Archive for April, 2005

Arches National Park

near Moab, Utah
Visited: April 19, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 192 of 353
NPS Website

Delicate Arch
75,000+ scenic acres of red. Red dirt, red sandstone, red rocks and one of the world’s largest concentrations of natural arches. They are red, too.

BEAUTY (8/10)
The density of amazing rock formations and sandstone arches is a little overwhelming. The freakish beauty and unknown geology blossoms in all directions. We had only ever seen a few arches prior to our visit. Once you are inside the park, they are commonplace and we became desensitized to the wonders. Do you want to stop at the next overlook? What’s there? Another arch. Let’s keep going. It is a horrible thing to let cynicism creep into any National Park, so we are sorry Arches NP.

Utah features the Delicate Arch on its license plate. We think it is a terrific design.

CROWDS (4/10)
We started out from out from our delightful Moab motel at 8:30 and arrived at Arches NP soon after. Most Parks do not let people into their campgrounds until the 11:00 a.m. checkout. Arches NP is not one of those places.

People line up for spots at the 52-site Devils Garden Campground early. Star Wars tickets early, Duke Basketball game early. On April 18, spots were gone at 8:00 a.m. On the day of our visit, April 19, campsites filled at 7:35 a.m., 25 minutes before the park actually opened! Did they spend the night camping at the Visitor Center hoping to get a real campsite for the next day? We will never know.

The problem with the Arches NP crowds is that the Park is ill prepared to handle their large number. A new Visitor Center is opening this summer which should alleviate the inadequate number of current VC area parking spaces, the crowded theater and the stifling bookstore.

Michael’s ArchEASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
Arches NP entrance is 30 miles south of Interstate 70, Exit 180 along U.S. Route 191 or only 5 miles north of the six-lane-wide mad streets of Moab, Utah. A popular local bumper sticker reads NEW YORK · LONDON · PARIS · TOKYO · MOAB. We agree, Moab is about as close to a “city that never sleeps” as Utah gets.

Moab only started to see life about 15 years ago, when it announced itself the mountain biking capital of the world. Mountain bikers, restaurants, motels, hummer tours, bars and coffee shops have invaded ever since. Moab’s resident population might not be huge, but you will definitely find something here to keep you occupied.

The Park itself is easily traversed. Over 20 miles of paved road leads to innumerable overlooks. The trails can get hot in the noon day sun, but for the most part they travel along slickrock, one of the easier and most fun surfaces to hike on.

Currently the bookstore is housed in a trailer. The store’s tight quarters hamper its large selection. We bumped into a few people while browsing. The store stocks the requisite Edward Abbey books and a dazzling array of Arches NP posters. Once the new Visitor Center opens the shopping experience with surely improve.

COSTS (2/5)
Entry is $10 per vehicle, free with the National Parks Pass. If you are able to procure a campsite, it is $10 per night. Guided Ranger tours of the Fiery Furnace are $8 a person. The only way you can visit this area of the Park is via Ranger tour. Make your reservations well in advance.

Double O Arches
Three Rangers man the ersatz Visitor Center poised to tell you about the best hikes, the best viewpoints and alternative camping options (for the late arrivals). The need for more Rangers was still apparent, given the large crowds and the multi-day wait for Fiery Furnace tours.

We asked a Ranger if they were excited about the new Visitor Center. The response was odd, “we like it here. It’s a smaller space and its easier to keep track of people.” Would more Rangers, more guided tours and a new VC have made our trip better? Definitely.

The introductory film is such a snooze fest that we snuck out three minutes into it. Those three minutes were painful. Luckily, there are a number of non-celluloid options. Two different Ranger walks and an evening program are offered each day.

The Fiery Furnace is the only section of the Park that requires a Ranger escort. The rest of Arches NP can be seen via the Scenic Drive. Want a better view of the arches? Self-guided trails get you up close and personal with the Park’s namesakes. Walks range in difficulty and length from 0.3 miles roundtrip to over 4 miles. They are all listed in the park brochure.

FUN (6/10)
Scenic drives make us lazy. The fact that so much can be seen from the road and the knowledge that we needed to find some place to sleep that night may have hastened our visit.

When we did park the car and embark on some trails, we found them worthwhile. Arches are definitely more impressive when you are standing underneath them. Hundreds of other visitors agreed. Trails were crowded and getting a pristine photo sans people is nearly impossible. We decided to include oblivious hikers in the shots and use them for perspective. Those are some big arches!

The trails themselves are primarily sand and slickrock. Arches NP can get pretty windy, kicking up dusty bits that are painful to contact-wearers like Gab. We decided that we prefer hiking in canyons, like the ones at Natural Bridges NP.

Very Delicate Arch (Not Its Real Name)WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10)
Delicate Arch is much smaller than Gab imagined. At least that is what we think.

The Delicate Arch Viewpoint Trail is poorly named. This trail will take you to a point where you can see the arch IF you stand on your tippy toes and have binoculars. A whole bunch of people were walking up the slickrock, so we did our best lemming impression and followed them. 500-foot altitude change up and we were still no closer. The wind whipped us around and the Delicate Arch still seemed small in the distance.

If you want to see Arches NP’s most famous denizen, take the 3-mile long Delicate Arch Trail. Maybe then its grandiosity will become apparent. As for the other arches, they are all really cool. Check the map to see which ones face east and which ones face west. Take your pictures accordingly. Noon is not a good time to be in the Park.

TOTAL 41/80


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near Springdale, Utah
Visited: September 25, 2004
Second Visit: April 21, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 102 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Kolob ArchWHAT IS IT?
229 square miles of beautiful scenery centered around the profound steep gorges shaped by the Virgin River and its tributaries with a little help from geological uplift.

BEAUTY (10/10)
Zion NP shares the same breathtaking landscape as its Colorado Plateau brethren: red rock arches, hoodoos, deep canyons, multicolored cliffs and striking buttes. What sets the Park apart is the Virgin River. The River fosters life as well as lush greens and blues, colors oft forgotten in these harsh environs.

Not much. In fact, it was one of the last areas in the continental United States to be fully surveyed. Piute Indians lived in the oasis for over 10,000 years but their lives and place names have been literally removed from the Site. When the Park was named a National Monument in 1909, it was known by the Piute name, Mukuntuweap. Ten years later, the area became a National Park and was renamed, Zion.

Mormons began settling in the area in the late 19th century. They named the place Zion, what the Park brochure refers to as a biblical reference to a place of refuge but we believe has a much stronger connotation. The Mormons also designated most of the landforms with religious names: Cathedral Mountain, Mount Moroni, the Great White Throne, the Court of the Patriarchs and Angel’s Landing. However, the Virgin River’s naming actually predates the Mormon settlers.

The place names are of little historic interest but they did affect our visit. An air of piety, especially that of the Mormon faith, hangs over the natural cliffs and wonders of the Park. We did not see sparkling white cathedrals, Old Testament judges or Latter Day Saints and the subtle imposition of a theology was not what we were looking for at a National Park.

The Zion ValleyCROWDS (8/10)
Near the end of the Virgin River Narrows Hike, a recent Brown alum spotted Gab’s hat and shook her hand. This is the first time on the trip anyone has recognized and accurately placed the “B” on Gab’s head. Most mistake her for a Boston Red Sox fan. She was overjoyed by her scholastic compatriot. Evident by her jumping up and down while standing knee deep in 50-degree water and by her rapid-fire recital of Brown University fight songs, cheers and mottos. Who knew she had such school spirit?

Zion NP is one of the easier wilderness National Parks to get to. It is 30 miles east of Interstate 15 in southwestern Utah and 150 miles east of Las Vegas, Nev.

The Park’s main attraction is the Canyon of the Virgin River with both its mesmerizing narrow walls and acrophobia-inducing rim ledges. The Park allows the visitor inside its canyon’s walls. The views are not from above, like at the Grand Canyon, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison or Bighorn Canyon. You do not have to hike thousands of feet downhill to see greater wonders; you just have to jump on a free shuttle bus.

Easy access brings more people and the shuttle buses do a terrific job of dealing with the crowds. From April through October, cars are not allowed on the Zion Canyon Road. Insufficient parking and the slender two-lane road combined with millions of visitors created the shuttles’ necessity.

There are two shuttle loops, one leaves the Visitor Center every ten minutes and travels northward to the Temple of Sinawava. If you want to follow the River any further, you need to walk through the water. Along the way, the shuttle stops at a number of overlooks/trailheads. It is a great way to travel.

The second shuttle loop runs from the Visitor Center southward into the town of Springdale and stops wherever you might be lodging or dining. In the summer, both shuttles run from 5:45 a.m. to 11:15 p.m.; in the spring and fall from 6:45 a.m. to 10:15 p.m. More than enough time for spectacular sunrises, early morning hikes and late nights out in Utah.

The Bookstore at Zion spans the entire width of the Visitor Center. In addition to the rows and rows of books arranged by subject, there is an entire wall of framed prints of Zion’s most famous landmarks photographed at sunrise, sunset and various points in the day. Zion offers a small selection of the retro-WPA National Parks posters that we adore as well as the usual selection of shirts, totes, and souvenirs. Volume and selection earn Zion a high mark.

The Only Way UpCOSTS (2/5)
Entrance is $20 per car or $10 per person if you walk in. There is a $20 maximum per family. The Park is free with the National Parks Pass.

Camping is not cheap. Most of the 160-site Watchman Campground costs $16 per night; a riverside site goes for $20. Reservations are taken from April to November. The 126-site South Campground costs $16 per night and operates on a first-come first-served basis.

We preferred the look of the Watchman Campground, because it had tent-only sections and because of its proximity to the Visitor Center and the Shuttle Bus Stations, and decided to stay there. We did not have a reservation and were lucky to get a site even though it was a late September Sunday. The Campground was full during our entire stay. If you are going in summer, good luck.

The excellent Zion Canyon shuttle bus is always free.

Xanterra operates the historic Zion Lodge inside the Park. It had no vacancy, as did nearly all of nearby Springdale’s motels.

God bless any Ranger working at the Kolob Canyon Visitor Center. That VC is in the Park’s northwestern most corner, a few hundred yards from Interstate 15, Exit 40. Hundreds, if not thousands of visitors, every day, must see the brown NPS sign reading “Zion National Park, This Exit”. Technically true, but over an hour from the more famous Zion Canyon parts of the Park.

We wanted a Kolob Canyon backcountry permit so we could hike to the Kolob Arch, the largest free-standing arch in the world. We had to get it at that Visitor Center. During our request, tourist after tourist bogged down our poor Ranger with the same questions: “Where is the real part of the Park?”, “How do I get there?”, “Can I do it all in a few hours” and “Can I pay here?” Of course, they had to pay there and without a fee station the Ranger had his hands full. Between answering questions and printing receipts, he spent at least a half hour typing in our backcountry request form.

The situation at Zion Canyon Visitor Center is not much better. An outdoor museum filters most people away from the Rangers, but there still are not nearly enough people to answer questions. We waited in line to inquire about the Virgin River Narrows Hike. When the Ranger directed us to the Backcountry Station, we found no one on duty. We ended up getting our hiking information not from a Ranger or from an NPS publication but from a helpful Hiking Zion brochure we picked up at a local outfitter.

The campgrounds are full and the area motels are full. Why is there not enough funding for a full Ranger staff? Late-September enjoys only six Ranger-led programs and the 9am “Ride With a Ranger Shuttle Tour” is so popular that tickets are very hard to come by. Our shuttle bus driver did his best to explain the area topography and history but his explanations were dubious, a pale comparison to what a Ranger could tell. It is sad that the Shuttle Bus Drivers’ words and experiences with Zion constitute the average learning visit to the Park and that little can be done to counter the lack of Ranger encounters.

Golden EagleTOURS/CLASSES (6/10)
Unlike most parks we have visited, the Visitor Center is not the hub of learning at Zion. Ranger talks and walks leave from a variety of points like the Campgrounds and Zion Lodge. There is no Welcome to Zion film – unless you want to shell out $10 for the privately owned IMAX just outside of the park’s entrance. The Visitor Center serves as pick-up and drop off point for the park shuttle, registration for backcountry camping (allegedly. There were no Rangers available when we went), space for the impressive bookstore and neighbor to large bathrooms with the only accessible electrical outlets in the park.

If you are searching information about Zion’s history, free standing displays outside of the Visitor Center will give you a good introduction. We hadn’t actually seen this set up before – with so much information available 24/7, not dependent upon the hours of the VC. We kinda like it. Of course, there are some drawbacks: you have to stand to read the vertical panels. Even though the panels are printed on both sides, crowds will impede your ability to view them, If you do have any questions, the closest Rangers are presumably inside the VC, if it’s open.

The new Zion Museum, opened in 2002, houses artifacts and displays specific to human history in the Zion area. This is where you’ll find the NPS slide program about Zion – the kind that makes you envious of the filmmaker’s high-quality camera and ability to take those shots that you see in your mind, but can’t quite seem to capture on your trusty digital cam. Oh, maybe that’s just us.

The Museum is a short drive from the VC. It can also be reached via a leisurely stroll on the paved Pa’rus Trail. Michael was drawn to the contrasting quotes of Brigham Young, Mormon leader who was eager to draw from the land’s resources, and Paiute Indian Chiefs, who were seeing their lands and ways of life destroyed through the rapid removal of timber and native plants. Gab spent her time in front of a temporary exhibit in the other room which consisted simply of pictures and oral histories collected from present day members of the Paiute and other Indian tribes. The museum is small, but nicely done. Try not to miss it.

FUN (10/10)
We jumped into Zion’s backcountry headfirst. We drove to Zion from the north and feared that if we didn’t see the Kolob region first, we would never get to it. Even though we hadn’t been planning to camp that night, a permit was available and the afternoon sun was beginning to fade. There was no excuse not to make the 7.5 mile hike into the Kolob Canyon. When the Ranger told us that the best time of day to see the Kolob Arch – possibly the largest natural freestanding arch in the world – was at sunrise, our decision was made.

That night, we enjoyed one of the nicest campsites of the trip. Nestled in a shaded area just steps away from a fresh spring, canyon wall high and blazing red on either side. We saw no one. We left camp early morning in search of the Arch and were soon glad that we left our packs behind. The hike is a scramble through streams and over rocks – it was refreshing and fun. This is the Zion we tried to remember as we entered the much more populated southern section.

Just as crowds and the smoke from the scheduled forest burn (which began the day we arrived) was getting us down, we discovered the shuttle and the Narrows. For days we debated which hikes to take here. We were discouraged from the Narrows – the water temp was a chilly 50 degrees and photos at the VC showed people with full packs (and wet suits!) slogging through muddy water. No thanks. We’ll have a stroll on the Riverwalk up to the entrance of the Narrows and see what pictures we can gather from there.

It didn’t work out that way. The end of the Riverwalk and entrance of the Narrows was filled with people having the same discussion as us – should we? The morning sun was streaming in, making the water look more inviting than it should have. Some brave souls grabbed walking sticks and splashed in. That’s all it took. Gab was ankle-deep before Michael could even protest. The next five hours were spent in this wonderful, wet playground.

If you come to Zion NP, take the Narrows hike. Did we mention that there is no path along the riverbanks? The trail is the Virgin River itself. The rocks can be slippery and the current swift but it is so worth it. Outfitters in Springdale rent boots and socks made to handle the hike up the Canyon. We tackled the hike in our trusty waterproof Keen sandals. Our shoe selection is not recommended, Michael was paranoid about twisted ankles the whole time, but doable.

Zion’s ViewWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10)
When people talk about America’s National Parks, Zion is often mentioned by name. It is part of the Southwest’s “Grand Circle” of parks, historical sites and recreational areas – easy to get to with a lot to offer its visitors.

Avid hikers and armchair enthusiasts can all get a glimpse of Zion – the shuttle service and gateway town of Springdale makes the park accessible to those with physical restrictions and to those who would rather not do without creature comforts. Gab’s a great fireside cook, but we snuck away for more than one snack in town. Restaurants are plentiful and not as expensive as they could be considering their location.

Those who want to escape the crowds can try for backcountry permits or just spend the day tackling some of the more strenuous hikes – there are more than a few to choose. Angels Landing and Observation Point are two of the most popular, and most steep trails, each boasting significant switchbacks and promising spectacular views. But don’t worry, if you prefer your walk to be more horizontal, trails alongside Emerald Pools and Weeping Rocks will keep you entertained.

TOTAL 60/80

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near Monticello, Utah
Visited: April 14, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 191 of 353
NPS Website


Desolate, inhospitable land of tremendous beauty created by the Colorado plateau uplift and the incredible erosive powers of the Colorado and Green Rivers.

The confluence of these two potent rivers splits the Park into three distinct areas: the Maze, the Needles and the Island in the Sky. There is no way to cross the Colorado and the Green. The Needles and Island in the Sky Visitor Centers are over 100 miles apart.

The Maze is largely inaccessible and hundreds of miles via automobile from the other two VCs. The Maze is advertised as “a refuge from civilization.” You NEED a 4×4 and seasoned driving skills to get there. The Maze is not a part of this review.

BEAUTY (10/10)
The vast sections of Canyonlands NP hold so many different mind-blowing formations.

The slick rock boulders look just like they sound and are so much fun to hike upon. Don’t tread on the clumps of living crusty dirt teeming with cyanobacteria, green algae and lichens. Ephemeral pools, carved indentations in the slick rock, collect rain water and spawn rare tadpole and clam shrimp.

The uplifted and subsequently eroded multi-hued sandstone pillars of the Needles district are a remarkable sight. Some spiral straight up and some challenge the imagination with their whimsical bends. Some sprout puffy white rock caps, looking like giant mushrooms and some create optical illusions with their odd colorations. The light made one rock pillar look like a free standing arch. We were none the wiser until we pulled out the binoculars. The Needles District has real natural arches and bridges too.

The uplift has also created Joint Rock, narrow rock passageways formed by water with steep narrow sides that combine at the top to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. We were less impressed by the Grabens geological formation, which shared a likeness with an abandoned rock quarry.

The stark high-desert environment can be appreciated from within at Needles or from above at the Island in the Sky. From the Island overlooks, the Needles and the confluence below looks like a mini Grand Canyon. The geography looks vast, sinewy and foreboding.

Joint Trail NarrowsHISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (2/10)
Few people ever attempted to live here, one of America’s most uninhabitable places. Major John Wesley Powell passed through here during his three month float down the Green River into the Grand Canyon.

CROWDS (5/10)
We enjoyed the large number of adventurous travelers we found at Canyonlands NP, especially in the Needles District.

Needles almost requires a multi-day visit to appreciate the many long hikes and diverse scenery. The problem is that its 26-site campground is woefully inadequate. Too many people come here to have such a small campground. We were lucky enough to secure the last site at 11:00 a.m. All sites are first come first served so get here as early as you can. Make backcountry campsite reservations ahead of time; these sites were filled too.

Island in the Sky is visited via 18 miles of scenic drives and, unlike Needles, offers few hikes. Again, we got the last campsite but eventually gave it to a circling RV. Why? 45mph winds, a dust storm and the promise of a 25° night. We preferred spending the night in the cozy confines of a Moab, Utah motel.


Maze District – Don’t even try it unless you 100% absolutely know what you are doing. And even then, ask a reliably blunt friend, “Do I 100% absolutely know what I’m doing?”

Needles District – Get there early in order to secure a campsite. The Park Entrance is 31 miles from U.S. Route 191, 49 miles from affordable gasoline in Monticello. Price gougers at the Needles Outpost near the Park Entrance had gas for sale at an outlandish $3.75 per gallon. The closest Interstate is I-70, over 120 miles to the north. Moab is 76 miles away.

The scenic drive is nice but if you want to see the district’s namesake, the Needles, you need to get out of your car and hike, unless you have a 4×4. The 4×4 trails are world famous and take skill; towing costs can reach five figures.

Island in the Sky District – The entrance is 45 miles from I-70 and 32 miles from Moab. This area is all about the scenic drive overlook. You are on a plateau and can see the river’s confluence, the Maze and the Needles below. That is if there is not a dust storm. We have seen the pictures, just not the actual scenery.

The Canyonlands bookstores have everything they should have but not much more.

Living DirtCOSTS (2/5)
Entry is $10 per car, free with the National Parks Pass.

The 26-site campground in the Needles District, Squaw Flat, costs $10 per site. The 12-site campground in the Island in the Sky District, Willow Flat, costs $5 per site.

There is a nominal charge for the Park’s wide array of backcountry permits. (i.e. hiking, 4x4ing, white water rafting and mountain biking) We suggest making your reservations in advance; nearly all of the 4×4 and hiking permits were issued during our stay.

Student Conservation Association volunteers have free reign over Canyonlands NP. At Needles, SCA managed the front desk at the Visitor Center, gave the evening campfire talks and patrolled the trails. Every interaction we had in the Needles district was with an SCA student. None were particularly helpful.

We spent most of our time in the Needles district. This review is based on programs offered there.

Visitors have a choice of two short films at the Needles VC. If you are familiar with Leave No Trace principles, skip the How-to-Camp-in-the-Desert lesson and choose Wilderness of Rock, the Site’s 12-minute introductory video. Like most programs made about the Grand Circle parks, Wilderness of Rock is big on sunsets and stop action photography, short on substance. The film, however, gave us our one and only view of the Green merging with the Colorado River.

Evening campfire programs begin at 7 p.m. in the Squaw Flats Campground. One evening’s title promised cowboys, outlaws and their place in the Canyonlands. That excited Gab so we decided to go. After a few minutes banter from a young SCA from Iowa who had already unceremoniously brushed aside our hiking questions at the VC earlier in the day, we left.

Private concessionaires based in Moab offer 4×4, biking and rafting trips. Canyonlands’ website has a list of authorized companies.

Dusty Down BelowFUN (8/10)
The trails and scenery in the Needles District of Canyonlands NP make it an ideal desert hiking park. The hikes around Chesler Park and the Needles all loop and meet. Well-marked wood signs tell you which way to go. The trails are perfect for both day hiking and leisurely overnight treks. Our map shows at least 16 backcountry campsites in the Chesler Park region alone.

But alas, these sites fill up just as quickly as the car camping sites at Squaw Flat. Unlike the first-come, first-served Squaw Flat, you can make backcountry reservation. Competition for backcountry spots is fierce. Good luck. The lack of overnight space keeps the park (the backcountry especially) in good shape but wholeheartedly frustrates legions who want to spend time here.

The red rock scenery and desert hiking at Canyonlands NP is spectacular. We met a woman in Moab who, after hearing about our trip into the Needles, said that that area is the most beautiful and perfect in all of the southwest. We cannot argue with her assessment. Nevertheless, it is hard to recommend unreservedly a place so remote and so devoid of Rangers and adequate camping space.

TOTAL 44/80

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near Blanding, Utah
Visited: April 13, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 190 of 353
NPS Website

Sipapu BridgeWHAT IS IT?
Three towering natural bridges, topographic anomalies caused by the erosive powers of swift moving rivers. Teddy Roosevelt named Natural Bridges Utah’s first National Park Site in 1908, a notable honor of distinction in a state so replete with geographic wonders.

BEAUTY (9/10)
Standing directly under Sipapu Bridge allows one to truly comprehend what it means to be the second largest natural bridge in the world. It is enormous. Sipapu stretches across the White Canyon separating the deep blue sky from the groves of Gambel’s oaks and canyon-cutting river below it. Its oranges and browns change hues according to the time of day.

The remaining bridges, Kachina and Owachomo, are equally impressive, particularly if you are in the Canyon looking up. Walls of hanging gardens, willows and cottonwoods, and a few ruins tucked underneath canyon overhangs almost make one forget the purpose of the hike. Until the next natural bridge appears towering above. They are always surprising, always awe-inspiring.

There are a few ruins and petroglyphs at the Site. The three bridges bear Hopi names but those names were actually bestowed by the U.S. government and bear no known connection to Ancestral Puebloan tribes who may have inhabited the area.

CROWDS (5/10)
Natural Bridges NM did not have a lot of visitors, just too many for its inadequately-sized campground. The few people that we met along the trail were lovely.

Natural Bridges NM is 40 miles west of the teeming metropolis of Blanding Utah via Utah Route 95. All restaurants and grocery stores in Blanding close at 9:00 p.m., as in lights off, nobody else in. We hate that place. The nearest Interstate to Natural Bridges, I-70, is 150 miles away; the nearest city of over 100,000 people is Provo, 240 miles to the northwest.

The Site’s desolation would not be so bad if there were more than 13 campsites. We arrived at 2:30 p.m. and all the campsites were taken. You can probably see how this story is going to turn out. We ambled into Blanding at 8:55 p.m., just missing a few herds of mule deer along Rte. 95 and the town’s narrow food option window.

Other than that, the Park’s accessibility is tremendous. The 9-mile long, one-way Bridge View Drive stops at 10 natural bridge overlooks. All three bridges are visible from the overlooks and located within a nice compact space. For the more adventurous, a cairn-marked 8.6 mile long loop trail descends into White Canyon, follows the precarious creek bed and passes under all three awesome bridges. It is a wonderful hike and the only trail in the Park.

The moral to this story is get to Natural Bridges NM early in the morning. That ensures that all of your travel options remain open.

Canyon Floor
We got about a 30-second glance of the bookstore in our rush to get out onto the loop trail and finish before dark. Our cursory take was a nice array of posters, puzzles and assorted things adorned with pictures of the Natural Bridges, nothing to knock off our smelly socks. The books looked to be an identical selection to those stocked at other southwestern Utah parks. Because of our haste, our score gives the bookstore the benefit of the doubt.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $6 per vehicle, free with the National Parks Pass.

We are still slightly mad at the one Ranger on duty. She told us that a) there were campsites left and b) that the overflow camping was easily accessible. We understand a) but the unpaved dirt road to the overflow camping was downright perilous to the Nissan Altima. The road bottomed out so much in places that we are thankful we still have an undercarriage. The overflow area, located in Bureau of Land Management land, is frighteningly isolated. We found it populated by one ancient and disheveled RV. That apparent danger coupled with threatening skies (no way out, no way out) motivated us to turn around and try our luck on the dark mountain road and in Blanding.

There are no Ranger talks at Natural Bridges NM.

Did not have a lot of time looking at the Museum panels either. We did notice that they were new and probably very informative, especially the one with the larger than life Teddy Roosevelt photograph. Again, benefit of the doubt.

FUN (8/10)
Even with our silly travel woes, we loved this place. The hike down into the canyon and under the bridges was so enjoyable and so much fun that it transformed us from arguing worriers into giddy and astounded hikers. The hike also transported us into that indescribable wonderland of southern Utah parklands. Is this the most beautiful part of the United States? If not, it certainly is the weirdest, the most mind boggling and the most amazing.

Hiking in between narrow steeped-walled canyons and crossing shallow riverbeds is a lot of fun. Each bend in the river brings a more astonishing view, a fantastically colored rock face and an easily conquered hiking challenge. Nothing though is more startling than turning a corner and seeing a 200-foot high natural bridge overhead, a bridge that you are about to walk under, a formation that feels both familiar (because of its man-made imitators) and wholly unnatural.

Sipapu From BelowWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10)
Michael cites Natural Bridges NM as one of the many inspirations for our two-year trip. How does he feel now that we finally arrived? Are the bridges everything he thought they would be? Was the hike through the canyon worth it? Gab would have asked him on the hike, had he not been speechless – gazing up wide eyed and open-mouthed as we scrambled over the rocks and under each of the impressive spans.

The 8.6 mile loop trail ranks as one of our favorites on the trip. Shorter hikes and accessible overlooks mean there are ways for everyone to appreciate these natural wonders. Enjoying the Site shouldn’t take more than a day if you arrive a little sooner than we did. We were sorely disappointed at not getting a campsite, only because the nearest town of Blanding was so bland.

We recommend getting an early start and making Natural Bridges NM a mandatory stop on your excursion to any Park within the Grand Circle.

TOTAL 50/80

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near Blanding, Utah
Visited: April 13, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 189 of 353
NPS Website

Square TowerWHAT IS IT?
A series of 1,000-year old Ancestral Pueblo ruins noted by an assortment of multi-shaped stone towers.

BEAUTY (6/10)
The Square Tower ruins (the only easily accessible ruins) line the rims of the shallow Little Ruin Canyon. The stone ruins towers have square, circular and even ovule bases. Their designs inspired archeologists and pioneers to name them Hovenweep Castle, Round Tower, Square Tower, Twin Towers and Stronghold House. The towers are impressive but hardly awe inspiring.

Hovenweep NM marked a return to the unsolvable mystery theme that pervades Ancestral Puebloan park sites. What were this odd towers used for, defense, storage, astronomical observatories or signal stations? Why were they built with such intriguing shapes and locations? Your guess is as good as ours. The towers look cool but get your historical info at the nearby Mesa Verde NP.

CROWDS (7/10)
Large Utah families allow a Site to go from staid and boring to crowded and lively almost instantaneously. Four visitors (an elderly, confused and loud French couple and us) blossomed when a family of nine arrived. Four more visitors showed up and it was a party. A Ranger emerged and decided to give a musical talk and performance. Fun all around.

Hovenweep NM’s ruins are located about 30 miles due north of the Four Corners marker, the cartographic anomaly where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona all meet. The ruins are located primarily in Colorado but some are in Utah. You would expect this barren area to have straight north south, east west roads. It doesn’t. The roads wind at diagonals and traversing them always takes longer than you had imagined.

Hovenweep NM is doubly frustrating if you are using a Rand McNally state-by-state road atlas. Its border location requires innumerable page flipping and taxing memory tests. Which road turns into which when you cross the borders? Routes 160, 666 (aaaah!), 41, or 262? If you come here be sure to pick up the tremendous AAA Indian Country map. If you are not a AAA member, do not worry, just join … or buy the map at an area National Park Site. They all carry it.

More TowersOnly one of Hovenweep’s six ruin groups, the Square Tower Ruin, are accessible via paved roads. The other entrance roads vary in off-roading difficulty from moderate to only come here if you have a safari tested Range Rover. As we left, a parade of 4×4’s passed us on their way to some of the Site’s more challenging backcountry roads.

The standard Park Brochure’s map is poor and does not identify the locations of the ruins. Use your AAA map if you plan further exploration. A paved pathway to the Square Tower Ruin and Little Ruin Canyon provides the Site’s only easy access and designates the standard Hovenweep trip to all but the most hardcore, i.e. 4×4 clubs.

There was not a lot here but we were tempted by a few books detailing the role of Hollywood film on our notion of the American west. They were Cinema Southwest: An Illustrated Guide to the Movies and Their Locations; Where God Put the West: Movie Making in the Desert: A Moab – Monument Valley Movie History and Moviemaking: Canyon Country Chronicles.

We first saw these titles at Hovenweep NM but later found them at all bookstores also run by the Canyonlands Natural History Association: Arches NP, Canyonlands NP and Natural Bridges NM and a few other parks to boot. Their online bookstore is impressive; did they really have all those books for sale?

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $6 per car or free with the National Parks Pass. If you are the family of nine that somehow managed to pile into the same minivan, $6 is not such a bad deal.

Actual conversation with NPS volunteer:

Do you have any Ranger talks? No, only in the summer. And even then they are a rarity. But we do have a video. I’ll start it if you’d like. OK, that would be great.

Five minutes later: Everybody, we are going to be having a Ranger talk out front in five minutes if anyone is interested. Huh?

The Ranger talk turned out to be well attended and a lot of fun. We learned about the evolution of Ancestral Puebloan flutes and their sacred music. The Ranger played all the flutes and even brought together an impromptu band of pre-teens to serenade us. He emphasized how he loves giving Ranger talks and does it as much as he can.

This rating comes on the strength of our musical Ranger and the good Little Ruin Canyon self-guided tour pamphlet. Outdoor panels help explain the area’s unique architecture. The panels are new, well done and shaded from the sun.

The introductory video is also new and shown on a snazzy flat screen JVC 16:9 plasma TV. It is too bad that the viewing room is adjacent to bookstore with no door or barrier to block sound. We could not concentrate on the film; instead we intently listened to the French couple laughingly discuss the nearby town of Bullfrog with a Park volunteer in heavily broken English. No one can make stuff like that up.

Still More TowersFUN (6/10)
A visit to Hovenweep NM is hit or miss. We happened to hit the Site the same time a lively bunch of visitors did. Between the chatter of the kids and the banter of the Frenchies, the atmosphere was animated. We had fun.

We nearly missed the highlight of the day, the Ranger Talk, since the volunteer told us they didn’t exist. We missed out on seeing the other ruins since the Altima is reluctant to off-roading. We also missed having the solid explanations and architectural evidence we found at other Puebloan ruin sites.

To the untrained eye, Hovenweep’s towers do not seem unique. We are sure we saw similar stuff at Mesa Verde NP and Chaco Culture NHP. Go to those places before you take the circuitous trip to Hovenweep.

TOTAL 43/80

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near Cortez, Colo.
Visited: April 11, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 187 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Crowd at Cliff Palace
Numerous Ancestral Puebloan ruins situated in, on and around towering mesas situated in a piñon and juniper forest. The Site and its ruins trace Native American life on the mesas from its humble beginnings in A.D. 550 to the culture’s height from 1100 to 1300, when it was believed to be the center of the Ancestral Puebloan world.

BEAUTY (10/10)
Mesa Verde is the grandest and most breathtaking of any North American cliff dwellings. The drive here follows U.S. Route 160. Then you see a towering snow capped mesa; the site is somewhere up there. The drive up feels like an ascent into the heavens. These cliff dwellings are on top of a separate, flat world.

The road zigs and zags up removing you from the 20th century. Your intensive time travel is about to begin. Before you reach the ruins, you pass grand vistas overlooking the valley far below. The road then descends winding around into sheltered nooks far away from the exterior world and comfortably secluded.

Here the cliff dwellings abound. Ruins are everywhere, tucked into cliff inversions, intact and one with their surroundings. The area feels bustling and impressive. Those traveling here centuries ago must have been amazed. Time has not dampened the awe.

Physical evidence of when people switched from hunter-gatherers to an agricultural lifestyle. Could anything be more historically significant? How about early corn domestication, a millennia of architectural change and perhaps the center of the Ancestral Puebloan world for, oh, 800 years. Whatever you want to learn and understand about southwestern Native American life is here, as is a succinct retelling of the history of man.

Michael at Cliff PalaceCROWDS (4/10)
Mesa Verde NP is the United States’ most famous pre-Columbian ruin and the crowds are commensurate to this title. The Park’s high altitude (most of the ruins are above 7,000 feet) and northern trajectory (it is in Colorado) create a short window of comfortable visitation (May-October). The result is crazy summers and slow winters.

A Ranger likened the summer scene to a “milling mass of humanity”. As a result, the three most famous cliff dwellings must be seen via Ranger led tour. Charging a fee and limiting entrance is the only way to control the crowds and prevent the ruins from further ruin. Ranger tour ticket lines stretch around buildings and the scenic drive loops can become a line of I think I can RV’s inching up the steep grades.

In summer, all tours sell out early, sometimes before noon. Plan accordingly. Our mid-April visit was cold but more low-key. We enjoyed the healthy number of people around us and shared in a collective astonishment.

Mesa Verde NP is located in the southwestern most corner of Colorado. The Park entrance station is 36 miles west of Durango and 10 miles east of Cortez.

The Far View VC is a steep and twisty 15 miles from the entrance. From Far View, the road splits and runs along two mesas, Wetherill and Chapin. The Wetherill Mesa Road is a steep 12 miles one way and is closed for most of the year.

The Chapin Mesa Road leads to most of the Park’s famous sites. The Chapin Mesa Museum is 6 miles south of Far View. The road splits into two separate short driving loops at the Museum. The ruins along the Mesa Top Loop pullouts reveal a remarkable timeline of Ancestral Puebloan adaptation and survival. Each stop shows intellectual and architectural advancement. The Cliff Palace Loop provides access to the Park’s celebrated cliff dwellings.

Mesa Verde NP is hundreds of miles from an Interstate and on top of a steep mesa. The Park’s physical inaccessibility is countered by an outstanding road system that brings you intimately close to its ruins. We learned that a shuttle bus system a la Grand Canyon NP and Zion NP is in the works at Mesa Verde. What a great idea; let us hope it happens.

Mesa Verde NP has two bookstores, at Far View VC and at the Chapin Mesa Museum. The Museum store carries a larger number of book titles. The selection is large but not definitive. We expected more.

Prehistoric All-Weather Footwear
COSTS (2/5)
Park entry is $10 per car or free with the National Parks Pass. This fee will cover all parts of Mesa Verde NP EXCEPT Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House. You must visit these cliff dwellings via a Ranger-led tour. Tickets for each of the tours cost $2.75 per person.

The Far View Lodge, run by an independent contractor, is open from Late April to mid-October. Rooms run between $110 and $127. The 435-site campground is exorbitantly priced at $20 per night. No wonder it “rarely fills”. In addition, the campground is located near the bottom of the mesa, miles from the cliff dwelling. As a forthright Ranger explained, “You are better off camping at the nearby State Park; that’s what I do.”

There were not many Rangers on duty but the ones there were omnipresent and ready to help. They were stationed at the most opportune places, their rotations as diligent as Buckingham Palace guards.

Mesa Verde NP offers the Park Service’s best educational experience in its 30+ Ancestral Puebloan sites. The Site is the top place in the United States to learn about the largest and most advanced pre-Columbian society.

Mesa Verde NP is distinguished by its wide array of learning opportunities: 2 museums, 3 guided Ranger tours, Rangers stationed at overlooks and numerous self-guided trail brochures. We especially enjoyed the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum and the Mesa Top Loop Drive’s self-guided trail companion. Both are must see tours in a must see Park.

The Archeological Museum contains a wealth of information and artifacts, all arranged in an easily digestible format. It is an in-depth explanation of an 800-year old culture describing what they ate, farmed, built, wore, lived together, prospered and learned. The Museum addresses the mysteries of the past but, unlike so many other sites, emphasizes archeological evidence and established fact. The Museum brings these ancient people to life and grounds what could be an overwhelming visit.

The abstract museum learning of Ancestral Puebloan progress becomes clear on the Mesa Top Loop Drive. Each pull off stop has archeological ruins that showcase architectural, agricultural and adaptive development. Here the museum learning becomes real and the unwieldy task of 1,000 years of history becomes somehow manageable.

Square TowerFor us, the best part of Mesa Verde NP was its Rangers. To a person, their knowledge was immense and they seemed eager to teach. We spent over two hours talking to various Rangers about all things Ancestral Puebloan. Their answers were humble, profound and helpful. If you come here be sure to engage the Rangers, they are a true treasure.

FUN (10/10)
Visiting Mesa Verde NP in early spring felt like attending a private showing of a blockbuster film. We avoided the summer heat and crowds and enjoyed great scenery, a fantastic educational experience and engaging, unhurried Rangers.

If you visit only one archeological ruin in the United States, make it Mesa Verde NP. This is the best place to learn about pre-1492 North American human life.

TOTAL 66/80

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Aztec, N.Mex.
Visited: April 8, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 186 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Wavy RuinWHAT IS IT?
11th-century ancestral Puebloan ruin influenced by the dominant architectures of the earlier Chacoan style and the later Mesa Verdean style. The Site is home to a massive reconstructed Great Kiva.

BEAUTY (7/10)
Aztec Ruins is located in the town of Aztec, N.Mex. down a side street and across from a school. Given its pedestrian location, this ancient masterpiece might as well be a warehouse or an office complex. The Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (named as a part of the greater Chaco Culture), still stands in a rural population center much as it did 1,000 years ago.

The reconstructed Great Kiva is currently undergoing some repair. During our visit, a team of construction workers were milling about on its roof, laying tar and running heavy machinery. Yellow caution tape and orange cones directed the tourist around the workers. The presence of modern-day construction workers laboring around a 1,000-year-old place of worship was oddly thought provoking. As in, we had no idea what to think.

The West Ruin (the only fully excavated and accessible ruin) was strikingly beautiful with its grey and green intricate sandstone masonry. The complex’s short doors led to numerous nooks and passageways. Walking around the building felt like being a mouse scurrying through the maze. The Ruin Plaza was covered in green grass and purple wildflowers. It felt like a city park and differed greatly from the dusty world of Chaco Culture NHP to the south.

The Great Kiva is the star of the Monument. It was excavated in 1921 and rebuilt in 1934. Four columns three feet square rise 18 feet to support a massive, flat, circular roof of approximately 90 tons in weight. Said roof was the topic of repairs. The room itself is 41’3.5” wide at floor level and 48’ 3.5” wide at a height of 3 feet above the floor.

Work on the Grand KivaNPS policy no longer allows for reconstructions of historic structures. But as we crawled down the ladder and into this massive room lit only by natural light, we were grateful for the experience that this reproduction provided.

The symmetry and simplicity of this room accents its size. The room is cool and clean; its thick walls and roof nearly blocked out the sounds of the workers above us. It is not difficult to imagine people retreating to this space to worship, work or simply separate themselves from the hustle and bustle above ground.

19th-century travelers to the region misnamed Aztec Ruins NM, like so many other Southwest U.S. pre-Columbian sites. Aztecs never lived in the area; their empire reigned over central Mexico. Ancestral Puebloans were the actual inhabitants of the Aztec Ruins NM site over 1,000 years ago.

The Site is closely related to the earlier Chacoan culture of the south and the later Mesa Verdean culture to the north. It serves as a halfway point between the two chronologically, historically, architecturally and geographically. Archeological and present-day visual evidence of the ruins displays things at Aztec visible at Chaco and not at Mesa Verde and vice versa.

CROWDS (6/10)
There were a few families wandering around the Park with us. They did not affect our visit, but they all seemed very interested.

After traveling down a 21-mile dirt road to leave Chaco Culture NHP, Aztec Ruins NM feels decidedly urban; the ruins are in “downtown” Aztec, N.Mex. Only in retrospect do you realize that Aztec only has a population of 5,700 and the nearby metropolises are Farmington and Bloomfield. The closest Interstate is at least two and a half hours away but somehow Verizon cell service is strong. Our ultimate determination of rural-ness is if we can use our phones.

Green LineThe most relevant geographical locator for Aztec Ruins NM is that it is about halfway between Chaco Culture NHP and Mesa Verde NP and sits on U.S. Route 550. The only probable way you will be in Aztec is if you are traveling between those two more famous World Heritage sites.

Another fun reference point is the wonderful old west town of Durango, Colo., located 34 miles to the north. Durango is home to the scenic Durango-Silverton Railroad and a large selection of good restaurants. Durango’s big city feel belies its relatively small population and remoteness.

The slight selection of books available at Aztec Ruins NM is redeemed by its unique inclusion of a few classics of modern Native American Literature, namely Lesley Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn.

COSTS (3/5)
The Site costs $4 per adult, free with the National Parks Pass.

The Rangers that were posted at the welcome desk greeted us with big smiles and a helpful spirit. They immediately offered us the house copy of the self-guided trail booklet ensuring that our walk around the ruins would be enjoyable. There are no Ranger-led tours of the ruin, interpretive talks may begin again during the tourist high-season, Memorial Day through Labor Day.

We really appreciated the self-guided trail booklet. It is available for purchase for $0.50 but the Ranger staff provides a returnable copy for your use. The Aztec Ruins Rangers have enlarged the house copy onto bigger paper. The booklet has also been laminated and bound, especially helpful during our windy visit.

Given the Park Service’s chronic short staffing and sporadic crowds, we understand the difficulty of providing Ranger tours to every visitor. These self-guided trail booklets have become a staple in the southwest and are, as a rule, enjoyable and educational. Nonetheless, we think it is vital that the Park have Rangers on duty, like at Aztec Ruins NM, to answer any questions that the booklet could not clarify.

The film does not specifically cover Aztec Ruins NM; instead, it looks at the big Ancestral Puebloan picture. A number of sites in the Four Corners region also offer this film. In the words of a Ranger, “It gets around.” We enjoyed it, however, wishing that more NPS films would approach the local area with the same sense of scope.

Corner WindowFUN (7/10)
There is nothing taxing about touring Aztec Ruins NM. Directions to the Site are simple. Parking was not a problem. Walk in, ask to see the movie. Chat with the Ranger. Peruse the bookstore. Get a laminated booklet and head outside to see the Ruins and Great Kiva. Come back inside, ask some questions, then head back to the wonderful Rocky Mountain town of Durango, Colorado for some dinner. We had a lovely day; odds are you will too.

There are a number of reasons you might be traveling in the Four Corners region. Both Mesa Verde NP and Chaco Culture NHP are destination sites; they may be the centerpiece of your Ancestral Puebloan odyssey and require more than a single day’s visit. Aztec Ruins NM is a must-see on the way between these two sites and a nice companion piece to Mesa Verde NP if Chaco’s unpaved dirt road is not your thing. It can be also be toured in less than two hours, if you are looking for a nice, sweet diversion from your stay in Durango, Colorado.

We highly recommend Aztec Ruins NM, but only if you are already in the area.

TOTAL 51/80

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northwestern N.Mex.
Visited: April 7, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 185 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Super KivaWHAT IS IT?
The place believed to be the center of the Ancestral Puebloan world for nearly 400 years, from the 9th through the 13th centuries. The Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, consists of numerous freestanding ruins displaying architectural mastery and brilliant engineering.

BEAUTY (9/10)
Modestly sized mesas surround the Chaco Canyon area but are not tall enough to dominate the landscape. The dusty scrub filled high desert takes precedence in the area as far as the eye can see. The beauty instead comes from the many D-shaped stone Chaco complexes. The intricate masonry is separated into five easily distinguishable styles that evolved throughout time. The buildings intertwine with the curves and indentations of the mesas to a sublime degree. The sheer size and scale of the Chaco buildings is awe-inspiring.

Even without documented histories and surefire conclusions, once you see the ruins it is easy to accept that Chaco was the focal point of a world. We will never know how big that world was. It definitely stretched throughout northwestern New Mexico. Elaborately planned prehistoric road systems sprout from this Site, as if it were the hub of a wheel. Did this trade system spread throughout North America, to the Mississippian culture to the east and to the Aztecs in central Mexico? Archeological evidence suggests so.

The ruins of Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl are both momentous and situated just yards apart. To any visitor, these grand structures just feel important. The buildings are marked throughout with astronomical markers. Easy to understand when you see the blanket of stars in the big sky overhead. A people thrived here for over 300 years, Chaco Culture NHP is one of the world’s historic treasures.

Windy Windy DayCROWDS (8/10)
License plates from Alaska, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont told us we were not the only ones far from home. Nor were we, it seems, the only people on extended road trips. Custom vans, station wagons and other vehicles were strapped with kayaks, bikes, and Yakima gear boxes and wore the dirt of heavy use. These were not your average day trippers.

The roads to Chaco Culture NHP are kept unpaved on purpose; it is not a place you will end up without trying. You have to want to come here. The end result is a set of visitors that are more informed, more interested and a little more hardcore than those we have met at other sites.

We were worried about getting to Chaco Culture NHP. We even debated skipping the Site altogether. Why? Well, the Site is in remote northwestern New Mexico, its entrance 21 miles from U.S. 550 down an unpaved dirt road. We should not have been so scared.

The road, while not perfect, is more than manageable. Still, we were lucky that it had not rained in the recent past. The unpaved road serves as an effective barrier to the tourist trade. Chaco Culture NHP is one of only three pre-Columbian World Heritage Cultural Sites in the United States; if the road were paved, it would be difficult to protect the ancient ruins.

Once inside the Park, the road magically becomes paved and all compact car owners breathe a collective sign of relief. A nine-mile one-way loop road follows Chaco Canyon. Short hikes to five separate grand ruin complexes begin from the road’s five parking pullouts. Once inside, it is relatively easy to see most of Chaco’s famous landmarks.

We approached the site from the northeast, from U.S. 550 and down Indian road 7950. Some maps (Mapquest, yes; NPS brochure, yes; Rand McNally, no) show an approach from the southwest. New Mexico Route 57, a 20-mile difficult dirt road, accesses the park via Indian Route 9 (also unpaved we think) where it meets N.Mex. Route 371 at Crownpoint. A Ranger at the Northwest New Mexico VC in Grants, N.Mex. told us that those roads are rough and not to attempt it without a 4×4.

Cross Section MasonryCONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (4/5)
The bookstore has a terrific array of Navajo, Ancestral Puebloan, local history and astronomy books. We liked the terra-cotta raised relief representation of Pueblo Bonito’s architectural plan but had neither the $52.95 to purchase it nor a place in the Altima to ensure its safe passage back to Harrisburg.

The bookstore does not sell anything vital to sustaining life, like food, drink and gasoline. It does provide pumped water if you are really in a fix. Make sure you have a full tank of gas, dinner, snacks and firewood. You won’t be able to get anything here.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $8 per vehicle, free with the National Parks Pass. 49 campsites are available at $10 per site. The campground did not fill during our stay, but it was close to capacity. Get to the Park as early as you can. Visiting a fair share of the ruins will take at least one loooooong day, probably two. The only place to stay is at the campground; there are no motels within a 50 miles radius.

Chaco Culture NHP relies heavily on their annual shipment of Student Conservation Association recruits. Newly arrived, fresh faced volunteers led the daily tours, manned the bookstore and did just about everything one would expect a Ranger to do. Except for knowledgably answer questions.

In place of Ranger tours, both the bookstore and the trailheads offer self-guided booklets for six different trail systems: Chetro Ketl, Casa Rinconada, Pueblo Bonito, Pueblo del Arroyo, Petroglyph and the Backcountry. All are $0.50 except Petroglyph $0.75 and the Backcountry $2.00. We bought most of these terrific guides and Gab became a fill-in Ranger. The booklets delve into their topics and are the cornerstone to the park’s educational experience.

Short DoorwayThe new 25-minute intro film is OK. A wave of new films has hit the Park Sites of the southwest. They all use the same stop-action camera tricks and have the same narrative technique. Same director, perhaps? The Chaco video included interviews of many Hopi tribe members, the descendents of the Ancestral Pueblo. They all talked about how important Chaco was and still is.

The museum is cramped, but nice. Its walls are constructed with a mock version of Chaco’s five architectural styles. The museum also displays a diverse collection of pottery unearthed on site. The Museum adds little to your stay that cannot be achieved at the ruins themselves.

The Park owns a battalion of high-powered telescopes and holds astronomy programs every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. We picked the wrong day to arrive, Wednesday. We would have tailored our visit around a night sky program had we known about them in advance.

FUN (8/10)
Chaco Culture NHP is so far from modern life that a visit becomes a walk back in time. Concentration, relaxation and quiet speculation are easy achievements. It is difficult to comprehend the scope of ancient American civilizations through their ruins, especially when those ruins are a short driving distance from a Taco Bell or a Best Western. The dirt road in removes nearly all outside influence, Chaco Canyon has been left in peace. Understanding and remembrance is easier. This is a profound place.

You can explore in and around most of ancient ruins, a rarity in National Parks. Four moderately easy backcountry trails lead to even less visited ruins. The Peñasco Blanco Trail leads down the Chaco Canyon, past petroglyphs, pictographs and other prehistoric canyon interactions. The South Mesa and Pueblo Alto trails both lead up to mesa tops and give the hiker a bird’s eye view, blue print type imagery, of the Chaco building complexes.

Do You See Him Too?WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10)
What makes Chaco’s history so much more compelling than the other Ancestral Puebloan ruins scattered throughout the southwest?

We were awed by the grandeur and architecture of the great houses and ancestral roads. These are the most impressive pre-Columbian ruins and buildings in the National Park Service.

But is the drive worth it?

A resounding yes. The trip feels more like a pilgrimage than a visit. You have repeated the routes of centuries of travelers into Chaco Canyon. The buildings possess a magnetic pull; they are still full of life. It is ironic that this incredibly remote place accessible only by dirt road was once the center of a people’s world and the hub of a complex highway and trade system. What will New York, Los Angeles and Chicago look like in 800 years? You never know.

TOTAL 60/80

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near Los Alamos, N.Mex.
Visited: April 6, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 184 of 353
NPS Website

View From InsideWHAT IS IT?
Ruins of 12th through 16th-century Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings and freestanding villages situated at the bottom of Frijoles Canyon and tucked between the sheer cliffs of forested plateaus.

BEAUTY (7/10)
You approach Bandelier NM on New Mexico Route 4 along the top of the Pajarito Plateau. Other plateaus, separated from each other by deep, narrow canyons, rise to similar heights in all directions. The road passes a monstrously sized satellite dish before it switchbacks down the canyon walls and into the Park. A glance at the Park map reveals that the dish belongs to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, birthplace of the Atomic Bomb.

After a nearly 1,000-foot descent, the Park elicits a feeling of isolation. The forest is thick, the cliffs rise precipitously and Frijoles Creek audibly rushes as it flows towards the nearby Rio Grande.

The Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings are a camouflaged companion to the Swiss cheese-like rock they have been built into. The ancient windows and doorways are distinguished only from the rock indentations by the ladders that extend from their entries. The D-shaped ruin of the freestanding Tyuonyi village speaks of the masses that once lived in this dramatic setting.

A specific culture of people settled, farmed and lived at the bottom of Frijoles Canyon for over 400 years. Their hunter-gathering ancestors roamed in and out of the same area for at least 10,000 years. No one had ever settled on top of the Pajarito Plateau until the 1940’s, when a 300-year old culture moved in and created a weapon that could immediately end the lives of millions of people.

CROWDS (7/10)
A sunny early-April Wednesday brought more people to the Site than we ever expected. A large group of school kids prevented our first attempt at the museum, but their excitement infected us. So we headed onto the Main Loop Trail and into the cliff dwellings.

Ahead of us, a giddy family of four climbed up a ladder and into a prehistoric cave dwelling. “Wouldn’t it be cool to camp here,” the mother asked her 8-year old girl. Her response was “yes, but only for a few days.” We could not wait to follow their lead up. During the rest of the trail, neither the family nor we missed a chance to scurry up every ladder.

The Site is 47 miles northwest of Santa Fe, N.Mex. via United States 84/285, N.Mex. Route 502 and the N.Mex. Route 4. The closest town to Bandelier NM is Los Alamos, located about 10 miles to the north.

The Main Loop Trail is paved and its first ¼ mile (up to the point where you start going into the cliff ruins) is wheelchair accessible.

The Site’s compact bookstore packs in a large array of local Native American titles and at least 15 books specific to Bandelier itself, including one written by Adolf Bandelier, the pioneering archeologist for whom the Park is named. We would have liked to have seen more than four Los Alamos-related books, but for the most part, Bandelier NM ignores its more destructive neighbor. If you want to read about the development of the atomic bomb, the Bradbury Science Museum bookstore stocks hundreds of titles on the subject.

COSTS (2/5)
Entry is $10 per vehicle, free with the National Parks Pass.

A $1.00 guidebook details the ruins situated along the Site’s primary hike, the Main Loop Trail. Bandelier NM was the only Park in the Southwest that did not provide a used “house copy” that could be returned without fee after the hike.

We generally buy the self-guided trail books after our hike, the only exceptions being when the brochure is sub-par or gives us no new information. We were dismayed and angered by the lack of trust endeared by the staff at Bandelier NM towards their visitors and did not blindly buy their booklet.

There were no Rangers anywhere despite an overflowing parking lot full of people.

The Bandelier NM intro video is short on educational information and a victim of a poor location. The noise from the nearby bookstore and VC entrance make concentration difficult. Neither the video nor the Museum mentions the massive volcanic eruption that created the area’s unique topography.

We did enjoy the Museum’s mannequin-based recreations of cliff-dwelling life as well the extensive exhibit on FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, the depression-era young men who transformed the National Parks System. We did not sample the Main Loop self-guided trail booklet because of our aforementioned stubbornness. We did find discarded Falls Trail and Tsankawi Trail booklets in the parking lot. They are both well done and meaty with information.

Outside Looking InFUN (6/10)
Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings can be fun, especially when you can climb in, on and around them. The Main Loop Trail combined with the Frijoles Canyon Nature Trail is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

The extensive backcountry trail system that winds through the canyons and in between the plateaus could be a terrific place to find solitude, remote Indian ruins and a high altitude respite from the summer heat. The wilderness around Bandelier NM begs for exploration.

Our visit coincided with an early spring cold spell so we decided against staying at the 94-site Juniper Campground. The campground is situated near the Park entrance, on top of the plateau and at a 6,600 feet elevation. We may have reconsidered if we could have slept in the cozier environs of the lower canyon and if Michael had not been sick.

Bandelier NM is not a place to plan a vacation around unless you live in northern New Mexico. As a day trip from Santa Fe, a short tour of Bandelier NM’s cliff dwellings makes a nice pair to the frightening and free Bradbury Science Museum, the promotional wing of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

TOTAL 43/80

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Watrous, N.Mex.
Visited: April 5, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 183 of 353
NPS Website

Ruin Panorama

Ruins of a remote fort built in 1851 to protect travelers along the Santa Fe Trail from hostile Indians.

BEAUTY (6/10)
Fort Union NM is very photogenic, as evidenced by its appearance on the 2003 National Parks Pass. The big blue skies and ribbony clouds match well with the abandoned adobe and withering wood wheels. Michael took about 30 shots in an attempt to emulate the Parks Pass winner. Even if you have not seen that photo, you will probably end up shooting the same wood axle; it is a rare physical landmark amid the fort’s desolate ruins.

The repeated mantra at Fort Union NM is that it was once the “largest U.S. military installation on the 19th-century southwestern frontier”. There are a lot of qualifiers in that sentence, none of which elaborate on the Fort’s historical significance. We learned little about Fort Union both because of the poor educational facilities and since nothing much ever happened here.

Park Pass TributeCROWDS (6/10)
We were it.

The Site is eight miles west of Interstate 25, Exit 366 along New Mexico route 161. The nearest city that you might be vacation to is Santa Fe, N.Mex., about 80 miles to the southwest. Las Vegas, N.Mex. (no gambling palaces here) is 20 miles to the south. A shade deficient walking trail leads through the forsaken fort. No trees also means lots of wind. Who knows how we kept our hands steady enough to snap photos.

The bookstore carried lots of titles specific to the Site and presumably found at few other places. 19th-century brass uniform insignias are on sale for only $4.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $3 per person or free with the National Parks Pass. Your admission is good for Pecos NHP, located 60 miles to the southwest.

No Rangers at all.

No Ranger tours, no introductory video and an ancient Mission ’66-era Museum dominated by two creepy mannequins, one a Buffalo soldier, the other a nattily mustachioed Union trooper. There is no self-guided trail brochure and most of the outdoor audio panels were broken. In addition, the operational panels were too quiet to be heard over the whipping wind. We learned zilch at Fort Union.

FUN (3/10)
We had a good time taking pictures and bracing ourselves against the strong winds. We have fun doing just about anything.

The Site is a long day trip from Santa Fe, N.Mex. and not nearly as compelling as the numerous tourist destinations nearby that old Spanish city, i.e. Pecos NHP, Bandelier NM, Los Alamos, Taos and even Albuquerque.

Fort Union NM was our least favorite Santa Fe Trail-related Site. The ruins look nice and make for stunning pictures but explain little about frontier soldier life and the commerce along the Santa Fe Trail.

If its Santa Fe Trail soldier life you are looking for, go to Fort Larned NHS in Kansas, that fort looks just as it did 150 years ago. If you want to learn about the Santa Fe Trail frontier trade, go to Bents Old Fort NHS in Colorado. If you want to go to a place called Fort Union, go to Fort Union Trading Post NHS in North Dakota.

TOTAL 33/80

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