Somehow, winter was still going strong, but so was our spirit. We were two months into our vacation, and we weren’t even halfway through the parks yet. But from what we’d seen so far — underground caverns, raging oceans, curious trees, and sculpted rockface — we knew each park would be special. With each park, we fell more in love with the views and experiences our country has to offer.
We retraced our steps through Utah to get to some of the parks that were winterized on our last sweep of the area, and we finally got to add North Dakota to our list of states we’ve visited (one of three remaining when we started this National Parks trip in January).
This is the third of a six-part series of articles chronologically describing our trip to every National Park in the United States. You can read the other parts of this series by clicking the links below:
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six
You can also use these links to jump to a particular park within this article:
Virgin Islands | Bryce Canyon | Capitol Reef | Mesa Verde | Rocky Mountain
Wind Cave | Badlands | Theodore Roosevelt | Sequoia | Kings Canyon
21. Virgin Islands National Park on St. John, USVI
Quick Overview: We’re probably a bit spoiled when it comes to idyllic beaches since we grew up in Florida and spent six months in Hawaii for our honeymoon, but Virgin Islands National Park was still a magnificent escape. What’s unique here is the fact that you’re on an island that has enough elevation to get you above the treeline to see down to the beaches and out to other nearby rocks. Unlike American Samoa, the folks in USVI are very much used to American tourists, which is a huge part of the local economy.
When We Visited: We were still fairly frozen out of a lot of the more northern parks in the west, so we decided it was time for another tropical escape. It was mid-March when we landed on St. Thomas before taking the ferry over to St. John, where the protected parkland is located. We stayed a total of 6 nights across both islands, most of which was on St. John. It was warm, but not too hot like summer can be in the Caribbean, and the water was perfect. Just keep in mind that because of this perfection, prices on accommodations were at their peak, so it’s a trade-off.
Our Top Tip: Definitely try to stay on St. John as much as possible. To us, St. Thomas was overcrowded and offered little in the way of natural vistas. We only stayed on St. Thomas for one night.
What was Unforgettable: Having the beach all to ourselves after a brief rainstorm. Sometimes the best moments in National Parks are those which everyone else decides to ignore.
What Sucked: Because this park has pretty great weather all year long, there are also lots of people all year long, and finding solace was a little challenging (so you’ll want to book accommodations and other travel necessities well in advance).
22. Bryce Canyon National Park by Bryce, Utah
Quick Overview: So, Bryce Canyon isn’t actually a canyon at all, but the reason why is a little technical. Erosion has worn away at the plateau to create its iconic hoodoos (the “h” is silent), which are the thin, totem pole-shaped columns of rock you see in most pictures. It’s remarkable to find so many of them in one place, and these particular hoodoos are banded with orange and white stripes, which make them look unreal.
When We Visited: Toward the end of March was when we ventured into Bryce Canyon. The elevation changes a lot. I was wearing shorts when we first arrived and had to change into leggings once we got to the rim. By sunset, we both put on our heavy coats. Much of the park was still covered in ice.
Our Top Tip: We weren’t able to do much hiking because there was still a lot of ice pack on the trails, so we would definitely recommend going a little later in the season. There were some really amazing trails within the hoodoos that would have brought us to the base of them, and that would have been pretty cool.
What was Unforgettable: You don’t want to miss seeing the warmth the sunset casts on the hoodoos; it completely changes the scene.
What Sucked: The fact that the timing was off for hiking (and generally enjoying the higher elevation due to colder temperatures) was a bummer. They also hadn’t plowed the park roads fully.
23. Capitol Reef National Park close to Torrey, Utah
Quick Overview: This area is pretty remote, although there was a coffee shop, gas station, and Subway about 15 minutes from the park entrance. What’s special about Capitol Reef is the ever-changing terrain. We peered into vast canyons at the Goosenecks Overlook before heading deeper into the park to hike between towering rockface along the Capitol Gorge Trail.
When We Visited: We visited Capitol Reef at the very end of March, and honestly the weather was pretty decent. Steven and I both wore light sweaters, which we welcomed after such a long, bitter winter.
Our Top Tip: Stay after dark. Thanks to its distance from civilization, the sky comes alive with stars shortly after sunset. Don’t leave without spending some time looking up.
What was Unforgettable: The hike through Capitol Gorge brought us right up to the ancient rocks that make this park unique.
What Sucked: Not having a ton of options for food, cell service, etc.
24. Mesa Verde National Park near Alamosa, Colorado
Quick Overview: If you’ve been following along, you may remember we attempted to visit this park back in February but got snowed out. We were finally able to travel the full road system and get up to the cave dwellings. There isn’t as much hiking (most trails are 2 miles or less) as there is driving. This park is geared much more toward education and preserving the historical relevance of the cliff dwellings, so it’s worth it to read all the plaques.
When We Visited: It was April 1st when we made it to Mesa Verde, and while there was still snow on the ground, we were comfortable in shorts and long sleeves.
Our Top Tip: Still try to get in a hike while you’re here — the whole park smells like Christmas. Soda Canyon Overlook is short but offers a nice view of the canyon.
What was Unforgettable: Seeing the cliff dwellings and learning that they were literally carved into the rockface by early native people was pretty remarkable.
What Sucked: We’re both not as into history as other subjects, so once we saw all the dwelling sites, we were kinda done in a sense. We liked the hiking, and the area is beautiful for being outside. The subject matter just wasn’t as engaging for us as at other parks.
25. Rocky Mountain National Park next to Estes Park, Colorado
Quick Overview: I’d never really seen such a large, frozen-over lake before we went to Prague Lake on the first day we were in the park. Despite the snow, lots of animals were still out, including elk, deer, turkey, and ducks (which congregated in the shallows of Prague Lake where it was beginning a slow melt). Day one here was moody and snowy while day two boasted plenty of sunshine, so depending on when you visit, you should be prepared for changing weather.
When We Visited: In early April, Trail Ridge Road was still closed due to icy conditions. While we were at Rocky Mountain National Park, we experienced both snow showers and sunshine, so I’d plan for a little later once the Ridge Road gets plowed (but before it’s packed with tourists).
Our Top Tip: Don’t forget to explore Estes Park, the little town at the mouth of the park. We had a great meal there.
What was Unforgettable: The still sound of the breeze moving over the meadows was something that stood my hair on end — in the best possible way.
What Sucked: It seemed to happen a lot this winter, but we didn’t have great timing on visiting this park. We missed the better part of the snow-play season (skiing, sledding, etc), but the snow wasn’t cleared out enough to see as much as we wanted.
26. Wind Cave National Park near Rapid City, South Dakota
Quick Overview: With cave in the title, you might expect the underground aspects of the park to be the most interesting. However, I’d say the activity above ground is just as interesting. On your way to the visitor center, you’ll be greeted by a chorus of prairie dog yips and, if you’re lucky, a bison or two.
When We Visited: It was early April, and we were comfortable in short sleeves at this park. The weather was back on our side, it seemed.
Our Top Tip: Sign up for the cave tour in advance. The tour we wanted to go on was actually full two days ahead of when we’d be passing through, so we had to do a shorter one. It’s always a good idea to check anything you can book online well in advance (a couple weeks before you’ll arrive).
What was Unforgettable: So. Many. Prairie dogs. It was a real treat to see them all working together — and yipping in unison — to scamper across the street or from one mound to another.
What Sucked: Not the most impressive cave we’ve seen. Since it was created by flowing water instead of dripping water, the underground formations aren’t the same here — no stalagmites or stalactites, just a lot of fallen sheets of rock. However, there is one unique formation here: boxwork.
27. Badlands National Park by Wall, South Dakota
Quick Overview: There are lots of different areas to this park — from outstretched grasslands to painted mesas — so there’s a lot to explore. We had planned to spend two days in the park, but it was cut short because I caught a stomach bug. One of the really cool things about Badlands National Park is that you could find fossils while hiking. There are also a lot of animals that call this park home: bison, sheep, prairie dogs, and several species of birds and reptiles. Important note: The park’s “loop road” doesn’t loop through the park. You simply exit the interstate and drive from one end of the park to the other where you can get right back on the interstate (which does not cut through the park).
When We Visited: We wore shorts in the Badlands and were quite comfortable, even when the wind kicked up. It was a sunny day, so that helped, but even overnight during early April it didn’t get too cold.
Our Top Tip: Do more than just drive the loop road — take a hike! And don’t forget to explore the rest of this area, including Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, and Jewel Cave National Monument (we’ve been to Mount Rushmore in the past, but we don’t really recommend it).
What was Unforgettable: Every turn in the road opened up to a completely new scene. One moment, we were looking over the edge of a plateau, the next we were dodging sheep on the road, then we came upon grasslands that turned into colorful hills, before coming face-to-face with the badlands the park is named for as we neared the visitor center.
@tripofalifestyle You get one life. Don’t waste it. Location: Badlands National Park, South Dakota. #badlands #findyourpark #poppunk #emo #existential #machinegunkelly ♬ original sound – Trip Of A Lifestyle
What Sucked: Despite the fact that this is not something you’re likely to encounter yourself, the truth is getting sick really put a damper on things at the Badlands. We were camping at Sage Creek, a free, primitive site in the park, so the only bathroom was a vaulted outhouse. It also started to rain after dark. It was…not a good evening. I don’t have any negatives to mention otherwise except that there were a lot of signs warning about rattlesnakes. We never saw one.
28. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota
Quick Overview: We didn’t know what to expect with this park, but we ended up being the only people in the whole park. I mean, I think a car passed us on the main loop road, like, once, but we basically had it all to ourselves. Teddy Roosevelt, we learned, came to the area to be alone, and it seemed we were able to experience what that was like for him. We also learned a lot about what a badass he was, in general, from the very informative visitor center.
When We Visited: You’d think that North Dakota in early April would be cold — especially since everywhere else was barely thawing — but it wasn’t too bad here, weather-wise. We were comfortable enough wearing long sleeves under our sweaters paired with jeans.
Our Top Tip: Not to be rude or anything, but there’s not much else to do in literally all of North Dakota except visit this park. It’s not too far from the parks in South Dakota though, so it’s definitely worth planning a trip to if you’re in the area.
What was Unforgettable: We really enjoyed how wild it still felt, especially the large herd of bison that call the park home, while still being easy to navigate and explore.
What Sucked: There’s not much else to do in the state or in the general vicinity of the park. There’s a quaint “town” (couple of buildings including a general store) at the start of the park, but that’s about it.
29. Sequoia National Park close to Fresno, California
Quick Overview: Sequoia and Kings Canyon are often treated as one park, but we recommend separating them into two visits. We came through the Ash Mountain entrance, which takes you from a river at the foothills slowly up into the old groves. The sequoias only grow between 4,000 and 6,000 feet of elevation.
When We Visited: The weather was cool, with a slight drizzle in the foothills and light snow higher up, during April. It was very nice, especially since the wild flowers were starting to bloom.
Our Top Tip: Do more than just look at the trees. This park has a ton of beauty around each turn in the road up to the sequoias. We loved seeing the wildflowers bloom throughout the foothills and along the river.
What was Unforgettable: The way the fog hung about the tops of the trees made them appear even more giant. Normally, you know, we’d complain about snowy weather, but here the low visibility added to the mystique of these old Sequoias.
What Sucked: The mountain roads aren’t too bad, but they were a little unnerving due to the snow that set in toward the end of the day, limiting our visibility and making the roadway wet with melt.
30. Kings Canyon National Park also close to Fresno, California
Quick Overview: Make sure before you go that the road down into the canyon is open! We went in mid-April, and it was still closed due to snow and ice. If you’re not going into the canyon, there’s honestly not a lot to do. We were able to hike up to Panorama Point and caught a glimpse of a lake, but the scenery otherwise was basically the same as its neighbor, Sequoia National Park.
When We Visited: In mid-April, the weather is pleasant at lower elevations — all you’ll need is a light sweater and pants. But be warned, once the sun dips below the trees and mountain line, you’ll need a MUCH heavier coat.
Our Top Tip: You don’t need to stay in the park to enjoy a full day. Fresno is about 35-40 minutes down from the mountains, and there you’ll have your choice of hotel and eatery options that aren’t overpriced.
What was Unforgettable: Our hike to Panorama Point. During peak season, you’d simply drive the road up to the parking lot and walk a short distance to get the view. However, the road was only open to pedestrians, which meant we had to hike up it then at the parking lot we walked over packed snow to the overlook. Definitely something we won’t forget because it was one of the few experiences we got to have in the park.
What Sucked: The closures, obviously. Not getting to go into the canyon was a gut punch. We watched the park film, and it seemed pretty dope.
Want to know more? On our National Parks page, you can browse a list of all the parks in this series (plus some more parks that were added after we took our original trip).You’ll also find info on the converted van we traveled in and how much it all cost.