Visiting National Parks in Retirement

When picking your next national park adventure, consider what you love to do, hope to see, and what’s most important to you

Retirement! What does that word mean to you? For us, it means RV travel and the freedom to visit places we’ve always wanted to do but didn’t have the time.

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

National parks are amazing places to visit for people of all ages. Whether it’s to walk the trail, hike, or camp these parks are national treasures that should be seen and enjoyed.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Parks are an ideal destination for retirees not only because of the distinct natural beauty. But also because anyone over 62 visiting these protected lands can purchase a senior pass.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Senior Pass is a ticket that covers entrance fees to 2,000 federal recreation sites. Each pass covers entrance fees to national parks and wildlife refuge as well as day use fees at national forests and grasslands. This includes lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If you are visiting a location that changes per person, the pass will also cover the entrance fee for up to four adults. If you are visiting a location that charges per vehicle, the pass covers the non-commercial vehicle and its passengers.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can either buy an annual pass for $20 or a lifetime pass for $80. You have to be a U.S. citizen age 62 and over in order to be eligible to buy one. You also need to have proof of residency and age before the pass is issued.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over half a million senior passes are sold each year to retirees who want to explore both the big-name parks as well as the smaller, more obscure (but still stunning) sites. To help narrow down the choices, here are 10 of our favorite federal recreation sites for retirees to hit. Though technically not a national park, this list includes national wildlife refuges, national seashores, national monuments, and national military sites.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Okefenokee is the largest intact freshwater wetland in North America. The Refuge is made up of a variety of habitats, and includes over 40,000 acres of pine uplands that are managed for longleaf pine around the swamp perimeter and on interior islands. Other habitats include open prairies, forested wetlands, scrub shrub, and open water (lakes).

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

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

You can drive along the rim and take in the views from above, but the best way to experience Canyon de Chelly is to take a guided tour of the canyon. You’ll learn the history of the canyon, from the Anasazi who left behind cliff dwellings to the current Navajo residents who still farm in the canyon.

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore includes one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in the world. Most visitors come to Cumberland for the natural glories, serenity, and fascinating history. Built by the Carnegies, the ruins of the opulent 59-room, Queen Anne-style Dungeness are a must-see for visitors.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache supports one of the most diverse and unique assemblages of habitat and wildlife within the Southwest. Eleven miles of the Rio Grande bisects the Refuge. The extraordinary diversity and concentration of wildlife in a desert environment draws people from around the world to observe and photograph wildlife.

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park is called Arches for a very good reason. There are roughly 2,000 arches within the park — delicate, natural sculptures varying from three to over 300 feet high. Arches is also full of towers, spires, hoodoos, and ochre-colored sand.

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A park that will please history buffs as well as nature lovers, Gettysburg is famous for the major Civil War battle that took place on its grounds in 1863. History struck again when it became the site of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address later that year.

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Ana is a great place to visit for birding and draws in people from all to look for birds like the Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Green Jay, and Altamira Orioles. There are 12 miles of trails, visitor center, suspension bridge, and 40 foot tower for visitors to explore.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia and North Carolina

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, and oases. The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts.

Worth Pondering…

On being retired…we woke up this morning with nothing to do and by evening we had not completed it!

7 National Parks You Should Have on Your Radar This Winter

The best national parks to visit this winter

There are 62 national parks across America. That’s not counting the hundreds of national monuments, historical sites, battlefields, memorials, trails, and more. When you count all of them together, the number of protected sites that fall under the US National Park Service is well over 400.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So it should not surprise anyone when I say that there are scores of incredible sites worth exploring in America—from sea to shining sea.

Whether you’re looking to explore waterfalls or rivers, volcanoes or deserts, canyons or mountaintops, there’s a national park to discover this winter.

Saguaro National Park in Arizona

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located just outside of Tucson, Saguaro National Park is divided into two units separated by 30 miles: Rincon Mountain District (East Unit) and Tucson Mountain District (West Unit).

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The busiest time of the year is from November to March. During the winter months, temperatures are cooler and range from the high 50s to the high-70s. Starting in late February and March, the park begins to get a variety of cactus and wildflower blooms. In late April, the iconic Saguaro begins to bloom. Come June, the fruits are beginning to ripen.

There are many activities to partake in at Saguaro, no matter the season.

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon‘s residents are a hardy bunch—visit in winter and you’ll spot Abert’s squirrels on nut-foraging expeditions, bald eagles soaring above snow-dusted ridges, and mule deer making their way through the ponderosa pines.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many animals develop additional finery during these colder months. One example is Abert’s squirrels, which grow extra tufts of fur on their ears to keep out the cold. Furry-eared rodents aside, there are lots of other reasons to visit in winter, including hikes along the park’s beautiful low-elevation trails (which have less snow and ice) such as the South Rim’s Hermit Trail.

Big Bend National Park in Texas

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Joshua Tree National Park in California

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree is a diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. The park is home to two deserts: the Colorado which offers low desert formations and plant life, such as ocotillo and teddy bear cholla cactus; and the Mojave. This higher, cooler, wetter region is the natural habitat of the Joshua tree.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The different elevation throughout the park cause flowers to bloom at different times, with the low elevation flowers blooming earlier than higher elevation flowers.

Zion National Park in Utah

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion is a park that you have to see to believe. It is a true desert oasis and an American icon. The surrounding area looks desolate, dry, and barren, but when you drive into Zion Canyon, a massive formation, miles wide, with sheer rock walls that rise thousands of feet, await you. There is something so incredible about seeing the oranges and yellows of sandstone mixed with the greens of the Virgin River and the vegetation that grows so easily there.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona

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

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.

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

This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. With its multiple stems, the cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ. There are 28 different species of cacti in the park, ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion.

Congaree National Park in South Carolina

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park is an International Biosphere Reserve. Visitors can explore the natural wonderland by canoe, kayak, or on hiking trails and the Boardwalk Loop Trail.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is also one of the most diverse in the country—with dense forests giving way to massive expanses of swamplands. The forests are some of the biggest and oldest old-growth in America and offer great opportunities for recreation of all kinds.

Worth Pondering…

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

—Rachel Carson

The 10 Best National Parks and Monuments in Arizona

A guide to the best, the famous, and the lesser-known national parks and monuments in the Grand Canyon State

Arizona’s nickname may be the Grand Canyon State and that namesake national park may draw more than six million visitors a year and rank as the second most popular in the country. But the canyon is just one of many natural wonders in a state unusually rich in them. Here, a guide to 10 of the best, both the world-famous and those undiscovered by the masses.

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It took millions of years for the Colorado to wear down the surrounding landscape and create the Grand Canyon.

Why: It’s one of the natural wonders of the world

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon lives up to its name; it’s the biggest canyon in the United States and one of the largest in the world. Numbers don’t do the place justice—its sheer size is awe-inspiring, but it’s also a stunning record of time. Over millions of years, the Colorado River sliced the landscape into sheer rock walls, revealing many layered colors, each marking a different geologic era.

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The slow process of fossilization transformed ancient trees into solid quartz.

Why: There aren’t many places you can reach out and touch 225-million-year-old fossilized trees

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most visitors to Petrified Forest come to see the ancient tree trunks which are preserved by minerals they absorbed after being submerged in a riverbed nearly 200 million years ago. And they’re quite a sight: Over time, the huge logs turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of colors. This mineral-tinted landscape also boasts painted deserts. Don’t neglect the pastel-hued badlands of Blue Mesa, where a paved hiking trail loops around the blue-white rock.

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The iconic, long-armed cacti at Saguaro National Park only grow in the Sonoran desert.

Why: See the tallest and oldest saguaro cacti in the country

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park is divided into two segments, one on either side of Tucson. On the west side, in the Tucson Mountain District, you’ll find the densest stands of saguaro and sweeping views from the Valley View Overlook Trail. The Rincon Mountain District, on the east side, features Cactus Forest Loop drive and dramatic mountain silhouettes.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

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

This labyrinth of three narrow canyons has sheltered indigenous peoples for 5,000 years.

Why: It’s one of world’s most sacred places

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

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.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Would your house look this good 800 years from now?

Why: It’s one of the continent’s largest and best-preserved cliff dwellings

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus celebrates the life and landscape of the Sonoran Desert

Why: This is the only place in the U. S. where the organ pipe cactus grows wild

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is a showcase for creatures who have adapted themselves to the extreme temperatures, intense sunlight, and little rainfall that characterize this Southwest region. Thirty-One species of cactus have mastered living in this place, including the park’s namesake.

Chiricahua National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Wonderland of Rocks” is waiting for you to explore.

Why: Explore a magical landscape of sculpted rock

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

The monument preserves 60 prehistoric sites including a four-story earthen structure.

Why: For more than 650 years the Casa Grande has stood as a meeting place and landmark

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

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.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park has starred in so many Hollywood movies that its silhouette is known all over the world.

Why: You’ve seen it in movies, and it’s much better in person

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is no landscape in the United States as associated with the Wild West as Monument Valley. It’s both supremely foreign and eerily familiar. John Wayne rode out from between the park’s famous red rock buttes, The Mittens, in Stagecoach and The Searchers.

Tuzigoot National Monument

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crowning a desert hilltop is an ancient pueblo built by the Sinagua people.

Why: Witness the legacy of a people who lived in the Verde Valley 1,000 years ago

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot is an ancient village or pueblo built by a culture known as 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.

Worth Pondering…

Beauty is before me, beauty is behind me, beauty is below me, beauty is above me. I walk in beauty.

—ancient Navajo poem

Apartment House of the Ancients: Montezuma Castle National Monument

Would your house look this good 800 years from now?

Montezuma Castle, near Camp Verde, has nothing to do with Montezuma, nor is it a castle.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 little oasis below the pueblo is an exception, a pleasant place to stop and have a picnic by the creek under the shade of white-barked Arizona sycamores. Listen for the descending trills of the canyon wrens while you gaze through time at the “castle”.

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.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On December 8, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Montezuma Castle one of the country’s first national monuments, maintaining and protecting the cultural resource.

Our visit to the castle began in the cool modern visitors center which stands adjacent to the ruins, welcoming more than 2,000 visitors a day. The center offered us displays of Indian artifacts, a chronicle of the early discovery and preservation of the ruins, and information on desert wildlife. Southwest Parks and Monuments Association also runs a small bookstore in the Visitor Center.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We learned that Montezuma Castle was not an isolated structure where people lived generation after generation, having little contact with neighbors. The Castle instead was a small, but very dramatic, part of a larger community of people spread up and down the waterways of the Verde Valley. As many as 6,000 to 8,000 people may have lived in the valley in small villages no more than several miles apart.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A self-guided, 1/3-mile loop trail led us from the visitor center past the cliff dwelling, through a beautiful grove of Arizona sycamores and along spring-fed Beaver Creek, one of only a few perennial streams in Arizona. Benches along the path offered the perfect spot to view the massive structure.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Soaring 100 feet above the desert floor, the empty dwelling fills a huge recess in the cliff wall. There is little evidence of conflict or warfare but perhaps people felt more secure living in the Castle. The series of long pole ladders used to climb from the base of the cliff to the small windows and doorways high above could be pulled in for the night. A small ruin above the Castle, on the top of the cliff, provides views of the entire countryside—a sentry would have advance warning of anyone entering the area.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking at the castle we theorized that the previous mode of entry provided protection from enemies but must have provided a challenge for both the youngest and oldest tenants of the ancient apartment building.

A few yards farther along the path stood a neighbor: Castle A. This lesser known ruin once loomed much larger than Montezuma Castle. However, the structure is badly deteriorated, and little remains except a few low walls.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We moved down the path to a large 3-D diagram depicting how the castle may have looked when occupied. An audio presentation told us how smaller functioned as individual family living quarters while the larger spaces served the entire community.

The white-barked Arizona Sycamore is one of the most distinctive sights at Montezuma Castle often reaching heights of 80 feet. This tree once blanketed Arizona 63 million years ago when the climate was cool and moist. As the weather became drier these deciduous trees thrived only in areas close to permanent water, such as the perennial streams and canyon bottoms.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some amazing adaptations help the Arizona Sycamore survive from seedling to old age—at least 200 years. Each fruit pod contains an average of 667 seeds with a protective coating designed to withstand seasonal flooding.

No one knows for sure why the Sinagua left the two castles. Possible explanations for the exodus include farmland exhaustion, overcrowding, and conflict between families or neighboring tribes

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with people of other centuries.

Mind Blowing National Monuments in the Southwest

The American southwest is a place of mind-boggling beauty

With an amazing variety of landscapes, the Southwest is a fascinating and awe-inspiring area to explore. While the stereotype of the area is that it’s all barren desert—which isn’t entirely inaccurate—there’s a lot more variation and personality in the Southwest than the backdrops of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons would suggest.

With special attention to National Monuments, here are 12 of the most beautiful places in the Southwest. We think that you should definitely add these National Park Service sites to your next road trip to the Southwest.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

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

You can drive along the rim and take in the views from above, but the best way to experience Canyon de Chelly is to take a guided tour of the canyon. You’ll learn the history of the canyon, from the Anasazi who left behind cliff dwellings to the current Navajo residents who still farm there.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crowning the grand staircase, Cedar Breaks sits at over 10,000 feet and looks down into a half-mile deep geologic amphitheater. Wander among ancient bristlecone pines and meadows of wildflower.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

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

Organ Pipe Cactus celebrates the life and landscape of the Sonoran Desert. This is a showcase for creatures who have adapted themselves to the extreme temperatures, intense sunlight, and little rainfall that characterize this Southwest region. Twenty-six species of cactus live here including the giant saguaro and the park’s namesake. This is the only place in the U. S. where the organ pipe cactus grows wild.

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America featuring designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Arizona

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

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. The monument preserves 60 prehistoric sites including a four-story earthen structure.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Three majestic natural bridges invite you to ponder the power of water in a landscape usually defined by its absence. View them from an overlook, or hit the trails and experience their grandeur from below. The bridges are named Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu in honor of the ancestral Puebloans who once made this place their home

El Morro National Monument, New Mexico

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once home to over 2,500 people, Hovenweep includes six prehistoric villages built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. Explore a variety of structures, including multistory towers perched on canyon rims and balanced on boulders.

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crowning a desert hilltop is an ancient pueblo built by the Sinagua people. The riparian, upland, and marsh habitats in the monument are used by a large number of bird species.

Worth Pondering…

Beauty is before me, beauty is behind me, beauty is below me, beauty is above me. I walk in beauty.

—ancient Navajo poem

Fort Frederica National Monument: Georgia’s Second Town

Georgia’s fate was decided in 1742 when Spanish and British forces clashed on St. Simons Island

Located on the interior coast of Georgia’s St. Simons Island, Fort Frederica National Monument preserves the remains of one of the most impressive British settlements ever carved from the American forests. In the early 1700s, Georgia was the epicenter of a centuries-old imperial conflict between Spain and Britain.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1736, three years after the founding of Savannah, James Oglethorpe came to St. Simons Island to establish a town that would serve as a bulwark against the Spanish in Florida who still claimed the coastal islands now being settled by the English. To achieve this goal, he established Frederica.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Named for Frederick Louis, the Prince of Wales (1702-1754), Frederica was a military outpost consisting of a fort and town that for a time was one of the most important settlements in the American Colonies.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forty four men and 72 women and children arrived to build the fortified town, and by the 1740s Frederica was a thriving village of about 500 citizens. Colonists from England, Scotland, and the Germanic states came to Frederica to support the endeavor.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The town’s site at the bend of the Frederica River allowed the British to control the important inland passage leading up the Georgia coast. This powerful bastioned fort protected both the river and the town from the Spanish. Armed with heavy cannon and enclosed by thick walls of earth and timber, the fort was one of the strongest in the South.

In addition, the town itself was surrounded by stout walls of earth and timber which in turn were enclosed by a deep moat. Within this defensive barrier, the town soon became one of the most prosperous in the colony.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A smaller work, Fort St. Simons, was also built at the site of today’s St. Simons Lighthouse. The establishment of the forts took place just before the outbreak of the oddly-named War of Jenkin’s Ear (named for an English sea captain who was captured and lost his ear to the Spanish).

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oglethorpe led expeditions into Spanish Florida from Fort Frederica, but was repulsed by the powerful fortress Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Led by Governor Don Manuel de Montiano, a Spanish force moved north on a campaign of  reprisal during the summer of 1742. Arriving on July 5th, Montiano moved first against Fort St. Simons, which the English evacuated before it could be attacked.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Using Fort St. Simons as a base, Montiano sent troops up the Military Road to scout the situation at Fort Frederica. This force was met by a party of Oglethorpe’s scouts at Gully Hole Creek about one mile down the road from Fort Frederica.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driven back after a sharp fight at Gully Hole Creek in which they lost 12 men killed, the Spanish began to retreat up the Military Road. Montiano moved up additional troops to cover this withdrawal, but they were defeated by English forces at the Battle of Bloody Marsh. Despite the name, casualties were light. Although both sides claimed victory in the battle, the Spanish soon gave up their campaign and returned to Florida.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This British victory not only confirmed that Georgia was British territory, but also signaled the beginning of the end for Frederica.

Frederica remained a flourishing town for another 10 years, but the end of the site’s use for military purposes also spelled an end to the community as well. Most of the surviving structures were destroyed by fire in 1758.
Today the archeological remains of colonial Frederica are protected by the National Park Service.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Frederica is a small colonial site. The terrain is mostly level and the park is beautifully decorated with large oaks and pecan trees draped with Spanish Moss. Ruins of the original fort and barracks can be seen and archaeological investigations have  exposed the foundations of many of the homes.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some of the activities at Fort Frederica include a 23-minute park film “History Uncovered”, self guided explorations through the archeological site, and a museum area with artifacts found at Frederica.

Fort Frederica National Monument is located at 6515 Frederica Road on St. Simons Island and is currently a fee free park.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

The Marshes of Glynn

Glooms of the live-oaks, beautiful-braided and woven

With intricate shades of the vines that myriad-cloven

Clamber the forks of the multiform boughs,

Emerald twilights,

Virginal shy lights,

The wide sea-marshes of Glynn.

—Sidney Lanier (1842–1881)

Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

The Real “Triassic” Park

The colorful rock layers of northeastern Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park form a visual display of eroded badlands, dating to the Triassic.

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.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The land below is awash in burnt sienna, deep maroon, dusty purple, and sprinkled here and there with green plants.

Petrified Forest, a surprising realm of fascinating landscape and science, was set aside as a national monument in 1906 to preserve and protect the petrified wood for its scientific value. The Painted Desert was added later, and in 1962, the entire monument received national park status.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is recognized today for having so much more, including a broad representation of the Late Triassic paleo-ecosystem, significant human history, clear night skies, fragile grasslands ecosystem, and unspoiled scenic vistas.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 200 million years ago, flourishing trees and vegetation covered much of this area of northeastern Arizona. But volcanic lava destroyed the forest, the logs washed into an ancient river system and were embedded into sediment comprised of volcanic ash and water. Oxygen was cut off and decay slowed to a process that would now take centuries.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Minerals, including silica dissolved from volcanic ash, absorbed into the porous wood over hundreds and thousands of years, and crystallized replacing the organic material as it broke down over time. Sometimes crushing or decay left cracks in the logs. Here large jewel-like crystals of clear quartz, purple amethyst, yellow citrine, and smoky quartz formed.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Erosion set the logs free millions of years later, revealing the petrified wood made mostly of quartz—that visitors to the park come to see.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though only seven species of tree have been identified through petrified wood, over 200 species of plants have currently been identified from other Triassic fossils, such as leaves, pollen, and spores.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way to enjoy and experience Petrified Forest National Park is on foot. Designated trails range in length from less than a half-mile to almost three miles.

Petrified Forest National Park stretches north and south between I-40 and U.S. Highway 180. There are two entrances into the park. Your direction of travel dictates which entrance is best to use.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Westbound I-40 travelers should take Exit 311, drive the 28 miles through the park and connect with Highway 180 at the south end. Travel 19 miles on Highway 180 North to return to I-40 via Holbrook.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eastbound I-40 travelers should take Exit 285 into Holbrook then travel 19 miles on U.S. Highway 180 South to the park’s south entrance. Drive the 28 miles north through the park to return to I-40.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many of the features at Petrified Forest are on a scale best appreciated by leaving the car. Plan enough time to walk among the fossil logs and Painted Desert badlands.

For a half-day visit, follow the park road from the Rainbow Forest Museum toward Pintado Point. If you can stay longer, include a walk to Agate House, take the trail into the Blue Mesa badlands, and consider a hike in the Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area.

Worth Pondering…

The way in which many Paleozoic life forms disappeared towards the end of the Permian Period brings to mind Joseph Hayden’s Farwell Symphony where, during the last movement, one musician after the other takes his instrument and leaves the stage until, at the end, none is left.

—Curt Teichert, 1990

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park: The War Is Over

The stories of Appomattox Court House go far beyond the final significant battles of the Civil War

The Appomattox Court House National Historical Park commemorates the heroic acts which took place in April of 1865 in this, the original village, to bring about the end of the Civil War. Walk the old country lanes where Robert E. Lee, Commanding General of the Army of Northern Virginia, surrendered his men to Ulysses Grant, General-in-Chief of all United States forces, on April 9, 1865. Imagine the events that signaled the end of the Southern States’ attempt to create a separate nation.

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park encompasses approximately 1,800 acres of rolling hills in rural central Virginia. The site includes the McLean home—where Lee made his formal surrender—and the village of Appomattox Court House, the former county seat for Appomattox County.

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thanks to the fact that it was all but deserted after the Civil War, it looks a lot like it must have when Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant.

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The walking tour allows you to see all buildings which are original to the site, and have been restored to their original condition. The highlight of the Park is the McLean house where Generals Lee and Grant crafted and signed the terms of surrender, bringing an end to the bloodiest chapter of U.S. history.

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many people think that the meeting between the two generals took place in the courthouse, which is now the park’s Visitor Center, but the historic rendezvous really happened in the parlor of the McLean house nearby. The reason for the confusion is that the town’s name was Appomattox Court House. If you spell courthouse as two words, it means the town. Many county seats in this area had Court House as part of their names, and some still do, like Amelia Court House. But if you spell courthouse as one word, then you’re talking about the building.

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Approximately 9,000 men under Gordon and Fitzhugh Lee deployed in the fields west of the village before dawn and waited. The attack, launched before 8:00 a.m. and led by General Bryan Grimes of North Carolina, was initially successful. 

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The outnumbered Union cavalry fell back, temporarily opening the road. But it was not to be.  Union infantry began arriving from the west and south, completing Lee’s encirclement.  Meanwhile, Longstreet’s troops were being pressed from the rear near New Hope Church, three miles to the east. General Ulysses S. Grant’s goal of cutting off and destroying Lee’s army was close at hand.

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bowing to the inevitable, Lee ordered his troops to retreat through the village and back across the Appomattox River. Small pockets of resistance continued until flags of truce were sent out from the Confederate lines between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. Rather than destroy his army and sacrifice the lives of his soldiers to no purpose, Lee decided to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia.

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although not the end of the war, the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia set the stage for its conclusion. Through the lenient terms, Confederate troops were paroled and allowed to return to their homes while Union soldiers were ordered to refrain from overt celebration or taunting. 

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These measures served as a blueprint for the surrender of the remaining Confederate forces throughout the South. Although a formal peace treaty was never signed by the combatants, the submission of the Confederate armies ended the war and began the long and difficult road toward reunification.

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting Appomattox Court House National Historical Park is largely a self-guiding experience. For this reason it is recommended that you begin your tour at the visitor center and get a map of the park. The visitor center is in the reconstructed courthouse building. 

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although the park consists of nearly 1700 acres, most visitors focus on the old village. Using your cell phone you can learn more about nine specific sites around the park. There are four cell phone sites in the old village and five sites beyond the village core. These sites can teach about the military activities that occurred here in 1865 and about the people and county that played host to these events.

Visitors will not be charged an admission fee to visit the park.

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

The war is over — the rebels are our countrymen again.

―Ulysses S. Grant, after stopping his men from cheering Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse

Joshua Tree National Park Turns 25. But what is a Joshua tree?

Joshua Tree National Park celebrates 25 years as a national park

It should come as no surprise that 3 million people visit Joshua Tree National Park each year. California’s High Desert is a veritable wonderland of unique desert plant life, beautifully bizarre rock formations, and dreamy views, after all.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located near the Greater Palm Springs area, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from San Diego, the park is best known for the oddly shaped Joshua trees which actually aren’t trees at all; they’re yucca plants.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’ve been itching to visit, now’s a great time. The park recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. According to the National Park Service, on October 31, 1994, Joshua Tree National Monument was elevated to national park status as part of the Desert Protection Bill. The bill also added 234,000 acres to the park, bringing the total acreage of the park to nearly 800,000. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua trees are rock stars in the plant world when it comes to their ability to survive in scorching heat, freezing cold, and environments with little water. They can be found in the Mojave Desert at elevations of 2,000 to 6,000 feet.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Technically, Joshua trees are not trees, but plants. In 2011, The American Journal of Botany published a report confirming that there are two distinct varieties of Joshua trees: brevifolia and a smaller plant, jaegeriana McKelvey. The plant is a member of the agave family.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s uncertain how the Joshua tree got its name though it is thought to have originated with the Mormon pioneers heading west. The strange, contorted branches, it is said, made the sojourners think of the Biblical figure Joshua pointing westward to the “promised land”. Native Americans call them “humwichawa,” among other names. They are also referred to as yucca palms, and in Spanish they are called izote de desierto, “desert dagger.”

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Native Americans used the plants’ tough leaves to make baskets and sandals. They used flower buds and raw or roasted seeds for food.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond the trees there’s so much to see including incredible sunsets and stellar views of the Milky Way. There are rugged mountains of twisted rock and exposed granite monoliths. Huge, rounded boulders pile up on top of each other and rectangular blocks thrust up from the ground at sloping angles, forming steep precipices.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The hiking is fantastic! There is a variety of self-guided nature trails and longer hikes that offer different perspectives of the park. The aptly named Jumbo Rocks has a half-mile nature walk to Skull Rock and the Barker Dam walk (1.1 mile loop) is interesting in terms of the cultural history of the area.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plus, there’s no shortage of desert critters including 3-foot-long lizards called chuckwallas, bighorn sheep, leaf-nosed bats, and red-tailed hawks. Also keep an eye out for American kestrels, kangaroo rats, kit foxes, and black-tailed jack rabbits. It’s not uncommon to see coyotes, rattlesnakes (five types of them make their home in the desert), and tarantulas, too. If you’re really lucky, you may spot a desert tortoise or a bobcat.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With eight different campgrounds offering about 500 developed campsites, Joshua Tree offers a variety of options for RVers. There are no hookups for RVs at any campground in Joshua Tree. Black Rock (99 sites) and Cottonwood (62 sites) have RV-accessible potable water and dump stations. At Hidden Valley (44 sites) and White Tank (15 sites) RVs may not exceed a combined maximum length of 25 feet. Additional campgrounds include Belle (18 sites), Indian Cove (101 sites), Jumbo Rocks (124 sites), and Ryan (31 sites).

Worth Pondering…

Trampled in dust I’ll show you a place high on the desert plain where the streets have no

name, where the streets have no name…

—Joshua Tree, sung by U2, 1987

Cumberland Island: Wild, Pristine Seashore

Public beaches are often crowded, noisy places. But less popular areas can be incredibly peaceful.

Are you ready to hit the beach without the crowds? Where you can find a piece of the coast to call your own?

Epoch Times recently named Cumberland Island as one of the top three off the beaten path and secluded beaches in the world. That’s high praise when you’re only bested by Hawaii and Spain.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Published in 21 languages in 35 countries across five continents, Epoch Times said, “Roughly the size of Manhattan, Cumberland Island is Georgia’s southern-most island and a place where you can truly get away from the modern world. With no bridge to come to Cumberland island the travelers have to use ferry or private boat to get to this beautiful place which is manage by the national park service. “

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island also appears on lists as one of America’s Most Beautiful Beaches and Best Wilderness Beach in the Southeast.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In naming Cumberland Island one of America’s best wild beaches, the Wilderness Society stated, “Glistening white beaches with sand dunes, freshwater lakes and saltwater marshes fill this 16-mile-long island, the northern portion of which is designated Wilderness. Visitors can access the beach at designated dune crossings. Wildlife include alligators, loggerhead turtles and pelicans, as well as many fish that make this a prime place for surf fishing.”

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although Georgia’s Atlantic coastline is only about 100 miles long, the Peach State is home to 30 percent of the barrier islands along the Atlantic Seaboard. And Cumberland is the largest and fairest of them all with the longest expanse of pristine seashore—18 glorious miles of deserted sand. Truly, this is a bucket list destination.

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

Before the National Park Service acquired most of the island for a national seashore, 90 percent of it was the private domain of Lucy and Thomas Carnegie (brother of Andrew) and their descendants. The Carnegies bought the island in the 1880s and built five mansions on it during the next two decades. The most superb house was the opulent 59-room, Queen Anne-style Dungeness on the island’s south end.

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

Dungeness burned nearly to the ground in 1959 from a fire suspected as arson, but its ruins are a must-see for visitors.

We stopped during our visit to the island in early December 2007 to gaze at the tall chimneys, solid brick walls, and other stark remains of the old mansion.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After pausing at an old cemetery where war hero, “Light Horse” Harry Lee (father of Robert E. Lee) was interred following his death on the island in 1818, we further explored the island. Continuing the 3 ½-mile Dungeness Trail as it loops around the island’s southern tip, we walked the raised boardwalk over the dunes to the wide, secluded beach, alive with crabs and shorebirds including the American Oystercatcher and Least Tern.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On several occasions we encountered many of the 250 feral horses that roam the island, descendants of steeds the Carnegies released during their heyday. Beloved by visitors, they are perhaps the most popular feature to the island.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We saw in Cumberland what the Native American inhabitants glimpsed thousands of years ago, as they roamed the densely wooded, 18-mile-long isle of land hunting and fishing.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We saw what enchanted Spanish missionaries saw in 1566. And what endeared the British, who built forts in the early 1700s to protect their fledgling Georgia colony. And what captivated industrialist Thomas Carnegie and his wife, Lucy, who purchased large swaths of the island in the 1880s and built lavish winter retreats.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And what bewitched John F. Kennedy Jr., who married Carolyn Bessette at a tiny African-American church near the island’s north end. He had personally painted and worked on the chapel himself through the years when visiting friend Gogo Ferguson, a Carnegie descendant, and swore he’d wed there one day. And so he did.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After meandering lazily along the wide, sandy, shell-flecked beach, we slowly made our way to Sea Camp dock where we re-boarded the passenger ferry for a sunset cruise back to the mainland (St. Marys, Georgia).

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t be late for that last ferry or you’ll have to spend the night on the porch of the visitors’ center.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer is high season, both for tourists and insects, so be sure to reserve your spot on the ferry and the tour well in advance. There are refreshments on the ferry, but nothing on the island, so be prepared!

Worth Pondering…

The beach is the draw—

17 miles of hard packed blonde sands.

You can walk forever and seldom meet a soul

—Esquire