The Best of Zion

Zion National Park brims with awe-inspiring views and outdoor adventures

In the 1860s, Mormon pioneers settled in what is now known as Zion National Park in southern Utah. When they arrived they thought it to be so beautiful, holy with its towering natural cathedrals made of rock that they called it Zion, a nod to Little Zion found in the Bible’s Old Testament. To them, it was a sacred dwelling. It still holds sacred reverence to those who visit it today and is without a doubt one of America’s most beloved national parks.

I will leave the story of the history of the park to another time and focus on what we know best: places to explore when visiting the heavenly landscape. I’ve been to Zion several times and managed to pick up some new spots on each visit. Without further ado, here are my picks for the best of Zion.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon Overlook Trail

The Canyon Overlook Trail is a gem of a hike in Zion. This is definitely one of the best hikes at Zion. It’s short, it’s fun, and it takes you to an awesome viewpoint overlooking Zion Canyon. It’s also the ideal sunset hike for those who love canyon views but aren’t up to navigating the famous—and more treacherous—Angel’s Landing hike. This is a hike that is perfect for all ages and ability levels. If this is your first or even your second time in Zion put the Canyon Overlook Trail on your list of things to do.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Angel’s Landing and West Rim Trail

Angel’s Landing is THE classic Zion hike and one of the world’s most famous hikes. The first four miles bring hikers along the West Rim Trail that leads to Scout’s Lookout from where you can take in the views while deciding whether you have the guts and desire to brave the final one-mile climb along the narrow canyon spine with support chains in hand to the landing.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This last section is not for those who fear heights, exposure, and crowds while at serious heights while facing exposure. Fatalities are not common but they have occurred and like all hikes and adventures in any national park safety is the responsibility of the traveler.

Don’t do it if you don’t feel comfortable climbing a cliff-face (you are not alone). You can still enjoy the hike along the West Rim Trail. There are incredible views the entire way up to Scout’s Landing—the switchbacks criss-crossing the valley floor are incredibly photogenic. This is not a trail for people with a fear of heights or small children.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Emerald Pools

This is a choose-your-own-adventure area in the park with three main hikes among lush vegetation leading to different water features at each. At an elevation gain of 623 feet, parts of it are quite steep so make sure you wear sturdy shoes and bring lots of water.

The lower pool is perfect for those desiring a relaxed wander and for those with strollers and wheelchairs ending at a collection of mountain streams and small pools. The middle trail is a more moderate hike gaining 150 feet leading to an overlook of the pools found on the lower trail and small waterfalls, and the upper pool is a strenuous climb up 350 feet to a waterfall that streams down from a cliff.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Narrows

Zion: a river runs through it. For millions of years, the Virgin River has been carving its way through layers of rock forming the Zion Narrows. And you can walk on water through the Virgin River while exploring it. This is an iconic hike in the park and it is easy to know why after braving it. Decked out in a dry suit—Zion Outfitter in the nearby town of Springdale can hook you up with water-repellent gear and info—you will make way on foot along a 30-mile wide riverbed beneath limestone canyon walls towering 1,000 feet above the way early explorers and natives once did.

There is no trail so-to-speak, the trail is the riverbed. Sublime! Permits are required and water level and weather are factors in whether or not a visit there is possible as flash floods in the park occur often during peak season and are a danger.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Riverside Walk Trail

If you’re not ready to commit to The Narrows hike above, you can still enjoy some of the epic views of Zion’s scenic Virgin River as it cuts through the stunning canyon on this easy riverside walk.

This hike begins at the shuttle stop 9 (Temple of Sinawava) which is located at the end of the Scenic Highway. From there, you’ll make your way along a concrete path between the Virgin River and a steep canyon wall. (Side trails along the river make a nice alternative for strolling in more solitude.)

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Observation Point

Observation Point provides one of the best views in Zion National Park but is underrated compared to Angels Landing and the Narrows. This trail is perfect for those who want to avoid the crowds at Angels Landing but still want incredible views. From the Observation Point summit, you look across Zion Canyon. You can even look down upon Angels Landing.

This trail is incredibly strenuous with some steep drop-offs. The most popular route starts at the Weeping Rock trailhead. You’ll climb steep switchbacks from the start-up to Echo Canyon, the perfect shaded spot for a rest.

After passing through this shaded area you’ll climb along sheer cliff edges to the top of Zion Canyon. After the climb, you’ll be rewarded with views from the top of Observation Point, the best in the park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watchman Trail

Guarding the park’s southern entrance, the Watchman is arguably the most iconic scene and provides some of the best sunset photography. There is a 3-mile trail leading to a lookout of the towering peak but this entry refers to the viewpoint as seen from Canyon Junction with the Virgin River winding right through the middle of the scene.

The hike ends with a phenomenal view of the Temples, Towers, and lower Zion Canyon. You can see Watchman Peak from here as well and all of Springdale below. Hikers rave about the quality of the light and epic views in the early morning here.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pa’rus Trail

The Pa’rus Trail is one of the newer and most accessible trails in Zion National Park. It is the only trail in Zion open to bicycles and pets and is also one of the few wheelchair-accessible trails in the park. Starting at the South Campground just north of the Visitor Center, this wide, paved trail skirts the Virgin River in the flat and open lower section of Zion Canyon and ends at the Canyon Junction. This trail is great for a leisurely stroll at sunrise or sunset and you are likely to see big and small wildlife from butterflies and birds to mule deer.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and Tunnel

Driving the 6-mile Mt. Carmel Highway through the park provides visitors easy access to viewpoints while offering that winding-road experience. It is easily accessible throughout the park’s most popular area and the richly brick-colored highway with canary-yellow stripes plays really well visually against the soft color of the canyons.  

A few miles along the highway past the Visitor Center you will cross through the Mt. Carmel Tunnel, completed in 1930, a landmark with a rich history that at the same time allows modern travelers like us passage THROUGH a mile of canyon in what feels like the dark of night.  

Kolob Canyon, Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kolob Canyon

Zion’s popularity certainly draws in the crowds and for some people this can be a bit overwhelming. For a pleasant escape from the busyness take a trip to the far side of the park and the Kolob Canyons.

This lesser-visited area is almost as spectacular as the main area of the park. Deep canyons and stunning scenery will leave you awed. The most popular activity and the one that provides the most reward for the least amount of energy is the five-mile Kolob Canyons Road. Strategically placed viewpoints afford incredible views out over the surrounding countryside.

Kolob Canyon, Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For those interested in venturing off on a hiking trail several good options exist. Of the 10-plus hikes available one not to be missed is the Timber Creek Overlook. This one-mile trek is easy with wonderful views along the way and especially at the end.

Kolob Canyons is about an hour from the main park gates. You’ll need to head back out to Interstate 15, head north, and take exit 40. The exit is well marked with National Park signs.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping

There are full-service RV parks outside the park gate but camping within the park is a whole other experience. Watching birds and wildlife flitting about the campgrounds, sitting around a fire ring in the evening, and peering up at the night sky creates a different set of memories than simply exploring Zion by day.

Watchman Campground and South Campground are the two main camping areas in the park and both offer beautiful natural surroundings and well-spaced sites. These two campgrounds are close to each other near the West Gate entrance to the park.

A third much smaller and more isolated campground is located in a separate section of the park at almost 8,000 feet. This is Lava Point Campground on Kolob Terrace Road about 50 minutes from the Zion Canyon section of the park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More great places to explore in Utah:

Worth Pondering…

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

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

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

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

—Wayne L. Hamilton, The Sculpturing of Zion

The Ultimate Guide to Canyonlands National Park

The Colorado and Green rivers divide the park into four districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the rivers themselves

Landscape is what becomes us. If we see our natural heritage only as a quarry of building block instead of the bedrock of our integrity, we will indeed find ourselves not only homeless but rootless by the impoverishment of our own imagination. At a time when we hardly know what we can count on in a country of shifting values and priorities, Canyonlands is our bedrock, a geologic truth that we all share, the eyes of the future are looking back at us, praying that we may see beyond our own time.

—Terry Tempest Williams

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s huge! The four districts are approximately the area of 172,121 football fields! Ringing in at over 520 square miles, Canyonlands is the largest of Utah’s five national parks and doubtless one of the most stunning. Known for its sweeping vistas of colorful desert landscapes carved by rivers into countless canyons, Canyonlands National Park draws thousands of visitors each year both with its views and its endless outdoor recreational opportunities.

With seemingly unlimited wild landscapes to explore it can be tough to know where to start an adventure. The Green and Colorado Rivers help to do some of the narrowing down by trisecting the park.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is divided into four distinct areas, each offering a unique perspective on this stark desert ecosystem. Island in the Sky is a flat-topped mesa while the Needles are tall, sharp spires; the Maze is a seemingly-endless system of crevasses and canyons, and finally, visitors can see where the Colorado and Green rivers intersect at the Colorado Plateau. The park also boasts some original Native American rock paintings inside its iconic Horseshoe Canyon.

The lack of development narrows it down even further by providing only a couple of roads into the park boundaries. Such paved access opens a door to the red rock wilderness where the scenery is enhanced by a colorful Southwest sunset that gives way to soft dusky skies and brilliant starry nights. It is very much a place to write home about. 

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like its neighbor Arches to the north, Canyonlands is served by the small but busy gateway city of Moab where visitors can enjoy a variety of restaurants, shopping opportunities, museums, and cultural events. Other small towns in the Canyonlands area include Monticello and Spanish Valley.

More on Canyonlands National Park: Ultimate Guide to National Park Tripping in Utah: Arches and Canyonlands

The weather at Canyonlands is characterized by the wide temperature fluctuations of a high desert environment; the area sometimes sees temperatures change by more than 40 degrees in one day. The summer is excruciatingly hot and prone to sudden afternoon thunderstorms while the spring and fall bring temperate climates—and crowds.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With its untamed landscape, Canyonlands offers unparalleled outdoor adventure opportunities both on land and on water. Visitors can enjoy the park on foot, horseback, or bicycle, or take to its two formative rivers for both flat- and whitewater boating. The Park Service also hosts several organized, ranger-led activities such as geological talks and stargazing parties. Check the official park calendar for up-to-date information on these opportunities.

What is today known as Canyonlands National Park is the ancestral land of Indigenous peoples including the Ute, Southern Paiute, and Pueblo people. The Indigenous story of Canyonlands begins long before European men named it such—indeed before they ever set foot in this jaw-dropping desert.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands features two on-site campgrounds which are accessible and open to RV camping. However, neither campground offers hookups and both have a tendency to fill up fast.

Fortunately, campers can also choose from a wide array of privately-owned RV parks and campgrounds in the Moab area as well as several free or low-cost dispersed camping or boondocking options.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Island in the Sky 

The Island in the Sky mesa rests on sheer sandstone cliffs over 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain. Every overlook offers a different perspective on Canyonlands’ spectacular landscape. Island in the Sky is the easiest area of Canyonlands to visit in a short period of time offering many pullouts with spectacular views along the paved scenic drive. Hiking trails or four-wheel-drive roads can take you into the backcountry for a few hours or many days.

The Island in the Sky area is the closest of the four districts to Moab which serves as a jumping-off point into Canyonlands as well as to neighboring Arches National Park and the La Sal Mountains. Island of the Sky is the place to get your 101 briefing on the area.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving the paved park loop road aside the canyons on the high mesa provides easy access to stops along the road at archeological sites as well as at trailheads that lead to easy-to-moderate hiking trails into your private wilderness. In the evening, scenic viewpoints welcome visitors to cap off a day of exploration with the magic of sunset skies.

More on Canyonlands National Park: A Lifetime of Exploration Awaits at Canyonlands (National Park)

This popular area is not only ideal for day trippers but is also heaven for mountain bikers and off-roaders who want to take 4WDrive vehicles onto the legendary 100-mile White Rim Road which provides an up-close and personal meeting with the interior canyons. 

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several short trails explore the mesa top with minimal elevation change enjoying canyon views from above. Moderate trails involve elevation such as climbing a sandstone feature or descending partway into a canyon. Long trails at Island in the Sky begin on the mesa top and descend via switchbacks to the White Rim bench or beyond to one of the rivers. All are considered strenuous with an elevation change of 1,000-2,000 feet and require negotiating steep slopes of loose rock as well as sections of deep sand.

Mesa Arch Trail is a short hike (0.5 miles) that leads to a cliff-edge arch. Mesa Arch is a classic sunrise spot and is popular among photographers. It has stunning views toward the La Sal Mountains any time of day.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Island in the Sky Campground (Willow Flat) has 12 sites, first come, first served. The campground is open year-round. The spectacular Green River Overlook is nearby. The nightly camping fee is $15 per site. Sites fill quickly from spring through fall. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. There is no water at the campground. You can get drinking water outside the visitor center spring through fall. RVs are limited to 28 feet in length.

To reach Island in the Sky, drive 10 miles north of Moab on US 191 or 22 miles south of I-70 on US 191. Turn onto UT 313 and then drive southwest 22 miles. Driving time to the visitor center from Moab is about 40 minutes. Be aware that a navigation system may send you the wrong way.

The Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles 

The Needles form the southeast corner of Canyonlands and were named for the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that dominate the area. Hiking trails offer many opportunities for day hikes and overnight trips. Foot trails and four-wheel-drive roads lead to such features as Tower Ruin, Confluence Overlook, Elephant Hill, the Joint Trail, and Chesler Park.

The Needles offers over 60 miles of interconnecting trails as challenging as they are rewarding. Many different itineraries are possible.

The Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Four short, self-guided trails along the paved scenic drive highlight different aspects of the park’s natural and cultural history. Surfaces can be uneven. Trail guides are available at the visitor center and the trailheads.

Roadside Ruin (0.3 miles), Pothole Point (0.6 miles), Cave Springs (0.6 miles), and Slick Rock (2.4 miles) are some of the most popular easy/moderate trails but you’ll likely find after consulting a map and with expert rangers at the visitor center that there are plenty of creative ways to chart your own adventure while flexing your outdoor survival skills. 

The Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Conditions of other trails are more primitive, traversing a mixture of Slickrock benches and sandy washes. Longer trails are especially rough and require negotiating steep passes with drop-offs, narrow spots, or ladders. Water in the backcountry is unreliable and scarce in some areas. Trails are marked with cairns (small rock piles). Although most trails can be hiked in a day by strong hikers many form loops and may be combined with other trails for longer trips. Net elevation change is generally several hundred feet or less except for the Lower Red Lake Trail which drops 1,400 feet to the Colorado River.

Newspaper Rock, The Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Newspaper Rock Petroglyphs in the Needles section of the park is easy to access on your way in. Having the ability to walk up to and stand face to face with remnants of ancient peoples who lived so long ago in areas that are now our national parks is a grand reminder of the history of the precious American wilderness and its long and important connection with humanity. 

More on Canyonlands National Park: Chasing John Wesley Powell: Exploring the Colorado River—Canyonlands, Lake Powell & Grand Canyon

The Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles Campground has 26 individual sites plus three group sites in different locations around The Needles district. The nightly camping fee for an individual site is $20. You can reserve some individual sites from spring through fall. At other times of the year, individual sites are first-come, first-served. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. RV’s maximum length is 28 feet.

To reach Needles, drive 40 miles south of Moab on US 191 or 14 miles north of Monticello then take UT 211 roughly 35 miles west. UT 211 ends in The Needles and is the only paved road leading in and out of the area. Be aware that GPS units frequently lead people astray.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Maze

The Maze is the least accessible district of Canyonlands. Due to the district’s remoteness and the difficulty of roads and trails, travel to the Maze requires more time. Visitors must be prepared for self-sufficiency and the proper equipment or gear for self-rescue. Rarely do visitors spend less than three days in the Maze and the area can easily absorb a week-long trip.

The Maze is the Wild West of the park—remote, rugged, and open to those who are eager and equipped to experience the Utah backcountry without signs and/or other visitors leading the way. In the Maze, you are left with the proverbial horse you rode in on, a map, your best-charted plans, your instincts to guide you as well as the company you keep. 

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Four-wheel-drive roads in The Maze are extremely remote, very difficult, present considerable risk of vehicle damage, and should not be attempted by inexperienced drivers. A high-clearance, low-range, a four-wheel-drive vehicle is required for all Maze backcountry roads.

The Hans Flat Ranger Station is 2.5 hours from Green River. From I-70, take UT 24 south for 24 miles. A left-hand turn just beyond the turnoff to Goblin Valley State Park will take you along a two-wheel-drive dirt road 46 miles southeast to the ranger station.

From the ranger station, the canyons of The Maze are another 3 to 6 hours by high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle. Another four-wheel-drive road leads into The Maze north from UT 95 near Hite Marina (driving time is 3+ hours to the park boundary). Use a map to reach The Maze. GPS units frequently lead people astray.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Rivers

Also well worth visiting in Canyonlands are the rivers themselves. The Colorado and Green rivers wind through the heart of Canyonlands cutting through layered sandstone to form two deep canyons. In stark contrast to the hot, sunny desert above, the river corridors are remarkably green, shady, and full of life.

Both rivers are calm upstream of The Confluence, ideal for canoes, kayaks, and other shallow water craft. Below The Confluence, the combined flow of both rivers spills down Cataract Canyon with remarkable speed and power creating a world-class stretch of whitewater.

More on Canyonlands National Park: Canyonlands: Colorado River and Canyon Vistas

As you can see in that basic outline of the Canyonlands wilderness, there are endless things to do and see while hiking, camping, off-roading, exploring the waterways, taking photographs, and blazing your path in this famous and also challenging park.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 337,598 acres, largest national park in Utah

Date established: September 12, 1964

Location: Southeastern Utah, on the Colorado Plateau

Designation: International Dark Sky Park

Park Elevation: 3,700 feet to 7,120 feet

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park entrance fee: $30 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days

Park camping fee: $15 (Island in the Sky), $20 (Needles)

Recreational visits (2021): 911,594

How the park got its name: Citing From Controversy to Compromise to Cooperation: The Administrative History of Canyonlands National Park by Samuel J. Schmieding, explorer John Wesley Powell designated the region “The Cañon Lands of Utah” in a 1878 report written for the U.S. government. The word cañon was anglicized in the early 20th century and in 1963 the National Park Service merged them into one—Canyonlands.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic Site in the Park: In the Island of the Sky district is Mesa Arch,the most iconic landmark in Canyonlands and among the most photographed landmarks in the national parks. The pothole arch frames Utah’s White Rim country and the La Sal Mountains—a vista view that is magnificent—and that is before the first ray of sunlight pops over the horizon. That first light bounces off of the rock beneath the arch casting an epic glow onto the roof of it framing a keyhole view of the valley with illuminated light. Every morning, photographers hike their gear along the 0.5-mile trail to the 1,200-foot-high cliff-side to watch the scene unfold, each vying for their own take of the classic shot. Photograper or not, this landmark is a must-see for any visitor to the park, just know that it is only at sunrise when you will see this magnificent light show. 

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Accessible adventure: One of the engineering marvels in the U.S. National Parks are the roads that were constructed, both recently and long ago, to enable visitors to experience America’s most special wilderness places.

More on Canyonlands National Park: Arches and Canyonlands: Two Parks Contrasted

The Island in the Sky paved scenic driving road is the easiest way to explore Canyonlands National Park in a short amount of time. It is the only paved road in this area of the park winding for 34 miles along the high mesa with panoramic views of the red rock wonderland stretching from the canyon bottom 1,000 feet below. The star of the show is at the end of the loop at the Grand View Point, the highest point on the mesa and a scene that is considered by many to be the best view found anywhere in the park.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

Canyonlands was the 31st national park and was established by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Because of its twisted labyrinth of slot canyons, what is now known as The Maze was one of the last sections of the contiguous United States to be mapped. Mapping became easier once planes were invented. 

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desert scenes from the film Thelma and Louise were captured in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.

Canyonlands is one of 11 International Dark Sky Parks in the state of Utah. Others national parks with this designation include Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon.

Worth Pondering…

…the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.

—Edward Abbey, American author and former ranger at Arches National Park, on Canyonlands

Cumberland Island National Seashore Seeks Feedback on Visitor Plan

A management plan that will help visitors better enjoy the 40-square-mile Cumberland Island National Seashore barrier island off St. Marys, Georgia is available for public review and comment

After holding daily visitation at Cumberland Island National Seashore to roughly 300 for nearly four decades, the National Park Service (NPS) is proposing to more than double that under a visitor use management plan open for public comment.

Under the national seashore’s general management plan which was adopted in 1984, daily visitation to the park has been held to “approximately 300 people per day.” The Park Service’s preferred alternative in the visitor use management plan (VUM) now being crafted says that approximately 600 people per day could be allowed to enter the national seashore via the Dungeness and Sea Camp docks and another 100 people per day to the Plum Orchard dock if ferry service was available.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“These changes would be implemented adaptively meaning the park would monitor key indicators to ensure sensitive shorebirds are protected as are visitor opportunities to experience the rustic atmosphere, quiet solitude, and wilderness character described by visitors and public commenters. Adjustments would be made based on this monitoring,” a park release said.

The draft environmental assessment on visitor use explains that the cap of 300 daily visitors was related to the number existing ferry service could handle and that the higher number contained in the plan was built around the carrying capacities of specific areas on the national seashore.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The primary goal of this VUM plan is to preserve the fundamental resources and values of Cumberland Island. The amount, timing, distribution, and types of visitor use on Cumberland Island influence both conditions of fundamental resources and visitor experiences,” notes one section of the EA. “By identifying and managing the maximum amounts and types of visitor use that areas on the island can accommodate, the National Park Service can help ensure that resources are protected and that visitors have the opportunity for a range of high-quality experiences.”

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along with increasing ferry traffic to the park which is set on an island off the Georgia coast, the preferred alternative calls for “adjustments to the locations and number of allowable campers at wilderness campsites to expand and disburse camping opportunities, establishes a few new trails to distribute use more evenly across the island, calls for limited facilities including boardwalks and a pavilion to facilitate greater accessibility for visitors with a range of abilities, provides for kayak and canoe rentals on the island to diversify the available recreational opportunities, and includes limited health and safety items for sale on the island.”

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Among the proposed changes are the following:

The park would expand camping opportunities at Sea Camp Campground by adding the three existing overflow sites to the current reservation system. Fifteen of the 19 individual sites would be available for visitors to reserve at any one time and four sites would be rotated into administrative closures to allow recovery or prevent impacts from heavy use. Parties of up to six campers would be able to reserve sites through Recreation.gov and fees would continue to be implemented for public campsite reservations. The two group sites that can accommodate up to 20 campers would remain open for reservations as well. Under the NPS preferred alternative up to 130 people may camp in the front country campground at one time with 40 campers allowed in the group sites and 90 campers allowed in the individual sites ([15 available sites x 6 people] + [2 group sites x 20 visitors] = 130 campers).

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park would offer camping opportunities at four designated wilderness campsites and maintain the number of visitors that could camp in the designated wilderness at one time. Brickhill Bluff and Hickory Hill would remain active. Additional wilderness campsites would be designated at Toonahowie and Sweetwater Lakes. Sites at Hickory Hill and Sweetwater Lakes would be accessed by foot while the Brickhill Bluff and Toonahowie sites could be accessed via land or nonmotorized and/or small motorized watercraft. The existing site at Yankee Paradise would be abandoned and replaced by public camping opportunities at Hunt Camp campground which is adjacent to but outside the wilderness area.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park would offer backcountry camping opportunities at current levels at Stafford Beach Campground and new opportunities at Beach Creek campsite and Hunt Camp campground. The designated backcountry sites would continue to be administered through a permit system managed by Recreation.gov; fees would be implemented for public camping reservations. Fees for Beach Creek campsite and Hunt Camp campground would mirror those charged for wilderness campsites and Sea Camp Campground, respectively as amenities are similar. 

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park would construct and realign South End Trail to provide a loop trail opportunity by connecting the Dungeness Marsh Boardwalk to portions of the existing trail. That new segment would serve as one leg of the loop and the beach would serve as the other leg. A new spur trail would be constructed to connect with the proposed Beach Creek campsite. A portion of the existing South End Trail that runs through the south end marsh would be abandoned and the segment realigned onto upland terrain.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park would create one new trail segment to provide direct beach access from the Nightingale Trail. A bathhouse consisting of restrooms and outdoor showers (~400 square feet) would be constructed at the junction of the existing Nightingale Trail and the new segment.

Approximately 2,670 feet of water utility line would be installed from an existing well house across the Main Road and along the Nightingale Trail. Electricity would either be provided by solar panels or by extending an existing utility line approximately 1,850 feet along the Nightingale Trail from the Main Road. These utility lines would be installed utilizing a trenching machine along existing roads and trails.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An approximately 1,200-square-foot septic leach field would be installed in appropriate proximity to the bathhouse. The exact location of these facilities would be determined during design. Additional compliance requirements would occur before implementation. A pavilion (~800 square feet) would also be constructed alongside the Nightingale Beach access spur providing shelter to visitors within the dune field.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island was added to the National Park System in 1972. Accessible only by boat, the national seashore features unspoiled beaches and dunes, marshes, and freshwater lakes, along with historic sites. Twisting live oaks covered in resurrection ferns and Spanish moss make up the island’s maritime forest shading an understory of sable palms and palmettos. Facing the mainland the island gazes across mudflats during low tide and swaying marshes. Looking to the east, visitors step through designated pathways between rolling dunes to hit the sandy beach bordering the Atlantic Ocean. During low tide, sand appears to stretch in all directions.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The visitor use management plan has been in the works since 2017. The Park Service sought public feedback on draft strategies for visitor use management in spring 2019 receiving 2,260 individual correspondences that helped guide the direction of the plan. A virtual meeting to discuss the plan with park staff has been set for November 17 at 6 pm. EST. The meeting will be recorded and available on the NPS planning website following the meeting. 

Comment period closes November 30, 2022.

More on Cumberland Island:

Worth Pondering…

Georgia On My Mind

Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through

Just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind.

Georgia, Georgia, a song of you

Comes as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines

—words by Stuart Gorrell and music by Hoagy Carmichael

The Ultimate Guide to New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

A rugged, whitewater river flowing northward through deep canyons, the New River is among the oldest rivers on Earth

Before visiting the New River Gorge for the first time, I’ll admit that I didn’t know a whole lot about it. I knew it was in West Virginia coal country and I knew that it had a famous bridge over a river. And that was about it!

But this just meant that each discovery—of an amazing view or adorable town or interesting tidbit of history—was both surprising and exciting. I love to be surprised by destinations and the New River Gorge is certainly delivered.

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

Despite its name and although it was only recently designated as a national park, New River Gorge is anything but—this incredible gorge, similar to the Grand Canyon or Columbia River Gorge of the west has been carved out over the eons by the soft but persistent power of flowing water. Along with the mighty New River itself, this West Virginia wilderness encompasses a vast and vivid 70,000-acre stretch of countryside and offers a huge array of both lands- and water-based recreational opportunities. 

Tucked into south-central West Virginia, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve (which was upgraded from National River status at the end of 2020) is located about an hour from Charleston, West Virginia, and close to small towns such as Beckley, Beaver, and Hinton. It’s also only a short distance from the Virginia border and towns in that state like Roanoke. 

New River Gorge is characterized by its carved-out river canyon which is populated with beautiful Appalachian greenery that paints the rolling hills that spread out from the water. As in most parts of the Appalachian Mountains weather can be unpredictable and quick to change but generally, you can expect temperatures between the 20s and 40s in winter, 30 and 70 in spring and fall, and pleasant summers that range from 50-80 degrees. Precipitation can occur year-round but the wettest month is July.

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

History of the Park

According to the National Park Service, the origins of the New River are almost as old as the Appalachian Mountains themselves. During the birth of the Appalachians 500 million years ago the North American and African plates collided forcing the earth up and forming mountains.

An ancient river, the Teays (once much larger, but then broken up by glacial action) drained from the steep edges of this new range and over time it got faster and bigger cutting through the mountains.

That process has continued until today and this section of the ancient river has now sliced through 1,500 feet of rock to create the picturesque canyon that still contains powerful waters. All of this history might make it the second-oldest river on the planet.

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

Before Europeans arrived in the area in the 1600s, Indigenous peoples had been living there for at least 11,000 years, according to archeological evidence. Those native groups are the ancestors of the Cherokee and Shawnee peoples who fought the White settlers for over 150 years but were forced off their land by the early 1800s.

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

Because the New River had cut through so much rock during its history seams of good-quality coal were easy to access. The industry prospered and the area was connected to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in 1873 to facilitate the moving of mined coal. Soon, towns and settlements followed and for almost 50 years mining was a primary business with at least one mine surviving into the 1960s. Today, rail yards, bridge piers, the ruins of coal mining towns, coke ovens, rusted mine cars, and other remnants of the industry can still be found throughout the park.

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

New River Gorge Bridge history

Before 1977, if you wanted to cross the New River Gorge, you had to drive down into the canyon, cross a railroad bridge, and then drive back up again on the other side. The crossing could take up to an hour on narrow, twisting mountain roads.

This crossing time was reduced to less than two minutes once the New River Gorge Bridge was completed in 1977. Today, it carries US-19 across the gorge, 876 feet above the New River.

The bridge is a modern architectural marvel; when it was completed, it was the longest single-span arch bridge in the world spanning 3,030 feet (today it’s still the third-longest bridge of its kind).

You can learn a bit about the bridge and its history in a video at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center and there’s also a boardwalk trail there that offers up some excellent vantage points of the bridge. (Just note that the lower observation deck does include lots of stairs.)

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

It all started with the Fayette Station Road, originally called the Gentry Road which was 1909. The bridge below the main arch bridge is the Tunney Hunsacker Bridge (often referred to as “the little bridge” by visitors.) It was the first bridge for cars to cross the New River Gorge. At the time that was the area’s engineering marvel.

In the 1960s, construction began on Route 19 also known as Corridor L. It needed to cross the New River Gorge and the only question was how. The answer was to build what was then the largest arch bridge in the world. Construction began in 1974 and was completed 3 years later in 1977. 

The bridge is a structure of amazing statistics:

  • 3,030 feet long
  • 876 feet high
  • 70 feet wide
  • 88 million pounds of U.S. Cor-Ten steel and American cement

Opened and dedicated on October 22, 1977, the span has since become an iconic symbol of West Virginia.

More on New River Gorge: BASE-Jump Off This Bridge on Bridge Day

The bridge is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a national landmark in engineering and is celebrated on the third Saturday in October each year at Bridge Day when the bridge is closed to vehicle traffic and people BASE jump off the side.

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

White water rafting and rock climbing

New River Gorge is called by frequent visitors has long been a haven for outdoor recreationists from across the country. With 53 miles of undammed whitewater, there’s plenty of room for experienced water sports lovers including a 13-mile section of the Lower New River that has lots of class IV and V rapids (the most technically difficult and dangerous).

In the 1990s, rafting boomed in popularity with as many as thirty companies guiding tours along the park’s 53 miles of free-flowing whitewater. One of the most popular stretches is the “Lower New,” a 13-mile gauntlet of Class IV to V rapids. Seasoned companies like Adventures on the Gorge run a number of more relaxed, family-friendly outings as well.

It’s not all about the water at the gorge, though. The sandstone walls at New River Gorge National Park ranging between 30 feet and 120 feet in height feature over 1,400 routes for climbers. New River Climbing School hosts daily climbing and rappelling courses for the rock curious looking to try their hand at sending the gnar (A rock climbing term used to describe climbing a route without falling or resting on the rope).

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

Plus, The New’s Arrowhead section boasts 12.8 miles of Boy Scout–built mountain biking trails perfect for beginner to intermediate riders. Bike rentals (and local craft brews) are available at Arrowhead Bike Farm.

New River’s rugged canyon has been well-known as a world-class rock climbing and water sports destination since it was designated a national river in 1978 but there are other popular activities there, too.

Due to warmer waters than are typically found in the region as well as 12 public-access points in the park, it’s a well-known fishing destination for smallmouth bass, walleye, carp, and other native and non-native game fish.

Detailed maps show the specific areas where hunting is allowed in the park. In general, hunting is not permitted in safety zones near public areas and the Grandview section. Hunting permits, rules, and seasons are all governed by the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources.

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

Go hiking in the New River Gorge

Within New River Gorge National Park there are about 100 miles of hiking trails ranging from easy to challenging. Most of the trails are fairly short but many can be connected if you’re looking for a longer hike.

More on New River Gorge: New River Gorge National River: A River Runs Through It

Since the park stretches along 53 miles of the river there are several different sections with trails. The most popular trails in the New River Gorge include:

  • Endless Wall Trail: This Fayetteville trail is one of the most popular in the park offering up excellent views of the gorge and the “Endless Wall” which is an area popular with rock climbers. You can do this hike as a 2-mile out-and-back from the Fern Creek parking area to Diamond Point or you can do it in a 2.7-mile loop—but if you do the whole loop, note that you’ll have to walk a half-mile back to your car along a road.
  • Long Point Trail: The other popular Fayetteville trail is the 3.2-mile Long Point Trail which leads out to a rocky outcrop that overlooks the New River Gorge Bridge. The trail is pretty tame until the last 0.3 miles when it gets a bit steep and filled with roots to climb over.
  • Grandview Rim Trail: This 3.2-mile trail in the southern part of the park connects the Main Overlook at Grandview with Turkey Spur offering up some of the most stunning views of a horseshoe bend in the New River.
  • Sandstone Falls Boardwalk and Island Loop Trail: Head down to the southern part of the park to visit Sandstone Falls, a 1500-foot-wide waterfall on the New River. A 0.25-mile boardwalk offers up great views and connects to the half-mile Island Loop Trail just below the falls.
New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic drives at New River Gorge

Visiting New River Gorge National Park and Preserve by vehicle is an up-and-down experience. While some roads travel along the rim and some along the river, others wind up and down between the two. Vistas along the rim offer views of the sandstone walls of the gorge and the river below. At the bottom of the gorge along the river, there is relatively little flat land but it provides an opportunity to view the New River and its plants and animals.

Encircling the heart of New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, the scenic drive is an estimated three-hour trip. The 83-mile route includes interstates, divided highways, and two-lane roads. The scenic drive is an opportunity to experience the park—its gorge and its river. Along the way are broad vistas as well as small glimpses of both the past and the present. Two park visitor centers, Canyon Rim and Sandstone supplement the tour with the interpretation of the natural and historic resources of the park.

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

Camping

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve provide opportunities for primitive camping only. Camping areas are located along the river. These primitive camping areas have no drinking water or hookups and limited restroom facilities. All sites are managed on a first-come, first-served basis, and reservations are not accepted. There are NO FEES for camping.
Stays are limited to 14 days in the same area. Developed campgrounds are available at state parks and private campgrounds throughout the surrounding area.

From the tantalizing glow of evening fireflies to the famous steel arc of the New River Bridge and the exhilarating splash of chilly river water below, there are a thousand reasons to smile about the New River Gorge National Park and Reserve.

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

Fact Box

Size: 46,766 acres

Date established: December 27, 2020 (designated by President Jimmy Carter as a National River on November 10, 1978)

Location: Southern West Virginia

Park Elevation: 702 feet to 3,970 feet, average is 2,267 feet 

Park entrance fee: Fee-free park

Recreational visits (2021): 1,682,720

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

Fun Facts

The New River flows north as it winds its way through the Appalachian Plateau in West Virginia.

More on New River Gorge: New River Gorge: America’s Newest National Park

New River Gorge National Park is home to 1,383 different species of plants, 65 species of mammals, 40 species of reptiles, 50 species of amphibians, 89 species of fish, and countless migratory birds.

Worth Pondering…

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 be-long
West Virginia, mountain momma

—John Denver

The Ultimate Guide to Capitol Reef National Park

Discover the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic wrinkle on earth

I’ve often said that all of southern Utah should be protected as national parkland. The entire region is filled with unusual, ornate, and beautiful geologic formations that take shape, color, and texture to a level that is truly beyond comprehension (unless you are a geologist and if that is the case you already know how special Capitol Reef is). The crown jewel of the park is Waterpocket Fold, the second largest monocline in North America, a feature that is often described as a wrinkle in the Earth’s crust resembling a coral reef turned inside out.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This one-of-a-kind landscape has sustained human life since long before European settlers knew about it. From the ancient Paleo-Indians who roamed here some 12,000 years ago to the more recent Ute and Southern Paiute peoples who were displaced from it, the land we now know as Capitol Reef has a much deeper and richer history than the average visitor knows.

Capitol Reef is perhaps Utah’s most underrated National Park. The park is about 2.5 hours east of Bryce Canyon via the Scenic Byway 12, an All-American Road. Much like Zion, the landscape is centered amid massive red rock cliffs.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated squarely in the desert, Capitol Reef sees less than 10 inches of rain per year though it does experience occasional snowfall during its chilly winter. Daytime temperatures in July and August can climb past the 100 degrees mark but the climate is generally temperate and pleasant with highs in the 40s even in December and January.

Although undeniably remote, Capitol Reef is served by a variety of small gateway towns which offer camping, restaurants, and other attractions to visitors—the closest of which is Torrey. Park-goers can also reach Grover, Teasdale, and Bicknell within a few minutes.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore a wrinkle in space-time—or at least in the earth’s surface—at Capitol Reef. Surrounding the geological wonder known as the Waterpocket Fold, the park is known for its fairytale landscape boasting a variety of landmarks like the Chimney Rock pillar, the Hickman Bridge arch, and Cathedral Valley. Capitol Reef National Park is also home to over 2,700 fruit-bearing trees situated in its historic orchards—apples, cherries, peaches, apricots, plums, mulberries, and more are seasonally available for fresh picking.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park and its surrounding areas protected under the Bureau of Land Management are full of canyons, ridges, buttes, badlands, and monoliths creating a 387-mile playground for modern-day explorers while serving up prize shots for landscape photographers. Beyond the natural landscape is a rich cultural past spanning more than a thousand years that was cultivated by the Fremont Indians and later, Mormon settlers who pioneered the park during the turn of the 19th century. Between easy-to-access areas surrounded by undeniable beauty, boundless backcountry wilderness to explore, and interesting local history, it is unsurprising that Capitol Reef National Park sees high visitation numbers despite its off-the-beaten-path location.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like many national parks, Capitol Reef is divided into separate and very distinct areas— Fruita Rural Historic District, Cathedral Valley, and Waterpocket Fold. I’ve outlined them below, there are three, and included some awesome spots to stop at in each of them. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fruita Rural Historic District

The Fruita Rural Historic District is the most popular area in the park in terms of visitation. The paved Scenic Drive starting near the visitor center travels 20 miles (out and back) through gorgeous slick rock scenery and provides access along the way to many established trails that trot off into the landscape. There is an important cultural history in this area of the park as well. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The village of Fruita was established along the Fremont River by Mormon pioneers in the late 1800s who found there a rich utopia where they could flourish as the Fremont Indians had many centuries prior. The new settlers planted fruit trees along irrigation lines that were dug by the Fremont culture, trees that remain today. With that, an opportune first stop… 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fruita Orchards

The Fruita Orchards are a popular place during the spring, summer, and fall when parkgoers file into the valley to harvest peaches, apricots, and apples. Anyone is welcome to visit open areas to sample and harvest fruit for a small fee. Healthy snacks for the trail! 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petroglyphs of the Fremont Culture

Carved into the sandstone formations in Fruita is the Fremont Petroglyphs, chipped rock art depicting animals, people, shapes, and other forms indicative of their hunter/gatherer existence. The petroglyphs can be seen on several large panels east of the park visitor center on UT Highway 24. There is parking, a boardwalk, and viewing platforms making it easy for all to catch a glimpse of the intriguing relics.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hickman Arch

No visit to a Utah national park could be complete without a sandstone arch framing the scenic landscape. The Hickman Bridge is a 133-foot natural bridge with canyon views in all directions. Getting to it is easy with roadside parking on UT 24. The trail to the bridge is a cool 1-mile.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Torrey Log School and Church

The Mormon Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS) with the help of local settlers built this one-room log structure in 1898 using natural resources found in the area that included shingles supplied by a local mill and donations of doors and windows from neighboring communities. The structure was used as a school until attendance superseded the space available. The school then evolved into a meeting house for members of the LDS church. The Torrey School and Church are now on the National Register as a historical building. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Gifford House

This rural homestead is a classic example of early 20th-century rural Utah farm homes. It was built by Calvin Pendleton in 1908 who occupied it with his family for eight years. Other private owners followed the Pendleton family until eventually, the land became part of the national park. The homestead sits on 200 acres of land and has seven rooms, a barn, and smokehouse, a garden, rock walls, and a pasture. This homestead is a prized example of earlier times and as such has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Gifford House is operated today in partnership with the Capitol Reef Natural History Association and the U.S. National Park Service which operate it as a museum and learning center to preserve and to also raise awareness of Utah’s cultural past.  

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Panorama Point

Panorama Point is an easy turn-off from US 24 and offers exactly what the name suggests—panoramic views in all directions. After following a short walk on a paved path to the top of the hill, fantastic views await particularly so at sunset. It is also a fine place to get a sense of the lay of the land.    

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cathedral Valley

The Cathedral Valley area is a backcountry dream where you can get lost in solitude while exploring Utah’s rugged and remote wilderness ecosystems. Not only is the Cathedral Valley area completely stunning but its far-flung location is infrequently visited allowing visitors a respite from crowds found in more accessible areas. There is much to see and do in the Cathedral Valley—driving on primitive roads under big skies, shooting the sunrise at cool formations like the Temple of the Sun, Moon, and Stars, camping and hiking with peace as your guides… it’s amazing out there!  

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glass Mountain

One of the coolest sites in the national park is Glass Mountain, a small formation of exposed gypsum made of selenite crystals. The textured mound looks like it is decorated by broad brush strokes of dirt exposing glassy crystals. You can find it next to the Temple of the Moon monolith and plan for at least 30 minutes to explore it. Even though it is relatively small when compared to other features in the park and climbing on its delicate gem is forbidden it is so unique and interesting that you will probably find yourself doing laps around it spellbound by the incredible textured shapes of the gypsum. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gypsum Sinkhole

Five miles from the Cathedral Valley campground is the Gypsum Sinkhole—a 200-foot deep, 50-foot wide chasm that formed when water dissolved the below-ground gypsum foundation allowing the site to cave in. It is astounding to stand over and look down into a depression like this falling so deep into the Earth, a reminder of the forces of nature always at work beneath the planetary surface. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Morrell Cabin

The historic Morrell Cabin and Corral in Cathedral Valley sheds light on how this area has been used during the last century. It was built in the 1920s on Thousand Lake Mountain by a wealthy landowner named Paul Christensen and was moved during the 1930s to its current location in the Cathedral Valley by Lesley Morrell. Locally known as “Les’s Cabin,” it once served as a stop along for cattle ranchers traveling to and from Thousand Lake Mountain where they could eat, sleep, rest, and refuel. The National Park Service purchased the site in 1970. It is listed today on the National Registrar of Historic Places.  

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Waterpocket Fold

Waterpocket Fold, the geologic feature, is a 100-mile rocky spine extending from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell. Its technical name is a monocline which citing the Oxford Dictionary is a “bend in rock strata that is otherwise uniformly dipping or horizontal.”

Waterpocket Fold, the area, is the least visited section of the national park. It has few services and few marked trails that are of course highly enticing for backpackers who want to head out into the wilderness to get lost. The Halls Creek Narrows and the Lower Muley Twist Canyon are two of the most popular spots in the park to set off from on a backpacking adventure.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 37,711 acres

Date established: December 18, 1971 (designated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a National Monument in 1937) 

Location: South-central Utah

Designation: Certified IDA International Dark Sky Park

Park elevation: 3,687 feet to 11,574 feet, alverag elevation is 6,384 feet 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park entrance fee: $20/vehicle, valid for 7 days

Camping fee: $25

Recreational visits (2021): 1,405,353

How the park got its name: Capitol Reef was given its name for the white domes of Navajo sandstone that resemble the domes of the capitol buildings found throughout the United States and for the rocky cliff formations, the “reef,” which presents a barrier to travel through this rugged terrain just as it does in the sea. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic site in the park: The massive monolith formations found in the Cathedral Valley look like church cathedrals as their name suggests and jump out from the backdrop like the subject of a children’s pop-up book. The 57-mile loop drive taken to get there passes through the San Rafael Swell, an all-terrain environment that takes some commitment (and a high clearance vehicle) to get to. The most well-known “cathedrals” are the 400-foot high Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon, each of which captures beautiful golden light during both sunrise and sunset depending on where you stand.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Accessible adventure: Ancient past meets modern present for auto-tourists along the paved park road (UT 24) and Scenic Drive, two separate roads that wind through the heart of the park in the Fruita Rural Historic District. These roads bring visitors passed rivers, valleys, orchards, historical rural buildings, petroglyphs, and aside formations made of sedimentary rock that is 225 million years old. There are nearly 40 established trails throughout the Fruita area as well as plenty of wildlife-watching opportunities, so keep your eyes peeled and drive safely.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

Utah is home to what the state calls “The Mighty 5” —Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, Bryce, and Capitol Reef National Parks.

The nearest traffic light to Capitol Reef National Park is 78 miles away.

There is no formal entrance to the national park. Payment is due at the visitor center and you are on your honor. Have honor!

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 10 sites in Capitol Reef National Park on the National Registrar of Historic Places. 

Capitol Reef is approximately 60 miles long and about 6 miles wide.

Waterpocket Fold is nearly 100 miles long.

Most of Capitol Reef is made of sedimentary strata rock ranging in age from 270 to 80 million years old.  

There are 239 recorded bird species in the national park.

Worth Pondering…

 …of what value are objects of a past people if we don’t allow ourselves to be touched by them. They are alive. They have a voice. They remind us what it means to be human; that it is our nature to survive, to be resourceful, to be attentive to the world we live in.

—Terry Tempest Williams, Exploring the Fremont

5 of the Most Underatted, Crowd-free National Parks in America

Tired of crowds? Try these underrated national parks instead

Contrary to popular belief, fall is the ideal season to visit America’s national parks. Summer is beautiful and all but there’s only so much one can tolerate with the scorching temperatures, parking lot road rage, and crowds swarming like they’re at a rock concert.

Come fall, however, the tides start to shift—kids are back in school, campground availability becomes less of a challenge, and in many parts of the country foliage turns scenic drives and trails into luminous leafy tunnels. Also, bears go back into hibernation so that’s one less thing to worry about. 

This is all well and good for clamorous national parks like Zion, the Great Smoky Mountains, and the Grand Canyon but it’s even more true of America’s more underrated gems. Of the 63 national parks not including the more than 400 national monuments, memorials, and scenic byways overseen by the National Park Service (NPS) a good chunk of them are far-flung places you’ve likely never heard of—let alone traveled hours out of your way into the vast wilderness to visit. 

These are places with the same level of the staggering natural beauty of the well-trod parks minus the crowds and the calamity (looking at you, reckless Yellowstone tourists). From middle-of-nowhere in Texas to the solitude of North Dakota, America’s least visited national parks provide the purest sense of discovery and awe be it a majestic petrified forest, ancient cave dwelling you never knew existed, or a canyon so stunning it gives Arizona a run for its money. These are the best of the bunch when it comes to underrated natural beauty not ruined by overcrowding. Follow the links below for more details about each park and the can’t-miss ways to visit each one.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

With five national parks and some of the most majestic ski resorts in the nation, Utah has a reputation for nature. However, at least a few of those national parks are notoriously swarming with tour buses and so crowded that they hold public meetings to address closure concerns. But unlike Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Arches, Canyonlands National Park is a singular beauty that offers just as much wow, without any of the woes.

Essentially neighbors with the much more popular Arches, Canyonlands is a high-desert dreamscape in southeastern Utah marked by river-carved canyons, twinkling starlight, and 337,598 acres of rusty red rock mesas, buttes, arches, and spires that look more like a Dr. Seuss fever dream than real life.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike the Island in the Sky district. The most accessible of the park’s districts (the others being The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves), Island in the Sky is an otherworldly realm of sandstone cliffs rising some 1,000 feet over the surrounding canyons. Driving out along the road offers endless overlooks but be sure and get out to explore on your own two feet for a closer look at this jaw-dropping terrain. Mesa Arch is a must-see—the enormous rocky arch is at the end of a ½-mile trail acting as a colossal frame for the deep canyons behind it. For something a tad more hardcore hike 1,400 feet down to the White Rim along the Gooseberry Canyon trail, a 5.5-mile trek along cliffs and slopes with views for days.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Climb the sandstone towers at Island in the Sky. Considering this is the place that inspired 127 Hours, the James Franco movie is about a rock climber who resorts to extreme measures to escape a narrow canyon it’s no wonder Canyonlands is a climbing mecca. Just be careful, please. Island in the Sky is also the most popular place in the park for rock climbing, especially along the district’s towering sandstone walls. Permits are not required but climbers must bring their gear, abide by a slew of rules and regulations, and most importantly, be prepared.

Get more tips for visiting Canyonlands National Park

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

With Big Bend National Park in way-out-there West Texas, you know exactly what you’re getting: it’s big, and boy is it bendy. That’s thanks to its 1,200 square miles of vast desert terrain, craggy mountains, prickly fauna, and the meandering Rio Grande carving its way along the Mexican border and forming a gigantic bend between the two countries.

Visitation to this remote park has slightly increased of late to a modest 400,000 but its still 4.5 hours from the nearest major airport and big city (El Paso) and those numbers pale in comparison to the millions who flock to the Great Smoky Mountains and Yosemite every year. It’s worth the 300-mile voyage, though, for the opportunity to hike the Chisos Mountains, float the mighty river, watch for roadrunners, and see the night sky aglow under an endless canopy of stars.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore the Chisos Mountains which is the only mountain range contained entirely within the borders of a national park. And considering that park is Big Bend that might explain why you’ve never heard of them. Altogether, the expansive desert park is a hiker’s haven with more than 150 miles of designated trails through mountains and limestone canyons. A good starter course is the Chisos Basin Loop Trail, a moderate two-mile round-trip route from the Chisos Basin Trailhead that provides stunning mountain panoramas without a ton of elevation gain. For something more strenuous hoof it up the Lost Mine Trail, a five-mile jaunt through juniper and pine forest to the top of an expansive ridge that rewards hikers with staggering vistas of the canyon below.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Float the Rio Grande. A star attraction in the park, the wide river offers a unique vantage point from which to experience its canyons. Kayaks, canoes, and rafts are all available from area outfitters or you’re welcome to bring your own. Just keep in mind that the middle of the river is the international border and while it’s perfectly fine to dip back and forth between the two countries landing is technically illegal and could turn your leisurely float trip into an arrest. The most popular aquatic outing is Santa Elena Canyon, home to the tallest canyon wall in the park. Depending on the water levels rapids may or may not exist but regardless of the adrenaline, it’s a majestic sight to paddle from Lajitas downriver through the canyon with day trips and overnight excursions both optional. 

Get more tips for visiting Big Bend National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

It’s no surprise that the most underrated Dakota is also home to a national park so underrated that most folks—even diehard nature enthusiasts—don’t even know it exists. But Theodore Roosevelt National Park stands in stunningly stark contrast to preconceived notions about a state assumed to be grassy, flat monotony.

It’s a park in western North Dakota that seems to erupt out of a sea of prairie where rolling badlands and winding rivers carve their way through a landscape teeming with bison and prairie dogs. In this region of the country where the Great Plains collide with badlands and the more mountainous west you’ll find a landscape so mesmerizingly wild complete with wild horses and petrified forests it’ll become instantly clear why North Dakota inspired Teddy Roosevelt to become a conservationist and advocate for national parks.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go wild with immense wildlife. While you won’t find grizzly bears, wolves, or mountain goats here (for better or worse) you will find an impressive amount of larger-than-life fauna. Bison are the most prominent giants here easily seen on scenic drives and hikes along with black-tailed prairie dogs whose chirping noises are like an adorable chorus. Big-horn sheep and elk can also be found here albeit rare and longhorn cattle are known to mosey through the park’s north unit. Wild horses, meanwhile, are popular denizens in the south unit of the park (the two main units of the park are about an hour apart). Although not native to the region the horses are indicative of Roosevelt’s history as a rancher and they’re one of only a few NPS sites where wild equines roam free (another is Cumberland Island National Seashore). Usually seen in small groups they can commonly be seen along I-94 and from trails at Painted Canyon Overlook and Buck Hill, the tallest point in the park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike the Petrified Forest Loop, an epic 10-mile loop in the northwest corner of the south unit. Not only are you likely to see wild horses out in the prairies but this wildly diverse trek contains a variety of different features and terrains including fossilized logs, badlands, canyons, cliffs, and wide-open plains. Start at Peaceful Valley Ranch and bring plenty of sunscreen and water no matter the season—much of the route is exposed to the sun. The Wind Canyon Trail, an easy .4-mile trip through a wind-blown canyon is a south unit sensation for its unparalleled views of the Little Missouri River. In the north, units expect to find even more badass badlands at the 1.5-mile Caprock Coulee Nature Trail. This same trailhead can be used to access the Buckhorn Trail for a quick detour to a prairie dog town.

Get more tips for visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

This a bit of a misnomer, don’t come to Petrified Forest National Park expecting a forest. Rather, hidden away in a quiet nook of northeastern Arizona along a sleepy stretch of Route 66 this nondescript park is a barren desert landscape where the only trees have been fossilized for millions of years. A far cry from Arizona’s other national parks especially the attention-hogging Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest is comparatively unvisited and untapped, a place where what brief trails exist are likely to be empty.

But it’s a worthwhile stopover for its low-key staggering scenic drives, its Jurassic-level lore, and its boulder-sized petrified logs, the latter of which are in greater abundance here than almost anywhere on Earth. These ancient remnants of a time 200 million years ago when this area was once a tropical forest filled with sequoia-sized trees. Long since fallen buried under sediment and slowly crystallized into solid quartz what remains are majestic logs shimmering with tints of green and purple. 

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive the entire length of the park. Considering that Petrified Forest is the only national park bisected by Route 66, America’s most iconic thoroughfare this park feels particularly apt for a scenic drive. Driving the entire 28-mile length of the park from end to end is one of its chief attractions. At the north entrance, the Painted Desert Visitor Center has an introductory film that provides some historical and geological context before moseying towards the southern end of the park home to the largest concentration of petrified wood and the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center. Along the way, look for scenic overlooks for views of the Painted Desert, colorful badlands, ancient petroglyphs, and luminous logs shimmering from the side of the road.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stroll the Blue Mesa Trail. This short-but-sweet one-mile loop trail combines two of the park’s primary draws, petrified wood, and badlands. This easy paved trail is located at the end of Blue Mesa Scenic Road atop a mesa that steadily descends into a desert canyon strewn with petrified wood. On all sides, craggy badlands sparkle with tints of deep blue and purple, a color scheme echoed by the colossal logs twinkling in the Arizona sun. In general, there are only a handful of hiking trails in the park and all of them are short and easy but they pack a punch. Another biggie is the Giant Logs trail, a half-mile loop behind the Rainbow Forest Museum home to the largest specimens of petrified wood in the park including the 10-foot-wide Old Faithful.  

Get more tips for visiting Petrified Forest National Park

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Nestled in the fertile landscape of verdant southwest Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is in a league of its own. The seventh national park to be designated in the U.S. and the first in Colorado it also became the first national park created to protect a place for man-made cultural significance. Declared by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 the culture and history here in indeed significant. As far back as the year 600 AD this region was home to Ancestral Puebloan peoples who built and lived in extensive cliff dwellings leaving behind thousands of archeological sites and some 600 cliff dwellings. Here in this 50,000-acre park archeology, history, and nature collide.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tour the cliff dwellings. The star attraction at Mesa Verde and something that sets this park entirely apart from anything else in the National Park Service most cliff dwellings is only accessible on pre-booked ranger-guided tours. And for good reason, because these places of immense archeological and cultural significance are delicate and vital to Puebloan history. A simple step in the wrong spot can leave lingering damage. The cream of the crop is Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America. Built mainly of sandstone bricks and mortar between the years 1190 and 1280, its Puebloan population once surpassed 100, and 30-minute tours of this veritable cliff city showcase the stunning ingenuity, effort, and engineering that went into the construction of its various rooms and structures. Whether here or at other cliff dwellings like Long House or Balcony House visitors learn about daily life for the ancient peoples who dwelled, hunted, and thrived here for centuries.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Traverse the Chapin Mesa. With a name that translates in Spanish to “green table,” Mesa Verde is indeed a lush and beautiful place for a hike and the Chapin Mesa area does not disappoint. For a route that combines more Puebloan history with immense nature tries the Petroglyph Point Trail. It’s a 2.5-mile round trip hike that starts at the Spruce Tree House Overlook before navigating stone staircases, boulder-clad passageways, and cliffs to reach the mesa top. Along the way, you’ll see a huge wall of petroglyphs, a further illustrious indication of ancient human activity here.

Get more tips for visiting Mesa Verde National Park

Worth Pondering…

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

— Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

The Ultimate Guide to Cades Cove

Here’s everything you need to know about Cades Cove

Cades Cove is the most visited place in Great Smoky Mountains National Park with millions of visitors annually. But what is it specifically about this place that attracts so many people?

One of the most tranquil and pastoral locations in America is Cades Cove. There is nothing like the stunning views of pastureland, majestic trees, rolling hills, sunsets, and roving animals. The 11-mile loop surrounds this lovely valley with several spots where you can see wildlife and take in the surrounding landscape. To help you get in touch with nature, Cades Cove has a vast network of hiking trails. Continue reading to find out more about Cades Cove.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where is Cades Cove?

Cades Cove is located just south of Gatlinburg. To get to the Loop Road, follow the Parkway through downtown Gatlinburg and enter the national park. You will pass the Sugarlands Visitor Center on the right and then you will make a right turn onto Little River Road. Stay on Little River Road for about 25 miles and you will reach the end where you will find the entrance to the Cades Cove Loop Road.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About Cades Cove

Cades Cove is the most popular tourist destination in the Great Smoky Mountains receiving more than two million people annually. The soft sandstone that previously filled the Cove was eroded over millions of years creating the valley. The result of erosion was a vast, fertile valley perfect for farming and flanked by stunning Smoky Mountains.

Cade’s Cove boasts the greatest diversity of historic structures in the national park due to the early 1800s settlement of European settlers. You can visit historic buildings along the Loop Road including restored churches, former gristmills, and pioneer log homes. Its rich past has left a lasting impression that may still be felt today. A visit to Cades Cove offers the chance to travel back in time and become engrossed in the culture and history of early Appalachia.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What are Cades Cove hours?

The Loop Road is open from sunrise to sunset all year with the weather permitting.

 Cades Cove is open to cyclists and pedestrians on Wednesdays from May to September. No vehicle traffic is permitted on Wednesdays from 8 am to 10 am so people can enjoy the loop by bike or foot.

Related article: Cades Cove: An Open Air Museum

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best time to visit Cades Cove

You want to know the best times to visit given how popular this region of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is. Let’s categorize this based on the time of day, week, and season.

Best time of day to visit

Early morning and late afternoon are the ideal times to visit Cades Cove during the day. During certain periods traffic slows down reducing congestion. Also, it is the best time of the day for wildlife viewing.

Best days of the week to visit

Avoid weekends since you will find the place crowded. Wednesdays and Saturdays are ideal days if you want to go biking.

Cable Mill Historic Area, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best seasons to visit

Cades Cove is idyllic all year round. You can always expect to see stunning scenery when you visit. Each season from snow-covered trees in the winter to wildflowers in the spring adds unique beauty to the region.

April to November is Cades Cove’s peak season. People are booking holidays in Cades Cove during the summer break from school when wildflowers and wildlife emerge from slumber in the spring. Due to the vibrant leaves, fall is perhaps the most popular year for tourists visiting Cades Cove. But if you want to avoid traffic the winter slowdown begins in December and continues through March.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife viewing at Cades Cove

Millions of photographers visit Cades Cove each year attracted by the picturesque surroundings and an abundance of wildlife. While driving around the loop you may spot black bears, white-tailed deer, turkeys, squirrels, red foxes, groundhogs, salamanders, birds, bugs, and more.

Visitors are often more enthusiastic about bears since for many it’s their first time seeing a black bear in the wild. They typically are active in the morning, evening, and night. While in Cades Cove you can frequently see black bear mothers with young cubs. But visitors should be careful to maintain a proper distance and avoid feeding them.

Related article: Cades Cove: A Pioneer Paradise

Keep reading to learn more about these creatures.

John Oliver Place, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black bear

Although black bears can be active any time of day, they are more active during early morning and late evening. In the Smoky Mountains bears seem to prefer 6 to 10 am and 3 to 7 pm as these times are cooler and more peaceful during the spring and summer. Black bears have a dense population in the park with about 1,500 living in the area. Being omnivores their diet is primarily plants, berries, nuts, and fish.

Elk

Elk can grow up to 700 pounds making them one of the largest creatures in the national park. They are most active early in the morning and evening.

White-tailed deer

Similar to elk, deer are usually active early in the morning or late in the evening. They are known for grazing in open fields which makes them easier to spot compared to in the woods. Fawns are usually born sometime in June.

Wild Turkey

Since wild turkeys travel in flocks, if you spot one, you’ll most likely spot an entire group. They spend most of their time searching the ground for nuts, berries, and insects. You’ll likely not see them in the evenings as they roost in the trees.

Salamanders

There are more than 30 species of salamanders in the national park which is the most of any place in the world. There are several lungless salamanders in the area. They enjoy dark, moist areas, and many of them live in water.

Cades Cove Methodist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other animals in the Smokies

There are hundreds of animal species that live in the area. You’ll find fish, turtles, and snakes in and around the water. Small mammals include raccoons, groundhogs, and squirrels. There are hundreds of bird species including owls, eagles, wrens, and finches. Plus, you’ll find all kinds of bugs.

Wildlife Safety

It is important to remember a few safety tips while viewing wildlife. The key element to keeping park guests and wildlife safe is to keep a safe distance. Always use caution when wildlife is in sight because they are wild animals.

John Oliver Cabin, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do in Cades Cove

It might take several days if you plan to enjoy everything Cades Cove has to offer. However, all you need for a pleasant and rewarding trip is one action-packed day. Plan to arrive early in the morning and depart in the late afternoon to get the most out of your visit. Bring a bag of lunch, snacks, and drinks. Choose your favorite activities from the list below to create the ideal fun day.

Drive Through Barn, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What are the must-see things in Cades Cove?

As you drive along the 11-mile loop you will find a variety of historic buildings, scenic views, and sights you’ll want to see. The first stop along the Loop requires you to hike a short distance to the John Oliver Cabin. Then you will come to the three churches with cemeteries which are popular places to stop and stretch your legs. Other major stops include the grist mill, the cantilever barn, and Carter Shields cabin.

Related article: National Park Fees: Great Smoky Mountains Introduces Parking Fees

Gregg-Cable House, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What can I do in Cades Cove?

While driving the loop road is one of the best reasons for visiting Cades Cove it isn’t the only thing you can do. As enter the Loop there is a picnic area with over 80 sites. A creek runs through the area and you can enjoy a lunch or snack before exploring the beautiful valley.

The wide open spaces beckon you to take to the wind and run. Horseback rides in the Cove are fantastic whether you’re an experienced rider or a novice. From places like Cades Cove Riding Stables and Davy Crockett Riding Stables, guides lead horseback excursions.

Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove Riding Stables is near the start of the Cove Loop. To learn more about the nature and wildlife of the Smokies you can go on several guided horseback trail rides. They also provide seasonal hayrides and carriage rides. Children love the fully narrated hay rides which are among the most entertaining activities in Cades Cove.

Several hiking trails start along the Cades Cove Loop. A difficult trail near the beginning of the road is Rich Mountain Loop which is 8.5 miles roundtrip. Spring is a great time to explore this trail because of the wildflowers along the path. A more moderate trail that’s about halfway around the Loop is Abrams Falls, a 5-mile roundtrip hike with a waterfall at the end. If you want to hike a trail that’s short and sweet, stop at the Cades Cove Nature Trail.

Cantilever Barn, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving or bicycling the Cades Cove Loop Road

The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road is accessible every day from sunrise to sunset although from early May to late September, Wednesday and Saturday mornings are closed to motorized vehicles until 10 am. These days the route is only open to bicycle and foot traffic up to 10:00 a.m. The good news is that tourists can ride or walk on the road at this time without worrying about sharing it with cars.

To complete the entire loop on a bicycle on these weekdays it is best to start early. Use pullouts when stopping to see wildlife and take in the landscape because traffic is frequently high during the busiest travel season and on weekends all year long. To drive or bike to the loop will take at least two to four hours depending on the number of stops and the flow of traffic.

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Driving the Cades Cove Loop Road alone will provide you with scenic views of the most popular destination of the national park: Cades Cove!

Millrace and Mill, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore Cades Cove Nature Trail

Visitors can enjoy a stroll through some of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s most breathtaking terrain on the Cades Cove Nature Trail. About 7 miles into Loop Road and one mile past the visitor center is where you’ll find the trail. Given that it is only a few miles long and is considered easy, hikers of all ages should be able to complete this hike. The stroll should take visitors an hour or so assuming a fairly moderate pace. The trail and potential sights you might view while hiking is described in brochures that are available at the visitor center.

The Nature Trail generally provides an excellent opportunity to view Cades Cove’s native plant life and there is a good possibility that you may also spot some of the cove’s wildlife. During their hikes along the path, visitors observed everything from raccoons to black bears. The nature walk is rarely busy so it won’t negatively impact your experience.

Cades Cove Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Discover the history of Cades Cove

The Smoky Mountains have a compelling narrative to share. You can explore various historical places including several old cabins, churches, and structures. The Cades Cove Visitor Center is a great resource for learning about Cades Cove’s history.

At the start of the loop, there are materials you may access to learn more about the structures you’ll see in the cove. Following is the list of historical buildings in Cades Cove to explore while driving the Loop Road:

  • Dan Lawson Place
  • John Oliver Cabin
  • Primitive Baptist Church
  • Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church
  • Elijah Oliver Place
  • Tipton Place
  • John Cable Grist Mill
  • Carter Shields Cabin
  • Becky Cable House

Though the list may seem a bit longer these are some historical places one should make some time to visit. Make sure to have your camera ready to capture these incredible historic buildings.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking trails

One of the things that attract visitors to Cades Cove is the number of adventurous hiking trails.

One of the most popular is Abram Falls. It descends to the enormous Abrams Creek Gore through areas of mountain laurel and pine forest. The walk will lead you to the impressive Abrams Falls waterfall which has a significant water flow. There is a beach area where you may unwind at the bottom of the fall.

Take Cades Cove Loop Road to get to this trail. You’ll come across an Abrams Falls sign while driving. Drive until you notice a parking lot as you approach this sign. It is a challenging trail. Hike it if you are up for an adventure.

Another favorite is the Crib Gap Trail. The route is ideal for first-timers to hiking.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gregory’s Bald is another trail that leads to a mountain covered in wildflowers. You may take in the picturesque vistas of Cades Cove and the mountains that surround it while climbing this mountain. Additionally, if you visit this location in June you will delight in the picturesque views of the wildflowers that grow on this mountain.

The thunderhead hiking trail and Rocky Top which lead to two mountain peaks and offer stunning views of the Smoky Mountains are another favorite Cades Cove hiking trail. This trek is challenging, though, so you should only go it if you have previous hiking expertise.

Millrace and Mill, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping at Cades Cove

Cades Cove Campground (elevation: 1,713 feet) is open year-round and combines the feel of primitive camping with the modern convenience of flush toilets and drinking water. Both Loop B and C are open from mid-April through the Thanksgiving weekend. During the off-season (December-mid April) only sites C1-12 and C26-61 are open to camping by reservation only. Once B Loop closes for the season generators are allowed in Loop C with restricted hours UNTIL Loop B reopens for camping. Some sites accommodate RVs up to 40 feet in length.

Are There Hidden Gems?

Cades Cove is the most popular area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and it’s not hard to see why. From gorgeous views to an abundance of wildlife and fascinating historic structures, Cades Cove has it all. There are a ton of cool stops along the scenic loop drive such as the cantilever barn, John Oliver cabin, and Cable grist mill. These stops are right along the road but there are some hidden gems in Cades Cove too.

The Pearl Harbor Tree serves as a reminder of what happened in 1941 and to honor those who died. It was planted on the day of the attack by a man named Golman Myers to mark the mournful moment. He found a small sapling tree the size of a limb and planted it in his family’s front yard. Myers passed in 1945 but his son Bernard returned to Cades Cove in the mid-1970s and chained a metal tag to the tree that reads, “Golman Myers transplanted this tree Dec. 7, 1941.”

To get to the tree, use the parking area about 3.6 miles along the Cades Cove Loop Road. Then, walk west for 0.1 miles until you see a small clearing on the north side of the road. Where the tree line on the western edge of the field meets the road is the hill you climb to get to the tree. You’ll recognize it because of the metal tag and the many American flags visitors have placed on the tree!

Related article: Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Gourley’s Pond is another hidden gem in Cades Cove. It’s often overlooked by visitors but after significant rainfall, it’s a great sight to see. This pond takes some exploring to get to because it can’t be seen from the loop. To get to Gourley’s Pond, park your car at the LeQuire Cemetery parking area past the south end of Sparks Lane. From there, walk along the loop road for about 200 feet until you see a path on your right. Follow the trail for about 100 feet, then head southwest until you see the pond.

Primitive Baptist Church, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove is home to 14 cemeteries although only 11 of them have been found. If you love learning about Cades Cove’s history and the people who called Cades Cove home then you should take the time to explore one of the cemeteries on your visit. The Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery has the graves of familiar names like John and Lucretia Oliver, the first white settlers of Cades Cove, and William Howell Oliver, the church’s pastor for almost 60 years. While you’re there step inside the Primitive Baptist Church itself and explore.

Millrace, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a less crowded way to exit Cades Cove, use Rich Mountain Road. It’s a 7-mile journey that winds through the forest and provides an excellent opportunity to see bears and other wildlife. Rich Mountain Road offers a quiet drive and it takes you to Townsend. Along Rich Mountain Road there’s an overlook that provides one of the best views of the Primitive Baptist Church and the valley below. Rich Mountain Road is typically only open from April through mid-November.

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away once in awhile and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

—John Muir

Kaleidoscope Colors and Serene Landscape Shine in Petrified Forest

It’s like Badlands meets a rainbow forest meets a desert

It may not be as famous as the Grand Canyon but no visit to northern Arizona is complete without a trip to Petrified Forest National Park. Covering over 220 square miles of Technicolor desert there’s way more to this park than its namesake fossilized wood.

Petrified Forest is also home to numerous paleontological exhibits, petroglyphs, and a wide range of living flora and fauna, including coyotes, bobcats, pronghorns, and over 200 species of birds. The park’s landscape has been inhabited by humans for at least 8,000 years and more than 600 archeological sites within the park’s boundaries reveal just a few of our ancient ancestors’ secrets.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park is situated in the northern reaches of Arizona’s high desert climate which means its temperatures vary widely both by season and sometimes within a single day. July highs can easily reach over 100 degrees while the winter sees temperatures below freezing and occasional snow. Because the weather at the park is so variable it’s important to dress in layers and bring waterproof clothing.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is located about midway between Albuquerque and Flagstaff and is easily reached via I-40. Communities in the park’s direct vicinity include the small towns of Sanders, Joseph City, and Holbrook. Winslow—of Eagles song fame—is about an hour west of the park.

Visitors come to Petrified Forest National Park to enjoy this unique and surreal landscape, a surprising splash of color in the desert’s depths. Along with hiking, backpacking, and horseback riding, the Park Service also hosts a variety of ranger-led events including guided tours and cultural demonstrations. For full details on current events, check the park’s official calendar before your trip.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unlike other tree-centric parks in the National Park System, this is a remote desert terrain with behemoth boulder-sized logs scattered across the land. The name “forest” is a misnomer in this arid land of wind-swept badlands, fossilized bones, faded petroglyphs, and petrified wood.

Located in the sleepy northeast part of the state, this is the only national park in America that’s bisected by Route 66 making it the most quintessential road trip park you never knew you needed. Plus, being overshadowed by that other Arizona national park Petrified Forest is comparatively quieter—with about 4 million fewer visitors than the Grand Canyon—but it’s especially enchanting.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With a dusty, barren backdrop reminiscent of a scene from Cars, this 221,390-acre park is a sleeper hit for geologists, paleontologists, and tree-huggers—even though the resident trees have been dead for 200 million years.

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Petrified Forest National Park

Whereas once mighty trees stood as tall as sequoias in tropical, dinosaur-dwelling jungles, they’ve long since succumbed to the powers of Mother Nature. Preserved in time, these trees were felled by raging rivers hundreds of millions of years ago then buried under sediment and slowly crystalized by volcanic ash and silica.

Nowadays, remnants of Arizona’s tropical past have long since dwindled, leaving behind gigantic petrified logs that have been almost entirely transformed into solid quartz. Serious desert bling, the logs get their kaleidoscopic shimmer from iron, carbon, and manganese imbuing tints of purple and royal green.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It may not look like much at first but this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it park is home to one of the largest collections of petrified wood on Earth, perfectly preserved relics of a prehistoric era where rivers once raged and terrifying reptilians once prowled. Composed of several smaller “forests,” like Rainbow Forest and Painted Desert the park is teeming with lustrous logs strewn across badlands and buttes. Home to easy hiking trails, Jurassic-level fossils, and ancient petroglyphs, Petrified Forest is like a road trip time capsule to a bygone epoch. Here’s what to know about visiting.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to visit Petrified Forest National Park

Unlike Grand Canyon National Park which sees more than 4 million annual visitors, Petrified Forest sees a scant 600,000 visitors each year making this one low-key park where you don’t need to worry about crowds, traffic, or a lack of trailhead parking spaces. The only thing you need to contend with when mapping out a stop at Petrified Forest is the weather. This is Arizona after all—a state whose scorching forecasts are decidedly not low-key.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thanks to its high elevation around 5,800 feet the park isn’t as searingly hot as much of the rest of the state but July and August can still see temps soar well into the 90s. And because you’re that much closer to the sun you’ll feel the burn. This being the desert, things cool off dramatically after sunset plummeting down to the low 50s even at the summer peak.

While summer is prime time for the park your best bet to beat the heat is to arrive early—unlike most national parks, Petrified Forest has designated park hours of 8 am–6 pm and there’s a literal gate on the main park road (keep in mind that Arizona does not observe daylight savings time).

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although the park sees very little precipitation, July and August are the months when afternoon storms are most likely which would be refreshing if it weren’t for the fact that rain turns the sandy landscape into one big slippery mud pit. Winter gets shockingly cool by most Arizona standards with highs in the mid-40s. Spring can be windy but dry and fall still gets some of those tapered thunderstorms but with comfortably cooler temperatures.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The ultimate road trip park

With Route 66 conveniently weaving right through the park making Petrified Forest the only national park with a section of the Americana highway, this is one park that’s especially perfect for road trips.

Related article: Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The main artery is Park Road which meanders for 28 miles from the Painted Desert Visitor Center in the north to the Rainbow Forest Museum on the southern end. Not only straightforward and easy the road is one of the most epic and enchanting scenic drives in any national park with numerous pullouts to park and gawk. You’ll also find several short and easy hiking trails going from the lookout spots heading into the quiet wilderness. Of the park’s seven designated trails none are more than three miles and they’re all dog-friendly.

Painted Desert Visitor Center, Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start with a stop at the visitor center where exhibits and an introductory film show how these once-soaring trees transformed into the bejeweled boulders they are today. Driving south, prime pit stops include Puerco Pueblo and Newspaper Rock for petroglyphs and indigenous lore.

Painted Desert Visitor Center, Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll also find must-do trails like Blue Mesa which is a prime example of quality over quantity—a short paved loop begins atop a ridge of blue-tinted badlands before descending into the desert dotted with shimmering petrified wood. For even more wow stop at the Giant Logs Trail, home to the largest fallen trees in the park including Old Faithful, a log so large that it’s as wide as an RV.

While designated trails are sparse, visitors can venture into the park’s 50,000 acres of backcountry wilderness, hiking and camping wherever their heart desires (as long as you’re at least a mile from the road).

Blue Mesa Trail, Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jurassic life

Sure, you could watch the Jurassic World movie or you can just live your best Jurassic life in Petrified Forest (without the risk of being chased by velociraptor dinosaurs), home to real-deal fossils and some intimidatingly epic history.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When these trees once stood some 200 feet tall in a sub-tropical wilderness that looks nothing like present-day Arizona the region was located further toward the Equator. It once swarmed with dinos so fierce and huge—including crocodile-like nightmare creatures—they would make the Jurassic Park franchise look like a Nickelodeon cartoon. Of the park’s insightful museums, the Rainbow Forest Museum at the southern end contains fossils and exhibits that tell the story of the region’s Jurassic-level past.

Related article: Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 200 million years later, the “forest” was once again abuzz with new residents. Evidence exists of indigenous people living here for millennia leaving behind preserved remnants like rock-carved petroglyphs at sites like Newspaper Rock.

To delve even deeper into Native American lore, the Puerco Pueblo Trail is a hop and skip to a once-thriving village that stood around the year 1300 comprised mostly of wood and mud. The most intact of the park’s bygone villages, Puerco Pueblo still has multiple open-air rooms anchored by an inner plaza that once served as a communal, ceremonial gathering place.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to camp near Petrified Forest

Around here, campground sites are even more sparse than the hiking trails. Aside from camping in the primitive backcountry, there are no campgrounds in the park, and staying overnight in an RV or otherwise is not allowed—the gates on the Park Road close at 6 p.m. and that means it’s time to go. To camp, you’ll need to acquire a wilderness permit which is free from either visitor center on the day you plan on roughing it.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Outside of the park, campgrounds—for both RVers and tents—can be found at nearby national park sites like Canyon de Chelly National Monument as well as in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and state parks like Homolovi State Park and Lyman Lake State Park.

Related article: The Most Beautiful Places in Arizona (That Aren’t the Grand Canyon)

For a private park with full-hookups, OK RV Park in Holbrook is your best bet.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unlike some national parks where nearby restaurant options are surprisingly abundant, Petrified Forest is not a foodie paradise. Holbrook is comprised mostly of chains save for a few straightforward mom-and-pop spots like Tom & Suzie’s Diner and Sombreritos Mexican Food. But you’re road-tripping here for the fossilized trees, after all, not the haute cuisine.

Worth Pondering…

Quite a forest of petrified trees was discovered today…they are converted into beautiful specimens of variegated jasper. One trunk was measured ten feet in diameter, and more than one hundred feet in length…

—Lieutenant Amiel Weeks Whipple, 1853

11 National Parks Perfect to Visit This Fall

What better place to witness the changing of the seasons than at your favorite National Park?

Every year across the national parks, the leaves shift from their familiar green into a rainbow of warm colors. With this change of seasons also come fewer crowds and cooler temps as kids shuffle back to school and winter creeps closer. I’d argue it’s one of the best times to visit most national parks—though some truly stand out during the autumnal season. 

Each summer, millions of people head into the great outdoors to enjoy America’s national parks. And while the warmer months are no doubt the most popular time to visit parks overall, there are still some parks that are just as good—or even better—to visit in the fall. Whether you’re looking for a weekend getaway or a lengthier fall vacation, here are the top 11 national parks to visit this fall.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon isn’t just one of America’s most recognizable and iconic natural features. It’s also a great destination for a fall vacation. Temperatures can be over 100 degrees in the summer at the bottom of the canyon. While it can still be warm in the area through the fall, average temperatures do start to drop down to a more manageable range of 70 -80 degrees. This means that October and November are great months to visit.

Get more tips for visiting Grand Canyon National Park

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Joshua Tree National Park

Here’s another national park that’s a great choice to visit in the fall because of dropping temperatures. Joshua Tree National Park’s desert location means extreme heat can make it difficult to enjoy the park in the summer months. A fall visit will allow you to enjoy countless hiking trails with cooler weather.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Those planning a trip will likely want to look into accommodations ahead of time—Joshua Tree National Park is fairly remote. There are two main towns nearby: Twenty-Nine Palms and a town also named Joshua Tree. Camping is also a possibility in the park but you’ll want to secure a reservation as soon as possible. The majority of the 500 campsites in the park are available by reservation.

Get more tips for visiting Joshua Tree National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Zion National Park

Zion is one of the best national parks to visit in the fall for several reasons. Firstly, the weather is more pleasant in fall than in the summer when temperatures can be brutally hot. Secondly, the changing colors of the cottonwoods and brush compliment the giant sandstone walls within Zion Canyon. Lastly, the crowds are less extreme at this time of the year than during the busy summer holiday period. It can still be busy with people looking to see the colors changing, but less so than the summer holidays.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best time to visit Zion for fall colors is between mid-October and early November. The exact timing can vary year to year but this is generally a safe bet to see some great fall foliage in the park. Fall is an amazing time of year for most of the parks in Utah so you could extend your trip and visit the other parks in Canyon Country.

Get more tips for visiting Zion National Park

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

4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is another excellent choice for those looking to see some changing colors alongside their outdoor adventure. Located on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is not only home to gorgeous fall leaf displays but also countless hiking trails as well as wildlife such as black bears and white-tailed deer.

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

Great Smoky Mountains is home to some of the most scenic fall drives in the country. Don’t miss Cade’s Cove, a lush valley surrounded by mountains and filled with history. The drive up to the viewpoint at Clingmans Dome is perhaps the most famous in the park. There are layers upon layers of mountains stretching as far as the eyes can see rich with color this time of the year.

Not far out of the park is the Blue Ridge Parkway. This National Scenic Byway links Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Shenandoah National Park. This scenic drive is famous for its views and fall colors.

Get more tips for visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is one of the lesser-visited national parks due in part to its remote location. Lesser known doesn’t mean less to do, however. The park is home to countless hiking trails, opportunities for river rafting and kayaking trips, camping, and even hot springs. Like Joshua Tree, fall is one of the better times to visit as the area enjoys cooler weather. Temperatures are perfect during October and November. You’ll enjoy beautiful warm days and cooler nights.

Get more tips for visiting Big Bend National Park

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park is covered in deciduous trees and during fall turns into a golden paradise. Similar to the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah is a fall classic and offers visitors some of the most abundant and vibrant colors in the country. This park takes on a completely new look once the colors change and it’s just hard to beat those scenic drives through the park as the fall leaves drop all around you.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah is home to one of the best scenic fall color drives in the country. Skyline Drive is the main road through the park and runs 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It has around 70 different overlooks and spending a day or two exploring this incredible stretch of road is often the highlight of a visit to the park.

Get more tips for visiting Shenandoah National Park

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Arches National Park

Another Utah park best seen in autumn is Arches National Park. The powerful dance of wind, rain and red sandstone over many eons created the 2,000-plus fantastical arches at Arches—but it did not leave much shade or shelter. Visits in 100-degree summer or 10-degree winter weather can be unpleasant but in autumn you’ll enjoy temperate conditions and smaller crowds.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aesthetically pleasing erosion is the big lure stirring the soul with unusually balanced rocks, fins, spires, and arches. The autumn light cast on the red rocks is spectacular.

The park and its surrounding area offer excellent mountain biking, canyoneering, rock climbing, and hiking. Many people who travel here turn their trip into a national park two-fer adding on nearby Canyonlands, a 30-minute drive south.

Get more tips for visiting Arches National Park

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

8. New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

The country’s newest national park, the 7,000-acre New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia can be visited any time of year—but it stands apart in the fall. October, after the heat subsides, is a particularly popular time to visit. It’s also when the annual Bridge Day event takes place (in 2022, on October 15), and thousands of visitors congregate to walk across the park’s eponymous bridge and watch BASE jumpers and rappellers descend over the side of the bridge.

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

And, of course, visitors who head to the New River Gorge in the fall will be rewarded with stunning fall foliage which arrives first in the mountains and works its way down into the valleys throughout the season.

Get more tips for visiting New River Gorge National Park

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Badlands National Park

Only a few centuries ago, over half the North American continent was carpeted in the same type of mixed grass prairie one encounters in Badlands National Park. The park retains the largest intact prairie of any in the National Park Service providing an enduring home to the animals that keep this type of ecosystem healthy: bison, prairie dogs, ferrets, pronghorns, coyotes, big horn sheep, golden eagles, and others.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the summer months, violent thunderstorms and blazing temperatures can make touring the Badlands challenging but come fall the weather mellows to the 60s and 70s. Some of the grasses are yellow in autumn too making it easier to spot wildlife and shutterbugs are rewarded with gold-hued landscapes.

Get more tips for visiting Badlands National Park

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Saguaro National Park

Named for the United States’ tallest cactus (it can reach up to 50 feet), this Sonoran Desert park is split into two parts by the city of Tucson. The Sonoran people also known as the Hohokam settled here in 2100 B.C. and built some of the earliest canal irrigation systems on the continent. The park is pitted with their ruins and tagged with petroglyphs.  

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The temperatures drop to an average of 70 degrees in October and November making the fall ideal for comfortable visits. It’s also fun to drop by Tucson in the fall thanks to its mix of Mexican and American seasonal celebrations that include pumpkin patches, corn mazes, Halloween activities, and All Souls processions.

Get more tips for visiting Saguaro National Park

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Congaree National Park

To finish my list, here’s a hidden gem! Take time to explore Congaree National Park in South Carolina in autumn when there are fewer insects and the weather is ideal for outdoor activities such as bird-watching, canoeing, and kayaking. Hike the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop Trail which is a great way to get to know the park. Pick up a self-guided brochure or join a ranger-led walk. More adventurous types may want to hike the 11-mile Kingsnake Trail which takes parkgoers through some of the more remote parts of the park.

In the winter, this park tends to flood and in summer the humidity and heat make human bodies feel like they’re flooding. But autumn is the Goldilocks time in South Carolina’s only national park devoted to the natural world. 

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree harbors the biggest old-growth, bottomland hardwood forest left in the Southeast. It’s an arboreal paradise and 15 trees growing here are the largest known specimens of their kind on the planet including loblolly pine, cherry bark oak, American elm, sweetgum, and swamp chestnut oak—all of which are over 130 feet tall. Sheltering in and among those trees are feral pigs, bobcats, alligators, river otters, and deer.

Get more tips for visiting Congaree National Park

Bottom line

It’s hard to go wrong with a trip to a national park during the fall. After all, October and November are really the best times to get out of doors and enjoy the crisp, autumnal air before the winter cold settles in. Whether you’re seeking lower temperatures and smaller crowds or you’re purely in pursuit of peak foliage, pack your jacket, bring the camera, and get ready to have an unforgettable trip.

Worth Pondering…

Autumn brings a longing to get away from the unreal things of life, out into the forest at night with a campfire and the rustling leaves.

—Margaret Elizabeth Sangster, poet

Cumberland Island Celebrates 50 Years as a National Seashore

Experience the island’s unique history, natural beauty, and wildlife during special events throughout the year

There is only one place on Earth where you can find wild horses, secluded white beaches, live oaks draped in Spanish moss, and the skeletal remains of a once-famous mansion. Cumberland is one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands along the Georgia coast. The National Park Service protects almost 36,000 acres of the island including miles of unspoiled beaches.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cumberland Island National Seashore, the southernmost and largest barrier island on the Georgia coast is just that place and this year marks the 50th anniversary of the congressional move that saved it from commercial development.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Starting in October, Cumberland Island kicks off a year-long series of events including special programs, a speaker series, and even a parade. While special events such as the Cumberland Island-themed St. Marys Seafood Festival in October are exciting enough to entice a crowd the island’s history, beauty, and wildlife are unmatched experiences no visitor should miss at any time of year.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History

Although inhabitants of Georgia’s coast can be traced back thousands of years starting with a Timucuan tribe a more concrete history begins with 16th-century Spanish missions and James Oglethorpe’s 17th-century British forts. Oglethorpe also named a hunting lodge Dungeness in honor of a beloved landmark in England. The Dungeness name and remnants of the properties associated with the land remain to this day.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After the American Revolution, the island attracted prominent families with famous pedigrees such as General Nathaniel Greene, George Washington’s most trusted officer. He and his wife borrowed the Dungeness name and began construction on a four-story mansion that would undergo several alterations over the next century. Dungeness lands then fell into the hands of Robert Stafford who purchased most of Greene’s property at auction. He built his sprawling mansion and plantation of more than 1,300 acres.

Related article: Cumberland Island: Wild, Pristine Seashore

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Civil War brought more change to the island as formerly enslaved people, locals, and others trying to navigate Reconstruction all attempted to carve out a living and a life here. Near the turn of the 20th-century members of the renowned Carnegie, family made their way to the island, purchased 90 percent of the land, and built a Scottish castle aptly named Dungeness.

Dungeness Ruins, Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dungeness Ruins

Visit the ruins of a mansion that was once called Dungeness. First built in 1884, the Dungeness Mansion was intended as a winter home for Thomas Carnegie (younger brother and business partner of Andrew Carnegie), his wife Lucy, and their nine children. Though Thomas passed away soon after construction, Lucy Carnegie went on to spend more and more time and resources on the island estate.

Dungeness Ruins, Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several additions and remodels were made over the next thirty years. By the time Lucy passed in 1916 the mansion had grown to approximately 35,000 square feet. The mansion caught fire in 1959 and only the brick and stone walls remain.

Dungeness Ruins, Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though the mansion is in ruins it remains one of the most picturesque and visited spots on the island. Visitors can walk the grounds around the house and the numerous support buildings that were part of operating the estate.

Related article: The Perfect Georgia Coast Road Trip

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beauty

There simply isn’t one way to describe the scenery on Cumberland Island; it offers a variety of breathtaking landscapes and backdrops. Take a few photographs on the island and you can easily convince someone that you have visited multiple countries and traveled many miles.

The quiet beaches bring peace and splendor together particularly in the evening when the soft lull of the waves blends into the pastel-colored sky. Walk in any other direction and you’ll run into a different kind of majesties such as salt marshes full of fiddler crabs, shrimp, and alligators.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rivers and sounds traverse through it all so that every turn is a new adventure. Point a camera anywhere and capture untouched nature in all its colorful brilliance. If you need shade, spend some time under the live oaks and let the trees serve as nature’s canopy to protect you from the elements.

Though the grandeur of nature is significant on Cumberland Island so is the architecture. Of the three dozen homes here almost all are still owned and cared for by the same families who built them. There is an affection for ensuring the dwellings capture some aspect of the scenery and many of the homes themselves are works of art.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beach

Cumberland Island is home to 17 miles of uninterrupted beach. No docks, houses, or other structures interrupt its serene beauty. The island boasts a healthy expanse of vegetated dunes that make it one of the most important nesting spots for loggerhead sea turtles in all of Georgia and a sanctuary for migrating shore birds.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Swimming is very popular but caution should be exercised. It is the open ocean and all the tides, currents, and animals that call it home exist. There are no lifeguards. There are designated crossings marked on the map providing access to the beach. These will either be trails or boardwalks. If a boardwalk exists, please use it to help protect the dunes. Crossings on the beach side are marked with a black and white striped pole along the dune line.

Related article: The 8 Best Things to Do this Fall in Georgia

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife

Imagine a world where a wild horse gallops freely in the distance and you are so distracted that you almost don’t even notice a turkey scurrying across your path. On the other hand picture, yourself stepping onto a beach just in time to watch brown pelicans diving into the ocean for breakfast.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maybe you even catch a glimpse of the endangered loggerhead sea turtles struggling to make it to sea or you tread quietly while you observe deer challenging feral hogs for foliage. Cumberland Island is a playground for all of these animals and countless others who make their home here. Whether it’s woodpeckers, owls or even armadillos the importance of preserving all wildlife and their habitat is paramount throughout Cumberland Island.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Three Ways to Experience Cumberland Island

Visit Cumberland Island for the day, camp overnight (walk-in tent sites), or be a guest at the upscale Greyfield Inn made famous by John F. Kennedy Jr.’s wedding. Day visitors and campers reach the island by taking the Cumberland Island Ferry from the Cumberland Island Visitors Center in St. Marys to the Sea Camp Dock. Guests of the Greyfield Inn take the hotel’s private ferry, the Lucy Ferguson. The boat ride itself is a wonderful way to see Cumberland’s beauty from the water.

St. Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Marys

As the Gateway to Cumberland Island and the Georgia Coast, St. Marys offers a laid-back vibe with Southern charm for a perfect relaxing retreat or an outdoor adventure. Attractions include the downtown historic district, the St. Marys Submarine Museum, and St. Marys Waterfront Park. You can visit the Cumberland Island National Seashore Museum and the Cumberland Island Visitors Center. You’ll enjoy water sports and cycling plus shopping and dining at locally owned spots.

St Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Annual events include an Independence Day Festival, St. Marys Seafood Festival, and free concerts in the park. The Cumberland Island National Seashore and Crooked River State Park are visitor favorites and popular for biking, birdwatching, kayaking, hiking, camping, and more.

Related article: Historic St. Marys: Gem of the Georgia Coast

Plan Your Visit

Celebrate the 50th anniversary of Cumberland Island at the St. Marys Seafood Festival on October 15 featuring vendors, food trucks, races, and an island-themed parade. Cumberland Island’s park superintendent is the grand marshal and the National Park Service will offer informative and kid-friendly activities such as colonial encampments, a highland pipe and drum band, musket firing, and a special 50th-anniversaryth anniversary program.

Enjoy Cumberland Island’s incomparable attractions anytime by taking the passenger ferry from downtown St. Marys, the Gateway to Cumberland Island for an island adventure.

Worth Pondering…

The beach is the draw—

17 miles of hard packed blonde sands.

You can walk forever and seldom meet a soul

—Esquire