Monthly Archives: October 2015

Inside and Out: Great Basin National Park

Stella Lake at Great Basin National Park

Stella Lake at Great Basin National Park

Welcome to Nevada, folks!  Home to casinos, wedding chapels, and- as it turns out- the hidden gem of Great Basin National Park.  The history of this area goes back 12,000 years, to the Paleo-Indians, followed by the Fremont and Shoshone tribes, and finally the immigrants on the California trail, on their way to California for mining.  It became a place for ranching, mining, and- as we all know, conservation.  Many paths have crossed in this desert land and when our dirtied hiking boots finally set foot here, we must be ready to follow their lead and brave the wonders that the Great Basin has in store.

Carved out of the lands by glaciers, this desert landscape encapsulates terrain that begs exploration and appreciation.  The forest of bristlecone pine trees contains some trees that are over 3,000 years old!  As National Geographic points out, those trees were around when King Tutankhamun ruled Egypt- a long, long time ago.  But that’s just the thing about Great Basin National Park- while it might not have been around as long as Yellowstone or Yosemite, it has been in the works for far longer, as you will see when we explore further.

Inside the Lehman Caves

Inside the Lehman Caves

Perhaps the coolest part of Great Basin National Park and what sets it apart from other places we have visited are the incredible caves open for people to explore.  The Lehman caves, the most visited of the caves here, were formed thousands of years ago, when the Ice Age created pockets in the formations of limestone in the mountains.  What are left are one and a half miles of underground pathways filled with limestone stalagmites.  The caves are open to the public, but the main goal of the park is to preserve their delicate environment so they remain for generations to come.  Visitors may not be wearing any clothes that have been worn in other caves and are led by a park ranger at all times.  The most important priority is to keep both visitors and the cave safe.

To take a look at another ancient relic, though not quite so old, I would suggest taking a look at the Upper Pictograph Cave, just a short drive up the mountain from the Lehman Cave Visitor Center.  Here, you’ll found rock walls decorated by Fremont Indians about a thousand years ago.  These cave paintings have given researchers a glance into the lives of people from a long, long time ago and for visitors like us, are well worth taking a look.

But after plenty of time underground and in caves, a little bit of time in the outdoors might do us some good.  I would suggest starting at the bottom of Wheeler Peak, the tallest mountain in the region, and taking a survey of the land.  Maybe go fishing at Stella Lake, take a hike up one of the trails and get a great vantage point to look over the beautiful landscape.  Or just explore the park!  The best thing about the National Parks, as I’m sure you’ve come to see, is that there is something for everyone.  Find a ranger, ask around, and find the perfect adventure for you.  A place like Great Basin National Park is a pity to waste.

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A Taste of Danger: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

I’m going to leave the above picture for you to look at for a second.  Does it look a little dangerous?  How about breathtaking?  Welcome to Colorado and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.  Established only recently in 1999, Black Canyon has actually been in the works for a long, long, long time.  National Geographic may have said it best when they explained,

“Imagine chiseling two parallel walls of hard gneiss and schist running the length of Manhattan and standing higher than two Empire State Buildings stacked atop one another, with water as your only tool…What you see from the rim is the product of two million years of patient work.”

That’s what you have to keep in mind when you stand on the precipice of Black Canyon.  Two million years.  From a vantage point of 2700 feet above the Gunnison River, the expanse of this park might not be entirely comprehensible to you.  Even in the earliest findings of history, no human occupation of the valley is to be found- the mighty cliffs were nothing any person sought to overcome.  Later in history, however, the canyon became an obstacle to Spanish, French, and American explorers trying to investigate the territories.  Something about a cliff over half a mile high that draws the attention of an adventurer!

The treacherous cliffs of the canyon

The treacherous cliffs of the canyon

As explorers of the 21st century, though, we have far more opportunities to experience this phenomenal park, thanks to the National Park Service.  If there are experienced climbers out there, I would say have at those cliffs- but be warned, these cliffs are not just steep, they also prone to crumbling and offering very little handholds. Attempt at your own risk; there are plenty of other adventurous escapades we can pursue.

The Black Canyon is inviting to some of the most experienced and adventurous of outdoorsmen (or women) because the territory is so very strenuous.  To me, the hike to the bottom of the canyon does sound like an adventure worth taking.  The National Park Service warns visitors that there are no marked trails to the bottom and that the hike itself is for only those in the best physical condition.  So if you’re ready to pack high-energy food and LOTS of water, feel free to get yourself down the canyon with guided ropes and a couple of friends.  Be careful of bears, though, and poison ivy.  But no matter how challenging all that sounds, think of the feeling of reaching the bottom of that awesome canyon and looking up.  I would think that’s worth all the bruises, scrapes, and poison ivy.

Regardless, I realize that risk is not for everyone.  For those who want a little less danger in their lives,  I suggest we take the Oak Flat Loop trail or the Rim Rock trail.  These two trails maintain views of the spectacular canyon without quite as much death-defying challenges, traversing the outer rim of the canyon and venturing into some of the park’s thick forests and death-defying cliffs.  Throw on a backpack, pack a water bottle and some snacks and head out for a hike and get a closer look at this beautiful creation of nature.

As you can see, as we get closer to the west coast the adventure is only growing.  Black Canyon is a reminder that there is danger in even the most majestic places.  Mother Nature sure has a way of making some phenomenal places for us to explore.  It is on us to choose the adventure that is best for us.

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Where it all started: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

“It is… vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird. Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals — not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements. But at last it looks as if our people were awakening.”   Theodore Roosevelt

View of the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

View of the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt first visited the badlands of North Dakota in 1883.  This young man would eventually become the 26th president of the United States and be known as the “conservationist” president.  But back then, he was just a man with a love for nature who recognized the necessity of preserving nature from human influence.  During his presidency, Roosevelt would go on to set aside 230 million acres of land as “national forests” and five areas that would go on to become national parks.  In many ways, he was the father of the park system that we know today- and the inspiration behind our next stop, Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Roosevelt fell in love with this area long before his presidency and invested funds in a local cattle ranch.  Perhaps his love for this place and his influence in its development played the greatest role in its being named in his honor.  The Elkhorn Ranches were where Theodore Roosevelt came to shape some of his most important beliefs about conservation.  And the badlands, these vast expanses of hills, grasslands, and bison are like visions from another world, unlike anything you have ever seen before.  Breathtaking.

We have now hit the halfway point of our journey across the nation surveying the National Parks and I can think of no better place to start than the very place T.R. came to see how important preservation was.  Our natural first stop will of course be the ranches where he spent so much time.  Though all that remains of the ranch itself are the worn foundations of the buildings, the 35 mile gravel road there leads us to an area of seclusion seldom reached even in our last four stops.  Elkhorn Ranch will be our first introduction to the land Theodore Roosevelt fell in love with long ago.

From there, it’s simply a must to explore the Badlands for ourselves.  Theodore Roosevelt once said of the Badlands, “[they are] so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly proper to belong to this earth.”  These rough, unforgiving features of the North Dakota landscape were what made T.R. see  the area so wonderfully unique and hopefully we will too.  The park offers plenty of scenic drives, hiking trails, and horsebacking trails to form a comprehensive understanding of the special place the badlands have in our country.

Wild Horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Wild Horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

An element of the park perhaps best seen from the roads around it is the diverse wildlife.  Home to bison, wild horses, prairie dogs, and elk alike, Theodore Roosevelt National Park offers a unique experience to visitors to see these creatures in an entirely natural environment.  So even as we experience the anomalies that are the North Dakota badlands, we are always being reminded that the land is shared with many more animals than people.

Ultimately, I have brought you here because I think it’s important to be reminded of your roots.  As we continue to explore the rest of the country’s national parks, we should always keep in mind that they only exist because someone decided to fight for them.  I hope I inspire you to value them as well.

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Seeking some relaxation: Hot Springs National Park


One of the hot springs of Hot Springs National Park

Welcome to Arkansas, everyone!  We went through a pretty wet visit in Florida last week as we explored Big Cypress National Preserve and now we’re here, exploring the waters again… only slightly differently.  This week, I’ve brought you to Hot Springs, Arkansas to visit the one and only Hot Springs National Park for a little bit of rest and relaxation, so let’s get right to it!

Hot Springs is advertised by the National Park Service as the “oldest area in the national park system,” because, although it was not officially a park until 1921, the area was set aside in 1832 by president Andrew Jackson as a special reservation.  Yellowstone Park, the area widely accepted as the first national park wasn’t established for another 40 years!  So what attracted so many people to this small little place in Arkansas?

I’m hoping that from the name, you already know.  The natural hot springs here have been attracting the public since the 19th century, utilized as a spa destination.  According to National Geographic, even baseball teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnatti Reds, and Boston Red Soxs would flock to the springs in the 1880’s to 1940’s to soothe sore muscles after long games or practices.  But seriously, what’s not to love?  The natural water flow at the park (about 700,000 gallons a day) pumps in water at 143 degrees into luxurious springs that are open to the public.

Indeed, unlike many of National Parks, Hot Springs is not secluded from civilization, it is practically a part of it, inseparable from its counterpart town, Hot Springs, Arkansas.  Citizens of Hot Springs use the resources of the park as an almost economic staple of their town, constantly attracting visitors to appreciate the attraction of the luxurious springs.  Naturally, we will not be the only ones heading off to try out the springs and all their glory!

But never fear!  Hot Springs has plenty of attractions while we wait for a spot in the springs.  For a little bit of history, we could check out the historic Fordyce Bathhouse, which ran from 1915-1962.  This might not be quite as adventurous as some of our previous hikes but I think it does give us a glimpse of the zeitgeist of the park and how it was utilized for economic purposes while still protecting and conserving the nature.   Hot Springs has been used by the public for relaxation services for a long, long time.  The Fordyce Bathhouse is a prime example of this; it once contained a gymnasium, music rooms, and bath houses with natural spring water.


View from Mountain Tower in Hot Springs National Park

The Hot Springs National Park might be best appreciated, however, from the vantage point of the Mountain Tower.  Situated in the Ouachita Moutains, this attraction elevates visitors high about the ground (1256 feet high, to be exact) and get a view of the park, the mountains, and the Arkansas countryside.  After a nice little hike from the park, we get to see the view pictured above, the vast expansion of beautiful mountains.

And then, if we’re lucky, we’ll get a chance to feel those amazing hot springs for the first time.  Feel the springs that generations of people have flocked to.  Feel the natural occurrence of warm waters not from a faucet, but from the Earth.  And maybe, just maybe, we’ll let the world fall away and relax a little bit.

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