From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks

For more than a hundred years, the United States’ national parks have been inspiring visitors

Comprising a collection of stunningly diverse landscapes, from active volcanoes spewing lava to crystalline glaciers creeping down snow-covered peaks to eerie deserts that look like someone pulled the bathtub stopper on an ancient ocean, US national parks have captured the imagination of millions of park-goers.

Full of history—both geologic, Indigenous, and more recent—and featuring trails that range from ADA-accessible boardwalks to challenging treks that test the hardiest of outdoor athletes, America’s national parks are at once culturally significant, approachable, and wild.

Here’s a quick look at the best of the best with links where you can learn more about these incredible diverse landscapes.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Giant sweeping arcs of sandstone frame snowy peaks and desert landscapes; explore the park’s namesake formations in a red-rock wonderland.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Family travel, photo ops, hiking, scenic drives, stargazing

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,806,865

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park

Read more: Power of Nature: Arches National Park Offers Endless Beauty

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

It’s easy to understand why the Lakota named this place mako sica (badland) when you look over the rainbow-hued canyons and buttes that sit like an ocean boiled dry.

State: South Dakota

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Scenic drives, wildlife, cycling, hiking, stargazing

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021:1,224,226

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park

Read more: Badlands National Park: Place of Otherworldly Beauty

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

From the moment you enter the national park, there’s spectacular scenery everywhere you look. Head to the Chisos Basin for the most dramatic landscape but any visit should also include time in the Chihuahuan Desert, home to curious creatures and adaptable plants, and down along the Rio Grande, the watery dividing line between the US and Mexico.

State: Texas

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, hiking, scenic drives, stargazing

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 581,220

Related article: The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

Read more: 10 of the Best National and State Parks in Texas

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Famous for its otherworldly sunset-colored spires punctuated by tracts of evergreen forest, Bryce Canyon National Park is one of the planet’s most exquisite geological wonders. Repeated freezes and thaws have eroded the small park’s soft sandstone and limestone into sandcastle-like pinnacles known as hoodoos, jutted fins, and huge amphitheaters filled with thousands of pastel daggers.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Hiking, photo ops, scenic drives, stargazing

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 2,104,600

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park

Read more: Make Bryce Canyon National Park Your Next RV Trip

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

A forbidding and beautiful maze of red-rock fins, bridges, needles, spires, craters, mesas, and buttes, Canyonlands is a crumbling, eroding beauty—a vision of ancient earth.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Cycling, scenic drives, hiking, photo ops, stargazing

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 911,594

Related article: A Lifetime of Exploration Awaits at Canyonlands (National Park)

Read more: Ultimate Guide to National Park Tripping in Utah: Arches and Canyonlands

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Giant slabs of chocolate-red rock and sweeping yellow sandstone domes dominate the landscape of Capitol Reef which Indigenous Freemont people called the “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow.”

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $20

Great for: Hiking, photo ops, scenic drives, geology, Ancestral Pueblo culture, stargazing

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,405,353

Related article: Getting Closer to Nature at Capitol Reef

Read more: Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef: A Great American Road Trip

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Scores of wondrous caves hide under the hills at this unique national park. The cavern formations are an ethereal wonderland of stalactites and fantastical geological features.

State: New Mexico

Entrance Fee: 3-day pass per person $15

Great for: Family travel, photo ops, scenic drives, caving, stargazing

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 349,244

Related article: Get Immersed in Caves: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Read more: Wake Up In New Mexico

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

Encompassing nearly 27,000 acres, Congaree National Park is the largest expanse of old-growth, bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern US. The lush trees growing here are some of the tallest in the southeast forming one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies left in the world.

State: South Carolina

Entrance Fee: Free

Great for: Wildlife, family travel, walking, canoeing and kayaking

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 215,181

Related article: Finding Solace in the Old Growth Forest of Congaree

Read more: Home of Champions: Congaree National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon embodies the scale and splendor of the American West captured in dramatic vistas, dusty trails, and stories of exploration and preservation. Ancestral Puebloans lived in and near the Grand Canyon for centuries and their stories echo in the reds, rusts, and oranges of the canyon walls and the park’s spires and buttes.

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Scenery, family travel, hiking, photo ops, geology, scenic drives, stargazing

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 4,532,677

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Read more: Grand Canyon National Park Celebrates Its 100th Anniversary Today

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The sun-dappled forests of the Great Smoky Mountains are a four-season wonderland from spring’s wildflowers to summer’s flame azaleas to autumn’s quilted hues of orange, burgundy, and saffron blanketing the mountain slopes and winter’s ice-fringed cascades. This mesmerizing backdrop is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site harboring more biodiversity than any other national park in America.

States: North Carolina and Tennessee

Entrance fee: Free

Great for: History, wildlife, family travel, hiking, scenic drives, fall colors, botany

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

Recreational visitors in 2021: 14,161,548

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Read more: Great Smoky Mountains: Most Visited National Park…and We Can See Why

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

This 794,000-acre park is at the transition zone of two deserts: the low and dry Colorado and the higher, moister, and slightly cooler Mojave. Rock climbers know the park as the best place to climb in California; hikers seek out hidden, shady, desert-fan-palm oases fed by natural springs and small streams; and mountain bikers are hypnotized by the desert vistas.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Cycling, scenic drives, hiking, rock climbing, photo ops, stargazing

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 3,064,400

Related article: Joshua Tree National Park: An Iconic Landscape That Rocks

Read more: Joshua Tree: Admire Two Deserts At Once

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Anchoring the southernmost link in the Cascades’ chain of volcanoes, this alien landscape bubbles over with roiling mud pots, noxious sulfur vents, steamy fumaroles, colorful cinder cones, and crater lakes.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30 ($10 in winter)

Great for: Photo ops, scenic drives, hiking, stargazing 

Recreational visitors in 2021: 359,635

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Read more: Geothermal Weirdness, Volcanic Landscapes, and Stunning Beauty

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

More than 700 years after its inhabitants disappeared, Mesa Verde retains an air of mystery. No one knows for sure why the Ancestral Puebloans left their elaborate cliff dwellings in the 1300s. What remains is a wonderland for adventurers of all sizes who can clamber up ladders to carved-out dwellings, see rock art, and delve into the mysteries of ancient America.

State: Colorado

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30 ($20 in winter)

Great for: Ancestral Pueblo culture, scenic drives, tours, stargazing

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 548,47

Related article: Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years

Read more: Mesa Verde National Park: 14 Centuries of History

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

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

The New River is the United States’ newest national park but is one of the oldest waterways in the world and the primeval forest gorge it runs through is one of the most breathtaking in the Appalachians. The region is an adventure mecca with world-class white-water runs and challenging single-track trails. Rim and gorge hiking trails offer beautiful views.

State: West Virginia

Entrance fee: Free

Great for: Hiking, biking, fishing, white water rafting, rock climbing, extreme sports

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

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,682,720

Related article: New River Gorge: America’s Newest National Park

Read more: The Wild, Wonderful Waters of New River Gorge! Round Out Your Trip with a Visit to Babcock State Park & Glade Creek Grist Mill!

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

The ‘trees’ of Petrified Forest National Park are fossilized logs scattered over a vast area of semi-desert grassland, buried beneath silica-rich volcanic ash before they could decompose. Up to 6 feet in diameter, they’re strikingly beautiful with extravagantly patterned cross-sections of wood glinting in ethereal pinks, blues, and greens.

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Scenic drives, geology, hiking, biking, Route 66, stargazing 

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 590,334

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Petrified Forest National Park

Read more: Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles is named for the towering rock spires that rise abruptly out of the chaparral-covered hills east of Salinas Valley. Its famous formations are the eroded remnants of a long-extinct volcano that originated in present-day southern California before getting sheared in two and moving nearly 200 miles north along the San Andreas Fault.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, photo ops, hiking, rock climbing, caving

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 348,857

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Pinnacles National Park

Read more: Pinnacles National Park: Born of Fire

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Saguaros (sah-wah-ros) are icons of the American Southwest and an entire cactus army of these majestic, ribbed sentinels is protected in this desert playground. Or more precisely, playgrounds: Saguaro National Park is divided into east and west units separated by 30 miles and the city of Tucson

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Cycling, wildlife, plants, hiking

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,079,783

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park

Read more: Inside the Cartoonish and Majestic Land of Saguaro

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park

With trees as high as 20-story buildings, Sequoia National Park is an extraordinary park with soul-sustaining forests and vibrant wildflower meadows.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Family travel, scenic drives, hiking, photo ops

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,059,548

Related article: The Big Trees: Sequoia National Park

Read more: Explore Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah is like a new smile from nature: in spring and summer, the wildflowers explode, in fall the leaves turn bright red and orange, and in winter a cold, starkly beautiful hibernation period sets in. With the famous 105-mile Skyline Drive and more than 500 miles of hiking trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, there is plenty to do and see.

State: Virginia

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, scenic drives, hiking, fall colors

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,592,312

Related article: Escape to the Blue Ridge: Shenandoah National Park

Read more: Blue Ridge Parkway: America’s Favorite Drive

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Wildlife abounds in these surreal mounds of striated earth in Theodore Roosevelt National Park; sunset is particularly evocative as shadows dance across the lonely buttes.

State: North Dakota

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Hiking, wildlife, scenic drives, Presidential history, stargazing

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 796,085

Related article: North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Read more: Theodore Roosevelt National Park: A Plains-state Paradise

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

Undulating through the Tularosa Basin like something out of a dream, these ethereal dunes are a highlight of any trip to New Mexico and a must on every landscape photographer’s itinerary. Try to time a visit to White Sands with sunrise or sunset (or both), when the dazzlingly white sea of sand is at its most magical.

State: New Mexico

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Scenery, hiking, photography

White Sand National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 782,469

Related article: A White Oasis: White Sands National Park

Read more: New Mexico’s White Sands Is Officially a National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

From secret oases of trickling water to the hot-pink blooms of a prickly pear cactus, Zion’s treasures turn up in the most unexpected places.

State: Utah

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Scenery, hiking, family travel, photo ops, biking

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 5,039,835

Related article: Rock of Ages: Zion National Park

Read more: Roam Free in Greater Zion: Quail Creek State Park

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jonathan Irish, photographer

America the Beautiful: The National Parks

63 national parks draw millions of visitors a year to unique natural wonders and unforgettable terrains

In 1882, choirmaster Samuel A. Ward took a leisurely ferry ride from Coney Island into New York City and was so struck with inspiration at the summer scene that he immediately composed a tune.

A decade later on an 1893 summer day in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Katharine Lee Bates gazed out from a window and saw a “sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies,” that a hymn immediately sprang to mind. In 1910, the music and poetry came together under the title “America the Beautiful.” The work struck an enduring chord, resonating with so many Americans that numerous campaigns have sought to make it the national anthem.

From the earliest days of America, the hand of Providence has been seen not just in the history of events but also in the natural splendor of the land spurring several conservation efforts including the creation of the National Parks System. Wilderness areas for people to enjoy the rugged beauty were set aside while protecting the landscape, plants, and animals.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Established as a national park on August 9, 1916, Lassen Volcanic National Park contains all four types of volcanoes found in the world. These include a shield, plug dome, cinder cone, and composite.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park

This park is notable for its giant sequoia trees, which can absorb up to 800 gallons of water a day in the summer!

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

Many fossils of ancient marine animals have been found in the Grand Canyon, these date back 1.2 billion years ago. The age of the Grand Canyon itself remains a mystery, but recent studies speculate it to be more than 70 million years old.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park contains more than 10,000 years of human history recorded within its territory, including 800 archaeological sites. The striking colors in petrified wood are derived from pure quartz, manganese oxide, and iron oxide producing white, blue, purple, black, brown, yellow, and red colors.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

The saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States and is protected by Saguaro National Park. These giant prickly plants can grow up to 40 feet tall and live for over 150 years!

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Arches National Park is known for its many natural sandstone arches. Landscape Arch is located at the end of Devil’s Garden Trailhead. Stretching 306 feet, it’s considered North America’s longest spanning arch.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

The park used to be home to an ancient civilization, the Anasazi who lived there around 1500 B.C. Traces of their history can be found through rock art, sandstone granaries, and cliff dwellings scattered around the park.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon is an ideal place for stargazing enthusiasts due to its clear skies, high elevation, and low light pollution.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

Known for its exceptionally well-preserved prehistoric settlements, Mesa Verde National Park was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Featuring over 100 caves, Carlsbad Caverns used to be part of an ancient underwater reef called Capitan Reef. Many fossilized marine species can be found on the land. The caverns themselves were formed by sulfuric acid in acid rain which slowly dissolved the limestones.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The only national park in the whole of North Dakota. It was named after President Theodore Roosevelt in 1947 to honor and preserve his legacy of land protection.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in America, with half a billion visitors since 1934. The Appalachian Trail runs 71 miles through the park.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Black bears are very prominent in Shenandoah National Park, so there’s a high chance you’ll spot one. The park estimates there to be around one to four bears in every square mile.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

The Rio Grande river falls between Cañón de Santa Elena, Mexico, and Big Bend National Park, United States.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua “Tree” is actually a misnomer as it falls under the same category as flowering grasses and orchids. Only 15 percent of the national park is open for visitors to explore, and the remaining 85 percent is wilderness.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

The park is known for its old-growth bottomland hardwood forests which have some of the largest tree canopies on the East Coast. Towering champion trees are some of the notable trees that inhabit these woods.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Horseshoe Canyon is located eight miles west of the park and is known for depicting prehistoric pictographs etched somewhere between 2,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

A well-preserved fossilized skull of a saber-tooth cat was discovered by a young visitor in 2010. Fossils of other animals like marine reptiles and rhinos can also be found hidden among the layers of sediment. They’re estimated to date back to the late Eocene and Oligocene periods, over 30 million years ago.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

The park is home to an orchard originally planted by Mormon pioneers in the early 1900s. It’s open to the public for picking during harvest season for a small fee.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

The Pinnacles National Park was created when the now-extinct Neenach volcano erupted 23 million years ago. The park contains many caves that provide homes to 14 species of California bats. These caves were created by natural erosion when boulders fell below, filling the canyons.

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

New River Gorge National Park

Contrary to its name, The New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world, estimated to be between 10 to 360 million years old. It’s one of the few rivers in North America to flow from south to north, as most tend to flow from west to east.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

What makes White Sands National Park so breathtaking and popular are the white dunes which are made up of gypsum. The park covers 275 square miles of white sands, making it the largest gypsum dune field in the world.

Worth Pondering…

America the Beautiful

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

—Catharine Lee Bates

Get Off the Beaten Path with These Lesser-Known National Parks

Five national parks that fall under the radar

Nearly everyone has heard of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains but many other national parks aren’t as famous. There are lots of rewards for heading off the beaten path. It’ll be easier to find a place to park or camp and you won’t bump elbows with as many other people.

Let’s shine a spotlight on some lesser-known national parks that you may not even be aware of but may decide to visit.

Let’s explore!

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

About the U.S. National Park System

Yellowstone was the first national park and there are 62 others in 30 states and two U.S. territories. The National Park Service (NPS), established in 1916, oversees these parks.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The park service maintains a total of 423 different sites. With so many protected sites, it’s no wonder we see so many of those brown and white signs with the NPS arrowhead logo. It’s also no surprise that you may not have heard of some of these parks.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

But just because they’re not a household name doesn’t mean they aren’t just as beautiful and worthwhile as some of the better-known parks.

Read Next: Avoid the Crowds at Lesser Known National Parks

The most celebrated parks draw millions of visitors every year. But at least several of these lesser-known national parks may not ring a bell with you.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

About the Park: South Carolina’s national park protects the nation’s largest remaining stand of bottomland hardwood trees. It’s in the central part of the state near the capital, Columbia.

This lesser-known park is 26,276 acres and protects the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the United States.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Directions: From Interstate 77, take Exit 5 and turn onto State Highway 48 East/Bluff Road. Go approximately eight miles and take a slight right onto Old Bluff Road. Follow Old Bluff Road for 4.5 miles to the park entrance sign (on the right). The visitor center is a mile ahead.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Why You Should Visit: The old-growth trees include giant bald cypresses and longleaf pines. They’re rare in the region because most were logged. The miles of trails are incredibly scenic and mostly flat. For canoeists and kayakers, the Blue Trail starts in Columbia and follows the Congaree River to its confluence with the Wateree River.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

About the Park: Overshadowed by four other national parks in the state, Capitol Reef is the lesser-known. Located in south-central Utah, it has stunning sandstone canyons and cliffs. It became a national park in 1971 after almost 30 years as a national monument.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Directions: From Interstate 70, take Exit 149, then State Route 24 west for 43.8 miles. Turn right (continuing on UT-24) for another 37.3 miles.

From Interstate 15, take Exit 188, then US-50 east toward Scipio. Take a left on UT-50 for 0.7 miles, then turn right onto US-50 East for 24.4 miles. Turn right onto UT-260 South and continue 4.2 miles, then right on UT-24 for 71.3 miles.

Read Next: Yes, You Can Avoid Crowds in the National Parks & Here is How

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Why You Should Visit: Geologists call the unusual Waterpocket Fold a wrinkle on the Earth’s crust. The 60-mile “reef” of Navajo sandstone was once part of a tourist attraction called Wayne’s Wonderland. Hiking, backpacking, climbing, and canyoneering are the main recreational pursuits. It’s also certified as an International Dark Sky Park.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

About the Park: You’ll find the largest concentration of petrified wood in the world at this park east of Winslow. Besides the scenic wonder, including parts of the Painted Desert, you can see fossils that are 225 million years old.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Directions: Westbound travelers on Interstate 40 should take Exit 311, drive the 28 miles through the park, and connect with Highway 180 at the south end. Then travel 19 miles on Highway 180 North to return to Interstate 40 via Holbrook.

Those traveling east on I-40 should take Exit 285 into Holbrook, then travel 19 miles on Highway 180 South to the park’s south entrance.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Why You Should Visit: Petrified wood is basically a fossil that forms when sediment covers the original tree or plant. So it’s like a 3D impression made from minerals.

It takes about an hour to drive through the park and stop at some overlooks. Make a little more time to walk the pet-friendly trails. You’ll get to see the ruins of an ancient village and petroglyphs plus the famed Painted Desert and Crystal Forest.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

About the Park: President Theodore Roosevelt, for whom the park is named, was a leader in conservation. The park covers 70,400 acres and is a haven for bison, elk, and wild horses. The Little Missouri River runs through all of the three park units, creating a vibrant ecosystem amongst the rolling North Dakota badlands.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Directions: This national park’s location is a major reason that it is relatively unknown. The South Unit entrance is in Medora, North Dakota off of Interstate 94, exits 24 and 27.

Read Next: National Monuments Are Mind-Blowing National Park Alternatives

The North Unit entrance is on Highway 85, about 14 miles south of Watford City. This is about an hour and a half drive north from the south entrance. The remote Elkhorn Ranch Unit is between the north and south units. You can access it via gravel roads.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Why You Should Visit: This area was President Roosevelt’s escape from the politics of Washington, D.C. even long before he was president. He is known to have credited this land and the experiences he had ranching and hunting here for shaping him into the man he was.

The park has three units, and the one to the north is the most rugged. All of the areas have scenic drives and hiking trails. The park’s lesser-known status means it is often very quiet and peaceful.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Pinnacles National Park, California

About the Park: One of the reasons Pinnacles National Park is lesser-known than some of the other national parks in California is that it is fairly new. First established as a part of the Pinnacles Forest Preserve, then a National Monument in 1908, it was officially designated as a National Park in 2013.

The unique geological features of the park are the remains of the extinct Neenach volcano that eroded away. The spires, pinnacles, caves, gorges, and rock fractures left from this fault-line activity create visually stimulating hikes and exploration opportunities for visitors.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Directions: Pinnacles National Park is located in south-central California, about 80 miles southeast of San Jose. The park is divided into two halves with no road connecting the two sides, although you can hike from one side to the other over the separating ridgeline.

To get to the west entrance, go 10 miles east on Highway 146 from Soledad, a town located 85 miles south on Highway 101 from San Jose, California. To get to the east entrance, drive 30 miles south of Hollister, CA on Highway 25 and turn right onto the park entrance road.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Why You Should Visit: The pinnacles for which the park was named is known for attracting rock climbers to scale the peaks and steep walls. Caves formed by fractures and erosion are home to at least 13 species of bats. A number of these caves have trails that wind through them, like Bear Gulch Caves. Other notable wildlife that calls the park home are prairie falcons and the California condors released after being hatched in captivity.

Read Next: 10 Under-The-Radar National Monuments to Visit

One of the biggest knocks against national parks is that they’re too crowded. That’s less of a problem at these under-the-radar treasures. They aren’t as famous as some of the other national parks, but maybe they should be.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

Life Is a Highway: Taking the Great American Road Trip

Ready. Set. On the road!

There’s a lot of America out there. It’s a big, beautiful country with so much to see. And when you fly to your destination, you’re missing most of it—the landscapes, the views, the small-town diners, the quirky roadside attractions. You lose the chance to experience all the special little stops that exist in between the big cities. To get to know America, you have to drive through it in an RV.

World’s Largest Runner, Los Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The cross-country trip is the supreme example of the journey as the destination.

“I discovered I did not know my own country,” John Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley explaining why he hit the road at age 58.

Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Travel usually implies seeing a place once and moving on; but this became a trip in which I made lists of places I’d return to—Prescott and Sedona and now Gallup, New Mexico where I’d happily go mountain-biking or hiking in the high desert or visiting the people who possessed the country before we claimed it as ours.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kentucky, well-tended and fenced, and the soft green of its fields and hills, the sight of horses and farms, made it seem an orderly Eden, parklike—another place to return to. This part of the state was rich in classic names—Lebanon and Paris, but Athens and Versailles had been tamed into Ay-thens and Ver-sails.

Versailles, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Ten days into my road trip I began wondering if I were perhaps pushing it a little too hard. But wasn’t the whole point to keep going down the proud highway? The thrill is in the moving, gaining ground, watching the landscape change, stopping on impulse.

“At one point, bowling along the open road, the Supertramp song Take the Long Way Home came on the radio. Listening to music while driving through a lovely landscape is one of life’s great mood enhancers. And hearing the line, ‘But there are times that you feel you’re part of the scenery,’ I was in Heaven.”

Related Article: The Great American Road Trip: Born in 1856

Kentucky Bluegrass Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The journey and not the destination is the joy of RVing. Taking your RV on the open road and experiencing breathtaking views along the way can make for the one-of-a-kind vacation your family is looking for. Highways can guide you along the coast to take in ocean views at sunset. Others wind you through the mountains exploring history.

A lot goes into planning a great road trip from finding the best diners along your route and the quirkiest roadside attractions to queueing up road trip songs that make the trip. It’s all about the journey.

World’s Largest Pistachio Nut, Alamagordo, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I can tell you scenic roads to take, where to camp, where to eat, and where to stop (I can even tell you where to find the world’s largest roadrunner or pistachio nut), and help you make the best road trip playlist.

With that in mind, I put together this Great American Road Trips Guide to help you find some inspiration. Discover favorite routes to drive plus some of the best stops along the way.

And remember: These are just jumping-off points. Once you’re on the road, you’ll think of other parts of the country you want to see. Along the way, you might even stumble upon a road that takes you even farther off the beaten path. If you do, follow your wanderlust. Trust me—it’s worth it!

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway

Known as one of the nation’s best and most beautiful drives, the Blue Ridge Parkway runs for 469 miles across Virginia and North Carolina. It follows the Appalachian Mountains—the Blue Ridge chain, specifically—from Shenandoah National Park in the north to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the south. Because the Blue Ridge Parkway connects two national parks, it’s easy to visit both during your drive.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shifting Sands

West Texas winds transform an ever-changing landscape of sand dunes at the 3.840-acre Monahans Sandhills State Park. The field of dunes begins south of Monahans and stretches north into New Mexico. Opened in 1957, the state park harbors a peaceful Chihuahuan Desert playground where people can explore the rolling landscape, slide down the hills, picnic, camp, and take in extraordinary sunrises and sunsets.

Related Article: Ultimate American Road Trips

Klosel’s Steakhouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kloesel’s Steakhouse & Bar, Moulton, Texas

It was hard to believe the locals when we were told that one of the best restaurants around was Klosel’s. After some hesitation, we stopped for lunch en route to the little brewery in Shiner and give it a shot and what a pleasant surprise. The food was truly amazing and good value. Great atmosphere and friendly service. We have eaten here over the years numerous times and have always been impressed with their food and staff. Particularly love their chicken fried steak—and desert.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Creole Nature Trail All-American Road

Starting on the outskirts of Lake Charles and ending at the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road is a network of byways where you’ll find more than 400 bird species, alligators galore, and 26 miles of Gulf of Mexico beaches. Also called “America’s Outback,” the Creole Nature Trail takes visitors through 180 miles of southwest Louisiana’s backroads.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll pass through small fishing villages, National Wildlife Refuges to reach the little-visited, remote Holly and Cameron beaches. Take a side trip down to Sabine Lake, or drive onto a ferry that takes visitors across Calcasieu Pass. Throughout the trip, expect to see exotic birds; this area is part of the migratory Mississippi Flyway. 

Woodstock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Woodstock

In a state that’s home to the Hamptons, Finger Lakes, Appalachian Trail, and Big Apple it’s no surprise that small communities like Woodstock fall to the back of the mind. To assume that Woodstock is only notable for its namesake 1969 music festival (that didn’t occur there) would be a major blunder—the three-day festival was held on a dairy farm in nearby Bethel. In reality, Woodstock is a charming little Catskills oasis where fewer than 6,000 residents prop up an art, religion, music, and theater scene worthy of national attention.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The stretch of Interstate running from Minneapolis, Minnesota, through the heart of the North Dakota Heartland is fantastic if you’re big into grain silos and livestock. Otherwise, nobody’s confusing a drive down I-94 with one of America’s most scenic routes. Then, out of the blue, it happens: About an hour east of the Montana border—and a seemingly endless four hours from Fargo—the Earth drops out from under the highway and mountains somehow appear out of nowhere. This is how you’ll know you’ve reached Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a plains-state paradise often forgotten in the world of Arches and Bryce Canyon. The three-unit park is surprising not just in its grandeur but also in its very existence in a state few know much about.

Mount Washington Cog Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Washington Cog Railway

At 6,288.2 feet, Mt. Washington is the highest peak in New Hampshire. Ride in style to the summit on a historic cog railway that has been operating since 1869. Grades average 25 percent! Keep your eye out for hikers on the Appalachian Trail which crosses the line about three-quarters of the way up. Enjoy far-reaching panoramic views at the summit on the Observatory deck on a nice day. The visitor center has snacks, restrooms, and a post office. And, don’t miss the Mount Washington Weather Museum.

Related Article: Road Trippin’

Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart

A short trip to this flavor-packed smoke town should be on any food lover’s bucket list. Dubbed the “BBQ Capital of Texas,” Lockhart is easily one of the most legendary barbecue destinations anywhere. Your itinerary includes the Big Three: Black’s Barbecue (open since 1932), Kreuz Market (established 1900), and Smitty’s Market (since 1948). You’ll be consuming a lot of meat so be sure to stop for breaks. Proceed in any order you please. Lockhart has one more stop in store for you: Chisholm Trail Barbecue (opened by a Black’s alum in 1978).

Shipshewana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shipshewana

Many of the towns in northwestern Indiana’s Amish Country date back 150 years or more. Among these is tiny Shipshewana known for an enormous flea market where 1,000 vendors peddle their wares twice a week from May through October. Due to the Amish lifestyle you can almost believe you’ve stepped back in time a century or more. To learn about Amish history, tour Menno-Hof. Through multi-image presentations and historical displays, you’ll travel back 500 years to the origins of the Amish-Mennonite story.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley

A huge swath of Arizona seems to have been designed by cartoonists, from the trippy Dr. Seuss waves of the Vermillion Cliffs to the splaying cacti of Saguaro National Park. But Monument Valley is where nature gets serious. This is a land of monolithic red sandstone bluffs seemingly carved by the gods where enormous spires emerge so far in the distance they’re shrouded by haze even on a clear day. Each crevice tells a story and every ledge is its own unforgettable vista.

Related Article: Road Trip Planning for the First Time RVer

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While Monument Valley is undoubtedly national park-worthy, this is a Navajo Tribal Park and I hope it stays that way. It’s a place rooted in ancient Native religion and serves as an expansive gateway to the wondrous desert landscapes of both Utah and Arizona.

Worth Pondering…

Life is a Highway

Life is like a road that you travel on
When there’s one day here and the next day gone
Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand
Sometimes you turn your back to the wind

Life is a highway
I wanna ride it all night long
If you’re going my way
I wanna drive it all night long
Come on. Give me give me give me give me yeah

—recorded by Tom Cochrane from his second studio album, Mad Mad World (1991)

Theodore Roosevelt National Park: A Plains-state Paradise

Where the buffalo roam and the badlands earn their name

The stretch of Interstate running from Minneapolis, Minnesota, through the heart of the North Dakota Heartland is fantastic if you’re big into grain silos and livestock. Otherwise, nobody’s confusing a drive down I-94 with one of America’s most scenic routes.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then, out of the blue, it happens: About an hour east of the Montana border—and a seemingly endless four hours from Fargo—the Earth drops out from under the highway.

Where endless grass once stretched to the horizon, tree-dotted canyons border the road. Petrified forests and river washes spread out between them and mountains somehow appear out of nowhere.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is how you’ll know you’ve reached Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a plains-state paradise often forgotten in the world of Arches and Bryce Canyon. The three-unit park is surprising not just in its grandeur but also in its very existence in a state few know much about.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But if there’s any reason to meander down I-94 through North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is it.

Related Article: Badlands Meet History in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The park is broken into three units: North, South, and Elkhorn Ranch. The latter is home to Roosevelt’s old ranch home and little else. But South and North combine for one of the most unexpected experiences in the Midwest.

Medora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way to see the South Unit is along its 36-mile loop drive which starts just after the Visitors Center in the western town of Medora (come for the pitchfork-fried steak, stay for the Medora Musical, a 90-minute revue telling the history of Medora and the life of Theodore Roosevelt) and continues through most of the park. You’ll roll through fields dotted with prairie dogs under buttes towering into the blue sky and along ridges standing over the jagged badlands.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best spot for pictures along the 90-minute ride is at Boicourt Overlook where a short 15-minite walk over an easy trail takes you to a sprawling view of the park. This overlook is a ranger favorite for sunsets over the badlands. You’ll be on top of the world when you climb Buck Hill, the highest accessible point in the park. This is a short, but steep trail. The view from the top is worth every step. Enjoy hiking the Wind Canyon Nature Trail alongside a wind-sculpted canyon as you climb to the best view of the Little Missouri River the South Unit has to offer. Another ranger favorite for sunsets.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a better-than-average chance your drive will be delayed by a herd of buffalo but just remember the loop drive is all about the journey and sitting in traffic behind slow-moving bison is an experience you’re unlikely to have again.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For more active travelers, the South Unit offers the most trails of any part of the park. For something otherworldly head down the Coal Vein Trail where you’ll step past steaming patches of dark rock marking large stores of coal. It’s perfectly safe as the coal isn’t burning but if you catch the trail after a rain storm steam still rises out of the ground. Think of it as a little slice of Iceland on the Dakota prairie.

Related Article: A Park to Honor a President: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For multi-colored views of the park’s signature Painted Canyon, climb down into the Painted Canyon Trail. The hike lets you delve into steep, desert scenery and only takes about half an hour to complete. Though you can reach it from the Loop Road via a few other trails, it’s still best visited by driving eight miles east on I-94 from Medora and starting at the Painted Canyon Visitors Center.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re feeling strong and want to see some of the park’s more unusual offerings, hike the Petrified Forest Loop trail. Located in the remote northwest corner of the South Unit, this hike takes you through ancient petrified forests and badlands wilderness. The 10-mile loop includes the North and South Petrified Forest Trails as well as the Maah Daah Hey.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The North Unit is smaller than the South but more dramatic. Located about 45 minutes north, the Little Missouri River meanders through deep green canyons, along golden cliffs, and up into soft scenic mountains. Stop at the River Bend Overlook and you’ll see the view that inspired the Bull Moose to preserve the land to begin with.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The North Unit has fewer trails and can be done in one, long day trip. The Caprock Coulee trail is the signature hike, a 4.3-mile jaunt that starts just off the park’s main road. But do yourself a favor and go a little past the official trailhead to the River Bend Overlook. Starting the trail here effectively saves the best for last and makes the hike an experience that just keeps getting better the further your travel.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Caprock Coulee begins atop the Little Missouri River and takes you through the North Unit’s foothills, inside a canyon, and up the mountains that stand over the badlands and river valley. Every climb brings you to a viewpoint that’s more jaw-dropping than the last, so much so you’ll barely notice the walk takes you almost three hours. No trail in either unit comes close to the scenery you’ll see along Caprock Coulee, so plan to hit it early before the crowds (such as they are) join you.

Related Article: The Ultimate Guide to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the main road, stop off and see the Cannonball Concretions a few miles in. The mysterious, spherical rocks look almost like they were shot into the side of the butte and offer a quizzical look at the geology of the region. They sit right next to a field of prairie dogs too, making it the North Unit’s best roadside stop.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To experience the whole North Unit on foot, hit the Buckhorn Trail. You can pick up the 11.4-mile loop right past the visitors center and take it through all the scenery that makes the North Unit so cool. The views aren’t quite what they are around Caprock Coulee but if you’re looking for an all-day hike this is the best.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s not much of anywhere to stay at the North Unit, though, as it doesn’t boast a fun western theme town outside its gates like its brother to the south. But you can make a full-day field trip north then cap it off with a hearty steak and cool sunset back in Medora.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park has two campgrounds (both have one group site and many standard sites) and one group site for camping with horses. All campgrounds are primitive (no hookups, no showers). Group sites and half the camp sites in the South Unit are available by reservation. The rest are first come, first served. When choosing a campground, first consider which park unit you plan to visit.

Cottonwood Campground, Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood Campground lies inside the park about 5 miles from Medora. It is the South Unit’s only campground. Half the sites are by reservation at recreation.gov while all remaining sites are first come, first served. Most sites are suitable for tents and RVs (no hookups). Cottonwood Campground fills to capacity each afternoon, mid-May through mid-September.

Related Article: North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Juniper Campground is 5 miles from Highway 85 and is the only campground in the park’s North Unit. All sites are open to tent camping and most can also be used by vehicles/RVs (no hookups). All regular sites are first come, first served. Juniper Campground is trending to fill to capacity by late afternoon and definitely fills to capacity on holiday weekends.

Worth Pondering…

I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.

—Theodore Roosevelt, 1918

My Favorite Under-appreciated National Parks to Visit in 2022

These parks may not have the same stellar reputation as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon but that doesn’t make them any less spectacular

I don’t know if 2022 is going to be another year for record-setting attendance in parks but visitation has been trending up for years and there’s no sign of a change in the trend.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take Yellowstone for instance. It’s fairly busy every year. In 2022, the park celebrates its sesquicentennial (aka its 150th birthday), so it’s a good guess that the publicity involved is going to keep visitation trending upward.

But what if I gave you a great alternative? Kind of like a junior version of Yellowstone—thermal features, trees, hiking, camping—but without having to wait in line to get in.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That’s what my recommendations for 2022 are all about: While the busiest parks are still learning to adapt to crowds, let’s head to under-appreciated parks—ones that compare favorably to the more crowded parks, but without the crowds. 

In today’s post, I’ll focus on my favorite under-appreciated parks and where they go to get away from it all.

So just between you and I, here are some places to hide out in 2022. If you tell anyone about them, tell them not to tell.

Lassen Peak, Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen would be that alternative to Yellowstone I was alluding to. Both put on an amazing display of geothermal wonders. Both have great camping, hiking, lakes, and streams. But by visiting Lassen, you’ll be able to enjoy all of these with a bit less planning and at a more relaxed pace.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

California’s breathtaking national parks are no great secret. Each year, millions of tourists flock to Yosemite, Sequoia, and Joshua Tree. Lassen Volcanic, one of the state’s least visited parks, is a great place to explore craggy high peaks, chilly alpine lakes, and forests full of towering ponderosa pines.

One might think that because it’s in California, Lassen was destined to be crowded. However, its location is in the northeast corner of the state, so for many of those in the big cities, it might as well be on the moon.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is home to eight different hydrothermal areas with boiling aquamarine hot springs, hissing steam vents, and bubbling mud pots much like the ones found in Yellowstone. Avid hikers won’t want to miss out on summiting Cinder Cone, a now dormant volcano with tremendous views of Lassen Peak and the Fantastic Lava Beds while families will love the stunning wildflowers and raised boardwalks of Bumpass Hell, the park’s largest hydrothermal area.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are plenty of easy-to-moderate hikes to pick from, but I’m going to recommend one that’s short but challenging — just because it’s something that Yellowstone can’t offer. The Cinder Cone Trail goes up a volcanic cinder cone with a view at the top that will knock your socks off. So yes, expect it to be like a stair-stepper machine, and bring good boots. Only 2.5 miles in, steep in places, and no shade. Bring water. If this is too far for you, give it a bit of a try just to have the experience. No shame in turning back.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The east side of the park was heavily impacted by fire in 2021. This might keep some people away, and some restoration operations might impact your visit, so keep an eye on the park’s reopening plans.

Read More: Geothermal Weirdness, Volcanic Landscapes, and Stunning Beauty

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Instead of the Grand Canyon, try Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

While the vast majority of the Grand Canyon is inaccessible wilderness, Theodore Roosevelt is easily accessible. Both are geological wonders, but at Theodore Roosevelt, these wonders are a lot more accessible. There’s even a river that runs through it. Not the mighty Colorado, but the-you-can-wade-across-it Little Missouri.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If there was one person that is a central figure in the national parks, it’s Theodore Roosevelt. His birthplace is a national historic site. His inauguration site is a national historic site. He has an island turned into a national memorial for him. Millions come to see his face carved into Mount Rushmore. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So you’d think that Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in the North Dakota badlands that inspired his love of the outdoors would be a mecca for national park visitors, coming en masse to share the experience that helped mold the man who molded the national park system.

And you’d be wrong. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is a park for isolation. Both the north and south units offer great hiking, expansive vistas, easily accessible wilderness, abundant wildlife, and not many visitors.

This is a wonderful park for hiking due to the elevation (or lack thereof) and abundance of trails.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oh, and for wildlife, too. There are bison, pronghorns, wild horses, and ground squirrels.

The adjacent wilderness area is also a good alternative to Petrified Forest National Park with the Petrified Forest Loop well worth the trip. The Painted Canyon Nature Trail is an easy 45-minute hike. The canyon looks amazing from the rim but wait until you experience a hike down into it. Get up close and personal with the rock layers, junipers, and wildlife. Remember, every step down means a step back up on the return.

If you’re headed to the north unit, check out the 1.5-mile Caprock-Coulee Trail. You can do the Nature Trail portion for an easy 0.8 miles or the entire 4.5 miles for something more strenuous.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The front country campgrounds are nice, too, located in the cottonwoods for a good amount of shade.

Although the north and south units are the largest, the third unit, Elkhorn Ranch, is the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s ranch. Only the foundation remains. The area is still quite remote. The last few miles of the road are unpaved, and often in poor condition.

Read More: Badlands Meet History in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

Astonishing biodiversity exists in Congaree National Park, the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers sweep through the floodplain, carrying nutrients and sediments that nourish and rejuvenate this ecosystem and support the growth of national and state champion trees.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking the park’s many trails lets you get up close and personal with Congaree National Park. Whether you are looking for a short hike on the Boardwalk Trail or desire to make a longer trek into the backcountry, there are options available for visitors of all skills and abilities. Depending on what you want to see, trails can lead you to oxbow lakes, the Congaree River, or stands of magnificent old-growth trees that help make up the tallest deciduous forest in the United States. 

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether you are planning a short day trip or an overnight trip into the backcountry, traveling on Cedar Creek by canoe or kayak is a great way to experience Congaree National Park. This waterway passes through a primeval old-growth forest that contains some of the tallest trees in eastern North America. Opportunities are plentiful for viewing various types of wildlife such as river otters, deer, turtles, wading birds, and even the occasional alligator!

Read More: Finding Solace in the Old Growth Forest of Congaree

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Road Trips That Will Reinvigorate Your Soul After a Very (Very) Long Year

Since a transformative trip is what most everyone needs at the moment, I’ve rounded up 10 experiences guaranteed to reinvigorate your soul

Not to dwell on the past, but it’s been a pretty rough 18 months for most folks. And we’d like to put that chapter behind us. These days, lots of stuff comes with a degree of anxiety or worry, however, there’s absolutely no reason that a road trip should cause such stress. In fact, I’m of the mindset that the exact opposite is true.

Kentucky Artisan Center, Berea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re anything like me, after a year and one-half of being cooped up with travel restrictions, the inner drive to make up for lost time and get out and explore is real. A great spot to take a selfie? Sure, that can be cool. But I’m not looking for just another pretty place. Right now, it’s a deeper and more meaningful travel experience that’s calling.

For some, that might mean a spa getaway. Others find fulfillment in more eye-opening cultural pursuits—an artsy destination (Berea, Kentucky), tasting incredible culinary delights (Cajun cuisine), or sipping fine wine (Okanagan Valley, British Columbia). And, of course, connecting with nature can be thoroughly invigorating.

Okanagan Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You start to pay more attention to little things, such as the warmth of the rising sun on your skin, the sound of the morning’s first bird song, the crunch of the sand and stone beneath your hiking shoes. The wide-open spaces and distant views of dramatic landscapes can inspire a sense of awe and wonder. It can invoke a renewed feeling of discovery and excitement and zest for life that for too long has been drowned out by the pandemic and its stay-at-home orders.

To experience this can be wholly rejuvenating for the mind, body, and soul and it has a way of reminding us of what is truly important and valuable in our lives.

Interested in some travel ideas guaranteed to have you feeling peaceful, joyful, and totally relaxed? Scroll on for 10 relaxing vacations in America that we all deserve right about now!

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seek Out Energy Vortexes in Sedona

Sedona is a deeply spiritual destination known for its spectacular red-rock formations, epic hiking, and energy vortexes. If you’re not familiar with the latter, they’re often described as “swirling centers of energy” that radiate from the earth. The most powerful vortexes (Airport Mesa, Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, and Boynton Canyon) are great spots to meditate, sit alone with your thoughts, or connect to Mother Earth. This deeply spiritual destination boasts some of the most magical scenery anywhere in the world. Need some solo time? Strikeout on a less-trafficked trail like Wilson Mountain and you’ll feel like the only person on the planet. Staring at the enormous red rock formations just really puts things in perspective.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore Zion National Park

There’s something incredibly therapeutic about communing with nature—and it certainly doesn’t hurt to do so in such a staggeringly beautiful place. Insert Zion National Park. Located in southwestern Utah, Zion brims with breathtaking scenery—high plateaus, steep cliffs, deep canyons, forested trails, flowing rivers, and waterfalls. Exploring this majestic natural preserve is a true mind, body, and soul experience. Strenuous treks like Observation Point will push you physically. Covering 148,016 acres with tons of remote corners, Zion provides ample space to be alone with your thoughts. So if you’re seeking a sense of mental clarity, consider it found. And, needless to say, the sheer grandeur of Zion Canyon is all but guaranteed to awaken spiritual awareness.  

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Commune with Nature at Joshua Tree National Park

Yes, it’s an Instagram goldmine. But most people visit Joshua Tree National Park for the purpose of getting up close and personal with nature (epic photos are just a bonus). The desert really does have this incredibly healing energy. Plus, it’s so serene. Few National Parks boast the mythical and mystical quality of Joshua Tree. Massive boulder piles, bleached sand dunes, and Dr. Seussian yucca forests spread across hundreds of square miles of the desert are an otherworldly sight to behold. Soul-searchers can hoof it to the middle of nowhere, staring out at the arid landscape, and enjoy uninterrupted quiet to think. Joshua Tree also shines as one of the best places in the country, err the world, for stargazing. Peering up at the celestial bodies in the sky is sure to shift your perspective on things.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit Saguaro National Park

To the indigenous people of the Sonoran desert, the saguaro is a sacred being. Uniquely adapted to the rigors of the desert, the saguaro forests alongside the palo verde and ironwood forests with all the beings they shelter and sustain form a single interlocked ecosystem of great diversity. The fruit that the saguaro cactus bears is dependable even in drought years so that humans and others owe their survival to the beneficence of the saguaro.

Hogsback, Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive Utah Scenic Byway 12

Sometimes you find yourself on a road that you can sense is something truly special. It is not just the landscapes, though you can’t take your eyes off them. It is something about the drive itself. Driving along Scenic Byway 12 is less about driving and more about staying oxygenated, so breathtaking is this 122-mile highway of pure driving bliss. Peaks ranging from 4,000 to 10,000-feet in elevation, extreme engineering feats allowing vehicle passage, rock formations, plateaus, alpine forests, and other eye-candy compete for a mind-blowing beautiful drive. And it seems to have a history. There’s something in the engineering—the Hogsback stretch comes to mind—and in the lay of the road. The way the road connects with the land feels somehow a part of the landscape. Utah State Route 12 is such a road.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savor the Serenity of Congaree

Established in 2003 and often referred to as the “redwoods of the east,” Congaree National Park is home to the largest and tallest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the United States. This designated wilderness area is located in central South Carolina and is a sanctuary for diverse plant and animal life. It’s also historically significant, once being home to Native Americans and later a refuge for escaped enslaved people. Congaree also offers an accessible boardwalk hike for everyone to enjoy as well as breathtaking canoeing, birding, and tent camping experiences. Honor nature and history when visiting Congaree National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tour Theodore Roosevelt National Park

This is where America’s 26th president spent his wilderness years as a rancher, hunter, and naturalist and this desolate stretch of ridges and bluffs is beyond ethereal. Buffalo and pronghorns graze in every direction giving meaning to the song Home on the Range. The prairie dog villages are among the most impressive in the world. If you venture off the uncrowded paved road that winds through the park you’ll find hoodoos and contoured rocks of the weirdest shapes; these surreal hills reminded Roosevelt of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales and poems. On hikes, I’ve found that these jagged buttes and towering sandstone pinnacles change shades by the hour, from heliotrope red to nickel gray.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stand Amongst the Sequoias

They say hugging trees is a form of therapy. Why not? We’ve heard of stranger stuff. And, hey, whatever works, right? Jokes aside, just being in the presence of towering, thousands-year-old sequoia trees has a wonderfully calming energy that’s hard to put into words but easy to feel in your soul. Take a deep breath, inhale the earthy aroma, and you’ll feel better in minutes. And enjoy the numerous trails and picnic areas in one of California’s iconic national parks.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See the Grand Canyon

It’s easy to be absorbed by the wonders of Grand Canyon National Park. Stretching more than 1.2-million acres, the park’s outer edges include the South Rim (open year-round) and the North Rim (closed from mid-October to mid-May) which are 210 miles apart. Our problems often seem big until we’re standing in front of something as massive and majestic as the Grand Canyon with its striated red rocks that seem to go on forever. The busier South Rim offers easy access to panoramas, paved paths along the rim, and hikes like the Bright Angel Trail which zigzags to the Colorado River. The Grand Canyon’s North Rim which sits at 8,000 feet offers a quieter pace with scenic drives and trails leading to pictographs and dramatic sunset views, All of a sudden those trivial little things that took up so much attention no longer matter. This immense, pilgrimage-worthy destination just seems to have that effect on people.

Appalachian Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike the Appalachian Trail

Need a mood boost? To quote Elle Woods, “endorphins make people happy.” We’re not just advocating for any old form of exercise (though physical activity, in general, has a slew of obvious benefits) but rather movement in a magical setting. Hiking the iconic Appalachian Trail pairs quad-torching trekking with fresh, alpine air and scenery so splendid it all but promises a spiritual awakening. Now that’s a win for your mind, body, and soul. Guess the only thing left to do is decide where to start your trek.

Driving Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picture It

You’re on the wide-open road in a fully-stocked RV, heading towards your own secluded campsite under the stars. Turns out, RV life is pretty good. 

Worth Pondering…

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.

―John Muir

NPS Birthday Celebration: 10 National Parks without the Crowds

August 25 will be a special day at the more than 400 national park sites spread across the U.S.

The National Park Service (NPS) is celebrating its 105th birthday TOMORROW, August 25, 2021. National parks across the country are hosting in-park programs and virtual experiences. Join the birthday celebration from anywhere in the world. Find virtual ways to stay connected with 423 national parks across the country and park party games that you can do anywhere, anytime. Entrance fees are also waived for everyone to come out to enjoy the national parks!

On this day in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the National Park Service. The new bureau was assigned the task of managing the 35 national parks and monuments that had already been established.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many national parks are actually free year-round. Out of the 423 parks only 108 charge entrance fees (except on the six fee-free days), many of which are actual “parks”—including Acadia National Park, Badlands National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Shenandoah National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Zion National Park.

That said, the remaining 315 national parks (many of which are historic sites, trails, battlefields, and monuments) offer free entrance every day of the year including Great Smoky Mountains National park, Casa Grande National Monument, Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway, John Muir National Historic Site, and Gettysburg National Military Park.

While travelers have 63 epic parks to choose from, consider visiting one of these lesser-known and visited national parks. These parks may not have the same star status as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon but that doesn’t make them any less spectacular.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Home to the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States, South Carolina’s often overlooked Congaree National Park is just a half-hour drive from the state capital of Columbia and features plenty of opportunities for scenic hikes, with August, September, and October providing some of the best conditions to explore trails like the Boardwalk Loop, Oakridge Trail, and the Weston Lake Loop.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

One of the least visited parks in the national park system, Lassen Volcanic National Park preserves the volcanic legacy of Lassen Peak, the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range, and the long-eroded Mount Tehama. Evidence of the burning hot spot below Lassen is abundant with several boiling pools and steam vents to visit. Of its geothermal areas, Bumpass Hell is most impressive with its small teal pond inset between fumaroles, steam vents, and a boiling pool coated in fool’s gold. Devil’s Kitchen is a longer hike at about 4 miles past mud pots, fumaroles, and Hot Springs Creek. Beyond the geothermal activity, Lassen is a beautiful alpine environment with plenty of adventures to offer.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

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

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

One of the country’s youngest national parks, Pinnacles National Park is where travelers can spot North America’s largest flying bird in the California condor (their wingspans approaching 10 feet). This unique habitat came to be approximately 23 million years ago when multiple volcanoes erupted, creating rare talus caves and towering rock spires. Hiking and rock climbing are some of the most popular activities here and visitors won’t want to miss out on the stellar views from the winding High Peaks Loop.

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

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia

The nation’s newest national park came to be as recently as December 2020 as part of a pandemic relief bill, but there’s certainly nothing new about West Virginia’s New River Gorge. After all, the river is believed to be the second-oldest on the planet. The park is popular with whitewater rafters and rock climbers but also offers plenty of hiking trails, scenic waterfalls like the 1,500-foot-wide Sandstone Falls, and plenty of scenic viewpoints. Visitors will also be in awe of the landmark New River Gorge Bridge, the longest single-span steel arch bridge in the United States and the third-highest bridge in the country at nearly 900 feet.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef is home to one of the world’s most unique geological wonders: the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile long wrinkle in the earth’s crust. Formed millions of years ago when a fault line shifted and exposed thousands of acres of rust-tinted sandstone and slate-gray shale, the resulting rugged cliffs and arch formations are the red rocks Utah is known for. Grab a cinnamon bun or freshly baked mini-pie in the historic village of Fruita located within the park’s borders then stroll through verdant orchards and hunt for petroglyphs near the visitor center. Stay in nearby Torrey for the best BBQ and wild-west themed hotels and RV parks.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota is a fitting tribute to the president who helped birth America’s conservation movement: It protects an imposing landscape that is both desolate and teeming with life. Bison roam the grassy plains and elk wander along with juniper-filled draws. Prairie dogs squeak from mounds leading to their underground dens and mule deer bed down on the sides of clay buttes. There are pronghorn antelope and coyotes, wild horses, and bighorn sheep.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Despite having just one-tenth of the annual visitors to Yellowstone, Carlsbad Caverns is one of the most engaging national parks in the US—a 73-square-mile network of more than 100 massive caves that seem to go on forever. In the Big Room, stunning stalactites drip from the tall ceiling and thick stalagmite mounds rise from the cave’s floor. It’s certainly worth grabbing a seat at the amphitheater at the mouth of the cave to witness a blur of thousands of bats emerge from the cave for their evening meal at 6 pm—or when they return by 6 am.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Although the words “badlands” and “petrified” evoke harsh landscapes devoid of life, the Petrified Forest National Park is both beautiful and bountiful. Located about 110 miles east of Flagstaff,  the park’s badlands and petrified wood (the world’s largest concentration) are composed of bands of blue, white, and purple which come from quartz and manganese oxides. See fossilized trees and crystalized wood up close on the 0.75-mile Crystal Forest Trail or 3-mile Blue Forest Trail.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other Free Days

Don’t worry if you can’t visit a national park tomorrow—there are more fee-free days this year.

The next fee-free day is National Public Lands Day on Saturday, September 25. The final fee-free day this year is Veterans Day on Thursday, November 11.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Badlands Meet History in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The park is comprised of three separate areas of land. The North and South Units feature scenic drives, wildlife viewing, hiking, visitor centers, and ranger-led programs. The undeveloped Elkhorn Ranch Unit preserves the site of Roosevelt’s “home ranch” in a remote area along the Little Missouri River.

For RVers looking to visit all 50 states, North Dakota is often one of the last to be checked off. It’s not exactly on the way to anywhere else. Part of the challenge is deciding what to see and do once you get there.

Medora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the end, the tiny town of Madora (population 132) and Theodore Roosevelt National Park won out. Photos of its badlands and prairies enchanted me, and the story of Teddy Roosevelt’s sojourn there following the deaths of his wife and mother on the same day intrigued me.

This park is a memorial to one man’s love of the American landscape. Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president (1901-09), established five national parks and helped found the US Forest Service. His first cabin (Maltes Cross) is on park grounds and open for touring.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Three separate sections make up this park. They include a badlands area populated by bison, pronghorn, elk, wild horses, and bighorn sheep. Roosevelt, a New York native, found this land restorative and wrote extensively about his time in the West.

And he loved his time on the badlands so much he: a) bought a ranch and moved there, and b) was inspired to grow our national park system by signing the Antiquities Act. Eventually, his property became part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What was it about this place that allowed this future president to grieve and recover—while at the same time inspiring him to become one of America’s most influential conservationists? I needed to see it for myself.

Teddy Roosevelt Park is open 24 hours daily. Map in hand, we drove the 36-mile scenic loop around the park’s South Unit, stopping at many of the nearly 20 points of interest along the way.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Within minutes, we came upon a prairie dog town. Dozens of the tiny creatures scampered back and forth, popping in and out of little holes amid scrubby grasses. We’d see three more prairie dog towns before we completed the loop, along with wild horses grazing on a hill by the roadside and in another spot, a herd of bison. The wildlife encounters were thrilling and unexpected surprises.

The landscape was thrilling too. The scent of sage perfumed the air, and bursts of red foliage punctuated the gray-green grasslands. Stripes of peach, cream, and mud-brown earth and stone-lined the curving banks of the Little Missouri River.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Framing it all were the famous badlands stretching to the horizon: flat-topped stone formations with striated slopes in tawny yellows and russet reds, dotted with bright green trees and patches of grass.

At every stop, we were awed by the scenery, from the astonishing palette of earthy hues to the stone shapes etching land and sky.

An exhibit at the visitor center tells Roosevelt’s story. On his first visit in 1883, he hunted bison and invested in a ranch near Medora.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

He’d been a state assemblyman in his native New York, but after his mother and wife both died on February 14, 1884, he left politics and returned to the badlands to mourn his losses. He lived in a small ponderosa pine cabin now located just steps from the visitor center. It’s furnished with period pieces and some of his belongings, including his traveling trunk, a replica of his writing desk, and a rocking chair.

Roosevelt lived the cowboy life, spending days riding and herding in what was considered America’s last frontier. His experiences there were formative: He lost more than $24,000 when blizzards decimated the cattle he’d invested in. He witnessed the environmental damage done by overgrazing. And he realized that the bison, who once roamed the plains in the millions, had dwindled to the hundreds.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roosevelt wrote three books inspired by his Western sojourn. He eventually returned to politics, serving as New York governor and from 1901-1909, as U.S. president. His accomplishments included the conservation of 230 million acres of land, a legacy that led to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.

I hope someday to go back and absorb more of the place that Roosevelt called “a land of vast silent spaces—a place of grim beauty.”

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 70,466 acres

Date Established: November 10, 1978 (established as Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park on April 25, 1947)

Location: Western North Dakota

Recreational visits in 2020: 551,303

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: This park was named after President Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, who spent a considerable amount of time living in the Dakota Territory. The site where Theodore Roosevelt National Park is now located was selected after his death in 1919 to honor his dedication to preserving America’s wilderness. The land was set aside by an act of congress. He was known as the “conservationist president” for dedicating his life to obtaining federal protection for lands and wildlife species under threat. During his time in elected office, he established 5 national parks, 18 national monuments, 150 national forests, and 51 bird sanctuaries.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

The park is made up of grassland (saltgrass, western wheatgrass, needle-and-thread, little bluestem); woodland (mostly Rocky Mountain juniper); and riparian (where water meets land.)

Temperatures in North Dakota range between 80 degrees and 90 degrees in the summer months and dip below 0 degrees in the winter. Roosevelt described the area during the winter as an “…abode of iron desolation.”

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More National Park Service units honor President Theodore Roosevelt than any other person. 

Worth Pondering…

The establishment of the National Park Service is justified by considerations of good administration, of the value of natural beauty as a National asset, and of the effectiveness of outdoor life and recreation in the production of good citizenship.

—Theodore Roosevelt

10 Underrated National Parks to Visit This Summer

A helpful guide of national parks without the crowds

When you think of national parks, chances are that the most popular destinations come to mind. Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and the Great Smoky Mountains each get millions of visitors annually.

Due to their popularity, these national parks are typically overcrowded and overrun with tourists tending to get in the way of enjoying the natural beauty of these parks. That’s not to say they aren’t worth visiting—they definitely are—but there are also many underrated and relatively unknown national park service sites to visit.

There are few better ways to spend a beautiful summer day than roaming through nature and checking out views that will take your breath away. It’s an opportunity to disconnect and to learn more about America since many parks are also rich in history.

So get out there in an RV and make it a point to check out at least a couple of these 10 underrated national parks.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Three majestic natural bridges invite you to ponder the power of water in a landscape usually defined by its absence. View them from an overlook, or hit the trails and experience their grandeur from below. The bridges are named Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu in honor of the ancestral Puebloans who once made this place their home

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Formed by volcanoes 23 million years ago, Pinnacles National Park is located in central California near the Salinas Valley. The park covers more than 26,000 acres and hosted 230,000 visitors in 2017. By comparison, its neighbor Yosemite National Park welcomed more than four million visitors.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico

Located in Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument is full of history. This is the largest petroglyph site in North America, which features designs and symbols that were carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. You can walk the trails, check out the petroglyphs and scenery, and even observe some wildlife.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

If you really want to experience nature, Congaree National Park in South Carolina is a perfect place to go. It’s home to one of the tallest deciduous forest canopies on earth, which offers great bird watching and wilderness tours. For those feeling more adventurous, there is also kayaking, hiking, canoeing, fishing, and even camping. There are tons of trees to delight in, and you’ll feel super connected to the planet.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

North Dakota, when not being depicted as bland and uninspired, is generally cast in a bad light. Whether it’s fiction or real life, the spotlight’s seldom kind to NoDak. But there’s also a place where the buffalo roam, and that place is Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Named for the 26th President, it’s perhaps the most underrated National Park Service area, a prairie companion to the Badlands known for its diverse wildlife.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Though one of the oldest national parks in the U.S., Lassen Volcanic isn’t as well-known as its Californian sister, Yosemite, only welcoming 507,256 visitors last year compared to Yosemite’s over four million. Established in 1916, the park is one of the only places in the world where you can see all four types of volcanoes—cinder cone, composite, shield, and plug dome. Plenty of hydro- and geothermal activity is still found in the park today, along with abundant recreational activities.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present-day life of the Navajo, who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor. The northernmost and southernmost edges are accessible from paved roads. The South Rim Drive offers the most dramatic vistas, ending at the most spectacular viewpoint, the overlook of Spider Rocks—twin 800-foot towers of rock isolated from the canyon walls.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

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

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Despite having just one-tenth of the annual visitors to Yellowstone, Carlsbad Caverns is one of the most engaging national parks in the US—a 73-square-mile network of more than 100 massive caves that seem to go on forever. In the Big Room, stunning stalactites drip from the tall ceiling and thick stalagmite mounds rise from the cave’s floor. It’s certainly worth grabbing a seat at the amphitheatre at the mouth of the cave to witness a blur of thousands of bats emerge from the cave for their evening meal at 6 pm—or when they return by 6 am.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 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. During the summer months, the wildflower display is spectacular.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im