NPS Birthday Celebration: 10 National Parks without the Crowds

August 25 will be a special day at the more than 400 national park sites spread across the U.S.

The National Park Service (NPS) is celebrating its 105th birthday TOMORROW, August 25, 2021. National parks across the country are hosting in-park programs and virtual experiences. Join the birthday celebration from anywhere in the world. Find virtual ways to stay connected with 423 national parks across the country and park party games that you can do anywhere, anytime. Entrance fees are also waived for everyone to come out to enjoy the national parks!

On this day in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the National Park Service. The new bureau was assigned the task of managing the 35 national parks and monuments that had already been established.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many national parks are actually free year-round. Out of the 423 parks only 108 charge entrance fees (except on the six fee-free days), many of which are actual “parks”—including Acadia National Park, Badlands National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Shenandoah National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Zion National Park.

That said, the remaining 315 national parks (many of which are historic sites, trails, battlefields, and monuments) offer free entrance every day of the year including Great Smoky Mountains National park, Casa Grande National Monument, Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway, John Muir National Historic Site, and Gettysburg National Military Park.

While travelers have 63 epic parks to choose from, consider visiting one of these lesser-known and visited national parks. These parks may not have the same star status as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon but that doesn’t make them any less spectacular.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Home to the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States, South Carolina’s often overlooked Congaree National Park is just a half-hour drive from the state capital of Columbia and features plenty of opportunities for scenic hikes, with August, September, and October providing some of the best conditions to explore trails like the Boardwalk Loop, Oakridge Trail, and the Weston Lake Loop.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

One of the least visited parks in the national park system, Lassen Volcanic National Park preserves the volcanic legacy of Lassen Peak, the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range, and the long-eroded Mount Tehama. Evidence of the burning hot spot below Lassen is abundant with several boiling pools and steam vents to visit. Of its geothermal areas, Bumpass Hell is most impressive with its small teal pond inset between fumaroles, steam vents, and a boiling pool coated in fool’s gold. Devil’s Kitchen is a longer hike at about 4 miles past mud pots, fumaroles, and Hot Springs Creek. Beyond the geothermal activity, Lassen is a beautiful alpine environment with plenty of adventures to offer.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Remember how fun it was to play in the sand as a kid? It’s still pretty fun, as it turns out. And the sandbox is a lot bigger at White Sands National Park, a system of rare white gypsum sand dunes (largest gypsum dune field in the world) intertwined with raised boardwalk trails and a single loop road. Sunset and sunrise are obviously the golden hours for photographers but any time is a good time for some sand-dune sledding, kite-flying, and back-country camping.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

You know those comically oversized cacti Wile E. Coyote used to fall into? Those are modeled after the giant Saguaro cactus the most distinct feature is this park straddling the city of Tucson. The park, created to preserve the cacti, boasts some great hikes. Even during warmer weather, a trek into nature here can take you up 5,000 feet of elevation in 15 miles of desert. Driving Saguaro will take you through a Western landscape that’s unmistakably Arizona.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

One of the country’s youngest national parks, Pinnacles National Park is where travelers can spot North America’s largest flying bird in the California condor (their wingspans approaching 10 feet). This unique habitat came to be approximately 23 million years ago when multiple volcanoes erupted, creating rare talus caves and towering rock spires. Hiking and rock climbing are some of the most popular activities here and visitors won’t want to miss out on the stellar views from the winding High Peaks Loop.

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

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia

The nation’s newest national park came to be as recently as December 2020 as part of a pandemic relief bill, but there’s certainly nothing new about West Virginia’s New River Gorge. After all, the river is believed to be the second-oldest on the planet. The park is popular with whitewater rafters and rock climbers but also offers plenty of hiking trails, scenic waterfalls like the 1,500-foot-wide Sandstone Falls, and plenty of scenic viewpoints. Visitors will also be in awe of the landmark New River Gorge Bridge, the longest single-span steel arch bridge in the United States and the third-highest bridge in the country at nearly 900 feet.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef is home to one of the world’s most unique geological wonders: the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile long wrinkle in the earth’s crust. Formed millions of years ago when a fault line shifted and exposed thousands of acres of rust-tinted sandstone and slate-gray shale, the resulting rugged cliffs and arch formations are the red rocks Utah is known for. Grab a cinnamon bun or freshly baked mini-pie in the historic village of Fruita located within the park’s borders then stroll through verdant orchards and hunt for petroglyphs near the visitor center. Stay in nearby Torrey for the best BBQ and wild-west themed hotels and RV parks.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota is a fitting tribute to the president who helped birth America’s conservation movement: It protects an imposing landscape that is both desolate and teeming with life. Bison roam the grassy plains and elk wander along with juniper-filled draws. Prairie dogs squeak from mounds leading to their underground dens and mule deer bed down on the sides of clay buttes. There are pronghorn antelope and coyotes, wild horses, and bighorn sheep.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Despite having just one-tenth of the annual visitors to Yellowstone, Carlsbad Caverns is one of the most engaging national parks in the US—a 73-square-mile network of more than 100 massive caves that seem to go on forever. In the Big Room, stunning stalactites drip from the tall ceiling and thick stalagmite mounds rise from the cave’s floor. It’s certainly worth grabbing a seat at the amphitheater at the mouth of the cave to witness a blur of thousands of bats emerge from the cave for their evening meal at 6 pm—or when they return by 6 am.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Although the words “badlands” and “petrified” evoke harsh landscapes devoid of life, the Petrified Forest National Park is both beautiful and bountiful. Located about 110 miles east of Flagstaff,  the park’s badlands and petrified wood (the world’s largest concentration) are composed of bands of blue, white, and purple which come from quartz and manganese oxides. See fossilized trees and crystalized wood up close on the 0.75-mile Crystal Forest Trail or 3-mile Blue Forest Trail.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other Free Days

Don’t worry if you can’t visit a national park tomorrow—there are more fee-free days this year.

The next fee-free day is National Public Lands Day on Saturday, September 25. The final fee-free day this year is Veterans Day on Thursday, November 11.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Which National Park to Visit Based on Your Academic Interests

Are you ready? Whether you want to explore local places or plan a road trip, you’ll find a national park to suit your academic interests.

Summer is the perfect time to go camping and hiking in the great outdoors. There’s no better place to enjoy the outdoors than at one of the many national parks. But there are so many national parks out there that it can be very difficult to choose which one to visit.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You could always go with the national park easiest to get to, but even then, it can still be hard to decide. Let your intellectual interests help you!

Here are some recommendations on what national park to go to—based on your college major or the academic pursuit most aligned to your interests. For some of us, it’s a long stretch into the distant past.

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

Biology: Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. World-renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park.

This exceptionally beautiful park is home to more than 3,500 plant species, including almost as many trees (130 natural species) as in all of Europe. The park is of exceptional natural beauty with scenic vistas of characteristic mist-shrouded (“smoky”) mountains, vast stretches of virgin timber, and clear running streams.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Geology: Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River is a world-renowned showplace of geology.

Geologic studies in the park began with the work of John Strong Newberry in 1858, and continue today. Grand Canyon’s excellent display of layered rock is invaluable in unraveling the region’s geologic history. Extensive carving of the plateaus allows for the detailed study of the Earth’s movements. Processes of stream erosion are also easily seen and studied.

The Colorado River has carved the Grand Canyon into four plateaus of the Colorado Plateau Province. The Province is a large area in the Southwest characterized by nearly horizontal sedimentary rocks lifted 5,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Archaeology: Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde National Park is known for its Native American sites. With villages built into the cliffside and rocks painted with petroglyphs, it’s a place that has a strong connection to the people of the past.

What else would an archaeology major want in a national park? The visitor center also has the park’s museum and research collection—so there’s an added bonus.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Art: Petrified Forest

This national park is a great fit for a student of art. The part that should be most appealing to those interested in art isn’t the tree stumps preserved as stone, which the park is named for, but the Painted Desert.

Being surrounded by something so magnificently “painted” should make an artist feel right at home. In all seriousness, though, this national park is a beautiful and strange landscape that looks very little like anywhere else. If you want something new to draw or paint, this park might be the muse you’re looking for.

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should give you an idea of where to go to begin discovering what the national parks have to offer. No matter what national park you choose to visit, you’ll be met with stunning sights and wonderful nature. You can’t go wrong with any of the national parks, so hopefully, this list has helped you choose.

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

Epic Road Trips for this Summer and Beyond

A few of my favorite driving vacations across America

According to a recent survey of more than 1,500 Americans, commissioned by car rental company Hertz, more than 80 percent plan to take a road trip this summer, and 86 percent agreed they are more likely or as likely to hit the road compared to previous years. While local COVID restrictions remain a factor when preparing for a vacation, 52 percent of respondents plan to resume travel as early as June. Domestic travel will be key as 74 percent said they would stay in the U.S. including 42 percent planning to visit the South and, 32 percent visiting the West.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With the pandemic in retreat, many Americans are heading out on the open road eager to rediscover the country. Why not join them in an RV?

The following collection of road trips features intriguing routes and destinations from South Carolina to Arizona. There’ll be encounters with history in Charlestown and Savannah, natural wonders to explore in the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest, and good food in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. It’s a moveable feast for a nation on the move once more.

Charleston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Deliciously Diverting Road Trips through the Deep South

A Deep South road trip is a fantastic way to experience the sights, food, and culture of the South. Some of the best southeast destinations are New Orleans, Charleston, and Savannah. When you set out to drive to New Orleans you’re better off taking it slow. You could drive from Nashville to New Orleans’s French Quarter in less than eight hours but what a pity that would be. Opt instead to take a slower, far more scenic route.

Charlestonn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first road trip starts in Nashville. Before leaving Music City consider exploring a few of the city’s unique neighborhoods including Opryland/Music Valley, East Nashville, and Germantown. Learn about the state’s history at the (free!) Tennessee State Museum and hit some balls at Topgolf.

Ambrosia Bakery, Baton Rouge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On this amazing tour from Tennessee through Mississippi and Louisiana you’ll be passing through sultry small towns that invite you to linger and enough poignant sites of American history to keep you engaged. Chief among them: the Mississippi towns of Tupelo, Oxford, and Natchez. From there drop into Louisiana for a po’boy sandwich and pecan praline cheesecake at Ambrosia Bakery in Baton Rouge before arriving in New Orleans to partake of its everlasting party. You can never run out of things to see in New Orleans, the most popular destination in the Bayou State, and for good reason. The music is magnificent and the architecture amazing. It isn’t called the Big Easy for nothing. Then there’s the food—an unapologetic celebration of simple carbohydrates.

Middleton Place © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another amazing Deep South road trip itinerary includes Charleston and Savannah. Charleston is the perfect place for your first stop. Charleston exudes Southern charm. Meander cobblestone streets lined with elegant mansions, a vibrant downtown with eclectic shops, arts and culture, music, and nightlife. The Historic Charleston City Market which spans four blocks is brimming with food, art, sweetgrass baskets, clothing, toys, jewelry, crafts, and so much more from over 300 vendors. It has a food scene that is one of the best in the country and there is a lot to see and do. Savor diverse cuisine from around the world and Southern specialties like fresh oysters, crab cakes, and pan-roasted boat catch. Save room for decadent desserts.

Magnolia Plantation © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are also a number of museums and old houses that are worth visiting including Charleston Museum and the Old Slave Mart Museum which offers an emotional but realistic look into life as a slave. Head out of town and visit some of the old plantation homes around Charleston. There are four within a twenty minute drive of the city: Magnolia Plantation, Boone Hall Plantation, Middleton Place Plantation, and Drayton Hall.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heading on to Savannah—Georgia’s first city, founded in 1733—succumb to the Gothic charms (iron gates, massive, moss-covered oak trees) that have enchanted writers such as Flannery O’Connor and John Berendt (You can tour the sites made famous from his book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, such as the Mercer Williams House and the Bonaventure Cemetery). Spend a few nights at CreekFire Motor Ranch, Savannah’s newest RV park, and take your time wandering this many-storied city. About 20 minutes west of downtown Savannah, you can have fun and excitement when you want it—and relaxation and solitude when you need it.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savannah has a totally different vibe to Charleston and there’s plenty to see and do here as well. Taking a tour around Savannah in a horse-drawn carriage is a fun way to see the city. It’s one of the most popular Savannah tourist attractions. They also have a guide that will tell you about the unique landmarks and about all of the historic homes you pass.

If you tack an additional 20 minutes onto your journey, you can check out laid-back Tybee Island with its tiny cottages, five miles of tidal beaches, the tallest lighthouse in Georgia, and camping at River’s End Campground.

Historic Route 66 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Time Travel to the Old West

Any list of cross-country trips should include Route 66, the country’s “Mother Road” between the Midwest and California before the Interstate Highway System. It’s going back in time! On this 2,448-mile-long drive, you’ll pass by iconic monuments like the St. Louis Gateway Arch and quirky roadside attractions like Illinois’s 1924 Ariston Café and the Cadillac Ranch art installation in Amarillo, Texas.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Arizona, slight detours will take you to Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest national parks. If there’s one place you’re planning to go when you visit Arizona, there’s a good chance it’s the Grand Canyon. It’s the most popular of all of these great road trips in the Southwest and with good reason! It’s one of the seven natural wonders of the world and a truly awe-inspiring place to visit. Standing over the canyon, it seems to go on forever! It’s a striking place to visit and nowhere else will you feel so small, in a good way.

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Petrified Forest National Park you’ll find remains of a colorful prehistoric forest, some of the logs more than 100 feet long and up to 10 feet in diameter. But there’s so much more: artifacts of the ancient indigenous people who lived here including the remains of large pueblos and massive rock art panels, fossils of plants and animals from the late Triassic period (the dawn of the dinosaurs), and a striking and vast Painted Desert (a badland cloaked in a palette of pastel colors).

Wigwam Motel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spend the night in Holdbrook’s real cool Wigwam Motel comprised of 15 large wigwam sleeping units and vintage cars including a 1932 Studebaker and an RV. Continue on to Kingman and visit the old powerhouse which has been converted to a Route 66 Museum and visitor’s center. The Powerhouse Building is also home to Arizona’s Route 66 Association. Tucked away on a very old section of Route 66, Oatman is about 25 miles from Kingman. As with most mining towns of the Old West, Oatman is a shadow of its former self. Upon entering the historic old downtown, visitors are greeted by wild burros that roam up and down the main street hoping to get a healthy snack.

In California, you’ll pass near the desert wilds of Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks before concluding the trip in Los Angeles at the Santa Monica Pier on the Pacific Ocean.

Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Time Out on the Third Coast

It’s got to be the easiest “long” drive in Texas: south from Austin on U.S. Highway 183—Lockhart, Luling, Gonzales, Cuero, and Goliad; State Route 339 to Tivoli and 35 to Rockport. One of the reasons to enjoy U.S. 183 so much is that it’s not a very modern road, not efficient in the Point-A-to-Point-B way that interstates are. In fact, for much of its length in this part of the state, it follows the old stage route from San Antonio to Indianola, winding, and dipping, crossing rivers and creeks at natural fords. If the verdant roadside landscape and gentle hills aren’t distraction enough, there are the Victorian courthouse squares along the way. Every one of those towns—with the exception of Tivoli—has one.

Presidio la Bahia, Goliad © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Highway 183 means a trip into history. The first shots of the Texas Revolution were fired near Gonzales and in Goliad, you will pass Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga on the right (now a state park) and Presidio la Bahia established in 1749 on the left. The Capilla or chapel (Our Lady of Loreto) has been in continuous use as a church since about the time of the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. It was at Goliad that the Mexican Army on the orders of Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna massacred 342 captured Texas soldiers on Palm Sunday in 1836. A monument marks their gravesite.

Goliad State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here too, some seven years before the Goliad massacre, Ignacio Seguín Zaragoza was born. Zaragoza would go on to lead the Army of the East to victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla, Mexico on May 5, 1862. Cinco de Mayo, a national holiday in Mexico, is still celebrated here.

Just past the presidio, it’s a left on State Highway 239, a half-hour drive along the San Antonio River Valley and through the pastures and grain fields of O’Connor Ranch to Tivoli.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then it’s a right on State Highway 35—a flat, straight drive through the cotton fields and rust-red acres of sorghum. To the right near a rest stop stands a sabal palm, remnant of one of just three native species of palm that once flourished here. Farther ahead to the left is Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, winter home to most of the world’s population of whooping cranes.

You’ll cross the causeway at Lamar Point to Rockport-Fulton‘s towering, twisted oak trees (the town is built on aptly named “Live Oak Peninsula”). RV parks here are plentiful.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive out State Highway 361 and onto the ferry for the short boat ride to Port Aransas and check out the sights: the World War II gun emplacements overlooking the Gulf beach and channels (German U-boats were active in the area early in the war), the University of Texas Marine Science Institute and its modest aquaria, and The Tarpon Inn whose lobby walls are covered in trophy tarpon scales dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. President Franklin D. Roosevelt fished here and a signed scale and photo grace the walls.

The sunset paints the water deep, liquid blues and golds and pinks. A quick jaunt to Mustang Island State Park and then it’s back into Rockport to your campsite.

Rockport-Fulton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sun and surf, music and food, and the glory of an unwinding road!

Worth Pondering…

I hear the highway calling. It’s time for a road trip.

Yes, You Can Avoid Crowds in the National Parks & Here is How

Tips on finding quieter havens and hidden gems

Given the astonishing beauty and richness of the 63 U.S. national parks, it’s no wonder they’re so popular: They received 237 million visitors in 2020—only a 28 percent drop from the year before despite widespread closures and travel slowing nearly to a halt due to the pandemic. This year will likely attract many more visitors drawn to outdoor spaces relatively close to home.

These are some of my tips for finding beautiful, less crowded spots, and moments of solitude even in the most popular of these wonderful destinations.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit Lesser-known National Parks

Every national park-lover needs to visit Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, and the Grand Canyon at some point but consider visiting some of the lesser-known parks as well. One of my favorite “sleeper” parks is Petrified Forest in Arizona; here you’ll find remains of a colorful prehistoric forest, some of the logs more than 100 feet long and up to 10 feet in diameter. But there’s so much more: artifacts of the ancient indigenous people who lived here including the remains of large pueblos and massive rock art panels, fossils of plants and animals from the late Triassic period (the dawn of the dinosaurs), a striking and vast Painted Desert (a badland cloaked in a palette of pastel colors), a wilderness of more than 50,000 acres where you can find wildness and beauty, and a remnant of historic Route 66 complete with a 1932 Studebaker!

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other favorites include Congaree in South Carolina (the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeast) and California’s remote Lassen Volcanic, one of the only places in the world that has all four types of volcanoes—cinder cone, composite, shield, and plug dome.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Find Little-known Havens within a Park

Most national parks are pretty big places but visitors tend to congregate at some of the most well-known and iconic sites leaving other areas blissfully quiet. For example, Yosemite Valley includes some of the park’s most famous attractions but the valley is a tiny fraction of the park. Visit the Hetch Hetchy area, often described as the twin of Yosemite Valley, and hike to Wapama Falls or Rancheria Falls. Or drive to the lesser-visited northwest corner of Yellowstone and walk the Bighorn Pass Trail that follows the striking Upper Gallatin River.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Rocky Mountain avoid the popular Bear Lake Corridor area and take the dramatic Ute Trail through the park’s alpine tundra or the lovely Colorado River Trail in the park’s Never Summer Range.

In Joshua Tree, take a walk to Cottonwood Springs Oasis, filled with thick California fan palms and large cottonwoods. Grinding holes in nearby rocks tell the story of the ancient use of the oasis by Native Americans centuries ago. Cottonwood Spring is noted for its birdlife. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit during the Off-season

Many parks accommodate the majority of their visitors in the three summer months leaving the rest of the year relatively fallow (although these shoulder seasons are growing shorter as more people are adopting this strategy). The waterfalls of Yosemite are typically at their peak in May when it gets 10 percent of the park’s annual visits compared to 16 percent in August; fall foliage at Acadia is at its most colorful in October when it sees 13 percent of its annual visitors, compared to 22 percent in August; and wildflowers in the Grand Canyon are usually most prolific in April (9 percent of visitors versus 13 percent in July). For even more solitude, go for the real off-season—usually winter—when many parks such as Arches and Zion are quiet and beautiful.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get Out of your Car and Walk

It’s the natural law of parks that the number of people you see decreases exponentially with each mile you go from the trailhead and walking is the most intimate way to experience the parks. It allows you to appreciate the parks through so many of the senses: See the tracks of elusive mountain lions at Glacier National Park, hear the iconic call of the canyon wren as you hike through the Grand Canyon, smell the sweetness of Ponderosa pine bark warming in the sun in Yosemite, taste the salt air as you walk the Ocean Path at Acadia, and feel the solid granite beneath your feet as you explore the trails of Isle Royale.

Shuttle stop at Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use Shuttle Trams when Available

Traffic congestion and lack of parking plague many parks and the National Park Service is responding with shuttle buses at popular destinations such as Zion, Bryce Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Acadia, Grand Canyon, and Denali. Use these transit systems to avoid the traffic and parking headaches that too many of us face in our everyday lives.

Steller’s jay at Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rise Early and/or Stay Late

Get to attraction sites and trailheads early in the day and consider hikes late in the day—parking spaces are more readily available at these times and you’ll experience the parks at the “golden hours” when the light is at its finest—soft and rich—for viewing and photographing and when wildlife is more likely to be seen. Experience the dawn chorus of birds, one of the world’s great natural phenomena, and enjoy it in relative solitude.

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

Purchase Park Passes and Supplies before Arriving

Nearly all national parks require an entrance pass/fee. Of course, you can obtain passes at the parks you visit but this will probably require waiting in line at the park entrance station or visitor center. You can obtain passes in advance on the National Park Service website and some parks have an express lane for visitors who already have a pass. You can also save time and money purchasing the goods and services you’ll need (food, fuel, camping supplies) for your visit before you enter the park. These items are often available in the parks but only at a few locations and you’ll probably have to wait behind other visitors to make your purchases.

Cowpens National Battlefield, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit National Monuments and Other National Park Service Sites

There are 423 national park service (NPS) sites in total and only 63 of them have the congressional designation of “National Park” including the most recent New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. In addition to monuments and national parks, there are national lakeshores and seashores, memorials, parkways, preserves, reserves, recreation areas, rivers and riverways, and scenic trails. Into military history? There are national battlefields, battlefield parks, battlefield sites, and national military. History buff? You’ll find national historical parks, national historic sites, and international historic sites.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There will always be a thirst for touring the nation’s iconic parks—for hiking in the canyons of Zion or scampering among the natural arches and pinnacles of Arches National Park. But travelers who’ve hiked New Mexico’s otherworldly Malpais National Monument or driven National Scenic Byway 12 through southeastern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument without having to navigate throngs of people may never again think the same way about visiting America’s iconic national parks.

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

— John Muir

21 of the Most Visited National Parks in America

Whether planning to camp under starry skies, take a scenic drive, or chase thrilling outdoor adventures, these parks are sure to please

Approximately 237 million people visited the national parks in 2020, representing a 28 percent year-over-year decrease attributed to the COVID pandemic. To determine the most popular national parks in the United States, I’ve compiled data from the National Park Service on the number of recreational visits each site had in 2020.

President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 signed the act creating the National Park Service to leave natural and historic phenomenons “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Since then, national parks have welcomed visitors to experience some of the best the country has to offer and showcase America’s natural beauty and cultural heritage.

Today, the country’s 63 national parks contain at least 247 species of endangered or threatened plants and animals, more than 75,000 archaeological sites, and 18,000 miles of trails.

Keep reading to discover 21 of the most popular national parks in the United States, in reverse order. And be sure to check with individual parks before you visit to find out about ongoing, pandemic-related safety precautions.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

48. Pinnacles National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740
Percent of total national park visits: .24%

Pinnacles National Park in California was born after several volcanoes erupted forming the unique landscape of the park which is packed with canyons, rock spires, and woodlands. When the park was established in 1908 it was only 2,060 acres but has now grown to 26,000. Because of hot summer temperatures, Pinnacles is most popular in the winter months.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

45. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 183,835
Percent of total national park visits: .27%

Located in southern New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s 119 caves were born when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone millions of years ago leaving behind a treasure trove of caverns. The Big Room in Carlsbad Cavern is the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America and takes an hour and a half to cross, according to the National Park Service. Birders from around the globe flock to Rattlesnake Spring to see some of the 300 documented bird species.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

42. Mesa Verde National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 287,477
Percent of total national park visits: .42%

Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado protects nearly 5,000 archaeological sites that have preserved the history of the ancestral Pueblo people. They inhabited the land for almost 700 years building dwellings into the cliffs and establishing communities before moving away. Visitors can see and explore several of the cliff dwellings through tours and hiking trails.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

38. Petrified Forest National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 384,483
Percent of total national park visits: .57%

Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona is home to the gorgeous Painted Desert and Crystal Forest where petrified logs shine with quartz crystals. The site in the park known as Newspaper Rock contains more than 650 petroglyphs between 650 and 2,000 years old. The landscape of the park features mesas and buttes created by erosion.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

37. Big Bend National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 393,907
Percent of total national park visits: .58%

Big Bend National Park in Texas offers spectacular views of the Chihuahuan Desert landscape as well as the Rio Grande. Visitors to the park can even enter Mexico through the park’s Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry. Big Bend has more species of birds, bats, and cacti than any other national park in the United States.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

34. White Sands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 415,383
Percent of total national park visits: .61%

The park is aptly named, featuring wavy white sands over nearly 300 square miles in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin. This is the world’s largest gypsum dunefield and the park preserves a major part of it. Visits can include the park’s historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Lucero Ranch on the shore of Lake Lucero and the White Sands Missile Range Museum and Trinity Site, where in 1945 the first atomic bomb was tested.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Canyonlands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 493,914
Percent of total national park visits: .73%

Utah’s Canyonlands National Park features a unique landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes formed by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Even though the park is considered a desert, its high elevation gives it a varying climate; temperatures here can fluctuate as much as 50 degrees in a day. This, combined with the low annual rainfall, make the park a perfect home for drought-resistant plants such as cacti, yuccas, and mosses.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

29. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 542,274
Percent of total national park visits: .80%

Each rock at Lassen Volcanic National Park in California is a result of a volcanic eruption given that the park has been volcanically active for 3 million years. The world’s four volcanic types—shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome—are all present at the park and located in close proximity to each other. Park visitors can also check out the park’s several fumaroles, mud pots, and boiling pools.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

28. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 551,303
Percent of total national park visits: .81%

Located in North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s dominating feature is the badlands which are colorful, rolling hills consisting of rock that are millions of years old. Erosion and other natural processes like lightning strikes and prairie fires continue to shape the badlands today. The park is of course named for the U.S. president who first came to the Dakotas in 1883 to hunt bison.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

24. Saguaro National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 762,226
Percent of total national park visits: 1.12%

As its name suggests, Saguaro National Park in Arizona protects giant saguaro cacti, a symbol of the American West. The average lifespan of one of these cacti is 125 years old and it produces sweet fruits. The park is also home to a variety of animals many of which can only be found in the southern part of the state including kangaroo rats, roadrunners, and horned lizards.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Sequoia National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 796,086
Percent of total national park visits: 1.17%

Sequoia National Park is adjacent to Kings Canyon National Park in California and was the first park established to protect a living organism: its native sequoia trees. Since World War II, Sequoia and Kings Canyon have been administered jointly. In 2014, Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the park for the first time in 100 years as part of a recovery effort for this endangered species.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Badlands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 916,932
Percent of total national park visits: 1.35%

The striking landscape of Badlands National Park in South Dakota contains one of the world’s richest fossil beds. At one point, it was home to the rhino and saber-toothed cat. The Badlands were formed nearly 70 million years ago by erosion and deposition of sediment when an ancient sea was located where today’s Great Plains are.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Capitol Reef National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 981,038
Percent of total national park visits: 1.44%

Capitol Reef National Park in Utah is famous for the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline extending almost 100 miles and considered a “wrinkle on the earth.” The fold was formed 50 to 70 million years ago as a warp in the Earth’s crust and erosion has exposed the fold at the surface. The park has some of the darkest night skies in the United States, so much so that it has been designated an International Dark Sky Park.

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

19. New River Gorge National Park & Preserve

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,054,374
Percent of total national park visits: 1.55%

New River Gorge National Park & Preserve consists of 70,000 acres along the New River, a whitewater river in southern West Virginia that despite its name is one of the oldest on the continent. From the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, the sides of the valley fall almost 900 feet into the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can go whitewater rafting or canoeing, rock climbing, bird watching, camping, hiking, or biking along an old railroad grade.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Arches National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,238,083
Percent of total national park visits: 1.82%

Arches National Park in Utah lives up to its name and has more than 2,000 natural stone arches, the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world. These sandstone geological formations are the result of erosion and a thick layer of salt beneath the rock surface. The arches are impermanent, however; the 71-foot Wall Arch collapsed in 2008.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Bryce Canyon National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,655
Percent of total national park visits: 2.16%

Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah has the world’s largest collection of hoodoos, pillars of rock left standing after erosion. Bryce Canyon contains a series of natural amphitheaters and bowls, the most famous being Bryce Amphitheater which is full of the park’s iconic hoodoos. The park is one of three national parks to house the Grand Staircase geological formation which is a giant sequence of sedimentary rock layers.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Shenandoah National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,666,265
Percent of total national park visits: 2.45%

Just 75 miles from the nation’s capital, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia showcases the Blue Ridge Mountains and is home to 90 perennial streams, many of which turn into cascading waterfalls. While many native species have been lost over time, today the park has more than 200 bird species, 50 mammal species, and more than 35 fish species. The park is popular with hikers with 500 miles of trails including 101 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Joshua Tree National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,399,542
Percent of total national park visits: 3.53%

Joshua Tree National Park in California was named after its picturesque, spiky Joshua trees. Mormon immigrants named the trees after the biblical Joshua after noticing that the limbs looked as if they were outstretched in prayer. Many of the park’s animals including Scott’s orioles, wood rats, and desert night lizards depend on the tree for food and shelter. Keys View in the park offers an incredible view of the Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, and San Jacinto.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Grand Canyon National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,897,098
Percent of total national park visits: 4.26%

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is synonymous with its world-famous canyon that is 18 miles wide and 1 mile deep. The park encompasses more than 1 million acres and consists of raised plateaus and structural basins. The Grand Canyon is considered one of the best examples of arid land erosion in the world. It has a rich and diverse fossil record and the land offers a detailed record of three out of the four geological eras.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Zion National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 3,591,254
Percent of total national park visits: 5.29%

Zion National Park was Utah’s first national park and is famous for its landscape of giant colorful sandstone cliffs. Around 12,000 years ago the first people to visit this land tracked mammoths, giant sloths, and camels until those animals died about 8,000 years ago. Because of the range in elevation in the park, it has more than 1,000 diverse plant species.

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

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 12,095,720
Percent of total national park visits: 17.81%

Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee is the most biodiverse park in the National Park system with more than 19,000 documented species. The Smokies are among the oldest mountain ranges in the world. On average, more than 85 inches of rain falls in the park each year fueling 2,100 miles of streams and rivers that flow through the park.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Memorial Day 2021: Best Arizona Road Trips for the Long Holiday Weekend

Here are a few places to visit in Arizona as you plan your Memorial Day getaway

Memorial Day weekend kicks off the traditional summer travel season. This year there is even more pent-up yearning than normal. Everyone is eager to get out of town. Road trips are the hot new summer accessory.

Fortunately, Arizona is a road trip nirvana. The nation’s sixth-largest state by area, Arizona covers nearly 114,000 square miles. Most population centers are found in clustered bunches leaving vast tracts of backcountry for exploring. A number of small towns add character and keep travelers gassed up and well-fed.

Here are a few getaways to get you going on Memorial Day weekend and into the summer months.

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

Vibrant badlands of the Painted Desert spread across the northern portion of the park while trees turned to stone—trees that once shaded dinosaurs—lay undisturbed amid the hills and hoodoos of the southern half. Welcome to Triassic Park.

Crystal Forest Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fossils of the plants and animals unearthed here tell the story of a time when the world was young. Just as important to the casual visitor this area is set amid rolling plains and brilliantly colored badlands beneath a vast blue sky.

During the Triassic period, this was a humid forested basin. Crocodile-like reptiles, giant amphibians, and small dinosaurs roamed among towering trees and leafy ferns. As the trees died they were washed into the swamps and buried beneath volcanic ash where the woody tissue was replaced by dissolved silica eventually forming petrified wood.

Blue Mesa Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest lies a short distance east of Holbrook and can be accessed from Interstate 40 or U.S. 180. Take the 28-mile scenic drive that cuts north to south connecting park highlights from roadside vistas to historic sites to hiking trails. Don’t miss Blue Mesa, a short loop trail skirting colorful badlands. Some of the best displays of petrified logs can be seen along the short Crystal Forest Trail.

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

Grand Canyon North Rim

Make this the summer you visit the other side of the Big Ditch. The North Rim reopened on May 15 for its summer season. This isn’t your typical high country getaway. The North Rim is defined not just by elevation but by isolation. This is an alpine outback of sun-dappled forests of ponderosa pines, blue spruce, Douglas firs, and aspens interrupted by lush meadows and wildflowers.

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

If you’ve only visited the South Rim you may be surprised by the lack of crowds at the North Rim. A quiet serenity is normal on this side of the trench. It rises 1,000 feet higher than its southern counterpart and you’ll likely see more elk and deer than tour groups. There are no helicopter rides, no shuttle buses, and no bustling village. Of the millions of people who visit Grand Canyon National Park each year less than 10 percent make it to the North Rim.

Even the journey is part of the adventure. State Route 67 from Jacob Lake to the park entrance is a National Scenic Byway as it traverses a stunning mix of broad forests and lush meadows. During your visit enjoy hiking trails, scenic drives, and forested solitude.

Montezuma Castle © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot national monuments

Follow ancient paths when you visit the national monuments of the Verde Valley amid remnants of Sinagua culture. The Sinagua were Ancestral Puebloan people who flourished in central Arizona from about 600 to 1425. They left behind art, artifacts, and architecture.

Sycamore tree at Montezuma Castle © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built into a high limestone balcony, the 20-room Montezuma Castle near Camp Verde is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the U.S. A paved trail meanders beneath the shade of graceful sycamore trees and leads to scenic viewpoints of the towering abode.

It was inhabited from about 1100 to 1425 with occupation peaking around 1300. The people farmed the rich floodplain nearby. Many of the original ceiling beams are still intact even though they were installed more than 800 years ago. Early settlers believed the castle was built by Aztec emperor Montezuma and the name stuck.

Montezuma Well © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be sure to visit Montezuma Well, a detached unit of the national monument 11 miles away. The natural limestone sinkhole pumps out 1.5 million gallons of water each day from an underground spring. Several cliff dwellings perch along the rocky rim of the well and the remnants of a prehistoric canal can still be seen.

Tuzigoot © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument is a more interactive experience since you can walk around the village. Situated between Clarkdale and Cottonwood the remnants of this Sinagua pueblo crown a hilltop overlooking the Verde River. The terraced 110-room village was built between 1125 and 1400.

Walk the loop trail to savor wraparound views of the lush Verde Valley framed by rising mountains. The National Park Service has restored a two-story room at Tuzigoot (Apache for “crooked water”) so visitors can admire the building techniques and materials.

Santa Rita Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sky Islands

Arizona truly is a land of extremes. Temperatures vary from place to place and even day tonight. Few geographic formations in the world illustrate this stark climactic contrast better than Sky Islands. Visitors to Southern Arizona are often struck by these vast mountain ranges rising suddenly out of the desert and grasslands. Saguaro, prickly pear, and ocotillo rapidly give way to a coniferous forest and a much cooler climate. Usually 6,000–8,000 feet in elevation these majestic mountains emerge from a sea of desert scrub.

Chirichua Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Sky Island is defined as a mountain that is separated from other mountains by distance and by surrounding lowlands of a dramatically different environment. As the mountain increases in elevation, ecosystem zones change at different elevations. Coronado National Forest protects the twelve Sky Islands of Southwestern Arizona. These Sky Island ranges include the Chiricahua Mountains, Whetstone Mountains, Huachuca Mountains, Galiuro Mountans, Dragoon Mountains, Pinaleño Mountains, Santa Catalina Mountains, Rincon Mountains, and Santa Rita Mountains. The tallest of these areas are the Pinaleño Mountains rising to 10,720 feet above the Gila River near the town of Safford.

Mount Lemmon Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thanks to their rapid gain in elevation, Sky Island peaks remain temperate even in the fiercest summer heat. When Tucson’s mercury climbs above 100 degrees in summer months, the 9,157-foot summit of Mount Lemmon offers respite to overheated fauna (including the human variety) with temperatures that rarely exceed 80 degrees.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

America’s 10 Most Popular National Parks, Ranked

The United States is currently home to 63 national parks and you genuinely won’t find a dud among them. But that doesn’t mean some parks aren’t better than others.

The 10 most popular parks might be the easiest to access, but if you’re still hedging your bets on where to take a road trip, we’ve ranked them from good to greatest.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For many living in big cities, the sad truth is that the only time they remember there are parts of America not covered in condos, big box stores, and fast-food outlets is when they’re Instagramming them from 36,000 feet. Which is also when many think to themselves, “Wow, I wish I could see all that beauty up close and without a plane wing in my way.”

Well, turns out, there is! It’s called the National Parks Service. And you can RV there and take in all that awesome beauty.

And as a reminder of the scope of America’s awe-inspiring natural beauty (and its 63-strong national parks created by the coolest dude ever from New York), we thought it’d be fun to take 10 of the most-visited parks in 2020 and rank them by their level of adventure and sheer, mind-blowing spectacle. Turns out, yes, it was fun.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park (California)

If you ever wondered what your pet iguana feels like when he looks up at you, visit the second-oldest national park in America. Here, outside Visalia, California, not only can you look up at the biggest tree in the world (the 275-foot tall, 60-foot wide General Sherman) but also at five of the 10 largest trees in the world. They’re not easy to get to though: 84 percent of the park doesn’t have roads and is only accessible on foot or horseback.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park (Arizona)

You know those comically oversized cacti Wile E. Coyote used to fall into? Those are modeled after the giant Saguaro cactus the most distinct feature is this park straddling the city of Tucson. The park, created to preserve the cacti, boasts some great hikes. Even during mild weather, a trek into nature here can take you up 5,000 feet of elevation in 15 miles of desert. Driving Saguaro will take you through a Western landscape that’s unmistakably Arizona.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)

Along the densely populated mid-Atlantic, no national park makes a faster, prettier escape to nature than this one. The main attraction here is Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains and offers sweeping views of the valley and, in fall, an explosion of insane colors. It’s also home to a big chunk of the Appalachian Trail if you’re feeling extra ambitious.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park (New Mexico)

Remember how fun it was to play in the sand as a kid? It’s still pretty fun, as it turns out. And the sandbox is a lot bigger at White Sands National Park, a system of rare white gypsum sand dunes (largest gypsum dune field in the world) intertwined with raised boardwalk trails and a single loop road. Sunset and sunrise are obviously the golden hours for photographers but any time is a good time for some sand-dune sledding, kite-flying, and back-country camping.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona)

Petrified Forest is known for its treasure trove of fossilized logs, exposed after eons of erosion by wind and water. About 60 million years ago, tectonic action pushed the Colorado Plateau upwards, exposing the layers of rock containing the park’s Triassic fossils. The park is composed of two sections: the north section is a colorful badlands called the Painted Desert and the southern section contains most of the petrified wood. The park consists of a 28-mile road that offers numerous overlooks and winds through the mesas and wilderness. Visitors can also choose to hike a variety of trails ranging from easy to difficult.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park (California)

The only national park to get its very own U2 album named after it has exploded in popularity over the past decade, now the 10th most-visited park with 2.4 million visitors. They’re not coming in droves to see if the streets do, in fact, have no name. They’re coming because Joshua Tree boasts perhaps the best collection of rock-climbing faces in the US. The desert park also has 501 archeological sites, and is home to the lower Coachella Valley, making it a popular day trip for snowbirds and music festival goers.  

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee, North Carolina)

The MOST VISITED PARK IN AMERICA spans four counties across two states and runs through part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Accessible from both Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina, the park has more than 1,660 different kinds of flowering plants—the most of any national park. Its highest point is Clingman’s Dome, where a 50-foot observation deck allows visitors to soak in some spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding beauty. More than 12 million annual visitors make it nearly four times as busy as the second-place Yellowstone.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park (Utah)

Give whoever named this park credit: they didn’t mince words. This 120-square-mile national treasure outside Moab is all about arches, 2,000 of them in fact. All formed from millions of years of sandstone erosion. The most famous is the Delicate Arch, a 65-footer that you might recognize from playing the license plate game back when—and yes, it’s on the Utah tag.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park (Utah)

Ask anyone to name Utah’s five National Parks and odds are Capitol Reef is the one they forget among its arched-and-canyoned cousins. You should remember Capitol Reef for the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile wrinkle in the earth and a feature you won’t find elsewhere in the state. It’s also been designated as a “Gold Tier” Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association so camping here will yield some of the prettiest stars you’ve ever seen. At just under a million visitors last year, it offers much of the red rocks and striking geology of other Utah parks, without the crowds.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

John Wesley Powell said it best, “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself.” A universally recognizable iconic destination, Grand Canyon National Park is a true marvel of nature that’s on every RVer’s bucket list. A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. A deep gorge carved by the Colorado River about seventeen million year ago, the Grand Canyon stretches for more than 250 miles and is up to 18 miles in width and more than a mile deep in some areas.

Worth Pondering…

Adventure is worthwhile.

―Aesop

The 10 Best Hiking Trails in America’s National Parks

Explore the best trails in some of the world’s most beautiful parks

From colorful badlands to cavernous canyons and old-growth wetlands, the National Park Service boasts incredible diversity when it comes to hiking trails. Whether you’re looking for an intense mountain ascent or an easy forest stroll, bucket list-worthy hikes come in all shapes, sizes, styles, and lengths. Here are 10 national park trails that belong on your must-hike itinerary.

Know your limits, pace yourself, and pay attention to how you are feeling. Your safety is your responsibility. Your tomorrow depends on the decisions that you make today.

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

Blue Mesa Loop in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Do you want to view a landscape that is out of this world? If your answer is yes then the Blue Mesa Loop Trail is sure to please. This mile long trail takes you into a landscape brushed in blue where you will find cone-shaped hills banded in a variety of colors and intricately eroded into unique patterns. Descending from the mesa this alternately paved and gravel trail loop offers the unique experience of hiking among petrified wood as well as these badland hills. The trail descends 100 feet below the rim and can be a little steep in places.

Boardwalk Loop, Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Boardwalk Loop in Congaree National Park, South Carolina

This hike, though it’s really more of a walk, features an elevated boardwalk through old-growth swampland. Though the lush, green trees are beautiful in their own right the trail really shines at night (literally!) when thousands of fireflies come out and fill the area. For photographers, the trail is exceptionally beautiful at sunrise when both the boardwalk and bald cypress trees take on golden early-morning hues. Wildlife like deer and wild pigs can also be seen in the area for those willing to sit silently for a few minutes You’ll definitely want mosquito repellant, especially in the summer months.

Manzanita Lake Loop, Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Manzanita Lake Loop in Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

While much of the attention at this serene California park is drawn to its namesake Lassen Peak, a worthwhile trek for ardent day-hikers, there’s a more leisurely and accessible option that affords some of the most striking vistas in the park. Manzanita Lake is a tranquil, shimmering oasis in the northwestern portion of Lassen Volcanic offering a peaceful 1.8-mile loop trail around pristine, bright-blue water. From certain vantage points, the views of Lassen Peak are incomparable and the jaunt through dense forest feels downright rejuvenating for the soul.

Rim Trail, Grand Canyon N ational Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rim Trail in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Any section of the Rim Trail serves up jaw-dropping looks into the Grand Canyon but the unpaved section between Powell Point and Monument Creek is a dirt path and feels more like a genuine hike than its paved sections. But what’s underfoot doesn’t matter as much as what lies just beyond—canyons within canyons and cauldrons of rapids far below. Head to Maricopa Point by park shuttle to start the hike then take the shuttle back from Hermits Rest to Grand Canyon Village when you’re done.

Fairyland Loop, Bryce Canyon National Park

Fairyland Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

If you don’t know what a hoodoo is you’ll know after crossing this spectacular hike’s eight miles of hoodoo-covered trails. These unique rock columns can be found throughout the trail eventually culminating in Fairyland Canyon, a valley of staggeringly large and vast formations as tall as 150 feet. The colorful hoodoos are some of the brightest and most unusual in the park giving the whole area an otherworldly feel. Because of this trail’s length and constant up and downs it’s one of the least crowded hikes in the park.

Big Trees Trail, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Big Trees Trail in Sequoia National Park, California
Located next to the Giant Forest Museum, the Big Trees Trail is one of the best short and easy hikes you can do in Sequoia. This loop trail takes you completely around the meadow and provides impressive views of numerous massive sequoias as well as the beautiful meadow itself.

From the museum follow a paved path on a ridge above the road. In a few hundred feet, the path will cross the road as you near the meadow. From here the trail does a loop around the meadow which you can start in either direction. The path is paved or in some places a wooden bridge when it gets marshy. Allow 1 hour round trip.

Lower Bear Gulch Cave Trail, Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lower Bear Gulch Cave Trail in Pinnacles National Park, California

One of America’s newer national parks is one of the smallest at just over 26,000 acres but that doesn’t mean there isn’t space to get lost in its stunning terrain. The easy Lower Bear Gulch Cave trail takes hikers under moss-covered boulders and across alpine springs often at the same time. This short trail passes through strikingly angular rock formations before dipping down through Bear Gulch Cave—be sure to bring a flashlight. After you’ve hiked through Lower Bear Gulch you can double back and take a higher route past the 300 foot Monolith rock pinnacle, one of the largest in the park.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hawksbill Loop Trail in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

At just 3 miles in length, the Hawksbill Loop Trail in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park may not seem very long but it packs plenty of punch. The route wanders along part of the legendary Appalachian Trail on its way up to the top of Hawksbill—the highest point in the park at just over 4,000 feet. Along the way hikers can spot wildlife as they work their way up to the summit where they’ll discover a stone platform that offers views of thick forests and rolling hills that stretch to the horizon. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park offers a wide range of hiking opportunities with something suitable for every age and experience level during every month of the year. The Narrows is the most popular hike in Zion and one of the best slot canyon hikes anywhere. It is pure fun and can be tailored to suit any ability level. The trail is basically the Virgin River. The canyon is so narrow the river covers the bottom in many spots which means you have to wade or swim to proceed. The cool water makes this hike particularly pleasant during the hot months of summer.

Landscape Arch, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Devil’s Garden Hike and Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park in southeast Utah is a day-hikers paradise. The park is one of Southern Utah’s most famous hiking destinations with an easily accessible network of trails that often culminate right at the base of an impressive sandstone arch. The Devil’s Garden Loop is at the far end of the park where the main road terminates. This is a 7.2-mile trail with some wonderful rock scenery and eight arches along the route. This is one of the more difficult hikes in the park with some scrambles over slickrock and exposed ledges. However, you don’t necessarily need to do the entire loop to experience some of the attractions in this area.  A 1.6-mile round-trip hike on relatively flat ground will take you to Landscape Arch which spans more than the length of a football field. Also in the same area are Navajo Arch and Partition Arch. Both of these hikes leave from the Devils Garden Trailhead.

Worth Pondering…

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

—Edward Abbey

Yes, these are the Most Visited National Parks in 2020

Outdoor experiences provided refuge from the pandemic for 237 million visitors to America’s national parks in 2020

While some people will spend their summer at the beach, many families will head out this summer to experience some of the great National Parks that America has to offer. Last year’s COVID closures resulted in fewer visitors but with people seeking outdoor activities many folks visited at least one National Park Service (NPS) site. Although overall visitation dropped, a number of parks experienced record crowds and welcomed new visitors. Trails, overlooks, and open spaces provided safe ways for visitors to recreate responsibly, get some fresh air, and stay active.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“This past year has reminded us how important national parks and public lands are to overall wellbeing,” said NPS Deputy Director Shawn Benge. “Throughout the country, national parks provided close-to-home opportunities for people to spend much needed time outdoors for their physical and psychological health.”

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The coronavirus pandemic has affected nearly every National Park Service operation and parks continue to work with public health officials to navigate changing conditions. A maximum 66 of the 423 parks of the National Park System were fully closed for two months or more. The majority of parks—particularly those with outdoor spaces—remained accessible to the public. Just a handful of historic and cultural parks, primarily historic homes with limited indoor space, remain closed.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Additional information from the 2020 visitation report includes:

  • Recreation visitor hours dipped from 1.4 billion in 2019 to 1.05 billion in 2020, a 26 percent decrease
  • 15 parks set a new recreation visitation record in 2020
  • Five parks broke a visitation record they set in 2019
  • Blue Ridge Parkway claimed the title of most-visited site in the National Park System
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park maintained its long-running position as the most visited National Park in 2020, a position it has held since 1944
  • Grand Canyon National Park dropped from the second-most visited national park—a position it held for 30 years—to the sixth most-visited
  • Yellowstone National Park moved from the sixth most-visited national park in 2019 to second most-visited—a position it has not held since 1947
  • Four parks began reporting official visitor statistics for the first time: Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, and Valles Caldera National Preserve
Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2020 by the numbers

  • 237,064,332 recreation visits
  • 1,054,952,540 recreation visitor hours
  • 8,039,768 overnight stays (recreation + non-recreation)
  • Three parks had more than 10 million recreation visits—Blue Ridge Parkway, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • Seven parks had more than five million recreation visits—down from 11 parks in 2019
  • 60 parks had more than one million recreation visits (15 percent of reporting parks)—down from 80 parks in 2019
  • 19 national parks had more than one million recreation visits (30 percent of National Parks)
  • 25 percent of total recreation visits occurred in the top six most-visited parks (1.5 percent of all parks in the National Park System
  • 50 percent of total recreation visits occurred in the top 23 most-visited parks (6 percent of all parks in the National Park System)
Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top 10 most visited NPS sites

Blue Ridge Parkway (14,099,485)

Golden Gate National Recreation Area (12,400,045)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (12,095,720)

Gateway National Recreation Area (8,404,728)

Lake Mead National Recreation Area (8,016,510)

George Washington Memorial Parkway (6,237,391)

Natchez Trace Parkway (6,124,808)

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park (4,888,436)

Cape Cod National Seashore (4,083,505)

Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (4,068,529)

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top 10 most visited national parks

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (12,095,720)

Yellowstone National Park (3,806,306)

Zion National Park (3,591,254)

Rocky Mountain National Park (3,305,199)

Grand Teton National Park (3,289,638 million)

Grand Canyon National Park (2,897,098)

Cuyahoga Valley National Park (2,755,628)

Acadia National Park (2,669,034)

Olympic National Park (2,499,177)

Joshua Tree National Park (2,399,542)

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit lesser-known national parks

Every national park-lover needs to visit Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, and the Grand Canyon at some point but consider visiting some of the lesser-known parks as well. One of my favorite “sleeper” parks is Petrified Forest in Arizona where you’ll find remains of a colorful prehistoric forest, some of the logs more than 100 feet long and up to 10 feet in diameter. But there’s so much more: artifacts of the ancient indigenous people who lived here including the remains of large pueblos and massive rock art panels, fossils of plants and animals from the late Triassic period (the dawn of the dinosaurs), a striking and vast painted desert (a badland cloaked in a palette of pastel colors), a remnant of historic Route 66 complete with a 1932 Studebaker, and a wilderness of more than 50,000 acres where you can find wildness, beauty, and quiet.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other favorites include Congaree in South Carolina (the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeast) and California’s remote Lassen Volcanic, one of the only places in the world that has all four types of volcanoes—cinder cone, composite, shield, and plug dome.

Go outside, spring is for feeling alive in national parks.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

Five National Parks to Visit on the Ultimate Southwestern Desert Road Trip

Every destination has a story, no matter how small

When compared to lush tropical forests or sweeping grasslands, deserts may not seem like the most welcoming habitat to plan a trip around. However, a closer study of these vast expanses of earth and sand reveals a world of boundless opportunity with activities to suit any traveler. For those who wish to trek amidst remarkable rock formations, observe some of nature’s hardiest creatures, and gaze skyward towards a brilliant mosaic of stars and planets, the vast deserts of the southwestern U.S. are a paradise on earth.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is located in the remote reaches of southern Utah near the town of Bryce (convenient, eh?). Weather-wise, Bryce Canyon makes the mercury mercurial, with big temp shifts from season to season and even day to day. This is due to Bryce’s dizzying elevation—a cool 8,000–9,000 feet—and makes it a much cooler park than nearby Zion.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In spite of the name, there’s no single canyon in Bryce “Canyon”—the region is actually made up of multiple natural amphitheatres, many of which are rife with thin stone spires referred to as “hoodoos”. The park is packed with trails suited for amateur and experienced hikers alike. Even if you’re not keen on exploring the great outdoors, make sure to stop at Sunrise Point—this overlook provides an all-encompassing view of the park in all its glory.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Roughly 250 million years ago, the state we now know as New Mexico was covered in a shallow expanse of water known as the Permian Sea with layer upon layer of dissolved gypsum sinking to the sea floor over the years. Fast-forward to the modern era and this prehistoric sea has dried up leaving the largest gypsum dunefield on earth in its wake.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though the 145,000-acre expanse of pillowy sand is the main attraction around here, be sure to make a pitstop at the park’s visitor center for an introduction to the inner workings of the harsh desert ecosystem. A surprising amount of nocturnal insects, reptiles, and mammals call the park home today, but some of the most fascinating beasts in the area died out millions of years ago. Though you can’t see them in person, keep a close eye on the sand around you—fossilized footprints of giant ground sloths, dire wolves, and saber-toothed cats have been discovered buried just below the earth.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this particular preserve in eastern Arizona comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transmuted into colorful slabs of stone through a process called “permineralization”. Jasper Forest and Crystal Forest are two popular sites for encountering masses of petrified wood, but the park has more to offer than just former trees.

Painted Desert in Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks. It’s like you’ve been transported into a painting. The park is also a fascinating destination for archeology buffs with multiple sites containing relics from bygone indigenous civilizations that once thrived here.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Encompassing portions of both the Colorado and Mojave deserts, this world-famous preserve consists of over 790,000 acres making it larger than the state of Rhode Island. While the park earned its name thanks to an abundance of spiky Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia), there are hundreds of desert species that call the area home ranging from tiny toads to roadrunners to bobcats.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is home to a wide array of hiking trails for daytime visitors but overnight campers are in for a special treat—Joshua Tree’s location in the remote reaches of interior California ensures an incredible view of the stars on a clear night.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Yearning to see towering, giant saguaros in their native environment? Saguaro National Park protects and preserves a giant saguaro cactus forest that stretches across the valley floor near Tucson. Unique to the Sonoran Desert, the park’s giant saguaros reach as high as 50 feet and can live longer than 200 years.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to a broad expanse of desert, Saguaro National Park features mountainous regions—some reaching more than 8,000 feet above sea level. These varied landscapes provide ideal habitats for a wide range of flora and fauna including wildlife such as javelina, coyote, quail, and desert tortoise in the lower elevations and black bear, deer, and Mexican spotted owl in the upper elevations

Worth Pondering…

We use the word wilderness, but perhaps we mean wildness. Isn’t that why I’ve come here? In wilderness I seek the wildness in myself and in so doing come on the wildness everywhere around me. Because, after all, being part of nature I’m cut from the same cloth.

—Gretel Ehrlich in Waterfall