The Best Stops for a Winter Road Trip

Whether you park for ten minutes or ten days, what destinations do you pull off the highway for?

At some point, everyone starts to think about their dream road trip. For some, it’s a jaunt to the Grand Canyon or touring the Mighty Five in a decked-out RV. For others, it’s traveling Historic Route 66 or the Blue Ridge Parkway. No matter the destination, though, everyone needs to make stops on the way. What are some of your favorites?

For my purpose, a stop is anything from a national park to a state park or a roadside attraction to a Texas BBQ joint. Anything that gets you to pull off the highway, turn off your engine, and stretch your legs a bit—whether it’s to hike a mountain trail or tour a living history museum is up to you.

My vote for the perfect road trip stop is multifaceted and an ongoing list as I travel to new places and explore America’s scenic wonders.

Fort Yuma Territorial Prison © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Yuma Territorial Prison, Yuma, Arizona

The Fort Yuma Territorial Prison which operated from 1876 to 1909 was hellish in many respects but it also had more modern amenities than many homes in Yuma at the time including electricity, plumbing, a large library, and even a band. Several of the inmates were Mormons who were convicted of polygamy. Today, the site of the hilltop prison is an Arizona state park with some surviving original features such as the cellblock and other features reconstructed. It’s now a historical museum that not only is open for tours but stages special events such as gunfights and ghost hunts.

>> Get more tips for visiting Fort Yuma Territorial Prison

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex, Merritt Island, Florida

This privately owned center provides educational exhibits and activities about NASA’s mission at the center as well as tours to other facilities nearby. You’ll see a “rocket garden,” an outdoor exhibit of an extensive assortment of rockets, capsules, and engines that have been used for actual space missions.

Cabot’s Pueblo Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cabot’s Pueblo Museum, Desert Hot Springs, California

Nestled in the scenic hills of Desert Hot Springs, a Hopi-inspired pueblo sits against a hillside. Not just any pueblo but one built with natural materials collected throughout the desert. Yerxa’s pueblo is a four-story, 5,000-square-foot structure. It has 160 windows, 65 doors, 30 rooflines, and 35 rooms. When homesteader Yerxa Cabot settled in Desert Hot Springs, he used re-purposed materials and a little ingenuity to build a home so unique it remains a preserved museum to this day.

>> Get more tips for visiting Cabot’s Pueblo Museum

Desert Botanical Garden © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona

The Valley of the Sun is home to many great attractions, and it can be difficult for visitors and locals alike to pick their favorites. It’s easy to get caught up in the legend surrounding attractions like the world-famous Lost Dutchman State Park, but sometimes you want to take a break from history and explore Phoenix’s more modern side. 

Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden is also one of the world’s largest collections of desert plants and flowers. It features more than 50 miles of pathways crisscrossing over a dozen outdoor gardens, including the special Children’s Garden, which has a walled maze, garden swings, and plenty of other activities designed especially for the little ones. 

Visitors can also see art installations, take a guided tour or enjoy live music during their visit to the outdoor attractions.

Seaside © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seaside, Florida

A small resort community in the Florida Panhandle, Seaside is the epitome of cute. Featuring pastel-colored homes and pedestrian-friendly streets, the beach community is tranquil and picturesque. Just how adorable is this place? The fictional town from the Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show was set here. West of the town visit the Grayton Beach State Park for some coastal trails.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, Gilbert, Arizona

There are several good reasons for paying a visit to this 110-acre park. The astounding variety of cacti, probably varieties than you ever knew existed, is itself worth stopping by for. But there are also many other species of plant and animal life in and around this artificial wetland created with reclaimed water. You can view fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals of many different kinds on a short hiking trail. It’s an especially excellent place for bird watching. The picnic and playground areas are imaginatively and artistically designed and laid out. And perhaps most noteworthy of all, there is an observatory that is open to the public to do some star gazing on Friday and Saturday nights.

>> Get more tips for visiting Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Texas

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park is one of the best places in the country for bird-watching. People come just for the birds. Bentsen’s wetland, scrub brush, riparian, and woodland habitats make it a world-class destination to observe birds and wildlife commonly found in the subtropics of northern Mexico.
One of the most spectacular convergences of birds on Earth, more than 530 species have been documented in the Rio Grande Valley (including about 20 species found nowhere else in the U.S.) and 365 species at Bentsen itself. Bentsen’s bird-feeding stations are stocked in the winter months making it one of the best and easiest times to view a wide variety of birds from Green jays to Altamira orioles and Plain chachalacas to Great kiskadees.

>> Get more tips for visiting Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park

Hi Jolly Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hi Jolly Monument, Quartzsite, Arizona

Hi Jolly was the Americanized name of Hadji Ali, a Greek/Syrian immigrant who was one of several Middle Eastern men hired by the U.S. Army in 1857 (by Secretary Of War Jefferson Davis) to drive camels laden with cargo across the desert. The experiment was discontinued after a short time but it was still much more successful than people often believe. In any case, Hi Jolly stuck around until he died in 1902. A colorful and beloved character, he became a bit of a legend and was honored with this pyramid-shaped monument constructed in 1903 and embellished later. The monument stands in a cemetery with many monuments to military men. You’ll spot the camel motif cropping up in other places in Quartzsite, an interesting little town that is known as a haven for RV boondockers as well as rock and mineral lovers.

>> Get more tips for visiting Quartzsite

Tabasco Factory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island Louisiana

While the marshes and bayous of this region make Avery Island worth a visit in its own right, it is the fact that this is the home of the Tabasco pepper sauce that attracts most people. Visitor attractions include a short but informative factory tour where you’ll learn the history of this family owned company and see how this world famous product is created; an excellent country store packed with sauces, souvenirs and gifts; and the Jungle Gardens, 170 acres full of exotic plants and native wildlife including alligators and deer. When you visit the country store, do make sure you try the Tabasco ice cream; it’s more enjoyable than it sounds.

>> Get more tips for visiting Avery Island

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro Lake, Arizona

Located just off State Route 88 east of Phoenix, Saguaro Lake has a marina with rentals for everything from stand-up paddleboards to kayaks and canoes. The lake even has a few desert islands where boaters can stop for a picnic lunch or a quick swim. Visitors also come to Saguaro Lake to camp at nearby facilities or fish along its banks for bass, catfish, and carp. Hikers and campers also enjoy visiting the lake which has over 25 miles of trails that wind around it.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

The largest gypsum dune field in the world is located at White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico. This region of glistening white dunes is in the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert within an “internally drained valley” called the Tularosa Basin. Dunes Drive, an eight-mile scenic drive, leads from the visitor center into the heart of the gypsum dunefield. The 16-mile round-trip drive takes approximately 45 minutes. However, you may want to allow additional time for taking walks in the white sand, photography, or learning about the natural and cultural history.

>> Get more tips for visiting White Sands National Park

Ajo Mountain Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ajo Mountain Drive, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

This 21-mile drive, accessible by any vehicles up to 25 feet, is the most popular way to explore Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Pick up the guidebook from the Kris Eggle Visitor Center and allow at least two hours to drive the loop which includes 18 stops of interest. As well as the distinctive cactus from which the park takes its name, you will also see examples of the many other plants that flourish in the Sonoran Desert including saguaro, prickly pear, jojoba, mesquite, cholla, and ocotillo.

>> Get more tips for visiting Organ Pipe National Monument

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spoetzal Brewery, Shiner, Texas

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

>> Get more tips for visiting Shiner

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

If rugged scenery, hiking, and wilderness are what you are looking for, then put Joshua Tree on your list of road trip stops. Located in the southern end of California, this park is known for its distinctive trees and its craggy and rocky landscape filled with desert flora and fauna.

Plenty of daytime activities are available inside the park and the most popular is hiking (with one paved trail that is accessible). There is climbing, birding, biking, horseback riding, and a driving tour you can take. There are 93 miles of paved roads. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Joshua Tree National Park

Rayne frog mural © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rayne, Louisiana

In a small town in the middle of Louisiana’s Cajun prairie is a town called Rayne where frogs have gained iconic stature. Frogs and Rayne have a relatively long history that dates back to the 1880s when a gourmet chef named Donat Pucheu started selling juicy, delectable bullfrogs to New Orleans restaurants. Word of Rayne’s frog delicacies spread like wildfire and soon attracted the Weil Brothers from France who started a lucrative business exporting frogs to restaurants. For years, world-renowned restaurants boasted of offering frog legs from Rayne, Louisiana. Rayne no longer exports frogs but their frog identity is bigger than ever because of a unique array of frog murals.

Worth Pondering…

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown trail before me leading wherever I choose.

—Walt Whitman

The Ultimate Guide to White Sands National Park

Here’s everything you need to see and do at White Sands National Park—from sand sledding to stargazing

Some places are so stunning and surreal that they transport you to another world. White Sands National Park is one such place. Here, the sand is so white it resembles mounds of snow and the dunes are so big and rolling that they resemble giant white waves. The otherworldly effect is only enhanced by the New Mexico blue sky which makes the white of the dunes pop.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A long-standing national monument, White Sands National Park had its designation upgraded in December of 2019—and for good reason. This surreal field of gypsum sand dunes tucked into the south-central portion of New Mexico has dazzled visitors for decades. Along with its stunning beauty it also has a fascinating historical and cultural context: surrounded by military installments this part of the country is often used to test defensive technologies such as missiles lending it an even more otherworldly and perhaps even eerie, quality.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That said, White Sands is a cheerful place as well; families gather to sled down the dunes and adventurers take to the sands for hiking, horseback riding, and just taking it all in. The national park is located in a relatively remote stretch of the southwestern desert and the closest New Mexican communities are Alamogordo and Las Cruces.

As far as landscape characteristics, White Sands is known for—you guessed it—its white gypsum sand dunes which covering 275 square miles of the desert is the largest such gypsum dune field of its kind. A wonder of the natural world, gypsum very rarely appears in dust form because it’s soluble in water, so whenever it rains in the area the gypsum readily dissolves and rolls off the mountain as fast as water.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

However, since the dunes are in the Tularosa Basin, the gypsum stays within the park in a completely enclosed area. Also, gypsum is transparent but the scratches make the sand appear as white as snow because the particles keep rubbing against each other under the sunlight.

Unlike most inland sand, gypsum doesn’t absorb heat so the sand remains cold even on the hottest day of the year. 

The illustrious white-sand-like gypsum dunes have existed for over ten thousand years and created an ecosystem wherein plants and animals have rapidly adapted to survive. Besides being a place of scientific marvel, it truly is scenery that’ll leave you speechless. 

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

The park is also home to a variety of plant and animal life with more than 800 animal species including the park’s endemic “white species”—mice, lizards, moths, and other insects that have gradually changed color becoming lighter in color than their relatives elsewhere.

It’s also been the site of fossilized footprint findings by which scientists have learned about a variety of its ancient citizens like dire wolves, mammoths, and saber-toothed cats.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Given its southern desert location, it’s no surprise to most visitors that White Sands can get extremely hot during the summer months with temperatures frequently nearing (or reaching) the triple digits; the sub-freezing winter nights are often more surprising.

The region has gone through many phases in history to hold the historical and national significance it does today. It is believed that at the end of the Ice Age approximately 20,000 years ago Asian hunters and gatherers crossed the Bering Land Bridge into Alaska along with large herds of domesticated animals and some now extinct species (like mammoths). The fossil footprints left by these animals can still be found on the Alkali flats along the edges of Lake Lucero (located on the southwest edge of the park). 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By 10,000 years ago, people reached the margins of Lake Lucero which at the time was a permanent salt lake. With the harsh climate, any spot of lush green gradually disappeared. It is believed the area became a low-range hunting ground.

It is claimed that a significant drought took place in the 1200s in the Tularosa Basin leading its inhabitants to abandon it. After a couple of centuries, it was reinhabited by Mescalero Apaches, a Native-American tribe joined by Hispanic New Mexicans in subsequent decades. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These public lands became of interest in the nineteenth century due to industrialization and the significant possession of gypsum in the area. However, none of the plans to extract the gypsum materialized and the area just gained scenic and scientific significance. 

The 275-square-mile area was formally recognized on January 18, 1933 when President Herbert Hoover declared it a National Monument. By the end of the 1940s, large parts of the region were set aside as defense areas that undertake system testing even today at the ​​White Sands Missile Range. The US Government reclassified it as a National Park in 2019.

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

The only road in White Sands, Dunes Drive is an eight-mile scenic drive that leads from the visitor center into the heart of the gypsum dunefield. The scenic drive loops through the park past a picnic area, hiking trails, and educational exhibits with many stops along the way to take photos or explore the dunes on foot. The first five miles of Dunes Drive are paved and the last three miles are a hard-packed gypsum sand road. The road is suitable for cars, motorcycles, recreational vehicles, and buses.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park has only one visitors center which greets visitors as they drive along Dunes Drive. It has restroom facilities, water supply, ranger information, and a small gift shop that sells water, snacks, sleds, and souvenirs. There are no gas stations or restaurants in the park and the closest are 13 miles away in Alamogordo.

Visitors to White Sand National Park can hike on and sled down the giant mounds of super-soft powder-like sand. Popular hiking trails include Dune Life Nature Trail, a moderate 1-mile self-guided loop hike. Though not difficult, this hike does require hikers to climb two steep dunes with loose sand. Follow the blue trail markers with a club symbol. Meet Katy the Kit Fox and learn about her friends on this family-oriented trail. Look for tracks of the animals that call these dunes their home. Kit foxes, badgers, birds, rodents, and reptiles all live in this area.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Alkali Flat Trail is the park’s most strikingly beautiful hike. Since the winds are ever-shifting, the 4.6-mile trail is marked by a series of red trail markers with a diamond symbol which guide hikers along the correct path. The Alkali Flat Trail skirts the edge of what is now the final remnant of Lake Otero. You will be hiking up and down dunes the entire way. It’s the trail to take to see the park’s famous endless white sand against (usually) clear blue skies. But don’t let the word flat fool you.

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

Hike the Interdune Boardwalk for a short walk over a maintained boardwalk. Take the easy 0.4 mile round trip stroll through the dunes and learn about the science, geology, plants, and animals that make White Sands an unequaled natural wonder. It’s a great chance for small children, novice hikers, or anyone with mobility difficulties to enjoy the dunes. The boardwalk is a great place to take a break under the shade canopy, listen for bird calls, observe lizards, and enjoy wildflowers.

The Backcountry Camping Trail is a moderate two-mile loop. Though backpackers hike the trail most frequently it is also open to visitors who want a shorter hike through the heart of the dunes. Follow the orange trail markers with a spade symbol into an area of beautifully varied dunes and vegetation. The trail requires hikers to climb over several steep dunes and loose sand. There is no shade, no water, and no toilet facility along this trail.

White Sands is one of the few national parks in the country where the trails are dog-friendly so by all means, go for a hike with Fido by your side.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the most popular activities in White Sands National Park is sand sledding. It’s exactly what it sounds like: riding down the dunes on a sled. It’s particularly popular for families with children but it’s a blast for anyone. The soft sand is usually more forgiving than hard-packed snow and you can pick up a plastic sled at the White Sands Trading Company gift shop in the visitor’s center.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And every month from April to October, visitors can stay in the park until 10 or 11 pm and enjoy a surreal nightscape lit by moonlight so bright it casts shadows. The atmosphere in White Sands becomes even more otherworldly as the moon rises over the dunes and reflects off the glowing sands. Visitors can stick to Dunes Drive or join one of the ranger-led full moon hikes. Since dates and times for these special evenings vary check with the park for more information. You might even spot some of the park’s nocturnal wildlife like the kit fox, coyote, or desert cottontail that hunt and forage when the sun sets.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best time to visit White Sands National Park is during September or October. The weather is cooler but not yet cold, the summer storms have subsided and there are slightly fewer crowds. In addition to ideal weather you can catch one of the full moon nights when the park stays open late if you time your visit. Those nights start in May and last through October. The twice-yearly open houses for Trinity Test Site are usually held in April and October.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spring is the windiest time of year and blowing sand reduces visibility and can irritate your skin and eyes. The summer is a popular choice but visitors must be mindful of the heat and sudden the potential for sudden rainstorms.

White Sands has a typical desert climate—so, in a word: harsh. Summer temperatures can climb into triple digits and the landscape offers no shade whatsoever. Heatstroke is the most significant risk in this area and it can happen alarmingly fast. Ensure every person in your party carries adequate water (one gallon per person per day with no exceptions).

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day (from around noon to 3 pm) and don’t hike if temperatures are warmer than you had anticipated. Always wear adequate sun protection including sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and protective clothing.

Conversely, with little humidity to trap heat desert temperatures plummet as soon as the sun goes down. It’s common to experience temperature swings of 30 or 40 degrees Fahrenheit between the day’s highs and lows. Winter nights can be well below freezing and December lows average a chilling 21 degrees. If you plan to camp overnight dress in layers and be prepared for both extremes.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

July and August are the rainiest months known locally as “monsoon season.” Expect thrilling lightning displays and sudden, heavy rains during this time. Luckily, these storms usually pass quickly.

But no matter when you go, the odds are good you’ll have sunny skies for your trip as southern New Mexico averages 290 days of sunshine per year. The region can go more than 100 days without any measurable precipitation.

While there is no RV parking or camping inside White Sands National Park, the park does offer some backcountry camping options for those looking for a rugged, wilderness experience. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That said, if you’re looking for a quick upgrade to your road trip, it’s hard to beat an RV for style! You’ll be able to enjoy all the freedom and flexibility of the road while knowing exactly where you’ll lay your head each night and even make your own meals.

White Sands National Park is located to the east of Las Cruces and is accessible from that city via U.S. Route 70. It’s about midway between Las Cruces and Alamogordo along that road.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 146,344 acres, currently ranked at 37 out of 63 National Parks by size

Date established: December 20, 2019 (designated by President Herbert Hoover as a National Monument on January 18, 1933)

Location: Southcentral New Mexico

Designation: UNESCO World Heritage Site

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Elevation: 3,887 feet to 4,116 feet

Park entrance fee: $25 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days

Backcountry camping fee: $3

Recreational visits (2021): 782,469

How the park got its name: White Sands was named for the glistening white gypsum sand dunes in the heart of the Tularosa Basin. Encompassing an enormous 275 sq mi, the dune field is the biggest of its kind in the world.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

The highest dunes are approximately 60 feet high.

White Sands is home to the world’s largest gypsum dune-field; it is so large that is can be seen from space.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The dune-field has about 4.5 billion tons of gypsum sand. This is enough to fill 45 million boxcars which would make a train long enough to wrap around the earth at the equator over 25 times.

The sand here is not made of silica like most inland sand but rather of gypsum.

Unlike silica formed sand, the gypsum sand does not absorb heat from the sun and therefore remains cool to the touch and comfortable to walk on even in the heat.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are over 300 plants, 250 birds, 50 mammals, 30 reptiles, seven amphibians, and one fish species in White Sands National Park.

There are at least 45 endemic species meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth. These include the Apache pocket mouse, White Sands wood rat, bleached earless lizard, two camel crickets, and 40 species of moths.

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

National Parks Host Holiday Celebrations

The holiday season is a wonderful time to visit North America’s national parks which offer cooler temps, lighter crowds, and a peaceful serenity that comes during this relatively quiet time of year

The holiday season is a special time for the National Park Service. Many parks across the U.S. and Canada offer unique holiday programs and events that simply can’t be experienced at any other time of year. Chances are, there’s something exciting happening in a park near you!

Whether you’re seeking family-friendly entertainment and a visit from Santa, rousing celebrations featuring time-honored traditions, or a tranquil getaway that allows you to further immerse yourself in the beauty of nature, these national parks make the perfect destination for your holiday getaway.

Grand Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Hop aboard the Polar Express to Grand Canyon National Park 

Fans of the man in the red suit can ride the rails for a different Santa-themed adventure taking visitors from Williams, Arizona to Grand Canyon National Park. Kids and kids-at-heart will flip for the Grand Canyon Railway’s Polar Express which runs from mid-November through the end of the year. Travelers will have the honor of mingling with Santa and his reindeer before heading back to Williams with a keepsake present in hand. It’s a popular journey that fills up fast, so making reservations for this experience is a must.

El Tovar Hotel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park’s El Tovar Hotel which first opened in 1905 also gets in on the festivities with a massive tree, Santa hat-adorned taxidermy, and extravagant holiday wreaths spilling out of the century-old lobby. Don’t expect to leave without a full stomach. They’re always famous for their French onion soup but they also have specialty offerings like turkey that are unique to the holidays. The hotel also hosts a New Year’s Eve dinner each year (reservations required).

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Savor a traditional holiday atmosphere at Banff National Park

Canada is known for its long winters and the short summer season means heavy crowds in Banff National Park during warm weather. But a visit during the snowy season offers a Narnia-like wonderland with fewer tourists.

From carols to candles, cookies, and cocoa, the holiday season is full of robust rituals passed on from generation to generation. And at Alberta’s Banff National Park you can honor treasured traditions in an awe-inspiring snow-covered setting.

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Events held throughout the season include European-style Christmas markets filled with handcrafted wares and delicious treats, a delectable hot chocolate trail through Banff and Lake Louise, and a live Christmas story told through illuminated puppets, dazzling sculptures, and clever sound effects at the park’s Cascade of Time Garden. 

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come January you can enjoy the Ice Magic International Ice Carving Competition at frozen Lake Louise. Here, delicate and beautiful ice sculptures take shape as they’re carefully carved by skilled artists. Grab a drink from the onsite ice bar then stroll through a literal ice castle as you view the creations.

3. A Smoky Mountain Christmas

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular of all the national parks in the United States. And if you’re looking for unspoiled natural beauty, it’s arguably the best place to visit in the Smoky Mountains.

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

But during the holiday season, the best things to do in the Smoky Mountains involve getting into the mountain towns and soaking in a different type of scenery. Some of the best views in the Smoky Mountains in winter aren’t of nature at all but of the Christmas cheer that seems to abound throughout the region. Christmas in the Smoky Mountains involves small-town parades, Christmas trains, Christmas lights, holiday craft markets, snow skiing and tubing, and a big heaping serving of music and theater.

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether you choose to visit North Carolina, Tennessee, or both, a Smoky Mountain Christmas offers plenty of opportunities to get festive. Christmas in Gatlinburg gets magical at SkyLift Park with its beloved Lights over Gatlinburg event running from mid-November to the end of January. The entire park is bedecked with lights and trees including a 30-foot, multi-colored Christmas tree and a 300-foot tunnel of Christmas lights.

Pigeon Forge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Christmas in Pigeon Forge is all about the Winterfest Celebration which fills the town with Christmas light displays, holiday parades, trolley tours, and Christmas shows. The Winterfest Celebration spans several popular places to visit in the Smoky Mountains including Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Seek out songbirds at Zion National Park (and beyond)

Each December, natural areas throughout the country take part in the longest-running citizen science survey in the world during the Christmas Bird Count. This century-old, far-reaching effort allows bird watchers and avian enthusiasts to join in the efforts to identify, count, and record the bird population as part of what’s considered to be the most significant citizen-based conservation effort. 

The events at Zion and Bryce Canyon allow participants to join with family and friends to conduct their count throughout a designated zone within the park. Those who can’t make it to Utah for this endeavor can locate a Christmas Bird Count event at nearby national and state parks throughout the holiday season by visiting the National Audubon Society’s website.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Attend an epic winter festival in Bryce Canyon National Park

The iconic red rock spires that fill the landscape in Bryce Canyon National Park look even more ethereal when coated with a dusting of white snow. Visitors can delight in full-moon snowshoe adventures and Saturday astronomy programs at this certified Dark Sky Park.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So, beloved, is this stunning destination come wintertime that it plays host to a kid-friendly Winter Festival each President’s Day weekend. Here you can attend a variety of themed events including cross-country ski tours, archery clinics, morning yoga, crafts and cookie decorating for kids, and more.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Go warmish weather sledding through White Sands National Park

If the thought of braving below-freezing temps for some winter fun frightens you, consider a getaway to White Sands National Park. With daytime highs hovering in the 50- to 60-degree Fahrenheit range, New Mexico winters offer a more palatable climate for sledding and creating snow angels—minus the snow. Glistening white sand tricks the eye into believing that the scenery is a true winter wonderland and the park’s hills are so popular for sliding down that plastic snow saucers can be purchased or rented at the White Sands visitor center.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Carlsbad Caverns National Park brings back history-inspired Rock of Ages tour

For six nights in December, Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers visitors an opportunity to experience special guided tours with staff in historical costumes. The tour times are 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2-3, 9-10, and 16-17. The cost is $55 per person and reservations are required.

The tradition, brought back in 2000, gives visitors a chance to meet some of the men and women, so to speak, who helped weave the fabric of the national park. Park staff dressed in historical costumes guide visitors on a lantern-lit tour of the front half of the Big Room at the caverns.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tour will feature a re-creation of the historic Rock of Ages Ceremony which was regularly conducted in the Big Room during the 1930s and ’40s. During this portion of the tour, visitors will experience a blackout, being immersed in total darkness as a mysterious voice fills the cavern, singing the hymn Rock of Ages.

Worth Pondering…

Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.

—Norman Vincent Peale

The Best National Parks for Fall Foliage—and When to Visit Them for Peak Leaf-Peeping

The dog days of summer have us dreaming of crisp autumn air, leaf peeping, and camping in America’s national parks

Every year across the national parks, the leaves shift from their familiar green into a rainbow of warm colors. With this change of seasons also come fewer crowds and cooler temps as the kids shuffle back to school and winter creeps closer. It’s one of the best times to visit most national parks—some truly stand out during the autumnal season. 

What better place to witness the changing of the seasons than at your favorite National Park?

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These 12 national parks offer spectacular fall foliage viewing. Find out the best times to visit below and as always don’t forget to follow “leave no trace” principles when visiting wild places. 

Stop by any of these locations across the United States—starting from early September through November—to see golden, sweeping views.

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

As the summer gradually transitions to fall, the beauty that comes with the new season includes everything from crisp temperatures to changing leaves. The latter is always a sight to see each year as lush green trees get tints of red, orange, and yellow all around. Even though this transformation happens nearly at the same time every autumn it never gets old—especially when you visit new spots to take in all of the fall foliage. If you’re in search of different views outside of those around your neighborhood taking a trip to the most scenic national parks across America is your next best bet.

Related article: Plan Your Autumn Getaway around Fall Foliage

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

When the leaves change, visitors come in droves to Skyline Drive which runs 105 miles through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia’s the Blue Ridge Mountains. This national scenic byway offers numerous stops to take in the foliage but it can be slow going on weekends. If you can visit on a weekday when you can enjoy popular lookout points such as Hemlock Springs Overlook and Range View Overlook with fewer crowds. Enjoy a self-guided driving tour, go on a nature hike or sign up for a horseback ride to enjoy the spectacular fall colors.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While Shenandoah National Park is only a 75-mile drive from America’s capital, it’s a world away from the Washington, D.C. metropolis. As autumn approaches, the foliage across the landscape turns into stunning red, orange, and yellow hues. The best time to see the stunning sight is from September through October. This national park also has a fall color webcam that shows the changing leaves virtually on a week-to-week basis through the peak of the season.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

The fall colors at Great Smoky Mountains National Park are incredible as the red maples, yellow birch, and flowering dogwoods begin to change hues in October and November. Take in the views from Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee. On your way down, take a few steps and strike a pose in front of the iconic Appalachian Trail sign. Most visitors explore the park by car so you won’t be alone if you opt to drive to scenic lookout points. The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop is especially popular among motorists.

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

Mid-October to early November is the best timeframe to pay a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to see fall foliage. Embedded in the Appalachian Mountains across North Carolina and Tennessee, the array of over 100 tree species—such as sugar maple, scarlet oak, and sweetgum—change from green to yellow, orange, red, and even purple hues. The best views of the 4,000 miles of foliage are from mid-to lower elevations as this is where the leaves reach their peak. 

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Aside from paddling through Cedar Creek during the autumn in central South Carolina, you can find peak fall foliage from the end of October until early November at Congaree National Park. This region is filled with yellow hues during the mild season (it’s usually around 70 degrees on average during that time of year).

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take time to explore Congaree National Park in South Carolina in autumn when there are fewer insects and the weather is ideal for outdoor activities such as bird-watching, canoeing, and kayaking. Hike the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop Trail which is a great way to get to know the park. Pick up a self-guided brochure or join a ranger-led walk. More adventurous types may want to hike the 11-mile Kingsnake Trail which takes parkgoers through some of the more remote parts of the park.

Related article: Stunning Fall Drives across America

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Starting in late September, the leaf colors will begin changing to orange-like hues until around the end of October at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. The best colors, though, appear in early October every year.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Fall is an incredible time to visit Zion National Park. As temperatures cool, it’s the perfect time for a hiking adventure. Also, the crowds are much smaller compared to summer and the park looks stunning as beautiful red, yellow, and orange leaves add so much color to its rugged desert landscape.

Fall colors make their way to Zion in late October and early November and November temperatures often range from the 30s to the 50s—so pack plenty of layers. Also, remember that as visitors disperse for the winter, Zion’s shuttle buses begin running a little less frequently and for fewer hours each day.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though the climate in Zion National Park is arid, many trees thrive in the park. Evergreen white pines, ponderosa pines, and Douglas fir are mixed with golden aspens, crimson maples, copper oaks, and yellow cottonwoods. During the fall months, red and gold accents brighten the desert landscapes creating numerous opportunities for nature photographers.

To get the big picture of the fall in Zion, take the easy one-mile Canyon Overlook Trail east of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. The views of Zion Canyon from far above will take your breath away. A one-hour trail is perfect for families and those who are not ready for long strenuous hikes.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

At Big Bend National Park visitation peaks in the fall and winter months when the weather makes for more pleasant conditions along the more than 200 miles of hiking trails. A birder’s paradise, Big Bend is home to more than 450 bird species and is an ideal place to catch a glimpse of birds migrating south. Drive along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive which winds through the Chihuahuan Desert and offers great vantage points of interesting rock formations as well as park highlights such as Mule Ears Viewpoint and Santa Elena Canyon.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Back in the West, Lassen Volcanic National Park is a park where you might not expect fall colors. This quiet northern California park has pockets of cottonwood, oaks, and sagebrush which together create a vivid palette. Crystal clear Manzanita Lake is one area of the park with bright colors in addition to the ubiquitous evergreens. Even if you don’t time it right for the fall colors, you’ll still enjoy an iconic view of Lassen Peak.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because the park has several high elevation areas, autumn arrives early. Your best chance of seeing brilliant foliage is in September and October. As the season progresses, be prepared for temporary road or trail closures due to snow at higher altitudes. Don’t be disappointed if you see snow instead of fall colors, though. And don’t miss the geothermal areas of Sulphur Works and Bumpass Hell Trail which are beautiful in a different way.

Related article: Leafy Scenes: 12 of the Best Road Trips for Viewing Fall Foliage

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

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia

The country’s newest national park, the 7,000-acre New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia can be visited any time of year—but it stands apart in the fall. Anglers catch fish such as walleye and bass in the New River and rock climbers can be seen ascending the more than 1,400 routes established on the park’s sandstone cliffs.

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

October is a particularly popular time to visit. It’s also when the annual Bridge Day event takes place (in 2022, on October 15) and thousands of visitors congregate to walk across the New River Gorge Bridge and watch BASE jumpers and rappellers descend over the side of the bridge.

And, of course, visitors who head to the New in the fall will be rewarded with stunning fall foliage which arrives first in the mountains and works its way down into the valleys throughout the season.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

In addition to glimpses of changing leaves, the temperatures in Arches National Park are much more tolerable with highs in the 70s in October (compared to daily highs in the 90s from June through August). If you’re hoping to capture some amazing photographs, the autumnal light cast on the red rocks is spectacular—and you’re also more likely to see wildlife if you’re camping in the park.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan for hiking, biking, backpacking, or camping and be sure to check out the Fiery Furnace, a unique sandstone formation that offers incredible views at sunrise and sunset. The Devils Garden Trail is one of the most popular points of interest in the park exposing viewers to a wide range of arches.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The downside of being one of the most notable national parks is that things stay pretty crowded. The Grand Canyon’s 3 million annual visitors swarm the more popular South Rim for hikes, mule rides, and unnerving selfies throughout the summer—yes, even despite the heat. But after road trip season screeches to a halt, this natural wonder gets a lot more accessible.

September through November sees lower crowd levels and cooler, comfier temps that hit that sweet spot between sweater weather and shorts season. You’ll be able to ride your mule in peace and get a photo of the mile-deep canyon without worrying you might accidentally get bumped off the edge.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

South Dakota’s Badlands is the only national park in the country where you can get psychedelic desert colors at sunrise and the deep, burnished gold of autumn grasses in the afternoon. Hike the quiet trails like the hands-on Notch Trail which weaves through a canyon and up a wooden ladder before culminating in a sweeping prairie vista.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive through the park and you’ll also see otherworldly rock formations, their pink and yellow striations bathed in the warm autumn light, streaks of bright foliage in the backdrop. Or, if you’re up to it, take advantage of the vastly reduced post-summer car traffic and hit the roads by bike.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

One of America’s newer national parks is a place of weather extremes with occasional freezing temperatures in the winter, scorching forecasts in the summer, and wind-swept afternoons in the spring—all of which sounds fine and dandy until you’re rinsing your eyes of gypsum crystals or sweating like a hog. Fall in White Sands National Park is where it’s at: The cottonwood trees are changing color, the crowds have thinned, and the comfortable dry warmth of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin makes it easy to hike through snow-white sand for hours on end or rent a sand sled from the visitor center and embrace your inner child as you careen down the dunes.

Related article: Fantastic Fall Foliage…and Where to Find It

Bottom line

It’s hard to go wrong with a trip to a national park during the fall. After all, September, October, and November are the best times to get out and enjoy the crisp, autumnal air before winter blankets the countryside with snow. Whether you’re seeking lower temperatures and smaller crowds or you’re purely in pursuit of peak foliage, pack your jacket, bring the camera, and get ready to have an unforgettable trip.

Worth Pondering…

National parks are sacred and cherished places—our greatest personal and national treasures. It’s a gift to spend a year adventuring and capturing incredible images and stories in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.

—Jonathan Irish, photographer

The 8 Best National Parks for a Weekend Getaway

Only have two days for a quick getaway? These stunning national parks are perfect for a weekend trip.

All over the United States, there are national parks filled with trails, wildlife, and plenty of natural wonders waiting to be explored. Even better: plenty of them can be thoroughly enjoyed throughout a two-day weekend.

From the lush green landscapes of the Smoky Mountains to the desert environment of Arches National Park, odds are, there’s a park that’s close to you (or just a car or RV ride away) that can make for an epic quick getaway.

If you’re thinking about a weekend getaway in the great outdoors, consider one of these eight national parks which are among the best for an in-and-out style vacation. And for even more travel ideas, don’t miss The Ultimate RV Travel Bucket List.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

A weekend getaway to Joshua Tree National Park—which is best if you’re coming from the western U.S. like California, Nevada, or Arizona—can include everything from birding and horseback riding to camping and stargazing. While the park is known for its interesting-looking trees, called Joshua trees, it’s also known for its rocky landscape that beckons rock climbers into the park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With over 300 miles of hiking trails and 8,000 established rock-climbing routes, there’s something for everyone who enjoys the great outdoors. Just be sure to take a break in the middle of the day so you can stay up late to enjoy the nightly spectacles in the sky from the Milky Way galaxy. The park’s nearly complete darkness allows you to see millions of stars and planets throughout the year.

Get more tips for visiting Joshua Tree National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the country. While a little planning is a key to getting into the park on busy days, once you’re in for the weekend, you don’t need to leave. The park allows camping along the South Rim and North Rim and those who want to venture past the edge of the canyon into the depths can take a mule ride (though some limitations do apply and spots fill up months in advance).

Weekend getaways are the most convenient from Arizona, California, and Utah.

Get more tips for visiting Grand Canyon National Park

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

One of the coolest national parks in the country is Arches National Park in Utah. The park features more than 2,000 natural rock arches that dot the rugged desert landscape. Camping at the park can be done at Devils Garden Campground from the beginning of March until the end of October. The area offers a tranquil location to lay your head at night and spectacular views to wake up to each morning. Tours via bike, car, and horse are all available daily and allow you to see different sections of the park.

Utah, Colorado, and Nevada are all within a weekend getaway distance to the park.

Get more tips for visiting Arches National Park

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

With ten different camping locations and plenty to offer in the way of activities, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a great weekend escape for families or friends traveling together. Trails offer picnic stops where you can munch on a snack or eat lunch near waterfalls. Those who love to fish can do so within the park as long as they have a fishing license for the states of North Carolina or Tennessee. (Fun fact: You can keep up to five of the fish that you catch and be able to cook them for dinner at night.)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is ideal for those living in South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

Get more tips for visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

White Sands takes up 275 square miles of breathtaking landscape in southeastern New Mexico. Its most noticeable feature: miles of undulating dunes made of blindingly white gypsum crystals which were formed 10,000 years ago 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.

New Mexico, southeastern Arizona, and West Texas are within a weekend getaway distance to the park.

Get more tips for visiting White Sands National Park

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

New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

Hidden in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, America’s newest national park attracted over one million visitors last year so clearly, the secret is out. It’s been called the Grand Canyon of the East and this park’s most prominent feature is a wide, fast-flowing whitewater river that snakes through the gorge. Inside, you can hike on any number of different trails, traverse the iconic New River Gorge Bridge, the third-highest bridge in the US, or indulge in a full-on class five whitewater raft trip along the 53 miles of accessible river. Just bring some dry clothes.

New River Gorge National Park is ideal for those living in West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

Get more tips for visiting New River Gorge National Park

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

A weekend getaway to Badlands National Park—which is best if you’re coming from the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Colorado, or Kansas—can include everything from hiking and horseback riding to camping and stargazing. This bizarre moonscape was created millions of years ago when ash deposits and erosion sculpted sedimentary rock into rippled peaks.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 you 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.

Get more tips for visiting Badlands National Park

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park lies astride a beautiful section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The name “Shenandoah” is an American Indian word meaning “Daughter of the Stars.” 

Skyline Drive is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States at any time of the year. The picturesque 105-mile road rides the rest of the Blue Ridge Mountains where 75 overlooks welcome visitors to take in panoramic views of the Shenandoah wilderness.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nothing compares to sleeping under the stars and with four campgrounds there’s no better place to do it than Shenandoah National Park.

Just 75 miles from Washington, D.C., Shenandoah is also ideal for those living in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Delaware.

Get more tips for visiting Shenandoah National Park

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

12 Dog Friendly National Parks

More than 300 million nature lovers head to a national park annually, many with their four-legged friends. Not all parks, however, welcome them. Which parks are the most pet friendly and which should you avoid when accompanied by a furry friend?

Although most of the 63 national parks don’t allow dogs so as not to disturb the wildlife, a few permit dogs on leash and in designated areas (except service dogs who are allowed to move around more freely).

A tour of America’s national parks is on many RV bucket lists but bringing your pet to these destinations can be a challenge. It’s important to know pet restrictions in the national parks you’re hoping to visit to minimize your impact on these sensitive environments. But an easier alternative is to target the most dog-friendly national parks in the US. Some of these parks offer miles of pet-friendly hiking trails as well as boarding services if you plan a hike to a location where your pups can’t go. 

So let’s check them out!

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Stunning sandstone cliffs naturally colored in brilliant orange and pink hues leave visitors amazed in this 229-square-mile national park including a 15-mile-long narrow canyon popular for hiking through. Dogs must be on a leash no longer than six feet at all times and are allowed on the Pa’rus Trail. All other trails and wilderness areas are off-limits. Pets are allowed along public roads and parking areas, in developed campgrounds and picnic areas, and on the grounds of Zion Lodge. No pets, other than service animals are allowed on shuttle buses.

Get more tips for visiting Zion National Park

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

New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

One of the newest areas under the management of the National Park Service is also one of its most dog-friendly parks. Dogs are welcome on all park trails which provide spectacular views of the gorge. 

Several trails lead to spectacular waterfalls where you and your pup can cool off during the summer. There are also several pet-friendly campgrounds down in the gorge if you’re looking for a beautiful place to camp right along the river. 

Get more tips for visiting New River Gorge National Park

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Explore miles of ever-shifting dunes with your pup by your side in this unique New Mexico national park. Your pup has to remain on a leash with a maximum length of six feet but dogs are permitted everywhere in this park aside from public buildings. 

Be aware that there is very little shade out on the dunes. So your best bet is to explore first thing in the morning or take your pup out for a sunset stroll if you’re spending the night in this otherworldly national park. 

Get more tips for visiting White Sands National Park

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest is a unique stop just off Interstate 40 about two hours east of Flagstaff, Arizona. At one time, the environment here held the ideal conditions for preserving (well, petrifying) vast stands of now-extinct conifers. 

You’re allowed to bring your dogs on all park trails and along paved roads as well as into official wilderness areas off-trail. Just be aware that the park can be hot, offers minimal shade, and contains many fossil deposits that dogs should be discouraged from gnawing on. 

Get more tips for visiting Petrified Forest National Park

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

In a park that boasts more than 500 miles of hiking trails only 20 miles are off-limits to our four-legged friends. Dogs are also welcome in park campgrounds, picnic areas, and pull-outs along the park’s famous Skyline Drive. 

Whether you and your pup are looking for some wilderness solitude, picturesque views, or cooling waterfalls, you’ll find them here. Plus, you’re even welcome to explore sections of the famed Appalachian Trail. 

Get more tips for visiting Shenandoah National Park

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

While a swampy sanctuary in South Carolina might not be your first thought for a pet-friendly vacation, Congaree permits leashed pets on all hiking trails and campsites. The fall and winter months are the best time to visit after the summer heat dwindles and flood waters recede. 

Plus, you’ll avoid the height of mosquito season. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even rent a kayak or canoe to explore one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America so long as you don’t mind catching the occasional sight of an alligator. 

Get more tips for visiting Congaree National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Heading down into the canyon with your pup is not an option here but walking on a leash along the paved South Rim Trail is permitted. So you can enjoy the views down into the canyon while your pup gets some exercise. 

The 13 miles of trails along the South Rim give you a chance to get away from the park’s most crowded areas but the South Rim Kennel is an option if you want to board your pup and explore a little further. The Mather, Desert View, and Trailer Village campgrounds are all pet-friendly as well. 

Get more tips for visiting Grand Canyon National Park

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Pets are allowed on leash in the developed areas of the park and on the trail from the visitor center to the Fruita Campground. Pets are also allowed on the Fremont River Trail from the campground to the south end of Hattie’s Field in unfenced and/or unlocked orchards in the Chesnut and Doc Inglesby picnic areas and campgrounds. The apples were certainly unexpected treats.

Pets are allowed within 50 feet of the centerline of roads (paved and dirt) open to public vehicle travel and in parking areas open to public vehicle travel. Pets are not permitted on other hiking trails, in public buildings, or the backcountry.

Get more tips for visiting Capitol Reef National Park

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, dogs are allowed in campgrounds, picnic areas, and along roads but must be kept on a leash at all times. Dogs are only allowed on two short walking paths—the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail. The Gatlinburg Trail is a perfect hike for dogs and it leads right into the town of Gatlinburg. Streams, creeks, little bridges, and friendly folks will all be found along the way. You may see bears during your time here, so if your dog is reactive, just keep that in mind.

Get more tips for visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

You’ll love Joshua Tree National Park! Pets are allowed within 100 feet of roads, picnic areas, and campgrounds. Pets are also permitted on the paved Oasis of Mara and Keys View trails. Be aware of hot sidewalks and pavement that will burn your pet’s feet and walk only during the cooler parts of the day.

Unpaved roads offer spectacular scenery and a chance to immerse yourself in the desert landscape with your pet while following park regulations and protecting the park. Anywhere you can drive your vehicle you can go with your leashed pet. Some unpaved roads require 4-wheel drive and/or high clearance.

Get more tips for visiting Joshua Tree National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Can you say prairie dogs? So cute and so plentiful in Theodore Roosevelt National Park! Leashed pets may be walked along roads and road shoulders, sidewalks, parking areas, and in campgrounds and picnic areas. Seeing your dogs looking at the prairie dogs from the car will be so memorable. The sidewalk at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center (I-94, exit 32) is a good place to walk dogs and has fantastic views of the badlands all along the way. Pets are not allowed on trails.

Get more tips for visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Visitors take a trip to the prehistoric past when visiting Badlands National Park known to contain one of the world’s richest fossil beds. Ancient rhinos, horses, and saber-toothed cats once roamed the area that’s now home to bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets in the 244,000 acres of protected grass and prairie lands.

Dogs must be on a leash no longer than six feet at all times and are only allowed in developed areas such as campgrounds, picnic areas, and other areas open to motor vehicles. Pets are not allowed on hiking trails, public buildings, and backcountry areas.

Get more tips for visiting Badlands National Park

Your Dog Can Become A B.A.R.K. Ranger!

The Bark Ranger program was introduced by the National Park Service as a way to encourage responsible national park travel with dogs.

Visit a park. Take the pledge. Get a badge.

Worth Pondering…

The dog lives for the day, the hour, and even the moment.

—Robert Falcon Scott

11 National Park Service Sites I Love

National parks get a lot of attention but there’s so much more to the National Park Service

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the “Organic Act” creating the National Park Service (NPS), a federal bureau in the Department of the Interior responsible for maintaining national parks and monuments that were then managed by the department. The National Park System has since expanded to 423 units (often referred to as parks) including 63 national parks, more than 150 related areas, and numerous programs that assist in conserving the nation’s natural and cultural heritage for the benefit of current and future generations.

There’s never a bad time to visit America’s amazing national parks, but the decision of which ones to visit can feel overwhelming. To make it easier, I’ve handpicked 11 of my favorite parks that are must-visits. Start planning your next outdoor adventure today!

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota

I wonder if Mount Rushmore was the inspiration for the movie Field of Dreams. I’m sure it’s not, but follow along with me. If building a baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield seemed crazy, sculpting a mountain into a national treasure in the middle of the Black Hills of South Dakota must have seemed off-the-charts insane.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But both the baseball field of the movie and the patriotic landmark were works of those people following their passions. And both were great successes. Two million people a year visit Mount Rushmore. Although they come to see patriotism-inspiring 60-foot-tall busts of four presidents carved into granite, they’re also inspired by the natural treasures of the Black Hills.

Was that the plan of the creators of the memorial—“if we build it, they’ll come” to South Dakota and see the Black Hills?

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That was one of their good calls. However, not all of their visions came to fruition. For example, behind Lincoln’s head is the Hall of Records. It was originally envisioned as a massive chamber hundreds of feet into the mountain to hold the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and other important documents. They got 70 feet in when cooler heads prevailed, so to speak.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia

Unlike many national parks, Blue Ridge Parkway is a designer park. I mean that the park wasn’t developed based on a specific landmark or feature (e.g. the Grand Canyon or Badlands). The plan was to build a parkway—but the route wasn’t pre-determined. Instead, landscape architects and engineers were given creative freedom and chose and designed a route that plays out like a symphony. Or a musical, or a story! Pick your metaphor of something that’s crafted to change pace, change feeling, and change perspective.

Related Article: From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The parkway is 469 miles of views, history, nature, Appalachia, and America. It’s not a highway, designed for speed. It’s a parkway, designed for savoring the journey.

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

Canyon De Chelly National Monument, Arizona

If you’ve been to a national park site, you may have heard one of the rangers say something like “this is your park, it’s owned by all Americans.” This one is not. This park is owned by the Navajo Nation and is managed cooperatively. A few Navajo families still live, raise livestock, and farm in the park. Travel in many areas is restricted so read the signs and follow the rules.

Yes, you can go on a hike with a ranger, but here, for the most memorable experience, take a canyon tour with a Navajo guide. It’s a truly authentic, welcoming experience you’ll remember forever.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Perched high above the Colorado River, Arches National Park is carved and shaped by weathering and erosion. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. It contains the highest density of natural arches in the world.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 300 million years ago an inland sea covered what is now Arches National Park. The sea evaporated and re-formed 29 times in all leaving behind salt beds thousands of feet thick. Later, sand and boulders carried down by streams from the uplands eventually buried the salt beds beneath thick layers of stone. Because the salt layer is less dense than the overlying blanket of rock, it rises through it, forming it into domes and ridges with valleys in between.

Colonial National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colonial National Historical Park, Virginia

Want to go way back in American history? Then you’ll head to some of the first colonies in the New World. The Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia covers Historic Jamestowne (the first permanent English settlement in North America) and Yorktown Battlefield (site of the last major battle of the Revolutionary War).

Related Article: America the Beautiful: The National Parks

Fan of battlefields or not, Jamestowne is pretty cool. And, while you’re in the area, you can hit up the rest of the Historic Triangle and visit Colonial Williamsburg, too.

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

Right along the U.S.-Mexico border, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has the kind of scenery you’d expect when you picture the desert. The monument’s tall, skinny namesake cacti abound in every direction. Take a ride down Ajo Mountain Drive for great views of the “forests” of Saguaro (another species of cactus native to the area).

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

Make sure you pack plenty of water and layers. Though temps can get dangerously hot in the daytime, desert temps drop dramatically when the sun goes down, even in the summer. And you’ll definitely want to stick around for the night sky here—the desert climate lends itself to clear evenings. In the winter months, rangers offer stargazing activities with telescopes.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Within striking distance of the famous Bears Ears Buttes, Natural Bridges National Monument is home to stunning, gravity-defying rock formations including Sipapu Bridge, a 31-foot-wide bridge spanning 268 feet. The park was the first-ever Dark Sky Park to be certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the famed stargazing, the area is rich in opportunities to learn more about ancient and modern-day Native American culture. Make sure to take time to hike to the park’s well-preserved petroglyphs. Always be respectful by sticking to the trails and leaving any artifacts you may stumble upon exactly where you found them.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Everyone needs to add Joshua Tree National Park to their travel list. Located in Southern California, this national park has unique landscapes—large boulders, Mojave and Colorado deserts, and Joshua trees and yucca trees. The desert is beautiful with the various cacti and wildflowers scattered through the park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are plenty of activities to keep you occupied for several days. Stop by one of the park’s Visitor Centers to hear recommendations on things to do. Some of the popular activities include camping, rock climbing, mountain biking, and stargazing. The pitch-black skies are beautiful in the evenings. Visit the Sky’s The Limit Observatory which is next to the park and observe the stars.

Related Article: What to Expect at the National Parks this Summer 2022

Hiking is the major highlight as there are over two dozen trails from easy to challenging routes. It’s best to hike early in the morning and avoid the summer’s brutal heat. Favorite hiking trails include 49 Palms Oasis (3 miles) and the Lost Palms Oasis (7.5 miles). Both of these trails lead to an oasis of palm trees in the desert. You’ll have an awesome time visiting Joshua Tree National Park.

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

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah and Arizona

Hidden among the curves and canyons of the southwest is an artificial oasis. The man-made Lake Powell offers opportunities to swim, fish, kayak, and boat straight through the desert. Glen Canyon is known for Horseshoe Bend, that perfect blue curve of the Colorado River through Navajo Sandstone canyon walls. The canyon rim is usually crowded with tourists aiming for the perfect Instagram shot but it is indeed worth seeing in person, especially at sunset.

For a road less traveled, drive the Burr Trail from Bullfrog to Boulder, which will take you through unspoiled vistas of Capitol Reef National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Check the weather before you hit the trail—flash floods can make the roads impassable and dangerous.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Although Georgia’s Atlantic coastline is only about 100 miles long, the Peach State is home to 30 percent of the barrier islands along the Atlantic Seaboard. And Cumberland is the largest and fairest of them all with the longest expanse of the pristine seashore—18 glorious miles of deserted sand. Truly, this is a bucket-list destination.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The adventure starts on the ferry from St. Mary’s, the only way to get to the island which offers a wonderful view of the diverse habitats. Rent a bike, book a tour with park rangers, or bring a pair of good hiking shoes as the island is a wonderful place to explore. You can spot wild horses roaming freely, raccoons, wild boars, alligators, white-tailed deer, and many birds. Stop by the ruins of Carnegie Dungeness mansion which was built in 1884 by Thomas Carnegie and burned in the 1950s.

Related Article: Get Off the Beaten Path with These Lesser-Known National Parks

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

The American Southwest is full of otherworldly places but White Sands National Park, a massive field of pale dunes in southern New Mexico is about as good as it gets for austere, alien majesty. Wander long enough through the endless hillocks of gypsum crystals and you will start to feel like you’re in an altered state (though hopefully not because you’re dehydrated; be sure to bring lots of water). It’s easy to imagine one of the sandworms from Dune bursting up from below or a UFO from nearby Roswell drifting across the shimmering sky.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

Independence Day: 12 Must-see Landmarks to Celebrate on 4th of July

Celebrate the natural, industrial, and historic wonders of the US by visiting these iconic sites

So many great places—so little time. 

Skyrocketing gas prices have consumers looking twice at their fuel budget, yet Americans are determined to hit the road. Experts say that fuel costs may actually boost domestic tourism and the 4th of July holiday travel plans. 

Car and RV travel “will set a new record despite historically high gas prices with 42 million people hitting the road” this week for Independence Day vacations, according to AAA. 

The Deloitte summer travel survey reports that 84 percent of American travelers will take an overnight trip, 57 percent will enjoy a road trip and just 15 percent will travel internationally partially due to uncertainty over ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.

Given all of this, here’s a look at 12 fabulous spots across the country with each location in a different state. Taken together, these selections reveal America’s heroic history, industrial achievement, and natural beauty that, woven together, tell the story of America.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon, Arizona

One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World alongside the likes of the Great Barrier Reef and Mount Everest, the spectacular gorge stands alone as perhaps the most iconic symbol of the stunning beauty of the American continent. The Grand Canyon encompasses a 277-mile stretch of the Colorado River, about the distance from Boston to Philadelphia. It is up to 18 miles wide and more than 1 mile deep, standing as the world’s greatest example of the erosive power of water. 

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savannah Historic District, Georgia

The colonial south lives today amid the verdant squares of Savannah, a nearly 300-year-old city that enjoyed a rebirth following its haunting, captivating portrayal in the 1994 bestselling book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors love Savannah for its charming thoroughfares including the iconic cobblestones of River Street, delicious restaurants highlighting the best of southern fare such as Paula Deen’s flagship eatery The Lady and Sons, its historic squares such as Chippewa Square featured in Forrest Gump, and one of the nation’s biggest and best St. Patrick’s Day bashes.

White Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Washington, New Hampshire

The centerpiece of the Presidential Range of the White Mountains is nothing less than the tallest peak in the northeast (6,288 feet). More famously, Mount Washington habitually witnesses the globe’s most severe weather—due to its elevation and its location at the convergence of several major storm patterns. 

Mount Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Washington’s brutal wind and cold are proclaimed locally as a testament to the hearty nature of Live Free or Die state residents. The summit held the record for the highest wind speed ever recorded (231 mph) for several decades and reached a record low temperate of -50 degrees Fahrenheit in January 1885. The Mount Washington Observatory recorded a wind chill of -103 degrees as recently as 2004. The mountain today is a popular attraction for visitors who ascend the top via hiking trail, precarious auto road, or popular cog railway.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

This geological oddity is an American wonder for its natural beauty and sobering role in the history of modern warfare. White Sands National Park includes 275 square miles of glistening gypsum sand—the largest dune field of its kind on Earth surrounded by the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It was on this site in July 1945 that American scientists, led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, first unleashed the power of the atomic bomb, a victory of American ingenuity and industrial power amid World War II. The achievement also had lingering ramifications for mankind. The Trinity test at White Sands was a prelude to the atomic attacks the following month on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan that ended World War II. The park today offers spectacular vistas and touring by automobile, hiking, biking, or pack animals.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

The rugged and wild parkland is celebrated for its aptly named badlands, free-roaming bison, and its namesake’s Elkhorn Ranch on the Little Missouri River. 

The park recently had one of its busiest years ever attracting 800,000 visitors in 2021. Stargazing is a popular activity in the isolated park hundreds of miles from the nearest major city with weekly events and viewing parties highlighted by the annual Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival. Typically held on Labor Day weekend, date of the 2022 event is still pending. 

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania

The stunning human cost of preserving the nation is best seen in this sprawling battlefield in rural south-central Pennsylvania. Gettysburg pitted about 160,000 men in a pitched three-day battle that turned the tide of the Civil War in favor of the Union. Some 50,000 soldiers from both sides were killed or wounded. It remains the largest battle in North American history. 

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors today can stand where Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain ordered the 20th Maine to fix bayonets and charge down Little Round Top to save the southern end of the Union line, walk in the footsteps of brave Confederates slaughtered during Pickett’s charge on the decisive day of battle, or tour the vast battlefield by car exploring the hundreds of haunting monuments that dot the landscape today. 

The Breakers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Newport Mansions, Rhode Island

The wealth of the Gilded Age springs to life in Newport where the nation’s titans of 19th-century industry built ostentatious summer homes on the cliffs where scenic Narragansett Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. 

International Tennis Hall of Fame © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Breakers, owned by railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt II, is probably the most spectacular built of limestone in the ornate style of an Italian palazzo. Newport’s legacy as a playground of the wealthy lives on today around its charming and busy New England downtown waterfront. The city is home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame and hosted America’s Cup, the world’s premier sailing race, for decades. 

Magnolia Plantation © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Charleston plantations and gardens, South Carolina 

The antebellum South, both its beauty and the disturbing legacy of human bondage, live on today, and its vast collection of some 2,000 plantations many of which are centered around historic Charleston and open to visitors. 

Middleton Place © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Magnolia Plantation & Gardens features what it calls “America’s last large-scale Romantic-style garden” while offering 45-minute tours of its slave cabins. Middleton Place, named for Declaration of Independence signatory Arthur Middleton, claims “America’s oldest landscaped garden” across 65 acres. Boone Hall dates back to 1681 and is famed for its Avenue of the Oaks with its moss-covered limbs forming a photogenic canopy along with an array of brick homes that housed slave families. 

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore National Memorial , South Dakota

This monumental sculpture of four U.S. presidents, each of their faces 60 feet tall, turned a remote area of a remote state into a beloved symbol of the national narrative. Law school student William Andrew Burkett summed up the purpose of the monument in 1934 in a winning essay he submitted to a contest hosted by Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum. 

Mount Rushmore attracts some 2 million visitors a year. 

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Almighty God, from this pulpit of stone the American people render thanksgiving and praise for the new era of civilization brought forth upon this continent,” Burkett wrote, his essay immortalized in bronze at the park. Mount Rushmore attracts some 2 million visitors a year and is a prominent place in the nation’s cultural lexicon with its images of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln staring stoically across the American continent.  

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Utah

The spectacular images of eroded sandstone buttes rising from the red rock of the Colorado Plateau, hard by the Arizona border, are firmly ingrained in America’s natural and cultural landscapes. Monument Valley was forged by tectonic forces some 250 million years ago. It was inhabited by Navajo for centuries who set aside the land as a park within the Navajo Nation in 1958. 

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Its stunning landscape has reached audiences around the world as the backdrop of classic western movies such as Stagecoach, the 1939 John Ford flick that made John Wayne a star. More recently, its jagged cathedrals of stone framed war hero and shrimp tycoon Forrest Gump as he abruptly ended his famous silver-screen jog across America on U.S. Route 163 near Mexican Hat, Utah.

Lake Champlain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Champlain, Vermont

The “Sixth Great Lake” sits on the border of New York and is best explored from the quintessential New England college town of Burlington. It has loomed large in both Native and European American history. Lake Champlain divided the Mohawks to the west and Abenaki to the east while British and continental forces fought for control of the 107-mile-long lake throughout the American Revolution. 

Lake Champlain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Champlain today is a perfect location to enjoy the pristine wilderness and especially the autumn foliage of northern New England, or search for Champy. The mysterious Loch Ness monster-like creature was first known to the Abenaki, allegedly witnessed by French explorer Samuel de Champlain himself, and reported by dozens of other witnesses in the centuries since. 

New River Gorge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

America’s newest national park has long been a symbol of an Appalachian Mountain state so beautiful it’s known around the world as “almost heaven.” New River Gorge achieved its federal designation in December 2020. The park is celebrated most notably for its spectacular New River Gorge Bridge. It was both the world’s highest auto bridge and longest single-span arch bridge when it opened in 1977 though it has been surpassed in both global superlatives since. 

The park offers many recreational opportunities, along with insight and exhibits exploring West Virginia’s coal mining history and culture.

Worth Pondering…

Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.

—Albert Einstein

From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks

For more than a hundred years, the United States’ national parks have been inspiring visitors

Comprising a collection of stunningly diverse landscapes, from active volcanoes spewing lava to crystalline glaciers creeping down snow-covered peaks to eerie deserts that look like someone pulled the bathtub stopper on an ancient ocean, US national parks have captured the imagination of millions of park-goers.

Full of history—both geologic, Indigenous, and more recent—and featuring trails that range from ADA-accessible boardwalks to challenging treks that test the hardiest of outdoor athletes, America’s national parks are at once culturally significant, approachable, and wild.

Here’s a quick look at the best of the best with links where you can learn more about these incredible diverse landscapes.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Giant sweeping arcs of sandstone frame snowy peaks and desert landscapes; explore the park’s namesake formations in a red-rock wonderland.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Family travel, photo ops, hiking, scenic drives, stargazing

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,806,865

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park

Read more: Power of Nature: Arches National Park Offers Endless Beauty

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

It’s easy to understand why the Lakota named this place mako sica (badland) when you look over the rainbow-hued canyons and buttes that sit like an ocean boiled dry.

State: South Dakota

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Scenic drives, wildlife, cycling, hiking, stargazing

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021:1,224,226

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park

Read more: Badlands National Park: Place of Otherworldly Beauty

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

From the moment you enter the national park, there’s spectacular scenery everywhere you look. Head to the Chisos Basin for the most dramatic landscape but any visit should also include time in the Chihuahuan Desert, home to curious creatures and adaptable plants, and down along the Rio Grande, the watery dividing line between the US and Mexico.

State: Texas

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, hiking, scenic drives, stargazing

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 581,220

Related article: The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

Read more: 10 of the Best National and State Parks in Texas

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Famous for its otherworldly sunset-colored spires punctuated by tracts of evergreen forest, Bryce Canyon National Park is one of the planet’s most exquisite geological wonders. Repeated freezes and thaws have eroded the small park’s soft sandstone and limestone into sandcastle-like pinnacles known as hoodoos, jutted fins, and huge amphitheaters filled with thousands of pastel daggers.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Hiking, photo ops, scenic drives, stargazing

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 2,104,600

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park

Read more: Make Bryce Canyon National Park Your Next RV Trip

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

A forbidding and beautiful maze of red-rock fins, bridges, needles, spires, craters, mesas, and buttes, Canyonlands is a crumbling, eroding beauty—a vision of ancient earth.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Cycling, scenic drives, hiking, photo ops, stargazing

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 911,594

Related article: A Lifetime of Exploration Awaits at Canyonlands (National Park)

Read more: Ultimate Guide to National Park Tripping in Utah: Arches and Canyonlands

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Giant slabs of chocolate-red rock and sweeping yellow sandstone domes dominate the landscape of Capitol Reef which Indigenous Freemont people called the “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow.”

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $20

Great for: Hiking, photo ops, scenic drives, geology, Ancestral Pueblo culture, stargazing

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,405,353

Related article: Getting Closer to Nature at Capitol Reef

Read more: Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef: A Great American Road Trip

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Scores of wondrous caves hide under the hills at this unique national park. The cavern formations are an ethereal wonderland of stalactites and fantastical geological features.

State: New Mexico

Entrance Fee: 3-day pass per person $15

Great for: Family travel, photo ops, scenic drives, caving, stargazing

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 349,244

Related article: Get Immersed in Caves: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Read more: Wake Up In New Mexico

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

Encompassing nearly 27,000 acres, Congaree National Park is the largest expanse of old-growth, bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern US. The lush trees growing here are some of the tallest in the southeast forming one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies left in the world.

State: South Carolina

Entrance Fee: Free

Great for: Wildlife, family travel, walking, canoeing and kayaking

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 215,181

Related article: Finding Solace in the Old Growth Forest of Congaree

Read more: Home of Champions: Congaree National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon embodies the scale and splendor of the American West captured in dramatic vistas, dusty trails, and stories of exploration and preservation. Ancestral Puebloans lived in and near the Grand Canyon for centuries and their stories echo in the reds, rusts, and oranges of the canyon walls and the park’s spires and buttes.

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Scenery, family travel, hiking, photo ops, geology, scenic drives, stargazing

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 4,532,677

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Read more: Grand Canyon National Park Celebrates Its 100th Anniversary Today

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The sun-dappled forests of the Great Smoky Mountains are a four-season wonderland from spring’s wildflowers to summer’s flame azaleas to autumn’s quilted hues of orange, burgundy, and saffron blanketing the mountain slopes and winter’s ice-fringed cascades. This mesmerizing backdrop is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site harboring more biodiversity than any other national park in America.

States: North Carolina and Tennessee

Entrance fee: Free

Great for: History, wildlife, family travel, hiking, scenic drives, fall colors, botany

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

Recreational visitors in 2021: 14,161,548

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Read more: Great Smoky Mountains: Most Visited National Park…and We Can See Why

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

This 794,000-acre park is at the transition zone of two deserts: the low and dry Colorado and the higher, moister, and slightly cooler Mojave. Rock climbers know the park as the best place to climb in California; hikers seek out hidden, shady, desert-fan-palm oases fed by natural springs and small streams; and mountain bikers are hypnotized by the desert vistas.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Cycling, scenic drives, hiking, rock climbing, photo ops, stargazing

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 3,064,400

Related article: Joshua Tree National Park: An Iconic Landscape That Rocks

Read more: Joshua Tree: Admire Two Deserts At Once

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Anchoring the southernmost link in the Cascades’ chain of volcanoes, this alien landscape bubbles over with roiling mud pots, noxious sulfur vents, steamy fumaroles, colorful cinder cones, and crater lakes.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30 ($10 in winter)

Great for: Photo ops, scenic drives, hiking, stargazing 

Recreational visitors in 2021: 359,635

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Read more: Geothermal Weirdness, Volcanic Landscapes, and Stunning Beauty

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

More than 700 years after its inhabitants disappeared, Mesa Verde retains an air of mystery. No one knows for sure why the Ancestral Puebloans left their elaborate cliff dwellings in the 1300s. What remains is a wonderland for adventurers of all sizes who can clamber up ladders to carved-out dwellings, see rock art, and delve into the mysteries of ancient America.

State: Colorado

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30 ($20 in winter)

Great for: Ancestral Pueblo culture, scenic drives, tours, stargazing

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 548,47

Related article: Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years

Read more: Mesa Verde National Park: 14 Centuries of History

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

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

The New River is the United States’ newest national park but is one of the oldest waterways in the world and the primeval forest gorge it runs through is one of the most breathtaking in the Appalachians. The region is an adventure mecca with world-class white-water runs and challenging single-track trails. Rim and gorge hiking trails offer beautiful views.

State: West Virginia

Entrance fee: Free

Great for: Hiking, biking, fishing, white water rafting, rock climbing, extreme sports

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

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,682,720

Related article: New River Gorge: America’s Newest National Park

Read more: The Wild, Wonderful Waters of New River Gorge! Round Out Your Trip with a Visit to Babcock State Park & Glade Creek Grist Mill!

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

The ‘trees’ of Petrified Forest National Park are fossilized logs scattered over a vast area of semi-desert grassland, buried beneath silica-rich volcanic ash before they could decompose. Up to 6 feet in diameter, they’re strikingly beautiful with extravagantly patterned cross-sections of wood glinting in ethereal pinks, blues, and greens.

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Scenic drives, geology, hiking, biking, Route 66, stargazing 

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 590,334

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Petrified Forest National Park

Read more: Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles is named for the towering rock spires that rise abruptly out of the chaparral-covered hills east of Salinas Valley. Its famous formations are the eroded remnants of a long-extinct volcano that originated in present-day southern California before getting sheared in two and moving nearly 200 miles north along the San Andreas Fault.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, photo ops, hiking, rock climbing, caving

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 348,857

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Pinnacles National Park

Read more: Pinnacles National Park: Born of Fire

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Saguaros (sah-wah-ros) are icons of the American Southwest and an entire cactus army of these majestic, ribbed sentinels is protected in this desert playground. Or more precisely, playgrounds: Saguaro National Park is divided into east and west units separated by 30 miles and the city of Tucson

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Cycling, wildlife, plants, hiking

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,079,783

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park

Read more: Inside the Cartoonish and Majestic Land of Saguaro

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park

With trees as high as 20-story buildings, Sequoia National Park is an extraordinary park with soul-sustaining forests and vibrant wildflower meadows.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Family travel, scenic drives, hiking, photo ops

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,059,548

Related article: The Big Trees: Sequoia National Park

Read more: Explore Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah is like a new smile from nature: in spring and summer, the wildflowers explode, in fall the leaves turn bright red and orange, and in winter a cold, starkly beautiful hibernation period sets in. With the famous 105-mile Skyline Drive and more than 500 miles of hiking trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, there is plenty to do and see.

State: Virginia

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, scenic drives, hiking, fall colors

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,592,312

Related article: Escape to the Blue Ridge: Shenandoah National Park

Read more: Blue Ridge Parkway: America’s Favorite Drive

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Wildlife abounds in these surreal mounds of striated earth in Theodore Roosevelt National Park; sunset is particularly evocative as shadows dance across the lonely buttes.

State: North Dakota

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Hiking, wildlife, scenic drives, Presidential history, stargazing

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 796,085

Related article: North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Read more: Theodore Roosevelt National Park: A Plains-state Paradise

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

Undulating through the Tularosa Basin like something out of a dream, these ethereal dunes are a highlight of any trip to New Mexico and a must on every landscape photographer’s itinerary. Try to time a visit to White Sands with sunrise or sunset (or both), when the dazzlingly white sea of sand is at its most magical.

State: New Mexico

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Scenery, hiking, photography

White Sand National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 782,469

Related article: A White Oasis: White Sands National Park

Read more: New Mexico’s White Sands Is Officially a National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

From secret oases of trickling water to the hot-pink blooms of a prickly pear cactus, Zion’s treasures turn up in the most unexpected places.

State: Utah

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Scenery, hiking, family travel, photo ops, biking

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 5,039,835

Related article: Rock of Ages: Zion National Park

Read more: Roam Free in Greater Zion: Quail Creek State Park

Worth Pondering…

National parks are sacred and cherished places—our greatest personal and national treasures. It’s a gift to spend a year adventuring and capturing incredible images and stories in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.

—Jonathan Irish, photographer

America the Beautiful: The National Parks

63 national parks draw millions of visitors a year to unique natural wonders and unforgettable terrains

In 1882, choirmaster Samuel A. Ward took a leisurely ferry ride from Coney Island into New York City and was so struck with inspiration at the summer scene that he immediately composed a tune.

A decade later on an 1893 summer day in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Katharine Lee Bates gazed out from a window and saw a “sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies,” that a hymn immediately sprang to mind. In 1910, the music and poetry came together under the title “America the Beautiful.” The work struck an enduring chord, resonating with so many Americans that numerous campaigns have sought to make it the national anthem.

From the earliest days of America, the hand of Providence has been seen not just in the history of events but also in the natural splendor of the land spurring several conservation efforts including the creation of the National Parks System. Wilderness areas for people to enjoy the rugged beauty were set aside while protecting the landscape, plants, and animals.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Established as a national park on August 9, 1916, Lassen Volcanic National Park contains all four types of volcanoes found in the world. These include a shield, plug dome, cinder cone, and composite.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park

This park is notable for its giant sequoia trees, which can absorb up to 800 gallons of water a day in the summer!

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

Many fossils of ancient marine animals have been found in the Grand Canyon, these date back 1.2 billion years ago. The age of the Grand Canyon itself remains a mystery, but recent studies speculate it to be more than 70 million years old.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park contains more than 10,000 years of human history recorded within its territory, including 800 archaeological sites. The striking colors in petrified wood are derived from pure quartz, manganese oxide, and iron oxide producing white, blue, purple, black, brown, yellow, and red colors.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

The saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States and is protected by Saguaro National Park. These giant prickly plants can grow up to 40 feet tall and live for over 150 years!

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Arches National Park is known for its many natural sandstone arches. Landscape Arch is located at the end of Devil’s Garden Trailhead. Stretching 306 feet, it’s considered North America’s longest spanning arch.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

The park used to be home to an ancient civilization, the Anasazi who lived there around 1500 B.C. Traces of their history can be found through rock art, sandstone granaries, and cliff dwellings scattered around the park.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon is an ideal place for stargazing enthusiasts due to its clear skies, high elevation, and low light pollution.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

Known for its exceptionally well-preserved prehistoric settlements, Mesa Verde National Park was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Featuring over 100 caves, Carlsbad Caverns used to be part of an ancient underwater reef called Capitan Reef. Many fossilized marine species can be found on the land. The caverns themselves were formed by sulfuric acid in acid rain which slowly dissolved the limestones.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The only national park in the whole of North Dakota. It was named after President Theodore Roosevelt in 1947 to honor and preserve his legacy of land protection.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in America, with half a billion visitors since 1934. The Appalachian Trail runs 71 miles through the park.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Black bears are very prominent in Shenandoah National Park, so there’s a high chance you’ll spot one. The park estimates there to be around one to four bears in every square mile.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

The Rio Grande river falls between Cañón de Santa Elena, Mexico, and Big Bend National Park, United States.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua “Tree” is actually a misnomer as it falls under the same category as flowering grasses and orchids. Only 15 percent of the national park is open for visitors to explore, and the remaining 85 percent is wilderness.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

The park is known for its old-growth bottomland hardwood forests which have some of the largest tree canopies on the East Coast. Towering champion trees are some of the notable trees that inhabit these woods.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Horseshoe Canyon is located eight miles west of the park and is known for depicting prehistoric pictographs etched somewhere between 2,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

A well-preserved fossilized skull of a saber-tooth cat was discovered by a young visitor in 2010. Fossils of other animals like marine reptiles and rhinos can also be found hidden among the layers of sediment. They’re estimated to date back to the late Eocene and Oligocene periods, over 30 million years ago.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

The park is home to an orchard originally planted by Mormon pioneers in the early 1900s. It’s open to the public for picking during harvest season for a small fee.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

The Pinnacles National Park was created when the now-extinct Neenach volcano erupted 23 million years ago. The park contains many caves that provide homes to 14 species of California bats. These caves were created by natural erosion when boulders fell below, filling the canyons.

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

New River Gorge National Park

Contrary to its name, The New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world, estimated to be between 10 to 360 million years old. It’s one of the few rivers in North America to flow from south to north, as most tend to flow from west to east.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

What makes White Sands National Park so breathtaking and popular are the white dunes which are made up of gypsum. The park covers 275 square miles of white sands, making it the largest gypsum dune field in the world.

Worth Pondering…

America the Beautiful

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

—Catharine Lee Bates