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

What NOT TO DO in National Parks

What are 10 things you really should NOT DO in a National Park? Here are the rules and regulations that protect wildlife, plants, and visitors.

National Parks are a treasured part of the American landscape offering visitors the chance to explore some of the world’s most beautiful and awe-inspiring natural environments. It’s no wonder that millions of people flock to these parks every year. 

However, as with any public space, there are rules and regulations in place to protect the park’s natural resources and ensure the safety of visitors.

Whether you’re a seasoned park-goer or planning your first visit, it’s important to be aware of these rules to help preserve these amazing spaces for future generations. 

The following national park rules and regulations are in place for everyone’s safety. That includes people, plants, and wildlife. They should be respected and not bent for your convenience. The importance of these parks is more significant than you and me.

Bighorn sheep © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Do NOT feed the wildlife

The first item on the list is NOT feeding the wildlife. Feeding a cute little chipmunk some of your lunch can be tempting. However, human food can make wild animals extraordinarily ill or even kill them. 

In addition, feeding wild creatures can endanger humans and themselves. Wild animals may hurt a human to get their food if they are used to getting fed. 

In addition, they may be braver to approaching humans and inadvertently get hurt. Most animals are skittish for a reason. That hyper-awareness protects against predators.

Bison © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Do NOT interact with wildlife

I know this goes along the same lines as not feeding wildlife. But you should NOT interact with wildlife at all. 

Two women were seriously injured in separate bison attacks while visiting national parks in just a few days. At Theodore Roosevelt National in western North Dakota, a woman suffered injuries to her stomach area and foot when a bison charged at her. Then, a bison gored a woman in Wyoming. Both were sent to hospitals for treatment.

When it comes to encounters with wild animals, park officials have issued timeworn advice: give them space. Visitors should stay at least 25 yards away from large animals which include bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose, and coyotes, the park said; they should stay more than 100 yards away from bears and wolves. Mid-July to mid-August is mating season, resulting in aggressive and unpredictable bison.

In June 2022, a bull bison gored a 34-year-old man after he moved “too close,” park officials said. Weeks earlier, a bison had flung a 25-year-old woman 10 feet into the air after she came within 10 feet of the animal. In 2019, a 9-year-old girl was sent airborne from a bison’s head butt which was captured on video and shared on social media. The girl was part of a group that stood within 5 to 10 feet of the bison for at least 20 minutes, officials said.

Pronghorn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are several reasons why interacting with wildlife is not recommended:

  • Safety: Wild animals are unpredictable and can become aggressive if they feel threatened or cornered. Approaching or touching a wild animal can endanger you and the animal.
  • Disease: Wildlife can carry diseases that can harm humans such as rabies, Lyme disease, and hantavirus. Interacting with wild animals can increase your risk of exposure to these diseases.
  • Disruption of natural behavior: Interacting with wildlife can disrupt their natural behavior and cause them to become dependent on humans for food or other resources. This can lead to problems for animals and humans as it can cause animals to become aggressive or reliant on human handouts.
  • Protection of the environment: Many wildlife species are protected by law and interacting with them can be illegal. Additionally, disturbing or harming wildlife can harm the environment and the ecosystem as a whole.

Overall, respecting the natural boundaries between humans and wildlife is essential to ensure their safety and well-being. If you encounter wild animals, it’s best to observe them from a safe distance and avoid any actions that could harm or disturb them is best.

Hiking the trails © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. You should NOT veer off trails

Staying on trails when hiking or exploring natural areas is essential for several reasons:

  • Safety: Trails are typically designed and maintained to be safe for visitors. Staying on the trail can avoid hazards such as unstable terrain, steep drop-offs, or poisonous plants.
  • Preservation of natural areas: Trails direct human traffic to minimize environmental impact. By staying on the trail, you can help prevent damage to fragile ecosystems and minimize disturbance to wildlife habitats.
  • Navigation: Trails can serve as a guide and help visitors navigate through unfamiliar terrain. You can avoid getting lost or wandering into unsafe or restricted areas by staying on the trail.
  • Respect for private property: Trails are often established with permission from private landowners or government agencies. You can respect their property and avoid legal or ethical issues by staying on the trail.

Stay on designated paths to help protect yourself and the natural areas you visit.

Animals in national parks are protected by law © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. You CANNOT hunt or trap

Hunting and trapping are generally prohibited in national parks. National parks are designated as protected areas to preserve and protect natural ecosystems, biodiversity, and wildlife populations. Hunting and trapping can disrupt these ecosystems and wildlife populations and are, therefore, not permitted in most national parks.

However, there are some exceptions to this rule. For example, some national parks allow limited hunting for specific species to manage their populations or control invasive species. Additionally, some national parks allow certain traditional or ceremonial hunting types by indigenous communities with historical ties to the area.

It’s important to note that national park regulations can vary by location and season. If you plan to visit a national park and have questions about hunting or trapping, check with park officials or consult the park’s website for specific rules and regulations.

Be aware of fire safety when camping in national park and elsewhere © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. NO fires in an ubdesignated area or during a fire ban

Wildfires are a significant threat to national parks. Not only can they cause years of devastation to parks but they can kill many humans and animals in their wake. 

Many national parks allow fires in designated fire pits or grills. However, it’s essential to check with park officials or consult the park’s website to determine if fires are permitted in the area where you plan to visit. Follow any guidelines or restrictions that are in place to ensure the safety of everyone in the park.

If a fire ban exists, the fire danger is too high to light a fire. During fire bans, you are NOT allowed to have a fire, even in designated areas. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. NO drone flying

The NPS banned drone flying in national parks in 2014 according to Policy Memorandum 14–05. This policy applies to any “unmanned aircraft” that drones are classified as.

To fly a drone in a national park, you must obtain a Special Use Permit but these aren’t given out easily. These permits are only for special use cases such as search and rescue, research, and fire safety.

If you fly a drone without a permit, NPS rangers have the authority to confiscate your gear, fine you, and even put you in jail. The maximum penalty is 6 months in jail and a $5,000 fine. 

NPS has these strict guidelines for a reason, as explained in an article on their website:

“…their use has resulted in noise and nuisance complaints from park visitors, park visitor safety concerns, and one documented incident in which park wildlife were harassed. Small drones have crashed in geysers in Yellowstone National Park, attempted to land on the features of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, been lost over the edge of the Grand Canyon, and been stopped from flying in Prohibited Airspace over the Mall in Washington DC.“

Don’t pick the wildflowers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Can you pick wildflowers at a national park?

This one is a big NO! Not only are you not allowed to pick flowers or other plants in national parks but it is also illegal under federal law. That is because the NPS has regulations to protect national park areas’ natural beauty and resources of national park areas. 

The Plant Protection Act, the federal law governing the protection of plants, prohibits the unauthorized removal or destruction of plants from federal lands including national parks.

Visitors to national parks are encouraged to enjoy the beauty of the natural environment without disturbing it. Taking photographs or simply admiring the wildflowers in their natural habitat is a great way to appreciate these areas’ beauty while protecting them for future generations.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Do NOT make excessive noise

You should not make excessive noise when visiting a national park. Playing music or speaking louder than a normal speaking tone can disrupt wildlife.

As I’ve already covered, we should disrupt wildlife as little as possible during visits. Loud noises can scare animals and cause them to act differently than they normally would. By disrupting their behavior you can impact their feeding, mating, and other vital habits.

Plus, excessive noise interferes with other visitors’ enjoyment. So, do not yell, scream, or play music for all to hear. It’s not fair to the wildlife or your fellow visitors.

BY THE WAY, if your solution to not playing music for all to hear is to wear headphones, be mindful of the volume level. For your safety, you need to still be able to hear your surroundings including nearby animal noises and shouts of warnings.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. DO NOT leave painted rocks

There is a well-meaning trend where people paint rocks and leave them for others to find. They often paint a happy design or write encouraging words earning them the name kindness rocks.

This trend spawned from a national campaign called The Kindness Rocks Project. It’s meant to inject a little joy or inspire those who find them. And it certainly does in non-public, landscaped settings.

However, as part of the Leave No Trace policy, you should never leave painted rocks in a national park. Nor should you remove any rocks from the national park to paint later!

Even if you use environmentally safe paint on the rocks, the colors and designs can disrupt an ecosystem. Birds and fish in particular can be thrown off by foreign objects disrupting their eating, nesting, and mating behavior.

The painted rocks also pose a serious risk to hikers. People have mistaken painted rocks for trail markers causing them to unwittingly go off trail. And as we learned in Gone Without a Trace: Mysterious Disappearances in National Parks, hikers in national parks go missing more often than you might think.

Be careful and obey all warning signs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. DO NOT ignore warning signs

I know this seems obvious but most incidents, injuries, and fatalities in national parks occur because people ignore the warning signs. As we saw in the above article signs are there for good reason.

The same goes for wandering off the trails and boardwalks. Not to mention touching things you’re warned against! Yet SO MANY PEOPLE ignore these warnings and pay the consequence.

The latest such story is a woman who actually dipped her hand into a steaming hot spring at Yellowstone and then jumped back, yelling, “It’s hot!” To do this, the woman and a man beside her chose to get off the boardwalk, walk to the edge of the hot spring, kneel, and place her hand in it. The whole thing was recorded by onlookers and spread over social media.

Yellowstone has rules prohibiting people from touching, swimming, or soaking in the hot springs because they are so hot they have KILLED people. The spring where this woman did this, Silex Spring, has an average temperature of 174.7 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Last year it was reported that a shoe with a partly disintegrated human foot was found in a hot spring. We’re not sure if the foot was ever identified.

The point is, do NOT think the warning signs don’t apply to you. They are there to keep you, other visitors, and the ecosystem safe.

Here are a few links that may help you prepare for your next RV trip to a 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

Tips for Summer Visits to Jasper National Park

The largest national park in the Rockies is waiting

After a wild June in Alberta that was full of some of the highest and lowest temperatures on record, significant precipitation and snow, Jasper National Park is asking summer visitors to come prepared.

Since more than 1.5 million people travel to the mountain park between June and September, Parks Canada says to “be prepared for crowds and line-ups, remember to pack your patience and be respectful to the people and wildlife you encounter.”

Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Staff are still cleaning up fallen trees and debris from a significant June 19 storm. Pay attention to closures and warnings, and remain alert. Check current trail conditions before heading out. Plan a trip suitable to your abilities and wear appropriate gear and footwear to navigate around fallen trees.

To avoid congestion, use JasperNow. This web page includes regular updates on parking capacity at some of the park’s most popular places plus vacancy updates for campgrounds (including self-registration).

Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Parking and camping updates use these color categories:

  • Green: parking/camping available
  • Yellow: parking/camping is nearly full
  • Red: parking/camping is full

If parking is full, there are also suggestions to visit other areas nearby or to use different modes of transportation. To secure a parking spot at one of the park’s popular locations:

  • Go early: Arrive well before 10 a.m. and leave before it gets really busy.
  • Go late: Visit after 5 p.m. or even later and take in a mountain sunset.
  • Have a plan A, B and C: There are many gorgeous places to visit.
Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Good planning makes a great trip.

Don’t come to Jasper without a hotel or camping reservation (and remember that camping in a non-designated campsite or in the town of Jasper is illegal). During most long weekends and summer months, the park is at capacity. If there is no availability in Jasper, look into accommodations in a neighboring community such as Hinton, Folding Mountain, or Valemount.

To avoid parking lot congestion, BYOB (bring your own bike)—or rent one in Jasper to take advantage of the family-friendly connector trail systems. Trails go to Lake Edith, Lake Annette, and Pyramid Beach, popular locations within biking distance of Whistlers/Wapiti Campgrounds and town.

Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use updated on-site wayfinding to navigate the trail network. If you are biking from Whistlers or Wapiti Campground, take the Campgrounds Trail (Trail #12) to town. To connect to the beaches (Lake Edith and Annette), branch off the Campgrounds Trail and on to the Lakes Loop (Trail 14 to Trail 18).

Pack and be prepared for the elements. Check the trail report, be aware of visitor safety guidelines, pack snacks and water, take your time and enjoy the scenery. Get the most up-to-date road conditions by visiting 511Alberta or Drive BC. 

If you’re visiting with an RV know where you can go and park. Many roads and day-use areas can accommodate extra-long rides but other areas can be tight.

Jasper Townsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The roomiest parking lots to accommodate RVs are:

  • Maligne Canyon (use the Maligne Overlook pull-through stalls)
  • Valley of the Five Lakes
  • Athabasca Falls

Areas if your RV is 25 feet or shorter:

  • Cavell Day-use Area (Cavell Road also has a trailer drop off area at the beginning of the road)
  • Maligne Lake Day-use Area

Areas where RV access is not permitted:

  • Lake Annette/Lake Edith
  • Lac Beauvert Road
  • Pyramid Beach Road
  • Wilcox Pass Trailhead

Visit JasperNow to view the status on your plan A and plan B destinations before you head out.

Rocky mountain goat in Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Remember to always give wildlife space. You are in the home of many wild animals so respect their space, never feed them, and always carry bear spray and know how to use it. Dogs must always be on a leash and under control. Abide by all speed limits, drive carefully, and be alert. Learn how to view wildlife safely and avoid a negative encounter. Report any interactions with wildlife, concerning wildlife activity, or dead animals to Parks Canada Dispatch 24 hours a day at 1-780-852-6155.

Finally, leave drones at home. Flying a drone in a national park is prohibited and can lead to a fine of up to $25,000 (about $19,000 USD). Consider hiking and putting the work into getting the best views atop a mountain. For a quick and steep ascent with incredible views of town, try Old Fort Point.

Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For more questions, stop in at the Jasper National Park Visitor Information Centre or the Parks Canada information desk at the Icefield Centre.

Worth Pondering…

The mountains are calling and I must go.

—John Muir

11 Tips for Visiting a National Park this Summer

Before you head out on a National Park road trip, here are 11 important things to know

All told, I’ve been to 20 out of the 63 National Parks in the United States and numerous other National Park Service (NPS) sites including National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, National Seashores, and National Historic Parks. I hope you’re planning on seeing at least one this summer because they’re all amazing. 

Below are a few tips I’d give to those headed to a park (or parks!) this summer. It’s also worth checking each park’s respective website. Every park has one and they’re filled with maps, things to do and see, and most importantly, if there are any road closures or other important info including alerts.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Prepare yourself for crowds

National Parks are extremely popular—and for good reason. They’re amazing! As a destination, or stop on a long road trip, lots of people want to visit. This is especially true of the larger, most popular parks like Zion, Grand Canyon, and Arches but even many more remote parks like Glacier. Parking inside the park will be challenging. Even getting into the park will take time. Visitors to Sequoia recently reported there was a half-hour line just to enter the park.

This shouldn’t dissuade you from going but if you have smaller less-visited parks on your list, you might have a better or more relaxing time at those. 

There will be more traffic in the park as well, so if you’re thinking you can see it all in a day chances are you won’t be able to.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Book your reservations in advance at these parks

To combat overcrowding and human impact on the fragile ecosystems at some of the busier parks, the NPS requires visitors to make reservations in advance at seven national parks this summer: Glacier, Yosemite, Acadia, Zion, Haleakalā, Rocky Mountain, Arches, and Shenandoah

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

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

3. Stop at the visitor’s center

Whether you’re the type of person that plans every moment of every adventure or not, the first place to stop is the visitor’s center. You’ll get a map and the park’s newspaper at the entrance but one of the rangers at the visitor’s center can help you figure out a plan for the day based on your interests, what’s open, and how much time you have, and any other considerations. They’re fantastic. This is absolutely worth the time.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Park in the first space you see

This relates to the first tip. Parking lots fill fast but in many cases the roads leading there support roadside parking. If you see a long line of cars parked on the shoulder, definitely assume there will be a wait for parking in the official lot. If the road signs say it’s ok, park as soon as you see an opening. You’ll spend significantly less time walking from that spot than you will drive in circles and waiting for someone to free up a better space. 

Bison © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. The wildlife can kill you

Every few weeks there are stories of people getting injured or even killed by wild animals at National Parks. An Ohio woman was recently gored by a bison in Yellowstone and tossed 10 feet into the air when she approached the animal to within 10 feet.

Elk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

NPS recommends all visitors to stay more than 25 yards away from all large animals—bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose, and coyotes and at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves. If need be, turn around and go the other way to avoid interacting with a wild animal nearby.

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

A bison won’t eat you, but it will easily mess you up. The same goes for elk or moose. Bears… well, black bears are scared of you. Grizzly bears are most decidedly not. 

Rocky mountain goat © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The problem, I think, is two-fold. One, I think some people just don’t realize how fast animals can be. It doesn’t matter if they don’t have sharp teeth, if they hit you at 40 mph and then kick you, you’re going to be in a bad way. The other is that most phones have wide-angle lenses. So people want a cool photo (no judgment, me too), but can’t because of the limitations of their phone. So they do the “logical” thing and move closer. 

Ideally, keep something between you and the fuzzy friend, like a car. Or the best option, don’t get out of your car if they’re near the road.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Don’t expect cell reception

Cell coverage in National Parks, even the popular ones, is sparse. Some ranger stations and visitor centers have free Wi-Fi, but not all. 

Download maps and hiking info before entering the park. This is easy with Google Maps. Hiking apps like AllTrails allow for offline viewing as well, if you pay for the premium version. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Bring your own food and water

Some parks have small cafes or even full cafeterias. Many don’t. It’s advisable to bring your food and water. Especially the latter! 

If you’re camping in the park, check with the rangers about how aggressive the local wildlife is. Many parks require all food to be put in bear-proof containers. These will either be heavy metal cabinets at the campsite, or portable versions available at the visitor’s center.  Bears absolutely do love pic-a-nic baskets. And NEVER leave food inside your tent. See #4 for more on wildlife.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Get the year pass

The vast majority of Americans are within a few hours’ drive of a National Park. Not just any National Park but the best National Park: the one closest to you. Sappy as that is, it’s true. They’re all cool. Some are cooler than others, for sure, but there’s a reason they made it through the process of becoming designated a National Park. 

Related Article: Reservations and Permits Required at Some National Parks in 2022

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So for most people, the Annual Pass makes a ton of sense. This is also called the America the Beautiful or Interagency Pass. Each visit to most parks is ~$30 per vehicle but the year pass that gets you into all parks for 1 year for $80. That math is easy to figure out. You can buy them at the park entrance or online at the USGS store or REI. They also get you to entrance into 2,000 federally-protected lands like National Forests and National Wildlife Preserves. There are also lifetime senior passes and several other varieties.

That said, many parks don’t charge an entrance fee or don’t charge for accessing certain areas of the park. It’s worth checking ahead of time.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Plan additional activities for kids

From my experience with the small humans, I observed at the parks, they all seemed to be having a fantastic time. If you want to give them something else to do while you’re all enjoying the parks, consider National Park passports, journals, and activity books.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Stay near the park, not in it

If you haven’t booked a campsite or lodge inside a park by now, you’re probably not going to get a spot. Some parks also have first-come-first-serve campsites but don’t count on getting one of those either (see #1). While staying in the park is undeniably cool, it’s not required. Most parks have a nearby town or towns that exist pretty much entirely to service visitors to the park. For instance, on our trip to Arches and Canyonlands, we stayed in Moab and Torrey was our base when touring Capitol Reef. Jackson for Grand Teton, West Yellowstone for, you guessed it, Yellowstone, West Glacier for—wait for it—Glacier, and so on.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Leave with everything you brought

This includes wrappers, food, water bottles, annoying children, everything. In select places, there are wildlife-proof trash containers. Use them. Some people felt it was ok to leave bags of their dog’s poop and trust me, this is not OK. 

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check ahead to know if your chosen park allows dogs and if so to what extent. Many don’t want them on hikes, don’t want them on certain trails, but all require them to be leashed at all times. It’s downright dangerous to hike with a dog in bear country, especially off-leash.

Read Next: 9 of Best National Parks for RV Campers

Most of all, I hope you have a grand adventure!

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

The Ultimate Guide to Custer State Park

With spectacular towering rock spires, gorgeous lakes, scenic drives, and abundant wildlife, Custer State Park is a world of beautiful nature

Encompassing 71,000 acres in the Black Hills, Custer State Park is home to plentiful wildlife and adventure; camping, hiking, biking, swimming, fishing, or relaxing, there’s something here for everyone.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over 2 million people from around the world visit Custer State Park every year and it’s easy to see why. With its combination of rolling hills, stunning granite peaks, and abundant wildlife, Custer is a uniquely beautiful location. The park itself can be seen and enjoyed in two to three days but I suggest a longer stay to enjoy the area around the park and all it has to offer.  If you are planning a trip to South Dakota or want to be inspired, read on to find out all you need to know about this beautiful and unique destination.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History of Custer State Park

Custer State Park was born in 1919. Governor Peter Norbeck had long admired the beauty of the Black Hills of South Dakota and once elected governor of the state, he set out to permanently preserve the area. Once the park was created, Norbeck himself helped to plan the layout of roads and scenic vistas throughout the park. The twisty turns and narrow granite tunnels of the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road are designed to offer breathtaking views while blending with the scenery they traverse.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When asked about the routes he had planned throughout the park, Norbeck famously said “You’re not supposed to drive here at 60 miles per hour; to do the scenery justice you should drive at no more than 20. To do it full justice you should just get out and walk it.”

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the summer of 1927, President Calvin Coolidge spent three months visiting the Black Hills and Custer State Park in particular. He and Mrs. Coolidge stayed primarily at the State Game Lodge during this time, earning it the nickname the “Summer White House.”

Related Article: Into the Hills: Can’t Miss Spots for Your Black Hills Tour

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was responsible for many of the projects we currently enjoy in the park. From 1933 to 1941 they built the dams, bridges, and buildings that makeup Stockade Lake, Center Lake, Wildlife Station Visitor Center, the Mount Coolidge Lookout Tower, and most notably the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Location of Custer State Park

Located in southwestern South Dakota, Custer State Park is a 30-minute drive from Rapid City, South Dakota. The drive south from Rapid City on Highway 79 is an easy and pleasant one offering impressive views of the Black Hills. Turn right onto Highway 36 and the main entrance to the park. Once you enter the park gates, the highway name changes to Highway 16A which can be a little confusing. Turning right onto Highway 16A takes you north on Iron Mountain Road to Mount Rushmore National Monument while continuing straight on Highway 16A takes you west on the park’s main road.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two of the Park’s lodges (State Game Lodge and Legion Lake Lodge) and three of its campgrounds (Game Lodge Campground, Grace Coolidge Campground, and Legion Lake Campground) are located along this route. Turning south just past Legion Lake, one encounters Highway 87 which takes you to the Blue Bell Lodge and campground and Custer’s famed Wildlife Loop Road.

The area immediately surrounding the park is a tourist playground with scenic drives, national monuments (Mount Rushmore), and private attractions such as the Crazy Horse Monument. The town of Custer is located just outside the west entrance to the park and is convenient for restocking on fuel and groceries or for grabbing a bite to eat.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Geography of Custer State Park

Granite spires, stunning mountain views, and rolling grasslands all combine in this very special and scenic location. Located in Black Hills National Forest, Custer State Park encompasses approximately 71,000 acres of land.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The change in topography in this area is one part of what makes Custer so unique. Toward the south of the park there are rolling grasslands that provide a home for over 1,500 bison as well as pronghorn antelope, elk, wild burros, and prairie dogs. Toward the north part of the park, the elevation increases dramatically and tall granite spires appear to shoot out of the ground dozens of feet into the air. The sheer sides and steep drops from the spires create a magnificent landscape.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Woven throughout this landscape are several streams and lakes that further add to the beauty and ambience of the area. Taken together, Custer State Park offers a unique landscape that creates a stunning palette of colors, shapes, and textures that many consider to be unparalleled in its scenic beauty.

Related Article: Custer State Park: A Black Hills Gem

Bison along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife in Custer

Wildlife in Custer is abundant and includes bison, deer, pronghorn antelope, elk, bighorn sheep, wild turkeys, coyotes, burros, and prairie dogs. While wildlife can be viewed throughout the park, the Wildlife Loop Road in the southern region of the park is known to have an abundance of animals that can be seen without even leaving your car. During our visit, I observed (and photographed) bison, pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, and Custer’s begging burros during our drive along the road.

Burros along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The begging burros (as they are known) have inhabited the grasslands of Custer for nearly a century. Originally, these donkeys were used as pack animals to shuttle visitors between Sylvan Lake Lodge and Black Elk Peak (the highest peak east of the Rockies). When their services were no longer needed these animals were released into the wild to roam freely in the park.

Begging burros along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The begging burros are extremely friendly and easily approachable. They’ve even been known to poke their heads into the windows of passing cars that stop long enough on the side of the road. Although park officials don’t recommend it, visitors enjoy feeding the burros that are eager to accept almost any handout that is offered.

Pronghorns along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The big wildlife draw in Custer is their herd of over 1,500 wild bison. The herd roams freely in the grasslands in the southern part of the park and has thrived in this area. Visitors on the Wildlife Loop Road are almost guaranteed to see bison during their drive. And it’s not uncommon to be caught in a “buffalo jam.”

Bison along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This unique experience occurs when the bison herd stops on the roadway or crosses the roadway in the park. Don’t be surprised to find a car or truck surrounded by bison almost like a metal island in a sea of brown hides and horns. While not tame, the bison are also not easily intimidated by people or automobiles. This is truly a unique experience that would be hard to duplicate anywhere in the world outside of Custer State Park.

Related Article: Explore the Black Hills

How to explore Custer State Park

Scenic drives

Almost every road in Custer can be considered a scenic drive! But, there are three that stand out above the others.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Needles Highway 

The Needles Highway (also known as Highway 87) is a beautiful drive that runs from Highway 16A in the park up to the northwest corner of Custer where Sylvan Lake is located. This 14-mile road is part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway and was once thought to be impossible to build by many engineers. However, through hard work and dedication, it was completed in 1922. This spectacular drive twists and turns its way through forests of pine and spruce, across sunny meadows, and up rugged mountains.

Needles Eye Tunnel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The highway’s name is derived from the rugged granite spires (tall granite towers) that rise majestically into the air. The road terminates at Sylvan Lake after passing through Needles Eye Tunnel, a one-lane tunnel carved into a mountain of granite that measures only 8 feet 4 inches wide by 11 feet 3 inches tall. With the many twists, turns, and narrow tunnels, this highway is definitely not RV-friendly so leave the rig at the campsite while enjoying this drive. Expect a 45-minute drive one-way from end to end.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iron Mountain Road

Iron Mountain Road is the portion of Highway 16A that travels north after one enters the park from the east on Highway 36. This 17-mile stretch of highway is yet another example of determination and ingenuity. The road was specifically designed with 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, and three one-lane tunnels to force visitors to go slow in the hopes that they would enjoy and take in the scenery during their drive.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The southern portion of the road begins in Custer then leaves the park after a few miles and ends at Mount Rushmore National Monument. Along the way, visitors are treated to the scenic beauty of the Black Hills including many overlooks and beautiful pine forests. On your journey toward Mount Rushmore, you will cross over wooden “pigtail” bridges (bridges that loop over their road as they climb). As you near the end, be on the lookout for Doane Robinson Tunnel. This tunnel carved through the mountain is 13 feet 2 inches wide and 12 feet 2 inches tall and was designed to perfectly frame Mount Rushmore while you’re heading north. It is quite an impressive sight. This beautiful drive is not an RV-friendly stretch of highway so once again you’ll want to leave your rig parked while exploring this road. Expect a 60-minute drive one way along this route.

Along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife Loop Road

As mentioned before, this 18-mile scenic loop travels through the south end of the park and winds through open grassy meadows and hills dotted with pine and crosses clear flowing streams. Depending on the day, you can see pronghorn antelope, deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, and the begging burros on your drive. But, perhaps the most well-known feature of the drive is Custer’s bison herd. At over 1,500 animals strong, this herd roams the grasslands in the park’s southern end and can almost always be seen from the road. We have seen and experienced cars completely surrounded by bison and it makes for an extremely unique experience. Depending on “buffalo jams,” and whether you stop to feed the burros, we recommend planning around 1 hour to 1½ hours for this drive.

Related Article: The Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary

Hiking in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved


The park offers many hiking opportunities that allow visitors to get off the beaten path and explore the park in an up close and personal way. In addition to the designed and marked trails, off-trail hiking also is encouraged in Custer and visitors are allowed to hike wherever they would like. Depending on the area of the park in which you hike, the trails differ greatly in their topography and geography.

Camping in Custer State Park

Camping in Custer

Custer features 10 campgrounds, each with a unique feel, throughout the park:

  • Blue Bell Campground
  • Center Lake Campground
  • French Creek Horse Camp
  • French Creek Natural Area
  • Game Lodge Campground
  • Grace Coolidge Campground
  • Legion Lake Campground
  • Stockade North Campground
  • Stockade South Campground
  • Sylvan Lake Campground

Most campgrounds offer electric sites with water available at various locations throughout the campground. The lone dump station in the park is located at Game Lodge Campground. 

Other activities

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake is a beautiful body of water located in the northwest corner of Custer State Park. It can be accessed via the Needles Highway if you’re in the Park or by Highway 87 from the north. The Sylvan Lake area offers many activities to visitors; you can rent canoes or kayaks or try your hand at fishing for the trout, panfish, and bass found in its waters.

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The loop trail that goes around the lake is 1.1 miles in length, mostly flat and comprised of packed gravel making it a relatively easy hike for most individuals. The views from the trail can be stunning as it traverses the shoreline and there are several large boulders along the way that kids and adults alike will enjoy scrambling to the top of in order to enjoy the breathtaking views from that vantage point. There is even a small swimming beach at the lake for those that are interested in cooling off on a hot summer day.

Related Article: Needles Highway: National Scenic Byway in the Black Hills

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The nearby Sylvan Lake Lodge offers visitors a chance to grab lunch in the restaurant or stock up on drinks, snacks, and souvenirs while they are there. Due to the many activities and its scenic beauty, Sylvan Lake is quite popular and parking can be somewhat limited. So, we suggest arriving at the lake early in the day when crowds are somewhat minimized.

Hiking in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park is home to a number of other activities as well. The streams in Custer are teaming with trout waiting to be caught. The trails and roads in Custer are perfect for biking and walking. Eagles and other birds fill the skies and are waiting to be seen by all those who are interested. And the lakes in the park are waiting for you to take a cool refreshing dip.

Truly Custer is a magnificent destination unlike any other we have experienced!

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

Watch cowboys and cowgirls as they roundup and drive the herd of approximately 1,500 buffalo. Not only is the roundup a spectacular sight to see, it is also a critical management tool in maintaining a strong and healthy herd.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Buffalo Roundup begins at 9:30 a.m. with the parking lots opening at 6:15 a.m. Guests must stay in the viewing areas until the herd is safely in the corrals, generally around noon. Breakfast is available at 6:15 a.m. in both viewing areas. Lunch is served at the corrals once the buffalo are rounded up. There is a fee for both meals. 

Related Article: South Dakota: Fly Over State? Not a Chance!

Testing, branding, and sorting of the buffalo begins at 1 p.m. and lasts until approximately 3 p.m.

At the Annual Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival, up to 150 vendors offer their fine arts and crafts for sale including many South Dakota made products.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start your morning with a pancake feed and enjoy on-going Western and Native American entertainment under the big top. All events and vendors will be located on the festival grounds across from the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center.

The annual roundup, held the last Friday in September, is open to the public. In 2022, the 57th annual Roundup is scheduled for Friday, September 30.


Park Size: 71,000 acres

Camping at Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping: 10 campgrounds with 341 campsites and 50 camping cabins, horse camp

Park entrance fees: $20 per vehicle (valid for 7 days); $36 for annual pass; vehicles traveling non-stop through the park on US Highway 16A do not need an entrance license

Operating hours: Open year-round (between October 1 and April 30, showers, flush toilets, and other water systems may be closed; vault toilets usually remain open)

Keystone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearest towns: Custer, Rapid City, Hill City, Keystone

Note: GPS can be unreliable in the area

Read Next: Doorway to Forever: Badlands National Park

Worth Pondering…

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where never is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not clouded all day.

—Dr. Brewster Higley (1876)

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

Winter Listicle: Experience Winter Wonderlands in National Parks

The days are shorter, but the possibilities are endless to enjoy national parks in the winter season

Winter is the perfect time for some creatures to hibernate and RVers to explore a magical season in the national parks. The serenity of fresh powder sprinkled over pine trees and the silence of the winter air are just a few of the wonders of winter.
So pack a canteen of hot cocoa, put on your coziest mittens, and get ready to explore the parks during this season in a variety of favorite ways. Be sure to do some trip planning before you embark on your journey—be prepared and be safe.

Winter Play

A little cold only adds to the fun outdoor adventures you can have during winter. Grab your ice skates, snowshoes, or cross country skis and feel like you’re gliding through a snow globe.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

The stark white of freshly fallen snow, red rocks, blue sky, and evergreen trees—some say Bryce Canyon is even more beautiful in winter! Here at 8,000 feet, the scenery changes dramatically in the colder months, providing unique opportunities to see the park and requiring a very different packing list.

Related Article: Best National Parks to Visit this Winter

In addition to daily activities like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and winter hiking the Bryce Canyon Winter Festival (February 19-21, 2022) is a popular annual event.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Vehicle access is limited to one mile from the Southwest and Northwest Entrances approximately November through May. Beyond the plowed roads to the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and Loomis Plaza, the entire park is snow-covered.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Southwest Area (6,700-10,457 feet) offers steep slopes and sweeping vistas just beyond the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center which offers the only services between November and early May.

The Manzanita Lake Area (5,800-7,200 feet) consists of gentle slopes and scenic lakes. It offers the easiest routes for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the park.

Wildlife watching: Bison © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter Wildlife Watching

Winter provides an amazing opportunity to see new seasons of animals and enjoy the wonders of animal life at every part of the year.

Wildlife watching: Elk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way to stay safe when watching wildlife is to give animals room to move. Parks provide a unique opportunity to view animals’ natural behavior in the wild. In general, animals react to your presence when you are too close. If you’re close enough for a selfie, you’re definitely too close. Use binoculars or a zoom lens and move back if wildlife approaches you. Let wildlife be wild and observe safely from a distance.

Related Article: National Parks at their Spectacular Best in Winter

Wildlife watching: Rocky Mountain sheep © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Enjoy one of the world’s most famous national parks enveloped in winter magic. See the dramatic beauty of the canyon, dusted with snow, and maybe even mule deer, bald eagles, elk, condors, or ravens as an extra treat.
Colder temperatures, shorter days, and snow bring a slower pace to one of the nation’s most visited national parks. Winter visitors find paths less traveled throughout the park. Those prepared for ice and snow will find the Bright Angel Trail a bit quieter and scenic drives less congested.

Pack your jacket and winter gloves, avoid the crowds, and experience a Grand Canyon winter wonderland,

Bird watching: Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashore, Texas

Birds are on the move this winter. Located on the Central Flyway, a major bird migration route, Padre Island National Seashore provides a chance to spot flying feathered travelers from more than 380 species of birds.

Bird watching: Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You never know what you may see when you join a volunteer-led birding guide on a tour of the park—the magnificent grasslands, the beach filled with shorebirds, and the long, shallow, hypersaline lagoon of the Laguna Madre. Each habitat abounds with a rich variety of birds. Your guide will take you to some significant birding locations within these habitats including one that would otherwise be inaccessible to the public.

Carlsbad National Park

Winter Escape

Not a fan of the wintery blues? Head south as a snowbird and enjoy warm weather year-round.

Related Article: National Parks that are Beautiful & Empty in Winter

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 caves—formed when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone leaving behind caverns of all sizes. Regardless of the snow and cold temps above, the cave is always a temperate 56-57 degrees.

The most popular route, the Big Room, is the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America. This 1.25-mile trail is relatively flat and will take about 1.5 hours (on average) to walk.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Tucson, Arizona is home to America’s largest cacti. The giant saguaro is the universal symbol of the American West. These majestic plants, found only in a small portion of the United States, are protected by Saguaro National Park, to the east and west of Tucson. Here you have a chance to see these enormous cacti, silhouetted by the beauty of a magnificent desert sunset.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park’s two districts offer more than 165 miles of hiking trails. A hike at Saguaro National Park can be a stroll on a short interpretive nature trail or a day-long wilderness trek. Both districts of Saguaro National Park offer a variety of hiking trails. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t wait for the snow to melt. Plan an incredible trip to a national park. Always be sure to check specific parks websites for safety tips, road closure information, and general advice before planning your trip.

Read Next: 7 National Parks You Should Have on Your Radar This Winter

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

Christmas Gift Ideas 2021

Shop from this list of Christmas gifts to find ideas that your RVing friend or family member will love

Have you put some thought into your holiday gift-giving this year? The way we shop and the intention behind gift-giving is changing. The global pandemic illuminated, for many of us, what is truly important and what our real needs are. This new way of viewing our lives may be reflected in how we give gifts—giving what is important and special over just giving to give.

Ready for Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With threats of supply issues leading to empty shelves at big box stores, the joy of finding that perfect gift may be a little harder this year. Just maybe, shopping local might be the way to find that joy in gift-giving this year. You’ll be putting money right back into your community and find unique gifts not available at big box stores.

Ready for Christmas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking for the perfect Christmas gift for the RVer and outdoor enthusiasts in your life? Following are six gift ideas or you can even add them to your own Christmas wish list.

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gifts for National Park Travelers

Gifts for National Park enthusiasts do more than tap into the spirit of the great outdoors—they celebrate America’s longstanding tradition of preserving awe-inspiring landscapes. Decade after decade, new generations of visitors come to these stunning spaces, eager to experience the vastness of untouched scenery.

Related: National Parks at their Spectacular Best in Winter

Wondering what to get a National Park fan for the holidays this year? Here are two gift suggestions for National Park visitors. 

Saguaro National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

America the Beautiful Pass: The America the Beautiful Interagency Annual Pass offers free entry to all National Parks—including Joshua Tree, Olympic, and Arches—for the recipient and up to three other adults for 12 months. The pass also covers visitors at more than 2,000 federal recreation sites in total. $80 from recreation.gov.

Joshua Tree National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Parks Pocket Notebooks: These National Parks-themed memo books from Field Notes are a stylish and convenient spot for outdoor enthusiasts to journal about their experiences in nature. Packed in a set of three, each notebook features vintage-style art from a specific National Park, along with a brief history of that park printed inside of the front cover. Each notebook has a brief history of its park printed inside the front cover, followed by 48 pages of graph-rules paper for all your note-jotting needs. $13 for a set of three from bespokepost.com.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Set of three pocket notebooks currently available are:

  • Rocky Mountain, Great Smoky Mountains, and Yellowstone National Parks
  • Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, and Mount Rainier National Parks
  • Yosemite, Zion, and Acadia National Parks
Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas State Parks Christmas Tree Ornaments

For 20 years, the annual park Christmas ornament has featured some of the most recognizable Texas State Parks landscapes. The metal ornament features photo-quality artwork in stunning color with rich, laser-etched textures and detail. This year, the ornament features a longhorn from the official state longhorn herd at Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site.

Enchanted Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The annual Christmas ornament can be purchased exclusively on the new Texas State Park Online Store for $19.95 each, with free shipping. Purchase by Thursday, December 10 for likely arrival before Christmas. Taxes will be applied at check out.

Related: Fruitcake: National Joke or Tasty Christmas Tradition

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other items available for purchase include the Texas State Parks Pass which allows a carload of visitors into the park for free for a calendar year, a Bluebonnet metal bookmark, a wooden Texas State Park magnet and sticker, state park zipper pulls and key rings, hiking stick medallions, and ornaments from previous years.

Laura S. Walker State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Give the Great Outdoors: Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites Gift Cards

Give the gift of the great outdoors this holiday season. With no shortage of possibilities, gift cards are the perfect solution to the gift-giving conundrum. Gift cards are perfect for golfers, hikers, anglers, campers, history buffs, or anyone who enjoys being outdoors. The credit-card-sized card may be bought in any denomination starting at $5 and can be purchased at most Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites or online at gastateparks.org.

Stephen Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With more than 60 state parks across Georgia, there are many ways to treat family or friends to a year of outdoor fun. State Park Annual ParkPasses are $50 and help fund trail work, dock maintenance, and shelter renovations. Half-off ParkPass discounts are available for seniors 62 and older, as well as 25 percent off for active-duty military and veterans.

Squeeze 18 outings into one little card with a Historic Site Annual Pass. Available passes include adult ($30) and family ($50).

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get Fido out in the great outdoors with the Georgia State Parks’ Tails on Trails Club. The quest challenges dog hikers to explore 12 specific trails at Georgia State Parks. Members get a bragging-rights t-shirt and matching bandana for Bailey. Finish them all and get a certificate of completion to show off on social media.

Jekyll Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most state parks have gift shops where you can snag an ENO hammock, KAVU pack, or blanket to snuggle up in as the colder weather creeps upon us. While browsing, pick up a gift with hometown roots including Georgia Grown items, local honey, nature-themed books, clothes, and toys.

Related: Christmas Gift Ideas 2019

Looking for a stocking stuffer or gag gift to get a laugh? Forget coal and throw in a bag of cricket chips or a scorpion lollipop. Many quirky white-elephant gifts are available inside state parks and historic site visitor’s centers.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gift of Adventure: Arizona State Parks

Give the gift of adventure this holiday season with an Arizona State Parks and Trails Annual Pass or Gift Card for those hard to shop for outdoorsy friends and family members who love spending time in nature. An annual pass or Gift Card is a gift that keeps on giving, all year long.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The annual day use pass allows access for up to four people to state parks throughout Arizona. A day-use pass opens the door to exploring every corner of the state. History lovers can explore the stories of the past at the state historic museums. Pair it with Roger Naylor’s book, Arizona State Parks: A Guide to Amazing Places in the Grand Canyon State for a gift set they’ll use all year long.

Lost Dutchman Stae Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona State Parks Gift Cards may be purchased online (azstateparks.com) in denominations of $25, $50, $100, and $200. Gift Cards are accepted at Arizona State Parks for entry, camping, and reservations fees so your gift of the outdoors can be used all year long, all over the state.

Related: I’m Dreaming of a State Park Christmas…

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All of Texas Under the Tree!

Give the full Great Texas Wildlife Trails 9-map set for $25. Texas Parks & Wildlife is celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Great Texas Wildlife Trails. Order a special, newly updated 3-map set of the original coastal trails for $10. The full set of the Great Texas Wildlife Trail maps provides a guide to discover more than 900 of the best wildlife viewing spots in Texas. This is a gift that keeps giving year-round!

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Order a full set of Great Texas Wildlife Trails for $25 or get a single map of your choice for $5. To order, visit https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wildlife/wildlife-trails. Order by December 11 for likely arrival before Christmas.

A Hug

A hug is a great gift—one size fits all!!!

Worth Pondering…

Christmas is a tonic for our souls. It moves us to think of others rather than of ourselves. It directs our thoughts to giving.

—B. C. Forbes

5 Best Places to Watch Wildlife Today

The U.S. and Canada are home to some incredible and unique wildlife

The United States and Canada have incredible diversity in both landscapes and natural life. From glaciers, geysers, marine ecosystems, and rich plant life that sustains incredible flora and fauna, there are so many ways to explore both nature and wildlife. Most travelers tend to gravitate toward the most popular and known areas. But there are many lesser-known areas that are a wildlife lover’s delight like epic bird migrations to viewing endangered species like manatees in the wild. And the best part is that many of these places are on public lands, accessible to all.

Rocky Mountain Goat © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1 of 5: Rocky Mountain Goats

WHERE: Banff and Jasper National Parks, Alberta; Glacier National Park, Montana; Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

The Mountain goat is a hoofed mammal native to North America. A subalpine to alpine species, it is a sure-footed climber commonly seen on cliffs and ice. Both male and female Mountain goats have beards, short tails, and long black horns that contain yearly growth rings. They are protected from the elements by their woolly white double coats. The fine, dense wool of their undercoats is covered by an outer layer of longer, hollow hairs. Their coats help Mountain goats to withstand winter temperatures as low as -51 degrees F and winds of up to 99 mph.

Rocky Mountain Goats © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mountain goats live in the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade Range and other mountain regions of Western North America from Washington, Idaho, and Montana through British Columbia and Alberta into the southern Yukon and southeastern Alaska.

INSIDER TIP: Mountain goats are not in the same genus as goats. In the Bovidae family, mountain goats are associated with antelopes, gazelles, and cattle.

Sonoran Pronghorns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2 of 5: Sonoran Pronghorn

WHERE: Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona

A geographically and genetically distinct subspecies of pronghorn, the Sonoran pronghorn is smaller and lighter in color and is adapted for survival in desert conditions. The males weigh up to 130 pounds and females up to 110 pounds. Pronghorn are slightly smaller than a white-tailed deer with a shoulder height of about three feet. Pronghorn can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour on short distances and can maintain a speed of 35 mph for long distances.

Sonoran Pronghorns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While both sexes have horns, the females’ are short and look more like a bump. The males’ are black and about 10-12 inches long. Their horns extend up and point backward with a small tine (prong) that points forward. The unique design of their horn is what earned the species their name—pronghorn.

Pronghorn were once as widely distributed as buffalo. The Sonoran pronghorn ranged widely within the Sonoran desert in Arizona and California down into Sonora, Mexico—a broad, open desert landscape with limited vegetation. Today they are reduced to an estimated 160 free-ranging animals within the United States and an additional 240 free-ranging within Sonora Mexico.

INSIDER TIP: The core of what is left of the rare mammal is centered on Cabeza Prieta and Kofa national wildlife refuges. But the animal with a habit to move around in small caravans ranges widely onto other federal public lands: the Barry M. Goldwater Range, Organ Pipe National Monument, and Yuma Proving Grounds.

Elk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3 of 5: Elk or Wapiti

WHERE: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming; Banff and Jasper National Parks, Alberta; Olympic National Park, Washington

Elk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The elk also known as the wapiti is one of the largest species within the deer family. Native American tribes had hundreds of names for elk including wapiti. It originates from the Shawnee and Cree word waapiti, meaning “white rump”. Elk range in forest and forest-edge habitat feeding on grasses, plants, leaves, and bark. Male elk have large antlers which they shed each year. Elk have thick, brown fur with a reddish hue. This animal’s rump patch, a circular area around its tail, is buff or cream in color. The average male stands nearly 5 feet tall at the shoulder and weighs over 700 pounds but they can grow much larger. The largest subspecies can surpass 1,300 pounds or more.

INSIDER TIP: The Wapiti is the second largest (after the moose) most highly evolved Old World deer. It is also known as the American elk.

Bighorn Sheep © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4 of 5: Bighorn Sheep

WHERE: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado; Banff and Jasper National Parks, Alberta; Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California; Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Bighorn Sheep © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bighorn sheep get their name from the large, curved horns on the males (rams) with female sheep sporting shorter, less curved horns. Bighorn sheep live in North America’s western mountainous areas from southern Canada to Mexico. There are three different subspecies of bighorn sheep, the Rocky Mountain subspecies, the Sierra Nevada subspecies, and the desert subspecies. Their habitat consists of grassy mountain slopes, alpine meadows, and foothill country near rocky, rugged cliffs, and bluffs.

INSIDER TIP: Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are the largest wild sheep in North America. Muscular males can weigh over 300 pounds and stand over three feet tall at the shoulder. Females are roughly half this size.

Javelina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5 of 5: Javelina or Collared Peccary

WHERE: Big Bend National Park, Texas; Catalina State Park, Arizona

Javelina also known as collared peccary are medium-sized animals that look similar to a wild boar. Javelina stands about 2 feet tall and can weigh between 35 and 55 pounds. They are 3 to 4 feet long. They have mainly short coarse salt and pepper colored hair, short legs, and a pig-like nose. The hair around the neck/shoulder area is lighter in color giving it the look of a collar.

Javelina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Javelinas have long, sharp canine teeth which protrude from the jaws about an inch. They live in desert washes, saguaro and palo verde forests, oak woodlands, and grasslands with mixed shrubs and cacti. Javelinas can be found in the deserts of southwest Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and southward through Mexico.

INSIDER TIP: Javelinas are not pigs. They look similar but pigs are from the “Old World” and peccary is “New World” animals.

Worth Pondering…

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where never is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not clouded all day.

—Dr. Brewster Higley (1876)

What to Do During a Wildlife Collision

If a crash with wildlife is inevitable, you should aim for the spot where the animal is coming from rather than where it is going

We’ve all been there. You’re on a wide, dry, empty country road, and you wonder “why does it have such a low-speed limit? I’m a good driver, I’ve got good tires, I can speed through here without any problems.”

But, maybe traffic engineers set the speed limit low not because of the road design but because this is an area where deer keep diving through windshields. That slow speed limit is there so you have enough time to scan the bushes for suicidal deer and stop in time if one wanders into the roadway.

Elk in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Deer and moose will leap in front of your vehicle for seemingly no reason. Also, the faster your speed, the worse the collision!

In an earlier post, I reviewed what drivers can do to reduce the chances of having a wildlife-vehicle collision. Wild animals are a threat to motorists, but there are measures you can take to avoid hitting them.

Heed the warning signs and increase your roadside awareness. Reduce speed in wildlife zones. Drive defensibly and actively watch for wildlife movement or shining eyes on and beside the road. Actively scan the sides of the roads as you drive for any signs of wildlife.

Bighorn sheep in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One deer means more deer. Deer travel in herds and if you see one, slow right down as there will be many more. Moose are less gregarious, so one moose may simply mean one moose but it is still suggestive that more moose are in the area. And cows are frequently with a calf.

Bison in Elk Island National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What if a Wildlife Collision is Inevitable?

In certain situations, there is no real choice except to hit the wild animal. Diminish the impact if it is inevitable. If an accident with a deer, elk, or moose is inevitable, consider the following suggestions for lessening the impact.

If it appears impossible to avoid the animal, aim for the spot the animal came from, not where it is going. This may take you away from it and the animal is more likely to keep moving forward rather than backtracking. This will only work if there is one animal.

Deer in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shift your line of eyesight to where you want to go, not at the animal. You tend to drive where you look―if you are looking at the animal, that is where the vehicle tends to go.

Try to skim rather than fully impact the animal. If you must hit something, try for a glancing blow rather than a head-on hit. Brake firmly and quickly, then look and steer your vehicle to strike the animal at an angle. Take your foot off the brake as you impact. The release of the brake causes a slight lift of the front end of the vehicle and reduces the chances of the animal coming through your windshield if your vehicle is tall enough. The deer isn’t going to be okay, but you will.

If you’re heading into a collision, lean toward the door pillar. In the Mythbusters where they tested this, the center of the car was completely crushed in every impact but the triangle by the door pillar was intact in each accident. No guarantees are offered; you are far better off avoiding the collision.

Elk in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to do Following a Wildlife Collision?

This depends on the type and condition of the road, the amount of traffic, the type of animal, and the condition of the driver. Take care after a collision with a deer, elk, bear, or moose. 

Check passengers for injuries and treat accordingly. Even if there are no injuries, shock may occur fairly quickly. Try to reassure one another and if it is cold, put on warmer clothing immediately as shock or fear increases the inability to ward off cold. If it is winter, stay in the car for warmth.

Rocky Mountain goat in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are some important steps to take after assessing if everyone is relatively unharmed. Pull off the road if possible. Turn on hazard lights and if you can, illuminate the animal with your headlights. Use road flares or triangles if you have them. Warn other drivers if there is a carcass on the road which poses a hazard. 

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

You may choose to carefully approach the animal to determine if it is dead or injured. If it is injured, back off. An injured animal can be very dangerous; it may kick or gore you from fear and pain.

You may choose to remove a dead animal from the road so that it does not present a hazard to other drivers. Quick removal prevents other animals from being attracted to the highway. Only attempt to remove the animal if you are 100 percent certain that it is dead, it is safe to do so, and you are physically capable of moving it. 

Inspect your vehicle to see if it is safe to continue driving.

Bison at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Call the police immediately or flag down help. Remember that most insurance companies won’t pay for the damages you suffer from hitting a deer or a moose if you don’t file a police report. Report vehicle damage to your insurance company.  

Worth Pondering…

Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast—you miss the sense of where you’re going and why.

—Eddie Cantor