The Complete Guide to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Spend a lot of time looking up—way up—at some of the largest living organisms on the planet

Start training your neck muscles now: When you visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks you’ll spend a lot of time looking up—way up—at some of the largest living organisms in the history of the planet.

If the name wasn’t a dead giveaway, the main attractions in these twin parks in Central California are approximately 40 different sequoia groves. These behemoth trees only grow on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada from 4,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation and the parks are home to seven of the 10 largest trees in the world.

Amazingly these trees which stretch up to nearly 300 feet high aren’t even the tallest things in the parks. In fact, they’re positively dwarfed by geological formations like the namesake Kings Canyon, a glacial valley hemmed in by 4,000-foot-high granite walls and Sequoia’s Mount Whitney the highest point in the Lower 48 at 14,494 feet.

Located in the Southern Sierra Nevada about equidistant from San Francisco and Los Angeles, Kings Canyon and Sequoia are actually two national parks for the price of one. They share a border and a long history dating back to the early days of the conservation movement in America.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On September 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison established the country’s second national park, Sequoia, to protect the area’s namesake giants from the encroaching logging industry. Just a week later he added General Grant National Park to the roster.

In those early days, America’s first Black national park superintendent (and the only African American commissioned officer in the U.S. Army), Col. Charles Young, led efforts to build a road into Sequoia’s Giant Forest and by 1903 the landscape had opened to tourists coming in by wagon. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress established Kings Canyon National Park which absorbed the former General Grant Park. 

Today Sequoia comprises 631 square miles which include the famed Generals Highway which cuts through dense sequoia groves; Moro Rock, a climbable granite dome; the pristine Mineral King glacial valley; and Crystal Cave, a marble cavern.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bifurcated 722-square-mile Kings Canyon meanwhile sits atop Sequoia like two lopsided bunny ears: To the west, a squiggly sliver of parkland surrounds the General Grant Tree and the neighboring village and visitor center; to the east, a much larger swath of wilderness is centered around Kings Canyon proper, dotted with iconic vistas like Zumwalt Meadow, Roaring River Falls and Muir Rock. The meandering ribbon of the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway connects the two sections as it cuts through the adjacent Sequoia National Forest. 

Despite their world-famous supertall attractions, Kings Canyon and Sequoia remain blissfully crowd-free much of the year.

Tuning in to the soundscape is one of the best ways to enjoy the wilderness. Find a secluded spot, take a few steps off the trail, maybe sit down, maybe close your eyes, and just be silent and listen to the sounds of the park for a couple of minutes.

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

Plan your trip 

The parks are relatively centrally located within the state and a bit of a trek to reach from major cities: You can expect about a five-hour drive from San Francisco or a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles.

When planning your trip, note that it’s hard to generalize about the weather in these parts. There’s an enormous elevation shift from the foothills in Sequoia (as low as 1,370 feet) to the big tree groves in both parks to Sequoia’s towering Mount Whitney. As a result, temperatures can regularly drop to 30 degrees as you ascend higher through the parks. Fortunately, the NPS maintains a helpful website with forecasts for specific areas.

The foothills tend to have milder winters and hot, dry summers with average highs in July and August reaching into the upper 90s and average winter lows dropping to the mid-30s. In Sequoia’s Giant Forest and Kings Canyon’s Grant Grove summer temperatures are significantly milder usually in the mid-70s in the daytime and the 50s at night. Even if it’s scorchingly hot when you enter the parks (it has been known to hit 114 degrees) you may still need a light sweater by the time you’re surrounded by sequoias. Plan and pack accordingly—layers are your friend. 

Castle Rock, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the winter can be peaceful and the parks look gorgeous under a blanket of fresh snow, things slow down during those months. Several roads, including 180 from Grant Grove to Cedar Grove, Mineral King Road, and Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow Road close due to treacherous, icy driving conditions and many of the parks’ lodging options shutter. Currently, Highway 180 to Cedar Grove is closed at the Hume gate until spring 2023.

In general, you’ll want a car in these parks. From late May through mid-September there’s also a shuttle bus system with free routes covering such areas as the Giant Forest, Moro Rock, the General Sherman Tree Trails, and Wuksachi Lodge. Meanwhile, the $20 Sequoia Shuttle (reservation required) transports guests in from the gateway town of Visalia.

Overcrowding isn’t much of a concern even during the summer high season in July and August. Avoiding crowds has a lot to do with timing. Weekdays are always more forgiving than weekends. If you can get to the entrance station before 9 a.m. you’re likely to be rewarded with ample parking at your destination

Potwisha Campground, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay

The jewel in the crown of lodging options in these parts is Sequoia’s 102-room Wuksachi Lodge which features an architectural style that screams national parks lodge thanks to its native granite and oak, hickory, and cedar touches. Located 2 miles from Lodgepole Village the hotel is a perfect jumping-off point for hiking trails that lead out into Cahoon Meadow and Twin Lakes. It’s now open year-round but things can get a little dicey in the winter if you’re not used to driving in snow because it sits at an elevation of 7,200 feet; remember to pack those snow chains! Amenities in mobility- and hearing-accessible rooms include widened doorways, visual fire alarms, and phones with flashing lights.

In Kings Canyon, Grant Grove Village is home to two seasonal lodging options in the park’s western section: The 36-room John Muir Lodge (open late March to late October) includes a stone fireplace in the lobby that’s an inviting spot to cozy up next to as you plan tomorrow’s adventures.

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

Grant Grove Cabins, a collection of timber and tent-style cabins are open from April through October. Book early and request Cabin No. 9, one of the few with an en suite bathroom instead of a shared bathhouse, a particular luxury on those cold Sierra nights. The lodge does not have an elevator so anyone with mobility issues will want to request a room on the first floor. 

For a slightly more off-the-beaten-path option, the 21-room Cedar Grove Lodge is remotely located in Kings Canyon’s eastern wilderness. It’s only open late May through late October after the snow has melted but it rewards the intrepid with access to scenic Zumwalt Meadow, Roaring Falls, and Muir Rock.

The parks also play host to more than a dozen campsites, four open year-round: Azalea Campground, under a stand of evergreen trees near King Canyon’s Grant Grove; Potwisha Campground, set among a hot and dry oak woodland in Sequoia; Lodgepole and South Fork Campgrounds, in a remote area of the Sequoia foothills.

Park campgrounds differ wildly in terms of amenities, locations, and crowds so study the options before you go. Reservations are made available one month in advance though you can often snag a spot on the day of your visit. Most offer a few accessible campsites with amenities like paved paths to restrooms and raised fire pits for people with impaired mobility. 

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

Where to eat 

At the Peaks Restaurant at Wuksachi Lodge tuck into hearty fare like pan-seared ruby-red trout and braised short ribs while taking in the Sierra views. The restaurant also serves a daily breakfast buffet. Nearby, head to the seasonal Lodgepole Café for grab-and-go picnic goodies like breakfast burritos and hot dogs.

In Kings Canyon, the seasonal Grant Grove Restaurant serves dishes like beef chili and a trout sandwich. In the park’s other section, Cedar Grove Grill is open May through mid-October and serves hearty burgers and sandwiches on the drive out to Zumwalt Meadow and Roaring River Falls.

Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Visit the parks’ enormous trees

We know what you’re here for—very big trees! And, yes, you’ll see giant sequoias everywhere but there are a few not-to-miss standouts. In Sequoia, the General Sherman Tree ranks as the world’s largest by volume and stands 275 feet tall with a base width of 36 feet. You can access it by two trails. One runs a half-mile downhill from a parking area; it’s paved and includes a few stairs but the climb back uphill can be tiring. If you have a disability parking placard you’ll have access to a small lot on Generals Highway with a wheelchair-accessible trail.

About a five-minute drive down the road in the Giant Forest Grove you’ll reach the free Giant Forest Museum with informative exhibits about this unique landscape and the 1.2-mile Big Trees Trail which is a great option for people with limited mobility. It’s flat, paved, and easy to navigate with benches for rest stops. 

In the Grant Grove area in Kings Canyon just 1.5 miles from the visitor center you’ll meet the General Grant Tree—aka the nation’s Christmas tree—the world’s second-largest tree with a height of 268.1 feet and a base circumference of 107.5 feet. The one-third-mile paved loop trail passes through a dense collection of sequoias with other highlights including the Fallen Monarch, a hollow sequoia log wide enough to walk through, and the historic Gamlin Cabin, which dates to 1872. The trail has tactile informational signs with Braille and raised illustrations. 

Although these generals are popular especially in the summer don’t stop there: They’re a great jumping-off point for exploration. People visiting the parks will find a lot of opportunities for solitude if they’re willing to hike for even 15 minutes. The Giant Forest and Grant Grove both have miles and miles of wonderful trails that see surprisingly few hikers. On these trails, you’ll have time and space to linger, take in the evergreens’ woodsy scent, and listen for the chirps of squirrels and the calls of acorn woodpeckers, Steller’s jays, and other birds.

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

Climb Moro Rock

Yosemite has Half Dome, Sequoia has Moro Rock—and much like its more famous cousin to the north this granite dome beckons visitors to summit its dramatic topography. While the climb up Half Dome isn’t for the faint of heart, Moro Rock can be doable for relatively in-shape visitors who can handle steep stairs. A concrete and stone path leads up more than 350 steps to postcard-perfect views out over the foothills and the San Joaquin Valley.

There are handrails much of the way so while you might not fear falling over the rather prodigious cliffs lining the trail this is still a strenuous climb made more challenging by the high elevations which top out above 6,700 feet. The climb can take as little as a half-hour but pace yourself and enjoy the experience to protect those lungs in the thinner air. In summer, keep your eyes and ears peeled for peregrine falcons nesting on the rock.

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

Go for a guided horseback ride

Two stables operate within Kings Canyon. Grove Stables offers one-hour guided trail rides that loop past the General Grant tree and through a grove of giant sequoias; for an additional fee tack on a second hour through a second sequoia grove to a Sequoia Lake overlook.

The Cedar Grove Pack Station located outside Cedar Grove Village also has one- and two-hour guided trail rides but experienced riders can opt for a half-day or full-day itinerary.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy the stars

The parks are amazing after dark, once you get used to the idea. Find a wide-open space to stargaze or take long-exposure photographs of the Milky Way. During a full moon take a night hike. Just be careful out there. The parks have a 24-hour dispatch center but help is definitely less readily available if you get into trouble late at night.

If you’d rather not go it alone, the parks occasionally schedule ranger-led moonlight walks (check the events calendar). This is also a great time to listen for the distinctive hooting of great horned owls and the squeaks of bats flying overhead.

Fun fact: While 17 species of bats call these parks home only three emit sounds the human ear can hear.

Gateway towns 

If you want to spend time in the communities outside the parks’ boundaries stick to the stretch along State Route 198 that leads into Sequoia’s Ash Mountain Entrance Station. About 35 miles west of the park is Visalia, a small agricultural city in the San Joaquin Valley with handsome architecture (including an art deco post office), a boutique-filled downtown, and plenty of microbreweries. 

Even closer to the entrance station is Three Rivers Village with a surprising array of businesses dotting the foothills including local shops like Reimer’s Candies and Gifts (don’t miss the California walnut turtles), art galleries and artist studios, a nine-hole golf course, and even a jazz club.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route

If you’re driving from San Francisco slow down to enjoy the underrated Central Valley. The state’s agricultural heart boasts some surprising hot spots. Merced’s recently revitalized downtown includes the chic new Hotel El Capitan and its tasting-menu restaurant Rainbird where you can sample innovative dishes like green garlic chawanmushi (egg custard) with coal-roasted kombu. The area is also home to excellent farm stands and a rustic-chic vineyard. 

From Los Angeles, Bakersfield is a worthwhile pit stop thanks to the numerous RV parks and the country’s largest collection of Basque restaurants. Established in 1893 as a boardinghouse, the Noriega Hotel was honored with a James Beard Foundation America’s Classic Award and it’s beloved for dishes like pickled tongue.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The city’s also the birthplace of the so-called Bakersfield Sound, made popular by country artists like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Learn more about Nashville West at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, a museum and music venue and the Kern County Museum.

By the way, I have a series of posts on Bakersfield and the Bakersfield Sound:

Sequoia and Kings Canyon 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:

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Facts box

  • ​Location: Central California about 260 miles from San Francisco and 220 miles from Los Angeles
  • Size: 865,964 acres or 1,353 square miles 
  • Highest point: Mount Whitney, 14,494 feet 
  • Lowest point: The foothills entrance, 1,370 feet 
  • Miles of trails: 866
  • Main attraction: Sequoia groves with record-breaking trees
  • Entry fee: $35 per private vehicle for up to seven days; $30 for motorcycles; $20 for bicycles or walk-in entry; $70 for annual passes 
  • Best way to see: By car or by the free park shuttle (between May and September)
  • When to go to avoid the crowds: September, after the summer crowds leave and before the snow falls

Worth Pondering…

No other tree in the world, as far as I know, has looked down on so many centuries as the Sequoia, or opens such impressive and suggestive views into history.

—John Muir, The Big Trees, Chapter 7 of The Yosemite (1912) 

The Best National Parks to Visit by Season

Best season to visit each national park

When planning a trip to the national parks one of the most important things to consider is the time of year that you are planning your visit. Most national parks have an optimal time to visit based on factors such as weather, crowd levels, and road closures.

In this article, I cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by two lists that illustrate the best months to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to visit the National Parks by month

Below is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year. Each national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times.

These guides take many factors into consideration: weather, crowd levels, special events, fall colors, the best time to go hiking, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at least one occasion.

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

Best National Parks to visit by month:

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Complete list of the National Parks

This guide covers the best time to visit each national park based on weather, crowd levels, and my personal experiences in the parks. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month by month. I list each of the national parks we have visited in alphabetical order and indicate the best months to visit each of these parks.

This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels.

There are two different ways to use these tables.

If you have a particular month or season that you are planning your trip, you can look at that column (for example: May) and the parks that are listed for that month make great options for your trip.

If you have a park that you would like to visit (for example, Bryce Canyon National Park), scroll down to Bryce Canyon and the months listed are the best times to visit this park.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best parks to visit by month

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to visit national parks by month

  • Arches National Park (Utah): January, March, November, December
  • Badlands National Park (South Dakota): April, October
  • Big Bend National Park (Texas): March, April, November
  • Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah): March, April, November
  • Canyonlands National Park (Utah): March, April, November, December
  • Capitol Reef National Park (Utah): March, April, November, December
  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico): February, July, August, September
  • Congaree National Park (South Carolina): March, May, November
  • Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona): January, April, June, November, December
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina & Tennessee): May, September, October
  • Joshua Tree National Park (California): January, February, November
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park (California): June, July, August
  • Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado): May, September
  • New River Gorge National Park (West Virginia): June, October
  • Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona): February, April, November
  • Pinnacles National Park (California): March, April, November
  • Saguaro National Park (Arizona): January, February, May
  • Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks (California): June, July, August
  • Shenandoah National Park (Virginia): May, September, October
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota): June, July, September, October
  • White Sands National Park (New Mexico): February, March, November
  • Zion National Park (Utah): January, October, November, December

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Lubbock

10 Visitor Centers You Shouldn’t Miss

10 National Park Visitor Centers that are worth exploring

National Park Visitor Centers offer opportunities to explore the nature and history of the parks, watch park films, and get trip-planning information. Park stores within visitor centers offer books and other products related to the park.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: Stopping at the National Park Visitor Center is a must!

Our first National Park Visitor Center experience happened by chance. We stumbled upon the visitor center on our way into a park. Stopping at the visitor center wasn’t even on my radar at the time. The visitor center is now the first place that we stop when going to a new national or state park, state, city, or town and I am saddened when I see people pass up on their opportunity to stop at one.

When I was a National Park newbie (for lack of a better word) I really didn’t know what to expect from park Visitor Centers. I thought that they were just a place to stretch your legs and maybe grab a quick snack from a vending machine. But, I was SO WRONG! The National Park Visitor Centers are so much more than any ol’ dingy rest area off of any ol’ winding interstate!

Below are a few reasons that I sing the praiss of National Park Visitor Centers and highly encourage you to not pass them up!

The ability to travel and explore new places is one of the best parts of the RV lifestyle. There’s no better way to truly experience the country. You get to know the areas you travel through and you have the opportunity to participate in local events and visit interesting landmarks.

Visitor centers are one of the best ways to learn about a new area. There are countless visitor centers scattered across the country and they serve a wide variety of purposes. Some of them educate, others entertain, and others showcase interesting features of the area. Lots of national and state parks have at least one visitor center but some businesses, churches, museums, and other interesting locations have them as well.

Since I’m talking visitor centers, here’s a great related article: Why Stop At Visitor Centers?

It’s hard to define what the best visitor centers are but I’ve selected 10 fantastic options below. Check out my list and consider adding one or two of these to your upcoming travel plans. For your convenience, I’ve also provided some additional resources.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

If you’re a fan of geology or just want to see something incredibly unique, it’s hard to top Carlsbad Caverns. The main attraction of this area is the caverns themselves and there are numerous guided tours available.

Enjoy the hands-on exhibits to help you understand how the cavern was formed, discover the animals and plants that make the desert their home, and be amazed by the history of the park.

Before starting on your cavern adventure you may want to enjoy the free, 16-minute, park film Hidden World showing at the visitor center every 30 minutes. Check at the information desk for times.

Browse through a variety of gift items including t-shirts, hat, mugs, and Native American art. You can also enjoy snacks, drinks, and hot and cold meals. The bookstore offers a variety of items including books, photos, passport books, and junior ranger products.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

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

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to many interesting historical sites and beautiful natural landmarks. Begin your exploration of the park at a visitor center. Here you can pick up a park map or newspaper, have your questions answered by a ranger, and purchase books and guides to the park. For current ranger-led activities, visit the park’s calendar for details.

Four visitor centers are located within the national park at Sugarlands, Oconaluftee, Cades Cove, and Clingmans Dome.

Near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Sugarlands Visitor Center is an excellent starting point as you enter the park’s North District. Learn about the park’s plants and animals with natural history exhibits. Enjoy ranger-led programs conducted seasonally. Peruse the park bookstore and shop. Access public restrooms and drink vending machines. The Backcountry Permit Office is here, too.

Sugarlands is a top-rated visitor center.

Near Cherokee, North Carolina, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is an ideal starting point as you enter the park’s South District. Explore cultural history exhibits. Enjoy ranger-led programs conducted seasonally. Peruse the park bookstore and shop. Find public restrooms and drink vending machines. The adjacent Mountain Farm Museum contains a collection of log structures including a farmhouse, barn, smokehouse, applehouse, corn crib and others.

About half-way through the Cades Cove Loop Road, pause to speak with park staff and visit various exhibits at the Cades Cove Visitor Center. Learn about Southern Mountain life and culture and see a gristmill (operates spring through fall), the Becky Cable house, and other historic structures. Enjoy seasonal ranger-led activities and peruse the park bookstore and shop. Public restrooms are available.

Enjoy sweeping views of the Smokies, weather permitting, and get your park questions answered at the Clingmans Dome Visitor Contact Station Peruse a small bookstore and shop. Public restrooms are available.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Grand Canyon National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon draws crowds from all over the country. The park offers several visitor centers including the South Rim (Grand Canyon Village), Desert View, and the North Rim. Since they may be closed during different periods of the year, be sure to check their availability. All of the visitor centers provide a great experience but the South Rim center is especially noteworthy. Trip planning and hiking information is available through exhibit kiosks and sidewalk signs outside of the building.

Park in one of four large parking lots and get your first look at Grand Canyon by walking to nearby Mather Point. With your vehicle parked at the Visitor Center, you can also board free shuttle buses and be transported around the village and out to scenic overlooks.

Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder, the park’s 20 minute orientation film, is presented on the hour and half-hour on the large screen in the theater.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Zion National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park, one of five national parks in Utah (Mighty Five) is known for its distinctive red rock and otherworldly geological formations.

Located near the South Entrance of the park, the Zion Canyon Visitor Center is an excellent place to begin your exploration of Zion Canyon. Park rangers and outdoor exhibits will help you plan your visit and make the most of your time. Inquire at the Zion Canyon Wilderness Desk about permits for backpacking, canyoneering, and other trips into the wilderness. Visit the bookstore for maps, books, and gifts.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

The Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the main facility in the North Unit of the park. Stop by to talk with rangers, explore museum exhibits, check out the Fossil Preparation Lab, or visit the Badlands Natural History Association bookstore. There’s something for everyone at the visitor center.

At the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, visitors to Badlands National Park can get answers to their questions from rangers at the information desk. There, park staff can distribute maps and other park materials, provide directions and local area orientation, hand out Junior Ranger booklets, and answer any questions you might have about earth science, wildlife, history, and more. There is also a self-serve passport stamping station at the information desk.

If you’re not stopping by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center during your trip to the Badlands, you can also access rangers at the White River Center, via email or by calling (605) 433-5361

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Sequoia National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Sequoia and Kings National Parks, California

The park’s visitor centers, ranger stations, and a museum offer opportunities to explore the nature and history of these parks, watch park films, and get trip-planning information. Park stores within visitor centers offer books and other products related to the park. All purchases in these stores support park programs through the Sequoia Parks Conservancy.

While the parks are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, not all visitor centers are open year-round. Some close seasonally.

Foothills Visitor Center is one mile past the Ash Mountain entrance station along the Generals Highway. Stop here for information, maps, books, gifts, and restrooms. Browse exhibits about the ecology and human history of the foothills and join a free ranger-led program.

Giant Forest Museum is housed in a historic market in the Giant Forest sequoia grove at 6,500 feet elevation. Explore exhibits about sequoias and learn why this landscape grows the biggest of big trees. Stop here before you explore the grove. During wilderness permit non-quota season, permits can be picked up at a self-issue station outside the museum.

Kings Canyon Visitor Center is in Grant Grove Village at an elevation of 6,500 feet. Learn about three regions in Kings Canyon National Park: giant sequoia groves, Kings Canyon, and the High Sierra. Watch a 15-minute movie. A park store sells books, maps, and educational materials.

Located in the conifer zone at an elevation of 6,700 feet, Lodgepole Visitor Center provides opportunities to view exhibits, get trip planning advice, get a wilderness permit, watch several park films, or shop at the gift shop. New exhibits immerse visitors in the wilderness environments of the parks, from the foothills to the highest peaks and to underground caves, as well as exploring the human history of the southern Sierra Nevada with tactile exhibits and soundscapes from every park environment.

Cedar Grove Visitor Center is next to the South Fork of the Kings River in mixed conifer forest at an elevation of 4,600 feet. Learn about the natural and cultural history of the Cedar Grove area. Nearby services include accessible restrooms and a pay phone.

Located in a mixed-conifer forest at 7,600 feet, the Mineral King Ranger Station houses some exhibits on Mineral King’s human and natural history. Food storage canisters are available. Obtain wilderness permits here.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaro National Park is separated into two districts: Rincon Mountain District (East) and Tucson Mountain District (West), each with their own visitor center.

Red Hills Visitor Center (Saguaro West) Tucson Mountain District has cultural and natural history exhibits of the Sonoran Desert.

The visitor center at Saguaro East is smaller and more rustic. There is an interesting and well done exhibit just outside the center that walks you past about 15 major plants that live in the Sonoran Desert. You can see the living plant and plaque with a name and description of each plant.

Both visitor centers are open all year from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm everyday except Christmas where you can view  a 15 minute program called Voices of the Desert giving a Native American perspective of the Sonoran Desert. There is also a bookstore operated by the Western National Parks Association.Various Ranger guided programs are held throughout the year. During the winter months (November to mid-April) several different programs are offered daily.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Congaree National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

The Harry Hampton Visitor Center is open year-round. It is the main hub for Congaree National Park which is the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the U. S. and home to one of the largest concentrations of champion trees. The center is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. 

Visitors can find the Congaree National Park Passport Stamp at the center. Restrooms and a small gift shop can be found at the center. The Whippoorwill Cafe & Bakery and A Charming Country Cottage Nestled in the Woods are restaurants near the center.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Arches National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches Visitor Center is located at the entrance of Arches National Park just off U.S. Highway 191 about 5 miles north of Moab. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. except December 25. The center offers indoor and outdoor exhibits, a bookstore, and restrooms that can be accessed 24 hours a day.Visitors can learn about the park’s history, geology, climate, and wildlife.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Petrified Forest National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park is connected by the 28-mile-long Main Park Road which winds past viewpoints, trailheads, and other attractions. Visitors can get up close to petrified logs by wandering along trails in the park’s southern section. Petrified Forest National Park is a high-desert geologic treasure chest that features loads of petrified wood and eye-popping views of The Painted Desert, which sweeps through the park

Painted Desert Visitor Center is located at exit #311 off of I-40 in Petrified Forest National Park. It provides information, brochures, book sales, exhibits, restrooms, and a gift shop.The center is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm year-round with extended hours as staffing permits.

The Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center is located to the south and offers exhibits, books and gifts, limited food service, and restrooms.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jonathan Irish, photographer

National Parks at Their Absolute Best in Winter

All the wonder, none of the crowds

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

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

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

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

2. Zion National Park, Utah

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

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

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

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

4. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

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

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

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

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

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

6. Big Bend National Park, Texas

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

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

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

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

8. Joshua Tree National Park, California

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

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

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

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

9. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California

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

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

10. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. Arches National Park, Utah

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

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

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

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

14. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

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

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

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. White Sands National Park, New Mexico

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

The Best National Parks to Visit in August

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

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

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

Planning a trip to the US national parks in August and don’t know which ones to visit? August is a busy time to visit the national parks but crowd levels aren’t quite at their peak (that typically happens in July for many parks).

In this guide, I cover five great parks to visit plus four bonus parks.

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

About this National Park series

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

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

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

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

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting the National Parks in August

Like July, August is a very busy time to visit the US national parks. The combination of great weather and summer vacations makes August one of the most popular times of the year for travel in the US. Fortunately, in many places, crowd levels aren’t quite as large as they were in July. And the later in August you go, the quieter the parks will be.

If you only have the summer to plan a trip to the national parks either because of your children’s school schedule or your own work schedule, June and August tend to be quieter than July. There are some exceptions to this rule but in general you’re better off waiting until August and even the end of August for lower crowds in the parks.

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

Best National Parks in August

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Location: New Mexico

An underground fantasy land of limestone chambers, stalactites and stalagmites, and long, twisting tunnels is located in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico.

From late May through October you can watch the Bat Flight program. At the Bat Flight Amphitheater, grab a seat and watch as the bats emerge by the thousands from the natural entrance of the cave. The best time to see the bats is in August and September when the baby bats join the show. The Bat Flight Program takes place every evening and it is weather dependent.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Carlsbad Caverns in August: To watch the Bat Flight Program when bats emerge by the thousands from the natural entrance of the cave.

Weather: In August, the average high is 90°F and the average low is 66°F. August is one of the wettest months of the year with 2 inches of rainfall. The average temperature throughout the cave is 68°F and the relative humidity remains close to a constant 100 percent.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:20 am and sunset is at 7:40 pm.

Top experiences: Tour the caverns on your own or on a ranger-guided tour. You can also go star gazing, hike a surface trail, or go on a scenic drive. 

How much time do you need? A half to a full day is all you need to explore the caverns on your own and/or take a ranger-guided tour.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your visit

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

2 & 3. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Location: California

Kings Canyon preserves Grant Grove which is home to General Grant, the second largest tree in the world and Kings Canyon which is a glacially carved valley.

Sitting right beside Kings Canyon is Sequoia National Park. It is here that you will walk among towering sequoia trees and see the largest tree in the world, the General Sherman.

These two national parks can be visited together in two busy but memorable days. It’s a great add-on to a California road trip.

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

Why visit Kings Canyon & Sequoia in August: The weather is fantastic and this park makes a great addition to a California road trip. Summer is a busy time to visit these two parks but August typically gets fewer visitors than July. 

Weather: The average high is 80°F and the average low is 53°F. Rainfall is very low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is 6:15 am and sunset is 7:45 pm.

Top experiences: Visit Grant Grove and drive the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, visit Zumwalt Meadows, see the General Sherman Tree, hike Moro Rock, and visit Crescent Meadows.

Ultimate experience: Explore the backcountry of Kings Canyon National Park. 77 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail/John Muir Trail runs through Kings Canyon National Park making this a top backpacking destination in the US.

How many days do you need? To see the highlights of both parks, two day is all you need but to explore further add a couple more.

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

Plan your visit

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Location: California

This national park protects Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world. In Lassen Volcanic, you’ll see steaming fumaroles, pretty lakes, colorful landscapes, and Lassen Peak.

Why visit Lassen Volcanic in August: The weather is great for hiking and crowds are a bit lower than those in July.

Weather: In July, the average high is 85°F and the average low is 40°F. Rainfall is low.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:15 am and sunset is at 8 pm.

Top experiences: Walk Bumpass Hell Trail (isn’t that the best name for a hiking trail?), capture the reflection of Lassen Peak in Manzanita Lake, go for a scenic drive on Lassen Park Highway, visit Kings Creek Falls and Mill Creek Falls, visit Devils Kitchen, and hike to the top of Lassen Peak.

Ultimate adventure: Hike to the summit of Brokeoff Mountain for panoramic views of the park. Note, this hike is best attempted in late summer to early fall when the trail is free of snow.

How many days do you need? One day is just enough time to see the highlights but plan on spending two to three days here to hike several more trails and thoroughly explore the park.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your visit

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Location: North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a picturesque wilderness of grasslands and badlands. Bison, feral horses, pronghorns, and elk roam the landscapes, hiking trails meander through the colorful bentonite hills, and scenic roads take visitors to numerous stunning overlooks.

This national park is made up of three separate units: the South Unit, the North Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. Of the three, the South Unit is the more popular. In the North Unit, the views of the badlands are beautiful, there are several short, fun trails to hike, and there is a very good chance you will spot bison and other wildlife right from your car.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Theodore Roosevelt in August: For those seeking out a little solitude in nature, the somewhat out of the way location of Theodore Roosevelt National Park can be a blessing in disguise. While many national parks are battling traffic congestion and parking problems during the peak summer season, you may see more bison than people during your time at this amazing national park. While summer is the busiest time at the park, though by national park standards, it’s still not very busy. 

Weather: Summer also brings the warmest weather with high temperatures averaging in the 80s, and sometimes into the 90s. Rainfall is relatively low with about 2 inches of rain falling in August.

Sunrise & sunset (South Unit): Sunrise is at 5 am and sunset is at 8:50 pm. The South Unit is in the Mountain Time Zone and the North Unit is in the Central Time Zone.

Top experiences: Hike the Caprock Coulee Trail, enjoy the view from Sperati Point and the Wind Canyon Trail, drive the Scenic Drive in both units, visit the Petrified Forest, hike the Ekblom and Big Plateau Loop, and visit River Bend Overlook.

How many days do you need? If you want to explore both the North and South Units, you will need at least two days in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (one day for each unit).

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your visit

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in August

Volcanic
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

National park-like amenities tell the story of America’s most infamous active volcano. Gorgeous wildflower-packed views of the volcano can be enjoyed in spots like Bear Meadows while those seeking a closer view of the crater rim may drive to the Windy Ridge viewpoint or even summit the rim of the 8,365-foot volcano with a permit.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument

At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking this is Bryce Canyon National Park. It looks almost identical to its more famous national park cousin which is located about an hour to the east. Yet with less than a quarter of the annual visitation of Bryce, this small but mighty national monument makes a worthy alternative for those seeking color-packed canyon views stretching across three miles at an elevation of around 10,000 feet.

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

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Encompassing over 1.25 million acres, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area stretches for hundreds of miles from Lees Ferry in Arizona to the Orange Cliffs of southern Utah. Outdoor activities are what Glen Canyon is all about. There is something for everyone’s taste. 

San Antonio Missions National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Four of the five surviving Spanish colonial missions in and around San Antonio comprise the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. The park and its missions offer visitors a look at the oldest unrestored stone church in the country—Mission Concepción, Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada.

More Information about the National Parks

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best National Parks to visit by month

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Lubbock

The Best National Parks to Visit in July

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

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

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

The list of national parks to visit in July is wonderfully diverse. Visit Carlsbad Caverns, go hiking in Lassen Volcanic, spend some time in the tranquil forests in Sequoia and King Canyons National Parks, and explore one of the most underrated US national parks, Theodore Roosevelt.

In this guide, I cover five great parks to visit plus four bonus parks.

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

About this National Park series

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

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

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

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

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting the National Parks in July

July is the busiest month of the year to visit the national parks. The weather is warm, the days are long, and many people are hitting the road for summer vacation.

By July, all of the national parks are fully open with the last high mountain roads opening by early July. So, you can pretty much visit any park you want. However, some parks are very hot this time of year (particularly across the south and into the American Southwest) and some are extremely crowded (Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, and Great Smoky Mountains make this list). You won’t see these parks on my list for July but there are some parks with lower crowds and great weather that make excellent picks this month.

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

Best National Parks in July

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Location: California

This national park protects Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world. In Lassen Volcanic you’ll see steaming fumaroles, pretty lakes, colorful landscapes, and Lassen Peak.

Snow lingers on the roads and trails at the higher elevation of the park into June and sometimes into early July. If you want to hike to Lassen Peak and have full access to the park, July is the earliest time of the year when this is possible.

Cool fact: Lassen Volcanic National Park one of the only places in the world where you can see all four types of volcanoes: shield, stratovolcano, cinder cone, and plug.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Lassen Volcanic in July: By early July, the roads and trails in the higher elevations of the park open, so this is about the earliest you can visit Lassen Volcanic and have full access to the park. Plus, the weather is pretty much perfect this time of year.

Weather: In July, the average high is 72°F and the average low is 40°F. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 5:30 am and sunset is at 8:40 pm.

Top experiences: Walk Bumpass Hell Trail (isn’t that the best name for a hiking trail?), capture the reflection of Lassen Peak in Manzanita Lake, go for a scenic drive on Lassen Park Highway, visit Kings Creek Falls and Mill Creek Falls, visit Devils Kitchen, and hike to the top of Lassen Peak.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike to the summit of Brokeoff Mountain for panoramic views of the park. Note, this hike is best attempted in late summer to early fall when the trail is free of snow.

How many days do you need? One day is just enough time to see the highlights but plan on spending two to three days here to hike several more trails and thoroughly explore the park.

Plan your visit

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

2 & 3. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Location: California

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks sit side by side in central California. Filled with alpine peaks, deep canyons, and the largest trees in the world, you should spend several days here.

Kings Canyon preserves a glacially carved valley (named Kings Canyon) and Grant Grove which is home to General Grant, the second largest tree in the world.

Sitting right beside Kings Canyon is Sequoia National Park. It is here that you will walk among towering sequoia trees and see the largest tree in the world, the General Sherman.

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

Why visit Kings Canyon & Sequoia in July: July is the busiest month of the year to visit but the weather is great.

Weather: The average high is 83°F and the average low is 65°F. Rainfall is very low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is 5:40 am and sunset is 8:05 pm.

Top experiences: Visit Grant Grove and drive Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, visit Zumwalt Meadows, see the General Sherman Tree, hike Moro Rock, and visit Crescent Meadows.

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

Ultimate experience: Explore the backcountry of Kings Canyon National Park. 77 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail/John Muir Trail runs through Kings Canyon National Park making this a top backpacking destination in the U.S.

How many days do you need? Spend a minimum of one day in each park.

Plan your visit

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Location: North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a picturesque wilderness of grasslands and badlands. Bison, feral horses, pronghorns, and elk roam the landscapes, hiking trails meander through the colorful bentonite hills, and scenic roads take visitors to numerous stunning overlooks.

This national park is made up of three separate units: the South Unit, the North Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. Of the three, the South Unit is the more popular. In the North Unit, the views of the badlands are beautiful, there are several short, fun trails to hike, and there is a very good chance you will spot bison and other wildlife right from your car.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Theodore Roosevelt in July: For those seeking out a little solitude in nature, the somewhat out of the way location of Theodore Roosevelt National Park can be a blessing in disguise. While many national parks are battling traffic congestion and parking problems during the peak summer season, you may see more bison than people during your time at this amazing national park. While summer is the busiest time at the park, though by national park standards, it’s still not very busy. 

Weather: Summer also brings the warmest weather with high temperatures averaging in the 80s, and sometimes into the 90s. Rainfall is relatively low with about 2 inches of rain falling in July.

Sunrise & sunset (South Unit): Sunrise is at 5 am and sunset is at 8:50 pm. The South Unit is in the Mountain Time Zone and the North Unit is in the Central Time Zone.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Hike the Caprock Coulee Trail, enjoy the view from Sperati Point and the Wind Canyon Trail, drive the Scenic Drive in both units, visit the Petrified Forest, hike the Ekblom and Big Plateau Loop, and visit River Bend Overlook.

How many days do you need? If you want to explore both the North and South Units, you will need at least two days in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (one day for each unit).

Plan your visit

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Location: New Mexico

An underground fantasy land of limestone chambers, stalactites and stalagmites, and long, twisting tunnels is located in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico.

From late May through October you can watch the Bat Flight program. At the Bat Flight Amphitheater, grab a seat and watch as the bats emerge by the thousands from the natural entrance of the cave. The best time to see the bats is in August and September when the baby bats join the show. The Bat Flight Program takes place every evening and it is weather dependent.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Carlsbad Caverns in July: To watch the Bat Flight Program when bats emerge by the thousands from the natural entrance of the cave.

Weather: In July, the average high is 91°F and the average low is 67°F. July is one of the wettest months of the year with 2 inches of rainfall. The average temperature throughout the cave is 68°F and the relative humidity remains close to a constant 100 percent.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:20 am and sunset is at 7:40 pm.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Tour the caverns on your own or on a ranger-guided tour. You can also go star gazing, hike a surface trail, or go on a scenic drive. 

How much time do you need? A half to a full day is all you need to explore the caverns on your own and/or take a ranger-guided tour.

Plan your visit

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in July

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

National park-like amenities tell the story of America’s most infamous active volcano. Gorgeous wildflower-packed views of the volcano can be enjoyed in spots like Bear Meadows while those seeking a closer view of the crater rim may drive to the Windy Ridge viewpoint or even summit the rim of the 8,365-foot volcano with a permit.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore

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

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument

At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking this is Bryce Canyon National Park. It looks almost identical to its more famous national park cousin which is located about an hour to the east. Yet with less than a quarter of the annual visitation of Bryce, this small but mighty national monument makes a worthy alternative for those seeking color-packed canyon views stretching across three miles at an elevation of around 10,000 feet.

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

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Encompassing over 1.25 million acres, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area stretches for hundreds of miles from Lees Ferry in Arizona to the Orange Cliffs of southern Utah. Outdoor activities are what Glen Canyon is all about. There is something for everyone’s taste. 

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Lubbock

The Best National Parks to Visit in June

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

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

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

The list of national parks to visit in June is wonderfully diverse. Visit the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, go hiking in Lassen Volcanic, spend some time in the tranquil forests in Sequoia and King Canyons National Parks, and explore one of the most underrated national parks, Theodore Roosevelt.

In this guide, I cover six great parks to visit plus four bonus parks.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

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

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

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

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

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting the National Parks in June

From the end of May into June, numerous parks fully open their roads. In June, the weather is warm and the days are the longest of the year giving you plenty of time to explore the parks.

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

Best National Parks in June

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1 & 2. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Location: California

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks sit side by side in central California. Filled with alpine peaks, deep canyons, and the largest trees in the world, you should spend several days here.

Kings Canyon preserves a glacially carved valley (named Kings Canyon) and Grant Grove which is home to General Grant, the second largest tree in the world.

Sitting right beside Kings Canyon is Sequoia National Park. It is here that you will walk among towering sequoia trees and see the largest tree in the world, the General Sherman.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why Visit Kings Canyon & Sequoia in June: The weather is pretty much perfect and crowd levels aren’t yet at their peak levels (that usually occurs in July and August).

Weather: The average high is 71°F and the average low is 46°F. Rainfall is very low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is 5:30 am and sunset is 8:15 pm.

Top experiences: Visit Grant Grove and drive Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, visit Zumwalt Meadows, see the General Sherman Tree, hike Moro Rock, and visit Crescent Meadows.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate experience: Explore the backcountry of Kings Canyon National Park. 77 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail/John Muir Trail runs through Kings Canyon National Park making this a top backpacking destination in the U.S.

How Many Days Do You Need? Spend a minimum of one day in each park.

Plan your visit

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Grand Canyon National Park

Location: Arizona

Awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping, extraordinary…these are all words that describe the Grand Canyon. But in all honesty, words, and even photos, cannot quite capture what it is like to stand on the rim and gaze out across the canyon.

This massive national park has several sections to it. Most visitors spend their time on the South Rim where roads and hiking trails lead to stunning viewpoints of the Grand Canyon. This is also the place to hike the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails.

In mid-May, the road to the North Rim opens. If you visit the Grand Canyon in June, you have the option to add on the North Rim and it’s worth it. Be aware that the travel distance between the North Rim and the South Rim is 210 miles.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit the Grand Canyon in June: To visit the North Rim of the Grand Canyon which opens in mid-May. Now that the North Rim is open it’s also possible to hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim but just be aware that temperatures in the canyon will be very hot. A better time to do this hike is September into October when the temperatures are cooler and the North Rim is still open. 

Weather: On the South Rim, the average high is 82°F and the average low is 63°F. The high temperature can climb up to 100°F on unusually hot days. Below the rim, temperatures are much hotter. Down by the Colorado River, the temperature can easily be over 110°F.

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

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim. This is a massive day hike and should only be attempted by those with excellent fitness and lots of hiking experience.

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

Plan your visit

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Location: California

This national park protects Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world. In some ways, it’s like a combination of Yellowstone + Mount Rainer just on a smaller scale. At Lassen Volcanic, you’ll see steaming fumaroles, pretty lakes, colorful landscapes, and Lassen Peak.

Cool fact: Lassen Volcanic National Park one of the few places in the world where you can see all four types of volcanoes: shield, stratovolcano, cinder cone, and plug.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Lassen Volcanic in June: In May and June, the snow is melting in the park and many of the roads are cleared of snow. By June, many of the roads and trails around Manzanita Lake are open. However, some roads and trails at the higher elevation (for example, Lassen Peak), may not open until July. If you want full access to the park, delay your visit for the second half of July into August. However, crowds are also at their peak in July so if you want good weather and fewer crowds, June is a nice time to visit Lassen Volcanic.

Weather: In June, the average high is 71°F and the average low is 36°F. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 5:30 am and sunset is at 8:40 pm.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Walk Bumpass Hell Trail (isn’t that the best name for a hiking trail?), capture the reflection of Lassen Peak in Manzanita Lake, go for a scenic drive on Lassen Park Highway, visit Kings Creek Falls and Mill Creek Falls, visit Devils Kitchen, and hike to the top of Lassen Peak.

Ultimate adventure: Hike to the summit of Brokeoff Mountain for panoramic views of the park. Note, this hike is best attempted in late summer to early fall when the trail is free of snow.

How many days do you need? One day is just enough time to drive through the park and see the highlights but plan on spending two to three days here to hike several more trails and thoroughly explore the park.

Plan your visit

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Location: North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a picturesque wilderness of grasslands and badlands. Bison, feral horses, pronghorns, and elk roam the landscapes, hiking trails meander through the colorful bentonite hills, and scenic roads take visitors to numerous stunning overlooks.

This national park is made up of three separate units: the South Unit, the North Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. Of the three, the South Unit is the more popular. In the North Unit, the views of the badlands are beautiful, there are several short, fun trails to hike, and there is a very good chance you will spot bison and other wildlife right from your car.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Theodore Roosevelt in June: Unless you are here during a heat wave, the weather is warm and fantastic. June is the beginning of the busy summer season but crowds are lower in June than the rest of the summer and the weather is cooler.

Weather: The average high is 64°F and the average low is 53°F. On hotter than average days the temperature can get up into the 80s. This is one of the wettest months of the year however rainfall is still relatively low with about 3 inches of rain falling in June.

Sunrise & sunset (South Unit): Sunrise is at 5 am and sunset is at 8:50 pm. The South Unit is in the Mountain Time Zone and the North Unit is in the Central Time Zone.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Hike the Caprock Coulee Trail, enjoy the view from Sperati Point and the Wind Canyon Trail, drive the Scenic Drive in both units, visit the Petrified Forest, hike the Ekblom and Big Plateau Loop, and visit River Bend Overlook.

How many days do you need? If you want to explore both the North and South Units, you will need at least two days in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (one day for each unit).

Plan your visit

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

6. New River Gorge National Park

Location: West Virginia

For millions of years, the New River has been carving out a 73,000 acre gorge in West Virginia. The sandstone cliffs and whitewater rapids create world-class rock climbing and whitewater rafting destinations. Hiking and mountain biking trails wind through the forests leading to overlooks and historic settlements.

This is a newcomer to the US national parks list. New River Gorge officially became a national park in 2020 but it has long been a whitewater rafting destination in the United States.

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

Why visit New River Gorge in June: With warm weather this is a great time to go hiking and biking in New River Gorge National Park. The water temperature is also warming up so this also becomes a good time to go whitewater rafting.

Weather: The average high is 78°F and the average low is 60°F. June is one of the wettest months of the year.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:00 am and sunset is at 8:50 pm.

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

Top experiences: Do the Bridge Walk, hike the Long Point Trail, drive Fayette Station Road, go mountain biking and rock climbing, enjoy the view from Grandview Overlook, hike the Castle Rock Trail, and visit Sandstone Falls.

Ultimate adventure: Go white water rafting on the New River (rafting season is April through October).

How many days do you need? If you want to visit the three main areas of New River Gorge National Park (Canyon Rim, Grandview, and Sandstone) and have enough time to go whitewater rafting, you will need three to four days. However, with less time, you can visit the highlights and hike a few of the trails.

Plan your visit

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in June

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

National park-like amenities tell the story of America’s most infamous active volcano. Gorgeous wildflower-packed views of the volcano can be enjoyed in spots like Bear Meadows while those seeking a closer view of the crater rim may drive to the Windy Ridge viewpoint or even summit the rim of the 8,365-foot volcano with a permit.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument

At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking this is Bryce Canyon National Park. It looks almost identical to its more famous national park cousin which is located about an hour to the east. Yet with less than a quarter of the annual visitation of Bryce, this small but mighty national monument makes a worthy alternative for those seeking color-packed canyon views stretching across three miles at an elevation of around 10,000 feet.

Colonial National Historical Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colonial National Historical Park

Want to go way back in American history? Then you’ll head to some of the first colonies in the New World. The Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia covers Historic Jamestowne (the first permanent English settlement in North America) and Yorktown Battlefield (site of the last major battle of the Revolutionary War).

Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site

The Vanderbilt Mansion is a symbol of a country in the grip of change after the Civil War. Visitors to the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site will learn about the architecture and landscaping of the grounds as well as the influence of the Vanderbilt family.

More information about the National Parks

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best National Parks to visit by month

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

The 15 Best National Parks to Visit in Winter

Summer may be high season but these parks are at their best in the colder months

One of the best-kept secrets about America’s national parks is many are even better in winter. Whether you want to feel the satisfying crunch of snow under your boots or escape those chilly temps for a desert ramble, one thing’s for sure: You’ll be able to do so without the crowds that summer brings. Once-crowded trails turn into tranquil getaways. Quiet winter wonderlands showcase nature’s calm beauty. 

And no matter how great the other seasons are for a visit, a visit to your favorite fall foliage or spring wildflower destination is completely different in the depths of winter. Lack of foliage can bring long views.

Below, find the best national parks to visit in winter from the red hoodoos of Bryce Canyon to the stunning desertscape of Saguaro. Be sure to pack a few extra layers and remember to always double-check trail and road conditions before heading out. 

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Although the Grand Canyon is a southern park, its ridges are still blessed with snow in winter. Fog is typical in the early morning hours but afternoons are sunny. The canyon’s North Rim is closed to visitors but the South Rim is open year-round and is less crowded during this season.

Visitors can take a cell phone audio tour or use a GPS device for the park’s EarthCache program. EarthCaches are a type of geocache that provide participants with a learning experience in geosciences. By participating in the program, you will embark on an exploration of the unique geologic story that provides insights into the Grand Canyon.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Joshua Tree National Park, California

With the average temps exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer, outdoor enthusiasts who love national parks but hate the heat will love the cooler climate of Joshua Tree during the winter. Temperatures can reach 60 degrees making it the opportune time to visit the otherwise-sweltering Joshua Tree. Just be aware that while daytime temps here are generally mild in the winter, nighttime temps in the desert can drop below freezing.

The park is a mecca for world-class rock climbers but it also offers scenic drives and family-friendly hiking trails that any visitor can enjoy. After perusing the Cholla Cactus Garden and scrambling up the enormous, monzogranite boulders along Arch Rock Nature Trail, settle in for some epic stargazing at one of the 500 campsites in Joshua Tree National Park.

Plan your visit here during the cooler months for comfortable hiking temps and incredible stargazing without the huge crowds.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Joshua Tree National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

The famous, striking limestone formations at Carlsbad Caverns have often been compared to floating underground jellyfish or alcoves full of goblins and fairies—however you interpret them, they’re otherworldly. The best part about visiting this New Mexico locale in the winter months (apart from bypassing the crowds) is that the cave stays a balmy 56 degrees Fahrenheit, rain or shine. Ranger-led tours are available year-round or visitors can opt to check out the Natural Entrance and Big Room Trails on their own.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

While it may be hard to imagine, Bryce Canyon’s earthly spires are even more spectacular when dusted in snow. Bryce Canyon National Park also has ideal stargazing skies and the cold, dry air makes them all the more amazing. Saturday astronomy programs and full moon snowshoe adventures are a couple of the several incredible programs offered here during the winter season. Don your microspikes or snowshoes (available for rent at Ruby’s Inn) and travel between the two points on the Rim Trail then warm up on a views-for-days drive to Rainbow Point—elevation 9,115 feet.

Since the Park is situated at 8,000-9,000 feet, some of the roads and trails are closed due to snow and ice but there are still plenty of things to do especially if you time your visit with the Bryce Canyon Winter Festival (February 18-20, 2023). Just be sure to pack warm clothes and be prepared for winter conditions.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Make winter plans to visit a warmer locale in Arizona’s Petrified National Park where park-goers can see the Painted Desert, drive past Blue Mesa, and see the Crystal Forest up close.  The weather may be cold in winter but snow is rare. Don’t forget those warm layers for when temps drop at night.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Petrified Forest National Park

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

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

Getting out in nature during an East Coast winter doesn’t have to mean shivering in a snowstorm for hours on end. America’s most visited park still gets attention after all its gorgeous leaves have dropped. The barren trees become fortresses of ice and snow—a true winter wonderland. Be aware that the main roads should remain clear but secondary ones may be closed. At night, stargaze by the fire at Cades Cove Campground.

Many people use Clingmans Dome Road (closed to vehicles December 1-March 31) for walking and cross-country skiing. The road starts 0.1 mile south of Newfound Gap.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Zion National Park, Utah

Zion’s famous sandstone walls are often eclipsed by tourist throngs from spring through fall with 4.5 million people rushing into the 15-mile-long canyon each year. But with a light dusting of snow, the rust-colored cliffs visible from the Pa’rus Trail take on a magical quality and oft-crowded spots like Canyon Overlook are generally mob-free. Zion’s main road is normally closed to vehicles and serviced by a shuttle but in January, February, and parts of December you can drive your car through Zion Canyon. 

Temperatures are generally mild during the day which makes for lovely hiking. Best of all? Winter travelers can savor slow mornings, sipping coffee in a cozy western cabin at centrally located Zion Lodge. And Watchman Campground remains open all winter.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Big Bend National Park, Texas

One of America’s hottest parks (at least in terms of temperature), Big Bend is perfect for a winter visit. You can enjoy hikes into the Chisos Mountains, paddles along the Rio Grande, and some of the best star-gazing conditions in the U.S. While Big Bend’s high season is in winter—from October to April—this park is remote and doesn’t see a huge number of visitors, so you’ll still find plenty of solitude.

A natural wonder (especially in the mostly-flat Lone Star State), this park is named after a massive bend in the Rio Grande River that separates Texas from Mexico—and the far-flung locale has enough scenic diversity for a week-long journey or more.

Stay at the Chisos Mountains Lodge and marvel at high-elevation vistas of the craggy Window Formation as you hike through madrone trees and fragrant junipers. Then, soak your tired bones in the park’s historic hot springs, ideally as the sunset turns the famous Santa Elena Canyon into a hundred shades of amber.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Big Bend National Park

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Enjoy the stunning desert landscape of Saguaro National Park at Tucson where visitors can experience the beauty of the largest cactus in the United States—the giant Saguaro cacti which can grow to be more than 45 feet tall and age over 200 years. Winter is the perfect time to visit Saguaro because the temperatures are mild with an average high of 65 degrees and the light gives the desert a golden glow—this is one of the warmest national parks to visit in winter. There are a variety of hiking options within the park.

And there are even more stunners in the area from the Sonora Desert Museum and Sabino Canyon to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park has some of America’s most breathtaking scenes. In winter, white snow contrasts with the red rocks and blue skies to create some stunning sights. While daytime temperatures often rise above 90 degrees in summer expect freezing temperatures in winter. Even scant snowfall can make trails and off-roads impassable so be sure to plan ahead. Stop at the Arches Visitor Center to check the conditions and get an orientation so you’re prepared for winter conditions.

For winter camping and hiking, the Devils Garden Campground is open year-round with 51 sites available on a first-come, first-served basis between November 1 and February 28 including restrooms and drinking water at the campground.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Open year-round to outdoor enthusiasts, White Sands National Park in New Mexico is one of the best National Parks to visit in the winter for many reasons. For one, it’s a less-visited park in general so you’re likely to see very few people so you can sled down the dunes all by yourself. Plus, as soon as you hike a little ways into the dunes, you’re unlikely to encounter other hikers. New Mexico does get chilly in winter, but it rarely sees a lot of snow this far south.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to White Sands National Park

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Explore the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeast at Congaree National Park. South Carolina’s summers are hot and humid and the riverside habitat that makes up Congaree National Park is a favorite spot for mosquitoes. Visit in the cooler months, generally November to April, for mild temperatures and minimal mosquito levels. This is an ideal season to paddle, hike, or fish at the park.

Flooding is most frequent at this time of the year and can happen with little or no warning. It does not have to rain at Congaree for flooding to take place. Laying in a watershed the size of the state of Maryland, any significant rain in the upstate of South Carolina can cause a rise in water levels. Check the river gauges and the weather before you go.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Congaree National Park

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Pinnacles National Park, California

A relatively small park, Pinnacles still packs a punch—especially in the winter. The landscape features shaded, oak woodlands and exposed chaparral. There are canyon bottoms and talus caves you hike inside leaving the other side at the foot of tall rock spires.

You’ll find 15 different hiking options in the park. To check out the caves start at Chapparal (West Pinnacles) and take either the Balconies Cliffs-Cave Loop (easy), the Juniper Canyon Loop (hard) or the High Peaks to Balconies Cave Loop (hard).

You can have an excellent time at Pinnacles any time of year though winter is one of the best times to visit. From late spring to mid-autumn this region can be very hot making longer hikes difficult. The temperatures are much more pleasant in late autumn through winter and early spring.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Pinnacles National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Winter stretches itself from October through June at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Clear lakes become icy and volcanoes become topped with heavy snow and steam vents become especially smoky. For those seeking fun as well as beauty, winter activities are at their peak with sledding hills that offer mountain views, snowshoeing for beginners and experts, and backcountry skiing that can’t be beat.

More than half of the year Lassen is blanketed in snow. Although the park highway closes to through traffic during the winter months, the Southwest and Manzanita Lake areas remain accessible year-round. Visit the park’s year-round Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and enjoy the steep slopes in the Southwest Area or explore the gentler terrain in the Manzanita Lake area.

The old Lassen Ski Area located above the present-day Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center closed in 1994. The area is still used by backcountry skier and snowboarders.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

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

15. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Is there a more sublime snow experience than skiing or snowshoeing through the giant trees found in these two parks? Trails can be found in both the Giant Forest of Sequoia and Grant Grove in Kings Canyon.

According to park staff, many trails are suitable for snowshoeing when there’s adequate snow. You can rent snowshoes or bring your own. Purchase a map of ski trails at any visitor center and look for reflective markers on trees that show popular paths. When snowshoeing, stay clear of ski tracks. Check the park newspaper’s winter safety tips.

Rangers lead snowshoe hikes when conditions allow. The park provides the snowshoes; you bring warm layered clothing, waterproof boots, gloves, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, water, and a snack. The walks are moderately strenuous. Waterproof shoes are required. Walks last 1.5-2 hours and range from 1.5-2 miles in length.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Worth Pondering…

Always maintain a kind of summer, even in the middle of winter.

—Henry David Thoreau

The Ultimate Guide to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are filled with a vast expanse of nature, dozens of the world’s largest trees, and thousands of miles of backcountry trails

A grove of giant redwood or sequoias should be kept just as we keep a great and beautiful cathedral.

— President Theodore Roosevelt

Giant Sequoias, the world’s largest trees by volume, are found only on California’s western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. These majestic trees were the impetus behind the creation of the United States’ second and third national parks: Sequoia National Park and General Grant National Park (later expanded and renamed Kings Canyon National Park).

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoias can grow to be upwards of a 26-story building in height and over 3,000 years old. They were named Sequoiadendron giganteum, or Sequoia for short, after the Native American man, Sequoyah, who created the Cherokee’s system of writing. In the mid-1800s, Western settlers came across these trees and were awe-struck by their grandeur. Not surprisingly, the largest sequoias were given names of monumental American figures of that time including Lincoln, General Sherman, and General Grant, as well as a sequoia known only as the “President.”

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the largest tree stumps in the world is known as the Mark Twain Tree. Embodying the American spirit of adventure and storytelling, the Mark Twain Tree was cut down and sent off in cross sections to be displayed in museums in New York and London. Although the parks were created to stop logging, the Mark Twain Tree was cut down, right or wrong, to showcase these wonders of the world and educate the public. Standing before a cross-section and looking at its many rings, we are offered a different perspective on the age and incredible scale of these ancient specimens.

So here we have two separate national parks joined at the hip, very different and with one big thing in common—size. Sequoia National Park has the largest tree on Earth by volume stationed within its boundaries its name is General Sherman. Kings Canyon is home to one of North America’s largest (and most beautiful) canyons, and to the world’s second-largest tree, General Grant.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Largest Tree in the World

Sequoia National Park is home to the largest tree in the world which stands 275 feet high with a volume of 52,508 cubic feet. Though far from being the world’s tallest tree, this sequoia’s mass is unrivaled across the planet. Named after American Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, the General Sherman Tree is a highly visited feature of the National Park System.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recently, fires in the area of the Giant Forest sequoia grove made it necessary to take additional steps to protect General Sherman and other giant sequoias. General Sherman’s incredible 36-foot-diameter base and nearly 103-foot circumference were wrapped in foil up to 10–15 feet high to help shield its already thick bark from potential flames. Luckily, a recent program of prescribed fires kept this massive sequoia and its neighbors protected, though, unfortunately, other groves in the surrounding Sequoia National Forest did not fare so well.

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

This increased threat to the world’s largest tree was brought to national attention and it was used as an opportunity to highlight controversy over its name. One periodical called for the tree to be “saved and then renamed.” General Sherman’s tactics during and after the Civil War were indeed nothing short of brutal. His command oversaw the mass killing of Native Americans and the near extinction of buffalo.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Critics justifiably highlight the paradox inherent in sequoias being named after a Cherokee man while the pinnacle exemplar of the species is ironically given the name of a general who oversaw the mass slaughter and displacement of Native Americans.

Is the answer to America’s past to revise or rename everything that is challenging or can we continue to rationally face these difficult aspects of our history without needing to destroy or rename national landmarks?

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

Instead of canceling history, it is important to have the past inform the present to avoid making similar mistakes. It is the trees themselves that are great regardless of any given name or historical figure with whom they are associated. The giant sequoias were here long before American colonization, and, God willing, they will remain for millennia to come. In Shakespeare’s famous words, “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”

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

Protecting the Trees

On September 25, 1890, Sequoia National Park was created by President Harrison to protect sequoias from private industry. General Grant National Park was created one week later to protect additional groves in the area. Expanded and renamed Kings Canyon National Park in 1940, the park is home to the second largest tree in the world, the General Grant Tree. Named after President of the United States, and General, Ulysses S. Grant, the tree stands 268 feet tall with a volume of 46,608 cubic feet.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

President Grant established the National Park Service. This act alone makes it fitting that a giant sequoia is named in his honor. Grant famously oversaw the end of the Civil War at Appomattox, where, on April 9, 1865, a peace agreement was signed with General Lee and no prisoners of war were taken. In 1868, Grant was elected president of a nation still deeply wounded by domestic bloodshed. President Eisenhower made the General Grant Tree a national shrine in 1956 to honor all those who have lost their lives serving our country. It is the only living shrine in the United States.

Castle Rock, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nature’s Mightiest Survivors

Everyone who stands at the base of a mighty sequoia for the first time is changed by the experience. These gigantic trees, thousands of years in the making, command a feeling of great reverence. Their presence is felt in the stillness and peace of their groves. While recent fires have threatened and taken the lives of many sequoias, others have survived through many flames long since extinguished. Sequoias are some of nature’s best survivors. They have a very thick skin, so to speak, with bark that can be up to 1.5 feet thick, shielding the living tissue underneath.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fire plays an essential role in the growth of sequoias and the health of the forest. Through fire come renewal and the opportunity for new sequoias to plant and have the sunlight to grow. Fire clears out natural buildup on the forest floor, making way for new life. Fire severity increases in potential when small fires are prevented from doing this necessary work. Native Americans managed the forest with fire and the National Park Service has learned to do the same with controlled, “prescribed” burns. Sequoia seeds successfully grow into seedlings thanks to the mineral soil cleared, and enriched, by fire.

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

We can strive to protect these beautiful trees out of genuine love, or attachment, but we don’t own nature, and whether we like it or not, we aren’t in control of its cycles. 2014 marked the most severe drought in 122 years, but that does not mean it is wholly unnatural, or “man-made.” Humanity impacts nature in a variety of ways but it is part of the deception of our time to assume that we are to blame for most of the frightening occurrences or extreme events that happen in nature.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The evidence is written in the rings of trees that were here long before us. Giant sequoias have survived as long as they have because they have learned to live through and grow from adversity. They are known as a “pioneer species” because they are among the first to take root after a fire occurs. There is a humbling and regenerative wisdom amongst these trees that seems to calmly, yet powerfully, whisper, “This too shall pass.” Edwin Markham, American poet of the 19th and 20th centuries, wrote:

The sequoias belong to the silences of the millenniums. Many of them have seen a hundred human generations rise, give off their little clamors and perish. They seem indeed to be forms of immortality standing here among the transitory shapes of time.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 

Sequoia National Park: 404,063 acres

Kings Canyon National Park: 461,901 acres

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Date Established: 

Sequoia National Park: September 25, 1890

Kings Canyon National Park: March 4, 1940  

Location: Central California

Park Elevation: 1,370 feet-14,494 feet

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the parks got their names: 

Sequoia National Park: This park was named after the giant Sequoia tree! The naming of the sequoia tree has a complicated past—some stories say that it commemorates a Cherokee Indian Chief named Sequoya who is well known for giving a phonetic alphabet to his nation; others record that it was named after the tree genus of its close relative—the redwood tree—which was named after the Latin word sequoiadendron giganteum

Kings Canyon National Park: Kings Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in America—1.5 miles deep—and was named for the Kings River that flows through the base of it creating the canyon. The Kings River also flows through Sequoia and Sierra National Forests.

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

Iconic sites in the park: 

Sequoia National Park: Hands down this honor goes to the General Sherman Tree—the largest tree in the world by volume—so iconic that it was chosen by the National Park Service to represent all trees in all of the parks on the iconic Arrowhead logo insignia. It is estimated that General Sherman is between 2,300 and 2,700 years old. A new, well-established trail to the iconic site was completed in 2006, allowing more space for visitors to wander and to better appreciate the massive size of the tree. The 0.8-mile out and back hike is a breeze, but do go slow—the elevation at the parking lot is 7,000 feet and you most likely climbed by car to get there so you might be a bit light headed on the short walk due to the elevation change. 

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kings Canyon National Park: The views on the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway took our breath away. It is these views that Sierra Club photographer Ansel Adams captured and shared with the U.S. government to successfully lobby for national park status. Winding down the 50-mile mountain pass you will see wildflowers, forests of trees, sloped mountains, rock formations, and at the base of it all, the Kings River—the stepping off point to the wilds of the Sierra Nevada wilderness.  

Mount Eisen, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know…

Sequoia is America’s second national park. It was the first national park to be created to protect a living organism, the giant sequoia tree, which at a time of the park formation was vulnerable to complete destruction due to logging endeavors. 

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

The largest tree in the world by volume is in Sequoia National Park, it’s name is General Sherman. The largest of the sequoias are as tall (on average) as a 26-story building. 

The world’s second largest tree by volume, the General Grant Tree, can be found in Kings Canyon National Park. It is not only America’s official Christmas tree, but also a national shrine dedicated to U.S. veterans in 1956. It is estimated to be 2,000 years old.

Mt. Whitney, standing at 14,505 feet, is the highest mountain in the lower 48 states and is located on the eastern side of Sequoia National Park.  

Potwisha Campground, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Giant Sequoia Tree’s Guide to Life

Have a thick skin

Stand up to the heat

Don’t let things bug you

Heal your own wounds

Enjoy your days in the sun

Strive for balance

Hold yourself up high

Worth Pondering…

No other tree in the world, as far as I know, has looked down on so many centuries as the Sequoia, or opens such impressive and suggestive views into history.

—John Muir, The Big Trees, Chapter 7 of The Yosemite (1912) 

Learn How America’s National Parks Got Their Names

The stories behind their names

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

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

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

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

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

National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

The park received 590, 334 recreational visitors in 2021.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, California

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

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

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

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

The park received 548,477 recreational visitors in 2021.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

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

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jonathan Irish, photographer