My Love Affair With RV Travel in America

“What’s your favorite place to go?”

Anyone who has listened to John Denver sing about country roads and the Blue Ridge Mountains can easily imagine the transcendent beauty of Shenandoah National Park.
Anyone who has listened to John Denver sing about country roads and the Blue Ridge Mountains can easily imagine the transcendent beauty of Shenandoah National Park along the Skyline Drive. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course that’s what they ask. It’s the polite thing to ask, after all. People like to seem as if they’re interested in what you do. In this case, the question also always has a twinge of yearning.

I always give the same answer. I find something I like nearly everywhere I go, and it’s hard to pick just one place.

People hate that answer.

“Come on. If you could pick just one place, where would you want to go again? Just one place.”

They all want to hear something exotic, aspirational, and bucket-listy. They want to hear Key West or Santa Barbara, the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. They don’t want the truth. Can they handle the truth?

The truth is, we have visited 34 states and 4 Canadian provinces during the past 17 years, and found something that we adored in every one of them.

Route 66, also known as the Will Rogers Highway and colloquially known as the Main Street of America or the Mother Road, was one of the original highways within the U.S. Highway System and continues to captivate people around the world. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Route 66, also known as the Will Rogers Highway and colloquially known as the Main Street of America or the Mother Road, was one of the original highways within the U.S. Highway System and continues to captivate people around the world. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our decade and half of RV travel stoked a love affair with American and Canadian attractions and historic sites, local towns and cities, scenic routes and byways, and national and state/provincial parks.

I did begin rereading John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley — an incredible account of the America that he experienced on his road trip around the country with his wife’s standard poodle as a companion. Steinbeck was 58 years old in 1960 when he began his journey, and he felt compelled to get out and really see the country for the first time in a long time. He said he felt like a criminal writing about a country that he didn’t know enough about anymore.

In the words of photographer Diane Arbus, “My favorite thing is to go where I have never been.” And so it is with us.

Taking your RV on the open road and experiencing breathtaking views along the way can make for the one-of-a-kind vacation your family is looking for. It is the journey and not the destination that is the joy of the RV lifestyle.

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

Highways can guide you along the coast to take in ocean views at sunset. Others wind you through the mountains exploring history.

The US and Canada are brimming with beautiful and diverse routes from the glittering waters of the Pacific to the majestic Rocky Mountains and down to the mysterious swamps of the South.

You don’t have to drive far to find a great road—just about everyone has a favorite route in their part of the country.

Here’s a little secret: You can’t go wrong with the Blue Ridge Parkway or a Route 66 road trip. Scenic and historic, both routes have a little bit of everything. We explain, starting with Route 66.

Route 66: 2,448 Miles

If you’re looking for great displays of neon signs, mom-and-pop motels in the middle of nowhere, or kitschy Americana, do as the song says and “get your kicks on Route 66.”

Antique cars parked along Wigwam Village Motel in Holbrook, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Along Route 66, antique cars are parked at Wigwam Village Motel in Holbrook, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nothing speaks more to the history and ingenuity of the United States than U.S. Route 66. Beginning in the Windy City, this legendary old road passes through the heart of the United States on a diagonal trip that takes in some of the country’s most archetypal roadside scenes, ending in the land of golden dreams. Chicago’s mighty skyscrapers give way to the Ozarks, eventually leading into the grassy plains of Oklahoma and Kansas. From here you’ll travel into a world of surreal sights: the desert murals of the Southwest and the sandy beaches of California.

Route 66 passes through a marvelous cross-section of American scenes, from the cornfields of Illinois all the way to the golden sands and sunshine of Los Angeles, passing by such diverse environs as the Grand Canyon, the Native American communities of the desert Southwest, the small-town Midwest heartlands of Oklahoma and the Ozarks, as well as the gritty streets of St. Louis and Chicago.

Whether you are motivated by an interest in history, feel a nostalgic yearning for the “good old days” Route 66 has come to represent, or simply want to experience firsthand the amazing diversity of people and landscapes that line its path, Route 66 offers an unforgettable journey into America, then and now.

Blue Ridge Parkway: 469 Miles

The Blue Ridge Parkway provides spectacular mountain and valley vistas, quiet pastoral scenes, sparkling waterfalls, and colorful flower and foliage displays as it extends through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. Connecting two national parks— Shenandoah in Virginia with the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina—the Blue Ridge Parkway traverses 469 miles through blue-misted Appalachian highlands.

Take in forest-blanketed mountain vistas, ripe for fauna (look for bear, deer, and beaver) and flora viewing (interesting factoid: the parkway’s namesake “blue” haze is attributed to the hydrocarbon release from the some 130 tree species).

Worth Pondering…

I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.

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Fall RV Camping: 3 Colorful Destinations

As summer comes to a close, the bright blues and greens that characterize the season are replaced by a deeper, more vibrant palette. As the trees start to don their bright fall colors, the best time of year for viewing the foliage is just ahead.

beauty of Shenandoah National Park
Fall is everyone’s favorite season to visit Shenandoah. The renowned and spectacular Skyline Drive offers a kaleidoscope of red, yellow, and gold. The endless rolling ridges of brightly colored trees never fails to excite. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nothing says “family camping” like fall in the air. There’s a crisp crackle outside and a coolness that feels like sweater weather. Fall camping can be just as much fun as summer camping, so this season take the family out for a few more camping trips before you prepare your RV for the winter.

Visiting national parks tops the list of reasons why many of us chose the RV lifestyleGreat Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited park in the National Park System and home to the largest stands of old growth forests in the Eastern U.S. Varying hues of gold, amber, reds, and even purples are mixed in with the dwindling greens of maples, beech, oaks, and the other hardwood species that make the season so colorful.

The twisting, scenic mountain road that leads out of the eastern edge of Great Smoky—the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway—is a destination unto itself. The north end of this vista-filled parkway ends in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.

Anyone who has listened to John Denver sing about country roads and the Blue Ridge Mountains can easily imagine the transcendent beauty of Shenandoah National Park.

Fall is everyone’s favorite season to visit Shenandoah. The renowned and spectacular Skyline Drive offers a kaleidoscope of red, yellow, and gold each year from about mid-October to mid-November. The endless rolling ridges of brightly colored trees never fails to excite.

The rule of thumb is that colors generally peak in Shenandoah during the last half of October.

Sedona and Red Rock Country
Sedona and Red Rock Country, a vacation hotspot, has appeal for every member of the family. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Autumn is also a great time to visit Sedona, renowned for its stunning rock formations such as Coffee Pot Rock, Cathedral Rock, and Courthouse Butte, as well as its surrounding lush forests. The explosion of brilliant fall colors signals the best time to take a scenic drive up and down Sedona’s Oak Creek Canyon. Autumn in Sedona usually begins in early October and crescendos into the full brilliance of reds, yellows, and golden hues from the middle to end of October. The show is usually over by mid-November.

Other points of interests in the area include Montezuma Castle National Monument including Montezuma Well, a detached unit of the park, and Tuzigoot National Monument, one of the largest pueblos built by the Sinagua.

Kentucky’s vast expanses of forested terrain make it one of the best places in the U.S. to enjoy nature’s spectacular display of fall color. About 12 million acres—47 percent of Kentucky’s land area—are forested, and some 175 tree species grow wild in the state. Kentucky is rich in hardwood forests populated by trees known for their bright fall colors.

Kentucky Welcome Center
Kentucky Welcome Center, I-65, Exit 114 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take a scenic drive in Daniel Boone National Forest in eastern Kentucky. At the northern end, explore the Red River Gorge and Zilpo Scenic Byways, while the southern end boasts the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway.

Among the most scenic routes in western Kentucky is the Woodlands Trace National Scenic Byway in Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area. In central Kentucky, fall is an ideal time to take the Bluegrass Country Driving Tour, which winds past horse farms with their wooden and stone fences underneath a canopy of many-colored leaves.
You won’t find a better venue than Bernheim Forest near Clermont from which to admire the sculptural grace of mature trees in a natural setting. Stroll the paths or hike the trails and take in colorful fall displays that include maples, dogwoods, magnolias, conifers, cypresses, hollies, beeches, and buckeyes.

The color changes usually begin as early as September in the higher elevations of the eastern mountains and gradually progress to the west during October and into early November.

For information about RV parks and campgrounds, check out Good Sam RV Travel Guide and Campground Directory.

Worth Pondering…

Country Roads

Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Country roads, take me home
To the place, I be-long
West Virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, country roads.
—John Denver

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National Parks Impact Local Economies

National park visitors contributed $26.5 billion to the nation’s economy and supported almost 240,000 jobs in 2013, according to a peer-reviewed report.

salt flats at Badwarwe Basin
Walk onto the crusted salt flats at Badwarwe Basin (Death Valley National Park) for a short distance to enjoy the expansive views up and down the valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“National parks are often the primary economic engines of many park gateway communities,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis, in a news release.

“While park rangers provide interpretation of the iconic natural, cultural, and historic landscapes, nearby communities provide our visitors with services that support hundreds of thousands of mostly local jobs.”

National park visitation for 2013 declined by 3.2 percent compared to 2012. The 16-day government shutdown last October accounted for most of the decline. National parks in the Northeast, closed for Hurricane Sandy-related repairs, were the other significant brake on visitation.

Visitor spending for 2013 was down by 1 percent. The number of jobs supported by visitor spending was off by 2.1 percent, and the overall effect on the U.S. economy was 1 percent lower than the previous year due to adjustments for inflation.

“The big picture of national parks and their importance to the economy is clear,” Jarvis said. “Every tax dollar invested in the National Park Service returns $10 to the U.S. economy because of visitor spending in gateway communities near the 401 parks of the National Park System.”

Just when you think you’ve seen as much color and sculptured rock for­mations Mother Nature can create, you enter Bryce Canyon for yet anoth­er brilliant and stunning display. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Just when you think you’ve seen as much color and sculptured rock for­mations Mother Nature can create, you enter Bryce Canyon for yet anoth­er brilliant and stunning display. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jarvis said visitation so far this year indicates a rebound from 2013 and he expects a steady increase as excitement grows in advance of the 2016 centennial of the National Park Service.

The annual report, 2013 National Park Visitor Spending Effects, was prepared by economists Catherine Cullinane Thomas and Christopher Huber of the U.S. Geological Survey and Lynne Koontz of the National Park Service. It includes information by park and by state on visitor spending within 60 miles of a national park, jobs supported by visitor spending, and other statistics.

According to the 2013 report, most park visitor spending was for lodging (30.3 percent) followed by food and beverages (27.3 percent), gas and oil (12.1 percent), admissions and fees (10.3 percent), and souvenirs and other expenses (10 percent).

The largest jobs categories supported by visitor spending were restaurants and bars (50,000 jobs) and lodging (38,000 jobs).

Total recreation visits and total visitor spending ($000s) in selected National Park Service sites follow:

Arches National Park, Utah: 1,082,866; $120,171.7

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah: 1,311,875; $105,705.8

Carlsbad Canyon National Park, New Mexico: 388,565; $23,589.7

Death Valley National Park, California: 951,973; $75,255.1

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona and Utah: 1,991,925; $115,593.6

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona: 4,564,841; $476,194.8

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee: 9,354,695; $734,086.6

Joshua Tree National Park, California: 1,383,341; $62,929.9

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

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona and Nevada: 6,344,714; $260,500.1

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado: 460,237; $45,089.8

Padre Island National Seashore, Texas: 515,381; $20,967.0

San Antonio Missions National Historic Park, Texas: 521,705; $28,576.1

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia:1,136,505; $72,402.6

Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming: 3,188,030; $381,762.7

Yosemite National Park, California: 3,691,192; $373,269.8

A prominent feature of the 229-square-mile park is Zion Canyon, which is 15 miles long and up to half a mile deep, cut through the reddish and tan-colored Navajo Sandstone by the North Fork of the Virgin River. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A prominent feature of the 229-square-mile park is Zion Canyon, which is 15 miles long and up to half a mile deep, cut through the reddish and tan-colored Navajo Sandstone by the North Fork of the Virgin River. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah: 2,807,387; $147,501.9

Details

National Park Service

Since 1916, the American people have entrusted the National Park Service with the care of their national parks. With the help of volunteers and park partners, the park service is proud to safeguard these special places and to share their stories with more than 275 million visitors every year.

More than 20,000 National Park Service employees care for America’s 401 national parks and work with communities across the nation to help preserve local history and create close-to-home recreational opportunities.

Website: www.nps.gov

Worth Pondering…

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

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

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Best National Parks To Visit This Spring

Spring brings a fresh start, a chance to put away layers of clothes and roam free and easy.

Hikers trek into the forest along the more than 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail and are rewarded with some of the most scenic views of Shenandoah. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Hikers trek into the forest along the more than 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail and are rewarded with some of the most scenic views of Shenandoah. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And there’s no better place to find renewal than a national park, our unbeatable natural treasures.

Spring brings a renewal, warmer temperatures, fields of wildflowers, and blessedly few crowds.

Following are four of the best national parks for springtime revelry, from Virginia to Wyoming to Arizona.

Now it’s your turn to start planning a trip.

Shenandoah National Park

As springtime helps Shenandoah National Park come to life, those who visit will take away a deeper appreciation for its diversity of flora and fauna. With nearly 200,000 forested acres, Shenandoah National Park is most popular during the fall foliage. Spring sees some of the fewest visitors, but perhaps the most unique beauty thanks to park’s 850 species of flowering plants.

While some visitors choose a scenic drive along Skyline Drive, others opt to explore meadows and forests by foot with every turn revealing a new color, new sound, and new sight.

The Smoky Mountains are among the oldest on Earth. Ice Age glaciers stopped their southward journey just short of these mountains, which became a junction of southern and northern flora. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Smoky Mountains are among the oldest on Earth. Ice Age glaciers stopped their southward journey just short of these mountains, which became a junction of southern and northern flora. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitor facilities and services re-open for the year in March, and the wildflower display begins in early April, continuing to summer. Pink azaleas bloom in May closely followed by mountain laurel in June.

Yellowstone National Park

The roads at Yellowstone National Park are first plowed in late March, and bit by bit the park opens up, ending with Beartooth Highway in early June. The road to Mammoth Springs near the north entrance is the first area to open up—usually in March. The road to Old Faithful is usually open by mid-April. This early in the spring, snow still covers the ground and night temperatures fall below freezing.

As the snow melts, the rivers swell, and the trails open up. If you go early in the season, you’ll have to play your choices by ear. But you’ll be in Yellowstone. The scenery will still be magnificent, and the world-famous wildlife-viewing opportunities will still abound. Watch out for elk, bears, deer, bison, smaller mammals, birds, and more.

Wildflowers, a favorite spring rejuvenator, are a major draw to the grasslands of Pelican Valley and Hayden Valley, as well as the desert sagebrush regions near the north entrance. And as the higher trails open up, early summer wildflowers appear in the higher climes.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, is both the most-visited national park in the country and the most abundantly blessed with 1,500 species of flowering plants, more than any other national park.

Springtime flowers include trilliums, phacelia, violets, lady’s slippers, jack-in-the-pulpits, and showy orchids. The viewing window for the latter is brief — mid-April to mid-May in the forests, mid-June to mid-July on the higher slopes — so go sooner rather than later.

The milder temperatures and reduced haze in spring make for ideal visiting conditions.

Saguaro National Park

The park is named after the Saguaro cactus, which blooms brilliant in the burgeoning heat of spring.

Halved by the city of Tucson, Saguaro National Park is really two parks in one. The Rincon Mountains are perhaps the most prominent wilderness on the east side of the park. The Tucson Mountains are where you go to get away from it all in the West.

Unique to the Sonoran Desert, the park’s giant saguaros sometimes reach as much as 50 feet in height – so it’s no wonder they’ve been described as the kings of the Sonoran Desert.
Unique to the Sonoran Desert, the park’s giant saguaros sometimes reach as much as 50 feet in height – so it’s no wonder they’ve been described as the kings of the Sonoran Desert. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro is a great hiking park. Some 128 miles of trail explore it, with the usual full range of difficulty levels and length.

Among the satisfyingly adapted plants to experience are the leguminous mesquites and paloverdes, pears, chollas, hedgehog cacti, creosote bushes, ocotillos, and catclaws. April to June is cactus flowering season with saguaro blooming at its peak in May and June.

Saguaro flowers bloom for less than 24 hours. They open at night and remain open through the next day.

Hundreds of bird species either pass through the park or live here year-round. The reptiles and small animals bring a close-to-the-ground dimension to the park. And close-to-the-ground is frequently the most fascinating place of all.

Worth Pondering…

Can words describe the fragrance of the very breath of spring?
―Neltje Blachan

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National Parks Lose $76M Per Day During Government Shutdown

The partial government shutdown’s toll on national parks can be measured in lost visitors, lost spending, and lost revenue to the US federal government.

When you find yourself surrounded by twisted, spiky trees straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, you will have met the park's namesake: Joshua tree. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
When you find yourself surrounded by twisted, spiky trees straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, you will have met the park’s namesake: Joshua tree. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lost revenue to the federal government, in the form of entrance fees and rentals equals $450,000 a day, according to a USA Today special report.

As the government shutdown enters its 11th day, more than 7 million Americans have been kept out of national parks and $750 million in visitor spending has been lost, with huge repercussions for the economies of gateway communities and entire states that depend on national park tourism.

BY THE NUMBERS: THE SHUTDOWN

715,000: Average number of National Park visitors each day in October 2012

$76 million: Amount local economies lose per day from people not visiting national parks, based on October 2012 data

$450,000: Lost revenue per day from entrance fees ($300,000) and in-park activities, such as campground fees and boat rentals ($150,000) at national parks

11: Number of days parks have been closed

These numbers were compiled by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees (CNPSR) and are based on October 2012 government park attendance data and an analysis of economic impacts by Headwaters Economics.

“These figures are mind-boggling, and they only begin to capture the full economic shock of the shutdown,” said Maureen Finnerty, CNPSR Chair and former superintendent of Everglades and Olympic National Parks.

“And it’s not just federal employees and visitors feeling the pain. Often, national parks support hundreds of hospitality jobs in surrounding communities.”

Almost 87% of the National Park Service’s 24,645 employees have been sent home during the shutdown, which started October 1 when Congress failed to enact a spending bill.

A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The following is CNPSR-gathered data for the lost visitors, visitor spending, and jobs at risk for 12 leading national parks across the United States:

Acadia National Park (Maine): 68,493 lost visitors in first 10 days, $5,263,013 lost visitor dollars in first 10 days, and 3331 total jobs at stake, including 3147 local/non-NPS jobs.

Badlands National Park (South Dakota): 26,767 lost visitors in first 10 days, $656,986 lost visitor dollars in first 10 days, and 475 total jobs at stake, including 375 local/non-NPS jobs.

Boston National Historic Park (Massachusetts): 54,794 lost visitors in first 10 days, $2,032,876 lost visitor dollars in first 10 days, and 1019 total jobs at stake, including 904 non-NPS jobs.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Ohio): 68,219 lost visitors in first 10 days, $1,545,205 lost visitor dollars in first 10 days, and 819 total jobs at stake, including 599 local/non-NPS jobs.

Everglades National Park (Florida): 25,083 lost visitors in first 10 days, $3,857,534 lost visitor dollars in first 10 days, and 2364 total jobs at stake, including 1951 local/non-NPS jobs.

Gettysburg National Military Park (Pennsylvania): 27,397 lost visitors in first 10 days, $1,796,712 lost visitor dollars in first 10 days, and 1141 total jobs at stake, including 1051 local/non-NPS jobs.

Glacier National Park (Montana): 60,273 lost visitors in first 10 days, $3,076,712 lost visitor dollars in first 10 days, and 1994 total jobs at stake, including 1632 local/non-NPS jobs.

Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona): 120,000 lost visitors in first 10 days, $11,750,684 lost visitor dollars in first 10 days, and 6825 total jobs at stake, including 6167 local/non-NPS jobs.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina and Tennessee): 257,534 lost visitors in first 10 days, $23,123,287 lost visitor dollars in first 10 days, and 11,766 total jobs at stake, including 11,367 local/non-NPS jobs.

Olympic National Park (Washington): 77,808 lost visitors in first 10 days, $2,912,328 lost visitor dollars in first 10 days, and 1673 total jobs at stake, including 1395 local/non-NPS jobs.

Fruita Campground is located adjacent to the Fremont River (pictured above) in Capitol Reef National Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Fruita Campground is located adjacent to the Fremont River (pictured above) in Capitol Reef National Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado): 80,821 lost visitors in first 10 days, $4,821,917 lost visitor dollars in first 10 days, and 3033 total jobs at stake, including 2641 local/non-NPS jobs.

Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho): 98,630 lost visitors in first 10 days, $9,452,054 lost visitor dollars in first 10 days, and 5572 total jobs at stake, including 4481 local/non-NPS jobs.

Yosemite National Park (California): 106,849 lost visitors in first 10 days, $10,021,917 lost visitor dollars in first 10 days, and 5607 total jobs at stake, including 4602 local/non-NPS jobs.

Zion National Park (Utah): 72,876 lost visitors in first 10 days, $3,495,890 lost visitor dollars in first 10 days, and 2401 total jobs at stake, including 2136 local/non-NPS jobs.

A note on data: Visitation, economic impacts, and job numbers for the 12 parks are drawn from Headwaters Economics, Land and Communities, National Parks Service Units, Economic Impacts of Visitation and Expenditures. Top line numbers for NPS daily visitation provided by Coalition of National Park Service Retirees using National Park Service data.

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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Best 10 National Parks for Camping

Camping in America’s national parks allows a visitor to more fully appreciate the beauty of America’s natural treasures.

If you’re in search of a camper’s delight, these are the best national parks for you.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are a division of the larger Appalachian Mountain chain.  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are a division of the larger Appalachian Mountain chain. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park.

One of the nation’s premiere camping destinations, the park offers four different types of campsites: backcountry, frontcountry, group campgrounds, and horse camps. Perfect for families, the camp’s 10 frontcountry campground locations are developed sites that accommodate tents, RVs, or pop-up trailers.

The National Park Service maintains developed frontcountry campgrounds at 10 locations in the park: Abrams Creek, Balsam Mountain, Big Creek, Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Cosby, Deep Creek, Elkmont, Look Rock, and Smokemont.

Each campground has restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets. Each individual campsite has a fire grate and picnic table. There are no showers or electrical or water hookups in the park.

Maximum RV length varies with the campground.
Reservations are available for campsites at Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Cosby, Elkmont, and Smokemont. Advance reservations are required at Cataloochee Campground. All remaining park campgrounds are first-come, first-served.

Continue reading →

Zion is home to 207 species of birds. Bird checklists are available at the visitor centers. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Zion is home to 207 species of birds. Bird checklists are available at the visitor centers. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park is known for its incredible canyons and spectacular views. With its massive sandstone cliffs that range from light cream to deep red in color, driving or hiking through Zion is visually stunning.

With nearly three million visitors per year, Zion is Utah’s most heavily used park. Most park facilities are located in the Zion Canyon area, and it attracts the most visitors.

Zion National Park has three campgrounds. South and Watchman Campgrounds are in Zion Canyon near the south entrance at Springdale. The Lava Point Campground is about a 1-hour drive from Zion Canyon on the Kolob Terrace Road. There are no campgrounds in Kolob Canyons.

During June, July, and August, the campgrounds are full every night. Reservations at Watchman Campground are recommended.

Generators are not permitted at Watchman Campground, but 95 campsites have electrical hookups. There are no full-hookup campsites; a dump station is available for campers.

South Campground offers 127 campsites available first-come, first-served. There are no hook-ups; a dump station is available for campers. Generators are allowed from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. and from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.

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Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the seven Natural Wonders of the World, Grand Canyon National Park is a jewel in America’s national park system. Stretching 277 miles from end to end, steep, rocky walls descend more than a mile to the canyon’s floor, where the wild Colorado River traces a swift course southwest.

Advance campground reservations can be made for two of the three National Park Service (NPS) campgrounds within Grand Canyon National Park: Mather Campground on the South Rim (in Grand Canyon village) and the North Rim Campground. The NPS campgrounds do not have RV hook-ups.

The NPS Desert View Campground, on the South Rim of the park, and 25 miles the east of Grand Canyon Village, is first-come, first-served only. No reservations are accepted.

There is only one RV campground within the park with full hook-ups. It is located in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. Trailer Village is a concessioner operated RV park with full hook-ups. Reservations are recommended.

Continue reading →

Please Note: This is Part 2 of a 3-part series

Part 1: Top 10 National Parks for Camping

Part 3: 10 Spectacular National Parks for Camping

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

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Top 10 Most Visited National Parks in 2012

More than 282 million people visited America’s national parks in 2012, an increase of more than 3 million over 2011.

A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It was the sixth highest annual visitation in the history of the National Park Service, despite nearly 2 million fewer visitors as a result of park closures caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Since 1916, the National Park System has recorded more than 12 billion visits.

“The National Park Service strives to represent all that America has to offer,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis.

“People come to national parks for many reasons—for recreation and to learn about American history by strolling through a battlefield. They come to listen to a park ranger at Independence National Historical Park and marvel at the Continental Congress. And people come to national parks for old-fashioned enjoyment of the great outdoors.”

National parks capture the story the United States, from its earliest days to the modern era.

Jarvis said, “The dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial and the opening of the César E. Chávez National Monument in 2012 help us to continue to explore how our nation of many faces and many voices has developed.”

The challenges left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy will become part of American history, too. The storm slammed into 70 national park sites from North Carolina to Maine. Some parks closed briefly, others for weeks while the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York remain closed for repairs.

Camping at Arches National Park, Utah. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Camping at Arches National Park, Utah. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The Statue of Liberty will reopen by the Fourth of July,” Jarvis said.

“It’ll take longer at the Ellis Island Museum. As we rebuild we keep sustainability front of mind. It is clear that our changing climate will bring more severe weather events, especially to coastal areas, and we must repair our iconic national parks to survive future storms.”

There are familiar park names in the Top 10 lists.

Gateway National Recreation Area in New York lost nearly 1.2 million visitors from 2011 because of Hurricane Sandy yet still made the Top 10 list of most visited National Park Service sites.

Most Visited Places of the National Park System (2012)

1. Blue Ridge Parkway (15,205,059)

2. Golden Gate National Recreation Area (14,540,338)

3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (9,685,829)

4. George Washington Memorial Parkway (7,425,577)

5. Lake Mead National Recreation Area (6,285,439)

6. Lincoln Memorial (6,191,361)

7. Natchez Trace Parkway (5,560,668)

8. Gateway National Recreation Area (5,043,863)

9. Gulf Islands National Seashore (4,973,462)

10.  Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (4,970,802)

Most Visited National Parks (2012)

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (9,685,829)

2. Grand Canyon National Park (4,421,352)

3. Yosemite National Park (3,853,404)

4. Yellowstone National Park (3,447,729)

5. Rocky Mountain National Park (3,229,617)

6. Zion National Park (2,973,607)

7. Olympic National Park (2,824,908)

8. Grand Teton National Park (2,705,256)

9. Acadia National Park (2,431,052)

10. Cuyahoga Valley National Park (2,299,722)

The Saguaro National Park Eastern Rincon Mountain District rises to over 8,000 feet and includes over 128 miles of trails. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Saguaro National Park Eastern Rincon Mountain District rises to over 8,000 feet and includes over 128 miles of trails. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

National Park Service Visitor Use Statistics

National Park Service sites receive approximately 280 million visitors each year.

Historic and current visitor use statistics are available for 374 of the nearly 400 units included in the National Park System. (Statistics are not available for some areas; for example, those with joint administration of federal and non-federal lands.)

Website: irma.nps.gov/Stats

National Park Service

Since 1916, the American people have entrusted the National Park Service with the care of their national parks. With the help of volunteers and park partners, the park service is proud to safeguard these special places and to share their stories with more than 275 million visitors every year.

More than 20,000 National Park Service employees care for America’s 401 national parks and work with communities across the nation to help preserve local history and create close-to-home recreational opportunities.

Website: nps.gov

Worth Pondering…

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

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

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RVC Outdoor Destinations Adds Smokey Mountains Resort

Memphis, Tennessee-based RVC Outdoor Destinations, the leading provider of high-quality outdoor resorts in the United States, announces that River Plantation RV Park in Sevierville, Tennessee will be re-flagged as an RVC Outdoor Destination.

After ongoing renovations are completed, including the addition of a new lodge and fitness center, the property will be renamed River Plantation RV Resort in early 2013.

River Plantation RV Park, developed by Jimbo Conner over the last twenty years, is the preeminent outdoor hospitality property in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park region and one of the best performing RV oriented properties in the United States.

With extensive frontage on the Little Pigeon River, River Plantation RV Park provides great water views and close proximity to the many attractions within one of the largest tourism markets in the United States. Boasting 293 RV sites and 8 cabins, the property has ample room for hosting large groups and rallies.

“In our ongoing expansion efforts, we discovered that River Plantation RV Park shares our vision for a better guest experience. River Plantation is already the finest RV and cabin oriented property in the region, and we are honored and excited to have River Plantation joining our group of upscale recreational properties that are redefining the outdoor experience” said Andy Cates, RVC’s President.

“RVC understands the industry. They are striving to improve consistency and standards and we want to be a part of it. Also, they bring collaborative resources and a partnership that will allow River Plantation to grow and improve,” said Jimbo Conner, owner of River Plantation.

This partnership is the first Joint Venture for RVC involving flagging and operating a separately owned property. In addition to providing long-term management and branding, RVC is providing capital for improvements and expansion.

Details

RVC Outdoor Destinations

RVC Outdoor Destinations develops, owns, and operates a portfolio of high-quality outdoor hospitality properties located within some of the country’s most beautiful natural settings and offering upscale services and amenities.

Memphis, Tennessee-based RVC is redefining the traditional camping experience with its original Outdoor Destination concept and upgraded RV resorts that provides guests with a comfortable, customizable, outdoor vacation through a variety of affordable lodging options, including RV sites, yurts, cabins, and cottages, all with enhanced guest amenities and recreational activities.

RVC operates eight Outdoor Destinations and RV Resorts in Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

Address: 429 N Main Street, Suite 100, Memphis, Tennessee 38103

Phone: (901) 432-4748

Website: rvcoutdoors.com

River Plantation RV Park

River Plantation RV Park (Source:tripadvisor.com)

River Plantation RV Park offers the ideal Smoky Mountain/Pigeon Forge RV Park location.

A blend of Eastern Tennessee hospitality, reasonable nightly rates, and majestic Smoky Mountain views as well as first rate amenities and services provide you the very best in Pigeon Forge campground life.

Located in Sevierville, Tennessee in a peaceful valley bordered by the Little Pigeon River, River Plantation is only minutes away from all that the Smokies, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Townsend, and Knoxille have to offer.

Two outdoor pools with hot tub, modern bath facilities, and cabins make the campground a Good Sam Club and Woodall’s favorite.

The River Plantation Conference Center and Catering enables the park us to handle many well known RV groups and rallies.

Location: 1004 Parkway, Sevierville, TN 37862

Directions: From Sevierville travel 1.3 miles south on U.S. 441; from Pigeon Forge travel 4.8 miles north on U.S. 441

Phone: (865) 429-5267 or (800) 758-5267 (toll free)

Website: riverplantationrv.com

Worth Pondering…

Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.

—Peter Drucker

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50 American Gems

You might have seen it on a shelf and thought, “I should pick that up.”

The guided tour of the Moody Mansion includes a history of the Moody family in the context of late 19th and 20th century Galveston and Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The guided tour of the Moody Mansion includes a history of the Moody family in the context of late 19th and 20th century Galveston and Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s the national bestseller, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.”

Sometimes the best adventures are those in your own backyard.

Here, in alphabetical order, are 50 things to do or see in your RV before you die:

The Florida Keys & Key West, Florida

The Florida Keys are a 106-mile-long chain of islands that begin at the very bottom of Florida’s mainland. Often referred to as America’s Caribbean, these islands are surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other.

Key Largo is the first island south of the Florida mainland, and Key West is approximately 100 miles south of Key Largo on Overseas Highway. In between are the lovely islands of Islamorada, Long Key, Marathon, Big Pine Key, and many more. But only in Key West does the sun shine the brightest when it sets. Everyone gathers for the never planned, always varied Sunset Celebration on the Mallory Dock.

Galveston, Texas

One of the oldest cities in Texas and a major port, Galveston sits on a barrier island two miles offshore, surrounded by 32 miles of sandy beaches, numerous attractions, and one of the largest and best-preserved concentrations of Victorian architecture in the U. S.

Galveston boasts four districts on the National Register of Historic Places: The Strand National Historic Landmark District, East End National Historic Landmark District, Silk Stocking District, and Central Business District. It is home to three National Historic Landmarks: Tall Ship Elissa, East End, and The Strand. There are approximately 1,500 historic buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

Continue reading →

Glacier National Park, Montana

Encompassing over 1.2 million acres, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers unparalleled opportunities for water-based & backcountry recreation. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Encompassing over 1.2 million acres, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers unparalleled opportunities for water-based & backcountry recreation. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glacier National Park borders Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada — the two parks known as Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park were designated as the world’s first International Peace Park in 1932. Both parks were designated by the United Nations as an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976, and in 1995 as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

One defining feature of Glacier is the engineering wonder known as the Going-to-the-Sun Road. This spectacular 50-mile highway clings to the edge of the world as cars—and bikes—cross over the Continental Divide at Logan Pass.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona & Utah

Lake Powell is the second largest man-made lake in the U.S. stretching 186 miles across the red rock desert from Page, Arizona to Hite, Utah.

Access to Lake Powell and Glen Canyon by road is very limited. Activities are concentrated at the western edge, near Page, where various beaches, resorts, marinas, and campsites are found along the shoreline. At the far northeast end of the lake there are basic services and a few tracks leading to the water at Hite. The only other paved approach roads are to the Bullfrog and Halls Crossing marinas which are opposite each other and linked by ferry.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park encompasses 1,218,375 acres and lies on the Colorado Plateau in northwestern Arizona. The land is semi-arid and consists of raised plateaus and structural basins typical of the southwestern United States.

A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drainage systems have cut deeply through the rock, forming numerous steep-walled canyons. Forests are found at higher elevations while the lower elevations are comprised of a series of desert basins.

The Grand Canyon is considered one of the finest examples of arid-land erosion in the world. The Canyon, incised by the Colorado River, is immense, averaging 4,000 feet deep for its entire 277 miles. It is 6,000 feet deep at its deepest point and 15 miles at its widest.

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina & Tennessee
Amid the majestic southern climax of the Appalachian Highlands, Great Smoky Mountains draws more than nine million adventurers and sightseers each year. And for good reason—the Smokies are within a day’s drive of a third of the U.S. population, and very few places in the East are in their league as an outdoor-recreation destination.

Great Smoky Mountains protects one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, a place that supports more than 4,000 species of plants, approximately 100 species of native trees, 66 mammals, and 240 species of birds.

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John F. Kennedy Space Center, Florida

NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center has helped set the stage for America’s adventure in space for five decades. The spaceport has served as the departure gate for every American manned mission and hundreds of advanced scientific spacecraft. From the early days of Project Mercury to the Space Shuttle Program and International Space Station, from the Hubble Space Telescope to the Mars rovers, the center enjoys a rich heritage in its vital role as NASA’s processing and launch center.

Please Note: This is Part 4 of an 8-part series on 50 Places to RV Before You Die

Worth Pondering…

There is something very special about the natural world, and each trip outdoors is like an unfinished book just waiting for you to write your own chapter.

—Paul Thompson

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Top 5 National Parks: Is Your List Better Than Mine?

People like lists. No, check that, they love them. Particularly when they disagree with them and think they have a better list. So, here’s my personal Top 10 list of national parks.

How does it match up with yours?

5. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee, North Carolina)

Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park sits astride the Tennessee-North Carolina border amid the majestic southern climax of the Appalachian Highlands. The most visited national park draws more than nine million adventurers and sightseers each year. And for good reason—the Smokies are within a day’s drive of a third of the U.S. population, and very few places in the East are in their league as an outdoor-recreation destination.

Great Smoky Mountains protects one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, a place that supports more than 4,000 species of plants, approximately 100 species of native trees, 66 mammals, approximately 240 species of birds, and more species of salamanders than are found anywhere else on earth.

Continue reading →

4. Capitol Reef National Park (Utah)

A highlight for most visitors to Capitol Reef is the scenic drive from the visitors center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A highlight for most visitors to Capitol Reef is the scenic drive from the visitors center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park splashes color for 100 miles from its northern to southern boundaries. The central geologic feature, the Waterpocket Fold, is a bulging uplift of rainbow-hued sandstone “reefs” and canyons. Much of Capitol Reef is an inviting wilderness of sandstone formations such as Capitol Dome, Hickman Bridge, and Temple of the Sun and Moon in the backcountry of splendid Cathedral Valley.

Rock art petroglyphs are abundant in the midst of Capitol Reef’s red rocks and tell the story of the early indigenous people, the Fremont Culture. Close by are the large orchards of Fruita, an early pioneer settlement—and now headquarters for the park. Several easy hiking trails and a 25-mile scenic drive are found in this area. Cathedral Valley and other backcountry regions are reached by traveling on dirt roads.

Continue reading →

3. Canyonlands National Park (Utah)

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

Canyonlands likely won’t make everyone’s list, but then, that’s probably because they haven’t visited.

Canyonlands National Park covers a vast area of rock wilderness in southeastern Utah. Over millions of years, the rivers and their small tributaries have carved the flat sandstone rock layers into many amazing forms with a wide range of colors.

The 530 square miles of the park contain countless canyons, arches, spires, buttes, mesas and a myriad of other spectacular rock formations.

The sheer unbridgeable canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers divide Canyonlands into three distinct sections—Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze—which differ in the types of landscape found there, the number of visitors and the available facilities.

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2. Grand Canyon National Park

A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. Unique combinations of geologic color and erosion decorate a canyon that is 277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and a mile deep. Nearly five million people see the Grand Canyon each year. Most of them see it from their car at overlooks along the South Rim.

A much smaller number of people see the Canyon from the North Rim, which lies just 10 miles (as the condor flies) directly across the Canyon from the South Rim. The North Rim rises a thousand feet higher than the South Rim, and is much less accessible.

John Wesley Powell said it best, “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself.”

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1. Arches National Park

Arches is renown for an awe-inspiring combination of arches, cliffs, stone spires, and other dramatic rock formations. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Arches is renown for an awe-inspiring combination of arches, cliffs, stone spires, and other dramatic rock formations. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located five miles north of Moab, Arches National Park is a geological wonderland and one of Utah’s most accessible parks. The extraordinary features of the park create a landscape of contrasting colors, landforms, and textures unlike any other in the world.

The greatest density of natural arches in the world occurs in Arches which preserves more than 2,000 imposing natural sandstone arches—including the world-famous and much-photographed Delicate Arch. Towering spires, fins, petrified dunes, massive sandstone buttes and walls, and balanced rocks complement the arches, creating a remarkable assortment of landforms in a relatively small area.

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How can a Top 10 List omit such icons of the national park system as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Acadia, you ask? Only because they’re on my Bucket List.

Worth Pondering…
I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.
—Susan Sontag

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