RVers love national parks. Drive around any national park and you’re bound to see RVs of all shapes and sizes dotting the campgrounds and rumbling down the roads.
And while there’s no doubt that exploring our most treasured national landmarks makes for a great RV trip, at times the throngs of people, cars, and RVs can overshadow the natural beauty you’ve come to enjoy.
The fatigue usually sets in after you’ve sat on a bench with 100 of your not-so-close friends waiting for Old Faithful to erupt, hiked the crowded trails at Rocky Mountain National Park, or circled the jam packed parking lot at Zion National Park six times looking for a spot to park your rig.
Go Where Others Don’t
Lucky for you, there’s an alternative.
They’re called US National Monuments and we have 109 of them sprinkled around the country.
Boasting all the beauty and wonder we’ve come to expect from national parks, national monuments are generally smaller in size (making them perfect for a one day or weekend trip) and don’t have crowded parking lots and clogged roadways.
You can find them all over the U.S., but to get you started here are three excellent options in the Southwest.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is located on the far southwestern side of Arizona, tucked up against the Mexican border.
You’ll find a serene desert landscape filled with an astonishing array of plants and animals.
Clingy cholla cacti, bright green palo verde trees and of course the monument’s namesake, the Organ Pipe Cactus, will make you wonder how such life can exist in a desert.
When to Visit
It’s best to go between November and March. The Organ Pipe National Monument is open year round, but the summer months are typically scorching hot and dry.
The ideal time to visit is during January and February when the average day-time temperature hovers around 70 degrees.
Where to Stay
The Twin Peaks Campground inside the monument offers 174 sites suitable for RVs. Some fit RVs up to 40-feet in length.
There are no hook-ups, but a dump station and drinking water are available. No reservations are accepted, but the campground rarely fills and you can call the visitor center the morning of your arrival for the campground status.
Twenty-two miles north of the visitor center lies the small town of Why, AZ and Coyote Howls RV Park.
Over 600 sites offer a mix of full hook-up and primitive camping. Also onsite are restrooms, showers, a dump station, and a laundry facility.
What to Do
Explore the Organ Pipe visitor center to learn about the ecology of the area, watch a video, or browse the bookstore.
Drive the 21 mile Ajo Mountain Scenic Loop through massive stands of organ pipe and saguaro cacti. Leave your motorhome or trailer at the visitor center, as this winding dirt road is limited to vehicles 24-feet and under.
Be sure to pick up a guidebook at the visitor center to learn about the unique features and plants along the road.
Walk the 2 mile round-trip trail up into Arch Canyon for an up-close look at giant rock arches.
Hike the Estes Canyon Bull Pasture Trail. This rugged, challenging 4.1 mile loop climbs high into the Ajo Mountains with steep grades and exposed cliffs. You effort is rewarded though with expansive views of the surrounding desert and mountain peaks.
Dinosaur National Monument
Take a journey back in time to a land where dinosaurs roamed!
This beautiful and historic national monument was created in 1915 to preserve one of the world’s largest concentrations of dinosaur fossils. Today visitors come to marvel at the fossils while enjoying the deep canyons, colorful cliffs, and untamed rivers.
When to Visit
April through October. The very best time to visit is September and October when the weather is cooler. Many people visit in the summer, but temps can often exceed 95 degrees. The monument is open all year, although some roads may be closed in the winter months.
Where to Stay
The best campground inside the monument for RV camping is the Green River Campground. You’ll find 79 sites, many large enough to accommodate RVs up to 35-feet in length.
Views of the rushing Green River and Split Mountain make this a scenic place to spend the night.
There are no hook-ups and no dump station, but drinking water is available. Reservations are accepted during the peak season of mid-May through mid-September, although the campground rarely fills.
Several commercial campgrounds operate outside of the national monument. Only seven miles from the entrance is the tiny town of Jensen, UT and Outlaw RV Park. It’s a basic park with gravel sites and full hook-ups.
For a park with more amenities check out the Vernal-KOA a bit farther down the road in Vernal, UT.
What to Do
Learn about the prehistoric beasts that once roamed the land at the Carnegie Dinosaur Quarry.
View the massive dinosaur fossil wall filled with over 1,500 bones from hundreds of dinosaurs including the mighty Allosaurus, the spiky Stegosaurus, and many more.
You can take two self-guided auto tours within the monument.
The Tour of Tilted Rocks is a 20-mile round trip drive on the Utah side of the park that takes you past stunning scenery, prehistoric petroglyphs, and to the shaded cool oasis of the Josie Morris homestead.
On the Colorado side of the monument is the 62-mile round trip Journey Through Time drive on Harpers Corner Road. The road climbs to the top of a plateau with great views of canyons, rivers and distant mountains. Stop along the way at one of the many overlooks, or stretch your legs on a short trail for more unique pictures.
At the very heart of the monument lies the Yampa and Green Rivers. For many miles, the rivers flow through deep twisting canyons and gorges cut into the sandstone mountains.
The very best way to experience these rivers and canyons is on a white water rafting trip. Either sign up with one of the many commercial rafting companies for a guided tour, or if you have the experience and equipment, apply for a permit to take your own private river tour.
Colorado National Monument
Perched atop the Colorado Plateau – the very same plateau the plays host to a number of national parks including Arches, Canyonlands, and Mesa Verde – is the relatively undiscovered Colorado National Monument.
The colorful maze-like canyons, sculpted spires, pinnacles, and other jaw dropping sandstone creations extend for as far as you can see.
When to Visit
The absolute best time to visit is in the fall when the air is crisp and the cottonwood trees are all decked out in their golden finery.
The summer months tend to be the busiest, and during the winter visitors use the trails to cross country ski through a snow capped wonderland of red rocks.
Where to Stay
Inside the monument is the 80-site Saddlehorn Campground. Some sites can fit RVs up to 40-feet in length, but the majority of sites are slanted and tight, making them better suited for smaller rigs. There are no hook-ups, showers, or dump station.
Only a few miles outside the western entrance to the park are two additional camping options.
The first is the James M. Robb Colorado River State Park which offers 44 sites with a mix of full and partial hook-ups, a dump station, a laundry room, showers, and access to the Colorado River.
All sites are paved with covered shade structures, and large enough to fit nearly any size RV.
Across the street from the state park is the Monument RV Park. One hundred sites with full hook-ups, and many other amenities such as a pool and free WiFi make this a convenient, if not particularly scenic, place to stay.
What to Do
Travel on the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive. High up on the plateau rim, the road twists and turns its way past towering red rock cliffs and sculpted rock formations.
Keep your eyes peeled for the Desert bighorn sheep that call the monument home.
Check in at the visitor center to learn about the daily ranger talks that take place around the monument.
Pump up your bike tires, fill up that water bottle and tackle the 33-mile Grand Loop. This challenging ride travels the entire length of Rim Rock Drive and makes a loop by following Hwy 340 around the outskirts of the park.
With over 40 miles of hiking trails inside the national monument, there’s something for everyone.
For a quick stroll with magnificent views hike along the 0.5-mile round trip Window Rock Trail, or ascend into the canyon surrounded by towering rock sculptures on the 1.5-mile Devil’s Kitchen Trail.
The relatively challenging 15-mile round-trip Monument Canyon Trail takes you deep into the canyon for up-close views of some incredible rock formations, including the Kissing Couple and Independence Monument.
Many first-time travelers don’t think about visiting places other than the national parks. Be a savvy RVer and avoid the crush of humanity at the National Parks, especially during the summer months.
Spend time at a national monument.
You’ll have more privacy and peace, while still getting to enjoy some of the best landscapes and facilities in the US.