Resolved: I’ll Visit at Least These Five National Parks in 2009

I can’t wait for the second week of May, because that’s when I’ll finally get to see Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve for myself. Photo by Urban via Wikipedia.

In the past, my national park visiting has been too sporadic and unfocused for comfort, but this year my New Year’s Resolutions are going to provide a sense of purpose and direction. Five parks is a very doable agenda. My list includes three Sure Things, a True Confession, and one Unfinished Business.

Sure Things (I’ve already made the plane reservations):

I’m going to tour Death Valley National Park this year. I’ve been to Denali National Park and skytrekked to Mount McKinley, the highest place in North America. Now it’s time to visit Death Valley so I can stop at Badwater Basin and add the lowest place in North America to my “been there, done that” list.

Mesa Verde National Park is on this year’s visit list. I love to study Native American cultures and I love mysteries. What Native American culture is more interesting than the ancient Anasazi? What age-old mystery is more compelling than the Anasazi disappearance from the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings?

My Olde Pharze card (aka America the Beautiful Senior Pass) is going to gain me a no-fee entry to Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve this year. I’ve long known that this Colorado park is one of the best kept secrets in the entire Park System. Can’t wait to see a 750-foot high sand dune!

A True Confession:

This is the year I’ll finally visit Cowpens National Battlefield, site of the famous January 17, 1781 battle in which American troops under Daniel Morgan defeated the cream of Lord Cornwallis’ army -- a British force led by the infamous Col. Banestre Tarleton (“Bloody Tarleton”) -- and hastened the end of the Revolutionary War. My former students and faculty colleagues would be shocked to learn that I’ve never visited Cowpens. Could it possibly be that “Dr. Parks” let three decades slip by without ever once visiting a key Revolutionary War park that’s just 108.3 miles from his house? Wouldn’t he be awfully embarrassed to admit that? It is, and I am, and this year I’m going to fix that.

Unfinished Business:

At age 66, I’ve seen a good bit of the world. I lived in Europe for a couple of years. I’ve driven nearly 900,000 miles in 11 different countries. I’ve been to Hawaii twice, to Alaska twice, and to all of the other states at least once. All except North Dakota, that is. Now the Peace Garden State beckons to me across the miles. Yup, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the western North Dakota badlands is definitely on this year’s list.



Last summer my wife and I did a big road trip and among other parks, we visited Mesa Verde and Great Sand Dunes. I loved Great Sand Dunes. The water surges in Medano Creek were a sort of surreal experience: they looked like waves rushing down the creek and the creek bottom was always changing. Unfortunately I'd had enough sand hiking from earlier in the trip so we didn't do any dune hiking, but it is a great excuse to have to go back again.

If you're driving in southwest Colorado, I recommend visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Durango, and driving Route 550 if its open.

If we manage to get to Vegas again this year we will definitely make the short trip to Death Valley.

Happy 2009 to all!

TR Nat'l Park is one of my favorites in the NPS. It's beautiful, and it's remote, meaning less travelled. I like my solitude when I travel in the parks, and TR is one of the best places to get solitude.

Say "hi" to the wild horses for me. :D


My travels through the National Park System:

2008 was a good year for me, park-wise, as I made stops in Great Smoky, Cape Cod National Seashore, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Death Valley, Yosemite, and Devils Postpile.

But......there still are many units out there that I have yet to step foot in.

If the gods are willing, I hope to check off at least Hawaii Volcanoes, possibly Haleakala, Great Sand Dunes, Colorado National Monument, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Redwoods, and Lassen Volcanic in '09.

And heck, Bob, if you make it as far West as you're threatening, perhaps we can get you in Arches, Canyonlands, and possibly even Natural Bridges!

Don't forget to visit Great Basin, my personal favorite.

Good point, DWalker. For several years I've been pondering a backpack trip there, and since it's in my backyard, relatively speaking (what's a 5-hour drive?!?), I should add that to my 09 list.

I envy you your itinerary, Bob. Death Valley & Great Sand Dunes are both underappreciated gems. I still vividly recall watching the changing moonlight shadows on the distant dunes while shivering all night during an unplanned bivy near the summit of Colorado's Crestone Needle. If you have time, don't miss the very impressive Anasazi ruins Betatakin & Keet Seel at the misnamed Navajo Nat'l Monument.

My wife and I just returned from Hawaii and the national parks there. This was our 50th state to travel in, and our next goal is to go to all the national parks. We have 17 more to go. We too are planning to go to Death Valley National Park this year. Maybe we will see you there. Happy traveling.

Bob, I think you'll find Theodore Roosevelt to be similar to your beloved Congaree. Yes, TR is short of cypress trees and Congaree is lacking in bison, but both parks are underrated, underappreciated, and full of unique character. Last summer in TR, I got up before dawn and walked from our campsite down to the Little Missouri River to watch the sunrise. The next morning I was up before the sun again and hiked out to Wind Canyon. ("Hike" is too strong a word, it's a short stroll from the road to the overlook.) From up above the mouth of the canyon you look out over the vast wilderness in the northwest corner of the park with the Little Missouri snaking through the plain. Just as the sun came up and hit the River, a herd of bison about 60 strong moved out of the darkness and waded through the water. Watching and listening to them, my attention was drawn just south of this scene where a small group of pronghorns were cavorting in a field. Over the next hour, I watched the pronghorns go down for a drink, mingle with the bison for a moment, then return to their prancing - half a mile away and hundreds of feet below me. It was one of those moments...

Then suddenly I heard a bison grunting MUCH louder than the grunts and moans from the herd. I crept around the corner of the little rocky rise I was on to find a big bull staring at me from about 30 feet away. When he finally meandered away I found my way back to the car.

Here's a link to my shots from TR last August:

-Kirby.....Lansing, MI

Please do not forget all the smaller park units that are local favorites. We have one just 20 minutes away - Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site. Or towards the other end of the state is Alleghany Portage Railroad National Historic Site. Sure Steamtown gets a lot more notice but the two I just mentioned deserve just as much attention and needs you to visit them just as much as the bigger parks. Huzzah for our "little" park units!

My sincere thanks to readers who've offered encouragement and suggestions for my 2009 parks-visiting itinerary. Since I managed to go through 2008 without adding a single new national park to my "been there, done that" list, I have very high hopes for a breakthrough year.

Barky, I've only seen a few wild horses, but the memories really stand out. The idea that I'll see some more at TR makes me even more convinced that a visit is long overdue.

I'll keep my camera handy when I'm there, too. I can see from Kirby's photos (which I heartily encourage everyone to peruse) that the TR viewscape is really special.

Kurt's invitation to do some park-trekking in Utah is mighty hard to pass up, and not just because I intend to do some serious freeloading at his house. I've visited Bryce Canyon and Zion, but I've yet to set foot in Arches, Canyonlands, Natural Bridges, Capitol Reef, and several other Utah parks that I've longed to see.

Good luck to you and your wife, Arlan. Having 17 more National Parks to look forward to is a blessing. You'll feel a bit on the melancholy side when you've visited that last one.

Thanks for the Navajo National Monument suggestion, Tahoma. Alas; even though my personal quest for the Ancestral Puebloans can't be complete without a visit there, a side trip to Arizona can't be fitted into my Colorado itinerary this May.

I've already visited Great Basin, dWalker. Well, sort of; it just wasn't a national park yet when I was there. Guess I'd better go back to make it a legitimate visit.

Brett, your mention of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison puts me in mind of an amusing thing that happened when sandy and I visited there about 25 years ago (that's long before the redesignation). After spending the night in Montrose, we breakfasted and hit the road. Imagine our shock when we realized that we were being followed by several dozen police cars. They proceeded to pass us, one after the other, at breakneck speed -- zoom! zoom! zoom! Our rental car was practically rocking back and forth in the wake of those speeding vehicles. After about the 15th or so, I stopped counting. Later, we realized what was going on. The previous day there had been a funeral for a Montrose policeman who had been shot and killed in the line of duty. The cops in those speeding vehicles were on their way home after attending the funeral and spending the night in Montrose. As you may know, representatives from near and far are sent to funerals held for cops killed in the line of duty.

Thanks for the reminder to include the smaller, less visited national parks in our travel plans, dlmatz. We try to remind Traveler readers about these opportunities, even though we do focus more of our attention on the larger, more popular parks. BTW, our regular readers may recall that I wrote a rather lengthy article about]Allegheny Portage Railroad NHS last August. We'll try to work in an article about Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site at some early opportunity, too.

Hi Bob. I'll chime in with some suggestions.

Climbing the dunes at Great Sand Dunes is hard work, but it's great fun. It just about killed my Chicago lungs. If you get high enough, you can feel the dunes vibrate when the wind hits the resonant frequency.

Mea Verde is a true natural treasure. I learned a lot about the Anasazi (now called Ancestral Pueblos in these pc times). You'll definitely want to tour the major dwellings and spend some time in the museum. But my best memory is the time I spent hiking around on Wetherill Mesa. That's the road less taken, as most people follow the other fork in the road. Wetherill has a couple of big dwellings (Long House and Step House). After touring those, I just hiked the trails. There are some digs that illustrate the dwellings during the period when they lived on top of the mesa. It's an easy hike - very flat and never too far from a tram stop. On a Friday afternoon last summer, I had the mesa to myself. It was easy for the mind to wander - and to realize that it must have been a pretty good place to live back in the day.

I'll give another thumbs up to TR Natl. Park. Make sure to give yourself enough time to visit both units. One thing that was a bit disconcerting as a camper was that the bison have full access to all areas - even the campground. I was used to other parks (like Wind Cave) that keep them out of the campground. In the northern unit of TR, they were in the campground constantly. The rangers told us that they were perfectly safe, and they wouldn't trample through our tents. Then there were a few times when a full herd showed up to graze, and a complement of park rangers showed up to monitor the situation (in case it became perfectly unsafe suddenly). During the night as I tried to sleep, I'd hear the bison snorting as they moved around my tent. Oh well, it's better than bears, I guess. Don't miss the sunset at Wind Canyon. And you can check out my photos of the wild horses here:

Thanks for the tips, treehugger99; I like the TR pics, too. This kind of feedback is very helpful to me!

I wish I had lots of time to spend on Wetherill Mesa during our scheduled visit to Mesa Verde. Alas, I won't, and there's another problem too. Long House and Step House, two of the Wetherill Mesa attractions you mentioned, are open to the public only on a seasonal basis. And dammit, they'll both be closed during my visit in early May.

Forgive me, but I have a very tough time deciding when it's OK to use Anasazi and when I should use Ancestral Puebloans. Though I'm inclined to use the former in Traveler context, I use the latter in my teaching. Here's what I tell my students (quoted from my assigned reading module for Mesa Verde NP):

The early residents of the 30,000 square-mile Four Corners Area of the Colorado Plateau (which includes Mesa Verde) are commonly referred to as Anasazi, a Navajo word that is commonly translated as “ancient ones.” However, contemporary indigenous descendants of the Mesa Verde inhabitants, the modern day Pueblo Indians (mostly Hopi and Zuni), dislike the term Anasazi and consider it foreign (being of Navajo derivation) and pejorative. They prefer the term “Ancestral Puebloan.” Since there are inconsistencies in the published literature – and in some Park Service publications, for that matter – there appears to be room for legitimate differences of opinion. Out of respect for the viewpoint of the contemporary indigenous descendants, and at the risk of some confusion, Ancestral Puebloans (or Ancestral Puebloan People) will be used herein to refer to the Pre-Columbian inhabitants of Mesa Verde.

Incidentally, the first documented use of the term Anasazi in reference to the Mesa Verde ruins/culture was by Richard Wetherill ca. 1888.

If you're gonna trek from South Carolina to western Colorado, there are two other NPS gems you can't miss: Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction, where the six-mile roundtrip hike of Monument Canyon is one of the best on the Colorado Plateau. Rim Rock Drive is easily the best and most scenic drive (and especially bike ride) anywhere in western Colorado. While you're there, and if you've got a sturdy high-clearance vehicle, check out the BLM's McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, where a hike of Mee Canyon will yield the most amazing sight in canyon country - the Mee Canyon Alcove, where the wash at the bottom of the canyon inserts itself 300 feet into the canyon wall. The alcove is so big -- said to be the biggest anywhere on the Colorado Plateau -- you could park a 747 inside.

Also, if you're going to Mesa Verde, Hovenweep National Monument can't be missed.

Thanks for the suggestions, SaltSage. I'm afraid that Colorado National Monument will be out of reach on this particular trip. My host and driver, who lives in Nederland (home of the annual Frozen Dead Guy Days festival), wants to head straight to the southwestern reaches of Colorado so we can be sure to have time for our primary park destinations as well as the Silverton-Durango steam train (for which we've already made reservations). Hovenweep may be doable, and I've always wanted to see Square Tower. I'll definitely look into that.

Gates of the Arctic National Park, with the adjoining Gates of the Arctic National Preserve, is THE park to see if you have not yet.

It is the most extensive Wilderness national park in America. It has the headwaters with watersheds of any number of arctic and subarctic rivers. It has beautiful arctic valleys and gorgeous scenery. You can hike or kayak for weeks, sometimes without seeing any other party of visitors. Brown and black bear, caribou, wolves and more.

Uh...... I hope you're not suggesting that I visit Gates of the Arctic this month, JimFrom NewYork. January visitation for years 2003 through 2007 COMBINED was 25, and in three of those years there were no January visits at all.

Well, I have to admit the earliest I spent more than only a few hours on the ground in the bush in Gates of the Arctic was early March. The biggest difference being the abundant light in March, compared to nearly complete darkness in early January !

However, I did spend several days in the Native village within the park boundary in January, and it was sort of wonderful. As Ray Bane was quoted in Joe McGinniss' book "Going to Extremes:" "WINTER IS THE TRUTH ABOUT ALASKA" ! But I must tell the truth, I've done nothing cross-country in January.

Go, Bob: you'll love it. Bring skiis and a Cessna (also on skiis).

And, don't believe those visitor statistics. The park service has no way of knowing how many people are actually in the park. They just know who reports in with the rangers. In a park 100 miles by 140 miles, you might find as many as 30, and start feeling real crowded.

Jim, I had to smile at your tongue in cheek suggestion that I should put no stock in those visitor statistics. When you can make undercounting errors involving several orders of magnitude and still be dealing with negligible numbers, that's some mighty small visitation! Seriously, though, it's awfully unlikely that I'll ever see Gates of the Arctic. It's just too darn far, and like most other people, I'd rather use my limited time & money to visit places on my A-list here in the Lower 48.


I would urge you to rethink your A-list and add the Gates. It is one of the most breath taking areas in the System. Other than the periodic airplane flying above, it hasn't changed that much since Bob Marshall went to visit there because it was the last blank spot on the topographic maps of the era. We did a combo 5-day hike and 8-day float trip in the park. The wildness was magnificent.

Rick Smith

Well, Rick, I do have a friend up that way who operates a skytrekking operation. Maybe I could get him to cut me a deal. The trip I have in mind would still be pretty expensive, since I'd like to see some other parks and float some rivers as well. Will you lend me seven thousand dollars?

Gates of the Arctic is truly an amazing park. I vividly recall the trip with Joe McGinnis and the others in our party. I was privileged to be able to spend several years hiking, floating, dog mushing and flying in and around the Gates. I enthusiastically recommend it for those who want to immerse themselves in a wilderness setting. Winter travel in the park requires some in-depth planning and preparation, and you should have some experience in cold weather camping. Anyone thinking of trying it may want to hire an experienced guide and even take advantage of dog team trips offered by local guide/mushers. Back in the mid 1960s and 70s, very few people traveled into the central Brooks Range. My wife and I hiked the area for several years before we had our first on-the-ground encounter with other hikers. It turned out to be a small group led by a friend of ours.

Ray Bane