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5 National Parks to Visit this Winter

National Parks are a wonder any time of the year, but some are even better suited during the winter months. We picked out 5 of our favorite National Parks to visit in the wintertime. Whether you’re an avid cross country skier or you want to find a place warm enough to hike and swim, there will be a National Park that fit your winter adventure needs. 

Are you looking for a few other parks to visit? Check out these five must-see State Parks.

5 National Parks to Visit This Winter

All parks are subject to closures and limited access due to winter weather conditions and COVID-19 precautions. Please check for updates on National Park websites before planning your visit. 

1.   Big Bend National Park 

Instagram: @bigbendnps

Location: Texas

Best Time to Visit: October – April

Winter Temperatures: 40-60 degrees Fahrenheit

Recommended Activity: Hiking or Camping

The winter is the best time of year to visit Big Bend National Park in Texas, making it the busiest time of year as well. Spring and Fall can also be great times to head into the park, but high Summer temperatures make it dangerous to hike and camp.

Big Bend is widely known for its camping, hiking, and backcountry backpacking. No matter your skill level or desire for adventure, there will be a trail that you and your family can enjoy. Most winter nights, even during the coldest months, will reach 40 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes it perfect for gathering around a cozy campfire and using a bluetooth speaker to sing along to campfire tunes.

If hiking isn’t your favorite activity, Big Bend also offers a wide variety of educational Ranger programs, a few scenic drives, and a must-see Fossil Discovery Exhibit

Learn more on the Big Bend National Park website.

2. Dry Tortugas National Park 

Location: Florida

Best Time to Visit: November – April 

Winter Temperatures: 50-80 degrees Fahrenheit

Recommended Activity: Bird Watching or Scuba Diving

The Dry Tortugas are just off the coast of Key West Florida, and it is a stunning location for any water lover to visit. From snorkeling, diving, fishing, boating, kayaking, and swimming, there is much to be explored in Dry Tortugas National Park. 

While the park can be visited at any time of year, it is essential to note the activities you would most like to participate in will vary from winter to summer. The Dry Tortugas essentially has two seasons: winter and summer. The winter is known for sporadic cold fronts, high winds, and choppy waters. This makes it more challenging to view ocean wildlife when snorkeling and can be unsafe for inexperienced boaters. 

However, the wintertime is the best time of year for bird watchers and tourists looking for fewer crowds. High winds tend to be more consistent from October to January, so if you’re looking for fewer people and still want to enjoy some snorkeling, February may be the best option. 

Be sure to plan your trip to the Dry Tortugas well in advance, as it is only accessible by boat or seaplane. 

Learn more on the Dry Tortugas National Park website.

3. Saguaro National Park 

Location: Arizona

Best Time to Visit: October – April

Winter Temperatures: 40-70 degrees Fahrenheit

Recommended Activity: Hiking 

Located in southern Arizona near Tuscon, Saguaro National Park is a wonderland for nature and hiking enthusiasts to enjoy. Like much of southern Arizona, the winter is the best and busiest time to enjoy outdoor activities. Saguaro National Park is well known for its hiking, and of course, the density of Saguaro cacti spread around the park and surrounding areas. 

Beyond incredible desert vistas while hiking or backpacking and the diverse flora and fauna, visitors can also enjoy the natural history by visiting area petroglyphs. 

If you’d like to camp in the park, make reservations early as camping spots fill up fast. You can make reservations as early as two months in advance. Be advised that hours and accessibility may differ due to COVID-19. 

Finally, a must mention for any trip in the Arizona desert is to take some time to view the sunset. Although sunsets are spectacular in most outdoor spaces, the sunsets seem richer due to the landscape’s natural warm coloring.

Learn more on the Saguaro National Park website.

4. Bryce Canyon National Park 

Instagram: @brycecanyonnps_gov

Location: Utah

Best Time to Visit: May – September

Winter Temperatures: 10-40 degrees Fahrenheit

Recommended Activity: Snowshoeing or Cross-country Skiing 

Although the winter is not deemed the “best” time of year to visit Bryce Canyon National Park, there is plenty to do for winter adventurers. If you are a lover of all things snowshoeing and cross country skiing, Bryce Canyon is a must-see park to put on your list. 

The winter is the least traveled by humans in the park, making it optimal for wildlife viewing and stunning nature photography. If you plan a visit to the park, don’t fret that daylight hours are shorter either, because the night skies in Bryce are an unforgettable sight. Study up on your winter constellations before you come, and enjoy a snowy night hike amongst the stars. 

Learn more on the Bryce Canyon National Park website.

5. Acadia National Park 

Location: Maine

Best Time to Visit: August – October

Winter Temperatures: 10-35 degrees Fahrenheit

Recommended Activity: Cross-Country Skiing 

The last park on our list is a bit further north in Maine. Acadia National Park is well known for its Fall colors, making Autumn the most popular season to visit. Still, if cross country skiing is a favorite activity of yours, then this is one of the best places to go this winter. 

Acadia’s backcountry ski trails are hard to beat since there are around 45 miles of groomed trails. Beyond that, you are also allowed to ski on unplowed park roads. Be warned that snowmobiles can also use the roads for travel though. 

Acadia National Park is also a stunning place to go for a winter hike or an afternoon snowshoe. 

Learn more on the Acadia National Park website.

5 Must-Visit State Parks to Add to Your Bucket List

Many of us have been postponing or rescheduling travels in 2020. If we didn’t outright cancel plans, we might have restructured our vacations to focus on closer to home or outdoor locations. 

I’m sure you’ve heard of some of the most popular National Parks like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, but did you know that there are over 6,600 state park sites in the United States? The vast array of outdoor spaces we have access to in the US is astounding and fortunate during a pandemic. That way, we can still get outside and avoid the crowds, but we have to be willing to look beyond the most well-known parks and places. 

To help you narrow it down, we put together some lesser-visited yet epically spectacular parks to add to your bucket list. 

5 Bucket List State Parks

1.   Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Instagram: @valley.of.fire

Location: Overton, Nevada

Best Time to Visit: October – April

Must-Do: Prospect Trail 

Camping: 72 sites (RV hookups available)

Drive through the Valley of Fire State Park, and it will make you think that perhaps you are on Mars. The unique red rock formations and indigenous history within the park have been a focal point for numerous Hollywood productions, festivals, and countless weddings. 

The stunning colors of the landscape come from the Aztec sandstone against the backdrop of limestone mountains. Beyond the geological history, this land is rich with other natural histories, including petroglyphs carved into the rocks by the Basketmaker culture, Early Pueblo, and the Paiutes. 

You can drive through the park and stop at overlooks and enjoy short walks from your car, or you can stay and camp in the first-come, first-serve campground. The campsites are spread out in rocky outcroppings giving you a sense of solitude. 

Learn more on the Valley of Fire State Park website.

2.   City of Rocks State Park, New Mexico 

Instagram: @wandering.america

Location: Deming, New Mexico

Best Time to Visit: Spring / Fall

Must-Do: Camping among the rocks

Camping: 41 sites (with showers / RV hookups)

City of Rocks State Park in New Mexico is located in the Southwest corner of the state. What makes this park unique is the volcanic rock formations. This is a great place to stop over for a relaxing overnight or weekend camping trip. 

All of the campsites are spread out among the volcanic rock formations. The park itself is relatively small, only about one square mile. So, there is some hiking available, but it is limited. If you do plan to hike, make sure to pack a bluetooth portable speaker that will fit right in the slot of your backpack.

The park’s name, City of Rocks, comes from the geological formations that make up a “city” of rock pinnacles that rise to 40 feet in height and are separated by paths. From a distance, the spread of pinnacles resembles a city in the barren Chihuahuan desert. 

Beyond camping and hiking, City of Rocks is a spectacular place for stargazing, birding, and mountain biking. Faywood Hot Springs are also within 5 miles of the park to add some relaxation and adventure to your visit. 

Learn more on the City of Rocks State Park website.

3.   Custer State Park, South Dakota

Instagram: @custerstateparksd

Location: Custer, South Dakota

Best Time to Visit: May-October

Must-Do: Kayaking on Sylvan Lake

Camping: 9 scenic campgrounds spread throughout the park

Located in the Black Hills area of South Dakota, Custer State Park offers various year-round adventures that anyone can enjoy. While they are open in the winter months, the warmer months tend to be a more popular time to visit the area. 

Depending on the activity, you will have access to several different camping experiences. All camping areas, even dry camping, will have access to a bathroom of some kind, even if they are just pit toilets. There are also cabins available for rent and a resort within the park if you are looking for a more luxurious getaway. 

Hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, paddleboarding, and horseback riding are just a few of the most popular things to do within the park. During the winter months, many visitors enjoy snowshoeing and cross country skiing. 

Learn more on the Custer State Park website.

4.   Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Michigan 

Instagram: @porcupinemountainscvb

Location: Ontonagon, Michigan

Best Time to Visit: September – November

Must-Do: Backpacking

Camping: Backcountry sites, campgrounds, Yurt rentals, and cabins 

Michigan’s largest state park is located on the scenic Upper Peninsula and includes the Porcupine Mountains. This park is home to over 90 miles of hiking trails and 60,000 acres of land, some of which stretch along the shoreline of Lake Superior. That isn’t the only lake on the horizon, though. 

One of the most famous portions of the park is Lake of the Clouds. This lake is tucked in a valley accessible when backpacking but is visible from a few different overlooks. One of the overlooks is ADA accessible as well. Be warned that the hiking trails are notorious for being muddy, flooded, and buggy so bring proper gear. 

Other popular activities beyond backpacking and camping include fishing, boating, and biking. During the winter months, both cross country and downhill skiing are available in the area. 

Learn more on the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park website.

5.   Merchants Millpond State Park, North Carolina

Instagram: @curtsuneson

Location: Gatesville, North Carolina 

Best Time to Visit: Year-Round

Must-Do: Paddling

Camping: Hike-in, paddle-in, and 20 drive-up sites

Located in the Northeast corner of North Carolina is a hidden gem of a swamp. Now, a swamp park doesn’t sound all that fun, but if you are a fan of paddling, this Southern swamp and hardwood forest is a wonderland. 

There are no entrance fees to enter the park, but you have to set up reservations for overnight stays. While you can reserve drive-up campsites, some of the most coveted spots are the ones you have to backpack or paddle to. Although there are alligators and other swamp critters around, they generally avoid visitors paddling through the waters. Be sure to respect their boundaries as well. 

Besides paddling, you can also enjoy some biking/hiking trails, fishing, and picnic areas.

Learn more on the Merchants Millpond State Park website.

5 Lesser-Traveled Spots to Check Out That Are COVID Friendly

The COVID-19 pandemic has been excellent for outdoors lovers. Bars are closed. Conventions and amusement parks are widely considered bad ideas. What’s left for simple recreation is getting outside to camp, hike, backpack, and otherwise enjoy nature and all its myriad attractions. 

However, many of our favorite outdoor locations have become crowded by groups who usually would have gone to Disneyland or stayed closer to home, sampling the local pubs and restaurants. This not only makes these destinations less enjoyable for a diehard outdoors lover, but it also makes them dangerous. A crowded campground can be just as hazardous as an overpopulated beach, from a disease vector standpoint.

Until there’s a vaccine, good sense and a spirit of adventure both dictate that we go to the lesser-known spots. Here are a few great ones from different parts of the country.

1. Pacific Northwest: Toad Lake Campground

This small patch of camping bliss is 12 miles west of I-5 near Mount Shasta. It’s one of the hike-in-only locations on the Pacific Crest Trail, a strong deterrent for casual campers. You can take your pick of developed sites with park benches and nearby toilets or hike the extra few miles for a back-country or primitive space. The farther you go, the more separated you’ll be from the crowds.

Its eponymous lake covers 23 acres surrounded by hilly forest. The shores vary from thick woods to rocky outcroppings to meadows. Boats are not permitted, making it great for fishing and swimming. There’s not much going on besides the beautiful, off-the-beaten-path nature, but that’s all we need. It might even be the perfect spot to bring out your Waterproof Speaker and lounge around for a bit.

Toad Lake Campground is open all year. Camping sites are first-come, first-served.

How to Get There

Turn onto exit 738 from I-5 near Mount Shasta, heading west. Follow Route 26/Barr Rd and turn off at the Toad Lake sign. Follow the winding road to the parking lot, then hike in following the marked trail.

2. Southwest: South Ruby Campground

A fishing and boating paradise located in the Ruby Valley National Wildlife Refuge, this campground is rarely close to as crowded as its location and amenities would suggest. It sits at 6,000 feet elevation around the coast of Ruby Lake in Nevada. Despite being a classic high desert location, its lake and marshlands attract stopover species from all around, making it one of the best bird and wildlife watching locations in the area.

The campground is located among pinyon pine and juniper, offering a shady place to pitch your tent in one of 35 sites, including one double spot and one wheelchair-accessible site. All sites have picnic tables and campfire rings, with vault toilets and running water available nearby. Besides being out of the way, the campground’s structure runs screens of trees between sites, making social distancing (and privacy) easy.

Unlike many of the out-of-the-way camping opportunities on this list, South Ruby allows boating, ATV riding, and off-road vehicles.

South Ruby Campground is open May through September, with exact dates announced one year ahead of time. You can book sites up to six months in advance.

How to Get There

Turn south off I-80 onto Route 227 near Elko. Turn right onto Route 228 and follow it past Jiggs. As the highway begins to turn north in a wide dogleg, turn right onto Ruby Valley Road and take it to the campground. If 228 turns into 767, you’ve gone too far.

3. Southeast: Linville Gorge

“The Grand Canyon of the East” is a rugged river valley in Burke County, North Carolina. The land is so steep and rough it was never harvested for timber, leaving much of it as pristine, old-growth forest rare on that side of the Mississippi River. The designated National Wilderness Area covers 12,000 acres deep forest, offering multiple rare plant species and excellent wildlife and bird viewing opportunities. The Linville River cuts a meandering path through granite walls, creating stunning falls, steep gorges, and multiple deep coves for swimming and fishing.

Trails here are not well-maintained or even clearly marked, but they offer unique, spectacular vistas to experienced hikers. Camping (with permits) is available both in established, primitive campsites and simple backwoods spaces. Motor travel is not permitted, and cellular reception is spotty. This is wilderness camping, so come prepared.

The Linville Gorge wilderness is open year-round.

How to Get There

You can access this large patch of wilderness from multiple locations, including simple roadside trailheads and a few logging roads kept open during the summer months. Aim your GPS for Spruce Pine, North Carolina. or Lenoir, North Carolina, and set off from there. Local guides can tell you what’s best and what’s least crowded at any particular time.

4. Great Plains: Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

Another sizable protected area, Wichita Mountain Wilderness contains Fawn Creek Campgrounds and Doris Campground. It covers more than 59,000 acres of scrubland containing rough hills, plains, and waterways. It’s one of the oldest national wildlife refuges in the United States and home to roaming herds of bison and longhorns. Locals and road trippers visit for camping near the Visitor’s Center, but the hiking trails and boating opportunities go deep into the Refuge.

Camping opportunities are more strictly regimented here than in many other areas. Doris Campground offers hookups for RVs and pop-up tent vehicles (tents are currently prohibited). Fawn Creek Campground is reserved for organized youth groups. Everybody else is invited to enjoy backcountry camping, which is likely what you wanted anyway if you’re reading this article. All three options are by permit only, available up to three months in advance.

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is open all year, though some facilities shut down or curtail operations during winter.

How to Get There

Drive west out of Lawton on Highway 62. At Cache, turn right onto 115 and enter the area Refuge near Doris Campground. For faster access to the Visitor’s Center, continue on 62 and turn right on Route 54. Turn right onto Hwy 49, which leads you straight into the Refuge and to the Visitor’s Center.

5. New England: Cutler Coast

This area is also known as the Bold Coast, and it offers some of the most extended tracts of undeveloped coastline along the East Coast. Activity here is centered on trail hiking, including the famed Caribou Loop and Black Point Brook Loop. You can access most camping by car, but some of the best views, hiking, and wildlife viewing are only available to those willing to reach them on foot (or by paddling).

The entire area is dotted with primitive camping opportunities, all first-come, first-served. The main areas include Fairy Beach, Machias River Corridor, Donnell Pond, and Stave Island. Bear in mind that hiking is often strenuous and consists of some hazardous conditions. This getaway is not recommended for families with small children or novice hikers, making it an excellent choice for experienced outdoors lovers looking to avoid crowds during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cutler Coast is open year-round, but the hazards increase and the foliage decreases as soon as the snow starts to fall.

How to Get There

Follow 191 northeast out of Cutler (accessible via 191 by driving south, then east out of East Machias). You’ll find multiple turn-offs and opportunities on your right as you go.

Final Thoughts

Visiting these out-of-the-way spaces is no guarantee you’ll be alone or at no risk of COVID-19 exposure. Be sure to include hand sanitizer, face masks, medical gloves, and similar items in your packing kit. For the time being, they’re as important as your cooking supplies and first aid gear.

John Bradley lives with his family of six in Oregon. They hiked and completed a big trip across the country in an RV during COVID-19.

Hiking Or Camping? Here’s How to Spot Poison Ivy and Poison Oak

Spending time outdoors is one of the best things we can do for our physical and mental health — especially right now. And if you’re looking for something invigorating to distract you from the pandemic, hiking or camping should probably be on your list.

Of course, you do need to take precautions when you participate in these outdoor activities. Although going outside can be one of the safest options right now, that doesn’t mean there won’t be hazards waiting for you. Many of those hazards occur naturally, so you’ll want to be mindful whenever you’re walking through wildlife. If you keep an eye out, you might even find a Mossy Oak Buckshot Pro hiding in the bushes.

As we move from summer to fall, you’ll still need to be aware of the animals and plants that can cause harm. Poison ivy and poison oak are among these dangers. It’ll behoove you to learn exactly what these plants look like so you can avoid them on the trail. That way, nothing can ruin your trip.

Poison Ivy Vs. Poison Oak: How to Tell the Difference

Both poison ivy and poison oak can cause allergic reactions (which typically show up in the form of a bodily rash) due to the urushiol they contain. In fact, 85% of Americans are allergic to poison ivy. Both plants are characterized by their lack of thorns and their three-leaf clusters. (If you’ve ever heard the expression, “leaves of three, let them be,” you’ll already be familiar with this aspect of their physical appearance). They also grow as either a vine or a bush, have red berries and white flowers, and come in a variety of sizes. They also tend to turn red in color during the fall.

However, poison ivy and poison oak also have some key differences that can help you know which plants to avoid. Poison ivy often grows close to the ground and has vines or stems that are fuzzy in appearance. Its leaves are almond-shaped and may look shiny. Poison oak has leaves that are a bit more rounded and “hairy.” They really do look similar to oak leaves. 

Avoiding and Treating Poison Ivy or Poison Oak

Knowing how to differentiate between poison ivy and poison oak can allow you to avoid making contact with these hazardous plants. But you may not always be able to rely on your quick reactions to keep you safe. When hiking, camping, or spending time in nature, you should consider wearing protective clothing to cover your skin. Long pants and long-sleeved shirts should be worn to provide a barrier between your bare skin and any plants you might brush up against.

But since reactions to poison ivy and poison oak aren’t immediate, you might realize too late that you’ve unknowingly touched them. You should first wash all exposed areas of your skin (or the affected area, if a rash has started to form) with soap and cool water. You can use cool compresses, calamine lotion, or antihistamines to treat the symptoms. Be sure to seek medical care if the rash becomes increasingly uncomfortable or if it’s accompanied by blisters, swelling, fever, or difficulty breathing. In most cases, however, the rash will eventually dissipate on its own within a couple of weeks.

Now that you know all about poison ivy and poison oak, you can hike or camp with confidence.