Guide to Adventure Activities in National Parks

The following list represents the most popular adventure activities offered in national parks with tips on where you can do each one

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service are the 61 headliner national parks, including Arches, Great Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 419 National Park Service sites across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Let’s kick it up a notch (or two) and check out more adventurous activities you can enjoy in sites administered by the National Park Service and pair them up with superb parks for the experience.

Related: Least-Visited National Park Service Sites and Why Each Is Worth a Visit

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking

The Narrows at Zion National Park (Utah)

It’s hard to find a national park that doesn’t have some good hiking opportunities, but The Narrows at Zion National Park take adventurous hiking to a new level. Why is it so memorable?

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First of all, you’re hiking through a cold, shallow river, the Virgin. (There might be times of the year, such as early spring, when the trail is closed because of high water. And always check the weather forecast—flash floods are a real danger here.) And then you’re hiking through canyon walls that can be up to 1,000 feet high but only 20 to 30 feet wide in spots. Definitely chilling and thrilling.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another adventurous option: Lassen Volcanic National Park (California)

The name of the park says it all—volcanic!

Related: Why America Needs More National Parks

Bicycling

Canyonlands National Park (Island in the Sky Unit) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park (Utah)

Canyonlands is famous for its mountain biking terrain, particularly for the 100-mile White Rim Road at Island in the Sky. This road loops around and below the Island in the Sky mesa top and provides expansive views of the surrounding area. Bicycle trips usually take three to four days.

Canyonlands National Park (Needles Unit) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elephant Hill Road at Needles is one of the most technical roads in Utah. You’ll experience steep grades, loose rock, and stair-step drops.

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

Another adventurous option: New River Gorge National River (West Virginia)

The beautiful landscapes and the variety of difficult to less challenging bike routes make the New River Gorge among the most popular destinations for mountain biking trips in the eastern U.S.

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

Horseback riding

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee and North Carolina):

Guided horseback rides are available at four concession horseback riding stables in the park from mid-March through late November. Or bring your own to explore 550 miles of hiking trails open to horses. Five drive-in horse camps provide ready access to backcountry horse trails in the park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another adventurous option: Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota)

If it’s named after our rough ‘n’ tumble 26th president, you know it has to be an adventure. Find out why the Badlands are so good for riders.

Related: National Park Programs that Enhance Your Visit

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rock climbing

Joshua Tree National Park (California)

Best known for its cacti where two distinctive desert types meet, Joshua Tree is also a superb place to do some rock climbing. The park offers challenges for all ability levels with more than 8,000 climbing routes, 2,000 boulder problems, and hundreds of natural gaps to choose from. It is truly a world-class climbing destination.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you are learning to climb or are looking to expand your climbing skills, a guided day or class could be of interest to you. When hiring a climbing guide, make sure that they are permitted to work in Joshua Tree National Park.

Related: National Park Facts: The Biggest, Smallest, Oldest, Newest, Most Visited, and More…

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another adventurous option: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (California)

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are great places to climb. One can enjoy an endless variety of climbs from easy to extremely challenging-without the crowds and pressure of more famous climbing areas. Outstanding routes in the parks include the Obelisk and Grand Sentinel. Most climbs require at least a day’s hike in.

Worth Pondering…

Adventure is worthwhile.

―Aesop

Escape to the Blue Ridge: Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park hugs the tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains, offering panoramic views and ample wildlife sightings

Shenandoah National Park lies astride a beautiful section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The name “Shenandoah” is an American Indian word meaning “Daughter of the Stars.” Natives used the area for hunting and shelter. Miners and loggers used it to harvest valuable resources. Soldiers used it as a fighting ground. Shenandoah is the name of a river, mountain, valley, county, and much more, so, the origin of the National Park name is unclear. Daughter of the Stars! That’s beautiful!

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah—Virginia’s first national park—was dedicated July 3, 1936. Cobbled together along the Blue Ridge from Front Royal to Waynesboro, the long narrow preserve divides the proud Shenandoah Valley from the rolling Piedmont to the east. The park contains a wide array of flora and fauna as it rises from a mere 550 feet at its lowest elevation to over 4,049 feet at its highest atop Hawksbill.

Related: Finding Fall Color along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Beyond

Along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Park has three districts, each with its own characteristics—North, Central, and South. Explore each district. Try new places and discover new wonders! Shenandoah is without a doubt one of the coolest leaf-peeping spots in the United States when fall foliage changes color each year.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Five hundred miles of trails consisting of 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, lead visitors to waterfalls, panoramic views, protected wilderness, and preserved human history in the Shenandoah Valley. A park full of recreational opportunities for the entire family, Shenandoah is worth repeat visits.

Related: Now Is the Best Time to Visit the Smokies

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are four entrances to Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park, located at:

  • Front Royal, accessible via I-66 and U.S. 340
  • Thornton Gap, accessible via U.S. 211
  • Swift Run Gap, accessible via U.S. 33
  • Rockfish Gap, accessible via I-64 and U.S. 250
Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Skyline Drive is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States at any time of the year. The picturesque 105-mile road rides the rest of the Blue Ridge Mountains where 75 overlooks welcome visitors to take in panoramic views of the Shenandoah wilderness. And we drove this scenic byway all the way to the southern entrance, stopping by the numerous lookouts for different and unique views. Skyline Drive joins the Blue Ridge Parkway which connects Shenandoah to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Drive is a worthy destination in its own right.  As an aside, this is the same ridge that was walked by American Indians and early settlers of Virginia. 

Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you travel along Skyline Drive you will notice mileposts on the west side of the road (right side if you are traveling south, left if you are heading north). These posts help you find your way through the Park and help you locate areas of interest. The miles begin at 0 in Front Royal and continue to 105 at the southern end of the Park. The largest developed area, Big Meadows, is near the center of the Park, at mile 51.

Related: The Other Shenandoah Valley

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The speed limit is 35 mph, so feel free to roll down your windows, feel the breeze, and experience every curve and turn of this beautiful drive that offers stunning views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west or the rolling Piedmont to the east. Be sure you will clear Marys Rock Tunnel (mile 32.2), with a maximum clearance of 12 feet 8 inches.RVs, camping trailers, and horse trailers are welcome, but prepare to shift into low gear.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall is the most popular time to travel along Skyline Drive with its colorful foliage from late September to mid-November. But spring offers the most colorful wildflowers along the drive, as well as blooming azaleas and mountain laurel.

Related: Discover the Spirit of Adventure in National Parks of Eastern U.S.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park has an entrance fee of $30, payable at one of the four major entrance stations. The fee is good for 7 consecutive days, even if you leave the park.

Worth Pondering…

If you drive to, say, Shenandoah National Park, or the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll get some appreciation for the scale and beauty of the outdoors. When you walk into it, then you see it in a completely different way. You discover it in a much slower, more majestic sort of way.

—Bill Bryson

Great Smoky Mountains: Most Visited National Park…and We Can See Why

One visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is never enough even when it stretches over a week or two

Some of the wildest terrain the Southern Appalachian region can claim and some of the wildest to be found in the eastern United States can be found in the Smoky Mountains. At their heart is the national park which sprawls across 815 square miles, a swath of land just a little over half the size of Rhode Island.

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

Great Smoky Mountain National Park has one of the world’s best-preserved deciduous forests, the oldest mountains in the United States, and more annual visitors than any other national park in the country.

The 33-mile long Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) bisects the park, stretching from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina with incredible views. Clingmans Dome is just past the “gap,” commonly referred to as “pass” in other parts of the country.

Related: Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Land of the Blue Smoke

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

With an estimated 900 miles of trails, Great Smoky is a hiker’s haven, one that could occupy you year-round. You could focus on the 70-some miles of the Appalachian Trail that runs along the roof of the park or break Great Smoky into regions and hike them one at a time.

Although there are many national parks that are larger, the Great Smoky Mountains have the greatest diversity of plants anywhere in North America. The Smoky Mountains contain more than 300 rare species of plants with as many as 125 on the protected plant lists of either North Carolina or Tennessee.

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

The Great Smoky Mountains have an explosion of wildflowers in spring and summer. More than 1,500 flowering plants can be found in the region, including delicate spring beauties, several types of trillium, trout lilies, wild geranium, and orchids; visit from mid-April to mid-May for the best blooms. The park’s showy flame azaleas and rhododendrons also burst to life starting in April in the low elevations and into June up high.

Related: Springtime in the Smokies

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

The Smokies are famous for their colorful trees in fall. Drive or hike to the higher elevations for sweeping views over the park’s 100-plus tree species painting the hills in bright oranges, yellows, and reds. Peak leaf season is impossible to predict since it is dependent on rain, temperature, and other factors. Generally, you can target the second half of October for higher-elevation colors, and late October through the first week of November for lower elevations.

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

Before it became a national park, this landscape was home to many settlers who farmed and milled in its hidden valleys. Today, more than 90 historic buildings remain in the park. In Cades Cove, you’ll find the greatest variety of churches, mills, barns, and cabins dating back to the early 1800s. An 11-mile one-way loop road takes you through a lush valley surrounded by mountains. For a quieter ride, head to the Roaring Forks motor nature trail with views of rushing streams, old log cabins, another mill, and forested wilderness.

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

Visit Oconaluftee to tour the Mountain Farm Museum, a collection of structures from the late 1800s, or nearby Mingus Mill. Other beautiful drives include the 18-mile Little River Road from the Sugarlands Visitor Center to Townsend and the Blue Ridge Parkway (outside of the park).

Related: Now Is the Best Time to Visit the Smokies

While Cades Cove with its rich collection of homesteading cabins, corn cribs, smokehouses, and churches is arguably the most popular area of the park, much the same history can be discovered without the crowds in Cataloochee (Big and Little Cataloochee). A little over a century ago this was one of the region’s most thriving communities with 1,200 residents in 1910. Today, though, it draws no crowds to its historic buildings, rolling orchards, meadows or forests, which do, however, attract elk, wild turkeys, and black bears. 

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

Nestled near the park’s eastern border, you must negotiate a winding 11-mile gravel road found near Dellwood, North Carolina, to reach Cataloochee. This road will carry you back into a 19th- and early-20th century landscape rimmed by 6,000-foot mountains and some of the park’s best examples of historic frame buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Still standing is the Palmer House, a vintage “dog trot” construction featuring two separate log cabins (that later were planked over) tied together by a covered porch popular with dogs on long, hot summer days. These days the house doubles as a museum of the valley and offers a video that provides an interesting oral history provided by descendants of the valley’s settlers.

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

As you can see, Great Smoky holds more wonders and adventures than one visit can embrace.

Worth Pondering…

If you drive to, say, Shenandoah National Park, or the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll get some appreciation for the scale and beauty of the outdoors. When you walk into it, then you see it in a completely different way. You discover it in a much slower, more majestic sort of way.

—Bill Bryson

These National Parks are ALWAYS FREE

Click through for a look at national parks you can enter for free—everyday

Why wait for a National Park Fee Free Day when you can visit these 10 natural beauties for free all year round? The U. S. is filled with free parks just waiting to be explored. Finding a list can be tough so we pulled together a few of our favorites to get you and your family out the door exploring America’s best idea.

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

Arizona: Canyon de Chelly National Monument

For nearly 5,000 years, people have lived in these canyons—longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere on the Colorado Plateau. In the place called Tsegi, their homes and images tell us their stories. Today, Navajo families make their homes, raise livestock, and farm the lands in the canyons.

Montezuma Well National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona: Montezuma Well National Monument

Visit the spot where life began, according to Yavapai legend, at Montezuma Well National Monument. Although access to the nearby Montezuma Castle National Monument costs $10, the Montezuma Well is free to access. There, you’ll see Native American ruins alongside the well and follow a nature trail as it winds below trees beside Beaver Creek—all part of what makes it one of Arizona’s hidden gems.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colorado and Utah: Hovenweep National Monument

Discover six prehistoric villages that once housed more than 2,500 people between A.D. 500 and 1300, and you can still see multistory towers clinging to the edge of rocky cliffs. The park is a designated International Dark Sky Park, making it one of the best places to go stargazing.

Boston National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Massachusetts: Boston National Historic Park

There are no fees at the federally or municipally owned historic sites within Boston National Historical Park. This includes Faneuil Hall, Bunker Hill Monument, Bunker Hill Museum, USS Constitution, and Dorchester Heights Monument.

New Mexico: Aztec Ruins National Monument

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

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico: El Malpais National Monument

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. While some may see a desolate environment, people have been adapting to and living in this extraordinary terrain for generations. Come discover the land of fire and ice!

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico: El Morro National Monument

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

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico: Petroglyph National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America featuring designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. These images are a valuable record of cultural expression and hold profound spiritual significance for contemporary Native Americans and for the descendants of the early Spanish settlers.

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New York: Saratoga National Historic Park

Here in the autumn of 1777 American forces met, defeated, and forced a major British army to surrender. This crucial American victory renewed patriots’ hopes for independence, secured essential foreign recognition and support, and forever changed the face of the world.

North Carolina and Virginia: Blue Ridge Parkway

A Blue Ridge Parkway experience is unlike any other: a slow-paced and relaxing drive revealing stunning long-range vistas and close-up views of the rugged mountains and pastoral landscapes of the Appalachian Highlands. The Parkway meanders for 469 miles protecting a diversity of plants and animals.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Finding Fall Color along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Beyond

Check out these leaf-peeping tips for a spectacular fall visit to the Blue Ridge Parkway

Tens of thousands of people visit the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Georgia each year to see the beautiful fall foliage and autumn colors. The Blue Ridge Mountains offer one of the most colorful and longest-running fall leaf seasons in the world.

One of the many reasons for this is the varied elevations which show prime fall colors for more than a month. Fall colors begin at the highest elevations in early October and work their way down to the lower elevations in early November.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When will the Parkway leaves stop producing chlorophyll and change to their wardrobe of fall colors? If you’re wondering when the peak Blue Ridge Parkway Fall leaf season will be this year, you’re not alone. It’s usually in October which is often the busiest month along the Parkway. But there are many factors that influence the timing and intensity of the color including when and how much rain falls, how late in the season the sun shines with intense heat, and how cool the nights are. So your best bet to see peak autumn color is to incorporate as many of these elements into your trip as possible.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elevation: Travel a longer section of the Parkway to see a variety of elevations. Leaves change color at higher, cooler elevations first. The elevation along the Parkway ranges from over 6,000 feet at Richland Balsam in North Carolina to just under 650 feet at the James River in Virginia. You can also continue into Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks on either end of the Parkway for additional opportunities to view fall color. Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the state high point of Tennessee and Mount Mitchell, located along the Parkway at Milepost 355 is the state high point for North Carolina and either would be a good choice.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aspect: Which direction a slope face determines its temperature and the type of plants that grow there. Leaves change color first on cooler, wetter north-facing slopes and later on warmer, south-facing slopes. View a variety of aspects to see different plants and different phases of color change.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Distance: Since overlooks with distant views reveal a variety of elevations and aspects you are more likely to see leaf color. Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the state high point of Tennessee, and Mount Mitchell, with access at Parkway at Milepost 355, is the state high point for North Carolina; either would provide a long-distance view. But many Parkway overlooks also provide long-range views, so there are lots of options besides the tallest peak in the state.

The bottom line is, don’t expect to pick one spot on one day on the Parkway and see the perfect combination of colors—instead, travel a longer distance and you’re likely to meet all the criteria above and see a variety of stages of color change.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here, then, is the general progression:

  • Leaves at the highest elevations (Clingmans Dome, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell, and Waterrock Knob) change from late September to early October
  • Mid-October provides good color along most of the Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park including Boone and Blowing Rock in North Carolina and Wytheville and Fancy Gap in Virginia
  • Next, the lower elevations provide good color (Pisgah National Forest, Linville Gorge, Nantahala Gorge, and Maggie Valley in North Carolina and Roanoke, Lynchburg, Lexington, Waynesboro, and Shenandoah National Park in Virginia)
  • The lowest elevations (Asheville, Brevard, Waynesville, Cherokee, Gatlinburg, Chimney Rock, and Lake Lure) provide the final color display if the weather has cooperated and there are still leaves on the trees
Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2021 Fall Color Forecast for the Blue Ridge Parkway, by week

September 27-October 7: At the highest elevations, close to 6,000 feet there is some color but it’s often very spotty and muted. The views from these locations will be mostly green since the areas viewed are lower elevations. Areas that turn early in this date and elevation range include Graveyard Fields (Milepost 418.8) and Rough Ridge Trail (Milepost 302.8).

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

October 1-10: Peak time for areas above 5,000 feet. This would include Clingmans Dome, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell, Waterrock Knob (Milepost 451.2), and Graveyard fields (the first location on the Parkway to turn) and higher elevations of The Blue Ridge Parkway (between Asheville and Cherokee) and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

October 10 – 20: Peak time for elevations from 4,000-5,000 feet. This would include almost all Blue Ridge Parkway locations and the majority of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well. Included in this elevation are the Boone and Blowing Rock areas.

October 18-26: Peak time for lower elevations, from 3,000-4,000 feet. This would include places like Pisgah National Forest which includes Sliding Rock and Looking Glass Falls, Dill Falls, Wildcat Falls, and many other waterfalls.  Other areas include Linville Gorge (Milepost 316.4), Nantahala Gorge, Maggie Valley (Milepost 455.5), and Cataloochee Valley.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

October 24-31: Peak time for elevations from 2,000 feet-3,000 feet. This would include The cities of Asheville, Brevard, Waynesville, Cherokee, and many others. Places of interest include Dupont State Forest and Biltmore Estate, and Cades Cove.

October 26-November 8: Peak time for remaining elevations including Gatlinburg (Tennessee), Chimney Rock (North Carolina), and remaining lower elevation mountains. This includes Chimney Rock (State Park) as well, a great place to see fall color.

Please note: These timeframes are estimates based on prior years and current weather and soil conditions. Actual peak times may vary some from this forecast.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Information and Trip Planning

The Parkway’s unique features such as limited sight distances, blind curves, and elevation changes offer driving challenges, especially for recreational vehicles. Stay alert and watch for other motorists, wildlife, and bicyclists.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping: Be sure to make advance camping reservations. The Parkway’s eight campgrounds were built years ago and do not currently offer RV hookups. Most Parkway campgrounds have at least some sites that will accommodate sizeable recreational vehicles. There are many private campgrounds in communities available just off the Parkway with full RV hookups and amenities.

Tunnels: Know the height of your RV in comparison to the heights of the 26 tunnels along the Parkway. The top of each tunnel is curved with the maximum height above the center line and the minimum height at the road shoulder.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Parkway Detour: From May 2021 to spring 2022, a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway will be closed in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. Expect a closure by Roanoke due to a serious slope failure there. The National Park Service will be completing repairs on the Roanoke River Bridge at Milepost 114 and also repairing a road hazard at Milepost 127.9 that was caused by heavy rains and landslides. As a result, the Blue Ridge Parkway will be closed from Milepost 112.2 (Route 24 near Vinton) to Milepost 136 (Route 221 on Bent Mountain) for through-travelers. You can take US 221 around the closure from Parkway Milepost 135.9 to Milepost 106 (about a 27-mile detour).

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a popular destination for vacationers who RV. Nothing beats a beautiful, wooded drive in your home-away-from-home!

Worth Pondering…

Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Country roads, take me home
Take me home, country roads.

—John Denver

Why Fall Is the Best Time to Visit these 10 National Parks

All the awe. None of the crowds.

America’s national parks continued to dominate the travel sphere this summer, offering the pandemic-weary a respite from cabin fever through the magic of actual cabins and reminding RV-newbies and seasoned road-trippers alike that they really are America’s Best Idea.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another great idea! Hit the parks in the fall when the colors change, the temps cool down, and the tourists all but vanish. There’s all that foliage to enjoy, of course—but that’s just the beginning. Elk begin to rut, fog descends upon the valleys, and salmon fling themselves upstream as nature transforms into the most vibrant time of the year.

Although national parks are appealing destinations year-round, a few stand out from the pack in autumn. Fall colors are an obvious draw at some parks but there are also other benefits to traveling in September through November. To help inspire your next fall getaway, check out the autumnal splendor of 10 of my favorite national parks.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

The most-visited national park, the Great Smoky Mountains is magnificent in fall. Maples, birches, beeches, hickories, and dogwoods form a tapestry of scarlet, russet, orange, and yellow with sunflowers and asters bloom as well. Savor the spectrum from your car or bike on the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop where, if you’re lucky, you might spot a black bear or two. Drive up to Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet the highest point in Tennessee. Climb the 375-foot ramp to the 45-foot observation tower and be rewarded with 360-degree views.

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

New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

Yes, the nation’s newest national park has sublimely colorful scenes every fall, and yes, the photo opportunities are only one reason to visit. Whitewater rafting is another. Fifty-three miles of the wild and wonderful New River run through New River Gorge which became America’s 63rd and newest national park in 2020. Outfitters offer whitewater-rafting trips in the shadow of sandstone cliffs but gawking at the canopy of changing leaves is good enough reason to visit—as is photographing the impressive New River Gorge Bridge. On Bridge Day, October 16 this year, the span is closed to vehicles, and visitors can stroll and marvel at hundreds of skydivers floating 876 feet into the gorge.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

If you love fall foliage but aren’t so much in love with getting out of your car (though I do recommend a hike or two) then Shenandoah is the best national park in America for you. Hit its famous 105-mile Skyline Drive along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and become enveloped in the very essence of the season as you cruise through—slowly. There are no fewer than 75 scenic overlooks from which you can gaze out over the canopy of reds, oranges, and gold. Early October is when things hit their peak up here. For those who want to stretch a little, pull over around Mile 49 for a gentle hike to the quadruple waterfalls of Rose River Cascades. And the misty vistas and 500 hiking trails are totally tempting.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

In the summer months, hiking in Arches can feel like slogging through a convection oven with temperatures soaring into the triple digits and nary a tree in sight to provide shade—not to mention that the park teems with so many tourists that they’re often forced to close the park for the day. During fall the heat and the hordes dissipate dramatically. September and October provide maximum high-desert sunshine with comfortable temps in the 60s and 70s so you’ll be well-equipped to explore this whimsical red rock terrain strewn with mighty pinnacles, balanced rocks, and 2,000-plus arches without succumbing to heat exhaustion and/or road rage.

A certified dark sky park, Arches is well suited for stargazing. Stargazing is a year-round activity but fall is a good bet to see meteor showers. The season kicks off with the Draconid meteors (peaking October 8), then the Orionids (October 21), South Taurids (November 4 to 5), North Taurids (November 11 to 12), and finally the Leonids (November 17). The Orionids, in particular, can produce up to 20 meteors per hour. Despite peaking on October 21, they can be seen all month long.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Volcanic is a national park where you might not expect fall colors. This quiet northern California Park has pockets of cottonwood, oaks, and sagebrush which together create a vivid palette. Crystal clear Manzanita Lake is one area of the park with bright colors in addition to the ever-present evergreens. Even if you don’t time it right for the fall colors, you’ll still enjoy an iconic view of Lassen Peak. Because the park has several high elevation areas, autumn arrives early as does winter. Your best chance of seeing brilliant foliage is in September and October. As the season progresses, be prepared for temporary road or trail closures due to snow at higher elevations. Don’t be disappointed if you see snow instead of fall colors, though. The geothermal areas of Sulphur Works and the Bumpass Hell Trail are beautiful in different ways.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The downside of being one of the most notable national parks in the country (and world-renown) is that things stay pretty crowded. The Grand Canyon’s 3 million annual visitors swarm the popular South Rim for hikes, mule rides, and unnerving selfies all throughout the summer—yes, even in spite of the heat. But after road trip season screeches to a halt, this natural wonder gets more accessible. September through November sees lower crowd levels and cooler, comfier temps that hit that sweet spot between sweater weather and shorts season. You’ll be able to ride your mule in peace and get a photo of the mile-deep canyon without worrying you might accidentally get bumped off the edge.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

South Dakota’s Badlands is the only national park in the country where you can get psychedelic desert colors at sunrise and the deep, burnished gold of autumn grasses in the afternoon. Hike the quiet trails like the hands-on Notch Trail which weaves through a canyon and up a wooden ladder before culminating in a sweeping prairie vista. Drive through the park and you’ll also see otherworldly rock formations, their pink and yellow hoodoos bathed in warm autumn light with streaks of bright foliage in the backdrop. Or, if you’re up to it, take advantage of the vastly reduced post-summer car traffic and hit the roads by bike.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

One of America’s newer national parks is a place of weather extremes with occasional freezing temperatures in the winter, scorching forecasts in the summer, and wind-swept afternoons in the spring—all of which sounds fine and dandy until you’re rinsing your eyes of gypsum crystals or sweating like a hog. Fall in White Sands National Park is where it’s at: The cottonwood trees are changing color, the crowds have thinned, and the comfortable dry warmth of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin makes it easy to hike through snow-white sand for hours on end or rent a sand sled from the visitor center and embrace your inner child as you careen down the dunes.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park is located in the Midlands region of South Carolina. With a humid subtropical climate, the park experiences mild winters and very warm, wet summers. The park is accessible in all seasons, but is best experienced in the spring and fall when temperatures are at their most comfortable and insects are generally not a problem. September through November is a wonderful time to visit Congaree with average daily temperatures in the 70s with low humidity. Fall colors peak between the end of October and early November. Water levels are ideal at this time of year for taking a paddling trip on Cedar Creek.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

You’ll love Zion in the fall! The temperatures are milder to enjoy the best Zion hikes, there are fewer people than in summer, and the park looks stunning as beautiful red, yellow, and orange leaves add so much color to its rugged desert landscape. Though the climate in Zion is arid, many trees thrive in the park. Evergreen white pines, ponderosa pines, and Douglas fir are mixed with golden aspens, crimson maples, copper oaks, and yellow cottonwoods. Red and gold accents brighten the desert landscapes, creating ample opportunities for nature photographers.

Zion has a very long fall foliage season due to the variety in elevations. At higher elevations in Zion, you can see trees turning bright by mid-September. The peak season in the park usually lasts from late September to early October. However, at lower elevations, you can enjoy picturesque fall colors as late as mid-November.

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

Bottom Line

The national parks above offer the opportunity to enjoy fall’s splendors without jostling the summer crowds. You may even discover a new favorite sight. No matter what, traveling to any of these national parks in the fall is a captivating way to explore some of America’s most special places.

Worth Pondering…

Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love—that makes life and nature harmonize.

—George Eliot

The Wild, Wonderful Waters of New River Gorge! Round Out Your Trip with a Visit to Babcock State Park & Glade Creek Grist Mill!

Almost Heaven awaits you at New River Gorge National Park, Babcock State Park, and Glade Creek Grist Mill

Scenic mountains and breathtaking gorge views await at the nation’s newest national park

Close your eyes and imagine a place with thousands of acres of lush green forests, rushing waters, and cascading waterfalls. Sound too good to be true? Such a place exists and it’s inside the New River Gorge National Park & Preserve. Teeming with rarified beauty and endless opportunities for adventure, the New River Gorge is the perfect destination for your next road trip. Mark America’s newest national park on your map, pack up the RV, and hit the road for Almost Heaven awaits you.

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

The New River Gorge has always been a celebrated landmark in the Mountain State, but now it gets recognition as America’s 63rd national park. From action-packed adventures like whitewater rafting, rock climbing, fishing, rock climbing, and miles of hiking trails to the southern hospitality of nearby mountain towns, the New River Gorge is a hidden gem to discover.

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

Home to the New River which drops 750 feet over 66 miles, adventuresome rafters and kayakers have long been drawn to this whitewater area for its class five rapids. The New River which flows northward through low-cut canyons in the Appalachian Mountains is one of the oldest rivers on the planet. The park encompasses more than 70,000 acres of land along the New River. The rugged mountains were once home to several coal mining camps and some historical artifacts and buildings remain.

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

Easily accessible by Route 19 and I-64, the New River Gorge is one of West Virginia’s most photographed areas. The New River cuts through extensive geological formations. Bald eagles, peregrine falcons, osprey, kingfishers, great blue herons, beavers, river otters, wild turkeys, and black bears call this park home and you’ll often spot a few along your travels. Hiking trails here take you to spectacular overlooks and through remnants of old coal mining towns.

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

Begin your experience with a stop at Canyon Rim Visitor Center which is situated on the edge of the gorge for maps, current information, and chats with a park ranger. You can learn about current safety protocols and visit the bookstore. The visitor center features an exhibit room filled with photographs and exhibits on the people, towns, and industry of the gorge. Other displays focus on the recreation and natural history of the area. Visitors can view an 11-minute video to orient themselves to all that makes New River Gorge National Park and Preserve such a special and significant place.

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

You’ll want to see the New River Gorge Bridge, a highly photographed work of structural art. If you plan your road trip just right, you can visit during Bridge Day a one-day festival (October 16, 2021) where you’ll watch BASE jumpers launch off the 876-foot bridge and parachute down to the New River. New River Gorge is the only national park in the U.S. that permits this extreme activity.

The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve provide incredible outdoor recreation opportunities and stunning landscapes but there are also several nearby West Virginia State Parks waiting to be discovered and explored. In fact, these state parks offer cozy accommodations, mountain adventures, and unparalleled scenic views.

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

One such state park is Babcock. Located 20 miles southeast of the New River Gorge Bridge, Babcock State Park is home to 4,127 acres of iconic scenery and stunning views. Babcock State Park is best known for the Glade Creek Grist Mill, a fully functional replica of the original Cooper’s Mill that once ground grain on Glade Creek long before Babcock became a state park. Of special interest, the mill was created by combining parts and pieces from three mills that once dotted the state. The basic structure of the mill came from the Stoney Creek Grist Mill which dates back to 1890. After an accidental fire destroyed the Spring Run Grist Mill near Petersburg (Grant County) only the overshot water wheel could be salvaged. Other parts for the mill came from the Onego Grist Mill near Seneca Rocks (Pendleton County).

Babcock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A living monument to the over 500 mills which thrived in West Virginia at the turn of the century, the Glade Creek Grist Mill provides freshly ground cornmeal which park guests may purchase depending on availability and stream conditions. Visitors to the mill may journey back to a time when grinding grain by a rushing stream was a way of life and the groaning mill wheel was music to the miller’s ear.

Other attractions include recreational activities like hiking, fishing, and mountain biking.

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

Babcock is home to 28 cozy cabins tucked away in the woods. Each cabin provides a peaceful retreat to guests accompanied by the tranquil sights and sounds of nature. Several of the cabins are located near the Glade Creek Grist Mill. So close, you can almost hear the mill’s wooden frame churn. Babcock also includes a 52-unit campground if you wish to completely surround yourself in nature.

Glade Creek Grist Mill, Babcock State Park © Rex Vogel, a

Nature and landscape photographers who wish to fly a drone near the Glade Creek Grist Mill are required to check-in at the park office in advance. The use of drones is permitted but only from 1-3 p.m., daily. Drones may not be flown over buildings or the parking area and must stay a minimum of 20 feet away from the mill.

Start planning your next trip to the area and get ready for one-of-a-kind experiences and lasting memories.

Glade Creek Grist Mill, Babcock State Park © Rex Vogel, a

Worth Pondering…

Country Roads

Almost heaven, West Virginia
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Country roads, take me home
To the place, I belong
West Virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, country roads.

—John Denver

Why National Parks Need Selfie Stations

US national parks are overcrowded. Some think ‘selfie stations’ will help.

Arches National Park had to close its gate more than 120 times this summer when parking lots filled up creating a safety hazard for emergency vehicles. Yellowstone National Park reached 1 million visitors in July for the first time in its history. At Zion National Park, the wait to hike Angels Landing was a Disneyland-long four hours. And with the visitors came graffiti, trash, and reckless behavior.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s no secret that this summer has been the busiest summer ever. Preliminary visitation statistics show that the most popular 12 to 15 national parks are seeing record numbers.

On Facebook, the National Park Service (NPS) encouraged visitors to have backup plans when arranging a trip and included information on lesser-known parks with equally stunning sights and hikes.

Zion National Park trolley stop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Travel off the beaten path,” the NPS wrote. “There are more than 400 national parks across the country. We love exploring the lesser-known ones. They can be a great option for travelers looking for all the beauty of nature, hiking trails, and rich history, with fewer crowds and lines.”

Have a plan…and a backup plan…Check

Pack your patience…Working on it.

Don’t pet the fluffy cows…

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer is here and a little trip planning can ensure that your only surprises when visiting a park are happy ones. To help everyone have a great experience, National Park Service rangers have shared their top 10 insider tips to #PlanLikeAParkRanger.

The record-setting crowds of people surging into public lands this summer have set off new challenges for park managers. They are using counterintuitive tricks like encouraging selfies in one place to prevent them in another and they are rolling out algorithms and autonomous vehicles to manage the throngs of recreation-seekers.

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

They are also acknowledging a hard truth: perhaps there simply isn’t enough space at America’s most iconic attractions for everyone who wants to visit them. In an earlier post, I provided a framework for adding more national parks.

One of the biggest issues facing parks is the many visitors all aiming to get the perfect photo. At popular spots in Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, some have even fallen to their deaths in the process prompting the NPS to create a guide for safe selfie-taking. And in 2018, the tourism board in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, made an unusual request to visitors heading toward Grand Teton National Park after local trails were overrun with photo-tourists: stop geotagging photos.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enter the selfie station: a humble wooden stand in front of a stunning vista, ready to hold a camera for a safe and easy photo experience. They are part of an effort to corral people’s natural desire to take photos and to promote less-well-known areas.

Tom Hazelton, who leads Iowa’s County Conservation System, has overseen the installation of more than a hundred selfie stations in his state. Some of the stations celebrate quirky parts of history like the first train robbery west of the Mississippi while others point people to a lake, vista, or nature center they might not otherwise come across. Similar efforts exist in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is Iowa’s third season using the sturdy, cedar stations and they installed another 15 during the past few months. They are getting used and they are low maintenance and easy to build: the signs are $30 and the wood is another $60.

Another tactic to reduce the strain on parks is to cut the number of visitors permitted to enter them in the first place. The NPS oversees a total of 423 protected places that include national seashores, national lakeshores, national recreation areas, and national monuments, among others. Popular places like the summit of Haleakala on Maui or Muir Woods in California require timed entry slots available on Recreation.gov. More public lands are turning to such systems to reduce the number of visitors in one part of a park especially as the pandemic trimmed staffing numbers.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Recreation.gov program uses algorithms to show where there might be less-trafficked attractions in the vicinity that you’re searching in real-time. The Park Service also launched an app with tools to explore more than 400 NPS sites. You can download content from entire parks for offline use. It’s especially handy if you’re exploring remote areas in parks or concerned about data limits. And it can point visitors to other potential public lands outside the parks.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the future, the Park Service is focusing on rolling out predictive technologies that will allow people to anticipate crowds and plan accordingly. They are taking tools used in urban planning and congestion planning and repurposing them for recreation and parks. That could mean a future where a hiker scans a QR code to check-in at a trailhead sending information back to when the trails are most clogged with people. That way, the next group could be advised to wait an hour or come another time to take the same adventure. It also could mean that traffic is routed to less popular areas of the parks.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To cut down on traffic, some parks are experimenting with autonomous cars. The Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina tested out a driverless shuttle this summer and Yellowstone is also trying a shuttle. That park is expected to run out of space for additional cars by 2023. The idea is to stop people driving between the sights in the Canyon Village area—the area around the famous Yellowstone River and Tower Waterfall—and get them in the driverless shuttle instead.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Despite the crowds and the traffic and noise, the park service says it’s a good thing that more people are getting out to experience parks and public lands. The Park Service wants people to have exceptional experiences and they’re looking at ways to enhance opportunities for people to plan to have the best experience and stay safe.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Grand doesn’t really even begin to describe it

No matter how many photos you’ve seen of the Grand Canyon, standing at the rim’s edge for the first time takes your breath away—especially if you’re there at sunset as the fading light paints shades of rose, violet, and gold onto the ancient rocks. There will never be a photograph captured of the Grand Canyon that can adequately describe its depth, breadth, and true beauty.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The canyon walls have stories that we will never hear and a history that our eyes will never behold. But if you stand and watch long enough, you’ll start to appreciate the vastness as its depths open up as each emerging shadow moves across its void. It is perhaps for those reasons that it has earned a rare spot among the 7 Natural Wonders of the World and why everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon is about 1-mile deep and 10 miles wide, measuring 277 miles in length, and it holds more than 10,000 years of history in that space (millions if you really want to get technical). There are endless ways to experience it depending on what the body and mind are looking for and one’s level of endurance. The Grand Canyon is not “one place” but a desert wilderness with many areas to explore—North Rim, South Rim, and West Rim (outside of Grand Canyon National Park); the Village of Supai and Kaibab National Forest—there are different stories to seek out and to create in each of them. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a well–known film lampoon of the family vacation, Chevy Chase stands at the edge of the Grand Canyon, nods his head in approval, and leaves. Visitors in real life tend to linger a bit longer—but not much. They emerge from cars or tour buses on the South Rim to peer out and take a selfie. Sometimes, they stay for a picnic or to have lunch at one of the rim lodges. Then they’re gone, the once-in-a-lifetime visit checked off their bucket list. According to Grand Canyon National Park officials, the average visit to this Arizona attraction lasts just two hours.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon can be a disappointment. Viewed from the top near one of the visitors’ parking lots, the fissured network of buttes and desert plateaus that make up one of the world’s largest river gorges can appear almost like a two-dimensional painting. More than one spectator has called it overrated.

But for those who take the first steps to descend below the canyon rim, something magical happens. Despite all the beautiful parks and places to discover on Earth, they’ll decide this is the place they must return to, again and again.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When hikers step through the canvas of pastel pink, orange, grey, and deep blue, they become part of the landscape. Down foot trails gouged from the side of rock cliffs, the view expands to 360 degrees and the canyon takes on dimensions and distances that can’t quite be imagined. Only the condors and ravens seem to have mastered the terrain. A vast world like this leaves plenty of room for the mind to wander, to gaze, and to rest.

First, let’s take a quick look at the two most visited locations: the North and South Rims.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The North Rim is visited less frequently than the South Rim for a variety of reasons—it is more remote and difficult to get to than the busy South Rim, it is further removed from major population centers, it maintains a short season (May 15–October 15) because of its heavy snow and higher elevation (about 8,000 feet; 9,200 feet at the highest point), and it offers fewer easy access points to peer into the valley of views than its southern counterpart does.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you plan to visit the Grand Canyon just once in your life, you’ll want it to be the South Rim, first to get a load of the views that drew awareness to the area in the first place. They really are spectacular. If you’ve already seen the South Rim, a visit to the northern side is where you can find solitude in backcountry camping and hiking and unique sites to photograph such as the Cape Royal viewpoint.  

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The South Rim is the best-known area of the park and is the passageway to iconic viewpoints such as Yavapai and Mather Points, both of which often serve up to many the first views of the colorful gorge as it is located just a short walk from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. At night, catch the sunset at Hopi Point and Mojave Point, two of the most popular places in the park to drink in the pink sky. Near to all of them are iconic lodges, located just steps from the canyon rim. The panoramic views in this area seem to stretch on endlessly and visitor amenities abound including shops, restaurants, free shuttle access to iconic viewpoints, trail access, historical sites, exhibits—and the list goes on and on. 

El, Tovar Hotel, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You will find everything you need for a Grand Canyon adventure in Grand Canyon Village. This historic village has excellent shopping for all the hiking and camping gear you need, as well as authentic American Indian crafts and plenty of canyon souvenirs. The village also has stellar lodging options and a top-rated walking tour. Highlights of the tour include Bright Angel Lodge, El Tovar Hotel, Buckey O’Neill Cabin, Hopi House, Lookout Studio, and Kolb Studio.

Hopi House, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Begin your Grand Canyon tour at the visitor center—especially if you have limited time. Here you can pick up a copy of the self-guided walking tour brochure for in-depth information on the canyon and its history. Park rangers can help design an itinerary to make the most of your visit, suggest hikes to suit your fitness level, and recommend the best viewpoints for sunset and/or sunrise.

Grand Canyon Railway Depot, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll also learn how Grand Canyon Village grew up around the Santa Fe Railroad starting in 1901. Stop by the rustic Grand Canyon Railway Depot which welcomes Grand Canyon Railway passengers to the village. One fun way to arrive at the South Rim is via the Grand Canyon Railway which runs from the historic town of Williams into the heart of the park allowing for a half-day of exploring before returning in the afternoon.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many activities in the Village including helicopter tours, horseback rides, scenic train rides, and mule trips. Do you remember the Brady Bunch adventure when Mike, Cindy, and the clan ventured down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon by mule? This is an actual thing! But, why a mule? They’re more sure-footed than horses. From the South Rim, you can ride a mule to the Colorado River and spend a night or two at Phantom Ranch or take a shorter two-hour ride along the rim. Book as far in advance as possible to guarantee yourself a spot.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, of course, the hiking can’t be beaten. Some of the best hikes include Bright Angel Trail, South Kaibab Trail, Hermit Trail, and Rim Trail. The simplest walk is the Rim Trail which stretches for 13—mostly flat—miles along the top of the South Rim. Much of it is paved and wheelchair-accessible and you can enter and leave the path at any viewpoint. Backcountry permits are not required for day hikes, but—with the exception of Phantom Ranch—they are if you plan to spend the night.

If your fitness allows, try to hike at least part of the way into the Grand Canyon; you’ll get a completely different perspective than you do from the top. The most popular South Rim trail into the canyon is the Bright Angel Trail which is well maintained and offers some shade along the way. Another good option is the South Kaibab Trail—it is a little steeper and has less shade but boasts slightly more dramatic views if you’re only doing part of the trail. While both of these trails go all the way to the bottom you can easily transform each of them into a day hike by turning around at one of the mile markers and going back the way you came.

Shuttle transport, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For visitors who aren’t up for a hike into the canyon, a shuttle transports visitors along the rim of the canyon, stopping at many breathtaking vantage points. You can also enjoy the views directly from Grand Canyon Village and enjoy lunch at one of the village’s restaurants: Bright Angel Lodge, El Tovar, or Maswik Lodge.

Part of the Grand Canyon but outside of the National Park is Hualapai Tribe’s Grand Canyon West. Walk the glass panels on the Skywalk. Soar over the canyon in a helicopter or on a zipline. Float down the Colorado River on a river tour. Take in the epic views at Guano Point and Eagle Point. And, you can stay on-site at the Cabins at Grand Canyon West.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 1,218,375 acres

Date Established: February 26, 1919 (established as Grand Canyon National Monument on January 11, 1908)

Location: Northwestern Arizona

Park Elevation: South Rim, 7,000 feet; North Rim, 8,000 feet

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: Though open 365 days a year, Grand Canyon weather can present a few extremes. While the South Rim is warm in the summer, it’s also very busy and the temperature on the canyon floor can reach over 100 degrees. Spring and fall can be pleasant, but unpredictable.

How the park got its name: According to research by award-winning documentarian Ken Burns, the park got its name from a one-armed Civil War veteran and geology professor named John Wesley Powell who declared it the “Grandest of Canyons” after rafting the length of the Colorado River in 1869, after which the name stuck. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic site in the park: Mather Point, just steps from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center is often the first view that visitors have of the park. Just after gathering the info needed in order to better plan their stay, visitors can step out onto a narrow railed overlook to take in some of the most extensive views that the canyon has to offer, including Yavapai Point and the Bright Angel Trail stretching down to the bottom of the canyon. From here you can also catch a glimpse of the mighty Colorado River. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big adventure: There are two popular rim-to-rim hikes for adventurous souls yearning to gaze 4,000 feet skyward from the base of the Colorado River that bisects the canyon. The rim-to-river-to-rim hike starts at the South Rim—the most popular route being down the South Kaibab Trail (7 miles) and up the Bright Angel Trail (about 10 miles.) The true rim-to-rim hike starts on the Bright Angel Trail at the North Rim, descending to the bottom of the canyon for stays at the Phantom Ranch or the Bright Angel Campground, ascending the Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim. This adventure covers 24 miles and takes about 3 days. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Designations: UNESCO World Heritage Site on October 26, 1979

Recreational visits in 2019: 5,974,411

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,897,098

Entrance Fees: $35/vehicle (valid for 7 days); all federal land passes accepted

Camping Fee: $18/night

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.

—Theodore Roosevelt on the Grand Canyon in 1908

Awesomeness beyond the Mighty 5 in Southern Utah

Recommendations for extended adventuring around each of southern Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks

Southern Utah has enough panoramic mountain views, striking red-rock formations, and dark-sky zones for a lifetime of adventure. But sometimes it’s better to settle in to explore one place than try to do everything in one trip. In this post, I’ll look at a few favorite spots for going beyond the parks and staying for a week or longer.

Thanks to some highly successful promotion by the Utah Office of Tourism, people across the globe now know that “Mighty 5” refers to national parks in Utah and not a group of superheroes.

Unfortunately, that heightened awareness carries a price. Utah’s five national parks are often so busy that visitors wait hours to enter or are even turned away. If you’ve been stalled in traffic at Zion, Arches, or Bryce Canyon, you understand.

On holidays or other times when you know the parks will be jammed with tourists, a good alternative is to visit one of Utah’s spectacular national monuments or state parks. Many offer breathtaking scenery to rival that of the Mighty 5 but with much smaller crowds.

Red Rock Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond Bryce Canyon and Zion

For a week of exploring around Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, head to St. George, where you can camp within a short drive of hundreds of miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails. The national parks are stunning but the many state parks in Utah are also not to be missed. One favorite is Snow Canyon; the trails there wind through striking red rock and streams of black lava are frozen in time against the canyon walls. Another one of this corner’s lesser-known gems is Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park where you can hike or go four-wheeling among pink dunes formed over the last 10,000 to 15,000 years by eroding Navajo Sandstone cliffs. You’ll also want to visit Red Cliffs BLM Recreation area to hike and marvel at the distinctive landscapes that cover this relatively unknown public area. 

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The reservoir at Quail Creek State Park boasts some of the warmest waters in the state plus a mild winter climate. It is a great place to boat, camp, and fish. Water sports are popular here during the long warm-weather season and boaters and fishermen enjoy the reservoir year-round. Anglers fish for largemouth bass, rainbow trout, crappie, and other species.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red rock and red sand meet warm, blue water at Sand Hollow which is one of the most popular state parks in Utah. This is a great place to camp, picnic, boat, fish, and ride ATVs. ATV trails run over sand dune access to Sand Mountain in the park and additional trails are located nearby. Sand Hollow Reservoir’s warm water makes it ideal for skiing and other water sports. Anglers fish for bass, bluegill, crappie, and catfish.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hidden within the mountains between Zion and Bryce Canyon is the brilliant geology and vibrant environment of Cedar Breaks National Monument. The geologic amphitheater and surrounding area are home to hiking trails, ancient trees, high elevation camping, and over-the-top views along the “Circle of Painted Cliffs.” Cedar Breaks’ majestic amphitheater is a three-mile-long cirque made up of eroding limestone, shale, and sandstone. The monument sits above 10,000 feet. The Amphitheater is like a naturally formed coliseum that plunges 2,000 feet below amid colorful towers, hoodoos, and canyons. Stunning views are common throughout so keep your camera nearby.

Beyond Capitol Reef

The Capitol Reef Region is a relatively uncrowded landscape with seemingly endless public land to explore. The town of Torrey—an official International Dark Sky Community—is just a 15-minute drive from Capitol Reef National Park and a great base camp for exploration.

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

Snag a campsite in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. There are plenty of options to contemplate in this Martian-like landscape. If you’re just passing through, Goblin Valley State Park famous for wind-shaped rock formations called hoodoos is a popular stop for families.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is also within easy driving distance of Grand Staircase and offers plenty of opportunities to cool off in Lake Powell with water sports you might not expect to find amid Utah’s high-desert landscapes.

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, Escalante Petrified Forest is among the most underrated, surprising, and all-around best state parks for escaping the crowds. If you want to be away from people, it’s pretty easy to find lots of remote space to camp while still having easy access to the main rock formations. Escalante Petrified Forest is located at Wide Hollow Reservoir, a small reservoir that is popular for boating, canoeing, fishing, and water sports. The park includes a developed campground with RV sites. There is also a pleasant picnic area.  On the hill above the campground, you can see large petrified logs. A marked hiking trail leads through the petrified forest. At the Visitor Center, you can view displays of plant and marine fossils, petrified wood, and fossilized dinosaur bones over 100 million years old.

Beyond Arches and Canyonlands

One of my favorite things about southern Utah is the way the landscapes transform from lush riverscape to shaded slot canyons to desert all in a short drive. For a week in the Arches and Canyonlands region start in Green River at the foot of Desolation Canyon Wilderness. Swasey’s Beach has developed camping and a great beach.

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The scenic overlooks of Dead Horse Point State Park are often compared to views of the Grand Canyon. Just over 30 miles from Moab, it’s a worthy destination when Arches is overly crowded. The park gets its name from a gruesome legend. Around the turn of the century, the point was used as a corral for wild mustangs roaming the mesa top. One time, for some unknown reason, horses were left corralled on the waterless point where they died of thirst within view of the Colorado River 2,000 feet below.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From there, head to the lesser-visited west side of Canyonlands National Park for a guided 4×4 tour. Spend ample time in the Bears Ears National Monument area with a scenic drive through Valley of the Gods and visits to Goosenecks State Park and Natural Bridges National Monument—both of which are certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The wild canyons and mountains of southern Utah have been around for over 2.6 billion years. Help to protect them for a few billion 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