The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park

And this winter, you can have it mostly to yourself

It’s almost cliché to say the Sonoran Desert looks like the background of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. But hiking through forests of towering saguaro feels nothing short of cartoonish. These green giants with arms pointed in all directions look like they’re about to break into a musical number at any second.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is no symbol more emblematic of the American Southwest than the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)—standing tall with arms reaching out from the trunk toward the sky. The saguaro (pronounced sah-WHAH-ro) is rare, found only in southern Arizona and western Sonora, Mexico. And if you want to spend the day with these goofy, prickly characters, Saguaro is one of the easiest national parks to visit.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The saguaro is the largest cactus in North America. They may look like loving characters from a child’s storybook but these are some serious tree-like cacti. Saguaros are covered with protective spines, white flowers in the late spring, and red fruit in summer. They can weigh up to nearly 5,000 pounds and live up to 200 years.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I’ve spent a lot of time looking for “the perfect specimen” and determined that there is a saguaro for everyone. Maybe you like the perfect-looking two-armed saguaro or the saguaro with many wrangled arms reaching out in all directions. These arms generally bend upward and can number over 25 although some never grow arms. Their differences make them fun to photograph, characterize, and admire. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Long overshadowed by Arizona’s marquee national park, the Grand Canyon, Saguaro is a 92,000-acre desert wonderland. And if you go anytime other than summer you’ll find it hits that perfect national park threesome of ideal weather, unusual landscape, and minimal crowds. 

Prime time in southern Arizona is spring or fall when daytime highs rarely get over a dry 90 degrees and the mornings are pleasantly cool. Winter is also fantastic if you want to hike during the day—morning and night can be chilly but nothing a light jacket can’t fix.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll find few parks as accessible from major cities as Saguaro which sits less than half an hour from Tucson. It’s separated into two sections, each of which can be easily tackled in a day: East (also called the Rincon Mountain District) and West (aka the Tucson Mountain District). In between are I-10 and the city of Tucson so getting here by interstate is pretty straightforward.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the two sides of the park bare the same name and share likeness in desert landscape, there are subtle differences. The Tucson Mountain District is home to dense saguaro forests that rise from the hillside. Here you will find low-desert grasslands, shrubs, and densely populated saguaro forests. The Rincon Mountain District is the area of parkland originally preserved by Herbert Hoover when he dedicated it as a monument in 1933. It is the jumping off point to the backcountry. Here you will find high-elevation conifer forests in addition to saguaros and desert mainstays such as Teddybear cholla cactus and desert wildflowers.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though the mountainous desert topography might look intimidating, Saguaro National Park is one of the easier national parks to hike. The crown jewel for hikers is the trek to Wasson Peak (4,687-feet) in the more-mountainous western section. There are several options for reaching the top of Wasson Peak. High Norris Trailhead is favored by many experienced hikers. The entire hike is about eight miles long. For something easier on the west side, take the 0.8-mile Valley View Trail which as the name suggests also boasts phenomenal views of the valley on a much shorter walk.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A popular hike on the east side is the 1-mile Freeman Homestead Trail. Wander down this path to the site of an old homestead foundation, a grove of large saguaros, and a cool desert wash. Great horned owls can often be seen in the cliff above this wash. A more strenuous hike is the combined Garwood, Carrillo, and Wildhorse trails accessed from the Douglas Spring trail head. You’ll enter the kind of cactus forest that inspired the creation of this park in 1933. Little Wildhorse Tank is one of the only perennial areas of water in the park.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you prefer to see national parks from the air-conditioned comfort of your car, Saguaro makes that easy too. The most popular scenic drive is the Cactus Forest Loop in the east. The paved, one-way, 8-mile paved road with pull offs that overlook the valley offers the best scenery of any route in the park. On the west side, take the Bajada Loop Road which is 6 miles and partially unpaved.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Backcountry camping is available by permit. There are about 20 campsites TOTAL, all of which are only accessible through backcountry hiking. There are no accommodations for RV camping in Saguaro. So unless you’re looking to rough it in the desert you’ll need a RV park for overnight camping and they are numerous in this snowbird hotspot.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is puzzling that Saguaro doesn’t get more love. But its relative obscurity is also a great strength—it’s a national park where you can still feel like you’re lost in nature without delving into the backcountry. Its unusual landscape and ideal weather combine to create the experience many look for during a winter getaway. And as a bonus, you just might feel like you’re walking around the cartoon set of a childhood memory.

This is a go-back park. I can’t wait to go back!

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 91,445 acres

Established: October 14, 1994

Location: Southeast Arizona on both the west—and east side of Tucson

How the park got its name: Saguaro National Park is named after the Saguaro cactus that rises from the desert floor.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic site in the park: The Saguaro cactus is the undisputed champion of the American southwest so it is only fitting that it should stand as the most iconic site in the park. They grow slowly, spouting their arms at around 75 years of age. They live long for a cactus, up to 200 years. They stand large—as high as 80 feet tall and weighing up to nearly 5,000 pounds. There are 1.6 million Saguaro cactus decorating the desert flat, ridges, and skyline—1.6 million reasons to visit this beautiful park near Tucson. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know? 

The state flower of Arizona is the saguaro cactus bloom.

The saguaro cactus bares fibrous fruit that looks like small red flowers. It is said to be crunchy and taste sweet. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Tohono O’odham Nation of American Indians lived in the region for thousands of years. Tohono O’odham translates to “Desert People.”

More than 1,162 species of plants can be found in the park.

Worth Pondering…

Stand tall.
Reach for the sky.
Be patient through dry spells.
Conserve your resources.
Think long term.
Wait for your time to bloom.
Stay sharp!

—Advice from a Saguaro

New River Gorge: America’s Newest National Park

America’s 63rd national park is a rock climbing and whitewater rafting paradise

John Denver was on to something when he declared West Virginia “almost heaven” in “Country Roads”. The state is a place of dizzying beauty. And now, it gets one more notch on its belt—and a more recent decree heralding its scenic beauty than a 40-year-old country jam—with the designation of New River Gorge as America’s 63rd national park and preserve. If you listen closely, you can hear the thud of Mountain Mamma and Mamma Nature giving a loud high five.

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

It’s the third-such designation in two years, following induction of Indiana Dunes and New Mexico’s White Sands into the America’s Best Idea club. The New River has been designated as a National River since 1978 meaning only the river itself was protected by the National Parks Service. With its new designation as a Park and Preserve, 7,201 acres immediately surrounding the gorgeous not-so-new river will be a national park while an expansive 65,165 acres of neighboring land will be a National Preserve to allow for backcountry hunting.

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

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve encompasses over 70,000 acres of land along 53 miles of the New River from Bluestone Dam to Hawk’s Nest Lake. A rugged, whitewater river flowing northward through deep and spectacular canyons, the New River is actually among the oldest rivers on Earth. The New River has carved and continues to carve the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains.

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

This is just the sixth combo preserve and national park and it’s a very big deal for mountain climbers, hikers, rafters, and anyone else who enjoy the great outdoors. New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is renowned for its excellent recreational opportunities: whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, rock climbing, fishing, hunting, bird watching, camping, picnicking, biking, and simply enjoying the solitude the natural world. White-tailed deer, river otters, and bald eagles are among the wildlife regularly spotted here. The park provides visitors with an opportunity to learn more about the cultural history of the area and visit some of the historic sites within the park. There are many possibilities for extreme sports as well as a more relaxing experience. The gorge itself is the largest in the Appalachian Mountains. 

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

If you’re a big fan of whitewater rafting or climbing, you’re probably already familiar with the New. The 73,000-acre canyon has 53 miles of whitewater—considered some of the best in the country—while climbers enjoy 1,500 routes on sandstone walls throughout the gorge.

There are over 3,000 established routes along 60 miles of cliffline on the hardened Nuttall Sandstone of the New. Routes there are characterized by spread out holds and spread out bolts.

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

If you’ve extra hardcore, every year thousands of rock climbers scale the 1,500 or so hard sandstone trails above the river. Climbs range from 30 to 120 feet high and are considered hard with a rating of 5.10 to 5.12 (ratings 5.13 and above are for nutso elite climbers).

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

The Lower Gorge of the New River is a premier whitewater rafting location with imposing rapids ranging in difficulty from Class III to Class V, many of them obstructed by large boulders which necessitate maneuvering in very powerful currents, crosscurrents, and hydraulics. Commercial outfitters conduct trips down the river from April through October. The upper part of the river offers somewhat less challenging class I to III rapids for whitewater canoeing.

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve provides a variety of trails throughout the park. Peaceful forest trails, superb overlooks, and historic scenery are all found here. The trails available consist of park service trails that are marked and maintained, trails within lands administered by state parks, and undeveloped trails and abandoned roads. Trails range from ¼ mile to 7 miles in length. Several can be easily connected to make for longer excursions. Difficulty varies from flat, smooth walking to steep challenging terrain. Trail recommendations and maps are offered at Canyon Rim, Grandview, Sandstone, and Thurmond visitor centers.

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

If you’ve got two wheels and know how to use ‘em, the New River Gorge has 12.8 miles of Arrowhead Trails mapped by a tiny army of more than 1,000 Boy Scouts. And there’s also some fantastic fishing as well—you’ll find smallmouth and rock bass as well as walleye and trout depending on the time of year.

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

Other National Park Service programs include guided historic walks, nature programs, and an abundance of programs for kids too. In short, this huge park has activities for all shapes, sizes, and kinds. Don’t pass this one up if you’re in Wild, Wonderful West Virginia. Get there now, before the crowds do. 

Officially titled New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, the formal changes should begin to take place throughout 2021.

Glade Creek Grist Mill at nearby Babcock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

 Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong, West Virginia, Mountain mamma, take me home, Country roads.

—John Denver

Best National Parks to Visit this Winter

While there are many national parks that are great to visit in the winter, this list is focused on the parks that are generally warm and perfect for exploring

As shorter days and cooler temperatures descend on North America, it’s time to look for the next great outdoor adventure. We encourage visiting a National Park Service site at any time of the year, but winter is a unique time to explore. Smaller crowds at some of the more popular parks are just one of the benefits.

November to March provide some of the most beautiful, peaceful, and picturesque landscapes, and parks that can be relatively inhospitable during the height of summer become havens during the cold months. Here are the best national parks to visit this winter.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Usually, this desert monument turned National Park is almost too hot to enjoy during the summer months. But during the winter, daytime temperatures hover in the upper 60s making it the perfect season for exploring. Joshua Tree is named for a unique, tentacle-like tree that blankets the desert floor, filling in gaps between amazing rock formations.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Warm days and cool nights make winter an ideal time to visit Saguaro. The park has two areas separated by the city of Tucson. The Rincon Mountain District (East) has a lovely loop drive that offers numerous photo ops. There’s also a visitor’s center, gift shop, and miles of hiking trails. The Tucson Mountain District (West) also has a scenic loop drive and many hiking trails, including some with petroglyphs at Signal Mountain.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Only a fraction of the park’s 5 million annual visitors come during the winter months. At over 277-miles long and up to a mile deep, this natural wonder was created over millions of years as the Colorado River wound its way through the canyon. While temperatures can hover in the 30s and 40s along the rim, milder temps can be found along the river at the bottom of the canyon. The South Rim is open year-round and winter is an ideal time to enjoy the park’s trails and avoid the crowds that dominate the park during the summer.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park preserves the largest remnant of old-growth floodplain forest remaining on the continent. In addition to being a designated Wilderness Area, an International Biosphere Reserve, a Globally Important Bird Area, and a National Natural Landmark, Congaree is home to a exhibit area within the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, a 2.4 mile boardwalk loop trail, and canoe paddling trails.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

The hiking in Zion National Park is world famous. Hikers of all abilities will find trails that lead to sweeping vistas, clear pools, natural arches, and narrow canyons. Zion Canyon Scenic Drive follows the North Fork of the Virgin River upstream through some of Zion’s most outstanding scenery. This road is closed to vehicle traffic from April to October, but regularly scheduled shuttle busses provide a great way to relax and enjoy the scenery or stop to take a hike.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Formed by volcanoes 23 million years ago, Pinnacles National Park is located in central California near the Salinas Valley. The park covers more than 26,000 acres and hosted 230,000 visitors in 2017. By comparison, its neighbor Yosemite National Park welcomed more than four million visitors.

Organ Pipe National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona

28 species of cactus can be found in the park including the namesake organ pipe. Unlike the stately saguaro that rises in a single trunk, the organ pipe is a furious clutter of segments shooting up from the base, a cactus forever in celebratory mode—throwing its arms in the air like it just doesn’t care. A striking resemblance to the pipes of a church organ prompted its moniker.

Worth Pondering…

There is a peculiar pleasure in riding out into the unknown—a pleasure which no second journey on the same trail ever affords.

—Edith Durham

National Monuments Feature Places for Reflection and Hope

From the legacy of ancient peoples to Colonial times

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

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

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

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

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

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Arizona

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

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Frederica National Monument, Georgia

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

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

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

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

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

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Winds of Organ Pipe: Diverse Sample of the Sonoran Desert

In Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, located on the border with Mexico, the star is obviously the organ pipe cactus

To reach Organ Pipe National Monument you’ll pass through the slumbering town of Ajo, Arizona. Once fueled by copper, the state’s first copper mine was here launched in the mid-1850s. Ajo (pronounced AH-ho, either takes its name from the Spanish word for garlic, or from o’oho, the native Tohono O’odham word for paint) took a substantial hit in 1985 when Phelps Dodge closed its copper mine.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located 15 miles south of Ajo on Highway 85, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument preserves a diverse and relatively undisturbed sample of the Sonoran Desert. Mountains surround the park on all sides, some near, some distant, with colors changing from one hour to the next.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ninety-five percent of the monument is designated as wilderness area which makes this one of the best places to view the Sonoran Desert.

The monument’s eastern boundary runs along the backbone of the Ajo Range, which includes Mt. Ajo at 4,808 feet and Diaz Peak at 4,024 feet.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The organ pipe cactus thrives within the United States primarily in the 516-square-mile Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and International Biosphere Reserve. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is designated by the American Bird Conservancy as a Globally Important Bird Area.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of growing with one massive trunk like the saguaro, the many branches of the organ pipe rise from a base at the ground. Originally called pitayas, this cactus is a stately plant, with columns rising mostly like, well, the pipes of a church organ. Their pithaya fruit, like a saguaro’s, mature in July, have red pulp and small seeds.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each desert plant is usable to some extent—the organ pipe is no exception. These plants played a vital role in the lives of native people for thousands of years. Tohono O’odham people used the wood for construction and picked their fruit for food. The fruit is eaten raw or dried, fermented into wine, and made into jelly, jams, and syrup. Seeds can provide flour and cooking oil.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The organ pipe, of course, has company—25 other cactus species including the stately saguaro, chain-fruit cholla, teddy bear cholla, and Engelmann prickly pear, also make this park their home. A mature organ-pipe cactus may be more than 100 years old. A mature saguaro can live to be more than 150.

Foothill palo verde, ironwood, jojoba, elephant tree, mesquite, triangle-leaf bursage, agave, creosote bush, ocotillo, and brittlebush also contribute to the desert landscape.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s also home to coyotes, the endangered Sonoran pronghorn, desert bighorn sheep, deer, javelina, gila monster, Western diamondback rattlesnake, desert tortoise, Gambel’s quail, roadrunner, Gila woodpecker, and bats. Lesser long-nosed bats drink the nectar of the organ pipe, in the process being sprinkled by pollen dust, which the bats then transport to other cactuses for fertilization.

The Kris Eggle Visitor Center offers information about the desert flora and fauna, plus there are scheduled talks and guided walks. Park rangers are there to talk over plans and interests with you.

Ajo Mountain Drive, Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe offers two scenic drives and numerous hiking trails. The 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive is a one-way road that winds and dips and provides access to some of the finest scenery in the monument. Available at the visitor center, a self-guided-tour booklet describes 22 stops along the way and greatly enhances the experience.

Puerto Blanco Drive, Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Puerto Blanco Drive is a four-hour, 41 mile loop that connects the North and South sections of the Puerto Blanco Drive and includes Quitobaquito Springs, a true oasis that is home to an endangered subspecies of desert pupfish. Many birds are attracted to the Springs including vermillion flycatchers, phainopepla, and killdeer.

Twin Peaks Campground, Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Both drives offer many opportunities for scenic beauty, solitude, exploration, and photography.

Twin Peaks Campground has 208 sites that are generally level, widely spaced, and landscaped by natural desert growth. The campsites will easily accommodate 40-foot motorhomes and are available on a first-come first-served basis. As well, Alamo Campground has four well-spaced, primitive spots.

Alamo Campground, Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

When I walk in the desert the birds sing very beautifully

When I walk in the desert the trees wave their branches in the breeze

When I walk in the desert the tall saguaro wave their arms way up high

When I walk in the desert the animals stop to look at me as if they were saying

“Welcome to our home.”

—Jeanette Chico, in When It Rains

Explore More National Parks on These Fee-Free Days in 2021

Have you planned your camping trips for 2021 yet? Plan your travels around these six fee-free days at the national parks!

With over 400 National Park Service sites, there are plenty of options for your next RV weekend getaway or extended vacation. Take pictures of Zion canyon’s narrows, gaze at Arches’ massive sandstone arches, view exhibits about the desert flora and fauna at a Saguaro visitor’s center, or hike one of the many trails in the Great Smoky Mountains. America’s national parks have much to offer in the way of scenery, activities, and history.

Saguaro National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The U.S. Department of the Interior recently announced that all National Park Service sites will have six entrance fee-free days in 2021. The fee-free days are part of the Administration’s commitment to increase access, promote recreational opportunities, improve visitor facilities, and conserve natural and historical treasures in national parks for the benefit and enjoyment of the American people.

Joshua Tree National Park , California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The six fee-free days in 2021 are:

  • January 18: Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • April 17: First day of National Park Week
  • August 4: First anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
  • August 25: National Park Service Birthday
  • September 25: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11: Veterans Day

Mark your calendars and start planning your camping trip.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Each of the fee-free days celebrates or commemorates a significant event including the establishment earlier this year by President Trump of the Great American Outdoors Act. The legislation marks the single largest investment ever in national parks and will result in enhanced facilities and expanded recreational prospects for all visitors,” said Margaret Everson, Counselor to the Secretary, exercising the delegated authority of the National Park Service Director.

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

“Throughout the country, every national park provides a variety of opportunities to get out in nature, connect with our common heritage, and experience the vast array of benefits that come from spending time outdoors. Hopefully, the fee-free days will encourage everyone to spend some time in their national parks.”

There are more than 400 National Park Service sites nationwide, with at least one in every state. Approximately 100 parks charge an entrance fee with costs ranging from $5 to $35. The other 300-plus national parks do not have entrance fees.

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

Earlier this year, Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt signed Secretary’s Orders 3386 and 3387 granting veterans, Gold Star Families and fifth-graders free access to all national parks, wildlife refuges, and other federal lands managed by the Department of the Interior. Veterans and Gold Star Families will have free access forever while fifth-grade students were granted the reprieve through this academic year as some of last year’s fourth-graders may have been unable to make full use of the Every Kid Outdoors Annual Fourth Grade Pass due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

Active duty military and fourth-grade students will continue to have free access with discounted passes also available for seniors. For other visitors who love visiting public lands, the annual $80 America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is a great option which allows unlimited entrance to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas including all national parks.

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Last year, 327 million people visited national parks and spent $21 billion in local communities. This supported 340,500 jobs across the country and had a $41.7 billion impact on the U.S. economy.

Keep track of your visits with a National Parks Passport. Simply stamp your book before departing and continue to add on more throughout the year. Stamps are typically located at the visitor’s center.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada

Other federal land management agencies offering their own fee-free days in 2021 include the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Everything You Need to Know about the Mighty 5

From natural rock arches to gravity-defying hoodoos and narrow slot canyons, Utah’s national parks are filled with beauty

From majestic mountains to rust-colored rock formations, Utah offers breathtaking scenery unlike any other state. Known as the Mighty Five, Utah’s national parks are home to some of the most iconic spots in the U.S. National Park System.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah’s national parks are located in the southern part of the state. Visiting all five parks is a seven-hour, 370-mile endeavor, and that’s excluding the additional time and distance required to explore each park.

Be mindful of the seasons when planning your trip to Utah’s national parks. Many of the roads and hiking trails as well as the accommodations and nearby restaurants are closed during the winter months. Therefore, it’s best to plan your trip to Utah’s national parks for the spring, summer, or fall.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Best known for Delicate Arch, this sliver of a sandstone arch is a can’t-miss sight at Arches National Park. The hike to the base of Delicate Arch is on a 3.2 round trip trail with an elevation increase of 480 feet. However, the Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint Trail is a half-mile alternative that still offers amazing views of one of the most famous rock formations in the world.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With varying degrees of difficulty, there are many other arches to experience at Arches National Park. One of the most accessible views is Sand Dune Arch. Just a short stroll from the parking lot, visitors follow a sandy footpath to explore this arch carved out of the sand dunes. Surrounded by juniper forests, the Turret Arch is accessible via another relatively easy 1.2 mile loop in the Windows area. On the other end of the hiking spectrum, the Double O Arch Trail is a moderately challenging 4.2 mile hike.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

The largest of the Mighty Five, Canyonlands National Park is divided into four distinct districts: Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the Rivers. Because it’s an easy drive from Moab and offers amazing views from a paved scenic drive, Island in the Sky is the most visited part of Canyonlands. At 6,000 feet the view from Island in the Sky looks down at cliffs 2,000 feet tall that arise out of a magnificently gouged and painted landscape.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the easiest hikes at Canyonlands National Park is Mesa Arch. This relatively flat half-mile loop is a gorgeous spot to watch the sun rise through the arch. Other easy hikes in the Island in the Sky section include the White Rim Overlook (1.8 miles), Grand View Point (2 miles), and Murphy Point (3.6 miles).

As your itinerary and interests allow, consider exploring the other districts of Canyonlands. Each of these offers an off-the-beaten-path backcountry experience.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Although geologic history is stressed in every park, at Capitol Reef—ranging from 80 to 270 million years old—this is what defines it. Capitol Reef is a world of spectacular colored cliffs, hidden arches, massive domes, and deep canyons. Much of the beauty of Capitol Reef can be seen from Utah Highway 24, which bisects the park, connecting the towns of Fruita, Torrey, and Loa. Just east of the Visitor Center, turn south on Camp Ground Road to access the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive. This 25-mile paved road offers great views of the Golden Throne mountain peak and Slickrock Divide.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you need a break from delicate stone arches, striped rock mountains, and deep canyons, explore the 200-acre Fruita Rural Historic District. Founded by Mormon settlers toward the end of the 19th century, Fruita was an isolated but self-sufficient agrarian community. Stretch your legs with a stop at the one-room log cabin schoolhouse where you can peer into the restored structure for a glimpse of life as a school child in 1896.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its extensive array of hoodoos crafted by Mother Nature. Hoodoos are created when water, wind, and other elements chisel away at soft rocks. As they erode, large chunks of rock remain impossibly balanced atop thin stone columns.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the most notable views at Bryce Canyon National Park is from Bryce Point. Although breathtakingly beautiful at any time of day, if you catch the sunrise or sunset it looks as if the hoodoos are on fire as the rays shine on the rust- and pumpkin-colored rocks.

Bryce Canyon was named after Ebenezer Bryce, one of the Mormon pioneers who settled in the area in the mid-1800s.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

At the other parks, your line of sight extends out toward the horizon as well as down into the canyons. At Zion you look straight up. Some of the tallest cliffs in the world flank you on either side, meeting the sky at a point that strains both the neck and the imagination.  Zion features high plateaus and deep sandstone canyons carved by the Virgin River. Take in the scenery by driving the Zion-Mount Carmel Scenic Highway with its mile-long tunnel and hairpin-curved switchbacks through the mountains.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the best hikes in Zion National Park is the Zion Narrows Riverside Walk. This tree-lined two-mile out-and-back paved trail hugs the Virgin River and treats hikers to a waterfall, hanging gardens, and weeping rocks. To add to the adventure, continue hiking the Narrows. This popular hike in the Virgin River is a bit more strenuous and picks up where the Riverside Walk ends.

Worth Pondering…

I believe the world is incomprehensibly beautiful—an endless prospect of magic and wonder.

—Ansel Adams

A White Oasis: White Sands National Park

Like a mirage, dazzling white sand dunes shift and settle over the Chihuahuan Desert, covering 275 square miles—the largest gypsum dunefield in the world

Remember how fun it was to play in the sand as a kid? It’s still pretty fun, as it turns out. And the sandbox is a lot bigger at White Sands National Park, a system of rare white gypsum sand dunes intertwined with raised boardwalk trails and a single loop road. Sunset and sunrise are obviously the golden hours for photographers but any time is a good time for some sand-dune sledding, kite flying, and back-country camping.

Dune Life Nature Trail, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest gypsum dune field in the world is located at White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico. This region of glistening white dunes is in the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert within an “internally drained valley” called the Tularosa Basin.

Dunes Drive, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park ranges in elevation from 3,890 feet to 4,116 feet above sea level. There are approximately 275 total square miles of dune fields here with 115 square miles (about 40 percent) located within White Sands National Park. The remainder is on military land that is not open to the public.

It was the midst of the Great Depression when President Herbert Hoover declared this swath of pale dunes a national monument. Now 87 years later, White Sands has been declared the United States’ 62nd national park. 

Interdune Boardwalk, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The history of the newly-minted White Sands National Park goes back far beyond these presidential decrees, however. A unique series of fossilized footprints known as the White Sands Trackway show that almost 12,000 years ago ancient humans were stalking giant sloths here, hunting varieties of megafauna that died out by the end of the Pleistocene. 

Playa Trail, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It was 2,000 years later that the enormous gypsum dunes for which the new national park was named began to form, the result of steady evaporation of what was once a vast inland sea and, later, a lake between the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains. Prevailing winds eventually swirled those white gypsum sands into dunes that cover about 275 square miles of the Land of Enchantment.

Dunes Drive, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By the time European settlers arrived in the 1800s, the area was well known to bands of Apache who lived in the Tularosa Basin and surrounding mountain ranges. Their descendants now live on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation between Fort Stanton-Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area and Lincoln National Forest. 

Dunes Life Nature Trail, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Given its arid climate, the temperatures at White Sands vary greatly both throughout the seasons and within a single day. The most comfortable time to visit weather-wise is autumn (late September through October) when daytime temperatures reach the 80s with light winds and cooler evening temperatures in the 50s. Spring (March through May) can also be comfortable when the temperature varies from the 70s to the 40s. However, strong windstorms are somewhat common during these months.  

Interdune Boardwalk, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In summer and winter, you’ll be dealing with hot and cold extremes, so you just need to be extra prepared for both. Summer days average about 95 degrees, but can spike as high as 110. Evenings are comfortable in the 60s. 

The last place to fill up any water containers is the visitor center, so make sure you have enough with you when you enter White Sands. Bring one gallon of water per person per day. If it’s hot, you’ll probably drink it all, but don’t forget to hydrate even if it’s cool and you don’t feel as thirsty. 

Dunes Drive, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bright sun is intensified by the reflection off the snow-white sand. Make sure you have a hat (I recommend a Tilley with UV protection) and sunglasses, even for the little ones. 

And of course, never forget the sunscreen! Avoid the chemicals and use mineral-based sunscreens.

Dunes Drive, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be prepared for the wind.  Strong windstorms are common February through May, but it can be windy any day of the year. When we visited in late February, it was mostly calm throughout the day, but the winds started picking up by mid-afternoon. 

Worth Pondering…

Life is not obvious here. It is implied, or twice removed, and must be read in signs or code. Ripple marks tell of the wind’s way with individual sand grains. Footprints, mounds, and burrows bespeak the presence of mice, pocket gophers, and foxes.

—Rose Houk and Michael Collier

Oft-Overlooked National Parks to Escape the Crowds

They might not be as famous as Great Smoky Mountains or the Grand Canyon but these five often overlooked parks are perfect for experiencing the great outdoors

As humans, we crave nature. Nature has been proven to be “deeply powerful and healing for our minds, bodies, and souls.” In fact, research from Harvard Medical School has found that mood disorders can be alleviated by spending more time outdoors. Nature also helps with pain and post-operative recovery, calms ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), and decreases the risk for certain health problems. Despite all the benefits that spending time in nature boasts, people are spending less time outside than ever before.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A study conducted by The Nature of Americans National Report found that over half of adults reported spending five hours or less in nature each week. Parents of children ages 8 through 12 said that their children spent three times as much time using technology than they did playing outside. In comparison, there were 1 billion fewer outdoor excursions such as hikes and climbs, in 2018 than in 2008.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prior to the pandemic, the reasons why people spent so much more time indoors ranged from work to technology to a cost of entry. However, with so many people now spending the majority of their time at home, this is the perfect time to explore nature.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks are timeless and fun because the parks have been preserved and kept to their natural states as much as possible. There are 62 national parks in the United States across 29 states and two territories. The possibilities of being one or more national parks in your state or nearby are high.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They are also very affordable. Usually, the average entrance ticket to a national park is $30 per vehicle while the annual pass is only $80. The annual pass covers entrance fees to all 419 units within the National Park Service although only 109 charge an entrance fee.

Following are five often-overlooked national parks where you can escape the crowds.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The active but sleeping volcano is the high point of a lively wilderness environment. Across 160,000 acres, elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape decorated by jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and of course, volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area as well from where bubbling activity still appears, reminding us of the region’s stormy past.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Swampy land may not be the first place on your list to roam but Congaree National Park is beautiful in its own way. The park preserves the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. It is estimated that 70 to 95 percent of bottomland hardwood forests were destroyed from the start of European settlement to the present. Congaree is the last of the hardwood forests that once stretched across the eastern US. The park has one of the highest concentrations of champion trees in the world. Champion trees are the largest trees of its specific specimen and Congaree holds 15 of them.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this preserve comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transformed into colorful slabs of stone. A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shaped like giant waves, the dunes in the park are part of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. The area was once part of the Permian Sea where an ancient lake evaporated and left the gypsum deposits behind. Tucked away in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, the park offers plenty to do. If you just want to see the dunes without getting dusty you can drive the eight-mile-long Dunes Drive. But the best way to explore is by hiking, horseback, or biking—and don’t miss out on the thrill of sledding down the soft white sand (you can bring your own plastic snow saucers or buy them at the gift shop).

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unusual, elaborate cliffs and canyons shape the landscape of Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold, the second largest monocline in North America, extends for nearly 100 miles and appears as a bizarre “wrinkle” in the Earth’s crust. Red-rock canyons, ridges, buttes, and sandstone monoliths create a 387-mile outdoor retreat for hikers, campers, photographers, and rock climbers.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 Some of the natural wonders created by Mother Nature are just a road trip away, so take the time this autumn to enjoy the great outdoors. National parks are an integral element of America. They offer rich histories, a wide selection of different environments, and a much-needed breath of fresh air. National parks will help you get in touch with your wild side, and who knows? It might just teach you a thing or two about the healing powers of the natural world, too.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Rachel Carson

How to Visit National Parks during COVID: Here’s what you can do in 22 of the 62

National parks are open with COVID restrictions in place

Between wildfire concerns in the West and park closures both seasonal and weather-based, the status of these parks can change overnight. Check—then double check—each park to ensure you’re traveling safely and to a place you can actually access. We’ll continue to intermittently update this list throughout the winter. 

If you thought the national parks—which punched well above their weight in providing quarantine relief once they reopened—would be able to ease out of fall and into winter, you are underestimating 2020. Most parks are humming along with COVID restrictions in place. But seasonal closures are going into effect in many areas. Wildfires have effectively closed Rocky Mountain while smoke continues to choke parks all along the west coast. Even in places where skies are clear new safety protocols make visiting the parks somewhat more complicated. 

To keep you informed on the status of each national park—what services are available, whether you can camp, and more—I’ve kept tabs on 22 of the 62 to ensure you’re maximizing your time outdoors. This list is current as of November 14, 2020. Now go forth and be safe.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities:  Yes

Arches is back in pretty much full swing… and everybody knows it. If the park is at capacity, they will very much turn you away. The whole of Utah is basically one big national park so if you do get turned away, you still have many, many options. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Yes

This South Dakota icon with its rugged geologic beauty is mostly open for business as usual. Be sure to stop off for free ice water at Wall Drug while you’re here: Now that the Sturgis rally is long over and all the Hogs have gone home, you’ll likely find smaller crowds at the T-rex show. 

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas
Status:  Open
Camping:  Limited
Amenities: Yes

After COVID crashed the party this summer things are easing back to normal. Day-use hikes and backcountry stays are on the table so make a reservation for one of the limited RV campsites. 

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Yes

Bryce is pretty much back in full swing with distancing protocols and a limit on campground occupancy. Shuttles are open, horses are rearin’ to go, breakfast is back on the menu, and ranger tours are a thing again. One of Utah’s greatest treasures has awoken. 

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Yes

This oft-overlooked Utah gem is back and going strong: You can now hit up the winding roads and endless trails then bed down at campsites. You can also score supplies at park stores. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Yes

This International Dark Sky Park combines the best of Utah’s more famous national parks into one lesser-visited package of awesomeness. And it’s fully open for all activities including camping, hiking, and checking out the visitor center.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: No

Carlsbad’s open with one-way traffic in the cavern. No timed entry except November 21-29 and December 19-January3. The bat flight can still be viewed from the east parking lot past the visitor center around sunset each evening.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Limited

The nation’s oldest hardwood bottomland didn’t keep its 500-year-old bald cypress and water tupelo alive through multiple plagues, yellow fever, and the Twilight saga by taking chances. The park opened slowly and now most of it’s in play: That means you can hike in most of the park, canoe and fish, and camp if you scored a spot. 

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Yes

The Grand Canyon has widened (pun aside) its access 24/7 though there are some limits. Campsites are slowly expanding their availability and lodges are now open.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina, Tennessee
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Yes

The nation’s most popular park allows access to most of its sprawling trails so go forth and peep those leafs but keep an eye on their site for closures. If you’re looking to stay overnight, several campgrounds are now open though most are still on lockdown.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Yes

This gloriously trippy desert playground has opened up its trails, roads, bathrooms, and individual “family” campsites, which in California parlance ranges from actual family units to cult compounds of up to 25 people. Those are available on a first come, first served basis so arrive early if you plan to find yourself at night peering up at the star-studded heavens as is the way here.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities:  Yes

This remarkable park in Northern California’s Shasta Cascades is now offering up ample access to its rugged wilderness and rare geothermal delights. Just be sure to take that “rugged” part seriously. For example, Manzanita Lake is currently closed because river otters—we kid you not—will not hesitate to straight-up maul your face if they think you’re a threat to their babies. And check for snow closures before heading out.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Yes

America’s largest archeological preserve has been around since 7,500 BC and is more or less in full swing at this point though you still can’t tour the cliff-dwellings, the museum, or the main visitor center. Otherwise, go nuts, and feel free to stay in the RV campground or the lodge. 

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Status: Open
Camping: No
Amenities: No

The park road, trails, and very hard wilderness areas are now open at this stunning park that suddenly pops up along both sides of Route 66 in eastern Arizona. Even if you’re just on an epic road trip you should make it a point to cruise through.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: No

The site for this Central California park boasts about it being “Born of Fire.” Right now, fire danger is extreme following significant fire-related closures. Be smart. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Status: Open
Camping:  Yes
Amenities: Yes

Located on either side of Tucson, this cacti-laden gem is currently allowing tent campers though groups are limited to 10 which gives you a good excuse not to invite Cousin Eddie. 

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, California
Status: Open
Camping:  Yes
Amenities:  Yes
Both Kings Canyon and the densely forested Sequoia are open but fires are causing closures in and around the park. Smoke is giving it a serious ’70s dive bar vibe. You can still visit but will likely have a better experience sometime down the road.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Status: Open
Camping:  Yes
Amenities:  Yes

Renowned for its fabled Skyline Drive, this national treasure encompassing part of the Blue Ridge Mountains is well into phase 3 which means you can now access Old Rag and Whiteoak, set up shop in backcountry campgrounds and huts, and pitch a tent in designated sites provided you respect the social distancing rules.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Status: Open
Camping: Backcountry only
Amenities: Limited

Look, it’s not like they named this ultra-underrated park—where the prairies and the Badlands converge, forests stand petrified, Buffalo and antelope roam and the sky’s one big panoramic light show—James Buchanan National Park. It’s named after Theodore Roosevelt. Of course it’s open for day use and backcountry camping. Seasonal closures, however, are currently in place as winter comes early in these parts. And I’m talking big time cold and snow!

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park. New Mexico
Status: Open
Camping: No
Amenities: Yes

America’s newest national park didn’t pick a great time for its coming out party. Transitioning from a national monument to a national park in the final days of 2019, the park was forced to shut down just a few months later and was among the last to reopen. But hey, it’s open now! No, you can’t camp. Yes, you can rent a sled and go rocketing down the dunes. Seems like a fair tradeoff. Then head up the road Alamogordo way for the World’s largest nut!

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Yes

One of America’s most beloved parks is easing back into public life with the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive and many park trails currently open, though Angels Landing is still off limits. Shuttles, too, are back in business on a timed reservation system. Services including canyon rides and the Zion Lodge are also back in action. 

Worth Pondering…

One of my favorite things about America is our breathtaking collection of national and state parks, many of which boast wonders the Psalmist would envy.

—Eric Metaxas