Saturday, November 19, 2011

White Sands National Monument

Deep in the heart of New Mexico, White Sands National Monument features 275 square miles of white sand dunes in the middle of the desert. Similar to the sand you would find on Florida beaches, this sand has no ocean nearby.

If you prefer to view the park from your car, the Dunes Drive provides you with an 8-mile scenic drive. A picnic area allows you to enjoy a picnic lunch in the middle of this unusual desert. However, you must bring in your own water. There are pit toilets available, but no running water. Parking areas and wayside pull-outs appear all along the road. When you do stop, you are free to walk over the sand dunes.

Those who prefer to view the park on foot can take advantage of several trails. Because this is the desert, though, be sure to take along plenty of water and snacks to prevent dehydration. In addition to using the marked trails, those who are feeling a little more adventurous can walk anywhere in the park. The only requirement is that you use designated parking areas for your vehicle. If you hike off the trails, you must use caution. Many of the sand dunes look alike and it is easy to get lost.

The white sand dunes are a truly impressive site to see. One of the things that I enjoyed the most when I visited these dunes is viewing animal tracks. Even small tracks from insects create an interesting pattern in the sands.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Mount Rushmore is truly a magnificent sight to see. Many visitors get their first glimpse of the monument as they drive through the Black Hills. At some points along the road, you can see the mountain framed in the tunnel ahead of you on the road. As you travle the road and make your way around the twists and turns, each sighting brings you closer to the monument.

In contrast to some of the other National Parks, Mount Rushmore doesn't provide a lot for visitors to do, but it is still a must-see if you are in the area. The large gift shop features windows that look out over the memorial. As you leave the gift shop, you walk down a wide pathway flanked by flags from all 50 states. Near the base of the memorial, an ampitheater provides a place for gatherings and speakers to discuss the monument and its presidents.

Nighttime at Mount Rushmore is a great experience. As the sun sets, the faces of the presidents go dark. However, the darkness doesn't last long. Little by little, the spotlights trained on the presidents' faces begin to lighten. When all is said and done, the faces of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt glow out from the surrounding darkness.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Craters of the Moon

Craters of the Moon National Park is located in the southern portion of Idaho. As its name implies, this national park looks as though it is located on the surface of the moon rather than here on Earth. The area is home to dormant volcanoes that have left the area covered in craters, ash and volcanic rocks that give the park its unique look.

The park can be accessed with a 7-mile loop road that winds its way through the moon-like landscape. Visitors can stop at specific points to explore the surrounding area through hiking trails and viewpoints. One word of caution to visitors...make sure you have enough water before leaving on the 7-mile loop because the park offers no running water.

Craters of the Moon National Park features trails for all experience levels, allowing everyone to experience the different craters in the park. Some of the trails are less than a mile long, which is perfect for the beginning hiker. If you want to take a longer hike, some of the moderate trails measure 4 and 8 miles long. Some of the cones visitors can enjoy viewing include North Crater, Inferno Cone, Broken Top, the Snow Cone (a volcano that has snow in its crater) and the Spatter Cones.

More adventurous visitors can purchase a cave permit to explore the caves on the property. A screening for white-nose syndrome, a disease that has negatively impacted the bat population in the caves, is also required. As you explore the caves, it is important to remember that the terrain is fragile and you must legally leave things as you found them. The caves in the park include Boy Scout Cave, Indian Tunnel Cave and Dew Drop Cave. Indian Tunnel Cave is the only one you can explore without a source of light.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Yellowstone National Park Overview

Yellowstone National Park is known as the first national park in the world, not just the United States. In 1872, Theodore Roosevelt decided that the area was too precious to allow man to destroy it. He named the area a protected area and eventually created the beginnings of the National Park system. 

Yellowstone is home to various features that make it an attractive destination for nature lovers from all over the world. The forests that stand throughout the park are majestic. These same forests have been burned several times in wildfires, but always seem to bounce back as beautiful as ever. The park is also home to mountains, geysers, hot springs, waterfalls and a large canyon, known as the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The park gets its name from the yellow rock that can be found throughout the park.

Because of the different features available in the parks, visitors may want to set aside several days to fully explore the park. Each of the areas can easily keep you busy for at least an entire day. Hiking trails and fishing is available in the parks. If you want to stay close to the action, you can rent a campsite or a room in the Yellowstone Lodge.

Visitors to Yellowstone can also experience various types of wildlife. Both black bears and grizzlies make their homes in the park. These animals generally don't bother people, but in recent years, bear attacks have increased. Other animals that call Yellowstone home include elk, moose, buffalo, coyotes and wolves. It is important to remember when you are visiting Yellowstone that the animals live in the park and we are just visitors. Therefore, it is best to leave them alone.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Alcatraz Island

In honor Halloween, I've decided to cover one of the spookier National Park venues, Alcatraz. Once a high-security prison, Alcatraz offered little chance of escape for some of the most dangerous criminals. A few prisons are rumored to have escaped the prison, but no one has ever found proof as to whether they survived the cold waters.

Leaving from San Francisco aboard Alcatraz Cruises, visitors can ride over to the island and explore. Some areas of the prison are open to the public, while others are closed off. The staff working on the island can provide visitors with information about the history of the island and its prison, including escape attempts, the natives, its military history and other historical significances.

If you choose to visit the island, you will have two options: a day tour and a night tour. The day tour is self-guided and allows you to tour the island at your own leisure. It is recommended to set aside at least two to three hours for the tour. You can return to the mainland at any time. If you choose the night tour, however, you will get to ride around the entire island on the boat and learn of the island's history. During night visits, tourists can enjoy special activities, tours and even a cell door demonstration, making it an excellent Halloween choice.

Because tickets to Alcatraz are limited, the National Park Service recommends that you purchase your tickets in advance. During the busier seasons, such as summer and near holidays, you may need to make your purchase more than a week in advance. There is no cost to visit the island itself, however. The tickets are actually for the ferry to the island.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Arches National Park -- Home of the Natural Bridges

Arches National Park in southern Utah just outisde Moab is another of my favorite national parks. In this park, visitors can view natural bridges, formed from erosion and weathering. Because of the nature of these arches, the park is constantly changing. Some arches fall over time, while new ones are constantly forming in the soft rock.

The park is filled with more than 2,000 of these arches. Some are so small that they are hardly noticeable. Others are much larger and among some of the best known arches in the park. Delicate Arch is perhaps the most well-known of them all. In fact, it is found on the Utah license plate.

Other famous arches found in the park include Landscape Arch, Broken Arch and Tapestry arch. The sizes, shapes and thicknesses of each arch varies from the next, making them each unique. Visiting them again several years down the road provide you with yet another experience because they are ever-changing. In addition to the stone arches, many of the paths offer views of other stone structures, including turrets and plateaus.

Arches National Park is filled with hiking trails for visitors. You can easily see some of the arches from the road or from the designated stops along the road. However, others require you to hike to them. Delicate Arch is one of them. Some of the available trails include the Windows Loop, the Delicate Arch trail and Devils Garden.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Grand Canyon Hiking

Another of my favorite parks is Grand Canyon. I have been there a few times and can't wait to go back again. It never ceases to amaze me when I look out over the canyon. It almost seems too fake to be real. To me, it always appears as though the canyon is one big painted backdrop. It just looks so big and unreal to me. It is truly an amazing place.

Hiking the trails around the rim of the Grand Canyon offer visitors incredible views of the Colorado River far below, as well as the sites of the canyon walls. The South Rim is the most popular section of the canyon for visitors. Along this area of the canyon, you can hike along the top edge of the rim or down into the canyon. Unless you have an entire day or two, you won't be able to hike very far down into the canyon.

Unless you are planning to stay overnight in the bottom of the canyon, it is best to hike a short way down any of the trails. How far you can feasibly go depends on your endurance levels. Factor at least twice as long to go back up that it took you to go down. For instance, if you only want to hike for three hours, hike an hour down and leave yourself two hours to get back up. Take plenty of breaks and drink plenty of water. Snacks can be helpful as well. Review the hiking FAQs on the Grand Canyon website before you set out.

If you are brave and want to spend the night inside the canyon, you either need to book space at the camp or lodge in the canyon bottom or obtain a backcountry permit. The backcountry permit allows you to camp in one of several designated areas. Some people prefer to book the donkey ride into the canyon. This is a great option if you aren't one for a lot of hiking.

One of my best memories is hiking down into the canyon a ways. We didn't go very far, but it was exhausting to climb back out. If you aren't used to walking, venturing any distance into the canyon can leave you breathless and worn out. It was still a great experience, though. I would love to go back and hike further someday.