5 Reasons National Parks are a Great Option for a Budget-friendly Vacation

Visiting national parks is a great way to see the most spectacular landscapes in the country and it can be very affordable

Writer and historian Wallace Stegner famously called national parks America’s “best idea.” Turns out they’re also among the best ideas for an affordable RV vacation thanks to hundreds of drivable destinations throughout the country, free or inexpensive admission, camping, and picnicking opportunities, and tons of cheap activities.

Here are five reasons national parks make a great low-budget getaway.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s probably a national park within easy driving distance

Road trip! When people think of America’s national parks, they tend to imagine sweeping expanses of Western wilderness, like the Grand Canyon. But there are hundreds of national parks, historic sites, preserves, scenic and historic trails, national monuments and memorials, and other places across the country that fall under the National Park Service’s care. That means there’s likely a site within easy driving distance of where you live or plan to spend vacation time.

The National Park Service manages 423 individual units covering more than 85 million acres in all 50 states including sites in 40 of the 50 most populous cities in the United States, according to the service’s website.

Visitors can use the National Park Service’s online “Find a Park” tool at NPS.gov/findapark to search for parks by state, activity, or topic of interest, or browse a full list.

Coronado National Memorial, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks are inexpensive (or even free) to visit

More than two-thirds of national park sites, such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park, don’t charge an entrance fee.

Also look for special passes and programs that offer free or discounted admission, such as the annual fee-free entrance days (there are five in 2020) and the Every Kid Outdoors program, which provides free admission for fourth-graders and their families. There’s also the free, lifetime Access Pass which is available to people with a permanent disability, the annual free Military Pass for people currently serving, and the lifetime Senior Pass which costs just $80 for people age 62 and older.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And if multiple parks are in your plans, annual America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is a great bargain. It costs $80 and allows unlimited entrance to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas, including all national parks. If visiting several parks with entrance fees within a year, this pass pays for itself very quickly.

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a lot of free stuff to do once you’re there

At many vacation spots, admission fees are only the tip of the cost iceberg. Not so at national parks where the talks, walks, films, museums, and other programs are typically either free or included in the admission fee.

Visitors might join a free Keys Ranch Tour at Joshua Tree National Park, hear free geology talks at Capitol Reef National Park, and hike with a ranger at Saguaro National Park. There are also interactive Junior Ranger activities for kids at more than 200 National Park Service areas.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors can forgo hotels and restaurants in favor of camping and picnicking

To fully experience the majesty of national parks—starry skies, splendid sunrises, and sunsets—skip the hotel and camp instead. There are campsites in more than 130 national park units, so you can wake up on the beach at Cumberland Island National Seashore, among the ponderosa pines at Grand Canyon National Park, or with a view of otherworldly spires in Bryce Canyon National Park.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The parks offer two types of camping experiences. RVers can drive directly to established campgrounds to set up a trailer or motorhome. These campgrounds sometimes have amenities such as water, electricity hookups, bathrooms and showers, fire rings, dump stations, camp stores, and food storage boxes to protect food from wildlife.

To go off-grid, pack a backpack and head out into the wilderness on foot or in a canoe, kayak, or raft to try backcountry camping with only your gear and a sense of adventure.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can make it a volunteer vacation

Another way for budget travelers to visit national parks is to volunteer there. Last year, 300,000-plus volunteers contributed more than 7.2 million hours of service. Some positions are specialized and require particular talents, knowledge, skills, and abilities, as well as a background check. Other positions only require a desire and willingness to volunteer. People who rack up 250 volunteer hours can get a free Volunteer Pass, good for a year’s worth of unlimited entrance fees.

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

However, you choose to experience the national parks, be sure to get the latest information before you go.

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Burroughs

10 Amazing Places to RV in July

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

According to a recent survey, 31 percent of U.S. leisure travelers—56 million people—are planning on taking an RV vacation this summer with 65 million planning an RV trip within the year. Unlike the summer of 2020, the pandemic is not the primary reason for the rise in RV camping. The survey shows that remote work, family travel, and exploring America are the top reasons for the continued popularity of RVing this summer.

If you’re looking for a destination worthy of your July vacation days consider places with generally good weather this month and several events booked on the calendar. These destinations come alive for your July RV travels.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out our monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in April, May, and June. Also, check out our recommendations from July 2019.

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

Grand Canyon North Rim

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

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

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

Needles Highway, Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Dakota

South Dakota is one of America’s most beautiful states. It’s also one of its most misunderstood. But once you’re here, you’ll discover why all those Hogs keep coming back to Sturgis every summer. Take a drive along the Needles Highway through fascinating rock formations or drive literally any stretch of the Badlands to see scenery like nowhere else in the world. Custer State Park is one of the few places in America where a buffalo on the road can cause a traffic jam; the annual Buffalo Roundup (September 24, 2021) takes place here when thousands thunder through the park as rangers round them up for medical checks and counts. And not to be forgotten is Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Corn Palace, Mitchell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Dakotas’s roadside attractions are also among the quirkiest in America. Take I-90 East from the Black Hills and you’ll pass ghost towns, a dinosaur sculpture park, the famous Wall Drug, and the World’s Only Corn Palace in Mitchell. You’ll end up in Sioux Falls, one of those small cities that feel a hell of a lot bigger than it is and a great place to spend some time.

Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Since the city’s founding in 1610, the Santa Fe Plaza has been its cultural hub hosting bullfights and fandangos. Today, surrounded by historic buildings like the San Miguel Mission and the Palace of the Governors, the plaza continues to be the epicenter of Santa Fe affairs from live music to September’s Santa Fe Fiesta. For a little living culture, support the local commerce at the Santa Fe Farmers Market.

Santa Fe’s museums delve into art, history, and culture. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum contains the largest collection of her art in the world. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture tells of the achievements of the diverse Native peoples of the Southwest. Santa Fe is a shopper’s paradise, whether browsing or buying art, antiques, or collectibles. Galleries feature pottery, paintings, jewelry, and Native American creations. Canyon Road, the epicenter of Santa Fe’s artistic culture, is the first and last stop for many visitors.

La Fonda on the Plaza © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

July weather with temperatures in the mid-80s makes this month an ideal time to enjoy the outdoors. A variety of hiking trails include the Dale Ball Trails which cover nearly 25 miles in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Biking, fishing, boating, and golf are other ways to enjoy the fresh mountain air.

Opening in July, Bishop’s Lodge Auberge Resorts Collection features trout fishing, alfresco art classes, horse stables, and trail rides on its 317 secluded acres.

Horse farm in Bluegrass Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lexington, Kentucky

There are many reasons to include Lexington in your July travel plans. The second-largest city in Kentucky, Lexington is known as the “Horse Capital of the World.” For starters, the folks at visitLEX.com have created country/bluegrass, hip-hop/R&B, and rock playlists for you to listen to as you explore the city and beyond.

If you’ve never toured a horse farm, this is the month to do it and Lexington is the place. Explore Horse Country by touring the homes of champions, seeing new foals frolic in their pastures, and learning about the care of Kentucky’s signature athletes. There are more than 400 horse farms in the area with over 25 offer tours (by reservation). 

Keeeneland © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or take the self-guided tour of Keeneland Racecourse’s historic grounds. A historic racecourse Keeneland is the world’s largest and most prominent Thoroughbred auction house. Morning Work tours and Backstretch tours are also available by reservation. Because of concerns surrounding COVID, Keeneland continues to limit the number of guests in each tour.

Trot over to the Kentucky Horse Park for an enjoyable, educational experience for horse fans of all ages and disciplines. Take in a show, wander the grounds to visit horses in the barns, and be sure to stop in at the International Museum of the Horse which catalogs the history of the Thoroughbred industry.

Lassen Peak, Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

California’s paramount landscape of fire and ice, Lassen Volcanic National Park, opened for summertime activities in late June. All the park’s roads, campgrounds, and trailheads opened for the first time in seven months with some high-country trails in sun-shielded sites still covered with patches of snow.

Lassen features a landscape built primarily by volcanic blasts and lava flows with the last series of major eruptions from 1914 to 1918. Its high country is cut by ice and snow. The park ranges in elevations from 5,300 feet to over 10,000 feet at the top of Lassen Peak. The park’s 106,000 acres is a matrix of lava peaks, basalt flows, and geothermal basins that are set amid forests, lakes, and streams. In Lassen you’ll find not one but four different types of volcanoes: shield, plug dome, cinder cone, and composite. 

Heritage Driving Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heritage Driving Tour, Indiana

The 90-mile Heritage Trail Driving Tour winds through Amish Country taking you down rural highways, country lanes, and charming main streets. In Goshen, the Old Bag Factory is a turn-of-the-century factory turned shopper’s paradise. Stop in Shipshewana to stroll the shop-lined streets where you’ll find handcrafted items, baked goods, and the Midwest’s largest flea market. Treat yourself to a horse-drawn buggy ride or ride the restored 1906 carousel at the Davis Mercantile. Enjoy a delightful Amish meal at Das Dutchman Essenhaus in Middlebury. The Village Shops include home accents in Dutch Country Gifts, Christmas ornaments in The Cabin, women’s and children’s fashions at The ClothesLine, and, of course, handmade coziness at The Quilt Shop. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roam Free in Greater Zion

Zion National Park is one of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks and (for good reason) many people travel to the state to see its natural wonders but Utah Dixie offers so much more for outdoor enthusiasts. Surrounding St. George are four superb state parks—Quail Creek, Sand Hollow, Gunlock, and Snow Canyon—all offering gorgeous scenery and plenty of ways to enjoy nature including hiking, camping, fishing, boating, photography, cliff diving, and swimming.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These parks are great alternatives to the busier national park particularly on weekends and during Zion’s high season. Expect low entrance fees, uncrowded trails, plenty of wet and wild water sports, starlit campgrounds, and breathtaking scenery. Here’s just a taste of what you can expect.

Located just 15 miles east of St. George, Sand Hollow State Park offers a wide-range of recreation opportunities. With its warm, blue waters and red sandstone landscape it is one of the most popular parks because it has so much to offer. Boat and fish on Sand Hollow Reservoir, explore and ride the dunes of Sand Mountain Recreation Area on an off-highway vehicle, RV or tent camp in the modern campground.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just minutes away from Sand Hollow, Quail Creek State Park offers another reservoir for swimming but in a completely different landscape. The picturesque mountain background with rocky landscape and blue water gives this reservoir a breathtaking view. Quail Lake, a sprawling 600-acre lake in the Quail Creek State Park, fills a valley northeast of St. George. This park has some of the warmest waters in the state and is a popular area for fishing as well.

The Caverns of Senora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Caverns of Senora

Where the Texas Hill Country meets the Chihuahuan Dessert sits thousands of acres of limestone-rich ranch country. Found below the boots and hooves of those who inhabit and work the land is an underground treasure, The Caverns of Sonora. Located 15 miles southwest of Sonora on I-10, the Caverns of Sonora marks the halfway point between San Antonio and Big Bend National Park.

The Cavern is over seven and a half miles long but only two miles of trails are developed for tours. There are five levels of the cave that vary in depth from 20 feet to 180 feet below the surface. The Cavern is known for its stunning array of calcite crystal formations, extremely delicate formations, and the abundance and variety of formations. You’ll find helictites, soda straws stalactites, speleothems, stalagmites, and cave bacon. The cave is a constant 71 degrees with 98 percent humidity which makes it feel about 85 degrees.

Wolfeboro © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wolfeboro, New Hampshire

On Lake Winnipesaukee, Wolfeboro is fast becoming the best lake town in the Northeast. The drive to Wolfeboro is about two hours from Boston and five from New York City. The town center of Wolfeboro is actually positioned directly on Lake Winnipesaukee which offers an expansive 72 square miles of water. Your life in Wolfeboro will be filled with sunset swims at Brewster Beach, ice cream cones at Wolfeboro Dockside Grille & Dairy Bar, and ales and snacks at Lone Wolfe Brewing Company. Treat your family to a boat tour aboard the M/S Mount Washington which has offered cruises on the lake for nearly 150 years.

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

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Lake Mead National Recreation Area is big, it’s diverse, and it’s extreme. Temperatures can be harsh, from 120 degrees in the summer to well below freezing in winter on the high plateaus.

From the mouth of the Grand Canyon, the park follows the Arizona-Nevada border along what was formerly 140 miles of the Colorado River.

Camping at Lake Mead near Las Vegas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Mead is impressive: 1.5 million acres, 110 miles in length when the lake is full, 550 miles of shoreline, around 500 feet at its greatest depth, 255 square miles of surface water, and when filled to capacity, 28 million acre-feet of water. Although much of Lake Mead can only be experienced by boat, a variety of campgrounds, marinas, lodges, and picnic areas around the lake make it possible for non-boaters to also enjoy the recreation area. Most activities are concentrated along the 20 miles of the southwest shore close to Las Vegas. Facilities include two large marinas at Boulder Beach and Las Vegas Bay plus campgrounds, beaches, picnic areas, and the main National Recreation Area visitor center.

Worth Pondering…

“‘Heat, ma’am!’ I said; ‘it was so dreadful here, that I found there was nothing left for it but to take off my flesh and sit in my bones.”

—Sydney Smith

Why RV?

Why RV vacations are the best

Do you want to live life on your own schedule in your own way? Do you want to be part of the landscapes you’ve only looked at in photos? Then you will love the RV lifestyle. Millions of folks have opted to live out their dreams and adventures in a recreational vehicle. Here is why you should too.

Spending time outdoors in Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reason # 1: Convenient Travel

The RV lifestyle is exploding due to COVID. The uptick in the number of camping trips Americans and Canadians are taking is not exactly a surprise given that it allows people to change their surroundings without greatly increasing the risk of contracting COVID. One thing we’ve been reminded of is that spending time outdoors brings a world of physical and mental benefits. Medical professionals advise us to socially distance from one another and tell us that when we spend time with others, it’s preferable to do so outside rather than indoors. This advice seemed tailor-made for the RV lifestyle.

Going for a hike in Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reason # 2: Connect With Nature

A dose of nature does wonders for one’s well being. Anyone who has ever stepped foot in the forest or dipped a toe in a lake or creek likely knows this but nature is a happy-maker. A walk outdoors is more than just a great pick-me-up. It can be a calming and regenerative exercise improving your mood and easing anxiety, stress, and depression. Go outside! Go on a scenic drive! Go to a state park! Go for a hike! And find the peace that nature provides! With an RV, the whole world is right outside your front door, ready to be explored.

Camping at Whispering Hills RV Park, Georgetown, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reason # 3: Common Bond

When you RV, you’re never alone. From families to couples to solo travelers, all RVers have one thing in common: an urge to see the world on their own terms. When you pull into a campground or RV park, you know you’ll be surrounded by likeminded people who make up one of the most tight-knit communities around.

Freightliner Club Rally © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reason # 4: Join a Community

RV memberships and clubs provide numerous services including a community for RVers. One reason for selecting an RV club is for cost savings and discounts on various RV parks. The discounts can vary from 10 to 50 percent and have restrictions on when they are valid. The choice of RV clubs also depends on the location of the campgrounds where the discounts are available and your current and future travel plans.

Staying active while camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reason # 5: Travel with Comfort

Your home comes with you. A comfortable bed. A full kitchen. A restroom. A shower. An entertainment center. In an RV, it’s all with you. And the open road is yours for the taking. And when you RV, you can tailor your adventures from where you go to how and where you sleep to how you keep everyone active and entertained. RVing lets you make every adventure completely your own. It’s your schedule, your wish list, your road map, and your world to explore. Hike, bike, climb, kayak, ride horses, swim, and make the world your playground.

Everything you need is here © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reason # 6: Everything you Need is with You

A pile of books. Your favorite coffee mug. Board games and video games. A cabinet packed with snacks. RV travel allows you to bring the comforts of home anywhere you go which is a relief for people who struggle to fit the essentials into an airplane carry-on. Just be aware that packing too much stuff into your RV can be a safety hazard. Every RV has a cargo carrying capacity—you can find this number on a label typically inside a cabinet or closet. The cargo carrying capacity is the weight of everything—people and stuff—you can safely carry in your RV. Exceeding capacity is dangerous, as it can strain your brakes, axles and tires, and potentially cause an accident.

Enjoying a sunset at Two Rivers Landing, Sevierville, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reason # 7: Family Togetherness

Nothing bonds families together like being together. Breathing the same air. Seeing the same sunrises and sunsets. Bringing on landscapes and campfire stories, not TV shows. RVing brings you closer to natural beauty. And to those you love.

Zip line adventure © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reason # 8: Retire in Style

Your time. Your way. Make the road your new home. Best estimates indicate 750,000 to one million seniors call their RV home—and the ranks are growing. Go anywhere you want. Stay as long as you like. The possibilities are endless and the choices are all yours. So whether you become a full-time RVer, a snowbird, or simply travel from time to time, RVing is a great way to design your own life and your own adventures. Live your dream.

Traveling Scenic Byway 12, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reason # 9: Simply the Best Way to Travel

Anywhere the road takes you, you can go. Travel by RV allows you to fully appreciate the country around you and the people you meet on the way. If you’re not a fan of meeting people, there’s opportunity to avoid them as well. Never before has a vacation method been so affordable, yet so flexible. If you haven’t looked into RV camping you’re missing out on a great thing. RVs are simply the best way to vacation.

Worth Pondering…

No matter where we go in our motorhome, that sense of independence is satisfying. We have our own facilities, from comfortable bed to a fridge full of our favorite foods. We set the thermostat the way we like it and go to bed and get up in our usual routine.