National Parks Have a Problem. They Are Too Popular.

If you’re planning to visit a national park on your summer RV trip, you’re not alone. Millions of Americans are flocking to the national parks this summer.

Imagine traveling across the country to visit one of the most stunning national parks only to find it was at capacity and the park was closed to additional visitors.

Arches is one of a number of headliner national parks seeing overcrowding as summer gets into full swing in a year when leisure travel volume is expected to rebound to pre-pandemic levels or even exceed them. The influx of visitors is forcing the park to temporarily shut its gates almost daily. And disappointed visitors aren’t the only consequence of overcrowding. The natural environment is impacted and the local community is affected, too.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since October 2020, visitor numbers at Arches National Park have consistently climbed as much as 70 percent in some months compared with previous years according to the National Park Service (NPS). On multiple days last week, the park started turning visitors away before 8 a.m. In previous years, Arches would sometimes turn people away on weekends. Now it’s happening almost daily. Arches had over 25,000 more visitors in May of this year compared to May 2019. Visitors who can’t get into Arches often go to nearby Canyonlands National Park or opt for recreation opportunities on public land outside of the national parks which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2021 will be our busiest year on record according to a park spokesperson. The big spikes in visitation are mostly at the most popular 12 to 15 destination national parks. This year, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks reported their highest first-quarter visitation numbers since they started collecting such data roughly 30 years ago, a state report says. Yellowstone recorded almost 108,000 visits and Grand Teton saw over 194,000. Those represent increases of 20.7 percent and 22.8 percent from 2020, respectively. 

Yellowstone National Park saw more than 483,100 people in May, the most visitors ever recorded at the park during that month. Yellowstone also saw a 50 percent increase in Memorial Day weekend visitation compared with 2019 and Yellowstone and Grand Teton had their busiest Aprils ever. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has seen record visitation each month throughout the year. Zion had over 80,000 more visitors in May than in 2020. For the first four months of 2021, Mount Rainier National Park recorded over 130,000 visitors, one of the busiest beginnings to the year that they’ve had in the last 25 years.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As of now, six national parks require advance reservations of some kind: California’s Yosemite National Park, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, Hawaii’s Haleakalā National Park, Maine’s Acadia National Park, Montana’s Glacier National Park, and Utah’s Zion National Park. Will advance reservations spread to other popular parks? That begs the question, “Do we really want recreation.gov handling this crowding too?”

The NPS encourages visitors to explore lesser-known parks throughout the park system which includes 423 NSP sites: national seashores, national monuments, national recreation areas, national historic sites, and a host of other designations. Other options include state parks, regional and county parks, and city parks.

Instead of sticking to the top attractions this summer get off the beaten path and look for the hidden gems. Explore these NPS sites that include seven national monuments, four national historic sites and parks, three national parks, and one national seashore located in nine states from coast to coast.

Which national park will you visit this summer?

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

Recreational visits in 2020: 19,856

Walk in ancient footsteps at Hovenweep. Soak in the silence. Marvel at a night sky overflowing with stars. Hear a lone coyote’s howl.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 23,726

The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park, a picturesque reminder that Southern Arizona was, at one time, the far northern frontier of New Spain. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, 29 miles north of Nogales beside the Santa Cruz River.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Recreational visits in 2020: 30,223

Follow the ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Once you’ve visited the ruins, meander to the Animas River via a segment of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail or peruse museum exhibits and 900-year old artifacts.

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, Pennsylvania

Recreational visits in 2020: 34,288

Known as an “iron plantation,” Hopewell Furnace illustrates how mining and producing iron ore spurred the United States to economic prosperity. Visitors to this Pennsylvania site can see demonstrations and hike the surrounding area which was originally farmland.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Moro National Monument, New Mexico

Recreational visits in 2020: 36,328

Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, this massive sandstone bluff was a welcome landmark for weary travelers. A reliable year-round source of drinking water at its base made El Morro a popular campsite in this otherwise rather arid and desolate country. At the base of the bluff called Inscription Rock are seven centuries of inscriptions covering human interaction with this spot.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Recreational visits in 2020: 37,295

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.

Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, New York

Recreational visits in 2020: 49,091

See the place where Franklin D. Roosevelt was born and buried in Hyde Park. The home is also the location of the first presidential library.

Chiricahua National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Park, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 44,794

A “Wonderland of Rocks” is waiting for you to explore at Chiricahua National Monument. The 8-mile paved scenic drive and 17-miles of day-use hiking trails provide opportunities to discover the beauty, natural sounds, and inhabitants of this 12,025-acre site.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Recreational visits in 2020: 52,542

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.

LBJ National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park, Texas

Recreational visits in 2020: 75.322

On the banks of the Pedernales River in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, the LBJ Ranch tells the story of America’s 36th President beginning with his ancestors until his final resting place on his beloved LBJ Ranch.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 76,752

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly 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.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 78,358

Built atop a small 120-foot ridge is a large pueblo. With 77 ground-floor rooms, this pueblo held about 50 people. After about 100 years the population doubled and then doubled again later. By the time they finished building the pueblo, it had 110 rooms including second and third-story structures, and housed 250 people. 

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Recreational visits in 2020: 119,306

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 offer great bird watching and wilderness tours. For those feeling more adventurous, there is also kayaking, hiking, canoeing, fishing, and even camping.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

Recreational visits in 2020: 139,336

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740

Formed by volcanoes 23 million years ago, Pinnacles National Park is located in central California near the Salinas Valley.

Worth Pondering…

Not to have known—as most men have not—either mountain or the desert, is not to have known one’s self.

—Joseph Wood Krutch

Discover Art and History in Tubac

Established in 1752 as a Spanish fort, Tubac is an exquisite, brightly painted town with more than 100 galleries, shops, and restaurants lining its meandering streets

Located in south central Arizona 40 miles south of Tucson in a valley along the cottonwood-lined Santa Cruz River, Tubac describes itself as a place where “art and history meet.” This small community has an impressive collection of galleries, studios, one-of-a-kind shops, and dining options. Tubac was established in 1752 as a Spanish presidio, the first colonial fortress in what is now Arizona.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac started to develop as an art colony in the 1930s and ’40s. Dale Nichols, a painter and illustrator best known for his rural landscape paintings, played a significant role in shaping Tubac’s evolution into an art center. In 1948, he bought and restored a number of Tubac’s historic buildings and opened an art school.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, this village of about 1,500 people has over 100 galleries, studios, and shops, all within easy walking distance of each other. You’ll find an eclectic and high quality selection of art and artisan works that includes paintings, sculpture, pottery, metal work, hand-painted tiles, photography, jewelry, weaving, and hand-carved wooden furniture.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s not just the goods inside the shops that are beautiful. The village of restored buildings and landscaped walkways is a delight to walk through. Old, red brick buildings and adobes with wood beams jut out near the top. Wood pillars support terracotta-tiled roofs to create covered walkways in front of buildings. Pillars as well as door and window trim are painted in bright hues of blue, turquoise, yellow, or red. Mexican tiles decorate buildings. Hidden courtyards contain more shops or bits of historical information.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

High-desert vistas and views of the Santa Rita Mountains form a backdrop. Scenic views to inspire the creative spirit! It is easy to see how artists would be drawn to Tubac’s combination of stunning landscape and history.

Tubac Festival of the Arts debuted in 1964. The annual five-day February event attracts thousands of visitors each day. The juried show features 150 to 200 artists from all over the country. Booths line village streets that are blocked to vehicular traffic. The festival also features musicians and roving entertainers. The festival is free but there is a charge for parking. Horse-drawn trolleys ferry people to and from parking lots and throughout the town.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting and resident artists display their works in harmony. You can weave your way past temporary booths and into and out of permanent shops as you walk through the village but you may also want to consider visiting at another, quieter time to properly appreciate the resident galleries and shops.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The area around Tubac is believed to have been inhabited for over 11,000 years. The Spanish Colonial Era began when Jesuit missionary Father Kino came to the Santa Cruz Valley in 1691. By 1731, Tubac was a mission farm and ranch. The Spanish established a fort in 1752. Tubac Presidio State Historic Park is located on the site of the former fort. This is Arizona’s first state park hosting a world class museum and bridging Tubac’s past life to its destiny as an artist colony.

Tubac Presido State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Excavated portions of the walls, foundation, and floor of the Commandant’s quarters can be viewed from an underground archaeological exhibit. Outdoor patio exhibits show how people lived, cooked, and worked in Spanish colonial times. The Park is home to three buildings on the National Register of Historic Places: an 1885 schoolhouse that is the third oldest in Arizona; Otero Hall, built as a community center in 1914 and now housing a collection of paintings; and a mid-20th century adobe vernacular row house.

Tubac Presido State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Museum on the grounds showcases the timeline of human settlement with information about the Native American, Spanish Colonial, Mexican Republic, and Territorial Eras. Among the variety of artifacts, you’ll find ancient pottery, Spanish cookware, mining tools, nineteenth century costumes, and the original Washington Printing Press that printed Arizona’s first newspaper in 1859.

Tubac Presido State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you are interested in exploring more of the area around Tubac, Tumacácori National Historic Park reserves the ruins of three Spanish mission communities and is less than five miles from Tubac.These abandoned ruins include San José de Tumacácori, Los Santos Ángeles de Guevavi, and San Cayetano de Calabazas.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The mission San José de Tumacácori first was listed in 1691 as an outlying visita by Father Kino, and is one the oldest in Arizona. Tumacácori contributed a herd of cattle to the Anza expedition and Father Font, a member of Anza’s colony, stayed here while Anza marshaled his forces at Tubac. The mission San José de Tumacácori is open to the public. The other two mission ruins are much more fragile and are only accessible through special guided tours. The Park also offers a visitor center and museum.

Worth Pondering…

Crafts make us feel rooted, give us a sense of belonging and connect us with our history. Our ancestors used to create these crafts out of necessity, and now we do them for fun, to make money and to express ourselves.

—Phyllis George

Tumacácori National Historic Park: More Than Just Adobe, Plaster & Wood

The past and the present meld together as one at Tumacácori National Historical Park

As English colonists were arriving at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock on the east coast of North America, the southwestern Native Americans were starting to see visitors from the south. Catholic missionaries traveled north from Mexico to establish missions in the Southwest region that is now Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park, a picturesque reminder that Southern Arizona was, at one time, the far northern frontier of New Spain. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, 29 miles north of Nogales beside the Santa Cruz River. Jesuit, and later Franciscan, priests ministered to the O’odham Indians and Spanish settlers until 1848.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission life became impossible because of the Mexican-American War cutting off supply routes, an increase in Apache raids, and a severe winter. The community made the difficult decision to leave Tumacácori, taking their valuables with them to Mission San Xavier del Bac.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Closed completely following the end of the war in 1848, Tumacácori became US property in 1853 when land south of the Gila River was transferred to Arizona (the Gadsden Purchase).

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After sixty years of deterioration, President Theodore Roosevelt established Tumacácori National Monument in 1908, protecting the mission’s remains. Times were not always easy; there were revolts, devastating epidemics, an expulsion of Jesuit priests, and influxes of people from outside the region. Tubac, a Spanish soldier garrison, was established nearby and offered protection from some Apaches who had formed raiding parties.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1775, a Spanish-sponsored 1,200-mile expedition composed of 240 colonists and 1,000 head of livestock passed through the mission. Organized and led by a Tubac captain, Juan Bautista de Anza II, they were en route to settle an outpost in California that resulted in the founding of the City of San Francisco in 1776. Even though they had to traverse an unforgiving desert sparsely populated with sometimes hostile Indians, all of the colonists arrived safe, a testament to Anza’s leadership.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The expedition’s route, now the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, passes through the park, providing opportunities for walkers, bird watchers, and horseback riders. A 4.5 mile stretch of the Anza Trail, extends from Tumacácori to the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. The trail follows the Santa Cruz River in the shade of mesquite, hackberry, elderberry, cottonwood, and willow trees providing shelter for more than 200 species of birds.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Using Mission View RV Resort off San Xavier Road in southern Tucson as our home base, we recently visited this historic place, toured the mission church, cemetery, and grounds.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entry is through a large wooden door set into the wall, which opens directly into the visitor center. The center has a good selection of local-interest books, a museum, park store, and an auditorium for video presentations about the history of the mission.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Staffed by National Park Service employees and volunteers, the museum and park store provide orientation and a wealth of information. The museum offers dioramas, artifacts, and exhibits about the Native American and Spanish colonial cultures. Ranger-led tours, living history, craft presentations, and even full-moon tours of the church and riverside are available seasonally.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A self-guiding tour booklet for the Tumacácori Mission grounds can be purchased or borrowed. The walking tour of the site leads through several interlinked rooms with open doorways, and to the enclosed courtyard garden, filled by mature trees and Sonoran desert plants.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The church is a 200-foot walk away across the main quadrangle, much of which is bare soil though other parts have trees and lesser buildings such as residential quarters. The main chamber has a nave, altar, and remains of a choir loft, with links to smaller rooms including a baptistery, sacristy, and sanctuary. Behind the church are a granary, mortuary, and a cemetery with original graves marked by simple wooden crosses.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the past and the present meld together as one at Tumacácori National Historical Park. Come experience it!

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Now that I’m here, where am I?

—Janis Joplin