The past year was very kind to me in terms of getting out to visit some of the incredible units of our National Park System. Here's a look back at one traveler's year in the national parks.
January, Yellowstone National Park
The gods must be crazy? I must have been crazy, with the park's weather living up to the forecast of daytime highs near 20 degrees below zero and overnight lows twice that! Still, it was a great trip, one that I've longed to experience.
While Yellowstone is indeed spectacular in summer, venturing into the park in winter is equally so. The numbing temperatures and, if you're lucky, deep snows challenge your senses. And when you see the wildlife -- bison and elk searching for stubble beneath the snow, wolves and coyotes cruising the landscape in search of a meal, trumpeter swans in the rivers -- and the ice-shrouded geysers, the experience is all the richer.
April, Saguaro National Park
I didn't realize it at the time, but I was about to enjoy the first of two spring blooms in the national parks. During my visit in mid-to-late April the desert vegetation seemed to be exploding in every direction.
While saguaro sentinels and spindly ocotillos with their red-flowered shafts give height to the landscape, lower down you'll find a range of cacti, from prickly pears and fishhook cactus to beavertails, pincushions, and Teddy Bear Chollas, along with sprays of wildflowers. The bulk of the wildflowers to be enjoyed are golds, yellows, and whites, with eye-grabbing splashes of blues, reds and oranges.
My second bloom of the spring came with Professor Bob in tow, as I introduced him to Utah's canyon-country wonders. In a too-small-handful of days we hit Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Natural Bridges, the last, of course, a national monument.
While Saguaro's blooms were heavily yellow and gold, in Canyonlands along the Elephant Hill Trail towards Chesler Park it seemed reds and oranges were the dominant hues erupting from the bunches of paintbrush, claret-cup cactus, and globemallow.
Spring is perhaps the season to enjoy these parks, though late fall (think mid-October into November) are spectacular not because of blooming vegetation but rather due to the lower temperatures and fewer crowds.
Whichever season you find yourself in Arches, hike at least to Landscape Arch, and if you've got the time and stamina, push all the way along the Primitive Trail to really immerse yourself in these desert landscape.
I happened upon Grant-Kohrs, a vestige of the Old West, en route to a tour of some Canadian national parks, as well as a return to Glacier. Right outside Deer Lodge, Montana, this setting once was the hub of ranching in 19th century America.
While the historic site doesn't reach into four states and a province or two as the ranch's operations once did, spread over 10 million acres as it was, what the Park Service oversees is steeped in ranching history, from the gorgeous house that Conrad Kohrs built for his wife, Augusta, to the outbuildings, the rail siding that once loaded the ranch's cattle for distant markets, and living history exhibits performed by Park Service staffers. And don't miss the old beaverslide hay stacker!
While Glacier is breathtaking no matter when you visit, high summer might not be the best time if you're looking to flee the crowds, and especially not when construction is clogging the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Too many cars and too few parking spots can make it hard to visit Logan Pass, or even the Avalanche area in mid-July or August. All the more reason to park your car at Apgar and board one of the park's free shuttle buses to reach various points along the Sun Road.
Friends and family had me in northern Virgina in October, a perfect opportunity -- and time -- to visit two wonderful parks.
A visit to Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania is akin to visiting four Civil War parks in light of the four major battlefields that fall within its boundaries: Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Chancellorsville, and, of course, Fredericksburg.
A visit of a day or two don't do this sprawling park justice, as there is just too much to see and understand. The Bloody Angle, Ellwood, Jackson's Shrine, the Sunken Road. These are just some of the sites that should be on your to-do list to gain a better understanding of the war between the states.
Shenandoah is something of a conundrum. While this park stretches little more than 100 miles north to south along the backbone of the Appalachian Mountains, at its widest point it's only about 11-13 miles thick. And yet, with 80,000 acres of officially designated wilderness Mid-Atlantic State residents can quickly head into this backcountry. True, it's not as wild as some of the backcountry spots in parks such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, or Canyonlands, but it's still worth exploring.
An old friend and I took five days to explore the park with packs on our backs and the Appalachian Trail under foot.
November, Bryce Canyon National Park
This was an unexpected trip to Bryce, but when an assignment was offered for me to go there to work on a story about a coal mine 10 miles from the park and how it might impact the park, it wasn't difficult to accept.
The trip also allowed time in the park to enjoy the Queen's Garden and Navajo Loop trails, to check out the views from many of the overlooks along the Rim Road, and to watch the sun rise from Bryce Point. Summer is the high season for Bryce Canyon, but winter can be a splendid time thanks to fewer crowds and, if the weather cooperates, a fresh coating of snow for contrast.
With so many destinations, the National Park System offers a rich diversity of landscapes, histories, and cultures to enjoy and explore. Here's hoping that 2011 brings you to some of them!