first-come, first-served basis at the visitor center.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bat flight amphitheater is closed to protect the bats and social distancing for visitors and staff. Bat flights can still be observed from the visitor center parking lot and a ranger presented Bat Flight Program can be listened to on a vehicle radio.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With nearly 50 miles of trails through the peaceful Chihuahuan Desert, from Rattlesnake Canyon to Guadalupe Ridge, there’s plenty to explore, and plenty of opportunity to break away from crowds and convene with cacti and roadrunners.

Worth Pondering…

As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.

— John Muir

Mesa Verde National Park: 14 Centuries of History

Mesa Verde offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people

Most of the national parks in the Southwest are about the landscapes, but Mesa Verde in southern Colorado is more cultural than natural.

There’s still plenty of rugged scenery, but there are also more than 4,000 archaeological sites contained within Mesa Verde’s boundaries.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde, Spanish for “green table”, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from AD 600 to 1300. Today the park protects these sites, some of the most notable and best preserved in the U.S.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fourteen centuries of history are displayed at Mesa Verde National Park, 10 miles east of Cortez off U.S. Highway 160. More than 4,000 archaeological sites have been preserved, including hundreds of homes and villages that date back to the 12th century.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These master builders constructed elaborate complexes tucked into sandstone cliffs. Some held just a few people, while others, such as the Cliff Palace and Long House, have 150 rooms and could have housed up to 100 people.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde is a World Cultural Heritage Park, a designation granted by UNESCO to preserve and protect the cultural and national heritage of certain international sites. Mesa Verde has also been selected the number one historic monument in the world by readers of Condé Nast Traveler, and was chosen by National Geographic Traveler as one of the “50 places of a Lifetime—The World’s Greatest Destinations.”

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde does not lend itself to a hurry-up visit. To truly appreciate the park and to visit several of the cliff dwellings, plan to spend a minimum of two days at the park. It takes time to savor the magic of its eight centuries of prehistoric Indian culture. As a vintage slogan at the park advises: “It’s a place where you can see for 100 miles and look back in time 1,000 years.”

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The intricate architecture is as awesome to behold today as it was when cowboys and ranchers first saw it. Two men looking for lost cattle, Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason, came upon the most spectacular site, the 150-room Cliff Palace, in 1888. Mesa Verde was designated as a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt 18 years later, in 1906.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Mesa Verde’s entrance a two-lane paved road winds upward 2,000 feet through piñon-juniper forests and canyons. At Park Point, on the northern edge of the mesa at 8,600 feet, the visitor is treated to a panoramic view of the Montezuma Valley to the west, and the Mancos Valley, framed by the 14,000-foot San Juan and La Plata mountains to the east.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Far View, the road divides. The west fork leads to Wetherill Mesa and a number of major cliff dwellings, including Long House, second largest at Mesa Verde. The south fork leads to Park Headquarters on lower Chapin Mesa and the major cliff dwellings of Cliff Palace, largest in the park, Spruce Tree House (closed to the public), Balcony House, Square Tower House, and others.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spruce Tree House is the best preserved cliff dwelling in the park, but falling rocks from a sandstone overhang have kept the more than 700-year-old structure closed since October 2015.

Due to the complexity of the project and the significance of Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling, there is a four-phase sequential approach planned.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In early 2017, the park service contracted with a geotechnical firm to conduct Phases One and Two. This assessment will result in recommendations for treatment that, if necessary, will use modern engineering technology to ensure that the alcove is stable and safe for public visitation.

Currently, Spruce Tree House can be seen from overlooks near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde offers great camping just 4 miles inside the park at Morefield Campground. Because there are 267 sites, there’s always plenty of space. The campground rarely fills. But if you want one of the 15 full-hookup sites, reservations are a must.

Mesa Verde is open year-round, but actual schedules vary with the season. The campground and some sites are closed during the winter. The current entry fee to visit Mesa Verde National Park is $15-25 (fee is good for 7 days); all federal lands passes are accepted.

Worth Pondering

(The cowboys’ discovery of Cliff Palace) was the beginning of the mystery which is still a mystery. Who were these people, where did they go, and why?

—Diana Kappel-Smith, Desert Time

The Least Visited National Parks and Why Each Is Worth a Visit

Celebrate the beauty and natural wonders of America’s national parks at these lesser-known sites

Among America’s 61 national parks, some stand out as must-sees for most RV travelers: Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, Zion, and the Grand Canyon all come to mind as bucket-list sites. And indeed, these and other parks welcome millions of visitors each year. Yet there are many other lesser-known parks equally worth your time—parks with extraordinary wildlife and unique natural features that mere thousands of visitors experience annually.

We’ve rounded up the least-visited national parks and make a case for why each is worth a visit. Some are little-known, others are obscurely located, but all celebrate the beauty of America’s natural wonders—and, as a bonus, can be enjoyed with fewer crowds.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Petrified Forest

2018 visitor count: 644,922

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Most visitors come to see the ancient tree trunks, which are preserved by minerals they absorbed after being submerged in a riverbed nearly 200 million years ago. And they’re quite a sight: Over time, the huge logs turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of colors—the yellow of citrine, the purple of amethyst, the red-brown of jasper. This mineral-tinted landscape also boasts painted deserts and striated canyons.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mesa Verde

2018 visitor count: 563,420

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mesa Verde is the largest archeological preserve in the U.S., with over 500 distinct sites and 600 cliff dwellings. Those dwellings were once the homes that native peoples used for several centuries. Today, visitors can explore the dwellings, learn about the native culture, and marvel at both the safeties and dangers offered by living several hundred feet off the ground, in structures tucked into small openings on the cliff face.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Carlsbad Caverns

2018 visitor count: 465,912

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The only cave system on our list of least-visited parks is located in New Mexico beneath the Chihuahuan Desert. Carlsbad is not just one cave; more than 100 caves form the park, Carlsbad Cavern itself forming the natural entrance to the park as the tallest cave. The Big Room, a large limestone chamber, is nearly 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 255 feet high.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Lassen Volcanic

2018 visitor count: 499,435

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Located in the northern part of California, Lassen Volcanic is best known for the astounding hydrothermal sites within its bounds. Many established trails take you past—and through—those bubbling springs, including Bumpass Hell, an area with acres of bubbling mud pots. As the name implies, Lassen Peak is a volcano. On the side of the mountain, visitors can observe lava rocks left by its last eruption in 1917.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Big Bend

2018 visitor count: 440,091

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Deep in the heart of Southwest Texas lies the well-known, but rarely visited, Big Bend National Park. In spite of its remote location, Big Bend is worth the drive. The entire Chisos Mountain Range, a portion of the Chihuahuan Desert, and the Rio Grande form spectacular scenery here. Visitors enjoy hiking and backpacking and it’s a certified dark-sky park, offering an unparalleled view of the night sky.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Pinnacles

2018 visitor count: 222,152

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The unique landscape of towering rock formations that form “pinnacles” is the result of volcanic activity in the area some 23 million years ago. Pinnacles offers hiking and climbing, with spectacular views; come during spring to see blankets of colorful wildflowers, and stay after sunset to take in the star-studded sky.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Congaree

2018 visitor count: 145,929

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Congaree offers the opportunity to explore the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern U.S. The park includes the area where Congaree and Wateree Rivers converge. Canoeing, hiking, and fishing are all popular pastimes and may be enjoyed in peace thanks to the sparse number of fellow travelers.

Worth Pondering…

We can never have enough of nature.

—Henry David Thoreau