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