Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Preparing for a National Park Visit

Before I go to a National Park I spend quite a bit of time preparing. I want to know what there is to see and do at the park and how much time I should allot to each park. As a general rule, one can never spend too much time in a National Park, but on vacation there are many things to see and I have to ration out the time. Even when I can spend several days at one park, there are always too many trails to hike, and I have to decide which ones to take. I have many reference sources, and here I will share the best ones with you. Some of the photos below are not the current edition, and I make no claims that all these books are still available.

NPS Web site

This is the obvious first source, and it's free. I used to have to mail away for brochures, but the web has eliminated that need. Now I can just go to www.nps.gov and find out all the general information I need. I consider this source to be an orientation to the park with the details to be filled in with other publications. The map is especially valuable. The best thing about this site is that one can find all the nearby NPS units by looking at the state maps.

Guide to the National Parks of the United States (National Geographic)

This is the best book for giving an overview of what to see at the park. It is written mainly from the viewpoint of someone driving through the park. Even an avid day hiker like me wants to stop and see the scenic highlights of the park. This book's strength is in telling you what you should see. It is fairly weak in talking about facilities and hiking.

The Complete Guide to the National Parks of the West (Fodor’s)

This book covers almost every aspect of a park visit with reasonable detail. It tells you what to see, where to hike, where to eat, and almost anything else you can think of. This plus the National Geographic book is a killer combination.

National Parks of the American West (Frommer’s)

This is quite similar to the Fodor's book in the information it contains, but where the Fodor's book pretty much gets down to business, this book has a longer, more narrative style. One nice feature is that there is a ranger's opinion on what to see for each park.

Day-Hiking California’s National Parks by Ann Marie Brown

I totally love this book. It is the best hiking book I own, but of course it is only good for California. Her hike descriptions are very good and she gives her opinion on which hikes to take. Each chapter has a list of all hikes, a list of the don't-miss day hikes, and the best hikes if you only have one day. I like a hiking book author who is not afraid to give her opinion on the hikes. As an added bonus, I have always found her opinions to be sound.

Hiking the National Parks (Falcon)

This is a series of books that includes many of the National Parks. The hike descriptions are quite detailed including data, but depending on the author can be a bit dry. Some authors rate the hikes, and some don't. These books tend to be complete, containing every trail in the park. They are mainly aimed at backpackers, though I find them useful for day hiking.

Best Easy Day Hikes (Falcon)

These books are often based on the larger book above, but as the title implies, they contain just the day hikes. The hikes are often ranked. I find these books to be quite useful, especially when you just need a short hike to fill up the rest of the day.

National Parks Guides (Frommer’s)

These books have much the same flavor as the big Frommer's book above, but they go into excruciating detail about one park. The hiking sections are particularly good because they describe only the most interesting hikes. I often find my hikes here and then look at the Falcon guide for more detail.

Moon Handbooks

What can I say? Moon books are the finest guide books available. In the last few years they have come out with guides for some individual National Parks, and they are excellent. They tell you everything in great detail, and they are so well written that you can just sit down and read them like a novel. If you buy one guidebook for your park, make it Moon.

AAA Tourbooks

These books are pretty much worthless for giving park information, but if you want to stay in a motel you need this book. I usually stay in a motel outside of the park, and I stay only in motels that are approved by AAA. Sometimes I want or have to stay in the park lodge, and these are often not in the AAA book. I have generally found them to be fine, though. Otherwise it's only AAA approved for me.

Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is in southeastern New Mexico, and just over the border in Texas is Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Since the parks are only about 50 miles apart, it makes sense to visit them both on the same trip, and I have done so twice. The Park Service agrees, as the two parks share one visitor’s guide. Let me sidetrack a bit here to say what I mean by visitor’s guide. When you go to a National Park, there are two publications of interest that you will receive when you pay your entrance fee. One is the park map, which is a very well-designed fold-out brochure with a map and information about the human and natural history of the park. The other is a visitor’s guide, or park newspaper, that has additional information. It has articles concerning the park, detailed information about the park’s facilities, more maps, and at least rudimentary hiking information. Even if you have prepared beforehand, it is of great benefit to read or at least skim these publications as soon as you can. Of course, you can get even more detailed information about hiking and other activities at the visitor center.

First Visit

My first visit to these parks was in 1994 as part of a huge two-week loop through Arizona and New Mexico, which included ten National Parks and Monuments. Guadalupe Mountains National Park was the first of the two. Something I still remember clearly was approaching the park from the west via US 180/62 and seeing El Capitan far in the distance. The land to the west is perfectly flat, so it made for an impressive sight. We stopped at the diner in Salt Flat for lunch before continuing to the park. One trouble with a big trip like this is that often there is not as much time in each site as I would like, and this was definitely true of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. We checked out the mountains from the road, walked the short Pinery Trail, visited the Frijole Ranch, and I hiked the 2.3 mile Smith Spring Trail. As the name implies, the destination is a spring. The hike is quite enjoyable, and it moves from desert to forest near the spring and then back to desert. This visit left me wanting to hike the Bowl and McKittrick Canyon.

The next stop was Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Everyone knows that at dusk thousands of bats come out of the cave, and I wanted to see them. At the time, there was an AAA-approved motel in Whites City, just outside the park. As we checked in, I asked when the bats would be coming out. The clerk said “Leave right now!” It takes twenty minutes or so to get to the cave entrance, where they have an amphitheater to view the bats. We got there with about ten minutes to spare. The bat flight was quite impressive. Although you could take photos back then, it is no longer allowed. The next morning we toured the cave.

The best part about Carlsbad Caverns is that you can go on a self-guided tour of the cave. In most caves, such as Mammoth Cave, you have to rush along to keep up with the group. Here you can take a much more relaxed stroll, and really enjoy the view. There are also some ranger-guided tours to rooms that are considered delicate. On this visit, we took the guided King’s Palace Tour and the self-guided Big Room Tour. The Big Room Tour can be approached in two ways. You can take the elevator down from the visitor center, or you can take the Natural Entrance route which joins up with the Big Room route at its beginning. On this trip, we took the elevator for the King’s Palace Tour and then went off on our own for the Big Room. By now I have been to several caves, including Mammoth, Wind, Jewel, and Lehman, and I would have to say that Carlsbad Caverns is the best. The Big Room is indeed big, and there are several beautiful and/or amazing formations everywhere you look. Furthermore, the importance of being able to set your own pace cannot be overestimated. After touring the cave, we drove the Walnut Canyon Desert Drive, which is a 9.5 mile auto nature drive.

Second Visit

My second trip to Guadalupe and Carlsbad Caverns was a bonus on my trip to Big Bend National Park earlier this year. It is impossible for me to go to a National Park without also visiting any other one nearby. (I also visited Fort Davis National Historic Site and Chamizal National Memorial on that trip.) Most importantly, though, I wanted to hike the Bowl and McKittrick Canyon. Thus, on this trip I allotted much more time for Guadalupe. On a rainy Sunday morning I arrived at the road to McKittrick Canyon, but the gate wasn’t open yet. This would be a perfect chance to stretch my legs on the relatively short (2.3 miles) Smith Spring Trail that I had hiked on my previous trip to the park. The hike was unlike any other desert hike I had taken because of the gray fog that was all around me. It was really weird seeing desert plants in this weather condition. After this hike, I drove to McKittrick Canyon for the 10.2 mile round trip to the Notch. The fog had lifted a bit, so I was able to see the scenery. The rain had intensified the colors of everything it touched, so the plants and other scenery were very beautiful. About halfway to the Notch, I stopped to check out the abandoned Pratt Lodge. The view of South McKittrick Canyon from the Notch was superb, and it was a great place for lunch. By this time, Guadalupe Mountains had cemented its place on my list of great National Parks.

The next day I hiked up to the Bowl in an 8.5 mile loop. I chose the counter-clockwise direction via the Frijole Trail, Bear Canyon Trail, Bowl Trail, and Tejas Trail. I chose this direction so I would hike the steepest part (Bear Canyon) uphill. I do not like to hike down steep trails. The hike was good, but the bowl itself was a bit disappointing. I was envisioning a rather large bowl filled with pine trees, but it was not so big and the trees were rather sparse. The view from Hunter's Peak, however, was quite good. From there I could easily see Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas. (You can hike to the top if you want.) Even cooler, I could look down at the top of El Capitan, the landmark that you can see for miles.

My next day’s activity was to tour Carlsbad Caverns. I started at the natural entrance, the first person there for the day. There are many switchbacks as you descend into the ground. Finally, it levels off a bit as you actually enter the cave. The route is then downhill all the way until joining with the Big Room route. This time, I had a camera that could take pictures in the cave, so it was quite fun photographing the formations. When I got to the end of the trail, I decided to take it again with my camera in its bag. I highly recommend this strategy. Without your camera, you look at everything instead of hunting for something that would make a pretty picture. After lunch, I had the whole afternoon available, so I decided to go back to Guadalupe and enter it from the north this time. The entrance, accessed by back roads, is at Dog Canyon. As you enter the park, there is a little Texas sign. I don’t think it was big enough to even say “Welcome to Texas.” The terrain on this end of the park is much smoother than at the southern end. The Bush Mountain Trail starts here and the aforementioned Tejas Trail ends here. I took the Bush Mountain Trail to Manzanita Ridge and back, about 4 miles. After returning to my motel in Carlsbad (Whites City no longer having an AAA-approved motel), I prepared for the next day’s drive to Big Bend National Park. For more pictures of Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains, with captions, see my Flickr page.

My visits: October 1994 and May 2009

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Everyone Wants to be a Ranger

The latest issue of Backpacker is the Reader's Choice issue. It was nice to see that 44% of the readers said that being a ranger is their dream outdoor job. Several of the staff agreed. Some were even specific about which park they wanted to work for: NP of American Samoa, Yosemite NP, and Denali NP. Of course, this is also my dream job. I hadn't really thought about a specific place before, but I guess I would have to say Glacier NP, with Olympic NP and Pictured Rocks NL being my second and third choices.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park in Texas is in the middle of nowhere. If you want to go to Big Bend, you have to go to Big Bend. It is not like “Oh I have to go to Denver; I think I’ll go to Rocky Mountain National Park while I’m there.” The closest real city to Big Bend is El Paso, a six-hour drive. Long drive or not, I only had two parks left to complete every National Park in the lower 48 states, so I was going. Plus, I have rarely been disappointed by a National Park. Big Bend sure did not disappoint. It was well worth the trip, especially because I combined it with repeat visits to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas and Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. I will talk about them in my next posting.

Big Bend National Park got its name from the big bend that the Rio Grande River takes there. As you will recall from your elementary school geography lessons, the Rio Grande separates the United States and Mexico. The river passes through three canyons at the edge of the park, with two of them being accessible by paved road. Santa Elena Canyon is spectacular, cutting through the face of a large cliff. The cleft is visible for miles. There is a trail that goes about a mile into the canyon until is stopped by the sheer cliffs. The hike is good. I did not hike into Boquillas Canyon, mainly because it was getting late when I was there. The trail goes along the river for a while, and the opening is not as obvious as Santa Elena. The most spectacular thing about that section of the park is the huge cliffs of the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico.

One of the things people used to love doing at the park is buying craft items from Mexicans living across the river in Boquillas del Carmen. The main items are painted walking sticks and wire scorpions. Crossing the border is now illegal there and any Mexicans found over here will be escorted to a town 100 miles away to cross back. Of course, this does not stop them from crossing over to sell things. In the Boquillas Canyon Overlook parking lot, there are several rocks with handcrafted items on them and a money jar next to them. It is a constant back-and-forth between the merchants trying to sell something before the rangers see it and the rangers confiscating what they see.

As nice as the canyons are, the highlight of the park is the Chisos Mountains. The mountains rise pretty much from the middle of the desert. They are roughly circular in layout with the Chisos Basin in the middle. The park lodge is in the basin, and there are some fine hiking trails starting there. A curvy paved road takes you up to the basin. One of the first things you see when you get up there is the Window. The Window is a notch in the mountains from which the basin drains. Of course, I had heard about the Window from my reading, but I was not prepared for the huge size of it. The Window View Trail is a short paved trail that is a great place for sunset pictures. There is also a hiking trail that leads to the Window itself, but I did not take it.

The morning after I arrived in the park, I took the long hike to the South Rim. This is a 12.6-mile round trip that I expected to be very good. It was. The coolest thing about it is that the trailhead is right by the lodge. Usually I have to drive to the trailhead, put on my boots and daypack, hike, and then drive back all grungy. At Big Bend, I put everything on in my room, hiked the trail, and then had an immediate shower at the end. If this is not luxury, then I don’t what is. You can take the loop either clockwise, starting with the Pinnacles Trail, or counter-clockwise, starting with the Laguna Meadows Trail. I chose the latter. For the first part of the trail, I had good views of the Window, and then I plunged into the forest. I could see mountains above me, but the trail is relatively level. The trail is far enough from the edge that I did not see much of the terrain below until I got closer to the South Rim. I would not exactly call Laguna Meadows a meadow, but there is some grass among the trees. The hike is quite pleasant. At about the 6-mile point I got to a sign that said “South Rim.” “What South Rim?” I said to myself. There was a short trail that headed uphill, so I took it. Wow! The desert spread out before me from high atop a cliff. It was one of the most spectacular vistas I have ever seen. It would have been better if the weather weren’t a bit on the rainy side, but still it was great. On a clear day, you should be able to see the Santa Elena Canyon and well into Mexico. After taking in the view and having a snack, I headed back on the Pinnacles Trail. It was a bit rougher than the Laguna Meadows Trail. I stopped to eat lunch on the steps up to Emory Peak. It was starting to rain by then, so I skipped the peak. After a while I got back to the trailhead and took that luxurious shower I was talking about earlier.

Later that day, I drove over to the Boquillas Canyon, and the next day I drove to Santa Elena Canyon via the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. There was a great view of the other side of the Window from the road. I made several stops on the way to and back from the Canyon. My first stop was the Upper Burro Mesa Pour-Off, a 3.6-mile hike that goes to the top of a dry waterfall. Just before the end, I had to climb down a fairly slick 12-foot drop and hope that I could get back up. Since you are reading this, you know that my boots had enough traction for the job. Next I took a 0.8-mile hike into Tuff Canyon. Tuff is a light volcanic breccia. After my hike in Santa Elena Canyon, I took the 1-mile Burro Mesa Pour-Off Trail. This trail ends at the bottom of the dry waterfall that I was at earlier in the day. Other sites along then road that I saw were the Sam Nail Ranch, the Homer Wilson Ranch, the Mule Ears Viewpoint, and the Sotol Vista Overlook.

The next day, I left the park to return to El Paso. I entered the park from the north, so I exited from the west to get a different view. Far-away Santa Elena Canyon dominated my view as I left the park, with the Window in my rear-view mirror. It was a beautiful end to a fantastic visit. I went to Big Bend chiefly because I needed to visit it to be one park closer to fulfilling my quest, but I left it wanting to come back. For more pictures, with captions, see my Flickr page.

My visit: May 2009

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Last Episode

Tonight, The National Parks: America's Best Idea came to an end. It went out in blaze of glory as wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995. This was the culmination of work by George Wright and his protege Adolph Murrie, Park Service biologists who realized that wildlife in its wild state was an integral part of the parks and that all animals, both cute and ferocious, belonged there.

Biscayne NP was the featured park in this episode, along with the Alaska parks. Between President Carter wielding the Antiquities Act and Congress declaring National Parks, 1978-80 saw a huge increase in National Park acreage. It was a thrill to see the map of Alaska go from containing just Mount McKinley National Park to containing eight National Parks and other huge areas of protected land.

The person who figured prominently in this episode is Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. His name is well known to conservationists and parks buffs. Under his watch, many parks were added to the system and George Hartzog was appointed as Park Service Director. The people highlight of the episode was when the various talking heads from the series told their own National Park stories.

Burning out on Burns

Last night's episode of The National Parks: America's Best Idea was the least enjoyable so far. It was probably mostly because I was tired, but after 8 or 9 hours of the show, I think I am starting to get tired of watching it. Perhaps they should have spaced the episodes out a bit, say two or three episodes a week over a few weeks. Part of it was also Ken Burns' fault. In this episode he went off on a fairly long tangent, the only one in the series. My attention wavered and never really came back for the rest of the episode. This also illustrates Ken Burns' primary flaw: his style is very slow and interest in his shows requires deep interest in the material itself. I don't think anyone could watch a Ken Burns documentary about a subject in which they weren't especially interested.

Of course, there were several things in the episode which were interesting. The CCC, Roosevelt's best idea, was covered. We are still enjoying the results of their labor. One thing I was not aware of is that Franklin Roosevelt and his Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, were very interested in National Parks and the best friends of the parks in Washington since Theodore Roosevelt. It was they who brought battlefields and memorials into the Park Service as well as adding several more parks.

The featured park was Everglades NP, which was the first National Park to be created for the purpose of preserving wildlife rather than scenery or history. This new attitude was largely due to George Wright, a Park Service biologist who studied wildlife in the parks and stressed its importance. He helped institute modern wildlife management techniques, specifically letting wildlife be wild rather than entertainment. Grand Teton NP was finally expanded to include Jackson Hole after Rockefeller issued an ultimatum. He had held the land for 15 years and was getting tired of waiting. He told the president to either accept the land donation or he would sell it. The ultimatum had the desired effect.

Tonight is the final episode, which will feature the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the only decent thing to come out of Jimmy Carter's administration.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Parks Become Popular

Last night's episode of The National Parks: America's Best Idea largely focused on the increasing popularity of the National Parks. This was due to two factors: the rise of the automobile and Stephen Mather's realization that he must make the parks car-friendly to attract more people which would then encourage Congress to authorize more parks. Mather was a practical man. His PR man Robert Sterling Yard was an idealist and thought Mather was ruining the parks. He founded the National Parks Association (now the National Parks Conservation Association) and co-founded the Wilderness Society.

One of the highlight for me was following the Gehrtz family as they visited as many National Parks as they could. It reminded me of The War, where we followed certain soldiers through their experiences. The other highlight was the beginning of the National Park rangers, trained professionals who replaced inept political appointees. If I were a bit younger and didn't care much about salary, being a ranger would be my dream job.

The main parks in this episode were Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains. The park service finally got rid of all private claims in the former and the latter was authorized and realized. Also in this episode, John Rockefeller Jr. began secretly buying up land in Jackson Hole for addition to Grand Teton NP. Tonight's episode should be interesting when the cattlemen find out. Also in tonight's episode will be the CCC, in my opinion Roosevelt's greatest idea.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The National Park Service is Formed

In tonight's episode of The National Parks: America's Best Idea, Grand Canyon and Acadia are the featured parks. Many people had wanted the Grand Canyon to be a National Park for a long time, and it was finally designated as such in 1919, the same year as Acadia.

Acadia brings me to my gripe about this series. In the greater scheme of things it is only an annoyance, but nevertheless I don't like it. Burns repeatedly fails to give us fine historical detail such as the fact that Acadia's original name was Sieur de Monts National Monument. The show implies that it was Acadia National Monument. Likewise, he fails to mention that it was made a National Park under the name of Lafayette National Park, which was later changed to Acadia NP, though he is clear that there was some name other than Acadia at the time. I am also still irritated that he completely ignored the second National Park, Mackinac NP. To his credit, he did point out that Zion NP's original name was Mukuntuweap National Monument.

Putting my gripes aside, this was my favorite episode so far, as it focused on the birth of the National Park Service, my favorite government agency, and its first director, Stephen Mather. His assistant, Horace Albright, who succeeded him as director, also features prominently. I might point out here that Albright's book, The Birth of the National Park Service, is a great read. I had forgotten what an impediment Gifford Pinchot, the head of the Forest Service, was. Burns makes sure to point this out in tonight's and last night's episodes. It is always fun to have a bad guy around, especially when we know things turned out fine in the end.

We are halfway done with the series now, and I am convinced that it is the television event of the century, just as I had assumed it would be. Ken Burns rules!

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Excitement Builds

Tonight's episode of The National Parks: America's Best Idea centered on our greatest conservation president, Theodore Roosevelt. The highlight was when Congress passed the Antiquities Act and Roosevelt seized upon it to declare several National Monuments. This act was largely the work of Iowa Congressman John Lacey, of whom I was previously not aware. He was quite important in the early protection of the National Parks, and I have now added him to my list of National Park heroes. The sad part of the episode was John Muir's loss in the fight to prevent Hetch-Hetchy Valley from being flooded as a reservoir. I personally do not think this is such a tragedy, but Muir felt otherwise.

Tomorrow's episode should be even more exciting, as we get to the founding of the National Park Service and presumably quite a bit on Stephen Mather and Horace Albright.

Ken Burns Does Not Disappoint

Last night, PBS showed the first episode of The National Parks: America's Best Idea. It was just as good as I had hoped for. It is not the show to watch if you just want to see pretty pictures of national parks. It is for someone who wants to know the history of the parks. I have a whole bookshelf of national park books, and I am very interested in the history. John Muir was prominently featured in this episode, as he will be in tonight's episode along with Theodore Roosevelt, our greatest conservation president. Yellowstone and Yosemite were the featured parks, and the episode ends with the total number of parks standing at four: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant (now part of Kings Canyon NP). I was disappointed that Burns did not mention Hot Springs Reservation (now Hot Springs NP), which pre-dated Yosemite by 30 years, or Mackinac National Park (now Mackinac Island State Park), which was the second national park after Yellowstone, as part of the early history. I suppose that they did not quite fit the narrative. In any project, you have to decide what to leave in and what to leave out. If you missed the first episode, you can catch it on the PBS web site.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Rocky Mountain National Park

As promised, I will now begin posts concerning individual parks. I chose Rocky Mountain as my first park because someone at work is going there, and it seems an opportune time to give my opinion on the park.

Rocky Mountain National Park is in Colorado, fairly near Denver. Its main attraction, as you might guess, is the Rocky Mountains. The mountains are quite good there, and the Trail Ridge Road is at a high elevation, giving a spectacular view. Truthfully, though, I preferred the San Juan Skyway between Durango and Ouray in southwest Colorado. Two other items of special interest in the park are the large number of elk and the origin of the Colorado River. I went in September, so the weather was good and all trails and roads were open. It was a little weird when I was there because I drove to the park from Glenwood Springs on September 11, 2001. It was eerie driving on I-70 with all of the electronic signs saying that all airports are closed. I did what any good National Park enthusiast would do: I spent my time hiking and sightseeing, ignoring CNN until after dinner.

I entered from the west side of the park; most people enter from the east, the Denver side. The Kawuneeche Valley is on the west side of the park. This is the valley that the baby Colorado River runs through. I got the biggest kick out of standing by a small creek that would eventually be the river that carved the Grand Canyon. Also, the abandoned Never Summer Ranch is in the valley. Up the road a bit is the trail head for the Colorado River Trail. I took that hike to the abandoned Lulu City the next morning. It was a pleasant hike, and I still got a kick out of the river.

To get to the other side of the park, you take Trail Ridge Road with its spectacular views. The east side of the park has many of the interesting sites, including Longs Peak. There are several small lakes there, including Bear Lake (left). Also there are treeless areas called "parks" where the elk like to hang out. On that side of the park, Estes Park is a good place to stay if you do not want to camp. I recommend the Alpine Trail Ridge Inn as a no-nonsense place to stay.

On my third day, I was ready to take my big hike - Chasm Lake (8.4 miles round trip). I was tempted to hike to the top of Longs Peak, but I did not for two reasons: I did not want to get up before daybreak to start hiking in the dark, and I thought Chasm Lake would just be a better hike. It was indeed a good hike, and I recommend it. Chasm Lake is on the shoulder of Longs Peak, so the beginning of the trail is actually the same. The trail to the lake splits off after a while. The hike starts in the forest and gradually moves above treeline to tundra (above right). Good views abound. The only bad thing is that it is a constant uphill climb until the last half mile or so. At the end of the trail, you have to climb some large rocks to view the lake. Longs Peak looms above the lake (left).

On this hike, I had a bit of an ego blow, but it turned out not to be serious. I am a strong hiker, and I was passing everyone like I usually do. When I was just about at the top, I saw another hiker catching up to me. "What? This can't be," I thought to myself. I was outraged at my obviously failing hiking ability. Then I noticed it was a ranger who was hiking up there to work. I later saw him digging. My ego was intact. It is no insult to be surpassed by someone who is used to the hike and the altitude.

So, in summary, Rocky Mountain is a fine park with great driving views, great hikes, especially Chasm Lake, and plenty of scenery. As an added bonus, there is a nice Indian Art shop, Eagle Plume's in Allenspark on the road near Longs Peak.

My visit: September 2001

Thursday, August 6, 2009

My Park List

A few posts ago, I was mentioning that I have now been to every National Park in the 48 contiguous states. Here is a list of those parks, in chronological order of my first visit. I have indicated if I made more than one visit to a park. I have also indicated by color the parks I visited in the same trip.

Saguaro (6) AZ 1990
Mammoth Cave (4) KY 1991
Yellowstone WY 1991
Grand Teton WY 1991
Shenandoah VA 1992
Redwood (2) CA 1993
Guadalupe Mountains (2) TX 1994
Carlsbad Caverns (2) NM 1994
Petrified Forest AZ 1994
Grand Canyon (2) AZ 1994
Olympic WA 1996
Mount Rainier WA 1996
Joshua Tree (2) CA 1997
Great Basin NV 1998
Zion UT 1998
Bryce Canyon UT 1998
Capitol Reef UT 1998
Arches UT 1998
Canyonlands UT 1998
Mesa Verde CO 1998
Everglades (2) FL 1999
Dry Tortugas FL 1999
Biscayne FL 1999
Death Valley CA 2000
Great Sand Dunes CO 2001
Black Canyon of the Gunnison CO 2001
Rocky Mountain CO 2001
Cuyahoga Valley OH 2004
Great Smoky Mountains TN/NC 2004
Crater Lake OR 2004
Lassen Volcanic CA 2004
Channel Islands CA 2005
Theodore Roosevelt ND 2005
Badlands SD 2005
Wind Cave SD 2005
North Cascades WA 2006
Acadia ME 2006
Yosemite CA 2006
Kings Canyon CA 2006
Sequoia CA 2006
Hot Springs AR 2006
Congaree SC 2007
Glacier (2) MT 2007
Isle Royale MI 2008
Big Bend TX 2009
Voyageurs MN 2009

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

My Favorite Organizations

There are many nature and conservation organizations wanting our money. Many of them do very little real work and are actually in the business of whining about global warming or else being against everything and anything. There are, however, at least two organizations that do great work and earn every donation they get.

The first of these is the Student Conservation Association (SCA). In their own words, "SCA provides college and high school-aged members with hands-on conservation service opportunities in virtually every field imaginable, from tracking grizzlies through the Tetons to restoring desert ecosystems and teaching environmental education at Washington, D.C.’s Urban Tree House. We are truly building the next generation of conservation leaders." What this means in a practical sense is that SCA members do real work at National Parks and similar areas. The parks truly would not function as well without them. They supplement the staff, save our tax dollars, and learn something useful at the same time. One of my favorite pastimes at National Parks is chatting with rangers. Many of them say that they were in the SCA. Enough said. Get out your checkbook.

The second organization is the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). They do political rather than physical labor, but that is no less important. Their mission is "to protect and enhance America's National Parks for present and future generations." More specifically:
"We advocate for the national parks and the National Park Service; we educate decision makers and the public about the importance of preserving the parks; we help to convince members of Congress to uphold the laws that protect the parks and to support new legislation to address threats to the parks; we fight attempts to weaken these laws in the courts; and we assess the health of the parks and park management to better inform our advocacy work." I have been donating to them for years. As an extra bonus, they have a great magazine, National Parks.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Quest Fulfilled

I recently visited Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota. Voyageurs was my 46th US National Park. This is significant because there are 46 National Parks in the 48 contiguous states. I have now been to every National Park in the 48 contiguous states! This has been a quest of mine for several years. It has taken me eighteen years from my first visit to Mammoth Cave National Park in June 1991 to my visit to Voyageurs National Park in July 2009. In the future, I will see a handful of the remaining twelve National Parks and repeat several of my favorites. I will never be finished visiting National Parks and other units in the system, but now I can relax and know I have completed a worthwhile quest.
You may wonder why I will not be seeing the other twelve parks. The reason is simple: it is impractical. I doubt I will ever be in American Samoa or the American Virgin Islands. The two parks in Hawaii are quite doable, as are Denali and Glacier Bay in Alaska. Some of the Alaska parks are doable with a bit of work, but others require being flown in by a bush pilot and then having him come back for you. I am a day hiker, not a backpacker.

In the future, I will be writing individual posts about many of the National Park.

Monday, July 20, 2009

More NPS Web Fun

The main NPS web page is a barrel of fun, but they have several subsidiary and parallel pages that are almost as much fun.

The first one that comes to mind is the Harpers Ferry Center. Their web page states, "Since 1970, Harpers Ferry Center has created a variety of interpretive tools to assist NPS field interpreters. These tools include audiovisual programs, historic furnishings, museum exhibits, publications, and wayside exhibits. HFC also provides a variety of services including graphics research, interpretive planning, media contracting, artifact conservation, revision and reprinting of publications, and replacement of wayside exhibits." Yes folks, these are the people who make the beautiful folders that we get in each park in addition to other graphics and media. Very talented graphic artists, if you ask me. If I had more skill at graphic arts, that would be my dream job.

The Park Service has a rather extensive history web site. You could spend hours browsing around there. One of my favorite history pages is the NPS birthday page. It lists birthdays of National Park units in chronological order.

Another of my favorites is the park planning site. This site contains PDFs of the various park planning documents. The most interesting are the General Management Plans, which are park master plans, but there is something for everyone. It seems that whenever they want to do work in the park, there is a document. Close a trail? Document. Realign a road? Document. Improve radio communications? Document. Yes, the NPS is indeed a division of the US government. I poke a little fun at them, but even the most mundane document is interesting if it concerns your favorite park.

Saving the best for last, my favorite is The Morning Report. This really tells you what is going on at the parks and the Park Service. There is an Incidents section, which contains things such as tourists falling into the Grand Canyon, a Fire Management section, which contains lists and summaries of fires in the parks, an Operational Notes section, which contains bills and other Congressional activity, and a Parks and People section, which includes job listings and awards. It is fascinating reading for the National Park buff.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fun with Web Addresses

The web site for the National Park Service is, as you might expect, http://www.nps.gov. Each park has its own web page that can be accessed from there. Someone who visits the NPS web site as much has I do soon notices a pattern to the addresses for the individual parks. They are of the form http://www.nps.gov/xxxx. For a park with a one-word name, xxxx is the first four letters of the name. For a park with more than one word in the name, xxxx is the first two letters of the first word and the first two letters of the second word.

The address for Glacier National Park, for example, would thus be http://www.nps.gov/glac. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore would be http://www.nps.gov/piro. With almost 400 units in the system, I would imagine that there are a few duplicates. I do not know the rule for that. I would assume that the National Park would have first priority, followed by National Monument, and so on in some hierarchy. But then what does xxxx become for the losing park? I also do not know the rule if the abbreviation is a naughty word.

It looks like I'll have something to do the next time I want to waste a little time. I suppose the answer is somewhere at the NPS web site, but that would be no fun.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Astounding Scenery

In my last entry, I talked about my favorite National Parks. I considered each park as a whole in choosing the parks. There are many other park that don't make that list but do have some astounding scenery. By astounding, I mean astounding, not pretty or nice or anything else. I am talking about blow-me-away scenery. This posting is devoted to those parks. I do not offer any photos because they would simply not do justice to the scenery.

Number one on my list of astounding scenery is Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. Bryce Canyon is not really a canyon. It is the side of a plateau, a one-sided canyon if you will. It is not just a plain old side, though. The rock is in varying shades from white to yellow to brown, and fantastic shapes have been carved into that rock. Standing on the rim, you see these colors and shapes and a view that stretches forever. Astounding.

A close number two is Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. Crater Lake is a mountain lake that rests in the collapsed volcanic cone of Mount Mazama in the Cascade Mountain Range. For years I had heard that is was so blue, so pretty, blah, blah, blah. I usually don't believe anything that is hyped so much. I was so wrong. We entered the park from the north and took the road towards the rim road that circles the lake. At the Grouse Hill pull-off, I got my first view of the lake. I was amazed. It really is as blue as people say. The pictures do not do it justice. You need to go there and see it for yourself.

Next on the list is Yosemite National Park in California. Yosemite is the most over-hyped park on the face of the Earth. Because of this hype, I was not enjoying the park as much as I expected. No matter how beautiful, living up to this much hype is nearly impossible - nearly. On my last day there I was heading for the South entrance to continue on to Kings Canyon National Park. Naturally, I took this chance to drive to Glacier Point. Wow! I tend not to use the term breath-taking, but there is no other term to use when standing at Glacier Point looking down at the whole valley.

In fourth place is Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. Unless you live under a rock, you know what the Grand Canyon looks like. Everyone has seen it countless times on TV and movies. However, this does not prepare you for seeing it in person. Your eyes see in three dimensions, and more importantly have a 180 degree angle of vision, much more than a movie camera. The canyon is huge, and it completely fills your vision. Astounding!

No list is complete without an honorable mention. Having been to so many National Parks, I don't expect to be amazed any more. Thankfully, I can still be. On my recent trip to Big Bend National Park in Texas, I hiked to the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains. The Chisos Mountains rise pretty much from the middle of a desert, so you might expect the view from something called "The South Rim" to be pretty good. Pretty good indeed. Spectacular is more like it. I give this view an honorable mention because it is a notch less grand than the other views, and mainly because the effect was as much from surprise as it was from splendor. I hiked about seven miles without seeing much in the way of views, and then I came to a sign that said "South Rim." I didn't see any south rim, but there was a trail heading up a slight incline, presumably to the edge of the cliff. When I got to the top, a spectacular "top-of-the-world" view opened up. Definitely worth the trip.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

My Favorites

When I tell people how many National Parks I have visited, they usually ask, "Which one is your favorite?" This is a fair question, but it is not simple to answer for two reasons. First, there are three parks that are essentially tied for first. Second, there are two other parks that may actually be my favorite, but not for the usual reasons.

If forced to name my single favorite park, it would be Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming (with a bit of overlap into Montana and Idaho). Yellowstone was my first big famous national park (my third overall), and it has a larger variety of things to see than any other park. Yellowstone has geysers, mudpots, hot springs, lakes, mountains, canyons, rivers, waterfalls, trees, animals, and birds all in one place. Moreover, the thermal features, especially the geysers, are something one does not see in everyday life. They are awesome.

My second contender for favorite park, Olympic National Park in Washington, also has a great variety, and it is beautiful. It has three distinct environments: Rain forest, ocean beach, and mountain. Beach and mountain environments are not unique, but rarely are they seen in such close proximity. The temperate rain forest is something not seen in many other places. It is like an Eastern forest on steroids. Everything is greener and the green is everywhere. Olympic is where I first saw tides with my own eyes. I am not from near the ocean, so tides were always a rather theoretical thing for me. Seeing the same beach at low and high tide made me a believer.

Glacier National Park in Montana is known for beautiful mountain scenery. This would include the mountains themselves as well as lakes, rivers, forests, glaciers, and waterfalls. Going-to-the-Sun Road is often called the most beautiful drive in America. I do not argue with these descriptions, and Glacier is my third contender for favorite National Park. It does not have the variety of Yellowstone or Olympic, but for sheer beauty and majesty, it has no equal. I am also somewhat partial to this park because I did extensive day hiking there. The Grinnell Glacier trail is probably the finest hike I have ever taken. As time goes by, Glacier rises in my mind, and some day I may very well count that as my very favorite.

So, we have a virtual tie between Yellowstone , Olympic, and Glacier as my favorite National Park, but what about the other two that I mentioned? Saguaro National Park in Arizona is my favorite in a different sense. I have been there six times, more than any other National Park, and I know the Tucson Mountain District almost like the back of my hand. I love the saguaros, and I know this park so well that it seems like my own little park. I have a connection to it that I do not have with any other National Park. In this sense, it is my favorite.

I have this same sense of connection to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan, with the bonus that the park is quite beautiful. I have been there even more than Saguaro and know it even better, but it is not a National Park proper. If the question asks which is my favorite unit in the National Park System, then I can answer "Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore." PRNL has trees, rivers, lakes, secluded beaches, and waterfalls. Above all, however, it has Lake Superior, the greatest of the Great Lakes. The cliffs tower above the lake and the views are magnificent. The Chapel/Grand Portal Loop, which partially follows the top of the cliffs, is my favorite hike. The view of the cliffs from the commercial tour boat is also quite striking. Really, the only reason PRNL is not my favorite National Park is because it does not qualify in that category. If we ever have Pictured Rocks National Park, it will be my favorite.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

.. and Lame-o Was His Name-o

The vast majority of US National Parks are amazing spectacles of nature. Some of them, though, are amazing spectacles of lameness.

Number one on the lame list is Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, a relatively new addition. I don't know what Congress was thinking when they promoted this park all the way from a National Recreation Area to a National Park. Did someone owe someone a favor? There is nothing really wrong with the park if you compare it to a metropark, which is a large regional park in a metro area, usually run by the county. There is something very wrong if you compare it to a National Park. It should be stripped of its title and revert back to a National Recreation Area or it should be given away and made into a metropark for the Cleveland/Akron area.

Number two in lameness is Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas. I would have made this number one, but it has been a National Park for many years. In fact, it was a National Reservation before there was even a Yellowstone National Park or a National Park Service. The park is small and it has virtually no scenery. It is in the middle of a city. It has some fine historic buildings, and it should be converted into a National Historical Park.

Last on my lame list is Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. I hate to include this park, because it is a fine idea. The trouble is that there is virtually no petrified wood to see. Much of it was dynamited and carted off a hundred years ago. The Blue Mesa is pretty, but darn it, I wanted to see massive quantities of petrified wood. Having I-40 running through the park does not help, either. Perhaps this park should be demoted to a National Monument, but I do not feel strongly about that.

I can think of a few other parks that should have been kept at the National Monument level, but they are fine parks, not lame at all, and I don't begrudge them their higher status.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

National Parks

I am somewhat of an expert on US National Parks. I have been visiting them for about twenty years, and my count now stands at 45 (out of 58). When I say that I have visited 45 National Parks, I mean that I have actually spent time there. I am not a windshield tourist. There are always exceptions, of course. I have to admit that I spent very little time at Biscayne. The boat was out of service that day, and I spent just an hour or two at the visitor center and the waterfront. On the other hand, I spent a week at Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia, hiking a total of 72 miles.

I plan on using this blog to comment on the parks themselves and related subjects. Stay tuned.