Magnificent Off-the-Beaten Path National Parks and Monuments

We all have Yosemite and Yellowstone on our lists, but the best national parks aren’t necessarily the best-known!

Look deep into nature. And then you will understand everything better.

—Albert Einstein

One of the best ways to be at one with nature is in a national park.

The National Park System encompasses 423 national park service sites. While most of us are familiar with marquee parks like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and the Great Smoky Mountains, many other national sites are awe-inspiring as well. The best part is these spectacular places aren’t as well-known or crowded, providing visitors a much-more private, intimate look at these national treasures.

I’ve gathered some of the off-the-beaten-path favorites—places that also make for an ideal road trip in your RV.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

This national park marvel is tucked beneath the rugged but scenic Chihuahuan Desert in the Guadalupe Mountains of remote southeastern New Mexico. One of the largest and most spectacular cave systems in the world, the park features more than 100 caverns containing some of the most unique, fanciful, and subterranean fascinating formations in the world.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The primary showstopper here is Carlsbad Cavern, the park’s main cave boasting a 25-story high ceiling, an immense floor as large as six football fields… and lots of bats. 300,000 Mexican free-tailed bats hang from the ceiling during the day but put on a spectacular evening show as they leave the cavern in search of food.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

A dominant feature of this Northern California park is Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world. Home to pristine mountain lakes, bubbling streams, steaming fumaroles, and wildflower-covered meadows, Lassen is a fascinating piece of heaven on Earth. My biggest surprise when visiting in October was to discover snow-covered mountaintops, eight-foot snowdrifts, and a lake partially frozen over.

Related: From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen also boasts breathtaking mountain scenery reminiscent of Yosemite and fascinating thermal wonders similar to Yellowstone, all without the crowds of these popular national parks. The bottom line, is it’s a must-do hidden gem.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is a park for isolation. Both the north and south units offer great hiking, expansive vistas, easily accessible wilderness, abundant wildlife, and not many visitors.

This is a wonderful park for hiking due to the elevation (or lack thereof) and abundance of trails.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oh, and for wildlife, too. There are bison, pronghorns, wild horses, and ground squirrels.

The adjacent wilderness area is also a good alternative to Petrified Forest National Park with the Petrified Forest Loop well worth the trip. The Painted Canyon Nature Trail is an easy 45-minute hike. The canyon looks amazing from the rim but waits until you experience a hike down into it. Get up close and personal with the rock layers, junipers, and wildlife. Remember, every step-down means a step back up on the return.

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 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.

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

People have lived in the canyon for more than 5,000 years making it the longest continuously inhabited area on the Colorado Plateau. Ancient ruins are tucked along its cliffs, as are centuries-old pictographs.

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

There are two ways to experience Arizona’s lesser-known canyon. You can drive along the rim stopping at overlooks to marvel at the vertical cliffs and stone spires and hike on one trail, the White House Trail. Otherwise, there is no entry into the canyon without a permit and Navajo guide. A popular choice is riding down the canyon aboard a 20-passenger tour truck.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Astonishing biodiversity exists in Congaree National Park, the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers sweep through the floodplain, carrying nutrients and sediments that nourish and rejuvenate this ecosystem and support the growth of national and state champion trees.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking the park’s many trails lets you get up close and personal with Congaree National Park. Whether you are looking for a short hike on the Boardwalk Trail or desire to make a longer trek into the backcountry, there are options available for visitors of all skills and abilities. Depending on what you want to see, trails can lead you to oxbow lakes, the Congaree River, or stands of magnificent old-growth trees that help make up the tallest deciduous forest in the United States. 

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument, located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’, while Sipapu, the second largest natural bridge in the state, means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive overlooks the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins.

Related: Escape Crowded National Parks at these 4 Alternate Destinations

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A nine-mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three natural bridges. Moderate hiking trails, some with metal stairs or wooden ladders, provide closer access to each bridge. An 8.6-mile hiking trail links the three natural bridges which are located in two adjacent canyons.

The park is rather remote and not close to other parks and as a result, is not heavily visited.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park has it all—vast amounts of open space, rivers, canyons, pictographs, and hot springs. Located in southwest Texas, the park can be wonderfully warm in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer offering year-round access to some of the most beautiful terrain in the state. Big Bend National Park is where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Chisos Mountains and it’s where you’ll find the Santa Elena Canyon, a limestone cliff canyon carved by the Rio Grande.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend is among the largest national parks in the United States. With numerous trails, mountains, canyons, and nearby villages to explore; each point of interest could easily yield itself to days of exploration. For the best experience resist making a set plan—allow yourself plenty of time to explore and discover each desert sanctuary at your own pace.

Related: National Monuments Are Mind-Blowing National Park Alternatives

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

National Monuments are America’s Hidden Gems

With smaller crowds and limited development, national monuments are ideal destinations for the adventurous RV traveler

The designation of “national monument” evokes statues and memorial buildings that do not sound too interesting for adventurous RV travelers.

However, in the United States, the term has a different meaning. What you will find among national monuments are vast lands rivaling the national parks in beauty, diversity, and cultural heritage. You will not find crowds, tight regulations, or over-photographed views. Get ready for an adventure off the beaten path.

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

What Are National Monuments?

Like national parks, national monuments are federally protected areas. They vary in size from less than an acre to surface areas comparable to many U.S. states. They preserve natural or historic features. The main administrative difference is that only Congress can designate a national park whereas presidents can proclaim a national monument on their own thanks to a 1906 law called the Antiquities Act.

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

Sixteen presidents have used the Act to preserve some of America’s most treasured public lands and waters. Half of today’s national parks including the Grand Canyon and White Sands were first protected as national monuments.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Less Development

The national parks are created for the “benefit and enjoyment of the people.” They are generally equipped with an infrastructure of roads, visitor centers, lodges, campgrounds, and interpretive trails. While this makes a visit more convenient, it also brings mass tourism.

Related Article: National Monuments Feature Places for Reflection and Hope

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For example, Arches National Park is frequently full and closed to new entries by 9 a.m. People instead head to nearby Canyonlands National Park, but even there, securing a spot at sunrise for the iconic Mesa Arch requires arriving well in advance. By contrast, when visiting nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, you’ll likely have the place to yourself.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The national monuments are created for conservation. Since 1996, the landscape-sized national monuments have been operated by the Bureau of Lands Management (BLM) or the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) instead of the National Park Service (NPS). Their development is minimal. Often, facilities are limited to primitive campgrounds and trailheads. Roads can be unpaved and a 4WD vehicle may be recommended, if not necessary.

Visiting the national monuments managed by the BLM and USFS can test your preparation and self-sufficiency. Most areas are remote and have no cellphone coverage. You must bring in everything you need including food, water, and enough gear to survive a night or two should you have an emergency.

Sonoran Desert National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Smaller Crowds

The more adventurous setting of the national monuments results in much lighter visitation even though you can often find similar subjects and environments as in the nearby national parks. For example:

  • The Sonoran Desert portions included in Ironwood Forest National Monument and Sonoran Desert National Monument are as beautiful and representative as those in Saguaro National Park, if not more pristine
  • California’s densest population of cholla cactus thrives in Bigelow Cholla Garden Wilderness of Mojave Trails National Monument rather than in the better-known Cholla Cactus Garden of Joshua Tree National Park
  • At Cadiz Dunes Wilderness in Mojave Trails you will many animal tracks but no human footprints aside from your own
  • Vermilion Cliffs National Monument’s Paria Canyon is more than twice as long and every bit as impressive as Zion National Park’s Virgin River Narrows
El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fewer Rules

The heavy visitation of national parks led to strict rules. In Grand Canyon National Park, like in any other national park, no camping is allowed outside developed campgrounds. In nearby Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, you can drive right to the edge of the chasm and pitch your tent both at Twin Point on the Upper Rim and Whitmore Overlook on the Lower Rim.

Related Article: National Monuments Are Mind-Blowing National Park Alternatives

Giant Sequoia National Monument, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Giant Sequoia National Monument protects more sequoia groves—almost half of the total number—than Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks combined. Because it has the largest diameter (36 feet) of any living giant sequoia, the Boole Tree was once considered the largest tree in the world, although it is “only” the sixth largest by volume. Unsightly railings protect the biggest trees in the national parks, but there are no fences around the Boole Tree.

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even if the national monuments were only lesser-traveled alternatives to bustling national parks, they would be worthwhile destinations. However, some of the most remarkable nature subjects in North America are in national monuments rather than national parks. Here are a few locations ideally visited in autumn or spring.

Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coyote Buttes, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

“The Wave” in Arizona is known worldwide. Even if the name Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is unfamiliar, you have undoubtedly seen images of the extraordinary rock formation located in Coyote Buttes North. For decades, only 20 permits were issued daily. If you have been trying to win the lottery, take hope in the increase this year to 64 permits. A geologic wonderland of spectacularly colored rock strata, the area protects much more than the Wave.

Newspaper Rock in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods, Bears Ears National Monument

Bears Ears National Monument in Utah spans wondrous red rock country. Hidden in its labyrinth of canyons and mesas are more cliff dwellings and tribal artifacts than any other area in the American West. The road descending the Cedar Mesa plateau, called Moki Dugway, is impressive for its precipitous surroundings and 180-degree switchbacks cut into the cliff. The vista from there is immense.

Related Article: 10 Under-The-Radar National Monuments to Visit

Moki Dugway, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A sandy plain dotted with sandstone buttes and spires near Mexican Hat, the Valley of the Gods’ landscape reminds visitors of Monument Valley. While the rock formations are smaller, Valley of the Gods is free from commercialization, tour groups, streams of cars, and heavy regulations. Instead, you’ll find quiet, solitude, freedom to explore, and plenty of spots to camp for free. The 17-mile unpaved road is passable by a 2WD car driven carefully.

Valley of the Gods, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Future of Public Lands

Since 1906, America’s boldest efforts in conservation have been through the establishment of national monuments via presidential proclamation. Grand Staircase-Escalante was the first of the national monuments managed by the BLM, marking the evolution of the nation’s largest land caretaker toward conservation. Bear Ears was the first native-driven and co-managed national monument.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other national monuments to consider for your bucket list include:

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Solitude, Inspiration, and Photography

Many spots in national parks have become icons of America’s natural and cultural heritage to the point that they have become over-photographed, making it difficult to find original compositions.

Related Article: Mind Blowing National Monuments in the Southwest

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The national monuments offer new landscapes and natural wonders awaiting exploration. Their often starker and more subtle landscapes invite exploration to get to know and love. Because the natural features are less prominent, it is easier to pay attention to the small details that make up the ecosystem. The absence of postcard views frees the mind that often hinder personal discovery. As the national parks become ever more popular, the national monuments’ vast open spaces offer us places of solitude and inspiration.

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge

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

The Top 10 in 2021

Today, I’m delighted to bring you RVing with Rex’s Best of 2021: a collection of articles about RVing and the RV Lifestyle

Tomorrow is the first blank page of a 365-page book. Write a good one.
—Brad Paisley

Hello, RVing friends! The year has turned over and another 12 months of RVing, photography, hiking, and birding has crept by.

I tried to squeeze in all of the things I didn’t get to do this year into the last remaining days of 2021. Truth be told, we weren’t able to do a lot of things.

We can all agree this was a year like no other, at times feeling like a refugee from reality.

Sonoran Desert near Casa Grande, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Who is pumped for 2022???

(cicadas chirp loudly)

Yeah, that seems to be the general vibe. While a new calendar year typically means exciting new opportunities, a chance for a fresh start, 2022 feels like it could just be another disappointing sequel to 2020 and 2021.

Historic Mesilla, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It makes sense—we’re all beaten down. We’ve socially distanced, worn masks, Zoomed into important events for what seems like an eternity. And each time we made progress toward normalcy a new variant came along and pushed us back into the Twilight Zone.

As each new variant arrived, lockdowns and quarantines returned. We circled back to the same old, same old, expecting different results.

Related: Best of 2020: Top 10 RVing Articles of 2020

I don’t have a feeling next year is going to be different, better.

Farmers Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some day in the future, this thing will transition into an endemic virus and we can go back to talking about all the things we talked about before COVID, like…yeah, I forget too.

As the year mercifully comes to a close, RVing with Rex celebrates the must-reads that you loved the most over the past 12 months. I’ll start off by doing a sincere thank you so much for reading this year and returning frequently to read my latest articles. Thank you for your continuing support!

The End is almost here!

Holmes County, Ohio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is article # 1,065 since my first post on January 16, 2019. Okay, the end isn’t near, but the end of the year is almost here, and it’s time to think about wrap-ups as 2020 draws to a close. The end of the year is the traditional time for doing a summary and some reflection.

Looking back there were certain events and articles that kindled reader interest.

Related: Top 10 RV Travel Tips of All Time

It’s always fascinating to look back and see what stories enjoyed the most readership and interest that year. The results often confound my expectations.

Myakka River State Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I check my readership data for several important reasons. First and foremost, I want to keep my finger on the pulse of what my readers actually want to read. While it’s tempting to assume I know what you want to read—my gut and personal preferences have some definite opinions—but the data is the reality.

This is actually a relief as it gives me a concrete direction on what types of content to focus on going forward. I can’t always provide the content that’s most wanted as I attempt to keep the blog well-rounded and offer something for all RVers—and wannabes—but the readership data is a fantastic guide.

Kentucky Artisan Center, Berea, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

RVing with Rex would like to wish its readers a safe and happy New Year.

Here are the top 10 most read and most popular RVing with Rex posts of the year, listed in the order of their readership numbers.

The top 10 most popular articles of 2021 were…

Moody Mansion, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Absolutely Best Road Trips from Houston

Texas lends itself well to adventure

Originally Posted: March 17, 2020

Corpus Christi, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. 10 Amazing Places to RV in January

RV travel allows you to take the comforts of home on the road

Originally Posted: January 4, 2021

Related: Top 10 States with the Best Winter Weather

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. The Real Florida Comes Alive at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

This state park offers many opportunities to observe the Real Florida and its wildlife

Originally Posted: January 13, 2021

Travel trailer at Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. The Pros and Cons of Buying a Travel Trailer

A travel trailer offers the amenities of a home with the portability of a trailer

Originally Posted: August 8, 2020

Camping at Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. The Absolutely Best State Park Camping for Snowbirds

If you’re planning on snowbird RVing this winter consider one of these state parks. They all offer warm weather and beautiful views of the Gulf or Technicolor deserts.

Originally Posted: January 5, 2021

Related: Top 10 State Parks to Visit

Truth BBQ, Brennan, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. The Essential Guide to Eating Texas

Everything a foodie should know about the Lone Star State

Originally Posted: January 20, 2021

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. National Monuments Feature Places for Reflection and Hope

From the legacy of ancient peoples to Colonial times

Originally Posted: January 18, 2021

Tiffin motorhome at Jackson Riviera Casino RV Park, Jackson, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. THOR Buys Tiffin Motorhomes: What Happens Next?

THOR Industries Buys Tiffin Motorhomes

Originally Posted: January 16, 2021

Buckhorn Lake RV Park, Kerrville, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Announcing the Absolutely Best Campgrounds and RV Parks for 2021

Explore this guide to find some of the best camping locations across America

Originally Posted: January 3, 2021

And the most popular article of 2020 is…

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Absolutely Best Road Trip from LA to the Grand Canyon

This road trip goes from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree National Park to Prescott to Williams to the Grand Canyon to Mojave National Preserve and back to LA

Originally Posted: July 26, 2020

A Happy New Year to all my readers. Best wishes for 2022. Find what brings you joy and go there.

Fountain Hills, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

May the months ahead be filled with great RVing experiences! Remember, the journey, and not the destination, is the joy of RVing. Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in an RV.

Happy Trails. Life is an adventure. Enjoy your journey.

Worth Pondering…

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light,

The year is dying in the night.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow,

The year is going, let him go.

—Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

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

Yes, You Can Avoid Crowds in the National Parks & Here is How

Tips on finding quieter havens and hidden gems

Given the astonishing beauty and richness of the 63 U.S. national parks, it’s no wonder they’re so popular: They received 237 million visitors in 2020—only a 28 percent drop from the year before despite widespread closures and travel slowing nearly to a halt due to the pandemic. This year will likely attract many more visitors drawn to outdoor spaces relatively close to home.

These are some of my tips for finding beautiful, less crowded spots, and moments of solitude even in the most popular of these wonderful destinations.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit Lesser-known National Parks

Every national park-lover needs to visit Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, and the Grand Canyon at some point but consider visiting some of the lesser-known parks as well. One of my favorite “sleeper” parks is Petrified Forest in Arizona; here you’ll find remains of a colorful prehistoric forest, some of the logs more than 100 feet long and up to 10 feet in diameter. But there’s so much more: artifacts of the ancient indigenous people who lived here including the remains of large pueblos and massive rock art panels, fossils of plants and animals from the late Triassic period (the dawn of the dinosaurs), a striking and vast Painted Desert (a badland cloaked in a palette of pastel colors), a wilderness of more than 50,000 acres where you can find wildness and beauty, and a remnant of historic Route 66 complete with a 1932 Studebaker!

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other favorites include Congaree in South Carolina (the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeast) and California’s remote Lassen Volcanic, one of the only places in the world that has all four types of volcanoes—cinder cone, composite, shield, and plug dome.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Find Little-known Havens within a Park

Most national parks are pretty big places but visitors tend to congregate at some of the most well-known and iconic sites leaving other areas blissfully quiet. For example, Yosemite Valley includes some of the park’s most famous attractions but the valley is a tiny fraction of the park. Visit the Hetch Hetchy area, often described as the twin of Yosemite Valley, and hike to Wapama Falls or Rancheria Falls. Or drive to the lesser-visited northwest corner of Yellowstone and walk the Bighorn Pass Trail that follows the striking Upper Gallatin River.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Rocky Mountain avoid the popular Bear Lake Corridor area and take the dramatic Ute Trail through the park’s alpine tundra or the lovely Colorado River Trail in the park’s Never Summer Range.

In Joshua Tree, take a walk to Cottonwood Springs Oasis, filled with thick California fan palms and large cottonwoods. Grinding holes in nearby rocks tell the story of the ancient use of the oasis by Native Americans centuries ago. Cottonwood Spring is noted for its birdlife. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit during the Off-season

Many parks accommodate the majority of their visitors in the three summer months leaving the rest of the year relatively fallow (although these shoulder seasons are growing shorter as more people are adopting this strategy). The waterfalls of Yosemite are typically at their peak in May when it gets 10 percent of the park’s annual visits compared to 16 percent in August; fall foliage at Acadia is at its most colorful in October when it sees 13 percent of its annual visitors, compared to 22 percent in August; and wildflowers in the Grand Canyon are usually most prolific in April (9 percent of visitors versus 13 percent in July). For even more solitude, go for the real off-season—usually winter—when many parks such as Arches and Zion are quiet and beautiful.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get Out of your Car and Walk

It’s the natural law of parks that the number of people you see decreases exponentially with each mile you go from the trailhead and walking is the most intimate way to experience the parks. It allows you to appreciate the parks through so many of the senses: See the tracks of elusive mountain lions at Glacier National Park, hear the iconic call of the canyon wren as you hike through the Grand Canyon, smell the sweetness of Ponderosa pine bark warming in the sun in Yosemite, taste the salt air as you walk the Ocean Path at Acadia, and feel the solid granite beneath your feet as you explore the trails of Isle Royale.

Shuttle stop at Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use Shuttle Trams when Available

Traffic congestion and lack of parking plague many parks and the National Park Service is responding with shuttle buses at popular destinations such as Zion, Bryce Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Acadia, Grand Canyon, and Denali. Use these transit systems to avoid the traffic and parking headaches that too many of us face in our everyday lives.

Steller’s jay at Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rise Early and/or Stay Late

Get to attraction sites and trailheads early in the day and consider hikes late in the day—parking spaces are more readily available at these times and you’ll experience the parks at the “golden hours” when the light is at its finest—soft and rich—for viewing and photographing and when wildlife is more likely to be seen. Experience the dawn chorus of birds, one of the world’s great natural phenomena, and enjoy it in relative solitude.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Purchase Park Passes and Supplies before Arriving

Nearly all national parks require an entrance pass/fee. Of course, you can obtain passes at the parks you visit but this will probably require waiting in line at the park entrance station or visitor center. You can obtain passes in advance on the National Park Service website and some parks have an express lane for visitors who already have a pass. You can also save time and money purchasing the goods and services you’ll need (food, fuel, camping supplies) for your visit before you enter the park. These items are often available in the parks but only at a few locations and you’ll probably have to wait behind other visitors to make your purchases.

Cowpens National Battlefield, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit National Monuments and Other National Park Service Sites

There are 423 national park service (NPS) sites in total and only 63 of them have the congressional designation of “National Park” including the most recent New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. In addition to monuments and national parks, there are national lakeshores and seashores, memorials, parkways, preserves, reserves, recreation areas, rivers and riverways, and scenic trails. Into military history? There are national battlefields, battlefield parks, battlefield sites, and national military. History buff? You’ll find national historical parks, national historic sites, and international historic sites.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There will always be a thirst for touring the nation’s iconic parks—for hiking in the canyons of Zion or scampering among the natural arches and pinnacles of Arches National Park. But travelers who’ve hiked New Mexico’s otherworldly Malpais National Monument or driven National Scenic Byway 12 through southeastern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument without having to navigate throngs of people may never again think the same way about visiting America’s iconic national parks.

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

National Monuments Feature Places for Reflection and Hope

From the legacy of ancient peoples to Colonial times

“National monument” is a rather confusing designation. We most likely know what we’re getting into with a national memorial or a national battlefield but the monuments are rarely the statues or shrines their titles suggest. Most, in fact, are sprawling natural wonders that give national parks a run for their money. In fact, many do become national parks.

Still, several of the 128 national monuments actually deliver on their promise to commemorate and preserve history. Some are the sites that recognize Native American history and preserve ancient pueblos. They encompass celebration, cautionary tales, and hope. These are the national monuments where we can stop to reflect on the past as we look forward into the future with hope. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Aztec Ruins National Monument provides visitors an opportunity to explore ancient ruins built by the ancient Ancestral Puebloans in the 1100s. Aztec Ruins features ceremonial, public, and storage structures as well as the “Great Kiva”, the oldest and largest reconstructed Kiva in North America. The Great Kiva is a 40-foot diameter semi-subterranean structure which was the central religious site of the complex. Take a self-guided tour and explore the 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof.

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

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Arizona

Step into the mysteries of history. At the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, you’ll find the Ancient Sonoran Desert People’s farming community including the preserved “Great House,” or “Casa Grande.” An estimation of dating puts the origins of this structure around 1350 and the abandonment thereof about a century later in 1450. It wasn’t until 1694 that written historic accounts were journaled by Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino. Other explorers, philanthropists, anthropologists, and politicians banded together over the years to research, restore, and preserve the Great House. It was America’s first archaeological reserve in 1892 and declared a National Monument in 1918. Today, visitors can explore the extensive and fascinating compound with the help of guided tours and an interpretive center that offers answers to questions and leaves you to ponder a few more questions yet to be solved.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Frederica National Monument, Georgia

Three years after founding Georgia in 1733, Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe established Fort Frederica to defend the fledgling colony against Spanish attack from Florida. The site, sixty miles south of Savannah, would become the military headquarters for the new colony. Fort Frederica combined a military installation (the fort) with a settlement (the town of Frederica). Georgia’s fate was decided in 1742 when Spanish and British forces clashed on St. Simons Island. Fort Frederica’s troops defeated the Spanish ensuring Georgia’s future as a British colony. By 1743, nearly 1,000 people lived at Frederica. The peace treaty that Great Britain and Spain signed in 1748 sounded its death knell. No longer needed to guard against Spanish attack, the garrison was withdrawn and disbanded. Today, the archeological remnants of Frederica are protected by the National Park Service.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

Explore a variety of structures including multistory towers perched on canyon rims and balanced on boulders. Human habitation at Hovenweep dates to over 10,000 years ago when nomadic Paleoindians visited the Cajon Mesa to gather food and hunt game. By about A.D. 900, people started to settle at Hovenweep, planting and harvesting crops along the top of the mesa. By the late 1200s, the Hovenweep area was home to over 2,500 people. Most of the structures at Hovenweep were built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. There is quite a variety of shapes and sizes, including square and circular towers, D-shaped dwellings, and many kivas. The masonry at Hovenweep is as skillful as it is beautiful. Some structures built on irregular boulders remain standing after more than 700 years. Though the reason is unclear, ancestral Puebloans throughout the area migrated south to the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico and the Little Colorado River Basin in Arizona. Today’s Pueblo, Zuni, and Hopi people are descendants of this culture.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Discover this historic five-story Native American dwelling carved out of an ancient limestone cliff with twenty rooms. Begun during the twelfth century, it took about three centuries to complete. Montezuma Castle National Monument, considered one of Arizona’s best-preserved cliff dwellings, was built by a group connected to the Hohokam people of Southern Arizona. Explore the museum and wander the trails through a picturesque sycamore grove at the base of towering limestone cliffs. Afterwards you are able to have lunch in the picnic area along the shore of Beaver Creek.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Explore the legacy of ancient peoples in a desert hilltop pueblo. Discover endless views of varying desert habitats and learn about the Sinaguan people at the museum. Starting in A.D. 1000, the Sinagua built the 110-room Tuzigoot pueblo including second and third story structures. The tribe was largely agricultural and had trade routes that spanned hundreds of miles. These ancient peoples left the area around 1400. The museum features exhibits depicting the lifestyle of the Sinaguan Indians as well as an impressive collection of artifacts collected from the pueblo and nearby sites. A self-guided, 1/3-mile loop trail traces through the pueblo. The hilltop view offers expansive scenery of the Verde River and Tavasci Marsh.

Worth Pondering…

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Absolutely Best National Parks to Escape the Insanely Crazy Crowds

They rarely make Instagram but vast national monuments offer spectacular beauty and wilderness adventure

Well into the pandemic, many people are seeking solitude in nature. What could be lovelier, after months of isolation at home, than setting out along a rugged conifer-shaded trail, breathing in the fresh alpine air, and listening to a chorus of songbirds? 

There’s just one catch: if everybody’s getting outside, it’s hard to find a spot all to yourself. That’s true even at many of the 419 destinations in the U.S. National Park System which continues to grapple with how to manage growing crowds.

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

Even before this year many of the country’s most famous parks such as Zion and the Grand Canyon restricted access to busy areas by requiring visitors to use free shuttle buses. On summer weekends finding a parking space at the top trailheads in Shenandoah or the Great Smoky Mountains is nearly impossible. Once you actually reach an overlook with a breathtaking view—think Great Smoky Mountain’s Clingmans Dome or Joshua Tree’s Jumbo Rocks—securing a patch of solitude to contemplate the panorama can require jockeying nimbly amid clamoring crowds and jousting selfie sticks.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This year, national park attendance was down due to the pandemic. Many parks drastically reduced access. But, the problem of trying to visit them remains the same as before: too much demand.

But the wilderness areas that the federal government added to its portfolio over the years mostly as national monuments tend to be farther off the beaten path and less hyped than the natural wonders immortalized in Ansel Adams prints. 

Santa Rosa an San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscapes of these newer monuments are not the same kinds of shiny treasures that were designated during the early years of the national park system. The park system now recognizes that land is worth protecting for a wide range of reasons from geology and biodiversity to culture and history.

Bears Ears National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One reason for this trend is that U.S. presidents can designate national monuments while creating and funding a national park requires an act of Congress. Presidents since Theodore Roosevelt have used the 1906 Antiquities Act to confer national monument status on areas of “historic or scientific interest” including wilderness lands such as Sonoran Desert in Arizona and Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains in California. Since 1996, when President Bill Clinton revived the use of the law to protect large tracts of land, presidents have designated nearly 40 federal wilderness areas as national monuments.

Valley of the Gods, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Within them, opportunities for awesome hiking, climbing, camping, boating, and wildlife-viewing abound. In southeastern Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, the ancient indigenous cliff dwellings of River House Ruin and soaring red rock spires of the Valley of the Gods glow luminously in the dawn and dusk sunlight. In California, the undulating wildflower meadows of Carrizo Plain and Berryessa Snow Mountain national monuments erupt with brilliant profusions of poppies, Indian paintbrush, and goldfields, especially after a fresh rain.

Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors to the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks near Las Cruces, New Mexico might spy bighorn sheep and golden eagles. Northern Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument includes some of New England’s least developed backcountry, an unspoiled place to kayak and hike.

El Morro National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the new national monuments have given visitors millions of uncrowded natural acres to explore, they’ve presented some logistical challenges. The Antiquities Act contains no provisions for funding and managing national monuments. Many belong to the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation Lands program rather than the better-funded National Park Service. So they tend to lack national parks’ websites, state-of-the-art visitor centers, rustic-chic lodges and restaurants, and well-maintained roads and trails. They employ few full-time staffers, and their modest visitor centers are often open only seasonally or on weekends.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To fill the gap, dozens of nonprofit “friends-of” organizations have emerged. These newer federal lands receive less funding and rely heavily on Friends groups to get things done such as interpretive work, publishing visitor information, and educating the public. The nonprofits have organized trail cleanup days, seasonal events, and fund raisers.

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To plan a visit to a national monument, it’s best to consult both the park’s website and the “friends-of” website. Arriving prepared with proper gear, sufficient food and water, and paper maps (since cell service may be nonexistent) are the keys to safely enjoying your visit.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There will always be a thirst for touring the nation’s iconic parks—for hiking in the canyons of Zion or scampering among the natural arches and pinnacles of Arches National Park. But travelers who’ve hiked New Mexico’s otherworldly Malpais National Monument or driven National Scenic Byway 12 through southeastern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument without having to navigate throngs of people may never again think the same way about visiting America’s iconic national parks.

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

National Monuments Are Mind-Blowing National Park Alternatives

America’s way-overlooked natural treasures

If national wildlife refuges are the scrappy kid brothers to their pride-of-the-family national park siblings, America’s national monuments are the forgotten Tom girls of the family. Sure, Canyon de Chelly is a national monument. But go ahead: name another. Mount Rushmore is close, but is actually a national memorial. As is Glen Canyon, a national recreation area.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The confusingly named destinations—most are actually huge swaths of natural beauty, not statues waiting to be toppled—vastly outnumber the national parks: There are 128 total across 31 states. And with national park-quality beauty paired with a fraction of national park visitation, now is the time to get to know some of these lesser-visited family members you’ve been neglecting. These are just a few of our favorites. 

Remember to travel with caution, follow good health practices, and behave responsibly when outdoors or around other people. Also, get the latest information about your destination before proceeding.

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

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington

National park-like amenities like the Johnston Ridge Observatory tell the story of America’s most infamous active volcano while guided cave walks are available in the monument’s expansive Ape Cave lava tube. Gorgeous wildflower-packed views of the volcano can be enjoyed in spots like Bear Meadows while those seeking a closer view of the crater rim may drive to the Windy Ridge viewpoint or even summit the rim of the 8,365-foot volcano with a permit. But don’t worry: those seeking a more solitary experience will still find plenty of open room for social distancing within this 110,000-acre monument along 200 miles of trails.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking this is Bryce Canyon National Park. It looks almost identical to its more famous national park cousin which is located about an hour to the east. Yet with less than a quarter of the annual visitation of Bryce, this small but mighty national monument makes a worthy alternative for those seeking color-packed canyon views stretching across three miles at an elevation of around 10,000 feet. Like Bryce, the best time to view Cedar Breaks’ stunning rock formations and hoodoos is at sunrise and sunset.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. There’s something for everyone here. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. While some may see a desolate environment, people have been adapting to and living in this extraordinary terrain for generations. In the area known as Chain of Craters, 30 cinder cones can be found across the landscape. La Ventana Natural Arch is easily accessible. Trails lead up to the bottom of the free-standing arch for a closer look at this natural wonder.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals, including its namesake.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 28 different species of cacti in the monument, ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion. The monument’s namesake, the organ pipe cactus can live to over 150 years in age, have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height, and will only produce their first flower near the age of 35.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Highway 85 cuts through the monument from north to south. From the Kris Eggle Visitor Center you can take two drives. Toward the east the Ajo Mountain loop drive is a beautiful 21-mile one-way desert tour that offers amazing views of barrel, saguaro, and organ pipe cactus. 

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, California

Rising from the sandy Coachella Valley desert floor, the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument reaches an elevation of 10,834 feet at the summit of Mt San Jacinto. Providing a picturesque backdrop to local communities, visitors can enjoy magnificent palm oases, snow-capped mountains, a national scenic trail, and wilderness areas.  Its extensive backcountry can be accessed via trails from both the Coachella Valley and the alpine village of Idyllwild.

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Jacinto Mountain is home to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which takes visitors by cable car from the desert up 6,000 feet to alpine forests in 15 minutes.

The Palm Canyon Fault which runs along the base of San Jacinto Mountain is part of the San Andreas Fault System. The Indian Canyons, located at the base of San Jacinto Mountain and managed by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, boasts the largest system of native fan palm oases in the US.

Gold Butte National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada

Welcome to Nevada’s tribute to Mars, a crimson desert landscape where tremendous geometric rock oddities protrude from the sands, seemingly divorced from gravity and logic. Here, endangered tortoises roam the lands alongside bighorns and mountain lions whose domain is sandwiched between Grand Canyon-Parashant and Lake Mead. Ancient rock art can be spotted throughout the 300,000 acre wilds along with ancient rock shelters and ghost towns, showing how this climate has provided inhospitably but beautiful to civilizations both ancient and modern.

Worth Pondering…

There is adventure in any trip; it’s up to us to seek it out.

—Jamie Francis

Bucket List Trip for Your Lifetime: America’s Ultimate National Park Road Trip

Are you looking for a special bucket list destination? An inspiration for an once-in-a-lifetime trip?

This is part of an ongoing series. In the original feature, I posed the question, Why Do You Travel? Many of us, I suggest, travel for the wrong reasons, putting the ‘where’ ahead of the ‘why’. We have a perfect opportunity to change all that with a new travel paradigm.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a follow-up article, Why NOW is the Best Time to Plan Your Travel Bucket List, I explain why you should sit down and map out a multi-year travel plan to make sure you get to see and do all the things that are most important to you.

In today’s article, I present a Once in a Lifetime experiences and destinations for you to consider. Obviously everyone’s dream list will be different and whatever it is that you feel you really want or need to do should be at the top of your list.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sheer number of choices in the National Park Service is so staggering it can be hard to pick where to go and it only gets more confusing when you add notable state and Native American park options. While there are “only” 62 places with the actual title National Park, the inventory of National Park Service sites is well over 400 including National Historic Sites, National Monuments, National Seashores, and National Recreation Areas. Often there is not much practical difference. Standouts such as Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Organ Pipe National Monument, and Cumberland Island National Seashore are not “national parks” but might as well be.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So where to go? I can only speak from experience but having been to many of the most famous and most visited National Parks including the Grand Canyon, Zion, Great Smoky Mountains, and Sequoia as well as more far flung and varied National Parks from South Carolina to Washington State, I can say that to me, no area of the country has as uniquely beautiful and unusual natural wonder as the red rock canyon country of Southern Utah.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But it’s not just a matter of what I consider to be the best-looking nature this region also has a concentration of significant sites that is simply unrivalled anyplace else. Spend a week and you scratch the surface, spend two and you still have to make hard choices. In the span of one road trip you can visit five different mind-blowing National Parks, any of which might be the most amazing scenery and ruins you have ever seen plus several other equally impressive National Park Service sites and state parks.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If that’s not enough, world famous Monument Valley, a Navajo Nation Park, sits on the Utah/Arizona border in close proximity to the others.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where? Having driven across America numerous times and after visiting many very different National Parks Service sites, my personal favorite is Arches whose Delicate Arch is one of the most iconic and oft photographed natural wonders of the world—but Arches so much more. Arches as an absolute can’t miss!

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But as amazing as Arches is, it is relatively small by Southwestern National Parks standards while that is certainly not the case for immense Canyonlands located right next door. Both are very easily accessed from Moab, the world’s most famous mountain biking destination and longtime hub of outdoor activities from river rafting to off-road jeep tours and rock climbing. You could spend several weeks and not run out of things to see and do and places to go.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, in the southeastern part of the state. Travel south and you will hit stunning Natural Bridges National Monument with Arches-like geology, Hovenweep National Monument with impressive Puebloan ruins reminiscent of Mesa Verde National Park and Monument Valley across the Arizona border as well as nearby Navajo National Monument with still more impressive cliff dwellings and rock formations.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or head west and visit Capitol Reef National Park, another jaw-dropping example of the region’s “Canyon country” geology before running into Bears Ear and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continue to the corner of southwestern Utah and you have another huge critical mass of staggering natural beauty in the form of Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks plus Cedar Breaks National Monument, Snow Canyon State Park, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, and Kodachrome Basin State Park. The names kind of give these away.

Cedar Breaks National Monuments © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In this corner of the state, the biggest town is St. George which has a surprising array of standout golf courses, a bit of a hidden gem for golf fans.

Worth Pondering…

Nothing can exceed the wonderful beauty of Zion…

In the nobility and beauty of the sculptures there is no comparison…

There is an eloquence to their forms which stirs the imagination with a singular power and kindles in the mind a glowing response.

—Clarence E. Dutton, geologist, 1880