Best National Parks to Visit this Winter

While there are many national parks that are great to visit in the winter, this list is focused on the parks that are generally warm and perfect for exploring

As shorter days and cooler temperatures descend on North America, it’s time to look for the next great outdoor adventure. We encourage visiting a National Park Service site at any time of the year, but winter is a unique time to explore. Smaller crowds at some of the more popular parks are just one of the benefits.

November to March provide some of the most beautiful, peaceful, and picturesque landscapes, and parks that can be relatively inhospitable during the height of summer become havens during the cold months. Here are the best national parks to visit this winter.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Usually, this desert monument turned National Park is almost too hot to enjoy during the summer months. But during the winter, daytime temperatures hover in the upper 60s making it the perfect season for exploring. Joshua Tree is named for a unique, tentacle-like tree that blankets the desert floor, filling in gaps between amazing rock formations.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Warm days and cool nights make winter an ideal time to visit Saguaro. The park has two areas separated by the city of Tucson. The Rincon Mountain District (East) has a lovely loop drive that offers numerous photo ops. There’s also a visitor’s center, gift shop, and miles of hiking trails. The Tucson Mountain District (West) also has a scenic loop drive and many hiking trails, including some with petroglyphs at Signal Mountain.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park is named after a stretch of 118 miles of Rio Grande River, part of which forms a large bend in the river. Big Bend offers a variety of activities for the outdoor enthusiasts, including backpacking, river trips, horseback riding, mountain biking, and camping. The park is home to more than 1,200 species of plants, more than 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, and 56 species of reptiles.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Only a fraction of the park’s 5 million annual visitors come during the winter months. At over 277-miles long and up to a mile deep, this natural wonder was created over millions of years as the Colorado River wound its way through the canyon. While temperatures can hover in the 30s and 40s along the rim, milder temps can be found along the river at the bottom of the canyon. The South Rim is open year-round and winter is an ideal time to enjoy the park’s trails and avoid the crowds that dominate the park during the summer.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park preserves the largest remnant of old-growth floodplain forest remaining on the continent. In addition to being a designated Wilderness Area, an International Biosphere Reserve, a Globally Important Bird Area, and a National Natural Landmark, Congaree is home to a exhibit area within the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, a 2.4 mile boardwalk loop trail, and canoe paddling trails.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

The hiking in Zion National Park is world famous. Hikers of all abilities will find trails that lead to sweeping vistas, clear pools, natural arches, and narrow canyons. Zion Canyon Scenic Drive follows the North Fork of the Virgin River upstream through some of Zion’s most outstanding scenery. This road is closed to vehicle traffic from April to October, but regularly scheduled shuttle busses provide a great way to relax and enjoy the scenery or stop to take a hike.

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.

Organ Pipe National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona

28 species of cactus can be found in the park including the namesake organ pipe. Unlike the stately saguaro that rises in a single trunk, the organ pipe is a furious clutter of segments shooting up from the base, a cactus forever in celebratory mode—throwing its arms in the air like it just doesn’t care. A striking resemblance to the pipes of a church organ prompted its moniker.

Worth Pondering…

There is a peculiar pleasure in riding out into the unknown—a pleasure which no second journey on the same trail ever affords.

—Edith Durham

The Winds of Organ Pipe: Diverse Sample of the Sonoran Desert

In Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, located on the border with Mexico, the star is obviously the organ pipe cactus

To reach Organ Pipe National Monument you’ll pass through the slumbering town of Ajo, Arizona. Once fueled by copper, the state’s first copper mine was here launched in the mid-1850s. Ajo (pronounced AH-ho, either takes its name from the Spanish word for garlic, or from o’oho, the native Tohono O’odham word for paint) took a substantial hit in 1985 when Phelps Dodge closed its copper mine.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located 15 miles south of Ajo on Highway 85, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument preserves a diverse and relatively undisturbed sample of the Sonoran Desert. Mountains surround the park on all sides, some near, some distant, with colors changing from one hour to the next.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ninety-five percent of the monument is designated as wilderness area which makes this one of the best places to view the Sonoran Desert.

The monument’s eastern boundary runs along the backbone of the Ajo Range, which includes Mt. Ajo at 4,808 feet and Diaz Peak at 4,024 feet.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The organ pipe cactus thrives within the United States primarily in the 516-square-mile Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and International Biosphere Reserve. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is designated by the American Bird Conservancy as a Globally Important Bird Area.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of growing with one massive trunk like the saguaro, the many branches of the organ pipe rise from a base at the ground. Originally called pitayas, this cactus is a stately plant, with columns rising mostly like, well, the pipes of a church organ. Their pithaya fruit, like a saguaro’s, mature in July, have red pulp and small seeds.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each desert plant is usable to some extent—the organ pipe is no exception. These plants played a vital role in the lives of native people for thousands of years. Tohono O’odham people used the wood for construction and picked their fruit for food. The fruit is eaten raw or dried, fermented into wine, and made into jelly, jams, and syrup. Seeds can provide flour and cooking oil.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The organ pipe, of course, has company—25 other cactus species including the stately saguaro, chain-fruit cholla, teddy bear cholla, and Engelmann prickly pear, also make this park their home. A mature organ-pipe cactus may be more than 100 years old. A mature saguaro can live to be more than 150.

Foothill palo verde, ironwood, jojoba, elephant tree, mesquite, triangle-leaf bursage, agave, creosote bush, ocotillo, and brittlebush also contribute to the desert landscape.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s also home to coyotes, the endangered Sonoran pronghorn, desert bighorn sheep, deer, javelina, gila monster, Western diamondback rattlesnake, desert tortoise, Gambel’s quail, roadrunner, Gila woodpecker, and bats. Lesser long-nosed bats drink the nectar of the organ pipe, in the process being sprinkled by pollen dust, which the bats then transport to other cactuses for fertilization.

The Kris Eggle Visitor Center offers information about the desert flora and fauna, plus there are scheduled talks and guided walks. Park rangers are there to talk over plans and interests with you.

Ajo Mountain Drive, Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe offers two scenic drives and numerous hiking trails. The 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive is a one-way road that winds and dips and provides access to some of the finest scenery in the monument. Available at the visitor center, a self-guided-tour booklet describes 22 stops along the way and greatly enhances the experience.

Puerto Blanco Drive, Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Puerto Blanco Drive is a four-hour, 41 mile loop that connects the North and South sections of the Puerto Blanco Drive and includes Quitobaquito Springs, a true oasis that is home to an endangered subspecies of desert pupfish. Many birds are attracted to the Springs including vermillion flycatchers, phainopepla, and killdeer.

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

Both drives offer many opportunities for scenic beauty, solitude, exploration, and photography.

Twin Peaks Campground has 208 sites that are generally level, widely spaced, and landscaped by natural desert growth. The campsites will easily accommodate 40-foot motorhomes and are available on a first-come first-served basis. As well, Alamo Campground has four well-spaced, primitive spots.

Alamo Campground, Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

When I walk in the desert the birds sing very beautifully

When I walk in the desert the trees wave their branches in the breeze

When I walk in the desert the tall saguaro wave their arms way up high

When I walk in the desert the animals stop to look at me as if they were saying

“Welcome to our home.”

—Jeanette Chico, in When It Rains

Most Breathtaking Deserts to Explore in Winter

These deserts are even more stunning in winter

Desert regions might conjure up images of soaring temperatures, rolling sand dunes, and prickly cacti. And while these areas can be excruciatingly hot during the summer, they transform in the winter with falling temperatures, serene landscapes, and even, on occasion, powdery snow.  

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One benefit of winter travel is you’ll usually experience fewer crowds. Winter light can be harsh for photography but it can also create incredible shadows and sunrises and sunsets you just don’t find during the summer months. Depending on the rainfall and temperatures, the latter part of winter may signal impressive spring wildflowers.

From California to Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, these eight desert areas are beautiful to explore in winter.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Two major deserts, the Mojave and the Sonoran, come together in Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths (popular with rock climbers), petroglyphs from early Native Americans, old mines, and ranches. The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View. This outstanding scenic point overlooks a breathtaking expanse of valley, mountain, and desert.

Keys View, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter brings cooler days, around 60 degrees and freezing nights. It occasionally snows at higher elevations. With the right timing, it doesn’t get more magical than seeing freshly fallen flakes gracing the smoothly rounded boulders that seem straight out of The Flintstones and the Joshua trees that look like something from an alien planet. Don’t miss other highlights of Joshua Tree including the fan palms (Washingtonia filifera). These trees are some of the tallest palms native to North America and can live around 80 or 90 years.

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Organ Pipe is where “summer spends the winter” with warm days (60s) and chilly nights (40s) common from late fall to early spring. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals including its namesake.

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

This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. There are 28 different species of cacti in the monument, ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion. These cacti are all highly adapted to survive in the dry and unpredictable desert. They use spines for protection and shade, thick skin, and pulp to preserve water, unique pathways of photosynthesis at night, and hidden under their skin are delicate to sturdy wooden frames holding them together.

Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Fe, New Mexico

New Mexico is one of our favorite winter road trip destinations and Santa Fe is one reason why. A city that embraces its natural environment, Santa Fe is a city whose beautiful adobe architecture blends with the high desert landscape. A city that is, at the same time, one of America’s great art and culinary capitals. Santa Fe draws those who love art, natural beauty, and those who wish to relax. As the heart of the city and the place where Santa Fe was founded, the Plaza is the city’s most historic area. Surrounded by museums, historic buildings, restaurants, hotels, galleries, and endless shopping, the Plaza is the place to start understanding Santa Fe.

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Springs, California

Whether it’s golf, tennis, polo, taking the sun, hiking, or a trip up the aerial tram, Palm Springs is a winter desert paradise. Palm Springs and its many neighboring cities are in the Coachella Valley of Southern California, once an inland sea and now a desert area with abundant artesian wells. An escape from winter’s chill and snow, it is also a destination filled with numerous places to visit and things to do.

Tahquitz Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Indian Canyons are one of the most beautiful attractions for any Palm Springs visitor, especially if you love to hike. There are so many great trails to choose from—but none can surpass Tahquitz Canyon. Nowhere else can you to see a spectacular 60-foot waterfall, rock art, an ancient irrigation system, numerous species of birds, and plants—all in the space of a few hours. Tahquitz Canyon is at the northeast base of 10,804-foot Mount San Jacinto in Palm Springs.

Rio Grande River and Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

This sprawling west Texas park has plenty of room (nearly 1 million acres) to spread out and explore from Chisos Mountains hikes and hot springs to the Santa Elena Canyon, a vast chasm along the Rio Grande. Due to its sheer size and geographic diversity this is the perfect park to immerse yourself in for a week or more with plenty of sights and activities to keep you busy.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Chihuahuan Desert in Big Bend receives very little precipitation as storm systems are blocked by the mountain ranges that surround it. Snow is rare and generally light. Winter visitors should prepare for a variety of conditions. Air temperature changes by five degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation change; temperatures in the high Chisos Mountains can be 20+ degrees cooler than temperatures along the Rio Grande. Be prepared for this kind of variation during your trip. Winter visitors should be prepared for any weather; temperatures vary from below freezing to above 80 degrees.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Anza-Borrego is the largest state park in California with just over 640,000 acres. There are over 10,000 years of human history recorded here including Native American petroglyphs and pictographs. Winter is a popular time to visit Borrego Valley as it’s sunny and warm. When you have sufficient winter rain, spring wildflowers begin to show as early as February. Hiking and mountain biking are popular in the canyon washes and over the ridges of red desert rock.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter also sees the visitor center open daily. The visitor center is an experience in itself as it was built with the environment in mind. It was built underground and has a landscaped roof topped with plants, native soil, and rocks. You can reserve camping sites in the park which has 175 developed sites, eight primitive campgrounds, and plenty of options for dispersed camping.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

The red rock expanse of Southern Utah is stunning in all seasons, but winter is unique. Arches is one of the most beautiful national parks to visit in winter (seriously!). The quietness of the park is perfect for those hoping to photograph the beauty of Arches in winter. Yes, it does snow in Arches National Park although not often. When it does snow, it tends to be a light covering that melts fairly quickly. If you’re timing is right, you will be able to see the arches and fins covered in snow creating a unique landscape where the orangey-brown rock contrasts beautifully with the white snow. And wherever you roam, you find few other travelers and plenty of peace and solitude.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona, Arizona

Located in Arizona’s high desert under the towering southwestern rim of the vast Colorado Plateau, Sedona is blessed with four mild seasons marked by abundant sunshine and clean air. Almost the entire world knows that Sedona, strategically situated at the mouth of spectacular Oak Creek Canyon, is a unique place. Characterized by massive red-rock formations, as well as the contrasting riparian areas of Oak Creek Canyon, the area surrounding this beloved community is at least as beautiful as many national parks.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the winter months, Sedona transforms into a dazzling wonderland with light dustings of snow and millions of twinkling stars amidst the dark night sky. Sitting at 4,500-feet elevation, the town enjoys moderate winters. Mild temperatures during the day are perfect for hiking the famed Red Rock Country. Snow occasionally dusts the upper reaches of the surrounding mesas and mountains in a most picturesque fashion.

Worth Pondering…

Alone in the open desert,

I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy.

The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before.

I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, the sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night.

I have seemed to be at one with the world.

—Everett Ruess

National Monuments Are Mind-Blowing National Park Alternatives

America’s way-overlooked natural treasures

If national wildlife refuges are the scrappy kid brothers to their pride-of-the-family national park siblings, America’s national monuments are the forgotten Tom girls of the family. Sure, Canyon de Chelly is a national monument. But go ahead: name another. Mount Rushmore is close, but is actually a national memorial. As is Glen Canyon, a national recreation area.

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

The confusingly named destinations—most are actually huge swaths of natural beauty, not statues waiting to be toppled—vastly outnumber the national parks: There are 128 total across 31 states. And with national park-quality beauty paired with a fraction of national park visitation, now is the time to get to know some of these lesser-visited family members you’ve been neglecting. These are just a few of our favorites. 

Remember to travel with caution, follow good health practices, and behave responsibly when outdoors or around other people. Also, get the latest information about your destination before proceeding.

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

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington

National park-like amenities like the Johnston Ridge Observatory tell the story of America’s most infamous active volcano while guided cave walks are available in the monument’s expansive Ape Cave lava tube. Gorgeous wildflower-packed views of the volcano can be enjoyed in spots like Bear Meadows while those seeking a closer view of the crater rim may drive to the Windy Ridge viewpoint or even summit the rim of the 8,365-foot volcano with a permit. But don’t worry: those seeking a more solitary experience will still find plenty of open room for social distancing within this 110,000-acre monument along 200 miles of trails.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking this is Bryce Canyon National Park. It looks almost identical to its more famous national park cousin which is located about an hour to the east. Yet with less than a quarter of the annual visitation of Bryce, this small but mighty national monument makes a worthy alternative for those seeking color-packed canyon views stretching across three miles at an elevation of around 10,000 feet. Like Bryce, the best time to view Cedar Breaks’ stunning rock formations and hoodoos is at sunrise and sunset.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. There’s something for everyone here. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. While some may see a desolate environment, people have been adapting to and living in this extraordinary terrain for generations. In the area known as Chain of Craters, 30 cinder cones can be found across the landscape. La Ventana Natural Arch is easily accessible. Trails lead up to the bottom of the free-standing arch for a closer look at this natural wonder.

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

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

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

There are 28 different species of cacti in the monument, ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion. The monument’s namesake, the organ pipe cactus can live to over 150 years in age, have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height, and will only produce their first flower near the age of 35.

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

Highway 85 cuts through the monument from north to south. From the Kris Eggle Visitor Center you can take two drives. Toward the east the Ajo Mountain loop drive is a beautiful 21-mile one-way desert tour that offers amazing views of barrel, saguaro, and organ pipe cactus. 

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

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, California

Rising from the sandy Coachella Valley desert floor, the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument reaches an elevation of 10,834 feet at the summit of Mt San Jacinto. Providing a picturesque backdrop to local communities, visitors can enjoy magnificent palm oases, snow-capped mountains, a national scenic trail, and wilderness areas.  Its extensive backcountry can be accessed via trails from both the Coachella Valley and the alpine village of Idyllwild.

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

San Jacinto Mountain is home to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which takes visitors by cable car from the desert up 6,000 feet to alpine forests in 15 minutes.

The Palm Canyon Fault which runs along the base of San Jacinto Mountain is part of the San Andreas Fault System. The Indian Canyons, located at the base of San Jacinto Mountain and managed by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, boasts the largest system of native fan palm oases in the US.

Gold Butte National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada

Welcome to Nevada’s tribute to Mars, a crimson desert landscape where tremendous geometric rock oddities protrude from the sands, seemingly divorced from gravity and logic. Here, endangered tortoises roam the lands alongside bighorns and mountain lions whose domain is sandwiched between Grand Canyon-Parashant and Lake Mead. Ancient rock art can be spotted throughout the 300,000 acre wilds along with ancient rock shelters and ghost towns, showing how this climate has provided inhospitably but beautiful to civilizations both ancient and modern.

Worth Pondering…

There is adventure in any trip; it’s up to us to seek it out.

—Jamie Francis

Least-Visited National Park Service Sites and Why Each Is Worth a Visit

Celebrate the beauty and natural wonders of America’s National Park Service sites at these lesser-known locations

Among America’s 418 National Park Service (NPS) sites, some stand out as must-sees for most RV travelers: Blue Ridge Parkway, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and Natchez Trace Parkway all come to mind as bucket-list sites.

And indeed, these and other parks welcome millions of visitors each year. Yet there are many other lesser-known parks equally worth your time—parks with extraordinary wildlife and unique natural features that mere thousands of visitors experience annually.

Here, we’ve rounded up ten of the least-visited national parks and make a case for why each one is worth a visit. Some are little-known, others are obscurely located, but all celebrate the beauty and power of America’s natural wonders—and, as a bonus, can be enjoyed with fewer crowds.

Cowpens National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Cowpens National Battlefield

2018 visitor count: 189,410

Cowpens National Battlefield commemorates a decisive battle that helped turn the tide of war in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution. On this field on January 17, 1781, Daniel Morgan led his army of tough Continentals, militia, and cavalry to a brilliant victory over Banastre Tarleton’s force of British regulars.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

El Malpais National Monument

2018 visitor count: 154,368

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

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Coronado National Memorial

2018 visitor count: 103,218

In the Coronado National Forest bordering Mexico, Coronado National Memorial celebrates the achievements of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who led the first recorded European expedition to America, in 1540. The attraction for most visitors is the rugged and scenic terrain, which is crossed by several hiking trails.

Tuzigoot National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Tuzigoot National Monument

2018 visitor count: 98,090

Tuzigoot is a small national monument that preserves the remains of dwellings of the 12th century Sinagua Indians. Tuzigoot comprises a cluster of buildings, on top of a small sandstone ridge close to the Verde River valley.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

2018 visitor count: 62,995

The Hohokam people built these structures when they were near the height of their power some 700 years ago. The monument preserves 60 prehistoric sites, including a four-story earthen structure. Interpretive walking tours and exhibits are available.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Cumberland Island National Seashore

2018 visitor count: 55.650

Cumberland Island is Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island, full of pristine maritime forests, undeveloped beaches, and wide marshes. Walk in the footsteps of early natives, explorers, and wealthy industrialists.

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

2018 visitor count: 260,375

With its multiple stems the organ pipe cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ.

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Hovenweep National Monument

2018 visitor count: 40,574

Hovenweep is one of those out of the way destinations that are easy to miss. Hovenweep preserves six villages once inhabited by the ancestors of today’s Pueblo people. These structures at Hovenweep are numerous and varied.

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site

2018 visitor count: 39,361

Founded in 1876 by John Lorenzo Hubbell, this is the oldest continuously operating trading post on the Navajo Reservation. This site in Ganado is part museum, part art gallery and still a functioning trading post, virtually unchanged since its early days.

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

—Jimmy Im

Arizona Bucket List: Top 10 National Parks

A guide to the best, the famous, and the lesser-known national parks and monuments in the Grand Canyon State

Arizona’s nickname may be the Grand Canyon State, and that namesake national park may draw more than six million visitors a year and rank as the second most popular in the country. But the canyon is just one of many natural wonders in a state unusually rich in them. In fact, with petrified forests, volcanic cinder cones, saguaro-studded deserts, and Anasazi cliff dwellings, no state in the country can boast as many National Park Service sites as Arizona.

The unwaveringly sunny weather makes an outdoor lifestyle possible year-round. From alpine forests to saguaro-framed sunsets, the landscape is inescapable in Arizona—and the Grand Canyon is just the beginning.

Here, a guide to 10 of the best, both the world-famous and not yet acclaimed.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Grand Canyon National Park

Why: It’s one of the natural wonders of the world

At 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon lives up to its name; it’s the biggest canyon in the United States and one of the largest in the world. Numbers don’t do the place justice—its sheer size is awe-inspiring, but it’s also a stunning record of time.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Petrified Forest National Park

Why: There aren’t many places you can reach out and touch 225-million-year-old fossilized trees

Most visitors to Petrified Forest National Park come to see the ancient tree trunks—and they’re quite a sight: Over time, the huge logs turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of colors—the yellow of citrine, the purple of amethyst, the red-brown of jasper. This mineral-tinted landscape also boasts painted deserts and striated canyons.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Saguaro National Park

Why: See the tallest and oldest saguaro cacti in the country

A symbol of the West the majestic saguaro can live 250 years and reach heights of 50 to 60 feet, growing so slowly that a 10-year-old plant might be a mere two inches in height. Saguaro National Park is divided into two units, one on either side of Tucson.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Why: It’s one of world’s most sacred places

First settled by the Ancestral Puebloans around 2,500 B.C., this labyrinth of three narrow canyons known collectively as Canyon de Chelly has sheltered indigenous peoples for nearly 5,000 years. Don’t miss the staggeringly tall spire known as Spider Rock; it rises 830 feet from the canyon floor and, in Navajo legend, is the home of Spider Woman

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Organ Pipe National Monument

Why: The only organ pipe cacti in the US are found here

Crazy symphonies of prickly arms—nowhere else in the United States can you find these unique living sculptures, Unlike their more well-known Saguaro cousins, Organ Pipe cacti branch out from ground-level.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Why: You’ve seen it in movies, and it’s much better in person

There is no landscape in the United States as associated with the Wild West as Monument Valley. Time your visit to experience both sunset and sunrise here and you’ll take some of the most vivid photos of your life.

Chiricahua National Monument

Why: Explore a magical landscape of sculpted rock

Chiricahua National Monument’s two unofficial names, the Wonderland of Rocks and the Land of Standing Up Rocks, tell you all you need to know about why it’s become one of southern Arizona’s most popular hiking destinations.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Why: It’s one of the continent’s largest and best-preserved cliff dwellings

Considered one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in North America, Montezuma Castle is carved into a cliff 1,500 feet above the ground and featuring more than 20 rooms constructed in multiple stories

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Why: Well preserved ruins of a four-story, 14th century adobe building

This small national monument contains a well-preserved four-storey building dating from the Hohokam period of the fourteenth century. It is situated in the flat plain of central Arizona in between the Gila and Santa Cruz rivers just north of Coolidge.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Coronado National Memorial

Why: Scenic, mountainous area bordering Mexico

In the Coronado National Forest bordering Mexico, Coronado National Memorial celebrates the achievements of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who led the first recorded European expedition to America, in 1540. The attraction for most visitors is the rugged and scenic terrain, which is crossed by several hiking trails.

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

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Why: Spectacular reservoir bordered by red rock cliffs and sandy beaches

Lake Powell is the second largest man-made lake in the US and without doubt the most scenic, stretching 186 miles across the red rock desert from Page, Arizona to Hite, Utah. The lake is surrounded by red rock wilderness, crossed by numerous narrow canyons, and it offers endless possibilities for exploration, both on land and on water.

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers

Serenading the Sonoran Desert: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

With its multiple stems, the organ pipe cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ

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

This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. With its multiple stems, the cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ—you can almost hear them serenading the desert.

Organ pipes and saguaros often grow side by side © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

There are 28 different species of cacti in the monument, ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion. These cacti are all highly adapted to survive in the dry and unpredictable desert. They use spines for protection and shade, thick skin, and pulp to preserve water, unique pathways of photosynthesis at night, and hidden under their skin are delicate to sturdy wooden frames holding them together.

Organ pipe and saguaro cacti © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The monument’s namesake, the organ pipe cactus can live to over 150 years in age, have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height, and will only produce their first flower near the age of 35.

The organ pipe cactus bloom in May and June, opening its 3-inch white, creamy flowers at night. Flowers will close up again by mid-morning, and very rarely remain open into the afternoon. This leaves very little time for daytime pollinators to feast on the sweet flower nectar. Lesser long nosed bats do most of the night pollination, and over the centuries, have developed a unique relationship with these cactus.

The organ pipe cactus thrive in this southern Arizona park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The fruit of the organ pipe ripens just before the summer rains and splits open to reveal a bright red seed-studded pulp. These seeds, with the aid of nurse plants or rocks, have the potential to grow from small seedlings into hundred-armed giant.

The beauty that is Organ Pipe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Organ pipe cactus thrive in the Sonoran summer. High temperatures and the monsoon rains of July and August trigger the greatest cactus growth. Within the monument boundaries, an average organ pipe cactus stem grows about 2.5 inches a year.

The beauty of the Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Highway 85 cuts through the monument from north to south. From the Kris Eggle Visitor Center you can take two drives. Both are unpaved but well maintained.

Along the Ajo Mountain loop drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Toward the east is the Ajo Mountain loop drive, the most popular scenic drive in the monument. It is a beautiful 21-mile, one-way desert tour usually passable by normal passenger cars. RVs over 24 feet are prohibited, due to the twisting and dipping nature of the road. The loop offers amazing views of barrel, saguaro, and organ pipe cactus. And in the spring, the desert floor can be filled with such wildflowers as brittle bush, Mexican poppies, globe mellow, owl clover, and lupine. If you keep a keen eye out, you also might also see desert bighorn sheep, deer, coyotes, and javelina. A self-guided-tour pamphlet, which can be purchased in the Kris Eggle Visitor Center for $1.00, describes 22 stops along the way and greatly enhances the experience. For example, the third stop is at a large saguaro, where visitors can learn many things about the stately cactus. Its flowers bloom in May and June, its fruit maturing a month later. Many animals dine on the fruit’s red pulp and its tiny black seeds. The Tohono O’odham people grind its seeds into a buttery substance that is considered a delicacy.

The skeletal ribs of a once thriving organ pipe cactus © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Saguaros stay generous past their fruit-bearing prime: Their decaying, hole-dotted trunks provide shelter for birds, and their “skeletal ribs” once constituted building materials for American Indians.

The beauty of the organ pipe and its name-sake national monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Interpretive programs are offered January through March. Take the opportunity to spend three hours with a ranger driving on the Ajo Mountain drive. Since space on this van tour is limited to 10 per day, interested visitors should sign up early at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center.

Along the Puerto Blanco drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Puerto Blanco drive west of the visitor center provides access to the Pinkley Peak Picnic Area, Red Tanks trail head, Senita Basin, and Quitobaquito Springs. The drive offers stops along the way that provide wonderful views and information on the ecology and culture of the Sonoran Desert. The entire 37 miles of the drive was completely reopened in 2014. Be advised that many travel books and websites do not reflect this change. High clearance vehicles are recommended beyond Pinkley Peak.

Twin Peaks Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Twin Peaks Campground offers 208 sites that are generally level, widely spaced, and landscaped by natural desert growth. The campsites will easily accommodate big rigs and are available on a first-come first-served basis.

Alamo Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

As well, Alamo Campground has four well-spaced, primitive spots.

Our experience in this extraordinary desert—is exotic, inviting, and utterly unforgettable.

Worth Pondering…
Take your time.
Slow down.
Live.

10 National Parks to Visit Now That the Government Shutdown Is Over

Come along and visit these 10 national parks that don’t always get enough love

Good news! The government shutdown is over! Not only will you be getting your tax refunds, but you can also visit— trash free—America’s most treasured scenic and historically important federally-administered land. Of course, we’re talking about the National Parks Service sites.

But instead of talking up Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, two of which you’re already familiar, below are 10 national parks that don’t always get enough love.

Petrified Forest National Park

Most visitors come to see the ancient tree trunks which are preserved by minerals they absorbed after being submerged in a riverbed nearly 200 million years ago. And they’re quite a sight: Over time, the huge logs turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of colors—the yellow of citrine, the purple of amethyst, the red-brown of jasper. This mineral-tinted landscape also boasts painted deserts and striated canyons.

Pinnacles National Park

California has so many well-known national parks that smaller parks tend to be overlooked. But Pinnacles should be on your must-visit list. Its unique landscape of towering rock formations that form “pinnacles” is the result of volcanic activity in the area some 23 million years ago.

Congaree National Park

Congaree offers the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern U.S. This South Carolina park includes the area where Congaree and Wateree Rivers converge. Canoeing, hiking, and fishing are all popular pastimes and may be enjoyed in peace thanks to the sparse number of fellow travelers.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

With its multiple stems the organ pipe cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ.

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

Capitol Reef National Park

Located in south-central Utah in the heart of red rock country, Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden treasure filled with cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges in the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline (a wrinkle on the earth) extending almost 100 miles. The park’s main driving tours include the paved Scenic Drive and two long, mainly unpaved, loop tours through the park’s Cathedral and Waterpocket Districts.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

A Nor-Cal beaut, Lassen is home to numerous active volcanoes which include fun, fumaroles (openings in or near a volcano, through which hot sulfurous gases emerge). RV here, if you really want to “blow up” on social media.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

A one-of-a-kind landscape and the cherished homeland of the Navajo people, Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a truly special place. Sheer cliffs rise on either side of this flat-bottomed, sandy ravine, an area created much the way uplift and water formed the Grand Canyon.

Arches National Park

Another reason to hit up southern Utah? Arches. And not like the St. Louis “Gateway Arch.” We’re talking an area that includes over 2,000 natural arches formed over 100 million years by a combo of water, ice, and extreme temperatures.

Big Bend National Park

Few national parks can match the scenic variety of Big Bend. A land graced with desert, mountain, and river environments makes for a compelling study in contrasts. The Chihuahuan Desert, with its vastness and stark beauty, is joined by the abrupt canyons of the Rio Grande and the forested peaks of the Chisos Mountains.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Located in the Badlands of western North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is named for the 26th President. This austere landscape is home to a surprisingly dense population of wildlife including bison, pronghorn antelope, elk, wild horses, and bighorn sheep. 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.

Worth Pondering…

When Robert Frost declared his intention to take the road less traveled in his 1916 poem “The Road Not Taken,” who could have guessed that so many people would take the same trip?

A Wintry Desert Wonderland

These HOT parks evoke a sense of adventure in Arizona’s wintery desert wonderland

Arizonans and seasonal visitors know that winter temperatures don’t stand a chance of stopping outdoor pursuits. Compared to the rest of the country, the mild temps and low seasonal precipitation create the perfect formula for outdoor adventure throughout the state.

Many national, state, and regional parks are primed for winter fun. The trails are perfect throughout the day, wildlife is active this time of year, additional birds have migrated into Arizona, and you just can’t beat the sunrise and sunset at your camping site.

Come along and we’ll expose HOT parks that will evoke your sense of adventure in Arizona’s wintery desert wonderland! 

Catalina State Park

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invites camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. Commonly encountered species of wildlife include javelin, coyote, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and various reptiles.

Usery Mountain Regional Park

Usery Mountain Regional Park, one of 13 Maricopa County Regional Parks, is a 3,648 acre preserve at the western end of the Goldfield Mountains, adjacent to the Tonto National Forest. Located on the Valley’s east side, Usery Mountain contains a large variety of plants and animals that call the lower Sonoran Desert home.

Usery Mountain offers over 29 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park trails range in length from 0.2 miles to over 7 miles, and range from easy to difficult. These trails are very popular because they have enough elevation to offer spectacular vistas of surrounding plains.

Alamo Lake State Park

Nestled in the Bill Williams River Valley away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, Alamo Lake State Park offers outdoor fun, premier bass fishing, rest and relaxation. The crystal clear lake is surrounded by mountainous terrain speckled with brush, wildflowers, and cacti making for a visually pleasing experience. Stargazers are sure to enjoy the amazing views of the night sky, with the nearest city lights 40 miles away.

Picacho Peak State Park

Visitors traveling along I-10 in southern Arizona can’t miss the prominent 1,500-foot peak of Picacho Peak State Park. Enjoy the view as you hike the trails that wind up the peak and, often in the spring, overlook a sea of wildflowers.

The park and surrounding area are known for its unique geological significance, outstanding and varied desert growth, and historical importance. The unique shape has been used as a landmark by travelers since prehistoric times. One of the first recordings was in the 1700s by the Anza Expedition as it passed through the area.

Organ Pipe National Monument

Crazy symphonies of prickly arms—nowhere else in the United States can you find these unique living sculptures, Unlike their more familiar Saguaro cousins, Organ Pipe cacti branch out from ground-level. Organ Pipe National Monument sits on the Mexican border. From November through April, the weather’s nearly perfect for hiking, camping, or just driving along the scenic loop road. This is one of the most stunning, and least-visited, corners of the Sonoran Desert—and worth the drive!

Lost Dutchman State Park 

Named after the fabled lost gold mine, Lost Dutchman State Park is located in the Sonoran Desert, a few miles east of Apache Junction. Several trails lead from the park into the Superstition Wilderness and surrounding Tonto National Forest.

Depending on the year’s rainfall, you might be treated to a carpet of desert wildflowers in the spring. Enjoy a weekend of camping and experience native wildlife including mule deer, coyote, javelina, and jackrabbit. A four mile mountain bike loop trail has opened at the park.

Worth Pondering…
Newcomers to Arizona are often struck by Desert Fever.

Desert Fever is caused by the spectacular natural beauty and serenity of the area.

Early symptoms include a burning desire to make plans for the next trip “south”.

There is no apparent cure for snowbirds.

Where Are America’s Best Kept Secrets? Think the Southwest Deserts!

As the most popular national parks get more crowded, where do you go to escape?

In this post, we’ll explore two such parks in Arizona.

The attraction: Joshua Tree National Park, California (2.9 million visits)
The alternative: Saguaro National Park, Arizona (960,000 visits)

Location: 15 miles from Tucson, Arizona
Best places to stay: Lazy Days KOA, Rincon County East RV Resort, or Desert Trails RV Park
Best hike: From the El Camino del Cerro trailhead to the top of Wasson Peak via the Sweetwater trail—best done in cooler weather

Saguaro National Park’s two districts offer more than 165 miles of hiking trails. A hike at Saguaro National Park can be a stroll on a short interpretive nature trail or a day-long wilderness trek. Both districts of Saguaro National Park offer a variety of hiking trails.

Tucson is home to the nation’s largest cacti. The giant saguaro is the universal symbol of the American West. These majestic plants, found only in a small portion of the United States, are protected by Saguaro National Park, to the east and west of Tucson. Here you have a chance to see these enormous cacti, silhouetted by the beauty of a magnificent desert sunrise or sunset.

Saguaro National Park has two districts separated by the city of Tucson. The Tucson Mountain District on the west, and the Rincon Mountain District to the east, are approximately 30 miles (45-60 minutes) apart. While similar in terms of plants and animals, the intricate details make both areas praiseworthy.

Although Saguaro National Park is open every day of the year except Christmas, the busiest time is from November to March. During the winter months, temperatures are cooler and range from the high 50s to the mid-70s. Starting in late February and March, the park begins to get a variety of cactus and wildflower blooms. In late April, the iconic Saguaro begins to bloom. Come June, the fruits are beginning to ripen. In August, the lush Sonoran desert starts its Monsoon season, so watch out for those flash floods.

Another alternative: Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona (224,548 visits)

Location: 60 miles south of Gila Bend, Arizona on SR-85

Best place to stay: Twin Peaks Campground, the main campground at Organ Pipe National Monument

Best hike: Estes Canyon (3 miles round trip)Estes Canyon is a moderate trail and is great for birding. Trail crosses several washes and is relatively flat until the switchback climb to the Bull Pasture trail.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument preserves the northern-most natural habitat of the Organ Pipe Cactus, as well as amazing examples of desert plants, animals, geology, and human history. Be ready to enjoy the trails and scenic drives, the star-lit nights, and the sun-filled days. Keep yourself safe by knowing what to expect from a desert wilderness.

The easiest way to see the splendor of this park is to take a scenic drive. Many hiking trails are accessed using these scenic drives.

Ajo Mountain Drive is the most popular scenic drive in the monument. It is a 21 mile, mostly gravel road usually passable by normal passenger car. RVs over 24 feet are prohibited, due to the twisting and dipping nature of the road. The Ajo Mountain Road Guidebook is available in the Kris Eggle Visitor Center. January through March a free three hour ranger guided van tour is available. Space is limited and interested visitors may sign up at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center for a seat on the van.

Puerto Blanco Drive is the other popular road in the park. The 37 mile drive provides access to the Pinkley Peak Picnic Area, Red Tanks trail head, Senita Basin, and Quitobaquito Springs. The Puerto Blanco Drive was completely reopened in 2014. Be advised that many travel books and websites do not reflect this change. High clearance vehicles are recommended beyond Pinkley Peak.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is open every day of the year. The Kris Eggle Visitor Center is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. On Thanksgiving and Christmas the visitor center is closed but the park remains open.

The state of Arizona is on Mountain Standard Time. It does not observe Daylight Savings Time.

Worth Pondering…

The saguaro cactus is the Sonoran Desert’s singular icon, the largest native living thing that exists here, and it appears to be a stunningly robust presence in a harsh land.

—Larry Cheek, Cheek, Born Survivor