Ride the Sky along Skyline Drive

Located in Shenandoah National Park, Skyline Drive is one of the most scenic drives in the world

The historic 105-mile Skyline Drive, a National Scenic Byway, traverses Shenandoah National Park, a beautiful, historic national treasure. The mountain top highway winds its way north-south through Shenandoah’s nearly 200,000 acres along the spine of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. There are 75 scenic overlooks that offer stunning views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west or the rolling piedmont to the east. While you are gazing out at the views, keep a close eye on the road too, as deer, black bear, wild turkey, and a host of other woodland animals call Shenandoah home and regularly cross Skyline Drive in their daily travels.

Along Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you travel along Skyline Drive you will notice mileposts on the west side (right side if you are traveling south) of the road. These posts help you find your way through the park and help you locate areas of interest. The mileposts begin with 0.0 at Front Royal and continue to 105 at the southern end of the park. The speed limit is 35 mph. It takes about three hours to travel the entire length of the park on a clear day. Clearance for Marys Rock Tunnel (just south of Thornton Gap entrance from Route 211) is 12 feet 8 inches.

Along Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall is the most popular time to travel along Skyline Drive with its colorful foliage from late September to mid-November. But spring offers the most colorful wildflowers along the drive, as well as blooming azaleas and mountain laurel.

The Park has three districts, each with its own characteristics—North, Central, and South. Explore each district. Try new places and discover new wonders!

Along Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Front Royal to Thornton Gap

Driving Distance: 31.5 miles

This most northerly section, winding through the park’s North District rises from the town of Front Royal. Climb to historic Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (MP 4.6), once a dining hall with a stellar view. After orienting, consider walking the Fox Hollow Interpretive Trail. Next, stop at Hogback Overlook (MP 20.8), the longest overlook in the park. Views stretch wide to match the overlook. Walk to Piney River Falls from Milepost 22.1.

Along Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Overnight at Mathews Arm Campground (MP 22.2) and enjoy numerous hikes directly from your campsite. Grab some ice cream during the warm season from Elkwallow Wayside (MP 24) or enjoy your own meal at the adjacent picnic area. Don’t miss the view from Thornton Hollow Overlook (MP 27.6) before rolling into Thornton Gap.

Along Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thornton Gap to Swift Run Gap

Driving distance: 34 miles

The Central District from Thornton Gap to Swift Run Gap is the land of superlatives—highest park elevation, highest point on Skyline Drive, most land mass, two lodges, two campgrounds, historic cabins, trails galore, and two visitor centers. Some would argue the best views, too. Start your view-fest from both road and trail by hiking to Mary’s Rock from Meadow Spring parking area (MP 33.5).  Mary’s Rock has 360-degree vistas from an outcrop and is a favorite lookout in the park. Pinnacles Overlook (MP 35.1) presents auto-accessible views and a nearby picnic area.

Along Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Consider an overnight at Skyland Lodge (MP 41.7) and combining it with a hike to Stony Man, highest spot on the Appalachian Trail in the park. Speaking of high points, it is a ritual to head to Hawksbill, the park’s highest peak, from milepost 46.7. At the peak you will find an embedded directional indicator, pointing out all the sights you will see from this lofty height.

Along Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The next must-stop is Big Meadows (MP 51) where deer are often spotted. Big Meadows includes a lodge, campground, visitor center, dining, and picnicking facilities. Explore the displays here; this visitor center is a great place to stop and learn about the park. Big Meadows Campground is the park’s highest at 3,500 feet. Load up with goodies at the camp store or hit the lodge dining hall. Nearby waterfall walks include Dark Hollow Falls, Rose River Falls, and Lewis Spring Falls.

Along Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the site of the first presidential retreat from Milam Gap (MP 52.8), Rapidan Camp where Herbert Hoover trout fished and entertained world leaders. Agile teens and adults will have fun navigating the boulders of the Bearfence Mountain Rock Scramble (MP 56.4). Enjoy great views, too. Consider renting a cabin or pitching your tent at smallish Lewis Mountain Campground (MP 57.5). It offers a more serene experience than does Big Meadows Campground. Finally, visit 83-foot South River Falls from the South River Picnic Area (MP 62.8).

Along Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Swift Run Gap to Rockfish Gap

Driving Distance 40 miles

The South District holds claim to the longest and most quiet section of Skyline Drive. It is also long on wilderness and less on developed facilities. Known for its extensive rock formations, talus slopes, and outcrops, the South District reveals the most untamed side of the park highlighted by the trails of the Big Run area. Interestingly, despite being very rocky the area also has the park’s biggest stream in Big Run, plus other aquatic destinations such as Doyles River and Moormans River. The primary developed area is at Loft Mountain with a camp store and the largest campground in the park. Dundo Picnic Area and group camp is the only other developed facility in the South District.

Along Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Overlooks are plentiful from this segment of Skyline Drive. Heading south from Swift Run Gap you can see the geologically revealing peaks from the Rocky Mount Overlook (MP 71.2) where boulder fields, known as talus slopes, are exposed. Another geological show is revealed at Rockytop Overlook (MP 78.1). At the Loft Mountain area (MP 79.5) you can obtain supplies, books, and souvenirs at the camp store. A side road takes you to Loft Mountain Campground that also offers showers. 

Along Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy three major waterfalls on one loop hike from Browns Gap (MP 83.0)—two on Doyles River and one on Jones Run. Browns Gap is also a jumping off point for exploring the wilds of Big Run with cool clear pools for a summertime dip. The park narrows heading south, limiting opportunities. However, a short walk to Chimney Rock from Riprap parking area (MP 90.0) will put an exclamation point on your Skyline Drive experience. 

Along Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

If you drive to, say, Shenandoah National Park, or the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll get some appreciation for the scale and beauty of the outdoors. When you walk into it, then you see it in a completely different way. You discover it in a much slower, more majestic sort of way.

—Bill Bryson

Scientific Wonders at National Parks

From ancient rivers to a sleeping volcanoes take in scientific wonders at national parks

Interest in national parks is booming, with crowd-wary Americans drawn to wide open spaces and natural beauty. But the preserves are also a great place for learning, fantastic laboratories for getting up close to the natural world. Here are some of my favorite sites.

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

Come for the Great Diversity of Life: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Steady rain and a long growing season have created a dense forest in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Variations in elevation, rainfall, temperature, and geology in these ancient mountains provide ideal habitat for over 1,600 species of flowering plants including 100 native tree species and over 100 native shrub species.

Palm Oasis in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See Where Earthquakes Begin at the San Andreas Fault: Joshua Tree National Park, California

The geological formation responsible for many California earthquakes passes by the south side of this desert park and connects with many of the region’s faults. Visitors can see evidence in small fan palm oases which formed when seismic activity dammed groundwater and forced it to the surface. When you see water, it’s the result of massive underground activity.

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

Climb a Grand Staircase: Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, Arizona and Utah

The Grand Staircase is an immense sequence of sedimentary rock layers that stretch south from Bryce Canyon National Park through Zion National Park and into the Grand Canyon. In the 1870s, geologist Clarence Dutton first conceptualized this region as a huge stairway ascending out of the bottom of the Grand Canyon northward with the cliff edge of each layer forming giant steps. What makes the Grand Staircase worldly unique is that it preserves more Earth history than any other place on our planet.

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

Be Transported into a Painting: Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this preserve comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transformed into colorful slabs of stone. A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See Ancient Rivers and Mammal Ancestors: Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Not only is the geology and scenery dramatic at this park, but so is its fossil history. The area includes the remains of an ancient river system. This is one of the richest fossil assemblies on the face of the planet. You can walk down almost any trail and if you can see little bits of fossils everywhere, lots of fragments and teeth.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go Birding and See Cave Swallows: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Carlsbad is famous for its nightly bat emergence, but the mammals aren’t the only ones who call the grotto home. Cave swallows living just inside the cavern can be seen swooping around during the day, but must get home before the bats crowd the cavern on their way out. You can easily see them in the warmer months. And 750 feet underground, the stalactites hang from the ceiling and the stalagmites rise up from the ground.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike 500 Miles of Trails: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Stretching more than a hundred miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, Shenandoah National Park offers a patchwork quilt of wilderness and pastoral landscapes. Skyline Drive rides along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and through the heart of the park. Along the 105-mile stretch which climbs to 3,680 feet above sea level, you’ll have the opportunity to pull off the road at 75 scenic overlooks and take part in an array of recreational activities—from hiking, horseback riding, and rock climbing.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come for the Turbulent Landscape: Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

The active but sleeping volcano is the high point of a lively wilderness environment. Across 160,000 acres, elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape decorated by jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and of course, volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area as well from where bubbling activity still appears, reminding us of the region’s stormy past.

Worth Pondering…

There is something very special about the natural world, and each trip outdoors is like an unfinished book just waiting for you to write your own chapter.

—Paul Thompson

National Parks are Best in Autumn

Six of the best national parks to visit in the fall

If you’re thinking about visiting a national park this fall, you’re in luck. There’s a secret many travelers with flexible schedules have long known: national parks are best in autumn.

Of course, that’s not true of every national park—there are more than a few best visited during other seasons of the year. But, generally speaking, autumn can be a spectacular time to visit the nation’s parklands. The temperatures have dropped and the crowds have thinned, meaning you can enjoy the scenery without breaking a sweat or competing with other visitors for a photo.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best of all, depending on when and where you travel you will get the added bonus of a vibrant display of fall foliage. Just remember, as winter draws nearer, snow can cause road closures at Glacier, Yellowstone, Lassen Volcanic, and Rocky Mountain national parks.

So plan ahead and get the timing right, and these will be six of the best national parks to visit in the fall.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Fall is arguably the absolute best time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park and take in the colorful display of leaves from the observation deck at the peak of Clingman’s Dome.

Cade’s Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or, if you prefer a scenic drive, admire the autumnal hues from Cade’s Cove Loop Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, or the Foothills Parkway (also known as “the Tail of the Dragon”). Fall temperatures in the Smokies are also a great alternative to the oppressive heat that comes with summertime in Tennessee and North Carolina.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is a very popular national park which often creates crowding issues during the peak summer months. But in fall—especially if you can delay your visit until late in the season—the crowds taper off along with the temperatures. If you have your heart set on some of the more popular trails, such as Angels Landing or the Narrows, a less-busy autumn day will be a far more enjoyable experience.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Another Utah park best seen in autumn is Arches National Park. In addition to glimpses of changing leaves, the temperatures are more tolerable with highs in the 70s in October (compared to daily highs in the 90s from June through August). The 3-mile hike to the Delicate Arch is easier to manage when the air is cooler. If you’re hoping to capture some amazing photographs, the autumnal light cast on the red rocks is spectacular.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park’s hills run with red knotweed in late summer. Because this national park has a volcanic landscape, much of it is austere though bright color pops on autumn days particularly along its hillsides and in its meadows where cadmium-yellow rabbitbrush, crimson knotweed, white pearly everlastings, and golden and rust-colored grasses are seen peaking in the waning days of summer and early autumn. Technically, they are late blooming wild flowers rather than true “autumn color.” Though because of their timing, we classify them as fall color.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park in Virginia may not have the same nationwide recognition as Great Smoky Mountains or Zion but it holds treasures of its own especially in the fall. Shenandoah is known for its fall foliage which usually peaks in late October or early November. The red, orange, and yellow hues signifying the changing of the season can be enjoyed not only during hikes within the park but also from the serpentine Skyline Drive that runs 105 miles north and south along the Blue Ridge Mountains right through the national park.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

Most people don’t think of South Carolina as a fall foliage destination but autumn there is long and colorful and best of all begins much later in the season than other destinations which means you’ll be able to get in a “second autumn”. The best time to see the leaves here is mid-November through the first half of December. Take the 2.4-mile boardwalk hike through the park or one of the many trails into the backcountry for miles upon miles of color. Another great option is to paddle along Cedar Creek in a canoe. It meanders under canopies of spectacular fall foliage.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bottom line

It’s hard to go wrong with a trip to a national park during the fall. After all, September, October, and November are really the best times to get out and enjoy the crisp, autumnal air before winter blankets everything with snow. Whether you’re seeking lower temperatures and smaller crowds or you’re purely in pursuit of peak foliage, pack your jacket, bring the camera, and prepare for an unforgettable trip.

Worth Pondering…

Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.

―Jim Bishop

Shenandoah National Park: Daughter of the Stars

Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park presents the majesty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley, and the heart of the Appalachian Trail

Stretching more than a hundred miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, Shenandoah National Park offers a patchwork quilt of wilderness and pastoral landscapes underpinned by stories from more than 300 years of history. Located between the Shenandoah Valley in the west and the Piedmont region in the east, the park is an expanse of wooden hollows and breezy summits, waterfalls and mountain streams, more than 500 miles of hiking trails, and nearly 80,000 acres of designated wilderness.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The name “Shenandoah” is an American Indian word meaning “Daughter of the Stars.” Natives used the area for hunting and shelter. Miners and loggers used it to harvest valuable resources. Soldiers used it as a fighting ground. Shenandoah is the name of a river, mountain, valley, county, and much more, so, the origin of the National Park name is unclear. Daughter of the Stars! That’s beautiful!

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Five hundred miles of trails consisting of 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, lead visitors to waterfalls, panoramic views, protected wilderness, and preserved human history in the Shenandoah Valley. A park full of recreational opportunities for the entire family, Shenandoah is worth repeat visits.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What makes Shenandoah so special? First, consider panoramic views from overlooks scattered on lofty Skyline Drive, a National Scenic Byway that runs 105 miles down the length of the 300-square-mile sanctuary. Additionally, beyond Skyline Drive lies another Shenandoah where bears roam the hollows and brook trout ply the tumbling streams. Trail side flowers color the woods. Quartz, granite, and greenstone outcrops jut above the diverse forest allowing far-flung views of the Blue Ridge and surrounding Shenandoah Valley. It is this beauty near and far that create the unforgettable Shenandoah experience.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Scenic Byway rides along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and through the heart of Shenandoah National Park. Skyline Drive draws over 1.2 million visitors every year and is famous for bursting into a landscape of rainbow-colored foliage every autumn.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall is the most popular time to travel along Skyline Drive with its colorful foliage from late September to mid-November. But spring offers the most colorful wildflowers along the drive, as well as blooming azaleas and mountain laurel.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are four entrances to Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park, located at:

  1. Front Royal, accessible via I-66 and U.S. 340
  2. Thornton Gap, accessible via U.S. 211
  3. Swift Run Gap, accessible via U.S. 33
  4. Rockfish Gap, accessible via I-64 and U.S. 250
Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the 105-mile stretch which climbs to 3,680 feet above sea level, you’ll have the opportunity to pull off the road at 75 scenic overlooks and take part in an array of recreational activities—from hiking, horseback riding, and rock climbing.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stops along the way bring you to trailheads where you can explore the forests, waterfalls, rocky areas, and hopefully have a wildlife sighting. It’s a pretty amazing place in terms of wildlife—there are black bears, deer, woodpeckers, owls, raccoons, skunk, fox, coyotes and wild turkeys, just to name a few of the types of animals you might run into out there. 

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A climb to the top of Old Rag Mountain is Shenandoah’s most popular and most dangerous hike. It certainly isn’t for everyone. But those who are ready to take on the challenge will find themselves in the clouds. Be sure that you are physically able to complete this hike. The circuit hike is about 9 miles. There is a significant elevation change (2,415 feet) and a strenuous rock scramble that requires good upper body strength. Allow 7-8 hours and sometimes longer depending on how many people are out there—a line up to pass through scrambles is par for the course. The best time to enjoy Old Rag is during the week when there are significantly fewer people. 

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park has an entrance fee of $30, payable at one of the four major entrance stations. The fee is good for 7 consecutive days, even if you leave the park.

Worth Pondering…

If you drive to, say, Shenandoah National Park, or the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll get some appreciation for the scale and beauty of the outdoors. When you walk into it, then you see it in a completely different way. You discover it in a much slower, more majestic sort of way.

—Bill Bryson

Best Summer Road Trips from Major American Cities

Escape to mountains, lakes, beach, and desert. You can also escape to small towns.

Looking to get away this summer? Travel is a popular pastime every summer, but with months of lockdowns and stay-home orders confining Americans to their homes due to the pandemic, many people are more ready than ever for a change of scenery.

Here are six great summer road trip destinations just a few hours outside the urban hustle and bustle.

Macon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Atlanta

Atlanta has so much to do, but sometimes you just want to get out of the city and explore what the surrounding areas have to offer! Or possibly, like us you’re an RVer and can’t locate a decent campground within 50 miles.

Ocmulgee National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Macon

Distance from Atlanta: 83 miles

Oh, Macon! Home to a downtown area that’s got so much to do! Visit Amerson River Park and walk the paths while watching the kayakers paddle by on the Ocmulgee River. A visit to the Ocmulgee National Monument is a must-do, take a hike or bike the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail, or spend the day on Lake Tobesofkee.

Ashton Villa, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Houston

America’s fourth-largest city is a cosmopolitan destination filled with world-class dining, arts, entertainment, shopping, and outdoor recreation. Take a stroll through the historic Heights, spend the day exploring the Museum District, or head down to Space Center Houston.

Galveston State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Galveston Island

Distance from Houston: 50 miles

Come to the island to stroll the beach or splash in the waves. Or come to the island to go fishing or look for coastal birds. No matter what brings you here, you’ll find a refuge at Galveston Island State Park. Just an hour from Houston, but an island apart!

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Phoenix

Begin your adventure in the capital city of the 48th state known for year-round sunny skies and reliably warm temperatures. Phoenix is the epicenter of a sprawling metro area (the country’s 5th most populated) known as the Valley of the Sun. You’ll find dozens of top-notch golf courses, scores of hiking and biking trails, and the well-regarded, family-friendly Papago Park and adjacent Desert Botanical Gardens.

Courthouse Plaza, Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prescott

Distance from Phoenix: 100 miles

A Western history lover’s sweet spot, mile-high Prescott is home to more than 700 homes and businesses listed in the National Register of Historic Places as well as museums that tell their stories. Stroll along Whiskey Row where saloons thrive alongside shops, galleries, eateries, and antique venues.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Los Angeles

Los Angeles is home to renowned museums, diverse experiences, 75 miles of sunny coastline, and hundreds of miles of bike and hiking trails. LA’s cultural attractions include the Space Shuttle Endeavour, Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Getty Center, and art galleries. No trip to Los Angeles is complete without a visit to Hollywood, the home of movie studios, many of L.A.’s most popular and historic tourist destinations, and its world-famous namesake boulevard.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park 

Distance from Los Angeles: 130 miles

Joshua Tree National Park is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths (popular with rock climbers), petroglyphs from early Native Americans, old mines, and ranches. The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View. 

Amish Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chicago

Chicago is a city unlike any other. There are a few things you need to do like eat a Chicago style hot dog, see “The Bean,” and take a river boat cruise. Located on the south bank of the Chicago River, the Riverwalk stretches 1.25 miles from Lake Shore Drive to Lake Street. Chicago’s nearly 600 parks and 26 miles of lakefront make it easy to enjoy the great outdoors in the middle of the city. Whatever it is you’re looking for, you’ll find there’s no other place like Chicago.

Shipshewanna Outdoor Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amish Country

Distance from Chicago: 110 miles

Northern Indiana is home to nearly 20,000 Amish, a culture that remains true to centuries-old traditions. A few days in Amish country will introduce you to delicious made-from-scratch meals, amazing craftsmanship, delightful theater works, tons of shopping, and horse-drawn carriage rides. You can take in the amazing works as you drive the Quilt Gardens along the Heritage Trail. Shipshewanna is home to the Midwest’s largest outdoor seasonal flea market where 700 vendors cover 40 acres of land selling everything from home decor and clothing to plants and tools. Take care when driving—buggies travel well under the speed limit.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Washington, DC

Beyond the traditional D.C. attractions—the Smithsonian museums, the U.S. Capitol, the monuments—you’ll find fresh food and cultural events. You can peruse a farmers market and take in the scenery from the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Plan to spend some time along the Tidal Basin, a 2-mile-long pond that was once attached to the Potomac River and serves as the backdrop to some of D.C.’s best-loved sites.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Distance from Washington, DC: 75 miles

Just 75 miles from the bustle of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park is a land bursting with cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, fields of wildflowers, and quiet wooded hollows. With over 200,000 acres of protected lands that are haven to deer, songbirds, and black bear, there’s so much to explore. The Skyline Drive is one of the most beautiful drives in the US at any time of the year but especially during autumn. The picturesque 105-mile road travels through Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains where 75 overlooks welcome visitors to take in panoramic views of the Shenandoah wilderness.

Worth Pondering…

I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth.

—Steve McQueen, actor

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

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

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

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

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

National Parks Week: Teetering in the Unknown

From Shenandoah and Arches to Joshua Tree National Park these scenic drives are worth the trip

COVID-19 (Coronavirus) has impacted RV travel right now. As RVers, travel is our way of life and, if you’re like us, you’re feeling the frustration of being limited to one location without the freedom to travel. 2020 is certainly presenting new challenges and now, more than ever, we realize that the freedom to travel is something we can’t take for granted. Now is a great time to start thinking of places you’d like to go—especially national parks.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The late travel icon Anthony Bourdain might have said it best: “Travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering in the unknown.” It’s about that friction of nervous excitement, that exultant moment, giving way to revelation as you open your senses to somewhere different and new. That’s the mark of an RV trip well taken.

White National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Teetering in the unknown” doesn’t necessarily mean winging it—you need to know where to go before you actually go and just as important the why and the when. That’s where we come in. We littered our motorhome with maps to find the three coolest road trips in honor of National Parks Week.

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The state of Virginia is home to Shenandoah National Park set along the Blue Ridge Mountains in the western part of the state. The park features a range of environments including forests, wetlands, and mountain peaks as well as waterfalls, hiking trails, picnic areas, and wildlife.

Scenic Drive

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Starting at the Front Royal Entrance, you’ll get to the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center in about four miles. Take in the view and make plans for hikes to take and waterfalls to see. Skyline Drive is the starting point for a variety of hiking trails many of which permit dogs making Shenandoah one of the most pet-friendly national parks.

If You’re Not a Hiker

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll very likely spot wildlife like bears, deer, groundhogs, or wild turkeys crossing the road from your car and many overlooks from the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains provide stunning views.

Scenic Drive, Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In southeastern Utah, near the town of Moab, is a wonderland of more than 2,000 sandstone arches, set in a picturesque landscape of soaring fins and spires. The arches come in all sizes, ranging from an opening of only three feet to the 306-foot span of Landscape Arch, one of the largest in North America.

Scenic Drives

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 18-mile Scenic Drive climbs a steep cliff and winds along the arid terrain along the first amazing glimpses of red rock features. The road initially passes the Park Avenue area and then Courthouse Towers. The road then comes to the rolling landscape of Petrified Dunes before arriving at Balanced Rock, where a 55-foot-high boulder sits precariously on a narrow pedestal.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Turnoffs lead to the Windows section and Wolfe Ranch and the Delicate Arch viewpoints. Once again on the main road, the Scenic Drive provides overlooks for Salt Valley and Fiery Furnace. Fiery Furnace is home to a fascinating labyrinth of ridges and narrow canyons. The Scenic Drive ends at Devil’s Garden area, site of the park’s campground and the trailhead for the popular Devils Garden Trail.

If You’re Not a Hiker

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A landscape of contrasting colors, landforms, and textures unlike any other in the world, the park also features massive sandstone fins, giant balanced rocks, and hundreds of towering pinnacles—all in vibrant oranges, reds, and other colors.

Geology Tour Road, Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is located in southeastern California about an hour east of Palm Springs. Named for the twisted trees that reminded early Mormon settlers of arms reaching up in prayer, Joshua Tree includes parts of both the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. Striking rock formations, boulders, and varied terrain make Joshua Tree popular with hikers, campers, and rock climbers. The weather ranges from very hot summers to colder winters and occasional snow.

Scenic Drives

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park can be entered from the north at either Joshua Tree or Twenty-nine Palms. From the south the entrance is from I-10 and the first Visitor Center is at Cottonwood. Stop at the Cholla Cactus Garden where you can walk (carefully) on a path among the prickly cacti. Geology Tour Road is an 18-mile drive through some of the park’s most fascinating landscapes. The Keys View detour takes you to an elevation of 5,185 feet for views of the Coachella Valley, Salton Sea, and San Jacinto Peak.

If You’re Not a Hiker

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll be surrounded by views of rocks, hills, Joshua Trees, and more on the drive through the park. The panoramic sights from Keys View can be seen from the parking area.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Roads were made for journeys, not destinations.

—Confucius