Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip from Shenandoah to Great Smoky

Take a cruise on America’s favorite drive through these three national park sites linked together. Buckle up and get ready to experience America’s Favorite Drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Stretching from Virginia to North Carolina, the parkway enables you to experience history, breathtaking nature, and a vibrant music scene. Some of the National Park Service’s best East Coast sights can be found along the way from Shenandoah National Park to the parkway itself to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Start your Blue Ridge experience in beautiful Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Just 75 miles from the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah feels a world away. With beautiful chestnut and red oak forests, abundant wildlife and panoramic views, this park exemplifies the best of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Take a scenic drive, hike to a waterfall, learn about the area’s history, and more on your visit.

Don’t forget to make reservations at one of the park’s lodges or campgrounds. There are three lodging options along Skyline Drive: Skyland, Big Meadows Lodge, and Lewis Mountain Cabins.

Plan your next trip to Shenandoah National Park with these resources:

  • The Complete Guide to Shenandoah National Park
  • The Ultimate Guide to Shenandoah National Park
  • Escape to the Blue Ridge: Shenandoah National Park
Peaks of Otter, Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Milepost 85.9: Peaks of Otter

It’s time to get on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Get ready for jaw-dropping views and some of the prettiest landscapes the East Coast has to offer. Your first stop is Peaks of Otter at Milepost 85.9. You’ll want to make reservations at the historic Peaks of Otter Lodge in advance because once you get here, you won’t want to leave. Since the 1800s, tourists have been coming to this part of the country to get away from it all.

If you don’t plan to spend the night at the lodge or campground, be sure to stop in the lodge’s restaurant for a meal overlooking the lake. After you’ve fueled up, stretch those car (or RV) weary legs by heading out on a hike. Grab your fishing pole (with a valid fishing license) and stroll the mile loop around Abbott Lake.

Or, take a walk back in time on the 1.1-mile, one-way trail to Johnson Farm. Built in the 1850s, you can see living history demonstrations there today to see what life was like during the 19th century in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roanoke Area

Roanoke, Virginia, is an excellent place to base your exploration of the surrounding area. Start in downtown Roanoke where charming boutiques abound. Don’t miss breakfast at one of the city’s favorite classic Southern eateries, The Roanoker Restaurant. The made-from-scratch biscuits are a big deal.

Learn more about the area’s Black history with a visit to Historic Smithfield, a slave-owning plantation dating back to 1774. Then, head to the Booker T. Washington National Monument, home of the famous educator, author, and orator.

In Floyd, Virgina you can’t miss a stop at the Floyd Country Store. Floyd’s has everything you would expect to find at an old-fashioned country store from rolling pins to vintage toys. After perusing the wares, stop in the café for favorites like East Carolina-style pulled smoked pork barbecue. Leave room for dessert at the soda fountain. But perhaps the best experience at the Floyd Country Store is the chance to hear authentic Appalachian music. Check the schedule for live music and dance performances.

Next, head to the spectacular Natural Bridge State Park and adjacent Natural Bridge Historic Hotel & Conference Center. Thirty stories of naturally carved rock create a mind-boggling bridge to walk under on the Cedar Creek Nature Trail. Then, head to the Caverns at Natural Bridge to descend more than 34 stories into the Earth. Afterwards, stop for a meal in the historic hotel’s dining room.

Mabry Mill, Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Milepost 176: Mabry Mill

Mabry Mill is a can’t-miss stop for photography lovers and history buffs alike. Whether flanked by spring flowers, verdant green summer trees, golden autumn leaves, or blanketed in freshly fallen snow, this historic mill makes for some breathtaking photographs. Built in the early 1900s, this grist and sawmill has been restored by the National Park Service so in addition to getting stunning photos, you can watch live milling demonstrations and learn about the mill’s history.

Sunday afternoons are the time to visit Mabry Mill. First, stop in the restaurant for all day Appalachian breakfast. Then, head outside for a taste of old-time music. This weekend concert tradition has been going on for decades.

Milepost 213: Blue Ridge Music Center

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably begun to guess that music is a vital part of Blue Ridge culture. The Blue Ridge Music Center celebrates this region’s vibrant musical heritage. From string bands to ballads to bluegrass, the sound of the fiddle, guitar, and banjo will engulf you at the Blue Ridge Music Center. Start at the visitor center and museum where you’ll learn the history and diversity of America’s music. Don’t miss the daily outdoor concerts in the breezeway or if you’re lucky enough to visit on the weekend take a seat in the center’s 3,000-seat amphitheater for a one-of-a-kind performance.

Discover more music from Appalachia along with traditional crafts when you explore the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area’s music and craft trails from Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Milepost 304.4: Linn Cove Viaduct

It’s time to stretch your legs at one of the Parkway’s most famous sights, the Linn Cove Viaduct. This stunning bridge is more than just beautiful. It was the last part of the Parkway to be built and an engineering marvel. Stopping on the bridge for pictures is dangerous so park at the Visitor Center and head out to one of several overlooks for stunning views.

Or, if you want to get some exercise and see more of the area, lace up your boots and hit the Tanawha Trail. There are many great viewpoints to see the Viaduct from here as well as views of the surrounding wilderness. The trail is 13.5 miles so hike as far as you like before continuing your drive.

Milepost 316: Linville Falls

Linville Gorge was called the river of many cliffs by Cherokee Indians and when you get to Linville Falls you’ll see why. This stunning waterfall tumbles into the 2,000-foot gorge. This is a great area to stop for a picnic or if you’re up for a hike head out on the trails for a better look at the waterfall.

Erwins View Trail will provide four different overlooks on the 1.6-mile roundtrip hike. Although short, some sections of the hike are steep. If you’re not up for elevation gain turn around after the first overlook. For those looking for a strenuous hike, the Linville Gorge Trail will take you steeply down into the gorge. It’s a difficult 1.4-mile roundtrip trek.

While in McDowell County don’t forget to experience the charm of Little Switzerland, Marion and Old Fort. Here you can chase waterfalls, mountain bike miles of Blue Ridge trails, kayak in Lake James State Park, or stroll through downtown. Although this spot is idyllic throughout the summer, autumn is a favorite of locals and visitors alike. 

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Milepost 364.5: Craggy Gardens

From the Visitor Center, two short and beautiful trails will give you an up-close and personal taste of the country you’re driving through. The Craggy Gardens Trail is a 0.8-mile loop through beautiful rhododendrons (which bloom April through June), hardwood forests, and blueberry patches. The Craggy Pinnacle Trail is a 0.7-mile hike, located at a mile above sea level that yields 360-degree breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Asheville, North Carolina

This eclectic, artsy town is home to a thriving foodie scene and a bourgeoning craft beer presence. The stunning Biltmore Mansion (as in, Vanderbilt) could keep you occupied for several days itself but ensure you have time to poke around the galleries and art studios of the River Arts District.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Milepost 451.2: Waterrock Knob

You’ve reached the highest elevation visitor center on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water as you’re over a mile high in elevation. Hike the 1.2-mile roundtrip trail up Waterrock Knob to reach the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway at 6,273 feet—you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world.

Don’t leave just yet. This visitor center is the perfect place to watch the sunset, so sit back, relax and get ready for a North Carolina treat.

The Waterrock Knob area is dotted with charming small towns, unique attractions, and outdoor adventures you won’t find anywhere else. Discover an incredible culinary scene in Waynesville. Then head to Canton on a craft beer and spirit trail. At the end of the day you’ll appreciate uncrowded Maggie Valley with lodging options from remodeled vintage roadside motels to private cabins and bed and breakfasts.

Here are a few links that may help you prepare for your next RV trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway:

Farm museum at Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most visited park for good reason: it’s huge, encompassing two states. If you have the time I suggest visiting all the areas of the park for the full experience but if you just have a few days check out the Cataloochee and Oconaluftee areas of the park on the North Carolina side.

Cataloochee Valley is open seasonally and includes a preserved historic community to explore and lots of wildlife. Elk are prevalent in this area of the park.

The park’s main southern entrance is located at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Here, you can tour more pioneer era historic buildings at the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill.

Farther down Newfound Gap Road, find a trailhead to hike part of the famous Appalachian Trail and summit Charlies Bunion, an 8-mile round-trip climb with stunning views.

Exit the national park at the Gatlinburg entrance.

Plan your next trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with these resources:

Worth Pondering…

Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Country roads, take me home
Take me home, country roads.

—John Denver

Arizona Mountain Towns

Arizona mountain towns offer cool, refreshing getaways for summer fun and memories

Experience the rich histories, invigorating forests, and refreshing lakes of Arizona mountain towns. These destinations promise dazzling colors in the fall, snowy winters, and cool summers.

Arizona is famous for wind-swept desert vistas, iconic saguaro cacti reaching toward the sky, and backdrops of glowing, amber-hued sunsets. While the summer sun delivers its warm embrace in the state’s lower elevations, there are equally captivating sights and experiences waiting to be explored across the state’s cooler mountain regions as well. Summer is the perfect time to enjoy these destinations.

After you’ve spent a few days poolside enjoying the sunshine in the Valley, the next stop on any summer vacation is to explore the cooler, higher-elevation communities and parks. Spending time in the 70s and 80s among the ponderosa pines and exploring Arizona’s mountain regions is another great way to revitalize and enjoy this beautiful state.

Here are a few tips for residents and travelers to answer the call of Arizona’s mighty mountain hideaways.

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Northern Arizona – Williams

Elevation: 6,765 feet 

Average summer temp: 83 degrees

Midway between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon, Williams’ small-town charms invite lingering. This gateway to the Grand Canyon boasts a vibrant historic downtown district, plenty of lodging and dining options, and access to outdoor recreation.

The Williams-Kaibab National Forest Visitor Center housed in a 1901 train depot is a great place to start a trip and learn about the area’s natural and human history. Today, exploring the rest of this town reveals neon signs, soda fountains, and restaurants serving American staples of beef and potatoes in all their various glories. This Arizona mountain town is a wonderful place to snap a few photos of Americana relics or buy some cowboy leather.

Williams is also the pickup point for the Grand Canyon Railway. The train ride takes about two hours and drops you off on the canyon’s South Rim. There are a number of class options including an observation dome and the budget-minded Pullman Class.

You can visit reindeer all year long at Bearizona Wildlife Park. 160 acres of Ponderosa pine forests are filled with North American animals that can be viewed from your car, or by foot. Keep an eye open for wolves, deer, and of course, bears.

Southeastern Arizona – Mt. Graham and Roper Lake

Roper Lake elevation: 3,000 feet

Average summer temp: 98 degrees

Mt. Graham elevation: 10,724 feet 

Average summer temp: 66 degrees

Mt. Graham towers at over 10,700 feet as the pinnacle of the Pinaleño Mountains in Southern Arizona near Safford. As home to the Mt. Graham International Observatory, it’s perhaps best known as a hotspot for stargazing and fans of astronomy. The ideal way to soak in the experience of Mt. Graham is to take the bus tour which starts at the visitor center at Eastern Arizona College’s Discovery Park Campus. Tours include a scenic drive up Mt. Graham, a lunch near the summit, and a guided tour of the observatories.

Even though it’s a bit warmer than the summit of Mt. Graham, staying at a lakeside campsite or one of the eight air-conditioned cabins at nearby Roper Lake State Park is a great way to end this trip. They’re just steps from the water making them the perfect base from which to explore this area. 

Courthouse Plaza, Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Northern Arizona – Prescott

Elevation: 5,367 feet

Average summer temp: 88 degrees

Nestled at an elevation of 5,200 feet above sea level among the largest stand of ponderosa pine forests in the U.S., Prescott‘s breathtaking landscapes are complete with granite mountains, lakes, streams, and rolling meadows. With two lakes to choose from, several options for paddling on the water are found in this Arizona mountain town. Canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards await to help visitors get out and explore. Plan a ride around a full moon and enjoy the glow on the water, peaceful surroundings, and nighttime views.

When not on the lakes activities include horseback riding, golfing, hiking, mountain biking, shopping, or visiting the local breweries and restaurants.

Once the territorial capital of Arizona the City of Prescott is rich with Western history embodied in its world-famous Whiskey Row, abundant historical landmarks, and the World’s Oldest Rodeo.

Sharlot Hall Museum is the perfect place for families to learn the town’s history. Tour historic homes, explore educational exhibits, and wander through the gardens. Kids can complete a scavenger hunt and redeem it at the museum store for a prize.

Step outside of town and explore the beautiful Prescott National Forest. Pack and picnic lunch and take a hike while basking in the fresh wilderness air. The Thumb Butte Trail, just minutes from downtown leads visitors on a two-mile loop with views of the area and interpretive signs. 

There are also two lakes in the area for recreation and fishing. Unique rock formations surround Watson Lake, creating fun channels to kayak through. Alternatively, Lynx Lake is lined by tall pine trees. Both lakes offer onsite kayak and canoe rentals.

For an overnight stay in Prescott, check out the many camping options in Prescott National Forest including RV sites and dispersed camping.

Sharlot Hall Museum, Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Northeastern Arizona – Show Low and Fool Hollow Lake

Elevation: 6,349 feet 

Average summer temp: 86 degrees

Show Low, the largest city in the White Mountains traces its name to a card game between two ranchers who needed to decide who would stay and who would go (clearly, the town wasn’t big enough for them both). The one who could show low would win. The main street in town is named Deuce of Clubs—the winning card. The Show Low Historical Museum is a good kick-off to any trip featuring a collection of quirky stuff from locals including quilts, military memorabilia, blacksmithing tools, and barbershop equipment.

As a cool place in the summer, Show Low is also home to Fool Hollow Lake State Park. At the edge of the lake, visitors can rent canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards from J&T’s Wild-Life Outdoors, the concessionaire located near the east boat launch ramp. Rentals are available on the spot but reservations are always a good idea. Watercraft rental is seasonal and is currently only available in summer.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southern Arizona – Chiricahua National Monument and Coronado National Forest

Elevation: 5,134 feet to 7,310 feet 

Average summer temp: 87 degrees

A Southern Arizona summer escape is Coronado National Forest. Free, dispersed camping is available along Pinery Canyon Road. Some of the spots are right next to Pinery Creek but it’s not always flowing so it’s best to bring ample supplies of water. Fires are permitted but always check local fire restrictions as the area may have burn bans throughout the year. 

For those looking for a more traditional camping experience next to one of Arizona’s most scenic areas nearby Chiricahua National Monument offers 25 developed sites at Bonita Canyon Campground.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southern Arizona – Bisbee

Elevation: 5,538 feet

Average summer temp: 88 degrees

From its 1877 discovery in the Mule Mountains until the 1970s, Bisbee bustled with mining operations and a wealth of copper. When the mines closed down, artists and free spirits took over the town creating a haven for music, art, history, and architecture. 

To get an overview of the town, start your visit at Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum. This interactive museum tells the story of Bisbee’s role in the industrialization of America. Kids love the trucks and gems located on the second floor.

A major attraction in Bisbee is the Queen Mine Tour. A trip into the mine takes families back in time to the late 1800’s. You’ll learn about the dangers, techniques, and lifestyles of mines from this time period. 

When dining with the family, the vintage Dot’s Diner is a fun place to eat a burger and shake. Or try the pizza at Screaming Banshee Pizza. After exploring, a treat at Pussycat Gelato on Main Street is a perfect end to the day.

Worth Pondering…

It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters in the end.

—Ursala K. Guin

Is Social Media Ruining the National Park Experience?

From feeding wild animals to perilous selfies, tourists risk their lives and the preservation of America’s national parks for fleeting social media fame

It may seem cute and fun for tourists to feed the wildlife at a national park until you realize this isn’t a Disney movie but is, in fact, reality. One woman who decided to feed a grown bull—not in a national park but on a Mexican beach last month—learned the hard way that if you mess with a bull, you may get the horns, literally. The video was posted online, per CBS News.

One Instagram account with nearly half a million followers posted videos of tourists risking their lives to get the picture no one else has to get a temporary sense of fame on social media. The account, TouronsOfYellowstone shares submissions mainly in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park but posted one photo of a tourist in Utah who had to be saved by search and rescue after jumping to a hoodoo rock overlooking the canyon thousands of feet below.

The phrase touron, the combination of tourist and moron describes those who don’t think before they act when it comes to interacting with wildlife in America’s national parks.

Bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2022, influencer Katie Sigmund faced criminal charges after hitting golf balls into Grand Canyon National Park. “I was thinking in my head … ‘I can make golf content. Like, it’s such a pretty view. Let me just golf into the Grand Canyon,’” Sigmund said in an interview.

“Dumbest idea,” she added.

After posting the video of golf balls and part of her golf club breaking off and being thrown below Mather Point at the South Rim of the canyon some of Sigmund’s followers reported her to the park. She was handed three federal violation notices and a $285 fine.

Carmen Holbrook has visited many popular scenic spots through the years and says she has seen a few people in national parks get too close to danger for comfort.

“I haven’t seen people hitting golf balls but I have seen people get way too close to the waterfall and they just don’t understand the power and beauty of nature,” Holbrook told the Deseret News. “It becomes so risky.”

Elk in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Park Service mortality dashboard from 2014 to 2019 shows that the top three causes of unintentional deaths are motor vehicle crashes, drowning, and falls. Fifty percent of all deaths inside parks are reportedly unintentional and also occur when the individual is participating in physical activity.

While at Yellowstone National Park, Holbrook said she saw multiple instances of people tempting their fates. In one instance, she witnessed a tourist walk off the guided path even though the signs warned of a thin crust that resembled solid ground.

“I felt like I was going to have a heart attack watching him walk on the crust,” she said. “It’s annoying when people do dangerous things. They think it’s only affecting them when everyone else around them is like, ‘You’re destroying the park and you’re stressing us out. You are doing something so disrespectful.’”

Another occurrence happened when she and other tourists were driving along a river in the park when someone spotted a grizzly bear on the opposite side of the bank.

“Everyone was getting out of their cars and standing across the river which was a small river, probably only like 30-50 feet away from this grizzly bear,” Holbrook emphasized. “It was just so sad, because you do hear all these grizzly bear attacks. There was a runner last year in Yellowstone who was attacked.”

“Why can you not just look from your car? Why do you have to get out and get close and risk your life when you could just still enjoy it the same way, just in the safety of your car?”

Here is some more helpful information on bear safety: You Come Across a Bear. Your Next Move Is Very Important. Do You Know What To Do?

Rocky Mountain Goat in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Social media for those who behave

The power of social media is that it influences—some for good and others for bad. That said, there have been some positive outcomes for America’s breathtaking landscapes in the digital world.

Research by Georgia Tech’s School of Economics looked at different social media outlets tied to national parks in the last decade and found that “parks with high exposure see increases in visitation that are 16 percent to 22 percent larger than parks with less exposure that see little change.”

“Visitation to national parks in the United States has increased by more than 25 percent since 2010 rising from roughly 70 to 90 million annual visitors,” the study added. “Anecdotes suggest that this increase was driven by the advent of social media in the early-to-mid 2010s, generating a new form of exposure for parks and has led to concerns about overcrowding and degradation of environmental quality.”

One account that provides both comedic relief and interesting information regarding the national parks and the wildlife within is the National Park Service’s social media itself.

“We often get referred to as the dad joke,” Matt Turner, the social media specialist for the National Park Service told The Weather Channel. “I’m like, well … you know, I think that fits with the National Park Service personality, maybe of outdoors and going camping and spending time with family.”

“We often kind of say, like safety with a smile,” he added. “As a government agency, we don’t want to say ‘no’ all the time or ‘stop doing that.’”

Bison in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are a few great articles to help you stay safe in national parks:

Worth Pondering…

I love the term touron. It’s a delicious portmanteau.

—Aspen Daily News

The Complete Guide to Custer State Park

Traveling to the Black Hills in South Dakota and wondering what there is to see and do in Custer State Park? In this post, I cover all the main landmarks, hiking trails, and animal sightings that you can experience in Custer—the best things to do in Custer State Park.

Located in the rugged beauty of the Black Hills in South Dakota, Custer State Park emerges as a sanctuary of natural splendor and wildlife diversity. Encompassing over 71,000 acres, this iconic park is a testament to the breathtaking landscapes that define the region’s towering granite peaks, expansive rolling grasslands, and crystal-clear mountain waters.

Established as South Dakota’s first state park in 1912 and named in honor of Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, the park weaves together a rich tapestry of history and untamed wilderness.

Home to a thriving population of wildlife including the iconic bison, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, and more, Custer State Park beckons adventurers with its myriad trails, scenic drives, and the allure of its five pristine lakes. From the annual bison roundup to the historic Peter Norbeck Center, Custer State Park invites visitors to explore its diverse offerings, promising an immersive journey into the heart of one of South Dakota’s most cherished natural treasures.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Features of Custer State Park

Iconic bison herd: Custer State Park is renowned for its resident herd of over 1,500 bison making it one of the largest publicly-owned herds in the world. The annual bison roundup (September 27, 2024) is a notable event attracting thousands of spectators and showcasing the park’s commitment to wildlife conservation.

Scenic drives: The park boasts two famous scenic drives—Needles Highway and Wildlife Loop Road. These routes offer breathtaking views of granite peaks, pristine lakes, and opportunities to witness wildlife including bison.

Diverse wildlife: Beyond bison, the park is home to a variety of wildlife species including prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, elk, deer, mountain goats, coyotes, river otters, pronghorn, cougars, and feral burros. This diversity attracts nature enthusiasts and provides unique opportunities for wildlife observation.

Outdoor recreation: Custer State Park offers a range of outdoor activities from hiking trails to water-based activities in its five picturesque lakes. Visitors can enjoy boating, swimming, and fishing while surrounded by the park’s natural beauty.

Historic contributions: The Park’s history is shaped by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which played a vital role in the 1930s by building roads, campgrounds, and dams. The Peter Norbeck Center, a National Register of Historic Place, showcases the park’s natural history and cultural heritage through exhibits.

Expansive terrain: Covering over 71,000 acres, Custer State Park features diverse landscapes including rolling prairie grasslands and rugged mountains. The varied terrain contributes to the park’s scenic beauty and provides a habitat for its diverse wildlife.

The Needles, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Proximity to attractions: Situated in the Black Hills, the park is near other notable attractions such as Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Badlands National Park offering visitors a chance to explore the broader region.

Visitor center: The modern visitor center opened in 2016 serves as an informative hub offering insights into the park’s wildlife, history, and layout. Visitors can engage with exhibits and a short film to enhance their understanding of Custer State Park.

Annual events: In addition to the bison roundup the park hosts various events and programs including naturalist-led activities, festivals, and educational programs. These events provide visitors with unique opportunities to connect with the park’s natural and cultural offerings.

Preservation efforts: Custer State Park has a history of expansion and preservation with an additional 22,900 acres added in 1964. The park’s ongoing efforts focus on maintaining ecological balance and preserving the natural beauty that defines this South Dakota gem.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History

Established in 1912, Custer State Park located in the Black Hills of South Dakota holds a storied history as the state’s first and largest state park. The park’s origins trace back to a collection of sixteen sections of land which were later consolidated into one expansive block due to the challenges posed by the rugged terrain.

The 1930s saw a transformative period for the park, as the CCC played a pivotal role in constructing miles of roads, campgrounds, and dams. These efforts laid the foundation for the park’s growth and facilitated water recreation activities.

In 1964, an additional 22,900 acres were added further expanding its boundaries. Notably, the park is home to a herd of over 1,500 bison and the annual bison roundup initiated in 1965 has become a celebrated event drawing thousands of spectators. Today, Custer State Park stands as a testament to conservation efforts offering visitors a unique blend of natural beauty, wildlife diversity, and a rich tapestry of historical significance.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Importance of conservation and recreation for Custer State Park

Custer State Park holds a dual significance as a vital hub for both conservation and recreation. On the conservation front, the park’s expansive 71,000 acres serve as a haven for diverse wildlife playing a crucial role in the preservation of ecosystems unique to the Black Hills region.

The resident herd of over 1,500 bison alongside prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, elk, and various other species underscores the park’s commitment to biodiversity. The annual bison roundup not only captivates visitors but also stands as a carefully orchestrated conservation effort, ensuring the ecological balance of the park.

Additionally, Custer State Park’s historical role in the 1930s with the CCC constructing essential infrastructure exemplifies a commitment to environmental stewardship.

Simultaneously, the park’s recreational offerings from scenic drives like Needles Highway to hiking trails and water-based activities provide a dynamic and immersive experience for visitors.

Beyond its natural allure, Custer State Park’s proximity to other iconic attractions such as Mount Rushmore and Wind Cave National Park positions it as a cornerstone for tourism fostering an appreciation for the region’s natural beauty.

Needles Highway, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Diverse vegetation and unique plant species

Ponderosa pine forests: Custer State Park is characterized by extensive stands of ponderosa pine forests contributing to the park’s scenic beauty and providing habitat for various wildlife species.

Aspen groves: Aspen groves dot the landscape especially in areas with higher elevations. These groves contribute to the park’s diverse and visually striking vegetation.

Prairie grasslands: The Park features expansive prairie grasslands showcasing a mix of native grass species that play a crucial role in maintaining the park’s ecosystem and supporting its diverse wildlife.

Wildflowers: Throughout the park, a vibrant display of wildflowers adds splashes of color to the landscape. These include species like lupine, fireweed, Indian paintbrush, and various others creating a visually appealing and ecologically significant environment.

Ferns and mosses: In shaded and moist areas, ferns and mosses thrive adding to the diversity of plant life within the park. These species are often found along streambanks and in the vicinity of the park’s lakes.

Black Hills spruce: This native evergreen species is part of the diverse forest composition contributing to the park’s unique plant community. The Black Hills spruce is well-adapted to the region’s climate and soil conditions.

Chokecherry and Saskatoon serviceberry: These shrub species are found throughout the park and are important for both wildlife and traditional uses. Chokecherries, in particular, are a vital food source for various bird species.

Alder thickets: Along waterways and in moist areas, alder thickets thrive. These dense shrub communities provide habitat for a variety of birds and small mammals.

Rocky Mountain juniper: Scattered throughout the park, the Rocky Mountain juniper is a hardy evergreen species that adds to the park’s diverse vegetation particularly in rocky or higher elevation areas.

Custer State Park’s diverse vegetation not only enhances its natural beauty but also plays a critical role in supporting the varied wildlife species that call the park home. The combination of forests, grasslands, and unique plant communities creates a rich tapestry of ecosystems within this South Dakota treasure.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fauna

Bison: Custer State Park is renowned for its resident herd of over 1,500 bison making it one of the largest publicly-owned herds in the world. The annual bison roundup (September 27, 2024) is a spectacle that showcases the park’s commitment to wildlife management and conservation.

Prairie dogs: The Park is home to thriving prairie dog towns where these social rodents create intricate burrow systems. Their presence contributes to the park’s unique prairie ecosystem and provides a critical food source for various predators.

Bighorn sheep: Custer State Park supports a population of bighorn sheep with these iconic mammals often spotted on the rugged mountainous terrain. The park’s varied landscapes offer suitable habitats for their survival.

Elk: Elk can be found throughout the park especially in areas with a mix of forests and meadows. Their presence adds to the diversity of large herbivores in the region.

Pronghorns, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mule deer: The Park is home to mule deer which are often seen in grassland and forested areas. These agile herbivores contribute to the park’s overall biodiversity.

White-tailed deer: White-tailed deer are prevalent in Custer State Park utilizing the diverse habitats including woodlands and open grasslands. Their adaptability to different environments makes them a common sight for park visitors.

Mountain goats: Adapted to the rocky terrain, mountain goats find suitable habitats in the park’s higher elevations. Their presence adds to the alpine character of certain areas within the park.

Coyotes: Thriving in a variety of environments including prairies and woodlands, coyotes are common in Custer State Park. They play a role in controlling rodent populations and contribute to the park’s ecological balance.

River otters: In aquatic habitats such as lakes and streams, river otters are active residents. Their playful behavior and sleek presence add to the diversity of wildlife experiences in the park.

Pronghorns: These swift and agile antelope-like mammals can be spotted in the park’s open grasslands. Their unique adaptations make them well-suited to the prairie environments of Custer State Park.

Cougars: Though elusive and rarely seen, cougars inhabit the park’s forests and rocky landscapes. Their presence as a top predator contributes to the park’s overall ecosystem dynamics.

Feral burros: Not native to the region, feral burros are a charming addition to the park’s fauna. Known for approaching vehicles in search of food, they add a unique and sometimes amusing element to the visitor experience.

Custer State Park’s diverse fauna is a testament to the park’s commitment to wildlife conservation and habitat preservation. The mix of large herbivores, predators, and smaller mammals creates a balanced and thriving ecosystem offering visitors a chance to witness the wonders of the Black Hills’ natural biodiversity.

Needles Highway, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Activities in Custer State Park for visitors

1. Scenic drives

Visitors to Custer State Park can embark on unforgettable scenic drives such as the renowned Needles Highway and Wildlife Loop Road. Needles Highway winds through impressive granite spires providing breathtaking views and opportunities to witness the park’s diverse wildlife. Wildlife Loop Road offers a leisurely drive through key habitats allowing visitors to observe bison herds, prairie dog towns, and a variety of other animals.

2. Hiking trails

The park boasts an extensive network of hiking trails catering to various skill levels. Trails like the Little Devils Tower offer panoramic views of the surrounding landscape while Sylvan Lake Shore Trail provides a scenic lakeside stroll. Hiking enthusiasts can explore the diverse ecosystems from dense forests to open meadows offering a close encounter with the park’s natural beauty.

3. Wildlife viewing

Custer State Park is a haven for wildlife enthusiasts. The park’s vast landscapes offer ample opportunities for wildlife observation with bison, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, elk, and a myriad of bird species calling the park home. Wildlife Loop Road is especially popular for its accessibility and the likelihood of spotting iconic animals in their natural habitats.

Burros, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Fishing

The park’s five picturesque lakes including Sylvan Lake and Stockade Lake provide excellent fishing opportunities. Anglers can cast their lines for a variety of fish species creating a serene and rewarding experience surrounded by the park’s scenic beauty. Fishing is permitted and regulations ensure the sustainability of the aquatic ecosystems.

5. Boating and swimming

Visitors seeking water-based activities can enjoy boating and swimming in the park’s lakes. Sylvan Lake with its clear waters and scenic surroundings is a popular spot for both boating and swimming. The calm lakes offer a refreshing escape allowing visitors to connect with nature while engaging in recreational water activities.

6. Annual bison roundup

An iconic event in Custer State Park is the annual bison roundup (September 27, 2024), a spectacle that draws thousands of spectators. This tradition, dating back to 1965 involves herding the bison for health checks and population management. Visitors have the unique opportunity to witness this significant conservation effort and gain insights into the park’s commitment to wildlife management.

7. Visitor Center Exploration

Opened in 2016, the park’s visitor center serves as an informative hub. Visitors can delve into exhibits detailing the park’s wildlife, history, and layout. The center provides a comprehensive introduction to Custer State Park enhancing the overall visitor experience with interactive displays and a 20-minute film.

Camping in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Camping

For those seeking a more immersive experience, Custer State Park offers several campgrounds nestled within its natural landscapes. Campers can enjoy the tranquility of the Black Hills with campfire evenings under starlit skies. The park provides a range of camping options from rustic sites to more developed facilities.

Custer State Park’s diverse activities cater to a broad range of interests inviting visitors to engage with its natural wonders, wildlife, and recreational offerings. Whether exploring by car, foot, or boat, the park provides an enriching experience that showcases the unique beauty of the Black Hills region.

As our journey through Custer State Park concludes, it leaves an indelible mark—a canvas of granite peaks, untamed bison, and winding scenic drives. The echoes of preservation and nature’s allure linger. Until the next adventure beckons, Custer State Park remains a cherished chapter in the tapestry of exploration.

Plan your next trip to Custer State Park and the Black Hills with these resources:

Sylvan Lake, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Conclusion

In summary, Custer State Park is a harmonious blend of conservation, recreation, and cultural heritage. Its diverse landscapes from prairie grasslands to granite peaks provide a captivating environment. The park’s commitment to preservation evident in the annual bison roundup and historic contributions reflects its dedication to stewardship.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Standing Bear

A Summer Road Trip Guide to Bryce Canyon Country

Explore canyons, forests, and lakes in Bryce Canyon Country—home to Bryce Canyon National Park and so much more

Summer is synonymous with road trips. There’s no need to worry about icy roads or snow storms. School’s out and businesses are back in full swing to support summer travelers. It’s the perfect time of year to hit the open road for an epic adventure. And there is no better place to do this than in Southern Utah’s Bryce Canyon Country.

A geological masterpiece sculpted by time, the landscape of Southern Utah begins with the Colorado Plateau upon which Southern Utah rests. The massive area encompasses everything from the natural rock arches of Arches National Park and the deep canyons of Canyonlands National Park to the waters of Lake Powell with Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, and Capitol Reef National Park anchoring the land in between. 

Garfield County Utah, otherwise known as Bryce Canyon Country is the fifth-least populous county in Utah, the vast landscape holds just over 5,000 residents—with one inhabitant per square mile—making it also the least densely populated county in the state. Because of this, traveling here even in the busy summer months can sometimes feel like you have the entire place to yourself. This remote destination offers all the fun with a vast landscape filled with hoodoos and arches, deep canyons and slot canyons, rivers and red rocks, all without the crowds.

Discover how to have an epic road trip in Bryce Canyon Country where remote roads lead to an unveiling of not only a landscape that’s etched with beauty but also a treasure trove of rich history waiting to be discovered. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Begin your exploration of Bryce Canyon Country with a visit to Capitol Reef National Park. You’ll know instantly when you’ve arrived at the park’s most iconic feature, the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long warp in the Earth’s crust. The park gets its name Capitol Reef from the white domes of Navajo Sandstone that resemble domed capitol buildings and the large rocky cliffs that are a barrier to travel, much like an ocean reef.

Drive along State Route 24 and as you enter the park you’ll encounter some of the park’s top highlights: the Hickman Bridge Trail, the petroglyph panels, Ripple Rock Nature Center, the visitor center, and the 200-acre Fruita Rural Historic District where you can camp and pick fruit from the orchard’s bountiful trees.

Note: Fruit taken from the orchards must be paid for.

Explore by simply taking a scenic drive through the park or venturing out on one of the park’s many trails that wind through narrow canyons or strike out on backcountry dirt roads to see what you find.

Check this out to learn more:

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Travel the All-American Road

For the ultimate summer scenic road trip, continue south and drive along the Scenic Byway 12. The epic 123-mile driving route follows some of the most beautiful landscapes of the American Southwest for which it was named an All-American Road.

Jaw-dropping scenery and a road that follows and clings to the land its one road trip where you almost feel a part of the landscape. The paved two-way road climbs to the highest of heights along the famous Hogsback stretch and curves corners of slick rock highlighting scenic vista points along the way that offer views for as far as the eye can see. 

The scenic byway connects U.S. 89 near Panguitch with S.R. 24 near Torrey and will be your main thoroughfare through Bryce Canyon Country. As you climb through the Dixie National Forest from Torrey, one of the best spots for a scenic overlook is at the road’s summit at 9,000 feet. This stop gives you some of the best views of Bryce Canyon Country with the contrasting red rocks of Capitol Reef, the distant Henry Mountains, and the expansive desertscape of the Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Connecting Capitol Reef National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park, the road winds through parts of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and nearby state parks such as Kodachrome Basin, Escalante Petrified Forest, Anasazi State Park Museum. 

Here are some articles to help:

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

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

Spanning nearly 1.9 million acres from Bryce Canyon to Grand Canyon the rugged and remote terrain of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is one of the most scenic yet overlooked destinations in the U.S. The monument received its name Grand Staircase for its large sequence of sedimentary rock layers stretching south from Bryce Canyon National Park through Zion National Park and into Grand Canyon National Park. This huge stairway of rock ascends north out of the Grand Canyon encompassing much of Bryce Canyon Country.

Aside from the monument’s vast desert views, many travelers come here to plunge into the deep red walls of the area’s many slot canyons. While some of the most popular slot canyons to explore including Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulch don’t require a guide, getting to some of the monuments more remote and off-the-grid slot canyons requires a guide. 

Excursions of Escalante is the premier tour company that takes you beyond the more accessible places (Spooky, Peekaboo, Big Horn, etc.) and into the most remote, beautiful, and pristine corners of the Escalante region. Choose your own adventure with slot canyon hikes and canyoneering options to explore the area’s most remote and slender slots.

Scenic Byway 12 winds through Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If tiny spaces aren’t your thing, regular hiking is another option. Part of what makes visiting the monument special is its limited access to trails and the land itself. Very few can be reached on paved roads with most accessed via unpaved dirt roads. These backroads throughout the monument not only offer access to numerous trailheads, they also offer exceptional scenic driving potential. 

The only two designated trails (with signs) in the Grand Staircase can be accessed directly from Scenic Byway 12—Upper and Lower Calf Creek Falls. Upper Calf Creek is a short two-mile hike round trip but with a steep climb to the falls. Lower Calf Creek Falls is longer at six miles but is mostly flat. 

A unique way to get a great overview of Bryce Canyon Country is with an ATV tour from Grand Staircase ATV Tours. See the back gate to Bryce Canyon National Park from the little town of Tropic to view the highest plateaus and cliffs that make up the steps to the Staircase. A husband-and-wife team own the company and provides a wealth of knowledge and information about the area. Just a 10-mile drive from Bryce Canyon National Park located in Tropic, the company offers private guided tours into the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

By the way, I have written: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Naturally

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Continuing along Scenic Byway 12 heading west you take you directly to Bryce Canyon National Park—the heart of Bryce Canyon Country. 

Bryce Canyon National Park is an otherworldly landscape famous for its breathtaking amphitheaters of towering hoodoos. These hoodoos are distinctive spire-shaped rock formations that lay the groundwork for this incredibly unique place. The whimsical, orange and red hoodoos rise in dense concentrations forming a surreal panorama across the amphitheaters and maze-like trails below the rim.

Driving into Bryce Canyon initially throws off first-time visitors with its forests of ponderosa pines along the flat plateau. Here is where you’ll find most of the park’s camping spots and access to the canyon and its overlooks. The out-and-back 18-mile road stretches the length of the park and is the jumping-off point for all vehicle and trail exploration.

Hiking amongst the hoodoos is a must with popular trails including the Fairyland Loop, Navajo Loop, Queens Garden, and the Rim Trail. Scenic views from Sunrise, Sunset, and Inspiration point should not be missed as well.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That’s why I wrote these five articles:

Or explore the diverse canyon as the first settlers to discover the area did by way of horseback. Saddle up with Canyon Trail Rides, the only horseback outfitters inside the park with their two-hour guided tour through the heart of Bryce Canyon. The best part? This trail is not accessible to hikers or backpackers, so you get to see some of the canyon other visitors don’t get to see. 

Plan your next trip in southern Utah’s Bryce Canyon Country with these resources:

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge

8 Cool RV Destinations to Beat the Summer Heat

Ah, the joys of summer. There’s nothing like sweating under a glaring sun to make you truly forget what’s so great about the great outdoors. While some travelers embrace hot sunny rays others feel like drooping when the mercury rises. If you’d like to beat the summer heat, check out these destinations for relief.

Your summer vacation does not have to be hiding indoors in front of the air conditioner trying to stay cool from high temperatures or unbearable humidity. There are lots of places in summer where you can enjoy beautiful pleasant temperatures while spending time outside. Whether you prefer cities, towns, national or state parks, mild summer weather is available in many spectacular destinations.

As summer descends on the United States, the mercury begins to soar in many places with daily temperatures reaching into the triple digits. While you could embrace the heat like a lizard or retreat behind air conditioning for the next few months, perhaps you should consider a refreshing getaway to cooler climes.

Here is a great article to help you do just that: High-Elevation RVing: How to Beat the Heat and Camp in Perfect Weather

Here are eight favorite spots for beating the worst of the summer heat.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

Situated at an elevation of 10,000 feet, Cedar Breaks is shaped like a giant coliseum dropping 2,000 feet to its floor.

Cedar Breaks resembles a miniature Bryce Canyon. Some visitors say its brilliant colors even surpass Bryce. The Native Americans called Cedar Breaks the Circle of Painted Cliffs. Millions of years of uplift and erosion have carved this huge amphitheater.

Deep inside the coliseum are stone spires, columns, arches, pinnacles, and intricate canyons in varying shades of red, yellow, and purple. The bristlecone pine, one of the world’s oldest trees, grows in the area and can be found along the Spectra Point Trail. The Dixie National Forest surrounds Cedar Breaks providing lush alpine meadows clustered with ponderosa pines and quaking aspens. During the summer months, the wildflower display is spectacular.

Cedar Breaks’ neighbor, Brian Head Resort is also a superb spot to seek cooler temps resort-style. The mountain’s tallest summer hiking trail takes you near the summit of 11,307-foot Brian Head Peak. And if you feel resort-y (or have kids in tow), you’ll definitely want to hit up the zip line, bungee trampoline, bike trails, disc golf course, or climbing wall while you’re at it.

Here are some helpful resources:

Stowe Community Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Stowe, Vermont

Stowe is a Vermont Ski town that is lovely to visit in summer thanks to an Alpine setting that doesn’t get too hot and lots of outdoor activities. It is one of the best places to spend time to avoid extreme summer heat.

Summer weather ranges from high 60s to high 70s. There is little temperature difference between June, July, and August and only 4 percent of the days are humid.

For fun summer hiking, choose trails that lead to waterfalls like the easy Bingham Falls Trail in Smugglers Notch State Park or Moss Glen Falls trail in nearby Putnam State Park.

For more challenging hikes, take the ski gondola to the top of Mansfield Mountain where it can be cold and windy even when it’s warm down below. A handful of trails start at the top of the mountain and reward you with stellar views of the Green Mountains. However, be prepared for rugged trails that require proper hiking boots and a willingness to go scrambling over rocks.  

A greenway starts in town and winds for several miles toward the ski mountain. It’s an easy and scenic ride with ample opportunities to stop at local brew pubs, cideries, and ice cream shops that sell Vermont creamies, dense, high-fat soft-serve ice cream often flavored with maple syrup. With all the outdoor activities, you can indulge without any guilt!

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Thor’s Hammer, monstrous hoodoos, and a Sinking Ship. Bryce Canyon’s red-orange-pink amphitheaters stage a Norse myth 70 million years in the making.

Wind, water, and time have eroded Bryce Canyon National Park‘s sandstone cliffs into otherworldly characters plucked from the unconscious of a mad Viking. Rows of humanoid pillars crosshatched by rock strata look almost intentional but perfectly surreal. So silent, eerie, and beautiful! So improbable it has to be true.

If you need ideas, check out:

Ocean Drive, Newport © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Newport, Rhode Island

Set on Rhode Island’s Aquidneck Island is the coastal city of Newport. This resort town is a cool, relaxing destination to explore in the summertime. Its rich Gilded Age history and sailboat-filled marinas make for a scenic and luxurious vacation. 

Soak up ocean views. Newport has panoramic ocean views that go on for miles. The best way to capture it is to take a stroll along the Cliff Walk. This 3.5-mile cliffside trail features tranquil picnic spots, benches, and access points to other interesting Newport experiences. 

Insider tip: If you plan to walk the entirety of the Cliff Walk wear layers, sturdy shoes, and sunblock. Utilize the public restroom found a mile into the walk—it’s the only one directly along the route.

Tour the lavish mansions. The most famous Newport features are its Gilded Age mansions found across the city. These lavish summer cottages built for the rich and famous are open to the public for tours. Head to Bellevue Avenue to explore the iconic Breakers and Marble House.

Mount Washington Cog Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. White Mountains, New Hampshire

New Hampshire’s White Mountains comprise stunning alpine peaks cloaked in forest. The higher you go, the cooler it will be. While low elevations see summer temperatures in the mid-70s the high points are perpetually chilly sometimes not even shedding their layers of snow until well into July.

Temperatures on Mount Washington, the tallest peak in the Northeast range from about 40 to 55 degrees at the height of summer. Visitors can climb out of the heat by foot on the many hiking trails or drive up the slopes on the scenic Kancamagus Highway.

There are some special towns nestled in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Quaint villages like Sugar Hill enjoy blooming fields of lupines in the summer while North Conway is home to ziplining tours and Alpine Slide adventures.  

The White Mountains are filled with exciting activities like hikes and sweeping summit views. Ride the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway to feel like you’re flying, hike the famous Artists Bluff Loop, or drive to the summit of Mount Washington. Don’t want to take the difficult hike or the foreboding drive up to Mount Washington? Ride the historic Mount Washington Cog Railway. This steam train will chug its way up to the summit.  

Lake Champlain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Lake Champlain, New York and Vermont

Nestled between Quebec, Vermont, and New York is the freshwater Lake Champlain. Surrounded by the New York Adirondacks to its west and the Vermont Green Mountains to its east a summer at Lake Champlain offers fun recreational opportunities in every direction. 

Take a lakeside stroll. For a lakefront park with plenty of outdoor activities head to Point Au Roche State Park in New York. Its open-forest walking trails and sandy beaches along Lake Champlain will have you exploring for hours. 

Discover Burlington. Situated on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain is the picturesque town of Burlington, Vermont. Locals love getting active at Waterfront Park and Burlington Bike Path. If you want to venture away from the lake browse the eclectic shops of Church Street Marketplace. 

Insider tip: Burlington has its own folklore: Champ the Lake Monster. Sightings of this Loch Ness-looking monster in Lake Champlain date as far back as the 1800s, and since then there have been over 300 sighting claims. Can you spot Champ?  

Icefields Parkway connects Banff and Jasper National Parks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Banff National Park, Alberta

Banff National Park is not only one of the most breathtaking places on earth but it also offers cool temps during the summer months with highs around 72 and lows in the upper 40s. If you’re looking for a mountain retreat with mild weather, fishing, hiking, and mountain biking this is your spot.

Banff Townsite offers lots of small-town charms as well as making a great base for exploring the gorgeous glacier-fed lakes and a multitude of wildlife. It even boasts a thriving arts and culture scene with a number of museums, art galleries, and concert venues along with a diverse array of fine restaurants and shops.

Enjoy the scenery and wildlife on Icefields Parkway named a Drive of a Lifetime by National Geographic. It traces the Continental Divide and connects two national parks, Banff and Jasper as well as Lake Louise and Jasper Townsite. Taking the ride to the top of 7,500-foot Sulphur Mountain from Banff provides panoramic views of the park.

Thumb Butte Trail, Prescott

8. Prescott, Arizona

Nestled at an elevation of 5,200 feet above sea level among the largest stand of ponderosa pine forests in the U.S., Prescott‘s breathtaking landscapes are complete with granite mountains, lakes, streams, and rolling meadows. With two lakes to choose from, several options for paddling on the water are found in this Arizona mountain town. Canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards await to help visitors get out and explore. Plan a ride around a full moon and enjoy the glow on the water, peaceful surroundings, and nighttime views.

When not on the lakes activities include horseback riding, golfing, hiking, mountain biking, shopping, or visiting the local breweries and restaurants.

Once the territorial capital of Arizona the City of Prescott is rich with Western history embodied in its world-famous Whiskey Row, abundant historical landmarks, and the World’s Oldest Rodeo.

Sharlot Hall Museum is the perfect place for families to learn the town’s history. Tour historic homes, explore educational exhibits, and wander through the gardens. Kids can complete a scavenger hunt and redeem it at the museum store for a prize.

Step outside of town and explore the beautiful Prescott National Forest. Pack and picnic lunch and take a hike while basking in the fresh wilderness air. The Thumb Butte Trail, just minutes from downtown leads visitors on a two-mile loop with views of the area and interpretive signs. 

There are also two lakes in the area for recreation and fishing. Unique rock formations surround Watson Lake, creating fun channels to kayak through. Alternatively, Lynx Lake is lined by tall pine trees. Both lakes offer onsite kayak and canoe rentals.

For an overnight stay in Prescott, check out the many camping options in Prescott National Forest including RV sites and dispersed camping.

Worth Pondering…

Summertime and the living is easy. Fish are jumping and the cotton is high.

—Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Summertime

Great Smoky Mountains National Park: A Guide for RVers

America’s most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains is an ideal getaway. Hike, camp, and experience one of America’s oldest mountain ranges.

I love all things nature. I enjoy visiting the National Parks, 22 so far and numerous National Park Service (NPS) sites including National Monuments, National Historic Sites, National Battlefields, National Seashores, and National Recreation Areas.

However, America’s highways and byways offer many unique sites along the way. Like you, we discuss where we want to go and work backward from there. That allows us to research all of those spots in between that fall into the must-see column. Therein is my motivation for this new series of articles: A Guide for RVers.

A Guide for RVers will provide you with not only hints and facts about nature found on your road trip but those often missed stops along the way. For example, if you are heading from Bryce Canyon National Park to Capitol Reef National Park take time to visit Escalante Petrified Forest State Park in Escalante and view the historic grounds of Anasazi State Park in Boulder. 

Perhaps you find yourself on a layover in Mitchell, South Dakota heading to Badlands National Park and the Black Hills. Take time to tour the World’s Only Corn Palace

My new series of articles, A Guide for RVers will run intermittently in the months ahead. It will include links to related articles, interesting nature facts associated with those places, and a shout-out to good eats along the way. I will add a special line called “Wait. What?!” in each column to give you some jaw-dropping facts about the specific topic and nature in general. 

I hope that you will find that A Guide for RVers is interesting, informative, and entertaining as well.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I’ll begin our adventure with the most visited National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park with 13.2 million visitors in 2023. That is only slightly less visits than Yellowstone (4.5 million), Grand Canyon (5.2 million), and Zion (4.6 million) combined. Why is that? It is within one day’s drive of one-half the U.S. population. Plus, plenty of side attractions have located just outside its protected borders.

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

Getting there

Using your favorite GPS navigator, U.S. Highway 441 bisects the park from the most popular entrance on the northside to Sugarlands Visitor Center at Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It ends, or begins, depending on your starting point, at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center via the Southside entrance at Cherokee, North Carolina. Known as Newfoundland Gap Road, US-441 curves its way through the park to an elevation of 5,046 feet before dropping back down.  

Once close to Knoxville, head south to any one of the popular towns: Townsend, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Sevierville, or Cosby. Among these, you will find more than two dozen RV parks and campgrounds.

Coming in from the Southside, you will head toward Cherokee. RV parks are few and the roads to any are winding. The same goes for getting to the Oconaluftee Visitors Center. There is a KOA and a few Good Sam parks along with a plethora of campgrounds.

Staying in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

If you are looking to rough it in your RV, the park offers nine campgrounds. The only one with water/electric hookups (10 sites) is Look Rock plus the means to park RVs up to 48 feet. All others are dry camping only with limited site lengths: Cades Cove and Smokemount—40 feet motorhomes, 35 feet for trailers; Elkmount—35 feet for motorhomes, 32 feet trailers; Cataloochee—31 feet; Balsam Mountain—30 feet; Deep Creek—26 feet; and Cosby—25 feet. Availability goes quickly, so a 6-month advance reservation is recommended. You can only reserve at recreation.gov in all national parks. 

You are there. Now what?

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

Visitor Center

Begin your exploration of the park at a visitor center. Here you can pick up a park map or newspaper, have your questions answered by a ranger, and purchase books and guides to the park. For current ranger-led activities, visit the park’s calendar for details.

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

The park has two historic gristmills, Cable Mill and Mingus Mill that provide demonstrations of corn meal milling. (Mingus Mill is closed until further notice for rehabilitation work.)

Parking permits

Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not charge an entrance fee. However, parking tags are required for all vehicles parking for longer than 15 minutes.

The best method is to purchase online. Otherwise, you can purchase one at a Visitor’s Center or kiosk. 

Three tag durations are available for purchase for all vehicle sizes and types:

  • Daily: $5
  • Weekly: $15
  • Annual: $40
Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving tours

Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses over 800 square miles and is one of the most pristine natural areas in the East. An auto tour of the park offers a variety of experiences including panoramic views, tumbling mountain streams, weathered historic buildings, and mature hardwood forests stretching to the horizon.

Visitors can choose from 384 miles of road in the Smokies. Most are paved and the gravel roads are maintained in suitable condition for standard passenger cars.

Cades Cove

Cades Cove is a scenic valley surrounded on all sides by mountains south of Townsend, Tennessee. A popular 11-mile one-way loop road encircling the valley provides access to hiking trails, opportunities for wildlife viewing, and chances to explore the many historic homesites, cemeteries, and churches. The area also holds a visitor center, campground, picnic area, and riding stable.

Many of the early settlers’ houses and a few primitive churches remain standing. Pull-out parking is available, but limited.

Allow at least two to four hours to tour Cades Cove, longer if you walk some of the area’s trails. Traffic is heavy during the tourist season in summer and fall and on weekends year-round. Trust me when I say, avoid the weekends!

Vehicle-free access along the Cades Cove Loop Road takes place each Wednesday from May through September.

The beginning of the loop is well marked: from Cherokee, 57 miles; from Gatlinburg, 27 miles; and from Townsend, 9 miles. Restrooms are available about halfway at the Cades Cove Visitors Center. From spring through fall one can expect to see wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, and black bears. There are a few easy- to moderate-difficulty hiking trailheads along the route. Again, parking is limited and by permit only (See above).

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Another popular loop of 5.5 miles takes you through an old-growth forest alongside a mountain stream. At about 2.5 miles is the trailhead for the Noah “Bud” Ogle self-guiding nature trail (0.7-mile easy loop). This takes you across two brooks, past his 1880s “saddle-bag” farmhouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and around his “pass-through” barn. Do not miss the “tub mill” used for grinding corn and the only one still existing out of a dozen in the area.

To access Roaring Fork, turn off the main parkway in Gatlinburg at traffic light #8 and follow Historic Nature Trail Road to the Cherokee Orchard entrance to the national park. Just beyond the Rainbow Falls trailhead you have the option of taking the one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (closed in winter). Please note that RVs are not permitted on the motor nature trail.

Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Clingman’s Dome

At an elevation of 6,643 feet, not only is it the highest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park but it also boasts the highest point in Tennessee and the highest point along the Appalachian Trail. Built in 1959, the observation tower allows visitors a 360-degree panorama of the Smokies. On a clear day you can see more than 100 miles. However, most days are smoky limiting visibility to about 20 miles.

Due to the steepness of the paved ramp up to the tower (1 mile round-trip), wheelchairs, pets, and bicycles are prohibited. Also, remember that at this elevation the ambient temperature is 10 to 20 degrees cooler than Gatlinburg.

Hiking trail to Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking trails

Great Smoky Mountains National Park stands out as a hiker’s heaven with more than 800 miles of trails through an old-growth forest including 71 miles of the Appalachian Trail. No wonder it is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site (1983).

One of the most daunting tasks facing hikers is choosing a trail. Start by deciding on what you would like to see. Waterfalls? Old-growth forests? Endless views? Then decide how far you would like to hike. If you haven’t hiked much recently, be conservative. Five miles roundtrip is a good maximum distance for novices.

Trails range from easy (Spruce Fir Trail, 0.4 miles r/t, 25-feet elevation gain), to moderate (Rainbow Falls, 5.4 miles r/t, 1685-feet elevation gain), to strenuous (Mt. Le Conte via Trillium Gap, 13.9 miles r/t, 3401-feet elevation gain). Remember, always check with the rangers at the Visitors Center for trail conditions, wildlife spotting, and permits, if required.

Some of the most popular destination hikes in the park include:

  • Charlies Bunion (4.0 miles one-way; 1,600 feet elevation change)
  • Alum Cave Bluffs (2.5 miles one-way; 1,200 feet elevation change)
  • Andrews Bald (1.8 miles one-way; 1,200 feet elevation change)
  • Rainbow Falls (2.7 miles one-way; 1,700 feet elevation change)
  • Chimney Tops (3.5 miles roundtrip; 1,400 feet elevation change)
Cable Mill, Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Flora and fauna

Great Smoky Mountains National Park shows more than 1,500 flowering species with spring offering the showiest of wildflowers. Of course, timing is everything. The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage (75th annual; April 23-26, 2025) offers guided walks and talks.

This is black bear habitat. They crawl from hibernation in the spring and forage all summer. July is mating season with bear cubs abundant shortly after. Follow NPS bear safety instructions should you encounter one. Speaking of safety, there are 23 species of snakes, but only two are venomous: Timber rattlesnake and Northern copperhead. Watch your step.

When hiking you may encounter sightings of coyotes, elk, white-tailed deer, raccoons, squirrels, and chipmunks. Enjoy from afar. Park regulations prohibit feeding any wild critter. 

Synchronous Fireflies (Photinus carolinus)

Of the 19 different species of fireflies that live within the GSMNP, the synchronous fireflies stand out among them all. The flash pattern alerts females that the males are of their species. It begins with a series of 5-8 flashes, a pause of about 8 seconds, and then this repeated pattern. Watching this mating ritual ranks as a truly unique experience.

To stand among the viewers requires one to enter the park lottery. This happens in late April to early May when the lottery for vehicle passes closes. The viewing begins when the adults seek to mate usually in June. To enter one must go to recreation.gov.

Another opportunity awaits in northeast Tennessee at Rocky Fork State Park. Again, admission is by lottery only. 

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Makin’ merry

Pigeon Forge seems like a carnival that never ends. From Dollywood to the Old Mill Historic District there are plenty of places for excitement. When it comes to eats, you name it, from fast foods to dinner theaters.

Big names like Guy Fieri’s Downtown Flavortown, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, and Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen are located on The Island, another tourist destination. In the mood for fried chicken or catfish, try J.T. Hannah’s Kitchen. Plenty of barbecue available, but Preachers Smokehouse is hard to beat. Get there early as they sell out quickly. Finally, do not forget to taste the moonshine. It will make you merry!

I hope that these few words piqued your curiosity and motivated you to roll on over to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Do not let the crowds put you off. You just have to plan your trip and be smarter than the average visitor. One final remark: Unless you stay for a month, do not try to do it all in one visit. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is HUGE covering 522,427 acres. In visiting, I can say that once is not nearly enough.

Hiking trail in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wait. What?!  

Bioluminescence, the production of light by living organisms is not limited to fireflies. Several other species light up. These include certain fish, shrimp, plankton, jellyfish, fungus, and gnats.

Want more travel ideas for this area?

Happy Travels!

Worth Pondering…

Each year thousands of backpackers 
Climb the Great Smoky Mountains… 
Nature’s Peace flows into them
as Sunshine flows into Trees;
the Winds blow their freshness into them…
and their Cares drop off like Autumn Leaves.

—Adapted from John Muir

Where (and Where Not) to Road Trip This Summer

Driving costs, lodging prices, and traffic safety were all factors in a new study

With the summer season rolling in, it is safe to say that every traveler feels a pull toward the next destination. Whether it’s the beach, the mountains, or a national park it doesn’t matter. What matters is quite literally hitting the road and going to the discovery of a new place.

According to a new study by WalletHub, a personal finance website, most Americans are looking forward to a road trip this summer with 75 percent of American adults planning to take some sort of road trip with around 33 percent planning to travel more than 250 miles from home.

Experts are pointing out that the reasons behind such an increased interest in summer road trips have to do with financial decisions and budgeting.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“All indications are there is a significant increase in those planning a road trip versus flying or going to a resort destination,” Dr. David C. Miles, Executive Professor at Northern Arizona State University, said in a statement. “High credit card debt along with high-interest rates on credit cards and 31 percent inflation over the last three years are forcing families to explore new and different ways to vacation this year. The road trip is a logical choice yet provides fun and value and multiple options.”

Deciding to take a trip is the easy part, though. Picking a destination and affording everything you want to pack into your itinerary is more difficult. Fuel prices are one thing to worry about for example. They’ve remained high this year with the national average price of gas at over $3.46 per gallon with diesel fuel currently averaging $3.80. On top of that you’ll need to consider accommodations, activities, and dining, all of which are affected by inflation.

For this reason, WalletHub analyzed all 50 states across the country and came up with an ultimate ranking of the best and worst states for a summer road trip. Researchers took into consideration 32 key metrics that could affect travelers on the road. Those include driving costs, lodging prices (including campgrounds), traffic safety, weather, and even fun activities, among others.

Padre Island National Seashore, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas rocks the road trip rankings

According to WalletHub’s latest ranking, the best state for a summer road trip is none other than the Great State of Texas! Summer is here, and it’s the perfect time to pack up the car or RV, grab some snacks, and hit the open road. Whether you’re looking for stunning scenery, affordable adventures, or safe travels, I’ll break it down for you. 

So, let’s dive into why Texas is the ultimate road trip destination and explore other top states that offer unforgettable summer adventures.

Texas: The road trip champion

Everything is bigger in Texas including its appeal as the top state for summer road trips. Texas offers a diverse range of landscapes and activities to suit every traveler’s taste. From the vibrant nightlife in Austin to the serene beaches of Padre Island, there’s something for everyone. The scenic Hill Country with its rolling hills and charming wineries makes for a picturesque drive while the historic Alamo in San Antonio offers a glimpse into the past.

Don’t forget to check out the quirky roadside attractions like Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo and the mystical Marfa Lights. Texas also boasts some of the best BBQ joints and Tex-Mex cuisine in the country ensuring that your taste buds are just as satisfied as your sense of adventure.

Whitehall, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Affordable adventures across the states

While Texas reigns supreme, other states also offer incredible road trip experiences without breaking the bank. New York and New Jersey stand out with their mix of urban excitement and natural beauty. In New York, you can explore the stunning Adirondacks and the Finger Lakes region while New Jersey offers beautiful coastal drives and charming small towns.

For budget-conscious travelers states like Virginia and North Carolina provide excellent value with affordable accommodations, low gas prices, and numerous free attractions. Virginia’s historic sites and North Carolina’s scenic Blue Ridge Parkway are perfect for those looking to explore without overspending.

Safety first: Secure and scenic routes

Safety is a top priority for any road trip and WalletHub’s ranking also considers this crucial factor. New York and Delaware are among the safest states for summer road trips with well-maintained roads and low crime rates ensuring a worry-free journey.

Texas with its extensive highway system and friendly locals also scores high on safety. The state is known for its hospitality and you’ll find plenty of help and amenities along the way. Whether you’re driving through bustling cities or remote desert landscapes, Texas ensures a secure and enjoyable trip.

So there you have it, folks! Texas tops the charts as the ultimate state for summer road trips offering a perfect blend of adventure, affordability, and safety. Whether you’re exploring the expansive landscapes of Texas, discovering the historic charms of Virginia, or enjoying the coastal beauty of New Jersey, there’s a road trip destination waiting for you. So, get your playlist ready, pack your bags, and set out for an unforgettable summer journey. Happy travels!

Holmes County, Ohio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top 10 overall ranked states for summer road trips

  • Texas
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Idaho
  • Wisconsin
  • Florida
  • Wyoming
  • Minnesota
  • Virginia
St. Martinsville, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In-depth analysis of the key metrics

Average gas prices

Lowest

1. Mississippi

2. Colorado

T-3. Louisiana

T-3. Oklahoma

5. Arkansas

Highest

46. Oregon

47. Nevada

48. Washington

49. Hawaii

50. California

Best state vs. worst state: 2x difference (Mississippi vs. California)

Roosevelt State Park, Mississippi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Price of camping

Lowest

1. Mississippi

2. Wyoming

3. West Virginia

4. Arizona

5. Illinois

Highest

44. Maryland

45. Alaska

46. New Jersey

T-47. Washington

T-47. California

Best state vs. worst state: 3x difference (Mississippi vs. California)

Utah Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic byways

Most

1. Oregon

2. California

3. Utah

4. North Carolina

5. Washington

Fewest

46. Wisconsin

47. Rhode Island

48. Hawaii

49. Delaware

50. Connecticut

Worth Pondering…

People travel to wonder at the height of the mountains, at the huge waves of the seas, at the long course of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering.

—Saint Augustine (354-430)

The Complete Guide to Mesa Verde National Park

A thrilling collection of ancient canyon-carved cliff dwellings welcomes visitors in Colorado

Most of the country’s 63 national parks are beloved for their wild and rugged beauty but Mesa Verde National Park is a cultural treasure unlike any other.

Located in the Four Corners region of southwestern Colorado it preserves the heritage and hand-built architectural accomplishments of the Ancestral Pueblo people, an ancient civilization that produced awe-inspiring handiwork between 550 and 1300 A.D. Home to 5,000 archaeological sites including 600 canyon-carved cliff dwellings, the 52,485-acre park strewn with verdant clusters of pinyon, juniper, and Gambel oak trees safeguards the United States’ largest archaeological preserve. ​

President Theodore Roosevelt established the park in 1906 and in 1978 Mesa Verde National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with Yellowstone National Park, the first such accreditations given in the United States.

The region’s first Spanish explorers gave the area its name—Mesa Verde is Spanish for green table—inspired by its vast and lush mountainous shrublands. Geologists will tell you that Mesa Verde National Park is technically a cuesta (not a mesa) due to its sun-tilted topography which the Ancestral Puebloans used to grow corn, their primary food.

​For reasons unknown, by the late 1200s following seven centuries of building and harvesting the Ancestral Puebloans had all but deserted the cliffs, canyons, and villages of modern-day Mesa Verde National Park.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While there were surely plenty of explorers in the area in the years after, it wasn’t put on the map until a snowy December day in 1888 when local ranchers Charlie Mason and Richard Wetherill spotted Cliff Palace—the largest cliff dwelling in the park and the main attraction. Fast-forward to 2022 and this sacred Indigenous site where 100-mile views into Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico can be had on clear days attracts close to 600,000 visitors annually. ​

An interpretive sign in the park offers this plea to visitors from T.J. Atsye, a park ranger and direct descendant of the people who once lived here: “To Pueblo people, this is still a living place. We make pilgrimages back to Mesa Verde to visit the ancestors and gather strength and resilience from them. I ask you to please visit with respect. If you’re genuine, and true, and respectful, the ancestors will welcome you.”

​Easy to navigate, Mesa Verde National Park is divided into two distinct sections: Chapin Mesa which features two short, drivable roads and where parkgoers spend most of their time and Wetherill Mesa highlighted by a paved 5-mile walking loop. You won’t need more than a day to experience the park but to explore its best sites—Cliff Palace, for example—you need to purchase tickets for ranger tours in advance of your arrival.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

The gateway city of Cortez is 10 miles west of the park.

​Most visitors drive to Mesa Verde National Park as part of an extended road trip that includes stops in Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah and other attractions in scenic southwestern Colorado including national monuments and the San Juan Skyway, a scenic 236-mile mountain loop through Telluride and other charming former mining towns.

​Mesa Verde National Park’s entrance is on the park’s northern edge directly off U.S. Highway 160 with the lone visitor center nearby. To maximize your day give yourself 30 minutes at the center to take in its interactive exhibits, small museum, bookstore, and gift shop before venturing into the park.

​From the entrance, it’s about an hour’s drive on Mrsa Verde National Park’s slow and serpentine main thoroughfare to the cliff dwellings at Chapin and Wetherill mesas in the park’s far southern quadrant. Be sure to stop at the Park Point overlook, Mesa Verde National Park’s highest point (8,572 feet) for scenic views of the San Juan Mountains’ 14,000-foot peaks. You might even spot a golden eagle riding the warm air currents above the Mancos Valley.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​The thoroughfare forks at mile marker 15 (near Far View Lodge) with offshoots leading to each of the two mesas. From Far View Lodge, it’s a 5-mile drive to Chapin Mesa’s two loop roads and 12 miles to Wetherill’s loop trail. The road to Wetherill Mesa, the park’s less-visited side closes at the end of October and reopens in May. Chapin Mesa is open year-round; its cliff dwellings can’t be toured in the winter but many of the dwellings in both mesas can still be seen from the park’s overlooks.

​The season is crucial when planning your trip to Mesa Verde National Park. April and May are pleasant and the temperatures are comfortable but you can get snow. September is going to give you the best, most consistent weather in the unpredictable Rockies.

​Summertime temps range from the mid- to upper 80s so bring plenty of water (you’ll be driving at between 7,000 and 8,400 feet) and stay hydrated. With cool mornings and 65- to 75-degree temperatures early fall delivers prime camping conditions. Frigid mountain air sweeps through Mesa Verde in winter shutting down the park tours. When the most popular sites reopen for tours in April temperatures are still chilly (with highs in the low 50s) before jumping into the 70s in May.

​There’s limited to no cell phone service inside the park.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat

The closest hotel is the moderately priced Far View Lodge in the heart of the park 15 miles from the entrance and perched atop a mesa, 8,250 feet above sea level. Its 150 rooms sport private balconies perfect for sunset and wildlife viewing (elk, coyotes, mule deer). Metate, the hotel’s signature restaurant (it serves only dinner) offers contemporary American plates including pan-seared rainbow trout.

​Far View Terrace just a short walk from the hotel serves coffee and snacks at the Mesa Mocha Espresso Bar as well as cafeteria-style breakfast and lunch (think omelets and sandwiches). Both the hotel and terrace are open from April to late October. In Chapin Mesa, the Spruce Tree Terrace Café serves basic concession food and stays open through December then reopens in spring.

​Four miles beyond the park entrance, in a picturesque canyon of native Gambel oaks, you can sleep under some of the darkest skies you’ll experience in a national park at the 267-site Morefield Campground (open April through October). Amenities include picnic tables, firepits, and 15 electrical hookups for RVs.

There’s also a full-service village with a gift shop, grocery store, showers, and all-you-can-eat pancakes at the Knife Edge Café. Outside the park in nearby Cortez the affordable Retro Inn open year-round offers brightly colored, accessible rooms and complimentary breakfast.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

​See the biggest cliff dwellings

These ancient marvels are the park’s main draw. You can explore a handful of them but only on ranger-led tours (the one exception: the self-guided Step House tour in Wetherill Mesa) most running from mid-April to late October. Tickets cost $8 to $25 per dwelling and can be purchased up to 14 days in advance. While the tours are not wheelchair-friendly or suited for those with physical limitations, anyone can view the dwellings from good vantage points. 

​The park’s absolute must-see is Cliff Palace in Chapin Mesa near the start of the 6-mile Cliff Palace Loop Road. This rock, mortar, and timber-constructed village built in the 13th century is jaw-dropping with its 150 rooms, 23 circular kivas used for ceremonial gatherings, intricate ventilation system, and remarkable dry stack masonry. Their walls are within 2 degrees of square but without any builder’s squares. It’s a testimony to how well the Ancestral Puebloans could lay stone.

At its peak, the alcove settlement could have housed upwards of 150 people. Touring it involves climbing uneven steps and ladders but those with physical limitations can get a good view of the site and a terrific postcard shot from Sun Temple on Mesa Top Loop Road.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Just shy of 2 miles farther down Cliff Palace Road is Balcony House with 38 well-preserved rooms as well as kivas and plazas. Another 13th-century masterpiece it’s considered the park’s most adventurous tour due to its tight passageways, 32-foot entrance ladder, jagged stone steps, and 60-foot ascent up an open cliff face. It’s for thrill seekers and the physically fit but the easy Soda Canyon Overlook Trail (1.2 miles round trip) affords an alternate view.

​Square Tower House on Mesa Top Loop Road in Chapin Mesa, the park’s tallest dwelling, stands 26 feet high. Inhabited during the mid-1200s the three-story structure features intact wooden beams and an original clay kiva roof. If the strenuous mile-long hike to tour the house deters you, get a bird’s-eye view of the dwelling from the overlook here which provides one of the best vistas in all of Mesa Verde National Park.

​Due to rockfall, Spruce Tree House in Chapin Mesa, the park’s best-preserved dwelling has been closed since 2015. But snag a stellar aerial view of the park’s third-largest cliff dwelling from the wheelchair-friendly porch at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum located less than a mile before the start of the two loop roads.

Tucked beneath a sandstone archway, the dwelling was constructed between 1211 and 1278 A.D. When ranchers discovered it in 1888 they climbed down a large Douglas spruce tree (now called a Douglas fir) to enter it, thus the name.

​In Wetherill Mesa tour Long House, the park’s second-largest dwelling highlighted by a dance plaza and multiple seep springs that provided the Ancestral Puebloans with water. From the beginning of the paved, 5-mile Long House Loop Trail near the mesa parking lot walk 1.5 miles to the Long House trailhead. From there it’s an arduous 2.25-mile hike (round trip) to the dwelling.

​For a more leisurely stroll (just a 1-mile loop) the mesa’s wheelchair- and bike-friendly loop trail passes through an eerie-looking burned forest that leads to the Nordenskiöld Site No. 16 trailhead. To view the two-level, 50-room village excavated by a Swedish geologist in 1891 walk the flat, half-mile gravel path to an overlook.

​Near the parking lot is Mesa Verde National Park’s only cliff dwelling that doesn’t require a tour ticket, the easy-to-walk-around Step House carved inside a 300-foot alcove. When excavated, the dwelling housed stunning handcrafted baskets in its six pit houses (insulated semisubterranean homes) evidence that Ancestral Puebloans occupied it six centuries before the park’s most famous dwellings were constructed circa the 13th century. Access it via a moderate, half-mile offshoot (1-mile round trip) at the beginning of the loop trail.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Drive the Mesa Top Loop

This 6-mile, 11-stop scenic road which runs parallel to the Cliff Palace Loop in Chapin Mesa traces the Ancestral Puebloans’ seven-century footprint in and around the park with rousing overlooks and stops at various archaeological sites. At the loop’s end you’ll see Sun Temple (1275 A.D.), a large D-shaped complex that experts believe served as an observatory for astronomical events such as the winter solstice that guided the Puebloans’ planting and harvesting activities.

​Go hiking

Mesa Verde National Park has a few noteworthy short hiking trails though the rough, challenging terrain means they aren’t suitable for the mobility-impaired. In Chapin Mesa, the half-mile Farming Terrace Trail near Cedar Tree Tower provides a window into the Ancestral Puebloans’ unique agricultural system with its check dams and terraces.

From the Spruce Tree House Overlook in Chapin Mesa the steep Petroglyph Point Trail (2.4 miles) loops through a fragrant pinyon-juniper forest where hikers slip between mammoth boulders en route to a 35-foot-wide rock-art panel with more than 30 figures (human and animal), spirals, and handprints.

​Closer to the park’s entrance three trailheads ranging from easy to difficult start at the Morefield Campground: Knife Edge (2 miles), an ideal trek for savoring Colorado’s pastel sunsets; Point Lookout (2.2 miles), replete with views of the snowcapped San Juan and La Plata ranges; and Prater Ridge (7.8 miles), a challenging, two-loop combo that splits Prater and Morefield canyons above Montezuma Valley where an estimated 35,000 people lived in the 1200s.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway towns

The Old West town of Durango, 36 miles east of Mesa Verde National Park on U.S. Highway 160 lures the bulk of parkgoers with its charming shops and art galleries, eclectic restaurants and microbreweries, outdoor recreation options, and rich railroad history. Indeed, a train ride aboard the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a must.

From downtown Durango, the 1880s steam engine winds through the spellbinding San Juan Mountains skirting the edge of cliffs and crossing lofty bridges over the clear and ever-flowing Animas River chugging its way to the historic mining town of Silverton. It’s a thrilling nine-hour, round-trip adventure (May-October) with two hours spent exploring Silverton. Even the vision-impaired enjoy the ride hearing the steam whistle as the vintage locomotive pulls the train up steep grades. For alpine aromas and the best views, book a gondola seat.

​Splurge on a stay at the 15-room Rochester Hotel (with multiple wheelchair-accessible rooms). Built in 1892, the former boarding house-turned-boutique hotel recently reopened downtown following a modern makeover. Just two blocks away, the 88-room Strater Hotel is moderately priced and feels like you’re sleeping in a museum with period wallpaper and American Victorian walnut antiques awash in a building dating to 1887.

​Start your morning with a breakfast burrito at Durango Coffee Company on downtown’s Main Street. Around the corner, for lunch, munch on mouthwatering al pastor tacos or a chicken torta at the Cuevas Tacos food truck. Come dinnertime sink your teeth into a juicy grass-fed burger topped with Belford cheese at the James Ranch Grill, 10 miles north of downtown on U.S. Highway 550. Cream Bean Berry’s delicate artisan ice cream on Main Street will satisfy anyone’s sweet tooth. Across the street, sip a cold one at Carver Brewing Company, one of Colorado’s first brewpubs.

​Blink twice and you might miss the closest town to Mesa Verde National Park—Mancos, a sleepy dot on the map 8 miles east of the park on U.S. 160. Accommodations are sparse here but the moderately priced Western-themed lodge rooms at the Starry Nights Ranch Bed & Breakfast make for a homey overnight.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before heading into the park fuel up for the day at the Absolute Bakery & Café on the Mesa Verde Stack, an egg-and-hash browns combo slathered with homemade green chile. At lunchtime, Chef Ben’s Cubano Sandwich is a must-try.

​Ten miles west of the park on U.S. 160 is Cortez, a terrific launch point for driving the 116-mile Trail of the Ancients Scenic and Historic Byway with its multiple national landmarks. The town’s lodging options are mostly hotels—the Holiday Inn Express Mesa Verde-Cortez has a pool and wheelchair-accessible rooms. For home-cooked comfort foods order the country fried chicken or elk shepherd’s pie at the Loungin’ Lizard cantina.

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

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

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact box

  • Park location: The Four Corners region in southwestern Colorado
  • Size: 52,485 acres
  • Highest peak: Park Point’s Fire Lookout Tower at 8,572 feet above sea level
  • Lowest valley: Soda Canyon, about 6,000 feet above sea level
  • Miles of trails: 20-plus miles over 12 trails
  • Main attraction: Cliff Palace
  • Cost: $30 per-vehicle entrance fee May until October, valid for seven consecutive days; $20 per vehicle from November through April
  • Best way to see it: Ranger-led tours of the cliff dwellings
  • When to go: May through September when the park’s most significant sites are open. September has the best weather.

Worth Pondering…

The falling snowflakes sprinkling the piñons gave it a special kind of solemnity. It was more like sculpture than anything else … preserved … like a fly in amber.

—Novelist Willa Cather, describing the rediscovery of Cliff Palace

5 Expert Tips to Prepare for Your Utah National Parks Adventure

Headed off to one of Utah’s National Parks for vacation? Maybe you have the whole The Mighty Five in your sights? Here’s some expert advice on how to prepare.

A family road trip through Utah’s five national parks and the surrounding areas makes for a quintessential American vacation. Of course if you’re traveling over summer vacation you may not be the only one on the road. In fact, June is one of the busiest months for Utah’s national parks. What does that mean for you? Well, if you can be flexible with your travel, it can yield big rewards. 

Here are five tips to help you prepare, courtesy of Aly Baltrus, the former chief of interpretation and visitor services at Zion National Park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Pack the essentials

We’re human; we forget things. For your trip to any of The Mighty Five, some things are more essential than others. Visitors are advised to carry a lot of water—at least one gallon per person per day. In Zion, there’s several water refilling stations so you don’t have to carry in absolutely everything you’re going to drink during your stay unless you have a permit for more remote areas. 

Arches National Park near Moab has water at the visitor center near the entrance and at the Devils Garden Campground. There’s a water bottle filling station in the visitor center of Bryce Canyon National Park. In other areas of the national parks in Utah, water is significantly scarcer particularly in Canyonlands National Park.

If there are any concerns, check at the visitor center to learn about water availability and always plan ahead. Many travelers carry water coolers or extra jugs of water in their cars to fill up before a hike.

Good hiking shoes are important. That doesn’t mean you have to buy the most expensive brand. Make sure they fit you and you’ve used them before taking long hiking trips. Flip-flops are not appropriate footwear for the vast majority of trails in the national parks. Similarly, budget tools can help you in the outdoors. If folks are hiking into the Narrows, simple locking plastic bags can be helpful to keep your snacks and cell phone dry.

And remember to follow Leave No Trace principles—plan to pack out everything you pack in (garbage, etc.) and have a plan for when nature inevitably calls.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Know the terrain

Being prepared isn’t exclusive to the things you can wear or bring along in your pack. Sometimes, it requires understanding what’s required in certain weather conditions. If you are from lower elevations, take your time when hiking. It is much harder to hike in higher elevations. If you are around for a few days, ease yourself into hiking by starting with easier hikes. (For example, Bryce Canyon reaches up to over 9,000 feet of elevation).

Baltrus’s special expertise in Zion helps visitors understand the unique qualities of the park. There is very little shade in Zion. Sunscreen, wide-brimmed hats, plenty of water, and some salty snacks are a must when you’re packing for a trip there. The same rules apply to most hikes throughout The Mighty 5. While several hikes are family friendly these wonders are significantly more enjoyable if everyone knows what to expect and comes prepared.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Go at your own pace

It’s exciting to be in the outdoors and everyone should consider going at their own pace. If you have very little hiking experience you don’t want to start out with a 40-mile, hardcore backpacking trip.

Several of Zion’s trails including Angels Landing, Hidden Canyon, and Observation Point have steep climbs and drop-offs. These are not the best trails for people who are afraid of heights or those who have heart issues. If you’re traveling with friends or family discuss your preferences and skillset before you head out on the trail.

The park’s visitor center is an ideal place for this conversation because skilled staff will be able to provide advice on trail conditions, skills needed, and offer alternative trail options. What’s more, rugged national parks like Capitol Reef and Canyonlands have several front country, family-friendly trails and experiences, they are equally known for their expansive backcountry—not a place you’ll want to venture without good preparation, packing, wayfinding skills, and a stop at the visitor center for current conditions.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Know your companion’s limits

As with the above point, it helps to travel with people who won’t push you too far outside your comfort zone. Sure, a little challenge makes us feel good. But following a buddy’s plea to just do it his way this time may not end well. Peer pressure is sometimes a problem when visitors are part of a bigger group.

Friendships are important but your well-being is even more so. Be honest and up-front about your hopes for the trip and your experience. That will encourage others to do so, as well, and you can address issues of conflict early, instead of on the trail. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. How to avoid the crowds

Utah’s national parks can be a popular draw which means deciding when to visit a park feature can be as important as deciding what to see in the first place. In order to avoid the most crowds come early in the morning or after 2 p.m. And note that from April through October (between the hours of 7 a.m. and 4 p.m.), Arches National Park requires a timed entry ticket to enter the park.

Many of Utah’s best sights are especially spectacular at sunrise and sunset during which some of the longer trails receive less traffic. But hikes of any distance at these times do require extra care.

Add a headlamp or flashlight to your pack and be prepared for the possibility of cooler temperatures. In other cases, you’ll be joining the crowd for a sunrise: Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park receives a lot of traffic around the sunrise hours because it’s a very short hike meaning photographers can easily haul in their gear and grab a truly iconic image at an easily accessible destination. The same goes for the Rim Trail of Bryce Canyon which is easily accessible from the scenic drive and the perfect time to see the hoodoos play with the changing light.

But visitors should also note that there a number of dazzling Utah State Parks that are near to The Mighty 5 and they make for a good stop when the national parks are particularly busy.

On the other hand, take some time to get to know your fellow travelers and celebrate the vast, natural beauty together.

You’ll likely hear a number of different languages on Zion National Park’s multi-passenger shuttle and in popular places to cool off in the peak season of summer like in the Virgin River at the Mouth of the Narrows. Elements took eons to create the varied wonders of Utah’s national parks. Visitors who rush through will only get a small taste of the power of these places. Visitors who plan extra time at each park will enjoy a less hurried, more intimate stay.

Learn more about how to visit Zion National Park. The ideas here apply to all of Utah’s incredible natural sanctuaries. Generally, people should plan to be as self-sufficient as possible. Be prepared, don’t take additional risks, and practice good trail etiquette.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bonus: Southern Utah State Parks near the Mighty 5

Utah’s natural beauty extends well beyond the borders of the Mighty 5 National Parks. Some of Utah’s best state parks dot the landscape of Mighty Five country swaddled by adventurous national forest or the rugged Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

There are eight enticing state parks along the The Mighty 5 road trip which means each day you’ll have the option to stop at the national parks if it’s your first time to Utah or leave them for the other travelers if you’re looking to see Utah from another angle.

Learn more…

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Worth Pondering…

A strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptured, standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely.

—Zane Grey