Capitol Reef National Park: 14 Amazing Things to See and Do

In Capitol Reef, pioneer orchards meet wild and unexpected geology. It offers all the recreation, activities, and beauty national parks are known for but often with fewer people than other Utah national parks. Take a scenic hike to a stunning natural bridge, harvest fresh fruit in season, and explore the backcountry.

Capitol Reef often an overlooked national park is full of many wonderful surprises. With an amazing scenic drive, hiking trails that rival those in Zion, rugged, remote areas to explore by 4×4, short, easy slot canyons, historical landmarks, and even delicious pie, this national park is absolutely amazing. In this post, learn about the best things to see and do in Capitol Reef National Park with tips on how to plan your time.

About our experiences in Capitol Reef National Park

On our most recent visit we spent six wonderful days in Capitol Reef. And the longer we were here, the more we wondered why this park is so overlooked. The scenic drives, the hiking trails, and the history of the Fruita district are amazing. But there is so much more to this park.

If you love the idea of leaving the crowds behind and exploring a vast, remote area you have several options. Cathedral Valley with its sandstone monoliths and sweeping desert vistas is a beautiful, unique way to spend a day in Capitol Reef. Or, you can Loop the Fold, another remote driving day along the waterpocket fold.

There are also slot canyons to explore, quiet, low-traffic hiking trails in remote areas of the park and some of the most dramatic landscapes in Utah which you can see right from your car.

I can’t wait to share with you the beauty, the history, and the amazing geology of this national park. And I am looking forward to a return visit this October. Maybe I will see you here!

Note: Scenic Drive will be closed summer 2024 for a rehabilitation project. Get the full details on the National Park Service website.

While in Capitol Reef National Park, please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trails, pack out what you bring to the hiking trails, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Interesting facts about Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park preserves the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile long wrinkle in the Earth’s crust. This wrinkle also called a monocline was formed between 50 and 70 million years ago when movement along a fault line caused upward shifting of the west side relative to the east side. The layers on the west side of the fault were lifted up 7,000 feet higher than the layers on the east.

Since this upheaval water has been slowly eroding away the sedimentary rock layers forming waterpockets. This erosion is revealing fossils, massive domes, canyons, arches, and monoliths.

The park gets its name from the white domes of Navajo sandstone that resemble the United States Capitol building. Early settlers found the long ridges of the waterpocket fold impassable similar to reefs in the ocean. Put these two together and you get Capitol Reef National Park.

Capitol Reef is very long and skinny running in a north-south direction. The park is 60 miles long north to south but only 6 miles wide (average) east to west.

Most visitors spend their time along State Route 24, the main road that cuts through the park. To get to the more remote northern and southern sections of the park you can drive on gravel roads and some of these require a 4WD.

Capitol Reef officially became a national park on December 18, 1971. In 2023, it received 1.3 million visitors making it the 22nd most visited US National Park last year. It is one of five national parks in Utah (collectively called Utah’s Mighty 5). Capitol Reef was the fourth most visited national park in Utah’s Mighty 5 (Zion took first place and Canyonlands took 5th place).

State Route 24 through Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best things to do in Capitol Reef National Park

1. State Route 24

State Route 24 is the main road that runs through the park. This road runs east-west for 16 miles inside the park boundaries following alongside the Fremont River.

State Route 24 is a very scenic stretch of road. In the east, the road twists and turns along the Fremont River past massive domes and cliffs of white Navajo sandstone. As you approach Fruita the views open up as you drive through a valley filled with orchards and historic buildings along the Fremont River. As you continue to head west towards Torrey you will drive past immense red sandstone mountains, cliffs, and rock formations.

There is no fee to drive on SR 24 so you can tour this part of Capitol Reef without paying a park entrance fee. This “no fee zone” includes several of the other best things to do in Capitol Reef including Sunset and Panorama points, the petroglyphs, and a few hiking trails.

2. Panorama Point

Panorama Point offers beautiful views over State Route 24 as it winds its way through the park. This viewpoint is located just off Highway 24 and it is a quick and easy way to get a spectacular view of Capitol Reef Park.

Getting here: On Utah Route 24 there is a sign marking Panorama Point and Sunset Point. Turn here and it’s a very short drive on a gravel road to the parking lot for Panorama Point. If you continue down this road you will get to Sunset Point and the Goosenecks Overlook.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Sunset Point

Continue down the gravel access road until it ends at a small parking area. From the parking lot two different trails lead to two different viewpoints (Sunset Point and Goosenecks Overlook).

Sunset Point is an easy 0.8 mile round-trip hike to a gorgeous overlook. Sunset Point gets its name because it is one of the best spots in Capitol Reef to watch the sunset.

4. Goosenecks Overlook

Walk back to the parking lot and then it is just a short uphill walk (0.2 miles round trip) to a viewpoint over the Goosenecks. This is where the Sulphur Creek carved out a canyon, its curving path resembling that of a gooseneck.

Time: Plan on spending 45 minutes to one hour here visiting both Sunset Point and Goosenecks Overlook.

5. See the petroglyphs

You can see rock art figures (petroglyphs) created by ancient Native Americans on the drive along State Route 24. Park in the small parking lot on SR 24 located between the Hickman Bridge trailhead and Fruita. It’s a very short walk to a viewpoint where you can see these figures carved onto the rock wall.

6. Explore historic Fruita

The historic Fruita district is the heart of Capitol Reef National Park. This is where you will find the visitor center, the start of several great hikes, campground, and historic buildings.

In the late 1800s, pioneers began settling in the area. The first landholder was Nels Johnson followed by other members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. The settlers planted orchards and grew sorghum for molasses and syrup.

Now, most of the original buildings are gone but you can still see the one-room schoolhouse, the Gifford House and barn, and the orchards which are still maintained by the National Park Service (NPS).

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Have pie at the Gifford Homestead                                                           

The Gifford Homestead, one of the last remaining buildings in historic Fruita sells handmade items made by local craftsmen such as dolls, soap, quilts, jams and jellies, and books. But the big draw is the pie. Stop in for a slice of locally baked fruit pie and ice cream.

The Gifford House Store and Museum is open March 14 (Pi Day) through November 25 daily from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m with a 45-minute closure from noon to 12:45 pm. The house will be closed November 6, 22, and 23.

8. Go hiking

One of the best things to do in Capitol Reef National Park is to go hiking. The scenic drives are amazing but there’s no better way to explore the canyons and get a bird’s eye view over the park than from the hiking trails.

In the center of the park near Fruita there are 15 day hikes you can do. There are also numerous other hikes in the more remote areas of the park including Cathedral Valley and along Notom-Bullfrog Road.

To help narrow down the long list of day hikes here are some favorites. All hiking distances are round-trip.

Cassidy Arch (3.4 miles, moderate): This is one of the most thrilling trails in Capitol Reef National Park. This short hike features stunning scenery, views over the Grand Wash, and the chance to stand on Cassidy Arch.

Hickman Bridge (1.8 miles, moderate): This is one of the best short hikes to do in Capitol Reef. Walk along the Fremont River and then hike up to a spectacular viewpoint where you can look out over Highway 24. The trail ends at Hickman Bridge, a large, natural arch that is tucked away near the back of the canyon.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Wash (4.8 miles, easy): Hike through a wide canyon similar to the Zion Narrows but without having to walk through a river. This is a long hike if you walk the entire length of the canyon but you can turn around when you are ready. The best part of the hike where the canyon is the narrowest (called The Narrows) is about one mile from the start so this hike could be as short as 2.5 miles.

Cohab Canyon (3.4 miles, strenuous): This short but strenuous hike offers stunning views over Fruita and along Highway 24. This hike is one of the easiest ways to get an aerial view over Fruita.

Chimney Rock Trail (3.6 miles, moderate): After a short and strenuous climb this trail stays relatively flat as it makes a loop along the sandstone mountains. The views of Fruita and the waterpocket fold are spectacular.

Rim Overlook (4.6 miles, strenuous): It’s a tough hike to get to Rim Overlook but what a view! This viewpoint sits on the edge of cliff high above Fruita. From here, you get one of the best views along the waterpocket fold.

Navajo Knobs (9.5 miles, strenuous): First, you’ll hike to the Rim Overlook. The trail continues to the Navajo Knobs where you have 360-degree views arguably one of the best viewpoints in Capitol Reef National Park.

Cathedrals Trail (2.5 miles, easy): This easy hike offers very nice views of the monoliths of Cathedral Valley. The best part of this hike is the first half as you walk alongside this chain of sandstone formations. The trail ends on top of hill where you have panoramic views of Cathedral Valley.

Headquarters Canyon (2.6 miles, easy): This slot canyon hike is short and sweet. It is located in a remote region of Capitol Reef along Notom-Bullfrog Road so there’s a chance you could have it all to yourself.

Burro Wash, Cottonwood Wash, and Sheets Gulch: These three slot canyons are located relatively close to one another on Notom-Bullfrog Road. They range from 7 to 14 miles round-trip and are moderate to strenuous. There could be pools of water in the canyons. If you are looking for a challenging slot canyon these are hikes to consider.

Sulphur Creek: This 5.8-mile one-way hike is typically done point-to-point which requires a having a second vehicle as a shuttle. This is not a maintained trail so route-finding skills and prior hiking experience are necessary. However, this is a great hike to consider if you want to hike through a deep canyon and in a river similar to the Narrows in Zion.

There are also several great backcountry routes in Capitol Reef. Some of these are long day hikes or overnight backpacking trips. Upper Muley Twist Canyon, Lower Muley Twist Canyon, and Halls Creek Narrows fall into this category.

Capitol Reef Scenic Drive, Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Capitol Reef Scenic Drive

One of the best things to do in the park is to drive the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive. This paved road is 7.9 miles long (one way) and takes you past some of the most stunning scenery in the park.

Note: Scenic Drive will be closed summer 2024 for a rehabilitation project. Get the full details on the National Park Service website.

Scenic Drive starts in Fruita and ends at Capitol Gorge Road.

To drive the Scenic Drive you will have to pay a $20 fee. You will pay this at a self-pay station just past the Fruita Campground. The pass is valid for 7 days.

10. Capitol Gorge Road

This short, scenic drive begins where Scenic Drive ends. Capitol Gorge Road is a 2.3 mile gravel road that is suitable for standard vehicles under 27 feet length.

At the end of Scenic Drive the road will fork. Go left to drive Capitol Gorge Road. If you turn right you will drive Pleasant Creek Road, a rougher gravel road that leads to Pleasant Creek, South Draw, and Boulder Mountain.

Capitol Gorge Road is a very pretty scenic drive. This road twists and turns through a canyon and you have wonderful views the entire way. Capitol Gorge Road ends at Capitol Gorge, one of the hiking trails in the park.

11. Pioneer Register

When Mormon settlers passed through this area in the late 18th century and early 19th century they scrawled their names on the canyon walls. This collection of names is called the Pioneer Register. Basically, it is historic graffiti. In this same canyon you can also see American Indian petroglyphs.

Note: Do not write your name or leave any marks on the canyon walls. This area is under surveillance by the national park service and the fine is huge if you get caught writing on the walls.

To get here, you will hike the Capitol Gorge Trail. This trail which enters a wide canyon was the only road through the waterpocket fold until Highway 24 was constructed. It is a 1.5-mile round trip hike to the Pioneer Register although the trail continues through the canyon to The Tanks.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Cathedral Valley

Cathedral Valley is the rugged, remote northern district of Capitol Reef National Park. Few people travel out this way to see this valley and its sandstone monoliths, colorful Bentonite hills, and vast desert scenery. But that’s part of its appeal. If you like the idea of leaving the crowds behind and exploring the backcountry, the Cathedral Valley Loop is an awesome drive to put on your to-do list.

The Cathedral Valley Loop is a 58-mile scenic drive that is located north of the historic Fruita district. There are no paved roads on this loop so you must have a high clearance vehicle and having a 4×4 is strongly recommended.

It takes 4 hours to drive the entire loop but with short detours, overlooks, and adding on one or two short hikes, the Cathedral Valley Loop takes a full day.

13. Loop the Fold

This is another incredibly scenic drive in Capitol Reef National Park. This remote drive loops around the waterpocket fold in the southern part of the park. Like Cathedral Valley, Looping the Fold takes roughly one full day.

On this loop, you will drive down Notom-Bullfrog Road. It starts off as a paved road but eventually turns to gravel; however, it is usually suitable for standard cars (after rainstorms, a 4WD may be necessary). Along Notom-Bullfrog Road you have the option to hike many slot canyons. Headquarters Canyon and Surprise Canyon are two very easy slots to add onto this drive.

The loop continues on Burr Trail Road. You’ll climb up the legendary Burr Trail switchbacks and the higher you go the better the views. Hike out to Strike Valley Overlook where you get panoramic views of Strike Valley and Notom-Bullfrog Road (more information above).

Just beyond the overlook the road becomes paved and you enter Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The drive twists and turns through canyons before arriving in Boulder. Take Utah Highway 12 north to return to Torrey and Capitol Reef National Park. Along the way, you will drive up and over Boulder Mountain which offers more incredible views along the way.

This is another incredible experience to have in Capitol Reef National Park. Since it is so remote, crowd levels are extremely low.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Strike Valley Overlook

This is one of the most unique viewpoints in Capitol Reef National Park.

From this viewpoint, you are looking out over one of the edges of the waterpocket fold. Nearly 150 million years of geologic history can be seen from here. It’s a beautiful, colorful spot as you look out over Navajo and Entrada sandstone, Mancos Shale, Carmel Formation, and numerous other layers of sedimentary rock.

This is a remote viewpoint and getting here can be a little tricky. If you have plans to Loop the Fold you will drive right past this viewpoint. You can also get here by driving Burr Trail Road from Highway 12.

From Burr Trail Road, a 3-mile access road leads to the trailhead. Standard vehicles will only be able to make it a quarter of a mile down this road then you will have to park and walk the rest of the way. High clearance vehicles should be able to make it to the parking area but sometimes 4WD is necessary.

From the parking area, it is a 0.9 mile round-trip walk to the viewpoint. The Upper Muley Twist Canyon hike also starts here.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How much time do you need in Capitol Reef National Park?

Plan to spend at least a few days in the park. With the scenic drives and hiking trails you could easily spend a week here and never run out of things to do.

With half of a day, you can visit the sights along Highway 24 (Panorama and Sunset Points, Goosenecks Overlook, the petroglyphs, and hike Hickman Bridge) and spend some time in Fruita. This works great if you are driving through Capitol Reef on a road trip through Utah.

With one day in Capitol Reef visit the sights along Highway 24 (Panorama and Sunset Points, Goosenecks Overlook, the petroglyphs, and hike Hickman Bridge), visit Fruita, drive Scenic Drive and Capitol Gorge Road, and add on one more hike (Cassidy Arch, Grand Wash, and Cohab Canyon are all great picks).

With two days in Capitol Reef, follow the suggestions above for day 1 and on day 2 you can hike a longer trail, visit Cathedral Valley, or Loop the Fold.

Each additional day you add will give you more time for scenic drives and hike more trails. If you want to visit Cathedral Valley, Loop the Fold, visit the heart of Capitol Reef, and hike a few of the longer trails, I recommend spending a minimum of four days in Capitol Reef.

Learn more: The Ultimate Guide to Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best time to visit Capitol Reef National Park

The spring and fall months are the best times to visit Capitol Reef National Park. Weather conditions are pleasant and you can avoid the larger crowds that arrive in the summer.

During the summer months expect soaring temperatures and large crowds (although Capitol Reef does not get the legendary crowds like Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Zion).

During the winter months the park is less crowded but temperatures get below freezing and snow is likely. Snow can close the roads and make hiking more difficult.

How to get to Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is located in southern Utah. The closest town is Torrey which has several hotels, RV parks, restaurants, and a grocery store.

Most people visit Capitol Reef National Park when road tripping through Utah’s Mighty 5.

Here are the driving distances and times for nearby destinations:

  • Salt Lake City: 225 miles, 3.5 hours
  • Moab: 144 miles, 2.5 hours
  • Goblin Valley State Park: 68 miles, 1.5 hours
  • Escalante: 75 miles, 1.75 hours
  • Bryce Canyon National Park: 120 miles, 1.25 hours
  • Zion National Park: 182 miles, 3.25 hours
  • Las Vegas: 330 miles, 5 hours
Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to camp

Inside Capitol Reef National Park, Fruita Campground offers 65 reservable sites. Full hookups, or any utilities for that matter, are unavailable. Should you want to stay there, reservations are a must—the earlier the better, as it fills quickly.

If you are up to it, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Forests provide other places to camp. Just remember that these are mostly primitive sites.

Torrey offers several RV parks for visitors exploring the area particularly those visiting Capitol Reef National Park. Here are some of the top RV parks in Torrey:

  • Sandcreek RV Park: Located 5 miles west of Capitol Reef National Park, this family-owned park offers full hookup RV sites, tent camping, and cabins. They provide free WiFi and are pet-friendly.
  • Wonderland RV Park: Situated just 3 miles from Capitol Reef, this park offers spacious RV sites with full hookups, tent sites, and log cabins. They provide amenities such as 30/50 amp service, free Wi-Fi, shade trees, and clean restrooms.
  • Thousand Lakes RV Park: Located 6 miles from Capitol Reef, this park offers stunning views of red rock mountains and sagebrush-covered plateaus. They provide amenities like a pool, playground, laundry facilities, and a gift shop.

These RV parks generally offer similar amenities including full hookups, WiFi, and proximity to Capitol Reef National Park. Many are pet-friendly and provide additional facilities like showers, laundry, and picnic areas. Prices and specific amenities may vary so it’s best to check with each park directly for the most up-to-date information and to make reservations especially during peak travel seasons.

Practical information about Capitol Reef National Park

Park hours: Capitol Reef is open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.

Park fee: $20 per vehicle, valid for 7 days. You will pay this fee to enter Scenic Drive. You do not need to pay this fee if you only visit the sights along Highway 24 or if you drive the Cathedral Valley loop or Loop the Fold.

More information about Capitol Reef National Park

Planning a visit to the U.S. national parks? Visit From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks to learn more about the parks with important travel planning tips, sample itineraries, advice on when to go, where to stay, and more.

Worth Pondering…

As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.”

—Jack Kerouac, On the Road

A Summer Road Trip Guide to Bryce Canyon Country

Explore canyons, forests, and lakes in Bryce Canyon Country—home to Bryce Canyon National Park and so much more

Summer is synonymous with road trips. There’s no need to worry about icy roads or snow storms. School’s out and businesses are back in full swing to support summer travelers. It’s the perfect time of year to hit the open road for an epic adventure. And there is no better place to do this than in Southern Utah’s Bryce Canyon Country.

A geological masterpiece sculpted by time, the landscape of Southern Utah begins with the Colorado Plateau upon which Southern Utah rests. The massive area encompasses everything from the natural rock arches of Arches National Park and the deep canyons of Canyonlands National Park to the waters of Lake Powell with Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, and Capitol Reef National Park anchoring the land in between. 

Garfield County Utah, otherwise known as Bryce Canyon Country is the fifth-least populous county in Utah, the vast landscape holds just over 5,000 residents—with one inhabitant per square mile—making it also the least densely populated county in the state. Because of this, traveling here even in the busy summer months can sometimes feel like you have the entire place to yourself. This remote destination offers all the fun with a vast landscape filled with hoodoos and arches, deep canyons and slot canyons, rivers and red rocks, all without the crowds.

Discover how to have an epic road trip in Bryce Canyon Country where remote roads lead to an unveiling of not only a landscape that’s etched with beauty but also a treasure trove of rich history waiting to be discovered. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Begin your exploration of Bryce Canyon Country with a visit to Capitol Reef National Park. You’ll know instantly when you’ve arrived at the park’s most iconic feature, the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long warp in the Earth’s crust. The park gets its name Capitol Reef from the white domes of Navajo Sandstone that resemble domed capitol buildings and the large rocky cliffs that are a barrier to travel, much like an ocean reef.

Drive along State Route 24 and as you enter the park you’ll encounter some of the park’s top highlights: the Hickman Bridge Trail, the petroglyph panels, Ripple Rock Nature Center, the visitor center, and the 200-acre Fruita Rural Historic District where you can camp and pick fruit from the orchard’s bountiful trees.

Note: Fruit taken from the orchards must be paid for.

Explore by simply taking a scenic drive through the park or venturing out on one of the park’s many trails that wind through narrow canyons or strike out on backcountry dirt roads to see what you find.

Check this out to learn more:

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Travel the All-American Road

For the ultimate summer scenic road trip, continue south and drive along the Scenic Byway 12. The epic 123-mile driving route follows some of the most beautiful landscapes of the American Southwest for which it was named an All-American Road.

Jaw-dropping scenery and a road that follows and clings to the land its one road trip where you almost feel a part of the landscape. The paved two-way road climbs to the highest of heights along the famous Hogsback stretch and curves corners of slick rock highlighting scenic vista points along the way that offer views for as far as the eye can see. 

The scenic byway connects U.S. 89 near Panguitch with S.R. 24 near Torrey and will be your main thoroughfare through Bryce Canyon Country. As you climb through the Dixie National Forest from Torrey, one of the best spots for a scenic overlook is at the road’s summit at 9,000 feet. This stop gives you some of the best views of Bryce Canyon Country with the contrasting red rocks of Capitol Reef, the distant Henry Mountains, and the expansive desertscape of the Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Connecting Capitol Reef National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park, the road winds through parts of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and nearby state parks such as Kodachrome Basin, Escalante Petrified Forest, Anasazi State Park Museum. 

Here are some articles to help:

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

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

Spanning nearly 1.9 million acres from Bryce Canyon to Grand Canyon the rugged and remote terrain of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is one of the most scenic yet overlooked destinations in the U.S. The monument received its name Grand Staircase for its large sequence of sedimentary rock layers stretching south from Bryce Canyon National Park through Zion National Park and into Grand Canyon National Park. This huge stairway of rock ascends north out of the Grand Canyon encompassing much of Bryce Canyon Country.

Aside from the monument’s vast desert views, many travelers come here to plunge into the deep red walls of the area’s many slot canyons. While some of the most popular slot canyons to explore including Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulch don’t require a guide, getting to some of the monuments more remote and off-the-grid slot canyons requires a guide. 

Excursions of Escalante is the premier tour company that takes you beyond the more accessible places (Spooky, Peekaboo, Big Horn, etc.) and into the most remote, beautiful, and pristine corners of the Escalante region. Choose your own adventure with slot canyon hikes and canyoneering options to explore the area’s most remote and slender slots.

Scenic Byway 12 winds through Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If tiny spaces aren’t your thing, regular hiking is another option. Part of what makes visiting the monument special is its limited access to trails and the land itself. Very few can be reached on paved roads with most accessed via unpaved dirt roads. These backroads throughout the monument not only offer access to numerous trailheads, they also offer exceptional scenic driving potential. 

The only two designated trails (with signs) in the Grand Staircase can be accessed directly from Scenic Byway 12—Upper and Lower Calf Creek Falls. Upper Calf Creek is a short two-mile hike round trip but with a steep climb to the falls. Lower Calf Creek Falls is longer at six miles but is mostly flat. 

A unique way to get a great overview of Bryce Canyon Country is with an ATV tour from Grand Staircase ATV Tours. See the back gate to Bryce Canyon National Park from the little town of Tropic to view the highest plateaus and cliffs that make up the steps to the Staircase. A husband-and-wife team own the company and provides a wealth of knowledge and information about the area. Just a 10-mile drive from Bryce Canyon National Park located in Tropic, the company offers private guided tours into the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

By the way, I have written: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Naturally

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Continuing along Scenic Byway 12 heading west you take you directly to Bryce Canyon National Park—the heart of Bryce Canyon Country. 

Bryce Canyon National Park is an otherworldly landscape famous for its breathtaking amphitheaters of towering hoodoos. These hoodoos are distinctive spire-shaped rock formations that lay the groundwork for this incredibly unique place. The whimsical, orange and red hoodoos rise in dense concentrations forming a surreal panorama across the amphitheaters and maze-like trails below the rim.

Driving into Bryce Canyon initially throws off first-time visitors with its forests of ponderosa pines along the flat plateau. Here is where you’ll find most of the park’s camping spots and access to the canyon and its overlooks. The out-and-back 18-mile road stretches the length of the park and is the jumping-off point for all vehicle and trail exploration.

Hiking amongst the hoodoos is a must with popular trails including the Fairyland Loop, Navajo Loop, Queens Garden, and the Rim Trail. Scenic views from Sunrise, Sunset, and Inspiration point should not be missed as well.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That’s why I wrote these five articles:

Or explore the diverse canyon as the first settlers to discover the area did by way of horseback. Saddle up with Canyon Trail Rides, the only horseback outfitters inside the park with their two-hour guided tour through the heart of Bryce Canyon. The best part? This trail is not accessible to hikers or backpackers, so you get to see some of the canyon other visitors don’t get to see. 

Plan your next trip in southern Utah’s Bryce Canyon Country with these resources:

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park: A Guide for RVers

America’s most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains is an ideal getaway. Hike, camp, and experience one of America’s oldest mountain ranges.

I love all things nature. I enjoy visiting the National Parks, 22 so far and numerous National Park Service (NPS) sites including National Monuments, National Historic Sites, National Battlefields, National Seashores, and National Recreation Areas.

However, America’s highways and byways offer many unique sites along the way. Like you, we discuss where we want to go and work backward from there. That allows us to research all of those spots in between that fall into the must-see column. Therein is my motivation for this new series of articles: A Guide for RVers.

A Guide for RVers will provide you with not only hints and facts about nature found on your road trip but those often missed stops along the way. For example, if you are heading from Bryce Canyon National Park to Capitol Reef National Park take time to visit Escalante Petrified Forest State Park in Escalante and view the historic grounds of Anasazi State Park in Boulder. 

Perhaps you find yourself on a layover in Mitchell, South Dakota heading to Badlands National Park and the Black Hills. Take time to tour the World’s Only Corn Palace

My new series of articles, A Guide for RVers will run intermittently in the months ahead. It will include links to related articles, interesting nature facts associated with those places, and a shout-out to good eats along the way. I will add a special line called “Wait. What?!” in each column to give you some jaw-dropping facts about the specific topic and nature in general. 

I hope that you will find that A Guide for RVers is interesting, informative, and entertaining as well.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I’ll begin our adventure with the most visited National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park with 13.2 million visitors in 2023. That is only slightly less visits than Yellowstone (4.5 million), Grand Canyon (5.2 million), and Zion (4.6 million) combined. Why is that? It is within one day’s drive of one-half the U.S. population. Plus, plenty of side attractions have located just outside its protected borders.

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

Getting there

Using your favorite GPS navigator, U.S. Highway 441 bisects the park from the most popular entrance on the northside to Sugarlands Visitor Center at Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It ends, or begins, depending on your starting point, at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center via the Southside entrance at Cherokee, North Carolina. Known as Newfoundland Gap Road, US-441 curves its way through the park to an elevation of 5,046 feet before dropping back down.  

Once close to Knoxville, head south to any one of the popular towns: Townsend, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Sevierville, or Cosby. Among these, you will find more than two dozen RV parks and campgrounds.

Coming in from the Southside, you will head toward Cherokee. RV parks are few and the roads to any are winding. The same goes for getting to the Oconaluftee Visitors Center. There is a KOA and a few Good Sam parks along with a plethora of campgrounds.

Staying in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

If you are looking to rough it in your RV, the park offers nine campgrounds. The only one with water/electric hookups (10 sites) is Look Rock plus the means to park RVs up to 48 feet. All others are dry camping only with limited site lengths: Cades Cove and Smokemount—40 feet motorhomes, 35 feet for trailers; Elkmount—35 feet for motorhomes, 32 feet trailers; Cataloochee—31 feet; Balsam Mountain—30 feet; Deep Creek—26 feet; and Cosby—25 feet. Availability goes quickly, so a 6-month advance reservation is recommended. You can only reserve at recreation.gov in all national parks. 

You are there. Now what?

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

Visitor Center

Begin your exploration of the park at a visitor center. Here you can pick up a park map or newspaper, have your questions answered by a ranger, and purchase books and guides to the park. For current ranger-led activities, visit the park’s calendar for details.

Four visitor centers are located within the national park at Sugarlands, Oconaluftee, Cades Cove, and Clingmans Dome.

The park has two historic gristmills, Cable Mill and Mingus Mill that provide demonstrations of corn meal milling. (Mingus Mill is closed until further notice for rehabilitation work.)

Parking permits

Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not charge an entrance fee. However, parking tags are required for all vehicles parking for longer than 15 minutes.

The best method is to purchase online. Otherwise, you can purchase one at a Visitor’s Center or kiosk. 

Three tag durations are available for purchase for all vehicle sizes and types:

  • Daily: $5
  • Weekly: $15
  • Annual: $40
Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving tours

Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses over 800 square miles and is one of the most pristine natural areas in the East. An auto tour of the park offers a variety of experiences including panoramic views, tumbling mountain streams, weathered historic buildings, and mature hardwood forests stretching to the horizon.

Visitors can choose from 384 miles of road in the Smokies. Most are paved and the gravel roads are maintained in suitable condition for standard passenger cars.

Cades Cove

Cades Cove is a scenic valley surrounded on all sides by mountains south of Townsend, Tennessee. A popular 11-mile one-way loop road encircling the valley provides access to hiking trails, opportunities for wildlife viewing, and chances to explore the many historic homesites, cemeteries, and churches. The area also holds a visitor center, campground, picnic area, and riding stable.

Many of the early settlers’ houses and a few primitive churches remain standing. Pull-out parking is available, but limited.

Allow at least two to four hours to tour Cades Cove, longer if you walk some of the area’s trails. Traffic is heavy during the tourist season in summer and fall and on weekends year-round. Trust me when I say, avoid the weekends!

Vehicle-free access along the Cades Cove Loop Road takes place each Wednesday from May through September.

The beginning of the loop is well marked: from Cherokee, 57 miles; from Gatlinburg, 27 miles; and from Townsend, 9 miles. Restrooms are available about halfway at the Cades Cove Visitors Center. From spring through fall one can expect to see wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, and black bears. There are a few easy- to moderate-difficulty hiking trailheads along the route. Again, parking is limited and by permit only (See above).

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Another popular loop of 5.5 miles takes you through an old-growth forest alongside a mountain stream. At about 2.5 miles is the trailhead for the Noah “Bud” Ogle self-guiding nature trail (0.7-mile easy loop). This takes you across two brooks, past his 1880s “saddle-bag” farmhouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and around his “pass-through” barn. Do not miss the “tub mill” used for grinding corn and the only one still existing out of a dozen in the area.

To access Roaring Fork, turn off the main parkway in Gatlinburg at traffic light #8 and follow Historic Nature Trail Road to the Cherokee Orchard entrance to the national park. Just beyond the Rainbow Falls trailhead you have the option of taking the one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (closed in winter). Please note that RVs are not permitted on the motor nature trail.

Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Clingman’s Dome

At an elevation of 6,643 feet, not only is it the highest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park but it also boasts the highest point in Tennessee and the highest point along the Appalachian Trail. Built in 1959, the observation tower allows visitors a 360-degree panorama of the Smokies. On a clear day you can see more than 100 miles. However, most days are smoky limiting visibility to about 20 miles.

Due to the steepness of the paved ramp up to the tower (1 mile round-trip), wheelchairs, pets, and bicycles are prohibited. Also, remember that at this elevation the ambient temperature is 10 to 20 degrees cooler than Gatlinburg.

Hiking trail to Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking trails

Great Smoky Mountains National Park stands out as a hiker’s heaven with more than 800 miles of trails through an old-growth forest including 71 miles of the Appalachian Trail. No wonder it is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site (1983).

One of the most daunting tasks facing hikers is choosing a trail. Start by deciding on what you would like to see. Waterfalls? Old-growth forests? Endless views? Then decide how far you would like to hike. If you haven’t hiked much recently, be conservative. Five miles roundtrip is a good maximum distance for novices.

Trails range from easy (Spruce Fir Trail, 0.4 miles r/t, 25-feet elevation gain), to moderate (Rainbow Falls, 5.4 miles r/t, 1685-feet elevation gain), to strenuous (Mt. Le Conte via Trillium Gap, 13.9 miles r/t, 3401-feet elevation gain). Remember, always check with the rangers at the Visitors Center for trail conditions, wildlife spotting, and permits, if required.

Some of the most popular destination hikes in the park include:

  • Charlies Bunion (4.0 miles one-way; 1,600 feet elevation change)
  • Alum Cave Bluffs (2.5 miles one-way; 1,200 feet elevation change)
  • Andrews Bald (1.8 miles one-way; 1,200 feet elevation change)
  • Rainbow Falls (2.7 miles one-way; 1,700 feet elevation change)
  • Chimney Tops (3.5 miles roundtrip; 1,400 feet elevation change)
Cable Mill, Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Flora and fauna

Great Smoky Mountains National Park shows more than 1,500 flowering species with spring offering the showiest of wildflowers. Of course, timing is everything. The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage (75th annual; April 23-26, 2025) offers guided walks and talks.

This is black bear habitat. They crawl from hibernation in the spring and forage all summer. July is mating season with bear cubs abundant shortly after. Follow NPS bear safety instructions should you encounter one. Speaking of safety, there are 23 species of snakes, but only two are venomous: Timber rattlesnake and Northern copperhead. Watch your step.

When hiking you may encounter sightings of coyotes, elk, white-tailed deer, raccoons, squirrels, and chipmunks. Enjoy from afar. Park regulations prohibit feeding any wild critter. 

Synchronous Fireflies (Photinus carolinus)

Of the 19 different species of fireflies that live within the GSMNP, the synchronous fireflies stand out among them all. The flash pattern alerts females that the males are of their species. It begins with a series of 5-8 flashes, a pause of about 8 seconds, and then this repeated pattern. Watching this mating ritual ranks as a truly unique experience.

To stand among the viewers requires one to enter the park lottery. This happens in late April to early May when the lottery for vehicle passes closes. The viewing begins when the adults seek to mate usually in June. To enter one must go to recreation.gov.

Another opportunity awaits in northeast Tennessee at Rocky Fork State Park. Again, admission is by lottery only. 

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Makin’ merry

Pigeon Forge seems like a carnival that never ends. From Dollywood to the Old Mill Historic District there are plenty of places for excitement. When it comes to eats, you name it, from fast foods to dinner theaters.

Big names like Guy Fieri’s Downtown Flavortown, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, and Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen are located on The Island, another tourist destination. In the mood for fried chicken or catfish, try J.T. Hannah’s Kitchen. Plenty of barbecue available, but Preachers Smokehouse is hard to beat. Get there early as they sell out quickly. Finally, do not forget to taste the moonshine. It will make you merry!

I hope that these few words piqued your curiosity and motivated you to roll on over to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Do not let the crowds put you off. You just have to plan your trip and be smarter than the average visitor. One final remark: Unless you stay for a month, do not try to do it all in one visit. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is HUGE covering 522,427 acres. In visiting, I can say that once is not nearly enough.

Hiking trail in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wait. What?!  

Bioluminescence, the production of light by living organisms is not limited to fireflies. Several other species light up. These include certain fish, shrimp, plankton, jellyfish, fungus, and gnats.

Want more travel ideas for this area?

Happy Travels!

Worth Pondering…

Each year thousands of backpackers 
Climb the Great Smoky Mountains… 
Nature’s Peace flows into them
as Sunshine flows into Trees;
the Winds blow their freshness into them…
and their Cares drop off like Autumn Leaves.

—Adapted from John Muir

The Complete Guide to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Bison, prairie dogs, coyotes—a Dakota wildlife landscape

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota is a fitting tribute to the bully pulpit president who helped birth America’s conservation movement through sheer force of will: It protects an imposing landscape that is simultaneously both desolate and full of life.

Bison roam the grassy plains and elk wander along juniper-filled draws. Prairie dogs squeak from mounds leading to their underground dens and mule deer bed down on the sides of clay buttes. There are antelope and coyotes, wild horses, and bighorn sheep and you can spot them all with a little patience.

When the sun goes down the layers of sedimentary rock come alive in the softer light: black veins of lignite, blue-gray layers of bentonite and rust-colored deposits of scoria. Stand atop a butte during the golden hour and the park takes on a whole new hue—and temperament. Perhaps no national park has such a split personality from afternoon to evening.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1884, Roosevelt himself retreated to this wide-open country after his wife, Alice Lee, and his mother, Mittie, died only hours apart. The Bad Lands he wrote of the area, “grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.”

In later years, he credited this landscape as having soothed him after his personal tragedies and set him back on course. “I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota,” he once noted.

The North Dakota Badlands not to be confused with South Dakota’s Badlands National Park have been cut over eons by the muddy Little Missouri River as it flows north and the national park comprises three separate units totaling more than 70,447 acres.

The South Unit lies along Interstate 94 adjacent to the tiny gateway town of Medora (just 112 full-time residents) and serves as the main recreational focus for most visitors with its scenic driving loop and two dozen trails.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The North Unit lies 70 miles away (an 80-minute drive) and while it has services such as a visitor center and a road through the badlands, it receives far fewer visitors.

The Elkhorn Ranch Unit—the homesite of Teddy’s Roosevelt 1880s cattle ranch—lies in between. It has no services and most visitors make it a quick stop.

Visiting them all is manageable over two or three days.

Summer is peak season for the park’s 700,000 annual visitors but even then you’ll be all alone on hiking trails in the park’s far corners pondering with the same awe what Lewis and Clark must have experienced when they stumbled on these badlands during their 1805 journey across the continent.

With numerous activities outside park boundaries, easy drives inside it, and plenty of trails—ranging in length from 0.1 miles to 96—Theodore Roosevelt National Park appeals to those ages 50 and over whether they’ve just completed an Ironman triathlon or are simply looking for a paved stroll.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

The largest nearby city is two hours east (137 miles) in Bismarck, the state capital.

Many visitors drive up from South Dakota’s Black Hills, home to Mount Rushmore 260 miles to the south (more than four hours by RV). That may seem like a haul but the route north along U.S. Route 85 offers some of the best stretches of the unbounded openness of the Great Plains. You’ll see views that extend so far off into the rolling distance that it often feels as if you can see the Earth’s curvature.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s entrance fee is $30 per vehicle with the pass valid for all three units of the park for seven consecutive days. (A $20 annual America the Beautiful Senior Pass for those 62 or older gives holders access to all national parks and many federally managed recreational lands.)

Restroom and visitor facilities spread throughout the main drives make pit stops easy. The surrounding area’s recent oil-shale boom spurred the expansion of cell networks meaning good coverage for such a sparsely populated area (although you may experience the occasional dead zone depending on your carrier). Only the main visitor centers offer Wi-Fi, however.

Shoulder seasons when visitor numbers drop and animals roam more freely are the best times to visit. Summers are hot with average temperatures in the high 80s and the occasional thunderstorm. Spring rain showers often transform the hillsides to a bright green interspersed with the red scoria rock underneath. In fall, leaves of the giant cottonwood trees along the Little Missouri River turn golden and there may be no better time to camp in the park. Winter, when temperatures can plunge to single digits is much slower in terms of visitation and many side roads are closed but fresh snow on the badlands may be one of the most remarkable sights of all.

Cottonwood Campground, Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat

There are no hotel options inside Theodore Roosevelt National Park but it does have two campgrounds for RVs and tents although no hookups. Both are locate in towering cottonwood groves near the Little Missouri River with views to the bluffs beyond. Cottonwood Campground in the South Unit has 72 sites; Juniper Campground in the North Unit, 48.

Sites are spread out enough that you have some privacy and each has a fire grill and a picnic table. The camps have potable water and flush toilets in summer but no showers.

There are no restaurants or stores in the park to buy food, water, firewood, or other supplies so bring everything you need. Despite the lack of amenities there’s always the thrill of waking up in the morning with wild horses or a bison walking through the cottonwood trees.

You can reserve a campsite up to six months in advance at recreation.gov although half the sites are first come, first served. Permits are $14 per night ($7 for seniors) in summer and $7 ($3.50 for seniors) from October through April.

For lodging, restaurants, and stores near the park, Medora is your best option (see the Gateway towns section).

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Theodore Roosevelt National Park may be one of the West’s most unheralded national parks but those who have experienced its charms know it’s all about the bewitching badland views. It’s also one of the region’s most accessible national parks for a quick tour: Both the South and North units have scenic driving loops on which you can take in the majority of sites from the comfort of your car and many of the most remarkable features—the South Unit’s prairie dog town near Skyline Vista, for example—have paved walking trails adjacent to parking areas making them wheelchair accessible.

Drive

You can see a whole lot from your car without having to get out and do extensive hiking like up to an edge of a glacier or something. The bison, wild horses, and prairie dogs—you can see them all just as easily from your front seat as after a three-mile hike.

The South Unit’s 36-mile loop begins and ends at the visitor center in Medora and it’s easy to complete in two hours (that includes time to snap photos of bison or prairie dogs). On the drive, don’t miss the Skyline Vista an ideal vantage point for viewing the sunset, Badlands Overlook which in the morning light reveals all of the contours of sheer bluffs and ravines, and Cottonwood Campground for a picnic under the tall trees.

For another easily accessible point in the South Unit including for those using wheelchairs the Painted Canyon Visitor Center—accessed from outside the park on Exit 32 of I-94—offers an iconic view of the Badlands. From the overlook the park stretches off toward the north with juniper draws, scoria-topped buttes, and grazing buffalo dotting the landscape.

The 28-mile round-trip road in the North Unit impresses with similar stellar views including two Little Missouri River overlooks, the Oxbow and Riverbend overlooks. Both will wow you but Oxbow delivers the more impressive view of the river below and the Achenbach Hills which stretch to the horizon across the muddy water.

Elkhorn Ranch is undeveloped—meaning no visitor services—but the drive to it parallels the river valley and once there you can walk next to the stone foundations that once supported Roosevelt’s cabin.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking

Exploring the park on foot is the best way to get up close with the terrain and wildlife and you’ll find more than 100 miles of trails. The hikes are mostly short (under a mile or two) and flat as the highest buttes only rise a few hundred vertical feet. But be mindful of the summer heat: Average highs climb to the mid-80s and it often feels hotter and drier so bring plenty of water.

The hiking can range from moderately difficult down to easy depending on the time of year and where you’re going. It can be more intense especially during a hot summer day but we’re not talking huge elevation gains.

In the South Unit two can’t-miss short hikes are the Wind Canyon Trail, a 20-minute (0.4 miles) stroll through a wind-sculpted canyon with stunning river views and the Coal Vein Trail, a 40-minute hike (0.8 miles) that is the perfect way to learn about badlands geology. For example, you’ll see and better understand the layers of ancient history: gray bentonite clay from distant volcanoes, black coal from plants and animals that once lived in the humid swamps that covered the area, and brick-colored clinker that formed from burning coal lit by wildfires or lightning strikes.

In the North Unit, a good hour-long option is the 1.5-mile portion of the Achenbach Trail to Sperati Point which courses through prairie grassland to a lookout over the valley below.

Biking

Cycling, an increasingly popular park activity offers a novel way to explore the main roads at a slower pace although you’ll be competing with cars on busy summer days.

Average road cyclists can complete the South loop in three or four hours. Dakota Cyclery in Medora rents bikes.

Medora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway towns

The only town associated with the park is Medora and it more or less revolves around its status as Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s gateway. It plays up its history as an old railroad junction and does its best Old West impression: wooden boardwalks, hitching posts in front of hotels, chuckwagon diners, and plenty of cowboy boots and hats. It all can feel overdone at times but discovering the town’s charm only happens when you fully embrace the kitsch.

Medora’s many lodging options are mostly middle-of-the-road motels and basic kitchenette cabins. The best place to book: the 76-room Rough Riders Hotel in the heart of town named for the volunteer cavalry unit Teddy Roosevelt commanded in the 1890s (it’s rumored the 26th president gave a speech from one its balconies). It’s a mix of Old West charm—tin ceilings, for example—and modern conveniences such as walk-in showers.

For dining, start your morning at Farmhouse Café which does everything well from pancakes to steak and eggs. Come lunchtime, its salads and sandwiches.

For dinner, the Boots Bar and Grill features tasty pub food and Theodore’s Dining Room serves a bison osso bucco. At the Pitchfork Steak Fondue restaurant, chefs load steaks onto, yes, pitchforks and plunge them into hot oil to cook. Enjoy your meat fest al fresco with tables on a bluff overlooking town—and the setting sun.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Medora has three main attractions. The Medora Musical bills itself as the West’s rootin’-tootinest, boot-scootinest show. For two hours nightly there’s singing and dancing and live horses on stage—all in an outdoor amphitheater with sunset views.

The North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, a museum devoted to Western cultures and Native Americans gives you a glimpse into the area’s ranching and rodeo history.

Saddle up yourself at the Medora Riding Stables on the edge of town for hour-long rides up buttes and into canyons.

Just outside Medora, the 26-room Chateau de Mores State Historic Site is the former summer home of a wealthy cattle baron. Constructed in 1883, it’s now a museum delivering an authentic look into what life in the badlands might have been like back then.

Being the park’s gateway, Medora fills up with visitors during the peak months of June, July, and August so you’ll need reservations for lodging and many of its activities.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Driving west from Bismark take the worthwhile detour at Exit 72 on I-94 to see North Dakota’s Enchanted Highway, seven oversize metal sculptures spread along a 32-mile stretch of two-lane highway. The first art installation, Geese in Flight claims a Guinness World Record for largest scrap-metal sculpture (110 feet high and 154 feet wide).

If you’re driving north from Rapid City, South Dakota—the gateway to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore—keep your eyes peeled as you drive out of the town of Bowman for a cheeky art installation on the western side of Highway 85: a kitchen stove sitting alongside a ditch with its door open. A sign reads Open Range. It’s more of a comment piece than real artwork but it makes its point regardless.

Driving northeast from Billings, Montana stop at Makoshika State Park outside the city of Glendive for a taste of the geologic badland formations to come at Theodore Roosevelt National Park plus view the fossil remains of dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex. A triceratops skull in the new visitor center is worthy of the natural history museums in Chicago and New York.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Location: Medora, North Dakota

Size: 70,447 acres

Miles of trails: 100-plus miles spread over 36 trails

Main attraction: The Badlands overlook at Painted Canyon

Cost: $30 per vehicle for a seven-day permit; $20 per year or $80 for a lifetime America the Beautiful Pass for people age 62-plus

Best way to see it: On foot, walking one of its many trails through the Badlands or relaxing on an overlook as the sun sets

When to go: Fall (September and October) when the leaves of the giant cottonwoods turn golden

Worth Pondering…

It was here that the romance of my life began.

—Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States

Zion National Park Will Ban RVs from Main Highway

Zion National Park is moving to ban RVs and other large vehicles from traveling the historic highway that snakes through the park’s iconic red-and-white sandstone landscape

Starting in mid-2026, Zion National Park will no longer allow large RVs and other oversized vehicles to travel the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, the scenic byway that bisects southern Utah’s top tourist draw.

“These changes reflect months of discussions to find the best way forward to manage the historic Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and increase driver safety,” said Jeff Bradybaugh, Zion National Park superintendent, in a statement. “Our goal is to protect drivers, meet modern safety standards, and ensure the integrity of the road and tunnels so that we continue to enjoy scenic drives on the historic Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway.”

Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Specifically, National Park Service (NPS) will reroute vehicles to roads around the park if they are:

  • Longer than 35 feet and 9 inches
  • Taller than 11 feet and 4 inches
  • Wider than 7 feet and 10 inches
  • Weigh more than 50,000 pounds

The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway is listed as a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. Designed and constructed in the 1920s and 1930s, the road has tight turns, steep grades, several switchbacks, narrow lanes, and two low and slender tunnels.

As scenic as the drive is, park officials say it is increasingly crowded and unsafe. When the historic highway and accompanying tunnel were opened in 1930, a little more than 55,000 visitors toured Zion each year. The park now attracts about 5 million visitors per year. Moreover, the vehicles that traverse the park are often too large and heavy for the road.

While these design elements make the road compatible with the beloved desert landscape, they weren’t meant to accommodate a 45-foot-long motorhome. A century ago, cars were much smaller and weighed far less than they do today.

Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tight turns, traffic bottlenecks

Recent studies show many vehicles on Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway exceed 50,000 pounds, the weight limit on park bridges. In addition, engineers have identified 18 locations on the road where the turning radius is too tight to accommodate long vehicles. Currently, many oversized vehicles negotiating the highway’s many switchbacks cross the center median and pose a safety risk to oncoming traffic.

Studies on the busy scenic highway highlighted the dangers of hosting large vehicles. According to the park service, engineering and traffic surveys showed that large recreational vehicles crossed the highway’s center lines in 18 locations because the road’s turning radius cannot accommodate vehicles that exceed 35 feet and 9 inches.

Because of the park’s unique terrain, wildlife and the costs associated with new construction, expanding the roadway is not an option, park officials said. They added that the decision to restrict large vehicles in Zion was the result of discussions with many stakeholders including transportation departments, neighbors, business owners, and elected officials.

Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Further exacerbating matters is the mile-long Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel which isn’t wide enough to accommodate two-way traffic with large rigs. Vehicles taller than 13 feet 1 inch won’t fit in the tunnel while those wider than 7 feet 10 inches and taller than 11 feet 4 inches require a tunnel escort. As a result, the tunnel often functions as a one-way road as oversized vehicles are escorted through while traffic bottlenecks on the opposite end result in substantial delays.

The new rules will require visitors from Bryce Canyon National Park to access Zion’s south entrance via state Route 20 and Interstate 15 adding 63 miles to the current route through Carmel Junction and the park’s back entrance. Visitors from the Grand Canyon North Rim will have to travel State Route 59 to access Zion’s south entrance, 23 miles longer than the existing route.

Driving tourists elsewhere?

Springdale Mayor Barbara Bruno doesn’t foresee many negative impacts on the town that serves as the gateway to Zion. She said local business owners’ reaction to the upcoming change has been mixed but a majority expressed support.

“Since [the change] is based on safety, I wholeheartedly agree with the park’s decision,” Bruno said. “I also appreciate having been notified ahead of time.”

Even though they will be banned from the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway in two years, oversized-vehicle owners can still park their rigs in Springdale or at the main visitors center near Zion’s south entrance and take an electric shuttle to tour Zion Canyon which is closed to private vehicles most of the year.

Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I’ve written several posts about Zion National Park that can be found here, if you’re interested in learning more.

The Complete Guide to Zion National Park

Cathedral-like canyons and majestic sandstone cliffs create a wondrous landscape. Don’t be surprised if your first glimpse of Zion National Park with its vast red rock canyons and towering sandstone temples feels a bit like a spiritual awakening. You wouldn’t be the first person moved by its majesty.

Check out this article…

The Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park

Zion National Park is without a doubt one of the most beautiful national parks in all of America.

Check out this article…

Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Best of Zion

Zion National Park brims with awe-inspiring views and outdoor adventures. I’ve been to Zion several times and managed to pick up some new spots on each visit. Without further ado, here are my picks for the best of Zion.

Check out this article…

Worth Pondering…

It is a place where a family can rest at streamside after a pleasant morning hike.

It is a vast labyrinth of narrow canyons where one can become hopelessly lost, shrinking to invisibility beneath dark, towering walls of stone.

One may feel triumph and exhilaration, or awesome smallness atop Angels Landing; thirst and fatigue, or a rewarding weariness, on the return trek from the backcountry.

Perhaps one’s view of Zion is in the eyes of the beholder.

—Wayne L. Hamilton, The Sculpturing of Zion

5 Expert Tips to Prepare for Your Utah National Parks Adventure

Headed off to one of Utah’s National Parks for vacation? Maybe you have the whole The Mighty Five in your sights? Here’s some expert advice on how to prepare.

A family road trip through Utah’s five national parks and the surrounding areas makes for a quintessential American vacation. Of course if you’re traveling over summer vacation you may not be the only one on the road. In fact, June is one of the busiest months for Utah’s national parks. What does that mean for you? Well, if you can be flexible with your travel, it can yield big rewards. 

Here are five tips to help you prepare, courtesy of Aly Baltrus, the former chief of interpretation and visitor services at Zion National Park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Pack the essentials

We’re human; we forget things. For your trip to any of The Mighty Five, some things are more essential than others. Visitors are advised to carry a lot of water—at least one gallon per person per day. In Zion, there’s several water refilling stations so you don’t have to carry in absolutely everything you’re going to drink during your stay unless you have a permit for more remote areas. 

Arches National Park near Moab has water at the visitor center near the entrance and at the Devils Garden Campground. There’s a water bottle filling station in the visitor center of Bryce Canyon National Park. In other areas of the national parks in Utah, water is significantly scarcer particularly in Canyonlands National Park.

If there are any concerns, check at the visitor center to learn about water availability and always plan ahead. Many travelers carry water coolers or extra jugs of water in their cars to fill up before a hike.

Good hiking shoes are important. That doesn’t mean you have to buy the most expensive brand. Make sure they fit you and you’ve used them before taking long hiking trips. Flip-flops are not appropriate footwear for the vast majority of trails in the national parks. Similarly, budget tools can help you in the outdoors. If folks are hiking into the Narrows, simple locking plastic bags can be helpful to keep your snacks and cell phone dry.

And remember to follow Leave No Trace principles—plan to pack out everything you pack in (garbage, etc.) and have a plan for when nature inevitably calls.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Know the terrain

Being prepared isn’t exclusive to the things you can wear or bring along in your pack. Sometimes, it requires understanding what’s required in certain weather conditions. If you are from lower elevations, take your time when hiking. It is much harder to hike in higher elevations. If you are around for a few days, ease yourself into hiking by starting with easier hikes. (For example, Bryce Canyon reaches up to over 9,000 feet of elevation).

Baltrus’s special expertise in Zion helps visitors understand the unique qualities of the park. There is very little shade in Zion. Sunscreen, wide-brimmed hats, plenty of water, and some salty snacks are a must when you’re packing for a trip there. The same rules apply to most hikes throughout The Mighty 5. While several hikes are family friendly these wonders are significantly more enjoyable if everyone knows what to expect and comes prepared.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Go at your own pace

It’s exciting to be in the outdoors and everyone should consider going at their own pace. If you have very little hiking experience you don’t want to start out with a 40-mile, hardcore backpacking trip.

Several of Zion’s trails including Angels Landing, Hidden Canyon, and Observation Point have steep climbs and drop-offs. These are not the best trails for people who are afraid of heights or those who have heart issues. If you’re traveling with friends or family discuss your preferences and skillset before you head out on the trail.

The park’s visitor center is an ideal place for this conversation because skilled staff will be able to provide advice on trail conditions, skills needed, and offer alternative trail options. What’s more, rugged national parks like Capitol Reef and Canyonlands have several front country, family-friendly trails and experiences, they are equally known for their expansive backcountry—not a place you’ll want to venture without good preparation, packing, wayfinding skills, and a stop at the visitor center for current conditions.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Know your companion’s limits

As with the above point, it helps to travel with people who won’t push you too far outside your comfort zone. Sure, a little challenge makes us feel good. But following a buddy’s plea to just do it his way this time may not end well. Peer pressure is sometimes a problem when visitors are part of a bigger group.

Friendships are important but your well-being is even more so. Be honest and up-front about your hopes for the trip and your experience. That will encourage others to do so, as well, and you can address issues of conflict early, instead of on the trail. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. How to avoid the crowds

Utah’s national parks can be a popular draw which means deciding when to visit a park feature can be as important as deciding what to see in the first place. In order to avoid the most crowds come early in the morning or after 2 p.m. And note that from April through October (between the hours of 7 a.m. and 4 p.m.), Arches National Park requires a timed entry ticket to enter the park.

Many of Utah’s best sights are especially spectacular at sunrise and sunset during which some of the longer trails receive less traffic. But hikes of any distance at these times do require extra care.

Add a headlamp or flashlight to your pack and be prepared for the possibility of cooler temperatures. In other cases, you’ll be joining the crowd for a sunrise: Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park receives a lot of traffic around the sunrise hours because it’s a very short hike meaning photographers can easily haul in their gear and grab a truly iconic image at an easily accessible destination. The same goes for the Rim Trail of Bryce Canyon which is easily accessible from the scenic drive and the perfect time to see the hoodoos play with the changing light.

But visitors should also note that there a number of dazzling Utah State Parks that are near to The Mighty 5 and they make for a good stop when the national parks are particularly busy.

On the other hand, take some time to get to know your fellow travelers and celebrate the vast, natural beauty together.

You’ll likely hear a number of different languages on Zion National Park’s multi-passenger shuttle and in popular places to cool off in the peak season of summer like in the Virgin River at the Mouth of the Narrows. Elements took eons to create the varied wonders of Utah’s national parks. Visitors who rush through will only get a small taste of the power of these places. Visitors who plan extra time at each park will enjoy a less hurried, more intimate stay.

Learn more about how to visit Zion National Park. The ideas here apply to all of Utah’s incredible natural sanctuaries. Generally, people should plan to be as self-sufficient as possible. Be prepared, don’t take additional risks, and practice good trail etiquette.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bonus: Southern Utah State Parks near the Mighty 5

Utah’s natural beauty extends well beyond the borders of the Mighty 5 National Parks. Some of Utah’s best state parks dot the landscape of Mighty Five country swaddled by adventurous national forest or the rugged Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

There are eight enticing state parks along the The Mighty 5 road trip which means each day you’ll have the option to stop at the national parks if it’s your first time to Utah or leave them for the other travelers if you’re looking to see Utah from another angle.

Learn more…

Most recent Utah travel stories

Worth Pondering…

A strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptured, standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely.

—Zane Grey

The Complete Guide to Arches National Park

View jaw-dropping sandstone archways in a red-rock wonderland plus nearby Canyonlands and Capitol Reef

Professional photographers and camera-toting travelers flock to eastern Utah’s Arches National Park to marvel at its striking namesake geology created by millions of years of extreme temperatures, underground salt movement, and elemental erosion. With more than 2,000 arches spread across 76,519 acres of red rock and blue sky, no place on Earth hosts a higher concentration of natural sandstone archways. These miracles of nature as they’ve long been hailed span from three to a staggering 306 feet in width.

Native Americans including Ancestral Puebloans, Archaic, Fremont, and Ute peoples inhabited the area for thousands of years (petroglyphs provide evidence of their presence). Traders and trappers rode horses through the dusty region in more recent times but it wasn’t settled until the 1890s when disabled Civil War veteran John Wesley Wolfe and his son Fred built a log cabin and operated Wolfe Ranch. President Herbert Hoover declared the area a national monument in 1929 and it became a national park in 1971.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Decades later in 1956 and 1957 famed nature writer and environmental activist Edward Abbey worked as a ranger in what was then a national monument perched high above the Colorado River. Abbey anointed Arches the most beautiful place on Earth in the opening line of Desert Solitaire, his classic memoir and love letter to red-rock country.

The grandeur of Arches National Park’s dramatic terrain begins as soon as you enter the park and begin cruising the park’s scenic drive, the main thoroughfare swiftly ascending 500 feet over a series of winding switchbacks. Without warning, stunning geological wonders unveil themselves across the juniper-dotted red landscape: balanced rocks, fins, monoliths, petrified sand dunes, pinnacles, and spires.

Don’t be surprised if you feel like you’re on a movie set when you hit the road’s first straightaway. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Thelma and Louise were both filmed inside the park.

From the park’s scenic drive, you can easily experience Arches National Parks’s most significant arches and viewpoints in one day. You’ll likely have plenty of company: This awe-inspiring red-rock wonderland attracted 1.4 million people in 2023.

At the end of this article you’ll also find information on nearby Capitol Reef and Canyonlands national parks.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reservations

To control the crowds, Arches reintroduced a timed-entry program that runs from April 1 to October 31, 2023 with reservations available three months in advance of a visit date on recreation.gov (new reservations will become available once a month; see the park’s site for details). Each reservation which includes all passengers in a vehicle gives entry to the park during a one-hour time slot from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (visitors can then stay as long as they like that day). Guided tours are exempt from the reservation requirement as are those who visit on foot or bike.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

Most visitors to Arches National Park drive 230 miles southeast from Salt Lake City to the town of Moab, the gateway to the park.

The park is open year-round but attracts the most visitors between March and October. Peak tourist months are July and August despite triple-digit temperatures most days. If visiting during this time be sure to pack a wide-brimmed hat, water bottle, and sunblock.

Pro tip: Arrive between 7 and 8 in the morning or 3 and 6 in the afternoon for cooler temperatures and any chance of a tourist-free arch photo; otherwise, expect long entrance lines into the park, limited parking at viewpoints, and crowded trails.

April, May, September, and October are the optimal time to visit with smaller crowds and daytime temperatures ranging from the upper 50s to 80s. If you can brave the cold, November through February will reward you with big savings in Moab and plenty of solitude in the park.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No matter when you visit, dress in layers because you’re in the high desert (4,085 feet elevation at the park entrance) where temperatures can fluctuate as much as 40 degrees on a given day and are considerably cooler morning and evening.

Five miles north of Moab, the park’s lone visitor center sits directly off U.S. Route 191 just beyond the main entrance. Here, fill up your water bottle, shop for souvenirs in the bookstore, pick up free maps, and learn about ranger-led programs scheduled spring through fall.

There are no shuttles or public transportation to or in Arches so you’ll need your own vehicle. The 18-mile-long scenic drive runs through the heart of the park beginning at the entrance and ending at the Devils Garden Trailhead. The picturesque route provides access to Arches’s most outstanding rock formations and trailheads plus panoramas of the snowcapped La Sal Mountains.

You can drive it in about three hours including 10-minute stops at each viewpoint.  Be sure to start early in the day as parking lots along the way get crowded quickly.

There’s limited cellphone reception in the park.

Devils Garden Campground, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat

You won’t find lodging options in Arches National Park and it has only one campground: the 51-site Devils Garden a stunning spot to sleep between slickrock ledges in your RV or tent. Reservations ($25 a night for a 10-person, two-vehicle site) can be made six months in advance for camping March through October; it’s first- come, first-served the rest of the year. Facilities include barbecue grills, potable water, and both flush and pit-style toilets but no showers or hookups.

The secluded Kayenta Campground at Dead Horse Point State Park ($20 per vehicle) is about a half-hour’s drive from Arches on the edge of Canyonlands National Park. Its 21 quiet campsites tucked within a juniper grove are open for tents ($35 per night) and RVs ($50 per night). The adjacent Wingate Campground atop a mesa has 31 campsites for tents and RVs and extensive views of the surrounding mountains and canyons.

You can find various places to pop your tent or park your RV on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property, too, such as the Sand Flats Recreation Area near Moab where 140 individual campsites ($15 per night) are spread across nine campgrounds ranging from 4,500 feet to 5,700 feet in elevation.

For additional amenities, head to the Sun Outdoors Arches Getaway (from $59 a night) about 5 miles from the entrance to Arches National Park.

Since there are no restaurants or concessions in the park, pack a lunch or bring snacks. Enjoy your meal break at the scenic Devils Garden picnic area with charcoal grills, shaded tables to dodge the hot desert sun, and wheelchair-accessible restrooms. It’s right off the scenic drive.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

See the main arches

You can see most of Arches National Park’s grandest structures via access roads directly off the scenic drive. From the parking lots at each archway short walking trails lead to up-close views.

Freestanding 52-foot-tall Delicate Arch which adorns Utah’s state license plate is one of the world’s most recognized geological features. To marvel at what Abbey called “a weird, lovely, fantastic object,” park in the Wolfe Ranch parking lot (13 miles from the park entrance) and hike the Delicate Arch Trail, a 1.5-mile climb up a slickrock slope with 480 feet of elevation.

For a less-grueling alternative, park one mile up the road in the Delicate Arch Viewpoint lot. From there a flat 50-yard (and wheelchair-accessible) trail takes you to the Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint where you can see the arch from a mile away. The Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint requires a moderately challenging half-mile walk but gets you that much closer.

Twelve miles from the park entrance, the Windows Section contains the best concentration of Arches National Park’s most mesmerizing formations. Delicate Arch is the busiest spot in the park but the Windows Section is the park highlight.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A gentle half-mile trail from the Windows Section parking lot (the first 100 yards are wheelchair-friendly) takes you to North and South windows also known as the spectacles because they look like a pair of reading glasses from afar. Stand inside the North Window’s 90-foot-wide mouth and admire the glistening peaks of the distant La Sal Mountains on your left then look right and snap a panoramic shot of the towering spire protecting nearby Turret Arch.

Elsewhere in the Windows Section is Double Arch easily accessible via a quarter-mile trail on the parking lot’s north side. Formed by water erosion from above, two arches share the same foundational stone with the southern span holding claim to the park’s tallest arch opening at 112 feet. You really need to stand underneath Double Arch to appreciate it. Scenes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Thelma and Louise were filmed in this exact location.

At the end of the scenic drive in the Devils Garden area, Landscape Arch’s staggering 306-foot-wide light opening (longer than a football field) is the widest span of any arch in North America. An easy 1.6-mile round-trip hike on the first portion of the Devils Garden Trail takes you to the razor-thin formation.

Landscape Arch, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go hiking

Aside from the 3-mile round trip to Delicate Arch, the park’s signature attractions can be seen from flat, short trails.

For a lengthier, moderately difficult hike with a little bit of rock scrambling tackle the complete Devils Garden Trail, a 7.9-mile loop in the back of the park alongside spires and pine trees with spurs that lead to eight archways including the lesser-visited Double O Arch and Navajo Arch.

Insider tip: Hike this trail counterclockwise so you end at Landscape Arch.

For something truly special, sign up for a ranger-led hike ($16) through the Fiery Furnace, a 2-mile, three-hour adventure through an isolated labyrinth of canyons, fins, and body-scraping passageways. Offered daily March through October, you’ll need to reserve your ticket online at nps.gov) as spots typically fill up a couple of months in advance.

Note: In a fragile ecosystem like Arches one errant footprint can cause years of damage. Visitors are reminded to “stay on the trail and don’t bust the crust!” Cryptobiotic crusts are an amalgamation of green algae, fungi, and other tiny organisms that hold the soil together and prevent erosion.

The wheelchair-accessible Park Avenue Trail with its skyscraper-canyon walls is one of the most beautiful walks at Arches National Park. The easy stroll (2-mile round trip) along the valley floor gives you a close-up of the Courthouse Towers, towering stone columns that shoot from the desert like a NASA rocket.

Park Avenue, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Discover unique (non-arch) geology

Archways are Arches National Park’s marquee attraction but its other head-turning geological features deserve attention, too.

As you cruise the scenic drive, it’s hard to miss the Three Penguins, the park’s first significant sandstone tower (130 feet tall) which hovers above the visitor center and resembles a marching trio of the tuxedoed seabirds.

To the south of Double Arch, the Parade of Elephants—a lone section of sandstone shaped like a single-file herd of elephants parading through the desert—would make Michelangelo envious of nature’s ability to sculpt a masterpiece.

Balanced Rock (nine miles from the park entrance), a giant chunk of sandstone standing 128 feet tall sits atop an eroding pedestal of mudstone like a sundae cherry. You can see it from the scenic drive but hike the short 0.3-mile trail around its base to fully grasp its size and beauty.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stargaze

On a clear night, a wealth of stars can be seen from anywhere in Arches, a certified dark sky destination. During the summer months, rangers lead one- to three-hour stargazing sessions that include constellation talks and telescope viewing at Panorama Point (11 miles from the park entrance). Reservations aren’t necessary but check with the visitor center for an updated schedule.

More parks nearby

Take in more natural beauty at two other national parks within driving distance of Arches National Park: Canyonlands National Park (26 miles southwest of Arches) and Capitol Reef National Park (132 miles southwest of Arches).

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Vast mesas, ethereal pinnacles, canyon mazes, and remote backcountry buttes paint the sprawling red-rock hinterland of Canyonlands National Park. Even though its Utah’s largest national park, the 337,598-acre desert wilderness attracts fewer than half the visitors of nearby Arches which is less than a quarter its size.

Canyonlands National Park is divided into three land districts split by the Colorado and Green rivers: Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze spread apart by miles of roadless red rock. (Visitors must return to U.S. Route 191 and drive to the different park sections which takes anywhere from two to six hours).

More than three-quarters of visitors go to the Island in the Sky district where the 34-mile scenic drive is the park’s best sightseeing option. The high mesa cradled by the confluence of the rivers rests atop a sandstone bench—the White Rim—that rises 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain.

Mesa Arch and the Green River Overlook are the best viewpoints with Green River being the best for photography. A short half-mile loop trail (not wheelchair-accessible) takes you to Mesa Arch, the park’s signature vista at the edge of a cliff. The Green River Overlook, ideal at sunset provides a rooftop view of one of Canyonlands’s powerful riverways.

The park offers ranger-led talks spring through fall at the Grand View Point Overlook (accessible to wheelchairs), a sweeping panorama of the Canyonland’s multilayered geology. And do stop at the Shafer Canyon Viewpoint for a bird’s-eye view of the snaking 18-mile Shafer Trail, a cliff-hanging dirt road with steep drop-offs that descends 1,500 feet to the canyon floor.

For backcountry exploration, head to the Needles district, a two-hour drive away. The park’s southeast corner named for the multicolored sandstone spires that skyrocket from the desert floor is home to 74 miles of trails ranging from short interpretive loops to heart-pumping day hikes.

The Maze district exemplifies some of the Lower 48’s most untrodden terrain. Located on the other side of the Green and Colorado rivers getting there requires a nearly six-hour drive from Moab. For unmatched solitude in the Maze’s wilds, an experienced guide is highly recommended.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

You haven’t landed on Mars but don’t be shocked if your first glimpse of Capitol Reef National Park with its otherworldly canyons and miles upon miles of rusty desert hues feels like a mission to the Red Planet.

What makes the park unique is the Waterpocket Fold and the topography that resulted from that. Created by a buckle in the Earth’s surface, the park’s defining geologic feature stretches nearly 100 miles running north-south from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell. The fold, rising from the desert like a massive ocean break, destined for the coast is one of the largest and best exposed monoclines in North America. When the uplift fired some 65 million years ago it left behind a dramatic landscape of jagged cliffs and giant monoliths. 

Drive the Scenic Drive (directly off state Route 24), an 8-mile route that begins near the visitor center and runs through the heart of the park. Besides the fold, you’ll see Cassidy Arch named after Butch Cassidy who is said to have hidden here following his first bank robbery, the slot canyon at Capitol Gorge with its rain-filled water pockets known as the Tanks, and the resplendent 7,041-foot Golden Throne dome.

For million-dollar views of one the park’s largest sandstone monoliths the challenging 4-mile Golden Throne Trail is a stunning hike. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot one of the park’s 20-something desert bighorn sheep.

Other must-see sites include Capitol Dome, a majestic white sandstone formation towering 800 feet above the road; thousand-year-old petroglyphs; Chimney Rock, an eroded sandstone pillar with a 6,420-foot summit; the 133-foot-long natural sandstone Hickman Bridge; and the Goosenecks Overlook, a striking viewpoint more than 800 feet above a serpentine canyon.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Fact box

  • Location: Eastern Utah about 230 miles southeast of Salt Lake City
  • Acreage: 76,519
  • Highest point: Elephant Butte, 5,653 feet
  • Lowest point: Visitor Center, 4,085 feet
  • Miles of trails: 28
  • Main attraction: 2,000-plus natural sandstone arches
  • Cost: $30 per vehicle, valid for seven consecutive days; $20 for an annual Senior Pass (62+)
  • Best way to see it: By car along the scenic drive
  • When to go to avoid the crowds: November through February (if you want solitude and arch photos sans the tourists)

Worth Pondering…

A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us—like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness—that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship.

—Edward Abbey, once a park ranger at Arches, from his classic novel Desert Solitaire

FREE National Parks to Visit (2024)

These national parks are free year-round, and not merely on certain days

The National Parks are some of the best places to visit in the country and one of the best excuses for a nature-filled getaway from the stress of the cities.

Many of the parks do require an entrance fee. On the other hand, there are many National Parks Service (NPS) sites that are free year-round and not merely on certain days.

Please note that at the end of this guide I list the national park free days that you can visit without having to pay. The free days pertain to all US National Parks and designated sites.

National parks are protected for everyone to enjoy, but a visit to one can be expensive. As an example, it’s $35 to bring a car full of people into Grand Canyon National Park, or $20 per individual if you hike in, and that doesn’t account for parking fees, camping costs, or the price of lodging and extra activities. 

However, a handful of national parks don’t charge admission fees at all. Here are 16 national parks in the U.S. that are always free to enter (but keep in mind that there might still be other costs including boat rentals, camping permits, or parking fees).

From Arizona to Virginia, these parks don’t charge admission fees and are always free to enter.

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

1. New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

America’s newest national park is indeed FREE. Not only is it free to enter the park but it is also free to go camping although it is only equipped for primitive camping.

The West Virginia national park spans over 73,808 acres and is located near Beckley.

The gorge is carved out by the New River and is the longest and deepest gorge in the Appalachians and throughout the park you will get to see exposed sandstone and shale alongside large boulders and other areas that are perfect for bouldering.

One of the most popular things to do in New River Gorge National Park is to fish. There is a lot of diversity in the waters there. Another popular thing to do is to go whitewater rafting. The Lower Gorge of the New River is the premier spot and you will find rapids ranging from Class III to Class V there.

As for rock climbing, you will find over 1,400 established climbs and it is one of the most famous places in the United States for rock climbing.

There are also around 50 miles of hiking trails in New River Gorge National Park that range from easy to difficult. Some of them are actually rail to trails and are perfect for biking.

Here are some helpful resources:

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

2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

It’s not hard to see why this is America’s most-visited National Park; it’s a quick trip from many major cities in the South and Midwest, the Appalachian foothills are gorgeous, and it’s free. Drive or bike the serene hidden valley of Cades Cove, explore the ghost town of Elkmont, or take in the views from Clingmans Dome during the day and bask in the folksy kitsch of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge at night. Oh, and did I mention that the park is totally, 100 percent free?

Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park.

If you need ideas, check out:

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park is one of America’s free national parks and it can be explored on foot or by its waterways. Most visitors decide to explore the area either through the South Carolina national park’s nearly 25 miles of hiking paths or 2.4 miles of boardwalk. 

Weston Lake and other trails can be accessed via the boardwalk circle route. Hiking options in the park include short hikes on the Boardwalk Trail or longer backcountry ones.

You are free to choose based on your desire and abilities, of course. The pathway of almost all trails leads up to picturesque lakes, the Congaree River, or views of ancient trees that are part of one of the tallest forests in the US. 

Also, don’t underestimate the thrill of canoeing and kayaking in Congaree.

Here are some articles to help:

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, Virginia

History comes to life at this historic park. Plan a national park trip to the scene of the end of the Civil War and experience history with your family.

Walk the old country lanes where Robert E. Lee, Commanding General of the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered his men to Ulysses Grant, General-in-Chief of all United States forces on April 9, 1865. Imagine the events that signaled the end of the Southern States’ attempt to create a separate nation.

The National Park encompasses approximately 1,800 acres of rolling hills in rural central Virginia. The site includes the McLean home—where Lee made his formal surrender—and the village of Appomattox Court House, the former county seat for Appomattox County.

Check this out to learn more: Appomattox Court House: Beginning Peace and Reunion

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Explore the Aztec ruins, enjoy a half-mile walk through an original Pueblo House, and discover how ancient people built their homes in the desert.

Built and occupied over 900 years ago, Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called great houses each with a great kiva—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures. Excavation of the West Ruin in the 1900s uncovered thousands of well-preserved artifacts that provide a glimpse into the life of Ancestral Pueblo people connecting people of the past with people and traditions of today.

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Aztec Ruins National Monument

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia

The Blue Ridge Parkway borders both the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Park offering stunning views of Appalachia.

The Blue Ridge Parkway, noted for its relaxing pace and scenic beauty, also showcases a cross-section of Appalachian mountain culture and history. Stretching 469 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains through North Carolina and Virginia, it encompasses some of the oldest pre-historic and early European settlements.

Visitors can trace much of the history of Appalachian culture through overlook signs, visitor center exhibits, restored historic structures, and developed areas, all of which reveal the many communities along the route that make the region so special. Fall leaf peeping is a hugely popular activity along the Parkway, as are hiking and wildlife viewing.

That’s why I wrote these four articles:

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania

Relive history in Gettysburg, where the largest battle ever waged during the American Civil War occurred and where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.

Located 50 miles northwest of Baltimore, the small town of Gettysburg was the site of the largest battle ever waged during the American Civil War. Fought in the first three days of July 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg resulted in a hallmark victory for the Union Army of the Potomac and successfully ended the second invasion of the North by General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Historians have referred to the battle as a major turning point in the war, the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. It was also the bloodiest single battle of the war resulting in over 51,000 soldiers killed, wounded, captured, or missing. To properly bury the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg, a Soldiers Cemetery was established on the battleground near the center of the Union line.

Check this out to learn more: Gettysburg National Military Park: A New Birth of Freedom

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

8. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

Canyon de Chelly is unique among National Park Service units as it is comprised entirely of Navajo Tribal Trust Land that remains home to the canyon community.

Reflecting one of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes of North America, the cultural resources of Canyon de Chelly including distinctive architecture, artifacts, and rock imagery exhibit remarkable preservation integrity that provides outstanding opportunities for study and contemplation.

Here are some articles to help:

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico

Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites and features volcanic rock carved by Native American and Spanish settlers.

Petroglyph National Monument protects a variety of cultural and natural resources including five volcanic cones, hundreds of archeological sites, and an estimated 25,000 images carved by native peoples and early Spanish settlers.

Many of the images are recognizable as animals, people, brands, and crosses; others are more complex. Their meaning may have only been understood only by the carver. These images are inseparable from the greater cultural landscape, from the spirits of the people who created them, and all who appreciate them.

Check out Adventure in Albuquerque: Petroglyph National Monument for more inspiration.

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

10. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Arizona

Casa Grande Ruins, the nation’s first archeological preserve protects the Casa Grande and other archeological sites within its boundaries.

For over a thousand years, prehistoric farmers inhabited much of the present-day state of Arizona. When the first Europeans arrived all that remained of this ancient culture were the ruins of villages, irrigation canals, and various artifacts. Among these ruins is the Casa Grande or Big House, one of the largest and most mysterious prehistoric structures ever built in North America.

You are invited to see the Casa Grande and to hear the story of the ancient ones the Akimel O’otham call the Hohokam, those who are gone.

Check this out to learn more: The Mystique of the Casa Grande Ruins

Boston National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Boston National Historical Park, Massachusetts

Boston National Historical Park tells the story of the events that led to the American Revolution including many sites found along the Freedom Trail.

Many of the historic sites that make up Boston National Historical Park tell the story of what kept the Navy strong. In downtown Boston, Old South Meeting House, Old State House, Faneuil Hall, the Paul Revere House, and Old North Church bring to life the American ideals of freedom of speech, religion, government, and self-determination.

In Charlestown, visit the Bunker Hill Monument, the site of the first major battle of the American Revolution. Nearby is the Charlestown Navy Yard, one of the nation’s first naval shipyards and home to USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world.

That’s why I wrote these five articles:

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona

Twenty-seven million years ago a volcanic eruption of immense proportions shook the land around Chiricahua National Monument, a mecca for hikers and birders.

One thousand times greater than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, the Turkey Creek Caldera eruption eventually laid down two thousand feet of highly silicious ash and pumice. This mixture fused into a rock called rhyolitic tuff and eventually eroded into the spires and unusual rock formations of today.

Read more: The Otherworldly Wonderland of Rocks: Chiricahua National Monument

Free National Park Days in 2024

Throughout the year, there are days that are free for all national parks, not just the ones on this list. These are the already-designated free national park days for 2024.

January 15 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

April 20 – First day of National Park Week

June 19 – Juneteenth National Independence Day

August 4 – Anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act

September 28 – National Public Lands Day

November 11 – Veterans Day

Free National Park Week

In addition to free national park days, there is also National Park Week which celebrates the National Parks with special events all week long. 

In 2024, National Park Week runs from Saturday, April 20, 2024 to Sunday, April 28, 2024.

Additional National Parks Guides

Best National Parks by Month

Worth Pondering…

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

—John Lubbock

The Complete Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Retrace the steps of the Cherokee on quiet nature trails and witness autumn’s splendor in America’s most popular park

It’s not surprising that the Great Smoky Mountains is the most-visited of the nation’s 63 national parks welcoming more than 12.9 million visitors in 2022. Within driving distance of so many busy hubs in the eastern U.S., the massive natural expanse offers hard-to-match beauty with its unbroken chain of mist-shrouded mountain peaks rising more than 5,000 feet meandering streams, cascading waterfalls, flower-strewn meadows, and miles of old-growth forests.

Nearly evenly split between eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina the park has 62 species of mammals—including iconic black bears, bobcats, coyotes, red wolves and an estimated 200 elk—roaming its 522,427 acres. It’s also home to more than 67 varieties of fish, 234 species of birds, and dozens of species of salamanders (the park has been called the Salamander Capital of the World).

Members of the Cherokee Nation lived in these mystical mountains long before European settlers arrived—their roots here dating back more than 1,000 years. The ever-present fog circling the range prompted the Cherokee to name the mountains shaconage which translates to place of blue smoke. Euro-Americans later dubbed them the Great Smoky Mountains.

Chartered by Congress in 1934 and officially dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers near-endless outdoor fun from hiking (you can find trails for all ability levels) to boating, cycling, fishing, and horseback riding. You can also explore old farmsteads of the Appalachian people who once called these mountains home.

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

Plan your trip

Three major Tennessee cities are within an easy drive from Great Smoky Mountain National Park: Chattanooga is 108 miles southwest, Knoxville is just 32 miles north, and Nashville 194 miles northwest. From North Carolina, Asheville is just 37 miles east and Charlotte is 151 miles southeast. Atlanta is 175 miles southwest.

Located 42 miles southeast of Knoxville, Gatlinburg serves as the gateway to the main entrance on the park’s north (Tennessee) side. At the same time, the town of Cherokee leads visitors into the North Carolina sector on the southeast side. There’s no need to pull out your wallet at the park entrances: Great Smoky Mountains National Park has no entry fee.

Once inside, you’ll find four visitors centers—Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, Oconaluftee, and Sugarlands—each provide park information and ranger-led programs. It’s a good idea to start your visit at the Sugarlands center just 2 miles from the Gatlinburg entrance for a 20-minute orientation film that provides a good overview.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has 384 miles of well-maintained roads—most are paved but some are gravel. Remember you’re in the mountains so be prepared for many twists and turns plus occasional steep inclines and declines. (Note that some secondary roads have restrictions on large vehicles such as RVs.) The Newfoundland Gap Road winds 31 miles southeast from Gatlinburg to Cherokee connecting the two gateways.

In spring, the resident 1,600-plus black bears emerge from their winter slumber more than 1,500 species of wildflowers begin to bloom blanketing the park in multichromatic splendor and mating fireflies light up the night sky in brilliant synchronicity. Daytime temperatures average a pleasant 65 degrees with nighttime lows of 45 degrees.

Peak season runs from mid-June through mid-August when monthly visitor totals hover around 1.5 million. Temperatures peak, too, with highs often climbing above 80 degrees during the day. Summer afternoons often bring thunderstorms with July being the wettest month. By nightfall, the temperatures drop to a comfortable average of 55 degrees.

The humid summer weather subsides in September and crowds start to thin out. In October, even cooler temperatures arrive usually ranging from 40 to 50 degrees along with a new surge of visitors. When hues of red, gold, and orange spill down from the mountain peaks to the forest floor the park sees its second peak season. To view the autumn splendor without all the traffic, slip into the quieter North Carolina sector for a weekday visit.

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

Winter snow and ice close some of the driving routes including the popular road to Clingmans Dome, the park’s highest mountain (elevation 6,643 feet). But the area remains open for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or a winter walk through the high-altitude spruce-fir forest.

Plan to unplug when visiting the park: There are no cell towers making reception limited or nonexistent except at higher elevations where visitors can sometimes detect signals. Limited Wi-Fi may be available at some locations.

You’ll find restroom facilities at visitor centers, campgrounds, picnic areas, Newfound Gap, and Clingmans Dome. Don’t expect facilities on the trails except for a portable toilet on the Grotto Falls Trail and primitive facilities at the Rainbow Falls trailhead.

Accessible programs span from ranger-led explorations of the intricate forest floor to tours highlighting the park’s human history. You can explore much of the park by car with pull-off parking available to view the surrounding landscapes and short trails for venturing a bit farther.

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

Where to stay and eat

If you want to stay overnight in the park be prepared to give your quads quite the workout. Reaching the only in-park accommodations (besides camping) requires a 5.5-mile hike and physical endurance but you’re rewarded with stellar sunrises and sunsets and star-filled night skies. Designed for those summiting Mount Le Conte, the park’s third-highest mountain (elevation 6,594 feet), the Mount Le Conte Lodge can host up to 60 overnight guests in rustic one-room cabins and multiroom lodges. Day-trippers can break here for lunch as well.

The park also maintains 10 campgrounds for tents and RVs in a range of inviting locales from riversides to forests. All have restrooms, cold running water and flush toilets but no showers or electrical or water hookups. Each site has a fire grate and picnic table. Reservations are required (recreation.gov) from May through October with limited first-come, first-served sites also available from November through April.

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

Just 8 miles from the gateway town of Gatlinburg, Elkmont Campground is the Great Smoky Mountains’s largest and busiest camping destination with 200 campsites, nine of them ADA-compliant (wide concrete driveways, raised fire rings, and wheelchair-accessible picnic tables) alongside the Little River. A quieter alternative is Cosby Campground on the park’s northeast side: It offers 157 campsites nestled under a canopy of hemlock trees and the feel of backcountry camping with frontcountry amenities.

Backpackers can access primitive backcountry sites with a reservation plus five drive-in horse camps with primitive camping facilities and hitch racks provide easy access to backcountry horse trails. For backcountry permits ($4 nightly per person), call 865-436-1297.

You won’t be eating lavishly here. Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s only dining option is the snack bar at the Cades Cove Campground store which serves breakfast items, sandwiches, pizza, soups, wraps, and ice cream. You’ll also find vending machines at visitors’ centers. It’s best to bring your own food and enjoy one of the 12 picnic areas scattered throughout the park in forests and alongside rivers and creeks. They come with charcoal grills and picnic tables.

Driving Newfound Gap Highway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

From hiking on 150 trails covering 850 miles to cycling, fishing, and horseback riding, Great Smoky Mountains National Park delivers recreational options aplenty for all fitness levels. Or take it easy and sightsee from the comfort of your car on highways and motor trails (one-way scenic loops) that showcase park highlights.

On the Newfound Gap Highway take advantage of numerous pullouts to marvel at the scenic vistas. Along the drive stretch your legs and absorb nature’s soundtrack on short, easy trails marked as Quiet Walkways. The 0.3-mile Balsam Point Quiet Walkway slightly north of the Chimney Tops overlook, serves up views of the Steep Branch Creek, and the west prong of the Little Pigeon River. Take a seat on a bench in the clearing and soak in the scenery.

And consider some must-sees and must-dos in both the Tennessee and North Carolina sides of the park:

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

In Tennessee

You don’t have to go far beyond the main entrance for a leisurely walk in a forest. Just outside the Sugarlands Visitor Center the easy 1.1-mile Fighting Creek Nature Trail gives you an introduction to the park’s wildlife with possible sightings of black bears, elk, whitetail deer, and more.

If you’re up for a longer but still easy hike with plenty to keep you entertained consider the 4.9-mile round-trip Little River Trail in the Elkmont area about 6 miles west of the Sugarlands center. It’s a relatively flat, wide trail that follows the river and along with its natural beauty there’s a lot of human history to discover as you hike. Those include ruins of former resort cabins from the 1920s, remnants of the area’s history as a getaway for the Knoxville elite.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or try the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail which winds nearly 6 miles through old-growth forests alongside gurgling mountain streams. The trail begins 3 miles into the park from the Cherokee Orchard entrance a little more than a mile east of the Sugarlands center.

One mile before you get to the trail stop at the Noah “Bud” Ogle self-guided 0.7-mile nature trail for a walking tour of an authentic mountain farmstead with one of the park’s last remaining, fully operational tub mills. Then, if you’re up for more physical activity, tackle the 5.4-mile (round-trip), moderately strenuous hike to Rainbow Falls which begins just beyond the farmstead. This rock-strewn path gains about 1,500 feet in elevation en route to the 80-foot-high cascading falls named for the rainbow that often appears in the mist.

Thirty miles west of the Sugarlands center, scenic beauty and abundant wildlife make Cades Cove the park’s most popular area. An 11-mile loop drive winds through the cove and past early 19th-century homesteads, barns, churches, and a fully operational gristmill harkening back to the Appalachian way of life.

Hikers flock to Cades Cove to access popular trailheads including the 5-mile (round-trip) moderate Abrams Falls hike that leads through a gorgeous pine-oak forest alongside Abrams Creek to the namesake 20-foot waterfall that cascades into a long, deep pool.

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

Clingmans Dome near the park’s center straddles the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina. The road to the soaring mountain detours from Newfound Gap Highway about 7 miles south taking you to within a half-mile of the namesake observation tower. If you’re physically able continue on foot for a steep uphill climb with a big payoff: stunning 365-degree views of the surrounding Smokies.

Want to go really gonzo and test your grit? Challenge yourself on Mount Le Conte, north of the Newfound Gap road near the park’s center where several trails lead to the 6,594-foot summit. On the Alum Cave Trail, the shortest and steepest you’ll hike up 5.5 miles passing Mount Le Conte Lodge.

Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Visitor Center (near Cherokee), Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In North Carolina

Escape the crowds on the busier Tennessee side and relish in the Smokies’ wild beauty in the isolated Cataloochee Valley in the park’s less-visited North Carolina section. Surrounded by mountain peaks the valley once served as hunting grounds for the Cherokee. Later, one of the area’s largest Appalachian settlements prospered here. Preserved late 19th-century and early 20th-century structures—including two churches, a schoolhouse, and several cabins—reveal this history. Pick up a self-guiding tour booklet from a roadside box near the valley’s entrance.

Black bears, deer, elk, and other wildlife roam this peaceful valley. For the best chance of spotting elk arrive about an hour before sunrise or a couple of hours before sunset. For anglers Cataloochee Creek teems with wild trout. Hike all or part of the moderate 7-mile Boogerman Trail loop for a restorative amble through lush old-growth woods and over the rushing waters of Caldwell Fork.

Experience the park’s beauty from a different vantage point on Fontana Lake on Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s southern border which gives you access to the park’s most remote areas and the adjacent Nantahala National Forest. From one of several marinas rent a pontoon boat for exploring on your own or take a hiking tour via boat with Sunny Day Adventure Company. Many trails surrounding the lake are relatively flat which makes them accessible for most visitors.

When the October peak season overruns the roads in other park sections this area is ideal for leaf-peeping and wildlife viewing. Lake traffic dissipates in the fall but that’s actually one of the best times to be on the water. There’s a bonus for taking the road (or lake) less traveled: Black bear sightings are likely as they come down from the treetops to feed on the roe left behind by spawning fish.

Gateway towns

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

With a fun, Orlando-like theme park vibe—coupled with a country twang—Gatlinburg and the adjoining town of Pigeon Forge flaunt attractions of every variety. Ideal if you have children or grandkids in tow: Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies where a penguin cam keeps an eye on the tuxedo-clad charmers.

Nearby, the Gatlinburg SkyLift Park’s elevator whisks you up to the SkyBridge for some exhilarating (maybe nerve-racking for some) sightseeing at cloud level on this pedestrian bridge stretching 680 feet across a deep gorge at a height of 140 feet.

A Tennessee classic, Dolly Parton’s Dollywood amusement park thrills with all the twists, turns, and spins expected—all served with a heaping side of country music.

Lodging options in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge range from resorts to chain motels. On the high end spoil yourself in a luxury suite at the Margaritaville Resort and Spa on the Pigeon River. For something budget-friendly settle into one of the basic rooms (breakfast included) at the Greystone Lodge on the River, where you can use the town’s trolley to easily access Gatlinburg’s attractions (there’s a stop across the street from the lodge).

Fuel up for a busy day of exploring at the Pancake Pantry, a longtime (since 1960) Gatlinburg favorite that serves a mouthwatering range of sweet offerings such as Banana Pineapple Triumph pancakes topped with powdered sugar and whipped cream.

Pigeon Forge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cherokee, North Carolina

Located on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, the town of Cherokee focuses on the tribal nation. Revisit the 18th century at the Oconaluftee Indian Village amid re-creations of traditional Cherokee dwellings, sacred ritual sites and workshops. Delve deeper into the tribe’s 11,000-year-old history through interactive exhibits and cultural displays at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. For outdoor recreation and an adrenaline rush, go white-water rafting on the Nantahala River in nearby Bryson City.

Splurge on a luxury cabin complete with fireplace, hot tub, and access to a private chef at Cherokee Mountain Cabins. Alternatively, the budget-friendly Cherokee KOA Campground rents both deluxe cabins (with full bathrooms and showers) and basic camping ones (with the use of the campground bathhouse). Roll the dice at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

When hunger strikes, the family-owned Granny’s Kitchen dishes up generous portions of classic Southern cuisine. Fill up on barbecue ribs, pork chops, and black-eyed peas at the lunch and dinner buffet.

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

En route

Traveling from Atlanta to Cherokee on U.S. Highway 23, a 16-mile detour along Georgia Route 384 North leads to Helen, Georgia, a charming mountain town that replicates a Bavarian alpine village (yes, in the Deep South). Stroll along its picturesque cobblestone streets and you’ll find specialty shops showcasing everything from kitschy souvenirs to handmade candles, artfully blown glass, and cuckoo clocks. For dining, sink your teeth into a hearty plate of schnitzel at the Heidelberg.

If you’re coming from Asheville, carve out time to tour the opulent Biltmore Estate before leaving the city. Erected in the late 1800s for George Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the lavish country home sits on a 125,000-acre tract south of town.

Add a few extra days if you can to explore the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. The southern end of this 469-mile linear park begins just 0.2 miles outside Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s Oconaluftee Visitor Center and extends into Virginia connecting with Shenandoah National Park.

Great Smoky National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

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

Fact box

Location: Split nearly even between eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina

Size: 522,427 acres

Highest peak: Clingmans Dome at 6,643 feet

Lowest point: Abrams Creek at 876 feet

Miles/number of trails: 850 miles along 150 trails

Main attraction: Cades Cove

Entry fee: Free

Best way to see it: Along its well-maintained roadways

When to go for nice weather and fewer crowds: Before mid-June and in September

Worth Pondering…

Each year thousands of backpackers 
Climb the Great Smoky Mountains… 
Nature’s Peace flows into them
as Sunshine flows into Trees;
the Winds blow their freshness into them…
and their Cares drop off like Autumn Leaves.

—Adapted from John Muir

The National Parks Urge You to Keep Your Distance from Wildlife

A recent bear attack has prompted the NPS to remind visitors about its wildlife safety rules

Last year, a slew of TikToks showed visitors of Yellowstone National Park attempting to take selfies with, pet, and otherwise harass the bison in their natural habitat which prompted the National Park Service (NPS) to chime in in with a warning for all visitors thinking of getting cozy with wildlife in the parks:

Wildlife Petting Rules

1. Don’t

2. See rule number one

3. Brace for landing

Almost exactly one year later, the story isn’t much different—except now it is the relationship between bears and humans that we’re talking about. The NPS recently issued another warning after a man was seriously injured by a bear at Grand Teton National Park.

Bison © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to the NPS, investigation has led officials to believe the man was caught up in a surprise attack by two grizzly bears with one of the bears injuring the man. Reportedly, the man was rescued by helicopter and ambulance and despite the injury he is expected to make a full recovery. 

While this is undoubtedly wonderful news, nobody wants to risk witnessing such an encounter again—especially the NPS. In order to prevent such attacks from happening again, the NPS issued a news release with guidance on human-bear conflict prevention providing a list of tips and helpful advice. The complete alert and guidance can be found at the end of this post.

As the NPS advises, it is important that visitors never leave food unattended and that they try to keep a clean camp to the best of their abilities. That includes storing all attractants such as coolers, pet food, toiletries, and cooking gear inside proper bear boxes which are containers that are bear-proof. Eating or cooking inside your tent is also a no-no and garbage should always be disposed of in a bear-resistant dumpster.

Most importantly, you should stay away from bears as well as other dangerous wildlife. “If you see a bear, please give it space,” says the NPS advisory. “Always stay at least 100 yards away. If you choose to watch or photograph the bear, use a spotting scope, binoculars, or telephoto lens.” 

Rocky mountain goat © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In case of close encounter, make sure to slowly walk away from the bear and definitely avoid running. You should also always carry bear spray—and don’t forget to learn how to use it properly. 

This definitely isn’t the first time the NPS has had to remind visitors about important wildlife rules. Last year, after the bison petting shenanigans, the NPS took to Instagram and via a cheeky post (See Wildlife Petting Rules above) the organization gave visitors a guide to petting the wildlife in national parks with the consensus being, DON’T

The caption goes into more detail reminding visitors that “wildlife in parks are wild and like your ex, can be unpredictable when they’re disturbed or surprised.” The page has even changed their Instagram bio to address the onslaught of visitors infiltrating the bison’s space at Yellowstone; it reads “Don’t pet the fluffy cows.”

While the NPS advice and posts might seem all fun and games, they actually come from very not-fun situations. Yellowstone has previously called on visitors to maintain distance from and respect the wildlife due to a number of recent incidents.

Elk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In mid-May, the NPS released another warning, this time urging visitors to be extra careful when in the presence of elk. Elk calving season has reportedly just begun and as the NPS explains, “Cow elk are much more aggressive towards people during the calving season and may run towards you or kick.”

Elk attacks are unprovoked and unpredictable and they may start running towards you for no apparent reason. In this case, if you see an elk running towards you, you should also be running away. To prevent this from happening, it’s good practice to always be keeping at least 25 yards of distance from them (roughly equivalent to the length of two full sized busses).

If a sassy Instagram post and ardent pleading from the National Park Service aren’t enough to get you to give their wildlife some well-deserved space, it might be time to revisit the golden rule, “treat others as you would like to be treated.” In this case, if you have no desire to be poked and prodded at, chances are wildlife feel the same.

Bison © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

NPS News Release

Visitor Injured in Incident with Bear

Visitors reminded to be bear aware when visiting Grand Teton National Park

On the afternoon of Sunday, May 19, Teton Interagency Dispatch received a report of a 35-year-old male visitor from Massachusetts who was seriously injured by a bear in the area of the Signal Mountain Summit Road. Grand Teton National Park rangers and Teton County Search and Rescue personnel responded to the scene to provide emergency medical care and air lifted the patient via helicopter to an awaiting ambulance where he was transported to St. John’s Hospital. The patient is in stable condition and is expected to fully recover.

Based on initial reports from the injured visitor and preliminary information conducted as part of an ongoing investigation of the site, law enforcement rangers and park biologists believe the incident was a surprise encounter with two grizzly bears with one of the bears contacting and injuring the visitor.
The Signal Mountain Summit Road and Signal Mountain Trail are currently closed to all public entry.

Rocky mountain sheep © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To prevent human-bear conflicts, visitors are reminded to:

  • Never leave your food unattended unless it is properly secured.
  • Keep a clean camp and adhere to all food storage orders. Store all attractants including coolers, cooking gear, pet food, and toiletries inside a bear-resistant food locker (i.e. bear box) or a hard-sided vehicle with the windows rolled up.
  • Properly store garbage until you can deposit it into a bear-resistant dumpster.
  • Do not eat or cook in your tent and never keep food or other scented items in your tent.
  • Please respect all wildlife closure areas.
  • If you see a bear, please give it space. Always stay at least 100 yards away. If you choose to watch or photograph the bear use a spotting scope, binoculars, or telephoto lens. Park in designated areas, and never block travel lanes. Follow the directions of staff in places where bears are sighted.

If you are exploring the backcountry:

  • Be alert and aware of your surroundings.
  • Make noise, especially in areas with limited visibility or when sound is muffled (e.g., near streams or when it is windy).
  • Carry bear spray, know how to use it, and keep it readily accessible.
  • Hike in groups of three or more people.
  • Do not run. Back away slowly if you encounter a bear.
Elk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some posts to help you learn more about bear safety:

Looking for more travel tips?

Whether you need help finding low cost activities while RVing, tips for driving in windy conditions, or ways to keep your RV clean and tidy, I’ve got you covered. Keep reading for amazing places to RV and best camping this month to help you plan your next big adventure.

Also check our recent RV manufacturer’s recalls just in case your RV is on the list.

Worth Pondering…

GOD IS GREAT, BEER IS GOOD, and PEOPLE ARE CRAZY!