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Archive for November, 2004

near Beaumont, Texas
Visited: November 29, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 120 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

The Big ThicketWHAT IS IT?
Biological crossroads where the southeastern swamplands, eastern deciduous forest. Midwest prairie and pine savannas meet. The Park consists of nine distinct land units, a few of which are connected by two river corridor units. Roads and towns weave through the parklands; it is hard to believe that there are 97,000 acres of parkland among the outer reaches of suburbia.

BEAUTY (7/10)
In some of Big Thicket N PRES, the result of the clashing eco-zones is a dark stew of mysterious swampland. We were enchanted on are walk along the boardwalks of the Kirby Nature Trail in the Turkey Creek Unit of the Park. Rain fell above us, caught on the floral canopy above. The dark black waters of the surrounding swamps dutifully reflected the large oaks and beech trees. Despite the overwhelming visual evidence, Big Thicket does not feel like the swamps of the south. There are few palmettos, less green and more browns. It almost feels like a wet, overrun Pennsylvania forest.

UNESCO named Big Thicket a World Biosphere Zone in 1981 because of its unique floral and fauna diversity and also because its existence remains severely threatened by oil exploration. The Park contains four of North America’s five species of carnivorous plants and is a birding hot spot. We were lucky to see the elusive Bachman sparrow. Gab is confident of our spotting, Michael is doubtful.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
The discovery and drilling of oil is tantamount to Big Thicket and the surrounding area. Oil was first discovered at the famed Spindletop site, located a few miles from the park, on lands that were probably once similar to the site’s environs. Presently, Big Thicket has become the centerpiece to a Sierra Club lawsuit that accuses the Bush Administration of surreptitiously changing the drilling rights in the National Parks.

SwampCROWDS (6/10)
We enjoyed a wonderful solitary walk through the marshes. We might have enjoyed hikes through other Units had the specter of gun-wielding deer hunters not frightened us away. A team of SCA, a conservation Peace Corps, youth lingered in the Visitor Center while waiting for Park Service canoes to do scientific testing. We were jealous. It was refreshing to see the SCA kids doing environmental research instead of their usual NPS perch as fee collectors. Research work rather than customer service should be the emphasis of their internships.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
The Big Thicket N PRES Visitor Center is located about 30 miles north of Beaumont, Texas and Interstate 10. Beaumont is 80 miles from the sprawling metropolis of Houston. Parts of Big Thicket are as close as 4 miles from Beaumont. Other Units are as far away as 60 miles.

This may sound confusing. Big Thicket is not one park. Its 11 spindly units resemble gerrymandered congressional districts; they all hug creeks, rivers and bayous. If you have a canoe, the Park is your oyster. Silent sojourns through the dark marshes sound spectacular to us. Without a canoe, your choices become somewhat limited. The hikers unit, Turkey Creek, provides a wonderful boardwalked path through the Big Thicket. Hiking is possible in only three other units. Be sure to bring mosquito repellent.

Since the park is a National Preserve, hunting is allowed in the other units. We arrived during deer season and did not dare travel outside of the safe Turkey Creek haven. Oil drilling occurs in the Big Sandy Creek area and has become a flashpoint. The companies have breeched their contract by taking too much oil. The hunters are angry and want their peaceful park back.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
Standard fare at the Big Thicket bookstore: books identifying local plants and birds, a children’s section and some regional information on Texas. Nothing exceptional, except for the stuffed toy armadillos.

COSTS (4/5)
Park entry is free. Hunting, backcountry camping and fishing are all free with a permit.

Four nearby outfitters provide canoe rentals.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5)
How come we always seem to arrive at sites on the Rangers’ day off? Big Thicket was no exception. Nonetheless, we received gobs of attention from a cheery, knowledgeable volunteer. We are sure the Ranger in the back room, who had come to do computer work on her day off, would have verified the volunteer’s able answers.

Large Carniverous PlantTOURS/CLASSES (7/10)

The Big Thicket N PRES VC does a terrific job at explaining the complex ecological crossroads that is the Park. Numerous fun, interactive displays highlight each of the biological regions. The exhibits are delightful and educational for kids and adults alike. Michael especially enjoyed sticking his hand in the massive human-sized Pitcher Plant replica. For a second, he felt like he was in a Star Trek episode and was in grave danger.

The Visitor Center also provides tons of mimeographed handouts whose topics include birding hot spots, carnivorous plants, hiking trails and even an auto tour. A number of videos are available for viewing. The only downside to the Park’s educational opportunities is the lack of Ranger talks. We had seen pictures of a canoe-led Ranger talk and got excited. These tours no longer take place.

FUN (7/10)
We are really enjoying our time spent at the National Preserves. Big Thicket is no exception. The ability to hunt on the land is one of the things that sets Preserves apart from Parks. The ability to utilize private contributions in creative ways seems to be another. Trails through Big Thicket are primarily over boardwalks. Almost every boardwalk has been dutifully maintained by a local Boy Scout group or business. A wooden plank below one’s feet commemorates each effort.

We contemplated canoeing, but there were thunderstorms in the forecast. The boardwalks got us plenty close to the dark, swampy waters. No feral pig or javalina sightings for us, which is just as well. They look pretty mean.

Did we mention Gabby’s spotting of the Bachman sparrow? It doesn’t take much to get us novice birders excited.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10)
Communities around Big Thicket N PRES know what a treasure they have in their back yards. Hunters rely on Big Thicket for bountiful game; the Park relies on the hunters to control the nutria and feral pig populations and to canvas the sprawling units and report on the wildlife they encounter. “We couldn’t do it without them,” remarked the volunteer. A hunter reported the first brown bear in the Preserve last year. Hikers and canoers both enjoy hunt-free areas set aside for their use. Two hikers spotted a panther (local speak for a mountain lion) on a hike earlier this year. The Preserve’s doubting wildlife expert went out for a closer look and was not disappointed.

There is a wonderfully symbiotic relationship between the Preserve, hunters, hikers and canoers. There is room for everyone who respects the land and helps to preserve it. Let’s hope they can all unite to combat the latest drilling intrusions. Update: They did!

TOTAL 50/80

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Fort Davis, Texas
Visited: November 17, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 116 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Gab on the Porch WHAT IS IT?
Southwest Texas fort, commissioned from 1854 to 1891, whose purpose was to protect the San-Antonio-El Paso road from Indian raids. African American cavalry units, nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers, served at Fort Davis from 1867 until its closing.

BEAUTY (5/10)
Fort Davis NHS is a relatively well-preserved example of a 19th-century fort. Many of the redbrick, black roofed buildings are still standing, while their interiors have been restored and refurbished by the National Park Service. Other structures stand in various stages of ruin.

Fort Davis enjoys a striking setting lying below 200-foot high rock canyon walls lined with prickly pear cacti. The landscape is rough and rugged; you feel like you are at the edge of the West. Fort Davis is the highest town in Texas. It is all down hill from here.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
Fort Davis saw the first government sanctioned military action by African American citizens. The post-Civil War 1866 “Act to Increase and Fix the Military Peace Establishment of the United States” opened an official place in the military for black Americans. The first black regiments were the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry. Their first post was at Fort Davis, ironically named, pre-Civil War, for Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis.

All other historical aspects of Fort Davis NHS are rather mundane and trumped by other National Park Service forts. The Buffalo Soldiers make the Site a unique and important American place and it is a shame that they do not receive top billing.

CROWDS (6/10)
A few other tourists ambled around the Fort’s grounds during our visit. Because there are no tours, our interaction was limited; at no time were we near each other. As we were about to leave, we overheard two men in the bookstore discussing the titles. They were clearly hardcore Civil War buffs. We could have benefited from their knowledge had there been a Ranger talk.

Fort Davis Ruins EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
Fort Davis NHS is a long way from nowhere. El Paso lies 206 miles to the northwest; Odessa is 158 miles to the northeast. A detour off Interstate 10 will cost you about 60 miles. West Texas is a big place.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (4/5)
Ladies’ bonnets of every size and calico pattern are tempting to try on. Replica badges and medals would easily catch a young boy’s eye, as would wooden toys and games. The selection of books is good, not great. Books on Buffalo Soldiers were standard titles we had seen repeated at other Parks. The memory and history of these black military units were underrepresented in the one National Park that is supposed to give them ample space and recognition.

COSTS (3/5)
Admission is $3 per person, 16 and under gets in free. Entry is also free if you have the National Parks Pass.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5)
The Site’s interpretive staff consists of only three Rangers. There are no Ranger talks except during special events.

TOURS/CLASSES (3/10)
The Site’s introductory video is odd. The script is needlessly wordy and scholarly. It uses far too many big words and is detached from helpfulness in a professorial way.

The film’s narrator…you will never guess. NBA All-Time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dressed in full cowboy costume. When he first appeared, we balked, “that can’t be, can it?” Not that it wasn’t obviously Kareem, but why in blazes would he be narrating the video for a remote west Texas park. Thankfully, a superimposed name appeared on screen confirming our suspicion. It was him. He has been here too!

Kareem seemed just as frustrated with the script as we were. Confused at why the compelling story of the Buffalo Soldiers takes back seat to the humdrum info about the guarding of the El Paso Road.

The Park’s museum still displays the 40-year old Mission ’66-era exhibits. A mimeographed historical update is available on most of the displays. As in, “here’s what they said then, here is what we have learned”. Faced with dated exhibits and no promise of a new museum, it is an admirable solution.

The change undertaken by the Buffalo Soldiers display is especially fascinating. The exhibit has almost tripled in size and now includes a life-sized mannequin. The original display refers to the soldiers as “negroes” with “kinky hair”, showcases more pictures of the white commanding officers than the Buffalo Soldiers themselves and gives the units’ military credit to the aforesaid white officers. Why is the demeaning and offensive original display still in the museum? It adds little to the expanded exhibit. The National Park Service should remove this historical misrepresentation.

A touch-screen computer stands in a corner of the museum. It includes a wealth of information on all things Fort Davis. We have found that these computers are often accompanied by a notable lack of Ranger talks and human interpretive help. This Site was no exception. If we wanted to learn solely through a computer program, we would have stayed home and purchased an Encyclopaedia Britannica CD-Rom. (or just gone on the wiki)

Fort Davis FUN (4/10)
Fort Davis NHS gave us a chance to get out of the car and stretch our legs after hours of driving across forgettable landscapes. Both the film and the museum were disappointing.

We read in the park pamphlet that there are costumed Rangers and volunteers that give living history presentations on the grounds during the season, which we guessed meant summer. The Ranger on duty corrected our assumptions – there are actually several seasons at the Fort, one for tourists, one for school groups, and one for winter Texans, which we are learning is the regional term for retirees who spend their winters in warm, southern climates a.k.a. snowbirds.

Costumed interpretations are not a given in any season – only when staffing allows.
During our visit, there was no ability to interact with history other than walking the perimeter of the fort’s grounds and peeking through the thick glass which separated us from the few furnished officers’ rooms. Not that fun.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10)
Fort Davis is probably our least favorite of the western forts that we have seen. There is nothing there that necessitates the long drive which separates it from nearby cities and amenities. If more emphasis were placed on improving the Buffalo Soldier portion of the Site, this rating could improve. A guest spot of Kareem Abdul-Jabaar on the Site’s video just isn’t enough.

TOTAL 36/80

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eastern California
Visited: October 16, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 114 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Photogenic CoyoteWHAT IS IT?
At 3.4 million acres, Death Valley NP is the largest National Park in the lower 48 states. The Park also contains the hottest and lowest place in the Western Hemisphere, Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level.

BEAUTY (7/10)
Death Valley NP is a scary place. It is barren, sandy, sweltering and horribly windy. There is no green here, instead the desert confronts you with myriad shades of tans, yellows, whites and dulled purples. A constant haze sits over the valley even in the cooler months of October. If you dare get out of your car, the wind whips the sand into your face.

The main roads travel in areas mostly below sea level. The horizon reveals imposing mountains surrounding you in every direction. Among them Telescope Peak (11,049 feet) to the west, Funeral Peak (6,384 feet) to the south, Pyramid Peak (6,703 feet) to the east and Tin Mountain (8,953 feet) to the north. There is no way out of this.

The actual beauty of the badlands desert formations, the sand dunes, the canyons and the mountain peaks was hard to take in. We were preoccupied with our own discomforts and our own fears.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (3/10)
There is the inevitable tragic tale of pioneer travelers who strayed off course and into the Death Valley inferno. There’s also an impossibly cluttered Borax mining museum run by the fine folks from Xanterra that commemorates the minimal amount of mining that happened in this desert wasteland. Death Valley NP’s history amounts to a few ghost towns, abandoned mines and one Moorish-style vacation home built in the 1930’s, Scotty’s Castle.

CROWDS (5/10)
There are few places for people to congregate at Death Valley NP despite its imposing acreage. During our visit, those few places, Scotty’s Castle, the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and the Furnace Creek Ranch Bar, were all teeming with tourists. Scotty’s Castle proved the most difficult. Tours had filled for hours in advance. Manned only by a volunteer, the single file line for tickets swelled to 20 deep. It was 15 minutes before we reached the overwhelmed young man.

A large crowd of motor bikers and golfers (yes, there is a golf course in the Park) joined us at the Furnace Creek Ranch Bar to watch a Red Sox-Yankees playoff game. They were all staying in the Xanterra-run Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch, a 4-star resort. We overheard members of both parties reveal that they were so sick of Death Valley that they had spent the day in Las Vegas, Nevada some 150 miles to the southeast.

Badwater BasinEASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
Do not be fooled. Death Valley NP is deceptively huge and in the middle of nowhere. The valley is surrounded by mountains and all roads descend from 4,500 foot+ passes. The western entrance descends twice into the sea level Panamint Valley then up through the 4,956 foot Towne Pass and then dips into the below sea level Death Valley. It is a steep, roller coaster ride hard on the brakes and especially forbidding. If your car finds trouble, good luck.

The Park’s southern entrance is 60 miles from Baker, California and Interstate 15. However, the first attraction, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, Badwater Basin, is 60 more miles northward. The Park’s Visitor Center is another 20 miles to the north. Yes, the Visitor Center is located smack dab in the center of the Park. Its location makes no sense. The VC is 80 miles from the south entrance, about 80 miles from the west entrance, 60 miles from the north entrance and 40 miles from the east entrance.

Do not enter from the Park’s fifth and final entrance, the southeast. Why? Because a recent flash flood completely destroyed the road. We don’t mean a few potholes. The road looks as if a massive earthquake has swallowed it. The concrete juts up a jagged angles, in one place completely submerging a port-o-potty. (Insert joke here) We had no idea that rain could be so destructive. As a result, there is no access to Zabriskie Point and Artists View, two popular attractions and a setting for the controversial 1971 Michelangelo Antonioni film, Zabriskie Point.

If you do not have a 4×4 vehicle, your Park access is further limited. A good portion of the roads are unpaved. For example, Death Valley NP landmark, the Racetrack, is located 35 miles down one of these roads. We were out of luck. Not just because the Nissan Altima is the opposite of high clearance but the flash flood also destroyed the road to the Racetrack. The Death Valley NP website provides to-the-day information about road closings.

We almost forgot about the weather. The Park newspaper reads, “By May, the valley is too hot for most visitors.” The AVERAGE July high is 115º F. Don’t come here in summer, there is no shade. We overheard a Ranger say that most of the summer tourists are Europeans who do not comprehend the oppressive heat and try to visit regardless. That’s kind of funny.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
We could see the books at Scotty’s Castle; we just couldn’t get to them. The line for tour tickets took up all available space. If one were able to browse, find interest in a book and want to purchase it, you would have to squeeze to the end of the line, the same one to purchase tour tickets and wait and wait and wait.

Space and selection were much better at the VC.

Keeping WatchCOSTS (1/5)
Death Valley NP costs $10 per vehicle, free with the National Parks Pass. The only indoor attraction in this sweltering terrain is Scotty’s Castle, a garish Moorish-style mansion. Living history tours of the house cost an amazing $8 per person and no discount with the Parks Pass. Nobody of any importance lived here, the place was a wealthy retreat built through the skillful work of a two-bit con artist named Scotty. For $8 combined, you could tour the homes of Teddy Roosevelt in Long Island, New York, Harry Truman in Independence, Missouri and Abe Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois. We did not go on the tour.

The Park should also be ashamed that it charges for its appallingly bad campsites, a few of which are actual parking lots. There is no shade, no wind protection and no tangible amenities. If you are not sleeping inside a car, do not plan on camping in Death Valley NP.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5)
We did not encounter a Ranger until after driving almost 150 miles within the National Park. The three Ranger stations were unmanned, and the pamphlet holder devoid of park brochures. We had no idea where we were and what we were supposed to see!

TOURS/CLASSES (3/10)
The Museum at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center is a rambling Mission ’66-era, non-interactive paneled affair. It is a shame that the one million people that drive hundreds of miles and brave the tyrannical heat are greeted with forty-year old exhibits. The print is even fading on many of the panels. We found it hard to concentrate in loud, one-room, open-space museum.

The most interesting exhibit we found was at Badwater Basin showing the lowest and hottest places in the world. Michael silently checked off the places in his head and imagined, “can’t wait to go there” and “it would be wonderful to go there.” Gab thought, “There is no way I’m going to any of those places. Get me out of the desert now.”

The Museum at Scotty’s Castle consists of a few panels explaining the history of the house. The exhibits only reinforced our doubts: “why would we want to tour it?” Perhaps the $8 guided tour of Scotty’s Castle is a gem. We don’t know. Our budget limits our trip to important places. The most interesting part of the Scotty’s Castle Museum was the photography display of the recent flash flood’s aftermath. There is a similar exhibit of the incredible destruction at Furnace Creek.

FUN (2/10)
Highlights of a day in Death Valley:
1. Realization that the direct road to Las Vegas was out of commission.
2. Complete thankfulness that we had a full tank of gas after seeing $3.09 per gallon prices ($1.00 more than national average).
3. No Rangers and no Park brochures anywhere.
4. Gab, “oh my heavens, that campsite is a parking lot”.
5. Michael, “No way am I hiking up another sand dune”.
6. Gab, “$8 for a tour of that ugly house!”.
7. A seemingly tame coyote standing in the middle of the road refusing to cede the way; 8. Purchasing a campsite at 1:00 p.m., seeing the $8 Scotty’s Castle tour fee and then realizing that we’d have nothing to do in this pit of nothingness until bedtime.
9. Ditching the campsite and traveling southward.
10. Escaping the outside by going into the Furnace Creek Ranch Bar
11. Weathering the hot night with 50mph+ winds nearly lifting up our tent (with us in it) every five minutes.

We could not wait to leave.

Sunset at Death Valley

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10)
If you don’t mind traveling miles out of your way to see geographic extremes then, of course, come to Death Valley. Everything that the Park offers – scenery, hikes, mountain climbing, stargazing, bird watching, house tours, sand dunes, camping, off-roading, escaping to a desert resort, golfing – can be done at nearby parks and resorts with more stunning results and much less hassle. Death Valley NP is more trouble than it is worth.

TOTAL 30/80

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