National Parks at Their Absolute Best in Winter

All the wonder, none of the crowds

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

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

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

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

2. Zion National Park, Utah

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

End this madness and go in the wintertime. Just 13 percent of Zion’s visitors, journey to the park between November and March, and a wintertime desert is one of nature’s most glorious settings. Even better, once you’ve had your fill of the park and its legendary trails, you’ll be able to explore all the surrounding (and vastly overlooked) state parks unencumbered.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

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

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

4. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Often overlooked and under-visited despite its proximity to bustling Tucson, Saguaro’s expanses of cartoonishly contorted cacti and relatively easy hikes are best explored during the winter. In the off-season, the already thin crowds dissipate and you’re free to cavort with owls and gaze at petroglyphs with little interruption and minus the oppressive heat.

Even better, the campsites—a relatively hot commodity numbering a scant 20—are easier to bag allowing you to spend the night under the stars with only coyotes (and maybe roadrunners, given the landscape) as your company.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

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

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

6. Big Bend National Park, Texas

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

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

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

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

8. Joshua Tree National Park, California

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

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

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

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

9. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California

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

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

10. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. Arches National Park, Utah

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

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

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

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

14. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

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

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

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. White Sands National Park, New Mexico

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

Stargazing in Arizona’s Dark Skies: Best Night Sky Places

Why is Arizona such a wonderful place for stargazing? Clear skies and diverse geography set the stage and many communities provide sound stewardship for Dark Skies.

Why is Arizona such a wonderful place for stargazing? The simple answer: is good weather, mountainous geography, and sound stewardship. You can see Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and the Andromeda galaxy on a clear night. The sky is awash in stars, double stars, and star clusters.

Mountains also shield dark-sky oases from urban skyglow. In the case of Oracle State Park which is only 20 miles from Tucson, the Santa Catalina Mountains block out the city lights. Likewise, Fountain Hills, an exurb on the northern flank of metro Phoenix enjoys surprising nights thanks to the rocky veil provided by McDowell Mountains.

The International Dark Sky Places program was created in 2001 by DarkSky International to encourage the preservation of the nighttime environment, educate the public, and reduce light pollution.

Since Flagstaff was named the first International Dark Sky City in 2001, over 200 Dark Sky Places have been certified in 22 countries on six continents. These places including dark sky parks, sanctuaries, reserves, and urban night sky places aim to connect people with the importance of darkness and the conservation of ecologically sensitive areas.

Arizona has over 20 dark sky locations encompassing cities, communities, national parks, and urban night skies.

Here is everything you need to know about the Dark Sky Places and where you can find them in Arizona.

Saguaro National Park, a Dark Sky Place © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is the International Dark Sky Program?

Receiving dark-sky certification involves a variety of measures that may include using outdoor lighting that minimizes light pollution, community outreach and education, and working to affect public policy. It demonstrates the location’s commitment to preserving the nocturnal environment.

International Dark Sky Places in Arizona

An International Dark Sky Place is a publicly or privately owned conservation area that protects its night skies through responsible lighting policies and public education.

Petrified Forest National Park, a Dark Sky Place © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These are Arizona’s Dark Sky Places:

International Dark Sky Sanctuaries

International Dark Sky Sanctuaries are the most remote and often darkest places. The designation underscores the significance of safeguarding nocturnal environments and protecting them from artificial light.

There are no International Dark Sky Sanctuaries in Arizona. New Mexico has the Cosmic Campground International Dark Sky Sanctuary, a 3.5-acre site in the Gila National Forest in western New Mexico.

The Campground is located in an exceptionally dark part of the Southwest with the nearest significant source of artificial light more than 40 miles away across the state line in Arizona. The Campground features a very basic infrastructure to support campers and offers a 360-degree, unobstructed, view of the night sky.

Chiricahua National Monument, a Dark Sky Place © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

International Dark Sky Reserves

International Dark Sky Reserves are dark zones surrounded by a populated periphery where strict policy controls safeguard the darkness of the core. These reserves conserve natural nightscapes and promote responsible outdoor lighting practices for the well-being of the ecosystem.

There are no International Dark Sky Reserves in Arizona. The Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve encompasses west Texas and northern Mexico.

Urban Night Sky Places in Arizona

An Urban Night Sky Place is one that fosters an authentic nighttime experience despite being in an area with significant artificial light.

Arizona has one Urban Night Sky Place and its Saguaro National Park in Tucson which received the designation in November 2023.

Check this out to learn more: Saguaro National Park is Arizona’s First Urban Night Sky Place and Why It Is a Big Deal

International Dark Sky Communities in Arizona

An International Dark Sky Community is a city or town recognized for its commitment to outdoor lighting ordinances and educating residents on the significance of dark skies. These communities implement measures to reduce light pollution and promote responsible outdoor lighting practices. This designation aims to balance the needs of urban life with the protection of the night sky.

Fountain Hills, a Dark Sky Community © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are Arizona’s International Dark Sky Communities:

Thunder Mountain Pootsee Nightsky on the Kaibab Paiute Indian Reservation on the Arizona-Utah state line

Across Arizona, on rugged public lands and inside scenic city limits, the visitor experience doesn’t end at sunset. Because this state so synonymous with sunshine and blue sky is equally spectacular when the stars come out.

Sedona, a Dark Sky Community © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

DIG DEEPER: Best things to see and do

Worth Pondering…

I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly—or ever—gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.

—Brian Greene

Saguaro National Park is Arizona’s First Urban Night Sky Place and Why It Is a Big Deal

Saguaro National Park in Tucson has been named a new Urban Night Sky Place for offering authentic, dark views of the night sky despite light pollution from the nearby city

Dark sky places are the best for stargazing, for watching the stars, constellations, galaxies, nebulae, and as much as possible from our planet. As we live in brighter and brighter environments, few of them exist hence the importance of the term itself.

Saguaro National Park in Tucson has been certified as the newest Urban Night Sky Place by Dark-Sky International

Urban Night Sky Place recognition is awarded to sites near or surrounded by large urban areas that actively promote an authentic nighttime experience amid artificial light.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park is the first National Park Service location in Arizona to achieve this certification. The park encompasses over 94,000 acres of Sonoran Desert on the western and eastern edges of Tucson.

Tucson and Pima County have played significant roles in curbing light pollution with Tucson being the “first city in the world to have an ordinance to address light pollution for space observation,” Saguaro National Park said in a press release.

Events to celebrate the park’s designation are planned for early 2024.

What is an Urban Night Sky Place?

The Urban Night Sky Place designation recognizes areas that work to promote authentic nighttime experiences despite the challenges posed by significant artificial light.

The designation is part of an effort to combat light pollution which can disrupt ecosystems, affect human health, and waste energy. The certification is given to communities, parks and protected areas that demonstrate robust community support for dark sky advocacy and strive to minimize light pollution.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where can you stargaze in Arizona?

Arizona offers numerous locations for stargazing due to its clear skies and relatively low light pollution in many areas. Here are some popular places for stargazing in Arizona:

Grand Canyon National Park: The Grand Canyon is a designated Dark Sky Park making it an excellent location for stargazing. The Grand Canyon Star Party is an annual event that attracts astronomers and stargazers.

Oracle State Park: Far enough from light pollution to make the Milky Way visible, the park is another exceptional place to watch the night skies. Though you can’t stay in the park overnight, its American Avenue parking area is available after dark.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kitt Peak National Observatory: Located southwest of Tucson, Kitt Peak is home to several telescopes and offers nighttime observing programs for visitors.

Saguaro National Park: Saguaro National Park near Tucson has been certified as an Urban Night Sky Place making it a great spot for stargazing while being close to urban areas.

Mt. Lemmon Sky Center Observatory: Featuring the largest telescope in Arizona dedicated to public viewing, the Mt. Lemmon Sky Center Observatory has a popular after-dark viewing program.

Flagstaff: Flagstaff is the world’s first International Dark Sky City. The city has strict lighting ordinances to minimize light pollution. Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff offers stargazing programs.

Fun fact: The Four Corners region of the United States has the most IDA Dark Sky Communities in the world. In fact, Arizona has 19 dark-sky communities and places.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is the darkest city in Arizona?

In 2001, Flagstaff was named the world’s first International Dark Sky City. This designation is granted by the International Dark-Sky Association to places that have taken significant steps to minimize light pollution and protect the natural darkness of the night sky.

Arizona’s IDA-certified Dark Sky Parks

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why is Arizona such a wonderful place for stargazing?

The simple answer: good weather and mountainous geography. On a clear night you can see Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and the Andromeda galaxy. The sky is awash in stars, double stars, and star clusters.

Best practices for stargazing

When stargazing, you need to give your eyes time to adjust to the dark which takes about twenty minutes. Once your eyes are adjusted you’ll be amazed at how much you see in a dark sky. You’ll notice differences in brightness and colors of the stars; you’ll recognize patterns and constellations.

Turn all your light sources off and don’t use your phone while waiting since the light of its screen will ruin your night vision. If you need a light to see where you’re going use a flashlight with a red filter on. You can buy one with a filter or do this yourself by putting a piece of red filter paper under its lens. If you attend a star party, the astronomers will show you how or offer you one with a filter.

Worth Pondering…

The dark sky beckoned the stars so dim and small like speckles of frost.

―Sarah J. Maas, A Court of Mist and Fury

The Best National Parks to Visit in January

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

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

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

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

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

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

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

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

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

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting the National Parks in January

Despite cold temperatures and snow along much of the northern half of the United States, January is still a wonderful month to visit the national parks.

January has one of the lowest numbers for park visitation for the entire year. Many people just took time off for the winter holidays so travel is light in January.

On this list, most of these parks are geared towards escaping the cold weather and visiting some warmer, less snow covered destinations in the US.

Best National Parks to visit in January

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Saguaro National Park

Location: Arizona

This national park is named for the Saguaro Cactus which only grows in the Sonoran Desert.

Saguaro National Park is located in southern Arizona. Temperatures in January are relatively warm making this a great time to visit this park.

The national park is divided into two sections. The Tuscon Mountain District which is located to the west of Tucson has the denser population of cacti and it is the more popular area of the park to visit. To the east is the Rincon Mountain District. You won’t see quite as many cacti here but the mountains form a nice backdrop for photography.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Saguaro in January: This is one of the warmest parks to visit in January. And if you are planning a January road trip, a visit here can be combined with the Grand Canyon, another park that makes our best national parks in January list. However, January is one of the busiest months of the year to visit Saguaro National Park so expect some crowds on the hiking trails and scenic drives.

Weather: In January, the average high is 66°F and the average low is 40ºF. Rainfall chances are very low. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:20 am and sunset is at 5:40 pm.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Drive Bajada Loop Drive and hike the Valley View Overlook Trail and the Desert Discovery Nature Trail, see the Signal Hill Petroglyphs, and drive the Cactus Forest Drive. Just outside of the park (Tuscon Mountain District) is the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum which is worthy of a visit.

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

Plan your visit

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Zion National Park

Location: Utah

Angels Landing and the Zion Narrows are two bucket-list worthy hikes that attract thousands of visitors every year. Angels Landing is one of the most popular destinations in Zion. Everyone who hikes Angels Landing requires a permit. You also need a permit to hike the Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava going upstream in the Virgin River. Since high water may prevent travel in the Narrows, check the park’s current conditions before you start your day.

But there are also numerous short, family-friendly hikes to choose from as well as multi-day backpacking adventures and hikes that require canyoneering experience.

In 2022, Zion National Park was the second most visited park in the U.S. with more than 4.6 million visitors. Crowds are huge from early spring through fall so for the best experience I recommend visiting during the off season.

January is the month with the fewest numbers of visitors to Zion. So, if you want to hike the trails with low crowds, January is the best time to go.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Zion in January: To avoid the crowds. This is the quietest month to visit the park in terms of visitation. You can even drive your car on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive since the park shuttle does not operate at this time.

Weather: The average high is 54°F and the average low is 30°F so Zion is chilly in January. There is a small chance of snow…but wouldn’t it be beautiful to see Zion with a light dusting of snow?

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:45 am and sunset is at 5:40 pm which gives you 10 hours of daylight. That’s plenty of time to hike a trail or two. Plus, you can stick around for sunset and then have a nice dinner in Springdale.

Top experiences: Hike Angels Landing, Observation Point, Hidden Canyon, Riverside Trail, Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, and Canyon Overlook. One of the best experiences in the park is hiking the Zion Narrows.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: In January, you can hike the Zion Narrows from the bottom-up, just be aware that water temperatures are going to be very cold at this time.

How much time do you need? If you like to hike, plan to spend at least 3 to 4 days in Zion National Park. You can do three big hikes (one each morning) or use two of the days for a multi-day backpacking adventure. This also gives you time to explore Kolob Canyons at the northern section of the park.

Plan your visit

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Arches National Park

Location: Utah

Just like Zion, January is the quietest month of the year to visit Arches National Park. This is a good thing because Arches is another extremely popular park to visit in the US with over 1.4 million visitors in 2022.

Arches National Park is a beautiful wonderland of arches, rock formations, and short hiking trails. Not only will you find over 2,000 arches here but you will also see hoodoos, fins of sandstone rocks, massive mesas, and balanced rocks.

You can see the highlights of the park right from your car or by taking short hikes but for those who want to venture deeper into the park there are several very cool hikes to choose from.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Arches in January: To take advantage of lower crowd levels. In January 2022, about 40,000 people visited Arches in January. Two months later, in March, that number rose to 140,000. June saw the most visitors hitting 170,000 people in just that month.
For some people braving chilly temperatures could be worth it to visit the park with just a fraction of the people who visit later in the year.

Weather: The weather is a little bit cooler in Arches than Zion in January. The average high is 42°F and the average low is 22°F. There is a chance a few inches of snow can fall in January.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5:20 pm.

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Plan your visit

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Grand Canyon National Park

Location: Arizona

Words and photos cannot accurately describe what it is like to look out across the Grand Canyon for the first time. This is a place that needs to be seen in person to truly appreciate the immense beauty of this place.

Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most visited parks in the US. The Grand Canyon is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In the Grand Canyon, there are several rims to visit. The South Rim with its overlooks and hiking trails is the most popular to visit and the views from here are some of the best. Most visitors spend their time on the South Rim when they visit the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit the Grand Canyon in January: The Grand Canyon is busy all year but January and February are the quietest months to visit this national park (July typically gets the most visitors). January is also the coldest month of the year to visit the Grand Canyon so keep that in mind. Even though it is located in Arizona, the South Rim is at a high elevation and this keeps temperatures lower than places like Saguaro National Park and Phoenix. But if you want to visit the Grand Canyon with low crowds, January is one of the best months to go. 

Weather: The average high is only 44°F and the average low is 20°F. Snow is also a possibility this time of year.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5:30 pm.

Top experiences: Visit the South Rim viewpoints, watch the sunrise and/or sunset, hike below the rim on the Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail, and take a flightseeing tour by airplane or helicopter.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: In the winter, hike the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails as one big loop. This is a big day hike and only those who are very fit with lots of hiking experience should attempt it.

How many days do you need? I recommend spending three to four days on the South Rim to visit the highlights. Four days gives you enough time to visit the best overlooks on the South Rim, go on a helicopter ride, and spend some time hiking below the rim.

Plan your visit

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Joshua Tree National Park

Location: California

With its desert scenery, hiking trails, rock climbing routes, hidden oases, scenic drives, and trees that look like they have been plucked from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book, Joshua Tree National Park is a joy to explore.

Hike the Arch Rock Trail, learn about the plants that thrive in the Mojave Desert on the Cap Rock Nature Trail, see Skull Rock, and go hiking in Hidden Valley. A favorite experience is hiking the Hall of Horrors and searching for the hidden slot canyon.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Joshua Tree National Park in January: This national park is located in southern California so even in January, temperatures are relatively warm. Park visitation tends to be high from November through April but crowds thin out just a little bit in January making this month a great time to visit if you want mild temperatures and slightly lower crowds. You can also combine a visit to Joshua Tree with Palm Springs, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Julian, and/or San Diego (more great spots to visit in the winter).

Weather: The average high is 60°F and the average low is 35°F.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5:20 pm.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Plan your visit

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2 more National Parks to visit in January

Here are two more great national parks to visit in January. Cooler temperatures in these parks kept them off the main list above but they still make excellent wintertime destinations.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is located in Utah not far from Zion and Arches (mentioned above). This park tends to be colder with the average high just getting up to 40°F and the average low at 20°F. Snow is likely this time of year. But if you are planning a Utah’s Mighty 5 road trip, Capitol Reef is worth the visit even in January but bring plenty of warm clothes.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Just like Capitol Reef, Canyonlands National Park was left off of the main list above because it is cold in January. It’s actually a few degrees colder in Canyonlands than Capitol Reef and snowfall is higher (Canyonlands on average receives 6 inches of snow in January). But if you have plans to visit Arches, Canyonlands is just a short drive away and worth it if you have the time.

Bonus! 3 NPS sites to visit in January

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

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

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument

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

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

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

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month:

January: Best National Parks to Visit in January
February: Best National Parks to Visit in February
March: Best National Parks to Visit in March
April: Best National Parks to Visit in April
May: Best National Parks to Visit in May
June: Best National Parks to Visit in June
July: Best National Parks to Visit in July
August: Best National Parks to Visit in August
September: Best National Parks to Visit in September
October: Best National Parks to Visit in October
November: Best National Parks to Visit in November
December: Best National Parks to Visit in December

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Lubbock

Explore Southern Arizona’s Sky Islands

Larger-than-life hidden treasures and some of the world’s greatest destinations for biodiversity, Sky Islands—which, to be clear, are mountains—dot Southern Arizona’s landscape, erupting up up up from valley floors toward the Sonoran Desert sky. But what makes this type of mountain so special for the region, its environment, and explorers? Read on.

What Are Sky Islands?

Sky Islands are a classification of the mountain—an unofficial nickname given to 55 mountain ranges across Southern Arizona, Southern New Mexico, and Northern Mexico that rise so high, so quickly, that multiple habitats can be found from base to peak.

Climbing Mount Lemmon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved[

As you climb up Sky Islands, you may go from an arid, saguaro-studded desert to a brisk, pine-filled forest in as little as an hour’s drive (in the case of Mount Lemmon, in Tucson). This makes these habitats especially attractive for wildlife, birds, and memorable hiking and biking. Sky Islands are also ecologically separated from other mountain ranges by distance and lowlands of a different environment.

The terminology is better known locally than anywhere else even though the parameters for what qualifies as a Sky Island can be applied to mountain ranges around the world. Knowing the term and its definition is less important than knowing how best to have an adventure on them.

Hiking Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ways to experience the Sky Islands

Listen to the audio tour available on the Mount Lemmon Science Tour app produced by the University of Arizona College of Science as you climb up Mount Lemmon in Tucson.

Hike a portion of the Arizona Trail, an 800-mile trek that goes from Arizona’s border with Mexico—up, through, and over several Sky Islands—to the state’s border with Utah.

Go birding in Ramsey Canyon near Sierra Vista, a site popular for seeing the elusive elegant trogon and more than a dozen species of hummingbirds.

Get involved with the Sky Island Alliance which hosts events aimed at protecting the diversity of Southern Arizona’s Sky Islands.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sky Island activities near Tucson

The Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountain ranges make up Tucson’s Sky Islands hugging the city’s northern and eastern edges. Perhaps one of the best ways to explore a Sky Island—and one that requires the least amount of physical exertion—is by listening to the Mt. Lemmon Science Tour app which times fun facts and interesting tidbits with the one-hour drive from the mountain’s base to its peak. The flora and fauna surrounding the drive become a lot more interesting and you’ll learn some history about the area, too.

Saguaro National Park East below the Rincons makes up the dramatically different environment separation that Sky Islands require. More than saguaros can be found here as you bike, hike, or drive through the enormous national park.

Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sky Island activities in Cochise County

The southeastern Arizona Sky Islands partly made up of the Mule, Chiricahua, and Huachuca mountains are crisscrossed with trails that beckon hikers and mountain bikers. Vertical monoliths challenge rock climbers.

And cool, damp canyons like Ramsey Canyon create some of the world’s greatest biodiversity. Here, vintners grow grapes for award-winning wine alongside spicy chiltepin peppers and sweet pistachios. Jaguar, white-nosed coati, and javelina wander under forest canopies while elegant trogons and hummingbirds zip across blue skies. In the fall, butterflies abound.

Montezuma Pass © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Outdoor adventure

Montezuma Pass in the Huachucas just south of Sierra Vista marks the start of the Arizona Trail (AZT), an 800-mile hiking path that stretches from the Arizona/Mexico border to Utah. Dozens of other trails join the AZT for challenging hikes or woodsy walks and jaw-dropping views of Arizona, New Mexico, and Sonora, Mexico. Mountain bikers take to the trails for single-track rides; maps are available at Sierra Vista bike shops.

Head east to Cochise Stronghold near Willcox. The Stronghold is strewn with massive boulders amid a maze-like terrain. Mountain bikers, hikers, and rock climbers head to these rugged canyons and craggy hoodoos for classic climbs and outstanding trails.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go a little further east to Chiricahua National Monument where towering rhyolite pinnacles and balancing spires stand alongside the 17 miles of trails. (If you have time, make a side trip down Turkey Track Trail for a gander at Johnny Ringo’s grave, the Old West outlaw and gunfighter made famous by Hollywood writers.)

After hiking around Chiricahua National Monument, head east for 25 miles via a dirt road toward the Yosemite of Arizona: Cave Creek Canyon. Accessed through the town of Portal, the canyon is described as a birder’s paradise for five months of the year. And, the rest of the time, it’s just paradise. Spend some time communing with nature. When you’re ready to rest and eat, head to the Portal Cafe, Country Store & Lodge, or if you prefer to camp, the Stewart Campground or Sunny Flat Campground are the closest to the canyon.

Mount Wrightson in the Santa Rita Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding and wildlife

In Douglas, San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge which shares its conservation efforts with compañeros across the border provides a year-round habitat for an amazing diversity of wildlife, both flora and fauna, and offers world-class bird and wildlife watching.

The Refuge is part of a migration superhighway through Cochise County following the northward-flowing San Pedro River. With near-tropical climates in the Sky Islands, Cochise County welcomes an incredible variety of birds that make season-long stops in the Huachucas and along the riparian area. The Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve just minutes from downtown Sierra Vista is one of the country’s top birding spots.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historic sites and small towns

In centuries past, the Sky Islands provided hidey holes for outlaws and Apaches, vantage points for the U.S. Army, and cool retreats for city folk seeking to beat the heat of the valley floor. Geronimo, General Pershing, Johnny Ringo, and the Earp brothers roamed the area leaving indelible legends in the wind. In later years, the Sky Islands starred in feature films alongside Hollywood legends like John Wayne, Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, and Nicolas Cage.

Wayne is known to have frequented the communities among the Sky Islands including Patagonia and Bisbee, a reimagined former mining town. Both towns’ charming main thoroughfares while small are dotted with local restaurants and bars for a nibble and libation and some decent local lore.

In addition to mining, southeastern Arizona is also known for ranching. Many of the mines are gone but the ranches remain run by the descendants of the original families.

Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The John Slaughter Ranch (about a 20-mile drive on the Geronimo Trail outside Douglas), no longer a working ranch, gives visitors a glimpse into the life John Slaughter, a former Texas Ranger and Cochise County sheriff. He bought the property in 1884 and spent the remainder of his life developing it into a thriving southwestern cattle ranch despite the harassment from Geronimo and his band as they crossed into Mexico.

The lower loop of the Sky Islands cuddles Douglas, a border and former copper-mining town with a rich history. Home to the first international airport in the U.S., this community is anchored by the stately Gadsden Hotel built in 1907 for visiting mining company executives and fronted with a massive stained glass window—the only southwestern scene Tiffany ever created.

Legend says that the infamous Mexican bandit Pancho Villa rode his horse up the sweeping marble staircase in the early 1900s. Two decades later, a speakeasy opened in the basement and nine decades later the same speakeasy will open again. And yes, it’s said to be haunted.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind, these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

The Best National Parks to Visit in November

Wondering where to travel in November? Why not opt for a nature getaway and visit one of America’s National Parks in November!

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

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

Planning a trip to the national parks in November and don’t know which ones to visit? The cooler weather in November makes this one of the best times of the year to visit the parks across the southern part of the US. Road trip through Utah’s Mighty 5, go sledding on sand as white as the snow, and explore the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. In this guide, I list 12 wonderful national parks to visit in November plus four bonus parks.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

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

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

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

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

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting the National Parks in November

By November, the weather has turned colder and the days are getting much shorter. But this cool weather is a great time to visit the national parks across the southern half of the US.

Crowds tend to be low in the national parks in November because of the cool weather and the upcoming holiday season. You can take advantage of this and visit some of the most popular parks in the US with low crowds.

This is a fantastic month to visit Utah’s Mighty 5 (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches). It can be chilly this time of year but this is my favorite month to visit these parks since they less crowded than in September or October. A dusting of snow in these parks which is possible makes them even more beautiful. For the warmest weather and lower crowds go at the beginning of November.

I have a long list of parks to share with you, so let’s get started.

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

Best National Parks in November

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Canyonlands National Park

Location: Utah

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

Explore the Island in the Sky, the most popular area of Canyonlands. Visit the overlooks on the mesa, hike the short trails, and if you want to do a longer hike, you can hike below the rim or hike the Syncline Loop. Journey below the rim for an unforgettable experience. Drive the twisting Shafer Canyon switchbacks onto the White Rim and then spend a few days driving through remote landscapes. Called the White Rim Road, this is one of the best experiences in the national park system.

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

Why visit Canyonlands in November: November is one of the quietest months of the year to visit Canyonlands. It can be chilly if not downright cold in November so go early in the month for the warmest temperatures (or go in October, but it will be more crowded). If you want to drive the White Rim Road, this is one of the easiest months of the year to get a permit.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: The average high is 50°F and the average low is 33°F. Precipitation is very low and could fall as light snow. On warmer than average days, the temperature can get up into the 60s. Canyonlands is colder than its nearby neighbor Arches National Park since it sits at a higher elevation.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

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

Ultimate adventure: Drive or mountain bike the White Rim Road. This is a 100-mile unpaved road that makes a loop around the Island in the Sky mesa. It takes 2 to 3 days to do this drive.

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

Plan your visit

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Arches National Park

Location: Utah

Arches National Park is a beautiful wonderland of arches, rock formations, and short hiking trails. Not only will you find over 2,000 arches here but you will also see hoodoos, fins of sandstone rocks, massive mesas, and balanced rocks.

This small park is easy to visit. One main road runs through the heart of park. You can see the highlights of the park right from this road or by taking short hikes but for those who want to venture deeper into the park, there are several very cool hikes to choose from.

Hiking to Delicate Arch is one of the top experiences in Arches National Park but the Devils Garden Trail is another great hike to add to your to do list.

Why visit Arches in November: Like Canyonlands, this is off-season in the park and one of the quietest months of the year.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: In November, the average high is 56°F and the average low is 33°F. During periods of unseasonably warm weather, daytime temperatures can get into the 70s. Rainfall is very low.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

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

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

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

Plan your visit

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Bryce Canyon National Park

Location: Utah

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

This park is small and easy to explore. You can simply enjoy the view from the rim or venture down into the fantasyland of hoodoos and sandstone pillars.

In November, you have a chance to see Bryce Canyon covered with snow, a magical sight to see.

Why visit Bryce Canyon in November: For the chance to see Bryce Canyon with a dusting of snow. The amount of snowfall increases in December but daytime high’s struggle to get above freezing. I like November since the weather is warmer than the winter months but you still have a chance to see Bryce Canyon with snow.

Weather: In November, the average high is 46°F and the average low is 23°F. There is a good chance of snow and on average Bryce Canyon receives about 10 inches of snow in November. Bryce Canyon has the highest elevation of the parks in Utah’s Mighty 5, making this the coolest one to visit.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:10 am and sunset is at 5:15 pm.

Top experiences: Some of the best viewpoints are along the rim and easy to access by car: Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point. Hike the Queens Garden and Navajo Loop, a 3-mile hike past some of the best scenery in the park. Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Point are also nice viewpoints.

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

How much time do you need? One day is all you need to see the views from the rim and hike one to two short trails in the park. But I recommend an additional day or two.

Plan your visit

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Capitol Reef National Park

Location: Utah

Capitol Reef National Park may be one of the least visited national parks in Utah but don’t let that fool you. This underrated park has not one but three spectacular scenic drive, hiking trails that rival those in Zion, and landscapes that are some of the most beautiful in the United States.

Most people drive right through the heart of the park visiting the sights along Highway 24 which is an enjoyable experience. But the real adventures lie beyond this highway. Drive through the remote Cathedral Valley or Loop the Fold, a scenic drive that leads to hidden slot canyons and big viewpoints.

Why visit capitol Reef in November: Temperatures are chilly this time of year but crowds are very low. We visited Capitol Reef in early November and absolutely loved it. The weather was pleasant with high temperatures in the 70s.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: In November, the average high is 51°F and the average low is 30°F. A light dusting of snow is possible.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:10 am and sunset is at 5:15 pm.

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

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

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

Plan your visit

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Zion National Park

Location: Utah

Zion National Park is a hiker’s paradise. This relatively small park is packed with some of the most thrilling trails in the United States.

Angels Landing and the Zion Narrows are two bucket-list worthy hikes that attract thousands of visitors every year. Angels Landing is one of the most popular destinations in Zion. Everyone who hikes Angels Landing requires a permit. You also need a permit to hike the Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava going upstream in the Virgin River. Since high water may prevent travel in the Narrows, check the park’s current conditions before you start your day.

But there are also numerous short, family-friendly hikes to choose from as well as multi-day backpacking adventures and hikes that require canyoneering experience.

Zion is also one of the most popular parks in the US to visit. For the best experience, plan on visiting the park in the shoulder season. November is one of the best months of the year to visit Zion since the weather is still relatively warm and crowds are lower than many other months of the year.

Why visit Zion in November: To avoid the crowds. This is one of the quietest months to visit the park in terms of visitation. The weather is also fantastic for hiking.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: The average high is 64°F and the average low is 37°. Temperatures can get into the 80s on unusually warm days. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise and sunset: Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 5:20 pm which gives you 10 hours of daylight.

Top experiences: Hike Angels Landing, Observation Point, Hidden Canyon, Riverside Trail, Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, and Canyon Overlook. One of the best experiences in the park is hiking the Zion Narrows.

Ultimate adventure: There are several to choose from. Hike the Zion Narrows from the top-down as a long day hike or a two-day backpacking trip. The Subway is another strenuous but gorgeous hike, and you will need canyoneering experience for this one. The West Rim Trail is a great two-day backpacking trip or a one day mega-hike.

How much time do you need? If you like to hike, plan to spend at least 3 to 4 days in Zion National Park. You can do three big hikes (one each morning) or use two of the days for a multi-day backpacking adventure. This also gives you time to explore Kolob Canyons at the northern section of the park.

Plan your visit

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. White Sands National Park

Location: New Mexico

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

Why visit White Sands in November: The weather is relatively warm and crowds tend to be low in November.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: In November, the average high is 67°F and the average low is 30°F. Rainfall is very low.

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

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

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

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

Plan your visit

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Grand Canyon National Park

Location: Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most visited parks in the US with people from all around the world traveling here to see this natural wonder.

Words and photos cannot accurately describe what it is like to look out across the Grand Canyon for the first time. This is a place that needs to be seen in person to truly appreciate the immense beauty and grandeur of this place.

In mid-October, the North Rim closes once the snow begins to fall. So in November, the South Rim is where you will spend your time. Along the South Rim, roads and hiking trails lead to jaw-dropping views of the Grand Canyon. You also have the option to hike below the rim or take a helicopter tour for different perspectives of the Grand Canyon.

Why visit the Grand Canyon in November: The Grand Canyon is busy all year, November tends to be one of the least visited months to visit this park. If you have plans to hike the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trail loop, November is a great time to do it when temperatures are cooler. Once you get below the rim closer to the Colorado River, the air temperature is much warmer.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: The average high is 53°F and the average low is 25°F. There is a small chance you could see a dusting of snow in November.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 5:20 pm.

Top experiences: Visit the South Rim viewpoints, watch the sunset, hike below the rim on the Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail, and take a flightseeing tour.

Ultimate adventure: In the winter, hike the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails as one big loop. This is a big day hike and only those who are very fit with lots of hiking experience should attempt it.

How much time do you need? I recommend spending three to four days on the South Rim to visit the highlights. Three days gives you enough time to visit the best overlooks on the South Rim, go on a helicopter ride, and spend some time hiking below the rim.

Plan your visit

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Petrified Forest National Park

Location: Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park is named for the petrified wood that dates back millions of years to a time when this land was lush and fertile.

But there is more to this park than looking at chunks of crystallized wood. The Painted Desert and the Blue Forest with their colorful, zebra-striped hills are a beautiful sight to see. There are also a few great trails to hike which are perfect for all ages and ability levels.

Why visit Petrified Forest in November: The weather is a bit on the cool side in November but crowds are low which is worthly bonus. If you have plans to road trip through the American Southwest this month, Petrified Forest National Park is nice add-on.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: The average high is 58°F and the average low is 28°F. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:50 am and sunset is at 5:15 pm.

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

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

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

Plan your visit

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Congaree National Park

Location: South Carolina

Congaree National Park protects the oldest bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States. Often mistaken for a swamp this floodplain is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the country.

This small national park is quick and easy to visit. With just a few hours, you can walk the boardwalk trail but with more time there are longer trails to hike and you can go canoeing or kayaking on Cedar Creek, one of the best experiences in the park.

Why visit Congaree in November: The weather is fantastic, crowds are low, and mosquitoes are not an issue. The park tends to be dry this time of year so the boardwalk trails and hiking trails are less likely to be flooded. We visited Congaree in November and the weather was ideal and the leaves were changing color.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: In November, the average high is 68°F and the average low is 42°F. With 3 inches of rain this is one of the driest months to visit Congaree.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 5:20 pm.

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

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

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

Plan your visit

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Joshua Tree National Park

Location: California

With its desert scenery, hiking trails, hidden oases, scenic drives, rock climbing routes, and trees that look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book, Joshua Tree National Park is a joy to explore.

Hike the Arch Rock Trail, learn about the plants that thrive in the Mojave Desert on the Cap Rock Nature Trail, see Skull Rock, and go hiking in Hidden Valley. A favorite experience is hiking the Hall of Horrors and searching for the hidden slot canyon.

Why visit Joshua Tree National Park in November: For November, this is one of the warmest national parks on this list to visit. The conditions are perfect for hiking.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: The average high is 67°F and the average low is 40°F. Rainfall is extremely low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:15 am and sunset is at 4:40 pm.

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

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

Plan your visit

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Pinnacles National Park

Location: California

Pinnacles National Park preserves and protects the mountains on the eastern end of Salinas Valley. These mountains are the remnants of an extinct volcano.

The rocky pinnacles are a popular rock climbing destination and this park is also one of the few locations where you can spot the California condor in the wild.

This is one of the newest national parks (it became a national park in 2013) and least visited national parks (it was the 19th least visited park in 2022).

Why visit Pinnacles in November: The weather is perfect for hiking and rock climbing. Pinnacles National Park is a very hot and dry place to visit during the summer and early fall with the temperature as high as 115°F on the hottest days. We visited Pinnacles in November and the weather was ideal.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: The average high is 70°F and the average low is 37°F. On unusually warm days the daytime temperature can get into the 80s. Rainfall is low at just over 1 inch. The wet season begins in December and lasts through March.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:40 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

Top Experiences: Hike the High Peaks Loop and the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, explore the Balconies cave, spot California condors, enjoy the view from Condor Gulch Overlook, and go rock climbing.

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

Plan your visit

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Big Bend National Park

Location: Texas

Big Bend National Park is located in southwestern Texas. The Rio Grande forms the border between Mexico and Big Bend National Park and Big Bend gets its name from the prominent bend in the Rio Grande on this border.

This national park protects the largest area of the Chihuahuan Desert in the US as well as the Chisos Mountains. Big Bend is a top hiking destination with trails leading high into these mountains and into canyons along the Rio Grande.

Why visit Big Bend in November: By November, temperatures in the park are cooling off. The average high temperature is 70°F but during periods of unusually warm weather you could still see temperatures get into the 80’s. Rainfall is low.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: The average high is 70°F and the average low is 45°F. Rainfall is low with about ¾ of an inch.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 6 pm.

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

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

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

Plan your visit

One more parks to visit

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

In November, the weather is pretty much perfect in Saguaro National Park. The high temperature averages 75°F and rainfall is extremely low.

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in November

Cowpens National Battlefield © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cowpens National Battlefield

Cowpens National Battlefield commemorates a decisive battle that helped turn the tide of war in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution. On this field on January 17, 1781, Daniel Morgan led his army of tough Continentals, militia, and cavalry to a brilliant victory over Banastre Tarleton’s force of British regulars. The battle at the Cow Pens is one of only a few successful double envelopments in history.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coronado National Memorial

The site of the Coronado National Monument features panoramic views of the United States-Mexico border and the San Pedro River Valley which was the route believed to have been taken by the Francisco Vásquez de Coronado expedition. The scenic overlook at Montezuma Pass (elevation 6,575 feet) provides breathtaking views of the San Raphael Valley, the San Pedro Valley, and Mexico.

Tumacacori 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, a picturesque reminder that Southern Arizona was, at one time, the far northern frontier of New Spain. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, 29 miles north of Nogales beside the Santa Cruz River. Jesuit, and later Franciscan, priests ministered to the O’odham Indians and Spanish settlers until 1848.

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park encompasses approximately 1,800 acres of rolling hills in rural central Virginia. The site includes the McLean home where Lee made his formal surrender and the village of Appomattox Court House, the former county seat for Appomattox County. The walking tour allows you to see all buildings which are original to the site and have been restored to their original condition. 

November road trip idea: Utah’s Mighty 5

November is a wonderful time to road trip to all five national parks in Utah (Mighty 5): Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches.

Crowds are generally low this time of year which makes visiting these parks a pleasant experience. The mornings start off cold but it warms up nicely during the day and you could be hiking in 60 to 70 degree weather if you are here while it’s unusually warm. Or, the parks could get a dusting of snow which is very nice too just as long as you don’t mind cold temperatures. So, pack your shorts and your wide-brimmed hat and go on a road trip through Utah.

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month

January: Best National Parks to Visit in January
February: Best National Parks to Visit in February
March: Best National Parks to Visit in March
April: Best National Parks to Visit in April
May: Best National Parks to Visit in May
June: Best National Parks to Visit in June
July: Best National Parks to Visit in July
August: Best National Parks to Visit in August
September: Best National Parks to Visit in September
October: Best National Parks to Visit in October
November: Best National Parks to Visit in November
December: Best National Parks to Visit in December

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Lubbock

The 25 Most Beautiful Places in the U.S. and Canada

These are 25 of the most beautiful places for RV travel

What is the most beautiful place in America? To compile most beautiful places in the U.S. and Canada is an inherently subjective and impossible task but we’d like to think that this list at least scratches the surface of some of the extraordinary beauty the continent has to offer.

Focusing largely on national parks, mountains, beaches, deserts, and other natural wonders, my list is sure to inspire your next RV road trip. Join me for a journey to some of the most beautiful places that you can visit in an RV from mountains that rival the Alps to red rock wonder with colorful layers to glorious underground caverns.

There are so many amazing places to see, I couldn’t possibly include them all in just one list. But, these breathtaking destinations are definitely worth bumping to the top of your travel bucket list—whether you’re looking to relax on a beach, get off the grid, or explore a charming town—these are the most beautiful locations to consider.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Grand Canyon, Arizona

The Grand Canyon has to be one of the most photographed sites in the world but there’s no way pictures can do it justice as impressive as they may be. Offering some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet, the Grand Canyon truly merits the term breathtaking. The vast geologic wonderland, one mile deep and up to 18 miles across, displays countless layers of colorful rock and practically hypnotic vistas.

>> Get more tips for visiting Grand Canyon National Park

Charleston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Charleston, South Carolina

Historic Antebellum Mansions, Civil War sites, year round festivals, pristine beaches, barrier islands, and mouthwatering Lowcountry cuisine are just a few of the reasons why Charleston is one of America’s favorite destinations. Experience this diverse southern city which blends French, English, West African, and traditional Southern American cultures into the music, art, food, and lifestyle. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Charleston

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Zion National Park, Utah

Glorious Navajo Sandstone cliffs, rainbow-colored canyons, and incredible biodiversity make Zion one of the most popular national parks in the U.S.

>> Get more tips for visiting Zion National Park

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Sedona, Arizona

Renowned for the radiant red sandstone formations surrounding it, Sedona is set in a serene spot. The towering red cliffs are almost other-worldly in a way and they are definitely worthy of a photo or two. Make sure to check out some of the area’s most popular sightseeing spots while you’re there such as the Chapel of the Holy Cross and Coffee Pot Rock.Located in the center of Arizona, the small city has long been considered a sacred and spiritual place. Many New Age shops, alternative healing and wellness centers can be found around town.

>> Get more tips for visiting Sedona

Lake Winnipesaukee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire

Lake Winnipesaukee is the largest lake in New Hampshire. It is approximately 21 miles long (northwest-southeast) and from 1 to 9 miles wide (northeast-southwest) covering 69 square miles—71 square miles when Paugus Bay is included—with a maximum depth of 180 feet. The center area of the lake is called The Broads.

The lake contains at least 264 islands, half of which are less than a quarter-acre in size and is indented by several peninsulas yielding a total shoreline of approximately 288 miles. The driving distance around the lake is 63 miles. It is 504 feet above sea level. Winnipesaukee is the third-largest lake in New England after Lake Champlain and Moosehead Lake.

Experience the beauty of Lake Winnipesaukee during a narrated scenic tour aboard the historic M/S Mount Washington. Learn about the history of the region and local folklore surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in New England.

>> Get more tips for visiting Lake Winnipesaukee

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia

Stretching 469 miles from the Great Smokies to Shenandoah, the 45 mph, no-trucks route winds past overlook after overlook letting road-trippers marvel at the mountains’ dreamy blue hue. Driving down this highway will allow you to take in the stunning Appalachian Mountains including multiple valleys and peaks such as the Peaks of Otter and Roanoke Mountain.

>> Get more tips for visiting Blue Ridge Parkway

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Banff National Park, Alberta

Canada’s oldest national park showcases the majesty of the Canadian Rockies. The park is known for its staggering peaks, dense pine forests, hot springs, animals (grizzlies, bighorn sheep, and moose all call the park home) and azure glacier-fed lakes such as Moraine Lake set in a bowl amid the Valley of the Ten Peaks.

Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santa Fe is the oldest state capital in the U.S. and as such it has a very colorful history including a historic main plaza that will make you feel as if you’re in an entirely different country. The City Different is renowned for its abundance of unique attractions, a wide array of art galleries, extraordinary museums, and magnificent architecture. Not surprisingly, for decades Santa Fe has also been a haven for artists including Georgia O’Keefe. By staying in the downtown area’s historic La Fonda you can walk to the Plaza to discover handmade jewelry and browse beautiful works of art.

>> Get more tips for visiting Santa Fe

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Monument Valley, Arizona and Utah

Monument Valley is a minimalist attraction located along the border of Utah and Arizona. In spite of its simplicity, this red-sand desert may just be one of the most beautiful places you will ever see. A 17-mile Valley Drive leads into the area, and you can spot multiple sandstone buttes that make for amazing pictures. This valley will make you feel like you are part of an Old Western movie, set in the Wild, Wild West. John Ford’s Point is a great way to look over the scenery allowing you to feast your eyes on the Mittens buttes.

>> Get more tips for visiting Monument Valley

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

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

There are plenty of reasons to visit the gorgeous Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is packed with hiking routes ripe with emerald greenery, waterfalls and bodies of water, and pretty wildflowers ready for photos. Plus, there are many great stops along the way such as Clingmans Dome which contains an observation tower resting on top of the area’s highest peak for breathtaking views. There’s also Cades Cove which is a quiet little valley that feels like a calm, quiet place lost in historical times.

>> Get more tips for visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, Alberta

The unusual landforms of Writing-on-Stone resulted from the dynamic interaction of geology, climate, and time. In a dramatic landscape of steep-sided canyons and coulees, sandstone cliffs, and eroded sandstone formations called hoodoos. Indigenous peoples created rock art in what is today Southern Alberta. Thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs at more than 138 rock art sites graphically represent the powers of the spirit world that resonate in this sacred landscape and chronicle phases of human history in North America including when Indigenous peoples first came into contact with Europeans.

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

12. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de shay) has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor. This park is owned by the Navajo Nation and is managed cooperatively. A few Navajo families still live, raise livestock, and farm in the park. For the most memorable experience take a canyon tour with a Navajo guide. It’s a truly authentic, welcoming experience you’ll remember forever.

>> Get more tips for visiting Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Savannah, Georgia

Savannah is an old city that is home to multiple fascinating sites. Its streets are paved with cobblestones and flanked by old buildings like museums and churches that are simply stuffed with history. Downtown, you’ll find one of the biggest National Historic Landmark districts in the U.S. which also connect to the riverfront and the coast. Forsyth Park was built in the 1840s and fitted with a stupendous fountain, romantic benches, and plenty of iconic oaks covered in moss for an even more calming aesthetic.

>> Get more tips for visiting Savannah

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

One of Tucson’s most popular attractions is Saguaro National Park which is a great place to experience the desert landscape around this well-known town and see the famous saguaro cacti up close. With an east and west portion, the park has two sections approximately 30 minutes apart. Both sections of the park offer great opportunities to experience the desert and enjoy hiking trails.

>> Get more tips for visiting Saguaro National Park

Wells Gray Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Wells Gray Park, British Columbia

Wells Gray is not as highly acclaimed as Mount Robson or the national parks in the Canadian Rockies. And having been there, I have no idea why. I mean… this place is awesome!

Wells Gray has something to offer every outdoor interest: lush alpine meadows, excellent birding and wildlife viewing opportunities, hiking, boating, canoeing, and kayaking. Guiding businesses offer horseback riding, canoeing, whitewater rafting, fishing, and hiking. The history enthusiast can learn about the early homesteaders, trappers, and prospectors or about the natural forces that produced Wells Gray’s many volcanoes, waterfalls, mineral springs, and glaciers.

Many people head to Wells Gray for the lakes but there are also over 40 named waterfalls in the park. Many of them are in remote corners of the park but eight of them are easy to reach from Clearwater Valley Road.

>> Get more tips for visiting Wells Gray

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands National Park may sound foreboding but in reality it’s one of the most beautiful places in the US. It is famous for holding an extremely rich and diverse fossil bed that is definitely one of the best that earth has to offer. On top of that, Badlands National Park is packed with incredible rock formations that look stunning at all times of the day with their differently shaded stripes. There are also grasslands if you’re more for wildlife where you can spot all the prairie dogs herding sheep for a calm, serene experience.

>> Get more tips for visiting Badlands National Park

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. 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.

>> Get more tips for visiting Petrified Forest National Park

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

18. Tombstone, Arizona

You can’t come to the Southwest and not truly experience the Wild West with staged gunfights in the streets and characters walking through town in period costumes to recreate the glory days of this small Arizona town. With attractions such as OK Corral, Allen Street, Boothill Graveyard, and Courthouse State Historic Park, each shop, restaurant, and attraction is designed with tourists in mind and provide the opportunity soak in the town’s history.

>> Get more tips for visiting Tombstone

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

19. White Sands National Park, New Mexico

An incredibly unique location, White Sands National Park consists of a reaching, widespread expanse of white gypsum crystal sand dunes backdropped by a picturesque blue sky. Though the sight of white sand as far as the eye can see isn’t the most exciting trip for some this tranquil environment is so individual and one-of-a-kind that it is easily one of the most beautiful places in the U.S. Bask in the calm peace, feel the soft, warm sand beneath your toes, and marvel at the vastness of this monument.

>> Get more tips for visiting White Sands National Park

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Hoover Dam, Arizona and Nevada

Linking Arizona and Nevada, Hoover Dam is one of America’s great engineering marvels to date and a fantastic Arizona road trip. Completed in 1935, this massive and hard to miss structure crosses the Colorado River and sits at a total of 726 feet high and 1,244 feet long. You are able to drive or walk across the dam for free or take a tour of the dam. The visitor center provides information on the tours and has a café where you can stop for some basic grub.

>> Get more tips for visiting Hoover Dam

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Arches National Park, Utah

The Arches National Park looks like a scene out of a movie. Erosion from millions and millions of years has led to the creation of more than 2,000 arches each fashioned naturally from sandstone. It is worth noting that environmental change has caused 43 of these arches to fall to time which means officials warn against getting too close. Still, the sight of these bright, orange structures is well worth the extra caution and you’ll want to plan your trip soon to catch as many of them as possible in full glory.

>> Get more tips for visiting Arches National Park

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

22. Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, Louisiana

Starting on the outskirts of Lake Charles and ending at the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road is a network of byways where you’ll find more than 400 bird species, alligators galore, and 26 miles of Gulf of Mexico beaches. Also called America’s Outback, the Creole Nature Trail takes visitors through 180 miles of southwest Louisiana’s backroads.

>> Get more tips for visiting Creole Nature Trail

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park on Rio Grande is an absolute wonder of untamed wildlife, spanning over much of the Chihuahuan Desert and all of the Chisos mountains. You can go on a road trip down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, relax in the Langford Hot Springs, view the Sam Nail Ranch’s broken-down husk, and enjoy sights of limestone formations across the Rio Grande. There’s so much to do that you may just need to come back again!

>> Get more tips for visiting Big Bend National Park

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

24. Black Hills, South Dakota

In the early 1800s, 60 million buffalo roamed the plains. Rampant overhunting decimated their ranks and by 1889 fewer than 1,000 remained. Today, their numbers have climbed to 500,000; Custer State Park manages a healthy herd. Roading the Black Hills you’ll see the iconic buffalo and other legendary sights including the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, sprawling parks and the town made famous for having no law: Deadwood.

>> Get more tips for visiting the Black Hills

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

25. Carlsbad Cavern, New Mexico

In the Chihuahuan Desert lie more than 100 limestone caves and one of them is none other than the Carlsbad Cavern. Spikes hang from the ceiling in droves and clusters and its winding rocky walls are perfect for spelunkers and adventurers. The way you choose to go is up to you. You can go in through the beautiful, conventional entrance or you can begin 750 feet underground. Either way, you’re in for some enticing exploration,

>> Get more tips for visiting Carlsbad Cavern

Worth Pondering…

“Where are we going, man?”

“I don’t know, but we gotta go.”

—Jack Kerouac, in On the Road

The Best National Parks to Visit in May

Wondering where to travel in May? Why not opt for a nature getaway and visit one of America’s National Parks in May!

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

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning a trip to the U.S. national parks in May and don’t know which ones to visit? May is a beautiful time to visit the national parks now that the snow has melted across most of the country and roads have reopened. In this guide, I cover five great parks to visit plus five bonus parks and a road trip that links several of these parks together.

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

About this National Park series

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

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

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

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

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting the National Parks in May

May is an awesome time to visit the national parks. By May, warmer weather settles across most of the US. The snow has melted, the grass is green, the trees have leaves, and most roads are now open.

There are a handful of national parks that close their roads in late fall for snowfall and these roads don’t reopen until mid to late spring (or even early summer for some parks). You can still visit these parks in March and April but it is not until May that you have access to the full park.

May tends to be a busy month to visit the national parks but crowds are still lower than the summer months. If you want warm weather without massive crowds, May is a good time to plan your national parks trip.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Best National Parks in May

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Shenandoah National Park

Location: Virginia

Shenandoah National Park preserves a section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Skyline Drive is the main thoroughfare through the park, a road that twists and turns for 105 miles from north to south. For those who want to explore the park beyond Skyline Drive, 500 miles of hiking trails traverse the park.

Why visit Shenandoah in May: This is the best month to see wildflowers blooming in Shenandoah National Park. Plus, the weather is warm, the trees have leaves, and the entire park is lush and green.
Weather: The average high is 66°F and the average low is 46°F. Rainfall averages about 4.5 inches per month through the year and May is no different.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6 am and sunset is at 8:20 pm.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Drive Skyline Drive and visit the overlooks, hike to the top of Bearfence Mountain, visit Dark Hollow Falls, enjoy the view from Hawksbill Mountain, hike to Mary’s Rock, and hike a section of the Appalachian Trail.

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure, hike Old Rag Mountain, a 9-mile loop trail.

Old Rag is generally considered a challenging route. The best time to hike this trail is May through October. You’ll need to leave pups at home—dogs aren’t allowed on this trail. From March 1-November 30, visitors to Old Rag Mountain including hikers on the Saddle, Ridge, and Ridge Access trails will need to obtain an Old Rag day-use ticket in advance.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How many days do you need? You can drive the length of Skyline Drive in one day visiting the overlooks and hiking a trail or two. For a more leisurely experience or to do several more hikes, plan on spending two or more days in Shenandoah.

Plan your visit

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Saguaro National Park

Location: Arizona

Saguaro National Park is composed of two distinct districts: The Rincon Mountain District (East) and the Tucson Mountain District (West). Saguaro is a hot place to visit in May. So, why am I recommending it? Because this is the best time to see the Saguaro cactus in bloom.

The Saguaro cactus begins blooming in late April with peak blooming season in May. By the end of May into the first week of June, the blooming season ends.

Why visit Saguaro in May: To see the Saguaro cactus in bloom.

Weather: In May, the average high is 93°F and the average low is 60°F. Rainfall is extremely low.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 5:30 am and sunset is at 7:15 pm.

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

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your visit

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Mesa Verde National Park

Location: Colorado

Located in southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is one of the most unique national parks in the United States. This park preserves the ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings and archeological sites that are hundreds of years old. Short hikes, scenic drives, and viewpoints make the to-do list but the best way to experience this park is to get up close with the cliff dwellings on a tour.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Mesa Verde in May: In May, the roads reopen in the park and ranger-guided tours of the cliff dwellings begin for the year. The weather is fantastic and crowds are lower than what you would see here during the summer months.
Weather: The average high is 70°F and the average low is 43°F. Rainfall is low.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is 6 am and sunset is 8:15 pm.

Top experiences: Take a ranger guided tour of a cliff dwelling, see the Spruce Tree House, hike the Petroglyph Point Trail, drive Mesa Top Loop, explore the Far View sites, and hike the Point Lookout Trail.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How many days do you need? One to two days are all you need to take a cliff dwelling tour and go on the scenic drives through the park. Consider spending a night or two in Morefield Campground just four miles from the park entrance. With 267 sites there’s always plenty of space and the campground rarely fills. 

Plan your visit

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Congaree National Park

Location: South Carolina

Congaree is hot and humid in May and with higher levels of mosquitoes, it’s not a great time to visit the park unless you want to see the synchronous fireflies.

With over 2,000 species found world-wide, there are only three species of synchronous fireflies that can be found in North America. Every year, Congaree National Park hosts synchronous fireflies for approximately two weeks between mid-May and mid-June. During this time visitors can experience an awe-inspiring display of synchronous flashing while the fireflies search for a mate. This special and unique phenomenon is extremely popluar. 

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In order to protect critical firefly habitat and provide optimum visitor experience, tickets are required to enter the park during for this event. A set number of vehicle passes are issued for each evening of the event. Vehicle passes for this event are distributed by lottery hosted at www.recreation.gov/ticket/facility/300008.

Why visit Congaree in May: To see the synchronous fireflies.

Weather: The average high is 83°F and the average low is 60°F. On hotter than normal days, the high temperature can get up into the high-90s. In terms of rainfall, this is one of the drier months to visit the park but now that it is getting warmer expect humid weather. Mosquitoes can also be bad this time of year.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:20 am and sunset is at 8:20 pm.

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Plan your visit

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

5. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Location: Tennessee and North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains runs through the center of the park and it is here that you will find some of the tallest peaks in eastern North America.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. In 2022, 13 million people visited this park. Second place wasn’t even close (that would be Grand Canyon with 4.7 million visitors).

In May of 2022, 1.3 million people visited this national park (you read that right…1.3 million people in one month). To put that into perspective, that’s about the same number of people that visited Capitol Reef National Park all year! And Capitol Reef was the 21st most visited national park lastt year.

And May isn’t even the busy time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The busy season is the summer months and peak visitation is July with 1.6 million visitors.

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

Why visit Great Smoky Mountains in May: For great weather and lower crowds than the summer months.

Weather: The average high is 68°F and the average low is 45°F. Rainfall is about average for the year with the park receiving about 7 inches of rain.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 8 pm.

Top experiences: Enjoy the view from Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap, hike the Alum Trail to Mount LeConte, drive through Cades Cove, and drive the Roaring Fork Motor Trail.

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

How many days do you need? You can drive the park’s main roads and visit the highlights of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in one day. To explore the parks more fully plan three to four days and avoid Cades Cove on the weekend. Trust me on that one.

Plan your visit

1 more National Parks to visit in May

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park was included in my series for the best parks to visit in April since that month is a great time to see wildflowers in the park. The weather in May is very good with average high temperatures in the low 80s and low rainfall but this tends to be the busiest month to visit Pinnacles so keep that in mind while planning your trip.

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in May

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore

Cumberland Island National Seashore includes one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in the world. The park is home to a herd of feral, free-ranging horses. Most visitors come to Cumberland for the natural glories, serenity, and fascinating history. Built by the Carnegies, the ruins of the opulent 59-room, Queen Anne-style Dungeness are a must-see for visitors.

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

Known as an iron plantation, Hopewell Furnace illustrates how mining and producing iron ore spurred the United States to economic prosperity. Visitors to this Pennsylvania site can see demonstrations and hike the surrounding area which was originally farmland.

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park

On the banks of the Pedernales River in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, the LBJ Ranch tells the story of America’s 36th President beginning with his ancestors until his final resting place on his beloved LBJ Ranch.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails.

May road trip idea

In 10 days, you can drive point-to-point from Washington DC to Gatlinburg, Tennessee visiting three national parks along the way—Shenandoah, New River Gorge, and Great Smoky Mountains. You can also drive the Blue Ridge Parkway from Shenandoah to Great Smoky Mountains.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month:

January: Best National Parks to Visit in January
February: Best National Parks to Visit in February
March: Best National Parks to Visit in March
April: Best National Parks to Visit in April
May: Best National Parks to Visit in May
June: Best National Parks to Visit in June
July: Best National Parks to Visit in July
August: Best National Parks to Visit in August
September: Best National Parks to Visit in September
October: Best National Parks to Visit in October
November: Best National Parks to Visit in November
December: Best National Parks to Visit in December

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome

National Park Week: Discover the Beauty of America’s National Parks

From massive canyons to brilliantly-colored deserts, national parks offer some of America’s wildest and most iconic landscapes

When the US Congress established Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872, it was “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Its founding marked the birth of the US National Park System and eventually launched a worldwide movement to protect outdoor spaces and historical landmarks. Since 1904, some 15 billion visitors have explored the wild wonders of the America’s parks.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Park Week is happening April 22 to April 30 this year! Entrance fees will be waived on April 22, 2023, to kick off National Park Week.

In 2016, inspired by the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, photographer Jonathan Irish visited every U.S. national park over 52 weeks.

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

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since Irish’s journey, the National Parks Service has designated four additional parks:

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are now 63 spaces to explore across the country. Celebrate National Park Week with images of these priceless national treasures from the cliff dwelling of Mesa Verde in Colorado to the deep, dark recesses of New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns.

Arches National Park, Utah

With over 2,000 natural stone arches, Arches National Park is part of southern Utah’s extended canyon country, carved and shaped by weathering and erosion.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands National Park is made up of jagged and striped rock formations. Striped in yellow, amber, and purple, the colorful eroded formations dip and rise amid the prairie grasslands.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National, Texas

Recently named the world’s largest International Dark Sky Reserve, Big Bend National Park’s hundred-mile views sweep across the hills, arroyos, and mesas of the West Texas Chihuahuan Desert.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah draws more than 2.7 million visitors a year thanks to its stunning geology of red arches and phantom-like spires called hoodoos.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

The sun peeks through Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. The largest and most undeveloped of Utah’s national parks, Canyonlands offers backcountry adventures, scenic landscapes, and two major rivers.

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Escape the crowds by fording the shallow Fremont River (high-clearance vehicles only) and head out on a 58-mile dirt road loop into desolate Cathedral Valley, an austere landscape dominated by two sandstone sentinels, Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

More than 119 caves are hidden beneath the surface of this national park in the Chihuahuan Desert. Cave scientists have explored at least 30 miles of passageways of the main cavern of Carlsbad and the investigation continues. Visitors may tour three of these miles on a paved trail.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park contains North America’s largest intact tract of old-growth bottomland forest. Boardwalk hikes and canoe tours are popular activities among the towering trees.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon National Park is a sprawling gorge of layers in pink, red, and orange hues revealing millions of years of geological history. 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Fog lingers among the forested hills of Great Smoky Mountains National Park which spans the southern Appalachians along the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Water and hydrocarbons exuded by trees produce the filmy smoke that gives the mountains their name.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together in Joshua Tree National Park.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

From 1914 to early 1915, Lassen Peak spewed steam and ashes in more than 150 eruptions. Now, the quieted volcano serves as a scenic backdrop to the park’s jigsaw-puzzle landscape of forest, lava beds, and lakes.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

The sun sets early on Cliff Palace, the largest of the ancient stone-and-mortar cliff houses tucked into the park’s canyon walls. The only way to experience the fine detail of the construction is on a ranger-guided tour.

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve spans more than 72,000 acres of wooded hills, deep ravines, and the Appalachian plateau. It was named the U.S.’s newest national park in 2020. 

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Walking along the park’s trails, visitors can see hills made of bluish clay and the largest concentration of brilliantly colored petrified wood in the U.S.

Pinnacles National Park, California

Known for its spectacular rock formations, beautiful spring wildflowers, and large groups of endangered condors, Pinnacles National Park is a mecca for rock climbing and day hiking. It offers 32 miles of trails that climb through winding talus caves and shaded creeks.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaro National Park takes its name from the largest cacti in the United States. The park, which flanks Tucson, is home to millions of the cacti, which can grow up to 50 feet tall.

Sequoia National Park, California

Nestled in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, Sequoia National Park is nearly 97 percent wilderness. It holds over 2,000 giant sequoia trees including General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest tree, measured by volume.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Located between the Shenandoah Valley in the west and the Piedmont region in the east, the park is an expanse of wooden hollows and breezy summits, waterfalls and mountain streams, more than 500 miles of hiking trails and nearly 80,000 acres of designated wilderness.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt is unique among the scenic parks in that it preserves not only an extraordinary landscape but also the memory of an extraordinary man. It honors the president who probably did more for the National Park Service than anyone before or since.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

White Sands National Park protects the largest gypsum dune on Earth, a remnant of bygone lakes and seas, a 275-square-mile basin that glitters white and stays cool to the touch. Visitors come to cruise the eight-mile Dunes Drive, hike one of the five established trails, or see the soft, translucent sand glow blue-white under a full moon.

Zion National Park, Utah

One of the most photographed views in Zion National Park is of Watchman Mountain from the Canyon Junction Bridge. Irish’s favorite spot is at the center of the bridge where the river leads the eye to the Watchman Spire in the background.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

The Ultimate Arizona Road Trip: 25 Places You Must Visit

Arizona is an outdoor-lover’s dream with deep canyons, dramatic landscape, and a host of adventures where the land formations are the star of the show

Arizona is well-known for its beautiful landscapes and scenery. These beautiful, must-experience places are bucket-list worthy; some are well-known while others are hidden gems you might not have known about. From national landmarks to historical towns and breathtaking outdoor landscapes, here are 25 places to visit on your next Arizona road trip.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon

The most obvious landmark and Arizona road trip (and the most breathtaking of them all) is the Grand Canyon. If you have never experienced the sight of this outstanding view you absolutely must add this to your bucket list. You can check into El Tovar Hotel which is a historic property that opened its doors in 1905 and has entertained celebrities and presidents for over 100 years. Just steps away from the Grand Canyon’s edge, El Tovar has breathtaking views from every window and the resort’s dining room is as close to the canyon as you can get with cuisine that’s almost as memorable as the views as well as several hiking trails that will leave you speechless. Plus many photo opportunities!

>> Get more tips for visiting the Grand Canyon

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisbee

What seems to be one of Arizona’s best-kept secrets is the interesting town of Bisbee. The former mining town is a small, unique community that sits high in the mountains near the Mexican border and in the far southeast corner of Arizona. With plenty of things to do, activities, events and festivals, shops, galleries, and nightlife plus birdwatching, gallery-gazing, dining, or pub-crawling, Bisbee will offer you a plethora of choices to keep you entertained.

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

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Home to Lake Powell, The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is a stunning region of blue water with a desert landscape and dramatic stone walls. One of the largest manmade lakes in the United States, this area is known for land- and water-based recreational activities.

This gorgeous lake is located in northern Arizona, stretches up into southern Utah, and is part of the Colorado River in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area with nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline. You can enjoy a summer’s day with perfect weather, cool water, amazing scenery, and endless sunshine. This is the perfect place to escape to and rent a houseboat, stay at a campground, or enjoy the lodging and hop aboard a guided expedition.

>> Get more tips for visiting Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona

Due to its distinctive culture, Sedona is truly a place unlike any other. Visitors can navigate remote canyons, rejuvenate at an energy vortex site, and experience the ancient culture of the Sinagua people. Throughout the red rock are multitudes of secluded viewpoints, cliff dwellings, and well-preserved petroglyphs. In downtown Sedona, you’ll find a vibrant art community dense with unique shops and galleries. Hikers and adventurous types will enjoy the various trails and renowned Pink Jeep off-road adventure tours.

>> Get more tips for visiting Sedona

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park

With the Santa Catalina Mountains beckoning in the distance and canyons and seasonal streams dotting the landscape, Catalina State Park provides a delightful respite in the Tucson area. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The park’s 5,500 acres provide miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the nearby Coronado National Forest. More than 150 species of birds call the park home. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking. The state park offers 120 campsites with electric and water utilities suitable for RVs of all lengths. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Catalina State Park

Globe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Globe

In the foothills of the Pinal Mountains sits the former mining camp known as Globe. Founded in 1876 and incorporated in 1907 this lovely town is brimming with century-old buildings, cottages, and hillside houses. The Besh-ba-Gowah Archeological Park features stunning partially restored ruins of a Salado pueblo along with an accompanying museum. The historic downtown area is perfect for strolls and shopping for antiques while the Cobre Valley Center for the Arts is a great spot to explore and experience the talent of some incredible artists.

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Apache Trail

As scenic drives go, the 40-mile Apache Trail (Highway 88) winds through the Southwest’s most stunning scenery. It’s a rugged ribbon of hairpin turns and stark drop-offs that meanders past three lakes and carves through canyons and over the Superstition Mountains before concluding at Roosevelt Dam. 

Highway 88 runs northeast from Apache Junction passing through Tortilla Flat along the way to Roosevelt Lake. While you can still access the road to Tortilla Flat, the portion north of the town is temporarily closed. 

>> Get more tips for driving Apache Trail

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Williams

The opium dens, bordellos, and other landmarks of Williams, Arizona’s rough-and-tumble past are long gone. But some kinder, gentler vestiges of this town’s Wild West era remain. Today, the town’s Main Street is a National Historic District. Its storefronts house curio shops, an old-fashioned soda fountain, and classic diners and motels which preserve a bygone era. The town of 3,000 residents, considered the gateway to the Grand Canyon is also home to the Grand Canyon Railway an excursion between a historic depot and the canyon.

>> Get more tips for visiting Williams

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lost Dutchman State Park

Since the 1840s, many have claimed to know the location of the Peralta family’s lost gold mine in the Superstition Mountains but none of these would-be fortune-seekers became more famous than “the Dutchman” Jacob Waltz. The German prospector purportedly hid caches of the precious metal throughout the Superstition Wilderness. Fact or fiction, Waltz’s windfall gave the park its name. You might not find gold during your visit but other treasures include great hiking and biking trails and 138 RV camping sites (68 with electric and water) with sunset views.

>> Get more tips for visiting Lost Dutchman State Park

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Right along the U.S.-Mexico border, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has the kind of scenery you’d expect when you picture the desert. The monument’s tall, skinny namesake cacti abound in every direction. Instead of growing with one massive trunk like the saguaro, the many branches of the organ pipe rise from a base at the ground. Take a ride down Ajo Mountain Drive for great views of the “forests” of Saguaro (another species of cactus native to the area).

>> Get more tips for visiting Organ Pipe National Monument

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picacho Peak State Park

Picacho rises from the desert seemingly out of nowhere, its sharp buttes like lighthouses guiding travelers home. It wasn’t always a sight for road-weary eyes, though. In 1862, Confederate and Union soldiers clashed here in the Battle of Picacho Pass, a fight marked in history as the westernmost battle of the Civil War. These days during the spring, vibrant wildflowers carpet the ground; come winter, the challenging trails that ascend the sunny peaks draw thrill-seeking hikers.

>> Get more tips for visiting Picacho Peak State Park

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hoover Dam

Linking Arizona and Nevada, Hoover Dam is one of America’s great engineering marvels to date and a fantastic Arizona road trip. Completed in 1935, this massive and hard-to-miss structure crosses the Colorado River and sits at a total of 726 feet high and 1,244 feet long. You can drive or walk across the dam for free or take a tour of the dam. The visitor center provides information on the tours and has a café where you can stop for some basic grub.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument

With its impressive location tucked in the limestone cliffs in the desert of Camp Verde, Montezuma Castle is sort of like an ancient skyscraper. Towing some 80 feet above the valley floor, the 20-room residence was built by the Sinagua people beginning in around AD 1100 and served as an important shelter to escape floods. It was among the first four sites given the designation of National Monument back in 1906 with the site also including further dwellings around Montezuma Well, six miles from the castle.

>> Get more tips for visiting Montezuma Castle National Monument

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alamo Lake State Park

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

>> Get more tips for visiting Alamo Lake State Park

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jerome

An old mining town-turned ghost town-turned tourist attraction, Jerome sits on a mountainside just above the desert floor. Jerome is unique and quirky, to say the least with the Sliding Jail in Jerome that was originally built around 1928 and was built on a clay slick; it soon began to slide and now sits 2,500 feet from its original location. While you’re there, you can visit the town’s most appreciated historical landmarks including the Gold King Mine Museum and the Jerome State Historic Park.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor. This park is owned by the Navajo Nation and is managed cooperatively. A few Navajo families still live, raise livestock, and farm in the park. For the most memorable experience take a canyon tour with a Navajo guide. It’s a truly authentic, welcoming experience you’ll remember forever.

>> Get more tips for visiting Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red Rock State Park

Oak Creek runs for nearly 2 miles throughout this 286-acre state park adorning the sandstone mesas and red boulders with leafy riparian habitats. If we’re judging Sedona hiking hot spots, it doesn’t get much better than the park’s juniper-studded trails and vortex-framed vistas. Red Rock State Park is one of the most ecologically diverse parks in Arizona which is why it makes sense that it serves as an environmental education hub. From the Visitor Center’s interactive exhibits and film presentations to guided nature walks and full moon hikes, programming offers insight into Sedona’s majestic landscape.

>> Get more tips for visiting Red Rock State Park

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson

Surrounded by mountains, Tucson is a beautiful city set in the Sonoran Desert and is the second-largest city in Arizona. With many historic sites and cultural attractions, Tucson is a place to unwind and explore. Highlights include the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Saguaro National Park, El Presidio Historic District, and Sabino Canyon. You will also discover hiking trails and afterward find a bite to eat at one of the many wonderful restaurants Tucson has to offer.

>> Get more tips for visiting Tucson

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley

Along a 17-mile self-drive route along a one-way gravel road, you will find the heart of the valley, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. While visiting this area which straddles the border between Arizona and Utah, you’ll experience the true Arizona desert feel with miles and miles of beautiful landscape and scenery of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and windblown sand, creating all the wonderful and majestic colors of the Valley.

>> Get more tips for visiting Monument Valley

Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prescott

With its small-city feel and defined seasons, Prescott has tall Ponderosa pine trees, lakes, and the occasional sprinkle of snow. This charming town has much to offer including the Courthouse Plaza, Sharlot Hall Museum, Smoki Museum, Elks Theatre Opera House, Watson Lake, and numerous hiking areas including Thumb Butte Trail. You can grab a bite to eat at one of the downtown restaurants or spend a night at one of the beautifully restored bed and breakfasts or hotels.

>> Get more tips for visiting Prescott

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

One of Tucson’s most popular attractions is Saguaro National Park which is a great place to experience the desert landscape around this well-known town and see the famous saguaro cacti up close. With an east and west portion, the park has two sections approximately 30 minutes apart. Both sections of the park offer great opportunities to experience the desert and enjoy hiking trails.

>> Get more tips for visiting Saguaro National Park

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oatman

Once a gold-mining boomtown, Oatman hunkers in a craggy gulch of the Black Mountains, 28 miles southwest of Kingman along Route 66. Rising above the town is the jagged peak of white quartz known as Elephant’s Tooth. Often described as a ghost town, Oatman comes close to fitting the category considering that it once boasted nearly 20,000 people and now supports just a little over 100 people year-round.

Though Oatman is only a shadow of its former self, it is well worth a visit to this living ghost town that provides not only a handful of historic buildings and photo opportunities but costumed gunfighters and 1890s-style ladies as well as the sights of burros walking the streets.

>> Get more tips for visiting Oatman

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park

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.

>> Get more tips for visiting Petrified Forest National Forest

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone

You can’t come to the Wild West and not truly experience the Wild West with staged gunfights in the streets and characters walking through town in period costumes to recreate the glory days of this small Arizona town that is great as an Arizona road trip. With top-rated attractions such as OK Corral, Allen Street, Boothill Graveyard/Gift Shop, and Courthouse State Historic Park, each shop, restaurant, and attraction is designed with tourists in mind and gives you the chance to see and soak in the town’s history.

>> Get more tips for visiting Tombstone

Ajo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ajo

With its rich tradition as a former copper mining hub, Ajo is a casual town with relaxed charm. Enjoy its mild climate, low humidity, and clear skies. Take in the historic Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, Sonoran Desert flora and fauna, and panoramic views. Step back in time at the Historic Plaza and railway Depot. Gaze at Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in the downtown Historic District.

Verde Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bonus trip: Verde Valley Railway

Park the RV and board the train as you embark on a spectacular journey accessible only by rail. Powering the train are two EMD FP7 diesel locomotives built in 1953 for the Alaska Railroad. They were painted in 2019 with an apropos American bald eagle motif. Alert passengers may spot the U.S. national bird soaring in the canyon. From December to March, visitors have a greater chance of seeing these special raptors since migrating and resident bald eagles share the canyon during nesting season.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937