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

7 National Parks You Should Have on Your Radar This Winter

The best national parks to visit this winter

There are 62 national parks across America. That’s not counting the hundreds of national monuments, historical sites, battlefields, memorials, trails, and more. When you count all of them together, the number of protected sites that fall under the US National Park Service is well over 400.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So it should not surprise anyone when I say that there are scores of incredible sites worth exploring in America—from sea to shining sea.

Whether you’re looking to explore waterfalls or rivers, volcanoes or deserts, canyons or mountaintops, there’s a national park to discover this winter.

Saguaro National Park in Arizona

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located just outside of Tucson, Saguaro National Park is divided into two units separated by 30 miles: Rincon Mountain District (East Unit) and Tucson Mountain District (West Unit).

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The busiest time of the year is from November to March. During the winter months, temperatures are cooler and range from the high 50s to the high-70s. Starting in late February and March, the park begins to get a variety of cactus and wildflower blooms. In late April, the iconic Saguaro begins to bloom. Come June, the fruits are beginning to ripen.

There are many activities to partake in at Saguaro, no matter the season.

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon‘s residents are a hardy bunch—visit in winter and you’ll spot Abert’s squirrels on nut-foraging expeditions, bald eagles soaring above snow-dusted ridges, and mule deer making their way through the ponderosa pines.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many animals develop additional finery during these colder months. One example is Abert’s squirrels, which grow extra tufts of fur on their ears to keep out the cold. Furry-eared rodents aside, there are lots of other reasons to visit in winter, including hikes along the park’s beautiful low-elevation trails (which have less snow and ice) such as the South Rim’s Hermit Trail.

Big Bend National Park in Texas

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park is named after a stretch of 118 miles of Rio Grande River, part of which forms a large bend in the river. Big Bend offers a variety of activities for the outdoor enthusiasts including backpacking, river trips, horseback riding, biking, and camping. The park is home to more than 1,200 species of plants, more than 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, and 56 species of reptiles.

Joshua Tree National Park in California

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree is a diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. The park is home to two deserts: the Colorado which offers low desert formations and plant life, such as ocotillo and teddy bear cholla cactus; and the Mojave. This higher, cooler, wetter region is the natural habitat of the Joshua tree.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The different elevation throughout the park cause flowers to bloom at different times, with the low elevation flowers blooming earlier than higher elevation flowers.

Zion National Park in Utah

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion is a park that you have to see to believe. It is a true desert oasis and an American icon. The surrounding area looks desolate, dry, and barren, but when you drive into Zion Canyon, a massive formation, miles wide, with sheer rock walls that rise thousands of feet, await you. There is something so incredible about seeing the oranges and yellows of sandstone mixed with the greens of the Virgin River and the vegetation that grows so easily there.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona

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

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

This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. With its multiple stems, the cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ. There are 28 different species of cacti in the park, ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion.

Congaree National Park in South Carolina

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park is an International Biosphere Reserve. Visitors can explore the natural wonderland by canoe, kayak, or on hiking trails and the Boardwalk Loop Trail.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is also one of the most diverse in the country—with dense forests giving way to massive expanses of swamplands. The forests are some of the biggest and oldest old-growth in America and offer great opportunities for recreation of all kinds.

Worth Pondering…

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

—Rachel Carson

Mind Blowing National Monuments in the Southwest

The American southwest is a place of mind-boggling beauty

With an amazing variety of landscapes, the Southwest is a fascinating and awe-inspiring area to explore. While the stereotype of the area is that it’s all barren desert—which isn’t entirely inaccurate—there’s a lot more variation and personality in the Southwest than the backdrops of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons would suggest.

With special attention to National Monuments, here are 12 of the most beautiful places in the Southwest. We think that you should definitely add these National Park Service sites to your next road trip to the Southwest.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

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

You can drive along the rim and take in the views from above, but the best way to experience Canyon de Chelly is to take a guided tour of the canyon. You’ll learn the history of the canyon, from the Anasazi who left behind cliff dwellings to the current Navajo residents who still farm there.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. 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. Come discover the land of fire and ice!

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crowning the grand staircase, Cedar Breaks sits at over 10,000 feet and looks down into a half-mile deep geologic amphitheater. Wander among ancient bristlecone pines and meadows of wildflower.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

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

Organ Pipe Cactus celebrates the life and landscape of the Sonoran Desert. This is a showcase for creatures who have adapted themselves to the extreme temperatures, intense sunlight, and little rainfall that characterize this Southwest region. Twenty-six species of cactus live here including the giant saguaro and the park’s namesake. This is the only place in the U. S. where the organ pipe cactus grows wild.

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Today you can follow their ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. See original timbers holding up the roof.

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle is built into a deep alcove with masonry rooms added in phases. A thick, substantial roof of sycamore beams, reeds, grasses, and clay often served as the floor of the next room built on top.

Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America featuring designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Arizona

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

The Hohokam people built these structures when they were near the height of their power some 700 years ago. They created villages that extended from the site of modern-day Phoenix to southern Arizona. The monument preserves 60 prehistoric sites including a four-story earthen structure.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Three majestic natural bridges invite you to ponder the power of water in a landscape usually defined by its absence. View them from an overlook, or hit the trails and experience their grandeur from below. The bridges are named Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu in honor of the ancestral Puebloans who once made this place their home

El Morro National Monument, New Mexico

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Discover an oasis in the desert at El Morro National Monument. A natural watering hole is tucked at the base of colorful sandstone cliffs. Walk the Inscription Trail to see thousands of petroglyphs and inscriptions that bear witness to the visitors who sought refreshment there throughout the centuries.

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once home to over 2,500 people, Hovenweep includes six prehistoric villages built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. Explore a variety of structures, including multistory towers perched on canyon rims and balanced on boulders.

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crowning a desert hilltop is an ancient pueblo built by the Sinagua people. The riparian, upland, and marsh habitats in the monument are used by a large number of bird species.

Worth Pondering…

Beauty is before me, beauty is behind me, beauty is below me, beauty is above me. I walk in beauty.

—ancient Navajo poem

10 Under-The-Radar National Monuments to Visit

From archeological places to vast scenic vistas to places highlighting important events for all Americans, National Monuments preserve places and collections that make America unique

National monuments are areas that are under the protection of the US government either due to their uniqueness or if they have a cultural or historical significance. The authority to designate an area as a National Monument lies with the US President. A national monument can later be converted into a national park or merged into an existing national park.

The first National Monument in the US was the Devils Tower, which is an immense butte situated in Wyoming. Presently there are 158 national monuments in the US.

From ancient petroglyphs to natural bridges, hoodoos to cliff dwellings, and volcanic landscapes to prehistoric villages, these are 10 under-the-radar national monuments to visit.

1. Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

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

Spanning more than 83,000 acres, Canyon de Chelly National Monument offers an excellent opportunity to immerse in the wild Arizona landscape, and to learn more about the history of the Navajo people.Sheer cliffs rise on either side of this flat-bottomed, sandy ravine, an area created much the way uplift and water formed the Grand Canyon.

2. Cedar Breaks, Utah

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like a mini Bryce Canyon, minus the crowds, Cedar Breaks contains a stunning assortment of hoodoos and cliffs in southern Utah. Technically an amphitheater, the monument is three miles wide and 2,000 feet deep, filled with craggy rock formations jutting up from the base like natural skyscrapers.

3. Petroglyph, New Mexico

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located on the western edge of Albuquerque lies one of the most concentrated collections of ancient petroglyphs on the continent. Native American tribes settled here hundreds of years ago, and they left their mark in the form of symbols carved into volcanic rock across the desert terrain. With around 24,000 images and symbols, there’s plenty to see here. In addition to the petroglyphs, the monument contains hiking trails throughout its 17-mile park, along with dormant volcanoes and canyons.

4. Montezuma Castle, Arizona

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle in Verde Valley is a prehistoric cliff dwelling with five floors, 20 rooms, and a million stories. Gaze through the windows of the past into one of the best preserved cliff dwellings in North America.

5. El Malpais, New Mexico

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The richly diverse volcanic landscape offers everything from easy drives, scenic overlooks, and short walks to strenuous trails, caving, and rugged backcountry. 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.

6. Casa Grande Ruins, Arizona

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

An Ancient Sonoran Desert People’s farming community and “Great House” are preserved at Casa Grande Ruins. Explore the mystery and complexity of an extended network of communities and irrigation canals.

7. Natural Bridges, Utah

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These three majestic natural bridges were formed by the power of water in a landscape usually defined by its absence. View them from an overlook, or hit the trails and experience their grandeur from below. The bridges are named “Kachina,” “Owachomo” and “Sipapu” in honor of the ancestral Puebloans who once made this place their home.

8. El Morro, Mew Mexico

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imagine the refreshment of finding water after days of dusty travel. A reliable waterhole hidden at the base of a sandstone bluff made El Morro (the headland) a popular campsite for hundreds of years. Here, Ancestral Puebloans, Spanish, and American travelers carved over 2,000 signatures, dates, messages, and petroglyphs.

9. Hovenweep, Utah and Colorado

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once home to over 2,500 people, Hovenweep includes six prehistoric villages built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. Explore a variety of structures, including multistory towers perched on canyon rims and balanced on boulders.

10. Organ Pipe Cactus, Arizona

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus is the only place in the U.S. where the organ pipe cactus grows wild. One glimpse at this sprawling, soaring species will clue you in to where the cactus gets its name. An ideal place for desert camping and hiking, the monument also has horseback trails, scenic drives and biking opportunities.

Worth Pondering…

In his “Positively Final Appearance,” Guiness leaves us with his philosophy that “nothing is desperately important, and the joy of life is just looking at it.” The joy can also be in writing about it.