The Complete Guide to Saguaro National Park

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

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

—Larry Cheek, Born Survivor

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

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip ​

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat ​

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

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do ​

Hike

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

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

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

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

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bike

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

Watch the sunset

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

Learn

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

View petroglyphs

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

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway towns​

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route ​

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tumacacori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Fact box

Location: Southeast Arizona

Size: 91,327 acres

Trails: 192 miles

Elevation: 2,180 to 8,666 feet 

Main attraction: The iconic saguaro cactus

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

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

When to go: Winter and spring

Worth Pondering…

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

—Advice from a Saguaro

The Best Scenic Drives in the South (2024)

The South is full of natural beauty and road trips are one of the best ways to experience it. Any of these scenic drives will take you past stunning landscapes and breathtaking views. So, grab your road trip essentials, fill up with fuel, and hit the road!

The South’s best scenic drives invite travelers to experience the landscape up close as they wind through small cities and tiny towns, beaches and mountains, rolling countryside, and deep forests.

Some of these drives are short, others are much longer, but no matter the length of your getaway, don’t forget to allow some time for side trips. Small towns, state parks, hiking trails, and historic markers await travelers willing to make a stop and set out on a rambling route to somewhere new.

Keep the camera handy because panoramic vistas, fields of wildflowers, and sandy beach scenes are just some of the sights to look for and marvel at as you navigate these scenic drives across the South. Once you’ve begun the drive, you’ll know that on these memorable Southern routes, the journey truly is the destination.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina, Virginia

It’s no surprise that the Blue Ridge Parkway topped this year’s list of the South’s best scenic drives. A meandering road snaking for 469 miles along the crest of Blue Ridge Mountains from Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, the Blue Ridge Parkway provides access to more than 100 trailheads and over 300 miles of trails. It passes through a range of habitats that support more plant species than any other park in the country: over 4,000 species of plants, 2,000 kinds of fungi, 500 types of mosses and lichens, and the most varieties of salamanders anywhere in the world.

If you need ideas, check out:

Newfound Gap Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Newfound Gap Road, North Carolina and Tennessee

When you get to Newfound Gap, you won’t believe the wealth of overlooks, picnic areas, and trails to explore. Take this spectacular road through Great Smoky Mountains National Park to experience the pristine wilderness that drives millions of Americans to this wildly popular park year after year. The views get increasingly breathtaking, putting a lifetime’s worth of astonishing natural eye candy into a couple of gallons of driving.

Bayou Teche at St. Martinsville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bayou Teche National Scenic Byway, Louisiana

This Louisiana byway reaches through three of the state’s southern parishes—St. Martin, Iberia, and St. Mary—as it winds through Bayou Teche and the Atchafalaya Basin from Morgan City to Arnaudville. Travelers can make stops along the byway’s 183 miles to explore inviting small towns, go kayaking in Breaux Bridge, and enjoy authentic local Cajun food in the destinations along the route.

Here is an article to help:  ‘Pass a Good Time’ on the Bayou Teche Byway

Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Skyline Drive, Virginia

For a dreamy drive, look no further than this Virginia road. Skyline Drive extends for 105 miles through Shenandoah National Park following the crests of Blue Ridge peaks as it goes. That means vistas galore with views over the rolling Virginia landscape. It’s also a lovely place to watch the seasons change; visit in autumn to see the leaves turn.

That’s why I wrote Ride the Sky along Skyline Drive.

Lookout Mountain Parkway. Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee

Easily accessible from several states and a great day trip, the route along Lookout Mountain Parkway runs from Gadsden, Alabama to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and passes through Georgia in the process. It’s 93 miles long and travelers are invited to stop for the nearby attractions—including waterfalls, canyons, and national parks—along the way. Keep your eyes peeled for scenic vistas as you make your way along the route.

Plan a day, plan a week. There is so much to see and do along the Lookout Mountain Parkway and you won’t want to miss a thing.

Come see…just for the fun of it!

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, Louisiana

One place in Southwest Louisiana that never ceases to amaze is the Creole Nature Trail, a 180-miles-long scenic byway where natural wonderlands abound. Affectionately known as Louisiana’s Outback, the Creole Nature Trail is a journey into one of America’s last great wildernesses.

The Creole Nature Trail features four wildlife refuges (three national and one state): Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge, and Rockefeller Refuge. While there are five entrances to the Creole Nature Trail, the most popular entrances are off I-10 in Sulphur (Exit 20) and just east of Lake Charles at Louisiana Highway 397 (Exit 36).

Here are some helpful resources:

Alabama Gulf Coast © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alabama’s Coastal Connection, Alabama

This 130-mile scenic byway connects the people and places in coastal Mobile and Baldwin counties and showcases the rich culture and flavor of Alabama’s Gulf Coast region. You’ll discover beautiful beaches, authentic downtowns, wildlife preserves, historic sites, and the freshest seafood in the state.

Check this out to learn more: Experience the Alabama Gulf Coast along the Coastal Connection Scenic Byway

Russell-Brasstown National Scenic Byway, Georgia

Surrounded by the beauty of the Chattahoochee National Forest, the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway runs 40 miles from Blairsville to Brasstown Bald, the state’s highest peak, and access points along the Appalachian Trail. This national byway winds through the valleys and mountain gaps of the southern Appalachians.

From the vistas atop Brasstown Bald to the cooling mists of waterfalls, scenic wonders fill this region. Hike the Appalachian Trail or fish in a cool mountain stream. Enjoy spectacular views of the mountains and piedmont. Several scenic overlooks and interpretive signs are features of this route

Bay St. Lewis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf Coast Scenic Byway, Mississippi

The Gulf Coast Scenic Byway is the 36-mile stretch of roadway that runs through the cities of Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Long Beach Gulfport, Biloxi, and Ocean Springs. Long Beach, Pass Christian, and Gulfport are all home to historic downtown districts through which the byway either runs or borders to the south.

Magnolia Plantation © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ashley River Road National Scenic Byway, South Carolina

This short 13-mile byway is a historic journey along the Ashley River. Plantations and expansive gardens dot the route along with significant Revolutionary and Civil War sites. This pastoral scenic drive makes an illuminating route to Charleston or a must-experience daytrip if you’re already there.

Step back in time and immerse yourself in history at Middleton Place Plantation. The National Historic Landmark preserves the stories of the Middleton family, the enslaved, and the freedmen. Magnolia Plantation and Gardens was founded by the Drayton family in 1676 as a rice plantation. Built in 1738, Drayton Hall Plantation is a prime example of Palladian architecture and has never been restored.

Road trip planning

Road trips take a little planning. Here are a few tips that will help make your scenic road trip a success:

There is so much to see and do in the South

The South is home to many fascinating, attractive, and unusual destinations. Because the Southern states occupy a significant portion of the United States, anybody planning extensive travel in the country will inevitably find themselves in the region sometime. Once you arrive, you will be in for a real treat.

Worth Pondering…

The journey not the arrival matters.

—T. S. Eliot

Joshua Tree Parkway of Arizona: A Worthwhile Pit Stop along U.S. 93

Most travelers who visit Arizona are surprised to find that the state has such a unique and diverse topography. Flat desert with saguaro, craggy rock summits, ponderosa pine forests, and frosty snow-capped mountains and all this terrain can be accessed by highways and by-ways. One of the most beautiful drives in Arizona is the Joshua Forest Parkway also known as Scenic Route 93.

Although the Joshua Tree National Park in neighboring California gets far more attention, Arizona’s Joshua Tree Scenic Parkway is pretty spectacular too. While not an official park or destination, there are a few spots to pull off and take in the sights. It’s unique, especially looking to the west where a ridge of mountains serves as a magnificent backdrop.

But did you know you can drive through a Joshua Tree forest in Arizona? It’s true. On U.S. 93 between Wickenburg and Wikieup, a 7-mile stretch of road graced on both sides with Joshua Trees and other hardy desert plants.

If you ever find yourself cruising U.S. 93 between Wickenburg and Kingman, do yourself a favor and plan a quick pit stop to see Arizona’s own Joshua Tree Forest.

Joshua Tree Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re like a lot of people when you hear Joshua Tree, one of two things come to mind:

  • Joshua Tree National Forest in California
  • The fifth studio album by the rock band U2

In the 1980s, Joshua Trees became immortalized after the release of the U2 album by the same name. The image of the band in the California desert with a lone Joshua Tree in the background made the yucca specious illustrious with fans, many of whom roamed the California countryside in search of the exact spot in which the famous photo was taken. (The Joshua Tree shown on the U2 album died in 2000 and a plaque now commemorates its place in history.)

While California has the greatest concentration of Joshua Trees and a dedicated National Park, Arizona has a scenic parkway dedicated to the unusually distinct shrub. Along U.S. 93 between Wickenburg, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada there is a small but concentrated stretch of Joshua Trees that is worth a stop.

Joshua Tree Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But first, what is a Joshua Tree?

Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) is actually not a tree at all. It happens to be the largest variety of yucca and can grow to more than 20 feet at an average of only one-half inch per year. It provides a habitat for many birds, mammals, and reptiles—and a spectacular visual for us humans.

Why is it called Joshua Tree?

When Mormon settlers first saw the plant they dubbed the Joshua tree; it reminded them of the Biblical story in which the bushy-bearded biblical leader reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer. When Territorial Governor John C. Frémont caught sight of it during an 1844 trek through the Mohave Desert, he called it “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom.”

Joshua Tree Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree quick facts:

  • New seedlings may grow at an average rate of 3 inches per year in their first ten years then only about 1.5 inches per year after that
  • The trunk consists of thousands of small fibers and annual growth rings making it difficult to determine a tree’s age
  • Each plant has a deep and extensive root system with roots reaching as many as 36 feet deep
  • Can live for hundreds of years; some specimens survive a thousand years
  • The tallest trees reach about 49 feet in height
  • Flowers grow in panicles that appear from February to late April
  • Joshua trees usually do not branch until after they bloom
Joshua Tree Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The drive, which is familiar to anyone who’s road-tripped from Phoenix to Sin City (or vice versa), officially begins near the small town of Wikieup, a dot on the map that’s better known for its pie (you’ll pass Luchia’s) than for its tourism cachet. Other landmarks in town include the Snoopy-piloted Wikieup arrow along with the Wikieup Trading Post and Eat at Joe’s Barbecue as well as the creosote-peppered hills that surround Bronco Wash.

Heading south on U.S. 93 around Milepost 127, you’ll come to the Big Sandy River, and unless it’s been raining, the river is probably just that—big and sandy. Beyond the Big Sandy, sheer, eroded cliffs loom speckled in spots with saguaros and scrub. Pale, striated canyon walls straddle the highway—green, yellow, white, and taupe—and the mountains stretch for miles in front of you.

Joshua Tree Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Milepost 147, you’ll start seeing giant boulders piled on top of each other. They look like hoodoos with saguaros in between. The rocks are an interesting sight but not as interesting as Nothing. Blink and you’ll miss it but Nothing was a real Arizona town and you’ll see it off to the left. It’s marked with a sign and a pile of … well, junk. You’ll have to see it for yourself but Nothing really is something.

Joshua trees become the focal point of this drive around Milepost 162. One of the first you’ll see is a large, gnarly fellow off to the right, and then several more in rapid succession. They’re reminiscent of the baobab trees made famous in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince and if your imagination is active, you might see a little blond boy emerge from the trees with a dog and a well-protected flower in hand.

Joshua Tree Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By Milepost 169, the forest of Joshua trees is dense and you’ll see a sign that reads, Joshua Tree Parkway of Arizona. It’s a label that formalizes the obvious—that this is an incredibly scenic drive that passes through one of the most spectacular landscapes in the Southwest.

The route continues to Wickenburg, a classic Old West town that celebrates the state’s cowboy heritage with the Desert Caballeros Museum and a string of Western-themed shops and restaurants. It’s a great place to visit, but the highlight of this drive is the trees. Or, rather, the Yucca brevifolia.

Worth Pondering…

I speak for the trees.

—Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Highlights of a Fall Adventure to Custer State Park: Needles Highway and Bison Roundup

When the Black Hills turn golden, magic happens

Few truly wild places remain in the U.S. Custer State Park is one of them. Nearly 1,300 bison wander the park’s 71,000 acres which they share with pronghorn antelope, elk, mountain goats, and a band of burros. Trail rides, scenic drives, bike rides, and safari tours are perfect ways to explore this impressive South Dakota attraction

Below are two highlights of a fall visit to Custer State Park: Needles Highway and the legendary Bison Roundup.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Needles Highway

The Needles Highway is a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains.

As names go, Needles Highway does the job well. Along this winding 14-mile stretch of South Dakota Highway 87 in South Dakota’s Custer State Park, eroded granite spindles and pillars tower all around, hundreds of rocky splinters stitching the sky. 

The Needles Highway is more than a 14-mile road—it’s a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains. The road’s name comes from the needlelike granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon along the highway.

Needles Eye © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On foot and horseback in the early 20th century, South Dakota Gov. Peter Norbeck mapped out the entire striking, spiking passage of what is now known as the Needles Highway. All you need are four wheels. Set aside an hour for a scenic drive through forests of ponderosa pine and spruce, past meadows of aspen and birch, around hairpins, next to rock walls, through tight tunnels.

Visitors traveling the highway pass Sylvan Lake and a unique rock formation called the Needle’s Eye, so named for the opening created by wind, rain, freezing, and thawing. The route includes the not-quite-9-foot-wide (8 feet 9 inches wide by 9 feet 8 inches high) Needles Eye Tunnel; creeping through it feels like threading its namesake.

Cathedral Spires Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take it easy

Winding drives throughout the park are most enjoyable at a slower pace. Allow ample time to travel at a safe speed—generally 25 miles per hour or slower. Expect a travel time of about 45 to 60 minutes to enjoy Needles Highway.

If a coveted parking spot remains at the cramped Cathedral Spires Trailhead near the tunnel, grab it. Even the view from the lot is pretty but sure-footed visitors can get even bigger, more dramatic vistas from the trail. 

This trail features areas unique to the Black Hills area such as the Cathedral Spires/Limber Pine Area, a Registered National Natural Landmark. This is a one-way trail and does not connect to the Black Elk Peak Trail System.

The 2.3-mile out-and-back starts gently enough. Soon, though, hikers encounter steps, switchbacks, and steep scrambles. The trail ends in a flat mountain valley, spires rising like a Gothic holy place—albeit the kind with mountain goats flaunting their fleet feet. Keep a camera close at hand. Goats give great faces, their spindly little horns right on brand with the well-named scenery.

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sunday Gulch Trail offers perhaps the most unique scenery of all the park’s hiking trails. Descending into Sunday Gulch the trail crosses the stream several times while passing over large boulders and near magnificent granite walls. Sunday Gulch presents a variety of unique plants rarely seen in other areas of the park. Spruce, pine, and a mixture of hardwoods line the trail.

The Sylvan Lake Shore Trail offers passing motorists an opportunity to stretch their legs on a leisurely walk the whole family will enjoy. This trail makes a complete loop around Sylvan Lake and is among the easiest trails in Custer State Park. Enormous granite formations line portions of the lake making it one of the most picturesque in the Black Hills. While most of this trail is relatively flat, a portion contains steps and crosses exposed rocky areas. Sections of the trail are not suitable for strollers.

The Needles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take it slow

Don’t worry about cramming everything at Custer State Park into one day. A $20 park pass allows entry for seven consecutive days. Annual passes are available too.  The park’s lodging offers a choice of four resort areas with plenty of activities and camping sites.

Take it steady

Mountain goats have four appendages helping them stay upright in this craggy landscape. No shame in doing the same with a good pair of hiking poles.

Bison Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bison Roundup

On a fall trip to South Dakota, feel the thunder of bison on the move at Custer State Park’s annual buffalo roundup and arts festival.

It is the quiet before the thunder. The morning sun has further gilded the golden grasslands of Custer State Park, spread over more than 70,000 acres in western South Dakota. Cowboys and cowgirls mill on their mounts, dotting ridgelines above a sprawling valley. Riders chat; horses whiny. Most eyes fix on the sight below—hundreds of cocoa-hued bison, grunting, wandering, and waiting. 

Bison Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then, a hoot. A whipcrack. More shouts. Riders begin to move in an annual choreography to gather the herd from the open range, check its health, and chart its future.

The annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival attracts more than 20,000 spectators who edge the vistas the last Friday of each September (September 28-30, 2023) to watch riders corral the beasts. But this isn’t herding cattle. (And, if we’re getting technical, they aren’t buffalo.) The bison is North America’s largest mammal. Bulls can weigh up to a ton and reach 6 feet tall. And they can move, running 35 mph with the ability to turn on a dime.

Around 1,300 head of bison call the park home. But they don’t just live here. They are the lifeblood, the heartbeat of this place. Once 30 million strong and the cornerstone of life for Native Americans who used them for food, fuel, shelter, and spiritual celebration, bison were driven to the brink of extinction by settlers.

Bison Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer bison descend from the private herd of a South Dakota rancher named James Scotty Philip whose wife was part Cheyenne. Philip and his family worked at the turn of the 20th century to rescue the dwindling species and eventually sold a few dozen animals to the state of South Dakota.

More than a century later, the herd thrives, freely and at home on this range in the Black Hills, a sacred landscape to the Lakota, Cheyenne, and other peoples. However, the park holds only so much grass, disrupting the bison’s instinct to roam. With bulls consuming dozens of pounds a day, it’s critical to manage the population so that all have enough to eat. 

Riders work in teams to guide the animals, collecting wayward groups and stragglers. The crews are alert and watchful, striving for balance. Pushing but not driving. Finding flow, not forcing it. Hundreds of hooves pound the ground in a musical rumble. The bison move as one, like flocks, like fishes. Dust rises, billows, drifts. 

Bison Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After several miles and several hours, the herd is contained and visitors can gather at the corrals outside the new-in-2022 Custer State Park Bison Center to watch crews work. Calves get shots, ear tags, and brands. Cows are checked for pregnancy. A few hundred heads depart for auction. After a few days, the remaining animals are released. 

The sun is now bright overhead, the dust continues its unhurried return to the earth. But the history here still thrums, long after the thunder has quieted.

Bison Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Game plan

Before you go, decide on the North or South viewing area—they’re both great but not close together. Arrive early to stake out a good spot. Parking lots open at 6:15 a.m. and the roundup starts around 9:30.

What to eat

You can buy breakfast and lunch on-site: pancakes and coffee in the viewing areas and a hearty chuckwagon-style lunch at the corrals.

Keep your distance

Don’t be the one who goes viral for trying to befriend a bison. Admire these huge animals from afar.

Enjoy the fest

An arts fest lasts all weekend. Sip a beer and browse bison-themed art, hand-woven bullwhips, and turquoise jewelry.

Pronghorns along the Wildlife Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your fall trip

There is much more to see and do in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Let’s explore further:

Worth Pondering…

My first years were spent living just as my forefathers had lived—roaming the green, rolling hills of what are now the states of South Dakota and Nebraska.

—Standing Bear

20 Scenic Road Trips to Take This Summer in Every Part of America

No matter where you are, an unforgettable road trip is never far away

Sometimes it’s more about the journey than the destination. For these 20 road trips, that is definitely true.

America is one of the most geographically diverse countries in the world, it is home to mountains, prairies, canyons, deserts, lakes, beaches, forests, and just about any natural landscape you can imagine. If you like road trips, a lot of these incredible landscapes are accessible by road with tons of sights to see and other adventures waiting around each bend. If you’re not a fan of road trips, well, this list might change your mind.

Every corner of the United States has some incredible sights to see and whether you’re looking for history, nature, interesting small towns, or anything in between, there’s a scenic drive for you. Take advantage of the warm weather and check out these summertime drives; the adventures won’t disappoint.

Best Scenic Road Trips in the Northwest

Spirit River Memorial Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Washington: Spirit Lake Memorial Highway 

The Spirit Lake Memorial Highway is the only scenic byway in the U.S. that penetrates a fresh volcanic blast zone. This scenic and historic route is a 52-mile journey into the scene of epic destruction that Mount St. Helens caused when it erupted on May 18, 1980. Along the route are four distinct interpretive and tour centers: Silver Lake, Hoffstadt Bluffs, the Weyerhaeuser Forest Learning Center, and Johnston Ridge. Each one tells a different part of the story from the natural history before the May 1980 eruption, the aftermath, reforestation efforts, and the natural recovery of plants and animals. 

Best Scenic Road Trips in the Northeast

Trapp Family Lodge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vermont: Green Mountain Byway

The Green Mountain Byway travels from Stowe to Waterbury between mountain ridges. Little River, Smugglers Notch, Waterbury Center state parks, and Mount Mansfield and Putnam state forests are along the route. Stowe is a premier four-season resort destination particularly known for its alpine and Nordic recreation, mountain biking, and hiking. Here, the Von Trapp family (of Sound of Music fame) attracted worldwide attention more than 50 years ago. Along with beautiful scenery, a large variety of attractions for all ages and tastes including Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory, Cold Hollow Cider Mill, and Vermont Ski Museum.

Ocean Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rhode Island: Ocean Drive

This loop around the island’s coast is full of seaside views, charm, and historic homes to excite the imagination. Along Harrison and Ocean Avenues, a plethora of 1865-1914 mansions from the Gilded Age come into view that were once summer homes and getaways for the financially and socially elite but now many of the Newport Mansions are open to public tours. For outdoor fun, stop at Brenton Point State Park to enjoy the water or a nice picnic spread.

Lancaster County Amish Country Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pennsylvania: Lancaster County Amish Country Drive

A visit to Amish country is a worthwhile addition to your summer drive plans. When all else fails and you’re looking for the idyllic peacefulness of a pure country drive, circle around the city of Lancaster and see some of the gloriously beautiful landscapes. Unplug and experience communities of people who aren’t affected by the hustle and bustle of modern life, instead keeping their treasured traditions alive and strong to this day.

Best Scenic Road Trips in the Midwest

Heritage Trail Driving Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Indiana: Heritage Trail Driving Tour

The 90-mile Heritage Trail Driving Tour winds through Amish Country taking you down rural highways, country lanes, and charming main streets. Stop in Shipshewana to stroll the shop-lined streets where you’ll find handcrafted items, baked goods, and the Midwest’s largest flea market. Enjoy a delightful Amish meal at Das Dutchman Essenhaus in Middlebury or Amish Acres in Nappanee.

Peter Norbeck Scenic Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Dakota: Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway

Embracing South Dakota’s pastoral landscapes, the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway winds its way from Rapid City terminating at Mount Rushmore. This 70-mile route graces travelers with landmarks like the intriguing Needles Eye and the monumental Rushmore Presidents. En route, small towns like Keystone and Custer dot the journey lending aid if a leg stretch is overdue. Amidst this, Sylvan Lake, a man-made marvel provides a serene break. Its creation is attributed to Peter Norbeck and his predecessors. Norbeck was the byway’s namesake as well as South Dakota’s former governor in the early 20th century. Lastly, the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally the first week in August (August 4-13, 2023) showcases the byway’s lively side, drawing motor enthusiasts nationwide.

Amish Country Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ohio: Amish Country Byway

On a map, routes 39, 62, 515, and 60 form a sort of eyeglasses shape throughout Holmes County in Ohio. That’s fitting because exploring these four roads is a great way to explore Amish Country. These routes make up the Amish Country Scenic Byway, designated in June 2002 as a National Scenic Byway. These 72 miles of roadways are recognized for their unique cultural and historic significance. Along these roadways, you will be treated to the typical, yet breathtaking sights of Amish Country: teams of huge, blonde Belgians pulling wagons of hay, farmers working in the fields, and of course, beautiful views of lush, green farmland, large white houses, and red barns.

Best Scenic Road Trips in the Southwest

Gold Rush Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

California: Gold Rush Highway

Follow in the footsteps of miners and prospectors through California’s Gold Country along Highway 49—a road named after the gold seekers or 49ers who made their way to the state during the 1849 Gold Rush. Plan for five days to provide time to strike its rich panning for gold in the region’s rivers. You’ll also want to spend time exploring the rocky meadows and pine-covered foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona: Apache Trail

This historic road covers some of the most rugged terrains in Arizona. The land surrounding the road rises steeply to the north to form the Four Peaks Wilderness Area and to the south to form the Superstition Wilderness Area. Steep-sided canyons, rock outcroppings, and magnificent geologic formations are all along the road. Water played a major role in creating the beauty of the area, and it also provides numerous recreation opportunities. Fish Creek Canyon is perhaps the most awe-inspiring section. The road hangs on the side of this high-walled canyon and winds its way along tremendous precipices that sink sheer for hundreds of feet below.

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah: Scenic Byway 12

An All-American Road, Highway 12 is one of the most scenic highways in America. It winds through canyons, red rock cliffs, pine and aspen forests, alpine mountains, national parks, state parks, a national monument, and quaint rural towns. On your 119 mile drive, you’ll discover the vast Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument and the beauty of Boulder Mountain.

Palms to Pines Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

California: Palms to Pines Highway

The Coachella Valley is known for its beautiful scenery and warm weather but just a few miles to the south is a scenic drive that offers high mountain wilderness—a two-hour journey (to Mountain Center) provided you don’t stop to admire the gorgeous sights along the way. Palm trees give way to piñon pines and firs as the byway climbs into Santa Rosa and the San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.

Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona: Sedona-Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Road 

The Sedona-Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Road was designated by the Arizona Department of Transportation in 1984. This route follows US 89A through the scenic canyon made popular in the 1920s when it was discovered by Hollywood. This scenic road offers a rare opportunity to study a variety of elements within a short distance. The road traverses seven major plant communities as a result of elevation changes, temperature variation, and precipitation. It begins near the town of Sedona and runs in a northerly direction through Oak Creek Canyon to the top of the Mogollon Rim, traveling areas rich with geologic formations similar to the Grand Canyon

Scenic Highway 28 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico: Scenic Highway 28

Roughly paralleling the Rio Grande River, New Mexico Highway 28 travels from Mesilla to Canutillo (at the New Mexico-Texas state line). Along the drive, the Stahmann Farms pecan trees have grown over the roadway making for a sight straight out of a fairytale. Highway 28 is also home to Chopes Bar & Café, known for its tasty New Mexican food. Rio Grande Winery Vineyard & Winery and La Viña Winery are also hot spots along the roadway and very much a testament to New Mexico’s thriving, the centuries-old wine industry.

La Sal Mountain Scenic Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah: La Sal Mountain Loop

From the alpine ridges of the La Sal Mountains to the red rock desert and sandstone pinnacles of Castle Rock, this back road is an adventure. This 60-mile route is paved and starts about 8 miles south of Moab off US-191 and loops through the mountains down to Castle Valley and SR 128 where it follows the Colorado River back to Moab. It takes about 3 hours to complete this drive. The narrow winding road while suitable for passenger cars is not suitable for large RVs. The La Sals are the most photographed mountain range in Utah, providing a dramatic background to the red rock mesas, buttes, and arches below.

Best Scenic Road Trips in the Southeast

Colonial Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Virginia: Colonial Parkway

The Colonial Parkway, a scenic roadway that spans 23 miles serves as a time machine transporting visitors to the colonial era of Virginia. Connecting three significant historic sites, Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown, this picturesque drive offers a glimpse into the region’s rich history and cultural heritage. The Colonial Parkway winds along the Virginia Peninsula linking three pivotal sites in American history. This well-preserved roadway takes travelers on a journey through time, immersing them in the story of America’s colonial beginnings. With its carefully designed architecture, stunning views of the James River, and access to iconic landmarks, the Colonial Parkway provides a unique opportunity to explore Virginia’s colonial heritage and gain a deeper understanding of the nation’s roots.

Jim Beam American Stillhouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kentucky: Lincoln Heritage Scenic Highway

Here’s a must-do for every American history buff. Explore the land of Honest Abe’s youth as well as several significant Civil War sites. Learn what Lincoln’s log cabin life was really like at the Lincoln Museum in Hodgenville, Kentucky; then visit Lincoln’s birthplace and the original Lincoln Memorial at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park. If you’re so inclined, you can pair these educational adventures with a stop or two at one of the many breweries and distilleries the area is famous for such as Jim Beam’s American Stillhouse.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Louisiana: Creole Nature Trail

One place in Southwest Louisiana that never ceases to amaze is the Creole Nature Trail, a 180-miles-long scenic byway where natural wonderlands abound. Affectionately known as Louisiana’s Outback, the Creole Nature Trail is a journey into one of America’s Last Great Wildernesses. The Creole Nature Trail features four wildlife refuges, three national and one state: Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge, and Rockefeller Refuge While there are five entrances to the Creole Nature Trail, the most popular entrances are off I-10 in Sulphur (Exit 20) and just east of Lake Charles at Louisiana Highway 397 (Exit 36).

Newfound Gap Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tennessee: Newfound Gap Road

When you get on Newfound Gap, you won’t believe the wealth of overlooks, picnic areas, and trails to explore. Take this spectacular road through Great Smoky Mountains National Park to experience the pristine wilderness that drives millions of Americans to this wildly popular park year after year. The views get more and more breathtaking, putting a lifetime’s worth of astonishing natural eye candy into a couple gallons of driving.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

North Carolina and Virginia: Blue Ridge Parkway

A meandering road snaking for 469 miles along the crest of Blue Ridge Mountains from Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, the Blue Ridge Parkway provides access to more than 100 trailheads and over 300 miles of trails. It passes through a range of habitats that support more plant species than any other park in the country: over 4,000 species of plants, 2,000 kinds of fungi, 500 types of mosses and lichens, and the most varieties of salamanders anywhere in the world.

Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Virginia: Skyline Drive

This stunning drive runs a length of 105 miles north and south through Shenandoah National Park along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Despite its lower latitude, in the winter driving conditions can be rather sketchy, with its altitude bringing in more snow, ice, and cold.

In the summer this ice gives way to views of green rising high out of the Shenandoah Valley. While driving through the elevated winding road, you’ll feel tucked away in the green forest at the top of the ridge and then be rewarded with expansive views of the valley far below at the many scenic viewpoints along the road. In the fall and winter, though, you’ll see even less crowds and even better colors.

Bayou Teche © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Louisiana: Bayou Teche Byway

For a road trip that boasts both scenery and history, this is the perfect route. From its southernmost point in Morgan City to its northern end in Arnaudville, the byway crosses beautiful marshes and fields of sugar cane connecting small towns with well-preserved historic districts. Cafés and dance halls serve up Cajun and zydeco music along with boiled crawfish and étouffée.

Road trip planning

Road trips take a little planning. Here are a few tips that will help make your scenic road trip a success:

Worth Pondering…

The journey not the arrival matters.

—T. S. Eliot

30 Tips for Making the Most of Your National Park Trip

Tips for making your next trip to a national park even more amazing

Mountains, seashores, grasslands, wetlands, coral reefs, and glaciers.

With sweeping vistas, stunning wildlife, and rugged landscapes, America’s national parks are truly a collection of national wonders. Whether you’re visiting for the first time or are a regular at the country’s national parks, planning ahead is the best way to ensure your trip goes off without a hitch.

Following are 30 ways to ensure that your trip to a U.S. national park is great from planning your route in advance to making sure you bring the right supplies and why it’s really important to pay attention to those safety rules. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Choose a time to visit that’s best for your park and travel style

First and foremost, make sure that the park you choose is open at the time of year that you’d like to visit. Several national parks are located in regions that can be dangerous, inaccessible, or uncomfortable if you select the wrong time. For example, you may not want to experience Death Valley National Park—the driest, hottest and lowest national park—in the heat of summer. Some parks such as Lassen Volcanic National Park are completely snowed in and unavailable in the winter.

2. Find out if the park you want to visit requires reservations

During peak seasons, many parks require timed-entry reservations that can be made in advance on each park’s website. You may not need to make that reservation in advance but checking before your trip is a good way to avoid disappointment at the gates. 

Camping in Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. …especially if you want to go camping

Because many parks have limited camping space, reservations fill up quickly especially on major holiday weekends. It’s best to start checking at least a few months in advance for camping sites and though a last-minute spot might open up, don’t count on getting lucky at many of the busiest parks.  

4. Research the best hikes

National parks offer some of the country’s best hiking opportunities and websites like AllTrails can help you find hikes that suit your abilities and sightseeing wishes. By planning your hikes in advance, you’ll be able to strategize and maximize your time in the park. For more on hiking in national parks check out these articles:

Scenic drive in Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. …and don’t forget about the scenic drives

If hiking’s not your thing, don’t let that keep you from checking out the country’s incredible national parks. Almost all the parks offer scenic drives, many of which will get you up close and personal with nature without requiring a long trek. These scenic drives make an ideal start:

6. Consider traveling during shoulder season to beat the crowds

During the busy season, crowded parking lots and so many tourists can put a damper on your enjoyment of the outdoors. Consider planning your trip during shoulder season or just before or after the busiest times for the park you’d like to visit. A quick Google search will reveal when the park is busiest and also let you know about any weather conditions that may result in closures or other limitations on your visit to the park. 

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Prepare yourself for the elements

Hiking even short trails at national parks requires the right equipment and weather conditions can change rapidly depending on the climate. Make sure you’ve got good shoes, essentials like a rain jacket and sunscreen, and a first-aid kit in the event of any mishaps. 

8. Bring plenty of snacks and water

Most national parks don’t boast a ton of services like restaurants which means that you’ll need to bring your own (healthy) snacks. Water is especially important, especially if you plan to hike — plan on bringing about 1 gallon per person even if you’re just going on short walks, and more if you have more strenuous activities in mind. 

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. …and don’t forget to pack out all your trash

Leave no trace is an essential principle of being outdoors responsibly and that means getting rid of all your trash—all of it! Pack a trash bag in the car and toss your waste in only approved containers. Don’t toss out food scraps, either. They may be a detriment to the animals that live in the park. 

10. Be respectful of wild animals and keep your distance

The animals you encounter in national parks are wild; they’re living in their natural habitats and they behave accordingly. Respect the full-time inhabitants in the parks. Don’t attempt to touch them or point a selfie stick at them. Don’t chase them and stay the recommended number of feet away from them. Even though they’re cute or really majestic, never touch a wild animal, no matter how small or docile it seems. Wild animals are wild and contact with humans can endanger their lives — and the lives of the human.

11. …and take good care of the land you’re visiting

National parks are protected sites and the rules exist for a reason. Stay only on marked trails, don’t take rocks or other souvenirs from the ground, and never carve into any trees or rock formations. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Consider buying an annual park pass to save money

If you’re planning to visit multiple national parks this year, consider investing in an annual park pass. Costing around $80 per year, these passes provide access to all parks managed by the National Park Service (NPS) along with parks managed by other agencies, and are a real bargain considering that many can cost upwards of $20 per visit. 

13. Check to see if you qualify for any national park discounts

Veterans, seniors, people with disabilities, and some students are eligible for discounted national park passes, some of which are good for a lifetime. Check out the NPS website for details on these discounts. 

14. Don’t forget to fill up your gas tank before beginning the drive

As with snacks, gas stations aren’t always abundant near national parks and you’re probably going to do a ton of driving. Fill up the tank before you head out and make sure to keep an eye on the gas gauge throughout your trip. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Know your limits in the outdoors and operate within them

The beautiful scenery of many national parks can also mean some pretty rugged, unforgiving terrain. If you’re not an experienced hiker, make sure to stick to shorter, safer treks, and don’t forget to bring plenty of water and a wide-brimmed hat. Don’t take unnecessary or stupid risks. And don’t expect to rely on your devices if you get into trouble; in some national parks, cell and data service is negligible. Know your limits and stay within them, especially with children.

16. …and follow all the safety guidelines

In national parks, the rules are there to both preserve the gorgeous landscapes and also keep you alive. In addition to avoiding fines and other penalties, closely following all posted safety guidelines will also prevent you from ending up in a seriously dangerous situation. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Don’t expect great cell phone service

Thanks to the remote nature of most national parks, cell phone service can be sketchy, especially at high altitudes or in really rural areas. Make sure to download offline maps from your favorite navigation app, or make use of the paper maps provided at most ranger stations. 

18. Travel the right time of the year

Whether you’re looking for great fall foliage or a warm trip in the summer, choosing the right time of year at your park is essential. Going too early (or late) can mean road and trail closures so make sure to do your research in advance. 

19. Check in with park rangers when you first arrive

Stop at the visitor center when you first arrive. Often, you’ll find interesting exhibits and artifacts that will help you learn more about the land you’re visiting. The park rangers there will have current insider information that you’ll need such as which hiking trails, roads, and areas of the park are closed and what special ranger programs are being offered during your stay. Park rangers can also help you figure out what hidden trails to try or the best place to watch the sunset (or sunrise). Consider a ranger-led hike or nature talk. While there, pick up any needed guidebooks and maps.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Practice trail etiquette

Stay on designated trails. By doing so, you’ll help prevent erosion and damage to vegetation. Do not litter, pick flowers, or use the outdoors as your personal gift shop. Be aware of your surroundings and make room for quickly approaching groups, fast-paced cyclists, or horseback riders. Take a moment to move to the side and politely let them pass.

 21. Stay at a national park lodge

If you really want to immerse yourself in a national park, consider staying on property. Many parks offer hotels and other lodging and of course camping is an option. Being in grand old lodges literally surrounds you with park history. An added benefit is that you have the early mornings and late evenings in the park. There’s nothing like waking up and seeing the Grand Canyon or Zion Canyon right in front of you.

22. Camp for at least one night—or several

The ultimate thing to do when visiting a national park is to camp under the stars. By unplugging, you’re forced to be present, you more easily connect with nature, and you engage with other people more fully. But, do plan in advance and book a site early.

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

23. Tend to campfires and cooking stoves with the utmost care 

In 2013, a hunter’s illegal fire got out of control in the Stanislaus National Forest in California. For nine weeks, this Rim Fire burned the backcountry areas of Yosemite National Park consuming 257,314 acres. In 2018, Yosemite National Park closed for the first time since 1990 due to the nearby Ferguson Fire which burned 96,901 acres. In that same year, the Howe Ridge Fire, ignited by a thunderstorm, burned more than 12,000 acres of Glacier National Park. Read more on wildfire safety.

24. Have a mission in mind…

When in nature, there’s a lot to be said for being spontaneous and making discoveries by chance rather than overscheduling yourself. But when you show up at a national park and don’t have any idea about what you want to do, you might end up not doing much. On the other hand, making a list of everything you want to do in a sprawling national park can be overwhelming and cause you to become overly concerned with time allotments. So, go with at least one mission in mind to accomplish on your trip.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

25. … But don’t forget there are wonders—and place to wander—away from the famous sites 

Rather than sticking to the most popular sites, go out a bit and hit the trails (or water), particularly those routes that are longer than three miles. They may not be listed as the park’s top must-see locations but they’re almost guaranteed to be just as spectacular, yet apart from the crowds.

26. Journal every day

Make sure to record your memories in a journal each day so you don’t forget the good times—and the bad. They’re all part of your experience and your story. Journaling is also a great way of releasing any anxiety or stress.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

27. Go with a good attitude

Remember that the national parks belong to all of us. Its part of their appeal and what makes them so special. Undoubtedly, there will be times when the places you’re visiting will get uncomfortably crowded. Meet those challenges with a smile. It’s important to remember our joint venture in these places and play well with others.

28. Passport to your national parks

A National Parks Passport is a really fun memento and a great way to mark each park you’ve visited. You pay $10 for the passport and each park will have a stamp you can put in your book. You can look back and see the exact date you visited different places.

29. Share your experience

If it’s possible, take a family member or a friend along with you on your adventure; there’s no better way to share your experience.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Leave the park better than you found it

My final piece of advice is to leave the park better than you found it. This also means knowing and committing to the National Park Service’s Leave No Trace principles. They range from minimizing campfire impacts to disposing of waste properly. By being a good steward of these national treasures, those who come after us can continue to enjoy them as we do now.

In my opinion, visiting just one national park is almost impossible. They quickly become addictive.

Worth Pondering…

I encourage everybody to hop on Google and type in national park in whatever state they live in and see the beauty that lies in their own backyard. It’s that simple.

—Jordan Fisher, American actor and musician

What to Know Before Planning Your National Park Summer Vacation

From when to book a reservation to how to avoid traffic

This year, visiting the national parks—one of America’s favorite summer pastimes—will take a bit of extra strategizing. Following the trend of recent years, summer 2023 is shaping up to once again shatter visitor records across the national parks system. 

The National Park Service (NPS) recorded nearly 312 million recreational visits in 2022, a five percent increase over the number of visits in 2021. As you can imagine, this increased wear and tear on hiking trails, park roads, visitor centers, and park amenities like restrooms, restaurants, and gift shops. Road construction, trail repairs and closures, and traffic delays will be widespread this summer. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worse still, record snowfall in the West is still melting, causing troubles of its own like flooding and landslides. So, as you gear up to have a memorable national parks vacation, keep organized and stay on top of park websites and social media for the latest updates—and most of all, be patient and flexible. Here’s what you should expect.

There will be a lot of traffic

Prepare for road closures and delays. From Grand Teton and Glacier to Rocky Mountain and Zion—even the Blue Ridge Parkway—units across the National Park Service are diligently making much-needed repairs and upgrades to roads, hiking trails, parking lots, and visitor facilities.

At Yellowstone, construction projects are taking place across the park to address last year’s devastating flood damage, stabilize road bridges, and rehabilitate the most heavily trafficked routes including a 20+ mile section of Grand Loop Road which allows access to Old Faithful.

Pro tip: Stay on top of park websites for closures, delays, and traffic. Yellowstone, for one, has a page dedicated to updates on road status including wait times and webcams showing current traffic conditions at park entrances.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll want to bring plastic

Not plastic bottles but plastic credit and debit cards. Many parks are going cashless. The idea is that by freeing national park staff from handling and processing cash they can spend more time improving visitor experiences and making park upgrades.

So far this year, more than a dozen national park units have opted to go cash-free including Mount Rainier, Badlands, and Crater Lake. That’s on top of various other NPS units including certain monuments, historic sites, lakeshores, and recreation areas which no longer accept cash.

Pro tip: If you must use cash purchase a prepaid gift card at a grocery or convenience store ahead of your visit to pay for park entrance. Some general stores, resorts, and historical associations within gateway towns may also accept cash for park passes.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You may need a reservation

Long gone are the days when you could just show up at a national park for a scenic drive or an invigorating hike. Some of the most popular parks including Arches and Glacier now require reservations generally in the form of a timed entry ticket that enables access to either the entire park or to a popular corridor like Bear Lake Road at Rocky Mountain.

Several parks also require advance planning to check off the most popular hiking trails. You’ve got to win a permit lottery to hike Half Dome at Yosemite or Angels Landing at Zion. At Shenandoah, a day-use ticket is required to hike Old Rag from March through November.

Pro tip: Set a calendar alert. Every park manages their reservation system differently in terms of when they release timed entry permits. Know when a park will release permits or open a lottery and set your calendar accordingly. And don’t dally. Some permits can be gone within 15 minutes.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some sections of parks will open late this season—if at all

The West got a whole lot of snow this winter. It’s going to take time to melt but as it does, runoff is going to cause rivers and creeks to swell, making for potentially dangerous conditions including slippery rocks and unsafe pedestrian bridges which can cause closures.

The opening of Yosemite’s Glacier Point Road is at least one month behind schedule due to record snowfall and road construction. It’s not expected to open until at least July. Floodwaters in Yosemite Valley are also causing intermittent closure of campgrounds.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 30-mile highway through Lassen Volcanic National Park recently opened for the 2023 summer season though sections might seem like winter. A higher-than-average snowpack has been fully cleared. Visitors to the park should prepare for winter conditions at higher elevations and possible delays due to ongoing road work.

Pro tip: Seek out updates on park websites but also be flexible and open to alternatives. Chat up rangers to identify open park sections and trails that may not have been on your original plan.

Worth Pondering…

I encourage everybody to hop on Google and type in national park in whatever state they live in and see the beauty that lies in their own backyard. It’s that simple.

—Jordan Fisher, American actor and musician

Weird and Wondrous Scenic Byways

America’s most scenic drives? Let’s start with these three.

Turns out that taking the scenic route can pay big dividends for both traveler and towns along the trail. Look no further than these popular byways for proof.

Byway: a secluded, private, or obscure way; an out-of-the-way path or course.

—American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition

Maybe nothing is as quintessentially American as a road trip. Whether an arrow-straight highway through a vast desert or a hairpin one-laner wrapped around a mountain pass, byways connect us to a variety of landscapes and cultures.

Route 66 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For 100 years, special journeys have earned special recognition identifying trips that invite slow meandering through breathtaking scenery and intriguing cultural landmarks. Federally-recognized routes are collectively called America’s Byways and they encompass epic road trips like Route 66, unique communities like Amish Country, and awe-inspiring geology like Volcanic Legacy. For history buffs, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia all have trails that trace various campaigns or battles as part of the Civil War Trails network.

There are other trails too, featuring food, music, literature, and kitsch that have exploded in recent years. California’s wine country trails through Napa are well known as is Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. New Mexico’s Green Chili Cheeseburger Trail which includes nearly 70 restaurants throughout the state was voted Best Food Trail by USA Today. Mississippi’s Gulf Seafood Trail spans 360 miles and Louisiana’s Cajun Boudin Trail appeals to lovers of spicy sausage.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These itineraries are an expression of locality, a place-based celebration of what makes towns and regions unique. They foster pride in local citizens and assist in preserving natural, cultural, and historical resources. They are also a tourism draw, a way to entice travelers to savor quirky and sublime off-the-beaten-path (read: rural and small-town) destinations.

Economic studies show they can have a significant impact. The iconic 2,451-mile-long Route 66 demonstrated an annual direct economic benefit of $132 million in 2011. The less-known and shorter 103-mile Flint Hills Scenic Byway in Kansas generated $464,000 annually. According to the National Park Service, 15.9 million visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2021 spent an estimated $1.3 billion in local gateway regions supporting a total of 17,900 jobs.

The following three road trips are some of the most popular in the country. Not only are they fun to travel, their organizers have learned some best-practices for coordinating this kind of visitor experience that they share below.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, Louisiana

Louisiana’s prairies, marshes, and shores teem with wildlife and a drive along the 180-mile Creole Nature Trail All-American Road gives visitors a chance to experience nature’s bounty up close. Signs along the route mark common spots for alligator crossings. This remote terrain, often referred to as Louisiana’s Outback, is readily accessible and includes four wildlife refuges as well as 26 miles of natural Gulf of Mexico beaches. Other features include untouched wetlands, small fishing communities offering fresh seafood, and ancient cheniers (sandy ridges studded with oak trees rising above the low-lying coasts).

Sulphur, which sat on a major deposit of the mineral for which it was named, has a rich history of sulfur mining in the area. Driving south on Highway 27 towards Cameron Parish notice a gradual change in the landscape from prairie lands to coastal marsh. Cameron Parish has more than 700,000 acres of wetlands—and Hackberry, appropriately, is a hub of shrimp and crab houses along Kelso Bayou, the once-rumored hideout of legendary pirate Jean Lafitte.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here, the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge is a prime wintering ground for waterfowl. The Wetland Walkway, a 1.5-mile loop walk into the marsh, is home to alligators, birds, and other indigenous critters. Gators are plentiful here and can grow up to 14 feet. Further south is Holly Beach with opportunities for swimming, picnicking, and hunting for shells.

Turning west takes you along Highway 82 toward the Texas state line. Providing a nearly continuous view of the Gulf of Mexico, this stretch takes you to Peveto Woods Sanctuary—a 41-acre island that sees more than two million birds each year. Turning east takes you to the car ferry across the Calcasieu Ship Channel and into the community of Cameron.

Lake Charles offers a fusion of city life and the outdoors. It is a prime spot for casinos, Cajun cooking and shopping at the Lake Charles Boardwalk. A highlight is the Charpentier Historic District with Victorian-era homes both designed and built by carpenters.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby is the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, a haven for wintering waterfowl and a great place for nature photography. Depending on the time of year, the Cameron Prairie Visitor Center as well as Pintail Wildlife Drive are excellent locations to spot alligators as well as a host of birds and waterfowl including roseate spoonbills.

At Highway 27’s intersection with Highway 82, turn east. Along this marshy stretch look for cranes, pelicans, and in warm weather an occasional alligator. Past the town of Grand Chenier lies the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge. A drive along the refuge’s four-mile Price Lake Road gives visitors a close-up view of this coastal marshland and its inhabitants. Or, if you turn west you will head towards the community for which this parish was named, Cameron.

A FREE personal tour app of the Creole Nature Trail is also available in iTunes and Google Play (just search Creole). The app is available in English, French, Spanish, German, Chinese, and Japanese.

>> Get more tips for driving Creole Nature Trail

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah

This 480-mile route looping around the Four Corners area is the only National Scenic Byway dedicated to archaeology. It is full of riches: the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Hovenweep National Monument, and Canyon of the Ancients National Monument which has more than 8,000 recorded archaeological sites, the highest known density in the U.S. The trail also connects five additional national monuments, tribal businesses, and small towns.

The Trail of the Ancients, federally designated in 2005 can be tricky to navigate. While the three state sections have the same name, the marketing and educational materials are separate. Much of the trail is remote and GPS systems are not reliable. Some of the cultural sites are on dirt tracks off of gravel roads causing visitors to question whether they are on the correct route.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colorado just installed 95 wayfinding signs along its 116-mile stretch. They also have a detailed physical map produced by National Geographic available at the Colorado Visitor Center in Cortez. Curious travelers can access more than a hundred short stories while on the road through the Autio app.

Small businesses and remote parks benefit from their placement on the trail. The increased traffic brings more visitors to stops like the Yellow Car Winery and Dolores River Brewery. And while much of the experience focuses on archaeology there are a lot of hands-on experiences. Visitors can explore a kiva at Lowry Pueblo, grind corn at the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument Visitor Center, and examine an Indigenous study area at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.

The Trail of the Ancients is immersive where visitors can engage. It’s not just a selfie stop.

>> Get more tips for driving Trail of the Ancients

Amish Country Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amish Country Byway, Ohio

Take a break from the fast-paced world of cell phones, computers, fast cars, and demanding schedules and enjoy the simple life found along the Amish Country Byway in Ohio. At first, you may feel as if time is standing still but you’ll soon discover that the Amish folk are highly enterprising and productive. They have simply chosen to maintain their traditional beliefs and customs continuing a lifestyle uncomplicated by the ways of the modern-day world.

As you travel the Amish Country Byway sharing the road with horses and buggies you will experience first-hand the Amish way of life. You will also take in plenty of beautiful scenery and have a wide variety of recreational opportunities to pursue.

Amish Country Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Country roads crisscrossing Holmes County are roughly equidistant from Cleveland and Columbus but couldn’t be more different from Ohio’s urban strongholds.

When driving the Byway, the word charm keeps coming to mind. It’s such an appropriate word to describe the experience that you’ll even see it appear on a sign. You’re not hallucinating. The tiny community of Charm is home to a handful of restaurants, gift shops to browse, and of course, the charisma its name suggests.

One of the Byway’s highlights is a visit to Guggisberg Cheese, home of the original Baby Swiss. Immigrating from Switzerland in the 1940s, Alfred and Margaret Guggisberg established their Ohio facility in 1950; the cheese is so exquisite that it won U.S. first prize in 2019 out of over 2,500 entries from 35 states. Today you can tour the factory and of course take home some
championship cheese of your own.

Amish Country Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Millersburg is the Byway’s anchor village and feels a lot bigger than its population of 3,200 would imply. As Holmes County’s seat, it maintains a quaint small-town feel despite the solidity of its historic brick and stone buildings. Stop here for lunch, a brochure at the Holmes County Tourism Bureau, or a glimpse at the mesmerizing Millersburg Glass Museum.

Returning to rural landscapes, views of gentle, tree-specked hills roll away like a dream as you listen to the timeless clip-clop of traditional buggies sharing the roadway. The Amish Country multicultural community life depends upon and draws from the Byway, its path forged and designed by early settlers.

As you honor local culture, realize you are visiting a settlement where one of every six Amish lives worldwide. With fervent religious convictions to ground them, the Amish way of life enriches and influences the entire community and those who visit. As you’ll quickly learn in these parts, simple does not equal boring.

There is no one source to research every trail or itinerary in the country but the National Scenic Byway Foundation is dedicated to education about the almost 1,000 official state and federal byways. Their website, travelbyways.com is a helpful resource for the real—or armchair —taveler who wants to explore some uniquely American places.

>> Get more tips for driving Amish Country Byway

Colonial Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Brief History of National Byways

  • 1922: Completion of Oregon’s Historic Columbia River Parkway, the first state scenic byway. Its rest areas and scenic pull-offs make it desirable to travel at a more leisurely pace.
  • 1938: The Great River Road became the first national byway designated by an act of Congress. It originally spanned five states along the Mississippi River.
  • 1988-89: Two separate byway programs designated 137 National Forest Service Byways and 54 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Back Country Byways.
  • 1992: The Federal Highway Administration launched the National Scenic Byways Program. Federally-recognized Scenic Byways must have at least one intrinsic quality: archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, or scenic. More selective All-American Roads must have at least two intrinsic qualities and be considered a destination unto themselves.

More on scenic byways:

Worth Pondering…

Look for chances to take the less-traveled roads. There are no wrong turns.

—Susan Magsamen

Campspot Outdoor Almanac: Outlook on 2023 Road Travel and Camping Trends

The biannual Campspot Outdoor Almanac reveals that 2023 will be another big year for outdoor travel and highlights where to go and what to expect while enjoying the open road

As the seasons change and we move into the quieter half of the year, we often have more time to reflect and take stock. Which is nice! Really, it is. But when the holiday lights are stored away and the cold creeps into our bones, even the most winter-obsessed of us can start to feel a little cooped up.

Driving Red Rock Scenic Byway, Sedona, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And that is why planning ahead is important. Just as gardeners plant seeds and are bolstered by the promise of what is to come, so too can RVers make plans for what is ahead. Whether you arrange a short winter getaway in the mountains or the desert or work out the finer details of a family reunion at a camp resort, that plan is how we’re able to look forward to the good times ahead.

In a chaotic and stressful world, plans are our reprieve—the daydreams that get us through. Because when we’re planning, we’re invested in tomorrow. In the road ahead and the time we get to spend together. And when we’re packing up—when we’re camping—we realize what it is we really need. The essentials! What you can fit in the available space of the RV?

The Springs at Anza-Borrego RV Resort & Golf Course, Borrego Springs, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When we’re camping, we’re getting back to the basics. We’re retreating from the din of society and finding safe haven in the great outdoors and the campgrounds offering tucked-away corners, epic adventures, stunning scenery, and even luxury RV resorts.

Whether you’re planning for your cross-country RV trip, snowbird escape, hiking adventure with Fido, or next summer’s trip to a camp resort, the Campspot Outdoor Almanac provides information for plotting out the ultimate road trips and retreats—no matter the season.

Readers can access top destinations for camping in 2023 along with inspiration for top road trips and scenic drives, recommendations for road trips for each season, helpful statistics and data about national and state parks that are trending, and demographic information about road travelers.

Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some top insights from travelers planning trips include:

  • Budget-friendly trips: Continued increased interest in shorter road trips is expected in 2023 as travelers discover their home states and local region
  • Average road trip route distance: 1,223 miles with a 20.5 hour driving duration
  • Top national parks: Grand Canyon, Arches, and Zion
  • Percentage of campers who are traveling as a couple: 67 percent
  • Top camping destinations: Moab (Utah), Sedona (Arizona), Florida Keys
Tent camping in Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The latest camping trends

Types of campers:

  • RV (61 percent)
  • Tent (19 percent)
  • Glamper (12 percent)
  • Cabin (4 percent)
  • Car Camper (3 percent)
  • Boondocker/dispersed (1 percent)

Camping and work-life balance:

  • 43 percent of campers take 2-4 weeks off from work annually
  • 36 percent of campers take 4-6 camping trips annually, 19 percent take 7-10 annually
  • 18 percent go camping for major winter holidays and 23 percent are interested in doing so
Newfound
Driving Newfound Gap Road through Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top 2023 camping goals:

  • Travel to new places to camp (69 percent)
  • Go camping more often (53 percent)
  • Explore more national and state parks (47 percent)
  • Spend more time in nature (37 percent)
  • Spend more time outside with family (30 percent)

Top regions campers are most excited to visit in 2023:

  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Colorado
  • Utah
  • Alaska
  • Yosemite National Park
Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top states campers are most interested in visiting in 2023:

  • Colorado
  • Montana
  • Tennessee
  • Florida
  • North Carolina
  • Wyoming
  • California
  • Michigan
  • Oregon
  • Utah
The Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top destinations for RVers:

  • Grand Canyon
  • Las Vegas
  • The Campsites at Disney’s Fort Wilderness, Florida
  • Yosemite National Park
  • Ginnie Springs, Florida
  • Zion National Park
  • Daytona International Speedway
  • Campland on the Bay in San Diego
  • Okeechobee, Florida
  • Moab
Along the Creole Nature Trail, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Road trips and scenic drives

Road trip trends:

  • 37 percent are willing to travel any distance on a road trip if they have time while 26 percent prefer trips that are 6 to 10 hours in length
  • After private campgrounds, public lands and hotels were the next most popular accommodation types for road trips

How far do roadtrippers travel?

  • Average route distance: 1,223 miles
  • Average driving duration: 20.5 hours
White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top national parks where travelers planned road trips:

Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top state parks where travelers planned road trips:

  • South Yuba River State Park, California
  • Maquoketa Caves State Park, Iowa
  • Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, Kentucky
  • Hanging Rock State Park, North Carolina
  • Watkins Glen State Park, New York
  • Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas
  • Niagara Falls State Park, New York
  • Letchworth State Park, New York
  • Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
  • Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, Florida
  • Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Illinois
  • Custer State Park, South Dakota
Fredericksburg, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A road trip for every season

Take inspiration from these road trips and scenic drives to plan your 2023 adventures.

Spring

New Orleans, LA, to Fredericksburg, TX

Distance: 469 miles

With pit stops in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Beaumont, Houston, and Austin, this route is a Cajun food-lover’s dream. Be sure to drive the Willow City Loop just north of Fredericksburg for wildflowers galore.

Where to stay:

  • Sun Outdoors New Orleans North Shore, Ponchatoula, Louisiana
  • The Retreat RV and Camping Resort, Huffman, Texas
  • Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg, Texas
Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer

Blue Ridge Parkway

An epic drive filled with stunning vistas of the Appalachian Highlands, this route is known as America’s Favorite Drive for a reason.

Where to stay:

  • Montebello Camping and Fishing Resort, Montebello, Virginia
  • Halesford Harbor Resort, Moneta, Virginia
  • Catawba Falls Campground, North Carolina
Covered Bridge Tour near Terre Haute, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall

Covered Bridge Tour in Indiana

Distance: 35+ miles

Indiana has 31 covered bridges that are super quaint and historic. According to locals, Sim Smith Bridge is even haunted.

Where to stay:

  • Turkey Run Canoe and Camping, Bloomingdale
  • Peaceful Water Campground, Bloomingdale
  • Hawthorn Park, Terry Haute
Amelia Island, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter

Florida East Coast

Distance: 470 miles

Whether you start in the northern or southern part of the state, a drive along the east coast is a perfect way to say goodbye to the winter blues.

Where to stay:

  • Ocean Groove RV Resort, St. Augustine
  • Indian River RV Park, Titusville
  • Sun Outdoors Key Largo, Key Largo

Worth Pondering…

Road trips have beginnings and ends but it’s what’s in between that counts.

The Ultimate Guide to Cades Cove

Here’s everything you need to know about Cades Cove

Cades Cove is the most visited place in Great Smoky Mountains National Park with millions of visitors annually. But what is it specifically about this place that attracts so many people?

One of the most tranquil and pastoral locations in America is Cades Cove. There is nothing like the stunning views of pastureland, majestic trees, rolling hills, sunsets, and roving animals. The 11-mile loop surrounds this lovely valley with several spots where you can see wildlife and take in the surrounding landscape. To help you get in touch with nature, Cades Cove has a vast network of hiking trails. Continue reading to find out more about Cades Cove.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where is Cades Cove?

Cades Cove is located just south of Gatlinburg. To get to the Loop Road, follow the Parkway through downtown Gatlinburg and enter the national park. You will pass the Sugarlands Visitor Center on the right and then you will make a right turn onto Little River Road. Stay on Little River Road for about 25 miles and you will reach the end where you will find the entrance to the Cades Cove Loop Road.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About Cades Cove

Cades Cove is the most popular tourist destination in the Great Smoky Mountains receiving more than two million people annually. The soft sandstone that previously filled the Cove was eroded over millions of years creating the valley. The result of erosion was a vast, fertile valley perfect for farming and flanked by stunning Smoky Mountains.

Cade’s Cove boasts the greatest diversity of historic structures in the national park due to the early 1800s settlement of European settlers. You can visit historic buildings along the Loop Road including restored churches, former gristmills, and pioneer log homes. Its rich past has left a lasting impression that may still be felt today. A visit to Cades Cove offers the chance to travel back in time and become engrossed in the culture and history of early Appalachia.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What are Cades Cove hours?

The Loop Road is open from sunrise to sunset all year with the weather permitting.

 Cades Cove is open to cyclists and pedestrians on Wednesdays from May to September. No vehicle traffic is permitted on Wednesdays from 8 am to 10 am so people can enjoy the loop by bike or foot.

Related article: Cades Cove: An Open Air Museum

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best time to visit Cades Cove

You want to know the best times to visit given how popular this region of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is. Let’s categorize this based on the time of day, week, and season.

Best time of day to visit

Early morning and late afternoon are the ideal times to visit Cades Cove during the day. During certain periods traffic slows down reducing congestion. Also, it is the best time of the day for wildlife viewing.

Best days of the week to visit

Avoid weekends since you will find the place crowded. Wednesdays and Saturdays are ideal days if you want to go biking.

Cable Mill Historic Area, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best seasons to visit

Cades Cove is idyllic all year round. You can always expect to see stunning scenery when you visit. Each season from snow-covered trees in the winter to wildflowers in the spring adds unique beauty to the region.

April to November is Cades Cove’s peak season. People are booking holidays in Cades Cove during the summer break from school when wildflowers and wildlife emerge from slumber in the spring. Due to the vibrant leaves, fall is perhaps the most popular year for tourists visiting Cades Cove. But if you want to avoid traffic the winter slowdown begins in December and continues through March.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife viewing at Cades Cove

Millions of photographers visit Cades Cove each year attracted by the picturesque surroundings and an abundance of wildlife. While driving around the loop you may spot black bears, white-tailed deer, turkeys, squirrels, red foxes, groundhogs, salamanders, birds, bugs, and more.

Visitors are often more enthusiastic about bears since for many it’s their first time seeing a black bear in the wild. They typically are active in the morning, evening, and night. While in Cades Cove you can frequently see black bear mothers with young cubs. But visitors should be careful to maintain a proper distance and avoid feeding them.

Related article: Cades Cove: A Pioneer Paradise

Keep reading to learn more about these creatures.

John Oliver Place, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black bear

Although black bears can be active any time of day, they are more active during early morning and late evening. In the Smoky Mountains bears seem to prefer 6 to 10 am and 3 to 7 pm as these times are cooler and more peaceful during the spring and summer. Black bears have a dense population in the park with about 1,500 living in the area. Being omnivores their diet is primarily plants, berries, nuts, and fish.

Elk

Elk can grow up to 700 pounds making them one of the largest creatures in the national park. They are most active early in the morning and evening.

White-tailed deer

Similar to elk, deer are usually active early in the morning or late in the evening. They are known for grazing in open fields which makes them easier to spot compared to in the woods. Fawns are usually born sometime in June.

Wild Turkey

Since wild turkeys travel in flocks, if you spot one, you’ll most likely spot an entire group. They spend most of their time searching the ground for nuts, berries, and insects. You’ll likely not see them in the evenings as they roost in the trees.

Salamanders

There are more than 30 species of salamanders in the national park which is the most of any place in the world. There are several lungless salamanders in the area. They enjoy dark, moist areas, and many of them live in water.

Cades Cove Methodist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other animals in the Smokies

There are hundreds of animal species that live in the area. You’ll find fish, turtles, and snakes in and around the water. Small mammals include raccoons, groundhogs, and squirrels. There are hundreds of bird species including owls, eagles, wrens, and finches. Plus, you’ll find all kinds of bugs.

Wildlife Safety

It is important to remember a few safety tips while viewing wildlife. The key element to keeping park guests and wildlife safe is to keep a safe distance. Always use caution when wildlife is in sight because they are wild animals.

John Oliver Cabin, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do in Cades Cove

It might take several days if you plan to enjoy everything Cades Cove has to offer. However, all you need for a pleasant and rewarding trip is one action-packed day. Plan to arrive early in the morning and depart in the late afternoon to get the most out of your visit. Bring a bag of lunch, snacks, and drinks. Choose your favorite activities from the list below to create the ideal fun day.

Drive Through Barn, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What are the must-see things in Cades Cove?

As you drive along the 11-mile loop you will find a variety of historic buildings, scenic views, and sights you’ll want to see. The first stop along the Loop requires you to hike a short distance to the John Oliver Cabin. Then you will come to the three churches with cemeteries which are popular places to stop and stretch your legs. Other major stops include the grist mill, the cantilever barn, and Carter Shields cabin.

Related article: National Park Fees: Great Smoky Mountains Introduces Parking Fees

Gregg-Cable House, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What can I do in Cades Cove?

While driving the loop road is one of the best reasons for visiting Cades Cove it isn’t the only thing you can do. As enter the Loop there is a picnic area with over 80 sites. A creek runs through the area and you can enjoy a lunch or snack before exploring the beautiful valley.

The wide open spaces beckon you to take to the wind and run. Horseback rides in the Cove are fantastic whether you’re an experienced rider or a novice. From places like Cades Cove Riding Stables and Davy Crockett Riding Stables, guides lead horseback excursions.

Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove Riding Stables is near the start of the Cove Loop. To learn more about the nature and wildlife of the Smokies you can go on several guided horseback trail rides. They also provide seasonal hayrides and carriage rides. Children love the fully narrated hay rides which are among the most entertaining activities in Cades Cove.

Several hiking trails start along the Cades Cove Loop. A difficult trail near the beginning of the road is Rich Mountain Loop which is 8.5 miles roundtrip. Spring is a great time to explore this trail because of the wildflowers along the path. A more moderate trail that’s about halfway around the Loop is Abrams Falls, a 5-mile roundtrip hike with a waterfall at the end. If you want to hike a trail that’s short and sweet, stop at the Cades Cove Nature Trail.

Cantilever Barn, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving or bicycling the Cades Cove Loop Road

The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road is accessible every day from sunrise to sunset although from early May to late September, Wednesday and Saturday mornings are closed to motorized vehicles until 10 am. These days the route is only open to bicycle and foot traffic up to 10:00 a.m. The good news is that tourists can ride or walk on the road at this time without worrying about sharing it with cars.

To complete the entire loop on a bicycle on these weekdays it is best to start early. Use pullouts when stopping to see wildlife and take in the landscape because traffic is frequently high during the busiest travel season and on weekends all year long. To drive or bike to the loop will take at least two to four hours depending on the number of stops and the flow of traffic.

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

Driving the Cades Cove Loop Road alone will provide you with scenic views of the most popular destination of the national park: Cades Cove!

Millrace and Mill, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore Cades Cove Nature Trail

Visitors can enjoy a stroll through some of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s most breathtaking terrain on the Cades Cove Nature Trail. About 7 miles into Loop Road and one mile past the visitor center is where you’ll find the trail. Given that it is only a few miles long and is considered easy, hikers of all ages should be able to complete this hike. The stroll should take visitors an hour or so assuming a fairly moderate pace. The trail and potential sights you might view while hiking is described in brochures that are available at the visitor center.

The Nature Trail generally provides an excellent opportunity to view Cades Cove’s native plant life and there is a good possibility that you may also spot some of the cove’s wildlife. During their hikes along the path, visitors observed everything from raccoons to black bears. The nature walk is rarely busy so it won’t negatively impact your experience.

Cades Cove Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Discover the history of Cades Cove

The Smoky Mountains have a compelling narrative to share. You can explore various historical places including several old cabins, churches, and structures. The Cades Cove Visitor Center is a great resource for learning about Cades Cove’s history.

At the start of the loop, there are materials you may access to learn more about the structures you’ll see in the cove. Following is the list of historical buildings in Cades Cove to explore while driving the Loop Road:

  • Dan Lawson Place
  • John Oliver Cabin
  • Primitive Baptist Church
  • Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church
  • Elijah Oliver Place
  • Tipton Place
  • John Cable Grist Mill
  • Carter Shields Cabin
  • Becky Cable House

Though the list may seem a bit longer these are some historical places one should make some time to visit. Make sure to have your camera ready to capture these incredible historic buildings.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking trails

One of the things that attract visitors to Cades Cove is the number of adventurous hiking trails.

One of the most popular is Abram Falls. It descends to the enormous Abrams Creek Gore through areas of mountain laurel and pine forest. The walk will lead you to the impressive Abrams Falls waterfall which has a significant water flow. There is a beach area where you may unwind at the bottom of the fall.

Take Cades Cove Loop Road to get to this trail. You’ll come across an Abrams Falls sign while driving. Drive until you notice a parking lot as you approach this sign. It is a challenging trail. Hike it if you are up for an adventure.

Another favorite is the Crib Gap Trail. The route is ideal for first-timers to hiking.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gregory’s Bald is another trail that leads to a mountain covered in wildflowers. You may take in the picturesque vistas of Cades Cove and the mountains that surround it while climbing this mountain. Additionally, if you visit this location in June you will delight in the picturesque views of the wildflowers that grow on this mountain.

The thunderhead hiking trail and Rocky Top which lead to two mountain peaks and offer stunning views of the Smoky Mountains are another favorite Cades Cove hiking trail. This trek is challenging, though, so you should only go it if you have previous hiking expertise.

Millrace and Mill, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping at Cades Cove

Cades Cove Campground (elevation: 1,713 feet) is open year-round and combines the feel of primitive camping with the modern convenience of flush toilets and drinking water. Both Loop B and C are open from mid-April through the Thanksgiving weekend. During the off-season (December-mid April) only sites C1-12 and C26-61 are open to camping by reservation only. Once B Loop closes for the season generators are allowed in Loop C with restricted hours UNTIL Loop B reopens for camping. Some sites accommodate RVs up to 40 feet in length.

Are There Hidden Gems?

Cades Cove is the most popular area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and it’s not hard to see why. From gorgeous views to an abundance of wildlife and fascinating historic structures, Cades Cove has it all. There are a ton of cool stops along the scenic loop drive such as the cantilever barn, John Oliver cabin, and Cable grist mill. These stops are right along the road but there are some hidden gems in Cades Cove too.

The Pearl Harbor Tree serves as a reminder of what happened in 1941 and to honor those who died. It was planted on the day of the attack by a man named Golman Myers to mark the mournful moment. He found a small sapling tree the size of a limb and planted it in his family’s front yard. Myers passed in 1945 but his son Bernard returned to Cades Cove in the mid-1970s and chained a metal tag to the tree that reads, “Golman Myers transplanted this tree Dec. 7, 1941.”

To get to the tree, use the parking area about 3.6 miles along the Cades Cove Loop Road. Then, walk west for 0.1 miles until you see a small clearing on the north side of the road. Where the tree line on the western edge of the field meets the road is the hill you climb to get to the tree. You’ll recognize it because of the metal tag and the many American flags visitors have placed on the tree!

Related article: Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Gourley’s Pond is another hidden gem in Cades Cove. It’s often overlooked by visitors but after significant rainfall, it’s a great sight to see. This pond takes some exploring to get to because it can’t be seen from the loop. To get to Gourley’s Pond, park your car at the LeQuire Cemetery parking area past the south end of Sparks Lane. From there, walk along the loop road for about 200 feet until you see a path on your right. Follow the trail for about 100 feet, then head southwest until you see the pond.

Primitive Baptist Church, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove is home to 14 cemeteries although only 11 of them have been found. If you love learning about Cades Cove’s history and the people who called Cades Cove home then you should take the time to explore one of the cemeteries on your visit. The Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery has the graves of familiar names like John and Lucretia Oliver, the first white settlers of Cades Cove, and William Howell Oliver, the church’s pastor for almost 60 years. While you’re there step inside the Primitive Baptist Church itself and explore.

Millrace, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a less crowded way to exit Cades Cove, use Rich Mountain Road. It’s a 7-mile journey that winds through the forest and provides an excellent opportunity to see bears and other wildlife. Rich Mountain Road offers a quiet drive and it takes you to Townsend. Along Rich Mountain Road there’s an overlook that provides one of the best views of the Primitive Baptist Church and the valley below. Rich Mountain Road is typically only open from April through mid-November.

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away once in awhile and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

—John Muir