Discover the National Forests during Great Outdoors Month

America’s National Forest system stretches over 193 million acres of vast, scenic beauty waiting to be discovered

During this Great Outdoors Month, try to imagine you inherited millions of acres of forest and grasslands teeming with wild animals, brilliant wildflowers, deep blue lakes, rushing rivers, unspoiled beaches, and majestic mountains and all within a few hours’ drive. You would suddenly feel like the luckiest person on Earth.

Lassen National Forest, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You are. With nearly 200 million acres of forest and grasslands, the USDA Forest Service lands are available for all to use. And these forest lands are open for all to recreate 365 days of the year—unless a natural disaster or maintenance issues force a closure. So, get outdoors and enjoy those natural landscapes this summer—or anytime, for that matter.

Sequoia National Forest, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The national forests and grasslands are 193 million acres of vast, scenic beauty waiting for you to discover. Visitors who choose to recreate on these public lands find more than 150,000 miles of trails, 10,000 developed recreation sites, 57,000 miles of streams, 122 alpine ski areas, 338,000 heritage sites, and specially designated sites that include 9,100 miles of byways, 22 recreation areas, 11 scenic areas, 439 wilderness areas, 122 wild and scenic rivers, nine monuments, and one preserve. And remember, it’s all yours to discover.

Related: Elevate Your Hiking with Mindfulness

Coronado National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The available activities are as big as your imagination and the national forests. Camping, hiking, biking, birding, boating, fishing, rock climbing, and swimming are good starting points. For instance, in California, just outside of the massive metropolis of Los Angeles County, lies the 700,000-acre Angeles National Forest. For the 10 million-plus people who live in the LA area, this forest is a treasure trove of fun, challenging, and exciting outdoor activities, and, yes, it’s big enough for all to share.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And if you think the national forests are only for trees, think again. Just north of Tucson in the southern portion of Arizona’s ponderosa pine-dotted Coronado National Forest, you’ll find an easy-to-access recreation area called Sabino Canyon. In this vibrant desert landscape, you’ll see towering saguaro cacti—some as impressive as the great conifers of the forests. Visitors walk, jog, hike, do wildlife viewing, photography, and so much more.

The Coronado National Forest spans sixteen scattered mountain ranges or “sky islands” rising dramatically from the desert floor supporting plant communities as biologically diverse as those encountered on a trip from Mexico to Canada.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon is a popular destination for wildlife watchers and nature lovers who come to see the more than 240 species of birds (including more than a dozen species of hummingbirds) that live in its nurturing environment.

Related: The 10 Most Breathtaking National Forests in America

Fishlake National Forest, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Traveling northeast are the great Colorado Rocky Mountains where 14,000-foot high peaks are not uncommon. Seriously, there are 53 of them! Just outside the city of Colorado Springs is Pikes Peaks. It is one of the most well-known of the great 14,000-footers. Keep in mind that the most experienced hikers consider climbing Pikes Peak a challenge so just walking around the foothills isn’t a bad idea for the less seasoned hikers among us.

Buffalo Gap National Grasslands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After you cross the Continental Divide, the mountains begin to melt away—a process that has taken millions of years—as you enter the Great Plains. Here sweeping grasslands like those on Colorado’s nearby Comanche National Grasslands and South Dakota’s Buffalo Gap National Grasslands near Badlands National Park invite visitors to hike pleasant trails and see the wildflowers and tall grasses that once stretched from Colorado to the Mississippi River.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming consist of 1.2 million acres of forested hills and mountains approximately 110 miles long and 70 miles wide. The name “Black Hills” comes from the Lakota words Paha Sapa, which means “hills that are black.” Seen from a distance, these pine-covered hills rising several thousand feet above the surrounding prairie appear black.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amid the splendid scenery of the Black Hills, National Forest is 11 reservoirs, 30 campgrounds, 32 picnic areas, two scenic byways, 1,300 miles of streams, over 13,426 acres of wilderness, and 353 miles of trails, and much more. Every location in the Black Hills is a special place but there are hidden gems around every corner.  

Related: On Camping and Spending Time in Nature

Once you cross the Mississippi River, the mountains begin to rise again but these mountains, far older than the Rockies, are literally part of the oldest lands on earth. In fact, the Appalachian Mountains were once right up there in height with Mount Everest.

White Mountains National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now the tallest mountains in the eastern United States rarely break 6,000 feet but the views they offer are spectacular. Check out the George Washington and Jefferson Forest straddling Virginia and West Virginia overlooking the serene Shenandoah Valley, the bare granite summits of New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, or the breathtaking mountain views of North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest.

Nantahala National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of just two national forests in New England, the White Mountain National Forest is a year-round adventure destination. Crowned by the highest peaks in the region—the Presidential Range—the national forest includes the largest alpine zone in the Eastern U.S. For hikers, more than 1,200 miles of hiking trails wind through hardwood and conifer forests offering access to secluded waterfalls, glassy ponds, and granite peaks.

Nantahala National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Nantahala National Forest lies in the mountains and valleys of southwestern North Carolina. The largest of North Carolina’s four national forests, the Nantahala encompasses 531,148 acres with elevations ranging from 5,800 feet at Lone Bald to 1,200 feet along the Hiwassee River. The Forest is divided into three Districts, Cheoah in Robbinsville, Tusquitee in Murphy, and the Nantahala in Franklin. All district names come from the Cherokee language. “Nantahala” is a Cherokee word meaning “land of the noonday sun,” a fitting name for the Nantahala Gorge where the sun only reaches the valley floor at midday.

Read Next: The Reason for Which You Wake up in the Morning

With so much public land available from coast to coast, no matter where you are you can find opportunities to recreate in the Great Outdoors!  

Worth Pondering…

I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.

—Willa Cather

Escape Crowded National Parks at these 4 Alternate Destinations

It’s not easy to commune with nature when you’re surrounded by hordes of fellow visitors

If you are looking to experience the splendor of America’s national parks and other popular outdoor destinations this summer, you likely won’t be alone. Given the resurgence of outdoor travel and road trips during the pandemic, many parks set all-time visitor records in 2021 and are expected to be at least as popular this year.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll encounter trails and viewpoints full of tourists. As traffic jams and parking become ongoing problems, some national parks have instituted strict reservation systems. Yes, you can always find solitude in the vast wilderness of big parks like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone but you’ll still have to contend with traffic getting there.

This summer may be the time to try some alternative spots that offer some of the same features as their more famous neighbors. If you’re looking to dodge the lineups of slow-moving RVs and actually find a camping site, consider giving one of these lesser-known but still awe-inspiring destinations a try.

Related Article: Absolutely Best National Parks to Escape the Insanely Crazy Crowds

Sequoia National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Forest instead of Yosemite National Park

Last year, Yosemite National Park hosted more than 3.3 million visitors with the biggest crowds visiting during the summer months. The spectacular views of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls lose luster after you’ve had to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic all day and then face selfie-stick-toting mobs at every viewpoint. Park lodging is often sold out a year in advance, campgrounds, are packed and the Valley takes on a circus-like atmosphere. To attempt to limit the crowds, Yosemite has instituted a reservation entry process for this year’s high season, lasting from May 20 through September 30.

Sequoia National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meanwhile, about two hours south, Sequoia National Forest boasts similarly beautiful nature with cheaper entrance fees and only a fraction of Yosemite’s visitors. What you lose from missing out on Yosemite’s famous monuments, you gain by enjoying peace, solitude, and the fresh air you originally sought from the outdoors experience. Nearby Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks also contend with crowds, particularly in their main thoroughfares.

Despite the wildfires that raged through the area in 2021, most of Sequoia National Forest’s campgrounds are already open for 2022 and the 1.1 million acres of the park still provide plenty of pristine forests to visit.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen National Park instead of Yellowstone

For an alternative to Yellowstone National Park, take the trek to California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. Yellowstone has the iconic Old Faithful geyser and herds of bison. However, it also has herds of visitors in summer which can be as unpleasant as a close encounter with the cranky furry beasts. The more remote and often under-visited Lassen National Park has an equally entertaining collection of thermal features including the giggle-inducing hiking trails and viewpoints of “Bumpass Hell” and “Fart Gulch.”

Lassen Volcanic National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While some segment of Lassen suffered from a major wildfire in 2021, much of the park remained untouched and most campgrounds will be open for the start of the summer season along with many of the popular trails.

Related Article: Get Off the Beaten Path with These Lesser-Known National Parks

For those with a hankering for wide-open bison-viewing spots, you can still get your fill in the 70,000 acres of North Dakota’s peaceful and secluded Theodore Roosevelt National Park or South Dakota’s Custer State Park.

White Mountains National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Mountain National Forest instead of Acadia National Park

New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest is a good alternative to Maine’s Acadia National Park. Given the record-setting 4 million visitors to Acadia National Park last year, it’s going to take a lot of work to find some solitude there this summer.

White Mountains National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead, travel across state lines to the White Mountain National Forest and tackle the rugged beauty of the Presidential Traverse hiking trail. The full hike can be a challenge, as it goes along windswept peaks above the tree line but you’ll appreciate the peace and spectacular views you’ll earn along the way. The park offers plenty of more relaxing hiking trails as well.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument instead of the Grand Canyon

Instead of the Grand Canyon, take a trip to the Canyon de Chelly National Monument in northeastern Arizona. The Grand Canyon is a truly spectacular destination that should be on everyone’s bucket list. However, its millions of high-season visitors can make it feel like Disneyland at times—with the associated high prices and crowds. Instead, take a detour to explore Canyon de Chelly National Monument which features similarly stunning sandstone canyons as well as ancient cliff dwellings near the current residences of the Navajo Nation (which co-manages the park). The park charges no entry fees and has rangers leading free hikes and hosting educational evening programs.

Related Article: My Favorite Under-appreciated National Parks to Visit in 2022

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

Bottom line

While summer seems like a great time to visit America’s most famous National Parks and other high-profile outdoor destinations, expected high-season crowds may detract from your experience.

It’s worth the time to research and explore many of the lesser-known neighboring parks as alternative summer holiday spots. You can always return to Grand Canyon and Yosemite in the off-season and soak in some scenic seclusion then.

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

— John Muir

Camping Awareness: Wildfire Safety Tips That Could Save Your Life

If you’re wondering what causes wildfires, read on. Here is your complete guide to understanding the most common causes and how campers can practice fire safety.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

—Bob Dylan

Yet, knowing which way the wind will be blowing will give you a massive advantage in understanding the behavior of wildfires.

It took only a handful of days between the disappearance of snow in the Santa Fe National Forest and the start of the Cerro Pelado fire, a growing blaze that has threatened two units of the National Park Service (NPS) in New Mexico in an early season signal that the coming summer months will be smoky in many parts west of the Rockies. 

Salt River Canyon Wilderness, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fire restrictions, imposed county by county, appear to arise more often during the wildfire season. The days of explorers ambling into Colorado’s backcountry, gathering kindling, and sparking a fire for some supper and perhaps a s’more or two are gone. Long gone, the Denver Post recently (May 5, 2022) reported.

“The state’s too dry. Too warm. Wildfire risk is too high and the season lasts all year now. The danger of a camper accidentally sparking a devastating wildfire is too serious.”

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yes, the 2022 wildfire season is underway and it’s striking with a vengeance. The Calf Canyon/Hermits Fire near Santa Fe, New Mexico had burned more than 168,000 acres as of last Friday (May 7, 2022) and was only 20 percent contained. It had already destroyed at least 277 structures including 166 residential buildings and was threatening thousands more. So far, more than 300,000 acres had burned in the state more than all of last year.

Lynx Lake, Prescott National Forest, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meanwhile, in Florida, more than 22,000 acres have burned in recent days. Both fires serve to remind us to check ahead where we’re headed with our RVs and to be extra careful with fire.

With the devastating destruction caused by wildfires, it’s hard to imagine that a single ember is all it can take to start an inferno. Yet, this is often the case—and in most cases humans are to blame. Wildfires are classified as either naturally occurring or human-caused. According to NPS, human-caused wildfires are significantly more common with human involvement triggering 85 percent to 90 percent of all wildfires.

The NPS also estimates that only about 10 percent of wildfires are started by natural causes such as lightning.

Saguaro Lake, Arizona

For any fire to occur, there are three elements needed—heat, fuel, and oxygen:

  • Heat: Many potential heat sources can create embers and ignite wildfires. Many of these are human-caused which I will cover in more detail below.
  • Fuel: An arid climate and abundant, bone dry vegetation provides copious amounts of fuel for wildfires.
  • Oxygen: California’s infamous Santa Ana winds produce gusts averaging 45-50 mph with record gusts clocked at over 160 mph. These winds fan the flames and spread embers, leading to truly devastating wildfires.
Sequoia National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildfires can start in a variety of ways. A dry climate, abundant winds, and dried vegetation provide prime conditions for a wildfire—and it only takes a single ember to ignite and destroy hundreds of thousands of acres and place humans and personal belongs at risk.

Here’s a close look at the top four heat sources that are the most common cause of wildfires:

  • Burning debris: Embers from burning debris are one of the most common causes of wildfires. In windy weather, escaped embers can carry for miles without extinguishing.
  • Unattended campfires: We typically associate campfires with beautiful memories, like s’mores and stories with loved ones. However, despite a campfire’s summertime appeal, they are one of the leading causes of wildfires.  California’s Ham Lake Fire (2007) which destroyed 75,000 acres and hundreds of properties is just one example of the devastation that a single campfire can cause.
  • Power lines/electrical equipment: Electrical lines and related equipment can break in high winds and spark, igniting flames in tinder-dry vegetation that can spread quickly in high winds. Fallen power lines are the third most common cause of wildfires in California. In some cases, it only takes a branch falling from a tree and striking a power line to create sparks. Over the past six years, more than 1,500 Californian wildfires were caused by fallen power lines including the deadliest fire in history—the Camp Fire (2018) which razed 90 percent of the town of Paradise killing 86 people and destroying more than 13,900 homes. The lines malfunctioned on a dry hillside near a windy canyon.
  • Discarded cigarettes: One of the biggest causes of fires is discarded cigarette butts. In 1997, there were 130,000 cigarette related fires. In 2017 this problem resulted in over $2 billion in costs associated with putting these fires out and $6 billion in loss of property. In addition to causing fires, cigarette butts pose another risk: they are hazardous to the environment. Cigarette butts leach toxins into the water and kill or injure various forms of wildlife. The plastic parts of cigarette butts can be ingested by fish, birds, whales, and other marine animals and the toxicity can accumulate up the food chain.
Brasstown Bald, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The list above is by no means exhaustive. Other common causes of wildfires include:

  • Equipment use and malfunctions: The fifth-largest fire in California history, the Zaca Fire (2007) was caused by sparks from a metal grinder.
  • Vehicle crashes and engine sparks: The Carr Fire (2018) was caused by sparks from a trailer’s faulty wheel rim creating sparks on the road.
  • Arson: Two Colorado residents face charges of felony arson for their roles in starting the Lake Christine Fire in 2018.
  • Lightning: Lightning caused the 2012 Rush Fire in Lassen County, California.
Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona

Regardless of how wildfires are started, they are highly unpredictable and can be deadly. With the severe heat, drought conditions, and wildfires burning across much of the western US states and Canada, those who are out adventuring need to be aware of wildfire conditions and what can be done to keep you and your family safe in the backcountry.

Know the current wildfire conditions and fire restrictions for the area you are traveling.

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check with the national forest, state, and county as individual governing entities may have different restrictions.  Driving routes may be impacted, so check your route for road closures and cautions. Also, keep in mind that fire conditions and restrictions can change often, so check frequently so that you know what is permitted or restricted. Closures and restrictions aren’t put in place to ruin your camping trip; they are put in place for safety reasons. Take them seriously.

Frances Beider Forest, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Choose a campsite that has more than one escape route. 

Have more than one way that you can leave the area. You might be tempted to camp way up in that canyon near the end of the road but if your access is cut off from a fire, you will have no way to leave.

Park for a quick departure.

Back into the spot if you need to so that should you need to leave quickly, you don’t have to worry about jockeying around in the smoke to get out.

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

Do not start a wildfire. This involves knowing what is not allowed and being responsible for your actions. Make sure you don’t spill flammable liquids and ensure cook stoves, barbecues, and lanterns are cold to the touch before storing them. Seemingly innocuous things like smoking outside or mosquito candles may lead to fire danger under the right (or wrong) conditions. If you are permitted to have a campfire, be sure it is completely extinguished before you leave.

Wildfire smoke from across state lines obscured the skies over Gatlinburg, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you do see an unattended fire or out of control fire, contact the authorities by calling 911 or the forest service immediately.

The sooner a problem is reported, the faster people can start taking action to get it under control or extinguished.

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t discard cigarettes, matches, or smoking materials on the ground. Drown them in a glass of water then put them in the trash. No one wants to see that litter anyhow.

If you are asked to evacuate, do so immediately.

Stowe, Vermont © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you are camping in the backcountry, there is likely not going to be anyone to tell you that a fire is in the area, so be aware of conditions and get yourself out if you see or smell smoke. Do not be tempted to linger for photos. Don’t drive slowly looking at flames.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If everything has gone wrong, you are in trouble. Don’t try to outrun the fire. If possible, get yourself submerged in a body of water (pond, river) as fast as you can. If there is no water, find a depression (low area) with as little vegetation as possible. Lie low to the ground and cover yourself with wet clothing. Protect your lungs as best as you can and stay down until the fire passes.  

Remember: you are responsible for your safety and for the safety of those around you.

See also:

Worth Pondering…

Don’t forget what Smokey Bear says: Only YOU can prevent wildfires!

National Park Service Offer 5 Free Entrance Days in 2022

Five days in 2022 will be free of entrance fees at national parks that charge them

There will be five days in 2022 when you can enter for free a national park that normally charges an entrance fee.

According to a news release from the National Park Service, the free admission days “are designed to encourage discovery and visitation of the country’s variety of national parks. With at least one in every state, national parks are accessible places to visit to refresh body, mind, and spirit.”

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The free entrance dates for 2022 are: 

  • Monday, January 17 –  Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
  • Saturday, April 16 – First Day of  National Park Week
  • Thursday, August 4 – Anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
  • Saturday, September 24 –  National Public Lands Day
  • Friday, November 11 –  Veterans Day
Joshua Tree National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Whether on an entrance fee-free day or throughout the year, we encourage everyone to discover their national parks and the benefits that come from spending time outdoors,” said National Park Service Director Chuck Sams.

“National parks are for everyone and we are committed to increasing access and providing opportunities for all to experience the sense of wonder, awe, and refreshment that comes with a visit to these treasured landscapes and sites.”

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In honor of the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., National Park Service sites will waive entrance fees for everyone on Monday, January 17, 2022, as the first fee-free day of the year. Commemorated on the third Monday of January every year, it is also a day of service when hundreds of volunteers participate in service projects at parks across the country. This is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service to encourage all Americans to volunteer to improve their communities. Many national parks traditionally host a variety of service projects that people can sign up for as volunteers.

Related: These National Parks are ALWAYS FREE

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Celebrate National Park Week 2022 from April 16 to 24. Parks across the country will host a variety of special programs, events, and digital experiences. Entrance fees are waived on April 16 to kick off National Park Week and encourage everyone to enjoy their national parks.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great American Outdoors Act established the National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund which uses revenue from energy development to provide up to $1.9 billion a year for five years to provide needed maintenance for critical facilities and infrastructure in national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, recreation areas, and American Indian schools. The National Park Service which has one of the largest asset portfolios of all federal agencies receives 70 percent of the Legacy Restoration Fund each year.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Established in 1994 and held annually on the fourth Saturday in September, National Public Lands Day is traditionally the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort. It celebrates the connection between people and green space in their community and encourages the use of open space for education, recreation, and health benefits. This year, National Public Lands Day falls on September 24.

Related: National Parks Inspire Love of Nature

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Park Service invites all visitors to remember our veterans by visiting any National Park Service site for free on Veterans Day (November 11). Many national parks have direct connections to the American military—there are dozens of battlefields, military parks, and historic sites that commemorate and honor the service of American veterans. In addition, every national park is part of our collective identity that defines who we are and where we came from as a nation. They are tactile reminders of the values, ideals, and freedoms that our veterans protect.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks have something for everyone. Recreational experiences can range from a relaxing picnic to a thrilling white-water adventure and everything in between including hiking, camping, fishing, stargazing, swimming, and paddling. Demonstrations and programs at cultural sites connect us with traditions from the past. Notable people and their contributions to society are remembered at historical sites. Chances to view wildlife in their natural habitats and see geological wonders provide lasting memories.

Vanderbilt Estate National Historic Site, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors are encouraged to begin their trip to a national park with a stop at NPS.gov or the NPS app to help plan and prepare. Online you can find tips to help you Plan Like a Park Ranger and Recreate Responsibly. It is important to know before you go what is open and available, especially if you are interested in staying overnight. There are maps, updated conditions, and suggested activities to help you decide where to go and what to do. 

Related: Guide to Adventure Activities in National Parks

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Regardless of the activity, visitors should follow Leave No Trace principles. Each of us plays a vital role in protecting the national parks. As we spend time outdoors in the natural world and in the wilderness it’s important to be conscious of the effects our actions may have on plants, animals, other people, and even entire ecosystems. Following the Leave No Trace Seven Principles, we can help minimize those impacts. They can be applied anywhere, at any time, while taking part in recreational activities.

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimize campfire impacts
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of other visitors
Congaree National Park, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The entrance fee waiver for the fee-free days applies only to National Park Service entrance fees and does not cover amenity or user fees for activities such as camping, boat launches, transportation, or special tours.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most national parks do not have entrance fees at all. Out of more than 400 national parks, approximately 110 have admission fees that range from $5 to $35. The money from entrance fees remain in the National Park Service and 80-100 percent stays in the park where collected. The funds are used to support the visitor experience by providing programs and services, habitat restoration, and building maintenance and repair. 

Related: How National Parks Saved Us?

Padre Island National Seashore, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2020, $170 million was collected in entrance fees. Entrance fees, along with other funding sources such as the Great American Outdoors Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, Federal Transportation Program, and the Cyclic Maintenance program are part of a concerted effort to address the extensive maintenance backlog in national parks.

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Free annual passes to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas, including all national parks, are available for members of the U.S. Military and their dependents, U.S. Military veterans, Gold Star Families, fourth-grade students, and eligible NPS volunteers. U.S. Citizens with a permanent disability can obtain a free lifetime pass. U.S. Citizens 62 years and older can purchase an $ 80-lifetime pass or a $20 annual pass. And the annual $80  America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass  is a great option for those who visit multiple parks each year.

Related: Why America Needs More National Parks

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Why America Needs More National Parks

There are dozens of natural wonders around the country that are worthy of designation

Nothing epitomizes the natural splendor of America quite like a national park. The designation evokes images of quiet groves of towering trees in Sequoia and Kings Canyon, sweeping views of sun-drenched rock formations in Arches, or waves crashing against granite cliffs in Acadia (National Park).

Recently, though, national parks have become synonymous not with pastoral retreats but rather a decidedly less appealing phenomenon: crowds and more crowds.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 327 million people visited the public lands managed by the National Park Service (NPS) in 2019 and after a brief, pandemic-causing respite the system is again straining to accommodate the hordes yearning for a little fresh air after more than a year spent mostly indoors. Parks across the country are setting records for visits while landmarks like Old Faithful and Utah’s Delicate Arch have been swamped by picture-snapping visitors.

Going to a national park in 2021 doesn’t mean losing yourself in nature. It means inching along behind a long line of vehicles on the way to an already full parking lot.

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

Since last August, every month except one has been record-setting at Grand Teton National Park. More than three million people visited the park in 2019 and the total will likely reach four million this year.

Yellowstone, whose history as a national park predates the Park Service itself, registered its first month with over a million visitors in July. The park is grappling with the impact all those new guests are having on the park’s infrastructure. A million more people a year in Yellowstone mean you’re emptying 2,000 garbage cans five times a day instead of three. What is the impact of a million more people flushing toilets five times a day, do to wastewater?

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So far, federal action on the matter has largely been restricted to last year’s Great American Outdoors Act which directed money to the NPS’s estimated $12 billion repair backlog as well as the President’s recently proposed budget which would increase the number of full-time Park Service employees considerably for the first time in two decades. But, the core issue remains: There are too many people concentrated in too few places.

But, how can we rebalance the scale? By adding more national parks!

After all, America has no shortage of sublime landscapes. The current assortment of national parks represents a narrow cross-section of the nation’s beauty.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon and Yosemite are undeniably magnificent but so too are lesser-known landmarks. Valles Caldera is a dormant volcano in northern New Mexico whose 13.7-mile-wide crater is dotted by hot springs and streams. Joshua trees in Southern California’s Mojave National Preserve are no less mesmerizing than in their namesake national park. These are just two of the dozens of wilderness areas across the country that are already managed by the Park Service yet remain practically unknown. Redesignating them as national parks could change that overnight.

Mount St. Helens National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is perceived credibility in the national park designation. Elevating a national preserve or national monument to national park status does increase visitation.

Headwaters Economics, a research group based in Montana, reported on the impact of the eight national monuments redesignated as national parks over the past two decades. Their research found that national parks overall have much greater visitation, overnight visits, spending per visitor, an economic impact than national monuments. Visits increased by 21 percent on average in the five years following redesignation compared to the five previous years.

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

Those findings are borne out by the New River Gorge in West Virginia which was redesignated last December. A spokesperson for the park estimates that visits have increased by 24 percent in the months since.

In the Intermountain West, from 2000 to 2016, recreation visits to national parks increased while visits to national monuments decreased. Importantly, national parks saw a greater increase in overnight visits which has a significant economic impact on the surrounding communities.

The most substantial difference between national parks and monuments is that the latter are created by presidential decree rather than congressional action; indeed, many national parks began as monuments and were only later elevated to their now rarefied status.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For many visitors, the word “monument” is something of a misnomer. It signals that maybe there’s one thing of interest there. That leads people unfamiliar with the region to think, “Let’s plan on a two-hour stop before we go on to a big-name national park.”

There is potential for a significant increase in visitation and economic impact for surrounding communities from redesigning a national monument as a national park. National monuments like Craters of the Moon (Idaho), Canyon de Chelly (Arizona), Organ Pipe (Arizona), Cedar Breaks (Utah), Natural Bridges (Utah), Mount St. Helens (Washington), Aztec Ruins (New Mexico), and El Malpais (New Mexico) come to mind.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How many of the six million annual Grand Canyon visitors might be enticed to go to Arizona’s similarly majestic Canyon de Chelly if it were a national park rather than a national monument? How many of the hundreds of thousands of eager hikers packing into Zion every month might take a chance on Cedar Breaks instead, especially given its crimson-striped cliffs and bristlecone forests are a mere hour’s drive further into the Utah desert?

Of course, many Westerners will shudder at the notion of under-the-radar gems like Craters of the Moon and the Valles Caldera becoming the next Bryce Canyon or Badlands. Which begs the question of how to alleviate crowding at some sites without overwhelming others?

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many national parks have already reached their limits, leaving less developed public lands vulnerable. Because Grand Teton can’t accommodate everyone who wants to stay there overnight, rangers from the surrounding Bridger-Teton National Forest have been scrambling to respond to the campers who want to camp there instead despite the area not having a comparable visitor infrastructure. And, therein may lay the answer for another viable alternative to the overcrowded national parks. Overshadowed by the NPS, the U.S National Forests offer some of the most awe-inspiring natural wonders in the country.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Forest Service offers a range of choices from developed campgrounds to dispersed camping in the middle of nowhere. America’s National Forest system stretches over 193 million acres of vast, scenic beauty waiting to be discovered. Visitors who choose to recreate on these public lands find more than 150,000 miles of trails, 10,000 developed recreation sites, 57,000 miles of streams, 338,000 heritage sites, and specially designated sites that include 9,100 miles of byways, 22 recreation areas, 11 scenic areas, 439 wilderness areas, and 122 wild and scenic rivers.

National Forests, then, represent an appealing in-between alternative: sites that many outdoors-minded travelers have never heard of that can still offer an experience every bit as memorable as a brand name park.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a paradox in the national parks. They’re set aside as natural places to be protected forever; on the other hand, they’re for public enjoyment and experience. The current situation complicates both sides of that equation by compromising the Park Service’s conservation mission while also making parks less appealing places to visit. Creating more National Parks is part of the solution. If you’ve got a demand problem, you can solve it by increasing supply. That’s Economics 101.

Worth Pondering…

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.

—Wallace Stegner, 1983