Travel through this dusty outpost between April and November and you might wonder why this wide spot along Interstate 10 is such a popular snowbird destination for RVers. But visit in January and you’ll quickly see why: it morphs into a non-stop social event for RVing snowbirds.
Dozens of inexpensive Quartzsite RV parks have room for seasonal guests and short-term visitors alike. Tens of thousands of snowbirds boondock at one of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) designed visitor areas that surround Quartzsite. A long-term permit allows snowbirds to stay at a BLM-designated Long Term Visitor Area for $180 between September 15 and April 15 (a total of 7 months), or for any length of time between those two dates.
The LTVA short-visit permit ($40) allows the use of BLM-designated LTVAs for any 14-consecutive-day period from September 15th to April 15th The only caveat? You’ll go without hookups. The only “amenities” are beautiful desert sunsets with wide-open views of the surrounding area.
Quartzsite RV Show is the largest gathering of RVs and RVers on Earth. 2022 dates are January 22-30. Endless flea market shopping opportunities and RV club social events galore give you plenty to do.
Carlsbad, New Mexico
Not to be confused with the California city of the same name, Carlsbad in southeastern New Mexico is a peaceful city along the Pecos River. This town is the gateway to Carlsbad Caverns National Park with more than 100 underground caves.
The park consists of a network of cave passages filled with stalagmites, stalactites, and other formations. The largest chamber, “The Big Room” is 8.2 acres and the largest accessible cave chamber in North America.
Most people like to explore at their own pace on the Self-Guided Tours, but if you prefer having a guide with more information, consider taking one of their ranger-led tours. You can enter the caves by hiking down the steep 1.25-mile Natural Entrance Trail, or by simply taking an elevator down into the caves.
Las Cruces is less than an hour from the Texas border in southeastern New Mexico. The town sits in the shadow of the Organ Mountains and is a short drive from the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.
The Organ Mountains are a steep, angular mountain range with rocky spires that jut majestically above the Chihuahuan Desert floor to an elevation of 9,000 feet. This picturesque area of rocky peaks, narrow canyons, and open woodlands ranges from Chihuahuan Desert habitat to ponderosa pine in the highest elevations. Located adjacent to and on the east side of Las Cruces, this area provides opportunities for photography, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, camping, and wildlife viewing.
Dripping Springs Natural Area is also close to Las Cruces with easy hiking trails among huge rock spires. White Sands National Monument is less than an hour away with huge sand dunes that you can hike or sled down.
Step back in time and visit Old Mesilla, one of the oldest and most unique settlements of southern New Mexico. Pancho Villa and Billy the Kid walked the streets. The famous trial of Billy the Kid was held here. Today Mesilla is a part of living history. Great care has been given to preserving the original adobe buildings and the beautiful plaza. People from all over the world stop to experience the history, art, architecture, quaint shopping, and unique dining that Mesilla has to offer.
You’ll also want to stop and browse the town’s huge year-round Farmers and Crafts Market. Their famous downtown market includes over 300 local farmers, artists, bakers, and vendors selling fresh produce and handmade artisan goods.
As the end of August approaches, remember to repeat your late summer prayer before bed. The prayer goes something like, “September is just as nice as August and in many ways even better.”
There is nothing quite like a summer road trip. The freedom of setting out in a fully-stocked recreational vehicle with only a loose itinerary and nothing but the winding road and endless possibilities is, frankly, close to unbeatable. It offers a chance to live in the now while reminding us that this moment is at once fleeting and eternal.
With just a week left before Labor Day and the unofficial end of summer 2021, there’s just enough time to hit the road for one last hurrah. Here are ten road trips I recommend for travel this time of year.
Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway, South Dakota
Some of the most incredible roads anywhere make up the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway in the Black Hills of western South Dakota. Mix in America’s most patriotic monument along the way and you have a never-to-be-forgotten road trip. This byway winds around spiraling “pig-tail” shaped bridges, through six rock tunnels, among towering granite pinnacles, and over pristine, pine-clad mountains. Highlights include Harney Peak, Sylvan Lake, the Needle’s Eye, and Cathedral Spires rock formations. Forming a figure-eight route, the byway travels through Custer State Park, the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, near Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and the Black Elk National Wilderness Area. Highways 16A, 244, 89, and 87 combine to create the route.
If you could choose just one road to explore in Utah’s red-rock country, make it Scenic Byway 12. It connects the hoodoo-filled wonder that is Bryce Canyon National Park with the monumental geology of Capitol Reef National Park and in between, it runs through the even wilder, 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. That means diversions galore including Escalante Petrified Forest State Park and the partially paved Cottonwood Canyon which runs through both Grand Staircase (don’t miss Grosvenor Arch) and Kodachrome Basin with its cylindrical stone “sand pipes.” On the north side of 12, divert to Hell’s Backbone Scenic Byway—44 miles of red-rock wonders on gravel. Cool outdoorsy towns pop up just when you need a coffee or a burger: namely, Escalante, Boulder (famous for organic chow at Hells’ Backbone Grill), and Torrey. Bonus suggestion: Red Canyon has Bryce’s beauty without its people.
Are you ready for a day (or two or three) at the beach? Why not spend it at Padre Island National Seashore near Corpus Christi, the longest stretch of an undeveloped barrier island in the world. In addition to its 70 miles of protected coastline, other important ecosystems abound including a rare coastal prairie, a complex and dynamic dune system, tidal flats teeming with life, and the Laguna Madre, one of the few hypersaline lagoons in the world. It is a safe nesting ground for the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and a haven for over 380 bird species. It also has a rich history, including the Spanish shipwrecks of 1554. Many people come to the National Seashore to experience the beauty of nature in isolation. One way to do this is to travel down-island into the park’s most remote areas which are accessible with a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle.
If you’re looking for a loop without a single boring mile that connects hot springs, historic towns, ancient history, and geologic wonders, you’ve come to the right place. New Mexico has undoubtedly won the landscape lottery enjoying incredibly diverse and dramatic views yet only a fraction of the visitation that Utah and Colorado attract each year. Start in either Albuquerque or Santa Fe and work your way through the cliff dwellings of Bandelier National Monument, the sweeping views of Valles Caldera, and the lava fields of Malpais National Monument. Take care not to lose your way among the sparkling gypsum dunes of White Sands National Park—stay at a private campground near the town of Alamogordo—so you can find your way to Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces. From there, visit Historic Mesilla before heading to the village of Hatch, the Chile Capital of the world, for their annual Chile Festival (September 4-5, 2021).
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 scenic 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 road trippers through 180 miles of southwest Louisiana’s backroads. You’ll pass through small fishing villages, National Wildlife Refuges to reach the little-visited Holly and Cameron beaches. Take a side trip down to Sabine Lake or drive onto a ferry that takes visitors across Calcasieu Pass.
Journey through Hallowed Ground National Scenic Byway, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland
Any route that connects Gettysburg to Jefferson’s Monticello and Madison’s Montpelier is so deeply steeped in history that beauty is a bonus. The two go nicely together here, though, as the corridor leads to battlefields—Manassas, Antietam, and Harpers Ferry, among many—as well as woodsy parks like Gambrill State Park in Maryland and Bull Run Mountains Nature Preserve in Virginia. One day you might be tubing on the Potomac or rafting the Shenandoah; another day doffing your cap in respect at Gettysburg then exploring any of a dozen historic towns. Warrenton, Virginia, alone has 300 historical sites. Try the pumpkin fritters at Farnsworth House in Gettysburg as you count the more than 100 bullet holes that riddle the Civil War–period building.
Moab/Bears Ears Loop, Utah
Utah is best known for the national parks stretching across its southern edge but just beyond those crowds, you’ll find empty roads and quiet lands with stunning rock formations that defy belief. In the southeastern corner of the state in the Bears Ears region, you can spend a lifetime learning about the Indigenous peoples who have long lived in and cared for these landscapes. From Moab, head south toward Bears Ears where large swathes of BLM land stretch across Cedar Mesa. At Natural Bridges National Monument, you can hike past cliff dwellings built by Ancestral Pueblo people. Spend a day in the nearby Valley of the Gods where a 17-mile unpaved road offers striking red desert views without a person in sight. Continue onward to Monument Valley on the Navajo Nation and visit the mind-boggling river bends of Goosenecks State Park—a recently-certified Dark Sky park.
What the Blue Ridge Parkway doesn’t have: billboards, commercial trucks, or development. What it does have: hundreds of miles of mountain and forest views as it winds smoothly and slowly (max speed is 45) between the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks. And countless opportunities to hike (369 miles of mountain trails), witness waterfalls, and camp in any of eight campgrounds! Because the road was built for scenic touring, its dozens of overlooks and picnic areas are strategically placed for maximum inspiration. Also along the way is Mount Mitchell, highest in the East (6,684 feet), Whitewater Falls (411 feet), highest in the East, and Linville Gorge, deepest in the East.
San Juan Skyway, Colorado
The mountain scenery is relentlessly stunning and there’s everything to do along the way (bike, hike, fish, camp, explore native ruins, and mining history). The aptly named San Juan Skyway ascends multiple passes higher than 10,000 feet as it loops through the San Juan Range while fourteeners loom overhead. The route links iconic mountain-sports towns like Telluride, Durango, and Dolores, the latter perched between the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park and the vast Canyon of the Ancients National Monument. The stretch between Silverton and Ouray is known as the Million Dollar Highway honoring the gold ore extracted thereabouts as well as the cost of building such a canyon-clinging ribbon of road.
Amish Country Byway, Ohio
The 160-mile Amish Country Byway boasts views of natural vistas along winding curves and over rolling hills. In addition, this charming country byway offers visitors a fine selection of Amish country cooking as well as sites featuring the culture and history of the Amish people. Celebrate the lifestyle of a place and people who defy modern conveniences while enjoying the simple pleasures of farm life and country living. The Amish Country Byway forms a spider-web of 13 state and federal routes throughout Holmes County, the largest Amish settlement in the world. US Route 62 bisects the county from the southwest to northeast corners, traveling through Millersburg. The Amish Country Byway offers experiences that many visitors enjoy over and over again.
We know that in September, we will wander through the warm winds of summer’s wreckage. We will welcome summer’s ghost.
August 25 will be a special day at the more than 400 national park sites spread across the U.S.
The National Park Service (NPS) is celebrating its 105th birthday TOMORROW, August 25, 2021. National parks across the country are hosting in-park programs and virtual experiences. Join the birthday celebration from anywhere in the world. Find virtual ways to stay connected with 423 national parks across the country and park party games that you can do anywhere, anytime. Entrance fees are also waived for everyone to come out to enjoy the national parks!
On this day in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the National Park Service. The new bureau was assigned the task of managing the 35 national parks and monuments that had already been established.
While travelers have 63 epic parks to choose from, consider visiting one of these lesser-known and visited national parks. These parks may not have the same star status as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon but that doesn’t make them any less spectacular.
Home to the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States, South Carolina’s often overlooked Congaree National Park is just a half-hour drive from the state capital of Columbia and features plenty of opportunities for scenic hikes, with August, September, and October providing some of the best conditions to explore trails like the Boardwalk Loop, Oakridge Trail, and the Weston Lake Loop.
One of the least visited parks in the national park system, Lassen Volcanic National Park preserves the volcanic legacy of Lassen Peak, the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range, and the long-eroded Mount Tehama. Evidence of the burning hot spot below Lassen is abundant with several boiling pools and steam vents to visit. Of its geothermal areas, Bumpass Hell is most impressive with its small teal pond inset between fumaroles, steam vents, and a boiling pool coated in fool’s gold. Devil’s Kitchen is a longer hike at about 4 miles past mud pots, fumaroles, and Hot Springs Creek. Beyond the geothermal activity, Lassen is a beautiful alpine environment with plenty of adventures to offer.
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.
You know those comically oversized cacti Wile E. Coyote used to fall into? Those are modeled after the giant Saguaro cactus the most distinct feature is this park straddling the city of Tucson. The park, created to preserve the cacti, boasts some great hikes. Even during warmer weather, a trek into nature here can take you up 5,000 feet of elevation in 15 miles of desert. Driving Saguaro will take you through a Western landscape that’s unmistakably Arizona.
One of the country’s youngest national parks, Pinnacles National Park is where travelers can spot North America’s largest flying bird in the California condor (their wingspans approaching 10 feet). This unique habitat came to be approximately 23 million years ago when multiple volcanoes erupted, creating rare talus caves and towering rock spires. Hiking and rock climbing are some of the most popular activities here and visitors won’t want to miss out on the stellar views from the winding High Peaks Loop.
The nation’s newest national park came to be as recently as December 2020 as part of a pandemic relief bill, but there’s certainly nothing new about West Virginia’s New River Gorge. After all, the river is believed to be the second-oldest on the planet. The park is popular with whitewater rafters and rock climbers but also offers plenty of hiking trails, scenic waterfalls like the 1,500-foot-wide Sandstone Falls, and plenty of scenic viewpoints. Visitors will also be in awe of the landmark New River Gorge Bridge, the longest single-span steel arch bridge in the United States and the third-highest bridge in the country at nearly 900 feet.
Capitol Reef is home to one of the world’s most unique geological wonders: the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile long wrinkle in the earth’s crust. Formed millions of years ago when a fault line shifted and exposed thousands of acres of rust-tinted sandstone and slate-gray shale, the resulting rugged cliffs and arch formations are the red rocks Utah is known for. Grab a cinnamon bun or freshly baked mini-pie in the historic village of Fruita located within the park’s borders then stroll through verdant orchards and hunt for petroglyphs near the visitor center. Stay in nearby Torrey for the best BBQ and wild-west themed hotels and RV parks.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota is a fitting tribute to the president who helped birth America’s conservation movement: It protects an imposing landscape that is both desolate and teeming with life. Bison roam the grassy plains and elk wander along with juniper-filled draws. Prairie dogs squeak from mounds leading to their underground dens and mule deer bed down on the sides of clay buttes. There are pronghorn antelope and coyotes, wild horses, and bighorn sheep.
Despite having just one-tenth of the annual visitors to Yellowstone, Carlsbad Caverns is one of the most engaging national parks in the US—a 73-square-mile network of more than 100 massive caves that seem to go on forever. In the Big Room, stunning stalactites drip from the tall ceiling and thick stalagmite mounds rise from the cave’s floor. It’s certainly worth grabbing a seat at the amphitheater at the mouth of the cave to witness a blur of thousands of bats emerge from the cave for their evening meal at 6 pm—or when they return by 6 am.
Although the words “badlands” and “petrified” evoke harsh landscapes devoid of life, the Petrified Forest National Park is both beautiful and bountiful. Located about 110 miles east of Flagstaff, the park’s badlands and petrified wood (the world’s largest concentration) are composed of bands of blue, white, and purple which come from quartz and manganese oxides. See fossilized trees and crystalized wood up close on the 0.75-mile Crystal Forest Trail or 3-mile Blue Forest Trail.
Other Free Days
Don’t worry if you can’t visit a national park tomorrow—there are more fee-free days this year.
The next fee-free day is National Public Lands Day on Saturday, September 25. The final fee-free day this year is Veterans Day on Thursday, November 11.
The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
Whether planning to camp under starry skies, take a scenic drive, or chase thrilling outdoor adventures, these parks are sure to please
Approximately 237 million people visited the national parks in 2020, representing a 28 percent year-over-year decrease attributed to the COVID pandemic. To determine the most popular national parks in the United States, I’ve compiled data from the National Park Service on the number of recreational visits each site had in 2020.
President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 signed the act creating the National Park Service to leave natural and historic phenomenons “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Since then, national parks have welcomed visitors to experience some of the best the country has to offer and showcase America’s natural beauty and cultural heritage.
Today, the country’s 63 national parks contain at least 247 species of endangered or threatened plants and animals, more than 75,000 archaeological sites, and 18,000 miles of trails.
Keep reading to discover 21 of the most popular national parks in the United States, in reverse order. And be sure to check with individual parks before you visit to find out about ongoing, pandemic-related safety precautions.
Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740 Percent of total national park visits: .24%
Pinnacles National Park in California was born after several volcanoes erupted forming the unique landscape of the park which is packed with canyons, rock spires, and woodlands. When the park was established in 1908 it was only 2,060 acres but has now grown to 26,000. Because of hot summer temperatures, Pinnacles is most popular in the winter months.
Recreational visits in 2020: 183,835 Percent of total national park visits: .27%
Located in southern New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s 119 caves were born when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone millions of years ago leaving behind a treasure trove of caverns. The Big Room in Carlsbad Cavern is the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America and takes an hour and a half to cross, according to the National Park Service. Birders from around the globe flock to Rattlesnake Spring to see some of the 300 documented bird species.
Recreational visits in 2020: 287,477 Percent of total national park visits: .42%
Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado protects nearly 5,000 archaeological sites that have preserved the history of the ancestral Pueblo people. They inhabited the land for almost 700 years building dwellings into the cliffs and establishing communities before moving away. Visitors can see and explore several of the cliff dwellings through tours and hiking trails.
Recreational visits in 2020: 384,483 Percent of total national park visits: .57%
Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona is home to the gorgeous Painted Desert and Crystal Forest where petrified logs shine with quartz crystals. The site in the park known as Newspaper Rock contains more than 650 petroglyphs between 650 and 2,000 years old. The landscape of the park features mesas and buttes created by erosion.
37. Big Bend National Park
Recreational visits in 2020: 393,907 Percent of total national park visits: .58%
Big Bend National Park in Texas offers spectacular views of the Chihuahuan Desert landscape as well as the Rio Grande. Visitors to the park can even enter Mexico through the park’s Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry. Big Bend has more species of birds, bats, and cacti than any other national park in the United States.
Recreational visits in 2020: 415,383 Percent of total national park visits: .61%
The park is aptly named, featuring wavy white sands over nearly 300 square miles in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin. This is the world’s largest gypsum dunefield and the park preserves a major part of it. Visits can include the park’s historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Lucero Ranch on the shore of Lake Lucero and the White Sands Missile Range Museum and Trinity Site, where in 1945 the first atomic bomb was tested.
Recreational visits in 2020: 493,914 Percent of total national park visits: .73%
Utah’s Canyonlands National Park features a unique landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes formed by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Even though the park is considered a desert, its high elevation gives it a varying climate; temperatures here can fluctuate as much as 50 degrees in a day. This, combined with the low annual rainfall, make the park a perfect home for drought-resistant plants such as cacti, yuccas, and mosses.
Recreational visits in 2020: 542,274 Percent of total national park visits: .80%
Each rock at Lassen Volcanic National Park in California is a result of a volcanic eruption given that the park has been volcanically active for 3 million years. The world’s four volcanic types—shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome—are all present at the park and located in close proximity to each other. Park visitors can also check out the park’s several fumaroles, mud pots, and boiling pools.
Recreational visits in 2020: 551,303 Percent of total national park visits: .81%
Located in North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s dominating feature is the badlands which are colorful, rolling hills consisting of rock that are millions of years old. Erosion and other natural processes like lightning strikes and prairie fires continue to shape the badlands today. The park is of course named for the U.S. president who first came to the Dakotas in 1883 to hunt bison.
Recreational visits in 2020: 762,226 Percent of total national park visits: 1.12%
As its name suggests, Saguaro National Park in Arizona protects giant saguaro cacti, a symbol of the American West. The average lifespan of one of these cacti is 125 years old and it produces sweet fruits. The park is also home to a variety of animals many of which can only be found in the southern part of the state including kangaroo rats, roadrunners, and horned lizards.
Recreational visits in 2020: 796,086 Percent of total national park visits: 1.17%
Sequoia National Park is adjacent to Kings Canyon National Park in California and was the first park established to protect a living organism: its native sequoia trees. Since World War II, Sequoia and Kings Canyon have been administered jointly. In 2014, Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the park for the first time in 100 years as part of a recovery effort for this endangered species.
Recreational visits in 2020: 916,932 Percent of total national park visits: 1.35%
The striking landscape of Badlands National Park in South Dakota contains one of the world’s richest fossil beds. At one point, it was home to the rhino and saber-toothed cat. The Badlands were formed nearly 70 million years ago by erosion and deposition of sediment when an ancient sea was located where today’s Great Plains are.
Recreational visits in 2020: 981,038 Percent of total national park visits: 1.44%
Capitol Reef National Park in Utah is famous for the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline extending almost 100 miles and considered a “wrinkle on the earth.” The fold was formed 50 to 70 million years ago as a warp in the Earth’s crust and erosion has exposed the fold at the surface. The park has some of the darkest night skies in the United States, so much so that it has been designated an International Dark Sky Park.
Recreational visits in 2020: 1,054,374 Percent of total national park visits: 1.55%
New River Gorge National Park & Preserve consists of 70,000 acres along the New River, a whitewater river in southern West Virginia that despite its name is one of the oldest on the continent. From the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, the sides of the valley fall almost 900 feet into the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can go whitewater rafting or canoeing, rock climbing, bird watching, camping, hiking, or biking along an old railroad grade.
Recreational visits in 2020: 1,238,083 Percent of total national park visits: 1.82%
Arches National Park in Utah lives up to its name and has more than 2,000 natural stone arches, the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world. These sandstone geological formations are the result of erosion and a thick layer of salt beneath the rock surface. The arches are impermanent, however; the 71-foot Wall Arch collapsed in 2008.
Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,655 Percent of total national park visits: 2.16%
Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah has the world’s largest collection of hoodoos, pillars of rock left standing after erosion. Bryce Canyon contains a series of natural amphitheaters and bowls, the most famous being Bryce Amphitheater which is full of the park’s iconic hoodoos. The park is one of three national parks to house the Grand Staircase geological formation which is a giant sequence of sedimentary rock layers.
Recreational visits in 2020: 1,666,265 Percent of total national park visits: 2.45%
Just 75 miles from the nation’s capital, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia showcases the Blue Ridge Mountains and is home to 90 perennial streams, many of which turn into cascading waterfalls. While many native species have been lost over time, today the park has more than 200 bird species, 50 mammal species, and more than 35 fish species. The park is popular with hikers with 500 miles of trails including 101 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail.
Recreational visits in 2020: 2,399,542 Percent of total national park visits: 3.53%
Joshua Tree National Park in California was named after its picturesque, spiky Joshua trees. Mormon immigrants named the trees after the biblical Joshua after noticing that the limbs looked as if they were outstretched in prayer. Many of the park’s animals including Scott’s orioles, wood rats, and desert night lizards depend on the tree for food and shelter. Keys View in the park offers an incredible view of the Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, and San Jacinto.
Recreational visits in 2020: 2,897,098 Percent of total national park visits: 4.26%
Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is synonymous with its world-famous canyon that is 18 miles wide and 1 mile deep. The park encompasses more than 1 million acres and consists of raised plateaus and structural basins. The Grand Canyon is considered one of the best examples of arid land erosion in the world. It has a rich and diverse fossil record and the land offers a detailed record of three out of the four geological eras.
Recreational visits in 2020: 3,591,254 Percent of total national park visits: 5.29%
Zion National Park was Utah’s first national park and is famous for its landscape of giant colorful sandstone cliffs. Around 12,000 years ago the first people to visit this land tracked mammoths, giant sloths, and camels until those animals died about 8,000 years ago. Because of the range in elevation in the park, it has more than 1,000 diverse plant species.
Recreational visits in 2020: 12,095,720 Percent of total national park visits: 17.81%
Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee is the most biodiverse park in the National Park system with more than 19,000 documented species. The Smokies are among the oldest mountain ranges in the world. On average, more than 85 inches of rain falls in the park each year fueling 2,100 miles of streams and rivers that flow through the park.
The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.
Explore the best trails in some of the world’s most beautiful parks
Each year, the American Hiking Society celebrates National Trails Day on the first Saturday in June. On that day thousands of people across the country head out on their favorite hiking route to enjoy a walk in the woods where they get the chance to reconnect with nature along the way. Others donate their time to help build new trails or provide maintenance on those that already exist.
It is a chance for hikers, bikers, horseback riders, and other outdoor enthusiasts to show their appreciation for the more than 200,000 miles of recreational trails in the U.S. Some of the absolute best hiking trails are found inside America’s national parks many of which are tailor-made for exploring on foot. With so many trails to choose from, it is difficult to pick which ones are the very best. Here are 10 national park trails that belong to your must-hike itinerary.
Know your limits, pace yourself, and pay attention to how you are feeling. Your safety is your responsibility. Your tomorrow depends on the decisions that you make today.
Navajo Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Bryce Canyon National Park offers some of the most unique landscapes that you’ll find anywhere and one of the best trails to explore that environment on is the 3-mile long Navajo Loop. Starting at Sunset Point and continuing to the main amphitheater this trail takes hikers past some of the more scenic elements in the entire park. Beware of falling rocks though as this trail can be a bit treacherous at times.
The Boardwalk Loop in Congaree National Park, South Carolina
This hike, though it’s really more of a walk, features an elevated boardwalk through old-growth swampland. Though the lush, green trees are beautiful in their own right the trail really shines at night (literally!) when thousands of fireflies come out and fill the area. For photographers, the trail is exceptionally beautiful at sunrise when both the boardwalk and bald cypress trees take on golden early-morning hues. Wildlife like deer and wild pigs can also be seen in the area for those willing to sit silently for a few minutes Mosquito repellant is a must, especially in the summer months.
Blue Mesa Loop in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
For a trail that’s only one mile total, the Blue Mesa loop in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park is filled with immense and impressive scenery. Home to two of the park’s signature sights, colorful badlands, and gigantic petrified logs, it’s an easy and accessible way to experience the overwhelming beauty of this underrated park. It starts off along a paved trail atop the mesa before zig-zagging down into a canyon of blue- and purple-hued badlands. It loops through a sea of kaleidoscopic petrified wood whose twinkling blues and purples make them look like bejeweled boulders. This trail is also dog-friendly and a safe and fun way to explore with four-legged friends.
Park Avenue Trail in Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park, in Southeast Utah, is a day-hikers paradise. The park is one of Southern Utah’s most famous hiking destinations with an easily accessible network of trails that often culminate right at the base of an impressive sandstone arch. The Park Avenue Trail is most aptly named for New York City’s famous street. Early travelers noticed a similarity between these sandstone spires and the famous skyscrapers along New York’s Park Avenue and the name stuck. The main difference, of course, is that the “skyscrapers” of Arches National Park were sculpted by nature. Although you can start at either end of this shuttle trail starting at the south end (Park Avenue) results in a totally downhill hike. You’ll really be missing something if you leave Arches without taking this short hike. You can see the Courthouse Towers, Tower of Babel, Three Gossips, the Organ, and other grand “skyscrapers” from the road but if you don’t take this hike you’ll miss the truly stimulating experience of walking among them.
Cliff Shelf Nature Trail in Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is a short trail over a boardwalk but gives hikers an opportunity to see local wildlife and a great view of the White River Valley and Eagle Butte. Over 50 plant species and 100 bird species have been seen in the area around the trail partially due to the Cliff Shelf’s bowl-like shape-retaining more water. There is occasionally a small pond that attracts wildlife such as bighorn sheep. Keep your binocular handy and get hiking!
Golden Throne Trail in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Towering 1,400 feet above the road at the bottom of Capitol Gorge, Golden Throne is an icon of the park and draws many tourists and photographers every year. Toward the east end of Capitol Gorge in Capitol Reef National Park, hikers have the chance to climb up into the higher reaches of the Waterpocket Fold to enjoy the view of Golden Throne from up close. The trailhead to this short but strenuous ascent ascends by way of switchback from the narrow confines of Capitol Gorge. This hike gains close to 800 feet of elevation within its 1.5-mile ascent and then loses the same on the way back down.
Interdune Boardwalk in White Sands National Park, New Mexico
There is no better way to experience the unique landscape of White Sands National Park than by venturing out onto any of the five established trails. Explore the dunes and enjoy the silence and solitude of the dune field with its stunning views of the surrounding mountains. The trails vary in terms of difficulty and scenery. The Interdune Boardwalk is fully accessible for people using wheelchairs and strollers. Take an easy 0.4 mile round trip stroll through the dunes and learn about the science, geology, plants, and animals that make White Sands an unequaled natural wonder. The boardwalk is a great place to take a break under the shade canopy, listen for bird calls, observe lizards, and enjoy wildflowers. The average completion time is 20 minutes.
Endless Wall Trail in New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia
The New River Gorge National Park is home to the highly underrated Endless Wall Trail. This moderate 2.4-mile walk begins in the forests of the park before crossing Fern Creek and zig-zagging along a cliff edge overlooking the New River. The trail is dotted with scenic overlooks including the breathtaking overlook at Diamond Point. From there, hikers can retrace their steps or continue to trail’s end and hike for another half mile along a road to the starting point.
Hawksbill Loop Trail in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
At just 3 miles in length, the Hawksbill Loop Trail in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park may not seem very long but it packs plenty of punch. The route wanders along part of the legendary Appalachian Trail on its way up to the top of Hawksbill—the highest point in the park at just over 4,000 feet. Along the way, hikers can spot wildlife as they work their way up to the summit where they’ll discover a stone platform that offers views of thick forests and rolling hills that stretch to the horizon.
The Big Trees Trail in Sequoia National Park, California Located next to the Giant Forest Museum, the Big Trees Trail is one of the best short and easy hikes you can do in Sequoia. This loop trail takes you completely around the meadow and provides impressive views of numerous massive sequoias as well as the beautiful meadow itself.
From the museum follow a paved path on a ridge above the road. In a few hundred feet, the path will cross the road as you near the meadow. From here the trail does a loop around the meadow which you can start in either direction. The path is paved or in some places a wooden bridge when it gets marshy. Allow 1 hour round trip.
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
May the joy of today, bring forth happiness for tomorrow—and may the cold Alberta air stay up north!
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, 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.
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, 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.
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, 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.
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, 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.
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, 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.
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
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.