National Park Trails You’ll Want to Hike This Year

Explore the best trails in some of the world’s most beautiful parks

Each year, the American Hiking Society celebrates National Trails Day on the first Saturday in June. On that day thousands of people across the country head out on their favorite hiking route to enjoy a walk in the woods where they get the chance to reconnect with nature along the way. Others donate their time to help build new trails or provide maintenance on those that already exist.

Hiking the Blue Mesa Trail in Petrified Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is a chance for hikers, bikers, horseback riders, and other outdoor enthusiasts to show their appreciation for the more than 200,000 miles of recreational trails in the U.S. Some of the absolute best hiking trails are found inside America’s national parks many of which are tailor-made for exploring on foot. With so many trails to choose from, it is difficult to pick which ones are the very best. Here are 10 national park trails that belong to your must-hike itinerary.

Know your limits, pace yourself, and pay attention to how you are feeling. Your safety is your responsibility. Your tomorrow depends on the decisions that you make today.

Hiking Navajo Loop in Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Navajo Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park offers some of the most unique landscapes that you’ll find anywhere and one of the best trails to explore that environment on is the 3-mile long Navajo Loop. Starting at Sunset Point and continuing to the main amphitheater this trail takes hikers past some of the more scenic elements in the entire park. Beware of falling rocks though as this trail can be a bit treacherous at times. 

Hiking the Boardwalk Loop in Congaree © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Boardwalk Loop in Congaree National Park, South Carolina

This hike, though it’s really more of a walk, features an elevated boardwalk through old-growth swampland. Though the lush, green trees are beautiful in their own right the trail really shines at night (literally!) when thousands of fireflies come out and fill the area. For photographers, the trail is exceptionally beautiful at sunrise when both the boardwalk and bald cypress trees take on golden early-morning hues. Wildlife like deer and wild pigs can also be seen in the area for those willing to sit silently for a few minutes Mosquito repellant is a must, especially in the summer months.

Hiking the Blue Mesa Loop in Petrified Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Mesa Loop in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

For a trail that’s only one mile total, the Blue Mesa loop in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park is filled with immense and impressive scenery. Home to two of the park’s signature sights, colorful badlands, and gigantic petrified logs, it’s an easy and accessible way to experience the overwhelming beauty of this underrated park. It starts off along a paved trail atop the mesa before zig-zagging down into a canyon of blue- and purple-hued badlands. It loops through a sea of kaleidoscopic petrified wood whose twinkling blues and purples make them look like bejeweled boulders. This trail is also dog-friendly and a safe and fun way to explore with four-legged friends.

Hiking Park Avenue in Arches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Avenue Trail in Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park, in Southeast Utah, is a day-hikers paradise. The park is one of Southern Utah’s most famous hiking destinations with an easily accessible network of trails that often culminate right at the base of an impressive sandstone arch. The Park Avenue Trail is most aptly named for New York City’s famous street. Early travelers noticed a similarity between these sandstone spires and the famous skyscrapers along New York’s Park Avenue and the name stuck. The main difference, of course, is that the “skyscrapers” of Arches National Park were sculpted by nature. Although you can start at either end of this shuttle trail starting at the south end (Park Avenue) results in a totally downhill hike. You’ll really be missing something if you leave Arches without taking this short hike. You can see the Courthouse Towers, Tower of Babel, Three Gossips, the Organ, and other grand “skyscrapers” from the road but if you don’t take this hike you’ll miss the truly stimulating experience of walking among them.

Hiking Badlands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cliff Shelf Nature Trail in Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is a short trail over a boardwalk but gives hikers an opportunity to see local wildlife and a great view of the White River Valley and Eagle Butte. Over 50 plant species and 100 bird species have been seen in the area around the trail partially due to the Cliff Shelf’s bowl-like shape-retaining more water. There is occasionally a small pond that attracts wildlife such as bighorn sheep. Keep your binocular handy and get hiking!

Hiking Capitol Reef © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Golden Throne Trail in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Towering 1,400 feet above the road at the bottom of Capitol Gorge, Golden Throne is an icon of the park and draws many tourists and photographers every year. Toward the east end of Capitol Gorge in Capitol Reef National Park, hikers have the chance to climb up into the higher reaches of the Waterpocket Fold to enjoy the view of Golden Throne from up close. The trailhead to this short but strenuous ascent ascends by way of switchback from the narrow confines of Capitol Gorge. This hike gains close to 800 feet of elevation within its 1.5-mile ascent and then loses the same on the way back down.

Hiking Interdune Boardwalk in White Sands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Interdune Boardwalk in White Sands National Park, New Mexico

There is no better way to experience the unique landscape of White Sands National Park than by venturing out onto any of the five established trails. Explore the dunes and enjoy the silence and solitude of the dune field with its stunning views of the surrounding mountains. The trails vary in terms of difficulty and scenery. The Interdune Boardwalk is fully accessible for people using wheelchairs and strollers. Take an easy 0.4 mile round trip stroll through the dunes and learn about the science, geology, plants, and animals that make White Sands an unequaled natural wonder. The boardwalk is a great place to take a break under the shade canopy, listen for bird calls, observe lizards, and enjoy wildflowers. The average completion time is 20 minutes.

Hiking New River Gorge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Endless Wall Trail in New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

The New River Gorge National Park is home to the highly underrated Endless Wall Trail. This moderate 2.4-mile walk begins in the forests of the park before crossing Fern Creek and zig-zagging along a cliff edge overlooking the New River. The trail is dotted with scenic overlooks including the breathtaking overlook at Diamond Point. From there, hikers can retrace their steps or continue to trail’s end and hike for another half mile along a road to the starting point.

Hiking Shenandoah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hawksbill Loop Trail in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

At just 3 miles in length, the Hawksbill Loop Trail in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park may not seem very long but it packs plenty of punch. The route wanders along part of the legendary Appalachian Trail on its way up to the top of Hawksbill—the highest point in the park at just over 4,000 feet. Along the way, hikers can spot wildlife as they work their way up to the summit where they’ll discover a stone platform that offers views of thick forests and rolling hills that stretch to the horizon. 

Hiking the Big Trees Trail in Sequoia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Big Trees Trail in Sequoia National Park, California
Located next to the Giant Forest Museum, the Big Trees Trail is one of the best short and easy hikes you can do in Sequoia. This loop trail takes you completely around the meadow and provides impressive views of numerous massive sequoias as well as the beautiful meadow itself.

From the museum follow a paved path on a ridge above the road. In a few hundred feet, the path will cross the road as you near the meadow. From here the trail does a loop around the meadow which you can start in either direction. The path is paved or in some places a wooden bridge when it gets marshy. Allow 1 hour round trip.

Worth Pondering…

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

—Edward Abbey

10 Amazing Places to RV in May

If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are our picks for the best places to RV in May

May is a very nurturing month with mild temperatures that encourage people to enjoy the outdoors. Can’t you almost taste it? Summer’s sparkling citrusy zing in May’s advancing warmth and brightening light. In northern states and Canada, it’s a time to start braving lunch on park benches, light jackets in place of thick coats. Mercifully, the rest of America is emerging into summer proper, everywhere from Utah high desert to Texas and Kentucky. Even Canada’s warming up! So why wait a minute longer? It’s high time you hit the road.

There’s a lot to love about May: sunnier days, more time outside, and farmer’s markets just beginning to shine.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out our monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in March and April. Also check out our recommendations from May 2020.

Greenville, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Carolina Road Trip

Mountains and beaches, food and art, history and wildlife—South Carolina has it all. With scenic mountains to the north, secluded beaches to the east, and charming towns scattered in between, South Carolina has a variety of landscapes that suit every mood. Embark on a road trip through the Palmetto state starting in the cultural capital of Greenville and traveling south to discover magnificent waterfalls, unique state parks, southern history, equestrian traditions, and fresh seafood. 

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About half an hour outside Columbia in the lush backcountry is Congaree National Park where you can see the largest intact old-growth bottomland hardwood forests in the southeastern US. Spend a day hiking, canoeing, or kayaking along 25 miles of swamps and forests. If you are at Congaree in late May to early June, you can also watch a magical firefly synchronization mating phenomenon that occurs at only a few spots around the world. 

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

California’s Giant Sequoias

When you think of California’s giant redwood trees, you likely imagine coastal redwoods. Those are the tall ones dotting the rugged northern California coastline and a road trip to see them is a must-do. But the giant sequoias are no slouches themselves! The giant sequoias you’ll see on this road trip are only known to exist in 75 specific groves along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas. What makes these giants unique is that they grow incredibly large around their base and this differentiates them from coastal redwoods which are typically measured in height.

Giant Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This specific journey will take you to the Discovery Tree, the first sequoia noted by naturalists in the 1850s and should the weather permit give you a sunset in the famed Yosemite Valley. Have your camera charged and ready to capture the magic of this road trip destination as Ansel Adams once saw it. And continue southward to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and explore Grant Grove, Giant Forest, and General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest tree measured by volume.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah

Built between A.D. 1200 and 1300, Hovenweep was once home to over 2,500 people. Explore the variety of unique structures at the six prehistoric villages that make up the Hovenweep National Monument. Hikes from the Visitor Center range from a 300-yard paved walk to the Stronghold House, to a 1.5-mile loop trail that takes visitors past structures in and along Little Ruin Canyon such as Hovenweep Castle, Square Tower, Hovenweep House, and Twin Towers. Ranger-led Dark Sky Astronomy Programs are offered spring through fall, weather permitting. Call ahead for details.

Bayou Teche at Breaux Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Deep Bayou Drive from NOLA

You should start this road trip with a rollicking good time in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Enjoy a few late NOLA nights, too many Hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s, and some jazz at Preservation Hall, then sleep all that off before heading west (in your RV, of course) to begin a deep bayou road trip adventure. The area is known for its swampland dotted with moss-draped cypress trees teeming with wildlife which makes it the perfect destination for bird watching, paddling, fishing, and numerous other outdoor activities.

Lake Martin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best road to drive is Highway 31 which will take you along Bayou Teche from New Iberia to Breaux Bridge, a scenic route with garlands of moody Spanish moss that dangle from oaks and cypress trees while alligators and herons splash about in the swampy lagoons. Nature watchers and photographers have immediate access to some of the best birding sites in North America including Lake Martin (near Breaux Bridge) with its expansive shoreline and bottomland hardwood forest. At last count, birders have spotted 240 species here. In the evenings, snowy, great and cattle egrets, little blue herons, green herons, and yellow-crowed night herons gather to roost. Be sure to tour the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site where you’ll learn about the area’s Creole and Cajun history and culture.

Alamo Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alamo Lake, Arizona

Often touted as one of the best bass fishing destinations in the western United States, Alamo Lake State Park is gearing up for another banner season! Bass will spawn as water temperatures rise this spring which makes them much easier to catch during your trip to this Sonoran Desert outdoor playground! Although bass fishing is on the agenda for many, this park offers so much more than memories hooked in the expansive lake…But, if you’ve thought about taking the dive into a new outdoor hobby, this is the place to do it, and the best time of year is coming up quick!

Jekyll Island Club © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fodor’s Travel lists islands to visit

The well-known island getaways across the U.S. get all the glory but there are plenty of hidden gem islands which offer an equally stunning escape but with a little more peace and quiet. If you’re seeking a secluded and intimate getaway, look no further than Jekyll Island off the coast of Georgia. This coastal haven recently caught the attention of Fodor’s Travel (Forget Hawaii. Go to These 10 U.S. Islands Instead). This 5,500-acre island is home to 10 miles of shoreline and a variety of events, family-friendly activities, and attractions. From the iconic Driftwood Beach to the island’s historical homes (Jekyll Island Club), the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, and more, Jekyll Island has something for everyone.

Jekyll Island Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park your RV under the magnificent oaks on the northern tip of Jekyll Island. Located opposite the Clam Creek Picnic Area, you are near Driftwood Beach, the fishing pier and fascinating historic ruins. The Jekyll Island Campground offers 18 wooded acres with 206 campsites from tent sites to full hook-ups, pull through RV sites with electricity, cable TV, water, and sewerage. Wi-Fi and DSL

Other islands on Fodor’s list include Sanibel Island in Florida, Michigan’s Mackinac Island, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina which include Roanoke, Hatteras, and Ocracoke islands. To which I also add Georgia’s Cumberland Island.

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

Get wild in America’s newest national park

Last December we welcomed America’s 63rd National Park with West Virginia’s scenic New River Gorge. (If you’re still wondering how a place scores that designation, we’ve got you covered.) And No. 63 is brimming with beauty: There are cliffs and rocks galore along the really cool, actually-really-old river for all your adventuring needs. But the lazier among us can also enjoy eerie ghost towns and the third-highest bridge in the US for some great photo ops. Perusing Instagram shows us she’s especially gorgeous in spring making it a great time to visit right now before the masses catch on.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vogel State Park, Georgia

One of the oldest state parks in Georgia, Vogel was established in 1931 and remains one of the most beloved north Georgia attractions. Situated at the base of Blood Mountain in the heart of the Chattahoochee National Forest, Vogel State Park has some truly gorgeous hiking trails.

I especially love the Trahlyta Lake Trail which crosses an earthen dam built back in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). You’ll also get a chance to gaze at one of the most alluring waterfalls in Georgia, Trahlyta Falls. You can hike right alongside it via the Bear Hair Gap Trail, which guides you through the lower ridges of Blood Mountain.

For overnight stays the park offers 34 one- and two-bedroom cottages as well as walk-in campsites and RV-accessible campsites that have pull-through or back-in driveways.

From Moki Dugway to the Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Trail of the Ancients and the Moki Dugway, Colorado and Utah

The Trail of the Ancients which traverses Colorado and Utah is America’s only national scenic byway dedicated solely to archaeology and will take you to some of the most famous sights in the country including Four Corners, Monument Valley, and Mesa Verde National Park. You could make this 480-mile drive straight through in one long day but following a six-day itinerary allows you to truly experience the Native American history along the route. The Trail of Ancients is paved save for a harrowing three-mile, switchback-laden stretch known as the Moki Dugway as it descends to the Valley of the Gods offering unrivaled panoramic views of this otherworldly landscape.

Dauphin Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alabama’s Coastal Connection

True to its name the 130-mile-long Alabama’s Coastal Connection connects multiple communities and cities bordering Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. It also connects travelers to nature and history at nearby preserves, parks, and historic sites. The scenic byway features a ride on the Mobile Bay Ferry connecting Dauphin Island to the Fort Morgan Peninsula. The 40-minute ride across the mouth of Mobile Bay spans two historic forts where the Battle of Mobile Bay took place during the Civil War. Here Union Adm. David G. Farragut bellowed his now immortal command, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

Fort Gaines © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Dauphin Island to Orange Beach, Alabama’s 60 miles of Gulf Coast includes white-sand beaches. For a socially distant experience, explore the 7,100-acre Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge on the Fort Morgan Peninsula. In addition to beach access points to uncrowded sands, there are hiking trails through a maritime forest and coastal dune habitats with views of saltwater lagoons, freshwater lakes, the beach, the bay and the chance to see lots of wildlife. A number of waterfront towns line the coast. The artsy Eastern Shore enclave of Fairhope has a pier jutting a quarter-mile into the bay with an adjacent beach park and shady areas for a quiet picnic.

Worth Pondering…

When April steps aside for May, like diamonds all the rain-drops glisten; fresh violets open every day; to some new bird each hour we listen.

America’s 10 Most Popular National Parks, Ranked

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

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

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park (California)

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park (Arizona)

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

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)

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

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park (New Mexico)

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

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona)

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

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park (California)

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

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee, North Carolina)

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park (Utah)

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park (Utah)

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

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

Worth Pondering…

Adventure is worthwhile.

―Aesop

The 10 Best Hiking Trails in America’s National Parks

Explore the best trails in some of the world’s most beautiful parks

From colorful badlands to cavernous canyons and old-growth wetlands, the National Park Service boasts incredible diversity when it comes to hiking trails. Whether you’re looking for an intense mountain ascent or an easy forest stroll, bucket list-worthy hikes come in all shapes, sizes, styles, and lengths. Here are 10 national park trails that belong on your must-hike itinerary.

Know your limits, pace yourself, and pay attention to how you are feeling. Your safety is your responsibility. Your tomorrow depends on the decisions that you make today.

Blue Mesa Loop, Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Mesa Loop in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Do you want to view a landscape that is out of this world? If your answer is yes then the Blue Mesa Loop Trail is sure to please. This mile long trail takes you into a landscape brushed in blue where you will find cone-shaped hills banded in a variety of colors and intricately eroded into unique patterns. Descending from the mesa this alternately paved and gravel trail loop offers the unique experience of hiking among petrified wood as well as these badland hills. The trail descends 100 feet below the rim and can be a little steep in places.

Boardwalk Loop, Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Boardwalk Loop in Congaree National Park, South Carolina

This hike, though it’s really more of a walk, features an elevated boardwalk through old-growth swampland. Though the lush, green trees are beautiful in their own right the trail really shines at night (literally!) when thousands of fireflies come out and fill the area. For photographers, the trail is exceptionally beautiful at sunrise when both the boardwalk and bald cypress trees take on golden early-morning hues. Wildlife like deer and wild pigs can also be seen in the area for those willing to sit silently for a few minutes You’ll definitely want mosquito repellant, especially in the summer months.

Manzanita Lake Loop, Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Manzanita Lake Loop in Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

While much of the attention at this serene California park is drawn to its namesake Lassen Peak, a worthwhile trek for ardent day-hikers, there’s a more leisurely and accessible option that affords some of the most striking vistas in the park. Manzanita Lake is a tranquil, shimmering oasis in the northwestern portion of Lassen Volcanic offering a peaceful 1.8-mile loop trail around pristine, bright-blue water. From certain vantage points, the views of Lassen Peak are incomparable and the jaunt through dense forest feels downright rejuvenating for the soul.

Rim Trail, Grand Canyon N ational Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rim Trail in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Any section of the Rim Trail serves up jaw-dropping looks into the Grand Canyon but the unpaved section between Powell Point and Monument Creek is a dirt path and feels more like a genuine hike than its paved sections. But what’s underfoot doesn’t matter as much as what lies just beyond—canyons within canyons and cauldrons of rapids far below. Head to Maricopa Point by park shuttle to start the hike then take the shuttle back from Hermits Rest to Grand Canyon Village when you’re done.

Fairyland Loop, Bryce Canyon National Park

Fairyland Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

If you don’t know what a hoodoo is you’ll know after crossing this spectacular hike’s eight miles of hoodoo-covered trails. These unique rock columns can be found throughout the trail eventually culminating in Fairyland Canyon, a valley of staggeringly large and vast formations as tall as 150 feet. The colorful hoodoos are some of the brightest and most unusual in the park giving the whole area an otherworldly feel. Because of this trail’s length and constant up and downs it’s one of the least crowded hikes in the park.

Big Trees Trail, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Big Trees Trail in Sequoia National Park, California
Located next to the Giant Forest Museum, the Big Trees Trail is one of the best short and easy hikes you can do in Sequoia. This loop trail takes you completely around the meadow and provides impressive views of numerous massive sequoias as well as the beautiful meadow itself.

From the museum follow a paved path on a ridge above the road. In a few hundred feet, the path will cross the road as you near the meadow. From here the trail does a loop around the meadow which you can start in either direction. The path is paved or in some places a wooden bridge when it gets marshy. Allow 1 hour round trip.

Lower Bear Gulch Cave Trail, Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lower Bear Gulch Cave Trail in Pinnacles National Park, California

One of America’s newer national parks is one of the smallest at just over 26,000 acres but that doesn’t mean there isn’t space to get lost in its stunning terrain. The easy Lower Bear Gulch Cave trail takes hikers under moss-covered boulders and across alpine springs often at the same time. This short trail passes through strikingly angular rock formations before dipping down through Bear Gulch Cave—be sure to bring a flashlight. After you’ve hiked through Lower Bear Gulch you can double back and take a higher route past the 300 foot Monolith rock pinnacle, one of the largest in the park.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hawksbill Loop Trail in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

At just 3 miles in length, the Hawksbill Loop Trail in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park may not seem very long but it packs plenty of punch. The route wanders along part of the legendary Appalachian Trail on its way up to the top of Hawksbill—the highest point in the park at just over 4,000 feet. Along the way hikers can spot wildlife as they work their way up to the summit where they’ll discover a stone platform that offers views of thick forests and rolling hills that stretch to the horizon. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park offers a wide range of hiking opportunities with something suitable for every age and experience level during every month of the year. The Narrows is the most popular hike in Zion and one of the best slot canyon hikes anywhere. It is pure fun and can be tailored to suit any ability level. The trail is basically the Virgin River. The canyon is so narrow the river covers the bottom in many spots which means you have to wade or swim to proceed. The cool water makes this hike particularly pleasant during the hot months of summer.

Landscape Arch, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Devil’s Garden Hike and Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park in southeast Utah is a day-hikers paradise. The park is one of Southern Utah’s most famous hiking destinations with an easily accessible network of trails that often culminate right at the base of an impressive sandstone arch. The Devil’s Garden Loop is at the far end of the park where the main road terminates. This is a 7.2-mile trail with some wonderful rock scenery and eight arches along the route. This is one of the more difficult hikes in the park with some scrambles over slickrock and exposed ledges. However, you don’t necessarily need to do the entire loop to experience some of the attractions in this area.  A 1.6-mile round-trip hike on relatively flat ground will take you to Landscape Arch which spans more than the length of a football field. Also in the same area are Navajo Arch and Partition Arch. Both of these hikes leave from the Devils Garden Trailhead.

Worth Pondering…

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

—Edward Abbey

10 National Parks to Visit during Wildflower Season

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

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

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

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

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

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

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

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

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

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

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

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

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

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

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

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park, California

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

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

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—William Blake

The Top 10 National Parks to Discover this Spring

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

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

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park, California

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

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

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

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

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

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

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

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

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

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

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

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

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

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

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

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

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

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

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

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

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

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

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

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

Saguaro in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

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

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

Bottom line

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—William Blake

Explore Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Muir, 1876

Alternatives to the Most Crowded National Parks

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

Summer is one of the best times for RV travel, which is why many of our best places are horribly overcrowded during the warmer months.

Fear not, we’ve scoured America to find alternatives that are as spectacular as their more popular cousins.

Skip: Grand Canyon National Park

Go Here Instead: Canyon de Chelly National Monument

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

Drive four hours east of the Grand Canyon (and its 6,254,238 annual visitors) and explore the considerably quieter (just 825,660 visitors) Canyon de Chelly National Monument. As a bonus, park access is free, and so are the ranger-led tours that introduce you to the canyon’s remarkable history and the indigenous tribes that have called it home for centuries.

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

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo, who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor.

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

You cannot hike into the canyon (except for the White House Trail) without a park ranger or a licensed Navajo guide, but even if you come without a plan, the North and South Rim drives offer ample turnouts at viewpoints that are arguably more dramatic than what you can see of the Grand. Spider Rock, an 800-foot spire on the South Rim road, is one of the most popular in the park, but there’s still ample of parking.

Skip: Yosemite National Park

Go Here Instead: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Perhaps John Muir summed up Yosemite best when he said, “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” While it is undeniably awe inspiring, Muir’s opinion may have changed had he visited the area 150 years later and shared the temple with 4,336,890 other visitors.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you want to avoid getting hit by a SUV hammering through the Valley floor, head about 110 miles south to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. Take the Generals Highway between Sequoia and Kings Canyon for both a deep-woods feel and wide-open vistas.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking to amble? Check out the mind-bogglingly large trees in the Sequoia Groves. For a moderate day hike, head out 4.2 miles to Monarch Lakes at the base of 12,343-foot Sawtooth Peak.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You will feel tiny, as you gaze upward at the largest trees in the world. You’ll want to see General Sherman, the world’s largest tree, standing 275 feet tall with a base more than 36 feet in diameter. You can also round out your visit with caves, hiking, and in the right season, even snowshoeing.

Skip: Zion National Park

Go Here Instead: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You only have to travel 45 miles east to dodge Zion’s crowds. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is by no means deserted, but the numbers of visitors are measured in hundreds of thousands rather than millions, and entrance is totally free and without long lines to enter the park.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Staircase–Escalante is huge and wild, so stop at one of the visitor centers on the monument’s two main paved highways to get oriented. You’ll find them in the towns of Kanab and Big Water (Highway 89) and in Escalante and Cannonville (Highway 12). Just driving these highways is astoundingly scenic.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can wander in and wonder at the last place in continental United States to be mapped. Check out Devil’s Staircase and its myriad hoodoos and rock formations that’ll make you feel like you’re in a Dr. Seuss book.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hikers and backpackers will want to check out some of the monument’s gorgeous slot canyons. Several spectacular ones are accessible from Hole in the Rock Road. Bring paper maps—your phone won’t help you here and your GSP may lead you astray.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

America’s 10 Most Popular National Parks, Ranked

The top 10 national parks according to which ones are the best

The national parks system is arguably the best idea America ever had. More than 300 million people visit every year, pouring over $35 billion into the national economy.

Many parks offer free entrance days—for some, every single day is a free entrance day—and if you want to go all out, an $80 annual pass gets you unlimited access to all the national parks for the entire year.

But which parks to visit? There are currently a whopping 60 national parks in America. To help narrow the playing field, we have thusly ranked what are, per to National Parks Service’s 2017 data, the 25 most-visited.

Now, it should be noted that the least-visited national parks are often the least-visited not because they are uncool, but because they are geographically inconvenient for most visitors to reach (like Virgin Islands National Park or Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic). By the same token, Great Smoky Mountains National Park wins “most-visited” year after year on a technicality (basically, people drive through it a lot just to get from Point A to Point B).

But while it is widely known that there is nothing bloggers love more than to put things in numerical order according to how good they are, I don’t love it enough to do 60 things or even 25 things. I will be doing 10 things.

Did we rank the parks according their uniqueness, or photogenicness, or diversity of flora and fauna, or for the level of adventure contained therein? Yes. We ranked them according to which ones are the best. Let’s begin.

10. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Canyonlands, near Moab, has always been upstaged by its more famous neighbors, Grand Canyon to the south and Arches to the north; and yet it merits a visit just as much as they do. Ancient waters and relentless winds have carved intricate canyons, pillars, stairs, and narrow paths through the sandstone, creating a stunning park that’s best explored on foot or bicycle. There are very few paved roads throughout the park’s 527 square miles.

9. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Lassen Volcanic is one of few locations on Earth where you can see all four types of volcanoes—plug dome, shield, cinder, and cone. While Lassen Peak is the most famous, as well as the dominant feature in the park, there are numerous other—literally—hotspots to explore including mud pots, stinking fumaroles, and hot springs.

8. Sequoia National Park, California

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The iconic Pioneer Cabin Tree is no more, but we’ve still got General Sherman—the biggest tree in the world, weighing in at 275 feet tall and 60 feet wide. We’ve also got the underground stalactites and stalagmites of the Crystal Cave system. This is a park where you go to be fully immersed in nature; most of it isn’t accessible by car.

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

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

The Clingman’s Dome observatory tower offers truly incredible panoramic views of the whole mountain range and to really cap things off you can pick your fill of wild strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries while you’re hiking around.

6. Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve


Zion is a perennial favorite. Backcountry hikers and climbers come here for The Subway, a nine-plus-mile hike that can involve rappelling, depending on which direction you try to tackle it from. The slot canyons here, set off by rust-red rocks and waterfalls (don’t miss Weeping Rock) are undeniably iconic, and Angel’s Landing is a great underrated hike.

5. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

One of the most beautiful places in America, this park contains a massive collection of naturally formed amphitheatres and spire-shaped features called hoodoos that are some of the most distinct-looking geological features you’ll ever see in your life.

4. Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Joshua Tree become more beloved every year. Climbers enjoy the wide variety of rock faces available to them here. The dry, arid desert is notably home to 501 archaeological sites and camping among the rugged geological features and famously twisted Joshua Trees—to say nothing of the stargazing—is something everyone should do at least once.

3. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Most of the meager attention that gets paid to Capitol Reef—it’s competing with four other national parks in the state of Utah alone—revolves around the Waterpocket Fold, a unique 100-mile-long wrinkle in the Earth’s crust. But you don’t have to be a geology nerd to enjoy what this park has to offer.

2. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Thanks to millions of years of sandstone erosion, we’re blessed with the beauty that is the Arches National Park. There are over 2,000 natural stone arches in this 119-square mile park, the most famous being the 65-foot Delicate Arch.

1. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Truly a sight beyond words, the Grand Canyon should be on every RVer’s bucket list. You can’t describe in words what takes your breath away with each view.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

The Big Trees: Sequoia National Park

Huge mountains, rugged foothills, deep canyons, vast caverns, and the world’s largest trees

Big trees are the prime attraction of Sequoia National Park—many groves of the remarkable giant sequoia are found scattered along the moist, west-facing slopes of the Sierra Nevada between elevations of 5,000 and 7,000 feet.

The scale and grandeur of these reddish giants is stunning, and the park has many easy trails that wind through the woody groves leading to quiet undisturbed places, ideal to contemplate the ambience of the forest.

Lake Kaweah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Using Sun & Fun RV Park in Tulare as our home base, we approached Sequoia National Park from the southwest. Long and straight, California Highway 198 crosses the flat San Joaquin Valley, through endless acres of citrus and vegetables. Hazy foothills slowly appear. At first these hills are low and covered only by parched grass, typical of the southern and western extremities of the Sierras.

Potwisha Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Gradually gaining elevation, the road passes around the edge of Lake Kaweah and runs through Three Rivers, the last town before the mountains. It is named after the Kaweah River, which nearby splits into South, East, North (and Middle and Marble) branches, each of which flows through a steep canyon.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The main road to Sequoia follows the Middle Fork and begins to climb several miles east of town. For 5 miles the route is along the side of the canyon, gaining in height above the river and crossing the national park boundary. The landscape is still mostly arid, with yucca and other desert plants.

One mile inside the park entrance, the Foothills Visitor Center offers information, exhibits to explore, and a small bookstore.

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

Passing the Hospital Rock picnic site, the road turns away from the canyon and heads north into the mountains. The 8 miles between the picnic area and the first group of sequoias at Giant Forest is amazingly steep and twisting, passing through countless hairpin bends and steep grades during a total climb of 3,700 feet. Vehicles over 22 feet are not advised to drive this route; even our toad is often reduced to speeds of only 15 mph.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

On the ascent there are several great viewpoints over the continuation of Middle Fork Canyon far below. The scenery changes from bushes to oak trees, to forests of fir, pine, and cedar, and finally sequoias; at first scattered and relatively small, although still of distinctive color and much larger than the neighboring trees, but quite suddenly the giants are all around, towering above everything else.

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

This is the Giant Forest, centerpiece of Sequoia National Park. The largest trees on earth are found here, including General Sherman, which is the world-record holder for the most massive living thing. Dozens of magnificent groves of sequoias can be seen in just 3 square miles.

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

Other unforgettable attractions of Sequoia National Park include Tunnel Log, Moro Rock, and Crystal Cave.

In 1937, due to natural causes, a 275-foot tall and 21-foot in diameter tree fell across a road. A year later, an 8-foot tall, 7-foot wide tunnel was cut through the trunk to make the road passable again.

Castle Rocks, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Moro Rock is a granite dome that affords one of the best views of the Sierra Nevada mountains. In the 1930s, a 400-step stairway was cut into and poured onto the rock so visitors could climb to the top.

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

Hiking trails wind through the sequoia grove and meadows. Moro Rock-Crescent Meadow Road leads to Moro Rock, Tunnel Log, and the High Sierra Trail. The Big Trees Trail offers an easy hike around a meadow that’s ideal for families and people in wheelchairs.

Did You Know?

After spending five days with five men cutting down a single sequoia, Walter Fry counted the growth rings on the fallen giant. The answer shocked him into changing careers. In just a few days they had ended 3266 years of growth. Fry later became a park ranger and, in 1912, the parks’ superintendent.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Muir, 1876