Road Trip Theme Ideas for Your Next RV Adventure

Creating a theme for your RV road trip elevates the fun

If you’ve ever thought road trips were just about long drives and random stops, think again! The open road offers an incredible canvas for themed adventures that cater to every imaginable interest.

Choosing a road trip destination

Many times, the biggest decision that we make when planning a new RV trip is WHERE TO GO. A lot of thought goes into the destinations and on more than a few occasions we have planned out a THEMED road trip. Road trip themes are plentiful and going on a trip that focuses on one main topic is a LOT of fun (The planning process can be ALMOST as enjoyable as the actual trip).

You can put a lot of care and thought into the details of a themed road trip and you can choose themes to match just about any interest or hobby.

Whether you’re a foodie on the hunt for the best diners, a history buff tracing historical trails, or simply someone looking for the road less traveled, themed road trips are your ticket to a more personalized adventure.

The following themes represent the wide variety of interests and inspirations showing how diverse themes can cater to different passions, hobbies, and curiosities. I also include related links to help you start planning.

Perhaps my list will give you some inspiration?

Foodie road trip on the Kolache Trail in central Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan Road Trips Early

The best tip that I have for planning a successful road trip: plan EARLY. By early, I mean AT LEAST 4-6 months ahead.

Popular attractions, campgrounds and RV parks, and other locations fill up quickly. It is best to book the highly sought-after events and locales as soon as possible.

Road trip themes

I had a fun time putting together the (rather) extensive list below. There are a lot of different themes and each one can be broken down and personalized based on individual preference. Most would work well as family road trips, couples trips, friend’s trips, or even solo trips.

The themes are listed in no particular order below:

  • Foodie Road Trip
  • Famous Authors Road Trip
  • Roadside Attractions Road Trip
  • National Parks Road Trip
  • Music Themed Road Trip
  • Movie or TV Show Themed Road Trip
  • Wine Country Road Trip
  • Bourbon Country Road Trip
  • Historical Road Trip
  • Scenic Byways Road Trip
  • Coastal Highway Road Trip
  • Amish Country Road Trip
  • Wildlife and Nature Road Trip
  • Photography Road Trip
  • Adventure Activities Road Trip
  • Sports Road Trip
  • Wildflowers Road Trip
  • Birdwatching Road Trip
  • Exploring the Arts Road Trip
  • Space Themed Road Trip
  • Science and Tech Themed Road Trip
  • Genealogy Road Trip
Blue Bell Ice Cream tour in Brenham, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Foodie Road Trip

Plan a road trip that’s ALL ABOUT FOOD! You can choose the specific concentration for your trip, but here are some suggestions:

  • Eat at iconic restaurants featured in your favorite TV shows or movies.
  • Visit factories that make your favorite foods (especially if they offer tours, for example Blue Bell Ice Cream.
  • Visit orchards during fall pick-your-own season.
  • Check out some popular food trucks! Head to social media and find amazing trucks that have big followings. Put together an itinerary that will take you to several of these trucks. Another option for food trucks is to find a food truck festival.
  • Focus on a geographical location known for certain foods or dishes and see how many different varieties you can try. Examples include: pizza in Chicago, lobster in Maine, crab in Maryland, BBQ and kolaches in Texas, green chile burger in New Mexico, and boudin and crawfish in Louisiana.
  • Go on a road trip and focus on trying specific foods the whole time: pizza, BBQ, seafood, chocolate, ice cream, donuts, sandwiches, burgers, or wings.

Famous Authors Road Trip

Is there a famous author or a book that really moved you as a kid or adult? Plan a road trip around that author’s life or important milestones.

If the book is set in a particular town (real life town, obviously), visit the town.

World’s Largest Roadrunner in Las Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roadside Attractions Road Trip

Roadside attractions are silly, kitschy stops that you can check out as you drive from point A to point B. They are places that are fun to see but you won’t spend an entire day there. There are so many cool roadside attractions across the country. A few examples include:

Gather inspiration for these and other roadside attraction with these resources: 

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

National Parks Road Trip

Planning a National Parks Road Trip can be an exciting adventure! With over 60 national parks and countless other National Park Service (NPS) sites in the United States, there are numerous routes and itineraries to explore.

Consider the distance and time you have available as well as your interests and preferences. You can focus on a specific region such as the West Coast, East Coast, or the Southwest, or create a loop that covers multiple regions.

Research the national parks you want to visit and plan your itinerary accordingly. Make sure to allow enough time for each park considering factors like driving distances, park hours, and activities you want to do.

Maybe you’ll plan a trip to Utah’s Mighty Five or expand it to a Grand Circle Tour. Or explore Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains in leaf-peeping season.

No matter which parks you choose, there are incredible vistas and wildlife just waiting for you to take them in. National Parks make great family vacations. The kids love participating in the Junior Ranger programs which offer the youngest travelers an array of activities and the opportunity to earn a ranger badge or pin upon program completion.

Note: National Parks are at the top of the list for destinations that require some pre-planning and booking. A number of parks require advanced reservations and timed entry during the peak travel season.

I have a lot of NPS content on the blog. Check these posts to learn more:

Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Music Themed Road Trips

Whether you love rock ‘n roll, country music, or the sounds of smooth jazz, there are some wonderful options for music themed trips in the US!

Head to Memphis and Nashville in Tennessee and hear incredible country tunes at just about every bar plus visit the Country Music Hall of Fame, Ryman Auditorium, and Grand Ole Opry. Top off the trip with a tour of Graceland, home of Elvis Presley.

If jazz is your thing, immerse yourself in its roots down in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Love rock ‘n roll? Make a stop at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.

Movie or TV Themed Road Trip

You can find filming locations for most movie and TV film productions with a little bit of research (simple internet search). Sometimes a whole town is used to film various scenes in the show or movie.

Choose a fave flick or two and head to the town where it was filmed.

By the way, I have a series of posts on movie and film locations:

Okanagan Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wine Country Road Trip

This road trip is PERFECT for couples or friend groups. Gather up your fellow wine connoisseurs and head out on a road trip to wine country. Your best bet is to visit an area known for its wineries so that you can visit multiple locations during your trip.

Here are some helpful resources:

Buffalo Trace Distillery bourbon tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bourbon Country Road Trip

Explore the rich tradition of America’s Official Native Spirit on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail featuring a number of signature distilleries nestled among beautiful Bluegrass Region scenery.

In 1999, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association formed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to give visitors a firsthand look at the art and science of crafting Bourbon and to educate them about the rich history and proud tradition of Kentucky’s signature spirit.

If you need ideas, check out these blog posts:

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

Historical Road Trip

Choose a time period or event in the long past that really interests you and build a road trip around it. There are so many different ideas for things to visit on a historically themed road trip. Choose the historic sites that interest you the most and use that as your starting point.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Early American History
  • Revolutionary War Battlefields
  • Civil War Battlefields
  • Pioneer Life and Travel
  • Native American History

Specific ideas and locations include:

  • Ghost towns
  • Museums
  • Historic parks and sites
  • Presidential libraries
  • Pioneer trails like Lewis & Clark and the Oregon Trail
  • Route 66

Here are some articles to help:

Utah Scenic Byway 12, an All-American Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic Byways Road Trip

In This Land is Your Land, Woody Guthrie sang the words, “As I went walking that ribbon of highway / I saw above me that endless skyway.” If Guthrie was singing about some of the most beautiful ribbons of highway in the U. S., there’s a good chance he was talking about one of the country’s scenic byways.

Cutting through prairies, grasslands, mountains, forests, and deserts, many of the scenic byways are not only modes of transport but destinations in themselves. While highways are wide traffic-filled roads connecting major cities, byways tend to be narrower, secondary roads in more rural areas.

The National Scenic Byways Program began in 1991 to promote roads of special aesthetic or cultural significance in one of six topics: archaeological, cultural, natural, historic, recreational, or scenic. Those that meet two or more criteria are designated “All-American Roads.”

I’ve written numerous articles on scenic byways and All-American Roads. Here are a few to help you plan a Scenic Byways Road Trip:

Worth Pondering…

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

—Lewis Carrol

State Parks and National Parks: Here’s Everything You Need to Know

A comprehensive guide to choosing the perfect camping experience

State parks and national parks offer standout RV camping experiences, each set in unique, natural landscapes. While there are key differences between them, the main distinction comes down to ownership.

National parks, large areas of untouched nature, belong to all Americans. Because of this, any changes or developments in these parks require federal government approval. Essentially, every citizen has a say in how these parks are managed.

On the other hand, state parks are owned by the residents of a specific state and are managed by that state’s government. They are funded by the state which also sets the rules for the park’s use. This includes who can use the park and how it can be used. A recent example of this is a law in Florida that prioritizes state residents over visitors from other states when making camping reservations in Florida State Parks.

Considering these basic differences between the national and state park systems, it’s clear that each can offer a unique camping experience. Each type of park has its pros and cons, so understanding these can help you plan a great RV camping trip. Use this article as a guide in your decision-making process, helping you plan a wonderful camping experience.

Lovers Key State Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State parks

Advantages

State parks offer a host of appealing benefits for families seeking a retreat from the daily hustle without the need for a substantial road trip. With more than 6,600 state parks scattered across the U.S., chances are there’s one conveniently located near you. This proximity to home can often make camping at a state park more cost-effective than venturing to a national park. Additionally, state parks tend to charge lower fees and in some cases entrance is free.

In terms of amenities, state parks typically offer more developed facilities than national parks. You’re likely to encounter well-maintained camping sites, picnic tables, and multiple access points. What you probably won’t find, however, are massive crowds vying to witness one of the iconic natural wonders often protected within national parks.

Palmetto State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Disadvantages

On the downside, state parks, as a general rule, are smaller than their national counterparts. Their compact size and easy accessibility can make them popular camping destinations so depending on the park and the season you might need to book your spot several months or more in advance.

The smaller scale of state parks also means they house fewer unique ecosystems or natural attractions. Multi-day back-packing expeditions may be off the table but you can still expect a range of wonderful trails and spectacular sights that can be explored within a few hours.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks

Advantages

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But 424 NPS units across the country also include national monumentsnational seashoresnational recreation areasnational battlefields, and national memorials

All told, national parks span thousands of acres and sometimes cross multiple state borders. Depending on where you live, a national park may take longer to get to than a state park. However, chances are, it will have at least one or two spectacular and unique attractions within its expansive boundaries.

Because of their size, you’ll find amazing, epic experiences in national parks that you won’t find anywhere else. From wildlife viewing opportunities to multi-day hikes or horseback riding trips through a variety of ecosystems, national parks provide many activities that you won’t find in state parks.

In addition, national parks often provide educational opportunities and visitor programs. For example, at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, you can book a guided tour of the massive cave.

U.S. national parks frequently make it onto the bucket lists of people from around the world. There’s a certain prestige to ticking a park such as Joshua Tree or Zion off your to-dos. Expect them to be popular and you won’t be disappointed.

If you are looking for a back-to-nature camping experience, you can find it in a national park. Campsites at national parks are basic so you can unwind in a beautiful and peaceful natural environment without interruption.

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

Disadvantages

Undoubtedly, each national park with its unique features and attractions offers a spectacular and singular experience. However, it’s important to consider some potential drawbacks of these awe-inspiring locations.

For instance, they are typically more expensive to visit compared to state parks due to their remote locations resulting in greater travel distance and higher entrance fees. This distant placement could deter campers with limited vacation time.

Furthermore, the qualities that make national parks so endearing also render them exceedingly popular. This popularity can make securing a campsite during the busy season from May to October particularly challenging. National parks tend to offer limited camping, if at all.

Some campers may also perceive the lack of amenities at more rustic national park campsites as a disadvantage. If you’re hoping for comprehensive facilities such as hookups, you’re not likely to find it here.

What you should consider when choosing between state parks and national parks

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

How much time do you have?

Your choice between a state park and a national park for your RV camping trip will hinge on several considerations. Firstly, how much time can you allocate?

If you have only a week of vacation, the journey to a national park might not be feasible. In such cases, a local state park could present the perfect getaway. Conversely, if you have the luxury of several weeks or more, an RV camping trip to a national park can create memories that will last a lifetime.

What’s your budget?

Inevitably, money also has to factor into your decision-making process. What’s your budget including travel expenses, park entrance, and camping fees? If you’re on a tighter budget, camping at a state park makes better sense than traveling to a national park and paying higher fees when you get there.

Gulf State Park, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What’s important to you?

What do you want from your camping experience? Are you simply looking for a base camp while you explore nearby attractions? Do you want to immerse yourself in the wonders of nature for a few days or a week? Do you want state park amenities like a playground or splash park for the kids or a cafe where you can enjoy an icy cold brew coffee or ice cream? State parks will give you more amenities while national parks offer a more immersive natural experience. Consider what’s important to you before you book a vacation at either a national or state park.

Conclusion

Choosing between national parks and state parks for your camping trip involves considering various factors. Let’s organize these considerations for each.

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

National parks

  • Size and experience: National parks are vast areas of protected land that provide unique and immersive experiences with nature. Despite a higher cost, the exceptional sights and features usually justify the expense.
  • Amenities: National parks generally offer fewer amenities than state parks.
  • Crowds: Popular park attractions often draw large crowds during the summer months leading to potential traffic jams and challenges in finding parking or a campsite.
  • Mitigation strategies: You can avoid the crowds by traveling during off-peak seasons or using less crowded access points. Additionally, consider exploring less popular attractions within the park.
Vogel State Park, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State parks

  • Accessibility and variety: State parks are generally easier to access than national parks and can offer a wide range of natural experiences at a lower cost.
  • Park rules: Since each state manages its parks differently, rules can vary from park to park.
  • Amenities: If amenities are a priority, state parks usually offer a broader selection. It’s recommended to check with the specific park for available facilities.

One of the fantastic aspects of the U.S. is the ability to choose from diverse camping experiences. The vast expanses of national parks offer unforgettable adventures while state parks provide convenience and a distinctly regional experience. Exploring both allows for a broad spectrum of camping experiences, each with its unique charms.

State parks to visit

When most people think about America’s parks, they think of national parks like Zion and the Grand Canyon but many state parks can rival even some of the best national parks. The U.S. is home to more than 6,600 state park sites which protect over 14 million acres of diverse landscapes from arid deserts to coastal forests and soaring mountains. If you were to explore one every day, it would take you over 18 years to see every state park. Don’t know where to start? Check out these five standout state parks around the country and the features that make them well worth the visit.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Many visitors come to Custer State Park—covering over 70,000 acres in South Dakota’s Black Hills—to swim, paddle boat, fish, or simply admire the view of the incredibly picturesque Lake Sylvan. However, the park is perhaps best known for its herd of approximately 1,500 free-ranging bison, one of the world’s largest bison herds. Drive the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road and there is a good chance you’ll come to a halt when bison cross in front of you. Watch out for wild turkey, deer, elk, wild burros, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats, too.

My Old Kentucky Home State Park, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

My Old Kentucky Home State Park, Kentucky

One of Kentucky’s more quaint state parks, this site centers around the former plantation that inspired the imagery featured in My Old Kentucky Home which is recognized as the official state song and arguably best known for its ties to the Kentucky Derby.

My Old Kentucky Home State Park offers tours of the historic Federal Hill mansion, though tickets are required ($16/adult; $14/senior). Guests can also hit the links on the park’s 18-hole golf course and in the summer visit the outdoor theater to catch a production of The Stephen Foster Story music which features more than 50 songs from the creator of My Old Kentucky Home.

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina

Hunting Island State Park is a popular vacation destination located in the South Carolina Lowcountry and attracts nearly one million visitors a year. The park features five miles of beachfront, a saltwater lagoon, and the state’s only publicly accessible lighthouse.

Located on 5,000 acres of the barrier island, Hunting Island State Park offers a variety of activities. In addition to the beach, you can enjoy hiking trails, fishing, and boating. The park also includes a visitor center, a theater, and interactive exhibits.

Hunting Island State Park campgrounds feature full hookups, water, and electricity. Some sites feature gravel pads while others are paved. There are also cabins available. There are also restroom facilities, a shower house, a grocery store, and a dump station.

The campground has an excellent range of sites with campsites able to accommodate RVs from 28 to 40 feet. However, a two-night minimum is required. Most sites are located near the beach and are easy to maneuver.

Hunting Island State Park also features a fishing pier. The pier extends 1,120 feet into Fripp Inlet. You can fish in the saltwater lagoon, Johnson Creek, and the harbor river.

Dead Horse Point Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

Dead Horse Point is located at the end of a mesa 2,000 feet above the Colorado River on the edge of Canyonlands National Park. The vista offers outstanding views of the river and surrounding canyon country. Many excellent photos are taken here. It’s also a certified International Dark Sky Park.

There are a few short hikes around the edge of the mesa with stunning views into the deep canyons. The Intrepid Trail System offers 16.6 miles of hiking and biking trails with varying degrees of difficulty.

Nestled within a grove of junipers, the Kayenta Campground offers a peaceful, shaded respite from the surrounding desert. All 21 campsites offer lighted shade structures, picnic tables, fire rings, and tent pads. All sites are also equipped with RV electrical hookups (20/30/50 amp). Modern restroom facilities are available, and hiking trails lead directly from the campground to various points of interest within the park including the West Rim Trail, East Rim Trail, Wingate Campground, or the Visitor Center.

New in 2018, the Wingate Campground sits atop the mesa with far-reaching views of the area’s mountain ranges and deep canyons. This campground contains thirty-one 31 campsites, 20 of which have electrical hookups that support RV campers while 11 are hike-in tent-only sites. RV sites will accommodate vehicles up to 56 feet and there is a dump station at the entrance to the campground.

Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park, Arizona

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invite camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet.

The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking. Bring along your curiosity and your sense of adventure as you take in the beautiful mountain backdrop, desert wildflowers, cacti, and wildlife.

Worth Pondering…

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

—Lewis Carrol

What to Know Before Planning Your National Park Summer Vacation

From when to book a reservation to how to avoid traffic

This year, visiting the national parks—one of America’s favorite summer pastimes—will take a bit of extra strategizing. Following the trend of recent years, summer 2023 is shaping up to once again shatter visitor records across the national parks system. 

The National Park Service (NPS) recorded nearly 312 million recreational visits in 2022, a five percent increase over the number of visits in 2021. As you can imagine, this increased wear and tear on hiking trails, park roads, visitor centers, and park amenities like restrooms, restaurants, and gift shops. Road construction, trail repairs and closures, and traffic delays will be widespread this summer. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worse still, record snowfall in the West is still melting, causing troubles of its own like flooding and landslides. So, as you gear up to have a memorable national parks vacation, keep organized and stay on top of park websites and social media for the latest updates—and most of all, be patient and flexible. Here’s what you should expect.

There will be a lot of traffic

Prepare for road closures and delays. From Grand Teton and Glacier to Rocky Mountain and Zion—even the Blue Ridge Parkway—units across the National Park Service are diligently making much-needed repairs and upgrades to roads, hiking trails, parking lots, and visitor facilities.

At Yellowstone, construction projects are taking place across the park to address last year’s devastating flood damage, stabilize road bridges, and rehabilitate the most heavily trafficked routes including a 20+ mile section of Grand Loop Road which allows access to Old Faithful.

Pro tip: Stay on top of park websites for closures, delays, and traffic. Yellowstone, for one, has a page dedicated to updates on road status including wait times and webcams showing current traffic conditions at park entrances.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll want to bring plastic

Not plastic bottles but plastic credit and debit cards. Many parks are going cashless. The idea is that by freeing national park staff from handling and processing cash they can spend more time improving visitor experiences and making park upgrades.

So far this year, more than a dozen national park units have opted to go cash-free including Mount Rainier, Badlands, and Crater Lake. That’s on top of various other NPS units including certain monuments, historic sites, lakeshores, and recreation areas which no longer accept cash.

Pro tip: If you must use cash purchase a prepaid gift card at a grocery or convenience store ahead of your visit to pay for park entrance. Some general stores, resorts, and historical associations within gateway towns may also accept cash for park passes.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You may need a reservation

Long gone are the days when you could just show up at a national park for a scenic drive or an invigorating hike. Some of the most popular parks including Arches and Glacier now require reservations generally in the form of a timed entry ticket that enables access to either the entire park or to a popular corridor like Bear Lake Road at Rocky Mountain.

Several parks also require advance planning to check off the most popular hiking trails. You’ve got to win a permit lottery to hike Half Dome at Yosemite or Angels Landing at Zion. At Shenandoah, a day-use ticket is required to hike Old Rag from March through November.

Pro tip: Set a calendar alert. Every park manages their reservation system differently in terms of when they release timed entry permits. Know when a park will release permits or open a lottery and set your calendar accordingly. And don’t dally. Some permits can be gone within 15 minutes.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some sections of parks will open late this season—if at all

The West got a whole lot of snow this winter. It’s going to take time to melt but as it does, runoff is going to cause rivers and creeks to swell, making for potentially dangerous conditions including slippery rocks and unsafe pedestrian bridges which can cause closures.

The opening of Yosemite’s Glacier Point Road is at least one month behind schedule due to record snowfall and road construction. It’s not expected to open until at least July. Floodwaters in Yosemite Valley are also causing intermittent closure of campgrounds.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 30-mile highway through Lassen Volcanic National Park recently opened for the 2023 summer season though sections might seem like winter. A higher-than-average snowpack has been fully cleared. Visitors to the park should prepare for winter conditions at higher elevations and possible delays due to ongoing road work.

Pro tip: Seek out updates on park websites but also be flexible and open to alternatives. Chat up rangers to identify open park sections and trails that may not have been on your original plan.

Worth Pondering…

I encourage everybody to hop on Google and type in national park in whatever state they live in and see the beauty that lies in their own backyard. It’s that simple.

—Jordan Fisher, American actor and musician

2021 National Park Visitor Spending Contributed $42.5 Billion to Economy

How National Park Service visitor spending supports jobs and business activity in local communities

The Department of the Interior recently announced that visitor spending in communities near national parks in 2021 resulted in a $42.5 billion benefit to the nation’s economy and supported 322,600 mostly local jobs.  

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nature is essential to the health, well-being, and prosperity of every family and community in America as well as to the local economies of gateway communities that support our national parks,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. “As we continue to welcome families to our parks and public lands across the country, the Interior Department is committed to making investments in our lands and waters that will support tens of thousands of jobs, safeguard the environment, and help ensure that national parks and public lands are ready to meet the challenges of climate change and increased visitation.” 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What the numbers show: According to the National Park Service (NPS) report, 2021 National Park Visitor Spending Effects, approximately 297 million visitors spent $20.5 billion in communities within 60 miles of a national park. Of the 322,600 jobs supported by visitor spending, 268,900 jobs were in park gateway communities.

In western North Dakota, for example, 796,085 people visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park contributing nearly $51.2 million in visitor spending and supporting 675 jobs.

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

In western South Dakota, 1.2 million people visited Badlands National Park in 2021and spent an estimated $88.3 million in local gateway regions while visiting. These expenditures supported a total of 1,190 jobs, $34.8 million in labor income, $61.0 million in value-added, and $114 million in economic output.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2021, 3.1 million park visitors spent an estimated $170 million in local gateway regions while visiting Joshua Tree National Park. These expenditures supported a total of 2,040 jobs, $76.7 million in labor income, $124 million in value added, and $208 million in economic output in local gateway economies surrounding Joshua Tree National Park.

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

And 14.2 million park visitors spent an estimated $1.3 billion in local gateway regions while visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These expenditures supported a total of 18.8 thousand jobs, $618 million in labor income, $1.0 billion in value-added, and $1.8 billion in economic output in local gateway economies surrounding Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Benefits to State economies: In 2021, 35.1 million park visitors spent an estimated $2.4 billion in local gateway regions while visiting National Park Service lands in California, the top state for visitor spending. These expenditures supported a total of 30.2 thousand jobs, $1.5 billion in labor income, $2.4 billion in value-added, and $3.9 billion in economic output in the California economy.

California was followed by North Carolina (21.0 million park visitors spent an estimated $1.7 billion in local gateway regions), Utah (14.8 million park visitors spent an estimated $1.6 billion in local gateway regions), and Virginia (22.2 million park visitors spent an estimated $1.3 billion).

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Additional findings include: 

  • Visitor spending in 2021 meant $14.6 billion in labor income and $24.3 billion in value added
  • The lodging sector saw the highest direct effects with $7 billion in economic output directly contributed to this sector nationally
  • The restaurant sector saw the next greatest effects with $4.2 billion in economic output directly contributed to this sector nationally
  • The camping sector saw the smallest direct effect with $490 million in economic output directly contributed to this sector nation-wide
Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion under the socioeconomic lens: The National Park Service is initiating a new socioeconomic monitoring project in 2022 that will survey park visitors in 24 parks each year for the next 10 years or more. One of the early parks surveyed under this method was Zion National Park in 2021 offering an updated picture of visitor spending.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Zion National Park was one of the first parks where visitors were surveyed under the new method. The results showed that our previous estimates or ‘profiles’ of average visitors underestimated the time they spent in the park and in gateway communities and we underestimated the amount of money they spent during their trips to the park,” said National Park Service Director Chuck Sams. “The new survey information will enable park managers to further improve the visitor experience and guide how to reach and engage with people who have yet to visit a national park.”  

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to the NPS, Zion ranked No. 10 in the country for its number of visitors attracting 5 million in 2021.

An interactive tool enables users to explore visitor spending, jobs, labor income, value added, and output effects by sector for national, state, and local economies. Users can also view year-by-year trend data. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The annual peer-reviewed economics report was prepared by economists from the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service. It includes information by parks and by states on visitor spending, the number of jobs supported by visitor spending and other statistics.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

Get Off the Beaten Path with These Lesser-Known National Parks

Five national parks that fall under the radar

Nearly everyone has heard of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains but many other national parks aren’t as famous. There are lots of rewards for heading off the beaten path. It’ll be easier to find a place to park or camp and you won’t bump elbows with as many other people.

Let’s shine a spotlight on some lesser-known national parks that you may not even be aware of but may decide to visit.

Let’s explore!

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

About the U.S. National Park System

Yellowstone was the first national park and there are 62 others in 30 states and two U.S. territories. The National Park Service (NPS), established in 1916, oversees these parks.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The park service maintains a total of 423 different sites. With so many protected sites, it’s no wonder we see so many of those brown and white signs with the NPS arrowhead logo. It’s also no surprise that you may not have heard of some of these parks.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

But just because they’re not a household name doesn’t mean they aren’t just as beautiful and worthwhile as some of the better-known parks.

Read Next: Avoid the Crowds at Lesser Known National Parks

The most celebrated parks draw millions of visitors every year. But at least several of these lesser-known national parks may not ring a bell with you.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

About the Park: South Carolina’s national park protects the nation’s largest remaining stand of bottomland hardwood trees. It’s in the central part of the state near the capital, Columbia.

This lesser-known park is 26,276 acres and protects the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the United States.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Directions: From Interstate 77, take Exit 5 and turn onto State Highway 48 East/Bluff Road. Go approximately eight miles and take a slight right onto Old Bluff Road. Follow Old Bluff Road for 4.5 miles to the park entrance sign (on the right). The visitor center is a mile ahead.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Why You Should Visit: The old-growth trees include giant bald cypresses and longleaf pines. They’re rare in the region because most were logged. The miles of trails are incredibly scenic and mostly flat. For canoeists and kayakers, the Blue Trail starts in Columbia and follows the Congaree River to its confluence with the Wateree River.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

About the Park: Overshadowed by four other national parks in the state, Capitol Reef is the lesser-known. Located in south-central Utah, it has stunning sandstone canyons and cliffs. It became a national park in 1971 after almost 30 years as a national monument.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Directions: From Interstate 70, take Exit 149, then State Route 24 west for 43.8 miles. Turn right (continuing on UT-24) for another 37.3 miles.

From Interstate 15, take Exit 188, then US-50 east toward Scipio. Take a left on UT-50 for 0.7 miles, then turn right onto US-50 East for 24.4 miles. Turn right onto UT-260 South and continue 4.2 miles, then right on UT-24 for 71.3 miles.

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Why You Should Visit: Geologists call the unusual Waterpocket Fold a wrinkle on the Earth’s crust. The 60-mile “reef” of Navajo sandstone was once part of a tourist attraction called Wayne’s Wonderland. Hiking, backpacking, climbing, and canyoneering are the main recreational pursuits. It’s also certified as an International Dark Sky Park.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

About the Park: You’ll find the largest concentration of petrified wood in the world at this park east of Winslow. Besides the scenic wonder, including parts of the Painted Desert, you can see fossils that are 225 million years old.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Directions: Westbound travelers on Interstate 40 should take Exit 311, drive the 28 miles through the park, and connect with Highway 180 at the south end. Then travel 19 miles on Highway 180 North to return to Interstate 40 via Holbrook.

Those traveling east on I-40 should take Exit 285 into Holbrook, then travel 19 miles on Highway 180 South to the park’s south entrance.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Why You Should Visit: Petrified wood is basically a fossil that forms when sediment covers the original tree or plant. So it’s like a 3D impression made from minerals.

It takes about an hour to drive through the park and stop at some overlooks. Make a little more time to walk the pet-friendly trails. You’ll get to see the ruins of an ancient village and petroglyphs plus the famed Painted Desert and Crystal Forest.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

About the Park: President Theodore Roosevelt, for whom the park is named, was a leader in conservation. The park covers 70,400 acres and is a haven for bison, elk, and wild horses. The Little Missouri River runs through all of the three park units, creating a vibrant ecosystem amongst the rolling North Dakota badlands.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Directions: This national park’s location is a major reason that it is relatively unknown. The South Unit entrance is in Medora, North Dakota off of Interstate 94, exits 24 and 27.

Read Next: National Monuments Are Mind-Blowing National Park Alternatives

The North Unit entrance is on Highway 85, about 14 miles south of Watford City. This is about an hour and a half drive north from the south entrance. The remote Elkhorn Ranch Unit is between the north and south units. You can access it via gravel roads.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Why You Should Visit: This area was President Roosevelt’s escape from the politics of Washington, D.C. even long before he was president. He is known to have credited this land and the experiences he had ranching and hunting here for shaping him into the man he was.

The park has three units, and the one to the north is the most rugged. All of the areas have scenic drives and hiking trails. The park’s lesser-known status means it is often very quiet and peaceful.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Pinnacles National Park, California

About the Park: One of the reasons Pinnacles National Park is lesser-known than some of the other national parks in California is that it is fairly new. First established as a part of the Pinnacles Forest Preserve, then a National Monument in 1908, it was officially designated as a National Park in 2013.

The unique geological features of the park are the remains of the extinct Neenach volcano that eroded away. The spires, pinnacles, caves, gorges, and rock fractures left from this fault-line activity create visually stimulating hikes and exploration opportunities for visitors.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Directions: Pinnacles National Park is located in south-central California, about 80 miles southeast of San Jose. The park is divided into two halves with no road connecting the two sides, although you can hike from one side to the other over the separating ridgeline.

To get to the west entrance, go 10 miles east on Highway 146 from Soledad, a town located 85 miles south on Highway 101 from San Jose, California. To get to the east entrance, drive 30 miles south of Hollister, CA on Highway 25 and turn right onto the park entrance road.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Why You Should Visit: The pinnacles for which the park was named is known for attracting rock climbers to scale the peaks and steep walls. Caves formed by fractures and erosion are home to at least 13 species of bats. A number of these caves have trails that wind through them, like Bear Gulch Caves. Other notable wildlife that calls the park home are prairie falcons and the California condors released after being hatched in captivity.

Read Next: 10 Under-The-Radar National Monuments to Visit

One of the biggest knocks against national parks is that they’re too crowded. That’s less of a problem at these under-the-radar treasures. They aren’t as famous as some of the other national parks, but maybe they should be.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

What Makes a National Park a National Park?

Turns out, it’s extremely complicated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think we’re missing the bigger picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Eric Metaxas

Ultimate Collection of National Parks Perfect for Snowbirds

Allergic to snow, ice, and sub-freezing temperatures?

Escape to a national park that offers sweeping panoramas, hiking trails, and wildlife sightings along with warm temperatures and lots to do and explore. These destinations do not require you to worry about frostbite or snow.

Looking for a new hiking or backpacking adventure? Big Bend, Joshua Tree, and Saguaro national parks can be great destinations. Padre Island National Seashores is a great spot to plant your beach chair and read a good book while the waves wash ashore. What follows is the ultimate list of national parks for RVing snowbirds.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Great for: Backpacking, birding, hiking, night skies

Deep in West Texas on the border with Mexico, Big Bend is far off the beaten path but the rewards make the effort worthwhile. The winter months are best to visit to avoid the searing heat of summer. It is the prime backpacking season and for those seeking to push themselves, the park’s Outer Mountain Loop awaits. If you don’t have desert backpacking experience, try an overnight from the Homer Wilson Ranch or in the high country of the Chisos Mountains. Either, or both, will give you a good sample of the Outer Loop experience. Big Bend is an International Dark Sky Park with impressive night skies.

Big Thicket National Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas

Great for: Birding, paddling, backcountry camping

Located about two hours from Houston, the preserve has no developed campgrounds and no entrance stations; only a few short roads—most of them unpaved—even extend into the park. As a result the best way to enjoy the Big Thicket is on foot or via the water but it’s easy to explore via short walks or float trips. There are creeks, bayous, and rivers that combined offer more than 300 miles to explore by canoe or kayak at Big Thicket which boasts three official Texas Paddling Trails that range from 5 to 21 miles in length. When you’re out paddling, don’t forget your binoculars to help with identifying birds in the preserve.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Great for: Kayaking/canoeing, birding

There are crown jewels in the National Park System, and then there are the overlooked parks. Congaree is one of the latter. What can you say about a place that’s an International Biosphere Reserve, a Globally Important Bird Area, a National Natural Landmark, a federally designated Wilderness Area, and an Outstanding National Resource Waters designee? Located in the middle of South Carolina, just a half-hour’s drive from the capital city of Columbia, Congaree preserves the largest remaining old-growth bottomland forest. Although this nearly 27,000-acre park has around 600 acres of piney uplands including about 200 acres of valuable longleaf pine habitat, its ecological centerpiece is a virtually pristine 12,000-acre tract of floodplain forest. The bottomlands of the Congaree Swamp are mantled with bald cypress, tupelo, laurel oak, sweet gum, water hickory, loblolly pine, and other trees inclined to grow to unusually large size.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Great for: Birding, beach combing, history, hiking

Cumberland Island National Seashore embraces a pastoral coastal setting on Georgia’s longest barrier island. It’s a place rich in human history, features settings attractive to both birdlife and loggerhead sea turtles, embraces dense maritime forests and salt marshes, and claims nearly 10,000 acres of officially designated wilderness. One of America’s most beautiful Atlantic beaches often rewards strollers with sand dollars and shells. Visits to the northern portion of the island offer visitors the opportunity of stepping inside the intimate First African American Church where on a September day in 1996 John Kennedy, Jr. married Carolyn Bessette. Cumberland Island is a world away from what most have experienced in America’s more popular national parks.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Great for: Bouldering, birding, desert botany, hiking, camping, history of ranchers and miners

If you’re fascinated by desert botany, an avid birder, enjoy bouldering, or want to learn a bit about those who tried to tame the rugged desert landscape of Southern California, Joshua Tree meets the bill. It can be magical and astonishing, intriguing and interesting, but the landscape also doesn’t suffer those who come unprepared. There are 800,000 acres to explore in Joshua Tree and much of it is wilderness. It’s the place where the Sonoran Desert meets the Mojave Desert, a place where slight differences in elevation make huge differences in moisture and plant life. Desert sunsets always seem to be amazing. Joshua trees of many sizes and grotesque shapes silhouette themselves against colorful sky. And, as the sun drops into the horizon, temperature drop too.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sagauro National Park, Arizona

Great for: Hiking, birding, Sonoran Desert botany

Despite its arid appearance, Saguaro boasts a rich and diverse landscape. Its namesake cacti aren’t the only desert dwellers in the park. There also are prickly pear, barrel, octillo, mesquite, and cholla. Wildlife includes jackrabbits, coyotes, bobcats, coatimundi, Gila monsters, black bears, and javelina. Winter months in the park are decidedly more comfortable, temperature-wise, than July and August. The milder temperatures encourage exploration of the park on foot. Though the park is less than 100,000 acres in size, split in two districts (Rincon Mountain District and Tuscon Mountin District), you can find solitude by heading out early in the morning or late in the afternoon to catch the evening sunset.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

The Ultimate Guide for Your Next RV Road Trip

A complete roadmap to explore the American Southwest

When John Steinbeck first loaded up his camper back in 1960 and set off on a cross-country trip with his black French poodle, Charley, recreational vehicles were an unusual sight. As he traversed America engaging the bemused people he encountered along the way, Steinbeck found a kinship. “I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation—a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here,” he later wrote in Travels with Charley.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.”

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That deep yearning would ultimately make RVs nearly as common as 18-wheelers on US highways. In recent years, however, these rolling embodiments of American wanderlust had developed a reputation as a bit passé. Who can forget the image of Cousin Eddie in his dilapidated RV to get Clark Griswold the perfect present in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation?

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That may not have been the look everybody was going for at the start of 2020. But cabin fever–stricken folks across the country having spent months in public-health quarantine became desperate for ways to get out of the house while staying safe from COVID-19—and they found an outlet in recreational vehicles. The trend has continued as we have all struggled to find ways to handle life—and vacations—in the midst of a pandemic. And it makes sense.

That’s right: the RV is back with families piling into camper vans, trailers, and motor coaches “to look for America,” as Paul Simon has aptly described it.

And, one of the best place in the country to do just that is the American Southwest with its vast expanses of canyons, mountains, forests, lakes, and rivers that are unrivaled in their majesty and variety. 

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re itching to get on board yourself we offer this RV guide to some of the most beautiful natural wonders in the Southwest. In it we’ve got you covered with all the places to go and the attractions that you simply must see along the way. The most beautiful places in America include some little-known yet bucket-list-worthy natural wonders that include lush forests and towering mountains—and are sure to inspire your travels.

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

You don’t need to go very far to find stunning natural beauty in the United States but some places are just magical. The country is approximately 3.8 million square miles in size, so it should come as no surprise that its home to some spectacular scenery but sights like the Grand Canyon, the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, and the soaring peaks of Zion and Capitol Reef never fail to meet even the highest expectations.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Few landscapes warp the mind quite like Joshua Tree National Park, a lumpy, Seussian dreamscape that beguiles the imagination. There are a couple of ways to best explore the park and both take place on foot: hiking to points of interest and climbing.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Located in southwest Utah, Zion National Park is full of chasms, canyons, waterfalls, and red cliffs. What better way to cool off after a long day of hiking than dipping your feet at the base of a three-tier waterfall?

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red Rock State Park, Arizona

Red Rock State Park offers a classic Southwestern outdoor experience for visitors to Sedona and Red Rock Country. The beautiful red rocks and local wildlife can be viewed and enjoyed as you hike the 5-mile trail network around this 286-acre park.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

White Sands National Park is the largest gypsum dune field in the world. Gypsum is rarely seen as sand since it dissolves in water but New Mexico’s dry climate has preserved the dunes. The pure white sand mounds stretch for 275 square miles near Alamogordo.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals, including its namesake.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

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

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, Arizona

See just how lush the desert can be at this oasis of more than 3,000 types of Sonoran Desert vegetation. At 392 acres, Boyce Thompson is Arizona’s largest and oldest botanical garden founded in the 1920s. There are 3 miles of trails and the most popular is the 1.5-mile main loop that offers a perfect overview. 

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

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache stands out as one of the country’s most accessible and popular national wildlife preserves—for wildlife and human visitors alike—providing a seasonal home, November through March, for up to 12,000 sandhill cranes, 32,000 snow geese, and nearly 40,000 ducks.

Natural Bridge National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Meandering streams cut through pinyon and juniper covered mesas forming three large multi-colored natural bridges with Hopi Indian names—Sipapu (the place of emergence), Kachina (dancer), and Owachomu (rock mounds). A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three natural bridges.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

Canyon de Chelly has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor. From the mesa east of Chinle, Canyon de Chelly is invisible. Then as one approaches, suddenly the world falls away—1,000 feet down a series of vertical red walls.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley, Arizona and Utah

Providing a dramatic craggy backdrop for many a cinematic Western movie, Monument Valley runs along the border of Utah and Arizona within the 26,000-square miles of the Navajo Tribal Park. U.S. Highway 163 scenic byway barrels through red rock buttes and spires.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon, Arizona

Madera Canyon is nestled in the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains 30 miles southeast of Tucson. A three mile paved road winds up the lower reaches of the canyon beside Madera Creek ending at a fork in the stream just before the land rises much more steeply. Along the way are three picnic areas, a side road to a campground, and five trailheads.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Eroded by wind and water over millions of years, the thousand-foot limestone and sandstone columns at Bryce Canyon are striped with orange, pink, red, and white layers. Rather than being an actual canyon, the odd-shaped spires are a geologic formation called hoodoos.

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A word to the wise, though: Pandemic safety precautions shift as the virus numbers go up and down in specific regions; check the frequently changing schedules and policies at parks, restaurants, and campgrounds before setting out. From there, just remember, once you’re on the open road, where it leads is entirely up to you. Yes, there will be surprises once you set out, but, as 2020 has continually reminded us, that’s life—so get out and enjoy it.

Worth Pondering…

In every walk with nature, one receives more than he seeks.

—John Muir

Absolutely Best National Parks to Escape the Insanely Crazy Crowds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

— John Muir

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

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

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Cedar Breaks National Monuments © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Worth Pondering…

Nothing can exceed the wonderful beauty of Zion…

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

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

—Clarence E. Dutton, geologist, 1880