America’s 10 Most Popular National Parks, Ranked

The United States is currently home to 63 national parks and you genuinely won’t find a dud among them. But that doesn’t mean some parks aren’t better than others.

The 10 most popular parks might be the easiest to access, but if you’re still hedging your bets on where to take a road trip, we’ve ranked them from good to greatest.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For many living in big cities, the sad truth is that the only time they remember there are parts of America not covered in condos, big box stores, and fast-food outlets is when they’re Instagramming them from 36,000 feet. Which is also when many think to themselves, “Wow, I wish I could see all that beauty up close and without a plane wing in my way.”

Well, turns out, there is! It’s called the National Parks Service. And you can RV there and take in all that awesome beauty.

And as a reminder of the scope of America’s awe-inspiring natural beauty (and its 63-strong national parks created by the coolest dude ever from New York), we thought it’d be fun to take 10 of the most-visited parks in 2020 and rank them by their level of adventure and sheer, mind-blowing spectacle. Turns out, yes, it was fun.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park (California)

If you ever wondered what your pet iguana feels like when he looks up at you, visit the second-oldest national park in America. Here, outside Visalia, California, not only can you look up at the biggest tree in the world (the 275-foot tall, 60-foot wide General Sherman) but also at five of the 10 largest trees in the world. They’re not easy to get to though: 84 percent of the park doesn’t have roads and is only accessible on foot or horseback.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park (Arizona)

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

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)

Along the densely populated mid-Atlantic, no national park makes a faster, prettier escape to nature than this one. The main attraction here is Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains and offers sweeping views of the valley and, in fall, an explosion of insane colors. It’s also home to a big chunk of the Appalachian Trail if you’re feeling extra ambitious.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park (New Mexico)

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

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona)

Petrified Forest is known for its treasure trove of fossilized logs, exposed after eons of erosion by wind and water. About 60 million years ago, tectonic action pushed the Colorado Plateau upwards, exposing the layers of rock containing the park’s Triassic fossils. The park is composed of two sections: the north section is a colorful badlands called the Painted Desert and the southern section contains most of the petrified wood. The park consists of a 28-mile road that offers numerous overlooks and winds through the mesas and wilderness. Visitors can also choose to hike a variety of trails ranging from easy to difficult.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park (California)

The only national park to get its very own U2 album named after it has exploded in popularity over the past decade, now the 10th most-visited park with 2.4 million visitors. They’re not coming in droves to see if the streets do, in fact, have no name. They’re coming because Joshua Tree boasts perhaps the best collection of rock-climbing faces in the US. The desert park also has 501 archeological sites, and is home to the lower Coachella Valley, making it a popular day trip for snowbirds and music festival goers.  

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee, North Carolina)

The MOST VISITED PARK IN AMERICA spans four counties across two states and runs through part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Accessible from both Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina, the park has more than 1,660 different kinds of flowering plants—the most of any national park. Its highest point is Clingman’s Dome, where a 50-foot observation deck allows visitors to soak in some spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding beauty. More than 12 million annual visitors make it nearly four times as busy as the second-place Yellowstone.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park (Utah)

Give whoever named this park credit: they didn’t mince words. This 120-square-mile national treasure outside Moab is all about arches, 2,000 of them in fact. All formed from millions of years of sandstone erosion. The most famous is the Delicate Arch, a 65-footer that you might recognize from playing the license plate game back when—and yes, it’s on the Utah tag.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park (Utah)

Ask anyone to name Utah’s five National Parks and odds are Capitol Reef is the one they forget among its arched-and-canyoned cousins. You should remember Capitol Reef for the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile wrinkle in the earth and a feature you won’t find elsewhere in the state. It’s also been designated as a “Gold Tier” Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association so camping here will yield some of the prettiest stars you’ve ever seen. At just under a million visitors last year, it offers much of the red rocks and striking geology of other Utah parks, without the crowds.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

John Wesley Powell said it best, “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself.” A universally recognizable iconic destination, Grand Canyon National Park is a true marvel of nature that’s on every RVer’s bucket list. A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. A deep gorge carved by the Colorado River about seventeen million year ago, the Grand Canyon stretches for more than 250 miles and is up to 18 miles in width and more than a mile deep in some areas.

Worth Pondering…

Adventure is worthwhile.

―Aesop

A Monumental Road Trip through New Mexico’s National Monuments

From ancient natural wonders to Native American and Southwestern culture, to scenic vistas and alien lore, New Mexico is one of the most wonderfully unique destinations in America

Road trips have the unique ability to make you feel like you’ve thoroughly explored a region on a Lewis and Clark-esque journey. In reality, even the most extensive road trips leave many stones unturned especially in states with seemingly limitless natural beauty. New Mexico would probably take months on the road to fully explore. That’s okay. You don’t have to see every inch of New Mexico on one tank of fuel but the state’s famous national monuments are a good place to start.

Albuquerque from Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In fact, only California and Arizona have more national monuments and that’s not even counting New Mexico’s historic parks. Rather than visit all 11 national monuments we’ve listed our favorites among them which will give you a feel for what makes this state’s geography so unique and memorable. Whether it’s a volcanic field or a white-sand desert, New Mexico’s unusual landscapes are just waiting to be visited. Here’s how to plan the perfect New Mexico road trip through its epic national monuments.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Albuquerque to rock carvings

Road trips might be about the journey rather than the destination but no one wants to wait too long before stopping at their first viewpoint or reaching the first stop on their itinerary. When you set out from Albuquerque you’ll only have to wait mere minutes before seeing your first national monument.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Technically located within the city limits of Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument stretches 17 miles along Albuquerque’s West Mesa. Petroglyphs are rock carvings where drawings are made by chiseling on the outer layer of the stone to expose the paler rock underneath. One of the largest petroglyph sites in North America, this area features designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks 400 to 700 years ago by Native Americans and Spanish settlers. The symbols give you a window into the life of a centuries-old civilization and serve as a record of cultural expression.

There are also four different hiking trails just a short drive from the information center ranging in length from one to four miles roundtrip. Three of these trails allow for petroglyph viewing. To see the area is less time and then continue on your journey, consider mountain biking. Bikes are permitted on the Boca Negra Canyon multi-use path.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Head to the headlands

About two hours west of Duke City, El Morro begs the traveler—ancient and modern—to rest awhile. This national monument is an area both of scenic beauty and historic significance. The bluff (el morro means “the headland” in Spanish) has a reliable source of water making it a great base for ancestral Puebloans and a good stopping point for both Spanish and American travelers. Along the path, only a half mile long and perfect for the casual visitor, are ancient petroglyphs as well as inscriptions from Spanish conquistadors as early as 1605 and, more recently, American travelers passing through in the 1850s.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico’s volcanic landscape

From El Morro, your route continues back toward Albuquerque and it’s worth the detour to head to El Malpais National Monument. The rough lava landscape so scarred by its volcanic history that “malpaís” in fact means “badland.” Like El Morro, the landscape is quite barren though there is evidence of prior volcanic activity including several lava tubes you can explore.  Even though these badlands cover a large area you can see much of it by following the main park road. Numerous hikes and longer treks are available. Malpais is certainly worth a visit.

White Sands National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South to the white desert

Since you’re half way to the border of Arizona at this point, it’s time to turn around and head south. But we’re not stopping at Albuquerque. We’re passing your starting point by about four hours (250 miles) to White Sands National Park taking Interstate 25 south to Las Cruces and US-70 northeast.

At the end of 2019, White Sands was designated a national park—but it was a national monument for 86 years. It’s on the itinerary because you haven’t really seen the New Mexico desert until you’ve seen White Sands, a remarkable place that looks like the Sahara Desert collided with the Alabama Gulf Coast. That’s because its sand is made of gypsum, a mineral salt left by a long-lost lake tens of millions of years ago.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located at the southern edge of a 275-square-mile dune field in the Tularosa Basin, the monument is best explored by the eight-mile Dunes Drive from the visitor center into the heart of the rippled gypsum knolls. In addition to driving the alien terrain you can also get out and cycle, take advantage of picnic areas, or even camp under the stars. Indeed, backcountry camping sites among the dunes are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

There are five hiking trails through the park ranging from the half-mile Playa Trail focusing on outdoor educational exhibits to the more strenuous Alkali Flat Trail, a five-mile round trip hike taking you to the edge of Lake Otero. Despite its name, the trail is not flat taking you over steep dunes and into the heart of the spectacular park.

Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From delicate dunes to craggy peaks

To cap off your New Mexico road trip, travel south to Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument. A stark departure from the flat, arid landscape that has defined much of this road trip, this area is home to dramatic ranges with rocky spires and the park is full of open woodlands with towering ponderosa pines.

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The monument includes the Organ Mountains, Doña Ana Mountains, Sierra de las Uvas Mountains Complex, and the Greater Potrillo Mountains. The Organ Mountains are defined by their angular peaks, narrow canyons, and views of the Chihuahuan Desert habitat. It’s popular among horseback riders, mountain bikers, campers, and hikers. The Doña Ana Mountains have an abundance of hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking trails as well as rock climbing routes. The more remote Potrillo Mountains comprise a volcanic landscape including lava flows and craters.

Before driving back to Albuquerque, consider spending an evening in Las Cruces to explore Historic Mesilla and savor the area’s Hatch Valley chile peppers in one of its tempting green chile burgers—or even in a sweet frozen custard.

La Posta in Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

Discover Art, Bats & Aliens Everywhere

An amazing trippy desert wonderland

You could visit New Mexico for the beauty of nature alone and leave perfectly happy. The Southwest state is full of national parks and monuments that show off volcanic rock formations, cave dwellings, and stark white sand dunes that could’ve been imported straight from the Sahara, if not another planet entirely. Throughout it all, Native American culture, historic architecture, and an Old West independent spirit are woven into the cultural fabric. And at this confluence of traditions, history, and geology, you’ll find a place unlike anywhere else on the continent. 

Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ve also got Breaking Bad filming locations, nuclear test sites, and probably at least a few aliens. You’ll find world-class museums and some of the best regional cuisine in America and ancient settlements still thriving after centuries. The Land of Enchantment is all but demanding to be your next big road-trip destination. In the meantime, here’s what you’re missing. 

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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

La Fonda on the Plaza, Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Fe 

Most of the action in Santa Fe is in the walkable, easy-to-navigate Historic District where adobe architecture complements a legacy of Spanish Colonial history and Native American heritage. Santa Fe is a food lover’s paradise. The cuisine is as unique as the city itself. Spanish colonizers brought chile with them when they founded Santa Fe in 1610 and it has shaped the state’s cuisine for more than 400 years. Santa Fe’s culinary world allows diners to experience a true cultural exploration with every bite. Savor a taste of the Southwest with delectable dining experiences at La Fonda on the Plaza or El Farol. Every bartender in town is trying to outdo each other with their Margaritas, but Santa Fe cements its legacy as one of the best cities in the country for art whether browsing the shops near the Plaza town square or the galleries on Canyon Road. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

Stretching 275 square miles, the dunes here aren’t composed of your typical beach sand but rather from gypsum crystals left behind from a nearby dried-out lake bed. The result looks more like a white-sand version of the Sahara than New Mexico. You half expect to see camels waltzing by. The dunes are a jarring sight so far inland and best experienced by hiking or zipping down the sand in one of the plastic saucers sold at the visitor center. The White Sands Missile Range (north of the national park) has its place in history as the site of the world’s first atomic bomb detonation.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands of El Morro and El Malpais

El Morro and El Malpais national monuments stand in western New Mexico fewer than 50 miles apart. They preserve rugged, demanding landscapes that have attracted travelers from ancestral Puebloans to early 20th century homesteaders. El Morro means “The Headland,” a landmark above the desert that guided travelers to a towering cliff and natural water reservoir. Many carved petroglyphs, names, and dates into the soft sandstone to show who came before. El Malpais is Spanish for “The Badlands.” There is much to see. You’ll find expansive lava flows, cinder cones, complex lava-tube cave system more than 17 miles long, fragile ice caves as well as sandstone bluffs and mesas easily viewed from Sandstone Bluff’s Overlook.

Albuquerque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Albuquerque

New Mexico isn’t always about the beauty of nature. Albuquerque has all the traffic, grit, and congestion of any big city—although it’s not without its share of Southwestern charm. Walk the cobblestone streets of Old Town where the city was founded in 1706 or visit during the week-long Balloon Fiesta, the largest hot air balloon festival in the world which usually takes place every autumn. An even more rewarding mode of transportation is the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway which carries guests nearly three miles to an observation deck more than 10,000 feet high in the Cibola National Forest with sweeping views of the Rio Grande Valley east of the city. 

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesilla 

Just outside Las Cruces, the tiny town of Mesilla is one of the most unexpected surprises in the entire state. Formerly part of Mexico and the focus of more than one border dispute, Mesilla is rich in culture and fosters an independent spirit while still celebrating its heritage. Visit during Cinco de Mayo weekend to really see the people come alive. Mesilla Plaza is the heart of the community with the twin steeples of Basilica of San Albino as the most identifiable landmark. The church is more than 160 years old but still welcomes the public for regular mass. The heritage is also represented in the shops and restaurants in the Mercado district. Eat dinner at the haunted Double Eagle or stick with traditional Mexican cuisine at La Posta.

UFO Museum, Roswell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roswell

So was it space aliens or a weather balloon that crashed outside Roswell back in 1947? We’ll probably never get a straight answer from the authorities but that doesn’t stop the fifth-largest city in New Mexico from embracing its UFO legacy. There’s the International UFO Museum and Research Center where kitsch counts just as much as scientific evidence and the Roswell UFO Spacewalk, a blacklight journey through vintage sci-fi imagery. There’s even a McDonalds on Main Street built in the shape of a flying saucer. But lest you think it’s all probes and spaceships, Roswell also has four art museums that have (almost) nothing to do with space creatures.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I ever had. It certainly changed me forever….The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning sunshine high over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend….In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly and the world gave way to the new.

—D.H. Lawrence

A Dozen Amazing Spots to Visit with your RV during Winter

Winter wander lands

For RVers, the colder months provide opportunities to make the most of having a hotel on wheels. Make tracks in the snow to spots blanketed in white, follow fellow snowbirds to warmer shores, or simply enjoy the peace and quiet in places that are usually packed all summer long. Here are the best places to visit in your trailer, camper van, or motorhome during the winter. Be sure to check state travel advisories before you set out and please note that some sites may require advance booking.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

The curving, dipping dunes of White Sands look snowier than your average ski resort and you can even sled down them. But, with daytime winter temperatures averaging 60 degrees it doesn’t feel that way until the sun dips down and it’s chilly enough for a campfire. There’s no RV camping in the park but there are several spots nearby from basic dry camping at Holloman Lake near the dunes to Alamogordo and Las Cruces where sites have full hook-ups and fenced-in patios.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

What could possibly be more bizarrely beautiful than the teetering, towering hoodoo rock formations that rise like totems throughout Bryce Canyon National Park? Those same hoodoos speckled with bright white snow, that’s what. Misty mornings and pink skies make winter landscapes stunning. Several national park campsites with RV sites stay open and there are ranger-led snowshoe hikes too.

Historic Downtown Yuma © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yuma, Arizona

Prefer to give winter the cold shoulder? Make tracks for Yuma. The Sonoran Desert city can be unbearably hot in summer but its balmy winters are ideal. Yuma is the ideal city to visit for the winter season. Known as the Sunniest City on Earth, Yuma offers temperate winter weather, perfect for snowbirds to escape the snow and freezing temperatures up North. With sunny skies 91 percent of the year, Yuma is a premiere winter travel destination for those seeking a small town feel with big city amenities.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Temperatures can reach the high 60s here in winter which is much more pleasant than the often sweltering, throat-tightening summer heat. And the longer nights are a blessing in an area famed for its star-scattered dark skies. Snag a space at one of the designated camping areas like Jumbo Rocks and prepare to gaze upwards for hours. It can be chilly at night though that just means you can huddle around a campfire.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island, Texas

The weather on Padre Island near Corpus Christi stays sunny and warm even in winter and your neighbors are more likely to be chilled-out snowbirds escaping the cold than rowdy spring break crowds looking for thrills. Nab a spot at one of several RV parks then revel in the fact you can still feel warm breezes, comb beaches for shells, and watch spectacular sunsets (without catching a chill) in January or February.

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Springs, California

Palm Springs is one of those places that look awfully good to an awful lot of people at this time of year. And the weather is not its only calling card. In Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Indio, and the other desert resort cities in the Coachella Valley, you can camp for the winter in luxurious RV resorts that offer all sorts of amenities. Known for Olympic sized pools, tennis courts, and over one hundred world-class golf courses within 40 miles, this is truly upscale RV living.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The king of canyons is best viewed in peace and solitude—something that’s hard to achieve in peak season. Brave the chill and take your RV here when the mercury drops, the crowds drift away and the undulating rock formations look even more incredible. You can also view elk and deer which are more active on cooler days. Only the South Rim stays open in winter with several RV sites available.

Breaux Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Breaux Bridge, Louisiana

Nestled along the banks of the slow-rolling Bayou Teche, Breaux Bridge, the “Crawfish Capital of the World,” is a gorgeous historic town with world-class restaurants and a thriving Cajun music and folk art scene. Breaux Bridge is a great place to stop off for a meal and an afternoon of antiquing and an even better place to camp at a local RV park and stay awhile. The bridge itself isn’t much to see (though you can’t miss it)—it’s a tall, slightly rusty metal drawbridge that spans the Teche (pronounced “tesh”). The downtown stretch of Bridge Street, though, is adorable. Antique shops, boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants span several blocks.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

This sprawling 600,000-acre state park between San Diego and Palm Springs has appeared in fewer movies than spotlight-hogging Joshua Tree National Park but manages equal levels of awe. While known for its trippy metal sculptures of dinosaurs and other strange creatures, the park has so much more to offer than a cool Instagram backdrop. Observe desert bighorn sheep, hike the Palm Canyon, and, when you get tired, head back to your camping site and revel in some of the country’s most mind-blowing stars in the night skies.

Salton Sea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Slab City—an off-the-grid community that’s flush with eccentric desert art and even more eccentric characters—always makes for an interesting stopover. Be sure to check out man-made Salvation Mountain and wander the eerily beautiful Bombay Beach on the shores of the Salton Sea while you’re here.

Gulf Shores © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf Shores, Alabama

Prefer snow-white sand to snow-white snow? Alabama’s Gulf Coast stays pretty mild and sunny all year-round making it a favorite spot for those escaping frigid winters and is now reopening after suffering damage during Hurricane Sally. There are those beaches, of course, and the area also has wetlands with trails, kayaking, and birdwatching. After a day of activities, wind down in one of the fun, quirky bars or seafood restaurants which serve the region’s prized Royal Red shrimp.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, Louisiana

Starting on the outskirts of Lake Charles and ending at the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road is a network of byways where you’ll find more than 400 bird species, alligators galore, and 26 miles of Gulf of Mexico beaches. Also called “America’s Outback,” the Creole Nature Trail takes visitors through 180 miles of southwest Louisiana’s backroads. You’ll pass through small fishing villages, National Wildlife Refuges to reach the little-visited, remote Holly and Cameron beaches. Take a side trip down to Sabine Lake, or drive onto a ferry that takes visitors across Calcasieu Pass. Throughout the trip, expect to see exotic birds; this area is part of the migratory Mississippi Flyway. 

Ajo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ajo, Arizona

With its rich tradition as a former copper mining hub, Ajo is a casual town with relaxed charm. Enjoy its mild climate, low humidity, and clear skies. Take in the historic Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in the Downtown Historic District, Sonoran Desert flora and fauna, and panoramic views. Ajo is surrounded by 12 million acres of public and tribal land waiting to be explored. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge offer expansive hiking, camping, and birding places.

Worth Pondering…

May the joy of today, bring forth happiness for tomorrow—and may the cold Alberta air stay up north!

Five National Parks to Visit on the Ultimate Southwestern Desert Road Trip

Every destination has a story, no matter how small

When compared to lush tropical forests or sweeping grasslands, deserts may not seem like the most welcoming habitat to plan a trip around. However, a closer study of these vast expanses of earth and sand reveals a world of boundless opportunity with activities to suit any traveler. For those who wish to trek amidst remarkable rock formations, observe some of nature’s hardiest creatures, and gaze skyward towards a brilliant mosaic of stars and planets, the vast deserts of the southwestern U.S. are a paradise on earth.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is located in the remote reaches of southern Utah near the town of Bryce (convenient, eh?). Weather-wise, Bryce Canyon makes the mercury mercurial, with big temp shifts from season to season and even day to day. This is due to Bryce’s dizzying elevation—a cool 8,000–9,000 feet—and makes it a much cooler park than nearby Zion.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In spite of the name, there’s no single canyon in Bryce “Canyon”—the region is actually made up of multiple natural amphitheatres, many of which are rife with thin stone spires referred to as “hoodoos”. The park is packed with trails suited for amateur and experienced hikers alike. Even if you’re not keen on exploring the great outdoors, make sure to stop at Sunrise Point—this overlook provides an all-encompassing view of the park in all its glory.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Roughly 250 million years ago, the state we now know as New Mexico was covered in a shallow expanse of water known as the Permian Sea with layer upon layer of dissolved gypsum sinking to the sea floor over the years. Fast-forward to the modern era and this prehistoric sea has dried up leaving the largest gypsum dunefield on earth in its wake.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though the 145,000-acre expanse of pillowy sand is the main attraction around here, be sure to make a pitstop at the park’s visitor center for an introduction to the inner workings of the harsh desert ecosystem. A surprising amount of nocturnal insects, reptiles, and mammals call the park home today, but some of the most fascinating beasts in the area died out millions of years ago. Though you can’t see them in person, keep a close eye on the sand around you—fossilized footprints of giant ground sloths, dire wolves, and saber-toothed cats have been discovered buried just below the earth.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this particular preserve in eastern Arizona comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transmuted into colorful slabs of stone through a process called “permineralization”. Jasper Forest and Crystal Forest are two popular sites for encountering masses of petrified wood, but the park has more to offer than just former trees.

Painted Desert in Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks. It’s like you’ve been transported into a painting. The park is also a fascinating destination for archeology buffs with multiple sites containing relics from bygone indigenous civilizations that once thrived here.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Encompassing portions of both the Colorado and Mojave deserts, this world-famous preserve consists of over 790,000 acres making it larger than the state of Rhode Island. While the park earned its name thanks to an abundance of spiky Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia), there are hundreds of desert species that call the area home ranging from tiny toads to roadrunners to bobcats.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is home to a wide array of hiking trails for daytime visitors but overnight campers are in for a special treat—Joshua Tree’s location in the remote reaches of interior California ensures an incredible view of the stars on a clear night.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Yearning to see towering, giant saguaros in their native environment? Saguaro National Park protects and preserves a giant saguaro cactus forest that stretches across the valley floor near Tucson. Unique to the Sonoran Desert, the park’s giant saguaros reach as high as 50 feet and can live longer than 200 years.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to a broad expanse of desert, Saguaro National Park features mountainous regions—some reaching more than 8,000 feet above sea level. These varied landscapes provide ideal habitats for a wide range of flora and fauna including wildlife such as javelina, coyote, quail, and desert tortoise in the lower elevations and black bear, deer, and Mexican spotted owl in the upper elevations

Worth Pondering…

We use the word wilderness, but perhaps we mean wildness. Isn’t that why I’ve come here? In wilderness I seek the wildness in myself and in so doing come on the wildness everywhere around me. Because, after all, being part of nature I’m cut from the same cloth.

—Gretel Ehrlich in Waterfall

National Parks at their Spectacular Best in Winter

All the wonder with none of the crowds

Summer will always be the most popular time to visit national parks. For generations, families have flocked to these precious natural wonderlands to commune with nature—and to crowd hiking trails, overtake campsites, and transform peaceful naturescapes into theme parks. But sometimes you long to experience the natural sounds of nature without the discordant noise of humanity. And to do that may involve packing warm clothes. 

Winter is a magical time for many of the parks. The trails clear. The campsites are less likely to be serenaded by a guitar-picking yodeler. Fire danger is down. And, unlike peak season, you’ll feel like you have it mostly to yourself. These are the parks that are at their absolute best in winter. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

In the summertime, Zion is basically Disneyland. It’s crowded. It’s hot. You’re standing in two-hour lines just to board the tram. End this madness and go during winter. Just 13 percent of Zion visitors journey to the park between November and March for a wintertime visit in one of nature’s most glorious settings. Even better, once you’ve had your fill of the park and its legendary trails, you’ll be able to explore all the surrounding (and vastly overlooked) state parks unencumbered.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

With average summer highs of 99 degrees, Joshua Tree is just too hot to enjoy for much of the year. However, a great time to visit is in the winter. During January, February, and much of March, Joshua Tree will treat you to mild temperatures and relative quiet. See this strange beauty before the mercury rises and the Coachella Valley Music Festival and spring break crowds arrive. Joshua Tree is not only a national park where the Mojave and Colorado deserts converge but also the name of the funky little town outside the park. Give yourself time explore the park as well as the shops and curiosities along the main drag on Twentynine Palms Highway (State Route 62).

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce is beautiful at any time of year, but if you’ve never seen those famous spires and hoodoos dusted with snow then you owe it to yourself to do so. The entire park is an embarrassment of riches come wintertime. There’s cross-country skiing, ice fishing, and a winter festival. The drier air this time of year makes the desert skies unparalleled for stargazing; you’ll find regularly scheduled astronomy programs including full-moon snowshoe hikes at the newly designated International Dark Sky Park. Nowhere else on Earth will you get as vivid a look at Mars overhead while feeling like you’re standing on the Red Planet.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

You may have been curious about Congaree National Park but it wasn’t a place you wanted to visit in summer because the area gets so hot and muggy. Winter, it turns out, is a great time to explore without contending against the park’s dreaded “Mosquito Meter.” The park is a cypress swamp intersected with creeks and lakes. The cypress trees grow with the bases of their trunks underwater. The simplest path for new visitors is the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Trail. Its raised planks are less likely to be washed out than the muddy trails on the ground. Also, this is not a park I’d visit in midsummer, as the bugs are unbearable. Autumn, winter, and early spring (before the bugs come out) are the most enjoyable times of year to visit.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Overlooked and under-visited despite its proximity to bustling Tucson, Saguaro’s expanses of cartoonishly contorted cacti and relatively easy hikes are best explored during the winter. In the off season, the already thin crowds dissipate and you’re free to cavort with cactus wrens and gaze at petroglyphs with little interruption and minus the oppressive heat. Even better, the backcountry campsites—a relatively hot commodity numbering a scant 20—are easier to bag, allowing you to spend the night under the stars with only coyotes (and maybe roadrunners, given the landscape) as your company.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park is famous for the approximately 2,000 arches located throughout the park. Driving from the park entrance to the end of the road at Devil’s Garden is a total of 18 miles, one-way. There are numerous spots to pull out and take in the sights of the park. Crowds? No way. Heat stroke? Not very likely! Traffic jams? Nope. Winter is off-season at Arches which means it’s the perfect time to visit. Snow certainly falls in Arches but it rarely sticks around for more than two or three days. It’s a photographic jackpot: one day you’ll get the contrast of snow on the red rock landscapes and the next day the sun will shine, melt the snow, and blue skies will complement the park’s sandstone formations. Basically, winter in Arches is a win-win.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Located along the San Andreas Fault in central California, Pinnacles National Park is of geological significance and is known for its beautiful and diverse habitats that range from spectacular wildflowers to oak woodlands and chaparral scrub, caves, and rock spires. The giant boulders you see at Pinnacles today were formed as a result of volcanic activity that occurred over 23 million years ago. Enjoy hiking trails, rock climbing, exploring caves, star gazing, camping, and bird watching. Boasting a Mediterranean climate, the Park enjoys mild winters with moderate precipitation.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

The largest protected area of Texas, Big Bend is most appealing in winter. Temperatures hover in the 60s, perfect for taking on the park’s nearly 200 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails which span desert, riverside, and mountain terrain. The Rio Grande River borders more than 100 miles of the park and scenic half-day canoe floats are available year-round. Elevation in the park ranges from 1,800 feet along the river to nearly 8,000 feet in the Chisos Mountains. Temperatures can vary by 20 degrees between the two. Summers are hot; the desert floor is often above 100 degrees. Winter is pleasantly mild and usually sunny. Snow is rare and generally light. Winter visitors should be prepared for any weather; temperatures vary from below freezing to above 80 degrees.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Colder temperatures, shorter days, and snow bring a slower pace to one of the nation’s most visited national parks. After the December holidays, winter visitors find paths less traveled throughout the park. Dramatic winter storms bringing several inches of snow are contrasted with sunny days. Crisp air and a dusting of snow bring a new perspective to the temples and buttes emerging from the canyon floor and provide a perfect backdrop to view the canyon’s flora and fauna. The South Rim of the park is open year round. Winter solitude blankets the North Rim of Grand Canyon which is closed to vehicle traffic during the winter. Pack your jacket and winter gloves, avoid the crowds, and come experience a Grand Canyon winter wonderland!

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Glistening white slopes extend as far as the eye can see. A ski resort in the dead of winter? Hardly! Those white slopes are glistening with grains of sand, not snowflakes. Black-diamond trails drift and shift with the wind. Cars inch forward on a hard-packed white surface. The black-diamond signs refer to the difficulty of navigating gypsum dunes rather than groomed ski trails. And even though the road may look freshly plowed, it is packed sand, not snow that forms the white surface.

Worth Pondering…

Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes the fashioning hand.

—Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Top Reasons to Visit Las Cruces

Outdoor adventure. Unique culinary experiences. Vibrant culture. Rich history.

Maybe it’s the friendly people and the endless sunshine. Or maybe it’s the chile-laced food (and drink.) There are plenty of reasons to visit Las Cruces, New Mexico. Here are just eleven:

Chiles in the Mesilla Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Do the Walk of Flame

That is… if you can handle the heat! The Walk of Flame Green Chile Trail is a newly established culinary route that leads hungry (and thirsty) visitors to hot spots where they can sample Las Cruces’ famous green chiles in all their glorious guises. In Las Cruces, green chile crops up in and on everything from ice cream to pot stickers to hot dogs to wine, not just Mexican fare.

La Posta de Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors can feast on The Game’s corked bats (pecan-encrusted Hatch green chile strips), sip Chile ‘Rita’s at La Posta de Mesilla, or surprise their senses with a Green Chile Sundae from Caliche’s Frozen Custard. Green chile chasers also have the option to get their hands dirty on a tour of the Chile Pepper Institute Garden.

Musical entertainment in downtown Las Cruces © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Kick up some dust at the Country Music Festival

Country superstars ride into Las Cruces in October for the Las Cruces Country Music Festival, a three day celebration of country music in downtown Las Cruces. Past performers include Travis Tritt, Tayna Tucker, Kacey Musgraves, Eli Young Band, Kenny Rogers, the Charlie Daniels Band, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Lee Ann Womack, Aaron Watson, Cam, Dustin Lynch, Cassadee Pope, Little Texas, Darryl Worley, Craig Campbell, Greg Bates, Chase Bryant and others.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Or wander across what seems like an endless desert beach

An hour’s drive northwest of Las Cruces, White Sands National Park comprises 275 square miles of wave-like gypsum sand dunes. During the stroll, visitors will hear the story of the monument and see the critters and vegetation that are able to survive in this arid expanse. By the end of the tour, the sun is setting, lighting the sky with hues of purples and pinks for a picture-perfect moment.

Farmers and Crafts Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Encounter local and exotic creations at the award-winning Farmers & Crafts Market

More than 300 vendors gather to sell locally-made wares and fares of all sorts at the Las Cruces Farmers and Crafts Market, voted one of the top farmers markets in the country. Open every Saturday and Wednesday morning downtown, the market brims with handmade jewelry, pottery and other crafts, local produce, and even prepared food to devour on the spot.

Parrots at La Posta de Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Talk with parrots at La Posta

Diners will find unexpectedly talkative “greeters” at the much-loved restaurant La Posta de Mesilla. Colorful parrots welcome guests in the lobby of the colorful 200-year old adobe. This and numerous other restaurants and shops can be found in the historic village of Mesilla just outside of Las Cruces.

Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Monumental moments

The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument surrounds Las Cruces with 496,000 acres of opportunity for hiking, biking, and exploring petroglyph and archeological sites.

Rio Grande Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Raise a glass in the oldest wine-producing region in North America

Las Cruces has lots to boast about, being in the fertile Mesilla Valley where grape growing dates back to the late 1500s. At Rio Grande Vineyard and Winery, Sunday afternoons on the patio is particularly alluring. Enjoy live music and taste the wines or house made sangrias as you gaze at the nearby mountains. Lovers of wine can also enjoy New Mexican wines at St. Clair Winery & Bistro, Amaro Winery, and La Viña Winery.

8. Become the Salsa Judge

Downtown Las Cruces heats up for Salsa Fest, a three-day celebration of everything salsa in the fall. In addition to salsa sampling and a salsa making competition, the event gets people moving with salsa dancing lessons, live performances, and local wine and beer.

Dining at La Posta de Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Dine among “ghosts”

Legend has it that quite a few buildings in Mesilla are haunted. Begin your search for the paranormal with La Posta de Mesilla Restaurant where many have claimed to see chairs moving, heard glasses smashed to the floor, and experienced strange smells.

Double Eagle Restaurant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then head to the Double Eagle restaurant in Mesilla, with resident spirits in the building (which is listed on the National Register of Historical Places!) If paranormal activity doesn’t call to you, the World’s Largest Green Chile Cheeseburger just might.

Along Scenic Highway 28 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Exploring Scenic Highway 28

The Don Juan de Onate Trail invites today’s travelers to follow in the hoof prints of the Spanish conquistador and his band of 400 colonizers in 1598 as they journeyed from New Spain (Mexico) north to find the fabled Cities of Gold in what is now northern New Mexico. The drive along the trail (Highway 28) is one of the Las Cruces area’s most scenic routes, crossing and flanking the Rio Grande from El Paso to historic Old Mesilla.

Stahmann Farms © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rural two-lane road then passes fields of corn, chile, and cotton on its way through several small villages, including San Miguel. Further south, slip beneath a canopy of pecan trees that mark the world’s largest, family-owned pecan orchard, Stahmann Farms. 

Further down the trail sits the community of La Mesa, home to a National Register of Historic Places property, Chope’s Café and Bar. 

World’s Largest Roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. An encounter with the World’s Largest Roadrunner

The roadrunner is the official state bird of New Mexico. A giant recycled roadrunner—20 feet tall and 40 feet long—has been an icon of Las Cruces ever since artist Olin Calk built it in 1993. It was made exclusively of items salvaged from the land fill. In early 2001, Olin stripped off the old junk, replaced it with new junk, and moved the roadrunner to a rest stop along Interstate 10, just west of the city. Signs around the sculpture warned of rattlesnakes, but when we stopped by to visit people were blissfully trudging out to the big bird anyway, to pose for snapshots or examine the junk (We did, too).

Worth Pondering…

If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

A White Oasis: White Sands National Park

Like a mirage, dazzling white sand dunes shift and settle over the Chihuahuan Desert, covering 275 square miles—the largest gypsum dunefield in the world

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

Dune Life Nature Trail, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest gypsum dune field in the world is located at White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico. This region of glistening white dunes is in the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert within an “internally drained valley” called the Tularosa Basin.

Dunes Drive, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park ranges in elevation from 3,890 feet to 4,116 feet above sea level. There are approximately 275 total square miles of dune fields here with 115 square miles (about 40 percent) located within White Sands National Park. The remainder is on military land that is not open to the public.

It was the midst of the Great Depression when President Herbert Hoover declared this swath of pale dunes a national monument. Now 87 years later, White Sands has been declared the United States’ 62nd national park. 

Interdune Boardwalk, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The history of the newly-minted White Sands National Park goes back far beyond these presidential decrees, however. A unique series of fossilized footprints known as the White Sands Trackway show that almost 12,000 years ago ancient humans were stalking giant sloths here, hunting varieties of megafauna that died out by the end of the Pleistocene. 

Playa Trail, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It was 2,000 years later that the enormous gypsum dunes for which the new national park was named began to form, the result of steady evaporation of what was once a vast inland sea and, later, a lake between the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains. Prevailing winds eventually swirled those white gypsum sands into dunes that cover about 275 square miles of the Land of Enchantment.

Dunes Drive, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By the time European settlers arrived in the 1800s, the area was well known to bands of Apache who lived in the Tularosa Basin and surrounding mountain ranges. Their descendants now live on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation between Fort Stanton-Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area and Lincoln National Forest. 

Dunes Life Nature Trail, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Given its arid climate, the temperatures at White Sands vary greatly both throughout the seasons and within a single day. The most comfortable time to visit weather-wise is autumn (late September through October) when daytime temperatures reach the 80s with light winds and cooler evening temperatures in the 50s. Spring (March through May) can also be comfortable when the temperature varies from the 70s to the 40s. However, strong windstorms are somewhat common during these months.  

Interdune Boardwalk, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In summer and winter, you’ll be dealing with hot and cold extremes, so you just need to be extra prepared for both. Summer days average about 95 degrees, but can spike as high as 110. Evenings are comfortable in the 60s. 

The last place to fill up any water containers is the visitor center, so make sure you have enough with you when you enter White Sands. Bring one gallon of water per person per day. If it’s hot, you’ll probably drink it all, but don’t forget to hydrate even if it’s cool and you don’t feel as thirsty. 

Dunes Drive, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bright sun is intensified by the reflection off the snow-white sand. Make sure you have a hat (I recommend a Tilley with UV protection) and sunglasses, even for the little ones. 

And of course, never forget the sunscreen! Avoid the chemicals and use mineral-based sunscreens.

Dunes Drive, White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be prepared for the wind.  Strong windstorms are common February through May, but it can be windy any day of the year. When we visited in late February, it was mostly calm throughout the day, but the winds started picking up by mid-afternoon. 

Worth Pondering…

Life is not obvious here. It is implied, or twice removed, and must be read in signs or code. Ripple marks tell of the wind’s way with individual sand grains. Footprints, mounds, and burrows bespeak the presence of mice, pocket gophers, and foxes.

—Rose Houk and Michael Collier

Oft-Overlooked National Parks to Escape the Crowds

They might not be as famous as Great Smoky Mountains or the Grand Canyon but these five often overlooked parks are perfect for experiencing the great outdoors

As humans, we crave nature. Nature has been proven to be “deeply powerful and healing for our minds, bodies, and souls.” In fact, research from Harvard Medical School has found that mood disorders can be alleviated by spending more time outdoors. Nature also helps with pain and post-operative recovery, calms ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), and decreases the risk for certain health problems. Despite all the benefits that spending time in nature boasts, people are spending less time outside than ever before.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A study conducted by The Nature of Americans National Report found that over half of adults reported spending five hours or less in nature each week. Parents of children ages 8 through 12 said that their children spent three times as much time using technology than they did playing outside. In comparison, there were 1 billion fewer outdoor excursions such as hikes and climbs, in 2018 than in 2008.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prior to the pandemic, the reasons why people spent so much more time indoors ranged from work to technology to a cost of entry. However, with so many people now spending the majority of their time at home, this is the perfect time to explore nature.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks are timeless and fun because the parks have been preserved and kept to their natural states as much as possible. There are 62 national parks in the United States across 29 states and two territories. The possibilities of being one or more national parks in your state or nearby are high.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They are also very affordable. Usually, the average entrance ticket to a national park is $30 per vehicle while the annual pass is only $80. The annual pass covers entrance fees to all 419 units within the National Park Service although only 109 charge an entrance fee.

Following are five often-overlooked national parks where you can escape the crowds.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The active but sleeping volcano is the high point of a lively wilderness environment. Across 160,000 acres, elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape decorated by jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and of course, volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area as well from where bubbling activity still appears, reminding us of the region’s stormy past.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Swampy land may not be the first place on your list to roam but Congaree National Park is beautiful in its own way. The park preserves the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. It is estimated that 70 to 95 percent of bottomland hardwood forests were destroyed from the start of European settlement to the present. Congaree is the last of the hardwood forests that once stretched across the eastern US. The park has one of the highest concentrations of champion trees in the world. Champion trees are the largest trees of its specific specimen and Congaree holds 15 of them.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this preserve comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transformed into colorful slabs of stone. A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shaped like giant waves, the dunes in the park are part of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. The area was once part of the Permian Sea where an ancient lake evaporated and left the gypsum deposits behind. Tucked away in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, the park offers plenty to do. If you just want to see the dunes without getting dusty you can drive the eight-mile-long Dunes Drive. But the best way to explore is by hiking, horseback, or biking—and don’t miss out on the thrill of sledding down the soft white sand (you can bring your own plastic snow saucers or buy them at the gift shop).

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unusual, elaborate cliffs and canyons shape the landscape of Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold, the second largest monocline in North America, extends for nearly 100 miles and appears as a bizarre “wrinkle” in the Earth’s crust. Red-rock canyons, ridges, buttes, and sandstone monoliths create a 387-mile outdoor retreat for hikers, campers, photographers, and rock climbers.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 Some of the natural wonders created by Mother Nature are just a road trip away, so take the time this autumn to enjoy the great outdoors. National parks are an integral element of America. They offer rich histories, a wide selection of different environments, and a much-needed breath of fresh air. National parks will help you get in touch with your wild side, and who knows? It might just teach you a thing or two about the healing powers of the natural world, too.

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

Incredible Geological Formations in National Parks where you can avoid the Crowds

Enjoying the splendor of some of America’s most breathtaking national parks can be tough when you’re dealing with crowds of tourists

Over millions of years, factors such as weather, erosion, volcanic ash, and cooling molten rock created incredible rock formations and geological wonders across the U.S. While the spectacular geological formations in Arizona’s Grand Canyon, California’s Joshua Tree, or Utah’s Bryce Canyon are some of the best known, they also can be overrun with visitors. Here are four remarkable, underrated geological formations that are worth checking out.

Remember to travel with caution, follow good health practices, and behave responsibly when outdoors or around other people. Before you go, check the park’s official website for park alerts. As always, be safe, have fun, and enjoy!  

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

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Yellowstone National Park’s spewing geysers and steaming hot springs get all the attention—and about 4.4 million annual visitors. Lassen Volcanic National Park, approximately 150 miles north of Sacramento in the Cascades, offers similarly spectacular sights and only about a half-million yearly visitors. Volcanic activity still abounds here—around 100 years ago, the park’s signature volcano, Lassen Peak, erupted for three years. It was the most powerful series of blasts in the Cascades until Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption. Lassen Peak is only one of about 30 volcanoes in the park.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you arrive at the park, you’ll probably smell before you see the first hydrothermal feature you’ll pass—the bubbling mud pots of Sulphur Works give off an unappealing odor like rotten eggs but are fascinating to watch. Be sure to see the park’s largest hydrothermal area via the Bumpass Hell Trail, a 1.5-mile trek across a meandering boardwalk. You’ll pass over thumping mud pots, bubbling turquoise pools, and roaring steam vents—including the park’s largest, Big Boiler.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once you’ve had your fill of hydrothermal activity, check out the park’s many beautiful frigid lakes, waterfalls, and flowering meadows. The park is open year-round, but due to its 8,000-foot elevation, snowpack limits access to some areas during the winter and spring months.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Utah is home to five of the nation’s most popular national parks: Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, and Capitol Reef. If you want to avoid the crowds you typically encounter at the “Mighty Five” but still see impressive geological formations, head to Natural Bridges National Monument. Known for its three natural rock bridges formed by water (instead of the wind erosion of arches), it’s also a fantastic place to gaze at the night sky—the monument became the first certified International Dark Sky Park in 2007.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in Utah’s southeast corner, Natural Bridges National Monument receives only about 88,000 annual visitors. In comparison, Canyonlands and Zion see about 734,000 and 4.5 million, respectively. Sipapu Bridge, the monument’s largest, has an impressive 268-foot span and a height of 220 feet. The monument’s second-largest bridge, Kachina, was named for the petroglyphs and pictographs that adorn the base. Owachomo Bridge, while the smallest, is the most accessible, requiring only an easy half-mile round-trip hike to see it.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Unlike the tan-shaded dunes in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park, the dunes in White Sands National Park are, unsurprisingly, white. However, calling them white is doing them an injustice as these majestic dunes are made of gypsum that glitters in the sun creating a breathtaking, sparkling wonder.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shaped like giant waves, the dunes in the park are part of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. What makes this special is that gypsum usually dissolves upon contact with water so it doesn’t stick around long enough to form huge mounds. Here, however, the arid climate and lack of rainfall of the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert prevent the gypsum from dissolving. The area was once part of the Permian Sea where an ancient lake evaporated and left the gypsum deposits behind.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucked away in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, the park offers plenty to do. If you just want to see the dunes without getting dusty you can drive the eight-mile-long Dunes Drive. But the best way to explore is by hiking, horseback, or biking—and don’t miss out on the thrill of sledding down the soft white sand (you can bring your own plastic snow saucers or buy them at the gift shop).

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

In a state filled with rock formations, canyons, and awe-inspiring natural features, Canyon de Chelly is a lesser-known but uniquely historical canyon located in the northeastern corner of Arizona. While the Grand Canyon is the grandest of all canyons and Mesa Verde is known for its iconic ruins within epic canyons, Canyon de Chelly has a very similar history with equally as beautiful landscapes and fewer tourists. Although Canyon de Chelly is a National Monument, it is under the jurisdiction of the Navajo Nation instead of the National Park Service. Because this monument is still inhabited by Native Americans today, the regulations within the monument are a lot stricter, making access to the park more exclusive but not difficult with some advanced planning.

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

The easiest way to see Canyon de Chelly National Monument in its entirety is from the ten overlooks along its rim. The canyon is surrounded by Canyon de Chelly Highway, a 130-mile, partially paved loop that is completely bikeable but not recommended for most vehicles on the unpaved stretches. You can drive between these overlooks along the North and South rim drives.

At the time of writing all Navajo Nation Tribal Parks were closed until further notice. 

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Burroughs