Top 10 Desert NPS Sites

Many National Park Service (NPS) sites are closed during the winter months, but that is often the best time to visit the places that are too hot to enjoy in the summer.  North America has four named deserts: the Mojave, Sonoran, Great Basin, and Chihuahuan (all are represented in the list below).  When you think of these deserts do not picture sand dunes and desolation.  American deserts have a surprisingly diverse array of vegetation and wildlife adapted to their tough conditions, as you will see if you follow the links for our articles on each NPS site.  Click here to see all our Top 10 Lists.

10. Saguaro National Park (Arizona)

There are many interesting cacti to learn about here other than its fantastic namesake saguaro

9. Mojave National Preserve (California)

More than 1,000 miles of roads access 1.6-million acres of Joshua tree forests, sand dunes, and mountain ranges

8. White Sands National Park (New Mexico)

The newest National Park (established December 2019) is a fun place to go sledding year round

7. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Arizona-Utah)

Explore slot canyons and Rainbow Bridge National Monument by boat on Lake Powell

6. Arches National Park (Utah)

Home to 2,500 wind-carved holes (minimum size of three feet) in its famed orange sandstone

5. Lake Mead National Recreation Area (Nevada-Arizona)

More than just the Hoover Dam; hot springs and canyons invite exploration

4. Big Bend National Park (Texas)

Named for a curve in the Rio Grande, the landscape dries out quickly farther from the river

3. Canyonlands National Park (Utah)

Four distinct units will inspire you to return multiple times to this unique park

2. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (Arizona)

28 species of cacti are found in this beautiful Sonoran Desert expanse

…and finally our #1 desert NPS site:

1. Death Valley National Park (California-Nevada)

Its large size and wide elevation range (-282 to 11,049 feet) make this the most distinctive park on this list

Honorable Mentions

Great Basin National Park (Nevada)

Named for a desert, but much of this park is actually in high-elevation forests

Joshua Tree National Park (California)

Unfortunately its namesake yucca may go extinct within its boundaries due to climate change

Guadalupe Mountains National Park (Texas)

A great place to spend the night since there is no camping at neighboring Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Big Cypress National Preserve

Overview

Big Cypress National Preserve was originally planned to be a part of Everglades National Park (established in 1947), but this wild area to the north did not gain federal protection until 1974.  There are few roads and trails in the 729,000-acre preserve, which makes it ideal habitat for the endangered Florida panther.  The easiest access points are along Alligator Alley (Interstate 75) or the Tamiami Trail (Highway 41).  While many of the “trails” require route-finding and slogging through deep water, there are also designated ATV and canoe trails located throughout the park.

Highlights

Kirby Storter Roadside Park, Big Cypress Bend Trail, canoeing

Must-Do Activity

Many of the baldcypress and pond cypress trees that once stood here were logged in the 1930s and 1940s.  At the Kirby Storter Roadside Park, you can still see some large examples of these trees famous for their buttressed boles and root nodules, or “knees,” that stand above the high water level.  We previously reported on these unique deciduous conifers at Congaree National Park in South Carolina, but here they grow right alongside tall palm trees that we typically associate with sandy beaches. 

Best Trail

Many of the trails in the park are underwater and require slogging.  Two exceptions with boardwalks are at Kirby Storter Roadside Park and Big Cypress Bend (technically within Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park).

Instagram-worthy Photo

Wherever you look, you are likely to spot an alligator or two in this wild section of south Florida.  An extra photo-op can be found at the smallest post office in the United States, a former irrigation pipe shed located in Ochopee, Florida since 1953.

Peak Season

Winter

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/bicy/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None (except for off-road vehicle permits)

Road Conditions

Highway 41 and Interstate 75 are paved, but just about every other road in the park is sandy (and/or submerged) and should only be attempted with an ATV or swamp buggy.

Camping

The NPS offers two campgrounds along Highway 41 (there is also one in Collier-Seminole State Park), as well as designated primitive wilderness sites.

Related Sites

Everglades National Park (Florida)

De Soto National Memorial (Florida)

Big Thicket National Preserve (Texas)

Explore More – What are the five main habitat types protected within the preserve?

Amistad National Recreation Area

Overview

Amistad translates as “friendship” from Spanish, which is fitting given that this reservoir is shared by the U.S. and Mexico.  Marinas and boat ramps provide access to the lake for watersports, like fishing and waterskiing.  The 254-foot tall dam across the Rio Grande was built in 1968 and serves as a customs station in Del Rio, Texas.  The National Park Service (NPS) runs a free museum nearby.

Highlights

Panther Cave pictographs, Seminole Canyon State Park, watersports

Must-Do Activity

Amistad National Recreation Area is also famous for its 4,000-year-old pictographs, which can most easily be accessed on guided tours of Seminole Canyon State Park, 45 miles outside Del Rio, Texas on Highway 90.  Admission is charged for the museum and tour, but provides the only way to see the colorful artwork in Fate Bell Shelter.  Viewing fossils in the limestone was an added bonus on the tour.

Best Trail

The pictographs in Panther Cave can be seen from afar by hiking a trail in the state park or up-close by boating to the dock and climbing a steep stairway. 

Instagram-worthy Photo

If you are unable to hike down into the canyon, the Seminole Canyon State Park museum has a replica of the rock art.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/amis/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

Boating passes start at $4 for a 1-day pass, $8 per person to tour Seminole Canyon State Park

Road Conditions

All major roads paved

Camping

Two NPS campgrounds are available at Governors Landing and San Pedro and there is a campground at Seminole Canyon State Park.

Related Sites

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument (Texas)

Waco Mammoth National Monument (Texas)

Canyonlands National Park (Utah)

Explore More – How many miles of the Rio Grande do the park’s boundaries encompass?

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Overview

The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal was supposed to connect ports in Washington, D.C. with the Ohio River, but it never reached its destination before the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad rendered it obsolete in 1850.  It employed 35,000 laborers (mostly European immigrants) during its 22 years of construction and eventually carried coal out of the Appalachian Mountains for decades.  The canal closed in 1924, but it left behind indelible historic landmarks like locks, dams, aqueducts, historic hotels, and a 3,118-foot long tunnel.

Highlights

Historic locks, boat tours, Great Falls Tavern, boating

Must-Do Activity

C&O Canal National Historical Park is run by the National Park Service (NPS) and offers multiple free visitor centers along the route that are open seasonally.  Near Washington, D.C. both the Great Falls Tavern and Georgetown Visitor Centers offer mule-drawn canal boat rides on a first-come, first-served basis April through October.  We enjoyed touring the historic locks of the canal in Hancock, Maryland after visiting Catoctin Mountain Park and Antietam National Battlefield.

Best Trail

Today you can walk and bike the graded 184.5-mile towpath that follows the Potomac River, camping at designated sites along the way if you choose.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The canal locks at Hancock, Maryland became part of the park that was created in 1971.  The boarding house located there now serves as an NPS visitor center.

Peak Season

Summer, as most of the visitor centers are closed seasonally

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/choh/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None, except at Great Falls Tavern

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

There are primitive drive-in camping areas at five spots along the canal path, as well as 30 backpacking campsites spaced approximately five miles apart.  There is also a nice NPS campground at Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland.

Related Sites

George Washington Memorial Parkway (Virginia-Maryland)

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (West Virginia-Maryland-Virginia)

Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site (Pennsylvania)

Explore More – At its peak of operation, how many mule-drawn boats were in service on the C&O Canal?

Top 10 NPS Sites to See America First

During the 1930s, there was a travel advertising campaign with the promotional tagline “See America First.”  It was created because many Americans were taking their tourism dollars overseas and never exploring their home country.  With international travel currently restricted due to the pandemic, there has never been a better time to discover the United States of America.  Below we present more than a dozen famous world travel destinations with their similar National Park Service (NPS) counterparts.  For more vacation ideas within American borders, check out all of our Top 10 Lists.

The NPS system also contains some of the world’s best caves (Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Timpanogos Cave National Monument) and places to watch active lava flows (Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park).  Learn more in our guidebook to the 62 National Parks, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).

10. European Alps and Torres del Paine, Chile

Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming)

See and climb iconic mountain spires in Wyoming or visit California’s three National Parks in the Sierra Nevadas (Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite).

9. Cappadocia, Turkey

Bandelier National Monument (New Mexico)

Native Americans also carved out homes from soft tufa rock between AD 1150 and 1550.

8. Tropical Caribbean Islands

Dry Tortugas National Park (Florida)

Snorkel in turquoise waters at the farthest west Florida Key, or go fully tropical as the NPS also manages Virgin Islands National Park.

7. Canadian Rockies

Glacier National Park (Montana)

Great hiking and backpacking is found throughout this park and another that borders Canada: Washington’s North Cascades National Park.

6. Amazon River

Everglades National Park (Florida)

Boats provide the best means to explore this subtropical wilderness with incredible wildlife diversity.

5. Iceland’s geysers and hot springs

Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming-Montana-Idaho)

About 75% of the world’s geysers are found within this one park, and similar geologic wonders can be found at California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park.

4. Lascaux Cave art in France

Canyonlands National Park (Utah)

The 3,000-year-old Great Gallery stretches over 200 feet at the bottom of Horseshoe Canyon, or check out the pictographs in Texas’ Amistad National Recreation Area.

3. New Zealand and Norway’s tidewater glaciers

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve (Alaska)

Witness one of nature’s great spectacles here or at Kenai Fjords National Park (also in Alaska).

2. Galapagos Islands

Channel Islands National Park (California)

Similarly, cold ocean currents create ideal conditions for wildlife above and below the high tide line.

…and finally our #1 place to See America First:

1. African safari

Denali National Park and Preserve (Alaska)

Large herds of grazing animals with associated predators can be found in central Alaska or Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park.

Honorable Mentions

-Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland

Devils Postpile National Monument (California)

Hexagonal rock columns form when lava cools under certain conditions (they can also be found outside Hong Kong).

-Mayan and Aztec pyramids, Mexico

Poverty Point National Monument (Louisiana)

Named a World Heritage Site in 2014, these 72-foot tall earth mounds were the largest man-made structure in North America about 3,700 years ago.

-Hot springs

Big Bend National Park (Texas)

Everyone loves to soak in a hot spring, either undeveloped (like at Yellowstone National Park) or part of a resort (Olympic National Park).

-Changing of the Guard in London, England

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery (Virginia)

This ceremony takes place adjacent to an NPS site: Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee National Memorial.