Since White Sands National Monument was upgraded to the 62nd National Park on December 20, 2019, we decided to update our guidebook to the parks. If you already bought your copy on Amazon, please find the new page 308 posted below. White Sands is one of our favorite of the many National Park Service units in New Mexico. You can read more about the park on this blog.
603,008 visitors in 2018
Dunes composed of gypsum make a great destination for snow sledding year round, especially when the sand is wet. Gypsum readily dissolves in water, but here it forms dunes because no river drains the Tularosa Basin. Follow markers on the five-mile roundtrip Alkali Flat Trail that goes up and down dunes and provides views of the San Andres Mountains. Most of the wildlife here is nocturnal, but during the day you may spot bleached earless lizards that evolved to camouflage in the gypsum. The white dunes take on the colors of the sunset if you attend the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll or backpack camp. There is no campground and only ten backcountry campsites, and their availability is dependent upon whether the military is conducting missile tests overnight, so call ahead or check the schedule online. Oliver Lee Memorial State Park offers a full service campground in a beautiful setting south of Alamogordo, New Mexico.
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.
As one of the easiest crossings of the Alleghany Mountains, Cumberland Gap saw steady foot traffic from 1775 to 1810 as American settlers moved west then sent their trade goods and livestock east. It later became the corner where the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia all converge. Today there is a tunnel on Highway 25E, maintaining the park’s quiet and its appearance of centuries ago.
All visitors will want to drive the steep four-mile long Pinnacle Road, along which trailheads lead to scenic overlooks and earthen forts dating to the 1860s. Reservations are recommended if you want to take a tour of the Hensley Settlement or Gap Cave, which typically sell out. Even if you cannot make it on a tour, there are 85 miles of shady trails through the park’s 24,000 acres of forest to make your visit worthwhile.
At Cumberland Gap National Historical Park you can follow in the footsteps of salt-seeking bison, Shawnee and Cherokee warriors, hundreds of thousands of pioneers, and Civil War soldiers from both sides. Hike the Wilderness Road Trail to the saddle of the official Cumberland Gap, which is marked by a sign. You will also pass the same Indian Rock that was seen by frontiersman Daniel Boone when he helped blaze the Wilderness Trail in 1775.
You can see parts of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee from Pinnacle Overlook at 2,440 feet in elevation. With its commanding views, you can see why both sides found the Cumberland Gap strategic during the Civil War.
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).
Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Navajo Loop Trail, Queens Garden Trail, Natural Bridge, Rainbow Point
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.
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.
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).
Summer due to long, snowy winters at this elevation.
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.
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.
Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area is co-managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Forest Service. The NPS is in charge of Whiskeytown Lake, a reservoir west of Interstate 5, about 230 miles north of San Francisco, California. Camping, hiking, gold panning, fishing, boating, and swimming are popular activities, but watch out for poison-oak.
Waterfall Challenge, Camden House, gold panning, lake
Pick up an official Waterfall Challenge Passport at the NPS visitor center along with information on the four waterfall hiking trails. Tower House Historic District includes the Camden House built in 1852 by a Gold Rush prospector, with seasonal tours offered by the NPS (it was temporarily closed in 2019 after the Carr Fire). You can even pan for gold (with a $1 permit).
Whiskeytown Falls, Boulder Creek Falls, Brandy Creek Falls,
and Crystal Creek Falls are accessible by hiking a total of 11 miles, but it
may take longer depending on your choice of trails and road closures. The trails are steep and poorly marked in
Whiskeytown Falls is 220 feet tall and is accessible on a 3.4-mile roundtrip trail, but we thought the most photogenic waterfall was Crystal Creek Falls.
We wanted to demonstrate how our new guidebook (A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks) is different from this website, so we are providing a sample chapter for Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Here is a link to the Raven About The Parks blog post on the park.
The holidays are coming up, so order A Park to Yourself now on Amazon!
39. Rocky Mountain National Park
4,590,493 visitors in 2018
This truly is a National Park for
all seasons. In the summer, it is worth
the extra time it takes to drive 11 miles up the unpaved curves of one-way Old
Fall River Road to Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet, then back down Trail
Ridge Road. Elk bulls spar and bugle in
the autumn, when aspen trees briefly turn the mountainsides gold. Winter is a wonderful time for outdoor
recreation here if you are prepared for the icy conditions, even on a short
1.6-mile trip up to Gem Lake just outside of Estes Park, Colorado.
Peak Visitation Months
July (20%) August (18%) June (16%)
Bear Lake Trailhead, Alluvial Fan,
Alpine Visitor Center, Longs Peak
Worth The Crowds
Bear Lake Trailhead is the busiest
area in the park. Its huge parking lot
fills up early year round, but a hiker shuttle is available during the
summer. While the trail starts above
9,000 feet elevation, it is only 1.1 miles with a steady ascent up to stunning
Dream Lake ringed by jagged peaks. From
there, you can continue on to Emerald Lake or take the long loop around to Lake
Haiyaha and Alberta Falls. Even in the
winter, these trails are generally packed enough that snowshoes are not
A Park To Yourself
The western side of the park is
generally less busy throughout the year, but even less so in the winter when it
is cut off after Trail Ridge Road closes each October. Snowshoeing past Adams Falls up the East
Inlet valley is breathtaking when the snow sparkles in the sun and the river
gurgles deep under foot. There are
majestic mountain views once the forest opens up into a spectacular
meadow. Better yet, there is never a fee
required to park at the East Inlet or North Inlet Trailheads.
Around Memorial Day each year, all
48 miles of Trail Ridge Road open to vehicles.
Its high point is at 12,183 feet, the highest elevation reached by a
fully-paved road in the United States.
For much of its length, jagged black mountaintops lined in pure white
snow surround the visitor on all sides.
Our favorite view is looking southwest towards the Gorge Lakes and Mount
Ida from the overlooks at Rock Cut or Forest Canyon parking areas.
Scott’s Favorite Trail
Starting at the small parking lot
at Poudre Lake, it is a steady climb five miles one-way to Mount Ida at 12,880
feet. After a mile, it is less a trail
and more following cairns along the Continental Divide. Needless to say, above timberline there are
first-class views of surrounding mountains.
Elk and bighorn sheep are commonly spotted on the route. From the top you look down on the colorful
Gorge Lakes and far across to Trail Ridge Road.
Tiff’s Favorite Trail
The Dunraven Trailhead is in
Roosevelt National Forest, northeast of Estes Park. From there a trail drops to the canyon bottom
then follows the North Fork of the Big Thompson River 4.4 miles before it
enters the National Park, and backpack camping is allowed without a permit
along this length. The views open up on
the Mummy Range before the trail ends around Lost Lake. You can continue to explore the other lakes
past there, but overnight stays in this area require a permit from the National
Bonus Winter Trail
In the winter months, the road off
Highway 7 to Wild Basin shuts down, but it is still plowed for those entering
on foot. Adding the two mile road length
to any hiking distance makes it about eight miles roundtrip to Calypso
Cascades, which continues to flow beneath the snow and ice. Snowshoes are recommended as this trail sees
much less use than those around Bear Lake.
There are multiple campgrounds
within the park, but only Glacier Basin is open year round. Several National Forests surround the park
and provide opportunities for dispersed camping, although near Grand Lake it
does get crowded during the summer.
Backpacking permits are required and
designated sites are reservable, including on the Continental Divide National
Scenic Trail. You must still pay the
National Park entry fee, but there is no additional charge to get a permit to
park at the Bowen/Baker Trailhead and camp in the Never Summer Wilderness
outside the park boundaries.
Most of the park roads are paved and
the two-mile long dirt road to Wild Basin Trailhead is well-maintained. A hiker shuttle operates from Beaver Meadows
Visitor Center in the summer. Old Fall
River Road typically does not open until July, but this 11-mile long one-way
dirt road makes a great loop when connected with Trail Ridge Road (open late-May
Nearby Public Lands
There are no National Park Service
units near this park, but it does border Arapaho National Recreation Area on
the west side. If you are flying in or
out of Denver International Airport, a short detour from Interstate 70 takes
you to Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, which contains bison,
white-tailed deer, pronghorns, prairie dogs, and other animals.
Estes Park is the gateway town to
the eastern portion of the park. There
are often elk grazing in its neighborhoods and golf courses. While there, we recommend the ghost tour of
the Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King’s The Shining.
In the summer, most of the elk
herds head to high elevation, but other times of year they walk through the
town of Estes Park and congregate near the eastern entrance stations. Rock Cut is a great spot to watch the spastic
wanderings of yellow-bellied marmots and American pikas. Mule deer are found throughout the park, but
moose are more common on the west side.
We commonly see bighorn sheep on Highway 34 through Big Thompson Canyon,
but have never spotted one within the park, even at Sheep Lakes where they come
to lick salt.
We never thought we would have an entire National Park campground to ourselves, but that is exactly what we found at Timber Creek one beautiful March weekend. The ranger could not recall the last campers they had stayed there and it took some work to excavate a site from almost three feet of snow, but it was worth it. Sitting around the campfire that night, the silence was palpable until abruptly pierced by the eerie cries of coyotes that echoed up the valley. Snow camping is not for the faint of heart, but with proper planning we were well prepared for the 15°F temperatures that met us in the morning. On a clear day, the winter scenery in the Rocky Mountains is unsurpassed.