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Joshua Tree National Park

Overview

This National Park in southern California is named for a tall yucca plant that grows there in large numbers, but it also contains many other interesting desert life forms and neat rock formations.  In the less-developed southern portion of the park, be sure to stop at the palm trees at Cottonwood Spring, Cholla Cactus Garden, and Ocotillo Patch to learn more about how these unique plants have adapted to survive the harsh desert conditions. 

Learn more in our guidebook to the 62 National Parks, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).

Highlights

Jumbo Rocks, Keys View, Arch Rock, Cottonwood Spring, rock climbing

Must-Do Activity

Due to its proximity to Los Angeles, the park gets very busy on Easter weekend (in addition to Thanksgiving weekend).  Campgrounds, like scenic Jumbo Rocks, fill up early.  Other than rock climbing opportunities, the biggest attraction is the myriad of colorful wildflowers that bloom in the spring (including the Joshua trees).

Best Trail

There are many fun hiking options located throughout the park (which are detailed in our guidebook).  At White Tank Campground you can pick up the Arch Rock Nature Trail, which forms a short loop that passes an interesting arch.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Chuckwallas are huge lizards that can grow up to 18 inches long and are related to iguanas.  Chuckwallas can inflate themselves as a defense mechanism so that predators cannot remove them from narrow cracks in the rock. 

Peak Season

Spring and fall

Hours

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

Fees

$30 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All major roads are paved, but there are many dirt roads to explore with the right vehicle.

Camping

There are numerous NPS campgrounds located throughout the park, and some take reservations.  The scenic Jumbo Rocks Campground is popular with rock climbers.

Related Sites

Death Valley National Park (California)

Mojave National Preserve (California)

Castle Mountains National Monument (California)

This design we created to celebrate Joshua Tree National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – How tall can Joshua trees grow?

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Canyonlands National Park

Overview

Canyonlands National Park was established in 1964, part of a large expansion of the National Park Service (NPS) system during the Johnson administration.  It is divided into four distinct areas that are not easily connected by roads: The Needles District, The Maze District, Horseshoe Canyon Unit, and the most heavily-trafficked Island in the Sky District near Moab, Utah.  Backpacking is a major draw to this park, as is whitewater rafting on the Colorado and Green Rivers.

Learn more in our guidebook to the 62 National Parks, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).

Highlights

Mesa Arch, Grand View Point, Chesler Park, Druid Arch, The Maze, Great Gallery

Must-Do Activity

Horseshoe Canyon is a separate unit of Canyonlands National Park accessible by good dirt road from Highway 24 southwest of Green River, Utah.  Its main attractions are four large pictograph panels estimated at 3,000 years old at the bottom of the 800-foot deep canyon.  The largest panel, dubbed the Great Gallery, stretches over 200 feet with numerous life-sized human figures painted in red and white on a sandstone wall.  It is a 3.5-mile hike to get there from the trailhead on top of the canyon rim that drops down to and then follows a meandering stream which passes three smaller panels.

Best Trail

There are miles of incredibly scenic trails in The Needles District, many of which leave from Elephant Hill Trailhead.  We recommend the six-mile roundtrip hike to Chesler Park where you will see the pointy formations that gave this district its name.  Druid Arch or Angel Arch make great destinations for long day hikes, but you should at least stop at Slickrock Foot Nature Trail to get a feel for sandstone beneath your soles.

Instagram-worthy Photo

You may have never heard of the Island in the Sky District, but you have surely seen a sunrise photograph of Mesa Arch since it makes it on many calendars.  Walk the half-mile loop to the edge of the cliff where this famous formation frames distant mountains.

Peak Season

Spring and fall

Hours

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

Fees

$30 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

There are seriously rough 4×4 roads throughout this park, so ask a park ranger about road conditions before attempting any drive.  The scenic drive that dead ends at Grand View Point in the Island in the Sky District is entirely paved.

Camping

There is running water at Squaw Flat Campground in The Needles District, but none available at the small Willow Flat Campground in the Island in the Sky District.  White Rim Road and Chesler Park are also famous for their backcountry campsites accessible by 4×4 vehicles (permit required).  Due to high demand, backpacking permits within this park are among the most expensive in the entire NPS system.

Related Sites

Arches National Park (Utah)

Capitol Reef National Park (Utah)

Natural Bridges National Monument (Utah)

This design we created to celebrate Canyonlands National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – It may look small in photographs, but just how tall is Druid Arch in The Needles District?

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Overview

Robert Harper started ferrying folks across the Potomac River at this site in 1747.  It had a strategic location at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers where the point of what is now the state of West Virginia meets the border of Maryland and Virginia.  Harpers Ferry is most famous for the 1859 raid led by abolitionist John Brown of Kansas in attempt to seize the federal armory to incite a slave rebellion.  His trial and execution for treason helped foment the Civil War, during which conflict the town changed hands between the two sides an astounding eight times!

Highlights

Historic buildings, museums, Jefferson Rock, Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Must-Do Activity

A portion of the town today is run as a series of museums by the National Park Service (NPS), though other parts remain open for business as restaurants, shops, and inns.  Parking is limited in town, so the NPS runs a shuttle (free with parking fee) two miles from their visitor center.

Best Trail

You can hike into town on the 2,185-mile Appalachian Trail that cuts right through the buildings and over the footbridge across the Potomac River.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Jefferson Rock is located just up the hill from town, named for Thomas Jefferson who visited in 1783.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

$20 to park at NPS visitor center or free with America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

There is limited parking in town so it is easier to take a shuttle from the NPS visitor center.

Camping

There are multiple private campgrounds in the area, as well as Maryland’s Gambrill State Park.

Related Sites

Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)

Fort Scott National Historic Site (Kansas)

New River Gorge National River (West Virginia)

Explore More – Which famous member of the Corps of Discovery visited the national armory in Harpers Ferry in 1803 before heading to the Pacific Ocean?

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Overview

In 1964, Lake Mead became the first National Recreation Area administered by the National Park Service (NPS).  It actually encompasses two reservoirs on the Colorado River: Lake Mead formed by Boulder Dam in 1936 and (further south) Lake Mohave formed by Davis Dam in 1951.  Boulder Dam was later renamed Hoover Dam and is one big reason this is among the busiest NPS sites with about 7-million annual visitors (also partly due to its proximity to Las Vegas, Nevada).

Highlights

Hoover Dam, Northshore Road, Redstone Trail, Arizona Hot Springs, boating

Must-Do Activity

The most fantastic destination in Lake Mead National Recreation Area is Arizona Hot Springs, where pools are formed by sandbags in a narrow canyon.  It is accessible from Liberty Bell Trailhead by a 6.5-mile roundtrip hike through a beautiful canyon down to the Colorado River.  The trail is closed during the hot summer months, but you can still access it by canoe or kayak from Willow Beach Marina or just downstream from the Hoover Dam (with a special permit). Downriver in Black Canyon, stop at Emerald Cove for incredible photographs.

Best Trail

Redstone Trail is a short loop hike through a fantastic red rock area found just off North Shore Drive.  It is similar to the photogenic Valley of Fire State Park located to the north.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The area around the Hoover Dam can get very crowded, as can the outstanding overlook on the 1,900-foot long Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (completed in 2010 to route Highway 93 traffic off the dam).  Standing 890-feet above the river below, it ranks as the second highest bridge in the United States behind Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge.  Be prepared to pass through a security screening if you park at the bridge or Hoover Dam.

Peak Season

Spring and fall

Hours

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

Fees

$25 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass to access Willow Beach Marina or Lake Mead itself.  At Hoover Dam there is free parking on the Arizona side, but fees for the museum and tours.

Road Conditions

All major roads are paved, including the steep drive down to Willow Beach Marina, which also has a fish hatchery open to visitors.

Camping

There are multiple NPS campgrounds around the perimeter of Lake Mead and Lake Mohave.  Backcountry camping is allowed without a permit at Arizona Hot Springs, which is even more spectacular after dark.

Related Sites

Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Arizona-Utah)

Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument (Nevada)

Explore More – Lake Mead is not often filled to capacity, so when was the last time its spillways were needed during a big snowmelt year?

Bryce Canyon National Park

Overview

Bryce Canyon is not really a canyon at all, but instead a cliffside amphitheater eroded away into extravagant creamsicle-colored hoodoos.   Your first view from Sunrise or Sunset Point will surely take your breath away and not just because you are standing above 7,000 feet in elevation.  A portion of the main park road is only open during the busy summer season, but seeing the amphitheater under a fresh carpet of white snow makes the effort worthwhile to get here in the winter.  Learn more about the logistics of a winter visit in our first travel guidebook to the National Parks (available on Amazon).

Highlights

Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Navajo Loop Trail, Queens Garden Trail, Natural Bridge, Rainbow Point

Must-Do Activity

The amphitheater is beautiful from the overlooks, but to really experience this park you have to hike down from the rim.  Peakaboo Loop is a strenuous four-mile hike with approximately 1,700 feet cumulative elevation gain that offers up close views of the hoodoos.  It is accessed from Sunset Point or Bryce Point.  You could easily spend your whole trip in this northern section of the park and not be disappointed, but be sure to take a slow drive south with stops at Natural Bridge and Rainbow Point to complete the experience.

Best Trail

It is four miles out and back on the Under-the-Rim Trail from Bryce Point to the Hat Shop, in the quiet backcountry area where hoodoos are topped with boulders (like they are wearing hats).  Ask a park ranger about the “I Hiked the Hoodoos” program to earn a prize.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Douglas-fir trees snake their way to the light in the narrow Wall Street section of the Navajo Loop Trail.  A photograph of Tiff walking into a snowy Wall Street made the cover (see below) of our first travel guidebook to the National Parks (available on Amazon). 

Peak Season

Summer due to long, snowy winters at this elevation.

Hours

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

Fees

$35 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

The main park road is paved, but there are dirt roads that access the lower elevations of the park, though we have been warned that they are in rough shape.

Camping

The National Park Service has a campground that is open year round, but we prefer camping along the dirt roads in adjacent Dixie National Forest.  A free permit is required to camp in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Related Sites

Cedar Breaks National Monument (Utah)

Zion National Park (Utah)

Capitol Reef National Park (Utah)

This design we created to celebrate Bryce Canyon National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – Who described Bryce Canyon as “a hell of a place to lose a cow?”

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.