How National Park Service visitor spending supports jobs and business activity in local communities
The Department of the Interior recently announced that visitor spending in communities near national parks in 2021 resulted in a $42.5 billion benefit to the nation’s economy and supported 322,600 mostly local jobs.
“Nature is essential to the health, well-being, and prosperity of every family and community in America as well as to the local economies of gateway communities that support our national parks,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. “As we continue to welcome families to our parks and public lands across the country, the Interior Department is committed to making investments in our lands and waters that will support tens of thousands of jobs, safeguard the environment, and help ensure that national parks and public lands are ready to meet the challenges of climate change and increased visitation.”
What the numbers show: According to the National Park Service (NPS) report, 2021 National Park Visitor Spending Effects, approximately 297 million visitors spent $20.5 billion in communities within 60 miles of a national park. Of the 322,600 jobs supported by visitor spending, 268,900 jobs were in park gateway communities.
In western North Dakota, for example, 796,085 people visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park contributing nearly $51.2 million in visitor spending and supporting 675 jobs.
In western South Dakota, 1.2 million people visited Badlands National Park in 2021and spent an estimated $88.3 million in local gateway regions while visiting. These expenditures supported a total of 1,190 jobs, $34.8 million in labor income, $61.0 million in value-added, and $114 million in economic output.
In 2021, 3.1 million park visitors spent an estimated $170 million in local gateway regions while visiting Joshua Tree National Park. These expenditures supported a total of 2,040 jobs, $76.7 million in labor income, $124 million in value added, and $208 million in economic output in local gateway economies surrounding Joshua Tree National Park.
And 14.2 million park visitors spent an estimated $1.3 billion in local gateway regions while visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These expenditures supported a total of 18.8 thousand jobs, $618 million in labor income, $1.0 billion in value-added, and $1.8 billion in economic output in local gateway economies surrounding Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Benefits to State economies: In 2021, 35.1 million park visitors spent an estimated $2.4 billion in local gateway regions while visiting National Park Service lands in California, the top state for visitor spending. These expenditures supported a total of 30.2 thousand jobs, $1.5 billion in labor income, $2.4 billion in value-added, and $3.9 billion in economic output in the California economy.
California was followed by North Carolina (21.0 million park visitors spent an estimated $1.7 billion in local gateway regions), Utah (14.8 million park visitors spent an estimated $1.6 billion in local gateway regions), and Virginia (22.2 million park visitors spent an estimated $1.3 billion).
Additional findings include:
Visitor spending in 2021 meant $14.6 billion in labor income and $24.3 billion in value added
The lodging sector saw the highest direct effects with $7 billion in economic output directly contributed to this sector nationally
The restaurant sector saw the next greatest effects with $4.2 billion in economic output directly contributed to this sector nationally
The camping sector saw the smallest direct effect with $490 million in economic output directly contributed to this sector nation-wide
Zion under the socioeconomic lens: The National Park Service is initiating a new socioeconomic monitoring project in 2022 that will survey park visitors in 24 parks each year for the next 10 years or more. One of the early parks surveyed under this method was Zion National Park in 2021 offering an updated picture of visitor spending.
“Zion National Park was one of the first parks where visitors were surveyed under the new method. The results showed that our previous estimates or ‘profiles’ of average visitors underestimated the time they spent in the park and in gateway communities and we underestimated the amount of money they spent during their trips to the park,” said National Park Service Director Chuck Sams. “The new survey information will enable park managers to further improve the visitor experience and guide how to reach and engage with people who have yet to visit a national park.”
According to the NPS, Zion ranked No. 10 in the country for its number of visitors attracting 5 million in 2021.
An interactive tool enables users to explore visitor spending, jobs, labor income, value added, and output effects by sector for national, state, and local economies. Users can also view year-by-year trend data.
The annual peer-reviewed economics report was prepared by economists from the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service. It includes information by parks and by states on visitor spending, the number of jobs supported by visitor spending and other statistics.
However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.
For more than a hundred years, the United States’ national parks have been inspiring visitors
Comprising a collection of stunningly diverse landscapes, from active volcanoes spewing lava to crystalline glaciers creeping down snow-covered peaks to eerie deserts that look like someone pulled the bathtub stopper on an ancient ocean, US national parks have captured the imagination of millions of park-goers.
Full of history—both geologic, Indigenous, and more recent—and featuring trails that range from ADA-accessible boardwalks to challenging treks that test the hardiest of outdoor athletes, America’s national parks are at once culturally significant, approachable, and wild.
Here’s a quick look at the best of the best with links where you can learn more about these incredible diverse landscapes.
Arches National Park
Giant sweeping arcs of sandstone frame snowy peaks and desert landscapes; explore the park’s namesake formations in a red-rock wonderland.
Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30
Great for: Family travel, photo ops, hiking, scenic drives, stargazing
From the moment you enter the national park, there’s spectacular scenery everywhere you look. Head to the Chisos Basin for the most dramatic landscape but any visit should also include time in the Chihuahuan Desert, home to curious creatures and adaptable plants, and down along the Rio Grande, the watery dividing line between the US and Mexico.
Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30
Great for: Wildlife, hiking, scenic drives, stargazing
Famous for its otherworldly sunset-colored spires punctuated by tracts of evergreen forest, Bryce Canyon National Park is one of the planet’s most exquisite geological wonders. Repeated freezes and thaws have eroded the small park’s soft sandstone and limestone into sandcastle-like pinnacles known as hoodoos, jutted fins, and huge amphitheaters filled with thousands of pastel daggers.
Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35
Great for: Hiking, photo ops, scenic drives, stargazing
Encompassing nearly 27,000 acres, Congaree National Park is the largest expanse of old-growth, bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern US. The lush trees growing here are some of the tallest in the southeast forming one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies left in the world.
State: South Carolina
Entrance Fee: Free
Great for: Wildlife, family travel, walking, canoeing and kayaking
The Grand Canyon embodies the scale and splendor of the American West captured in dramatic vistas, dusty trails, and stories of exploration and preservation. Ancestral Puebloans lived in and near the Grand Canyon for centuries and their stories echo in the reds, rusts, and oranges of the canyon walls and the park’s spires and buttes.
Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35
Great for: Scenery, family travel, hiking, photo ops, geology, scenic drives, stargazing
The sun-dappled forests of the Great Smoky Mountains are a four-season wonderland from spring’s wildflowers to summer’s flame azaleas to autumn’s quilted hues of orange, burgundy, and saffron blanketing the mountain slopes and winter’s ice-fringed cascades. This mesmerizing backdrop is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site harboring more biodiversity than any other national park in America.
States: North Carolina and Tennessee
Entrance fee: Free
Great for: History, wildlife, family travel, hiking, scenic drives, fall colors, botany
This 794,000-acre park is at the transition zone of two deserts: the low and dry Colorado and the higher, moister, and slightly cooler Mojave. Rock climbers know the park as the best place to climb in California; hikers seek out hidden, shady, desert-fan-palm oases fed by natural springs and small streams; and mountain bikers are hypnotized by the desert vistas.
Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30
Great for: Cycling, scenic drives, hiking, rock climbing, photo ops, stargazing
Anchoring the southernmost link in the Cascades’ chain of volcanoes, this alien landscape bubbles over with roiling mud pots, noxious sulfur vents, steamy fumaroles, colorful cinder cones, and crater lakes.
Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30 ($10 in winter)
Great for: Photo ops, scenic drives, hiking, stargazing
More than 700 years after its inhabitants disappeared, Mesa Verde retains an air of mystery. No one knows for sure why the Ancestral Puebloans left their elaborate cliff dwellings in the 1300s. What remains is a wonderland for adventurers of all sizes who can clamber up ladders to carved-out dwellings, see rock art, and delve into the mysteries of ancient America.
Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30 ($20 in winter)
Great for: Ancestral Pueblo culture, scenic drives, tours, stargazing
The New River is the United States’ newest national park but is one of the oldest waterways in the world and the primeval forest gorge it runs through is one of the most breathtaking in the Appalachians. The region is an adventure mecca with world-class white-water runs and challenging single-track trails. Rim and gorge hiking trails offer beautiful views.
State: West Virginia
Entrance fee: Free
Great for: Hiking, biking, fishing, white water rafting, rock climbing, extreme sports
The ‘trees’ of Petrified Forest National Park are fossilized logs scattered over a vast area of semi-desert grassland, buried beneath silica-rich volcanic ash before they could decompose. Up to 6 feet in diameter, they’re strikingly beautiful with extravagantly patterned cross-sections of wood glinting in ethereal pinks, blues, and greens.
Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25
Great for: Scenic drives, geology, hiking, biking, Route 66, stargazing
Pinnacles is named for the towering rock spires that rise abruptly out of the chaparral-covered hills east of Salinas Valley. Its famous formations are the eroded remnants of a long-extinct volcano that originated in present-day southern California before getting sheared in two and moving nearly 200 miles north along the San Andreas Fault.
Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30
Great for: Wildlife, photo ops, hiking, rock climbing, caving
Saguaros (sah-wah-ros) are icons of the American Southwest and an entire cactus army of these majestic, ribbed sentinels is protected in this desert playground. Or more precisely, playgrounds: Saguaro National Park is divided into east and west units separated by 30 miles and the city of Tucson.
Shenandoah is like a new smile from nature: in spring and summer, the wildflowers explode, in fall the leaves turn bright red and orange, and in winter a cold, starkly beautiful hibernation period sets in. With the famous 105-mile Skyline Drive and more than 500 miles of hiking trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, there is plenty to do and see.
Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30
Great for: Wildlife, scenic drives, hiking, fall colors
Undulating through the Tularosa Basin like something out of a dream, these ethereal dunes are a highlight of any trip to New Mexico and a must on every landscape photographer’s itinerary. Try to time a visit to White Sands with sunrise or sunset (or both), when the dazzlingly white sea of sand is at its most magical.
National parks are sacred and cherished places—our greatest personal and national treasures. It’s a gift to spend a year adventuring and capturing incredible images and stories in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.
If people had been there to see it—and there’s a chance Ancestral Acoma or Zuni people were—lava flowing across what’s now El Malpais National Monument might have looked a little like a dark ocean swelling with waves.
When an eruption began, magma poured and oozed from an erupting vent or fissures in the earth spreading across the ground into channels. Everything in its path would be knocked over, surrounded, buried, or ignited by the extremely hot temperature of lava. As the liquid fire continued to flow, it sometimes moved underneath and lifted a blackened crust.
As it reached the rim of sandstone mesas around the southeastern edge of El Malpais, lava rolled away from the rock walls, slipped into cracks, or filled in corners. Here, some of the continent’s newest rock now abuts the sandy floor of the ancient inland sea.
Behind the park’s western visitor center, lava ran over Precambrian granite. So it’s 1.5-billion-year-old rock and on top of it is a 10,000-year-old rock.
Managed by the National Park Service (NPS), El Malpais has the unusual distinction of having a twin park in El Morro National Monument to its west along State Route 53. Together they offer an action-packed adventure.
I contemplated the geological forces as we drove west on State Route 53 crossing a landscape that has reshaped itself over thousands of years. Every time I stepped out of my car, I shifted back in time by thousands of years. At the eastern edge of the park, the newest flows are about 3,000 years old, give or take a millennium—just a blink of an eye in geologic time. Elsewhere, the lava was last liquid 150,000 to 170,000 years ago.
Surviving in this region has long meant journeying around, not the shortest path to your destination but the one that passed by water sources which are how Spaniards began visiting what’s now El Morro National Monument. A drive of fewer than 30 minutes takes you from one park to the next. But for anyone on horseback, it would have taken at least a day. Back then, the road we now call State Route 53 which threads between heaps of lava rock and sandstone would have been a major trade route.
For thousands of years, people have found their way to a small pond fed by a reliable spring below a towering cliff. There, they rested, watered their horses, and camped under a diamond-specked sky. Quite a few labored to chisel their names into the sandstone wall.
Travelers knew to head to El Morro’s massive, cream-colored sandstone buttress for the pool of water at its base, the only reliable source in a region with no perpetual streams or rivers.
Rain and snowmelt still gather there, in a deep-green pool ringed by cattails that rattle in the breeze. Spaniards stopped here on their way to preach to the Zuni and Hopi or to colonize the region. Later, government survey teams and homesteaders spreading into the new U.S. territories in the Southwest did, too. They used knife blades or horseshoe nails to sign their names and record their destinations and purposes, even a poem, on the soft surface of the 200-foot-tall monolith of Inscription Rock. Those markings layer alongside much older petroglyphs and pictographs.
A short, steep hike leads to the mesa-top home of an Ancestral Zuni village perched on sandstone. The trail loops past a few rooms and kivas after dipping and twisting over sandstone bleached as white as the clouds above.
Today that wall at El Morro National Monument serves as a guest book of history. Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate “passed by here” in 1598; hundreds of others did so as well, before and after. Inscription Rock is just one reason to put El Morro on your must-see list.
A superintendent in the 1920s scrubbed out signatures added after 1906 when El Morro became a national monument assessing them as illegal graffiti and leaving bald patches on the surface. No record remains of who made the arduous drive to see the area’s second national monument or who visited around 1918, during a major war and another pandemic. Now, as water works through and over the sandstone, the etchings’ lines soften, lichen obscures some, and rockfall has taken down others. It’s hard to hold history in place.
Admission is free—to the visitor center, the half-mile paved Inscription Trail, and even the campground. If you’re up for a little challenge tack on another mile or so and clamber up the Headland Trail. On the mesa top, you can explore the ruins of Atsinna Pueblo and snag some snaps of the nearby Zuni Mountains and remnants of ancient volcanoes.
But in these faded bluffs, in the creases of lava flows, I start to see landscape-scale reminders that history is also happening now. We don’t live at the end of the timeline, a terminus point from which history is a fixed and distant object we look back on. Rather, it’s something that is in constant flux, written moment by moment.
Visitor centers for El Malpais (off I-40 at exit 85) and El Morro (between mile markers 44 and 45 on State Route 53) provide restrooms, maps, and rangers’ advice.
Travel on an ancient pathway by hiking the eight-mile Acoma-Zuni or Zuni-Acoma Trail (depending on your direction of travel). Trailheads are on SR-117 and SR-53 so set up a car shuttle.
A three-mile loop hike at El Calderon off SR-53 skirts cave entrances and climbs a cinder cone. Wildflowers may be abundant.
At El Morro, a trail passes along the base of Inscription Rock then switchbacks 200 feet up the mesa passing through an ancient pueblo before looping back to the visitor center in just over two miles.
Camp at El Morro is one of nine sites spread among the junipers, each with a fire pit, a picnic table, and a view of stars thick overhead in this official International Dark Sky Park. Open on a first-come, first-served basis with water available seasonally.
Spending time in nature is the best way to refuel your body and your mind
The Great Outdoors became a top travel destination in 2020 for obvious reasons: endless social distance, campgrounds within driving distance, and dramatic settings for an existential crisis. Zoom ahead to summer 2022 and the world has reopened—so has camping fallen out of favor?
Turns out, instead of returning their REI equipment, many rookies are still adding camping reservations to their travel plans.
According to Campspot, a platform for reserving campsites, there are 49 percent more bookings for this summer compared to last year and a six times jump in new campers.
33 percent more people are shopping on Amazon for camping tents this year compared to 2019 and demand for other outdoor gear (lanterns, backpacks, camp stoves) has also risen by double digits, per data analytics company Pattern.
Glamping’s also holding onto its pandemic popularity: Getaway, which rents tiny, posh cabins you may have seen on Instagram had its most guests ever in Q1 2022.
Between inflation, the stock market, supply-chain issues, and recession fears, people have a strong desire to find ways to disconnect from the stress and spend time in nature to help them reconnect with themselves and their family and friends.
Relaxing nature activities will rejuvenate your mind, from the simple to the life-changing.
Savor the scenery
Movies beaming with CGI (computer-generated imagery) dazzle our imaginations but the most mind-blowing spectacles are not found on a screen. When was the last time you watched the sunrise or ventured to the nearest hilltop to watch it set? Or plied the back roads?
The back, back roads of South Carolina, for example, will present you with a gift basket of surprises. Looming magnolia trees and Spanish moss! Tiny, rural communities populated with folks who more than likely will be happy to spend the afternoon beguiling you with the stories of their lives. Makeshift farm stands and BBQ pits that you can sniff out a mile away. Ramshackle houses and dilapidated plantations evoking chapters from another world!
Skyline Drive is a beautiful Virginia byway that goes straight through Shenandoah National Park and the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s not exactly a well-kept secret, but if you hit the road early enough to catch a misty sunrise, you might be able to beat some of the crowds. At just over 100 miles long, it makes for a great half-day drive.
Wander the wilderness
Walking is good for you, but not all walks are created equal. Cruising urban streets doesn’t provide the same mental boost as hiking a local trail or feeling the sandy beach between your toes. You don’t have to have a specific destination in mind, either—your goal isn’t to hike a particular number of miles but to aimlessly immerse yourself in the natural world around you. The Japanese call this “forest bathing” and it can rejuvenate a weary mind.
Short, sweet, and steep are the best descriptors of the flagship trail at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. Characterized (and named for) a massive pink granite dome—the same unique Texas pink granite that was used to build the State Capitol building—this park is a popular outing for those visiting Central Texas. From the top of the steep Summit Trail, you’ll see unparalleled 360-degree views of untouched terrain. For more entertainment, Fredericksburg, a charming German-Texan small town, is only a 20-minutes drive away.
Meditate on the music
Not the music playing in your headphones. Leave your electronics behind and listen to the melodies nature has to offer: babbling brooks, bird songs, wind whistling through the trees, and the scurrying of animals through the canopy. It’s a lot more relaxing than the honking horns and text message alerts you’re all too used to and it offers the opportunity to practice some meditative mindfulness in your tranquil surroundings.
Pack a picnic
Load a basket with your favorite healthy goodies and have lunch among the flora and fauna. A picnic is a perfect way to spend quality time with friends and family without the distractions of the modern-day world. And nature makes socializing with others easier so it’s the perfect place to build stronger relationships with those you love.
Fishing puts you outside, near a body of water, and it rewards patience. All of those are good things. Even if you don’t catch (and release) anything, you’ll both forge a treasured, lifelong memory. With a little luck, you reel in a perch that will grow into a marlin after multiple retellings of the story at family events.
Look, up in the sky
Thousands of people who watch birds as a hobby are on to something: There’s a special thrill when you can recognize a bird by sight or by its sound. Odds are, a nearby Audubon location offers free birding walks that are open to the public. Or, turn to the internet for free resources to help you identify the birds in your area. Either way, bird watching gives you the perfect excuse to relax in nature with your head in the clouds. That’s a great way to fend off stress.
Sleep beneath the stars
Now you’re getting serious. Why not disconnect entirely for several days or more and make nature your home? Camping lets you get further away than a simple day trip allows. Or, if roughing it isn’t your style, consider glamping where you can maintain some of the creature comforts you love, but still be away from it all.
Located in the rugged Black Hills of South Dakota, Custer State Park protects 71,000 acres of terrain and a herd of some 1,300 bison who are known to stop traffic along the park’s Wildlife Loop Road from time to time. The park has nine campgrounds to choose from including the popular Sylvan Lake Campground. Many sites include electric hookups and dump stations.
If you take your phone, use it for that cool star-gazing app (or emergencies, of course) but not for scrolling social media 24/7. Forget the Fear of Missing Out and try the Joy of Missing Out instead. #JOMO!
Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, and 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.
63 national parks draw millions of visitors a year to unique natural wonders and unforgettable terrains
In 1882, choirmaster Samuel A. Ward took a leisurely ferry ride from Coney Island into New York City and was so struck with inspiration at the summer scene that he immediately composed a tune.
A decade later on an 1893 summer day in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Katharine Lee Bates gazed out from a window and saw a “sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies,” that a hymn immediately sprang to mind. In 1910, the music and poetry came together under the title “America the Beautiful.” The work struck an enduring chord, resonating with so many Americans that numerous campaigns have sought to make it the national anthem.
From the earliest days of America, the hand of Providence has been seen not just in the history of events but also in the natural splendor of the land spurring several conservation efforts including the creation of the National Parks System. Wilderness areas for people to enjoy the rugged beauty were set aside while protecting the landscape, plants, and animals.
Many fossils of ancient marine animals have been found in the Grand Canyon, these date back 1.2 billion years ago. The age of the Grand Canyon itself remains a mystery, but recent studies speculate it to be more than 70 million years old.
Petrified Forest National Park contains more than 10,000 years of human history recorded within its territory, including 800 archaeological sites. The striking colors in petrified wood are derived from pure quartz, manganese oxide, and iron oxide producing white, blue, purple, black, brown, yellow, and red colors.
Arches National Park is known for its many natural sandstone arches. Landscape Arch is located at the end of Devil’s Garden Trailhead. Stretching 306 feet, it’s considered North America’s longest spanning arch.
The park used to be home to an ancient civilization, the Anasazi who lived there around 1500 B.C. Traces of their history can be found through rock art, sandstone granaries, and cliff dwellings scattered around the park.
Featuring over 100 caves, Carlsbad Caverns used to be part of an ancient underwater reef called Capitan Reef. Many fossilized marine species can be found on the land. The caverns themselves were formed by sulfuric acid in acid rain which slowly dissolved the limestones.
Joshua “Tree” is actually a misnomer as it falls under the same category as flowering grasses and orchids. Only 15 percent of the national park is open for visitors to explore, and the remaining 85 percent is wilderness.
The park is known for its old-growth bottomland hardwood forests which have some of the largest tree canopies on the East Coast. Towering champion trees are some of the notable trees that inhabit these woods.
A well-preserved fossilized skull of a saber-tooth cat was discovered by a young visitor in 2010. Fossils of other animals like marine reptiles and rhinos can also be found hidden among the layers of sediment. They’re estimated to date back to the late Eocene and Oligocene periods, over 30 million years ago.
The Pinnacles National Park was created when the now-extinct Neenach volcano erupted 23 million years ago. The park contains many caves that provide homes to 14 species of California bats. These caves were created by natural erosion when boulders fell below, filling the canyons.
Contrary to its name, The New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world, estimated to be between 10 to 360 million years old. It’s one of the few rivers in North America to flow from south to north, as most tend to flow from west to east.
What makes White Sands National Park so breathtaking and popular are the white dunes which are made up of gypsum. The park covers 275 square miles of white sands, making it the largest gypsum dune field in the world.
With spectacular towering rock spires, gorgeous lakes, scenic drives, and abundant wildlife, Custer State Park is a world of beautiful nature
Encompassing 71,000 acres in the Black Hills, Custer State Park is home to plentiful wildlife and adventure; camping, hiking, biking, swimming, fishing, or relaxing, there’s something here for everyone.
Over 2 million people from around the world visit Custer State Park every year and it’s easy to see why. With its combination of rolling hills, stunning granite peaks, and abundant wildlife, Custer is a uniquely beautiful location. The park itself can be seen and enjoyed in two to three days but I suggest a longer stay to enjoy the area around the park and all it has to offer. If you are planning a trip to South Dakota or want to be inspired, read on to find out all you need to know about this beautiful and unique destination.
History of Custer State Park
Custer State Park was born in 1919. Governor Peter Norbeck had long admired the beauty of the Black Hills of South Dakota and once elected governor of the state, he set out to permanently preserve the area. Once the park was created, Norbeck himself helped to plan the layout of roads and scenic vistas throughout the park. The twisty turns and narrow granite tunnels of the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road are designed to offer breathtaking views while blending with the scenery they traverse.
When asked about the routes he had planned throughout the park, Norbeck famously said “You’re not supposed to drive here at 60 miles per hour; to do the scenery justice you should drive at no more than 20. To do it full justice you should just get out and walk it.”
During the summer of 1927, President Calvin Coolidge spent three months visiting the Black Hills and Custer State Park in particular. He and Mrs. Coolidge stayed primarily at the State Game Lodge during this time, earning it the nickname the “Summer White House.”
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was responsible for many of the projects we currently enjoy in the park. From 1933 to 1941 they built the dams, bridges, and buildings that makeup Stockade Lake, Center Lake, Wildlife Station Visitor Center, the Mount Coolidge Lookout Tower, and most notably the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center.
Location of Custer State Park
Located in southwestern South Dakota, Custer State Park is a 30-minute drive from Rapid City, South Dakota. The drive south from Rapid City on Highway 79 is an easy and pleasant one offering impressive views of the Black Hills. Turn right onto Highway 36 and the main entrance to the park. Once you enter the park gates, the highway name changes to Highway 16A which can be a little confusing. Turning right onto Highway 16A takes you north on Iron Mountain Road to Mount Rushmore National Monument while continuing straight on Highway 16A takes you west on the park’s main road.
Two of the Park’s lodges (State Game Lodge and Legion Lake Lodge) and three of its campgrounds (Game Lodge Campground, Grace Coolidge Campground, and Legion Lake Campground) are located along this route. Turning south just past Legion Lake, one encounters Highway 87 which takes you to the Blue Bell Lodge and campground and Custer’s famed Wildlife Loop Road.
The area immediately surrounding the park is a tourist playground with scenic drives, national monuments (Mount Rushmore), and private attractions such as the Crazy Horse Monument. The town of Custer is located just outside the west entrance to the park and is convenient for restocking on fuel and groceries or for grabbing a bite to eat.
Geography of Custer State Park
Granite spires, stunning mountain views, and rolling grasslands all combine in this very special and scenic location. Located in Black Hills National Forest, Custer State Park encompasses approximately 71,000 acres of land.
The change in topography in this area is one part of what makes Custer so unique. Toward the south of the park there are rolling grasslands that provide a home for over 1,500 bison as well as pronghorn antelope, elk, wild burros, and prairie dogs. Toward the north part of the park, the elevation increases dramatically and tall granite spires appear to shoot out of the ground dozens of feet into the air. The sheer sides and steep drops from the spires create a magnificent landscape.
Woven throughout this landscape are several streams and lakes that further add to the beauty and ambience of the area. Taken together, Custer State Park offers a unique landscape that creates a stunning palette of colors, shapes, and textures that many consider to be unparalleled in its scenic beauty.
Wildlife in Custer is abundant and includes bison, deer, pronghorn antelope, elk, bighorn sheep, wild turkeys, coyotes, burros, and prairie dogs. While wildlife can be viewed throughout the park, the Wildlife Loop Road in the southern region of the park is known to have an abundance of animals that can be seen without even leaving your car. During our visit, I observed (and photographed) bison, pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, and Custer’s begging burros during our drive along the road.
The begging burros (as they are known) have inhabited the grasslands of Custer for nearly a century. Originally, these donkeys were used as pack animals to shuttle visitors between Sylvan Lake Lodge and Black Elk Peak (the highest peak east of the Rockies). When their services were no longer needed these animals were released into the wild to roam freely in the park.
The begging burros are extremely friendly and easily approachable. They’ve even been known to poke their heads into the windows of passing cars that stop long enough on the side of the road. Although park officials don’t recommend it, visitors enjoy feeding the burros that are eager to accept almost any handout that is offered.
The big wildlife draw in Custer is their herd of over 1,500 wild bison. The herd roams freely in the grasslands in the southern part of the park and has thrived in this area. Visitors on the Wildlife Loop Road are almost guaranteed to see bison during their drive. And it’s not uncommon to be caught in a “buffalo jam.”
This unique experience occurs when the bison herd stops on the roadway or crosses the roadway in the park. Don’t be surprised to find a car or truck surrounded by bison almost like a metal island in a sea of brown hides and horns. While not tame, the bison are also not easily intimidated by people or automobiles. This is truly a unique experience that would be hard to duplicate anywhere in the world outside of Custer State Park.
Almost every road in Custer can be considered a scenic drive! But, there are three that stand out above the others.
The Needles Highway (also known as Highway 87) is a beautiful drive that runs from Highway 16A in the park up to the northwest corner of Custer where Sylvan Lake is located. This 14-mile road is part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway and was once thought to be impossible to build by many engineers. However, through hard work and dedication, it was completed in 1922. This spectacular drive twists and turns its way through forests of pine and spruce, across sunny meadows, and up rugged mountains.
The highway’s name is derived from the rugged granite spires (tall granite towers) that rise majestically into the air. The road terminates at Sylvan Lake after passing through Needles Eye Tunnel, a one-lane tunnel carved into a mountain of granite that measures only 8 feet 4 inches wide by 11 feet 3 inches tall. With the many twists, turns, and narrow tunnels, this highway is definitely not RV-friendly so leave the rig at the campsite while enjoying this drive. Expect a 45-minute drive one-way from end to end.
Iron Mountain Road
Iron Mountain Road is the portion of Highway 16A that travels north after one enters the park from the east on Highway 36. This 17-mile stretch of highway is yet another example of determination and ingenuity. The road was specifically designed with 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, and three one-lane tunnels to force visitors to go slow in the hopes that they would enjoy and take in the scenery during their drive.
The southern portion of the road begins in Custer then leaves the park after a few miles and ends at Mount Rushmore National Monument. Along the way, visitors are treated to the scenic beauty of the Black Hills including many overlooks and beautiful pine forests. On your journey toward Mount Rushmore, you will cross over wooden “pigtail” bridges (bridges that loop over their road as they climb). As you near the end, be on the lookout for Doane Robinson Tunnel. This tunnel carved through the mountain is 13 feet 2 inches wide and 12 feet 2 inches tall and was designed to perfectly frame Mount Rushmore while you’re heading north. It is quite an impressive sight. This beautiful drive is not an RV-friendly stretch of highway so once again you’ll want to leave your rig parked while exploring this road. Expect a 60-minute drive one way along this route.
Wildlife Loop Road
As mentioned before, this 18-mile scenic loop travels through the south end of the park and winds through open grassy meadows and hills dotted with pine and crosses clear flowing streams. Depending on the day, you can see pronghorn antelope, deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, and the begging burros on your drive. But, perhaps the most well-known feature of the drive is Custer’s bison herd. At over 1,500 animals strong, this herd roams the grasslands in the park’s southern end and can almost always be seen from the road. We have seen and experienced cars completely surrounded by bison and it makes for an extremely unique experience. Depending on “buffalo jams,” and whether you stop to feed the burros, we recommend planning around 1 hour to 1½ hours for this drive.
The park offers many hiking opportunities that allow visitors to get off the beaten path and explore the park in an up close and personal way. In addition to the designed and marked trails, off-trail hiking also is encouraged in Custer and visitors are allowed to hike wherever they would like. Depending on the area of the park in which you hike, the trails differ greatly in their topography and geography.
Camping in Custer
Custer features 10 campgrounds, each with a unique feel, throughout the park:
Blue Bell Campground
Center Lake Campground
French Creek Horse Camp
French Creek Natural Area
Game Lodge Campground
Grace Coolidge Campground
Legion Lake Campground
Stockade North Campground
Stockade South Campground
Sylvan Lake Campground
Most campgrounds offer electric sites with water available at various locations throughout the campground. The lone dump station in the park is located at Game Lodge Campground.
Sylvan Lake is a beautiful body of water located in the northwest corner of Custer State Park. It can be accessed via the Needles Highway if you’re in the Park or by Highway 87 from the north. The Sylvan Lake area offers many activities to visitors; you can rent canoes or kayaks or try your hand at fishing for the trout, panfish, and bass found in its waters.
The loop trail that goes around the lake is 1.1 miles in length, mostly flat and comprised of packed gravel making it a relatively easy hike for most individuals. The views from the trail can be stunning as it traverses the shoreline and there are several large boulders along the way that kids and adults alike will enjoy scrambling to the top of in order to enjoy the breathtaking views from that vantage point. There is even a small swimming beach at the lake for those that are interested in cooling off on a hot summer day.
The nearby Sylvan Lake Lodge offers visitors a chance to grab lunch in the restaurant or stock up on drinks, snacks, and souvenirs while they are there. Due to the many activities and its scenic beauty, Sylvan Lake is quite popular and parking can be somewhat limited. So, we suggest arriving at the lake early in the day when crowds are somewhat minimized.
Custer State Park is home to a number of other activities as well. The streams in Custer are teaming with trout waiting to be caught. The trails and roads in Custer are perfect for biking and walking. Eagles and other birds fill the skies and are waiting to be seen by all those who are interested. And the lakes in the park are waiting for you to take a cool refreshing dip.
Truly Custer is a magnificent destination unlike any other we have experienced!
Annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup
Watch cowboys and cowgirls as they roundup and drive the herd of approximately 1,500 buffalo. Not only is the roundup a spectacular sight to see, it is also a critical management tool in maintaining a strong and healthy herd.
The Buffalo Roundup begins at 9:30 a.m. with the parking lots opening at 6:15 a.m. Guests must stay in the viewing areas until the herd is safely in the corrals, generally around noon. Breakfast is available at 6:15 a.m. in both viewing areas. Lunch is served at the corrals once the buffalo are rounded up. There is a fee for both meals.
Testing, branding, and sorting of the buffalo begins at 1 p.m. and lasts until approximately 3 p.m.
At the Annual Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival, up to 150 vendors offer their fine arts and crafts for sale including many South Dakota made products.
Start your morning with a pancake feed and enjoy on-going Western and Native American entertainment under the big top. All events and vendors will be located on the festival grounds across from the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center.
The annual roundup, held the last Friday in September, is open to the public. In 2022, the 57th annual Roundup is scheduled for Friday, September 30.
Park Size: 71,000 acres
Camping: 10 campgrounds with 341 campsites and 50 camping cabins, horse camp
Park entrance fees: $20 per vehicle (valid for 7 days); $36 for annual pass; vehicles traveling non-stop through the park on US Highway 16A do not need an entrance license
Operating hours: Open year-round (between October 1 and April 30, showers, flush toilets, and other water systems may be closed; vault toilets usually remain open)
Nearest towns: Custer, Rapid City, Hill City, Keystone
It’s not easy to commune with nature when you’re surrounded by hordes of fellow visitors
If you are looking to experience the splendor of America’s national parks and other popular outdoor destinations this summer, you likely won’t be alone. Given the resurgence of outdoor travel and road trips during the pandemic, many parks set all-time visitor records in 2021 and are expected to be at least as popular this year.
You’ll encounter trails and viewpoints full of tourists. As traffic jams and parking become ongoing problems, some national parks have instituted strict reservation systems. Yes, you can always find solitude in the vast wilderness of big parks like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone but you’ll still have to contend with traffic getting there.
This summer may be the time to try some alternative spots that offer some of the same features as their more famous neighbors. If you’re looking to dodge the lineups of slow-moving RVs and actually find a camping site, consider giving one of these lesser-known but still awe-inspiring destinations a try.
Sequoia National Forest instead of Yosemite National Park
Last year, Yosemite National Park hosted more than 3.3 million visitors with the biggest crowds visiting during the summer months. The spectacular views of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls lose luster after you’ve had to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic all day and then face selfie-stick-toting mobs at every viewpoint. Park lodging is often sold out a year in advance, campgrounds, are packed and the Valley takes on a circus-like atmosphere. To attempt to limit the crowds, Yosemite has instituted a reservation entry process for this year’s high season, lasting from May 20 through September 30.
Meanwhile, about two hours south, Sequoia National Forest boasts similarly beautiful nature with cheaper entrance fees and only a fraction of Yosemite’s visitors. What you lose from missing out on Yosemite’s famous monuments, you gain by enjoying peace, solitude, and the fresh air you originally sought from the outdoors experience. Nearby Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks also contend with crowds, particularly in their main thoroughfares.
Despite the wildfires that raged through the area in 2021, most of Sequoia National Forest’s campgrounds are already open for 2022 and the 1.1 million acres of the park still provide plenty of pristine forests to visit.
Lassen National Park instead of Yellowstone
For an alternative to Yellowstone National Park, take the trek to California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. Yellowstone has the iconic Old Faithful geyser and herds of bison. However, it also has herds of visitors in summer which can be as unpleasant as a close encounter with the cranky furry beasts. The more remote and often under-visited Lassen National Park has an equally entertaining collection of thermal features including the giggle-inducing hiking trails and viewpoints of “Bumpass Hell” and “Fart Gulch.”
While some segment of Lassen suffered from a major wildfire in 2021, much of the park remained untouched and most campgrounds will be open for the start of the summer season along with many of the popular trails.
White Mountain National Forest instead of Acadia National Park
New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest is a good alternative to Maine’s Acadia National Park. Given the record-setting 4 million visitors to Acadia National Park last year, it’s going to take a lot of work to find some solitude there this summer.
Instead, travel across state lines to the White Mountain National Forest and tackle the rugged beauty of the Presidential Traverse hiking trail. The full hike can be a challenge, as it goes along windswept peaks above the tree line but you’ll appreciate the peace and spectacular views you’ll earn along the way. The park offers plenty of more relaxing hiking trails as well.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument instead of the Grand Canyon
Instead of the Grand Canyon, take a trip to the Canyon de Chelly National Monument in northeastern Arizona. The Grand Canyon is a truly spectacular destination that should be on everyone’s bucket list. However, its millions of high-season visitors can make it feel like Disneyland at times—with the associated high prices and crowds. Instead, take a detour to explore Canyon de Chelly National Monument which features similarly stunning sandstone canyons as well as ancient cliff dwellings near the current residences of the Navajo Nation (which co-manages the park). The park charges no entry fees and has rangers leading free hikes and hosting educational evening programs.
While summer seems like a great time to visit America’s most famous National Parks and other high-profile outdoor destinations, expected high-season crowds may detract from your experience.
It’s worth the time to research and explore many of the lesser-known neighboring parks as alternative summer holiday spots. You can always return to Grand Canyon and Yosemite in the off-season and soak in some scenic seclusion then.
Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.
From exploring a hippie paradise to a taste bud tour, RVing with Rex reveals unique and unusual picks for the 18 best things to do in the US this summer. Your US bucket list just got (a lot) longer …
We could all use a break this summer. The last two summer travel seasons have been especially challenging for everyone—travelers, destinations, and small businesses alike. But 2022’s summer could be the biggest one yet for travel within the US and I’m here to help you experience the absolute best of it.
The best things to do this summer include many hidden gems and unique experiences. You’ll find plenty of tried-and-true staples too. But, as is my style at RVing with Rex, I tend to embrace under-the-radar spots as well as famous attractions. You’ll likely find things to do that you didn’t even know existed!
Believing the most authentic recommendations derive from personal experiences, the list highlights the places I’ve discovered and explored on one or more occasions. But, no matter where you plan to travel you’re bound to find something unique and fun to do this summer!
1. Hit All the Roadside Attractions on Arizona Route 66
Location: Oatman to Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Originally running from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California, Route 66 is easily one of the most recognizable and iconic highways in the world. It has endless cultural references and was a popular way for travelers to get from east to west and back for decades. The route has mostly been taken over by the I-40 but the stretch of Route 66 in Arizona is especially exciting and alluring. Dotted with ghost towns, Route 66 iconography, local diners, and one-of-a-kind shops, you’ll be delighted every inch of the way.
2. Admire Breathtaking Red Rock in Sedona
Location: Sedona, Arizona
Due to its distinctive culture, Sedona is truly a place unlike any other. Visitors can navigate remote canyons, rejuvenate at an energy vortex site, and experience the ancient culture of the Sinagua people. Throughout the red rock are multitudes of secluded viewpoints, cliff dwellings, and well-preserved petroglyphs. In downtown Sedona, you’ll find a vibrant art community dense with unique shops and galleries. Hikers and adventurous types will enjoy the various trails in Red Rock State Park and the renowned Pink Jeep off-road adventure tours.
3. Hit All Five of Utah’s National Parks
Plan a road trip to visit “The Mighty 5,” an unforgettable journey through Utah’s colorful Canyon Country. Utah is home to five remarkable National Parks—Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion. To see all of them on a road trip, start from Zion if you’re coming from the west or Arches if you’re coming from the east. On this beautiful drive, you’ll pass alien-like rock formations, sheer cliffs, and graceful arches. Note that in the summer, afternoon temperatures can be extremely hot.
4. Explore the Hippie Paradise of Woodstock
Location: Woodstock, New York
Located near the Catskill Mountains, this charming town lives up to its iconic namesake. People from all over the world recognize the name “Woodstock” yet most of them associate it with the crazy, free-spirited music festival. Fun fact: the festival wasn’t actually held in Woodstock but rather more than an hour away in Bethel. Though the name is famous, few people are familiar with the actual small town that boasts loads of personality. Somehow, it’s the perfect place to do a million activities or absolutely nothing.
5. Plunge into the Depths of the Earth at Carlsbad Caverns
Location: Carlsbad, New Mexico
Descend nearly 800 feet below ground into a series of completely dark, breathtaking caves.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is hidden within the remote parts of southeastern New Mexico. More than just a cave, Carlsbad Caverns is a completely immersive experience. Beginning with a several-mile descent from the cave opening, travelers will emerge into massive caverns full of magnificent rock formations, stalactites, stalagmites, and more. The paved decline is steep but accessible for most people. There is also an elevator available to transport visitors as needed.
6. Observe Stunning Artwork at Chihuly Garden and Glass
Location: Seattle, Washington
At Chihuly Garden and Glass, vibrant colors and organic shapes come together in spectacular visual exhibits. The long-term exhibition features a Garden, theater, eight galleries, and the breathtaking Glasshouse. The impressive glass art was fashioned by the institution’s namesake, Dale Chihuly, a prolific and talented artist.
7. Explore Historic Mansions along the Newport Cliff Walk
Location: Newport, Rhode Island
Come for the jaw-dropping mansions and stay for the scenic walking tour along the Rhode Island shoreline. Newport is best known for its sailing regattas and historic manors that run along the seaside Cliff Walk. The walk is a National Recreation Trail that spans 3.5 miles with multiple scenic overlooks along the way. Take a tour of The Breakers mansion along the walk and learn how New York’s elite families used to spend their summers. If you watched HBO’s The Gilded Age, then you’re probably planning your trip to visit the historic summer “cottages” already.
8. Experience Southern Coastal Charm in Ocean Springs, Mississippi
Location: Ocean Springs, Mississippi
This quaint, coastal town along the Gulf Coast is the perfect small-town beach getaway. The Mississippi Gulf Coast advertises itself as “The Secret Coast,” and Ocean Springs is a treasure. The quiet town has white sand beaches, a vibrant art scene, and a beautiful downtown area with restaurants, shops, and nightlife. Every fall, Ocean Springs hosts the famed Peter Anderson Arts & Crafts Festival but during the rest of the year, visitors can get a taste of the art scene at multiple galleries and museums in the area. If you’re looking for a summer 2022 beach getaway with a side of history and culture, then Ocean Springs is for you.
9. Wander Cobblestone Streets and Shoreline in Charleston
Location: Charleston, South Carolina
It’s easy to be transported back in time while exploring Charleston, the oldest city in South Carolina. Bordering the cobblestone streets are enormous trees and centuries-old Colonial and Victorian homes. Horse-drawn carriages clop through the moss-draped historic district. You can wade in Pineapple Fountain at Waterfront Park or through waves on Folly Beach. Over on Wadmalaw Island, Deep Water Vineyards offers six tasting pours and a souvenir glass for just $15. Even better, the top attraction in Charleston is the ambiance, free of charge.
10. Travel Back in Time at Mesa Verde National Park
Location: Cortez, Colorado
Marvel at the Mesa Verde National Park cliff dwellings that were once occupied by the Ancestral Pueblo people. Located in southwestern Colorado, this UNESCO World Heritage Site will transport you back in time almost a thousand years. Many archeological sites can be explored independently but Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America, requires a guided tour. Purchasing a ticket is worth it, but be aware that Cliff Palace won’t open to the public until July 1st due to road construction.
11. Experience the Magic of the Blue Ridge Parkway
Location: Virginia and North Carolina
There’s something about being on the Blue Ridge Parkway that instills a sense of calm and puts everything into perspective. The parkway, which is nearly 500 miles long, runs through the Appalachian Mountains and valleys of Virginia and North Carolina. The parkway is perfect for families and outdoor enthusiasts since it’s filled with endless trails, camping, and waterfalls. Drive through the winding roads and see for yourself why these rolling hills and lush greenery make the Blue Ridge Parkway “America’s Favorite Drive.”
12. Explore an Active Volcano at Mount Saint Helens
Location: Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington
If you want to explore an active volcano, go to Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument. There are several visitor centers in the area for people who want a deep dive into the mountain’s fascinating geological history. They help tell the story of the eruption in the ’80s that gave Mount St Helens its distinctive crater-shaped top.
13. Climb a Mountain
Location: Mount Lemmon, Catalina Highway/Sky Island Scenic Byway
Mount Lemmon, an oasis in the middle of the desert, is 20 degrees cooler than Tucson on average. Driving up the mountain, the plants slowly change from cactus and shrubs to oak and ponderosa pines. The area offers hiking, camping, and fishing. While you are up there, consider stopping by the Mount Lemmon Cookie Cabin for cookies, pizza, chili, and sandwiches. While you’re at 9,000 feet, check out the Arizona stars at the Mount Lemmon Skycenter.
14. Tube down the Guadalupe River
Location: Guadalupe River State Park, Texas Hill Country
Tubing down the Guadalupe River is about as Texan as it gets, and this state park welcomes you with four miles of river frontage. Just one hour from San Antonio and two hours from Austin, Guadalupe River State Park is also one of the more popular camping destinations in the state, particularly during the summertime when swimming in its cool waters is extra appealing for families and kids. When you’re not tubing, paddling, or taking a dip, embark on its hiking and biking trails.
15. Escape to San Antonio’s Riverwalk
Location: San Antonio, Texas
A century ago it started as a flood management project, but today San Antonio’s Riverwalk is a flourishing urban waterway and one of the most cherished attractions in Texas. Visitors can drift underneath cypress trees by hopping on board one of the iconic riverboat tours that ply the nearly 15 miles of waterway. The banks of the river come alive all day (and all night) with musical performers, endless shops and boutiques, and numerous dining options. Plan your visit during the week of July 4th to experience the Bud Light Stars, Stripes, & Light exhibition when one thousand American flags will line the banks of the river.
16. Feel the breeze at Madera Canyon
Location: Madera Canyon, Arizona
With an average high of 102, June 29 has historically been Tucson’s most often hottest day of the year. So says Weatherspark.com. From June through August, Madera Canyon’s average summer high in the low ’90s may still seem warmish but a typical light breeze and the shade from its dozen or so unique Oak species make it nice enough to bust out the cooler and camp chairs and head down I-19. The coolest low-key adventure there is the Madera Canyon Nature Trail; it’s 5.8 miles out and back with a 921-foot elevation gain, easy for hikers. Take your binoculars because Madera Canyon is rated the third-best birding destination in the US.
17. Take a Taste Bud Tour at Blue Bell Creameries
Location: Brenham, Texas and Sylacauga, Alabama
Learn what all fuss is about at one of the most iconic creameries in America. Can’t decide which flavor is for you? Try them all because, hey, it’s only $1 a scoop! Since 1907, Blue Bell Ice Cream has won a special place in the heart of Texans. Many would say it’s the best ice cream in the US. For anyone caring to dispute that claim, you can’t know until you try it for yourself and there is no better place to do that than straight at the source. See how the scrumptious stuff is made and learn about the history of the iconic brand before treating yourself to a sample at Blue Bell’s ice cream parlor. At just $1 a scoop, it’s one of the best things to do in the US to beat the heat this summer!
18. Refresh and Relax at Patagonia Lake
Location: Patagonia Lake State Park, 400 Patagonia Lake Road, Nogales
Whether it’s an ocean, river, or lake, water is the break everyone needs from the hot Arizona sun. Patagonia Lake State Park is an escape offering shade, water, boating activities, camping, picnic tables, and grills for summer barbecuing. The park has fully equipped cabin reservations available but these sell out fast. If you’re late to the reservation game, check out their boat-in campsites or pick from 105 of their developed campsites.
I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.
Lyme disease can be a crippling condition for many individuals
What is Lyme disease?
The origins of Lyme disease, or borreliosis, are widely disputed. From what I understand, it was first recorded in the 1970s in Lyme, Connecticut. In 1982, the spirochete bacteria that causes Lyme disease was discovered by Willy Burgdorfer and was named Borrelia burgdorferi. Since then, the rate of Lyme disease has grown and now Lyme disease is the most prevalent tick-borne illness in the United States and Canada.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are nearly 500,000 people diagnosed with Lyme disease every year. Many natural health practitioners believe that Lyme disease and other tick-borne pathogens are grossly under-diagnosed and frequently missed. One 2018 study published in Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland) suggests that 12 percent of Americans could have been infected with Lyme by 2015, some 55 million people. To say this chronic illness is on the rise is an understatement.
A tick bite, usually from the eastern black-legged tick or the western black-legged tick, is the most common vector for Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
Lyme disease can have devastating consequences on the body because it tends to create systemic inflammation, hinder immune function, and potentially trigger autoimmune disease and chronic illness. Oftentimes, these patients are so immune-suppressed that their bodies can’t fight other infections they’re exposed to.
Lyme disease symptoms
There’s a wide range of symptoms for those struggling with tick-borne illness. Symptom manifestation can vary with each individual. If caught early, Lyme disease and other tick-borne pathogens can be treated relatively quickly. If left undetected, various chronic health concerns can arise, potentially contributing to a systemic inflammatory response, autoimmune disease, and chronic illness.
Many people who contract Lyme disease don’t recall having a tick bite because ticks can be so small. Furthermore, erythema migrans, the classic bulls-eye rash, are only reported about 70 percent of the time. Due to unreliable diagnostic criteria, these infections are also easy to miss on the frequently used laboratory tests.
The bull’s-eye rash
As mentioned, an erythema migrans rash doesn’t show up in at least 30 percent of Lyme cases. When it develops, it’s usually within 3 to 30 days after the initial bite. The rash starts relatively small and gradually expands over many days. It can reach diameters of up to 12 inches or more and appear on any area of the body. Sometimes, the skin clears as the rash enlarges, becoming a bull’s-eye shape.
Acute Lyme symptoms (3 to 32 days after tick bite)
Symptoms are varied and can include a headache, weakness, fever, fatigue, and muscle soreness. joint pain, neck pain, flu-like symptoms, swollen lymph nodes, bull’s-eye rash, dizziness, shortness of breath, nerve pain, mood changes, respiratory infections, anxiety, and panic attacks.
Why is Lyme disease difficult to treat?
Lyme disease is a dreaded health condition because it’s difficult to treat. This is because Borrelia burgdorferi Spirochetes can easily change their form and adapt to treatment methods, especially antibiotics. These forms are known as persisters because they can take on various sizes and shapes, changing from well-known forms to altered morphologies.
Many believe that Lyme disease becomes chronic because a round of antibiotics is often an insufficient treatment and Borrelia can adapt in the face of antibiotics. This is why a functional, holistic approach can be valuable.
Other tick-borne diseases
In addition to Borrelia Burgdorferi, ticks carry many pathogens including bacteria, parasites, and viruses that can contribute to acute and chronic illness. Listed here are some of the most common tick-borne illnesses and co-infections associated with Lyme. There are many more. With many overlapping symptoms, it’s sometimes difficult to ascertain exactly what an individual is dealing with.
Anaplasmosis: An infection caused by Anaplasma phagocytophilum that presents with flu-like symptoms and can be fatal if left untreated.
Babesiosis: A result of microscopic parasites transmitted through various tick species. Symptoms include fever, chills, drenching sweats, anxiety, shortness of breath, racing heart, brain fog, and nausea. Sometimes hemolytic anemia results from the parasites attacking red blood cells.
Bartonella: Infections from Bartonella can cause fever, headaches, swollen lymph nodes, abdominal pain, fatigue, and poor appetite. It has also been associated with brain-based symptoms including depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and Pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome.
Ehrlichiosis: Ehrlichiosis symptoms include flu-like symptoms including fatigue, fever, chills, headaches, and muscle aches and pains.
Mycoplasma: Mycoplasma is the smallest bacterial species known. Symptoms include fever, cough, bronchitis, sore throat, headache, and tiredness. Sometimes pneumonia is a result of mycoplasma infection.
Rickettsiosis: Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is included in this group of infections and can be contracted anywhere in the United States. Common symptoms include fever, body aches, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and headache. It causes a red rash on the palms of the hands in 50 to 85 percent of people.
Viruses: Ticks can carry novel viruses including the Powassan virus, South Bay Virus, Laurel Lake virus, Suffolk virus, various black-legged tick phleboviruses, and numerous others.
How to prevent Lyme disease?
Like any disease, Lyme disease is best avoided. While many of the most common diseases today can be held at bay with proper diet and exercise, Lyme disease requires special precautions to avoid the ticks that spread it.
Awareness in nature
Ticks usually hang out in wooded areas with lots of shrubs, tall grasses and weeds, and leaf litter. Ticks will attach themselves to whoever brushes by. When hiking or walking in nature, stay in the middle of the path and avoid contact with the low-lying brush. Wearing light-colored clothing and long pants provides a protective barrier for the skin against ticks. Tuck pant legs into the socks to safeguard this barrier.
Highest incidence of Lyme disease
According to the CDC, the areas with the highest occurrence of Lyme Disease are in the Northeast and include the states along the Atlantic seaboard from Maine in the north to Virginia in the south and Minnesota and Wisconsin in the Midwest.
Use tick repellant
Conventional recommendations to use DEET to deter ticks may prove helpful to avoid tick bites. Using essential oils in insect repellent sprays and embedded into flea and tick collars on pets is effective and safe. Research indicates that lemon eucalyptus is also a strong tick deterrent and can be as effective as DEET.
Some services spray your yard with garlic oil which is a natural tick deterrent. Many who live in Lyme endemic areas find this protective measure vitally important in preventing tick-borne pathogens from infecting their loved ones and pets.
Perform daily tick checks
An obvious, but sometimes overlooked step in avoiding tick-borne illness is conducting proper tick checks when coming inside after time in nature. This should be done very thoroughly, looking in all areas of the body, especially creases.
It is helpful to use a magnifier and a flashlight to be able to spot a tick since many are the size of a poppyseed.
How to properly remove a tick?
Removing an attached tick as soon as you find it is imperative to preventing illness because the longer ticks are attached, the greater their propensity to transmit pathogens. To remove an embedded tick, use a pair of needle-nose tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Twisting or jerking can cause mouthparts to remain embedded in the skin.
There are various tick removing instruments on the market as well, follow the instructions for the specific instrument when removing a tick with it. Once the tick has detached, examine the bite site to ensure the mouthparts were completely removed. Wash your hands with soap and water.
The lavender essential oil has powerful antimicrobial properties and may help kill pathogens. You can apply it (diluted in a carrier oil or neat, depending on the sensitivity of the skin) every five minutes for the first 30 to 40 minutes after removing the tick.
Testing a tick
After removing the tick, it should be placed in a sealed plastic bag with a moist paper towel or cotton ball for proper pathogen testing. Testing a tick can provide insight into infections you may have been exposed to. Any tick-borne pathogen is important to treat as soon as possible so that chronic infection doesn’t set in, regardless of how the tick tests. TickReport and IGeneX offer reliable tick testing. Keep in mind that a tick-testing positive is not a guarantee of infection. If you don’t wish to test the tick, place it in a piece of tape and throw it away—preferably outside of the home.
I know runners who have suffered a tick bite and ended up with Lyme disease. I’ll take an angry moose any day.
See and explore one of the largest and most colorful petrified wood sites in the world
It isn’t the colorful landscapes, the winding trails, the fresh air, or even the wide-open spaces that make the Petrified Forest so interesting—though it offers all of those things. Petrified Forest is home to the world’s largest collection of petrified wood. Its lifecycle began 225 million years ago when an ancient forest was buried beneath a river system where it laid dormant for millennia.
Fast forward to 60 million years ago—that is when the Colorado Plateau began uplifting to expose the trees to oxygen, fracturing them into large pieces that lay upon Earth today for us all to go and see. It’s amazing to look at. The exterior appears just like any wooden tree bark does but upon touch, it is the smoothest, hardest material you’ll ever feel. Flip it over and you’ll see a vibrantly colored, ornately designed interior made of quartz that glints with brilliance in every shift of light.
Perhaps most remarkable is that anyone can pick up a piece and examine the effects of wood exposed to the forces of nature spanning millennia. Wrap your mind around that for a moment—you can hold in your hand a piece of Earth that is 225 million years old. That alone is incredible.
But the wonder doesn’t stop there. The park’s north side is home to colorful badlands at the Painted Desert and Blue Mesa where I was the most enchanted. Here the blue, purple, and ivory sculpted hills are topped with pieces of quartz. There are both petroglyphs and ancient ruins in several areas of the park that tell the story of primitive cultures and peoples.
The Park’s fallen tree fossils mostly date from the Late Triassic Epoch—a massive 225 million years ago. That means that the T-Rex that lived only 65 million years ago was much closer to our time than these fossils. Other popular activities include hiking and horse riding in this vibrant and colorful wilderness.
The sediments of the Late Triassic Epoch that contain all of these trees are part of the Chinle Formation. The Late Triassic was when dinosaur life was at its most spectacular and so this is one of the sites that dinosaur lovers should visit. This formation is stunningly colorful and is where the Painted Desert gets its name. There are some fossilized animals in this park—notably the large flying reptiles and phytosaurs.
Fun Fact: Pterodactyls are not dinosaurs
Over 200 million years ago, this part of what is now Arizona was a lush landscape filled with flourishing trees and other kinds of vegetation. But this was destroyed in a large volcanic explosion and the remains of this forest were preserved and embedded in the volcanic ash and water.
And there is wind—amazing wind that continues to erode Earth, exposing more wood, and shaping what is already there. Like all of the parks, once I dug in and learned more about the reason the park was protected in the first place, I wanted to stay much, much longer.
If history and science aren’t your things, there is another unique draw here—this is where you can get the best of American kitsch while stepping foot onto the Mother Road: America’s Historic Route 66. Route 66 in its original form is no longer in existence but at Petrified Forest, you can visit the only section of the famed road existing inside a national park.
Nearby in the town of Holbrook lives the classic Wigwam Motel—on the National Register of Historic Places—providing a glimpse into the mid-20th century golden age of travel.
Route 66 is a classic destination that all should visit at least once in their lives. But the Mother Road won’t transport your mind’s eye to a place and time where ancient birds flew before dinosaurs roamed the planet hundreds of millions of years ago; for that experience, you’ll need to visit Petrified Forest, National Park. This is one of those places where time and age are your companions. One breath in and one lookout and you can truly sense and feel the tale of prehistoric life on Earth.
After many millions of years of being buried, the sediment has been eroding and exposing the forest entombed within it. Today the petrified wood has been turned into quartz.
The park boasts more than just the Petrified Forest. There are 13,000 years of human history to discover at the park. One of the main human traditions includes a nearly 800-year-old 100 room dwelling. There are around 600 archeological sites in the national park including various petroglyphs. These lands had been inhabited by pueblos but it was abandoned by around 1400.
Hiking is one of the best ways to explore the Petrified Forest National Park and there are several designated hiking trails crisscrossing the park. These trails range from less than half a mile to about three miles.
Length: 1.2 miles one way
Trailheads: Tawa Point and Painted Desert Visitor Center
Enjoy the tranquility of the grassland as the trail leads from scenic Tawa Point to the Painted Desert Visitor Center. In Hopi ideology, Tawa refers to the Sun Spirit, the Creator of the World. The Hopi are one of several current Native American groups who are connected to the rich and varied history of the Petrified Forest.
Painted Desert Rim Trail
Length: 1 mile round trip
Trailheads: Tawa Point and Kachina Point
This unpaved trail winds through the rim woodland, a place for chance encounters with many species of plants and animals and spectacular views of the Painted Desert.
Puerco Pueblo Trail
Length: 0.3 miles loop
Trailhead: Puerco Pueblo parking area
A paved walk amidst the remains of a hundred-room pueblo occupied by the ancestral Puebloan people over 600 years ago. Petroglyphs can be viewed along the south end of the trail. Please do not climb on the boulders or walls and do not touch the petroglyphs.
Descending from the mesa, this alternately paved and gravel trail loop offers the unique experience of hiking among badland hills of the bluish bentonite clay as well as petrified wood. Numerous plant and animal fossils have been found by paleontologists in the sedimentary layers of Blue Mesa.
Length: 0.75 mile loop
Trailhead: Crystal Forest parking area
Named for the presence of beautiful crystals that can be found in the petrified logs, this trail offers one of the best opportunities to experience the petrified wood deposits.
Length: 0.4 mile loop
Location: Behind Rainbow Forest Museum
Giant Logs features some of the largest and most colorful logs in the park. “Old Faithful” at the top of the trail is almost ten feet wide at the base. A trail guide is available at Rainbow Forest Museum.
No accommodation is available within the park. Boondocking, primitive camping, and pulling off to spend the night in a parking area are not permitted.
The gateway to the park is the town of Holbrook. It is around 20 miles to the west of the park and offers a full range of accommodation options. We used OK RV Park as our home base while exploring Petrified National Park. Easily accessible from I-40, the 150 pull-through gravel sites offer water and sewer connections and the choice of 30 or 50 amp electric service.
Size: 93,533 acres with more than half as dedicated Wilderness area
Date established: December 9, 1962 (established as a National Monument by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1906)
Location: Northeast Arizona (the nearest town is Holbrook)
Park elevation: Averages 5,400 feet
Weather: Petrified Forest National Park is a semi-arid grassland. Temperatures range from above 100 degrees to well below freezing. About 10 inches of moisture comes during infrequent snow in the winter and often violent summer thunderstorms. Check out the forecast before you arrive and plan accordingly.
Operating hours: Every day year-round (closed on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day). Park hours are 8 am to 6 pm. You must enter the park before 5 pm. Remember that this is Mountain Standard year-round as Arizona does not observe Daylight Saving Time.
Park entrance fee: $25 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days
Recreational visits (2021): 590,334
Roads: Historic Route 66 and I-40 run through the park
Wild animals in the park: Bobcats, pronghorns, coyotes, and over 200 species of birds
How the park got its name: Petrified Forest was named after a wilderness of 225 million-year-old trees that have, over time, turned into solid quartz (and not from being petrified with fear)
Iconic site in the park: The colorful Painted Desert that stretches from the Grand Canyon is the best-known landmark at Petrified Forest and it greets you right as you cross through the northern boundary of the park. It was given its name by Spanish explorers who thought the clay and mudstone badlands looked like a sunset painted onto the landscape. This landmark is a protected Wilderness area so you won’t be exploring its interior by car (although there are viewpoints that you can pull up to). The best way to explore it is to head out on foot on a 1-mile unpaved loop trail where you can see the picturesque rim from a different vantage point.
A must-see cultural stop nearby is at the 100-year-old Painted Desert Inn where you can view in real life restored mural art created by famed Hopi artist Fred Kabotie.
Did you know?
Petrified Forest National Park has a world class fossil record with artifacts dating to the Triassic Period, 200 million years ago, before the Jurassic Period when dinosaurs roamed our home planet. The Triassic era is known as the “Dawn of the Dinosaurs.”
Petrified Forest is home to fossils of massive crocodile-like creatures known as Phytosaurs as well as remnants from 13,000 years of human history including the remains of villages, tools, and grinding stones.
Archeological relics prove that humans have lived in the area for more than 10,000 years.
Some of the trees in the park measure up to 200 feet—about the length of the wingspan of a 747 jet.
Petrified Forest is the only national park where a segment of Route 66 exists.
On the wall of the historic Painted Desert Inn you can visually wander along the path of the Native American people in the area as depicted in a painting by famed Hopi artist, Fred Kapotie.
Quite a forest of petrified trees was discovered today…they are converted into beautiful specimens of variegated jasper. One trunk was measured ten feet in diameter, and more than one hundred feet in length…