I went for a float last week. Six glorious, sun-drenched days down the Green and Colorado rivers through Canyonlands National Park in Utah. No cellphones, keyboards, motors, or engines, just some R&R with a group of fellow park travelers mixed with some field testing of the National Park System.
Some stories, whether focused on travel or a specific issue, deserve a longer treatment.
In my career as a caretaker of America’s national parks – including years spent as the superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park – I have been honored with the duty to follow the fundamental principle of using sound science and balanced policies to guide decisions affecting these lands that are owned by all Americans.
I met a charming lady while standing atop what’s left of Glines Canyon Dam – a dam recently removed from Elwha River in Olympic National Park. Sharon Francis and her son were there with a girl who I guess is probably her granddaughter. I offered to take a photo of all three of them together and that led to the discovery that I was talking to the woman who had been Stewart Udall’s speechwriter.
The motorboat pulls away and disappears across Ross Lake, leaving us in a silence as expansive as the wilderness surrounding us. We shoulder our backpacks and hike up the Big Beaver Trail through a forest drunk on photosynthesis. Ancient cedar and Douglas fir trees rise taller than it seems our necks can tilt backward to view them. We pass red cedars as thick as 15 feet at their base—trees that germinated a millennium ago, around the time that Leif Erikson sailed the East Coast of North America. True to the trail’s name, we pass sprawling beaver ponds.
Visitors come to Great Smoky Mountains National Park for many reasons. They want to hike the more than 70 miles of the rugged Appalachian Trail that meander through the park, to camp in its dense forests, to cool off in one of its many streams, or to take a leisurely drive along the scenic Newfound Gap Road that crosses the heart of the park to connect Tennessee with North Carolina. Regardless of the reason, they come—in droves. Every year, 8-10 million people travel to the Smokies, making it the most-visited national park in the country.
Imagine: An open road, the top rolled back, the windows down, pastoral views drifting by, with your favorite tunes streaming from your stereo. Once the Greatest Generation refocused on home life after World War II, they were able to, “See the USA in your Chevrolet.” Highways and byways meant relaxation, recreation, all with a backdrop of roadside nostalgia.
Fall in the Rocky Mountain parks isn’t quite as colorful as the season is back East, as they lack the endless acres of hardwood forests. But the high peaks, sometimes dusted in snow, make up for that. Watch the aspens, larch, scrub oak and maples paint the landscape with masterful strokes.
As wondrous and mesmerizing as slot canyons in southern Utah and northern Arizona can be, they can be even more deadly, as last week's tragedy at Zion National Park underscores.
Imagine a place in Southern California without freeways; a place without strip malls, smog, and millions of people. Imagine an ocean where the golden fish, the Garibaldi, is prolific with hundreds of other species in an underwater forest of kelp beneath wave-battered sea caves. Imagine a place that is still California as it once was, a century ago, with adobe ranch houses, sweeping vistas of cliffs and beach, mountains and valleys, grasslands and cypress groves, and unbelievable quiet.
I had completely forgotten that Skagway is home to a unit of Klondike Gold Rush before I got off the Alaska Marine Highway ferry M.V. Columbia at the pier in Skagway, Alaska. But there it was right on Main Street – a big Arrowhead outside a large old building labeled Visitor Center.
There are national park units long-accepted for their fall colors, and then there are the surprising destinations that brighten up the landscape. Here are a handful of them for your consideration.
Fewer than 12 months separate the National Park Service's 99th birthday and its 100th. What happens over the course of the next year will go a far way to determining if it will be a happy birthday or not.
It was a beautiful late summer evening, and my family and I had spent the day hiking in Badlands National Park. As the setting sun cast a golden glow on the park’s signature peaks and plateaus, my family and I pulled into a nearby guest ranch, where we had booked a cabin for the night.
The two of us had traveled through Idaho on numerous occasions, most often during drives across the scenic northern panhandle on the way from North Cascades National Park to Glacier National Park. We had also followed the Snake River during several trips and visited Craters of the Moon National Monument on at least three occasions. Despite multiple journeys through the state whose license plates have long saluted its “famous potatoes,” we had never visited City of Rocks National Reserve.
“We are all travelers in the desert of life, and the best we can find in our journey is an honest friend.” — Robert Louis Stevenson.
For nearly a century, a popular story has linked the origins of the National Park Service to the genius of one man. In 1914, Stephen T. Mather, a self-made millionaire in the borax industry, visited Yosemite and Sequoia national parks. Finding both of them poorly managed he wrote Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane and complained. “Dear Steve,” Lane allegedly replied, “If you don’t like the way the national parks are being run, come on down to Washington and run them yourself.”
It was raining when I got to Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. Since I’ve recently had enough rain to keep me satisfied for a good long while, I didn’t go out to the replica of Fort Clatsop where Captains Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the rest of the Corps of Discovery spent an uncomfortable three months in the winter of 1805 and 1806.
We have discovered during years of travel to America’s national parks that many of our most enjoyable visits have occurred at some of the smallest and least-visited units. It is a pleasant experience to visit a park where crowds are sparse, quiet is the norm, and National Park Service employees have time to engage in leisurely discussions.
While all national parks have abundant wildlife throughout the year, fall is prime time. Birds and animals are on the move, preparing for winter, and courting. They’re busy and plentiful.
National parks actually glow in autumn. From the fluttering gold of aspens and larch in the parks along the spine of the Rocky Mountains to the oranges, yellows and reds of the hardwood forests that cover Eastern parks and even on the Southwest’s sandstone, fall is the season of incandescence in the park system. Where do you find these rainbows? Here’s your guide to the "best bets" for fall color in the National Park System.