America’s 10 Most Popular National Parks, Ranked

The United States is currently home to 63 national parks and you genuinely won’t find a dud among them. But that doesn’t mean some parks aren’t better than others.

The 10 most popular parks might be the easiest to access, but if you’re still hedging your bets on where to take a road trip, we’ve ranked them from good to greatest.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For many living in big cities, the sad truth is that the only time they remember there are parts of America not covered in condos, big box stores, and fast-food outlets is when they’re Instagramming them from 36,000 feet. Which is also when many think to themselves, “Wow, I wish I could see all that beauty up close and without a plane wing in my way.”

Well, turns out, there is! It’s called the National Parks Service. And you can RV there and take in all that awesome beauty.

And as a reminder of the scope of America’s awe-inspiring natural beauty (and its 63-strong national parks created by the coolest dude ever from New York), we thought it’d be fun to take 10 of the most-visited parks in 2020 and rank them by their level of adventure and sheer, mind-blowing spectacle. Turns out, yes, it was fun.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park (California)

If you ever wondered what your pet iguana feels like when he looks up at you, visit the second-oldest national park in America. Here, outside Visalia, California, not only can you look up at the biggest tree in the world (the 275-foot tall, 60-foot wide General Sherman) but also at five of the 10 largest trees in the world. They’re not easy to get to though: 84 percent of the park doesn’t have roads and is only accessible on foot or horseback.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park (Arizona)

You know those comically oversized cacti Wile E. Coyote used to fall into? Those are modeled after the giant Saguaro cactus the most distinct feature is this park straddling the city of Tucson. The park, created to preserve the cacti, boasts some great hikes. Even during mild weather, a trek into nature here can take you up 5,000 feet of elevation in 15 miles of desert. Driving Saguaro will take you through a Western landscape that’s unmistakably Arizona.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)

Along the densely populated mid-Atlantic, no national park makes a faster, prettier escape to nature than this one. The main attraction here is Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains and offers sweeping views of the valley and, in fall, an explosion of insane colors. It’s also home to a big chunk of the Appalachian Trail if you’re feeling extra ambitious.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park (New Mexico)

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

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona)

Petrified Forest is known for its treasure trove of fossilized logs, exposed after eons of erosion by wind and water. About 60 million years ago, tectonic action pushed the Colorado Plateau upwards, exposing the layers of rock containing the park’s Triassic fossils. The park is composed of two sections: the north section is a colorful badlands called the Painted Desert and the southern section contains most of the petrified wood. The park consists of a 28-mile road that offers numerous overlooks and winds through the mesas and wilderness. Visitors can also choose to hike a variety of trails ranging from easy to difficult.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park (California)

The only national park to get its very own U2 album named after it has exploded in popularity over the past decade, now the 10th most-visited park with 2.4 million visitors. They’re not coming in droves to see if the streets do, in fact, have no name. They’re coming because Joshua Tree boasts perhaps the best collection of rock-climbing faces in the US. The desert park also has 501 archeological sites, and is home to the lower Coachella Valley, making it a popular day trip for snowbirds and music festival goers.  

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee, North Carolina)

The MOST VISITED PARK IN AMERICA spans four counties across two states and runs through part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Accessible from both Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina, the park has more than 1,660 different kinds of flowering plants—the most of any national park. Its highest point is Clingman’s Dome, where a 50-foot observation deck allows visitors to soak in some spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding beauty. More than 12 million annual visitors make it nearly four times as busy as the second-place Yellowstone.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park (Utah)

Give whoever named this park credit: they didn’t mince words. This 120-square-mile national treasure outside Moab is all about arches, 2,000 of them in fact. All formed from millions of years of sandstone erosion. The most famous is the Delicate Arch, a 65-footer that you might recognize from playing the license plate game back when—and yes, it’s on the Utah tag.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park (Utah)

Ask anyone to name Utah’s five National Parks and odds are Capitol Reef is the one they forget among its arched-and-canyoned cousins. You should remember Capitol Reef for the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile wrinkle in the earth and a feature you won’t find elsewhere in the state. It’s also been designated as a “Gold Tier” Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association so camping here will yield some of the prettiest stars you’ve ever seen. At just under a million visitors last year, it offers much of the red rocks and striking geology of other Utah parks, without the crowds.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

John Wesley Powell said it best, “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself.” A universally recognizable iconic destination, Grand Canyon National Park is a true marvel of nature that’s on every RVer’s bucket list. A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. A deep gorge carved by the Colorado River about seventeen million year ago, the Grand Canyon stretches for more than 250 miles and is up to 18 miles in width and more than a mile deep in some areas.

Worth Pondering…

Adventure is worthwhile.

―Aesop

What Makes a National Park a National Park?

Turns out, it’s extremely complicated

On December 27th, 2020, the US gained its 63rd national park, the 73,000-acre New River Gorge Park and Preserve. West Virginia’s first national park definitely fits the bill of what the words “national park” evokes: It is home to an ancient river, a gorge surrounded by huge cliffs and lush mountains, and a centerpiece steel-arch bridge that is the country’s third highest and a virtual art piece at 3,030 feet long.

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

The area has drawn adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts since well before being named a national river in 1978. If a national park is to be “reserved for units that contain a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources,” as the National Parks Service says, New River Gorge is a no brainer. 

But the road to becoming a national park and what actually even constitutes a national park is weirdly confusing.

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

National Parks have stirred the imagination of Americans ever since they were dreamed up and a recent focus has been sparked by the influence of social sharing like YouTube and Instagram, the park service’s recent 100th anniversary celebrated in 2016, and Ken Burns’ incredible documentary “America’s Best Idea.” But the structure of the National Park System remains a mystery to many visitors—some of it’s even confusing to the National Park expert. What exactly makes a National Park?

This popularity, combined with politics and the promise of tourism dollars, have driven government officials to leverage the Park system to fit their agendas in recent years. It’s time to step back, take a look at the whole picture, and take stock of what we have and what we haven’t.

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 423 national park service (NPS) sites in total and only 63 of them have the congressional designation of “National Park,” including the most recent New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. In addition to monuments and national parks, there are national lakeshores and seashores, memorials, parkways, preserves, reserves, recreation areas, rivers and riverways, and scenic trails. Into military history? There are national battlefields, battlefield parks, battlefield sites, and national military, History buff? You’ll find national historical parks, national historic sites, and international historic sites.

Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Park, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some designations are self-explanatory: You can figure out what a national seashore means. Others are varied: monuments, for example, refer to objects of historical, cultural, or scientific interest and range from massive natural areas like Organ Pipe Cactus to historic homes and Lady Liberty. 

Becoming a NPS Unit often requires an act of Congress: always in the case of national parks and never in the case of national monuments which are created by presidential decree. In the end the NPS’s concerns were swept aside by congress and Gateway Arch got what it wanted, locking it in as one of America’s Best Ideas.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So…it’s a bit of a mess, and though the Park Service has guidelines for nomenclature, Congress can essentially call something whatever it wants. In the end, the National Park Service calls them all National Parks.

So what does becoming a National Park actually get you? Surprisingly, not necessarily additional funding! And if you’re already an NPS site, there’s usually no change in management—though monuments could fall under the US Forest Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, or the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). 

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If the park you manage gets national status, you’re on the hook to pay for new signage which just seems cruel. 

“We have hopes that the initial funding will be other sources to cover the costs associated with this redesignation,” says National Park Service’s Eve West, spokesperson for the site in West Virginia. “And of course if we get a huge uptick in visitation, our needs will change.” 

Cowpens National Battlefield, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That’s the main benefit of becoming a national park: The prestige and recognition that all but guarantees increased revenue in tourism. Indiana Dunes is probably the best example with visitation increasing 21 percent the year after the new National Park status.

But why? Are we so addle minded that we don’t accept the beauty and splendor of a place without a name change? Do we really skip all these other wonderful places because they don’t have National Park in the title? Unfortunately, for a lot of people, the name really is the thing. Which I suppose is why there was a lot of anger when Gateway Arch National Park was announced.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway Arch was formerly the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and it consists of the Arch, of course, and the Old Courthouse (where the landmark Dred Scot case was tried) and a museum representing the location on the St. Louis Riverfront as the ceremonial beginning of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Some thought naming it for the arch diminished the importance of the Courthouse. Others thought it too small. Most, frankly, just think a National Park is a large expanse of beautiful nature, and Gateway just didn’t fit the bill.

I think we’re missing the bigger picture.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So what’s the big picture? National parks are all unique whether on the shores of the Mississippi or in the wilds of the Sierra Nevada. They’re here to protect fragile ecosystems, or to help us remember history, or yes, for our enjoyment.

Should politicians leverage the system for the gain of their district, I don’t know. But I do know that if we didn’t care so much about names, it wouldn’t work. Yes, the naming system is a mess and could be entirely overhauled. Heck, maybe they should all just be named National Parks. But, don’t consider any national park service designation as being more important than another. Doing so may have you missing out on incredible vast mountains, deserts, canyons, and untamed rivers. Each National Park Service site has a wonderful, unique story to tell. Dig deeper than 63 passport stamps.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The promise of increased tourism is already starting to be fulfilled at New River Gorge. That alone is likely worth the extra effort even if the path to national park status is as perilous and perplexing than even the most otherworldly landscapes you’ll find in Bryce Canyon or Joshua Tree

“We’ve already had lots of people come and say hey, we heard you were a national park, we thought we’d check it out,” says West. “The pandemic has been a horrible thing, but it does make people recognize what a wonderful opportunity we have just out the door.” 

San Antonio Missions National Historic Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Eric Metaxas

7 Incredible Ancient Ruins to Explore in National Parks

Here are my top 7 picks for the best places in America to see ancient ruins

Originally established to conserve and preserve some of the most beautiful and unusual wilderness places in America, the National Park System (NPS) grew to include archaeological and historic sites. The first park to preserve “the works of men,” as President Theodore Roosevelt put it, was Mesa Verde, established in 1906. Others followed, preserving and showcasing ancient ruins and archaeological sites throughout the country. Most are in the Southwest—and for good reason.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

People of the Southwest built their homes and cities in stone, carving them in soft sandstone crevices or building structures up to four stories high from clay and mud bricks. In the bone-dry environment of the desert, these ancient structures baked in the sun but stayed preserved. Visible for miles in the wide-open spaces, they were easy to find, and as settlers moved into the area they started visiting them—without regard to their preservation. Vandalism threatened to destroy structures that stood centuries in the desert sun. To protect and preserve the past the NPS incorporated them to help preserve them.

The following are a few of our favorite national parks preserving ancient ruins in the Southwest.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Hundreds of cliff dwellings pepper the walls of the canyons and more stand-alone structures sit on the rims of Mesa Verde in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. The best-preserved ancient ruins in the country, some of them date from as far back as 600 A.D. They not only started the preservation of ancient monuments in the U.S. but are also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The mesa-top sites are easy to access and visit on your own. Older than the cliff dwellings, these are the sites where the Ancestral Puebloans lived before moving down into the canyon. You’ll find them at the Far View Sites Complex, the Cedar Tree Tower, and the Square Tower House and Sun Temple.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The cliff dwellings are even more spectacular though you need to join a ranger-led tour to visit most of them. Cliff Palace is the most spectacular; others include Balcony House, Spruce Tree House, and Long House. Stop at the Visitor Center to learn more about each tour and sign up for the ones you want to join.

You can spend at least two days in the park, especially if you want to take multiple tours. Overnight lodging includes camping at the Morefield Campground and rooms at the Farview Lodge.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Montezuma Castle, near Camp Verde, has nothing to do with Montezuma, nor is it a castle. We owe the name to early pioneers who thought this five story pueblo was of Aztec origin. In fact, the superb masons who constructed this cliff dwelling were likely ancestors of the present day Hopi and Zuni. Spanish explorers called them Sinagua (“without water”) because they were dry farmers, coaxing their crops of corn, beans, and squash from the arid desert soil.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sinagua built the five-story, 20-room structure about 1150 but abandoned it in the early 1400s, almost a century before Montezuma was born. Montezuma Castle is built into a deep alcove with masonry rooms added in phases. A thick, substantial roof of sycamore beams, reeds, grasses, and clay often served as the floor of the next room built on top.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

If you wonder why an ancient archaeological site in the Southwest is named Aztec, you are not alone. The name is a misnomer; people who built this ancient city had nothing to do with the Aztecs. They were the Ancestral Puebloans, members of the same people group that built Chaco and Mesa Verde. The ancient city is in fact considered an outlier of Chaco and if you visit Aztec Ruins, you’ll see the same features on a smaller scale. However, from a visitor’s perspective, Aztec Ruins National Monument in the town of Aztec is much more accessible. All you have to do is drive to the end of a neighborhood street in town. Clearly marked signs point you in the right direction.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built and inhabited between 1100 and 1300, Aztec Ruins features a “great house” you can walk through and several other structures and kivas. The highlight of the site is the only reconstructed ceremonial kiva in the Southwest. Walking inside this kiva gives you an idea of what the originals would have looked like. Once inside, listen to a recording, adding to the ambiance. Even the Visitor Center is a museum here, set in the original house archaeologist Earl Morris who reconstructed the kiva lived in while he worked at the site.

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

Casa Grande National Monument, Arizona

Casa Grande ruins sits in the middle of a surrounding flat desert in Coolidge just a short drive south of Phoenix. Part of a larger archaeological site featuring a few smaller structures and a ball court, this “big house” is part of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. The largest known structure built by the Hohokam, the four-story-high “house” is protected from the intense Arizona sun by a metal roof.

Built by the ancestors of the present-day O’odham people the site was an ancient farming community and according to the oral history of their descendants, a ceremonial center. Walk through the indoor museum to learn about the ancient people of the desert who lived here, and their ingenuity in making a life in the Sonoran Desert. Then walk through the site and experience the desert yourself.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

If you want to visit ancient ruins in the middle of nowhere without driving on dirt roads Hovenweep National Monument fits the bill. The word Hovenweep means deserted valley and that is exactly what you find as you drive to the site on the Colorado-Utah border in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. The site is actually in both states but you wouldn’t be able to tell which one you are in.

Hovenweep features a few tall structures along a small canyon. The largest, called Hovenweep Castle, sits on the rim comprising a few structures. The two-mile round-trip trail leading to the ruins takes you along the rim of the canyon. Besides the castle, it passes several other structures and offers views of the Square Tower inside the canyon. The paved trail from the Visitor Center to the start of this trail is fully accessible and leads to Little Ruins Canyon Overlook. From here, you can see most of the structures.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Tuzigoot National Monument preserves a site on top of a hill overlooking the Verde River, cliffs and ridges in the valley, and the Tavasci Marsh, a natural riparian area surrounding an old curve of the Verde River.

The ancient village on the hill, the Citadel, inhabited between 1100 and 1400, comprised 110 rooms by the time its builders and those who lived there abandoned the site. A paved, fully accessible trail leads to and around it, giving you a good idea of what it would have looked like. Though the views from the ruins alone are worth the walk, one room is reconstructed, and if you are there at the right time, you can enter it and see what it would have looked like when inhabited.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo, who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor. People have lived in the canyon for more than 5,000 years, archaeologists believe, making it the longest continuously inhabited area on the Colorado Plateau. Ancient ruins are tucked along its cliffs, as are centuries-old pictographs.

Don’t miss the White House Ruins. This is a superb hike. Long ago, hundreds of people lived in the structure built into the cliffs. Now the walls are a reminder of how life once thrived in the canyon.For your efforts you’ll get an up-close look at White House ruins, mentioned in the Navajo Night Chant as “white house in between”.

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

Things To Keep In Mind When Visiting These Archaeological Sites

The ancient people of the Southwest who built the structures mentioned above, made their home in an inhospitable environment and built civilizations here. For a long time, the view was that they mysteriously “disappeared,” leaving these elaborate structures behind.

In fact, they were all ancestors of the present-day Native tribes of the Southwest. When visiting any of the ruins, please be respectful of this. For some of us, these people’s stories may be an interesting piece of history, but for the descendants of people who built them, they are part of their cultural inheritance. By learning about their history and protecting and respecting these sites, we learn about the Native people of the area, and are richer for the experience.

Worth Pondering…

We didn’t inherit the earth; we are borrowing it from our children.

—Native American Proverb

The 16 Best National Parks for Families to Explore this Spring

Following the past pandemic winter hibernation a national park adventure is one of the best family vacation ideas for spring

During April and May, national parks tend to be less crowded and cooler then during peak summer travel which means plenty of outdoor space to stretch out and burn off energy. As an added bonus, April brings National Park Week (April 17-25, in 2021), an annual celebration that includes FREE admission and special junior ranger programs for kids.

Spring is prime time for wildflowers, to spot baby wildlife, hit the hiking trails, and enjoy seasonal waterfalls. Here are 16 of the best national parks in spring throughout the United States. These exceptional public lands will help you reconnect and reboot.

Saguaro cactus in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Spring is the perfect time to visit Saguaro before the triple-digit summertime temperatures descend on the Sonoran Desert. The region’s giant saguaro cactuses are an iconic symbol of the Southwest and families are bound to see plenty of them along hiking trails and driving routes through the east or west section of the park. The greatest diversity of spring-blooming cacti species can be seen in April. The cactus show continues as the abundant prickly pears bloom in early May followed by saguaros from mid May to mid June.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Visitors will find cooler spring temperatures at Grand Canyon with even a chance of snow on the Rim. The possibility of rain and snow, combined with more breezes and skies clear of haze and smog (that tends to drift from Las Vegas and Southern California) makes spring an ideal time to see the canyon in all its drama and beauty.

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

New River Gorge National Park & Preserve, West Virginia

In January 2021, New River Gorge was elevated to national park status focusing national attention on the natural beauty of one of West Virginia’s most beloved playgrounds. The New River is one of those places that gets under your skin and stays with you especially if you enjoy outdoor activities. Spring at New River Gorge means whitewater through deep canyons, the perfect backdrop for thrilling family rafting trips.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Spring at Shenandoah National Park brings blooming wildflowers and trees, flowing waterfalls and migrating songbirds. Only 75 miles west of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah is an easy escape from the bustle of the city. A park hallmark is Skyline Drive, the scenic byway that runs 105 miles north and south along the mountaintop ridge. To escape any April showers, duck into Luray Caverns, located just outside park boundaries for a cave exploration filled with towering stone formations and massive caverns.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Each spring, the hollows of Great Smoky Mountains National Park bloom with ephemerals such as trillium, lady slipper orchids, bleeding hearts, violets, and other native flora. For 71 years wildflower enthusiasts have enjoyed the show during the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage (May 8-16, in 2021). Later in spring, synchronous fireflies light up the woodland glens (dates vary year to year).

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway is among the most scenic drives in the Eastern U.S. Designed to “lie gently upon the land,” this national park corridor stretches from Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offering scenic mountain views and ample hiking opportunities along the way. Expect to find a mix of wildflowers and tree blossoms including dwarf iris, tulips, violets, and various species of rhododendrons and dogwood trees. Craggy Gardens (MP 364.6) has a particularly spectacular rhododendron bloom in late spring.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Opt for the family-friendly Riverside Walk and look for early blooming wildflowers such as desert marigold, slickrock paintbrush, and western columbine. You just may catch a glimpse of baby animals including wild turkey chicks, mule deer fawns, and bighorn sheep.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

Located north of Zion, Cedar Breaks National Monument is a 10,000-foot hidden gem, a wide red rock amphitheater similar to Bryce Canyon. Spring arrives later at this higher elevation but when it does, the meadows blaze with the brilliant colors of wildflower blooms. Be sure to hike to Spectra Point to glimpse the oldest tree in the park—a Bristlecone pine estimated to be 1,500 years old.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Tours of the cliff dwellings begin in May but early spring travelers won’t miss out since cliff dwelling structures like Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House can be viewed at overlooks year-round. Prior to June, the park is quieter with fewer crowds and moderate temperatures. A less-visited nearby site, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument has the highest concentration of Native American archaeological sites in the U.S.—more than 6,300 including cliff dwellings, kivas, petroglyphs, and sacred springs.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

One of the least-visited national parks, Big Bend is a perfect place for physical distancing. Springtime at Big Bend National Park means cooler temperatures, wildflowers, and plenty of migrating birds. And Big Bend is a great place to explore the Rio Grande River which is framed by sheer canyon walls.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park preserves 11,000 acres of old growth bottomland hardwood forest with some of the largest trees (of their kind) in the United States. The sun and water reflect the trees creating a complex world of depth, light, and life.Cypress knees spring from the swamp like forest stalagmites.The story of spring in Congaree, is the trees, water, flowers, light, and life working together to bring you something entirely new, entirely special.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Above ground, the yucca bloom, cacti send out yellow arms, and mescal plants blossom across the Chihuahuan Desert landscape. Below ground, stalactites line cave ceilings and decorative rock formations keep youngsters enthralled along the Big Room Trail. Carlsbad Caverns is famous for its bat flight program and the Brazilian free-tailed bats make their migratory journey back to the park in late spring.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Summer gets hot in the desert but spring is the perfect season to visit. With its location within 1,200 square miles of Mojave and Colorado deserts, spring is prime time at Joshua Tree. Not only will you enjoy milder weather, you might also be treated to spectacular springtime displays of lupine, poppies, and Joshua tree blooms.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Spring is a time to enjoy sunshine and snow at Lassen Volcanic. The Manzanita Lake and Southwest Areas of the park remain accessible by car all year. Snow clearing on the park highway (which closes to through traffic in the snowy, winter season) begins in the Manzanita Lake Area in late March or early April. It takes two months on average to clear and open the 30-mile park highway. The snow clearing process is largely dependent on the depth of the winter snowpack and spring weather.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Utah

Arches and Canyonlands are colorful siblings that are great to visit any time of year but to avoid the high heat of summer the best time to visit is now. Spring-time activities run the gamut in these two parks. Hiking is the main attraction with endless miles of trails. Some of the more popular hikes in Arches lead to Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch, Park Avenue, and the Windows Section. In Canyonlands explore the Island in the Sky with its trails to Whale Rock and ancient granaries on Aztec Butte. Longer treks in the Needles District can fill several days and more. Spring also is a time of renewal, and you can see this in the blooming flowers.

Worth Pondering…

April is a promise that May is bound to keep.

—Hal Borland

Celebrating America’s Parks and American Heritage during National Park Week

From April 17-25, the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation invite everyone to celebrate America’s treasured places during National Park Week. Join the fun!

The Department of the Interior has announced that National Park Week—an annual weeklong celebration of America’s national parks—will run from April 17 to April 25. National Park Week encourages the public to explore the vast network of national parks, sacred sites, and historical landmarks. 

Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Park, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Every national park has its own unique story to tell, yet so much of our nation’s shared heritage can be found in the towering forests and vast desert expanses that make up our National Park System,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. “The outdoors has also proven to be a welcome refuge during the past year of the pandemic. I encourage everyone to enjoy the beauty and wonder of our national parks safely and responsibly.”   

To kick off National Park Week all parks will have a free admission day on Saturday, April 17. The public is asked to recreate responsibly when visiting parks.

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

The National Park Service (NPS) invites everyone to participate in a Twitter chat preview of National Park Week on April 16 at 1 p.m. Join the conversation and share favorite memories, tips, and stories about national parks using the hashtag #NationalParkWeek.    

“National Park Week is always a great reminder of the wide variety of sites, parks and programs available for the public to explore in-person or online,” said National Park Service Deputy Director Shawn Benge. “Throughout the week, ‘travel’ to national parks through virtual tours and other entertaining and educational digital activities designed to connect visitors with the vast network of historical, cultural, inspirational, and recreational parks across the country.”   

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The National Park Foundation and our park partners celebrate the full diversity of our parks. They come in all shapes and sizes. They are urban and rural, natural and manmade. They each have their own, unique story, perspective and experience to share with all of us that, when taken together, really tell the American story,” said National Park Foundation President and CEO Will Shafroth. “And each of us has an important role to play in helping to preserve and protect these special places.”

The 2021 National Park Week theme days are:  

Pinnacles National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saturday, April 17: Free Admission and ParkRx Day

Spending time in parks and nature benefits overall physical and mental health and wellness. In honor of the NPS’ century-long collaboration with the Office of Public Health, National Park Week begins with ParkRx Day! Enjoy a free admission visit and experience the healing power of nature in a national park.   

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

Sunday, April 18: Volunteer Sunday

Thank you to National Park Service VIPs (Volunteers-In-Parks)! With over 400 national park sites to manage, NPS volunteers play a critical part in helping parks thrive. From clearing trails and providing directions to assisting visitors through museum collections, volunteers help all of us enjoy national parks.   

Cowpens National Battlefield, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monday, April 19: Military Monday

Thank you for your family’s military service. Many national parks have direct connections to the American military—there are dozens of battlefields, military parks, and historic sites that commemorate and honor the service of American veterans. In gratitude for their service, free annual passes are available for all those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Learn more at nps.gov/subjects/military.  

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

Tuesday, April 20: Transformation Tuesday

National parks and communities are ever changing whether it is in nature, history, opportunities to experience places, and our own personal journeys. Some transformations in national parks have occurred naturally while others are the result of conservation and restoration projects. From restoring buildings to their historical appearance, to rehabilitating ecosystems, to the maturation of wildlife, to incorporating emerging technology, learn how and why parks and their features have transformed through the years.    

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

Wednesday, April 21: Wayback Wednesday

History happened and memories are made in national parks. Take a look at some of your favorite parks then and now. How has the view changed? Who else has stood in the same spot in the past? Learn about the living landscapes, historical battlefields, ancestral structures, homes of prominent people, and buildings that are tangible reminders of the ever-evolving U.S. story.

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

Thursday, April 22: Earth Day

A global celebration encouraging all people to learn more about and care for the planet, Earth Day is the perfect time to reflect on the natural wonders that the NPS helps to protect.   

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Friday, April 23: Friendship Friday

Caring for the parks is a big job. Park partners have played an important role since the NPS was founded in 1916 and this tradition of generous, committed support continues today with individuals, groups, and communities helping preserve and enhance the national park experience.  

Capitol Reef National Park. Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saturday, April 24: Junior Ranger Day

The NPS Junior Ranger program provides fun and engaging ways for young people to connect with America’s heritage and landscapes.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunday, April 25: BARK Ranger Day

National parks are fun to share with those we love including those of the fluffy variety! BARK Ranger principles ensure a pet’s visit to a park is fun and safe.   

Go outside, spring is for feeling alive in national parks.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

The 10 Best Hiking Trails in America’s National Parks

Explore the best trails in some of the world’s most beautiful parks

From colorful badlands to cavernous canyons and old-growth wetlands, the National Park Service boasts incredible diversity when it comes to hiking trails. Whether you’re looking for an intense mountain ascent or an easy forest stroll, bucket list-worthy hikes come in all shapes, sizes, styles, and lengths. Here are 10 national park trails that belong on your must-hike itinerary.

Know your limits, pace yourself, and pay attention to how you are feeling. Your safety is your responsibility. Your tomorrow depends on the decisions that you make today.

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

Blue Mesa Loop in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Do you want to view a landscape that is out of this world? If your answer is yes then the Blue Mesa Loop Trail is sure to please. This mile long trail takes you into a landscape brushed in blue where you will find cone-shaped hills banded in a variety of colors and intricately eroded into unique patterns. Descending from the mesa this alternately paved and gravel trail loop offers the unique experience of hiking among petrified wood as well as these badland hills. The trail descends 100 feet below the rim and can be a little steep in places.

Boardwalk Loop, Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Boardwalk Loop in Congaree National Park, South Carolina

This hike, though it’s really more of a walk, features an elevated boardwalk through old-growth swampland. Though the lush, green trees are beautiful in their own right the trail really shines at night (literally!) when thousands of fireflies come out and fill the area. For photographers, the trail is exceptionally beautiful at sunrise when both the boardwalk and bald cypress trees take on golden early-morning hues. Wildlife like deer and wild pigs can also be seen in the area for those willing to sit silently for a few minutes You’ll definitely want mosquito repellant, especially in the summer months.

Manzanita Lake Loop, Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Manzanita Lake Loop in Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

While much of the attention at this serene California park is drawn to its namesake Lassen Peak, a worthwhile trek for ardent day-hikers, there’s a more leisurely and accessible option that affords some of the most striking vistas in the park. Manzanita Lake is a tranquil, shimmering oasis in the northwestern portion of Lassen Volcanic offering a peaceful 1.8-mile loop trail around pristine, bright-blue water. From certain vantage points, the views of Lassen Peak are incomparable and the jaunt through dense forest feels downright rejuvenating for the soul.

Rim Trail, Grand Canyon N ational Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rim Trail in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Any section of the Rim Trail serves up jaw-dropping looks into the Grand Canyon but the unpaved section between Powell Point and Monument Creek is a dirt path and feels more like a genuine hike than its paved sections. But what’s underfoot doesn’t matter as much as what lies just beyond—canyons within canyons and cauldrons of rapids far below. Head to Maricopa Point by park shuttle to start the hike then take the shuttle back from Hermits Rest to Grand Canyon Village when you’re done.

Fairyland Loop, Bryce Canyon National Park

Fairyland Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

If you don’t know what a hoodoo is you’ll know after crossing this spectacular hike’s eight miles of hoodoo-covered trails. These unique rock columns can be found throughout the trail eventually culminating in Fairyland Canyon, a valley of staggeringly large and vast formations as tall as 150 feet. The colorful hoodoos are some of the brightest and most unusual in the park giving the whole area an otherworldly feel. Because of this trail’s length and constant up and downs it’s one of the least crowded hikes in the park.

Big Trees Trail, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Big Trees Trail in Sequoia National Park, California
Located next to the Giant Forest Museum, the Big Trees Trail is one of the best short and easy hikes you can do in Sequoia. This loop trail takes you completely around the meadow and provides impressive views of numerous massive sequoias as well as the beautiful meadow itself.

From the museum follow a paved path on a ridge above the road. In a few hundred feet, the path will cross the road as you near the meadow. From here the trail does a loop around the meadow which you can start in either direction. The path is paved or in some places a wooden bridge when it gets marshy. Allow 1 hour round trip.

Lower Bear Gulch Cave Trail, Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lower Bear Gulch Cave Trail in Pinnacles National Park, California

One of America’s newer national parks is one of the smallest at just over 26,000 acres but that doesn’t mean there isn’t space to get lost in its stunning terrain. The easy Lower Bear Gulch Cave trail takes hikers under moss-covered boulders and across alpine springs often at the same time. This short trail passes through strikingly angular rock formations before dipping down through Bear Gulch Cave—be sure to bring a flashlight. After you’ve hiked through Lower Bear Gulch you can double back and take a higher route past the 300 foot Monolith rock pinnacle, one of the largest in the park.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hawksbill Loop Trail in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

At just 3 miles in length, the Hawksbill Loop Trail in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park may not seem very long but it packs plenty of punch. The route wanders along part of the legendary Appalachian Trail on its way up to the top of Hawksbill—the highest point in the park at just over 4,000 feet. Along the way hikers can spot wildlife as they work their way up to the summit where they’ll discover a stone platform that offers views of thick forests and rolling hills that stretch to the horizon. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park offers a wide range of hiking opportunities with something suitable for every age and experience level during every month of the year. The Narrows is the most popular hike in Zion and one of the best slot canyon hikes anywhere. It is pure fun and can be tailored to suit any ability level. The trail is basically the Virgin River. The canyon is so narrow the river covers the bottom in many spots which means you have to wade or swim to proceed. The cool water makes this hike particularly pleasant during the hot months of summer.

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

Devil’s Garden Hike and Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park in southeast Utah is a day-hikers paradise. The park is one of Southern Utah’s most famous hiking destinations with an easily accessible network of trails that often culminate right at the base of an impressive sandstone arch. The Devil’s Garden Loop is at the far end of the park where the main road terminates. This is a 7.2-mile trail with some wonderful rock scenery and eight arches along the route. This is one of the more difficult hikes in the park with some scrambles over slickrock and exposed ledges. However, you don’t necessarily need to do the entire loop to experience some of the attractions in this area.  A 1.6-mile round-trip hike on relatively flat ground will take you to Landscape Arch which spans more than the length of a football field. Also in the same area are Navajo Arch and Partition Arch. Both of these hikes leave from the Devils Garden Trailhead.

Worth Pondering…

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

—Edward Abbey

The Mystique of the Casa Grande Ruins

A four-story structure of mud and wood, the Great House, is all that remains of a community of Hohokam people who lived here during the 14th century

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument contains an imposing four-story building dating from the late Hohokam period probably 14th century and contemporary with other well preserved ruins in Arizona such as the Tonto and Montezuma Castle national monuments. It is situated in the flat plain of central Arizona between the Gila and Santa Cruz rivers just north of Coolidge and about 15 miles east of Casa Grande. The structure was once part of a collection of settlements scattered along the Gila River and linked by a network of irrigation canals. The area has a low elevation and is very hot—often over 110 degrees for several months in the summer. Even in winter, daytime temperatures can reach 80.

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

Guided tours are offered from late November to mid-April. Tours meet in the shaded Interpretive Ramada located immediately outside of the visitor center’s rear doors. While you are seated for the introduction the guide will explain the history of the ruins, the archeology, and the Hohokam Culture. Your guide then leads the tour into Compound A and points out interesting features. You may enter or leave the tour at any point or you may chose to visit the park on a self-guided tour. There are signs and exhibits to enhance your visit with volunteers and staff eager to hear your stories and discuss your questions. Tours are wheelchair friendly.

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

The Ruins

The Great House can be seen from some distance away owing to the flatness of the terrain and the rather curious appearance from a distance—the structure is protected from the harsh desert sun by a large metal roof supported by four great pillars designed by architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. This is an impressive design made necessary to help preserve the building but it is still rather incongruous. The present cover replaced an earlier wooden construction in 1932.

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

The scale of the ruin is best appreciated from close up—it is 60 feet by 40 feet wide at the base and has caliche walls over three feet thick. Although visitors are not allowed into the building owing to its delicate state and for safety reasons, much can be seen from outside including details of the construction with wooden beams supporting the clay walls and various internal features such as stairways and windows. However, besides the protective canopy, the interior contains other modern items such as re-enforcing beams, metal ladders, and measuring devices on the walls, all contributing to the slightly unnatural scene.

Built by the ancestors of the present-day O’odham people the site was an ancient farming community and according to the oral history of their descendants, a ceremonial center. Walk through the indoor museum to learn about the ancient people of the desert who lived here and their ingenuity in making a life in the Sonoran Desert. Then walk through the site and experience the desert yourself.

History

It is believed that the Casa Grande functioned partly as an astronomical observatory since the four walls face the points of the compass and some of the windows are aligned to the positions of the sun and moon during the solstice. There are various smaller ruins to explore the remains of a Hohokam farming village and some are yet to be excavated. A second, similarly sized compound is located 850 feet northeast of the Casa Grande though this is usually closed to the public. Nowadays, the roof and walls of the main building provide shelter for several species of birds most notably a great horned owl.

The Hohokam themselves seem to have abandoned the complex around the 16th century. Apart from other Indian peoples and Spanish missionaries the area was not revisited until the 1880s when American settlers arrived and began to threaten the ruins by removing artifacts as souvenirs. In 1892, the Casa Grande became the first archaeological site in the US to be protected.

Explore the mystery and complexity of an extended network of communities and irrigation canals. An Ancestral Sonoran Desert People’s farming community and Great House are preserved at Casa Grande Ruins. Whether the Casa Grande was a gathering place for the Hohokam or simply a waypoint marker in an extensive system of canals and trading partners is but part of the mystique of the Ruins.

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

Fact Box

Size: 472 acres

Established: August 3, 1918

Fees: No fee is currently charged

Operating hours: Limited Hours Due to Covid-19; check with the park before planning a visit

Great horned owl at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why go: The Hohokam were expert farmers who developed a network of 1,000 miles of canals to channel water from the Salt and Gila rivers. The monument preserves structures that are 700 years old.

Don’t miss: The tallest building is four stories high and covered with a shade structure to protect it from further deterioration. Based on holes in the walls that correlate to the path of the sun during the solstice it’s believed the building was used, at least partly, to study astronomy. Guided tours are available in the cooler months.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes

Yes, these are the Most Visited National Parks in 2020

Outdoor experiences provided refuge from the pandemic for 237 million visitors to America’s national parks in 2020

While some people will spend their summer at the beach, many families will head out this summer to experience some of the great National Parks that America has to offer. Last year’s COVID closures resulted in fewer visitors but with people seeking outdoor activities many folks visited at least one National Park Service (NPS) site. Although overall visitation dropped, a number of parks experienced record crowds and welcomed new visitors. Trails, overlooks, and open spaces provided safe ways for visitors to recreate responsibly, get some fresh air, and stay active.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“This past year has reminded us how important national parks and public lands are to overall wellbeing,” said NPS Deputy Director Shawn Benge. “Throughout the country, national parks provided close-to-home opportunities for people to spend much needed time outdoors for their physical and psychological health.”

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The coronavirus pandemic has affected nearly every National Park Service operation and parks continue to work with public health officials to navigate changing conditions. A maximum 66 of the 423 parks of the National Park System were fully closed for two months or more. The majority of parks—particularly those with outdoor spaces—remained accessible to the public. Just a handful of historic and cultural parks, primarily historic homes with limited indoor space, remain closed.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Additional information from the 2020 visitation report includes:

  • Recreation visitor hours dipped from 1.4 billion in 2019 to 1.05 billion in 2020, a 26 percent decrease
  • 15 parks set a new recreation visitation record in 2020
  • Five parks broke a visitation record they set in 2019
  • Blue Ridge Parkway claimed the title of most-visited site in the National Park System
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park maintained its long-running position as the most visited National Park in 2020, a position it has held since 1944
  • Grand Canyon National Park dropped from the second-most visited national park—a position it held for 30 years—to the sixth most-visited
  • Yellowstone National Park moved from the sixth most-visited national park in 2019 to second most-visited—a position it has not held since 1947
  • Four parks began reporting official visitor statistics for the first time: Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, and Valles Caldera National Preserve
Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2020 by the numbers

  • 237,064,332 recreation visits
  • 1,054,952,540 recreation visitor hours
  • 8,039,768 overnight stays (recreation + non-recreation)
  • Three parks had more than 10 million recreation visits—Blue Ridge Parkway, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • Seven parks had more than five million recreation visits—down from 11 parks in 2019
  • 60 parks had more than one million recreation visits (15 percent of reporting parks)—down from 80 parks in 2019
  • 19 national parks had more than one million recreation visits (30 percent of National Parks)
  • 25 percent of total recreation visits occurred in the top six most-visited parks (1.5 percent of all parks in the National Park System
  • 50 percent of total recreation visits occurred in the top 23 most-visited parks (6 percent of all parks in the National Park System)
Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top 10 most visited NPS sites

Blue Ridge Parkway (14,099,485)

Golden Gate National Recreation Area (12,400,045)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (12,095,720)

Gateway National Recreation Area (8,404,728)

Lake Mead National Recreation Area (8,016,510)

George Washington Memorial Parkway (6,237,391)

Natchez Trace Parkway (6,124,808)

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park (4,888,436)

Cape Cod National Seashore (4,083,505)

Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (4,068,529)

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top 10 most visited national parks

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (12,095,720)

Yellowstone National Park (3,806,306)

Zion National Park (3,591,254)

Rocky Mountain National Park (3,305,199)

Grand Teton National Park (3,289,638 million)

Grand Canyon National Park (2,897,098)

Cuyahoga Valley National Park (2,755,628)

Acadia National Park (2,669,034)

Olympic National Park (2,499,177)

Joshua Tree National Park (2,399,542)

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit lesser-known national parks

Every national park-lover needs to visit Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, and the Grand Canyon at some point but consider visiting some of the lesser-known parks as well. One of my favorite “sleeper” parks is Petrified Forest in Arizona where you’ll find remains of a colorful prehistoric forest, some of the logs more than 100 feet long and up to 10 feet in diameter. But there’s so much more: artifacts of the ancient indigenous people who lived here including the remains of large pueblos and massive rock art panels, fossils of plants and animals from the late Triassic period (the dawn of the dinosaurs), a striking and vast painted desert (a badland cloaked in a palette of pastel colors), a remnant of historic Route 66 complete with a 1932 Studebaker, and a wilderness of more than 50,000 acres where you can find wildness, beauty, and quiet.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other favorites include Congaree in South Carolina (the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeast) and California’s remote Lassen Volcanic, one of the only places in the world that has all four types of volcanoes—cinder cone, composite, shield, and plug dome.

Go outside, spring is for feeling alive in national parks.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

An Ancient Village on the Hill: How Life was Lived at Tuzigoot

This extensive Sinagua pueblo sits on a scenic hilltop with views of Jerome and the Verde Valley

Crowning a desert hilltop is an ancient pueblo. A child scans the desert landscape for the arrival of traders. What riches will they bring? What stories will they tell? From the rooftop of the Tuzigoot pueblo it is easy to imagine such a moment.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built atop a small 120 foot ridge is a large pueblo. Tuzigoot is Apache for crooked water; however, it was built by the Sinagua. With 77 ground floor rooms this pueblo held about 50 people. After about 100 years the population doubled and then doubled again later. By the time they finished building the pueblo, it had 110 rooms including second and third story structures and housed 250 people. An interesting fact is that Tuzigoot lacked ground level doors having roof-accessed doors instead. The history of Tuzigoot goes back well before the pueblo was constructed and we’re here to tell you the story.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our story begins 10,000 years ago. Hunters and gatherers passed through the lush Verde Valley in search of food. Human occupation of the Verde Valley can be traced back to about 700 when people lived in pit houses. Two Native American tribes, the Hohokam (“those who have gone”) and the Northern Sinagua (“those without water”), lived in the valley and directly influenced the Sinagua that lived at Tuzigoot. The Hohokam were excellent farmers and grew corn, beans, squash, and cotton. They even used irrigation canals. The Northern Sinagua Indians are credited for the buildings which were built in 1125. Built along the Verde River resources were plentiful. The peak time of Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castle came in the 1300s.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mysteriously however, in 1400, the Southern Sinagua (who mainly inhabited Tuzigoot) left. Reasons for moving may include over population, consumption of resources, disease, drought, or even conflict with other tribes. For whatever the reason was, the Sinagua moved south into Hohokam villages.

After the people left the pueblo stood empty until the early 1930s when it was excavated by archeologists and then turned into a national monument on July 25th, 1939.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pueblo shows us this ancient village built by the Sinagua people. The people who built and lived in the rooms of the Tuzigoot pueblo were part of a thriving community of farmers with trade connections stretching hundreds of miles. Their lives were part of a vast and complex society and they had a deep understanding of the world around them.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The site is currently comprised of 42 acres that includes the hilltop pueblo, cliffs and ridges in the valley, and the Tavasci Marsh, a natural riparian area surrounding an old curve of the Verde River. A paved, fully accessible trail takes you through the pueblo giving you a good idea of what it would have looked like. Though the views from the ruins alone are worth the walk, one room is reconstructed and you can enter it and see what it would have looked like when inhabited.

Explore the Tuzigoot museum which highlights ceramics, textiles, and tools found during the excavation of Tuzigoot pueblo. Spend time with a ranger and learn about the Sinagua and the lives they led in the Verde Valley.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tavasci Marsh lie adjacent to the pueblo in an ancient oxbow isolated from the Verde River nearly 10,000 years ago. The marsh is primarily fed by Shea Spring located in the limestone beds on the northernmost edge of this ancient meander. These perennial wetlands have attracted people, plants, and animals for thousands of years.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tavasci Marsh is one-of-a-kind hiking or birding experience. Hike down the steep dirt road into the bottom land which is the marsh. You are there but turn right and keep on going along the marsh through a small grove of cottonwoods and emerge onto a grass land area. Bear left through the grassland and find a foot bridge which crosses the exit ditch for the marsh. Once there, you might want to take a very short walk over to the Verde River for a beautiful view. Once you cross the foot bridge turn left on the old dirt road and you will join the trail down from Dead Horse Ranch State Park. Keep hiking until you get to where the trail narrows and eventually you will find yourself at the observation platform and the end of the trail.

Tuzigoot can be found in Clarkdale, Arizona, just west of Montezuma Castle and just north of Jerome. Visiting Tuzigoot is definitely worth your while!

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 42 acres

Established: July 25th, 1939

Fees: $10/adult; fees are valid for 7 days at both Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castle National Monuments

Along the trail to Tavasci Marsh © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Operating hours: Open daily from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.

Why go: This extensive Sinagua pueblo sits on a scenic hilltop with views of Jerome, Dead Horse Ranch State Park, and the Verde Valley. Check out the artifacts inside the visitor center.

Don’t miss: A paved trail loops around the structure, going in and out of some rooms making it easy to understand how people would have lived, played, and farmed here.

Along the trail to Tavasci Marsh © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Insider tip: Take the easy walk to the Tavasci Marsh overlook. This pretty spring-fed wetland attracts birds, beavers, and other wildlife.

Along the way: Cottonwood is a wine lover’s destination. There are four tasting rooms on Main Street in Old Town and several wineries and tasting rooms are a short drive away in Page Springs, Jerome, and Clarkdale.

Getting there: Tuzigoot is 90 miles north of Phoenix.

Along the trail to Tavasci Marsh © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes

10 National Parks to Visit during Wildflower Season

These parks are home to the country’s most vivid blooms from late March through August

Spring has sprung and brilliant pops of wildflowers are covering hillsides throughout the country—and, to no surprise, some of the best blooms are on display right in the heart of national parks. If you’re hoping to see them, it’s time to start planning.

We’ve rounded up the best national parks for wildflower lovers whether you’re an avid hiker or devout photographer focused on getting the perfect shot.

Before you head out, make sure to check local park and state travel restrictions and remember the principles of Leave No Trace: Do not pick or take home anything you find within protected park boundaries and always hike and take pictures from the main trail.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Volcanic offers spectacular opportunities for wildflower viewing from late May through September. Blooming times vary each year and are greatly affected by the winter’s snowpack. Blooming time also varies with each wildflower species. For example, mountain mules ear, snow plant, and western wallflower bloom earlier in the season while California corn lily and silverleaf lupine tend to bloom later.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

As one of the most biologically diverse national parks (the area boasts over 1,500 species of flowering plants), the Smokies come alive each spring with a colorful carpet of thyme-leaved bluets (four blue petals surrounding a yellow spot). Plus, as one of the lower elevation parks on this list, the blossoming season starts early. Peak bloom occurs from late March through July, with the park’s annual Wildflower Pilgrimage landing in mid-May. Make sure to check out the ¾-mile Cove Hardwood Nature Trail or push bigger miles and chase a couple of waterfalls on the Deep Creek Trail.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Over 80 percent of the plants in Pinnacles are in bloom from March through May when afternoon temps hover between 65 to 78 degrees, perfect for hiking. Radiant orange bush poppies, playful monkeyflowers, and brilliant blue larkspur go on full display at this hidden gem in central California. The 2.4-mile Balconies Cliffs-Cave Loop is full of rainbow-hued blooms while the more strenuous 8.4-mile High Peaks-Balconies Loop tacks on the possibility of spotting an endangered California condor.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

In addition to abundant wildlife, there are no fewer than 860 species of wildflowers in Shenandoah National Park, about 20 percent of which are aster species. Other common Shenandoah wildflowers include lilies, flowers of the pea family, mint, and mustard.

Simply put, wildflowers thrive in Shenandoah which is one of the best places to see national parks wildflowers. This enormous diversity is especially noticeable in spring at the park’s lower elevations along South River and Rose River which are two of the best waterfall hikes in Shenandoah. Through summer and fall, you can see wildflowers showing off their colors all along Skyline Drive and in Big Meadows.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Protecting areas of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, Joshua Tree National Park is spread out across various elevations. This, of course, comes with a huge variety of desert plants and wildflowers. The blooming season, however, depends greatly on winter precipitation and spring temperatures. Generally speaking, you’ll see the first wildflowera in the Pinto Basin as early as February and March. As the months go on, the colors creep upward to higher elevations. It’s not uncommon to still have abundant wildflowers as late as June in desert areas higher than 5,000 feet. Flowers to look for include desert paintbrush, beavertail cactus, Utah firecracker, Mojave aster, California barrel cactus, prickly pear cactus, and the Joshua trees themselves

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park, California

Due to its large range of elevations (1,360 to 14,505 feet), the blooming season in Sequoia is long and verdant with marigold fiddlenecks bursting in the foothills while corn lilies and paintbrush dot higher altitudes like Alta Meadow. April and May are best for spring wildflower hunting at lower elevations while the alpine environment really comes to life from July through August.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Wildflowers are common throughout Bryce Canyon, primarily growing in meadows or along trails. Many wildflowers in the park are adapted to the rocky soil including columbines and the Rocky Mountain paintbrush. Bryce Canyon wildflowers can be found in every color and range in size from tiny to almost three feet tall. They can be found at all elevations, flowering in the summer especially from May to July. A particularly interesting plant native to the area is the paintbrush several species of which can be found in Bryce Canyon including the Wyoming Paintbrush and Bryce Canyon Paintbrush.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

The high temperatures, limited rain, and drying winds of the desert can present a harsh environment for wildflowers. These unforgiving conditions make the abundance of Zion’s wildflowers seem even more spectacular set against a backdrop of towering sandstone cliffs.

In the early spring, many plants take advantage of the seasonal rains to flower and reproduce quickly before the precious water is gone. Zion’s many springs and seeps also provide micro-habitats where temperatures are cooler and water is available year round. Throughout the summer on the Weeping Rock, Emerald Pools, and Riverside Walk trails you may see “hanging gardens” where flowers cling to the cliff walls.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park is home to hundreds of flowering plants. There are approximately 650 herbaceous (having little or no woody stem) wildflowers in the park. Some of the common species displaying a white flower are the sacred datura, evening primrose, tidy fleabane, yarrow, baby white aster, and white violet. Some common yellow flowering wildflowers are broom snakeweed, yellow ragweed, Hooker’s primrose, and blanket flower. Red or orange flowered plants include the globe mallow, red columbine, penstemon, Indian paintbrush, and crimson monkeyflower. Pink and purple wildflowers include the Rocky Mountain bee plant, fleabane, Palmer lupine, Grand Canyon phacelia, and Rocky Mountain iris.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Visitors to the Sonoran Desert are eager to view hillsides covered in flowers as they may have seen on postcards and calendars. Those famous photos are taken during years when rainfall, temperature, and timing are favorable. Since soils and terrain are also an important factor there is no way to predict any year’s bloom. Saguaro National Park has some flowers in bloom virtually every month of the year and visitors can expect to see at least three flowering seasons: Spring wildflower (March-April), cactus flower (April-May), and summer flower (June-September).

Worth Pondering…

To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.

—William Blake