Yes, These Are the Most Visited National Parks in 2023

The new national park visitor numbers are in. The National Park Service says in 2023, 325.5 million people visited an NPS site including national parks, national historic sites, and more. In fact, last year saw an increase of 4 percent or about 13 million visitors from 2022.

If you joined the throngs of visitors flocking to a National Park Service (NPS) site in 2023, this next statistic likely won’t come as too much of a shock: Roughly 325.5 million recreation visits were paid to the more than 400 sites administered by the NPS last year, according to statistics released February 22 in its annual visitation report.

That’s a healthy increase of 13 million visits—or 4 percent—over 2022 as the system continues its long recovery from the pandemic (The peak year for recreation visits remains 2016 at 330.97 million).

“From Kaloko Honokōhau National Historic Park in Hawai’i to Congaree National Park in South Carolina, parks are attracting more visitors each year to learn about our shared history,” National Park Service Director Chuck Sams said in a news release.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Record-setting NPS destinations

20 sites—some well-known but others not household names—broke visitation records in 2023.

Among the more famous ones were Joshua Tree National Park (3.27 million) and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (8.09 million).

But the list also includes spots such as Minidoka National Historic Site in Idaho and Washington (18,358 visits), a concentration camp that held Americans of Japanese ancestry in World War II and Congaree National Park in South Carolina (250,114 visits) which features the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States.

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

Here are the 20 NPS destinations that set records in 2023:

  • Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site
  • Congaree National Park
  • Dry Tortugas National Park
  • Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve
  • Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
  • Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument
  • John Muir National Historic Site
  • Joshua Tree National Park
  • Kaloko Honokōhau National Historic Park
  • Keweenaw National Historic Park
  • Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
  • Lincoln Memorial
  • Longfellow House Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site
  • Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park
  • Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Memorial
  • Minidoka National Historic Site
  • Mojave National Preserve
  • New River Gorge National Park & Preserve
  • Nez Perce National Historic Park
  • Ninety Six National Historic Site  
Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The NPS says despite these good national park visitor numbers, there were some struggles this year. Natural disasters caused headaches for many parks in 2023. Popular destinations like Death Valley National Park closed for long stretches last year after flooding tore up roadways.

What park are you hoping to visit in 2024?

As usual, a select few sites—the bulk of them perennials—proved to be the most popular.

Top 10 most visited NPS sites in 2023

A mountainous roadway full of ever-changing seasonal scenery and sumptuous curves landed its usual No. 1 spot as the most visited site in the US National Park system and accounts for 5.15 percent of all visits in the system. The top 10 sites (numbers are rounded down):

1. Blue Ridge Parkway (16.75 million visits)
2. Golden Gate National Recreation Area (14.95 million)
3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (13.29 million)
4. Gateway National Recreation Area (8.70 million)
5. Gulf Islands National Seashore (8.27 million)
6. Lincoln Memorial (8.09 million)
7. George Washington Memorial Parkway (7.39 million)
8. Natchez Trace Parkway (6.78 million)
9. Lake Mead National Recreation Area (5.79 million)
10. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (5.20 million)

The sole new entry in 2023’s Top 10 is Glen Canyon Nayional Recreation Area in Arizona and Utah which suffered from extensive drought along with the rest of the Southwest in 2022.

Dropping out of the top 10 from 2022 is the emotionally charged and somber Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. which still landed a very respectable No. 12 ranking for 2023.

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

Top 10 most visited national parks in 2023

In compiling a list of just the headliner national parks vs. every NPS site (which include memorials, battlefields, recreation areas, and more), a familiar name yet again tops the list for 2023:

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (13.29 million)
2. Grand Canyon National Park (4.73 million)
3. Zion National Park (4.62 million)
4. Yellowstone National Park (4.50 million)
5. Rocky Mountain National Park (4.11 million)
6. Yosemite National Park (3.89 million)
7. Acadia National Park (3.87 million)
8. Grand Teton National Park (3.41 million)
9. Joshua Tree National Park (3.27 million)
10. Olympic National Park (2.94 million)

Joshua Tree in California and Olympic in Washington state are the usurpers on the 2023 national parks list knocking out Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio and Glacier in Montana from their top 10 perches in the 2022 list.

While they garner much of the attention, national parks hosted only 28 percent of the total number of visitors to all various NPS components in 2023.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond the summer season

Visitation habits to NPS sites are changing with people finding ways to bypass the traditional warm-weather peak.

The NPS said that “data shows that visitation is increasing in the more traditional off-seasons at many parks with more visits in the spring and fall than seen in years past.”

 “Our national parks tell our shared American story,” Sams said in the NPS release. “I’m glad visitors are finding hidden gems, exploring in the off-season and finding new ways to have a great time in our national parks.”

Hoping to check out a new national park (or parkway, or recreational area, or seashore, or some other site type) this year? There are five days left this year in which the NPS will waive entrance fees at sites that would otherwise have one.

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome

10 Visitor Centers You Shouldn’t Miss

10 National Park Visitor Centers that are worth exploring

National Park Visitor Centers offer opportunities to explore the nature and history of the parks, watch park films, and get trip-planning information. Park stores within visitor centers offer books and other products related to the park.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: Stopping at the National Park Visitor Center is a must!

Our first National Park Visitor Center experience happened by chance. We stumbled upon the visitor center on our way into a park. Stopping at the visitor center wasn’t even on my radar at the time. The visitor center is now the first place that we stop when going to a new national or state park, state, city, or town and I am saddened when I see people pass up on their opportunity to stop at one.

When I was a National Park newbie (for lack of a better word) I really didn’t know what to expect from park Visitor Centers. I thought that they were just a place to stretch your legs and maybe grab a quick snack from a vending machine. But, I was SO WRONG! The National Park Visitor Centers are so much more than any ol’ dingy rest area off of any ol’ winding interstate!

Below are a few reasons that I sing the praiss of National Park Visitor Centers and highly encourage you to not pass them up!

The ability to travel and explore new places is one of the best parts of the RV lifestyle. There’s no better way to truly experience the country. You get to know the areas you travel through and you have the opportunity to participate in local events and visit interesting landmarks.

Visitor centers are one of the best ways to learn about a new area. There are countless visitor centers scattered across the country and they serve a wide variety of purposes. Some of them educate, others entertain, and others showcase interesting features of the area. Lots of national and state parks have at least one visitor center but some businesses, churches, museums, and other interesting locations have them as well.

Since I’m talking visitor centers, here’s a great related article: Why Stop At Visitor Centers?

It’s hard to define what the best visitor centers are but I’ve selected 10 fantastic options below. Check out my list and consider adding one or two of these to your upcoming travel plans. For your convenience, I’ve also provided some additional resources.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

If you’re a fan of geology or just want to see something incredibly unique, it’s hard to top Carlsbad Caverns. The main attraction of this area is the caverns themselves and there are numerous guided tours available.

Enjoy the hands-on exhibits to help you understand how the cavern was formed, discover the animals and plants that make the desert their home, and be amazed by the history of the park.

Before starting on your cavern adventure you may want to enjoy the free, 16-minute, park film Hidden World showing at the visitor center every 30 minutes. Check at the information desk for times.

Browse through a variety of gift items including t-shirts, hat, mugs, and Native American art. You can also enjoy snacks, drinks, and hot and cold meals. The bookstore offers a variety of items including books, photos, passport books, and junior ranger products.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

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

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to many interesting historical sites and beautiful natural landmarks. Begin your exploration of the park at a visitor center. Here you can pick up a park map or newspaper, have your questions answered by a ranger, and purchase books and guides to the park. For current ranger-led activities, visit the park’s calendar for details.

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

Near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Sugarlands Visitor Center is an excellent starting point as you enter the park’s North District. Learn about the park’s plants and animals with natural history exhibits. Enjoy ranger-led programs conducted seasonally. Peruse the park bookstore and shop. Access public restrooms and drink vending machines. The Backcountry Permit Office is here, too.

Sugarlands is a top-rated visitor center.

Near Cherokee, North Carolina, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is an ideal starting point as you enter the park’s South District. Explore cultural history exhibits. Enjoy ranger-led programs conducted seasonally. Peruse the park bookstore and shop. Find public restrooms and drink vending machines. The adjacent Mountain Farm Museum contains a collection of log structures including a farmhouse, barn, smokehouse, applehouse, corn crib and others.

About half-way through the Cades Cove Loop Road, pause to speak with park staff and visit various exhibits at the Cades Cove Visitor Center. Learn about Southern Mountain life and culture and see a gristmill (operates spring through fall), the Becky Cable house, and other historic structures. Enjoy seasonal ranger-led activities and peruse the park bookstore and shop. Public restrooms are available.

Enjoy sweeping views of the Smokies, weather permitting, and get your park questions answered at the Clingmans Dome Visitor Contact Station Peruse a small bookstore and shop. Public restrooms are available.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Grand Canyon National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon draws crowds from all over the country. The park offers several visitor centers including the South Rim (Grand Canyon Village), Desert View, and the North Rim. Since they may be closed during different periods of the year, be sure to check their availability. All of the visitor centers provide a great experience but the South Rim center is especially noteworthy. Trip planning and hiking information is available through exhibit kiosks and sidewalk signs outside of the building.

Park in one of four large parking lots and get your first look at Grand Canyon by walking to nearby Mather Point. With your vehicle parked at the Visitor Center, you can also board free shuttle buses and be transported around the village and out to scenic overlooks.

Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder, the park’s 20 minute orientation film, is presented on the hour and half-hour on the large screen in the theater.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Zion National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park, one of five national parks in Utah (Mighty Five) is known for its distinctive red rock and otherworldly geological formations.

Located near the South Entrance of the park, the Zion Canyon Visitor Center is an excellent place to begin your exploration of Zion Canyon. Park rangers and outdoor exhibits will help you plan your visit and make the most of your time. Inquire at the Zion Canyon Wilderness Desk about permits for backpacking, canyoneering, and other trips into the wilderness. Visit the bookstore for maps, books, and gifts.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

The Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the main facility in the North Unit of the park. Stop by to talk with rangers, explore museum exhibits, check out the Fossil Preparation Lab, or visit the Badlands Natural History Association bookstore. There’s something for everyone at the visitor center.

At the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, visitors to Badlands National Park can get answers to their questions from rangers at the information desk. There, park staff can distribute maps and other park materials, provide directions and local area orientation, hand out Junior Ranger booklets, and answer any questions you might have about earth science, wildlife, history, and more. There is also a self-serve passport stamping station at the information desk.

If you’re not stopping by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center during your trip to the Badlands, you can also access rangers at the White River Center, via email or by calling (605) 433-5361

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Sequoia National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Sequoia and Kings National Parks, California

The park’s visitor centers, ranger stations, and a museum offer opportunities to explore the nature and history of these parks, watch park films, and get trip-planning information. Park stores within visitor centers offer books and other products related to the park. All purchases in these stores support park programs through the Sequoia Parks Conservancy.

While the parks are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, not all visitor centers are open year-round. Some close seasonally.

Foothills Visitor Center is one mile past the Ash Mountain entrance station along the Generals Highway. Stop here for information, maps, books, gifts, and restrooms. Browse exhibits about the ecology and human history of the foothills and join a free ranger-led program.

Giant Forest Museum is housed in a historic market in the Giant Forest sequoia grove at 6,500 feet elevation. Explore exhibits about sequoias and learn why this landscape grows the biggest of big trees. Stop here before you explore the grove. During wilderness permit non-quota season, permits can be picked up at a self-issue station outside the museum.

Kings Canyon Visitor Center is in Grant Grove Village at an elevation of 6,500 feet. Learn about three regions in Kings Canyon National Park: giant sequoia groves, Kings Canyon, and the High Sierra. Watch a 15-minute movie. A park store sells books, maps, and educational materials.

Located in the conifer zone at an elevation of 6,700 feet, Lodgepole Visitor Center provides opportunities to view exhibits, get trip planning advice, get a wilderness permit, watch several park films, or shop at the gift shop. New exhibits immerse visitors in the wilderness environments of the parks, from the foothills to the highest peaks and to underground caves, as well as exploring the human history of the southern Sierra Nevada with tactile exhibits and soundscapes from every park environment.

Cedar Grove Visitor Center is next to the South Fork of the Kings River in mixed conifer forest at an elevation of 4,600 feet. Learn about the natural and cultural history of the Cedar Grove area. Nearby services include accessible restrooms and a pay phone.

Located in a mixed-conifer forest at 7,600 feet, the Mineral King Ranger Station houses some exhibits on Mineral King’s human and natural history. Food storage canisters are available. Obtain wilderness permits here.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaro National Park is separated into two districts: Rincon Mountain District (East) and Tucson Mountain District (West), each with their own visitor center.

Red Hills Visitor Center (Saguaro West) Tucson Mountain District has cultural and natural history exhibits of the Sonoran Desert.

The visitor center at Saguaro East is smaller and more rustic. There is an interesting and well done exhibit just outside the center that walks you past about 15 major plants that live in the Sonoran Desert. You can see the living plant and plaque with a name and description of each plant.

Both visitor centers are open all year from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm everyday except Christmas where you can view  a 15 minute program called Voices of the Desert giving a Native American perspective of the Sonoran Desert. There is also a bookstore operated by the Western National Parks Association.Various Ranger guided programs are held throughout the year. During the winter months (November to mid-April) several different programs are offered daily.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Congaree National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

The Harry Hampton Visitor Center is open year-round. It is the main hub for Congaree National Park which is the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the U. S. and home to one of the largest concentrations of champion trees. The center is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. 

Visitors can find the Congaree National Park Passport Stamp at the center. Restrooms and a small gift shop can be found at the center. The Whippoorwill Cafe & Bakery and A Charming Country Cottage Nestled in the Woods are restaurants near the center.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Arches National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches Visitor Center is located at the entrance of Arches National Park just off U.S. Highway 191 about 5 miles north of Moab. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. except December 25. The center offers indoor and outdoor exhibits, a bookstore, and restrooms that can be accessed 24 hours a day.Visitors can learn about the park’s history, geology, climate, and wildlife.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Petrified Forest National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park is connected by the 28-mile-long Main Park Road which winds past viewpoints, trailheads, and other attractions. Visitors can get up close to petrified logs by wandering along trails in the park’s southern section. Petrified Forest National Park is a high-desert geologic treasure chest that features loads of petrified wood and eye-popping views of The Painted Desert, which sweeps through the park

Painted Desert Visitor Center is located at exit #311 off of I-40 in Petrified Forest National Park. It provides information, brochures, book sales, exhibits, restrooms, and a gift shop.The center is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm year-round with extended hours as staffing permits.

The Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center is located to the south and offers exhibits, books and gifts, limited food service, and restrooms.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Worth Pondering…

National parks are sacred and cherished places—our greatest personal and national treasures. It’s a gift to spend a year adventuring and capturing incredible images and stories in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.

—Jonathan Irish, photographer

The Complete Guide to Zion National Park

Cathedral-like canyons and majestic sandstone cliffs create a wondrous landscape

A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church—this is Zion.
—Isaac Behunin, 1861

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

The Southern Paiute called it Mukuntuweap meaning straight-up land. They found sanctuary and sustenance within the sheer walls of Zion Canyon harvesting plants and seeds for food and medicine and cultivating corn, squash, and sunflowers near the Virgin River. When Mormon settler Isaac Behunin built a cabin on the canyon floor in 1863 he was inspired to proclaim, “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church—this is Zion.”

Zion National Park’s more than 148,000 acres sit at the junction of the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin, and the Mojave Desert in Utah’s southwest corner. The fusion of these distinct geographical regions created the park’s wondrous landscape which comprises six unofficial sections: the Main (Zion) Canyon, Desert Lowlands, Kolob Canyons, Kolob Terrace, Upper East Canyon, and Zion Narrows.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These ecosystems nurture verdant hanging gardens spilling with maidenhair ferns and high-country forests teeming with aspens and ponderosa pines. They provide refuge for abundant wildlife from tiny endemic Zion snails to bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, and the critically endangered California condors. But despite the richness of its flora and fauna, the real star of Zion’s show is the scenery—Navajo sandstone cliffs, soaring rock spires, and a spectacular gorge carved over millennia by the Virgin River’s powerful surge.

Today Zion attracts 4.5 million visitors annually from the most adventurous rock climbers to laid-back sightseers looking to enjoy an easy hike and continues to evoke a profound sense of awe in all those who witness its splendor.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

St. George offers the easiest access to Zion National Park. From there it’s only 45 miles northeast to the charming gateway town of Springdale and Zion’s main entrance. But many people drive 165 miles northeast from Las Vegas through vast swaths of the Mojave Desert to Springdale.

Zion National Park is open year-round and each season frames a unique view of the park’s beauty. Only a fraction of visitors come between December through February when daytime temperatures hover around 50 degrees and dip below freezing at night. Quiet trails and scenes of fiery vermilion sandstone dusted with snow reward those who brave the chill.

March and April deliver temperatures ranging from 35 to 70 degrees and an influx of spring-break travelers as snowmelt feeds waterfalls and wildflowers.

The mercury begins to rise in May and by mid-June daytime temperatures climb into the triple digits where they linger until September. Fortunately, they drop to 60 to 70 degrees late in the evening. An early-morning start, frequent water breaks, and seeking out shady trails are the keys to summer in the park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the perfect mix of comfortable weather with temperatures ranging from 70 degrees during the day to 40 at night, fewer crowds and affordable lodging options, late September through November is ideal. Though the days are shorter, trails and services should be fully operational and the cottonwoods will be decked out in autumn’s golden glory.

The park’s visitor centers, shuttles, museum, restrooms, buses, picnic areas, and Zion Lodge are all fully accessible and several campsites in the Watchman Campgroumd are reserved for those with disabilities. Additionally, all shuttle stops have benches and many trails have flat rocks perfect for resting a spell. Rocking chairs on Zion Lodge’s porch offer a lovely place to while away an hour in the shade.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bulk of the park’s action happens in Zion Canyon which visitors can access only via free park shuttles from March to November and during peak holiday periods. These shuttles make nine stops at major trailheads and points of interest along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Visitors are only allowed to drive on that road and access the canyon in their cars during those times of the year the shuttles aren’t running.

When they’re operating, park at the main entrance and board a bus at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center but be aware that lots fill early especially during the busy summer months. A second shuttle stops at multiple points along Zion Park Boulevard in Springdale, making it easy to leave your car at your hotel or in the town’s paid parking areas and avoid the hullabaloo at the main entrance.

Though most visitors never venture beyond Zion Canyon you can easily escape the masses in other park sections. You can drive to trailheads and viewpoints in seldom-explored areas along the Zion–Mount Carmel Highway (which links Zion Canyon Scenic Drive to the park’s East Entrance) and in Kolob Canyon, about 45 miles north of Zion Canyon.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat

Built in 1925 and restored to its original stone-and-timber charm in 1990, the Craftsman-style Zion Lodge, the only in-park hotel sits right in the heart of Zion Canyon. Set against a majestic red rock backdrop, its 81 rooms and 40 cabins sprawl across a verdant expanse of lawn shaded by a 100-year-old Fremont cottonwood tree. Request a room or cabin with a porch overlooking the lawn and surrounding cliffs.

Dine on upscale fare with desert flair at the lodge’s Red Rock Grill—and sit out on the outdoor terrace for gorgeous canyon views. Two menu standouts: chili tacos made with Navajo fry bread and a locally sourced bison burger topped with cheddar cheese and jalapeños.

Open seasonally, the Castle Dome Café which serves snack-bar favorites such as hot dogs and ice cream on a shady patio makes for a good pit stop if you have wilting grandchildren in tow.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a heftier dose of the great outdoors, put down roots at one of two campgrounds for RVs and tents near Zion Canyon Visitor Center. The South Campground (open March–November) has 117 sites (three accessible) encircled by towering cliffs between the Virgin River and the popular Pa’Rus Trail. Tucked at the foot of Zion’s iconic Watchman rock formation, the eponymous Watchman Campground (open year-round) offers 197 sites (seven accessible plus additional flat sites with easy access). Both campgrounds have restrooms but only Watchman has some sites with electricity. Just outside the park entrance at Zion Outfitter in Zion Canyon Village you’ll find token-operated showers and laundry facilities.

Campsite reservations which are highly recommended can be made for the South Campground two weeks in advance; for Watchman up to six months in advance. Permits cost $20 to $130 nightly.

Backcountry camping is available May through September at the first-come-first-served Lava Point Campground off Kolob Terrace Road, about an 80-minute drive south from the park’s main entrance. It has just six (free) primitive campsites with pit toilets but no water.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Zion Canyon section

Zion National Park’s main attraction is Zion Canyon. Fifteen miles long and nearly 3,000 feet deep in some spots the canyon wows visitors with some of the park’s most dramatic scenery including the Court of the Patriarchs, the Great White Throne, and the Towers of the Virgin. Walking among these sandstone monoliths with their massive, multilayered peaks streaked with iron oxide feels like being in a giant’s sculpture garden.

Get oriented at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center where you’ll find trail maps, helpful rangers, and the canyon shuttle. The shuttle ride and accompanying recorded narration is a relaxing way to experience Zion Canyon’s highlight reel. It takes about 40 minutes to travel the 6.6 miles from the visitor center to the last stop at the Temple of Sinawava, a soaring stone amphitheater named for the coyote god of the Paiute people. Hop on or off at any of the shuttle stops along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the second stop, don’t miss the new film We the Keepers created by the not-for-profit Zion Forever Project. The 23-minute film plays throughout the day at the Human History Museum providing a moving overview of the park and its stewards. Museum exhibits showcase the natural and cultural phenomena that helped make Zion what it is today. On the patio, park rangers give talks on everything from survival tactics of the park wildlife to Zion’s fascinating geology.

Visitors can best experience Zion’s beauty by trekking any of its 35-plus trails totaling more than 90 miles and in Zion Canyon those with mobility issues or those looking to go on an easy bike ride should set out on the Pa’Rus Trail. Named for the Paiute word meaning bubbling, tumbling water, the trail starts just north of the Zion Canyon Visitor Center at the South Campground and follows a paved, 1.7-mile path through beautiful open canyon.

Another easy, magical hike in the canyon, the 1.1-mile Riverside Walk (the first 0.4 miles fully accessible) begins at the final shuttle stop and traces the edge of the Virgin River. Along the way, lush foliage spills from weeping canyon walls and cathedrals of rock envelop you on all sides.

The trail ends at the entrance to the Narrows hike which leads into the legendary slot canyon that marks Zion Canyon’s narrowest section: About two miles into the gorge the sheer, 1,000-foot canyon walls flanking the Virgin River close in leaving just 20 feet between them.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re an adventure-seeker planning to hike the Narrows come prepared with closed-toed, waterproof hiking boots—you’ll be wading through the river much of the time—and a walking stick to help navigate the slippery riverbed. Some people liken it to walking on wet bowling balls. Don’t dismay if you decide to turn back early: Even a short foray into the canyon delivers a memorable experience.

You might also like saddling up and exploring the canyon on horseback, a fun way to cover more ground than you might on foot. At the corral for Canyon Trail Rides, across the road from Zion Lodge, join a one-hour excursion along the Virgin River to the Court of the Patriarchs, three towering terracotta-hued peaks named for the biblical figures Abraham, Isaacm and Jacob.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In other park sections

Some of the park’s other areas offer unsung hiking paths and gorgeous overlooks minus the canyon’s crowds and plenty are accessible by car.

One excellent option: a drive along the Zion–Mount Carmel Highway, a 10-mile stretch of twisting switchbacks and stunning vistas that links the Main Canyon to the park’s eastern boundary. Kick things off with a stop at the Canyon Junction Bridge—the view over the Virgin River with the giant rock buttress Watchman in the distance is particularly spectacular at sunset. In about 3.5 miles, you’ll reach the Zion–Mount Carmel Tunnel where six huge windows cut into its sandstone walls deliver a fleeting glimpse of the canyon below.

For another splendid drive, take the road even less traveled and head 45 miles north of Springdale to the park’s Kolob Canyons section, a vast maze of towering crimson finger canyons replete with solitude and breathtaking wilderness. The Kolob Canyons Viewpoint, a 10-minute drive from the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center makes a perfect picnic spot. From there, a gentle jaunt on the half-mile-long Timber Creek Overlook Trail leads along the ridgeline and boasts scenery that rivals anything you’ll see in Zion Canyon.

Springdale © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway towns

With its small-town atmosphere, sweeping canyon views and location just outside the park’s South Entrance, Springdale makes an ideal home base for exploring Zion National Park and offers multiple diversions including art galleries when your feet need a break from hiking.

For accommodations, you’ll find everything from chain hotels to boutique resorts, cozy inns, and vintage motels along Zion Canyon Boulevard, the town’s main drag.

For lunch-to-go on your way to the park, pick up gourmet panini from Café Soleil. Later, reward a day of hiking and exploring with a cold craft beer at Zion Brewery then head to local favorite Oscar’s Café for its huge burgers and delicious, Mexican-inspired pub grub. Or wash off the dust and go upscale at King’s Landing Bistro. Whet your appetite with a King’s Ol’ Fashioned made using Utah-distilled High West Campfire Whiskey before tucking into dishes such as rabbit cacciatore over polenta.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route

Many Zion visitors drive north from Las Vegas. For the first 100 miles or so the highway beelines through barren desert lowlands passing through a small corner of the rugged swath of land between the Grand Canyon and the Utah border known as the Arizona Strip.

About 40 miles outside Vegas take a short detour to visit Valley of Fire State Park. On the 10-mile Scenic Byway that winds through the park several easy hikes lead to arches, petroglyphs, and pinnacles. Two popular ones: Fire Wave and Rainbow Vista.

Nestled into Utah’s southwest corner, the Greater Zion region is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts and culture seekers alike. Spend some time here before going on to the park basing yourself in the vibrant hub city of St. George. Check into the family-owned Inn on the Cliff for panoramic views of the red rock landscape, or the Advenire, a luxe new downtown property.

At Sand Hollow State Park in Hurricane, 18 miles northeast of St. George, try stand-up paddleboarding on the reservoir during warm-weather months or head into the dunes on a guided ATV excursion with ATV Adventures year-round.

Sand Hollow offers a variery of camping amenities. Westside, Sandpit, and Lakeview campgrounds have fire pits, tables, and access to restrooms with showers. Westside Campground offers full hook-up sites at $50 per nighy. Lakeview Campground has partial hook-ups ($45) and full hookup sites ($50).

 In Ivins, nine miles northwest of St. George, browse the galleries at the Utah-centric Kayenta Art Village and take in a show at the Tuacahn Center for the Arts, a natural sandstone amphitheater featuring a seasonal lineup of Broadway-caliber performances.

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Fact box

  • Location: Utah’s southwest corner
  • Acreage: More than 148,000 acres
  • Highest peak: Horse Ranch Mountain, 8,726 feet
  • Lowest point: Coalpits Wash, 3,666 feet
  • Miles of trails: More than 90 miles along more than 35 trails
  • Main attraction: Zion Canyon
  • Entry fee: $35 per vehicle, valid for seven consecutive days; $20 for an annual Senior Pass (62+)
  • Best way to see it: The Zion Canyon Shuttle (from mid-March through November) which makes nine stops on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive
  • When to go to avoid the crowds: Late September through November

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

Look to the Stars! National Parks Stargazing Festivals (2024)

Stargazing season is amazing! Enjoy the night skies at their brightest at National Parks stargazing festivals.

National parks are helping visitors make the most of their dark skies by hosting stargazing festivals. The festivals include various night-time events in addition to stargazing. 

These events are right around the corner so bust out your stargazing kit and get going!

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dark Sky National Parks

National parks are becoming night sky havens since they have less exposure to light pollution. Dozens of national parks are even designated Dark Sky Parks because of their “exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights…”

Some national parks with the official Dark Sky Park classification are:

You’ll notice Utah is a big hitter when it comes to stargazing. There are so many incredible places to not only see during the day but also to be mesmerized by at night!

That’s why it’s no surprise that my posts on Southern Utah are some of my most popular posts. Here’s a sampling:

I also have an article on the Best National Parks for Stargazing.

National Parks Stargazing Festivals (2024)

These annual events are held at similar times annually so if you’ve missed one you can start planning for next year. 

National parks often host many stargazing activities and events throughout the year so check for those whenever you plan to visit.

Pro tip: If you plan on visiting multiple national parks, you can save a lot of money by getting an America the Beautiful Pass.

Alrighty, let’s take a look at the national parks stargazing festivals 2024.

Death Valley Dark Sky Festival, March 1-3

Death Valley is known for some of the best stargazing in America. It’s even designated a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park, the highest rating of darkness.

During the Death Valley Dark Sky Festival visitors can enjoy the stunning night sky as well as special events like the Exploration Fair, auditorium talks, astrophotography meetups, and more.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon Star Party, June 1-8

Grand Canyon National Park is known for its breathtakingly beautiful rugged terrain. But did you know it also hosts some of the most beautiful night skies around? 

You can take in those skies in early June at their annual Star Party. The event is free but you must still pay to enter the park. The park fee is good for the North and South rims for seven days. 

The event starts at sunset and the best viewing time is after 9 pm. Most telescopes will be taken down at 11 pm although some folks still share theirs after that when the skies are crisp and clear.  

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival, June 5-8

Bryce Canyon National Park is located in southern Utah. This park has such excellent night sky viewing that it earned its dark-sky designation in 2019!

Come view the reddish-colored hoodoos during the day and then return for its spectacular nighttime views.

Their Annual Astronomy Festival includes lectures, star stories presentations, and guided stargazing sessions. Last year, they had a performance by an Arizona string quartet called Dry Sky Quartet and other family-friendly activities. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Annual Badlands Astronomy Festival, July 5-7

South Dakota is home to Badlands National Park which boasts exciting fossil beds and unique geologic formations. You can see things like sod tables and clastic dikes during the day then stay to take advantage of their dark night skies. 

The Badlands Astronomy Festival partners with the NASA South Dakota Grant Consortium. Their festival typically includes guest speakers, telescopes, sky viewing, and a guided walk through a scaled solar system model!

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah Night Sky Festival, August 11-13

Shenandoah National Park is a gorgeous gem in the Blue Ridge Mountains in north-central Virginia. In fact, this almost 200,000-acre park is so breathtaking that I have done several posts about it:

You can view its cascading waterfalls, wildflower fields, and quiet woods daily then stay for its spectacular nighttime views.  

The other great thing about this park is its location. It is only a 75-mile drive from Washington, D.C. So, you’re close to many historical sites and museums as well.

Their annual stargazing event hosts public stargazing sessions.

The event includes ranger talks, other lectures and presentations, and family-friendly activities. The guest presentations include a span of topics, including space travel, space weather, and our future in space. 

The event is free with park admission. 

Great Basin Astronomy Festival, September 5-7

The Great Basin National Park might be for you if you prefer to avoid crowds. It is one of the least crowded national parks! 

The 77,000-acre park in eastern Nevada also has a research-grade observatory! 

This fall, you can attend their 15th annual stargazing event. This year’s festival will have many of the same events as 2023 with new guest speakers, ranger programs, and art projects.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree Night Sky Festival, October (Dates TBA)

Joshua Tree National Park is designated as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).

Every year, the park and non-profit organizations Joshua Tree Educational Experience (JTREE) and Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center partner to bring this incredible stargazing event. 

The Night Sky Festival is a ticketed event and has a limited capacity. They haven’t announced the 2024 dates yet, but it’s typically held around the second weekend of October. You can click that link to see if they’ve updated their website with dates and ticket information.

It is usually located just outside the park limits at the Sky’s The Limit Nature Observatory and Nature Center. Tickets go on sale in early summer. 

Worth Pondering…

I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly—or ever—gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.

—Brian Greene

The Best National Parks to Visit in March

If you are seeking the best national parks to visit in March, this guide’s for you! It will detail eight beautiful National Parks to visit in March, why you should go to them, and what to expect during this month.

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

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.

Planning a trip to America’s national parks in March but don’t know which ones to visit? March brings warmer temperatures to most of the US. Travel begins to pick up during this month both because of the warmer weather and because families are hitting the road for spring break. There are many great national parks to visit in March which I cover in this guide plus eight bonus parks and two road trip ideas that links several of these national parks together.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

This guide is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Roads can close in the national parks at any time so I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip. 

Visiting the National Parks in March

March is a great month to visit the national parks. With the warmer temperatures and the beginning of spring, the list of parks that you can visit without braving freezing temperatures gets larger. The days are getting longer, flowers start to bloom, and in some parts of the US, trees begin to get their first leaves.

Overall, park visitation still remains low for the year but there are a few hotspots that get busier as people visit the national parks for spring break. Even so, crowds are still quieter than the summer which is the busiest time to visit most national parks.

Best National Parks in March

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Arches National Park

Location: Utah

This small, easy to visit national park is a joy to explore. It’s also the feature photo for this post.

You can see several arches and unique rock formations without ever stepping out of your car. With just a little bit of walking you can visit many of the top sights in Arches National Park such as the Windows and Double Arch. And for those who like hiking don’t miss the Devils Garden Trail, a thrilling hike where you get to see eight arches and hike on a primitive trail.

Why visit Arches in March: March is a great time to visit Arches National Park because the weather is getting warmer and crowds are still relatively low for the year. In 2022, Arches National Park had 142,000 visitors in March. Peak visitation for that year was in May when 172,000 people visited the park. If you want to visit Arches with even lower crowds plan your visit from December through February but be prepared for freezing temperatures.

Weather: In March, the average high is 62°F and the average low is 37°F. Rainfall is very low. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 7:25 pm.

Top experiences: Hike to Delicate Arch, see Balanced Rock and the Fiery Furnace, visit Double Arch, Turret Arch, and Windows Arch, hike Park Avenue.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Devils Garden Trail. To reach Landscape Arch, one of the most iconic arches in the park, it is only 1.6 miles round trip. But for the ultimate adventure, continue past Landscape Arch to Double O Arch and Dark Angel and return on the Primitive Trail.

How much time do you need? One day in Arches is all you need to see the highlights but it will be a very busy day. With two to three days, you can visit the park at a more leisurely pace or go off the beaten path.

Plan your visit

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Canyonlands National Park

Location: Utah

Canyonlands National Park is one of my favorite national parks. Why? The landscapes, the hiking trails, and the off the beaten path experiences make this one of the top parks for those who crave adventure.

Journey below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa for an unforgettable experience. Drive the twisting Shafer Canyon switchbacks onto the White Rim and then spend a few days driving through remote landscapes. Called the White Rim Road, this is one of the best experiences in the national park system.

You can also explore The Needles, where zebra-striped rocks form one of the most unique hiking destinations in the US.

Why visit Canyonlands in March: Just like Arches, park visitation remains relatively low and the warmer temperatures make March a better time to visit than the winter months. Canyonlands only gets a fraction of the visitors that flood Arches National Park so this park will feel delightfully empty compared to Arches. March is also a good time to drive the White Rim Road since permits are a little easier to get than late spring through early fall.

Weather: The average high is 54°F and the average low is 35°F. Rainfall is low. Even though Canyonlands sits next to Arches National Park it is at a higher elevation so the temperatures are a bit lower here.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 7:25 pm.

Top experiences: Visit the overlooks on Island in the Sky, watch the sunrise at Mesa Arch, go hiking in The Needles, drive Shafer Canyon Road, hike below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa, and explore The Maze.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Drive or mountain bike the White Rim Road. This is a 100-mile unpaved road that makes a loop around the Island in the Sky mesa. It takes 2 to 3 days to do this drive. It can be done in the winter but snow can close Shafer Canyon Road and cold temperatures will make camping uncomfortable for some people.

How much time do you need? You need at least two full days in Canyonlands National Park. Spend one day in Island in the Sky and one day in the Needles. But even more time is better if you want to venture deeper into the park.

Plan your visit

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Capitol Reef National Park

Location: Utah

Capitol Reef National Park is an underrated gem in the national park system.

This national park is full of many wonderful surprises. With an amazing scenic drive, hiking trails that rival those in Zion, rugged, remote areas to explore by 4×4, short, easy slot canyons, historical landmarks, and even delicious pie, this is another one of my favorite national parks.

Most people drive right through the heart of the park visiting the sights along Highway 24 which are nice. But those who venture farther into the park either on the hiking trails or the backcountry roads are rewarded with incredible views of remote, rugged landscapes.

Why visit Capitol Reef in March: Temperatures are finally getting a bit warmer and crowd visitation is relatively low. You could still have some cold mornings but Capitol Reef warms up nicely during the day and the cooler temperatures make this a great time to go hiking.

Weather: In March, the average high is 57°F and the average low is 34°F. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 7:30 pm.

Top experiences: Drive the 16-mile round-trip drive along Scenic Drive, drive Capitol Gorge Road, hike to Hickman Bridge, and watch the sunset from Sunset Point, hike to Cassidy Arch, and Loop the Fold.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate Adventure: For the ultimate adventure, drive the Cathedral Valley Loop. This rugged, remote district of Capitol Reef National Park is one of the best backcountry experiences in the national parks if you like exploring by 4WD.

How much time do you need? Plan to spend three to four days in Capitol Reef. This gives you enough time to explore and hike the trails in the core of the park (along Scenic Drive and Highway 24) and venture into the backcountry, either in Cathedral Valley or by looping the fold.

Plan your visit

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Bryce Canyon National Park

Location: Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is a fantasyland of hoodoos, bizarre rock formations, and sandstone pillars.

This is an extraordinary place to visit and its unique landscape sets it apart from other national parks. Although Bryce Canyon may not have the same sweeping, expansive vistas as the Grand Canyon, it’s still a breathtaking experience the first time you see this view.

Why visit Bryce Canyon in March: For the chance to see Bryce Canyon with a dusting of snow. Temperatures are a bit warmer than January and February but snowfall is a possibility especially at the beginning of the month so you don’t have to brave frigid temps for the chance to see Bryce Canyon covered in snow.

Weather: In March, the average high is 46°F and the average low is 23°F. There is a good chance of snow and on average Bryce Canyon receives about 13 inches of snow in March. Bryce Canyon has the highest elevation of the parks in Utah’s Mighty 5 making this the coolest one to visit (pun intended).

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 7:35 pm.

Top experiences: Some of the best viewpoints are right along the rim which is easily accessible by car or the shuttle (mid-April to mid-September): Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point. Hike the Queens Garden and Navajo Loop, a 3-mile hike past some of the best scenery in the park. Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Point are also nice viewpoints.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Fairyland Loop Trail, an 8-mile strenuous hike.

How much time do you need? One day is all you need to see the views from the rim and hike one to two short trails in the park. I recommend another day or two for additional time to hike into the canyon. You won’t regret it.

Plan your visit

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Pinnacles National Park

Location: California

Pinnacles National Park preserves and protects the mountains on the eastern end of Salinas Valley. These mountains are the remnants of an extinct volcano. The rocky pinnacles are a popular rock climbing destination and wildflowers in the spring draw the biggest crowds of the year. This park is also one of the few locations where you can spot the California condor in the wild.

This is one of the newest national parks (it became a national park in 2013) and least visited national parks (it was the 15th least visited park in 2022 with 275,023 visitors).

Why visit Pinnacles in March: March through May is the peak blooming season for the flowers in Pinnacles National Park. 

Weather: The average high is 68°F and the average low is 38°F. March is the end of the rainy season getting about 3 inches of rain during this month.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 7:12 pm.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: See the wildflowers in the spring, hike the High Peaks Loop, hike the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, explore the Balconies cave, spot California condors, enjoy the view from Condor Gulch Overlook, and go rock climbing.

How much time do you need? Pinnacles National Park can be visited in one busy day but for the best experience spend two days here which gives you enough time to visit both sections of the park.

Plan your visit

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Big Bend National Park

Location: Texas

Isolated, remote, wild, and rugged…this is Big Bend National Park.

Located in the southwestern corner of Texas within the Chihuahuan Desert is an extraordinary mountain range that is a haven for hikers, backpackers, and outdoor enthusiasts.

This is one of the most remote parks in the lower 48 states so crowd levels tend to be low all year. Even when it is at its busiest, Big Bend feels rather quiet.

Why visit Big Bend in March: We visited Big Bend in March and had a great experience. The weather was warm and in early March, crowds are low. The second and third weeks in March get busy because this is when Texans go on spring break. If you can, plan your visit for the first week in March to take advantage of great weather and low crowds.

Weather: The average high is 74°F and the average low is 47°F. Rainfall is very low especially this time of year. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 8 am and sunset is at 8 pm.

Top experiences: Hike the Lost Mine Trail, go star gazing, hike Santa Elena Canyon, go for a drive on Maxwell Scenic Drive, visit Boquillas del Carmen, hike to Balanced Rock, and hike to Emory Peak, the highest peak in the Chisos Mountains.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate Adventure: For the ultimate adventure in Big Bend go on a half-day to multi-day canoeing trip on the Rio Grande.

How much time do you need? Spend at least three to four days in the park. Because of its large size and remote location, it takes a while to get here and you need a few days to explore it, so four days should work for most people.

Plan your visit

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Congaree National Park

Location: South Carolina

Congaree National Park protects the oldest old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States.

This is one of the smallest, least visited national parks in the United States (it was the 12th least visited park in 2022 with 204,522 visitors). A visit here is quick and easy to plan.

Walk the boardwalk trail through the forest, go kayaking or canoeing on Cedar Creek, go birdwatching and fishing, and, if you like, venture farther into the park on a number of other woodland trails.

Why visit Congaree in March: This is a good time to visit Congaree because it’s warm and mosquitoes aren’t too much of an issue (the worst time for mosquitoes is from late spring through summer). March is one of the wetter months to visit Congaree so there is also a good chance that you will see some flooding in the forests which is a very unique sight to see (the peak time for flooding is the winter months).

Weather: In March, the average high is 68°F and the average low is 43°F. Rainfall is above average for the year with park getting about 4 inches of rain this month.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 7:30 pm.

Top experiences: Walk the Boardwalk Loop Trail, go canoeing or kayaking on Cedar Creek, hike the Weston Loop Trail, and hike to the General Greene Tree.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure go on a multi-day canoe trip on the Congaree River.

How much time do you need? One day in Congaree is all you need to see the highlights. Walk the boardwalk trails and go for a canoe trip on Cedar Creek.

Plan your visit

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. White Sands National Park

Location: New Mexico

White Sands is a small, easy, fun park to visit. This national park protects the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. Sledding on the dunes is one of the best things to do here but you can also hike out farther into the dunes on several different hiking trails or take a ranger-guided tour.

Why visit White Sands in March: White Sands is one of the warmer national parks to visit in March and with temperatures in the low 70s the weather is great for hiking and exploring. We visited White Sands in March and had a wonderful experience. It’s cool enough to do a long hike without getting hot and the mild midday temperatures make this a great time to spend all day on the dunes. Just be aware that March is the busiest month to visit the park.

Weather: In March, the average high is 71°F and the average low is 33°F. This is one of the driest months to visit the park.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 7:15 pm.

Top experiences: Drive Dunes Drive, go sledding in the gypsum dunes, walk the Dune Life Nature Trail, take a ranger-guided hike, and go backcountry tent camping. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Alkali Flat Trail. This trail makes a 4.5-mile loop through the gypsum dunefield. It’s the longest, toughest hike in the park but your treat is stunning views of untouched dunes.

How much time do you need? For the best experience, plan on spending one full day in White Sands National Park. Hike the Alkali Flat Trail first thing in the morning, before the crowds arrive and the temperatures climb. Midday, go sledding on the dunes and have a picnic lunch. You can also do one of the shorter hiking trails. At the end of the day, take the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll.

Plan your visit

4 more parks to visit in March

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

I would have included Zion as a top pick for March since the weather is gorgeous this time of year, but, and this is a big but, crowd levels skyrocket in March. In 2022, about 170,000 people visited Zion in February. In March, that number grew to 446,000 people. And that wasn’t even the highest month for visitation…June was a busier month with 570,000 visitors! 

The trend for traffic to jump from February to March is not unique to 2022. This has been occurring for the last 20 years.

If you plan to do a Mighty 5 road trip in March (it’s a great one!) you can include Zion, just be prepared for large crowds.

Grand Canyon National Park

In March, temperatures are beginning to warm up and with that the Grand Canyon begins to draw more crowds. Even though visitation picks up in March, it’s still a lot quieter to visit the park now than during the busy summer months.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

The weather is pretty much perfect in Saguaro in March with daily highs of 75°F and low rainfall. But this is the by far busiest month of the year to visit the park so keep that in mind while planning your visit.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Like Saguaro, March is the busiest month to visit Carlsbad Caverns. But the weather is pleasant and this is a great time for a Texas-New Mexico road trip so if you also have plans to visit Guadalupe Mountains, White Sands, and/or Big Bend, it is worth including Carlsbad Caverns in your travel plans.

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in March

Chiricahua National Monument

The most noticeable natural features in the park are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Carved into a cliff 1,500 feet above the ground and featuring more than 20 rooms constructed in multiple stories, it’s a remarkably example of Sinaguan architecture. Today a short trail takes you to a viewing spot below the ruins, and museum exhibits help you imagine what life was like in this unforgiving desert landscape.

Tuzigoot National Monument

Tuzigoot is an ancient village or pueblo built by the Sinagua. The pueblo consisted of 110 rooms including second and third story structures. The first buildings were built around A.D. 1000. The Sinagua were agriculturalists with trade connections that spanned hundreds of miles. The people left the area around 1400.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

You can see many of Canyon de Chelly’s top sights from the rim roads but you’ll get a deeper understanding of its significance on a jeep tour with a Navajo guide. The only self-guided hike, the White House Trail, zigzags 600 feet down (and back up) to the spectacular White House ruins. Don’t miss the staggeringly tall spire known as Spider Rock; it rises 830 feet from the canyon floor.

March road trip ideas

Here are two great road trip ideas for March. The best time for both of these is in early March to avoid spring break traffic. If you are planning your visit for spring break, make your reservations well in advance because this can be a busy time to visit some of these national parks.

Texas & New Mexico

Combine Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, and White Sands into one big road trip. Start in Las Cruces, New Mexico or El Paso, Texas and drive this loop.

Utah’s Mighty 5

Visiting all of Utah’s Mighty 5 (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks) is one of America’s best road trips. To do this, you need 10 days or more.

Saguaro

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Lubbock

Planning your Summer Road Trip Begins NOW

Mapping your route and stocking up on gear in advance will pay off when you hit the road

In February’s cold, dark days, a summer road trip might be the farthest thing from your mind. Without the need to book a flight or coordinate other transportation, it’s easy to rely on spontaneity for a last-minute escape once the weather warms up. The beauty of an RV road trip is its structured freedom: you can do anything you want just as long as you are willing and able to drive.

But pushing off your planning until sunnier days could affect your vacation down the road. Investing a little time now will go a long way toward making the most out of your summer.

If plotting a course feels daunting, start by clustering destinations that will you give you something concrete to plan around. Depending on the number of days you expect to travel, you can add or remove stops along the way.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For example, a trip through three national parks in New Mexico and TexasWhite Sands, Carlsbad Caverns, and Guadalupe Mountains—could be knocked out in a long weekend. Tack on Big Bend National Park for an additional few days to account for the extra mileage and time to explore.

A classic way to plan a road trip is to follow one of America’s best-known vacation drives such as Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway, or the Lewis and Clark Expedition Trail. Though they may seem cliché these drives are still famous for a reason: They capture the history of America. You can use social media to find modern attractions along these well-tread routes.

Search for geotags along the route for crowdsourced advice on what to visit while you pass through. Use hiking apps like All Trails to explore what nature recommendations people have outside of national park suggestions. Start following accounts of bloggers or local experts who post about the areas you’re visiting. To keep yourself from overcommitting, keep a list of these potential food stops, campgrounds, roadside attractions, and nature areas along the way to reference when you need options.

Whether you’re planning to follow a well-known path or keep a looser schedule, become familiar with your major waypoints by April. This will give you time to research lesser-known sights and dig for local suggestions. By the time you hit the road, you’ll have the confidence to make quick (but informed) decisions.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Make reservations at national parks

While reserving a spot inside a national park isn’t the only way to camp near popular nature sites, it is well worth the foresight if you can book a few nights ahead of time.

Every park has its own schedule of openings, reservation requirements, and campsite availability so the best advice is to closely track a few parks for announcements. While some national parks save a portion of their campsite reservations to be released a week before booking, most park reservations open six months in advance.

Most National Parks reserve a few spots per campground as a first-come, first-serve option. They can be impossible to predict so do not rely on their availability if you are set on camping inside the park. Note that reservations often become available at 8 a.m. in the time zone of that park.

Permits for popular hikes and activities also become available at this time at Recreation.gov.

Timed entry reservations will still be required at a handful of popular parks during the peak summer months: Yosemite, Arches, Zion, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, and Haleakalā National Parks will all require some reservation to enter.

For complete details read 10 National Parks That Require Early Reservations for 2024 Visits

To the National Park Service’s credit, these required dates cluster around the most popular weeks and holidays and there are usually exceptions like entering a park before 5 a.m. that still allow for some flexibility if you can’t score a reservation in time.

Friday’s Fried Chicken, Shiner, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buy gear and supplies

A backpack, good walking shoes or hiking boots, wide-brimmed hat, and sun protection are all important regardless of how much outdoor activity you’re planning. It’s not just the outdoor gear to keep an eye out on—road trip essentials range from storage options to electronics to RV supplies.

Be sure to stock up on household and RV-related items: paper products, water filter, plastic bags, tissues, disinfecting wipes, and a fully stocked first aid kit.

That’s why I wrote this article: 35 Little Things to Remember to Pack for Your RV Road Trip

Bluegrass Country, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check your vehicle

Don’t forget about a checklist for your RV. A tire pressure gauge, jumper cables, and a roadside tool kit can all come in handy even if you’re renting an RV. And always keep a paper atlas on hand in case you’re out of cell service range.

Beyond the typical under-the-hood checks—engine oil, transmission fluid, hydraulic oil, coolant, and washer fluid—be sure to check your lightbulbs and brake reactivity, even in rentals. Spending hours on the road can decrease your focus and reaction time so ensure that the RV will be safe and comfortable. That’s why you should follow the 330 Rule.

The biggest investment to make in your pre-road trip vehicle is a new set of tires especially if you tend to only drive in the city. If you’re planning on driving or pulling a camper, van or RV and have been putting off upgrading your tires consider buying tires with a longer tread life or thicker tread for more diverse terrain.

Historic Route 66 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some helpful resources when it comes to tire safety:

Worth Pondering…

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

—Miyamoto Musashi

Now is the Absolute Best Time to Visit Congaree National Park and Here Is Why

This National Park floods in winter and that’s when you should visit. Trust me.

The US has 63 national parks stretching north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska and south to the Virgin Islands National Park in the Caribbean. While some of these parks are massively popular (I’m looking at you, Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains), other names barely register. Congaree National Park in South Carolina falls into the latter category.

The park, which is named after an Indigenous tribe that once lived in the region, is the largest intact example of what the Southeastern US used to look like before the landscape was logged and cleared, beginning in the 19th century.

By the 1950s, very little remained of the once extensive old-growth bottomland forests, and the tract in what is today the park is the largest intact section remaining. What’s more, the park’s lush floodplain forest is home to some of the tallest trees in the country and it has one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies in the world with the average canopy reaching 100 feet.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It doesn’t sound all that tall but when you consider that much of the forests of the eastern United States have been logged at one point or another in the past 400 years, it is pretty impressive. Indeed, few other deciduous forests even come close to that.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? You’d think that everyone would be rushing to visit this ecological blast from the past, wouldn’t you? Well, they’re not, because most people haven’t heard of it.

Despite being only a 30-minute drive from Columbia, South Carolina, Congaree is one of the least visited national parks in the country. According to official National Park Service data, Congaree received only 204,522 visitors in 2022 (2023 data was not available at the time of writing), about as many as the much-harder-to-reach Virgin Islands National Park.

More people visit Great Smoky Mountain National Park in six days than visit Congaree in an entire year. But as the only national park comprised mostly of floodplains, this swampy paradise has one big thing going for it that its big-name competitors don’t: Its off-season is the best time to visit.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What makes winter the best time to explore?

While most national parks see the highest number of visitors in the summer, June through August can actually be a pretty miserable time to visit Congaree because it’s so hot and humid there. Temperatures average in the 90s and mosquitos love the marvelously muggy conditions the park provides as breeding grounds.

As such, visitation numbers typically peak in spring and fall. But strangely enough, the winter months (and January, in particular) actually receive the fewest number of visitors. Use that to your advantage: These smaller crowds paired with daily temperatures hovering in the mid-50s, make for prime visitation time.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though many of the park’s bird species do fly south for the winter, birding is still possible. It’s much easier to see birds when most of the foliage has fallen off the trees and winter is a great time to spot blue-headed vireo, winter wren, ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, hermit thrush, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and white-throated sparrows.

The rusty blackbird is another special bird to spot here in winter. Although the species has seen a long-term population decline due to habitat loss the winter environment at Congaree perfectly suits the bird so it is hoped the park will play a key role in ensuring its survival in the long run.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, floodplain forests like Congaree National Park are especially high in productivity and species diversity because of how rich the flood-deposited clay, silt, and sand deposits make the soil.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Regular flooding keeps the soil rich in nutrients which in turn help produce the park’s high number of champion-size trees—the largest documented specimen of their species. One of the park’s record-breaking champions is a 168-foot loblolly pine that can be found along Weston Lake Trail. It’s about as tall as a 17-story building.

Congaree typically floods 10-12 times per year—and it happens most often in winter. Any significant rain in the upstate of South Carolina can cause a rise in water levels in the park without warning. Hiking through the flooded forest is impossible (or at least highly discouraged) as you may find yourself suddenly swimming with alligators and parasites.

Good thing the park’s best views aren’t from its forested trails. Even when those are flooded visitors can still access a 2.6-mile elevated boardwalk. It’s a great place to catch a glimpse of some river otters which are less out and about when the floodplain is dry. But if that idea doesn’t float your boat, you can always take in the forest views during flood season from the seat of a canoe or kayak.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kayaking and canoeing in Congaree

Speaking of which, kayaking and canoe tours are offered in the park year-round though you can also rent a craft and head out on the water alone. As long as the water is above about two feet high—and it usually is—it’s a straightforward, scenic float down Cedar Creek and back up to the landing as opposed to a potentially annoying game of bumper cars with the tree roots that criss-cross the creek. Plus, the higher the water, the deeper into the park you can paddle.

A quick disclaimer: While a typical flood will raise the water level to around eight to 12 feet deep, sometimes there’s a borderline biblical deluge. In 2015, the flood was so intense that the water gauge broke making it impossible to measure the exact depth of the water though locals estimate it reached a whopping 17 feet.

Very high and rapidly flowing water can increase the chance of your craft flipping, so don’t attempt to kayak or canoe without a guide unless you have significant experience. As it’s easy to get disoriented in a sea of trees, any sort of paddling without a guide is discouraged even if the water isn’t rushing fast enough to flip your boat.

When the water level is low, you’re confined to Cedar Creek which runs through the park. You can still see out into the surrounding forest but you can’t paddle into it. When the surrounding rivers flood water level rises and the creek rises and spills out into the forest. Just imagine leaving the calm comfort of the creek and entering the enormous expanse of the floodplain.

Tupelo trees enshrined in Spanish moss welcome you to the forest as do 125-foot bald cypress trees and loblolly pines. Great Smoky Mountain National Park could never.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning your trip to the park

At around 26,000 acres, Congaree is the seventh smallest national park so you don’t need a full week here as you do with some of the larger ones. Paddling and hiking the boardwalk trail each take a few hours so you could easily do both of these popular activities in one day while still getting a good feel for what the park offers.

And because Congaree National Park is so close to Columbia, you could easily make a day trip from there after enjoying visiting the Columbia Museum of Art, biking along the Three Rivers Greenway, and (if it’s Saturday) perusing the 150 or so vendors a the Soda City Market.

Congaree is also only two hours from Charleston. Congaree could be easily tacked on any kind of road trip around South Carolina or the South in general. If you want to stay overnight in the park, you could stay at one of the park’s primitive campgrounds or in the backcountry— just keep in mind that reservations are required.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If the park isn’t flooded during your visit your kayaking or canoe tour will likely take a break halfway through so you can walk around a bit in the forest perhaps searching for evidence of the wild boar that likes to root around at night. For a proper hike, hit up some of Congaree’s 25-or-so miles of trails. Most hiking trails start at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and are best explored when the park is not flooded.

In addition to the previously mentioned boardwalk loop, there are also a handful of proper forested hiking trails like the 4.5-mile Weston Lake Trail (a loop that offers regular views of otters and wading birds) and the 12-mile out-and-back Kingsnake Trail. The latter is the best for birding though some sections can be difficult to follow. The trail is marked with brown, numbered signs called blazes but if a blazed tree falls you could be in danger of getting lost. That is even more true if the vegetation is overgrown.

If the park is flooded, your only option may be the boardwalk trail but lucky for you it’s a beautiful walk that offers an excellent view of the seemingly endless forest of sky-high loblolly pine and cypress trees. Woodpeckers frequent the trail and you will probably hear them pecking before you see them so simply follow the sound to catch a peek. You’ll also see evidence of their work on tons of mangled trees.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Signs along the trail point out local flora, fauna, and unique items such as a rusted old still that was used by bootleggers who hid within the park during Prohibition. Other signs explain interesting phenomena like the knees of the cypress trees (knobby nodes shooting up from enormous tree roots). Sometimes rising several feet above the ground, these knees are generally found in swamps though their function is still unknown. If the park isn’t too flooded, you’ll see hundreds of them.

Spend some time in the Harry Hampton Visitor Center where thoughtful displays describe the area’s geography and early history including that of Native Americans, Spanish explorers, and enslaved Africans who were brought and forced to work on nearby plantations and farms and who sometimes escaped and sought refuge in the park’s wilderness.

Some who successfully escaped formed Maroon settlements and thriving communities in the forest where they relied on the rivers for food and the dense vegetation for safety and protection. Much of the land surrounding Congaree National Park is owned by the descendants of former farm and plantation workers, both free and enslaved.

As weekends tend to be the most popular days in the park this is when you’ll also find the most activities such as twilight hikes and owl prowls which are Ranger-led hikes to learn about the park (and its many residents) after-hours. Park programming depends on staffing levels and park conditions but be sure to check the park’s calendar which can include discovery hikes, nature walks, and yoga classes.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring the backcountry

If you want to rent a canoe, check out a company like River Runner Canoe Center which can even deliver it to the creek for you and give you some tips before you head out. Canoeing the creek takes two to three hours but ambitious paddlers may also want to look into the 15-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail.

This water trail begins at Bannister’s Bridge, meanders southeast, and ends at the Congaree River. To complete it, you’ll need an outfitter like River Runners to drop you at the starting point and pick you up at the end which costs about $175.

Paddlers should also consider that while the Cedar Creek portion of the trail runs 15 miles, it’s another 11 miles until the next pick-up point at Bates Bridge landing. As such, paddlers should expect to paddle about a marathon’s length in total.

While it’s possible to paddle the entire route in a single day, it depends entirely on the paddling conditions and the paddler’s experience. Say, if flooding has loosened trees in the floodplain and they’ve tipped over and blocked the route, you may have to get out and carry your craft around and over to the other side (which is called portaging).

While this can sometimes be a quick process, in other cases you may have to backtrack to find a spot. If you have to do this several times, it could add quite a bit of time to your excursion. Most paddlers do this as an overnight trip which requires a free backcountry camping permit that can take up to 72 hours for the park to process.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some helpful resources on Congaree National Park:

By the way, I have a series of posts on South Carolina:

Worth Pondering…

For all at last return to the sea—to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.

—Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us

The Best National Parks to Visit in February

If you are seeking the best national parks to visit in February, this guide’s for you! It will detail five beautiful National Parks to visit in February, why you should go to them, and what to expect during this winter month.

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

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.

Planning a trip to the US national parks in February but don’t know which ones to visit? In February, much of the country is cold and covered in snow but there are plenty of parks you can visit to escape the wintry conditions. In this article, I cover the best national parks to visit in February plus several bonus parks and a road trip idea.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

This guide is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Roads can close in the national parks at any time so I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip. 

Visiting the National Parks in February

In February, much of the United States is cold and blanketed in snow. Like January, park visitation remains relatively low in February making this a great time to visit most of the parks with low crowds. 

Best National Parks to visit in February

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Petrified Forest National Park

Location: Arizona

Visiting Petrified Forest National Park is like taking a step back in time. The petrified logs date back hundreds of millions of years to a time when this land was once lush and fertile. These trees fell and became the mineralized versions of their original forms even before dinosaurs walked the earth.

This national park beat all of my expectations. I imagined a barren desert with a few colorful hills, littered with some ancient, petrified stumps. Instead, we were treated to the colorful, uniquely beautiful hills of the Painted Desert, giant, petrified trees that puzzle the mind, and the chance to walk backcountry trails without another person in sight.

Petrified Forest is a very cool, underrated, and easy park to visit.

Why visit Petrified Forest in February: Even though temperatures are on the chilly side, this is a great time to visit Petrified Forest because crowd levels are low and this makes a great February road trip destination with several other parks in Arizona.

Weather: The weather is surprisingly cool in February. The average high is 53°F and the average low is 25°F. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 6 pm.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: View the Painted Desert from the overlooks, see the petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock, see the Teepees on Petrified Forest Road, walk the Blue Mesa Trail, and see the petrified wood at Crystal Forest and along the Giant Logs Trail.

Ultimate adventure: The Blue Forest hike is a favorite experience in Petrified Forest National Park. This 3-mile trail takes you through the badlands, one of the most beautiful parts of the park.

How much time do you need? One day is plenty of time to drive through the park, visit the overlooks, and hike a few short trails but I recommend a second day to explore hikes you missed on the first day.

Plan your visit

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Saguaro National Park

Location: Arizona

Located in southern Arizona, Saguaro National Park is one of the warmest parks to visit in February. Temperatures in the park soar from late spring through early fall making the winter months the best time to visit Saguaro.

Saguaro National Park is named for the Saguaro Cactus which only grows in the Sonoran Desert.

This park is split into two different sections, the Tucson Mountain District and the Rincon Mountain District. You can visit both in one very busy day but you’re best to spread them out over two separate days.

Why visit Saguaro National Park in February: For the near perfect weather conditions. With an average high of 70°F and a very low chance of rain, this is a great park to visit in February. These great weather conditions do draw big crowds so expect busy trails and make your travel arrangements in advance.

Weather: The average high is 70°F and the average low is 42°F. Rainfall is very low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 6:10 pm.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Drive Bajada Loop Drive and hike the Valley View Overlook Trail and the Desert Discovery Nature Trail, see the Signal Hill Petroglyphs, and drive the Cactus Forest Drive. Just outside of the park is the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum which is well worth the time.

How much time do you need? You will need two days to see the highlights of Saguaro National Park; one for each unit. With more time, you can go backpacking or hike the longer, more challenging hiking trails and visit the above mentioned Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum.

Plan your visit

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. White Sands National Park

Location: New Mexico

With sand as white as the snow, this might look like a winter wonderland, but in February, this is one of the warmer parks to visit in the United States.

White Sands National Park is home to the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. These pure white dunes create a fun place to explore, for both kids and adults. Hike out into the dunes, learn about the wildlife that calls this park home, and go sledding on sand as white as the snow.

Why visit White Sands in February: February is one of the quietest months to visit this park in terms of crowd levels. Although the days start off cold, the temperature warms up very nicely during the day making this one of the warmer parks to visit in February.

Weather: In February, the average high is 63°F and the average low is 28°F. This is one of the driest months to visit the park although rainfall is low all year.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:45 am and sunset is at 5:50 pm.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Drive Dunes Drive, go sledding in the gypsum dunes, walk the Dune Life Nature Trail, take a ranger-guided hike, and go backcountry tent camping. 

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Alkali Flat Trail. This trail makes a 4.5-mile loop through the gypsum dune field. It’s the longest, toughest hike in the park but your treat is stunning views of untouched dunes.

How much time do you need? For the best experience, plan on spending one full day in White Sands National Park. Hike the Alkali Flat Trail first thing in the morning, before the crowds arrive and the temperatures climb. Midday, go sledding on the dunes and have a picnic lunch. You can also do one of the shorter hiking trails. At the end of the day, take the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll.

Plan your visit

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Location: New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is an underground fantasy land of limestone chambers, stalactites and stalagmites, and long, twisting tunnels.

I’m not a big fan of caves and caverns but I found this place to be amazing. If you want to see stalactites, stalagmites, ribbon-like curtains, totem poles, and unique formations called soda straws, Carlsbad Caverns is the best cave system in the US to put on your list.

Why visit Carlsbad Caverns in February: In terms of park visitation, February is one of the quietest months to visit Carlsbad Caverns (park visitation spikes in March with Spring Break). The caverns remain a consistent 56°F all year. With good weather and low crowds, February is one of the best months to visit Carlsbad Caverns and it can be combined on a road trip with White Sands National Park (mentioned above).

Weather: In February, the average high is 61°F and the average low is 37°F. Rainfall is very low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:40 am and sunset is at 5:44 pm.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Tour the caverns on your own or on a ranger-guided tour.You can also go star gazing, hike a surface trail, or go on a scenic drive. 

How much time do you need? A half to a full day is all you need to explore the caverns on your own and/or take a ranger-guided tour.

Plan Your Visit

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Joshua Tree National Park

Location: California

Located in southern California, Joshua Tree National Park makes a great winter destination especially for those who like hiking and rock climbing. Joshua Tree is a top rock climbing destination in February since temperatures are relatively mild.

Most visitors spend their time along Park Boulevard where the Joshua Trees and enormous piles of boulders form the iconic landscapes that many people imagine when they think of Joshua Tree National Park.

You can also combine a visit to Joshua Tree with Palm Springs, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Julian, and/or San Diego (more great spots to visit in the winter).

Why visit Joshua Tree in February: With its mild weather this is one of the best hiking and rock climbing destinations in the US in February. However, it is also one of the busiest months to visit Joshua Tree (but March tends to be the most crowded time to go).

Weather: In February, the average high is 61°F and the average low is 37°F. Rainfall chances are low. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:30 am and sunset is at 5:30 pm.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top Experiences: Hike the Hall of Horrors, see Skull Rock, explore Hidden Valley, hike to an oasis, hike to Arch Rock and Heart Rock, drive Geology Tour Road, visit the Cholla Cactus Garden, and go stargazing.

How much time do you need? Ideally, you need at least two full days in Joshua Tree National Park. This gives you enough time to visit the highlights, go rock climbing or take a lesson, hike a few trails, and go on the scenic drives.

Plan your visit

3 more national parks to visit in February

Here are 3 more great national parks to visit in February.

Grand Canyon National Park

February is one of the least crowded months to visit Grand Canyon National Park. If you don’t mind cold temperatures and the chance of snow, this is a great time to visit the Grand Canyon if you prefer low crowds.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is a chilly place to visit in February but if you want to visit the park with low crowds, this is a good month to go. February is the second least-visited month to go to Zion with January being the quietest month of the year.

Arches National Park

Like Zion, temperatures are low but so are the crowds. In February, you can visit Arches National Park relatively crowd free.

Bonus! 3 NPS sites to visit in January

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals, including its namesake.

Chiricahua National Monument

The most noticeable natural features in the park are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

The Hohokam people built these structures when they were near the height of their power some 700 years ago. They created villages that extended from the site of modern-day Phoenix to southern Arizona.

February road trip idea: Arizona road trip

Arizona makes a great February road trip destination.

On this 10 day Arizona road trip, you can visit three national parks (Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon, and Saguaro) and three NPS sites (Organ Pipe, Chiricahua, and Casa Grande Ruins) plus visit Monument Valley, Antelope Canyon, and Sedona. February is a great month for this road trip before temperatures heat up and people start hitting the road for their spring break trips.

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month:

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Lubbock

America the Beautiful: The National Parks Senior Pass

Hands down, the best value in the RVing world is the National Parks Senior Pass

One of the consolations of old age is the America the Beautiful Pass which like most Federal entities has undergone a name change—it used to be called MANY years ago, the Golden Age Pass.

For $80, seniors can get a Lifetime Senior Pass. Seniors are anyone over the age of 62.

If you want the Annual Senior Pass, it’s $20, as of this posting.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What the America the Beautiful National Parks Senior Pass includes

All U.S. citizens and permanent residents are eligible for this pass which will greatly reduce your expenditures for visiting and camping in National Parks and federal land—more than 2,000 locations in all.

Each pass covers entrance fees for your RV (or whatever vehicle you are in) and all passengers at national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as standard and day-use fees at national forests and grasslands and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Most campgrounds in National Forests give you a 50 percent discount on camping fees with the America the Beautiful pass.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get an America the Beautiful Senior Pass

The America the Beautiful Senior Pass is sold at all National Park entrances, national monuments, many National Forest ranger stations, Bureau of Land Management field, and district officers, and numerous other places.

Purchase the LIFETIME Senior Pass Here

Purchase the ANNUAL Senior Pass Here

As soon as you turn 62, just show up with documentation that you’re either a U.S. citizen or permanent resident (driver’s license, US passport, birth certificate, or green card) and that you’re 62.

Pay the fee ($80) and you’re literally set for life. Since the replacement charge is the same as a new card the procedure is just to get another one if you lose yours. So don’t lose your card! And they don’t accept pictures of the card (in case you like to digitize your paper for trips)—so keep your card handy!

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Parks Senior Pass has lots of benefits for campers

There are many other uses more important to RVers and fulltimers who spend more than the usual two or three weeks a year touring the country.

Six federal agencies—the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bureau of Land Management—all honor the America the Beautiful National Parks Senior Pass at sites where entrance or standard amenity fees are charged. 

“Standard amenity fees” are governmentese for day use, swimming, boat launch, or campsite fees which is where the pass comes into its own.

When you check-in at one of the campgrounds, look on the envelope you use to pay your camping fee at National Forest and BLM campgrounds. 

On the bottom line, there’s a place for your pass number and a 50 percent discount on the overnight camping fee. Army Corps of Engineers campsites also honors the 50 percent discount for senior pass cardholders.

Even the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) will give you 50 percent off of the campsite fees. The TVA offers hundreds of campsites among its six dam reservoir campgrounds in the Southeast available from March 15 to November 15. The length of stay is limited to 21 days during the high season (May 1 to September 30) and 30 days in the off-season (October 1 to April 30, excluding closure dates).

The America the Beautiful pass for seniors will also save you the trouble of going into the ranger station or store to get a permit for National Forest dispersed camping—just display your card on the dash in lieu of the permit. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is the Access Pass?

The site also explains, “A free, lifetime pass—available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents of the United States that have been medically determined to have a permanent disability (does not have to be a 100 percent disability)—that provides admittance to more than 2,000 recreation sites managed by six Federal agencies” is only $20. 

At many sites the Access Pass provides the pass owner a discount on Expanded Amenity Fees (such as camping, swimming, boat launching, and guided tours).

Purchase the Access Pass Here

America the Beautiful Annual Pass

An $80.00 Annual Pass that provides access to more than 2,000 recreation areas managed by six Federal agencies with up to 100 percent of the proceeds being used to improve and enhance visitor recreation services.

Purchase the America the Beautiful Annual Pass Here

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are some exceptions

The only fly in the ointment are concessionaires—private companies that contract with the Federal government to manage campgrounds in national parks and forests.

They aren’t required to accept the pass for a 50 percent discount although there are many who do. Each concessionaire has a separate agreement with NPS.

If the campsite has improvements—water and/or electric hookups—expect to pay full price for the improvements and get 50 percent off the basic campground fee only. 

Most Federal campgrounds don’t have hookups, though, so if you have solar or just like to boondock, an America the Beautiful Senior Pass will come in handy.

There’s just no downside to getting this card. Even if you don’t camp at all you’ll be able to drive through national parks without getting paying the entrance fee.

This has to be one of the best values out there in the RV world. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many other types of passes are available

If you take a look at this brochure, you’ll see many other types of passes available, including a Military Pass, a Volunteer Pass, a student pass, and many more.

Where are you going next?

RVing with Rex has posted a series of Ultimate Guides to…

These resources were written for RVers who wish to explore a national park or other location in depth and often highlight cheap and free things to do while traveling in the area. Having a tried-and-true itinerary can assist you in maximizing your time in a NPS site by showcasing the highlights including hiking trails and campgrounds in and near the park.

Selected guides include:

You can also read:

Worth Pondering…

National parks are sacred and cherished places—our greatest personal and national treasures. It’s a gift to spend a year adventuring and capturing incredible images and stories in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.

—Jonathan Irish, photographer

National Parks at Their Absolute Best in Winter

All the wonder, none of the crowds

America’s national parks were established as places where we can experience its awesome power, often in isolation. Tell that to the summer crowds clogging the trails of Zion or the campfire troubadours whose open mic-caliber guitar playing echoes off of Joshua Tree’s trippy crags until dawn.

The national parks remain America’s Best Idea and something we all can—and should—enjoy, screaming kids at Old Faithful included. But winter can be the best time to go for those who wish to experience the parks with the same sense of solitude as a pronghorn. The trails are clear of obstacles. Campsites might not require a reservation. And, unlike peak season, you’ll feel like you have everything to yourself. These are the parks that are at their absolute best in the winter.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Spoiler alert: You’re going to see four of Utah’s Mighty Five on this list. And to clarify, I’d include Capitol Reef if I had the space. Even with next-door neighbor Arches showing off Grade A sights when temperatures dip each year, Canyonlands stands out as a banger.

The largest yet least-visited national park in the state, Canyonlands’ snow-dusted spires, arches, mesa tops, and sandstone cliffs are made all the better by the fact that crowds clear out almost completely come winter turning this into a place of spectacular, sweeping solitude. (Just be sure to check for road closures before you head out.)

2. Zion National Park, Utah

In the summertime, Zion is basically Disneyland. It’s crowded. It’s hot. You’re standing in two-hour lines to be able to do the one thing you most want to do that day and they’re often out of turkey legs.

End this madness and go in the wintertime. Just 13 percent of Zion’s visitors, journey to the park between November and March, and a wintertime desert is one of nature’s most glorious settings. Even better, once you’ve had your fill of the park and its legendary trails, you’ll be able to explore all the surrounding (and vastly overlooked) state parks unencumbered.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

When it comes to winter wonderlands few national parks come close to the beauty of Bryce Canyon in the snow. The canyon’s red hoodoos and evergreen trees pop under the smattering of white and the majestic sunrises and sunsets cover the landscapes in ethereal light. For the best views, take the two-mile hike from the visitor center to Bryce Point which ends at the Bryce Amphitheater. This is the most famous overlook in the entire park—the perfect place to snap some photos.

Winter sports enthusiasts should especially plan a trip to Bryce Canyon. The park has many daily activities like ranger-led snowshoe hikes, cross-country skiing, and backpacking. National Park Service (NPS) also offers winter astronomy programs and full moon hikes (weather permitting) letting visitors take in the splendor of the unfiltered night sky.

4. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Often overlooked and under-visited despite its proximity to bustling Tucson, Saguaro’s expanses of cartoonishly contorted cacti and relatively easy hikes are best explored during the winter. In the off-season, the already thin crowds dissipate and you’re free to cavort with owls and gaze at petroglyphs with little interruption and minus the oppressive heat.

Even better, the campsites—a relatively hot commodity numbering a scant 20—are easier to bag allowing you to spend the night under the stars with only coyotes (and maybe roadrunners, given the landscape) as your company.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Less than 1 million people drop by South Dakota’s most gorgeous landscape annually and come winter the place is virtually deserted (December sees a scant 8,400 people while February tops out at 13,400). What a stunning time to go full Dr. Manhattan and have 244,000 acres of Mars virtually to yourself, give or take a few bison.

Snag a campsite under a blanket of stars if you’re hardy or a cozy cabin (and maybe some donuts and buffalo burgers) in nearby Wall (think, Wall Drug). Then strap on snowshoes or skis and get ready to truly know what it’s like to be tiny and gloriously alone in the wild.

6. Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park is an International Dark Sky Park and winter is arguably the best time to see stars. Clear nights mean great views of celestial phenomena; however, they can also bring freezing temperatures to the desert so don’t let the southwest Texas location fool you into thinking it’s always hot.

Cool days are conducive to ticking off some of the more challenging hikes like the 6.5-mile Mariscal Canyon Rim Trail which can be dangerous to attempt in the warmer months.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is an awe-inspiring sight on its own. Now imagine seeing the fiery sandstone and surrounding evergreen trees with a layer of fresh snow. The winter scenery at this Natural Wonder of the World is absolutely magical.

Visiting the South Rim in the off-season means popular hikes like the Bright Angel Trail are blissfully quiet and much more comfortable than in the summer, thanks to cool temperatures. Grand Canyon National Park’s free shuttles run fewer routes in the winter but there are still plenty that stop at the different trailheads and Grand Canyon Village viewpoints.

8. Joshua Tree National Park, California

This boulder- and bush-dotted park straddling the Colorado and Mojave deserts is a serene winter escape from bustling Los Angeles (130 miles away) and Las Vegas (217 miles away).

Winter in Joshua Tree National Park is a mecca for rock climbers who take advantage of bouldering while the granite is cool. Keep this in mind when you’re trying to snag one of the first-come, first-served campsites.

If you’re able to spend the night in the park, you’ll get access to some of the best stargazing the West Coast has to offer.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Time slows to a primeval pace in the sequoia groves that make up Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks where arboreal giants have watched the seasons come and go for more than 2,000 years. In the winter, hike along quiet, snowy trails to the General Sherman Tree among the world’s largest living icons at a height of 275 feet.

These parks are also great for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. On free, ranger-led snowshoe walks, shoes are even provided. For something less strenuous, try driving through the wintry landscape though be aware that tire chains are often required during this time of year.

10. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

The famous, striking limestone formations at Carlsbad Caverns have often been compared to floating underground jellyfish or alcoves full of goblins and fairies—however you interpret them, they’re otherworldly.

The best part about visiting this New Mexico locale in the winter months (apart from bypassing the crowds) is that the cave stays a balmy 56 degrees Fahrenheit, rain or shine. Ranger-led tours are available year-round or visitors can opt to check out the Natural Entrance and Big Room Trails on their own.

For those looking to check yet another winter-friendly park off their list while in the area, the nearby Guadalupe Mountains feel like an island in the Chihuahuan Desert with vista-rich hiking trails you won’t want to miss.

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

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

Getting out in nature during an East Coast winter doesn’t have to mean shivering in a snowstorm for hours on end. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park roughly half the season’s days boast a high temperature in the 50s—perfect for hiking the park’s more than 800 miles of trails.

Start the day by taking in the views at Newfound Gap, nestled on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina then hike to craggy Alum Cave or explore the old-timey wooden structures at Cades Cove. At night, stargaze by the fire at Cades Cove Campground or retreat to an RV park in nearby Sevierville.

12. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches has some of America’s most breathtaking scenes. In winter, white snow contrasts with the red rocks and blue skies to create some stunning sights. While daytime temperatures can rise above 100 degrees in summer expect freezing temperatures in winter. Even scant snowfall can make trails and roads impassable so be sure to plan if you intend to visit this national park in winter.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Winter stretches itself from October through June at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Clear lakes become icy, volcanoes become topped with heavy snow, and steam vents become especially smoky.

For those seeking fun as well as beauty, winter activities are at their peak here with sledding hills that offer mountain views, snowshoeing for beginners and experts, and backcountry skiing that can’t be beaten.

14. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Make winter plans to visit a warmer locale in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park where park-goers can see the Painted Desert, drive past Blue Mesa, and see the Crystal Forest up close. I drove through here a few years ago on a whim, and it was one of the most unique National Parks I’ve ever been to.

The weather may be cooler in winter, but snow is rare. But don’t forget those warm layers for when temps drop at night!

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Open year-round to outdoor enthusiasts, White Sands National Park in New Mexico is one of the best National Parks to visit in the winter for many reasons. For one, since it’s a less-visited park in general, you’re likely to see very few people and can sled down the dunes all by yourself! 

Plus, as soon as you hike a little ways into the dunes, you’re very unlikely to encounter other hikers. New Mexico does get chilly in winter, but it rarely sees a lot of snow this far south.

By the way, I have a series of posts on exploring national parks in winter:

Worth Pondering…

A national park is not a playground; it’s a sanctuary for nature and for humans who will accept nature on nature’s own terms.

—Michael Frome