Nothing Behind Me, Everything Ahead Of Me On The Great American Road Trip

One of the most quintessentially American experiences is the road trip.

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

What is it about road trips? The adventure? The unknown?

Maybe Jack Kerouac nailed it in his highway-focused tome On the Road when he wrote, “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road”.

Undecided about your RV vacation? Here are four tips to make your road trip a fantastic experience.

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Skyline Drive, the 105-mile road that bisects the length of Shenandoah National Park winding along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains provides stunning views of the park’s mountains, valleys, and forests.

Skyline Drive is the only public road through the park and offers 75 overlooks with breathtaking views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Piedmont area to the east. The long, narrow park flows outward, upward, and downward from the highway that splits it.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Native Indians named the valley Shenandoah, mean­ing Daughter of the Stars, for the expansive firmament that roofed their world. Daylight vistas of gently slop­ing mountains, forests, and tumbling rivers, and mountain streams are equally sparkling.

West Texas & Big Bend

Nothing beats the West Texas sky when the clouds roll in. Or when the sun sets. Or when the stars come out. Take a tour of Big Bend National Park, Marathon, Alpine, Marfa, Fort Davis, and Balmorhea State Park.

Big Bend is a stunning mix of topography and ecosystems from the rugged Chisos Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert to the verdant banks of the Rio Grande River.

Lying some 36 miles to the north, the tiny community of Marathon is dotted with adorable old-timey eateries and other super Texas-y things. Check out the historic and beautiful Gage Hotel and Shirley Burn’t Biscuit Bakery, a Marathon institution providing fresh baked goods daily.

A remote, high-desert jewel nestled in the tall hills of West Texas, Alpine is a friendly, bustling community of a little over 5,000 people in a scenic valley that feels like nowhere else in the state.

Marfa has long been known for its art-world, off-beat cool factor, a mix of kitsch and bizarre; the Marfa Lights Festival kicks off on the Labor Day weekend (29th annual; September 4-6, 2015).

Red Rock Scenic Byway Visitor Information Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Red Rock Scenic Byway Visitor Information Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Davis is pure Texas, as genuine as the working cattle ranches on the outskirts of town. The area’s lively military history is preserved at Fort Davis National Historic Site. An internationally known attraction, the McDonald Observatory is a 17 mile drive up a pretty canyon north of town.

Don’t miss Balmorhea an oasis in the desert north of Big Bend. The San Soloman Springs feed the swimming pool, keeping the water at a refreshing 74 degrees.

Red Rock Scenic Byway, Arizona

Red Rock Scenic Byway winds through Sedona’s Red Rock Country, often called a “museum without walls.”

This highly acclaimed National Scenic Byway, begins shortly after you exit #298 off I-17 and has earned the distinction of being Arizona’s First All-American Road. Although the Scenic Byway is only 7.5 miles, it is long on spectacular sights.

Sedona’s Red Rocks are comprised of sediment layers deposited over many millions of years. The shale foundation is the remainder of ancient swamp lands. Other layers are the remainder of an ancient beachfront that deposited iron about 275 million years ago. This iron is what gives Sedona’s rocks their rich red color.

Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway, North Carolina and Tennessee

Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cherohala Skyway crosses through the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. The name “Cherohala” comes from the names of the two National Forests: “Chero” from the Cherokee and “hala” from the Nantahala.

Located in southeast Tennessee and southwest North Carolina, the Skyway connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee, with Robbinsville, North Carolina, and is about 40+ miles long. The elevations range from 900 feet above sea level at the Tellico River in Tennessee to over 5,400 feet above sea level at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line at Haw Knob.

Worth Pondering…

When Robert Frost declared his intention to take the road less traveled in his 1916 poem “The Road Not Taken,” who could have guessed that so many people would take the same trip?

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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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50 of America’s Most Spectacular RV Trips

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

The Breakers is the grandest of Newport’s summer “cottages” and a symbol of the Vanderbilt family’s social and financial preeminence in turn of the century America. © 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:

Mystic Seaport, Connecticut

Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea includes three major components for visitors: a re-created 19th-century coastal village with historic ships, a working preservation shipyard, and formal exhibit galleries. It consists of more than 60 original historic buildings, most of them rare commercial structures moved to the 37 acres site and meticulously restored. Founded in 1929 Mystic Seaport also boasts four vessels that are designated National Historic Landmarks.

Nashville, Tennessee

Nashville is country music and all that goes with it—glittering rhinestones; cowboy hats; red, white, and blue leather boots; and songs with titles like Thank God I’m a Country Boy and On the Road Again, Country Roads and I Fall to Pieces.

Also known as “Athens of the South,” downtown Nashville is set around magnificent Greek revival architecture. But the Greek revival lost out to country music when radio station WSM began broadcasting the Grand Ole Opry, making Nashville “Music City, USA.” Downtown, the Ryman Auditorium is known as the “Mother Church of Country Music.” And just around the corner is the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

New Orleans, Louisiana

When most people think of New Orleans, images of beads and floats and Mardi Gras may come into mind. Others may think of great food, cool jazz, and fabulous architecture.

New Orleans is one of the most visually interesting cities in America and of significant historic importance.

The phrase “Laissez les bon temps rouler”—Let the good times roll—is exemplified by Bourbon Street’s non-stop party atmosphere. But for many visitors to New Orleans, it’s all about the food. Seasonings are the lifeblood of good New Orleans cooking.

Newport, Rhode Island

Driving around Newport you can’t help but gawp at the turn-of-the-20th-century mansions—Italianate palazzi, Tudor-style manors, faux French château, all set in elegant formal landscaping, with imposing gates or walls to keep out hoi polloi (for example, you).

It’s incredible to imagine the sort of wealth that built these homes, even more incredible to realize that these were just these families’ summer houses—offhandedly referred to as mere “cottages”.

If you tire of Newport’s spectacular coastal scenery, awe-inspiring architecture, there’s always shopping in thriving downtown Newport. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Olympic National Park, Washington

Olympic National Park’s true distinction lies in its stunning diversity. Few places on earth have so much of everything: human and natural history, unusual flora and fauna, utter wilderness, and spots for every kind of outdoor recreation.

The park divides neatly into three major areas—the glaciered mountains and high country of the interior; the lush rainforest of the west-facing valleys; and the rugged wilderness coastline. It’s a landscape that renders a quick visit nearly impossible.

The Outer Banks, North Carolina

The Wright Memorial Bridge is just three miles long, but by the time you’ve crossed it you realize that you’ve arrived in an entirely different place. The bridge spans the Currituck Sound, connecting mainland North Carolina to the 130-mile string of narrow barrier islands known as the Outer Banks.

Along the way are historic sites, quaint villages, a variety of recreational activities, breathtaking views, and acres of unspoiled beauty. Because the waterways and coast along The Outer Banks is in constant motion, its wide variety of climates, wildlife, and landscape are ever changing.

Please Note: This is Part 6 of an 8-part series on 50 Places to RV Before You Die

Worth Pondering…

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.
So throw off the bowlines.
Sail away from the safe harbor.
Catch the trade winds in your sails.
Explore. Dream. Discover.

—Mark Twain

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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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50 Spectacular RV Trips

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

A Blue Ridge Parkway experience is unlike any other, a slow-paced and relaxing drive revealing stunning long-range vistas and close-up views of the rugged mountains and pastoral landscapes of the Appalachian Highlands. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A Blue Ridge Parkway experience is unlike any other, a slow-paced and relaxing drive revealing stunning long-range vistas and close-up views of the rugged mountains and pastoral landscapes of the Appalachian Highlands. © 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:

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina & Virginia

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a National Parkway and All-American Road noted for its scenic beauty.

Meandering 469 miles from Shenandoah National Park in the northern Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, the Parkway follows the Appalachian Mountains and boasts some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. It runs through the famous Blue Ridge Mountains, a major mountain chain that is part of the Appalachian Mountains.

Brenham Creamery Company, Texas

Blue Bell ice cream is an icon in Texas. I consider ice cream to be a food group—and there’s no better ice cream available than Blue Bell.

In 1907, the Brenham Creamery Company opened its doors to sell butter. By 1911, they had put together milk, cream, eggs, and fruit fresh from local farmers and were making a gallon or two of ice cream daily, packing it in a large wooden tub with ice and salt, and delivering it by horse and wagon to neighbors. By 1930, Blue Bell Creameries had been born, and today their ice cream is a true Texas favorite.

What makes an exceptionally good thing good? For the answer, visit “the little creamery” in Brenham—I think you’ll find out.

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Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon's limestone has eroded into rock fins and spectacularly-shaped spires called hoodoos. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Bryce Canyon’s limestone has eroded into rock fins and spectacularly-shaped spires called hoodoos. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park is actually less of a canyon than it is a series of natural amphitheaters sunk into pink cliffs and filled with delicate red rock “hoodoos.”

Millions of years of wind, water, and geologic forces have shaped and etched the surreal landscape. The most brilliant hues of the park come alive with the rising and setting of the sun. Bryce is an unforgettable experience. The 37-mile scenic drive will also get you to key overlooks and vistas, such as Sunrise, Sunset, Rainbow, Yovimpa, and Inspiration Point.

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Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly has sheer sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo, who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor.

The northernmost and southernmost edges are accessible from paved roads—the North and South Rim drives. The South Rim Drive offers the most dramatic vistas, ending at the most spectacular viewpoint, the overlook of Spider Rocks—twin 800 foot towers of rock isolated from the canyon walls and a site of special significance for the Navajo.

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Canyonlands National Park, Utah

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 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

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.

Continue reading →

Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Cape Cod juts out from Massachusetts, extending 70 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. The Cape and the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard offer miles of glorious ocean beaches, quaint villages, art galleries, outdoor recreation including biking, hiking, and golf. Lighthouses, grassy dunes, whales, salt marshes, seafood, cottages, resorts, shopping, restaurants, clam bakes, pubs, galleries and, oh, yes, a little nature and history.

Each island town has its own personality, but they all share a relaxed way of living, clean saltwater air, and a sense that you’ve discovered a place where time might occasionally truly stand still.

Please Note: This is Part 2 of an 8-part series on 50 Places to RV Before You Die

Worth Pondering…

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the places and moments that take our breath away.
—George Carlin

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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.

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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.

Continue reading →

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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Road trip!

It’s the Memorial Day long weekend—the unofficial start of summer—and for many travel-wise Americans that means one thing: Road trip!

Let's Go RVing on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tradition of taking a road trip dates back about 3,000 years.

The first road trip likely occurred in ancient Egypt around 1200 B.C., when Ramses II hit the road in his chariot.

Similar ventures—using the well-loved automobile—began in Germany in the 1880s.

As the car’s popularity grew, so did the practice of taking to roadways for a carefree holiday.

The road trip became an easy, breezy travel idea that’s affordable and accessible—and in America today there is no shortage of highways, byways, and back roads.

Answering the call of the open road is practically an American rite of passage—and today more and more are taking to the open road in a recreational vehicle.

5 Great All-American Road Trips

These 10 distinctive all-American road trips, inclusive of both roads less traveled and tried-and-true, pave the way through the country’s finest landscapes, from the Appalachians to the heart of the American West to Arizona’s Red Rock Country—and beyond.

So put the pedal to the metal, crank up those tunes, and roll down those windows to gaze upon America the beautiful as it rolls by.

Indulge your wanderlust on wheels while exploring the following National Scenic Byways.

Blue Ridge Parkway (Virginia and North Carolina)

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).
Picnic areas, campgrounds, hiking trails, and visitor’s centers, offering programs like ranger-guided walks, abound.

Let's Go RVing on the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come in late spring for wildflower blooms (rhododendron, azalea); or, in fall (especially around mid-October) for Technicolor foliage displays.

Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway (North Carolina and Tennessee)

The Cherohala Skyway offers the cultural heritage of the Cherokee tribe and early settlers in a grand forest environment in the Appalachian Mountains.

Enjoy mile-high vistas and brilliant fall foliage, as well as great hiking opportunities and picnic spots in magnificent and seldom-seen portions of the southern Appalachian National Forests.

The Cherohala Skyway crosses through the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. The name “Cherohala” comes from the names of the two National Forests: “Chero” from the Cherokee and “hala” from the Nantahala.

The Cherohala Skyway is located in southeast Tennessee and southwest North Carolina. The Skyway connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee, with Robbinsville, North Carolina, and is about 40+ miles long. The Cherohala Skyway is a wide, paved two-laned road maintained by the Tennessee Department of Transportation and the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Let's Go RVing on the Cherohala Skyway, North Carolina. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The elevations range from 900 feet above sea level at the Tellico River in Tennessee to over 5,400 feet above sea level at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line at Haw Knob.

Please Note: This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on 5 Great All-American Road Trips

Part 2: All-American Road Trips

Worth Pondering…
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.

Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.

The winds will flow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

—John Muir

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Camping Opportunities in National Forests & Grasslands

As summer camping season approaches many families will rely on ForestCamping.com for camping opportunities in national forests and grasslands.

Mendenhall Glacier from the campground in Tongass National Forest, Alaska (Source: forestcamping.com)

Old man winter may have made a late arrival in your area but summer and the family camping season is just around the corner.

Camping is a good way for families to reconnect, to help strengthen family bonds, and counter the stressful effects of a busy lifestyle.

Many national forest campgrounds were designed, developed, and are managed for families, making them outstanding and affordable family vacation destinations.

Each year more families are discovering great family vacation destinations in national forest and grassland campgrounds. Whether camping with pre-school or older children, there are Forest Service campgrounds that will fit the family.

Using ForestCamping.com, with more than 2,400 developed campgrounds in 175 national forests and grasslands scattered across the country in 44 states, families can be assured they’ll find a Forest Service campground with what they want to see, do, and enjoy.

Canoes at Sawbill Campground in Superior National Forest, Minnesota (Source: forestcamping.com)

Whether close to home or for a cross-country trip, ForestCamping.com provides families—new or experienced campers—a source to locate an affordable camping experience.

Several examples follow:

Mendenhall Campground in Tongass National Forest, Alaska – Full hookups, a Visitor Center that is outstanding, fishing, hiking, hot showers, and a glacier right there. And it’s Alaska, the Land of the Midnight Sun, an ultimate family camping adventure destination. Details here>

Sawbill Campground in Superior National Forest, Minnesota – Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is just steps from every campsite. The adjacent outfitter has everything needed for a memorable one day or week long canoe trip into the BWCAC including canoes and guide. Imagine listening to loon calls while eating pancakes stuffed with fresh picked blueberries. Details here>

Glacier View Campground in Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho – One of 37 developed campgrounds in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Centrally located, it is convenient to the breathtaking Sawtooth Wilderness with fabulous hiking trails, Redfish Lake with Rainbow, Brook, and Mackinaw trout, historic Redfish Lake Lodge offering a boat shuttle to Sawtooth Wilderness, trail rides, and a cook’s night out, and interpretive programs throughout the summer. Details here>

Lake Powhatan Campground in Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina– Full hookups, modern bathroom facilities, beach and swim area, fishing, hiking

Redfish Lake near Glacier View Campground in Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho (Source: forestcamping.com)

, educational programs, and convenient to a number of attraction such as Cradle of Forestry Visitor Center, Blue Ridge Parkway and the Biltmore Estate, this campground has been popular with families for decades. Details here>

Details

ForestCamping.com
ForestCamping.com, the U.S. National Forest Campground Guide website, is a complete and comprehensive guide to developed campgrounds in national forests and grasslands.

It provides detailed information to campers looking to experience the great outdoors.

In addition to managing a website, Fred and Suzi Dow also self-publish Ebook CDs and downloads of eleven U.S. National Forest Campground Guides, which can be purchased online at their website.

Fred and Suzi Dow, authors and publishers of ForestCamping.com, have devoted 17 years to visiting, personally researching, and providing the public with free, detailed information about 175 national forests and grasslands and more than 2,400 personally surveyed campgrounds.

Website: forestcamping.com

Worth Pondering…

Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.

—John Muir

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Mount Mitchell Drive Receives Scenic Byway Designation

The Mount Mitchell Scenic Drive is the latest route to receive an official “scenic byway” designation from the state of North Carolina.

Welcome to Mount Mitchell State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recognized for its outstanding beauty and unique cultural features, this 52-mile drive begins atop 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi and traverses a national forest, state park, and National Park Service land.

“It’s a beautiful corridor for a number of reasons,” says Jeff Lackey, manager of scenic byways for the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT). “It has scenic quality, and also a tremendous amount of cultural and historical aspects, which is rare in a byway experience.”

“When you go around every curve, you’ll find something new and interesting,” says Wanda Proffitt, a local DOT board member and advocate of the route.

The route begins on N.C. 128 in Yancey County atop Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the eastern United States with an elevation of 6,684 feet and one of 16 peaks over 6,000 feet tall which make up the Black Mountain Range which was formed more than a billion years ago. Six peaks in the small range are among the ten highest in the eastern United States.

In the crest of the Black Mountains lies the summit of Mount Mitchell, at an elevation 6,684 feet it is the highest point east of the Mississippi. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because of the altitude, many of the plants and animals are like those native to alpine environments of Canada. Mount Mitchell State Park was established to return the mountains to nature and intercede in the exploitation of the industrial scale lumbering that was destroying the East’s tall summits.

From the park, the scenic drive follows the Blue Ridge Parkway, which offers expanding vistas of the Black Mountains. The drive then descends into the South Toe River Valley, continuing into Burnsville and dropping some 4,500 feet in elevation. Homesteads, farms, pastures, churches, and small communities dot the landscape in this rural area of Yancey and Madison counties.

The Toe River Valley is the cultural heart of the Mount Mitchell Scenic Drive. It’s an area full of artist studios and quilt trails. Some of the best-known glass blowers on the East Coast are located in the Celo community, just off N.C. 80.

Visitors will also notice colorful squares hanging on the sides of barns and businesses along the route. Part of the Quilt Trails of Western North Carolina, they represent different quilting patterns that reflect the heritage of the area where they are located.

Forested and forever misty, 1,946-acre Mount Mitchell State Park will provide you with some of the most tranquil moments you'll ever experience. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The route passes Town Square—a one-acre green space—and continues down the Main Street of Burnsville, a Norman Rockwell kind of place with plenty of shops and restaurants.

The Mount Mitchell Scenic Drive follows several sections of road:

  • 4.9 miles of N.C. 128
  • 11.3 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway
  • 13.4 miles of N.C. 80
  • 3.8 miles of U.S. 19 East
  • 2 miles of East Main Street in Burnsville
  • 16.6 miles of U.S. 19 East into Madison County

The byway ends at the intersection of U.S. 19/23 and Interstate 26 north of Mars Hill.

As part of its new designation as a scenic byway, the Mount Mitchell Scenic Drive will be marked by official NCDOT Scenic Byway signs and included in NCDOT’s Scenic Byways Guide, which provides information on all 54 scenic byways in North Carolina.

Tips for Visiting Mount Mitchell

  1. Bring a jacket or an extra layer of clothes. Temperatures are usually 10-30 degrees cooler than Asheville. Weather conditions can change rapidly. Take rain gear along if you are hiking.
  2. Eight out of ten days, the summit is covered in clouds and fog.
  3. Allow plenty of driving time to reach Mount Mitchell (at least one hour from Asheville). The entrance is from the Blue Ridge Parkway and the traffic can be slow, especially on the weekends.
  4. The restaurant, exhibit hall, and gift shop are open May through October.
  5. The park is open year-round; however, sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway close during much of the winter between Asheville and Mount Mitchell. During most of the winter, the only route is taking the Parkway south from N.C. Highway 80. Clear winter days can provide the longest views, but the wind and frigid temperatures can be unbearable.

Details

Mount Mitchell Scenic Drive

Information: (828) 682-7413

Website: ncscenicdrive.com

Mount Mitchell State Park

Rising more than a mile high and surrounded by the gentle mist of low-hanging clouds, Mount Mitchell State Park is an extraordinary place.

Mailing address: 2388 State Highway 128, Burnsville, NC 28714
Phone: (828) 675-4611
Website: ncparks.gov

Worth Pondering…
Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning.

—Gus Kahn, 1922

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Whooping Cranes Wintering in North Carolina

Biologists recently confirmed the presence of a pair of whooping cranes outside Hayesville, marking the first time the birds have been documented wintering in far-western North Carolina, reports Blue Ridge Now.

The nearly extinct whooping cranes' usual path of migration lies to the west. These birds were in Indiana. (Credit: Steve Gifford, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Whooping cranes are one of the rarest species in the world, with a current estimated global population between 525 to 550 individuals, which is divided into four main groups. All wild whooping cranes are part of a western population that migrates between Canada and coastal Texas and now numbers approximately 300 (to read an earlier story on the current status of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo whoopers, click here).

The male and female whooping cranes spotted this month near Hayesville are part of an eastern North American flock that saw chicks raised in captivity relearn migration routes by following ultra-light aircraft, the Charlotte Observer reported.

In 1999, state and federal agencies, nonprofits, and private individuals formed the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) to restore a migratory flock to eastern North America. This carefully managed and heavily monitored eastern flock began with a small group of captivity-reared birds and has grown to more than 100 individuals, including the pair found in Clay County, according to Blue Ridge Now.

The Western North Carolina sighting of whooping cranes was reported through the WCEP website on December 9 by Paul Hudson of Hayesville.

Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America, standing nearly five feet. They have a wingspan of 7.5 feet. (Credit: Earl Nottingham/TPWD)

Jennifer Davis, of the International Crane Foundation, joined Hudson and confirmed his sighting after finding the birds foraging in a soybean field.

“With Jennifer’s great tracking abilities and my local knowledge, we found the birds again and got to view them from a safe distance. They lifted their giant wings and displayed while calling, which echoed across the valley,” Hudson stated in a news release from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “What wonderful creatures they are, and I got two chances to see them in the wild. How cool is that?”

Since the rare birds were first spotted by Hudson, at least two other people have reported seeing the birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.

The cranes are a male/female pair, and biologists anticipate they’ll mate when they return north in the spring, noted Blue Ridge Now.

“It’ll be fascinating to see if these birds remain in Western North Carolina,” said Billy Brooks, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist who has spent years working with whooping cranes. “There are a lot of factors that play into that—not only human disturbance, but also whether the habitat has what they need to over-winter.”

Like all members of the 100-bird eastern flock, the cranes wear identifying leg bands. Whether the pair stays in North Carolina will depend on their finding suitable habitat and solitude, biologists said. Any eager birdwatchers should stay at least 600 feet away and remain concealed from the birds, experts said.”There are definitely concerns about people getting close to the birds,” Gary Peeples of the Fish and Wildlife office in Asheville said by email, the Associated Press reported.

“Any human presence that is viewed as a threat could push the birds to continue their journey.”

When young cranes of the eastern flock fly south for the first time from breeding grounds in Wisconsin, they follow older cranes, closely related sandhill cranes, or ultra-lights as far south as Florida. In later years, the birds are on their own.

Whooping Crane yearling. (Credit: whoopingcrane.com)

The male spent last winter in southeastern Tennessee after flying south from the bird’s breeding grounds in Wisconsin. Biologists expect the North Carolina pair to mate once they fly north in the spring.

Details

Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP)

Organized in 1999, the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) is a group of agencies, non-profit organizations, and individuals, formed to restore a migratory population of whooping cranes to eastern North America. There are currently 96 whooping cranes in the Eastern migratory population as a result of WCEP’s efforts.

Seventy years ago, the once-widespread species was on the brink of extinction as a result of hunting and habitat loss. Only 16 birds remained by 1941.

Website: bringbackthecranes.org

To report a crane sighting or learn more about the project, click here.

Worth Pondering…

Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another.

—Jovenel

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