The History of Tubac Presidio

Conflict has shaped the Southwest since colonizers arrived in the late 1600s. From the earliest presidios to a modern-day Army base, fighting near and far has caused communities to thrive and fall.

Tubac nestles in a high, mountain-framed valley on the banks of the Santa Cruz River. This pastoral landscape of rolling grasslands, shaggy with mesquite, is 47 miles south of Tucson and 25 miles north of the Mexican border.

In 1948, landscape painter Dale Nichols opened an art school and the quiet little burg began an evolution into an artist colony. Today, over 80 shops and restaurants are clustered in the village plaza where old adobes, Spanish courtyards, and ocotillo fences blend seamlessly with a handful of newer buildings. There’s a whiff of emergent Santa Fe here without the jostling crowds.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What’s not immediately apparent in this peaceful setting is that Tubac was born of violence.

The New World Spanish Empire known as New Spain sent missionaries to Christianize the natives.

Father Eusebio Francisco Kino arrived in 1687 and began work among Indians the Spaniards called Pimas. In their language, they were O’odham, or the people. Kino traveled the region he called Pimeria Alta from today’s Sonora, Mexico to southern Arizona establishing missions including Tumacácori, just south of Tubac.

Spanish colonists began to arrive in the Santa Cruz valley during the 1730s, farming and raising cattle, sheep, and goats. Angry over the appropriation of land and harsh punishment doled out by missionaries, the Pimas revolted in 1751. Led by Luis of Saric, they attacked several settlements. When the violence ended, more than 100 colonists were dead.

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

As a result of the rebellion, a presidio was founded at Tubac in June 1752, the first European settlement in Arizona. The 50 cavalrymen garrisoned at the Presidio San Ignacio de Tubac were to protect the missions in the area and quell uprisings. The presidio would serve as a base for continued exploration of New Spain.

Soldiers were encouraged to bring their families which gave Tubac an air of permanence. Indians killed the first captain of the post in 1759. The man who would become Tubac’s most famous resident, Juan Bautista de Anza, assumed command.

De Anza led numerous campaigns against the Apaches and achieved a notable reputation as a soldier and leader. However, he is best known for establishing a long-sought overland route through the desert to northern California. Following a successful journey in 1774, de Anza immediately began organizing a colonizing expedition. In 1775, de Anza set out from Tubac with more than 240 men, women, and children on a treacherous trek of 1,200 miles to establish a settlement near the San Francisco Bay.

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

The journey emptied Tubac of most of its occupants. Increasing Apache raids drove away others. In 1776, the presidio was moved to Tucson. Without military protection, Tubac languished for a decade. It wasn’t until the presidio was reactivated that the community began to recover.

The Royal Fort of St. Rafael at Tubac was established in 1787. This time the garrison consisted of four Spanish officers and 80 Pima Indians. The viceroy of New Spain, Bernardo de Galvez implemented a policy to settle Indians who sought peace near the presidios on makeshift reservations. The goal was to make them dependent on the Spaniards by giving them gifts, supplies, food, sugar, firearms, and ammunition.

This plan of peace by deceit gained the Spaniard’s allies against warring factions. It also pushed the Indians away from a nomadic lifestyle and toward an agricultural one considered more appropriate by European standards. Tubac enjoyed a period of relative calm.

Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821 and the new Republic of Mexico’s flag flew over Tubac until 1848. That year, an Apache attack caused great loss of life. Months later, men poured out of town streaming for the California gold fields. Tubac was abandoned again.

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

Tubac was part of the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 and fortune hunters began making their way back. Charles Poston and associates formed the Sonora Exploration and Mining Co. and used Tubac as their headquarters. They repaired some of the old presidio buildings and moved in.

Poston who would become known as the Father of Arizona for his role in procuring Arizona’s Territorial status served as mayor, judge, treasurer, and justice of the peace. By 1859, Tubac was the largest town in the region and Arizona’s first newspaper was established there.

When the Civil War broke out, U.S. troops were withdrawn from Arizona to fight in the East. Tubac residents moved to Tucson and did not return until the presidio was regarrisoned in 1865 after the war.

For the next two decades, Tubac’s fortunes again depended entirely on military presence. This was the heart of the frontier, exposed and vulnerable, and it wasn’t until the Apaches were subdued in the 1880s that Tubac stabilized.

But that also was about the time silver strikes led to booming growth at Tombstone. And the railroad was routed through Tucson sparking that town’s development. Tubac had lost its position of prominence.

Tumacácori National Historical Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Getting there: From Tucson, travel south on Interstate 19 to Exit 34. Cross under the interstate and continue south on the frontage road another half-mile to Tubac.

History walk: The Juan Bautista de Anza Trail is a 4.5-mile pathway connecting Tubac Presidio State Historic Park and Tumacácori National Historical Park. The level trail traces the Santa Cruz River through shady woodlands and follows the route Juan Bautista de Anza took on his expeditions. It’s popular with hikers and birders.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park: Arizona’s first state park was established in 1958. The Presidio was the final staging area for two expeditions to California, the second of which resulted in the founding of San Francisco and is commemorated in Anza Days every October at the park. Long before colonial days, the site was home to O’odham, Tohono O’odham, and Apache Indians. You’ll see evidence of their contributions and those of other cultures in the park’s museum and archaeological dig.

Tumacácori National Historical Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historical Park: This is the site of a Jesuit outpost settled in 1691 by Eusebio Francisco Kino. The current building, Mission San Jose de Tumacacori was built in the late 18th century. In 1921, construction began on a roof to protect the interior of the mission. The mission grounds and visitor center are open for exploration and guided tours are offered January through March.

Worth Pondering…

A tree is known by its fruit; a man by his deeds. A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.

—Basil of Caesarea, Ancient Greek theologian (330-379)

Father Kino: A Legendary Figure who Founded 8 Missions in Southern Arizona

Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, a 17th-century Jesuit priest founded 21 missions in what is now Northern Sonora and Southern Arizona

Born Eusebio Chini (the Spanish version of his last name is Kino) to a noble family in Italy, Father Kino became a legendary figure during his era in the New World.

After surviving a serious illness young in life, he thanked God by adopting Francisco as a second name in honor and devotion to St. Francis Xavier. He vowed to become a priest and dreamed of missionary work in China. He became a well-educated mathematician and cartographer, often teaching math and science during his training to receive Holy Orders and be ordained as a priest.

However, his first mission was to lead an expedition to Baja, California, controlled by New Spain, to create maps. Kino is attributed with proving that the area was a peninsula, not an island. Later, he was commissioned to convert the natives living along the Rio Grande to Catholicism.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Soon Padre Kino had a strong following among the tribes, but he didn’t just focus on conversion. Nicknamed the Padre on Horseback, he traversed the unfriendly territory to help the lives of the American Indians. Father Kino worked hard to oppose forced labor on the native people by the Spanish in the silver mines.

Contrary to his fellow priests who followed Spanish law, Father Kino was considered a rebel whom the indigenous people trusted. He gained fame as a peacekeeper among the people, homesteaders, and governments.

Father Kino possessed many other interests as well such as astronomy and became a prolific writer, authoring books on many subjects—including religion. As he traversed the territory, he drew numerous maps including the sky. Father Kino was instrumental in the Vatican establishing one of the largest telescopes in North America near Tucson, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) at Mount Graham International Observatory.

Father Kino spent the last 24 years of his life in the Pimeria Alta—modern-day Sonora, Mexico, and southern Arizona. He established 21 missions and country chapels, many at the request of the local tribes as they slowly felt safe enough to build villages and farms close to the missions. With a stable food source, the tribes began to recover from the brutality and discrimination they endured from the influx of foreigners to their land. Thus, Father Kino is still honored and loved today.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dying of a fever at the age of 65, Kino was buried in a shrine designated a National Monument of Mexico, located in the present-day town of Magdalena de Kino in Sonora. His funeral was attended by dignitaries from Mexico City and the local area.

The unveiling of a Padre Kino postage stamp and presentation of his original travel diary was held in March of 2011. The United States Capitol displays a life-size statue from every state of a person who was chosen to portray the state’s heritage and beliefs. Arizona chose Father Kino.

Last year Pope Francis approved that Father Kino be declared a venerable person which is two steps away from sainthood. The pope’s formal approval recognized Kino’s life of “heroic virtue,” said Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson.

“Padre Kino is especially recognized as an extraordinary example of evangelization, science, and respect for the dignity of the poor,” wrote Weisenburger in an email to parishioners.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bishop said since Kino was a member of the Jesuit order with provincial headquarters in Trent, Italy, the joyous announcement affects the people of Trent and also the “faithful of the Archdiocese of Hermosillo, Mexico, the Catholic peoples of Arizona, and all who recognize the holy life of Venerable Padre Kino.”

“For Kino to be advanced to the next stage of the canonization process a miracle attributed to him is necessary. The faithful are encouraged to seek his intervention in time of need,” Weisenburger said.

In March 2011, descendants of Kino from Italy gathered outdoors in front of Mission San José de Tumacácori south of Tucson to celebrate a tricentennial commemorative Mass of Kino’s death. His visible skeletal remains are in a crypt at La Plaza Monumental, about 50 yards from María Magdalena Church.

The Tumacácori mission was established by Kino in 1691 but later built under Franciscan missionaries. In 1700, Kino laid the foundation for a mission at the village of Bac on the Santa Cruz River near Tucson. Mission San Xavier del Bac—also known as the White Dove of the Desert—was completed in 1797 also by Franciscan missionaries.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“I am happy to hear the news about Padre Kino being declared venerable because we have been waiting for this announcement since 2016,” said Rosie Garcia, president and founding board member of the Kino Heritage Society.

“Padre Kino was a missionary who brought Christianity to Northern Sonora and Southern Arizona. He was an advocate for social justice and he certainly deserves this honor,” she said of the sainthood process.

“His legacy lives on,” said Garcia. “We see it today in the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora, a Jesuit-run shelter and an advocacy center for migrants. Truly, Padre Kino was meant to be a man for all seasons and for all ages.” She said the process to canonize Kino began in the 1960s and it started in Hermosillo, Sonora.

Manny Martinez, a Tohono O’odham Nation member who works closely with O’odham at Mission San Xavier del Bac, said Kino was “an ally to tribal peoples of this area. According to his writings and what we know about him, he worked to be a bridge between Native Americans’ spirituality and the Catholic faith.”

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“He went beyond the European’s perceptions of native people at that time and he really saw us as people of the creator. He validated the first people of this land,” said Martinez. “His journey to sainthood would put him in a league of other Catholic saints who spoke up for those who did not have a voice,” he said.

Big Jim Griffith, a well-known local folklorist and a founder of Tucson Meet Yourself, reminds us that we honor Padre Kino’s legacy every time we enjoy carne asada since the padre introduced wheat and beef in the late 17th century into the area.

Worth Pondering…

A tree is known by its fruit; a man by his deeds. A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.

—Basil of Caesarea, Ancient Greek theologian (330-379)

15 Fascinating Historic Sites in the American Southwest 

The American Southwest blends nature and history in a beautiful way. Coyotes, canyons, and brilliant sun-kissed rock formations mark the region’s desert terrain. It’s also home to hundreds of national parks and monuments including the Grand Canyon. While there are a number of places you will want to see on your trip, be sure to stop and check out these Historic Sites in the Southwest.

The stories of the American Southwest extend well beyond the history of the United States. From the Indigenous peoples who built cliffside castles to the Spanish explorers who established missions and the cowboys of the Wild West—the history of this region is incredibly diverse.

To learn more about what makes the Southwest so captivating, check out 15 of the region’s best historic sites and the fascinating stories behind them.

Montezuma Castle © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Montezuma Castle, Camp Verde, Arizona

Embedded into the side of a sheer limestone cliff, Montezuma Castle dates back to around 1100 BC and was established as a national monument in 1906. The cliffside abode was named incorrectly by settlers who believed it to be of Aztec origin. In reality, the Sinagua peoples who inhabited the Verde Valley of Arizona for thousands of years, built and occupied the castle. Naturally warm in the winter and cool in the summer, the site of the cliff dwellings was chosen due to preexisting caves and nearby water resources; inhabitants used wooden ladders to move throughout the settlement’s five levels.

To see the historic monument, start at the Visitor Center before walking up to the base of Montezuma Castle on a 0.3-mile loop trail. Then, you can drive to Montezuma Well, a naturally occurring sinkhole and the site of more cliff dwellings. The land around the well was home to prehistoric groups of people approximately 1,000 years ago before being settled by Anglo-Americans in the late 19th century.

Check this out to learn more: Apartment House of the Ancients: Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Well © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Four Corners Monument, Teec Nos Pos, Arizona

Located in Navajo Tribal Park, the Four Corners Monument is the only point in the country where four states meet. Marking the point where the Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah state lines coalesce, the historic landmark also marks the boundary between the Navajo Nation and Ute Mountain Tribe Reservation. 

However, the monument’s history goes further back than just statehood. During the Civil War, Congress created several new territories—including Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico—to discourage residents from joining the Confederacy. In 1861, Congress voted for a marker to be placed in the monument’s exact location to demonstrate the southwest corner of the Colorado territory.

Palace of the Governors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Dating to 1610, the Palace of the Governors is the oldest public building in the contiguous U.S. still in continuous use. For nearly three centuries, the building was home to a rotating roster of Spanish, Mexican, and American governors as control over the New Mexico territory shifted and changed. Additionally, the native Pueblo peoples took over the palace during the Pueblo Revolt of the 17th century while the Confederacy occupied it during the Civil War.

Today, the Palace of the Governors is part of the New Mexico History Museum with interpretive galleries displaying its history and a palatial courtyard that connects to the rest of the museum. For visitors to Santa Fe, the palace features a block-long portal where Native American vendors sell their artisan wares and crafts.

Plan your next trip to Santa Fe with these resources:

Whiskey Row © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Whiskey Row, Prescott, Arizona

This legendary block in Arizona earned its moniker in the late 19th century when the street consisted of whiskey saloons favored by the local cowboys and miners. After a lit candle burned most of the downtown area in 1900, a group of locals famously rescued the actual bar from the Palace Saloon and began drinking their sorrows away. A year later, a new downtown was erected in a more fire-safe brick and the same bar was installed inside the new Palace Restaurant and Saloon.

Today, visitors can belly up at the historic bar or visit myriad other notable sites located on the city block. Rumored to be haunted by a lady in white, Hotel St. Michael has housed a number of famous guests over the past century including the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Doc Holiday. And while galleries and shops now decorate the historic square, famed establishments like the Jersey Lilly Saloon still embody the historic spirit of Whiskey Row.

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas

Before it became the site of perhaps the most infamous battle in the Southwest, the Alamo was known as the San Antonio de Valero Mission. In 1724, Spanish colonizers established the church to convert the area’s Native American peoples.

It wasn’t until the 1835 Texas Revolution that the former mission became a war fortress and battle site. Stationed in the Alamo in 1836, Texas revolutionaries fought against Mexico in the Battle of the Alamo, a bloody 13-day squirmish that resulted in the deaths of all the defenders. Although they lost the battle, Texas later won independence from Mexico and would eventually become an American state nine years later.

Today, the Alamo is open and free to visitors although reservations must be made in advance. With guided and self-guided tours available, the Alamo is also part of the San Antonio Missions Trail giving cyclists easy access to the city’s network of historic missions.

If you need ideas, check out:

Besh Ba Gowah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park and Museum, Globe, Arizona

One mile southwest of the City of Globe, Arizona, stand the remains of a large pueblo village constructed by the Salado culture who occupied the region between 1225 and 1450.

The pueblo is known today as Besh Ba Gowah, a term originally given by the Apache people to the early mining settlement of Globe. Roughly translated, the term means place of metal

The partially reconstructed pueblo structures along with the adjacent museum provide a fascinating glimpse at the lifestyle of the people who thrived in the ancient Southwest.

Besh-Ba-Gowah had about 400 rooms of these about 250 were ground floor rooms. Precise numbers are impossible due to modern destruction of sections. Entrance to the pueblo was via a long narrow ground level corridor covered by the second level. The corridor opened onto the main plaza. This may have had a defensive purpose.

Check this out to learn more: Exploring a Remarkable Pueblo: Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park

Mesa Verde © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Mesa Verde National Park, Mancos, Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park’s cliff dwellings are just one wonder to be found at this national park in Colorado which also includes protected wilderness.

Located in Southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde, Green Table in Spanish, National Park offers an unparalleled opportunity to see and experience a unique cultural and physical landscape. Including more than 4,000 known archeological sites dating back to A.D. 550, this national treasure protects the cliff dwellings and mesa top sites of pit houses, pueblos, masonry towers, and farming structures of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples who lived here for more than 700 years. This national park gives us a glimpse into the places and stories of America’s diverse cultural heritage.

The cliff dwellings are some of the most notable and best preserved sites in the United States. After living primarily on the mesa top for 600 years, the Ancestral Pueblo peoples began building structure under the overhanging cliffs of Mesa Verde—anything from one-room storage units to villages of over 150 rooms. Decades of excavation and analysis still leave many unanswered questions, but have shown us that the Ancient Pueblans were skillful survivors and artistic craftsmen.

By the way, I have a series of posts on Mesa Verde:

Canyon de Chelly © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Chinle, Arizona

For nearly 5,000 years, people have lived in these canyons—longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere on the Colorado Plateau. In the place called Tsegi, their homes and images tell us their stories. Today, Dine’ families make their homes, raise livestock, and farm the lands in the canyons. A place like no other, the park and Navajo Nation work together to manage the land’s resources.

Canyon de Chelly sustains a living community of Navajo people who are connected to a landscape of great historical and spiritual significance—a landscape composed of places infused with collective memory. NPS works in partnership with the Navajo Nation to manage park resources and sustain the Navajo community.

Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see the original timbers holding up the roof. Search for the fingerprints of ancient workers in the mortar. Listen for an echo of ritual drums in the reconstructed Great Kiva.

Here are some helpful resources:

Aztec Ruins © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Aztec Ruins National Monument, Aztec, New Mexico

Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called great houses, each with a great kiva—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures. Excavation of the West Ruin in the 1900s uncovered thousands of well-preserved artifacts that provide a glimpse into the life of Ancestral Pueblo people connecting people of the past with people and traditions of today. 

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Aztec Ruins National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Coolidge, Arizona

Casa Grande Ruins, the nation’s first archeological preserve, protects the Casa Grande and other archeological sites within its boundaries.

For over a thousand years, prehistoric farmers inhabited much of the present-day state of Arizona. When the first Europeans arrived, all that remained of this ancient culture were the ruins of villages, irrigation canals, and various artifacts. Among these ruins is the Casa Grande, or Big House, one of the largest and most mysterious prehistoric structures ever built in North America. See the Casa Grande and hear the story of the ancient ones the Akimel O’otham call the Hohokam, those who are gone.

Check this out to learn more: The Mystique of the Casa Grande Ruins

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites and features volcanic rock carved by Native American and Spanish settlers.

Petroglyph National Monument protects a variety of cultural and natural resources including five volcanic cones, hundreds of archeological sites, and an estimated 25,000 images carved by native peoples and early Spanish settlers.

Many of the images are recognizable as animals, people, brands, and crosses; others are more complex. Their meaning, possibly, may have been understood only by the carver. These images are inseparable from the greater cultural landscape, from the spirits of the people who created them, and from all who appreciate them.

If you need ideas, check out: Adventure in Albuquerque: Petroglyph National Monument

12. Coronado Historic Site, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Home to the partially reconstructed ruins of the ancient Pueblos of Kuaua, this historic site dates back to 1300 DC. Inhabited by the ancestral Puebloans, Kuaua was the largest Pueblo complex in the region with roughly 1,200 ground-floor rooms and 10 to 20 large kivas. Each kiva (underground ceremonial room) is painted with layers of intricate murals revealing stories of the Pueblo peoples and representing some of the best examples of pre-Columbian art in the U.S.

Today, the village is known as the Coronado Historic Site named for Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado who discovered the village in 1540 during his search for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. The Puebloans were gracious toward their guests at first although their hospitality eventually faded and Coronado and his troops moved on. History buffs can visit these reconstructed kivas to see the well-preserved murals, as well as walk the site’s interpretive trails, complete with views of the Sandia Mountains and the Rio Grande.

Hovenweep © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

Noted for its solitude and undeveloped, natural character, Hovenweep National Monument was once home to more than 2,500 people in 900 A.D. In 1923, Hovenweep was proclaimed by President Warren G. Harding a unit of the national park system. The name Hovenweep is a Paiute/Ute word meaning deserted valley.

A group of five well-preserved village ruins over a 20-mile radius of mesa tops and canyons, these ancient Pueblo ruins include towers that remind visitors of European castles. Straddling the Utah-Colorado border, the ruins were built about the same time as medieval fortresses.

The largest and most accessible of the six units of ruins is Square Tower where several well-preserved structures are located. The area was home for several prehistoric farming villages. Throughout the ruins, visitors may find castles, towers, check dams (for irrigation), cliff dwellings, pueblos, and houses. Petroglyphs (rock art) can also be found in the area.

Here are some helpful resources:

Tuzigoot Ruins © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

The Southern Sinagua built a ridge-top pueblo at Tuzigoot around 1100 AD and continued to add new rooms until the 1400s. This pueblo housed about 50 people. The Sinagua would often use a large pueblo as a dwelling and community center surrounded by additional smaller dwellings and outbuildings connected to agriculture.

While the region has a mostly arid climate, the marsh and river provide a source of fresh water, wild game, fish, and turtles to the Sinagua. Although summers are hot, a very long growing season allowed for the organized cultivation of crops as a supplement to food taken from the marsh and the river.

Despite the comfortable natural setting, the Sinagua left the pueblo at Tuzigoot for unknown reasons around the year 1450. Possibly the valley became overcrowded and the Southern Sinagua moved to different locations or were absorbed by other tribes. When the Sinagua abandoned Tuzigoot, they left behind many artifacts, some of which are on display in the visitor center.

Today, much of the ruin at Tuzigoot has been reconstructed to provide a safe and stable environment for visitors; however, the main tower is mostly original and is open to the public. The pueblo is accessible as part of a short loop trail. An additional trail leads out to a viewing area overlooking the marsh that was so important to the Sinagua.

Read more: An Ancient Village on the Hill: How Life was Lived at Tuzigoot

Tumacacori © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Tumacácori National Historic Park, Tumacácori, Arizona

Tumacácori sits at a cultural crossroads in the Santa Cruz River valley and is where O’odham, Yaqui, and Apache people mixed with Europeans.

From his arrival in the Pimería Alta in 1687 until he died in 1711, Padre Kino established over twenty missions. The Jesuit missionaries administered them until the time of their expulsion in 1767. From 1768 until after Mexico got her independence in 1821 the missions were operated by the Franciscan missionaries. Some are still in use today while others have fallen into ruin.

Tumacácori National Historical Park in the upper Santa Cruz River Valley of southern Arizona is comprised of the abandoned ruins of three of these ancient Spanish colonial missions. San Jos de Tumacácori and Los Santos Angeles de Guevavi, established in 1691, are the two oldest missions in Arizona. San Cayetano de Calabazas, was established in 1756.

Check this out to learn more: Tumacácori National Historic Park: More Than Just Adobe, Plaster & Wood

Worth Pondering…

Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.

—Miriam Beard

The Best National Parks to Visit in December

Wondering where to travel in December? Why not opt for a nature getaway and visit one of America’s National Parks in December!

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or at lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.

Which are the best national parks to visit in December? In this guide, I list five beautiful national parks plus six bonus parks and a road trip. Whether you are planning a family getaway during Christmas break or a vacation before the holiday season rolls around, I have lots of great ideas for you.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

This article is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting the National Parks in December

December is a unique month to visit the national parks. The month starts out quiet. Many people are shopping, decorating, and getting ready for the upcoming holidays at the end of the month. This makes early December a very quiet time to visit the national parks.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is a very popular time for people to travel and the national parks get a big spike in visitors. It’s one of the biggest travel weeks of the year. It can be considerably more expensive to travel the last week of December than the first week of December and camping reservations are difficult to find.

If you have flexibility for your travel dates it’s best to plan your trip for early December or wait until January.

Another thing to note is that in December, the days are the shortest of the year. In some places you may have less than eight hours of daylight. If you are planning long day trips or long, busy days in the national parks keep in mind that by 4:30 pm it could be getting dark giving you very limited sightseeing time. I provide the sunrise and sunset times for each park, a very important detail to note this time of year.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Since roads can close in the national parks at any time, I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip. 

Best National Parks in December

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Zion National Park

Location: Utah

If you have been reading these guides, you might notice by now that I recommend Zion primarily for the shoulder-season months (late fall through very early spring). Zion National Park is the third most popular national parks in the US with over 4.6 milluin visitors in 2022 so for the best experience I recommend it for the months when crowds are at their lowest.

In December, the weather is chilly in Zion but there are several advantages to visiting the park at this time.

Early in the month, not only are crowds lower but you can also drive on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive in your own car. For most of the year, private vehicles are not permitted on this road. December, January, and February are the three months that you can drive on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (with the exception of the period between Christmas and New Year’s).

Since visitation is low, scoring a permit to hike Angels Landing is also easier.

For those of you who want to visit the park when it is the least crowded early to mid-December is a great time as is January.

Angels Landing and the Zion Narrows are two bucket-list worthy hikes that attract thousands of visitors every year. Angels Landing is one of the most popular destinations in Zion. Everyone who hikes Angels Landing requires a permit. You also need a permit to hike the Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava going upstream in the Virgin River. Since high water may prevent travel in the Narrows, check the park’s current conditions before you start your day.

But there are also numerous short, family-friendly hikes to choose from as well as multi-day backpacking adventures and hikes that require canyoneering experience.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Zion in December: To avoid the crowds. Early December is one of the quietest times to visit the park in terms of visitation (but crowds skyrocket between Christmas and New Year’s). You can even drive your car on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive since the park shuttle does not operate at this time (except for the week between Christmas and New Year’s).

Weather: The average high is 53°F and the average low is 30°F so Zion is chilly in December. But during periods of unusually warm weather it can get into the 70s.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 5:15 pm.

Top experiences: Hike Angels Landing, Observation Point, Hidden Canyon, Riverside Trail, Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, and Canyon Overlook. One of the best experiences in the park is hiking the Zion Narrows.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate Adventure: In December, you can hike the Zion Narrows from the bottom-up, just be aware that water temperatures are going to be very cold at this time.

How much time do you need? If you like to hike, plan to spend at least 3 to 4 days in Zion National Park. You can do three big hikes (one each morning) or use two of the days for a multi-day backpacking adventure. This also gives you time to explore Kolob Canyons at the northern section of the park.

Plan your visit

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Grand Canyon National Park

Location: Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park is wonderful in December. Yes, it is cold. And yes, it can snow but that makes it even more beautiful.

Winter is sometimes called the secret season at the Grand Canyon. It’s the season when the skies are the clearest, the temperatures are the coolest, and the tourist numbers are at the lowest—meaning it’s an excellent time to visit.

The first thing to know about visiting Grand Canyon National Park in winter is that the North Rim is NOT open to vehicles between October and May. But the South Rim (where the majority of people go anyway) is still fully operational.

December is also a great time to go hiking.

The Grand Canyon is a magical place to visit all year long but around the winter holiday season it becomes even more special.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit the Grand Canyon in December: Crowds are low early in the month and then really pick up between Christmas and New Year’s. The Grand Canyon makes a great winter break destination and you can combine it with Las Vegas or destinations in Arizona such as Sedona or Monument Valley.

Weather: The average high is only 43°F and the average low is 18°F. Snow is also a possibility this time of year. If you hike below the rim, the temperature gets considerably warmer the closer you get to the Colorado River.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5:10 pm.

Top experiences: Visit the South Rim viewpoints, watch the sunset, hike below the rim on the Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail, and take a flightseeing tour.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: In the winter, hike the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails as one big loop. This is a big day hike and only those who are very fit with lots of hiking experience should attempt it.

How much time do you need? I recommend spending three to four days on the South Rim to visit the highlights. Three days gives you enough time to visit the best overlooks on the South Rim, go on a helicopter ride, and spend some time hiking below the rim.

Plan your visit

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Capitol Reef National Park

Location: Utah

Capitol Reef National Park is full of many wonderful surprises. With an amazing scenic drive, hiking trails that rival those in Zion, rugged, remote areas to explore by 4×4, short, easy slot canyons to hike, and historical landmarks, this is one of my favorite national parks.

Most people drive right through the heart of the park visiting the sights along Highway 24 which are nice. But those who venture farther into the park either on the hiking trails or the backcountry roads are rewarded with incredible views of remote, rugged landscapes.

If you don’t like cold temperatures, you might want to avoid this park (and visit Saguaro instead) but this is a great time to road trip through Utah’s Mighty 5 and have lower crowds.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Capitol Reef in December: Crowds are low since the weather is so cool. Capitol Reef is a great place to add onto a Utah road trip throughout the month of December.

Weather: In December, the average high is 40°F and the average low is 21°F. There is the chance that light snow can fall in December.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

Top experiences: Drive the 16-mile round-trip drive along Scenic Drive, drive Capitol Gorge Road, hike to Hickman Bridge, and watch the sunset from Sunset Point, hike to Cassidy Arch, and Loop the Fold.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure, drive the Cathedral Valley Loop. This rugged, remote district of Capitol Reef National Park is one of the best backcountry experiences in the national parks if you like exploring by 4WD.

How much time do you need? Plan to spend three to four days in Capitol Reef. This gives you enough time to explore and hike the trails in the core of the park (along Scenic Drive and Highway 24) and venture into the backcountry either in Cathedral Valley or by looping the fold.

Plan your visit

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Canyonlands National Park

Location: Utah

Canyonlands National Park is made of up several districts. Island in the Sky which is located west of Moab is the most popular district to visit. This is the place to see Mesa Arch, hike to Upheaval Dome, and enjoy the many viewpoints with sweeping views from the top of the Island in the Sky mesa.

The Needles is an awesome place to go hiking. Located farther away from Moab than Island in the Sky, fewer people venture here. But with zebra-striped sandstone spires and a cool slot canyon to explore, this is a unique, less crowded area of the park to visit.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Canyonlands in December: If you have plans to visit Arches National Park (mentioned next), Canyonlands is well worth adding on to your visit. It will be colder here due to its higher elevation but this is a beautiful park to see with a dusting of snow. For warmer temperatures, spend your time at the Needles District, rather than Island in the Sky (it will be about 5 degrees warmer).

Weather: The average high is 37°F and the average low is 23°F at Island in the Sky. Precipitation is low and typically falls as snow. Even though Canyonlands sits next to Arches National Park it is at a higher elevation so the temperatures are a bit lower here.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

Top Experiences: Visit the overlooks on Island in the Sky, watch the sunrise at Mesa Arch, go hiking in The Needles, drive Shafer Canyon Road, and hike below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Drive or mountain bike the White Rim Road. This is a 100-mile unpaved road that makes a loop around the Island in the Sky mesa. It takes 2 to 3 days to do this drive. It can be done in the winter but snow can close Shafer Canyon Road and cold temperatures will make camping uncomfortable for some people.

How much time do you need? You need at least two full days in Canyonlands National Park. Spend one day in Island in the Sky and one day in the Needles. But even more time is better if you want to venture deeper into the park.

Plan your visit

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Arches National Park

Location: Utah

Arches National Park with its iconic arches and unique rock formations is one of the most recognizable parks in the US. Delicate Arch is the number one landmark to see inside of the park but lots of other wonderful adventures.

Drive Scenic Drive for beautiful views of the park, gaze up at Balanced Rock, hike through Park Avenue, and photograph the Windows Arches and Turret Arch.

The best hike in the park is Devils Garden. You can keep the hike short and sweet, turning around at Landscape Arch. But for those who want to venture farther you can see eight arches in just one hike.

November is another fantastic month to visit Arches National Park.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Arches in December: For low crowds, at least early in the month. However, I think Arches and Canyonlands makes a great winter break destination since these are fun parks to take the kids. If you have warmer than average days, that’s great, but to see the parks with a little bit of snow is magical especially around the holidays.

Weather: The average high is 42°F and the average low is 24°F. On warmer than average days, the temperature can get into the 60s. There is a chance a few inches of snow can fall in December.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

Top experiences: Hike to Delicate Arch, see Balanced Rock and the Fiery Furnace, visit Double Arch, Turret Arch, and Windows Arch, hike Park Avenue.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate Adventure: Hike the Devils Garden Trail. To reach Landscape Arch, one of the most iconic arches in the park, it is only 1.6 miles round trip. But for the ultimate adventure, continue past Landscape Arch to Double O Arch and Dark Angel and return on the Primitive Trail.

How much time do you need? One day in Arches is all you need to see the highlights but it will be a very busy day. With two to three days, you can visit the park at a more leisurely pace or go off the beaten path.

Plan your visit

Two more parks to visit in December

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

Temperatures are mild in Joshua Tree National Park in December with the average high coming in about 58°F. This is a great park to escape the cold, wintry conditions and makes a great add-on to a visit to Las Vegas, Death Valley, Palm Desert, or San Diego.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon did not make my December list since it is so cold this month. In December, the high temperature struggles to get above freezing with the average high in the mid 30s and the average low in the teens. Snowfall is likely.

If you don’t mind the cold weather and like the idea of seeing Bryce Canyon with a dusting of snow, December makes a great time to visit this park. It also completes the road trip to Utah’s Mighty 5 since the other four parks made my December list.

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in December

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park

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.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument

The most noticeable natural features in Chirichua National Monument are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument contains an imposing four-story building dating from the late Hohokam period probably 14th century and contemporary with other well preserved ruins in Arizona such as the Tonto and Montezuma Castle national monuments. The structure was once part of a collection of settlements scattered along the Gila River and linked by a network of irrigation canals. 

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. The organ pipe cactus can live to over 150 years in age, have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height, and will only produce their first flower near the age of 35.

December road trip ideas

The American Southwest

Spend 7 to 10 days road tripping through the American Southwest visiting the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon (if you don’t mind the very cold temperatures here). This road trip also includes Sedona, Monument Valley, and Antelope Canyon. It can be chilly/cold particularly in the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon but some places warm up very nicely midday such as Monument Valley.

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month

January: Best National Parks to Visit in January
February: Best National Parks to Visit in February
March: Best National Parks to Visit in March
April: Best National Parks to Visit in April
May: Best National Parks to Visit in May
June: Best National Parks to Visit in June
July: Best National Parks to Visit in July
August: Best National Parks to Visit in August
September: Best National Parks to Visit in September
October: Best National Parks to Visit in October
November: Best National Parks to Visit in November
December: Best National Parks to Visit in December

Worth Pondering…

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

—John Lubbock

The Best National Parks to Visit in November

Wondering where to travel in November? Why not opt for a nature getaway and visit one of America’s National Parks in November!

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or at lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.

Planning a trip to the national parks in November and don’t know which ones to visit? The cooler weather in November makes this one of the best times of the year to visit the parks across the southern part of the US. Road trip through Utah’s Mighty 5, go sledding on sand as white as the snow, and explore the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. In this guide, I list 12 wonderful national parks to visit in November plus four bonus parks.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

This article is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting the National Parks in November

By November, the weather has turned colder and the days are getting much shorter. But this cool weather is a great time to visit the national parks across the southern half of the US.

Crowds tend to be low in the national parks in November because of the cool weather and the upcoming holiday season. You can take advantage of this and visit some of the most popular parks in the US with low crowds.

This is a fantastic month to visit Utah’s Mighty 5 (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches). It can be chilly this time of year but this is my favorite month to visit these parks since they less crowded than in September or October. A dusting of snow in these parks which is possible makes them even more beautiful. For the warmest weather and lower crowds go at the beginning of November.

I have a long list of parks to share with you, so let’s get started.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information we provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Since roads can close in the national parks at any time, I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip. 

Best National Parks in November

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Canyonlands National Park

Location: Utah

Canyonlands National Park is one of my favorite national parks. Why? The landscapes, the hiking trails, and the off the beaten path experiences make this one of the top parks for those who desire adventure.

Explore the Island in the Sky, the most popular area of Canyonlands. Visit the overlooks on the mesa, hike the short trails, and if you want to do a longer hike, you can hike below the rim or hike the Syncline Loop. Journey below the rim for an unforgettable experience. Drive the twisting Shafer Canyon switchbacks onto the White Rim and then spend a few days driving through remote landscapes. Called the White Rim Road, this is one of the best experiences in the national park system.

You can also explore The Needles where zebra-striped rocks form one of the most unique hiking destinations in the US.

Why visit Canyonlands in November: November is one of the quietest months of the year to visit Canyonlands. It can be chilly if not downright cold in November so go early in the month for the warmest temperatures (or go in October, but it will be more crowded). If you want to drive the White Rim Road, this is one of the easiest months of the year to get a permit.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: The average high is 50°F and the average low is 33°F. Precipitation is very low and could fall as light snow. On warmer than average days, the temperature can get up into the 60s. Canyonlands is colder than its nearby neighbor Arches National Park since it sits at a higher elevation.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

Top experiences: Visit the overlooks on Island in the Sky, watch the sunrise at Mesa Arch, go hiking in The Needles, drive Shafer Canyon Road, hike below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa, and explore The Maze.

Ultimate adventure: Drive or mountain bike the White Rim Road. This is a 100-mile unpaved road that makes a loop around the Island in the Sky mesa. It takes 2 to 3 days to do this drive.

How much time do you need? You need at least two full days in Canyonlands National Park. Spend one day in Island in the Sky and one day in the Needles. But even more time is better if you want to venture deeper into the park.

Plan your visit

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Arches National Park

Location: Utah

Arches National Park is a beautiful wonderland of arches, rock formations, and short hiking trails. Not only will you find over 2,000 arches here but you will also see hoodoos, fins of sandstone rocks, massive mesas, and balanced rocks.

This small park is easy to visit. One main road runs through the heart of park. You can see the highlights of the park right from this road or by taking short hikes but for those who want to venture deeper into the park, there are several very cool hikes to choose from.

Hiking to Delicate Arch is one of the top experiences in Arches National Park but the Devils Garden Trail is another great hike to add to your to do list.

Why visit Arches in November: Like Canyonlands, this is off-season in the park and one of the quietest months of the year.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: In November, the average high is 56°F and the average low is 33°F. During periods of unseasonably warm weather, daytime temperatures can get into the 70s. Rainfall is very low.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

Top experiences: Hike to Delicate Arch, see Balanced Rock and the Fiery Furnace, visit Double Arch, Turret Arch, Windows Arch, and hike Park Avenue.

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Devils Garden Trail. To reach Landscape Arch, one of the most iconic arches in the park, it is only 1.6 miles round trip. But for the ultimate adventure continue past Landscape Arch to Double O Arch and Dark Angel and return on the Primitive Trail.

How much time do you need? One day in Arches is all you need to see the highlights but it will be a very busy day. With two to three days, you can visit the park at a more leisurely pace or go off the beaten path.

Plan your visit

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Bryce Canyon National Park

Location: Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is an extraordinary place to visit and its unique landscape sets it apart from other national parks. Although Bryce Canyon may not have the same sweeping, expansive vistas as the Grand Canyon, it’s still a breathtaking experience the first time you see this view.

This park is small and easy to explore. You can simply enjoy the view from the rim or venture down into the fantasyland of hoodoos and sandstone pillars.

In November, you have a chance to see Bryce Canyon covered with snow, a magical sight to see.

Why visit Bryce Canyon in November: For the chance to see Bryce Canyon with a dusting of snow. The amount of snowfall increases in December but daytime high’s struggle to get above freezing. I like November since the weather is warmer than the winter months but you still have a chance to see Bryce Canyon with snow.

Weather: In November, the average high is 46°F and the average low is 23°F. There is a good chance of snow and on average Bryce Canyon receives about 10 inches of snow in November. Bryce Canyon has the highest elevation of the parks in Utah’s Mighty 5, making this the coolest one to visit.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:10 am and sunset is at 5:15 pm.

Top experiences: Some of the best viewpoints are along the rim and easy to access by car: Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point. Hike the Queens Garden and Navajo Loop, a 3-mile hike past some of the best scenery in the park. Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Point are also nice viewpoints.

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Fairyland Loop Trail, an 8-mile strenuous hike.

How much time do you need? One day is all you need to see the views from the rim and hike one to two short trails in the park. But I recommend an additional day or two.

Plan your visit

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Capitol Reef National Park

Location: Utah

Capitol Reef National Park may be one of the least visited national parks in Utah but don’t let that fool you. This underrated park has not one but three spectacular scenic drive, hiking trails that rival those in Zion, and landscapes that are some of the most beautiful in the United States.

Most people drive right through the heart of the park visiting the sights along Highway 24 which is an enjoyable experience. But the real adventures lie beyond this highway. Drive through the remote Cathedral Valley or Loop the Fold, a scenic drive that leads to hidden slot canyons and big viewpoints.

Why visit capitol Reef in November: Temperatures are chilly this time of year but crowds are very low. We visited Capitol Reef in early November and absolutely loved it. The weather was pleasant with high temperatures in the 70s.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: In November, the average high is 51°F and the average low is 30°F. A light dusting of snow is possible.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:10 am and sunset is at 5:15 pm.

Top experiences: Drive the 16-mile round-trip drive along Scenic Drive, drive Capitol Gorge Road, hike to Hickman Bridge, and watch the sunset from Sunset Point, hike to Cassidy Arch, and Loop the Fold.

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure, drive the Cathedral Valley Loop. This rugged, remote district of Capitol Reef National Park is one of the best backcountry experiences in the national parks if you like exploring by 4WD.

How much time do you need? Plan to spend three to four days in Capitol Reef. This gives you enough time to explore and hike the trails in the core of the park (along Scenic Drive and Highway 24) and venture into the backcountry either in Cathedral Valley or by looping the fold.

Plan your visit

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Zion National Park

Location: Utah

Zion National Park is a hiker’s paradise. This relatively small park is packed with some of the most thrilling trails in the United States.

Angels Landing and the Zion Narrows are two bucket-list worthy hikes that attract thousands of visitors every year. Angels Landing is one of the most popular destinations in Zion. Everyone who hikes Angels Landing requires a permit. You also need a permit to hike the Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava going upstream in the Virgin River. Since high water may prevent travel in the Narrows, check the park’s current conditions before you start your day.

But there are also numerous short, family-friendly hikes to choose from as well as multi-day backpacking adventures and hikes that require canyoneering experience.

Zion is also one of the most popular parks in the US to visit. For the best experience, plan on visiting the park in the shoulder season. November is one of the best months of the year to visit Zion since the weather is still relatively warm and crowds are lower than many other months of the year.

Why visit Zion in November: To avoid the crowds. This is one of the quietest months to visit the park in terms of visitation. The weather is also fantastic for hiking.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: The average high is 64°F and the average low is 37°. Temperatures can get into the 80s on unusually warm days. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise and sunset: Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 5:20 pm which gives you 10 hours of daylight.

Top experiences: Hike Angels Landing, Observation Point, Hidden Canyon, Riverside Trail, Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, and Canyon Overlook. One of the best experiences in the park is hiking the Zion Narrows.

Ultimate adventure: There are several to choose from. Hike the Zion Narrows from the top-down as a long day hike or a two-day backpacking trip. The Subway is another strenuous but gorgeous hike, and you will need canyoneering experience for this one. The West Rim Trail is a great two-day backpacking trip or a one day mega-hike.

How much time do you need? If you like to hike, plan to spend at least 3 to 4 days in Zion National Park. You can do three big hikes (one each morning) or use two of the days for a multi-day backpacking adventure. This also gives you time to explore Kolob Canyons at the northern section of the park.

Plan your visit

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. White Sands National Park

Location: New Mexico

White Sands National Park protects the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. Sledding on the dunes is one of the best things to do here but you can also hike out farther into the dunes on several different hiking trails or take a ranger-guided tour.

Why visit White Sands in November: The weather is relatively warm and crowds tend to be low in November.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: In November, the average high is 67°F and the average low is 30°F. Rainfall is very low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

Top experiences: Drive Dunes Drive, go sledding in the gypsum dunes, walk the Dune Life Nature Trail, take a ranger-guided hike, and go backcountry tent camping. 

Ultimate Adventure: Hike the Alkali Flat Trail. This trail makes a 4.5-mile loop through the gypsum dunefield. It’s the longest, toughest hike in the park but your treat is stunning views of untouched dunes.

How much time do you need? For the best experience, plan on spending one full day in White Sands National Park. Hike the Alkali Flat Trail first thing in the morning before the crowds arrive and the temperatures climb. Midday, go sledding on the dunes and have a picnic lunch. You can also do one of the shorter hiking trails. At the end of the day, take the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll.

Plan your visit

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Grand Canyon National Park

Location: Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most visited parks in the US with people from all around the world traveling here to see this natural wonder.

Words and photos cannot accurately describe what it is like to look out across the Grand Canyon for the first time. This is a place that needs to be seen in person to truly appreciate the immense beauty and grandeur of this place.

In mid-October, the North Rim closes once the snow begins to fall. So in November, the South Rim is where you will spend your time. Along the South Rim, roads and hiking trails lead to jaw-dropping views of the Grand Canyon. You also have the option to hike below the rim or take a helicopter tour for different perspectives of the Grand Canyon.

Why visit the Grand Canyon in November: The Grand Canyon is busy all year, November tends to be one of the least visited months to visit this park. If you have plans to hike the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trail loop, November is a great time to do it when temperatures are cooler. Once you get below the rim closer to the Colorado River, the air temperature is much warmer.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: The average high is 53°F and the average low is 25°F. There is a small chance you could see a dusting of snow in November.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 5:20 pm.

Top experiences: Visit the South Rim viewpoints, watch the sunset, hike below the rim on the Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail, and take a flightseeing tour.

Ultimate adventure: In the winter, hike the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails as one big loop. This is a big day hike and only those who are very fit with lots of hiking experience should attempt it.

How much time do you need? I recommend spending three to four days on the South Rim to visit the highlights. Three days gives you enough time to visit the best overlooks on the South Rim, go on a helicopter ride, and spend some time hiking below the rim.

Plan your visit

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Petrified Forest National Park

Location: Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park is named for the petrified wood that dates back millions of years to a time when this land was lush and fertile.

But there is more to this park than looking at chunks of crystallized wood. The Painted Desert and the Blue Forest with their colorful, zebra-striped hills are a beautiful sight to see. There are also a few great trails to hike which are perfect for all ages and ability levels.

Why visit Petrified Forest in November: The weather is a bit on the cool side in November but crowds are low which is worthly bonus. If you have plans to road trip through the American Southwest this month, Petrified Forest National Park is nice add-on.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: The average high is 58°F and the average low is 28°F. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:50 am and sunset is at 5:15 pm.

Top experiences: View the Painted Desert from the overlooks, see the petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock, see the Teepees on Petrified Forest Road, walk the Blue Mesa Trail, and see the petrified wood at Crystal Forest and along the Giant Logs Trail.

Ultimate adventure: The Blue Forest hike is a favorite experience in Petrified Forest National Park. This 3-mile trail takes you through the badlands, one of the most beautiful parts of the park.

How much time do you need? One day is plenty of time to drive through the park, visit the overlooks, and hike a few short trails but I recommend a second day to explore hikes you missed on the first day.

Plan your visit

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Congaree National Park

Location: South Carolina

Congaree National Park protects the oldest bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States. Often mistaken for a swamp this floodplain is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the country.

This small national park is quick and easy to visit. With just a few hours, you can walk the boardwalk trail but with more time there are longer trails to hike and you can go canoeing or kayaking on Cedar Creek, one of the best experiences in the park.

Why visit Congaree in November: The weather is fantastic, crowds are low, and mosquitoes are not an issue. The park tends to be dry this time of year so the boardwalk trails and hiking trails are less likely to be flooded. We visited Congaree in November and the weather was ideal and the leaves were changing color.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: In November, the average high is 68°F and the average low is 42°F. With 3 inches of rain this is one of the driest months to visit Congaree.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 5:20 pm.

Top experiences: Walk the Boardwalk Loop Trail, go canoeing or kayaking on Cedar Creek, hike the Weston Loop Trail, and hike to the General Greene Tree.

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure go on a multi-day canoe trip on the Congaree River.

How much time do you need? One day in Congaree is all you need to see the highlights. Walk the boardwalk trails and go for a canoe trip on Cedar Creek.

Plan your visit

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Joshua Tree National Park

Location: California

With its desert scenery, hiking trails, hidden oases, scenic drives, rock climbing routes, and trees that look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book, Joshua Tree National Park is a joy to explore.

Hike the Arch Rock Trail, learn about the plants that thrive in the Mojave Desert on the Cap Rock Nature Trail, see Skull Rock, and go hiking in Hidden Valley. A favorite experience is hiking the Hall of Horrors and searching for the hidden slot canyon.

Why visit Joshua Tree National Park in November: For November, this is one of the warmest national parks on this list to visit. The conditions are perfect for hiking.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: The average high is 67°F and the average low is 40°F. Rainfall is extremely low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:15 am and sunset is at 4:40 pm.

Top Experiences: Hike the Hall of Horrors, see Skull Rock, explore Hidden Valley, hike to an oasis, hike to Arch Rock and Heart Rock, drive Geology Tour Road, visit the Cholla Cactus Garden, and go stargazing.

How much time do you need? Ideally, you need at least two full days in Joshua Tree National Park. This gives you enough time to visit the highlights, go rock climbing or take a lesson, hike a few trails, and go on the scenic drives.

Plan your visit

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Pinnacles National Park

Location: California

Pinnacles National Park preserves and protects the mountains on the eastern end of Salinas Valley. These mountains are the remnants of an extinct volcano.

The rocky pinnacles are a popular rock climbing destination and this park is also one of the few locations where you can spot the California condor in the wild.

This is one of the newest national parks (it became a national park in 2013) and least visited national parks (it was the 19th least visited park in 2022).

Why visit Pinnacles in November: The weather is perfect for hiking and rock climbing. Pinnacles National Park is a very hot and dry place to visit during the summer and early fall with the temperature as high as 115°F on the hottest days. We visited Pinnacles in November and the weather was ideal.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: The average high is 70°F and the average low is 37°F. On unusually warm days the daytime temperature can get into the 80s. Rainfall is low at just over 1 inch. The wet season begins in December and lasts through March.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:40 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

Top Experiences: Hike the High Peaks Loop and the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, explore the Balconies cave, spot California condors, enjoy the view from Condor Gulch Overlook, and go rock climbing.

How much time do you need? Pinnacles National Park can be visited in one busy day but for the best experience, spend two days here, which gives you enough time to visit both sections of the park.

Plan your visit

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Big Bend National Park

Location: Texas

Big Bend National Park is located in southwestern Texas. The Rio Grande forms the border between Mexico and Big Bend National Park and Big Bend gets its name from the prominent bend in the Rio Grande on this border.

This national park protects the largest area of the Chihuahuan Desert in the US as well as the Chisos Mountains. Big Bend is a top hiking destination with trails leading high into these mountains and into canyons along the Rio Grande.

Why visit Big Bend in November: By November, temperatures in the park are cooling off. The average high temperature is 70°F but during periods of unusually warm weather you could still see temperatures get into the 80’s. Rainfall is low.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: The average high is 70°F and the average low is 45°F. Rainfall is low with about ¾ of an inch.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 6 pm.

Top experiences: Hike the Lost Mine Trail, go star gazing, hike Santa Elena Canyon, go for a drive on Maxwell Scenic Drive, visit Boquillas del Carmen, hike to Balanced Rock, and hike to Emory Peak, the highest peak in the Chisos Mountains.

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure in Big Bend, go on a half-day to multi-day canoeing trip on the Rio Grande.

How much time do you need? Spend at least three to four days in the park. Because of its large size and remote location, it takes a while to get here and you need a few days to explore it, so four days should work for most people.

Plan your visit

One more parks to visit

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

In November, the weather is pretty much perfect in Saguaro National Park. The high temperature averages 75°F and rainfall is extremely low.

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in November

Cowpens National Battlefield © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cowpens National Battlefield

Cowpens National Battlefield commemorates a decisive battle that helped turn the tide of war in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution. On this field on January 17, 1781, Daniel Morgan led his army of tough Continentals, militia, and cavalry to a brilliant victory over Banastre Tarleton’s force of British regulars. The battle at the Cow Pens is one of only a few successful double envelopments in history.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coronado National Memorial

The site of the Coronado National Monument features panoramic views of the United States-Mexico border and the San Pedro River Valley which was the route believed to have been taken by the Francisco Vásquez de Coronado expedition. The scenic overlook at Montezuma Pass (elevation 6,575 feet) provides breathtaking views of the San Raphael Valley, the San Pedro Valley, and Mexico.

Tumacacori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park

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.

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park encompasses approximately 1,800 acres of rolling hills in rural central Virginia. The site includes the McLean home where Lee made his formal surrender and the village of Appomattox Court House, the former county seat for Appomattox County. The walking tour allows you to see all buildings which are original to the site and have been restored to their original condition. 

November road trip idea: Utah’s Mighty 5

November is a wonderful time to road trip to all five national parks in Utah (Mighty 5): Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches.

Crowds are generally low this time of year which makes visiting these parks a pleasant experience. The mornings start off cold but it warms up nicely during the day and you could be hiking in 60 to 70 degree weather if you are here while it’s unusually warm. Or, the parks could get a dusting of snow which is very nice too just as long as you don’t mind cold temperatures. So, pack your shorts and your wide-brimmed hat and go on a road trip through Utah.

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month

January: Best National Parks to Visit in January
February: Best National Parks to Visit in February
March: Best National Parks to Visit in March
April: Best National Parks to Visit in April
May: Best National Parks to Visit in May
June: Best National Parks to Visit in June
July: Best National Parks to Visit in July
August: Best National Parks to Visit in August
September: Best National Parks to Visit in September
October: Best National Parks to Visit in October
November: Best National Parks to Visit in November
December: Best National Parks to Visit in December

Worth Pondering…

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

—John Lubbock

14 Must-See National Historic Landmarks (Must-See + Photos)

From sea to shining sea, I’m sharing America’s best historic landmarks

While there are more than 87,000 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places which is America’s official list of historic properties only about 3 percent of those are National Historic Landmarks. The Alamo, Savannah Historic District, Keeneland Race Track, Historic Williamsburg, Hubbell Trading Post, and more are all National Historic Landmarks.

Each of these Landmarks is an exceptional representation of an important chapter of American history. The town of Telluride joined this preeminent group of America’s most special places in 1961 when it was designated a National Historic Landmark as one of the most important places associated with mining history in the United States. Hall’s Hospital, now the home of the Telluride Historical Museum was built in 1896 and is one of the oldest buildings in Telluride. It is also designated as a National Historic Landmark and is a contributing structure to the Town’s status as a National Historic Landmark District.

From Old Ironsides to the Grand Canyon Depot these 14 landmarks are just some of the must-see sights that help us appreciate America’s beauty and resiliency while reconciling its past and honoring those who lived here before the New World was built. Be sure to stay in a local campground or RV park to get the full local, often historic, experience.

There are over 2,600 National Historic Landmark sites in the United States and the federal government owns fewer than 400 of them. Roughly 85 percent of them are owned by private citizens, organizations, corporations, tribal entities, or state or local governments—or sometimes a combination.

USS Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. USS Alabama

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: January 14, 1986

Location: Mobile, Mobile County, Alabama

Description: Displacing more than 44,500 tons, USS Alabama Battleship measures 680 feet from stem to stern—half as long as the Empire State Building is tall. Armed with nine, 16-inch guns in three turrets and 20, 5-inch, .38-caliber guns in 10 twin mounts, her main batteries could fire shells, as heavy as a small car, accurately for a distance of more than 20 miles.

Her steel side armor was a foot thick above the waterline, tapering to one half inch at the bottom. Her four propellers, each weighing more than 18 tons, could drive her through the seas up to 28 knots (32 mph). Loaded with 7,000 tons of fuel oil, her range was about 15,000 nautical miles. 

Read more: Lucky A: USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park

Hubbell Trading Post © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Hubbell Trading Post

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: December 12, 1960

Location: Ganado, Apache County, Arizona

Description: Hubbell Trading Post is the oldest operating trading post in the Navajo Nation. The Arizona historical site sells basic traveling staples as well as Native American art just as it did during the late 1800s.

Jekyll Island Club © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Jekyll Island Historic District

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: June 2, 1978

Location: Jekyll Island, Glynn County, Georgia

Description: In 1886, Jekyll Island was purchased to become an exclusive winter retreat known as the Jekyll Island Club. It soon became recognized as “the richest, most inaccessible club in the world.” Club members included such notable figures as J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, William K. Vanderbilt, and Marshall Field. Today, the former Club grounds comprise a 240-acre site with 34 historic structures. The Jekyll Island Club National Historic Landmark is one of the largest restoration projects in the southeastern United States.

Read more: Celebrating 75 Years of Jekyll Island State Park: 1947-2022

USS Constitution © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Constitution (Frigate)

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: December 19, 1960

Location: Charlestown Navy Yard, Suffolk County, Massachusetts

Description: USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship still afloat. Naval officers and crew still serve aboard her today. 

The wooden-hulled, three-mast USS Constitution was launched from Hartt’s shipyard in Boston’s North End on October 21, 1797. It was designed to be more heavily armed and better constructed than the standard ships of the period.

The greatest glory for USS Constitution came during the War of 1812. It was during this war in the battle against the HMS Guerriere the ship earned the nickname Old Ironsides when the crew of the British ship noticed their canon shots simply bounced off the ship’s strong oak hull they proclaimed: “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!”

Read more: The Storied History of Old Ironsides

Keeneland © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Keeneland Race Course

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: September 24, 1986

Location: Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky

Description: Since opening in October 1936, Keeneland has been unique in the Thoroughbred industry. Keeneland is the world’s largest and most prominent Thoroughbred auction house and hosts world-class racing twice annually during its boutique spring and fall meetings. Owners, trainers, riders, and fans from all over the world travel to Lexington each year to participate at Keeneland.

Read more: Keeneland: A Special Place

Grand Canyon Depot © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Grand Canyon Depot

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: May 28, 1987

Location: South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park, Coconino County, Arizona

Constructed in 1909-1910, Grand Canyon Depot is part of the Grand Canyon National Park Historic District and is a National Historic Landmark. Designed by architect Francis W. Wilson of Santa Barbara, California, the log and wood-frame structure is two stories high. Originally, the downstairs was designated for station facilities, and the upstairs was for the station agent’s family.

Just beyond the depot is the El Tovar Hotel built in 1905 by the railroad. The El Tovar is the signature hotel along the rim. The railroad built the depot five years after the hotel and placed it conveniently close for the rail passengers.

Read more: Making a Grand Trip Grander

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. The Alamo

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: December 19, 1960

Location: San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas

Description: In San Antonio, five missions were constructed between 1718 and 1720. Appropriately, the first of these was Mission San Antonio de Valero later to be known as the Alamo. Remember the Alamo! It was the battle cry of Texas freedom fighters during the decisive Battle of San Jacinto led by Sam Houston against Mexico in April 1836. And it was a memorial to the doomed defenders of the Spanish mission turned Texas fort. The Alamo became a bloody battlefield and a hallowed final resting place for those who would never leave these grounds alive.

Read more: Remember the Alamo?

Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Williamsburg Historic District

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: October 9, 1960

Location: Williamsburg (City), Virginia

Description: Colonial Williamsburg is the world’s largest living history museum with 301 acres featuring iconic sites, working trades people, historic taverns, and two world-class art museums. The city was founded as the capital of the Virginia Colony in 1699 and it was here that the basic concepts of the United States of America were formed under the leadership of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and many others.

Read more: Colonial Williamsburg: World’s Largest Living History Museum

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Savannah Historic District

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: November 13, 1966

Location: Savannah, Chatham County, Georgia

Description: Walk down the cobblestone streets of Georgia’s first city, a place filled with southern charm. Steeped in history and architectural treasures, Savannah begs to be explored by trolley and on foot. Much of Savannah’s charm lies in meandering through the Historic District’s lovely shaded squares draped in feathery Spanish moss—all 22 of them.

Tumacacori © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Tumacacori Museum

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: May 28, 1987

Location: Tumacacori, Santa Cruz County, Arizona

Description: 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.

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

Mount Washington Hotel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Mount Washington Hotel

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: June 24, 1986

Location: Carroll, Coos County, New Hampshire

Description: While the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods is tucked away from the main drag, it’s almost impossible to miss it with Mount Washington hovering over like a halo. Once you walk into the lobby, you’re transported back to 1902 when the hotel first opened. It’s even rumored that the owner’s wife, Carolyn, still lives in the hotel (don’t worry, a friendly tenant), and ghost aficionados jump at the opportunity to book her old quarters in Room 314.

Read more: The Uniqueness of the White Mountains

Palace of the Governors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Palace of the Governors

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: October 9, 1960

Location: Santa Fe, Santa Fe County, New Mexico

Description: Downtown Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors on the plaza is one of the most iconic sites in the city. The oldest continuously inhabited building in the United States, it’s perhaps best known for the Native American market beneath its portal. But inside is a historic gem as well—the New Mexico History Museum which covers centuries of life in Santa Fe and hosts exhibitions related to the tri-culture of the Native Americans, Spanish, and Anglo peoples and cultures of New Mexico.

Read more: Santa Fe Never Goes Out of Style

The Strand © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Strand Historic District

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: May 11, 1976

Location: Galveston, Galveston County, Texas

Description: Galveston’s Historic Strand District, or The Strand, is the heart of the island and a great place to shop, dine, and be entertained. Fronting Galveston Bay, The Strand is a National Historic Landmark that harkens back to Galveston’s heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of the buildings here are more than a century old, stunning in their detail and craftsmanship. Storefronts here are a mix of antique shops, art galleries, souvenir shops, and more. The Strand serves as the commercial center of downtown Galveston. Places of interest include the Ocean Star Offshore Energy Center and Museum, Pier 21 Theater, the Texas Seaport Museum, and the tall ship Elissa.

Read more: I Still Dream of Galveston

Yuma Crossing © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Yuma Crossing and Associated Sites

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: November 13, 1966

Location: Yuma, Yuma County, Arizona and Winterhaven, Imperial County, California

Description: The Colorado River State Historic Park (formerly Yuma Crossing State Historic Park) sits on the bank of the Colorado where river captains once sailed from the Gulf of California to unload supplies then kick up their heels in the bustling port of Yuma.

The park is located on a portion of the grounds of the old U.S. Army Quartermaster Depot established in 1864. This site is significant in the history of the Arizona Territory. The purpose of the Park is to protect its historic structures and interpret the diverse history of the site.

Many of the original structures from that time are still standing. 

Read more: The Yuma Crossing

Worth Pondering…

Most people’s historical perspective begins with the day of their birth.

—Rush Limbaugh

The Least Visited U.S. National Parks

These least-visited national parks in the U.S. have all of the beauty and none of the crowds

Currently, there are 63 national parks in the U.S., alongside countless more national monuments, national recreation areas, national seashores, and national historic sites overseen by the National Park Service (NPS). These protected spaces represent some of the most important natural and cultural landscapes in the country.

The NPS recently released its latest annual visitation data which will help us (and you) decide where to plan your next hike, whether you’re looking for a communal vibe, or a more secluded and isolated experience.

With almost 13 million visits last year, the Great Smoky Mountains remain undefeated when it comes to the most visitors of any national park. But other, no less spectacular parks see a fraction of those numbers. If you want to head off the beaten path, here are 21 of the least visited NPS service sites in the U.S.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 38,786

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.

>> Get more tips for visiting Tumacácori National Historic Park

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 50,017

Hubbell Trading Post is the oldest operating trading post in the Navajo Nation. The Arizona historical site sells basic traveling staples as well as Native American art just as it did during the late 1800s.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument

State: New Mexico

2022 visits: 50,396

Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called great houses, each with a great kiva—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Aztec Ruins National Monument

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

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

State: Pennsylvania

2022 visits: 57,238

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site is the best-preserved iron plantation in North America. Hopewell Furnace consists of a mansion (the big house), spring and smokehouses, a blacksmith shop, an office store, a charcoal house, and a schoolhouse.

>> Get more tips for visiting Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Morro National Monument

State: New Mexico

2022 visits: 60,501

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—often called Inscription Rock—on sheltered smooth slabs of stone, are seven centuries of inscriptions covering human interaction with this spot.

>> Get more tips for visiting El Morro National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 61,377

The most noticeable natural features in Chiricahua National Monument are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore

State: Georgia

2022 visits: 64,387

There is only one place on Earth where you can find wild horses, secluded white beaches, live oaks draped in Spanish moss, and the skeletal remains of a once-famous mansion. Cumberland is one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands along the Georgia coast. The National Park Service protects almost 36,000 acres of the island including miles of unspoiled beaches.

>> Get more tips for visiting Cumberland Island National Seashore

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saratoga National Historic Park

State: New York

2022 visits: 70,742

Site of the first significant American military victory during the Revolution, the Battle of Saratoga is considered among the most decisive battles in world history. Here in 1777 American forces met, defeated, and forced a major British army to surrender, an event which led France to recognize the independence of the United States and enter the war as a decisive military ally of the struggling Americans.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument

State: Utah

2022 visits: 71,249

Formed by the power of water in a place where water is all but absent, three stone bridges in the Utah desert have been protected as a national monument since 1908. Since natural bridges are formed by running water, they are much rarer than arches which result from a variety of other erosion forces. A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three huge multi-colored natural bridges.

>> Get more tips for visiting Natural Bridges National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 78,557

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument contains an imposing four-story building dating from the late Hohokam period probably 14th century and contemporary with other well preserved ruins in Arizona such as the Tonto and Montezuma Castle national monuments. The structure was once part of a collection of settlements scattered along the Gila River and linked by a network of irrigation canals. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park

State: Virginia

2022 visits: 83,483

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park encompasses approximately 1,800 acres of rolling hills in rural central Virginia. The site includes the McLean home where Lee made his formal surrender and the village of Appomattox Court House, the former county seat for Appomattox County. The walking tour allows you to see all buildings which are original to the site, and have been restored to their original condition. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Appomattox Court House National Historical Park

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park

State: Texas

2022 visits: 87,386

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park tells the story of America’s 36th President beginning with his ancestors until his final resting place on his beloved LBJ Ranch. This entire circle of life gives the visitor a unique perspective into one of America’s most noteworthy citizens by providing the most complete picture of any American president.

>> Get more tips for visiting Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park

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

Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site

State: New York

2022 visits: 100,665

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

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

State: South Dakota

2022 visits: 105,776

Commemorating the Cold War, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site offers visitors a history of the U.S. nuclear missile program and their hidden location in the Great Plains. The site details U.S. foreign policy and its push for nuclear disarmament.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 116,639

Built atop a small 120 foot ridge is a large pueblo. Tuzigoot is Apache for crooked water; however, it was built by the Sinagua. 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. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Tuzigoot National Monument

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coronado National Memorial

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 131,359

The site of the Coronado National Monument features panoramic views of the United States-Mexico border and the San Pedro River Valley which was the route believed to have been taken by the Francisco Vásquez de Coronado expedition. If you’re interested in life in this region before the Coronado Expedition, take a tour of the Coronado Cave. For those looking to stay above ground, the scenic overlook at Montezuma Pass (elevation 6,575 feet) provides breathtaking views of the San Raphael Valley, the San Pedro Valley, and Mexico.

>> Get more tips for visiting Coronado National Monument

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 133,317

This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. The organ pipe cactus can live to over 150 years in age, have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height, and will only produce their first flower near the age of 35.

>> Get more tips for visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park

State: Georgia

2022 visits: 155,242

Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park in Macon is a significant Native American landmark dating back over 10,000 years. Visitors can learn about the Mississippian culture, climb atop the seven mounds, and even go inside one of the mounds’ Earth Lodge. Eight miles of walking trails wind through the park including by the namesake river. The park is making efforts to become a national park and hosts annual events like the fall Ocmulgee Indian Celebration (31st annual; September 16-17, 2023).

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument

State: New Mexico

2022 visits: 162,755

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. There’s something for everyone here. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. Known as the badlands in Spanish, El Malpais was used by early Spanish map makers to describe areas of volcanic terrain. El Malpais preserves an ancient volcanic landscape and a history of human habitation.

>> Get more tips for visiting El Malpais National Monument

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

State: South Carolina

2022 visits: 204,522

Some of the tallest trees on the east coast are located inside Congaree which was named after the Native American tribe that used to reside in the area. Unlike many hardwood forests, Congaree was largely spared by the lumber industry in the late 1800s and was eventually designated as a national monument and then a national park. The terrain includes the forest, the Congaree River, and the floodplain.

>> Get more tips for visiting Congaree National Park

Cowpens National Battlefield © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cowpens National Battlefield

State: South Carolina

2022 visits: 212,534

Cowpens National Battlefield commemorates a decisive battle that helped turn the tide of war in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution. On this field on January 17, 1781, Daniel Morgan led his army of tough Continentals, militia, and cavalry to a brilliant victory over Banastre Tarleton’s force of British regulars. The battle at the Cow Pens is one of only a few successful double envelopments in history.

>> Get more tips for visiting Cowpens National Battlefield

These 21 lesser-known and visited parks have minimal visitors, plenty to do, and much-needed peace and quiet. Consider adding these least-visited national parks to your 2023 list of road trip destinations.

Worth Pondering…

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

—August Fruge

An Unforgettable 3-Day Road Trip through Southern Arizona

See historic Spanish missions, sky islands, Arizona’s first wine region, and more on this journey from Tucson

The Southwest shines on this route through the saguaro-studded desert up into high mountains where rare birds flit and spectacular sunsets give way to dark skies spangled by stars. Tucson anchors this tour, rich in history, and resonates with the scents of great food and local wines. Consider adding a couple of days to the beginning or end of the trip to explore Saguaro National Park whose two districts are each about 20 minutes from downtown Tucson. ​​​

San Xavier de Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 1: San Xavier del Bac, Tumacácori, and Tubac Presidio (57 miles)

Explore Southwestern history on visits to three Spanish colonial missions and enjoy the opportunity to stock up on spices. En route, you’ll encounter dramatic mountain vistas.

From Tucson, drive south on Interstate 19 for 8 miles and take exit 92 for San Xavier del Bac Mission. Fondly known as the White Dove of the Desert, San Xavier is one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the United States. 

San Xavier de Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission San Xavier is on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. Tohono O’odham means Desert People. The Tohono O’odham were farming along the Santa Cruz River when Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino established the original mission here in 1692.

San Xavier de Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This dramatic, sugar-white church with a masonry vault roof was completed 105 years later. A National Historic Landmark, San Xavier Mission is a mixture of Moorish, Spanish, and American Indian art and architecture. Its brick walls are six feet thick in some places and are coated with a limestone-based plaster with a formula that includes the juice from prickly pear cactus pads.

San Xavier del Bac is a magnet to those that appreciate art, statues, sculptures, and paintings of its original times. The interior is filled with brightly painted carvings of apostles and saints and ornate décor statues that are draped in real clothing.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive south on I-19 another 39 miles to the serene Tumacácori National Historical Park. Indigenous peoples including the Nde, O’odham, and Yoeme frequented this lush area along the Santa Cruz River for generations.

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.

Explore the evocative grounds where many adobe structures have melted back into the earth. Enter the striking ruins. 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

Continue on I-19, but pause just one-third of a mile down the road at the Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company. The wonderfully fragrant store sells everything from adobo to whole sage leaves. Don’t miss the house-made hot sauces which add jalapeños, green chiles, and spices to a tomato base.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Backtrack north 4 miles on I-19 to the artsy town of Tubac for dinner at Elvira’s which serves contemporary Mexican dishes in a chic dining room. Be adventurous and try the hazelnut mole.

This small community has an impressive collection of galleries, studios, one-of-a-kind shops, and dining options.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park © 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.

Where to camp: De Anza RV Resort, Amado (8 miles north of Tubac)

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 2: Madera Canyon, Tombstone, and Bisbee (124 miles)

Start on a sky island, an isolated mountain that steeply rises above the desert daytime heat and overall harsh and dry conditions. Fifty-five of these peaks form the Madrean Archipelago stretching from Mexico into the Southwest and featuring some of the planet’s richest biodiversity.

Driving upward can mimic a trip north to the Canadian border as you pass through dry scrub, grasslands, and oak and pine forests while ascending to where alpine species flourish. These ecosystems provide a refuge for humans and animals alike and offer world-class birding such as Madera Canyon, 12 miles southeast from Green Valley on I-19. This area perched high on the northwestern face of the Santa Rita Mountains attracts 15 hummingbird species including the rare Calliope, North America’s tiniest feathered friend.

Proctor parking area, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a good stroll, try the Proctor loop: a paved, accessible, three-quarters-of-a-mile route that departs from the first Madera Canyon Recreation Area parking lot. You may see deer and songbirds along the trail and look for the Whipple Observatory shining off to the west on Mount Hopkins.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amp things up in Tombstone, 65 miles to the east mainly via state routes 83 and 82. During its 1880s heyday, Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die, boasted 10,000 gunslingers, gamblers, prospectors, and prostitutes. Sparked by Edward Schieffelin’s silver strike (skeptics warned he’d only find his own tombstone), the raucous town boasted more than 60 saloons.

This town leans into its Western heritage especially the 30-second shootout at the O.K. Corral which pitted corrupt, power-hungry lawmen against cowboys who moonlighted as thieves and murderers.

OK Corral © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fierce gunfight was quick and when the bullets stopped flying, Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury, and Frank McLaury lay dead. Billy’s brother, Ike Clanton kept his life that day but was eventually murdered near Springerville, Arizona. Virgil and Morgan Earp needed weeks to recover from serious wounds but Doc Holliday was barely grazed by a bullet. Surprisingly, Wyatt Earp was unscathed.

Actors re-create the gunfight three times daily (at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m.) and many locals and visitors wear period dress throughout the compact historic center where stagecoaches still kick up dust.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Experience a different slice of Gilded Age history in Bisbee, 23 miles southeast on SR 80. Mining started here in 1887, thanks to one of the world’s richest mineral deposits. The “Queen of the Copper Camps” grew into the biggest city between St. Louis and San Francisco for a spell. It faltered when the mine closed in 1975 though it found new life as a refuge for artists, bohemians, and retirees. Check out its galleries and unique shops such as downtown’s Óptimo Custom Hatworks which sells stylish toppers made from toquilla straw and beaver- and rabbit-fur felt.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walking the steep streets can be quite a workout. Refuel at Table on Main Street with drunken mushrooms sautéed in a garlic cream sauce made from Old Bisbee Brewery’s European-style pilsner.

Where to stay: Tombstone RV Park, Tombstone. In Bisbee, book one of 12 vintage trailers or even a 1947 Chris-Craft yacht at the Shady Dell, 4 miles southwest of town, primarily reached via SR 80.

On the road to Patagonia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 3: Wine country and Tucson (158 miles)

Wineries don’t readily come to mind when I think of Arizona but the state has a thriving and growing wine industry. Wine making in Arizona dates back to the 16th century during the Spanish occupation of this area. The modern wine era began in the 1970s. Arizona winemaking has grown from a curiosity to a serious scene since then.

Arizona has three wine trails—Sonoita/Elgin, Verde Valley, and Willcox. The Sonoita/Elgin region is where the modern Arizona wine era began. There are 10 wineries on the trail. 

Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive 70 miles west on state routes 80, 90 and 82 to Patagonia, a wine country hub known for its quirky cafés and boutiques. For lunch, stop at downtown’s Velvet Elvis—honoring the Mexican painting style, not the King—which the governor’s office named an Arizona Treasure. Try the Pancho Villa pizza with Asiago, jalapeños, and house-made beef chorizo.

Sonoita Creek State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Patagonia drive 13 miles northeast on SR-82 to Sonoita. Located right off of the main road heading into Sonoita, Dos Cabezas WineWorks has been serving up its wine since 1995. The wines are made with all estate-grown grapes and are mostly blends (except for their single varietal Syrah). Their blends are made using several different varietals and cover the gamut of whites, Rosés, and reds. The La Montaña may be the most memorable because it is a 50/50 blend of the bold Syrah and Petit Verdot. 

Drive northeast another 7 miles to Rune Wines the state’s only solar-powered off-the-grid vineyard. Rune is located at the top of the hill between mile markers 39 and 40 on Highway 82 in Sonoita (that’s how directions are given around here) and overlooks the beautiful Arizona landscape.  It offers tastings outside under a shade canopy where you can soak up panoramic views of the high desert grasslands. For a well-balanced red, the 2019 Wild Syrah pleases with bold berry notes.

The Old Presidio, Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since 82 percent of Arizona land is owned by Native tribes and state and federal governments large roadless stretches remain on the map. Since you can’t head directly west, backtrack 55 miles northwest to Tucson for the night mainly on SR 82 and I-10. Head to Tito & Pep, a bistro known for mesquite-fired cuisine for dinner. Seasonally shifting vegetable dishes dazzle here especially the roasted carrots with labneh, pomegranate, and sunflower seeds.

Where to stay: Tucson/Lazydays KOA or Rincon West RV Resort

Plan your road trip through southern Arizona with these resources:

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers

South of Tucson Off I-19

I-19 Interstate Highway is 64 miles long and runs south to north from Nogales to Tucson

The Interstate 19 corridor south of Tucson is hard to surpass for a leisurely day trip from Tucson that combines art, culture, and history. There is so much to see and do between Tucson and Nogales that you’ll need to start early or break the tour into several more leisurely day trips as we did.

For our purpose, I’ll start with our southernmost destination, Mission Tumacácori, 29 miles north of Nogales, and work back to Mission View RV Resort, our home base off San Xavier Road in southern Tucson.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park

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 beside the Santa Cruz River.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A short distance east of the mission is the Anza Trail along the Santa Cruz River where you will find dozens of bird species. You can hike the Anza Trail north along the Santa Cruz for 4.5 miles to Tubac.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take Exit 29, turn left under the Interstate. At the frontage road, turn left. You can’t miss it.

Related: 13 Weird and Wonderful Reasons to RV to Tucson

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac

A destination for the arts, Tubac features over 100 eclectic shops and world-class galleries. Clustered in the village plaza, old adobes, Spanish courtyards, and ocotillo fences blend with a handful of newer buildings. Meandering streets are punctuated by hidden courtyards and sparkling fountains. Tubac also boasts a luxurious resort experience at the Tubac Golf Resort and Spa—a spot that features the golf course made famous by the 1996 Kevin Costner movie Tin Cup.

Tubac is north of Tumacácori on the east frontage road (or Exit 34 if you get back on I-19.

Tubax Presidio State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park

Established as a Spanish presidio in 1752, Tubac was the first permanent European settlement in what later became Arizona. The story of New Spain’s presidios is unique and Tubac is one of the few sites where it can adequately be told. Tubac Presidio State Historic Park preserves the ruins of the oldest Spanish Presidio site in Arizona, San Ignacio de Tubac, established in 1752.

Territorial schoolhouse at Tubac Presidio State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Park also preserves and interprets one of the oldest Territorial Schoolhouses. Further, the Park exhibits the hand press used to print the first newspaper in Arizona. The Weekly Arizonan was published in Tubac on March 3, 1859.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory

There is no way to include a tour of the observatories atop Mt. Hopkins in a day trip and still see the other sites along the I-19 corridor. From the Visitor Center, a shuttle takes visitors with reservations up a very steep, narrow, and winding road to the top. The total time to ascend, tour the observatories, and descend is about five hours. But the view from the top is splendid.

Related: Now is the Time to Explore Southern Arizona’s Gorgeous State Parks

From Tubac, go north on I-19 about 11 miles and exit at Arivaca Road (Exit 48). Follow the frontage road north about 2 miles and turn right (east) onto Elephant Head Road. From here the visitor center is about 8 miles. Just follow the signs.

Mineral Discovery Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Green Valley

Situated just 25 miles south of Tucson Green Valley offers the best of both worlds: quiet residential streets in a stunning desert setting. Factor in gorgeous weather from fall through spring and you have a combo that has long been irresistible to retirees and the snowbirds who visit in the winter to escape the cold weather of northern locales.

Green Valley offers a number of parks, bike lanes, and trails that are typically busy with people enjoying the sunshine. Among the most noteworthy of the trails is the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, a 1,200-mile route, a portion of which passes through Green Valley.

The route commemorates the 1775-76 journey led by explorer and military officer Juan Bautista de Anza from southern Arizona to the San Francisco Bay Area to establish the first non-Native settlement there.

Mineral Discovery Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors to Green Valley can sample a 5.2-mile stretch of the historic trail by heading to the trailhead on Elephant Head Road. The packed-surface trail that traverses classic desert terrain is open to walkers and cyclists; equestrians can use the nearby river wash.

Green Valley is located 26 miles south of Tucson; from I-19, take Continental Ranch Road (Exit 63) or Esperanza Road (Exit 65)

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon

A world-renowned location for bird watching, Madera Canyon is a major resting place for migrating species, while the extensive trail system of the Santa Rita Mountains is easily accessed from the Canyon’s campground and picnic areas. Hiking trails vary from paved, handicap-accessible nature trails and gentle walking paths in the lower canyon to steep, expert trails leading to the top of 9,453-foot Mt. Wrightson.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located 12 miles east of the I-19 at Green Valley, Madera Canyon makes a delightful stand-alone day trip from Tucson. From I-19, take Continental Ranch Road (Exit 63) east. In about a mile, turn right onto Madera Canyon/White House Canyon Road. Just follow the signs.

Green Valley Pecan Company at Sahuarita © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sahuarita

While the founding of Green Valley dates back to the fairly recent era of the 1960s, the nearby town of Sahuarita and the surrounding region have much deeper roots. The Hohokam and Tohono O’odham people occupied the area for centuries before the 1690s arrival of Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit missionary and explorer.

Green Valley Pecan Company at Sahuarita © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The land on which the Green Valley Pecan Company began boasts a history as deep and rich as the soil that produces some of the finest pecans in the world. This expanse of fertile land in the Santa Cruz Valley belonged to captains of industry and crowned heads of state before being acquired by R. Keith Walden in 1948.

Green Valley Pecan Company at Sahuarita © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With plenty of sunshine, quality water, and rich, sandy loam soil, the conditions were ideal to grow pecans. In 1965, the Waldens began converting more than 7,000 acres from primarily cotton to the largest irrigated pecan orchard in the world. Their pecans are available in a variety of flavors including natural, candied, spiced, and other flavored pecans.

Related: Mountain Island in a Desert Sea: Exploring Southern Arizona Sky Islands

From the interstate heading north, exit at the Sahuarita Road (Exit 75); turn right (east) for several blocks.

Titan Missile Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Titan Missile Museum

This preserved Titan II missile site officially known as complex 571-7 is all that remains of the 54 Titan II missile sites that were on alert across the United States from 1963 to 1987. Able to launch from its underground silo in just 58 seconds, the Titan II was capable of delivering a 9-megaton nuclear warhead to targets more than 6,300 miles away in about 30 minutes.

Titan Missile Museum© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors must be able to descend and climb 55 metal grate stair steps and stand for 45 minutes to participate in the underground tour. The museum suggests wearing walking shoes with no heels or flip-flops. The museum’s website notes: “What was once one of America’s most top-secret places is now a National Historic Landmark.”

From the interstate heading north, exit at the Duval Mine Road (Exit 69); turn left (west) and follow the signs.

Mineral Discovery Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mineral Discovery Center

The ASARCO Mineral Discovery Center offers a fascinating look into the world of copper. On your tour you’ll see how copper ore is mined in the open pit and then at the center you can see how it is processed in the mill to extract the copper minerals.

Mineral Discovery Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Titan Missile Museum, continue north on I-19 and exit at Pima Mine Road (Exit 80). The Mineral Discovery Center and Mine Tour are on the west side. Just follow the signs.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission San Xavier del Bac

Mission San Xavier del Bac is a place both historical and sacred that no visitor to Southern Arizona should miss. San Xavier is one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the U.S. The oldest intact European structure in Arizona, the church interior is filled with marvelous original statuary and mural paintings.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The mission’s white walls and soaring bell tower can be seen for miles around and the site attracts tens of thousands of visitors a year. Plan to spend an hour or two walking the grounds of the mission and exploring the interior. I was awed by the glowing white walls against the deep blue sky—all set off by rugged desert terrain.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Head North from the Mineral Discovery Center and exit at San Xavier Road (Exit 92). Head west and you will plainly see the magnificent church known as the White Dove of the Desert.

Read Next: Everything You Need to See and Do on an Arizona Road Trip

Worth Pondering…

As we explore America by RV, surprises await at every turn of the road. Natural beauty abounds when least expected.

A Southern Gem: 14 Reasons to Visit Tucson

No matter what season you visit, Tucson has a lot to offer

While Phoenix may offer a more metropolitan nightlife experience, Tucson can definitely hold its own when it comes to outdoor adventures and unique sights. In fact, in many ways, I prefer the relative quiet of this southwestern town over its larger cousin to the north.

Tucson is located less than two hours southeast of Phoenix and the Mexican border is roughly one hour to the south. Its proximity to Mexico has earned Tucson’s food scene major recognition—in 2015, UNESCO designated it the first “City of Gastronomy” in the United States.

The real, natural southwest captivates the imaginations of visitors fortunate enough to spend time in Tucson. Located in the Sonoran Desert, Tucson is the only place in the world the majestic saguaro cactus grows. The tall and stately cactus, stand like silent sentinels in the shadows of the five mountain ranges surrounding the Tucson valley. Tucson provides a stunning array of possibilities, satisfying culture seekers, outdoor adventurers, and fans of cowboys and cacti.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is a well-known Tucson attraction. The park is split into two by the city. The Rincon Mountain District is located to the East of Tucson and the Tucson Mountain District is located to the West. Both districts have their own visitor center, scenic drives, and hiking trail systems. In the west part, you will see plenty of the namesake cacti—the saguaro. In the east part, you will see colorful red rocks and more rugged terrain.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I highly recommend choosing several Saguaro National Park hiking trails to make the most of your time. There are both short, paved, accessible trails and day hike out in the wilderness. It all depends on what you are looking for.

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is one of the most popular attractions in town. A world-renowned zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden, all in one place, this is a solid introduction to plant and animal life as you’ll find in the region.

Related: Explore Tucson Naturally

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exhibits re-create the natural landscape of the Sonoran Desert Region so realistically you find yourself eye-to-eye with mountain lions and Gila monsters. Other species found here include prairie dogs, tarantulas, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Most of this museum is outdoors, so plan accordingly. Dress comfortably and bring a hat and sunscreen.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabino Canyon

On the northeast edge of Tucson, Sabino Canyon offers a variety of terrain including a paved path for the lighter option, or miles of rugged ground to explore. Nestled in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Sabino Canyon offers a wide range of hiking adventures for beginners and experts alike. Enjoy a relaxing stroll along the paved Sabino Canyon Trail or ride the tram along the wide, scenic path.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabino Canyon Tours offers a narrated, educational 45-minute, 3.8-mile tour into the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The trams have nine stops along the tour with several restroom facilities and picnic grounds located near Sabino Creek. The tram turns around at Stop #9 and heads back down to the Visitor’s Center, at which point riders may remain on board and hike back down. Trams arrive on average every 30 minutes.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park 

One of my personal favorite stops, Catalina State Park sits at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains in northwest Tucson. Catalina is chock-full of epic mountainous backdrops, lush landscapes, towering saguaros, and trails for horses and hikers. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. If you visit in early spring, bright Mexican poppies and colorful wildflowers will greet you.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invite camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet.

Related: Why Tucson Is Your Next Great Outdoor Adventure

Catalina Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Lemmon

Mount Lemmon is named after Sara Plummer Lemmon, a botanist who trekked to the 9,000-foot-plus summit with her husband in 1881. Today, it’s a great spot for outdoor adventures like hiking, camping, rock climbing, and even skiing. Yes, skiing in the Sonoran Desert.

Catalina Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Lemmon is located in the Catalina Mountains. Follow Catalina Highway (Sky Island Scenic Byway) to explore the mountain to your heart’s content. One of the most scenic drives in southern Arizona, the paved road provides access to a fascinating land of great vistas, natural rock sculptures, cool mountain forests, and deep canyons spilling out onto broad deserts.

Tohono Chul Park

Translated from the Tohono O’odham language, Tohono Chul means “desert corner.” This 49-acre desert preserve is a leading Southwest center of desert nature, arts, and culture. This oasis in the desert provides an informative look at the region’s fascinating cultural traditions and its flora and fauna.

Old Tucson Studios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Old Tucson Studios

Plenty of cowboys can be found at Old Tucson Studios. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood are among the Hollywood legends that starred in some of the 300-plus movies and TV projects that have been filmed at Old Tucson since 1939. Today it’s a movie studio and theme park.

Old Tucson Studios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s been just over a year since Old Tucson Studios closed its doors. The famous western attraction was shuttered because of the pandemic. Now, after a long process, Pima County is getting ready to announce who will take over the lease. Be sure to check the current status before planning a visit.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission San Xavier del Bac

Fifteen minutes south of Tucson sits an important piece of the city’s history: Mission San Xavier del Bac. This is one of the most awe-inspiring of all of the area’s attractions and is definitely worth the short drive. Mission San Xavier del Bac, also known as the White Dove of the Desert, is a magnificent building that blends Moorish, Byzantine, and late Mexican Renaissance architecture.

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1692 Father Kino, a Jesuit missionary came to the area. Eight years later he laid the foundation for the first church. This building was named for Francis Xavier, a pioneering Christian missionary. The current church, completed in 1797, serves an active parish. Today, this site is used as both a church and a school.

Titan Missile Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Titan Missile Museum

A National Historic Landmark known as Complex 571-7, the Titan Missile Museum is the only remaining Titan II missile site. On one-hour guided tours you’ll descend 35 feet below ground to marvel at the intercontinental ballistic missile that in about 30 minutes could have delivered a nine-megaton nuclear warhead to a location more than 6,000 miles away.

Related: 13 Weird and Wonderful Reasons to RV to Tucson

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park

The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish priest Eusebio Francisco Kino. 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

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.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac

A destination for the arts, Tubac features eclectic shops and world-class galleries. Clustered in the village plaza, old adobes, Spanish courtyards, and ocotillo fences blend with a handful of newer buildings. Meandering streets are punctuated by hidden courtyards and sparkling fountains.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 include paintings, sculpture, pottery, metalwork, hand-painted tiles, photography, jewelry, weaving, and hand-carved wooden furniture.

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

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park

Established as a Spanish presidio in 1752, Tubac was the first permanent European settlement in what later became Arizona. Those early ruins are visible in an underground exhibit at Tubac Presidio State Historic Park. Visitors also will see a museum that houses Arizona’s first printing press (demonstrations are offered), a furnished 1885 schoolhouse, and living-history exhibits.

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

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.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon

Madera Canyon is known for exceptional and varied hiking trails. The Mount Wrightson trailhead provides access to several trails including the Super Trail and Old Baldy trail where experienced hikers can climb to higher levels. These two trails to its summit cross one another twice and make a figure eight.

Related: Mountain Island in a Desert Sea: Exploring Southern Arizona Sky Islands

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon is a famed wildlife location, in particular for birds with over 250 recorded species. The resident birds include hummingbirds, owls, sulfur flycatchers, wood warblers, elegant trogan, wild turkeys, and quails, as well as numerous migrating birds. Other notable wildlife includes coati, black bear, raccoon, mountain lion, bighorn sheep, bobcat, and ring-tailed cat.

Old Pueblo County Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Old Pueblo

Tucson has preserved a flair of its American Indian and Spanish-Mexican past of a pueblo in the Sonoran Desert. The days of the Presidio de San Agustin del Tucson, the original fortress built by Spanish soldiers during the 18th century, seem not that long ago. Wandering through the recreated structure, it is easy to imagine what life was like when members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, Native American people of the Sonoran Desert, mingled there with Spanish soldiers and early Territorial Period settlers.

Old Presidio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The neighborhood surrounding the Presidio, the Presidio Historic District, is a charming, eclectic assembly of adobe and brick buildings in Spanish-Mexican, Anglo-American, and other architectural styles of the 1920s. Many houses have been restored to their former beauty, in brilliant colors of bright green, brick red, plum-purple, and hues of blue and yellow, and their original masonry.

Worth Pondering…

Once in a lifetime, you see a place, and you know, instinctively, this is paradise.