21 of the Most Visited National Parks in America

Whether planning to camp under starry skies, take a scenic drive, or chase thrilling outdoor adventures, these parks are sure to please

Approximately 237 million people visited the national parks in 2020, representing a 28 percent year-over-year decrease attributed to the COVID pandemic. To determine the most popular national parks in the United States, I’ve compiled data from the National Park Service on the number of recreational visits each site had in 2020.

President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 signed the act creating the National Park Service to leave natural and historic phenomenons “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Since then, national parks have welcomed visitors to experience some of the best the country has to offer and showcase America’s natural beauty and cultural heritage.

Today, the country’s 63 national parks contain at least 247 species of endangered or threatened plants and animals, more than 75,000 archaeological sites, and 18,000 miles of trails.

Keep reading to discover 21 of the most popular national parks in the United States, in reverse order. And be sure to check with individual parks before you visit to find out about ongoing, pandemic-related safety precautions.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

48. Pinnacles National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740
Percent of total national park visits: .24%

Pinnacles National Park in California was born after several volcanoes erupted forming the unique landscape of the park which is packed with canyons, rock spires, and woodlands. When the park was established in 1908 it was only 2,060 acres but has now grown to 26,000. Because of hot summer temperatures, Pinnacles is most popular in the winter months.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

45. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 183,835
Percent of total national park visits: .27%

Located in southern New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s 119 caves were born when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone millions of years ago leaving behind a treasure trove of caverns. The Big Room in Carlsbad Cavern is the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America and takes an hour and a half to cross, according to the National Park Service. Birders from around the globe flock to Rattlesnake Spring to see some of the 300 documented bird species.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

42. Mesa Verde National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 287,477
Percent of total national park visits: .42%

Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado protects nearly 5,000 archaeological sites that have preserved the history of the ancestral Pueblo people. They inhabited the land for almost 700 years building dwellings into the cliffs and establishing communities before moving away. Visitors can see and explore several of the cliff dwellings through tours and hiking trails.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

38. Petrified Forest National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 384,483
Percent of total national park visits: .57%

Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona is home to the gorgeous Painted Desert and Crystal Forest where petrified logs shine with quartz crystals. The site in the park known as Newspaper Rock contains more than 650 petroglyphs between 650 and 2,000 years old. The landscape of the park features mesas and buttes created by erosion.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

37. Big Bend National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 393,907
Percent of total national park visits: .58%

Big Bend National Park in Texas offers spectacular views of the Chihuahuan Desert landscape as well as the Rio Grande. Visitors to the park can even enter Mexico through the park’s Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry. Big Bend has more species of birds, bats, and cacti than any other national park in the United States.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

34. White Sands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 415,383
Percent of total national park visits: .61%

The park is aptly named, featuring wavy white sands over nearly 300 square miles in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin. This is the world’s largest gypsum dunefield and the park preserves a major part of it. Visits can include the park’s historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Lucero Ranch on the shore of Lake Lucero and the White Sands Missile Range Museum and Trinity Site, where in 1945 the first atomic bomb was tested.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Canyonlands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 493,914
Percent of total national park visits: .73%

Utah’s Canyonlands National Park features a unique landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes formed by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Even though the park is considered a desert, its high elevation gives it a varying climate; temperatures here can fluctuate as much as 50 degrees in a day. This, combined with the low annual rainfall, make the park a perfect home for drought-resistant plants such as cacti, yuccas, and mosses.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

29. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 542,274
Percent of total national park visits: .80%

Each rock at Lassen Volcanic National Park in California is a result of a volcanic eruption given that the park has been volcanically active for 3 million years. The world’s four volcanic types—shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome—are all present at the park and located in close proximity to each other. Park visitors can also check out the park’s several fumaroles, mud pots, and boiling pools.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

28. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 551,303
Percent of total national park visits: .81%

Located in North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s dominating feature is the badlands which are colorful, rolling hills consisting of rock that are millions of years old. Erosion and other natural processes like lightning strikes and prairie fires continue to shape the badlands today. The park is of course named for the U.S. president who first came to the Dakotas in 1883 to hunt bison.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

24. Saguaro National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 762,226
Percent of total national park visits: 1.12%

As its name suggests, Saguaro National Park in Arizona protects giant saguaro cacti, a symbol of the American West. The average lifespan of one of these cacti is 125 years old and it produces sweet fruits. The park is also home to a variety of animals many of which can only be found in the southern part of the state including kangaroo rats, roadrunners, and horned lizards.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Sequoia National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 796,086
Percent of total national park visits: 1.17%

Sequoia National Park is adjacent to Kings Canyon National Park in California and was the first park established to protect a living organism: its native sequoia trees. Since World War II, Sequoia and Kings Canyon have been administered jointly. In 2014, Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the park for the first time in 100 years as part of a recovery effort for this endangered species.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Badlands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 916,932
Percent of total national park visits: 1.35%

The striking landscape of Badlands National Park in South Dakota contains one of the world’s richest fossil beds. At one point, it was home to the rhino and saber-toothed cat. The Badlands were formed nearly 70 million years ago by erosion and deposition of sediment when an ancient sea was located where today’s Great Plains are.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Capitol Reef National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 981,038
Percent of total national park visits: 1.44%

Capitol Reef National Park in Utah is famous for the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline extending almost 100 miles and considered a “wrinkle on the earth.” The fold was formed 50 to 70 million years ago as a warp in the Earth’s crust and erosion has exposed the fold at the surface. The park has some of the darkest night skies in the United States, so much so that it has been designated an International Dark Sky Park.

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

19. New River Gorge National Park & Preserve

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,054,374
Percent of total national park visits: 1.55%

New River Gorge National Park & Preserve consists of 70,000 acres along the New River, a whitewater river in southern West Virginia that despite its name is one of the oldest on the continent. From the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, the sides of the valley fall almost 900 feet into the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can go whitewater rafting or canoeing, rock climbing, bird watching, camping, hiking, or biking along an old railroad grade.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Arches National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,238,083
Percent of total national park visits: 1.82%

Arches National Park in Utah lives up to its name and has more than 2,000 natural stone arches, the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world. These sandstone geological formations are the result of erosion and a thick layer of salt beneath the rock surface. The arches are impermanent, however; the 71-foot Wall Arch collapsed in 2008.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Bryce Canyon National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,655
Percent of total national park visits: 2.16%

Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah has the world’s largest collection of hoodoos, pillars of rock left standing after erosion. Bryce Canyon contains a series of natural amphitheaters and bowls, the most famous being Bryce Amphitheater which is full of the park’s iconic hoodoos. The park is one of three national parks to house the Grand Staircase geological formation which is a giant sequence of sedimentary rock layers.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Shenandoah National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,666,265
Percent of total national park visits: 2.45%

Just 75 miles from the nation’s capital, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia showcases the Blue Ridge Mountains and is home to 90 perennial streams, many of which turn into cascading waterfalls. While many native species have been lost over time, today the park has more than 200 bird species, 50 mammal species, and more than 35 fish species. The park is popular with hikers with 500 miles of trails including 101 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Joshua Tree National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,399,542
Percent of total national park visits: 3.53%

Joshua Tree National Park in California was named after its picturesque, spiky Joshua trees. Mormon immigrants named the trees after the biblical Joshua after noticing that the limbs looked as if they were outstretched in prayer. Many of the park’s animals including Scott’s orioles, wood rats, and desert night lizards depend on the tree for food and shelter. Keys View in the park offers an incredible view of the Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, and San Jacinto.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Grand Canyon National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,897,098
Percent of total national park visits: 4.26%

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is synonymous with its world-famous canyon that is 18 miles wide and 1 mile deep. The park encompasses more than 1 million acres and consists of raised plateaus and structural basins. The Grand Canyon is considered one of the best examples of arid land erosion in the world. It has a rich and diverse fossil record and the land offers a detailed record of three out of the four geological eras.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Zion National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 3,591,254
Percent of total national park visits: 5.29%

Zion National Park was Utah’s first national park and is famous for its landscape of giant colorful sandstone cliffs. Around 12,000 years ago the first people to visit this land tracked mammoths, giant sloths, and camels until those animals died about 8,000 years ago. Because of the range in elevation in the park, it has more than 1,000 diverse plant species.

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

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 12,095,720
Percent of total national park visits: 17.81%

Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee is the most biodiverse park in the National Park system with more than 19,000 documented species. The Smokies are among the oldest mountain ranges in the world. On average, more than 85 inches of rain falls in the park each year fueling 2,100 miles of streams and rivers that flow through the park.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

America’s 10 Most Popular National Parks, Ranked

The United States is currently home to 63 national parks and you genuinely won’t find a dud among them. But that doesn’t mean some parks aren’t better than others.

The 10 most popular parks might be the easiest to access, but if you’re still hedging your bets on where to take a road trip, we’ve ranked them from good to greatest.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For many living in big cities, the sad truth is that the only time they remember there are parts of America not covered in condos, big box stores, and fast-food outlets is when they’re Instagramming them from 36,000 feet. Which is also when many think to themselves, “Wow, I wish I could see all that beauty up close and without a plane wing in my way.”

Well, turns out, there is! It’s called the National Parks Service. And you can RV there and take in all that awesome beauty.

And as a reminder of the scope of America’s awe-inspiring natural beauty (and its 63-strong national parks created by the coolest dude ever from New York), we thought it’d be fun to take 10 of the most-visited parks in 2020 and rank them by their level of adventure and sheer, mind-blowing spectacle. Turns out, yes, it was fun.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park (California)

If you ever wondered what your pet iguana feels like when he looks up at you, visit the second-oldest national park in America. Here, outside Visalia, California, not only can you look up at the biggest tree in the world (the 275-foot tall, 60-foot wide General Sherman) but also at five of the 10 largest trees in the world. They’re not easy to get to though: 84 percent of the park doesn’t have roads and is only accessible on foot or horseback.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park (Arizona)

You know those comically oversized cacti Wile E. Coyote used to fall into? Those are modeled after the giant Saguaro cactus the most distinct feature is this park straddling the city of Tucson. The park, created to preserve the cacti, boasts some great hikes. Even during mild weather, a trek into nature here can take you up 5,000 feet of elevation in 15 miles of desert. Driving Saguaro will take you through a Western landscape that’s unmistakably Arizona.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)

Along the densely populated mid-Atlantic, no national park makes a faster, prettier escape to nature than this one. The main attraction here is Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains and offers sweeping views of the valley and, in fall, an explosion of insane colors. It’s also home to a big chunk of the Appalachian Trail if you’re feeling extra ambitious.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park (New Mexico)

Remember how fun it was to play in the sand as a kid? It’s still pretty fun, as it turns out. And the sandbox is a lot bigger at White Sands National Park, a system of rare white gypsum sand dunes (largest gypsum dune field in the world) intertwined with raised boardwalk trails and a single loop road. Sunset and sunrise are obviously the golden hours for photographers but any time is a good time for some sand-dune sledding, kite-flying, and back-country camping.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona)

Petrified Forest is known for its treasure trove of fossilized logs, exposed after eons of erosion by wind and water. About 60 million years ago, tectonic action pushed the Colorado Plateau upwards, exposing the layers of rock containing the park’s Triassic fossils. The park is composed of two sections: the north section is a colorful badlands called the Painted Desert and the southern section contains most of the petrified wood. The park consists of a 28-mile road that offers numerous overlooks and winds through the mesas and wilderness. Visitors can also choose to hike a variety of trails ranging from easy to difficult.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park (California)

The only national park to get its very own U2 album named after it has exploded in popularity over the past decade, now the 10th most-visited park with 2.4 million visitors. They’re not coming in droves to see if the streets do, in fact, have no name. They’re coming because Joshua Tree boasts perhaps the best collection of rock-climbing faces in the US. The desert park also has 501 archeological sites, and is home to the lower Coachella Valley, making it a popular day trip for snowbirds and music festival goers.  

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee, North Carolina)

The MOST VISITED PARK IN AMERICA spans four counties across two states and runs through part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Accessible from both Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina, the park has more than 1,660 different kinds of flowering plants—the most of any national park. Its highest point is Clingman’s Dome, where a 50-foot observation deck allows visitors to soak in some spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding beauty. More than 12 million annual visitors make it nearly four times as busy as the second-place Yellowstone.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park (Utah)

Give whoever named this park credit: they didn’t mince words. This 120-square-mile national treasure outside Moab is all about arches, 2,000 of them in fact. All formed from millions of years of sandstone erosion. The most famous is the Delicate Arch, a 65-footer that you might recognize from playing the license plate game back when—and yes, it’s on the Utah tag.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park (Utah)

Ask anyone to name Utah’s five National Parks and odds are Capitol Reef is the one they forget among its arched-and-canyoned cousins. You should remember Capitol Reef for the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile wrinkle in the earth and a feature you won’t find elsewhere in the state. It’s also been designated as a “Gold Tier” Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association so camping here will yield some of the prettiest stars you’ve ever seen. At just under a million visitors last year, it offers much of the red rocks and striking geology of other Utah parks, without the crowds.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

John Wesley Powell said it best, “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself.” A universally recognizable iconic destination, Grand Canyon National Park is a true marvel of nature that’s on every RVer’s bucket list. A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. A deep gorge carved by the Colorado River about seventeen million year ago, the Grand Canyon stretches for more than 250 miles and is up to 18 miles in width and more than a mile deep in some areas.

Worth Pondering…

Adventure is worthwhile.

―Aesop

10 National Parks to Visit during Wildflower Season

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

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

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

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

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

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

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

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

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

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

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

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

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

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

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

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park, California

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

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

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—William Blake

The Top 10 National Parks to Discover this Spring

Spring is the best time to visit some of America’s most beautiful national parks

Deserts ablaze with lupine and paintbrush, rivers surging with snowmelt, high meadows lush with columbine and alpine sunflower, elk and deer venturing out of their winter hideaways with new babies in tow are a few of the many reasons to make a springtime pilgrimage to one—or many—of America’s national parks. Here we highlight 10 national parks that are particularly special to visit this spring.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park, California

Spring is the perfect time to head to the national parks. One park that’s awesome in spring is Sequoia, home to some of the largest trees in the world. It offers a beautiful forest where you can camp, hike, and explore all the awesome nature around. It is home to General Sherman, the largest tree by volume which you can take a short hike see along with several other cool tree stops along the way.

Due to its large range of elevations (1,360 to 14,505 feet), the blooming season in Sequoia is long and verdant with marigold fiddlenecks bursting in the foothills while corn lilies and paintbrush dot higher altitudes like Alta Meadow. April and May are best for spring wildflower hunting at lower elevations while the alpine environment really comes to life from July through August. Sequoia is definitely one not to be missed in spring!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

For many, springtime offers an opportunity for a first trip of the year. And if you are just getting back out there, the last thing you want is a crowded park. This spring, avoid the crowds and visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park for a unique and exciting adventure.  This park allows visitors to explore a world over 700 feet below the earth’s surface. Famous for protecting the third and seventh largest cave chambers in the world, Carlsbad Caverns holds a total of 116 caves—offers rooms of limestone, stalagmites, stalactites, cave pearls, and underground lakes.

Spring is a great time to visit Carlsbad Caverns as the bat population makes its presence known. Seventeen species of bats live in the park and many are present in April and May including Mexican Free-tailed Bats who emerge from caves in groups flying up and counter-clockwise for three hours. It’s an incredible sight.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Temperatures start to rise, flowers begin to bloom, and as the snow melts, hikers across the country begin to plan their first hikes of the season. Look no further than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

With over 800 miles of trails, the park offers beauty everywhere you look. Trails are available for walking, hiking, and mountain biking and lead to other fun activities like fishing and camping. During spring, trails are surrounded by blooming wildflowers—over 1,660 varieties, more than any other national park in North America. A group of flowers known as spring ephemerals appear in early spring, flower, bear fruit, and die within a short two-month period. These flowers include trilliums, orchids, violets, and iris and will bloom during March and April.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is at its best in spring as there is a minimal chance of thunderstorms that are present in the other seasons. The beauty of this spot is unparalleled as it has the largest concentration of hoodoos in the world. Hoodoos are the beautiful, irregular, colorful rock columns you’ll see throughout the park. The main viewpoints are Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point.

Wildflowers are common throughout Bryce Canyon, primarily growing in meadows or along trails. Many wildflowers in the park are adapted to the rocky soil including columbines and the Rocky Mountain paintbrush. Bryce Canyon wildflowers can be found in every color and range in size from tiny to almost three feet tall.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Few national parks strut their stuff as showily as Joshua Tree in spring when the park’s namesake trees send their enormous, space-age blossoms reaching for the sky. Those aren’t the only blooms, of course—visitors pour into the park to see the desert sands awash with colors so bright you’ll have trouble putting away your camera to explore.

But explore you must, because Joshua Tree’s otherworldly rock formations must be seen to be believed; there’s a reason Hollywood directors have set everything from westerns to sci-fi classics in these eerie landscapes. Joshua Tree can be accessed from two directions: Coachella Valley to the south and from the adjacent towns of Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree to the north.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Photographers know to visit Arches National Park in spring when the ochre and vermillion formations of eroded sandstone appear more vivid by the surrounding greenery. Temperature is another reason to visit now as summer can be brutal in the southern Utah desert with temperatures heading north of 100 degrees starting in late May.

At just 80,000 acres, Arches is one of the most manageable of the southwestern red rock parks with its most popular features such as Delicate Arch, Double Arch, and the Windows Section accessible from the park’s main road. Temperatures in the spring are pleasant enough to make longer hikes like the 2-mile out-and-back to the rock towers of Park Avenue and the 7.2 Devils Garden Primitive Loop perfectly comfortable. For those who can’t get enough of red rock country, Canyonlands National Park, Arches’ larger but less-visited sister is just 40 minutes south of Moab.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

In Shenandoah National Park the spring bloom is not limited to the slopes and meadows but paints the forests with watercolors as well with azaleas, trilliums, and wild geraniums blanketing the forest floor. The earliest blooms tend to be along the lower-elevation valleys of the Rose, South, and Hughes rivers and along Mill Prong while May is peak time for pink azaleas and June sees the arrival of mountain laurel. Further south, head for Linville Falls or hike the Linville Gorge Trail to fully immerse yourself in nature’s rhododendron garden.

The spring bird migration brings its fans looking for scarlet tanagers, cerulean warblers, and other colorful transients along Pocosin Trail. The Passamaquoddy Trail and Lewis Mountain are other popular spots for flowers, birds, and wildlife.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Spring is waterfall season in Zion when the Virgin River roars through the canyon and seasonal tributaries tumble down the canyon walls. The famed Emerald Pools are a wonder at any time of year but in spring the misty 110 foot cascade widens into a curtain of water that catches the light in a halo of rainbows. More waterfalls plunge from the 1,000-foot walls of Parunuweap Canyon.

Hiking is ideal this time of year when temperatures are in the 70s and the ochre and crimson cliffs are particularly photogenic against the bright green foliage of freshly green cottonwoods.

Just north of St. George, don’t miss the lava flows and Snow Canyon State Park where you’ll see the desert painted with wildflowers like desert chickweed, buttercup, and sand verbena.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Yellowstone isn’t the only national park where you can watch baby bison wobble along on their spindly new legs; Theodore Roosevelt National Park is bison central, charged with the mission to protect one of America’s most beloved—and most hunted—species from going extinct.

In addition to bison and other wildlife sightings the park celebrates all aspects of prairie life including the prairie crocus, abundant across these high plains just after snowmelt. And don’t forget the prairie dog—these highly social animals have their own gigantic “town” sprawling across acres of the park where they pop from their burrows to look curiously at visitors and call to their neighbors with dog-like barks. Late May and early June is when prairie dog babies first come out to play in the springtime sun.

Saguaro in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

The cactus that gives Saguaro National Park its name has long been recognized as a symbol of American West but these giant plants are only found in a small portion of the United States. They are more than massive cacti but also shelters and reserves of water for much of the wildlife that calls this park home. And what season do these giant centerpieces bloom? You guessed it: spring!

Springtime brings with it the beauty of flowers. Deserts and saguaro forests burst with colors from blooming wildflowers like the gold Mexican poppy, red penstemons, and desert marigolds. Even trees, shrubs, and other cacti are in bloom including creosote bushes, chollas, and hedgehogs.

Bottom line

You’ll find plenty of the three W’s—wildflowers, wildlife, and water—when you visit these national parks in spring.

Worth Pondering…

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

—William Blake

The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park

And this winter, you can have it mostly to yourself

It’s almost cliché to say the Sonoran Desert looks like the background of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. But hiking through forests of towering saguaro feels nothing short of cartoonish. These green giants with arms pointed in all directions look like they’re about to break into a musical number at any second.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is no symbol more emblematic of the American Southwest than the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)—standing tall with arms reaching out from the trunk toward the sky. The saguaro (pronounced sah-WHAH-ro) is rare, found only in southern Arizona and western Sonora, Mexico. And if you want to spend the day with these goofy, prickly characters, Saguaro is one of the easiest national parks to visit.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The saguaro is the largest cactus in North America. They may look like loving characters from a child’s storybook but these are some serious tree-like cacti. Saguaros are covered with protective spines, white flowers in the late spring, and red fruit in summer. They can weigh up to nearly 5,000 pounds and live up to 200 years.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I’ve spent a lot of time looking for “the perfect specimen” and determined that there is a saguaro for everyone. Maybe you like the perfect-looking two-armed saguaro or the saguaro with many wrangled arms reaching out in all directions. These arms generally bend upward and can number over 25 although some never grow arms. Their differences make them fun to photograph, characterize, and admire. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Long overshadowed by Arizona’s marquee national park, the Grand Canyon, Saguaro is a 92,000-acre desert wonderland. And if you go anytime other than summer you’ll find it hits that perfect national park threesome of ideal weather, unusual landscape, and minimal crowds. 

Prime time in southern Arizona is spring or fall when daytime highs rarely get over a dry 90 degrees and the mornings are pleasantly cool. Winter is also fantastic if you want to hike during the day—morning and night can be chilly but nothing a light jacket can’t fix.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll find few parks as accessible from major cities as Saguaro which sits less than half an hour from Tucson. It’s separated into two sections, each of which can be easily tackled in a day: East (also called the Rincon Mountain District) and West (aka the Tucson Mountain District). In between are I-10 and the city of Tucson so getting here by interstate is pretty straightforward.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the two sides of the park bare the same name and share likeness in desert landscape, there are subtle differences. The Tucson Mountain District is home to dense saguaro forests that rise from the hillside. Here you will find low-desert grasslands, shrubs, and densely populated saguaro forests. The Rincon Mountain District is the area of parkland originally preserved by Herbert Hoover when he dedicated it as a monument in 1933. It is the jumping off point to the backcountry. Here you will find high-elevation conifer forests in addition to saguaros and desert mainstays such as Teddybear cholla cactus and desert wildflowers.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though the mountainous desert topography might look intimidating, Saguaro National Park is one of the easier national parks to hike. The crown jewel for hikers is the trek to Wasson Peak (4,687-feet) in the more-mountainous western section. There are several options for reaching the top of Wasson Peak. High Norris Trailhead is favored by many experienced hikers. The entire hike is about eight miles long. For something easier on the west side, take the 0.8-mile Valley View Trail which as the name suggests also boasts phenomenal views of the valley on a much shorter walk.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A popular hike on the east side is the 1-mile Freeman Homestead Trail. Wander down this path to the site of an old homestead foundation, a grove of large saguaros, and a cool desert wash. Great horned owls can often be seen in the cliff above this wash. A more strenuous hike is the combined Garwood, Carrillo, and Wildhorse trails accessed from the Douglas Spring trail head. You’ll enter the kind of cactus forest that inspired the creation of this park in 1933. Little Wildhorse Tank is one of the only perennial areas of water in the park.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you prefer to see national parks from the air-conditioned comfort of your car, Saguaro makes that easy too. The most popular scenic drive is the Cactus Forest Loop in the east. The paved, one-way, 8-mile paved road with pull offs that overlook the valley offers the best scenery of any route in the park. On the west side, take the Bajada Loop Road which is 6 miles and partially unpaved.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Backcountry camping is available by permit. There are about 20 campsites TOTAL, all of which are only accessible through backcountry hiking. There are no accommodations for RV camping in Saguaro. So unless you’re looking to rough it in the desert you’ll need a RV park for overnight camping and they are numerous in this snowbird hotspot.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is puzzling that Saguaro doesn’t get more love. But its relative obscurity is also a great strength—it’s a national park where you can still feel like you’re lost in nature without delving into the backcountry. Its unusual landscape and ideal weather combine to create the experience many look for during a winter getaway. And as a bonus, you just might feel like you’re walking around the cartoon set of a childhood memory.

This is a go-back park. I can’t wait to go back!

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 91,445 acres

Established: October 14, 1994

Location: Southeast Arizona on both the west—and east side of Tucson

How the park got its name: Saguaro National Park is named after the Saguaro cactus that rises from the desert floor.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic site in the park: The Saguaro cactus is the undisputed champion of the American southwest so it is only fitting that it should stand as the most iconic site in the park. They grow slowly, spouting their arms at around 75 years of age. They live long for a cactus, up to 200 years. They stand large—as high as 80 feet tall and weighing up to nearly 5,000 pounds. There are 1.6 million Saguaro cactus decorating the desert flat, ridges, and skyline—1.6 million reasons to visit this beautiful park near Tucson. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know? 

The state flower of Arizona is the saguaro cactus bloom.

The saguaro cactus bares fibrous fruit that looks like small red flowers. It is said to be crunchy and taste sweet. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Tohono O’odham Nation of American Indians lived in the region for thousands of years. Tohono O’odham translates to “Desert People.”

More than 1,162 species of plants can be found in the park.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Advice from a Saguaro

Ultimate Collection of National Parks Perfect for Snowbirds

Allergic to snow, ice, and sub-freezing temperatures?

Escape to a national park that offers sweeping panoramas, hiking trails, and wildlife sightings along with warm temperatures and lots to do and explore. These destinations do not require you to worry about frostbite or snow.

Looking for a new hiking or backpacking adventure? Big Bend, Joshua Tree, and Saguaro national parks can be great destinations. Padre Island National Seashores is a great spot to plant your beach chair and read a good book while the waves wash ashore. What follows is the ultimate list of national parks for RVing snowbirds.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Great for: Backpacking, birding, hiking, night skies

Deep in West Texas on the border with Mexico, Big Bend is far off the beaten path but the rewards make the effort worthwhile. The winter months are best to visit to avoid the searing heat of summer. It is the prime backpacking season and for those seeking to push themselves, the park’s Outer Mountain Loop awaits. If you don’t have desert backpacking experience, try an overnight from the Homer Wilson Ranch or in the high country of the Chisos Mountains. Either, or both, will give you a good sample of the Outer Loop experience. Big Bend is an International Dark Sky Park with impressive night skies.

Big Thicket National Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas

Great for: Birding, paddling, backcountry camping

Located about two hours from Houston, the preserve has no developed campgrounds and no entrance stations; only a few short roads—most of them unpaved—even extend into the park. As a result the best way to enjoy the Big Thicket is on foot or via the water but it’s easy to explore via short walks or float trips. There are creeks, bayous, and rivers that combined offer more than 300 miles to explore by canoe or kayak at Big Thicket which boasts three official Texas Paddling Trails that range from 5 to 21 miles in length. When you’re out paddling, don’t forget your binoculars to help with identifying birds in the preserve.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Great for: Kayaking/canoeing, birding

There are crown jewels in the National Park System, and then there are the overlooked parks. Congaree is one of the latter. What can you say about a place that’s an International Biosphere Reserve, a Globally Important Bird Area, a National Natural Landmark, a federally designated Wilderness Area, and an Outstanding National Resource Waters designee? Located in the middle of South Carolina, just a half-hour’s drive from the capital city of Columbia, Congaree preserves the largest remaining old-growth bottomland forest. Although this nearly 27,000-acre park has around 600 acres of piney uplands including about 200 acres of valuable longleaf pine habitat, its ecological centerpiece is a virtually pristine 12,000-acre tract of floodplain forest. The bottomlands of the Congaree Swamp are mantled with bald cypress, tupelo, laurel oak, sweet gum, water hickory, loblolly pine, and other trees inclined to grow to unusually large size.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Great for: Birding, beach combing, history, hiking

Cumberland Island National Seashore embraces a pastoral coastal setting on Georgia’s longest barrier island. It’s a place rich in human history, features settings attractive to both birdlife and loggerhead sea turtles, embraces dense maritime forests and salt marshes, and claims nearly 10,000 acres of officially designated wilderness. One of America’s most beautiful Atlantic beaches often rewards strollers with sand dollars and shells. Visits to the northern portion of the island offer visitors the opportunity of stepping inside the intimate First African American Church where on a September day in 1996 John Kennedy, Jr. married Carolyn Bessette. Cumberland Island is a world away from what most have experienced in America’s more popular national parks.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Great for: Bouldering, birding, desert botany, hiking, camping, history of ranchers and miners

If you’re fascinated by desert botany, an avid birder, enjoy bouldering, or want to learn a bit about those who tried to tame the rugged desert landscape of Southern California, Joshua Tree meets the bill. It can be magical and astonishing, intriguing and interesting, but the landscape also doesn’t suffer those who come unprepared. There are 800,000 acres to explore in Joshua Tree and much of it is wilderness. It’s the place where the Sonoran Desert meets the Mojave Desert, a place where slight differences in elevation make huge differences in moisture and plant life. Desert sunsets always seem to be amazing. Joshua trees of many sizes and grotesque shapes silhouette themselves against colorful sky. And, as the sun drops into the horizon, temperature drop too.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sagauro National Park, Arizona

Great for: Hiking, birding, Sonoran Desert botany

Despite its arid appearance, Saguaro boasts a rich and diverse landscape. Its namesake cacti aren’t the only desert dwellers in the park. There also are prickly pear, barrel, octillo, mesquite, and cholla. Wildlife includes jackrabbits, coyotes, bobcats, coatimundi, Gila monsters, black bears, and javelina. Winter months in the park are decidedly more comfortable, temperature-wise, than July and August. The milder temperatures encourage exploration of the park on foot. Though the park is less than 100,000 acres in size, split in two districts (Rincon Mountain District and Tuscon Mountin District), you can find solitude by heading out early in the morning or late in the afternoon to catch the evening sunset.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Parks That Snowbirds Should Explore This Winter

The best parks for snowbirds to explore this winter

While the most familiar of America’s parks are the national parks and state parks, America’s parks operate under a variety of names including county parks, regional parks, metro parks, natural areas, national forests, national grasslands, national wildlife refuges, landmarks, monuments, historic sites, geologic sites, recreation trails, memorial sites, preserves, scenic rivers, and wildlife areas.

So it should not surprise anyone when I say that there are scores of incredible sites worth exploring in America.

Whether you’re looking to explore waterfalls or rivers, volcanoes or deserts, canyons or mountaintops, there’s a park for snowbirds to discover this winter.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park in Arizona

The giant Saguaro cactus is the most distinct feature is this park that straddles the city of Tucson. The park, created to preserve the cacti, boasts some great hikes. Driving Saguaro will take you through a Western landscape that’s unmistakably Arizona.

The busiest time of the year is from November to March. During the winter months, temperatures are cooler and range from the high 50s to the high-70s. Starting in late February and March, the park begins to get a variety of cactus and wildflower blooms. In late April, the iconic Saguaro begins to bloom.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park in California

Joshua Tree is a diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. The park is home to two deserts: the Colorado which offers low desert formations and plant life, such as ocotillo and teddy bear cholla cactus; and the Mojave. This higher, cooler, wetter region is the natural habitat of the Joshua tree.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park in South Carolina

Preserving the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the U.S., Congaree National Park is an International Biosphere Reserve. Visitors can explore the natural wonderland by canoe, kayak, or on hiking trails and the Boardwalk Loop Trail.

The park is also one of the most diverse in the country—with dense forests giving way to massive expanses of swamplands. The forests are some of the biggest and oldest old-growth in America and offer great opportunities for recreation of all kinds.

Catalina State Park in Arizona

Catalina State Park, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains offers great camping, hiking, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park in Alabama

Gulf State Park’s two miles of beaches greet you with plenty of white sun-kissed sand, surging surf, seagulls and sea shells, but there is more than sand and surf to sink your toes into. Visits here can be as active or as relaxing as you like. Try exhilarating water sports, go fishing, learn about coastal creatures at the nature center or simply sprawl out on the sands.

Anza-Borrego State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza-Borrego State Park in California

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California. Five hundred miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas, and many miles of hiking trails provide visitors with an unparalleled opportunity to experience the wonders of the Sonoran Desert.

Usery Mountain, a Maricopa County Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maricopa County Parks in Arizona

Maricopa County Parks offer hiking and biking trails, picnicking and camping, educational programs and guided hikes. Some parks also offer horseback riding, golf, boating, fishing, and archery. There are 11 parks in Maricopa County, which ring around the Phoenix metro area. 

Worth Pondering…

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

—Rachel Carson

Five National Parks to Visit on the Ultimate Southwestern Desert Road Trip

Every destination has a story, no matter how small

When compared to lush tropical forests or sweeping grasslands, deserts may not seem like the most welcoming habitat to plan a trip around. However, a closer study of these vast expanses of earth and sand reveals a world of boundless opportunity with activities to suit any traveler. For those who wish to trek amidst remarkable rock formations, observe some of nature’s hardiest creatures, and gaze skyward towards a brilliant mosaic of stars and planets, the vast deserts of the southwestern U.S. are a paradise on earth.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is located in the remote reaches of southern Utah near the town of Bryce (convenient, eh?). Weather-wise, Bryce Canyon makes the mercury mercurial, with big temp shifts from season to season and even day to day. This is due to Bryce’s dizzying elevation—a cool 8,000–9,000 feet—and makes it a much cooler park than nearby Zion.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In spite of the name, there’s no single canyon in Bryce “Canyon”—the region is actually made up of multiple natural amphitheatres, many of which are rife with thin stone spires referred to as “hoodoos”. The park is packed with trails suited for amateur and experienced hikers alike. Even if you’re not keen on exploring the great outdoors, make sure to stop at Sunrise Point—this overlook provides an all-encompassing view of the park in all its glory.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Roughly 250 million years ago, the state we now know as New Mexico was covered in a shallow expanse of water known as the Permian Sea with layer upon layer of dissolved gypsum sinking to the sea floor over the years. Fast-forward to the modern era and this prehistoric sea has dried up leaving the largest gypsum dunefield on earth in its wake.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though the 145,000-acre expanse of pillowy sand is the main attraction around here, be sure to make a pitstop at the park’s visitor center for an introduction to the inner workings of the harsh desert ecosystem. A surprising amount of nocturnal insects, reptiles, and mammals call the park home today, but some of the most fascinating beasts in the area died out millions of years ago. Though you can’t see them in person, keep a close eye on the sand around you—fossilized footprints of giant ground sloths, dire wolves, and saber-toothed cats have been discovered buried just below the earth.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this particular preserve in eastern Arizona comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transmuted into colorful slabs of stone through a process called “permineralization”. Jasper Forest and Crystal Forest are two popular sites for encountering masses of petrified wood, but the park has more to offer than just former trees.

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

A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks. It’s like you’ve been transported into a painting. The park is also a fascinating destination for archeology buffs with multiple sites containing relics from bygone indigenous civilizations that once thrived here.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Encompassing portions of both the Colorado and Mojave deserts, this world-famous preserve consists of over 790,000 acres making it larger than the state of Rhode Island. While the park earned its name thanks to an abundance of spiky Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia), there are hundreds of desert species that call the area home ranging from tiny toads to roadrunners to bobcats.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is home to a wide array of hiking trails for daytime visitors but overnight campers are in for a special treat—Joshua Tree’s location in the remote reaches of interior California ensures an incredible view of the stars on a clear night.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Yearning to see towering, giant saguaros in their native environment? Saguaro National Park protects and preserves a giant saguaro cactus forest that stretches across the valley floor near Tucson. Unique to the Sonoran Desert, the park’s giant saguaros reach as high as 50 feet and can live longer than 200 years.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to a broad expanse of desert, Saguaro National Park features mountainous regions—some reaching more than 8,000 feet above sea level. These varied landscapes provide ideal habitats for a wide range of flora and fauna including wildlife such as javelina, coyote, quail, and desert tortoise in the lower elevations and black bear, deer, and Mexican spotted owl in the upper elevations

Worth Pondering…

We use the word wilderness, but perhaps we mean wildness. Isn’t that why I’ve come here? In wilderness I seek the wildness in myself and in so doing come on the wildness everywhere around me. Because, after all, being part of nature I’m cut from the same cloth.

—Gretel Ehrlich in Waterfall

National Parks at their Spectacular Best in Winter

All the wonder with none of the crowds

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

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

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

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

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

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

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

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Reach for the Sky: Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is more than just 6-ton gigantic cacti (though it has those, too)

Yearning to see towering, giant saguaros in their native environment? Saguaro National Park protects and preserves a giant saguaro cactus forest that stretches across the valley floor near Tucson, Arizona.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unique to the Sonoran Desert the park’s giant saguaro has a slow growth cycle and long lifespan. The cactus grows between 1 and 1.5 inches in the first eight years, flowers begin production at 35 years of age and branches, or arms, normally appear at 50 to 70 years of age. An adult saguaro is considered to be about 125 years of age and may weigh 6 tons or more and be as tall as 50 feet. A saguaro’s lifespan can be up to 250 years.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But the saguaro is merely the headliner for a roster of desert vegetation to be seen as you hike or drive through the park. You’ll also spot spiny ocotillo, huge clumps of prickly pear, and the tiny hedgehog and stubby barrel cactus, as well as spiky mesquite and palo verde trees.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First designated as Saguaro National Monument in 1933, the area received national park status in 1994. It is also the ancestral home of the Tohono O’odham people who today continue to play a role in the park’s culture visiting every year in the early summer to pick saguaro fruit.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For many, the giant saguaro cactus silhouetted by the setting sun is the universal symbol of the American Southwest. And yet, these majestic plants are only found in a small portion of the U.S. Saguaro National Park protects some of the most impressive forests of these sub-tropical giants. Saguaro is actually two parks separated by a metropolis of 1 million residents: the Tucson Mountain District and the Rincon Mountain District. In 2018, the park drew 1,229,594 recreational visitors.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park is located within a desert but contrary to what you might expect there is an abundance of life. Plants here are adapted to drought, so during long dry periods they are able to go dormant conserving their water. At these times many plants appear lifeless but shortly after a rainfall they’re able to come to life sprouting new green leaves. Within just 48 hours after a rainfall, the ocotillo plant is able to change from what appeared to be a handful of dead sticks into a cheerful shrub with tall green branches, covered in new leaves.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to a broad expanse of desert, Saguaro National Park features mountainous regions. These varied landscapes provide ideal habitats for a wide range of flora and fauna. Current research indicates there are approximately 400 species in the Tucson Mountain District and approximately 1,200 species in the Rincon Mountain District.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Tucson Mountain District ranges from an elevation of 2,180 feet to 4,687 feet and contains two biotic communities—desert scrub and desert grassland. Average annual precipitation is approximately 10.27 inches. Common wildlife include Gambel’s quail, cactus wren, greater roadrunner, Gila woodpeckers, desert tortoise, and coyote.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park ranges from an elevation of 2,670 feet to 8,666 feet and contains six biotic communities. The biotic communities (starting from the lowest elevation) include desert scrub, desert grassland, oak woodland, pine-oak woodland, pine forest, and mixed conifer forest. Average annual precipitation is approximately 12.30 inches.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Rincon Mountains peak at a considerably higher elevation than the Tucson Mountains, therefore there are more biotic communities and increased plant and wildlife diversity. Because of the higher elevation in the Rincons, animals like the black bear, Mexican spotted owl, Arizona mountain king snake, and white-tailed deer live in this district.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While each season has its draw, spring, when the desert blooms with yellow, orange, and purple wildflowers, is hands-down its most beautiful and busiest time of year. Fall is similarly temperate and winter offers the chance to see the water flowing in the washes. Arizona’s merciless heat makes summer significantly less popular.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Advice from a Saguaro