A small pool of reliable water at the base of a sandstone bluff has attracted humans and animals for centuries in this arid region. Ancestral Puebloans built a village atop the 200-foot-tall mesa and Spanish explorers carved their names alongside petroglyphs at a place they dubbed “el morro” (the headland). Today, El Morro National Monument is located about 125 miles west of Albuquerque, about 42 miles off Interstate 40.
Inscription Rock Trail, Atsinna Pueblo ruins, Mesa Top Trail
The National Park Service visitor center offers a 15-minute film and the half-mile paved Inscription Rock Trail loop to view the carvings. Pick up a free guidebook that provides details on the earliest European inscriptions that date back to 1605 and the petroglyphs that may be around 1,000 years old.
The Mesa Top Trail loop climbs to the top of the bluff where there are Ancestral Puebloan ruins and great views of the volcanic El Malpais National Monument. The hike is about two miles roundtrip, with interesting steps carved into the soft sandstone in places. The trail may be closed during thunderstorms during the summer and after heavy snowfalls in the winter.
It is worth the short but steep climb to check out the ruins of Atsinna Pueblo (built in the late-1200s) atop the sandstone bluff.
In mountainous northern Georgia, Chattahoochee National Forest stretches 200 miles east to west, bordering North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. In addition to the highest point in Georgia (4,784-foot Brasstown Bald), the National Forest includes the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River and one side of the Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River. West of the North Georgia Mountains, the Ridge and Valley Scenic Byway traverses the disjunct portion of the National Forest encompassing Johns Mountain, Little Sand Mountain, and Taylor Ridge.
Ed Jenkins National Recreation Area, Ridge and Valley Scenic Byway, Keown Falls, Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway, Brasstown Bald, High Shoal Falls Scenic Area, Lake Conasauga Recreation Area, Anna Ruby Falls, Sosebee Cove Scenic Area, Timpson Falls, Popcorn Overlook, Track Rock Gap Petroglyph Site, DeSoto Falls Scenic Area, Angel Falls, Raven Cliff Trail, Helton Creek Falls Trail, Duncan Ridge National Recreation Trail, Appalachian National Scenic Trail
One of the National Forest’s most popular spots, 150-foot-tall Anna Ruby Falls is accessed by a short trail northeast of Helen, Georgia on State Route 356. Large tulip-poplar and yellow buckeye trees grow in 175-acre Sosebee Cove Scenic Area, even though it is a second growth forest. We will have a separate blog post on Ed Jenkins National Recreation Area, which surrounds Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the 2,185-mile long Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
Chattahoochee National Forest started when the Forest Service purchased 31,000 acres from the Gennett family in 1911 for $7 per acre. Visitors can still see their namesake Gennett Poplar (a tulip-poplar tree more than five feet in diameter) by hiking 1.8 miles out-and-back with two stream crossings on the Bear Creek Trail. The rows of holes in the old tree’s trunk were made by yellow-bellied sapsuckers, a type of woodpecker. The trail continues and connects with the Pinhoti Trail to form a 6.6 to 9-mile long loop.
In addition to the plentiful white-tailed deer, other large mammals found in Chattahoochee National Forest include black bears, coyotes, bobcats, red foxes, squirrels, beavers, and river otters. There are a wide variety of songbirds, waterfowl, and raptors, as well as wild turkeys. One insect species of note is the blue ghost firefly, which produces a distinctive blue phosphorescence. Panther Creek is among the approximately 2,000 miles of rivers and streams popular for fishing.
There is a small waterfall at Barnes Creek Picnic Area, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s.
Most of the major routes in Chattahoochee National Forest are paved. Forest Service Road 42 that accesses the Springer Mountain Trailhead is unpaved and full of potholes, but it is doable in a passenger vehicle (as are the dirt roads to Hickey Gap Campground and Bear Creek Trail).
The riverside Hickey Gap Campground is so nice that it made it into our list of the Top 10 Campgrounds in National Forests; the best part is: it is free. We once overnighted at the Locust Stake ORV Area Trailhead north of Atlanta, which was fine until someone decided to ride their motocross bike at 2 a.m.
Big Frog Wilderness (also in Cherokee NF)
Blood Mountain Wilderness
Cohutta Wilderness (also in Cherokee National Forest)
Ellicott Rock Wilderness (also in Nantahala and Sumter National Forests)
Mark Trail Wilderness
Raven Cliffs Wilderness
Rich Mountain Wilderness
Southern Nantahala Wilderness (also in Nantahala National Forest)
South of Canyonlands National Park is isolated Natural Bridges National Monument. First established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, it was not accessible by road until uranium mining developed this part of Utah in the 1950s. As you may recall from our post on Arches National Park, bridges are created by flowing water, unlike arches that are primarily carved by wind.
The monument is home to 220-foot tall Sipapu Bridge, which is second only to Glen Canyon’s Rainbow Bridge as the largest in the world. Kachina Bridge, at 210 feet and growing, may catch up to it someday. Perhaps the most visually striking of the three standing bridges is the 180-foot span of Owachomo Bridge that is only nine feet thick at its center. Handicap accessible overlooks are available along Bridge View Drive.
A nine-mile loop hike connects all three natural bridges, which are also accessible by shorter trails from the rim drive. Do not attempt this rugged trek if you are not prepared; it is a rocky canyon bottom at high elevation with little shade.
Owachomo Bridge is the oldest of the three standing natural bridges in the National Monument.
The secluded nature of this region and its elevation of 6,500 feet were factors in naming it the first International Dark Sky Park in 2007. If you make it out this far, you might want to spend the night under the stars at the campground.
Bordered by the suburban neighborhoods of Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument is a nice place to take a walk and enjoy some intricate artwork. The petroglyphs were chipped into the patina of volcanic rocks in a long-populated region of the Rio Grande Valley. Some of these images may be up to 3,000 years old, with most believed to be carved between AD 1400 and 1700. A few were added by Hispanic settlers and explorers through the 1800s, but the National Park Service (NPS) politely requests no aspiring artists add any more.
Boca Negra Canyon, Rinconada Canyon Trail, Piedras Marcadas Canyon, Volcanoes Day Use Area
There are multiple areas of this National Monument established in 1990, some literally in Albuquerque residents’ backyards. At Boca Negra Canyon, you will find interesting depictions of humans, snakes, and even parrots from Central America, as well as many puzzling illustrations. Use your imagination to try to guess what the original carver was trying to display.
Volcanoes Day Use Area offers loop trails around three volcanic cones on the West Mesa with incredible views of the Sandia Mountains and Rio Grande Valley (but no petroglyphs).
Rinconada Canyon Trail is 1.25 miles one-way and starts at a small NPS parking lot in suburban Albuquerque and accesses an area with thousands of petroglyphs.
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.