A White Oasis: White Sands National Park

Like a mirage, dazzling white sand dunes shift and settle over the Chihuahuan Desert, covering 275 square miles—the largest gypsum dunefield in the world

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 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.

Dune Life Nature Trail, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest gypsum dune field in the world is located at White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico. This region of glistening white dunes is in the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert within an “internally drained valley” called the Tularosa Basin.

Dunes Drive, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park ranges in elevation from 3,890 feet to 4,116 feet above sea level. There are approximately 275 total square miles of dune fields here with 115 square miles (about 40 percent) located within White Sands National Park. The remainder is on military land that is not open to the public.

It was the midst of the Great Depression when President Herbert Hoover declared this swath of pale dunes a national monument. Now 87 years later, White Sands has been declared the United States’ 62nd national park. 

Interdune Boardwalk, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The history of the newly-minted White Sands National Park goes back far beyond these presidential decrees, however. A unique series of fossilized footprints known as the White Sands Trackway show that almost 12,000 years ago ancient humans were stalking giant sloths here, hunting varieties of megafauna that died out by the end of the Pleistocene. 

Playa Trail, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It was 2,000 years later that the enormous gypsum dunes for which the new national park was named began to form, the result of steady evaporation of what was once a vast inland sea and, later, a lake between the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains. Prevailing winds eventually swirled those white gypsum sands into dunes that cover about 275 square miles of the Land of Enchantment.

Dunes Drive, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By the time European settlers arrived in the 1800s, the area was well known to bands of Apache who lived in the Tularosa Basin and surrounding mountain ranges. Their descendants now live on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation between Fort Stanton-Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area and Lincoln National Forest. 

Dunes Life Nature Trail, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Given its arid climate, the temperatures at White Sands vary greatly both throughout the seasons and within a single day. The most comfortable time to visit weather-wise is autumn (late September through October) when daytime temperatures reach the 80s with light winds and cooler evening temperatures in the 50s. Spring (March through May) can also be comfortable when the temperature varies from the 70s to the 40s. However, strong windstorms are somewhat common during these months.  

Interdune Boardwalk, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In summer and winter, you’ll be dealing with hot and cold extremes, so you just need to be extra prepared for both. Summer days average about 95 degrees, but can spike as high as 110. Evenings are comfortable in the 60s. 

The last place to fill up any water containers is the visitor center, so make sure you have enough with you when you enter White Sands. Bring one gallon of water per person per day. If it’s hot, you’ll probably drink it all, but don’t forget to hydrate even if it’s cool and you don’t feel as thirsty. 

Dunes Drive, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bright sun is intensified by the reflection off the snow-white sand. Make sure you have a hat (I recommend a Tilley with UV protection) and sunglasses, even for the little ones. 

And of course, never forget the sunscreen! Avoid the chemicals and use mineral-based sunscreens.

Dunes Drive, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be prepared for the wind.  Strong windstorms are common February through May, but it can be windy any day of the year. When we visited in late February, it was mostly calm throughout the day, but the winds started picking up by mid-afternoon. 

Worth Pondering…

Life is not obvious here. It is implied, or twice removed, and must be read in signs or code. Ripple marks tell of the wind’s way with individual sand grains. Footprints, mounds, and burrows bespeak the presence of mice, pocket gophers, and foxes.

—Rose Houk and Michael Collier

Oft-Overlooked National Parks to Escape the Crowds

They might not be as famous as Great Smoky Mountains or the Grand Canyon but these five often overlooked parks are perfect for experiencing the great outdoors

As humans, we crave nature. Nature has been proven to be “deeply powerful and healing for our minds, bodies, and souls.” In fact, research from Harvard Medical School has found that mood disorders can be alleviated by spending more time outdoors. Nature also helps with pain and post-operative recovery, calms ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), and decreases the risk for certain health problems. Despite all the benefits that spending time in nature boasts, people are spending less time outside than ever before.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A study conducted by The Nature of Americans National Report found that over half of adults reported spending five hours or less in nature each week. Parents of children ages 8 through 12 said that their children spent three times as much time using technology than they did playing outside. In comparison, there were 1 billion fewer outdoor excursions such as hikes and climbs, in 2018 than in 2008.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prior to the pandemic, the reasons why people spent so much more time indoors ranged from work to technology to a cost of entry. However, with so many people now spending the majority of their time at home, this is the perfect time to explore nature.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks are timeless and fun because the parks have been preserved and kept to their natural states as much as possible. There are 62 national parks in the United States across 29 states and two territories. The possibilities of being one or more national parks in your state or nearby are high.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They are also very affordable. Usually, the average entrance ticket to a national park is $30 per vehicle while the annual pass is only $80. The annual pass covers entrance fees to all 419 units within the National Park Service although only 109 charge an entrance fee.

Following are five often-overlooked national parks where you can escape the crowds.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The active but sleeping volcano is the high point of a lively wilderness environment. Across 160,000 acres, elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape decorated by jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and of course, volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area as well from where bubbling activity still appears, reminding us of the region’s stormy past.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Swampy land may not be the first place on your list to roam but Congaree National Park is beautiful in its own way. The park preserves the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. It is estimated that 70 to 95 percent of bottomland hardwood forests were destroyed from the start of European settlement to the present. Congaree is the last of the hardwood forests that once stretched across the eastern US. The park has one of the highest concentrations of champion trees in the world. Champion trees are the largest trees of its specific specimen and Congaree holds 15 of them.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this preserve comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transformed into colorful slabs of stone. A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shaped like giant waves, the dunes in the park are part of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. The area was once part of the Permian Sea where an ancient lake evaporated and left the gypsum deposits behind. Tucked away in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, the park offers plenty to do. If you just want to see the dunes without getting dusty you can drive the eight-mile-long Dunes Drive. But the best way to explore is by hiking, horseback, or biking—and don’t miss out on the thrill of sledding down the soft white sand (you can bring your own plastic snow saucers or buy them at the gift shop).

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unusual, elaborate cliffs and canyons shape the landscape of Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold, the second largest monocline in North America, extends for nearly 100 miles and appears as a bizarre “wrinkle” in the Earth’s crust. Red-rock canyons, ridges, buttes, and sandstone monoliths create a 387-mile outdoor retreat for hikers, campers, photographers, and rock climbers.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 Some of the natural wonders created by Mother Nature are just a road trip away, so take the time this autumn to enjoy the great outdoors. National parks are an integral element of America. They offer rich histories, a wide selection of different environments, and a much-needed breath of fresh air. National parks will help you get in touch with your wild side, and who knows? It might just teach you a thing or two about the healing powers of the natural world, too.

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

How to Visit National Parks during COVID: Here’s what you can do in 22 of the 62

National parks are open with COVID restrictions in place

Between wildfire concerns in the West and park closures both seasonal and weather-based, the status of these parks can change overnight. Check—then double check—each park to ensure you’re traveling safely and to a place you can actually access. We’ll continue to intermittently update this list throughout the winter. 

If you thought the national parks—which punched well above their weight in providing quarantine relief once they reopened—would be able to ease out of fall and into winter, you are underestimating 2020. Most parks are humming along with COVID restrictions in place. But seasonal closures are going into effect in many areas. Wildfires have effectively closed Rocky Mountain while smoke continues to choke parks all along the west coast. Even in places where skies are clear new safety protocols make visiting the parks somewhat more complicated. 

To keep you informed on the status of each national park—what services are available, whether you can camp, and more—I’ve kept tabs on 22 of the 62 to ensure you’re maximizing your time outdoors. This list is current as of November 14, 2020. Now go forth and be safe.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities:  Yes

Arches is back in pretty much full swing… and everybody knows it. If the park is at capacity, they will very much turn you away. The whole of Utah is basically one big national park so if you do get turned away, you still have many, many options. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Yes

This South Dakota icon with its rugged geologic beauty is mostly open for business as usual. Be sure to stop off for free ice water at Wall Drug while you’re here: Now that the Sturgis rally is long over and all the Hogs have gone home, you’ll likely find smaller crowds at the T-rex show. 

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas
Status:  Open
Camping:  Limited
Amenities: Yes

After COVID crashed the party this summer things are easing back to normal. Day-use hikes and backcountry stays are on the table so make a reservation for one of the limited RV campsites. 

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Yes

Bryce is pretty much back in full swing with distancing protocols and a limit on campground occupancy. Shuttles are open, horses are rearin’ to go, breakfast is back on the menu, and ranger tours are a thing again. One of Utah’s greatest treasures has awoken. 

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Yes

This oft-overlooked Utah gem is back and going strong: You can now hit up the winding roads and endless trails then bed down at campsites. You can also score supplies at park stores. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Yes

This International Dark Sky Park combines the best of Utah’s more famous national parks into one lesser-visited package of awesomeness. And it’s fully open for all activities including camping, hiking, and checking out the visitor center.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: No

Carlsbad’s open with one-way traffic in the cavern. No timed entry except November 21-29 and December 19-January3. The bat flight can still be viewed from the east parking lot past the visitor center around sunset each evening.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Limited

The nation’s oldest hardwood bottomland didn’t keep its 500-year-old bald cypress and water tupelo alive through multiple plagues, yellow fever, and the Twilight saga by taking chances. The park opened slowly and now most of it’s in play: That means you can hike in most of the park, canoe and fish, and camp if you scored a spot. 

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Yes

The Grand Canyon has widened (pun aside) its access 24/7 though there are some limits. Campsites are slowly expanding their availability and lodges are now open.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina, Tennessee
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Yes

The nation’s most popular park allows access to most of its sprawling trails so go forth and peep those leafs but keep an eye on their site for closures. If you’re looking to stay overnight, several campgrounds are now open though most are still on lockdown.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Yes

This gloriously trippy desert playground has opened up its trails, roads, bathrooms, and individual “family” campsites, which in California parlance ranges from actual family units to cult compounds of up to 25 people. Those are available on a first come, first served basis so arrive early if you plan to find yourself at night peering up at the star-studded heavens as is the way here.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities:  Yes

This remarkable park in Northern California’s Shasta Cascades is now offering up ample access to its rugged wilderness and rare geothermal delights. Just be sure to take that “rugged” part seriously. For example, Manzanita Lake is currently closed because river otters—we kid you not—will not hesitate to straight-up maul your face if they think you’re a threat to their babies. And check for snow closures before heading out.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Yes

America’s largest archeological preserve has been around since 7,500 BC and is more or less in full swing at this point though you still can’t tour the cliff-dwellings, the museum, or the main visitor center. Otherwise, go nuts, and feel free to stay in the RV campground or the lodge. 

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Status: Open
Camping: No
Amenities: No

The park road, trails, and very hard wilderness areas are now open at this stunning park that suddenly pops up along both sides of Route 66 in eastern Arizona. Even if you’re just on an epic road trip you should make it a point to cruise through.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: No

The site for this Central California park boasts about it being “Born of Fire.” Right now, fire danger is extreme following significant fire-related closures. Be smart. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Status: Open
Camping:  Yes
Amenities: Yes

Located on either side of Tucson, this cacti-laden gem is currently allowing tent campers though groups are limited to 10 which gives you a good excuse not to invite Cousin Eddie. 

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, California
Status: Open
Camping:  Yes
Amenities:  Yes
Both Kings Canyon and the densely forested Sequoia are open but fires are causing closures in and around the park. Smoke is giving it a serious ’70s dive bar vibe. You can still visit but will likely have a better experience sometime down the road.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Status: Open
Camping:  Yes
Amenities:  Yes

Renowned for its fabled Skyline Drive, this national treasure encompassing part of the Blue Ridge Mountains is well into phase 3 which means you can now access Old Rag and Whiteoak, set up shop in backcountry campgrounds and huts, and pitch a tent in designated sites provided you respect the social distancing rules.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Status: Open
Camping: Backcountry only
Amenities: Limited

Look, it’s not like they named this ultra-underrated park—where the prairies and the Badlands converge, forests stand petrified, Buffalo and antelope roam and the sky’s one big panoramic light show—James Buchanan National Park. It’s named after Theodore Roosevelt. Of course it’s open for day use and backcountry camping. Seasonal closures, however, are currently in place as winter comes early in these parts. And I’m talking big time cold and snow!

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park. New Mexico
Status: Open
Camping: No
Amenities: Yes

America’s newest national park didn’t pick a great time for its coming out party. Transitioning from a national monument to a national park in the final days of 2019, the park was forced to shut down just a few months later and was among the last to reopen. But hey, it’s open now! No, you can’t camp. Yes, you can rent a sled and go rocketing down the dunes. Seems like a fair tradeoff. Then head up the road Alamogordo way for the World’s largest nut!

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah
Status: Open
Camping: Yes
Amenities: Yes

One of America’s most beloved parks is easing back into public life with the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive and many park trails currently open, though Angels Landing is still off limits. Shuttles, too, are back in business on a timed reservation system. Services including canyon rides and the Zion Lodge are also back in action. 

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

Absolutely Best National Parks to Escape the Insanely Crazy Crowds

They rarely make Instagram but vast national monuments offer spectacular beauty and wilderness adventure

Well into the pandemic, many people are seeking solitude in nature. What could be lovelier, after months of isolation at home, than setting out along a rugged conifer-shaded trail, breathing in the fresh alpine air, and listening to a chorus of songbirds? 

There’s just one catch: if everybody’s getting outside, it’s hard to find a spot all to yourself. That’s true even at many of the 419 destinations in the U.S. National Park System which continues to grapple with how to manage growing crowds.

Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even before this year many of the country’s most famous parks such as Zion and the Grand Canyon restricted access to busy areas by requiring visitors to use free shuttle buses. On summer weekends finding a parking space at the top trailheads in Shenandoah or the Great Smoky Mountains is nearly impossible. Once you actually reach an overlook with a breathtaking view—think Great Smoky Mountain’s Clingmans Dome or Joshua Tree’s Jumbo Rocks—securing a patch of solitude to contemplate the panorama can require jockeying nimbly amid clamoring crowds and jousting selfie sticks.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This year, national park attendance was down due to the pandemic. Many parks drastically reduced access. But, the problem of trying to visit them remains the same as before: too much demand.

But the wilderness areas that the federal government added to its portfolio over the years mostly as national monuments tend to be farther off the beaten path and less hyped than the natural wonders immortalized in Ansel Adams prints. 

Santa Rosa an San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscapes of these newer monuments are not the same kinds of shiny treasures that were designated during the early years of the national park system. The park system now recognizes that land is worth protecting for a wide range of reasons from geology and biodiversity to culture and history.

Bears Ears National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One reason for this trend is that U.S. presidents can designate national monuments while creating and funding a national park requires an act of Congress. Presidents since Theodore Roosevelt have used the 1906 Antiquities Act to confer national monument status on areas of “historic or scientific interest” including wilderness lands such as Sonoran Desert in Arizona and Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains in California. Since 1996, when President Bill Clinton revived the use of the law to protect large tracts of land, presidents have designated nearly 40 federal wilderness areas as national monuments.

Valley of the Gods, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Within them, opportunities for awesome hiking, climbing, camping, boating, and wildlife-viewing abound. In southeastern Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, the ancient indigenous cliff dwellings of River House Ruin and soaring red rock spires of the Valley of the Gods glow luminously in the dawn and dusk sunlight. In California, the undulating wildflower meadows of Carrizo Plain and Berryessa Snow Mountain national monuments erupt with brilliant profusions of poppies, Indian paintbrush, and goldfields, especially after a fresh rain.

Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors to the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks near Las Cruces, New Mexico might spy bighorn sheep and golden eagles. Northern Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument includes some of New England’s least developed backcountry, an unspoiled place to kayak and hike.

El Morro National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the new national monuments have given visitors millions of uncrowded natural acres to explore, they’ve presented some logistical challenges. The Antiquities Act contains no provisions for funding and managing national monuments. Many belong to the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation Lands program rather than the better-funded National Park Service. So they tend to lack national parks’ websites, state-of-the-art visitor centers, rustic-chic lodges and restaurants, and well-maintained roads and trails. They employ few full-time staffers, and their modest visitor centers are often open only seasonally or on weekends.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To fill the gap, dozens of nonprofit “friends-of” organizations have emerged. These newer federal lands receive less funding and rely heavily on Friends groups to get things done such as interpretive work, publishing visitor information, and educating the public. The nonprofits have organized trail cleanup days, seasonal events, and fund raisers.

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

To plan a visit to a national monument, it’s best to consult both the park’s website and the “friends-of” website. Arriving prepared with proper gear, sufficient food and water, and paper maps (since cell service may be nonexistent) are the keys to safely enjoying your visit.

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

There will always be a thirst for touring the nation’s iconic parks—for hiking in the canyons of Zion or scampering among the natural arches and pinnacles of Arches National Park. But travelers who’ve hiked New Mexico’s otherworldly Malpais National Monument or driven National Scenic Byway 12 through southeastern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument without having to navigate throngs of people may never again think the same way about visiting America’s iconic national parks.

Worth Pondering…

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

— John Muir

The Wonderful National Parks of the West

Out west, the landscapes are vast and beautiful. There’s no place better to check them out than at these National Parks.

Magnificent mountains, diverse forests, and unusual geological features are among the significant features found in the National Parks of the West. These extraordinary landscapes are great places to enjoy outdoor recreation, to learn about nature and history, and to savor a scenic driving tour.

These areas give you a chance to get back to nature, explore the wilderness, and gaze up at pristine night skies. The western United States has a plethora of National Parks and each one is distinct and unique. We don’t expect you to visit all 12 straight away, we’ll give you some time…

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

It’s iconic. It’s dramatic. It’s historic. One mile deep and 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon is a mesmerizing force of nature. One of the world’s seven natural wonders, it’s almost overwhelming to stand at the South Rim at dusk and watch rose-hued rock faces turn a fiery burnished bronze.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park is characterized by its pinnacles, rock fins, and 2,000 gravity-defying arches. The spans of these natural stone wonders range from three feet across to 290 feet in the case of Landscape Arch, but the most famous of all is the 52 foot-tall Delicate Arch—so iconic it appears on Utah license plates.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Arches’ nearby neighbor, Canyonlands invites you to explore a wilderness of countless canyons and fantastically formed buttes carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Rivers divide the park into four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Unusual, elaborate cliffs and canyons shape the landscape of Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold, the second largest monocline in North America, extends for nearly 100 miles and appears as a bizarre “wrinkle” in the Earth’s crust. Red-rock canyons, ridges, buttes, and sandstone monoliths create a 387-mile outdoor retreat for hikers, campers, photographers, and rock climbers.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

The park’s namesake tree, the Joshua tree, is an admired inhabitant that resembles something you might find in a Dr. Seuss book. For years, novice and expert climbers have ventured to the park to climb giant, sculpted slabs of rock while hikers explore the vast desert terrain.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

At first glance, you might wonder where the forest went. Stone log fragments litter an otherwise drab section of the high desert. However, this span of desert was once a lush, green, forested oasis with 200-foot conifers and was ruled by dinosaurs. Of the 50,000 acres of designated wilderness, the brilliantly-colored petrified wood, impressive fossils, and the Painted Desert incite the most excitement.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde is the only national park dedicated solely to human endeavor and houses some of the largest and most important cliff dwellings in the world. Built by the Ancestral Puebloans, the known archeological sites number more than 5,000 and include mesa-top pueblos and masonry towers, as well as intricate, multi-storey dwellings wedged beneath overhanging cliffs. 

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Aside from being home to the world’s largest tree (by volume) and protecting vast areas of towering inland redwoods, a big part of Sequoia’s appeal is that it isn’t all that crowded. Take a stroll under the big trees in the Giant Forest, view wildlife in Crescent Meadows, climb to the top of Moro Rock.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Drive along the Badlands Loop Road to experience magnificent craggy buttes, pinnacles, and spires that seem to surprise the surrounding prairie grasslands. This Mars-like landscape has several accessible trails and overlooks including the Pinnacles Overlook, Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, and Fossil Exhibit Trail.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Just two trails (and an elevator) exist for hikers hoping to explore Carlsbad Caverns on their own. The Big Room Trail, the largest single chamber by volume in North America can be accessed via a 1.25-mile trail or a .6-mile shortcut. The relatively flat terrain weaves through a series of curious hanging stalactites and passes through park gems like the Hall of Giants, Bottomless Pit, and Crystal Spring Dome.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Home of the hoodoos, Bryce Canyon is much more than a single sandstone canyon. Here, you’ll find the largest concentration of eroded auburn spires, or hoodoos, on Earth. Sunset, Sunrise, Inspiration, and Bryce viewpoints are the spots to hit for the best views in the shortest amount of time.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Just when you thought the scenery couldn’t get any better, Zion comes along and blows your socks off. Carved by the Virgin River, the landscape is a geological masterpiece, defined by its canyons, plateaus, and soaring sandstone cliffs. But it’s the variety, not just the magnitude that gives the park its grandeur.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

National Parks are Best in Autumn

Six of the best national parks to visit in the fall

If you’re thinking about visiting a national park this fall, you’re in luck. There’s a secret many travelers with flexible schedules have long known: national parks are best in autumn.

Of course, that’s not true of every national park—there are more than a few best visited during other seasons of the year. But, generally speaking, autumn can be a spectacular time to visit the nation’s parklands. The temperatures have dropped and the crowds have thinned, meaning you can enjoy the scenery without breaking a sweat or competing with other visitors for a photo.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best of all, depending on when and where you travel you will get the added bonus of a vibrant display of fall foliage. Just remember, as winter draws nearer, snow can cause road closures at Glacier, Yellowstone, Lassen Volcanic, and Rocky Mountain national parks.

So plan ahead and get the timing right, and these will be six of the best national parks to visit in the fall.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Fall is arguably the absolute best time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park and take in the colorful display of leaves from the observation deck at the peak of Clingman’s Dome.

Cade’s Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or, if you prefer a scenic drive, admire the autumnal hues from Cade’s Cove Loop Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, or the Foothills Parkway (also known as “the Tail of the Dragon”). Fall temperatures in the Smokies are also a great alternative to the oppressive heat that comes with summertime in Tennessee and North Carolina.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is a very popular national park which often creates crowding issues during the peak summer months. But in fall—especially if you can delay your visit until late in the season—the crowds taper off along with the temperatures. If you have your heart set on some of the more popular trails, such as Angels Landing or the Narrows, a less-busy autumn day will be a far more enjoyable experience.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Another Utah park best seen in autumn is Arches National Park. In addition to glimpses of changing leaves, the temperatures are more tolerable with highs in the 70s in October (compared to daily highs in the 90s from June through August). The 3-mile hike to the Delicate Arch is easier to manage when the air is cooler. If you’re hoping to capture some amazing photographs, the autumnal light cast on the red rocks is spectacular.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park’s hills run with red knotweed in late summer. Because this national park has a volcanic landscape, much of it is austere though bright color pops on autumn days particularly along its hillsides and in its meadows where cadmium-yellow rabbitbrush, crimson knotweed, white pearly everlastings, and golden and rust-colored grasses are seen peaking in the waning days of summer and early autumn. Technically, they are late blooming wild flowers rather than true “autumn color.” Though because of their timing, we classify them as fall color.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park in Virginia may not have the same nationwide recognition as Great Smoky Mountains or Zion but it holds treasures of its own especially in the fall. Shenandoah is known for its fall foliage which usually peaks in late October or early November. The red, orange, and yellow hues signifying the changing of the season can be enjoyed not only during hikes within the park but also from the serpentine Skyline Drive that runs 105 miles north and south along the Blue Ridge Mountains right through the national park.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

Most people don’t think of South Carolina as a fall foliage destination but autumn there is long and colorful and best of all begins much later in the season than other destinations which means you’ll be able to get in a “second autumn”. The best time to see the leaves here is mid-November through the first half of December. Take the 2.4-mile boardwalk hike through the park or one of the many trails into the backcountry for miles upon miles of color. Another great option is to paddle along Cedar Creek in a canoe. It meanders under canopies of spectacular fall foliage.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bottom line

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

Worth Pondering…

Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.

―Jim Bishop

Home of Champions: Congaree National Park

The unique floodplain ecosystem in central South Carolina is home to some of the tallest trees on the East Coast

America’s National Parks are home to some of the most astonishing landscapes on earth. Hundreds of millions of visitors flock each year to see the wonders of the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Great Smoky Mountains.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the giant Sequoias of the Sierra Nevada and the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon enjoy endless popularity, many other parks offer wonders just as breathtaking but fly under the radar. Ever heard of Lassen Volcanic? How about Pinnacles? These are national parks located in California that are every bit as magical as the rock formations of Arches. Congaree National Park is another park which offers a multitude of wonders for those who make the trip into its ancient forests.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The woodlands of Congaree make up the largest remaining tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the U. S. Congaree packs an astounding amount of biodiversity and habitats within its borders. The trees here are some of the tallest in the eastern U.S., with record-breaking loblolly pines, tupelos, and sweetgums towering more than one hundred fifty feet to jut high above the forest canopy.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers sweep through the floodplain carrying nutrients and sediments that nourish and rejuvenate this ecosystem and support the growth of national and state champion trees. Within the many streams and lakes that dot the park live an abundance of wildlife, from river otters and bullfrogs to alligators. The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker swoops through the trees, and dwarf palmettos blanket portions of the forest floor.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unlike many parks, Congaree is almost devoid of roads. Even approaching the park you’d almost have no idea that it was there. No crowded highways, tourist towns, and neon lights line the entrance to welcome you. Small signs point the way until you reach the main park entrance.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Park Road is only about a mile long and leads to the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, named for one of the individuals who spearheaded the campaign to protect Congaree. As at most national parks, here you can stock up on maps, get your national parks passport stamped, and pick up the activity guide for the Jr. Park Ranger program. Be sure to ask the rangers what the current trail conditions are, or better yet, call before you go.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since the majority of the park lies within the Congaree River floodplain, wet weather can lead to many of the park’s trails becoming impassable. When this occurs the park’s interpretive boardwalk trail is usually open. This 2.4-mile loop passes through a variety of the park’s unique ecosystems. Numbered stops and a guidebook help explain the unique areas you pass through. The lower portion of the boardwalk wind through a forest comprised of water tupelo and bald cypress.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This area is a swamp much of the time. Occasionally the waters rise to cover even the elevated boardwalk, so once again check with a ranger before venturing off. As it loops back towards the visitor center it passes by the tranquil waters of Weston Lake and then climbs through some dryer terrain. Here you’ll find the loblolly pines which are the stars of this ancient forest.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If the trails are passable, there are miles of them which delve deep into the wilderness areas of the park and provide access to the river itself. During wetter periods visitors’ best choice for exploring the park is by canoe or kayak. Check out the park’s website or chat with a ranger to get an idea of the areas which are accessible and which of those you would like to explore.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree is unique in the East. You can go out and it’s just you and nature. Even on a busy day, you don’t have to go too far to get away from folks.

Congaree National Park is open 24 hours a day, year round. The visitor center is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed on federal holidays

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take the time to explore this biological wonderland. Sometimes the flash of a red-headed woodpecker, the whisper of the wind through Spanish moss, or the towering crowns of a loblolly pine are more than enough to remind us how precious the natural world really can be.

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

National Parks Offer At-Home Learning Resources for the Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has turned many parents into teachers and the National Park System has a rich collection of teaching materials they can use

Remembering 9/11 

We will remember every rescuer who died in honor.  We will remember every family that lives in grief.  We will remember…

—George W. Bush

Good morning. Today, we’re pausing to reflect on two events that forever changed the world: 

  1. It’s the 19th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks which killed nearly 3,000 Americans. 
  2. Exactly six months ago, on March 11, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. More than 900,000 people around the world have died from COVID-19.

To all those who’ve suffered or lost loved ones in these tragedies, we’re thinking of you and sending strength.

No day shall erase you from the memory of time.

—Virgil

August is gone, classrooms are in flux as some are open, many are not, and many parents are being recast as homeschoolers. Looking for some additional content to keep your kids busy? Look to the national parks.

According to the National Parks Traveler, the National Park System (NPS), 419 units strong, is rich with educational materials touching biology, botany, biodiversity, wildlife, paleontology, archaeology, and so many more “oligies.” And that’s not to overlook the cultural and historical resources to be found in places like Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site in Arizona, Saratoga National Historical Park in New York, and Appomattox Court House National Historical Park in Virginia.

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether you’re hunkered down during the coronavirus pandemic on the East Coast or in the West or somewhere in between, there are virtual programs developed by the National Park Service and friends groups and cooperating associations you can tap into to not only keep your children busy but learning from a wide range of subjects.

Saratoga National Historical Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unlike in the early days of the pandemic when school systems first shuttered and only offered a review of previously covered material for the rest of the school year, this fall school systems have vowed that there will be new content and curriculum and that it will be more rigorous and engaging.

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

That said, I have major concerns about an educational system that relies on students sitting in front of a computer screen for many hours. I also have concerns about how to keep them engaged and motivated for many weeks and possibly months. Although we’re told how resilient children are, and that’s often true, they are struggling to adjust to a new normal like the rest of us and I’m concerned about their emotional health and level of academic engagement.

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Supplemental educational resources from the National Park Service are welcome because I believe that in many areas of the country it will fall to parents to help their children find more opportunities for learning and projects that are interesting and engaging. Some families already are aware that the National Park System is a source of knowledge and inspiration. Their children are aware of and participants in Junior Ranger programs so plugging into NPS materials would be a no-brainer for them.

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

Washington’s National Park Fund is offering a new series of virtual field trips to Mount Rainier, North Cascades, and Olympic National Parks. Virtual Field Trips can be a great resource for home-schooling parents and teachers especially since all the past field trips are recorded. The ones labeled ‘Junior Ranger’ are especially good for younger children while all the other field trips are relevant for Middle and High School students.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Creating educational materials for school-age children is nothing new for the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, the driving force behind the popular Kids in Parks program, a particularly useful program if you can head out to a nearby park for outdoor learning. The Kids in Parks program has a suite of materials that can be used by teachers, parents who are now teaching, and students to engage them in outdoor activities that promote learning in nature.

Sonoran Desert National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kids in Parks works with individual parks to convert their preexisting hiking trails (and other types of trails) into ‘TRACK Trails’ through the installation of signs and brochures that turn an ordinary hike into a fun-filled, discovery-packed adventure. Each TRACK Trail has four brochure topics students can use to learn about and connect with nature: Flowers, Lichen, Dragonflies, Nature’s Relationships, Birds, etc. (They have a catalog of 30+ brochures).

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

Children that register their adventures through the website earn a series of prizes designed to make their next outdoor adventure more fun and encourage repeat use of the program. Over the past 11 years, Kids in the Parks have had 700,000 children and 1.7 million people hike their trails.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Congaree National Park TRACK Trail is a flat 2.4 mile loop through a floodplain forest on boardwalks. Congaree National Park is home to one of the few old-growth floodplain forests east of the Mississippi River. With trees an average of 130 feet, the forest at Congaree is one of the tallest broad-leaved (or deciduous) forests in North America. Grand bald cypress, water tupelo, and loblolly pine trees surround you along this trail.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Astonishing biodiversity exists in Congaree National Park, the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States.  Waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers sweep through the floodplain, carrying nutrients and sediments that nourish and rejuvenate this ecosystem and support the growth of national and state champion trees.

Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the foundation has converted some of their most popular TRACK Trail brochures into e-Adventures that youngsters can do on a smart phone or tablet. They can complete these e-Adventures in their backyard, schoolyard, local park, on an official TRACK Trail, or anywhere in between.

Worth Pondering…

Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.

Incredible Geological Formations in National Parks where you can avoid the Crowds

Enjoying the splendor of some of America’s most breathtaking national parks can be tough when you’re dealing with crowds of tourists

Over millions of years, factors such as weather, erosion, volcanic ash, and cooling molten rock created incredible rock formations and geological wonders across the U.S. While the spectacular geological formations in Arizona’s Grand Canyon, California’s Joshua Tree, or Utah’s Bryce Canyon are some of the best known, they also can be overrun with visitors. Here are four remarkable, underrated geological formations that are worth checking out.

Remember to travel with caution, follow good health practices, and behave responsibly when outdoors or around other people. Before you go, check the park’s official website for park alerts. As always, be safe, have fun, and enjoy!  

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

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Yellowstone National Park’s spewing geysers and steaming hot springs get all the attention—and about 4.4 million annual visitors. Lassen Volcanic National Park, approximately 150 miles north of Sacramento in the Cascades, offers similarly spectacular sights and only about a half-million yearly visitors. Volcanic activity still abounds here—around 100 years ago, the park’s signature volcano, Lassen Peak, erupted for three years. It was the most powerful series of blasts in the Cascades until Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption. Lassen Peak is only one of about 30 volcanoes in the park.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you arrive at the park, you’ll probably smell before you see the first hydrothermal feature you’ll pass—the bubbling mud pots of Sulphur Works give off an unappealing odor like rotten eggs but are fascinating to watch. Be sure to see the park’s largest hydrothermal area via the Bumpass Hell Trail, a 1.5-mile trek across a meandering boardwalk. You’ll pass over thumping mud pots, bubbling turquoise pools, and roaring steam vents—including the park’s largest, Big Boiler.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once you’ve had your fill of hydrothermal activity, check out the park’s many beautiful frigid lakes, waterfalls, and flowering meadows. The park is open year-round, but due to its 8,000-foot elevation, snowpack limits access to some areas during the winter and spring months.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Utah is home to five of the nation’s most popular national parks: Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, and Capitol Reef. If you want to avoid the crowds you typically encounter at the “Mighty Five” but still see impressive geological formations, head to Natural Bridges National Monument. Known for its three natural rock bridges formed by water (instead of the wind erosion of arches), it’s also a fantastic place to gaze at the night sky—the monument became the first certified International Dark Sky Park in 2007.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in Utah’s southeast corner, Natural Bridges National Monument receives only about 88,000 annual visitors. In comparison, Canyonlands and Zion see about 734,000 and 4.5 million, respectively. Sipapu Bridge, the monument’s largest, has an impressive 268-foot span and a height of 220 feet. The monument’s second-largest bridge, Kachina, was named for the petroglyphs and pictographs that adorn the base. Owachomo Bridge, while the smallest, is the most accessible, requiring only an easy half-mile round-trip hike to see it.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Unlike the tan-shaded dunes in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park, the dunes in White Sands National Park are, unsurprisingly, white. However, calling them white is doing them an injustice as these majestic dunes are made of gypsum that glitters in the sun creating a breathtaking, sparkling wonder.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shaped like giant waves, the dunes in the park are part of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. What makes this special is that gypsum usually dissolves upon contact with water so it doesn’t stick around long enough to form huge mounds. Here, however, the arid climate and lack of rainfall of the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert prevent the gypsum from dissolving. The area was once part of the Permian Sea where an ancient lake evaporated and left the gypsum deposits behind.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucked away in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, the park offers plenty to do. If you just want to see the dunes without getting dusty you can drive the eight-mile-long Dunes Drive. But the best way to explore is by hiking, horseback, or biking—and don’t miss out on the thrill of sledding down the soft white sand (you can bring your own plastic snow saucers or buy them at the gift shop).

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

In a state filled with rock formations, canyons, and awe-inspiring natural features, Canyon de Chelly is a lesser-known but uniquely historical canyon located in the northeastern corner of Arizona. While the Grand Canyon is the grandest of all canyons and Mesa Verde is known for its iconic ruins within epic canyons, Canyon de Chelly has a very similar history with equally as beautiful landscapes and fewer tourists. Although Canyon de Chelly is a National Monument, it is under the jurisdiction of the Navajo Nation instead of the National Park Service. Because this monument is still inhabited by Native Americans today, the regulations within the monument are a lot stricter, making access to the park more exclusive but not difficult with some advanced planning.

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

The easiest way to see Canyon de Chelly National Monument in its entirety is from the ten overlooks along its rim. The canyon is surrounded by Canyon de Chelly Highway, a 130-mile, partially paved loop that is completely bikeable but not recommended for most vehicles on the unpaved stretches. You can drive between these overlooks along the North and South rim drives.

At the time of writing all Navajo Nation Tribal Parks were closed until further notice. 

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

Worth Pondering…

Time, geologic time, looks out at us from the rocks as from no other objects in the landscape.

—John Burroughs

Bucket List Trip for Your Lifetime: America’s Ultimate National Park Road Trip

Are you looking for a special bucket list destination? An inspiration for an once-in-a-lifetime trip?

This is part of an ongoing series. In the original feature, I posed the question, Why Do You Travel? Many of us, I suggest, travel for the wrong reasons, putting the ‘where’ ahead of the ‘why’. We have a perfect opportunity to change all that with a new travel paradigm.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a follow-up article, Why NOW is the Best Time to Plan Your Travel Bucket List, I explain why you should sit down and map out a multi-year travel plan to make sure you get to see and do all the things that are most important to you.

In today’s article, I present a Once in a Lifetime experiences and destinations for you to consider. Obviously everyone’s dream list will be different and whatever it is that you feel you really want or need to do should be at the top of your list.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sheer number of choices in the National Park Service is so staggering it can be hard to pick where to go and it only gets more confusing when you add notable state and Native American park options. While there are “only” 62 places with the actual title National Park, the inventory of National Park Service sites is well over 400 including National Historic Sites, National Monuments, National Seashores, and National Recreation Areas. Often there is not much practical difference. Standouts such as Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Organ Pipe National Monument, and Cumberland Island National Seashore are not “national parks” but might as well be.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So where to go? I can only speak from experience but having been to many of the most famous and most visited National Parks including the Grand Canyon, Zion, Great Smoky Mountains, and Sequoia as well as more far flung and varied National Parks from South Carolina to Washington State, I can say that to me, no area of the country has as uniquely beautiful and unusual natural wonder as the red rock canyon country of Southern Utah.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But it’s not just a matter of what I consider to be the best-looking nature this region also has a concentration of significant sites that is simply unrivalled anyplace else. Spend a week and you scratch the surface, spend two and you still have to make hard choices. In the span of one road trip you can visit five different mind-blowing National Parks, any of which might be the most amazing scenery and ruins you have ever seen plus several other equally impressive National Park Service sites and state parks.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If that’s not enough, world famous Monument Valley, a Navajo Nation Park, sits on the Utah/Arizona border in close proximity to the others.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where? Having driven across America numerous times and after visiting many very different National Parks Service sites, my personal favorite is Arches whose Delicate Arch is one of the most iconic and oft photographed natural wonders of the world—but Arches so much more. Arches as an absolute can’t miss!

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But as amazing as Arches is, it is relatively small by Southwestern National Parks standards while that is certainly not the case for immense Canyonlands located right next door. Both are very easily accessed from Moab, the world’s most famous mountain biking destination and longtime hub of outdoor activities from river rafting to off-road jeep tours and rock climbing. You could spend several weeks and not run out of things to see and do and places to go.

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

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, in the southeastern part of the state. Travel south and you will hit stunning Natural Bridges National Monument with Arches-like geology, Hovenweep National Monument with impressive Puebloan ruins reminiscent of Mesa Verde National Park and Monument Valley across the Arizona border as well as nearby Navajo National Monument with still more impressive cliff dwellings and rock formations.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or head west and visit Capitol Reef National Park, another jaw-dropping example of the region’s “Canyon country” geology before running into Bears Ear and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continue to the corner of southwestern Utah and you have another huge critical mass of staggering natural beauty in the form of Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks plus Cedar Breaks National Monument, Snow Canyon State Park, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, and Kodachrome Basin State Park. The names kind of give these away.

Cedar Breaks National Monuments © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In this corner of the state, the biggest town is St. George which has a surprising array of standout golf courses, a bit of a hidden gem for golf fans.

Worth Pondering…

Nothing can exceed the wonderful beauty of Zion…

In the nobility and beauty of the sculptures there is no comparison…

There is an eloquence to their forms which stirs the imagination with a singular power and kindles in the mind a glowing response.

—Clarence E. Dutton, geologist, 1880