9 Best National Parks in Southern California to Explore [2023]

There are a some unique national parks in Southern California (and national park sites) that each have something special to offer their visitors. From pristine islands rich in biodiversity to tall desert sand dunes, you can find something fun and interesting to do for just about anyone.

Here’s a guide to nine national parks in Southern California which include an array of national park sites, including national monuments and others.

Southern California National Parks Map

Southern California is loaded up with national parks and you don’t have to venture far out from the major cities like Los Angeles to find some spectacular parks.

Joshua Tree National Park is only about two hours and 30 minutes outside of Los Angeles and Sequoia National Park is only three hours and thirty minutes from Los Angeles. Meanwhile the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is right in LA’s backyard.

If you think you might be bouncing between national parks then you might want to look into getting a national park annual pass to save money on park entry.

Map of Southern California national parks
Map of Southern California national parks. Map via the National Park Service.

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Related: REI Co-op World Elite Mastercard Review

Southern California National Parks List

  1. Channel Islands National Park
  2. Death Valley National Park
  3. Joshua Tree National Park
  4. Sequoia National Park/ Kings Canyon National Park
  5. Cabrillo National Monument
  6. Castle Mountains National Monument
  7. César E. Chávez National Monument
  8. Mojave National Preserve
  9. Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

1. Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park, referred to as the “Galapagos Islands of North America,” consists of five of the eight Channel Islands which are located not very far from the shores of Southern California.

Radiocarbon dating suggests that humans have inhabited the islands for over 30,000 years and the oldest known human remains ever discovered in North America were found here on Santa Rosa Island.

Today, the islands are known for being some of the most pristine areas of California that have been relatively unaffected by human development. It’s home to some pretty spectacular wildlife including the giant sea bass which can grow to over 7 feet long and the California spiny lobster, which can achieve lengths of over three feet.

There’s a ton of things to do at Channel Islands National Park. You can choose which island you’d like to visit though many head to Anacapa Island is because of the dramatic overlooks, one of which is the beautiful Inspiration Point.

Santa Cruz Island, the largest island in the state of California, is another one of the popular islands and is home to the most diverse range of flora and fauna, and one of the largest sea caves in the world.

While visiting Channel Islands National Park you can enjoy hiking, bird watching, kayaking, scuba diving, spear fishing, and many other activities. If you want to find out more about this destination, I suggest you read my article on Channel Islands National Park. 

The Anacapas at Sunset
Photo bt Brian Hawkins.

2. Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park straddles the border between California and Nevada. It’s the largest national park in the contiguous United States and comprises a stunning desert environment made up of salt-flats, sand dunes, badlands, valleys, canyons, and mountains.

Death Valley is also known for being the the hottest and driest place in North America.

In fact, on July 10, 1913, the United States Weather Bureau recorded the temperature at 134 °F (56.7 °C), which currently holds the record for the highest ambient air temperature ever recorded at the Earth’s surface.

So why would anybody be drawn here? Well, it’s not always that hot in Death Valley and it can actually be quite nice in the spring and fall. But there’s a ton of stunning scenery to check out at this vast national park.

One of the most interesting areas is the Racetrack. For years, scientists didn’t know how to explain the phenomenon that occurs there with the mysterious “sailing stones.”

People would find rocks scattered along a salt flat with long trails behind them showing that they had slid around. The only problem was that nobody had ever witnessed how it happened. Eventually, they were able to put it together though and they figured out the mystery.

3. Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park covers an expansive area slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island. This place was once inhabited by the Serrano, Cahuilla, and the Chemehuevi, all of which were hunter-gatherers who subsisted largely on plants and local small game, amphibians, and reptiles.

The name “Joshua tree” is believed to have derived from the times when Mormon settlers first crossed the Colorado River and encountered these unique trees in the mid 1800s. To them, the leaves resembled hands stretched out in supplication like the biblical figure, Joshua, and thus the name stuck.

Joshua trees aren’t actually trees (they’re yuccas) and they possess a number of fascinating features beyond their strange appearance.

There’s a lot to do at Joshua Tree National Park. You can choose from a number of hiking options, which range from easy to strenuous. Various forms of rock climbing are popular here and it’s where a lot of climbers go when some of the big walls in places like Yosemite Valley are too cold to climb in winter.

The diverse ecosystems produce varied wildlife at this national park in Southern California.

You can head to the Barker Dam, a short hike from a parking area near Hidden Valley, to scope out of the wildlife which could include Desert bighorn sheep and mule. Keep your eyes out on the ground as you might encounter the giant desert scorpion or even tarantulas.

Cholla Cactus Garden - Joshua Tree National Park - California
Johsua Tree National Park. Photo by Chris Goldberg.

The remaining places on the list are National Park sites like national monuments and national historic sites, which are lumped in as national parks since they are operated by the National Park Service.

4. Sequoia National Park/ Kings Canyon National Park

Sequoia National Park is where you can find the biggest tree in the world, known as the General Sherman. It stands 275 feet tall and is 25 feet in diameter. Its largest branch has a diameter of almost 7 feet, which is larger than most trees in the U.S. standing east of the Mississippi.

And it’s somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 years old, so it’s older than the Colosseum.

There’s a lot to check out at this park beside the biggest tree in the world, though.

The Congress Trail is a popular paved loop trail that begins at the General Sherman Tree and offers some views of huge sequoias as well as groupings of smaller trees like the House and Senate. It’s a great stroll in the winter, too.

The Big Trees Trail is another popular option that starts off near the Giant Forest Museum and will offer an unforgettable experience with redwoods.

Plenty of other hiking options can be found at the park, too.

Moro Rock is another one of the prime attractions. It’s a giant granite dome that requires you to follow a stairway that climbs 300 feet up to the summit and offers a great view of the Great Western Divide and the western half of the park.

Grant Grove is another prime attraction located in Kings Canyon National Park. It’s a special grove with huge large sequoias grouped in a 90-acre area.  The NPS notes that “[a] higher percentage of this grove’s mature sequoias reach sizes of ten, fifteen, and twenty feet (3, 4.5, or 6 m) in diameter than in any other grove.”

If you’re interested in exploring the other wooden giants in California known as redwoods then check out my article on the best places to see redwoods in California, which includes stunning spots like Redwood National Park.

The General Sherman Sequoia National Park
The General Sherman. Photo by Udo S. Image via Flickr.

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5. Cabrillo National Monument

Located at the southern tip of the Point Loma Peninsula in San Diego, California, Cabrillo National Monument commemorates the landing of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo at San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542. This was the first time a European expedition set foot on the land that later became the West Coast of the United States.

Cabrillo National Monument Entrance sign - Point Loma
Photo by Al_HikesAZ.

One of the most popular attractions at the national monument are the tide pools, which contain a diverse range of marine life from octopus to bat stars and can be explored via a short hike. If you make your way up to the Whale Overlook station, you might be able so spot migrating grey whales.

Another attraction is the Point Loma Lighthouse which was put into service on November 15, 1855. It actually was built at an elevation too high at 422 feet above sea level, and so clouds and fog would shroud its light. This led to a new lighthouse being erected and almost resulted in the complete abandonment of the light house, though luckily it was preserved.

Today you can catch a variety of historical reenactments at the national monument like the annual Cabrillo Festival, which commemorated the arrival of Cabrillo.

Point Loma tidal pools - at high tide oops
Photo by Al_HikesAZ.

6. Castle Mountains National Monument

Castle Mountains National Monument is one of the newest national monuments, designated back in 2016. The monument protects a section of the Castle Mountains, a range located in San Bernardino County and Clark County, Nevada and can only be accessed by dirt roads, so a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended.

If you take a look at the map of the national monument below, you’ll notice it has a very interesting shape. That’s because the monument surrounds the Castle Mountain Mine Area, which is an open pit gold mine owned by Canadian NewCastle Gold Ltd. They have the rights to excavate nearly 10 million tons of ore through the year 2025 (but mining has been suspended since 2001 due to low gold prices).

The national monument proclamation mandates that after the mining and reclamation is completed, the land in the Castle Mountain Mine Area will be transferred to the National Park Service

Castle Mountains National Monument
Castle Mountains National Monument. Photo by Matthew Dillon. Image via Flickr

Since this is a newer and quite remote national monument, there isn’t a lot of information about it found online. But the national monument offers some major attractions like spring wildflowers and beautiful Joshua trees. You can find out more about the best time to visit here.

7. César E. Chávez National Monument

César E. Chávez led farm workers to create the country’s first permanent agricultural unions and is often recognized as the most important Latino leader in the United States during the twentieth century.

The property the monument sits on is known as “Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz” (La Paz) and was the headquarters of the United Farm Workers and César Chávez’s home from the early 1970s until his death in 1993.

There’s a visitor center and memorial garden (where Chavez and his wife are buried) that are open to the public but other areas of the monument are closed to the public since the Chávez family still lives there and UFW offices are located on the property.

Cesar Chavez Office 2
Photo by Wayne Hsieh.

8. Mojave National Preserve

Formerly known as the East Mojave National Scenic Area, the Mojave National Preserve is a vast area located in the Mojave Desert of San Bernardino County, California. It’s the third largest unit of the National Park System in the contiguous United States and there’s plenty to explore here.

You can choose from a lot of different hikes on developed trails or you can go for primitive routes. One of the most interesting hikes has to be the Kelso Dunes. These dunes are capable sometimes called the singing sand dunes because of their ability to emit sounds when conditions are right.

It’s a fascinating occurrence but it’s possible to slide down these sand dunes to create sounds that echo out from within the sand dunes. What’s even crazier is that these sounds are set to the keys of E, F, and G, depending on the thickness of the sand layer. You can watch and listen to how this natural phenomena works here.

Mojave National Preserve in California
Sand dunes at the Mojave National Preserve.

9. Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is the largest urban national park in the United States and home to more than 500 miles of trails. It is a very accessible recreation area right outside of the busy metropolis of L.A.

When it comes to hiking the options are numerous with easy, moderate, and strenuous 60+ miles trails to choose from. Mountain biking is also another major draw here along with camping.

Other national parks in California to check out

There are a few other national parks you’ll probably want to check out if you’re heading to California.

While not exactly located in Southern California, Yosemite National Park is a must-see when in the state of California. Yosemite National Park is about 4.5 to 5 hours outside of Los Angeles, depending on the traffic.

You can read up on things to do at Yosemite here. 

Another lesser-known national park is Pinnacles National Park. This park is also about 4.5 hours north of Los Angeles and it’s home to some very dramatic scenery that’s worth checking out. Read more about Pinnacles National Park here.

And finally, if you want to head more north, check out Lassen Volcanic National Park, which is full of lava tubes and volcanic rock formations.

Final word

National Parks in Southern California come in all different shapes and sizes. You can check out some of the most unique terrain and flora at many of these parks and brush up on your history and geology knowledge at several of these parks.

11 Places to See (Stunning) Redwood Trees in California [2023]

Are you looking to explore the beautiful redwood trees in California? Well, you’re in luck because there are a lot of places where you can find these beautiful towering trees all over the state of California.

I’ll first give you some interesting background information on these giants and then show you 11 places where you can see these redwoods in California as well as some tips and things to do at those places.

Different types of redwoods

There are three different types of redwoods:

  • Coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens)
  • Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum)
  • Dawn Redwoods (Metasequoia glyptostrobides).

Coast redwoods is what this article is going to focus on but there are other types of redwoods which are equally as interesting.

Giant Sequoias are also a fascinating species of tree but they grow at higher elevations in the Sierra Nevada mountain range and can be seen at national parks like Sequoia National Park and Yosemite National Park.

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Coast redwoods vs giant sequoias

There are a few big differences between coast redwoods and giant sequoias.

Coast redwoods grow to be taller than giant sequoias and are known for being the tallest trees on the planet, with the tallest red wood in the world, named Hyperion, reaching a dizzying 379.7 feet!

Coast redwoods can live for over 2,000 years, which means that some redwoods were alive during the time of the Roman Empire.

They thrive in areas called alluvial flats, which are low-lying river plains containing soil filled with rich nutrients and decaying plant matter, all of which produce ideal conditions for exceptional growth.

Giant sequoias on the other hand are much bigger trees. In fact, they are arguably the largest organisms in the world, depending on how you define the word organism.

Giant sequoias also grow to be much older. They can live to 3,000 years, with the oldest on record living more than 3,500 years!

The Dawn redwoods grow in China and are smaller than the redwoods above.

Sequoia National Park. Photo by Nate Steiner. Image via Flickr.


These redwood forests are rich in wildlife. So beyond the redwoods, there is a lot of other interesting vegetation to explore.

Underbush consists of the shrubs and small trees forming the undergrowth in a forest. One of the most common forms of underbush to see in a redwood forest are ferns.

When visiting these forests, don’t forget to take a little bit of time to lower your gaze to the beautiful underbrush you’ll come across. 

Redwoods decimated

In 1850, old-growth redwood forest covered more than 2,000,000 acres along the California coast.

But the gold rush ushered in an era of miners and lumbermen who turned to harvesting redwoods for the booming construction occurring in San Francisco and other areas.

Redwood has a rich red color, is resistant to rot, and it’s an easy wood to work with so naturally it was one of the most sought-after woods for the construction boom.

What made matters worse was that the industrial revolution was in full swing. Loggers gained access to more advanced technology that allowed them to cut down these trees with more efficiency and transporting these mammoth trees became easier with the locomotive.

Soon, the redwood forests were disappearing fast.

But by the 1910s, some citizens banded together to save these trees and the Save-the-Redwoods League was born. This group was largely responsible in helping to establish the redwood preserves of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park (all discussed below).

Many estimate that today only around 5% of original old-growth redwood forests survive today, which is pretty soul-crushing when you consider that these trees have been around for about 240 million years.

Also, studies have shown that coast redwoods capture more carbon dioxide (CO2) from our cars, trucks and power plants than any other tree, so losing these trees has had a direct impact on our planet.

Luckily, restoration efforts have been going on for some time so we’re likely to see a resurgence in new-growth redwoods. And while we’ll never be able to replace the 90%+ of old growth trees that we lost, there are still some areas that can give you a good idea of what these forests used to look like before they were decimated by loggers.

Related: 10 Best Beaches in California (You Didn’t Know About)

1. Redwood National Park

The Redwood National and State Parks (RNSP) are a complex of state and national parks located in the United States

  • Redwood National Park (established 1968)
  • California’s Del Norte Coast
  • Jedediah Smith
  • Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks

The combined RNSP contain 139,000 acres and feature old-growth temperate rainforests. You’ll find some of the best redwoods to explore in popular places like the Lady Bird Johnson Grove.

Related: How to Get A US National Park Pass

2. Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park

Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park is home to 50% old growth coast redwoods and makes up an 8-mile-long stretch of coastline along the northern California coastline.

It’s home to the Damnation Creek Trail, a four miles roundtrip hike which takes you from heavily forested trails down to the coast. Unfortunately, the last bridge needed to access the coast has been closed for some time.

The Damnation Creek Trail faces the coast so its prone to being shrouded with fog which adds to the mystique of the forest. One interesting fact about this park is that unlike most other redwood parks, the trees here get bigger towards the top of the hill which is the opposite of what you’ll find at most other redwood parks.

Tip: If you’ve never visited this region of California, know that temperatures stay very cool especially when the fog rolls in so always be prepared with layers when you visit.

Half-mile-long Wilson Beach, also known as False Klamath Cove, is great for tidepooling at low tide. But this beach isn’t made or swimming due to the strong currents, waves, and cold temperatures. By the way, if you’re looking for some of the best beaches in California, look no further!

Not Everything That Goes Around Comes Back Around, You Know
Along the Damnation Creek Trail in Redwoods National Park. Photo by Greg Holtfreter.

3. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park contains seven percent of all the old-growth redwoods left in the world and it’s arguably the best places to view these ancient trees in their natural condition.

It’s also home to the largest redwood by volume which is only exceeded in size by seven giant sequoias and not by very much.

That’s one insanely huge (and thick) redwood tree!

The park is named after Jedediah Strong Smith, who is known for being the first white man to explore the interior of northern California back in the 1820s.

The Smith River runs through the park which is where visitors can fish, snorkel, or even kayak the longest major free-flowing river in California.

Howland Hill Road is 10 miles, one way from Crescent City, and it’s one of the premier scenic drives through redwoods offered anywhere in the world. But the drive is not paved so depending on recent weather conditions, it could be a bit bumpy.

The drive offers an intimate encounter with old-growth redwoods in addition to many pull-outs and trailheads along the way, including two very popular trails: Boy Scout Tree Trail and Stout Grove. 

Stout Grove is often considered to be the holy grail of redwood encounters and is downright magical when visited in the late afternoon as the sun casts golden streaks through the tall canopy of trees.

Related: 56 Most Beautiful Places in the USA

4. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is home to three scenic drives, 75 miles of hiking trails, and a 19-mile bike loop. While this park has quite the network of trails, it’s also remarkably pristine allowing you to get a sense of what this region of California was like pre-logging.

The park is also home to Elk Prairie, a beautiful meadow surrounded by redwoods where you can often find a herd of Roosevelt elk. Gold Bluff’s Beach is another spot where you might find these elk.

Fern Canyon is the most popular part of the park and was once used as a backdrop for the movie Jurassic Park. It can be explored via the The Friendship Ridge Trail.

Fern Canyon
Fern Canyon. Photo by Kirt Edblom.

5. Big Basin Redwoods State Park

Update: Fires have devastated much of this area.

Established in 1902, and located in theSanta Cruz Mountains, Big Basin Redwoods is California’s oldest state park.

The park is home to the largest continuous stand of ancient coast redwoods south of San Francisco. Vegetation found in the park consists of old-growth and recovering second-growth redwood forest, along with a mix of conifer, oaks, chaparral, and riparian habitats.

There are a few popular trails to try out at this state park.

The Redwood Loop Trail is a .6 miles hike where you can check out some of the park’s largest trees, including the Father of the Forest which has a circumference of 66 feet 9 inches and height 250 feet and the Mother of the Forest which has a circumference of 70 feet and a current height of 293 feet. There’s also the Chimney Tree which has a completely hollowed out trunk.

If you have more time you can check out the 4-mile loop on the Sequoia and Skyline to the Sea trails, which take you to the beautiful Sempervirens Falls and a site with a pioneer family cabin.

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Big Basin Redwood State Park | 3-2-14
Photo by Christian Arballo.

6. Muir Woods National Monument

If you’re ever visiting the San Francisco area, Muir Woods National Monument is a must-visit.

Muir Woods National Monument contains 6 miles of trails. There is a 1/2 hour loop, a 1 hour loop, and a 1 1/2 hour loop as well as longer hikes on trails that extend into surrounding Mount Tamalpais State Park.

The trails in Muir Woods are asphalted or boardwalked. So if you’re not a true outdoors person then the Muir Woods can be a perfect introduction into nature.

The upper trails in the park are “dirt, narrow, steep, and rutted with tree roots.” They require more effort to make it through so if you’re traveling with strollers you probably don’t want to go that route.

This place can get very packed on weekends and parking can become very difficult to find. Luckily, you can arrange your transportation before you arrive. By the way, if you are looking to visit multiple national park sites then you might be interested in an annual national park pass that could save you a lot of money.

Gentle Giants
Cover photo. Muir Woods National Monument. Photo by Jonathan.

7. Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Humboldt Redwoods State Park, spans 53,000 acres, an area almost twice the size of San Francisco. Its claim to fame is that about one third of the park (roughly 17,000 acres), is old-growth redwood forest—the largest expanse of ancient redwoods in the world. 

The park is home to the 32-mile-long Avenue of the Giants. This is one of the best scenic routes to check out these redwoods.

Good stops along the way include Founder’s Grove, home to a fallen 362-foot Dyerville Giant, and the California Federation of Women’s Clubs Hearthstone, designed by famed architect Julia Morgan.

The visitor center is also worth checking out with educational exhibits and activities, a theatre, a bookstore, and the famous Kellogg Travel Log—the world’s first RV carved out of a fallen log.

Road to Happiness
Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Photo by Kirt Edblom.

8. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is located in the Santa Cruz Mountains and its claim to fame is its 40-acre grove of old-growth redwood trees. These old-growth trees can best be explored The Redwood Grove Loop Trail, which is a short (0.8 mile) trail through an alluvial-flat grove.

The Garden of Eden is another very popular site at this park. It’s a swimming hole in the San Lorenzo River within Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

It requires about 1.5 miles of hiking, roundtrip, with an elevation change of 200 feet, but during a hot day in the summer, it can be an ultra-relaxing destination.

There’s also a northern extension of Henry Cowell State Park, called the Fall Creek Unit. It contains over 20 miles of hiking trails, mostly along creeks. During the rainy season (November through March), these creeks make mini waterfalls which can be a delight to see.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Photo by Tim Vo.

9. Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve

Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve started off as nine-acre donation by Robert Orr in 1945 but has been expanded to 2,743 acres largely from help by the Save the Redwoods League.

The park is home to a 367.5-foot redwood that was once thought to be the tallest tree in the world (until taller trees were found in Humboldt Redwoods State Park and Redwoods National Park).

Montgomery Woods is also home to several other trees more than 350 feet tall, which is rare for redwoods found this far south. Rich soil deposited by floodwaters from the small stream that flows through the grove is the reason for these extra tall trees.

Tip: Plan your visits for the spring or early summer when the hills and vegetation are lush. towards the end of the summer and fall, conditions can become very dry and the scenery isn’t quite as stunning.

A popular attraction is the two-mile-long Montgomery Trail which takes you through Kellieowen Grove and through lush forests along Montgomery Creek.

Photo by jennconspiracy.

10. Hendy Woods State Park

A little less than three hours from San Francisco, Hendy Woods State Park covers two groves of redwoods.

The park has an interesting past with a guy known as Pitro Zalenko aka Hendy Hermit, a Russian immigrant who lived near the park for 18 years during the 1960s and ’70s. He lived in huts he created consisting of redwood plank lean-tos, including one that was located on a hollowed-out tree stump.

This redwood park is little warmer and less foggy than most other coastal redwood parks and so it’s a popular swimming spot in the summer and some also enjoy canoeing and kayaking, too.

The park has over five miles of trails, including Big Hendy Grove’s (wheelchair-accessible) Discovery Trail, where you can see park’s finest old-growth coast redwoods.

If you have several hours try Big Hendy’s 1.6-mile Upper Loop Trail, which includes the Discovery Trail and more old-growth trees. You can also try the Hermit Hut Trail, where you can  see the downed redwood that sheltered Hendy Hermit for a couple of decades and another one of his dwellings.

Misty Redwood grove, Hendy Woods State Park
Photo by Raul Diaz.

11. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is one of the crown jewels of the California State Park system. It’s located right on the California Coast and it’s where you go for the Big Sur experience.

But this park also has some to offer when it comes to redwoods. In the south section of the park you can find the 5-mile-long Ewoldsen Trail, which is a fantastic day hike. Although it’s a little challenging and steep at times, it offers great views of lush redwoods along with spectacular ocean and mountain views.

Redwoods you can drive through

If you’re interested in redwoods that you can drive through then check out these tree trees:

1. Chandelier Tree—Leggett, Mendocino County
2. Shrine Drive-Thru Tree—Myer’s Flat, Humboldt County
3. Klamath Tree (or Tour-Thru Tree)—Klamath, Del Norte County

Final word

There are many places to check out redwoods in California. I would do my best go check out some of the most pristine areas like Stout Grove so that I could see redwood forests as they existed in pre-logging days but any of these destinations will offer some unforgettable encounters with these giants.

18 Arizona National Parks & Monuments to Explore [2023]

Arizona is home to some of the most stunning landscapes on the planet. From the jaw-dropping cliffs of the Grand Canyon to the arid and rocky terrain of southern Arizona, there are endless scenes of natural beauty to admire and explore. And when it comes to national parks and monuments, there’s truly something for everyone.

Here’s a quick guide to some of the major attractions you’ll find at Arizona national parks and monuments.

You might also be interested in checking out national parks in New Mexico.

Arizona national parks map

Arizona is the sixth largest state in the US so there’s a lot of real estate for its numerous national parks. These sites can be found spread out across the state and it takes about five to seven hours to get from the southern portion of the state to areas up north where parks like the Grand Canyon are found (depending on how scenic you want to make the route).

Interestingly, Arizona is actually the only state in the US where parts of all four of the US desserts can be found: the Great Basin Desert, the Chihuahuan Desert, the Mojave Desert, and the Sonoran DesertBut even with so many deserts spanning the state, the climate in Arizona can vary dramatically. For example, Flagstaff Arizona is home to a very cold and snowy winter and is the only city in Arizona where temperatures have not exceeded 100ºF.  

Below is a map where you can see most of the Arizona national parks and national park sites listed.

Map of Arizona National Parks
Map of Arizona national parks. Map via the National Park Service.

Arizona national parks pass

Currently, there is no state-wide Arizona national parks pass. Instead, if you want to visit multiple Arizona national parks you probably want to look into the America The Beautiful annual pass. It allows the pass owner and accompanying passengers in a single, private, non-commercial vehicle to enter Federally operated recreation sites across the country, which means you get access to many different types of federal lands.

The annual pass can be purchased for $80 online at the NPS store here.

America the Beautiful Annual Pass

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Arizona State Parks pass

Although you can’t get an annual pass dedicated solely to Arizona national parks, they do offer an annual pass to Arizona State Parks.

There’s both a standard annual pass and a premium annual pass.

Standard annual pass

The Standard annual pass is $75.00 plus a $7.00 handling fee.

It allows day-use access at all Arizona State Parks for pass holder and up to three additional adults in the same vehicle, except at Lake Havasu, Cattail Cove, Buckskin Mountain, Patagonia Lake, River Island and Slide Rock State Parks on weekends (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays) and state holidays from April 1st to October 31st.

Premium annual pass

The Arizona State Parks Premium Annual Pass is $200.00 plus a $7.00 handling fee.

It allows for access at all Arizona State Parks for the Pass Holder, and up to three additional adults in the same vehicle. You want to go with this option if you want to include access to Lake Havasu, Cattail Cove, Buckskin Mountain, Patagonia Lake, River Island and Slide Rock State Parks on weekends and State holidays from April 1st to October 31st.

Arizona national parks

Below is my quick guide to Arizona national parks. I’ll start with the actual national parks in Arizona and then get into all of the different types of national park sites, such as national monuments and national recreation areas.

This article barely scratches the surface in terms of what these sites have to offer but you should have a good idea of what some of the major highlights are after reading this article.

1. Grand Canyon National Park

You might have heard of this place before…. Grand Canyon National Park is the second most visited national park in the entire country (behind Great Smoky Mountains National Park) but it’s arguably the most iconic US national park.

At a mile deep, it’s a surreal feeling to look out to something so vast and it’s difficult to comprehend its massive size and geological history which spans millions of years.

It’s a little hard to believe but the average visiting time to the Grand Canyon is under 20 minutes!

But you can get a lot more from the park by exploring one of the many trails. There are several easy trails that you can explore and also some strenuous trails that will require overnight camping in the canyon. Beyond hiking you can explore the canyon via mule trips, helicopter rides, scenic drives, and whitewater and smoothwater raft trips.

The Grand Canyon is divided into the South Rim and the North Rim. The South Rim is more popular as it’s often easier to get to but many people prefer the North Rim since it can be less crowded and some even say the views are better.

Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Photo by faungg’s photos. 

2. Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park is home to some fascinating geological terrain and there’s a tremendous amount of things to do at this Arizona national park.

First, you might want to explore it via automobile, hitting up all of the fantastic scenic overlooks along the 28-miles scenic drive. If you catch it shortly after rain comes through, you won’t believe how colorful some of the terrain can be like the “Teepees” pictured below.

If you want to get out and move around, there are some maintained trails where you can get up close to this otherworldly terrain with hikes like the Painted Desert Rim Trail or Blue Mesa Trail. Or if you’re in the mood for something a bit more adventurous, you can look into a number of backcountry options and camping.

Petrified Forest Teepees
Petrified Forest Teepees. Photo by Mobilus In Mobili.

3. Saguaro National Park 

The nation’s largest cacti grow in this national park outside of Tucson, Arizona.

These majestic plants are known as Saguaro Cactus and can hold up to 200 gallons of water. These giant cacti take their time to reach their peak heights as they only grow between 1 to 1.5 inches in the first eight years of their life.  And branches don’t even appear until the saguaro reaches 50 to 70 years of age!

Saguaro National Park is divided into two districts: East and West (but you only have to pay the entrance fee once). Together, they offer more than 165 miles of hiking trails, which can range from short hikes on interpretive nature trails or backcountry excursions. Both districts have scenic drives worth checking out, too.

The East District has the 8-mile Cactus Forest Loop Drive while the West District has the 6-miles unpaved scenic Bajada Loop.

You can view maps of these parks here.

Saguaro National Park
Photo by Larry Lamsa.

4. Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Located in northeastern Arizona, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is home to some stunning canyon scenery. Even if you’re on a road trip with limited time, it’s worth stopping by this place to appreciate its natural beauty on one of its two major scenic drives.

I’d recommend devoting a couple of hours to the many overlooks found on the South Rim but the North Rim can be worth your time, especially in the morning when the lighting is ideal.

The south Rim is also where you’ll find Spider Rock which is a massive rock spire that sits in the middle of the canyon, rising to 750 feet. There’s also some interesting ruins to check out on the South Rim called the White House ruins, which can be accessed on a hike via a 600 feet down and back up switchback trail.

The park has a lot of other great hikes but you’ll probably need a park ranger or authorized Navajo guide to get around.

Double Rainbows at Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelly
Photo by tsaiproject.

5. Case Grande Ruins National Monument 

Case Grande Ruins National Monument is home to one of the largest prehistoric structures ever built in North America. It was built by ancient Sonoran Desert people who were sophisticated enough to develop wide-scale irrigation farming and extensive trade connections which remained in existence for over 1,000 years until 1450 AD.

Stop by the Visitor Center and pick up a guide to learn about the Hohokam Culture and watch the short orientation video and then take a short tour of the Casa Grande and learn all about its fascinating ancient history along with all of the mystery that Case Grande still holds today.

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6. Chiricahua National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument is known as the “Wonderland of Rocks” and for good reason. It’s home to some of the most beautiful rock formations in the country, which often come in fascinating shapes and sizes like the famous “Big Balanced Rock.”

You can embark on a beautiful 8-mile paved scenic drive to take in many of the viewpoints, some of which offer panoramic views of these beautiful rock formations. If you really want to get up close to these volcanic rock formations, there’s plenty of great hikes (both easy and strenuous) for you to choose from. Camping is also a major attraction here and now you can make your reservations online.

And although it gets warm in the summer, the elevation and cooling monsoon rains often keep the temperatures within reason as summer highs don’t usually stay over 90ºF for very long.

Inspiration Point - View to west - Chiricahua National Monument
Photo by Al_HikesAZ.

7. Coronado National Monument

Coronado National Memorial was created to educate the public on the Coronado Expedition, which was led by captain general Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in 1540 and which changed the dynamics in this region both culturally and biologically.

The monument offers a great view of the San Pedro River which was likely the same corridor that the Coronado Expedition used on their way to the mythical “Cíbola,” believed to be one of the Seven Cities of Gold.

It’s also home to Coronado Cave which may have been used by humans as a shelter and hideout by middle archaic people as long as 8000 years ago and by more recent cultures such as the Chiricahua Apache and Mexican and European miners. It’s now one of the few undeveloped caves in southern Arizona, which you can explore today.

Arizona - Coronado National Monument - Looking to Mexico - January 2006
Photo by Barbara Ann Spengler.

8. Fort Bowie National Historic Site 

Fort Bowie was a 19th-century outpost of the United States Army near the present day town of Willcox, Arizona. The fort was created as a result of violent clashes like the Battle of Apache Pass in July 1862.

Today, Fort Bowie National Historic Site commemorates the conflict between Chiricahua Apaches and the U.S. military, which was one of the major conflicts that existed between US soldiers and Native Americans as the US expanded west.

In addition to learning more about the struggles of western expansion by touring the ruins of Fort Bowie and viewing the exhibits inside the visitor center, you can do a bit of hiking at the park and check out some of the interesting local flora and fauna. The park is also known for having great bird watching.

Trail to Fort Bowie
Photo by Al_HikesAZ.

9. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Spanning part of Arizona and Utah, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is home to Lake Powell, which is a stunning man made reservoir (with a controversial past) that lies between the beautiful red rock canyons.

Due to the presence of the lake, this is a very popular boating destination — you’ll find everything from luxury boats to fishing boats with several launch points.

There are no maintained trails in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area but if you’re down to go camping there you can explore all of the canyon’s crevices and slot canyons all day if you wish.

There are also several day hikes in the nearby area that you can take advantage of. You can also try one of the scenic drives, some of which are a mix of paved and dirt roads so there’s a chance that you’ll need a 4×4 on some of those routes.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is also close to several stunning natural wonders like Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, and the natural bridge at Rainbow Bridge National Monument. If you travel to the area, I highly recommend combining a few of these destinations together into a multi-day trip.

10. Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site is home to the oldest operating trading post on the Navajo Nation, which has been in service since 1878.

Today you can visit the Hubbell family home to check out their collection of Southwestern Art and Native American Arts and Crafts and historic farm equipment, horses, chickens, and Navajo Churro sheep.You can also get some shopping done if you’d like some locally crafted souvenirs or goods.

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, Arizona
Photo by Jacqueline Poggi.

11. Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail

Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail is a 1,210-mile that takes you on a journey from from Nogales on the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona, through the California desert and coastal areas in Southern California and the Central Coast region to San Francisco.

The trail traces back one of the pioneering journeys of Juan Bautista de Anza, who In 1775-76, led around 240 men, women, and children through New Spain to establish the first non-Native settlement at the San Francisco Bay.

There are many historic sites to see along the way in both Arizona and California. Along the way, you’ll learn about the stories of the expedition, gain a better understand the Native American cultures who provided guidance on the expedition, and better understand the influences that Spanish colonial settlements have in present-day Arizona and California.

To see a map of this long journey you can click here.

Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, Arizona
Photo by Bob Wick, BLM.

12. Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Lake Mead National Recreation Area straddles the border between Arizona and Utah is a vast and diverse recreation area offering a little bit of something for everyone.

With two lakes, Lake Mead and Lake Mojave, the site offers some of the best sport fishing in the US along with boating and other water activities like kayaking, canoeing, and water skiing. And if you’re feeling a bit bold, there’s also excursions through the national water trail, Black Canyon.

You can also get going in your car on one of the many scenic drives in the park. There’s plenty of places to hike as well though note that temperatures can get to 120ºF in the summer even in the shade! So make sure you pick a good time of year (anytime but summer) to get your hiking fix.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area 3
Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Photo by Travel Nevada.

13. Montezuma Castle National Monument

This place was one of the four original US national monuments and gained its status via a declaration in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. The monument houses well-preserved dwellings from the Sinagua people, a pre-Columbian that existed here between approximately 1100 and 1425AD.

The name Montezuma Castle is a bit misleading, though. When European-Americans first discovered the site in the 1860s, they named the ruins after the famous Aztec emperor Montezuma since they mistakenly believed he shared a connection to the dwellings.

And this wasn’t exactly a castle but more of a “prehistoric high rise apartment complex.” Still, it’s one of the best-preserved ruins in the region and worth a visit.

Montezuma Castle National Monument
Photo by Matt Kowalczyk.

14. Navajo National Monument

Navajo National Monument preserves the sandstone remains of villages built by prehistoric Puebloan Ancestors, which date from 1250AD to 1300AD.  Today, the monument is home to three well-preserved cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloan People: Broken Pottery (Kitsʼiil), Ledge House (Bitátʼahkin), and Inscription House

Broken Pottery and Ledge House are two structures worth checking (look into free ranger-led tours). Both structures were constructed of sandstone, mud mortar, and wood. Some of these have remained completely unchanged for 700 years, a testament to how skillful these prehistoric people were. They were also incredibly resourceful as they thrived in a high desert environment, where they hunted wild game and grew corn, beans, and squash.

Betatakin Talastima - Navajo National Monument
A look at the Ledge House. Photo by Al_HikesAZ.

15. Old Spanish National Historic Trail

Old Spanish National Historic Trail will take you through several states including: AZ, CA, CO, NV, NM, UT. It follows along the Old Spanish National Historic Trail between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Los Angeles, California. Take a look at some of the route maps here.

You’ll cross over 40 sites where you can get your national parks passport book stamped. Obviously this isn’t a hike that you’re just going to take on a whim but it’s one of the most historic trails in the American Southwest and worth looking into if you’re into long-distance hiking and camping.

Old Spanish Trail, Mission San Gabriel, San Gabriel, California
Photo by Ken Lund.

16. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is located at the extreme southern end of Arizona and shares a border with the Mexican state of Sonora. It is the only place in the US where the organ pipe cactus grows wild. Organ Pipe Cactus are fascinating plants and can live to be over 150 years old, and they produce their first flower near the age of 35.

The park is known for being a UNESCO biosphere reserve. That status has helped preserve pristine ecosystems all around the world and attracted scientists from around the world to Organ Pipe Cactus who have helped us better understand the Sonoran Desert along with the impact humans have made on this landscape.

Scenic drives are very popular at this park and there are a hand full to choose from. The most popular drive is the 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive with the Puerto Blanco Drive coming in a close second. There are also many hiking trails, which range from easy to strenuous that you can choose from.

Organ Pipe Cactus NM
Photo by Christopher Rosenberger.

17. Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument

Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument is truly an off the grid experience. It’s a very remote site where you won’t have cell phone service, paved roads, and other luxuries you take for granted each day.

The monument is found on the northern edge of the Grand Canyon. If you have a high clearance 4×4 vehicle, you can explore its beautiful scenic drives, some of which will take you through southern Utah and to some stunning Grand Canyon overlooks. Other sites you might come across are volcanoes, Native American petroglyphs, cattle and cowboy line shacks, and historic schoolhouses.

The monument also boasts some of the best conditions for viewing the night sky. The combination of a lack of light pollution, clear skies, and high elevation plateaus earned this site Gold-tier status from the International Dark-Sky Association.

#conservationlands15 Social Media Takeover, Feb 15th, BLM Winter Bucket List, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in Arizona for Its Dark Sky Park Status
Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in Arizona. Photo by BLM.

18. Pipe Spring National Monument

Pipe Spring National Monument is a national monument known for being rich with American Indian, early explorer, and Mormon pioneer history. The water found at this desert oasis supported life dating back to the Ancestral Puebloans and Kaibab Paiute Indians, who lived off the spring for at least a thousand years.

The monument will educate you on pioneer and Kaibab Paiute life by allowing you to explore its museum, historic fort and cabins, garden, orchard, and Ridge Trail. You can look into things like the daily tours of Winsor Castle, “living history” demonstrations during summer, and a half-mile trail that offers a look into the American Indian and pioneer life as it existed in the Old West.

East Cabin
The East Cabin. Photo by Wayne Hsieh.

Final word on Arizona national parks

As you can tell, there’s no shortage of interesting things to see and learn about at Arizona national parks. Because some of these parks and monuments are clustered together, it makes sense to go in with a plan to visit these together and often makes sense to go with the annual pass for $80 to save money.

16 Best National Parks in Texas & Things to Do [2022]

Texas is a vast and open place that can take 14 hours to make your way through on the highway, and I know this all too well as a native Texan. But Texas is also home to quite a few national park sites, many of which other people don’t know about. Here’s a quick guide to National Parks in Texas.

How many national parks are in Texas?

There are two national parks in Texas (Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains National Park) but a total of sixteen National Park sites in Texas when including sites, such as national monuments and national historic sites.

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Map of national parks in Texas

The two official national parks in Texas are located in far west Texas as you can see in the map. Guadalupe Mountains national park is on the border of Texas and New Mexico while Big Bend National Park is in the “bend” of Texas right on the border of Texas and Mexico.

However, when it comes to the national park sites, they are are spread all over the state. Located at just about every corner of Texas you’ll find a national park site.

Map of national parks in Texas
Map of national parks in Texas. Map via the NPS.

Texas national park pass?

There is no national park pass specific to Texas national parks. Instead, you can look into purchasing the national park annual pass which will give you access to all national parks and many other federal lands for the span of a year. (There is a separate annual pass for Texas state parks you can look into.)

So with that information out of the way, here are the national parks in Texas you came to find out more about.

Related: REI Co-op World Elite Mastercard Review

1. Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is one of the most famous national parks in Texas but it’s still one of the lesser-known national parks due to its remote location. But its remoteness is also a major perk of this national park because that often means less crowds and little to no light pollution, as Big Bend National Park has some of the darkest skies in the US.

There are a lot of things that you can do in Big Bend National Park.

Big Bend is known for The Window which can be admired from afar or explored via a trail. If you stay at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, you’ll be about 30 seconds from the viewpoint for the Window, which is one of the best places I’ve ever viewed a sunset from.

Another top thing to do is to explore the Santa Elena Canyon. The Rio Grande cuts through these jaw-dropping canyon walls that rise up to 1,500 feet. It’s an extremely impressive sight and at the right time of year you can explore the river via kayak, tubes, or some other adventurous route. It’s a must-do at Big Bend National Park. You can also find hot spring near the Santa Elena Canyon!

National Park in Texas -- Big Bend.
The Window at Big Bend National Park.

2. Guadalupe Mountains National Park

When it comes to national parks in Texas, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is definitely one of the least known parks in the state. It doesn’t get the attention of Big Bend but it still has a lot to offer.

One of the coolest features of this park is that it’s home to the four highest peaks in the state of Texas and also the most extensive Permian fossil reef.

It is also one of the few places in Texas where you can witness dramatic color change mid-October through mid-November. (Lost Maples State Park is probably the prime location for color change in Texas.)

As far as hiking goes, you’ve got several options including Devil’s Hall Trail, Smith Spring Loop, McKittrick Canyon Trail, and Guadalupe Peak Trail.

Guadalupe Peak Trail is the trail that will take you to the tip of Texas — Guadalupe Peak. This is a 8.5 mile round-trip hike that requires about 6-8 hours. This can be a brutal hike during high temperatures and requires some scrambling at the end, so you want to have some experience before attempting this hike (it’s rated as strenuous).

The peak is 8,751 feet above sea level so we’re not talking about Rocky Mountain peaks here but with a 3,000 foot gain in elevation and some steep terrain, this isn’t exactly a beginner hike either.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Photo by Thomas Shahan.

More national parks in Texas

Big Bend National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park are the only two true national parks in Texas. However, there are many more National Park sites in Texas.

These National Parks in Texas are a mix of national monuments, recreation areas, preserves, memorials, trails, historical parks. Each has a lot of unique appeal and history to offer but I’ll just provide the tip of the iceberg for these destinations.

3. Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument (Fritch, TX)

If you’re into geology then you’ll love this place.

The multitude of colors found at the Alibates Flint Quarries are caused by trace mineral elements within the silica found in the silicified dolomite. The red, orange and yellow colors are caused by iron, while the blues and greens are typically a product of manganese.

Scientists hypothesize that the colorful flint here originated roughly 670,000 years ago when volcanic eruptions all the way from Yellowstone Country in Wyoming spewed silica rich ash that drifted over. After the ash mixed with rainwater and the silica dissolved and dolomite washed out, the flint was left over. 

13,000 years ago mammoth hunters used this area to find stones to build their hunting tools. From 1100 A.D. to 1500 A.D, the Antelope Creek people called this place home and today you can still find their petroglyphs when taking the ranger-guided hike to the village site.

The Alibates Visitor Center also has interesting exhibits to discover that reveal more about this place’s history.

Yucca stalks along trail
Photo by Roy Luck.

4. Amistad National Recreation Area (Del Rio, TX)

Amistad National Recreation Area consists of the US portion of the International Amistad Reservoir and its name derives from the Spanish word meaning “friendship.” This site is known for its water-based recreation (boating, fishing, etc.), camping, hiking, rock art, and rich cultural history.

And with its clear waters, you can even SCUBA dive here with visibility in the winter at maximum of 40-50 feet. There’s actually an extensive network of underwater caverns that can be explored while scuba diving but those are reserved for technical divers given the risks involved.

Due to it’s location, the site receives unpredictable weather. Some years it might only receive a few inches of rain while other years it can receive an entire year’s worth of rain from a single storm. Humid air often blows in from the Gulf of Mexico during the mornings but by afternoon that humid air burns off and gives way to more desert like, dry air.

In the fall (right after the first major cold front, usually in October), Amistad National Recreation Area is a hot spot for monarch butterflies which pass through as part of their 3,000 miles migration that begins in southern Canada and runs through central Mexico.

Pecos Panorama
Amistad National Recreation Area. Photo by BFS Man.

5. Big Thicket National Preserve (Beaumont, TX)

Added in 1981 to the list of International Biosphere Reserves, multiple habitats converge at this national preserve in southeast Texas. There’s an incredible diversity of life here which can be discovered via hiking trails or exploring creeks, bayous, and the Neches River via kayak.

You’ll be able to make your way through nine different ecosystems, from longleaf pine forests to cypress-lined bayous with plenty of opportunities to see wildlife.

Wildlife includes bald eagles, alligators, mountain lions, foxes, otters, and coyotes, among many others. Black bears were common here once upon a time but over-hunting drove them out. Fortunately, many speculate that a species of black bear might be making a come back in the Big Thicket, utilizing the large hollow trees for dens.

Big Thicket is also home to one of the most well-known ghost stories of Texas. There’s a dirt road known as Bragg Road, which was constructed back in the 1930s over a former railroad line. Beginning in the 1940s, stories started to circulate about the a myserteous light known as the “Light of Saratoga” that could be seen on the road.

People have linked the ghost stories to the Kaiser Burnout, conquistadors looking for their buried treasure, and even a a decapitated railroad worker, but others insist on more natural explanations like the swamp gas or vehicle headlights to explain the lights.

Trailhead for Kirby Nature Trail
Photo by J. Stephen Conn.

6. Chamizal National Memorial (El Paso, TX)

These grounds serve a reminder of the reminder of the “harmonious settlement of a 100-year border dispute between the United States and Mexico.” The monument commemorate the Chamizal Convention of 1963, which was a treaty that ended a long-lasting border dispute between the U.S. and Mexico.

The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo originally established the border between the US and Mexico along the Rio Grande. But over the span of decades, flood and meandering currents pushed the Rio Grande further south which created pockets like “Cordova Island” which were areas of Mexico that ended up north of Rio Grande.

These areas were not patrolled properly and crime and smuggling became a major problem in these spots. As cities along the Rio Grande grew, the need for a clear resolution along the border grew more dire, and eventually Presidents John F. Kennedy and Adolfo López Mateos agreed on confining the river to a concrete channel in 1963.

Today, the monument is home to the The Nuevo Siglo Drama Festival which runs for a week in April and is a prime site to learn about the “larger story of the borderlands and the shared history of the United States and Mexico.”

Chamizal National Memorial
Photo by Jasperdo.

7. El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail (TX & LA)

This trail is 2,500 miles long and you can trace back the steps of some of the early settlers that explored this region and learn about the original natives who called this place home, including the Caddo people.

The Caddo people were early inhabitants of Texas and surrounding states of Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The Caddo are different from most other American Indian groups that lived in Texas because they lived and thrived in the same forested landscapes for over 1,000 years. They left behind mounds which were used for the burial of the elite and as building platforms for structures used by the elite.

At their height, around 1300, some estimate that the Caddo numbered more than 200,000 people. But by 1350, droughts diminished corn production which was the crop largely relied on by the Caddo and the population declined, as many dispersed throughout the region.

When Europeans first arrived in the region, they discovered the well-traversed trails built by the Caddo and the Spanish built missions and posts along the main trails. These collectively became known as “El Camino Real de los Tejas” which is now commemorated with the national historic trail.

Caddo burial mound
Caddo mounds near near Weeping Mary TX. Photo by Keith Ewing.

8. El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail (NM,TX)

The El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail allows you relive 300 years of heritage and culture in the Southwest. The trail is home to 20 other National Park sites so you can fill up that national park passport as quickly as you can.

El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail
Photo by uıɐɾ ʞ ʇɐɯɐs.

Before Europeans arrived in the Southwestern United States, American Indian groups had established trade routes along the route of this trail with some portions being established around 1000 AD. When the Spanish first came to the region in the early 1500s, the American Indians guided them through the challenging landscape. Sometimes the Spanish even relied on their captive natives to guide them to safety when lost in the wilderness.

This was a grueling trail for the Spanish who would spend 6 months making their way north through some very harsh terrain like the crossing of the Jornada del Muerto, which consisted of a hundred kilometers of open desert with practically no way to hydrate in between.

For about 300 years, El Camino Real was the only wagon road into New Mexico and the Southwest. This made it a busy path for thousands of colonists, missionaries and supply caravans from Southern New Spain that “facilitated the introduction of horses, cattle, European agriculture and irrigation systems, exotic flora, and many cultural practices.”

You can get a sense of the signifance of this route today by visiting some of the key landmarks along the trail like the Pecos National Historical Park near Santa Fe, NM and Keystone Heritage Park in El Paso, TX which both preserve remains of early American Indian cultures in the Southwest.

El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail
El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail. Map via Wiki.

9. Fort Davis National Historic Site (Fort Davis, TX)

Fort Davis is known as being “one of the best surviving examples of an Indian Wars’ frontier military post in the Southwest.” From 1854 to 1891, Fort Davis protected “emigrants, mail coaches, and freight wagons on the Trans-Pecos portion of the San Antonio-El Paso Road and on the Chihuahua Trail” and thus played a major roll in the development of the Southwest.

Fort Davis National Historic Site_credit James D. Nations_NPCA
Fort Davis National Historic Site. Photo by NPCA Photos.

Fort Davis was created to protect travelers on the San Antonio-El Paso Road. In the early 1850s, the California gold rush spurred an increase in traffic along this way but the the route was plagued by raids from the Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache, so Fort Davis created a military presence along the way.

The open areas of land were so vast in this region that Fort Davis ultimately didn’t do much to keep attacks off. The troops engaged in many scouting patrols but encounters with the natives were rare. In fact, many troops commented on how boring life at Fort Davis was. Eventually, they found ways for entertainment by heading to a nearby bass lake, putting on theatrical plays, and even having weekly horse races.

They also turned to gardening here where they reportedly grew cabbages that weighed 35 pounds and celery four feet long. Something else interesting about Fort Davis is that they imported camels from the Middle East, which were better equipped than mules and horses to carry large loads in the dry lands. Although the camels were very popular, they were no longer used after the Civil War broke out.

Fort Davis is the highest town in Texas at 5,050 feet and has a population just over 1,200. There are a number of ways to explore this place like hiking or doing a self-quided tour of the five buildings that are restored and refurnished to the 1880s or exploring the other 100 ruins. You can also look into the annual night tour in October.

10. Lake Meredith National Recreation Area  (Fritch, TX)

This national park in Texas is a hidden oasis located in the Texas Panhandle. It’s home to stunning 200-foot canyons where the Canadian River flows and is another site where humans roamed 13,000 years ago. You can camp, hike, fish, and find plenty of other ways to enjoy this place.

Hiking Around Lake Meredith
Lake Meredith National Recreation Area. Photo by sarowen.

11. Lyndon B Johnson National Historic Park  (Johnson City, TX)

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park “tells the story of our 36th President beginning with his ancestors until his final resting place on his beloved LBJ Ranch.” You’ll get the entire picture of his life and come away with a deeper understanding of perhaps any US president when visiting this place. There’s a lot to see including the former president’s car collection.

Related: LBJ Ranch Review (What to See) 

The LBJ Ranch Drive
LBJ National Historical Park Ranch Drive. Photo by Jimmy Emerson, DVM.

12. Padre Island National Seashore (Corpus Christi, TX)

This Seashore is known for being the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world! Padre Island National Seashore also separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre, which is one of a few hypersaline lagoons on the globe.

You can relax on the beach, go kayaking, or even attend a seat turtle release.

Turtle release at Padre Island National Seashore. at Photo by Terry Ross.

13. Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park (Brownsville, TX)

In 1846 the US and Mexico battled at Palo Alto, which ultimately became one of the most significant battles in the region’s history and ultimately changed the map of North American. “Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park preserves the site of this notable battle and provides an understanding of the causes, events, and consequences of the U.S.-Mexican War.”

Don’t get this confused with Palo Duro State Park which is about 11 hours north of this historical park!

Palo Alto Battlefield NHP
Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park. Photo by Brian Henderson.

14. Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River (Southwest Texas, TX)

The Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River extends about 200 miles in the bend of Texas as you can see in the map below. Designation as a Wild & Scenic River means the rivers are to be preserved in their free-flowing condition with their ecosystems actively protected in their natural state. Only about 2% of the rivers in the U.S. are free-flowing and pristine enough to qualify for Wild and Scenic designation.

Within these parts you can experience rapids ranging from class II to class IV and some of the most dramatic and remote canyon scenery in the country. 

Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River
Map via NPS.

One of the most popular things to do in this area is to kayak or float the Rio Grande through one of the spectacular canyons. These trips can last for a day or even up to a couple of weeks depending on the route that you choose. So obviously, you’ll want to make sure that you make ample preparations for the trip. Most people choose between Boquillas Canyon, the Lower Canyons, or Mariscal Canyon. Each canyon offers its own perks and which canyon is best for you depends on your experience and comfort levels with navigating rivers.

The Rio Grande, Texas-Mexico
Photo by Tom Driggers.

15. San Antonio Missions National Historical Park (San Antonio, TX)

There are four missions in this National Park and there are 10 miles of trail that connect extend north to The Alamo, some of which you can hike or bike on. You’ll learn all about the history of the people that occupied this region for thousands of years and the role that these Missions played in their survival.

Mission San Jose
Photo by CameliaTWU.

16. Waco Mammoth National Monument (Waco, TX)

This National Monument is a newcomer after President Obama designated in a national monument in 2015. According the NPS, “[t]his paleontological site represents the nation’s only recorded discovery of a nursery herd of Columbian mammoths.”

This site allows you to  view “in situ” fossils which include a “female mammoths, a bull mammoth, and a camel that lived approximately 67,000 years ago.”

Waco Mammoth National Monument
Waco Mammoth National Monument. Photo by Rockin’Rita. Image via Flickr.

Final word on national parks in Texas

As you can tell there are quite a few national parks in Texas. While there are only two “true” national parks in Texas there are many national parks sites where you can explore all of the different types of wildlife, ecosystems, and rich geological and cultural history of the region. Some of these sites may take some time to get to but exploring the wide open plains, hills, and coastlines of Texas is a trip just about anyone should try.

Saguaro National Park: East vs West Compared

Saguaro National Park is home to the iconic Saguaro cactus and one of the best parks in Arizona. It’s divided into two sections: the East District (Rincon Mountain District) and the West District (Tucson Mountain District). Both have a lot to offer but also have some unique pros and cons.

In this article, I will give you a detailed comparison between the two Saguaro National Park districts and highlight some of the strong points of each park.

Location & admission

Saguaro National Park straddles the city of Tucson, Arizona and is divided into two distinct districts:

  • Saguaro National Park East District (Rincon Mountain District)
  • Saguaro National Park West District (Tucson Mountain District)

If you are traveling to both of these park districts, it will take you about one hour to get between the two.

Also note that if you get admission into one park, it will be good for the other as well. A weekly pass for a vehicle will cost you $25 although you can always buy an annual pass for Saguaro National Park ($45) or for all national parks ($80).

The East district feels a little bit more contained located just on the outskirts of the city suburbs not far from neighborhoods. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though as you can quickly get to some nice restaurants like Saguaro Corners and enjoy a nice juicy burger or delicious Mac-n-Cheese. 

Meanwhile, the West district feels much more removed from civilization and tucked into true wilderness. I enjoyed the drive into the West district more, as I found it much more scenic and more remote. 

View heading in from the West District.
View heading in from the West District.

The West District is also close to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Old Tucson — two very popular attractions for visitors.

Size and elevation

Saguaro National Park East is nearly three times as big as the West district. The Saguaro National Park East District acreage is 66,947 and Saguaro National Park West District is 24,498 acres. 

The East also has a much higher elevation point with Mica Mt at 8,666ft compared to the West’s highest point: Wasson Peak at 4,687ft.

This allows the East to have a much more diverse range of vegetation and wildlife at higher altitudes. So you can find vegetation like oak, pine, and mixed conifer forest and even encounter wildlife like coati, black bears, and spotted owls in the East.

Saguaro National Park Scenic drives

Both the East and West district both have scenic loop drives but there are some big differences.

The scenic drive in the East district (Cactus Forest Drive) is on an 8-mile paved, one-way loop and has several view points with interpretive panels.

Scenery on the Cactus Forest Drive.

The road is a little windy at times but easy to follow and fun to make your way through. It’s also a very popular biking route, so watch out for cyclists although they do have a designated biking lane.

It should take you at least 35 minutes to loop around but you want to give yourself more time than that to stop at some of the overlooks and check out the interpretive panels.

If you’d like to do a quick hike on a paved way you can look into the Desert Ecology Trail.

The scenic drive in the East district (Cactus Forest Drive).

The Javelina Rocks area is toward the end of Cactus Forest Drive and it’s a great spot to stop at and explore. Here, you will find some large boulders to climb up on that offer exceptional views for a sunset.

Javelina Rocks overlook.

The Loop Drive of the West District (Bajada Loop Drive) is on a five-mile graded dirt road and is mostly one-way. This loop drive is shorter than the one above and feels less developed.

It’s not as clear-cut as to where to go since there are multiple roads, but just follow Hohokam Road to Golden Gate Road and then turn left and you’ll be fine.

The loop will likely take you around 25 minutes but again you will want to allocate more time if you’d like to stop and check out the views. 

Bajada Loop Drive.

I do not recall seeing many if any lookout points with interpretive panels but there are some fantastic views. I also felt like the higher concentration of cactuses in this park is very noticeable on the scenic loop.

The gravel road Hohokam Road.

Overall, both scenic drives are worth doing because they each have a little bit of something different to offer.

Saguaro cacti

Both of these parks will offer you plenty of opportunities to admire the amazing Saguaro cactus.

But if you really want to get up close and personal with these, I would go to the West district because the West district has a higher concentration of Saguaro cactus.

A great and easy hike to consider is the Overlook Trail which is only about .8 miles there and back. It has minimal changes in elevation and would be a great hike to view a sunset (the trail also has tons of interpretive panels and is well-maintained).

Interestingly, the cactuses are older in the East District. I’m not sure why that is but if you know drop a note in the comments below.

Overlook Trail.


The East district is going to offer you much more extensive hiking with 128 miles of hiking trails, including multiple back country opportunities.

On the other hand, the West district only has 43 miles of hiking trails.

I would suggest that you pick up a hiking pamphlet which will break down many of the hikes for you in the park. I found it very helpful so don’t forget to grab one of those at the visitor center. Read more about hiking here. 

Speaking of the visitor center, both visitor centers were closed when I visited so I was not able to compare those.


When it comes to camping, the East district has six backcountry sites (permits needed). Meanwhile, there is no camping offered in the West district. Most of the campgrounds are above 6,000 feet so they offer different vegetation and cooler climates to campers and hikers (all camp sites are not accessible by vehicles and must be hiked to).

This is great because as much as I love the desert, desert scenery only does so much for me after a while and it’s great to have the option to escape to higher altitudes where pine trees abound.

Picnic areas

The West area actually has more picnic areas (five) versus the East (two). So if you are into the picnic seen, then you might want to look into the West for more options. The picnic area located in the East district at Mica View has a cover on it so it is possible to picnic in the shade at some of these spots. 

Final word

Both of these parks are unique and beautiful places to visit. I think that most visitors should try to get out to both parks and check them out if they can. Personally, I prefer the West park simply because I enjoyed the high concentration of cactus and felt like it was more remote. 

18 Best National Parks in New Mexico (Things to Do) [2022]

New Mexico is filled with some stunning national parks and monuments that you don’t want to miss.

With such a varied landscape and unique history you’ll find a little bit of everything in New Mexico, including ruins, canyons, and all sorts of wildlife and plant life.

Here’s a breakdown of what you can expect when visiting the best national parks in New Mexico and some tips for things to do to help you plan your visit.

You might also be interested in checking out national parks in Arizona

Tip: Use the free app WalletFlo to help you travel the world for free by finding the best travel credit cards and promotions!

Why visit national parks in New Mexico?

When most people think of the most iconic national parks in the United States, the first thing that comes to mind are those massive granite stone walls of Yosemite National Park in California, the landscape of 14,000 foot peaks that dominate the horizon at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, or those herds of buffalo wandering through the steaming landscape of Yellowstone National park in Wyoming.

While the best known national parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Rocky Mountains and others are certainly impressive, there are also certain drawbacks that come with limiting your summer vacation to those postcard-worthy parks.

At Yosemite, you will most likely have to wait in line at Tunnel View to get that breathtaking picture of Yosemite Valley. At Yellowstone, you actually have to make an appointment to see the geyser Old Faithful erupt, and the magic of those 14,000 foot peaks at Colorado´s Rocky Mountain National Park seem a bit less enchanted when you have to share the summit with hundreds of other hikers.

Especially during the summer months, the most well-known national parks can become tourist traps as thousands of hikers, campers, backpackers and picture-takers descend upon these areas. If you are the type of person looking for a bit of solitude and wilderness when visiting the Great Outdoors, it might be best to visit the most popular national parks in the spring or fall when you will not have to compete with summer crowds.

If, however, you are looking for a great vacation spot where you can experience some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes our country has to offer without having to endure the music of your teenage campground neighbors, New Mexico might very well be the place for you.

As the sixth least densely populated state in the country at 17.2 people per square mile, New Mexico has a lot of land and not a lot of people. What´s more impressive is that unlike other sparsely populated states like North and South Dakota, almost every square mile of New Mexico is picture worthy and filled with adventure and countless things to do.

Below, we offer a complete rundown of the national parks, wilderness areas, national monuments and state parks in the state of New Mexico. As you´ll see, whether you are into exploring the gorges, mountains and valleys of the Colorado Plateau or exploring the colonial-era architecture of the desert southwest, New Mexico surely has something to offer for everyone.

Distribution of National and State Parks and other Protected Areas across the State

As we mentioned above, one of the most impressive aspects of New Mexico is that it has an incredibly diverse geography.

The eastern part of the state that borders Texas is dominated by the Great Plains of the Midwestern part of the United States. While the land is not quite as flat as Kansas and Nebraska, here you will find landscapes where you can see into the horizon as far as the eye can see.

In the northeast corner of New Mexico, you will find the Capulin Volcano, an extinct cinder cone that can help you imagine the volcanic past of much of the western parts of the United States.

Much of the southern part of the state is characteristic of the dry, desert landscape that is most often associated with the southwest part of the United States. In southern New Mexico, you will also find two of the most interesting national parks that we will look at in more detail below: White Sands National Park and Carlsbad Caverns.

The center of the state is where the two largest cities are located, Santa Fe and Albuquerque along with several unique national historical areas that we will explore below.

For nature lovers, the northern and western part of the state is where you can find an abundance of outdoor activities, including opportunities to hike, camp, and explore the natural world. Geographically, the Colorado mountain range swoops south of Colorado and covers much of the northern and western part of the state.

The Sangre de Cristo mountain range along with the Zuni Mountains offer rugged and tree-lined peaks with an abundance of rivers and wildlife. As you venture farther south, the Black Range, and the rugged Guadeloupe, Mongollon, Sacramento and San Andres Mountains continue the mountainous landscape, though the land is notably drier and more desert-like.

The Rio Grande River, most known as the natural boundary that separates Mexico from the United States, actually springs from the snowmelt of the mountains of southern Colorado and runs through much of the state of New Mexico before reaching the border with Mexico.

The Gila, Pecos, and the Canadian rivers are also major bodies of flowing water that helped to form over millennia the unique topography of the state of New Mexico.

Map of National Parks and Protected Areas in New Mexico

All in all New Mexico has New Mexico has one national park (Carlsbad Caverns), one national heritage area (Northern Rio Grande), two national historical parks (Chaco Culture, Pecos), 12 national monuments, and an astounding 35 state parks that are less visited, though not any less impressive.

If you are planning a trip to New Mexico, the best way to start planning out a route, is with this map of national parks and monuments offered by the National Park Service.

You can also find a list and description of all 35 state parks here.

For people interested in hiking and backpacking, an interactive map of the top 25 hiking and backpacking trails can be found here.

Map of National Parks in New Mexico
Map of National Parks in New Mexico.

Park Pass for New Mexico Parks

Many travelers interested in exploring the national parks and monuments across our country opt for purchasing a flat fee annual national park pass.

This will allow you multiple entries into the national parks across the country for up to a year. Since New Mexico only has one national park, this might not be the best option for your New Mexico adventure.

However, the New Mexico state government has a couple of great offers for visiting their state parks.

If you are not into camping but still want to visit several of the magnificent state parks, the annual day-use pass only costs $40 for 12 months. Furthermore, an annual camping permit valid in all of the state parks costs only $180 for New Mexico residents and $225 for people who live out of state.

If you are planning to camp for more than a couple of nights, you can most likely save some serious money through signing up for the annual camping permit. Furthermore, you can plan repeat trips throughout the year knowing that your camping costs are already covered.

You can find out more information about the passes available for New Mexico state parks here.

Below, we offer in-depth reviews and guides of everything to do at the top national parks and monuments in the state of New Mexico.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

The Aztec Ruins National Monument located in the northwestern part of the state is a great place to learn about the Native American history that is an essential part of the history of the region. This site preserves ancient structures and housing of the Pueblo indigenous people.

Archaeologists believe that this archaeological area dates back to the 11th to 13th centuries.

While the Aztec name is erroneously based on the fact that early settlers mistakenly thought the ruins to be of Aztec origin, this is one of the few archaeological sites across the country that will allow you to travel back and time and see how Native American populations actually lived.

Due to the unique climate, the original timber can still be seen in many of the dwellings. If you look closely, you might even be able to find the fingerprints of the masons that worked on the Great House that contains over 400 rooms.

The Aztec West Trail is a short half-mile hike that will allow you to journey back into time.

Aztec Ruins National Monument. Photo by Jasperdo. Image via Flickr.

Bandelier National Monument

Another great national monument to learn about the history of the Puebloan people is Bandelier National Monument.

This national protected areas has over 33,000 acres and over 70 miles of hiking trails that allow you to discover ancient Pueblo structures that date back to the 1100s. Furthermore, since the monument is located on the Pajarito Plateau on the slopes of the ancient Jemez Volcanic field, over 70 percent of the park is recognized wilderness areas. The Cerro Grande Mountain is over 10,000 feet high while the river front along the Rio Grande is only 5,000 feet.

This extreme change in elevation allows you to explore different climatic regions and wildlife zones as you wander through the intricate net of hiking trails.

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Bandelier National Monument
Bandelier National Monument. Photo by NPS. Image via Flickr.

Capulin Volcano National Monument

What? Volcanoes in New Mexico.

Though most people associate volcanoes with the Pacific Northwest or Hawaii, the Capulin Volcano National Monument in northeastern New Mexico that allows people to interpret the geologic history and find out how ancient volcanoes helped to shape the dramatic landscapes of the West.

This extinct cone volcano last erupted around 60,000 years ago, though you can easily see over 10 million years of geologic history with the help of one of the guides. A short hike to the top of the volcano will allow you to appreciate unobstructed views of the rolling grasslands to the east and the snow-capped peaks to the west.

Capulin Volcano
The imposing Capulin Volcano. Photo by Dr. Larry Crumpler

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

New Mexico´s lone national park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, is one that is not easily forgotten. Located in the Guadalupe Mountains in the extreme southeastern corner of the state, the Show Cave is the main attraction here.

You can either hike on your own through the natural entrance or take an elevator to the visitor’s center that is located in the main cave.

The Big Room is a massive underground limestone chamber that is almost a mile long, over 600 feet wide, and upwards of 250 feet high in some place… This makes in the fifth largest cave chamber in the country and certainly one of the most unique. The caves were originally carved out over millions of years by being underwater. However, as water levels receded, the caves are now about water level.

For adventure seekers, the Slaughter Canyon Cave tour allows you to spelunk into an underground wilderness without electricity.

Above ground, the Carlsbad Caverns national park also has three hiking trails. The nearby Rattlesnake Springs picnic area is a wooded riparian area in the desert meaning that you will find hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Photo by Aleksey Gnilenkov. Image via Flickr.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park

Another great way to learn about the Native American history of the state is through a visit to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. This park is located near Albuquerque and contains a huge variety of ruins of the Chaco culture. It is widely considered to be one of the most important pre-Columbine historical areas in the country.

Historians believe that the Chaco Canyon was a cultural hub for the Ancient Pueblo peoples. Here you can find 15 major architectural complexes. Furthermore, the Sun Dagger petroglyph allows you to take a glimpse into the astronomical knowledge of these indigenous cultures. Some of the ancient buildings were aligned according to both the lunar and solar cycles.

For history buffs, the park offers in-depth guided tours while the adventure seekers will enjoy the hiking and biking trails and opportunities to star gaze into the desert sky.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park. Photo by Travis. Image via Flickr.

El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro

This El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail follows a colonial “royal road” that was used by the Spaniards who originally colonized the area. This road originally began in Texas and extended all the way to where modern day Mexico City is located. While this trail traverses a large part of the state, one place you cannot miss is in downtown Albuquerque.

The Paseo del Bosque Trail is a beautiful hiking and biking trail located in the Rio Grande Valley State Park. This 16 mile paved trail will not only take you through the Cottonwood bottomland forest, but will also help you to imagine the ancient trade route used by indigenous populations and Spanish conquistadors for thousands of years.

El Malpais National Monument 

Literally meaning “the bad lands”, El Malpais National Monumentis characterized by a barren volcanic field that covers much of the park’s area. Here you can find ancient lava flows and signs of the region´s violent volcanic past.

The park also has two visitor´s centers with a wealth of information and several miles of hiking trails that allow you to explore the old cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and other unique geologic features. While much of the park is barren volcanic rock, there are also areas of grassy prairies and desert forests which is great for birdwatchers.

El Malpais National Monument. Photo by MN Photos. Image via Flickr.

El Morro National Monument

In northwest New Mexico, El Morro National Monument is located on an ancient east-west trail that used to connect Native American populations. While the trail is one attraction for people interested in the history of the region, the massive sandstone promontory with a beautiful pool of water at its base is what most people come to see.

This shaded oasis has been attracting people and travelers for thousands of years as thousand year petroglyphs and traveler signatures dating back to the 17th century can still be seen. A series of well-kept park trails allows you to explore the water pool, the Pueblo archaeological site, the top of the limestone promontory, and read through the thousands of signatures left at what some consider America´s oldest campground.

El Morro National Monument. Photo by KrisNM. Image via Flickr.

Fort Union National Monument

History is not always kind, and the colonization of the western part of the United States was characterized by a series of “Indian Wars” whose objective was to take over the lands of the Native American population that had lives there for centuries. The Fort Union National Monument allows visitors a peek into this difficult part of our history.

The site preserves a military fort that was built in 1851. The visitor´s center offers information about who lived at the fort and the battles that took place. A short trails also allows visitors to explore some of adobe ruins. Part of the Santa Fe Trail, a 19th century wagon trail used by pioneers heading west, can also be observed at this national monument.

Fort Union National Monument. Photo by Fred Moore. Image via Flickr.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument preserves two of the most prominent ruins of the ancient Mogollon peoples. Since the Gila Rivers was the lifeline for this ancient culture, the national monument is located in the absolutely beautiful countryside along this river. Deep canyons, shallow rivers, mesas and bluffs forested with resilient desert trees such as pinon pine and juniper make this a great place to explore.

The visitor´s center has a small museum that showcases artifacts found around the cliff dwellings that were inhabited for thousands of years, first by nomadic tribes and later more permanently by the Mogollon people. After you have visited the cliff dwellings, nearby hot springs along the Gila River should also be on your list of things to do.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Photo by Doc Johnny Bravo. Image via Flickr.

Manhattan National Historic Park

As we mentioned above, history has its dark side as well. The Manhattan National Historic Park was recently established as a way to preserve the memory of the people, events, science, and engineering that led to the creation of the atomic bomb.

Many people consider that the atomic bomb led to the end of the World War II, and the site in Los Alamos, New Mexico offers an educational tour to help visitors understand this complicated part of our national history where over 6,000 scientists worked during the 1930s and 1940s.

Old Spanish National Historic Trail

Old Spanish National Historic Trail used to connect northern New Mexico settlements such as Santa Fe with more populated areas farther west like Los Angeles.

The trail was over 700 miles long and passed through incredibly rough terrain, including mountains, deserts, and canyons. Many historians consider this to be the most difficult trade route ever established during the pioneering of the west.

Throughout New Mexico there are nearly 400 miles of the trail around three different routes. One of the best places to visit is the Armijo Route where NPS trail signs allow you to know where you´re exploring.

Pecos National Historic Park

Another great place to visit nearby the city of Santa Fe is the Pecos National Historic Park. From the historical angle, this park traverses several centuries of history. From prehistoric archaeological ruins of the Pueblo people to later ranches established by early pioneers to ta battlefield fought on during the Civil War, this park has a bit of history for everyone.

The Pecos Pueblos is by far the most impressive features as it offers a look into the rock-and-mud houses that made up a small town that was built around year AD 1100. Furthermore, the Forked Lightning Ranch showcases an early homestead of Tex Austin, one of the biggest names in the history of rodeos.

After the visiting the ruins, you will also want to make time to walk through the Glorieta Pass, a beautiful valley offering safe passage for travelers wanting to avoid the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for thousands of years.

Petroglyph National Monument

In the central part of the state, the Petroglyph National Monument is a place you won´t want to miss. Besides harboring five extinct volcanic cones, there are also over 24,000 petroglyphs carved into different rock faces around the region. While some of these carvings depict animals and people, others are harder to decipher, allowing your imagination to roam.

The National Monument has four main areas, including the Boca Negra Canyon, the Rinconada Canyon, the Piedras Marcadas Canyon, and the Volcano Day Use trails.

The Rinconada Canyon is our recommendation as this 2.2 mile desert hike allows you to discover upwards of 300 different petroglyphs scattered throughout the trails. The Boca Negra Canton area is more developed and less extreme of a hike, though still offering plenty of beautiful petroglyphs to ponder.

Petroglyph National Monument. Photo by Tony Cheng. Image via Flickr.

Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

New Mexico obviously has a strong connection to the Spanish Colonial past, and nowhere is that better seen that at the Salinas Pueblos Missions National Monument.

In the 1600s, Spanish missionaries established a mission to work with the Puebloan people that spoke the Tiwa and Tompiro languages. Today, this national monument offers the remnants of huge churches along with partially excavated ruins of the Gran Quivira pueblo.

Besides touring the mission structures, there are also guided petroglyph tours and great bird watching along the Spanish Corral Trail located in the Quarai part of the park.

Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. Photo by Jasperdo. Image via Flickr.

Santa Fe National Historic Trail

New Mexico was obviously located along important trade and migration routes as seen by the huge amount of national historic trails. The Santa Fe National Historic Trail was one of the earliest routes to the west that connected Santa Fe with the frontier town of Independence, Missouri. One of the most interesting parts of this trail from an historical perspective is the Fort Union National Monument mentioned above.

While this trail passed through five different states, the entranceway into Santa Fe, New Mexico was the end of an arduous journey.

Valles Caldera National Preserve

Who wouldn’t want to hike through the mouth of a 13.7 mile wide volcanic caldera?

The Valle Caldera National Preserve is located in the Jemez Mountains in the northern part of the state. Besides beautiful mountains, you can also find hot springs, fumaroles, gas seeps, and volcanic domes dominating the landscape.

This alternative to Yellowstone National Park lets people discover the volcanic nature of much of the western part of the United States that is literally boiling right beneath their feet.

One hike you will not want to miss is to Redondo Peak, an 11,253-foot resurgent lava dome that is entirely inside the caldera.

There are also grass valleys and prairies where wildlife is abundant. The huge valley was created by a massive volcanic eruption over a million years ago and today there are beautiful meandering streams that make this one of the best places in New Mexico to spot wildlife.

White Sands National Park

Lastly, we come to what many people consider to be New Mexico´s most impressive natural feature: the White Sands National Park. Among the 275 square miles of desert, you can find sparkling white sand dunes that invite you to come and roll around and hike through the barren but beautiful landscape.

Located in the mountain-ringed Tularosa Basin, the white sand is actually gypsum crystals. While this resource is usually dissolved by water, the desert landscape, over millions of years, has captured these crystals that erode from the nearby mountains, making this the largest type of gypsum dune in the world.

At White Sands, there is no shortage of things to do. The Nature Trail and the Playa Trail are short hikes that will introduce you to this unique area.

Furthermore, there are several backcountry biking trails worth exploring. If the heat is too much for you, Dunes Drive is an 8-mile backcountry road that will allow you to take in some of the breathtaking landscape.

Lastly, for real adventure seekers, backcountry permits are available for camping, allowing you to enjoy a once in a lifetime experience sleeping on crystal sand while enjoying the night sky that only the desert can offer.

White Sands National Monument. Photo by Dan. Image via Flickr.

Final Word

The 18 national parks and monuments reviewed above are only the top of the iceberg when it comes to New Mexico. There are also 35 state parks all with a unique charm.

If you are looking for an opportunity to avoid the summer crowds that are all too common at the most popular national parks while still enjoying the best that nature has to offer, New Mexico is a place unlike any else.

56 Most Beautiful Places in the USA (Must-See for Road Trips)

Planning a road trip or vacation to the USA and not sure what to check out?

Here’s a list of 56 of the most beautiful places in the (western) USA, spanning from Texas to California and all the way up to Washington Montana.

Many of these must-see places are not very well-known and you’ll be astonished by some of the dramatic canyons, beaches, and rivers you’ll come across. The biggest problem will be finding time to visit them all!

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1. The Narrows (Texas)

Along a 1,000-foot stretch of the Blanco River in the Texas Hill Country, huge cylindrical walls of light limestone — shrouded with bright green ferns growing at their base — hang forty feet above emerald pools of water that are interconnected through an underwater network of caverns.

This stunning canyon exposes a ancient coral reef and many fossils, such as tiny coral polyps and calyces can be spotted embedded in the canyon walls.  While it’s surrounded by private property, there are legal options open to the public to visit.

The Narrows - Blanco County
Photo by Ashton Brown Find more at www.TrekTexas.com
The Narrows - Blanco County
Photo by Jon Brandt Photography

2. Palo Duro Canyon State Park (Texas)

Located in the Texas Panhandle near the city of Amarillo, this vast and picturesque canyon is believed to be the second largest canyon in the entire United States behind the one and only, Grand Canyon.

It boasts some of the most dramatic red-rock scenery in Texas and was also home to the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon, which marked the end of the Red River War and the exodus of the Great Plains Indians in the region.

The Lighthouse Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Photo by Russell Bennett
Palo Duro Canyon
Photo by Pam Williams

3. Caprock Canyons State Park (Texas)

Home to more stunning red sandstone, this park is more known for its bison herd.  80 descendants of the Great Southern Bison Herd roam here and all because of the efforts of cattleman Charles Goodnight and his wife Mary Ann who decided to save the last remnants of the Plains bison herd in 1876.

Today, these bison roam in a semi-free ranging site, offering an encounter with these wild beasts usually only found at National Parks in Wyoming or the Dakotas.

Caprock Point South Prong Campground Caprock Canyons State Park
Photo by Russell Bennett

4. Monahans Sandhills State Park (Texas)

Monahans Sandhills is located along the former Comanche War Trail, which was a network of trails where skirmishes often broke out between the Apache and Comanche Indians as they fought to secure easily navigable terrain and precious natural resources.

Along with spectacular dunes, some up to 70 feet high, you can come across some of the Harvard Oak trees, which are trees that grow only to a couple of feet tall and produce giant acorns which were prized by Native Americans who once called this place home.

Evening on the Dunes
Photo by Gary Nored

5. Capulin Volcano National Monument (New Mexico)

The imposing green mountainsides of Capulin Volcano stand as a reminder of the violent volcanic processes that shaped New Mexico tens of thousands of years ago.

One of the natural wonders of New Mexico, it’s noted as being one of the most easily accessible volcanoes in North America.

From its summit, you can sometimes see as far as Kansas before the horizon finally falls beneath the earth’s curvature.  Just watch out for the swarms of hungered lady bugs who make their arrive back to the volcano  each summer!

Photo by Dr. Larry Crumpler

6. Chaco Culture National Historic Park (New Mexico)

The Chacoan built  large structures here which were called “great houses” and the complexes and were so big that many believe that they were the largest buildings in North America until the 1800’s — one even rivaled the size of the Coliseum in Rome.

Unlike other cultures of the time, the Chacoan planned these buildings from the start before any construction took place.

Such planning was necessary as some of these massive structures sometimes took decades and even centuries to complete.  Today, this World Heritage Site, which was once the primary hub for Native American civilizations of this region, still beckons for exploration.

Chaco - snow
Photo by Jacob W. Frank Find more at JWFrank.com
Photo by Bob Keller Find more at http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/1-bob-keller.html

7. Bisti Badlands Wilderness Area (New Mexico)

The Bisti Badlands, also known as “De-Na-Zin Wilderness,” is a vast 45,000-acre wilderness area in the high desert of the San Juan Basin in New Mexico.

Once an ancient river delta covered with lush vegetation some 70 million years ago, it’s now home to an array of fossils and otherworldly rock formations that were the backdrop of the 1977 film, Sorcerer.

Bisti Badlands Wilderness Area
Photo by Jordan Marsh Find more at jmarshphoto.com

8. Chiricahua National Monument (Arizona)

Standing erect like stone Terracotta Warriors, rows of towering grey pinnacles dominate green hillsides, each uniquely chiseled and sculpted into its own work of art at this place known as “The Wonderland of Rocks.”

Once the home to a tribe of Apache Indians known as the Chiricahua Band, these rocks formed by volcanic eruptions over 27 millions years ago come in wide-range of gravity-defying positions that will surely blow your mind.

Window to desert at Chiricahua National Monument
Photo by Viktor Posnov
The Big Balanced Rock at Chiricahua National Monument
Photo by Tina A. Thompson

9. Chocolate Falls/Grand Falls (Arizona)

After monsoons and heavy spring run-off, the cliffs here transform a mucky hazard into a spectacular cascading waterfall known as “Chocolate Falls” that will leave any chocolate lover in awe.

Chocolate Falls
Photo by Adam Schmid

10. Granite Dells (Arizona)

Billion-year old granite boulders rise like grey submarines from the middle of a lake at The Granite Dells in Prescott, Arizona.

Here, an assortment of exposed bedrock – formed by a geological process known as “spheroidal weathering” – flank the still reservoirs where pink clouds stretch across both sky and water at sunset.

Throughout the endless piles of prehistoric rocks, several trails climb and meander beside beautiful lakes, as there are no shortage of exploration opportunities at The Granite Dells.

Granite Dells
Photo by Michael Wilson

11. Waterfalls of Havasupai (Arizona)

Bright turquoise waters stream through red sandstone cliffs and pour over grand cascades at the Waterfalls of Havasupai, one of the best-kept secrets of the Grand Canyon.

Via a 10-mile hike, mule ride, or helicopter ride you can make your way to this gorgeous location and explore 5 different waterfalls, which pout into some of the brightest turquoise pools you’ve likely ever come across.

Havasu Falls II
Photo by Edwina Podemski Find more at www.clineriverphotography.com
Mooney Falls Havasupai Indian Reservation Arizona
Photo by Edwina Podemski Find more at www.clineriverphotography.com

12. White Pocket at Vermillion Cliffs National Monument (Arizona)

Swirls of red, yellow, and white drape the sides of this otherworldly creation, and on top, mounds of white caprock form an overhanging crest resembling cake frosting.

It’s the unmistakable and bewildering scenery found at White Pocket.  Geologists are still slightly baffled as to how these formations came to be and as you wander through the warped terrain it will be easy for you to see why.

White Pocket at Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. Photo by CEBImagery. Image via Flickr.

13. Cedar Breaks National Monument (Utah)

An assemblage of orange and white canyons, spires, and columns, contrasted with heavily forested ridgelines form a natural amphitheater that spans nearly 3 miles wide and rises to elevations above 10,000 feet.

Its cool mountain air is the perfect escape for visitors trying to get away from the summer heat and it’s also a great place to get up close with one of the oldest individually growing species of tree: the bristlecone pine, which can live for over 5,000 years.

Cedar Breaks National Monument
Photo by Colin Miller

14. Pando at Fish Lake National Forest (Utah)

Found at Fish Lake National Forest, this massive collection of 45,000-plus trees, while vast and beautiful, appears to be nothing more than a large grove of quaking aspens.

However, unbeknownst to the average observer, a complex network of underground root systems crawl through the soils, connecting these trees so that each “tree” is actually a “limb” of one exceptionally large organism.

In fact, this creature called “Pando,” is believed to be the largest organism on the face of planet Earth and likely at least 80,000 years old.

Pando at Fish Lake National Forest. Photo by Ken Lund. Image via Flickr.

15. The Subway in Zion National Park (Utah)

At around noon, the sun sits above the tall canyons at Zion National Park and casts its rays at just the right angle, bouncing yellow light off the Subway’s cylindrical walls and illuminating an otherwise gloomy cave in a way that begs for exploration.

The Subway, tucked away in the heart of the Zion Wilderness, is a natural wonder like no other place on the planet where you trek through brilliant cascades, a bubbling creek, and even dinosaur tracks on your to discover this natural wonder.

The subway zion national park
Photo by Eddie Lluisma

16. Factory Butte (Utah)

Although the lands stretching from Factory Butte’s pedestal are dominated by mud flats, badlands, and the kind of desolate topography that offers little hope for vegetation, a spectacular wildflower bloom occasionally carpets the desert floor in the spring and turns an otherwise barren desert landscape into a flourishing sight to behold.

And even if you don’t catch this amazing bloom that only occurs a couple of times a decade, the beautiful crumbling blueish-grey monoliths here are great photo opportunities themselves.

Factory Butte
Photo by Brandon Jolley
Factory Butte
Photo by Andy Magee

17. Fantasy Canyon (Utah)

Once covered by a large lake called Lake Uinta during the Eocene Epoch, this extremely delicate place, also known as “Nature’s China Shop,” is full of  intricately designed sandstone formations that span a 10 acre rock jungle full of dripping pinnacles, wafery hoodoos, and twisted hollows.

At sunset, this exceedingly delicate assortment of geological art awakens in glowing fashion to produce one of the most stunning natural creations in all of Utah.

Fantasy Canyon
Photo by Glenn Merrit

18. The Little Grand Canyon (Utah)

While not nearly as vast as the famous Grand Canyon in Arizona, the “LGC,” which is part of the San Rafael Swell, still impresses those who happen upon it and draws one in with its colorful cliffs and sweeping panoramic views.

This alien terrain bears such a resemblance to the planet Mars that the Mars Society actually set up a Mars Desert Research Station in the area. But whether your chasing Martians, stunning views, or ancient petroglyphs and pictographs this hidden gem won’t disappoint.

Wedge Overlook
Photo by Janice Gee

19. Homestead Caldera (Utah)

A large mineral-rock dome, the product of 10,000 years of mineral deposition, hangs 55 feet above the steamy blue waters of an active hot spring known as the Homestead Caldera. Staying a hot 90 to 96°F year round, these waters are the only place offering scuba diving opportunities in warm water inside the continental United States.

At the bottom of this hot spring, which reaches depths of 65 feet, numerous random objects have been pulled from a 25-foot thick layer  of sludge including many coins and even firearms.

Homestead Crater Utah
Photo by Daniel Jhong

20. Fly Ranch Geyser (Nevada)

Hot water, rich in minerals, spews from several small vents atop a large mound draped with clumps and streaks of yellow, orange, and red at this hidden gem found in the vast and isolated Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada.

You’d swear its origins were extraterrestrial, but surprisingly this was created back in 1964 when geothermal energy tests went awry forcing a powerful water source, along with dissolved minerals, to rise through the permeable soils and begin collecting on the ground surface until it developed into the structure it is today.

Fly Ranch Geyser
Photo © 2009 by George Post

21. Placer Cove/Nelson’s Landing (Nevada)

Placer Cove, also known as Nelson’s Landing, is a hidden gem in southern Nevada where thrill-seekers hurl themselves off the cliffs of a small cove and into the clear green waters of Lake Mohave.

For those not looking to take a plunge into the water, a picnic along many of the open banks of the cliffs or simply walking the area and taking in all the great views of the area’s fresh, pristine waters is also a solid option.

Placer Cove
Photo by Kevin Callaway, Las Vegas

22. Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area (Nevada)

Created by volcanic action millions of years ago, Sloan Canyon is home to so many petroglyphs that it’s been called the “Sistine Chapel” of Native American rock art. Archeologists believe that Paleo-Indians inhabited Sloan Canyon as far back as 7,000 years ago and think that Puebloans from the Archaic Era are responsible for most of the petroglyphs found here which total over 1,700 and are carved into over 300 charred panels of rock.

Sloan Canyon
Photo by Kevin Callaway, Las Vegas

23. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (California)

Wrinkled badlands span a jagged horizon, a rocky creek runs through a cluster of palm trees in a hidden oasis, and in the spring — millions of orange and purple petals overlay entire desert meadows. Such are the dramatic landscapes of Anza-Borrego State Park, the second largest state park in the continental United States.

An often overlooked state park in the Colorado Desert, it encompasses more than 600,000 acres and is home to one of California’s largest palm oasis and striking scenery.

Anza Borrego
Photo by Sameer Mundkur
Anza Borrego
Photo by Omar Bárcena

24. Carrizo Plains National Monument (California)

Located in an extremely remote area in California about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, the Carrizo Plain National Monument is a 246,812 acre area that makes up the largest single native grassland in California.

It’s home to a vast salt lake, a famous petroglyphs site, and most famous of all, brilliant wildflowers that burst into life and carpet the hillsides in resplendent colors of purple, yellow, and green.

This illustrious concentration of so many flowers on the slopes of Carizzo Plains led the famous outdoorsman, John Muir, to remark about this place that “one foot step would press about a hundred flowers.”

Carrizo Plain National Monument California
Photo by Ed Post

25. Heart Rock Trail (California)

Water babbles from a creek that runs along a dirt trail flush with Jeffrey pines, black oaks, and a rich panoply of mountain forest flora. At the end of this charming trail, a waterfall pours over a small rocky canyon where an almost perfectly symmetrical heart-shaped rock forms a small pool.

Found in the Valley of Enchantment in Southern California, the Heart Rock Trail is only about one mile round trip and involves very little elevation gain, making it a great choice for families, beginner hikers, and of course couples looking for a less strenuous alternative for exploring California’s beautiful San Bernardino Mountains.

The Heart at Heart rock trail
Photo by Arnie Greif

26. Fossil Falls (California)

The name Fossil Falls is a little misleading because you won’t find any “falls” and the place isn’t exactly a hotbed for fossils. However, rest assured, the volcanic landscape here doesn’t disappoint. Polished clumps of charcoal-colored basalt form a canyon which from afar, appears to be nothing more than a messy pile of rocks.

Yet, suddenly, as you move closer through the piles of vast geological history, a sculpted work of art emerges. Patches of brush dot the top of the canyon and as you peer into the gorge, you find murky green ponds settled into deep pits along its mysterious canyon floor.

It’s a rare setting that’s made even more photogenic by the backdrop of snow-capped mountains and a deep red cinder cone, known locally as “Red Hill,” that towers formidably nearby.

Red Hill Ice Playa
Photo by Dave Weber

27. The Seven Teacups at Sequoia National Forest (California)

Snowmelt waters originating from high in the Sierras tumble down a staircase of seven circular pools carved into a steep granite canyon in Sequoia National Forest. Known as the Seven Teacups and frequented by canyoneering and kayaking adventurers alike, these treacherous waterfalls spill at heights ranging from 6 to 40 feet.

Their strong currents not to be taken lightly, the Teacups can be an exhilarating adventure for adrenaline junkies or simply a destination where hikers and photographers can delight in a great outdoor experience.

Seven Teacups
Photo by Maria Gates

28. Lassen Volcanic National Park (California)

Rolling mounds, dotted with pine trees and smeared with blotches of red and charred yellow lay out before you from atop the summit of the Cinder Cone. These “Painted Dunes” are the result of volcanic activity occurring 300 to 400 years ago — a very short period of time on the geological scale — and are only one of several phenomenal highlights at Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Hidden in the interior of Northern California at the southern end of the Cascade Range, Lassen is one of the only places in the world where you can find all four different types of volcanoes, not to mention a hydrothermal area basin with turquoise steam pools and bubbling mudpots.

Lassen Volcanic National Park
Photo by Achint Thomas Find more at http://achintthomas.photography

29. Lava Beds National Monument (Modoc County, California)

Home to a host of battlefields from the Modoc War, Lava Beds National Monument is a hidden gem tucked away in Northern California that brings to life the region’s often overlooked volcanic history and displays some of the best-preserved petroglyphs and pictographs in the country.

Some of the brilliant sights here include lava tubes lit with red, magma-inspired lighting, an amazing sprout of bright green ferns in the Fern Cave, and the alien-like ice stacks found in the Crystal Ice Cave.

Going Deeper at Lava Beds National Monument
Photo by Steve Alvarado
Fern Cave at Lava Beds National Monument
Photo by Ken Lunders

30. Jedediah Smith State Park (Crescent City, California)

Despite loggers destroying up to 96% of old-growth redwoods, there are still plenty of places to witness these spectacular trees located throughout Northern California.

One such place is Jedediah Smith State Park, home to Stout Grove where in the late afternoon golden sun rays fan-out through a shadowy canopy of some of the oldest coastal redwoods in the country, offering you the kind of intimate encounter with nature that remains forever fresh in your memory.

Smith River at Jedediah Smith State Park
Photo by Mario Vaden, Arborist / Photographer Find more at www.vadenphotography.com

31. Pfeiffer Beach at Los Padres National Forest (California)

One normally looks up to the sky and the clouds at sunset for those unique shades of purple best captured at the coastline, but here at Pfeiffer Beach, you’ll find those same swirls and patches of pastel purples and blues shining back at you not from the sky above, but from the sands below as the cold waters of the Pacific wash over them.  And if you visit near the time of the winter solstice, you’ll be awe-struck as sunsets literally burst through the golden doorway of Keyhole Rock.

Pfeiffer Beach at Los Padres National Forest
Photo by Beth Welliver Find more at http://welliverphotography.com
Pfeiffer Beach at Los Padres National Forest
Photo by Sameer Mundkur

32. Shark Fin Cove (California)

Shark fins rising from the ocean don’t typically entice visitors to come visit the coast, but this place is the exception.

Here, a menacing dorsal-shaped sea stack provides the dramatic centerpiece for a scenic cove surrounded by deep inlets and alcoves. From atop the white bluffs, or through the shadowy windows of one of the sea caves below, you can admire this stunning byproduct of erosion that’s earned this beach its name, “Shark Fin Cove.”

Shark Fin Cove Sunset
Photo by Glen Rodriguez

33. Bowling Ball Beach (California)

At low tide, hundreds of “bowling balls,” ranging from three to six feet in diameter, line up in rows along the shore.

From dinosaur eggs to visitors from another world, there has been much speculation over the years as to the source of these incredible formations; however, these massive spherical rocks are made up of sandstone and were formed when mineralized water seeped into the layers of sandstone sediments causing these masses to harden.

Bowling Balls Beach
Photo by Chris deRham, Sonoma, CA

34. Glass Beach (California)

Thousands of tiny polished glass pieces glisten along the shoreline at Glass Beach, near Fort Bragg, CA. Like rubies and emeralds, these treasures shine brightly among the beds of black and grey pebbles in which they lie.

It’s a sight to behold – and one that’s been in the making for decades, albeit not always intentionally as these shiny glass pieces are the products of waste dumping on the coast that went on from the early 1900s to the late 1960s.

Beach of glass on Glass Beach
Photo by John Krzesinski

35. Cove Palisades State Park (Oregon)

Designated as a National Natural Landmark in 2011, the 200-acre peninsular plateau known as the “Island” is surrounded by dramatic cliffs that run 200 to 700 feet above of the pristine blue waters of Lake Billy Chinook.

These high cliffs have served as deterrent to livestock that would normally graze and devour most of the vegetation in the area and as a result rare vegetation unique to the area has survived over the years leaving the Island at Cove Palisades as one of the last undisturbed areas in the entire United States for rare native plants including western juniper wheatgrass and bitterbrush.

36. Thor’s Well at Siuslaw National Forest (Oregon)

Thor’s Well, sometimes referred to as the “Pacific Gateway to the Underworld,” is one of the most exhilarating sites along the West Coast of the United States.

During high tide or when the surf is raging from incoming Pacific storms, waves wash into a large hole, estimated to be around 20 feet deep, creating one of nature’s most intriguing sites: a natural fountain that spews salt water several meters into the air and then sucks the water back down into its depths creating a spectacular, and sometimes eerie, natural wonder.

Thors Well at sunset Siuslaw National Forest
Photo by Rob Etzel

37. Leslie Gulch & the Owyhee Canyonlands (Oregon)

Situated in eastern Oregon and southwestern Idaho are the Owyhee Canyonlands, one of the largest roadless areas in the entire United States covering 5 million acres.

The entire area is full of canyons, deep gorges, more than 200 species of animals, rare flora, and meandering rivers that span for hundreds of miles.

There are several different areas to explore within the Owyhee Canyononlands but one of the  most striking and accessible is Leslie Gulch, full of spires made up of “tuff” rocks and rhyolite ash products from various volcanic eruptions that have taken place in the region dating back as far as 15 million years to as early as 100,000 years ago.

Owyhee Canyonlands
Photo by Glenn Merritt

38. Cape Disappointment State Park (Washington)

Cape Disappointment, where Lewis and Clark finally reached the Pacific after completing one of the most legendary expeditions in American pioneer history, is located at the treacherous mouth of the Columbia River.

Today, it’s known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” a name earned after almost 2,000 large ships sunk in and around this area ever since the early settlement years . One such ship known as the Vandalia, foundered nearby in 1853 and bodies allegedly washed up on the shores of an inlet  now known as Dead Man’s Cove.

Cape Disappointment State Park
Photo by Stephanie Sinclair
Dead Mans Cove
Photo by Dirk Dallas

39. Elephant Rock (Washington)

On the often fog-shrouded shores of the Quinault Indian Reservation in Washington, lies Elephant Rock, an impressive natural double sea arch with an uncanny resemblance to an elephant, complete with eyes, large ears, and of course, a trunk.  You’ll need to be accompanied with a member of the Quinault to gain access to this beach but the extra legwork will be more than worth it.

Tunnel Island close up
Photo by Ann Stark

40. Dry Falls State Park (Washington)

The skeletal remains of what was once the world’s largest waterfall – four times the width of Niagara Falls – span across an area known as the scablands in eastern Washington.

Floodwaters that would’ve toppled 30-story buildings scoured these lands and rushed over the cliffs as fast as automobiles speeding down an interstate, creating the spectacular falls that’s estimated to have been over three miles wide.

Today, all that’s left of this extinct natural wonder are barren canyon walls whose dry, volcanic rocks crumble down the same cliffs where the most powerful and magnificent waterfall of all time once poured.

Dry Falls State Park
Photo by Adam Smith

41. Craters of the Moon National Monument (Idaho)

Once visited by Apollo Astronauts for training purposes, Craters of the Moon National Monument is a large area in central Idaho encompassing over 1,100 square miles of lava fields and grasslands.

The park is known for its toothed landscape consisting of three lava fields which in addition to being rich in early American pioneer history, display some of the most intriguing volcanic rock formations in the country, including “mini-volcanoes” and the deepest rift cave in the world.  It’s also a place where you can find fascinating vegetation like limber pine trees, whose branches are so flexible they can be tied into knots.

Craters of the Moon National Monument
Photo by Maria Jaeger
Splatter Cone at Craters of the Moon National Monument
Photo by Wes Latta Find more at www.weslatta.com

42. Bruneau Canyon Overlook (Idaho)

At the Bruneau Overlook, thick rugged tiers of cemented volcanic ash rise over 800 feet from the canyon floor where the rock-strewn Bruneau River meanders through the bedrock.

The view captures the Bruneau-Jarbidge Wilderness, one of the most scenic segments of the desolate Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness and is one of the best photograph opportunities in Idaho.

Bruneau Canyon
Photo by David Lawrence

43. City of Rocks National Reserve (Idaho)

Spanning over 14,000 acres with some of the oldest rocks in North America, the City of Rocks is rich in pioneer history and geological wonder, where old wagon wheels and ruts can be found among eroded spires and monoliths that tower more than 60 stories high.

Window Arch at City of Rocks National Reserve
Photo by Dave Bower

44. The Chinese Wall at The Bob Marshall Wilderness (Montana)

Imposing, yet inspiring, the Chinese Wall soars as high as a 100-story building and stretches for nearly 20 miles along the Continental Divide in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana.

It might seem hard to believe that such a massive formation like the Chinese Wall could remain so unknown for so long, but when you consider that accessing this natural wonder requires over 60 miles of hiking through a true, deep wilderness where crossing paths with grizzly bears and wolves is a real possibility, you quickly understand that the intrepid souls who lay eyes on this marvel are few and far between.

The Chinese Wall at The Bob Marshall Wilderness
Photo by Gordon Dimmig Find more at gwd-photography.com
Moose in water
Photo by Gordon Dimmig Find more at gwd-photography.com

45. Blodgett Arch at Bitterroot National Forest (Montana)

Found at the western edge of Montana, Blodgett Arch is one of those natural wonders that would be on top of everyone’s “to see” list if it were only more accessible. Towering high above the tree line, this giant granite arch stands among jagged, dark grey peaks in the heart of the Bitterroot National Forest.

It’s believed that Ice Age glaciers which formed on either side of the mountain ridge created cracks in the rocks and that the glacial ice applied just the right kind of pressure to push out the center of the arch and create this amazing site.

Blodgett Natural Arch at Bitterroot National Forest
Photo by R. Landry, Photographer

46. Makoshika State Park (Glendive, Montana)

The landscape at Makoshika State Park, Montana’s largest state park, is a prehistoric wonderland of otherworldly rock formations. Shiny bronze caprock crumbles down the fissured sides of grey badlands onto cracked soils, exposed cliff sides reveal excavated dinosaur vertebrae, and benches offer tired hikers resting points at overlooks where panoramic views stretch for miles.

But one of the best things about Makoshika is what’s not there. When you visit this outdoor wonderland, you’re likely to beat the crowds and have many of the rocky trails to yourself at this lesser-known state park that protects approximately 20% of contiguous Montanan topography.

47. Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area (Wyoming/Montana)

Emerging out of the canyon walls like a battleship and rising over 500 feet, the towering cliffs at Devil’s Canyon Overlook may be the most stunning canyon scenery in all of the Northern Rockies.

Nonetheless, it’s just one of the many extraordinary sights found at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, located on the border between Wyoming and Montana. It’s an area so full of geological wonder and harsh terrain that if able to talk, it would tell endless stories of the struggle that Native Americans and early pioneers endured as they navigated their way through these treacherous desert canyons.

Bighorn Canyon at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
Photo by Robert Coleman

48. Sinks Canyon State Park (Fremont County, Wyoming)

Water gushes over a rocky riverbed, bubbling and gurgling as it drops into the shadowy depths under the ridges of a limestone canyon and disappears into the abyss.

This mysterious cavern is known as “the Sinks” and it’s where the Popo Agie River enters before flowing through an underground labyrinth where it undergoes several mysterious changes before reemerging about a quarter of a mile downstream and spilling into a deep green pool known as “the Rise.” Ranked as one of the best state parks in the country by National Geographic, Sinks Canyon State Park is a true natural wonder chock-full of fascinating geology and history.

Sinks Canyon State Park

49. Fremont Canyon (Alcova, Wyoming)

In the midst of winter, apricot-colored cliffs dotted with vegetation, tower over a tight bend on the snow-coated, frozen waters of North Platte River. It’s one of just several extraordinary viewpoints along Fremont Canyon, near Casper, Wyoming.

The area is most well-known for its rock climbing and boating opportunities, but it’s also a great place just to explore and capture some stunning canyon scenery, while taking time to ponder some of the area’s rich frontier history.

Fremont Canyon
Photo by Robert Kirkwood

50. Vedauwoo (Buford, Wyoming)

Vedauwoo, known to the Arapaho Indians as “Land of the Earthborn Spirit,” is an enchanting recreation area full of billion-year-old granite outcroppings, many of which appear to be defying gravity with their peculiar poses.

Interestingly, the magma composition of these boulders is identical to the magma underlying Yellowstone National Park, meaning that the boulders at Vedauwoo represent what the Yellowstone of the future will look like once its magma crystallizes and the overlying rocks are eroded away.

Vedauwoo. Photo by Shane Adams. Image via Flickr.

51. Dinosaur National Monument (Moffat County, Colorado)

Dinosaur National Monument is not only one of the best places in the world to view dinosaur fossils, it’s also home to some of the most striking canyon landscapes in the entire United States. Scenic roads, both paved and unpaved, wind through the rugged interior of the monument taking visitors past unique rock art, early 20th century ranches, and several stunning viewpoints – some of which look down over 2,000 feet to the Yampa and Green Rivers as they meander through these lush, green-topped canyons. Remote, desolate, and packed with ancient geological history, this National Monument beckons exploration.

Dinosaur National Monument
Photo by Lewis Cooper
Dinosaur National Monument
Photo by Lewis Cooper

52. Colorado National Monument (Fruita, Colorado)

In the morning, fog shrouds the banks of towering sandstone cliffs as tall, jagged spires slice through the ephemeral mist and soar like rocky islands floating among the clouds.

If the dramatic sandstone cliffs form the heart of this monument, its spirit lies in the determination and willpower born from one man, the great Colorado trail builder and park ranger, John Otto who devoted his life to preserving and promoting these exquisite canyon landscapes in Colorado.

Colorado National Monument
Photo by Sean Taylor

53. Paint Mines Interpretive Park (Calhan, Colorado)

Purple, pink, yellow, and orange pastels coat brittle walls of clay inside a fantastical labyrinth of white-capped hoodoos. A small weasel tiptoes out of a dark crevice and into plain sight, sizing you up before scampering back into its lair without a sound.

Remote, yet full of vivid colors and bashful wildlife, this kaleidoscopic collection of chasms, rifts, and slots – known as the Paint Mines – is unlike any other badlands in the country. Tucked away in a 750-acre park about 30 miles east of Colorado Springs, this fairly new interpretive park is one of the best-kept secrets of Colorado.

Cloudscape Geology at Paint Mines Interpretive Park
Photo by Michael deLeon Photo Find more at www.michaeldeleonphoto.com
Paint Mines Interpretive Park
Photo by Richard Reier

54. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Montrose, Colorado)

The name sounds like something out of a fantasy novel, “The Black Canyon of the Gunnison.” One of the steepest mountain descents in the world, Black Canyon earned its name from the limited sunlight that’s able to shine through these narrow canyon walls, which at their narrowest point are separated by a mere 40 feet.

Two spectacular scenic drives run along both rims of the canyon, and a number of overlooks and hikes offer one-of-a-kind scenic experiences to peer over immense drop-offs at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, located in western Colorado.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Photo by Craig Goettsch

55. Monument Rocks National Natural Landmark

Constantly named as one of the natural wonders of Kansas, Monument Rocks is a destination that often surprises people when they come to find out that it’s located in the mostly flat state of Kansas. Monument Rocks, also known as the “Chalk Pyramids,” is an area where white chalk formations, some of which rise up to 70 feet high and take the form of awe-inspiring arches, stand clustered amid a flat, barren landscape.  

It’s rumored if that after rains, these towering monoliths gives off a salty, oceanic scent, a testament to their ancient beginnings under the sea dating back to the Cretaceous Period.

Monument Rocks National Natural Landmark
Photo by Lane M. Pearman Find more at www.lanemichaelphotography.com

56. Toadstool Geologic Park (Chadron, Nebraska)

In remote northwestern Nebraska, a strange moon-like landscape can be found at a place not known to many people: Toadstool Geologic Park. Also referred to as “The Desert of Pine Ridge,” it’s a fossil hotbed that’s home to bright badlands, cliffs, and an odd array of toadstools, many of which resemble strange objects like chess pieces.

Toadstool Geologic Park
Photo by Tom McLaughlin

Like what you see here and want to find more amazing places?

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Cover Photo: Jordan Marsh, jmarshphoto.com

25 Best Things to Do in Yosemite National Park [2021]

Yosemite National Park is arguably the most beautiful national park in the world. There are tons of hikes, scenic drives, viewpoints, and other things to see in the park that planning can be a little overwhelming.

This article will show you 25 of the best things to do in Yosemite National Park that will help you plan our your visit and make the most of your visit. 

You’ll see some of the best waterfalls, hiking trails, and places to photograph the park and I’ll give you my recommendations for lodging/hotels as well.

1. The Merced River (HWY 140 Route)

One thing I really love about this park is the drive along the Merced River while you are coming in from HWY 140. There are a number of turn-out points that give you great views of the rushing river.

And don’t hesitate to work your way down the river bank to get up close and personal with the Merced and get some interesting photos. Trust me, it will be completely worth your time, just don’t wander too carelessly down the rocks.

Coming in from Highway 120 is also extremely scenic. You are not down by the river but you are much higher and therefore able to soak in beautiful views of the canyon scenery!

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2. Tunnel View

You’ll see more photos of this view than maybe any other view of Yosemite and perhaps even of any other national park. Coming into the park from HWY 41, you’ll drive through a tunnel and then pop out to the spectacular view. The look out point will be on the left and you owe it to yourself to stop.

When I visited in late March, there was hardly anyone in the parking lot at around 10am. However, if you come during peak season in the afternoon (August or September) I’m sure the lot will be overflowing so consider that. If you’re just looking for an amazing view then seeing the view at any time of day will do.

However, if you are a serious photographer then you want to catch the sunrise that will rise right over the valley or catch the sunset when the sun beams off the granite walls in a beautiful bright hue of orange and red. Often times in the evenings, low lying fog blankets the valley providing for exceptional photograph opportunities.

Tunnel view on a perfect spring day.

3. Sentinel Bridge

Sentinel Bridge is a must-see stop for all photographers and people who just want to enjoy a spectacular view.

There’s a small parking lot that I’m sure is overrun during peak season, but during the spring we had no problem grabbing a spot and were met at the bridge by only two other photographers.

Photography Tip: If you only have one night, then you’ll want to utilize your one sunset as best as you can. So in the evening get shots from Tunnel View first, then move to Sentinel Bridge to catch the sun beaming off Half Dome.

That way, from Tunnel View, you can capture the fog that may be blanketing the valley floor before it gets too dark.

Alternatively, if you have multiple nights, then you could shoot from Tunnel View one evening and then Sentinel Bridge the next. Of course, there are also other options for great sunsets shots in the park.

Related: REI Co-op World Elite Mastercard Review

The view from Sentinel Bridge — a must-see stop for all photographers.

4. Hetch Hetchy

Hetch Hethy is a beautiful reservoir but with a heartbreaking past. It’s a glacial valley in the northwestern part of Yosemite National Park and is drained by the Tuolumne River.

Believe it or not, it was actually a valley that rivaled Yosemite Valley in its beauty but in 1923, the O’Shaughnessy Dam was completed on the Tuolumne River, which flooded the entire valley. The reservoir began providing tons of water to the San Francisco Bay Area but it did come at the cost of losing the valley floor.

Some popular places to check out in this area are: the O’Shaughnessy Dam, Wapama Fall, and Smith Peak. You can find more things to do in this area here.

Sunset in Hetch Hetchy
Hetch Hethy at sunset.

5. Tioga Road

Tioga Road is a road through Yosemite’s high country that offers many spectacular views and has a host of attractions to check out along the way.

Some points of interest you might want to check out are: Siesta Lake, White Wolf Campground, Yosemite Creek Picnic Area, Olmsted Point, Tenaya Lake, and Soda Spring. This is also one way to get to the trail head for the amazing Cloud’s Rest hike.

Tenaya Lake has some stunning, post-card worthy views and it’s one of the easiest lakes in Yosemite to get to. This road will only be open late May or early June so it is best for summer visits.

The Tioga Pass road SR 120, California, USA
The Tioga Pass road SR 120, California, USA. Photo by Fred Moore.

6. Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne Meadows is located off Tioga Road and it offers some great hiking options. These include:

  • Tuolumne Meadows: Soda Springs and Parsons Lodge
  • Lyell Canyon via the John Muir Trail
  • Elizabeth Lake
  • Gaylor Lakes
  • Cathedral Lakes
  • Mono Pass
  • Glen Aulin
  • Dog Lake and Lembert Dome 
Cathedral Lakes, Yosemite. Photo by Brendan T Lynch.

7. Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America at 2,425 feet. Not only is its height impressive but the sound of the roaring water of the falls can be heard from around the park. This is especially true if you visit April through June.

I suggest visiting a time other than August because that is that often when Yosemite Falls will be dried up. It’s such a loud and powerful waterfall — you really want to catch it in all of its glory if you can.

You can get up close to the falls by doing the easy Lower Yosemite Falls Trail or by doing the much more strenuous Upper Yosemite Falls Trail. Upper Yosemite falls has over 100 switchbacks and so it is best attempted when you have some decent conditioning but you do not have to go all the way up to the top to get the great views!

And have you ever heard of “moonbows?”

That would be a rainbow seen at night caused by the light reflected from the moon. Yosemite Falls is one place where they are visible, though you’ll have to catch them when the moon is bright.

This video showcases them very well.

The view from the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail.

8. Sentinel Falls

You can find this waterfall on the south side of Yosemite Valley, just west of Sentinel Rock. It’s a beautiful waterfall with multiple cascades, ranging in height from 50 to 500 feet.

You can check out this waterfall from areas along Southside Drive near the Sentinel Beach Picnic Area, and near the Four Mile Trailhead. You can also view it from Yosemite Valley near Leidig Meadow, or when hiking the Upper Yosemite Fall Trail.

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9. Horsetail Fall

Horsetail Fall is a 1,00 foot waterfall that usually flows from  approximately December through April. It’s famous for the orange glow that is usually produces in mid- to late-February when the sun casts its glow at just the right time in the evening.

The NPS notes that to see Horsetail Fall, park at the El Capitan picnic area (on Northside Drive west of Yosemite Valley Lodge, formerly Yosemite Lodge) or in turnouts just east of the picnic area. You can see the waterfall from the road.

Horsetail Falls
Horsetail Fall in February. Photo by David Welch.

10. Bridalveil Fall

Bridalveil Fall usually flows year round with a peak flow in May.

This is often the very first waterfall you’ll encounter when you enter the park. You can see it from near the tunnels on the Wawona Road (Highway 41) or Big Oak Flat Road (Highway 120) and from a signed parking lot on your way into Yosemite Valley.

You can also walk to the base of the falls via a short but relatively steep trail that only takes a few minutes.

Yosemite Tunnel View
Bridalveil Fall in January. Photo by Rudy Wilms.

11. Half Dome

The most iconic image of Yosemite has got to be Half Dome. Just viewing it at any time of the day is impressive, especially when it’s snow capped in winter.

Half dome permits

I’m a big advocate of visiting in the spring, but the good thing about visiting the park in the summer is that you can apply for a permit to climb to the the top of Half Dome, which would be amazing and is on my bucket list.

A maximum of 300 hikers are allowed (about 225 day hikers and 75 backpackers) each day on the Half Dome Trail beyond the base of the subdome. Permits are distributed by lottery at Recreation.gov (or call (877) 444-6777) and they have one preseason lottery with an application period in March and and daily lotteries during the hiking season.

If you have a lot of flexibility, you’ll find it much easier to secure a permit to hike Half Dome and you can find out more about which says will be easiest to get a permit here.

And for any people out there who don’t know, Half Dome is the inspiration of the North Face logo you see everywhere (not to be confused with South Butt).

Half dome sunsets

But you don’t have to climb to the top of Half Dome to witness its magic. Try watching the sun’s burning glow off the north face at sunset.

I ran into some rain and bad cloud coverage the evening I set up to take shots  but the clouds broke for a few minutes to let me get some shots of the sunlight cutting across the north face, so don’t be discouraged if you run into a cloudy day there you may still have a chance.

12. Snowshoeing in winter/spring

I first strapped on snowshoes in my first visit to Yosemite in March of 2013 and it was quite the experience, mostly because we got severely dehydrated due to our hiking ignorance and after getting lost we had to actually depend on a compass to find our way through the backcountry (also due to our hiking ignorance).

There are ample snowshoe opportunities here up until the end of March. Of interest to many are the ranger led snowshoe hikes, including the moon-lit hikes they have on the nights leading up to a full-moon.

You can rent snowshoes from Badger Pass or bring your own. And if you’re into more challenging routes, look to the winter backcountry routes heading around the Glacier Point Road area.

13. Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area (formerly Badger Pass)

Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area, formerly known as the Badger Pass ski area, is a ski area that offers slopes fitted for beginner skiers and also is a place to start off for backcountry snowshoeing and cross country skiing. It’s usually open mid-December to late March.

We started our snowshoeing hike to Dewey Point from that area.

Don’t forget to get the most up to date conditions for Badger Pass before going out there because they do not have artificial snow up there and note that chains may be needed to get up there.

You can check up on the latests conditions by calling the Snow Phone at (209) 372-1000.

14. Half Dome Village (formerly Curry Village)

Half Dome Village, formerly known as Curry Village, gives you the chance to experience a more rustic experience without the hassle of dealing with setting up your own tent or securing a backcountry permit.

They have different lodging types including:

  • Canvas Tent Cabins – Unheated
  • Canvas Tent Cabins – Heated
  • Yosemite Cabins with Bath
  • Stoneman Standard Rooms

If you’re staying in the park when it gets really cold at night, you’ll probably want to do what we did and reserve a tent with a heater. It’s a little extra $, but you’ll be hella toasty. The only drawback is that the tents are pretty close together so it can be difficult to fall asleep due to all the (sometimes drunken) chatter outside.

I do feel obliged to mention two, shall we say… “incidents” about the former Curry Village, though.

First, this happened: Falling boulder risk forces Yosemite closures.

Second, this happened: Yosemite closes Curry Village cabins after hantavirus outbreak.

With that said, I’d honestly be willing to stay at Half Dome Village again in a heartbeat.

15. Yosemite View Lodge

After spending a night in Curry Village, the city-dweller in me was ready to move on up a little bit. So we booked a night at Yosemite View Lodge, and I loved this place. It’s about 20 minutes outside of the park but the rooms are fantastic.

We stayed in a King Suite room complete with a fire place, huge two-head shower, hot tub, and balcony view of the Merced river. Not all rooms have the river view so you will have to request it.

The Lodge has a pizza restaurant adjacent to one of the buildings and the pizza is really good, and I think there’s also another restaurant there as well. This lodge was perfect after a long couple of days of hiking to relax in.

If you’re into the more luxurious type of stay (and your budget permits), then you’ll likely want to stay at the Ahwahnee Hotel, located inside Yosemite National Park.

16. Driving or walking around the valley

If you aren’t into strenuous hikes or maybe just want to relax a little then just driving or walking around the park and taking photos can be good way to take in Yosemite.

I’d recommend stopping by all of the waterfalls you can access and even relaxing in the meadows taking in views of the granite monoliths, such as the 3,000 ft. face of El Capitan.

If you see little shiny spots on any of the monoliths, know that you are witnessing some brave rock-climbers work their way up the side of the walls. For a granite wall like El Capitan, it takes climbers multiple days to make it to the top. Check the shuttle schedule in the park to avoid the congestion and parking issues.

If you’re a photographer there are endless possibilities for shots around the valley floor. But even if you’re just looking for beautiful backgrounds for your family photos or yes — even selfies — it’s a good idea to wander around the meadows and streams for good shots and take in the fresh scents of Yosemite.

Also, the meadows are home to some wildlife and you wouldn’t believe how sociable some of the animals are. Picture your most sociable friend. Now imagine that person as a deer. That’s how the deer act at Yosemite.

When we were in a meadow we came across the most sociable deer I’ve ever seen. And if you’re really lucky, you may come across a bear, just hope it’s not as outgoing as the deer.

El Capitan, Yosemite
El Capitan, Yosemite. Photo by Robbie Shade.

17. Frazil ice (spring only)

Frazil ice is a phenomenon that happens in the spring when ice forms from frozen mist from the falls and then passes down along the streams. As the ice flows, it collects into big bunches of slushy ice that then turn into snow… expect it’s not really snow and if you step on it you will die.

Confused? Scared?  Check out this amazing video made by the National Park Service and you’ll see what I’m talking about. I’d never seen anything like it — and it can best be spotted in March and April.

18. Mariposa Grove

Mariposa Grove is an area in Yosemite known for its Giant Sequoias, which are trees native only to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California and grow to be the biggest trees in the world not to mention around 3,000 years old.

The Grove is near the southern most entrance to Yosemite (HWY 41), so if you enter that way and want to see Sequoias you might as well go straight to it because it is a little ways from the Valley.

The entire Grove just underwent a huge renovation project which was initiated to help protect the Sequoia trees. Now, you’ll need to arrange for shuttle transportation to check out the grove.

At the Grove, we saw the Grizzly Giant, the 25th largest giant sequoia, among other wooden giants. However, if you really want to see sequoias, including the largest tree in the world, then make the trip up to Sequoia National Park.

19. Glacier Point

Glacier Point is an area of Yosemite where you have superb views of Half-Dome and the entire valley. This is a must see spot but just be ready for crowds.

I’ve seen a ton of amazing photographs taken from this point so if you are there in the summer definitely check it out and look into the astronomy tours just mentioned.

Glacier Point is accessible by car from approximately late May through October or November. From the Glacier Point parking area, there’s a short, paved, wheelchair-accessible trail that takes you to the viewpoint which sits 3,214 feet above Half Dome Village.

You can also hike up to the viewpoint via the 4 mile trail. The round-trip is about 9.6 miles and 3,200 feet in elevation gain so it is a pretty strenuous hike. But you can always arrange transportation at one end so that you only have to head up or down the trail to make it more doable.

From mid-December through March, cross-country skiers can make the long journey of 10.5 miles to Glacier Point. There is a ski-hut where you can stay overnight but reservations are required.

Also, nearby is a nice hike to the top of Sentinel Dome.

20. Washburn Point

If you’re heading down Glacier Point Road then you owe it to yourself to also stop at Washburn Point for its unforgettable views of the Yosemite Valley and Half Dome.

It’s a similar view from Glacier Point, but you’ll get a better view of Illilouette Falls (along with Vernal and Nevada Fall) and a different perspective of Half Dome. The viewpoint is easily accessed from a staircase located at the parking lot.

21. Olmsted Point

Olmsted Point is another great viewpoint, with sweeping views of Clouds Rest and Half Dome. It’s an easy quarter mile roundtrip hike from the parking lot to check out the view and should only take about a half an hour (at most) to experience.

22. Valley View

Valley View has one of the most iconic views of Yosemite Valley with the Merced River reflecting El Capitan on and the towering Cathedral spires. This is a must-stop for photographers.

It’s usually a good place to stop on your way out of Yosemite Valley and it’s located  just after a view of Bridalveil Fall but just before Pohono Bridge. Once you start to see directional signs for highways leaving Yosemite, you should be near it.

23. Crane Flat

Merced Grove of Giant Sequoias

The Merced Grove of Giant Sequoias is found on the Big Oak Flat Road west of Crane Flat.

You can check out about two dozen mature giant sequoias after setting out on a 1.5-mile hike with 500 feet of elevation loss (the return is considered to be strenuous).

Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias

Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias is located on the Tioga Road just east of Crane Flat.

The grove is home to about two dozen mature giant sequoias and they are visible after a one-mile hike with 500 feet of elevation loss (the return is considered to be strenuous).

The Crane Flat Snow Play Area

The Crane Flat Snow Play Area  is a great place to take the family to do some sledding and have some fun n the snow.

It is located just south of the Crane Flat gas station, near the Crane Flat Campground and the snow play area is open when there’s adequate snowfall in the area.

24. Yosemite Stargazing 

This park gets really dark with minimal light pollution. There are some amazing time lapses put together of this park showcasing the Milky Way and are worth watching.

At Glacier Point, during the summer, they have observatory nights during the summer where you can view planets and galaxies with the help of professional astronomers so look into that.

If you can’t make it up there in the winter then just find an open spot in the park and look up to check out the amazing astronomy.

25. Dine at Yosemite Restaurants

There are a variety of options in Yosemite for food.

In spring the lines at some of these places around lunch time were getting pretty long, so I can only imagine how they would be in the summer. I can attest to both Degnan’s Deli and Loft as being solid choices for meals, as the sandwiches and pizza we had were good.

But note, if you don’t want to be wasting time in line for food then try to hit up the spots right when they open up for lunch/dinner or take a slightly early lunch.

Interesting history

Like most national parks, Yosemite has a ton of interesting history behind the park. I’ll spare you the history lesson but I’d encourage you to check out some of the documentaries about how the park was started, both geologically and politically.

You won’t likely be surprised that the beginnings involved the ouster of Native Americans and a prolonged fight over the exploitation of natural resources.

Make sure you check out the influence of the eccentric, John Muir, though. He’s a man who played an integral role in this national park and used to do things like climb the tops of trees during thunder storms to experience “treeness.” 

National Park Service resources

Yosemite probably has the best online resources for a national park that I’ve ever come across.

The park website has plenty of info and their Youtube channel has tons of well-done videos to help you get informed on the park.

Also, because the park is so popular there are ton of people like me writing about it so you have no excuse not to be informed (unless you were like me my first time out to Yosemite).

Save the best for last

This is really something for foreigners or for people who are making their first trip out to the region. If you’re planning on making a circuit route through the different national parks in the area (e.g., Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Pinnacles) then try to put Yosemite last on the list.

The reason is that while the other parks have much to offer, Yosemite is top dog and you’ll invariably find yourself comparing the other parks to your experience in Yosemite.

Just look at reviews of the other parks and you’ll see constant comments about how Pinnacles National Park is interesting but “doesn’t compare to Yosemite.” Again, this is really a personal preference thing but it’s something to think about.


What are the best hikes in Yosemite National Park?

Lower Yosemite Falls
Upper Yosemite Falls
Half Dome
Mariposa Grove
Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls
Panorama Trail
4-Mile Trail
Cathedral Lakes
Mirror Lake Trail
Taft Point

When can I get a permit for Half Dome?

Permits are distributed by lottery at Recreation.gov (or call (877) 444-6777) and they have one preseason lottery with an application period in March and and daily lotteries during the hiking season.

Where can I see Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park?

Mariposa Grove is an area in Yosemite known for its Giant Sequoias. Other locations include the Merced Grove of Giant Sequoias and Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias.

What are the best viewpoints in Yosemite National Park?

Glacier Point 
Washburn Point
Olmsted Point
Tunnel View

What waterfalls should I check out at Yosemite National Park?

Yosemite Falls
Sentinel Falls
Horsetail Fall
Illilouette Falls
Nevada Fall
Vernal Fall
Bridalveil Fall
Wapama Fall

Pinnacles National Park California Overview (Hiking, History, Etc.) [2021]

Charred spires and fins stand in rows along hilltops, their crevices filled with giant boulders and tall spouts of green vegetation. Hundreds of feet above, and against the backdrop of a blue sky, the largest North American land bird, the California Condor, soars from the edge of an aerie on a faraway cliff. Its signature flat black wings and motionless body distinguish it from other large birds that inhabit the area, such as the turkey vulture.

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These sights, along with sparkling reservoirs and climbing hiking trails, are what visitors can expect to experience at Pinnacles National Park, the newest addition to the national park family.

Photo by Rachel Barton.

Pinnacles is located in central California, about two hours south of San Francisco and not too far from other notable national parks. Due to shifting plate tectonics, Pinnacles used to be located even farther away. Much farther away in fact.

Scientists estimate that the Pinnacles volcano came into existence approximately twenty-three million years ago. This fifteen-mile-long, five-mile-wide volcano alternated among eruption states of violent explosions, viscous oozes, and periods of dormancy.

What’s astonishing about this volcano isn’t its eruptions but the fact that, millions of years ago when this volcano was active, it was actually located in Southern California near the city of Los Angeles.

Around that same time the Pacific plate was grinding along the North American plate, causing extreme pressure to build up along the fault lines. Eventually this intense pressure forced a part of the North American plate to snap and attach to the Pacific plate, creating what we know today as the San Andreas Fault.

Moreover, it just so happens that the San Andreas Fault ran directly underneath the Pinnacles volcano. As the Pacific plate moved toward the northwest, it took two-thirds of the Pinnacles volcano with it until, after millions of years, it ended up where it is today—195 miles north of its birthplace. Now the Pacific plate continues to slip northward approximately one inch per year.

As the plates took the Pinnacle volcano on this wild ride, the volcano sank until it was completely underground and flanked by other smaller plates that also run under the park. Which raises the question, of course, as to where the actual Pinnacles volcano stands today.

The answer is that there are remnants of this once-violent volcano throughout Pinnacles National Park. However, as we’ve seen so many times at destinations throughout this region, the powerful forces of erosion forced a reawakening of the bedrock and created a magnificent natural landscape.

As thousands of feet of overlaying earth was worn away by water, ice, and wind, the ancient remnants of the volcano were exposed and towering spires “rose from the dead” with massive boulders toppling previous formations to create new caves. The end product was the present-day landscape full of canyons, ridges, crags, channels, and endless igneous pinnacles. These dramatic features sit alongside (and on top of) older granite accumulations as old as one hundred million years, producing a diverse range of old and new geologic wonders.

There are two separate entrances on the east and west sides of the park that don’t connect to each other, so you’ll have to decide which side to spend your time on and then plan your itinerary accordingly. Entrance fees are $30 per vehicle, but if you think you might be bouncing between national parks then you might want to look into getting a national park annual pass to save money on park entry. 

Because the park is new and somewhat undiscovered to the masses, you won’t find a lot of amenities in the park, but, if you catch it at the right time, you also won’t have to deal with the herds of visitors that flock to the other nearby parks.

There are ample opportunities for hiking and rock climbing at this park—thirty miles of trails in fact. If you’re a hiker, there are trails suitable for all difficulty levels. The Bear Gulch Caves are perhaps the most popular attraction at Pinnacles, especially for the novice hiker.

The hike to Bear Gulch Reservoir, where you definitely want to start from the east side of the park to make it easier, doesn’t require you to be very physically fit, and the trail is only 2.2 miles round-trip. The hike to the reservoir splits at one point, offering hikers the choice to hike through the popular Bear Gulch Cave or to take an alternate route on the Moses Spring Trail, which goes along the rim of the gorge.

Photo by Christian Arballo.

I recommend venturing through the dim (and often dark) Bear Gulch Cave, but just make sure to bring a flashlight or headlamp if you are planning on taking that route. Also check with the park to see if the cave is open, because they close it at times to protect the native bats. 

Whichever route you take, you will end up at the scenic Bear Gulch Reservoir at the end of your hike. If you’ve still got a lot of juice left in you, then you might consider hopping on the Rim Trail from the reservoir and connecting to the High Peaks Trail for an extended and more scenic return to your entry point.

Bear Gulch Hike Pinnacles National Park
The dark entranceway of Bear Gulch Cave. Photo by Matthew Dillon

A number of other hikes in the park offer spectacular views as well. One hike, the Condor Gulch to High Peaks Loop (5.3 miles round-trip) is a strenuous hike that will take three to five hours, but it’s quite rewarding and takes you right through the heart of the Pinnacles volcano.

That would be my recommendation if you’re confident in your fitness level. If you’re looking for something a little less strenuous but still want to see some stunning scenery, then consider the Condor Gulch Trail which is only 1.7 miles one way. Condor gives you great views of the high peaks at only one mile into the hike and also the option of continuing on with a more strenuous path if you feel inclined to do so.

Pinnacles National Park
View from the High Peaks Trail. Photo by Joe Parks

Finally one of the other primary attractions of the park is the wildlife viewing. Because Pinnacles National Park lies at the interface of northern, southern, coastal, and inland California, a good variety of plants and animals inhabit the park and coexist unlike anything you’re likely to see otherwise.

The NPS reports that there are 149 species of birds, 49 mammals, 22 reptiles, 69 butterflies, and nearly 400 bees, to name only a few. Of all the animals found here at Pinnacles, perhaps the most coveted is the California condor, the largest land bird in North America with a wingspan of up to 9.5 feet.

Condor #98 Takes Off For Home...
Photo by Pacific Southwest Region

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Unlike their fellow scavenger, the turkey vulture, California condors have a poor sense of smell and instead rely on their remarkable eyesight to find the carrion (dead animal carcasses) they consume. Their bald heads, while unsightly, are specially adapted so that they are easier to clean after diving into rotten animal corpses. This exposed skin on the condor’s head is also capable of changing color, depending on the emotional state of the bird—a valuable adaptation that helps condors communicate with each other.

California Condor.jpg
Photo by Sheila Sund

California condors once inhabited the entire United States, but, after a combination of changing temperatures and human activities like poaching, their numbers dropped to a mere twenty-two birds worldwide in the twentieth century.

As a result, the California Condor Recovery Program was initiated in 1987, and every wild condor known to exist was brought into captivity for breeding programs.

It was a bold, controversial move and involved unusual techniques like using puppets to feed baby condors so that the adults would lay more eggs. However, the program has successfully repopulated these birds to about 435 worldwide, reintroducing these birds to the wild in different areas of Arizona, California, and Baja California, Mexico.

Pinnacles has been part of the California Condor Recovery Program, and since 2003 there are now twenty-seven condors that roam free in the park. You’ll come across mixed reviews by visitors of actual condor sightings, as it seems that some see handfuls of condors throughout their visit, while others see none at all.

This is due in part to the small number of condors that actually inhabit the park, as well as the fact that these magnificent creatures are known to move frequently throughout their territory which extends as far west as Big Sur.

But if you really want to catch a glimpse of a California condor, then your best shot is to go to High Peaks (strenuous hike required) area in the early morning or evening. Another place to check is Bench Trail (near the visitor center) in the morning, where the park offers spotting scopes to aid with your viewing.


  • Though the park is new, it’s rapidly growing in popularity. If you’re visiting on the weekend, make sure you arrive as early as possible to secure parking. Otherwise you will have to hike about eight miles total from the visitor center. A shuttle bus does run on Sundays, but I recommend just arriving early before the rush of weekend visitors.
  • Keep in mind that, during the summer, this park can get really hot, and there is limited shade on many of the trails, so be sure to bring plenty of water. Spring and fall are likely the best times to visit for ideal weather.
  • Don’t get confused if you come across signs or markers on maps for Pinnacles National Monument. Remember, this is a new national park and used to be known as a national monument.

Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona Guide: Tips for Tours [2021]

Simply put, the Antelope Canyon in Arizona may be the most mystifying place I’ve ever visited.

So this post deserves two parts.

The first part will focus on helping you to prepare for visiting Antelope Canyon and give you some tips on tours, tickets, and things like Upper Antelope Canyon vs Lower Antelope Canyon and nearby hotels. 

The second part will give you tips for photographing the canyon.

Also, if you’re interested in learning more about national parks in Arizona, check out my article here.

Tip: Use the free app WalletFlo to help you travel the world for free by finding the best travel credit cards and promotions!

1. Antelope Canyon tours and ticket prices 

Unless you’re purchasing some type of package deal from a tour operator, you’ll likely purchase separate tickets for Upper Antelope Canyon and Lower Antelope Canyon.

Note: Antelope Canyon requires a tour and a guide to enter the canyon

Upper Antelope Canyon

You can find tours and make tour reservations here.

For Upper Antelope Canyon you’re looking at the following fees:

  • Child $67 (ages 0 to 7)
  • Adult $85 (ages 8 and older)

RATES INCLUDE  Navajo Tribal Park entrance fee, local taxes.

Lower Antelope Canyon

For Lower Antelope Canyon you’re looking at the following fees:

  • Infants FREE (ages 0 to 3)
  • Child $30 (ages 4 to 12)
  • Adult $50 (ages 13 and older)

You can book Antelope Canyon tours here.

Photography tour

As of December 31, 2019 there are no more photographic tours in Upper Antelope Canyon. They only accept the sightseeing tour.

2. Upper Antelope vs Lower Antelope

Antelope Canyon comprises two separate canyons and you have to book trips to them separately.

Lower Antelope is less populated with tourists, cheaper to visit, longer, and the canyon spaces are much tighter inside the canyon walls. Upper Antelope is more frequently visited, more expensive, and has much wider walkways in the canyon.

The important difference for me was the famous light beams of Upper Antelope.

While you can find the light beams (or “shafts”) in Lower Antelope as well, Upper Antelope’s light beams appear to be more dramatic and seemed to be the more guaranteed route for stunning photographs.

So which one is right for you?

Well, they are both going to blow you away so you really can’t go wrong with either one. But if you are trying to narrow it down, one thing to consider is your personal mobility.

In Lower Antelope, you will have to climb some stairs and ladders and get through some very tight spaces with moderate scrambling. In Upper Antelope, that is not the case because the floor is flat and there are only a few narrow sections.

So if mobility is an important concern then the decision is easy: go with Upper Antelope.

Upper Antelope Canyon. Photo by @ S@ndrine. Image via Flickr.

One big advantage to Lower Antelope is that there are far fewer people visiting the canyon, which means you don’t have to deal with mass herds of people.

Another is that Lower has the more adventurous appeal, because you may be able to venture without being accompanied by a tour guide and there’s a little bit of climbing here and there.

While the spaces are more cramped and thus more difficult to set up a tripod, you won’t have to deal with the big crowds so it balances out. But once again, if you are going to Antelope Canyon to shoot the light beams you probably want to go with Upper Antelope.

Another difference is getting there. For Upper Antelope, you will arrive at a parking lot where you will sign in under a tent and then jump aboard an open-bed truck and head a few minutes down the road and then on to a bumpy off-road to reach the canyon.

We did a photography tour (more below) so we were taken to the canyon in an enclosed SUV.

For Lower Antelope, you simply show up at the parking lot and then a guide takes you down into the canyon. Based on reviews, it appears the guides use their discretion as to whether they’ll accompany you down there or not.

Overall, I think the two main determining factors are mobility and desire to shoot the light beams. But just know, you really can’t lose any way you go and remember you can always schedule a tour for both. As for my recommendation, I say do both.

However, if you can’t do both then I’m on Team Upper Antelope (at least for your first time out there). 

You might be interested in: REI Co-op World Elite Mastercard Review

3. Antelope Canyon light beams

The light beams in Antelope Canyon are, to me, what makes this place is so unforgettable. They only occur at certain times of the day and only last for a short while but when they shine through the openings up top it’s truly a sight to see.

I highly recommend planning your visit so that you can witness the magnificent light beams. Call the tour guides to see when the best time to come to see the beams is since that time will differ depending on the time of year. Usually the time will be between 10am-12pm.

If you can’t get there to see the beams, don’t worry, this place is still one of the most mystifying destinations you’ll ever visit.

Upper Antelope Canyon Light Beam. Photo by John Morton. Image via Flickr.

The guides in Upper Antelope will take care of throwing sand into the beams to make sure that the light sticks out, just try to time your shots to make sure you capture the beam when the sand is mid-air.

And please, as much fun as we all have throwing sand up in the air, just let the guides handle the sand throwing and work their magic.

There was at least one visitor who threw up a handful of sand only for it to shower upon an entire group of photographers in front of me. Suffice it to say, he instantly became the least popular person in the canyon.

4. Pouring sand

Another amazing sight is the pouring sand effect. This happens when the guide throws a lot of the sand onto the canyon walls or also when the sand is blown from above the canyon.

When I visited, a strong wind blew tons of sand from the top so we had more than enough pouring sand to go around. And when I say tons, I mean it felt like I was trapped in the bottom half of a giant hourglass.

Our guide said that’s something that usually doesn’t happen but just be ready for it because it will get everywhere.

Upper Antelope Canyon Pouring Sand. Photo by Christian Keller. Image via Flickr.

5. Bring a bandana

This is probably not necessary for most visitors.

But if you run into a massive sand pouring as we did, a bandana will come in handy to keep all the sand out of your mouth and from running down your shirt.

A few of the guides were wearing these so it’s something to think about. Plus, there’s always the added effect of feeling like a bad-ass because you’re wearing a bandana.

6. Bring water

While the canyon is much cooler than the desert air above, don’t forget that you’ll still be getting thirsty and try to bring a bottle of water with you. If you’re going to bring a backpack, try to bring the smallest one possible.

7. Watch out, it’s dark down there

One thing that I wasn’t prepared for was how dark the canyon got at times. Upper Antelope can get really dark, much like a haunted house you’d go to during Halloween (note Lower Antelope is not as dark).

One unfortunate person in our group was startled during the sand downpour just mentioned and so she took off running through the canyon only to be absolutely leveled and knocked to the ground by a section of the canyon jutting out. Aside from some ego bruising, she appeared to be okay.

So just be careful and even if you are being rushed in a tour; use your hands to get around when you can’t see.

Also, watch out for the photographer groups. While shooting we had the occasional straggler who stumbled right into our shots. Be alert and not try not to be that person, though I will say all of us photographers were extremely polite in those cases.

8. Watch the weather (Lower Antelope folks) 

If you haven’t come across any articles about the flash flood disaster at Lower Antelope in 1997, now is a good time to inform yourself. I’ve been told that the guides at Lower Antelope Canyon take extra precautions now to avoid disasters with flash floods.

Even so, know that you may be the only person who can ultimately look out for yourself. All it takes is one mistake or unexpected storm to find yourself in a situation.

So check and double check the weather on your morning out to the canyon. With all the awareness of the dangers today, the odds of another disaster are probably very slim, but the last thing you want to do is venture down into a slot canyon and find yourself in a situation.

If you want to find out more about the (very sad) disaster in this canyon in 1997, click here. The flash floods can occur in Upper Antelope as well.

However, there you never leave the sight of your guide and the route of escape is much easier so it’s probably safe to say your risk is minimal.

9. Time zone differences

The Navajo lands operate on a different time zone from the neighboring lands in Arizona who don’t acknowledge daylight savings time.

Coming from the pacific time zone, I confused myself three times over trying to remember what time zone they were on. So my recommendation is to just call the tour company you booked with and make sure you know what time your tour starts on in Navajo time.

10. Eat and go the bathroom before

Remember to use the bathroom and maybe grab some snacks right before you go on your tour.

11. Hotels near Antelope Canyon

A great thing about staying a night or two in Page, AZ  is that it gives you time to perfectly construct an itinerary for seeing some of the nearby sights.

For example, you can wake up early and get some sunrise shots at Horseshoe Bend and then head over to Antelope Canyon and catch the canyon at the best time of day (when the light beams are out) and then still have time to head over to another amazing place like Glen Canyon (though if you want to visit Rainbow Bridge that needs to be an all-day event).

I stayed at the Marriott Courtyard in Page, AZ, and highly recommend it.

12. Nearby attractions to Antelope Canyon

  • Horseshoe Bend 10 miles (15 minutes)
  • Grand Canyon North Rim 128 miles (2.5 hours)
  • Grand Canyon South Rim 135 miles (2.5 hours)
  • St. George, Utah 215 miles (2 hours, 50 minutes)
  • Las Vegas, Nevada 380 miles (4.5 hours)


Photographing Antelope Canyon

I consider myself an “enthusiastic amateur” photographer based purely on the idea for that title that just popped into my head. So feel free to take my advice with a grain of sand salt. But if you like how my photos turned out then this information should be helpful.

1. Photography tours

If you are going to Upper, then I highly recommend a photography tour.

The main reason is that there are so many people in that canyon — especially during peak hours — that you will struggle to find room to set up for shots and struggle even harder to keep others out of your pictures.

Also, most guides don’t allow others on non-photography tours to use tripods, so there’s goes your chance at getting professional-quality shots.

I chose Adventurous Antelope Canyon for my photography tour (no longer available).

Now the photography tours are expensive but worth it. Our guide was a youngster but he did a great job of keeping everyone else back and out of our shots.

He also directed us on where to set up for the shots. Without him telling everyone to stay back, I don’t know how I could have gotten half the shots I did. The guide also gave us some good tips on shooting in there.

I only had two real complaints with the tour.

First, our tour guide initially told us “no taking HDRs,” presumably because it would slow down the tour. I’d paid wayyy too much money to be told I couldn’t shoot HDRs, so I ended up shooting them anyway. My second issue was just the nature of the tour. It’s quite hectic (more on that below).

Overall, I still had a great experience and I highly recommend AAC tours. Note: I’m not affiliated with AAC in any way.

2. Tripod and Lenses

If you scheduled a photography tour with Upper Antelope, you will have to bring your tripod and your DSLR. For lenses, try to stick to one wide-angle lens. There’s a ton of sand floating around down there and it’s all looking to land itself in the little cracks of your camera so try to stick to one lens.

Also, if you’re on a photography tour, it will be a hassle changing lenses more than once. That said, if you really just have to use two lenses it’s doable (I had at least one person in my group do so). Just take extra precautions to keep the sand out and not to waste time.

If you’re planning a trip with your partner and he/she doesn’t have a DSLR/tripod you are kind of stuck. In my case, I called the tour company and told them my situation and they said it’d be okay for my partner to come along and shoot with just an iPhone (as long as I payed full-price for another spot).

But when I arrived to sign in they asked for his DSLR and I had to reason with them for us to be able to go on the tour. I understand them wanting to reserve spots for serious photographers only but you’d think they’d have options for partners/assistants or at least be consistent with their customers.

Aside from that mix-up everything went just fine, though.

3. Shoot multiple exposures

Shoot multiple exposures even if you’re not intending to create HDRs.

I walked out of the canyon with about 450 exposures and I’m glad that I did. I had several shots where I wouldn’t have got the exposure right were it not for shooting multiple exposures of -.5, -1, or -1.5.

I highly recommend at least taking/making some HDRs but don’t feel like everything has to be HDR; plenty of single exposures will turn out excellent.

4. Underexpose

I’m not going to lie, dealing with the light down there is not easy.

The metering is tough and the dynamic range is often times impossible. If you’re not shooting multiple exposures (or even if you are) make sure that you underexpose about a stop and a half.

5. Shoot RAW… or JPEG

I shot the first 25% of my shots in RAW but due to shooting multiple exposures this became impossible to keep up with the tour, so I switched to JPEG.

If I wasn’t shooting multiple exposures, I would have stuck to RAW due to the occasional impossible highlight.

But I honestly am glad I switched because I feel my best shots were the result of being able to capture the canyon with multiple exposures, which would not have been possible for me shooting in RAW.

6. Aperture/ISO/etc.

In almost all of my shots, my aperture ranged from 9 to 11 with an ISO at 200. Shutter speed varied greatly depending on the section of the canyon. I used a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L with a Canon 6D.

Feel free to experiment but that’s what worked for me.

7. You can ditch the polarizer

One article I read before going recommended using a polarizer to deal with reflections on the canyon walls. I asked our guide if others use the filters and he said nobody ever does and recommended I don’t. Of course, I ignored his advice and tried out the polarizer for a little while to see for myself.

After a few shots, I decided it wasn’t doing much for me and quickly ditched it.

For me, a polarizer  just doesn’t seem necessary but there’s nothing wrong with giving it a try depending on the lighting conditions, especially if you are in the brighter Lower Antelope Canyon.

8. Autofocus or Manual Focus?

Another article I came across stated to avoid autofocus down there because the light beams would affect the focus.

I usually alternate between both manual and auto-focus when I shoot, so I figured I’d be fine just keeping to my usual routine.

But due to the rushed nature of the tour, I opted to stick to autofocus and my photos turned out fine. It probably depends a lot on your camera, but I think autofocus can work out just fine — just keep an eye out for potential issues.

9. Wrap it up (the camera)

Try to get a hold of saran wrap or a plastic bag and tape it around your lens and camera in such a way to protect the cracks of your equipment.

As long as you wrap where you can still manipulate your zoom/and or focus, you’ll be just fine.

Another way would be to just bring a bag to cover the camera in between shots if you didn’t want to hassle with wrapping the camera.

10. Vertical framing

Most of my photos were framed vertically as you can tell. Obviously, this depends on preference and taste but I think on average vertical framing allows you to capture the canyon better.

11. Find your rhythm 

If you’re using a timer then you’re going to need to find your rhythm early on to make sure that you catch the beams at the right time. The guides will tell you when to shoot but if you’re going off a timer on the camera it’s not that helpful, so you’ll need to time it yourself.

This is why I recommend using a cable release for you camera.

If for some reason you don’t think you got the shot you wanted, don’t be shy and just ask the guide for another throw of sand or another minute or two and they’ll make sure you get your shot.

Keep in mind that it’s also nice to have a variety of captured light beams with different degrees of opacity.

12. Don’t forget to look up

Everyone will tell you not to get caught up in the light beams and sand. Remember to look up for interesting views and shots.

13. Be prepared for camera warfare

One reason you may want to go with Lower Antelope is that Upper Antelope is chaotic.

There are tons of groups going in and out and tons of people directing orders for others to move that it can feel chaotic. Even doing the photography tour with only five other photographers involved a constant jockey for position with others directly above, below, and to the side of you at all times.

One guy remarked that this was “camera warfare” and I’d have to agree.

Everything is rushed.

You’ll be directed to go to a spot, take your shots, then pick everything up and scurry off to the next spot.

There’s no time wasted in “taking in” the canyon. On the one hand I appreciated the efficient approach to the tour, but I also felt like I didn’t get the chance to just relax and enjoy being down there.

If you’re looking for a laid-back type of photography experience that is not what you are going to get in Upper Antelope, at least not during the peak hours.

I love shooting photos but after about an hour and 45 minutes in there, I was ready to wrap it up because it was so hectic in there. Now, they did give us about 15 minutes at the end to roam freely which was nice.

With that said, don’t let the potential stress keep you from doing the photography tour.

If you get a good guide, he or she will make sure you get your shots. And in a way, dealing with all the commotion made the experience more rewarding because it was challenging.

I think the important thing is just to be prepared for a little bit of madness and go in with the mindset of not allowing all the chaos to affect your shooting. One thing that might help is staying at the front of the pack and next to your guide. That’s what I did and it helped me get my shots.

14. Cleaning your gear

There’s a good chance you’ll end up with at least some sand in your camera gear (and other places). In my case, I had tons of sand stuck in my lens so that when I tried to zoom it sounded like I was grinding peppercorns. The guides have air pumps to help knock some of the sand out but what worked best for me was wrapping my camera strap around my wrist and holding the camera outside the car window as we drove off on the highway.

Holding your $2,000+ camera gear out the window on the highway feels like you’re just asking for a disaster and you’ll definitely get some strange looks by others — but trust me it works. Also, try twisting the zoom/focus to shake up the sand loose even more. It took a long time for me to get all the sand out, but I finally was successful.

15. Tip

Don’t forget to tip your tour guide….

16. Additional Resources

Finally, if you want more information take a look at this blog. This guy is ridiculously talented and experienced and has shot the canyon a million times, so definitely check him out for more technical advice.

Keep in mind that pricing and policies of these places is subject to change, so always call the tour companies with your questions. The owners of these companies are extremely friendly and helpful on the phone.

That’s all I have. Seeing Antelope Canyon is one of the most amazing things I’ve done in life so far. Even if your photography tour gets a little hectic, you’ll still leave that place thoroughly impressed with its natural beauty.

If you found this article helpful then check out my eBook Hidden Gems of the Western United States to find more stunning destinations and learn how to explore these places best!

Antelope Canyon FAQs

How much does a tour cost to Upper Antelope Canyon?

A guided tour for an adult is $85 and for a child it is $67.

When is Upper Antelope Canyon going to open again?

Upper Antelope Canyon is closed for all of 2020 and will likely remain closed several months into 2021.

How long do the Upper Antelope Canyon tours last?

The tours last about 1.5 hours.

Do I have to take a guided tour to explore the canyon?

Yes, you are required to take a guided tour to explore Upper Antelope Canyon.

What times are Upper Antelope Canyon tours offered?

7:50am, 9:50am, 12:00pm and 2:00pm.

Can you bring the tripod to Upper Antelope Canyon?

No, tripods are not allowed.

Can I bring a stroller to Upper Antelope Canyon?

No, strollers are not allowed.

How far is Upper Antelope Canyon from Las Vegas?

Approximately five hours driving.

What time zone is Upper Antelope Canyon?

Upper Antelope Canyon operates on Arizona time.

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