The 8 Best Things to Do this Fall in Georgia

Explore the BEST of the fall season in Georgia

As the air cools and the leaves start to fall, Georgia offers countless experiences to seek out with your family and close friends. From hikes to scenic drives, day trips to weekend getaways, take time to get out and enjoy the season’s best.

Brasstown Bald © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Take a road trip

Georgia has numerous routes with varied landscapes to enjoy. It twists. It turns. It takes you up, over, and around the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The Dragon Eyes winds 77 miles, 715 curves, two loops, six gaps, and endless views that stretch over the mountains. There are several different points you can begin Dragon Eyes. Starting the journey at the center of the two loops in Blairsville, head north for a half-mile on 19/129 and turn right on 180, known as Jack’s Gap. As you start to climb, you will soon be at the base of Brasstown Bald, the highest mountain in Georgia. Make a left to wind your way through the canopy-covered road up to the top. At the summit, there’s an observation deck that has a stunning 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains and valleys. If you’re staying in the area, Brasstown Bald is the perfect place to catch a sunrise or sunset. 

Along Russell-Brasstown Bald Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you’re ready to head out, make your way down to the base and turn left on 180 to continue on the backside of Jack’s Gap. Once you get to the dead-end, make a right onto 75 toward the Bavarian village of Helen. The Dragon Eyes pass through Helen and onto state parks near trails and waterfalls.

The Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway also runs 40 miles from Blairsville to Brasstown Bald and access points along the Appalachian Trail. Don’t forget about the coastal drives like Coastal Highway 17 which runs along the East Coast including a stretch between Savannah and Brunswick. Along the way, there are small towns and quirky attractions like the Smallest Church in America.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Visit a state park

Rich reds, vibrant oranges, and golden yellows make autumn color in Georgia beautiful. Find a quiet spot to immerse yourself in the beauty of the season at a Georgia State Parks.

The 4-mile Bear Hair Gap Trail at Vogel State Park makes a nice day trip for experienced hikers offering great mountain color and a birds-eye view of the park’s lake. For an easier walk, follow the Lake Loop to a small waterfall. The twisting roads around Vogel in Blairsville, particularly Wolf Pen Gap Road, offer some of north Georgia’s prettiest fall scenery.

You might already know about some of the most popular Georgia State Parks for fall color but there are many more to explore that don’t disappoint with an array of stunning scenes, smaller crowds, and wide-open spaces.

Leaf peeping near Blairsville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Watch the leaves change

Admire the changing colors shifting from green to shades of orange. Blairsville is a good place to start, especially the viewpoint at Brasstown Bald. Similarly, the top of Yonah Mountain offers stunning vistas of the surrounding valley.

Georgia’s state parks are also ideal for “leaf peeping.” Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville has views from the state’s highest waterfall. Black Rock Mountain State Park near Clayton is also great as it’s Georgia’s highest elevation state park.

St. Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Visit a small town

Hit the back roads of the state, visiting the charming small towns with something different to offer. Families love the parks and zoo in Athens as well as the restaurants with outdoor dining. Nestled just below the foothills of the Smokies of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Athens is home to the University of Georgia, America’s first state-chartered university.

St. Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Greensboro is the gateway to Lake Oconee with a café known for its buttermilk pie—The Yesterday Café. Founded in 1786, Greensboro is steeped in Southern history and tradition and rich with elegant antebellum homes and churches.

Perhaps best known as the gateway city to pristine Cum­berland Island, the coastal town of St. Marys draws visitors with a host of natural attractions. Three rivers—St. Marys, the Crooked, and the North—and the Cumberland Sound come together here, making it a popu­lar destination for fishing and boating.

Apple picking season © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Pick apples

Fall is the apple picking season in Ellijay, the state’s capital of apple orchards. Visitors can fill up containers with varieties of apples as well as eat apple-accented dishes like apple fritters, apple cider doughnuts, and candy apples. Many orchards also have other things to do like hayrides, petting zoos, corn mazes, and other activities for kids.

Jekyll Island Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Go camping

Experience the great outdoors with a fall camping trip. Georgia State Parks offer sites for both RVs and tents. But if you aren’t outdoorsy, you can take advantage of “glamping” like in a tiny cabin in the heart of the Chattahoochee National Forest in Suches, a yurt in Tugaloo State Park offering spectacular views of 55,590-acre Lake Hartwell, a geodesic dome in Ellijay with all the comforts of home, and a luxury canvas tent off on a private island (Little Raccoon Key) off Jekyll Island.

Pumpkin patch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Visit a pumpkin patch

There’s nothing that signals fall quite like a trip to the pumpkin patch. Sometimes you need just the right type of patch for your family. Is that an intimate u-pick or an adventure-packed occasion with pumpkins, rides, games, and more?

During the fall pumpkin harvest, choose from thousands of pumpkins, Indian corn, gourds, and fall decorations. Scenic hayrides, popcorn processing, gift shop, talking pumpkins, boiled peanuts. Shop for jams, jellies, relishes, fritters, freshly baked pumpkin bread, pumpkin pies, honey, and apple ciders.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Go hiking

Explore Georgia among the miles of trails in every corner of the state.

The Appalachian Trail (AT) crosses 14 states on its journey up the East Coast but it begins (or ends, depending on your direction) in Georgia. Springer Mountain has served as the starting point for countless adventures and as a celebratory finale for those completing the 2,180-mile hike from Mount Katahdin in Maine. In Georgia alone, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail covers 76 miles and crosses seven counties.

Hiking the Georgia mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are shorter scenic trails for day hikers and backpackers to enjoy the best of fall colors along trails of varying lengths throughout Georgia. The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area lies within four counties, north and northeast of Atlanta. It consists of the Chattahoochee River and 15 land units along a 48-mile stretch of the river.

Unpack your hiking shoes for a trek around one of Georgia’s most beautiful and notable natural wonders! At Providence Canyon, known as Georgia’s “Little Grand Canyon,” visitors can enjoy views of the canyons from the rim trail. Located near historic Savannah, Skidaway Island State Park in Savannah offers trails that wind through maritime forest and past salt marsh, leading to a boardwalk and an observation tower.

Worth Pondering…

Autumn . . . the year’s last loveliest smile.

—William Cullen Bryant

10 Amazing Places to RV in October

If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in October

October, a month that brings to mind fall festivals, leaves changing, and cooler weather is also a fantastic time for RV travel. Head to places like the Bavarian village of Helen or the New River Gorge for Bridge Day where fall foliage is at its best during this time of year. If you’d rather escape the sometimes chilly weather and head someplace warmer such as Savannah or Tucson.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in August and September. Also, check out my recommendations from October 2020.

Helen © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helen, Georgia

A Bavarian-inspired village with alpine charm in spades, Helen has heaps of character and enchanting architecture. Given its Germanic roots, you’ll be hardly shocked to learn that Oktoberfest is hugely popular. Vineyards, breweries, and an array of shops attract year-round travelers. For a sweet treat, stock up on confections at Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen. Speaking of food, the köstlich (German for delicious) and authentic dining scene also deserves a shout-out. Nearby Unicoi State Park offers 53 acres of forested trails plus numerous campsites and a lake.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabino Canyon, Arizona

The saguaro-draped foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson harbor countless scenic ravines but two of the prettiest are Sabino Canyon and Bear Canyon, ten miles northeast of the city center. Both feature a stream that forms seasonal pools and waterfalls, steep-sided slopes bearing many cacti, and other Sonoran Desert plants with rocky peaks rising high above. Of the two, Sabino is more developed and more visited having a paved road running 3.8 miles up the lower section along which are various picnic sites, trailheads, and viewpoints.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trams leave the visitor center every 30 minutes for the journey into Sabino Canyon, stopping at nine places along the way. The full trip takes about 45 minutes, crosses the creek nine times on sturdy stone bridges, and is made to the accompaniment of narration from a tour guide who gives details of the local wildlife, plant life, geology, and history. The trams are certainly the most popular way to visit though some prefer to walk or cycle.  Bear Canyon and the Seven Falls trailhead can be explored by a relatively easy 5-mile round trip hike beginning at the end of the side road, reachable by tram—or 8.5 miles if starting from the visitor center.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The most-visited national park, this protected area spans more than 520,000 acres straddling North Carolina and Tennessee. Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts more than 850 hiking trails and is considered the most biodiverse park in the national park system. What’s more, it’s home to some of the tallest peaks in the eastern United States. One of those peaks is the 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome which wows visitors with 360-degree views of the Smokies (on a clear day, visitors can see for 100 miles).

Clingmans Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For more spectacular mountain vistas travelers can hike the 3.6-mile round-trip Forney Ridge Trail to Andrews Bald which starts from the parking lot at Clingmans Dome. Boasting an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet, Andrews Bald is the highest grassy bald in the park. For travelers who don’t want to rough it in one of the park’s campsites, there are full-service RV parks available in Bryson City and Cherokee, North Carolina, and Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Entry to the national park is free.

New River Gorge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fayetteville & Bridge Day

With the official designation earlier this year of America’s newest national park, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, neighboring Fayetteville has been buzzing. However, this laid-back, tight-knit community (named for American Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette) has long been a place where adventure reigns. The nearby New and Gauley Rivers offer world-class whitewater rafting and the Fayetteville area is home to some of the best rock climbing in the East. It’s also a prime spot for mountain biking.

Adventure pursuit aside, Fayetteville’s natural scenery is stunning with cascading waterfalls, scenic parks, and breathtaking views that overlook the New River Gorge. The region is also home to a wealth of Appalachian history including a Civil War Trail and nearby mining towns like Nuttallburg and Thurmond.

New River Gorge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Downtown is chock full of quirky shops like Wild Art Wonderful Things where you can pick up Appalachian-made products like state-shaped embroideries and bottles of River Rat Hot Sauce. Fayetteville is home to the original Pies and Pints, a stone hearth pizza place with a decidedly cult following. (The gorgonzola and grape pie is a fan favorite.) The Wood Iron Eatery whips up made-from-scratch dishes in Fayetteville’s historic Ankrom-Dickerson House.

While the town’s landmark New River Gorge Bridge—an 876-foot-high single-span arch bridge that’s also one of the world’s longest—is impressive on any day, it’s especially so each third Saturday in October (October 13, 2021). This is Bridge Day, the only time that it’s legal to BASE jump in a national park (and professional BASE jumpers take full advantage of it). Bridge Walk offers a heart-thumping adventure of a different kind: guided tours beneath the bridge, along its 24-inch-wide catwalk.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cherohala Skyway, North Carolina and Tennessee

The Cherohala Skyway crosses through the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. The name “Cherohala” comes from the names of the two National Forests: “Chero” from the Cherokee and “hala” from the Nantahala. The elevations range from 900 feet above sea level at the Tellico River in Tennessee to over 5,400 feet above sea level at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line at Haw Knob.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are several spectacular scenic vistas on the Tennessee side. Brushy Ridge and Turkey Creek overlooks are good picnic spots. You’ll pass the turn-off for Indian Boundary Waters which offers great camping and back road dual sport/jeep explorations.

On the North Carolina side, Huckleberry Knob (near MM 8) is one of the favorite stops for visitors. At 5,560 feet, it’s the highest peak in the Unicoi Mountains and Graham County. It’s an easy 2.4-mile roundtrip hike in the Nantahala National Forest with only a 400-foot elevation gain along a former forest service road.

Boston Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boston in the Fall

It’s leaf-peeping time in New England and you don’t have to go any further than Boston Common to see fall colors. Boston is at its most beautiful in the fall. As the leaves turn, Boston’s parks put on an unforgettable show complementing the historic architecture. While you’re there, walk the Freedom Trail to explore some of the city’s historic sites—walk the 2.5-mile red line leading to 16 nationally significant historic sites. 

Two centuries separate the creation of the Boston Common and the Public Garden and what a difference that period made. In 1634 the Common was created as America’s first public park; it was practical and pastoral with walkways built for crosstown travel. In contrast, the Public Garden was the first public botanical garden in America. It was decorative and flowery from its inception featuring meandering pathways for strolling.

Boston Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The annual Fall Pumpkin Float in the Boston Common Frog Pond is planned for Friday, October 15, setting the stage for Halloween with jack-o-lanterns and spooky activities. The Head of the Charles Regatta, the world’s largest two-day rowing event, will be held October 22-24. Since its inception in 1965, The Head Of The Charles Regatta has attracted hundreds of thousands of rowers to the banks of the Charles River. The Boston Marathon returns on October 11 with a reduced field of 20,000 runners.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vogel State Park, Georgia

One of Georgia’s oldest and most beloved state parks, Vogel is located at the base of Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Driving from the south, visitors pass through Neel Gap, a beautiful mountain pass near Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia. Vogel is particularly popular during the fall when the Blue Ridge Mountains transform into a rolling blanket of red, yellow, and gold leaves. Hikers can choose from a variety of trails, including the popular 4-mile Bear Hair Gap loop, an easy lake loop that leads to Trahlyta Falls, and the challenging 13-mile Coosa Backcountry Trail. Cottages, campsites, and primitive backpacking sites provide a range of overnight accommodations. RV campers can choose from 90 campsites with electric hookups.

Chippewa Square © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savannah’s Squares

The best way to see Savannah is to set out on foot to walk its squares. Each one of these lush green spaces comes complete with businesses, homes, and churches. Some of these neighborhoods are tiny; others are huge. Some rest amid urban bustling while others sit quietly, disturbed only by the occasional thrasher or mockingbird.

Savannah’s squares are an invitation to stroll or simply relax and listen to the breeze stirring the oak trees and the clippity-clop of horse-drawn carriages wending around the roads. They’re the ideal jumping-off places to explore the walkable historic district.

First Baptist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I love Chippewa Square. It sits adjacent to the First Baptist Church and among beautiful townhomes. I never tire of seeking out its architectural secrets such as the charming fish-shaped caps on the downspouts that grace the homes facing the square.

Be sure to seek out the different squares and find a favorite of your own. There you may simply want to sit and let the lovely green park envelop you with its whisperings of centuries of life in this delightful city.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sand Surfing Monahans

As a winter sport, snowboarding is particularly ill-suited to the Texas climate. But if you’re willing to use a little imagination, you may find the next best thing waiting for you in the deserts of West Texas. True, there’s no white powder but powder-soft sand abounds at Monahans Sandhills State Park, the perfect place for sliding downhills. With entrance fees an affordable $4 per adult, it’s a lot cheaper than a ski lift ticket.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t have your own gear? No problem! You can rent a sand disc at the park’s head­quarters. There are endless sandhills to climb, jump or surf down. Pick a few and have fun! Boarding or sledding the dunes is more fun on the cool sand, so mornings and evenings are best. Midday, picnic at one of the park’s covered shelters or build a sandcastle, the Monahans equivalent of a snowman!

After playing in the sand all day, rinse off at one of the park’s watering stations before heading to your RV in the 26-site campground. Each site offers water and electric hookups, a picnic table, shade shelter, and a waist-high grill. Each site rents for $15 nightly plus a daily entrance fee.

Museum of Appalachia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where the Past Touches Your Soul

The Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee, is a living history museum where you can “let the past touch your soul.” Visit a pioneer farm village that channels the voice of the South Appalachian folk through the artifacts and stories they left behind. Roam the 65-acres of picturesque land and experience a rural Appalachian community complete with 35 log cabins, barns, farm animals, churches, schools, and gardens. Discover a vast collection of folk art, musical instruments, baskets, quilts, and Native American artifacts.

John Rice Irwin collected artifacts and buildings over the course of 50 years assembling a typical early Appalachian village with barns, homes, and businesses. Musicians play traditional music, and a restaurant serves Southern home-style meals with ingredients from the museum’s gardens.

Worth Pondering…

I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.

―L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

I’m going to Cajun Country!

Most travelers come to southern Louisiana expecting to find gumbo, accordions, and maybe a few gators. But the mix is far richer.

The southwestern region of Louisiana is officially called Acadiana but most people find themselves saying, “I’m going to Cajun country.” I was drawn to the region’s heritage and hoped to eat Cajun food, listen to zydeco, and maybe head out on the bayou. What I didn’t expect: soul-stirring natural beauty and a unique community with a layered history that continues to thrive and adapt.

Bayou Teche at St. Martinsville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I set off for Lafayette Parish which welcomes roughly 3 million people each year. Here, in the center of Acadiana which showcases the region’s fiddle-and-accordion-driven music and cultural events like the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles (October 8-10, 2021).

Whether you’re coming for the weekend or planning an extended stay, the “Happiest City in America” has numerous family-friendly things to do. From foodies, history and cultural buffs, and geocachers to the more adventurous outdoor activities, Lafayette has the perfect experience waiting for you.

Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lafayette Parish is surrounded by wetlands, so there’s no better way to experience the area than by boat. Hop aboard a swamp tour via airboat or rent a kayak. It’s also a birding paradise. Visit Bayou Vermilion, Lake Martin, or Avery Island with binoculars in hand. Admire the plant life on the Lafayette Azalea Trail or Avery Island’s Jungle Gardens, a 170-acre complex with azaleas, camellias, and even wildlife. And don’t forget your camera!

Lafayette is known as “The Hub City” because of its proximity to major roadways heading north, south, east, and west that lead locals and visitors to explore smaller towns. Though Lafayette is the largest city in the region, a great portion of its rich culture here is driven by surrounding communities, the gems that makeup Acadiana, a 22-parish (county) region.

Cracklins © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canadians make up the largest group of international visitors which makes sense. The word Cajun is an Anglicization of Acadien, the French Catholic ethnic group that in the 18th century was expelled from eastern Canada (largely Nova Scotia) by the British in what became known as Le Grand Dérangement, or the Great Upheaval. Thousands ended up on the bayous of Catholic, French-speaking Louisiana.

Boudin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lafayette Parish has received countless awards for its culinary scene including Southern Living’s Tastiest Town in the South. Where else can you tour a rice plantation, a crawfish farm, a meat market, and a chile pepper growing facility before enjoying a dish that combines them all? Avery Island’s Tabasco Experience is perhaps the best-known foodie attraction. And the area also has its own Boudin Trail (What is boudin? Rice, pork, and spices in a smoked sausage casing, served in links or in boudin balls which are deep-fried cousins of the iconic Cajun delicacy). Don’t miss the opportunity to chow down on dishes like crawfish etouffee, cracklins, and gumbo. The Lafayette area also has both down-home eateries that have been here for decades and new restaurants with modern interpretations of the traditional cuisine.

Bayou Teche at Breaux Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

My first stop was Breaux Bridge, the “Crawfish Capital of the World.” Nestled along the banks of the slow-rolling Bayou Teche, Breaux Bridge is a gorgeous historic town with world-class restaurants and a thriving Cajun music and folk art scene. Conveniently located just off I-10 at Exit 109, nine miles east of Lafayette, Breaux Bridge is a great place to stop off for a meal and an even better place to camp at a local RV park (see below) and stay awhile.

Breaux Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bridge itself isn’t much to see (though you can’t miss it)—it’s a tall, slightly rusty metal drawbridge that spans the Teche (pronounced “tesh”). The downtown stretch of Bridge Street, though, is adorable. Antique shops, boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants span several blocks; strolling the length of the strip can easily fill an afternoon.

Cafe Des Amis at Breaux Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Breaux Bridge is the gateway to authentic Cajun culture in south Louisiana with traditional Cajun and funky Zydeco music, world-famous cuisine, and a rich history filled with interesting stories. Breaux Bridge is home to the world-famous Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival every May (May 6-8, 2022) where thousands converge on the little city to pay homage to Louisiana’s famous crustacean.

Lake Martin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just outside of Breaux Bridge is the gorgeous Lake Martin, a wildlife-filled preserve and rookery that’s protected and administrated by the Nature Conservancy. You can drive or walk along the edge of the lake and see alligators, egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills, nutria, and many more critters of various sizes hiding among the bald cypress and water lilies. There are several tour operators offering boat tours: Champagne’s Swamp Tours dock right at the entrance to Rookery Road and offer an eco-friendly tour experience. You can also rent canoes and kayaks and take your own trip around the lake.

Atchafalaya Basin Natural Heritage Area Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just a bit further out of town, in the neighboring hamlet of Henderson, you’ll find access to one of the largest swamp ecosystems in the United States, the Atchafalaya Basin. McGee’s Landing Basin Swamp Tours take you into the basin for a look at some of the plants and wildlife that thrive in its murky waters, including the aforementioned gators and wading birds. And it goes without saying, the fishing’s great here and in Lake Martin. They don’t call Louisiana the Sportsman’s Paradise for nothing.

Tabasco factory and museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The McIlhenny Company still operates at its original home on Avery Island which is a must-do when visiting Acadiana. Built on a salt dome, it’s a mysteriously beautiful place where the red chile peppers grow, the factory hums, and abundant wildlife can be seen in Jungle Gardens. Tour the history and production of TABASCO Sauce including TABASCO Museum, Blending and Bottling, TABASCO Country Store, and 1868! Restaurant, a casual eatery serving spicy, authentic Cajun favorites and other classic favorites seasoned with TABASCO Sauce. Experience the natural beauty and tranquility of Jungle Gardens, a 170-acre semitropical garden on Avery Island. Enjoy the gently rolling landscape, botanical treasures, and abundant wildlife. Attractions range from beautiful flowers to birds to a 900-year-old Buddha, a magnificent centuries-old statue on the grounds. Thousands of snowy egrets nest in Bird City.

Where to Stay

Cajun Palms RV Resort

Cajun Palms RV Resort, Henderson

New in 2009 with paved streets, Cajun Palms offers long pull-through sites that range in length from 55 to 75 feet. Not to be ignored are the back-ins to the lake in the 55-60 foot range. Pull through and back-in sites have 20 feet of space between each concrete pad. Easy-on, easy-off Interstate 10 (Exit 115) at Henderson (near Breaux Bridge).

Poche’s RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Poche’s RV Park, Breaux Bridge

Poche’s RV Park is a pleasant and unique location with excellent fishing and birding. RV sites are located on several sides of a pond overlooking the water. Sites are concrete and level and separated by grass. Picnic tables are located at every site with fire rings at every other site. During our last visit, the interior road was in rough driving condition. Top tip: The owners also have a great little Cajun market with a really good restaurant a mile or so away on the road to Breaux Bridge. 

Frog City RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Frog City RV Park, Duson

Frog City RV Park opened in 2006. The park is located just off I-10 in Duson, a small town 10 miles west of Lafayette and deep in the beautiful Cajun countryside. With 62 spacious RV sites, Frog City offers Wi-Fi, cable TV, pull-through sites, a swimming pool, coin-operated laundry, and private hot showers that are sparkling clean. Guests receive a unique welcome package upon arrival.

Worth Pondering…

Goodbye joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh
Me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou
My yvonne, the sweetest one, me oh my oh
Son of a gun, well have good fun on the bayou.

—Lyrics and recording by Hank Williams, Sr., 1954

The Wild, Wonderful Waters of New River Gorge! Round Out Your Trip with a Visit to Babcock State Park & Glade Creek Grist Mill!

Almost Heaven awaits you at New River Gorge National Park, Babcock State Park, and Glade Creek Grist Mill

Scenic mountains and breathtaking gorge views await at the nation’s newest national park

Close your eyes and imagine a place with thousands of acres of lush green forests, rushing waters, and cascading waterfalls. Sound too good to be true? Such a place exists and it’s inside the New River Gorge National Park & Preserve. Teeming with rarified beauty and endless opportunities for adventure, the New River Gorge is the perfect destination for your next road trip. Mark America’s newest national park on your map, pack up the RV, and hit the road for Almost Heaven awaits you.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The New River Gorge has always been a celebrated landmark in the Mountain State, but now it gets recognition as America’s 63rd national park. From action-packed adventures like whitewater rafting, rock climbing, fishing, rock climbing, and miles of hiking trails to the southern hospitality of nearby mountain towns, the New River Gorge is a hidden gem to discover.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Home to the New River which drops 750 feet over 66 miles, adventuresome rafters and kayakers have long been drawn to this whitewater area for its class five rapids. The New River which flows northward through low-cut canyons in the Appalachian Mountains is one of the oldest rivers on the planet. The park encompasses more than 70,000 acres of land along the New River. The rugged mountains were once home to several coal mining camps and some historical artifacts and buildings remain.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Easily accessible by Route 19 and I-64, the New River Gorge is one of West Virginia’s most photographed areas. The New River cuts through extensive geological formations. Bald eagles, peregrine falcons, osprey, kingfishers, great blue herons, beavers, river otters, wild turkeys, and black bears call this park home and you’ll often spot a few along your travels. Hiking trails here take you to spectacular overlooks and through remnants of old coal mining towns.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Begin your experience with a stop at Canyon Rim Visitor Center which is situated on the edge of the gorge for maps, current information, and chats with a park ranger. You can learn about current safety protocols and visit the bookstore. The visitor center features an exhibit room filled with photographs and exhibits on the people, towns, and industry of the gorge. Other displays focus on the recreation and natural history of the area. Visitors can view an 11-minute video to orient themselves to all that makes New River Gorge National Park and Preserve such a special and significant place.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll want to see the New River Gorge Bridge, a highly photographed work of structural art. If you plan your road trip just right, you can visit during Bridge Day a one-day festival (October 16, 2021) where you’ll watch BASE jumpers launch off the 876-foot bridge and parachute down to the New River. New River Gorge is the only national park in the U.S. that permits this extreme activity.

The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve provide incredible outdoor recreation opportunities and stunning landscapes but there are also several nearby West Virginia State Parks waiting to be discovered and explored. In fact, these state parks offer cozy accommodations, mountain adventures, and unparalleled scenic views.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One such state park is Babcock. Located 20 miles southeast of the New River Gorge Bridge, Babcock State Park is home to 4,127 acres of iconic scenery and stunning views. Babcock State Park is best known for the Glade Creek Grist Mill, a fully functional replica of the original Cooper’s Mill that once ground grain on Glade Creek long before Babcock became a state park. Of special interest, the mill was created by combining parts and pieces from three mills that once dotted the state. The basic structure of the mill came from the Stoney Creek Grist Mill which dates back to 1890. After an accidental fire destroyed the Spring Run Grist Mill near Petersburg (Grant County) only the overshot water wheel could be salvaged. Other parts for the mill came from the Onego Grist Mill near Seneca Rocks (Pendleton County).

Babcock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A living monument to the over 500 mills which thrived in West Virginia at the turn of the century, the Glade Creek Grist Mill provides freshly ground cornmeal which park guests may purchase depending on availability and stream conditions. Visitors to the mill may journey back to a time when grinding grain by a rushing stream was a way of life and the groaning mill wheel was music to the miller’s ear.

Other attractions include recreational activities like hiking, fishing, and mountain biking.

Glade Creek Grist Mill, Babcock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Babcock is home to 28 cozy cabins tucked away in the woods. Each cabin provides a peaceful retreat to guests accompanied by the tranquil sights and sounds of nature. Several of the cabins are located near the Glade Creek Grist Mill. So close, you can almost hear the mill’s wooden frame churn. Babcock also includes a 52-unit campground if you wish to completely surround yourself in nature.

Glade Creek Grist Mill, Babcock State Park © Rex Vogel, a

Nature and landscape photographers who wish to fly a drone near the Glade Creek Grist Mill are required to check-in at the park office in advance. The use of drones is permitted but only from 1-3 p.m., daily. Drones may not be flown over buildings or the parking area and must stay a minimum of 20 feet away from the mill.

Start planning your next trip to the area and get ready for one-of-a-kind experiences and lasting memories.

Glade Creek Grist Mill, Babcock State Park © Rex Vogel, a

Worth Pondering…

Country Roads

Almost heaven, West Virginia
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Country roads, take me home
To the place, I belong
West Virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, country roads.

—John Denver

Discover more on a Texas-sized Outdoor Adventure

The diverse regions and terrain of Texas are nature made for sampling a wide variety of outdoor experiences

Outdoor recreation options in Texas are as big and wide as the state, thanks to a mind-boggling mix of landscapes. There are desert, rugged mountains, and wind-sculpted sand dunes in the far west; beaches, marshes, piney woods, and swamps in the east; and prairies, plains, plateaus, and rolling hills in between. Texas also has at least 3,000 caves and sinkholes, some of which, such as the Caverns of Sonora west of San Antonio, are open for tours.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Add abundant sunshine and temperate weather conditions into the equation and Texas is a year-round destination for outdoor adventure. So, whether you want to embrace your inner cowboy at Bandara, the “Cowboy Capital of the World”, or try something new like camping in the sand dunes, Texas has you covered. Here’s a quick look at some of my favorite Texas destinations where you can explore and relax outdoors.

Scenic State Parks

The 95 Texas State Parks protect invaluable natural resources and offer an array of outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, horseback riding, and no-license fishing. Most parks charge a nominal entrance fee, well worth the price for access to the state’s natural wonders.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imagine a Texas swamp fed by warm mineral springs and occasional river flooding that provides a home to unique plant and animal life seldom seen almost anywhere else in Texas. This little piece of the tropics lies just an hour from Austin and San Antonio. With multiple sources of water including the San Marcos River, Palmetto State Park is a haven for a wide variety of animals and plants. Look for dwarf palmettos, the park’s namesake, growing under the trees.

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bounded by the waters of St. Charles, Copano, and Aransas bays, 314-acre Goose Island State Park is a coastal delight. Visitors engage in a variety of activities including camping, birding, fishing, boating, water sports, picnicking, hiking, photography, geocaching, and wildlife observation. A leisurely 1-mile hiking trail is available. Goose Island State Park is also known for the Big Tree—an enormous 1,000-year-old coastal live oak that has survived prairie fires, Civil War battles, and hurricanes.

The Big Tree © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Goliad State Park is a chance for a history lesson if you choose. The main attraction here is the Spanish colonial-era mission which dates back to the 1700s. But Goliad is also a hot spot for camping, kayaking, canoes, and river activities.

Goliad State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Round as a giant Easter egg, Enchanted Rock sits half-buried in the hills north of Fredericksburg. It’s a half-mile hike to the top but an unforgettable experience. The massive pink granite dome rises 425 feet above the base elevation of the park. Its high point is 1,825 feet above sea level and the entire dome covers 640 acres. Climbing the Rock is like climbing the stairs of a 30- to a 40-story building.

Listen to Onion Creek flowing over limestone ledges and splashing into pools. Follow trails winding through the Hill Country woods. Explore the remains of an early Texas homestead and a very old rock shelter. All of this lies within Austin’s city limits at McKinney Falls State Park. You can camp, hike, mountain or road bike, geocache, go bouldering, and picnic. You can also fish and swim in Onion Creek. Onion Creek can flood after rainfall.

McKinney Falls State Falls © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Urban Green Spaces

Nature is woven into the fabric of Texas’ biggest cities. Land conservation, public-private partnerships, and eco-friendly urban planning have created easy-access green spaces inside the city limits of places like Houston, San Antonio, and Austin.

Lady Johnson Bird Park neat Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A 12-acre park in the heart of downtown Houston, Discovery Green has a lake, water gardens, tree-shaded walks, grassy areas, and 100-year-old oak trees. Try out the new jogging trail that surrounds the park or splash around The Model Boat Pond.

In San Antonio, Emilie and Albert Friedrich Wilderness Park feature 600 acres of undeveloped Hill Country terrain with over 10 miles of paved and unpaved trails. Try the park’s rugged Vista Loop for clear-day vistas of the downtown skyline.

Lady Bird Wildlife Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Austin regularly ranks among the greenest urban areas in the U.S. The city, which manages more than 300 parks, is also home to McKinney Falls State Park, a limestone-and-waterfall wonderland. 284-acre Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is the state botanic garden and arboretum of Texas. The center is home to the most diverse collection of native plants in the state with more than 800 species represented from many of the major eco-regions of Texas.

Connecting many of Austin’s green spaces is a network of natural greenways including South Austin’s Barton Creek Greenbelt. The roughly eight-mile-long greenbelt is a popular jumping-off point for outdoor adventures like bouldering, biking, hiking, rock climbing, and soaking in an old-fashioned Texas swimming hole.

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas-style Bike Trails

Biking in Texas is whatever you want it to be. The state’s wildly diverse topography means there are plenty of options for leisurely pedaling, adrenaline-pumping mountain biking, and everything in between. For a uniquely Texan experience, tackle the mountain biking trails at Flat Rock Ranch, a Hill Country cattle ranch-mountain biking venue 5 miles northeast of Comfort (50 miles northwest of San Antonio). Ease into the action on the meandering Green Loop before tackling challenging uphill climbs, steep descents, and big-thrill enduro runs (a type of mountain bike racing where only the downhill is timed).

Franklin Mountains State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas State Parks offer an unparalleled world of fun for bicyclists of all stripes. From the massive Franklin Mountains in El Paso to the wildlife-rich Copper Breaks, the scenery and terrain in Texas’ State Parks offer something for everyone —whether you’re a self-proclaimed “mountain bike maniac” or simply looking for a way to enjoy the great outdoors. The parks offer many opportunities to choose from—including road rides near some parks, rails-to-trails conversions where you can travel for miles along former railroad beds, and off-road experiences.

Driving Park Road 1C between Bastrop and Buescher state parks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bicycling in the Hill Country is a Lone Star treat. This challenging-yet-scenic ride through the shady Lost Pines of Central Texas is featured as part of the MS 150 benefit (first Saturday in May), a fundraising ride sponsored by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society that runs from Houston to Austin. The 12.5-mile stretch of Park Road 1C between these Bastrop and Buescher state parks offers a taste of what road riding has to offer and serious roadies can be combined with other area rides for longer routes. The road is open to vehicle traffic.

Fulton Mansion State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State Historic Sites

Hike, pedal, or paddle through Texas history at a state historic site. Rising above the Aransas Bay and surrounded by stately live oaks, Fulton Mansion State Historic Site is located in Rockport-Fulton. The house must have appeared incredible in 1877 as it does today with its mansard roof and ornate trim. Interior gaslighting, flush-toilets and other refinements were progressive and luxurious elements for this period of Texas history.

Ruins of the Kreische brewery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1849, German immigrant Heinrich Ludwig Kreische purchased 172 acres of land including the Dawson/Mier tomb, now known as Monument Hill. In the 1860s, he utilized the spring water from the ravine below his house and started one of the first commercial breweries in Texas. Walk the ruins of this once bustling brewery and envision how Fayette County citizens would enjoy a pint of Kreische’s Bluff Beer.

National Museum of the Pacific War © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Museum of the Pacific War is the only institution in the continental U.S. dedicated to telling the story of the Pacific Theater in World War II. The six-acre campus in the heart of Fredericksburg includes exhibits and memorial areas. Artifacts from the war, both large and small, shape the exhibits which feature ships and planes, weapons, helmets, and uniforms of those who served.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

My eyes already touch the sunny hill.

Going far ahead of the road I have begun.

So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;

it has inner light, even from a distance.

—signage at Lady Bird Wildflower Center

The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Grand doesn’t really even begin to describe it

No matter how many photos you’ve seen of the Grand Canyon, standing at the rim’s edge for the first time takes your breath away—especially if you’re there at sunset as the fading light paints shades of rose, violet, and gold onto the ancient rocks. There will never be a photograph captured of the Grand Canyon that can adequately describe its depth, breadth, and true beauty.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The canyon walls have stories that we will never hear and a history that our eyes will never behold. But if you stand and watch long enough, you’ll start to appreciate the vastness as its depths open up as each emerging shadow moves across its void. It is perhaps for those reasons that it has earned a rare spot among the 7 Natural Wonders of the World and why everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon is about 1-mile deep and 10 miles wide, measuring 277 miles in length, and it holds more than 10,000 years of history in that space (millions if you really want to get technical). There are endless ways to experience it depending on what the body and mind are looking for and one’s level of endurance. The Grand Canyon is not “one place” but a desert wilderness with many areas to explore—North Rim, South Rim, and West Rim (outside of Grand Canyon National Park); the Village of Supai and Kaibab National Forest—there are different stories to seek out and to create in each of them. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a well–known film lampoon of the family vacation, Chevy Chase stands at the edge of the Grand Canyon, nods his head in approval, and leaves. Visitors in real life tend to linger a bit longer—but not much. They emerge from cars or tour buses on the South Rim to peer out and take a selfie. Sometimes, they stay for a picnic or to have lunch at one of the rim lodges. Then they’re gone, the once-in-a-lifetime visit checked off their bucket list. According to Grand Canyon National Park officials, the average visit to this Arizona attraction lasts just two hours.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon can be a disappointment. Viewed from the top near one of the visitors’ parking lots, the fissured network of buttes and desert plateaus that make up one of the world’s largest river gorges can appear almost like a two-dimensional painting. More than one spectator has called it overrated.

But for those who take the first steps to descend below the canyon rim, something magical happens. Despite all the beautiful parks and places to discover on Earth, they’ll decide this is the place they must return to, again and again.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When hikers step through the canvas of pastel pink, orange, grey, and deep blue, they become part of the landscape. Down foot trails gouged from the side of rock cliffs, the view expands to 360 degrees and the canyon takes on dimensions and distances that can’t quite be imagined. Only the condors and ravens seem to have mastered the terrain. A vast world like this leaves plenty of room for the mind to wander, to gaze, and to rest.

First, let’s take a quick look at the two most visited locations: the North and South Rims.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The North Rim is visited less frequently than the South Rim for a variety of reasons—it is more remote and difficult to get to than the busy South Rim, it is further removed from major population centers, it maintains a short season (May 15–October 15) because of its heavy snow and higher elevation (about 8,000 feet; 9,200 feet at the highest point), and it offers fewer easy access points to peer into the valley of views than its southern counterpart does.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you plan to visit the Grand Canyon just once in your life, you’ll want it to be the South Rim, first to get a load of the views that drew awareness to the area in the first place. They really are spectacular. If you’ve already seen the South Rim, a visit to the northern side is where you can find solitude in backcountry camping and hiking and unique sites to photograph such as the Cape Royal viewpoint.  

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The South Rim is the best-known area of the park and is the passageway to iconic viewpoints such as Yavapai and Mather Points, both of which often serve up to many the first views of the colorful gorge as it is located just a short walk from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. At night, catch the sunset at Hopi Point and Mojave Point, two of the most popular places in the park to drink in the pink sky. Near to all of them are iconic lodges, located just steps from the canyon rim. The panoramic views in this area seem to stretch on endlessly and visitor amenities abound including shops, restaurants, free shuttle access to iconic viewpoints, trail access, historical sites, exhibits—and the list goes on and on. 

El, Tovar Hotel, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You will find everything you need for a Grand Canyon adventure in Grand Canyon Village. This historic village has excellent shopping for all the hiking and camping gear you need, as well as authentic American Indian crafts and plenty of canyon souvenirs. The village also has stellar lodging options and a top-rated walking tour. Highlights of the tour include Bright Angel Lodge, El Tovar Hotel, Buckey O’Neill Cabin, Hopi House, Lookout Studio, and Kolb Studio.

Hopi House, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Begin your Grand Canyon tour at the visitor center—especially if you have limited time. Here you can pick up a copy of the self-guided walking tour brochure for in-depth information on the canyon and its history. Park rangers can help design an itinerary to make the most of your visit, suggest hikes to suit your fitness level, and recommend the best viewpoints for sunset and/or sunrise.

Grand Canyon Railway Depot, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll also learn how Grand Canyon Village grew up around the Santa Fe Railroad starting in 1901. Stop by the rustic Grand Canyon Railway Depot which welcomes Grand Canyon Railway passengers to the village. One fun way to arrive at the South Rim is via the Grand Canyon Railway which runs from the historic town of Williams into the heart of the park allowing for a half-day of exploring before returning in the afternoon.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many activities in the Village including helicopter tours, horseback rides, scenic train rides, and mule trips. Do you remember the Brady Bunch adventure when Mike, Cindy, and the clan ventured down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon by mule? This is an actual thing! But, why a mule? They’re more sure-footed than horses. From the South Rim, you can ride a mule to the Colorado River and spend a night or two at Phantom Ranch or take a shorter two-hour ride along the rim. Book as far in advance as possible to guarantee yourself a spot.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, of course, the hiking can’t be beaten. Some of the best hikes include Bright Angel Trail, South Kaibab Trail, Hermit Trail, and Rim Trail. The simplest walk is the Rim Trail which stretches for 13—mostly flat—miles along the top of the South Rim. Much of it is paved and wheelchair-accessible and you can enter and leave the path at any viewpoint. Backcountry permits are not required for day hikes, but—with the exception of Phantom Ranch—they are if you plan to spend the night.

If your fitness allows, try to hike at least part of the way into the Grand Canyon; you’ll get a completely different perspective than you do from the top. The most popular South Rim trail into the canyon is the Bright Angel Trail which is well maintained and offers some shade along the way. Another good option is the South Kaibab Trail—it is a little steeper and has less shade but boasts slightly more dramatic views if you’re only doing part of the trail. While both of these trails go all the way to the bottom you can easily transform each of them into a day hike by turning around at one of the mile markers and going back the way you came.

Shuttle transport, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For visitors who aren’t up for a hike into the canyon, a shuttle transports visitors along the rim of the canyon, stopping at many breathtaking vantage points. You can also enjoy the views directly from Grand Canyon Village and enjoy lunch at one of the village’s restaurants: Bright Angel Lodge, El Tovar, or Maswik Lodge.

Part of the Grand Canyon but outside of the National Park is Hualapai Tribe’s Grand Canyon West. Walk the glass panels on the Skywalk. Soar over the canyon in a helicopter or on a zipline. Float down the Colorado River on a river tour. Take in the epic views at Guano Point and Eagle Point. And, you can stay on-site at the Cabins at Grand Canyon West.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 1,218,375 acres

Date Established: February 26, 1919 (established as Grand Canyon National Monument on January 11, 1908)

Location: Northwestern Arizona

Park Elevation: South Rim, 7,000 feet; North Rim, 8,000 feet

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: Though open 365 days a year, Grand Canyon weather can present a few extremes. While the South Rim is warm in the summer, it’s also very busy and the temperature on the canyon floor can reach over 100 degrees. Spring and fall can be pleasant, but unpredictable.

How the park got its name: According to research by award-winning documentarian Ken Burns, the park got its name from a one-armed Civil War veteran and geology professor named John Wesley Powell who declared it the “Grandest of Canyons” after rafting the length of the Colorado River in 1869, after which the name stuck. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic site in the park: Mather Point, just steps from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center is often the first view that visitors have of the park. Just after gathering the info needed in order to better plan their stay, visitors can step out onto a narrow railed overlook to take in some of the most extensive views that the canyon has to offer, including Yavapai Point and the Bright Angel Trail stretching down to the bottom of the canyon. From here you can also catch a glimpse of the mighty Colorado River. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big adventure: There are two popular rim-to-rim hikes for adventurous souls yearning to gaze 4,000 feet skyward from the base of the Colorado River that bisects the canyon. The rim-to-river-to-rim hike starts at the South Rim—the most popular route being down the South Kaibab Trail (7 miles) and up the Bright Angel Trail (about 10 miles.) The true rim-to-rim hike starts on the Bright Angel Trail at the North Rim, descending to the bottom of the canyon for stays at the Phantom Ranch or the Bright Angel Campground, ascending the Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim. This adventure covers 24 miles and takes about 3 days. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Designations: UNESCO World Heritage Site on October 26, 1979

Recreational visits in 2019: 5,974,411

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,897,098

Entrance Fees: $35/vehicle (valid for 7 days); all federal land passes accepted

Camping Fee: $18/night

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.

—Theodore Roosevelt on the Grand Canyon in 1908

Awesomeness beyond the Mighty 5 in Southern Utah

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

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

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

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

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

Red Rock Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond Bryce Canyon and Zion

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

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Beyond Capitol Reef

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Arches and Canyonlands

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

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

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

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jack Kerouac

4 National Park Alternatives to Yosemite

With 63 national parks to choose from, it’s easy to find space of your own. You just need to know where to look.

National parks are having their moment. With many seeing record numbers this year and the number of yearly visitors rising by over 53 million from 2013 to 2019, it can feel like a fool’s errand to attempt an off-grid adventure amid throngs of other visitors. Not only are campgrounds booking up months in advance—at some parks, popular trails feel as jammed as Friday traffic in Los Angeles.

The good news is that, out of the country’s 63 national parks, only a dozen or so draw constant crowds. Many others remain off of many Americans’ radars. I’ve selected four of my favorite lesser-known national parks. Every one of these parks is bucket list-worthy on its own merits. 

So if you’re seeking an outdoor escape with plenty of fantastic scenery and room to roam, turn your attention to the West Coast. California has nine national parks—more than any other state in the U.S. So you have tons of options! The toughest choice is which gorgeous locales to tick off your bucket list first and when to visit. Not to worry, I’ve gone ahead and done the research. Thus freeing up your time for more important matters, like reserving a campsite and buying hiking gear. Scroll on for a breakdown of four of my favorite national parks in the Golden State. Happy exploring!

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Joshua Tree National Park

Best for: Rock climbers, stargazers, desert wanders, Instagrammers, camping enthusiasts

An arid 800,000-acre expanse dotted with twisted trees, cacti, massive boulders, and starry skies, Joshua Tree has it all. Perched at the intersection of the Mojave and the Colorado Desert, this otherworldly Southern California region offers a surreal landscape and sense of serenity.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rock formations are obviously a major drawcard for photographers and pretty much anyone who digs desert scenery. Not surprisingly, Joshua Tree continues to be a magnet for climbers.

Amazing hikes also come with the territory. Mastodon Peak is a strenuous odyssey that rewards trekkers with jaw-dropping panoramas. Seeking a less energetic hiking stroll? Try a loop path like Bajada Nature Trail, Cholla Cactus Garden, or Discovery Trail.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In terms of accommodations, you definitely don’t have to rough it in the traditional sense. Joshua Tree has some of the most swoon-worthy rentals around. Or, why not sleep under the stars? The majority of the 500 campsites in the park are available by reservation.

When to go: Summer is brutal as the thermometer rarely dips below 100 degrees. Peak season—marked by pleasant weather and, admittedly, an influx of tourists—spans from October to May.

Where we stayed: Indian Waters RV Resort, Indio

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Best for: Volcano chasers, hikers

Can you guess the crown jewel of Lassen Volcanic National Park? We’ll give you one hint: The last time it erupted was a century ago. The chance of Lassen Peak blowing its top is unlikely. That should put your mind at ease as far as getting up close and personal with the park’s trademark lava rocks, steaming sulfur fumaroles, gurgling mud pots, hydrothermal springs, and jagged peaks.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, volcanic features aren’t the only noteworthy attributes. This northern California gem brims with untamed forests, glistening lakes, and flower-filled meadows. I’d be remiss not to mention the 150 miles of hiking trails.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to go: The window for visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park is pretty tight. You’ll want to avoid heavy snowfall which just leaves May to October. This period of clear skies, warmer days, and open roads offers ideal conditions for a few days of earthy expeditions.

Where we stayed: JGW RV Park, Redding

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Pinnacles National Park

Best for: Hikers, climbers, birdwatchers, camping enthusiasts

The baby of the bunch (aka California’s newest national park), Pinnacles isn’t as well known as the rest of the stunners on my list. But I have a feeling that under-the-radar status won’t last long. Not when the region is defined by breathtaking rock formations, cliffs, canyons, spires, and caves created by an extinct 23-million-year-old volcano.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most popular pastime is hiking. Easy, moderate, and challenging trails traverse the protected area. Adrenaline junkies with scrambling skills can attempt to tackle everything from straightforward top-roping to expert-level multi-pitch climbs. Look up and you may witness endangered condors soaring through the blue skies.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to go: Speaking of birds, Pinnacles National Park ranks among the top locales to spot peregrine falcons, red-shouldered hawks, and golden eagles—especially if you go during the spring which is raptor breeding season. Aiming to avoid the crowds and don’t mind seriously scorching temps? Consider visiting during the sweaty summer months.

Where we stayed: San Benito Camping and RV Resort, Paicines

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

Best for: Tree huggers, hikers, climbers, fans of fishing, stargazers

A diverse and magical place, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park is blessed with magnificent scenery unlike anywhere else. These adjoining nature areas have a wealth of immense canyons, alpine peaks, and truly massive trees. It’s here that you’ll discover the majesty of the 14,494-foot Mount Whitney.

General Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whatever you do, don’t miss the General Sherman Tree. (At 275-feet-tall and with a 36-foot-diameter base, it’s the biggest tree on the planet by volume. Follow the paved trail in Giant Forest. Needless to say, an epic photo opp awaits.

Also on the agenda? Go caving, fishing, and spelunking. Mosey to the top of Panoramic Point for spectacular vistas of Kings Canyon and Hume Lake. Park Ridge Fire Lookout is one of the many other jaw-dropping viewpoints.

Eleven Range Overlook, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to go: By now, you’re probably pretty sold on Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. Spring, summer, and fall are ideal for all sorts of outdoor activities. As if all that’s not enough. You can comfortably sleep under the stars at the Lodgepole Campground during the warmer months.

Where we stayed: Sun and Fun RV Park, Tulare

Worth Pondering…

We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.

—John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

7 Serene Arizona Lakes for Water-related Activities

These Arizona lakes boast outdoor activities for the boater, fisherman, hiker, camper, and nature lover

When it’s been this hot for this long, the one thing you need is water. Not the stuff that comes in bottles or out of the tap. Nor the water that’s been slowly heating in concrete enclosures since May. You need an expanse of naturally occurring water, the kind that runs freely or accumulates in quantities so vast it can support all sorts of users.

It’s true that Arizona is best known for its dramatic desert landscapes but these arid regions also have hundreds of miles of lakeshore where you can sun yourself on sandy beaches or water ski past stately saguaros. 

Here are my seven favorite lakes in Arizona for water-related activities.

Granite Dells © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Granite Dells

For water with a view, it’s hard to beat the rocky sentinels standing guard along Watson Lake. A little over 4 miles north of Historic Prescott, the Dells offer unique granite rock formations, two small lakes, and miles upon miles of trails. From easy mountain bike rides, leisurely hikes, to tough and technical terrain, the Dells offer something truly unique when it comes to outdoor recreation.

Granite Dells © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Granite Dells, worn smooth by the elements, provide a scenic backdrop as you kayak or canoe along the placid surface of the lake. And when the light is right and the surface is glassy, photos of the reflection will light up your Instagram and Facebook feeds.

The two main areas to visit are the city parks located in the Granite Dells—Watson Lake Park and Willow Lake Park. Both parks are open year-round allowing visitors to see the changing scenery through the four mild seasons. The summers are cooler than Southern Arizona. And the winters are mild too, offering occasional snow that melts off pretty quickly.

Lynx Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lynx Lake

If you’re looking for a cool, calm, and relaxing day, Lynx Lake offers some of the best fishing in the area. At 55-acres, Lynx Lake is the largest and busiest lake in the Prescott National Forest. Nestled amid ponderosa pines and claiming temperatures 10 to 15 degrees below those in the desert, Lynx Lake holds rainbow trout, largemouth bass, crappie, and more. Even better, its waters are limited to electronic- or people-powered watercraft, perfect for fishing or napping. The only thing separating the two is luck.

Lynx Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A popular lakeside picnic and fishing area, South Shore has ample parking for cars and vehicles towing trailers or boats on all but the busiest days of the year when it fills up. Lynx Lake North Shore’s day-use area provides lake-side recreation, fishing, picnic tables and grills, a wildlife viewing scope, and interpretive signs. Lynx Lake Marina provides restaurant dining, fishing/camping supplies, bait, boat rentals, and firewood. Located atop a bluff on the north shore of Lynx Lake, Lynx Lake Café is a full-service restaurant.

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro Lake

Giant cactuses with arms outstretched toward shimmering water might seem to be out of sync but Arizona is all about emerging scenic landscapes. Like the aptly named Saguaro Lake located about 45 miles from Phoenix in Tonto National Forest which emerges from the Sonoran Desert that sprawls across most of the southern half of Arizona. One of the Salt River’s four reservoirs, Saguaro Lake was shaped after the Stewart Mountain Dam was completed in 1930.

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Launch your boat from one of the two marinas to water ski the 10-mile-long lake or stake out swimming spots at Captain’s Cove, Sadie Beach, or at Pebble Beach on the Lower Salt River. Tour-boat trips are available on the Desert Belle. Try the upper reaches of the lake (east-end) for more seclusion. An idyllic way to see the stars among the saguaros is to camp overnight at Bagley Flat with grills and tables provided. It’s free for up to 14 days but the site’s 10 spots are only accessible by boat.

Over 2,200 fish-habitat structures were installed to enhance fishing on the lake. According to Bass Master Magazine, the best time for trophy bass is October to December and February to mid-April. There is large bass in the lake; fish census shows that 12+ pound bass and 30-pound Carp exist in the depths. Bluegill comes in a variety of sizes. Occasional species caught include Walleye, Black Crappie, Small-mouth Bass, Bigmouth Buffalo, and Yellow Bass.

Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon Lake

The most scenic of the Salt River-fed lakes, Canyon abounds with the steep walls and cliffs its name suggests. Canyon Lake is known for its wonderful shorelines along the red rock cliffs. Tuck into a secluded cove and fish for bass, trout, and many other kinds of fish, or take a leisurely cruise and marvel at the scenery. Boaters wanting scenery and seclusion should try the east end of the lake where it winds through steep canyon walls. There are occasional sightings of Big Horn sheep as well as other wildlife.

Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boat-access camping is at The Point. November-March, Arizona Game and Fish stock the lake monthly with rainbow trout. Largemouth Bass are caught in Canyon Lake every year. A 15-pound state record Largemouth Bass was taken from the shoreline of Canyon Lake. A world record 1 pound 11 ounce Yellow Bass was caught in 1985.

Idyllic year-round weather makes Canyon Lake a great destination for all watersports and camping enthusiasts. When ready for a break, pick a spot along the 28 miles of shoreline and enjoy a picnic or stop at the Lakeside Restaurant and Cantina for a casual meal.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bartlett Lake

Located in the mountains northeast of Phoenix, Bartlett Lake was formed by the damming of the Verde (Spanish for “green”) River. The pristine waters of the Verde were spoken of descriptively in legends of the Indians of the valley who called the water “sweet waters”. The lake is framed by Sonoran desert scenery with gently sloping beaches on the west side and the rugged Mazatzal Mountains on the east side, studded with saguaro, cholla cacti, mesquite, and ocotillo.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A fair portion of the west side of the reservoir is devoted to camping and picnicking. Bartlett has been a favorite with anglers since Bartlett Dam was constructed in 1939. Several state-record fish have been caught there. The 1977 Small-mouth Bass state record tipped the scales at seven pounds. The carp state record still stands at 37 pounds 5 ounces. Flathead Catfish lurk in the depths. “Fish City” near Bartlett Flat is a fish-habitat improvement project.

Patagonia Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia Lake

Patagonia Lake is one of those high-desert sanctuaries that seem to pop up out of nowhere. Situated 75 miles south of Tucson (and 16 miles northeast of Nogales, the entry point into Mexico), the park is framed by 3,750-foot hills.

With boat ramps, camping sites, and a nearby Lakeside Market, Patagonia State Park is a great base to while away the day waterskiing, picnicking, fishing for bluegill, and watching for wildlife. The park offers a campground, beach, picnic area with ramadas, tables and grills, a creek trail, boat ramps, and a marina. The campground overlooks the lake where anglers catch crappie, bass, bluegill, catfish, and trout.

Patagonia Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is popular for water skiing, fishing, camping, picnicking, and hiking. And the train tracks from the New Mexico and Arizona Railroad which served the mines and military forts lie beneath the water. Remnants of the old historic line may be found at the Patagonia-Sonoita Nature Conservancy in Patagonia. Hikers can stroll along the creek trail and see birds such as the canyon towhee, Inca dove, vermilion flycatcher, black vulture, and several species of hummingbirds. 

Parker Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Parker Canyon Lake

This medium-sized 132-acre lake is nestled in the gentle Canelo Hills east of the Huachuca Mountains. Just seven miles north of Mexico, Parker Canyon Lake was created in 1966 by the Coronado National Forest and the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Ringed with cottonwoods, juniper, piñon pine, scrub oak, and manzanita, Parker Canyon Lake offers a number of recreational possibilities for those willing to drive the dirt roads that lead to it. The temperature in the area which lies about 5,400 feet above sea level generally runs about 10 degrees cooler than Tucson.

For those who like to fish, Parker Canyon Lake offers both cold and warm water species including stocked rainbow trout and resident bass, sunfish, and catfish. There is a fishing pier and a paved boat ramp at the lake as well as a lakeside paved area and a graveled path along some of the best catfishing shorelines.

Parker Canyon Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is also a concessionaire-operated country store at the lakeshore where you can pick up some last-minute supplies, buy a fishing license, camping gear, tackle, and worms, or rent a boat.

From just about any point along the shore, Parker Canyon Lake doesn’t look very big. Take off on the trail around the lake, though, and you’ll find it’s a heck of a lot bigger than you thought.

Worth Pondering…

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.

—John Muir

Why America Needs More National Parks

There are dozens of natural wonders around the country that are worthy of designation

Nothing epitomizes the natural splendor of America quite like a national park. The designation evokes images of quiet groves of towering trees in Sequoia and Kings Canyon, sweeping views of sun-drenched rock formations in Arches, or waves crashing against granite cliffs in Acadia (National Park).

Recently, though, national parks have become synonymous not with pastoral retreats but rather a decidedly less appealing phenomenon: crowds and more crowds.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 327 million people visited the public lands managed by the National Park Service (NPS) in 2019 and after a brief, pandemic-causing respite the system is again straining to accommodate the hordes yearning for a little fresh air after more than a year spent mostly indoors. Parks across the country are setting records for visits while landmarks like Old Faithful and Utah’s Delicate Arch have been swamped by picture-snapping visitors.

Going to a national park in 2021 doesn’t mean losing yourself in nature. It means inching along behind a long line of vehicles on the way to an already full parking lot.

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

Since last August, every month except one has been record-setting at Grand Teton National Park. More than three million people visited the park in 2019 and the total will likely reach four million this year.

Yellowstone, whose history as a national park predates the Park Service itself, registered its first month with over a million visitors in July. The park is grappling with the impact all those new guests are having on the park’s infrastructure. A million more people a year in Yellowstone mean you’re emptying 2,000 garbage cans five times a day instead of three. What is the impact of a million more people flushing toilets five times a day, do to wastewater?

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So far, federal action on the matter has largely been restricted to last year’s Great American Outdoors Act which directed money to the NPS’s estimated $12 billion repair backlog as well as the President’s recently proposed budget which would increase the number of full-time Park Service employees considerably for the first time in two decades. But, the core issue remains: There are too many people concentrated in too few places.

But, how can we rebalance the scale? By adding more national parks!

After all, America has no shortage of sublime landscapes. The current assortment of national parks represents a narrow cross-section of the nation’s beauty.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon and Yosemite are undeniably magnificent but so too are lesser-known landmarks. Valles Caldera is a dormant volcano in northern New Mexico whose 13.7-mile-wide crater is dotted by hot springs and streams. Joshua trees in Southern California’s Mojave National Preserve are no less mesmerizing than in their namesake national park. These are just two of the dozens of wilderness areas across the country that are already managed by the Park Service yet remain practically unknown. Redesignating them as national parks could change that overnight.

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

There is perceived credibility in the national park designation. Elevating a national preserve or national monument to national park status does increase visitation.

Headwaters Economics, a research group based in Montana, reported on the impact of the eight national monuments redesignated as national parks over the past two decades. Their research found that national parks overall have much greater visitation, overnight visits, spending per visitor, an economic impact than national monuments. Visits increased by 21 percent on average in the five years following redesignation compared to the five previous years.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Those findings are borne out by the New River Gorge in West Virginia which was redesignated last December. A spokesperson for the park estimates that visits have increased by 24 percent in the months since.

In the Intermountain West, from 2000 to 2016, recreation visits to national parks increased while visits to national monuments decreased. Importantly, national parks saw a greater increase in overnight visits which has a significant economic impact on the surrounding communities.

The most substantial difference between national parks and monuments is that the latter are created by presidential decree rather than congressional action; indeed, many national parks began as monuments and were only later elevated to their now rarefied status.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For many visitors, the word “monument” is something of a misnomer. It signals that maybe there’s one thing of interest there. That leads people unfamiliar with the region to think, “Let’s plan on a two-hour stop before we go on to a big-name national park.”

There is potential for a significant increase in visitation and economic impact for surrounding communities from redesigning a national monument as a national park. National monuments like Craters of the Moon (Idaho), Canyon de Chelly (Arizona), Organ Pipe (Arizona), Cedar Breaks (Utah), Natural Bridges (Utah), Mount St. Helens (Washington), Aztec Ruins (New Mexico), and El Malpais (New Mexico) come to mind.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How many of the six million annual Grand Canyon visitors might be enticed to go to Arizona’s similarly majestic Canyon de Chelly if it were a national park rather than a national monument? How many of the hundreds of thousands of eager hikers packing into Zion every month might take a chance on Cedar Breaks instead, especially given its crimson-striped cliffs and bristlecone forests are a mere hour’s drive further into the Utah desert?

Of course, many Westerners will shudder at the notion of under-the-radar gems like Craters of the Moon and the Valles Caldera becoming the next Bryce Canyon or Badlands. Which begs the question of how to alleviate crowding at some sites without overwhelming others?

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many national parks have already reached their limits, leaving less developed public lands vulnerable. Because Grand Teton can’t accommodate everyone who wants to stay there overnight, rangers from the surrounding Bridger-Teton National Forest have been scrambling to respond to the campers who want to camp there instead despite the area not having a comparable visitor infrastructure. And, therein may lay the answer for another viable alternative to the overcrowded national parks. Overshadowed by the NPS, the U.S National Forests offer some of the most awe-inspiring natural wonders in the country.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Forest Service offers a range of choices from developed campgrounds to dispersed camping in the middle of nowhere. America’s National Forest system stretches over 193 million acres of vast, scenic beauty waiting to be discovered. Visitors who choose to recreate on these public lands find more than 150,000 miles of trails, 10,000 developed recreation sites, 57,000 miles of streams, 338,000 heritage sites, and specially designated sites that include 9,100 miles of byways, 22 recreation areas, 11 scenic areas, 439 wilderness areas, and 122 wild and scenic rivers.

National Forests, then, represent an appealing in-between alternative: sites that many outdoors-minded travelers have never heard of that can still offer an experience every bit as memorable as a brand name park.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a paradox in the national parks. They’re set aside as natural places to be protected forever; on the other hand, they’re for public enjoyment and experience. The current situation complicates both sides of that equation by compromising the Park Service’s conservation mission while also making parks less appealing places to visit. Creating more National Parks is part of the solution. If you’ve got a demand problem, you can solve it by increasing supply. That’s Economics 101.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Wallace Stegner, 1983