Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Top Ten Parks Honorable Mentions

To finish this series off, here are a few parks that are well worth your time, but didn't quite make it into my Top Ten.

Glacier Bay National Park is located in southeast Alaska, on the Inside Passage, and features numerous tidewater glaciers. Tidewater glaciers are those that end in the ocean, often spectacularly "calving", which is when large chunks break off and splash into the ocean.

A tidewater glacier as seen from the deck of our ship.

There are no roads that lead to the park, however, many companies offer a boat service to shuttle visitors to and from Glacier Bay. Most visitors, my family included, visit Glacier Bay while on a cruise ship. We took a 7-day Holland America Cruise through the Inside Passage, and our day in Glacier Bay was one of the highlights. Our boat was able to glide up next to the massive glaciers as we were stunned by their truly gigantic size.

Another ship that was in the bay at the same time as us. The ship is many hundreds of feet long and that helps to give scale to the glaciers.
Next up is Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. In the movie Jeremiah Johnson, a character named Del Gue says, "The Rocky Mountains are the marrow of the world...and, by God, I was right."

Ypsilon Mountain. NPS photo

This park showcases the beauty of the Rockies in all their splendor. All of the park is over 7,500ft elevation, including many "14ers", those peaks over 14,000ft. Hiking and wildlife viewing are the main draws, with over 330 miles of trails offering visitors the opportunity to view megafauna such as bighorn sheep, elk, mountain lions, black bear, and the occasional moose.

A bull Elk in Rocky Mountain NP. NPS photo
The final Honorable Mention goes to... all the rest. The National Parks ("Our Best Idea" according to filmmaker Ken Burns) are all worth visiting for one reason or another. There are caves (Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Cave), coasts (Hawaii Volcanoes, Acadia), forests (Great Smoky Mountains), desert (Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon), swamps (Everglades), mountains (Mt. Rainier, Grand Teton) and so much more that it is impossible to narrow down the list even further.

I haven't been to them all yet, but I think that is a worthy bucket list item. Hopefully I'll see you out there.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Top Ten Parks pt 5

I had some trouble narrowing down all of the remaining parks to my final two. As a result, I've picked two, but I'll post one final blog with honorable mentions later in the week.

First up is Olympic National Park in western Washington State. Olympic is often referred to as three parks in one because of the three distinct ecosystems located within the park. The three ecosystems are alpine, coastal, and forest. Olympic is probably most famous for its temperate rainforest.

My brother and I pose for a picture while hiking through the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic.
The Hoh Rainforest has approximately 140-170 inches (12-14ft!!) of precipitation per year. The rainforest is located on the west side of the park. Hiking is obviously the main attraction here, with many miles of trails for visitors to explore one of the only temperate rainforests in the northern hemisphere.

The alpine section of the park contains the Olympic Mountains for which the park is named. Conditions are often extreme in the alpine region, with Hurricane Ridge receiving 30-35ft of snow annually. Despite the harsh climate, a variety of wildlife can be found here.

Me, my dad, and brother at Hurricane Ridge.

The park also protects 73 miles of Pacific coastline where visitors can drive and look at the scenery or hike along the beach for a more hands-on experience. The coast offers many opportunities for tidepooling where you can explore some of the Pacific's marine life. Tidepools form when the tide recedes and marine animals are trapped in small pools until the tide returns. Animals you can find while tidepooling include anemones, crabs, starfish, octupi, various fish, and many more.

For those less interested in wildlife, Olympic National Park is located just a short drive from Forks, Washington, the town depicted in the Twilight Series. The movie was not actually filmed here, although the wild Pacific coast is very recognizable. One of the more distinguishing features of the coast is the presence of sea stacks, which are columns of rock sticking out of the water near the shore. The stacks are sections of the rock that has resisted erosion.

Me and dad and my brother walking along the beach at La Push. While not technically in the park, this is a good example of the Pacific coast. Twilight fans will recognize La Push as being where the werewolves lived in the books and movies.
The final park to make it into my top 10 is...Mesa Verde in Colorado.

As I've said before, there is no such thing as a bad National Park. But to get into the Top 10, these all had something a little extra special, or unique, about them. For Mesa Verde, its the fact that, while there is great natural scenery, the park is more about people.

There are over 5,000 known Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) archaeological sites within the park, including 600 cliff dwellings. The name Mesa Verde means "green table" in Spanish, referring to the flat mesa tops where the Anasazi grew corn and other crops. They kept no written records, but is believed that they first settled in the area around 600 AD before leaving around 1300 AD. The cliff dwellings that make Mesa Verde famous were built starting around the late 1100s.

The Anasazi are well known for their pottery and intricate basket weaving, both of which can be found in Mesa Verde's thousands of archaeological sites.

Cliff Palace, thought to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America. The multi-story complex contains over 200 rooms built of sandstone, wooden beams, and mortar. NPS photo
Many of the ruins can be visited on your own through a self-guided tour, but the most spectacular are only accessible through ranger guided tours. When my family visited, we toured both Cliff Palace, pictured above, and Balcony House, below. The trail to reach Cliff Palace requires visitors to climb a series of 5 short ladders to reach the dwelling. The tour last approximately one hour, with the ranger providing interesting information on the Anasazi and their way of life.

Balcony House is much smaller and inaccessible, leading archaeologists to believe it was constructed to be easily defensible. Balcony House contains 45 rooms and is set on a high ledge. The only entrance and exit for the Anasazi is believed to have been a series of  toe-holds in a cleft on the cliff. Visitors now enter by scaling a 32ft ladder and then crawling through a 12ft tunnel. To exit the old Anasazi route is used with the help of two 10ft ladders.

Visitors tour Balcony House with a ranger. The 32ft entrance ladder can be seen on the ride side of the dwelling. NPS photo.
And with that my Top Ten Parks list comes to a close. To recap: Yellowstone, Denali, Arches, Zion, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Redwood, Yosemite, Olympic, and Mesa Verde. With that being said, there are several parks that were close to making the list as well as a few I have not been to. But, like I have said, there is no such thing as a bad park, so if you have a chance to visit one, no matter what or where it is, take it, and enjoy it. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Top Ten Parks pt 4

For today's edition of my Top Ten Parks let's head out west to California and the parks of Yosemite and Redwood.

Yosemite Valley, with the massive stone monoliths of Half Dome and El Capitan, is one of the more recognizable parks in the country. The smooth granite cliffs make Yosemite a mecca for big wall clmibers, but there is something to do for everyone.

Yosemite Valley with El Capitan on the left and Half Dome in the center background. Google Images

One of the easier trails that is still worth your while is Brideveil Falls. The trail is very short, approximately half a mile round trip, and the falls are spectacular, tumbling 617ft. This is a great hike for families and those looking for a short excursion, but Bridalveil Falls should warrant a visitor from every Yosemite hiker.

The classic "bucket list" trail is Half Dome. Half Dome rises nearly 5,000ft above the valley floor, peaking out at an elevation of 8,800ft above sea level. The 14-16 mile trail (depending on your route) gains 4,800ft of elevation and is reccommended for experienced hikers only. One of the more famous (or infamous) parts of the trail is the final 400ft of cables that allow hikers to summit without rock climbing equipment. If so well prepared, and take the proper precautions, Half Dome is a trail you do not want to miss.

Half Dome at sunset. Google Images
From Yosemite we move to the northwest corner of California to Redwood National Park and the tallest trees on the planet.

Redwood is located on the Pacific coast, offering visitors much more than just tall trees, although that is, of course, the main attraction. There are various scenic drives and hikes throughout the park that offer visitors a chance to gape at the giants.

Yes, there is a tree you can drive through. Google Images

One must actually see a Redwood tree to truly appreciate its size and place as the largest living thing on the planet. These trees range in diameter from 8 to 20 feet and grow as tall as 375ft. That's taller than the Statue of Liberty from the base of the pedastal to the tip of her torch. They also live up to 2,000 years.

A walk through Redwood brings visitors back to the time of the dinosaurs, when these behemoths still stood guard. Google Images
If the trees aren't enough to hold your attention, head out to the edge of the park and the wild Pacific coastline. Here visitors have opporunities for whale watching, beachcombing, and hiking.

Klamath River Overlook
The Klamath River Overlook. Here visitors can look for salmon, seals, sea lions, sea birds and whales. NPS
Come back soon for the final installment of my Top Ten Parks. What are they? You'll have to wait and see. I'm still deciding myself.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Top Ten Parks pt 3

Today's two parks, Glacier and Grand Canyon, are all about size. Visiting these two parks are big on a scale that is hard to describe until you see if for yourself.

Glacier is located in northwest Montana, with the park's northern border being the Canadian park of Waterford Lakes. The name for the park came from, obviously, the numerous Glaciers that fill the mountainous park. I visited Glacier this past summer with my family, and you can read more about my experiences here.

The one absolute must when visiting Glacier is to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road. We did this on our second day in the park. The road, built in 1932, traverses the entire width of the park, going 32 miles from the west entrance to Logan Pass, and then 18 miles from the pass to the east entrance.

I took this photo from the Highline Trail looking back east towards Logan Pass. Going-to-the-Sun Road is visible snaking along the edge of the mountain on the left side of the photo.
The brilliant road design consists of one long switchback that takes visitors from the valley floor to 6,647ft Logan Pass. This allows spectacular views of the expansive park and beautiful Rocky Mountains.

Other attractions in Glacier include numerous hikes, ranging in difficulty from extremely easy to difficult multi-day backcountry treks. One of the more popular hikes in the park is Avalanche Lake. My mom, brother, and I did this hike on our first day in the park. The trail is fairly easy with only two miles each way and a 500ft rolling elevation gain.

Glacier is probably in my Top 3 parks and definitely one you do not want to miss. As a side note, Glacier's glaciers are rapidly shrinking and retreating as the globe continues to warm. If this trend continues, they may be gone very shortly. All the more reason to find an excuse to visit Glacier as soon as possible.

My mom, brother, and I in front of Avalanche Lake
Next up we have Grand Canyon National Park. One of the most recognizable landmarks anywhere, the Grand Canyon, carved by the mighty Colorado River, is considered one of the seven Natural Wonders of the World. While there are several interesting hikes to take in the canyon, the main attraction here is just seeing something so wonderfully massive.

I found this interesting picture that helps to give an idea of scale. The canyon makes points seem close that are actually many miles away. Google Images
One of the hikes that we did when my family visited was the Rim Trail. This trail follows the South Rim (where most of the hikes begin and the location of most of the lodging) from Hermit's Rest to the South Kaibab trailhead. A shuttle bus runs along the road not too far from the trail and there are stops every mile or so, making the Rim Trail accessible to a variety of hikers.

We chose to take the shuttle to Hermit's Rest and then hike approximately 8 miles back to Rim Village where we were staying. The trail is very scenic with overlooks such as The Abyss where you can look over the edge as the sheer walls plummet more than 3,000ft straight down.

The best time to view the canyon is during the "golden hours". These are the times just after sunrise and just before sunset when the warm light fully brings out the reds and oranges of the canyon.

The canyon during golden hours. Google Images
Despite the crowds, more than 5 million people visit each year, Grand Canyon is easily in the top 10 US National Parks. Since you can see it from space, I think you can make some time to see it in person.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Top 10 Parks pt 2

For the second installment of my Top 10 Parks, let's head to the southwest and the red rock landscapes of Arches and Zion.

Arches National Park is located in southeastern Utah, just a short drive from the town of Moab. The park, true to its namesake, is filled with over 2,000 natural arches as the sandstone has been eroded away. The arches range is size from tiny holes to massive spans such as 290ft Landscape Arch.

My brother and I in front of Landscape Arch

Hiking is the main attraction here, and the park is filled with trails for hikers of all ages and abilities. The most famous hike here is without a doubt Delicate Arch. The iconic image of the park, this
3 mile trail traverses slick rock and is considered moderate, although it may be completed by most hikers willing to take their time.

My brother and under iconic Delicate Arch
My favorite part of Arches is the Fiery Furnace. This labyrinth of canyons and fins is a maze that is usually only attempted on guided hikes. You can choose to explore the fiery furnace alone, but you must apply for and receive a permit, and be very experienced hiking in this type of environment.

We elected to go on the ranger guided hike which lasts 3 hours and is considered moderately strenuous. Between jumping small gaps, wedging ourselves through openings, and holding ourselves over gaps by pressing the canyon walls on opposite sides, the Fiery Furnace was definitely a fun adventure.

The second park in today's segment is Zion National Park, also located in Utah, about 350 miles southwest of Arches.

Zion is a relatively small park, but there is much do to here. One of the more famous hikes is Angel's Landing (you can read about my experiences on that trail here). Another famous spot to hike is The Narrows. This is a section of the canyon where the walls narrow (of course) to as little as 20 or 30 feet while still rising up to 2,000ft off the valley floor. A permit is required to hike the complete 16-mile length of The Narrows because of the constant danger for flash flood, as well things like hypothermia and drowning because the entire length of the hike is spent in the Virgin River.

A hiker in The Narrows. Google Images

Other activities include climbing (for which Zion is a mecca) and canyoneering. There are so many climbers that is seems you can always take out your binoculars and scan a wall and find a few.

Another thing that sets Zion apart is its interesting intra-park transportation system. In an effort to reduce pollution and traffic jams, cars are not allowed within the main portion of the canyon. Instead, several free shuttles run to transport visitors through the length of the canyon. This idea works brilliantly, and also makes it easy on the visitors. You simply get on the shuttle, look at the map to see which stop you want, get off and do your hike, then get back on and ride back to your hotel or campsite.

Zion is small enough that it can be seen in only a few days, but it is definitely a must see among National Parks.

Up next, Glacier and Grand Canyon.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Top 10 Parks pt 1

There's no such thing as a bad National Park. There is absolutely something to see or do at every single one. That being said, of course some are better than others, and this is obviously up for debate. However, over the next couple weeks, I am going to give you a list (in no order) of the 10 National Parks that you I think you must visit before you die.

We'll start off with two of the best parks for wildlife with Yellowstone and Denali.

Yellowstone, located in northwest Wyoming, was America's first national park, established in 1872. It is the second largest park in the continental US (behind Death Valley) and is known for its many geysers and hot springs.

Seated on top of one of the largest supervolcanoes in the world, Yellowstone contains over 60% of the world's geysers as well as numerous mudpots and hotsprings. Geysers are holes in the ground through which hot water shoots up from within the Earth. Geysers can range in size from barely breaking the surface, to mammoth waterspouts of several hundred feet.

One of the most famous geysers is, without a doubt, Old Faithful. Located next to the Old Faithful Lodge, it is extremely predictable, erupting roughly every 90 minutes, shooting water an average of 145ft into the air for an average of 5 minutes. The predictability, as well as the impressiveness of the stream, are the main reasons for the enduring popularity of Old Faithful.

Old Faithful staying true to its namesake as visitors look on. Google Images

Another reason for Yellowstone's immense popularity (over 3 million people visit the park every summer) is the quantity and diversity of wildlife, specifically the megafauna. A typical drive through Yellowstone might include sightings of bison (actually, if you don't see a bison you must not have your eyes open) elk, grizzly bears, mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, and, if you're extremely lucky, you might see the resident pack of gray wolves that lives in the Lamar Valley.

The herd grazes with small geysers and hot springs in the background. Google Images

But if you truly want to see big wildlife, and lots of it, Denali is the place to go.

Denali National Park and Preserve is in the interior of Alaska and is centered around Mt. McKinley (called Denali "The High One" by Native Americans) the highest point in North America.

Like most Alaskan parks, Denali is almost entirely wilderness. There is one road in the park, and only the first 15 miles of this road is open to private vehicles. Therefore, there are really only two ways in which you can experience the park.

The first is by hiking and camping in the backcountry. To do this, you must be extremely competent. Denali allows no room for error, and dangers abound including severe weather and large animals.

The second is by riding the park bus which drives to the end of the park road and back everyday, allowing visitors to see the beauty of Denali. This is what my family and I elected to do when we visited in the summer of 2006.

We had perfect weather, and the animals were out in force. We saw the "Big 5" of Denali in grizzly bears, caribou, a bull moose with a huge rack, grey wolves and their cubs, and Dall's sheep.

A Caribou silhouetted against Denali. Google Images
Because of this incredible variety of wildlife, as well as the spectacular scenery, Denali easily secures its place as one of the Top 10 National Parks.

Check back Thursday for the next two on my list, Arches and Zion in the American Southwest.

Monday, October 29, 2012

What would you do if money was no object?

Came across this video today. It's pretty short (less than 3 minutes) and honestly worth your time. Enjoy.