The Wonderful National Parks of the West

Out west, the landscapes are vast and beautiful. There’s no place better to check them out than at these National Parks.

Magnificent mountains, diverse forests, and unusual geological features are among the significant features found in the National Parks of the West. These extraordinary landscapes are great places to enjoy outdoor recreation, to learn about nature and history, and to savor a scenic driving tour.

These areas give you a chance to get back to nature, explore the wilderness, and gaze up at pristine night skies. The western United States has a plethora of National Parks and each one is distinct and unique. We don’t expect you to visit all 12 straight away, we’ll give you some time…

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

It’s iconic. It’s dramatic. It’s historic. One mile deep and 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon is a mesmerizing force of nature. One of the world’s seven natural wonders, it’s almost overwhelming to stand at the South Rim at dusk and watch rose-hued rock faces turn a fiery burnished bronze.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park is characterized by its pinnacles, rock fins, and 2,000 gravity-defying arches. The spans of these natural stone wonders range from three feet across to 290 feet in the case of Landscape Arch, but the most famous of all is the 52 foot-tall Delicate Arch—so iconic it appears on Utah license plates.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Arches’ nearby neighbor, Canyonlands invites you to explore a wilderness of countless canyons and fantastically formed buttes carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Rivers divide the park into four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Unusual, elaborate cliffs and canyons shape the landscape of Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold, the second largest monocline in North America, extends for nearly 100 miles and appears as a bizarre “wrinkle” in the Earth’s crust. Red-rock canyons, ridges, buttes, and sandstone monoliths create a 387-mile outdoor retreat for hikers, campers, photographers, and rock climbers.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

The park’s namesake tree, the Joshua tree, is an admired inhabitant that resembles something you might find in a Dr. Seuss book. For years, novice and expert climbers have ventured to the park to climb giant, sculpted slabs of rock while hikers explore the vast desert terrain.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

At first glance, you might wonder where the forest went. Stone log fragments litter an otherwise drab section of the high desert. However, this span of desert was once a lush, green, forested oasis with 200-foot conifers and was ruled by dinosaurs. Of the 50,000 acres of designated wilderness, the brilliantly-colored petrified wood, impressive fossils, and the Painted Desert incite the most excitement.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde is the only national park dedicated solely to human endeavor and houses some of the largest and most important cliff dwellings in the world. Built by the Ancestral Puebloans, the known archeological sites number more than 5,000 and include mesa-top pueblos and masonry towers, as well as intricate, multi-storey dwellings wedged beneath overhanging cliffs. 

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Aside from being home to the world’s largest tree (by volume) and protecting vast areas of towering inland redwoods, a big part of Sequoia’s appeal is that it isn’t all that crowded. Take a stroll under the big trees in the Giant Forest, view wildlife in Crescent Meadows, climb to the top of Moro Rock.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Drive along the Badlands Loop Road to experience magnificent craggy buttes, pinnacles, and spires that seem to surprise the surrounding prairie grasslands. This Mars-like landscape has several accessible trails and overlooks including the Pinnacles Overlook, Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, and Fossil Exhibit Trail.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Just two trails (and an elevator) exist for hikers hoping to explore Carlsbad Caverns on their own. The Big Room Trail, the largest single chamber by volume in North America can be accessed via a 1.25-mile trail or a .6-mile shortcut. The relatively flat terrain weaves through a series of curious hanging stalactites and passes through park gems like the Hall of Giants, Bottomless Pit, and Crystal Spring Dome.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Home of the hoodoos, Bryce Canyon is much more than a single sandstone canyon. Here, you’ll find the largest concentration of eroded auburn spires, or hoodoos, on Earth. Sunset, Sunrise, Inspiration, and Bryce viewpoints are the spots to hit for the best views in the shortest amount of time.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Just when you thought the scenery couldn’t get any better, Zion comes along and blows your socks off. Carved by the Virgin River, the landscape is a geological masterpiece, defined by its canyons, plateaus, and soaring sandstone cliffs. But it’s the variety, not just the magnitude that gives the park its grandeur.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

5 of the Most Visited National Parks…and Where to Go Instead

Many national parks are overflowing with visitors. To get away from the crowds, seek an alternate route.

Since it was signed in 1906, the United States Antiquities Act has conserved millions of acres across 61 national parks. These protected areas encompass some of the country’s most extraordinary landscapes which have unsurprisingly prompted growing tourism numbers in the most popular parks. Competing with these throngs of tourists while is far from ideal. With that in mind, we’ve assembled a list of less crowded, yet equally scenic, alternatives to America’s most popular national parks.

Due to changing advisories, please check local travel guidelines before visiting.

If you like Grand Canyon National Park, try Bryce Canyon National Park instead

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Known as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon is a bucket-list destination for travelers worldwide. This recognition comes at a cost, though, with 6.38 million arrivals to the park in 2018. Consider instead heading due north to Bryce Canyon National Park.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated along the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, the park’s terrain has been shaped and eroded by the harsh high-altitude elements. The resulting hoodoos, jagged formations, and massive horseshoe amphitheaters are an astonishing sight to behold. Bryce Canyon’s extensive trail network is sure to satisfy any type of hiker. The park’s elevation ranges between a lofty 8,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level making for milder summer temperatures compared to the Grand Canyon.

If you like Great Smoky Mountains National Park, try Shenandoah National Park instead

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A whopping 11.4 million people visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2018. Heading six hours north along the Appalachian Mountains, hikers and drivers can find equally scenic roadways, stunning mountain vistas, and epic trails at Shenandoah National Park. Though it’s not exactly an off-the-beaten path destination, Shenandoah’s 1.2 million visitors are a mere trickle compared to its southern neighbor.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spanning 105 miles between the Front Royal and Rockfish Gap entrances, winding Skyline Drive allows visitors to leisurely enjoy the park’s scenery from their car and choose from numerous trailheads for day hikes. Hiking options abound, with over 500 miles of marked trails, including a substantial section of the famed Appalachian Trail.

If you like Zion National Park, try Capitol Reef National Park instead

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion’s famed Narrows and towering cliffs are nothing short of breathtaking. If you’re craving more solitude among southern Utah’s geological wonders, consider heading three hours northeast to Capitol Reef National Park. Capitol Reef’s Scenic Drive takes in some of the most picturesque stretches of the park. Frequent pullouts permit plenty of stops for photos or embarking on a day hike. Turn down Grand Wash Road to hike a quarter-mile to Cassidy Arch where Butch Cassidy was rumored to have camped out.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most conspicuous reminder of settlers is at Fruita where orchards and a few restored buildings serve as the last remnants of the Mormon town of 50. Depending on the season visitors can pick their own fruit including cherries, pears, and apricots.

If you like Yellowstone National Park, try Theodore Roosevelt National Park instead

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yellowstone’s wealth of attractions—unique wildlife, spouting geysers, volcanic landscapes, and churning rivers—are unmatched by any single national park. For similar wildlife spotting opportunities away from the crowds head east to the lesser-known Theodore Roosevelt National Park which sees just 749,000 annual visitors compared to Yellowstone’s 4.1 million.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Twenty-nine American bison were reintroduced here in 1956, with herd numbers today totaling several hundred between the park’s north and south units. For the best chance of seeing bison, make your way around the Scenic Loop Drive in the south unit but be sure to maintain a respectable distance from the massive creatures. Fortunately, bison prefer to graze the nutritious grasslands surrounding prairie dog communities, and thus, you may spot both species.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond the park’s critters, there is an abundance of scenic views and impressive rock formations to enjoy. Visiting at sunrise or sunset is an ideal time to appreciate the multitude of colors emanating from bands of minerals in the rugged rock face.

If you like Yosemite National Park, try Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park instead

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

Although Sequoia and Kings Canyon’s natural beauty rival its northerly neighbor, it only received 1.2 million visitors in 2018 compared to Yosemite’s four million. The dramatic landscape testifies to nature’s size, beauty, and diversity—huge mountains, rugged foothills, deep canyons, vast caverns, and the world’s largest trees. These two parks lie side by side in the southern Sierra Nevada east of the San Joaquin Valley.

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

You expect giant trees and huge canyons—and you won’t be disappointed. Within these parks, you can experience a spectacular range in elevation from warm foothills to cold alpine peaks. The largest and finest groves of giant sequoias grow at the sometimes snowy mid-elevations, along with extraordinarily diverse plants and animals living in extremely varied conditions.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Explore Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks create a recreational wonderland covered by ancient forests, soaring domes, stone canyons, and rivers that roar or ripple, depending on the season

The giant trees of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks will fill you with awe—and give you a crick in your neck from staring up at them. But who cares about a little pain when the payoff is so grand? And the high season is over for these two incredible parks meaning the time is right for a leisurely visit minus the crowds. And the campgrounds that are always full during the summer now have vacancies.

Eleven Mile Overlook in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shoulder-season visitors (September-November) avoid the hustle and bustle of peak times. Traffic lessens, autumn leaves appear, and it becomes easy to find a parking spot.

Forest Center in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The weather also cools off, a big plus. Many days here top 100 degrees during the summer. Weather like that is brutal if you’re hiking—or even just taking a quarter-mile nature walk. Skip the sizzling July and August weather and visit in October when average highs are in the 60s.

November is a little chancier: We was here in mid-November and encountered some snow in the High Country. But, to be honest, not enough to alter our plans!

Castle Rocks in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A couple of other problems also arise if you visit too late in the year. The road to Kings Canyon’s Cedar Grove area closes November 11. And you don’t want to miss that spectacular area of the park. Many campgrounds also close. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Let’s start when naturalist John Muir wrote about the area that eventually became Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park. “In the vast Sierra wilderness south of the famous Yosemite Valley, there is a yet grander valley of the same kind,” Muir wrote in 1891.

Forest Center in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grander than Yosemite? Those are strong words. But many park fans agree. Sequoia has the largest trees on the planet and Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48. Kings Canyon is by some measures considered the deepest canyon in the country.

It’s a place that can make visitors feel very small. It also can bring a sense of tranquility.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The adjacent parks, which are administered together, offer beautiful rivers and waterfalls, lush valleys, vast caverns, snow-capped peaks, and terrain ranging from 1,300 to 14,500 feet. And it’s all in the southern Sierra Nevada.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nowhere else in the national park system can you experience the diversity of landscapes within a day’s hike, from blue oak woodlands to red fir forests to alpine tundra. Plus, the stunning ancient giant sequoia groves!

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The colossal trees can grow as tall as a 26-story building and live more than 3,000 years, thanks to a chemical in their bark that protects against rot, boring insects, and even fire.

Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s hard to comprehend the size of a sequoia until you stare up at one, especially the General Sherman Tree, a giant among giants—275 feet tall and more than 36 feet in diameter. It’s the largest tree in the world by volume and is a favorite stop for visitors. Yes, you’ll have to walk half a mile to see it, but it’s a pilgrimage you’ll remember the rest of your life.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even better: Take the 2-mile Congress Trail, which begins at the General Sherman Tree and loops through the heart of the green and beautiful Giant Forest, home to more than 2,000 sequoias with trunk diameters greater than 10 feet. It’s an easy trail and like the Sherman Trail is both wheelchair- and kid-friendly. Like no other place on Earth, the Giant Forest is alive with mystery and wonder.

Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another highlight of Sequoia National Park is Moro Rock, which isn’t an easy trail. If the walk to General Sherman fazes, Moro Rock will stop you in your tracks. The bald granite dome looms thousands of feet above the park highway, protruding from a forested ridge 6,725 feet above sea level.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kings Canyon is a rugged landscape of granite, water, and sky. Like Sequoia, Kings Canyon National Park is more than 95 percent wilderness and few roads disturb the peace. But, that’s the topic of another post.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Between Kings River and the Kaweah, we enter the colossal forests of the main continuous portion of the sequoia belt.

—John Muir, 1876