Wine Country and National Parks: A Perfect Summer Pairing

Combine spectacular national park scenery with a nearby wine country tasting experience

In an era of shrinking wilderness, it seems downright visionary that early U.S. presidents put pen to paper to protect diverse ecosystems for the public good. Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Valley Grant Act in 1864. Ulysses S. Grant created Yellowstone National Park in 1872. And, at the turn of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt earned the moniker “The Conservation President” for his amazing number of protections.

Ironside Vineyards in Calaveras County, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With 252 distinct wine regions and even more grape varieties across the U.S. (There are about 10,000 varieties of wine grapes worldwide), wine lovers can savor their favorite wines and explore new ones on their way to and from great parks including Yosemite in the High Sierra south to Joshua Tree in the desert and east to Shenandoah in the Appalachians. Like the stewards of America’s unique national parks, winemakers and growers also feel a deep connection to the land―and making it easy for travelers to find the perfect wine to complement their journey.

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

California: Yosemite National Park

First protected in 1864, Yosemite National Park is best known for its waterfalls but within its nearly 1,200 square miles you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, and a vast wilderness area.

70 miles northwest is Murphys, one of California’s richest “diggins” during the California Gold Rush of the 1840s—hence its former name, Murphys New Diggings. The draw today isn’t gold though. It’s quaint, as you’ll see when strolling down the town’s idyllic little Main Street with its clapboard buildings and white picket fences. But where prospectors and gamblers once mingled in between gold-digging expeditions (fit in a visit to the Old Timers Museum if you can), now winemakers hold sway and there are upwards of two dozen wine-tasting rooms along Main Street and several vineyards in the vicinity. As the so-called Queen of the Sierra, Murphys has a small population of around 2,213 but plenty of homestyle restaurants and cozy country inns. One such is the Murphys Hotel whose illustrious guests have included Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico: White Sands National Park

Prefer a less crowded park experience? While four million people trek to Yosemite each year, White Sands National Park receives just 600,000 visitors across 275 square miles of desert. As its name implies, the park’s gypsum sand shimmers enough to mimic snowy dunes.

Rio Grande Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bright and dry days help vines flourish in nearby Mesilla Valley, New Mexico’s smallest American Viticultural Area (AVA). Straddling the Rio Grande River, the climate supports the production of rich reds from varieties like Zinfandel, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon plus a bit of Tempranillo. The town of Las Cruces serves as a jumping-off point to explore local wineries like Lescombes Winery, Rio Grande Winery (see photo above), La Viña Winery, and Luna Rossa Winery.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

California: Pinnacles National Park

As throngs fight for reservations to Yosemite, in-the-know travelers go to Pinnacles National Park. Not only does it serve around 200,000 visitors a year, Pinnacles neighbors the beautiful coastal town of Carmel-by-the-Sea and Central Coast wine regions in Monterey County.

Vineyards near Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Much like the ancient soils that nurture nearby Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines, the park’s landscape was born of geological upheaval. More than 23 million years ago, volcanoes and shifting tectonic plates created the unique Talus caves and rock formations, or pinnacles. Hikers and cavers test their athleticism and nerve on challenging terrain though there are also easier hikes for the less ambitious. All highlight diverse wildlife from hummingbirds and condors to salamanders and mountain lions.

Wine lovers can tackle the 5.3-mile hike from Condor Gulch to High Peaks in the morning followed by lunchtime sips in the Santa Lucia Highlands. There’s a clutch of wineries along River Road with Hahn Family Wines near the south and Wrath Wines further north.

Pillsbury Wine Company tasting room in Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona: Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park is a showstopper of the American Southwest. With upwards of six million visitors each year, reservations for the vast gorge’s lodges and campgrounds are often booked up to a year in advance. However, a photo of the winding Colorado River from the South Rim is far easier to land. Lookout points at Navajo Point and Desert View Drive swell with crowds but for good reason. The two-billion-year-old layered red sedimentary rock is peppered with pines, spruces, and firs. It’s peerless in its beauty.

Wine tasting room in Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two hours south, near Sedona, another hiking haven amidst sublime scenery sits Verde Valley. Winemaking dates to the 1800s but the modern industry was resurrected in the 1980s. Vineyards offer mostly red grapes like Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, and Mourvèdre. Taste along the Verde Valley trail or at the numerous tasting rooms in Cottonwood and Jerome.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Virginia: Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah which teems with vistas, wildlife, and waterfalls attracts around 1.5 million visitors a year. About 75 miles from Washington D.C., the centerpiece of the 200,000-acre park is the 105-mile Skyline Drive that features dramatic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains around every turn. Well-marked trails offer hikes through woodland valleys and across streams. History buffs might want to stop at nearby Manassas National Battlefield Park, the site of a devastating 1861 Civil War clash.

At the southern end of the park lies Charlottesville, the pastoral area that Thomas Jefferson called home. Though he failed to make fine wine, wineries like King Family Vineyards, Stinson Vineyards, Barboursville, and Veritas produce Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Viognier, and red blends in the Monticello AVA.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

California: Joshua Tree National Park

Two major deserts, the Mojave and the Sonoran come together in Joshua Tree National Park, an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths (popular with rock climbers), petroglyphs from early Native Americans, old mines, and ranches. And the hiking is fantastic.

Temecula Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A visit to this park wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Temecula about two hours southwest. The Temecula Wine Region invites you to savor the hundreds of award-winning wines in Southern California’s wine county. Wine snobs may scoff at the wines of Southern California in favor of the grapes of Napa or Sonoma but the vineyards of Temecula Valley have established a reputation over the last decade for producing fantastic Bordeaux and Rhône varietals as well as those from Spain, Italy, and Portugal. With more than 40 vineyards throughout the region, you can find something to satisfy any tasting desire from lavish, over-the-top wine resorts to small, mom-and-pop operations.

Robert Renzoni Vineyards & Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stunning modern Moorish architecture and warm hospitality are the hallmarks of Bizhan “BJ” Fazeli’s beautiful winery which has one of the widest ranges of varietals in the Temecula Valley. Produced both from estate vineyards and select local growers the names of the collections are an homage to Fazeli’s Persian roots—The Heritage Collection honors five Persian poets, Embrace the Chaos includes Pandemonium, Rukus, Mayhem, and Uproar and the popular Season Collection celebrates annual solstices and equinoxes. If you’re visiting at lunchtime, stop by Baba Joon’s Kitchen for Mediterranean/Persian-influenced shareable appetizers, sandwiches, salads, and flatbreads.

Worth Pondering…

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, I’m finding enjoyment in things that stop time. Just the simple act of tasting a glass of wine is its own event.

―David Hyde Pierce

The Ultimate Guide to Pinnacles National Park

At one of America’s newer National Park, the possibilities for discovery are limitless

The remains of an ancient volcanic field consisting of massive monoliths, rocky spires, pinnacles, red crags, and talus cave, rise out of the Meditteranean chaparral-covered Gabilan Mountains, a sanctuary for the California condor.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Salinas Valley in west-central California is the site of an ancient history spanning 23 million years. Over the course of that time, the “pinnacles” have migrated some 200 miles from their original home on the San Andreas Fault where the volcano that they were born from once stood. Today, that volcanic rock from the Pacific Coast Range has morphed to form monoliths, spires, peaks, cliffs, and other formations that jut out from the pastoral hills of the region. 

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is split into east and west districts between which there are no driving roads connecting the entrances on either side. In the west district, there are rare and unusual talus caves—caves made up of fallen rock sandwiched in slot canyons. On the east side, you will find the most interesting views of the formations along with broader views of the entire park landscape, the main park visitor center, and an established camping area. Both sides are beloved by technical climbers, day hikers, cave-goers, and bird watchers eager to catch a glimpse of the endangered California condor.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first 2,500 acres of the rugged Pinnacles were made a national monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Since 1908, the monument significantly increased in size to 26,000 acres and on January 10, 2013, Pinnacles became America’s 59th national park. 

Hiking and rock climbing are popular activities in Pinnacles National Park as is watching for the majestic California condor overhead. Pinnacles National Park is a nesting place for the endangered soaring bird, the largest in North America.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By the early 1980s, the California condor population had dwindled to just 22. The birds were placed in captive breeding programs, and Pinnacles became one of the release sites. Other condors from the Big Sur area also frequent the area which increases the odds of seeing one of these rare creatures.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Remarkable rocks sculpted by 14 million years of volcanic turmoil. The rocky spires and pinnacles have long attracted rock climbers. So have talus caves (formed when massive boulders tumbled into narrow canyons) inhabited by protected bat communities. A well-maintained 30-mile trail system, partially created in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, beckons hikers to this rugged landscape. Wildflowers bloom in the spring, and the temperate climate makes for year-round exploration opportunities.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rock formations of Pinnacles National Park divide the park into east and west access points which are connected by trails. But, there is no road connecting the east and west entrances of the park.

The eastern access road (CA 146) branches off CA 25, 30 miles south of Hollister, and leads up a wide, partly wooded valley alongside Bear Creek, and past the park campground. The mountains are visible to the west though they seem unremarkable from a distance as the volcanic formations are hidden behind more conventional rocks.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles Campground offers 149 tent, group, and RV sites with 30-amp electric service. Water is located throughout the campground. Showers and a dump station are available. During the spring and summer seasons, campers can enjoy the campground swimming pool and ranger programs at the campground amphitheater.

The road bends around a side canyon and ends next to the visitor center just as the main valley (Bear Gulch) starts to become relatively narrow. The center has exhibits, a small selection of books for sale, a public telephone, and flashlights for use in the caves.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The surrounding vegetation is typical of the chaparral zone, mostly small oak trees, and bushes, reflecting the low elevation, moderate rainfall, and long hot summers of this part of California. The main hiking area is to the west, further along, the canyon—within 2 miles are Bear Gulch Cave, Bear Gulch Reservoir, and many rock climbing sites, while 2 miles further are the extensive formations of the High Peaks. Many trails intersect, allowing for a short loop or a longer all-day hike.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Bear Gulch Cave provides a home to a colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats as they rest there in winter and raise their young in the late spring and summer. The colony in the Bear Gulch Cave is the largest maternity colony between San Francisco and Mexico. The lower half of the Bear Gulch Cave is usually open from mid-July through mid-May each year, depending on the presence of the colony of bats. The entire cave is closed from mid-May to mid-July while the bats are raising their young. Bring a flashlight if your hike leads through a cave.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The west entrance has just a ranger station plus parking and is reached by a narrow, 12-mile road from Soledad that is not recommended for RVs or other large vehicles. From the road’s end, three trails depart to the north, west, and east; the most popular routes are the Juniper Canyon Trail to the High Peaks, and the Balconies Trail which leads to volcanic rocks and a talus cave.

Fact Box

Size: 26,000 acres

Date Established: January 10, 2013

Location: West central California, in the Salinas Valley

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: In 1880, the area where the national park is now was known as “the Palisades” until a newspaper article came out in 1881 describing the trellised areas as “the Pinnacles.” Further exploration of the area and additional marketing of it as a tourist destination helped the new name to stick. It has been officially known as Pinnacles since it was protected as a National Monument in 1908. 

Iconic site in the park: The geologic formations are known as “the pinnacles” are a series of volcanic and sedimentary rocks that have eroded over time to take the shape of colorful and ornate cliffs, crags, and talus cave formations that rise from a forested landscape. 

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did You Know?

Pinnacles, Muir Woods, and the Grand Canyon were all set aside as national monuments in the span of seven days in January 1908 by Teddy Roosevelt.

American writer John Steinbeck grew up in the Salinas Valley and lived there until he went to Stanford University in 1919. The location inspired several of his works, one of them being East of Eden

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740

Entrance Fees: $30/vehicle (valid for 7 days); all federal lands passes accepted

Camping Fee: $37/night

Worth Pondering…

May all your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view……where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you.

—Edward Abbey

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

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

10 National Parks to Visit during Wildflower Season

These parks are home to the country’s most vivid blooms from late March through August

Spring has sprung and brilliant pops of wildflowers are covering hillsides throughout the country—and, to no surprise, some of the best blooms are on display right in the heart of national parks. If you’re hoping to see them, it’s time to start planning.

We’ve rounded up the best national parks for wildflower lovers whether you’re an avid hiker or devout photographer focused on getting the perfect shot.

Before you head out, make sure to check local park and state travel restrictions and remember the principles of Leave No Trace: Do not pick or take home anything you find within protected park boundaries and always hike and take pictures from the main trail.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Volcanic offers spectacular opportunities for wildflower viewing from late May through September. Blooming times vary each year and are greatly affected by the winter’s snowpack. Blooming time also varies with each wildflower species. For example, mountain mules ear, snow plant, and western wallflower bloom earlier in the season while California corn lily and silverleaf lupine tend to bloom later.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

As one of the most biologically diverse national parks (the area boasts over 1,500 species of flowering plants), the Smokies come alive each spring with a colorful carpet of thyme-leaved bluets (four blue petals surrounding a yellow spot). Plus, as one of the lower elevation parks on this list, the blossoming season starts early. Peak bloom occurs from late March through July, with the park’s annual Wildflower Pilgrimage landing in mid-May. Make sure to check out the ¾-mile Cove Hardwood Nature Trail or push bigger miles and chase a couple of waterfalls on the Deep Creek Trail.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Over 80 percent of the plants in Pinnacles are in bloom from March through May when afternoon temps hover between 65 to 78 degrees, perfect for hiking. Radiant orange bush poppies, playful monkeyflowers, and brilliant blue larkspur go on full display at this hidden gem in central California. The 2.4-mile Balconies Cliffs-Cave Loop is full of rainbow-hued blooms while the more strenuous 8.4-mile High Peaks-Balconies Loop tacks on the possibility of spotting an endangered California condor.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

In addition to abundant wildlife, there are no fewer than 860 species of wildflowers in Shenandoah National Park, about 20 percent of which are aster species. Other common Shenandoah wildflowers include lilies, flowers of the pea family, mint, and mustard.

Simply put, wildflowers thrive in Shenandoah which is one of the best places to see national parks wildflowers. This enormous diversity is especially noticeable in spring at the park’s lower elevations along South River and Rose River which are two of the best waterfall hikes in Shenandoah. Through summer and fall, you can see wildflowers showing off their colors all along Skyline Drive and in Big Meadows.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Protecting areas of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, Joshua Tree National Park is spread out across various elevations. This, of course, comes with a huge variety of desert plants and wildflowers. The blooming season, however, depends greatly on winter precipitation and spring temperatures. Generally speaking, you’ll see the first wildflowera in the Pinto Basin as early as February and March. As the months go on, the colors creep upward to higher elevations. It’s not uncommon to still have abundant wildflowers as late as June in desert areas higher than 5,000 feet. Flowers to look for include desert paintbrush, beavertail cactus, Utah firecracker, Mojave aster, California barrel cactus, prickly pear cactus, and the Joshua trees themselves

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park, California

Due to its large range of elevations (1,360 to 14,505 feet), the blooming season in Sequoia is long and verdant with marigold fiddlenecks bursting in the foothills while corn lilies and paintbrush dot higher altitudes like Alta Meadow. April and May are best for spring wildflower hunting at lower elevations while the alpine environment really comes to life from July through August.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Wildflowers are common throughout Bryce Canyon, primarily growing in meadows or along trails. Many wildflowers in the park are adapted to the rocky soil including columbines and the Rocky Mountain paintbrush. Bryce Canyon wildflowers can be found in every color and range in size from tiny to almost three feet tall. They can be found at all elevations, flowering in the summer especially from May to July. A particularly interesting plant native to the area is the paintbrush several species of which can be found in Bryce Canyon including the Wyoming Paintbrush and Bryce Canyon Paintbrush.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

The high temperatures, limited rain, and drying winds of the desert can present a harsh environment for wildflowers. These unforgiving conditions make the abundance of Zion’s wildflowers seem even more spectacular set against a backdrop of towering sandstone cliffs.

In the early spring, many plants take advantage of the seasonal rains to flower and reproduce quickly before the precious water is gone. Zion’s many springs and seeps also provide micro-habitats where temperatures are cooler and water is available year round. Throughout the summer on the Weeping Rock, Emerald Pools, and Riverside Walk trails you may see “hanging gardens” where flowers cling to the cliff walls.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park is home to hundreds of flowering plants. There are approximately 650 herbaceous (having little or no woody stem) wildflowers in the park. Some of the common species displaying a white flower are the sacred datura, evening primrose, tidy fleabane, yarrow, baby white aster, and white violet. Some common yellow flowering wildflowers are broom snakeweed, yellow ragweed, Hooker’s primrose, and blanket flower. Red or orange flowered plants include the globe mallow, red columbine, penstemon, Indian paintbrush, and crimson monkeyflower. Pink and purple wildflowers include the Rocky Mountain bee plant, fleabane, Palmer lupine, Grand Canyon phacelia, and Rocky Mountain iris.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Visitors to the Sonoran Desert are eager to view hillsides covered in flowers as they may have seen on postcards and calendars. Those famous photos are taken during years when rainfall, temperature, and timing are favorable. Since soils and terrain are also an important factor there is no way to predict any year’s bloom. Saguaro National Park has some flowers in bloom virtually every month of the year and visitors can expect to see at least three flowering seasons: Spring wildflower (March-April), cactus flower (April-May), and summer flower (June-September).

Worth Pondering…

To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.

—William Blake

Best National Parks to Visit this Winter

While there are many national parks that are great to visit in the winter, this list is focused on the parks that are generally warm and perfect for exploring

As shorter days and cooler temperatures descend on North America, it’s time to look for the next great outdoor adventure. We encourage visiting a National Park Service site at any time of the year, but winter is a unique time to explore. Smaller crowds at some of the more popular parks are just one of the benefits.

November to March provide some of the most beautiful, peaceful, and picturesque landscapes, and parks that can be relatively inhospitable during the height of summer become havens during the cold months. Here are the best national parks to visit this winter.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Usually, this desert monument turned National Park is almost too hot to enjoy during the summer months. But during the winter, daytime temperatures hover in the upper 60s making it the perfect season for exploring. Joshua Tree is named for a unique, tentacle-like tree that blankets the desert floor, filling in gaps between amazing rock formations.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Warm days and cool nights make winter an ideal time to visit Saguaro. The park has two areas separated by the city of Tucson. The Rincon Mountain District (East) has a lovely loop drive that offers numerous photo ops. There’s also a visitor’s center, gift shop, and miles of hiking trails. The Tucson Mountain District (West) also has a scenic loop drive and many hiking trails, including some with petroglyphs at Signal Mountain.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park is named after a stretch of 118 miles of Rio Grande River, part of which forms a large bend in the river. Big Bend offers a variety of activities for the outdoor enthusiasts, including backpacking, river trips, horseback riding, mountain biking, and camping. The park is home to more than 1,200 species of plants, more than 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, and 56 species of reptiles.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Only a fraction of the park’s 5 million annual visitors come during the winter months. At over 277-miles long and up to a mile deep, this natural wonder was created over millions of years as the Colorado River wound its way through the canyon. While temperatures can hover in the 30s and 40s along the rim, milder temps can be found along the river at the bottom of the canyon. The South Rim is open year-round and winter is an ideal time to enjoy the park’s trails and avoid the crowds that dominate the park during the summer.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park preserves the largest remnant of old-growth floodplain forest remaining on the continent. In addition to being a designated Wilderness Area, an International Biosphere Reserve, a Globally Important Bird Area, and a National Natural Landmark, Congaree is home to a exhibit area within the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, a 2.4 mile boardwalk loop trail, and canoe paddling trails.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

The hiking in Zion National Park is world famous. Hikers of all abilities will find trails that lead to sweeping vistas, clear pools, natural arches, and narrow canyons. Zion Canyon Scenic Drive follows the North Fork of the Virgin River upstream through some of Zion’s most outstanding scenery. This road is closed to vehicle traffic from April to October, but regularly scheduled shuttle busses provide a great way to relax and enjoy the scenery or stop to take a hike.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Formed by volcanoes 23 million years ago, Pinnacles National Park is located in central California near the Salinas Valley. The park covers more than 26,000 acres and hosted 230,000 visitors in 2017. By comparison, its neighbor Yosemite National Park welcomed more than four million visitors.

Organ Pipe National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona

28 species of cactus can be found in the park including the namesake organ pipe. Unlike the stately saguaro that rises in a single trunk, the organ pipe is a furious clutter of segments shooting up from the base, a cactus forever in celebratory mode—throwing its arms in the air like it just doesn’t care. A striking resemblance to the pipes of a church organ prompted its moniker.

Worth Pondering…

There is a peculiar pleasure in riding out into the unknown—a pleasure which no second journey on the same trail ever affords.

—Edith Durham

National Parks at their Spectacular Best in Winter

All the wonder with none of the crowds

Summer will always be the most popular time to visit national parks. For generations, families have flocked to these precious natural wonderlands to commune with nature—and to crowd hiking trails, overtake campsites, and transform peaceful naturescapes into theme parks. But sometimes you long to experience the natural sounds of nature without the discordant noise of humanity. And to do that may involve packing warm clothes. 

Winter is a magical time for many of the parks. The trails clear. The campsites are less likely to be serenaded by a guitar-picking yodeler. Fire danger is down. And, unlike peak season, you’ll feel like you have it mostly to yourself. These are the parks that are at their absolute best in winter. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

In the summertime, Zion is basically Disneyland. It’s crowded. It’s hot. You’re standing in two-hour lines just to board the tram. End this madness and go during winter. Just 13 percent of Zion visitors journey to the park between November and March for a wintertime visit in one of nature’s most glorious settings. Even better, once you’ve had your fill of the park and its legendary trails, you’ll be able to explore all the surrounding (and vastly overlooked) state parks unencumbered.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

With average summer highs of 99 degrees, Joshua Tree is just too hot to enjoy for much of the year. However, a great time to visit is in the winter. During January, February, and much of March, Joshua Tree will treat you to mild temperatures and relative quiet. See this strange beauty before the mercury rises and the Coachella Valley Music Festival and spring break crowds arrive. Joshua Tree is not only a national park where the Mojave and Colorado deserts converge but also the name of the funky little town outside the park. Give yourself time explore the park as well as the shops and curiosities along the main drag on Twentynine Palms Highway (State Route 62).

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce is beautiful at any time of year, but if you’ve never seen those famous spires and hoodoos dusted with snow then you owe it to yourself to do so. The entire park is an embarrassment of riches come wintertime. There’s cross-country skiing, ice fishing, and a winter festival. The drier air this time of year makes the desert skies unparalleled for stargazing; you’ll find regularly scheduled astronomy programs including full-moon snowshoe hikes at the newly designated International Dark Sky Park. Nowhere else on Earth will you get as vivid a look at Mars overhead while feeling like you’re standing on the Red Planet.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

You may have been curious about Congaree National Park but it wasn’t a place you wanted to visit in summer because the area gets so hot and muggy. Winter, it turns out, is a great time to explore without contending against the park’s dreaded “Mosquito Meter.” The park is a cypress swamp intersected with creeks and lakes. The cypress trees grow with the bases of their trunks underwater. The simplest path for new visitors is the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Trail. Its raised planks are less likely to be washed out than the muddy trails on the ground. Also, this is not a park I’d visit in midsummer, as the bugs are unbearable. Autumn, winter, and early spring (before the bugs come out) are the most enjoyable times of year to visit.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Overlooked and under-visited despite its proximity to bustling Tucson, Saguaro’s expanses of cartoonishly contorted cacti and relatively easy hikes are best explored during the winter. In the off season, the already thin crowds dissipate and you’re free to cavort with cactus wrens and gaze at petroglyphs with little interruption and minus the oppressive heat. Even better, the backcountry campsites—a relatively hot commodity numbering a scant 20—are easier to bag, allowing you to spend the night under the stars with only coyotes (and maybe roadrunners, given the landscape) as your company.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park is famous for the approximately 2,000 arches located throughout the park. Driving from the park entrance to the end of the road at Devil’s Garden is a total of 18 miles, one-way. There are numerous spots to pull out and take in the sights of the park. Crowds? No way. Heat stroke? Not very likely! Traffic jams? Nope. Winter is off-season at Arches which means it’s the perfect time to visit. Snow certainly falls in Arches but it rarely sticks around for more than two or three days. It’s a photographic jackpot: one day you’ll get the contrast of snow on the red rock landscapes and the next day the sun will shine, melt the snow, and blue skies will complement the park’s sandstone formations. Basically, winter in Arches is a win-win.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Located along the San Andreas Fault in central California, Pinnacles National Park is of geological significance and is known for its beautiful and diverse habitats that range from spectacular wildflowers to oak woodlands and chaparral scrub, caves, and rock spires. The giant boulders you see at Pinnacles today were formed as a result of volcanic activity that occurred over 23 million years ago. Enjoy hiking trails, rock climbing, exploring caves, star gazing, camping, and bird watching. Boasting a Mediterranean climate, the Park enjoys mild winters with moderate precipitation.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

The largest protected area of Texas, Big Bend is most appealing in winter. Temperatures hover in the 60s, perfect for taking on the park’s nearly 200 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails which span desert, riverside, and mountain terrain. The Rio Grande River borders more than 100 miles of the park and scenic half-day canoe floats are available year-round. Elevation in the park ranges from 1,800 feet along the river to nearly 8,000 feet in the Chisos Mountains. Temperatures can vary by 20 degrees between the two. Summers are hot; the desert floor is often above 100 degrees. Winter is pleasantly mild and usually sunny. Snow is rare and generally light. Winter visitors should be prepared for any weather; temperatures vary from below freezing to above 80 degrees.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Colder temperatures, shorter days, and snow bring a slower pace to one of the nation’s most visited national parks. After the December holidays, winter visitors find paths less traveled throughout the park. Dramatic winter storms bringing several inches of snow are contrasted with sunny days. Crisp air and a dusting of snow bring a new perspective to the temples and buttes emerging from the canyon floor and provide a perfect backdrop to view the canyon’s flora and fauna. The South Rim of the park is open year round. Winter solitude blankets the North Rim of Grand Canyon which is closed to vehicle traffic during the winter. Pack your jacket and winter gloves, avoid the crowds, and come experience a Grand Canyon winter wonderland!

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Glistening white slopes extend as far as the eye can see. A ski resort in the dead of winter? Hardly! Those white slopes are glistening with grains of sand, not snowflakes. Black-diamond trails drift and shift with the wind. Cars inch forward on a hard-packed white surface. The black-diamond signs refer to the difficulty of navigating gypsum dunes rather than groomed ski trails. And even though the road may look freshly plowed, it is packed sand, not snow that forms the white surface.

Worth Pondering…

Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes the fashioning hand.

—Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Pinnacles National Park: Born of Fire

Some 23 million years ago multiple volcanoes erupted, flowed, and slid to form what would become Pinnacles National Park

The difference is immediately apparent. You know at once why this park is called Pinnacles. Here you face spires and crags that bear no resemblance to the surrounding smooth, round hills. Abruptly, the pinnacle rock formations dominate the scene.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These rocks are the remains of an ancient volcano. Or rather they are part of the remains, for the rest of this volcano lies 195 miles to the southeast. Sound intriguing? It is all part of the story of the San Andreas Rift Zone, which runs just east of the park, and the geological forces that have shaped the face of the landscape in this part of California for millions of years. It is the story of heat, frost, water, and wind wearing at the rock.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The remains of an ancient volcanic field consisting of massive monoliths, rocky spires, pinnacles, red crags, and talus cave, rise out of the Gabilan Mountains, a sanctuary for the California condor.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23 million years ago multiple volcanoes erupted, flowed, and slid to form what would become Pinnacles National Park. A few million years of powerful explosions, lava flows, and landslides created the 30 mile wide volcanic field that forms the foundation of Pinnacles National Park today.

This field of fire was then split down the center by the San Andreas Fault and the west side traveled 195 miles north at a rate of 1-3 inches each year, all while being worn away by water, weathering, and chemical erosion.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What remains is a landscape unlike any other. The result of these millions of years of fire, ice, and upset are the serene rock formations visited by 250 thousand visitors each year. Travelers journey through grasslands, chaparral, oak woodlands, and canyon bottoms.

Hikers enter rare talus caves and emerge to towering rock spires teeming with life: Prairie and Peregrine falcons, Golden eagles, as well as the inspiring California condor. Strange, the way a violent and dynamic past has resulted in such a peaceful landscape for today’s hikers and climbers.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles have over 30 miles of trails that show the best of the park and of the rock formations for which it was named. Hike through the caves, through grasslands, and mountainous areas or up close to the spires and pinnacles. Park staff can recommend the perfect trails based on your available time, physical fitness, and access. Due to the terrain, most of the trails offered are either moderately difficult or strenuous.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Pinnacles visitor center to the Bear Gulch day use area is an interesting trail that is about 2 miles one way and takes about one and a half hours to complete. Visitors will walk along creeks and climb about 300 feet in elevation.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another trail leads from the visitor center to Balconies Cave which is about 9 miles round-trip. Bring a flashlight as hikers will pass by the cave on the way back. There are fantastic views of some of the largest rock formations in the park along this trail.

Follow the path leading from Condor Gulch to High Peaks Loop that is about 5 miles round trip. Be prepared to climb over 1,000 feet in elevation along this trail, but visitors will be treated to a walk through the heart of the pinnacles formations in the park.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Balconies Cliffs and Cave Loop Trail is an amazing experience that crosses up and over Balconies Cave and then leads back through the cave itself. Be prepared to get wet as some wading might be necessary if rain occurs and water fills parts of the cave. Don’t forget your flashlight on this trail as the cave is dark.

There are numerous other trails to explore in Pinnacles National Park. Crawl through caves or gaze up at the towering spires created millions of years ago at this relatively new and wondrous national park.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Looking back across the long cycles of change through which the land has been shaped into its present form, let us realize that these geographical revolutions are not events wholly of the dim past, but that they are still in progress.

—Sir Archibald Geikie, Scottish geologist (1835-1924)

10 National Parks to Visit Now That the Government Shutdown Is Over

Come along and visit these 10 national parks that don’t always get enough love

Good news! The government shutdown is over! Not only will you be getting your tax refunds, but you can also visit— trash free—America’s most treasured scenic and historically important federally-administered land. Of course, we’re talking about the National Parks Service sites.

But instead of talking up Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, two of which you’re already familiar, below are 10 national parks that don’t always get enough love.

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.

Pinnacles National Park

California has so many well-known national parks that smaller parks tend to be overlooked. But Pinnacles should be on your must-visit list. Its unique landscape of towering rock formations that form “pinnacles” is the result of volcanic activity in the area some 23 million years ago.

Congaree National Park

Congaree offers the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern U.S. This South Carolina 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.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

With its multiple stems the organ pipe cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ.

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals including its namesake.

Capitol Reef National Park

Located in south-central Utah in the heart of red rock country, Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden treasure filled with cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges in the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline (a wrinkle on the earth) extending almost 100 miles. The park’s main driving tours include the paved Scenic Drive and two long, mainly unpaved, loop tours through the park’s Cathedral and Waterpocket Districts.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

A Nor-Cal beaut, Lassen is home to numerous active volcanoes which include fun, fumaroles (openings in or near a volcano, through which hot sulfurous gases emerge). RV here, if you really want to “blow up” on social media.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

A one-of-a-kind landscape and the cherished homeland of the Navajo people, Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a truly special place. Sheer cliffs rise on either side of this flat-bottomed, sandy ravine, an area created much the way uplift and water formed the Grand Canyon.

Arches National Park

Another reason to hit up southern Utah? Arches. And not like the St. Louis “Gateway Arch.” We’re talking an area that includes over 2,000 natural arches formed over 100 million years by a combo of water, ice, and extreme temperatures.

Big Bend National Park

Few national parks can match the scenic variety of Big Bend. A land graced with desert, mountain, and river environments makes for a compelling study in contrasts. The Chihuahuan Desert, with its vastness and stark beauty, is joined by the abrupt canyons of the Rio Grande and the forested peaks of the Chisos Mountains.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Located in the Badlands of western North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is named for the 26th President. This austere landscape is home to a surprisingly dense population of wildlife including bison, pronghorn antelope, elk, wild horses, and bighorn sheep. Theodore Roosevelt is unique among the scenic parks in that it preserves not only an extraordinary landscape but also the memory of an extraordinary man.

Worth Pondering…

When Robert Frost declared his intention to take the road less traveled in his 1916 poem “The Road Not Taken,” who could have guessed that so many people would take the same trip?