Spending Time in Nature Just Might Save the World

Nature is not a refuge—it’s a forge that transforms us

Spending time outdoors can serve as a forge that brings out the best in us.

Nature transforms us

What’s come down are medical studies showing time in nature does a multitude of good things for our health. Add to that the brainwave studies showing the benefits to our mental health. Top it off with the sociological studies showing time in nature leads to increased creativity.

Improved health and creativity are just what the doctor ordered.

In sum, we now have the science to justify it: nature is a forge in which much-needed world-saving values are brought to life.

Ajo Scenic Loop in southern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Still stuck in the old paradigm

While our appreciation of what nature does for us has evolved, the way our culture looks at time spent in nature, unfortunately, is still much the same. Despite what we know about the benefits of spending time in nature, our culture still views time spent there as passive. It’s often spoken of as a retreat or escape.

Our attitude reflects the society we grew up in. “Nature is so relaxing.” “I go hiking to get away from it all.” “The outdoors is my happy place.” We hear these phrases. The problem is that they’re limiting. They pigeonhole nature and the role nature can play for us.

Even though we now have awe theory and forest therapy, even though we know about the three-day effect and have books like The Awakened Brain and The Comfort Crisis we’re stuck in the old paradigm that defines time in nature is a form of recreation—and holds that the real work takes place when we’re sitting at a board meeting or behind our laptops.

It’s not nature that needs to change, but us.

Wells Gray Provincial Park, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The new paradigm

These are dire times and the old paradigm of nature as recreation no longer makes the cut. If we as a species are to shift onto a less self-destructive path, we need to access the values-shifting awarenesses nature can provide.

If the next generation is to care about protecting the natural world, they need to have had positive experiences in it. If these changes are to come about, we need to value nature more broadly and spend time in nature with broader intentions. We need more access to green spaces for those who live in cities. Nature needs to be more than a place to relax. And, so of course, it’s not nature that needs to change, but us.

We need a new paradigm. We need a new story to tell ourselves about nature and the time we spend in it.

Simply put, we need to embrace the idea that nature isn’t so much a place to retreat and relax but rather a forge that can transform us.

Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the good of the people

The idea that spending time in nature can lead to personal transformation is not new. Far from it! Seers and prophets have been going out into the wild since the beginning of human civilization. When they went, they weren’t going on vacation. They weren’t sipping mai tais by a pool.

Native Americans—and many other indigenous cultures—had a tradition of the vision quest in which young people on the verge of adulthood would go out into nature alone in order to experience spiritual growth.

Black Elk of the Oglala Sioux tells a story from his childhood in which a tribal leader welcomes a group of young men back from a scouting mission with the words, “Whatever you have seen, maybe it is for the good of the people you have seen” (Niehardt 65).

Those simple words signify recognition of what the young people did and its importance. The young people left the community and went forth into the wild. Their purpose was to see. Their seeing was beneficial not just to themselves but to their community. It was “for the good of the people.”

Roseate spoonbills in Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nature helps us save ourselves from ourselves

It’s a small shift—thinking of nature as a forge rather than a retreat—but it makes a big difference. I’m reminded of the well-known Thoreau quote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Wildness and wilderness can strengthen and preserve us. I have no doubts about that. But the bulk of the world seems to have little interest in wildness. How then could the wildness be important to the world or have a chance of saving it?

The solutions to the problems of today are unlikely to spontaneously show up on the screens of our cell phones. The solutions might just manifest themselves when we’re out in nature, however. This is because nature is a rich source of complexity, mystery, and inspiration; nature is a bottomless well, a source that counters and supplements all that is human.

In light of the new paradigm, in light of what we now understand in terms of how crucial nature is to our health, in light of our dependence on nature for everything from new medicines to new technology, and in light of the popularity of rewilding now—more than ever—we can see Thoreau’s words as being amazingly prospicient.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In wildness is the preservation of the world.

Over the course of history, our preoccupation with technology has led humanity to stray from nature but if we’re to survive and if our planet is to thrive (some would say survive) we must ever circle back. And so the time ahead may later in history be seen as the great circling back—a time when people rediscover the power of nature to strengthen our bodies and nurture our spirits. A time when we acknowledge that to be the best versions of ourselves, we need nature—and that nature is an inexhaustible source of new understandings.

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

Hiking and Camping in Bear Country: What You Need to Know

Camping in bear country comes with gorgeous scenic views but it also comes with… bears! Here’s what you need to know to stay safe and protect yourself and your gear.

All of the authoritative books on bears seem to agree on one thing: if you’re close enough to a bear to cause it to change its activity pattern, you’re too close, and in possible danger.

―Dennis R. Blanchard

First, I want to state that bear attacks are rare; you’re much more likely to be attacked and/or killed by another human than a bear. However, your odds of not being attacked by a bear are even better if you practice bear safety.

Wild animals are part of every nature experience. Use caution. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be prepared, not scared

Please don’t take the information in this article as fear-mongering. Wild animals are part of every nature experience.

Just remember, it always pays to be prepared.

It’s a sad fact of life that there are camping fatalities and injuries every year because of bear attacks. During peak season, at least one bear every week is put down by game officials somewhere in North America because it strayed into a campground. Unfortunately, most incidents arise because of irresponsible humans who left food out.

This article is to help protect you and the bears whose home we are visiting!

Despite the headlines and all the warning signs, bear incidents are really rare. Hundreds of thousands of hikers and campers enjoy the wilderness in bear country without even seeing a bear.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take precautions.

When camping in bear country, you will almost always see signs advising you that bears are in the area. Heed their warnings!

Wild animals are part of every nature experience. Use caution. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping in bear country with dogs

If you travel with dogs, there can be other problems. Dogs antagonize bears especially mother bears with cubs.

You need to have your dog on a leash whenever camping in bear country.

Even on a leash, dogs are prohibited on many trails in national parks that have bears. In fact, Bear Country or not! You can read about the national parks that do allow dogs and under which conditions at 12 Dog-Friendly National Parks.

Dogs are usually allowed in campgrounds and on most paved areas near stores but always check first before planning your visit and day’s activities.

Wild animals are part of every nature experience. Use caution. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to store food when camping in bear country

Almost all campgrounds in bear country provide bear-proof food storage canisters at each site.

We don’t want to see bears get put down. And we don’t want bears to put people in danger. So, be sure to use these bear-proof food storage containers!

National Parks Service and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department list the following rules and suggestions for RVing in bear country.

Food rules:

  • Never store food outside or near your RV. After cooking and eating, bring all food inside.
  • Keep your area clean. Be sure to wash dishes, dispose of garbage, and wipe down tables.
  • Keep all items with strong odors (i.e., toothpaste, bug repellent, soap, etc.) inside the RV and out of reach of bears or the bear-proof containers available at most campsites in bear country.
  • Hanging food in trees is the traditional method of storing food while camping in the backcountry. The better alternative is a bear canister—a portable, hard-sided food locker.
Wild animals are part of every nature experience. Use caution. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping in bear country safety tips

Here are some additional tips that I strongly suggest you follow if bears live in the region.

  • Keep your dog on a leash or rope at all times. Never leave your dog outside at night while you sleep in the RV.
  • Close windows and lock your vehicle and RV when you leave your campsite and at night before you go to sleep.
  • If a bear does come near your campsite and no rangers are around, get in your RV or vehicle. Yell at the bear. Honk the horn. Play loud music, bang pots, and pans. Do not try to approach it.
  • If you will be spending time in bear country, get a can of bear spray. Bear spray is a super-concentrated, highly irritating pepper spray proven to be more effective than firearms at deterring bears.

General hiking precautions in bear country

  • Most bear encounters do not happen in campgrounds. They occur in the backcountry while people are hiking.
  • Never hike alone. Two or three people are best. Bears will usually move out of the way if they hear people approaching, so make plenty of noise to make them aware of your presence.
  • Most bells are not enough to warn a bear away. Calling out and clapping hands loudly at regular intervals are better ways to make your presence known. Hiking quietly endangers you, the bear, and other hikers.
  • A bear consistently surprised by quiet hikers may become habituated to close human contact and less likely to avoid people. This sets up a dangerous situation for both visitors and bears.
Wild animals are part of every nature experience. Use caution. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Additional tips when hiking

  • Bear tracks, bear scat, and shredded logs are all signs you’re in bear country.
  • Be alert at all times and leave your headphones at home. Be extra cautious at dawn and dusk when the wind is in your face, visibility is limited, or you’re walking by a noisy stream. A firm clap or quick shout warns bears that humans are in the area.
  • In late summer and fall, bears need to forage up to 20 hours a day, so avoid trails that go through berry patches, oak brush, and other natural food sources.
  • Keep dogs leashed, exploring canines can surprise a bear. Your dog could be injured or come running back to you with an irritated bear on its heels.
  • Keep children between adults and teach them what to do if they see a bear. Don’t let them run ahead or lag behind.
  • Double bag food and never leave any trash or leftovers behind. Finding treats teaches bears to associate trails with food.
  • Never approach bears or offer food. If you see a bear, watch from a safe distance and enjoy this very special experience. If your presence causes the bear to look up or change its behavior in any way, you’re too close.
Wild animals are part of every nature experience. Use caution. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to do if you encounter a bear

  • Stand still, stay calm, and quietly back away and leave. Do not make aggressive eye contact. Talk in a normal tone of voice. Be sure the bear has an escape route.
  • Never run or climb a tree.
  • If you see cubs, their mother is usually close by. Leave the area immediately.
  • If a bear stands up, it is just trying to identify what you are by getting a better look and smell.
  • Wave your arms slowly overhead and talk calmly. If the bear huffs, pops its jaws or stomps a paw, it wants you to give it space.
  • Step off the trail to the downhill side, keep looking at the bear, and slowly back away until the bear is out of sight.

What to do if the bear approaches

A bear knowingly approaching a person could be a food-conditioned bear looking for a handout or, very rarely, an aggressive bear. If you are approached, do the following:

  • Stand your ground. Yell or throw small rocks in the direction of the bear.
  • Get out your bear spray and use it when the bear is about 40 feet away.
  • If the bear attacks, don’t play dead! Fight back with anything available. People have successfully defended themselves with penknives, trekking poles, and even bare hands.

Best bear spray

Chuck Bartlebaugh is perhaps the top expert in bear safety and bear/human interactions in North America and founder and director of the Be Bear Aware Campaign. Chuck says bear spray is the best choice for stopping a charging, attacking, or threatening bear. The bear spray he recommends is called Counter Assault.

He said it works because it’s powerful and able to shoot 25-30 feet—something to keep in mind considering bears can move at a speed of up to 30 miles per hour.

If hiking in a group, every person should have their own can.

Worth Pondering…

Always respect Mother Nature. Especially when she weighs 400 pounds and is guarding her baby!

—James Rollins, Ice Hunt

The Ultimate Guide to Joshua Tree National Park

Two desert ecosystems combine for an otherworldly experience in California’s Joshua Tree National Park

I speak for the trees.

— Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Several small motorhomes jockey for parking spots along the cul-de-sac at the Keys View overlook in Joshua Tree National Park. Its 10 minutes to sunset and the vista over the Coachella Valley with the lights of Palm Springs winking in the distance takes my breath away. Where else with two feet planted on solid ground can you get a bird’s-eye view of the daunting San Andreas Fault? That crack sketched into the surface of the Earth is a sobering reminder of the fragility of the landscape. The menacing fault line marks one of the world’s most active tectonic boundaries; geological faults crisscross the entire park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s difficult to measure all of the positives that can come from just one visit to a National Park. By simply dipping your toe into the waters of the great outdoors your world is touched by greater health, improved mood, increased knowledge, all the while you are offering support to the preservation of one of the world’s finest treasures… and, national parks are a perfect place to go play.

Joshua Tree is one of my favorites in a long list of spectacular national parks in both Canada and the United States. It is arid, untamed, and remote. The super-sized boulders and wild-armed vegetation look like something from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. The night sky is dark and splashed with stars. When the wind blows, it really howls. The boulders are the size of large vehicles and the landscape is ablaze with cacti and hardy desert vegetation.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond the Joshua tree forests lies a world of adventure that appeals to three important factors that compel people to enjoy it: accessibility, the draw of adventure, and inspiration.

The sprawling national park of almost 800,000 acres is the spot in southeastern California where the high Mojave and the low Colorado deserts converge. This transition zone of two distinct desert ecosystems is noteworthy creating a blended area of significant biological diversity. In desert ecosystems, elevation determines everything as desert plants and critters are extremely sensitive to the slightest change.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is home to bighorn sheep, cactus wrens, roadrunners, and desert iguanas. The threatened desert tortoise occasionally meanders across roadways. As in many desert settings, snakes often curl up below the rocks for shade.

On the adventure front, climbers find here a world-class climbing and repelling playground. Photographers visit to capture silhouettes of wonder-shaped trees against the backdrop of the sun, moon, and stars. Equines go there to ride horseback, birders to bird, mountain bikers to ride, nature walkers to walk, campers to camp. It’s a true wilderness playground.  

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And there is inspiration. Famous artists and musicians have taken from Joshua Tree ideas that have manifested into creative works that we all know and love… anybody out there a fan of Dr. Seuss? How about U2, Selena, John Lennon, Victoria Williams, Keith Richards, Gram Parsons, and Jim Morrison?

And then, there are the Joshua trees. Like snowflakes and fingerprints, each is one of a kind. Every slight change of angle in your view produces what seems like an entirely different tree to look at.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving from the park’s northern entrance at Twentynine Palms to the southern entrance just off Interstate 10, you’ll dip from the higher elevation of the Mojave Desert section with some spots topping 5,000 feet to the lower elevation of the Colorado Desert. The higher elevations are home to the park’s namesake, the iconic Joshua trees. The lower, more arid lands are covered with the long, thin branches of the spindly ocotillo, prickly “jumping” cholla cacti, and green-barked palo verde shrubs. In springtime, it’s a blast of colorful wildflowers. Year-round, it’s a landscape with a lot of thorny vegetation encircled by rugged mountain ranges.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you come properly prepared (water, wide-brimmed hat, sturdy footwear, paper map), the trails and rocks of Joshua Tree are a dream for hiking and world-class bouldering. Pets are not allowed on the trails or in the backcountry so plan accordingly for their comfort and safety.

We explored the main roadways and stopped to hike at spots such as the nature trails through the boulders and the luxuriant Cholla Cactus Garden. Staff at the visitors centers can help you pick a suitable trail from among the almost 30 in the park which range from easy to challenging.

The park lends itself to exploring by short road trips or via a walk from one of the trailheads.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Hidden Valley, a popular one-mile loop winds through a rock-enclosed valley that at one time created secluded hideouts for cattle and horse rustlers. It’s was a nice way to get up close to the imposing stones. Farther down the park’s main road to the south, the Cholla Cactus Garden is a quarter-mile, flat pathway meandering through dense “gardens” of the “jumping” teddy bear cholla, a very prickly cacti known for attaching itself to unwary passersby.

The Mojave Desert part of the park is marked by jumbles of massive boulders interspersed with pinyon pines, junipers, prickly pear cacti, and yuccas. Thousands of established routes make the park a favorite destination for rock climbers.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The huge, ball-shaped masses of rock are granite that formed when molten fluid within the Earth’s crust was pushed to the surface about 250 million years ago. Over millennia of erosion, these granite boulders were left on the surface, many looking like piles of enormous marbles stacked and abandoned.

You can camp among these truck-size boulders at Jumbo Rocks, one of the park’s eight campgrounds. Only two campgrounds (Black Rock and Cottonwood) have water, flush toilets, and dump stations. Cottonwood is especially popular with RVers. At the Hidden Valley and White Tank campgrounds, RVs are limited to a maximum combined length of 25 feet (RV and a towed or towing vehicle); in the other campgrounds, the limit is 35 feet, space permitting.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rustic campgrounds offer a true desert experience. Most sites are at higher elevations, so nighttime can be chilly. Joshua Tree is remote wilderness and cell phone coverage is unreliable at best. Many campsites fill during the peak season of October to May—most can be reserved at recreation.gov.

Many people come to contemplate and photograph the otherworldly Joshua trees that pepper the rolling desert of the park’s Mojave section. Growing at an unhurried rate of ½-inch to 3 inches per year, it is not a tree at all but a species of agave that can grow more than 40 feet tall. The clusters of waxy, spiny leaves provide homes for owls, woodpeckers, hawks, and many other birds. The “trees” are incredibly photogenic and one of the main reasons that people visit the park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Despite the park’s remote setting and its dryer-than-dry ecosystem, I find that Joshua Tree draws me back again and again. It’s one of those indulgent destinations—one of the few spots to find the spiny trees, to feel tiny next to enormous round rocks, and to look upward into some of the darkest night skies in Southern California. It’s a camper’s dream.

Temperatures and weather can vary depending largely on elevation. In the winter months, prepare for chilly camping. When hiking, always carry water and warm clothing to layer. In remote areas, keep your fuel tank topped off. Be prepared for hot weather, too, as Joshua Tree is in the desert and can be sunny with very limited shade available.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be aware that rocks, plants, animals, and historic objects are protected in all national parks. Best practice is to enjoy but to leave them in their place.

Joshua Tree is operated by the National Park Service. If you have plans to visit several parks over the year investigate the America the Beautiful Pass which is valid for one full year from the month of purchase ($80). The pass covers entry to parks and many other government-operated sites but not camping or tour fees.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 792,623 acres; 591,624 of that is designated wilderness

Date established: October 31, 1994 (National Monument in 1936)

Location: Southeast California

Designation: International Dark Sky Park

Park Elevation: 1,000 feet to 5,500 

Park entrance fee: $30 per vehicle, valid for 7 days

Camping fee: $20-$25

Recreational visits (2021): 3,064,400

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: According to the National Park Service and legend of old, Joshua Tree was given its name by Mormon pioneers traveling west in the 19th century who thought that the branches looked like the biblical figure Joshua, reaching up to the heavens in prayer. 

Iconic site in the park: There are many iconic sites in this park but none more so than spots from where the Joshua Tree grows. No two trees bare the same exact shape or composition. Their silhouette leaning against the desert sky sings songs of the Mojave Desert, the only place this “tree” (actually a yucca plant) naturally grows. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Accessible adventure: The Jumbo Rock campground is a doorway to some of the best features of the park and it seems that there is not one bad place to camp. Each has its own unique natural feature and some level of privacy. Drive in and choose your camping spot (first come, first served), pay the fee, and set up camp. Try to arrive early in the morning so you can nab a good spot—this place is popular and therefore busy all year long. 

Big adventure: Rock climbing! Joshua Tree is regarded as one of the best climbing destinations in the world offering enthusiasts from around the world thousands of climbing routes to venture out on. Rock climbing is not for the faint of heart—proper equipment and training is mandatory. If you aren’t a technical climber, bouldering the tacky monzogranite rock faces offer another, really fun way to rise from the desert and catch panoramic views of this beautiful place. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

Joshua Tree is where the Mojave and the Colorado desert ecosystems come together (the Colorado desert is a subdivision of the Sonoran Desert).

According to the National Park Service website there are 93 miles of paved roads, 106 miles of unpaved roads; nine campgrounds with 523 campsites, two horse camps, 10 picnic areas; and 32 trailheads reaching out to 191 miles of hiking trails throughout the park. That’s a lot of access to Joshua Tree parkland! 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cover art of the first Eagles album (released in 1972) was captured in the Cholla Garden—one of my favorite places in the park. 

The boulders that Joshua Tree National Park is comprised of is a result of billions of years of heating and cooling of the Earth’s crust, and the effects of wind, sun, and erosion. 

Worth Pondering…

I love it there, it’s magical … Joshua Tree is one of those special places where you feel so close to everything.”

—Rita Coolidge

National Wilderness Month: September 2022

What does wilderness mean to you?

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.

—Edward Abbey

September marks the anniversary of the Wilderness Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnsonn September 3, 1964. It created the legal definition of wilderness in the United States and protected 9.1 million acres of federal land, the result of a long effort to protect federal wilderness and to create a formal mechanism for designating wilderness. The Wilderness Act is well known for its succinct and poetic definition of wilderness:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

—Howard Zahniser

Joshua Tree Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, 54 areas (9.1 million acres) in 13 states were designated as wilderness. This law established these areas as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). Since 1964, the NWPS has grown almost every year and now includes 803 areas (111,706,287 acres) in 44 states and Puerto Rico. In 1980, the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) added over 56 million acres of wilderness to the system, the largest addition in a single year. 1984 marks the year when the newest wilderness areas were added. 

The Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Overall, however, only about 5 percent of the entire United States—an area slightly larger than the state of California—is protected as wilderness. Because Alaska contains just over half of America’s wilderness only about 2.7 percent of the contiguous United States—an area about the size of Minnesota—is protected as wilderness.

These wilderness areas are located within national forests, parks, wildlife refuges, and conservation lands and waters. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans turned to these areas for physical recreation, mental well-being, and inspiration, and our public lands and waters became places of healing and sanctuary.

Wilderness is in the arid deserts, cypress swamps, alpine meadows, sandy beaches, and rocky crags. From Alaska to Florida, wilderness protects some of the most diverse and sensitive habitats in America. It offers a refuge for wildlife and a place to seek relaxation, adventure, or something in between for us. What does wilderness mean to you?  

Lassen Volcanic Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy the Outdoors

Celebrate Wildnerness Month by getting out and visiting some of America’s state parks and national parks. Or, for more local ideas here are a few suggestions on how you can get started to actively appreciate and enjoy our beautiful wilderness:

In addition, the fourth Saturday in September (September 24, 2022) celebrates the connection between people and green spaces in their community with the annual National Public Lands Day. The day is set aside for volunteers to improve the health of public lands, parks, and historic sites. This day is traditionally the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort.

With 803 designated locations, searching for a National Wilderness Area to visit may seem like an impossible task. Consider the following eight wilderness areas for RV travel.

The Superstitions © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Superstition Wilderness, Arizona

Designated: 1964

Size: 160,164 acres

Managed by: National Forest Service

The Superstitions © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although there is no guarantee that you’ll find buried treasure, you are sure to discover miles and miles of desolate and barren mountains, seemingly endless and haunting canyons, raging summer temperatures that can surpass 115 degrees Fahrenheit, and a general dearth of water.

Elevations range from approximately 2,000 feet on the western boundary to 6,265 feet on Mound Mountain. In the western portion rolling land is surrounded by steep, even vertical terrain. Weaver’s Needle, a dramatic volcanic plug, rises to 4,553 feet. Vegetation is primarily that of the Sonoran Desert with semidesert grassland and chaparral higher up.

Peralta Trailhead © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Despite the harsh setting, much of Superstition Wilderness, especially the Peralta and First Water Trails is overused by humans. These two trailheads receive about 80 percent of the annual human traffic and the U.S. Forest Service calls the 6.3-mile Peralta one of the most heavily used trails in Arizona. Other trails within the Wilderness are virtually untrodden. There are about 180 miles of trails as well as other unmaintained tracks.

Get more tips for visiting Superstition Wilderness

Joshua Tree Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree Wilderness, California

Designated: 1976

Size: 595,364 acres

Managed by: National Park Service

Joshua Tree Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 transformed Joshua Tree National Monument into a national park and expanded the wilderness. The additions thrust north into the Pinto Mountains, northeast into the Coxcomb Mountains, southeast into the Eagle Mountains, and southwest into the Little San Bernardino Mountains. Most of the park away from road corridors is Wilderness, a meeting place of two desert ecosystems.

The lower, drier Colorado Desert dominates the eastern half of the park, home to abundant creosote bushes, the spidery ocotillo, and the “jumping” cholla cactus. The slightly more cool and moist Mojave Desert covers the western half of the park serving as a hospitable breeding ground for the undisciplined Joshua tree. You’ll find examples of a third ecosystem within the park: five fan-palm oases where surface or near-surface water gives life to the stately palms.

Get more tips for visiting Joshua Tree Wilderness

The Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee Wilderness, Georgia

Designated: 1974

Size: 353,981 acres

Managed by: Fish and Wildlife Service

The Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imagine waking to a mist-enshrouded wetland echoing with the calls of herons and ibis. Your camping site is a wooden platform surrounded by miles and miles of wet prairie or moss-covered cypress. The only sounds you hear are the calls of native wildlife and those you make upon taking in such beauty. This is what it is like to experience a night in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Wilderness Area.

The Okefenokee NWR encompasses the Okefenokee Swamp, one of the oldest and best-preserved freshwater areas in America. Native Americans called the swamp the “land of trembling earth” because the unstable peat deposits that cover much of the swamp floor tremble when stepped on. “Okefenokee” is a European interpretation of their words. The Okefenokee Swamp forms the headwaters for two very distinct rivers. The historic Suwannee River originates in the heart of the swamp and flows southwest toward the Gulf of Mexico. The second is the St. Marys River, which originates in the southeastern portion of the swamp and flows to the Atlantic Ocean forming part of the boundary between Georgia and Florida.

Get more tips for visiting Okefenokee Wilderness

Mt. Wrightson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mt. Wrightson Wilderness, Arizona

Designated: 1984

Size: 25,141 acres

Managed by: National Forest Service

Mt. Wrightson Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rising a magnificent 7,000 feet from the desert floor, 9,452-foot-high Mount Wrightson is visible from great distances. At the core of the Santa Rita Mountains, this Wilderness has rough hillsides, deep canyons, and lofty ridges and peaks surrounded by semiarid hills and sloping grasslands. Ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir dominate the upper elevations. The stream-fed canyons support an abundance of plant and animal life. At the foot of Madera Canyon on the edge of the Wilderness, a developed recreation area serves as a popular jumping-off point for hikers and backpackers.

Get more tips for visiting Mt. Wrightson Wilderness

Lassen Volcanic Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic Wilderness, California

Designated: 1972

Size: 79,061 acres

Managed by: National Park Service

Lassen Volcanic Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In May of 1914, Lassen Peak began a seven-year series of eruptions including a humdinger in 1915 when an enormous mushroom cloud reached seven miles in height. Today, the Lassen Volcanic National Park serves as a compact laboratory of volcanic phenomena and associated thermal features (mud pots, fumaroles, hot springs, sulfurous vents) with Lassen Peak (10,457 feet) near the center of the park’s western half. Lassen Peak and its trail are non-Wilderness but almost four-fifths of the park has been designated Wilderness, a land of gorgeous lakes teeming with fish, thick forests of pine and fir, many splendid creeks, and a fascinating hodgepodge of extinct and inactive volcanoes.

Best of all, this mountainous country remains relatively uncrowded by California standards. At least 779 plant species and numerous animals have been identified here. The eastern border of the Lassen Volcanic Wilderness is shared with Caribou Wilderness and one trail crosses the boundary. About 150 miles of trails snake through the Lassen Volcanic Wilderness. A 17-mile-long section of the Pacific Crest Trail crosses from north to south.

Get more tips for visiting Lassen Volcanic Wilderness

Malpais Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

West Malpais Wilderness, New Mexico

Designated: 1987

Size: 39,540 acres

Managed by: Bureau of Land Management

Malpais Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais is Spanish for “the badlands,” a name that perfectly describes this region of New Mexico where countless volcanic eruptions sent rivers of molten rock and flying cinders over what is now a bleak valley of three million years’ worth of hardened lava. Native American settlers probably witnessed the last of the eruptions. Their former home is now a land of craters and lava tubes, cinder cones and spatters cones, ice caves and pressure ridges, and a surprising amount of vegetation. Even on terrain that one would presume to be barren, wind-deposited debris has thickened enough to support grasses, cacti, aspen, pine, juniper, and fir.

Preserved within the El Malpais National Monument and Conservation Area, West Malpais Wilderness is home to Hole-In-The-Wall, the largest island-like depression in these lava fields. Over the years, moisture and soil collected on some of the oldest lava to form this 6,000-acre stand of ponderosa pine.

Get more tips for visiting West Malpais Wilderness

Organ Pipe Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness, Arizona

Designated: 1978

Size: 312,600 acres

Managed by: National Park Service

Organ Pipe Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness is bordered by the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness to the west.

Located at the heart of the vast and lush Sonoran Desert, Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness hugs the Mexican border and celebrates a desert full of life: 550 species of vascular plants, 53 species of mammals, 43 species of reptiles, and more than 278 species of birds. The monument conserves 90 percent of the organ pipe cactus range in the US. The organ pipe is a large multispined cactus rare in the United States.

From Mount Ajo at 4,024 feet, atop the Ajo Range on the eastern border, the land falls away to broad alluvial desert plains studded with cacti and creosote bushes, isolated canyons, dry arroyos, and stark desert mountains. Summer temperatures have been known to reach an unbelievably scorching 120 degrees Fahrenheit but winter brings daytime temperatures in the 60s and chilly nights. About 95 percent of the monument has been designated Wilderness making this Arizona’s third largest Wilderness.

Organ Pipe camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No reliable water sources exist in Organ Pipe Cactus except at the 208-site campground near the visitor’s center. The camp is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis for a fee.

Get more tips for visiting Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness

Organ Mountains Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Mountains Wilderness, New Mexico

Designated: 2019

Size: 160,164 acres

Managed by: Bureau of Land Management

Organ Mountains Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Organ Mountains Wilderness provides the backdrop to the Mesilla Valley and New Mexico’s second-largest city: Las Cruces. From picnickers to horsemen, family outings to day hikes, these mountains offer recreation, important wildlife habitat, and watershed protection. The striking granite crags and spires of the Organ Mountains range from 4,600 to just over 9,000 feet and are so named because of the steep, needle-like spires that resemble the pipes of an organ. The wilderness includes the Baylor Pass National Recreation Trail.

Get more tips for visiting Organ Mountains Wilderness

Worth Pondering…

The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea, and sky and their amazing life.

—Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring

Camping Awareness: Wildfire Safety Tips That Could Save Your Life

If you’re wondering what causes wildfires, read on. Here is your complete guide to understanding the most common causes and how campers can practice fire safety.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

—Bob Dylan

Yet, knowing which way the wind will be blowing will give you a massive advantage in understanding the behavior of wildfires.

It took only a handful of days between the disappearance of snow in the Santa Fe National Forest and the start of the Cerro Pelado fire, a growing blaze that has threatened two units of the National Park Service (NPS) in New Mexico in an early season signal that the coming summer months will be smoky in many parts west of the Rockies. 

Salt River Canyon Wilderness, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fire restrictions, imposed county by county, appear to arise more often during the wildfire season. The days of explorers ambling into Colorado’s backcountry, gathering kindling, and sparking a fire for some supper and perhaps a s’more or two are gone. Long gone, the Denver Post recently (May 5, 2022) reported.

“The state’s too dry. Too warm. Wildfire risk is too high and the season lasts all year now. The danger of a camper accidentally sparking a devastating wildfire is too serious.”

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

Yes, the 2022 wildfire season is underway and it’s striking with a vengeance. The Calf Canyon/Hermits Fire near Santa Fe, New Mexico had burned more than 168,000 acres as of last Friday (May 7, 2022) and was only 20 percent contained. It had already destroyed at least 277 structures including 166 residential buildings and was threatening thousands more. So far, more than 300,000 acres had burned in the state more than all of last year.

Lynx Lake, Prescott National Forest, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meanwhile, in Florida, more than 22,000 acres have burned in recent days. Both fires serve to remind us to check ahead where we’re headed with our RVs and to be extra careful with fire.

With the devastating destruction caused by wildfires, it’s hard to imagine that a single ember is all it can take to start an inferno. Yet, this is often the case—and in most cases humans are to blame. Wildfires are classified as either naturally occurring or human-caused. According to NPS, human-caused wildfires are significantly more common with human involvement triggering 85 percent to 90 percent of all wildfires.

The NPS also estimates that only about 10 percent of wildfires are started by natural causes such as lightning.

Saguaro Lake, Arizona

For any fire to occur, there are three elements needed—heat, fuel, and oxygen:

  • Heat: Many potential heat sources can create embers and ignite wildfires. Many of these are human-caused which I will cover in more detail below.
  • Fuel: An arid climate and abundant, bone dry vegetation provides copious amounts of fuel for wildfires.
  • Oxygen: California’s infamous Santa Ana winds produce gusts averaging 45-50 mph with record gusts clocked at over 160 mph. These winds fan the flames and spread embers, leading to truly devastating wildfires.
Sequoia National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildfires can start in a variety of ways. A dry climate, abundant winds, and dried vegetation provide prime conditions for a wildfire—and it only takes a single ember to ignite and destroy hundreds of thousands of acres and place humans and personal belongs at risk.

Here’s a close look at the top four heat sources that are the most common cause of wildfires:

  • Burning debris: Embers from burning debris are one of the most common causes of wildfires. In windy weather, escaped embers can carry for miles without extinguishing.
  • Unattended campfires: We typically associate campfires with beautiful memories, like s’mores and stories with loved ones. However, despite a campfire’s summertime appeal, they are one of the leading causes of wildfires.  California’s Ham Lake Fire (2007) which destroyed 75,000 acres and hundreds of properties is just one example of the devastation that a single campfire can cause.
  • Power lines/electrical equipment: Electrical lines and related equipment can break in high winds and spark, igniting flames in tinder-dry vegetation that can spread quickly in high winds. Fallen power lines are the third most common cause of wildfires in California. In some cases, it only takes a branch falling from a tree and striking a power line to create sparks. Over the past six years, more than 1,500 Californian wildfires were caused by fallen power lines including the deadliest fire in history—the Camp Fire (2018) which razed 90 percent of the town of Paradise killing 86 people and destroying more than 13,900 homes. The lines malfunctioned on a dry hillside near a windy canyon.
  • Discarded cigarettes: One of the biggest causes of fires is discarded cigarette butts. In 1997, there were 130,000 cigarette related fires. In 2017 this problem resulted in over $2 billion in costs associated with putting these fires out and $6 billion in loss of property. In addition to causing fires, cigarette butts pose another risk: they are hazardous to the environment. Cigarette butts leach toxins into the water and kill or injure various forms of wildlife. The plastic parts of cigarette butts can be ingested by fish, birds, whales, and other marine animals and the toxicity can accumulate up the food chain.
Brasstown Bald, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The list above is by no means exhaustive. Other common causes of wildfires include:

  • Equipment use and malfunctions: The fifth-largest fire in California history, the Zaca Fire (2007) was caused by sparks from a metal grinder.
  • Vehicle crashes and engine sparks: The Carr Fire (2018) was caused by sparks from a trailer’s faulty wheel rim creating sparks on the road.
  • Arson: Two Colorado residents face charges of felony arson for their roles in starting the Lake Christine Fire in 2018.
  • Lightning: Lightning caused the 2012 Rush Fire in Lassen County, California.
Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona

Regardless of how wildfires are started, they are highly unpredictable and can be deadly. With the severe heat, drought conditions, and wildfires burning across much of the western US states and Canada, those who are out adventuring need to be aware of wildfire conditions and what can be done to keep you and your family safe in the backcountry.

Know the current wildfire conditions and fire restrictions for the area you are traveling.

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check with the national forest, state, and county as individual governing entities may have different restrictions.  Driving routes may be impacted, so check your route for road closures and cautions. Also, keep in mind that fire conditions and restrictions can change often, so check frequently so that you know what is permitted or restricted. Closures and restrictions aren’t put in place to ruin your camping trip; they are put in place for safety reasons. Take them seriously.

Frances Beider Forest, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Choose a campsite that has more than one escape route. 

Have more than one way that you can leave the area. You might be tempted to camp way up in that canyon near the end of the road but if your access is cut off from a fire, you will have no way to leave.

Park for a quick departure.

Back into the spot if you need to so that should you need to leave quickly, you don’t have to worry about jockeying around in the smoke to get out.

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

Do not start a wildfire. This involves knowing what is not allowed and being responsible for your actions. Make sure you don’t spill flammable liquids and ensure cook stoves, barbecues, and lanterns are cold to the touch before storing them. Seemingly innocuous things like smoking outside or mosquito candles may lead to fire danger under the right (or wrong) conditions. If you are permitted to have a campfire, be sure it is completely extinguished before you leave.

Wildfire smoke from across state lines obscured the skies over Gatlinburg, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you do see an unattended fire or out of control fire, contact the authorities by calling 911 or the forest service immediately.

The sooner a problem is reported, the faster people can start taking action to get it under control or extinguished.

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t discard cigarettes, matches, or smoking materials on the ground. Drown them in a glass of water then put them in the trash. No one wants to see that litter anyhow.

If you are asked to evacuate, do so immediately.

Stowe, Vermont © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you are camping in the backcountry, there is likely not going to be anyone to tell you that a fire is in the area, so be aware of conditions and get yourself out if you see or smell smoke. Do not be tempted to linger for photos. Don’t drive slowly looking at flames.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If everything has gone wrong, you are in trouble. Don’t try to outrun the fire. If possible, get yourself submerged in a body of water (pond, river) as fast as you can. If there is no water, find a depression (low area) with as little vegetation as possible. Lie low to the ground and cover yourself with wet clothing. Protect your lungs as best as you can and stay down until the fire passes.  

Remember: you are responsible for your safety and for the safety of those around you.

See also:

Worth Pondering…

Don’t forget what Smokey Bear says: Only YOU can prevent wildfires!

Experience the Journey Within

How the forest can change your life

Who could have imagined that being confined to our homes would bring so many people closer to nature?

As we wrap up the first month of 2022, let’s remind ourselves to hit the “reset” button. America offers RV travelers the opportunity to do just that and tap into true joy and fully relax and reset. Improving your health and well-being can be as simple as getting outdoors to enjoy parks and forests and trails. The health benefits of outdoor recreation inspire healthy, active lifestyles, and a connection with nature.

Enjoying nature at Lackawanna State Park (Pennsylvania) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Humans are custom-designed for nature awareness. Before there were computers, smartphones, and televisions, most of our time was spent outside in the fresh air, tuning in with birds, plants, trees, and all the aspects of nature.

This deep level of knowledge and understanding about edible plants or how to move quietly in the forest and get closer to wildlife was developed out of a need for survival.

Enjoying nature at Roosevelt State Park (Mississippi) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But beyond the surface appearance of a basic need to find food, shelter, and navigate without getting lost, using our sensory awareness in nature also brings significant benefits to our health and wellness.

Related Article: Get Outside and Enjoy Nature

Just check out some of these nature awareness quotes by famous people.

“If you live in harmony with nature you will never be poor; if you live according to what others think, you will never be rich.”
—Seneca, Roman Stoic philosopher (4 BC-AD 65)

Enjoying nature in Custer State Park (South Dakota) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanates from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

 “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even
spiritual satisfaction.”
—E.O. Wilson (1929-2021)

Enjoying nature at the Coachella Valley Preserve (California) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.”
—Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
—John Muir (1838-1914)

Enjoying nature on the Creole Nature Trail (Louisiana) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a reason why history’s greatest philosophers, scientists, and leaders tend to have close relationships with nature!

Yet today things are quite different.

Related Article: Fun and Healthy Ways to Enjoy Nature

Most people today have barely any awareness of the natural world.

Enjoying nature at Bernheim Forest (Kentucky) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We’ve become preoccupied with technology, video games, and how to fit into an expanding world. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities, they simply don’t stimulate the human brain in the same way that nature does.

That is why so many people around the world are now coming back to the wilderness and intentionally rebuilding practices of nature awareness into their daily life.

Okefenokee Swamp (Georgia) is a National Natural Landmark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a hefty dose of nature look no further than a National Natural Landmark. From tidal creeks and estuaries to mountain wilderness, underground caverns, and riparian areas, America offers a diversity of stunning landscapes to explore and enjoy.

Enchanted Rock (Texas) is a National Natural Landmark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Managed by the National Park Service, the National Natural Landmark program was created in 1962 to encourage the preservation and public appreciation of America’s natural heritage. To date, 602 sites in the country have received the designation.

Francis Beider Forest (South Carolina) is a National Natural Landmark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In my mind, there are few things more rejuvenating than hiking or walking in nature. One of the biggest reasons I fell in love with the RV lifestyle is that beautiful nature is so accessible wherever you are. It seems like I am always just minutes away from a spectacular trailhead. Whether I am hiking in the mountains or traversing trails in the desert, nature is a refuge—it’s a change of pace from city life, from being stuck inside, from being sedentary.

Hiking Catalina State Park (Arizona) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With national and state parks, millions of acres of national and state forest, and thousands of miles of trails, America offers a lot of opportunity and free access to the outdoors with numerous options for outdoor recreation including hiking, biking, birding, photography, canoeing, rafting, skiing, and simply taking a walk in the woods. Activities such as these have proven major benefits for human health and wellness due to their ability to clear the mind, engage our senses, and get our bodies moving.

Related Article: How Much Time Should You Spend in Nature?

Birding (Little blue heron) at Corkscrew Sanctuary (Florida) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spending time in the outdoors is something we need at any age. Spending time in nature is inherently calming. The patience that birding requires only serves to enhance this meditative effect. As birders learn to appreciate nature’s slower pace, it inspires reflection, relaxation, and perspective. The exercise benefits that come from walking outdoors also contribute to increased happiness and energy levels.

Birding (Sandhill cranes) at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (New Mexico) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking for a fun hobby you can do anywhere, anytime, without spending much cash upfront? You can’t go wrong with birding, commonly known as bird watching.

Birding (Black skimmer) at South Padre Island Birding Center (Texas) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can do it purely for fun or keep a life list—a birding term for the running list that bird enthusiasts keep of all the different species of birds they see. Whatever your goal, you’ll be rewarded by the sights and sounds of beautiful and interesting feathered creatures.

Birding (Great kiskadee) at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge (Texas) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’ve been considering joining the ranks of the 47 million birders in the United States, there’s no better time than the present to take the plunge—or at least dip your toes in. 

Related Article: Getting Back to Nature: How Forest Bathing Can Make Us Feel Better

Anyone who spends time birdwatching knows intuitively why they keep going back: It just feels good. Being in nature—pausing in it, sitting with it, discovering its wonders—brings a sense of calm and renewal. 

Worth Pondering…

Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Why America Needs More National Parks

There are dozens of natural wonders around the country that are worthy of designation

Nothing epitomizes the natural splendor of America quite like a national park. The designation evokes images of quiet groves of towering trees in Sequoia and Kings Canyon, sweeping views of sun-drenched rock formations in Arches, or waves crashing against granite cliffs in Acadia (National Park).

Recently, though, national parks have become synonymous not with pastoral retreats but rather a decidedly less appealing phenomenon: crowds and more crowds.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 327 million people visited the public lands managed by the National Park Service (NPS) in 2019 and after a brief, pandemic-causing respite the system is again straining to accommodate the hordes yearning for a little fresh air after more than a year spent mostly indoors. Parks across the country are setting records for visits while landmarks like Old Faithful and Utah’s Delicate Arch have been swamped by picture-snapping visitors.

Going to a national park in 2021 doesn’t mean losing yourself in nature. It means inching along behind a long line of vehicles on the way to an already full parking lot.

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

Since last August, every month except one has been record-setting at Grand Teton National Park. More than three million people visited the park in 2019 and the total will likely reach four million this year.

Yellowstone, whose history as a national park predates the Park Service itself, registered its first month with over a million visitors in July. The park is grappling with the impact all those new guests are having on the park’s infrastructure. A million more people a year in Yellowstone mean you’re emptying 2,000 garbage cans five times a day instead of three. What is the impact of a million more people flushing toilets five times a day, do to wastewater?

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So far, federal action on the matter has largely been restricted to last year’s Great American Outdoors Act which directed money to the NPS’s estimated $12 billion repair backlog as well as the President’s recently proposed budget which would increase the number of full-time Park Service employees considerably for the first time in two decades. But, the core issue remains: There are too many people concentrated in too few places.

But, how can we rebalance the scale? By adding more national parks!

After all, America has no shortage of sublime landscapes. The current assortment of national parks represents a narrow cross-section of the nation’s beauty.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon and Yosemite are undeniably magnificent but so too are lesser-known landmarks. Valles Caldera is a dormant volcano in northern New Mexico whose 13.7-mile-wide crater is dotted by hot springs and streams. Joshua trees in Southern California’s Mojave National Preserve are no less mesmerizing than in their namesake national park. These are just two of the dozens of wilderness areas across the country that are already managed by the Park Service yet remain practically unknown. Redesignating them as national parks could change that overnight.

Mount St. Helens National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is perceived credibility in the national park designation. Elevating a national preserve or national monument to national park status does increase visitation.

Headwaters Economics, a research group based in Montana, reported on the impact of the eight national monuments redesignated as national parks over the past two decades. Their research found that national parks overall have much greater visitation, overnight visits, spending per visitor, an economic impact than national monuments. Visits increased by 21 percent on average in the five years following redesignation compared to the five previous years.

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

Those findings are borne out by the New River Gorge in West Virginia which was redesignated last December. A spokesperson for the park estimates that visits have increased by 24 percent in the months since.

In the Intermountain West, from 2000 to 2016, recreation visits to national parks increased while visits to national monuments decreased. Importantly, national parks saw a greater increase in overnight visits which has a significant economic impact on the surrounding communities.

The most substantial difference between national parks and monuments is that the latter are created by presidential decree rather than congressional action; indeed, many national parks began as monuments and were only later elevated to their now rarefied status.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For many visitors, the word “monument” is something of a misnomer. It signals that maybe there’s one thing of interest there. That leads people unfamiliar with the region to think, “Let’s plan on a two-hour stop before we go on to a big-name national park.”

There is potential for a significant increase in visitation and economic impact for surrounding communities from redesigning a national monument as a national park. National monuments like Craters of the Moon (Idaho), Canyon de Chelly (Arizona), Organ Pipe (Arizona), Cedar Breaks (Utah), Natural Bridges (Utah), Mount St. Helens (Washington), Aztec Ruins (New Mexico), and El Malpais (New Mexico) come to mind.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How many of the six million annual Grand Canyon visitors might be enticed to go to Arizona’s similarly majestic Canyon de Chelly if it were a national park rather than a national monument? How many of the hundreds of thousands of eager hikers packing into Zion every month might take a chance on Cedar Breaks instead, especially given its crimson-striped cliffs and bristlecone forests are a mere hour’s drive further into the Utah desert?

Of course, many Westerners will shudder at the notion of under-the-radar gems like Craters of the Moon and the Valles Caldera becoming the next Bryce Canyon or Badlands. Which begs the question of how to alleviate crowding at some sites without overwhelming others?

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many national parks have already reached their limits, leaving less developed public lands vulnerable. Because Grand Teton can’t accommodate everyone who wants to stay there overnight, rangers from the surrounding Bridger-Teton National Forest have been scrambling to respond to the campers who want to camp there instead despite the area not having a comparable visitor infrastructure. And, therein may lay the answer for another viable alternative to the overcrowded national parks. Overshadowed by the NPS, the U.S National Forests offer some of the most awe-inspiring natural wonders in the country.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Forest Service offers a range of choices from developed campgrounds to dispersed camping in the middle of nowhere. America’s National Forest system stretches over 193 million acres of vast, scenic beauty waiting to be discovered. Visitors who choose to recreate on these public lands find more than 150,000 miles of trails, 10,000 developed recreation sites, 57,000 miles of streams, 338,000 heritage sites, and specially designated sites that include 9,100 miles of byways, 22 recreation areas, 11 scenic areas, 439 wilderness areas, and 122 wild and scenic rivers.

National Forests, then, represent an appealing in-between alternative: sites that many outdoors-minded travelers have never heard of that can still offer an experience every bit as memorable as a brand name park.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a paradox in the national parks. They’re set aside as natural places to be protected forever; on the other hand, they’re for public enjoyment and experience. The current situation complicates both sides of that equation by compromising the Park Service’s conservation mission while also making parks less appealing places to visit. Creating more National Parks is part of the solution. If you’ve got a demand problem, you can solve it by increasing supply. That’s Economics 101.

Worth Pondering…

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

A Bakers Dozen Campgrounds for an Unforgettable Arizona Wilderness Experience

Sometimes, “great outdoors” is an understatement

As the world grapples with the current reality, the great outdoors have become a welcome respite. Biking is on the rise. RVs became mobile motels for a new generation of traveler. And camping is a now go-to weekend activity for backcountry buffs and newbies alike. With fall in full swing, Arizona is an ideal camping destination. 

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With its wildly diverse wilderness, the state is a massive playground for campers of all walks, whether you’re seeking a trip to one of the country’s most celebrated national parks or one of its most underrated. Here, jaw-dropping vistas can be discovered during a hike or by simply pulling off the main road. You’ll find red-rock deserts and dense forests, and dry basins—and much of it is all-seasons. Whether you’re looking to flee Phoenix or stop off for a while in the middle of a cross-country voyage, these are the Arizona campgrounds you need to hit. 

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alamo Lake State Park

If you love the desert and want some year-round lake views, check out the Alamo Lake State Park campground. With six loops, this large campground has both full hookups and dry camping sites. The park also has cabins for rent with views of the water. Lake Alamo is nicely remote. It’s located less than two hours from the RV-centric town of Quartzsite.  

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

Dead Horse Ranch State Park

You can learn a lot about yourself after spending some time in the Verde River Valley. Are you the type of person that enjoys solitude under a canopy of towering cottonwood trees? Do you relish the sight of wildlife and soft sounds of a gentle river as you explore nature? Maybe you’re just looking for a gorgeous spot to take your family. A spot that will help simplify life for a while before heading back into the daily grind. Relax, recharge, and return to your “normal” life with less stress. Spending time at a place like Dead Horse Ranch will facilitate this magical transformation and, who knows? Your family might request a return trip. There are more than 100 large RV sites available. Most of the pull-through sites can accommodate 40-foot motorhomes and truck and trailer rigs up to 65 feet and include potable water and 30/50-amp service.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The View Campground, Monument Valley

Monument Valley is basically the image that comes to mind when someone who’s not from Arizona thinks of Arizona. It’s undeniably the picture of the American Southwest. And not only can you visit the iconic sandstone buttes, you can camp on the edge of the park. The View Campground certainly lives up to its name: Equipped with both RV sites and wilderness campsites, it’s positioned on the cliff side of the park which undoubtedly makes for some iconic sunrise and sunset views. 

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picacho Peak State Park

Jutting out of the Sonoran Desert some 1,500 feet, you can’t help but see Picacho Peak for miles as you drive along Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson. Travelers have used the peak for centuries as a landmark and continue to enjoy the state park’s 3,747 acres for hiking, rock climbing, spring wildflowers, and camping. Picacho Peak State Park’s campground has a total of 85 electric sites for both tent and RV camping.

La Paz County Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

La Paz County Park Campground

Nestled along the Colorado River La Paz County Park Campground is located 8 miles north of Parker off Highway 95. The campground offers 114 RV camping sites with water, electric service, and cable TV; riverfront armadas with cabana; and dry camping under large shade trees. Amenities include restroom buildings with showers, boat launches, beachfront walkway, and a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usery Mountain Regional Park

Neighboring the Goldfield Mountains and Tonto National Forest, Usery Mountain Regional Park spans 3,648 acres of metro Phoenix’s east Valley and offers 73 individual camping sites. All are developed sites with water and electrical hook-ups, plus a dump station, picnic table, and barbecue fire ring and can accommodate up to 45-foot RVs. Restrooms offer flush toilets and showers and group camping is also available.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lost Dutchman State Park

Named after the fabled lost gold mine, Lost Dutchman State Park is located in the Sonoran Desert, at the base of the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix. Several trails lead from the park into the Superstition Mountain Wilderness and surrounding Tonto National Forest. Take a stroll along the Native Plant Trail or hike the challenging Siphon Draw Trail to the top of the Flatiron. The campground has 138 sites: 68 sites with electric (50/30/20 amp service) and water and the remainder non-hookup sites on paved roads for tents or RVs. Every site has a picnic table, and a fire pit with adjustable grill gate. There are no size restrictions on RVs.

Wahweep RV Park and Marina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wahweep RV Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Centrally located at Wahweap Marina, the campsites are about one-quarter mile from the shore of Lake Powell. Wahweap offers plenty of fun with a wide variety of powerboats and water toys. You can also enjoy the restaurant, lounge, and gift shop at the Lake Powell Resort. This RV park/campground is a great place to enjoy the winter solitude of Lake Powell. The campground offers 139 sites with 30 and 50 amp service, water, and sewer. Sites accommodate up to 45 feet.

White Tank Mountains Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Tank Mountains Regional Park

Maricopa County’s largest regional park, White Tank Mountain Regional Park covers almost 30,000 acres in the West Valley and features 40 individual sites for tent or RV camping. All are developed sites with water and electrical hook-ups, plus a dump station, picnic table, and barbecue fire ring and can accommodate up to a 45-foot RV. Amenities also include restrooms with flush toilets and showers.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia Lake State Park

Tucked away in the rolling hills of southeastern Arizona, Patagonia Lake State Park is a hidden treasure. The park offers a campground, beach, picnic area with ramadas, tables and grills, a creek trail, boat ramps, and a marina. The campground overlooks the lake where anglers catch crappie, bass, bluegill, catfish, and trout. The park is popular for water skiing, fishing, camping, picnicking, and hiking. 105 developed campsites with a picnic table and fire ring/grill. Select sites also have a ramada. Sites offer 20/30 amp and 50 amp electric service. Campsite lengths vary but most can accommodate any size RV.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invites camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails which wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet. The camping area offers 120 electric and water sites with a picnic table and BBQ grill. Amenities include modern flush restrooms with hot showers and RV dump stations. There is no limit on the length of RVs at this park

Twin Peaks Campground at Organ Pipe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals, including its namesake. Twin Peaks Campground offers 208 sites that are generally level, widely spaced, and landscaped by natural desert growth. The campsites will easily accommodate big rigs and are available on a first-come first-served basis. As well, Alamo Campground has four well-spaced, primitive spots.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon

Madera Canyon is nestled in the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains 30 miles southeast of Tucson. A renowned location for bird watching, Madera Canyon is a major resting place for migrating species while the extensive trail system of the Santa Rita Mountains is easily accessed from the Canyon’s campground and picnic areas. A three mile paved road winds up the lower reaches of the canyon beside Madera Creek ending at a fork in the stream just before the land rises much more steeply. Along the way are three picnic areas, a side road to a campground, and five trailheads. Nearly 100 miles of paths climb the valley sides to springs, viewpoints, old mines, and summits including Mount Wrightson.

Worth Pondering…

Alone in the open desert, I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy. The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before. I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, the sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night. I have seemed to be at one with the world.

—Everett Ruess

Absolutely Best National Parks to Escape the Insanely Crazy Crowds

They rarely make Instagram but vast national monuments offer spectacular beauty and wilderness adventure

Well into the pandemic, many people are seeking solitude in nature. What could be lovelier, after months of isolation at home, than setting out along a rugged conifer-shaded trail, breathing in the fresh alpine air, and listening to a chorus of songbirds? 

There’s just one catch: if everybody’s getting outside, it’s hard to find a spot all to yourself. That’s true even at many of the 419 destinations in the U.S. National Park System which continues to grapple with how to manage growing crowds.

Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even before this year many of the country’s most famous parks such as Zion and the Grand Canyon restricted access to busy areas by requiring visitors to use free shuttle buses. On summer weekends finding a parking space at the top trailheads in Shenandoah or the Great Smoky Mountains is nearly impossible. Once you actually reach an overlook with a breathtaking view—think Great Smoky Mountain’s Clingmans Dome or Joshua Tree’s Jumbo Rocks—securing a patch of solitude to contemplate the panorama can require jockeying nimbly amid clamoring crowds and jousting selfie sticks.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This year, national park attendance was down due to the pandemic. Many parks drastically reduced access. But, the problem of trying to visit them remains the same as before: too much demand.

But the wilderness areas that the federal government added to its portfolio over the years mostly as national monuments tend to be farther off the beaten path and less hyped than the natural wonders immortalized in Ansel Adams prints. 

Santa Rosa an San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscapes of these newer monuments are not the same kinds of shiny treasures that were designated during the early years of the national park system. The park system now recognizes that land is worth protecting for a wide range of reasons from geology and biodiversity to culture and history.

Bears Ears National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One reason for this trend is that U.S. presidents can designate national monuments while creating and funding a national park requires an act of Congress. Presidents since Theodore Roosevelt have used the 1906 Antiquities Act to confer national monument status on areas of “historic or scientific interest” including wilderness lands such as Sonoran Desert in Arizona and Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains in California. Since 1996, when President Bill Clinton revived the use of the law to protect large tracts of land, presidents have designated nearly 40 federal wilderness areas as national monuments.

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

Within them, opportunities for awesome hiking, climbing, camping, boating, and wildlife-viewing abound. In southeastern Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, the ancient indigenous cliff dwellings of River House Ruin and soaring red rock spires of the Valley of the Gods glow luminously in the dawn and dusk sunlight. In California, the undulating wildflower meadows of Carrizo Plain and Berryessa Snow Mountain national monuments erupt with brilliant profusions of poppies, Indian paintbrush, and goldfields, especially after a fresh rain.

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

Visitors to the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks near Las Cruces, New Mexico might spy bighorn sheep and golden eagles. Northern Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument includes some of New England’s least developed backcountry, an unspoiled place to kayak and hike.

El Morro National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the new national monuments have given visitors millions of uncrowded natural acres to explore, they’ve presented some logistical challenges. The Antiquities Act contains no provisions for funding and managing national monuments. Many belong to the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation Lands program rather than the better-funded National Park Service. So they tend to lack national parks’ websites, state-of-the-art visitor centers, rustic-chic lodges and restaurants, and well-maintained roads and trails. They employ few full-time staffers, and their modest visitor centers are often open only seasonally or on weekends.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To fill the gap, dozens of nonprofit “friends-of” organizations have emerged. These newer federal lands receive less funding and rely heavily on Friends groups to get things done such as interpretive work, publishing visitor information, and educating the public. The nonprofits have organized trail cleanup days, seasonal events, and fund raisers.

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

To plan a visit to a national monument, it’s best to consult both the park’s website and the “friends-of” website. Arriving prepared with proper gear, sufficient food and water, and paper maps (since cell service may be nonexistent) are the keys to safely enjoying your visit.

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

There will always be a thirst for touring the nation’s iconic parks—for hiking in the canyons of Zion or scampering among the natural arches and pinnacles of Arches National Park. But travelers who’ve hiked New Mexico’s otherworldly Malpais National Monument or driven National Scenic Byway 12 through southeastern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument without having to navigate throngs of people may never again think the same way about visiting America’s iconic national parks.

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

— John Muir

Getting Back to Nature: How Forest Bathing Can Make Us Feel Better

Our collective “back to nature” response to the coronavirus outbreak is an important reminder of the irreplaceable value of our parks and natural lands

It took an event that forced the nation to stay at home to remind us how much we need to be outside. The spread of COVID-19 has required that we limit our contact with other people leading many of us to seek out connection with the natural world. From national parks and state parks to local hiking trails, Americans have been pouring out of their homes to enjoy places of peace and beauty.

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

In an earlier article I detailed ways to live healthier and extend both the quantity and quality of your life. There is evidence to support the positive impact of adopting a healthy lifestyle and following certain definitive, scientific, time-tested methods including enjoying nature. Subsequently, I listed numerous fun and healthy ways to enjoy nature including forest bathing.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tonic of the wilderness was Henry David Thoreau’s classic prescription for civilization and its discontents, offered in the 1854 essay Walden: Or, Life in the Woods.

Roosevelt State Park, Mississippi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Japanese practice of forest bathing is proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of wellbeing.

Brasstown Bald, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shinrin-Yoku is a Japanese term that means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” It started in Japan in the 1980s and has become an important piece of their preventative health care measures.

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

Forest bathing is taking time to unwind and connect with nature to improve your health. Simply put: Forest bathing is retreating to nature to immerse in the forest atmosphere. The idea is pretty straightforward… When you take time to visit a natural area and take a walk in a relaxed way, there are rejuvenating, restorative, and calming effects on your mind and body.

Corkscrew Sanctuary, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Healed By . . . Trees?

Spending time walking in a forest has positive effects on your body and mind. Following are some conclusions based on various studies conducted by doctors and psychologists.

Sequoia National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Physical benefits of a walk in a forest:

  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Enhanced immune response
  • Increased energy level
  • Improved sleep
Myakka River State Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mental benefits of a walk in a forest:

  • Improved mood
  • Improved short-term memory
  • Restored mental energy
  • Improved concentration
  • Enhanced creativity
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How can walking in a forest do all that? Scientists say some of it has to do with the chemicals plants give off to protect themselves from insects and to fight diseases. These chemicals have antibacterial and antifungal qualities and when we inhale them our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell that kills tumor- and virus-infected cells. Another reason is simple: Forests reduce stress, the root cause of many ailments.

Raccoon State Recreation Area, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Simply living around trees and looking at them is beneficial as well. A medical study found a 12 percent lower mortality rate for people who lived near green spaces with fewer incidences of a wide variety of diseases than people who lived in urban areas.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest (See poem below), North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So, next time you’re near a swath of towering timber go right on under their welcoming limbs and take a hike.

Worth Pondering…

Trees

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

—Joyce Kilmer