Magnificent Off-the-Beaten Path National Parks and Monuments

We all have Yosemite and Yellowstone on our lists, but the best national parks aren’t necessarily the best-known!

Look deep into nature. And then you will understand everything better.

—Albert Einstein

One of the best ways to be at one with nature is in a national park.

The National Park System encompasses 423 national park service sites. While most of us are familiar with marquee parks like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and the Great Smoky Mountains, many other national sites are awe-inspiring as well. The best part is these spectacular places aren’t as well-known or crowded, providing visitors a much-more private, intimate look at these national treasures.

I’ve gathered some of the off-the-beaten-path favorites—places that also make for an ideal road trip in your RV.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

This national park marvel is tucked beneath the rugged but scenic Chihuahuan Desert in the Guadalupe Mountains of remote southeastern New Mexico. One of the largest and most spectacular cave systems in the world, the park features more than 100 caverns containing some of the most unique, fanciful, and subterranean fascinating formations in the world.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The primary showstopper here is Carlsbad Cavern, the park’s main cave boasting a 25-story high ceiling, an immense floor as large as six football fields… and lots of bats. 300,000 Mexican free-tailed bats hang from the ceiling during the day but put on a spectacular evening show as they leave the cavern in search of food.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

A dominant feature of this Northern California park is Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world. Home to pristine mountain lakes, bubbling streams, steaming fumaroles, and wildflower-covered meadows, Lassen is a fascinating piece of heaven on Earth. My biggest surprise when visiting in October was to discover snow-covered mountaintops, eight-foot snowdrifts, and a lake partially frozen over.

Related: From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen also boasts breathtaking mountain scenery reminiscent of Yosemite and fascinating thermal wonders similar to Yellowstone, all without the crowds of these popular national parks. The bottom line, is it’s a must-do hidden gem.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is a park for isolation. Both the north and south units offer great hiking, expansive vistas, easily accessible wilderness, abundant wildlife, and not many visitors.

This is a wonderful park for hiking due to the elevation (or lack thereof) and abundance of trails.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oh, and for wildlife, too. There are bison, pronghorns, wild horses, and ground squirrels.

The adjacent wilderness area is also a good alternative to Petrified Forest National Park with the Petrified Forest Loop well worth the trip. The Painted Canyon Nature Trail is an easy 45-minute hike. The canyon looks amazing from the rim but waits until you experience a hike down into it. Get up close and personal with the rock layers, junipers, and wildlife. Remember, every step-down means a step back up on the return.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising 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.

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

People have lived in the canyon for more than 5,000 years making it the longest continuously inhabited area on the Colorado Plateau. Ancient ruins are tucked along its cliffs, as are centuries-old pictographs.

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

There are two ways to experience Arizona’s lesser-known canyon. You can drive along the rim stopping at overlooks to marvel at the vertical cliffs and stone spires and hike on one trail, the White House Trail. Otherwise, there is no entry into the canyon without a permit and Navajo guide. A popular choice is riding down the canyon aboard a 20-passenger tour truck.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Astonishing biodiversity exists in Congaree National Park, the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers sweep through the floodplain, carrying nutrients and sediments that nourish and rejuvenate this ecosystem and support the growth of national and state champion trees.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking the park’s many trails lets you get up close and personal with Congaree National Park. Whether you are looking for a short hike on the Boardwalk Trail or desire to make a longer trek into the backcountry, there are options available for visitors of all skills and abilities. Depending on what you want to see, trails can lead you to oxbow lakes, the Congaree River, or stands of magnificent old-growth trees that help make up the tallest deciduous forest in the United States. 

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument, located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’, while Sipapu, the second largest natural bridge in the state, means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive overlooks the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins.

Related: Escape Crowded National Parks at these 4 Alternate Destinations

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A nine-mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three natural bridges. Moderate hiking trails, some with metal stairs or wooden ladders, provide closer access to each bridge. An 8.6-mile hiking trail links the three natural bridges which are located in two adjacent canyons.

The park is rather remote and not close to other parks and as a result, is not heavily visited.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park has it all—vast amounts of open space, rivers, canyons, pictographs, and hot springs. Located in southwest Texas, the park can be wonderfully warm in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer offering year-round access to some of the most beautiful terrain in the state. Big Bend National Park is where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Chisos Mountains and it’s where you’ll find the Santa Elena Canyon, a limestone cliff canyon carved by the Rio Grande.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend is among the largest national parks in the United States. With numerous trails, mountains, canyons, and nearby villages to explore; each point of interest could easily yield itself to days of exploration. For the best experience resist making a set plan—allow yourself plenty of time to explore and discover each desert sanctuary at your own pace.

Related: National Monuments Are Mind-Blowing National Park Alternatives

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

11 National Park Service Sites I Love

National parks get a lot of attention but there’s so much more to the National Park Service

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the “Organic Act” creating the National Park Service (NPS), a federal bureau in the Department of the Interior responsible for maintaining national parks and monuments that were then managed by the department. The National Park System has since expanded to 423 units (often referred to as parks) including 63 national parks, more than 150 related areas, and numerous programs that assist in conserving the nation’s natural and cultural heritage for the benefit of current and future generations.

There’s never a bad time to visit America’s amazing national parks, but the decision of which ones to visit can feel overwhelming. To make it easier, I’ve handpicked 11 of my favorite parks that are must-visits. Start planning your next outdoor adventure today!

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota

I wonder if Mount Rushmore was the inspiration for the movie Field of Dreams. I’m sure it’s not, but follow along with me. If building a baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield seemed crazy, sculpting a mountain into a national treasure in the middle of the Black Hills of South Dakota must have seemed off-the-charts insane.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But both the baseball field of the movie and the patriotic landmark were works of those people following their passions. And both were great successes. Two million people a year visit Mount Rushmore. Although they come to see patriotism-inspiring 60-foot-tall busts of four presidents carved into granite, they’re also inspired by the natural treasures of the Black Hills.

Was that the plan of the creators of the memorial—“if we build it, they’ll come” to South Dakota and see the Black Hills?

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That was one of their good calls. However, not all of their visions came to fruition. For example, behind Lincoln’s head is the Hall of Records. It was originally envisioned as a massive chamber hundreds of feet into the mountain to hold the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and other important documents. They got 70 feet in when cooler heads prevailed, so to speak.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia

Unlike many national parks, Blue Ridge Parkway is a designer park. I mean that the park wasn’t developed based on a specific landmark or feature (e.g. the Grand Canyon or Badlands). The plan was to build a parkway—but the route wasn’t pre-determined. Instead, landscape architects and engineers were given creative freedom and chose and designed a route that plays out like a symphony. Or a musical, or a story! Pick your metaphor of something that’s crafted to change pace, change feeling, and change perspective.

Related Article: From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The parkway is 469 miles of views, history, nature, Appalachia, and America. It’s not a highway, designed for speed. It’s a parkway, designed for savoring the journey.

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

Canyon De Chelly National Monument, Arizona

If you’ve been to a national park site, you may have heard one of the rangers say something like “this is your park, it’s owned by all Americans.” This one is not. This park is owned by the Navajo Nation and is managed cooperatively. A few Navajo families still live, raise livestock, and farm in the park. Travel in many areas is restricted so read the signs and follow the rules.

Yes, you can go on a hike with a ranger, but here, for the most memorable experience, take a canyon tour with a Navajo guide. It’s a truly authentic, welcoming experience you’ll remember forever.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Perched high above the Colorado River, Arches National Park is carved and shaped by weathering and erosion. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. It contains the highest density of natural arches in the world.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 300 million years ago an inland sea covered what is now Arches National Park. The sea evaporated and re-formed 29 times in all leaving behind salt beds thousands of feet thick. Later, sand and boulders carried down by streams from the uplands eventually buried the salt beds beneath thick layers of stone. Because the salt layer is less dense than the overlying blanket of rock, it rises through it, forming it into domes and ridges with valleys in between.

Colonial National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colonial National Historical Park, Virginia

Want to go way back in American history? Then you’ll head to some of the first colonies in the New World. The Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia covers Historic Jamestowne (the first permanent English settlement in North America) and Yorktown Battlefield (site of the last major battle of the Revolutionary War).

Related Article: America the Beautiful: The National Parks

Fan of battlefields or not, Jamestowne is pretty cool. And, while you’re in the area, you can hit up the rest of the Historic Triangle and visit Colonial Williamsburg, too.

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

Right along the U.S.-Mexico border, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has the kind of scenery you’d expect when you picture the desert. The monument’s tall, skinny namesake cacti abound in every direction. Take a ride down Ajo Mountain Drive for great views of the “forests” of Saguaro (another species of cactus native to the area).

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

Make sure you pack plenty of water and layers. Though temps can get dangerously hot in the daytime, desert temps drop dramatically when the sun goes down, even in the summer. And you’ll definitely want to stick around for the night sky here—the desert climate lends itself to clear evenings. In the winter months, rangers offer stargazing activities with telescopes.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Within striking distance of the famous Bears Ears Buttes, Natural Bridges National Monument is home to stunning, gravity-defying rock formations including Sipapu Bridge, a 31-foot-wide bridge spanning 268 feet. The park was the first-ever Dark Sky Park to be certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the famed stargazing, the area is rich in opportunities to learn more about ancient and modern-day Native American culture. Make sure to take time to hike to the park’s well-preserved petroglyphs. Always be respectful by sticking to the trails and leaving any artifacts you may stumble upon exactly where you found them.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Everyone needs to add Joshua Tree National Park to their travel list. Located in Southern California, this national park has unique landscapes—large boulders, Mojave and Colorado deserts, and Joshua trees and yucca trees. The desert is beautiful with the various cacti and wildflowers scattered through the park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are plenty of activities to keep you occupied for several days. Stop by one of the park’s Visitor Centers to hear recommendations on things to do. Some of the popular activities include camping, rock climbing, mountain biking, and stargazing. The pitch-black skies are beautiful in the evenings. Visit the Sky’s The Limit Observatory which is next to the park and observe the stars.

Related Article: What to Expect at the National Parks this Summer 2022

Hiking is the major highlight as there are over two dozen trails from easy to challenging routes. It’s best to hike early in the morning and avoid the summer’s brutal heat. Favorite hiking trails include 49 Palms Oasis (3 miles) and the Lost Palms Oasis (7.5 miles). Both of these trails lead to an oasis of palm trees in the desert. You’ll have an awesome time visiting Joshua Tree National Park.

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

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah and Arizona

Hidden among the curves and canyons of the southwest is an artificial oasis. The man-made Lake Powell offers opportunities to swim, fish, kayak, and boat straight through the desert. Glen Canyon is known for Horseshoe Bend, that perfect blue curve of the Colorado River through Navajo Sandstone canyon walls. The canyon rim is usually crowded with tourists aiming for the perfect Instagram shot but it is indeed worth seeing in person, especially at sunset.

For a road less traveled, drive the Burr Trail from Bullfrog to Boulder, which will take you through unspoiled vistas of Capitol Reef National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Check the weather before you hit the trail—flash floods can make the roads impassable and dangerous.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Although Georgia’s Atlantic coastline is only about 100 miles long, the Peach State is home to 30 percent of the barrier islands along the Atlantic Seaboard. And Cumberland is the largest and fairest of them all with the longest expanse of the pristine seashore—18 glorious miles of deserted sand. Truly, this is a bucket-list destination.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The adventure starts on the ferry from St. Mary’s, the only way to get to the island which offers a wonderful view of the diverse habitats. Rent a bike, book a tour with park rangers, or bring a pair of good hiking shoes as the island is a wonderful place to explore. You can spot wild horses roaming freely, raccoons, wild boars, alligators, white-tailed deer, and many birds. Stop by the ruins of Carnegie Dungeness mansion which was built in 1884 by Thomas Carnegie and burned in the 1950s.

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

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

The American Southwest is full of otherworldly places but White Sands National Park, a massive field of pale dunes in southern New Mexico is about as good as it gets for austere, alien majesty. Wander long enough through the endless hillocks of gypsum crystals and you will start to feel like you’re in an altered state (though hopefully not because you’re dehydrated; be sure to bring lots of water). It’s easy to imagine one of the sandworms from Dune bursting up from below or a UFO from nearby Roswell drifting across the shimmering sky.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

If the Outdoors is your Thing, Utah is your Place

Utah features some of the most astonishing landscapes in the world

With soaring sandstone arches, serpentine slot canyons, slickrock domes, and hoodoos of all shapes and sizes, Utah boasts some of the most otherworldly panoramas on planet Earth.

Public lands cover two-thirds of the state offering vast opportunities to hike, bike, raft, ski, climb and camp—or simply gape at epic views. If the outdoors is your thing, Utah is your place. Here are the best places to go for a uniquely Utah experience.

The red rock of Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Base yourself in Moab for outdoor adventures

On the doorstep of two national parks, a national forest with summits over 12,000 feet, and endless acres of slickrock-clad Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, Moab is ground zero for outdoor action in Utah. A variety of restaurants, shops, hotels, and outfitters line the streets downtown.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just to the north, Arches National Park is graced with some of the most spectacular examples of what wind, water, freezing, and thawing can do to rock over time. If there is one must-see destination in Utah, this might be it, though in peak season the crowds can be the stuff of nightmares.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby Canyonlands National Park (Utah’s largest) sees far fewer visitors while offering countless spots to view a Martian-like landscape from the rims or the bottoms of huge canyons or among formations such as The Needles, Chocolate Drops, or Land of Standing Rocks. The Green and the Colorado Rivers meet in the heart of the park.

Related Article: Ultimate Guide to National Park Tripping in Utah: Arches and Canyonlands

Moab also offers easy access to some of the best mountain biking anywhere as well as prime desert rock climbing and river rafting.

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

Canyons of the Escalante is a great hiking region

Prepare to get wet and dirty hiking this sinuous canyon system that’s hewn into a massive field of petrified sand dunes. Spanning some 1,500 square miles including sections of Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the Escalante is wild, rugged country. Though you’ll probably end up wading through pools and creeks, struggling among tamarisk groves, and scrambling over rocks, it’s more than worth it.

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

The sublime beauty of the sensuous red- and orange-hued walls streaked with desert varnish inspires a sense of gratitude for life itself. Each side canyon has its own character—some feel private and intimate while others are impressively grand. Aim for highlights such as the Golden Cathedral and Stevens Arch or pick a route where you’re less likely to run into other people. Either way, you’ll be glad to be wherever you are.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bears Ears National Monument is home to Ancestral Puebloan Sites

Covering 1.36 million acres of land sacred to the region’s Native American tribes, Bears Ears National Monument features some of the most remarkable Ancestral Puebloan sites in Utah. Regardless of how much time (and energy) you have, there’s something here for everyone.

Related Article: Photographic Proof That Utah Is Just One Big Epic National Park

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can practically drive right up to the petroglyphs that crowd onto Newspaper Rock. Hiking for a few hours on Cedar Mesa will take you to ruins with names like Moon House and House on Fire—named for the effect of the morning sunlight reflecting on the rocks around the stone structure. And on a multi-day backpacking trip in Grand Gulch, you’ll find cliff dwellings, kivas, and granaries set between burly canyon walls.

Wherever you choose to go, you can’t fail to wonder about the lives of the people who lived on this land some 2000 years ago and what they were expressing through their art.

Highway 12 Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Highway 12 is perfect for a scenic drive

In a state with no shortage of scenic roads, this route tops the list. At one end, you’ll drive among the huge, surrealistic domes of Capitol Reef National Park where the rock is every color of the rainbow. Just to the west, Highway 12 then plunges south over a 9,400-foot pass and down into the exquisite geology of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Burr Trail Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some of the most eye-popping views from the road are found between the towns of Boulder and Escalante but there’s plenty to explore along the way, too. Take a quick side trip east of Boulder along the Burr Trail Scenic Byway or get out from behind the wheel and hike around the drip-castle world of Bryce Canyon National Park near the western end of the highway.

Related Article: A Utah Road Trip: Natural Bridges, Moki Dugway, Valley of the Gods & More

Capitol Reef National Reef © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sculpted by water

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’ while Sipapu, the second-largest natural bridge in the state means ‘place of emergence’.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins. Moderate to difficult trails some with metal stairs lead down to each bridge. A longer trail follows the stream bed beneath all three bridges.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods

Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide open spaces that seem to go on forever. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley near many of the formations. Short hikes are necessary to reach some, but most can be seen from the road. It is sandy and bumpy, with steep sections.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Days can be spent by anyone with a camera and time. As is usual in this stark landscape, morning and evening are the best times to take photos. The Valley of the Gods is full of long and mysterious shadows in the evening. The morning sun shines directly on the valley and its towers.

Rafting down the river © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Juan River is the best spot for rafting trips

Meandering through Utah’s southeastern corner, the San Juan carves a gorgeous route through 300 million years of geologic time. On rafting trips, ranging from two to seven days, you’ll float between sheer canyon walls, past cliffs etched with hundreds of petroglyphs, and through miles of twisting “goosenecks.” At night, you’ll camp on sandy beaches gazing at pristine starry skies. Since most of the rapids rarely rise above class II, this trip is less about white water and more about the scenery and experiencing the rhythm of the river. It’s perfect for families with kids and hardcore outdoor enthusiasts alike. 

Related Article: Here’s the Proof that Utah is the Most Beautiful State

Worth Pondering…

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

—William Shakespeare

Yes, these are the Most Visited National Parks in 2021

Nearly 300 million visited National Park System in 2021 but most headed to just 25 parks

Stir-crazy from the pandemic, visitors poured into US national parks and related sites last year—especially the marquee names. Visitation to the National Park System approached 300 million, rebounding from 2020 levels, but the bulk of those visitors headed to just 25 of the 423 units, the National Park Service (NPS) announced last week.

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

“It’s wonderful to see so many Americans continuing to find solace and inspiration in these incredible places during the second year of the pandemic,” Park Service Director Chuck Sams said. “We’re happy to see so many visitors returning to iconic parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, but there are hundreds more that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Whatever experience you’re looking for in 2022, national parks are here to discover.”

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to Park Service figures, the system saw 297.1 million recreation visits in 2021—an increase by 60 million over 2020—but 148.2 million of those visitors were counted in just 25 parks. Indeed, visitation records were set at Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and a number of other parks. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

NPS to visitors: Let’s spread it out

In trying to encourage visitors to expand their travels in the park system, the Park Service suggests visitors “create your own circle of discovery. A visit to Redwoods State and National Parks offers a great opportunity to explore Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve, and Lassen Volcanic National Park.”

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If your 2022 trip will take you to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, also consider Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Carl Sandburg National Historic Site, and Obed Wild and Scenic River.

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

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When in Utah for a visit to the Mighty Five, don’t miss Natural Bridges National Monument, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument, Bears Ears National Monument, and Hovenweep National Monument.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you want to really avoid the crowds and be alone with nature, Kobuk Valley National Park in northwestern Alaska had only 11,540 recreational visits in 2021. Even by Alaska standards, this place is remote.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you plan your travels, the Park Service urges you to take advantage of the search feature on the NPS website to search by state, activity, and topic, as you might find a hidden gem or two. Also, download the NPS App from the iOS App Store or Google Play Store to find up-to-date information about all 423 national park sites.

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

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Inside the 2021 visitation report

  • Forty-four parks set a record for recreation visits in 2021
  • Six parks broke a visitation record they set in 2020
  • Blue Ridge Parkway remained the most-visited park in the National Park System
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park set a visitation record in 2021 and passed 14 million recreation visits for the first time
  • Five parks began reporting official visitor statistics for the first time: Alagnak Wild River (Alaska), Camp Nelson National Monument (Kentucky), Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument (Mississippi), Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument (Nevada), and World War I Memorial (District of Columbia)
  • In 2021, some parks operated with limited capacities or indoor space restrictions but most were open to visitors. Seven parks—all of them historic sites in urban areas—remained closed throughout 2021 due health and safety concerns related to COVID-19
  • Recreation visitor hours dipped from 1.43 billion in 2019 to 1.36 billion in 2021, a 5 percent decrease
Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2021 by the numbers 

  • 297,115,406 recreation visits  
  • 1,356,657,749 recreation visitor hours
  • 12,745,455 overnight stays (recreation + non-recreation)
  • Three parks had more than 10 million recreation visits—Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Golden Gate National Recreation Area
  • Eleven parks had more than five million recreation visits—up from seven parks in 2020 and equal to the number of parks in 2019
  • 73 parks had more than one million recreation visits (19 percent of reporting parks)—up from 60 parks in 2020 and down from 80 parks in 2019
  • 25 percent of total recreation visits occurred in the top eight most-visited parks (2 percent of all parks in the National Park System)
  • 50 percent of total recreation visits occurred in the top 25 most-visited parks (6 percent of all parks in the National Park System)  
Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

25 most visited parks in the National Park System

1. Blue Ridge Parkway: 15.9 million

2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 14.1 million

3. Golden Gate National Recreation Area: 13.7 million

4. Gateway National Recreation Area: 9.1 million

5. Lake Mead National Recreation Area: 7.6 million

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

6. George Washington Memorial Parkway: 6.8 million

7. Natchez Trace Parkway: 6.4 million

8. Lincoln Memorial: 5.8 million 

9. Gulf Islands National Seashore: 5.5 million

10. Zion National Park: 5 million 

11. Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park: 5 million

12. Yellowstone National Park: 4.9 million

13. Grand Canyon National Park: 4.5 million

14. Rocky Mountain National Park: 4.4 million

15. Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area: 4.3 million

16. Acadia National Park: 4 million

17. Cape Cod National Seashore: 4 million

18. Grand Teton National Park: 3.9 million

19. World War II Memorial: 3.7 million

20. Vietnam Veterans Memorial: 3.6 million

21. Yosemite National Park: 3.3 million

22. Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area: 3.3 million

23. Cape Hatteras National Seashore: 3.2 million

24. Indiana Dunes National Park: 3.2 million

25. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area: 3.1 million

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

Top 10 national parks

Of the 423 sites in the entire system, only 63 of them are actually designated a national park. These are the most visited national parks of 2021:

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 14.16 million

2. Zion National Park: 5.03 million

3. Yellowstone National Park: 4.86 million

4. Grand Canyon National Park: 4.53 million

5. Rocky Mountain National Park: 4.43 million

Related: Why America Needs More National Parks

6. Acadia National Park: 4.06 million

7. Grand Teton National Park: 3.88 million

8. Yosemite National Park: 3.28 million

9. Indiana Dunes National Park: 3.17 million

10. Glacier National Park: 3.08 million

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go outside, spring is for feeling alive in national parks.

Worth Pondering…

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

Utah’s Mighty 5 Broke Visitation Records in 2021: Is it Time to Try Other Parks?

Utah wanted all the tourists. Then it got them.

If it felt like Utah’s Mighty 5 were more crowded than ever last year, that’s because they were. All-time visitation records were broken at four of Utah’s five national parks in 2021, according to preliminary data made available by the National Park Service.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There were at least 11 million visitors at Utah’s five national parks in 2021—far exceeding the 7.7 million recorded visitors in 2020, a year when visitation plummeted as a result of pandemic-related park closures and travel restrictions.

Related Article: Everything You Need to Know about the Mighty 5

The final 2021 visitation figure has yet to be calculated because Zion National Park has not submitted its December visitation. Even so, visits to Utah’s national parks jumped by at least 43 percent last year and Zion is one of the four parks that broke visitation records in 2021.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion again led all of Utah national parks in visitation last year. The southern Utah nature preserves reported over 4.8 million visitors through November besting its previous record of 4.5 million in 2017. The park is still reviewing its numbers before it submits its final 2021 visitation statistics.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion needs a little over 172,000 to reach 5 million visitors for the year—a rare feat that only three national parks have ever reached. Recent visitor trends suggest that Zion will be close to that number. The park has averaged 162,000 December visitors in the previous five years; however, it also recorded 227,244 people visits in December 2020.

Related Article: Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks & Must-See Hidden Gems

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches (1.8 million), Canyonlands (over 911,000), and Capitol Reef (1.4 million) national parks also broke all-time visitation records in 2021. While Bryce Canyon National Park fell short of its visitation record, more than 2.1 million people visited the park last year—the second-most of the five parks and an increase of nearly 640,000 visitors from 2020.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While 2021 produced an eye-popping leap from 2020 because there were no shutdowns and fewer COVID-19 concerns, 2021 also far exceeded the state’s previous total park record of 10.6 million recorded in 2019.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rise in visitors meant more people were enjoying Utah national parks but it also led to an uptick in resources needed to support the public lands. This has been true since the sudden rise of the parks’ popularity over the past decade—the issue came to a head in 2021 because of the dramatic increase in park visitation from the previous year.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The year ended with Arches National Park implementing a timed entry ticket pilot program and Zion announcing a permit process to hike Angels Landing both set to begin in the spring. Bryce Canyon National Park officials also increased its backcountry permit fees and implemented a partial campground reservation requirement to match the spike in popularity at the park over the past decade.

Related Article: Utah Wanted All the Tourists. Then It Got Overrun.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With more than 2,000 arches, as well as rock fins, pinnacles, and balancing rocks, visiting Arches National Park is like escaping to a wonderland of ancient sandstone. Visitors cherish the soaring red rock features—clad in rock formations of red, orange, brown, and purple hues—set against an often-bright blue sky.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To maximize your enjoyment, consider visiting during off-peak times. The park is most active from March through October and especially around Easter, Memorial Day, and Labor Day. The busiest time of day is from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Early morning and late afternoon typically offer fewer crowds, shorter lines, easier parking, cooler temperatures, and golden light for photographers. Winter in Arches National Park also offers stunning scenery during the quiet season.

Related Article: The Aftermath of Mighty Five…and Beyond

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah’s national parks feature some of the most astonishing landscapes in the world. But other lands in Utah promise just as much allure including state parks, national monuments, and national recreation areas. It may be time to try other Utah parks and other natural areas because the state has much more to offer than just the five national parks. Those are all things that the state’s newest campaign, Forever Mighty strives to accomplish.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southeastern Utah is anchored by Arches and Canyonlands national parks and the active tourism basecamps of Moab and Green River. Further south, travelers can explore the vast stretch of land known as Bears Ears country which includes active and ancient Native American communities and historic sites such as Monument Valley and Hovenweep National Monument.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument, located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’, while Sipapu, the second-largest natural bridge in the state, means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The majority of visitors to southwestern Utah focus their efforts on the Mighty 5 national parks. And, for good reason, these parks are spectacular. However, seasoned travelers and savvy locals know that fun southern Utah activities, remarkable scenery, and memorable adventures aren’t limited to national park boundaries. In fact, by stepping off the beaten path, many travelers have found their favorite memories were created in these hidden gems, parks that may leave you breathless but are less likely to leave you standing in line.

Related Article: Awesomeness beyond the Mighty 5 in Southern Utah

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hidden within the mountains above Cedar City is the brilliant geology and vibrant environment of Cedar Breaks National Monument. The geologic amphitheater and surrounding environs are home to cool hiking trails, ancient trees, high elevation camping, and over-the-top views along the “Circle of Painted Cliffs.”

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

Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument is phenomenal. Sun-drenched Utah backcountry spreads out well beyond the visible horizon from the road whether you’re traveling along Scenic Byway 12 or on Highway 89. This area boasts a mixture of colorful sandstone cliffs soaring above narrow slot canyons, picturesque washes and seemingly endless Slickrock, prehistoric sites, and abandoned old Western movie sets, among many other treasures

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

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers more than 1.2 million acres of unparalleled opportunities for land- and water-based recreation. Within the recreation area, Lake Powell is the second-largest man-made lake in the U. S. and is widely recognized as one of the premier boating destinations in the world.

Read Next: Photographic Proof That Utah Is Just One Big Epic National Park

As you plan your next road trip through Utah, look for opportunities to visit less-crowded destinations. While the national parks are open, so are many less crowded and equally brilliant nearby destinations. 

Worth Pondering…

As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.”

—Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Awesomeness beyond the Mighty 5 in Southern Utah

Recommendations for extended adventuring around each of southern Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks

Southern Utah has enough panoramic mountain views, striking red-rock formations, and dark-sky zones for a lifetime of adventure. But sometimes it’s better to settle in to explore one place than try to do everything in one trip. In this post, I’ll look at a few favorite spots for going beyond the parks and staying for a week or longer.

Thanks to some highly successful promotion by the Utah Office of Tourism, people across the globe now know that “Mighty 5” refers to national parks in Utah and not a group of superheroes.

Unfortunately, that heightened awareness carries a price. Utah’s five national parks are often so busy that visitors wait hours to enter or are even turned away. If you’ve been stalled in traffic at Zion, Arches, or Bryce Canyon, you understand.

On holidays or other times when you know the parks will be jammed with tourists, a good alternative is to visit one of Utah’s spectacular national monuments or state parks. Many offer breathtaking scenery to rival that of the Mighty 5 but with much smaller crowds.

Red Rock Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond Bryce Canyon and Zion

For a week of exploring around Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, head to St. George, where you can camp within a short drive of hundreds of miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails. The national parks are stunning but the many state parks in Utah are also not to be missed. One favorite is Snow Canyon; the trails there wind through striking red rock and streams of black lava are frozen in time against the canyon walls. Another one of this corner’s lesser-known gems is Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park where you can hike or go four-wheeling among pink dunes formed over the last 10,000 to 15,000 years by eroding Navajo Sandstone cliffs. You’ll also want to visit Red Cliffs BLM Recreation area to hike and marvel at the distinctive landscapes that cover this relatively unknown public area. 

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The reservoir at Quail Creek State Park boasts some of the warmest waters in the state plus a mild winter climate. It is a great place to boat, camp, and fish. Water sports are popular here during the long warm-weather season and boaters and fishermen enjoy the reservoir year-round. Anglers fish for largemouth bass, rainbow trout, crappie, and other species.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red rock and red sand meet warm, blue water at Sand Hollow which is one of the most popular state parks in Utah. This is a great place to camp, picnic, boat, fish, and ride ATVs. ATV trails run over sand dune access to Sand Mountain in the park and additional trails are located nearby. Sand Hollow Reservoir’s warm water makes it ideal for skiing and other water sports. Anglers fish for bass, bluegill, crappie, and catfish.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hidden within the mountains between Zion and Bryce Canyon is the brilliant geology and vibrant environment of Cedar Breaks National Monument. The geologic amphitheater and surrounding area are home to hiking trails, ancient trees, high elevation camping, and over-the-top views along the “Circle of Painted Cliffs.” Cedar Breaks’ majestic amphitheater is a three-mile-long cirque made up of eroding limestone, shale, and sandstone. The monument sits above 10,000 feet. The Amphitheater is like a naturally formed coliseum that plunges 2,000 feet below amid colorful towers, hoodoos, and canyons. Stunning views are common throughout so keep your camera nearby.

Beyond Capitol Reef

The Capitol Reef Region is a relatively uncrowded landscape with seemingly endless public land to explore. The town of Torrey—an official International Dark Sky Community—is just a 15-minute drive from Capitol Reef National Park and a great base camp for exploration.

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

Snag a campsite in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. There are plenty of options to contemplate in this Martian-like landscape. If you’re just passing through, Goblin Valley State Park famous for wind-shaped rock formations called hoodoos is a popular stop for families.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is also within easy driving distance of Grand Staircase and offers plenty of opportunities to cool off in Lake Powell with water sports you might not expect to find amid Utah’s high-desert landscapes.

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, Escalante Petrified Forest is among the most underrated, surprising, and all-around best state parks for escaping the crowds. If you want to be away from people, it’s pretty easy to find lots of remote space to camp while still having easy access to the main rock formations. Escalante Petrified Forest is located at Wide Hollow Reservoir, a small reservoir that is popular for boating, canoeing, fishing, and water sports. The park includes a developed campground with RV sites. There is also a pleasant picnic area.  On the hill above the campground, you can see large petrified logs. A marked hiking trail leads through the petrified forest. At the Visitor Center, you can view displays of plant and marine fossils, petrified wood, and fossilized dinosaur bones over 100 million years old.

Beyond Arches and Canyonlands

One of my favorite things about southern Utah is the way the landscapes transform from lush riverscape to shaded slot canyons to desert all in a short drive. For a week in the Arches and Canyonlands region start in Green River at the foot of Desolation Canyon Wilderness. Swasey’s Beach has developed camping and a great beach.

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

The scenic overlooks of Dead Horse Point State Park are often compared to views of the Grand Canyon. Just over 30 miles from Moab, it’s a worthy destination when Arches is overly crowded. The park gets its name from a gruesome legend. Around the turn of the century, the point was used as a corral for wild mustangs roaming the mesa top. One time, for some unknown reason, horses were left corralled on the waterless point where they died of thirst within view of the Colorado River 2,000 feet below.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From there, head to the lesser-visited west side of Canyonlands National Park for a guided 4×4 tour. Spend ample time in the Bears Ears National Monument area with a scenic drive through Valley of the Gods and visits to Goosenecks State Park and Natural Bridges National Monument—both of which are certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’ while Sipapu, the second-largest natural bridge in the state means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins. Moderate to difficult trails some with metal stairs lead down to each bridge. A longer trail follows the stream bed beneath all three bridges.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The wild canyons and mountains of southern Utah have been around for over 2.6 billion years. Help to protect them for a few billion more.

Worth Pondering…

As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.”

—Jack Kerouac

National Parks Have a Problem. They Are Too Popular.

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

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

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Which national park will you visit this summer?

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

Recreational visits in 2020: 19,856

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

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 23,726

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

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Recreational visits in 2020: 30,223

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

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

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, Pennsylvania

Recreational visits in 2020: 34,288

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

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Moro National Monument, New Mexico

Recreational visits in 2020: 36,328

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

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Recreational visits in 2020: 37,295

Cumberland Island National Seashore includes one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in the world. The park is home to a herd of feral, free-ranging horses. Most visitors come to Cumberland for the natural glories, serenity, and fascinating history. Built by the Carnegies, the ruins of the opulent 59-room, Queen Anne-style Dungeness are a must-see for visitors.

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

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

Recreational visits in 2020: 49,091

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

Chiricahua National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Park, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 44,794

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

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Recreational visits in 2020: 52,542

Three majestic natural bridges invite you to ponder the power of water in a landscape usually defined by its absence. View them from an overlook, or hit the trails and experience their grandeur from below. The bridges are named Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu in honor of the ancestral Puebloans who once made this place their home.

LBJ National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park, Texas

Recreational visits in 2020: 75.322

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

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 76,752

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

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 78,358

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Recreational visits in 2020: 119,306

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

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

Recreational visits in 2020: 139,336

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

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Joseph Wood Krutch

10 Underrated National Parks to Visit This Summer

A helpful guide of national parks without the crowds

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

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

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

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

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Three majestic natural bridges invite you to ponder the power of water in a landscape usually defined by its absence. View them from an overlook, or hit the trails and experience their grandeur from below. The bridges are named Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu in honor of the ancestral Puebloans who once made this place their home

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

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

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

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

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

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

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

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

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

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

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Cumberland Island National Seashore includes one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in the world. The park is home to a herd of feral, free-ranging horses. Most visitors come to Cumberland for the natural glories, serenity, and fascinating history. Built by the Carnegies, the ruins of the opulent 59-room, Queen Anne-style Dungeness are a must-see for visitors. The stories of the people weave a captivating tale of wealth, poverty, privilege, and sacrifice.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

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

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks & Must-See Hidden Gems

Sheer beauty on an awe-inspiring scale and plenty of wide open space to enjoy it: this is what travelers search out in the months to come. And Utah has it.

From A to Z, Utah’s five national parks include some of the best-known favorites in the U.S. There might also be one or two that aren’t on your radar—yet.

Here’s a look at The Mighty 5.

MIGHTY FIVE

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,238,083

Just like its name suggests this stunning national park is famous for its natural sandstone arches—over 2,000 of them. There are photo ops galore as the warm golden hues of the rock formations provide a striking contrast with the endless blue skies. Visitor favorites include Delicate Arch and the Landscape Arch. There’s also Balanced Rock which is exactly what it sounds like and must be seen to be believed. Arches is located just north of Moab near Utah’s eastern border.

BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,65

Standing like sentinels and witness to millions of years of the Earth’s existence, the jagged hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are as haunting as they are beautiful. The towering red rocks also provide a playground for the many varieties of wildlife—from Rocky Mountain elk to the Utah prairie dog—that call Bryce Canyon home. At elevations of up to 9,100 feet, this park offers cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter—and hiking and horseback riding in the summer.

CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 493,914

Canyonlands features a unique landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes formed by the Colorado and Green rivers. At more than 337,597 acres, this is Utah’s largest national park. It’s also where visitors will find Mesa Arch, the star of so many photographs in Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky district. Take the road less traveled and visit Canyonlands’ Needle District where you are on the canyon floor looking up at astonishing rock formations.

CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK

Recreational visits in 2020: 981,038

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ve heard of a wrinkle in time—but how about a wrinkle on the earth? Also known as a geologic monocline, the 100-mile long Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef has cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges. Also of note: the 21-mile Capitol Reef Scenic Drive has vistas galore.

ZION NATIONAL PARK

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 3,591,254

It was Utah’s first national park, and it’s also one of the top three most-visited national parks in the U.S. Larger-than-life Zion has a lot to live up to and it delivers with soft-hued sandstone cliffs glinting pink, white, and red in the brilliant sunshine. Zion’s other charms include Angels Landing, The Narrows, and the Emerald Pools Trails.

Beyond the Mighty 5, Utah has an additional seven national monuments, two national recreation areas, and 46 state parks including gems like Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, San Rafael Swell, and Snow Canyon State Park.

MUST-SEE HIDDEN GEMS

NATURAL BRIDGES NATIONAL MONUMENT

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’, while Sipapu, the second-largest natural bridge in the state, means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins. Moderate to difficult trails, some with metal stairs lead down to each bridge. A longer trail follows the stream bed beneath all three bridges.

LITTLE GRAND CANYON

San Rafael River Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon is a destination on many people’s bucket lists. But did you know Utah has its very own version of the Grand Canyon? Little Grand Canyon is located in the deepest part of the San Rafael River canyon located directly beneath the Wedge Overlook in the San Rafael Swell. The Swell covers a large area and until modern times posed a formidable barrier to east-west travel. Only two roads actually cross it including I-70 (from Salina to Green River) which cuts right through its middle. Several rest stops are provided in scenic areas. You’ll have breathtaking views into Eagle, Devils, Black Dragon, and several other deep, sheer-walled canyons.

San Rafael River Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the Wedge Overlook you can look out over the Little Grand Canyon of the San Rafael. It’s a majestic viewpoint that does indeed resemble the world-famous Colorado River chasm. When you approach the edge—carefully—and peer over the side, the river hundreds of feet below and then gaze out at the distant mesas, you realize there is nothing “little” about this canyon. The big difference between The Wedge and other scenic vistas is the solitude. You will probably be the only one on the rim.

San Rafael River Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you want to get to know the Swell on a more personal basis—and still remain in your car—drive the Buckhorn Draw Road, designated as one of Utah’s Scenic Backways. Also, drive the spur down to the Wedge Overlook. These are maintained gravel/dirt roads, washboardy in spots, but nothing which will pull your muffler off. They will guide you through the changing faces of the Swell from dry desert to juniper and pinion trees to streambeds where a trickle of water enables lush vegetation in the canyon bottoms.

This is a hot, dry country and you need to be prepared for emergencies. Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return. Carry water, food, and emergency supplies. If your vehicle breaks down on a backroad it may be days before someone happens along that way.

San Rafael River Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The ideal time to hike the Swell is during spring or fall when temperatures are moderate. Morning or evening hikes are enjoyable during the summer. Carry water if you are hiking any distance.

Worth Pondering…

As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.

—Jack Kerouac

The Land above the Canyons: Top 10 Options for Fun in the Monticello Area

And no I’m not talking about visiting your Uncle Monti & his cello

With towering mountains, vast red rock canyons, hundreds of hiking trails, world-famous snow, and endless outdoor recreation, Utah is a major playground for adventure. The only hard part is deciding where to begin.

If you’re itching to get out the door, you can’t go wrong with a trip to the “Land Above the Canyons.” We’re talking about none other than Monticello (mon-ti-sel-oh). It may be a small town (2020 population: 1,935) but it packs a big punch. You’ll finally have some solitude in your life (get away from the hustle and bustle) along with some super real adventures! From hiking, biking, ATV riding, golfing, and camping, you’ll never have a dull moment in Monticello. If you want the chance to experience everything Monticello has to offer you’ll definitely need a few more days than you had originally planned. You can feel free to go visit ol’ uncle Monti and his cello if you fancy, or you can pack your bags and head out for an amazing southeastern Utah adventure.

Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A high-elevation town on the edge of Utah’s Canyon Country, Monticello lies on the sheltered eastern slope of the Abajo Mountains overlooking a maze of sandstone canyons and plateaus. The Abajos, topped by 11,360-foot Abajo Peak, are Monticello’s summer paradise with mild temperatures, cooling rains, and recreation sites scattered through Manti La Sal National Forest.

Monticello is also a place where Utah’s past brushes against the present with ruins and rock art from the Ancient Ones scattered in nearby Bears Ears National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument. The town is also a starting point for the 480-mile Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway, a huge highway loop lined with scenic views and important archeological sites.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are a few things to add to your bucket list when you go.

Bears Ears National Monument: Indian Creek and Shash Jáa Units

Distance from Monticello to Indian Creek Unit: 20 miles

Distance from Monticello to Shash Jáa Unit: 61 miles

Bears Ears National Monument has a rich cultural heritage and is sacred to many Native American tribes who rely on these lands for traditional and ceremonial uses. Outstanding opportunities to hike, visit cultural sites, backpack, mountain bike, float the San Juan River, and ride OHVs exist within the monument boundaries. Other world-class activities include scenic drives, photography, rock climbing, camping, paleontological exploration, and wildlife viewing.

Bears Ears National Monument has two units: the Shash Jáa Unit to the south and the Indian Creek Unit to north.

Nawspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Newspaper Rock

Distance from Monticello: 21 miles

Extra, extra, read all about it! You can see all the news you can’t actually read at one of the West’s most famous rock art sites. The rock is called Tse’ Hane in Navajo, or “rock that tells a story.” There are hundreds of petroglyphs here that feature a mixture of forms including pictures resembling humans, animals, tools, and more esoteric, abstract things. The 200-square-foot rock site is a part of the cliffs all along the upper end of Indian Creek Canyon. Indian Creek Canyon is a popular Utah destination for rock climbers who flock to the Wingate sandstone for its pristine cracks which are scaled with traditional climbing aids. However, the common nature lover will still get much out of the scenic drive; better still, the road leads to The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Take your family past this historic site and see if you can decipher the rock’s story for yourself!

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District

Distance from Monticello: 32 miles

The Needles District forms the southeastern portion of Canyonlands National Park. Its signature features are colorful sandstone spires—hundreds of them poking up from the desert floor. There are also entrenched canyons, natural arches, and sheer-walled cliffs in this vast, rugged landscape. This area is famous for its rough jeep trails, including some that rank with the most challenging in the world. You need a high clearance 4X4 vehicle optimized for off-road travel to drive some of the routes here.

Hole N” the Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hole N” the Rock

Distance from Monticello: 38 miles

Imagine living in a 5,000-square-foot home that’s carved directly into a large cliff. It’s a very unique way to go about building a house! That was the vision of a man named Albert Christensen in the 1940s. Christensen spent 12 years digging, carving, and blasting out a rock home for his family to live in. He also opened a unique diner where travelers could stop for lunch. After he died in the late 1950s, Christensen’s wife Gladys continued to live in their rock home and run the diner. She and her husband are both buried near the rocks they called home. The ‘Hole N” the Rock’ house has 14 rooms including a fireplace with a 65-foot chimney, a deep French fryer, and a bathtub built into the rock.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument

Distance from Monticello: 66 miles

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’, while Sipapu means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins. Moderate to difficult trails some with metal stairs lead down to each bridge. A longer trail follows the stream bed beneath all three bridges.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moki Dugway

Distance from Monticello: 75 miles

Moki Dugway is a staggering, graded dirt switchback road carved into the face of the cliff edge of Cedar Mesa. It consists of three miles of steep, unpaved, but well-graded switchbacks (11 percent grade) which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods below. The term “moki” is derived from the Spanish word, moqui, a general term used by explorers in this region to describe Pueblo Indians they encountered as well as the vanished Ancestral Puebloan culture. Dugway is a term used to describe a roadway carved from a hillside.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods

Distance from Monticello: 68 miles

Perhaps one of the most intriguing names of all of the destinations in San Juan County is the Valley of the Gods. While similar to the geography found at Monument Valley to the south, this Bureau of Land Management area sees much, much less traffic, thereby adding solitude to its beauty. A number of tall, red, isolated mesas, buttes, and cliffs tower above the valley floor and can be seen while driving along the 17-mile gravel road on which it sits. Carved over the course of 250 million years from the Cedar Mesa sandstone, the variety of formations shows the power of time, water, wind, and ice at play in this desert landscape.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument

Distance from Monticello: 66 miles

The six abandoned Ancestral Puebloan ruins in Hovenweep National Monument are impressive not only for their excellent state of preservation but also for the diversity in the structures including square and circular towers, D-shaped dwellings and many kivas (Puebloan ceremonial structures, usually circular). The park preserves 700-year-old—and even older—archeological sites that visitors can access by paved and dirt roads. Hovenweep boasts incredible skies for night viewing and has been named a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.

Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway

Distance from Monticello: Mile 0

The Trail of the Ancients, a federally designated National Scenic Byway circles through the ancient Puebloan Country of southeastern Utah providing opportunity to view scenic landscapes, archaeological, cultural, and historic sites as well as Natural Bridges and Hovenweep national monuments, Monument Valley, Edge of the Cedars State Park, and Manti La Sal National Forest. It’s a land filled with 250-million-year-old rock formations, mysterious Anasazi ruins, and remnants of long-ago Mormon pioneer families, all but undiscovered by crowds of tourists.

Manti La Sal National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreate in Manti La Sal National Forest

If you’re in the mood for some fishing, cross-country skiing, mountain climbing, or hiking, the Manti La Sal National Forest is the perfect destination for your favorite outdoor recreational activities. The forest features more than 1,600 miles of streams, 8,100 acres of lakes, and hundreds of miles of hiking, biking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and off-road trails, so there’s plenty to explore.

Worth Pondering…

Sometimes a day trip isn’t about where you’re going. Sometimes it’s just about going. About straying off the interstates and hitting the back roads to see what you can find.