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

Oft-Overlooked National Parks to Escape the Crowds

They might not be as famous as Great Smoky Mountains or the Grand Canyon but these five often overlooked parks are perfect for experiencing the great outdoors

As humans, we crave nature. Nature has been proven to be “deeply powerful and healing for our minds, bodies, and souls.” In fact, research from Harvard Medical School has found that mood disorders can be alleviated by spending more time outdoors. Nature also helps with pain and post-operative recovery, calms ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), and decreases the risk for certain health problems. Despite all the benefits that spending time in nature boasts, people are spending less time outside than ever before.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A study conducted by The Nature of Americans National Report found that over half of adults reported spending five hours or less in nature each week. Parents of children ages 8 through 12 said that their children spent three times as much time using technology than they did playing outside. In comparison, there were 1 billion fewer outdoor excursions such as hikes and climbs, in 2018 than in 2008.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prior to the pandemic, the reasons why people spent so much more time indoors ranged from work to technology to a cost of entry. However, with so many people now spending the majority of their time at home, this is the perfect time to explore nature.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks are timeless and fun because the parks have been preserved and kept to their natural states as much as possible. There are 62 national parks in the United States across 29 states and two territories. The possibilities of being one or more national parks in your state or nearby are high.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They are also very affordable. Usually, the average entrance ticket to a national park is $30 per vehicle while the annual pass is only $80. The annual pass covers entrance fees to all 419 units within the National Park Service although only 109 charge an entrance fee.

Following are five often-overlooked national parks where you can escape the crowds.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The active but sleeping volcano is the high point of a lively wilderness environment. Across 160,000 acres, elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape decorated by jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and of course, volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area as well from where bubbling activity still appears, reminding us of the region’s stormy past.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Swampy land may not be the first place on your list to roam but Congaree National Park is beautiful in its own way. The park preserves the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. It is estimated that 70 to 95 percent of bottomland hardwood forests were destroyed from the start of European settlement to the present. Congaree is the last of the hardwood forests that once stretched across the eastern US. The park has one of the highest concentrations of champion trees in the world. Champion trees are the largest trees of its specific specimen and Congaree holds 15 of them.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this preserve comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transformed into colorful slabs of stone. 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.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shaped like giant waves, the dunes in the park are part of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. The area was once part of the Permian Sea where an ancient lake evaporated and left the gypsum deposits behind. Tucked away in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, the park offers plenty to do. If you just want to see the dunes without getting dusty you can drive the eight-mile-long Dunes Drive. But the best way to explore is by hiking, horseback, or biking—and don’t miss out on the thrill of sledding down the soft white sand (you can bring your own plastic snow saucers or buy them at the gift shop).

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unusual, elaborate cliffs and canyons shape the landscape of Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold, the second largest monocline in North America, extends for nearly 100 miles and appears as a bizarre “wrinkle” in the Earth’s crust. Red-rock canyons, ridges, buttes, and sandstone monoliths create a 387-mile outdoor retreat for hikers, campers, photographers, and rock climbers.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 Some of the natural wonders created by Mother Nature are just a road trip away, so take the time this autumn to enjoy the great outdoors. National parks are an integral element of America. They offer rich histories, a wide selection of different environments, and a much-needed breath of fresh air. National parks will help you get in touch with your wild side, and who knows? It might just teach you a thing or two about the healing powers of the natural world, too.

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

The Wonderful National Parks of the West

Out west, the landscapes are vast and beautiful. There’s no place better to check them out than at these National Parks.

Magnificent mountains, diverse forests, and unusual geological features are among the significant features found in the National Parks of the West. These extraordinary landscapes are great places to enjoy outdoor recreation, to learn about nature and history, and to savor a scenic driving tour.

These areas give you a chance to get back to nature, explore the wilderness, and gaze up at pristine night skies. The western United States has a plethora of National Parks and each one is distinct and unique. We don’t expect you to visit all 12 straight away, we’ll give you some time…

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

It’s iconic. It’s dramatic. It’s historic. One mile deep and 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon is a mesmerizing force of nature. One of the world’s seven natural wonders, it’s almost overwhelming to stand at the South Rim at dusk and watch rose-hued rock faces turn a fiery burnished bronze.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park is characterized by its pinnacles, rock fins, and 2,000 gravity-defying arches. The spans of these natural stone wonders range from three feet across to 290 feet in the case of Landscape Arch, but the most famous of all is the 52 foot-tall Delicate Arch—so iconic it appears on Utah license plates.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Arches’ nearby neighbor, Canyonlands invites you to explore a wilderness of countless canyons and fantastically formed buttes carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Rivers divide the park into four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Unusual, elaborate cliffs and canyons shape the landscape of Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold, the second largest monocline in North America, extends for nearly 100 miles and appears as a bizarre “wrinkle” in the Earth’s crust. Red-rock canyons, ridges, buttes, and sandstone monoliths create a 387-mile outdoor retreat for hikers, campers, photographers, and rock climbers.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

The park’s namesake tree, the Joshua tree, is an admired inhabitant that resembles something you might find in a Dr. Seuss book. For years, novice and expert climbers have ventured to the park to climb giant, sculpted slabs of rock while hikers explore the vast desert terrain.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

At first glance, you might wonder where the forest went. Stone log fragments litter an otherwise drab section of the high desert. However, this span of desert was once a lush, green, forested oasis with 200-foot conifers and was ruled by dinosaurs. Of the 50,000 acres of designated wilderness, the brilliantly-colored petrified wood, impressive fossils, and the Painted Desert incite the most excitement.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde is the only national park dedicated solely to human endeavor and houses some of the largest and most important cliff dwellings in the world. Built by the Ancestral Puebloans, the known archeological sites number more than 5,000 and include mesa-top pueblos and masonry towers, as well as intricate, multi-storey dwellings wedged beneath overhanging cliffs. 

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Aside from being home to the world’s largest tree (by volume) and protecting vast areas of towering inland redwoods, a big part of Sequoia’s appeal is that it isn’t all that crowded. Take a stroll under the big trees in the Giant Forest, view wildlife in Crescent Meadows, climb to the top of Moro Rock.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Drive along the Badlands Loop Road to experience magnificent craggy buttes, pinnacles, and spires that seem to surprise the surrounding prairie grasslands. This Mars-like landscape has several accessible trails and overlooks including the Pinnacles Overlook, Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, and Fossil Exhibit Trail.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Just two trails (and an elevator) exist for hikers hoping to explore Carlsbad Caverns on their own. The Big Room Trail, the largest single chamber by volume in North America can be accessed via a 1.25-mile trail or a .6-mile shortcut. The relatively flat terrain weaves through a series of curious hanging stalactites and passes through park gems like the Hall of Giants, Bottomless Pit, and Crystal Spring Dome.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Home of the hoodoos, Bryce Canyon is much more than a single sandstone canyon. Here, you’ll find the largest concentration of eroded auburn spires, or hoodoos, on Earth. Sunset, Sunrise, Inspiration, and Bryce viewpoints are the spots to hit for the best views in the shortest amount of time.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Just when you thought the scenery couldn’t get any better, Zion comes along and blows your socks off. Carved by the Virgin River, the landscape is a geological masterpiece, defined by its canyons, plateaus, and soaring sandstone cliffs. But it’s the variety, not just the magnitude that gives the park its grandeur.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Scientific Wonders at National Parks

From ancient rivers to a sleeping volcanoes take in scientific wonders at national parks

Interest in national parks is booming, with crowd-wary Americans drawn to wide open spaces and natural beauty. But the preserves are also a great place for learning, fantastic laboratories for getting up close to the natural world. Here are some of my favorite sites.

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

Come for the Great Diversity of Life: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Steady rain and a long growing season have created a dense forest in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Variations in elevation, rainfall, temperature, and geology in these ancient mountains provide ideal habitat for over 1,600 species of flowering plants including 100 native tree species and over 100 native shrub species.

Palm Oasis in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See Where Earthquakes Begin at the San Andreas Fault: Joshua Tree National Park, California

The geological formation responsible for many California earthquakes passes by the south side of this desert park and connects with many of the region’s faults. Visitors can see evidence in small fan palm oases which formed when seismic activity dammed groundwater and forced it to the surface. When you see water, it’s the result of massive underground activity.

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

Climb a Grand Staircase: Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, Arizona and Utah

The Grand Staircase is an immense sequence of sedimentary rock layers that stretch south from Bryce Canyon National Park through Zion National Park and into the Grand Canyon. In the 1870s, geologist Clarence Dutton first conceptualized this region as a huge stairway ascending out of the bottom of the Grand Canyon northward with the cliff edge of each layer forming giant steps. What makes the Grand Staircase worldly unique is that it preserves more Earth history than any other place on our planet.

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

Be Transported into a Painting: Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this preserve comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transformed into colorful slabs of stone. 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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See Ancient Rivers and Mammal Ancestors: Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Not only is the geology and scenery dramatic at this park, but so is its fossil history. The area includes the remains of an ancient river system. This is one of the richest fossil assemblies on the face of the planet. You can walk down almost any trail and if you can see little bits of fossils everywhere, lots of fragments and teeth.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go Birding and See Cave Swallows: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Carlsbad is famous for its nightly bat emergence, but the mammals aren’t the only ones who call the grotto home. Cave swallows living just inside the cavern can be seen swooping around during the day, but must get home before the bats crowd the cavern on their way out. You can easily see them in the warmer months. And 750 feet underground, the stalactites hang from the ceiling and the stalagmites rise up from the ground.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike 500 Miles of Trails: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Stretching more than a hundred miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, Shenandoah National Park offers a patchwork quilt of wilderness and pastoral landscapes. Skyline Drive rides along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and through the heart of the park. Along the 105-mile stretch which climbs to 3,680 feet above sea level, you’ll have the opportunity to pull off the road at 75 scenic overlooks and take part in an array of recreational activities—from hiking, horseback riding, and rock climbing.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come for the Turbulent Landscape: Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

The active but sleeping volcano is the high point of a lively wilderness environment. Across 160,000 acres, elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape decorated by jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and of course, volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area as well from where bubbling activity still appears, reminding us of the region’s stormy past.

Worth Pondering…

There is something very special about the natural world, and each trip outdoors is like an unfinished book just waiting for you to write your own chapter.

—Paul Thompson

Avoid the Crowds at Lesser Known National Parks

Escape the crowds and traffic jams at these lesser known national parks

The glories of the national park system draw hundreds of millions of visitors each year, even in normal times. But in this upside-down year, with the pandemic still limiting travel within and outside America, it’s likely the National Park Service’s 419 sites, 62 with a “national park” designation, will attract even more people looking to get away this summer.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For potential park-goers who wish to avoid these crowds (and this season, who doesn’t?), one strategy is to skip the Grand Canyon, the Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, and the other top 10 parks that typically receive the majority of visitors. There are alternatives that are awe-inspiring for your summer and fall fresh-air retreats, ones that offer many of the Top Ten’s sights, sounds, wildlife, and activities.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You may need to drive—isn’t that the reason you have an RV­—but these lesser-known crown jewels, all off the beaten path, are mercifully free of the large groups and vehicle traffic found in the more popular parks.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wherever you decide to go, remember that this is a new world. As the majority of on-site visitor centers remain closed, contacting the parks before your trip for up-to-date information and any necessary permits is recommended. For the parks’ main draws—the great outdoors—the reopenings are staggered and may be confusing; your desired destination may be limited to day-use, or welcome visitors during restricted hours. Local stores may be closed, too, so plan to bring food and needed supplies. Plan to arrive early to avoid crowds, limited parking, and the likelihood of being turned away at the gates.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But heading to a new park and taking these new precautions will be worth it as you breathe in the fresh air, stretch your legs on the trail, and rejuvenate in the natural world.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands, instead of Arches

Instead of ogling the sandstone formations in traffic-jammed Arches, opt for a wilderness desert experience amid the reddened Wingate sandstone in Canyonlands. Canyonlands is southwest of the tourist mecca of Moab, Utah. Most visitors take the Island in the Sky scenic drive with stops at the spectacular overlooks, but otherwise the 527-square-mile park has few roads. Hardier souls go for multiday paddles down the gentle Green River, which, after its confluence with the Colorado, plunges into Cataract Canyon.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When the desert begins to cool in August, hikers and canyoneers can lose themselves to wonder on trails and backcountry routes that pass Ancestral Puebloan art sites and ruins. And though it’s not widely known, Canyonlands has its own natural sandstone arches (more than 80). You just have to walk a good distance to see them.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Restrooms opened at the end of May along with backcountry trails for overnight use but the two visitor centers remain closed until further notice.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest, instead of the Grand Canyon

In east-central Arizona, 110 miles from Flagstaff, the Petrified Forest adjoins the Painted Desert, 7,500 square miles of badlands and hills tinted lavender and red by Triassic Age strata. The annual visitation of this park is one-tenth that of the nearby Grand Canyon.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Petrified Forest, a drive-through park, holds the greatest and most spectacular concentration of fossilized, coniferous tree logs in the world. Once a lush and subtropical climate, the forest of 200-foot-tall trees was buried by volcanic ash and preserved 225 million years ago.

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

Now petrified into waxy, bright quartz, the tree pieces lay scattered across the Painted Desert along with hundreds of plant and animal fossils including dinosaurs, reptiles, and ferns. The park also protects 1,000-year-old Ancestral Puebloan rock art. There are few trails, so hiking cross-country with map and compass is the optimal way to take in and discover the splendors of this park’s primordial remains.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reopened to limited day use last month, the park has a 28-mile paved road with turnoffs for viewpoints. Its visitor center and other facilities are likely to open after mid-July.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic, instead of Yellowstone or Yosemite

In place of the crowded Yellowstone or Yosemite a panorama of wildflowers, volcanic peaks, and steaming fumaroles can be seen at Lassen Volcanic. The 30-mile park highway reopened in late May along with most of the trails and overnight backcountry camping.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The still-smoking, glacier-clad Lassen Peak is one of only two volcanoes in the contiguous 48 states that erupted in the 20th century (Mount St. Helens erupted 40 years ago last month). Today, more than 100 years after magma first flowed from the Lassen Peak amateur volcanologists can delight in finding the remains of the four types of volcanoes: shield, cinder cone, strato, and plug.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 167-square-mile park is also crisscrossed with 150 miles of trails for day hikes or extended backcountry trips. These wind up through different plant zones to alpine lakes, and hikers can expect to see a wealth of wildlife, there are more than 300 vertebrate species alone. If you fly fish or paddleboard, check out Manzanita Lake.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree, instead of Great Smoky Mountains

Congaree, a park named after the original Native American inhabitants, was created in central South Carolina to preserve 15 different species of trees that are the tallest such specimens anywhere. These include the most statuesque loblolly pine in the world, towering 167 feet above the surrounding tupelo forest. Tree lovers know Congaree with only 159,445 visitors last year as the Redwoods of the East—this year it’s worth forgetting about nearby Great Smoky Mountains and its 12 million-plus visitors.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree reopened some of its hiking and paddling trails for day use on May 28, but the visitor center remains closed until further notice. It’s best to experience this floodplain park—locals will bristle if you call it a swamp—on the water paddling several different canoe trails or fishing for yellow perch or bass on its lakes. When the park offerings increase in its second phase of reopening, consider an overnight Congaree River paddle trip.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

The Real “Triassic” Park

The colorful rock layers of northeastern Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park form a visual display of eroded badlands, dating to the Triassic.

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.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The land below is awash in burnt sienna, deep maroon, dusty purple, and sprinkled here and there with green plants.

Petrified Forest, a surprising realm of fascinating landscape and science, was set aside as a national monument in 1906 to preserve and protect the petrified wood for its scientific value. The Painted Desert was added later, and in 1962, the entire monument received national park status.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is recognized today for having so much more, including a broad representation of the Late Triassic paleo-ecosystem, significant human history, clear night skies, fragile grasslands ecosystem, and unspoiled scenic vistas.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 200 million years ago, flourishing trees and vegetation covered much of this area of northeastern Arizona. But volcanic lava destroyed the forest, the logs washed into an ancient river system and were embedded into sediment comprised of volcanic ash and water. Oxygen was cut off and decay slowed to a process that would now take centuries.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Minerals, including silica dissolved from volcanic ash, absorbed into the porous wood over hundreds and thousands of years, and crystallized replacing the organic material as it broke down over time. Sometimes crushing or decay left cracks in the logs. Here large jewel-like crystals of clear quartz, purple amethyst, yellow citrine, and smoky quartz formed.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Erosion set the logs free millions of years later, revealing the petrified wood made mostly of quartz—that visitors to the park come to see.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though only seven species of tree have been identified through petrified wood, over 200 species of plants have currently been identified from other Triassic fossils, such as leaves, pollen, and spores.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way to enjoy and experience Petrified Forest National Park is on foot. Designated trails range in length from less than a half-mile to almost three miles.

Petrified Forest National Park stretches north and south between I-40 and U.S. Highway 180. There are two entrances into the park. Your direction of travel dictates which entrance is best to use.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Westbound I-40 travelers should take Exit 311, drive the 28 miles through the park and connect with Highway 180 at the south end. Travel 19 miles on Highway 180 North to return to I-40 via Holbrook.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eastbound I-40 travelers should take Exit 285 into Holbrook then travel 19 miles on U.S. Highway 180 South to the park’s south entrance. Drive the 28 miles north through the park to return to I-40.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many of the features at Petrified Forest are on a scale best appreciated by leaving the car. Plan enough time to walk among the fossil logs and Painted Desert badlands.

For a half-day visit, follow the park road from the Rainbow Forest Museum toward Pintado Point. If you can stay longer, include a walk to Agate House, take the trail into the Blue Mesa badlands, and consider a hike in the Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area.

Worth Pondering…

The way in which many Paleozoic life forms disappeared towards the end of the Permian Period brings to mind Joseph Hayden’s Farwell Symphony where, during the last movement, one musician after the other takes his instrument and leaves the stage until, at the end, none is left.

—Curt Teichert, 1990

8 Weird and Wacky Destinations for a Family Road Trip

America is home to some weird and wacky attractions that may not be in your typical travel guide, but would be sure to blow any Happy RVer’s mind!

There’s nothing more American than a road trip. So this summer, why not pack up the car and veer off the beaten track to explore something a little bit different?

This list of destinations, from a palace made of corn to a UFO crash site, provides plenty of inspiration and enough surprises for the whole family.

Be prepared for a natural wonderland. underground marvels, and a few horse-drawn buggies along the way.

Mitchell Corn Palace in South Dakota

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Any drive through the Midwest will bring you face-to-face with cornstalks taller than you can imagine. The Mitchell Corn Palace in South Dakota celebrates all things corn—starting with this prairie town in the middle of nowhere. This “palace” looks like something straight out of Russia, built in 1892 to showcase South Dakota’s bountiful harvests.

Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Step out of your car and into a natural wonderland. The vibrant colors of the Petrified Forest will keep your eyes engaged, while these fascinating ancient fossils will engross your mind. Check out the Rainbow Forest Museum first, so you can orient yourself and determine your trail route.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take a break from being a road warrior and go caving instead. Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 caves—formed when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone leaving behind caverns of all sizes. Experience the Big Room and Natural Entrance trails at your own pace. Ranger-guided tours include King’s Palace, Left Hand Tunnel, Hall of the White Giant, Lower, Spider, and Slaughter Canyon cave.

Amish Farm Country in Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Lancaster County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re determined to unplug and unwind, find your way to Lancaster County for a truly old-fashioned time. From buggy rides to dinner theater, there’s plenty to see and do—including traditional “mud sales,” or outdoor auctions, that specialize in handcrafted products and support the local fire department.

Lassen Volcanic National Park in California

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Peak is the southernmost of the Cascade Mountains’ 15 volcanoes. The mountain famously erupted from 1914 until 1921 and largely changed the landscape to what you see today around the Cinder Cone. But the park is more than just a volcano. It’s a set of peaks surrounded by a lush wilderness. This park is a laid-back spot with great camping and volcanic landscapes right next to verdant forests.

Wall Drug in South Dakota

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wall Drug has grown from its humble beginnings in 1931 to a thriving oasis. Wall Drug offers dining, activities, gifts and souvenirs, visitor information and, of course, free ice water. Many road-worn travelers stop at Wall Drug and leave awake and refreshed, just like they did more than 80 years ago. Attracting 2 million visitors each year, Wall Drug is a story of success because one simple idea took root: Offering road weary travelers free ice water.

Peachoid Water Tower in Gaffney, South Carolina

The Peachoid © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Peachoid (known locally as The Peach) was commissioned to be built in 1980-81 by the Gaffney Board of Public Works. A seven ton, 60-feet long leaf was applied to one side. A New Jersey artist, Peter Freudenberg, painted the sphere after studying local peaches for many hours. It took fifty gallons of paint in twenty colors. According to official literature, the Peachoid boldly “sets the record straight about which state is the biggest peach producer in the South. Contrary to popular belief, it is NOT Georgia.”

Roswell in New Mexico

UFO Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If UFOs and cosmic mysteries intrigue you, plan a pit stop in Roswell, New Mexico. Roswell’s rise to fame began in 1947, when a local rancher claimed to have found debris from a flying saucer. The myths and facts have become stranger over the years, cementing this town’s place in national history. Today, you can also enjoy fine cuisine, art museums, and Bottomless Lakes State Park, which is perfect for camping and hiking.

Worth Pondering…

If you do nothing unexpected, nothing unexpected happens.

—Fay Weldon

Plenty of Sand and Amazing Landscapes on this Grand Circle Tour

The American Southwest is famous for incredible scenery, red rock pinnacles and formations, brilliant sunsets, and deep canyons

This is uncommon land, for an uncommon experience.

Get your camera ready for this scenic route from Las Vegas to Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley, Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon, and other scenic wonders of the American West.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Hoover Dam/Lake Mead

An engineering marvel, the Hoover Dam tamed the mighty Colorado River to provide hydroelectric power and much-needed water for the parched Southwest, creating Lake Mead in the process. Just 25 miles outside Las Vegas, Lake Mead National Recreational Area offers more than 550 miles of shoreline and year-round outdoor adventure. Whether it’s swimming, water skiing, boating or fishing, it’s all possible in this spectacular setting.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Zion National Park

Unlike most other Utah parks, Zion is a canyon viewed mostly from below. White and vermilion cliffs tower all around, some reaching nearly 8,000 feet. The main canyon was cut by the North Fork of the Virgin River. It is narrow, less than a quarter-mile wide. But it is deep, flanked by towering sandstone palisades 2,000-3,000 feet high that often draw rock climbers to its walls. The six-mile canyon drive ends at a formation known as Temple of Sinawava, where the canyon begins narrowing to a slot only 30-40 feet wide.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Bryce Canyon National Park

Discover a massive array of red rock spires that extend hundreds of feet into the air. Known as hoodoos, these totem-like formations rise in a series of horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters. Explore deep canyons on foot or drive around the high elevation loop road and look out for Bryce’s bristlecone pines, the world’s oldest trees that date back 5,000 years.

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

Glen Canyon/Lake Powell

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers unparalleled opportunities for water-based and backcountry recreation amid scenic vistas and geologic wonders. The second largest man-made lake in the U.S., Lake Powell is without doubt the most scenic, stretching 186 miles across the red rock desert from Page, Arizona to Hite, Utah.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Monument Valley

You’ll marvel at the 250-million-year-old red rock formations, the magical light, the starry night, and the Native American history that infuses this iconic landscape. Drive the 17-mile scenic loop road on your own or hire a guide to delve deeper into the storied region and to access off-limit sites. Camping at The View Campground offers the RV traveler a great opportunity to capture the incomparable sunrise and sunset hues. Don’t forget your cameras!

Hubbell Trading Post © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Hubbell Trading Post, Arizona

The squeaky wooden floor greets your entry. When your eyes adjust to the dim light in the “bullpen” you find you’ve entered a mercantile. Hubbell Trading Post has been serving Ganado selling goods and Native American Art since 1878. Little has changed in more than 140 years at the oldest operating trading post on the Navajo Reservation.

Visitors also can tour the Hubbell house; browse the visitor center (built in 1920 and used originally as a school); and see barns, corrals, wagons, and other historical farm equipment, as well as a variety of farm animals, including Churro sheep.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Petrified Forest National Park

Most visitors come to see the ancient tree trunks, which are preserved by minerals they absorbed after being submerged in a riverbed nearly 200 million years ago. And they’re quite a sight: Over time, the huge logs turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of colors—the yellow of citrine, the purple of amethyst, the red-brown of jasper. This mineral-tinted landscape also boasts painted deserts and striated canyons.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Grand Canyon

The Colorado River cuts through the American west to create one of the natural wonders of the planet. A total of 277 miles long and up to a mile deep, it’s a geological masterpiece, with amazing vantage points along both the North and South rims. Over millions of years, the river sliced the landscape into sheer rock walls, revealing many layered colors, each marking a different geologic era.

Worth Pondering…

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

—Rachel Carson

The Least Visited National Parks and Why Each Is Worth a Visit

Celebrate the beauty and natural wonders of America’s national parks at these lesser-known sites

Among America’s 61 national parks, some stand out as must-sees for most RV travelers: Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, Zion, and the Grand Canyon all come to mind as bucket-list sites. And indeed, these and other parks welcome millions of visitors each year. Yet there are many other lesser-known parks equally worth your time—parks with extraordinary wildlife and unique natural features that mere thousands of visitors experience annually.

We’ve rounded up the least-visited national parks and make a case for why each is worth a visit. Some are little-known, others are obscurely located, but all celebrate the beauty of America’s natural wonders—and, as a bonus, can be enjoyed with fewer crowds.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Petrified Forest

2018 visitor count: 644,922

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Most visitors come to see the ancient tree trunks, which are preserved by minerals they absorbed after being submerged in a riverbed nearly 200 million years ago. And they’re quite a sight: Over time, the huge logs turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of colors—the yellow of citrine, the purple of amethyst, the red-brown of jasper. This mineral-tinted landscape also boasts painted deserts and striated canyons.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mesa Verde

2018 visitor count: 563,420

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mesa Verde is the largest archeological preserve in the U.S., with over 500 distinct sites and 600 cliff dwellings. Those dwellings were once the homes that native peoples used for several centuries. Today, visitors can explore the dwellings, learn about the native culture, and marvel at both the safeties and dangers offered by living several hundred feet off the ground, in structures tucked into small openings on the cliff face.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Carlsbad Caverns

2018 visitor count: 465,912

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The only cave system on our list of least-visited parks is located in New Mexico beneath the Chihuahuan Desert. Carlsbad is not just one cave; more than 100 caves form the park, Carlsbad Cavern itself forming the natural entrance to the park as the tallest cave. The Big Room, a large limestone chamber, is nearly 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 255 feet high.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Lassen Volcanic

2018 visitor count: 499,435

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Located in the northern part of California, Lassen Volcanic is best known for the astounding hydrothermal sites within its bounds. Many established trails take you past—and through—those bubbling springs, including Bumpass Hell, an area with acres of bubbling mud pots. As the name implies, Lassen Peak is a volcano. On the side of the mountain, visitors can observe lava rocks left by its last eruption in 1917.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Big Bend

2018 visitor count: 440,091

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Deep in the heart of Southwest Texas lies the well-known, but rarely visited, Big Bend National Park. In spite of its remote location, Big Bend is worth the drive. The entire Chisos Mountain Range, a portion of the Chihuahuan Desert, and the Rio Grande form spectacular scenery here. Visitors enjoy hiking and backpacking and it’s a certified dark-sky park, offering an unparalleled view of the night sky.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Pinnacles

2018 visitor count: 222,152

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The unique landscape of towering rock formations that form “pinnacles” is the result of volcanic activity in the area some 23 million years ago. Pinnacles offers hiking and climbing, with spectacular views; come during spring to see blankets of colorful wildflowers, and stay after sunset to take in the star-studded sky.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Congaree

2018 visitor count: 145,929

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Congaree offers the opportunity to explore the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern U.S. The park includes the area where Congaree and Wateree Rivers converge. Canoeing, hiking, and fishing are all popular pastimes and may be enjoyed in peace thanks to the sparse number of fellow travelers.

Worth Pondering…

We can never have enough of nature.

—Henry David Thoreau

Arizona Bucket List: Top 10 National Parks

A guide to the best, the famous, and the lesser-known national parks and monuments in the Grand Canyon State

Arizona’s nickname may be the Grand Canyon State, and that namesake national park may draw more than six million visitors a year and rank as the second most popular in the country. But the canyon is just one of many natural wonders in a state unusually rich in them. In fact, with petrified forests, volcanic cinder cones, saguaro-studded deserts, and Anasazi cliff dwellings, no state in the country can boast as many National Park Service sites as Arizona.

The unwaveringly sunny weather makes an outdoor lifestyle possible year-round. From alpine forests to saguaro-framed sunsets, the landscape is inescapable in Arizona—and the Grand Canyon is just the beginning.

Here, a guide to 10 of the best, both the world-famous and not yet acclaimed.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Grand Canyon National Park

Why: It’s one of the natural wonders of the world

At 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon lives up to its name; it’s the biggest canyon in the United States and one of the largest in the world. Numbers don’t do the place justice—its sheer size is awe-inspiring, but it’s also a stunning record of time.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Petrified Forest National Park

Why: There aren’t many places you can reach out and touch 225-million-year-old fossilized trees

Most visitors to Petrified Forest National Park come to see the ancient tree trunks—and they’re quite a sight: Over time, the huge logs turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of colors—the yellow of citrine, the purple of amethyst, the red-brown of jasper. This mineral-tinted landscape also boasts painted deserts and striated canyons.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Saguaro National Park

Why: See the tallest and oldest saguaro cacti in the country

A symbol of the West the majestic saguaro can live 250 years and reach heights of 50 to 60 feet, growing so slowly that a 10-year-old plant might be a mere two inches in height. Saguaro National Park is divided into two units, one on either side of Tucson.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Why: It’s one of world’s most sacred places

First settled by the Ancestral Puebloans around 2,500 B.C., this labyrinth of three narrow canyons known collectively as Canyon de Chelly has sheltered indigenous peoples for nearly 5,000 years. Don’t miss the staggeringly tall spire known as Spider Rock; it rises 830 feet from the canyon floor and, in Navajo legend, is the home of Spider Woman

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Organ Pipe National Monument

Why: The only organ pipe cacti in the US are found here

Crazy symphonies of prickly arms—nowhere else in the United States can you find these unique living sculptures, Unlike their more well-known Saguaro cousins, Organ Pipe cacti branch out from ground-level.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Why: You’ve seen it in movies, and it’s much better in person

There is no landscape in the United States as associated with the Wild West as Monument Valley. Time your visit to experience both sunset and sunrise here and you’ll take some of the most vivid photos of your life.

Chiricahua National Monument

Why: Explore a magical landscape of sculpted rock

Chiricahua National Monument’s two unofficial names, the Wonderland of Rocks and the Land of Standing Up Rocks, tell you all you need to know about why it’s become one of southern Arizona’s most popular hiking destinations.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Why: It’s one of the continent’s largest and best-preserved cliff dwellings

Considered one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in North America, Montezuma Castle is carved into a cliff 1,500 feet above the ground and featuring more than 20 rooms constructed in multiple stories

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Why: Well preserved ruins of a four-story, 14th century adobe building

This small national monument contains a well-preserved four-storey building dating from the Hohokam period of the fourteenth century. It is situated in the flat plain of central Arizona in between the Gila and Santa Cruz rivers just north of Coolidge.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Coronado National Memorial

Why: Scenic, mountainous area bordering Mexico

In the Coronado National Forest bordering Mexico, Coronado National Memorial celebrates the achievements of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who led the first recorded European expedition to America, in 1540. The attraction for most visitors is the rugged and scenic terrain, which is crossed by several hiking trails.

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

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Why: Spectacular reservoir bordered by red rock cliffs and sandy beaches

Lake Powell is the second largest man-made lake in the US and without doubt the most scenic, stretching 186 miles across the red rock desert from Page, Arizona to Hite, Utah. The lake is surrounded by red rock wilderness, crossed by numerous narrow canyons, and it offers endless possibilities for exploration, both on land and on water.

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