6 Months of Highlights from an Epic National Parks Road Trip
6 Months of Highlights from an Epic National Parks Road Trip
Favorite campgrounds, top activities, and biggest surprises.
By: Howard & Katelyn Newstate
Time flies when you’re having fun! It’s hard to believe it has already been six months since we set out for our first national park (Everglades), and we are now camped at our 21st park in the same year (Glacier)!
This year, we’re exploring as many national parks as we can, and have lots of highlights and favorite moments from the tour to share! From finding elk relaxing in our campsite at Grand Canyon to the incredible beauty all around us at Zion, and meeting the Devil’s Hole pupfish in Death Valley.
Here are some of our favorite campgrounds, activities, and biggest surprises so far.
Favorite National Park Campsites
Anytime we try to create lists like this, there is the challenge of someone asking “how could you possibly rank x over y?” To avoid this, all lists will be in no particular order, starting with campsites! (Read more about camping in national parks.)
Watchman Campground - Zion National Park, Utah
Electrical hookups and incredible views, as well as walkable to Visitor Centers, shuttles, and the town of Springdale. This campsite has something for everyone, and there is a reason why it is one of the hardest campgrounds to score reservations for.
We loved the convenience of the location matched with a fantastic campsite. Set a calendar reminder and try your best to snag a spot in this epic campground.
Rio Grande Village Campground - Big Bend National Park, Texas
With the horses wading in the Rio Grande nearby, javelina roaming the campground, and thousands of stars overhead in this remote Dark Sky park, you can’t help but feel surrounded by nature.
Besides the convenience of exploring Big Bend, a stay at Rio Grande Village should be a must for anyone visiting the park.
Mather Campground - Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
What can we say, our campsite was popular with the elk! We would wake up to find them grazing and return from a hike to see several elk relaxing in the shade.
With a maximum vehicle length of 30ft, we just made the cutoff, but the reward was a gorgeous, spacious campsite conveniently located near all the major points of interest on the Grand Canyon’s south rim.
Our Top National Park Activities in 2023
If you’ve been following our journey this year, you know the variety of experiences we’ve shared from each park. Some of the absolute highlights for us are:
Biking to Hermit’s Rest along the Grand Canyon
Biking in a national park is a different experience compared to driving a car or hiking, and it’s now something we hope to repeat in the future! We traveled 14 miles on our e-bikes along Hermit Road and sections of the rim trail (that are wider and approved for biking) all the way to the historic Hermit’s Rest.
Stopping at various viewpoints along the way, this was a fantastic way to explore the south rim of the Grand Canyon and we have looked for scenic bike routes at other parks ever since!
Meeting the Island Foxes of Channel Islands
A visit to the Channel Islands transports you (literally and figuratively) to a place that barely resembles the mainland port you departed from. With an assortment of unique plant and wildlife species, this collection of islands felt for us like a cross between New Zealand, the Galapagos, and Ireland.
The highlight was, of course, meeting the miniature sized island foxes! These crafty foxes are visible during the day (unlike their nocturnal mainland cousins), always on the prowl, and willing to eat ANYTHING. Berries, nuts, insects, you name it. Walk through the Middle or Upper Scorpion campground and you’ll probably find an island fox checking around the campsites.
Riding Horseback through the Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon
This was our first visit to Bryce Canyon, and we had heard from others that it was their favorite park, and unlike any other. We are here to say, Bryce Canyon lives up to the hype. The experience is even more elevated by horse (and not just from being higher off the ground)!
We opted for a three-hour horse/mule ride down into the famous amphitheater, passing by and THROUGH various rock formations not visible from the primary hiking trails. Our two guides would stop frequently to share stories and identify major features during our ride. Whether you’re an experienced rider or not, the team at Canyon Trail Rides does a great job pairing you with the right horse or mule for you!
Our Biggest Surprises in the National Parks
Who doesn’t love a surprise? After almost five years of full-time travel, we’re still learning! Here are some surprises we’ve had specific to our national park adventures:
Short hikes can show you beautiful places, too!
Prior to this year’s tour through the National Parks, we often subscribed to the “no pain, no gain” philosophy (longer hikes must provide the best sceneries and views). Otherwise, why all the effort? We’re here to dispel that myth!
Our national parks are full of great hikes that are shorter, but still full of incredible vistas, breathtaking views, and absolutely worth the effort. Some highlights include:
- Devil’s Garden at Arches National Park: See several arches within one mile and continue on for an additional mile to see even more!
- Anhinga Trail at Everglades National Park: Short, elevated boardwalk trail where you can often spot alligators, fish, and birds.
- Blue Mesa Trail at Petrified Forest National Park: Short, paved trail into the badlands of Petrified Forest.
You can learn a lot from Ranger Programs.
We have always enjoyed attending ranger programs and interpretive events, but when visiting many locations for the first time, they are a fantastic way to get an introduction before exploring on your own!
This year, it has become a ritual for us: stop at the visitor center, ask for recommendations from a ranger, attend a program/watch a park film, and THEN go out exploring.
Don’t automatically skip a campsite that feels like a parking lot.
Of course, we all seek out beautiful places to camp, but we’ve been repeatedly surprised this year by booking a campground that is frequently overlooked for being more “plain!”
Pine Springs at Guadalupe Mountains NP is one example. This campground is indeed a converted parking lot, but also serves as the trailhead to several popular hikes AND has gorgeous views in every direction. If we had just evaluated it for the paved campsites from the booking photos, we would have missed out on an incredibly convenient spot!
Watch this video to see more of our national park tour highlights:
There are many well-known parks remaining for us on the tour, including Yellowstone, Yosemite, Badlands, Mammoth, and Mt. Rainier. We can’t wait to share what we find in the second half of this year!
What are some highlights from your visits to the National Parks?
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