Here’s what a million-plus visitors a year mean to Saguaro National Park

The cactus crush continued at Saguaro National Park in 2023

Stand tall.
Reach for the sky.
Be patient through dry spells.
Conserve your resources.
Think long term.
Wait for your time to bloom.
Stay sharp!

—Advice from a Saguaro

For the third time in the past five years, annual visitation topped 1 million at the park bracketing Tucson.

The 1,010,906 recreation visits logged by the National Park Service (NPS) last year were the third most in Saguaro’s 90-year history, first as a national monument, then a national park. Until 2019, the park had never seen more than 1 million visitors in a single year.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The impact is easy to see. Just drive out to the east end of Broadway or Speedway on a sunny day in spring and try to find a space in one of the trailhead parking lots.

There are cars parked on the street that go half a mile in both directions. You can definitely see the need for increased parking and increased opportunities for people to access the park.

Congestion is also increasingly common at Saguaro’s east and west visitor centers especially in March, typically the busiest month at the park.

Though it varies year-to-year, visitation has increased by almost 50 percent overall since 2013 when Saguaro saw fewer than 680,000 recreation visits. The current surge to 1 million visitors and beyond began in 2017 though it was briefly interrupted by the pandemic which sent the figure back down below 765,000 in 2020.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nationwide, 2023 ranked as the fourth busiest in Park Service history with 325,498,646 visitors at 394 sites managed by the agency from California to Florida and Alaska to Hawaii.

So far, though, Saguaro appears to have avoided many of the problems plaguing other popular parks close to urban areas. The sharp rise in visitor volume has not resulted in an increase in crime, vandalism, or even litter.

The community takes a lot of pride in the park and they’re not going to let things fall apart.

Recent feedback from the public seems to back that up.

As part of a larger visitor use study early last year, officials conducted a survey in the park to find out where people were coming from and what they were there to see and do. More than 1,500 visitors were interviewed at various locations and a sizable majority of them said they found Saguaro to be clean, safe, and not too crowded.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Friends

Even as attendance has exploded in recent years, Saguaro has seen its federal funding flatline preventing the park’s workforce from growing along with its visitation. According to a park’s spokesperson, Saguaro has roughly the same number of uniformed staff now as it did a decade ago.

That’s where the Friends of Saguaro National Park come in.

Since it was founded in 1996, Saguaro’s nonprofit fundraising partner has provided $12 million in support to the park. They are able to provide funding for things the park wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.

For example, the park’s environmental education programs are entirely paid for by the Friends, according to Fred Stula, executive director of the nonprofit group.

Last year alone, the group and its donors supplied Saguaro with $671,000, its largest yearly contribution to date. And that figure did not include the hundreds of volunteers and thousands of hours of work the Friends have provided for trail maintenance and other work.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then there is the group’s Next Generation Ranger Corps Internship Program which has placed more than 100 paid temporary workers at the park since 2015.

The goal of the program is to supply Saguaro with some much needed personnel while helping “diverse young people to get their foot in the door” at the park service and other federal agencies

(58 percent of interns are women and 76 percent come from Latino, Indigenous, or other historically underserved communities).

Nearly every graduate of the program has gone on to work in the environmental field including 38 who have landed jobs with federal agencies. Eighteen former interns are now on the permanent staff at Saguaro.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upgrades coming

The Park Service hopes to address some of its congestion issues starting next year with a major construction project at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center.

The work will more than double the current number of parking spaces and add spots large enough for buses and recreational vehicles. It should also improve visitor safety by rerouting the entrance road between Old Spanish Trail and the fee stations to separate it from the parking lot.

The project represents the first major upgrade to the visitor center parking lot since the early 1950s when fewer than 80,000 people a year visited what was then a national monument limited only to the Rincon Mountains.

President John F. Kennedy expanded the monument to include portions of the Tucson Mountains in 1961 and Congress elevated the land to national park status in 1994.

The final designs and cost estimates for the visitor center upgrade have not been released but according to park officials the work will be funded in part with the additional entrance fee revenue Saguaro has received as a result of its increased visitation.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No changes would be made to Cactus Forest Drive, the iconic, one-lane scenic loop through the Rincon foothills that dates back to the earliest days of the national monument in the 1930s and is considered “part of the historic character” of the park.

The Red Hills Visitor Center in the Tucson Mountains is far newer—and so is its parking lot—but it is also due for its first major renovation since it was built in the 1990s.

The Park Service just launched the design process for that project which will focus on a new layout and all new exhibits for the inside of the building.

Park officials have no immediate plans to expand the parking lots at Saguaro’s most popular hiking spots, namely the Broadway and Douglas Springs trailheads on the east side of the park and the King Canyon trailhead on the west side.

Best advice is come early in the day. By 9:30 or 10 a.m. parking at some locations can be hard to come by.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cactus and crowds

The three busiest years in the history of Saguaro National Park have all come since 2019. Here are the annual recreation visits for the past 10 years, according to the NPS:

  • 2023: 1,010,906
  • 2022: 908,194
  • 2021: 1,079,786
  • 2020: 762,226
  • 2019: 1,020,226
  • 2018: 957,405
  • 2017: 964,760
  • 2016: 820,426
  • 2015: 753,446
  • 2014: 673,572
  • 2013: 678,261
Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Packing the parks

Of the 21 NPS sites in Arizona only two are among the nation’s 10 busiest—and the Grand Canyon isn’t one of them. Here’s where park sites in Arizona ranked on the list of America’s most visited parks in 2023:

1. Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia: 16,757,635 recreation visits

2. Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California: 14,953,882

3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee: 13,297,647

4. Gateway National Recreation Area, New York and New Jersey: 8,705,329

5. Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida and Mississippi: 8,277,857

6. Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.: 8,099,148

7. George Washington Memorial Parkway, Virginia: 7,391,260

8. Natchez Trace Parkway, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee: 6,784,853

9. Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona and Nevada: 5,798,541

10. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona and Utah: 5,206,934

Others sites in Arizona:

13. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona: 4,733,705

75. Saguaro National Park: 1,010,906

117. Petrified Forest National Park: 520,491

146. Montezuma Castle National Monument: 367,239

154. Canyon de Chelly National Monument: 333,349

190. Wupatki National Monument: 215,703

194. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: 186,601

209. Walnut Canyon National Monument: 152,548

214. Coronado National Memorial: 140,089

228. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument: 111,392

232. Tuzigoot National Monument: 102,936

250. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument: 81,519

262. Chiricahua National Monument: 62,582

276. Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site: 54,187

287. Navajo National Monument: 44,180

300. Tumacacori National Historic Park: 37,872

314. Tonto National Monument: 31,216

329. Pipe Spring National Monument: 24,016

370. Fort Bowie National Historic Site: 8,333

Worth Pondering…

A 40-foot saguaro strikes an invincible pose: bristling with defenses, assertively towering over every other living thing in the landscape, seemingly confident in its life span of 200 years or longer.

—Larry Cheek, Born Survivor

The Best National Parks to Visit by Season

Best season to visit each national park

When planning a trip to the national parks one of the most important things to consider is the time of year that you are planning your visit. Most national parks have an optimal time to visit based on factors such as weather, crowd levels, and road closures.

In this article, I cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by two lists that illustrate the best months to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to visit the National Parks by month

Below is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year. Each national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times.

These guides take many factors into consideration: weather, crowd levels, special events, fall colors, the best time to go hiking, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at least one occasion.

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

Best National Parks to visit by month:

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Complete list of the National Parks

This guide covers the best time to visit each national park based on weather, crowd levels, and my personal experiences in the parks. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month by month. I list each of the national parks we have visited in alphabetical order and indicate the best months to visit each of these parks.

This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels.

There are two different ways to use these tables.

If you have a particular month or season that you are planning your trip, you can look at that column (for example: May) and the parks that are listed for that month make great options for your trip.

If you have a park that you would like to visit (for example, Bryce Canyon National Park), scroll down to Bryce Canyon and the months listed are the best times to visit this park.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best parks to visit by month

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to visit national parks by month

  • Arches National Park (Utah): January, March, November, December
  • Badlands National Park (South Dakota): April, October
  • Big Bend National Park (Texas): March, April, November
  • Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah): March, April, November
  • Canyonlands National Park (Utah): March, April, November, December
  • Capitol Reef National Park (Utah): March, April, November, December
  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico): February, July, August, September
  • Congaree National Park (South Carolina): March, May, November
  • Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona): January, April, June, November, December
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina & Tennessee): May, September, October
  • Joshua Tree National Park (California): January, February, November
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park (California): June, July, August
  • Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado): May, September
  • New River Gorge National Park (West Virginia): June, October
  • Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona): February, April, November
  • Pinnacles National Park (California): March, April, November
  • Saguaro National Park (Arizona): January, February, May
  • Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks (California): June, July, August
  • Shenandoah National Park (Virginia): May, September, October
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota): June, July, September, October
  • White Sands National Park (New Mexico): February, March, November
  • Zion National Park (Utah): January, October, November, December

Worth Pondering…

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

—John Lubbock

The Complete Guide to Saguaro National Park

Iconic giant cacti are the stars in this photo-ready Southwestern desert preserve

A 40-foot saguaro strikes an invincible pose: bristling with defenses, assertively towering over every other living thing in the landscape, seemingly confident in its life span of 200 years or longer.

—Larry Cheek, Born Survivor

A sea of towering columnar saguaro cacti stretches out before you like a brigade of soldiers guarding the desert landscape. Formidable with their spiny armor, it’s hard to imagine America’s largest cactus is the species that needs safeguarding.

Found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert, this enduring symbol of the Southwest which requires just the right amount of heat and moisture to survive faces threats such as invasive species. The 91,327 acres that comprise Saguaro National Park in southeast Arizona provide the perfect climate as well as protection for vast forests of saguaro (pronounced Sa-WAH-ro) cacti to thrive.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These desert monarchs can grow upwards of 60 feet tall, weigh more than two tons, and live for two centuries. But while they’re certainly the park’s stars they’re far from the only reason it attracts more than a million visitors annually. For one thing, there are 24 other cactus species ranging from the fuzzy-looking teddy bear cholla to the pancake-shaped Engelmann’s prickly pear.

Despite the harsh desert environment an abundance of flora and fauna flourish here including such native species as the roadrunner, horned lizard, kangaroo rat, and the prehistoric-looking Gila monster. At the park’s higher elevations topping out at 8,666 feet, you’ll find oak woodland and pine forests that are home to black bears and the elusive coati which resembles a raccoon.

Saguaro National Park’s two distinct districts—the western Tucson Mountain District and the eastern Rincon Mountain District—are separated by the city of Tucson. The western district is lower in elevation, has denser patches of saguaro, and is known for its iconic Southwest landscape. The eastern section larger and more mountainous contains six biotic zones and 6,000 plant species and it’s second in biodiversity to the Amazon rainforest.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

President Herbert Hoover established the area as a national monument in 1933 and during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) laid the groundwork for tourism by building walking paths and installing picnic benches and visitor shelters. It wasn’t until 1994 that the area earned national park status.

Today the park’s proximity to Tucson combined with recently installed handicap-friendly amenities ranging from paved walking paths to picnic tables with overhanging ends for wheelchair access makes it one of the nation’s most accessible national parks.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip ​

Approximately 30 miles apart, Saguaro National Park’s eastern and western districts hug Tucson, Arizona’s second-largest city with a population of 541,482. From downtown, you can drive to either park entrance in 20 minutes. The western district gets twice as many visitors as the eastern district thanks in large part to its proximity to the bucket-list Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (see below).

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each district has its own visitor’s center open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Both offer accessibility features including designated parking spaces, accessible restrooms and drinking fountains, paved paths, and captioned orientation programs. Both also have bookstores, information centers, and water-filling stations.

The National Park Service recommends drinking at least one gallon of water per day and during hot summer months at least one quart per hour when hiking. Be sure to have a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and a pack with clothing layers since it can get cold at higher elevations. Neither visitor center has Wi-Fi and cellphone service is spotty throughout the park.

The Red Hills Visitor Center (also called the West District Visitor Center) hosts a daily educational program on the Native American perspective on the saguaro that’s well worth the time.

The Rincon Mountain Visitor Center (the East District Visitor Center) serves as the starting point for the scenic Cactus Forest Loop Drive, an 8-mile, cacti-lined road that you can drive or bike. To reach the hiking trails from the visitor center you must drive into the park on the Loop Drive. The first trailhead with parking is about 2 miles along the drive and begins at the Mica View Picnic Area.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Bajada Loop Drive is the best way to explore the western district’s foothills providing plenty of photo ops at pullouts and picnic areas plus access to trailheads. Although the 6-mile loop is unpaved you certainly don’t need a four-wheel-drive vehicle. It begins at Hohokam Road, a mile and a half west of the visitor center.

Since the park has no concessions pack a picnic lunch. Six picnic areas are accessible by vehicle—two in Saguaro East and four in Saguaro West—and each has a charcoal grill, a wheelchair-accessible pit toilet, and paved ground surfaces.

Saguaro is open daily except for Christmas Day. Annual visitation would almost certainly be higher if the summer months weren’t unbearably hot with triple-digit daytime temperatures. If you do visit in the summer, plan activities for early morning or the end of the day. This may be the desert but June 15 through September 30 is monsoon season so expect severe afternoon thunderstorms and even flash floods.

Cool temperatures ranging from the high 50s to the mid-70s make November to March prime time to visit.

And in spring—specifically the last two weeks of April through the first week of June—the park is a photographer’s paradise with cacti sprouting vivid blooms in hues of white, fuchsia, and canary yellow. June is a favorite time in the park. The flowers are usually at their peak. It’s an amazing sight to see but this isn’t the time of month to hike. Take in the blooms on a scenic drive.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat ​

You won’t find any lodging options in Saguaro National Park or even camping options in the park’s western section. To experience the desert, reserve one of the eastern district’s six designated backcountry campsites ($8 a night) which can be accessed only on foot and require a base level of fitness to reach. Limited facilities include vault toilets. Water is unreliable, so you should pack your entire water supply for your trip, carry a filter, and check current water reports at the visitor center (520-733-5153).

Manning Camp, the home of former Tucson mayor Levin Manning that sits atop the Rincon Mountains is a tough uphill day hike but worth the effort. To do this hike in a day takes a solid eight hours but you go from seeing saguaro forest and Gila monster lizards to aspen groves and owls in one day. It’s a unique ecosystem up there.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can take the Douglas Spring Trail or the Arizona Trail both of which have campgrounds along the way if you prefer to break the trek up into two days. The original Manning cabin built in 1905 now hosts trail crews and researchers, and from April through September a ranger is stationed here. The six tent sites are nestled in a conifer forest at nearly 8,000 feet and temperatures rarely exceed 85 degrees—a welcome relief from the valley floor’s sweltering heat. A waterfall fed from a large pond makes this one of the rare sites with a reliable water source.

The amenity-rich Gilbert Ray Campground sits just outside the west entrance to the park close to the Brown Mountain Loop trail. It features 130 RV sites ($20 per night) and five designated tent sites ($10 per night) plus picnic tables and modern restrooms with handicap accessibility.

RV parks ranging from luxury resorts to the basic are less than a 30-minute drive away in Tucson.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do ​

Hike

With 192 miles of marked hiking trails, Saguaro National Park offers treks for visitors of all abilities. No matter your fitness level, be sure to plan your hikes to avoid the midday desert heat and pack plenty of water. And remember, those photogenic cacti are covered in spines so keep to the trail to avoid getting pricked.

For an easy stroll that doubles as an intro to the desert ecosystem walk the quarter-mile Desert Ecology Trail along the Cactus Forest Drive in the East District or the half-mile Desert Discovery Trail off of Kinney Road in the West. Both paved trails include resting benches and interpretive exhibits on the park’s plants and animals.

The 0.7-mile Mica View Trail in the east which begins at the Mica Picnic Area parking lot was recently flattened and hardened to meet ADA standards and support wheelchairs. On this hike, you’ll likely glimpse Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers in their saguaro nest holes and you’ll take in views of Tanque Verde Peak and Mica Mountain.

If you want to challenge yourself, try the eastern district’s Tanque Verde Ridge Trail by the Javelina Picnic Area off of the Cactus Loop Drive. The strenuous 18-mile hike gains 4,750 feet of elevation and passes through all six of the area’s biotic zones.

On the west side, access the King Canyon trailhead outside of the park off of Kinney Road and zigzag up to the summit of 4,687-foot Wasson Peak, the highest point in the Tucson Mountain Range. Approximately 7 miles round trip with 1,939 feet of elevation gain, this moderate hike passes rock walls carved with ancient petroglyphs and an old stone miner’s hut.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bike

In this, one of the country’s most bike-friendly national parks, take your pick of four excellent scenic loops for road cyclists and mountain bikers. The popular and aptly named Cactus Forest Loop next to the East District Visitor Center runs for eight miles on a paved, rolling road that you’ll share with vehicles. On the park’s west side, the six-mile Bajada Loop Drive off of Kinney Road, a gravel path passes a giant forest of saguaros.

Watch the sunset

The desert sunset may rival the saguaros as the park’s most Instagrammed natural wonder. As dusk falls, the setting sun turns a brilliant red that paints the sky in pinks and oranges worthy of a Monet painting. On the easy-to-access Desert Discovery Trail off of Kinney Road in the West District, catch sunset views through a forest of saguaros. On the east side, the Cactus Forest Loop Drive remains open until 8 p.m. giving you plenty of time to pull off and savor sunset at the Javelina Rocks Overlook near the loop’s end.

Learn

Rangers typically lead four to six different daily talks and interpretive tours that explore topics including desert survival, the lifespan of a saguaro, and misunderstood predators such as the mountain lion. Both park visitor centers have cactus gardens with interpretive signs you can explore on your own or with a ranger. Also, both districts co-host monthly stargazing nights with a local astronomy group. Participants must sign up in advance.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

View petroglyphs

Most of Saguaro National Park’s rock art dates back to the prehistoric Hohokam culture. Abstract designs including spirals and squiggly lines as well as drawings of animals, humans, and astrological objects have been etched onto the surface of sandstone and other rocks throughout the park.

The best place to view the petroglyphs is along the Signal Hill Trail which starts at the Signal Hill picnic area off of Hohokam Road in the West District. Starting at the Signal Hill Picnic area, the 0.3-mile trail gently climbs to a hill with more than 200 petroglyphs believed to have been created between 550 and 1,550 years ago.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway towns​

Tucson is flanked on either side by Saguaro’s western Tucson Mountain District and the eastern Rincon Mountain District making it an ideal base for day trips. A dream destination for fit foodies, Tucson owns bragging rights to being one of America’s most bike-friendly cities as well as having America’s first and only UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation.

On the Loop, a network of 131 miles of paved bicycle paths you can access Saguaro National Park as well as a plethora of other parks, shops, and restaurants on two wheels. Transit Cycles and Bicycle Ranch are the city’s go-to bike shops.

For a hearty breakfast before hitting the park, head to Prep & Pastry’s east side location on Grant Avenue and order the oven-roasted sweet potato hash and breakfast sandwich with avocado. After working up an appetite biking or hiking in the park reward yourself with a prickly pear mojito and a braised lamb tostada at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails run by James Beard Award-winning chef Janos Wilder.

Head to Penca, an upscale Mexican eatery in the heart of downtown for the best happy hour in town: two tacos for $5 and $5 sangria.

Two not-to-miss open-air shopping centers anchor downtown’s hip Mercado District on the west end of the city’s modern streetcar line: Mercado San Agustín and the MSA Annex. At the latter, a collection of 10 indie businesses housed in repurposed shipping containers pick up nostalgic Saguaro National Park-inspired gear at Why I Love Where I Live and home goods crafted by local artisans at Mesa.

The burgeoning town of Marana, an alternate gateway to the West District is located about 15 miles north of the visitor center. Don’t miss the pork carnitas at La Olla Mexican Café and stop by Catalina Brewing Co. to try craft ales brewed with local ingredients such as prickly pear fruit and mesquite flour.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route ​

Located down the road from the West District Visitor Center, the Arizona–Sonora Desert Museum ranks as the state’s second-most-visited attraction behind the world-famous Grand Canyon. Part natural history museum, part desert botanical garden, and part zoo, this 98-acre, indoor-outdoor attraction showcases more than 55,000 plants from 1,200 native species along 2 miles of gravel and paved trails.

View native animals such as coyotes, raptors, hummingbirds, ocelots, and piglike javelinas in re-created habitats. Learn about the area’s geology in the Earth Sciences Center and view nature-inspired exhibits throughout the year at two on-site art galleries.

Geology fans detour to 2,400-acre Colossal Cave Mountain Park, a 15-minute drive southeast of Tucson in the community of Vail to explore its extensive underground cave network. One of North America’s largest dry caves it took more than two years to map the 2 miles of passageways open to visitors.

Guided tours, which range from 40 minutes to 3.5 hours, require a decent fitness level, as you’ll be descending 350-plus stairs, scrambling down ladders, and crossing rock bridges to view stalactites and stalagmites sculpted throughout millions of years.

Back above ground, you can mount a horse at the park’s La Posta Quemada Ranch for a guided trail ride.

If you’re a fan of art and history, visit the village of Tubac, 40 miles south of Tucson. Established in 1752 as a Spanish presidio, Tubac has emerged as a destination for artists with top-notch galleries and studios. For tasteful souvenirs, this is your one-stop shop for turquoise and silver jewelry, Navajo blankets, and mesquite furnishings. 

Tumacacori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historical Park, less than a 10-minute drive from the village explores the region’s Spanish colonial past. The expansive grounds include a museum, the ruins of three Spanish mission communities, and the state’s second-oldest church.

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

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

Fact box

Location: Southeast Arizona

Size: 91,327 acres

Trails: 192 miles

Elevation: 2,180 to 8,666 feet 

Main attraction: The iconic saguaro cactus

Entry fee: $25 for a 7-day vehicle pass including all passengers; $20 for an annual Senior Pass (62+)

Best way to see the park: On foot or by bike along the Bajada Loop Drive or the Cactus Forest Loop

When to go: Winter and spring

Worth Pondering…

Stand tall.
Reach for the sky.
Be patient through dry spells.
Conserve your resources.
Think long term.
Wait for your time to bloom.
Stay sharp!

—Advice from a Saguaro

10 Visitor Centers You Shouldn’t Miss

10 National Park Visitor Centers that are worth exploring

National Park Visitor Centers offer opportunities to explore the nature and history of the parks, watch park films, and get trip-planning information. Park stores within visitor centers offer books and other products related to the park.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: Stopping at the National Park Visitor Center is a must!

Our first National Park Visitor Center experience happened by chance. We stumbled upon the visitor center on our way into a park. Stopping at the visitor center wasn’t even on my radar at the time. The visitor center is now the first place that we stop when going to a new national or state park, state, city, or town and I am saddened when I see people pass up on their opportunity to stop at one.

When I was a National Park newbie (for lack of a better word) I really didn’t know what to expect from park Visitor Centers. I thought that they were just a place to stretch your legs and maybe grab a quick snack from a vending machine. But, I was SO WRONG! The National Park Visitor Centers are so much more than any ol’ dingy rest area off of any ol’ winding interstate!

Below are a few reasons that I sing the praiss of National Park Visitor Centers and highly encourage you to not pass them up!

The ability to travel and explore new places is one of the best parts of the RV lifestyle. There’s no better way to truly experience the country. You get to know the areas you travel through and you have the opportunity to participate in local events and visit interesting landmarks.

Visitor centers are one of the best ways to learn about a new area. There are countless visitor centers scattered across the country and they serve a wide variety of purposes. Some of them educate, others entertain, and others showcase interesting features of the area. Lots of national and state parks have at least one visitor center but some businesses, churches, museums, and other interesting locations have them as well.

Since I’m talking visitor centers, here’s a great related article: Why Stop At Visitor Centers?

It’s hard to define what the best visitor centers are but I’ve selected 10 fantastic options below. Check out my list and consider adding one or two of these to your upcoming travel plans. For your convenience, I’ve also provided some additional resources.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

If you’re a fan of geology or just want to see something incredibly unique, it’s hard to top Carlsbad Caverns. The main attraction of this area is the caverns themselves and there are numerous guided tours available.

Enjoy the hands-on exhibits to help you understand how the cavern was formed, discover the animals and plants that make the desert their home, and be amazed by the history of the park.

Before starting on your cavern adventure you may want to enjoy the free, 16-minute, park film Hidden World showing at the visitor center every 30 minutes. Check at the information desk for times.

Browse through a variety of gift items including t-shirts, hat, mugs, and Native American art. You can also enjoy snacks, drinks, and hot and cold meals. The bookstore offers a variety of items including books, photos, passport books, and junior ranger products.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

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

2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to many interesting historical sites and beautiful natural landmarks. Begin your exploration of the park at a visitor center. Here you can pick up a park map or newspaper, have your questions answered by a ranger, and purchase books and guides to the park. For current ranger-led activities, visit the park’s calendar for details.

Four visitor centers are located within the national park at Sugarlands, Oconaluftee, Cades Cove, and Clingmans Dome.

Near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Sugarlands Visitor Center is an excellent starting point as you enter the park’s North District. Learn about the park’s plants and animals with natural history exhibits. Enjoy ranger-led programs conducted seasonally. Peruse the park bookstore and shop. Access public restrooms and drink vending machines. The Backcountry Permit Office is here, too.

Sugarlands is a top-rated visitor center.

Near Cherokee, North Carolina, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is an ideal starting point as you enter the park’s South District. Explore cultural history exhibits. Enjoy ranger-led programs conducted seasonally. Peruse the park bookstore and shop. Find public restrooms and drink vending machines. The adjacent Mountain Farm Museum contains a collection of log structures including a farmhouse, barn, smokehouse, applehouse, corn crib and others.

About half-way through the Cades Cove Loop Road, pause to speak with park staff and visit various exhibits at the Cades Cove Visitor Center. Learn about Southern Mountain life and culture and see a gristmill (operates spring through fall), the Becky Cable house, and other historic structures. Enjoy seasonal ranger-led activities and peruse the park bookstore and shop. Public restrooms are available.

Enjoy sweeping views of the Smokies, weather permitting, and get your park questions answered at the Clingmans Dome Visitor Contact Station Peruse a small bookstore and shop. Public restrooms are available.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Grand Canyon National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon draws crowds from all over the country. The park offers several visitor centers including the South Rim (Grand Canyon Village), Desert View, and the North Rim. Since they may be closed during different periods of the year, be sure to check their availability. All of the visitor centers provide a great experience but the South Rim center is especially noteworthy. Trip planning and hiking information is available through exhibit kiosks and sidewalk signs outside of the building.

Park in one of four large parking lots and get your first look at Grand Canyon by walking to nearby Mather Point. With your vehicle parked at the Visitor Center, you can also board free shuttle buses and be transported around the village and out to scenic overlooks.

Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder, the park’s 20 minute orientation film, is presented on the hour and half-hour on the large screen in the theater.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Zion National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park, one of five national parks in Utah (Mighty Five) is known for its distinctive red rock and otherworldly geological formations.

Located near the South Entrance of the park, the Zion Canyon Visitor Center is an excellent place to begin your exploration of Zion Canyon. Park rangers and outdoor exhibits will help you plan your visit and make the most of your time. Inquire at the Zion Canyon Wilderness Desk about permits for backpacking, canyoneering, and other trips into the wilderness. Visit the bookstore for maps, books, and gifts.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

The Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the main facility in the North Unit of the park. Stop by to talk with rangers, explore museum exhibits, check out the Fossil Preparation Lab, or visit the Badlands Natural History Association bookstore. There’s something for everyone at the visitor center.

At the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, visitors to Badlands National Park can get answers to their questions from rangers at the information desk. There, park staff can distribute maps and other park materials, provide directions and local area orientation, hand out Junior Ranger booklets, and answer any questions you might have about earth science, wildlife, history, and more. There is also a self-serve passport stamping station at the information desk.

If you’re not stopping by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center during your trip to the Badlands, you can also access rangers at the White River Center, via email or by calling (605) 433-5361

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

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

6. Sequoia and Kings National Parks, California

The park’s visitor centers, ranger stations, and a museum offer opportunities to explore the nature and history of these parks, watch park films, and get trip-planning information. Park stores within visitor centers offer books and other products related to the park. All purchases in these stores support park programs through the Sequoia Parks Conservancy.

While the parks are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, not all visitor centers are open year-round. Some close seasonally.

Foothills Visitor Center is one mile past the Ash Mountain entrance station along the Generals Highway. Stop here for information, maps, books, gifts, and restrooms. Browse exhibits about the ecology and human history of the foothills and join a free ranger-led program.

Giant Forest Museum is housed in a historic market in the Giant Forest sequoia grove at 6,500 feet elevation. Explore exhibits about sequoias and learn why this landscape grows the biggest of big trees. Stop here before you explore the grove. During wilderness permit non-quota season, permits can be picked up at a self-issue station outside the museum.

Kings Canyon Visitor Center is in Grant Grove Village at an elevation of 6,500 feet. Learn about three regions in Kings Canyon National Park: giant sequoia groves, Kings Canyon, and the High Sierra. Watch a 15-minute movie. A park store sells books, maps, and educational materials.

Located in the conifer zone at an elevation of 6,700 feet, Lodgepole Visitor Center provides opportunities to view exhibits, get trip planning advice, get a wilderness permit, watch several park films, or shop at the gift shop. New exhibits immerse visitors in the wilderness environments of the parks, from the foothills to the highest peaks and to underground caves, as well as exploring the human history of the southern Sierra Nevada with tactile exhibits and soundscapes from every park environment.

Cedar Grove Visitor Center is next to the South Fork of the Kings River in mixed conifer forest at an elevation of 4,600 feet. Learn about the natural and cultural history of the Cedar Grove area. Nearby services include accessible restrooms and a pay phone.

Located in a mixed-conifer forest at 7,600 feet, the Mineral King Ranger Station houses some exhibits on Mineral King’s human and natural history. Food storage canisters are available. Obtain wilderness permits here.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaro National Park is separated into two districts: Rincon Mountain District (East) and Tucson Mountain District (West), each with their own visitor center.

Red Hills Visitor Center (Saguaro West) Tucson Mountain District has cultural and natural history exhibits of the Sonoran Desert.

The visitor center at Saguaro East is smaller and more rustic. There is an interesting and well done exhibit just outside the center that walks you past about 15 major plants that live in the Sonoran Desert. You can see the living plant and plaque with a name and description of each plant.

Both visitor centers are open all year from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm everyday except Christmas where you can view  a 15 minute program called Voices of the Desert giving a Native American perspective of the Sonoran Desert. There is also a bookstore operated by the Western National Parks Association.Various Ranger guided programs are held throughout the year. During the winter months (November to mid-April) several different programs are offered daily.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Congaree National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

The Harry Hampton Visitor Center is open year-round. It is the main hub for Congaree National Park which is the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the U. S. and home to one of the largest concentrations of champion trees. The center is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. 

Visitors can find the Congaree National Park Passport Stamp at the center. Restrooms and a small gift shop can be found at the center. The Whippoorwill Cafe & Bakery and A Charming Country Cottage Nestled in the Woods are restaurants near the center.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Arches National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches Visitor Center is located at the entrance of Arches National Park just off U.S. Highway 191 about 5 miles north of Moab. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. except December 25. The center offers indoor and outdoor exhibits, a bookstore, and restrooms that can be accessed 24 hours a day.Visitors can learn about the park’s history, geology, climate, and wildlife.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Petrified Forest National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park is connected by the 28-mile-long Main Park Road which winds past viewpoints, trailheads, and other attractions. Visitors can get up close to petrified logs by wandering along trails in the park’s southern section. Petrified Forest National Park is a high-desert geologic treasure chest that features loads of petrified wood and eye-popping views of The Painted Desert, which sweeps through the park

Painted Desert Visitor Center is located at exit #311 off of I-40 in Petrified Forest National Park. It provides information, brochures, book sales, exhibits, restrooms, and a gift shop.The center is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm year-round with extended hours as staffing permits.

The Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center is located to the south and offers exhibits, books and gifts, limited food service, and restrooms.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Worth Pondering…

National parks are sacred and cherished places—our greatest personal and national treasures. It’s a gift to spend a year adventuring and capturing incredible images and stories in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.

—Jonathan Irish, photographer

The Top 30 Places to Visit in Arizona

There are a lot of places to visit in Arizona—from admiring the Grand Canyon to experiencing cultural tourist attractions throughout its desert landscape

Arizona’s landscapes are nothing short of stunning. Towering buttes meet hills covered with saguaro cacti. The otherworldly landscape that often feels better suited for Mars than our planet is grounded by what has become Arizona’s other great draw: the proof of human history found in the sites and settlements of Ancestral Puebloans. These archaeological sites which include cliff dwellings, sandstone homes, and petroglyphs dot the state offering a reminder of the people who came before.

With a deep human history and a stunning natural landscape, there is plenty to explore in Arizona, including cities, national parks and monuments, and outdoor attractions. This guide is split into specific sections as Arizona has many different types of places to visit.

So let’s get started.

Best cities to visit in Arizona

Arizona isn’t all desert and canyons; the state has numerous cities that deserve visiting. The following cities are some of the best places to visit in Arizona.

Phoenix from Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Phoenix

Phoenix is the sunny state capital of Arizona. Located in central Arizona, Phoenix is surrounded by mountains and desert landscapes. Its location seems unlikely for a city with skyscrapers and luxury hotels shooting up from what (before 1881) was once sand and dust. However, its incongruous allure is all part of Phoenix’s charm.

Phoenix is the best place to visit in Arizona for a big-city experience. The city is bursting with creativity and attractions including more art galleries than you could see in a whole week.

Phoenix is also home to the Musical Instrument Museum, Natural History Museum, Phoenix Bat Cave, and Desert Botanical Garden.

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Tucson

Tucson is another Arizona destination worth repeat visits with history, culture, and outdoor activities galore. Plus, its food game is beyond your wildest expectations. Tucson is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. Tucson gave us the Sonoran dog—a bacon-wrapped street dog forged in nearby Sonora and packed into a bun filled with burrito toppings.

Home to the University of Arizona, the city nurtures a vibrant downtown arts scene with the contemporary Tucson Museum of Art forming the backbone of a flourishing community of painters, glass-blowers, and jewelers. When the heat drops at night, that same downtown comes alive with bars, breweries, and upscale restaurants embracing the uniquely Tucson convergence of Mexican and Arizona influences, a dose of green chiles, open-faced quesadillas (cheese crisps), and those exquisite hot dogs

View a great variety of plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. Two miles of paths lead through 21 acres of displays. Live demonstrations and tours daily.

A desert oasis, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is a hiker’s paradise. Tucked in a canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains in the Coronado Forest, it is easily accessible from Tucson. Ride the narrated shuttle bus and you can get off and back on at any of the stops for a picnic, hike, or a walk back.

One of the top places to visit, San Xavier del Bac is a Spanish Catholic Mission. This national historic landmark was founded in 1692 and welcomes more than 200,000 visitors per year. The church is considered the finest Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States.

Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Cottonwood

If Phoenix is best for a big-city feel, Cottonwood is best for the opposite. Part river town, part wine trail, and part historic hub: Cottonwood offers a fun and lively scene that sets it apart from the arid desert to the south and the soaring mountains to the north.

Although it might be best known as a gateway to the nearby red rocks of Sedona, Cottonwood has plenty of charms of its own. They start with the quaint Old Town district and branch out to the banks of the lushly green Verde River and the nearby historic towns of Clarkdale and Jerome.

Any visit to Cottonwood should start with a stop in the Historic Old Town, a district that dates back to the early 1900s when it was a center for the area’s mining and smelter industry. Today, many of the buildings feature the rock and brick architecture of the 1920s and ’30s. Old Town antique stores, wine-tasting venues, six galleries, and three hotels!

Best National Parks to visit in Arizona

What would a trip to Arizona be without visiting a national park? Arizona’s national parks are renowned for their incredible attractions including the famous Grand Canyon.

You can explore the hiking trails, and biking trails, take off-roading tours, or book a scenic helicopter flight—it is up to you. These are the best national parks to visit in Arizona.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is located just outside Tucson. It is a great place to visit for stunning scenery and hiking trails while visiting Southern Arizona.

The park is most known for its cacti. Indeed, in this national park, you’ll find some of the largest saguaro cacti in the U.S. Some of the cacti live up to 200 years old and grow at a very slow rate. The national park feels like an old American West movie scene and has over 90,000 acres to explore.

Valley View Overlook Trail is a short walk that should take around 20 minutes to complete while hiking to Signal Hill Petroglyphs, a must for anyone interested in ancient art and civilizations.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Petrified Forest National Park

If Petrified Forest National Park sounds fantastic, it’s because it is. However, if you arrive expecting a lush forest full of beautiful trees, you’ll be shocked. The national park is a barren landscape full of fossils and petrified, sliced tree trunks.

The petrified wood is scattered across the national park and you can drive the length of the park in around an hour or two—stopping at whatever spot catches your eye. Some not to miss places include Rainbow Forest Museum, Painted Desert, and Crystal Forest Blue Mesa hiking trails.

Wondering how this natural phenomenon occurs? Petrification of trees takes place when trees have been buried underground without oxygen for thousands of years. Over time, the decaying wood becomes mineralized and turns into fossilized stone creating a replica of the original form, just in a different material.

For a unique natural experience, Petrified Forest National Park is one of the best places to visit in Arizona. We recommend choosing this national park for anyone intrigued by natural mysteries and wanting a memorable experience in Arizona.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon! What can I say? The park is one of the best places to visit in the U.S., never mind Arizona. Visiting the Grand Canyon is at or near the top of most people’s bucket list.

South Rim and North Rim are the most popular areas to explore the Grand Canyon. The North Rim is the lesser-seen side of the Grand Canyon and is best for those who want a quieter place to experience this amazing wonder. South Rim is much busier and is packed with different hiking trails.

A popular hiking route is the Bright Angel Trail. The trail is well-maintained and relatively easy. It follows a side canyon, past cliff faces, and various switchbacks before finishing at Plateau Point. Plateau Point has stunning views of the canyon and the park’s scenery.

Of course, you can always splurge on a helicopter ride instead. Many tourists opt to view the canyon from above, which is one of the most exhilarating things to do in Arizona.

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

7. Canyon De Chelly National Monument

Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located in the Navajo Nation in the northeastern part of the state. For those who want to experience nature in the north, it is easily one of the best places to visit in Arizona.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument covers over 80,000 acres and is home to the Spider Rock spire. The spire is a 700-foot-high sandstone rock. Spider Rock spire gained its shape by gradual erosion over time and experts believe it was once connected to a ridge. Nowadays, it makes an unusual natural attraction and a great photograph.

You can drop by the Canyon de Chelly Visitor Center for expert local guidance on things to see and do. However, you should make sure to try a hiking trail or scenic drive.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

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.

There are 28 different species of cacti in the monument ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion. These cacti are all highly adapted to survive in the dry and unpredictable desert. They use spines for protection and shade, thick skin, and pulp to preserve water, unique pathways of photosynthesis at night, and hidden under their skin are delicate to sturdy wooden frames holding them together.

The monument’s namesake, the organ pipe cactus can live to over 150 years in age, have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height, and will only produce its first flower near the age of 35.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Chiricahua National Monument

About 27 million years ago, this Land of Standing-Up Rocks was formed when a violent volcanic eruption spewed forth thick, white-hot ash. This eruption was a thousand times greater than the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helen in Washington. As the ash cooled, it fused into an almost 2,000-foot-thick layer of volcanic rock known as rhyolite. The Chiricahua Mountains were created as well during this time. Over the eons, wind, water, and ice sculpted what are today the formations that makeup Chiricahua National Monument.

There are hiking trails, both short loops and longer treks that take you back down the mountain and deep into the gorges and other splendors of this spectacular place. More than 20 miles of trails wind through the park. Duck on a Rock, Totem Pole, and Big Balanced Rock are a few of the more famous formations you will see.

Best State Parks to visit in Arizona

Arizona’s 34 state parks have something for everyone from contemplative nature walks to stargazing to camping.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Catalina State Park

With the Santa Catalina Mountains beckoning in the distance and canyons and seasonal streams dotting the landscape, Catalina State Park provides a delightful respite in the Tucson area. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The park’s 5,500 acres provide miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the nearby Coronado National Forest.

More than 150 species of birds call the park home. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking. The state park offers 120 campsites with electric and water utilities suitable for RVs of all lengths. 

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Lost Dutchman State Park

Since the 1840s, many have claimed to know the location of the Peralta family’s lost gold mine in the Superstition Mountains but none of these would-be fortune-seekers became more famous than the Dutchman Jacob Waltz. The German prospector purportedly hid caches of the precious metal throughout the Superstition Wilderness. Fact or fiction, Waltz’s windfall gave the park its name.

You might not find gold during your visit but other treasures include great hiking and biking trails and 138 RV camping sites (68 with electric and water) with sunset views.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Picacho Peak State Park

Picacho rises from the desert seemingly out of nowhere, its sharp buttes like lighthouses guiding travelers home. It wasn’t always a sight for road-weary eyes, though. In 1862, Confederate and Union soldiers clashed here in the Battle of Picacho Pass, a fight marked in history as the westernmost battle of the Civil War.

These days during the spring, vibrant wildflowers carpet the ground; come winter, the challenging trails that ascend the sunny peaks draw thrill-seeking hikers.

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Red Rock State Park

Oak Creek runs for nearly 2 miles throughout this 286-acre state park adorning the sandstone mesas and red boulders with leafy riparian habitats. If we’re judging Sedona hiking hot spots, it doesn’t get much better than the park’s juniper-studded trails and vortex-framed vistas.

Red Rock State Park is one of the most ecologically diverse parks in Arizona which is why it makes sense that it serves as an environmental education hub. From the Visitor Center’s interactive exhibits and film presentations to guided nature walks and full moon hikes programming offers insight into Sedona’s majestic landscape.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Alamo Lake State Park

As far as lakeside parks go, this one in western Arizona has no beach and not much shoreline hiking. But! It’s considered one of the best bass fishing lakes in the country. Anglers: Pack your gear and reserve one of the 15 full-service camping sites or cabins where the front porch makes for an ideal spot to spin yarns about the catch of the day.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Patagonia Lake State Park

South of Sonoita, the blue waters of Patagonia Lake glisten for 265 acres. Unlike the craggy escarpments that border many desert lakes here it’s all rounded corners and gentle slopes. The surrounding hills ease down to the tall grasses that line the shore. A trail meanders from the beach to Sonoita Creek which formed the lake when it was dammed.

A marina provides boat rentals: canoes, pontoons, rowboats, and paddleboats. In a former life, this land was the home of the Sobaipuri and Papago tribes, both related to the Pima Indians. Today, it’s the home away from home for campers, birders, swimmers, sunbathers, boaters, and anglers.

Best Outdoor Attractions

After exploring the best national and state parks and cities, let’s look at Arizona’s largest category—its outdoor attractions.

Arizona is perfect if you love being outdoors and experiencing natural attractions. The state is full of things to see and do outdoors including visiting Antelope Canyon and Monument Valley. Ready to be inspired? Let’s take a look.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Monument Valley

Monument Valley is located along the Arizona-Utah border. If you want to visit easily, overnight at the Valley’s View Campground, and what a view you’ll enjoy especially at sunset. The valley is one of the most famous landscapes in the U.S. and easily one of the best places to visit in Arizona.

The valley is over 90,000 acres and is full of hiking trails and spectacular rock formations. It is most known for its towering sandstone buttes which you can experience on scenic drives or hiking trails. Don’t miss Forest Gump Point, the iconic viewpoint used in famous movies and is an important filming location in cinematic history.

The valley is a great place to cut through if you are planning an Arizona road trip. There are many things to see while driving through the valley and the scenery is perfect for memorable road tripping.

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Lake Powell

If you are heading up to the Arizona-Utah border it is well worth detouring to Lake Powell. The lake is a stunning artificial body of water situated between Monument Valley and Grand Canyon National Park. It is a beautiful place to visit in Arizona. The lake’s bright blue water and orange sandstone surroundings cut a picture-perfect scene.

The lake is fed by the Colorado River and covers over 2,000 miles of shoreline. The Rainbow Bridge National Monument is a significant attraction on the lake and the vast stone arc is the largest natural bridge in the world. It is an excellent attraction to combine with enjoying the lake itself.

Many people spend a day or two staying along the shores of the lake. You may wish to visit on a day trip or book a campsite so that you can stay overnight. Full-service sites are available.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

18. Montezuma Castle National Monument

Fascinated by ancient culture and archaeological sites of inhabitation? Montezuma Castle National Monument is the place to visit. The site is home to several cliffside dwellings, built and lived in by Indigenous People around 1100 to 1425 AD.

Sadly, access inside the dwellings has now been prohibited in an understandable attempt to protect the site from excessive damage. However, visitors can take a virtual tour inside the houses. They look incredible from the outside and you can enjoy numerous hiking trails for different views.

Desert Botanical Garden © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

19. Desert Botanical Garden

I mentioned the Desert Botanical Garden when discussing Phoenix. The garden is located in Papago Park in the center of Arizona’s capital city. However, the Desert Botanical Garden is worthy of a spot on our list in its own right.

Why is the Desert Botanical Garden so spectacular? The 150-acre garden has over 50,000 desert plants and is the ideal place to visit for a convenient desert experience. The botanical garden is an easy and fun alternative for those who don’t have time to visit major desert locations like Saguaro National Park.

Glen Canyon Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Glen Canyon Dam

Glen Canyon Dam is situated in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a one million-acre reserve encompassing biking trails, hiking trails, and Lake Powell.

Planning a trip to Glen Canyon National Recreation Park to visit Lake Powell? I recommend taking a detour to visit the Glen Canyon Dam. The dam is a hydroelectric power plant and has become an iconic attraction along the Colorado River.

Visitors can take boat tours to view Glen Canyon Dam up close or even fly over the dam for a flight experience. The 710-foot infrastructure is incredible from a distance and even more impressive up close. Of course, to save a bit of money, you can always walk across Glen Canyon Dam Bridge where you’ll still have great views over the dam.

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

21. Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Lake Mead is another impressive artificial attraction. The lake has the highest water capacity of any U.S. reservoir and sits on the Nevada-Arizona border. If you love water activities and lakeside living, Lake Mead is one of the best places to visit in Arizona to unwind and relax.

Allow time to take a Lake Mead cruise as the contrast between desert and an oasis-like body of water is striking and best experienced from the water itself. You can also fish and boat on the lake.

If you are planning a road trip, Lake Mead is ideally located en route to Las Vegas. It is worth detouring to enjoy the lake and consider combining it with a visit to the nearby Hoover Dam.

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

22. Hoover Dam

Once the tallest dam in the world, the Hoover Dam has a nostalgic kind of power. While it no longer holds that grand title, it is still one of Arizona’s best places to visit. Visitors quickly appreciate its power and strength. It is said that the dam could withstand the force of Niagara Falls which gives you an excellent perspective on how strong it is.

You can view the Hoover Dam from afar or drop by the Hoover Dam Visitors Center to book a guided tour. Tours typically include access to the Hoover Dam tunnels, an elevator ride to the top, and special access to functional rooms throughout the building.

If you are interested in architecture or just want to see a national historic landmark up close, the dam is great to visit. It is also combined with a trip to Las Vegas as the dam sits on the Nevada-Arizona border.

Jerome State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Jerome State Historic Park

Fancy indulging in a bit of history? Jerome State Historic Park is a fantastic place to visit in Jerome. The state park has a couple of acres surrounding Douglas Mansion which has been transformed into a quirky mining museum.

Visitors can wander through two floors of informative exhibits plus outdoor gardens. The museum balances general mining stories and the local town’s history. You can learn about region-specific minerals and mining processes through various mediums including cinematic videos.

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

24. The Superstition Mountains

The Superstition Mountains cover 160,000 acres and are full of gorgeous mountainous and desert scenes. That is not what makes this place famous, though; it is the lost gold mines.

Legends of gold have kept mining companies and independent hunters searching the mountains for years. Many hunters have hit the jackpot and found lots of riches. You can join the crowds or find non-gold-related entertainment in the mountains.

You can visit the Superstition Mountains Museum, explore the surrounding Tonto National Forest, or hike along one of the various trails. These mountains are one of the best places to visit in Arizona for adventure.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

25. Sedona

A magnet for outdoorsy types, Sedona enjoys a picturesque location at the base of Oak Creek Canyon surrounded by 1.8 million acres of national forest land. You could easily get swept away in all the activities to be enjoyed nearby from hiking and biking to rafting and fishing but the town itself is also well worth exploring. Thanks to its longstanding connection to the art world—surrealist painter Max Ernst and his wife Dorothea Tanning moved here in the 1940s—there are more than 80 galleries to explore as well as street art and performing arts centers.

More places to visit in Arizona

These destinations are special additions to my guide on the best places to visit in Arizona. Whether they are a museum or sacred tribal lands they don’t fit into the outdoor tourist attraction category. I’ve given them a category of their own.

Here is my final subsection, my special list of more places to visit in Arizona.

Chapel of the Holy Cross © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

26. Chapel of the Holy Cross

The Chapel of the Holy Cross is one of the most unique places to visit in Arizona and there’s no way we couldn’t add this unique church to my list.

While I’m not placing the church in the outdoor attraction category, its exterior is a beautiful sight. The church is wedged between two sandstone buttes and has large, plain glass windows that give it a modern, chic design. The Chapel of the Holy Cross is not your typical church.

You can enter the church to look around or join a service if you wish. The church is near Sedona and plenty of other attractions so it isn’t too much of a detour to make.

Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

27. Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is situated on the outskirts of Tucson. However, the museum deserves a place on this list in its own right.

The museum is a bit of everything from a natural history museum to a zoo and a botanical garden. Arizona Sonora Desert Museum covers 98 acres and includes an aquarium section and live animal exhibits plus flora displays in the botanical garden section. There is also an art gallery for visitors to enjoy.

You could easily spend a whole day at the museum. The museum is a chance to experience multiple attractions at once.

Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

28. Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway

Looking for a scenic drive? Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway is an incredible, relatively short scenic drive that you can enjoy from Tucson. Short enough to comfortably squeeze into a day yet long enough to provide diverse scenes and attractions, this scenic byway is a great place to drive.

Mount Lemmon Highway starts near the outskirts of Tucson.

I recommend stopping at Babad Do’ag Scenic Overlook, Molino Canyon Vista, Thimble Peak Vista, Windy Point Vista, and Geology Vista Point. There are quite literally dozens of hiking trails and trailheads along the highway as well. You can easily park up and take a detour on foot.

Allow extra time again once you reach Mount Lemmon’s peak. There is Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, Mount Lemmon Sky Observatory, and a Fire Lookout Station to visit. Mount Lemmon has a small town near the mountain top where you can grab refreshments and do some light shopping.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

29. Tombstone

A relic of the Wild West that refused to become relegated to the history books, Tombstone has a legacy stretching back some 140 years. The Cochise County town started life in 1877 when prospector Ed Schieffelin arrived here in the hunt for silver. He struck lucky discovering huge reserves of the stuff—as well as large gold deposits—and the town boomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Unlike many similar places, Tombstone didn’t become a total ghost town. Today, it’s filled with everything from saloon-style restaurants to Western boutiques, all paying homage to the days when prospectors and merchants ran riot here. 

Watson Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Watson Lake

Although it may not be as well-known as big hitters like the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest, Watson Lake is certainly up there with Arizona’s most beautiful landscapes. This stunning natural lake situated just four miles from downtown Prescott provides a breathtaking backdrop for several outdoor pursuits including swimming, hiking, boating, and kayaking. For the best all-round tour, hike the six-mile Peavine Trail which loops around its granite boulders and follows along the route of the former Santa Fe Railway providing plenty of scenic vistas along the way. 

The Grand Canyon State is packed with wonderful activities and tourist destinations. Visiting Arizona is guaranteed to be memorable and you’ll stay well entertained throughout your stay. The state has so much to offer, whether you want a typical desert experience, a quirky tourist attraction, or a cultural immersion.

Have a fantastic trip. I hope you manage to experience at least a few of these best places to visit in Arizona.

Worth Pondering…

Newcomers to Arizona are often struck by Desert Fever.

Desert Fever is caused by the spectacular natural beauty and serenity of the area.

Early symptoms include a burning desire to make plans for the next trip south.

There is no apparent cure for snowbirds.

The Best National Parks to Visit in March

If you are seeking the best national parks to visit in March, this guide’s for you! It will detail eight beautiful National Parks to visit in March, why you should go to them, and what to expect during this month.

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.

Planning a trip to America’s national parks in March but don’t know which ones to visit? March brings warmer temperatures to most of the US. Travel begins to pick up during this month both because of the warmer weather and because families are hitting the road for spring break. There are many great national parks to visit in March which I cover in this guide plus eight bonus parks and two road trip ideas that links several of these national parks together.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

This guide is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Roads can close in the national parks at any time so I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip. 

Visiting the National Parks in March

March is a great month to visit the national parks. With the warmer temperatures and the beginning of spring, the list of parks that you can visit without braving freezing temperatures gets larger. The days are getting longer, flowers start to bloom, and in some parts of the US, trees begin to get their first leaves.

Overall, park visitation still remains low for the year but there are a few hotspots that get busier as people visit the national parks for spring break. Even so, crowds are still quieter than the summer which is the busiest time to visit most national parks.

Best National Parks in March

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Arches National Park

Location: Utah

This small, easy to visit national park is a joy to explore. It’s also the feature photo for this post.

You can see several arches and unique rock formations without ever stepping out of your car. With just a little bit of walking you can visit many of the top sights in Arches National Park such as the Windows and Double Arch. And for those who like hiking don’t miss the Devils Garden Trail, a thrilling hike where you get to see eight arches and hike on a primitive trail.

Why visit Arches in March: March is a great time to visit Arches National Park because the weather is getting warmer and crowds are still relatively low for the year. In 2022, Arches National Park had 142,000 visitors in March. Peak visitation for that year was in May when 172,000 people visited the park. If you want to visit Arches with even lower crowds plan your visit from December through February but be prepared for freezing temperatures.

Weather: In March, the average high is 62°F and the average low is 37°F. Rainfall is very low. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 7:25 pm.

Top experiences: Hike to Delicate Arch, see Balanced Rock and the Fiery Furnace, visit Double Arch, Turret Arch, and Windows Arch, hike Park Avenue.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Devils Garden Trail. To reach Landscape Arch, one of the most iconic arches in the park, it is only 1.6 miles round trip. But for the ultimate adventure, continue past Landscape Arch to Double O Arch and Dark Angel and return on the Primitive Trail.

How much time do you need? One day in Arches is all you need to see the highlights but it will be a very busy day. With two to three days, you can visit the park at a more leisurely pace or go off the beaten path.

Plan your visit

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Canyonlands National Park

Location: Utah

Canyonlands National Park is one of my favorite national parks. Why? The landscapes, the hiking trails, and the off the beaten path experiences make this one of the top parks for those who crave adventure.

Journey below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa for an unforgettable experience. Drive the twisting Shafer Canyon switchbacks onto the White Rim and then spend a few days driving through remote landscapes. Called the White Rim Road, this is one of the best experiences in the national park system.

You can also explore The Needles, where zebra-striped rocks form one of the most unique hiking destinations in the US.

Why visit Canyonlands in March: Just like Arches, park visitation remains relatively low and the warmer temperatures make March a better time to visit than the winter months. Canyonlands only gets a fraction of the visitors that flood Arches National Park so this park will feel delightfully empty compared to Arches. March is also a good time to drive the White Rim Road since permits are a little easier to get than late spring through early fall.

Weather: The average high is 54°F and the average low is 35°F. Rainfall is low. Even though Canyonlands sits next to Arches National Park it is at a higher elevation so the temperatures are a bit lower here.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 7:25 pm.

Top experiences: Visit the overlooks on Island in the Sky, watch the sunrise at Mesa Arch, go hiking in The Needles, drive Shafer Canyon Road, hike below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa, and explore The Maze.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Drive or mountain bike the White Rim Road. This is a 100-mile unpaved road that makes a loop around the Island in the Sky mesa. It takes 2 to 3 days to do this drive. It can be done in the winter but snow can close Shafer Canyon Road and cold temperatures will make camping uncomfortable for some people.

How much time do you need? You need at least two full days in Canyonlands National Park. Spend one day in Island in the Sky and one day in the Needles. But even more time is better if you want to venture deeper into the park.

Plan your visit

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Capitol Reef National Park

Location: Utah

Capitol Reef National Park is an underrated gem in the national park system.

This national park is full of many wonderful surprises. With an amazing scenic drive, hiking trails that rival those in Zion, rugged, remote areas to explore by 4×4, short, easy slot canyons, historical landmarks, and even delicious pie, this is another one of my favorite national parks.

Most people drive right through the heart of the park visiting the sights along Highway 24 which are nice. But those who venture farther into the park either on the hiking trails or the backcountry roads are rewarded with incredible views of remote, rugged landscapes.

Why visit Capitol Reef in March: Temperatures are finally getting a bit warmer and crowd visitation is relatively low. You could still have some cold mornings but Capitol Reef warms up nicely during the day and the cooler temperatures make this a great time to go hiking.

Weather: In March, the average high is 57°F and the average low is 34°F. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 7:30 pm.

Top experiences: Drive the 16-mile round-trip drive along Scenic Drive, drive Capitol Gorge Road, hike to Hickman Bridge, and watch the sunset from Sunset Point, hike to Cassidy Arch, and Loop the Fold.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate Adventure: For the ultimate adventure, drive the Cathedral Valley Loop. This rugged, remote district of Capitol Reef National Park is one of the best backcountry experiences in the national parks if you like exploring by 4WD.

How much time do you need? Plan to spend three to four days in Capitol Reef. This gives you enough time to explore and hike the trails in the core of the park (along Scenic Drive and Highway 24) and venture into the backcountry, either in Cathedral Valley or by looping the fold.

Plan your visit

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Bryce Canyon National Park

Location: Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is a fantasyland of hoodoos, bizarre rock formations, and sandstone pillars.

This is an extraordinary place to visit and its unique landscape sets it apart from other national parks. Although Bryce Canyon may not have the same sweeping, expansive vistas as the Grand Canyon, it’s still a breathtaking experience the first time you see this view.

Why visit Bryce Canyon in March: For the chance to see Bryce Canyon with a dusting of snow. Temperatures are a bit warmer than January and February but snowfall is a possibility especially at the beginning of the month so you don’t have to brave frigid temps for the chance to see Bryce Canyon covered in snow.

Weather: In March, the average high is 46°F and the average low is 23°F. There is a good chance of snow and on average Bryce Canyon receives about 13 inches of snow in March. Bryce Canyon has the highest elevation of the parks in Utah’s Mighty 5 making this the coolest one to visit (pun intended).

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 7:35 pm.

Top experiences: Some of the best viewpoints are right along the rim which is easily accessible by car or the shuttle (mid-April to mid-September): Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point. Hike the Queens Garden and Navajo Loop, a 3-mile hike past some of the best scenery in the park. Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Point are also nice viewpoints.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Fairyland Loop Trail, an 8-mile strenuous hike.

How much time do you need? One day is all you need to see the views from the rim and hike one to two short trails in the park. I recommend another day or two for additional time to hike into the canyon. You won’t regret it.

Plan your visit

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Pinnacles National Park

Location: California

Pinnacles National Park preserves and protects the mountains on the eastern end of Salinas Valley. These mountains are the remnants of an extinct volcano. The rocky pinnacles are a popular rock climbing destination and wildflowers in the spring draw the biggest crowds of the year. This park is also one of the few locations where you can spot the California condor in the wild.

This is one of the newest national parks (it became a national park in 2013) and least visited national parks (it was the 15th least visited park in 2022 with 275,023 visitors).

Why visit Pinnacles in March: March through May is the peak blooming season for the flowers in Pinnacles National Park. 

Weather: The average high is 68°F and the average low is 38°F. March is the end of the rainy season getting about 3 inches of rain during this month.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 7:12 pm.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: See the wildflowers in the spring, hike the High Peaks Loop, hike the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, explore the Balconies cave, spot California condors, enjoy the view from Condor Gulch Overlook, and go rock climbing.

How much time do you need? Pinnacles National Park can be visited in one busy day but for the best experience spend two days here which gives you enough time to visit both sections of the park.

Plan your visit

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Big Bend National Park

Location: Texas

Isolated, remote, wild, and rugged…this is Big Bend National Park.

Located in the southwestern corner of Texas within the Chihuahuan Desert is an extraordinary mountain range that is a haven for hikers, backpackers, and outdoor enthusiasts.

This is one of the most remote parks in the lower 48 states so crowd levels tend to be low all year. Even when it is at its busiest, Big Bend feels rather quiet.

Why visit Big Bend in March: We visited Big Bend in March and had a great experience. The weather was warm and in early March, crowds are low. The second and third weeks in March get busy because this is when Texans go on spring break. If you can, plan your visit for the first week in March to take advantage of great weather and low crowds.

Weather: The average high is 74°F and the average low is 47°F. Rainfall is very low especially this time of year. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 8 am and sunset is at 8 pm.

Top experiences: Hike the Lost Mine Trail, go star gazing, hike Santa Elena Canyon, go for a drive on Maxwell Scenic Drive, visit Boquillas del Carmen, hike to Balanced Rock, and hike to Emory Peak, the highest peak in the Chisos Mountains.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate Adventure: For the ultimate adventure in Big Bend go on a half-day to multi-day canoeing trip on the Rio Grande.

How much time do you need? Spend at least three to four days in the park. Because of its large size and remote location, it takes a while to get here and you need a few days to explore it, so four days should work for most people.

Plan your visit

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Congaree National Park

Location: South Carolina

Congaree National Park protects the oldest old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States.

This is one of the smallest, least visited national parks in the United States (it was the 12th least visited park in 2022 with 204,522 visitors). A visit here is quick and easy to plan.

Walk the boardwalk trail through the forest, go kayaking or canoeing on Cedar Creek, go birdwatching and fishing, and, if you like, venture farther into the park on a number of other woodland trails.

Why visit Congaree in March: This is a good time to visit Congaree because it’s warm and mosquitoes aren’t too much of an issue (the worst time for mosquitoes is from late spring through summer). March is one of the wetter months to visit Congaree so there is also a good chance that you will see some flooding in the forests which is a very unique sight to see (the peak time for flooding is the winter months).

Weather: In March, the average high is 68°F and the average low is 43°F. Rainfall is above average for the year with park getting about 4 inches of rain this month.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 7:30 pm.

Top experiences: Walk the Boardwalk Loop Trail, go canoeing or kayaking on Cedar Creek, hike the Weston Loop Trail, and hike to the General Greene Tree.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure go on a multi-day canoe trip on the Congaree River.

How much time do you need? One day in Congaree is all you need to see the highlights. Walk the boardwalk trails and go for a canoe trip on Cedar Creek.

Plan your visit

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. White Sands National Park

Location: New Mexico

White Sands is a small, easy, fun park to visit. This national park protects the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. Sledding on the dunes is one of the best things to do here but you can also hike out farther into the dunes on several different hiking trails or take a ranger-guided tour.

Why visit White Sands in March: White Sands is one of the warmer national parks to visit in March and with temperatures in the low 70s the weather is great for hiking and exploring. We visited White Sands in March and had a wonderful experience. It’s cool enough to do a long hike without getting hot and the mild midday temperatures make this a great time to spend all day on the dunes. Just be aware that March is the busiest month to visit the park.

Weather: In March, the average high is 71°F and the average low is 33°F. This is one of the driest months to visit the park.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 7:15 pm.

Top experiences: Drive Dunes Drive, go sledding in the gypsum dunes, walk the Dune Life Nature Trail, take a ranger-guided hike, and go backcountry tent camping. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Alkali Flat Trail. This trail makes a 4.5-mile loop through the gypsum dunefield. It’s the longest, toughest hike in the park but your treat is stunning views of untouched dunes.

How much time do you need? For the best experience, plan on spending one full day in White Sands National Park. Hike the Alkali Flat Trail first thing in the morning, before the crowds arrive and the temperatures climb. Midday, go sledding on the dunes and have a picnic lunch. You can also do one of the shorter hiking trails. At the end of the day, take the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll.

Plan your visit

4 more parks to visit in March

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

I would have included Zion as a top pick for March since the weather is gorgeous this time of year, but, and this is a big but, crowd levels skyrocket in March. In 2022, about 170,000 people visited Zion in February. In March, that number grew to 446,000 people. And that wasn’t even the highest month for visitation…June was a busier month with 570,000 visitors! 

The trend for traffic to jump from February to March is not unique to 2022. This has been occurring for the last 20 years.

If you plan to do a Mighty 5 road trip in March (it’s a great one!) you can include Zion, just be prepared for large crowds.

Grand Canyon National Park

In March, temperatures are beginning to warm up and with that the Grand Canyon begins to draw more crowds. Even though visitation picks up in March, it’s still a lot quieter to visit the park now than during the busy summer months.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

The weather is pretty much perfect in Saguaro in March with daily highs of 75°F and low rainfall. But this is the by far busiest month of the year to visit the park so keep that in mind while planning your visit.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Like Saguaro, March is the busiest month to visit Carlsbad Caverns. But the weather is pleasant and this is a great time for a Texas-New Mexico road trip so if you also have plans to visit Guadalupe Mountains, White Sands, and/or Big Bend, it is worth including Carlsbad Caverns in your travel plans.

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in March

Chiricahua National Monument

The most noticeable natural features in the park are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Carved into a cliff 1,500 feet above the ground and featuring more than 20 rooms constructed in multiple stories, it’s a remarkably example of Sinaguan architecture. Today a short trail takes you to a viewing spot below the ruins, and museum exhibits help you imagine what life was like in this unforgiving desert landscape.

Tuzigoot National Monument

Tuzigoot is an ancient village or pueblo built by the Sinagua. The pueblo consisted of 110 rooms including second and third story structures. The first buildings were built around A.D. 1000. The Sinagua were agriculturalists with trade connections that spanned hundreds of miles. The people left the area around 1400.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

You can see many of Canyon de Chelly’s top sights from the rim roads but you’ll get a deeper understanding of its significance on a jeep tour with a Navajo guide. The only self-guided hike, the White House Trail, zigzags 600 feet down (and back up) to the spectacular White House ruins. Don’t miss the staggeringly tall spire known as Spider Rock; it rises 830 feet from the canyon floor.

March road trip ideas

Here are two great road trip ideas for March. The best time for both of these is in early March to avoid spring break traffic. If you are planning your visit for spring break, make your reservations well in advance because this can be a busy time to visit some of these national parks.

Texas & New Mexico

Combine Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, and White Sands into one big road trip. Start in Las Cruces, New Mexico or El Paso, Texas and drive this loop.

Utah’s Mighty 5

Visiting all of Utah’s Mighty 5 (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks) is one of America’s best road trips. To do this, you need 10 days or more.

Saguaro

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month

Worth Pondering…

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

—John Lubbock

10 Amazing Places to RV in February 2024

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

The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.

—Eden Phillpotts

English author and poet Eden Phillpotts was known for his prolific output of novels, plays, poetry, and short stories. In 1918 he published A Shadow Passes, a collection of reflections and poetry that capture the author’s keen observations about the world around him. In his contemplation of the buckbean plant (aka Menyanthes), Phillpotts marvels at the beauty of its “ragged petals finer than lace.”

This attention to detail serves as a broader contemplation of the natural world emphasizing the innumerable potential wonders that remain unnoticed and unappreciated until our understanding and awareness deepen. Beauty and magic are always present; we need only to keep our minds and hearts open to the possibilities that lie in wait all around us.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in January. Also check out my recommendations from February 2023 and March 2023.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. A history of cowboys, shootouts, and outlaws in the southwest

The rich and illustrious history of Tombstone is well-known by many Western film buffs but few places are as prepared to tell its story as the Tombstone Courthouse. This Arizona State Historic Park is a wealth of knowledge on everything from the founding of the city of Tombstone to the first-hand accounts of those present at the gunfight at O.K. Corral.

Tombstone as a city was established in 1877 when Edward Schieffelin discovered silver mines in the area. Tombstone Courthouse was the center of Cochise Country from 1882 to 1931 when the city seat was moved to Bisbee.

The courthouse was built in the shape of a Roman cross and is 12,000 square feet. The Tombstone Courthouse is the oldest courthouse still standing in Arizona. During its tenure as the county courthouse seven men were sentenced to hang for various crimes—five of which were hung together after a botched robbery left at least four others dead.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Best national park to visit in February: Saguaro National Park

Located in southern Arizona, Saguaro National Park is one of the warmest parks to visit in February. Temperatures in the park soar from late spring through early fall making the winter months the best time to visit Saguaro. With an average high of 70°F and a very low chance of rain, this is a great park to visit in February.

Saguaro National Park is named for the Saguaro Cactus which only grows in the Sonoran Desert.

This park is split into two different sections, the Tucson Mountain District and the Rincon Mountain District. You can visit both in one very busy day but you’re best to spread them out over two separate days.

Plan your visit:

Temecula Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Temecula Valley wine region

Nearly 50 wineries populate the Temecula Valley and the rolling-hills region: known for award-winning Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir. Think of Temecula as the Napa Valley of southern California being only an hour drive from San Diego and a couple hours from LA.

Just west of the valley wine region, Old Town Temecula is a fantastic place to eat and people watch. However, getting through Old Town involved ten stop signs and ample opportunity for street café onlookers to witness my first gear stall.

Plan your visit:

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. West Texas is mostly flat and desolate, right? Not Quite! 

Big Bend National Park is an exception to people’s commonly-percieved notions that West Texas is flat and desolate. Big Bend National Park is the quintessential hidden gem of the state. At 801,000-plus acres, it’s one of the largest national parks in the United States yet it’s also one of the least-visited parks. The low-visit rate might be because the park is nowhere close to a populated city center.

Big Bend National Park is perhaps most appealing in winter when temperatures stay in the 60s during the daytime. This weather is perfect for hiking and biking the 200 miles of trails that the park offers. Big Bend offers the best of both mountain and desert terrain and with the Rio Grande River bordering the park, you can also take part in water activities.

Plan your visit:

Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. I still dream of Galveston

This exciting old city is located on a barrier island off the Gulf Coast via Highway 45. It’s just 50 miles south of Houston but it leaves the hustle and bustle of the big city behind and slows the pace down to a barefoot beach town.

The Gulf of Mexico laps the sandy beaches that stretch the full length of the island. You can enjoy the relaxing beachfront atmosphere, take a dip in the warm gulf waters, walk along the seawall, or go through the shops in the historic downtown area where cruise ship passengers disembark to get a taste of this historic city that was established in the early 1800s when it was still part of Mexico.

The Spanish influence is evident in much of the old-town architecture. Check out the Bishop’s Palace, historic churches, and the Moody Mansion for examples.

Read more:

Bay St. Lewis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. A place apart

There’s St. Louis, and then there’s Bay St. Louis which dubs itself a place apart. Just 51 miles away from the one-of-a-kind hub that is New Orleans, Bay St. Louis couldn’t feel further from the hustle and bustle. The town’s prime spot on the Mississippi Sound, an embayment of the Gulf of Mexico provides a glorious stretch of white-sanded beach with virtually no crowds. In fact, this strip of shoreline is known as Mississippi’s Secret Coast.

Just off of Beach Boulevard, you’ll find Old Town Bay St. Louis, a walkable area full of local shops and eateries. Spend an afternoon strolling through Old Town, browsing the beach boutiques and art galleries.

Plan your trip to be in town on the second Saturday of each month when Old Town puts on a giant art walk complete with live music, local merchants, and other special events.

Check this out to learn more: Bay St. Louis: A Place Apart

Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Mardi Gras

Mark Twain once wrote that a traveler “… has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi Gras in New Orleans.”

Of the hundreds of Louisiana festivals, none tops Mardi Gras. Spectacular parades, unbelievable costumes, music, dancing, food, drink—take your pick of places to indulge and enjoy.

The biggest celebration occurs in New Orleans but nearly every community in the state has its own version of the annual party. Wherever you go, you can find the style that best suits you including tons of family-friendly celebrations.

Mardi Gras is here and there are so many parades and activities for every member of your family. You’ll find the perfect revelry for every age.

Nothing gets Louisianans together like a good party. And when it comes to Mardi Gras season, you’ll find plenty of ways to celebrate with the kids and grown-ups alike all the way up until Fat Tuesday (February 13, 2024).

Read more:

Mardi Gras King Cake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Birthplace of Mardi Gras

When you think of Mardi Gras you likely think of New Orleans, beads, and the rowdiness of the French Quarter. The Big Easy has a long and illustrious history with Fat Tuesday, but, believe it or not, it’s not the birthplace of the celebration in America. For that, you have to go about 150 miles east to Mobile, Alabama.

On Mardi Gras, clusters of costumed people travel from the banks of Mobile Bay on Government Street, up old and tightly crowded Dauphin Street, and into the center of the city.

The secret societies that dominate the celebration organize themselves on floats just as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did before them. Crowds along the street cheer them on and marvel at the costumes catching trinkets and MoonPies thrown from above.

Read more:

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. A dose of southern hospality

Savannah, Georgia, is a charming historic Southern town on the Atlantic coast, just across the Savannah River from South Carolina. The city is known for its beautiful municipal parks, historical features such as antebellum homes, and the horse-drawn carriages that ferry passengers around the cobblestoned streets of the historic district.

Stroll the ancient oak-lined paths of Forsyth Park and then take a walk through the Juliette Gordon Low Historic District followed by comfort food at a Southern cafe and you’ll never want to leave Savannah. February is the end of Savannah’s low season and a great time to beat the crowds as long as you are willing to don a jacket.

Worth Pondering…

All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.

―Charles M. Schulz

The Best National Parks to Visit in February

If you are seeking the best national parks to visit in February, this guide’s for you! It will detail five beautiful National Parks to visit in February, why you should go to them, and what to expect during this winter month.

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or at lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.

Planning a trip to the US national parks in February but don’t know which ones to visit? In February, much of the country is cold and covered in snow but there are plenty of parks you can visit to escape the wintry conditions. In this article, I cover the best national parks to visit in February plus several bonus parks and a road trip idea.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

This guide is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Roads can close in the national parks at any time so I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip. 

Visiting the National Parks in February

In February, much of the United States is cold and blanketed in snow. Like January, park visitation remains relatively low in February making this a great time to visit most of the parks with low crowds. 

Best National Parks to visit in February

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Petrified Forest National Park

Location: Arizona

Visiting Petrified Forest National Park is like taking a step back in time. The petrified logs date back hundreds of millions of years to a time when this land was once lush and fertile. These trees fell and became the mineralized versions of their original forms even before dinosaurs walked the earth.

This national park beat all of my expectations. I imagined a barren desert with a few colorful hills, littered with some ancient, petrified stumps. Instead, we were treated to the colorful, uniquely beautiful hills of the Painted Desert, giant, petrified trees that puzzle the mind, and the chance to walk backcountry trails without another person in sight.

Petrified Forest is a very cool, underrated, and easy park to visit.

Why visit Petrified Forest in February: Even though temperatures are on the chilly side, this is a great time to visit Petrified Forest because crowd levels are low and this makes a great February road trip destination with several other parks in Arizona.

Weather: The weather is surprisingly cool in February. The average high is 53°F and the average low is 25°F. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 6 pm.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: View the Painted Desert from the overlooks, see the petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock, see the Teepees on Petrified Forest Road, walk the Blue Mesa Trail, and see the petrified wood at Crystal Forest and along the Giant Logs Trail.

Ultimate adventure: The Blue Forest hike is a favorite experience in Petrified Forest National Park. This 3-mile trail takes you through the badlands, one of the most beautiful parts of the park.

How much time do you need? One day is plenty of time to drive through the park, visit the overlooks, and hike a few short trails but I recommend a second day to explore hikes you missed on the first day.

Plan your visit

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Saguaro National Park

Location: Arizona

Located in southern Arizona, Saguaro National Park is one of the warmest parks to visit in February. Temperatures in the park soar from late spring through early fall making the winter months the best time to visit Saguaro.

Saguaro National Park is named for the Saguaro Cactus which only grows in the Sonoran Desert.

This park is split into two different sections, the Tucson Mountain District and the Rincon Mountain District. You can visit both in one very busy day but you’re best to spread them out over two separate days.

Why visit Saguaro National Park in February: For the near perfect weather conditions. With an average high of 70°F and a very low chance of rain, this is a great park to visit in February. These great weather conditions do draw big crowds so expect busy trails and make your travel arrangements in advance.

Weather: The average high is 70°F and the average low is 42°F. Rainfall is very low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 6:10 pm.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Drive Bajada Loop Drive and hike the Valley View Overlook Trail and the Desert Discovery Nature Trail, see the Signal Hill Petroglyphs, and drive the Cactus Forest Drive. Just outside of the park is the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum which is well worth the time.

How much time do you need? You will need two days to see the highlights of Saguaro National Park; one for each unit. With more time, you can go backpacking or hike the longer, more challenging hiking trails and visit the above mentioned Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum.

Plan your visit

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. White Sands National Park

Location: New Mexico

With sand as white as the snow, this might look like a winter wonderland, but in February, this is one of the warmer parks to visit in the United States.

White Sands National Park is home to the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. These pure white dunes create a fun place to explore, for both kids and adults. Hike out into the dunes, learn about the wildlife that calls this park home, and go sledding on sand as white as the snow.

Why visit White Sands in February: February is one of the quietest months to visit this park in terms of crowd levels. Although the days start off cold, the temperature warms up very nicely during the day making this one of the warmer parks to visit in February.

Weather: In February, the average high is 63°F and the average low is 28°F. This is one of the driest months to visit the park although rainfall is low all year.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:45 am and sunset is at 5:50 pm.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Drive Dunes Drive, go sledding in the gypsum dunes, walk the Dune Life Nature Trail, take a ranger-guided hike, and go backcountry tent camping. 

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Alkali Flat Trail. This trail makes a 4.5-mile loop through the gypsum dune field. It’s the longest, toughest hike in the park but your treat is stunning views of untouched dunes.

How much time do you need? For the best experience, plan on spending one full day in White Sands National Park. Hike the Alkali Flat Trail first thing in the morning, before the crowds arrive and the temperatures climb. Midday, go sledding on the dunes and have a picnic lunch. You can also do one of the shorter hiking trails. At the end of the day, take the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll.

Plan your visit

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Location: New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is an underground fantasy land of limestone chambers, stalactites and stalagmites, and long, twisting tunnels.

I’m not a big fan of caves and caverns but I found this place to be amazing. If you want to see stalactites, stalagmites, ribbon-like curtains, totem poles, and unique formations called soda straws, Carlsbad Caverns is the best cave system in the US to put on your list.

Why visit Carlsbad Caverns in February: In terms of park visitation, February is one of the quietest months to visit Carlsbad Caverns (park visitation spikes in March with Spring Break). The caverns remain a consistent 56°F all year. With good weather and low crowds, February is one of the best months to visit Carlsbad Caverns and it can be combined on a road trip with White Sands National Park (mentioned above).

Weather: In February, the average high is 61°F and the average low is 37°F. Rainfall is very low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:40 am and sunset is at 5:44 pm.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Tour the caverns on your own or on a ranger-guided tour.You can also go star gazing, hike a surface trail, or go on a scenic drive. 

How much time do you need? A half to a full day is all you need to explore the caverns on your own and/or take a ranger-guided tour.

Plan Your Visit

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Joshua Tree National Park

Location: California

Located in southern California, Joshua Tree National Park makes a great winter destination especially for those who like hiking and rock climbing. Joshua Tree is a top rock climbing destination in February since temperatures are relatively mild.

Most visitors spend their time along Park Boulevard where the Joshua Trees and enormous piles of boulders form the iconic landscapes that many people imagine when they think of Joshua Tree National Park.

You can also combine a visit to Joshua Tree with Palm Springs, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Julian, and/or San Diego (more great spots to visit in the winter).

Why visit Joshua Tree in February: With its mild weather this is one of the best hiking and rock climbing destinations in the US in February. However, it is also one of the busiest months to visit Joshua Tree (but March tends to be the most crowded time to go).

Weather: In February, the average high is 61°F and the average low is 37°F. Rainfall chances are low. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:30 am and sunset is at 5:30 pm.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top Experiences: Hike the Hall of Horrors, see Skull Rock, explore Hidden Valley, hike to an oasis, hike to Arch Rock and Heart Rock, drive Geology Tour Road, visit the Cholla Cactus Garden, and go stargazing.

How much time do you need? Ideally, you need at least two full days in Joshua Tree National Park. This gives you enough time to visit the highlights, go rock climbing or take a lesson, hike a few trails, and go on the scenic drives.

Plan your visit

3 more national parks to visit in February

Here are 3 more great national parks to visit in February.

Grand Canyon National Park

February is one of the least crowded months to visit Grand Canyon National Park. If you don’t mind cold temperatures and the chance of snow, this is a great time to visit the Grand Canyon if you prefer low crowds.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is a chilly place to visit in February but if you want to visit the park with low crowds, this is a good month to go. February is the second least-visited month to go to Zion with January being the quietest month of the year.

Arches National Park

Like Zion, temperatures are low but so are the crowds. In February, you can visit Arches National Park relatively crowd free.

Bonus! 3 NPS sites to visit in January

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

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.

Chiricahua National Monument

The most noticeable natural features in the park are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

The Hohokam people built these structures when they were near the height of their power some 700 years ago. They created villages that extended from the site of modern-day Phoenix to southern Arizona.

February road trip idea: Arizona road trip

Arizona makes a great February road trip destination.

On this 10 day Arizona road trip, you can visit three national parks (Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon, and Saguaro) and three NPS sites (Organ Pipe, Chiricahua, and Casa Grande Ruins) plus visit Monument Valley, Antelope Canyon, and Sedona. February is a great month for this road trip before temperatures heat up and people start hitting the road for their spring break trips.

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month:

Worth Pondering…

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

—John Lubbock

14 Outdoor Adventures You Can Only Have in Arizona

Adventurers, take note: Whatever you’re into, you can get into it in Arizona

Sunny skies, year-round perfect weather, and stellar sunsets complemented by rugged backcountry terrain make Arizona an adventurer’s dreamland. From the North Country’s pine-forested rim that drops into the depths of the Grand Canyon to the picturesque Sonoran Desert landscape of central and southern Arizona, all the ingredients for the quintessential American adventure recipe are at your fingertips.

Check my list of some of the can’t-miss experiences, possibly life-changing opportunities, and adventures that give a glimpse into the incredible backcountry world of the amazing state of Arizona.

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Search for the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine

Nothing more perfectly sums up Arizona’s sense of adventure than the search for the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. The truth behind the legend is harder to pin down than a Gila monster but the gist is that somewhere hidden in the Superstition Mountains just east of Phoenix is a gold mine once tended by German immigrants Jacob Waltz and Jacob Weiser.

The two men pulled untold amounts of the precious metal from the mountain before a murderous run-in with—depending on who you ask—Apaches or each other left all who knew the mine’s location dead.

To this day, adventurers set out into the Superstitions in search of the mine. Sadly, more than a few have met the same fate as Waltz and Weiser.

If you’re not particularly interested in hunting for gold there are still more than a dozen access points into the surrounding wilderness that can take you on a short day walk or a multi-day expedition. Give the Peralta Trail a shot—this nearly five-mile hike is one of the state’s most popular.

Mount Lemmon Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Longboard (or bicycle) down Mount Lemmon

Rising 9,000-plus feet in the north of TucsonMount Lemmon is the highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains and for longboarders one of the truly epic runs in the country. The 20-plus miles of highway are paved smooth and offer great views and a challenging ride.

Don’t take my word for it—check out the plentiful YouTube videos. And watch out for the cactus!

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim

You simply can’t have a conversation about Arizona adventures without mentioning the Grand Canyon. The 24-mile Rim-to-Rim hike is an immense challenge that gives those who complete it an intimate understanding of the canyon that’s impossible to attain without dipping below its surface.

Start on the North Kaibab Trail and descend 6,000 feet to the bottom of the canyon where the Colorado River awaits. On the way down, you’ll pass through every ecosystem that exists between Canada and Mexico. Cross the Colorado and connect with the Bright Angel Trail and return to the surface along the South Rim passing hundreds of millions of years’ worth of history preserved in the surrounding rocks.

Most guides suggest planning on two to five days to complete the trail at a regular pace.

4. Ride horses around the legendary landscape of Sedona

If the red-rock cliffs that preside over Sedona don’t make you pause it’s time to book a trip to Mars because Earth has nothing left to offer. In the early evening, the spires reflect a reddish-purple hue that no photo could ever hope to do justice. Whether or not you subscribe to New Age beliefs, it’s easy to understand why people say there’s energy here that’s different than anywhere else on the planet.

There are many ways to explore the desert scenery around the cliffs but none gives you the chance to interact with nature on its own terms quite like riding a horse. Horseback trips typically last between one and three hours with sunrise and sunset options available. Beyond the red rocks, you can catch glimpses of the Verde Valley, the Mogollon Rim, and if you’re lucky some wildlife as well.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Explore the Petrified Forest

While it may not be the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, Petrified Forest National Park offers an amazing place to see extinct species. Many of the fossilized logs that dot the floor of the 146-square-mile national park belong to long-extinct trees. Interestingly, the site of the park is not where an actual forest stood but rather an ancient riverbed where fallen plants accumulated.

To get the most out of your Petrified Forest adventure, forget the trails—the National Park Service administers eight off-the-beaten-path routes. Check out Devil’s Playground, an especially old part of the park. Only three permits are handed out for it each week with information on how to access the route supplied only to those granted permission to take on the journey.

6. Off-road to ghost towns

While Arizona is a state known for its epic highways and scenic views, even more, it happens off the state-maintained thoroughfares. For every ghost town worth a visit there’s the main road to take you there and a secret second entrance for those with a hearty sense of adventure and a 4-wheel-drive vehicle.

Off-roading or wheeling to the initiated is a great way to see Arizona’s wildlands and get a dose of history as well. Many off-road trails pass through old mining towns and other long-abandoned remnants of human habitation. The Bradshaw Mountains Trail takes you past the ghost town of Bumble Bee which was once a stagecoach stop for the U.S. Cavalry.

Traveling by these backroads is probably one of the most vastly under-appreciated ways to explore the state. There’s simply no way to not feel like a pioneer when you cross a mountain path or stream named for some long-deceased prospector. For a good off-roading guidebook, try the Guide to Arizona Backroads & 4-Wheel-Drive Trails, or check out the Off-Highway Vehicle Program at AZStateParks.com.

White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Explore both well-known and secret ancient cliff dwellings and ruins

Arizona is home to some of the most famous cliff dwellings in the world. Montezuma’s Castle in the Verde Valley is an 800-year-old, five-story structure built by the Sinagua Indians and one of the best-preserved examples of such a site. Three hours northeast on Navajo Land is Canyon de Chelly and its White House Ruins.

While many of Arizona’s ruins require a guide or sit inside well-developed tourist sites there are still plenty that demand a more intrepid spirit. The Sycamore Canyon Cliff Dwellings north of Clarkdale lie at the end of a tough drive and hike but exploring these magnificent ruins away from the masses is a worthy payoff. Just remember that when there’s no park ranger to keep an eye on things, it’s up to you to ensure these locations remain intact and pristine for the following generation of explorers.

8. Stand in a shaft of light in Antelope Canyon

There are other slot canyons but few if any can truly compete with the beauty of Antelope Canyon. Located east of Page on Navajo tribal land, the roughly quarter-mile-long canyon is a tight squeeze through a wonderland of colored sandstone, speckled shafts of light, and a smooth sandy floor. There are two canyon routes here, the Crack and the Corkscrew; both offer jaw-dropping palettes of light and color. Don’t you dare enter without your camera (and the mandated guide)!

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. See the biggest cacti in North America at Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park boasts some absolutely huge cacti. They dominate the desert landscape and make for some very cool photo ops. Located in the Sonoran Desert, it’s worth dedicating at least a couple of days to this park. Tackle the 1.5-hour King Canyon, Gould Mine Loop hike, walk the Signal Hill trail out to ancient petroglyphs, or go for some backcountry camping if you’re looking for a real adventure. 

10. Tour Hopi country

If you’re fortunate enough to take part in a tour of Hopi land you won’t just see some of the most beautiful terrain in the Southwest—you’ll also be given a lesson in the importance of living in harmony with nature and showing respect for all things, alive and otherwise.

The Hopi inhabit 12 villages spread across three separate mesas in northeastern Arizona. These homes have been occupied continuously for centuries, longer than most—if not all—settlements in the U.S. Your tour will include explanations of Hopi beliefs and culture, panoramic views from the high villages, and of course culinary treats.

Make sure to review the visitor etiquette (which includes refraining from taking photos or recordings of any kind) before you go. This is one Arizona-only adventure you can’t post to Facebook—which makes it all the more special.

Off-road adventure at Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Off-road in Sedona

It’s easy to imagine Zeus and the other Greek gods bickering over whether to settle on Mt. Olympus or in Sedona’s sandstone red rocks. During the evening, the massive outcroppings turn a shade of red so intense and worthy of contemplation that they feel like massive antennae signaling to the New Agers who flock from across the planet to admire them.

Like so much of Arizona, Sedona is a place that holds onto its secrets. Many beautiful views are accessible from the road but an entire world opens up when you have an off-road vehicle and a knowledgeable guide. To accommodate, there are several companies offering jeep tours to remote locations among the red rocks. Trips typically last between two and three hours and will take you to sweeping desert views and the ruins of ancient Native American dwellings.

12. Walk in Geronimo’s shadow at Chiricahua National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument is a maze of volcanic rock spires in the southeastern corner of Arizona. Boulders balance on top of each other so precariously it can feel as if the laws of physics have been suspended.

Covering nearly 12,000 acres, this is where Native American warrior Geronimo and other Apaches hid and planned attacks against the invading U.S. Army. Today, the national monument is notable for hiking trails and birdwatching—look out for bald eagles and prairie falcons. For an unbeatable view, be sure to check out Massai Point.

Jerome State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Mine the ramshackle history of Jerome

Lots of people recognize Jerome as a great day trip but it’s time to think bigger. Spend a night or two in this mountainside artist community soaking up the culture and general weirdness.

Visit Jerome State Historic Park which preserves a rambling 8,700-square-foot mansion built in 1916. Once the opulent home of mine owner James Douglas, it now serves as an informative museum filled with photographs, artifacts, mining, equipment, minerals, and models of the network of shafts and tunnels dug through the mountains.

Sitting a mile north of Jerome, Gold King Mine and Ghost Town harbors an assortment of ramshackle buildings, a menagerie of friendly animals, and a sprawling array of rusted machinery that forever teeters between ruin and redemption.

Coronado Pass looking east © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Picnic at Montezuma Pass, hike to a cave

Nestled in the foothills of the Huachuca Mountains abutting the Mexican border, Coronado National Memorial commemorates and interprets the Coronado Expedition of 1540-1542 and its lasting impacts on Southwest culture. Located about 20 miles south of Sierra Vista, the memorial is part of Arizona’s Sky Island Mountains filled with spectacular scenery.  

Enter on the park road, which climbs from verdant grasslands into oak woodlands and continues through heavier forest up Montezuma Canyon. Past the visitor center the road is paved for a mile and graded dirt for the upper 2 miles. It twists around tight switchbacks (vehicles over 24 feet are prohibited) and steep grades as the world falls away below.

Montezuma Pass Overlook sits at 6,575 feet flanked by picnic tables and interpretive signs, a perfect spot for an end of summer picnic celebration. Afterward you can make a short scramble (0.8 mile round-trip) to the summit of Coronado Peak, crowned with a shade ramada and additional signs describing the Coronado Expedition.

Adventurous types will want to visit Coronado Cave, one of the few open, undeveloped caves in southern Arizona. You don’t have to worry about squeezing through. The large cavern is 600 feet deep and in most places about 70 feet wide. Legend has it that Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo often hid out in the cave.

FEATURED IN THIS ARTICLE

Worth Pondering…

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

—Will Rogers

National Parks at Their Absolute Best in Winter

All the wonder, none of the crowds

America’s national parks were established as places where we can experience its awesome power, often in isolation. Tell that to the summer crowds clogging the trails of Zion or the campfire troubadours whose open mic-caliber guitar playing echoes off of Joshua Tree’s trippy crags until dawn.

The national parks remain America’s Best Idea and something we all can—and should—enjoy, screaming kids at Old Faithful included. But winter can be the best time to go for those who wish to experience the parks with the same sense of solitude as a pronghorn. The trails are clear of obstacles. Campsites might not require a reservation. And, unlike peak season, you’ll feel like you have everything to yourself. These are the parks that are at their absolute best in the winter.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Spoiler alert: You’re going to see four of Utah’s Mighty Five on this list. And to clarify, I’d include Capitol Reef if I had the space. Even with next-door neighbor Arches showing off Grade A sights when temperatures dip each year, Canyonlands stands out as a banger.

The largest yet least-visited national park in the state, Canyonlands’ snow-dusted spires, arches, mesa tops, and sandstone cliffs are made all the better by the fact that crowds clear out almost completely come winter turning this into a place of spectacular, sweeping solitude. (Just be sure to check for road closures before you head out.)

2. Zion National Park, Utah

In the summertime, Zion is basically Disneyland. It’s crowded. It’s hot. You’re standing in two-hour lines to be able to do the one thing you most want to do that day and they’re often out of turkey legs.

End this madness and go in the wintertime. Just 13 percent of Zion’s visitors, journey to the park between November and March, and a wintertime desert is 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.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

When it comes to winter wonderlands few national parks come close to the beauty of Bryce Canyon in the snow. The canyon’s red hoodoos and evergreen trees pop under the smattering of white and the majestic sunrises and sunsets cover the landscapes in ethereal light. For the best views, take the two-mile hike from the visitor center to Bryce Point which ends at the Bryce Amphitheater. This is the most famous overlook in the entire park—the perfect place to snap some photos.

Winter sports enthusiasts should especially plan a trip to Bryce Canyon. The park has many daily activities like ranger-led snowshoe hikes, cross-country skiing, and backpacking. National Park Service (NPS) also offers winter astronomy programs and full moon hikes (weather permitting) letting visitors take in the splendor of the unfiltered night sky.

4. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Often 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 owls and gaze at petroglyphs with little interruption and minus the oppressive heat.

Even better, the 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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Less than 1 million people drop by South Dakota’s most gorgeous landscape annually and come winter the place is virtually deserted (December sees a scant 8,400 people while February tops out at 13,400). What a stunning time to go full Dr. Manhattan and have 244,000 acres of Mars virtually to yourself, give or take a few bison.

Snag a campsite under a blanket of stars if you’re hardy or a cozy cabin (and maybe some donuts and buffalo burgers) in nearby Wall (think, Wall Drug). Then strap on snowshoes or skis and get ready to truly know what it’s like to be tiny and gloriously alone in the wild.

6. Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park is an International Dark Sky Park and winter is arguably the best time to see stars. Clear nights mean great views of celestial phenomena; however, they can also bring freezing temperatures to the desert so don’t let the southwest Texas location fool you into thinking it’s always hot.

Cool days are conducive to ticking off some of the more challenging hikes like the 6.5-mile Mariscal Canyon Rim Trail which can be dangerous to attempt in the warmer months.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is an awe-inspiring sight on its own. Now imagine seeing the fiery sandstone and surrounding evergreen trees with a layer of fresh snow. The winter scenery at this Natural Wonder of the World is absolutely magical.

Visiting the South Rim in the off-season means popular hikes like the Bright Angel Trail are blissfully quiet and much more comfortable than in the summer, thanks to cool temperatures. Grand Canyon National Park’s free shuttles run fewer routes in the winter but there are still plenty that stop at the different trailheads and Grand Canyon Village viewpoints.

8. Joshua Tree National Park, California

This boulder- and bush-dotted park straddling the Colorado and Mojave deserts is a serene winter escape from bustling Los Angeles (130 miles away) and Las Vegas (217 miles away).

Winter in Joshua Tree National Park is a mecca for rock climbers who take advantage of bouldering while the granite is cool. Keep this in mind when you’re trying to snag one of the first-come, first-served campsites.

If you’re able to spend the night in the park, you’ll get access to some of the best stargazing the West Coast has to offer.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Time slows to a primeval pace in the sequoia groves that make up Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks where arboreal giants have watched the seasons come and go for more than 2,000 years. In the winter, hike along quiet, snowy trails to the General Sherman Tree among the world’s largest living icons at a height of 275 feet.

These parks are also great for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. On free, ranger-led snowshoe walks, shoes are even provided. For something less strenuous, try driving through the wintry landscape though be aware that tire chains are often required during this time of year.

10. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

The famous, striking limestone formations at Carlsbad Caverns have often been compared to floating underground jellyfish or alcoves full of goblins and fairies—however you interpret them, they’re otherworldly.

The best part about visiting this New Mexico locale in the winter months (apart from bypassing the crowds) is that the cave stays a balmy 56 degrees Fahrenheit, rain or shine. Ranger-led tours are available year-round or visitors can opt to check out the Natural Entrance and Big Room Trails on their own.

For those looking to check yet another winter-friendly park off their list while in the area, the nearby Guadalupe Mountains feel like an island in the Chihuahuan Desert with vista-rich hiking trails you won’t want to miss.

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

11. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Getting out in nature during an East Coast winter doesn’t have to mean shivering in a snowstorm for hours on end. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park roughly half the season’s days boast a high temperature in the 50s—perfect for hiking the park’s more than 800 miles of trails.

Start the day by taking in the views at Newfound Gap, nestled on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina then hike to craggy Alum Cave or explore the old-timey wooden structures at Cades Cove. At night, stargaze by the fire at Cades Cove Campground or retreat to an RV park in nearby Sevierville.

12. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches has some of America’s most breathtaking scenes. In winter, white snow contrasts with the red rocks and blue skies to create some stunning sights. While daytime temperatures can rise above 100 degrees in summer expect freezing temperatures in winter. Even scant snowfall can make trails and roads impassable so be sure to plan if you intend to visit this national park in winter.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Winter stretches itself from October through June at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Clear lakes become icy, volcanoes become topped with heavy snow, and steam vents become especially smoky.

For those seeking fun as well as beauty, winter activities are at their peak here with sledding hills that offer mountain views, snowshoeing for beginners and experts, and backcountry skiing that can’t be beaten.

14. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Make winter plans to visit a warmer locale in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park where park-goers can see the Painted Desert, drive past Blue Mesa, and see the Crystal Forest up close. I drove through here a few years ago on a whim, and it was one of the most unique National Parks I’ve ever been to.

The weather may be cooler in winter, but snow is rare. But don’t forget those warm layers for when temps drop at night!

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Open year-round to outdoor enthusiasts, White Sands National Park in New Mexico is one of the best National Parks to visit in the winter for many reasons. For one, since it’s a less-visited park in general, you’re likely to see very few people and can sled down the dunes all by yourself! 

Plus, as soon as you hike a little ways into the dunes, you’re very unlikely to encounter other hikers. New Mexico does get chilly in winter, but it rarely sees a lot of snow this far south.

By the way, I have a series of posts on exploring national parks in winter:

Worth Pondering…

A national park is not a playground; it’s a sanctuary for nature and for humans who will accept nature on nature’s own terms.

—Michael Frome