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