RVing, National Parks & The “Wow” Factor

The United States maintains more than 6,000 federally-protected sites, spanning over 1 million square miles and totaling roughly 27 percent of America’s entire land area.

High deserts are known for causing dehydration, sunburn, sunstroke, and dry skin. Drink plenty of water and apply sunscreen. Pictured above Arches National Park.
High deserts are known for causing dehydration, sunburn, sunstroke, and dry skin. Drink plenty of water and apply sunscreen. Pictured above Arches National Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

America’s National Parks are the great outdoors, the wide open spaces, and the wild places where families escape to marvel at a wonderful playground of caverns and canyons, grasslands and badlands, geysers and waterfalls, mountains and glaciers, waterfalls and wild rivers, volcanoes and lava fields, and historic and archeological sites.

Attracting millions of visitors worldwide, the national park system contains many of America’s most treasured landscapes and offers visitors incredible variety from the lush Everglades, to windswept Death Valley, to the grandaddy of national parks, the Grand Canyon.

Stories of America’s diverse places and people are everywhere. They’re found across the landscapes of the nation in the National Parks and National Heritage Areas, along historic trails and waterways, and in every city and neighborhood.

National Parks preserve American history in all its diversity, from ancient archeological places to the homes of poets and Presidents to battlefields and industrial sites.

Why National Parks?

Pinnacles National Park: Rocks, Caves & Condors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Pinnacles National Park: Rocks, Caves & Condors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Park Service helps preserve the beautiful landscapes and historic sites in America. National parks are open to the public to give visitors the opportunity to enjoy these sights and understand why they’re essential to preserve for future generations. For RVers, this provides us with an unique opportunity to travel to the national parks of our choice and camp there, too.

National Parks Are Popular RV Destinations

While the majority of Americans never step foot in a national park, RVers continue to take advantage of everything they have to offer. From east to west and north to south, you’ll find national parks that provide facilities for RVers to camp and enjoy the beauty, history, and ecosystems they protect. This is why national parks should be a high priority to visit for RVers.

What Can You Do at National Parks?

Whether you delight in the challenge of a strenuous hike or prefer to sit quietly and enjoy a sunrise or sunset, national parks offer a great diversity of activities for you and your family to enjoy.

Two desert systems, the Mojave and the Colorado, abut within Joshua Tree, dividing California's southernmost national park into two arid ecosystems of profoundly contrasting appearance. The key to their differences is elevation.
Two desert systems, the Mojave and the Colorado, abut within Joshua Tree, dividing California’s southernmost national park into two arid ecosystems of profoundly contrasting appearance. The key to their differences is elevation. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Depending on the national park chosen, you can do everything from camping, hiking, biking, boating, fishing, nature walks, and much more. Each national park has a variety of activities related to the unique features of the park that you can take part in by yourself or as a family.

With so many adventures to choose from, you’ll have some tough decisions to make.

RVing to National Parks

Many national parks provide visitor services for RVers including campgrounds that provide parking sites, flush toilets, and shower facilities. RVers can reserve camping sites and enjoy the park in a different way than day visitors.

Most national parks that offer camping facilities recommend you make reservations up to six months in advance.

As the peak summer season approaches and national parks become a more popular destination for RVers, it becomes increasingly more difficult to obtain a camping site without advance reservations. As an alternative, private campgrounds and RV parks are often located within easy driving distance of popular national parks. Again, reservations are recommended.

Choosing the Right National Park

Choosing the park that’s right for you is as simple as choosing how you want to play, for the parks offer a nearly endless range of activities to explore.

When selecting a national park for your next RV vacation, consider your family’s interests.

National Parks are perfect for kids. Most of the larger parks run Junior Ranger Programs, allowing kids to participate in fun activities while learning about the area’s natural habitat and historic significance. Other parks offer nature walks and wildlife talks specifically geared towards children, to demonstrate to them that nature has much to offer.

The Island in the Sky region of Canyonlands is a wide high plateau with commanding views across many miles of deep canyons in all directions. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Island in the Sky region of Canyonlands is a wide high plateau with commanding views across many miles of deep canyons in all directions. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upon entrance to a national park make your fist stop the Visitors Center. The friendly park rangers will recommend guided hikes, nature walks, other available family activities as well as provide the latest information about safety hazards, closures, weather, and wildlife notices.

Regardless of the park you choose, you’ll find numerous options and delights; keep your mind open to the possibilities and your soul open to the experiences.

Worth Pondering…

In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.

—Aristotle

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Triassic Park: Petrified Forest National Park

We recently toured Petrified Forest National Park, one of the world’s largest and most vibrantly colored assemblies of petrified wood, historic structures, and archeological sites.

We entered a mysterious world of ancient trees turned to stone along the 0.75-mile Crystal Forest trail. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
We entered a mysterious world of ancient trees turned to stone along the 0.75-mile Crystal Forest trail. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The experience exceeded our expectations.

The park is actually composed of two sections: the north section is a colorful badlands called the Painted Desert, and the southern section contains most of the petrified wood.

The park consists of a 28-mile road that offers numerous overlooks and winds through the mesas and wilderness. Visitors can also choose to hike a variety of trails ranging from easy to difficult.

The land below is awash in burnt sienna, deep maroon, dusty purple and sprinkled here and there with vibrant green plants.

While touring Petrified Forest National Park, we used OK RV Park at nearby Holbrook as our home base.

Located 26 miles west of the park along I-40, OK RV Park, a Good Sam Park, has easy-in, easy-out large gravel pull-through sites suitable for big rigs. Each site has full hookups with 30/50-amp electric service, cable TV, and Wi-Fi. The park also features a laundry room, clubhouse, and clean, modern restrooms.

After entering the park from the south we hiked the Giant Logs trail located behind Rainbow Forest Museum. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
After entering the park from the south we hiked the Giant Logs trail located behind Rainbow Forest Museum. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest, a surprising realm of fascinating landscape and science, was set aside as a national monument in 1906 to preserve and protect the petrified wood for its scientific value. It is recognized today for having so much more, including a broad representation of the Late Triassic paleo-ecosystem, significant human history, clear night skies, fragile grasslands ecosystem, and unspoiled scenic vistas.

Petrified wood found in the park and the surrounding region consists of almost solid quartz. Each piece is like a giant crystal, often sparkling in the sunlight as if covered by glitter. The rainbow of colors is produced by impurities in the quartz, such as iron, carbon, and manganese.

Though only seven species of tree have been identified through petrified wood, over 200 species of plants have currently been identified from other Triassic fossils, such as leaves, pollen, and spores.

More than 200 million years ago, flourishing trees and vegetation covered much of this area of northeastern Arizona. But volcanic lava destroyed the forest, the logs washed into an ancient river system and were embedded into sediment comprised of volcanic ash and water. Oxygen was cut off and decay slowed to a process that would now take centuries.

The north section on the park is a colorful badlands called the Painted Desert. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The north section on the park is a colorful badlands called the Painted Desert. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Minerals, including silica dissolved from volcanic ash, absorbed into the porous wood over hundreds and thousands of years, and crystallized replacing the organic material as it broke down over time. Sometimes crushing or decay left cracks in the logs. Here large jewel-like crystals of clear quartz, purple amethyst, yellow citrine, and smoky quartz formed.

Erosion set the logs free millions of years later, revealing the petrified wood made mostly of quartz—that visitors to the park come to see.

The best way to enjoy and experience Petrified Forest National Park is on foot. Designated trails range in length from less than a half-mile to almost three miles.

After entering the park from the south we hiked the Giant Logs trail located behind Rainbow Forest Museum. Giant Logs features some of the largest and most colorful logs in the park. “Old Faithful”, at the top of the trail, is almost ten feet wide at the base.

Further along the 28-mile route through the park we hiked the 0.75-mile Crystal Forest trail stopping often for yet-another photo op. Here, we entered a mysterious world of ancient trees turned to stone. The brightly colored remnants of an earlier geologic age invited us to visualize a changing world.

Petrified Forest National Park stretches north and south between I-40 and U.S. Highway 180. There are two entrances into the park. Your direction of travel dictates which entrance is best to use.

Westbound I-40 travelers should take Exit 311, drive the 28 miles through the park and connect with Highway 180 at the south end. Travel 19 miles on Highway 180 North to return to I-40 via Holbrook.

Eastbound I-40 travelers should take Exit 285 into Holbrook then travel 19 miles on U.S. Highway 180 South to the park’s south entrance. Drive the 28 miles north through the park to return to I-40.

Did You Know?

The ecosystem at Petrified Forest National Park is not desert. It’s one of the largest areas of intact grassland in the Southwest.

Details

Petrified Forest National Park

The best way to enjoy and experience Petrified Forest National Park is on foot. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The best way to enjoy and experience Petrified Forest National Park is on foot. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Established: December 9, 1962

Size: 135,000 acres

Entrance Fees: $10/vehicle; valid for 7 days

Camping Info: Camping and/or overnight parking are not allowed in the park. However, Holbrook has 2 RV parks: OK RV Park and Holbrook/Petrified Forest KOA.

When to go: The park is open year-round, but hours vary. Summer is the worst season because of the crowds and heat. Winters are chilly, with the possibility of brief snowstorms, although the park’s 10 inches of annual moisture come mostly during summer thunderstorms. Spring and fall offer the mildest temperatures.

Mailing Address: 1 Park Road, P.O. Box 2217, Petrified Forest, AZ 86028

Phone: (928) 524-6228

Website: nps.gov/pefo

Worth Pondering…

Road trips have beginnings and ends, but it’s what’s in between that counts.

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Extreme Land: El Malpais National Monument, NM

Located in the high-desert country between lands belonging to the Zuni, Ramah Navajo, Laguna, and Acoma nations, El Malpais National Monument is a relative newcomer to the National Park System. Known as “the badlands” in Spanish, El Malpais was used by early Spanish map makers to describe areas of volcanic terrain. El Malpais preserves an ancient volcanic landscape and a history of human habitation.

El Malpais National Monument preserves an ancient volcanic landscape and a history of human habitation. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is much to see. You’ll find expansive lava flows, cinder cones, complex lava-tube cave system more than 17 miles long, fragile ice caves, as well as sandstone bluffs and mesas, easily viewed from Sandstone Bluff’s Overlook. Inhabited for 10,000 years, the area also contains historical and archaeological sites. Finally, don’t miss La Ventana Natural Arch, one of the largest in New Mexico.

Lava that once poured from five separate magma flows produced the black, ropy pahoehoe and clinkers of a thousand years ago. Islands of earth that were surrounded, rather than covered, by lava are spots of undisturbed vegetation called kipukas (lava formations are referred to in Hawaiian terms).

There are many ways to see El Malpais, depending on how much time you have and whether you want to hike or go off-road.

Many points of interest are accessible from State Route 117. The Sandstone Bluffs Overlook is reached by a short walk from a parking area along the highway. Excellent overviews of the lava flows as well as the surrounding terrain are seen from this vantage point.

Sandstone bluffs and mesas as viewed from Sandstone Bluff’s Overlook © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can look south to the Zuni-Acoma Trail, a 15-mile round-trip hike over the rugged Anasazi trade route, which crosses four of the five major lava flows.

La Ventana Natural Arch, the largest of New Mexico’s accessible natural arches, is visible from the parking lot. Trails lead up to the bottom of the free-standing arch for a closer look at this natural wonder.

East of the highway are some 62,000 acres of lush, pine-covered rimrock called the Cebola Wilderness. Exploration of this area of the park will reward visitors with prehistoric petroglyphs and historic homesteads.

Continuing down the highway, you’ll drive through The Narrows; here lava flowed past the base of 500-foot sandstone cliffs. A picnic area is located here, and hikers will be intrigued by the unusual lava formations they’ll find.

At the Lava Falls Area, you can explore the unique features of the McCarty’s flow and marvel at the plant life that is adapted to life in the lava.

If you have a high-clearance vehicle, you can drive to the Big Tubes Area, where you can explore two of the network of gigantic caves formed by the flowing lava: Big Skylight and Four Windows.

In the area known as Chain of Craters, 30 cinder cones can be found across the landscape.

El Malpais will astonish you with its diversity, which encompasses grassland, piñon-juniper forests, ponderosa pine woodlands, and basalt fields.

Photo Tips

The best time for photos from Sandstone Bluff’s Overlook is at sunset when you can take advantage of late afternoon light and the New Mexico sky colors. For best results use a circular polarizing filter and a tripod. Keep in mind that this is often a high wind location. I don’t recommend changing lenses in the field while shooting in the area, since dust can be a problem and leave your digital sensor spotted. Autumn bring changing leaf colors.

Did You Know?

La Ventana Natural Arch is one of the largest in New Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When people say that El Malpais lava country looks like a “moonscape” they aren’t far from the truth. Much of the moon is covered with basalt lava flows which form the “maria” or lunar seas. Astronauts trained on lava flows in preparation for walking on the moon.

El Malpais National Monument

Details

Operating Hours: Open year-round, 24 hours a day

Admission: No fees charged at El Malpais National Monument

Pets: Not allowed on any hiking trails or anywhere in the backcountry

Location: From I-40 east of Grants, take Exit 89 south on Highway 117 which forms the eastern boundary; take Exit 81, west of Grants south on Highway 53 which forms the northwestern boundary. NPS’s El Malpais Information Center is located 23 miles south of this exit.

Camping: NO camping facilities

Address: 123 East Roosevelt Avenue, Grants, NM 87020

Contact:(505) 285-4641

Web site: nps.gov/elma

Worth Pondering…

We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in, for it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.

—Wallace Stegner

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