Tag Archive | National Parks

Planning for The West 2016

In August 2016, my mom and I decided to do a road trip of the west. There are a number of National Parks in North and South Dakota that I have been interested in seeing for some time, and it was time to knock some off of my bucket list!  I am so glad that my mom was game to do this trip with me!

I looked into flying into Rapid City, South Dakota and was surprised to find that plane tickets from Washington State were going to be almost $1,000 each! Ditto with Bismarck, North Dakota. It was time to change the Plan of Action. Fortunately, I found flights for just over $200 per person to Billings, Montana. A bit more driving, but we were on our way!

The second hurdle was hotel prices. I was kind of surprised by the cost of hotels; I get that it was summer, but they still seemed really high for parts of small town North and South Dakota. Once I discovered that our trip coincided with the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, it all made more sense… I did ultimately find some reasonable prices for hotel rooms, but it took more research – and we didn’t stay at luxury accommodations…  Good thing my mama is flexible…

The car was another matter. For 12 days, our car ended up costing $497; which, with the exception of Colorado, is much higher than I have seen for my other long trips. Peak summer period, plus I think some of the higher price was due to the fact that the Takata airbag recall had taken so many rental cars off the road – car manufacturers were telling people not to drive their cars and were giving owners loaner rentals at no cost.  That would do it…  We booked a car originally at $525, then rebooked when the price went down to the $497 that we ended up with.  Ouch…

With our flight schedule set, I planned a loop that would begin in Montana and go through North and South Dakota, before moving into Wyoming and finally ending up back in Montana to fly home. I had an ambitious itinerary (don’t I always!) – Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Wind Cave National Park, Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park and Devil’s Tower National Monument to start. With the extra loop in Montana for flights, I expanded the itinerary to include Little Bighorn Battlefield, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Park. Since we were going to be so close, I also put Jewel Cave National Monument and the Crazy Horse Memorial on the list!


Our route wasn’t quite what appears in the map above, as Google Maps was not cooperating as I tried to drag its little points around to where I wanted them.  Technology… Sheesh… It is close though, and you get the gist…

I planned a crazy-busy trip, and I was excited to get started!

Virginia 2015: Historic Jamestowne

Day 11: Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Jamestowne was the first permanent English settlement in North America; it was established in 1607; a town was constructed around the fort in 1619.  It is located Jamestowne Island, on the James River, just off of the Coast of Virginia.  It was designated as a National Historic Site on December 18, 1940, and is a part of Colonial National Historical Park.

Jamestowne-Monument (479x640)

The monument at Jamestowne.

The first couple of years brought cooperation between the colonists and the Native Americans, who taught them how to plant crops and farm.  However, the relationship went south, and most of the Native Americans were wiped out by warfare.  The colonists had a difficult several years, and about 80% of them were wiped out by starvation and disease.

The second group of colonists included Polish and German artisans who set up a glass factory; glassware was one of the first export products from the colony.  There were also a couple of women – the first European women to join the settlement.

Jamestowne-Glassmaking (480x640)

One of the modern glassmakers at Jamestowne

Some of the “household” names associated with Jamestowne include Captain John Smith – a colorful character who went from murdering his master in England to mapping the river system near Jamestowne, learning the native language, and being elected the first Governor of colonial Virginia.  John Rolfe brought tobacco seeds from Bermuda, one of the first successful export crops, and married the daughter of a local Native American chief, Pocohontas.

The town was deliberately burned during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, but was rebuilt.  In 1699, when the capitol of the Virginia colony was moved from Jamestowne to Williamsburg, the settlement was abandoned, although there were some plantations on the island into the 1800s.

It was a beautiful sunny day when Jon and I visited; we arrived about 10 am and watched the orientation film in a cool theater with seats all around – the movie is projected on the wall above the seating.  We did a brief tour through the museum and then headed out to the site.

I was surprised at how swampy the site was – we walked across a raised walkway over the swamp, home to several turtles!  They were so cute!  Once we were on the island, we checked out the fort site first.  There are a few reconstructed buildings and some archaeological sites to check out, as well as the grave sites of several of the original colonists.


The swamp at Jamestowne



Jamestowne-Archaelogy (640x480)

An archaeological dig at Jamestowne

We also saw the ruin of the Jamestowne Church – it was built in 1639 (although I believe it was the fourth church on the site) – the nave was built to commemorate the 300th anniversary in Jamestowne in 1907.  The day we were there, there was a drone on site – we found out later that it was shooting footage down the chimney of the church to assess its stability.

Jamestowne-Church (640x537)

Jamestowne Church – the ruined tower was built in 1639.

Jamestowne-Drone (640x480)

A drone at Jamestowne! Not historic…

We wandered around the rest of the site and checked out the plantation house ruin, as well as the reconstructed foundations of various buildings at the site.  We also relaxed for a bit near the James River, enjoying the view and the float plane that was landing on the river.

Mud-Stud-House (640x480)

The frame of a Mud and Stud House – Jon couldn’t stop laughing at the architectural style name.


Float-Plane (640x480)

A float plane landed on the James River

Ambler-House (640x480)

The Ambler House – built in the 1750s. It was burned and rebuilt in two wars, and was abandoned in 1895 after a third fire.

We also toured the Voorhees Archaearium, the museum on the site that contains historical artifacts from the settlement.  They also have two skeletons from the site and the stories from how they died.  One died from a gunshot in the leg; the other skeleton was a captain at the fort.

Most interestingly, the museum had an exhibit on Jane; she was a fourteen year old girl who died and was cannibalized, most likely during the “starving time”.  There were a few of her bones on exhibit that showed evidence of the cut marks that indicate the cannibalization.  It was an interesting exhibit, and I appreciated their candid way of dealing with such a sensitive subject.

Jamestowne-Doe (640x480)

A doe at Jamestowne – she would never have survived the starving time.

Then we headed over to the cafe for a delicious lunch, probably the best museum cafe food we had on the trip.  I had the U.S. Grant wrap with dried cranberries, turkey, walnuts and blue cheese spread with a side of orzo pasta and a slice of wonderful key lime pie.  Jon had the Union – a hummus veggie wrap with cole slaw and a Legend Brown Ale from a Richmond, VA brewery.

Jamestowne-Bird (640x480)

An unidentified bird at Jamestowne

Although there is very little of the original site visible, it was fascinating to see the site where colonial history in North American really began.






Gettysburg NMP History

Almost everyone (I hope) knows the name Gettysburg and what happened here.  It was a monumental battle between the United States Army and the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.  A three day battle which would end with the most casualties of any one battle in the Civil War.  Over 46,000 men were killed, wounded or missing at the conclusion of those three days.  It was a battle that pitted soldiers against each other in hand to hand combat, in impossible charges over open fields, and in insufferable weather conditions.  It was a battle that would change the tide of the war, even though it would rage on for almost two more years.

Gettysburg National Military Park today includes most of the battlefield, and many of the other areas that were important to the battle, such as staging and supply areas and hospitals.  It also includes the cemetery, which is quite possibly the most famous cemetery in the United States, due to a small speech given here by Abraham Lincoln when dedicating the cemetery several months after the battle.  Lincoln’s speech was over in less than 2 minutes, but it has lived on in the collective hearts of the nation.  I learned it in school, and I bet you probably did too.

Gettysburg National Military Park

Gettysburg National Military Park

The first land was protected in 1863, and gradually more land has been added over the last century and a half.  Gettysburg was designated as a National Military Park in 1895, and eventually placed under the administration of the National Park Service.  To date, 3,965 acres have been protected, with new land added to the park as recently as 2009.  Gettysburg also protects over 1,320 monuments, 410 cannons, 148 historic buildings, 3 observation towers, and 41 miles of avenues, roads, and lanes.  And although it is not known whether any remains have yet to be discovered on the battlefield, soldiers who fought at Gettysburg were found where they fell as recently as 1996; there are probably more men still resting there.  It is truly sacred ground.

The Visitor’s Center protects the Cyclorama, a late 19th century room sized oil painting on canvas, that when viewed from a platform immerses the viewer in the scene.  It is fascinating to see in person.  Sadly, the park sold their Electric Map, a 30′ by 30′ display in relief of the battlefield with dozens of light bulbs that light up to show the troop movements on the battlefield.  I saw it when I visited Gettysburg in 2008, and gained an understanding of the movement of the battle over those three days that is hard to appreciate from watching a movie.  It may have been “old” technology, but it was effective.  If you want to see a video of the Electric Map – there’s one at this website.

in 2010, 1,031,554 people visited the park, making it one of the more visited units within the Park System.  Although I visited in 2008, I was looking forward to spending more time there, and we were going to see it on our trip!

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument History

Approximately 34 million years ago, there was a lake environment in the Florissant Valley of Colorado.  The whole area was part of the Laramide Orogeny, which also formed the areas that now make up Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado National Monument, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, in Florissant, Colorado

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, in Florissant, Colorado

About 20 miles southwest of the Florissant Valley were several stratovolcanoes that erupted periodically.  Like Mount St. Helens in Washington state, these eruptions created large lahars, or mud flows, that would flow at high speeds down the valley.  One of the lahars flowed down into the lake in the valley, covering the flora and fauna in layers of mud, thereby creating a favorable environment for fossilization.

Florissant Fossil Beds contains thousands of fossils, with large numbers of invertebrates represented.  They include spiders, millipedes and bees, as well as clams and other mollusks.  Plant fossils include fruits, seeds, and cones, as well as 130 types of pollen.  I am amazed that you can tell one type of pollen from another when looking at a fossil!

And then, of course, there are the Redwood trees, part of the Sequoia family.  The redwoods that existed in the Florissant Valley are genetically distinct from the modern Redwoods in California.  But they are similar enough that it allows researchers to determine what the climate was like in Colorado at the time.

In the late 19th century, the fossils had been discovered, and researchers and tourists alike were flocking to the Florissant Valley to cart them off, especially large pieces of Redwood stumps.  At one point, two tourist lodges provided accommodations to tourists in the valley.  One of these lodges is actually the current Visitor’s Center.  The Park Service acquired the property after legal wrangling that pitted the Park Service and several scientists and citizens, who wanted the area protected, against landowners who profited handsomely from operating their concessions in the area.

The view from the trail - looking over at the Hornbek Homestead

The view from the trail – looking over at the Hornbek Homestead

The monument was signed in law on August 20, 1969 by President Richard Nixon.  It protect 5,998 acres of land, and now the park receives approximately 61,289 visitors.

We were going to visit next!


Colorado 2015: Hiking Great Sand Dunes NP

Day 5: August 5, 2015

Our visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve started out on the right foot.

The entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

The entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

With Pronghorn!  On the long country road on our way into the park, we saw a herd of Pronghorn! I have been thwarted in my many attempts to get photos of Pronghorn over the last couple of years – unfortunately they are tough to photograph at 60 mph from a car. But this time, we were able to pull over and see them from a standstill! They weren’t super-close, but they were watching us curiously while I took photos with my zoom.

There was a whole line of Pronghorn, watching us, watch them...

There was a whole line of Pronghorn, watching us, watch them…

We proceeded on to the Visitor’s Center to fill our water bottles and use the restroom, but didn’t look at the exhibits at that point because we wanted to get out hiking before it got too hot.

I finally got photos of Pronghorn!

I finally got photos of Pronghorn!

Jon and I decided to hike up Star Dune, which is the second-tallest dune in the park; Star Dune is 699 feet tall and the hike is about 3 miles round trip. We left at about 10:40 am – hiking though the flat section of the dune field, across Medano Creek, which was about an inch deep and meandered in a wide path across the sand. Jon’s parents joined us for this portion of the hike and some pictures, before breaking off and doing their own thing once it got more strenuous.

Jon and me at the beginning of our hike to the top of Star Dune - 699 feet tall and the second tallest dune in the park.

Jon and me at the beginning of our hike to the top of Star Dune – 699 feet tall and the second tallest dune in the park.

We began hiking up the dune, and it quickly turned tough in the soft sand. It was definitely a challenging hike; we had to stop multiple times and rest while climbing the steep dunes! I’ll be honest; I was driving the rest breaks much more frequently than Jon.  On the hike we saw several patches of prairie sunflowers growing in the sand – it was interesting to see them growing without any soil!

A Prairie Sunflower growing in the sand.

A Prairie Sunflower growing in the sand.

A whole field of Prairie Sunflowers

A whole field of Prairie Sunflowers

Once we reached the top of the dune, we posed for photos and sat in the sand, resting and admiring the view.

Partway through the hike - the view back towards Medano Creek and the

Partway through the hike – the view back towards Medano Creek and the “trail head.”

After resting, we made our way back down the dune. The hiking was way easier going down! We didn’t stick to the “trail” on the way down, instead sinking into the deep sand on the sides of the dunes. It was like being a little kid again! I understood why rangers tell you to wear closed shoes in the summer; when the sand hit my leg it was getting quite warm, and it wasn’t a super-hot day.

Someone wrote a message in the sand - We are not alone...

Someone wrote a message in the sand – We are not alone…

We checked out the Visitor’s Center and I got my passport stamp and postcards – plus I got a cute bumper sticker proclaiming that I hiked Star Dune! 699 feet! Jon just rolled his eyes.  We had a picnic lunch that day near the Visitor’ Center, at a nice picnic area with some shade. We did encounter a few little biting flies, and a relatively well-behaved church group of teenagers.

We tried to hike a little bit near Medano Creek, but at that point it was getting pretty hot and there were lots of little gnats flitting around, so we decided to quit while we were ahead.

And with that, it was time to say goodbye to Great Sand Dunes National Park…

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve History

What would your answer be if you were asked where are the highest sand dunes in North America? If you said Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, you would be right!

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve protects a total of 85,932 acres of sand dunes, grasslands, coniferous and deciduous forests, alpine lakes and tundra habitat. It was originally designated as a National Monument on March 17, 1932, and was upgraded to a National Park on September 13, 2004 by Congress and George W. Bush. Interesting, the fact that the sand contains consistent moisture, just a few inches below the surface, played a large role in the efforts to achieve National Park and Preserve status. The residents of this area of high desert Colorado have a vested interest in protecting available water sources.

The entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

The entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

The tallest dunes in the park are 750 feet tall, and were formed as a result of westerly winds picking up particles of dirt and sand, then dropping them on the eastern edge of the Sangre de Christo valley as the wind loses power before crossing the Sangre de Christo Mountains. Geologists believe the dunes began forming around 440,000 years ago.

From the top of Star Dune - dunes almost as far as the eye can see.

From the top of Star Dune – dunes almost as far as the eye can see.

Annual precipitation on the dunes averages 11 inches per year, which puts it just above a true desert habitat (10 inches or less), but it still qualifies due to the high rate at which water evaporates. Summer temperatures can exceed 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and winter lows go down below zero. Snow is rare though, due to the dry climate.

The preserve designation is unique for National Parks in the lower 48; Great Sand Dunes does permit hunting in the preserve area of the park. Bow hunting is common, and hunters are permitted to use tracking dogs to hunt mountain lions, provided that the dogs are leashed until the animal is spotted and being pursued.  That seems pretty cruel to me, so I try not to think about it…

A wide variety of wildlife make their home in the park and preserve, including mountain lion, black bear, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, beavers, badgers, bison, snakes, lizards, several species of fish, eagles, falcons, owls and other birds. The park even has at least seven species of endemic insects.

I finally got photos of Pronghorn!

I finally got photos of Pronghorn!

There is also lots to do for visitors to the park, including camping, hiking, sandboarding (yep – you can slide down the dunes on a sandboard!), sand castle building and skimboarding on the shallow and ever changing Medano Creek.

The park also has one other unique feature – a distinction on something that is absent from the park – noise. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is the quietest National Park in the contiguous 48 states. What a fabulous place! And we were headed there on our trip!

Have you been to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve? I’ll tell you about our visit next!

Colorado 2015: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Day 4: August 4, 2015

Have you ever heard of the Gunnison River and Black Canyon of the Gunnison? I don’t blame you if you haven’t – I really hadn’t either until a couple of years ago. But after hearing about a canyon that rivals the Grand Canyon in terms of its awe-inspiring beauty – I knew I had to see it.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park has two main roads, one on each rim of the canyon. Driving to the other rim is about a 90 minute trip, because you have to go outside the park and drive around. We chose to visit the South Rim, based on what worked for our trip route, which has a Rim Road that is about 6 miles long with several viewpoints along the way.

A view of the Gunnison River

A view of the Gunnison River

We went to the Visitor’s center, which has a fabulous view of the Canyon from an overlook. Jon and I also went on a 2 mile hike, the Oak Flat Loop Trail, which took us through stands of Gambel Oak trees, and descends a short distance into the canyon. It gave a great perspective on what the canyon walls look like from below. At one point of the trail, there is a sheer wall of granite – you can look up and see the sparkly rock, and see the swifts leaving and returning to their nests high above.

A butterfly on the Oak Flat Loop Trail.

A butterfly on the Oak Flat Loop Trail.

After our hike, we did the scenic drive, and stopped at several of the viewpoints, which have overlooks between 100 and 600 yards from the parking areas. Each viewpoint has a sign marking how far the walk is. Each overlook offers something different, showing various features of the geology of the canyon.

Rock formations at Black Canyon

Rock formations at Black Canyon

The Pulpit Rock Overlook has a unique rock formation jutting out into the canyon, giving a great view of the river.  Another of the overlooks, the Painted Wall overlook, gives a view of the Painted Wall to those who are willing to walk the 200 yards, which at 2,250 feet is the tallest cliff in Colorado, and 1,000 feet taller than the Empire State Building.

The Painted Wall with its unique features.

The Painted Wall with its unique features.

The view of the river below the Painted Wall

The view of the river below the Painted Wall

The last overlook on the South Rim Road is at Warner Point; it offers a 1373 yard hike (about 1.5 miles round trip), to a panoramic viewpoint.  In one direction, you can see the canyon, in the other, you get a spectacular view of the farmland outside the park.  Jon and I really enjoyed ourselves on this hike, and we were virtually alone the whole time!

A view of distant farmland from the Warner Point Trail

A view of distant farmland from the Warner Point Trail

After hiking the overlooks, we decided to take the 5 mile road down to the Gunnison River.  The road is extremely steep, with over a 16% grade, so we had to shift into low gear and take it slow (it did take us a little while to figure out how to get the rental car into the lowest gear).

Once at the river, we sat for a little while and relaxed, watching a fly fisherman further up the river.  Only catch and release is permitted.  We also saw a small branch floating down the river, and when it got just past us I realized it was actually a river otter!  I didn’t get any pictures though, because I was caught completely by surprise.

A fly fisherman in the Gunnison River.

A fly fisherman in the Gunnison River.

We had a fabulous day in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, taking in the amazing views, and spending some time hiking along the rim.  Jon would like to see the south rim as well, but that will have to wait for another trip.

We couldn’t stay at the park too late, because we still have quite a long drive ahead of us – we were going to be visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park the next day.  We had dinner on the road, at the Blue Mesa Grill in Gunnison, which had an assortment of dishes.  I mixed and matched my dinner, with a Philadelphia sushi roll with mango and a cup of Baked Potato soup.  Jon had a Tuna roll, and shared his dad’s burger.  It hit the spot!

My Philadelphia Roll and Baked Potato Soup at the Blue Mesa Grill

My Philadelphia Roll and Baked Potato Soup at the Blue Mesa Grill

Obligatory pic at the Continental Divide

Obligatory pic at the Continental Divide

On the rest of the drive, we saw lots of magpies and rabbits, plus two bighorn sheep!  No photos though, as it was dusk and we were moving at a good clip along the highway.  What a great day!

Total driving distance on Day 4: 195 miles – Montrose – Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – Alamosa
Hotel for the night: Super 8, Alamosa – dated, strange room configuration, smokers right outside our window (YUCK!), decent breakfast.