National Parks of the US

Welcome to my page of information on the US national parks. This information has been gathered over 25 years of pilgrimages to our national parks, and is offered for what the experience is worth.

My biases -- While I am trying to be objective, I may not like to do the same things you do. So you can accurately evaluate this report, be aware of my personal biases in recreation and filter the report appropriately for your own tastes: I like and seek: Lack of crowds, wildlife, scenerey, strenuous day hiking, tent camping. I like but rarely do: back country trips, canoeing, swimming, biking on roads, sailing. I dislike and seek to avoid: Crowds, RV's, tours, biking on trails, motor boats, night-life, man-made attractions (helicopters, theaters, tourist traps, etc.) Climate -- This guide covers mostly parks in the mountains of the western US. Basically expect warm and dry in most places during the summer months. Altitude is a more important predictor of climate than latitude. The lower you are, the hotter and drier it is, while higher elevations bring cooler temperatures and increased risk of afternoon rain and evening dew or frost. The altitude can be a big factor for some as most parks are over 5,000 feet. Expect to tire easily for the first few days and watch for altitude sickness. Altitude also lengthens cooking time. Park fees -- Most parks charge $10-$25/car to get in (valid for 7 days). If you visit more than 2 or 3, think about getting an interagency pass ($80 in 2012), which admits you to all US parks and monuments (basically any federal fee area, but doesn't cover fees for extras like tours or camping). The pass is good 1 year from the date of purchase, and can be bought at any park.  There are things it doesn't cover, but don't expect the park staff to be able to explain it.

This is particularly confusing if you are going to Oregon and Washington. Beginning in 1999 as part of an experiment, National Forests and other federally run public lands started charging fees for use of parking lots, trails, etc. The old Golden Eagle pass didn't cover these.  I don't know if the new inter-agencypass does.   Instead you are faced with a bewildering set of options. Pay by the day, pay by the week, pay by the season, pay by the parking space, etc. Mostly these involve buying window stickers from vending machines accepting exact change ($1-$10 in most cases, though the season pass for all these things I think goes for about $30). Some state parks in this area also charge admission, and some will accept some of the passes to forest service sites (but not golden eagles). I have no objection to parks charging fees to cover developing and maintaining facilities, but couldn't we have one system that people could actually understand? As it is I some cars with a forest of little pieces of paper stuck to their windows stopping to buy more because nobody, even the rangers, was sure whether one of the ones they had actually covered it.

Camping -- Tent and RV camping is available in most parks and monuments for $10-$20, depending on facilities (less with a senior or disabled pass). (A few with private operators are higher, up to $30. Many parks allow you to reserve camp spaces through a web site operated by an independent agent.  At most there are also sites which are first-come, first served.  If you plan to reserve, do so very early (3 months is NOT enough to guarantee you get a space, do it as soon after 180 days before you go as you can).  If you want a first-come, first-served space in some parks you will need to arrive very early (9 or 10AM), but a lot of campgrounds don't fill.   Expect a picnic table, fire pit with a primitive grill, an area to pitch a tent, and in most areas water and flush toilets within easy walking distance. Many will have showers and a camp store selling groceries, ice, and firewood. Camping in the park is a super way to see it, since you have more time there, and can easily see early morning and evening sights. Wildlife is also more active early and late.  If you want to enjoy a quiet camping experience with nature, be advised that some folks have a different agenda.  Avoid places with RV hookups or those that allow generators and especially avoid places with child oriented amusements (playgrounds, pools, etc.) if you want peace, quiet, and nature.  Some parks separate tent campers from RVs, which can help, but anyone can be noisy.

Camping is also available in various national forest campgrounds that are usually close by. These are usually more primitive (outhouses and no showers or store), but otherwise similar. Most campgrounds let you pick your site, some pre-assign them. Private campgrounds abound, but most are really oriented towards RV's and have small sites with little privacy and full hookups for RV's.

Lodging -- Some parks have lodges in the park. Most were built in the 30's and 40's and fairly primitive by modern standards, but reasonably priced. They fill up long in advance of the summer season, so reserve early. (Note -- many are reserved very early by tour operators who then release rooms they can't fill shortly before the reservation date to avoid paying cancellation charges, so many lodges that are "sold out" months in advance actuallyhave some rooms at the last minute).  Park lodges are also a favorite of organized tours, so expect to be surrounded by tour groups there. Towns near parks usually have lots of motels, ranging from Mom & Pop to resort. They fill in peak season, but not otherwise. For both camping and lodging, the best way to plan a day is to travel early, arrive at the park, arrange your lodging, then sightsee the rest of the day. Doing this should insure a room or campsite most places and most times.

Roads -- The speed limit in most parks is low (35-45mph), and the roads are usually in bad shape and crowded in many parks, so expect delays. One hazard to be aware of is Western style construction zones. Road construction in the West usually means a section of road is closed entirely periodically or usable only in one direction at a time, and delays of 15-30 minutes at each closure are common. (If you westerners wonder why I mention this, realize that easterners don't have that kind of patience and in the east construction usually just means you get to drive through the mud and dust and dodge the construction workers but minimal delay.) Parks will tell you which roads are under construction.

Activities -- We like day hikes and most parks provide good hikes anywhere from 1 mile leg stretchers to multi day backpacks.  Overnighting in the back country takes permits, lightweight gear and food, and often special preparation for resisting wildlife (bears)  Most people can day hike without special conditioning, but don't overdo it the first time or to as you will probably be hiking at much higher altitude than back home.  Also, take warnings of heat and dehydration in some place (like the Grand Canyon) VERY seriously and carry enough water if you will be gone for more than an hour.

Here are some specific comments on the parks:

Black Canyon of the Gunnisen (Colorado) (1994)

-- This is a relatively undeveloped park around a deep (2-3,000 foot) canyon. The south rim has a campground and paved road to many lookout points, and the North rim gravel roads to lookouts. Probably like the grand canyon was before it became popular, but narrower and steeper. There are trails along the rim and I believe into the Canyon as well. There is a man made lake upstream from the canyon that is a national recreation area. It's pretty but seems to be a popular spot for locals with oversize power boats and jet skis on weekends. (We wondered what all those people with boat trailers were doing in central Colorado before we got there!).

Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado) (2008)

This park encloses some of the high terrain near the Continental Divide northwest of Boulder CO. The main attraction is mountain scenery and hiking. Trail Ridge road traverses the contental Divide and gives access to lots of the scenery when open (Late May to Late October generally) The Bear lake area on the east side of the park has several good day hikes. The parking lot here is small and fills often in the summer, and during busy season they run a free shuttle from various lots farther down on the road.  You can use the shuttle to create a loop hike here if you want.  There are many backcountry trails in other parts of the park. Elk are common in the park. Most of the area east of the Continental divide is fairly open (thin forest, meadows, rocks). The area west of the Continental Divide is more heavily forrested Several Campgrounds are available.  Trail Ridge Road accesses a long stretch of above timberline country with a couple of marked trails that give you the opportunity to explore.  Don't go off trail here as the area is fragile, but in mid summer expect to find LOTS of wildflowers up here.

Colorado National Monument (Colorado) (2012)

This park includes sandstone bluffs and canyons on the edge of the Colorado river valley near Grand Junction. It's pretty and doesn't seem to be very crowded. There is a 20 mile road along the rim of the bluffs with lots of lookouts and trails. There is a modest campground near the west end of the road (but up 5 miles of switchbacks from the valley), but no lodging or supplies in the park (plenty available in Grand Junction or Fruita). The campground has good sized sites, many with views of canyons and the valley below. There are many trails off the rim road, and a few longer back country trails in the canyons.  This is a good park to see first in a tour of the southwest as it has scenery on a believable scale and interesting hikes.  (Besides, you can then take the scenic drive along the Colorado River to Moab and Arches -- take the exit off I70 that says "Cisco -- no services")

Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado) (2012)

This is a large park in extern south western Colorado that encloses Anasazi and other Native American ruins. Most of the park is on top of the mesa, which is cut with deep canyons, so the roads are full of switchbacks and slow (but in reasonably good shape). The campground is huge and near the entrance. They have some segregation of RV's and tents. Open and secluded sites are available. Deer and Skunks are plentiful. This is one of those private campgrounds that costs more, ($26 when we last went).

The attraction is visiting the ruins, most of which lie at the ends of 2 forks in the main road, 20 miles into the park. All the cliff dwelling ruins are in the cliffs below the mesa, so access means hiking down to the ruin and up to go back and can be strenuous. The roads fork about 10 miles past the campground at the Farview visitors center. Stop here first to buy your tour tickets, as 3 of the best ruins visits require tour tickets and the tours fill fast. There are some restrictions on how many you can reserve in one day, but they weren't being enforced when we were there.  Note that the Balcony House tour requires some climbing on exposed ladders and a tight tunnel and isn't for everyone.  

On the right hand fork, one ruin (Step House) can be toured on your own via a foot trail. Some other cliff-top ruins can be toured on your own, but you must ride the tram to get there. The tram is free on a first come-first served basis (ticket holders to the long house tour have priority as they need to ride it to reach the Long House trail), and it operates on a fixed schedule of every half hour, meaning if you miss one you will have to wait a while. A third ruin (Long house) is accessible only via a tour

On the left fork there is a museseum and a long 1-way road that lets you view all the ruins from the road. One ruin (Spruce Tree) you can walk to from the Museum, while 2 others require tours (tickets only at the visitors center at the fork in the 2 roads, which also closes rather early in the day). In spite of the implied complaints about tours, trams, and tickets, the park is fascinating and can easily absorb 2 days to see everything. There is a lodge at the fork in the roads with a restaurant and supplies at the campground.

Note that there always seems to be road work in the park and park roads are not meant for speed.  It takes over an hour to reach the end of the right fork road from the entrance..  Also note that there is no Gas available inside the park despite literature that describes a now closed station in the Campground area.

Great Sand Dunes National Park (Colorado) (2012)

This  brand new (2004) national  park covers an area of huge sand dunes on the western side of the Sangre De Cristo mountain range in southern Colorado. The dunes are truely massive (700 feet high), and mostly open barren sand. The number one activity here is to climb into them, easier said than done. To reach the dunes you ford a shallow stream, then start climbing. There are no trails or landmarks there, so be careful about going beyond the crest of the dunes and into the dune field. The slopes are constantly moving in the wind. Climbing 700 foot dunes is a fascinating experience. There is no lodging here, but a nice campground.  IAll times we've been there the campground fills, even on weeknights.  On weekends this area is used by locals as a weekend getaway and the campground fills and the area in front of the dunes looks like a popular beach.    Many locals use the park as a recreation area, bringing plastic tobogans and boards to slide or "surf:" the dunes.)

Arches National Park (Utah) (2012)

This park encloses a sandstone and sand desert area with several groups of stone arches. It gets VERY hot here, carry water on all hikes. The arches occur in several groups with some visible from the road but many accessible only via trails (loop trails of 1-10 miles in the areas of the arches cover most. Delicate arch is the one usually pictured (it rises directly from a flat rock base), and can be viewed from a long distance (>1 mile) from a parking lot at the end of a road, at a somewhat shorter distance from a short but steep trail from this lot, or hiked to via a longer (3 mile) trail. Many of the trails here have scary spots for anyone with a fear of heights. The campground is near the end of the road, 20 miles into the park. It is small and now takes reservations and is generally full.  There is no lodging or other services in the park, but the town of Moab has plenty. There are campgrounds along the colorado river either side of Moab that may be more hospitable than the hot dry area in Arches. (The road from I70 to Moab along the river is particularly scenic as well).  The parking lots in this park can be congested.  One suggestion is to look at when and where the ranger guided hikes are and if you don't plan to be on a ranger hike, avoid the area it is being run and see something else, then come back some other time, since many people go on the ranger hikes and their vehicles fill the lots.

Canyonlands National Park (Utah) (2012)

This is a huge park of mostly wilderness area. Most is only accessible via dirt roads. The park includes canyons of the Green and Colarado river which have carved canyons within canyons in the rock. Good paved roads enter north of Moab (island in the sky area) and 50 miles south of Moab (needles area), while the west side is accessible only on Gravel and dirt). There is primitive campground (no water) at the end of the Island in the sky road and no other services. A more normal campground can be found at the end of the needles area. There are short trails off both these roads as well as trailheads to longer trails into the back country. Most people only go to look at the canyons here on an afternoon. Proper appreciation probably requires a Jeep and/or an overnight back country trip.  The Needles area is particularly attractive for day hikes, but it's a long (45 mile) road into it off the main road with no services.

Natural Bridges (Utah) (2012)

This is a small park with 3 natural bridges. (Natural bridges are cut by streams cutting off meanders, while arches are cut by wind in rock walls). There is a campground and a 1-way loop road that allows you to see 3 bridges and other scenery. There is also an 8 mile trail loop that allows closer access to the bridges. If you do no other hikes, take the short walk that allows you to walk under the last bridge in the loop, which is the best way to appreciate the bridges.  The park is 40 miles from the nearest civilization. The road that continues west of this park and crosses the Colorado is one of the most spectacularly scenic highways in the US. 100 miles of red and white rocks, deserts, and the upper end of Lake Powell.  (Well it's normally over lake Powel but in 2005 the lake didn't come this far north because of the low water level and instead you got to see the muddy colorado and dirty devil rivers as well as rocks normally covered by the lake.)  Natural Bridges does have a small campground with limited services (no water at the campground, but you can get it at the visitors center)

Goosenecks of the San Juan state park (Utah) (2012)

This is a small, free state park with a lookout and parking area that overlooks 3 hairpin turns in the San Juan river. The view is probably familiar to all Geology students as it is the classic example of this kind of feature. It's a scenic view not long off major roads with no fee and no facilities.

Zion National Park (Utah) (2012)

Zion park encloses a deep sandstone canyon and a lot of surrounding sandstone cliffs hills and other canyons. It is a bit like Yosemite in scenery and form, in that most of the facilities and visitors are in the main valley, a very small part of the total park area. It is also like Yosemite in being ruined by too many visitors. Expect crowds in the valley and tough parking.. During the busy season you must ride a shuttle into the valley.    Scheduling is frequent and the hours of operation are good, and the shuttle does eliminate the horrendous parking hassles in the valley.  There are problems though, specifically that there isn't enough parking at the visitor center so many have to take a second shuttle from a hotel or parking lot in the town of Springdale to the visitor center before getting on the valley shuttle.  The shuttle takes 90 minutes round trip if you stay on it, meaning it will take you some time to get in and out.  Groups can be a problem in causing crowding on the shuttles as well.  Probably the biggest challenge is that because you don't have access to your car in the valley, you have to bring everything you want with you.  That means that if you plan part of the day in a vigorous hike, part of it swimming/wading, and a picnic lunch, you have to carry all of that stuff around all day.

There is a large campground at the entrance, and lots of motels in Springdale (right at the entrance to the valley). The campground is near the river and shaded. (Note -- this is the one place we saw a tarantula, keep your tent zipped!) It can get VERY hot here in the summer. Most of the hikes possible from the valley climb out of it and are strenuous. Many are scary for people with any fear of heights because the walls are so sheer. From the end of the road you can walk on asphalt into the canyon until the river fills it. (Note -- in 2005, the spring runnoff was so high that there is currently no beach there, only a LOT of churning grey water, while in 2012 there was almost no water at all.).  From there, you can in good conditions and suitable shoes continue up river to the narrows, a very narrow and steep canyon. Hiking the narrows is dangerous if there is any chance of a storm, and hiking through the canyon requires a back country permit. This is a VERY popular hike, so expect your hike on the paved trail to be like walking a busy city sidewalk.

There are two other places which you can access this park by road, one the Kolob Canyon area off I15, a long way from the value, and one from Kolob reservoir road, about 10 miles west of Springdale. The Kolb canyon area is very scenic and much less crowded. There are hiking trials of various lengths into the canyons. The Kolob reservoir road is narrow and winding (under repair during our visit in 1999), and accesses some trails and good views. I don't think you can take a large RV or a trailer up this road.

The eastern part of the park (out Utah route 9 form Springdale) is completely different from the valley, miles of sandstone bluffs with spectacular patterning. The road itself is an engineering marvel of the 1920's, climbing out of the valley and then tunneling for a mile and a half behind the cliffs. The tunnel is narrow and RV's must go through one at a time, so travel this one early or expect delays. The viewpoint trail from the top of the tunnel is well worth the hike, if you can find a space in the small parking lot to take it.

Bryce Canyon (Utah) (2012)

This is a long thin park enclosing a rim of fantastically eroded rock along a plateau. Though close to Zion, it's much higher and cooler. A 20 mile road follows the rim to lots of lookouts. There is a rim trail some of the length, several loops that descend off the plateau, and a long trail that runs the length of the park under the rim. The campgrounds and visitors center are near the park entrance, also near one of the better lookout points. The North campground is near the rim trail while the sunset campground is across the road, walking distance from sunset point. The short trails in this area descend and loop into some of the best scenery. There are lots of deer in the area. If you hike note that most hikes go down first and allow enough time to return at that altitude (8,000 feet).  If you are up to it, hiking one of these trails is the best way to see the park.  (Note that storms frequently cause washouts on these trails so check for closures before planning any long routes.)

Bryce Canyon has a shuttle too, but it's not mandatory.  Unlike other parks, the shuttle operates from the collection of motels at the park entrance to the lookouts in the Bryce Ampitheater area, not on the long road to other lookouts.  The impact seems be less hassle parking everywhere, but more people hiking the trails in the Bryce Ampitheater.  Note that the shuttle does allow you to take a one way hike here and use the shuttle to return to where you started.

Cedar Breaks National monument (Utah) (2012)

This is a giant eroded basin, similar to Bryce but even higher and cooler. (It snowed and hailed on us here in July) Camping is available if there is no snow. There are a lot fewer trails here than in Bryce, even if the weather isn't a problem. The colors are more varied than Bryce, rich reds and yellows.  (Note that in 2005, the monument wasn't going to open until some time in July due to heavy snow.  In 2012, everything but the campground was open in early June)

Kodachrome Basin (Utah State Park) (1996)

This is near Bryce and somewhat similar but different features. The park is an eroded bowl with stone spires in it (they look almost like cement chimneys). There is a small campground and some hiking trails (beware that the trails may poorly marked). This is a state park with it's own entrance fee.

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (Utah) (2005)

This is a very new park lacking many visitor facilities. It covers much of central Utah, between Bryce canyon, Glen Canyon, Canyonlands, and Capital Reef. Much of this is roadless wildreness, though some of the "trails" marked on the maps (actually primitive roads) have been improved to the point where you could drive them. The best thing to do here, though, remains back country hiking to slot canyons, red-rock cliffs, etc. The road from Bryce to Capital Reef crosses some spectacular scenery in the park. (Note that the "Staircase" refers to a sequence of cliffs that covers all of southern Utah where various rock layers are exposed. It's actually best viewed from viewpoints along US 89 and 89A near the north rim of the Grand Canyon.)  The Burr Trail road is also driveable, at least on the paved part, by everyone and is very scenic.  The Calf Creek falls trail is nice, as is the campground at it's start, (though it's tiny and fills early).  The big challenge for most here is the lack of lodging and camping to see it.  Hopefully this will change as the park gets "discovered".

Capital Reef National Park (Utah) 2012.

This is a very long skinny park enclosing a fold in the rocks. (The name comes from the fact that exposed rock ridges are sometimes called "reefs", and this one has a dome shaped patch of rock on top of it that someone thought looked like the US Capital building).  Most of it is open, exposed, and very hot. Don't expect to see a fold, what you see is slightly tipped rock layers that are eroded bare, with deep canyons cut through them. The campground and visitor center are at the north end of the park and there is a short paved road that offers a short scenic drive, but most of the park is undeveloped and accessible only via hiking or dirt roads. Do the Scenic drive near Sunset for spectacular colors on the rocks! There are some maintained trails in the developed area, including a couple trails and somewhat drivable gravel road that go through narrow canyons (again watch out for flash floods). The trail to Hickman Bridge -- a big stone arch in a hanging valley above the road) is well worth the moderate climb.  There is a campground near the visitor center with some shade but small sites and little privacy. (Though now a lot more shade than when we first started coming here in the 1990s)

Antelope Island state park (Utah) (2005).

This is an island in Salt Lake reached from a causeway at exit 335 on I-15 north of Salt lake City. When I visited in the mid 1980's, the Salt lake area looked like an uncrowded mountain paradise. Now it's 100 miles of urban sprawl and brown air, like Denver. The park, though, offers an opportunity to get away while driving through. It has a beach with hot showers, a buffalo heard, several lookouts, a marina, and I believe a campground. The park covers the whole island but only the northern tip is currently developed and accessible. Be aware that Salt Lake smells like the ocean at low tide, but the sights and wildlife are worth the $5 it takes to go there.

Great Basin National Park (Nevada) (2012).

This park encloses a 13,000 foot mountain and a set of limestone caves, in a very isolated area. The park is in far eastern Nevada, perhaps the least populated area in the lower 48 states. The roads to this park have 10-15 mile straightaways where you may not see another car. The park itself has great mountain scenery, with a glacier and several groves of Bristlecone pine trees near the top. The park road goes to about 10,000 feet, from where you can hike to the trees, glacier, or all the way to the summit. Keep in mind, though, that summer comes late here. In mid June, the area beyond the road can be covered in deep snow and unhikeable. Lehman Caves is at the base of the mountain and offers cave tours of various lengths. Tours are easy walking, so take a long one if you like caves. They do fill early. There are several (4?) campgrounds along the road to the summit. The lower two are always open, while others may be closed by snow. Campgrounds here were surprisingly full, given the isolation of the park, but also had very nice sites. Unpaved roads and trails access other parts of the park.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal park (Arizona) (1994).

"Monument valley" is a huge feature on the map, while the park encloses "mystery valley", which contains the giant sandstone pillars that are familiar landscape in western movies and TV. This is a Navajo park and does not accept any US park passes. The park has a visitor center at an overlook of the valley with a spectacular view, and a campground near by. Travel in the valley is only via a 17 mile dirt road that loops among the monuments. The road is rough but supposedly passable in dry weather without 4WD. You may think twice about submitting your own car to this, though, especially if it has to carry you 2,000 miles back home. There are lots of companies offering Jeep tours, which cost about $30 and last 1-3 hours, and some offering horseback tours. You can't hike in the valley.

Glen Canyon Recreation Area (Arizona) (2012).

This park encloses lake Powell and the surrounding land including Rainbow Bridge and many slot canyons. The area has few roads and can be explored mainly by boat or back-country trails. There are marinas with boats for hire and tours in 3 places, though Page Arizona (near the dam) is the main center. Glen Canyon dam is a spectacular site, even if you don't agree with the decision to build it, and can be toured in groups or on your own.  (Note that since 2001 there are more restrictions on dam tours than before.

Rainbow Bridge is worth visiting at least once. This is a separate national monument but really on accessible vial Lake Powell. The bridge is huge and spectacular. The site is sacred to several tribes, so you can't go under the bridge or walk out of the immediate area. It is accessible only by boat, (unless you are willing to walk 2 days across the desert). You can get a half day boat tour that goes straight there, or a longer tour that spends more time exploring the side canyons on the lake.  (Note that in 2005, due to low water level the tour boat requires 7-1/2 hours, including a 4 mile round trip hike the the bridge.  In 1999 and 2012 the tour was much shorter and virually no hiking was required.  The low water affects the boats as well as the hike to the bridge in that the boats must go slowly around marinas and other boats, and with the water at low levels boating is really confined to the river channels, quite narrow with no place to dodge other boats at a great enough distance not to worry about your wake).

The lake itself is beautiful and interesting, though don't expect solitude, thousands of power boats and jet skis create a constant whine from the water.

The town of Page has modern up-scale (pricey) accomodations and is strkingly out of place with the rest of the area (mostly Navajo reservation and small towns full of ancient motels). This area can be VERY hot. The only motel in Page near the water is the Lake PowelLlodge, which is pretty, expensive, and huge  (Though we got an excellent deal here through Travelocity).. The same operator has a monopoly on tour boats on the lake and offers tours of canyons and Rainbow bridge, and also rents boats of all kinds for individual use.  The lodge is very popular with tour operators.

Jeep tours of Antelope canyon, a very narrow and deep canyon can be booked from Page or from the site of the canyon, about 3 miles east of town near the Navajo power plant. The canyon is dangerous when it rains (a dozen people were killed here in a flash flood in 1997), so don't even think about sneaking in on your own. The best light in the canyon is at noon, and the only time you will see the sunbeams actually reach the bottom of the canyon is mid summer around noon, so plan your trip accordingly.  There are several other slot canyons in this area that you can hike into. Get information in Page and don't go in if it is raining.  Unfortunately the upper canyon has become increasingly popular,  meaning it is almost impossible to take pictures of the canyon without other tourists in there and difficult to take time exposures at all.  Maybe consider other times or another canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona) (2012).

This is a huge park with developed areas on both rims. The two rims are separated by 10 air miles, 22 trail miles, and 250 road miles, and are really like 2 different parks. To decide which to visit, consider your reaction to the words "theme park". If it is interest or excitement, go to the south rim. If it causes you to recoil and go the other way, go to the North rim. Both offer spectacular views of the canyon, lodging and camping at the rim, trails, and mule rides. The North rim has only a modest lodge and campground, with only a few very small lodges within 80 miles of the rim, and is open only in summer. The south side has 10 times as many visitors, bigger lodges and more campground, lots of lodging and "attractions" at the entrance, helicopter rides, theaters, etc. Plan to hike down into, the canyon, even if you aren't going all the way to the bottom. Be very careful to allow enough time and water to climb back out, it's much tougher than it looks!

Mule rides go up and down the trails. The trails into the canyon are VERY dusty and full of mule poop as a result, so it's not the best hiking conditions, but tolerable. The mule ride leaders are pretty good about letting hikers get settled in some spot they can stand safely with little fear when they pass. The mules kick up lots of dust, though. (Also something to consider if you take a mule ride, the back of the line eats the dust of the rest). On the North rim, all the roads are available to private cars, while in the summer on the south rim, some lookouts can be reached only by bus. The bus is actually very convenient, as you can hike one way and take the bus in the other to see the Canyon without duplicating your hike. A newer more comprehensive transit system is in the works for the south rim. I have no idea what to expect the next time I go there.

Note that if you visit, you might (or might not) want to at least glance at a book we picked up here -- "Over the edge -- Death in the Canyon":, which describes all the ways people have found to take a permanent vacation in the canyon.  The hazards of hiking, boating, air tours, and even standing on the rim are all too real, and the book is written to help you understand what can go wrong and how to avoid it.  It is also very well written and compelling reading.

Navajo Bridge NM/Lees Ferry (Arizona) (2012)

Navajo bridge is an engineering monument encompassing the old Navajo bridge over the Coloado River at Marble Canyon. The old bridge was the only link over the river for something like 500 miles when it was built in the 1920's, and has been replaced by a more modern bridge in 1996. The two remain side by side, and you can walk over the old bridge. Interesting scenery and information on the impact of the bridge on the region and on how it was constructed. Lees Ferry, about 10 miles north of here on the Colorado, was the way people crossed the river before a bridge. It's a spectacular spot with high red rock walls enclosing the rushing river. Raft float trips launch here for short trips through Marble Canyon, or multi-day trips through Grand Canyon. (Grand Canyon trips are sold out over a year in advance!)

Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming) (2014)

The main feature of this park is a striking mountain range rising out of a flat land with several lakes. The mountains rise from 6,000 to over 13,000 feet with no foothills and are very dramatic. The park has roads on the east end with lots of lookouts, but the main thing to do here is hike into the mountains. There are many good trails, with all the significant stream crossing bridged (not true in all parks). Almost all the trails climb rather steeply, but offer great views and wildlife. There are 4 campgrounds in the park, all in "Jackson Hole", a huge flat plain in front of the mountains. The closest campground to the mountains (Jenny Lake) fills very early, while the furthest (Gros Ventre) may not fill. There are several lodges and a tent city (they supply tents with wood floors and cots, you supply bedding, etc.) along the lakes in the park. Most lodging is in the town of Jackson, once a cowboy town, 10 years ago a tacky tourist town, and now an "upscale resort" with high priced rooms, art galeries in every shop, and celantro in everything on the menu. If you stay in Jackson or Teton villiage and want to avoid the afternoon traffic jam going through, there is an alternate route out of the park from Moose Junction to Teton villiage.  The road is not well marked and is gravel for about 4 miles but is easily navigated in an ordinary passenger car and while you go slower than the main highway you have a good chance of seeing wildlife.  Zillions of companies offer raft trips on the Snake river in and below the park, you can get any degree of roughness you want. Keep in mind that it is very cold in the mountains, and you may encounter snow at any time. Canyon trails are not clear of snow until well into July, and the passes between then may be snowy all year round. (Quite a surprise if you start in Utah!)  The Cascade Canyon trails are very popular.  You can cut 2 miles each way off these trails by taking the boat shuttle ($9 round trip in 2006), but beware it doesn't start operating until 8AM even in peak season and ends at 6PM.  Also since many people go only as far as the falls or insipiration point, be prepared for massive crowds later in the day on the part of the trail near the dock, which is the steepest and rockiest of the whole trail.  One thing to note is seasons.  Lower trails will be negotiable from late May, but mountain trails may not be passable until the end of June.  Weather is always a challenge here, expect afternoon thunderstorms and the possibility of hail on almost any day

Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming) (2014)

The biggest, oldest, and probably most diverse park. Seeing Yellowstone even from the car requires 2 full days. It includes mountains, canyons, geysers and hot springs, and a large lake, most over 7,000 feet altitude. Expect cold weather most times and most places except for the far northern part of the park which is lower and can be hot and dry in mid summer. The roads are crowded and some are in terrible condition, but there is ample parking in most places. In 2014 the road from norris to mammouth was under major construction and minor work was going on in other areas.  There are short paved trails and boardwalks to many features. There are accomodations in many parts of the park and at different levels ranging from rustic cabins to resort lodges. Most are fully booked for the summer months ahead, but there are cancellations, so you might get lucky at the last minute. There are campgrounds all around as well. Most are first come first served. Some are closed to everything but hard sided vehicles at certain times due to bear activity. Expect to see a lot of Buffalo and elk, a few moose, and don't expect to see bears or wolves, but you may get lucky.  (Note in 2006 -- the wiildlife seems to have multiplied, perhaps helped by the increase in grassland created by massive fires about 10 years back.  The fire areas are now mostly meadows and open woodlands with more food for the animals.)

Here are some specific comments on various areas:

Yellowstone has lots of back country trails that traverse miles from roads. Some require stream fording, which can be treacherous and shouldn't be attempted unless the season is right (mostly better later in the summer). Check on what you plan.

Devils Tower National Monument (Wyoming) (2014)

The park encloses the tower, a 700 foot tree-stump like rock formation, and a prairie dog town. It has a modest campground with views of the tower. There are trails around the tower and the park. Devils tower is a popular cimbing spot with dozens of climbers on the tower on a summer day. We even saw people climbing at night with flashlights.  The campground is near a river and has a view of the tower, very nice.

Badlands National Park (S. Dakota) (2014)

This park encloses the eroded edge of a mesa. A 30 mile loop of road off interstate 90 reaches many lookouts and the visitor center, campground, and lodge. There are trails among the rocks off the road loop, and more remote areas of the park reached from other roads. Most people just drive through here as an alternative to 30 more boring miles of I-90. Spending a night in the park gives you dawn and dusk lighting and more hiking opportunities.  There are also plenty of lodging and dining options in the nearby town of Wall -- home of Wall Drug, a world famous tacky tourist trap that has to be experienced at least once.

Mt Rushmore National Monument (S.Dakota) (2006).

This small park is one of the most visited spots on earth, with a huge parking garage accomodating visitors who stop and gawk at the mountain. The visitor's center has been completely redone (no longer looks like the classic movie North by Northwest), and seemed a bit commercialized.  Maybe it was just that we were there on July 2 and they were clearly preparing for a major multi-media show for the 4th. No recreation opportunities, but an interesting spot for people watching. There are several other parks (Jewel Cave, Wind Cave, Custer park) in this area in the black hills. They feature interesting mountain scenery and caves. The caves are all different and well worth some time. Jewel cave is one of the largest in the world, though the part you can tour is modest. Custer park is a state park with camping, a buffalo herd, and interesting scenery.  There are two scenic roads between the monument and Custer park, one has 3 tunnels that are cut to frame Rushmore in the tunnel, the other winds through the needles, a set of rock spires.  Neither is really suitable for big RVs or trailers

Theodore Roosevbelt National Park (N.Dakota) (2014).

This park is really in the badlands of North Dakota.  There are two separate developed units.  The South unit along I-94 is better developed but both have  scenic roads and trails.  The badlands are interesting, though not as dramatic as South Dakota's.  The park has wildlife, especially Bison and Prairie Dogs.  It has a nice campground (but watch out for the Bison which also really like the campground and tend to move in overnight.)

Glacier National Park (Montana) (2017).

This park sits on the Canadian border at the continental divide. It surrounds what is probably the most vertical landscape in the lower 48 states. The mountains rise shear from the plains on the east side, while the west side is bounded by deep forested valleys and streams. In the middle are vertical rock walls, lakes, and glaciers. The park has one road across that is well designed and can be easily traversed with a car or van (but closed to anything longer than 21 feet or wider than 8 feet). This road and several short roads into the park from the east provide access to most facilities. Hiking is the principal activity hear, with boating tours on some of the larger lakes also available. Many good trails go from the Many Glacier area, while others go from the summit of Going to the Sun highway. Going to the Sun road and some of the other park roads are in bad shape and undergoing repair, and can be a bit scary.  There are many long back country trails, some of which go to adjoining Waterton Lakes park in Canada.

The park had two back country chalets (hike in hotels) serving hikers, One (Sperry) has been rehabbed and is functional again. the other (Granite Park) is currently functioning as a hikers cabin. There are many trails that provide access to above treeline alpine meadows and glaciers on day hikes.

Snow lingers longer here than other parks and many trails can be unusable until late July or August, so plan accordingly. The park has more bears (black and grizzly) than any other lower 48 parks. Bear encounters are common and while most are harmless, fatal ones occur every few years. Common advice is to make enough noise not to surprise a bear, and avoid running or advancing on bears if you find them. Our experience has been that bears can be very oblivious to hikers, so keep alert for signs of bears and for bears near the trail. Bear encounters are most likely first thing in the morning before trail traffic scares them off.

Note that increased visitation has made this once deserted park very busy.  It is now difficult to find parking at any of the popular stops along Going-to-the-sun road, with the logan pass lot filling by 7AM.  Fortunately there's an alternative, a free shuttle system.  There are two shuttle routes, one running from Apgar on the west to the top (some stop at Avalanche and don't go further) and one from St Mary on the east to the top (all I believe go to the top).  Service isn't as frequent as you would like, especially on the east side where the wait can be up to an hour.  Shuttles can fill, but they take standees and we never had trouble getting on the first shuttle.

They have redone the road which now has good pavement and is a bit wider in spots, though still a slow climb.  The shuttle has had one bad influence -- those small lots acted to limit the number of hikers on many trails, but now the shuttle brings many more, so trails like Hidden lake overlook or St Mary falls are much busier than before.  You can of course use the shuttle to complete a one way hiking route, something that was hard in the past, but there is still no service to Many Glacier or Two medicine, which have long hikes that connect with going-to-the-sun.  Both those areas are short on parking too, but not as much so as going-to-the-sun

Lodging in the park is scarce and fills very early, mostly with tours. Camping is available but also tends to fill. Private campgrounds outside the park rarely fill and are not inconvenient, but also not particularly rustic or remote. In 1995, heavy snow and floods closed many trails and several roads, so be sure to check that the area you want to use will be open.

Some specific trail/area comments:

Crater Lake National Park (Oregon) (2000)

This park encloses Crater lake and the surrounding mountain, Mt Mazama, in which it sits. The lake is spectacular to look at, an unnatural  shade of blue, 500 feet below the rim of the mountain, an old crater formed in an explosive eruption 6000 years ago. There is a paved road around the entire rim which offers great views, as well as trails to some of the high pioints along the rim. The area is high and can be snow covered until late July. (In 2000, only part of the road was open in late June). There is a lodge here as well as camping, and lots of trails.

Oregon Dunes NRA (Oregon) (2000)

This is another unit not operated by the park service and requires a separate fee or a golden eagle, not a park pass. The main feature here is an area of sand dunes along about 30 miles of coastline. Some of this area is open to dune buggies, with tons available for rent. Other areas are closed to vehicles and offer pleasant hiking. Hiking through the dunes is interesting because they shift over time and trails move. Most of this area is a mix of open sand and dunegrass, and introduced species which is taming some of the moving sand. There are many trailheads and a few campgrounds in the area. The beachfront in this area is a wide hard sand beach that is free from development. The wind blows constantly here and it's a good area for kites and birds. Some ofthe beach is open to vehicles, much of it isn't. Check on this.

Newberry Volcanic National Monument (Oregon) (2000)

This encloses volcanic features on the far eastern end of the Cascade mountains. It's not a national park service unit, but in 2000 was honoring the Park Pass due to local confusion over it. The park has several volcanic features that can be visited, including a cinder cone you can drive up on and hike around (like cinder cones in other areas), a long lava tube (bring a flashlight). and 2 lakes in a volcanic caldera. One unique site is the big Obsidian flow in the caldera. Obsidian is volcanic glass (black and shiny and breaks in sharp edges). Thre is more of it here than anywhere else. There is a short trail where you can view it and learn about how it forms and what it got used for.

Mt Ranier (Washington) (2010)

This park encloses the summit and surrounding slopes of Mt Ranier, a huge volcanic mountain. Trails circle the entire mountain and there are two developed areas on the slopes accessible by road. Views and wildflowers are great here. The upper slopes are glacier covered and snowy year round. Snow lingers surprisingly late here (In 1999, the Paradise area was completely snow covered in early August!)  The Paradise area is extremely popular, especially on weekends.  Don't expect to be able to park in the lot at the top of the road.  They let you park on the exit road but it can be a LONG walk back up to the top.  Sunrise is less popular and has more parking.  It accesses lots of interesting terraine and is much less snowy, so if you are looking for scenery rather than snow and mountain climbing consider it instead.

Mount St Helens (Washington) (2000)

This national monument was created after the 1980 eruption and encloses the mountain and area devastated by it. It's still ineresting now to see the downed trees and slow recovery. In 50 years it will probably look like Lassen, with little evidence of the volcanic past. The Spirit Lake Highway, a spectacular road running from I5 deep into the park, gains access to a lot of the interesting landscape and is a must see. Roads also penetrate the park from the east and south and access additional views of the devastated areas, lava tubes (not from the recent eruption), and many trails. You can now climb the mountain itself (but check before planning it because it is an active volcano and conditions sometimes force closures.)

Olympic National Park (Washington) (1996)

This park encloses a mountain range in far western Washington that is still mostly wilderness. This is a temperate rainforest climate and gets tons of rain and snow every year. The park is huge, and most of it is backcountry hiking accessible only. You can make one LONG daytrip and see highlights only. Hurricane ridge offers above treeline walks and views of the high peaks. 2 or 3 roads penetrate the rainforests on the western side, which are interesting to photograph and naturally likely to be wet. The park also encloses some of the remaining wild coastline.

Craters of the Moon National Monument (Idaho) (2000)

This is near the Sun Valley ski area in southern Idaho and is a small park enclosing lava fields and cinder cones from one of many eruptions on the snake river plain. A short drive takes you to most of the features, which can be accessed via short trails. You will want a flashlight to explore some of the lava tube caves here (worth it). Seeing the lava tree molds requires a longish hike.

John Day Fossil beds (Oregon) (2000)

One of many fossil sites preserved by the park service. It's actually several different blocks of land. Short trails let you view the fossil bearing rock layers, exposed in great bowls like the Badlands, and some of the fossiles (turtles, mammals)

Lassen Volcano (California) (1990)

This park enclose a volcano that erupted last in the early 20th century. It has hot springs, lava fields, and cinder cones as a reminder. There are several good day hikes in the park. Climbing the mountain is also possible, though strenuous.

Pt Reyes National Seashore (California) (1998)

This park encloses a point of land jutting 20 miles into the sea just north of San Francisco. The park has wildlife viewing areas (Seabirds, sea lions, and whales in the right seasons), wildflowers, beaches (cold water), and lots of trails, as well as a lighthouse. Come early in the morning to get the best parking. In planning keep in mind that the roads out onto the point are long and not designed for speed so don't plan on averaging more than about 30mph.

Monterrey/Carmel California (2017)

This isn't a national park, but is a widely visited scenic area.  The Monterrey Peninsula, between the towns of Monterrey and Carmel has a spectacular coastline and is home to several resorts and famous golf courses.  It was developed in a way to preserve nature as much as possible.  The only way to see most of it is to take 17 mile drive, a toll road (about $10 ) that makes a loop including coastline and inland forrest areas.  Stop at all the lookouts you want and if you are a golfer stop at Pebble Beach if no other reason than to look at the course.  If you don't want to pay the fee, the tip of the penninsula at Pacific Grove is similar landscape accessible free on a coast road that has plenty of parking.  (There's also a muni golf course in Pacific grove with 9 holes that run through the dunes with nothing but the coat road between you and the ocean, and much cheaper than any of the resort courses.)

Just south of Carmel is Pt Lobos state park.  This is a spectacular coastal area.  The park has a steep ($10) entrance fee so plan at least a couple of hours, visit all the lookouts and hike as many of the short trails as you can.  The park can be very crowded with limited parking.  you may have to walk into some areas rather than drive.  (Note that the Bird rock area at the end of the road has been re-opened and has a nicer trail, but the area clearly had damage from the stormy winter of 2016/2017, and some trails and beaches are closed due to damage.)

Yosemite (California) (1990)

The visited feature in this park is Yosemite valley, a narrow flat valley surrounded by 3000 vertical cliffs. Roads also reach overlooks on the southern side of the valley, the Hetch-hetchy damn and reservoir, two groves of Sequoias, and a long alpine stretch (Tuolumne pass). Hiking and gawking are the major activities. Transportation in the valley is being redone after crowding and floods wiped out facilities, so it is probably now accessible via shuttle only. Hikes to several of the water falls from the valley are good day hikes and not very strenouous. Other hikes require multiple days or serious rock climbing.

Devils Postpile (California) (1990)

This is a small national monument enclosing a basalt flow that has been broken into hexagonal columns. The seen looks like a pile of oddly shaped poles. Basalt is reasonably common, and often hardens into hexagonal columns like this, but this is one of the most spectacular examples. To reach it you have to go down a narrow mountain road beyond the Mammouth ski area (in 1990 you could drive it early in the morning or take a shuttle only later in the day), then hike about 2 miles roundtrip. There are other short hikes in the park as well as great views of the sierras.

Giant Sequoia/Kings Canyon (California) (2009)

While this is technically two national parks, they adjoin and are served by one road system, basically a loop between entrances on the north and south with a long spur road going into "Kings Canyon".  The park has a variety of terraine including a lot of Sequoia groves.  The groves  all have short trails and mostly are pretty level.  (One requires you access it from a parking lot above it from where you have to descend a LOT of steps).  There are also waterfalls and an interesting cave (accessible only by tours, reserve your tour time).  Kings Canyon has a varietyof mountain scenery.  The road ends in a deep valley with trails of all levels of difficulty.  The area is quite near Mt Whitney, but the best access to the mountain is from the other (east) side.  There are lodges in the park with more motels in the town at the south entrance. 

There are more sequoia groves all over the southern sierras, including a nice developed area with trails in Sequoia monument accessible via a road into the mountains from about 30 miles south of the national park. 

Death Valley (California) (2009)

This is a large valley in southeaster CA.  In summer it's one of the hottest places in the world.  Most people visit for a few hours only to see the lowest point in the US, but you can also stay at a lodge there and during the winter it's not unpleasant.  There are many unusual sites here, many reachable on on trails or dirt roads.  If you go exploring be sure you have LOTS of water and don't count on your cell phone to reach help as parts of this park are very remote.  Hiking can be interesting here,but start early in the morning and carry water.

Alabama Hills/Whitney Portal (California) (2009)

These are two features near the town of Lone Pine CA.  Neither is a park, but both scenic.  The Alabama Hills area is a region of barren rocks near town that are the background for many western films.  They are interesting to photograph especially up against the sierras beyond (the mountains are much more impressive from this side than from the west, since they rise sharply from the Owens valley, a long deep valley in which the Alabama hills and several towns lie.  Beyond the hills the road goes up into a notch in the sierras and accesses trail heads to trails to climb Mt Whitney.  The climb is very strenuous, but just going as far as the parking lot gives spectacular views. 

Joshua Tree (California) (2012)

This park is near Palm Springs, and basically features desert vegetation from both the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.  It has plenty of Josuha trees, but also many other desert plants.  There are several short hikes to view it as well as miles of roads and a campground.

Bandolier National Monument (New Mexico) (2016)

This park is park is very near Los Alamos, and 2 hours from Albequerque.  It preserves clif dwellings cut into soft volcanic ash.  The most accessible and reconstructed dwellings are all in a single valley with easy trails to reach most (though one requires more than a bit of climbing, some on ladders and exposed cliffs), the park covers a lot of area and has other ruins less well preserved.  Another area of ruins nearer the entrance of the park has trails that follow the routes of the original dwellers and are incised into the soft rock by foot traffic (not easy hiking, but interesting.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument  (New Mexico) (2016)

This relatively new monument is near Albequerque off Interstate 15.  It encolses a cliff of soft rock eroded into conical "tent rocks", as well as some ruins and canyons.  The most accessible sites are reached from an easy loop trail from the main parking area, though there are rough ungraded roads that reach other areas.  In addition to the main loop there is a trail that accesses a slot canyon, not as dramatic as those of Arizona and Utah, but interesting. 

Petroglyphs National Monument (New Mexico) (2016)

This relatively new park is in the suburbs of Albequerque and has several different sites along a long cliff of volcanic rock into which drawings have been carved, both modern and ancient.  Each area has a small parking lot and a trail.  While you are often in sight of suburban houses here the area is wild and in addition to the interesting and plentiful drawings there are opportunities for wildlife viewing and desert plant viewing.

White Sands National Monument (New Mexico) (2016)

This park park is in central New Mexico not far from Las Cruces.  It's near the White Sands missile range and historic sites related to the development of atomic weapons, but the park itself is about a field of white dunes.  The "sands" aren't typical sand, but powdered gypsum, which is blindlingly white and soft.   While there are some boardwalk trails here, the primary activity is walking and playing in the dunes, which can be easily reached from the parking areas off the park road.  Note that it can be very hot, the sand is blindingly white, and you can easily become disoriented in the dune field. 

Carlsbad Caverns National Park  (New Mexico) (2016)

This park is is at the southern edge of New Mexico, where it borders Texas.  The key feature is one of the largest natural caves.  Carlsbad is stunning, both for the size of the rooms and the variety of features.  Half a dozen different guided tours are offered, including tours of another cave area in the park.  Some require lights and climbing, but the trail entering the main cave and the trails within it are paved, well lit, and can be done without a guide.  Note that the descent into the cave, while paved, is a steep winding trail that drops about a thousand feet in a mile and a half.  Going down isn't tough, but coming up may challenge anyone with medical limitations (though we saw a number of such people making the trip).  There is also an elevator that accesses the main cave, though it wasn't working when we visited and it wasn't clear how long repair would take.  The elevator accesses a rest area that includes a cafe, water, restrooms, and tourist souvenirs and is the starting point for most guided tours.  There is over a mile of trails in the cave you can wander through on your own and see many of the best features.

The park has some surface trails, and has opportunities for wildlife and desert plant viewing.  Perhaps the most famous spectacle is the nightly exit of the bats from the cave.  The bats rest in a part of the main cave that's not open to tourists, but they fly out the natural entrance, the same route that paved trails use to access the cave.  How visible this is varies from day to day.  There is a large outdoor arena at the cave entrance for viewers, and watching the bats fly out is a popular activity, so arrive well before sunset if you want to do this, especially during times when the cave is busy.

Guadelupe Mountains National Park  (Texas) (2016)

This  park encloses an area of a hot, dry mountain range in far west Texas near El Paso and Carlsbad Caverns.  There are many trails, camping, and a lot of silderness area.  Note that when we were there in spring much of the park was closed due to wildfires.  Hiking is the primary activity -- bring plenty of sunscreen and water.

Pinacles National Park (California) (2017)

This  park  is  off route 101 an hour south of  the Monterey/Salinas area.  It encloses a mountain range topped by rock boldes and pinacles.  The area is difficult to appreciate from outside the park (i.e. you can't really see what's there).  There are two roads into the park, one from Soledad (on 101), and the other from the east side much farther from main roads.  They access different areas connected only by trails.  Activities include hiking, rock climing, and viewing a couple of "caves" that are really open spaces in rock piles.  Note that the road from Soledad, while short, has many single lane stretches and can't be done quickly.   On that side (West), the trains all originate from a single parking area at the end of the road, which also has picnic facilities.

Warren Montgomery