Tag Archives: national park service

The National Parks Passport

Since moving west, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting lots of national parks and monuments. I love the hiking, the photography. I love learning about the geology, the flora and fauna, the history, and the archaeology of the parks. But one silly thing brings me a lot of joy: the national parks passport.

The passport is like a travel passport, but stamps are collected at parks rather than airports/countries. After the initial purchase of the book (about $10), the stamps are free. The stamps are generally located by the ranger in the visitor center. The simplest stamps just have the name of the park and the date. Sometimes there are graphic stamps, and this year, most parks have had 100th anniversary stamps for the hundredth anniversary of the National Parks Service.

Until six months ago, I’d never heard of the passport. I felt like I’d missed so many stamps already. Many friends hadn’t heard of the passport either. Now, walking to the ranger station with my passport, sheepish at my childlike delight, is a part of my park ritual. As of this post, I have 38 stamps from 12 national parks and national monuments. It’s a great way to record travel dates, and a terrific hit of silly endorphins. Most of the national park service sites have the stamps, from national seashores to historic forts to national monuments and parks. North Carolina’s lighthouses have stamps, DC’s memorials have stamps, and the St. Louis Arch has a stamp, to name a few examples. If you have a collecting streak and travel to parks sites, the passport might be a great little friend to you.

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The passport is available in national parks gift shops. We leave ours in the armrest of the car, so it’s always ready to go.

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Some southwestern stamps from Gila Cliff Dwellings and Chaco Canyon. Chaco has a graphic stamp, which is exciting!

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You can by regional stickers separately. Confusingly, there is also a Fort Union in New Mexico, but it was not a trading post. There are stamps for hiking trails and heritage areas, as shown above.

Chaco Canyon: New Mexico’s ancient convention center

Chaco Culture National Historic Park is in remote northwest New Mexico. The drive will take you on twenty miles of dirt roads and beyond cell range. But in this most remote reach of New Mexico lies the crossroads of an ancient culture. In Chaco Culture National Historic Park lies 3,614 recorded archaeological sites, including many massive great houses. The largest, Pueblo Bonito,  has roughly 800 rooms; visitors may walk through the doors and rooms of Pueblo Bonito. The Chaco Culture also built astronomical features into many of their works; some windows align perfectly with the sun on solstice, and some decorations align with phases of the moon.

When Chaco was discovered in modernity, it was thought to be a vast city. Having walked through it, it feels that way. It feels like it could hold thousands. But archaeological evidence suggests otherwise—there is little garbage, and few burials. Massive Pueblo Bonito may have housed only 70 people on a permanent basis. The guides at the park suggest that Chaco might have been a meeting ground, used for trade and weddings and astronomical ceremonies for a small portion of the year. Remnants of cacao from 1200 miles south have been found at Pueblo Bonito. The bones of macaws, native to eastern Mexico, have been found at Pueblo del Arroyo. They apparently didn’t flourish; only the bones of adults were found. So the astonishing quantity of ruins at Chaco Culture Park may be the remnants of an ancient convention center.

Chaco offers an amazing range of ruins, from the many-roomed grand houses to petroglyphs to astronomical markers to ancient stairs and roads. Like Mesa Verde National Park, not so far to the north, the whole site was abandoned in the 1300s, well before European influence. Like Mesa Verde, archaeologists don’t know exactly why the people left. There is evidence of an ancient drought. Some argue for catastrophic deforestation after all the building at Chaco (because all that construction took a terrific amount of timber, some of which still remains in the structures), though there is not consensus.

I grew up in St. Louis, a town once called Mound City for the mounds left by the ancient Mississippian culture. The massive city at Cahokia was also abandoned around the year 1300. A city of 15,000 abandoned, around the population of London at the time, and we don’t know why. It’s easy to live in the United States and think of it as the new world. But these amazing works of ancient people live on quietly. The inconvenient mounds of St. Louis were largely destroyed; those who did so may not have even realized their origin. But the remnants of the Pueblo culture at Chaco remain, mostly protected by their isolation over the years. Though the journey today is easier than it ever has been, Chaco is still hours from the interstate and quiet. As I took in the ruins, I was filled with the same wonder and questions that Cahokia Mounds always presented. Places like Chaco and Cahokia are reminders of humanity—no matter the size of the structures we build, one day people will view the barren remnants and wonder about us. We will walk the same valleys and cliffs, touch the same stones, but we won’t know each others names or voices or values. Ruins like Chaco remind of us of our place in the universe, and how beautiful and belittling that can be.

 

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The stars through my tent at Chaco Culture Park. Chaco is one of the night sky parks, where the darkness of the sky is specifically preserved through lighting choices and such. In light of the ancient Pueblo interests in astronomy, it seems appropriate.

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Sunrise at the camp site.

Surprises out west: Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Last week, I traveled through eastern Colorado, hitting Pike’s Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Great Sand Dunes. But the biggest surprise was a tiny national monument in central Colorado—Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Florissant Fossil Beds has provided fossils to the scientific community for over 100 years; an estimated 40,000-50,000 specimens of some 1500 species. As a visitor, you learn about how the fossils at Florissant formed and the era from which they came. The visitor center is full of great science and amazing fossils. A fossil learning lab is open from 1PM to 3PM. The most impressive part, though, are the massive petrified redwood stumps. The largest is 41 feet in circumference and about 10 feet high.

Scientists started coming to Florissant to document fossils in the 1870s. Unfortunately, tourists flocked to the site as well, fascinated by the redwood stumps and petrified wood. Once upon a time, petrified wood littered the landscape. Now, visitors take in the big stumps alone. The biggest stump has two blades still embedded in it, remnant of when someone tried to chop it up to sell pieces out east. Two tourist companies staked out the site and competed bitterly over traffic. One left nails at the other’s entrance; they also literally got into a shooting match.

Federal protection came very late for Florissant. Despite calls for conservation going back at least to the 1890s, it took until the 1969 for the site to gain national monument status. Before that, people wanted to divide the site up for houses. Environmentalists faced down bulldozers. Standing in the empty fields of Florissant, over an hour west of Colorado Springs and really in the middle of nowhere, it was hard to imagine why the area needed more houses. By contrast, Petrified Forest National Park gained National Monument status in 1906. When you visit Arizona’s Petrified Forest, they will tell you how much petrified wood has left the park through tourism—Petrified Forest is still littered with petrified wood while Florissant is not.

I learned a lot about fossils and fossil formation at Florissant Fossil Beds. I marveled at the great tree trunks, wondering how many more must lay still buried around me. But I think I was most struck by the story of conservation at Florissant Fossil Beds. The monument covers the fight to preserve Florissant, but it can’t editorialize. Florissant is a microcosm of when capitalism and general human interest don’t align. Many of our national lands tell the story of where the human interests won. Florissant tells a story where that interest emerged on top at the very last possible moment; I felt wistful wondering how many marvels wandered away with all the care of a tourist buying a souvenir shot glass.

If you find yourself in central Colorado, stop by Florissant for a visit. The stumps are truly other-worldly. I learned a lot about fossils. And I took a pleasant hike through an alpine meadow in the shadow of Pike’s Peak. The park implores us to imagine what the meadow was like 30 million years ago when the valley was in the flow path of a volcano. I also found myself imagining the place as a virgin bed of paleontology 150 years ago.

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41 foot circumference petrified tree stump

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Pike’s Peak!

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A four day weekend goes a ways out west

You can do a lot in a four day weekend in the west. We visited White Sands National Monument, Chiricahua National Monument, the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, Saguaro National Park, and Petrified Forest National Park.

The pictures can say more than me. And I’m already a day late on this post! When I updated my operating system, my entire photo preview collection got eaten. Poor computer has been slaving around the clock since I discovered that yesterday. No data lost, but lots of work for compy and about 300 gigs of disc space that’s in limbo. Remember to back up your libraries!

National Monuments in New Mexico

Of the 117 designated national monuments in the United States, 14 of them are in New Mexico, second only to Arizona.  When I moved here in June, I dreamt of Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon and the mountains of Colorado. But I am learning what wonders my own state contains. All are 5 hours or less from Albuquerque, and 8 of them are among the 20 least visited national monuments in the country.

The national monuments here vary wildly. There’s anthropology at the Gila Cliff Dwellings in the mountainous southwest (discovered by a man shirking jury duty). There’s a 17th century Spanish Mission at Salinas Pueblo Missions in the eastern grasslands. There are miles of white gypsum dunes at White Sands, which also doubles as a bombing range.  There’s Petroglyph National Monument on the west of Albuquerque, with canyons full of ancient drawings.

The western landscape expands your vocabulary. You can see a slot canyon and hoodoos, or oddly-shaped rock columns 75 feet in height, at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks. In addition to the lava fields and caves of El Malpais, you can check out the tinajas, dents that hold water after rain and bloom sporadically with life, in the sandstone bluffs. Anywhere you find sandstone you might find tafoni, or small and intricate erosion patterns.

So I’m slowing traveling to the national monuments of New Mexico, camera in hand. I’ve visited Petroglyphs, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks, and El Malpais.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks

Tent Rocks is named for its rocks that resemble tents, which tower 75 feet. The excellent “slot canyon trail” takes you through a slot canyon, by the hoodoos, and to a viewpoint overlooking the hoodoos; the viewpoint also provides panoramas of New Mexico scrub and the Valles Caldera. The other trail, the Cave Loop Trail, is an easy enough walk but not very interesting. Tent Rocks is a fairly small and recently established national monument. It’s easy to reach from Albuquerque and Santa Fe, with good quality roads.

If you visit Tent Rocks in the summer, get there early. We went in July and arrived at 9 AM and it was hot at the end. Other than the summer heat and rain, Tent Rocks is a great year-round destination. It is fairly popular and gets bus tours on summer weekends.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Sandstone hoodoos in Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Slot canyon.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

El Malpais National Monument

El Malpais translates to “the bad country.” The park has two branches which follow lava fields, which you can see easily on the satellite image of the park. Highway 117 traces the eastern edge and features sandstone bluffs, the second-largest natural arch in New Mexico, and lava fields. Highway 53 traces the west and features volcanic caves and ice caves, although many of the best features are reached only by dirt road. This weekend, I visited the sights along highway 117.

The Sandstone Bluffs Overlook area is great. The light and bright sandstone really stands out against the black fields of lava below. To the north, you can see Mt. Taylor, an inactive volcano. Dents in the sandstone, tinajas, are common on the bluff tops. Though it hadn’t rained much before we went, some still contained water and one had ice at midday.

La Ventana arch, just off the road, is the next stop south. This time of year, the north-facing arch seemed to be in shadow all day. I plan to visit again in April or May, when the light might be better but before the crushing summer heat.

The last stop south is the Lava Falls Area, which features a 1 mile hike through Pahoehoe lava. This is smoother and easier underfoot than most of the lava in the park. The Lava Falls Area is only 3000 years old, extremely young in geological terms, and some of the youngest lava in the lower 48.

In mid November, crowds were no issue. We went on a nice November day and were quite comfortable, even with the altitude. In the Lava Falls Area, it was bordering on warm, with all that black stone everywhere. I suspect much of El Malpais would be unbearably hot in the summer. The dirt roads in the western part of the park are impassable with snow, so the best seasons for El Malpais are fall and late spring.

"A tinaja is a bedrock depression that fills with water during the summer monsoonal rains and when snowfall accumulates in the winter. These microhabitats spring to life when the baked-dry stone basins fill with seasonal water." -From the National Park Service El Malpais website. Sandstone Bluffs Overlook in El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico.

A tinaja in the sandstone bluffs, looking north to Mount Taylor. Below to the left are the lava fields.

Sandstone formations at Sandstone Bluffs Overlook in El Malpais

Lava Falls Area at El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico.

Lava Falls Area at El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico. The lava here has several textures, but my favorite is this ropy, viscous one.

Petroglyph National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument is on the west side of Albuquerque. I realize only now that I didn’t bring my DSLR camera on this trip, but the picture below shows even a cell phone can capture the petroglyphs well. There are three sites in Petroglyph, all easy to reach. The most popular site, Boca Negra, requires some uphill hiking. The two canyons supposedly require less. Like El Malpais, the rock is black and volcanic (though older), and it gets hot in the summer.

In Petroglyphs, you can visit the Three Sisters volcanoes on the western mesa. These three cinder cones are remarkably small, but due to their position atop the mesa are visible from the whole city. Hiking the Three Sisters is still on my to-do list, but I suspect the views back toward the city and the Sandia Mountains are pretty great.

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Petroglyph at Boca Negra site

The Blue Ridge Parkway

 

The Blue Ridge Parkway is 469 miles long, connecting Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is managed by the National Park System, though it is not a national park itself. Still, it has been the most visited part of the National Park System every year for over 50 years.

This weekend, I drove and hiked along a portion of it between Vesuvius and Roanoke, Virginia. It rained last week, so the vegetation was especially lush and the waterfalls especially spectacular.SONY DSCCrabtree Falls bottom-most waterfall, off mile marker 30 of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Highway 56, which leads to Crabtree Falls, is a beautiful drive whether you go east of the Parkway or west. We stayed in a cabin near these falls, and at night, we could hear the water rush.

SONY DSCThe James River.

SONY DSCOverlooking Buena Vista, Virginia shortly before sunset.

SONY DSCFurther into sunset near Buena Vista, Virginia.

SONY DSCVegetation approaching the Apple Orchard waterfall trail.

SONY DSCBlooming azalea bushes lined the trail to Apple Orchard waterfall.

SONY DSCApple Orchard waterfall near mile marker 78 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

SONY DSCAnother waterfall on the Crabtree Falls trail. In 1.5 miles, you can see 4 different falls, though on the weekends it can be somewhat crowded. We went on Monday and shared the path with a different and slightly-too-exciting crowd: a rattlesnake and a six-foot long black snake. Nature!