The only U.S. National Park within the expansive Sonoran Desert is divided into two separate districts east and west of Tucson, Arizona. Its namesake cactus can reach 50 feet in height and weigh more than 16,000 pounds when swelled with water during the rainy season. Saguaros do not typically branch their first arms until age seventy-five and they can live over 200 years. They share their home with other cacti that have cuddly names like teddybear cholla, hedgehog, barrel, staghorn cholla, and prickly pear.
Learn more in our guidebook to the 62 National Parks, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).
There are National Park Service (NPS) visitor centers in both the Rincon Mountain District and Tucson Mountain District. In each district, opportunities for visitors include scenic drives, handicap-accessible nature trails, and more strenuous hiking options. Much of the wildlife is nocturnal in the hot desert, but watch for unique species like javelinas, ringtails, kangaroo rats, roadrunners, phainopeplas, desert tortoises, Gila monsters, and western diamondback rattlesnakes.
Hikers can find great overlooks of the surrounding mountains along the short Ridge View Trail in the eastern Rincon Mountain District of the park.
Winter is a great time to come to Saguaro National Park due to mild temperatures, but to see the desert in bloom the spring is best. Saguaros typically bloom in early June, though their large white blooms are hard to photograph at the top of the tall cacti where moths, bats, and other pollinators can find them.
In the Rincon Mountain District the Cactus Forest Drive is all paved, but in the Tucson Mountain District the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive is mostly a graded gravel road.
Only backcountry camping in designated sites (with a permit) is allowed in the National Park, but campgrounds are available at Tucson Mountain County Park just outside the western district and throughout Coronado National Forest which borders the eastern district.
Nez Perce National Historical Park is unique because it comprises 38 sites stretching across four states, not even including an 1877 incident inside Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park. Many of the locations (as well as Big Hole National Battlefield) cover the War of 1877, when a portion of the tribe fled more than 1,000 miles from Oregon towards the Canadian border only to be stopped 40 miles short by the U.S. Army at Bear Paw Battlefield in Montana. Under the leadership of legendary Chief Joseph they crossed the Rocky Mountains at Lolo Pass, made famous by the Lewis and Clark Expedition that the tribe assisted in 1805.
Museum, film, Heart of the Monster, Lolo Pass, Bear Paw Battlefield
The main National Park Service (NPS) visitor center is in Spalding, Idaho on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation where the “heart of the monster” resides. According to legend, after Coyote slew the monster that inhaled all the people, its heart and liver came to rest on the banks of the Clearwater River. This park is also unique because the Nez Perce remain an active tribe with a strong sense of community, as documented in the excellent new film at the visitor center. Highway 12 follows the beautiful Clearwater River through northern Idaho and provides access points for the unpaved Lolo Motorway (a section of the Nez Perce National Historical Trail) and its many scenic overlooks.
Nez Perce National Historical Trail stretches 1,170 miles from Oregon to Montana, ending at the NPS site at Bear Paw Battlefield where a five-day fight finally led to the tribe’s surrender in October 1877.
At a roadside pullout on Highway 95 in Idaho, the NPS interprets White Bird Battlefield where 34 U.S. Army soldiers were killed on June 17, 1877 escalating the U.S. government’s conflict with the Nez Perce into a war.
Just south of Yellowstone National Park, is one of the most recognizable skylines in the United States, topped by 13,772-foot tall Grand Teton Peak. The Teton Mountains were established as a National Park in 1929, but the rest of the park has a strange history. Land in the Jackson Hole valley was bought up by the Rockefeller family and attempted to be donated to the U.S. government for decades. In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created Jackson Hole National Monument under the Antiquities Act, but it did not include the Rockefeller holdings. It was not until 1950 that a deal was struck merging everything into Grand Teton National Park as we know it today. Part of that negotiation was a requirement that in the future no land in Wyoming would ever be established as a National Monument under the Antiquities Act.
Jenny Lake, Inspiration Point, Jackson Lake Lodge, Oxbow Bend Turnout, Mormon Row
One of our favorite places in the park is Jenny Lake, which sparkles below 12,325-foot Teewinot Peak. This is the trailhead for Cascade Canyon, but there are plenty of activities other than hiking, which include boating, horseback riding, mountain climbing, whitewater rafting, or cross-country skiing in the winter.
You can hike around Jenny Lake to the lake to Hidden Falls and the waterfalls of Cascade Canyon, or you can take the shortcut aboard a shuttle boat (fee). This popular trail can get very busy in the summer, which is true of most of the trails in the park.
Oxbow Bend Turnout is found along Highway 89/191/287, north of Moran Junction Entrance Station. It overlooks a curve in the Snake River towards the Teton Mountain Range, which is why we chose it for our original logo design (see below).
The only main road that are not paved is the short segment that connects Phelps Lake with Jackson Hole Ski Area, but there are other rough gravel roads that follow the Snake River.
The first-come, first-served tent-only campsites at Jenny Lake or Signal Mountain are usually full, so you can always try Gros Ventre Campground which has 350 sites and rarely fills up. Reservations for sites with hook-ups are accepted at Colter Bay RV Park and Headwaters at Flagg Ranch, which is just north of the park boundaries on the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway.
Acadia National Park in Maine is famous for its 45 miles of Carriage Roads and watching a sunrise from atop 1,530-foot tall Cadillac Mountain. We recommend you plan your visit around attending a Star Party to view the night sky through dozens of telescopes. We visited on a September weekend, and even though it was not yet leaf-peeping season, the main park road across Mount Desert Island was jam packed and parking spaces were difficult to come by. [This is also one of 50 National Parks covered in our new guidebook]
Cadillac Mountain, Precipice Trail, Bass Harbor Head
If you don’t like crowds, then visit on a weekday and avoid
Cadillac Mountain, Bar Harbor, Precipice Trailhead, Thunder Hole, Jordan Pond
House, and Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse.
We preferred our time spent on the Schoodic Peninsula with its nice
campground and unoccupied overlooks across the bay towards busy Mount Desert
Iron rungs and ladders assist those who wish to climb the
aptly named Precipice Trail. The trail
provides awesome Atlantic Ocean views from the cliffs on the way up to
Champlain Mountain. A 2.5-mile loop can
be formed when combined with Champlain North Ridge and Orange & Black
Trails. Other “ladder trails” in the
park include the Beehive and Perpendicular Trails.
Photographers hang out for hours waiting for sunset on the rocks below Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse.
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.