Navigating National Parks in Southwest United States

May 25, 2017

Dear Friend,

As a family of four who live in a fifth wheel trailer traveling full time, we have visited many national parks in southwest United States in the past couple of months. After a while many of the parks started blending together in our minds, however we found several commonalities that will hopefully make your trip more enjoyable.

Timing your visit. The parks further south are open year round, while others open in later spring. Often the northern or mountainous parks have one roadway open year around while the rest of the park is closed until May. Places like Yosemite and Sequoia have many waterfalls that feed off of the spring snow melt. However these overflowing creeks and waterfalls become smaller or nonexistent later on in summer and fall. April is perfect for seeing the vibrant desert flowers and cactuses blooming in Saguaro. Of course, later summer works well for walking the Narrows in Zion. (The Narrows is a river trail with steep canyon walls. People walk right along the rocky river bottom for an adventurously wet, unique hike.)

Crowds. The parks are now filled with overseas tourists in the off peak season. In fact, it was rare to hear English spoken at all in the shuttles and on walking trails. I could hardly imagine how packed the parks become once school is out come June. However, if you want to experience the park’s beauty, I highly recommend going on hiking trails. Most people do not have the time nor ambition to take this on, but this is one remaining way to escape the congestion of the popular spots. Often the areas away from the tourist attractions in the more remote sections of the parks are the most peaceful and just as beautiful.

Parking. Parking spaces are often hard to find and the challenge grows for large vehicles as people do not care if they parked in the “Oversized Vehicles or RV Parking Only” areas with their small cars. Many parks now encourage and sometime mandate visitors to use the free park shuttle services. This mass transportation system definitely helps and some shuttles even go outside the park into the nearby communities. If you are handicapped, you are still able to access the “Shuttle Only” areas with a special permit.

Photography. Because people do not obey the “stay on the trail” signs, we find them climbing around everywhere. We grew frustrated trying to take beautiful scenery shots because some person was standing under an arch, out on some precarious outcropping, or encouraging their children to play hide-in-seek directly under the balancing rock. We talked with other frustrated photographers who said they were in the park before 7 am and that did not even help bypass the crowds. However, we find most people tire of their adventures after 3 pm. Parks begin thinning out around that time. This leaves plenty of time for a later hike as the temperature cools off and has fabulous colors as the sun lowers towards the evening hours.

Climate. A wide temperature range always exists because of the mountains and deserts. While the high temperatures in the intense sun dries us out by midday, by nighttime we are shivering waiting in line for a shuttle with jackets on. The most parks have water bottle refill stations and encourage tourists to constantly drink liquids. This must be a large issue by summertime.

Park Rules. The rules vary slightly from park to park. Some places like City of Rocks encourage people to climb around and even camp among the huge boulders. Arches has a trail passing directly underneath one arch, but tells people not to be “Arch Hogs”. We understood this to mean “Don’t have your picnic lunch underneath or have a 10 minute photoshoot blocking the enjoyment of the arch from others.” Most places do not allow animals on the trails. Some parks like Carlsbad Caverns even mandate use of the onsite kennel because vehicles get too hot for pets. People are not permitted to smoke in some areas and drones are often banned, like in the Grand Canyon. Shuttle bus drivers become grouchy as people lunge toward the approaching bus instead of remaining behind the line until others exit. I am surprised the impatient people do not get run over more often. Several parks also post no feeding of the squirrels because the fleas they carry have Bubonic Plague. But these squirrels were so tame, people pet them. Of course we witnessed people breaking all of these rules and the rangers must grow tired of it. I sure know we did.

Dangers. Being from Minnesota, we never hear of any rescues in the Southwest. Invariably after every park visit, by the following night the news told of some death or rescue in the same park. Every year special teams rescue over 600 people in one park, with 150 of them being airlifted due to the seriousness of their conditions. This is common with all of the parks. Besides having carelessly close animal encounters and not obeying park rules, many people overestimate their physical health. Heart attacks, exhaustion, dehydration, and falls are common. In fact, one park even posted a $500 fine if they have to rescue you after business hours.

The places we visited were beautiful, but after a while our “people patience” wore thin as we navigated these southwestern national parks. We look forward to our break this summer back where the climate, rules, and dangers are familiar while we rest once more in the tranquil seclusion of the woods.

Until we meet again,

p.s. Here’s a quick listing of the national places we visited, where we drew our experiences from:

Recommended places: Yosemite, Sequoia, Sunset Crater Volcano, Chiricahua Mountains, Gila Cliff Dwellings

Places to skip: Escalante Grand Staircase, Glen Canyon

Other national places we visited in the past two months: White Sands, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Painted Desert, Petrified Forest, Bear River Migratory Refuge, Golden Spike (Historic site), Capitol Reef, Hoover Dam, Meteor Crater, Canyonland


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