As we wrap up 2018 and take a look back, it has been another fantastic year, and we have a lot to be thankful for. When I think about the places we’ve visited, U.S. National parks definitely spark fond memories and fun conversations. It always surprises me how much our family has grown to love visiting our parks, and how we’re constantly talking about which ones to visit next. America’s National Parks have become some of our very favorite places to visit, and we have no intention of slowing down!
Like 2017, we were able to visit six National Parks with a few extra park service units sprinkled in. Each one was amazing in its own way, so have a look back with us. We hope our photos might inspire you to plan a trip to one of these parks in 2019!
2018 National Parks in Pictures
Petroglyph National Monument – Albuquerque, NM
Over spring break in March, we visited Albuquerque (be sure to read about this cool city here), and while we were there, we got up bright and early for sunrise at Petroglyph National Monument. Besides the sheer beauty of the landscape, the park is full of ancient Pueblo petroglyphs, all telling an interwoven tale of the people who lived and traveled through this place so many years ago.
This is the perfect place to explore first thing in the morning. You’ll have the park nearly to yourself (along with the jack rabbits), and the rising sun, along with the peace and quiet, provides the perfect backdrop to exploring this sacred place.
Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest is only a three hour drive west on Interstate-40 from Albuquerque, so we took advantage and made the trip. What looks like unassuming desert quickly turns into a picturesque landscape like no other.
The red and orange hues of the painted desert are spectacular, and are even better up close as you hike one of the many trails. Farther into the park, the hills and mounds take on a blueish hue in the Blue Mesa section of the park. With scenic overlooks, hiking trails, and lots of petrified trees (of course!) this park is not to be missed.
Must See: Be sure to drive all the way through to the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center to explore some of the largest specimens in the park!
Read more about Petrified Forest National Park here.
Mesa Verde National Park – Cortez and Mancos
Mesa Verde National Park was also one of the very first UNESCO World Heritage Sites, so you know it’s a very special place. It has some of the most well-preserved cliff dwellings anywhere, and walking through these incredible ‘towns’ is surreal.
How did they do it? Why did they leave? These and many more question will flood through your head as you ponder these ancient Pueblo sites. Be sure to book a tour or two while you are here. Our guides had a deep local knowledge of the area and the tours were some of the best we’ve ever been on.
Must See: Book a tour to see one of the cliff dwellings. Balcony House and Cliff Palace can be done in the same day.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – Montrose
What’s so special about a canyon carved from a river? It happens all the time, you might say.
Then, you look over the edge at this natural wonder, and you get it. This is no regular ravine.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park may be small in area, but it what it lacks in area, it makes up for in depth. The canyon top to bottom is a staggering 2,722 ft. The Painted Wall, one of the park’s main features, is taller than nearly two Empire State Buildings. At its narrowest, the canyon is only 40 ft. across, lending to the mind-bending dimensions of this awesome park.
Must-see: After a stop at the Visitors Center, be sure to take a short hike around the rim before driving over to the Painted Wall. If you have time, take the road down to the river to get an idea of how deep the canyon truly is.
Colorado National Monument – Fruita
Located in far Western Colorado, Colorado National Monument is what the casual visitor might call a drive-through park. There is one road that winds its way through the park, with plenty of scenic overlooks to stop at. Each stop is camera-worthy, so plan accordingly.
If you have more time, consider taking one of the hiking trails through the park. It’s the perfect place to get some fresh air and exercise.
Must See: If you drive through at dusk, you’ll be rewarded with incredible vistas that come alive with color, light, and shadow. Gorgeous.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve – Mosca
This park is our daughter’s favorite and for good reason – this ocean of sand is perfect for surfing! Great Sand Dunes National Park is the result of ideal geological processes over millions of years, producing the largest dunes in the United States. Plan on visiting in fall or spring to avoid super-hot sand. March was cool but pleasant during our visit. It’s a remarkable place to explore, especially with kids, so grab a sand board or two and your wax. Surf’s up!
Must See: Rent some sand boards at Kristi Mountain Sports in nearby Alamosa and find a dune. Don’t forget some buffs or handkerchiefs and some sunglasses to keep the sand out of your face.
Rocky Mountain National Park – Estes Park and Grand Lake
Rocky Mountain National Park is Colorado’s largest National Park, and it carries the mantle well. We’ve visited in both winter and summer now, and it is spectacular no matter what time of year you visit. This summer we got up early and set out on a day hike up from the Bear Lake Trailhead to Emerald Lake. It was a highlight of our year, and it is a hike your entire family will love.
RMNP has endless adventures and trails to choose from, so set your sights on one or two and make it happen. There are no bad views, so you can’t go wrong. The scenery is just breathtaking, so pack a lunch and stay awhile.
Must See: In the summer months, make sure to make the drive up to the Alpine Visitors Center on Trail Ridge Road. On the way, keep an eye out for bighorn sheep, elk, moose, marmots, and little pikas at the summit.
Hot Springs National Park – Hot Springs
Hot Springs National Park is one of the smallest in the park system (only Gateway Arch NP is smaller), but it is big on character. It celebrates and recalls the spa culture that became popular in America during the Edwardian era in the 1920s. Water is the prime attraction here of course, and the park highlights the industry that grew up around it.
Guests can stroll along the Promenade, taking in the landscaping and architecture, or take a hike along one of the many trails. Bring a picnic lunch if you like, or take a drive up Mountain Drive at dusk to watch the sunset.
Bathhouse row is where you’ll find the Visitors Center, along with shops, full-service spas, and a restored bathhouse just as it would have been during its prime. It’s a fun snapshot into the life and times of small town that exploited a niche to their financial advantage. Try a cup of water straight from the source or dip your finger in the fountain where the water comes out at a steamy 143°.
Must See: After you have a look at the bath houses, take a hike through the park up to the watch tower for 360-degree views of the town and the surrounding Ouachita National Forest.
What’s in store for 2019?
We had some really great adventures in our parks in 2018. For 2019, we hope to expand our list considerably with possible trips to Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee, and Virginia.
What parks will you be visiting in 2019?
Other National Park adventures we’ve taken.
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