The 10 Best National Parks That Need to Be on Your Bucket List (2024)

Craving some American beauty? Reconnect with nature by visiting the best national parks in America.

Sometimes—and let’s not beat around the bush, quite a lot recently—it feels like society itself is unravelling. And when that happens, we all need to take a deep breath, pause…and go somewhere nearby to just appreciate nature.

And once you’ve realized how well that works, you might want to ponder taking this enlightening experience one step further and plan either a road trip that incorporates one or two of the best national parks in the U.S. or even a dedicated visit to one a little bit further away.

See the forces of nature at work at stunners like Arches and Bryce (two of Utah’s Big Five), witness the power of water that carved out the Grand Canyon over thousands of years, or unique wildlife viewing like the bighorn sheep and pronghorns at Badlands National Park.

Visiting a national park can be as easy or challenging as you want. For diehard backcountry types, there are trails and rustic campsites that can keep you out in the wilderness for days. For the average visitor, paved roads through the parks offer the opportunity to easily see the best views and features of the park in a short amount of time.

There are 63 major national parks (in addition to hundreds of smaller sites) spanning the entire country including Alaska and Hawaii. Next time you hit the road, pick up an America the Beautiful pass and check out the best national parks in the country (but trust us, all of the parks are amazing and all should be on your list).

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Grand Canyon National Park

This natural wonder cradles two billion years of geologic history with 40 layers of rock shaped into buttes, spires, and cliffs. Carved by the Colorado River, the 277-mile gorge is magisterial from any perspective but it’s thrilling to venture below the rim. The safest place to start is the well-maintained Bright Angel Trail which follows an ancient route past sculpted sandstone to a cottonwood oasis.

Look for elk, mountain lions, and condors along the way plus the 1,000 species of plants that survive in this semi-arid desert.

Here are some helpful resources:

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Zion National Park

You’ve seen Utah’s wild landscape in almost every John Wayne western but now its time to see it for yourself. The incredible thing about Zion National Park is that it hasn’t changed an iota over the years—you’ll see the same massive sandstone formations, twisty caves, and dark skies bursting with stars that Wayne himself walked through and people have been admiring for thousands of years.

Mosey to spectacular overlooks, hike to Emerald Pools, walk to Weeping Rock, or stroll on Riverside Walk and you’ll get a sense of the grandeur of this spectacular national park.

That’s why I wrote these four articles:

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Arches National Park

Located north of Moab, Utah, Arches National Park is so named for the 2,000 wind-sculpted sandstone arches gracing the area—the largest such concentration in the world. The most famous of these is the iconic 52 foot-tall Delicate Arch whose image has been depicted on Utah license plates but Arches will amaze you with its sheer range of soaring pinnacles, massive rock fins, and giant balanced rocks. 

Arches is also one of the few national parks where many of the top formations can be seen from the comfort of your car—perfect for those who want the sights without the sweat.

If you need ideas, check out:

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Bryce Canyon National Park

Red rocks, pink cliffs, and endless vistas await at this Insta-famous national park in Utah. People travel to Bryce Canyon from around the world to see the largest concentration of hoodoos (irregular columns of rock) in the world but the park’s high elevation also makes it a great place for star gazing.

One of the country’s more compact national parks, you don’t need a ton of time to hit the highlights like Thor’s Hammer, Inspiration Point, and the Queens Garden Trail.

For more tips on exploring Bryce Canyon, check out these blog posts:

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

Between them, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks contain some of the oldest trees on the planet—and just standing in their presence is a humbling experience. Many of these ancient wooden giants have been on Earth for 3,000 years and there are even a couple of trees where you can actually drive your car through. There are some gorgeous hiking trails here in addition to a small number of campsites.

If you’re on a road trip, try to allocate a reasonable amount of time to explore these wonderful parks.

Read more:

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Badlands National Park

This bizarre moonscape was created millions of years ago when ash deposits and erosion sculpted sedimentary rock into rippled peaks. Fossils show that rhinos and camels once roamed here but today these 244,000 acres are home to bison, bobcats, pronghorns, and bighorn sheep.

As long as they stay hydrated, the park’s 800,000 annual visitors find the Badlands fascinating to explore. Hikers scale the rocks to take in otherworldly views of the White River Valley and cyclists coast by colorful buttes and grass prairie. At night, the pitch-black sky reveals 7,500 stars and a clear view of the Milky Way; telescopes provide close-ups of moons and planets.

Here are some helpful resources:

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. White Sands National Park

White Sands takes up 275 square miles of breathtaking landscape in New Mexico. Its most noticeable feature: miles of undulating dunes made of blindingly white gypsum crystals which were formed 10,000 years when shallows sea that had existed for millions of years dried up leaving the gypsum behind. Though long a National Monument, White Sands was elevated to park status in December 2019.

Four marked trails allow hiking and since gypsum, unlike sand, reflects the sun’s heat, the dunes are easy on your feet. And if you’re so inclined, you can rent plastic sleds to slide down them.

If you need ideas, check out:

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Capitol Reef National Park

You’ll probably notice that Utah features quite prominently in this list and there’s good reason—its natural geology and geography make it arguably the most exciting state to visit if you’re the outdoors type. This particular park is not one of the Beehive State’s most well known but that’s precisely why it’s on my list.

As you’d expect there’s plenty offer here including 15 hiking trails to explore along with four-wheel-drive road tours, mountain biking, and rock climbing. Or you could just marvel at the colors, canyons and rock formations, and even harvest fruit from orchards in the Fruita Historic District in the summertime.

Read more:

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

9. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The most visited national park in the country, Great Smoky Mountains is also home to the highest number of animal species—1,778 species of animals, including a notable populations of black bears and elk and more than 2,600 different plant species call this national park home.

But you might be most familiar with the parks’ famous fireflies. Every year, the synchronous fireflies, Photinus carolinus or Elkmont fireflies put on a synchronous light display in order to find a mate. They are the only species in America whose individuals can synchronize their flashing light.

For more tips on exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park, check out these blog posts:

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Joshua Tree National Park

Despite the millions that flock here every year, many don’t realize that Joshua Tree National Park is actually made up of two different deserts; the southern tip of the Mojave Desert makes up its western edge and the Colorado Desert covers its eastern and southern areas.

And as such, The Joshua trees for which the park is named are more prevalent in the higher elevations on the Mojave side but here’s the funny thing, they’re not actually trees. The plants are a member of the Yucca genus and they can grow up to 70 feet tall, though they can take up to 50 years to reach their full size.

If you need ideas, check out:

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome

The Best National Parks to Visit by Season

Best season to visit each national park

When planning a trip to the national parks one of the most important things to consider is the time of year that you are planning your visit. Most national parks have an optimal time to visit based on factors such as weather, crowd levels, and road closures.

In this article, I cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by two lists that illustrate the best months to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to visit the National Parks by month

Below is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year. Each national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times.

These guides take many factors into consideration: weather, crowd levels, special events, fall colors, the best time to go hiking, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at least one occasion.

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

Best National Parks to visit by month:

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Complete list of the National Parks

This guide covers the best time to visit each national park based on weather, crowd levels, and my personal experiences in the parks. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month by month. I list each of the national parks we have visited in alphabetical order and indicate the best months to visit each of these parks.

This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels.

There are two different ways to use these tables.

If you have a particular month or season that you are planning your trip, you can look at that column (for example: May) and the parks that are listed for that month make great options for your trip.

If you have a park that you would like to visit (for example, Bryce Canyon National Park), scroll down to Bryce Canyon and the months listed are the best times to visit this park.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best parks to visit by month

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to visit national parks by month

  • Arches National Park (Utah): January, March, November, December
  • Badlands National Park (South Dakota): April, October
  • Big Bend National Park (Texas): March, April, November
  • Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah): March, April, November
  • Canyonlands National Park (Utah): March, April, November, December
  • Capitol Reef National Park (Utah): March, April, November, December
  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico): February, July, August, September
  • Congaree National Park (South Carolina): March, May, November
  • Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona): January, April, June, November, December
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina & Tennessee): May, September, October
  • Joshua Tree National Park (California): January, February, November
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park (California): June, July, August
  • Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado): May, September
  • New River Gorge National Park (West Virginia): June, October
  • Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona): February, April, November
  • Pinnacles National Park (California): March, April, November
  • Saguaro National Park (Arizona): January, February, May
  • Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks (California): June, July, August
  • Shenandoah National Park (Virginia): May, September, October
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota): June, July, September, October
  • White Sands National Park (New Mexico): February, March, November
  • Zion National Park (Utah): January, October, November, December

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Lubbock

Top 5 National Park Sites To Visit in New Mexico this Spring (2024)

New Mexico’s newest national park tops the list with more than half a million visitors last year

Some of New Mexico’s highest mountains and deepest caves are preserved for residents and visitors to the state alike via the National Park Service (NPS).

The Service has two national parks in New Mexico along with nine national monuments, two national historic parks, and one national preserve.

Millions of people flock to these sites every year as New Mexico’s mostly mild winter gives way to a hotter spring and often sweltering summer.

Here are the Top 5 popular National Park Service destinations based on visitation data from 2023.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park – 729,096 visitors

White Sands was a national monument since 1933 before being designated a national park in 2019.

It’s situated just west of Alamogordo and northeast of Las Cruces in south-central New Mexico alongside White Sands Missile Range.

The park is known for its namesake, the white gypsum sand dunes that sprawl across it’s about 145,000 acres.

Visitors can hike, camp, or even sled along the iconic dunes.

Here are some helpful resources:

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park – 394,121 visitors

About 700 feet beneath southeast New Mexico is the Carlsbad Caverns known for enormous underground rock formations and thousands of stalactites and stalagmites that wowed visitors since they were discovered in 1898.

Carlsbad Caverns became a national monument in 1923 and a national park in 1930.  

The park is amid the Chihuahuan Desert and Guadalupe Mountains in the southeast corner of New Mexico just outside Carlsbad to its east.

Most visitors opt to travel underground via a hike down the cavern’s natural entrance or a ride down the park’s massive elevator shaft to view the iconic formations but there are also hiking trails and other recreation opportunities on the surface.

Here are some articles to help:

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petroglyph National Monument – 314,528 visitors

Ancient drawings and indigenous symbols survive today in New Mexico from 400 to 700 years ago at Petroglyph National Monument.

The monument is just outside Albuquerque amid the city’s West Mesa, a volcanic escarpment seen by all those who visit New Mexico’s largest urban area.

Hiking trails can take visitors alongside petroglyphs for a glimpse into the past and the lives of Native Americans and Spanish settlers who carved the symbols into the volcanic rocks.

That’s why I wrote this article: Adventure in Albuquerque: Petroglyph National Monument.

Bandelier National Monument – 199,501 visitors

Ancient pueblos once dwelled in the 33,000 acres protected at Bandelier National Monument north of Santa Fe and just outside Santa Fe National Forest.

The monument is sacred to the state’s indigenous community and presents an opportunity for visitors to become acquainted with New Mexico’s past and enjoy breathtaking mountain views.

Bandelier can get snow throughout winter and early spring until May but visitors can journey to the monument all year for short hiking trails amid the remains of ancient dwellings.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument – 167,107 visitors

Volcanic terrains are a rare sight throughout the U.S. but can be enjoyed at El Malpais National Monument which is situated between the Acoma Pueblo and Ramah Navajo Indian Reservation about 80 miles west of Albuquerque.

Geologic features like lava flows, cinder cones, lava tube cave, and sandstone bluffs are all available to enjoy at the monument.

Visitors can find short to challenging hikes, scenic overlooks, and journey underground to explore the area’s cave systems.

The name was given by early Spanish explorers who encountered the lava flows and  it translates to the badlands or bad country.

If you need ideas, check out:

Five other National Park sites to visit in New Mexico

Capulin Volcano National Monument – 88,514 visitors

  • Region: Northeast New Mexico
  • Closest city: Raton
  • Activities: Hiking, auto tours

Valles Caldera National Preserve – 76,090 visitors

  • Region: Northern New Mexico
  • Closest city: Los Alamos
  • Activities: Hiking, fishing, mountain biking, hunting, camping
El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Morro National Monument – 54,836 visitors

  • Region: Northwest New Mexico
  • Closest city: Grants
  • Activities: Hiking, camping

Pecos National Historic Park – 50,709 visitors

  • Region: Northern New Mexico
  • Closest city: Pecos
  • Activities: Museum, hiking, guided tours, fishing in the Pecos River
Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument – 47,554 visitors

  • Region: Northwest New Mexico
  • Closest city: Aztec
  • Activities: Hiking, historic trails, Heritage Garden

What missed the list?

  • Chaco Culture National Historic Park – 40,198 visitors
  • Salinas Pueblos Missions National Monument – 39,556 visitors
  • Gila Cliff Dwellings – 33,973 visitors
  • Fort Union National Monument – 9,570 visitors

More New Mexico travel stories

Worth Pondering…

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

—Georgia O’Keeffe

The Complete Guide to White Sands National Park

The dramatic dunes become your personal sandbox here in southern New Mexico

The world’s largest gypsum dune field covers more than 275 square miles in southern New Mexico with White Sands National Park the centerpiece of this remarkable landscape. Great waves of white roll across the open plains of this 145,000-acre park with stark mountains rising in the distance.

In the morning light when shadows add dimension to the dunes it’s possible to lose your sense of perspective in the endless undulations. In the blinding midday sun when you’re sitting atop a 60-foot dune and the wind is howling you can feel as if you’re adrift on a great bleached sea, sand hitting your face like salt spray from the ocean.

It’s a magical environment and a true natural marvel. White Sands is also one of the newest parks in the National Park Service (NPS) having been elevated from a national monument in 2019. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sands form after the playa in the park’s western end which has a very high mineral content fills with water. When the water evaporates, the minerals form gypsum deposits that get carried away by the wind eventually forming white sand dunes not unlike an ocean breeze sculpting a beach. The park contains roughly 40 percent of the gypsum dune field; the remainder is on the adjacent White Sands Missile Range which the military controls and restricts to the public.

​This is the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert and the bare Sacramento Mountains rise dramatically above the Tularosa Basin. Far from being barren, however, the park is full of life. Even the sand itself is in constant flux with the massive dunes moving upward of 30 feet per year thanks to the winds that shape them.

The park is also home to a range of species including more than 250 birds, 50 mammals, 30 reptiles, and even one fish. At least 45 species are endemic to White Sands including the Apache pocket mouse and the bleached earless lizard. In summer, because of the heat, most of the animals are nocturnal but it’s possible to see the park come alive in the dawn light and just before sunset. Indeed, it’s often surprising just how full of life this pocket of the Chihuahuan Desert is.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Of course, the gypsum dunes are the main attraction and they provide dramatic photo opportunities especially during the golden hours just after sunrise and before sunset. March through June is peak season for the park’s nearly 800,000 annual visitors but even then it doesn’t feel crowded. Also, most visitors tend to stick to Dunes Drive, an 8-mile road through the park so you can easily avoid them by parking and hiking a trail.

​Since White Sands National Park is in a remote part of the state it takes more than a few hours behind the wheel to get there no matter where you’re coming from. But this part of the West seems designed for long drives that go by quickly thanks to the open landscapes. 

​The park usually closes at 8 p.m. in spring and summer (6 p.m. in winter) but during full-moon nights from May through October it stays open an extra few hours so visitors can enjoy the spectacle—and it is a spectacle. The full moon lights up the white sand which reflects the light into the night sky creating an almost spectral atmosphere. It’s an experience worth the extra effort and one you’ll not soon forget.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Plan your trip

El Paso, Texas is 98 miles south of White Sands National Park via Highway 70, the main road to the park. Albuquerque, New Mexico is 223 miles north. Either option is a good starting point for a road trip exploring southern New Mexico which could include stops in the towns of Las Cruces and Roswell and even a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park roughly 180 miles southeast of White Sands.

​In the summer, temperatures in this part of the Chihuahuan Desert can soar above 100 degrees, and in winter they can plummet below freezing. That’s why spring, early summer, and fall are the best times to visit with midday temperatures usually around 80 degrees and lows in the 50s. If you plan to hike bring layers of clothes for any temperature as conditions can shift dramatically.

​Restrooms and visitor facilities are limited. The park’s single entrance has a visitor’s center with a gift store that offers some basic food options (essentially a convenience store) but that’s the only place in the park offering services. In other words, bring plenty of water no matter what time of year you visit as well as snacks.

An even better idea: Pack a full picnic as there are three picnic areas with shaded tables (and nearby restrooms) inside the park. You’ll find restrooms at the visitor’s center and along Dunes Drive and one of the only handicap-accessible restrooms at Interdune Boardwalk right off the main road just before the pavement on Dunes Drive ends.

​There’s no Wi-Fi signal in White Sands National Park and very limited cell reception so plan to navigate the park using paper maps or those saved on your device. White Sands Missile Range is still an active military facility and one of the strange charms of visiting the area is having to wait on Highway 70 if a drill is being conducted in the area. The roadblocks rarely last more than an hour—though they can last up to three—but that can throw off the timing of a trip if, say, you’re planning to make it back to Las Cruces for dinner. (Check the park website for information on road closures.) 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​​Where to stay and eat

There are no hotels or campgrounds inside White Sands National Park. Even primitive backcountry camping is currently closed. You must stay in a nearby city or campground. (See gateway towns)

Things to do

Take a drive

White Sands is famous for its white sand so you must get out in it even if that means just cruising along Dunes Drive which begins at the park’s entrance. But even from a car, you can get a sense of this natural phenomenon’s uniqueness as the road curves through and around the dunes.

You feel as if you’re exploring a distant planet in a sci-fi movie. Although paved for a short distance most of the road is hard-packed sand because the dunes shift each year and the road must adjust accordingly. The park maintains it frequently enough, though, that a two-wheel drive will suffice. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Go hiking

Of course, hiking up the dunes themselves is the best way to feel what makes these white waves so special—the tiny gypsum grains underfoot. Of the park’s half-dozen trails, the easiest is the half-mile Interdune Boardwalk. This wheelchair-accessible trail on an elevated boardwalk makes its way through the interdune landscape where the desert and its limited vegetation meet the barren dunes.

​For something slightly more challenging hit the Dune Life Nature Trail, a 1-mile, self-guided loop through the desert. The hike which starts from the first parking area you pass after entering the park isn’t difficult but requires walking up two dunes with loose sand. The jaunt is an easy way to see the dunes in all their glory and maybe spot animal tracks such as those from a lizard or even a kit fox (however rare it may be).

​For something strenuous opt for the park’s longest hike, the Alkali Flat Trail which begins at the far end of Dunes Drive. This 5-mile round-trip hike leads you around Lake Otero where the gypsum sand begins its life. There’s no shade or water available on any of the park’s trails but it’s especially critical to bring some fluids along for this hike as you’ll be exposed to the heat for at least a few hours.

Despite the trail’s name, you’ll be climbing up and down dunes most of the way. The upside? You’ll probably be all alone. As you walk it’s likely the wind will quickly erase your footprints making the hike feel even more remote. 

​White Sands’ elevation is roughly 4,000 feet which you’ll notice when hiking over long distances or up the dunes. Bring plenty of water and dress in layers if you take a longer hike; the elevation means the temperature can shift dramatically over a few hours and dehydration can set in quickly in the heat of the day. Don’t start a hike if the temperature is already above 90 degrees. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Other activities

Biking is allowed on Dunes Drive and it’s a unique way to experience the park. Since much of the road is unpaved, however, it’s best not to ride a road bike with skinny tires. You’re better off with a mountain bike or beach cruiser with wide tires. Outdoors Adventures in Las Cruces rents a range of bikes including e-bikes with fatter tires (from $30 per day).

​You can even sled on the dunes. Buy plastic saucers in the park’s gift store then just find a good dune for some sliding-in-the-sand fun (and sand in your shoes to prove it). 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Gateway towns

Alamogordo, the nearest city to White Sands National Park is 17 miles northeast of the park. This town of 31,000 serves mainly as a civilian hub for White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base just a few miles outside of town. This part of New Mexico has a long military history with a special connection to the early space program and the dawn of the Atomic Age.

Learn more about that history at Alamogordo’s New Mexico Museum of Space History whose exterior resembles a NASA Vehicle Assembly Building. It’s an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution with exhibits encompassing a wide range of subjects from the early days of the U.S. space program including rockets, astronaut suits, and satellites.

An outdoor exhibit, the John P. Stapp Air & Space Park features many early space-flight vehicles including the Little Joe II rocket, a testing rocket for the Apollo program. Look for one of the museum’s highlights out front: the grave of Ham the Astrochimp, the first hominid launched into space, in 1961.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​One of the largest pistachio tree grooves in New Mexico, PistachioLand is a destination that can be enjoyed by all ages. Located in the Tularosa Basin outside of Alamogordo it’s an easy day trip from Las Cruces and can be combined with a visit to White Sands National Park. The Tularosa Basin has the perfect climate for growing pistachios, pecans, and grapes.  There are numerous wineries and nut farms where you can enjoy delicious wine and nut tastings and beautiful views of the Sacramento Mountains.

The city’s lodging choices are basic including a Fairfield Inn and Suites and a Hampton Inn. Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, 15 miles south of town has 15 RV sites with water and electrical hookups and 24 other sites as well as restrooms with showers.

​Alamogordo’s dining options are similarly basic but still good. D.H. Lescombes Winery & Bistro, is a bar and grill serves steaks, pasta, and salads. Rizo’s Restaurant, a classic Mexican joint has excellent street tacos and larger burritos as well as a few non-Mexican options like a club sandwich. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​The significantly larger city of Las Cruces (population: 113,000), 52 miles southwest of the park has more to offer. In the historic Old Mesilla neighborhood once an Old West border town, Billy the Kid stood trial for murder. The neighborhood’s can’t-miss centerpiece is the Basilica of San Albino, an adobe cathedral finished in 1908. The area around the city brims with pecan orchards and wineries so you can easily spend more than a day here.  

A good lodging bet is the moderately priced, 200-room Hotel Encanto de las Cruces designed to feel like a Spanish colonial outpost with terra-cotta tiles, stucco arches, and a bubbling fountain in an indoor courtyard. Amenities include a pool, bar, and restaurant, as well as several wheelchair-accessible rooms.

We have visited Las Cruces on numerous occasions and hace stayed at Hacienda RV Rsort and Sunny Acres RV Park. I would recommend either for anyone wanting a long term stay or just an overnight or anything in between.​

The city’s dining scene tends towards Mexican as restaurants are apt to do in this part of the state. La Nueva Casita Café is an excellent choice for that cuisine. For something more upscale, with a farm-to-table vibe, try Willow + Blaine whose small but superb New American menu features items like a 6-ounce beef filet, confit duck leg. and beet gnocchi. After dinner, treat yourself at Caliche’s Frozen Custard; choose your flavor (chocolate or vanilla) then your topping, perhaps local salted pecans.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​​En route 

If you’re driving from Albuquerque (or the north more generally) stop at the Valley of Fires recreation area about 5 miles northwest of Carrizozo along U.S. Route 380. Here, when Little Black Peak erupted roughly 5,000 years ago a lava flow coursed through the valley creating a black strip on the landscape as the magma cooled.

​Also, consider an escorted visit to White Sands Missile Range to see the test site of the world’s first atomic bomb. This open house as the military calls it happens only twice a year usually on the first Saturday of April and the third Saturday of October so check the missile range’s website for information.

You won’t see much beyond an obelisk marking the spot where the bomb went off and some trinitite (sand melted from the extreme heat of the blast) that’s preserved under a large glass case but it’s worth it to say you set foot on ground where the Atomic Age dawned. You’ll also be able to say you ventured into the seldom-seen (at least by civilians) missile range.  

​If you’re coming from El Paso, a road trip loop makes for a good three- to five-day trek through New Mexico. Take Interstate 10 up to Las Cruces (46 miles) then U.S. Route 70 over to White Sands National Park (52 miles). You can spend a night in Las Cruces before Whites Sands then another night in Alamogordo. From there, head over to Carlsbad via Roswell (193 miles) where the aliens crash-landed in 1947. After spending the night in Carlsbad visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park, another underrated gem in the National Park system. From there it’s only 149 miles back to El Paso. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Fact box

  • Location: Near Alamogordo, New Mexico
  • Total acres: More than 145,000 
  • Highest elevation: 4,116 feet above sea level
  • Lowest elevation: 3,887 feet above sea level
  • Miles of trails and how many: 9 miles across five trails
  • Main attraction: The gypsum sand dunes 
  • Cost: $25 per vehicle for a seven-day permit; $20 per year or $80 for a lifetime America the Beautiful Pass for people age 62-plus
  • Best way to see it: On foot, walking one of the many short trails through the dunes as the sun rises
  • When to go: Fall (September and October) or spring (March through early June) when the summer heat is not extreme and the nights are not below freezing as they can be in winter

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

10 Amazing Places to RV in March 2024

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

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.

—Martin Buber

When we set out on life’s journeys, we assume our plans and preparations will keep us firmly on course. But we are often blindsided by the twists and turns that the road takes and we hardly ever end up where we expected.

This observation comes from Martin Buber, a prominent German Jewish philosopher, educator, and political activist in the first half of the 20th century. He suggests that embracing these detours for the hidden benefits they bring is a critical part of learning, growing, and enjoying life.

With March comes the vernal equinox, the return of Daylight Saving Time, and beautiful flowering plants. The beginning of spring is a great time to hit the road and make memories and it also might be time to check a few things before you head out on your next big (or small) RV adventure.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in January and February. Also check out my recommendations from March 2023 and April 2023.

Cedar Key © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Cedar Key, Florida

Don’t worry, I promise not every destination on the list will be in Florida but it’s undeniably one of the best places to travel in spring. March and April bring some of the best weather the state sees all year; the full, stifling tilt of Florida’s summer heat and humidity has not arrived quite yet. Even better, the beaches and springs are just a little less crowded than they will be in July and August.

While any spot along Florida’s endless shoreline will be a winner this west-coast island which is home to miles of hiking trails and unique wildlife is a winner. It’s especially popular amongst the bird-watching crowd.

Monument Valley at sunset © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Towering Monument Valley buttes display sunset spectacle

A sunset spectacle featuring two mitten-shaped rock formations plays out at Monument Valley on the Navajo Nation along the Arizona and Utah border. Twice a year, in late March and mid-September, spectators, photographers, and videographers get a visual treat. As the sun sinks, the West Mitten Butte’s shadow crawls across the desert valley floor before climbing up the side of the East Mitten Butte.

The spectacle draws people from around the world to Monument Valley Tribal Park which already is popular with tourists.

TV and movie critic Keith Phipps once described Monument Valley as having “defined what decades of moviegoers think of when they imagine the American West.” It is a frequent filming location including a number of Westerns by the late American film director John Ford as well as the 1994 Oscar-winning film Forest Gump. In the movie, the character played by Tom Hanks is seen running on the road to Monument Valley, the park’s impressive landscape in the background.

The Alamo on Alamo Day © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Battle of the Alamo

The Battle of the Alamo’s finale is commemorated on Alamo Day which takes place on March 6 every year. The Battle of the Alamo came to a brutal conclusion on March 6, 1836, 13 days after a sporadic battle rounding off a critical milestone in the Texas Revolution. The fort was retaken by Mexican soldiers and virtually all of the Texan defenders including frontiersman Davy Crockett were killed.

Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna led an assault on the Alamo Mission on February 23, 1836. On March 6, just before daybreak, the last onslaught occurred. The north wall was broken and Mexican forces surged into the enclosure rousing many of the Texans within. The fight spanned 90 minutes with considerable hand-to-hand action involved.

The Alamo (initially called the Mission San Antonio de Valero) was constructed in present-day San Antonio by Spanish immigrants in 1718.

4. Death Valley Dark Sky Festival, March 1-3

Death Valley is known for some of the best stargazing in America. It’s even designated a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park, the highest rating of darkness.

During the Death Valley Dark Sky Festival visitors can enjoy the stunning night sky as well as special events like the Exploration Fair, auditorium talks, astrophotography meetups, and more.

If you plan on visiting multiple national parks, you can save a lot of money by getting an America the Beautiful Pass.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Like No Place Else on Earth

If you ask me, the entire southwest is something of a hidden gem. And if you’re right about separating the sand from the sea, it’s a spring break classic: warm, sunny, and perfect for kicking back.

If you haven’t paid a visit to the White Sands National Park in New Mexico, this spring is the perfect opportunity. The largest field of gypsum dunes in the world, you’ll oscillate between feeling like you’ve stepped onto an alien landscape and wondering where the crashing ocean waves might be—all while enjoying the simple fun of sledding down the steep slopes all around you.

Macon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. International Cherry Blossom Festival in Macon

You know its spring in Macon when the city turns pink thanks to the blooms of 300,000-plus Yoshino cherry trees all over the area.

If you visit Macon in March, you can celebrate its colorful arrival during the International Cherry Blossom Festival scheduled for March 15-24, 2024. 

Enjoy an extravagant display of springtime beauty and dozens of fun family activities many taking place under a canopy of delicate pink blooms. Watch hot-air balloons, air shows, colorful parades, and fireworks displays, or go on historic tours and amusement rides.

Concerts feature top recording artists from a variety of musical genres. Dining at the Cherry Blossom Festival’s Food Truck Frenzy offers variety and adventure! While you’re in Macon, cruise around town on the Cherry Blossom Trail to see different neighborhoods showing off their cherry blossoms.

Lost Dutchman State Park east of Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Arizona Spring Training

Are you a baseball fan who is craving a warm weather getaway? Then you need to check out spring training in Arizona—aka, the Cactus League.

A spring training trip is the perfect excuse to watch your favorite baseball team play a few no-stress games all while enjoying an amazing RV road trip somewhere warm and sunny while you’re at it. Sounds pretty awesome, right?

During spring training, Major League Baseball (MLB) teams hold a series of practices and exhibition games which allows them to try out new players and practice existing players before the regular season starts.

The Cactus League is one of two spring training leagues (the other is the Grapefruit League in Florida) that are home to the MLB during the baseball spring training season.

Phoenix and the cities in its metropolitan area (Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, Goodyear, Glendale, Surprise, and Peoria) are home to the Cactus League. Within a 50-mile radius, you’ll find 10 facilities that host 15 major league baseball teams during spring training which typically runs mid-February through March (February 22-March 26, 2024).

Check this out to learn more: The Complete Guide to Arizona Spring Training (Cactus League)

St. Martinsville in Cajun Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Louisiana

New Orleans’s light burns so bright that it tends to cast a shadow on the rest of Louisiana but rest assured when you step away from the Big Easy things truly get wild. And you will likely get wet: more than 18 percent of the state is covered in water offering endless miles of rivers, coastline, bayou, and swamp to fish and explore.

But there’s also plenty of hiking with wooden platforms that guide you through Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve, islands to explore off the mainland in the Gulf, and 21 state parks scattered throughout Cajun Country.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is a unique park because it combines two desert ecosystems. Plants, animals, and fascinating views are all part of the deal at Joshua Tree. For the best views possible, catch the sunset at the park and watch the sky transform from stunning shades of pink and orange to a clear, dark blue canopy sprinkled with stars.

If you plan on visiting multiple national parks, you can save a lot of money by getting an America the Beautiful Pass.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Savannah

Savannah, Georgia is a charming historic Southern town on the Atlantic coast, just across the Savannah River from South Carolina. The city is known for its beautiful municipal parks, historical features such as antebellum homes, and the horse-drawn carriages that ferry passengers around the cobblestoned streets of the historic district. Stroll the ancient oak-lined paths of Forsyth Park and then take a walk through the Juliette Gordon Low Historic District followed by comfort food at a Southern cafe and you’ll never want to leave Savannah.

Worth Pondering…

In March the soft rains continued, and each storm waited courteously until its predecessor sunk beneath the ground.

—John Steinbeck, East of Eden 

The Best National Parks to Visit in March

If you are seeking the best national parks to visit in March, this guide’s for you! It will detail eight beautiful National Parks to visit in March, why you should go to them, and what to expect during this month.

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

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

Planning a trip to America’s national parks in March but don’t know which ones to visit? March brings warmer temperatures to most of the US. Travel begins to pick up during this month both because of the warmer weather and because families are hitting the road for spring break. There are many great national parks to visit in March which I cover in this guide plus eight bonus parks and two road trip ideas that links several of these national parks together.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

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

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

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

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Visiting the National Parks in March

March is a great month to visit the national parks. With the warmer temperatures and the beginning of spring, the list of parks that you can visit without braving freezing temperatures gets larger. The days are getting longer, flowers start to bloom, and in some parts of the US, trees begin to get their first leaves.

Overall, park visitation still remains low for the year but there are a few hotspots that get busier as people visit the national parks for spring break. Even so, crowds are still quieter than the summer which is the busiest time to visit most national parks.

Best National Parks in March

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Arches National Park

Location: Utah

This small, easy to visit national park is a joy to explore. It’s also the feature photo for this post.

You can see several arches and unique rock formations without ever stepping out of your car. With just a little bit of walking you can visit many of the top sights in Arches National Park such as the Windows and Double Arch. And for those who like hiking don’t miss the Devils Garden Trail, a thrilling hike where you get to see eight arches and hike on a primitive trail.

Why visit Arches in March: March is a great time to visit Arches National Park because the weather is getting warmer and crowds are still relatively low for the year. In 2022, Arches National Park had 142,000 visitors in March. Peak visitation for that year was in May when 172,000 people visited the park. If you want to visit Arches with even lower crowds plan your visit from December through February but be prepared for freezing temperatures.

Weather: In March, the average high is 62°F and the average low is 37°F. Rainfall is very low. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 7:25 pm.

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Plan your visit

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Canyonlands National Park

Location: Utah

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

Journey below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa for an unforgettable experience. Drive the twisting Shafer Canyon switchbacks onto the White Rim and then spend a few days driving through remote landscapes. Called the White Rim Road, this is one of the best experiences in the national park system.

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

Why visit Canyonlands in March: Just like Arches, park visitation remains relatively low and the warmer temperatures make March a better time to visit than the winter months. Canyonlands only gets a fraction of the visitors that flood Arches National Park so this park will feel delightfully empty compared to Arches. March is also a good time to drive the White Rim Road since permits are a little easier to get than late spring through early fall.

Weather: The average high is 54°F and the average low is 35°F. Rainfall is low. Even though Canyonlands sits next to Arches National Park it is at a higher elevation so the temperatures are a bit lower here.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 7:25 pm.

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Plan your visit

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Capitol Reef National Park

Location: Utah

Capitol Reef National Park is an underrated gem in the national park system.

This national park is full of many wonderful surprises. With an amazing scenic drive, hiking trails that rival those in Zion, rugged, remote areas to explore by 4×4, short, easy slot canyons, historical landmarks, and even delicious pie, this is another one of my favorite national parks.

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

Why visit Capitol Reef in March: Temperatures are finally getting a bit warmer and crowd visitation is relatively low. You could still have some cold mornings but Capitol Reef warms up nicely during the day and the cooler temperatures make this a great time to go hiking.

Weather: In March, the average high is 57°F and the average low is 34°F. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 7:30 pm.

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Plan your visit

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Bryce Canyon National Park

Location: Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is a fantasyland of hoodoos, bizarre rock formations, and sandstone pillars.

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

Why visit Bryce Canyon in March: For the chance to see Bryce Canyon with a dusting of snow. Temperatures are a bit warmer than January and February but snowfall is a possibility especially at the beginning of the month so you don’t have to brave frigid temps for the chance to see Bryce Canyon covered in snow.

Weather: In March, the average high is 46°F and the average low is 23°F. There is a good chance of snow and on average Bryce Canyon receives about 13 inches of snow in March. Bryce Canyon has the highest elevation of the parks in Utah’s Mighty 5 making this the coolest one to visit (pun intended).

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 7:35 pm.

Top experiences: Some of the best viewpoints are right along the rim which is easily accessible by car or the shuttle (mid-April to mid-September): Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point. Hike the Queens Garden and Navajo Loop, a 3-mile hike past some of the best scenery in the park. Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Point are also nice viewpoints.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

How much time do you need? One day is all you need to see the views from the rim and hike one to two short trails in the park. I recommend another day or two for additional time to hike into the canyon. You won’t regret it.

Plan your visit

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Pinnacles National Park

Location: California

Pinnacles National Park preserves and protects the mountains on the eastern end of Salinas Valley. These mountains are the remnants of an extinct volcano. The rocky pinnacles are a popular rock climbing destination and wildflowers in the spring draw the biggest crowds of the year. This park is also one of the few locations where you can spot the California condor in the wild.

This is one of the newest national parks (it became a national park in 2013) and least visited national parks (it was the 15th least visited park in 2022 with 275,023 visitors).

Why visit Pinnacles in March: March through May is the peak blooming season for the flowers in Pinnacles National Park. 

Weather: The average high is 68°F and the average low is 38°F. March is the end of the rainy season getting about 3 inches of rain during this month.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 7:12 pm.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: See the wildflowers in the spring, hike the High Peaks Loop, hike the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, explore the Balconies cave, spot California condors, enjoy the view from Condor Gulch Overlook, and go rock climbing.

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

Plan your visit

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Big Bend National Park

Location: Texas

Isolated, remote, wild, and rugged…this is Big Bend National Park.

Located in the southwestern corner of Texas within the Chihuahuan Desert is an extraordinary mountain range that is a haven for hikers, backpackers, and outdoor enthusiasts.

This is one of the most remote parks in the lower 48 states so crowd levels tend to be low all year. Even when it is at its busiest, Big Bend feels rather quiet.

Why visit Big Bend in March: We visited Big Bend in March and had a great experience. The weather was warm and in early March, crowds are low. The second and third weeks in March get busy because this is when Texans go on spring break. If you can, plan your visit for the first week in March to take advantage of great weather and low crowds.

Weather: The average high is 74°F and the average low is 47°F. Rainfall is very low especially this time of year. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 8 am and sunset is at 8 pm.

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Plan your visit

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Congaree National Park

Location: South Carolina

Congaree National Park protects the oldest old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States.

This is one of the smallest, least visited national parks in the United States (it was the 12th least visited park in 2022 with 204,522 visitors). A visit here is quick and easy to plan.

Walk the boardwalk trail through the forest, go kayaking or canoeing on Cedar Creek, go birdwatching and fishing, and, if you like, venture farther into the park on a number of other woodland trails.

Why visit Congaree in March: This is a good time to visit Congaree because it’s warm and mosquitoes aren’t too much of an issue (the worst time for mosquitoes is from late spring through summer). March is one of the wetter months to visit Congaree so there is also a good chance that you will see some flooding in the forests which is a very unique sight to see (the peak time for flooding is the winter months).

Weather: In March, the average high is 68°F and the average low is 43°F. Rainfall is above average for the year with park getting about 4 inches of rain this month.

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

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Plan your visit

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. White Sands National Park

Location: New Mexico

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

Why visit White Sands in March: White Sands is one of the warmer national parks to visit in March and with temperatures in the low 70s the weather is great for hiking and exploring. We visited White Sands in March and had a wonderful experience. It’s cool enough to do a long hike without getting hot and the mild midday temperatures make this a great time to spend all day on the dunes. Just be aware that March is the busiest month to visit the park.

Weather: In March, the average high is 71°F and the average low is 33°F. This is one of the driest months to visit the park.

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

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

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Plan your visit

4 more parks to visit in March

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

I would have included Zion as a top pick for March since the weather is gorgeous this time of year, but, and this is a big but, crowd levels skyrocket in March. In 2022, about 170,000 people visited Zion in February. In March, that number grew to 446,000 people. And that wasn’t even the highest month for visitation…June was a busier month with 570,000 visitors! 

The trend for traffic to jump from February to March is not unique to 2022. This has been occurring for the last 20 years.

If you plan to do a Mighty 5 road trip in March (it’s a great one!) you can include Zion, just be prepared for large crowds.

Grand Canyon National Park

In March, temperatures are beginning to warm up and with that the Grand Canyon begins to draw more crowds. Even though visitation picks up in March, it’s still a lot quieter to visit the park now than during the busy summer months.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

The weather is pretty much perfect in Saguaro in March with daily highs of 75°F and low rainfall. But this is the by far busiest month of the year to visit the park so keep that in mind while planning your visit.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Like Saguaro, March is the busiest month to visit Carlsbad Caverns. But the weather is pleasant and this is a great time for a Texas-New Mexico road trip so if you also have plans to visit Guadalupe Mountains, White Sands, and/or Big Bend, it is worth including Carlsbad Caverns in your travel plans.

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in March

Chiricahua National Monument

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

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Carved into a cliff 1,500 feet above the ground and featuring more than 20 rooms constructed in multiple stories, it’s a remarkably example of Sinaguan architecture. Today a short trail takes you to a viewing spot below the ruins, and museum exhibits help you imagine what life was like in this unforgiving desert landscape.

Tuzigoot National Monument

Tuzigoot is an ancient village or pueblo built by the Sinagua. The pueblo consisted of 110 rooms including second and third story structures. The first buildings were built around A.D. 1000. The Sinagua were agriculturalists with trade connections that spanned hundreds of miles. The people left the area around 1400.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

You can see many of Canyon de Chelly’s top sights from the rim roads but you’ll get a deeper understanding of its significance on a jeep tour with a Navajo guide. The only self-guided hike, the White House Trail, zigzags 600 feet down (and back up) to the spectacular White House ruins. Don’t miss the staggeringly tall spire known as Spider Rock; it rises 830 feet from the canyon floor.

March road trip ideas

Here are two great road trip ideas for March. The best time for both of these is in early March to avoid spring break traffic. If you are planning your visit for spring break, make your reservations well in advance because this can be a busy time to visit some of these national parks.

Texas & New Mexico

Combine Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, and White Sands into one big road trip. Start in Las Cruces, New Mexico or El Paso, Texas and drive this loop.

Utah’s Mighty 5

Visiting all of Utah’s Mighty 5 (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks) is one of America’s best road trips. To do this, you need 10 days or more.

Saguaro

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Lubbock

Planning your Summer Road Trip Begins NOW

Mapping your route and stocking up on gear in advance will pay off when you hit the road

In February’s cold, dark days, a summer road trip might be the farthest thing from your mind. Without the need to book a flight or coordinate other transportation, it’s easy to rely on spontaneity for a last-minute escape once the weather warms up. The beauty of an RV road trip is its structured freedom: you can do anything you want just as long as you are willing and able to drive.

But pushing off your planning until sunnier days could affect your vacation down the road. Investing a little time now will go a long way toward making the most out of your summer.

If plotting a course feels daunting, start by clustering destinations that will you give you something concrete to plan around. Depending on the number of days you expect to travel, you can add or remove stops along the way.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For example, a trip through three national parks in New Mexico and TexasWhite Sands, Carlsbad Caverns, and Guadalupe Mountains—could be knocked out in a long weekend. Tack on Big Bend National Park for an additional few days to account for the extra mileage and time to explore.

A classic way to plan a road trip is to follow one of America’s best-known vacation drives such as Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway, or the Lewis and Clark Expedition Trail. Though they may seem cliché these drives are still famous for a reason: They capture the history of America. You can use social media to find modern attractions along these well-tread routes.

Search for geotags along the route for crowdsourced advice on what to visit while you pass through. Use hiking apps like All Trails to explore what nature recommendations people have outside of national park suggestions. Start following accounts of bloggers or local experts who post about the areas you’re visiting. To keep yourself from overcommitting, keep a list of these potential food stops, campgrounds, roadside attractions, and nature areas along the way to reference when you need options.

Whether you’re planning to follow a well-known path or keep a looser schedule, become familiar with your major waypoints by April. This will give you time to research lesser-known sights and dig for local suggestions. By the time you hit the road, you’ll have the confidence to make quick (but informed) decisions.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Make reservations at national parks

While reserving a spot inside a national park isn’t the only way to camp near popular nature sites, it is well worth the foresight if you can book a few nights ahead of time.

Every park has its own schedule of openings, reservation requirements, and campsite availability so the best advice is to closely track a few parks for announcements. While some national parks save a portion of their campsite reservations to be released a week before booking, most park reservations open six months in advance.

Most National Parks reserve a few spots per campground as a first-come, first-serve option. They can be impossible to predict so do not rely on their availability if you are set on camping inside the park. Note that reservations often become available at 8 a.m. in the time zone of that park.

Permits for popular hikes and activities also become available at this time at Recreation.gov.

Timed entry reservations will still be required at a handful of popular parks during the peak summer months: Yosemite, Arches, Zion, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, and Haleakalā National Parks will all require some reservation to enter.

For complete details read 10 National Parks That Require Early Reservations for 2024 Visits

To the National Park Service’s credit, these required dates cluster around the most popular weeks and holidays and there are usually exceptions like entering a park before 5 a.m. that still allow for some flexibility if you can’t score a reservation in time.

Friday’s Fried Chicken, Shiner, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buy gear and supplies

A backpack, good walking shoes or hiking boots, wide-brimmed hat, and sun protection are all important regardless of how much outdoor activity you’re planning. It’s not just the outdoor gear to keep an eye out on—road trip essentials range from storage options to electronics to RV supplies.

Be sure to stock up on household and RV-related items: paper products, water filter, plastic bags, tissues, disinfecting wipes, and a fully stocked first aid kit.

That’s why I wrote this article: 35 Little Things to Remember to Pack for Your RV Road Trip

Bluegrass Country, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check your vehicle

Don’t forget about a checklist for your RV. A tire pressure gauge, jumper cables, and a roadside tool kit can all come in handy even if you’re renting an RV. And always keep a paper atlas on hand in case you’re out of cell service range.

Beyond the typical under-the-hood checks—engine oil, transmission fluid, hydraulic oil, coolant, and washer fluid—be sure to check your lightbulbs and brake reactivity, even in rentals. Spending hours on the road can decrease your focus and reaction time so ensure that the RV will be safe and comfortable. That’s why you should follow the 330 Rule.

The biggest investment to make in your pre-road trip vehicle is a new set of tires especially if you tend to only drive in the city. If you’re planning on driving or pulling a camper, van or RV and have been putting off upgrading your tires consider buying tires with a longer tread life or thicker tread for more diverse terrain.

Historic Route 66 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some helpful resources when it comes to tire safety:

Worth Pondering…

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

—Miyamoto Musashi

The Best National Parks to Visit in February

If you are seeking the best national parks to visit in February, this guide’s for you! It will detail five beautiful National Parks to visit in February, why you should go to them, and what to expect during this winter month.

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

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

Planning a trip to the US national parks in February but don’t know which ones to visit? In February, much of the country is cold and covered in snow but there are plenty of parks you can visit to escape the wintry conditions. In this article, I cover the best national parks to visit in February plus several bonus parks and a road trip idea.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

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

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

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

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

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

Visiting the National Parks in February

In February, much of the United States is cold and blanketed in snow. Like January, park visitation remains relatively low in February making this a great time to visit most of the parks with low crowds. 

Best National Parks to visit in February

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Petrified Forest National Park

Location: Arizona

Visiting Petrified Forest National Park is like taking a step back in time. The petrified logs date back hundreds of millions of years to a time when this land was once lush and fertile. These trees fell and became the mineralized versions of their original forms even before dinosaurs walked the earth.

This national park beat all of my expectations. I imagined a barren desert with a few colorful hills, littered with some ancient, petrified stumps. Instead, we were treated to the colorful, uniquely beautiful hills of the Painted Desert, giant, petrified trees that puzzle the mind, and the chance to walk backcountry trails without another person in sight.

Petrified Forest is a very cool, underrated, and easy park to visit.

Why visit Petrified Forest in February: Even though temperatures are on the chilly side, this is a great time to visit Petrified Forest because crowd levels are low and this makes a great February road trip destination with several other parks in Arizona.

Weather: The weather is surprisingly cool in February. The average high is 53°F and the average low is 25°F. Rainfall is low.

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

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Plan your visit

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Saguaro National Park

Location: Arizona

Located in southern Arizona, Saguaro National Park is one of the warmest parks to visit in February. Temperatures in the park soar from late spring through early fall making the winter months the best time to visit Saguaro.

Saguaro National Park is named for the Saguaro Cactus which only grows in the Sonoran Desert.

This park is split into two different sections, the Tucson Mountain District and the Rincon Mountain District. You can visit both in one very busy day but you’re best to spread them out over two separate days.

Why visit Saguaro National Park in February: For the near perfect weather conditions. With an average high of 70°F and a very low chance of rain, this is a great park to visit in February. These great weather conditions do draw big crowds so expect busy trails and make your travel arrangements in advance.

Weather: The average high is 70°F and the average low is 42°F. Rainfall is very low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 6:10 pm.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Drive Bajada Loop Drive and hike the Valley View Overlook Trail and the Desert Discovery Nature Trail, see the Signal Hill Petroglyphs, and drive the Cactus Forest Drive. Just outside of the park is the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum which is well worth the time.

How much time do you need? You will need two days to see the highlights of Saguaro National Park; one for each unit. With more time, you can go backpacking or hike the longer, more challenging hiking trails and visit the above mentioned Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum.

Plan your visit

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. White Sands National Park

Location: New Mexico

With sand as white as the snow, this might look like a winter wonderland, but in February, this is one of the warmer parks to visit in the United States.

White Sands National Park is home to the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. These pure white dunes create a fun place to explore, for both kids and adults. Hike out into the dunes, learn about the wildlife that calls this park home, and go sledding on sand as white as the snow.

Why visit White Sands in February: February is one of the quietest months to visit this park in terms of crowd levels. Although the days start off cold, the temperature warms up very nicely during the day making this one of the warmer parks to visit in February.

Weather: In February, the average high is 63°F and the average low is 28°F. This is one of the driest months to visit the park although rainfall is low all year.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:45 am and sunset is at 5:50 pm.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Plan your visit

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Location: New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is an underground fantasy land of limestone chambers, stalactites and stalagmites, and long, twisting tunnels.

I’m not a big fan of caves and caverns but I found this place to be amazing. If you want to see stalactites, stalagmites, ribbon-like curtains, totem poles, and unique formations called soda straws, Carlsbad Caverns is the best cave system in the US to put on your list.

Why visit Carlsbad Caverns in February: In terms of park visitation, February is one of the quietest months to visit Carlsbad Caverns (park visitation spikes in March with Spring Break). The caverns remain a consistent 56°F all year. With good weather and low crowds, February is one of the best months to visit Carlsbad Caverns and it can be combined on a road trip with White Sands National Park (mentioned above).

Weather: In February, the average high is 61°F and the average low is 37°F. Rainfall is very low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:40 am and sunset is at 5:44 pm.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Tour the caverns on your own or on a ranger-guided tour.You can also go star gazing, hike a surface trail, or go on a scenic drive. 

How much time do you need? A half to a full day is all you need to explore the caverns on your own and/or take a ranger-guided tour.

Plan Your Visit

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Joshua Tree National Park

Location: California

Located in southern California, Joshua Tree National Park makes a great winter destination especially for those who like hiking and rock climbing. Joshua Tree is a top rock climbing destination in February since temperatures are relatively mild.

Most visitors spend their time along Park Boulevard where the Joshua Trees and enormous piles of boulders form the iconic landscapes that many people imagine when they think of Joshua Tree National Park.

You can also combine a visit to Joshua Tree with Palm Springs, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Julian, and/or San Diego (more great spots to visit in the winter).

Why visit Joshua Tree in February: With its mild weather this is one of the best hiking and rock climbing destinations in the US in February. However, it is also one of the busiest months to visit Joshua Tree (but March tends to be the most crowded time to go).

Weather: In February, the average high is 61°F and the average low is 37°F. Rainfall chances are low. 

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

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Plan your visit

3 more national parks to visit in February

Here are 3 more great national parks to visit in February.

Grand Canyon National Park

February is one of the least crowded months to visit Grand Canyon National Park. If you don’t mind cold temperatures and the chance of snow, this is a great time to visit the Grand Canyon if you prefer low crowds.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is a chilly place to visit in February but if you want to visit the park with low crowds, this is a good month to go. February is the second least-visited month to go to Zion with January being the quietest month of the year.

Arches National Park

Like Zion, temperatures are low but so are the crowds. In February, you can visit Arches National Park relatively crowd free.

Bonus! 3 NPS sites to visit in January

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals, including its namesake.

Chiricahua National Monument

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

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

The Hohokam people built these structures when they were near the height of their power some 700 years ago. They created villages that extended from the site of modern-day Phoenix to southern Arizona.

February road trip idea: Arizona road trip

Arizona makes a great February road trip destination.

On this 10 day Arizona road trip, you can visit three national parks (Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon, and Saguaro) and three NPS sites (Organ Pipe, Chiricahua, and Casa Grande Ruins) plus visit Monument Valley, Antelope Canyon, and Sedona. February is a great month for this road trip before temperatures heat up and people start hitting the road for their spring break trips.

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month:

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Lubbock

National Parks at Their Absolute Best in Winter

All the wonder, none of the crowds

America’s national parks were established as places where we can experience its awesome power, often in isolation. Tell that to the summer crowds clogging the trails of Zion or the campfire troubadours whose open mic-caliber guitar playing echoes off of Joshua Tree’s trippy crags until dawn.

The national parks remain America’s Best Idea and something we all can—and should—enjoy, screaming kids at Old Faithful included. But winter can be the best time to go for those who wish to experience the parks with the same sense of solitude as a pronghorn. The trails are clear of obstacles. Campsites might not require a reservation. And, unlike peak season, you’ll feel like you have everything to yourself. These are the parks that are at their absolute best in the winter.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Spoiler alert: You’re going to see four of Utah’s Mighty Five on this list. And to clarify, I’d include Capitol Reef if I had the space. Even with next-door neighbor Arches showing off Grade A sights when temperatures dip each year, Canyonlands stands out as a banger.

The largest yet least-visited national park in the state, Canyonlands’ snow-dusted spires, arches, mesa tops, and sandstone cliffs are made all the better by the fact that crowds clear out almost completely come winter turning this into a place of spectacular, sweeping solitude. (Just be sure to check for road closures before you head out.)

2. Zion National Park, Utah

In the summertime, Zion is basically Disneyland. It’s crowded. It’s hot. You’re standing in two-hour lines to be able to do the one thing you most want to do that day and they’re often out of turkey legs.

End this madness and go in the wintertime. Just 13 percent of Zion’s visitors, journey to the park between November and March, and a wintertime desert is 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.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

When it comes to winter wonderlands few national parks come close to the beauty of Bryce Canyon in the snow. The canyon’s red hoodoos and evergreen trees pop under the smattering of white and the majestic sunrises and sunsets cover the landscapes in ethereal light. For the best views, take the two-mile hike from the visitor center to Bryce Point which ends at the Bryce Amphitheater. This is the most famous overlook in the entire park—the perfect place to snap some photos.

Winter sports enthusiasts should especially plan a trip to Bryce Canyon. The park has many daily activities like ranger-led snowshoe hikes, cross-country skiing, and backpacking. National Park Service (NPS) also offers winter astronomy programs and full moon hikes (weather permitting) letting visitors take in the splendor of the unfiltered night sky.

4. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Often 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 owls and gaze at petroglyphs with little interruption and minus the oppressive heat.

Even better, the 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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Less than 1 million people drop by South Dakota’s most gorgeous landscape annually and come winter the place is virtually deserted (December sees a scant 8,400 people while February tops out at 13,400). What a stunning time to go full Dr. Manhattan and have 244,000 acres of Mars virtually to yourself, give or take a few bison.

Snag a campsite under a blanket of stars if you’re hardy or a cozy cabin (and maybe some donuts and buffalo burgers) in nearby Wall (think, Wall Drug). Then strap on snowshoes or skis and get ready to truly know what it’s like to be tiny and gloriously alone in the wild.

6. Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park is an International Dark Sky Park and winter is arguably the best time to see stars. Clear nights mean great views of celestial phenomena; however, they can also bring freezing temperatures to the desert so don’t let the southwest Texas location fool you into thinking it’s always hot.

Cool days are conducive to ticking off some of the more challenging hikes like the 6.5-mile Mariscal Canyon Rim Trail which can be dangerous to attempt in the warmer months.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is an awe-inspiring sight on its own. Now imagine seeing the fiery sandstone and surrounding evergreen trees with a layer of fresh snow. The winter scenery at this Natural Wonder of the World is absolutely magical.

Visiting the South Rim in the off-season means popular hikes like the Bright Angel Trail are blissfully quiet and much more comfortable than in the summer, thanks to cool temperatures. Grand Canyon National Park’s free shuttles run fewer routes in the winter but there are still plenty that stop at the different trailheads and Grand Canyon Village viewpoints.

8. Joshua Tree National Park, California

This boulder- and bush-dotted park straddling the Colorado and Mojave deserts is a serene winter escape from bustling Los Angeles (130 miles away) and Las Vegas (217 miles away).

Winter in Joshua Tree National Park is a mecca for rock climbers who take advantage of bouldering while the granite is cool. Keep this in mind when you’re trying to snag one of the first-come, first-served campsites.

If you’re able to spend the night in the park, you’ll get access to some of the best stargazing the West Coast has to offer.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Time slows to a primeval pace in the sequoia groves that make up Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks where arboreal giants have watched the seasons come and go for more than 2,000 years. In the winter, hike along quiet, snowy trails to the General Sherman Tree among the world’s largest living icons at a height of 275 feet.

These parks are also great for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. On free, ranger-led snowshoe walks, shoes are even provided. For something less strenuous, try driving through the wintry landscape though be aware that tire chains are often required during this time of year.

10. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

The famous, striking limestone formations at Carlsbad Caverns have often been compared to floating underground jellyfish or alcoves full of goblins and fairies—however you interpret them, they’re otherworldly.

The best part about visiting this New Mexico locale in the winter months (apart from bypassing the crowds) is that the cave stays a balmy 56 degrees Fahrenheit, rain or shine. Ranger-led tours are available year-round or visitors can opt to check out the Natural Entrance and Big Room Trails on their own.

For those looking to check yet another winter-friendly park off their list while in the area, the nearby Guadalupe Mountains feel like an island in the Chihuahuan Desert with vista-rich hiking trails you won’t want to miss.

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

11. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Getting out in nature during an East Coast winter doesn’t have to mean shivering in a snowstorm for hours on end. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park roughly half the season’s days boast a high temperature in the 50s—perfect for hiking the park’s more than 800 miles of trails.

Start the day by taking in the views at Newfound Gap, nestled on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina then hike to craggy Alum Cave or explore the old-timey wooden structures at Cades Cove. At night, stargaze by the fire at Cades Cove Campground or retreat to an RV park in nearby Sevierville.

12. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches has some of America’s most breathtaking scenes. In winter, white snow contrasts with the red rocks and blue skies to create some stunning sights. While daytime temperatures can rise above 100 degrees in summer expect freezing temperatures in winter. Even scant snowfall can make trails and roads impassable so be sure to plan if you intend to visit this national park in winter.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Winter stretches itself from October through June at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Clear lakes become icy, volcanoes become topped with heavy snow, and steam vents become especially smoky.

For those seeking fun as well as beauty, winter activities are at their peak here with sledding hills that offer mountain views, snowshoeing for beginners and experts, and backcountry skiing that can’t be beaten.

14. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Make winter plans to visit a warmer locale in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park where park-goers can see the Painted Desert, drive past Blue Mesa, and see the Crystal Forest up close. I drove through here a few years ago on a whim, and it was one of the most unique National Parks I’ve ever been to.

The weather may be cooler in winter, but snow is rare. But don’t forget those warm layers for when temps drop at night!

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Open year-round to outdoor enthusiasts, White Sands National Park in New Mexico is one of the best National Parks to visit in the winter for many reasons. For one, since it’s a less-visited park in general, you’re likely to see very few people and can sled down the dunes all by yourself! 

Plus, as soon as you hike a little ways into the dunes, you’re very unlikely to encounter other hikers. New Mexico does get chilly in winter, but it rarely sees a lot of snow this far south.

By the way, I have a series of posts on exploring national parks in winter:

Worth Pondering…

A national park is not a playground; it’s a sanctuary for nature and for humans who will accept nature on nature’s own terms.

—Michael Frome

4 of the Most Underrated, Crowd-free National Parks in America

Tired of crowds? Try these underrated national parks instead.

Contrary to popular belief, fall is the ideal season to visit America’s national parks. Summer is beautiful and all but there’s only so much one can tolerate with the scorching temperatures, parking lot road rage, and crowds swarming like they’re at a rock concert.

Come fall, however, the tides start to shift—kids are back in school, campground availability becomes less of a challenge, and in many parts of the country, the foliage turns scenic drives and trails into luminous leafy tunnels. Also, bears go back into hibernation so that’s one less thing to worry about. 

This is all well and good for clamorous national parks like Zion, the Great Smoky Mountains, and the Grand Canyon but it’s even more true of America’s more underrated gems. Of the 63 national parks not including the more than 400 national monuments, memorials, and scenic byways overseen by the National Park Service (NPS) a good chunk of them are far-flung places you’ve likely never heard of—let alone traveled hours out of your way into the vast wilderness to visit. 

These are places with the same level of staggering natural beauty as the well-trod parks minus the crowds and the calamity (looking at you, reckless Yellowstone tourists). When it comes to underrated natural beauty not ruined by overcrowding, these are the best of the bunch. Follow the links below for more details about each park and the can’t-miss ways to visit each one.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia

Even though New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is the newest national park in the country upgraded from a national river in 2020 there’s nothing youthful about this ancient landscape. Flowing northward through mountainous Appalachia in West Virginia, this mighty waterway is among the oldest rivers in the world, carving and splashing its way through a 53-mile canyon of trees, hills, and cliffs. Famed as a mecca for white-water rafting and rock climbing along with ample activities both on land and on water, this sleeper hit of a park puts the gorge in gorgeous. 

Marvel at the third-highest bridge in the U.S. The New River Gorge Bridge is to West Virginia as the Space Needle is to Seattle—a feat of architectural prowess and innovation ascending to staggering heights. A centerpiece attraction in the park, it’s the longest steel span bridge in the western hemisphere designed to significantly reduce travel time for drivers on roads. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places it’s an essential sight in New River Gorge best seen from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center north of the bridge.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get wet in one of the oldest rivers on the planet. For a waterway that might be as old as 360 million years, the New River is certainly still spry and lively. Adrenaline junkies come from far and wide to suit up and float the river navigating white water that can reach as high as Class V rapids. Altogether, the park protects 53 miles worth of river from Bluestone Sam to Hawks Nest Lake with the more intense rapids accumulating in the lower gorge. Experienced rafters can hit the river themselves or licensed outfitters in the area provide guided trips.

Get more tips for visiting New River Gorge National Park

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

An optimal example of quality over quantity, Congaree National Park is smack dab in the middle of South Carolina’s murkiest floodplains. At just 26,000 acres, it’s a tiny but mighty park that has the mystical look and feel of a mildly haunted forest with some of the tallest trees east of the Mississippi thrown in for good measure. It may look like a giant swamp but Congaree is a huge floodplain of its namesake Congaree River where the constant ebb and flow of water levels is a healthy part of the natural ecosystem filtering nutrients down into the roots of loblolly pines and tupelos so colossal and towering that they block out the sun.

Though it may look like a big ol’ swamp it’s a massive floodplain. The river routinely floods carrying vital nutrients down into the roots of skyscraping giants like loblolly pines, laurel oaks, and swamp tupelos. This being flat-as-a-flapjack South Carolina, the trails are all easy (albeit occasionally muddy). An absolute must is the mud-free elevated Boardwalk Loop Trail which winds through high-canopy forests so dense it gives the park an eerie, Blair Witch Project kind of vibe. But don’t worry—the only wildlife you’re likely to see are owls, armadillos, and otters.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Paddle Cedar Creek. South Carolina is infamously flat and considering the watery focal point here paddling is the main draw. Guests can book a guided kayak or canoe trip with an area outfitter (or bring your own) on Cedar Creek, a moody waterway that meanders through the thick of the forest like a wooded labyrinth. The slow-moving creek is also gentle as can be which means you won’t have to work too hard to paddle in either direction—rather, sit back and enjoy the peaceful journey through an ominous forest so quiet that the only sounds are distant woodpeckers and hooting owls. The longest journey is a 15-mile float from Bannister’s Bridge to the far-mightier Congaree River.

Hike the Boardwalk Trail. Although the park is flat and hiking is really more like scenic strolling, the Boardwalk Trail is a beauty to behold getting visitors up close and personal to the park’s most epic plant life. The easy—and dog-friendly—trail traverses a 2.5-mile boardwalk loop starting at the visitor center and passing through trees, over creeks, and alongside rivers. The boardwalk is raised several feet off the forest floor, so it’s accessible—even during heavy rain—and it’s a lot less muddy than some of the other trails through the woods.

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White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

A gypsum dune field so vast that it’s visible from space, White Sands National Park truly looks out of this world. This New Mexico park located in a southwestern region of the state once awash in a prehistoric sea is now home to the largest gypsum desert on Earth with dunes 30 feet deep and 60 feet tall stretching for 275 square miles.

Soft and silken, the dunes look more like granulated sugar than sand and the fact that they’re made of gypsum means they don’t absorb heat from the sun so you can walk barefoot without burning your soles. With mountains looming in the distance and rockets roaring in the background from the nearby missile range it doesn’t get much more otherworldly than this.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Slide on a sand sled. Because the dunes are snow-white it feels appropriate that sledding is one of White Sands’ premier activities. But unlike snow, sand is not naturally slick which is why waxed plastic saucers are recommended—and available for rent or purchase from the gift shop at the entrance visitor center.

The entire park is accessible for sledding and exploring but sledders are reminded not to slide down dunes that lead towards roads or ones that end on a hard surface (spoiler alert: the area at the base of the dunes is not as soft as it may look). 

Explore the dunes via the Alkali Flat Trail. The longest of the park’s five designated trails this is a five-mile loop at the end of the scenic Dunes Drive with mesmerizing desert views that extend to the horizon. Clip-on shoe covers are a wise choice since you’ll 100 percent be shimmying up and down a plethora of tall dunes through shifting sands and unstable surfaces as you follow the red diamond trail markers. Wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses, and ample sunscreen are also advised along with plenty of water.

A bit easier, the Dune Life Nature Trail is a one-mile loop through the grassier portion of the park where you might see tracks in the sand of critters like kit foxes, badgers, and lizards. For something truly unique embark on a guided full moon hike offered once a month by reservation.

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Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

An underrated park Lassen Volcanic is the the least visited national park in California. With its thermal features, soaring peaks, volcanic history, and shimmering lakes it feels like a mini-Yellowstone with a fraction of the crowds. Nestled in a quiet section of central northern California it’s a place where rugged extremes and intensity like the fuming mud pots in Bumpass Hell are juxtaposed by the peaceful bliss of Manzanita Lake. Like Yellowstone, too, Lassen Peak is also an active volcano that could blow at a moment’s notice.

The key difference here, though, is that, unlike the global catastrophe that would ensue from a Yellowstone eruption, Lassen is far tamer. When it last erupted in 1917 shattering a lava dome, spewing a fine layer of ash, and triggering avalanches and floods it certainly caused damage and disarray but it wasn’t the end of humanity. Rather, nowadays the 10,457-foot mountain is a requisite hike for park-goers, and the sleeping giant forms an almost cinematic-like backdrop from many prized vantage points in this explosive, fiery, and gorgeous park.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike to the top of Lassen Peak. It’s a five-mile round-trip journey to the cratered summit where panoramic views of the Cascade Range (including Mount Shasta in the distance) await. The trail gets quite steep at points and much of it is in the direct sun so plan accordingly. Even in the height of summer, traces of snow can be found at the top so proper hiking boots and layers are especially recommended for fall.

Another iconic area to explore is Bumpass Hell, a moderate three-mile trek through the largest hydrothermal area in the park, home to vibrant hot springs, bubbling mud pots, and acidic boiling water. Due to its high elevations, it’s an area prone to lots of snow which means it’s closed in the winter and into late spring.

Paddle Manzanita Lake. In the shadows of Lassen Peak this regal-blue lake offers the ultimate in tranquility. Rental equipment for paddle boards and kayaks is available at the Manzanita Lake Camper Store and the utter stillness of the water makes it a lovely place for a leisurely float in the sun. Fishing for trout is another popular pastime here as is strolling the flat trail that surrounds the lake and picnicking in the area.

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Worth Pondering…

Two roads diverged in a wood, and

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

— Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken