The Best of Zion

Zion National Park brims with awe-inspiring views and outdoor adventures

In the 1860s, Mormon pioneers settled in what is now known as Zion National Park in southern Utah. When they arrived they thought it to be so beautiful, holy with its towering natural cathedrals made of rock that they called it Zion, a nod to Little Zion found in the Bible’s Old Testament. To them, it was a sacred dwelling. It still holds sacred reverence to those who visit it today and is without a doubt one of America’s most beloved national parks.

I will leave the story of the history of the park to another time and focus on what we know best: places to explore when visiting the heavenly landscape. I’ve been to Zion several times and managed to pick up some new spots on each visit. Without further ado, here are my picks for the best of Zion.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon Overlook Trail

The Canyon Overlook Trail is a gem of a hike in Zion. This is definitely one of the best hikes at Zion. It’s short, it’s fun, and it takes you to an awesome viewpoint overlooking Zion Canyon. It’s also the ideal sunset hike for those who love canyon views but aren’t up to navigating the famous—and more treacherous—Angel’s Landing hike. This is a hike that is perfect for all ages and ability levels. If this is your first or even your second time in Zion put the Canyon Overlook Trail on your list of things to do.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Angel’s Landing and West Rim Trail

Angel’s Landing is THE classic Zion hike and one of the world’s most famous hikes. The first four miles bring hikers along the West Rim Trail that leads to Scout’s Lookout from where you can take in the views while deciding whether you have the guts and desire to brave the final one-mile climb along the narrow canyon spine with support chains in hand to the landing.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This last section is not for those who fear heights, exposure, and crowds while at serious heights while facing exposure. Fatalities are not common but they have occurred and like all hikes and adventures in any national park safety is the responsibility of the traveler.

Don’t do it if you don’t feel comfortable climbing a cliff-face (you are not alone). You can still enjoy the hike along the West Rim Trail. There are incredible views the entire way up to Scout’s Landing—the switchbacks criss-crossing the valley floor are incredibly photogenic. This is not a trail for people with a fear of heights or small children.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Emerald Pools

This is a choose-your-own-adventure area in the park with three main hikes among lush vegetation leading to different water features at each. At an elevation gain of 623 feet, parts of it are quite steep so make sure you wear sturdy shoes and bring lots of water.

The lower pool is perfect for those desiring a relaxed wander and for those with strollers and wheelchairs ending at a collection of mountain streams and small pools. The middle trail is a more moderate hike gaining 150 feet leading to an overlook of the pools found on the lower trail and small waterfalls, and the upper pool is a strenuous climb up 350 feet to a waterfall that streams down from a cliff.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Narrows

Zion: a river runs through it. For millions of years, the Virgin River has been carving its way through layers of rock forming the Zion Narrows. And you can walk on water through the Virgin River while exploring it. This is an iconic hike in the park and it is easy to know why after braving it. Decked out in a dry suit—Zion Outfitter in the nearby town of Springdale can hook you up with water-repellent gear and info—you will make way on foot along a 30-mile wide riverbed beneath limestone canyon walls towering 1,000 feet above the way early explorers and natives once did.

There is no trail so-to-speak, the trail is the riverbed. Sublime! Permits are required and water level and weather are factors in whether or not a visit there is possible as flash floods in the park occur often during peak season and are a danger.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Riverside Walk Trail

If you’re not ready to commit to The Narrows hike above, you can still enjoy some of the epic views of Zion’s scenic Virgin River as it cuts through the stunning canyon on this easy riverside walk.

This hike begins at the shuttle stop 9 (Temple of Sinawava) which is located at the end of the Scenic Highway. From there, you’ll make your way along a concrete path between the Virgin River and a steep canyon wall. (Side trails along the river make a nice alternative for strolling in more solitude.)

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Observation Point

Observation Point provides one of the best views in Zion National Park but is underrated compared to Angels Landing and the Narrows. This trail is perfect for those who want to avoid the crowds at Angels Landing but still want incredible views. From the Observation Point summit, you look across Zion Canyon. You can even look down upon Angels Landing.

This trail is incredibly strenuous with some steep drop-offs. The most popular route starts at the Weeping Rock trailhead. You’ll climb steep switchbacks from the start-up to Echo Canyon, the perfect shaded spot for a rest.

After passing through this shaded area you’ll climb along sheer cliff edges to the top of Zion Canyon. After the climb, you’ll be rewarded with views from the top of Observation Point, the best in the park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watchman Trail

Guarding the park’s southern entrance, the Watchman is arguably the most iconic scene and provides some of the best sunset photography. There is a 3-mile trail leading to a lookout of the towering peak but this entry refers to the viewpoint as seen from Canyon Junction with the Virgin River winding right through the middle of the scene.

The hike ends with a phenomenal view of the Temples, Towers, and lower Zion Canyon. You can see Watchman Peak from here as well and all of Springdale below. Hikers rave about the quality of the light and epic views in the early morning here.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pa’rus Trail

The Pa’rus Trail is one of the newer and most accessible trails in Zion National Park. It is the only trail in Zion open to bicycles and pets and is also one of the few wheelchair-accessible trails in the park. Starting at the South Campground just north of the Visitor Center, this wide, paved trail skirts the Virgin River in the flat and open lower section of Zion Canyon and ends at the Canyon Junction. This trail is great for a leisurely stroll at sunrise or sunset and you are likely to see big and small wildlife from butterflies and birds to mule deer.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and Tunnel

Driving the 6-mile Mt. Carmel Highway through the park provides visitors easy access to viewpoints while offering that winding-road experience. It is easily accessible throughout the park’s most popular area and the richly brick-colored highway with canary-yellow stripes plays really well visually against the soft color of the canyons.  

A few miles along the highway past the Visitor Center you will cross through the Mt. Carmel Tunnel, completed in 1930, a landmark with a rich history that at the same time allows modern travelers like us passage THROUGH a mile of canyon in what feels like the dark of night.  

Kolob Canyon, Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kolob Canyon

Zion’s popularity certainly draws in the crowds and for some people this can be a bit overwhelming. For a pleasant escape from the busyness take a trip to the far side of the park and the Kolob Canyons.

This lesser-visited area is almost as spectacular as the main area of the park. Deep canyons and stunning scenery will leave you awed. The most popular activity and the one that provides the most reward for the least amount of energy is the five-mile Kolob Canyons Road. Strategically placed viewpoints afford incredible views out over the surrounding countryside.

Kolob Canyon, Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For those interested in venturing off on a hiking trail several good options exist. Of the 10-plus hikes available one not to be missed is the Timber Creek Overlook. This one-mile trek is easy with wonderful views along the way and especially at the end.

Kolob Canyons is about an hour from the main park gates. You’ll need to head back out to Interstate 15, head north, and take exit 40. The exit is well marked with National Park signs.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping

There are full-service RV parks outside the park gate but camping within the park is a whole other experience. Watching birds and wildlife flitting about the campgrounds, sitting around a fire ring in the evening, and peering up at the night sky creates a different set of memories than simply exploring Zion by day.

Watchman Campground and South Campground are the two main camping areas in the park and both offer beautiful natural surroundings and well-spaced sites. These two campgrounds are close to each other near the West Gate entrance to the park.

A third much smaller and more isolated campground is located in a separate section of the park at almost 8,000 feet. This is Lava Point Campground on Kolob Terrace Road about 50 minutes from the Zion Canyon section of the park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More great places to explore in Utah:

Worth Pondering…

It is a place where a family can rest at streamside after a pleasant morning hike.

It is a vast labyrinth of narrow canyons where one can become hopelessly lost, shrinking to invisibility beneath dark, towering walls of stone.

One may feel triumph and exhilaration, or awesome smallness atop Angels Landing; thirst and fatigue, or a rewarding weariness, on the return trek from the backcountry.

Perhaps one’s view of Zion is in the eyes of the beholder.

—Wayne L. Hamilton, The Sculpturing of Zion

Alabama: 15 Road Trips Ideas for Every Interest

No matter what your interest is, Alabama has a trail for that

Take a journey back in time, explore Alabama’s rich cultural heritage, see the wonder of the spring or fall bird migration, or just enjoy a peaceful drive through a blend of brilliant autumn foliage. Alabama has great adventures for every interest on the many tours and trails just waiting to be discovered.

Alabama Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No matter what your interest is, Alabama has a trail for that. I’m not talking about hiking, biking, or walking trails. I’m talking about road trips that wind their way across the state and highlight the state’s diversity and history. There is a trail for every interest. Are you into art? There is a trail for that. History? There is a trail for that.

The Alabama Department of Tourism has established 19 different trails that take visitors to incredible history, natural wonders, dining, and more. Let me introduce you to the fabulous trails of exploration in Alabama.

Audubon Bird Sanctuary on Dolphin Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nature Trails 

We’ll begin with a collection of stops that highlight Alabama’s incredible beauty and wildlife.

Dauphin Island Sea Lab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. A Circle of Colors Trail

As the greens of summer surrender to glittering yellow poplars, scarlet dogwoods, orange maples, and golden hickories, Alabama unfolds its patchwork quilt of color. Fall colors begin showing in the mountains of North Alabama in early October and then sweep across the region. Colors will be at their peak from late October to early November.

The Circle of Colors Trail is a winding circuitous route that takes you across the northern half of the state from Oak Mountain State Park in Birmingham to the Bankhead National Forest near Huntsville and points in between to experience glorious fall colors in the Southern Appalachians.

Audubon Bird Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Alabama Birding Trail 

Alabama is a birding paradise with forests, mountains, meadows, swamps, and beaches creating a plethora of avian habitats. Even if you aren’t a diehard birder, you will love visiting one of the 280 stops along the Alabama Birding Trail that takes you to some breathtaking landscapes and of course, opportunities to spot over 430 species of birds—bald eagles, osprey, a variety of tanagers, well, you get the idea. 

The birding trail has been divided up into eight separate geologic regions: the Appalachian Highlands, Black Belt, Coastal, North Alabama, Piedmont Plateau, Piney Woods, West Alabama, and Wiregrass Regions.

Flower Trails

Alabama is dotted with gorgeous botanical gardens that brighten every season with brilliantly colored and fragrant blooms. And there is a trail for that.

Alabama Gulf Coast © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Alabama Garden Trail

Gorgeous, immaculately-maintained landscapes are on display all across the state, and thanks to the wide range of climates and types of soil in Alabama, you will find a variety of stunning settings as you travel.

The Alabama Garden Trail takes you to six spectacular gardens from Bellingrath Gardens near Mobile where over 300 species of azaleas light up the 35-acre estate and rows of live oak bring a Southern charm to the grounds of the Huntsville Botanical Garden in the north where limestone columns from the old historic courthouse act as the focal point for the expansive grounds.

The trail also makes stops at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Mobile Botanical Gardens, and Dothan Botanical Gardens as well as Aldridge Gardens in Hoover near Birmingham.

Art and Antique Trails 

Whether you are looking to purchase antiques, collectibles, or an inspiring work of art, travel the backroads of Alabama on these aptly named trails.

Alabama mural © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Alabama Mural Trail

Towns and cities big and small across Alabama have embraced mural art to grace the sides of buildings and bring a sense of community to the town.

The Alabama Mural Trail leads you to a diverse set of detailed mural art that brings to life moving moments in the town’s history like a depiction of the Freedom Rider’s bus from the height of the Civil Rights Movement in Anniston, historical figures like the almost photo-like mural of the Temptations lead singer Eddie Kendricks who was born in Union Springs, or the dazzling nightlife of Mobile brought to life in the Bar Light mural along the city’s Dauphin Street.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Alabama Antique Trail

From upscale galleries to multivendor malls, the Alabama Antique Trail provides a mixture of antiques and vintage collectibles throughout the state. Discover items from Alabama family estates, original pieces from antebellum homes, and European and Oriental imports selected from abroad by antique dealers or brought by early settlers. The trail offers glassware, pottery, silver, porcelain, military items, books, art, signs, historical papers, and American, French, Japanese, Chinese and English furnishings from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries.

Stop highlights include visits to the Antique Mall of Memories in Alexander City, rummaging through the aisles in the historic 1935 Bank of Dadeville at Old Bank Antiques, and Winter Valley Antiques in Cullman that spans two buildings, one of which was once a chicken coop.

Fort Toulouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History Trails 

Alabama’s many history trails lead to spectacular ornate antebellum homes, sites from the Civil Rights Movement, Native American historical sites, and more, all with helpful and knowledgeable guides.

Mobile walking tour© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. April Walking Tours

Many of the towns across the state hold annual historic walking tours annually in April where you will visit historic antebellum mansions such as the Oakleigh and Conde-Charlotte mansions in Mobile, centuries-old cemeteries including the Florence City Cemetery that was established in 1819, and sites of the Civil Rights Movement such as the Rosa Parks bus stop and the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery.

Community leaders will guide these free tours through the historic districts or courthouse square areas of their hometowns. The hour-long tours start at 10:00 a.m. on April 2, 9, 16, 23, and 30.

Creek Indian houses © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Civil War Trail 

The Alabama Civil War Trail not only includes battlefields but also many other historic locations that bring the story of those tumultuous years to life.

Stops along the route include visits to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery where Jeff Davis was sworn in as the president of the Confederacy, the Winter Building (also in Montgomery) where the order to fire on Fort Sumter in South Carolina was sent by telegraph thus beginning the war, and Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park in McCalla where the enormous stone furnace that once made munitions for the Confederacy has been completely rebuilt.

Along the coast, the Battle of Mobile Bay Civil War Trail spotlights Fort Morgan and historic Fort Gaines.

Jasmine Hill Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Native American Trail 

For thousands of years before white settlement, the place that is today called Alabama was home to many different cultural groups of Native Americans.

The history of Native Americans in Alabama is bittersweet. The Native American Trail allows us to explore their bittersweet history in the state from its earliest residents 10,000 years ago at Russell Cave National Monument in Bridgeport and Mound Island in Mobile to the tragedies that led to the Creek Indian War at Fort Mims in Stockton and the eventual start of the Trail of Tears with the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.

Fort Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Covered Bridge Trail 

Along the dusty backroads of Alabama, you will be treated to a rare sight. The state once had many covered bridges that took horses and pedestrians across narrow gorges. Today, the number has dwindled but these bridges are still exciting pieces of history to view.

Some have been moved to historic locations like the oldest bridge, the 1850 Coldwater Creek Covered Bridge in Calhoun County while others remain in place where they have stood the test of time including the longest remaining in the state, the 324-foot Swann Bridge over the Black Warrior River in Blount County.

The Covered Bridge Trail takes you to these and several other bridges in the northern half of the state. Be sure to make plans to attend the annual Covered Bridge Festival (October 8, 2022) where the three bridges of Blount County are celebrated—Swann, Easily, and Old Horton—with a good old-fashioned fall festival featuring plenty of music, arts, and crafts, and food.

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. U.S. Civil Rights Trail

The U.S. Civil Rights Trail spans the country but is primarily centered in the Southeast where marchers and activists challenged segregation and social injustice in the 50s and 60s, often facing violence and death in the process as they tried to make the country live up to its promises.

Wetumpa Historical District

11. Alabama Civil Rights Museum Trail

The Alabama Civil Rights Trail is part of the larger, nationwide trail, leading you to a collection of historic sites from that period including the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church from where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the incredibly moving National Memorial for Peace and Justice that honors the over 4,000 blacks who were murdered across the South. The memorial features giant steel columns hanging from the ceiling with the names of victims listed by county.

Auburn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sports Trails

There is more to sports in Alabama than football. These sport trails show you what I mean.

Fishing at Meaher State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Alabama’s Hunting and Fishing Trail for People with Disabilities 

The state has made it possible for people with physical disabilities to hunt and fish by joining together state and private landowners to establish this string of outdoor locations called the Alabama Hunting and Fishing Trail where they can enjoy their favorite sports just like everyone else.

Each location has special ramps and access points and when it comes to hunting, days are restricted to only allow those with disabilities to participate. Hunting and fishing licenses are required.

Alabama Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail     

A golf trail is just that—a collection of courses that together promote a certain state to the world as a golf destination. Just about every state has them from California to New York, from Wisconsin to Florida, and every state in between. But there had to be a first—the granddaddy of them all—Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail!

The trail features 26 courses and 468 incredible holes across the state with each course designed by the famous course architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. to fit that particular region’s stunning landscape.

Jim ‘Nick’s BBQ © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dining Trails

College football and barbecue are probably the first things that come to mind when Alabama is mentioned. But there’s so much more to the local food scene. In a state that is home to rich farmland and game hunting and is also bordered by the Gulf of Mexico, food and mealtime are a semi-sacred part of life.

Lambert’s Cafe in Foley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Food and Wine Trail

Any way you slice it—be it the fried green tomatoes at the Irondale Cafe in Irondale, crawfish pie at Ca-John’s Bar and Grill in Faunsdale, or meatloaf at G’s in Huntsville—Alabama has culinary boasting rights to some of the most distinctive cuisine in the country.

Dreamland in Tuscaloosa and Big Bob Gibson’s in Decatur top Alabama’s list of award-winning barbecue joints where you will never get tired of licking your fingers. When it comes to deliciously different you’ve got choices ranging from freshly squeezed lemonade at Toomer’s Drugs in Auburn, key-lime milkshakes from Stacey’s Old Tyme Soda Fountain in Foley, and orange rolls at All Steak in Cullman.

Music

Fusing the sounds of Rock, Country, Blues, and other genres, Alabama possesses a distinctive musical identity all its own.

Alabama Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Hank Williams Trail

Hank Williams was born in Mount Olive on September 17, 1923. By the time of his death 29 years later, he had left behind a monumental legacy of such hits as “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “I Saw the Light,” “Jambalaya” and “Cold, Cold Heart.”

With his band the Drifting Cowboys, he played engagements across the South. Hank became country music’s first superstar selling 10 million records from 1947 to 1953.

Meaher State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For more on Alabama, check out these articles:

Worth Pondering…
Sweet home Alabama
Where the skies are so blue
Sweet home Alabama
Lord, I’m coming home to you

—Lynyrd Skynyrd (1974)

It’s Fall Y’all in Georgia State Parks

Cooler temps, cozy blankets, sweet s’mores, campfires and more! Fall is one of the best times to enjoy camping with family and friends in Georgia State Parks.

Crimson reds, rustic oranges, and bright yellows mark the highly anticipated start of fall in Georgia’s State Parks. Nature lovers can opt outside to take in the kaleidoscopic scenery with family and friends from atop overlooks, underneath waterfalls, in kayaks, RVs, or tents. Whatever adventure you seek, there are activities that everyone can fall for at Georgia’s State Parks. Venture out to discover why these parks are a must-visit for autumn.

It’s fall in Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With the “Leaf Watch 2022” travel planner, visitors can find information on the perfect Georgia State Parks for viewing fall foliage at GaStateParks.org/LeafWatch. The site also includes hiking tips, autumn events, and updates from park rangers. Visitors are encouraged to tag their most Instagram-worthy photos with #GaLeafWatch and #GaStateParks for a chance to be featured on the Leaf Watch website.

Laura S. Walker State Park

Sleep under the stars: For those looking for the perfect spot to toast s’mores and truly enjoy crisp, cool fall air there is no better time to gather around the campfire than fall. Regardless of equipment whether it be a motorhome or a trailer or the preferred method of getting there—via foot, boat or car—Georgia State Parks have campsites for all tastes.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stay in the heart of autumn beauty and the middle of the action at Black Rock Mountain, F. D. Roosevelt, or Tallulah Gorge state parks. A few unique camping spots include Chattahoochee Bend and High Falls where visitors can paddle into their site; lakefront locations at Tugaloo, Elijah Clark, and Seminole; or tent platforms at Victoria Bryant and Fort Mountain. Camp with a steed at equestrian campsites at Hard Labor Creek, A.H. Stephens, General Coffee, and Watson Mill Bridge state parks. 

More on Georgia State Parks: Best Georgia State Parks: Plan Now for a Spring or Summer Getaway

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Leaf peeping at top overlooks: Track vibrant fall color as it moves across the Peach State at some top parks for leaf peeping. Top overlooks to experience glorious fall foliage await in Black Rock Mountain, Cloudland Canyon, Amicalola Falls, Vogel, Unicoi, F.D. Roosevelt, and Tallulah Gorge state parks. Visit these hot spots to revel in the dazzling display of fall color in late October through November depending on weather and temperatures.

Those who enjoy venturing off the beaten path will particularly enjoy the lesser-known state parks for viewing fall color: Moccasin Creek, James H. Sloppy Floyd, Victoria Bryant, Chattahoochee Bend, and Watson Mill Bridge. 

It’s fall in Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go chasing waterfalls: Waterfalls are Georgia’s State Parks’ calling card. Pick and choose from one of Georgia’s many awe-inspiring waterfalls perfectly positioned around the state. Watch from atop an overlook or a bridge below at the whitewater cascading down as the rocks reflect bright reds and oranges of fall.

At 729 feet, Amicalola Falls is the tallest cascading waterfall in the Southeast. Cloudland Canyon has two waterfalls that tumble over layers of sandstone and shale into pools below. Visitors also can discover these wonders of nature at Fort Mountain, Black Rock Mountain, High Falls, Tallulah Gorge, and Vogel state parks. Best of all, the cooler fall temperatures make the hike to reach these falls even more worth it.

Ocmulgee National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fishing in Georgia’s State Parks: Reel it in this fall. From trout to spotted bass, striped bass, and crappie, Georgia’s State Parks offer some of the best fly fishing, trout fishing, and bass fishing in the country. Pick from a wide variety of parks to get the adventure started.

More on Georgia State Parks: 4 Best Georgia State & National Parks

Are you new to fishing? The Georgia Department of Natural Resources Fishing Tackle Loaner Program provides a way for budding anglers to try fishing without having to purchase any equipment. Available at 24 Georgia State Parks the program provides rods, reels, and tackle box equipment. Interested visitors can inquire at the park office and check out the equipment for the day.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall water adventures: At Hard Labor Creek, Stephen C. Foster, George L. Smith, and Indian Springs, water lovers who prefer leaf peeping from a kayak are in for a treat. Paddling tours of lakes let visitors enjoy autumn color from a different perspective, including copper-colored cypress trees reflecting off tannin-tinted ponds. Sign up for a ranger-led paddle or rent a canoe to explore solo. 

Fort Mountain, Vogel, and Unicoi rent equipment for paddling their small mountain lakes. These are good locations for beginners to practice paddling skills. Visitors at Fort McAllister can rent canoes to explore Redbird Creek with its sawgrass, fiddler crabs, and occasional dolphins. Paddlers who bring their boats to Crooked River can enjoy the abundant wildlife and the shortest route to Cumberland Island National Seashore (across the Intracoastal Waterway).

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stephen C. Foster is the western entrance to the famed Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It features more “open” water than the grassy plains of the eastern entrance. Rent canoes or kayaks to explore Minnie’s Lake, Billy’s Island, or “the narrows.” Alligators, deer, ibis, herons, and egrets are commonly seen within the swamp. Reed Bingham, George L. Smith, Magnolia Springs, Laura S. Walker, and Little Ocmulgee also have pretty lakes where Spanish moss, cypress trees, and lily pads reflect off the dark water.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Horseback riding at F.D. Roosevelt State Park: Trot through the Georgia countryside on guided rides surrounded by brilliant fall foliage and breathtaking views of Georgia hardwoods, mossy rock gardens, and Pine Mountain valley.

Some Georgia State Parks welcome horseback riders offering miles of horseback riding trails, equestrian campsites, horse stalls, or riding rings. Guided rides are available at Don Carter and F.D. Roosevelt State Parks. Most horseback riding trails are loop rides with links to other trails allowing you to customize your adventure. A.H. Stephens, Cloudland Canyon, F.D. Roosevelt, Fort Mountain, General Coffee, Hard Labor Creek, Don Carter, and Watson Mill Bridge offer horseback riding trails.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore on two wheels: Bicycles are welcome at most state parks and some parks rent bikes. State law requires that riders 15 and younger must wear a helmet.

More on Georgia State Parks: Laura S. Walker State Park: A Place to Reconnect With Nature

Bikers will get their fill of fall thrills as they speed down invigorating hills and breeze past colorful overlooks at Fort Mountain and Cloudland Canyon state parks. Race past bright fall colors and scenic views in the forests of Panola Mountain and Red Top Mountain. These parks belong to Georgia’s Muddy Spokes Club, a series of mountain biking trails created to challenge experienced and casual cyclists alike to tackle 68 miles of trails in 11 state parks. 

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Find paved trails at Panola Mountain and Tallulah Gorge state parks. Hard-surfaced trails are located at Red Top Mountain, Skidaway Island, Smithgall Woods, and Magnolia Springs state parks and Hart State Park.

Mountain bikers may test their endurance at Cloudland Canyon, Hard Labor Creek, Fort Mountain, Tallulah Gorge, Unicoi, Richard B. Russell, Mistletoe, Fort Yargo, Watson Mill Bridge, and Victoria Bryant state parks.

More on Georgia State Parks: Spotlight on Georgia: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

It’s fall in Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bike rentals are available at A.H. Stephens, Black Rock Mountain, Cloudland Canyon, Crooked River, Florence Marina, Fort McAllister, General Coffee, Georgia Veterans, Laura S. Walker, Little Ocmulgee, Magnolia Springs, Panola Mountain, Reed Bingham, Richard B. Russell, Skidaway Island, and Vogel state parks. Contact the park for pricing.

Worth Pondering…

Georgia On My Mind

Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through

Just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind.

Georgia, Georgia, a song of you

Comes as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines

—words by Stuart Gorrell and music by Hoagy Carmichael

Cumberland Island Celebrates 50 Years as a National Seashore

Experience the island’s unique history, natural beauty, and wildlife during special events throughout the year

There is only one place on Earth where you can find wild horses, secluded white beaches, live oaks draped in Spanish moss, and the skeletal remains of a once-famous mansion. Cumberland is one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands along the Georgia coast. The National Park Service protects almost 36,000 acres of the island including miles of unspoiled beaches.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cumberland Island National Seashore, the southernmost and largest barrier island on the Georgia coast is just that place and this year marks the 50th anniversary of the congressional move that saved it from commercial development.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Starting in October, Cumberland Island kicks off a year-long series of events including special programs, a speaker series, and even a parade. While special events such as the Cumberland Island-themed St. Marys Seafood Festival in October are exciting enough to entice a crowd the island’s history, beauty, and wildlife are unmatched experiences no visitor should miss at any time of year.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History

Although inhabitants of Georgia’s coast can be traced back thousands of years starting with a Timucuan tribe a more concrete history begins with 16th-century Spanish missions and James Oglethorpe’s 17th-century British forts. Oglethorpe also named a hunting lodge Dungeness in honor of a beloved landmark in England. The Dungeness name and remnants of the properties associated with the land remain to this day.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After the American Revolution, the island attracted prominent families with famous pedigrees such as General Nathaniel Greene, George Washington’s most trusted officer. He and his wife borrowed the Dungeness name and began construction on a four-story mansion that would undergo several alterations over the next century. Dungeness lands then fell into the hands of Robert Stafford who purchased most of Greene’s property at auction. He built his sprawling mansion and plantation of more than 1,300 acres.

Related article: Cumberland Island: Wild, Pristine Seashore

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Civil War brought more change to the island as formerly enslaved people, locals, and others trying to navigate Reconstruction all attempted to carve out a living and a life here. Near the turn of the 20th-century members of the renowned Carnegie, family made their way to the island, purchased 90 percent of the land, and built a Scottish castle aptly named Dungeness.

Dungeness Ruins, Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dungeness Ruins

Visit the ruins of a mansion that was once called Dungeness. First built in 1884, the Dungeness Mansion was intended as a winter home for Thomas Carnegie (younger brother and business partner of Andrew Carnegie), his wife Lucy, and their nine children. Though Thomas passed away soon after construction, Lucy Carnegie went on to spend more and more time and resources on the island estate.

Dungeness Ruins, Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several additions and remodels were made over the next thirty years. By the time Lucy passed in 1916 the mansion had grown to approximately 35,000 square feet. The mansion caught fire in 1959 and only the brick and stone walls remain.

Dungeness Ruins, Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though the mansion is in ruins it remains one of the most picturesque and visited spots on the island. Visitors can walk the grounds around the house and the numerous support buildings that were part of operating the estate.

Related article: The Perfect Georgia Coast Road Trip

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beauty

There simply isn’t one way to describe the scenery on Cumberland Island; it offers a variety of breathtaking landscapes and backdrops. Take a few photographs on the island and you can easily convince someone that you have visited multiple countries and traveled many miles.

The quiet beaches bring peace and splendor together particularly in the evening when the soft lull of the waves blends into the pastel-colored sky. Walk in any other direction and you’ll run into a different kind of majesties such as salt marshes full of fiddler crabs, shrimp, and alligators.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rivers and sounds traverse through it all so that every turn is a new adventure. Point a camera anywhere and capture untouched nature in all its colorful brilliance. If you need shade, spend some time under the live oaks and let the trees serve as nature’s canopy to protect you from the elements.

Though the grandeur of nature is significant on Cumberland Island so is the architecture. Of the three dozen homes here almost all are still owned and cared for by the same families who built them. There is an affection for ensuring the dwellings capture some aspect of the scenery and many of the homes themselves are works of art.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beach

Cumberland Island is home to 17 miles of uninterrupted beach. No docks, houses, or other structures interrupt its serene beauty. The island boasts a healthy expanse of vegetated dunes that make it one of the most important nesting spots for loggerhead sea turtles in all of Georgia and a sanctuary for migrating shore birds.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Swimming is very popular but caution should be exercised. It is the open ocean and all the tides, currents, and animals that call it home exist. There are no lifeguards. There are designated crossings marked on the map providing access to the beach. These will either be trails or boardwalks. If a boardwalk exists, please use it to help protect the dunes. Crossings on the beach side are marked with a black and white striped pole along the dune line.

Related article: The 8 Best Things to Do this Fall in Georgia

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife

Imagine a world where a wild horse gallops freely in the distance and you are so distracted that you almost don’t even notice a turkey scurrying across your path. On the other hand picture, yourself stepping onto a beach just in time to watch brown pelicans diving into the ocean for breakfast.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maybe you even catch a glimpse of the endangered loggerhead sea turtles struggling to make it to sea or you tread quietly while you observe deer challenging feral hogs for foliage. Cumberland Island is a playground for all of these animals and countless others who make their home here. Whether it’s woodpeckers, owls or even armadillos the importance of preserving all wildlife and their habitat is paramount throughout Cumberland Island.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Three Ways to Experience Cumberland Island

Visit Cumberland Island for the day, camp overnight (walk-in tent sites), or be a guest at the upscale Greyfield Inn made famous by John F. Kennedy Jr.’s wedding. Day visitors and campers reach the island by taking the Cumberland Island Ferry from the Cumberland Island Visitors Center in St. Marys to the Sea Camp Dock. Guests of the Greyfield Inn take the hotel’s private ferry, the Lucy Ferguson. The boat ride itself is a wonderful way to see Cumberland’s beauty from the water.

St. Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Marys

As the Gateway to Cumberland Island and the Georgia Coast, St. Marys offers a laid-back vibe with Southern charm for a perfect relaxing retreat or an outdoor adventure. Attractions include the downtown historic district, the St. Marys Submarine Museum, and St. Marys Waterfront Park. You can visit the Cumberland Island National Seashore Museum and the Cumberland Island Visitors Center. You’ll enjoy water sports and cycling plus shopping and dining at locally owned spots.

St Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Annual events include an Independence Day Festival, St. Marys Seafood Festival, and free concerts in the park. The Cumberland Island National Seashore and Crooked River State Park are visitor favorites and popular for biking, birdwatching, kayaking, hiking, camping, and more.

Related article: Historic St. Marys: Gem of the Georgia Coast

Plan Your Visit

Celebrate the 50th anniversary of Cumberland Island at the St. Marys Seafood Festival on October 15 featuring vendors, food trucks, races, and an island-themed parade. Cumberland Island’s park superintendent is the grand marshal and the National Park Service will offer informative and kid-friendly activities such as colonial encampments, a highland pipe and drum band, musket firing, and a special 50th-anniversaryth anniversary program.

Enjoy Cumberland Island’s incomparable attractions anytime by taking the passenger ferry from downtown St. Marys, the Gateway to Cumberland Island for an island adventure.

Worth Pondering…

The beach is the draw—

17 miles of hard packed blonde sands.

You can walk forever and seldom meet a soul

—Esquire

Ahh, the Blue Ridge Parkway in October

How to plan a fall adventure to Blue Ridge Parkway

Tracing the spine of the southern Appalachian Mountains from Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park to the eastern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Western North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Parkway is an epic East Coast road trip.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first motorway in the country designed purely for recreational purposes, the parkway weaves through six different mountain ranges and four massive national forests first following the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and then snaking through the Black Mountains, the Great Craggy Mountains, the Pisgahs, and the Balsam Mountains before arriving at the edge of Great Smoky Mountains.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stringing together some of the wildest spaces in the East, the 469-mile motorway also showcases some of the most spectacular fall colors in the country as the richly biodiverse forests of the southern Appalachian Mountains blush with autumn color.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to catch peak fall color

In terms of flora and fauna, the southern Appalachian Mountains are incredibly rich. More than 100 different species of trees can be found in the forested peaks flanking the parkway meaning the fall colors are guaranteed to be spectacular. The seasonal transition typically begins in October but several factors can delay or extend the autumn display. And with elevations topping out above 6,000 feet along the Blue Ridge Parkway seasonal color varies by location with the transition beginning at higher elevations and spreading downslope.

Related article: Finding Fall Color along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Beyond

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Accommodation options

For road-trippers, the parkway has eight developed campgrounds offering both tent sites and RV sites with fire rings and picnic tables. For campers, amenities include potable water and bathroom facilities at the Julian Price Campground and the Mount Pisgah Campground also offers hot showers. All eight of the parkway’s campgrounds are open seasonally from early May through the end of October. For backpackers, there are also three hike-in backcountry campgrounds scattered along the Blue Ridge Parkway—Rock Castle Gorge, Basin Cove, and Johns River Road.

Peaks of Otter along the Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are also two year-round lodges situated along the Blue Ridge Parkway. In Virginia, the Peaks of Otter Lodge is situated along the parkway in southwest Virginia (MP 86). Named for the trio of peaks overlooking the town of Bedford all of the lodge’s rooms have views of Abbott Lake and Sharp Top (and dog-friendly rooms are available, too). The lakeside lodge also offers an attached restaurant and bar along with a gift shop stocked with trail snacks, guidebooks, and locally sourced artisanal products.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In North Carolina, the Pisgah Inn (MP 408) is open from the beginning of April through the end of October. Perched on the flanks of Mount Pisgah at an elevation of 5,000 feet the alpine inn presides over the massive Pisgah National Forest. To help guests savor the sweeping vista each room features attached porches complete with lounge-worthy rocking chairs. The inn also offers a formal dining room (open to the public for lunch) and a café with easy-to-grab meals and snacks.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For late fall and winter travelers, the parkway also provides access to a handful of state parks with year-round accommodation options. In Virginia, just west of Buena Vista, Douthat State Park has cabins for rent and a campground open year-round along with more than 40 miles of hiking trails. Further south in North Carolina, the campground at Stone Mountain State Park is open year-round and offers sites for both tents and RVs. And for hardy backpackers, North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain State Park has 13 hike-in backcountry campsites.

Related article: Blue Ridge Parkway: America’s Favorite Drive

Appalachian Trail Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spectacular fall hikes

For hikers, the Blue Ridge Parkway provides access to more than 360 miles of trails offering everything from leisurely nature walks to lengthy rambles through parcels of roadless wilderness. And for leaf-peepers, there are several superb foliage hikes. In Virginia, the 2,193-mile Appalachian Trail traces the path of the parkway for just over 100 miles beginning at Rockfish Gap (MP 0). In North Carolina, the state’s 1,175-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail also crisscrosses the parkway between the Folk Art Center (MP 382) and Mount Pisgah (MP 408).

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the northern end of the parkway in Virginia, Humpback Rocks (MP 5.8) is among the scenic highlights. Perched at 3,080 feet, the craggy outcrop presides over the northern section of the parkway providing expansive views encompassing the Rockfish and Shenandoah Valleys to the west and the pastoral Virginia Piedmont to the east—although the mile climb to the craggy pinnacle includes 700 feet of elevation gain.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Further south, the three-mile out-and-back hike to the 3,875-foot summit of Sharp Top (MP 85.9) serves up 360-degree views of the Peaks of Otter portion of the parkway with the Shenandoah Valley to the east and the Allegheny Mountains silhouetted against the horizon to the west.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In North Carolina, Mount Pisgah is supremely positioned for fall foliage views. After the 1.3-mile climb to Mount Pisgah’s 5,721-foot summit, hikers are rewarded with an eyeful of the Black Mountains to the north and the rugged Shining Rock Wilderness to the west.

Related article: Escape to the Blue Ridge: Shenandoah National Park

Closer to the parkway’s southern terminus at the eastern edge of the Great Balsam Range, the grassy summit of Black Balsam Knob also treats trekkers to a jaw-dropping panorama. The 6,214-foot peak is a prototypical southern Appalachian bald meaning Black Balsam Knob’s treeless summit dishes up 360-degree views extending to the Great Smoky Mountains.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife Watching

Fall is also an ideal time to spot wildlife along the parkway. Along the southern portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina resident, elk are particularly active. Once prevalent throughout the Appalachian Mountains elk disappeared from the southeastern United States in the mid-1800s after populations dwindled due to overhunting and loss of habitat.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elk were reintroduced to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park between 2001 and 2002 and now the brawny ungulates roam the southernmost section of the parkway in Western North Carolina typically gathering in the Cataloochee Valley. And during the fall, the region’s resident elk begin their mating season also called the rut with males bugling, sparring, and strutting ostentatiously to attract females.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black bears are also active along the parkway during the fall. While the bruins do hunker down for portions of the winter in the Southeast they don’t entirely hibernate and if seasonal temperatures are mild the black bears will remain active year-round. However, fall is a strategic time to spot the opportunistic eaters gorging on calorie-dense nuts and berries along the parkway in preparation for the leaner days of winter.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Autumn is also a spectacular time for birders along the Blue Ridge Parkway. From early September through the end of November the lofty ridgelines of the southern Appalachian Mountains become a superhighway for birds migrating south to warmer climes for the winter especially birds of prey including a diversity of hawks, eagles, kestrels, and falcons.

Related article: 10 Most Beautiful Places to See Fall Foliage in 2022

There are a number of hawk-watching spots scattered along the Blue Ridge Parkway designated by the Hawk Migration Association of America including Rockfish Gap (milepost 0) and Harvey’s Knob (MP 95.3) in Virginia and Grandfather Mountain (MP 305) in North Carolina.

Worth Pondering…

I loved autumn, the one season of the year that God seemed to have put there just for the beauty of it.

—Lee Maynard, writer

13 Essential Stops on an RV Tour across Utah

The marvelous range of sights in Utah attracts many campers every year and with good reason

The freedom and solitude of RV travel has vaulted this form of recreation to new heights of popularity and with cutting-edge rental platforms on the market, there’s no better time to set out on your very own RV adventure than the present.

When it comes to destinations, the spacious highways and spectacular natural beauty of Utah make it a perfect match for an extended RV road trip. There are a huge number of RV trips in Utah just waiting to be had! From deserts to snow-capped mountains, from red sandstone arches to endless blue skies, there’s beauty and adventure high and low, attracting hikers, nature lovers, and plain old sightseers alike.

While there’s no shortage of gorgeous attractions to see across the Beehive State, check out the list below for some must-visit highlights during your adventure.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Utah is no stranger to incredible natural beauty but if you only have time for one national park during your RV trip, make sure it’s Bryce Canyon. Officially established in 1928, this preserve contains the world’s largest concentration of hoodoos, a jagged rock spear formed by erosion.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is a true paradise for hikers equipped with a wide array of options ranging from the 1.5-mile Queen’s Garden Loop Trail to the challenging 8.2-mile Fairyland Loop. Not a huge fan of outdoor adventure? No worries—the park is equipped with spectacular vista points like Sunrise Point and Sunset Point with each spot offering a world-class view with minimal amounts of walking required.

Bryce Canyon is home to two campgrounds both of which are open to RV traffic. North Campground offers 49 RV-only sites and Sunset Campground offers 50, though there are no hookups. 

Get more tips for visiting Bryce Canyon National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

True wilderness is a hard thing to find nowadays—a retreat from civilization into a place that is seemingly untouched by man may seem like a fairy tale. But that is exactly what Zion National Park can offer.

It may be one of Utah’s most famous tourist attractions but visitors will soon discover it’s popular for good reason. Zion has many hiking trails that allow you to experience what the wilderness is truly like. More populated trails are perfect for beginners who still want to see the beauty of the West. And beauty there is! Sandstone cliffs swirled with reds, pinks, and creams reach high into the sky making a wonderful contrast against the bright blue horizon. The narrow slot canyons are a wondrous sight and the unique desert plants and animals will keep you enthralled in the environment.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What’s the best part of a visit to Zion National Park, you ask? You never have to leave the beautiful surroundings! The park has three campgrounds, two of which are located right in Zion Canyon. South campground has primitive sites available and Watchman Campground has sites with electric hookups available.

Get more tips for visiting Zion National Park

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Arches National Park embodies everything that Utah is famous for—a desert landscape filled with natural beauty. There’s plenty to experience in this “red-rock wonderland”—the most famous, of course, being the arches. There are over 2,000 of these natural stone arches in the park and each one is unique.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll be able to spend your days exploring the trails that wind through the arches, pinnacles, and giant balanced rocks. Ranger programs are available as well to help you get the most out of a visit. There are daily guided walks, hikes, and evening programs that will teach you all about the park and let you take in as much of the beauty as possible.

Devil’s Garden Campground is 18 miles from the entrance to Arches National Park. Being surrounded by the stunning desert throughout your trip certainly helps you appreciate the park even more.

Get more tips for visiting Arches National Park

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

While you’re in the Moab area to visit Arches, don’t forget to see the other major attraction: Canyonlands National Park. At over 337,000 acres, this park dwarfs the more popular Arches to the north and it has a wide variety of wonders for any eager adventurer to explore.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is divided into four distinct areas each offering a unique perspective on this stark desert ecosystem. Island in the Sky is a flat-topped mesa while the Needles are tall, sharp spires; the Maze is a seemingly-endless system of crevasses and canyons, and finally, visitors can see where the Colorado and Green rivers intersect at the Colorado Plateau. The park also boasts some original Native American rock paintings inside its iconic Horseshoe Canyon.

Canyonlands offers two developed campgrounds: Island in the Sky (Willow Flat) Campground and The Needles Campground. While both are open to RVs, no hookups are available,

Get more tips for visiting Canyonlands National Park

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Pak

Tucked into the heart of Utah’s south-central desert, Capitol Reef National Park surrounds a wrinkle in the earth’s crust known as the Waterpocket Fold. The Fold’s unique geological features include the Chimney Rock pillar, the Hickman Bridge arch, and the Capitol Reef formation itself which is renowned for its white sandstone domes. Like other Utah national parks, Capitol Reef is an International Dark Sky Park and thus a great place for stargazing.

Capitol Reef National Park is also home to over 2,700 fruit-bearing trees situated in its historic orchards; cherries, peaches, apricots, plums, mulberries, and more are seasonally available for fresh picking.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is one developed campground open to RV traffic inside Capitol Reef National Park: Fruita Campground. Although there are no hookups, a dump station and potable water are available. Be sure to double-check the size limits as each individual space is different and some of them are quite small.

Get more tips for visiting Capitol Reef National Park

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

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Established as a protected natural landscape in 1996, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a one-of-a-kind site and certainly worth an RV trip if you’re making your way to Utah. The site is the size of Delaware and the erosion it’s seen over time has made it into what’s basically a giant, natural staircase—one that’s seen more than 200 million years of history. It’s all there for you to walk through and discover yourself!

The Monument is home to two campgrounds: Deer Creek and Calf Creek. Both are small, primitive, and apt to fill up quickly.

Get more tips for visiting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley

You might recognize it from Forrest Gump, Mission: Impossible 2, Back to the Future Part III, or National Lampoon’s Vacation—but chances are, you will recognize it. A Navajo Tribal Park, Monument Valley is one of the most iconic landscapes anywhere in the world let alone in the state of Utah and it’s well worth passing through and even stopping to discover more.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower at heights of 400 to 1,000 feet framed by scenic clouds casting shadows that graciously roam the desert floor. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations providing scenery that is simply spellbinding. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and windblown sand all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley.

The View Campground includes 30 RV spots and 30 wilderness campsites which attract outdoor enthusiasts who want to capture the essence of rustic living and dust of authentic Navajo history.

Get more tips for visiting Monument Valley

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods

The beautiful Cedar Mesa sandstone monoliths, pinnacles, and other geological features of this enchanting area are often referred to as a miniature Monument Valley. These sandstone sentinels were eroded by wind and water over eons of time.

The 17-mile Valley of the Gods Road stretches between US-163 north of Mexican Hat and Utah Route 261 just below the white-knuckle Moki Dugway. The massive red rock formations are a geology fan’s dream. Hoodoos, spires, buttes, buttresses, forming and collapsing arches, and towers are all visible along the drive. 

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many places to stop along the scenic drive and numerous locations suitable for FREE camping as the valley lies on BLM land and is completely undeveloped. Since hardly anyone seems to pass by, the area provides a much more relaxing and isolated experience than the famous valley (Monument Valley) 30 miles southwest, and without any of the restrictions on hiking or camping. 

Get more tips for visiting Valley of the Gods

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument

Natural Bridges National Monument covers a relatively small area in southeastern Utah. It is rather remote and not close to other parks and as a result, is not heavily visited. A nine-mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three huge multi-colored natural bridges with Hopi Indian names—Sipapu (the place of emergence), Kachina (dancer), and Owachomu (rock mounds). Moderate hiking trails, some with metal stairs or wooden ladders, provide closer access to each bridge.

A 13-site campground is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis.

Get more tips for visiting Natural Bridges National Monument

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument

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

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks’ majestic amphitheater is a three-mile-long cirque made up of eroding limestone, shale, and sandstone. Situated on the western edge of the Markagunt Plateau, the raised area of earth located in Southern Utah between Interstate 15 and Highway 89, the monument sits entirely above 10,000 feet. The Amphitheater is like a naturally formed coliseum that plunges 2,000 feet below taking your eyes for a colorful ride through arches, towers, hoodoos, and canyons. Stunning views are common throughout so keep your camera nearby.

Point Supreme Campground is surrounded by meadows of wildflowers in the summer. At 10,000 feet elevation, it is a comfortable place to camp during the hotter summer months. Point Supreme has 25 campsites and accommodates both tents and RVs. Camping is available from mid-June to mid-September.

Get more tips for visiting Cedar Breaks National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument

Just across the border from Colorado’s Canyon of the Ancients, Hovenweep National Monument is a can’t-miss destination for anyone interested in America’s prehistoric origins. The site includes the ruins of six villages dating back to A.D. 1200 and 1300 and these stunning structures include multistory towers perched on canyon rims and balanced on boulders. A true testament to time, Hovenweep National Monument is as educational as it is awe-inspiring!

Hovenweep National Monument hosts a 31-site campground that can accommodate RVs up to 36 feet in length. The campground is available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Get more tips for visiting Hovenweep National Monument

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

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers more than 1.2 million acres of unparalleled opportunities for land- and water-based recreation. Within the recreation area, Lake Powell is the second largest human-made lake in the United States and is widely recognized as one of the premier boating destinations in the world. Stretching from the beginning of the Grand Canyon at Lees Ferry in Arizona to the Orange Cliffs of southern Utah, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is graced with scenic views, unique geology, and evidence of 10,000 years of human history.

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

In terms of campgrounds, there’s a lot to choose from including many primitive sites operated by National Park Service. These campgrounds do not take reservations and do not have phone numbers. There are also park concessioner-operated campgrounds with full-service sites available. Campgrounds operated by park concessioners include Wahweep RV Park and Campground, Bullfrog RV Park and Campground, Halls Crossing RV Park and Campground, and Antelope Point RV Park.

Get more tips for visiting Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic Byway 12

A 121-mile-long All-American Road, Scenic Byway 12 winds and climbs and twists and turns and descends as it snakes its way through scenic landscapes ranging from the remains of ancient sea beds to one of the world’s highest alpine forests and from astonishing pink and russet stone turrets to open sagebrush flats.

Scenic Byway 12 has two entry points. The southwestern gateway is from U.S. Highway 89, seven miles south of the city of Panguitch near Bryce Canyon National Park. The northeastern gateway is from Highway 24 in the town of Torrey near Capitol Reef National Park.

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other major attractions include Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, Kodachrome Basin State Park, Hell’s Backbone, Hole-in-the-Rock, Cottonwood Canyon, Burr Trail, Box-Death Hollow Wilderness Area, and The Hogsback, a narrow ridge barely wider than the two-lane roadway with cliffs falling away on either side.

Mile for mile, few of America’s national scenic byways can compete with the diverse scenery and number of natural attractions along Scenic Byway 12. Recognized as one of the most beautiful drives in America, the byway showcases some of Utah’s uniquely scenic landscape.

Get more tips for driving Scenic Byway 12

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jack Kerouac, On the Road

National Park Fees: Great Smoky Mountains Introduces Parking Fees

Most popular US national park introduces parking fees, increased camping charges

Great Smoky Mountains National Park—the most-visited national park in the U.S. with 14.1 million visitors in 2021—is instituting fees for parking passes and increasing charges for camping, the park announced last week (August 17, 2022).

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

Visits to the park have increased 57 percent over the past decade to a record 14.1 million last year and have taken a toll on facilities, the park said in a news release. Additional revenue from the changes would allow the park to address renovations along with law enforcement staffing challenges and services including trail maintenance and trash removal.

These fees are part of a nationwide trend as parks manage record-breaking crowds and seek to generate revenues to support the staffing and facilities required for this increased visitation.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“We take great pride in being the country’s most visited national park,” Cassius Cash, the park’s superintendent, said in a statement. “But that distinction comes with tremendous strain on our infrastructure. Now we will have sustained resources to ensure this sacred place is protected for visitors to enjoy for generations to come.”

Here are details on the new fees at Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well as some other national parks to help you plan your next national parks trip.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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

Great Smoky Mountains fee details

As part of its “Park it Forward” fundraising and development campaign, Great Smoky Mountains National Park will require any vehicle parking within the park to purchase and display a parking pass beginning March 1, 2023.

The parking fees will be $5 for a day pass, $15 for a weekly pass, and $40 for an annual pass. Passes are good for a single vehicle and do not allow upgrades or transfers. The pass will be valid anywhere within the park for the duration of time paid for. There is currently no cap on the number of passes that will be sold in a given day, week, or season.

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

Interagency passes (aka America the Beautiful passes) will NOT be accepted instead of the parking tag and will NOT provide a discount for the purchase of the parking tag.

Visitors just passing through the park or stopping for less than 15 minutes will not be required to purchase a pass. “If you want to come by the visitor center and use the bathroom you don’t need a pass,” Cash said in an Associated Press interview. “We are trying to capture the costs of services used not nickel-and-dime every vehicle. If you want to stop at an overlook and take a selfie with the beautiful scenery you can still do that (for free).”

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

Admission to the park is free and there are no toll charges for driving along its many scenic roadways.

Camping fees throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park will also increase for the first time in a decade. Backcountry camping fees will double to $8 per night with a maximum of $40 per camper. Frontcountry family campsite fees will rise to $30 per night for primitive sites and $36 per night for sites with electrical hookups. Group camps, horse camps, and picnic pavilions fees will increase by 20 percent to 30 percent. Daily rental rates for the Appalachian Clubhouse and Spence Cabin in Elkmont will rise to $300 and $200, respectively.

All of the revenue generated by the parking passes and increased camping fees will “directly support operational costs for managing and improving services for visitors including trail maintenance, custodial services, trash removal, and supporting more staffing,” according to the park website.

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

Parking Tag Basics

Effective March 1, 2023

Valid parking tags will be required for any vehicles parking in the park starting March 1, 2023.

Display of physical parking tags in each vehicle will be required.

Three tag durations will be available for purchase for all vehicle sizes and types:

  • Daily – $5
  • Up to 7 Days – $15
  • Annual – $40
Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Parking tags will not be refundable, transferable, or upgradable.

Each tag will be valid for a single vehicle.

Parking tags will be available for purchase both online and onsite.

Parking tags will not be required for motorists who pass through the area or who park for less than 15 minutes.

Parking tags will not be location-specific. A parking tag will be required to park in any designated parking spot anywhere within park boundaries.

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

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fee increases at other national parks

Many other national parks are implementing fee increases for parking, camping, and facilities access (although few have increased park entrance charges). The National Park Service says these fees are necessary to maintain and improve the infrastructure and to improve staffing to handle the dramatically increased visitation.

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

During busy summer peak visitation times, popular U.S. parks and certain areas within the parks have been requiring reservations and charging nominal reservation fees of about $2. Yosemite National Park and Arches National Park are among those charging for timed-entry passes. Zion National Park has been charging reservation fees to hike the popular Angels Landing Trail.

Rocky Mountain National Park increased its one-day vehicle entry pass to the park from $25 to $30 this May.

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

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

 “The fee increase is necessary to improve and maintain high-quality visitor services,” according to the park. “While basic park operations are funded by direct appropriations from Congress, the recreation use fees collected by the park are used to support new projects and the ongoing maintenance of park facilities that directly enhance the visitor experience.”

The park also is increasing camping charges across the board. Winter campground fees will increase from $20 to $30 per night beginning on October 12. Summer campground fees will increase from $30 to $35 per night beginning summer 2023. In addition, group site campground fees will increase by $10 for each tier in group size to $50, $60, and $70.

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

Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks announced this month that they will increase camping fees in 2023 and 2024 to fund needed improvements to the camping areas. Standard campsite charges will rise from $22 to $28 in 2023 and $32 in 2024. Prices for other group campsites and stock campsites will see similar 25 percent-30 percent price increases.

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

It’s not just national parks increasing visitor fees. The Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area outside of Las Vegas which is also experiencing record visitation has proposed raising its fees. Admission for cars to drive its 13-mile scenic loop will rise from $15 to $20 in 2023 with the annual park pass fee rising from $30 to $50. The Bureau of Land Management which governs the park is also proposing to add a $2 online and on-site reservations fee ($3 by phone). Campground and picnic area reservation fees will rise to $8 online and on-site ($9 by phone).

Related: 11 Tips for Visiting a National Park this Summer

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

Bottom line

Over the past year, destinations across the U.S. national park system have faced crowding and traffic issues as record-setting numbers of visitors came to the parks during the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to better manage these crowds—and to fund the staff and improvements necessary to provide infrastructure—many parks across the country are instituting new fees and reservation systems.

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

The new Great Smoky Mountains National Park parking fee should not discourage anyone from visiting as the nominal charge of $5 a day is a bargain considering there are no park entrance fees.

However, the increased parking fee coupled with the increased camping fees and new fees at other national parks signal a trend that visitors should expect higher charges going forward.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

Shenandoah National Park is Hosting a Night Sky Festival This Weekend—and It’s Free

The annual festival takes place from July 19 to July 21

When you come home at night and flip on the lamp switch, do you ever stop to think about what you might be missing?

In 1880, less than 150 years ago, electric light first came to American cities.
In 2017, roughly 80 percent of people in North America cannot see the Milky Way due to electric lights at night. In other words, our dark night skies often really aren’t all that dark. When was the last time you were able to experience the awe of seeing a sky full of stars? It can be easy to feel disconnected from or simply forget about the beauty and sheer vastness of the cosmos.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks are some of the best places to appreciate night skies because the National Park Service works to protect these places from the increasingly prevalent effects of light pollution. The National Park Service recognizes dark night skies as a valuable resource that needs to be protected.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Parks are becoming a refuge for people from city light pollution. Dozens of national parks around the country have earned designations such as International Dark Sky Parks and Sanctuaries. These distinctions recognize “an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment,” according to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).

Many of these parks have astronomy programs where people of all ages can learn more about the wonders of the night sky—and all of them have places to lay out a blanket and simply enjoy the darkness. Grand Canyon National Parks hosts an annual Star Party in June.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Under the stars at Shenandoah National Park

The crisp, clear Blue Ridge Mountains air in Shenandoah National Park makes everything brighter in the night sky. Stars sparkle with more intensity and constellations come into clearer view.

Related article: Where to Stargaze

While Shenandoah National Park may not get as dark as some of the Parks in the West, its high elevation combined with its relative remoteness from dense urban areas makes the Park a great place to engage in stargazing on the east coast.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On moonless and cloud-free nights it is a wonderful spot to view the Milky Way or some of the 2,500 stars visible to the unaided eye that make up one of the 88 official constellations. Finding and observing constellations, phases of the moon, meteor showers, and eclipses can provide a sense of wonder about our place in the universe.

Starting in 2016 Shenandoah National Park began a Night Sky Festival, full of ranger programs and activities to help celebrate our disappearing dark skies.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tips for Stargazing

A good place for stargazing in Shenandoah National Park is by the Big Meadows area near the Rapidan Fire Road. The amphitheater in the Skyland area is also appropriate.

Related article: The Grand Canyon Is Hosting a Star Party This Week—and It’s Totally Free

Most people are a bit uncomfortable in the dark. Try getting used to it by walking outside in a dark area while keeping your flashlight in your pocket.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Allow your eyes time to adjust; it takes about twenty minutes for your eyes to become accustomed to the nighttime darkness. You may be surprised how well you can see by starlight.

Make a red flashlight or use one with a red LED. To make your own, use red paper or cellophane to cover the white light of the flashlight. Red light allows your eyes to adapt better to the darkness than white light while still providing visibility for safety.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoying the night skies is for everyone, you don’t need expensive equipment. If you don’t have a telescope, grab your binoculars to get a better look at the fuzzy spots in the sky overhead. Also, use the binoculars to gaze upon the Milky Way.

Educate yourself on the constellations overhead with the use of a star chart or a star-finding app downloadable for your smartphone or tablet.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When venturing out to stargaze in the park make sure to bring a red flashlight to journey from your car to your destination. Be sure to dress in layers, as summer nights are often cool on the mountain ridge. Bring a blanket or a set of chairs to sit on.

Related article: Ride the Sky along Skyline Drive

Shenandoah National Park will conduct its sixth annual Night Sky Festival from August 19-21. Rangers and guest speakers will present a variety of programs at sites throughout the park focusing on space, celestial objects, nocturnal residents, and the importance of dark night skies. 

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guest speakers presenting will include NASA Solar System Ambassador Greg Redfern and amateur astronomer Rich Drumm. These programs are sponsored by Delaware North, the park concessioner.  

Other activities include special ranger-led talks, discussions, children’s activities, and telescope/night sky viewings. Programs will take place at Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (Milepost 4.6), Mathews Arm Campground (Milepost 22.1), Skyland Amphitheater (Milepost 42.5), Byrd Visitor Center (Milepost 51), Big Meadows (Milepost 51), and Loft Mountain Amphitheater (Milepost 79.5). 

Related article: Shenandoah National Park: Daughter of the Stars

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All programs are free. No reservations are needed. However, park entrance fees apply ($30/vehicle, valid for 7 days). Participants should be weather-prepared and bring a flashlight with a red filter. The complete program schedule can be found on the park’s website.  

Worth Pondering…

I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly—or ever—gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.

—Brian Greene

Outdoor Adventures

The joy of life lived outside

The U.S. Department of the Interior suggests, “Get outdoors in the great outdoors.” Perhaps more than anyone, RVers understand the meaning of that message. After all, the vast lands throughout North America are natural playgrounds filled with hiking trails, lakes and streams, and public and private recreation sites—and that’s just the beginning.

Regardless of whether you travel long distances or set up camp in the next town over, your RV is your vehicle for discovering these fun-in-the-sun pastimes. Enjoy hiking, bird-watching, photography fishing, swimming, white-water rafting, and stargazing, to name just a few activities. Wherever your interests lie, I encourage you to pursue those passions!

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Discover magnificent natural wonders on a stunning sweep through the beautiful Southwest. From Sedona to Moab to Taos to Santa Fe, beautiful landmarks dot the way with stops at the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Petrified Forest, Montezuma Castle, Mesa Verde, and more.

Canyon de Chelly © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Finding Outdoor Adventures

If you are an RV full-timer, part-timer, or weekend warrior, seeking your next adventure is probably always on your radar. If you think about it, being on the road is an adventure in itself: always on the go, staying in new places (or returning to your favorites), and exploring the local area.

Related article: Discover the National Forests during Great Outdoors Month

Like most RVers, most of our trips or overnight stays are planned for places we want to explore and have fun. If this is the case for you, consider adding these adventures to your list. They include cities that are known for exciting mountain bike trails, picturesque flower gardens, and ocean exploration.

Glacial Skywalk along Icefields Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or maybe you want to explore Canada? The best Alberta road trip is from Banff to Jasper (or vice versa) through the Icefields Parkway. National Geographic named this one of the best road trips in the world!

Columbia Icefield © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If this is your first time visiting Canada, prepare to be amazed! You will pass through ancient glaciers, cascading waterfalls, and emerald lakes surrounded by forests. The drive has many points of interest along the way including Lake Louise, Peyto Lake, Athabasca Falls, and the Columbia Icefield.

Rocky Mountain goat in Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If that isn’t enough to please your eyes, there are also over 53 species of mammals you can spot in the area including bears, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and elk. Banff and Jasper are both must-see spots on a visit to Canada and a drive through the Icefields Parkway is the ideal way to get there.

Of course, not all of our trips work out that way. Maybe you’re traveling to visit family or friends and you end up with a little spare time. Or you have a planned overnight stay on the way to your destination and you’re looking for some outdoor adventure—something that you can easily fit into your schedule.

Related article: If the Outdoors is your Thing, Utah is your Place

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

Park it and hike

Hiking is a fun pastime that can easily be associated with camping and spending time in the great outdoors.

In my mind, there are few things more rejuvenating than hiking or walking in nature. One of the biggest reasons I fell in love with the RV lifestyle is that beautiful nature is so accessible wherever you are. It seems like I am always just minutes away from a spectacular trailhead.

Blue Mesa Loop Trail in Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Do you want to view a landscape that is out of this world? If your answer is yes then the Blue Mesa Loop Trail in Petrified Forest National Park is sure to please. This mile-long trail takes you into a landscape brushed in blue where you will find cone-shaped hills banded in a variety of colors and intricately eroded into unique patterns. 

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alabama’s Gulf State Park features 28 miles of paved trails or boardwalks including seven trails of the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail complex that inspire visitors to explore the nine distinct ecosystems within park boundaries. The majority of trails are suitable for walking, running, and biking.

Related article: Discover more on a Texas-sized Outdoor Adventure

Remember to hike safely! Wear sturdy shoes or hiking boots and dress appropriately for the weather. Always take plenty of water and a snack. Incorporating The Three Ts (Trip Planning, Training, and Taking the Essentials) into your hiking regimen will help keep you safe out on the trail.  

Hiking Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kids In Parks

The National Park Service’s Junior Ranger Program is one of many great ways to introduce youngsters to the geography, history, and features of U.S. national parks. This activity-based program is conducted at most NPS facilities. During a park visit, kids complete activities and are rewarded with an official Junior Ranger patch and certificate. They also can read, play, and try various projects online, anytime. Help your young RVer adopt the Junior Ranger motto: Explore. Learn. Protect.

Related article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Worth Pondering…

In some mysterious way woods have never seemed to me to be static things. In physical terms, I move through them; yet in metaphysical ones, they seem to move through me.

—John Fowles (1926- ) English writer

Exploring a State Park or National Park this Summer! How to Choose?

In state parks and national parks alike you’ll find things like caves and waterfalls, mountains and valleys, wide-open fields, and pristine lakes and seashores

There’s one thing you know for certain: you’re looking to get away, get outdoors, and go exploring. But where are you going? Chances are you want to visit a place where the natural world is front and center which means state parks and national parks are two of your best options. These special, protected environments are available for public use and offer plenty of opportunities for exploration, recreation, and adventure. Whatever outdoor activities you’re enthusiastic about it’s guaranteed that both national and state parks afford plenty of access to a variety of great places to pursue them.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But in any case, you have no bad options! No matter which type of park you choose to visit, you’ll be able to explore endless trails, campsites, and outdoor adventure opportunities. So make your choice and get out there!

In the southeastern corner of Georgia lies the Okefenokee Swamp, a 438,000-acre wetland. The cypress-filled wilderness—with its labyrinth of black canals inhabited by some 12,000 gators—is a long drive from anywhere. The Native Americans aptly called the swamp the “land of trembling earth” because the unstable peat deposits covering much of the swamp floor tremble when stepped on.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spanish moss-laced trees sway in the breeze. A carpet of yellow bonnet lilies floats on top of the glossy dark waters of this refuge, home not only to alligators but also to turtles, black bears, herons, and many other creatures. At night, you hear the barred owls hooting deep within the forest.

More on state parks: 16 of the Best State Parks in America

One noise missing is the beep-beep of mobile devices. Cell phone service is spotty at best and honestly, you’ll be delighted by a break from the digital world. 

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors have three main entry points to choose from, each about two hours from the next. Stephen C. Foster State Park is the western entrance to the Okefenokee. It’s nestled within the much larger Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge but it offers much that the bigger reserve does not include campsites with electrical hookups, running water, and access until 10 p.m.—a plus for the stargazers attracted by its International Dark Sky designation in 2016. The park is 18 miles from the closest town of Fargo, Georgia.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park staff removed 13 streetlights and switched many bulbs to light-emitting diodes (LED). They worked with a local power company to install state-of-the-art lighting which casts downward rather than outward. The staff even retrofitted outdoor lighting on park cabins to be motion-activated.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These days, Okefenokee’s 120 acres of state park have more fans than ever. Since the pandemic started, they’ve seen an uptick in visitation even in the summer when numbers are normally low. That’s no anomaly. As travelers seek new options for enjoying the outdoors, state parks across the country have reported rising attendance.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Surprisingly, as of 2019, they were already welcoming about 2.5 times more visitors than their higher-profile, federally funded counterparts despite having only 16 percent of the acreage. While many state campgrounds do book up fast, a relatively local audience means that visitors at this southern George park tend to be more evenly distributed throughout the year which preserves the low-key, less crowded atmosphere. People can be out relaxing in nature without encountering the Instagram swarms angling for photo ops in the more famous parks.

Laura S. Walker State Park, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crowd volume is also helped by the simple fact that there are more state-run options for travelers to choose from. America’s State Parks alliance tallied nearly 6,800 reserves while the National Park System manages just 423.

More on state parks: 12 of the Best State Parks for Summer Camping

As national parks introduce timed entry tickets and day-use reservations in an attempt to tackle overtourism these laid-back siblings feel all the more inviting. Of course, 50 states mean 50 different systems for camping permits, and from park to park amenities are even more variable. Some sites are tricked out with golf courses, zip lining, and RV hookups; others, such as Maine’s Baxter and California’s Sonoma Coast state parks don’t even have running water.

McKinney Falls State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As demand grows, so, too, do the choices. Texas’s first new state park in 25 years, Palo Pinto Mountains will open next year on nearly 5,000 acres halfway between Abilene and Fort Worth. Visitors will be able to hike, bike, and ride horses over the hills. There will be fishing and canoeing on Tucker Lake and campsites where you can stargaze. Once the park opens, one of the first things visitors will see is a sweeping view of the hills from a road built along a ridge. That was on purpose—to awe people on their way in and out.

Shenandoah River State Park, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And Michigan just announced $250 million in funding for state parks including $26.2 million to create one in Flint—a key investment in the community as it continues to move past its water crisis.

Older sites are getting new energy, too. Fall Creek Falls State Park in Tennessee opened a $40.4 million, 85-room lodge this past January.

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

In five Minnesota parks, all-terrain electric wheelchairs with continuous-track treads for navigating rugged ground will be bookable as of this summer.

More on state parks: The 15 Best State Parks for RV Camping

Still, state parks grapple with the same challenges national ones do—and then some. One big concern is having enough help to manage maintenance, ticketing, and other operations.

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pennsylvania recently announced the creation of three new state parks. The state’s 2022-23 spending plan includes $56 million to add the new state parks to what is currently a 121-park system. The three will be the first new state parks in Pennsylvania since 2005 not counting Washington Crossing which was transferred from the state Historical and Museum Commission. The money will also help develop the state’s first park for the use of all-terrain vehicles and similar motorized recreational vehicles.

Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Delaware State Parks which have been filled with a growing number of visitors in the past few years is getting $3.2 million to upgrade some facilities. The goal is to increase the number of attractions in the popular state parks drawing even more tourists to the state. A record-breaking 8 million people visited state parks in 2021 exceeding previous attendance numbers. State officials say this year’s numbers are on track to top that total. Since 2011, reservations and occupancy for camping nights in the parks have grown 124 percent. In 2011, 67,000 nights were reserved, while last year, total reservations approached 150,000.

More on state parks: 7 of the Best State Parks in Texas to Take Your RV

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge