NP ranger

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!

Great Basin National Park

Great Basin National ParkGreat Basin National Park is one of many of the national parks we had never heard of when we started planning our Out There adventure to visit all of our nation’s parks several years ago.  One of the first things I did at that time was to make a list of all 59 of the parks and start to get to know where they all are so I could develop a rough plan for visiting them all in some sort of order that made logistical and geographical sense.  This park is far from everything on a long road from nowhere and not on the way to anywhere else — a destination park, to be sure.  That is probably the reason that we haven’t visited Great Basin NP before now.  But visit it, we now have — our 49th park.

The long road to get to GBNP
The long and fairly straight road to get to Great Basin National Park — it’s some 200 miles from the nearest city.

Great Basin NPThe isolation of Great Basin makes this a not-oft-visited park; in fact Grand Canyon NP gets more visitors in a busy week than this one gets in the entire year!  But the diversity of what can be found in the area, as well as an understanding of what Great Basin represents and protects was a nice surprise — well worth the trek to get to it.  Our visit here had us hiking in snow fields, touring a limestone cave, marveling at 3,000-year-old bristlecone pine trees, enjoying a veritable cornucopia of colorful wildflowers, and looking up from the basin at mountain peaks that tower over 10,000 feet; the tallest, Wheeler Peak, tops out at over 13,000 feet.

Great Basin NPAs the park brochure illustration depicts, what is known as the Great Basin is very large and stretches across multiple states.   There is not just one basin here, but many.  They are separated by mountain ranges that are roughly parallel, north to south, with basins and ranges alternating.  Great Basin National Park preserves and protects just one of the many mountain ranges — a mere 77,000 acres — but it represents the entire Great Basin which is some 200,000 square miles in size.  Hot, dry summers.  Cold, snowy winters.  Mountains in a sea of sagebrush.  These all describe Great Basin National Park.

Great Basin was given its name by a mid-19th century explorer, John C. Fremont, who described it like this:  “It is a singular feature, a basin of some five hundred miles in diameter in every way, between four and five thousand feet above the level of the sea, shut in all around by mountains, with its own system of lakes and rivers, and having no connexion whatever with the sea.”  Indeed, the basin consists of valleys and mountain ranges that keep all of the streams and rivers in the region contained.  This results in water collecting in shallow salt lakes (playas), marshes, and mud flats which then evaporate in the dry desert air; there is no outlet for this water to reach the sea.

Over 90% of the basin is public land, managed by the National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and a couple of state agencies, each having its own mission and management purpose.  The movie in the Visitor Center gave us an overview of the park, but once again, NPS Rangers Mike in the Visitor Center, and Mark who gave us a tour of Lehman Caves really make the park come to life for us so we could understand and appreciate it better.

Here’s a look at what I enjoyed during our three-day visit to Great Basin National Park:

Snow-capped mountains — I enjoyed the scenery but not the snow; I’m done with cold and snow for the season!

Mather Point at GBNP
Mather Point, named after Stephen Tyng Mather, who laid the foundation for the National Park Service. As the plaque inscription states, “There will never come an end to the good that he has done.”

 Snow-capped mountains in GBNP

Lehman Caves — although it’s only one single cavern, contrary to the name

 

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Trees — this one near the Visitor Center is a baby compared to some of the other old beauties in the park

 

Abundant Colorful Wildflowers — several I know the names for now because we’ve seen them throughout this region

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.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Castle NM

Fred & Laura at Montezuma Castle NM
Montezuma Castle — this five-story structure was built 100′ up into the limestone cliff alcove nearly 1,000 years ago

Montezuma Castle National Monument is one of two national monuments in the Verde Valley in central Arizona that preserve the world of the Sinagua, a group of Native Americans who flourished here hundreds of years ago.  Together with Tuzigoot NM, which we will visit when we return to the area in June, Montezuma Castle gives us a glimpse into what life was like for these ancestors of the Hopi Indians as they hunted and gathered and planted and harvested in this valley area for thousands of years.

Taking part in the ranger talk
Taking part in the NPS ranger talk — these are always so informative

Montezuma Castle is a five-story, 20-room dwelling that was built sometime between 1100 and 1300 CE.  As can be seen in the photos, this structure actually sits in a cliff recess about 100 feet above the valley floor.  Ladders made of sycamore and yucca assisted the climb up to and down from it.  It is believed that about 35 people lived in the castle structure, but just below it is a larger pueblo and some smaller alcove homes.  Although we call it Montezuma Castle today, descendants of its residents know it by other names.  To the Hopi, it is Sakaytaka, “place where the step ladders are going up” and Wupat’pela, “long high walls.” 

Between 1350 and 1400, the Southern Sinagua migrated away from their pueblos.  No one knows for sure why… it may have been overpopulation, depletion of resources, disease, conflicts within or between groups, climate change, or perhaps spiritual beliefs.  Whatever the reasons, many Southern Sinagua likely migrated to the north and left this structure behind.  When it was found, remnants of its residents were found inside, for whenever a dwelling was abandoned, tools and implements and food were left behind for use when its inhabitants eventually returned.

Montezuma CastleWe always get so much more out of our visit to a park unit when we get to sit in on a presentation by an NPS ranger.  We were fortunate with the timing of our visit to Montezuma Castle NM, for one was just getting underway when we walked down the path to the limestone cliffs which house this iconic dwelling.  The ranger shared many factoids and tidbits and snippets of information about the area and lifestyle of these first peoples, but one thing she shared particularly resonated with me.  To the ancestors of these Native Americans, places like these are not ruins; they are living sites.  Respectful we must be, then, when visiting these sacred locations.

Joshua Tree National Park

Our travels have taken us from the Pacific Ocean over to the Coachella Valley, and we are now less than 100 miles from the Mexican border in southern California.  [Incidentally we’re not quite sure where Mr. Trump is going to have the Mexicans build his big wall; it’d kinda ruin the stunning views from the mountaintops around here, but we’ll cross that bridge if we get there, I guess.]  So in addition to enjoying time in this warm and beautiful desert area for nearly three weeks this winter, Joshua Tree National Park is less than an hour away, so an extended stay here in the Palm Springs area works out perfectly for us, and we’ve set our circus down from February 2-20.  This is the longest we’ve stayed in a single place since we hit the road 20 months ago and we must say, we are finding our downtime in the desert very relaxing!

Joshua Tree NPOn to the national park….  The Colorado and Mojave Deserts meet here in Joshua Tree National Park but they are two different types of deserts so the appearance and the types of vegetation vary greatly here.  The western half of the park, at elevations above 3,000 feet, is the Mojave habitat.  The eastern half, below 3,000 feet, is the Colorado Desert which is part of the much larger Sonoran Desert which spans southern Arizona, southern California, and northwestern Mexico.  Whether in the eastern or western part of the park, relentless sun and little water define this place with daily summer temperatures reaching over 100 degrees.

Big Joshua TreeThe namesake for this park, the Joshua tree, is actually a distinctive species of yucca tree.  Joshua trees grow wild here in the park and surrounding Mojave desert area and can grow upwards of 5o feet high.  Like most other desert plant species, these trees have adapted to the lack of rainfall by extending their roots in a dense, shallow network to collect as much surface moisture as possible.  Their waxy, spiny leaves expose little surface area so this adaptation, too, efficiently helps the Joshua trees conserve moisture.

On the first day we visited the park, we got the lay of the land as we like to do.  While not planned, we ended up driving all the way through the park from the Cottonwood Visitor Center at the south entrance up to the Oasis Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms — strange name for a town, eh? — at the north edge of the park, making many stops along the way for short hikes and scenery stops including one for our sack lunches.  Who knew that after all these years I’d still enjoy a good ol’ peanut butter and jelly sandwich?  For that matter, who knew I’d still be eating a sack lunch?!?

Beginning our drive in the lower Colorado Desert, we viewed spidery ocotillo and a big “garden” of jumping cholla cactus.  Below are photos of the Cholla Cactus Garden:

Cholla Cactus Garden

As we made our way north and west and crossed from the Colorado into the Mojave, we came upon the famed Joshua trees and jumbled stacks of granite boulders that are markedly part of this, the “high desert.”

On another day in the park we participated in an activity that we always enjoy doing — we took a ranger-led tour.  This one took us into a part of the park that is otherwise closed off.  Keys Ranch is the remains of the ranch of a rugged homesteader, his wife, and their five children.  For nearly 60 years beginning in 1910, William F. Keys gave ranching a go, as well as any other work he could come by including mining, tool repairs, and “inventory” sales.  We heard the their colorful story and saw their remnants and relics scattered all over the front yard everywhere.  From the looks of it there was not a piece or part or scrap of anything Mr. Keys didn’t think had value and therefore kept in case he needed it to make a repair or sell it to a neighbor to make a little money.  I give them all credit for their ingenuity and hard work, but I’m not sure why anyone would think this would have been a good place to settle.  The story goes that Mrs. Keys hadn’t seen the “ranch” before she agreed to marry Mr. Keys and live her life in this remote and forsaken place!  It was a fun tour and great place to take a lot of cool photos — below are a few from our visit to Keys Ranch.

 

I will close with a few fun facts about Joshua Tree NP:

  • It is the 16th largest national park and it’s pretty big at nearly 800,000 acres.
  • It is another of the monument-turned-park parks.  FDR proclaimed it Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936, then in 1994, as part of the California Desert Protection Act, Congress renamed the area Joshua Tree National Park.
  • Three-quarters of the park is designated wilderness.
  • The varying habitats of Joshua Tree make it home to over 250 species of birds, over 50 species of mammals, and nearly 50 species of reptiles.  Hoping for a rare spotting of a big-horned sheep, they remained elusive and we saw only a few birds and lizards.  Nonetheless, we were not disappointed and we enjoyed yet another wondrous national park.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park
This is a national park entrance that we’ve been wanting to see for a long time  — Roosevelt Arch welcoming visitors to Yellowstone at the northern entrance to the park. Teddy himself laid the cornerstone in 1903.

Yellowstone National Park is our nation’s oldest, and for many, grandest national park.  Established on March 1, 1872, this land was “… set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people….”  And enjoy we did — for almost a month!  We stayed in three different campgrounds at the north, west, and south entrances to the park so we could really take in this vast, awesome park that now protects over two million acres in the northwest corner of Wyoming, spilling over into Montana and Idaho.

While it doesn’t look like it, this area was once a supervolcano that erupted about 2 million years ago, then again about 1.3 million years ago, and then again about 650,000 years ago.  The central part of the park is the now-collapsed caldera, or basin, that measures some 30- by 45-miles; today it’s filled with water and is Yellowstone Lake.  The magmatic heat that caused those huge eruptions in the past is what powers the park’s shimmering geysers, steaming fumaroles, burbling hot springs, and sulfurous mudpots today.  Yellowstone is home to a majority of the world’s geysers because of this geothermal activity; there are some 300 active geysers including Old Faithful, famous for its predictability.

Yellowstone National Park
Everyone flocks to Old Faithful, but I liked this geothermal feature — Grand Prismatic Spring in Midway Geyser Basin.  While most visit it from the boardwalk, we hiked up the side of a little mountain to get a higher view.
Yellowstone National Park
Imperial Geyser — a little-known geothermal feature found only if you keep hiking another 1/2 mile past the Fairy Falls. We had this geyser all to ourselves for our picnic lunch — stunning!

Another big draw in Yellowstone is the wildlife viewing.  From herds of bison and elk that stopped traffic when they crossed (and in some sections of the park they did so frequently, often causing traffic backups); coyotes, wolves and grizzly bears that were harder to spot; pronghorn, mule deer, and marmots that made occasional appearances birds, waterfowl, squirrels and pikas… all were a treat to see in the park. 

Yellowstone National Park
Wild bison roaming freely across the plains — and often roads, stopping traffic as they do!

More than 10,000 years ago, Native Americans roamed through these lands, no doubt attracted to the unique geographic features and plentiful wildlife found here.  Thousands of years later, as Europeans and other peoples began exploring in earnest the unknown territory west of the Mississippi River, these explorers and surveyors came across this beautiful place and thankfully decided to preserve it.  Photographs by William Henry Jackson and sketches by Thomas Moran influenced Congress to create a park for all people to enjoy.  Interestingly enough, however, there was no money set aside to protect the park, nor to administer it.  Early park superintendents had difficulty controlling wildlife poaching and the general lawlessness that had settled over Yellowstone.

In 1886, fourteen years after the park was established, fifty U.S. Army soldiers arrived, set up tents, and moved in.  Through their discipline and hard work, they oversaw the construction of Fort Yellowstone (buildings still in use today), arrested poachers, managed wildlife, fought wildfires, expelled squatters and educated visitors.  The Army’s assignment in Yellowstone lasted for more than 30 years, and its good work paved the way for the creation of the National Park Service on August 25, 1916.**  By this time, some 30 parks, monuments, and reserves had been established across the country.  This new agency would preserve and protect them and make them accessible to people from around the world.

Yellowstone National Park
April and me at the “classic” NPS sign welcoming visitors to Yellowstone from the east

Fitting it was, then, that we were introduced to a national park ranger via another ranger we had met a few weeks earlier in Idaho, and we got a VIP tour from her in her section of the park, Tower Roosevelt, on her day off.  [A special shout-out (hello and thanks!) to Cris and April, our now-new friends who are both NPS rangers.  Cris in Hagerman hooked us up with April in Yellowstone.]

I’m including a few photographs that represent my most memorable bits of Yellowstone, but since Fransel (my nickname for Fred being famed photographer, Ansel [Adams]) is going to share many of the hundreds, nay I’ll say couple thousand, photographs that he captured during our time here in this amazing place, I’ll not repeat the same scenes.

Yellowstone National Park
Fall colors began to pop during our stay in Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park
The little-known trail out to Imperial Geyser passes alongside these microbial mats reminding us of the geothermal plumbing in this place
Yellowstone National Park
This area burned during the 1988 wildfires, but the forest is rejuvenating with new lodgepole pines

All in all we had a fabulous time in this park as we do in all of the national parks.  But this one, with so many sections and so many different features, was, indeed, really something special.

** Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service.  Get out there and visit a national park — see Find Your Park for details!

Katmai National Park and Preserve

Built-up ash in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes
“The sight that flashed into view… was one of the most amazing visions ever beheld by mortal eye. The whole valley as far as the eye could reach was full of hundreds, no thousands — literally tens of thousands — of smokes curling up from its fissured floor.  Our feeling of admiration [for the Valley] soon gave way to one of stupefaction.  We were overawed.  For a while we could neither think nor act in a normal fashion.”                   ∼Robert F. Griggs, upon ‘discovering’ the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in 1916

The story of Katmai begins more than one hundred years ago when a volcanic eruption like few others in recorded history took place here on the Alaska Peninsula.  While volcanic eruptions were and still are common in Alaska, this one was large enough to attract worldwide attention and a century later it still captures the attention of scientists and explorers alike.

Old photo of the Ten Thousand SmokesOn June 6, 1912, a vent on a volcano named Novarupta exploded in a remote, nameless valley, and for nearly four days sent so much hot ash and pumice into the sky and all around that it completely buried a 40-mile section of the Ukak River valley.  Snow fields and glacial streams were buried and flashed into steam.  This eruption had transformed a remote, glacially carved valley into what first discoverers of this area four years later dubbed “The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes,” a place where thousands of fumaroles (steam and gas vents) shot into the sky.  [An interesting comparison, the ash and pumice released during the Novarupta eruption represents over 3 mi³ of magma beneath the earth, 30 times more magma than what was released during the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens!] Our Valley of 10,000 Smokes tour bus, just for Fred and me!
Fred gazing at the ash remains (70-700 feet deep) of the 1912 big blow

Hiking down into the ValleyNPS Ranger, Eric, at Valley of 10,000 Smokes

The Knife River full of glacial flourTo preserve this living laboratory of the Valley, Katmai was declared a national monument in 1918, but over time the geothermal features have cooled and steam no longer escapes.  The Valley is still a unique and beautiful landscape, and thanks to a cousin who had worked as a National Park Service Ranger in Alaska for six or seven years, we were told of this erie and special place and decided to come here.  [Thank you, Jason, for the tip!]

Fred and I took a day-long trip from Brooks Camp out to this surprisingly rarely-visited place; in fact, we were the only people on the tour, so we had the bus and NPS Ranger all to ourselves!  After an hour-ish drive out a dirt road on the above-pictured school bus [read: it was yet another bumpy ride as we had been on so many other times down dirt roads in Alaska already!] we arrived at the Robert F. Griggs Visitor Center where we learned all about this cataclysmic event.  Then Eric, our ranger, lead us down a couple of miles into the Valley where we were awed at the depths of the debris, the unique color of the pumice rocks [which are so lightweight that they float in the river!] and the sheer destruction of landscape that this slurry had caused.  We hiked down a river, fittingly called the Knife River for the way it knifes its way down through this ash and cuts into it as it rages through.  We ate our lunch on a rock in what has to be one of the most, if not the most, unique places we’ve ever stopped for lunch, then we hiked up river a bit to a confluence of two types of merging rivers and that, too, was incredible.

To call the scene “other-worldly” seems to not do it justice.  Walls some 70 feet high were the remnants of the pumice and ash that rained down here, but we were miles and miles down the Valley away from the eruption; up nearer the volcano, this debris reaches 700 feet thick — it filled an entire Valley!  A nearby volcano, Mount Katmai, collapsed during the eruption forming a deep (2,000 feet) caldera that resembles the caldera we saw at Crater Lake in Oregon.  It is only visible, however, from a flightseeing trip that gets above it, or a several-day backcountry hiking trip to reach it.

So that was our Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes day, and an incredible day it was.  But believe it or not, this was just a side excursion; we had really come here to see the bears.  Fred’s post features many shots and great closeups of these massive mammals, and I’ll write another quick post on our bears and include a few bear fishing videos.

National Park Service Junior Rangers

Ella & Oliver getting their Junior Ranger badges in Kenai Fjords NP
Ella & Oliver reciting the Junior Ranger oath with the Kenai Fjords NPS Ranger

One of the joys of traveling with Ella and Oliver — our dear friend Chris’s two kids — in two of Alaska’s national parks was getting to participate with them in their Junior Rangers program activities.  The NPS Junior Rangers program is an activity-based program conducted in almost all of our national park units that teaches children all about our parks.

While visiting an NPS park unit, interested youngsters can complete a series of activities having to do with that park, share their answers with a park ranger, and then receive an official Junior Ranger patch and Junior Ranger certificate.  Puzzles to solve, word searches, plant and animal names and new vocabulary words, coloring, mazes — these and other fun activities in a workbook guide young kids through learning all about the park they’re visiting.

“Explore, Learn, and Protect” — these are the tenants of the oath kids recite with a park ranger who often, adding his or her own sense of humor, will add a line or two about promising to brush their teeth, obey their parents, and/or do their homework.  Junior Rangers is a really wonderful program where kids of all ages — including 51-year-olds! — can have fun learning about our national parks and how to protect them.  These are, after all, our nation’s treasures and we want them to be around for our children’s children’s children to enjoy.

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park

Fort Clatsop NHPThe Lewis and Clark Expedition, also known as the Corps of Discovery, was the first American expedition to explore the northwestern lands of the vast territory the United States purchased from France in 1803.  U.S. President Thomas Jefferson was keen to explore and map this newly-acquired territory known as the Louisiana Purchase, for it doubled the size of the country.  Jefferson wanted to lay claim on these lands before Britain and other powers were able to do so, determine what resources were available west of the Mississippi River, establish trade with and U.S. sovereignty over the native peoples, and find an all-water route across the continent to the Pacific Ocean. Continue reading