Trio of National Parks That Are Best During Winter

Winter can be one of the best times to get out and explore America’s national parks in an RV.

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

Many of the busiest national parks experience a major drop in attendance, allowing visitors better viewing opportunities amid less crowded conditions.

Many of these parks are located in the US Sunbelt offering snowbirds a wide variety of unspoiled landscapes to enjoy in warm comfort during the winter.

With snowbirds in mind, the following are my picks for a trio of national parks that are best to visit during winter.

Joshua Tree National Park 

Joshua Tree National Park is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases.

Here the lower Colorado Desert meets the higher Mojave Desert, forming granite monoliths, rugged mountains, and surreal geology that lures hikers, desert rats, and rock climbers from around the world.

The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the Mojave and Colorado deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View. The Colorado Desert in the eastern section offers low desert formations and plant life, such as creosote bushes, spidery ocotillo, and jumping cholla cactus; the higher, cooler, and wetter Mojave in the western part is the natural habitat of the Joshua tree.

Cold nights and warm days make for ideal treks into palm-lined oases. Or, bike the dirt roads and watch the climbers scale the rocky heights.

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

Zion National Park is known for its majestic towering rock mountains which rise to awe-inspiring heights. Zion is a lush green oasis, surrounded by startling sentinels of stone. With sheer, milky-white cliffs and pristine waterfalls, Zion is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Zion National Park is getting more difficult to navigate with its single road into the canyon and a mandatory shuttle system during the busy months.

Exploring Zion Canyon, center of park activity, during the off-season gives one the flexibility that is impossible seven months of the year. From April through October, private cars are prohibited in the canyon, and visitors must use park shuttles. With 11,000 daily visitors, it’s hard to dispute the need for such restrictions. Still, it’s nice to be on our own—and free of crowds.

The main canyon in Zion was cut by the North Fork of the Virgin River. It is narrow, less than a quarter-mile wide. But it is deep, flanked by towering sandstone palisades 2,000-3,000 feet high that draw rock climbers who savor big walls. The six-mile canyon drive ends at a formation known as Temple of Sinawava, where the canyon begins narrowing to a slot only 30-40 feet wide.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

The organ pipe 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.  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The organ pipe 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. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 park is designated as wilderness area, which makes this one of the best places to view the Sonaran 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.

The organ pipe 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 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 park.

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

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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Snowbird Tips—Exploring the Sun Belt

As refugees from the frozen north, snowbirds escape winter at home by migrating southward each year.

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

Selecting your balmy Snowbird roost is when all the fun begins. Choice is in rich supply, and for those who like to hop around a bit, a combination of spots can let you sample entire regions and states.

Perhaps the biggest consideration should be on the type of environment you prefer, as well as the type of activities you’d like to pursue. Do you crave white sandy beaches and tropical palm trees? Or dry air and rustic frontier homesteads? Perhaps a thriving music and arts scene? Or maybe you’re after a balance of big city fun and small-town charm?

Many communities seem tailor made for snowbirds, complete with popular tourism attractions, spectacular national parks and scenery that’s open year-round. Check out the RV shows, farmers markets, swap meets, seasonal festivals, sports events, and other events occurring in your prospective destination.

Many follow the sun to snowbird hotspots in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California. Less familiar snowbird roosts attract others to Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Nevada. Great snowbird destinations thrive across the Sun Belt; all you have to do is find the one that’s right for you.

Many Snowbirds are north-south creatures, meaning those from the Northwest tend to settle in Arizona, Nevada and California; those from the Midwest flock to Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana; and those from the Northeast head for Florida.

This may sound crazy, but I am going back to Crazy Quartzsite again this year!
This may sound crazy, but I am going back to Crazy Quartzsite again this year! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While many snowbirds head directly south from their northern home and enjoy long-term stays at RV parks and resorts, others cut across the country in a diagonal direction, exploring a whole new longitude. Still other snowbirds follow an itinerary across the Sun Belt sampling a variety of regions and roosts.

The routes to the southern destinations are filled with attractions—if you plan to take your time on your way to the sunshine you will undoubtedly discover that getting there is half the fun.

Some snowbirds break up their journey into segments taking several weeks to a month or more to reach their southern roost.

While many snowbirds enjoy long-term stays at RV parks and resorts that cultivate a sense of community among seasonal residents, others spend the winter months traveling from one warm-weather location to another.

Getting there can be half the fun!

The southwest is amazing. The colors are vibrant, the land varied and breathtaking.

Southern Utah is a land of unsurpassed, surprising beauty, characterized by contrasting landscapes of snow-capped mountains, towering fins of orange sandstone shaped by erosion into bridges, arches, and strange hoodoos. The major draw for many visitors to Southern Utah is Utah’s five spectacular national parks: Bryce Canyon and Zion in the southwest, Capitol Reef roughly in the center of the state, and Arches and Canyonlands in the southeastern reaches.

You only live once, so Las Vegas is a must! From casinos to shopping to mega extravaganza shows, it’s a world wonder of glitz, glamour, and non-stop action. Gambling to showgirl glamour, everything is bigger-than-life and abundant in Vegas.

When the lights, sights, and sounds of the Strip become over-stimulating and you crave the thrill of adventure, take a gamble and see what sort of excitement awaits in the desert beyond Las Vegas. Not everything revolves around the casinos—get out of town and do some exploring.

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

Red rock formations, towering mountains, vast expanses of high desert covered with Joshua trees, and Hoover Dam are all within an hour’s drive of the city. From Valley of Fire State Park to the Speedway and world-class fishing on Lake Mead, there’s always something to do.

The way the Texas countryside changes from the stark desert to the prairie to the juniper forests and lush green of the hill country is spectacular. Across the state you’ll find award-winning BBQ, the original Tex-Mex, truly astounding seafood, and the best chili to ever grace a bowl. And yes, pecan pie and Blue Bell ice cream.

Worth Pondering…

As Anne Murray sings in the popular song, “Snowbird”:

“Spread your tiny wings and fly away

And take the snow back with you

Where it came from on that day…

So, little snowbird, take me with you when you go

To that land of gentle breezes where the peaceful waters flow…”

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Summer Time Means RVing Time

Hello summer!

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

School is out, the sun is shining, and the open road beckons. The best part about summer RV road trips is the glorious freedom that comes with them. No beach is too far, no river is too long, no mountain is too high. Just get behind the wheel of an RV and go!

Is there no better time of year to explore the best of America’s National Parks? Summer means early morning fishing, pristine nature hikes, and RVing in the great outdoors.

A road trip to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Zion, Carlsbad Canyon, Mesa Verde is a time-honored tradition, but there are so many other options out there. For more ideas on National Parks to visit, be sure to visit here.

Tour the Alamo and River Walk in San Antonio, My Old Kentucky Home and Bourbon Country in Kentucky, RV/MH Museum & Hall of Fame in Elkhart and the Indiana Amish Country, or Brunswick and the Golden Isles in Georgia.

Rugged mountains and crashing falls, towering forests and photo-worthy small towns are just some highlights on America’s scenic roads and byways. From the dramatic Oregon and California coast to history-lined thoroughfares of New England, there are countless scenic drives across the country—and some stellar standouts.

The state of Georgia has only about 90 miles of coastline yet holds approximately one-third of the entire marshland of the Atlantic seaboard. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The state of Georgia has only about 90 miles of coastline yet holds approximately one-third of the entire marshland of the Atlantic seaboard. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The winding 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, for example, wends its way through the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks, past limestone caverns, clear mountain springs, and Appalachian majesty.

Looking for high country scenery, a road cut through desert sandstone and a drive that spans a national monument, a national park, two Utah state parks and a national forest? Utah’s 122-mile long Highway 12 National Scenic Byway between Panguitch and Torrey does exactly that, passing through the Dixie National Forest’s alpine splendor, portions of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’s red-rock desert, Bryce Canyon National Park’s colorful spires, and Escalante Petrified Forest and Anasazi state parks.

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

Known as Louisiana’s Outback, the 180-mile-long Creole Nature Trail meanders through marshes, prairies, and along the Gulf of Mexico. As you loop through Cajun Country in Southwest Louisiana, view alligators and birds up close and in the wild.

Walk where the valiant troopers of the 7th Cavalry died with Custer at the Little Big Horn. Hear bull elk bugle in Yellowstone. Drive the magnificent Wind River Canyon in Wyoming. You will be astounded at the beauty of America, awed by the sheer majesty of it all, and touched deeply by the welcoming smiles and kind words of strangers.

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

Touch glaciers in Montana and stand on the banks of the mighty Columbia, Mississippi, and Missouri rivers where Lewis and Clark explored. Marvel at the giant redwoods of California and the cliffs of the Oregon coast. Drive Route 66 across Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

From sea to sea, Canada is also filled with fascinating places and amazing destinations for the RV traveler. There are so many reasons to love Canada. Its premier destination spots include Vancouver, Niagara Falls, Ottawa, Quebec City, and Halifax.

Jasper National Park combines some of the most spectacular scenery in the Canadian Rockies with ease of access
Jasper National Park combines some of the most spectacular scenery in the Canadian Rockies with ease of access and less crowded conditions than Banff © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) joins the two mountain parks of Jasper and Banff in one of the most breathtaking, beautiful drives that anyone can travel in the world. A series of massive glaciers line the entire length of the Icefields Parkway, with the Columbia Icefield lying along the parkway at the southern end of Jasper National Park.

Traveling the highways and byways of the United States and Canada, there are scenic wonders to discover an explore.

Yes, it is true: Summer time means RVing time.

Let’s go RVing.

Worth Pondering…

Destination is merely a byproduct of the journey.
—Eric Hansen

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Best National Parks To Avoid the Crowds

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.

A highlight for most visitors to Capitol Reef is the scenic drive along the western side of the Waterpocket Fold into the park’s interior. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A highlight for most visitors to Capitol Reef is the scenic drive along the western side of the Waterpocket Fold into the park’s interior. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 the peak summer travel season. America is jam packed with national parks but the problem is that the most popular are just that—popular.

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.

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef National Park is filled with geological wonders that stagger the imagination.

Somewhat remote, and not as well known as the other parks, Capitol Reef is located on the northern edge of the Grand Circle Tour.

The Navajo call the area the “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow”, an accurate depiction of the many hues of the landscape of Capitol Reef. The “capitol” comes from the white domes of Navajo sandstone that resembles the nation’s capitol building, and the “reef” comes from the rocky cliffs that are a barrier to travel, like coral reefs.

On Cumberland Island, Dungeness burned nearly to the ground in 1959 from a fire suspected as arson, but its ruins are a must-see for visitors. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
On Cumberland Island, Dungeness burned nearly to the ground in 1959 from a fire suspected as arson, but its ruins are a must-see for visitors. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s Utah’s second-largest national park, with slot canyons, arches, cliffs, and 31 miles of well-marked trails—yet only one-fifth the number of Zion’s visitors. Throw in ancient petroglyphs, a river running through a lush valley of 2,000 apple trees, crazy geology like the 100-mile-long natural upheaval in the earth’s crust known as the Waterpocket Fold, and the knockout 8-mile Scenic Drive.

Camping is available at Fruita Campground where you can choose one of the 71 shaded sites ($10/night). All sites are first come, first serve.

2013 visitor count: 663,670

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Cumberland Island National Seashore, on the Georgia coast, includes one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in the world.

The park is also home to one of the largest maritime forests remaining in the United States, one of the largest wilderness areas in a National Seashore on the east coast, and a herd of feral, free-ranging horses.

Cumberland Island National Seashore includes a designated wilderness area, undeveloped beaches, historic sites, cultural ruins, critical wildlife habitat, and nesting areas, as well as numerous plant and animal communities.

Most visitors come to Cumberland for the natural glories, serenity, and fascinating history.

Cumberland Island’s past is a tantalizing story of the Timucuan Indians, the French, the Spanish, pirates, wars, steel magnates, and cotton plantations. Her present is an extraordinary portrait of natural beauty, so much so that the Travel Channel named her “America’s Most Beautiful Wilderness Beach.”

The island is accessible by passenger ferry from Visitor Center dock in the historic community of St. Marys, Georgia. Ferry is walk-on, passenger-only. All trips are round-trip. Ferry does not transport pets, bikes, kayaks or cars.

2013 visitor count: 51,435

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, Virginia

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

The park is located 2 miles northeast of the town of Appomattox on SR 24.

2013 visitor count: 317,660

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

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10 Spectacular 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.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona/Utah

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

Encompassing over 1.2 million acres, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers unparalleled opportunities for water-based and backcountry recreation. The recreation area stretches for hundreds of miles from Lees Ferry in Arizona to the Orange Cliffs of southern Utah, encompassing scenic vistas, geologic wonders, and a vast panorama of human history.

Lees Ferry Campground offers 55 developed camping sites; no hookups available.

Primitive Camping is available at Stanton Creek, Hite, Farley Canyon, and Dirty Devil.

Lone Rock Beach is a beach camping area

Additional developed campgrounds are operated by Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas, are available at Wahweap, Bullfrog, and Halls Crossing.

Continue reading →

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Located in the southwest corner of Texas where the Rio Grande makes its “big bend” of a ­turn from south to north along the Mexican border, Big Bend National Park is a scenic blend of desert, mountain, and river environments. The peaks are the Chisos and the desert, the Chihuahuan stretching deep into Mexico.

The National Park Service operates three developed front country campgrounds: Chisos Basin Campground, Cottonwood Campground (near Castolon), and Rio Grande Village Campground.

Shenandoah National Park covers the crest of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains for over seventy-five miles. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Shenandoah National Park covers the crest of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains for over seventy-five miles. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The concession-operated Rio Grande Village RV Campground offers full hook-ups.

A limited number of campsites in Rio Grande Village and the Chisos Basin campgrounds are can be reserved from November 15-April 15.

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Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park is a beautiful, historic national treasure which includes the scenic 105-mile long Skyline Drive—a designated National Scenic Byway. The Park covers the crest of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains for over seventy-five miles.

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.

As each season arrives, and the changing leaves hit their peak of rich color, the expansive views become a tapestry of lush green in spring and summer to red, yellow, and orange in autumn.

There are four campgrounds in Shenandoah National Park: Mathews Arm (mile 22.1), Big Meadows (mile 51.2), Lewis Mountain (mile 57.5), and Loft Mountain (mile 79.5).

Although Shenandoah National Park doesn’t have a campground that is just for RVs, it does have three campgrounds that will accommodate large RVs. Mathews Arm, Big Meadows, and Loft Mountain campgrounds have pull-through and deep back-in sites which can accommodate an RV with a tow vehicle. Although hookups are not available, the campgrounds do have potable water and dump stations (with the exception of Lewis Mountain Campground).

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Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

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, © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
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, © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

The campground, located in a shallow valley less than ¼-mile from the visitor center is large with approximately 100 spacious campsites, plus a large group camping area. Sites are of varying length and suitable for RVs up to 40 feet in length. Each site includes a parking space, picnic table, and grill. There are 3 restroom facilities that include sinks and flushable toilets, but no showers. No hookups are available, but a dump station is located in Loop 1. Limited services are available during winter months.

Continue reading →

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

Part 1: Top 10 National Parks for Camping

Part 2: Best 10 National Parks for Camping

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.

Continue reading →

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 National Parks for Camping

National parks provide the opportunity to explore nature at its best.

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

From the diversity of beautiful wildlife to the endless possibilities in their miles of trails these parks have much to offer in new experiences, sights, and sounds.

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

There are many opportunities for camping at national parks with several different types of camping from which to choose. This ranges from camping at full-facility campgrounds, to backcountry camping with limited facilities, to wilderness camping where you might find no facilities at all.

From a planning standpoint, campgrounds can generally be divided into two categories:

  • Campgrounds that accept reservations
  • Campgrounds that operate on a first-come, first-served basis

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

Arches National Park, Utah

Located in eastern Utah, Arches National Park is a unique geological wonderland. The park preserves more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, including the world-famous Delicate Arch, and many other unusual rock formations.

Let's Go RVing to Joshua Tree National Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Let’s Go RVing to Joshua Tree National Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Devils Garden Campground is located 18 miles from the park entrance and is open year-round. Facilities include potable water, picnic tables, grills, as well as both pit-style and flush toilets. There are no showers or RV dump/fill stations. Some sites will accommodate RVs up to 30 feet in length.

All 50 sites in Arches’ campground are usually reserved in advance during the busy season (March – October).

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Joshua Tree National Park, California

Located in southeastern California, Joshua Tree National Park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Colorado deserts that range in altitude from 1,200 feet in the Pinto Basin to 5,814 feet.

Joshua Tree offers nine campgrounds with tables, fire grates, and toilets. There are no hookups for recreational vehicles. Black Rock and Cottonwood have fresh-water fill-up and dump stations. Water also is available at the Oasis Visitor Center, Indian Cove Ranger Station, and West Entrance. Since this is a desert, water is scarce; arrive with a full tank.
Recreational vehicles are prohibited at Cottonwood and Sheep Pass group sites. At Hidden Valley and White Tank campgrounds, and at Indian Cove group sites, motorhomes and trailers, including their tow vehicle, cannot exceed a combined vehicle length of 25 feet.

First-come, first-served campgrounds include Belle, Cottonwood, Hidden Valley, Jumbo Rocks, Ryan, and White Tank. Black Rock and Indian Cove campgrounds are first-come, first-served June through September.

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Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

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

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.

Open year-round, the Fruita Campground is the only developed campground in Capitol Reef National Park. Sites are first-come, first-served. Adjacent to the Fremont River and surrounded by historic orchards, this developed campground has 71 RV/tent sites, each with a picnic table and grill, but no individual water, sewage, or electrical hook-ups. There is a RV dump and potable water fill station near the entrance to Loops A and B. Restrooms feature running water and flush toilets, but no showers.

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Please Note: This is Part 1 of a 3-part series

Part 2: Best 10 National Parks for Camping

Part 3: 10 Spectacular National Parks for Camping

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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National Parks Nobody Knows

Everybody loves Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon, and with good reason. Those and other icons of the National Park System are undeniably spectacular, and to experience their wonders is well worth braving the crowds they inevitably draw.

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

But the big names are not the whole story.

The National Park System also features less known destinations that are beautiful, historic, or culturally significant—or all of the above. Some of these gems are off the beaten track, others are slowly rising to prominence, and a few are simply overshadowed by bigger, better-publicized parks.

But these national parks, monuments, historic places, and recreation areas are overlooked by many, and that’s a mistake you don’t want to make. For every Yosemite, there’s a lesser-known and less crowded park where the scenery shines and surprises.

The National Park Foundation, the official charity of America’s national parks, released its third special edition in the popular Owner’s Guide series, “The Places Nobody Knows.”

“Our latest Owner’s Guide, ‘The Places Nobody Knows,’ invites Americans to take time to explore and enjoy some of the most spectacular, but perhaps less known, landscapes, monuments, and memorials America has to offer while taking an active role in preserving their parks,” said Neil Mulholland, President and CEO of the National Park Foundation, in a news release.

Profiled are 25 national park destinations paired with higher-profile counterparts. So, for instance, if you love the Grand Canyon, consider a visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado for spectacular canyon scenery. If traffic inching along the thoroughfares leading into Great Smoky Mountains National Park has you stymied, the verdant valleys of Cuyahoga National Park in Ohio could be a smart substitute.

Not all the matched parks are worlds apart, either. For instance, the dramatic red rock spires seen in Utah’s popular Bryce Canyon National Park are also found in Canyonlands, about five hours away.

The guide helps readers discover new parks to explore by revealing the similarities that well-known national parks share with lesser-known parks.

Two examples follow.

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, © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
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, © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you love Zion National Park…you will also love Canyon De Chelly National Monument

Known for sheer sandstone cliffs and red slot canyons contrasted against a bright blue Utah sky, Zion National Park evokes the wonder and allure of Southwest adventure, and its proximity to other popular parks—including Grand Canyon to the south and Bryce Canyon to the north—makes it a can’t-miss.

Another park should be added to this list to fulfill a grand tour de force of canyon country. Canyon de Chelly lies east of the Grand Canyon. Here, Navajo people have lived for thousands of years, finding the canyons to be prime real estate for farming and homebuilding.

Today, roughly 40 Navajo families still live within the park boundaries. Canyon de Chelly is managed through a partnership between the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation, and many areas, including the backcountry, are accessible only with a permit and an official Navajo guide. Start a visit to Canyon de Chelly at the visitor center to learn more about the history and rules at this unique place.

Similar to the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly can be viewed from both the South Rim and North Rim. Drive and stop at several overlooks along the way, and get on foot for the short hike to White House Ruin. To see more, sign up for a guided tour.

While Canyon de Chelly will definitely be a shorter visit than Zion or Grand Canyon, the park does offer a campground where you’re bound to get a spot.

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

If you love Joshua Tree National Park …you will also love Saguaro National Park

Sometimes, a plant so special comes along that a whole park is made to preserve it. That’s the case in both Joshua Tree and Saguaro National Parks.

The former and more often visited of the two—Joshua Tree—lies a short drive from Los Angeles, San Diego, and Palm Springs, California, in the Mojave Desert. While aging these trees, actually members of the yucca family, is difficult, scientists estimate some in the 3,000-year-old range.

Over the border in Arizona, the Giant Saguaro, North America’s largest cactus, has a park of its own. Nestled around Tucson (the city splits the park into two districts), Saguaro National Park celebrates its namesake cactus and unique Sonoran Desert ecosystem.

What makes the Giant Saguaro so special? This native of the Sonoran Desert has a presence like a tree, standing tall on the desert landscape, and can live to 250 years, a far cry from the Joshua Tree’s life span but no slouch for a cactus.

The Sonoran Desert is one of the most unique regions in the country, with many other plant and animal species found nowhere else: roadrunners, horned lizards, Gila monsters, kangaroo rats, and several other cactus species among them.

Enormous cacti, silhouetted by the setting sun, for most of us the Giant Saguaro is the universal symbol of the American West. And yet, these majestic plants are only found in a small portion of the United States. Saguaro National Park protects some of the most impressive forests of these sub-tropical giants, on the edge of the modern City of Tucson.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Enormous cacti, silhouetted by the setting sun, for most of us the Giant Saguaro is the universal symbol of the American West. And yet, these majestic plants are only found in a small portion of the United States. Saguaro National Park protects some of the most impressive forests of these sub-tropical giants, on the edge of the modern City of Tucson.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A springtime visit promises wildflowers galore as March and April rains hydrate and paint the landscape. The park offers more than 165 miles of trails to explore.

Get your national park fix without the crowds

Check out the photo gallery of these lesser-known gems and go online for a free copy of The Places Nobody Knows.

The National Park Foundation, the official charity of the national parks, also offers a free trip-planning guide to all 400 national park entities.

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

Part 1: National Parks without the Crowds

Part 2: Lesser Known National Park Gems

Worth Pondering…

There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of this great human principle.

—Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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Lesser Known National Park Gems

Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon deserve the appreciation they receive, but the National Park System includes more than 400 places, scores of lesser known sites that will reward a visit—and are far less crowded than big-name parks.

A trail into the canyon underneath Owachomu Natural Bridge is a short distance from the overlook. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A trail into the canyon underneath Owachomu Natural Bridge is a short distance from the overlook. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 more parks that fall into that category.

Natural Bridges National Monument

Natural Bridges National Monument covers a relatively small area in southeastern Utah. It is rather remote and not close to other parks, and as a result is not heavily visited.

The pinyon and juniper covered mesa is bisected by deep canyons, exposing the Permian Age Cedar Mesa Sandstone. Where meandering streams cut through sandstone walls, three large natural bridges were formed.

The area also has some scattered Indian cliff dwellings, pictographs, and scenic white sandstone canyons.

Animals range from a variety of lizards, toads, and an occasional rattlesnake, to peregrine falcons, mountain lions, bobcats, and black bear.

A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three huge multi-colored natural bridges with Hopi Indian names—Sipapu (the place of emergence), Kachina (dancer), and Owachomu (rock mounds).

Meandering streams cut through sandstone walls to create Kachina Bridge..© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Meandering streams cut through sandstone walls to create Kachina Bridge..© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moderate hiking trails, some with metal stairs or wooden ladders, provide closer access to each bridge. An 8.6-mile hiking trail links the three natural bridges, which are located in two adjacent canyons.

A 13-site campground is available on a first-come, first-served basis. There is a 26-foot length limit. Each site has a fire grill, picnic table, and tent pad. Overflow camping is available outside Natural Bridges.

Did You Know?
President Theodore Roosevelt established Natural Bridges National Monument in 1908, making it the oldest National Park Service site in the state of Utah.

Location: 42 miles west of Blanding off Highway 95

Address: HC-60 Box 1, Lake Powell, Utah 84533

Phone: (435) 692-1234

Website: nps.gov/nabr

El Morro National Monument

“Paso por aqui, el adelantado Don Juan de Oñate, del descubrimiento de la mar del sur a 16 de Abril de 1605.” Translated, the inscription proclaims: “Passed by here, the expedition leader Don Juan de Oñate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South the 16th of April of 1605.”

People had been carving messages on Inscription Rock in the high desert of northwestern New Mexico for centuries before de Oñate, the first Spanish Conquistador to organize a colony in New Mexico, came along.

Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, El Morro’s Inscription Rock bears witness to over 700 years of history. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, El Morro’s Inscription Rock bears witness to over 700 years of history. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, El Morro’s Inscription Rock bears witness to over 700 years of history. Drawn here by its secluded spring–fed water hole, Anasazi/Zuni traders, Spanish Conquistadores, and Anglo cultures marked their passing by carving 2,000 petroglyphs and inscriptions on Inscription Rock, a soft sandstone monolith.

The main thing to see is Inscription Loop Trail, a half mile walk past numerous Spanish and Anglo inscriptions, as well as pre–historic petroglyphs.

Before venturing out be sure to view the short informative film in the visitor center and pick up a copy of the trail guide to assist you in spotting and understanding the various inscriptions.

You can continue your walk up to the top of the mesa for some great views and to see the partially-excavated ruins of an Ancestral Puebloan village.

Did You Know?

El Morro National Monument’s avian claim to fame is the White-throated Swift, which was described to science for the very first time here in 1851, by Dr. S. W. Woodhouse of the Sitgreaves Expedition.

Directions: From I-40 west of Grants, take Exit 81 south on Highway 53 for 42 miles to El Morro National Monument.

Address: HC 61 Box 43, Ramah, NM 87321

Phone: (505) 783-4226

Website: nps.gov/elmo

Please Note: This is Part 2 of a 3-Part series on lesser known National Parks

Part 1: National Parks without the Crowds

Part 3: National Parks Nobody Knows

Worth Pondering…

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

—William Shakespeare

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America’s Top 50 RV Destinations

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

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

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:

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California

A land of giants, this landscape testifies to nature’s size, beauty, and diversity—huge mountains, rugged foothills, deep canyons, vast caverns, and the world’s largest trees.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks lie side by side in the southern Sierra Nevada, east of the San Joaquin Valley. Visitor activities vary by season and elevation (1,370 to 14,494 feet).

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park is a beautiful, historic national treasure which includes the scenic 105-mile long Skyline Drive—a designated National Scenic Byway. The Park covers the crest of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains for over seventy-five miles.

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.

As each season arrives, and the changing leaves hit their peak of rich color, the expansive views become a tapestry of lush green in spring and summer to red, yellow, and orange in autumn.

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Shiner’s Spoetzl Brewery, Texas

The Spoetzl Brewery is now the oldest independent brewery in Texas and still brews every drop of Shiner Beer from its “little brewery” in Shiner. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nestled below the triangle of Houston, Austin, and San Antonio is the old Czech-German town of Shiner, home to a beer by the same name crafted at the 103-year-old Spoetzl Brewery. Carrying a family recipe for a Bavarian beer made from pure malt and hops, Spoetzl produced beer in wooden kegs and bottles.

Tours offer a chance to see where and how Shiner beer is made and taste a sample or two of the stuff.

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Wall Drug Store, South Dakota

At the other end of South Dakota’s I-90 corridor from the Corn Palace, Wall Drug is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon—a wayside stop that just kept growing and growing. It all began in the Depression, when nearby Mount Rushmore was still under scaffolding, years away from attracting travelers to this middle-of-nowhere burg. Desperate for business, Wall Drug’s owners, Ted and Dorothy Hustead, put up signs on the highway advertising free ice water to thirsty travelers. Motorists poured in—and they’re still arriving.

Yosemite National Park, California

Located 195 miles east of San Francisco, Yosemite National Park has close to 1,200 miles to explore. The World Heritage site is famous for its waterfalls, especially Yosemite Falls, the largest in North America. The falls’ water flow is powered by snowmelt, so visit before the end of summer when the temperature heats up and the flow is at its max.

Zion National Park, Utah

With sheer, milky-white cliffs and pristine waterfalls, Zion is one of the most beautiful places on earth. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the heart of desert slot canyon territory in southwestern Utah is the most awe-inspiring place on the planet: Zion National Park. With the competition Zion faces from its neighboring national parks in the American Southwest just standing out in this esteemed crowd would seem to require some noteworthy scenery. Zion delivers it in spades.

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

Worth Pondering…

I dream of southern skies.

Cajun cookin’.

Tee offs in Tijuana.

Juleps in Jacksonville.

My reality is a daily commute that begins each day at six a.m.

Road rage.
Traffic tie-ups.

Cranky commuters.
The pathos of Dilbert’s world.

—Lisa Paradis

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