Awesomeness beyond the Mighty 5 in Southern Utah

Recommendations for extended adventuring around each of southern Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks

Southern Utah has enough panoramic mountain views, striking red-rock formations, and dark-sky zones for a lifetime of adventure. But sometimes it’s better to settle in to explore one place than try to do everything in one trip. In this post, I’ll look at a few favorite spots for going beyond the parks and staying for a week or longer.

Thanks to some highly successful promotion by the Utah Office of Tourism, people across the globe now know that “Mighty 5” refers to national parks in Utah and not a group of superheroes.

Unfortunately, that heightened awareness carries a price. Utah’s five national parks are often so busy that visitors wait hours to enter or are even turned away. If you’ve been stalled in traffic at Zion, Arches, or Bryce Canyon, you understand.

On holidays or other times when you know the parks will be jammed with tourists, a good alternative is to visit one of Utah’s spectacular national monuments or state parks. Many offer breathtaking scenery to rival that of the Mighty 5 but with much smaller crowds.

Red Rock Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond Bryce Canyon and Zion

For a week of exploring around Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, head to St. George, where you can camp within a short drive of hundreds of miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails. The national parks are stunning but the many state parks in Utah are also not to be missed. One favorite is Snow Canyon; the trails there wind through striking red rock and streams of black lava are frozen in time against the canyon walls. Another one of this corner’s lesser-known gems is Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park where you can hike or go four-wheeling among pink dunes formed over the last 10,000 to 15,000 years by eroding Navajo Sandstone cliffs. You’ll also want to visit Red Cliffs BLM Recreation area to hike and marvel at the distinctive landscapes that cover this relatively unknown public area. 

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The reservoir at Quail Creek State Park boasts some of the warmest waters in the state plus a mild winter climate. It is a great place to boat, camp, and fish. Water sports are popular here during the long warm-weather season and boaters and fishermen enjoy the reservoir year-round. Anglers fish for largemouth bass, rainbow trout, crappie, and other species.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red rock and red sand meet warm, blue water at Sand Hollow which is one of the most popular state parks in Utah. This is a great place to camp, picnic, boat, fish, and ride ATVs. ATV trails run over sand dune access to Sand Mountain in the park and additional trails are located nearby. Sand Hollow Reservoir’s warm water makes it ideal for skiing and other water sports. Anglers fish for bass, bluegill, crappie, and catfish.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hidden within the mountains between Zion and Bryce Canyon is the brilliant geology and vibrant environment of Cedar Breaks National Monument. The geologic amphitheater and surrounding area are home to hiking trails, ancient trees, high elevation camping, and over-the-top views along the “Circle of Painted Cliffs.” Cedar Breaks’ majestic amphitheater is a three-mile-long cirque made up of eroding limestone, shale, and sandstone. The monument sits above 10,000 feet. The Amphitheater is like a naturally formed coliseum that plunges 2,000 feet below amid colorful towers, hoodoos, and canyons. Stunning views are common throughout so keep your camera nearby.

Beyond Capitol Reef

The Capitol Reef Region is a relatively uncrowded landscape with seemingly endless public land to explore. The town of Torrey—an official International Dark Sky Community—is just a 15-minute drive from Capitol Reef National Park and a great base camp for exploration.

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

Snag a campsite in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. There are plenty of options to contemplate in this Martian-like landscape. If you’re just passing through, Goblin Valley State Park famous for wind-shaped rock formations called hoodoos is a popular stop for families.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is also within easy driving distance of Grand Staircase and offers plenty of opportunities to cool off in Lake Powell with water sports you might not expect to find amid Utah’s high-desert landscapes.

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, Escalante Petrified Forest is among the most underrated, surprising, and all-around best state parks for escaping the crowds. If you want to be away from people, it’s pretty easy to find lots of remote space to camp while still having easy access to the main rock formations. Escalante Petrified Forest is located at Wide Hollow Reservoir, a small reservoir that is popular for boating, canoeing, fishing, and water sports. The park includes a developed campground with RV sites. There is also a pleasant picnic area.  On the hill above the campground, you can see large petrified logs. A marked hiking trail leads through the petrified forest. At the Visitor Center, you can view displays of plant and marine fossils, petrified wood, and fossilized dinosaur bones over 100 million years old.

Beyond Arches and Canyonlands

One of my favorite things about southern Utah is the way the landscapes transform from lush riverscape to shaded slot canyons to desert all in a short drive. For a week in the Arches and Canyonlands region start in Green River at the foot of Desolation Canyon Wilderness. Swasey’s Beach has developed camping and a great beach.

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The scenic overlooks of Dead Horse Point State Park are often compared to views of the Grand Canyon. Just over 30 miles from Moab, it’s a worthy destination when Arches is overly crowded. The park gets its name from a gruesome legend. Around the turn of the century, the point was used as a corral for wild mustangs roaming the mesa top. One time, for some unknown reason, horses were left corralled on the waterless point where they died of thirst within view of the Colorado River 2,000 feet below.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From there, head to the lesser-visited west side of Canyonlands National Park for a guided 4×4 tour. Spend ample time in the Bears Ears National Monument area with a scenic drive through Valley of the Gods and visits to Goosenecks State Park and Natural Bridges National Monument—both of which are certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’ while Sipapu, the second-largest natural bridge in the state means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins. Moderate to difficult trails some with metal stairs lead down to each bridge. A longer trail follows the stream bed beneath all three bridges.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The wild canyons and mountains of southern Utah have been around for over 2.6 billion years. Help to protect them for a few billion more.

Worth Pondering…

As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.”

—Jack Kerouac

Monument Valley has Re-opened: What to Know Before You Visit

One of the most iconic and enduring landmarks of the American Wild West, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park has reopened

Monument Valley was described by the filmmaker John Ford (1895-1973) as “the most complete, beautiful, and peaceful place on earth.” Many of Ford’s films were westerns and filmed in Monument Valley, one of his favorite film settings.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, seeing the place in a movie is nothing like being there. As filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich explains, “It’s breathtaking. You can’t believe it. It’s very photogenic; it has a kind of mythic feeling of age, of legend… You’ve seen it in the movies, but when you see it in life, it’s so epic in its proportions that it almost stands for the whole of the West.”

The Navajo Nation is reopening parks and businesses on a phased basis, welcoming visitors back to the community’s monuments, casinos, and unique attractions.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After more than a year of being closed during the pandemic, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is now open on a limited basis. The park that straddles the Arizona/Utah state line reopened last week after the Navajo Nation determined that the reservation has achieved the orange status of its COVID-19 reopening plan. According to the “Safer-at-Home” order issued August 12, 2021, the Navajo Nation is returning to “Orange Status”; thereby Navajo Parks and Recreation will continue to follow all safety protocols. It is mandatory that all visitors and tribal members continue to wear face masks at all times while visiting the Navajo Nation. According to the order, 50 percent capacity is permitted in most businesses including in restaurants, casinos, hotels and campgrounds, museums, and parks.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As part of the plan, several other destinations on the Navajo Nation—Canyon de Chelly, Antelope Canyon, Navajo National Monument, Hubbell Trading Post, and Four Corners Monument—also are open to visitors under certain conditions. Visit your destination’s website for specific COVID-19 guidelines. 

Here is everything you need to know to plan a trip to Monument Valley.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Can I drive through Monument Valley?

There are two ways to visit Monument Valley. You can enter the park and drive to the valley overlook but not beyond. Admission is $20 per vehicle for up to four people. Each additional person costs $6.

You need to book a tour to go on the full 17-mile Monument Valley loop drive. Self-driving is not allowed at this time. You’ll ride in your outfitter’s vehicle. According to Louise Tsinijinnie, media representative for Navajo Nation Parks, most vehicles are open-air and can hold 10 to 12 passengers. Tours typically cost $65-$75 per person, Tsinijinnie said. A list of tour guides is at navajonationparks.org.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley Visitor Center

From the visitor center, you see the world-famous panorama of the Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte. You can also purchase guided tours from Navajo tour operators who take you down into the valley in Jeeps for a narrated cruise through these mythical formations. Places such as Ear of the Wind and other landmarks can only be accessed via guided tours. During the summer months, the visitor center also features Haskenneini Restaurant which specializes in both native Navajo and American cuisines, and a film/snack/souvenir shop. There are year-round restroom facilities. One mile before the center, numerous Navajo vendors sell arts, crafts, native food, and souvenirs at roadside stands.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The View Hotel and Camping at Monument Valley

For visitors wanting to stay inside Monument Valley, The View Hotel and Premium Cabins are open at 50 percent capacity as well. The campground and RV sites remain closed. Masks must be worn indoors, in any public areas, and on all guided tours. 

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is Monument Valley?

Monument Valley is not a ‘valley’ in the true sense of the word but rather a vast, desert-like expanse of land punctuated by towering, huge stones that rise hundreds of feet in height. Monument Valley is one of the most majestic—and most photographed—points on earth. This great valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower at heights of 400 to 1,000 feet framed by scenic clouds casting shadows that graciously roam the desert floor. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations, providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley. All of this harmoniously combines to make Monument Valley a truly wondrous experience.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Area Geology

The geology of the area helps add to its grandeur. Monument Valley is part of the Colorado Plateau which covers 130,000 square miles. More than 50 million years ago the area was a lowland basin that over eons of time and extensive layers of sedimentation, ceaseless pressures from below the surface, and eventual geological uplifts were transformed into a plateau. Then wind and water took over the task of creating the dramatic vistas and formations that we see today.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The current elevation of the valley floor ranges from 5,000 to 6,000 feet. The floor is basically siltstone. Iron oxide gives the area its red color. The blue-gray rocks get their color from manganese oxide. The buttes are clearly stratified in several distinct layers: Organ Rock Shale, de Chelly Sandstone, and Shinarump Conglomerate.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where is Monument Valley?

Monument Valley is a part of the Navajo Nation. It is located on the Utah/Arizona border, east of Highway 163, midway between Kayenta, Arizona, and Mexican Hat, Utah. The park entrance is in Utah.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alternative to Monument Valley

Often described as a “Miniature Monument Valley”, the Valley of Gods is definitely worth checking out—and it’s totally free and without restrictions. The area is publicly managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The 17-mile Valley of the Gods Road, also known as BLM Road 226, stretches between US-163 north of Mexican Hat and Utah Route 261 just below Moki Dugway. Hoodoos, spires, buttes, buttresses, forming and collapsing arches, and towers are all visible along the drive.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Navajo Name: Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii (Valley of the Rocks)

Elevation: 5,564 feet above sea level

Size: 91,696 acres (spans Utah and Arizona)

Worth Pondering…

So this is where God put the West.

—John Wayne

Valley of the Gods Is a Mini-Monument Valley…and Totally Free

The Valley of Gods is a Miniature Monument Valley and definitely worth checking out— and totally free

The Valley of the Gods is publicly-managed Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in a setting surrounded by two national parks (Arches and Canyonlands), three national monuments (Natural Bridges, Hovenweep, and Bears Ears), three state parks (Goosenecks, Dead Horse Point, and Edge of the Cedars), Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It’s a land of immense beauty that epitomizes both the American West and movie landscapes.

From the top of Cedar Mesa, Moki Dugway descends into the Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The beautiful Cedar Mesa sandstone monoliths, pinnacles, and other geological features of this enchanting area are known as a Miniature Monument Valley. These sandstone sentinels were eroded by wind and water over eons of time.

The 17-mile Valley of the Gods Road, also known as BLM Road 226, stretches between US-163 north of Mexican Hat, Utah, near the Arizona-Utah border, and Utah Route 261 just below the white-knuckle Moki Dugway. In the morning, enter from US-163 in the east. This way, the sunlight highlights the buttes. And, in the afternoon start from the west entrance off SR-261.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s just a simple non-descript green highway sign on US-163 in southeastern Utah near Mexican Hat: “Valley of the Gods.” Tighten your grip on the steering wheel as you drop down to ford the creek as the towering Seven Sailors Butte fills the earth to the sky. This is the eastern beginning to the twisting, climbing, and turning but readily accessible drive looping through a valley of 9dramatic red rock buttes, rolling desert landscape, and a smattering of brush and wildflowers.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following the Seven Sailors greeting, Setting Hen and Rooster buttes loom large. This starts the stretch where the most scenic campsites are located. The road weaves its way north and west past buttes named Franklin and Battleship and then after making a steep turn at Castle Rock, two whimsical buttes are in view: Rudolph and Santa and Lady in a Bathtub. A simple drive-by brings you past more than 12 named buttes and spires and easily another dozen without names on various maps.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The massive red rock formations are a geology fan’s dream. Hoodoos, spires, buttes, buttresses, forming and collapsing arches, and towers are all visible along the drive. It’s a potpourri of Southwestern geology. To truly enjoy the experience, stop often at the many wide spots on the road. Get out and walk around and take some photos. Keep an eye peeled for roadrunners and coyotes—this is their home turf.

Valley of the Gods Road is graded gravel and clay. This two-lane road is passable in a conventional passenger car when road conditions are dry. A local inquiry should be made during and after periods of inclement weather.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Never enter a flooded wash if it’s not possible to discern depth and flow speed. When storm conditions are present over the Valley and north of Valley of Gods, watch for flash flooding. Lime Creek is the drainage for a large area including portions of Cedar Mesa. It can flood even if the Valley of the Gods is in the sunshine and blue skies. It takes only six inches of water and a 5 mph flow to float a passenger car—even a four-wheel-drive pickup truck—off the road and down the stream. Use common sense and caution.

This 17-mile loop through Valley of the Gods has sharp turns and crosses several washes. Taking the drive in a leisurely fashion, we stopped for photos, taking two to three hours to complete the loop.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many places to stop along the scenic drive and numerous locations suitable for FREE camping as the valley lies on BLM land and is completely undeveloped. Since hardly anyone seems to pass by, the area provides a much more relaxing and isolated experience than the famous valley (Monument Valley) 30 miles southwest, and without any of the restrictions on hiking or camping. The spacing between campsites and the low traffic volume through Valley of the Gods provides ample opportunity for privacy while camping.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping is available in the dozens of off-road graded areas BLM has prepared adjoining Valley of the Gods Road. Starting just before Setting Hen Butte and past Battleship Rock, the campsites are slightly hidden from the road and provide some privacy and distance from dust. Practice “leave no trace” camping techniques. There are no potable water and no restrooms or pit toilets. Be prepared for primitive camping and bring plenty of water.

Overnight stays allow a chance to explore the buttes and rocks at leisure, cross-country hike, and see a near-perfect dark sky reveal of the Milky Way. DarkSiteFinder’s map rates Valley of the Gods with its darkest sky measure.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are no formal hiking trails. Hike with a map and compass. With a portable GPS, remember extra batteries and set the tracking feature. The ground surface tends to have loose small rocks, especially below and around the buttes which can be slick. Trekking poles are recommended along with a basic “watch-your-step” sense. Keep an eye open for rattlesnakes and other reptiles on large rocks or near crevices. Do not stick bare hands under a rock without checking for spiders, insects, or snakes. There are many things that sting and bite in the desert.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Small canyons cut into the cliffs that form the northern boundary of the valley and can be reached after a couple of miles of cross-country hiking. The entire region is excellent for photography, especially at sunrise and sunset when the rocks take on a particularly deep red hue.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Do not count on mobile phone signals anywhere throughout this portion of southeast Utah. There is mobile service from time to time but not that can be relied upon to be available when needed.

Worth Pondering…

Time, geologic time, looks out at us from the rocks as from no other objects in the landscape.

—John Burroughs

10 Amazing Places to RV in August

If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in August

It can be existentially overwhelming to contemplate where to travel. Just look at Jeff Bezos. He relieved himself from having to choose by going to space. Well, if you’re not leaving the planet anytime soon, you might be looking for some help deciding where to RV in August. August has 31 days to enjoy the summer sun. We found some extra-special ways to have fun this month.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out our monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in May, June, and July. Also, check out our recommendations from August 2020.

Sidney Lanier Bridge at Brunswick © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Brunswick, Georgia

Imagine an idyllic seaside town overflowing with history and maritime charm. That pretty much sums up Brunswick. A great home base for exploring the neighboring Golden Isles, this mainland port on the southeast coast of Georgia has a lot going for it. Definitely check out Mary Ross Waterfront Park and the towering Lover’s Oak. Brunswick is laid out in a formal grid similar to Savannah‘s with city streets and squares still bearing their colonial names. Explore the historic area which is enjoying a renaissance and features shops, restaurants, and beautiful homes reflecting a variety of styles dating from 1819.

Docked at the wharf, an array of shrimp boats are ready to trawl the local waters―evidence of the area’s rich seafood industry. Try your hand at shrimping aboard the Lady Jane, the only shrimp vessel on the East Coast that has been certified to carry passengers offshore. Sample the catch of the day at one of the fine restaurants. Don’t leave without sampling a bowl of Brunswick stew. Maggie Mae’s and Twin Oaks BBQ top the list of the most famous spots to gobble up this hearty local specialty.

Coastal Georgia RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A new RV Resort in Brunswick, Coastal Georgia is situated on a beautiful lake surrounded by lush landscaping just minutes away from golf, beaches, historical sites, and shopping. Cookout at the pavilion, spend some time on the lake in their paddle boats, fish off the bank, or get some sun lying by the pool.

Mount Washington Cog Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Washington Cog Railway

The Mount Washington Cog Railway is one of the world’s great rail adventures and an exhilarating journey through history, technology, and nature. This first-in-the-world mountain-climbing cog railway has been making its dramatic 3-hour round trip to the summit of the highest peak in the Northeast (6,288 feet) for over 150 years. Powered by custom-built biodiesel or vintage steam locomotives, clear weather provides spectacular panoramic views from Quebec to the Atlantic Ocean.

12 Tribes Casino RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Small Town Charm

Located in the foothills of the Okanagan Highlands in North Central Washington, Omak (population: 4,774) has a famous tourist stop for photographing the balanced Omak Rock. Adjacent to Omak Lake, the rock will set you in the right direction for outdoor adventure fun.

Pack a picnic from produce found at the Okanogan Valley Farmers Market (Tuesdays, 3:30 p.m.–6:30 p.m., June through October) combined with coffees and baked goods from The Breadline Cafe and then enjoy a leisurely day on the lake or along the Okanagan River. If you prefer land adventures take a scenic hike along the trails of the Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forest.

12 Tribes Casino RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a fun family outing, bookmark your August calendars for the annual Omak Stampede (87th annual; August 12-15, 2021). This local celebration combines stampede events with rodeo dances, art shows, and more. Or treat the family to your own horseback adventure with a visit to Pine Stump Farms.

For a relaxing time, book a stay at 12 Tribes Resort Casino RV Park, a full-service resort with 72-foot long x 42-foot wide pull-through sites.

Shrimping boats © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get on Deck for 70 Years of Shrimp!

The Town of Delcambre, Louisiana, located about 20 miles southwest of Lafayette, is home to one of the area’s most productive shrimp fleets. The town devotes an entire weekend to honor this economic lifeblood. The Delcambre Shrimp Festival invites you to Iberia Parish for the 70th year August 18-22, 2021. The festival has gained its popularity by providing a variety of delicious dishes and top-notch entertainment including national recording artists. Enjoy signature shrimp dishes like boiled shrimp, fried shrimp, shrimp sauce piquante, shrimp salad, and many more. Each and every shrimp dish consumed at the festival is prepared by volunteer members of the festival association.

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

Splash into Summertime, Kentucky Style!

Looking for some summer fun? Then Kentucky is the place to be! When temperatures skyrocket in the summer, many people head for the water to cool off. The Bluegrass State offers water adventures for the whole family. Raft down Elkhorn Creek and catch some rays. Paddle or kayak in countless lakes and waterways. Fish, visit a beach, rent a houseboat for the week or even learn to sail. Canoe Kentucky offers a variety of paddlesports to get you on Kentucky’s waterways. The Lake Cumberland area boasts the largest fleet of rental houseboats in the country. Spend your days exploring thousands of wooded coves and rocky cliffs along more than 1,200 miles of shoreline. Nestled between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area boasts nearly 300 miles of shoreline perfect for camping, swimming, and fishing.

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Located in the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg is a classic gateway for outdoor adventures the whole family will love. From stunning mountain views and riverfront walkways to engaging amusement parks and museums, there’s plenty to do in Gatlinburg and its surrounding areas. Some of these activities include hiking, fishing, rafting, horseback riding, and wildlife spotting (black bears, elk, and deer, just to name a few). The Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community is home to over 100 craftspeople and artists along an eight-mile loop, making it the largest gathering of its kind in North America. And for a town that’s only two miles long by five miles wide, there are tons of local restaurants serving Southern-style pancakes, locally caught trout, and a variety of steaks.

Carlsbad Caverns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

See the spectacle of Mexican free-tailed bats flocking out of their cavern at sunset and explore the nation’s deepest limestone cave at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Located just 30 minutes from the gates of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, this famed subterranean fantasy land hosts long, twisting caverns loaded with stalactites and stalagmites—including many that are well-lit along an accessible walking tour.

Carlsbad Caverns offers visitors an inside look at the 250 million-year-old reef system that created both it and the nearby mountains. The National Park Services offers guided and self-guided tours, as well as astronomy and bat education programs.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The West’s Most Beautiful, Least Visited Wonderland

Lassen Volcanic National Park is an intriguing stop for any northern California road trip. Rich in hydrothermal sites including roaring fumaroles (steam and volcanic-gas vents), bubbling mud pots, boiling pools, and steaming ground, it’s a one-of-a-kind destination. Visit Bumpass Hell and Sulphur Works to get a glimpse of volcanism in action and take a walk along one of the short loops to explore steam vents and boiling pools. Always stay on the main hiking trails to avoid getting severely burned or injured. Some cauldrons can reach temperatures of over 125 degrees!

Once you’ve visited the hydrothermal sites, Lassen Volcanic National Park is also home to many coldwater lakes for swimming or paddleboarding, numerous trails for day hiking, and opportunities for backcountry wilderness backpacking.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Road Tripping to Valley of the Gods

Not a national park or monument, Valley of the Gods is publicly-managed Bureau of Land Management (BLM) territory in a setting surrounded by two national parks (Arches and Canyonlands), two national monuments (Natural Bridges and Bears Ears), two state parks (Goosenecks and Edge of the Cedars), Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It’s a land of great beauty that epitomizes both the American West and science fiction movie landscapes. The beautiful Cedar Mesa sandstone monoliths, pinnacles, and other geological features of this enchanting area are known as a Miniature Monument Valley. These sandstone sentinels were eroded by wind and water over eons of time.

The 17-mile Valley of the Gods Road, also known as BLM Road 226, stretches between U.S. 163 north of Mexican Hat, Utah, near the Arizona-Utah border and hits Utah Route 261 just below the Moki Dugway. In the morning, enter from U.S. 163 in the east. This way, the sunlight highlights the buttes. And, in the afternoon start from the west entrance off S.R. 261.

The massive red rock formations are a geology fan’s dream. Hoodoos, spires, buttes, buttresses, forming and collapsing arches, and towers are all visible along the drive. It’s a potpourri of Southwestern geology.

mitty’s Market, Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

BBQ Capital of Texas

A trip to this flavor-packed smoke town should be on any food lover’s bucket list. Dubbed the “BBQ Capital of Texas,” Lockhart is one of the most legendary barbecue destinations anywhere. While you could make it a day trip you’ll need several days or more to eat your way through it. Don’t forget to pack a cooler, though, because you’ll want to bring some meat home to your RV.

Your Day One itinerary includes the bulk of your eating, as you tackle at least two of the Big Three: Black’s Barbecue (open since 1932), Kreuz Market (est. 1900), and Smitty’s Market (since 1948). You need to consume a lot of meat today, so be sure to stop for breaks. Proceed in any order you please.

Black’s Barbecue, Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart has one more stop in store for you before the drive home: Chisholm Trail Barbecue (opened by a Black’s alum in 1978). There’s a drive-through and BBQ sandwiches if you so please, but you can also head inside for a full plate lunch packed with smoked turkey, sausage links, and moist brisket with sides like mac and cheese, hash browns, and broccoli salad… because you should probably get some greens in.

Worth Pondering…

It’s a sure sign of summer if the chair gets up when you do.

—Walter Winchell

15 Surreal Desert Landscapes that Feel Like a Different Planet

You don’t have to travel to the moon to feel like you’re no longer on Earth

In 2004, Burt Rutan’s privately built SpaceShipOne flew just beyond the edge of space before landing safely back on Earth. That historic feat was enough to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize as well as help convince the public that an era of space tourism was finally within humanity’s grasp. Now, more than 15 years later, aspiring space tourists are on the verge of having their dreams realized.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A year ago this month, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule safely ferried NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken back to Earth following a multi-month trip to the International Space Station (ISS). No privately built spacecraft had ever carried humans into orbit before.

It’s finally looking like the exciting era of space tourism is about to erupt. A handful of so-called “new space” companies are now competing to sell space tourists’ trips on private spacecraft. Each one has a slightly different means of reaching space and not all of them will get you all the way into orbit. But as long as you’re rich you should have no problem purchasing your ticket to space.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Last week, the space tourism company Space Perspective opened up reservations for a “luxury” six-hour flight to the edge of space on giant balloons the size of a football stadium. The cost per ticket: $125,000. Which begs the question: Would you be willing to pay to travel to space or would you need to get paid to travel to space? 

For those of us who prefer to stay grounded and travel in a recreational vehicle, there are numerous options to explore land formations created by volcanic eruptions or extreme temperatures that have altered the planet in strange ways.

My round-up of 15 of the most surreal landscapes in America showcases locations that have mesmerized travelers, inspired local legends, and even baffled scientists for centuries.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

If you’ve never heard the word “hoodoo,” it’s probably because you’re unfamiliar with the bizarre rock formations at Bryce Canyon. Hoodoos are tall, thin spires of rock that come out of an arid basin or badland. The ones found in Southern Utah’s Bryce Canyon are particularly fascinating and striking due to their size and volume with the natural amphitheaters inside the park. All year-round, the park is known for its surreal Instagram-able sights including when snow falls on the hoodoos. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

At first glance, the glistening hills of White Sands National Park appear to be mounds of snow—but upon closer examination, the dunes are made of stark-white gypsum sand. It’s a natural wonder that spans 275 square miles making it the largest gypsum dune field in the world. When you’re done staring in awe at the surreal white dunes, you can hike them, camp on them, sunbathe on them, and even slide down them in plastic sleds. Some of the wildlife that lives in the dunes has adapted to its surroundings by taking on a white color (namely the white sands wood rat and the bleached earless lizard). When daylight breaks, the white sand takes on a surreal red-pinkish hue and for a few minutes after sunset, the sand seems to glow.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley, Arizona and Utah

The mesas, thin buttes, and the tall spires rising above the valley, and the contrasting orange sand makes Monument Valley the most surreal landscape in the southwest. Monument Valley boasts crimson mesas, surreal sandstone towers which range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet. It is those sights that take your breath away and make you speechless—what the Western writer Zane Grey once described as “a strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptured, standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely.”

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

The name of this stunning state park may seem less appealing but the history behind it is interesting. Back in the days of the old west, cowboys used the area as a place to corral wild mustangs. Trapping the horses at the edge of the cliff, they would round up the desired horses and take them back to be tamed. Usually, the remaining horses were set free. However, legend has it that one time the remaining horses were trapped at the edge of the cliff and died of thirst for an inexplicable reason. Taking a mountain bike to the area is a great way to explore the park and imagine the cowboy way of life at this surreal location. 

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Painted Desert, Arizona

Who says deserts have to be drab beige? In the Painted Desert of Petrified Forest National Park, the rocky badlands range in color from reds, oranges, and pinks to dark purples and grays. It is the sort of place that truly lives up to its name—making you feel as though you’re looking at a brightly colored painting, not a real place. For the best experience, visit at sunrise or sunset when the sun makes everything pop even more.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park is famed for its sheer sandstone cliffs. A rich diversity of wildlife thrives in this biologically rich habitat. Narrow canyons, flowing rivers, ponderosa forests, and waterfalls add to the wonder. Thrill-seekers can test their mental and physical fortitude by attempting to conquer the five-mile-long Angel’s Landing trail. Sharp switchbacks and dizzying drop-offs make it a challenging trek but the stunning views from the summit are well worth it.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park spans 800,000 arid acres and includes two distinct desert ecosystems. Its surreal tableau is punctuated by massive boulders, Dr. Seuss-like yucca palms, and archaeological marvels. Hiking is the primary draw but with 8,000 climbing routes, vertical adventure is a close second. At night, dark skies are sublime for stargazing. You can sleep under the cosmos at the nine on-site campgrounds.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glen Canyon, Arizona and Utah

Sitting on the Utah-Arizona border and encompassing over a million acres, Glen Canyon has a ton of stuff to see and experience. Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, and the iconic formations at Rainbow Bridge are all found in Glen Canyon. Petroglyphs and other ancient markings show just how long people have been coming to the area for all kinds of adventures. Modern-day explorers will enjoy bringing their cameras and taking some incredible photos to share on social media. 

Cathedral Rock at Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona, Arizona

Mystical, majestic, and surreal, Sedona casts a spell with its fiery rock formulations, steep canyons, energy vortexes, and pine forests. This hallowed landscape attracts four million people each year—many seeking spiritual transformation. Not surprisingly, it has become a hotbed of New Age healing with many wellness-oriented outposts like crystal shops, aura readers, yoga studios, and holistic spas. In case you are curious, this Sedona road trip is as magical as everyone says it is.

San Rafael Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Rafael River, Utah

To those who think, “Gosh I love the Grand Canyon, I just wish it was smaller,” the San Rafael River is the place for you. Located in Emery County, the San Rafael River Gorge is often called the “Little Grand Canyon.” The canyons’ walls that sit at a nearly 90-degree angle serve as eye-catching views from above and from those floating through the Green River which flows through the gorge on its way to joining the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park near Moab.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods, Utah

The Valley of the Gods lies below the Moki Dugway overlook on US-163 south of Natural Bridges National Monument. You enter another world as you descend from scrub forest to desert. Like a miniature Monument Valley, the Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide-open spaces that seem to go on forever. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley near many of the formations. Days can be spent by anyone with a camera and time. The Valley of the Gods is full of long and mysterious shadows in the evening. The morning sun shines directly on the valley and its towers.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

There are a lot of things going on in Capitol Reef which was named a national monument in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and then a national park in 1971. The Navajo Sandstone cliff features fascinating white dome formations. The area also features amazing ridges, bridges, and monoliths (not the metal ones that have been mysteriously popping up around the state). The petroglyphs in the gorge are also a must-see.

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock, Texas

Enchanted Rock, the 425-foot-high dome that is the centerpiece of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, is one of the largest exposed batholiths in the country. It is a massive pink granite dome that formed when the molten rock solidified beneath the surface more than a billion years ago. The summit of Enchanted Rock is easily accessed via the park’s Summit Trail. The trail begins at the Westside parking area where it descends briefly into an arroyo before ascending quickly.  

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab, Utah

Every adventure needs a base camp. Moab offers access to the mind-blowing red rocks of Arches National Park and gushing waters of the Colorado River plus plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Uranium may have put this Utah town on the map in the early 1900s but its story began in the Mesozoic Era. Aspiring paleontologists can dig for fossils and follow in the footsteps of dinosaurs at Moab Giants. For the over 21 crowds, there’s a brewery and Spanish Valley Vineyards hosts daily wine tastings.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

California’s paramount landscape of fire and ice, Lassen Volcanic National Park opened for summertime activities last week. All the park’s roads, campgrounds, and trailheads opened for the first time in seven months with some high-country trails in sun-shielded sites still covered with patches of snow. Lassen features a landscape built primarily by volcanic blasts and lava flows with the last series of major eruptions from 1914 to 1918. Its high country is cut by ice and snow. The park’s 106,000 acres is a matrix of lava peaks, basalt flows, and geothermal basins that are set amid forests, lakes, and streams.

Worth Pondering…

Life is surreal and beautiful.

—Kenneth Branagh

The Land above the Canyons: Top 10 Options for Fun in the Monticello Area

And no I’m not talking about visiting your Uncle Monti & his cello

With towering mountains, vast red rock canyons, hundreds of hiking trails, world-famous snow, and endless outdoor recreation, Utah is a major playground for adventure. The only hard part is deciding where to begin.

If you’re itching to get out the door, you can’t go wrong with a trip to the “Land Above the Canyons.” We’re talking about none other than Monticello (mon-ti-sel-oh). It may be a small town (2020 population: 1,935) but it packs a big punch. You’ll finally have some solitude in your life (get away from the hustle and bustle) along with some super real adventures! From hiking, biking, ATV riding, golfing, and camping, you’ll never have a dull moment in Monticello. If you want the chance to experience everything Monticello has to offer you’ll definitely need a few more days than you had originally planned. You can feel free to go visit ol’ uncle Monti and his cello if you fancy, or you can pack your bags and head out for an amazing southeastern Utah adventure.

Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A high-elevation town on the edge of Utah’s Canyon Country, Monticello lies on the sheltered eastern slope of the Abajo Mountains overlooking a maze of sandstone canyons and plateaus. The Abajos, topped by 11,360-foot Abajo Peak, are Monticello’s summer paradise with mild temperatures, cooling rains, and recreation sites scattered through Manti La Sal National Forest.

Monticello is also a place where Utah’s past brushes against the present with ruins and rock art from the Ancient Ones scattered in nearby Bears Ears National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument. The town is also a starting point for the 480-mile Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway, a huge highway loop lined with scenic views and important archeological sites.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are a few things to add to your bucket list when you go.

Bears Ears National Monument: Indian Creek and Shash Jáa Units

Distance from Monticello to Indian Creek Unit: 20 miles

Distance from Monticello to Shash Jáa Unit: 61 miles

Bears Ears National Monument has a rich cultural heritage and is sacred to many Native American tribes who rely on these lands for traditional and ceremonial uses. Outstanding opportunities to hike, visit cultural sites, backpack, mountain bike, float the San Juan River, and ride OHVs exist within the monument boundaries. Other world-class activities include scenic drives, photography, rock climbing, camping, paleontological exploration, and wildlife viewing.

Bears Ears National Monument has two units: the Shash Jáa Unit to the south and the Indian Creek Unit to north.

Nawspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Newspaper Rock

Distance from Monticello: 21 miles

Extra, extra, read all about it! You can see all the news you can’t actually read at one of the West’s most famous rock art sites. The rock is called Tse’ Hane in Navajo, or “rock that tells a story.” There are hundreds of petroglyphs here that feature a mixture of forms including pictures resembling humans, animals, tools, and more esoteric, abstract things. The 200-square-foot rock site is a part of the cliffs all along the upper end of Indian Creek Canyon. Indian Creek Canyon is a popular Utah destination for rock climbers who flock to the Wingate sandstone for its pristine cracks which are scaled with traditional climbing aids. However, the common nature lover will still get much out of the scenic drive; better still, the road leads to The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Take your family past this historic site and see if you can decipher the rock’s story for yourself!

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District

Distance from Monticello: 32 miles

The Needles District forms the southeastern portion of Canyonlands National Park. Its signature features are colorful sandstone spires—hundreds of them poking up from the desert floor. There are also entrenched canyons, natural arches, and sheer-walled cliffs in this vast, rugged landscape. This area is famous for its rough jeep trails, including some that rank with the most challenging in the world. You need a high clearance 4X4 vehicle optimized for off-road travel to drive some of the routes here.

Hole N” the Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hole N” the Rock

Distance from Monticello: 38 miles

Imagine living in a 5,000-square-foot home that’s carved directly into a large cliff. It’s a very unique way to go about building a house! That was the vision of a man named Albert Christensen in the 1940s. Christensen spent 12 years digging, carving, and blasting out a rock home for his family to live in. He also opened a unique diner where travelers could stop for lunch. After he died in the late 1950s, Christensen’s wife Gladys continued to live in their rock home and run the diner. She and her husband are both buried near the rocks they called home. The ‘Hole N” the Rock’ house has 14 rooms including a fireplace with a 65-foot chimney, a deep French fryer, and a bathtub built into the rock.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument

Distance from Monticello: 66 miles

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’, while Sipapu means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins. Moderate to difficult trails some with metal stairs lead down to each bridge. A longer trail follows the stream bed beneath all three bridges.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moki Dugway

Distance from Monticello: 75 miles

Moki Dugway is a staggering, graded dirt switchback road carved into the face of the cliff edge of Cedar Mesa. It consists of three miles of steep, unpaved, but well-graded switchbacks (11 percent grade) which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods below. The term “moki” is derived from the Spanish word, moqui, a general term used by explorers in this region to describe Pueblo Indians they encountered as well as the vanished Ancestral Puebloan culture. Dugway is a term used to describe a roadway carved from a hillside.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods

Distance from Monticello: 68 miles

Perhaps one of the most intriguing names of all of the destinations in San Juan County is the Valley of the Gods. While similar to the geography found at Monument Valley to the south, this Bureau of Land Management area sees much, much less traffic, thereby adding solitude to its beauty. A number of tall, red, isolated mesas, buttes, and cliffs tower above the valley floor and can be seen while driving along the 17-mile gravel road on which it sits. Carved over the course of 250 million years from the Cedar Mesa sandstone, the variety of formations shows the power of time, water, wind, and ice at play in this desert landscape.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument

Distance from Monticello: 66 miles

The six abandoned Ancestral Puebloan ruins in Hovenweep National Monument are impressive not only for their excellent state of preservation but also for the diversity in the structures including square and circular towers, D-shaped dwellings and many kivas (Puebloan ceremonial structures, usually circular). The park preserves 700-year-old—and even older—archeological sites that visitors can access by paved and dirt roads. Hovenweep boasts incredible skies for night viewing and has been named a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.

Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway

Distance from Monticello: Mile 0

The Trail of the Ancients, a federally designated National Scenic Byway circles through the ancient Puebloan Country of southeastern Utah providing opportunity to view scenic landscapes, archaeological, cultural, and historic sites as well as Natural Bridges and Hovenweep national monuments, Monument Valley, Edge of the Cedars State Park, and Manti La Sal National Forest. It’s a land filled with 250-million-year-old rock formations, mysterious Anasazi ruins, and remnants of long-ago Mormon pioneer families, all but undiscovered by crowds of tourists.

Manti La Sal National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreate in Manti La Sal National Forest

If you’re in the mood for some fishing, cross-country skiing, mountain climbing, or hiking, the Manti La Sal National Forest is the perfect destination for your favorite outdoor recreational activities. The forest features more than 1,600 miles of streams, 8,100 acres of lakes, and hundreds of miles of hiking, biking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and off-road trails, so there’s plenty to explore.

Worth Pondering…

Sometimes a day trip isn’t about where you’re going. Sometimes it’s just about going. About straying off the interstates and hitting the back roads to see what you can find.

A Journey of Incredible Beauty: Trail of the Ancients

Take your time and savor the sights—and along much of the route…the silence

Far too often we consider the roads that we travel purely as a means to get from point A to point B. Most spend far more hours in their cars commuting and running errands than truly enjoying what lies beyond the edge of the asphalt or concrete. But once you hit the road in your recreational vehicle, why not get off the roads most traveled and take in the breath-taking splendor of America’s system of scenic byways?

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Trail of the Ancients, a federally designated National Scenic Byway circles through the ancient Puebloan (Anasazi) Country of southeastern Utah, providing opportunity to view scenic landscapes, archaeological, cultural, and historic sites, as well as Natural Bridges and Hovenweep (also in Colorado) national monuments, Monument Valley, Edge of the Cedars State Park, and Manti La Sal National Forest. It’s a land filled with 250-million-year-old rock formations, mysterious Anasazi ruins, and remnants of long-ago Mormon pioneer families, all but undiscovered by crowds of tourists. An extension of this route continues into Colorado to Mesa Verde National Park, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, and Ute Mountain Tribal Park.

Take your time and savor the sights—and along much of the route…the silence. Attempt this 482-mile drive (366 miles in Utah; 116 miles in Colorado) in a single day or two and you’ll miss the point. This landscape took thousands of years to create; you’ll never appreciate it at 65 miles per hour. Instead, take a week or more, stopping to walk through the numerous parks, preserves, monuments, and unnamed places whose beauty defies categorization. Start at any point along the route.

Utah Highway 261 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway enters Utah east of Monticello on U.S. Highway 491 and continues to the junction in Monticello with U.S. Highway 191. Turn south onto U.S. 191 and travel to Blanding where you’ll find Edge of the Cedars State Park and Museum, a good stop for an introduction to the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) pre-history of the area. Visitors can walk the paths through the ruins and climb into the kiva via a ladder, just as the original residents did. Exceptionally rare and well-preserved artifacts are at the heart of the museum exhibits.

Utah Highway 261 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Blanding the route follows U.S. Highway 191 south to the junction with Utah Highway 95 and continues west on Highway 95 to Utah Highway 261 passing Butler Wash Ruin, Mule Canyon Ruin, and Natural Bridges National Monument. Butler Wash Ruins, about 10.5 miles west of Blanding, has cliff-type dwellings located under rocky overhangs in a lush green valley along the river. An easy half-mile hike allows closer views. Eight miles further west along Highway 95 brings you to Mule Canyon Indian Ruins at milepost 101. Adjacent to the road, the site contains dwelling units, a reconstructed open kiva, and round tower—all made of stone.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just a few more miles and you’re at Natural Bridges National Monument about 35 miles west of Blanding. Located atop a 5,500- to 6,500-foot mesa a nine-mile, one-way, paved loop road winds through the park, revealing spectacular views of deep pinyon-filled canyons with scattered ancient cliff dwellings and three of the world’s largest natural stone bridges. Bridges differ from arches in that they are created primarily by stream action; whereas arches are created primarily by rain and wind.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bridges in this monument are all easily viewed from overlook areas along Bridge View Drive, or you can hike down into the canyon and walk under them. Interpretive signing is present at each overlook. Horsecollar Ruin Overlook Trail is mostly level and leads over the mesa to the edge of White Canyon. The small cliff dwelling is unique in that it is still plastered. The doorways to the two granaries are shaped like the horsecollars used in harness equipment. A small campground is limited to RVs less than 26 feet but an overflow area on the edge of the park has plenty of room.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Natural Bridges National Monument, the Trail of the Ancient Scenic Byway turns south at the junction with Highways 95 and 261. Along this route you’ll find access to Grand Gulch Primitive Area and hiking trails on the mesa top. Prior to dropping off the Moki Dugway is County Road 274, a 5-mile remote dirt road leading to Muley Point which has been listed by National Geographic as one of the most outstanding views in America. From its magnificent overlook you’ll peer deep into the San Juan River Canyon and onto Monument Valley 25 miles or so in the distance.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The infamous Moki Dugway is a 3-mile stretch of unpaved road that descends 1,000 feet down tight switchbacks from the edge of Cedar Mesa into the Valley of the Gods. The dugway itself is a historic part of the trail, built during the uranium boom to accommodate ore trucks that traveled from the mines on Cedar Mesa to the mill near the Navajo community of Halchita across the San Juan River from Mexican Hat. Never planned for public use, Moki Dugway is not recommended for RV travel.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the bottom of the Dugway our journey continues past the entrance to the little-known Valley of the Gods and onto the junction with Utah Highway 316 which leads to Goosenecks State Park. Although Valley of the Gods is not listed as a site on the Trail, it is worth visiting. The 17-mile loop drive on a native surface road leads among sandstone monoliths which have been given fanciful names such as Seven Sailors, Southern Lady, Rooster Butte, and Battleship Butte.  The valley allows a close-up look at towers and mesas of multicolored sandstone and other sedimentary rocks in subtle shades of pink, red, gold, orange, and purple. The sandstone monoliths here are reminiscent of Monument Valley. This route puts travelers on Highway 163, between Bluff and Mexican Hat.

Goosenecks State Park is another adventure in geology revealing the skeleton of the earth in the layers formed by the San Juan River 1,000 feet below. The Goosenecks of the San Juan River is one of the most striking examples of an “entrenched river meander” in North America. Like a snake the river twists and turns and coils back on itself for a distance of over six miles while advancing only 1.5 miles west as it flows toward Lake Powell. Over 300 million years of geologic activity is revealed from Goosenecks State Park. Located at the end of Highway 316, Gooseneck is a wilderness park encompassing 10 acres.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah Highway 261 continues to the junction with U.S. Highway 163 and the town of Mexican Hat. Founded in the early part of the 20th century during an oil boom, Mexican Hat has a population of less than 100 and functions mostly as a stopover point for visitors on their way to Monument Valley or as a base for river expeditions.

At the junction turn right to enter Mexican Hat and on to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park where sandstone buttes, mesas, and spires rise majestically from the desert floor. Monument Valley offers the quintessential Western backdrop made famous in countless Western movies directed by John Ford. An unpaved, and at times rough, road loops through the park. Several overlooks offer spectacular views of the wonders of Monument Valley.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley’s towers, which range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet, are made of de Chelly sandstone, which is 215 million years old, with a base of organ rock shale. The towers are the remnants of mesas, or flat-topped mountains. Mesas erode first into buttes like the Elephant, which typically are as high as they are wide, then into slender spires like the Three Sisters.

After exploring the wonders of Monument Valley retrace your route for 21 miles to Mexican Hat on U.S. Highway 163 and continue east to the pioneer-era town of Bluff on the edge of the Navajo Nation. Snuggled up against the San Juan River, the town was settled by the famous “Hole-In-The-Rock” expedition of Mormon pioneers in the 1880s. Continue past Bluff and travel east on Utah Highway 262 towards the town of Aneth and follow the signs to Hovenweep National Monument.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Known for its square, oval, circular, and D-shaped towers, Hovenweep National Monument protects six prehistoric clusters of Native American ruins. Established in 1923, the villages date from the Pueblo period of the mid 13th century. They are spread over a 20-mile area along the Utah-Colorado state line. Unlike the large ruins at Mesa Verde, these are approachable and the visitor can wander among the fallen walls and consider the people who built them.

From Hovenweep return to Aneth and drive southeast on Utah Highway 162 and Colorado Highway 41 to the Four Corners and northeast on U.S. Highway 160 to Ute Mountain Tribal Park. Part of the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation, the Ute Mountain Tribal Park has been set aside to preserve remnants of the Ancestral Puebloan and Ute cultures. The Park encompasses approximately 125,000 acres around a 25 mile stretch of the Mancos River. Within the park are hundreds of surface sites and cliff dwellings, Ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs, and historic Ute wall paintings and petroglyphs.

Mesa Verde National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Ute Mountain, drive north on U.S. Highway to Cortez and Mesa Verde National Park. Fourteen centuries of history are displayed at Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde offers an excellent opportunity to see and experience the life of the Ancestral Puebloans. Spectacular cliff dwellings and mesa-top villages were built between A.D. 450 and 1300, when the Ancestral Puebloans migrated from the area. 

The park is split into a series of sub-mesas all bearing different names. There are thousands of archaeological sites across the park and excellent interpretive loops and scenic pullouts. Hiking and climbing ladders in and out of cliff dwellings is one option, or walks through less rigorous self-guided routes are also available. 

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On this note we end our fascinating discovery of an ancient land of incredible beauty.

Worth Pondering…

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.

—Marcel Proust, French novelist

A Utah Road Trip: Natural Bridges, Moki Dugway, Valley of the Gods & More

This route provides breathtaking views of some of Utah’s most beautiful sites

It’s nearly impossible to drive any kind of distance in Utah without going through some spectacular countryside, no matter what route you choose. However, there is one drive a bit off the beaten path that is not nearly as well known as other scenic drives and designated scenic byways and yet is truly worthy of a day trip.

Driving west on SR-95 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Starting this 130-mile journey from our home base at Cottonwood RV Park in Bluff, we drove our toad north on US-191 to Blanding, then took a left turn to head west on SR-95.

With every bend in the road, we found ourselves craning our necks to take in the stunning views. Enormous, patterned red rock walls lined the sides of the road, and mystical red rock formations rose up from the horizon and changed shape as we passed them by. The landscape was vast, open and colorful, and completely devoid of the human touch. Everywhere we looked, we felt inspired by the wondrous creations of a divine hand.

Driving west on SR-95 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road was first constructed in 1935 as a gateway from Blanding to Natural Bridges National Monument and remained unpaved through the 1960s. It wasn’t until the ’70s that portions of the road began to be paved. Yet, because it doesn’t link any major towns or cities, we found that as we passed by one glorious red rock vista after another on our way to Natural Bridges, there was rarely another vehicle on the road.

Driving west on SR-95 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several miles before reaching the national park gate we left SR-95, heading west on SR-275 to the park gate. Natural Bridges National Monument covers a relatively small area. It is rather remote and not close to other parks and as a result is not heavily visited.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since natural bridges are formed by running water, they are much rarer than arches, which result from a variety of other erosion forces. Natural bridges tend to be found within canyons, sometimes quite hidden, whereas arches are usually high and exposed. The area also has some scattered Indian cliff dwellings, pictographs, and scenic white sandstone canyons.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three huge multi-colored natural bridges with Hopi Indian names—Sipapu (the place of emergence), Kachina (dancer), and Owachomu (rock mounds). Moderate hiking trails, some with metal stairs or wooden ladders, provide closer access to each bridge.

Continuing our road trip, we retraced our route on SR-275 and SR-95, traveling south on SR-261 to Muley Point, Moki Dugway, and Valley of the Gods.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before descending Moki Dugway, you may wish to stop at the fantastic vista at Muley Point. To reach Muley Point, take the first road to your right (west) at the top of the dugway. The Muley Point Overlook provides viewers with a panorama of the Goosenecks of the San Juan River, and the vast, sweeping valleys of the desert valley below. 

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Also spelled Mokee, the term “moki” is derived from the Spanish word, moqui, a general term used by explorers in this region to describe Pueblo Indians they encountered as well as the vanished Ancestral Puebloan culture. Dugway is a term used to describe a roadway carved from a hillside.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Moki Dugway is a staggering, graded dirt switchback road carved into the face of the cliff edge of Cedar Mesa. It consists of three miles of steep, unpaved, but well graded switchbacks (11 percent grade), which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods below.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Moki Dugway was constructed in the 1950s to provide a way to haul ore from the Happy Jack Mine on Cedar Mesa to the mill in Halchita, near Mexican Hat.

The State of Utah recommends that only vehicles less than 28 feet and 10,000 pounds attempt to negotiate the dugway. The remainder of US-261 is paved.

Valley of the Gods lies below the Moki Dugway overlook. You enter another environment as you descend from scrub forest to desert.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide open spaces that seem to go on forever. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley near many of the formations. Short hikes are necessary to reach some, but most can be seen from the road. It is sandy and bumpy, with steep sections.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Days can be spent by anyone with a camera and time. As is usual in this stark landscape, morning and evening are the best times to take photos. The Valley of the Gods is full of long and mysterious shadows in the evening. The morning sun shines directly on the valley and its towers.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road exits onto US-163 about 7.5 miles north of Mexican Hat. Pointing our toad east for 17 miles and we’ve back at our home base in Bluff.

Worth Pondering…

How strange that nature does not knock, and yet does not intrude!

—Emily Dickinson

Free Things to Do in America

From Kentucky to Vermont and Utah, fun times don’t have to cost a lot

Just because the temperature has dropped a few degrees doesn’t mean you have to stay at home watching Netflix.

If the winter blues are making you stir crazy, fear not: There’s plenty of excitement to be had across America. From sampling maple syrup in Vermont to following the Freedom Trail in Massachusetts, you don’t have to leave the U.S.—or break your budget—to have an amazing adventure.

Check out these seven fun activities you can enjoy in these states for free. Note that, in 2020, it’s imperative to check websites and social media updates beforehand to ensure that your destination is open and accepting visitors at the time you arrive.

Morse Farms Maple Sugarworks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Free Things to Do in Vermont: Taste Maple Syrup

Don’t leave Vermont without sampling some authentic maple syrup. You’ll find plenty of maple farms in the Green Mountain State, and some of them offer free tastings. At Sugarbush Farm in Woodstock, for example, you can get free admission and try four grades of pure Vermont maple syrup.

Boston Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Free Things to Do in Massachusetts: Follow the Freedom Trail

You can’t follow the yellow brick road in Boston, but you can follow a red line that guides you along the 2.5-mile Freedom Trail. Visit 16 official sites that are significant in the history of the American Revolution, from the Old Corner Bookstore to the site of the Boston Massacre.

And don’t forget about Faneuil Hall, which hosted America’s first town meeting. These days, you can shop, eat, and enjoy live musical performances in the market.

Buffalo Trace Distillery tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Free Things to Do in Kentucky: Drink Bourbon

Kentucky is known for its bourbon, so why not take a tour of the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort? All tours are complimentary, and the Trace Tour doesn’t require a reservation. You’ll see bourbon barrels and get to sample some of the best local liquor. Extend your travels on the Bourbon Trail.

Shiner beer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Free Things to Do in Texas: Tour a Brewery and Sample Beer in Shiner

Speaking of beloved American beverages… Shiner, Texas is home to 2,069 people, Friday’s Fried Chicken, and—most famously—the Spoetzal Brewery where every drop of Shiner beer is brewed. Tours are offered throughout the week, where visitors can see how every last drop of their popular brews get made. Tours and samples are free. Founded in 1909, the little brewery today sends more than 6 million cases of delicious Shiner beer to states across the country. Founder, Kosmos Spoetzal, would be pretty proud! To which we say “Prosit!”

Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Free Things to Do in Virginia: Wander Colonial Williamsburg 

Explore Colonial Williamsburg in the city of Williamsburg. Visitors typically drop a bit of cash to tour the 18th century buildings in Colonial Williamsburg, but if you keep your wanderings to commercial shops and the city streets, you don’t have to spend a dime.

You’ll be highly entertained as you explore the government buildings, shops, homes, gardens, and taverns of Williamsburg and viewing free outdoor entertainment like re-enactment actors firing cannons. Enter the residents’ homes or learn about their workplaces; see where they sleep, where they eat, and where they socialize.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Free Things to Do in Utah: Explore the Valley of the Gods

This little valley near Bluff, Utah is filled with sandstone formations and starry night skies. Located in the southeastern corner of Utah it is out of the way of the main national park loop.

To drive through the Valley of the Gods you will take a 17-mile, unpaved loop. Similar to Monument Valley, but only a quarter of the size, it remains quiet and peaceful.

Holmes County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Free Things to Do in Ohio: Experience the Past in the Present in Holmes County

The Amish have established themselves in the Holmes County area, and it is estimated that one in every six Amish in the world live in this area. The Amish choose to live a simple way of life, which is clearly evident by the presence of horses and buggies, handmade quilts, and lack of electricity in Amish homes.

Holmes County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the byway you will be treated to the typical, yet breathtaking sights of Amish Country: teams of huge, blonde Belgians pulling wagons of hay, farmers working in the fields and of course, beautiful views of lush, green farmland, large white houses, and red barns.

Worth Pondering…

America is laced with nooks and crannies, good places that go undiscovered by many mainstream travelers.

Get Outside and Enjoy Nature

Finding joy in the outdoors

The world was flipped upside-down when COVID-19 spread to the US and Canada affecting each aspect of human life and social interaction. As humans we have a weapon to fight against the negative effects that come with social isolation—the great outdoors.

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

Many cities across the country issued shelter-in-place orders, directing individuals to stay home to decrease the spread of the coronavirus. The resulting loneliness often led to higher stress levels, increased depression, impaired immunity, or other negative health impacts.

As days go by without social relationships, our mental and physical health is at risk. These ill effects can counter by spending time in the outdoors.

Trapp Family Lodge near Stowe, Vermont © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a study conducted by the University of Exeter in England, researchers found that people who spent more time outdoors were less likely to feel anxiety or depression. Another study found that exposure to sun rays was associated with lower blood pressure. People who feel more connected to nature tend to feel more life satisfaction, vitality, and general happiness.

Forest bathing, or nature therapy, has become a popular technique to promote the health benefits of being outside. Exposure to green space has been proven to induce relaxation.

Brasstown Bald Scenic Byway, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since COVID hit, people have been taking the opportunity to explore the outdoors more. A survey conducted by Civic Science found that 43 percent of Americans 13 years or older said they have participated in more outdoor activities because of social distancing rules.

Shenandoah River State Park, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So what can you do during this time to combat the stress and fatigue that follows social isolation? Go outside! Go on a scenic drive! Go to a state park! Go for a hike! And find the peace that nature provides!

As the weather cools get outside and soak up the beautiful sights and sounds of the autumn season. The yearly spectacle of fall puts changing leaves at the forefront of our imagination but you don’t have to imagine the beauty.

Valley of the Gods, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are several great suggestions for fall trips to help you get the most out of this amazing time of year in America’s most beautiful places. So, come along and find out what to do and where to go this fall. Step out of summer and into an autumn adventure. And snap some photos while you do!

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

This 522,427-acre park straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee comes alive with red, yellow, and orange from mid-September to early November thanks to a collection of 100 tree species, most of them deciduous. The best way to view the likes of flaming cove and northern hardwood, maple, and beech trees is via a scenic drive along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail or Cades Cove or a hike along area trails such as the Appalachian Trail or Oconaluftee River Trail.

Cold Hollow Cider Mill, Vermont

Vermont

The state’s loveliest drive might just be its largest highway, Route 100—a 200-mile-plus thoroughfare that vertically dissects the state from Massachusetts to Canada. In fact, nature photographers from all over the country hit the highway for guaranteed peak foliage photography. But the main event comes when you turn off Route 100 onto the Green Mountain Byway which takes you from Waterbury to Stowe. This means leaf-watching against a backdrop of bucolic mountains and farmland, cider donuts from Cold Hollow Cider Mill, and a detour into the Ben and Jerry’s Factory (for pickup orders only).

Brasstown Bald, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway, Georgia

Surrounded by the beauty of the Chattahoochee National Forest, the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway runs 40 miles from Blairsville to Brasstown Bald, the state’s highest peak, and access points along the Appalachian Trail. This national byway winds through the valleys and mountain gaps of the southern Appalachians. From the vistas atop Brasstown Bald to the cooling mists of waterfalls, scenic wonders fill this region. Hike the Appalachian Trail or fish in a cool mountain stream. Enjoy spectacular views of the mountains and piedmont. Several scenic overlooks and interpretive signs are features of this route.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah River State Park, Virginia

Just 15 minutes from the town of Front Royal, Virginia awaits a state park that can only be described as lovely. This park is on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and has more than 1,600 acres along 5.2 miles of shoreline. In addition to the meandering river frontage, the park offers scenic views of Massanutten Mountains to the west and Shenandoah National Park to the east. A large riverside picnic area, picnic shelters, trails, and river access make this a popular destination for families, anglers, and canoeists. Ten riverfront tent campsites, a campground with water and electric sites, cabins, camping cabins, and a group campground are available. With more than 24 miles of trails, the park has plenty of options for hiking, biking, horseback riding, and adventure.

Valley of the Gods, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods, Utah

Often described as a ‘miniature’ version of Monument Valley, Valley of the Gods is arguably, equally spectacular. What Valley of the Gods may lack when it comes to the size and volume of its free-standing monoliths, spires, and fins, it makes up for with solitude. It would be a rare occurrence to pass through Monument Valley without seeing another visitor but at Valley of the Gods you’re likely to have the whole place to yourself to explore and enjoy. Take in a scenic hike or stop for a picnic in the crisp fall air.

Avery Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Avery Island, Louisiana

Lush subtropical flora and venerable live oaks draped with Spanish moss cover this geological oddity which is one of five “islands” rising above south Louisiana’s flat coastal marshes. The island occupies roughly 2,200 acres and sits atop a deposit of solid rock salt thought to be deeper than Mount Everest is high. Geologists believe this deposit is the remnant of a buried ancient seabed, pushed to the surface by the sheer weight of surrounding alluvial sediments. Today, Avery Island remains the home of the TABASCO brand pepper sauce factory as well as Jungle Gardens and its Bird City wildfowl refuge. The Tabasco factory and the gardens are open for tours.

Jungle Gardens, Avery Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

It’s a beautiful day for it.

—Wilbur Cross