NP passport stamp

National Park of American Samoa

National Park of American Samoa our 59th and final national park!
Receiving our 59th park certificates from NPS Ranger Pua Tuaua

Our 59th and final park!If we didn’t save the best for last, we certainly saved one of the best for last!  Nearly two-and-a-half years after we began our journey to visit all of the national parks, we have finally visited our last one — The National Park of American Samoa.

This was our last park primarily because it was the most difficult to get to.  It is south of the equator in the South Pacific Ocean; closer to Australia than to the United States.  Hawaiian Airlines flies there just twice a week from Honolulu, so our routing took us from Los Angeles to Honolulu for an overnight, and then on to Pago Pago [pronounced PAHNG-oh PAHNG-oh] the next day.  Elapsed travel time to reach this island chain was just over 24 hours for us, 12 of which were in the air.  Clearly, traveling to this national park requires commitment!

Because we had some difficulty trying to find out how to best visit this final park, I am going to provide more logistical details in this post for those readers who plan to tackle American Samoa at some point.  In fact, I will write two separate posts — this first one will focus on the geography and our experience in the park itself; the second one will share more of the fun, cultural things we did during our week-long stay in American Samoa, and provide some hopefully helpful information and links for travelers who plan to make the trip here themselves in their own quests to visit all 59 [at the time of this blog post] of our incredible national parks.

Samoa IslandsHistory and Geography — The Samoan Islands are part of Polynesia, and while they have been populated for over 3,000 years, they have only been known to the western world for a little more than two centuries.  Samoa is referred to as the Heart of the South Pacific, and it is believed to be where all Polynesian people originated.

The Samoan archipelago includes the independent nation of Samoa (formerly called Western Samoa) and American Samoa, a US territory approximately 60 miles to the east.  While both share a common language and culture, each has distinct natural features, and fun fact: because the international dateline separates these two nations, American Samoa is one hour earlier than Hawaii and Samoa is one entire day earlier.

Matafao Peak, at 2,142 feet, is the tallest peak on Tutuila
Matafao Peak, at 2,142 feet, is the tallest peak on Tutuila

American Samoa consists of seven primary islands: five rugged, highly eroded volcanic remnants and two uninhabited coral atolls.  Visitors fly in to Pago Pago [airport code PPG] which is located on Tutuila [too-too-EE-lah], the main island, and this is where most of the 70,000 residents of American Samoa make their homes.

The view from atop Mount Alava of Pago Pago Harbor
Pago Pago harbor and the villages of Pago Pago and Fagatogo as seen from the top of Mount Alava (which we climbed!)

Pago Pago Harbor is a collapsed volcanic caldera and it is one of the largest natural harbors in the South Pacific.  A steep mountainous spine runs the 20-mile length of the island with a few notable peaks including Tutuila’s tallest mountain, Matafao Peak (2,142′); Rainmaker Mountain (1,718′); and Mount ‘Alava (1,610’) looming over the harbor.  There are a couple of main villages with hotels (just four on Tutuila), restaurants (maybe a dozen, including two McDonalds that, like in mainland U.S., are a favorite of all the children), markets, office buildings, banks, etc., around the harbor, and then many smaller, more primitive villages scattered around the perimeter of the island.

National Park of American Samoa — The National Park of American Samoa consists of 9,500 acres, virtually all of which is rainforest, on three islands.  Tutuila is where the Visitor Center and the largest tract of park land can be found.  Ta’ū (tah-OO) and Ofu (OH-foo), 60 miles east of Tutuila, are sparsely populated islands where a couple of villages have only a few hundred people.  American Samoa’s tallest peak, Lata Mountain (3,170′) can be found on Ta’ū, and Ofu features sand beaches and coral reefs with a mountain backdrop.  In addition to the steep cliffs and rainforest area, another 4,000 acres of the park are offshore and under water.

Visitors to the National Park of American Samoa see land that is largely undeveloped, and the facilities found in most national parks are lacking here.  A few park information kiosks and placards can be found, but by and large, this park is enjoyed “with a bit of the explorer’s spirit” as the park brochure suggests.

NP of American Samoa Visitor Center
The Visitor Center – closed on this day, but we posed with the poster I made and came back on another day

As is always the case when we visit national parks, we attempted to make the Visitor Center our first stop, but after walking a mile from our hotel (in temperatures in the high 80’s and with lots of humidity) we saw the sign on the door that they were only open Mon-Fri from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.  But not to worry, we took photos of ourselves by the front door, then using our “explorer’s spirit” meandered around the town some and hopped on one of the “aigas” — the unscheduled buses (more about these in my second post) — to go explore around the town.

A couple of days later when we came back to the Visitor Center, we were very impressed with the educational content on display, and very pleased that a school with 5th – 8th graders had come on this day to learn more about the park on their island.  We engaged a bit with the students, and the teacher,  Faia’i Vaeao, and made a plan to stay in contact with all of them at the Peteli Academy.  And as a very nice surprise, once the rangers knew that this was our 59th park, they asked us if we could come back the next day as they would have something for us.  We obliged and were absolutely thrilled when Rangers Pua Tuaua and Pai Aukuso-Reopoamo presented us with special certificates proclaiming that we had been to all of the national parks!

I’ll conclude this first post by sharing some of the photos we took while hiking on one of the few trails in the park area; this one took us 3-1/2 miles up through the rainforest and along the ridge line to the top of Mount ‘Alava where we enjoyed incredible views of the island before hiking the 3-1/2 miles back down.  We were joined by several new friends we made at our hotel, Sadie’s By The Sea — I’ll be writing more about that in my next post; this one is long enough!

Unplanned Adventure in the Backcountry — a.k.a. “The Alaska Factor”

Disclaimer on the AAA website:   *While Alaska Alpine Adventures endeavors to follow our itineraries as written, odds are in fact slim that you actually will.  The expeditionary factors at play quite often compel our guides to deviate from the written itinerary.  Guide considerations could include weather conditions, group preference, individual ability, specific safety considerations, or unforeseeable circumstances; collectively what many have called “The Alaska Factor.”  Therefore we strongly suggest that you approach any adventure in Alaska with an open mind.

Open mind, indeed.  To adventure in Alaska.  We were certainly open to — in fact, looking forward to! — adventure when we signed up for our 12-day combination paddling/hiking trip with Alaska Alpine Adventures to visit our final two national parks in Alaska; Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve and Kobuk Valley National Park, both of which are above the Arctic Circle.  But so it started… with a bit of unplanned adventure that was more harrowing and heart-stopping than many might term “adventure.”

On Day 1 of our trip, our group of 12 — two very capable AAA guides plus 10 gung-ho guests, most of whom are endeavoring to see all of the national parks like we are which is undoubtedly why we all chose this more challenging trip — boarded three bush planes in Fairbanks and traveled 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle to Bettles, Alaska.  [When I say challenging, I do mean this is not for everyone.  Take the rigors of 80+ miles of paddling in Class II/II+/III whitewater (28 miles in one day was impressive for us novices if we do say so ourselves!), hiking on the semi-soft tundra, schlepping gear, nightly tent set-up and morning tent take-down, sleeping in a cozy tent on a thin pad when it doesn’t get dark and most of the nights what’s underneath that thin pad is a rock bar along the river, morning and evening kayak packing & unpacking, good food (thanks AAA, Nick and Sean!) but all served out of the same bowl and eaten with a spork which isn’t for everyone… and bundle all that up with rain showers for the first seven days but no bathing showers for 10 days which, for some, like me, is definitely a hardship and certainly a challenge!  Oh, and don’t even ask about the steps you take when nature calls!!]

But back to Bettles… with a population of 12; seemingly a few more during the summer “tourist” (HA!) season, Bettles is just a little airstrip left behind after World War II that is now used as a commercial air strip.  From here folks launch into the backcountry of the Brooks Range above the Arctic Circle.  It is also home to the Gates of the Arctic NP Visitor Center and backcountry check-in office, so NP passport stamps for all of us in our books plus permits to be in the backcountry and route filed with the park service in case of any emergencies — so far, so good.

Our itinerary called for us to get to Bettles on wheel planes, then truck about a mile over to the lake and board float planes to continue our journey on to Pingo Lake.  Pingo is at the headwaters of the Noatak River on the east side of the park and serves as the place from which we launch the paddling part of our journey.  But recall AAA’s note about itineraries… odds are, in fact, slim that you [will actually follow the itinerary.] Continue reading

Journey Through Nebraska and South Dakota

Ever since returning from our short “vacation from our vacation” in L.A. to see Garrison Keillor’s last show, we have been turning it up on national park and park unit visits.  We are taking advantage of the nice summer weather by spending the better part of July in the north central part of the U.S., a.k.a. the Great Plains grasslands area which, incidentally, we just learned is the largest ecosystem in the U.S. — who knew?!  Anyway, we are having a busy three weeks in Nebraska and the Dakotas before we make our way over to Billings, Montana, from which we will fly back up to Alaska to visit the final two [of the eight up in Alaska] national parks we missed during our trip up there last year.  But I’m getting ahead of myself — Nebraska and South Dakota first.

NPS Passport Cancellation StampI’ve decided to do something a little different with this post.  Instead of uploading photos from this Nebraska/Dakotas leg of our trip, I’ve decided to share drawings from my sketchbook.  For those of you who don’t know, the National Park Service Visitor Centers sell passport books and then each NP Visitor Center has passport stamps for inking into your passport book.  Instead of the traditional NPS passport book, I have created my own; I’m actually on my third book of sketches and stamps now — I figure I’ve drawn over 200 pages for all of the national park units that we’ve visited.

Here are my renditions of what we have seen in Nebraska and South Dakota:

My sketch of Scotts Bluff NMScotts Bluff National Monument – Gering, NE — The Oregon Trail represented promises of a new life out west.  The California Trail promised gold.  The Mormon Trail lead many seeking religious freedom to the Promised Land out in Salt Lake City.  All three trails brought early pioneers through Nebraska where, after weeks of travel across prairie grasslands, they met up with 800′ bluffs.  Thousands of wagon trains passed by the daunting bluff known as Scotts Bluff which was accompanied by a tricky climb through Mitchell Pass.  Also passing by here, in the short-lived era of the Pony Express [1860-1861], riders changed horses at the Scottsbluff station.

My sketch of Chimney Rock NHSChimney Rock National Historic Site – Bayard, NE — Before they got to Scotts Bluff, settlers saw this iconic rock monolith.  Visible for miles around in the flat Nebraska landscape, this eroded remnant of a butte reaches 325′ into the sky and was certainly a prominent landmark for the westward-bound settlers.

During our two-day stay in this area I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like to travel across the country in a bumpy wagon train — the dust from the dry tracks of the wagon trains that came before… the foul smells of the oxen… the unpredictable weather that no doubt included rain, sleet and snow… terrible terrible sickness and frequent death that beset travelers not up for such a strenuous trip… the list of unpleasantries goes on.  And yet in the name of “Manifest Destiny,” travel across the country these pioneers did, in search of a better life.  I guess I shouldn’t complain about my small closets in Charley, now should I…?

 

My sketch of Agate Fossil Beds NMAgate Bluffs Fossil Beds National Monument – Harrison, NE — Rich deposits of fossils have been found in this area by paleontologists suggesting that ancient but now distinct creatures once roamed in this area.  Given the volume of fossils here, it is believed that during a period of drought animals concentrated around the scarce watering holes that were available.  Over time they ate up all the vegetation around these few water spots, and then in the heat and drought grew too weak to walk farther out for food, thus they died by the watering holes, became covered in mud, and were then preserved as fossils.  Among the skeletons found here are strange looking creatures including a small rhinoceros, a carnivorous bear-dog, a land-dwelling beaver, a bad-ass hog, a tiny gazelle-camel, and other Miocene-epoch animals.  For over 100 years now paleontologists have been studying these fossils which has helped answer questions about the past.

A second part of this national monument is an incredibly impressive collection of American Indian artifacts given to one James H. Cook, a frontiersman in this area, by people of the Lakota (Sioux) tribe.  In 1874 Cook met Chief Red Cloud and the two developed a steadfast friendship over decades, during which time Cook received many gifts from the Indians.  Today the family’s collection belongs to the park and many priceless items are on display that tell of the Native ways of life.

 

20160717_185203Jewel Cave National Monument – Custer, SD — There are several cave systems in this area, including the nearby Wind Cave National Park — another Jolly Out There destination, of course — and each is known for something specific.  Jewel Cave is named for its gem-like calcite crystals that sparkle when illuminated.  These are just one of the many speleothems, or cave formations, that can be seen when touring the caves.  While Frostwork is the signature formation, others include Draperies, Dogtooth spar, Gypsum flowers, and even Popcorn and Bacon.

The only way to see the caves is through ranger-guided tours.  Jewel Cave offers a couple of touring options, but visitors only see a small portion of the 180 miles of mapped passageways; the rest of the cave has been set aside for research and is not open to the public.  Jewel Cave is the third longest cave in the world but it is still being explored and new passageways discovered by volunteer cave explorers.

 

My sketch of Mount Rushmore NMMount Rushmore National Memorial – Keystone, SD — What started as a preposterous idea to draw sightseers to the state of South Dakota became a work of art for the ages.  This is Mount Rushmore, the magnificent American symbol that honors our past presidents who were dedicated to the birth, growth, development, and preservation of our nation.  

Initially conceived to be a parade of Indian leaders and American explorers who shaped the frontier, the idea for a huge granite sculpture as a gateway to the West was met with skepticism and even hostility.  Undaunted by public opinion, champions of the idea called upon master sculptor Gutzon Borglum, a Danish (yay!) immigrant who was just beginning to achieve fame for his “big” work.  Borglum changed the location and even the subject of the initial idea, and in doing so elevated the memorial to a national cause.  

Calvin Coolidge dedicated the memorial in 1927 and work commenced.  It took 14 years to complete the four heads carved high into the granite outcroppings where the Black Hills rise from the plains [and incidentally, the original name of the rock Borglum chose was Mount Rushmore so the name stuck], but only six of those years involved actual carving on the rock face.  Borglum died in March of 1941 but his son supervised the final work which stopped in October 1941 on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War II.  Mount Rushmore overwhelmed its critics and continues to dazzle the world with over two million visitors each year.

My sketch of Minuteman Missile NHSMinuteman Missile National Historic Site – the grassy plains of SD — “At the end of World War II — the first and only wartime use of atomic bombs — the United States possessed only six nuclear weapons.  After the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb four years later, the arms race took off.  Within four decades, the global arsenal had multiplied to a peak of around 65,000 weapons.”  The display inside the Visitor Center at the Minuteman Missile NHS charts the world’s nuclear stockpile and illustrates how the United States , its allies, and its enemies went to the brink and back during the Cold War.

Fortunately for mankind most of the missile silos have been deactivated and destroyed, but a couple of these 1960s missile sites were preserved and turned into a museum where visitors can explore the significance of the arms race, learn about Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), and understand their role as a nuclear deterrent that maintained peace and prevented war.  Delta-01 is the launch control facility and a couple of miles away, Delta-09 is the old launch facility, both preserved in time.

They Came Before Us

Four Corners Visits
NPS park units in the American Southwest — we’ve visited those highlighted in pink

We have spent the better part of these last six months in the American Southwest, and we seem to keep criss-crossing the Four Corners region that is Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico — there is truly so much to see here!  In our many passes through this area, we have visited more than twenty different national park units that preserve and protect ancient Native American dwellings, artifacts and history.

No Refugees!In each and every one of our visits to these sacred places, a theme, obvious as it is, kept running through my head — they were here first.  A long time ago.  Between 12,000-13,500 years ago.  The First Peoples of our country.  Not the Spaniards who wanted this territory to expand their own in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Not our European ancestors who took over this land in the 18th and 19th centuries.  No, it was the American Indians who were here long before us.  Navajo and Zuni and Shoshone and Paiute… Cheyenne, Arapaho and Ute… Apache and Comanche and scores more.  They all came before us and lived their lives here long before we ever did.

I won’t use our travel blog as a political platform, but with all the talk of refugees and building walls and the clear rise of xenophobia, not just in the United States but throughout much of Europe, as well… and now just this week as the reality of the true meaning behind the “Leave” vote associated with Brexit sinking in, I can’t help but think back to the Native Americans.  The cartoon on the right was posted on Facebook and it seems to punctuate my point.

Enough said in my non-political post.  Here are the highlights and photos from our visits to the last three national monuments we have visited, all designated to protect ancient Native American dwellings that belonged to those who came before us.  [Note the Native Americans don’t consider these places ruins, but rather sacred places.]

Tuzigoot National MonumentTuzigoot National Monument can be visited by taking a nice little ride south of Sedona, Arizona; we toured this place a couple of weeks ago when we returned to this area.  Managed in conjunction with Montezuma Castle which we visited back in February (see my Montezuma Castle National Monument post) this place was one of the homes of the Sinagua peoples; ancient farmers in the Verde Valley.  Evidence of their agricultural lifestyle has been found, chronicled, and preserved in this place that means crooked water in Apache.  Tuzigoot pueblo was originally two stories high, crowning the summit of a long ridge rising above the Verde Valley.  In addition to walking around this ancient dwelling, the Visitor Center is home to a wonderful little historic museum featuring incredible artifacts and explanations of the life of the Southern Sinagua peoples.  Most impressive to me was the intricately painted pottery.

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in the photo series.  To close the series, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.



Yucca House NMYucca House National Monument was a bit underwhelming, but then again, there is nothing at this monument other than two mounds of rubble covered with vegetation.  This site that is eight miles south of Cortez, Colorado, is unusual in that the pueblo being protected has never been excavated, so it remains just the way it was abandoned eight centuries ago.  One of our guidebooks had a photo of what looked like a sign on a locked gate, but we didn’t find any such sign when we attempted to visit.  This photo is it — the unearthed remains of the pueblo called Yucca House.  As no services whatsoever can be found at this location, we had to get our passport stamp at the Colorado Visitor Center in Cortez.

Fred & Laura at HovenweepHovenweep National Monument was just the opposite of Yucca House; this place was spectacular as it features dramatic evidence of once-thriving Pueblo communities grouped at canyon heads in this area along the Colorado-Utah border that is otherwise just full of pinion, juniper, scrub sage and yucca.  There are six sections to this monument that is in the heart of Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, a property managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  We visited two — the Square Tower Group, which is the main area with a wonderful Visitor Center, and the Holly Group which took a lot more effort to get to.  As one of the photos below shows, it’s a good thing we drive a Subaru!

Square Tower Group — After watching the overview movie in the Visitor Center, we hiked the 2-mile loop trail that took us up one side of Little Ruin Canyon, down through and across it, and up the other side.  Along the way we passed a dozen archaeological sites with ancient structures atop the mesas — these round, square, and D-shaped towers were the homes and ceremonial buildings to the ancestors of today’s Pueblo Indian tribes.  Although these dwellings have not supported life for some 700 years, the remains show that the Pueblo people were skilled builders.  They shaped very uniform bricks and held them together with mud mortar, often studded with smaller, decorative stones.  Incredible are these remains as they demonstrate the skilled precision with which these three- and four-story towers were built centuries ago.



Holly Unit — This nearby unit was also built in the 1200s at the edge of another cliff on another mesa.  A couple of towers remain here at Holly Unit, and so well constructed are they that even after the foundation boulder split off the canyon rim long after its residents moved away, the bases still remain, if even at a tilt.  Another feature of this unit is the remnants of a solar calendar, including rock art that is illuminated at the solstices.



Throughout Hovenweep, examples of well-made pottery, jewelry, and clothing clearly suggest that these villages were part of a well-developed society.  Our day spent here was perfect, if not a little hot; truly an Out There day!

So many park units… so little time to write about them!

We are on a tear — ten national park units in nine days!  We’ve seen so many wonderful park units on our drive from Salt Lake City to Chicago!!  We were very excited to travel through Colorado where we visited the Colorado Monument, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Curecanti National Recreation Area, Old Bent’s Fort National Historic Site and Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.  And then there was Kansas where we visited Fort Larned National Historic Site and the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site.  Next came Missouri where we visited the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site.  And finally we made it to Illinois where we visited the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Lincoln Museum, and the Old State Capital State Historic Site.  Although not a national park property, we also visited the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home in Abilene, Kansas.  And finally, we traveled on or over several national historic trails including the Santa Fe Trail, the Lewis & Clark Trail, the California National Historic Trail, the Oregon National Historic Trail and the Underground Railroad Freedom Network.  Yes, that’s a lot of places to visit — I hope I remembered them all!


It’s killing me, but I’m not going to have the time to write specifically about each of these fabulous park units, but they do each deserve attention.  The forts were wonderfully re-constructed and we loved seeing how they were appointed with period-appropriate pieces, props, and supplies.  We had dinner with NPS ranger friends April and Cris when we visited Curecanti NRA — such a treat to see them again in a different park from when we first met each of them last August!  We spoke with and learned from several other incredibly knowledgeable and helpful interpretive NPS rangers at several of the other sites who made their pieces of history come much more to life — too many to name and thank, but we know you and remember you and thank you!  [Dexter A. at Brown v. Board — we look forward to seeing you up in Denali in July!]

Alas, we are in Chicago now and there’s so much going on here as we prepare to celebrate Fred’s big birthday, see friends and family members, and celebrate the upcoming wedding of daughter Claire and almost-son-in-law Kyle at two bridal showers in the coming couple of weeks.  These incredible park units are now in our rear view mirror but we loved visiting all of them and we would recommend each and every one of them for making our country’s history come alive.

Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands NPSanta Cruz Island of the Channel Islands NPThe second of the four remaining parks we are visiting in Southern California this winter, Channel Islands National Park is another one that started out as a national monument before being designated a national park in 1980.  The Channel Islands is a set of eight largely undeveloped and unpopulated islands found off the coast of Santa Barbara / Ventura / Oxnard, accessible only via an authorized NP concessionaire tour boat, private boat, or the small airport on the island of Santa Rosa.  These islands are a sharp contrast to the bustling mainland nearby.  Because of the isolation, the park is lightly visited, which was just fine by us.

We chose the boat ride, and even though we knew a storm was blowing in from the west and the seas would likely be pretty rough, we knew we couldn’t delay our visit since we were in the area for only two more days.  With the following day’s forecast models calling for 100% chance of rain and even higher winds, we went for it anyway.  Once we cleared Oxnard harbor, it did indeed turn out to be a rather rough ride with many people getting seasick (but not us; Navy boy and boater girl!), and it took a lot longer than planned due to the big swells aiming right for our bow the whole time.

But our skilled captain got us through it, and after 90 minutes of pitching and rolling in swells that got to 10+ feet high we finally made it to the calmer waters of the leeward side of Santa Cruz island.  And then low and behold, the skies cleared up enough to allow for some afternoon blue and we were able to enjoy a splendid few hours hiking around the Scorpion Ranch area on the eastern side of this island.  A small group of us joined a park volunteer who walked with us up to an area called Cavern Point and as always, we enjoyed the stories he shared with us about the island’s history and its inhabitants; both past and present.

Atop Santa Cruz Island

Fred & Laura at Channel Islands NP

The islands are often called the Galapagos of North America for never in their development did they have contact with the mainland.  They have more than 2,000 species of plants and animals; 145 of them not found anywhere else in the world.  While each island is different, we ‘chose’ Santa Cruz, or rather it was chosen for us as that’s where the boat was heading on the particular day we visited.  In the more popular summer season, we figured there would be more choices and options, but we were just fine with “our” island.  The largest of the five primary islands that are visited, Santa Cruz extends some 22 miles long and from two to six miles in width, so we were only able to get around a few miles of it on foot.  Santa Cruz is known for its biodiversity, a deep sea cave, the Santa Cruz island fox [each island has its own endemic fox species], and the historic ranches that still stand a century later.  Today the National Park Service and Nature Conservancy preserve and protect the island together.

Following a quick visit to the island’s Visitor Center [there are also a couple more on the mainland in Oxnard and Ventura] for our passport stamp, we spent most of our time hiking, always on the lookout for the famed island fox.  Then just before we got back to the beach where we were to meet our return ride, there he was!  My beloved “Fransel” captured better close-ups of this miniature fox (he’s smaller because he doesn’t have any natural enemies out on the island), but I like the shot I captured of him getting his shots!

 

Below is a mosiac of photos from our hike out on Santa Cruz.  If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in the photo series.  To close the series, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.

 

What started out as an “iffy” weather day turned out to be a beautiful day on one of the Channel Islands after all!  Thanks to our hiking buddies, particularly Anne M, who had a rough start but rallied like a trooper and carried on with her head held high.  On to bigger and better, Anne!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!  Our 2016 began in a hotel room in Effingham, Illinois.  After a wonderful couple of weeks back in Illinois and Wisconsin visiting family and friends for the Christmas holidays, we are now making our way back down to San Antonio, Texas, where Charley’s been parked out next to our friends’ shed since we left him there back on December 2nd — it truly seems like ages ago!

As I did last year, I thought it’d be fun to take a look back to see where all we’ve traveled and how much more of America we’ve seen.  To that end, here’s our Out There By The Numbers  tally as we closed out 2015:

  19 months on the road
  53,904 miles driven
  44 states visited

  745 miles hiked
  176 miles biked
  29  miles paddled
  176 different places stayed
  14 nights in a Walmart parking lot
  2,949 gallons of fuel for Charley

In this past year we’ve driven 32,652 miles, visited 19 more states, hiked over 500 miles, stayed in 104 different places, replaced Toad’s four tires and one of Charley’s, and chalked up visits to a whopping 25 national parks including 6 of the 8 up in Alaska during a fabulous 5-week trip up there.  Incidentally, Alaska is now my favorite state in the Union!

I am being a broken record here, but we are extremely blessed to be able to travel around like this to see this great country of ours and visit spectacular national park units that are each fabulous in their own way.  We are filled with gratitude each and every time we set foot into an NPS Visitor Center and place yet another stamp in our passport books.  It is most often with awe that we look out at the grandeur of whatever park unit we are visiting, and we continue to remember in the back of our minds the story of how these parks came to be.  If you haven’t seen it, make it a point to watch the PBS series, The National Parks:  America’s Best Idea by Ken Burns and David Duncan.  We would bet that you, too, will come away from that series wanting, as we did some six years ago, to get Out There yourselves.

Enough, for it’s time to hit the road again.  We wish everyone a very happy, healthy, and prosperous new year!  It’s been an amazingly-fabulous year for the Jolly Adventures and we hope it has been the same for each of you.

Signing off from Effingham,

–L&F

Two More National Parks in Washington

Well here we are again… in an NPS campground with no Internet connectivity and no Verizon signal.  I’ve grown accustomed to this situation now as we’ve encountered it before, but it sure is frustrating, especially when I am trying to catch up on the posts from our travels!  In order to get this posted, I will be driving seven miles down the road to what is known locally as “the phone booth” – it’s the place nearest to us where we can pick up a Verizon signal and use our hotspot to get online.  Ah, the “joys” of traveling in remote places…!

In an effort to get us caught up, I’m going to commit a mortal sin and include two national parks in one post.  Both of these parks are in Washington state, and they’re both known for fire and ice — volcanic mountains and glaciers — so that’s my justification for lumping them together.  Besides, Fred has photos from both places that he’s sharing so you’ll surely get the gist of both parks from his photos.

Mount Rainier National Park

Mount RainierMount Rainier NPThe showpiece of this park is obviously Mount Rainier.  Towering at 14,410 feet, this mountain is a monster easily visible from western Washington.  Mount Rainier is an active volcano overlaid by snowfields and glaciers, as nearly every photo of the park depicts.  Our favorite conservationist / naturalist, John Muir, said of this place in 1906, “Of all the fire-mountains, which, like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest in form.”

Jule, Bob, Fred & me -- getting better with the selfie stick
Julie & Bob B. joined Fred and I for a picnic lunch at our campground before heading into the park for an afternoon hike together

We stayed six days/nights in a campground just outside the park, and during our stay we had day-visitors, Bob & Julie B., with whom Fred worked back in the 1990s while at Arthur Andersen in Chicago.  Now living in Seattle, they drove down to the park, met Charley, had a picnic lunch with us, and we all enjoyed a nice afternoon hike together.  I’ve said it before and I’ll continue to say it, meeting up with friends like this is one of the greatest joys of our life on the road!

We enjoyed some more hiking in the park, including making an early morning drive some two hours over to the far northeast side of the park to get to an area in the park called Sunrise.  We hiked nearly eight miles as we made our way out to a very cool fire lookout tower, around some trails next to nearly-dried-out lakes; up and down and up and down and back around to the visitor center, all the while having Mount Rainier and some of her 20-some beautiful glaciers as our backdrop.  We were excited to learn that we were supposed to be here during peak wildflower season, but due to the drought and other out-of-whack seasonal forces this year, they bloomed much earlier and we weren’t left with much color.  Oh well… it’s clear why the nearby population chooses to visit Mount Rainier National Park frequently, and we would be frequent visitors, too, if we lived out here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest! 


North Cascades National Park 

North Cascades NP
This park deserves more attention than I’m going to give it, but unfortunately, due to the fires raging out of control in this area of the country, we didn’t get to see as much of it as we would have liked.  We were actually en route to North Cascades following our visit to Mount Rainier when we got a call from the National Park Service regretting to inform us that they were cancelling our reservation in the NPS campground due to fires burning within the park.  We chose to drive on up to the park anyway and found a campground with room just outside the park.

Road closed due to fires
Just a couple of miles into the park we were met with smoke and this road closure

There are actually three units to this park:  North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.  Just one road traverses the park and it was, unfortunately, this road that was closed.  With that, so, too, was the North Cascades Visitor Center and the little village of Newhalem where we were to have stayed.  Fortunately, in the little town of Marblemount just west of the park [where we found an available spot to camp] there was an NPS Wilderness Information Center.  Normally these are much smaller than full-blown visitor centers; people usually use these lesser-crowded centers to get their backcountry permits and register their hiking routes, but fortunately this one had a passport stamp so we could officially record our visit to North Cascades NP in our passport books.

Map of park road and trail closures
Map of active fires and road closures in NCNP

Since we couldn’t cross through the park to get to the east side, we had to dramatically change our approach to visiting North Cascades.  We did find a section of the park that was south of the active fires and we were able to hike in this area of the park.  We also dipped our toes in the water — literally in the Skagit River — so we were officially in the Ross Lake NRA, as well.

While not the experience we had expected in North Cascades National Park, we did visit for three days and especially enjoyed our hike up to Cascade Pass.  It was here that we met a Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) thru-hiker, Chris, with whom we hiked back down to the trailhead, then gave a ride to the nearby town.  Fire-related trail closures kept him from hiking through a 15-mile section of the trail so he was having to re-route his journey, as well, and was going to hitchhike from where we dropped him off to a town a little further south where he would continue his hike.

While the closures kept us from getting through to the east side, down through the little towns Twisp and Winthrop, and down into the Lake Chelan area, this minor inconvenience during our visit to North Cascades was nowhere near the tragedy that was happening in real time around us.  It was outside the town of Twisp that these wicked fires overtook and tragically killed three National Forest Service firemen the night before we arrived.  The locals knew these men and the sense of loss was all around.  This sadness shrouds our memories from our visit here, but also reminds us all to be thankful for all those who put themselves in harms way while doing their jobs to keep us safe.

On a happier note, and as it’s “Throwback Thursday,” I’m going to share a couple of photos from a long time ago — 1978, I’m pretty sure — when my family visited this national park with a few families and some of the youth group from our church.  Among many fond memories I have of this trip, I also remember a long (nearly 2,000 miles!) bus ride that took us straight through from Neenah, Wisconsin, to Lake Chelan where we all enjoyed a week of cabin camping and hiking in the Washington wilderness.  Ah… family vacations and the oft-awkward photos that went along with them!

 

Big Bend National Park

March 10-16 – Extraordinary was one of many adjectives we used on a regular basis as we drove through the arid southwest Texas desert and mountains en route to, and then within, Big Bend National Park.  Impressive, amazing, vast, beautiful, remarkable, incredible, striking… I could keep going, but I think you'll think the same when you see some of the sights we enjoyed while here.  

Taking a break on our hike along the banks of the Rio Grande ~

Laura overlooking the Rio Grande

Big Bend National Park was formed on June 12, 1944, a week after U.S. troops stormed the beaches at Normandy.  The name was derived from a large bend in the Rio Grande River, the "Big Bend."  The drive to get here is quite long, but well, well, did I say well? worth the effort!

I thought it might be fun to consider Big Bend National Park by the numbers:  

  • 7 is the number of days/nights we stayed at the park.
  • 33 miles is how far we hiked in the park, but Big Bend offers over 200 miles of hiking trails – from short, nature walks to mid-range hikes in the 5-14-mile range (which is what we did several times) to multi-day backcountry backpacking routes – this place is truly a hikers paradise!
  • 1,000+ is the number of miles the Rio Grande River forms the international boundary between Texas from Mexico; 118 is the number of miles that border the park.
  • 1,200 species of plants, 450 species of birds (we especially loved listening to their beautiful songs), 56 species of reptiles, and 75 mammal species – Big Bend is teeming with life in spite of the harsh conditions species must face here in the Chihuahuan Desert.
  • 801,163 acres; that's 1,252 sq mi, making it the 14th largest national park by size.
  • 5 is the number of Visitor Centers – we visited them all and got our passport stamps.
  • 616 is the number of miles we drove while visiting the park.  One thing you do a lot of in Big Bend is drive, but the scenery is so spectacular and we enjoyed every minute in Toad!

View from South Rim Loop TrailView from the South Rim ~ 

We had a fantastic time in Big Bend, in fact, we extended our stay by two more days so we could visit the entire park; five days wasn't enough.  We hiked several trails including one 12.4 mile hike up, up, up into the high Chisos (CHEE-sos) Mountains to the South Rim of the Chisos Basin.

We took several other hikes, but perhaps our favorite was a 6-mile out and back trail that ran through the desert and along the cliffs of the Rio Grande to a hot springs.

Hover your cursor over the photo, below, then click on the arrows to see photos from our favorite hike:

The wildlife and the wildflowers were incredible, unique, and beautiful way down here in the desert.  Bluebonnets, the state flower of Texas, were as tall and lush as they've been in years, per the Park Ranger.  The five-year drought stifled their growth in recent years, but a little bit of rain brought the desert into bloom.  We saw several little Roadrunners dashing about.  These guys can run up to 20 mph, pursuing lizards and small rattlesnakes, then pecking their prey to death.Wildflowers in Big Bend National ParkRoadrunner 1  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hover your cursor over the photo, below, then use the arrows to scroll through some photos of the beautiful wildflowers and critters in Big Bend:

As I said before, I could go on and on about all we saw and all we did and all the fun we had in the Chihuahuan Desert and Chisos Mountains and along the Rio Grande here in Big Bend, but perhaps it's best to just let the photos do the talking.

Hover your cursor over the photo, below, then use the arrows to scroll through photos (trust me, we have hundreds more!) of Big Bend: