National Parks without the Crowds

RVers love national parks.

Visitors can explore Congaree National Park by canoe, kayak, or on foot by using the over 25 miles of hiking trails and 2.4 miles of the Boardwalk Loop Trail.  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Visitors can explore Congaree National Park by canoe, kayak, or on foot by using the over 25 miles of hiking trails and 2.4 miles of the Boardwalk Loop Trail. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From snow-capped glacial peaks to meandering coastal shorelines and from white sand deserts to steep gorges and canyons, some of America’s most awe-inspiring natural attractions are found within its extensive national park system.

Most people know about the popular and most-visited parks including Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, and Zion.

Coping with crowds at national parks can get tiresome, especially during peak travel seasons. America is jam packed with national parks but the problem is that the most popular are just that—popular. They’re often crowded with loud tourists, littered with garbage people simply can’t seem to take home with them, or slowed down by traffic jams as tourists stop to take pictures of wildlife or search for a parking spot.

If you want to escape from the herd, or just take a breather from the hustle and bustle of the big name attractions, the US has numerous other, lesser-known parks each with their own unique attractions. And as an added bonus they’re usually much less crowded in the peak travel seasons making the visit more relaxing and enjoyable.

Add an extra element of exploration to your summer travel plans by including a more remote or lesser known national park in your RV travel plans.

Following are two parks that fall into that category.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Astonishing biodiversity exists in Congaree National Park, the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Astonishing biodiversity exists in Congaree National Park, the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Preserving the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the US, Congaree National Park is a designated wilderness area, an International Biosphere Reserve, and a Globally Important Bird Area.

This 24,000-acre park is located in central South Carolina about 20 miles southeast of Columbia along the north side of the Congaree River.

Visitors can explore the natural wonderland by canoe, kayak, or on foot by using the over 25 miles of hiking trails and 2.4 miles of the Boardwalk Loop Trail. This park is a great place for animal watching, as it provides an ample habitat for mammals (bobcats, deer, river otters, and coyotes) and amphibians (turtles, snakes, and alligators).

Tent camping is allowed in the park with a free camping permit required; overnight vehicle camping with the use of a trailer, camper, or RV is not permitted.

Did You Know?

Many trees in the park have Spanish moss growing on them. Spanish moss absorbs water and food from the air and is in the same family as the pineapple.

Directions: From I-77, take Exit 5 southeast on SR 48 (Bluff Road) toward Gadsden for approximately 12 miles, following the brown and white Congaree National Park directional signs

Address: 100 National Park Road, Hopkins, SC 29061-9118

Phone: (803) 776-4396


Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, Virginia

The surrender site, the McLean House, a three-story structure is furnished with mid-nineteenth century furnishings.  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The surrender site, the McLean House, a three-story structure is furnished with mid-nineteenth century furnishings. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walk the old country lanes where Robert E. Lee, Commanding General of the Army of Northern Virginia, surrendered his men to Ulysses Grant, General-in-Chief of all United States forces, on April 9, 1865.

Imagine the events that signaled the end of the Southern States’ attempt to create a separate nation. You cannot stand there and not be moved.

The National Park encompasses approximately 1,700 acres of rolling hills in rural central Virginia. The site includes the McLean home (surrender site) and the village of Appomattox Court House, the former county seat for Appomattox County. The site also has the home and burial place of Joel Sweeney—the popularizer of the modern five string banjo. There are twenty seven original 19th century structures on the site.

Location: 2 miles northeast of the town of Appomattox on SR 24

Address: Hwy. 24, P.O. Box 218, Appomattox, VA 24522

Phone: (434) 352-8987


Please Note: This is Part 1 of a 3-Part series on lesser known National Parks

Part 2: Lesser Known National Park Gems

Part 3: National Parks Nobody Knows

Worth Pondering…

The nation behaves well when it treats the natural resources as assets, which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.

—Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Read More

Camping Without a Car or RV

A non-profit group is making camping without a car possible with a regular bus service between Toronto and key national and provincial parks in Ontario.

Starting June 29 (2012), the Ontario Parkbus Initiative will be running buses between Toronto and popular campgrounds, canoe access points, and backpacking trailheads in Algonquin, Killarney, and Grundy Lake provincial parks as well as Bruce Peninsula National Park, according to a news release.

Started as a grassroots initiative by two York University graduates and outdoor enthusiasts, the program runs in cooperation with Ontario Parks and Parks Canada.

Parkbus started as a private initiative in 2010 by a group of outdoor enthusiasts, with the goal of making outdoor destinations in Ontario accessible by bus.

After getting in touch with Mountain Equipment Coop, that provided them with an opportunity to conduct market research in their Toronto store, they created a plan and presented it to Ontario Parks.

Parkbus passengers are being picked up at Lake of Two Rivers Campground in Algonquin Park after a weekend of camping. Photo taken by Parkbus staff.

It started small with a pilot project to connect Toronto and Algonquin Provincial Park on a few select weekends. After meeting with Algonquin’s team and working out the details, they partnered with Hammond Transportation to make the service a reality in the summer 2010.

In 2011 Parkbus expanded its cooperation with Ontario Parks, and received sponsorships and grants, including Tourism Development Fund grant from the Ontario Ministry of Tourism. This critical support allowed them to expand the Algonquin service and to start developing new routes to Grundy Lake and Killarney Provincial Parks.

In 2012, Ontario Trillium Foundation made a key commitment to Parkbus project with a two year grant, allowing the initiative to expand and grow as it pursues a financially sustainable, long-growth model that will benefit people of Ontario, the province’s tourism industry, and natural areas that it now connects with Toronto.

Financial backing is provided by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, along with the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport.

“Parkbus is bringing social, environmental, and economic benefits to our province” said Steve Bruno, partnership coordinator at Ontario Tourism.

Buses are operated by Muskoka’s Hammond Transportation, with one-way adult tickets ranging between $35 and $40.

During the 2012 summer camping season, Ontario Parkbus Initiative will be running buses between Toronto and the following popular campgrounds, canoe access points, and backpacking trailheads:

  • Algonguin Provincial Park – Bigger than the State of Delaware, Algonquin is Ontario’s most popular park and a world-class destination offering adventurers and comfort seekers alike their ultimate outdoor experience
  • Killarney and Grundy Lake Provincial Parks – Backpack the famous La Cloche Silhouette trail in Killarney, marvel at snow-white quartzite ridges from your canoe and your campsite, or enjoy a day away from it all at Grundy Lake
  • Bruce Peninsula National Park – UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve with sheer cliffs plunging down to deep blue waters of Georgian Bay, underground caves, orchids, hiking trails, and cozy resort town of Tobermory



Parkbus is a project of Transportation Options (T.O.), a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering sustainable tourism and transportation in Ontario.

Since 1992, T.O. has worked on numerous successful projects, including award-winning Bike Train Initiative and the Welcome Cyclists Network.

Mountain Equipment Co-op and the Ontario Ecotourism Society are the collaborative partners of the Ontario Parkbus Initiative.

Address: 850 Coxwell Avenue, Toronto ON M4C 5R1

Phone: (800) 928-7101


Worth Pondering…

In every walk with nature, one receives more than he seeks.

—John Muir

Read More

Congaree National Park: A Hidden Gem Expands

Congaree National Park is a relatively unknown park—a hidden jewel in the national park system.

Congaree National Park provides a sanctuary for plants and animals, a research site for scientists, and a place for you to walk and relax in a tranquil wilderness setting amidst giant hardwoods and towering pines. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Park Service, Trust for Public Land, and Friends of Congaree Swamp, and others recently celebrated Congaree National Park’s 35-year history and the park’s acquisition of 1,840 acres of Riverstone property, The Times and Democrat reported.

“The Riverstone property, which connects the eastern and western sections of the park, was Congaree National Park’s highest priority for acquisition. We are pleased to be celebrating this latest addition to the park during our 35th anniversary year,” said Tracy Swartout, Park Superintendent.

In June 2011, the final 434 acres of the Riverstone property were protected, completing a multi-year effort to conserve the 1,840-acre tract, which was one of the largest properties in the expansion area approved for the park in 2003. The important Riverstone acquisition creates a contiguous corridor of 42,000 acres of protected lands along the Congaree, Wateree, and upper Santee rivers.

The Trust for Public Land (TPL) worked in partnership with Friends of Congaree Swamp and numerous local and national organizations to protect the property. Friends of Congaree Swamp has long advocated for the acquisition of this important tract in order to protect vital habitat, connect the eastern and western portions of the Park, and enhance public recreation and education.

The Times and Democrat reports that visitors to this new area of the park will be able to follow the route of the original road to the historic Bates Ferry landing on the banks of the Congaree River. Along the way, visitors will find an impressive bald cypress with a 29-foot circumference, one of the largest trees in the entire park. Nowhere else in the park will visitors find easier hiking access to the Congaree River and to some of the park’s most impressive natural resources.

Activities at Congaree National Park include hiking, primitive camping, bird watching, picnicing, canoeing, and kayaking. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park is also important to the history of Richland County and central South Carolina. Congaree National Park annually co-hosts an event called SwampFest! with South East Rural Community Outreach that draws thousands of enthusiasts to the park and Lower Richland County in celebration of the region’s rich cultural heritage.

The park also sponsors an innovative interpretive program called the Congaree Campfire Chronicles, where guides lead visitors along the park’s boardwalk while volunteers re-enact the pre-history and history of the park.

Congaree National Park preserves the largest intact tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in North America. To walk here is to walk among ancient trees of record size. A storehouse of natural diversity, the forest encompasses hundreds of species of plants and animals.

It is designated as an International Biosphere Reserve and Wilderness area. Beauty and tranquility reign supreme in the midst of this natural sanctuary.

Before Congaree became the first national park in South Carolina in 2003, it was known as the Congaree Swamp National Monument. The Congaree River flows through the marshy region, which contains the largest intact remains of floodplain forests on the continent.

There are over 20 miles of hiking trails and 2.4 miles of boardwalk loop trail. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is about 20 miles from Columbia, the capital, which is in central South Carolina.
The Congaree River and Wateree River are key attributes of the national park. American Rivers and a coalition of local organizations have designated 50 miles of Congaree River from Columbia to the national park as a Blue Trail and National Recreational Trail.

Did You Know?
In North America, only the conifer forests of the Western U.S. coastal region are substantially taller. East of the Mississippi, just a few patches of white pine and some cove forests in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are taller. When compared to all of the world’s forests, Congaree is among the tallest.


Congaree National Park

Mailing Address: 100 National Park Road, Hopkins, SC 29061-9118

Directions: From I-77, Exit 5, turn onto SC-48 East (Bluff Road), travel southeast approximately 14 miles toward Gadsden and turn right onto Mt. View Road for 0.8 miles; turn right onto Old Bluff Road and travel 0.6 miles to the large park entrance sign, turn left onto the park entrance road and proceed one mile to the Harry Hampton Visitor Center parking lot.

Entrance Fee: No entrance or tour fees

Operating Hours: Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

Phone: (803) 776-4396


The Trust for Public Land (TPL)

The Trust for Public Land (TPL) is a national, nonprofit land-conservation organization that conserves land for people to enjoy as parks, gardens, and other natural places, ensuring livable communities for generations to come. Established in 1972, TPL is the only national nonprofit working exclusively to protect land for public enjoyment and use.


Worth Pondering…

Wilderness needs no defense, only more defenders.
—Edward Abbey

Read More

Playing in Mute Harmony: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, AZ

Newcomers to Arizona are often struck by Desert Fever. Desert Fever is caused by the spectacular natural beauty and serenity of the area. Early symptoms include a burning desire to make plans for the next trip “south”. There is no apparent cure for snowbirds.

The winds of Organ Pipe

Organ pipes in a mixed cactus forest against the backdrop of the Ajo Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The organ pipe cactus thrives within the United States primarily in the 516-square-mile Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and International Biosphere Reserve.

Located 35 miles south of Ajo on Highway 85, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument preserves a diverse and relatively undisturbed sample of the Sonoran Desert. Mountains surround the park on all sides, some near, some distant, with colors changing from one hour to the next. Ninety-five percent of the monument is designated as wilderness area, which makes this one of the best places to view the Sonoran Desert.

The many branches of the organ pipe rise from a base at the ground, instead of growing like a massive trunk of the saguaro. It is a stately plant, with columns rising mostly like, well, the pipes of a church organ.

Each desert plant is exploitable to some extent—the organ pipe is no exception. Their pithaya fruit, like a saguaro’s, mature in July, have red pulp and small seeds. Tohono O’odham people have eaten the fruit raw or dried, and have made syrup, jams, and a mild wine from it. Seeds can provide flour and cooking oil.

The organ pipe, of course, has company—25 other cactus species including the stately saguaro, chain-fruit cholla, teddy bear cholla, and Engelmann prickly pear, also make this park their home. A mature organ-pipe cactus may be more than 100 years old. A mature saguaro can live to be more than 150.

Foothill palo verde, ironwood, jojoba, elephant tree, mesquite, triangle-leaf bursage, agave, creosote bush, ocotillo, and brittlebush also contribute to the desert landscape.

The many branches of the organ pipe rise from a base at the ground, instead of growing like a massive trunk of the saguaro. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s also home to coyotes, the endangered Sonoran pronghorn, desert bighorn sheep, deer, javelina, gila monster, Western diamondback rattlesnake, desert tortoise, Gambel’s quail, roadrunner, Gila woodpecker, and bats. Lesser long-nosed bats drink the nectar of the organ pipe, in the process being sprinkled by pollen dust, which the bats then transport to other cactuses for fertilization.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is designated by the American Bird Conservancy as a Globally Important Bird Area.

The monument’s eastern boundary runs along the backbone of the Ajo Range, which includes Mt. Ajo at 4,808 feet and Diaz Peak at 4,024 feet.

The Kris Eggle Visitor Center has information about the desert flora and fauna, plus there are scheduled talks and guided walks. Park rangers are there to talk over plans and interests with you.

The 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive is a one-way dirt road that winds and dips and provides access to some of the finest scenery in the monument.

A self-guided-tour pamphlet, which can be purchased in the visitor center for $1.00, describes 22 stops along the way and greatly enhances the experience. For example, the third stop is at a large saguaro, where visitors can learn many things about the stately cactus. Its flowers bloom in May and June, its fruit maturing a month later. Many animals dine on the fruit’s red pulp and its tiny black seeds. The Tohono O’odham people grind its seeds into a buttery substance that is considered a delicacy. Saguaros stay generous past their fruit-bearing prime: Their decaying, hole-dotted trunks provide shelter for birds, and their “skeletal ribs” once constituted building materials for American Indians.

The first five miles of North Puerto Blanco Drive has been newly reconstructed and is open in both directions, providing access to the new picnic area at the turn-around point by Pinkley Peak.


Twin Peaks Campground has 208 sites that are generally level, widely spaced, and landscaped by natural desert growth. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Twin Peaks Campground has 208 sites that are generally level, widely spaced, and landscaped by natural desert growth. The campsites will easily accommodate 40-foot motorhomes and are available on a first-come first-served basis. As well, Alamo Campground has four well-spaced, primitive spots.

Be Aware

Because of the dangers posed by drug smuggling and human trafficking along this isolated portion of the U.S.-Mexican border, most of the roads into the remote areas of the monument are closed.

Did You Know?
Coyotes are highly intelligent animals that are well adapted to survive in almost any environment. They are among the most common animals spotted in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and you might hear them “singing” on any given night.

Worth Pondering…
Take your time.
Slow down.

Read More