National Parks

Our National Park system is one of the greatest (and few) things effectively run by our government. We have traveled to over forty National Parks in all so far, and have found all of them to offer just the right balance between the preservation of nature and the amenities to make your stay enjoyable. Park Rangers are one of the greatest assets of these parks, as they are full of information not only about the park they work in, but many others as well. Just ask them a question!
Find a National Park Headquarters near you. There you will find helpful National Park Rangers who will provide you will maps and information about where you're headed. Be sure to stop by this wonderful resource before your next National Park visit!
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Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah


Bryce Canyon is a spectacular place to visit! As you walk up to the rim, you will be awakened to the beauty that lies within the canyon which clearly distinguishes it from any other place on the planet! Make sure your camera, as the views and colors from the rim and from within the canyon are amazing. Trailheads are spotted along the rim and vary in length and difficulty, however I recommend you do head down into the canyon at some point. If your stay is during a full moon, be sure to book a reservation for the Full Moon Night Hike, as skies here on a clear night offer awesome stargazing due to the lack of light and air pollution and high elevation!

The park has a lodge for non-campers, as well as several campgrounds within the park. A shuttle through the park provides transportation for visitors and leaves from the Visitor's Center and has stops at all major points around the rim, including campgrounds. A small convenience store, laundry and facilities, a cafe, the lodge and it's restaurant are all available. The Visitor's Center is a great place to learn more about the canyon, it's development and climate. Speaking of climate, summer is the best time to travel here, as winters at this 8,000 foot elevation canyon are harsh! Campgrounds are open late spring through early fall, and temperatures run in the mid 70s to low 80s during the summer. Just a quick trip from it's neighboring parks the Grand Canyon, Zion, Canyonlands, Arches and Escalante, this park is a must see!



Zion National Park, Utah


Zion means "heavenly city" and it is appropriately named! This National Park is by far my favorite! The park is carved by a river that fluctuates greatly due to rainfall, and has left behind beautiful red walls and lush vegetation. Waterfalls are abound in the park, and several hikes will lead you to them to experience them up close. I recommend the Emerald Pool hikes (lower, middle and upper), the easy, family friendly Riverwalk hike, and the Weeping Rock hike. All of these hikes incorporate water into them and provide some spectacular views. Riverwalk is the easiest hike, with a wide, partially paved path that eventually turns to a graded road and is stroller and bike friendly. It is flat, has great views and colors and even has some great places to stop off for a picnic. The Weeping Rock hike is steep, but worth it, as it leads you to a huge "weeping rock" that is fascinating to see. The three Emerald Pool hikes are easy to moderate and lead you to waterfalls, pools and beautiful views of the canyon. The Pa'rus trail is great for cyclists, easy for strollers and although it is my least favorite hike in the canyon, it is best at sunset. If you're feeling up to a more strenuous hike, a trek through the "Narrows" is recommended, but check weather first as flash floods are common here during summer thunderstorms. If the weather cooperates, the Narrows hike is definitely worth taking. Be sure to prepare yourself with good shoes, a hiking stick and patience!
Located in southwestern Utah and just a few hours west of Bryce Canyon, it is hot in the summer
(100's are not uncommon!) and freezes in winter. Summer afternoons are often cooled down quickly by a fast moving thunderstorm, so be prepared to take shelter if a storm pops up! The best time to travel here is late spring when temperatures are mild enough to enjoy some of the more strenuous hikes through the canyon.
   
This is a very well run National Park. A Visitor's Center provides information, ranger talks and a video about the canyon. The lodge is a beautiful, architectural historic point within the park with large grassy areas, beautiful views, and has a great ice cream shop, gift shop, sitting areas and a café. Just adjacent to the lodge you will find stables where you can reserve a ride through the canyon on horseback. Transportation in the park is limited to the NPS shuttles, which take you everywhere you need to go in the canyon. Shuttle stops are conveniently located at the Visitor's Center, the lodge and all trailheads. At the entrance of the park you will find additional eateries and shops.


Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming


This huge National Park (over 2.2 million acres!) is a place of diverse landscapes and terrain. There are forests, mountains, plains, rivers, waterfalls, mudpits, volcano craters, geysers, hot pools and a lake. There is so much to see and do here in Yellowstone that you definitely need at least 4 days here to see most of the park. The geological history here is amazing, and you will leave Yellowstone with a greater appreciation of how our earth works. The best way to see Yellowstone is to stay within the parks limits in one of the dozen campgrounds, lodges or the famous Yellowstone Hotel. There are no NPS shuttles here, however traveling in your car or rig is necessary to see all the sites, or if you prefer to let someone else do the driving, bus tours depart from the Visitor's Centers (there are 8 of them!). Bus tours are a great way to see the sites of the park in an efficient manner and orient yourself with the park. They vary in lengths and itineraries, so study up ahead of time to decide what your "must see" list is.
Yellowstone River
Wildlife within the park is stunning. You will see bison, pronghorn, deer, small ground dwellers, various species of birds, coyotes, wolves and maybe even moose or bears! The best time of day to see wildlife is in the dawn and dusk when animals are most active, so plan accordingly.

In our travels we found the Norris Basin, the North loop scenic drive, Mammoth, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Kepler Falls, Old Faithful and Tower-Roosevelt areas to be the most interesting. Be sure to spend some time at one of the eight Visitor's Centers as they provide tons of information about the various regions of the park through exhibits and videos.



Death Valley National Park, California

Few places on earth are as remote and beautiful as this. Although its name indicates a place of hellish conditions, Death Valley in the late fall, winter and early spring is a beautiful place to visit. Its diverse terrain is a spectacular combination of snow-capped mountains, a dry valley floor, sand dunes, and eroded mineral canyons. Summer is brutal here, with average daily temperatures averaging in the 120's, however the park does stay open for those who choose to visit. There are 12 campgrounds within the park, and most provide scenic views of the surrounding colorful mountains.
The acreage of this park is massive, and a dinghy vehicle is helpful here to get you from place to place. Attractions can be as far as an hour apart. If you are without a dinghy vehicle, you can easily navigate and find parking at most attractions, however there will be a few roads that are off-limits to larger vehicles. Trailheads are numerous here and the Visitor's Center is a must-stop to prioritize your agenda, as well as find out if any road closures exist. We enjoyed a tour through the Borax Museum, hiking Golden Canyon, an easy 3 mile hike through some beautiful terrain and the massive sand dunes that seemed to go on forever. Another area of the park that we did not get to were Scotty's Castle (yes, a real castle in the park!).
The town of Furnace Creek offers a gas station, some restaurants, bike rentals, Jeep rentals, an Inn, a motel, horseback riding, horse drawn carriage rides, laundry and gift shops and a convenience store.



Mount Rushmore National Monument, South Dakota


Deep in the middle of the Black Hills, South Dakota, you will find this treasured National Monument that most of us have read about in a history text at some time or another. This National Monument is a must see, as the textbooks don't do it justice! The views as you approach the monument are spectacular: white carved rock peeks out at you between a lush pine forest. It's a beautiful setting, and a beautiful monument that pays homage to our founding fathers and important presidents in our nation's history.

As you park (RV parking is provided) and walk up to the monument, you will see a glimpse of the four faces carved in stone. The visitor's center is a definite must-see, full of history as to how the monument took shape, the lives lost in the process, and the extreme conditions under which this massive sculpture took place. A great video on the process shows real footage and is interesting to viewers of all ages. To read about one man's vision and to see it before you as a reality is impressive.

Just outside of the Visitor's Center you will find various viewing platforms, amphitheater seating and a great trail that takes you up close and personal to the sculpture, as well as the sculpting studio. Keep in mind that summer months are busy here, as this is one of our most famous National Monuments, so plan accordingly. The best times of day to see the monument are at sunrise and sunset. Following sunset, the lighting of the monument is a sight to see for night owls!)

If you are hoping to camp nearby, you will definitely be able to find several options varying from private parks to federal parks within a 10 to 30 minute drive. Most campgrounds are RV friendly and have views of the surrounding Black Hills.



Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

A beautiful state park in a lush region of the country is home to one of the longest cave systems in the world! This monstrous cave has a cool temperature of 54 degrees, which is quite refreshing on a muggy, hot summer day where average temperatures are in the 90s. The park itself has a beautiful campground (lacking hookups) set in a forest providing privacy and shade. The campground is just a short walk from the Visitor's Center and departure point for all cave tours.  Other campgrounds and RV parks speckle the area if you prefer more amenities than the National Park offers. 
Tours sell out quickly, so I recommend purchasing tickets in advance at recreation.gov if you know your arrival date. Tours vary in length and difficulty, but all take you down into the refreshing climate of the cave where the history of mining, legends and wonders of cave formations are made known to you. Be prepared to squeeze through tight passages, walk across metal grates that span across deep pits, and see just how dark a cave is when it's not lit up by accent lighting! Tour guides take their job seriously here, passing on the tradition of storytelling and teaching each visitor about the formation of the cave.




Arches National Park, Utah


Literally in the middle of nowhere, but adjacent to Canyonlands NP, this park is located in southeastern Utah near the town on Moab. Arches is just what you think it might be when you hear the name; beautiful, smooth red sandstone arches created by years of erosion and weathering. The park is surrounded by desolate desert, and has a feeling of "popping out of nowhere." The colors, views, hikes, and arches are phenomenal to experience up close and from a distance.

This National Park is low-key. A Visitor's Center is at the sole entrance to the park, and once in the park, you will find no other amenities other than the occasional ranger and signage. A long, sometimes windy, road takes you through the park and leads you to the various natural sculptures. A park pamphlet outlines various viewpoints and hikes of interest. The Visitor's Center is a wonderful place to begin your tour. With manmade arches that you can touch and walk through, a park video and various exhibits, you will find out more about how this wondrous park was formed, as well as its close neighbor, Canyonlands National Park.

The most amazing this about this park is the Devil's Garden Campground. Appropriately selected as Sunset Magazine's Top 50 Campgrounds, this camp is settled deep in the heart of the park amongst arches, cliffs and fabulous views. All sites offer little privacy, but amazing views. Beware, it is beastly hot here in the summer and the camp has very limited generator hours and no hookups, so spring and fall are better times to travel here. Due to its remote location, stargazing is a popular nighttime activity.





Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

One of our most popular National Parks, the Grand Canyon is a beautiful park that offers spectacular views, interesting and challenging hikes and more! The Grand Canyon's creation is still debated, but this park, just north of Flagstaff, Arizona, keeps visitors transfixed at its rim. This park is best visited in spring or early fall when visitor travel to the park is not yet at its peak, as travelers from the globe come to see this vast crevice in our earth's crust.

A lodge at the canyon's South Rim provides visitors with overnight accommodations, food and shops. A National Park campground (Mather Campground), as well as a private campground (Trailer Village) offer camping accommodations. Campgrounds are adjacent to the rim and easily access all the park has to offer. While visiting the South Rim, be sure to sign up well in advance for a horseback ride down to the bottom of the canyon where you can visit Phantom Ranch for a night. Trips book early, so make reservations. Many trails lead from the canyon's South Rim down into the canyon, or along it's rim to various viewpoints.
The North Rim of the canyon is less visited, so if you're looking for a quieter, more intimate visit to the canyon, this might be a better way to go. A campground (North Rim Campground) is adjacent to the rim set amongst a pine forest. A lodge and small convenience store are within a mile of camp.

Both rims offer ranger tours, wildlife viewing, hiking, shops, lodges and of course, beautiful views of the canyon. It is interesting to learn about the various theories as to how the canyon has formed, as well as the discovery of the canyon. Do heed my caution when I tell you to watch your small children closely at the canyon. Most areas along the rim are only separated by a low wall. Trails do not have railings, and each year, several people die from falls.




Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico


One of New Mexico's greatest treasures, Carlsbad Caverns is on the outskirts of the small city of Carlsbad. The Caverns are set in the Guadalupe Mountain region and were first explored in the late 1800s. Additionally, Native American legends refer to the caverns. The caverns are deep underground and are most easily accessed by the elevator that takes you 750 feet underground! Upon exiting the elevator, you will be greeted by trails into the caverns as well as an underground café! Years ago this café served up all sorts of meals ranging from pizzas and pastas to burgers and fries. Today, however, selections are limited as rangers try to keep skunks and rodents from inhabiting the cave.  Several guided cave tours are open to the public for a nominal fee. Self-guided audio tours are also available. Note that some tours are more strenuous than others and there are some age restrictions in place.

Bashful Elephants
As you tour the cave, you will discover how vast and deep this cave system is. If you've been in any other caves in your travels, you will begin to realize that cave formation is an interesting science and occurrence and that each cave system is unique. Carlsbad is famous for its wide open cave "rooms" that are connected by adequate walkways. Also spectacular to see is the evening bat flight that occurs every night between April and October. The bats are nocturnal and begin their nightly feeding at dusk. Despite the flurry of fear you may feel as the bats swarm out of the cave at amazing speeds, the bats are safe and do not bite or attack people. A Visitor's Center, dog kennel and gift shop are also available.




Badlands National Park, South Dakota


Although the name is not user-friendly, this National Park is, again, a spectacular example of nature at work. A young geologic formation, the Badlands are an example of deposition and erosion over millions of years. Hot summers with thunderstorms and freezing winters with snowfall cause the erosion of sediments that have created spires, buttes, canyons and tables. Most striking is the green, grassy floors and tables that surround the colorful creations. Badlands itself is a large area, although much of it is inaccessible.
Wildlife is abundant here, as Badlands is set on the edge of the Great Plains of the Midwest. On our visit, we saw bighorn sheep, deer, rabbits and birds, although rattlesnakes, bison, foxes, coyotes and bobcats are also seen here. Evidence of wildlife from hundreds to millions of years ago has been and is currently being excavated throughout the park, and Fossil Exhibit Walk provides an excellent walk through history. 

The lodge, staffed partly by current members of the Ogala-Lakota tribe is a great place to stay if camping within the park or lodging in nearby Wall is not an option for you.  Two Visitor's Centers offering a gift shop and fabulous video about the park's history, as well as interaction with tribal members. Junior Ranger Programs, Night Sky Programs, Solar Viewing Program and various ranger-led walks are also available.




Canyonlands National Park, Utah


Just 30 miles from Arches National Park and just outside the hub of Moab, you will find Canyonlands National Park. This National Park is one of my favorites! With its scenic drives, many overlooks and features it will take you days, sometimes weeks to explore this vast region. Canyonlands is comprised of three sections, The Maze, The Needles and Island in the Sky. All three sections are almost like a miniature National Park, as they each have their own attributes that make them unique. Typical to the National Park System, this park has primitive campgrounds, a Visitor's Center in each section of the park and limited resources. It is isolated here and food, services and gas are not available, so come prepared with plenty of water, food and gasoline to explore this vast area. There are a few primitive campgrounds just outside the boundaries of the park and even more options towards Moab.

On our first and only trip here, we spent our time in the Island in the Sky section of the park that is most easily accessed via Moab. We rented a Jeep from one of the many local outfitters to explore the canyon. With an abundance of 4x4 trails, you will enjoy viewing the canyon from all levels, from the rim to the deep bottoms. Most of these trails require 4 wheel drive and patience, as they are bumpy, windy and can be steep. We found the Shafer Trail to be exhilarating as we made our way down into the canyon via hairpin turns on shear cliffs and steep grades to view such natural formations as Airport Tower and Musselman Arch. Primitive camp areas are along the 4x4 trails, and you will need them if you plan on making your way through the entire trail, as it is impossible to drive in a day. Several mobile NPS rangers monitor the area and will stop and chat with you to make sure your travels are going well.



Casa Grande National Monument, Arizona

We really weren't sure what to expect at this National Monument, however we were pleasantly surprised and intellectually stimulated by the history here. Centuries ago, Native Americans dominated the land here and built an architectural feat for their time, "The Casa Grande." The Casa Grande ruins remain here today. This few acre parcel is free for you to roam. Although you cannot go into the Casa Grande, you can meaner around it's perimeter and marvel at the ability of the Native Americans to erect a structure that has withstood nature's harshest desert elements. In the Visitor's Center you are able to watch a nice short film describing the history of the area, including an explanation for how archaeologists and historians think this Casa Grande was used and why it was built. Gaining an understanding of the land and how it has evolved over time was interesting, as well as viewing all of the artifacts in the museum.

A few miles off Interstate 10, this National Monument seemingly appears out of nowhere up from the desert floor. It's initial size and scope are misleading and only by getting out and exploring the ruins will you realize the magnitude of this monument. We spent just a few hours here, which is really all you need, and found that this National Monument is a great way to break up a monotonous desert drive.





White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

This National Monument in the middle of nowhere is truly a diamond in the rough. Surrounded by desolate desert, White Sands' sugar white crystals rise up from the desert floor. This park is located between Alamogordo and Las Cruces. The white sands are as white as any Floridian beach. Children (and adults) find hours of endless fun while sledding on the sparsely landscaped dunes. With extreme temperatures in summer, Fall, Winter and Spring are the best times of year to visit.

A Visitor's Center greets you at the entrance of the park. Once in the boundary, you will drive a few miles back into the park through the white dunes. The road is RV friendly, at least most of the way through, with several pull outs and parking areas to allow you to stop and enjoy the dunes. Often, you will be driving on the white sands as the dunes are a ever-changing being and move as the winds dictate. A few miles from here also resides the White Sands Missile Range, a very interesting place to visit for military enthusiasts.


The Rio Grande

Big Bend National Park, Texas

I never realized just how vast a region Texas was until we turned off the I-10 and headed south to Big Bend National Park. Looking at the map, I told my husband, "Oh, we should be there in an hour or two, tops." Several hours (definitely more than two) and after passing through just a few scant towns and the infamous mock Prada store in Marfa, we arrived at the entrance of the park. The barren region continued, although inside the park, we noticed more interesting rock formations and the contrast of mountains and flatlands. A few hubs of activity spot this sparse park, including Panther Junction, Chisos Basin and Cottonwoods Campground area along the Rio Grande. Panther Junction offers a Visitor's Center and fuel station. Chisos Basin is the main hub of the park, offering a lodge and Visitor's Center. Cottonwood is the southernmost center of activity with it's campground and RV park that border the Rio Grande and a small convenience store, Laundromat and fuel station.
Temperatures here vary greatly with elevations. Summer is extremely hot and lower regions of the park shut down during this treacherous months. Chisos Basin is the exception with its high elevation in maintains tolerable temperatures during summer months. Winter is mild here and we enjoyed our stay at Cottonwood Campground, basking in near 80 degree weather in late December.

Boquillas Canyon
With over 150 miles of trails, hiking in Big Bend is a major activity. We enjoyed the Boquillas Canyon Hike, and all of the international flair that sometimes brings with Mexican vendors attempting to illegally sell small items. The hike itself is spectacular. Hikes near the hot springs and Chisos Basin are also top rated by visitors. If hiking's not your thing, then simply relaxing at camp, taking a scenic drive, birding or stargazing may suit your interests better. With a remote location comes one of the darkest places in our country. Big Bend offers over 2,000 stars on a clear night to the naked eye.







Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, North Carolina


America's most heavily visited National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is located along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. It is obvious why this park is so well traveled: it's size, lush beauty, scenic drives, hiking, off road trails, back country camping, and traditional campgrounds. At an elevation of about 4000 feet, the temperatures here in summer are cooler than lower elevations. Streams and waterfalls spot the park.

If you are lucky enough to visit in the fall, you will be astounded by the vibrant colors signifying the changing of the seasons. Tree lined roads and open grasslands work together to create a stunning landscape. When touring the park, be prepared to drive slowly as roads are narrow and motorists often stop to view wildlife.
Several campgrounds here allow campers to enjoy the park. Or, if staying outside the park is more your style, the surrounding towns have taken advantage of the heavy tourism here and any type of accommodation can be found. When in the park, be sure to take a hike and drive the scenic Cades Cove Loop Road which often has sightings of bear and deer in early morning and evening hours. Along the road you will also find various cabins and churches dating back to the early settlers of the 1800's. These structures are approachable and open for viewing. Our kids got a kick out of the simplicity and size of the doorways and living areas.




Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

This spectacular park is one of our favorites. On the outskirts of Denver, the Rocky Mountain range provides ample opportunities to partake in outdoor activities. Colorado residents are known for their appreciation of beauty and nature preservation, and lucky they are to have such a beautiful park in their backyard to take advantage of on a regular basis. Estes Park, located at the eastern entrance of the park, is often a destination for visitors from around the globe. There are several RV parks, hotels and lodges to accommodate you here. We, despite suggestions to stay in Estes, decided to head deeper into the park and stay at Glacier Basin Campground, one of several campgrounds within the park as National Park camping is our favorite. Atypical of most National Parks, Rocky Mountain NP does not have a lodge for non-camper overnight guests, making the park a quieter, simpler place to escape from it all and enjoy the peaceful views of the mountains. Driving through this park is a must. Roads are curvy, winding and can be a bit exhausting in a larger RV, but the scenery is worth it.
The park is open year round, however, during winter, the campgrounds do close, as expected. With elevations topping out near 12,000 feet, you can imagine the views that you will encounter as you explore the park. Shuttles do offer transportation throughout some areas of the park. We enjoyed waterfalls, hikes, lakes and astounding scenery throughout. In the federal park lands in the surrounding areas, you will find additional camping if peak season keeps you from staying overnight within the park.




Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado

For us, this has been one of our least favorite National Parks. Maybe it was because days before we had spent several days exploring Rocky Mountain National Park and its surroundings. We arrived at the park anticipating that "moment" of seeing the Black Canyon. We found our campsite, which was heavily wooded in shrubbery, small, unlevel and could barely accommodate our rig. After parking, we set out to see the canyon. We began a hike along the rim of the canyon that led us to a few viewpoints and eventually the Visitor's Center, but we never were "wowed." The Visitor's Center was nicely laid out and situated on the rim with some awesome views of the Gunnison River below and allowed us to see the sheer canyon walls and, as most Visitor's Centers, had some powerful exhibits on the formation of the canyon. All in all, however, we found that the long, fairly unscenic hike to the center was hardly worth it.
Camp was hard to enjoy with tiny sites, however due to the remote location and less visited park status, we were warned that wildlife was prevalent here. We decided to enjoy an evening family game inside of our rig, and soon saw several deer pass through our campsite as dusk approached. The next morning, lying in bed looking out our window, I saw a bear rummaging in bushes in the campsite across from us, who then proceeded to walk through other campsites in search of food. Having never seen a bear in the wild, this was a pretty cool bucket list item to check off, however the canyon itself was slightly disappointing to us.




Jewel Cave National Monument, South Dakota 

Jewel Cave is nestled in the Black Hills region of South Dakota. With several things to see and do in the area, this region of the country is a great place to explore. Having visited several caves in our travels, we were enticed with the glittering name of this particular cave system. Several cave tours are available, and reservations are highly recommended as tours sell out quickly. For older children and adults, a historic lantern tour is a quickly sold out option that sounded neat to us, although our children did not meet the minimum age requirements.

Miles of cave system have been discovered here, and when we visited, tour guides felt strongly that the Jewel Cave system may very well be connected to the Wind Cave system just to the south east near Custer State Park. The Jewel Cave system has formations that do hold crystalline formations, however we preferred the cavernous rooms typical of the Carlsbad Caverns and the winding passages of Mammoth Cave. With cool temperatures in this cave (49 degrees F!), be sure to pack a sweatshirt and wear warm pants!

A Visitor's Center with a video, map of the extensive cave system and exhibits allow to you learn about the formation of the cave while you wait for your tour.



Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Utah

This is one of my favorite parks. Located on Navajo land and part of the Navajo Nation that encompasses nearly the entire northeastern quarter of Arizona, the park is operated by the Navajo Tribe. The landscapes here are stunning and often familiar even if you haven't visited before. Commercials, old Western movies, and modern day favorites such as Back to the Future III and Thelma and Louise were all filmed here. In the early 1900's the Goulding's settled in the valley and remained as residents where the Goulding's Lodge resides and still operates today. They encouraged movie film stars, notably John Wayne, to visit the area, which resulted in several film productions on the site. A unique and vital relationship with the Navajo resulted, which still exists today. The tall mesas and spires of sandstone are stunning. I found myself just staring at the landscape for hours. The Goulding's Lodge and Campground both provide amazing views of these most notable, natural, sandstone sculptures. There is also a beautiful lodge with full amenities at the Monument Valley Visitor's Center, which provides views of the valley up close. Both settings are spectacular.

 At the Visitor's Center, you will find a 27 mile loop road that takes you through the monuments. We opted out of this adventure, as we had our 35 foot RV, no tow, and the 27 mile road is unpaved and often rough. Jeep tours are available, with some tours taking you further into the monuments. RVs are not advised to travel the loop road, and although signs posted read this, we did see some smaller RV rentals taking the chance. The Visitor's Center, just adjacent to the 27 mile loop road's start provides history of the area, views, a gift shop full of authentic Navajo souvenirs and a dining hall. Goulding's Lodge and Campground, just a few miles away, provides excellent views of the monuments as well, and has a gift shop, gas station, dining hall (great, inexpensive scoops of ice cream!), well stocked grocery store, tours of the Goulding residence and a small museum sharing the history of film and the Navajo in the region.
This is a great park to spend a few days at, although we found most visitors spent only one night and then moved on to one of the other parks within a few hundred mile radius including, Four Corners National Monument, Antelope Canyon, Canyon de Chelly National Park, Escalante National Monument, Capitol Reef National Park, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park and Grand Canyon National Park. A photographer's delight, this park offers unique landscapes, hiking and off road tours.



Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming

Most of us have seen it: Speilberg's classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Devil's Tower was portrayed and seen in the film. We were not sure what to expect here at this park and were surprised at how much we enjoyed this remote area of northeastern Wyoming. The drive into the valley where the monument is located is scenic and peaceful and it is neat to see the tower rise up out of the horizon and watch its immensity grow as you approach the park.

Native Prayer Bundle
After entering the park, a road winds partially around  the monument offering different views. As you take this road, you will notice the landscape change from plains/prairie where you will find a community of prairie dogs, to a more forested landscape. The base of the tower is surrounded by pine trees and a wonderful trail around the tower offers different views of the tower itself as well as the valley that surrounds it, and a chance to see Native prayer bundles in trees, or maybe a group of hikers climbing the tower.

A small, but informative Visitor's Center gives light to how the tower is believed to have been formed. Parking at the Visitor's Center is limited, so if you are traveling in a rig, arrive earlier in the day when crowds are lessened. A National Park campground is located at the base of the tower just past the entrance of the park, as well as a KOA located at the entrance of the park. Both campgrounds offer wonderful views of the monument. We found ourselves enjoying the spirit of the monument and for the few days we were camping here, we couldn't keep our eyes off of it. This small, often forgotten National Monument is a must see!


Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park is an amazing spectacle a few hours south of Denver. Rising out of what seems like nowhere, these dunes are an amazing sight, especially with the backdrop of the snowcapped mountains nearby. The contrast of the smooth, buff colored sand against the dark forested mountains creates a beautiful view. The park has a small Visitor's Center and gift shop. The center features an informative movie on how the dunes have and continued to form and their history.
There is not a lot of civilization here. Most visitors end up camping at the campground which offers spectacular views of the dunes, or return to the Denver area. Be sure to allow yourself time to hike the dunes. There is not better feeling than hiking the dunes and getting to one of the highest peaks and enjoying the view. Hiking the dunes can be strenuous. Even on a mild day, sand temperatures exceed 100 degrees. Trekking along the dunes, you will encounter steep slopes that are deceiving to the eye. Some visitors rent sand sleds from the visitor's center and hike the dunes and sled down. Others just play in the wide, shallow river at the bottom of the dunes to cool down and enjoy the "beach" in their landlocked state. Photographers can get some great shots as the light and shadows chase each other across the dunes at sunrise and sunset. Be sure to check weather before hiking the dunes. There is no shelter once you are "out there" and afternoon thunderstorms are not uncommon. The park also encompasses a sub-alpine and alpine region where wildlife, backcountry camping, waterfalls and lush landscape prevail. These areas are also beautiful to explore.





Glacier National Park, Montana

Throughout our travels we kept running across other avid RVers who repeatedly stated, "You just have to get to Glacier!" Well, we finally worked Glacier (along with 11 other National Parks!) into an itinerary. We approached the park from the east. The park has two entrances; one entrance from the east and one from the west, which meet at the peak of the mountain range at stunning Logan's Pass. As we drove towards the park, we kept saying to ourselves, "We must be able to see it soon, right?" Little did we know there was a wildfire in neighboring Idaho, and skies were hazy with smoke. We had been on the road for nearly a month at this point and had acquired that "out of touch with the real world" feeling that we love during our longer trips. Unfortunately we had to get quite close to finally see that stunning range of mountains that make up Glacier National Park in northeastern Montana.
The park is a wonderful one, and one of our favorites. Many lakes dot the park, along with glaciers (obviously) and several hiking trails and campgrounds. Again, we stayed and toured the east side, which we loved. The campgrounds on the east side are all close to the entrance of the park and are set either adjacent to ta river or a lake. Just out of the park, you can find a gas station, several motels, shopping and restaurants. The Visitor's Center is just inside of the park entrance, and is a great place to stop, learn about the receding glaciers and talk to a park ranger to find out which trails are best suited to your hiking needs. Be sure to study the shuttle system stops and hiking trails. The shuttle departs the Visitor's Center and travels up the narrow and recently revamped one lane road, Road to the Rising Sun, that winds up to Logan's Pass. Autos are allowed to travel, however we always find the park shuttle to be the most convenient way to travel. If you miss your shuttle stop on the way up to Logan's Pass, you will need to get off the shuttle at the top, Logan's Pass, and wait for another shuttle and head back down. A one way trip to the top can take as long as 45 minutes. The shuttles run every few minutes and can be quite crowded in summer months, during peak season. Parking at Logan's Pass can be very crowded (RVs are not allowed here!), another positive to taking the shuttle.


Wildlife is abundant here. During our short stay we saw many mountain goats, bighorn sheep, heard there was a bear in the vicinity, and of course many ground squirrels. Wildflowers are in bloom here in the summer and can offer a stunning, colorful sight. The Visitor's Center at Logan's Pass offers an informative exhibit on the cycle of the wildflower bloom (mid-July is the peak!). If you desire to venture into the west side from Logan's pass, shuttles do offer travel that direction. Several hiking trails here lead through forested areas, along lakesides, up peaks, into snow and to waterfalls. Hiking with bear bells and bear spray is advised. Boat tours are also available.





Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota   

           
This National Park is split into two sections, the North and South Units. The South Unit borders the town on Medora and was recommended to us by friends. We enjoyed the town of Medora and all of its charm, but didn't get very far into the southern unit due to road construction that we weren't comfortable driving our rig on. Slightly disappointed and knowing North Dakota is not a place we venture to everyday, we deviated from our itinerary and headed to the North Unit, about 50 miles due North. We were so glad we opted to stay here a night, however, we wished we had been able to stay two or more. Quiet, remote, peaceful and full of wildlife, this section of the park was just what we were hoping it would be. A scenic loop can be found in both the North and South Units, but, again, we only made it through the North Loop. The drive offered views of the park's badlands, wildlife including many bison, deer, and bighorn sheep.


Bison in the campground
 A small, and I mean small, Visitor's Center in the North Unit was our first stop. We met a friendly ranger who set up a video for us to watch and we explored the various skulls of different wildlife in the park. Adjacent to the Visitor's Center is the campground. When we pulled into this first come, first served park we realized quickly that we had only one other neighbor, a camp host. With many campsites to choose from that vary from wooded and private to those in an open meadow, we chose an open site. A river is several yards from the camp, and we approached it from the Visitor's Center area along a little winding trail. A wonderful amphitheater also is available at camp with ranger talks and night hikes several days a week. By the end of the day, two or three other campsites were taken, so availability is not an issue in this remote region.  Bison frequent the campground and we had a first hand experience with them! Steer clear of bison and always provide them ample space. According to the camp host, several nights each week the bison sleep in the meadow of the campground!

The park is of course named after Teddy Roosevelt, who frequented this area years before his presidency. He is quoted as saying, "I have always said I would have not been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota." Roosevelt had a ranch that he spent many seasons at, and can still be viewed today in the Southern Unit.





Canyon de Chelly National Park, Arizona

Located in northeastern Arizona, this remote park is just outside the small town of Chinle. The park is a joint partnership between the National Park Service and the native Navajo tribe who still use this canyon today. Very little of the park is accessible without a Native guide and permit. Several local operations offer private tours, all at price that we found slightly high; however without the private tour, you will have limited access to the canyon and all it has to offer. The benefit of the tour is that you will usually be traveling in a 4x4 vehicle with your Native guide into the canyon. Our guide, as most are, was raised here and has family that still live in the area and work the land. She showed us deep in the canyon, where her Aunt still lives today under very primitive conditions. These guides offer a up close and personal tour, often with stories of their own family and heritage, as well as their beliefs and how the canyon is a part of their lives. Although pricey, we felt in the end that the private tour was worth the cost.

The canyon entrance is guarded by the NP Service and you must show proof of permit upon entry. We found it interesting that we entered the canyon at the same level as our campground was at. As you drive in, the canyon walls rise around you, much different than other canyons we have visited where you must drop down into it. The walls of the canyon hold much to learn and see, including petroglyphs and, most fascinating, cliff dwellings. The main dwelling, the White House Ruin, is accessible by the main scenic loop road without a permit. We, on our private tour, however, were able to view many other cliff dwellings not visible by the scenic road. Unlike other National Parks with cliff dwellings, such as Mesa Verde NP, these cliff dwellings are not accessible by the canyon floor and you will not explore them on your tour, only view them. They are still fascinating to see and learn about.

The main campground, Canyon de Chelly Campground,is simple, but gets the job done. We decided to stay only one night instead of two, since we found that the campground didn't offer much more than a place to sleep and the Visitor's Center adjacent to it. There are not scenic views and the canyon is really not accessible from camp. A small lodge, gift shop, and cafeteria are adjacent to camp.  Although off the beaten path, this National Park is well worth the drive. Best time to visit: late spring, summer and early all; winters here can be harsh.




Cliff Palace dwelling

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado


Spruce Tree House dwelling
This National Park took us by surprise. We had visited a few other monuments within the National Park system that  cater to the Native American history and culture such as, Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley and Casa Grande. Mesa Verde is similar, yet far different from the others, and we found it to be the most magnificent of them. Located in southwestern Colorado, the park is surrounded by an almost barren high desert tundra. Suddenly, out of nowhere it seems, towers a flat-topped mesa, and yes, it's green. At the base of the park, just past the entrance, you will find a beautiful Visitor's Center that is a must see. Beyond this, a switchback road, fairly steep at times, takes you up the side of the looming mesa. We felt almost like we were driving up the side of Devil's Tower. After reaching the top, you will be greeted by the sweeping views of the mesa. Don't be deceived though; the mesa has many crevices and small depressions in it that allowed early Natives to create small villages and hide-out for themselves. One road passes through the park and takes you on a windy course along this mesa top. Several pull outs along the way offer vistas of the landscape below the mesa. A short distance into this drive, you will find the park's only campground, a general store, a gas station, and a fairly large laundromat.

Climbing out of Balcony House
The road continues across the mesa, leading you to several iconic features of the park: the various Pueblo cliff dwellings. The most famous of these dwellings is Cliff Palace, and its story of discovery is almost as fascinating as the view of the dwellings themselves. These dwellings, in the cliff sides of a crevice in the mesa-top, are accessed in the various tours offered by NP rangers. The ranger-led tours take you into the dwellings and give you time to explore the various rooms and kivas and gives you a moment to imagine what life what like on this harsh cliff-side. Cliff Palace is the most notorious of the dwellings, and we expected to see that one and leave, however there are many over 600 other dwellings in the park, and several dwellings for visitors to explore. Spruce Tree House is the most easily accessed and better for those with limited mobility or fear of heights. The Balcony House tour is the most terrifyingly, exhilarating tour we have ever been on. With a fear of heights, this one way, no turning back, you've passed the point of no return, ladder on a cliffside tour will definitely give you a sense of accomplishment and appreciation for the Natives who climbed the tiny foot and handholds in the sides of the sheer cliffs. You will leave realizing what an overprotective society we have created in our modern times.

On the mesa top, there is quite a distance between the campground and the cliff dwellings. Be prepared to either drive your RV or a tow vehicle to the dwellings. Near the dwellings you will find a cafeteria, several gift shops and a small museum outlining the history of the Native Pueblo people here. I highly recommend a visit to this fascinating park!









Pinnacles National Park, California

Pinnacles Overlook Trail
At the time of this posting, Pinnacles is the most recent addition to the National Park system, in 2013. Previously a National Monument, Pinnacles is shadowed by California's popular, and sometimes overcrowded, National Parks: Sequoia, Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Yosemite. After reading an article about the recent induction of Pinnacles into the National Park system and its mild winter weather, we decided to head to Pinnacles to check it out, after all, it is a National Park, and that is what we do best! 
The drive to the park is easy and beautiful. We approached from the south, so we enjoyed one of our favorite drives along the 1o1. Be sure to note before arriving which entrance you prefer, as the park does not have a road joining the east and west side of the park. We opted for the east side since the campground, Visitor's Center and many trails to the Pinnacles and caves appeared to be on this side. 
Hiking from camp into Bear Gulch
The park offers not only beautiful pinnacles that were created by volcanic and seismic activity, but two different cave systems. The campground is a few hike-able miles from the camp, which does offer a free shuttle during peak seasons. We opted to hike both of our days here since the shuttle wasn't running the first day, and the second day we waited an hour for the shuttle to come with no guarantee that it would be coming. We were glad we did the hiking, since upon our return the line for the twenty person shuttle was well over 100 people deep. The hike is is beautiful and allows you to view the pinnacles from a distance. If you manage to take the shuttle in, it will drop you at the Bear Gulch Visitor's Center, which is at the base of the pinnacles. Trails from here branch out to the Bear Gulch Caves, the Pinnacles Overlook, and the Balconies Caves. Trails vary from easy to strenuous, so check maps and be prepared with food and water. Vehicles are allowed into the park, however parking is VERY limited at the Bear Gulch area. If parking lots are full, rangers will hold cars at the entrance and only let them in when a vehicle leaves the park. This can lead to long lines of cars on a hot asphalt highway. THERE IS NO RV PARKING AT THE BEAR GULCH AREA. This area is not also RV friendly, unless you're cruising in a Lance or Class B vehicle. These restrictions can be difficult for visitors arriving mid-day, however they keep the trails and attractions of the park crowd-free and navigable. 
Hiking into Bear Gulch
During our visit, we enjoyed the Pinnacles Overlook hike which takes you up into the pinnacles to catch a close view of the California Condors which nest here. We are not big birding people, but to see the Condors amazingly huge wing span while watching them soar over the pinnacle peaks was pretty captivating. This hike also affords beautiful views of the valley with its gain in elevation. 
Bear Gulch Cave
Bear Gulch Cave is unique and different from other NP caves we've visited (Mammoth Cave, Carlsbad Caverns) in the way they were created. Rather than taking you underground, these cave formations were created by the seismic activity in the area. Large boulders fell from surrounding walls and tumbled down into this creek bed, creating a cave. A beautiful trail leads you into the caves where you will find the creek, waterfalls and caverns to twist and crouch through. Flashlights are required (available at Visitor's Center). Part of the cave is sectioned off during certain times of the year when the bats that live in these caves breed. Visiting the Bear Gulch Cave was definitely a highlight of our visit to Pinnacles. We heard from other hikers that the Balconies Caves are even better, so we are excited to plan another trip back to Pinnacles to Visit this other eastern region of the park!





Capitol Reef National Park, Torrey, Utah

Capitol Reef is one of many National Parks within the Utah state boundaries. Not far from Zion, Bryce Canyon, Escalante, Arches, and Canyonlands, this park, too, offers an abundance of hiking and geologic interest. We found the park to be similar to Zion, one of our favorites, in many ways. The red sandstone cliffs prevail here. 

The park road winds through the sheer sandstone walls and offers a spectacular drive. Within the heart of the park you will find the village of Fruita, named for its fruit trees that were planted by early Mormon pioneers who settled here and had a thriving agricultural life for many decades. Those fruit trees still remain, along with the Fruita Schoolhouse and Gifford Homestead. The Gifford Homestead is a must see, with its small rooms, period furniture and
Gifford Homestead

delicious homemade pies, ice cream, and salsas for purchase made from the very orchards that surround the property. The Fruita campground is adjacent to the homestead and offers lovely views of the park's sandstone walls. Fruit that falls from trees is up for grabs to visitors! Not far from the homestead you will find the Visitor's Center that offers several exhibits on the Mormon pioneering history, as well as the geologic feature that makes this park unique: the Waterpocket Fold. Hiking is prevalent along the dead end scenic drive, and highly recommended. Summer temperatures here can be quite hot, thus spring and fall are the best times to visit the park. Star viewing is spectacular here due to its remote location.  





Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming

Grand Tetons National Park is a beautiful park to visit. Bordered by Yellowstone to the north, we had been told on our previous visits to Yellowstone, "You just have to drive down to the Tetons!" We finally worked Tetons into our itinerary and enjoyed the beautiful vistas that are so iconic of the park. Several hubs of action serve as bases for exploring further into the park. We chose to stay at the busiest campground in the park, Colter Bay Village, as it is the only campground offering advanced reservations, and with our visit during peak summer season, we did not want to take a chance that a site would not be available. We found that reservations were nice, but we could have easily stayed at one of the other campgrounds. Signage throughout the park indicates the status of campsite availability allowing visitors to figure out where to stay. Colter Bay Village offers many activities including boating, fishing, hiking, food and lodging services, several stores and is definitely bustling during the daytime. A full marina is on site, including a bait and tackle shop, rentals, gas, and a launch ramp. We didn't mind all of the activity as we had been in "isolation" for a good week or so before our stop, however if you are looking for a peaceful stay, I would choose a campground other than Colter Bay Village. Some hiking trails lead from Colter Bay Village along the rim of the lake to various other bays and parts of the park. We did not explore these, as the Tetons were completely visible from our area and we just enjoyed the village activities instead. 
 
Just to the south is the infamous Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This quaint little town thrives on tourism and the influx of celebrities who call the beautiful lodges home during vacation periods. Jackson Hole has both summer and winter activities including skiing (a ski resort is in town!), shops, Farmer's Market, eateries, and a rodeo. We found a few hours here easily satisfied our Jackson Hole itch. Jackson Hole borders Grand Tetons National Park to the north, so access to the park is convenient. A beautiful, relatively flat, paved bike path leads from the southern part of the park, the Jenny Lake area, into town. Many folks were taking advantage of this path during our drive into Jackson Hole proper. 




North Cascades National Park, Washington

Driving along scenic highway
Bordering Canada in north central Washington, this beautiful park has a scenic highway passing through it, passing from east to west. From Newhalem to the east is the most beautiful scenery along a wide, nicely paved, and not-to-windy road that passes by waterfalls, lakes, streams, dams, stunning landscapes, and even the Pacific Crest Trail. 


One of many creeks
There are many places to pull out and enjoy a picnic, hike, or viewpoint along this highway, and we found it very easy to drive and big rig friendly. There are five campgrounds in the park, in addition to three boat in campgrounds which provide stunning scenery. Most are set along some body of water whether it the Skagit River, the main river that cuts through the park, or one of the many lakes that have been created by damming. The small town of Newhalem is within the park, along with a major hydroelectric project, Seattle City Lights, which provides a significant portion of Seattle's electricity. We found the marrying of nature and modern needs here interesting and unusual for a National Park, but also heard about how SCL continues to reduce its impact on the spawning of local species of salmon. During late summer, salmon can be seen along the river as they migrate upstream to spawn. 


Old growth forests

The park offers boat tours, fishing, boating, hiking, tours of the hydroelectric plant and informational and visitor's centers. With lush old growth forests and many glacier fed creeks contributing to the mighty Skagit River and lakes, there are many hikes and spectacular views here. The lakes here are a breathtaking color, almost a Caribbean turquoise, all a result of the silt from glaciers. There is also evidence of Native Americans residing in this area, and a hike from Newhalem Campground leads you to a small exhibit where Natives once thrived. This is definitely one of our favorite National Parks. We found it similar to Glacier National Park and enjoyed the crowdless serenity, beautiful views, hiking, and of course, the scenic drive. 




Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington

View from Forest Learning Center
May 18, 1980, the continental US witnessed a massive explosion of ash and debris as Mount St. Helens in central Washington blew. Mount St. Helens is part of the Cascade Mountain Range that spans throughout Oregon and Washington including Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier. Devastating over 150 square miles of forest and sending ash as far as Wyoming, this explosion, oddly enough, resulted in new growth as little as ninety days after the blast. Today, the region is a stunning landscape and evidence of the blast is still apparent due to the scarring created by the torrent of debris that pushed its way through the valley below, burying some structures that have never been recovered.


One of many exhibits at Forest Learning Center.
When visiting the National Monument today, you will find that there is no camping within the park. There are some campgrounds just outside of the boundary. The crater itself is considered restricted area and you must obtain a permit to hike it. Traveling along the road from Interstate 5, headed east into the park, you will capture stunning views of the mighty mountain. You will also see scarring of the area from the mudflows and the Blast Zone boundary. There are several visitor's centers to visit along this route run by private organizations, and one run by the park itself, the Johnston Ridge Observatory, named for the vulcanologist who died while viewing the blast near the spot where the observatory lies today. We opted not to visit this park exhibit, as it was a bit further than we wanted to drive and in our research, we found that the Forest Learning Center, privately run, was just as informative and offered kid friendly exhibits. With a lot to learn about this recent blast and still active volcano, a day trip to Mount St. Helens is definitely a must!



Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve, Idaho
Inferno Cone

Located in a very remote section of southern Idaho just a few hours east of Boise, this striking landscape is one to be admired. We had our eye on this park for a few years before deciding to head up this way. We were mesmerized as we pulled into the park's entrance and saw the lava formations that have created this stark, black landscape. Even though this rocky terrain provides a harsh environment with freezing winters and century mark summer days, there is wildlife here including vegetation and animal life. The area is in a volcanic region of the US where a lava bed beneath the surface has scarred the landscape. Today when visiting, you will learn about the early pioneering of the park, how that park was formed, and have the opportunity to peruse the gift shop while visiting the Visitor's Center located at the entrance of the park. Beyond that, you will find the campground (highly recommend) and a big rig friendly road that winds through the park. 

On top of Inferno Cone
Buffalo Cave entrance
The park road will take you to various viewpoints and trailheads. All have good parking and designated RV parking spots. Most trails are manageable at only a few miles round trip. Our favorite by far was the Buffalo Caves trail which leads you through the landscape to a cave. You can enter this narrow cave entrance without a guide at your own risk. BRING A FLASHLIGHT! Inside the lava tube cave you will find several larger cave rooms. You must have a permit to enter the Buffalo Caves or the Indian Caves, so check in at the Visitor's Center first. During our trip, the Indian Caves were closed, so we were not able to explore those. Another favorite trail was the Inferno Cone. This "trail" is only marked by the footpath up the side of the cinder cone. Walking on the crunchy, black surface you will constantly be deceived about how much further you must go to reach the top. Once you scale this steep climb you will have 360 degree views of the monument and surrounding landscape where you will see other cinder cones. We were astounded by the view and enjoyed the feeling that we were standing on top of a volcano, something not everyone gets to do. For those less adventurous or with physical limitations, near the entrance of the park you will find the North Crater Flow Trail which has a boardwalk and is a bit easier to manage.  Bring water, especially during summer, as water within the park is limited and temperatures rise quickly. 


Pipe Spring National Monument, Arizona

This little National Monument was on our route from Lake Powell to Las Vegas. Being that it was just off the roadside and easily accessible, we decided to stop. We had no clue what the monument's significance was, but we were pleasantly surprised. The park has a small visitor's center and gift shop. We were lucky on our arrival to be within just a few minutes of the next tour (tour of what?!), so we thanked the helpful ranger and went out of the visitor's center towards the fort (what fort?!?) to join the start of the tour. We were surprised to learn that this little fort has quite some interesting history including the Native Kanabe Paiute tribe, the Mormon pioneers and polygamy, and early white ranchers. On the tour, our ranger told us this history while escorting us through various rooms of this fort. In doing so, we saw a telegraph, furnished rooms with period items, a dairy room where butter and cheese were made, and of course, the pipe spring. The spring used to gush at a rate of 50 gallons per minute from the base of the Vermillion cliffs out back of the fort, but today trickle at 5 gallons per minute. We learned much about the conflicts, sacrifices, and stories that are held within the walls of the old fort. We also learned a bit about the daily struggles and ways of life, much of which are so very different from our own today. This little stop is a great place to stretch your legs while taking in some history on your journey through southern Utah and northern Arizona.


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