How to Plan a Southwest Road Trip

The landscapes across America’s Southwest are some of the most spectacular to be found anywhere on the planet

A Southwest road trip is America at its best. Picture yourself driving along desert roads sometimes for hours on end. Highways snake between burnt red canyons, beside acres of geological anomalies you can’t quite imagine until you’ve seen them for yourself. Your Southwest road trip itinerary may have you passing through tiny towns with names like Tropic and Beaver and diners slinging Navajo tacos alongside more classic greasy spoon fare.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A road trip is a perfect way to explore special spots in the Southwest—Nevada, Utah, and Arizona—where you can see ghost towns, hoodoos, natural arches, sandstone spectacles, dark-sky stars, and a huge hole in the ground.

But, the real reason to undertake a road trip through Utah, Arizona, and the rest of the American Southwest is the National Parks. Legendary parks include the Grand Canyon and Utah’s The Big FiveZionBryce, ArchesCapitol Reef, and Canyonlands. The Southwest is a quintessential part of any US National Parks road trip.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On top of that, there are tons of national monuments (Bears Ears, Dinosaur, Hovenweep, Natural Bridges, Rainbow Bridge, Cedar Breaks, and Grand Staircase-Escalante, to name a few) and plenty more state parks and federal lands worth checking out. It goes without saying that you might not see everything in the American Southwest in one sweep. While fully customizable, I’d recommend at least a two-week itinerary to get the most out of your Nevada, Utah, and Arizona road trip.

Before you begin, consider purchasing an annual national parks pass at the first park you enter. That $80 pass gets everyone in your car into every national park for a full year. You don’t have to be an American citizen to buy an annual pass but if you are and you’re age 62-plus buy your lifetime pass for $80 and never again pay to enter a U.S. national park. (Considering that Zion National Park’s entry fee is $35 per car, getting the annual pass is something of a no-brainer.)

Las Vegas RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nevada: Ghosts, gold and Red Rock

While the lure of Sin City in Nevada is strong, there’s more to the Vegas environs than casinos and outlet malls. So sleep in Las Vegas to start your adventure, if you’d like, perhaps at Las Vegas RV Resort where we have stayed on several occasions.

Start with an easy ride to Red Rock Canyon Park where you’ll need a timed reservation to enter between October and May. It’s just 15 minutes west of the Strip but transports you to a completely different world of massive striated red rocks where easy walking trails lead to ancient Native American petroglyphs.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red Rock is lovely but a favorite Nevada stop is Rhyolite, a gold-rush ghost town northwest of Vegas. Founded in 1904, it grew to a city of 5,000 residents—and was abandoned by 1916. Today it is a delightful mix of art installations (begun in 1981) known as the Goldwell Open Air Museum and the ghost town’s abandoned brick homes, banks, railroad depot, and a house built of glass bottles. The combination is absolutely fascinating and well worth the drive into what seems to be the middle of nowhere.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area is located on the Colorado River about 25 miles from the Las Vegas Strip. With 1.5 million acres of mountains and valleys there are plenty of activities visitors can enjoy at and around Lake Mead. Bicyclists are welcome to ride on park roads, on routes designated for bicycle use, and hikers can enjoy beautiful trails with impeccable views. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah: Hoodoos, arches and more

Rolling north into southern Utah transports you into a world of contrasts from vast arid deserts to densely wooded mountains, massive sandstone cliffs, amazing natural-stone arches, and seriously wacky rock formations.

Begin in Zion, Utah’s first national park where most months you’ll need to park your car and ride the free shuttle from the visitor center into the park. This park and its famous sites—Zion Canyon, Kolob Arch, the Narrows, Great White Throne, and Angels Landing—are so popular that massive crowds form especially during the spring, summer, and fall seasons. Jump on and off the shuttle as often as you’d like but don’t miss the last one as you’ll be walking nine miles to get out of the park if you do!

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park is probably the most eye-popping, mind-boggling place you will ever see with its hoodoos (to call them irregular rock formations is just inadequate) of every shape and size. It’s the largest concentration of these magical forms anywhere in the world and a true must-see.

Set up camp at one of Ruby’s beautiful campsites nestled in the pines. Located ½-mile from the entrance to Bryce Canyon, Ruby’s Campground & RV Park offers RV spaces with full hookups.

Make your way up the road to see all of the incredible sights, hike down into the canyon for a closer look, and don’t miss the Milky Way stargazing led by a park ranger. Much of the Southwest is toasty in summer but you’ll need a warm coat for this park where the night (and early morning) temps can be seriously chilly at any time of year.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moving on to the northwest, Capitol Reef National Park is the true undiscovered gem of Utah. You’ll be gobsmacked at the huge cliffs of bright, rainbow-colored sandstone looming high above you with peculiarly shaped hoodoos hanging at perilous angles. Find hidden arches and petroglyphs, take a horseback ride or a hike and be sure to spot the iconic white sandstone dome, shaped like the U.S. Capitol building.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Approaching the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park on the Utah/Arizona border brings a strange sense of deja vu if you’re a film fan. Turns out those iconic landscapes are real, not cinematic sets. Monument Valley served as the spectacular setting of numerous famous movies. Think Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Fort Apache for this is the place that John Wayne and John Ford turned into the world’s ultimate vision of the Wild West; later, Forrest Gump cemented it as an Instagram hotspot.

Monument Valley is owned by the Navajo Nation so book a camping site at The View RV Park and then drive in, paying $8 per person to see the Mittens, Elephant Butte, John Ford’s Point, Artist’s Point and more on the 17-mile loop drive within the park. Taking a Navajo-guided tour is an incredible way to learn more about this sacred place and the indigenous people who still call it home.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona: Sunrise, sunset, and a flyover at the Big Hole

The last stop on our Wild West road trip is Arizona’s big hole in the ground also known as the Grand Canyon. One of the world’s truly astonishing natural wonders, the canyon is the longest on the planet but not the deepest despite being more than a mile down. The Colorado River began eroding away this sandstone and limestone eons ago to create this eye-popping place.

El Tovar Hotel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Book way ahead to stay at the iconic El Tovar Hotel inside the park for it’s the best way to see the sun rise and set right out your front door as the canyon changes hues. Alternately book a camping site at Mather Campground (no hookups) or Trailer Village (full hookups) in the South Rim Village.

Hike down into the canyon as far as you can go to see it up close but do remember that climbing back out is a lot harder to do. For an once-in-a-lifetime thrill, hop on a helicopter via Grand Canyon Helicopters at the airport just outside the south rim entrance, soar over the edge and swoop down into the canyon—a perfect ending to a Wild West journey filled with adventure.


Worth Pondering…

One of my favorite things about America is our breathtaking collection of national and state parks, many of which boast wonders the Psalmist would envy.

—Eric Metaxas

The Mighty Five: Ranger-Led Programs That Are Absolutely Free

The Mighty Five!

It sounds like the name of a John Wayne western but the term refers to Utah’s five magnificent national parks. Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches stretch from west to east across southern Utah’s high desert. Each park boasts unique and jaw-dropping geological features and captivating landscapes. From towering rock walls, natural arches, and distinct stone pillars—all decorated in otherworldly colors from earthy reds to shining pinks to deep purples—these parks have inspired countless geologists, artists, and explorers.  

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tourists from across the globe descend upon Utah’s parks, many only spending a day or two. However, these natural wonders are worthy of longer visits to further explore, experience, and enjoy these special places. Regardless of the length of time available the park service offers numerous educational programs to do just that. These programs provide visitors with in-depth knowledge and a broader context of aspects of each park from wildlife to geological makeup to human history. These programs are free and often don’t require reservations. Here’s a look at some of the best.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Ride with a ranger in Zion

Zion National Park draws the most visitors to Utah’s parks. When you’re standing in the middle of the park’s eponymous canyon fixated on the sheer sandstone walls towering 2,000 feet above you seemingly painted in shades of dusty brown, rusty red, and smokey white, it’s easy to understand why.

If these canyon walls could talk, they would spin wonderful tales of the region’s past but another option is to sign up for the popular Ride with A Ranger Program (typically runs late spring through early fall). On this two-hour tour, you’ll take a bus into Zion Canyon with a park ranger providing detailed stories and fun facts about the park’s many wonders.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each tour covers a particular subject. For instance, you may learn about the humans who have passed through this region over the millennia. According to park service historians, evidence of human activity in Zion dates back to 6,000 BC. Ancestral Puebloans later developed societies in the region, cultivating both squash and corn—no small feat in this desert climate. By the time Mormon settlers arrived in the mid-1800s, Paiute Indians had called the canyon home for more than 700 years. 

Pro tip: Check in at the visitor center for updated information on this program. Also, sign up early as the tour fills up fast.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Geology at Sunset Point

The scenic drive through Bryce Canyon National Park entices visitors with its bountiful overlooks but perhaps none as sweeping or breathtaking as Sunset Point. From here, the park’s mesmerizing geologic features, hoodoos, fins, and rock walls stretch out for miles. In the sunlight they glow like embers of a fire. As enchanting as the view is, it’s hard not to wonder how this strange, magical scene came to be.

Fortunately, the park holds daily Geologic Talks from the overlook where tourists learn about the park’s fascinating history. Park staff explains that oxidized iron deposits laid down tens of millions of years ago lend Bryce’s sandstone features their glorious red and pink hues.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Speaking of those features, the hoodoos, those stone pillars the park is known for are formed as a result of water seeping into the sandstone walls. Due to Bryce’s higher elevation, it experiences wide temperature swings. When the water freezes, it expands causing the sandstone to fracture. As this process repeats itself over millennia, you get one of the most memorable landscapes on earth.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Why Capitol Reef is worth the visit

It’s hard to imagine given how arid Capitol Reef National Park’s rocky, dusty landscape appears today but 280 million years ago the park was underwater. Indeed, the region has undergone many transformations over the eons from a beach-like environment to a swampy rainforest. This geologic backstory and much more are covered in the daily Geology Talk which serves as an excellent introduction to a park visit. Check with the park for time and location.

Capitol Reef is the least-visited of Utah’s national parks, but, in fairness, the competition is stiff. Those that do visit are rewarded for their effort. As explained during the 30-minute talk the park owes its name to white dome-shaped rock formations that early pioneers thought resembled the Capitol Dome in Washington, D.C.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is also part of a 100-mile-long ridgeline that proved a significant impediment to travelers in the 1800s. So, the area was dubbed a reef for being an obstacle to land travel in the way that coral reefs are to ships. Today it is a destination, not an obstacle.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Caves and cowboys at Canyonlands

Of Utah’s Mighty Five, Canyonlands National Park reigns as the mightiest—in terms of acreage anyway. Canyonlands is the state’s largest and most remote national park. Divided up into four districts most visitors tour the park’s northern district, Island in the Sky. Perched on a plateau this region boasts viewpoints where you can gaze into the endless canyons.

The less-visited Needles District has its own set of attractions and ranger programs including the Cave Spring Guided Walk. On this 60-minute ranger-led hike participants gain a deeper understanding of the area particularly human history. As its name suggests, the Cave Spring Trail sports both a reliable water source—rare in these parts—and a natural shelter from those scorching midday rays.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the moderately easy 0.6-mile loop trail, hikers find the remnants of a cowboy camp dating back to the late 1890s. Indeed, ranchers used camps like this into the 1970s. The ranger guide will point out evidence of human activity in this area that is far, far older though. Near the small spring that has been a lifeline for centuries, pictographs decorate the rock walls made by distant ancestors of today’s Native Americans.   

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Windows and Mazes at Arches

Just 5 miles outside Moab sits the entrance to Arches National Park. Home to the largest concentration of natural arches in the world the park also houses other geological formations including balanced rocks and petrified dunes. But, nothing beats standing beneath the park’s namesake geological features.

From spring to fall, rangers lead guided walks through the Windows section of the park. This section of the park is popular because several awe-inspiring formations are situated near each other. The one-mile loop trail passes the North and South Windows as well as Turret Arch. Rangers go into detail about the geological history of the area uncovering the mystery of how these rock formations came to be and how the power of erosion continues to shape the landscape.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More adventurous and experienced hikers will want to sign up for the guided Fiery Furnace Hikes (there is a charge for these). Rangers lead visitors through the maze that is the Fiery Furnace area of the park. Since this hike is more challenging, do your research before committing to it.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. The stars come out at night

When the sun goes down on the Mighty Five, the southwest landscape may disappear but a whole new spectacle unfolds. The night sky sparkles as far as the eye can see an increasingly rare phenomenon in the developed world. Utah’s national parks are all designated International Dark Sky Parks and Sanctuaries—perfect destinations for the budding astronomer.

All five parks offer astronomy or night sky programs at varying times throughout the year. Check each park’s website or visitor center for an updated schedule.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pro Tip: If you’re visiting in the summer but plan to participate in an astronomical ranger program, don’t forget to pack some warmer clothes. Utah’s canyons can get chilly in the evenings.

For more information on traveling to Utah, check out these articles:

Worth Pondering…

Landscape is what becomes us. If we see our natural heritage only as a quarry of building block instead of the bedrock of our integrity, we will indeed find ourselves not only homeless but rootless by the impoverishment of our own imagination. At a time when we hardly know what we can count on in a country of shifting values and priorities, Canyonlands is our bedrock, a geologic truth that we all share, the eyes of the future are looking back at us, praying that we may see beyond our own time.

—Terry Tempest Williams

National Parks Requiring Reservations in 2023 + How to Snag One

Getting a national park reservation can be a pain. Here’s what you should know.

America’s protected lands may be for all—but in 2023, national park reservations are very much a thing. Timed entry passes have helped with overcrowding but the new system has created winners and losers

At 7:59 a.m. Mountain Time on the first day of March, people across the world hovered over keyboards and smartphones, ticking away the seconds until Glacier National Park released its block of coveted reservations for entering the park during July. The clock hit 8 a.m., setting off a mad race to click Book Now on the vehicle reservations page. The quickest fingers would score a pass to explore the Montana park’s pristine lakes, sheer peaks, and beargrass-dotted meadows in the high summer season.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Those spots went fast. The remote North Fork area in the park’s northwestern corner sold out within 10 minutes. Glacier’s stunning main thoroughfare, Going-to-the-Sun Road filled completely in half an hour. Some people got lucky that day but many more came away disappointed including Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke who tweeted about his failure to land a reservation.

While backcountry hikers and river runners have long dealt with the difficulty of nabbing permits for high-demand destinations, casual travelers haven’t had to wrestle for reservations simply to enter a national park—until recently.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Is ticketed entry a solution to overcrowding?

After years of struggling with record-breaking visitation and crowding, three parks rolled out pilots of so-called managed access systems to stem the tide. California’s Yosemite National Park instituted a day-use reservation system for 2020 through 2022 (No reservation system for 2023 while the park works on long-term planning); Glacier and Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park introduced theirs in 2021 followed by Arches in 2022. A handful of other parks require reservations to visit specific locations like Cadillac Summit at Acadia and Angel’s Landing at Zion.

Each parks’ rules are different and for many confusing. Pass requirements vary by date and location within a park and are valid in some places for one day and in others for three days. Parks release a percentage of passes months in advance but reserve a portion for the day before (see info below). Successfully planning a summer trip is an experience Alex Kim, founder of Here Montana, likens to “cracking the code.”

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But few dispute that these parks had to do something. Starting with the National Park Service’s Centennial in 2016 and skyrocketing with the COVID pandemic, park visitation numbers have increased to record numbers. “We’re seeing unprecedented levels of sustained demand in a lot of these parks,” says Will Rice, an assistant professor of parks, tourism, and recreation management at the University of Montana who studies reservation systems.

“The parks belong to the American people and there’s no substitute for being in a national park,” says Scott Gediman, public affairs officer for Yosemite. But “when you’ve got two-and-a-half hours waiting in line to get in, then you get there and shuttle buses are packed and there are long lines for food, it’s just not a good experience.” Add environmental damage caused by trampling feet and illegal parking and the problem compounds. Enter what Rice calls the rationing of recreation.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For those who do get a reservation, most say managed access leads to a much better trip. Park representatives are quick to note that they’re not trying to reduce visitation, just spread it out throughout the day and the season. All three parks succeeded in that: Since implementing their systems, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, and Yosemite have seen lines at entrance stations and shuttle buses dwindle, parking ceases to be a competitive sport, traffic gridlock ease, and people enjoying their experience more.

“We have done a survey of people who got reservations,” says John Hannon, Rocky Mountain’s management specialist. “They’re very supportive of timed entry once they’ve experienced it.” Yosemite visitors reported similar sentiments. “And anecdotally, a lot of people were seeing more wildlife,” notes Gediman.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The downside to ticketed entry

But limiting access, even if only during peak hours, necessarily leaves some people out. Under these systems, a certain type of visitor is more likely to snag the golden ticket. At the very least, it’s someone who plans well in advance. But also it’s someone with high-speed internet and a credit card, a job that allows for vacation planning months ahead, and familiarity both with’s reservation platform and the English language ( is only available in English, though it does provide a how-to on using Google Translate).

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Making parks accessible to all

Part of the solution might lie in creating more ways to nab a reservation. “We need to expand the idea of how we ration these things,” says the University of Montana’s Rice. “People have different preferences and needs when it comes to how they want to gain access to these highly demanded recreational resources.”

Park officials say they’re well aware of these issues and continually tweak their systems to help all potential visitors get a fair shake. For this year, Rocky Mountain upped the number of reservations that go live 24 hours ahead of time—rather than months ahead—to better accommodate spur-of-the-moment travelers. And all three parks required reservations only during the busiest hours so anyone can come in without an advance booking before, say, 9 am or after 3 pm.

There are more strategy ideas on the table, too. Hannon says Rocky Mountain is considering setting aside some tickets for local retailers to sell in person reducing the system’s reliance on; hotel operators near Yosemite have requested a similar setup for their guests.

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

Rice suggests the parks also look into implementing a lottery or even using license plates to determine who can enter on a given day as Yellowstone did in 2022 after flooding shut down portions of the park.

Visitors can be grateful that at least one other crowd-control tactic won’t be considered: raising entry fees. Unlike amusement parks and ski resorts that use demand-based systems to jack up prices during particularly popular times, national parks belong to everybody.

Like it or not, the days of spontaneously driving up to one of these national parks on a summer Saturday morning are probably over.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved


Yosemite National Park is not implementing a reservation system for summer 2023. But here’s how to book at three of the most popular national parks that will require reservations this year.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glacier National Park

Vehicle reservations are required between 6 am and 3 pm from May 26 to September 10 on North Fork Road and Going-to-the-Sun Road from the west side of the park and between July 1 and September 10 for all other park roads and Going-to-the-Sun Road from the east side. Going-to-the-Sun Road passes are valid for three days; the others last one day.

Cost: $2 processing fee (does not include park entry fee)

Release dates: The park releases a block of August reservations on April 1 and September reservations on May 1, both at 8 am Mountain Time. Additional reservations go on sale at 8 a.m. the day before your intended visit. Reserve at

Tip: Visitors with reservations at a park campground, hotel, or outfitter, or with backcountry camping permits, do not need an entry permit.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rocky Mountain National Park 

Reservations are required from May 26 to October 22. There are two types: Bear Lake Corridor entry permits are required between 5 am and 6 pm while “rest of the park” entry permits are required from 9 am to 2 pm. All are issued to enter the park during a specific two-hour window. Reservations are valid for one day.

Cost: $2 processing fee (does not include park entry fee)

Release dates: The park releases a block of August reservations on July 1, September reservations on August 1, and October reservations on September 1, all at 8 am Mountain Time. Additional reservations go on sale at 5 pm the day before your intended visit. Reserve at

Tip: Visitors with reservations at a park campground, hotel, or outfitter, or with backcountry camping permits, do not need an entry permit.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Beginning April 1 and continuing through October 31, Arches National Park will require visitors that want to enter the park during peak hours (7 am to 4 pm) to have a timed-entry pass. This pass is in addition to the park entrance fee everyone pays when they drive through the entrance of the park. Without your timed-entry pass, you will not be able to get into the park.

Release dates: The park releases a block of August reservations on May 1 and September reservations on June 1, both at 8 am Mountain Time. A small number of reservations will be available at 6 pm on the day before your intended visit. There’s no guarantee you’ll get one of these limited passes, so be sure to have plan B ready to go into effect if you don’t get a pass.

Tip: Reservations aren’t required if you have a camping reservation, are on a commercial tour, have a special use permit or are a Fiery Furnace ticket holder.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

National Park Week: Discover the Beauty of America’s National Parks

From massive canyons to brilliantly-colored deserts, national parks offer some of America’s wildest and most iconic landscapes

When the US Congress established Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872, it was “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Its founding marked the birth of the US National Park System and eventually launched a worldwide movement to protect outdoor spaces and historical landmarks. Since 1904, some 15 billion visitors have explored the wild wonders of the America’s parks.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Park Week is happening April 22 to April 30 this year! Entrance fees will be waived on April 22, 2023, to kick off National Park Week.

In 2016, inspired by the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, photographer Jonathan Irish visited every U.S. national park over 52 weeks.

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

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since Irish’s journey, the National Parks Service has designated four additional parks:

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are now 63 spaces to explore across the country. Celebrate National Park Week with images of these priceless national treasures from the cliff dwelling of Mesa Verde in Colorado to the deep, dark recesses of New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns.

Arches National Park, Utah

With over 2,000 natural stone arches, Arches National Park is part of southern Utah’s extended canyon country, carved and shaped by weathering and erosion.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands National Park is made up of jagged and striped rock formations. Striped in yellow, amber, and purple, the colorful eroded formations dip and rise amid the prairie grasslands.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National, Texas

Recently named the world’s largest International Dark Sky Reserve, Big Bend National Park’s hundred-mile views sweep across the hills, arroyos, and mesas of the West Texas Chihuahuan Desert.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah draws more than 2.7 million visitors a year thanks to its stunning geology of red arches and phantom-like spires called hoodoos.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

The sun peeks through Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. The largest and most undeveloped of Utah’s national parks, Canyonlands offers backcountry adventures, scenic landscapes, and two major rivers.

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Escape the crowds by fording the shallow Fremont River (high-clearance vehicles only) and head out on a 58-mile dirt road loop into desolate Cathedral Valley, an austere landscape dominated by two sandstone sentinels, Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

More than 119 caves are hidden beneath the surface of this national park in the Chihuahuan Desert. Cave scientists have explored at least 30 miles of passageways of the main cavern of Carlsbad and the investigation continues. Visitors may tour three of these miles on a paved trail.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park contains North America’s largest intact tract of old-growth bottomland forest. Boardwalk hikes and canoe tours are popular activities among the towering trees.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon National Park is a sprawling gorge of layers in pink, red, and orange hues revealing millions of years of geological history. 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Fog lingers among the forested hills of Great Smoky Mountains National Park which spans the southern Appalachians along the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Water and hydrocarbons exuded by trees produce the filmy smoke that gives the mountains their name.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together in Joshua Tree National Park.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

From 1914 to early 1915, Lassen Peak spewed steam and ashes in more than 150 eruptions. Now, the quieted volcano serves as a scenic backdrop to the park’s jigsaw-puzzle landscape of forest, lava beds, and lakes.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

The sun sets early on Cliff Palace, the largest of the ancient stone-and-mortar cliff houses tucked into the park’s canyon walls. The only way to experience the fine detail of the construction is on a ranger-guided tour.

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve spans more than 72,000 acres of wooded hills, deep ravines, and the Appalachian plateau. It was named the U.S.’s newest national park in 2020. 

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Walking along the park’s trails, visitors can see hills made of bluish clay and the largest concentration of brilliantly colored petrified wood in the U.S.

Pinnacles National Park, California

Known for its spectacular rock formations, beautiful spring wildflowers, and large groups of endangered condors, Pinnacles National Park is a mecca for rock climbing and day hiking. It offers 32 miles of trails that climb through winding talus caves and shaded creeks.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaro National Park takes its name from the largest cacti in the United States. The park, which flanks Tucson, is home to millions of the cacti, which can grow up to 50 feet tall.

Sequoia National Park, California

Nestled in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, Sequoia National Park is nearly 97 percent wilderness. It holds over 2,000 giant sequoia trees including General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest tree, measured by volume.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Located between the Shenandoah Valley in the west and the Piedmont region in the east, the park is an expanse of wooden hollows and breezy summits, waterfalls and mountain streams, more than 500 miles of hiking trails and nearly 80,000 acres of designated wilderness.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt is unique among the scenic parks in that it preserves not only an extraordinary landscape but also the memory of an extraordinary man. It honors the president who probably did more for the National Park Service than anyone before or since.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

White Sands National Park protects the largest gypsum dune on Earth, a remnant of bygone lakes and seas, a 275-square-mile basin that glitters white and stays cool to the touch. Visitors come to cruise the eight-mile Dunes Drive, hike one of the five established trails, or see the soft, translucent sand glow blue-white under a full moon.

Zion National Park, Utah

One of the most photographed views in Zion National Park is of Watchman Mountain from the Canyon Junction Bridge. Irish’s favorite spot is at the center of the bridge where the river leads the eye to the Watchman Spire in the background.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Yes, these are the Most Visited National Parks in 2022

The number-one national park alone counted almost 13 million visitors last year

The 424 sites administered by the National Park Service (NPS) continued to rebound from the pandemic last year and a perennial favorite once again landed in the top spot for a most visited site for 2022.

Almost 312 million recreation visits were logged by the NPS in 2022 which is closing in on the pre-pandemic 2019 numbers of roughly 327.5 million visits.

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

The NPS also labored in 2022 to avoid the long lines and temporary closings at many of the marquee parks that marred the 2021 experience for many.

“We’re excited to see our efforts to increase visitation to parks in the off-season and in parks that are less well-known paying off,” National Park Service Director Chuck Sams said in an online statement last week.

“Many parks with record visitation in 2022 are on what we would call the road less traveled.”

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With 63 national parks across its states and territories, the US has plenty of options when it comes to outdoor activities and exploration. Whether you want to immerse yourself in nature or discover some of the country’s most iconic landmarks, national parks have got your back.

Some of them, though, are usually much busier than others and if you’re looking to be away from everything and everyone for a spell, you might want to stay away from the most frequented ones. Last week, the National Park Service (NPS) released its latest annual visitation data which will help us (and you) decide where to plan your next hike, whether you’re looking for a communal vibe or a more secluded and isolated experience.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With almost 13 million visits last year, the Great Smoky Mountains remain undefeated when it comes to the most visitors of any national park. The park drew in slightly fewer visitors compared to its 2021 numbers, though, when it had 14.1 million recorded visits.

>> Related article: Yes, these are the Most Visited National Parks in 2021

The Grand Canyon came in second thanks to its iconic red landscape though it came quite a bit short of the Great Smoky Mountains’ popularity. In 2022, it racked up nearly 5 million visitors which is nearly 8 million short of the leading park.

Third on the list was Zion National Park. Located in Utah, it’s a great park to visit both in the winter and summer seasons and it offers a variety of trails to hike with gorgeous views and great terrain. According to the NPS, Zion welcomed 4,692,417 visitors in 2022.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top 10 most visited NPS sites in 2022

Just two sites—one a long, scenic parkway in the East and the other a recreational area in a populous West Coast metro—–accounted for around 10 percent of all visits to all sites. The top 10 for 2022:

1. Blue Ridge Parkway: 15,711,004 visits

2. Golden Gate National Recreation Area: 15,638,911 visits

3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 12,937,633 visits

4. Gateway National Recreation Area: 8,728,291 visits

5. Lincoln Memorial: 7,825,397 visits

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. George Washington Memorial Parkway: 7,397,120 visits

7. Natchez Trace Parkway: 6,543,533 visits

8. Gulf Islands National Seashore: 5,685,155 visits

9. Lake Mead National Recreation Area: 5,578,226 visits

10. Vietnam Veterans Memorial: 4,886,254 visits

>> Related article: Yes, these are the Most Visited National Parks in 2020

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top 10 most visited national parks in 2022

In breaking down just the headliner national parks vs. every NPS site which include monuments, memorials, battlefields, recreations areas and more, a familiar name once again tops the list for 2022:

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 12,937,633 visits

2. Grand Canyon National Park: 4,732,101 visits

3. Zion National Park: 4,692,417 visits

4. Rocky Mountain National Park: 4,300,424 visits

5. Acadia National Park: 3,970,260 visits

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Yosemite National Park: 3,667,550 visits

7. Yellowstone National Park: 3,290,242 visits

8. Joshua Tree National Park: 3,058,294 visits

9. Cuyahoga Valley National Park: 2,913,312 visits

10. Glacier National Park: 2,908,458 visits

>> Related article: 21 of the Most Visited National Parks in America

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As we mentioned earlier, though, you might be looking for less crowded parks to enjoy your own company and that of nature. These are the 10 least-visited national parks according to the numbers:

1. National Park of American Samoa: 1,887 visits

2. Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve: 9,457 visits

3. Kobuk Valley National Park: 16,925 visits

4. Lake Clark National Park & Preserve: 18,187 visits

5. Isle Royale National Park: 25,454 visits

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

6. North Cascades National Park: 30,154 visits

7. Katmai National Park & Preserve: 33,908 visits

8. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve: 65,236 visits

9. Dry Tortugas National Park: 78,488 visits

10. Great Basin National Park: 142,115 visits

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A few more tidbits

The NPS report is full of interesting insights into who goes where and why. A few highlights:

331 better chances at some solitude

Despite the NPS’ success at spreading out the throngs to less-visited places, a small number of sites continue to dominate. In fact, the top eight sites in the entire system accounted for a whopping 26 percent of all NPS recreational visits in 2022.

>> Related article: Plan Your Visit: Free Entrance Days in the National Parks for 2023

Meanwhile, 331 NPS sites accounted for just 25 percent of all visits.

That’s something to consider when you’re pondering where to go, especially if you’re not fond of crowds, full parking lots and signing up for reservations.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Types of parks people visit

It turns out Americans (and visitors to the US) are a pretty well-rounded bunch.

Some 38 percent of people go to recreational parks. Another 32 percent go to cultural and historical parks. And finally, 30 percent of folks go to nature parks, according to the NPS.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Astounding stats from the NPS

A total of 75 sites hosted 1 million or more recreational visits in 2022. The last place to nab a million or more was Badlands National Park in South Dakota with 1,006,809 visits.

NPS sites have enduring appeal. More than 15.7 billion (that’s billion with a ‘b’) have visited since 1904.

Campers unite! More than 13 million overnight visitations were logged in 2022.

The granddaddy of national parks and arguably the most famous, Yellowstone ranks only 25th in most visits of all NPS sites. It’s edged out by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial which was dedicated in 1997 in Washington, DC. Yellowstone is No. 7 among the 63 headliner national parks for 2022.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

Why Winter Is the Best Time to Visit Southern Utah

Why Winter Is the Best Time to Visit Southern Utah

When winter arrives, travelers tend to split—half head to the mountains to ski or snowboard; the other half seeks out warm weather in the U.S. Sunbelt. Most overlook Utah, a state with year-round blue skies, mild weather, and red rock arches and spires that only look more stunning with a dusting of snow. 

That landscape is perhaps best represented by southern Utah, my favorite section of the state that’s dominated by Mars-like spires, twisting canyons, and delicate sandstone arches. Southern Utah is home to all five of the state’s national parks and is often best visited in the winter when the hot, dry summer has passed and the crowds have dispersed.

Here’s everything you need to know to plan a visit to this lesser-known winter destination.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to do

All five of Utah’s national parks (The Mighty Five) are found in the southern half of the state. In fact, it’s hard to plan a trip to southern Utah without incorporating a visit to at least one or two of the national parks.

Zion National Park is the furthest south and is known for its narrow slot canyons and pink sandstone cliffs. With more than 300 days of sunshine a year, Zion National Park is a great place to enjoy sunny skies and fresh air, and get a little extra Vitamin D in the winter months. Plan a winter visit to soak up the sunshine while enjoying moderate temperatures and a stunning sandstone kaleidoscope of reds, oranges, and pinks. Winter visitors will find plenty to do including hiking, photography, camping, and gazing up at the wonders of the night sky.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby is Bryce Canyon National Park, home to the world’s largest concentration of hoodoos (irregular columns of rock). 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 but requires a very different packing list. Begin by reviewing regular closures and regulations, read about typical weather, and then explore the many ways you can experience this winter wonderland.

To the east are the red rock canyons, cliffs, and domes of Capitol Reef National Park while the adventure town of Moab acts as the gateway to both Arches and Canyonlands national parks with delicate sandstone arches and red rock canyons.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Star of Ed Abbey’s iconic Desert Solitaire, Arches has come a long way since 1968 and these days it’s so action-packed, the park service is piloting a timed-entry system requiring advance reservations from April to October 2023. But there are ways around a Disneyland experience. Be an early bird or a night owl—come before sunrise or stay beyond sunset and you’ll be amply rewarded with quieter trails and golden light that makes the arches glow.

The nearest accommodations of Moab are close enough to the park entrance to make this doable. If you’d rather not rise early, book a guided tour with a ranger to see the permit-only Fiery Furnace area or secure a campsite at Devils Garden up to six months in advance. From the campground, you can hike to an underdog of an arch: the lesser-known, stunning Broken Arch. 

Canyonlands National Park, Island in the Sky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Five distinct districts comprise Canyonlands, each offering something different. Island in the Sky is land of long views—don’t miss Shafer Trail Viewpoint or Mesa Arch. Only about 20 miles south of Island in the Sky as the crow flies (but a solid two-hour drive away), the Needles District offers great hiking including an action-packed jaunt on Cave Spring Trail featuring a replica of an 1880s-era cowboy camp and mushroom-like rock formations.

Canyonlands National Park, Needles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go to the Maze to get lost; Chocolate Drops and Land of Standing Rocks are a couple of worthy destinations in this backcountry district. Head to the non-contiguous Horseshoe Canyon unit to see incredible petroglyphs including floating holy ghosts. And visit the River District at the bottom of the canyons carved by the Green and Colorado Rivers for a rafting adventure. For most of the park’s district, the best place to stay in Moab which offers easy access to Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the park’s rivers. 

Brian Head Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond hiking, and in some cases, camping in southern Utah’s national parks, this part of the state is home to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, two winter sports that are beginner friendly and affordable. Those with their heart set on downhill skiing can find it at Brian Head Resort (near Cedar Breaks National Monument) or Eagle Point Resort, two ski areas with significantly lower prices than those found in northern Utah.

But there’s also year-round hiking, biking, camping, and backpacking in the southern part of the state. And in the evenings, when you’re resting your weary legs, make sure to look up—the long winter nights lend themselves to excellent stargazing.

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

What to pack

It’s all about layers in the winter. If you plan to be outside most of the day, you’ll want to wear synthetic or wool base layers and pack a warm jacket and hat. Sunny days are the norm even in the middle of winter so sunscreen and sunglasses are also a must.

If you plan on hiking in the snow, it may be worth getting a pair of cleats that fasten over your winter footwear and provide added traction. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay

Many of southern Utah’s national and state parks offer year-round camping.

Zion has three campgrounds. Watchman Campground is open year-round with reservations from early March to late November and first-come, first-serve during the rest of the year. South Campground and Lava Point Campground are open seasonally.

At Bryce Canyon, North Campground’s A Loop is open all winter long for first-come, first-served camping. There are 30 sites in this loop and it is rare for the campground to fill in winter other than around major holidays. As happens every year when overnight temperatures fall below freezing, Loops C and D of North Campground have closed. Loop B typically closes in late fall unless demand for winter campsites is high enough to justify its remaining open. Sunset Campground is closed for the winter and will reopen for first-come, first-served camping on April 15.

Fremont River, Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Adjacent to the Fremont River and surrounded by historic orchards, Fruita Campground in Capitol Reef has 71 sites. Each site has a picnic table and firepit and/or above ground grill but no individual water, sewage, or electrical hookups. There is a RV dump and potable water fill station near the entrance to Loops A and B. Restrooms feature running water and flush toilets but no showers. The park has a 100 percent reservation system from March 1-October 31.

Devil’s Garden Campground, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Devils Garden Campground is the only campground at Arches National Park. You can reserve campsites for nights between March 1 and October 31. Between November and February, campsites are first-come, first-served.

Canyonlands maintains two campgrounds. Island in the Sky Campground (Willow Flat) has 12 sites, first come, first-served. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. There is no water at the campground. The campground is open year-round. The Needles Campground has 26 individual sites. You can reserve some individual sites from spring through fall. At other times of the year, individual sites are first-come, first-served. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground.

Worth Pondering…

Landscape is what becomes us. If we see our natural heritage only as a quarry of building block instead of the bedrock of our integrity, we will indeed find ourselves not only homeless but rootless by the impoverishment of our own imagination. At a time when we hardly know what we can count on in a country of shifting values and priorities, Canyonlands is our bedrock, a geologic truth that we all share, the eyes of the future are looking back at us, praying that we may see beyond our own time.

—Terry Tempest Williams

The 15 Best National Parks to Visit in Winter

Summer may be high season but these parks are at their best in the colder months

One of the best-kept secrets about America’s national parks is many are even better in winter. Whether you want to feel the satisfying crunch of snow under your boots or escape those chilly temps for a desert ramble, one thing’s for sure: You’ll be able to do so without the crowds that summer brings. Once-crowded trails turn into tranquil getaways. Quiet winter wonderlands showcase nature’s calm beauty. 

And no matter how great the other seasons are for a visit, a visit to your favorite fall foliage or spring wildflower destination is completely different in the depths of winter. Lack of foliage can bring long views.

Below, find the best national parks to visit in winter from the red hoodoos of Bryce Canyon to the stunning desertscape of Saguaro. Be sure to pack a few extra layers and remember to always double-check trail and road conditions before heading out. 

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Although the Grand Canyon is a southern park, its ridges are still blessed with snow in winter. Fog is typical in the early morning hours but afternoons are sunny. The canyon’s North Rim is closed to visitors but the South Rim is open year-round and is less crowded during this season.

Visitors can take a cell phone audio tour or use a GPS device for the park’s EarthCache program. EarthCaches are a type of geocache that provide participants with a learning experience in geosciences. By participating in the program, you will embark on an exploration of the unique geologic story that provides insights into the Grand Canyon.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Joshua Tree National Park, California

With the average temps exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer, outdoor enthusiasts who love national parks but hate the heat will love the cooler climate of Joshua Tree during the winter. Temperatures can reach 60 degrees making it the opportune time to visit the otherwise-sweltering Joshua Tree. Just be aware that while daytime temps here are generally mild in the winter, nighttime temps in the desert can drop below freezing.

The park is a mecca for world-class rock climbers but it also offers scenic drives and family-friendly hiking trails that any visitor can enjoy. After perusing the Cholla Cactus Garden and scrambling up the enormous, monzogranite boulders along Arch Rock Nature Trail, settle in for some epic stargazing at one of the 500 campsites in Joshua Tree National Park.

Plan your visit here during the cooler months for comfortable hiking temps and incredible stargazing without the huge crowds.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Joshua Tree National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

The famous, striking limestone formations at Carlsbad Caverns have often been compared to floating underground jellyfish or alcoves full of goblins and fairies—however you interpret them, they’re otherworldly. The best part about visiting this New Mexico locale in the winter months (apart from bypassing the crowds) is that the cave stays a balmy 56 degrees Fahrenheit, rain or shine. Ranger-led tours are available year-round or visitors can opt to check out the Natural Entrance and Big Room Trails on their own.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

While it may be hard to imagine, Bryce Canyon’s earthly spires are even more spectacular when dusted in snow. Bryce Canyon National Park also has ideal stargazing skies and the cold, dry air makes them all the more amazing. Saturday astronomy programs and full moon snowshoe adventures are a couple of the several incredible programs offered here during the winter season. Don your microspikes or snowshoes (available for rent at Ruby’s Inn) and travel between the two points on the Rim Trail then warm up on a views-for-days drive to Rainbow Point—elevation 9,115 feet.

Since the Park is situated at 8,000-9,000 feet, some of the roads and trails are closed due to snow and ice but there are still plenty of things to do especially if you time your visit with the Bryce Canyon Winter Festival (February 18-20, 2023). Just be sure to pack warm clothes and be prepared for winter conditions.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Make winter plans to visit a warmer locale in Arizona’s Petrified National Park where park-goers can see the Painted Desert, drive past Blue Mesa, and see the Crystal Forest up close.  The weather may be cold in winter but snow is rare. Don’t forget those warm layers for when temps drop at night.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Petrified Forest National Park

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

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

Getting out in nature during an East Coast winter doesn’t have to mean shivering in a snowstorm for hours on end. America’s most visited park still gets attention after all its gorgeous leaves have dropped. The barren trees become fortresses of ice and snow—a true winter wonderland. Be aware that the main roads should remain clear but secondary ones may be closed. At night, stargaze by the fire at Cades Cove Campground.

Many people use Clingmans Dome Road (closed to vehicles December 1-March 31) for walking and cross-country skiing. The road starts 0.1 mile south of Newfound Gap.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Zion National Park, Utah

Zion’s famous sandstone walls are often eclipsed by tourist throngs from spring through fall with 4.5 million people rushing into the 15-mile-long canyon each year. But with a light dusting of snow, the rust-colored cliffs visible from the Pa’rus Trail take on a magical quality and oft-crowded spots like Canyon Overlook are generally mob-free. Zion’s main road is normally closed to vehicles and serviced by a shuttle but in January, February, and parts of December you can drive your car through Zion Canyon. 

Temperatures are generally mild during the day which makes for lovely hiking. Best of all? Winter travelers can savor slow mornings, sipping coffee in a cozy western cabin at centrally located Zion Lodge. And Watchman Campground remains open all winter.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Big Bend National Park, Texas

One of America’s hottest parks (at least in terms of temperature), Big Bend is perfect for a winter visit. You can enjoy hikes into the Chisos Mountains, paddles along the Rio Grande, and some of the best star-gazing conditions in the U.S. While Big Bend’s high season is in winter—from October to April—this park is remote and doesn’t see a huge number of visitors, so you’ll still find plenty of solitude.

A natural wonder (especially in the mostly-flat Lone Star State), this park is named after a massive bend in the Rio Grande River that separates Texas from Mexico—and the far-flung locale has enough scenic diversity for a week-long journey or more.

Stay at the Chisos Mountains Lodge and marvel at high-elevation vistas of the craggy Window Formation as you hike through madrone trees and fragrant junipers. Then, soak your tired bones in the park’s historic hot springs, ideally as the sunset turns the famous Santa Elena Canyon into a hundred shades of amber.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Big Bend National Park

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Enjoy the stunning desert landscape of Saguaro National Park at Tucson where visitors can experience the beauty of the largest cactus in the United States—the giant Saguaro cacti which can grow to be more than 45 feet tall and age over 200 years. Winter is the perfect time to visit Saguaro because the temperatures are mild with an average high of 65 degrees and the light gives the desert a golden glow—this is one of the warmest national parks to visit in winter. There are a variety of hiking options within the park.

And there are even more stunners in the area from the Sonora Desert Museum and Sabino Canyon to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park has some of America’s most breathtaking scenes. In winter, white snow contrasts with the red rocks and blue skies to create some stunning sights. While daytime temperatures often rise above 90 degrees in summer expect freezing temperatures in winter. Even scant snowfall can make trails and off-roads impassable so be sure to plan ahead. Stop at the Arches Visitor Center to check the conditions and get an orientation so you’re prepared for winter conditions.

For winter camping and hiking, the Devils Garden Campground is open year-round with 51 sites available on a first-come, first-served basis between November 1 and February 28 including restrooms and drinking water at the campground.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Open year-round to outdoor enthusiasts, White Sands National Park in New Mexico is one of the best National Parks to visit in the winter for many reasons. For one, it’s a less-visited park in general so you’re likely to see very few people so you can sled down the dunes all by yourself. Plus, as soon as you hike a little ways into the dunes, you’re unlikely to encounter other hikers. New Mexico does get chilly in winter, but it rarely sees a lot of snow this far south.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to White Sands National Park

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Explore the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeast at Congaree National Park. South Carolina’s summers are hot and humid and the riverside habitat that makes up Congaree National Park is a favorite spot for mosquitoes. Visit in the cooler months, generally November to April, for mild temperatures and minimal mosquito levels. This is an ideal season to paddle, hike, or fish at the park.

Flooding is most frequent at this time of the year and can happen with little or no warning. It does not have to rain at Congaree for flooding to take place. Laying in a watershed the size of the state of Maryland, any significant rain in the upstate of South Carolina can cause a rise in water levels. Check the river gauges and the weather before you go.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Congaree National Park

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Pinnacles National Park, California

A relatively small park, Pinnacles still packs a punch—especially in the winter. The landscape features shaded, oak woodlands and exposed chaparral. There are canyon bottoms and talus caves you hike inside leaving the other side at the foot of tall rock spires.

You’ll find 15 different hiking options in the park. To check out the caves start at Chapparal (West Pinnacles) and take either the Balconies Cliffs-Cave Loop (easy), the Juniper Canyon Loop (hard) or the High Peaks to Balconies Cave Loop (hard).

You can have an excellent time at Pinnacles any time of year though winter is one of the best times to visit. From late spring to mid-autumn this region can be very hot making longer hikes difficult. The temperatures are much more pleasant in late autumn through winter and early spring.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Pinnacles National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Winter stretches itself from October through June at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Clear lakes become icy and volcanoes become topped with heavy snow and steam vents become especially smoky. For those seeking fun as well as beauty, winter activities are at their peak with sledding hills that offer mountain views, snowshoeing for beginners and experts, and backcountry skiing that can’t be beat.

More than half of the year Lassen is blanketed in snow. Although the park highway closes to through traffic during the winter months, the Southwest and Manzanita Lake areas remain accessible year-round. Visit the park’s year-round Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and enjoy the steep slopes in the Southwest Area or explore the gentler terrain in the Manzanita Lake area.

The old Lassen Ski Area located above the present-day Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center closed in 1994. The area is still used by backcountry skier and snowboarders.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

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

15. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Is there a more sublime snow experience than skiing or snowshoeing through the giant trees found in these two parks? Trails can be found in both the Giant Forest of Sequoia and Grant Grove in Kings Canyon.

According to park staff, many trails are suitable for snowshoeing when there’s adequate snow. You can rent snowshoes or bring your own. Purchase a map of ski trails at any visitor center and look for reflective markers on trees that show popular paths. When snowshoeing, stay clear of ski tracks. Check the park newspaper’s winter safety tips.

Rangers lead snowshoe hikes when conditions allow. The park provides the snowshoes; you bring warm layered clothing, waterproof boots, gloves, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, water, and a snack. The walks are moderately strenuous. Waterproof shoes are required. Walks last 1.5-2 hours and range from 1.5-2 miles in length.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Worth Pondering…

Always maintain a kind of summer, even in the middle of winter.

—Henry David Thoreau

National Parks Host Holiday Celebrations

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

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

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

Grand Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

El Tovar Hotel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Savor a traditional holiday atmosphere at Banff National Park

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

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

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

3. A Smoky Mountain Christmas

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

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

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

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Pigeon Forge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Go warmish weather sledding through White Sands National Park

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

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Norman Vincent Peale

The Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park

Zion National Park is without a doubt one of the most beautiful national parks in all of America

Nothing can exceed the wonderful beauty of Zion…

In the nobility and beauty of the sculptures there is no comparison…

There is an eloquence to their forms which stirs the imagination with a singular power and kindles in the mind a glowing response.

—Clarence E. Dutton, geologist, 1880

Situated in the southwest corner of Utah, Zion National Park is one of the planet’s most unique and breathtaking settings. At the heart of the park lies Zion Canyon, a 15-mile long, 2,600-foot deep gorge that is awe-inspiring both for its size and beauty. But the colorful sandstone walls sit amid the desert, forest, and river biospheres which are rarely found in such close proximity. This makes the park a truly magical environment that never ceases to amaze and delight.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While Woodrow Wilson officially declared a national park in 1919, Zion’s history stretches back much further in time. Native Americans inhabited the region for at least 8,000 years with various tribes calling the area home over the centuries. Europeans arrived in the 1850s and ’60s ultimately displacing the Native Americans living there. Many of those early Europeans were members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints which derives a great deal of meaning from the park’s name.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the 1860s, Mormon (Church of Latter-Day Saints) pioneers settled in southern Utah. When they arrived they thought it to be so beautiful, holy with its towering natural cathedrals made of rock that they called it Zion, a nod to Little Zion found in scripture in the Bible’s Old Testament. To them, it was a sacred dwelling. It still holds a sacred reverence to all who visit it today and it is without a doubt one of America’s most beloved national parks. Today, Zion is known for its excellent hiking, spectacular landscapes, and diversity of wildlife.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

As is typical with any national park, there is plenty to see and do in Zion. For example, visitors simply looking for a scenic drive should point their car toward the Kolob Canyons where they’ll find an epic 5-mile route that has to be seen to be believed. Birdwatchers will find a lot to love here as well with more than 280 avian species to spot throughout the park. That includes the rare—but increasing in numbers—California Condor which has appeared more frequently in recent years. If you linger in Zion after dark you’ll be treated to a celestial light show unlike any other with the night sky aglow with a billion stars overhead.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Travelers looking for an adrenaline rush can take to the Virgin River which has carved out Zion’s unique landscape over the years. The water can run fast and furious at times presenting challenging rapids meant for expert paddlers. The sandstone walls of the canyon make for excellent climbing and canyoneering—particularly in the famous Zion Narrows—is also a popular way to explore the area.

If you get hungry, options for finding food inside Zion National Park are somewhat limited. The visitor center does offer a limited number of drinks and snacks, while both the Castle Dome Café and Red Rock Grill at Zion Lodge offer a full menu for any time of the day.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best hikes and trails

Zion features numerous hiking trails throughout its 146,000 acres. Many of those trails are remote and rugged so plan accordingly before setting out. That includes wearing appropriate footwear and bringing plenty of drinking water. Be prepared to be self-sufficient in the backcountry particularly if you wander into the Zion Wilderness. Backpackers planning to spend the night are also required to have a permit before venturing out. It is also important to note that the National Park Service limits the size of groups traveling together to 12 people.

Zion’s top trails are legendary amongst hikers, many of which come simply to knock a few off their adventure bucket list.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Narrows is a challenging walk that takes trekkers 9.4 miles into the canyon following the Virgin River along the way. Meanwhile, the moderately difficult Watchman Trail runs just 3.3 miles along rocky cliff faces rewarding visitors with some of the best views in the park along the way. The Overlook Trail is just 1 mile in length but ends at a lookout point that is also breathtaking in its scope.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park’s signature hike without a doubt is Angels Landing—a demanding 5.5-mile walk that features over 1,500 feet of elevation gain along the way. This trek is not for the faint of heart or inexperienced as there are certain sections where chains have been installed to provide handholds while crossing through the more difficult portions. Those who do complete the journey are treated to a truly spectacular view at the end that provides an amazing sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. In response to concerns about crowding and congestion on the trail, on and after April 1, 2022, everyone who hikes Angels Landing needs to have a permit.

Those looking for easier, more accessible routes should give the Lower Emerald Pool Trail a go. This paved path runs for 1.2 miles and takes visitors to a beautiful waterfall and its namesake body of water where hikers can even take a dip.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Emerald Pools is a choose-your-own-adventure area in the park with three main hikes among lush vegetation leading to different water features at each. The middle trail is a more moderate hike gaining 150 feet leading to an overlook of the pools found on the lower trail and small waterfalls, and the upper pool is a strenuous climb up 350 feet to a waterfall that streams down from a cliff.

Other options include the 1-mile-long Grotto Trail which often provides opportunities to spot wildlife and the paved Riverside Walk which offers a 2.2-mile mini-Narrows experience.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay

Travelers looking to spend a few days in and around Zion have several options when it comes to where they want to stay for the night. The famous Zion Lodge allows visitors to spend the night inside the park’s boundaries while still offering a comfortable setting. The Lodge offers standard rooms, cabins, and suites at varying price points and is open year-round.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors to the park can also elect to camp inside its borders during their stay. There are three campgrounds found within Zion itself each with differing amenities. Lava Point Campground is the most remote and is usually only open between May and September. It is located at 7,890 feet along the Kolob Terrace where weather conditions can fluctuate rapidly. The South Campground and Watchman Campground are more accessible and have a few modern features including RV hookups and dump stations. Campsites start at $20 per night and reservations should be made through

As with most national parks and forests, backcountry camping is permitted in Zion although backpackers are urged to take caution when pitching their tent. Hikers should make camp a safe distance from water sources and out of the way of potential rockfalls. Backcountry camping is free, but a permit is required at all times.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Additionally, other overnight options can be found in the small towns that border the national park with Springdale and Rockville being the closest and most convenient. Those towns also offer a variety of restaurants for grabbing both a quick and easy meal as well as a more upscale sit-down experience.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Getting There

When driving to the park, head towards Springdale, Utah. Zion’s main entrance can be found on State Route 9. When heading north on Interstate 15 take Exit 16 then head east on SR 9. If you’re traveling south stay on Interstate 15 to Exit 27 then head east on State Route 17 until it intersects with SR 9. From there, continue heading east until you arrive at the park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of particular note, if you’re traveling in an RV you’ll want to be aware of the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. The 1.1-mile-long tunnel is found on State Route 9 and is the longest of its kind in the U.S. Because it is quite narrow, vehicles that are taller than 11 feet, 4 inches in height, or wider than 7 feet, 10 inches in width are required to have an escort or traffic control when passing through. There is a $15 fee for this service which is good for two trips. Vehicles that are 13 feet tall are prohibited from passing through the tunnel as are semi-trucks, vehicles longer than 40 feet, or those carrying hazardous materials.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tips for your visit

Avoid the crowds: More than 4 million visitors flock to Zion in a given year. Most of them come between February and November with much smaller crowds in January and December. Those months may be colder and have less predictable weather so bring appropriate gear to stay warm and dry. At all times of the year, Zion Canyon is the busiest area of the park so head to Kolob Canyons or Kolob Terrace Road for more solitude.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fees and Passes: The entrance fee for Zion National Park is $35 for a private vehicle, $30 for a motorcycle, and $20 per person on foot. These fees provided a pass that is good for seven days. A Zion annual pass can be obtained for $70 and a lifetime pass can be purchased by seniors over the age of 62 for $80. America the Beautiful Annual Pass is a great value at $80 particularly if you plan on visiting any of Utah’s other national parks, such as Bryce Canyon, Arches, Capitol Reef, or Canyonlands.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bring Binoculars: As mentioned, Zion is a virtual paradise for birdwatchers but there are plenty of other creatures to see as well. The park is home to bighorn sheep, mule deer, bobcats, mountain lions, porcupines, foxes, and the elusive ringtail cat. Carrying a pair of binoculars will make it easier to spot these creatures throughout your stay.

Check Trail Closures: Before planning a specific hike in Zion, be sure to check the park’s website or the visitor center for closures. Rockslides and high water are common at times both of which can temporarily close a trail down.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 146,000 acres

Date established: November 19, 1919

Location: Southwestern Utah

Park Elevation: 3,666 feet-8,626 feet

Length of Zion Canyon: 15 miles

Depth of Zion Canyon: 2,640

Park entrance fee: $35 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days

Recreational visits (2021): 5,039,835

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: The parkland that we now call Zion was occupied by the Anasazi people and Paiute Indians until the 1860s when a Mormon settler named Isaac Behunin came to the area. About the heavenly place, he remarked: “These great mountains are natural temples of God. We can worship here as well as in the man-made temples in Zion, the biblical heavenly ‘City of God.'” A short time later, Mormon leader Brigham Young came to the area and didn’t agree with the naming convention so the park began to be referred to as “Not Zion” or “Little Zion.” In any event, the name Zion took. In 1909 President William Howard Taft set aside Zion as a National Monument under the name “Mukuntuweap National Monument.” About a decade later, the acting director of the National Park Service reclaimed the name given to it by Mormon pioneers, Zion

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

Zion National Park lies at the convergence of Great Basin, the Colorado Plateau, and the Mojave Desert (the Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree also sit on Mojave.)  

In 2000, the Zion Shuttle system was implemented, reducing congestion at the most popular places in the park making it easier for all of us to get around.

Worth Pondering…

It is a place where a family can rest at streamside after a pleasant morning hike.

It is a vast labyrinth of narrow canyons where one can become hopelessly lost, shrinking to invisibility beneath dark, towering walls of stone.

One may feel triumph and exhilaration, or awesome smallness atop Angels Landing; thirst and fatigue, or a rewarding weariness, on the return trek from the backcountry.

Perhaps one’s view of Zion is in the eyes of the beholder.

—Wayne L. Hamilton, The Sculpturing of Zion

10 Amazing Places to RV in December 2022

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

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.

—Proverbs 17:22, KJV Bible

This analogy from the Bible’s Book of Proverbs points out the link between emotional and physical well-being: Joy is a powerful emotion as beneficial for an ailing soul as medical treatments are for a sick or injured body. This passage from Proverbs 17:22 suggests that if we possess good cheer, our confidence, laughter, and trust are likely to radiate to those we encounter. Sharing kindness—be it through gifts, singing, rituals, or visiting loved ones—is a worthy and healthy practice this holiday season, and beyond.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in October and November. Also, check out my recommendations from December 2021 and January 2022.

The Barrio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Barrio Viejo

Barrio Viejo, meaning old neighborhood in Spanish, is an area near downtown Tucson that is an important, historical part of the community. This picturesque destination just south of the Tucson Convention Center lies between I-10 and Stone Avenue with Meyer and Main Avenues passing through the center.

The original Barrio neighborhood built between 1880 and 1920 was home to a diverse working class including Spanish, Mexican, Asian, and Hispanic. Using traditional Mexican Village architecture, houses were built of thick-walled adobe with a flat roof, wood beams, and ocotillo, or saguaro cactus ribs, coverings.

The Barrio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Begin your tour of Barrio Veijo at Five Points, the corner of Stone and 18th Streets. Over many decades the houses have been painted bold bright colors with doors/windows becoming works of art. Public buildings also have been treated with the same effect. The Barrio has become a major tourist attraction constantly drawing photographers, artists, and tour groups. In 1978, the Barrio was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Fort Langley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Langley, British Columbia

Go for a festive stroll through this charming village in the Township of Langley to experience the best the holiday season has to offer. The picturesque village is often used as a backdrop for many Hallmark Christmas movies, so you’ll definitely feel like you’re a part of one. With twinkling lights brightening up the historic village, it’s like it was made specifically for the small screen.

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An Art Deco World Wonder

Hoover Dam, once known as Boulder Dam, is a concrete arch-gravity dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River on the border between Arizona and Nevada. It was constructed between 1931 and 1936 during the Great Depression and was dedicated on September 30, 1935, by President Franklin Roosevelt. Its construction was the result of a massive effort involving thousands of workers and cost over one hundred lives. The dam was controversially named in honor of President Herbert Hoover.

Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since about 1900, the Black Canyon and nearby Boulder Canyon had been investigated for their potential to support a dam that would control floods, provide irrigation water, and produce hydroelectric power. In 1928, Congress authorized the project. The winning bid to build the dam was submitted by a consortium called Six Companies, Inc. which began construction on the dam in early 1931. Such a large concrete structure had never been built before and some of the techniques were unproven. The torrid summer weather and the lack of facilities near the site also presented difficulties. Nevertheless, Six Companies turned over the dam to the federal government on March 1, 1936, more than two years ahead of schedule.

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hoover Dam impounds Lake Mead and is located near Boulder City, Nevada, a municipality originally constructed for workers on the construction project about 25 miles southeast of Las Vegas. The dam’s generators provide power for public and private utilities in Nevada, Arizona, and California. Hoover Dam is a major tourist attraction with nearly a million people touring the dam each year. Heavily travelled U.S. 93 ran along the dam’s crest until October 2010 when the Hoover Dam Bypass opened. 

Goose Island State Park

Christmas in the Park

Experience Christmas on the Texas Gulf Coast at Goose Island State Park! See the park in lights, enjoy holiday activities, and CAMP FOR FREE when you decorate your campsite.

Visitors are invited to enjoy a FREE drive through the Live Oak forest to see campsites decorated in lights and join the park rangers at Santa’s Village at the CCC Recreation Hall for holiday crafts, games, hot chocolate around the campfire, and to drop off letters to Santa in the North Pole Mailbox.

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Campers who agree to decorate their campsite will CAMP FOR FREE! Reservations for participating sites are available only by contacting the park via email at Participating campers may begin arriving on December 16 and are eligible for waived fees on December 16 and 17. Community groups are encouraged to decorate a dark spot.

The Peachoid © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Peach of a Water Tower

The Peachoid is a 135 feet tall water tower in Gaffney that resembles a peach. The water tower holds one million gallons of water and is located off Peachoid Road by Interstate 85 between exits 90 and 92 (near the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway). Usually referred to by locals as The Peach and by passing motorists as Mr. Peach or The Moon over Gaffney, the water tank is visible for several miles around these exits. An example of novelty architecture, the Peachoid is one of the most recognizable landmarks for travelers along I-85 between Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia.

The Peachoid © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to official literature, the Peachoid boldly “sets the record straight about which state is the biggest peach producer in the South. Contrary to popular belief, it is NOT Georgia.” Without a doubt, the best-known, most photographed water tank in America. It is painted to match the kind of peaches grown in the area using 20 colors and 50 gallons of paint.

San Antonio River Walk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Heart and Soul of San Antonio

The San Antonio River Walk, or Paseo del Rio, is a public park, open 365 days a year. It is a network of walkways along the banks of the San Antonio River one story beneath approximately 15 miles of downtown San Antonio. Explore by foot along the river’s walking path or jump aboard a river barge for a ride and guided tour. Lined by bars, shops, and restaurants the River Walk is an important part of the city’s urban fabric and a tourist attraction in its own right.

San Antonio River Walk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The River Walk winds and loops under bridges as two parallel sidewalks, lined with restaurants, shops, hotels, and more. It connects the major tourist draws from the Alamo to Rivercenter Mall, Arneson River Theatre and La Villita, the San Antonio Museum of Art, and the Pearl Brewery.

San Antonio Missions National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or, shop local favorites along the river’s Museum Reach at the historic Pearl. While at Pearl, dine and drink al fresco at The Food Hall at Bottling Department. Further south, immerse yourself in history at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park along the Mission Reach.

Bernheim Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Holiday Fun and Festivities at Bernheim

At 15,625 acres, Bernheim boasts the largest protected natural area in Kentucky. Bernheim contains a 600-acre arboretum with over 8,000 unique varieties of trees.

With the holidays just around the corner, the Bernheim calendar is full of events to celebrate with nature this December. Except for Christmas Day, Bernheim is open the entire month with activities for every age.

Bernheim Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bernheim’s Holiday Open House takes place on Saturday, December 4 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Visitor Center. Enjoy a festive day shopping in the forest. Browse the selection of gifts, locally-made crafts, Kentucky Proud and Giants merchandise, and other unique gifts for the nature lover in your life. Get in the holiday spirit with hot mulled cider and refreshments, hourly door prize drawings, holiday specials, and a 30 percent discount for Bernheim members.

Bernheim Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gnomes are known the world over. Legend has it they travel and live in the forest freely, seldom seen by humans. Add some seasonal magic to your home this season by joining the Bernheim staff at one of two Forest Gnome Workshops to create this mythical forest character on Saturday, December 4 from 9:30 to 11 a.m., or from 1 to 2:30 p.m. while enjoying some hot cider, treats, and hot chocolate. Make this a family activity and enjoy building your gnome together. Children 13 and under must be accompanied by an adult.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heaven on Earth

When it comes to standing in awe of nature’s magnificence, it’s hard to beat the Grand Circle Tour—especially the northern arc that carves across southern Utah and encompasses Zion National Park at the western edge and Arches National Park to the east. Of them all, it is Zion that offers outdoor enthusiasts the most varied, seemingly otherworldly terrain. At just under 230 square miles, Zion is relatively small by national park standards, and the park’s most memorable features are found in easily accessible Zion Canyon.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion was carved out of the Markagunt Plateau by the Virgin River which carved down a half-mile into the sandstone as it rushed to meet up with the Colorado River exposing rock layers from the middle periods of the earth’s geological history. 

The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is accessible by shuttle bus only from March 15 to October 25 and on weekends in November. Take time to drive the beautiful Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. This 10-mile length of scenic highway sports a series of switchbacks and the Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel en route to Checkerboard Mesa and the park’s eastern entrance.

Besh Ba Gowah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Besh Ba Gowah Festival of Lights

The City of Globe, Arizona’s Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park and Museum presents the 34th Annual Festival of Lights celebration on Saturday, December 3, from 5 to 9 p.m. The festival delights visitors with a beautiful scene, a festive combination of the Southwest holiday tradition of the luminaria lighting combined with the artistry of American Indian cultural presentations.

Besh Ba Gowah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This year’s festival will feature 4,000 real candle luminarias illuminating the archaeological park’s partly reconstructed 800-year-old Salado culture ruins. Guests are encouraged to walk among the luminarias and experience the magic of the season. The warm glow of the luminarias creates a dramatic backdrop for cultural presentations by the internationally renowned Yellow Bird Productions.

Yellow Bird is a family dance group under the direction of Ken Duncan, a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. The group specializes in cultural presentations that celebrate the unique spirit of American Indians. Presentations will run periodically throughout the night until the festival concludes at 9 p.m.

Besh Ba Gowah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Besh Ba Gowah Museum will be open to visitors for the duration of the event and guests are welcome to view the exhibits and browse the unique items available in the gift store.

The event will also have food trucks offering a variety of delicious treats and local specialty merchandise vendors.

Admission to the event has always been free although non-perishable food donations are encouraged in support of the Gila Community Food Bank.

Globe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since parking for the event fills up fast a free shuttle service is available. The shuttle will run every 15 minutes from 4 p.m. until the last call at 9 p.m. Shuttle parking is located at Globe High School, 437 S. High Street.

Make it a fun-filled weekend by also attending Historic Downtown Globe’s First Friday, December 2. Globe’s First Fridays, from 3 to 7 p.m., have become a hugely popular monthly event that showcases local businesses, restaurants, artists, musicians, makers, bakers and more!

La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Schmeckenfest 2022

Schmeckenfest is a wassail tasting and Christmas extravaganza in La Grande, Texas. Celebrate 16 years of Schmeckenfest on Thursday, December 1 from 5-8 p.m. A true community event, it also attracts visitors to the Square to sample many different types of wassail (hot cider) made by various business owners and community leaders in which participants hope to win the coveted honor of being named Schmeckenmeister.

La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This small-town Christmas festival also includes music, delicious treats sold by local nonprofit organizations, a Christmas parade, the lighting of the County Christmas tree on the Courthouse lawn, children’s activities, and a visit from Santa. There are numerous Christmas card-worthy photo opportunities around the Square as well as pictures with Santa.

Worth Pondering…

Always maintain a kind of summer, even in the middle of winter.

—Henry David Thoreau