Spending Time in Nature Just Might Save the World

Nature is not a refuge—it’s a forge that transforms us

Spending time outdoors can serve as a forge that brings out the best in us.

Nature transforms us

What’s come down are medical studies showing time in nature does a multitude of good things for our health. Add to that the brainwave studies showing the benefits to our mental health. Top it off with the sociological studies showing time in nature leads to increased creativity.

Improved health and creativity are just what the doctor ordered.

In sum, we now have the science to justify it: nature is a forge in which much-needed world-saving values are brought to life.

Ajo Scenic Loop in southern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Still stuck in the old paradigm

While our appreciation of what nature does for us has evolved, the way our culture looks at time spent in nature, unfortunately, is still much the same. Despite what we know about the benefits of spending time in nature, our culture still views time spent there as passive. It’s often spoken of as a retreat or escape.

Our attitude reflects the society we grew up in. “Nature is so relaxing.” “I go hiking to get away from it all.” “The outdoors is my happy place.” We hear these phrases. The problem is that they’re limiting. They pigeonhole nature and the role nature can play for us.

Even though we now have awe theory and forest therapy, even though we know about the three-day effect and have books like The Awakened Brain and The Comfort Crisis we’re stuck in the old paradigm that defines time in nature is a form of recreation—and holds that the real work takes place when we’re sitting at a board meeting or behind our laptops.

It’s not nature that needs to change, but us.

Wells Gray Provincial Park, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The new paradigm

These are dire times and the old paradigm of nature as recreation no longer makes the cut. If we as a species are to shift onto a less self-destructive path, we need to access the values-shifting awarenesses nature can provide.

If the next generation is to care about protecting the natural world, they need to have had positive experiences in it. If these changes are to come about, we need to value nature more broadly and spend time in nature with broader intentions. We need more access to green spaces for those who live in cities. Nature needs to be more than a place to relax. And, so of course, it’s not nature that needs to change, but us.

We need a new paradigm. We need a new story to tell ourselves about nature and the time we spend in it.

Simply put, we need to embrace the idea that nature isn’t so much a place to retreat and relax but rather a forge that can transform us.

Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the good of the people

The idea that spending time in nature can lead to personal transformation is not new. Far from it! Seers and prophets have been going out into the wild since the beginning of human civilization. When they went, they weren’t going on vacation. They weren’t sipping mai tais by a pool.

Native Americans—and many other indigenous cultures—had a tradition of the vision quest in which young people on the verge of adulthood would go out into nature alone in order to experience spiritual growth.

Black Elk of the Oglala Sioux tells a story from his childhood in which a tribal leader welcomes a group of young men back from a scouting mission with the words, “Whatever you have seen, maybe it is for the good of the people you have seen” (Niehardt 65).

Those simple words signify recognition of what the young people did and its importance. The young people left the community and went forth into the wild. Their purpose was to see. Their seeing was beneficial not just to themselves but to their community. It was “for the good of the people.”

Roseate spoonbills in Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nature helps us save ourselves from ourselves

It’s a small shift—thinking of nature as a forge rather than a retreat—but it makes a big difference. I’m reminded of the well-known Thoreau quote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Wildness and wilderness can strengthen and preserve us. I have no doubts about that. But the bulk of the world seems to have little interest in wildness. How then could the wildness be important to the world or have a chance of saving it?

The solutions to the problems of today are unlikely to spontaneously show up on the screens of our cell phones. The solutions might just manifest themselves when we’re out in nature, however. This is because nature is a rich source of complexity, mystery, and inspiration; nature is a bottomless well, a source that counters and supplements all that is human.

In light of the new paradigm, in light of what we now understand in terms of how crucial nature is to our health, in light of our dependence on nature for everything from new medicines to new technology, and in light of the popularity of rewilding now—more than ever—we can see Thoreau’s words as being amazingly prospicient.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In wildness is the preservation of the world.

Over the course of history, our preoccupation with technology has led humanity to stray from nature but if we’re to survive and if our planet is to thrive (some would say survive) we must ever circle back. And so the time ahead may later in history be seen as the great circling back—a time when people rediscover the power of nature to strengthen our bodies and nurture our spirits. A time when we acknowledge that to be the best versions of ourselves, we need nature—and that nature is an inexhaustible source of new understandings.

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

The Complete Guide to Shenandoah National Park

Cruise scenic Skyline Drive, explore mountain trails, and find serenity at this Virginia treasure
Gushing waterfalls. Rolling mountains. Granite peaks. Lush valleys. Ninety-plus streams. Fog oceans that tumble over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Animals and wildflowers aplenty.

With such an abundance of natural beauty Shenandoah National Park ranks as one of Virginia’s wildest yet most serene destinations. Author Bill Bryson calls it “possibly the most wonderful national park I have ever been in.”

Native Americans wandered this area for millennia to hunt, gather food, and collect materials for stone tools. Shenandoah is a Native American word that some historians believe means daughter of the stars.

European hunters and trappers arrived in the 1700s followed by settlers and entrepreneurs who launched farming, logging, milling, and mining operations.

In the early 1900s inspired by the popularity of Western national parks, Virginia politicians and businessmen pushed for a park in the East and President Calvin Coolidge signed legislation authorizing Shenandoah National Park in 1926. Roughly 465 families had to leave their homes after the state of Virginia acquired the land but a few stubborn mountaineers refused to go, living the rest of their lives in the thick woods.

In 1931, the federal highway department began building Shenandoah National Park’s signature attraction, 105-mile Skyline Drive which runs north to south through the length of the park. Two years later, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)—one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pet New Deal programs—started constructing its infrastructure from overlooks to picnic areas and FDR dedicated the 197,438 acre park in 1936. Fast forward to 2022 and this Old Dominion beauty now attracts 1.5 million visitors annually.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

From Washington, D.C., Shenendoah National Park is an easy 71-mile drive southwest. It’s also a doable drive from Philadelphia (210 miles northwest of the park) and Raleigh, North Carolina (218 miles south).

In the park, mileposts along Skyline Drive will help you locate significant sites from lodges to trailheads. The Dickey Ridge Visitor Center is at mile 4.6, for example; the Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Center, mile 51. The numbering system starts in the north at the Front Royal entrance (mile 0) and ends at the southern Rockfish Gap entrance (mile 105). Two middle entrances are Thornton Gap (mile 31.5) and Swift Run Gap (mile 65.7). The entrance fee is $30 per vehicle (annual Senior Pass, $20).

In October, the most-visited month throngs of leaf lovers arrive for fall foliage but autumn’s reds and golds are worth the extra traffic and overflowing parking lots on Skyline Drive. Come on a weekday for smaller crowds. The leaves change sooner at higher elevations so explore the park’s lower points between the Front Royal and Thornton Gap entrances if you go later in October.

The park website posts a frequently updated report on when the leaves will hit their peak colors. Don’t count on posting foliage photos on social media while in the park. Cellphone service is spotty at best though the two lodges and visitors centers offer Wi-Fi.

You’ll see stunning sights any season you visit. May brings woodland flowers such as trillium, which grows near streambanks and other wet areas. Columbine, milkweed, and other wildflowers take the floral stage in June; black-eyed Susans and goldenrods often bloom into fall.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other seasonal draws

Waterfalls are typically fullest in spring and fall and some park visitors favor the quiet of winter. Sure, it’s cold—average high temperatures in the mid to upper 30s—but you’ll experience the park in a completely different way.

You’ll see deeper into the woods in winter because there’s nothing obstructing your view. You’ll see more of the rock outcrops and you might see more deer because they’re not blocked by the vegetation. And the lighting in the wintertime is beautiful.

December through March are the least-visited months—the facilities are closed then so bring food and plenty of water—and May and September tend to be quieter as well. Summer can be hot and humid (this is Virginia) but July’s average high temperature is a comfy 75—and Shenandoah is typically up to 10 degrees cooler than muggy D.C.

Restrooms are available at the park’s picnic grounds (some are pit toilets), visitor’s centers, lodges, waysides, and camp stores. You’ll find portable toilets at the Panorama Comfort Station (mile 31.6) and at the Beagle Gap parking area (mile 99.5).

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat

Some national parks have iconic hotels worth seeing even if you’re not a guest but Shenandoah National Park’s two lodges are pleasant places to stay, not must-see attractions, each offering a mix of rooms, cabins, multiunit lodges, and suites. Their advantage over gateway-town hotels: The lodges and the park’s cabins and campgrounds are within easy walking distance of trails and you can revel in Shenandoah’s quiet, woodsy seclusion.

Big Meadows Lodge (mile 51) near the Byrd Visitor Center was built in 1939 using local chestnut trees and stones from nearby Massanutten Mountain. From the lodge’s wood-paneled lobby enjoy the sweeping view of 30-mile-wide Page Valley. Walk just a mile at sunset to Big Meadows the park’s largest meadow and you’ll see whitetail deer grazing; in August, you might spot bears dining on blueberries. The lodge is open from early May through early November.

If you book the Skyland lodge (mile 41.7), request a room with a balcony overlooking Massanutten Mountain and Page Valley. With Skyland’s elevation at 3,680 feet, Skyline Drive’s highest point you’ll get jaw-dropping views. The property is open April through November.

For something only slightly more rustic, settle into a cabin in the dense woods at Lewis Mountain Cabins (mile 57.5)—no Wi-Fi, air-conditioning, or kitchen but you’ll have a bathroom, electricity, and an outdoor grill. Rentals available from April through November.

Whichever option you choose book at least three to four weeks in advance for spring and summer and 10 to 12 months ahead for fall-foliage season.

Shenandoah National Park’s five campgrounds—spread out along Skyline Drive in secluded, tree-filled locales—open at different times between March and May and then close in fall. Driving an RV? Stay at Mathews Arm (mile 22.2), Big Meadows (mile 51.2), or Loft Mountain (mile 79.5). For showers and washing machines choose Big Meadows or Loft Mountain. Dundo (mile 83.7) is for groups of seven to 15 people.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lewis Mountain (mile 57.5) is exclusively first come, first served; the other campgrounds accept reservations while also offering limited spots on a first-come, first-served basis. Nightly permits range from $15 to $50. Book up to six months in advance at recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777.

Ready for some Virginia cuisine? At Big Meadows Lodge, the Spottswood Dining Room serves Southern favorites such as fried chicken along with wow-inducing views of Page Valley on the pet-friendly terrace. Skyland’s Pollock Dining Room also mixes regional dishes with valley views. The must-try dessert at both restaurants: blackberry ice cream pie.

Seven shady picnic grounds lie between miles 4.6 and 83.7 tucked away from Skyline Drive noise. Overlooks make appealing picnic spots, too. Or walk to easy-to-reach summits such as the 1.6-mile round-trip Stony Man trail (mile 41.7). Sit on a rock, eat your PB&J and gaze out at the mountains and valley. If you didn’t pack a lunch the wayside food stops located every 25 miles on Skyline Drive sell carryout meals, groceries, and camping supplies. Or stop by Addie’s Corner at Skyland for sandwiches, pastries, beverages and snacks.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Driving

Cruising Skyline Drive to see the sights—that is Shenandoah National Park’s must-do activity. The speed limit is only 35 mph but you won’t want to zoom past the gorgeous scenery. Whether you drive all 105 miles or just one lovely, leafy portion, stop for the panoramic views at some of the 75 overlooks. Two recommended by park staffers: the Big Run (mile 81.2) and Range View (mile 17.1).

On a clear day you see ridge after ridge after bluish ridge and you don’t see a lot of development when you look down into the lowlands below. The same thing with Big Run—it’s all wilderness.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking

For all of Skyline Drive’s two-laned delights, hiking is the best way to experience Shenandoah National Park’s sights, sounds, and smells—take your pick from 335 trails (including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail). Since park elevation peaks at about 4,000 feet, even the steepest hikes aren’t as daunting as their Western counterparts.

The 2.4-mile round-trip Compton Gap trail (mile 10.4) takes you on the Appalachian Trail to a T-like intersection. Go right and walk 0.2 miles for splendid views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Go left 0.2 miles to a unique geologic formation: clumps of polygonal columns formed by ancient lava flows. The path is steep but worth the walk.

If you have accessibility issues, set out on the flat-and-mild, 1.3-mile Limberlost (mile 43), the park’s only wheelchair-friendly trail. Rest on its benches and enjoy mountain laurels and bird calls. (Listen for towhees—the distinctive call sounds like, “Drink your teeee. Drink your teeee.”) Nearby streams and plentiful food such as apple trees attract black bears, too. Shenandoah National Park rangers advise making noise so bears know you’re nearby—they’ll usually run from humans—and staying at least 150 feet away if you see any. The bears are not aggressive but do not approach a mama with her cubs.

Waterfalls are among the park’s most soul-soothing sites. Winding streams, hovering trees, crashing water—what’s not to like? The moderate Whiteoak Canyon Trail (mile 42.6) features two falls but to reduce fatigue hike 4.6 miles round trip to the spectacular first falls—the Upper Whiteoak Falls—rather than walking to both. The reason: The trail descends (as do all the park’s waterfall trails), so you endure the steep part on the way back. Before reaching the falls, side trails lead to a stream where you can walk on flat rocks, hear the thunderous rapids and feel cool air emanating from the water.

Hard-core hikers favor Old Rag, a strenuous 9.2-mile round-trip hike up Old Rag Mountain. Its multiple heart-pumping highlights include a rock scramble (you’ll be clambering over rock faces, often using your hands for balance) and a summit.

Tackle it on a weekday; this popular hike gets crowded on weekends when you may even experience lines at narrow passages which can feel more like a day at the DMV than a national park. You can’t access Old Rag from Skyline Drive; rather, you’ll need to take route 600. For directions to the trailhead, type in the address of Old Rag’s newest parking lot—2923 Nethers Road—into a mapping app.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stargazing

Amateur astronomers often host night sky presentations discussing celestial wonders and pointing out notable planets and stars. They typically set up telescopes on Rapidan Fire Road leading into Big Meadows, near the lodge.

You can also attend a free outdoor “Under the Stars at Shenandoah National Park” presentation held monthly at the Big Meadows or Skyland lodges (time varies based on sunset). Talk topics range from meteorites to star life cycles.

Each August, the park hosts Night Sky Festival, a weekend with presentations from rangers, astronauts, and guest speakers on interstellar subjects.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird-watching, horseback riding, fishing

Prefer animals over Alpha Centauri? If you’re a bird lover, meet an owl, raptor, and a red-tailed hawk in the ranger-led Birds of Prey program held four times a week at the amphitheater in the Big Meadows picnic ground (mile 51.2). Equestrians clip-clop across 200 miles of horse trails. Skyland Stables (mile 42.5) offers guided horseback and pony rides throughout the day.

Anglers can cast in more than 70 streams with 38 species of fish, from brook trout to fantail darters.

Touring

Thanks to fishing, Shenandoah National Park can claim Herbert Hoover slept here. Frequently. In 1929, the then-president bought 164 acres for Rapidan Camp near Skyline Drive’s midpoint, as his personal fishing hideaway welcoming big-shot guests such as Thomas Edison and Charles Lindbergh. The camp sits near two streams that merge to form the Rapidan River surrounded by hemlocks.

Make reservations online for a 2.5-hour ranger-led tour of the property and Hoover’s wood cabin named the Brown House to distinguish it from the White House. The simple-but-pretty interior has been restored to its 1929 appearance with much of the furniture original although replica handmade Navajo rugs are most striking. Ride a minibus from the Byrd Visitor Center to get there or hike 4 miles round trip from the Milam Gap parking area (mile 52.4).

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway towns

Front Royal

Download a walking tour from the local visitor’s center to take in the must-see sites in this town 1 mile from Shenandoah National Park’s north gate. Its charming historic district teems with antique shops, restaurants, and attractions such as Belle Boyd Cottage (a tour reveals sizzling stories about Belle, one of the Confederacy’s most infamous spies).

Drop into Spelunker’s for its frozen custard and burger which a Washington Post food writer declared a culinary masterpiece.

Stay at the nearby L’Auberge Provençale, named one of the world’s 50 best romantic getaways in 2020 by Travel + Leisure. Rooms at the 270-year-old home in White Post (13 miles northeast of Front Royal) start at $180 a night, but the fresh croissants, French antiques, and Provençale designs make the inn worth the splurge.

Waynesboro

Here, just 5 miles from the southern Rockfish Gap entrance, you’ll find some of Virginia’s best trout fishing as well as canoeing and kayaking on the 4-mile Waynesboro Water Trail.

At the town’s annual Virginia Street Arts Festival, artists paint large murals on buildings.

From the patio at the Basic City Beer Co. take in a back-wall mural titled Isabelle—a gripping black-and-white closeup of a woman with a yellow flower in her mouth—while drinking a honey-hued malt lager.

The Fishin’ Pig’s T-shirt worthy name might lure you in for a bite but locals come for the fried catfish.

Luray

Luray Caverns, one of the East Coast’s largest caverns draws visitors to this town, 10 miles west of the Thornton Gap entrance.

But also make time to view regional artists’ work at the Warehouse Art Gallery and sip a latte at chill coffee joint Gathering Grounds.

Check into the stately Mimslyn Inn or the wooded Shadow Mountain Escape where four timber-frame cabins feature European decor and exposed oak-beam ceilings.

Sperryville

Tiny Sperryville sits near a gushing stream 7 miles east of the Thornton Gap entrance. At Headmaster’s Pub, replenish those calories you burned hiking with the pub’s juicy burgers made from grass-fed beef. Also have some fun in its game room with air hockey, pool tables, and old-school pinball machines (some not even digital).

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route

If you drive through Charlottesville, take time to explore this charming college town 25 miles east of the park’s Rockfish Gap entrance. Thomas Jefferson designed the University of Virginia at age 76 as “the hobby of my old age.”

A must-see: The Lawn, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the social centerpiece of campus since the university opened in 1819. Academic buildings border the long, grassy courtyard at both ends with student and faculty housing along the sides. Also tour Jefferson’s exquisite home, Monticello, 2 miles outside the city.

Back in town, stroll the pedestrian mall for the people watching, window-shopping (book lovers should browse the New Dominion Bookshop) and dining. Duck into the Whiskey Jar for top-notch Southern cuisine, but save room for peanut butter pie at the Pie Chest.

Virginia has nearly 300 wineries, many clustered outside of Charlottesville. Jam-band rocker and former Charlottesville resident Dave Matthews owns Blenheim Vineyards, about 20 minutes southeast from town. Enjoy a bottle of the house white out on the patio for views of rolling, vineyard-covered hills. If you prefer a pilsner, the Shenandoah Beerwerks Trail guides you to 15 breweries.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving to the park via Interstate 81, stop by Staunton, 17 miles west of the Rockfish Gap entrance. The city escaped the Civil War unscathed and publications such as Architectural Digest and Smithsonian have raved about its well-preserved Main Street where quaint 18th- and 19th-century buildings thrive as restaurants, shops, theaters, and more.

For a local history lesson, take the Historic Staunton Foundation’s walking tour, offered every Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon, May through October. Afterward do lunch at LUNdCH from owner/chef Mike Lund, former chef de cuisine at the world-renowned Inn at Little Washington.

Coming from Washington, D.C., don’t miss the massive Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, an annex of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum near Dulles airport. The museum’s collection includes the Concorde, Enola Gay, the Space Shuttle Discovery, and the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest aircraft ever flown.

Shenandoah National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact box

Location: Virginia, about 75 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.

Size: 197,438 acres

Highest peak: Hawksbill, at 4,051 feet

Miles/number of trails: 518 miles along 335 trails

Main attraction: Skyline Drive

Entry fee: $30 per vehicle, valid for 7 days; annual Senior Pass $20

Best way to see the park: By car and by foot

When to go to avoid the crowds: December through March

Worth Pondering…

O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, you rollin’ river
O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away I’m bound to go

—lyrics by Nick Patrick and Nick Ingman

The Complete Guide to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Spend a lot of time looking up—way up—at some of the largest living organisms on the planet

Start training your neck muscles now: When you visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks you’ll spend a lot of time looking up—way up—at some of the largest living organisms in the history of the planet.

If the name wasn’t a dead giveaway, the main attractions in these twin parks in Central California are approximately 40 different sequoia groves. These behemoth trees only grow on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada from 4,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation and the parks are home to seven of the 10 largest trees in the world.

Amazingly these trees which stretch up to nearly 300 feet high aren’t even the tallest things in the parks. In fact, they’re positively dwarfed by geological formations like the namesake Kings Canyon, a glacial valley hemmed in by 4,000-foot-high granite walls and Sequoia’s Mount Whitney the highest point in the Lower 48 at 14,494 feet.

Located in the Southern Sierra Nevada about equidistant from San Francisco and Los Angeles, Kings Canyon and Sequoia are actually two national parks for the price of one. They share a border and a long history dating back to the early days of the conservation movement in America.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On September 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison established the country’s second national park, Sequoia, to protect the area’s namesake giants from the encroaching logging industry. Just a week later he added General Grant National Park to the roster.

In those early days, America’s first Black national park superintendent (and the only African American commissioned officer in the U.S. Army), Col. Charles Young, led efforts to build a road into Sequoia’s Giant Forest and by 1903 the landscape had opened to tourists coming in by wagon. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress established Kings Canyon National Park which absorbed the former General Grant Park. 

Today Sequoia comprises 631 square miles which include the famed Generals Highway which cuts through dense sequoia groves; Moro Rock, a climbable granite dome; the pristine Mineral King glacial valley; and Crystal Cave, a marble cavern.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bifurcated 722-square-mile Kings Canyon meanwhile sits atop Sequoia like two lopsided bunny ears: To the west, a squiggly sliver of parkland surrounds the General Grant Tree and the neighboring village and visitor center; to the east, a much larger swath of wilderness is centered around Kings Canyon proper, dotted with iconic vistas like Zumwalt Meadow, Roaring River Falls and Muir Rock. The meandering ribbon of the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway connects the two sections as it cuts through the adjacent Sequoia National Forest. 

Despite their world-famous supertall attractions, Kings Canyon and Sequoia remain blissfully crowd-free much of the year.

Tuning in to the soundscape is one of the best ways to enjoy the wilderness. Find a secluded spot, take a few steps off the trail, maybe sit down, maybe close your eyes, and just be silent and listen to the sounds of the park for a couple of minutes.

Forest
Forest Center, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip 

The parks are relatively centrally located within the state and a bit of a trek to reach from major cities: You can expect about a five-hour drive from San Francisco or a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles.

When planning your trip, note that it’s hard to generalize about the weather in these parts. There’s an enormous elevation shift from the foothills in Sequoia (as low as 1,370 feet) to the big tree groves in both parks to Sequoia’s towering Mount Whitney. As a result, temperatures can regularly drop to 30 degrees as you ascend higher through the parks. Fortunately, the NPS maintains a helpful website with forecasts for specific areas.

The foothills tend to have milder winters and hot, dry summers with average highs in July and August reaching into the upper 90s and average winter lows dropping to the mid-30s. In Sequoia’s Giant Forest and Kings Canyon’s Grant Grove summer temperatures are significantly milder usually in the mid-70s in the daytime and the 50s at night. Even if it’s scorchingly hot when you enter the parks (it has been known to hit 114 degrees) you may still need a light sweater by the time you’re surrounded by sequoias. Plan and pack accordingly—layers are your friend. 

Castle Rock, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the winter can be peaceful and the parks look gorgeous under a blanket of fresh snow, things slow down during those months. Several roads, including 180 from Grant Grove to Cedar Grove, Mineral King Road, and Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow Road close due to treacherous, icy driving conditions and many of the parks’ lodging options shutter. Currently, Highway 180 to Cedar Grove is closed at the Hume gate until spring 2023.

In general, you’ll want a car in these parks. From late May through mid-September there’s also a shuttle bus system with free routes covering such areas as the Giant Forest, Moro Rock, the General Sherman Tree Trails, and Wuksachi Lodge. Meanwhile, the $20 Sequoia Shuttle (reservation required) transports guests in from the gateway town of Visalia.

Overcrowding isn’t much of a concern even during the summer high season in July and August. Avoiding crowds has a lot to do with timing. Weekdays are always more forgiving than weekends. If you can get to the entrance station before 9 a.m. you’re likely to be rewarded with ample parking at your destination

Potwisha Campground, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay

The jewel in the crown of lodging options in these parts is Sequoia’s 102-room Wuksachi Lodge which features an architectural style that screams national parks lodge thanks to its native granite and oak, hickory, and cedar touches. Located 2 miles from Lodgepole Village the hotel is a perfect jumping-off point for hiking trails that lead out into Cahoon Meadow and Twin Lakes. It’s now open year-round but things can get a little dicey in the winter if you’re not used to driving in snow because it sits at an elevation of 7,200 feet; remember to pack those snow chains! Amenities in mobility- and hearing-accessible rooms include widened doorways, visual fire alarms, and phones with flashing lights.

In Kings Canyon, Grant Grove Village is home to two seasonal lodging options in the park’s western section: The 36-room John Muir Lodge (open late March to late October) includes a stone fireplace in the lobby that’s an inviting spot to cozy up next to as you plan tomorrow’s adventures.

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

Grant Grove Cabins, a collection of timber and tent-style cabins are open from April through October. Book early and request Cabin No. 9, one of the few with an en suite bathroom instead of a shared bathhouse, a particular luxury on those cold Sierra nights. The lodge does not have an elevator so anyone with mobility issues will want to request a room on the first floor. 

For a slightly more off-the-beaten-path option, the 21-room Cedar Grove Lodge is remotely located in Kings Canyon’s eastern wilderness. It’s only open late May through late October after the snow has melted but it rewards the intrepid with access to scenic Zumwalt Meadow, Roaring Falls, and Muir Rock.

The parks also play host to more than a dozen campsites, four open year-round: Azalea Campground, under a stand of evergreen trees near King Canyon’s Grant Grove; Potwisha Campground, set among a hot and dry oak woodland in Sequoia; Lodgepole and South Fork Campgrounds, in a remote area of the Sequoia foothills.

Park campgrounds differ wildly in terms of amenities, locations, and crowds so study the options before you go. Reservations are made available one month in advance though you can often snag a spot on the day of your visit. Most offer a few accessible campsites with amenities like paved paths to restrooms and raised fire pits for people with impaired mobility. 

Forest Center, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to eat 

At the Peaks Restaurant at Wuksachi Lodge tuck into hearty fare like pan-seared ruby-red trout and braised short ribs while taking in the Sierra views. The restaurant also serves a daily breakfast buffet. Nearby, head to the seasonal Lodgepole Café for grab-and-go picnic goodies like breakfast burritos and hot dogs.

In Kings Canyon, the seasonal Grant Grove Restaurant serves dishes like beef chili and a trout sandwich. In the park’s other section, Cedar Grove Grill is open May through mid-October and serves hearty burgers and sandwiches on the drive out to Zumwalt Meadow and Roaring River Falls.

Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Visit the parks’ enormous trees

We know what you’re here for—very big trees! And, yes, you’ll see giant sequoias everywhere but there are a few not-to-miss standouts. In Sequoia, the General Sherman Tree ranks as the world’s largest by volume and stands 275 feet tall with a base width of 36 feet. You can access it by two trails. One runs a half-mile downhill from a parking area; it’s paved and includes a few stairs but the climb back uphill can be tiring. If you have a disability parking placard you’ll have access to a small lot on Generals Highway with a wheelchair-accessible trail.

About a five-minute drive down the road in the Giant Forest Grove you’ll reach the free Giant Forest Museum with informative exhibits about this unique landscape and the 1.2-mile Big Trees Trail which is a great option for people with limited mobility. It’s flat, paved, and easy to navigate with benches for rest stops. 

In the Grant Grove area in Kings Canyon just 1.5 miles from the visitor center you’ll meet the General Grant Tree—aka the nation’s Christmas tree—the world’s second-largest tree with a height of 268.1 feet and a base circumference of 107.5 feet. The one-third-mile paved loop trail passes through a dense collection of sequoias with other highlights including the Fallen Monarch, a hollow sequoia log wide enough to walk through, and the historic Gamlin Cabin, which dates to 1872. The trail has tactile informational signs with Braille and raised illustrations. 

Although these generals are popular especially in the summer don’t stop there: They’re a great jumping-off point for exploration. People visiting the parks will find a lot of opportunities for solitude if they’re willing to hike for even 15 minutes. The Giant Forest and Grant Grove both have miles and miles of wonderful trails that see surprisingly few hikers. On these trails, you’ll have time and space to linger, take in the evergreens’ woodsy scent, and listen for the chirps of squirrels and the calls of acorn woodpeckers, Steller’s jays, and other birds.

Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Climb Moro Rock

Yosemite has Half Dome, Sequoia has Moro Rock—and much like its more famous cousin to the north this granite dome beckons visitors to summit its dramatic topography. While the climb up Half Dome isn’t for the faint of heart, Moro Rock can be doable for relatively in-shape visitors who can handle steep stairs. A concrete and stone path leads up more than 350 steps to postcard-perfect views out over the foothills and the San Joaquin Valley.

There are handrails much of the way so while you might not fear falling over the rather prodigious cliffs lining the trail this is still a strenuous climb made more challenging by the high elevations which top out above 6,700 feet. The climb can take as little as a half-hour but pace yourself and enjoy the experience to protect those lungs in the thinner air. In summer, keep your eyes and ears peeled for peregrine falcons nesting on the rock.

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

Go for a guided horseback ride

Two stables operate within Kings Canyon. Grove Stables offers one-hour guided trail rides that loop past the General Grant tree and through a grove of giant sequoias; for an additional fee tack on a second hour through a second sequoia grove to a Sequoia Lake overlook.

The Cedar Grove Pack Station located outside Cedar Grove Village also has one- and two-hour guided trail rides but experienced riders can opt for a half-day or full-day itinerary.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy the stars

The parks are amazing after dark, once you get used to the idea. Find a wide-open space to stargaze or take long-exposure photographs of the Milky Way. During a full moon take a night hike. Just be careful out there. The parks have a 24-hour dispatch center but help is definitely less readily available if you get into trouble late at night.

If you’d rather not go it alone, the parks occasionally schedule ranger-led moonlight walks (check the events calendar). This is also a great time to listen for the distinctive hooting of great horned owls and the squeaks of bats flying overhead.

Fun fact: While 17 species of bats call these parks home only three emit sounds the human ear can hear.

Gateway towns 

If you want to spend time in the communities outside the parks’ boundaries stick to the stretch along State Route 198 that leads into Sequoia’s Ash Mountain Entrance Station. About 35 miles west of the park is Visalia, a small agricultural city in the San Joaquin Valley with handsome architecture (including an art deco post office), a boutique-filled downtown, and plenty of microbreweries. 

Even closer to the entrance station is Three Rivers Village with a surprising array of businesses dotting the foothills including local shops like Reimer’s Candies and Gifts (don’t miss the California walnut turtles), art galleries and artist studios, a nine-hole golf course, and even a jazz club.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route

If you’re driving from San Francisco slow down to enjoy the underrated Central Valley. The state’s agricultural heart boasts some surprising hot spots. Merced’s recently revitalized downtown includes the chic new Hotel El Capitan and its tasting-menu restaurant Rainbird where you can sample innovative dishes like green garlic chawanmushi (egg custard) with coal-roasted kombu. The area is also home to excellent farm stands and a rustic-chic vineyard. 

From Los Angeles, Bakersfield is a worthwhile pit stop thanks to the numerous RV parks and the country’s largest collection of Basque restaurants. Established in 1893 as a boardinghouse, the Noriega Hotel was honored with a James Beard Foundation America’s Classic Award and it’s beloved for dishes like pickled tongue.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The city’s also the birthplace of the so-called Bakersfield Sound, made popular by country artists like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Learn more about Nashville West at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, a museum and music venue and the Kern County Museum.

By the way, I have a series of posts on Bakersfield and the Bakersfield Sound:

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Facts box

  • ​Location: Central California about 260 miles from San Francisco and 220 miles from Los Angeles
  • Size: 865,964 acres or 1,353 square miles 
  • Highest point: Mount Whitney, 14,494 feet 
  • Lowest point: The foothills entrance, 1,370 feet 
  • Miles of trails: 866
  • Main attraction: Sequoia groves with record-breaking trees
  • Entry fee: $35 per private vehicle for up to seven days; $30 for motorcycles; $20 for bicycles or walk-in entry; $70 for annual passes 
  • Best way to see: By car or by the free park shuttle (between May and September)
  • When to go to avoid the crowds: September, after the summer crowds leave and before the snow falls

Worth Pondering…

No other tree in the world, as far as I know, has looked down on so many centuries as the Sequoia, or opens such impressive and suggestive views into history.

—John Muir, The Big Trees, Chapter 7 of The Yosemite (1912) 

Okefenokee Swamp is like No Other Place in the World

Alligators, otters, and bears abound in this sprawling mass of wetlands

Regarding rich biodiversity and pristine natural beauty, the United States is home to many incredible destinations scattered across all 50 states. While iconic national parks like the Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, Joshua Tree, and the Grand Canyon have earned worldwide acclaim, one particularly fascinating natural feature has flown largely under the radar. Measuring in at over 400,000 acres of pristine wetlands sprawled across southern Georgia Okefenokee Swamp is one of the last great bastions of wilderness left in the southern U.S.

The name Okefenokee comes from a Creek Indian word meaning trembling earth. During the Seminole Wars, Native Americans hid in the Okefenokee Swamp to escape capture. The leader of these refugees was a chieftain known as Billy Bowlegs. Billy’s Island was one of his refuges and legend says the island was named for him.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over the years, Billy’s Island was home to a tenacious family of squatters, the Lees, who refused to abandon their claimed land until forced by court order. In 1909, Hebard Lumber Company came and began cutting centuries-old cypress trees. 

The Hebard family sold the property to the government in 1937; the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was created that same year.

Despite its massive size, few access points offer visitors a glimpse into the untamed wilderness of North America’s largest blackwater swamp. However, for those wishing to spend a weekend searching for native Southern flora and fauna, Stephen C. Foster State Park offers unrivaled opportunity in the remote reaches of southern Georgia. While this certified Dark Sky Park and Natural Wonder of Georgia is a top destination, the entire region was a much different place in the distant past.

Millions of years ago, the area was under the ocean. It’s possible that, during this time, the saucer-shaped depression the Okefenokee Swamp would later occupy was formed. After the ocean receded, freshwater replaced saltwater and plant life and peat deposits began to fill in the depression. A mosaic of habitats like wet prairies, dense cypress forest, and upland pine forests are found throughout this 438,000-acre wetland.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For those planning to explore this diverse array of natural habitats, there’s no shortage of lodging options scattered all across the park grounds. There are over 60 sites available for RVs or anyone brave enough to rough it in their own personal tent while anybody in need of more upscale accommodations can book one of the park’s nine fully-furnished cottages. Equipped with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full kitchen, and a personal backyard fire pit these spacious dwellings are perfect for immersing oneself in the natural world without having to go totally prehistoric.

Many sites offer scrubs and trees to afford privacy. The wide grassy hiking trail that runs behind the campsites is a natural haven. Birds of various kinds flutter between the moss laden oaks and cypress trees. Saw palmetto and blackberry vines are a large part of the undergrowth. Plaques along the trail tell the story of Spanish moss and the native trees and scrubs. 

It’s not really a swamp. It’s the headwaters of both the Suwannee and the Saint Marys rivers. It’s just easier to say swamp than natural wetlands preserve.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Extensive open areas at the core of the refuge like the Chesser, Grand, and Mizell Prairies branch off the man-made Suwannee Canal accessed via the main entrance to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, 11 miles southwest of Folkston. The prairies are excellent spots for sportfishing and birding and guided boat tours of the area leave from the Okefenokee

Refuge concession Okefenokee Adventures works in partnership with the refuge to provide guided boat trips; rent camping gear, bicycles, motorboats and canoes; operate a gift shop; collect entrance fees; and provide food service.

Truly the best way to get a close look at the swamp inhabitants is to take a boat tour from Okefenokee Adventures. Their regular boat is a 24-foot Carolina skiff and there’s one step down into it from the dock. Additionally, you need to have a good balance in order to maneuver to a seat as the boat rocks a lot. An accessible pontoon boat is also available but it might not be the next boat out.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This boat has level access for wheelchair users and folding seats for able-bodied passengers. Both boats have a canopy for protection from the midday sun. Best bet is to check in the gift shop about the availability of the accessible boat as soon as you arrive then enjoy the visitor center while you wait.

The 90-minute tour goes through the Suwannee Canal as the naturalist points out the flora and fauna and gives passengers a short history of the area. Expect to see turtles, herons, ibis, hawks, and lots of alligators along the way. And if you visit in the fall, you’ll also likely see the migrant Sandhill Cranes.

The concession also has equipment rentals and food is available at the Camp Cornelia Cafe. The visitor center has a film, exhibits, and a mechanized mannequin that tells stories about life in Okefenokee (it sounds hokey, but it’s surprisingly informative). A boardwalk takes you over the water to a 50-foot observation tower. Hikers, bicyclists, and private motor vehicles are welcome on Swamp Island Drive; several interpretive walking trails may be taken along the way.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Save some time to explore the refuge on foot on one of the three accessible trails along the eight-mile-long Swamp Island Drive. It’s easy to find—just follow the signs as you leave the main parking lot.

The Upland Discovery Trail is the first trail you’ll come upon along the drive. There’s a paved parking area with accessible parking on the right with level access to the trail across the street. The quarter-mile trail is made of hard-packed dirt and although there are some exposed roots along the way they are easy to dodge. The worst obstructions are at the beginning of the trail so if you make it past the first ten feet, you’re good to go. Be sure and look for the trees marked with the white bands and they mark either a roosting or nesting spot of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.

Our guide steered the pontoon boat to a patch of grasses and peat in the process of forming land to show how the name Land of Trembling Earth came about. When he poked at the small island with his paddle, it trembled. With these little pockets of almost-land dotting the surface of the lake, it’s easy to see how a person could become lost in this place that’s more water than land.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’re likely to see alligators and birds as you travel about 2 miles into the lake from the dock. Although it’s named Billy’s Lake, the path amid the many islands looks more like a creek ranging from 35 to 155 feet wide. We ventured into a narrow offshoot of water called Minnie’s Run. Here, our guide maneuvered between giant cypress trees with branches that often brush the sides and top of our little boat. Throughout the waterway, we encountered several types of water lilies. The most distinctive, the American white water lily has dozens of narrow white petals surrounding a bright yellow center. 

Wood signs with arrows direct us where to turn to reach certain places in the swamp. Five Sisters is another marker that boaters use for navigating the area. It’s a cluster of five cypress trees, three of them living and two dead representing five sisters who once lived deep in the swamp. It’s here that we spot a small alligator swimming with just its eyes and the top of the head visible. 

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I asked about some of the other wildlife found in the park including deer, bears, foxes, snakes, bobcats, and otters. He said the best time to see a bear is when the blackberries are ripe or when there are a lot of acorns on the ground. Bobcats are early morning and late evening prowlers.

Of course, no trip to Okefenokee is complete without venturing into the remote depths of the swamp in search of wildlife—a feat that’s best accomplished on a guided motorboat tour. With a Stephen C. Foster State Park ranger versed in the ins and outs of the swamp as your pilot this is by far the best way to acquaint yourself with the many creatures that call the park home.

There are around 620 species of plants, 39 fish, 37 amphibians, 64 reptiles, 234 birds, and 50 mammal species known in the swamp today. Alligators, white-tailed deer, and turkey are regularly seen around the park during the day. Most nights, barred owls hoot across the campground, and after an evening rain shower many species of frogs will call out.

In spring, swallow-tailed kites arrive from their wintering grounds in South America to nest and are frequently seen acrobatically flying over the park. During the winter, river otters are more commonly seen in the main waterways and sandhill cranes are frequently heard calling from marshy areas throughout the swamp.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While some may be drawn to the park in search of the South’s larger mammal inhabitants including bobcats, black bears, and gray foxes these particular beasts tend to steer clear of any human activity. They’re therefore seldom seen by visitors—though you may be able to catch a glimpse of one if you’re particularly lucky. For avid bird watchers, a particularly prized sight is the red-cockaded woodpecker. These mottled creatures tend to gravitate towards mature pine forests and they’re currently endangered in the state of Georgia.

Okefenokee Swamp may be one of the state’s most iconic natural features but it’s far from the only one worth visiting in the region. For a truly memorable time add a second preserve to the list after you’ve thoroughly explored Stephen C. Foster State Park.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A few minutes’ north of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge boundaries, Laura S. Walker State Park offers visitors the opportunity to spot gopher tortoises, pitcher plants, and all manner of wading birds and it even comes equipped with its own 18-hole golf course. Meanwhile, those who make the journey to Georgia’s idyllic seashore can find Cumberland Island, a pristine coastal getaway that’s rife with sandy beaches.

Georgia might earn most of its acclaim thanks to its world-class cities but the state has far more to offer than simply Atlanta and Savannah. Stephen C. Foster State Park may be a little difficult to get to but there are few things in life more satisfying than sitting still in a kayak in the heart of the swamp surrounded by nothing but the gentle hum of Georgia’s native wildlife.

For more tips on exploring this area, check out these blog posts:

Worth Pondering…

Choose only one master—nature.

—Rembrandt

Finding Adventure (Without the Crowds) in Utah

Avoid the masses but not the epic adventures at these breathtaking under-the-radar desert landscapes around Moab

From Jurassic-era dunes and prehistoric petroglyphs to amber-tinted cliffs and spires, Moab is an adventure traveler’s dream. Located in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, this small city in southeast Utah is one of North America’s greatest outdoor recreation hubs and a gateway to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.  

Millions of years of erosion by ancient oceans, freshwater lakes, streams, and windblown dunes shaped this region’s 2,400 square miles of sandstone arches, picturesque mountain peaks, Martian-like rock formations, and colorful mesas and canyons. 

Along the Colorado River near Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mountain bikers, hikers, campers, climbers, paddlers, and off-road drivers arrive in droves to explore this red rock playground in jaw-dropping numbers—more than 3 million visitors annually.

With increasing use come big problems! Overcrowding and overuse of trails, campgrounds, and recreation facilities led Arches to institute a timed entry reservation system between April and October. Other popular national parks have implemented similar measures encouraging people to come during off-peak times or explore other nearby recreation areas. 

But here’s the good news: The National Park Service (NPS) manages other parks, monuments, recreation areas, and historic areas within a day’s drive from Moab including Aztec Ruins National MonumentGlen Canyon National Recreation AreaHovenweep National MonumentMesa Verde National Park, and Natural Bridges National Monument. About 94 percent of the land surrounding Moab is public meaning there are also plenty of lesser-visited state parks and federal recreation areas extending into the Greater Moab region to discover. 

For adventurers and nature lovers who want to see more of the great outdoors—and less of each other—here are five tips to beat the crowds and explore the elements in Moab this spring.

Devils Garden Campground, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Get crafty about campsites

Many of the private RV parks, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and state and federally owned campgrounds demand ample planning time. Campgrounds closer to U.S. Route 191 and Utah Routes 128 and 279 along the Colorado River (The Riverway) usually fill up by mid-morning. 

Getting one of the 51 campsites at Devils Garden Campground—the only developed campsite in Arches—can be challenging without some pre-trip planning. During the high season (March 1-October 31), sites are reservable up to six months in advance. But from November 1 to February 28 when temperatures are cooler, the campground is first-come, first-served.

For fewer crowds, venture to Canyon Rims Recreation Area, an hour’s drive south of Moab on Route 191. It has two campgrounds to stage your hiking, biking, and driving adventures—Hatch Point in the north and Windwhistle in the south which rarely fills up and don’t require reservations. Be sure to stop at one of the park’s visitor centers and ranger stations to get the scoop on current park conditions and for other trail and campground suggestions.  

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

Explore public lands south of Moab

Parks closer to downtown Moab (just five miles from Arches National Park) are usually slammed with eager outdoor enthusiasts, especially during summer months. While spring (April through May) and fall (mid-September through October) still have crowds, they are some of the best times to score prime campsites and experience uncrowded trails, climbing routes, and iconic arches around the city.

During the busy seasons, visiting Moab can be kind of overwhelming but the public lands around Moab offer remarkable remote experiences.

With breathtaking views into Canyonlands National Park and the Colorado River 2,000 feet below, Dead Horse Point State Park, a 40-minute drive south of Moab is a highlight for hikers and photographers exploring canyon country. The park, named for an era when cowboys corralled wild mustang herds on the high mesa is also a terrific first outing for bikers new to the area. The 16-mile Intrepid Trail System offers a variety of single-track loops and slickrock (Moab’s weathered sandstone) sections that allow all ages and abilities to experience incomparable cliff-top and canyon vistas. 

Drive further south to Canyon Rims, a 100,000-acre BLM-maintained land between Moab and Monticello to peer over one of three spectacular overlooks—Anticline, Minor, and Needles. Each offers unique views of Canyonlands’ Islands in the Sky and Needles Districts and Bears Ears National Monument’s Indian Creek and Lockhart Basin sections. These sites are comparable to those seen from the rim of the Grand Canyon but without the shoulder-to-shoulder visitor experience.   

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bike away from the crowds

With its seven new non-motorized trails, updated signage, and fresh markings on existing trails plus stunning views of the Salt Valley and Arches National Park, Klondike Bluffs should be on every biker’s list. Just a 30-minute drive north of Moab, this 58-mile single-track trail on dirt and slickrock includes 26 named paths from beginner to advanced which can be combined into loops of any length. It’s the first trail that visitors pass on the way to Moab from I-70 in the north making it the most accessible for cyclists coming from Denver or Salt Lake City. 

Further into the park is the Dinosaur Stomping Grounds hiking trail which features several dinosaur trackways and individual dinosaur prints. Paleontologists believe Utah was part of an island landmass called Laramidia where a wide range of dinosaur species roamed more than 75 million years ago. 

Indian Creek Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan a desert road trip

Recreation areas south of Moab such as Canyon Rims and Bear Ears National Monument are usually less crowded due to fewer developed trail systems. Take a scenic drive through Utah’s vibrant vermillion canyons, over plateaus of mesas and buttes, and around the region’s open plains of grass and shrubland.

In Canyon Rims, travelers may spot pronghorn antelope near Hatch Point and can cruise to remote overlooks with breathtaking views of Canyonlands and the Colorado River.

Rather than endure the hours-long wait to see Delicate Arch in Arches, drive an hour south of Moab to reach Bear Ears’ Indian Creek Scenic Byway. This 40-mile-long route takes travelers through flat-top buttes and colossal sandstone towers. Along the way, make a pitstop at Newspaper Rock, one of the largest collections of petroglyphs in the world.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike in solitude

A hike around Moab’s natural spaces reveals deep red canyons, buttes, and pinnacles. Summer brings high temperatures and midday crowds around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. To get around that, experienced adventurers plan their hikes and bike rides in the morning and evening, bringing the best sunlight for photography. To help photographers, the NPS has created a table of the park’s notable landscape features and the best time to photograph them. 

For a quieter trek outside the national parks head three miles from the Hatch Point campground in Canyon Rims to Trough Springs Canyon trail a relatively easy five-mile roundtrip hike. It starts at the top of the plateau and descends 2.5 miles into the canyon where a creek flows year-round. The path continues through the waterway’s riparian zone, riddled with tamarisk, cottonwoods, and willow. Follow the stream into the larger Kane Creek Canyon where a popular but difficult 4×4 off-road trail of the same name invites adventurers to explore. 

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Downstream, where Kane Creek approaches the Colorado River, travelers find several ancient rock art sites, including Moonflower Canyon Panel, Elephant Panel, and False Kiva. The drawings resembling bighorn sheep and hunters with spears along with crescent moons, lightning bolts, and snakes tell the story of the nomadic Puebloans (formerly called Anasazi) who briefly farmed and built dwellings and granaries—used to store squash, maize, and beans—around the region.

Even today, potsherds (or pottery fragments) can be found poking out of the sand near surviving granaries but visitors should be careful to leave these artifacts untouched.

Worth Pondering…

…the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.

—Edward Abbey, American author and former ranger at Arches National Park, on Canyonlands

The Complete Guide to White Sands National Park

The dramatic dunes become your personal sandbox here in southern New Mexico

The world’s largest gypsum dune field covers more than 275 square miles in southern New Mexico with White Sands National Park the centerpiece of this remarkable landscape. Great waves of white roll across the open plains of this 145,000-acre park with stark mountains rising in the distance.

In the morning light when shadows add dimension to the dunes it’s possible to lose your sense of perspective in the endless undulations. In the blinding midday sun when you’re sitting atop a 60-foot dune and the wind is howling you can feel as if you’re adrift on a great bleached sea, sand hitting your face like salt spray from the ocean.

It’s a magical environment and a true natural marvel. White Sands is also one of the newest parks in the National Park Service (NPS) having been elevated from a national monument in 2019. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sands form after the playa in the park’s western end which has a very high mineral content fills with water. When the water evaporates, the minerals form gypsum deposits that get carried away by the wind eventually forming white sand dunes not unlike an ocean breeze sculpting a beach. The park contains roughly 40 percent of the gypsum dune field; the remainder is on the adjacent White Sands Missile Range which the military controls and restricts to the public.

​This is the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert and the bare Sacramento Mountains rise dramatically above the Tularosa Basin. Far from being barren, however, the park is full of life. Even the sand itself is in constant flux with the massive dunes moving upward of 30 feet per year thanks to the winds that shape them.

The park is also home to a range of species including more than 250 birds, 50 mammals, 30 reptiles, and even one fish. At least 45 species are endemic to White Sands including the Apache pocket mouse and the bleached earless lizard. In summer, because of the heat, most of the animals are nocturnal but it’s possible to see the park come alive in the dawn light and just before sunset. Indeed, it’s often surprising just how full of life this pocket of the Chihuahuan Desert is.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Of course, the gypsum dunes are the main attraction and they provide dramatic photo opportunities especially during the golden hours just after sunrise and before sunset. March through June is peak season for the park’s nearly 800,000 annual visitors but even then it doesn’t feel crowded. Also, most visitors tend to stick to Dunes Drive, an 8-mile road through the park so you can easily avoid them by parking and hiking a trail.

​Since White Sands National Park is in a remote part of the state it takes more than a few hours behind the wheel to get there no matter where you’re coming from. But this part of the West seems designed for long drives that go by quickly thanks to the open landscapes. 

​The park usually closes at 8 p.m. in spring and summer (6 p.m. in winter) but during full-moon nights from May through October it stays open an extra few hours so visitors can enjoy the spectacle—and it is a spectacle. The full moon lights up the white sand which reflects the light into the night sky creating an almost spectral atmosphere. It’s an experience worth the extra effort and one you’ll not soon forget.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Plan your trip

El Paso, Texas is 98 miles south of White Sands National Park via Highway 70, the main road to the park. Albuquerque, New Mexico is 223 miles north. Either option is a good starting point for a road trip exploring southern New Mexico which could include stops in the towns of Las Cruces and Roswell and even a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park roughly 180 miles southeast of White Sands.

​In the summer, temperatures in this part of the Chihuahuan Desert can soar above 100 degrees, and in winter they can plummet below freezing. That’s why spring, early summer, and fall are the best times to visit with midday temperatures usually around 80 degrees and lows in the 50s. If you plan to hike bring layers of clothes for any temperature as conditions can shift dramatically.

​Restrooms and visitor facilities are limited. The park’s single entrance has a visitor’s center with a gift store that offers some basic food options (essentially a convenience store) but that’s the only place in the park offering services. In other words, bring plenty of water no matter what time of year you visit as well as snacks.

An even better idea: Pack a full picnic as there are three picnic areas with shaded tables (and nearby restrooms) inside the park. You’ll find restrooms at the visitor’s center and along Dunes Drive and one of the only handicap-accessible restrooms at Interdune Boardwalk right off the main road just before the pavement on Dunes Drive ends.

​There’s no Wi-Fi signal in White Sands National Park and very limited cell reception so plan to navigate the park using paper maps or those saved on your device. White Sands Missile Range is still an active military facility and one of the strange charms of visiting the area is having to wait on Highway 70 if a drill is being conducted in the area. The roadblocks rarely last more than an hour—though they can last up to three—but that can throw off the timing of a trip if, say, you’re planning to make it back to Las Cruces for dinner. (Check the park website for information on road closures.) 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​​Where to stay and eat

There are no hotels or campgrounds inside White Sands National Park. Even primitive backcountry camping is currently closed. You must stay in a nearby city or campground. (See gateway towns)

Things to do

Take a drive

White Sands is famous for its white sand so you must get out in it even if that means just cruising along Dunes Drive which begins at the park’s entrance. But even from a car, you can get a sense of this natural phenomenon’s uniqueness as the road curves through and around the dunes.

You feel as if you’re exploring a distant planet in a sci-fi movie. Although paved for a short distance most of the road is hard-packed sand because the dunes shift each year and the road must adjust accordingly. The park maintains it frequently enough, though, that a two-wheel drive will suffice. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Go hiking

Of course, hiking up the dunes themselves is the best way to feel what makes these white waves so special—the tiny gypsum grains underfoot. Of the park’s half-dozen trails, the easiest is the half-mile Interdune Boardwalk. This wheelchair-accessible trail on an elevated boardwalk makes its way through the interdune landscape where the desert and its limited vegetation meet the barren dunes.

​For something slightly more challenging hit the Dune Life Nature Trail, a 1-mile, self-guided loop through the desert. The hike which starts from the first parking area you pass after entering the park isn’t difficult but requires walking up two dunes with loose sand. The jaunt is an easy way to see the dunes in all their glory and maybe spot animal tracks such as those from a lizard or even a kit fox (however rare it may be).

​For something strenuous opt for the park’s longest hike, the Alkali Flat Trail which begins at the far end of Dunes Drive. This 5-mile round-trip hike leads you around Lake Otero where the gypsum sand begins its life. There’s no shade or water available on any of the park’s trails but it’s especially critical to bring some fluids along for this hike as you’ll be exposed to the heat for at least a few hours.

Despite the trail’s name, you’ll be climbing up and down dunes most of the way. The upside? You’ll probably be all alone. As you walk it’s likely the wind will quickly erase your footprints making the hike feel even more remote. 

​White Sands’ elevation is roughly 4,000 feet which you’ll notice when hiking over long distances or up the dunes. Bring plenty of water and dress in layers if you take a longer hike; the elevation means the temperature can shift dramatically over a few hours and dehydration can set in quickly in the heat of the day. Don’t start a hike if the temperature is already above 90 degrees. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Other activities

Biking is allowed on Dunes Drive and it’s a unique way to experience the park. Since much of the road is unpaved, however, it’s best not to ride a road bike with skinny tires. You’re better off with a mountain bike or beach cruiser with wide tires. Outdoors Adventures in Las Cruces rents a range of bikes including e-bikes with fatter tires (from $30 per day).

​You can even sled on the dunes. Buy plastic saucers in the park’s gift store then just find a good dune for some sliding-in-the-sand fun (and sand in your shoes to prove it). 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Gateway towns

Alamogordo, the nearest city to White Sands National Park is 17 miles northeast of the park. This town of 31,000 serves mainly as a civilian hub for White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base just a few miles outside of town. This part of New Mexico has a long military history with a special connection to the early space program and the dawn of the Atomic Age.

Learn more about that history at Alamogordo’s New Mexico Museum of Space History whose exterior resembles a NASA Vehicle Assembly Building. It’s an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution with exhibits encompassing a wide range of subjects from the early days of the U.S. space program including rockets, astronaut suits, and satellites.

An outdoor exhibit, the John P. Stapp Air & Space Park features many early space-flight vehicles including the Little Joe II rocket, a testing rocket for the Apollo program. Look for one of the museum’s highlights out front: the grave of Ham the Astrochimp, the first hominid launched into space, in 1961.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​One of the largest pistachio tree grooves in New Mexico, PistachioLand is a destination that can be enjoyed by all ages. Located in the Tularosa Basin outside of Alamogordo it’s an easy day trip from Las Cruces and can be combined with a visit to White Sands National Park. The Tularosa Basin has the perfect climate for growing pistachios, pecans, and grapes.  There are numerous wineries and nut farms where you can enjoy delicious wine and nut tastings and beautiful views of the Sacramento Mountains.

The city’s lodging choices are basic including a Fairfield Inn and Suites and a Hampton Inn. Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, 15 miles south of town has 15 RV sites with water and electrical hookups and 24 other sites as well as restrooms with showers.

​Alamogordo’s dining options are similarly basic but still good. D.H. Lescombes Winery & Bistro, is a bar and grill serves steaks, pasta, and salads. Rizo’s Restaurant, a classic Mexican joint has excellent street tacos and larger burritos as well as a few non-Mexican options like a club sandwich. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​The significantly larger city of Las Cruces (population: 113,000), 52 miles southwest of the park has more to offer. In the historic Old Mesilla neighborhood once an Old West border town, Billy the Kid stood trial for murder. The neighborhood’s can’t-miss centerpiece is the Basilica of San Albino, an adobe cathedral finished in 1908. The area around the city brims with pecan orchards and wineries so you can easily spend more than a day here.  

A good lodging bet is the moderately priced, 200-room Hotel Encanto de las Cruces designed to feel like a Spanish colonial outpost with terra-cotta tiles, stucco arches, and a bubbling fountain in an indoor courtyard. Amenities include a pool, bar, and restaurant, as well as several wheelchair-accessible rooms.

We have visited Las Cruces on numerous occasions and hace stayed at Hacienda RV Rsort and Sunny Acres RV Park. I would recommend either for anyone wanting a long term stay or just an overnight or anything in between.​

The city’s dining scene tends towards Mexican as restaurants are apt to do in this part of the state. La Nueva Casita Café is an excellent choice for that cuisine. For something more upscale, with a farm-to-table vibe, try Willow + Blaine whose small but superb New American menu features items like a 6-ounce beef filet, confit duck leg. and beet gnocchi. After dinner, treat yourself at Caliche’s Frozen Custard; choose your flavor (chocolate or vanilla) then your topping, perhaps local salted pecans.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​​En route 

If you’re driving from Albuquerque (or the north more generally) stop at the Valley of Fires recreation area about 5 miles northwest of Carrizozo along U.S. Route 380. Here, when Little Black Peak erupted roughly 5,000 years ago a lava flow coursed through the valley creating a black strip on the landscape as the magma cooled.

​Also, consider an escorted visit to White Sands Missile Range to see the test site of the world’s first atomic bomb. This open house as the military calls it happens only twice a year usually on the first Saturday of April and the third Saturday of October so check the missile range’s website for information.

You won’t see much beyond an obelisk marking the spot where the bomb went off and some trinitite (sand melted from the extreme heat of the blast) that’s preserved under a large glass case but it’s worth it to say you set foot on ground where the Atomic Age dawned. You’ll also be able to say you ventured into the seldom-seen (at least by civilians) missile range.  

​If you’re coming from El Paso, a road trip loop makes for a good three- to five-day trek through New Mexico. Take Interstate 10 up to Las Cruces (46 miles) then U.S. Route 70 over to White Sands National Park (52 miles). You can spend a night in Las Cruces before Whites Sands then another night in Alamogordo. From there, head over to Carlsbad via Roswell (193 miles) where the aliens crash-landed in 1947. After spending the night in Carlsbad visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park, another underrated gem in the National Park system. From there it’s only 149 miles back to El Paso. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Fact box

  • Location: Near Alamogordo, New Mexico
  • Total acres: More than 145,000 
  • Highest elevation: 4,116 feet above sea level
  • Lowest elevation: 3,887 feet above sea level
  • Miles of trails and how many: 9 miles across five trails
  • Main attraction: The gypsum sand dunes 
  • Cost: $25 per vehicle for a seven-day permit; $20 per year or $80 for a lifetime America the Beautiful Pass for people age 62-plus
  • Best way to see it: On foot, walking one of the many short trails through the dunes as the sun rises
  • When to go: Fall (September and October) or spring (March through early June) when the summer heat is not extreme and the nights are not below freezing as they can be in winter

Worth Pondering…

Life is not obvious here. It is implied, or twice removed, and must be read in signs or code. Ripple marks tell of the wind’s way with individual sand grains. Footprints, mounds, and burrows bespeak the presence of mice, pocket gophers, and foxes.

—Rose Houk and Michael Collier

Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Watching wildlife a relaxing pastime

Among the natural wonders that wait for exploration by RVers is wildlife. An amazing variety of creatures great and small can be spotted while traveling throughout the United States and Canada. Wildlife watching is a fun pastime and can be enjoyed on many levels depending on your interests.

This can range from casual observation to serious wildlife-viewing expeditions. You don’t even need to leave your campsite to have wildlife encounters. Scampering squirrels amuse. Birds flitter about. Bears and raccoons often make visits and create mischief if you’re not careful how you store food and trash.

Bison in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When staying on public lands you might encounter wild horses, ponies, and burros. Of course, you also can embark on trips and tours specifically designed for viewing whales, bison, polar bears, and more.

In this post, I share ideas for capturing great wildlife photos as well as safety tips related to wildlife encounters. They may be cute but they are called wild animals for a reason and can be unpredictable and dangerous. I also offer suggestions for making the most of wildlife-watching expeditions.

Here’s to bears, bison, birds, bees, bugs, bunnies, and the many other critters sharing our planet.

Safely photographing wildlife

If you enjoy taking photos, you already may have a nice collection of pet pics. How about expanding your shutterbug skills to capture wildlife photos? Try photographing critters in national parks, state parks, national wildlife refuges, preserves, national forests, and other natural areas.

Pronghorn in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camera equipment

Determine the best type(s) of camera for your interest and level of expertise. I suggest SLRs and mirrorless cameras for their versatility. For extensive outdoor use, invest in a weather-sealed model. A telephoto lens or a lens with a telephoto zoom facilitates shooting from a distance while macro lenses work for close-ups of insects and other small subjects. A weatherproof camera backpack in muted colors works well for toting all the photo gear.

Weather

Protect yourself, too. Dress to stay warm and dry; in buggy places, wear a wide-brimmed hat— with mosquito netting if needed.

Photographing wildlife in the middle of a snowfall or other weather event can add drama and interest to your shots.

Wild burros in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Know your subjects

The U.S. Forest Service notes that capturing great wildlife images takes “preparation, patience, and practice.” Familiarize yourself with animal behavior. For example, many butterflies emerge in the early to mid-morning, warming themselves in the sun before they take flight. Such knowledge can help you find a great vantage spot. Wait for animals to come to you; they won’t pose if they feel you’re invading their space.

Photo tips

Follow the rule of thirds: Divide your frame into nine imaginary squares and place your subject in spots where the lines intersect. If an animal is looking in a specific direction include space in front of its head to improve the overall shot. Don’t just focus on your wildlife subjects; incorporate the surrounding beauty in some photos as well.

Be safe

You alone are responsible for your well-being around wildlife. Keep your distance; don’t feed them; avoid sudden or aggressive moves. If you encounter a bear, remain calm—if you can! Don’t run away. Avoid placing yourself between a mama bear and her cubs.

Here are some pointers for hiking in bear country: Hiking and Camping in Bear Country: What You Need to Know

Elk in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife camping and viewing

Traveling in an RV allows you to experience a wide range of exciting and beautiful natural destinations. And one of the best things about spending time in these scenic spots is wildlife watching.

If you are looking to completely immerse yourself in nature, check out the National Wildlife Refuge System. This massive network of conservation lands and waters covers more than 95 million acres of land and 740 million acres of submerged lands and waters in the U.S.

Camping near these protected lands will not only help you avoid crowds typically found at national parks but you’ll also have less competition for campsites. Touring a wildlife refuge may be perfect for your next road trio:

Before you set out to explore the nature around you, it’s a good idea to take some steps to make sure you get as much as possible from your RV wildlife-watching experience. Learn how to identify wildlife through books or apps, take plenty of photos, and choose a wildlife-friendly location to make the most of your experience.

You should also be aware of your safety while wildlife watching. Keep your distance from predators or other creatures you don’t want to attract and follow local guidelines and signage in the area.

Big horn sheep in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watching wildlife in national parks

Know before you go. Every national park is unique and has specific guidelines, including minimum wildlife viewing distances and food storage requirements. Before you head out on the trail, take a few minutes to review the park’s rules.

Give animals room. The best way to stay safe when watching wildlife is to give animals room to move. Many parks require you to stay a minimum distance of 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators like bears and wolves. (Check with your park: for example, Olympic National Park requires a minimum distance of 50 yards.) Parks provide a unique opportunity to view animals’ natural behavior in the wild. In general, if animals react to your presence you are too close. If you’re close enough for a selfie, you’re too close. Use binoculars or a zoom lens and move back if wildlife approaches you. Let wildlife be wild and observe from a distance.

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

Whether you stay near a wildlife refuge or national park or in a boondocking spot, stop a moment to take in your surroundings while camping to see the wildlife around you—who knows what you’ll see!

Worth Pondering…

I would rather be amongst forest animals and the sound of nature than amongst city traffic and the noise of man.

—Anthony D. Williams.

Big Bend National Park: Where the Mountains Meet the Desert in Texas

If you’re ready to see what the big deal is about Big Bend, here’s what you need to know to make the most out of your trip

Picking a national park is all about setting: Do you want deserts, forests, mountains, or water? Since everything’s bigger in TexasBig Bend National Park has it all. Cacti-strewn deserts shift to the wooded slopes of imposing mountains before again changing to spectacular river canons where greenish water flows.

Tucked in a remote corner of southwest Texas, mountain peaks meet the Chihuahuan Desert in the vast wilderness of Big Bend National Park. Adventure comes in many forms in this 1,252-square-mile reserve. You can hike to the top of lofty peaks, go paddling on the Rio Grande, soak in hot springs, or look for wildlife amid the park’s diverse habitats. Beyond the park, there are ghost towns to visit, scenic drives, and magnificent night skies—the stargazing is so impressive that Big Bend was named an International Dark Sky Park back in 2012.

As is the standard way of getting places in Texas, arriving at this natural marvel requires a good amount of driving, so get those road trip snacks and playlists ready. Given the logistical challenges of getting here, you’ll want to stick around a while to make the most of your stay.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Lay of the Land

The park has two main visitor centers: one at Panther Junction near the south end of Highway 385 and another at Chisos Basin where you’ll also find the Chisos Basin Campground and the Chisos Mountains Lodge. Three other visitor centers open seasonally from November to April.

There’s no public transport in the park, so you’ll need a car. If you plan to explore some of the backcountry roads, make it a high-clearance SUV.

Getting There

This park is far from everywhere which is part of Big Bend’s allure. Even if you live in Texas, you’ll be up for a serious drive: it’s over seven hours from San Antonio.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to Do

The national park has over 150 miles of trails from short jaunts to multi-day backpacking adventures. One of the best full-day hikes is the ascent up Emory Peak, a roughly 10.5-mile roundtrip hike that affords magnificent views from atop the park’s highest summit (7,825 feet).

For something shorter but no less rewarding, hike the 1.7-mile Santa Elena Canyon Trail which takes you through a steep-walled canyon along the edge of the Rio Grande.

Speaking of the Rio Grande, this life-giving river in the desert offers a wide range of aquatic adventures. If you’re not packing a canoe, sign up for a river trip with a park operator like Far Flung Outdoor Center based in Terlingua. Going strong since 1976, this outfitter offers river trips ranging from half a day to 3- or 4-day trips, camping in pristine spots along the way. For DIY (Do It Yourself) adventures, Far Flung also hires out gear including canoes and an open-topped Jeep Wrangler.

While you’re in the Big Bend area, be sure to pay a visit to Terlingua, a former mining town that went bust in the 1940s. You can check out a desert graveyard and the ruins of old buildings some of which have been revitalized into newer restaurant and lodging options.

Wherever you roam, be sure to leave some time at the end of the day for a soak in the park’s hot springs. Set along the Rio Grande on the southeast side of the park, the hot springs are reachable via an easy half-mile hike and the 105-degree waters offer a delightful cap to the day’s adventures.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay in and around Big Bend

Since it takes a long time to reach the park—and then once there, you can spend a good amount of time just getting around within the park—it’s not a good idea to expect to find a campsite when you arrive; booking in advance is crucial if you plan on camping at Big Bend. Seriously, reservations for the developed campgrounds are required. These campgrounds are pretty much guaranteed to be full every night from November through April and there’s no first-come, first-serve situation here.

You definitely don’t want to be that person who just spent who knows how many hours driving to Big Bend to realize you’ll have to drive an hour or more back out to find somewhere to stay because there are no overflow campsites. And don’t even think about setting up camp in a parking lot or along the park roads because you will get in trouble—sorry ‘bout it.

So, on to the options! For camping within Big Bend, you have four developed campgrounds to choose from: Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, Cottonwood, and Rio Grande Village RV Park. You can book your site up to six months in advance, so get to planning now.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re someone who waits a little bit longer before making a move, there are a limited number of sites available for reservation up to 14 days in advance, but again—planning ahead pays big time with this out-of-the-way national park. There are also backcountry campsites and you’ll need a permit for those.

If there are no developed campsites within the park available during the time of your planned visit, don’t assume your big Big Bend camping adventure is dashed. There are still some camping options outside the park in nearby areas like Study Butte, Terlingua, and Lajitas.

Chisos Basin Campground (elevation: 5,400 feet) is nestled in open woodland within a scenic mountain basin. Campers enjoy the views of Casa Grande and Emory Peak. The sunset through the nearby “Window” is a Big Bend highlight. Some of the park’s most popular trails begin nearby. Chisos Basin offers 56 camping sites. Trailers over 20 feet and motorhomes over 24 feet are not recommended due to the narrow, winding road to the Basin and small campsites at this campground.

Rio Grande Village Campground (elevation: 1,850 feet) is set in a grove of cottonwoods and acacia trees near the Rio Grande River. Paved roads connect each campsite and grassy areas separate each site. Flush toilets, running water, picnic tables, grills, and some overhead shelters. Dump station nearby. Campers enjoy birdwatching, hiking, exploring. A camp store with showers and a park visitor center are nearby. Rio Grande Village offers 93 camping sites.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood Campground (elevation: 2,169 feet) is a quiet oasis in the western corner of Big Bend National Park. Reservations are required. Conveniently located between the Castolon Historic District, the scenic Santa Elena Canyon, and the tail end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, this small 22-site campground is one of the least-known and quiet campgrounds in the park. There is one group campsite and 21 individual sites. This is a remote campground in a remote park. It is dry camping, no hook-ups, and no generators are permitted.

Rio Grande Village RV Campground (elevation: 1,800 feet) is operated by Forever Resorts and offers 25 back-in RV sites with full hookups. Adjacent to the Rio Grande Village camp store the campground features a paved lot with grassy, tree-lined edges. This campground has the only full hook-ups in the park. Periodically, a few sites may not be available for a 40 foot or longer RVs due to the size of the parking lot and orientation of the spaces.

Your best bet if you’re staying outside the park is in Terlingua about a 45-minute drive from the Chisos Basin. Terlingua Ranch Lodge RV Park offers 8 pull-through sites with electric, water, and sewer connections and 12 back-in sites with electric and water hookups and a dump station nearby.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maverick Ranch RV Park offers 100 full-service sites including 60 pull-through sites. Guests of the Maverick Ranch RV Park enjoy all of Lajitas Golf Resort amenities and activities including the Agave Spa, Black Jack’s Crossing Golf Club, horseback trail rides, and shooting activities including 5-Stand Sporting Clays, 3-Gun Combat Course, Cowboy Action Shoot, ziplining Quiet Canyon, mountain bike trails, and fitness center. Situated 12 miles southwest of Terlingua on FM 170, Lajitas Golf Resort is located between the Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park on the banks of the Rio Grande.

Looking for the most unique place to stay in the Big Bend? Located in Terlingua just across the road from the Historic Terlingua Ghost Town, The Buzzard’s Roost is a collection of three, fully furnished, traditional Sioux-style tipis.

The summer heat is no joke here, so come prepared. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, use strong sunscreen, and bring four liters of water per person per day on full-day hikes. Be mindful of desert critters (scorpions, snakes, spiders): Shake your shoes out before putting them on your feet. Keep in mind that cellphone reception is poor in the park; help is a long way off (the nearest hospital is 100 miles away in Alpine) so don’t go beyond your limits.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Time to Visit

The summer is blazing hot with temperatures regularly above 100 degrees and even reaching 110. The most pleasant times for hiking, camping, and other activities is in the spring (March to April) and fall (October to November). Winter can be chilly, bringing occasional snowfall, but it’s rarely enough to prevent hiking. As long as you have adequate clothing, it can be a great time to visit without the crowds.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Location: Far West Texas

Acreage: 801,163 acres

Highest peak: Emory Peak at 7,832 feet

Lowest point: Rio Grande Village at 1,850 feet

Miles of trails: 200

Main attraction: Hiking the trails

Entry fee: $30 per private vehicle (valid for 7 days)

Best way to see it: Day hikes

Best time to visit: In the cooler months, between November and April

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Big Bend is a land of strong beauty—often savage and always imposing.

—Lon Garrison

70 Degree Road Trip #3: The United States and Canada

Enjoy beautiful weather all year long on this 70 degree road trip through the United States and Canada

In 2015, a climatologist named Brian B. created a 70-degree Road Trip map shared over 10 million times over various platforms. He routed three road trips that chase 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) weather all year long.

Brian B. updated the routes in 2023 to make them more interesting and you can now choose a Coastal Route, Interior Route, or United States and Canada Route. 

I’ve already written about the U.S. Coastal Route and Interior Route. Today, I’m sharing the INCREDIBLE 70-degree road trip that takes you through the United States and Canada. 

A few quick notes

Before I jump into the route, I want to point out that you don’t have to do this entire year-long road trip to make use of the following information. You can use the route as a reference guide for shorter trips. 

Simply look at the locations based on the month you’re traveling and you can plan your road trip based on a segment of this trip. That way, you can enjoy 70-degree weather whenever you want to travel.

Brian B’s map is an overview and not a detailed itinerary. So, I have provided related links and resources for each monthly segment below to help you plan your trip.

Route 3: The United States and Canada Route

This grand, cross-border adventure spans the U.S. and Canada in an incredible 13,996-mile (22,530 km) journey. 

Starting in San Diego, California, the United States and Canada Route takes you through the heart of the American Southwest, the charming landscapes of the southern and eastern U.S., the vast wilderness of the Canadian provinces and territories, and the rugged coastline of western Canada.

The route returns you to the United States continuing down through where the West meets the Midwest to the southern states. Finally, you conclude your amazing journey in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Coachella Valley Preserve near Palm Springs, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

January

Kick off your adventure in San Diego, California and stay on I-8 as you make your way to the sun-drenched city of Phoenix, Arizona.

Mileage: 357 miles

Sabino Canyon near Tucson, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

February

Follow I-10 from Phoenix to Tucson, Las Cruces, and El Paso. Immerse yourself in the unique cultures and mesmerizing landscapes of the American Southwest.

Mileage: 384 miles

Kerrville in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

March

Drive from El Paso along state roads toward Wichita Falls, Texas, and continue through extreme southern and eastern Oklahoma. Enjoy the beautiful and varied landscapes along the way. (Starting this month, you’ll need to start covering more ground every month to keep up with the 70-degree weather.)

Mileage: 991 miles

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

April

Head east through the picturesque states of Arkansas and Tennessee into North Carolina before heading up the Blue Ridge Parkway through western Virginia, West Virginia, and finally to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Explore amazing cities and places like Chattanooga, Gatlinburg, Asheville, Roanoke, Monongahela National Forest, and more.

Mileage: 1,328 miles

Ohio Amish Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

May

Start eastward in Pennsylvania before looping back to Youngstown and Canton, Ohio. Continue northeast to Chicago, Illinois, and then head north into Wisconsin. Conclude the month in the scenic landscapes of central Minnesota.

Mileage: 1,440 miles

Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

June

Get ready to cover a lot of ground this month!

Continuing northward, you reach the international border at International Falls, Minnesota. Follow the highway north to Longbow Lake and then west to Winnipeg and Edmonton on the Yellowhead Highway. Keep heading northeast and then north on smaller highways to Hay River on the shore of Great Slave Lake. 

From there, head generally west toward Dawson, Yukon Territory, and the border crossing at the Top of the World Highway. Then make your way to Fairbanks, Alaska. 

Mileage: 3,424 miles

July

From Fairbanks drive south to Anchorage and southeast across the Canadian border. Begin your return to the Lower 48 aiming to finish the month at Prince George, British Columbia.

Mileage: 1,735 miles

Mount Robson Provincial Park, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

August

From Prince George make your way southeast to Mount Robson Provincial Park and Jasper National Park, south on the Icefields Parkway to Lake Louise and Banff National Park, and east to Calgary, Alberta, and cross back into the U.S. near Glacier National Park, Montana.

Mileage: 643 miles

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

September

Now in Montana, hit Yellowstone and then stay on smaller highways that wind through parts of western Wyoming, eastern Idaho, and northeastern Utah. Briefly take I-70 east to the Colorado border.

Mileage: 1,056 miles

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

October

In Colorado, head southeast on state and U.S. highways into extreme northern New Mexico near Taos. Then head north and northeast to Denver and then east into the plains of eastern Colorado. 

Then continue eastward through most of southern Kansas before turning southeast to Little Rock, Arkansas. This is where the route crosses itself from early April.

Mileage: 1,632 miles 

Alabama Gulf Coast © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

November

Travel nearly due east to Jackson, Mississippi then up to Birmingham, Alabama and turn southeast to reach Lake City, Florida.

Mileage: 732 miles

Myakka River State Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

December

Complete your year-long adventure by driving the final leg from Lake City, Florida to Daytona Beach, Florida where you can relax on the picturesque Atlantic Ocean beaches and reflect on your incredible journey.

Once you’re in Florida, you might as well loop around and continue to enjoy the tropical weather. Travel down Florida’s Atlantic Coast, through the Keys, and back up the Gulf Coast.

Mileage: 187 miles

Worth Pondering…

Shoot for the moon, Even if you miss it you will land among the stars.

—Les Brown

Arizona State Parks for Every Interest

Try new outdoor things this year

Arizona’s 34 state parks have something for everyone—from contemplative nature walks to stargazing to camping. Here’s my abbreviated look at some of the more niche offerings to add to your bucket list.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona State Parks for hiking

Sedona‘s picturesque wonderland of red boulders is on display at Red Rock State Park, a 286-acre nature preserve. Hikers can pick from several trails—Eagle’s Nest Loop, Coyote Ridge, a guided nature walk, full-moon hike and more—many of which lead to Oak Creek and the iconic Cathedral Rock.

Located in the Superstition Mountains on the eastern edge of metro PhoenixLost Dutchman State Park offers hikers plenty of trails to explore, not to mention an opportunity to seek the gold supposedly hidden in the 1870s by German native Jacob Waltz, aka the Dutchman. You might not find gold but on the Native Trail you’ll spot cholla, prickly pear, and ocotillo cacti. Moderate trails like Treasure Loop or Prospector’s View are available for semi-seasoned hikers while advanced hikers will want to climb Siphon Draw Trail and Flatiron.

Note: Since trails often get overcrowded on the weekend aim to hike on a weekday for a better experience and even better views.

Check out Spring Is the Season to Hike Arizona State Parks for more hiking inspiration.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona State Parks for wildflowers

As you travel I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson, you can’t miss the 1,500-foot distinctive rock formation of Picacho Peak State Park. The peak is obvious but hiking the trails especially during spring will be nature’s eye candy—a blanket of Mexican gold poppies as far as the eye can see.

For more wildflower viewing, Catalina State Park near Tucson is home to around 5,000 saguaros. Between February and April, lupine, desert chicory, penstemon, and more wildflowers bloom into vibrant color.

Read Beauty of the Desert: Arizona in Bloom and Wildflower Season Has Arrived in Arizona! and Where to See the Best Blooms? for more floral inspiration.

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

Best Arizona State Parks for family fun

For families who love the outdoors, Fool Hollow Lake Recreation Area is the perfect destination. With more than 120 campsites situated in a Ponderosa pine forest near Show Low plus boating, swimming, Junior Ranger activities, a park store, and a visitor center Fool Hollow offers plenty of opportunities for family fun.

For families not too keen on roughing it but who would still like to enjoy nature, Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood (30 minutes from Sedona) has cozy log cabins with heat and air-conditioning. Game night, anyone? Families can also sign up for guided horseback rides, go fishing in the lagoons, photograph birds, or spend an afternoon at the playground complete with a zip line.

Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona State Parks for water sports

Water activities reign supreme at Patagonia Lake State Park in southern Arizona. A sandy beach slopes down to the shoreline making it easy to dip in for a swim. To get on the water, rent a canoe, rowboat, or pontoon from the marina. You can also put in your own boat including motorized boats for water skiing at the ramp. Better still, the town of Patagonia lies near one of Arizona’s three wine-growing regions, Sonoita-Elgin. End your day at the lake or take some time away for a tasting room tour of the area’s award-winning wineries.

If you want to chill waterside, bring your yoga mat to the tranquil beaches of Cattail Cove State Park or ply the calm waters of the 45-mile-long Lake Havasu with a kayak or paddleboard, available for rent at the park. This Lake Havasu City-area park is renowned locally for its sandy beaches and gets quite popular during the summer months.

Best Arizona State Parks for stargazing

As of 2023, there are more than 200 places in the world designated official dark-sky places by the International Dark-Sky Association. In Arizona, two state parks hold this distinction: Oracle State Park and Kartchner Caverns. This means they “possess 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.”

Oracle State Park, located just north of Tucson earned its designation in 2014 thanks to star-studded skies so free of light pollution that you can see the Milky Way. Stargazers should head to the American Trailhead Parking Lot for celestial viewing opportunities. Since 2010, Kartchner has been hosting nighttime astronomy programs for visitors and has achieved 99 percent compliance with its Lightscape Management Plan which has improved outdoor lighting codes countywide.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona State Parks for history

Fort Verde State Historic Park showcases the original buildings used in the 1870 and 1880s by General Crook’s army in the small north-central town of Camp Verde. History buffs will appreciate that this state park near Camp Verde is considered the best-preserved example of an Indian Wars period fort in Arizona.

At Tubac, in southern Arizona, the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park preserves the ruins of a Spanish Presidio site, San Ignacio de Tubac. The on-site museum houses interpretive exhibits, and nearby sits a Territorial school from 1885—the second oldest schoolhouse in Arizona.

Back up north near Winslow, Homolovi State Park is home to more than 300 American Indian archaeological sites from the Hopi people many sites dating to the 1200s. A paved trail to the ruins with interpretive signage makes this a particularly appealing accessible option, too.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona State Parks for camping

Making its second appearance on this list is Patagonia Lake State Park for its camping options—pitch your tent, drive your RV, or reserve one of the furnished cabins. Campsites come with picnic tables and fire rings, some even have ramadas. Cabins boast porches from which you can spot blue heron or whitetail deer. Or, amp up the adventure level by booking one of the boat-in campsites.

If you want a riverfront campsite along the Colorado River, book early at Buckskin Mountain State Park in western Arizona near the California border. There are 80 spots, many of which sit at the water’s edge. While away the hours with picnics, swimming, watching wildlife, playing basketball or volleyball or simply enjoying the views along this 18-mile stretch of river between Parker and Headgate dams.

Overnight camping near Tucson is available at the 120 electric and water sites in Catalina State Park. Each campsite has a picnic table and BBQ grill. Roads and parking slips are paved. Campgrounds have modern flush restrooms with hot, clean showers, and RV dump stations are available in the park. There is no limit on the length of RVs at this park.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona State Parks for Fishing

Couched in the Bill Williams River Valley, 37 miles north of the town of Wenden, Alamo Lake State Park gives anglers an opportunity to catch largemouth bass, black crappie, or tilapia in the 3,500-acre lake.

For a lesser-known gem, Dankworth Pond State Park in Safford—about two hours east of Tucson and three hours east from Phoenix—features a fishing dock and quiet environs for a peaceful day of tossing in a line. You’ll likely snag largemouth bass or rainbow trout in the small but mighty pond.

BONUS: Most unique State Parks

Ten miles north of Payson Tonto Natural Bridge State Park showcases a true Arizona treasure: the world’s longest and largest travertine bridge. Most natural bridges found throughout the world are created from sandstone or limestone which makes the travertine aspect of Tonto especially unique. You can see the bridge from any of the four trails in the park.

Witness the underground beauty of Kartchner Caverns, a living cave that discoverers kept secret for years until they could ensure its preservation. The caverns are carved out of limestone and speleothems, which have been slowly growing for 50,000 years.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Will Rogers