National Park Week: Discover the Beauty of America’s National Parks

From massive canyons to brilliantly-colored deserts, national parks offer some of America’s wildest and most iconic landscapes

When the US Congress established Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872, it was “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Its founding marked the birth of the US National Park System and eventually launched a worldwide movement to protect outdoor spaces and historical landmarks. Since 1904, some 15 billion visitors have explored the wild wonders of the America’s parks.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Park Week is happening April 22 to April 30 this year! Entrance fees will be waived on April 22, 2023, to kick off National Park Week.

In 2016, inspired by the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, photographer Jonathan Irish visited every U.S. national park over 52 weeks.

“National parks are sacred and cherished places—our greatest personal and national treasures,” says Irish. “It’s a gift to spend a year adventuring and capturing incredible images and stories in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.”

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since Irish’s journey, the National Parks Service has designated four additional parks:

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are now 63 spaces to explore across the country. Celebrate National Park Week with images of these priceless national treasures from the cliff dwelling of Mesa Verde in Colorado to the deep, dark recesses of New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns.

Arches National Park, Utah

With over 2,000 natural stone arches, Arches National Park is part of southern Utah’s extended canyon country, carved and shaped by weathering and erosion.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands National Park is made up of jagged and striped rock formations. Striped in yellow, amber, and purple, the colorful eroded formations dip and rise amid the prairie grasslands.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National, Texas

Recently named the world’s largest International Dark Sky Reserve, Big Bend National Park’s hundred-mile views sweep across the hills, arroyos, and mesas of the West Texas Chihuahuan Desert.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah draws more than 2.7 million visitors a year thanks to its stunning geology of red arches and phantom-like spires called hoodoos.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

The sun peeks through Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. The largest and most undeveloped of Utah’s national parks, Canyonlands offers backcountry adventures, scenic landscapes, and two major rivers.

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Escape the crowds by fording the shallow Fremont River (high-clearance vehicles only) and head out on a 58-mile dirt road loop into desolate Cathedral Valley, an austere landscape dominated by two sandstone sentinels, Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

More than 119 caves are hidden beneath the surface of this national park in the Chihuahuan Desert. Cave scientists have explored at least 30 miles of passageways of the main cavern of Carlsbad and the investigation continues. Visitors may tour three of these miles on a paved trail.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park contains North America’s largest intact tract of old-growth bottomland forest. Boardwalk hikes and canoe tours are popular activities among the towering trees.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon National Park is a sprawling gorge of layers in pink, red, and orange hues revealing millions of years of geological history. 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Fog lingers among the forested hills of Great Smoky Mountains National Park which spans the southern Appalachians along the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Water and hydrocarbons exuded by trees produce the filmy smoke that gives the mountains their name.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

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

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

From 1914 to early 1915, Lassen Peak spewed steam and ashes in more than 150 eruptions. Now, the quieted volcano serves as a scenic backdrop to the park’s jigsaw-puzzle landscape of forest, lava beds, and lakes.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

The sun sets early on Cliff Palace, the largest of the ancient stone-and-mortar cliff houses tucked into the park’s canyon walls. The only way to experience the fine detail of the construction is on a ranger-guided tour.

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve spans more than 72,000 acres of wooded hills, deep ravines, and the Appalachian plateau. It was named the U.S.’s newest national park in 2020. 

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Walking along the park’s trails, visitors can see hills made of bluish clay and the largest concentration of brilliantly colored petrified wood in the U.S.

Pinnacles National Park, California

Known for its spectacular rock formations, beautiful spring wildflowers, and large groups of endangered condors, Pinnacles National Park is a mecca for rock climbing and day hiking. It offers 32 miles of trails that climb through winding talus caves and shaded creeks.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaro National Park takes its name from the largest cacti in the United States. The park, which flanks Tucson, is home to millions of the cacti, which can grow up to 50 feet tall.

Sequoia National Park, California

Nestled in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, Sequoia National Park is nearly 97 percent wilderness. It holds over 2,000 giant sequoia trees including General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest tree, measured by volume.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Located between the Shenandoah Valley in the west and the Piedmont region in the east, the park is an expanse of wooden hollows and breezy summits, waterfalls and mountain streams, more than 500 miles of hiking trails and nearly 80,000 acres of designated wilderness.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt is unique among the scenic parks in that it preserves not only an extraordinary landscape but also the memory of an extraordinary man. It honors the president who probably did more for the National Park Service than anyone before or since.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

White Sands National Park protects the largest gypsum dune on Earth, a remnant of bygone lakes and seas, a 275-square-mile basin that glitters white and stays cool to the touch. Visitors come to cruise the eight-mile Dunes Drive, hike one of the five established trails, or see the soft, translucent sand glow blue-white under a full moon.

Zion National Park, Utah

One of the most photographed views in Zion National Park is of Watchman Mountain from the Canyon Junction Bridge. Irish’s favorite spot is at the center of the bridge where the river leads the eye to the Watchman Spire in the background.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

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

National Parks Week: 3 Scenic Park Drives Everyone Should Do at Least Once

From Great Smoky Mountains and Petrified Forest to Zion National Park these scenic drives are worth the trip

COVID-19 (Coronavirus) has impacted RV travel right now. As RVers, travel is our way of life and, if you’re like us, you’re feeling the frustration of being limited to one location without the freedom to travel. 2020 is certainly presenting new challenges and now, more than ever, we realize that the freedom to travel is something we can’t take for granted. Now is a great time to start thinking of places you’d like to go—especially bucket-list destinations.

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

National Park Week is celebrated each year in April as a reminder of America’s rich heritage of lands set aside for preservation and enjoyment. Taking a scenic drive through the national parks is a perfect way to appreciate their beauty and timelessness so we have selected a few favorites.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lovers of the outdoors might take advantage of hiking and camping in the parks while others want to experience the beauty of the parks in a more relaxed way. For everyone a road trip is an ideal start. The parks are often remote so prep the RV, fuel up, and plan your outing with these tips.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest national park in the East, Great Smoky Mountains is also America’s most-visited national park. Wildlife, forests, hiking trails, streams, wildflowers, and more than 90 historic structures make this park unique and popular. The hazy morning mist gave the mountains their name and waterfalls throughout the park including one that you can actually walk behind attract hikers to its more than 800 miles of trails.

Scenic Drives

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 270 miles of road, mostly paved, offer a variety of scenic drives. Guide booklets are available at the park’s four visitor centers. Cades Cove is one of the most visited areas of the park and it can be accessed after a scenic 25-mile drive from the Sugarlands Visitor Center. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail nearly six miles of winding one-way road through the forest includes views of mountains, rushing streams, wildlife, and historic buildings.

If You’re Not a Hiker

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A waterfall called the “Place of a Thousand Drips” can be seen from the car at Stop 15 near the end of Roaring Fork Nature Trail. Meigs Falls can also be seen from the parking area on Little River Road near Cades Cove.

Petrified Forest Road, Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Scenic Drives

Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Your next stop should be the Painted Desert Inn now a National Historic Landmark and museum. Originally built with petrified wood, the Inn has been restored and in summer there’s an ice cream parlor, a reminder of the Inn’s days as a popular stop on Route 66. Continue south to the Rainbow Forest Museum near the park’s southern entrance for paleontological exhibits and access to several hiking trails, including the one to Agate House.

If You’re Not a Hiker

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 28-mile drive passes through a variety of environments, colorful rock formations, and scenic pullouts with spectacular views. At the Crystal Forest Trail, petrified logs can easily be seen within steps of the parking area. It’s possible to spot wildlife along the drive as well.

Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park in southwestern Utah is known for spectacular scenery that includes colorful mountains, peaks, sandstone formations, canyons, waterfalls, cliffs, and wildlife. Zion’s popularity has led to vehicle limitations and two shuttle routes for transportation through the park from March to November.

Scenic Drive

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

If You’re Not a Hiker

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion’s shuttles are ideal to see the breathtaking scenery. Stops include the Zion Human History Museum, Zion Lodge, and Canyon Junction where guests can enjoy 360-degree views.

Worth Pondering…

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

National Parks Week: Teetering in the Unknown

From Shenandoah and Arches to Joshua Tree National Park these scenic drives are worth the trip

COVID-19 (Coronavirus) has impacted RV travel right now. As RVers, travel is our way of life and, if you’re like us, you’re feeling the frustration of being limited to one location without the freedom to travel. 2020 is certainly presenting new challenges and now, more than ever, we realize that the freedom to travel is something we can’t take for granted. Now is a great time to start thinking of places you’d like to go—especially national parks.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The late travel icon Anthony Bourdain might have said it best: “Travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering in the unknown.” It’s about that friction of nervous excitement, that exultant moment, giving way to revelation as you open your senses to somewhere different and new. That’s the mark of an RV trip well taken.

White National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Teetering in the unknown” doesn’t necessarily mean winging it—you need to know where to go before you actually go and just as important the why and the when. That’s where we come in. We littered our motorhome with maps to find the three coolest road trips in honor of National Parks Week.

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The state of Virginia is home to Shenandoah National Park set along the Blue Ridge Mountains in the western part of the state. The park features a range of environments including forests, wetlands, and mountain peaks as well as waterfalls, hiking trails, picnic areas, and wildlife.

Scenic Drive

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Starting at the Front Royal Entrance, you’ll get to the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center in about four miles. Take in the view and make plans for hikes to take and waterfalls to see. Skyline Drive is the starting point for a variety of hiking trails many of which permit dogs making Shenandoah one of the most pet-friendly national parks.

If You’re Not a Hiker

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll very likely spot wildlife like bears, deer, groundhogs, or wild turkeys crossing the road from your car and many overlooks from the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains provide stunning views.

Scenic Drive, Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In southeastern Utah, near the town of Moab, is a wonderland of more than 2,000 sandstone arches, set in a picturesque landscape of soaring fins and spires. The arches come in all sizes, ranging from an opening of only three feet to the 306-foot span of Landscape Arch, one of the largest in North America.

Scenic Drives

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 18-mile Scenic Drive climbs a steep cliff and winds along the arid terrain along the first amazing glimpses of red rock features. The road initially passes the Park Avenue area and then Courthouse Towers. The road then comes to the rolling landscape of Petrified Dunes before arriving at Balanced Rock, where a 55-foot-high boulder sits precariously on a narrow pedestal.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Turnoffs lead to the Windows section and Wolfe Ranch and the Delicate Arch viewpoints. Once again on the main road, the Scenic Drive provides overlooks for Salt Valley and Fiery Furnace. Fiery Furnace is home to a fascinating labyrinth of ridges and narrow canyons. The Scenic Drive ends at Devil’s Garden area, site of the park’s campground and the trailhead for the popular Devils Garden Trail.

If You’re Not a Hiker

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A landscape of contrasting colors, landforms, and textures unlike any other in the world, the park also features massive sandstone fins, giant balanced rocks, and hundreds of towering pinnacles—all in vibrant oranges, reds, and other colors.

Geology Tour Road, Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is located in southeastern California about an hour east of Palm Springs. Named for the twisted trees that reminded early Mormon settlers of arms reaching up in prayer, Joshua Tree includes parts of both the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. Striking rock formations, boulders, and varied terrain make Joshua Tree popular with hikers, campers, and rock climbers. The weather ranges from very hot summers to colder winters and occasional snow.

Scenic Drives

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park can be entered from the north at either Joshua Tree or Twenty-nine Palms. From the south the entrance is from I-10 and the first Visitor Center is at Cottonwood. Stop at the Cholla Cactus Garden where you can walk (carefully) on a path among the prickly cacti. Geology Tour Road is an 18-mile drive through some of the park’s most fascinating landscapes. The Keys View detour takes you to an elevation of 5,185 feet for views of the Coachella Valley, Salton Sea, and San Jacinto Peak.

If You’re Not a Hiker

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll be surrounded by views of rocks, hills, Joshua Trees, and more on the drive through the park. The panoramic sights from Keys View can be seen from the parking area.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Roads were made for journeys, not destinations.

—Confucius