From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks

For more than a hundred years, the United States’ national parks have been inspiring visitors

Comprising a collection of stunningly diverse landscapes, from active volcanoes spewing lava to crystalline glaciers creeping down snow-covered peaks to eerie deserts that look like someone pulled the bathtub stopper on an ancient ocean, US national parks have captured the imagination of millions of park-goers.

Full of history—both geologic, Indigenous, and more recent—and featuring trails that range from ADA-accessible boardwalks to challenging treks that test the hardiest of outdoor athletes, America’s national parks are at once culturally significant, approachable, and wild.

Here’s a quick look at the best of the best with links where you can learn more about these incredible diverse landscapes.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Giant sweeping arcs of sandstone frame snowy peaks and desert landscapes; explore the park’s namesake formations in a red-rock wonderland.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Family travel, photo ops, hiking, scenic drives, stargazing

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,806,865

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park

Read more: Power of Nature: Arches National Park Offers Endless Beauty

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

It’s easy to understand why the Lakota named this place mako sica (badland) when you look over the rainbow-hued canyons and buttes that sit like an ocean boiled dry.

State: South Dakota

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Scenic drives, wildlife, cycling, hiking, stargazing

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021:1,224,226

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park

Read more: Badlands National Park: Place of Otherworldly Beauty

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

From the moment you enter the national park, there’s spectacular scenery everywhere you look. Head to the Chisos Basin for the most dramatic landscape but any visit should also include time in the Chihuahuan Desert, home to curious creatures and adaptable plants, and down along the Rio Grande, the watery dividing line between the US and Mexico.

State: Texas

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, hiking, scenic drives, stargazing

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 581,220

Related article: The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

Read more: 10 of the Best National and State Parks in Texas

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Famous for its otherworldly sunset-colored spires punctuated by tracts of evergreen forest, Bryce Canyon National Park is one of the planet’s most exquisite geological wonders. Repeated freezes and thaws have eroded the small park’s soft sandstone and limestone into sandcastle-like pinnacles known as hoodoos, jutted fins, and huge amphitheaters filled with thousands of pastel daggers.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Hiking, photo ops, scenic drives, stargazing

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 2,104,600

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park

Read more: Make Bryce Canyon National Park Your Next RV Trip

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

A forbidding and beautiful maze of red-rock fins, bridges, needles, spires, craters, mesas, and buttes, Canyonlands is a crumbling, eroding beauty—a vision of ancient earth.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Cycling, scenic drives, hiking, photo ops, stargazing

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 911,594

Related article: A Lifetime of Exploration Awaits at Canyonlands (National Park)

Read more: Ultimate Guide to National Park Tripping in Utah: Arches and Canyonlands

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Giant slabs of chocolate-red rock and sweeping yellow sandstone domes dominate the landscape of Capitol Reef which Indigenous Freemont people called the “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow.”

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $20

Great for: Hiking, photo ops, scenic drives, geology, Ancestral Pueblo culture, stargazing

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,405,353

Related article: Getting Closer to Nature at Capitol Reef

Read more: Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef: A Great American Road Trip

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Scores of wondrous caves hide under the hills at this unique national park. The cavern formations are an ethereal wonderland of stalactites and fantastical geological features.

State: New Mexico

Entrance Fee: 3-day pass per person $15

Great for: Family travel, photo ops, scenic drives, caving, stargazing

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 349,244

Related article: Get Immersed in Caves: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Read more: Wake Up In New Mexico

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

Encompassing nearly 27,000 acres, Congaree National Park is the largest expanse of old-growth, bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern US. The lush trees growing here are some of the tallest in the southeast forming one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies left in the world.

State: South Carolina

Entrance Fee: Free

Great for: Wildlife, family travel, walking, canoeing and kayaking

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 215,181

Related article: Finding Solace in the Old Growth Forest of Congaree

Read more: Home of Champions: Congaree National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon embodies the scale and splendor of the American West captured in dramatic vistas, dusty trails, and stories of exploration and preservation. Ancestral Puebloans lived in and near the Grand Canyon for centuries and their stories echo in the reds, rusts, and oranges of the canyon walls and the park’s spires and buttes.

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Scenery, family travel, hiking, photo ops, geology, scenic drives, stargazing

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 4,532,677

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Read more: Grand Canyon National Park Celebrates Its 100th Anniversary Today

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The sun-dappled forests of the Great Smoky Mountains are a four-season wonderland from spring’s wildflowers to summer’s flame azaleas to autumn’s quilted hues of orange, burgundy, and saffron blanketing the mountain slopes and winter’s ice-fringed cascades. This mesmerizing backdrop is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site harboring more biodiversity than any other national park in America.

States: North Carolina and Tennessee

Entrance fee: Free

Great for: History, wildlife, family travel, hiking, scenic drives, fall colors, botany

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

Recreational visitors in 2021: 14,161,548

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Read more: Great Smoky Mountains: Most Visited National Park…and We Can See Why

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

This 794,000-acre park is at the transition zone of two deserts: the low and dry Colorado and the higher, moister, and slightly cooler Mojave. Rock climbers know the park as the best place to climb in California; hikers seek out hidden, shady, desert-fan-palm oases fed by natural springs and small streams; and mountain bikers are hypnotized by the desert vistas.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Cycling, scenic drives, hiking, rock climbing, photo ops, stargazing

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 3,064,400

Related article: Joshua Tree National Park: An Iconic Landscape That Rocks

Read more: Joshua Tree: Admire Two Deserts At Once

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Anchoring the southernmost link in the Cascades’ chain of volcanoes, this alien landscape bubbles over with roiling mud pots, noxious sulfur vents, steamy fumaroles, colorful cinder cones, and crater lakes.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30 ($10 in winter)

Great for: Photo ops, scenic drives, hiking, stargazing 

Recreational visitors in 2021: 359,635

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Read more: Geothermal Weirdness, Volcanic Landscapes, and Stunning Beauty

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

More than 700 years after its inhabitants disappeared, Mesa Verde retains an air of mystery. No one knows for sure why the Ancestral Puebloans left their elaborate cliff dwellings in the 1300s. What remains is a wonderland for adventurers of all sizes who can clamber up ladders to carved-out dwellings, see rock art, and delve into the mysteries of ancient America.

State: Colorado

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30 ($20 in winter)

Great for: Ancestral Pueblo culture, scenic drives, tours, stargazing

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 548,47

Related article: Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years

Read more: Mesa Verde National Park: 14 Centuries of History

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

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

The New River is the United States’ newest national park but is one of the oldest waterways in the world and the primeval forest gorge it runs through is one of the most breathtaking in the Appalachians. The region is an adventure mecca with world-class white-water runs and challenging single-track trails. Rim and gorge hiking trails offer beautiful views.

State: West Virginia

Entrance fee: Free

Great for: Hiking, biking, fishing, white water rafting, rock climbing, extreme sports

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

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,682,720

Related article: New River Gorge: America’s Newest National Park

Read more: The Wild, Wonderful Waters of New River Gorge! Round Out Your Trip with a Visit to Babcock State Park & Glade Creek Grist Mill!

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

The ‘trees’ of Petrified Forest National Park are fossilized logs scattered over a vast area of semi-desert grassland, buried beneath silica-rich volcanic ash before they could decompose. Up to 6 feet in diameter, they’re strikingly beautiful with extravagantly patterned cross-sections of wood glinting in ethereal pinks, blues, and greens.

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Scenic drives, geology, hiking, biking, Route 66, stargazing 

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 590,334

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Petrified Forest National Park

Read more: Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles is named for the towering rock spires that rise abruptly out of the chaparral-covered hills east of Salinas Valley. Its famous formations are the eroded remnants of a long-extinct volcano that originated in present-day southern California before getting sheared in two and moving nearly 200 miles north along the San Andreas Fault.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, photo ops, hiking, rock climbing, caving

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 348,857

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Pinnacles National Park

Read more: Pinnacles National Park: Born of Fire

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Saguaros (sah-wah-ros) are icons of the American Southwest and an entire cactus army of these majestic, ribbed sentinels is protected in this desert playground. Or more precisely, playgrounds: Saguaro National Park is divided into east and west units separated by 30 miles and the city of Tucson

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Cycling, wildlife, plants, hiking

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,079,783

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park

Read more: Inside the Cartoonish and Majestic Land of Saguaro

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park

With trees as high as 20-story buildings, Sequoia National Park is an extraordinary park with soul-sustaining forests and vibrant wildflower meadows.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Family travel, scenic drives, hiking, photo ops

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,059,548

Related article: The Big Trees: Sequoia National Park

Read more: Explore Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah is like a new smile from nature: in spring and summer, the wildflowers explode, in fall the leaves turn bright red and orange, and in winter a cold, starkly beautiful hibernation period sets in. With the famous 105-mile Skyline Drive and more than 500 miles of hiking trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, there is plenty to do and see.

State: Virginia

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, scenic drives, hiking, fall colors

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,592,312

Related article: Escape to the Blue Ridge: Shenandoah National Park

Read more: Blue Ridge Parkway: America’s Favorite Drive

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Wildlife abounds in these surreal mounds of striated earth in Theodore Roosevelt National Park; sunset is particularly evocative as shadows dance across the lonely buttes.

State: North Dakota

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Hiking, wildlife, scenic drives, Presidential history, stargazing

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 796,085

Related article: North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Read more: Theodore Roosevelt National Park: A Plains-state Paradise

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

Undulating through the Tularosa Basin like something out of a dream, these ethereal dunes are a highlight of any trip to New Mexico and a must on every landscape photographer’s itinerary. Try to time a visit to White Sands with sunrise or sunset (or both), when the dazzlingly white sea of sand is at its most magical.

State: New Mexico

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Scenery, hiking, photography

White Sand National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 782,469

Related article: A White Oasis: White Sands National Park

Read more: New Mexico’s White Sands Is Officially a National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

From secret oases of trickling water to the hot-pink blooms of a prickly pear cactus, Zion’s treasures turn up in the most unexpected places.

State: Utah

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Scenery, hiking, family travel, photo ops, biking

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 5,039,835

Related article: Rock of Ages: Zion National Park

Read more: Roam Free in Greater Zion: Quail Creek State Park

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

America the Beautiful: The National Parks

63 national parks draw millions of visitors a year to unique natural wonders and unforgettable terrains

In 1882, choirmaster Samuel A. Ward took a leisurely ferry ride from Coney Island into New York City and was so struck with inspiration at the summer scene that he immediately composed a tune.

A decade later on an 1893 summer day in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Katharine Lee Bates gazed out from a window and saw a “sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies,” that a hymn immediately sprang to mind. In 1910, the music and poetry came together under the title “America the Beautiful.” The work struck an enduring chord, resonating with so many Americans that numerous campaigns have sought to make it the national anthem.

From the earliest days of America, the hand of Providence has been seen not just in the history of events but also in the natural splendor of the land spurring several conservation efforts including the creation of the National Parks System. Wilderness areas for people to enjoy the rugged beauty were set aside while protecting the landscape, plants, and animals.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Established as a national park on August 9, 1916, Lassen Volcanic National Park contains all four types of volcanoes found in the world. These include a shield, plug dome, cinder cone, and composite.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park

This park is notable for its giant sequoia trees, which can absorb up to 800 gallons of water a day in the summer!

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

Many fossils of ancient marine animals have been found in the Grand Canyon, these date back 1.2 billion years ago. The age of the Grand Canyon itself remains a mystery, but recent studies speculate it to be more than 70 million years old.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park contains more than 10,000 years of human history recorded within its territory, including 800 archaeological sites. The striking colors in petrified wood are derived from pure quartz, manganese oxide, and iron oxide producing white, blue, purple, black, brown, yellow, and red colors.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

The saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States and is protected by Saguaro National Park. These giant prickly plants can grow up to 40 feet tall and live for over 150 years!

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Arches National Park is known for its many natural sandstone arches. Landscape Arch is located at the end of Devil’s Garden Trailhead. Stretching 306 feet, it’s considered North America’s longest spanning arch.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

The park used to be home to an ancient civilization, the Anasazi who lived there around 1500 B.C. Traces of their history can be found through rock art, sandstone granaries, and cliff dwellings scattered around the park.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon is an ideal place for stargazing enthusiasts due to its clear skies, high elevation, and low light pollution.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

Known for its exceptionally well-preserved prehistoric settlements, Mesa Verde National Park was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Featuring over 100 caves, Carlsbad Caverns used to be part of an ancient underwater reef called Capitan Reef. Many fossilized marine species can be found on the land. The caverns themselves were formed by sulfuric acid in acid rain which slowly dissolved the limestones.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The only national park in the whole of North Dakota. It was named after President Theodore Roosevelt in 1947 to honor and preserve his legacy of land protection.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in America, with half a billion visitors since 1934. The Appalachian Trail runs 71 miles through the park.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Black bears are very prominent in Shenandoah National Park, so there’s a high chance you’ll spot one. The park estimates there to be around one to four bears in every square mile.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

The Rio Grande river falls between Cañón de Santa Elena, Mexico, and Big Bend National Park, United States.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua “Tree” is actually a misnomer as it falls under the same category as flowering grasses and orchids. Only 15 percent of the national park is open for visitors to explore, and the remaining 85 percent is wilderness.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

The park is known for its old-growth bottomland hardwood forests which have some of the largest tree canopies on the East Coast. Towering champion trees are some of the notable trees that inhabit these woods.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Horseshoe Canyon is located eight miles west of the park and is known for depicting prehistoric pictographs etched somewhere between 2,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

A well-preserved fossilized skull of a saber-tooth cat was discovered by a young visitor in 2010. Fossils of other animals like marine reptiles and rhinos can also be found hidden among the layers of sediment. They’re estimated to date back to the late Eocene and Oligocene periods, over 30 million years ago.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

The park is home to an orchard originally planted by Mormon pioneers in the early 1900s. It’s open to the public for picking during harvest season for a small fee.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

The Pinnacles National Park was created when the now-extinct Neenach volcano erupted 23 million years ago. The park contains many caves that provide homes to 14 species of California bats. These caves were created by natural erosion when boulders fell below, filling the canyons.

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

New River Gorge National Park

Contrary to its name, The New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world, estimated to be between 10 to 360 million years old. It’s one of the few rivers in North America to flow from south to north, as most tend to flow from west to east.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

What makes White Sands National Park so breathtaking and popular are the white dunes which are made up of gypsum. The park covers 275 square miles of white sands, making it the largest gypsum dune field in the world.

Worth Pondering…

America the Beautiful

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

—Catharine Lee Bates

Learn How America’s National Parks Got Their Names

The stories behind their names

What’s in a name? A lot, it seems, especially in America’s varied national parks. These vast landscapes of pristine and brilliant nature teeming with wildlife, plants, and rare geological formations have history—much of which can be told simply through their names. Some are named after people while others have Native American names with intriguing meanings. Here’s the lowdown on how 10 of America’s national parks got their monikers.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The early French-Canadian trappers called the region which includes the present-day national park, Le Mauvaises terres a traverser which translated means “bad lands to travel across.” Other traders applied the term “bad lands” to this locality as well as to any section of the prairie country “where roads are difficult….”

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For hundreds of years, the Dakota people have also described this area as Mako Sica which translates to “bad lands”. This is largely due to the area’s harsh terrain—its lack of water and rocky surfaces meant it was tricky to traverse. The name has stuck in its English form to this day.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park is still pretty rocky and parched but it’s not so bad to travel through these days thanks to the many hiking trails that make its dramatic and unusual landscapes accessible. Take a walk here and you’ll get to see fossils from the now-extinct animals that once thrived here. You can also meet the bighorn sheep, pronghorns, and deer that roam the region and gaze upon some of the most striking geologic formations in the US.

The park received 1,224,226 recreational visitors in 2021.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is a mile-deep gorge in northern Arizona. Scientists estimate the canyon may have formed 5 to 6 million years ago when the Colorado River began to cut a channel through layers of rock. The canyon measures over 270 miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and a mile deep.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though Native Americans lived in the area as early as the 13th century, the first European sighting of the canyon wasn’t until 1540 by members of an expedition headed by the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Because of its remote and inaccessible location, several centuries passed before North American settlers explored the canyon. In 1869, geologist John Wesley Powell led a group of 10 men on the first difficult journey down the rapids of the Colorado River and along the length of the 277-mile gorge in four rowboats.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

President Benjamin Harrison first protected the Grand Canyon in 1893 as a forest reserve and in January 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt made more than 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon area into a national monument. Grand Canyon became an official National Park in 1919.

The park received 4,532,677 recreational visitors in 2021.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Named for its large deposits of petrified wood, Petrified Forest National Park covers about 346 square miles encompassing semi-desert shrubs as well as highly eroded and colorful badlands. The Park is known for its fossils, especially of fallen trees that lived in the Late Triassic Epoch of the Mesozoic era about 225-207 million years ago.

National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some of the larger animals roaming the grasslands include pronghorns, black-tailed jackrabbits (hares), Gunnison’s prairie dogs, coyotes, bobcats, and foxes. Pronghorns, the fastest land animals in North America, are capable of 60-mile-per-hour sprints. They are the second fastest land animal on Earth.

The park’s headquarters is about 26 miles east of Holbrook along Interstate 40 which parallels the  Puerco River and Historic Route 66 all crossing the park roughly east-west.

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

The site, the northern part of which extends into the Painted Desert, was declared a national monument in 1906 and a national park in 1962.

The park received 590, 334 recreational visitors in 2021.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, California

On September 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation establishing America’s second national park (Yellowstone became the first national park on March 1, 1872). Created to protect the giant sequoia trees from logging, Sequoia National Park was the first national park formed to protect a living organism: Sequoiadendron giganteum. One week later, General Grant National Park was created and Sequoia was enlarged.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1940, Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a new national park to include the glacially-formed splendor of Kings Canyon. The newly established Kings Canyon National Park included General Grant National Park into it. Since the Second World War, Kings Canyon and Sequoia have been administered jointly.

The park received 1,059,548 recreational visitors in 2021.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

The native Cherokee people traditionally called the Great Smoky Mountains Shaconage which translates to “place of the blue smoke.” Euro-American settlers drew from this name in their label of “Smoky Mountains,” with “Great” being added at some point or another to reflect the massiveness and grandeur of the range.

Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More often than not, the inspiration for the Cherokee name is plain to see on one of the many long, mountain-upon-mountain vistas the Great Smokies serve up from such vantages as Newfound Gap or Clingmans Dome. There’s a whitish-blue mistiness to the scenery, a beautiful kind of haze that slightly blurs the long ridges and rounded peaks.

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

That haze is the optical result of a natural photochemical process. The trees, shrubs, and other plants of the dense and diverse Southern Appalachian forests emit natural hydrocarbons called “terpenes” that react with ozone particles from the stratosphere. Moisture condenses on these aerosols which then scatter the shorter wavelengths of light in the blue-violet spectrum to produce the signature haziness.

Seeing the soft-edged blush of the Great Smokies from a roadside pullout or a ridgeline bald never gets old. Next time you soak it in, maybe the old Cherokee name for this extraordinary range will come to mind: the “place of the blue smoke”.

The park received 14,161,548 recreational visitors in 2021.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is a series of huge natural amphitheaters carved into sedimentary rocks by the Paria River and its tributaries along the edge of the Paunsagunt Plateau. Water and wind erosion has produced a fantastic array of brightly colored pinnacles, windowed walls, pedestals, fins, and spires.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ancient cultures are known to have occupied the Colorado Plateau for at least 12,000 years. Paiutes were living throughout the area when the first Euro-Americans arrived in southern Utah. They explained the numerous and colorful hoodoos as “legend people” who were turned to stone by the mythical Coyote. When Captain Clarence E. Dutton arrived with John Wesley Powell in the 1870s, he named many of the current features according to the Paiute names including Paunsagunt (home of the beavers), Paria (muddy water), Panguitch (fish), and Yovimpa (point of pines).

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ebenezer Bryce helped settle southwestern Utah and northern Arizona. He arrived on the Paunsagunt Plateau and Paria Valley in 1875 to harvest timber. The canyon behind his home came to be known as Bryce’s Canyon; today it remains the name of both a specific canyon and the national park. After 1900, visitors began to arrive to view the colorful geologic features and initial accommodations were constructed along the plateau rim above Bryce’s Canyon. By the 1920s, efforts were being made to set aside this scenic wonder of the Paunsagunt Plateau.

The park received 2,104,600 recreational visitors in 2021.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Originally called Mukuntuweap National Monument, named so by explorer John Wesley Powell, who believed this to be the Paiute name for the area, Zion got its new moniker in 1863. It was all down to Isaac Behunin, a Mormon pioneer who settled in the area to farm tobacco and fruit trees. He thought it so peaceful that he should rename it, Zion, because, as he wrote: “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as he can in any man-made church; this is Zion.”

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The great cathedrals he mentioned were probably the incredible, precipitous red cliffs that rise on both sides of the Virgin River. In Hebrew, “zion” means “heavenly place” and standing atop the cliffs or even at their foot it’s easy to see why Behunin considered it a divine landscape. 

The park received 5,039,835 recreational visitors in 2021.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

In the arid Sonoran Desert, this national park teems with wildlife, insects, and plants. Horned lizards, roadrunners, and Gila monsters are some of the animals that call this harsh landscape home. But, it’s the plants that most people come to see and one plant in particular that has given the park its name: the saguaro cactus.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you were to ask a child to draw a cactus, they’d likely sketch out something that looks like a saguaro which has a thick trunk and vertically reaching “arms” covered in fine spikes. It’s estimated there are almost two million of these iconic plants throughout the national park, so it’s hardly surprising they’ve been given the limelight in this National Park’s name. 

The park received 1,079,783 recreational visitors in 2021.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

A UNESCO World Heritage Site and Dark Sky Reserve, this national park has a lot to preserve. If you visit, make sure you see the incredible homes carved into and built around the rocky, sandstone landscape. Dating back to around AD 550, these dwellings housed the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in this region for more than 700 years and there are 5,000 or so archaeological sites to explore within the national park.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploration is how the park got its name. When Spanish explorers in the American Southwest first came upon these towering rock formations they said it looked like a landscape of tables, covered with foliage and forest. They named it “Mesa Verde”, which is Spanish for “green table”.

The park received 548,477 recreational visitors in 2021.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Trees are an incredibly unusual-looking trees, in part because they’re not a tree at all! They’re a plant belonging to the Yucca genus that happens to resemble the size and growth pattern of a tree. Joshua trees are slow-growing adding only 2 to 3 inches each year. It takes 50 to 60 years for a Joshua tree to reach full height. They live on average about 500 years.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The name Joshua tree was given by a group of Mormon settlers who crossed the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century. The tree’s unique shape reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is named for the Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) native to the Mojave Desert. Originally declared a national monument in 1936, Joshua Tree was redesignated as a national park in 1994.

The park received 3,064,400 recreational visitors in 2021.

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

Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona: Phoenix and Tucson

To help you plan your family-friendly road trip through Arizona, I’ve put together this list of awesome road trip stops. Keep reading to learn about my favorite spots and campgrounds along the route.

With its vast landscapes and colorful topography, the American Southwest is one of the best regions in the country to take an old-fashioned road trip—in fact, that’s the only way to see most of it. Arizona, specifically, is home to the only Natural Wonder of the World in the U. S., numerous national parks, picturesque state parks, and 21 American Indian tribes. So, what better way to spend spring break this year than packing up the kids for a four family-friendly road trips through Arizona?

Phoenix from Hole in the Rock at Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since the possibilities for an Arizona road trip are endless, I’ve organized these family-friendly road trips into four paths. Each of these road trip routes includes a selection of my favorite stops. I’ve traveled along each of these paths—most more than once. There is truly something for every member of the family to be enjoyed in each of these road trips.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Earlier articles highlighted Northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon and Sedona and the Verde Valley. Today we drive 115 miles south to Phoenix.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Food and culture trails through Phoenix

The capital of Arizona, Phoenix is known for its resorts, golf courses, great food and wine, and fantastic desert views. While road-tripping through Arizona, stop here for some culture and tasty morsels.

Desert Botanical Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take in the art of Native Americans at the Heard Museum. Let the kids loose at the Arizona Science Center where STEM exhibits both teach and entertain. Race fans will love the Penske Racing Museum with its amazing collection of cars, trophies, and racing memorabilia chronicling the career of the Penske family one of the most successful race dynasties.

Related Article: Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix’s East Valley

Ring-necked duck at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then, drive about 30 miles northeast of town to visit Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert sanctuary and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a stunning museum celebrating the genius of Wright’s architecture and design.

White Tank Mountains Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After taking in all those amazing places, visitors will have worked up an appetite. Phoenix’s dining scene is rich and varied with something for every taste.

Fountain Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Housed inside a 1950s bank building, the midcentury gem Federal Pizza serves up delicious wood-fired pizza in a relaxed atmosphere that’s perfect for families. Or try modern Mexican fare made with fresh local ingredients at Joyride Taco House with misters on the patio to keep you cool in the hot summer months.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Right across the street is Churn, a nostalgic candy and ice cream shop that will make all your kids’ dreams come true with shelves of retro toys and candy, artisan ice cream, and fresh-baked treats. Check out the Instagrammable wall of cassette tapes in the back (and have fun explaining what cassettes are to your kids).

Desert Botanical Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Filled with sandstone buttes that provide gentle but stimulating hiking trails and photogenic spots like the Hole in the Rock, Papago Park is a scenic wonder only 10 minutes from downtown Phoenix. Home of the Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Garden, the park also offers many activities including an archery range, golf course, fishing lagoons, and an orienteering course. That little pyramid you’ll see is the tomb of Gov. George Wiley Paul Hunt.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are several good reasons for paying a visit to the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, a 110-acre park in Gilbert. The astounding variety of cacti, probably varieties than you ever knew existed, is itself worth stopping by for. But there are also many other species of plant and animal life in and around this artificial wetland created with reclaimed water. You can view fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals of many different kinds on a pleasant little hiking trail. It’s an especially excellent place for bird watching. The picnic and playground areas are imaginatively and artistically designed and laid out.

Related Article: Top 10 Day Trips From Phoenix

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another family-friendly adventure is Schnepf Farms, an organic farm where you can pick your own fruits and vegetables. With 300 acres, Schnepf Farms is the perfect place to enjoy fresh air and naturally grown, pesticide-free produce (peppers, cucumbers, kale, and green onions, among others). They are especially known for their peaches with picking season usually in May.

Queen Creek Olive Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re into clean eating, check out the Queen Creek Olive Mill. You can tour the grounds and learn how to make extra virgin olive oil, the best uses for it in the kitchen and why it’s so healthy.

Presidio-Old Pima County Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eat your way through Tucson plus a dose of nature

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, named in 2015 (the first in the U.S.). Tucson gave us the Sonoran dog—a bacon-wrapped street dog forged in nearby Sonora and packed into a bun filled with burrito toppings.

Old Presidio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson’s designation acknowledges that the chefs and residents of Tucson value the role food has historically played in the city. Many local chefs use ingredients that the Indigenous people of the area have used for thousands of years.

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whatever else is on the agenda, save time to explore an area the city has designated “The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food.” Start along Tucson’s 12th Avenue for an authentic taste of the Best 23 Miles and work your way from there. From street food to taquerias to fine dining, the Mexican food scene in Tucson is often described as the best outside of Mexico.

Related Article: A Southern Gem: 14 Reasons to Visit Tucson

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

Laying claim to being the oldest Mexican restaurant in the U.S. is El Charro, with a menu offering a mix of traditional dishes and Mexican favorites. This colorful eatery was established in 1922 by Monica Flin (credited with inventing the chimichanga) and has been in continuous operation by the same family ever since.

Tucson Mountain Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the historic Hotel Congress, the more than 100-year-old lobby restaurant Cup Cafe is something of a local legend. The food here is dependable and tasty — from French dip sandwiches with an interesting Southwest flavor twist to gargantuan breakfast-for-lunch omelets. For dessert, an old-fashioned spiraling glass display case shows guests a variety of sweet, homemade treats.

But this funky little town is chockablock with art, drawing from indigenous cultures, trippy desert landscape, and the fact that heat and desolation can really bring out the weirdness in people.

Tucson Museum of Art © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson also happens to host one of the country’s biggest annual gem and mineral shows each winter when the city is taken over by rockhounds from around the world.

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

View a great variety of plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert at Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. Two miles of paths lead through 21 acres of displays. Live demonstrations and tours daily. The museum is a zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden all rolled into one.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. Trails off the main road explore the canyon or lead into the high country.

Related Article: Why Tucson Is Your Next Great Outdoor Adventure

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The West is full of beautiful national parks but one of the most iconic symbols of the Old West is the saguaro cactus—and Saguaro National Park is full of them. These majestic plants are only found in this part of the U.S. and can live to be as much as 200 years old and grow up to 60 feet tall. Learn about cacti in the gardens on the east and west sides of the visitor center and take in beautiful sunsets on the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail (a half-mile hike) from the Javelina Rocks pullout on the east or from the Gates Pass on the west side.

Tucson/Lazydays KOA © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Places to stay along this route

With so much to explore, you may want to book a campground or RV park along the route. Here are some recommendations for places to rest your weary heads:

Worth Pondering…

The saguaro cactus is the Sonoran Desert’s singular icon, the largest native living thing that exists here, and it appears to be a stunningly robust presence in a harsh land.

—Larry Cheek, Cheek, Born Survivor

Inside the Cartoonish and Majestic Land of Saguaro

Exploring the desert and cacti is so awesome and surreal that you’ll feel like you’re on another planet

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

Saguaro in Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The saguaros are everywhere—thousands of 30-foot-tall green pillars with nubby arms. No matter where I looked, my brain couldn’t help but turn the centuries-old saguaros into a veritable freak show of desert cartoons. There was a sassy lady with her prickly arms at her hips, an emerald strongman showing off his biceps, and a towering mint skyscraper full of carefully carved bird apartments.

Saguaro in Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The giant saguaro (pronounced “sah-wah-roh”) is the universal symbol of the American West. A trip to the Sonoran Desert is not complete without examining one of these famous desert plants. These huge green columnar cacti have fascinated nearly every person who has seen one. To the local Tohono O’Odham people, the saguaro cacti are even more important. These giant cacti are not plants to the Tohono O’Odham but a different type of humanity and are viewed as respected members of the Tohono O’Odham Tribe.

Related Article: Where Are America’s Best Kept Secrets? Think the Southwest Deserts!

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

The saguaro cactus is the largest cactus in the United States and will normally reach heights of 40 feet tall. The tallest saguaro cactus ever measured towered over 78 feet into the air. The saguaro cactus grows like a column at a very slow rate with all growth occurring at the tip, or top of the cactus. It can take 10 years for a saguaro cactus to reach 1 inch in height.

Saguaro in Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By 70 years of age, a saguaro cactus can reach 6½ feet tall and will finally start to produce its first flowers. By 95-100 years in age, a saguaro cactus can reach a height of 15-16 feet and could start to produce its first arm. By 200 years old, the saguaro cactus has reached its full height reaching upwards of 45 feet tall. Some saguaros have been seen with dozens of arms while others produce none.

Saguaros at Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These majestic plants, found only in a small portion of the United States, are protected by Saguaro National Park, to the east and west of Tucson. Here you have a chance to see these enormous cacti, silhouetted by the beauty of a magnificent desert sunset.

Saguaro in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cactus Forest Loop Drive in Saguaro’s eastern Rincon Mountain District is an eight-mile paved roadway full of breathtaking views and easy pullouts to nab that perfect sunset shot. Be sure to stop at the .25-mile accessible, interpretive Desert Ecology Trail on the northern rim of the drive.

Related Article: Pristine Sonoran Desert Camping

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

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near the park’s west entrance is a great side trip for families and animal lovers looking to learn more about the flora and fauna of the region. The Museum’s 98 acres host 230 animal species—including prairie dogs, coyotes, and a mountain lion—and 1,200 local plant species (totaling 56,000 individual plants).

Saguaro at Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walking through the museum’s trails, visitors get acquainted with desert life.  Enjoy live animal presentations that showcase a variety of desert animals and be sure not to miss Raptor Free Flight where native birds of prey fly so close you can feel the brush of feathers!

Saguaro at Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Feel the magic of nature as you ride a comfortable shuttle through the wonders of Sabino Canyon. Ringed by four mountain ranges with magical names—the Santa Catalina to the north, the Santa Rita to the south, the Rincon to the east, and the Tucson to the west—the city of Tucson is surrounded by trails. Each one winds through the rugged and sometimes otherworldly landscape of the Sonoran Desert, where saguaro cacti stand like sentinels in the sand and ancient canyons await exploration.

Saguaro at White Tank Mountains Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Neighboring the Coronado National Forest, Catalina State Park is located at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains and offers a variety of hiking trails available for on-foot travelers, bicyclists, and horse riders alike. One of the special features of Catalina State Park is the amazing population of saguaros. There are about a half-dozen large stands within the park, each numbering close to 500 plants. Along with hundreds of scattered individuals, these stands account for an estimated saguaro population of close to 5,000 plants.

Related Article: Saguaro-speckled Desertscapes of Cave Creek Regional Park

Saguaros at North Mountain Park near Casa Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument celebrates the life and landscape of the Sonoran Desert. This is a showcase for creatures who have adapted themselves to the extreme temperatures, intense sunlight, and little rainfall that characterize this Southwest region. Twenty-six species of cactus live here including the giant saguaro and the park’s namesake. This is the only place in the U. S. where the organ pipe cactus grows wild.

Saguaros at Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sometimes our journeys begin and end in the same way or with the same emotion. I felt that in the vast Sonoran Desert craning my neck skyward to marvel at the enormous cacti. They are bizarre and cartoonish, yes, but they are also beautiful. Timeless. Centuries-old totems of desert wisdom.

Read Next: Beauty of the Desert: Arizona in Bloom

Worth Pondering…

The saguaro cactus is the Sonoran Desert’s singular icon, the largest native living thing that exists here, and it appears to be a stunningly robust presence in a harsh land.

—Larry Cheek, Cheek, Born Survivor

Saguaro National Park: Two Parks in One

Saguaro National Park protects America’s largest cacti species, the saguaro, and features hiking trails for every level

The giant saguaro is the universal symbol of the American Southwest. These majestic plants found only in a small portion of the United States are protected by Saguaro National Park. Here you have a chance to see these enormous cacti silhouetted by the beauty of a magnificent desert sunset.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

America’s largest cactus, the saguaro’s imposing stature, and uplifted arms give it a regal presence. Perhaps that’s why this burly giant whose only bits of exuberance are seasonal blossoms and fig-like fruits at the tip of its limbs has been dubbed the “desert monarch.”

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park is composed of two distinct districts: The Rincon Mountain District and the Tucson Mountain District. The Tucson Mountain District lies on the west side of Tucson, Arizona, while the Rincon Mountain District lies on the east side of town. Both districts were formed to protect and exhibit forests of their namesake plant: the saguaro cactus.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While you can enter the Tucson Mountain District on other roads, it’s best to go in from Speedway Boulevard over the dramatic Gates’ Pass which is part of the Tucson Mountains. Like its counterpart on the east side of town, it offers a variety of trails that range from a leisurely meander around the visitor’s center to full-day treks. The west park is near two other attractions, as well: The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a regional showcase for native plants and animals, and Old Tucson, the one-time movie set where the street scenes of many old westerns were filmed.

Related: Mind Blowing National Monuments in the Southwest

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park’s east district is about 20 miles away on the opposite side of the city where it wraps itself around the foothills of the Rincon Mountains. It’s also about 500 feet higher in elevation, larger, and boasts both numerous hiking options and a paved 8-mile driving loop.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start your visit at the visitor center of either one of the Saguaro National Park two districts. Here, you can view museum exhibits, informational slide shows, cactus gardens, and shop at the bookstore and gift shop. The visitor centers are also the starting point for numerous hiking trails and scenic drives. Guided walks led by visitor center staff are also available—giving you the best close-up experience with some of the most notable areas of the park.

Related: A Southern Gem: 14 Reasons to Visit Tucson

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although Saguaro National Park is open every day of the year except Christmas, the busiest time is from November to March. During the winter months, temperatures are cooler and range from the high 50s to the mid-70s. Starting in late February and March, a variety of cactus and wildflowers begin to bloom. In late April the iconic saguaro begins to bloom. Come June the fruits are beginning to ripen. In August the lush Sonoran desert starts its monsoon season so be aware of possible flash floods.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many activities to partake in at Saguaro National Park no matter the season. There is a multitude of short hikes to choose from or for the adventurous hiker, wilderness hikes, and backcountry camping.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro is offering a number of ranger-guided hikes during February. Two hikes are described below. Contact the park for updates on the day of the program. If you reserve a spot but then cannot make the scheduled hike, call to cancel your reservations by 9 a.m. the day of the hike. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

February 14, 4 p.m. Sunset Hike Hike: 4 hours, 3-½ miles roundtrip 

This hike gains 700 feet with most of the elevation change in switchbacks near the ridgeline where hikers will watch the sunset before descending under the moonlight. This hike is restricted to ages 10 and older. Reservations are required. 

Related: Saguaro National Park: 11 Planning Tips

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

February 15, 4:15 p.m. Trailing Shadows Hike: 3 hours, 2-½ miles roundtrip 

This walk bridges sunset into moonlight letting hikers experience the desert in both the glow of twilight and the light of the waxing moon. The hike is considered easy to moderate, with an elevation gain of roughly 200 feet. The trail begins and ends on a small stretch of dirt road, proceeding to traverse in and out of a winding dry river bed along with fields of mighty Saguaros. This hike is restricted to ages 8 and older. Reservations are required.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro supports other activities as well. Bicycling around the east district’s Cactus Forest Loop Drive is a popular road bike route as is mountain biking on the Hope Camp Trail and Cactus Forest Trail.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park’s two districts offer more than 165 miles of hiking trails. A hike at Saguaro can be a stroll on a short interpretive nature trail or a day-long wilderness trek.

The best place to view the sunset on the east side is either the Tanque Verde Ridge trail (.5 mile hike) or the Javelina Rocks pull-out. The driving loop does not close until 8:00 p.m. so you have plenty of time to leave the loop after sunset.

Related: Reach for the Sky: Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the west side, Gates Pass (the end of Speedway Blvd to the west) is the ideal spot for a sunset. There is a parking lot at the top of the winding road with Tucson Mountain Park but this closes just after sunset.

Worth Pondering…

The saguaro cactus is the Sonoran Desert’s singular icon, the largest native living thing that exists here, and it appears to be a stunningly robust presence in a harsh land.

—Larry Cheek, Cheek, Born Survivor

The Ultimate Guide to Arizona Public Lands

From secluded corners of national parks to lesser-known state parks, here’s where to explore on public lands in Arizona

Arizona is called the Grand Canyon State for good reason but that natural wonder is far from the only gem in the state’s public-lands network of hidden lakes, lush rivers, towering red-rock formations, and slot canyons. Translation: there’s a slice of Arizona public land perfect for every kind of adventurer whether you want to stargaze deep in the backcountry or strike out from the city for a day hike.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Best for: The giant redwoods of the cactus world

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro cacti exist only in North America and the Tucson area showcases this tree-like cactus species that can grow to over 40 feet tall. Head to Saguaro National Park for stunning desert mountain vistas framed by these big-armed plants. Don’t write off the summer months—saguaros start to flower in late April and they can bloom into early June. Park your RV in the campground at Catalina State Park or a full-service RV resort in Tucson.

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

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Best for: Zipping across a desert lake on Jet Skis

Lake Powell Wahweap Marina RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area defies the odds. Here, minutes from the iconic twists of Horseshoe Bend, you’ll find the massive, man-made Lake Powell. Boating is popular here and it’s easy to rent paddling gear or a motorboat at a lake-side marina. You can camp in primitive sites on the beaches of Lake Powell near Page at a 5-star RV resort at Lake Powell Wahweap Marina RV Park, the new Antelope Point Marina RV Park, or even rent a houseboat to camp right on the lake itself.

Related Article: The Ultimate Guide to Arizona State Parks

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Best for: A family scavenger hunt to identify dozens of different cacti

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

Along the state’s border with Mexico, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument offers stunning views and, you guessed it, cacti—31 species, to be exact. Traveling with the family? See how many varieties you can spot along the monument’s trails. Got kids that can’t be trusted so close to sharp and spiny plants? Cruise the scenic Ajo Mountain Drive instead. Always be sure to stock the car with a few gallons of water in case of a breakdown—this classic desert landscape gets hot in summer. Camp in the park for unspoiled night skies or book a full-service RV site in the nearby artsy town of Ajo.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument

Best for: Geology tripping 

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike in the “Land of Standing Up Rocks” at the Chiricahua National Monument. Located in southeastern Arizona near the town of Willcox visitors experience this site of unique rock formations. Around 27 million years ago a volcanic eruption threw an enormous amount of ash into the air that fell back to the earth and eventually hardened into volcanic rock. Over the years that rock eroded into a wonderland of rock spires which creates a kind of rock garden you might expect to have been designed by Dr. Seuss. The spires—precarious, surreal pinnacles that can be several hundred feet in height—dominate the park’s landscape, while caves, mountains, and lava flows add variety to the setting. The park offers campsites or stay in an RV park in nearby Willcox. 

Imperial Sand Dunes National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imperial Sand Dunes National Recreation Area

Best for: Off-roading, hiking, wild sunsets

Yuma Crossing Heritage Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Straddling the state’s southwestern borders with California and Mexico, the Imperial Sand Dunes are like a massive waterless beach stretching for more than 40 miles. Some of the dunes reach 300 feet tall. Head to nearby Yuma for a permit and an ATV rental. The Colorado River flows through the heart of town. Visit the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area and wander the Pivot Point Interpretive Plaza, Gateway Park, and West Wetlands before crossing the river on 4th Avenue.

Related Article: 7 Serene Arizona Lakes for Water-related Activities

Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tonto National Forest

Best for: Hiking and fishing on man-made lakes

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just because Phoenix doesn’t get much rain doesn’t mean you can’t cool off in nearby lakes and rivers. And the Tonto National Forest though it’s packed with saguaro has both of these. Canyon Lake, about 45 minutes from Phoenix, is one of the smaller lakes along the Salt River and is a great place to paddle beneath cliffs topped with cactus. The lake is home to walleye, catfish, and yellow bass and is stocked monthly from November to March with rainbow trout. The Boulder Recreation Site offers a wheelchair-accessible fishing dock. Lost Dutchman State Park features convenient locations for exploring the region as well as a campground with paved camping sites and electric and water utilities. Several trails lead from the park into the surrounding Tonto National Forest. Take a stroll along the Native Plant Trail or hike the challenging Siphon Draw Trail to the top of the Flatiron.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley Tribal Park

Best for: The most scenic desert landscapes you can possibly imagine

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Navajo Nation spans the northeast corner of Arizona and the southeast corner of Utah and some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes you’ll ever find, period! Monument Valley is one of the most majestic—and most photographed—points on Earth. This great valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower at heights of 400 to 1,000 feet. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley. When you go, make sure to stay in the campground and eat at the restaurant within the park for a taste of traditional Navajo cuisine.

Related Article: Now is the Time to Explore Southern Arizona’s Gorgeous State Parks

Coronado National Forest Sky Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coronado National Forest Sky Islands

Best for: Birding and hiking in the Sky Islands of Southern Arizona

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Coronado National Forest’s 15 Sky Island mountain ranges offer awesome scenery, diverse vegetation from deserts to conifer forests, and a wide variety of recreation settings. Popular activities include hiking, camping, and birdwatching. The Coronado also offers mountain bike trails, OHV areas, lakes for fishing and boating, equestrian facilities, and a ski area. Campsites are available from an elevation of 3,000 feet up to 9,000 feet, offering a year-round season of camping opportunities and a full spectrum of vegetation and climate zones. Madera Canyon lies on the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains. Its higher elevation grants relief to desert dwellers during the hot months and allows access to snow during the winter. The extensive trail system of the Santa Rita Mountains is easily accessed from the Canyon’s campground and picnic areas.

Prescott National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prescott National Forest

Best for: Where the Desert Meets the Pines  

Thumb Butte Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in mountainous central Arizona, the Prescott National Forest embraces over 1.25 million acres of rugged, scenic landscapes ranging from cactus-studded desert to pine-clad mountains with the elevation ranging from 3,000 to 8,000 feet. The forest contains 10 campgrounds and seven picnic areas. Most of the developed recreation sites are located in the pines with five of the campgrounds and two of the picnic areas situated near manmade lakes. Nearly 450 miles of scenic trails for hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, or mountain biking are offered on the Prescott National Forest. Due to its proximity to downtown Prescott, Thumb Butte Trail is one of the most popular in the Prescott National Forest. Lynx Lake is a popular recreation area with mild weather, a cool ponderosa pine forest, a serene 55-acre lake, trout fishing, boating, hiking, and bird watching.

Related Article: A Bakers Dozen Campgrounds for an Unforgettable Arizona Wilderness Experience

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park 

Best for: Petrified wood and Painted Desert

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park features trees dating back more than 200 million years that have turned to stone by absorbing minerals from the water that once surrounded them. The park also includes fossilized flora and fauna, petroglyphs, wildflowers, colorful rock formations, and wildlife. Hiking trails allow visitors to see the petrified wood, petroglyphs, and fossils. The trip from one end of the park to the other is about 28 miles. There’s so much to see from the Painted Desert in the north to the southern half of the drive where most of the petrified wood lies. Hiking trails along the way take visitors close to the sights. The drive passes through a variety of environments, colorful rock formations, and scenic pullouts with spectacular views. At the Crystal Forest Trail, petrified logs can easily be seen within steps of the parking area. It’s possible to spot wildlife along the drive as well.

Worth Pondering…

Not to have known—as most men have not—either mountain or the desert, is not to have known one’s self.

—Joseph Wood Krutch

Saguaro National Park: 11 Planning Tips

Some planning tips for visiting Saguaro National Park

To make the most of your visit to Saguaro National Park, we’ve compiled these 10 tips, in no particular order. The park is open 24 hours a day via walking or bicycling and 7 a.m. to sunset in the Tucson Mountain District (West) and 7 a.m. to sunset in the Rincon Mountain District, 364 days a year (closed Christmas Day).

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Plan Ahead: Since the park is open year-round and located in a desert it’s important to consider weather conditions. While daytime temperatures in the winter range from the low-50s to the high-70s, summertime temperatures rise to the mid-80s to low-100s. The busiest times in the park are November through March.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Two parks in One: Saguaro National Park is composed of two distinct districts: The Rincon Mountain District and the Tucson Mountain District. The Tucson Mountain District lies on the west side of Tucson, Arizona, while the Rincon Mountain District lies on the east side of town. Both districts were formed to protect and exhibit forests of their namesake plant: the saguaro cactus.

Related: Reach for the Sky: Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Drink Up: The Sonoran Desert climate is dry whatever season and it’s important to stay hydrated. Be sure to bring along plenty of water when Saguaro. Park rangers suggest one quart of water per hour of hiking during hot weather. Water refilling stations are found at both visitor centers. Also, bring along some sports drinks and salty snacks with you to replenish your electrolytes.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Go for a Hike: With more than 165 miles of hiking trails in the park’s two districts, there are ample opportunities for hiking. Numerous hiking trailheads are located along the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive in the Rincon Mountain District and throughout the Tucson Mountain District. Stop at a visitor center and map out your hike before setting off on the trails.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Go for a Drive: In the Rincon Mountain District the eight-mile Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive features several trailheads, pullouts, and incredible views along the way. The unpaved, graded dirt/gravel Scenic Bajada Loop Drive takes you into the Tucson Mountain District’s foothills with scenic pullouts, picnic areas, and trailheads along its six-mile loop.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Go for a Ride: The same loop drives that are great for driving are also terrific for biking. In addition, two trails in the Rincon Mountain District are open to bicycles—the new 2.8-mile Hope Camp Trail and the 2.5-mile Cactus Forest Trail. All trails in the Tucson Mountain District are off-limits for bicycling.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Mount Up: Horseback riding is possible within Saguaro National Park and if you don’t have your own horse, there are a few local outfitters who can take you to experience the park from the saddle. A guided ride will also help make sure that you stay on the trails where horses are permitted.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Watch for Wildlife: The varied landscapes of Saguaro National Park provide ideal homes to numerous species of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. Watch for roadrunners (beep beep!), cactus wrens, Gila woodpeckers, desert tortoise, horned lizards, Gila monsters, kangaroo rats, coyotes, collared peccaries, and much more.

Related: A Southern Gem: 14 Reasons to Visit Tucson

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Ancient Artwork: Ancient petroglyphs are found throughout the American Southwest including Saguaro National Park. Take a walk along the Signal Hill Trail in the Tucson Mountain District and you’ll find a hill covered with dozens of petroglyphs that date 800 years. And of course, look but don’t touch to help preserve these ancient pieces of art.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Live the Nightlife: When the sun goes down, the park’s nightlife comes alive. The park rangers offer numerous evening programs to experience it all. Reservations advised.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Spend a Day at the Museum: Just outside the park (Tucson Mountain District), the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a terrific place to learn all about the area. A regional showcase for native plants and animals, the museum’s 98 acres includes a zoo, botanical garden, art gallery, natural history museum, and aquarium—and 85 percent of the experience is outside. The park’s hours vary seasonally.

Read Next: Now is the Time to Explore Southern Arizona’s Gorgeous State Parks

Worth Pondering…

This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.

—Dorothy B. Hughes

Winter Listicle: Experience Winter Wonderlands in National Parks

The days are shorter, but the possibilities are endless to enjoy national parks in the winter season

Winter is the perfect time for some creatures to hibernate and RVers to explore a magical season in the national parks. The serenity of fresh powder sprinkled over pine trees and the silence of the winter air are just a few of the wonders of winter.
So pack a canteen of hot cocoa, put on your coziest mittens, and get ready to explore the parks during this season in a variety of favorite ways. Be sure to do some trip planning before you embark on your journey—be prepared and be safe.

Winter Play

A little cold only adds to the fun outdoor adventures you can have during winter. Grab your ice skates, snowshoes, or cross country skis and feel like you’re gliding through a snow globe.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

The stark white of freshly fallen snow, red rocks, blue sky, and evergreen trees—some say Bryce Canyon is even more beautiful in winter! Here at 8,000 feet, the scenery changes dramatically in the colder months, providing unique opportunities to see the park and requiring a very different packing list.

Related Article: Best National Parks to Visit this Winter

In addition to daily activities like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and winter hiking the Bryce Canyon Winter Festival (February 19-21, 2022) is a popular annual event.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Vehicle access is limited to one mile from the Southwest and Northwest Entrances approximately November through May. Beyond the plowed roads to the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and Loomis Plaza, the entire park is snow-covered.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Southwest Area (6,700-10,457 feet) offers steep slopes and sweeping vistas just beyond the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center which offers the only services between November and early May.

The Manzanita Lake Area (5,800-7,200 feet) consists of gentle slopes and scenic lakes. It offers the easiest routes for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the park.

Wildlife watching: Bison © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter Wildlife Watching

Winter provides an amazing opportunity to see new seasons of animals and enjoy the wonders of animal life at every part of the year.

Wildlife watching: Elk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way to stay safe when watching wildlife is to give animals room to move. Parks provide a unique opportunity to view animals’ natural behavior in the wild. In general, animals react to your presence when you are too close. If you’re close enough for a selfie, you’re definitely too close. Use binoculars or a zoom lens and move back if wildlife approaches you. Let wildlife be wild and observe safely from a distance.

Related Article: National Parks at their Spectacular Best in Winter

Wildlife watching: Rocky Mountain sheep © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Enjoy one of the world’s most famous national parks enveloped in winter magic. See the dramatic beauty of the canyon, dusted with snow, and maybe even mule deer, bald eagles, elk, condors, or ravens as an extra treat.
Colder temperatures, shorter days, and snow bring a slower pace to one of the nation’s most visited national parks. Winter visitors find paths less traveled throughout the park. Those prepared for ice and snow will find the Bright Angel Trail a bit quieter and scenic drives less congested.

Pack your jacket and winter gloves, avoid the crowds, and experience a Grand Canyon winter wonderland,

Bird watching: Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashore, Texas

Birds are on the move this winter. Located on the Central Flyway, a major bird migration route, Padre Island National Seashore provides a chance to spot flying feathered travelers from more than 380 species of birds.

Bird watching: Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You never know what you may see when you join a volunteer-led birding guide on a tour of the park—the magnificent grasslands, the beach filled with shorebirds, and the long, shallow, hypersaline lagoon of the Laguna Madre. Each habitat abounds with a rich variety of birds. Your guide will take you to some significant birding locations within these habitats including one that would otherwise be inaccessible to the public.

Carlsbad National Park

Winter Escape

Not a fan of the wintery blues? Head south as a snowbird and enjoy warm weather year-round.

Related Article: National Parks that are Beautiful & Empty in Winter

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 caves—formed when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone leaving behind caverns of all sizes. Regardless of the snow and cold temps above, the cave is always a temperate 56-57 degrees.

The most popular route, the Big Room, is the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America. This 1.25-mile trail is relatively flat and will take about 1.5 hours (on average) to walk.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Tucson, Arizona is home to America’s largest cacti. The giant saguaro is the universal symbol of the American West. These majestic plants, found only in a small portion of the United States, are protected by Saguaro National Park, to the east and west of Tucson. Here you have a chance to see these enormous cacti, silhouetted by the beauty of a magnificent desert sunset.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park’s two districts offer more than 165 miles of hiking trails. A hike at Saguaro National Park can be a stroll on a short interpretive nature trail or a day-long wilderness trek. Both districts of Saguaro National Park offer a variety of hiking trails. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t wait for the snow to melt. Plan an incredible trip to a national park. Always be sure to check specific parks websites for safety tips, road closure information, and general advice before planning your trip.

Read Next: 7 National Parks You Should Have on Your Radar This Winter

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

A Southern Gem: 14 Reasons to Visit Tucson

No matter what season you visit, Tucson has a lot to offer

While Phoenix may offer a more metropolitan nightlife experience, Tucson can definitely hold its own when it comes to outdoor adventures and unique sights. In fact, in many ways, I prefer the relative quiet of this southwestern town over its larger cousin to the north.

Tucson is located less than two hours southeast of Phoenix and the Mexican border is roughly one hour to the south. Its proximity to Mexico has earned Tucson’s food scene major recognition—in 2015, UNESCO designated it the first “City of Gastronomy” in the United States.

The real, natural southwest captivates the imaginations of visitors fortunate enough to spend time in Tucson. Located in the Sonoran Desert, Tucson is the only place in the world the majestic saguaro cactus grows. The tall and stately cactus, stand like silent sentinels in the shadows of the five mountain ranges surrounding the Tucson valley. Tucson provides a stunning array of possibilities, satisfying culture seekers, outdoor adventurers, and fans of cowboys and cacti.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is a well-known Tucson attraction. The park is split into two by the city. The Rincon Mountain District is located to the East of Tucson and the Tucson Mountain District is located to the West. Both districts have their own visitor center, scenic drives, and hiking trail systems. In the west part, you will see plenty of the namesake cacti—the saguaro. In the east part, you will see colorful red rocks and more rugged terrain.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I highly recommend choosing several Saguaro National Park hiking trails to make the most of your time. There are both short, paved, accessible trails and day hike out in the wilderness. It all depends on what you are looking for.

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

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is one of the most popular attractions in town. A world-renowned zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden, all in one place, this is a solid introduction to plant and animal life as you’ll find in the region.

Related: Explore Tucson Naturally

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

Exhibits re-create the natural landscape of the Sonoran Desert Region so realistically you find yourself eye-to-eye with mountain lions and Gila monsters. Other species found here include prairie dogs, tarantulas, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Most of this museum is outdoors, so plan accordingly. Dress comfortably and bring a hat and sunscreen.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabino Canyon

On the northeast edge of Tucson, Sabino Canyon offers a variety of terrain including a paved path for the lighter option, or miles of rugged ground to explore. Nestled in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Sabino Canyon offers a wide range of hiking adventures for beginners and experts alike. Enjoy a relaxing stroll along the paved Sabino Canyon Trail or ride the tram along the wide, scenic path.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabino Canyon Tours offers a narrated, educational 45-minute, 3.8-mile tour into the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The trams have nine stops along the tour with several restroom facilities and picnic grounds located near Sabino Creek. The tram turns around at Stop #9 and heads back down to the Visitor’s Center, at which point riders may remain on board and hike back down. Trams arrive on average every 30 minutes.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park 

One of my personal favorite stops, Catalina State Park sits at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains in northwest Tucson. Catalina is chock-full of epic mountainous backdrops, lush landscapes, towering saguaros, and trails for horses and hikers. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. If you visit in early spring, bright Mexican poppies and colorful wildflowers will greet you.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invite camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet.

Related: Why Tucson Is Your Next Great Outdoor Adventure

Catalina Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Lemmon

Mount Lemmon is named after Sara Plummer Lemmon, a botanist who trekked to the 9,000-foot-plus summit with her husband in 1881. Today, it’s a great spot for outdoor adventures like hiking, camping, rock climbing, and even skiing. Yes, skiing in the Sonoran Desert.

Catalina Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Lemmon is located in the Catalina Mountains. Follow Catalina Highway (Sky Island Scenic Byway) to explore the mountain to your heart’s content. One of the most scenic drives in southern Arizona, the paved road provides access to a fascinating land of great vistas, natural rock sculptures, cool mountain forests, and deep canyons spilling out onto broad deserts.

Tohono Chul Park

Translated from the Tohono O’odham language, Tohono Chul means “desert corner.” This 49-acre desert preserve is a leading Southwest center of desert nature, arts, and culture. This oasis in the desert provides an informative look at the region’s fascinating cultural traditions and its flora and fauna.

Old Tucson Studios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Old Tucson Studios

Plenty of cowboys can be found at Old Tucson Studios. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood are among the Hollywood legends that starred in some of the 300-plus movies and TV projects that have been filmed at Old Tucson since 1939. Today it’s a movie studio and theme park.

Old Tucson Studios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s been just over a year since Old Tucson Studios closed its doors. The famous western attraction was shuttered because of the pandemic. Now, after a long process, Pima County is getting ready to announce who will take over the lease. Be sure to check the current status before planning a visit.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission San Xavier del Bac

Fifteen minutes south of Tucson sits an important piece of the city’s history: Mission San Xavier del Bac. This is one of the most awe-inspiring of all of the area’s attractions and is definitely worth the short drive. Mission San Xavier del Bac, also known as the White Dove of the Desert, is a magnificent building that blends Moorish, Byzantine, and late Mexican Renaissance architecture.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1692 Father Kino, a Jesuit missionary came to the area. Eight years later he laid the foundation for the first church. This building was named for Francis Xavier, a pioneering Christian missionary. The current church, completed in 1797, serves an active parish. Today, this site is used as both a church and a school.

Titan Missile Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Titan Missile Museum

A National Historic Landmark known as Complex 571-7, the Titan Missile Museum is the only remaining Titan II missile site. On one-hour guided tours you’ll descend 35 feet below ground to marvel at the intercontinental ballistic missile that in about 30 minutes could have delivered a nine-megaton nuclear warhead to a location more than 6,000 miles away.

Related: 13 Weird and Wonderful Reasons to RV to Tucson

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park

The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish priest Eusebio Francisco Kino. Jesuit, and later Franciscan, priests ministered to the O’odham Indians and Spanish settlers until 1848.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A self-guiding tour booklet for the Tumacácori Mission grounds can be purchased or borrowed. The walking tour of the site leads through several interlinked rooms with open doorways, and to the enclosed courtyard garden, filled by mature trees and Sonoran desert plants.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac

A destination for the arts, Tubac features eclectic shops and world-class galleries. Clustered in the village plaza, old adobes, Spanish courtyards, and ocotillo fences blend with a handful of newer buildings. Meandering streets are punctuated by hidden courtyards and sparkling fountains.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This village of about 1,500 people has over 100 galleries, studios, and shops, all within easy walking distance of each other. You’ll find an eclectic and high-quality selection of art and artisan works that include paintings, sculpture, pottery, metalwork, hand-painted tiles, photography, jewelry, weaving, and hand-carved wooden furniture.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park

Established as a Spanish presidio in 1752, Tubac was the first permanent European settlement in what later became Arizona. Those early ruins are visible in an underground exhibit at Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. Visitors also will see a museum that houses Arizona’s first printing press (demonstrations are offered), a furnished 1885 schoolhouse, and living-history exhibits.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Outdoor patio exhibits show how people lived, cooked, and worked in Spanish colonial times. The Park is home to three buildings on the National Register of Historic Places: an 1885 schoolhouse that is the third oldest in Arizona; Otero Hall, built as a community center in 1914 and now housing a collection of paintings; and a mid-20th century adobe vernacular row house.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon

Madera Canyon is known for exceptional and varied hiking trails. The Mount Wrightson trailhead provides access to several trails including the Super Trail and Old Baldy trail where experienced hikers can climb to higher levels. These two trails to its summit cross one another twice and make a figure eight.

Related: Mountain Island in a Desert Sea: Exploring Southern Arizona Sky Islands

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon is a famed wildlife location, in particular for birds with over 250 recorded species. The resident birds include hummingbirds, owls, sulfur flycatchers, wood warblers, elegant trogan, wild turkeys, and quails, as well as numerous migrating birds. Other notable wildlife includes coati, black bear, raccoon, mountain lion, bighorn sheep, bobcat, and ring-tailed cat.

Old Pueblo County Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Old Pueblo

Tucson has preserved a flair of its American Indian and Spanish-Mexican past of a pueblo in the Sonoran Desert. The days of the Presidio de San Agustin del Tucson, the original fortress built by Spanish soldiers during the 18th century, seem not that long ago. Wandering through the recreated structure, it is easy to imagine what life was like when members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, Native American people of the Sonoran Desert, mingled there with Spanish soldiers and early Territorial Period settlers.

Old Presidio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The neighborhood surrounding the Presidio, the Presidio Historic District, is a charming, eclectic assembly of adobe and brick buildings in Spanish-Mexican, Anglo-American, and other architectural styles of the 1920s. Many houses have been restored to their former beauty, in brilliant colors of bright green, brick red, plum-purple, and hues of blue and yellow, and their original masonry.

Worth Pondering…

Once in a lifetime, you see a place, and you know, instinctively, this is paradise.