National Park Programs that Enhance Your Visit

Planning a trip to one or more of the thousands of federal recreation sites across America? Enjoy the convenience of a pass that covers entrance, standard amenity (day use), and other recreation fees.

It is no secret that the National Park Service (NPS) sites are absolutely amazing. From breathtaking views to incredible hikes to awesome history lessons, there’s something for everyone in these spectacular places. Many people are not aware that in addition to keeping these parks, monuments, recreation areas, historic sites, and trails in tip-top shape, the NPS also offers a variety of programs to enhance your visit to each location.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As an RV traveler, there’s a good chance you find yourself visiting NPS sites often. And if you don’t, you really should because these protected places are incredible. Therefore, it makes sense for you to learn about all of the outstanding programs offered by the NPS so you can take full advantage and make your visits as awesome as possible.

Unfortunately, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, finding out about these programs can be somewhat problematic. That’s where this article comes into play.

Below I’ve listed six amazing programs offered in the national parks. Determine which ones are useful to you and ensure to access them on your next outing to a national park.

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

“America the Beautiful” Pass

First and foremost, I absolutely must mention the “America the Beautiful” pass. This pass allows the holder to enter all NPS sites without paying entry fees. And this pass is your ticket to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. Six agencies participate in the Interagency Pass Program Each pass covers entrance fees at national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as standard amenity fees (day use fees) at national forests and grasslands and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A pass covers entrance, standard amenity fees, and day-use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle at per vehicle fee areas (or up to four adults at sites that charge per person). Children age 15 or under are admitted free. The cost for this pass is $80 for 12 months. As you might imagine, it can be a huge money saver if you visit several national parks a year.

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

Other Types of Passes

Even better than the “America the Beautiful” pass is the special passes available to seniors, military members, and people with disabilities. Senior passes are provided for US citizens or permanent residents age 62 or older and the cost is $20 a year or $80 for a lifetime pass. Military passes are for current US military members and their dependents in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and Space Force, as well as Reserve and National Guard members; US military veterans; and Gold Star families and are free of charge. Lastly, the Access Pass is for US citizens or permanent residents with a permanent disability and is also free to obtain. In addition to entry to the parks, these three passes offer cardholders discounts on most campsites.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Every Kid Outdoors” Program

Another way to obtain a national parks pass is through the “Every Kid Outdoors” program. This program gives every 4th grader (and 5th grader for 2021 only) an annual national parks pass for free. The goal of the program is to ensure every child has a chance to see the majesty of America’s national parks while making memories outside. The pass is valid from September 1st of the child’s 4th-grade year through August 31st of the following year and is available from everykidoutdoors.gov.

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Junior Ranger Program

Even if your child isn’t in 4th or 5th grade right now, there is still an NPS program that is wonderful for them. The Junior Ranger Program is tons of fun for kids ages 5–13 and gives them the opportunity to be fully engaged in their visits to the parks. To participate, simply visit an NPS visitor center and ask for a Junior Ranger book. These are usually free but occasionally you may be charged a small fee. Fill out the book as you explore the park, return it to a ranger, be sworn in as an official Junior Ranger, and go home with a park-specific badge to display on a sash, banner, or anywhere else you see fit.

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

BARK Ranger Program

Have fur babies rather than human children? If so, the BARK Ranger program might be of interest to you. Similar to the Junior Ranger Program, this program gives dogs (and kitties) an opportunity to join the NPS team by earning special badges. In this case, the badges are park-specific dog tags and are earned by learning the rules of visiting a national park.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Volunteers-in-Parks Program

Last but not least, there is the Volunteers-in-Parks program. This awesome program gives national park lovers a chance to donate their skills and time in order to help improve the parks. It is open to all individuals, but children under the age of 18 must-have signed permission from a parent or guardian. In return for their efforts, volunteers who complete at least 250 hours of work in a single calendar year will be offered a volunteer pass that gives them free entry to NPS sites.

Joshua Tree National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

If the simple things of nature have a message that you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive.

—Eleonora Duse

How and How Often Do People Die in America’s National Parks?

Traveling to a national park this summer? What are the odds of dying during a visit?

For travelers heading to national parks this summer, fun and sun are on most visitors’ minds. While some danger lurks at these natural treasures, new data shows that park-goers, by and large, survive the great outdoors.

An October 2020 analysis from Panish Shea & Boyle LLP which reportedly used data provided by National Park Service (NPS) for the years 2007 through 2018 showed there had been a total of 2,727 deaths spread over hundreds of sites across that 12-year period while approximately 3.5 billion visited during that same period. This equates to less than eight deaths per 10 million visits to park sites during that time frame. It is important to say that based on this data visiting national parks is very safe overall.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Additionally, the NPS Public Risk Management Program (PRMP) analyzes mortality data to identify trends, leading causes of death, and high-risk populations. While injury rates in national parks are very low compared to injury rates in the U.S., injuries can and do happen when visitors are unprepared, exceed their experience or fitness level, or do not understand or heed hazard warnings. Being aware of the common causes of injuries in parks can help visitors understand the hazards associated with their activities and be better prepared before they go.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

PRMP reported that between the calendar year 2014 and 2016, 143 of 419 park units reported one or more deaths for a total of 990 deaths or six deaths per week. The mortality rate was 0.1 deaths per 100,000 recreation visits with 53 percent of deaths in that time frame due to unintentional causes like drowning and vehicle crashes. Around half of the medical deaths occurred as an individual was engaged in physical activity—like hiking, biking, or swimming—and 79 percent of deaths occurred among males.

Banish Shea & Boyle LLP data showed that drowning, motor vehicle crashes, “undetermined” causes, and falls were the top four killers highlighting the rural and scenic nature of most sites.

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

Washington’s North Cascades National Park was the most dangerous, statistics-wise, with 652 deaths per 10 million visits. Lake Mead National Recreation Area saw the most deaths during the period of the study at over 200 though there were more than 85 million recreational visits to the site during the years measured.

Data on fatalities in the parks from 2010 to 2020 released by Outforia in May—obtained using a Freedom of Information Act request to the NPS—showed the most common causes of death were falls, medical or natural deaths, or “undetermined” or “unexplained” deaths.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unsurprisingly, the most visited parks tend to have the most visitor fatalities. Over the last ten years, Grand Canyon had the most visitor deaths, 134, followed closely by often densely-packed Yosemite, 126. Deaths and disappearances continue at Yosemite into 2021.

Great Smoky Mountains was the most visited park in 2019 with over 12 million visitors. It experienced 92 visitor deaths since 2010 while Yellowstone had 52. Interestingly, the park with the sixth-highest number of death, Alaska’s rugged Denali, had far fewer visitors than the other five. Yellowstone had 4,020,288 annual visitors and 52 deaths. Denali had 51 deaths and just 601,152 annual visitors.

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

Of course, while every death is tragic, the National Parks had nearly 3 billion visitors from 2010 to 2020 including 327.52 million people in 2019 alone. Due to the pandemic 2020 visitation numbers fell to 318.21 million people. If you’re careful, the parks can be quite safe.

Falls are by far the biggest killer of park visitors responsible for 245 deaths over the ten-year period studied. Medical or natural death was responsible for 192 mortalities followed by “undetermined” (166), motor vehicle crashes (140), and drowning responsible for 139 deaths.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Suicides were uncommon; just two parks, Grand Canyon (15) and Rocky Mountain (11) had more than ten deaths in ten years. More people were killed by wild animal attacks (6) than homicide (5.) Deaths from environmental factors were most common at Denali (18) and Grand Canyon (14) with one known for extreme cold and the other for extreme heat.

It can reach 120 degrees in the shade in the lower portions of Grand Canyon and tragedies do occur. A 49-year-old woman, her husband, and a friend hiked about four miles down the South Kaibab Trail when the woman became dizzy, disoriented, and then stopped breathing. The cause of death was believed to be heat-related. The high at Phantom Ranch that day was approximately 114 degrees. But even first-time campers, like those flocking to the parks in 2021 as the pandemic wanes can survive by using common sense like drinking plenty of water, avoiding the hottest parts of the day, and wearing a wide-brimmed hat (I prefer a Tilley).

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But these statistics do not take into account the numerous near-death experiences in the national parks such as the 21-year-old woman who recently fell into the icy waters of Maligne River in Alberta’s Jasper National Park. She slipped from a rock near the bank of the river while taking a photo. Fortunately, a 48-year-old man and his wife were in the right place at the right time and were able to rescue her from the fast-moving water.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While 2021 mortality data is not currently available recently reported deaths offers further insight into the issue:

  • New Mexico State Police reported on July 6 that a 63-year-old man had been found dead in the shadeless White Sands National Park
  • In April, a grizzly bear attacked and killed a backcountry guide while fishing along the Yellowstone National Park border in southwestern Montana
  • In June, a 26-year-old woman fell to her death at Zion National Park while canyoneering
  • A 56-year-old man fell to his death from Sequoia National Park on Memorial Day
  • A 53-year-old woman on a backpacking trip at the Grand Canyon died of a heat-related illness in June
  • A 64-year-old professor of Biology died last month while solo hiking in Yosemite National Park

Worth Pondering…

It is what we think we know already that often prevents us from learning.

—Claude Bernard

Traveling To a National Park this Summer? Prepare For High Temperatures!

Searing heat that has settled over the Southwest has National Park Service officials urging visitors to prepare for the high heat and know their limitations

Summer inspires us all to go outside and explore the great outdoors. High temperatures and the risk of heat illness can happen in any national park environment whether it’s an urban, historical, mountainous, or desert park. Be prepared for high temperatures and the increased risk of heat-related illnesses while recreating.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s one thing that many Americans (and Canadians) can affirm right now: It’s freaking hot. In case you still had any doubts, the hottest place on Earth is as hot as it’s ever been—at least in terms of recorded temperatures in modern times. Death Valley National Park recorded a high temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54.4 degrees Celsius) on Friday (July 9, 2021) and 129.4 degrees on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service. When dawn broke Sunday, the low temperature was a sweltering 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit (42 degrees Celsius). By the late afternoon, the mercury has swelled to a blazing 128.6 degrees. The combination of the two produced the highest daily average temperature ever recorded on the Planet: 118 degrees.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Those temperatures come as Death Valley and other areas in the Western United States continue to be blanketed by scorching heat. The Friday temperature matches 130 degrees recorded in August 2020. While some weather watchers point to a 134-degree measurement in Death Valley on July 10, 1913, that record has been widely disputed—with many in the meteorological community are suspicious of that mark because of temperatures recorded that day in nearby areas. But, that is still hot, brutally hot, especially for the unprepared in the park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Expect high temperatures of 110 degrees to 120 degrees. Drink plenty of water and carry extra,” reads a warning on the park’s website. “Avoid hiking (after 10 a.m.). Travel prepared to survive. In the case of a heat related illness, get to a cool place and seek help as soon as possible.”

At Grand Canyon National Park, “an excessive heat warning” was in effect last weekend for the lower portions of the Grand Canyon with temperatures reaching 115 degrees. Elsewhere, an excessive heat warning was also posted for Zion National Park

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada, the National Park Service (NPS) encouraged visitors to recreate responsibly if they came to the park during this summer’s “record high temperatures.”

“During this time of unprecedented high temperature visitors are asked to consider rescheduling visits to when weather conditions improve. Many visitors and staff have experienced heat illness as temperatures exceed 110 degrees during the day,” park staff reported. “You can recreate responsibly by packing plenty of water and salty snacks, visiting early in the morning or late in the evening when temperatures are less extreme, and by keeping your outdoor activities short in duration.”

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

Lake Mead has been under a severe heat wave since late June. High temperatures in the park are anticipated to be over 110 degrees for the next few days and over 105 degrees for the next several weeks, a park release said. Current forecasts show that lows are not expected to be below 80 degrees for the foreseeable future, it added.

Rangers have been very busy responding to multiple medical emergencies caused by the excessive heat. The call volume is extreme and unfortunately not every request for assistance can be granted, the park said, adding that, “visitors are cautioned to prepare for their visit assuming no ranger response.”

Heat related deaths and illnesses are preventable. Despite this, around 618 people in the United States are killed by extreme heat every year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heat-related illnesses happen when the body is not able to properly cool itself. While the body normally cools itself by sweating, during extreme heat, this might not be enough. In these cases, a person’s body temperature rises faster than it can cool itself down. Heat illness can lead to serious complications and cause damage to the brain and other vital organs and can lead to death if not treated quickly. Heat strokes, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, sunburns, and heat rash are all examples of heat-related illnesses.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most heat illnesses happen from staying outdoors in the heat for too long. Drinking alcohol can increase the risk of heat illness. Older adults, the very young, and people with mental illness and chronic diseases are at highest risk. However, even young and healthy people can be affected if they participate in strenuous physical activities during hot weather.

Check the weather before you head out. Sometimes the weather can make your activity unsafe. Remember that the mountain, trail, lake, or canyon that you are planning to hike, climb, or boat on will still be there another day when the conditions are better.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For practical tips on staying safe in the outdoors this summer, click here.

Worth Pondering…

“‘Heat, ma’am!’ I said; ‘it was so dreadful here, that I found there was nothing left for it but to take off my flesh and sit in my bones.”

—Sydney Smith

National Park Facts: The Biggest, Smallest, Oldest, Newest, Most Visited, and More…

My list of 50 National Park Service (NPS) facts is full of stats, trivia, and surprising insights about everything from visitor numbers and volcanic activity to drug busts and the deadliest trails

Looking for some fun, interesting, and quirky national park facts to impress your hiking buddies or the family on your next road trip? This post has you covered, serving up oodles of interesting info and insights about national parks as well as the odd astounding trinket of trivia from the parks’ long and rich history. From the discovery of highly illicit “vegetation” in Sequoia National Park’s illicit to the nation’s deadliest trail, our list of national park facts has it all! 

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

1. The combined size of all of NPS sites is a whopping 84 million acres which is slightly larger than Finland and only slightly smaller than Germany.

2. There are a total of 423 NPS sites in the National Park System with parks in every state and also the territories of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam.

3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee and North Carolina) is the most visited national park attracting more than 12.4 million in 2020. 

4. The oldest national park is Yellowstone (Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana), which was founded in 1872.

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

5. The newest national park is the aptly named New River Gorge National Park (West Virginia), which was founded on December 27th, 2020.

6. The biggest national park is Wrangell-St. Elias (Alaska) which encompasses a whopping 13.2 million acres.

7. The smallest national park is Hot Springs (Arkansas) which measures a mere 5,500 acres.

8. The highest point in the national parks is the summit of Denali in Denali National Park (Alaska) at 20,310 feet.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Additionally, Denali National Park has the widest range of elevations from 200 feet in Yentna River to 20,302 feet at the summit of Denali.

10. The lowest point in the national parks is Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park (California) which lies at 282 feet below sea level.

11. The state with the most NPS sites is California with 28.

12. The deepest cave is in Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico) and measures a mind-boggling 1,593 feet deep.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Mammoth Cave National Park (Kentucky) has the longest cave system in the world with more than 3,454 mapped miles.

14. At 1,932 feet deep, Crater Lake in Crater Lake National Park (Oregon) is the deepest lake in the US.

15. The national parks are home to over 400 endangered animal and plant species.

16. In 2014, rangers in Sequoia National Park (California) discovered a multi-million-dollar cannabis cultivation facility in the park. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. White Sands National Park (New Mexico) contains the largest gypsum dune fields on the planet.

18. The NPS employs roughly 20,000 people who are assisted by a further team of almost 250,000 volunteers.  

19. There are over 18,000 miles of trails in the national parks (for comparison, the Great Wall of China measures 13,171 miles in length) 

20. The NPS contains over 75,000 archaeological sites and about 27,000 historic and prehistoric structures.

General Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. The US, believe it or not, has one national park that’s situated south of the equator—The National Park of American Samoa which encompasses 9,500 acres of land and 4,000 marine acres.

22. Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Idaho, Montana is home to more than 500 active geysers—more than half of the active geysers in the world.

23. The Yellowstone Caldera is a supervolcano that measures 43 by 28 miles wide. It has also caused three of the biggest volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history.

24. Sequoia National Park (California) was the first national park established with a view to protecting a living organism—the giant sequoia trees from which the park takes its name.  

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

25. Additionally, Sequoia National Park is home to the largest living tree in the world, General Sherman which stands 275 feet tall and is over 36 feet in diameter at its base.

26. Sequoia National Park is also home to the highest mountain in the lower 48 states—the 14,494-foot Mount Whitney.

27. When a giant sequoia tree fell and blocked a road in Sequoia National Park in 1937, the NPS simply created a tunnel through the 275-foot by 21-foot tree.

28. Everglades National Park (Florida) protects more than 25 percent of the state’s original everglades (subtropical wetlands).

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

29. Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado) which connects Grand Lake and Estes Park is the highest continuously paved road in the U.S. and includes breathtaking views and vistas along its entire 48 miles.

30. NPS sites include 2,000 miles of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail that stretches from Maine to Georgia, a 37-mile-long barrier island (Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland), and a 184-mile-long canal from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland (C&O Canal National Historical Park).

31. Wind Cave National Park (South Dakota) was the first cave to be named a national park in the world. 

32, Mauna Loa Volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (Hawaii) is the largest volcano on earth both in terms of volume and height above its base. It contains about 19,000 cubic miles of lava and rises more than 50,000 feet above its base including the portion which is beneath the ocean.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

33. The Grand Canyon (Arizona) is 277 miles in length, 10 miles wide, and about 1 mile deep. 

34. Before Zion National Park (Utah) became “Zion National Park” in 1919, it was known as Mukuntuweap National Monument.

35. Angels Landing is THE classic Zion hike and one of the most harrowing hikes in the canyon with a trail along sheer cliffs with huge drop-offs.

36. Lassen Volcanic National Park (California) is one of the few places on Earth that contains all four of the world’s known types of volcanoes—stratovolcanoes, volcanic domes, shield volcanoes, and cinder cones.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

37. Saguaro National Park (Arizona) is split into two sections—the Tucson Mountain District sits west; the Rincon Mountain District sits east; and the city of Tucson sits in between the two.

38. The saguaro is the largest cactus in North America and can weigh up to nearly 5,000 pounds and live up to 200 years old.

39. Joshua Tree National Park (California) is where the Mojave and the Sonoran Desert come together.

40. Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona) has a world-class fossil record with artifacts dating to the Triassic Period, 200 million years ago, before the Jurassic Period when dinosaurs roamed our planet. The Triassic era is known as the “Dawn of the Dinosaurs.”  

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

41. Some of the trees in Petrified Forest National Park measure up to 200 feet—about the length of the wingspan of a 747 jet. 

42. Petrified Forest is the only national park where a segment of Route 66 exists.

43. Big Bend (Texas) is the only national park to have an entire mountain range, the Chisos Mountains, within its borders.

44. The mosquito meter at the visitor center in Congaree National Park (South Carolina) ranges from “1 – All Clear” to “6 – War Zone!”  You can find the war zone during the summer months. 

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

45. Dry Tortugas (Florida) is one of the most remote national parks and is accessible only by high-speed ferry (Yankee Freedom), private and charter boats, and seaplanes. 

46. While many of the national parks have meandering scenic driving roads, Pinnacles (California) does not. It is explored mostly along with hiking, walking, and climbing trails.

47. Utah is home to the “The Mighty 5”—Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, Bryce, and Capitol Reef National Parks. Capitol Reef is the least visited of the five.

48. Arches National Park (Utah) earned its name for having more than 2,000 sandstone arch formations, the largest collection of in the world. In addition, there are thousands of other wonders in the shape of pinnacles, spires, needles, hoodoos, gargoyles, balanced rocks, and domes.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

49. Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado) has the largest collection of ancestral Puebloan artifacts ever found—there are more than 5,000 archaeological sites and over 600 cliff dwellings documented in the park.

50. The highest wall in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Colorado) is the Painted Canyon standing at 2,250 feet from river to rim. An estimated 33 minutes of sunlight penetrates the canyon each day. 

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Which national parks will you visit this summer?

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

National Parks Have a Problem. They Are Too Popular.

If you’re planning to visit a national park on your summer RV trip, you’re not alone. Millions of Americans are flocking to the national parks this summer.

Imagine traveling across the country to visit one of the most stunning national parks only to find it was at capacity and the park was closed to additional visitors.

Arches is one of a number of headliner national parks seeing overcrowding as summer gets into full swing in a year when leisure travel volume is expected to rebound to pre-pandemic levels or even exceed them. The influx of visitors is forcing the park to temporarily shut its gates almost daily. And disappointed visitors aren’t the only consequence of overcrowding. The natural environment is impacted and the local community is affected, too.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since October 2020, visitor numbers at Arches National Park have consistently climbed as much as 70 percent in some months compared with previous years according to the National Park Service (NPS). On multiple days last week, the park started turning visitors away before 8 a.m. In previous years, Arches would sometimes turn people away on weekends. Now it’s happening almost daily. Arches had over 25,000 more visitors in May of this year compared to May 2019. Visitors who can’t get into Arches often go to nearby Canyonlands National Park or opt for recreation opportunities on public land outside of the national parks which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2021 will be our busiest year on record according to a park spokesperson. The big spikes in visitation are mostly at the most popular 12 to 15 destination national parks. This year, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks reported their highest first-quarter visitation numbers since they started collecting such data roughly 30 years ago, a state report says. Yellowstone recorded almost 108,000 visits and Grand Teton saw over 194,000. Those represent increases of 20.7 percent and 22.8 percent from 2020, respectively. 

Yellowstone National Park saw more than 483,100 people in May, the most visitors ever recorded at the park during that month. Yellowstone also saw a 50 percent increase in Memorial Day weekend visitation compared with 2019 and Yellowstone and Grand Teton had their busiest Aprils ever. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has seen record visitation each month throughout the year. Zion had over 80,000 more visitors in May than in 2020. For the first four months of 2021, Mount Rainier National Park recorded over 130,000 visitors, one of the busiest beginnings to the year that they’ve had in the last 25 years.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As of now, six national parks require advance reservations of some kind: California’s Yosemite National Park, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, Hawaii’s Haleakalā National Park, Maine’s Acadia National Park, Montana’s Glacier National Park, and Utah’s Zion National Park. Will advance reservations spread to other popular parks? That begs the question, “Do we really want recreation.gov handling this crowding too?”

The NPS encourages visitors to explore lesser-known parks throughout the park system which includes 423 NSP sites: national seashores, national monuments, national recreation areas, national historic sites, and a host of other designations. Other options include state parks, regional and county parks, and city parks.

Instead of sticking to the top attractions this summer get off the beaten path and look for the hidden gems. Explore these NPS sites that include seven national monuments, four national historic sites and parks, three national parks, and one national seashore located in nine states from coast to coast.

Which national park will you visit this summer?

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

Recreational visits in 2020: 19,856

Walk in ancient footsteps at Hovenweep. Soak in the silence. Marvel at a night sky overflowing with stars. Hear a lone coyote’s howl.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 23,726

The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park, a picturesque reminder that Southern Arizona was, at one time, the far northern frontier of New Spain. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, 29 miles north of Nogales beside the Santa Cruz River.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Recreational visits in 2020: 30,223

Follow the ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Once you’ve visited the ruins, meander to the Animas River via a segment of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail or peruse museum exhibits and 900-year old artifacts.

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

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, Pennsylvania

Recreational visits in 2020: 34,288

Known as an “iron plantation,” Hopewell Furnace illustrates how mining and producing iron ore spurred the United States to economic prosperity. Visitors to this Pennsylvania site can see demonstrations and hike the surrounding area which was originally farmland.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Moro National Monument, New Mexico

Recreational visits in 2020: 36,328

Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, this massive sandstone bluff was a welcome landmark for weary travelers. A reliable year-round source of drinking water at its base made El Morro a popular campsite in this otherwise rather arid and desolate country. At the base of the bluff called Inscription Rock are seven centuries of inscriptions covering human interaction with this spot.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Recreational visits in 2020: 37,295

Cumberland Island National Seashore includes one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in the world. The park is home to a herd of feral, free-ranging horses. 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.

Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, New York

Recreational visits in 2020: 49,091

See the place where Franklin D. Roosevelt was born and buried in Hyde Park. The home is also the location of the first presidential library.

Chiricahua National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Park, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 44,794

A “Wonderland of Rocks” is waiting for you to explore at Chiricahua National Monument. The 8-mile paved scenic drive and 17-miles of day-use hiking trails provide opportunities to discover the beauty, natural sounds, and inhabitants of this 12,025-acre site.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Recreational visits in 2020: 52,542

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.

LBJ National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park, Texas

Recreational visits in 2020: 75.322

On the banks of the Pedernales River in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, the LBJ Ranch tells the story of America’s 36th President beginning with his ancestors until his final resting place on his beloved LBJ Ranch.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 76,752

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 78,358

Built atop a small 120-foot ridge is a large pueblo. With 77 ground-floor rooms, this pueblo held about 50 people. After about 100 years the population doubled and then doubled again later. By the time they finished building the pueblo, it had 110 rooms including second and third-story structures, and housed 250 people. 

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Recreational visits in 2020: 119,306

If you really want to experience nature, Congaree National Park in South Carolina is a perfect place to go. It’s home to one of the tallest deciduous forest canopies on earth which offer great bird watching and wilderness tours. For those feeling more adventurous, there is also kayaking, hiking, canoeing, fishing, and even camping.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

Recreational visits in 2020: 139,336

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740

Formed by volcanoes 23 million years ago, Pinnacles National Park is located in central California near the Salinas Valley.

Worth Pondering…

Not to have known—as most men have not—either mountain or the desert, is not to have known one’s self.

—Joseph Wood Krutch

10 Underrated National Parks to Visit This Summer

A helpful guide of national parks without the crowds

When you think of national parks, chances are that the most popular destinations come to mind. Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and the Great Smoky Mountains each get millions of visitors annually.

Due to their popularity, these national parks are typically overcrowded and overrun with tourists tending to get in the way of enjoying the natural beauty of these parks. That’s not to say they aren’t worth visiting—they definitely are—but there are also many underrated and relatively unknown national park service sites to visit.

There are few better ways to spend a beautiful summer day than roaming through nature and checking out views that will take your breath away. It’s an opportunity to disconnect and to learn more about America since many parks are also rich in history.

So get out there in an RV and make it a point to check out at least a couple of these 10 underrated national parks.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

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

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Formed by volcanoes 23 million years ago, Pinnacles National Park is located in central California near the Salinas Valley. The park covers more than 26,000 acres and hosted 230,000 visitors in 2017. By comparison, its neighbor Yosemite National Park welcomed more than four million visitors.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico

Located in Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument is full of history. This is the largest petroglyph site in North America, which features designs and symbols that were carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. You can walk the trails, check out the petroglyphs and scenery, and even observe some wildlife.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

If you really want to experience nature, Congaree National Park in South Carolina is a perfect place to go. It’s home to one of the tallest deciduous forest canopies on earth, which offers great bird watching and wilderness tours. For those feeling more adventurous, there is also kayaking, hiking, canoeing, fishing, and even camping. There are tons of trees to delight in, and you’ll feel super connected to the planet.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

North Dakota, when not being depicted as bland and uninspired, is generally cast in a bad light. Whether it’s fiction or real life, the spotlight’s seldom kind to NoDak. But there’s also a place where the buffalo roam, and that place is Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Named for the 26th President, it’s perhaps the most underrated National Park Service area, a prairie companion to the Badlands known for its diverse wildlife.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Though one of the oldest national parks in the U.S., Lassen Volcanic isn’t as well-known as its Californian sister, Yosemite, only welcoming 507,256 visitors last year compared to Yosemite’s over four million. Established in 1916, the park is one of the only places in the world where you can see all four types of volcanoes—cinder cone, composite, shield, and plug dome. Plenty of hydro- and geothermal activity is still found in the park today, along with abundant recreational activities.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present-day life of the Navajo, who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor. The northernmost and southernmost edges are accessible from paved roads. The South Rim Drive offers the most dramatic vistas, ending at the most spectacular viewpoint, the overlook of Spider Rocks—twin 800-foot towers of rock isolated from the canyon walls.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Cumberland Island National Seashore includes one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in the world. The park is home to a herd of feral, free-ranging horses. 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. The stories of the people weave a captivating tale of wealth, poverty, privilege, and sacrifice.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Despite having just one-tenth of the annual visitors to Yellowstone, Carlsbad Caverns is one of the most engaging national parks in the US—a 73-square-mile network of more than 100 massive caves that seem to go on forever. In the Big Room, stunning stalactites drip from the tall ceiling and thick stalagmite mounds rise from the cave’s floor. It’s certainly worth grabbing a seat at the amphitheatre at the mouth of the cave to witness a blur of thousands of bats emerge from the cave for their evening meal at 6 pm—or when they return by 6 am.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

Situated at an elevation of 10,000 feet, Cedar Breaks is shaped like a giant coliseum dropping 2,000 feet to its floor. Deep inside the coliseum are stone spires, columns, arches, pinnacles, and intricate canyons in varying shades of red, yellow, and purple. The bristlecone pine, one of the world’s oldest trees, grows in the area. During the summer months, the wildflower display is spectacular.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Wine Country and National Parks: A Perfect Summer Pairing

Combine spectacular national park scenery with a nearby wine country tasting experience

In an era of shrinking wilderness, it seems downright visionary that early U.S. presidents put pen to paper to protect diverse ecosystems for the public good. Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Valley Grant Act in 1864. Ulysses S. Grant created Yellowstone National Park in 1872. And, at the turn of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt earned the moniker “The Conservation President” for his amazing number of protections.

Ironside Vineyards in Calaveras County, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With 252 distinct wine regions and even more grape varieties across the U.S. (There are about 10,000 varieties of wine grapes worldwide), wine lovers can savor their favorite wines and explore new ones on their way to and from great parks including Yosemite in the High Sierra south to Joshua Tree in the desert and east to Shenandoah in the Appalachians. Like the stewards of America’s unique national parks, winemakers and growers also feel a deep connection to the land―and making it easy for travelers to find the perfect wine to complement their journey.

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

California: Yosemite National Park

First protected in 1864, Yosemite National Park is best known for its waterfalls but within its nearly 1,200 square miles you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, and a vast wilderness area.

70 miles northwest is Murphys, one of California’s richest “diggins” during the California Gold Rush of the 1840s—hence its former name, Murphys New Diggings. The draw today isn’t gold though. It’s quaint, as you’ll see when strolling down the town’s idyllic little Main Street with its clapboard buildings and white picket fences. But where prospectors and gamblers once mingled in between gold-digging expeditions (fit in a visit to the Old Timers Museum if you can), now winemakers hold sway and there are upwards of two dozen wine-tasting rooms along Main Street and several vineyards in the vicinity. As the so-called Queen of the Sierra, Murphys has a small population of around 2,213 but plenty of homestyle restaurants and cozy country inns. One such is the Murphys Hotel whose illustrious guests have included Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico: White Sands National Park

Prefer a less crowded park experience? While four million people trek to Yosemite each year, White Sands National Park receives just 600,000 visitors across 275 square miles of desert. As its name implies, the park’s gypsum sand shimmers enough to mimic snowy dunes.

Rio Grande Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bright and dry days help vines flourish in nearby Mesilla Valley, New Mexico’s smallest American Viticultural Area (AVA). Straddling the Rio Grande River, the climate supports the production of rich reds from varieties like Zinfandel, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon plus a bit of Tempranillo. The town of Las Cruces serves as a jumping-off point to explore local wineries like Lescombes Winery, Rio Grande Winery (see photo above), La Viña Winery, and Luna Rossa Winery.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

California: Pinnacles National Park

As throngs fight for reservations to Yosemite, in-the-know travelers go to Pinnacles National Park. Not only does it serve around 200,000 visitors a year, Pinnacles neighbors the beautiful coastal town of Carmel-by-the-Sea and Central Coast wine regions in Monterey County.

Vineyards near Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Much like the ancient soils that nurture nearby Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines, the park’s landscape was born of geological upheaval. More than 23 million years ago, volcanoes and shifting tectonic plates created the unique Talus caves and rock formations, or pinnacles. Hikers and cavers test their athleticism and nerve on challenging terrain though there are also easier hikes for the less ambitious. All highlight diverse wildlife from hummingbirds and condors to salamanders and mountain lions.

Wine lovers can tackle the 5.3-mile hike from Condor Gulch to High Peaks in the morning followed by lunchtime sips in the Santa Lucia Highlands. There’s a clutch of wineries along River Road with Hahn Family Wines near the south and Wrath Wines further north.

Pillsbury Wine Company tasting room in Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona: Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park is a showstopper of the American Southwest. With upwards of six million visitors each year, reservations for the vast gorge’s lodges and campgrounds are often booked up to a year in advance. However, a photo of the winding Colorado River from the South Rim is far easier to land. Lookout points at Navajo Point and Desert View Drive swell with crowds but for good reason. The two-billion-year-old layered red sedimentary rock is peppered with pines, spruces, and firs. It’s peerless in its beauty.

Wine tasting room in Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two hours south, near Sedona, another hiking haven amidst sublime scenery sits Verde Valley. Winemaking dates to the 1800s but the modern industry was resurrected in the 1980s. Vineyards offer mostly red grapes like Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, and Mourvèdre. Taste along the Verde Valley trail or at the numerous tasting rooms in Cottonwood and Jerome.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Virginia: Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah which teems with vistas, wildlife, and waterfalls attracts around 1.5 million visitors a year. About 75 miles from Washington D.C., the centerpiece of the 200,000-acre park is the 105-mile Skyline Drive that features dramatic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains around every turn. Well-marked trails offer hikes through woodland valleys and across streams. History buffs might want to stop at nearby Manassas National Battlefield Park, the site of a devastating 1861 Civil War clash.

At the southern end of the park lies Charlottesville, the pastoral area that Thomas Jefferson called home. Though he failed to make fine wine, wineries like King Family Vineyards, Stinson Vineyards, Barboursville, and Veritas produce Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Viognier, and red blends in the Monticello AVA.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

California: Joshua Tree National Park

Two major deserts, the Mojave and the Sonoran come together in Joshua Tree National Park, an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths (popular with rock climbers), petroglyphs from early Native Americans, old mines, and ranches. And the hiking is fantastic.

Temecula Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A visit to this park wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Temecula about two hours southwest. The Temecula Wine Region invites you to savor the hundreds of award-winning wines in Southern California’s wine county. Wine snobs may scoff at the wines of Southern California in favor of the grapes of Napa or Sonoma but the vineyards of Temecula Valley have established a reputation over the last decade for producing fantastic Bordeaux and Rhône varietals as well as those from Spain, Italy, and Portugal. With more than 40 vineyards throughout the region, you can find something to satisfy any tasting desire from lavish, over-the-top wine resorts to small, mom-and-pop operations.

Robert Renzoni Vineyards & Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stunning modern Moorish architecture and warm hospitality are the hallmarks of Bizhan “BJ” Fazeli’s beautiful winery which has one of the widest ranges of varietals in the Temecula Valley. Produced both from estate vineyards and select local growers the names of the collections are an homage to Fazeli’s Persian roots—The Heritage Collection honors five Persian poets, Embrace the Chaos includes Pandemonium, Rukus, Mayhem, and Uproar and the popular Season Collection celebrates annual solstices and equinoxes. If you’re visiting at lunchtime, stop by Baba Joon’s Kitchen for Mediterranean/Persian-influenced shareable appetizers, sandwiches, salads, and flatbreads.

Worth Pondering…

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, I’m finding enjoyment in things that stop time. Just the simple act of tasting a glass of wine is its own event.

―David Hyde Pierce

The Ultimate Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park is most popular during the summer when its most beautiful features are revealed after a long snowy winter

While Lassen Volcanic National Park is just as serene and peaceful as other California national parks, it was established to protect and aid the research of a turbulent landscape. The birth of this park as a federally protected area really began in the summer of 1914 when three climbers ascended Lassen Peak in an attempt to uncover the reasons why the dormant volcano had recently started rumbling deep beneath its surface.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As they neared the top, the volcano began to erupt, spewing ash and debris into the air forming a 12-mile long mudflow that flooded across the region. The climbers narrowly escaped and survived the event—an event that would become one of intense study for many years to come. In 1915, the peak blew its top. The catastrophic eruption forced rock, trees, and debris miles down into valleys devastating the surrounding areas and changing its landscape forever. Then in 1917, the volcano fell dormant. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, 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 of 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.

With all of that said, it is not surprising that Lassen Volcanic National Park is known for its extreme weather. During heavy snow years, the main park road along the Lassen Volcanic National Park Scenic Highway (the main park road) may not open until May and sometimes not until mid-July putting visitors at the mercy of Mother Nature during any season of the year. Lassen Volcanic fully opened for summertime activities this year in late June. All the park’s roads, campgrounds, and trailheads are open for the first time in seven months with some high-country trails in sun-shielded sites still covered with some patches of snow.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen features a landscape built primarily by volcanic blasts and lava flows with the last series of major eruptions from 1914 to 1918. Its high country is cut by ice and snow. The park’s 106,000 acres is a matrix of lava peaks, basalt flows, and geothermal basins that is set amid forests, lakes, and streams. The centerpiece, 10,457-foot Lassen Peak, has just an inch or two of snow left on portions of the switch-backed trail that leads up from the parking lot. It is expected to melt off soon.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As a national park, Lassen is like Yosemite’s little brother—it gets about 750,000 visitors each year (542,274 in 2020) compared to Yosemite’s 5 million (2,268,313 in 2020). It is a unique destination for camping, hiking, trout fishing, and wilderness treks. The Pacific Crest Trail also runs through much of the park.

With summer heating up, here is the ultimate guide to Lassen Volcanic with ideas on how to enjoy the park’s greatest hits and stay cool.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping

Along the Lassen Park Highway, you can find major campgrounds and camping cabins at Manzanita Lake (multiple loops, 179 sites, 20 cabins). Or check out Summit Lake with two separate campground areas and 94 sites which opened June 25. Near the southern entrance station, Southwest Walk-in has 20 sites, first come, first served. In the park’s more remote regions, the campground at Butte Lake (101 sites) is located across the entrance road from the car-top boat access.

Camps are also available at the distant Warner Valley (17 sites, first-come, first-served) and the even more remote Juniper Lake (16 sites, first come, first served, opened June 25). Access to these spots is along dirt roads and SUVs are advised to reach them.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Three easy hikes

The park’s most popular hike, the Bumpass Hell geothermal area (named after a guy who accidentally fell in), is now open. It’s a 3-mile round trip: a short climb and then a descent to a basin filled with boiling pots, hot springs, steam vents, and hydrothermals. A series of boardwalks provide access to the basin.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Hat Lake along the Lassen Park Highway, there’s a pretty hike along a creek past a waterfall (a short cutoff on the right provides the best view) to gorgeous Paradise Meadow. It’s a 2.8 miles round trip with a 700-foot climb on the way in. The meadow is nestled in a mountain bowl at 7,100 feet where visitors will find an explosion of wildflowers.

Mill Creek Falls, a gorgeous 75-foot chute-like waterfall, is a 3.8-mile round trip. The route starts near the southwest parking area (near the park entrance, behind the amphitheater), then is routed through the forest with a few small stream crossings.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two tougher hikes

The park’s signature hike, the Lassen Peak Trail, has recently become accessible for hiking as the snow melts off the south-facing switchbacks. It’s a 5-mile round-trip with a 2,000-foot climb on the way up to the rim. Then it’s a short jaunt across the caldera to the plug dome summit crag. As you approach, the best route up to the pinnacle is on the far side on the left.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the trailhead at Butte Lake, the park’s most unusual climb is the 2-mile trek to the rim of the Cinder Cone (4.5 miles roundtrip). It’s somewhat of a slog through volcanic rubble but the reward is a view inside the collapsed caldera of the cone and views of the Spectacular Lava Beds and also to Lassen Peak. A trail rings the rim of the cone with a cutoff spur that plunges to the bottom.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lakes

The park’s most famous lake is Manzanita Lake, located a short distance from the Highway 44/89 entrance station. During the summer, it is a favorite area for kids of all ages to hike, swim, and paddle. With a kayak or canoe, you can paddle across the lake with a backdrop of Lassen Peak. Kayak rentals are available at the Camper Store. The lake is also a destination for flyfishers with special regulations in effect for catch-and-release wild trout.

National Park Service rangers at Lassen also provide regular guided tours that examine summer bird species in the area (there are 213 species in the park) The one thing that never changes at Manzanita Lake is the straight-on view of Lassen Peak from its north side. Gorgeous! 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summit Lake, ringed by conifers, is also popular for kayaking with the best access on the northern shore; no rentals.

Remote Butte Lake has a designated area to launch car-top boats and from here you can paddle amid a backdrop of pine forest, volcanic crags, and shoreline rubble. The lake has fair trout fishing with fish up to about 12 inches. No motors are permitted at any of the lakes at Lassen.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 106,372 acres

Date Established: August 9, 1916

Location: Northern California, at the southern foot of the Cascades Range

Park Elevation: 5,300 feet-10,463 feet

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: Lassen Volcanic National Park was named after the high-point in the park, Lassen Peak (10,463 feet). Lassen Peak was named after a Danish blacksmith named Peter Lassen who explored the area and settled there in the early 1840s. It has also been called Mount Lassen or Lassen Butte. It’s Native American names varied, translating loosely as Fire Mountain, Water Mountain, Snow Mountain, and The Long High Mountain That Was Broken.  

Iconic site: The unobstructed view of Lassen Peak from Manzanita Lake is a showstopper and a site that can be accessed all year long. Along the popular 1.5-mile trail that circumnavigates the lake, there are plenty of cool offshoot trails meandering the serene alpine setting. From the north side of the lake, forests of conifer trees frame-up Chaos Crags, Eagles Peak, and Lassen Peak like a painting. Stay for sunset! It’s an easy walk back to the car and the alpenglow is beautiful. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

Sunset Magazine called Lassen The West’s most beautiful, least visited wonderland.

Lassen is one of the few places on Earth that contains all four of the world’s known types of volcanoes—stratovolcanoes, volcanic domes, shield volcanoes, and cinder cones. A shield volcano can be seen at Prospect Peak, a cinder cone volcano that formed the Painted Dunes when it erupted in 1666, Lassen Peak itself is a plug dome volcano—the largest in the world, and the stratovolcano (also known as a composite volcano) can be seen at Mount Diller.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All of the mountains in this national park are volcanic.

The only volcanic eruption occurring in a national park in the lower 48 states during the 20th century was at Lassen Volcanic.

 Worth Pondering…

Lassen’s Peak looks sharper from this side than any other, and views seen from among these pinnacles and rocks are some of the most picturesque imaginable. A series of photographs would be treasured indeed.

—William H. Brewer, Up and Down California (Journals; 1860-1864)

The Ultimate Guide to Pinnacles National Park

At one of America’s newer National Park, the possibilities for discovery are limitless

The remains of an ancient volcanic field consisting of massive monoliths, rocky spires, pinnacles, red crags, and talus cave, rise out of the Meditteranean chaparral-covered Gabilan Mountains, a sanctuary for the California condor.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Salinas Valley in west-central California is the site of an ancient history spanning 23 million years. Over the course of that time, the “pinnacles” have migrated some 200 miles from their original home on the San Andreas Fault where the volcano that they were born from once stood. Today, that volcanic rock from the Pacific Coast Range has morphed to form monoliths, spires, peaks, cliffs, and other formations that jut out from the pastoral hills of the region. 

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is split into east and west districts between which there are no driving roads connecting the entrances on either side. In the west district, there are rare and unusual talus caves—caves made up of fallen rock sandwiched in slot canyons. On the east side, you will find the most interesting views of the formations along with broader views of the entire park landscape, the main park visitor center, and an established camping area. Both sides are beloved by technical climbers, day hikers, cave-goers, and bird watchers eager to catch a glimpse of the endangered California condor.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first 2,500 acres of the rugged Pinnacles were made a national monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Since 1908, the monument significantly increased in size to 26,000 acres and on January 10, 2013, Pinnacles became America’s 59th national park. 

Hiking and rock climbing are popular activities in Pinnacles National Park as is watching for the majestic California condor overhead. Pinnacles National Park is a nesting place for the endangered soaring bird, the largest in North America.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By the early 1980s, the California condor population had dwindled to just 22. The birds were placed in captive breeding programs, and Pinnacles became one of the release sites. Other condors from the Big Sur area also frequent the area which increases the odds of seeing one of these rare creatures.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Remarkable rocks sculpted by 14 million years of volcanic turmoil. The rocky spires and pinnacles have long attracted rock climbers. So have talus caves (formed when massive boulders tumbled into narrow canyons) inhabited by protected bat communities. A well-maintained 30-mile trail system, partially created in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, beckons hikers to this rugged landscape. Wildflowers bloom in the spring, and the temperate climate makes for year-round exploration opportunities.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rock formations of Pinnacles National Park divide the park into east and west access points which are connected by trails. But, there is no road connecting the east and west entrances of the park.

The eastern access road (CA 146) branches off CA 25, 30 miles south of Hollister, and leads up a wide, partly wooded valley alongside Bear Creek, and past the park campground. The mountains are visible to the west though they seem unremarkable from a distance as the volcanic formations are hidden behind more conventional rocks.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles Campground offers 149 tent, group, and RV sites with 30-amp electric service. Water is located throughout the campground. Showers and a dump station are available. During the spring and summer seasons, campers can enjoy the campground swimming pool and ranger programs at the campground amphitheater.

The road bends around a side canyon and ends next to the visitor center just as the main valley (Bear Gulch) starts to become relatively narrow. The center has exhibits, a small selection of books for sale, a public telephone, and flashlights for use in the caves.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The surrounding vegetation is typical of the chaparral zone, mostly small oak trees, and bushes, reflecting the low elevation, moderate rainfall, and long hot summers of this part of California. The main hiking area is to the west, further along, the canyon—within 2 miles are Bear Gulch Cave, Bear Gulch Reservoir, and many rock climbing sites, while 2 miles further are the extensive formations of the High Peaks. Many trails intersect, allowing for a short loop or a longer all-day hike.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Bear Gulch Cave provides a home to a colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats as they rest there in winter and raise their young in the late spring and summer. The colony in the Bear Gulch Cave is the largest maternity colony between San Francisco and Mexico. The lower half of the Bear Gulch Cave is usually open from mid-July through mid-May each year, depending on the presence of the colony of bats. The entire cave is closed from mid-May to mid-July while the bats are raising their young. Bring a flashlight if your hike leads through a cave.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The west entrance has just a ranger station plus parking and is reached by a narrow, 12-mile road from Soledad that is not recommended for RVs or other large vehicles. From the road’s end, three trails depart to the north, west, and east; the most popular routes are the Juniper Canyon Trail to the High Peaks, and the Balconies Trail which leads to volcanic rocks and a talus cave.

Fact Box

Size: 26,000 acres

Date Established: January 10, 2013

Location: West central California, in the Salinas Valley

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: In 1880, the area where the national park is now was known as “the Palisades” until a newspaper article came out in 1881 describing the trellised areas as “the Pinnacles.” Further exploration of the area and additional marketing of it as a tourist destination helped the new name to stick. It has been officially known as Pinnacles since it was protected as a National Monument in 1908. 

Iconic site in the park: The geologic formations are known as “the pinnacles” are a series of volcanic and sedimentary rocks that have eroded over time to take the shape of colorful and ornate cliffs, crags, and talus cave formations that rise from a forested landscape. 

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did You Know?

Pinnacles, Muir Woods, and the Grand Canyon were all set aside as national monuments in the span of seven days in January 1908 by Teddy Roosevelt.

American writer John Steinbeck grew up in the Salinas Valley and lived there until he went to Stanford University in 1919. The location inspired several of his works, one of them being East of Eden

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740

Entrance Fees: $30/vehicle (valid for 7 days); all federal lands passes accepted

Camping Fee: $37/night

Worth Pondering…

May all your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view……where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you.

—Edward Abbey

Every U.S. National Park Ranked

Every single national park is worth visiting!

Good morning. Sending Virtual Raspberry Chardonnay Sonic Slushies to my readers in the Southwest where things are getting punishingly hot. 

  • 40 million people will experience temps of 100 degrees F or more in the coming days.
  • The low in Phoenix Tuesday night was 91 degrees. The low! Was 91!
  • Salt Lake City tied its all-time record at 107.
  • And even Palm Springs issued an excessive heat warning with a temp of 117 degrees.

But hey, look on the bright side. You could be a Diamondback fan. Losing 20 consecutive road trip games! Which must be some kind of record?

Keep in mind, it’s almost impossible to say that one is better than the next—there’s truly something special about each one of the national parks.

Did I rank the parks according to their uniqueness, or photogenicness, or diversity of flora and fauna, or for the level of adventure contained therein? Yes. I ranked them according to which ones are the best. Let’s begin.

When picking your next national park adventure, consider what you love to do, hope to see, and what’s most important to you. I’ll say it louder for the people in the back—every single national park is worth visiting!

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Discover a landscape of contrasting colors, landforms, and textures unlike any other in the world. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. This red-rock wonderland will amaze you with its formations, refresh you with its trails, and inspire you with its sunsets.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Visitors to Mesa Verde can retrace the ancient footsteps of the ancestral Puebloans who once lived in the park’s magnificent cliff dwellings. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to some of the best-preserved archaeological sites in the U.S. with more than 4,500 found within its boundaries including Cliff Palace which contains 150 rooms.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

Step back in time at Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Steep canyon walls cradle hundreds of ancient pueblo ruins. A Navajo Indian community still inhabits the canyon floor herding sheep during the summer. Two self-guided drives follow the rims of the canyon. At the end of the South Rim Drive, take in the sights from the popular Spider Rock overlook featuring the park’s signature geological formation.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Weathered and windswept, Badlands is a desolate yet phenomenal sight. Its layers of sedimentary rocks date back millions of years resulting in an ancient, fossil-rich landscape of ridges, buttes, and canyons. Saber-toothed cats may no longer roam but the mixed-grass prairies support numerous animals including white-tailed deer and coyotes. Catch a glimpse from one of the easy boardwalk trails.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park is named after a stretch of 118 miles of the Rio Grande River, part of which forms a large bend in the river. Big Bend offers a variety of activities 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.

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania

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.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. World-renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

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. There’s also a visitor’s center, gift shop, and miles of hiking trails. The Tucson Mountain District (West) also has a scenic loop drive and many hiking trails including some with petroglyphs at Signal Mountain.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Water and wind over millions of years have carved the plateau into the park’s distinctive red rock pillars, called hoodoos, into the park’s series of natural amphitheaters. Bryce Canyon National Park awes visitors with spectacular geological formations and brilliant colors.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Cumberland Island National Seashore includes one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in the world. The park is home to a herd of feral, free-ranging horses. 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.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, and oases. Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths, old mines, and ranches. 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 that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Many come to the southwest to visit the Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Brilliant colors and unforgettable panoramas make it one of the most popular attractions in the U.S. Unique combinations of geologic color and erosional forms decorate a canyon that is 277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and a mile deep.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im