A few things might wake you up in the middle of the night the first time you climb under the covers inside an RV. Fearing that you forgot to engage the parking brake and are in danger of rolling down the hill to your death, for one. (You did, and you are.) Thinking someone left the light on in the bathroom and wondering whether that will drain the RV's battery by morning. (They did, but it didn't.) Hearing campers breaking the sacred "quiet after 9 p.m." rule and imagining they'll get busted. (They did.) Wondering if the bacon and eggs you bought for tomorrow morning's breakfast are now, effectively, toast, because you'd been told that the fridge will mysteriously stop working if the RV is parked on even the slightest incline. (They are.)
Funny, I'd spent half my life dreaming about setting off in an RV for parts unknown and maintaining perfectly level appliances never once figured into the fantasy. To me, RVing was simply the ultimate escape route. Maybe that's because my early family vacations revolved around campgrounds and car trips. Or maybe because buying an RV is the landlocked states' version of saving up for a sailboat. It's a vacation home wherever you want it, whenever you want it. It's freedom and security in equal measure. It's Lewis and Clark with a V-8 engine.
"I studied online forums for RV enthusiasts, campground-review sites, and the orientation video on the RV-rental website."
Still, in the weeks leading to my maiden RV voyage, my anxiety was rising almost as fast as gasoline prices. The sheer size of the vehicle—and the fact that it would be filled with cutlery and combustible fuels—grew scarier by the minute. To quell the panic, I studied online forums for RV enthusiasts, campground-review sites, and the orientation video on the RV-rental website (twice). And I brought backup: Lindsay and Lola, a couple of friends I've known since college who have a generous way of seeing disasters as adventures. They tried to distract me by focusing on our packing priorities: hiking gear vs. lawn games, SPF 15 or 30. Not that it helped.
- ROAD-TESTED TIP #1: "Use an RV-specific route planner on a GPS. It'll factor in overhead clearance and other restrictions, such as which roads, bridges, and tunnels won't allow propane tanks through." —Richard Coon, former President, Recreational Vehicle Industry Association
And yet, when we arrived at the rental lot in Durham, N.C., I started to calm down, in part because a petite 20-something gal handed me the keys, and I figured that if she could pilot a big rig, then maybe I could, too. We got a few simple pointers from the RV folks: Pull far into intersections before making a turn. Leave lots of room for braking. Always use a spotter when you back up. Drive-through restaurants are just not worth the risk. We learned when to use battery power, propane, shoreline electricity, and our generator; how to restart a dead battery; the necessity of turning off the propane tank before refueling; how to heat water for showers and how to tell when the water supply is nearly depleted; and how to level out the rig with a pair of two-by-four boards if our campsite is on a slant. And we learned the finer points of emptying the holding tanks—a polite way of saying draining the toilet—a task that quickly supplanted merging onto the highway as my most dreaded challenge. "Once you get the hose screwed on—and make sure you screw it on really tight—then open the valves and walk away," said Tommy, our orientation instructor. "Or run. I've gotten wet feet more times than I like to recall." The girls and I made a pact to use the campgrounds' rest areas whenever possible and added latex gloves to the top of our shopping list. Then we took a few trial spins around the parking lot, and with Lindsay in the navigator's seat and Lola on loose-objects duty in the back, we headed into the great wide open.
"We quickly learned that RV trips are all-hands-on-deck endeavors."
First came the rattle. With every bump in the road, each cup, dish, and saucepan in our kitchen cabinets shuddered like a beat-up shopping cart being pushed down a gravel road. (I learned later that putting paper towels between the plates helps immensely.) Then came the thuds. Turn left, and one set of drawers would slide open with a thwak. Turn right, and another drawer would do the same. We were already learning that RV trips are all-hands-on-deck endeavors. In addition to navigating, Lindsay was my second set of eyes for lane changes and would become my second-in-command for ticking off setup and breakdown duties. Lola wrangled drawers and cabinets, stood lookout at the rear window for minor back-up missions, and became galley chef for the length of the trip. "This is like a ropes course," Lindsay said after our first refueling stop, with its propane-off, propane-on, secure-all-items drill. "Maybe we should do some trust falls at the beach."
Six hours, three pit stops, and one possible bird collision (none of us wanted to check the grille for confirmation) later, we arrived at Frisco Campground, one of four in the area run by the National Park Service. We had just enough time to practice back-in parking before nightfall. That's when I realized my first RV mistake: Anywhere we wanted to go, we'd have to take the RV, repositioning it each time we returned. (The pros either bring bikes or tow a regular car—often referred to as a dinghy—behind the RV.) So we strapped ourselves back in to fetch dinner in Hatteras Village, five miles away, and performed the parking routine again an hour later—this time in the dark, with the girls wielding flashlights like traffic batons.
- ROAD-TESTED TIP #2: "We try to bring or rent bicycles to visit nearby areas while camping. It beats packing up the RV to move it to a trailhead for hiking, only to find out there is no room to park a larger vehicle! Many times, you can access a 'bikes only' trail or (at the Grand Canyon, for example) trails for shuttle buses and bikes only." —Debby Schlesinger, BT reader, Grenada Hills, Calif.
To celebrate—not just the parking but surviving the first day—we split a bottle of convenience-store wine around the RV's dinette, the only spot where all three of us could sit facing each other. "I've had worse apartments than this," I said, looking around. "Definitely worse kitchens." The furnishings were surprisingly modern—navy fabric upholstery and matching window coverings, new-looking appliances and cabinets. And even though I assumed we'd overpacked, there was plenty of unused storage space in the RV's dozen cabinets. More impressive to me was the fact that I could walk around the whole cabin standing at full height, without crouching or hitting my head on anything. That was, until bedtime. I called the bunk over the cab—possibly an unconscious compulsion to stay near the driver's seat. Maneuvering my limbs into the crawl-space-size cubby guaranteed a bumped elbow, knee, or forehead with every entrance and exit. The girls shared the double bed in back, since converting the dinette to a third bed would have required clearing the piles of maps, snack-food containers, and bug repellent cans that had already accumulated on the tabletop. Calling out our good nights and cracking jokes in the dark, it was the closest thing to an adult sleepover I could imagine—more intimate than sharing a hotel room, and sillier, too.
"Orchestrating our morning routines was easier than I'd thought."
Seeing the Frisco campground in daylight—just after sunrise, in fact, thanks to the chatter of the campground's early risers—provided a fresh perspective after that fitful first night's sleep. Orchestrating our morning routines was easier than I'd thought. The toilet and the shower—one of those flimsy jobs with a handheld sprayer that tumbles readily from its mount—were bundled in one closet-size room, about four feet by four feet, tops. (Its door was inches away from where Lindsay and Lola slept, another reason to make sparing use of its facilities.) Still, the teensy bathroom sink was just outside the shower/toilet stall; at the slightly larger kitchen sink a few feet away, two people could brush their teeth simultaneously.
Lindsay was the first one out, conferring with the park ranger and plotting the day's activities (hit the beach, visit a lighthouse, find lunch). The ocean's proximity redeemed the transportation issue. After all, who needs a car when you can walk to the beach? The geography of the Outer Banks—a 130-mile stretch of narrow barrier islands, less than a mile wide for much if its length—was the primary reason I'd chosen this spot for my trial run. There are 20-plus campgrounds along the strip, none much more than a mile away from the Atlantic Ocean or Pamlico Sound. At Frisco, $28 a night buys you peace, quiet, and your own little slice of unlandscaped beachfront real estate. What that $28 doesn't buy you: heated campground showers or any way to charge a cell phone. Hence, one night would be our limit.
- ROAD-TESTED TIP #3: "If you're exhausted and not near a campground, Walmart stores sometimes allow campers to use their parking lots. Just check to make sure there's not a no overnight parking sign, and choose a spot near one of the lot's outer edges." —Kevin Broom, former Director of Media Relations, Recreational Vehicle Industry Association
The 30 miles of road between Frisco and Rodanthe, where we'd camp next, passes through a series of near-identical hamlets with dreamy names: Avon, Salvo, Waves. The longer we drove, the less I worried about all the folks in my rearview mirror who clearly wanted to pass me on the two-lane highway. Rolling down the windows and turning on the radio helped distract me. So did focusing on our next stop, an oasis where water and electricity flow freely and quiet hours don't start until a wild-and-crazy 10 p.m.
As much as I'd been obsessing about life inside an RV, pulling into the Cape Hatteras KOA was a revelation. Here, everyone was living outside their vehicles. All around us, colorful awnings, canvas camp chairs, outdoor carpets, wind chimes, string lights shaped like Airstream trailers, plastic gingham tablecloths, tiki torches, and dream catchers marked off each site's would-be front lawn. We envied our neighbors, a retired duo from Farmville, N.C., for their old-school, beige-striped Winnebago (our RV was plastered with rental ads) and simple setup: an AstroTurf swatch just big enough for their two folding chairs and a small table.
- ROAD-TESTED TIP #4: "If you're staying parked in one spot for a while, run the RV engine for a few minutes each day to recharge the battery." —Tommy Summey, Cruise America rental agent, Hillsborough, N.C.
We'd brought nothing—and I mean nothing—to make the outside of our RV feel like home. Alas, the homiest thing we could muster was to try out the RV kitchen. "Grilled cheese sandwiches, everybody?" Lola asked. With no real counter space, she spread plates across the stovetop to prep the ingredients, then shifted the plates to a little sliver of awkward space behind the sink. As the stove (and, soon after, the RV) heated up, she had a change of heart. "Cold cheese sandwiches, everybody?" she asked. The plan abandoned, we carried our sandwiches out to the nearest picnic table. And never turned on the stove again.
"Having a place to spread out is crucial."
Having a place to spread out is crucial—especially when you've crammed a family of four or five into a usable living space the size of a large toolshed. But it would also be a shame to stay inside; an RV park is a voyeur's paradise—people watching at its most reciprocal. Several times, I passed a man with a white ponytail sitting shirtless outside his RV, shelling peas. He asked how I was doing, and when I replied in kind, he said, "I'm just making do, trying to enjoy myself...it's not too difficult." He didn't need to wink—but I think he did anyway. Our favorite acquaintance at the camp was Kilo, a nervous but friendly tan-and-white Chihuahua that accompanied John, a KOA staffer, on all his rounds—showing new arrivals to their sites and helping campers set up. (The explanation for his name? "He's from Mexico." Roger that.)
Judging from all the group activities at the campground, it's safe to say that RVers are very social. Even those campers who'd rather spend their afternoons at the beach—as we did, most days—have ample opportunity for mingling after sundown. One evening, we caught the opening number at karaoke night—Cee Lo Green's expletive-free radio hit "Forget You," performed by a teenage staffer; the next, we watched an outdoor screening of Kung Fu Panda. We even organized some social events of our own, enlisting a couple of 30-something Texan guys to help us start a fire to make s'mores. Another snafu: not knowing the proper way to extinguish a fire when you're done with dessert. We poured panfuls of water from our kitchen onto the flames, sending out smoke signals to the whole campground that we were clueless.
"Just as we were leaving, I was getting the hang of it."
By the last day, we'd had more than our share of screwups, most easy enough to laugh off. But there was one RV task I really couldn't afford to botch. It was time for the Holding Tank. Lindsay followed me outside to offer moral support—and to remind me to run. Fortunately, I didn't get my feet wet, though I did leave a small trail of blue chemicals between our site's dump station and the RV (and hoped no one would notice).
- ROAD-TESTED TIP #5: "Be sure to get a tutorial on how to empty the holding tanks. One time, we forgot to add chemicals to the black-water tank after emptying it—the smell was terrible, and we quickly learned our lesson." —Laurie Huhndorf, BT reader, San Antonio
The payoff for that 5 a.m. waste disposal came when we finally hit the empty road pointing north toward Nags Head, the sky slowly brightening with each mile. The only other travelers out were sea birds and jackrabbits, and I'd long since stopped fretting over every lane change, left turn, or loose kitchen drawer rattling with dishes. Even shutting off the propane at our last gas-station stop was second nature. Finally, just as we were leaving, I was getting the hang of it. Next time, I may even get up the nerve to grill a cheese sandwich or two.
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Join Budget Travel as we begin our new series Discover USA. Discover USA explores states, counties, cities, and everything in between. Each week we will explore a new US destination to help you find things to do, itinerary ideas, and plan where to go next. This week, we invite you to Discover what the State of Mississippi has to offer. The "Magnolia state" is widely known for its BBQ, magnolias, catfish, bluegrass music, and southern charm. Explore the Outdoors Image courtesy visitmississippi.org In Mississippi, visitors will find no shortage of outdoor recreational opportunities. From breathtaking views at Gulf Coast beaches, towering forests, rivers and lakes and more, all offer exhilarating and adventurous experiences. Parks: An abundance of festivals, historic sites and outdoor recreation events make Mississippi’s system of national, state and local parks a welcoming, family-oriented vacation destination. Throughout the state, travelers will find many opportunities for camping, hiking, equestrian activities, wildlife viewing and much more. Many of Mississippi’s state parks provide modern amenities for visitors to enjoy, including boating areas, fishing spots, hiking trails, disc goal courses, beaches, playgrounds and picnic areas. Cycling: Mississippi has a wondrous wealth of paved and unpaved bike trails. But one of the greatest joys of biking in Mississippi is the opportunity to experience history, in addition to the scenic vistas, off-road detours and colorful scenery that are found along the journey. The Natchez Trace, which stretches from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee is unlike any other scenic route in the country, thanks to its historic sites and numerous markers that tell the story of the Trace's 10,000-year history. Waterways: The rivers and streams in Mississippi offer some of the most fun and most scenic outdoor adventures in the state. Adventure out on the Mississippi River with Quapaw Canoe Company, or paddle Black Creek, Mississippi’s only designated National Wild and Scenic waterway. Further South, the Gulf Coast region offers multiple opportunities for waterway adventures. There are currently seven Blueways, or water trails, that have been mapped out for recreational canoers and kayakers including the Pascagoula River Blueway, the largest free flowing waterway in the lower 48 states. The mild climate in Mississippi means the state’s waterways are ripe for fishing year-round. With 119 public lakes open and ready for action, a great day of fishing is never far away. Some of the most popular places to fish in Mississippi include: Grenada LakeArkabutla LakeEnid LakeHernando DeSoto River Park There are also plenty of opportunities to go fishing on the Gulf Coast, with options ranging from night fishing on the shore to a deep-sea, multi-day charter. Arts and Culture One of the most notable aspects of Mississippi is the rich culture that’s saturated the land for generations. Mississippi has played an integral part in shaping the history of America, as well as several artistic and cultural movements that people across the country enjoy today. The Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson is Mississippi’s largest art museum that has over 4,000 works, including the world’s largest collection by and relating to Mississippians and their diverse heritage. Many works can be seen in the permanent collection, New Symphony of Time. The Art Garden offers Wi-Fi and al fresco dining and hosts outdoor events. Since 1979, the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale has been working to conserve Mississippi’s blues legacy. As the state’s oldest music museum, this Clarksdale arts center has interpreted and cultivated an understanding of this native Mississippi art form for decades. Exhibits include collections of artifacts, memorabilia, instruments and more from some of the state’s most prolific blues musicians, like B.B. King and Muddy Waters. History and Civil Rights Image courtesy visitmississippi.org The new, interactive Mississippi Civil Rights Museum also in Jackson explores the true stories of the Civil Rights movement, and shows how those events shaped a state and changed the world. After taking in the fascinating exhibits at the museum, visitors can venture to some of the 25 sites on the Mississippi Freedom Trail to experience history at the source. Deeply intertwined in the fabric of Mississippi’s past are the legends of the blues and country music that defined the genres forever. The Mississippi Blues Trail showcases the powerful influence of Mississippi’s Black musicians on an unforgettable journey through blues history. The trail showcases the people and places that shaped the genre through notable markers, influential locations, and museums. Culinary For foodies looking for an inexpensive way to enjoy the very best BBQ on a budget-friendly getaway, the state of Mississippi is the perfect destination. A few of the many notable BBQ restaurants to visit around the state include Corky’s Ribs & BBQ in Olive Branch, The Shed BBQ in Ocean Springs and One & Only BBQ in Southhaven. Image courtesy visitmississippi.org Stop along a few locations on the Hot Tamale Trail, located throughout the Mississippi Delta region. Today, the Hot Tamale Trail in the Mississippi Delta not only celebrates the history hot tamales share with our state, but it also enables visitors and locals alike to find eateries providing them on their menus. Throughout the region, no two hot tamale recipes are alike, and along the Hot Tamale Trail, you can find variations that feature pork, beef, or turkey, corn flour instead of corn meal, and toppings like chili and cheese. See below for a few culinary focused events in Mississippi: March 19, 2022 Shaggy’s Rez Fest – Crawfish & Country Music Festival (Brandon) March 25-26, 2002 The South MS Boucherie BBQ Festival & Competition (Tylertown) April 20-24, 2022 29th Annual Crawfish Music Festival (Biloxi) April 23, 2022 18th Annual Mudbug Bash (Hernando) Other Notable Attractions: Hattiesburg Zoo (Hattiesburg)Mississippi Aquarium (Gulfport)GolfCasinos CARD WIDGET HERE
"Mom, you can't trick us-we know you can't drive a house!" my children told me. The more I explained about our RV vacation, the less my kids believed me. They thought the part where the dinner table changed into a bed was either the biggest whopper of all or proof that Mommy had magical powers. In the parking lot at the start of our trip I felt no supernatural talents as I stared in fear at our home on wheels away from home: a rented Winnebago measuring 32 feet-much longer than my living room. But after an hour-long training session, we were on our own. The next day we negotiated the spectacular curves of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. The grown-ups sat in the Barcalounger-type reclinable front seats watching through the four-foot-tall windshield as turkey vultures circled above the tree-covered mountainsides. Sky, clouds, birds, blooming dogwood trees, green valleys, more mountains, large iced drinks in cup holders, two kids buckled in at their own table with toys and a view: "Mom," they announced, "this is the life." Our plan was to travel across Virginia comparing private, public, franchise, and nonfranchise types of campgrounds. Of course, our vehicle itself provided amenities and entertainment. We had a week's worth of groceries and our own electricity and water. We were protected from the bad weather that ruins many a camping vacation and shielded from the wild behavior of vehicle-bound children that ruins many a road trip. (When we reached orange alert levels we-gasp!-popped a movie in the DVD player.) These comforts gave us more time to experience the places we visited. And at all the campgrounds, whether rustic or developed, my kids did not want to leave. Not your average bear Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts. These popular campsites, the first type we visited, are filled with families seeking man-made, outdoor fun. RV site prices are usually on the higher end, at some 70 Jellystone Parks across the U.S. and Canada. All of them promise easy-to-RV level sites, where you can pull through to park and quickly hook up water/electric/sewage lines; clean rest rooms and laundry facilities; a pool; a video theater and game rooms; a well-stocked convenience store; and, most important, entertainment. Although the particulars vary, every Jellystone Park offers activities of some kind-theme weeks or weekends, hayrides, arts and crafts, ice cream socials-and equipment like fully loaded playgrounds, sports courts, and bounce houses. Schedules of events are listed on their site; some activities may cost extra. Jellystone park waterslide - Courtesy of Jellystone Park We stayed at a Jellystone Park in Luray, Virginia. The campground was as RV-friendly as expected. It took us about 10 minutes-in the dark, no less-to park, make the RV level, and connect to the hookups for our very first time. In the morning my kids took one look at the 400-foot water slide and the playground with eight slides and dressed themselves at warp speed. The camp-type activities, such as Yogi's birthday week, are in full swing in summer. In the spring and fall, theme weekends ("Junior Ranger: Bugs!") are scheduled. Parental advisory: If you go to the giftie-filled camp store with your kids, expect to endure a heavy round of begging. Uncle Sam, you, and a view National Park campgrounds (reserve by searching nps.gov). Outdoors enthusiasts can stay in the scenery at many National Park campgrounds. Recreation.gov handles some parks; private concessions manage reservations for others. Some parks only permit camping on a first come, first served basis-get there early! The National Park Web site gives reservations details and tells which parks offer full hookups and which offer no facilities and less-than-RV-friendly warnings, like "RV sites may not be level." On average camping usually costs less than $50, (not including park admission) but really varies by park and season. We left Yogi's Jellystone for Shenandoah, a real national park, where the amenities are mostly those provided by Mother Nature. The campsites at the edge of the quiet Big Meadows campground provide a high-altitude sleeping spot overlooking a beautiful series of valleys and mountains. RV sites (some pull-throughs) with picnic tables and fire grates cost $30. There are no hookups, but there are stations to fill up your water tank and dump that other tank. Generators can only be used until 8 p.m. After that, for hot running water you can use the bathhouse with its coin-operated showers. We headed out to the Appalachian Trail and ate ice cream, fresh pineapple, and strawberries-a picnic made possible with the help of an RV kitchen. Shenandoah National Park Follow the yellow-signed road KOA or Kampgrounds of America. Bright-yellow signs with a tent logo lead the way to more than 500 franchises of KOA in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Vacationing families come, snowbird retirees come, overnight visitors en route to other destinations come-millions of campers a year stay at a KOA. Most sites cost $40 to $80. Visitors know that certain facilities are standard: clean rest rooms and laundry rooms, full hookup pull-through sites, an inviting pool, playground, game room, and a fully stocked store. Entertainment, however, varies with the individual KOA's location. Some franchise owners offer pancake breakfasts, river tubing, 25-person hot tubs, rental cars, and wireless Internet connections; some offer quiet country settings. We stayed at the Charlottesville KOA, which has a peaceful, woodsy setting with hiking trails, a fishing pond, and all the KOA offerings. The friendly owners have preserved the traditional sleeping-in-the-woods experience. Many of the sites, including the one we stayed at, are shaded by trees. In the summer, family movies are shown nightly at a central pavilion, and Saturday night is ice cream social time. The Governors' own State park campgrounds. State parks offer all kinds of inexpensive, unspoiled opportunities that only the locals may know about. You have to research state by state because there are no complete clearinghouses for state parks. Search state park or campground and the name of the state you want to visit. You may even find reservation systems for some states. The site www.reserveamerica.com lists campgrounds in 44 states. There is a may be a charge for reserving through this site. State tourism offices and web sites also provide camping information. I was amazed to find that Virginia State Parks has 23 reservable RV campgrounds. Most offer electric and water hookups, usually $40 to $50 a site, including park admission. We stayed at Chippokes Plantation State Park in the peanut-farm country of Surry. This park was full of surprises-we could tour the plantation's mansion, formal gardens, and agricultural area complete with chickens, cows, and crops. Or we could swim (the pool was huge), hike, fish, or look for marine fossils on the beach. In the campground, the host helped us back into our site. We had hookups for water and 30-amp (one appliance at a time) electricity. We felt like we had the woods to ourselves. We roasted marshmallows way past bedtime and were able to wash off all the stickiness. For our next day's adventure, we drove onto the Pocahontas, a free ferry, to cross the river into Jamestown and Williamsburg. My husband and I argued over who could drive onto the ferry. (I won.) Chippokes Plantation State Park - Credit: IStock - Douglas Rissing Stop at Mom-and-Pop's Local, independent campgrounds. An independently owned campground might be located just where you want to stay. It might be cheaper than a franchised campground. It might have all the amenities you want-or, it might not. Sites like Hipcamp and RVshare have RV campground searched that you can use. Our final campground, Aquia Pines Camp Resort in Stafford, a privately owned, nonfranchise operation, was actually the most high tech of all. Free WiFi, there was a well-stocked store, pool, game room, and an elaborate playground. After we ate our Indian dinner, we sat outside, faintly hearing one neighbor's birthday party and another's reggae, and enjoyed the campfire we made in a big, old washtub. When we switched vehicles for the trip home, our car crammed with all the goods so neatly stowed in our RV, my kids started asking, "Are we there yet?" My husband and I laughed-we hadn't heard that once on our RV vacation. Content Presented by RVshare, the world’s first and largest peer-to-peer RV rental marketplace with more than 100,000 RVs to rent nationwide. RVshare brings RV renters and RV owners together by providing the safest and most secure platform for booking an RV rental. Find the Perfect RV Rental at RVshare
These U.S. Parks Require Winning the Lottery to Visit
Many of us may be feeling the itch to travel after staying home for almost a year as we continue living through a pandemic. When it is safe to travel again, it’s possible that our travel priorities have shifted. Maybe you prefer to spend more time outdoors. If you're wanting to get out more in nature and visit specific parks or recreation areas, you’re going to need to do some extra planning. Several U.S. parks require entering and winning a lottery to have the opportunity to visit, such as reaching the summit of Half Dome or rafting down the San Juan River. Implementing a lottery is one way to minimize human impact on fragile ecosystems by reducing crowds and traffic. Please make sure you check for any COVID-19 pandemic restrictions before you plan or depart on any trip. San Juan River, Utah Floating or rafting down the San Juan River in southeast Utah may be high on your list, especially if you want to traverse through splendid red rock canyons full of history and wildlife. A permit is required between Montezuma Creek and Clay Hills Crossing, comprising 102 miles of the river. Some sections of the river are known for being calm and mellow, while other parts of the river require boating and rafting skills to navigate Class II to III rapids. How to enter: Lottery opens from December to the end of January for trips launching April 15 - July 15. Applicants will be informed on February 16. Any cancelled or unclaimed trips are released to reserve online starting March 16. Trips from July 16- December 31 also become available for advanced reservation. Costs: A $6 non-refundable fee for lottery or advanced reservations. There are additional permit fees with varying prices, depending on the river segment, as well as if you camp or hike within the Navajo Nation section of the river. Rafts and kayaks descend the Snake River in Hells Canyon on the border between Idaho and Oregon. ©thinair28/Getty Images Snake River in Hells Canyon Oregon, Washington and Idaho The majestic Snake River ebbs and flows through the deepest river-carved gorge in North America, known as Hells Canyon. Nestled between eastern Oregon and Washington and western Idaho, Hell’s Canyon is popular for braving rapids from Class II to Class V. There are also sections of the river for relaxing float trips. With the help of binoculars, you can often spot the great blue heron or bighorn sheep. Three private launches are allowed per day with no more than 24 people per group or launch (depending on type of watercraft), as well as two commercial launches during the primary season, from the end of May through September 10th each year. How to enter: Lottery opens in December and the application closes at the end of January. On March 16, any permits unclaimed or cancelled are released to the public and are available to reserve online. Costs: A non-refundable $6 fee to enter the lottery. If awarded a permit, there are no (additional) entrance fees. Half Dome Cables, Yosemite California The striking granite dome that rises about 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley is a symbol of this National park. For many hikers and mountain climbers, reaching the top is a rite of passage. But this 10-12 hour hike isn’t for the faint of heart; it’s a strenuous trail and requires hikers to be in good physical health. The last 400 feet may seem to be the hardest part requiring the famous cables to ascend to the summit but it’s only one of the many challenges. How to enter: The preseason lottery is open from March 1-March 31 with around 225 permits offered each day. Daily lotteries occur from May 31- October 13 (though dates subject to change) with a two day advanced window. So if you want to hike on a Tuesday, you need to apply on Sunday and hope you get lucky. Fifty permits are usually allotted per day. Costs: There is a $10 non-refundable fee to partake in the lottery. If selected, you will incur a $10 permit fee per person for a specific day. Rafting on the Colorado River in the Gran Canyon at sunrise. ©Jim Mallouk/Shutterstock Grand Canyon Rafting, Arizona Rafting down the Colorado River through the incredible Grand Canyon may be a dream come true. But you’re definitely going to need to plan in advance to have a chance at the unique view from the water. Self-guided tours, often referred to as private rafting, are available via the weighted lottery. Because the river is challenging and technical, the National Park Service requires that at least one person in the group has whitewater rafting experience and skills to navigate the river. How to enter: The lottery takes place for three weeks in February for the opportunity to choose up to 5 specific dates for the following year. If there are cancellations by winners or unclaimed trips, applicants can partake in additional lotteries. But hopefuls will need to be attentive to their email as extra lotteries have a super short window, usually two days, to enter. Costs: Applying to the lottery incurs a non-refundable $25 fee. If you win a launch date, you’ll be required to pay a deposit confirming your spot and will go towards covering additional expenses, including a park entrance fee and river permit per person. The Wave, located in the desert close the border of Arizona and Utah, is probably one of the most colorful and amazing sandstone rock formations in the world. Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Colorado Plateau, Coyote Buttes, Arizona. ©Jim Mallouk/Shutterstock Coyote Buttes North (The Wave), Utah Coyote Buttes North is most well-known for the The Wave, an impressive geological sandstone formation, located within the 112,500-acre Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. Permits are required to access this undeveloped area and is considered the backcountry—there are no designated trails or bathrooms. Permit-holders should be in good physical health to hike the challenging 6.4 round-trip trail. A maximum of 64 people are allowed to enter the park each day and in groups of up to six people. How to enter: The lottery opens on the first of each month for the chance to get a day use permit four months later. For example, if you apply during the month of April, if you “win” a permit, you’ll be given a date in August. There are two lottery systems: advanced online and walk-in. The advanced lottery awards permits for forty-eight people or 12 groups per day and up to sixteen people can get lucky in the walk-in lottery. Each person must be listed on the permit, including babies, and pay an entrance fee. Cost: The lottery costs a non-refundable $9 application fee. If you are granted a permit, the cost per person is $7. Havasu Falls, waterfalls in the Grand Canyon, Arizona. ©ronnybas/Shutterstock Havasupai Falls, Arizona Havasupai Falls is part of the Grand Canyon system in Arizona but it is technically outside the park in tribal land that belongs to the Havasupai tribe. It is a known bucket-list hike for hikers and campers who want to experience the beautiful blue water falling over the canyon. In order to hike the canyon, people are required to have a reservation of at least 3 nights, so people should be comfortable with distance hiking. How to enter: The lottery closes on February 1 each year, though it is closed in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The short daylight hours and cold temperature invite us to stay indoors but venturing out to a National Park in the midst of winter has its own benefits—less people. The swarming crowds of summer are gone, offering a chance to see these splendid parks at your leisure and appreciate the landscape, often blanketed in snow. There are plenty of winter activities inviting you to enjoy the snow, such as hiking, tubing, sledding or cross-country skiing. Visiting in winter requires being extra prepared with proper hiking shoes and adequate clothing for freezing or below zero temperatures so make sure to pack your gloves, scarves, ear muffs and rain gear. Big Bend National, Texas Big Bend National Park, located in the western region of Texas and bordering Mexico, encompasses part of the Chihuahuan Desert and Rio Grande. The park was created in 1944 and there are fossils dating over 130 million years ago that highlight the expansive geological diversity. The Chiso Mountains are a special part of this park because the entire mountain range—spanning 40 square miles—is within the confines of the park and formed from volcanic activity in the Eocene epoch. Snow isn’t common in the winter and day time temperatures are often in the 70’s, making it great weather for hiking. Though be prepared for near or below zero weather as the cold sets in as soon as the sun goes down. Hop in the car and enjoy the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive that leads to Santa Elena Canyon, a 1,500-foot vertical chasm made of limestone and is along the border between Mexico and Texas. Stop frequently on this 30 mile road, where there are plenty of overlooks and monuments or turn off and hike on one of the many well-marked trails. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah Bryce Canyon is magical in winter with layers of snow set against the red rock hoodoos and spires. Located in south central Utah and established as a park in 1923, ponderosa pines and fir-spruce forests thrive along with plenty of wildlife in this amphitheater shape of plateaus and meadows. The park has 56 square miles to explore. Some roads, including Fairyland Road and Paria View Road are left unplowed where you can traverse the expansive snow with snowshoes or cross-country skis. Sections of the Rim Trail are open as well where you can enjoy the vistas of the Main Amphitheater and the Bristlecone Loop Trail. You can also opt for sledding above the rim, one of the few areas where this is possible. If you want a break from the snow, hop in your warm car and stop along at some of the main vista points to take in the views. Bryce Canyon in winter. Credit: Mike Nielsen, Flickr creative commons Glacier National Park, Montana Glacier National Park, created in 1910, has over a million acres with an ecosystem that has been protected and mostly undisturbed. Snow blankets the mountain peaks and glaciers and the coniferous forest of larch, firs and spruce trees serve as a backdrop for Lake McDonald. Mountain goats, Bighorn sheep, beavers, nine species of bats, as well as Grizzly Bears are just some of the 71 different types of mammals that live in the park. Going-to-the-Sun Road is one of the highlights—spanning 50 miles with challenging, hairpin curves. This is the only road that crosses the park and passes through the Continental Divide, though during the snow filled months only certain parts of the road are accessible. Upper Lake McDonald is a popular snow area where you can ski up to McDonald Falls or Sacred Dancing Cascade. Visit Marias Pass, known by the locals as the “summit,” where skiing and snow activities are often ideal. There are plenty of routes for cross-country skiers and snowshoe fans who want to experience the solitude in this vast oasis. Olympic National Park, Washington Covering almost a million acres and spanning from sandy beaches to mountain peaks to lush fir and cedar tree rainforests, the geography of this park is unique. Created in 1938, it is designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and as an International Biosphere Reserve. In the colder months, Olympic National Park is beautifully draped in snow with a myriad of activities to partake in. Hurricane Ridge is a haven for snow lovers, offering downhill skiing and snowboarding and an area for tubing and sledding or just playing in the snow. There are several trails for cross-country skiers and snowshoers, who prefer to head into the backcountry or connect with nature as they traverse the white powdery snow. There are frequent storms on the Pacific coast in winter so being attentive to weather conditions is fundamental. Between bouts of harsh weather, low tide is an optimal moment to take a stroll along the sandy beach. Visit the Hoh rainforest in the north of the park where you can surround yourself among a variety of trees, including Red Cedar, Big Leaf Maple and Douglas Fir or go towards the southwestern area of the park and hike in the Quinault rainforest with a distinct geography of alpine meadows, lakes and peaks carved by ice. Because of the geography of this park, the weather can change at a moment’s notice so keep this in mind when planning your trip and once you arrive with your day to day plans. Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park. Credit: Steve FUNG, Flickr creative commons Yosemite National Park, California Waterfalls, meadows and the granite wall of half dome makes Yosemite famous. The park was first protected in 1864 and became part of the National park service in 1890. The beauty of visiting in the colder months is experiencing this 1,200 square mile park when crowds have dissipated, offering plenty of solitude.Yosemite Valley and Wawona are accessible year-round by car but many roads close due to the snowy terrain, making traversing by foot one of the best ways to enjoy the park. Many trails are open with various options from easy and low-key hikes to more challenging ones where you can navigate through coniferous forests filled with ponderosa and sugar pine, incense cedar, white and Douglas fir trees or stare up at Giant Sequoias. Yosemite in Winter. Credit: Yūgen, Flickr Creative Commons Temperatures can be mild during the day, although freezing temperatures and snow are common. If you time your visit when there is snowfall, typically between December- March, winter wonderland options abound from sledding, tubing, snowshoeing or snowboarding and skiing down the oldest slope in California on Badger Pass. Curious about snowshoeing? Take a ranger-led snowshoe walk where you’ll be in a good company while you learn about the sights, although be prepared for sore muscles afterwards because it’s more challenging than it appears. Disclaimer: Make sure to check the park website to ensure the activities and areas of the park you wish to visit are open and accessible. Some roads and park areas have been closed due to Covid and/or to inclement weather. Please also respect measures to prevent the spread of Covid, including passing through towns en route to your destination.