The Ultimate Guide to Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore is the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world

Are you ready for a day (or two or three) at the beach? Why not spend it at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, a park with “the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world.”

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashore separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre, one of a few hypersaline lagoons in the world. The park protects 70 miles of coastline. It is a safe nesting ground for the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and a haven for over 380 bird species. It also has a rich history including the Spanish shipwrecks of 1554.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to its 70 miles of protected coastline, other important ecosystems abound including rare coastal prairie, a complex and dynamic dune system, and tidal flats teeming with life. The National Seashore and surrounding waters provide important habitat for marine and terrestrial plants and animals including a number of rare, threatened, and endangered species.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashore and South Padre Island are two different places located over 100 miles apart. Sometimes Padre Island National Seashore is confused with South Padre Island but the two are very different destinations. Padre Island National Seashore is a National Park Service (NPS) site located just outside of Corpus Christi. South Padre Island is a resort community located near Brownsville with numerous hotels, clubs, and souvenir shops. The two destinations are at opposite ends of the long, barrier island named Padre Island and are about 100 miles apart.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning on putting the park address into a smart phone app or GPS? It most likely will NOT bring you to the park. For unknown reasons, many of those applications place the park’s physical address miles away from its actual location.

Plan your trip: A Slice of Paradise: Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fortunately, getting to the park is easy once you know that the road coming to the park—Park Road 22—actually dead ends into the National Seashore. The park entrance station is a booth that is located literally in the middle of the road. Once you’re on Park Road 22, just keep going until you reach the end and the park entrance station. Bring a paper map or use the above directions to locate the park.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park entrance fees and passes can be purchased online before your visit or purchased in person at the entrance station upon your arrival. Your options include a 1-day pass ($10.00 per vehicle), a 7-day pass ($25.00 per vehicle), and a 1-year pass ($45.00 per vehicle). Those with federal interagency passes enter free.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Typical weather conditions. Weather on Padre Island varies widely and can change from sunny and warm to thunderstorms and heavy winds very quickly. Padre Island has long, hot summers and short, mild winters. Most rain falls near the beginning and end of hurricane and tropical storm season which lasts from June through October.

Daytime temperature in spring averages in the 70s-80s with lows in the 50s-60s. Summer daytime temperatures are usually in the mid-90s with very humid conditions. Lows are usually in the 70s. Afternoon and evening sea breezes help to moderate temperatures. In the fall, daytime temperature average in the 70s-80s with lows in the 50s-60s. Winter high temperatures are usually between 50 degrees and 70 degrees but can occasionally drop into the upper 30s. Sudden, strong cold fronts can move through bringing gale force winds and dropping temperatures quickly.

Average rainfall for the southern portion of the park is 26 inches and 29 inches for the northern area of the park.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take a drive along the seashore. Many people come to the National Seashore to experience the beauty of nature in isolation. One way to do this is to travel down-island into the park’s most remote areas which are only accessible with a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle. Don’t try it with a regular car if you intend to drive further than 5 miles.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To get to the portion of the park where you can drive on the beach and down to the remote parts of the island, continue on the main park paved road (Park Road 22) past Malaquite Visitor Center until the pavement ends (South Beach). From that point, the park has 60 miles of beach open to driving. South Beach (and driving) ends at the Port Mansfield Channel, a man-made waterway cut through the island.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is not possible to drive all the way down to South Padre Island due to this waterway. You must turn around at that point and drive 60 miles back north to reach the park paved road.

Plan your trip: Padre Island National Seashore: World’s Longest Stretch of Undeveloped Barrier Island

Remember that Texas beaches are public highways and all traffic laws apply including seat belt regulations. All vehicles on Padre Island National Seashore must be street legal and licensed.

Bird Island Basin Campground, Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go camping. Padre Island National Seashore has two campgrounds and three areas for primitive camping. They are open year-round and are first-come, first-served. Campers must have a camping permit. There are no RV hook-ups on Padre Island but a dump station and a water filling station are available for all campers staying in the National Seashore.

Malaquite Campground, Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucked in the dunes with a view of the Gulf of Mexico and a short distance north of the visitor center, Malaquite Campground features 48 semi-primitive designated sites. Located near the boat ramp on the waters of the Laguna Madre, Bird Island Basin Campground offers an opportunity for windsurfing, kayaking, boating, birding, and fishing. Both RV and tent camping sites are available but it is dry camping only.

Sea Breeze RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’d rather stay in a full-service RV park, Corpus Christi, 10 miles away from the park entrance, has several choices. We stayed across the bay in Portland at Seabreeze RV Resort and would return in a heartbeat.

Since sunrises are spectacular along the seashore, plan to take a morning walk along the beach and bring your camera with you to capture the moment. During your early-morning walk, you might spot the elusive (and very fast) ghost crab peeking at you from its burrow.

Stick around after dark on a clear night for a little stargazing. Take a flashlight with you to spot ghost crabs as they move away from their burrows to seek a midnight snack.

Do some beachcombing. Have you ever gone to the beach with bucket in hand hoping to find treasures along the seashore? If so, then you have been beachcombing. Many of the currents that flow through the Gulf of Mexico bring endless curiosities onto the beach at Padre Island National Seashore. These items include seashells, beached jellyfish, sea beans (drift seeds), driftwood, lumber, plastics, and things that have been lost or discarded by seagoing vessels and other marine activities. The best time is immediately following a storm. You are allowed to keep a five-gallon bucket of treasures you might find but if an animal is still in its shell be sure to put it back where you found it.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go fly a kite. Padre Island National Seashore has plenty of wind to fly a kite. The seashore has in the past hosted a kite festival in February filling the sky with all sorts of colorful kites including some intricate and creative Chinese kites. Be sure to check with the park before heading there with your kite. 

Plan your trip: Oceans of Fun: Port Aransas and Mustang Island

Go swimming. Swimming at the National Seashore can be a lot of fun! You can swim in the recreation area at Bird Island Basin or in the Gulf of Mexico. However, remember that safety is important and there are no lifeguards on duty. Use caution when swimming and never swim alone.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go fishing. Fishing has been one of the biggest attractions to Padre Island, long before its designation as a National Seashore. Visitors may fish along the entire length of the Gulf of Mexico beach in the Laguna Madre and at Yarborough Pass and Bird Island Basin. Two currents, one from the north and one from the south converge at Big Shell beach near the middle of the park.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These currents bring an abundance of nutrients which, in turn, attract plenty of fish. To fish anywhere within the park requires a valid Texas fishing license and a saltwater stamp which are only sold outside of the park at any local gas station or tackle shop.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go boating. Bird Island Basin offers a boat ramp to provide access to the excellent boating and fishing waters of the Laguna Madre. It’s one of the world’s best windsurfing sites and you can fish and birdwatch there, too. You can get a daily pass to Bird Island Basin at the Entrance Station for $5.00 or an annual pass for $30.00. Be aware that jet skis, kite surfing, and air boats are prohibited at the national seashore.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hatching releases. During the summer Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings are released from nests that were laid in the park and along parts of the Texas coast. Hatchling releases typically occur from mid-June through August. Most releases that are open to the public take place at 6:45 a.m. on Malaquite Beach in front of the Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore. For information about public hatching releases, call the Hatchling Hotline at 361-949-7163. Because park rangers cannot predict exactly when a sea turtle nest will hatch, not all hatchling releases are public and hatchling releases do not occur daily or on a regular schedule.

American avocet and Black-necked stilt, Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go bird watching. With more bird species that any other city in the U.S., Corpus Christi has won the competition for being the “Birdiest City in America” for the past 10 years in a row. Needless to say, Padre Island National Seashore, located on 130,000 acres of undeveloped land is an exceptional place for bird watching.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated along the Central Flyway, Padre Island is a globally important area for over 380 migratory, overwintering, and resident bird species (nearly half of all bird species documented in North America). You’ll catch sight of brown pelicans, egrets, herons, terns, gulls, hawks, ducks, teals, and crested caracaras and not just along the beach but inland as well. The best time to bird Padre Island National Seashore is either during early spring or during fall and winter when thousands of birds either migrate through the park or spend the winter there.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Interpretive programs. Attend a ranger program to learn about the seashore, the birds, and the things that wash up on the beach. Informal 30-45 minute Deck Talks on various aspects of the island’s natural and cultural history are held Thursdays to Sundays at 1 pm at the Malaquite Visitor Center.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be a Junior Ranger. Padre Island National Seashore is just one national park that gives you a chance to earn an official Junior Ranger badge. Ask a ranger for a Junior Ranger booklet when you stop by the Malaquite Visitor Center. The Underwater Explorer Junior Ranger Program is available as well. For all those who are young or young-at-heart, come out and earn your badge. All ages are welcome to participate in the Junior Ranger program at Padre Island National Seashore.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Relax on the beach, build a sand castle, and play in the sand. Just remember the Leave No Trace principles. If you dig any holes or trenches while playing in the sand, cover them back up so they don’t create a hazard for vehicles, people, and animals.

Remember to check the park’s website for any alerts and closures due to construction or weather-related damage. Check the site also for other things to know before you head out to the park and whether or not pets are allowed.

Read Next: Where the Journey Is the Destination: Texas State Highway 35

Worth Pondering…

I must go down to the seas again,

To the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star

To steer her by.

—John Masefield

Theodore Roosevelt National Park: A Plains-state Paradise

Where the buffalo roam and the badlands earn their name

The stretch of Interstate running from Minneapolis, Minnesota, through the heart of the North Dakota Heartland is fantastic if you’re big into grain silos and livestock. Otherwise, nobody’s confusing a drive down I-94 with one of America’s most scenic routes.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then, out of the blue, it happens: About an hour east of the Montana border—and a seemingly endless four hours from Fargo—the Earth drops out from under the highway.

Where endless grass once stretched to the horizon, tree-dotted canyons border the road. Petrified forests and river washes spread out between them and mountains somehow appear out of nowhere.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is how you’ll know you’ve reached Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a plains-state paradise often forgotten in the world of Arches and Bryce Canyon. The three-unit park is surprising not just in its grandeur but also in its very existence in a state few know much about.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But if there’s any reason to meander down I-94 through North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is it.

Related Article: Badlands Meet History in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The park is broken into three units: North, South, and Elkhorn Ranch. The latter is home to Roosevelt’s old ranch home and little else. But South and North combine for one of the most unexpected experiences in the Midwest.

Medora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way to see the South Unit is along its 36-mile loop drive which starts just after the Visitors Center in the western town of Medora (come for the pitchfork-fried steak, stay for the Medora Musical, a 90-minute revue telling the history of Medora and the life of Theodore Roosevelt) and continues through most of the park. You’ll roll through fields dotted with prairie dogs under buttes towering into the blue sky and along ridges standing over the jagged badlands.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best spot for pictures along the 90-minute ride is at Boicourt Overlook where a short 15-minite walk over an easy trail takes you to a sprawling view of the park. This overlook is a ranger favorite for sunsets over the badlands. You’ll be on top of the world when you climb Buck Hill, the highest accessible point in the park. This is a short, but steep trail. The view from the top is worth every step. Enjoy hiking the Wind Canyon Nature Trail alongside a wind-sculpted canyon as you climb to the best view of the Little Missouri River the South Unit has to offer. Another ranger favorite for sunsets.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a better-than-average chance your drive will be delayed by a herd of buffalo but just remember the loop drive is all about the journey and sitting in traffic behind slow-moving bison is an experience you’re unlikely to have again.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For more active travelers, the South Unit offers the most trails of any part of the park. For something otherworldly head down the Coal Vein Trail where you’ll step past steaming patches of dark rock marking large stores of coal. It’s perfectly safe as the coal isn’t burning but if you catch the trail after a rain storm steam still rises out of the ground. Think of it as a little slice of Iceland on the Dakota prairie.

Related Article: A Park to Honor a President: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For multi-colored views of the park’s signature Painted Canyon, climb down into the Painted Canyon Trail. The hike lets you delve into steep, desert scenery and only takes about half an hour to complete. Though you can reach it from the Loop Road via a few other trails, it’s still best visited by driving eight miles east on I-94 from Medora and starting at the Painted Canyon Visitors Center.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re feeling strong and want to see some of the park’s more unusual offerings, hike the Petrified Forest Loop trail. Located in the remote northwest corner of the South Unit, this hike takes you through ancient petrified forests and badlands wilderness. The 10-mile loop includes the North and South Petrified Forest Trails as well as the Maah Daah Hey.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The North Unit is smaller than the South but more dramatic. Located about 45 minutes north, the Little Missouri River meanders through deep green canyons, along golden cliffs, and up into soft scenic mountains. Stop at the River Bend Overlook and you’ll see the view that inspired the Bull Moose to preserve the land to begin with.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The North Unit has fewer trails and can be done in one, long day trip. The Caprock Coulee trail is the signature hike, a 4.3-mile jaunt that starts just off the park’s main road. But do yourself a favor and go a little past the official trailhead to the River Bend Overlook. Starting the trail here effectively saves the best for last and makes the hike an experience that just keeps getting better the further your travel.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Caprock Coulee begins atop the Little Missouri River and takes you through the North Unit’s foothills, inside a canyon, and up the mountains that stand over the badlands and river valley. Every climb brings you to a viewpoint that’s more jaw-dropping than the last, so much so you’ll barely notice the walk takes you almost three hours. No trail in either unit comes close to the scenery you’ll see along Caprock Coulee, so plan to hit it early before the crowds (such as they are) join you.

Related Article: The Ultimate Guide to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the main road, stop off and see the Cannonball Concretions a few miles in. The mysterious, spherical rocks look almost like they were shot into the side of the butte and offer a quizzical look at the geology of the region. They sit right next to a field of prairie dogs too, making it the North Unit’s best roadside stop.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To experience the whole North Unit on foot, hit the Buckhorn Trail. You can pick up the 11.4-mile loop right past the visitors center and take it through all the scenery that makes the North Unit so cool. The views aren’t quite what they are around Caprock Coulee but if you’re looking for an all-day hike this is the best.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s not much of anywhere to stay at the North Unit, though, as it doesn’t boast a fun western theme town outside its gates like its brother to the south. But you can make a full-day field trip north then cap it off with a hearty steak and cool sunset back in Medora.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park has two campgrounds (both have one group site and many standard sites) and one group site for camping with horses. All campgrounds are primitive (no hookups, no showers). Group sites and half the camp sites in the South Unit are available by reservation. The rest are first come, first served. When choosing a campground, first consider which park unit you plan to visit.

Cottonwood Campground, Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood Campground lies inside the park about 5 miles from Medora. It is the South Unit’s only campground. Half the sites are by reservation at recreation.gov while all remaining sites are first come, first served. Most sites are suitable for tents and RVs (no hookups). Cottonwood Campground fills to capacity each afternoon, mid-May through mid-September.

Related Article: North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Juniper Campground is 5 miles from Highway 85 and is the only campground in the park’s North Unit. All sites are open to tent camping and most can also be used by vehicles/RVs (no hookups). All regular sites are first come, first served. Juniper Campground is trending to fill to capacity by late afternoon and definitely fills to capacity on holiday weekends.

Worth Pondering…

I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.

—Theodore Roosevelt, 1918

10 of the Best Scenic Drives in National Parks

National parks with the best scenic drives

A trip to a national park is about more than just the destination. It’s the journey to these remote corners of preserved natural wonders that are equally enticing including drives to and around the parks.

In fact, many US national parks are best seen from your car—really. We’re not saying you shouldn’t get out and breathe the fresh air and smell the flowers and hike a trail but to get the best overview of wilderness and wildlife scenic drives can’t be beat. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top tips to consider when planning a road trip to a national park 

Prepare your vehicle: National parks are often located in remote areas and it may be a while for help to arrive if you break down. So be sure your vehicle is fully serviced and has a full tank of fuel before you start your adventure.

Download directions: Speaking of being remote, you may not have cell service or Wi-Fi in the parks so make sure to save routing info (including this story) to your phone in advance of your trip. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pack snacks and water: Don’t count on food or supplies on the road—bring everything you need with you including picnic supplies (and be sure to carry out anything you carry in with you). 

Following are 10 of the best US national parks for scenic drives this summer and beyond.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together in Joshua Tree National Park.

Best scenic drive through the park: best for Seussian landscapes

The route: Park Boulevard, drive from North (SR-62) or South (I-10) entrances

Route length: 35 miles

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Few roads pass through Joshua Tree but entrances at both north and south ends of the park connect in a cross-park scenic drive with spur roads to specific attractions. Driving the park north to south will give you roadside views not only of plenty of the park’s namesake trees but notable landmarks like Skull Rock and the Jumbo Rock formations. As you continue south watch as the landscape and flora transform from the Mojave to the Colorado Desert ecosystems.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Want to get an idea of what you’ll see on a drive through Joshua Tree National Park? Pick up a copy of The Lorax by Dr Seuss. The scraggly armed trees with tufts of needles reaching towards the sky strongly resemble a “truffula tree” and the entire desert landscape has an almost whimsical feel. Make no mistake though, the rocky wonders and unusual vegetation you’ll see driving through this park—which straddles the Mojave and Colorado deserts—are both real and incredible.  

Read More: Joshua Tree National Park: An Iconic Landscape That Rocks

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

The Great Smoky Mountains got its name from the Cherokee Indians who called the area shaconage (shah-con-ah-jey) meaning “land of the blue smoke,” after the thick, bluish haze that hangs over the mountains peaks and valleys.  

Best scenic drive through the park: best for fall foliage

The route: Newfound Gap Road from US 441

Route length: 29 miles

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

The main gateways to Great Smoky Mountains are the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, Tennessee and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina. Between the two is the scenic Newfound Gap Road which winds for 29 miles neatly bisecting the park on the only pavement traversing the Smokies.

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

The largest national park in the east and the most visited park in the country, Great Smoky Mountains stretches from North Carolina to Tennessee. This park is ideally situated for driving itineraries with 384 miles of roads from which to choose your driving adventure. Newfound Gap, named for the high mountain pass at the state line, offers views for days, great animal spotting, and a high perch to view the hardwood forests and changing leaves come the fall. 

Cades Cove is by far the most popular site in the park. You can meander along the 11-mile driving loop through pastoral landscapes to historic log cabins and churches all the while viewing wildlife without ever having to leave the comfort of your car. 

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

This 76,000-acre wonderland is less a park and more a sandstone sculpture garden of sunset-hued arches and domes. 

Best scenic drive through the park: best for natural architecture

The route: Arches Scenic Drive

Route length: 18 miles

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches’ Main Park Road traces 18 miles from the entrance to Devils Garden Campground on a paved roadway with numerous pull-outs and overlooks that showcase the park’s epic arches and other rock formations. A spur marked by signage for the park’s Windows Section—so named for the portholes that have been gouged from the rock—is not to be missed.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The red sandstone arches that give this Utah national park its name seem too perfectly balanced to be created by something as fickle as wind and sand. Surely, you’ll think as you drive around the amazing structures, a human architect must have lent a hand? This drive will take you past all of the soaring highlights; be sure to get out the car to get the full scope and perspective of these towering rock formations. 

Tip: After your visit here, you can add stops to southern Utah’s BryceCanyonlandsCapitol Reef, and Zion for an epic Utah national parks RV road trip. 

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park features trees dating back more than 200 million years that have turned to stone by absorbing minerals from the water that once surrounded them. The park also includes fossilized flora and fauna, petroglyphs, wildflowers, colorful rock formations, and wildlife. Hiking trails allow visitors to see the petrified wood, petroglyphs, and fossils.

Best scenic drive through the park: best for petrified logs

The route: Petrified Forest Road

Route length: 28 miles

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The trip from one end of the park to the other is about 28 miles. There’s so much to see from the Painted Desert in the north to the southern half of the drive where most of the petrified wood lies. Hiking trails along the way take visitors close to the sights. Starting in the north at Exit 311 off I-40, stop at the Painted Desert Visitor Center to see an 18-minute film, hands-on exhibits, and a short walking trail.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The drive passes through a variety of environments, colorful rock formations, and scenic pullouts with spectacular views. At the Crystal Forest Trail, petrified logs can easily be seen within steps of the parking area. It’s possible to spot wildlife along the drive as well.

Read More: Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

With over 229 square-miles, more than 35 hiking trails, and cliffs towering more than 2,000 feet above the canyon floor, Zion National Park is a pretty incredible place. 

Best scenic drive through the park: best for towering monoliths

The route: Zion Canyon Scenic Drive

Route length: 54 miles

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 54-mile route starts at the intersection of Highway 9 and I-15 about nine miles east of St. George and ends at the Mt. Carmel Junction. From November until March, you’ll be able to drive the entire route but from spring through fall the Zion Canyon section is closed to cars. Take the free shuttle which makes nine stops and takes about an hour and a half.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Note: The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is accessible by shuttle bus only from March 15 to October 25 and on weekends in November. The shuttle system was established to eliminate traffic and parking problems, protect vegetation, and restore tranquility to Zion Canyon.

The Kolob Fingers Road Scenic Byway (5 miles one way) in the northwestern corner of Zion National Park features the same dramatic desert landscape associated with the park’s main section: towering colored cliffs, narrow winding canyons, forested plateaus, and wooded trails along twisting side canyons.

Read More: Rock of Ages: Zion National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is about 1-mile deep and 10 miles wide, measuring 277 miles in length, and it holds more than 10,000 years of history in that space. 

Best scenic drive through the park: best for panoramic canyon views

The route: Desert View Drive

Route length: 23 miles

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desert View Drive portion of SR-64 is a scenic road that begins near Grand Canyon Village. Private vehicles can drive east along the canyon rim for 23 miles to the Desert View Services Area and the East Entrance of Grand Canyon National Park.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historic Desert View Watchtower is located at Desert View. Traveling west, other stops along this route include Navajo Point, Lapin Point, Tusayan Pueblo and Museum, Moran Point, Grandview Point, Duck on a Rock, and Pipe Creek Vista.

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde, Spanish for “green table”, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years from AD 600 to 1300.

Best scenic drive through the park: 700 years of Ancestral Pueblo history

The route: Mesa Top Auto Loop

Route length: 6 miles

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way of acquiring a feeling for Mesa Verde is to follow the 6-mile Mesa Top Auto Loop Road which traces Pueblo history at 10 overlooks and archeological sites. From remains of early pithouses and masonry villages to multi-storied cliff dwellings, archeological sites along this loop show how early Pueblo architecture evolved.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the road, you’ll find short, easily-accessible paved trails to view twelve archeological sites. Short trails along the Mesa Top Loop lead to surface sites such as pithouses and pueblos; overlooks of cliff dwellings tucked into alcoves; and viewpoints where you can enjoy the beauty of the landscape that was home to generations of Ancestral Pueblo people.

Highlights include Square Tower House Overlook, and views of Cliff Palace from Sun Point View and Sun Temple. The Mesa Top Loop Road is open daily, 8:00 am to sunset.

Read More: Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Scenic vistas, diverse wildlife, outdoor adventure, historic sites, and dark skies rank among the features visitors enjoy in Big Bend.

Tip: Big Bend is best enjoyed from late fall through early spring. Winter months bring beautiful days and pleasant temperatures. Summer months are scorching and outdoor recreation can be uncomfortable and unsafe. In the winter, five visitor centers are open, ranger programs occur more frequently, and local outfitters offer more activities. In the summer, many of these operations are reduced.

Best scenic drive through the park: best for historic and geologic features

The route: Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Route length: 30 miles

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is the most interesting of the paved sightseeing routes in Big Bend National Park giving the greatest variety of habitats, geology, and a variety of interesting short walks and interpretive pull outs.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road skirts the western slopes of the Chisos Mountains climbing up to one the park’s most outstanding views at Sotol Vista then winding down to parallel the Rio Grande at Castolon Historic District and winding up at Santa Elena Canyon trailhead where the pavement ends. Heading south from the Ross Maxwell junction there are a number of pullovers to interpretive sites, trailheads to short and longer hikes, and scenic vistas.

Read More: The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Striped in yellow, amber, and purple, the colorful eroded formations of Badlands National Park dip and rise amid the prairie grasslands.

Most scenic drive through the park: best for surreal and otherworldly

The route: Badlands Loop Scenic Byway

Route length: 39 miles

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 39-mile Badlands Loop Scenic Byway (also known as SR-240) connects the Northeast Entrance with the Pinnacles Entrance near Wall. This scenic route winds up and down the contours of the Badlands with numerous opportunities to stop at overlooks and trailheads as well as less formal pullouts.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 16 designated scenic overlooks that make for outstanding photo opportunities. Don’t miss the Big Badlands Overlook in the east or the Door, Window, and Notch Trail turnoff just a few miles further south down the road; in the west, make sure to stop at the Pinnacles Overlook and the Yellow Mounds Overlook towards the western end of the loop road. 

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park lies astride a beautiful section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The name “Shenandoah” is an American Indian word meaning “Daughter of the Stars.” 

Most scenic drive through the park: best for colorful wildflowers

The route: Skyline Drive

Route length: 105 miles

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Skyline Drive is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States at any time of the year. The picturesque 105-mile road rides the rest of the Blue Ridge Mountains where 75 overlooks welcome visitors to take in panoramic views of the Shenandoah wilderness. The only public road through the Park, it takes about three hours to travel the entire length of the Park on a clear day.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you travel along Skyline Drive you will notice mileposts on the west side of the road (right side if you are traveling south, left if you are heading north). These cement posts help you find your way through the Park and help you locate areas of interest. The miles begin at 0 in Front Royal and continue to 105 at the southern end of the Park. The largest developed area, Big Meadows, is near the center of the Park, at mile 51.

Read More: Escape to the Blue Ridge: Shenandoah National Park

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

Smoky Mountain Day Trips from Gatlinburg

From Clingmans Dome to pioneer history

Gatlinburg, Tennessee is known as the Gateway to the Smokies for a reason. This tiny East Tennessee mountain resort with a population of just 3,754 is nestled against the western edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smoky Mountains are a wild expanse of rounded ridges, often shrouded by the mists that give the national park its name.

Smoky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Smokies are part of the vast Appalachian chain among the oldest mountains on the planet. Formed more than 200 million years ago these ancient peaks were once much higher but have been worn down by the eons of time. You can contemplate that remote past while huffing your way up to the top of a 6,000-foot peak overlooking the seemingly endless expanse of undulating ridges that stretch off into the distance. There are mesmerizing viewpoints all across the park as well as one mountaintop lodge that can only be reached by foot.

Along US-321 from Gatlinburg to Townsend © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sun-dappled forests of the Great Smoky Mountains are a four-season wonderland. Rich blooms of springtime wildflowers come in all colors and sizes while flame azaleas light up the high-elevation meadows in summer. Autumn brings its own fiery rewards with quilted hues of orange, burgundy, and saffron blanketing the mountain slopes. In winter, snow-covered fields and ice-fringed cascades transform the Smokies into a serene, cold-weather retreat.

Newfound Gap Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This mesmerizing backdrop is also a World Heritage Site harboring more biodiversity than any other national park in America.

Related: Springtime in the Smokies

As well as Gatlinburg, other Tennessee towns offering easy access to the national park include Cosby, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Townsend.

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because the park is so big—spanning two states, Tennessee and North Carolina—it can be hard to know where to start exploring. This is also the most-visited national park in the United States with more than 14.16 million visitors in 2021 so it can take a little planning to get away from the crowds. Fortunately, Gatlinburg makes it easy for first-timers to get outdoors both inside the national park and at smaller but no less lovely parks inside the city limits.

Whether you’re looking for a family-friendly space to get outside or the best ways to get into the national park, we’ve got you covered. Here are my top picks of Gatlinburg’s green spaces. 

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

If you’re looking for an easily accessible way to see the Smokies, this 5.5-mile looping driving trail should be your go-to. As you slowly make your way down a winding paved road, you’ll pass gorgeous forest scenery and plenty of spots where you can pull over for woodland hikes or soak up the vistas from scenic overlooks.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The trail is named for Roaring Fork, a fast-moving mountain stream, and its tributaries create several surging cascades along the route including Grotto Falls reached via an easy 2.6-mile round-trip hike and Rainbow Falls at the end of a more challenging 5.4-mile tramp. Near the end of the loop, the Place of a Thousand Drips spills dramatically through the forest but it only performs during wet weather.

Related: Great Smoky Mountains: Most Visited National Park…and We Can See Why

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s history here too. Built in the 1920s by an eccentric lawyer seeking a healthier life in the wilderness, Ely’s Mill is no longer a working mill but stopping here gives a sense of what agricultural life was like in these mountains in the past. Today, there’s a shop with locally-made crafts some rather charming wood cabins where you can spend the night and demonstrations of blacksmithing and other traditional skills.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To get to Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, turn left at Traffic Light 8 in Gatlinburg and follow the signs to the national park. En route, you’ll pass the worn, wooden facade of Noah ‘Bud’ Ogle Place, a historic 19th-century homestead offering another evocative glance into the region’s past.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove

The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road is one of the park’s most popular driving routes starting about 30 miles southwest of Gatlinburg. Between town and Cades Cove you’ll pass Metcalf Bottoms one of the Smokies’ biggest and best picnic areas with a swimming area set on a pretty stretch of the Little River. The scenery along the Loop Road is stunning and there are numerous historic stops including restored churches and pioneer cabins and the old Cable Grist Mill built in 1867 but it can get very busy all along the route. If possible, avoid weekends especially during fall.

Related: Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Land of the Blue Smoke

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historically, Cherokee and other Native American peoples used Cades Cove as a way to traverse the Smokies on foot (the valley was named for Cherokee leader, Chief Kade). Modern park visitors like to drive through this meadow-like section of the park scanning the verges for wildlife. Cades Cove is famous for black bear activity; you’re likely to see them as well as wild turkeys, rabbits, river otters, elk, and woodchucks.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While it’s best known as a driving loop, every Wednesday and Saturday morning from May to September, the route is closed to cars so you can walk or cycle (rental bikes are available). The Visitors Center near the midpoint of the driving loop is a solid source of information for deeper explorations.

Sugarlands Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More visitors centers can be found in downtown Gatlinburg (520 Parkway) and in Sugarlands (2 miles south of Gatlinburg), Oconaluftee (2 miles from Cherokee, North Carolina), Sevierville (3099 Winfield Dunn Pkwy), and Townsend (7906 E Lamar Alexander Pkwy).

Clingmans Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Clingmans Dome

At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offering remarkable 360-degree views over a rippling sea of forested hills from the top of its curving, concrete observation tower. You’ll need to walk up a steep, paved half-mile-long footpath to get here (wheelchairs are not recommended because of the slope) but once you get to the top, you’ll have conquered the third-highest peak in the eastern United States.

Clingmans Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The views are spectacular, particularly in fall when the changing foliage repaints the landscape in a palette of reds, browns, and golds.

Related: Now Is the Best Time to Visit the Smokies

To get here, drive about 23 miles south from Gatlinburg along the Parkway; Clingmans Dome is at the end of a 7-mile spur road.

Worth Pondering…

Each year thousands of backpackers 
Climb the Great Smoky Mountains… 
Nature’s Peace flows into them
as Sunshine flows into Trees;
the Winds blow their freshness into them…
and their cares drop off like Autumn Leaves.

—Adapted from John Muir

The Ultimate Guide to the Mighty 5

The national parks in Utah have long been the perfect playground for RVers. Connecting all five is a rite of passage for many travelers both here and abroad.

When it comes to natural beauty Utah is on the A-list of the most beautiful states in America. With varying landscapes like mountains and deserts, canyons and arches, it is easy to see why.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The state of Utah is home to five of the most stunning national parks the US has to offer. Dubbed the “Mighty Five”, these national parks deliver towering canyon walls, out-of-this-world rock formations, and picture-perfect views. 

So what is the Mighty 5? They’re five parks stretching through the desert landscape of southern Utah and are perfect for a road trip. From east to west, the parks are: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks. 

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the first time I heard about these five parks, I knew I needed to visit them, and I think you’ll want to too. We took a road trip through this area and visited these parks before heading into Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon and Sedona. This is a trip everyone should put on their bucket list. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed!

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Below I’ve compiled everything you need to know to plan your own Utah Mighty 5 road trip.

Plan your trip: The Aftermath of Mighty Five…and Beyond

Each of the five Utah national parks has something unique to offer. From sweeping canyons, hoodoos, and natural amphitheaters to rugged orange cliffs that showcase the best of the Wild West. Whether you’re looking to explore them all or just one, my guide will take you through what makes each of Utah’s national parks so spectacular.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Tip: Because the Mighty 5 sits in a desert environment, summer months can be sweltering hot and winters snowy and cold. I recommend doing this Utah Mighty 5 road trip in the late spring and early fall months. I’ve personally done this road trip in October and early November and found the weather to be perfectly nice and pleasantly cool.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Arches is classic Utah where jaw-dropping scenery comes standard. But what elevates Arches National Park to one of the best in the United States is its spellbinding collection of natural monuments. No place on earth has as many sandstone arches. In fact, you’ll find over 2,000 if you’re willing to put the steps in.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park’s name gives away the surprise. But to the glee of all travelers, the arches aren’t the only incredible geological wonders here. On the many hikes and along the scenic road, spot enormous boulders balancing on another and admire soaring fins and rock spires that stand like iconic statues and Romanesque churches.

The nature of Arches National Park means there is an abundance of short, family-friendly trails. But those chasing seclusion will be rewarded with a resplendent backcountry. The park also forms a part of the Spanish National Historic Trail.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Hike the 3-mile round trip to Delicate Arch to see this famous beauty.

Plan your trip: Ultimate Guide to National Park Tripping in Utah: Arches and Canyonlands 

Helpful Tip: Try to avoid the midday sun when hiking in Arches. Even in the cooler months, most hikes here offer zero shade and the sun can be brutal. Always pack a hiking hat when going out to explore.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • Arches National Park is just outside of Moab in eastern Utah
  • From Moab: 5 miles
  • From Grand Junction: 109 miles
  • From Salt Lake City: 230 miles
Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $30 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $25
  • Walk/Ride: $15
  • Southeast Utah Parks Pass: $55
Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Utah’s largest national park, Canyonlands harbors some of the rawest and most inspiring landscapes in the American West. The park has been carved by the imposing Green River and Colorado River which converge in the heart of Canyonlands.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of all the amazing Utah national parks, this may be the most untouched. It’s a veritable telescope showing travelers the true artistic qualities of Mother Nature. The park is split into several arresting districts such as the Island in the Sky, the Maze, and the Needles. But with no connecting scenic roads, you have to leave then re-enter to see them all.

This frustration is always eclipsed by the park’s stunning beauty. The grand expanse has relatively few visitors, so the backcountry is a tranquil yet rugged paradise. On the way, you may discover ruins from ancient Puebloans and long-gone explorers.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Drive the main road in the Island in the Sky district to get to Grand View Point and enjoy the view. A lot of people recommend Mesa Arch as well. It’s popular for sunrise but you’ll be sharing the view with tons of people.

Plan your trip: Arches and Canyonlands: Two Parks Contrasted

Helpful Tip: You have to leave the park to drive to each individual district. The Needles is about a two hour drive from the Island in the Sky entrance. The Maze is even more remote and offers only backcountry hiking and recreation. 

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • Canyonlands is 40 minutes from Moab in eastern Utah
  • Moab: 32.5 miles
  • Grand Junction: 124 miles
  • Salt Lake City: 244 miles
Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $30 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $25
  • Walk/Ride: $15
  • Southeast Utah Pass: $55
Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

In south-central Utah, Capitol Reef National park exists in the shadows of other renowned Bryce Canyon and Zion. But if we’ve learned anything from the national parks in Utah, is that they’re all impressive in their own ways.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef is in the heart of red rock country, a treasure trove of domes, canyons, and cliffs. It’s a park that gets better the more you explore with a plethora of hiking trails, 4WD trails, scenic roads, and the fascinating Fruita district.

Without the popularity of other Utah national parks, you’ll contend with less traffic on the equally beautiful paths that take you to cathedral monoliths and endless desert views.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Drive the scenic drive past the Fruita district to get pretty views. Back at the visitor center ask the rangers if any of the orchards are open so you can try the fruit. And don’t leave without stopping at the Gifford House to get some of the best pies around.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Tip: If you’re able to snag a campsite at the Fruita campground, do it! The grass is super green and lush. Some of the best views in the park are located off of dirt roads, so bring a high clearance vehicle if you’re able to.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • Capitol Reef is just outside of Torrey in Southern Utah
  • Grand Junction: 186 miles
  • Salt Lake City: 218 miles
  • Las Vegas: 327 miles
Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $20 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $15
  • Walk/Ride: $10
Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Rising like a church choir out of the red-orange dirt in southwestern Utah, the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park have created a natural wonderland.

Plan your trip: Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef: A Great American Road Trip

Delicately shaped by millions of years of wind, rain, and snow, Bryce Canyon is a paradise for hikers and photographers alike. The park has natural bridges and is teeming with rock spires that form spectacular amphitheaters. It’s like the park is an orchestra and we are the lucky audience.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Throughout, you’ll find hiking trails that take you from the lowly Paria Valley to above 9,000 feet in the forests along the Paunsaugunt Plateau. In between are exceptional experiences, epic views, and some of the best rock climbing in the state.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Watch the sunrise and sunset over the hoodoos at sunrise and sunset point, respectively. Hike down into the amphitheater on the Queens and Navajo Loop trails and look out for the hoodoo that looks like Queen Victoria.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Tip: Pack a sweater, even if you’re visiting in the summer months. We visited in early November, and the temperatures at night dropped below freezing. 

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • Bryce Canyon is south of Bryce in Southern Utah
  • Las Vegas: 260 miles
  • Salt Lake City: 268 miles
  • Zion National Park: 72 miles
Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $35 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $30
  • Walk/Ride: $20
  • Bryce Canyon Annual Pass: $70
Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

As Utah’s oldest national park, Zion has lost none of its grandiosity since its opening in 1919. It’s a place of wonderment, the crown jewel of Utah’s epic national park system. Located in Southern Utah, its esteem has been well earned because of its array of vast and narrow canyons, rainbow rock formations, natural monuments, and stunning vistas.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upon discovery in 1863, Zion was labeled the Promised Land. It still rings true today, a place that promises (and delivers) spectacular hikes, some of the best canyoneering anywhere on earth punctuated by desert waterfalls that add extra life to the colorful but arid landscape.

Don’t pass up on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. In a state made for road trips, the short and sweet journey is the icing on the cake.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Plan to spend at least half a day hiking the Narrows. Drive through the tunnel to get a stunning view of the canyon and head over to the Kolob Canyon entrance to enjoy the views without the crowds. The Pa’rus trail is super underrated but will give you beautiful views without much effort! 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Tip: Try to get on the earliest shuttles to avoid crowds in the most popular hikes. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • The national park is located in Springdale in southern Utah
  • From Las Vegas: 160 miles
  • From Salt Lake City: 308 miles
Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $35 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $30
  • Walk/Ride: $20
  • Zion Annual Pass: $70

Worth Pondering…

Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.

—Wendell Berry

9 of Best National Parks for RV Campers

Looking to get closer to nature and linger longer at a US national park? RV camping is the perfect way to experience the majestic wide-open spaces of the national parks.

Camping in an RV within a national park provides a comfortable base to immerse yourself in a park’s beauty from sunrise to sunset (and beyond for great stargazing). National park campsites also create a fun sense of community between RV campers who share everything from vehicle advice to travel tips, BBQ recipes, and s’mores around the campfire.

The national parks listed below are top destinations not only for the quantity and quality of RV campsites within the parks but for the access that RVs have to tour the parks on paved roadways with key park attractions being within roadside viewing distance. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top tips to consider when RV camping at national parks

Most national parks use Recreation.gov as the website to make reservations for campsites. Each park has its own quirks about the timing and process for making reservations, so check out your target park’s rules and regulations prior to booking. 

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Make reservations as far in advance as possible. National park RV campsites can become fully booked within minutes of dates being offered, particularly for summer high season and holiday weekends. 

For your RV campsite, research the length restrictions and available hookups for water, electricity, and sewage dumps. You don’t want an unpleasant surprise after a late arrival to a remote campground.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re not able to secure a RV campsite within a national park, be aware that many private RV parks and resorts operate just outside the boundaries of most National Parks. Reservations at commercial campgrounds will be easier to make and these campgrounds provide more services and amenities than those within park limits. 

Bringing bicycles or a towed car with your RV can greatly expand your options for exploration in a national park particularly to areas with limited RV access. Also, consider leaving your RV in the campground and using park shuttle services when available. 

Following are nine of the best US national parks for RV camping.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

This 76,000-acre wonderland is less a park and more a sandstone sculpture garden of sunset-hued arches and domes. 

Main Park Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: Arches’ Main Park Road traces 18 miles from the entrance to Devils Garden Campground on a nicely paved roadway with numerous pull-outs and overlooks that showcase the park’s epic arches and other rock formations. A spur marked by signage for the park’s Windows Section—so named for the portholes that have been gouged from the rock—is not to be missed. After your visit here, you can add stops to southern Utah’s BryceCanyonlandsCapitol Reef, and Zion for an epic Utah national parks RV road trip. 

Devils Garden Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV campsites: 1 campground with 51 sites

The only camping option inside the park is the Devils Garden Campground, a slickrock-flanked oasis at the end of the park’s main road. Reservations are available and recommended via Recreation.gov, March through October and are available up to six months in advance; its 51 sites are first come, first served the rest of the year. 

Related Article: To Visit a Popular National Park this Summer, Start Planning Yesterday

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is about 1-mile deep and 10 miles wide, measuring 277 miles in length, and it holds more than 10,000 years of history in that space. 

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic RV route through the park: Desert View Drive portion of SR-64 is a scenic road that begins near Grand Canyon Village. Private vehicles can drive east along the canyon rim for 23 miles to the Desert View Services Area and the East Entrance of Grand Canyon National Park.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV campsites: 4 campgrounds with 519 sites available for RVs

Mather Campground is located in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. There are 327 sites. Each includes a campfire ring/cooking grate, and picnic table. There are flush toilets and drinking water throughout the campground. No hookups are available; however, there is a free dump station. Most RV spaces are pull-through.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trailer Village is the only in-park RV campground with full hookups (sewage, water, and electrical with 30-amp and 50-amp sites available) Trailer Village features paved pull-through sites which can accommodate vehicles up to 50 feet long. Trailer Village is concessioner operated. Reservations can be made up to 13 months in advance.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

The Great Smoky Mountains got its name from the Cherokee Indians who called the area shaconage (shah-con-ah-jey) meaning “land of the blue smoke,” after the thick, bluish haze that hangs over the mountains peaks and valleys.  

Newfound Gap Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drives in the park: The main gateways to Great Smoky Mountains are the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, Tennessee and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina. Between the two is the scenic Newfound Gap Road which winds for 29 miles neatly bisecting the park on the only pavement traversing the Smokies.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove is by far the most popular site in the park. You can meander along the 11-mile driving loop through pastoral landscapes to historic log cabins and churches all the while viewing wildlife without ever having to leave the comfort of your car. 

Sugarlands Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV campsites: 9 campgrounds 924 sites available for RVs

Each campground has restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets. Each individual campsite has a fire grate and picnic table. There are no showers, electrical, or water hookups in the park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together in Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: Few roads pass through Joshua Tree but entrances at both north and south ends of the park connect in a cross-park scenic drive with spur roads to specific attractions. Driving the park north to south will give you roadside views not only of plenty of the park’s namesake trees but notable landmarks like Skull Rock and the Jumbo Rock formations. As you continue south watch as the landscape and flora transforms from the Mojave to the Colorado Desert ecosystems.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV Campsites: 8 campgrounds with 495 sites available for RVs

With 8 different campgrounds offering about 500 developed campsites, Joshua Tree offers a variety of options for RVers. There are no hookups for RVs at any campground in Joshua Tree. Black Rock (99 sites) and Cottonwood (62 sites) have RV-accessible potable water and dump stations. At Hidden Valley (44 sites) and White Tank (15 sites) RVs may not exceed a combined maximum length of 25 feet. Additional campgrounds include Belle (18 sites), Indian Cove (101 sites), Jumbo Rocks (124 sites), and Ryan (31 sites).

Related Article: Tips for Reserving a National Park Campsite

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde, Spanish for “green table”, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years from AD 600 to 1300.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: The best way of acquiring a feeling for Mesa Verde is to follow the 6-mile Mesa Top Auto Loop Road which traces Pueblo history at 10 overlooks and archeological sites.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV Campsites: 1 campground with 267 sites

Morefield Campground is located 4 miles from the park entrance. With 267 sites, there’s always plenty of space and the campground rarely fills. Each site has a table, bench, and grill. Camping is open to tents and RVs and includes 15 full-hookup RV sites.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

With over 229 square-miles, more than 35 hiking trails, and cliffs towering more than 2,000 feet above the canyon floor, Zion National Park is a pretty incredible place. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: The Kolob Fingers Road Scenic Byway (5 miles one way) in the northwestern corner of Zion National Park features the same dramatic desert landscape associated with the main section of the park: towering colored cliffs, narrow winding canyons, forested plateaus, and wooded trails along twisting side canyons.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Note: The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is accessible by shuttle bus only from March 15 to October 25 and on weekends in November. The shuttle system was established to eliminate traffic and parking problems, protect vegetation, and restore tranquility to Zion Canyon.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV Campsites: 2 campgrounds with 303 sites

South Campground (127 non-hookup sites) and Watchman Campground (176 sites, 95 with electric hookups; reservations recommended) are near the south entrance at Springdale.

Tip: This part of the park is desert. There are few trees to provide relief from the heat. Some campsites get shade for part of the day but many get no shade at all. Summer temperatures often exceed 95 degrees.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Scenic vistas, diverse wildlife, outdoor adventure, historic sites, and dark skies rank among the features visitors enjoy in Big Bend.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tip: Big Bend is best enjoyed from late fall through early spring. Winter months bring beautiful days and pleasant temperatures. Summer months are scorching and outdoor recreation can be uncomfortable and unsafe. In the winter, five visitor centers are open, ranger programs occur more frequently, and local outfitters offer more activities. In the summer, many of these operations are reduced.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: The 30-mile-long Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive holds up to its name taking you by noteworthy spots like the Mules Ears viewpoint (where you can see two jagged rock formations that jut up resembling donkey’s ears), Sam Nail Ranch (a historic homestead built in 1916), and Santa Elena Canyon (get those cameras ready).

Related Article: My Favorite Under-appreciated National Parks to Visit in 2022

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV campsites: 5 campgrounds with 196 sites for RVs

Since it takes a long time to reach the park—and then once there, you can spend a good amount of time just getting around within the park—it’s not a good idea to reserve a campsite well in advance. For camping within Big Bend, you have four developed campgrounds to choose from: Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, Cottonwood, and Rio Grande Village RV Park. Reservations required. You can book your site up to six months in advance.

Note: At Chisos Basins RVs over 24 feet (trailers over 20 feet) and are not recommended due to the narrow, winding road to the Basin and small campsites at this campground.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Striped in yellow, amber, and purple, the colorful eroded formations of Badlands National Park dip and rise amid the prairie grasslands.

Badlands Loop Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: The 39-mile Badlands Loop Scenic Byway (also known as SR-240) connects the Northeast Entrance with the Pinnacles Entrance near Wall. This scenic route winds up and down the contours of the Badlands with about a dozen opportunities to stop at overlooks and trailheads as well as less formal pullouts for photo ops.

Cedar Pass Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV campsites: 2 campgrounds with 118 sites

In addition to backcountry camping, Badlands offers two campgrounds. The primitive, first-come-first-served Sage Creek Campground in the park’s northwest has 22 sites (free), vault toilets, picnic benches, and bison trails. For running water and electricity opt for the Cedar Pass Campground adjacent to Cedar Pass Lodge where you’ll find 96 RV and tent camping sites with shaded picnic tables. Reservations recommended.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park lies astride a beautiful section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The name “Shenandoah” is an American Indian word meaning “Daughter of the Stars.” 

Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: Skyline Drive is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States at any time of the year. The picturesque 105-mile road rides the rest of the Blue Ridge Mountains where 75 overlooks welcome visitors to take in panoramic views of the Shenandoah wilderness.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV campsites: 4 campgrounds with 357 sites

Nothing compares to sleeping under the stars and with four campgrounds there’s no better place to do it than Shenandoah National Park. Reservations are highly recommended on weekends and holidays. Many sites can be reserved up to 6 months in advance.

Related Article: National Parks Inspire Love of Nature

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah’s four main campgrounds are operated by the National Park Service and are open seasonally from early until late fall and feature spacious tent, trailer and RV sites:

  • Mathews Arm Campground (mile 22.2) 
  • Big Meadows Campground (mile 51) 
  • Lewis Mountain Campground (mile 57.2) 
  • Loft Mountain Campground (mile 79.5)

Worth Pondering…

If we set aside time each day to be in a peaceful environment, to walk in nature, or even just to look at a flower or the sky, then that beauty will penetrate us and feed our love and our joy.

Thích Nhất Hạnh, Vietnamese monk and Zen master, How to Love

National Monuments are America’s Hidden Gems

With smaller crowds and limited development, national monuments are ideal destinations for the adventurous RV traveler

The designation of “national monument” evokes statues and memorial buildings that do not sound too interesting for adventurous RV travelers.

However, in the United States, the term has a different meaning. What you will find among national monuments are vast lands rivaling the national parks in beauty, diversity, and cultural heritage. You will not find crowds, tight regulations, or over-photographed views. Get ready for an adventure off the beaten path.

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

What Are National Monuments?

Like national parks, national monuments are federally protected areas. They vary in size from less than an acre to surface areas comparable to many U.S. states. They preserve natural or historic features. The main administrative difference is that only Congress can designate a national park whereas presidents can proclaim a national monument on their own thanks to a 1906 law called the Antiquities Act.

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

Sixteen presidents have used the Act to preserve some of America’s most treasured public lands and waters. Half of today’s national parks including the Grand Canyon and White Sands were first protected as national monuments.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Less Development

The national parks are created for the “benefit and enjoyment of the people.” They are generally equipped with an infrastructure of roads, visitor centers, lodges, campgrounds, and interpretive trails. While this makes a visit more convenient, it also brings mass tourism.

Related Article: National Monuments Feature Places for Reflection and Hope

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For example, Arches National Park is frequently full and closed to new entries by 9 a.m. People instead head to nearby Canyonlands National Park, but even there, securing a spot at sunrise for the iconic Mesa Arch requires arriving well in advance. By contrast, when visiting nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, you’ll likely have the place to yourself.

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

The national monuments are created for conservation. Since 1996, the landscape-sized national monuments have been operated by the Bureau of Lands Management (BLM) or the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) instead of the National Park Service (NPS). Their development is minimal. Often, facilities are limited to primitive campgrounds and trailheads. Roads can be unpaved and a 4WD vehicle may be recommended, if not necessary.

Visiting the national monuments managed by the BLM and USFS can test your preparation and self-sufficiency. Most areas are remote and have no cellphone coverage. You must bring in everything you need including food, water, and enough gear to survive a night or two should you have an emergency.

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

Smaller Crowds

The more adventurous setting of the national monuments results in much lighter visitation even though you can often find similar subjects and environments as in the nearby national parks. For example:

  • The Sonoran Desert portions included in Ironwood Forest National Monument and Sonoran Desert National Monument are as beautiful and representative as those in Saguaro National Park, if not more pristine
  • California’s densest population of cholla cactus thrives in Bigelow Cholla Garden Wilderness of Mojave Trails National Monument rather than in the better-known Cholla Cactus Garden of Joshua Tree National Park
  • At Cadiz Dunes Wilderness in Mojave Trails you will many animal tracks but no human footprints aside from your own
  • Vermilion Cliffs National Monument’s Paria Canyon is more than twice as long and every bit as impressive as Zion National Park’s Virgin River Narrows
El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fewer Rules

The heavy visitation of national parks led to strict rules. In Grand Canyon National Park, like in any other national park, no camping is allowed outside developed campgrounds. In nearby Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, you can drive right to the edge of the chasm and pitch your tent both at Twin Point on the Upper Rim and Whitmore Overlook on the Lower Rim.

Related Article: National Monuments Are Mind-Blowing National Park Alternatives

Giant Sequoia National Monument, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Giant Sequoia National Monument protects more sequoia groves—almost half of the total number—than Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks combined. Because it has the largest diameter (36 feet) of any living giant sequoia, the Boole Tree was once considered the largest tree in the world, although it is “only” the sixth largest by volume. Unsightly railings protect the biggest trees in the national parks, but there are no fences around the Boole Tree.

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

Even if the national monuments were only lesser-traveled alternatives to bustling national parks, they would be worthwhile destinations. However, some of the most remarkable nature subjects in North America are in national monuments rather than national parks. Here are a few locations ideally visited in autumn or spring.

Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coyote Buttes, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

“The Wave” in Arizona is known worldwide. Even if the name Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is unfamiliar, you have undoubtedly seen images of the extraordinary rock formation located in Coyote Buttes North. For decades, only 20 permits were issued daily. If you have been trying to win the lottery, take hope in the increase this year to 64 permits. A geologic wonderland of spectacularly colored rock strata, the area protects much more than the Wave.

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

Valley of the Gods, Bears Ears National Monument

Bears Ears National Monument in Utah spans wondrous red rock country. Hidden in its labyrinth of canyons and mesas are more cliff dwellings and tribal artifacts than any other area in the American West. The road descending the Cedar Mesa plateau, called Moki Dugway, is impressive for its precipitous surroundings and 180-degree switchbacks cut into the cliff. The vista from there is immense.

Related Article: 10 Under-The-Radar National Monuments to Visit

Moki Dugway, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A sandy plain dotted with sandstone buttes and spires near Mexican Hat, the Valley of the Gods’ landscape reminds visitors of Monument Valley. While the rock formations are smaller, Valley of the Gods is free from commercialization, tour groups, streams of cars, and heavy regulations. Instead, you’ll find quiet, solitude, freedom to explore, and plenty of spots to camp for free. The 17-mile unpaved road is passable by a 2WD car driven carefully.

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

The Future of Public Lands

Since 1906, America’s boldest efforts in conservation have been through the establishment of national monuments via presidential proclamation. Grand Staircase-Escalante was the first of the national monuments managed by the BLM, marking the evolution of the nation’s largest land caretaker toward conservation. Bear Ears was the first native-driven and co-managed national monument.

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

Other national monuments to consider for your bucket list include:

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

Solitude, Inspiration, and Photography

Many spots in national parks have become icons of America’s natural and cultural heritage to the point that they have become over-photographed, making it difficult to find original compositions.

Related Article: Mind Blowing National Monuments in the Southwest

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

The national monuments offer new landscapes and natural wonders awaiting exploration. Their often starker and more subtle landscapes invite exploration to get to know and love. Because the natural features are less prominent, it is easier to pay attention to the small details that make up the ecosystem. The absence of postcard views frees the mind that often hinder personal discovery. As the national parks become ever more popular, the national monuments’ vast open spaces offer us places of solitude and inspiration.

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge

A Slice of Paradise: Padre Island National Seashore

Get back to nature with an unparalleled experience at the Padre Island National Seashore

With more than 70 miles of unspoiled coastline and 130,000 acres of pristine sand dunes and grassy prairies, it’s fair to say there’s no place quite like the Padre Island National Seashore.

Bird Island Basin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the beach to the bay, Padre Island National Seashore offers countless opportunities to discover and enjoy the amazing recreation and resources of the park. Take a dip in the Gulf of Mexico or build a sandcastle. Swim in the recreation area at Bird Island Basin or in the Gulf of Mexico. Use caution when swimming and never swim alone. Strong currents flowing parallel to the beach, tides flowing to-and-from the beach, and sudden drop-offs in the Gulf floor can be dangerous for swimmers and waders alike.

Bird Island Basin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashore has access to the Laguna Madre waters through the boat ramps at Bird Island Basin. The boat ramps are located separately from the campground at Bird Island Basin limiting traffic through the campground. There is plenty of parking at the boat ramps for day use but the boat ramp parking can still fill up quickly. Spring and fall usually are the busiest as anglers use Bird Island Basin as a closer entry point to access the legendary Baffin Bay in search of trophy trout.

American avocet and Black-necked stilt at Bird Island Basin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashores’ access to the flat waters of the Laguna Madre has been recognized as one of the best windsurfing locations in the U.S. Bird Island Basin has year-round wind and also warm water for nine months of the year. Windsurfing rentals are available at Bird Island Basin as well as windsurfing lessons.

Related Article: Corpus Christi: Sparkling City by the Bay

Camping at Bird Island Basin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fishing is readily available while camping at Bird Island Basin. Wade fishing in front of the campground provides easy access to fish for redfish, flounder, speckled trout, and other fish. Kayak rentals are also available at the Worldwinds facility on-site at Bird Island Basin.

Malaquite Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All campgrounds are open year-round. No reservations are accepted as camping is first-come, first-served. Campers must have a camping permit which is available from the kiosks at the entrances of each campground. There are no RV hook-ups anywhere in the park but an RV dump station and a water filling station are available for all campers staying in the park. Camping is permitted only in the five camping areas available for public use.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located on the southern end of North Padre Island, the Padre Island National Seashore is just a short 10 miles from the city limits of Corpus Christi. Visitors who do not wish to camp at the Seashore can enjoy staying close by in an RV park in Corpus, Portland, Rockport-Fulton, or Port Aransas.

Related Article: Oceans of Fun: Port Aransas and Mustang Island

Kemp’s Ridley display at the Malaquite Visitor Center

Padre Island National Seashore is the most important nesting beach in the U.S. for Kemp’s Ridley, the most endangered sea turtle in the world. The park has been a participant in a bi-national, multi-agency effort to save the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle since 1978. The park also participates in global efforts to recover the populations of four other threatened and endangered sea turtle species. 

Ranger talk at Malaquite Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hatchling releases typically occur from mid-June through August. Most releases that are open to the public take place at 6:45 a.m. on Malaquite Beach in front of the Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore.

Malaquite Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island has particularly varied birdlife. Most common are laughing gulls, sandpipers, geese, and herons but over 380 species of birds are sighted at the park which, impressively, represents roughly half of the all documented bird species in North America.  

South Beach at Malaquite Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Diamondback rattlesnakes, coyotes, deer, and rabbits live in the dunes while ghost crabs inhabit the area just above the high tide mark and are responsible for the many small holes in the dry sand that mysteriously stay unblocked, even when sand is blown about by the strong sea breezes that affect the island during most summer afternoons. The endangered sea turtle may also occasionally be spotted, and during the egg-laying season, park rangers patrol the beaches looking for any signs of activity.

Grasslands Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The shoreline is also home to a host of marine life including jellyfish, frogs, and 149 species of fish. The nearby dunes inhabit the spotted ground squirrel, white-tail deer, and coyotes.

Grasslands Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Observe the flora and fauna of the area by hiking the ¾-mile Grasslands Nature Trail or by going on a guided birding tour. Visitors can enjoy seeing deer, coyotes, birds in the wetlands, and beach shorelines. Hiking, bicycling, or walking through the Padre Island National Seashore is a great way to relax and enjoy the natural beauty of the park.

Grasslands Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island has long, hot summers and short, mild winters. The most rain falls near the beginning and end of the hurricane and tropical storm season which lasts from June to October.

Related Article: The 10 Top Things to Do in Texas

Daytime temperatures in the spring average in the 70s-80s with lows in the 50s-60s.

South Beach © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Daytime temperatures during summer are usually in the mid-90s with very humid conditions. Lows are usually in the 70s. Afternoon and evening sea breezes help to moderate temperatures.

During fall the daytime temperatures average in the 70s-80s with lows in the 50s-60s.

South Beach © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

High temperatures during winter are usually between 50 and70 degrees but can occasionally drop into the upper 30s. Sudden, strong cold fronts can move through bringing gale-force winds and dropping temperatures quickly. The wintertime climate is typically dry though most of the year’s rainfall occurs in the winter.

South Beach © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The average rainfall for the southern end of the park is 26 inches and 29 inches for the northern end of the park.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Nature, it seems, has a way of returning things to how they should be.

— Fennel Hudson

To Visit a Popular National Park this Summer, Start Planning Yesterday

A guide to visiting national parks this summer

Venice, Italy knows the burden all too well. And some of the most visited national parks in the United States are going through the same thing—the downside of being popular.

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

It puts the parks in quite the jam especially those with short, sought-after peak seasons and one-of-a-kind attractions. After all, you want people to come. Just not too many all at once! Achieving a balance can be tricky.

And like the canal-laced European favorite, the US National Park Service (NPS) is turning to some of the same methods to regulate the flow.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How does this affect you? If you want to visit a popular park this summer, it’s already time to plan.

Extra fees, advanced reservations, special passes, lotteries, and caps on the number of visitors are all in play in 2022 to keep what’s special about some crowd-pleasing parks from being deluged by the sheer flood of humanity.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Travelers to national parks: We want in!

The COVID-19 pandemic fueled the desire of people hunkered down in small spaces for weeks and months at the time to head out into the restorative wilds all over the country.

In 2021, they especially packed the big-name parks, parkways, and related sites. Here’s a brief snapshot of some of the action:

  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina and Tennessee) set a visitation record for 2021, passing 14 million recreation visits for the first time
  • Also in North Carolina, Cape Hatteras National Seashore hosted more than 3 million visitors in a year for the first time
  • In Wyoming, Devils Tower National Monument saw the highest number of recreation visits in the monument’s history; for the first time, it surpassed 500,000 recreational visits
Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And the first US national park, Yellowstone, saw a staggering 4,860,537 recreation visits in 2021, making it the busiest year on record (That’s as if the entire state of Louisiana—plus the city of Des Moines, Iowa—came to visit. And a lot of that visitation is packed into a few months of the peak warm weather season.)

You begin to see what these park areas and others are up against.

Related Article: The National Parks Saw Record Crowds in 2021: Where Do We Go From Here?

So the NPS is experimenting with a variety of ways to satisfy crowd demand and safeguard fragile environments at the same time. Here are some of the things you may encounter on your next visit:

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New entry fees

Most national parks do not have entrance fees. Out of more than 400 parks, monuments, and related sites in the system, only about 110 have admission fees that range from $5 to $35. Of course, like anything else, it’s the big names that command the money, places such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion, and Everglades.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

However, more could be joining the pay-to-enter list. Indiana Dunes National Park is one that will institute an entry fee for the first time this year, beginning March 31.

The fees will vary depending on how you enter. The walk-in / bike-in / boat-in rate will be $15 per person (up to a maximum of $25 per family). The new fee revenue will help pay for a bike trail and other improvements, the park said.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Timed entries

The days of just popping into the most popular parks on the spur of the moment could be fading.

In Utah, Arches National Park is introducing a timed entry program for visits from April 3 to October 3.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“By implementing a temporary, timed-entry reservation system, our goal is to better spread visitation throughout the day to reduce traffic congestion and visitor crowding,” Patricia Trap, Arches National Park superintendent, said in a statement late last year.

Related Article: Yes, these are the Most Visited National Parks in 2021

The park tickets are on a first-come, first-serve basis on Recreation.gov. They are released three months in advance in monthly blocks according to the following schedule:

  • February 1: May reservations (May 1-31)
  • March 1: June reservations (June 1-30)
  • April 1: July reservations (July 1-31)

The pattern continues into July for visits through October 3. A limited number of tickets will be available one day before entry for purchase through Recreation.gov.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Extra fees or advance tickets for popular attractions

You might start encountering more fees or advance tickets (or both) for highly popular park attractions once you’re inside.

In Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, visitors who want to hike to Old Rag Mountain will have to apply for a day-use ticket in advance. It’s only $1, but this arrangement does not allow for spontaneous visits to Old Rag. The trial program will be in effect from March 1 to November 30.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lotteries

Some features are so popular that the NPS is trying out lotteries—and there’s no guarantee you’ll win.

In Utah’s Zion National Park, visitors who want to hike the Angels Landing Trail will have to enter an online lottery in hopes of getting a permit to take the hike. There are actually two kinds of lotteries: Seasonal and the day before. The lottery entry fee is $6 and it’s not refundable even if you aren’t picked for a spot. This goes into effect on April 1.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At California’s Yosemite National Park, North Pines Campground is so popular during the peak summer season that they have tested a pilot program for campers: A lottery in which winners get a chance to make early reservations. The lottery ended on February 6. There was a $10 non-refundable fee to enter.

At Yellowstone National Park, backcountry permits for more than 1,000 miles of trails, and 293 designated campsites are very popular. In addition to taking advance online reservations, Yellowstone is also holding a lottery from March 1 to March 20. Winners get a chance to book early reservations. It costs $10 to enter; again, it’s not refundable if you’re not chosen.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New entrance stations

The last thing you want on your escape is being in a city-style traffic jam. Limited entry points can often be pain points these days.

Related Article: Reservations and Permits Required at Some National Parks in 2022

In Southern California, desert favorite Joshua Tree National Park has begun accepting public comments on a project to construct a West Entrance Fee Station about a half-mile farther inside the park to replace the existing fee station. The park hopes a new station will ease “excessively long traffic back-up outside the park boundary” as well as give park staff safer working conditions in the desert.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Campground size limits

Big RVs are posing a problem at some places run by the NPS.

Along the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf Islands National Seashore has imposed length and height limits for all campsites in the Fort Pickens Campground in Florida and the Davis Bayou Campground in Mississippi. Enforcement began on February 1.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The current limits in place will be enforced for the safety and protection of the park and visitor property,” said Darrell Echols, Gulf Islands superintendent, in a news release.

“In 2021, Gulf Islands National Seashore saw an increase in incidents resulting in damage to park resources and visitors’ property. The enforcement of these restrictions is expected to reduce these incidents.”

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning far out on your calendar

The general trend is toward visitors having to plan out their trips for months and even more than a year ahead.

At Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, the NPS has already started accepting applications for noncommercial river trip permits to raft the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park for launch dates in 2023. That is not a typo—it’s for 2023. A total of 359 permits will be available for 12- to 25-day river trips.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The application period ended on February 22. The NPS says follow-up lotteries are “held as needed throughout the remainder of the year to reassign canceled and/or left-over river trips.”

Back at Yellowstone, they’re already taking reservations for several campgrounds six months out. At Indian Creek, Lewis Lake, Pebble Creek, Mammoth, and Slough Creek campgrounds, 80 percent of sites will be reservable six months in advance. For people who don’t like to plan that far out, the remaining 20 percent of sites will be available two weeks in advance.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other NPS efforts

Here’s a short roundup of other parks and their crowd-control efforts for 2022:

  • North Cascades National Park (Washington State): It will offer online trip planning and reservations for the May 27 through September 30 peak hiking season. It starts March 3 with an early access lottery.
  • Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado): It’s moving to a new system for backcountry camping permit reservations for peak season this year. Beginning March 1 through April 3, customers will be able to view permit availability, book a reservation, and pay online. Phone, mail, email, and fax reservations will be not accepted.
  • Glacier National Park (Montana): Visitors in 2022 “can expect to use a ticket system to access portions of the park from May 27 through September 11. This will be the second year of the pilot ticket system in the park, designed to manage high traffic volumes within the park and avoid gridlock.” Visitors will need to set up an account on Recreation.gov to get tickets.
  • Yosemite National Park (California): Beginning May 20, the park will start a temporary peak-hours reservation system, designed to spread visitation out and reduce congestion. Park visitors will need a reservation to enter the park from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Escape the crowds

Don’t like those fees and early planning involved with the most popular parks?

Related Article: My Favorite Under-appreciated National Parks to Visit in 2022

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Consider visiting lower-profile or harder-to-reach parks. The NPS is encouraging people to see their other offerings. Some ideas:

  • Congaree National Park (South Carolina): This is the “largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the Southeast.” You won’t find another national park quite like it.
  • Great Basin National Park (Nevada): This features a 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak, sage-covered foothills, and the darkest of dark-night skies.
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota): A park for isolation, both the north and south units offer great hiking, expansive vistas, easily accessible wilderness, abundant wildlife, and not many visitors.
  • Guadalupe Mountains National Park (Texas): About 110 miles east of El Paso, it features the four tallest peaks in Texas, canyons, desert landscapes, and dunes.
  • Katmai National Park and Preserve (Alaska): Stunning views and brown bear sightings are just two of the highlights of this park southwest of Anchorage.
Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go North to Canada

Renowned for their scenic splendor, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks are comprised of Banff, Jasper, and Waterton Lakes national parks in Alberta, Kootenay and Yoho national parks in British Columbia, and Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine, and Hamber provincial parks in British Columbia.

Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The seven parks of the Canadian Rockies form a striking mountain landscape. With rugged mountain peaks, icefields and glaciers, alpine meadows, lakes, waterfalls, extensive karst cave systems, and deeply carved canyons, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks possess an exceptional natural beauty that attracts millions of visitors annually.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go state level

And one last option to consider: state parks. There are some great ones scattered around the United States and they might be less congested while still offering memorable nature excursions. Some more ideas:

  • Custer State Park (South Dakota): This sprawling park of wildlife is made up of granite peaks and rolling plains, lush valleys, and crystal clear waters.
  • Escalante Petrified Forest State Park (Utah): Located between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, Escalante Petrified Forest is among the most underrated and all-around best state parks for escaping the crowds.
  • Lackawanna State Park (Pennsylvania): The centerpiece of the park, the 198-acre Lackawanna Lake is surrounded by picnic areas and multi-use trails winding through the forest.
  • Mon­a­hans Sandhills State Park (Texas): Mon­a­hans Sandhills offers a Texas-sized sand­box for kids of all ages as well as a close-up view of a unique desert environment.
Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

Tips for Reserving a National Park Campsite

Some of the best places to go camping are America’s national parks

More people are leaping into the RV lifestyle every year. They’re exploring national parks in comfort but all that extra traffic makes spontaneous road trips to the parks largely a thing of the past, at least during the busy summer season. With more rigs on the road than campsites to accommodate them, RVers are constantly competing for a scant number of RV-friendly campsites.

Potwisha Campground, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The mobile lifestyle exploded during the 2020 pandemic year and it hasn’t slowed down yet. In 2021, the RV industry saw a record 11.2 million households buying into RV ownership. That’s a 26 percent jump since 2011 when 8.9 million people bought their first rig. These figures don’t include the millions of pre-owned motorhomes, truck campers, travel trailers, toy haulers, and camper vans streaming into national parks all year long.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Despite this era of rising fuel prices and inflation, there’s no telling when or if RVing’s popularity will slow down. But as prices for other methods of travel increase, too, more people will likely buy into the relatively low cost of vacationing and living in RVs. Finding RV-friendly campsites at national parks is only going to get tougher but there are some steps you can take to enhance your odds of landing one.

Devils Garden Campground, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First, know your RV measurements. Starting this year, RVers at Gulf Islands National Seashore are discovering that size is everything when camping in national parks. Those RVers who ignore campsite length and height limits and trample vegetation and terrain with their rig will pay a price as park rangers are now enforcing maximum RV size limits to protect natural resources.

Related: National Park Campgrounds by the Numbers

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

The restrictions are in place for all campsites in the Fort Pickens Campground in Florida and the Davis Bayou Campground in Mississippi. Visitors can verify the campsite length on recreation.gov. Reservations for vehicles exceeding the campsite size limits will be canceled by campground staff on-site.

Created in 1971, the national seashore stretches 160 miles along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico in Florida and Mississippi and includes barrier islands, maritime forests, historic forts, bayous, and marine habitats.

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

Unfortunately for many RV owners, the average length of campsites in national park campgrounds is around 30-feet long. This figure comprises the entire RV unit from end to end, including a tow or towed vehicle. New RVers tend to learn the hard way that many national park campsites just can’t accommodate newer, bigger motorhome and travel and fifth wheel trailer models rolling off RV assembly lines. 

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

Even a couple of feet make a huge difference in where an RV can go. Smaller is just better for exploring national parks. From the front bumper to the rear bike rack, rooftop A/C to where the rubber meets the road, if you own an RV and you want to camp in national parks, here’s what you need to do for a successful experience:

  • Gather all of your RV unit’s measurements from end-to-end and top-to-bottom
  • Find your desired national park campground and look for the amenities you want (Hint: most national park campgrounds do not have utility hookups)
  • Check for road restrictions to the campground (many national parks prohibit longer RVs from traveling certain roads with a tight turning radius)
  • Look for campsites that can accommodate the type of rig you own
  • Pinpoint the earliest dates you can reserve a spot, reserve it online, or call to book your stay
Devil’s Garden Campground, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If your RV exceeds the biggest campsite length where you want to go, don’t give up. In many campgrounds, guests can detach the trailer and park their tow vehicle elsewhere. When in doubt, call the reservations agency to confirm that the entire RV can be accommodated.

Related: Choose Your National Park Campground Carefully

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

Next, research the campground facilities. Most national park websites don’t make it easy to find helpful trip planning logistics. From ADA-accessible sites to mandatory reservation seasons, much of the important information needed for RV trip planning to national parks is buried deep inside each campground’s park profile.

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

As an RV owner, I need a certain amount of information before I feel confident reserving a campsite. For example, I work online and have a long list of questions I need to be answered, such as: 

  • Does the campground have drinking water to fill my tanks?
  • Will there be dump station access or should I plan on emptying holding tanks outside the park?
  • What does cellular connectivity look like in and outside of the park boundaries?
  • Is Wi-Fi available?
Devil’s Garden Campground, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Everyone has different considerations for RV camping in national parks. National Park Traveler is currently developing a traveler’s directory that will make it easy to scan national park campground information pertinent to RVers and find key details that will help make your trip a success. I will provide additional information as more details become available.

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

How many campgrounds are in the National Park System? How many are needed? If you’ve struggled with making a campsite reservation on recreation.gov, these questions might have come to mind. Here are some answers.

Related: Reservations and Permits Required at Some National Parks in 2022

According to the National Park Service, there were 1,421 campgrounds in the park system with 27,513 campsites. Filter that done a bit more and there are 502 front-country campgrounds with 16,648 sites (another 494 campgrounds don’t have front- or backcountry designations), according to the Park Service. 

Devil’s Garden Campground, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That 16,648 number might explain why it is such a struggle to reserve a campsite. After all, Yellowstone National Park has more than 2,000 front-country campsites alone, Yosemite National Park has nearly 1,500, Glacier National Park has more than 1,000, Grand Teton National Park has more than 1,100, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon combined have just a bit more than 1,200 sites. Do the math and you’ll see that those six parks alone hold 40 percent of those 16,648 campsites.

Cottonwood Campground, Canyon de Chelley National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many other parks that are highly desirable with campers, meanwhile, have considerably fewer sites. Canyonlands National Park has fewer than 40, Arches National Park has 50, Rocky Mountain National Park has around 571, Acadia National Park has a few more than 600, and Shenandoah National Park has 472.

Of course, if you’re looking for RV campsites, they are even more scarce.

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

Finally, don’t leave your trip to chance. My wife and I started snowbird RVing in 1997. We were recently retired and few working-age people were long-term RVers back then. But today, we are surrounded by RVers of all ages. It’s great seeing people enjoy this lifestyle before (and after) retirement but the consequence is a loss of spontaneous road trips to national parks or most anywhere else. Impromptu decisions usually lead to disappointment in all but the most remote parks. Those who arrive without reservations usually get turned away. So forget spontaneity. Like it or not, this is a new era of planned camping trips to America’s most beloved natural gems.

Related: Yes, You Can Avoid Crowds in the National Parks & Here is How

Devil’s Garden Campground, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When there’s a park you want to visit, do your homework, and book your spot as early as possible. Persistence and flexibility pay off in the never-ending game of national parks camping reservations.

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs