Archive for August, 2005

Pea Ridge, Ark.
Visited: August 31, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 243 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Site of the March 1862 Civil War battle that “saved Missouri for the Union”.

Peace Returns Again BEAUTY (3/10)
The concepts of “well-preserved” and “endangered” battlefields appear attached to every Civil War Site we visit. Here are the questions we have developed to understand these elusive definitions:

1) Is the battleground land, in its entirety, a part of the battlefield Park?
2) Do statues and monuments honoring the soldiers litter the battleground?
3) Are any modern structures (houses, restaurants, souvenir stands, lookout towers) visible from the battleground?
4) Have all structures within the battleground boundaries been restored to the 1860’s appearance.
5) Are there cannons everywhere? (Not really a criterion, but what is a Civil War Site without cannons?)

A perfectly preserved Civil War park would answer Yes, No, No, Yes and Yes. An “endangered park” would answer No, Yes or No, Yes, No and No.

The wonderfully well-preserved Pea Ridge NMP answers Y, N, N, Y and Y to our questions. We especially enjoyed the lack of widespread white granite monuments. The Park’s only two monuments stand nearby the restored Elkhorn Tavern. Some local advocates even want those monuments torn down, presumably to attain a perfect preservation score.

Is the Park any more beautiful just because it looks almost identical to its March 1862 appearance when, we might add, people died here? Not to us. Pea Ridge remains a humid rural Arkansas expanse surrounded by dense forest and inhabited by many white-tailed deer.

Find the Leg
The statement that the Union’s victory at Pea Ridge “saved them Missouri” is a little bit misleading. Firstly, it is unclear if, during the War, either the North or South wanted Missouri. After Pea Ridge, both armies abandoned the land and marched eastward. Secondly, the Union victory hardly swayed the complicated interests and beliefs of Missourians during the War. Their incomprehensible mixing and matching of Pro-slavery, anti-Union, pro-Union, anti-slavery would continue until the War ended; both the Union and Confederacy saw many Missouri volunteers.

The Missouri/Northern Arkansas theater of battle was a distant third priority for both armies (after the Eastern and Western theaters). Pea Ridge is interesting in that it was one of the Union’s earliest victories of the War, despite their distinct numbers advantage in all fights. By the time Pea Ridge happened, both Lincoln and Jeff Davis deemed Missouri to be an afterthought and were more than willing to see it descend into its own personal guerilla war.

CROWDS (6/10)
A woman with a thick Arkansas accent pulled Gab aside at the Leetown Battlefield overlook. “Hi honey. So aah you intahrested in this stuuff or you just tagging along?” Gab sheepishly said, “No, I like…” Michael interrupted her with a big laugh. “You can tell us the truth.” “OK,” Gab replied, “I don’t much care for the Civil War.” “Me neithah,” the woman revealed, “you should see the books mah husband reads. I couldn’t keep up with ‘im if I trahed. I feel for ya honey but just remembuh: you’ll be out a hiyah in no time.”

It is difficult to say if you will ever be near Pea Ridge NMP, but its rural northwestern Arkansas locale is more accessible than you might think. The Park is located along U.S. Route 62, about 11 miles east of Interstate 540, Exit 86 and the town of Rogers, Ark. Rogers is three miles south of Bentonville, home of Wal-Mart, and less than 20 mile north of Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks.

The darling artsy town of Eureka Springs, home of the famous Great Passion Play, is 25 miles east along Route 62. Country music jamboree capital Branson, Mo. is 80 circuitous miles to the east-northeast.

We are sick of giving perfect scores to Civil War bookstores but even the most cynical grader cannot argue with 30+ books on the Missouri/northern Arkansas field of battle, including at least six on Pea Ridge alone. We find interesting new titles at each Civil War bookstore that we either have glanced over or are stocked only where we are. Pea Ridge NMP’s cool titles include Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Chestnut’s Civil War; Now the Wolf Has Come: the Creek Nation in the Civil War; A Plantation Mistress on the Eve of Civil War and Black Confederates. Civil War buffs and historians must have their fill of reading material.

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

Few other people in northern Arkansas chose to tour the Battlefield during our visit. It might have been the 100-degree midweek day coupled with high humidity or it could have been the Hurricane Katrina induced $0.50 a gallon gasoline price hike. Whichever it was, we had the Park, its two Visitor Center Rangers, a talkative but knowledgeable costumed volunteer posted at Elkhorn Tavern and his two friendly dogs all to ourselves.

 Elkhorn Inn
The only thing we remember about the Pea Ridge NMP learning experience is that Confederate General Van Dorn was such a poor leader that it is a wonder he was not commanding Union troops in the Eastern theater.

Too geeky an explanation? Prior to battle, Van Dorn hurriedly marched his men for three straight days through snow and sub freezing temperatures, openly questioning why his men couldn’t march as fast as he could ride. On the fourth day, he asked them to fight. The rest of our Battle of Pea Ridge learning, as well as a lesson on the Missouri/northern Arkansas theater came at the nearby Wilson’s Creek NB.

FUN (3/10)
If a Union Army General had won a game of checkers against a Confederate General, the federal government would have honored that location with a Civil War National Park Site. The outcome at Pea Ridge produced negligible, at best, historical impact. A visit here could be fun only to an obsessive completist. Heavens, we think we just described ourselves.

If you like Civil War Battlefields, this could be the best preserved of them all.

TOTAL 36/80


Read Full Post »

Little Rock, Ark.
Visited: August 30, 2005
NPS Site Visited: Not an NPS Site
Presidential Library Visted: 10 of 12
Local Website

Bridge to 21st century…or N. Little RockWHAT IS IT?
The Presidential Library and Museum of our 42nd president, William Jefferson Clinton.

BEAUTY (4/10)
The Clinton Library and Museum looks like a giant glass 2×4. Half of the building seems suspended in mid-air, jutting out towards the Arkansas River. The Museum means to recall Clinton’s 1997 Inaugural speech that stressed a bridge to the 21st century. The building is not a particular good metaphor since the faux bridge goes nowhere, feebly sitting lost in midair. The nearby railroad bridge, whose design the Museum mimics, is old, rusted and no longer in use.

The Museum is an in-depth and almost over-whelming centrist global history of the 1990’s. The Museum does not give the president credit for the era, but it does portray a time of fattened pocket books, low unemployment, general good feeling, greater world peace, global togetherness and free trade partnerships. The list goes on: Middle Eastern peace talks, the shrinking of the deficit, vast nuclear arms reduction, world economic prosperity, safer domestic communities and a technology boom matched only by the 19th-century Industrial Revolution.

Things were not perfect; the Museum acknowledges Waco, Oklahoma City, the Asian Financial crisis, the averted World Trade Center bombing, the global AIDS epidemic and Somalia but for the most part, the 90’s were a good decade to be alive.

CROWDS (7/10)
Presidential Libraries and Museums are popular places. The newly opened Clinton Museum is the centerpiece of the revived Little Rock River Market District and is, not surprisingly, full of people. While busloads fill the Site everyday, there is ample Museum parking and enough exhibits to keep everyone individually occupied.

The Clinton Library is located near downtown Little Rock just south of the Arkansas River, a stones throw from Interstate 40. Exits 140-A and 140-B will both get you to the Site, which is located on President Clinton Avenue. The Library has a large free parking and access to a free wireless internet connection. The Site is fully wheelchair accessible.

The Library’s bookstore is about a ½ mile to the west of the Museum, in a separate building also on President Clinton Avenue. There are a few free parking spaces in front of the bookstore but these were full during our visit. We tried and failed to get an answer to why the bookstore is in Little Rock’s trendy River Market District rather than in the Museum.

Once we got to the bookstore, it was long on goofy trinkets, crafts and keepsakes but short on critical presidential texts.

The Museum avers that there was an eight-year right wing attack on Clinton employing “new, aggressive tactics” and “character assassination”. The Site refers to this as the “Politics of Personal Destruction”. We would have enjoyed seeing some of these rabid anti-Clinton texts for sale at the bookstore.

What a Tune
Do not just tell us about the attacks on Bill and Hillary, sell the books that fueled the rebirth of political book sales. It would be a win-win situation for the Museum: they would seem above the fray and without bitterness. Not only that, but as the middleman, they would pocket money off the books’ sale.

Neutral portrayals like Primary Colors and the spectacular D.A. Pannebaker documentary, The War Room are also missing.

Not missing are books found in Clinton’s Oval Office library, titles like The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Ernest Becker’s 1974 psychology classic, The Denial of Death. Reading these titles is similar to when you visit a friend’s house for the first time and scour their books for cool and interesting things. The inclusion of Clinton’s most beloved books for sale is either endearing or calculated. Maybe both. We can’t decide.

COSTS (2/5)
Entry is $7 per person. We found two $2-off coupons in a Welcome to Little Rock coupon booklet.

Numerous uniformed docents sit at strategic points throughout the Museum. Michael had many questions but none of the docents had any answers.

The Museum is like a $100 million Power Point presentation. Graphs, numbers, bulleted lists, to-the-point essays and statistics displayed with dozens if not hundreds of flat-screen TV’s, readable fonts, highlighted (with yellow highlighter pen) major points, perfectly clear interweaving time-lines of each presidential year and easily navigated touch screen computers that allow you to view Clinton’s personal schedule for every day of his Presidency.

The Museum has a clear villain, Newt Gingrich, whose methods and dastardly quotes appear in numerous displays. At every turn, Newt is out to stymie the Museum’s hero, not President Clinton, but global progress on an economic, social and technological scale. Their statistics prove that Bill Clinton was trying to steer the boat along the wave of global progress and, ultimately, it is hard to argue with eight years of peace and prosperity, regardless of your political affiliation.

Bill Clinton, the man, is not the Museum’s priority. The focus is on his Presidency, its results and its actions. Clinton’s personal history, i.e. his birth, family, college, even Hillary, is relegated to clear glass tables on the second floor. We almost missed these displays because they are flat and look like nothing from eye level.

The Museum’s first, and perhaps signature display is all full-scale reproduction of the Cabinet Room. This exhibit is fully interactive. You can sit around the desk in one of the many comfortable leather chairs and learn, via touch screen computer, who the cabinet members were, what they did, what laws came about during their Clinton tenure and how they individually contributed to Clinton’s touchstone executive decisions. Again, the emphasis is not on the president but on the people and events around him.

FUN (6/10)
Everything about the Museum screams success. All the line graphs go up. The numbers quoted all go in the right direction. Everybody is smiling and the people who are fighting are either signing peace treaties or facing sanctions and imprisonment because of their bad behavior. What a wonderful place and what a wonderful time.

Why then, President Clinton, did you have to mess everything up with your sexual indiscretions? The Museum cannot answer this question. It does not even try. The explanation of House Republicans and Kenneth Starr overstepping the Constitution, using millions of taxpayers’ dollars for personal attacks and general vindictive idiocy, while true, answers nothing.

It is hard to visit the Museum without leaving either angry or sad. The decade’s achievements and successes ended fast and now are a fleeting memory.

Make Your Own Caption WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10)
Who knew recent history could seem so far away yet so timely. The Clinton Library has its shortcomings but it is refreshing that it follows the pattern of the better Presidential Libraries, Truman, LBJ and Eisenhower, and focuses on the history of the president’s tenure rather than the history of the man.

If you are in Little Rock, the Museum warrants a visit regardless of your feelings towards Clinton because it reflects a fair and accurate history of the decade in which we all have lived. The nearby State Capitol displays a better understanding of Clinton’s early career and political life. The Capitol’s few exhibits examine the State’s more famous governors, their vital statewide issues and their common political qualities.

TOTAL 49/80

Read Full Post »

near Gould, Ark.
Visited: August 29, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 240 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

They’re EverywhereWHAT IS IT?
Site of one of France’s earliest permanent New World settlements. For almost 200 years, from 1686 to 1863, the Arkansas Post was an important city but now nothing remains.

BEAUTY (5/10)
The Park is a murky peninsula, surrounded on its wide sides by the bayou, its tip pointing towards the Arkansas River. The sky shines a hazy grayish blue, reflecting the waters’ dark dingy tint. Trees grow in the water. Fields of lily pads float everywhere amidst lime green algae and yellow lotus flowers add an unseen color and a delicate beauty. Snowy Egrets fly above skulking alligators, multiple dragonfly species hover incessantly, mosquitoes swarm and yearling deer race through the ruins of an early Arkansas town.

It is hard to believe this abandoned bayou backwater could ever have been an important place, but for nearly two centuries, it was the center of European life in the Arkansas region. In 1686, the French built a fort, establishing a trading post and solidifying control of the Arkansas River. The River’s flooding, Chickasaw war parties and British raiders continually forced the fort to be moved.

In 1763, France cedes the region to the Spanish, who soon after establish a presence at Arkansas Post. British soldiers attack the Fort in 1783, during the American Revolution, because Spain has sided with the colonists. France regains the territory in 1800 and sells it to Thomas Jefferson as a part of the Louisiana Purchase. Arkansas Post becomes capital of the Arkansas Territory in 1819 and the Arkansas Gazette (still the State’s major newspaper) begins publication.

Six Flags Over ArkansasIn 1821, Little Rock becomes the capital, the paper moves and the population shrinks from 1830 to only 114. The town is all but dead. The penultimate nail comes in January 1863, during the Civil War, when Union gunboats destroy the Site’s newly built Fort and mercilessly shell the town. Nothing remains. Nature deals the final blow through erosion and the changing course of the Arkansas River. All that remains are alligators, deer, dragonflies, wild turkeys and lotus flowers.

CROWDS (6/10)
Just us. We wish we could have spotted some alligators. Maybe if the sky had not been overcast.

The N MEM is located in the bayou country of southeastern Arkansas, about 60 miles from Pine Bluff and 100 miles from Little Rock.

From Pine Bluff, take U.S. Route 65 southeast until the town of Gould. Wind your way through the back streets of this tiny town along Arkansas Route 212. Once you hit U.S. Rte. 165, turn north (left). In about 5 miles, turn east (right) onto Arkansas Rte. 169. Rte. 169 will lead you through the bayou and to the Park.

If you would prefer to stay on larger roads, continue on 65, past Gould, and to Dumas. From Dumas, take U.S. Rte. 165 for 15 miles until Ark. Rte. 169. Turn right and you will soon be there.

Bayou Country

The bookstore has a sparse, but well thought out and interesting selection of merchandise for sale. Jaw Harps, reprints of the two Harper’s Weekly’s that mention the Arkansas Post Civil War battle, reprints of the first issue of the Arkansas Gazette, a cute canned Alligator (stuffed animal in a can, not a meal) and ceramic mugs stamped with the fleur de lis. Cool books include an Arkansas traveler’s 1819 journal, a book on the Indian gun trade, Alan Taylor’s American Colonies and a history of the Arkansas Post written by a Park Service employee.

COSTS (4/5)
The Site is free.

One kind Ranger looked happy to see us; it was a dreary, rainy midweek day and few people were venturing to this bayou ghost town.

There are a few neat displays in the Museum and the film, while superficial and hokey, is watch-able. The Park holds no interesting secrets and no spellbinding historical revelations. The Site does an able job with its limited material. The Site provides a terrific bird checklist that even lists the specific areas of the Park to look for each bird.

FUN (3/10)
We would have had more fun of there were alligators. We cut our pleasant, but humid, walk around the Post Bayou Nature Trail short because the rain started to come down in droves. The thick trees were not going to provide a sturdy canopy for long. The old townsite was anticlimactic, consisting of only one or two ruins. The climate, ruins, scenery and colonial history reminded us of Georgia’s Fort Frederica NM. We did not have much fun there, either.

Photogenic ThreeWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (3/10)
Only if you have a thing for French colonial history. We have heard good things about the newly opened White River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center located about 30 miles to the north in St. Charles. The White River NWR is close to the Cache River, the place where some ornithologists believe they found the ivory-billed woodpecker, an elusive bird species thought to have gone extinct. We had our binoculars on and ears open at Arkansas Post but saw and heard nothing.

TOTAL 40/80

Read Full Post »

Hot Springs National Park

Hot Springs, Ark.
Visited: August 28, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 239 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

A row of 19th-century bathhouses located above the curative waters of 47 odorless hot springs.

Quapaw BathhouseBEAUTY (7/10)
Hot Springs NP does not look like a National Park. We followed the signs pointing us to the Park but when they indicated we were there, we were on Central Avenue, smack dab in the center of a charming Victorian-era downtown. “Uh, is this it?” we thought. It was. The Park’s centerpiece is Bathhouse Row, a line of nine architecturally distinctive bathhouses.

The bathhouse exteriors are stunning, regal and inviting but only two are open to the public. The Fordyce Bathhouse holds the Park’s Visitor Center and Museum while the Buckstaff Bathhouse still operates as a spa. The remaining nine are in various stages of disrepair and restoration. Their exteriors speak of past greatness while their interiors reveal decades of neglect.

For 10,000 years, nearly all people, from the prehistoric Native Americans to the Washita Indians to Hernando de Soto’s bumbling band of 16th-century explorers to French trappers to Thomas Jefferson’s exploratory envoys have soaked in the Hot Springs. Then, in 1832, the federal government intervened and, wouldn’t you know, things got tricky.

In the 19th century, curative spas were both a medical panacea and the world’s most popular tourist destinations. The Saratoga Springs resort in upstate New York was the equivalent to today’s Las Vegas in its wide-ranging popularity. When the government learned of the Hot Springs, located in the then Arkansas Territory, they wanted a piece of the action and, in 1832, subsequently made claim to the Hot Springs as a federal Reserve making it a quasi-National Park some 40 years before Yellowstone.

The next 40 years brought complicated legal wrangling, Arkansas statehood and the Civil War. In the 1870’s the government, fed up with the red tape and bureaucratic mismanagement, allowed private bathhouses to build elaborate bathhouses above the Hot Springs. The feds even opened their on Free Bathhouse and Public Health facility for the good and welfare of the common people.

Stained in the BathhouseDuring the halcyon days of Hot Springs, 1890-1920, it was common to see the world’s richest men walking down the Bathhouse Row, adorned only in a bathrobe, headed to the ritziest spa. Walking next to them, in the same vestments, would be some of the area’s poorest people, on their way to the public spas, located along the same Central Avenue.

The spas of Hot Springs, while popular, never attained the fame or prestige of Saratoga Springs. By the time it became an official National Park, 1921, the trend of curative soaking, steam baths and whirlpools had passed. The town feels stuck in a time of never-attained grandeur of great economic promise never fulfilled. Decay has set into most of the bathhouses, their splendorous interiors are now mostly gone and are soon to be sold off by the National Park System. In place of the traditional spas will be, presumably, restaurants and low-end kitschy shops, the businesses that fill the buildings across the street.

CROWDS (6/10)
Hot Springs, Ark. retains its resort-type feel but it is hard to figure out who vacations here. We took a Bathhouse Row tour with two well-traveled bathers; they had soaked the world round. They too were confused. “Who comes here and why?” they bluntly asked the Ranger. She responded with the why, “They don’t come here for the spas, the draw is mostly the horse track (Oaklawn, home of the Arkansas Derby) and the Lakes (the man-made Catherine and Ouchita).”

Hot Springs, Ark. is located near the center of the state, about 55 miles southwest of Little Rock via Interstate 30 and U.S. Route 70.

Precariously PerchedCONCESSIONS/ BOOKSTORE (5/5)
What other NPS bookstore sells bathrobes and glass water jugs emblazoned with their Park’s logo? Some other unique items found were Moosewood cookbooks, how-to massage books, patches for all nine bathhouses and the honored baseball book, The Glory of Their Times, for sale because Babe Ruth was known to frequent the Hot Springs spas.

COSTS (4/5)
Self-guided tours of the beautifully restored Fordyce Bathhouse are free as are the frequent Ranger-led tours of Bathhouse Row. Campsites are an affordable $10 per site. If you have traveled to Hot Springs, however, you probably want to soak in its famed waters. At Buckstaff Baths, the only Bathhouse still open on Central Avenue, a Whirlpool Mineral Bath costs $20.25 and a Traditional Bathing Package runs $47.00.

The Park runs a number of guided tours during the day but we would have enjoyed a roaming Ranger amidst the Fordyce Bathhouse labyrinth. We had questions, like “what is that?” and “what exactly does that do?”

We arrived just in time to take in a Ranger-led Bathhouse Row tour whose focus was the Hot Springs role in medical history. The tour was fascinating, in-depth and spawned dozens of questions. We explored the un-open Lamar Bathhouse, and witnessed just how neglected the spas had been. We enjoyed the intimate look into the vast restoration process.

The Lamar Bathhouse’s deterioration and difficult rebuilding brings to light the remarkable job done at the Fordyce Bathhouse. At the Fordyce, more than a dozen rooms have been restored to their turn of the century glory: a full-sized gymnasium, an assembly room, dressing rooms, massage rooms and locker rooms. There is almost too much to see.

What Does That Do?FUN (6/10)
Be careful, the self-guided tour of the Fordyce Bathhouse might get you yearning for an actual full-service spa therapy. We were psyched and ready, but alas, the Buckstaff takes its last bathers at 1:00 p.m. on Sundays. We can only imagine the pleasures of a needle shower, a vapor cabinet and a full-body Swedish massage. Hopefully, our next priceline.com bargain hotel will have a spa. Impurities be gone!

Unless you live in the South, there is no reason to travel to these curative waters. Only the town’s Bathhouse Row and, more specifically, the Fordyce Bathhouse retain any historical charm. If you want to relive the glory of Victorian-era travel and bathing, go to Saratoga Springs, N.Y. and try to go during the races in August. If you just want a spa getaway, then consider our hometown’s grand hotel, the Hotel Hershey. You can bathe there in chocolate, or so we’ve heard.

TOTAL 51/80

Read Full Post »

Oklahoma City, Okla.
Visited: August 26, 2005
NPS Site Visited: Not an Official Site
NPS Affiliate Site Visited: 12 of 26
NPS Website; Local Website

Golden Chairs

Outdoor Memorial and privately-run interactive museum dedicated to the memory of those lost in the 1995 terrorist bombing of Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

BEAUTY (6/10)
The Outdoor Memorial is located on the same location as the former Murrah Federal Building. In the building’s place are two towering gates, they look like stylized Arc de Triomphe’s. You enter through the East gate, marked 9:01, the time the bomb detonated and see a shallow reflecting pool. To you left is a field of 168 empty golden chairs, marking the lives lost in the tragedy. To you right is the Survivor Tree, a 90-year old American elm that miraculously stayed standing while the blast occurred nearby.

You exit through the West gate, marked 9:03, the moment, the Site literature says, we were changed forever. Outside the West gates is a chained link fence littered with hanging stuffed animals and personal items that remember the dead. The Museum sits inside the neighboring Journal Record Building. Its southern wall, which was damaged by the blast, remains scarred from the detonation and lined with graffiti written by rescue workers.

At the time, the April 19, 1995 bombing that took 168 lives was the deadliest terrorist attack ever on American soil. Of course, the events of September 11, 2001 took away Oklahoma City’s horrible distinction. Unlike 9/11, Oklahoma City made no impact on a political, cultural or historical scale. A global War was not needed to bring justice to the OKC bomber, Timothy McVeigh. The lives of the victims changed dramatically as did the locality of Oklahoma City but the OKC bombing did not become the focus of American thought and a generational touchstone.

CROWDS (6/10)
Who knows how many people were at the Memorial and Museum. We did not pick our heads out of countless displays, exhibits and computers long enough to see anyone.

The Memorial is located near downtown Oklahoma City between NW 4th and 6th Streets and Robinson and Harvey Avenues. The Memorial’s design suggests entrance from the east, through the 9:01 gate located at 5th and Robinson.

If you are coming from the west, take the Walker Avenue Exit of Interstate 40, travel north on Walker for ten short blocks until you reach 4th. Turn right. Three blocks later, you are there.

If you are traveling from the north, south or east, take 6th Street/Harrison Ave./Downtown Exit of Interstate 235. Go west for three blocks along 6th Ave, turn left on Robinson and you are there.

There is no on-site parking. Day-use parking lots surround the Memorial and cost $5. Metered street parking is available but carries a 2-hour limit, not enough time to experience the engrossing Museum.

The gifts and keepsakes on sale at the Memorial Store are classy, tasteful and understated. They utilize the simple, but moving Survivor Tree logo, muted colors and comfortable designs. Dozens of books about the bombing line the walls. Stuffed firefighter and rescue dogs are sold for the kids. The Store’s online bookstore sells only a small portion of the merchandise.

COSTS (1/5)
The privately funded Oklahoma City National Memorial Trust fully endows and operates the Memorial. The Site is a member of the National Park Service in name only. An NPS Ranger walks the outside portion of the Memorial. The OKC N MEM Trust pays the Site’s Rangers, not the federal government.

The Museum does not honor any National Parks Passes and costs $7 per person. The Outdoor Memorial is free. We have heard that the NPS is in the process of distancing themselves from the OKC N MEM and will remove the Site’s National Park Unit distinction (Note: they did shortly after our visit). That would be a good move. The Museum is a private entity, the National Park Service did not design its exhibits, the government gives it no funding and it is doing well enough on its own.

Serenity Pool
The Museum is overwhelmingly interactive; the number of touch screen monitors could wear the fingerprints off one’s skin. We still would have enjoyed someone to answer questions, an indoor Ranger or maybe a hired docent. The Site relegates its NPS Ranger to outdoor duty. The Ranger spends the day pacing the reflecting pool area and must regularly sweat off a few pounds in the sweltering OKC afternoons.

The day before our visit, an OKC resident told us that he had just made his first trip, at a friend’s behest, into the Museum. He was not keen on remembering the day’s horror and figured he would be there for an hour at most. “I’m walking through the Museum and I look down at my watch,” he recalled “and I had been there for three hours. I just got caught up.”

We had a similar time-bending experience. The Museum sucks you in like a true-life cable-TV documentary. The story told is triumph over tragedy. Hundreds of interviews play on continuous loops on televisions posted throughout the Museum. The stories are all positive reinforcements of human nature’s good side.

Victims’ stories are told via computer interviews with their families, personal mementos and pictures. When you read and hear the victims’ positive life stories you initially are saddened by their families’ loss but eventually are strengthened in the understanding that they are just a standard representation of humanity and that people are good. We were touched by the documentary about OKC victims traveling to New York shortly after 9/11 to help with those who lost loved ones.

Much of the conclusions the OKC Museum makes concerning terrorism and violence are contradictory and superficial; it is much easier to ignore the broad picture here and focus on the heroic efforts and good intentions of the people involved. We also found the Museum’s self-comparisons, both in design and gravity, to the victims’ museums in Auschwitz and Hiroshima to be foolish at best.

Makeshift MemorialFUN (6/10)
Prior to its design, the Museum planners asked victims’ families and Oklahoma City residents how they wanted to feel at the Memorial. The winning emotions became the Site’s theme: comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity. We all want to feel these emotions and somehow a Museum about a terrorist bombing achieves that collective aura.

It succeeds by virtually ignoring the perpetrator. When the Museum mentions Timothy McVeigh and his accomplice, the display is in a discrete corner or written in small print on a large panel. The bombing comes to feel like a natural disaster. The Site determines McVeigh’s motivations, reasoning, planning and story to be irrelevant and does not address them.

Instead, we learn about the victims, their families, Oklahoma City, the firefighters, the EMT’s, the newscasters and everyone who helped. Before visiting the Memorial, we had already gathered a strong liking for Oklahoma City, its people, its restaurants and its museums. A visit to the Museum is a visit into their lives, memories and emotions.

A trip to Oklahoma City is not complete without a trip to the Outdoor Memorial if not the Museum. The Site defines the town and its people.

TOTAL 47/80

Read Full Post »

near Fritch, Texas
Visited: August 25, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 234 and 235 of 353
NPS Alibates Flint Quarries NM Website; NPS Lake Meredith NRA Website

Colorful FlintWHAT IS IT?
The Alibates Flint Quarries NM, pronounced al-ee-BATES, showcases evidence of 12,000 years of human life and includes some of America’s most ornate and, historically, most prized flint stones. The surrounding 12-mile long Lake Meredith NRA is a man-made lake formed by the damming of the Canadian River.

BEAUTY (4/10)
This is stark, difficult country. Mesquite, rattlesnakes, sagebrush and grasslands coat the earth. Hills of exposed red rock support expanses of exposed white dolomite. Among the dolomite are shallow pits. Flakes of flint tailings are scattered in these places indicate where the mining occurred.

Flint chunks of all shapes and sizes remain. Their beauty comes from their coloration. The streaks of maroons, reds, browns and purples create delicate patterns and are responsible for the rocks’ once great value.

People have mined the Alibates Flint Quarries since the beginning of human habitation of North America. From 12,000 BC to 6,000 BC nomadic tribes gathered the flint for their spear points. The Alibates flint’s only distinction was its great beauty: its rainbow streaks, vivid purples and jewel-like appearance. Who knew that prehistoric man were such aesthetes?

The earliest evidence of North American human life, the Clovis Culture spear point, was made from Alibates Flint Quarries.

Year-round life did not appear at the Quarries until 1,000 AD. At that time a tribe settled on the land with the primary purpose of mining. The flint was still in high demand and increased North American trade made its year round mining a viable way of life. Alibates flint would soon appear throughout the continent.

These sedentary Indians were driven out in 1450 by raiding Apaches who were subsequently ousted by Spanish invaders, the U.S. Army and ultimately by a homesteading pioneer named Allie Bates.

While there is little modern-day demand for flint, mining of a different sort still occurs on Site. The port-o-potties and paved asphalt squares are not for tourists, they are for private natural gas mining companies. Previous owners were happy to sell the land to the National Park Service, but held fast to the mining rights.

Picture Taken From CarCROWDS (8/10)
We were it and thoroughly enjoyed our private guided tour of the Flint Quarries. We felt like VIP’s as we baked in the hazy, north Texas morning.

Park documentation reveals that the Quarries are one of our least visited National Park Units; only 2,000 people visited the Site last year. Its neighbor, Lake Meredith NRA consistently sees over 1,000,000 people every year. Most people are more interested in water recreation than in viewing colorful rocks.

The Alibates Flint Quarries are located about 40 miles northeast of Amarillo, almost smack dab in the middle of the Texas panhandle. From Amarillo, take Texas Route 136 until you see a sign for the Quarries. Turn left and follow the road for about two miles. By this point, the path is loose gravel. At the Y-intersection, veer to the right. The Contact Station should be on your right in about a mile and a half.

Lake Meredith NRA can be accessed via a number of spur roads from Route 136. The gravel road to the Quarries is, in fact, one of those access roads. The Lake Meredith Marina and Ranger Station are further up Route 136, near the town of Fritch.

There are not many books for sale at the Alibates Ranger Station, but most are Site specific and probably found at few other places. A few videos and books examine flint knapping, using flint to make tools, which we are guessing is a lost art. Four Kinko’s-bound books about area geology look more like University-class submissions than things found in a bookstore. Good luck finding those titles at amazon.com.

COSTS (5/5)
Entrance to both Parks is free. Rangers at the Alibates Flint Quarries NM give two free guided tours every day. Launching fees at Lake Meredith NRA run $4 per boat.

Two of us, one Ranger. The Park literature stresses that you arrange the guided tour well before you visit the Quarries. Gab called them at (806) 857-3151 a week in advance. “Is there space on Sunday for a tour of al-uh-BAH-tays?” “Where?” “The flint quarries?” “Oh, you mean al-ee-BATES. Sure. When? 10 or 2?”

As it turned out, we moved through Colorado quicker than expected. On Tuesday, we asked if we could reschedule the tour for Thursday. No problemo. If you are eager enough to visit the quarries, we think the Site’s great Rangers will find a way to show you around.

The Flint Quarries must be toured with a Ranger. Gates and, presumably, security cameras keep out the riff raff. Are they protecting the beautiful flint or the natural gas company’s interests? Hard to say.

We had a terrific time on our two-hour private tour. After a brief introduction at the Ranger Station, we hopped into the NPS pick-up truck and made our way to the quarry. Once we got there, the Ranger weaved us through the Quarry’s 12,000-year history, stopping often underneath well-placed wooden shade pavilions. We peppered him with questions as we walked single file up the narrow trail. Thousands of grasshoppers crossed our paths while he pointed out the scattered pieces of flint he found the most beautiful.

FUN (7/10)
The best part of the tour came after it was over. At the Ranger station, Michael noticed an atlatl, a javelin-like spear once used by the Native Americans to hunt. ”Do you know how to use it,” Michael asked the Ranger. “Yeah, you want to see?” “Uh, yeah,” Michael added trying to hide his excitement. So we went outside. The Ranger was good. The atlatl traveled true and straight.

“You want to try?” he asked Gab. “Oh my gosh, yes,” was her subdued response. Gab’s first throw was wobbly, but the second was terrific. Michael’s attempts were not so good. His form was perfect for long-distance javelin throwing but horrible for atlatl flinging. We left giddy and with an understanding of how the atlatl actually worked. Seriously. We had seen tons of pictures of the weapon, at Russell Cave NM, Poverty Point and others, but did not fully understand it until Alibates. And we had a great time too.

Superb Atlatl FormWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (3/10)
Quarries of any kind, even flint, fail to spark the tourist’s imagination and wanderlust. Alibates is no exception. As beautiful as the rocks may be, they are no reason to travel to the Texas panhandle. Lake Meredith NRA is very popular but your local dam-created lake probably serves the same purpose. Unless you live near Amarillo, there’s no pressing need to haul your boat to Lake Meredith.

Despite the urgings of countless people, we did not travel south of Amarillo to the rugged canyons of Palo Duro State Park. We just did not have the time. We did see the pictures and it looks beautiful. If you are traveling along Interstate 40 through Amarillo, the Palo Duro SP might be a more worthwhile detour than the National Park Sites to the north.

TOTAL 47/80

Read Full Post »

Cheyenne, Okla.
Visited: August 25, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 236 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Two Sides to Every StoryWHAT IS IT?
Site of the November 1868 battle between the U.S. Army and the Cheyenne Plains Indians.

BEAUTY (3/10)
Fields of tall grass, hordes of grasshoppers and stifling heat and humidity. Welcome to Oklahoma. In pictures, the sky looks wonderfully blue. In person it looks grey because the haze envelopes your eyesight.

A mowed path winds through the grasslands, turns up and around the anonymous field where fighting once occurred. We intended to walk the full 1½ miles worth of trails. Doesn’t sound like a lot? It is. The heat cut our journey in half.

Under the charge of Lt. Col. George S. Custer, the U.S. Army, in November 1868, attacked a peaceful village of Cheyenne Indians led by Black Kettle.

Four years prior, Black Kettle’s village at Sand Creek was attacked by Col. J.M. Chivington. Chivington’s U.S. Army forces slaughtered over 150 Cheyenne, mostly women, children and the elderly. Most American’s were outraged at the Army’s brutality especially when the massacreds’ mutilated body parts were placed on display in Denver.

Black Kettle had witnessed the absolute brutality but still signed peace treaties and moved his people to the Indian Territory. In 1867, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan received control of U.S. forces engaged in the western Indian Wars. He altered the Army’s tactics towards Total War. Nothing would be spared and all Indians, peaceful or not, were to be considered enemy combatants.

Black Kettle knew that a November attack was eminent. He fruitlessly pleaded to the U.S. government for protection. Despite the urging of his council, he did not move his people; he could not believe that the Army would break standard custom and attack during winter. He was wrong. At dawn, the morning following the council meeting, Custer attacked.

Black Kettle’s men were unprepared and largely unarmed. A Sand Creek-like massacre was narrowly avoided when Custer ordered his men to capture the women and children rather than kill them. Three nearby Cheyenne encampments were too far from Black Kettle to provide assistance. Gunfire took the lives of a reported 21 soldiers, 11 Cheyenne warriors, including Black Kettle and his wife, and 19 Cheyenne women and children. Over 50 Cheyenne were taken captive.

After the battle, Custer burned the Cheyenne’s supply of winter food as well as their shelter and clothing. He then ordered the Cheyenne women to gather the Indians’ 800 horses. The Army tried to slit the horses’ throats. When this tactic proved too slow, they shot the remaining horses. The battle convinced many Cheyenne to accept reservation life; the U.S. Army was very powerful and dedicated to Total War.

Path to the BattlesiteCROWDS (6/10)
Just us at the battle site.

The current Visitor Center is located in downtown Cheyenne, Okla. along U.S. Route 283. The Battlefield Site is about two miles west of town along Oklahoma Route 47A. Cheyenne, Okla. is about 30 miles north of Interstate 40, Exit #20 and 150 miles west of Oklahoma City.

The Washita NHS has an interesting if sparse book selection. Included are eight George Custer biographies, five books about Black Kettle and the Washita fight, and six about the Sand Creek Massacre. The selections are thoughtful, but where is Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee? That book introduced most, including us, to the events at Washita. We think that the book choice will expand accordingly when the Site makes its planned move into a larger Visitor Center.

COSTS (4/5)
The Site is free. On weekends, Ranger-led tours of the battlefield take place at 9, 10, 11, 2, 3 and 4.

The current Visitor Center doubles with the Park’s office. As soon as we opened the door, a few Rangers hopped out from behind their desks to help.

There is little space in the current Visitor Center for much more than a TV screen and a small viewing area in front the bookstore shelves. But what a TV screen it is! Flat-screen plasma 16:9 ratio; one of those TV’s that makes friends overwhelmingly jealous.

The intro video is not so bad either. The newly finished film approaches the battle with a wide frame of reference and sympathy for Black Kettle. Quibblers on both sides could find fault in some of the films conclusions but we applaud its understanding and presentation of both sides’ positions.

The film’s quality makes us want to give the exhibits that will be found at the new Visitor Center the benefit of the doubt.

Granite RetellingFUN (4/10)
Indian War fights, like the one that occurred at Washita, are not fun places. We commemorate Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, laud the exploits of Lewis and Clark, celebrate their bicentennial and praise their peaceful journey but forget that their history was only the beginning of our conquering of the American West.

Ugly and revolting things occurred. We cannot make any historical judgments about land ownership and rightful stake to property. That is far too complicated and ultimately irrelevant. Right and wrong, good and evil means nothing.

However, people were here first. The Army needed to remove the Indians forcibly from their land in order for the United States to grow. These brutal Indian Wars had to happen. These fights are just as important to our country’s success as the battles waged during most of our more acknowledged Wars.

Sites like Washita remind us that disturbing things happened to make this country ours. We are not an unwaveringly glorious people. Not everything done in our name elicits a prideful reaction.

We still cannot get the image of 800+ slaughtered horses out of our minds.

TOTAL 40/80

Read Full Post »

Estes Park, Colo.
Visited: August 22, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 233 of 353
NPS Website

Unfrozen TundraWHAT IS IT?
A vast expanse of awe-inspiring high-country mountain wilderness highlighted by largest and most accessible tundra ecosystem in the continental United States.

BEAUTY (10/10)
At Rocky Mountain NP, you are on top of the world. Nothing spoils the view, not ski slopes, telephone lines or gondolas. The valley below seems to go on forever the jagged peaks of the Rockies never stop. The tundra wildflowers are so tiny, so colorful and so precious. Waddling rock ptarmigan and blue grouse are apparent only to the quickest eyes while elk graze conspicuously along the mountainsides oblivious to the gawking human. The thin air makes breathing difficult and the setting’s uniqueness fully apparent.

Down below, the land is a subalpine paradise of green meadows, quaking aspen, mountain streams and reflecting lakes. At all times and from all angles, the Rockies surround. You are always in their shadow, you are in their world.

Rocky Mountain became our country’s tenth National Park in 1915 and an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976. One-armed naturalist and famed Colorado River runner John Wesley Powell was the first man to climb the Park’s treacherous Long’s Peak.

CROWDS (3/10)
Last August, large crowds resulting in no available campsites caused us to delay our trip into Rocky Mountain NP. That was a bad logistical decision because this year we were rushed and did not have the time to escape into the backcountry.

Get to the Park’s western side if you want to avoid the crowds and do not want to go backcountry with the black bears. The scenery is comparable to the east with about 1/10 of the people. The road in the East from Estes Park to Bear Lake so packed with cars that the Park runs a shuttle service. The shuttle does not alleviate the parking problems. The hikes around Emerald Lake, Dream Lake and Nymph Lake were so packed we turned around.

Our most disturbing crowd experience was in the Park’s most beautiful and most fragile ecosystem, the tundra. Numerous couples trudged over the delicate arctic flowers and grasses, ignoring the countless posted signs and basic common sense. We were aghast as one young couple allowed their son to urinate at numerous spots along the trail. We treasure the small glimpse into the world of the tundra and cannot understand why so many people would treat the land with such disregard and disrespect.

Marc Bulger’s Biggest FanEASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
Rocky Mountain NP is the star attraction of the Denver metropolis’ unmatched environmental backyard. Two U.S. Routes, 34 and 36, lead to the Park’s eastern gateway town, Estes Park. Route 34 comes from the north and passes through Loveland before meeting I-25 at Exit 257 just 35 miles from Estes Park. Route 36 comes from the southeast and is only 35 miles from the near perfect town of Boulder. Downtown Denver is just 25 more miles southeast down Route 36.

It is remarkable that an International Biosphere Reserve is so close to so many people. The Park’s Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in the United States, its apex reaching a challenging 12,183 feet. The nearby Tundra Communities Trail allows easy (if your lungs can take it) access to a high altitude ecosystem rarely seen by anyone except mountain climbers. Keep your eyes open for rock ptarmigan, hoary marmots and picas; the average person rarely gets a chance to see these mostly Arctic animals.

Underwhelming selection for a mega-park. The Rocky Mountain National Park Tricky Trails Game tempted us, especially because of it darling animal game pieces. We also chuckled at the stuffed moose wearing an oxygen mask at the Alpine Visitor Center (elev. 11,796 feet).

COSTS (1/5)
Rocky Mountain costs $20 per vehicle, free with the National Parks Pass. Campsites run a steep $20 per space.

The Park has six Visitor Centers including one at each of the Park’s four entrances. Numerous Rangers staff them all. We happened onto Ranger talks at Moraine Park and Kawuneechee and had a pleasant conversation with a Ranger looking for a reported forest fire at an overlook.

At Alpine, we started a show with our line of Ranger questioning. Before we knew what had happened, one Ranger was trumpeting rutting elk calls into a rolled up poster while another nearly caused a riot by pointing out a soaring juvenile golden eagle. Michael was so excited about the Eagle and the Ranger’s suggestion for finding rock ptarmigan (successful!) that he forgot to ask where to see the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, his favorite animal. Had he asked, we would have gone to the nearby Milner Pass. Oh well.

We found a terrific new film on a big screen TV at the Beaver Meadows VC, great new tundra-related displays at the Alpine VC and fun new exhibits at the Moraine Park Museum. Gab especially enjoyed Moraine Park’s “Bend a Rock!” and “Be a Glacier” interactive tests. Is there anything this Park does not do well? The glacier display especially helped out understanding of what a glacier does, how it carves and how it is different from a snowfield.

The Ranger talk at Kawuneechee was fun partly because we got to handle ram’s horns, moose antlers and elk hooves but mostly because of the inquisitive and attentive crowd of young listeners. One future dentist was unyielding in his questions, “Do elk have teeth? How many teeth?” Ten minutes later, “How sharp are mountain lions’ teeth? How many teeth do they have? Have they ever killed anyone?” Yes, but actually no was the Ranger’s response. “Huh?” we all wondered.

We are unsure if the crowd appreciated the resulting story; a range of disturbed emotions covered their faces during the retelling. A young boy was hiking more than a 1/2 mile ahead of his parents and was eating candy while walking. A mountain lion appeared out of nowhere. The boy choked on the food and died instantly. The lion dragged him off and enjoyed an easily hunted meal. The lion was exterminated even though it didn’t really cause the initial injury. Plenty of lessons to be learned from that story, kids.

Subalpine MeadowFUN (8/10)
Rocky Mountain NP feels like a place of lost opportunities. We regret not having enough time to plan an extended trek. We wish that we had more time to explore the subalpine lakes and we really wanted to see bighorn sheep. Still, the tundra was incredible, our campsite sublime, although the trumpeting elk sounded awful close to our tent. Maybe we will just have to move the greater Denver area in order to enjoy Rocky Mountain NP to its fullest.

This is your best place to see the tundra unless you are traveling to Alaska’s northern tier or Green Bay’s Lambeau Field in January. The Park’s mountains feel like the only peaks in Colorado free from the ski industry. Enjoy this special place while you can and remember to ask a Ranger where you can spot the bighorn sheep.

TOTAL 53/80

Read Full Post »

Grand Junction, Colo.
Visited: August 20, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 230 of 353
NPS Website

Red Rock Formations
Breathtaking red sandstone rock formations, canyons and mesas standing near the confluence of the Colorado and Gunnison Rivers.

BEAUTY (8/10)
The red-rock mesas, 2,000-foot high cliffs, eroded sandstone spires and oddly beautiful scenery of Colorado NM are a preview of the madness to follow downstream. The Monument sits at the edge of the Colorado Plateau, where the Colorado River country begins to get interesting. Downriver are Arches, Canyonlands, Glen Canyon and finally the Grand Canyon.

Grand Junction and the Colorado River are sandwiched between the Monument to the south and the Grand Mesa to the north. Dizzying vistas from the Monument look out to the Mesa’s imposing sand castle-like appearance. We have not yet seen a city that enjoys a more dramatic setting than Grand Junction.

Colorado NM’s limited history revolves around one man, John Otto. Thought crazy by most, Otto diligently worked to make the Monument a part of the National Park Service. Otto had one true love: the Park. His marriage failed because he refused to sleep indoors. Otto blazed most of the Park’s trails, sent countless letters to Washington D.C. and in 1911 his Park was federally recognized and he was made superintendent, a position he held until 1927.

CROWDS (6/10)
Auto tour-based Sites tend to limit personal interaction. There was plenty of parking at all the overlooks. We were bewildered at one vista by a large crowd of people and dozens of cars. That must be some kind of view. Further binocular-aided inspection revealed a lovely wedding. What an unbelievable place to tie the knot.

Stubborn Mr. OttoEASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
Colorado NM is located in west-central Colorado, less than four miles from the charming urban center, Grand Junction. The Park’s centerpiece is its 23-mile long Rim Rock Drive that leads up the canyon and onto the mesa, offering astounding views of the red rock surroundings. There are a few hiking trails but Colorado NM is primarily and auto-touring destination.

The Park has two entrances, West and East. They connect Rim Rock Drive. We suggest entering the Park from the West (Fruita) entrance because of its proximity to the Visitor Center (only 4 miles). To get to the West entrance, take Exit 19 of Interstate 70. Follow signs southward along Colorado 340 for about 2 miles and you are there.

The East (Grand Junction) Entrance is located on Monument Road. Monument Road meets up with Colorado 340 in less than four miles. Route 340 will return you to Interstate 70, the way you turn, east or west, depends on which way you are going.

The store stocks a good, albeit very standard, selection of western National Park site books. We thought the colorful satellite map of Grand Junction was cool.

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

One Ranger staffed the Visitor Center, ably answering intense geology questions from a group of graduate students. We tried to get our questions in but to no avail. It is not so nice when the shoe is on the other foot. We will try to be more concise our Ranger questions in the future. We promise.

We narrowly missed the twice-daily Ranger-led geology talk. So instead, we asked to see the Park’s secondary intro film, the one that focuses on geology. The film, produced by the University of Colorado’s Interactive Geology Project, explains the complicated geological history of the area through computer animations and helpful narration. The computer animations show the land throughout time. Concepts that are too difficult to grasp (oceans covering the area, geologic uplift rock layers and 1.7 billion year old mountain building) come to life before your very eyes. Our only detraction: we wish that the animations would have zoomed out from the Colorado NM focus, put everything in context and shown the greater geologic workings of the North American continent.

Grand Junction Below
While at the Monument, see the geology film. If Grand Junction is not in your plans, just download the animation from the U of C website. They are working on a Grand Canyon reenactment as well.

The regular intro film is the southwestern Park standard, stop-action photograph, beautiful scenery Park promotion video. It is not nearly as interesting as the geology lesson. The Park Museum is Mission ’66-era construction.

FUN (6/10)
“Uh, Gab, look at that,” Michael warily said while he pulled to the side of the road. “Those aren’t vultures.” We got out of the car, pulled out the binoculars and saw three golden eagles fly less than 20 feet above our heads. We did not even need the binoculars to see to the markings of two full-grown and one juvenile. When it rains, it pours. We had yet to see the majestic birds during our lifetimes. The first two appeared at Great Basin NP, then these three, three days later at Colorado NM. In three days, we would see the last of our trip at Rocky Mountain NP. Incredible, incredible birds.

We skipped all but a few of the hiking trails at Colorado NM in favor of the auto tour. We were not up for steep descents and the subsequent ascent back to the car, especially with threatening thunder cloud skies in the distance. We think we saw a good representation of the Park and had little desire to do more. We did not camp either. The choice is easy when it is between pitching the tent in the rain or a cheap motel in a fun town.

The Colorado NM is stunning in its own right just not as astounding as the red rock formations down the river. The Site is more of an appetizer than a main dish. Still, if you are traveling west on Interstate 70, you should definitely take the scenic drive.

TOTAL 48/80

Read Full Post »

Montrose and Gunnison, Colo.
Visited: August 20, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 231 and 232 of 353
NPS Black Canyon NP Website; NPS Curecanti NRA Website

StriationsWHAT IS IT?
The Black Canyon is deep, narrow canyon formed by the Gunnison River whose schist and gneiss walls give it its dark appearance. The nearby Curecanti NRA consists of three reservoirs created by the downstream damming of the Gunnison.

BEAUTY (9/10)
The Black Canyon is unreal. At most, of the overlooks, the opposite rim stands less than a quarter-mile away. Then you look down. The head gets dizzy, the stomach rises, the knees wobble and fear sets in. The drop never stops, falling 2,750 feet at the deepest point. The white water down below roars with same decibels as a jet airplane.

The canyon walls really are black. Streaks and striations of grey and white give the walls and unbending character. The Canyon’s narrow demeanor causes constant optical illusions. The walls blend, the sides become one, the gorge disappears. The Canyon wishes to be unseen. It never beckons, never asks you to hike down. It cherishes its mystery and wants to be left alone.

Humans have lived in the area for 10,000 years but no one traversed through the Black Canyon until 1901; it had been too steep and too menacing. A train display at Curecanti NRA’s Cimmaron Visitor Center showcases the area’s role in the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad’s Scenic Line of the World.

CROWDS (6/10)
The moderate-sized crowd did not affect our stay at the Black Canyon, an auto-tour style park.

These Parks are located in the central portion of western Colorado. They both sit along U.S. Route 50 between the towns of Montrose to the west and Gunnison to the east. The Black Canyon VC is 90 miles to the southeast of Interstate 70 at Grand Junction via Route 50. Route 50 continues eastward meeting up with I-25 at Pueblo, 200 miles east of the Black Canyon.

The circuitous 250 miles northwest from the Black Canyon to Denver travel up, in, through and around the Rocky Mountains. Have fun.

We had a great time browsing through Black Canyon NP’s huge book selection. Did you know that there are at least 50 books published about Rocky Mountain wild flowers? We did not. Michael’s mother owns most of the children’s books for sale there, including a few classics: Ten Little Rabbits, Owl Moon and The Lorax. Her kindergarten classroom does not include Sunshine on My Shoulder, a children’s book based on John Denver’s touching song. We really should have bought it for her. Darn.

The store sells the actual United States Geological Service maps and surveys of the Gunnison Canyon and gorge. How cool is that. If you are having trouble understanding what is on those maps, the store sells more than a dozen books that explain the Canyon’s geology.

COSTS (2/5)
Black Canyon NP entry is $8 per vehicle, free with the National Parks Pass. Curecanti NRA is always free. If you want to launch a boat, its $4 for two days.

One Ranger and one Electronic Ranger.

The nearly 30-minute Park introductory film dives head first into the Park’s history. Problem is the pool is awful shallow. The Park’s history could be recounted in much less time. Sometimes the 18-minute pretty picture films are preferable. Nonetheless, the film’s pictures of the canyon are beautiful and done with the help of a brave helicopter. But who needs pictures when the natural wonder is just outside?

We enjoyed meandering through Curecanti NRA’s Cimarron rail yard. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day the Park Service offers two daily $12 guided Boat tours at Curecanti NRA. The boat ride begins at the Pine Creek boat dock, travel through the upper Black Canyon and allows for lake-level views of the Curecanti Needle. Sounds like fun to us.

Scenic Rail FUN (7/10)
road leads down to the Canyon’s East Portal. Make sure your brakes are in order before you make the 2,000-foot descent with 16 per cent grades and hairpin turns. From the East Portal, you are on your own. Only experienced kayakers should proceed; the River is classified as Class V to unnavigable.

The Black Canyon’s floor remains a mystery to all but the most skilled. There are no hiking trails down, no helicopter flights in and no super elevator rides. You must use your imagination from your distant rim perch. The Curecanti NRA allows for more accessible water-related fun.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is every bit as awesome as Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Michael had traveled to both canyons prior to our journey. In fact, one of the trip’s motivations was to climb down to the bottom of both. He did not realize that you cannot hike down the Black Canyon. He does now.

The Auto Tour allows for terrific views of this magnificent geological wonder but ultimately your brain cannot comprehend the depth and colors of the canyon. You want to be overwhelmed but the scenery looks more like a painting than an actual object of nature. The Black Canyon is stunning but after both visits Michael left wanting more.

TOTAL 49/80

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »