Posts Tagged ‘Boardwalk’

Not a SwampEvery ten years or so Michael’s family has a reunion. All the descendants of his great grandmother (mother’s side) gather somewhere in the greater Reading, Pennsylvania area. Last weekend was that weekend and a good time was had by all, especially we caught up with the many people we hadn’t seen since – well – we were traveling across the country on a two year trip.

In honor of our family reunion http://www.usa-c2c.com is looking at Park Sites that recognize great families. On Monday we highlighted America’s most accomplished and distinguished family: the Adamses. On Wednesday we began our look at the family Cupressaceae.

Um, who is in the Cupressaceae family? War of 1812 admirals? French-Canadian voyageurs? Winter Olympics heroes? Poets? None of the above. The Cupressaceae family is also known as the cypress family and includes two distinctly American flora: the towering sequoia and the redwood trees, the tallest living things on earth.

Family reunion attendees learn many things. 1) There’s more than one branch to every family reunion tree; 2) Sometimes attendees come from all over the country; including some you might never have even seen; 3) Often these separate branches know each other very well; 4) Sometimes these other branches share a resemblance to your side and sometimes they don’t; and 5) Every branch deserves its fair share of the spotlight.

As you might have guessed the Sequoia line is only one part of the Cupressaceae family. They have a slightly shorter but much more prolific set of relations: the Cupressus branch or the Cypress branch. Unlike the Sequoia branch who has isolated themselves in California (and who can blame them) the Cypress branch has scattered themselves all over the world. While its dainty members can be seen in decorative parks and house gardens don’t be fooled. The Cypress line is strong and sturdy, and well adapted to both fire and water.

One of it’s famous family members is the knobby kneed bald cypress, seen throughout the American southeast and often draped in elegant Spanish moss. The bald cypress is a park highlight from Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve to Texas’ Big Thicket National Preserve. But we especially enjoyed the boardwalk system of Congaree National Park which allowed us to get up close and personal with their watery habitat.

Congaree’s other trees don’t reach the heights of redwoods and sequoias but they are some of the tallest specimens east of the Mississippi. So maybe, while at the Cupressaceae reunion, Congaree’s bald cypresses won’t feel as intimidated by their tall California cousins as Florida’s bald cypresses might.

Click Here to Read More about Congaree National Park.


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Richland County, S.C.
Visited: October 21, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 266 of 353
NPS Website

Entering the PrimevalWHAT IS IT?

Home to North America’s largest, at 22,000 acres, intact floodplain forest. What that means is a great diversity of tall trees, a swamp-like feel, lots of birds and even more mosquitoes.

BEAUTY (6/10)

Trees of all types tower above and a life-providing musty stench fills the air even in the dry, cool season. Woodpeckers hammer away above and numerous wood warblers appear to the patient eye. Bald cypress trees are everywhere. Their familiar knees sprout up amid the recessed plains and meandering streams.

Still, Congaree NP’s beauty takes some convincing. The trees are some of the tallest east of the Mississippi but they do not feel overwhelming, perhaps because of the vast undergrowth and multiple canopy levels. Why did loggers destroy this precious natural ecosystem with such revolting abandon? Maybe it was not stunning enough.

In the late 19th century, there were 52 million acres of old-growth floodplain forests in the southeastern United States. In just 50 years, logging companies harvested nearly all of these forests. Today, Congaree NP’s 11,000 acres of old-growth floodplain forest make it the largest example of this ecosystem in North America. The second largest old-growth floodplain forest totals just 2,000 acres.

Congaree NP’s excessively wet climate initially protected it from logging interests but in the 1950’s, conservationist Harry Hampton launched a passionate campaign to save this precious example of the earth’s natural past. A bitter fight between conservationist and loggers ensued, ending when the Congress set aside the land as Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976. Congaree NP became an International Biosphere Reserve in 1983.

In 2003, the word swamp was dropped from the Site’s name (making the title ecologically accurate) and it became a National Park. Visitation numbers and interest spiked proving that marketing matters even in the National Park Service.

Elegant FriendCROWDS (5/10)
We skirted around several small groups of walkers on the low and elevated boardwalk trails. Their loud whispers and echoing clompety-clomp feet made bird watching tough. Their ubiquity made photography difficult.

The easy solution is: take the longer, more isolated, non-boardwalked Weston Lake Loop, Oakridge and Kingsnake Trails.

Congaree NP feels like a wildly remote swampy nowhere, but actually sits just 20 miles to the southeast of South Carolina’s capital, Columbia. No National Park is closer to a State Capitol building. South Carolina Route 48 (Bluff Road) runs right past the Park’s entrance and stretches from Interstate 77 (near Columbia) to U.S. Route 601.

An accessible 2½-mile loop boardwalk trail takes you from the Visitor Center into the soaring trees of the floodplain forest. If you are slightly adventurous, additional trails lead into the primordial madness. Canoe put-ins and Bannister Bridge and Cedar Creek allow for further exploration. The great majority of the Park, however, is an unreachable, murky wilderness.

The bookstore is nice but consists only of nature identification handbooks. The Park’s history and beauty, like the land whose memory it protects, feels forgotten.

COSTS (4/5)
Entry is free.

Ranger-led events like canoe trips and “owl prowls” are limited to weekends and reservations (up to six weeks in advance during spring and fall) are required for most.

Looking UpTOURS/CLASSES (4/10)
There is an introductory film at the Visitor Center. It is safe to say it is forgettable, as neither of us can remember what it was about.

Displays in the VC alert viewers to the headlines and controversy surrounding the now protected old growth trees. An exhibit named “Great Trees or Coffee Tables?” chronicles the activism that saved what remains of the bottomland forest.

Other NPS wetland areas we have visited are still under threat from loggers and developers, despite their status as federal lands. We wished there were more opportunity to interact with Rangers to learn if this is the case with Congaree. There is only so much a two-dimensional display can say.

FUN (5/10)

The accessibility of boardwalk trails is both a blessing and a curse. Elevation gain minimal to non-existent – good. Dry feet – good. Safe place to perch while taking pictures of bright green snakes – all very good. However, because short boardwalk trails are so accessible, they tend to be more crowded than average trails. We found the boardwalks filled with people who would not usually embark out into what was once termed a swamp. This can lead to loud voices and bottlenecks on the narrow planks.

Enjoyment at Congaree NP is also directly proportional to the Site’s “Mosquito Meter.” On a scale of 1 (all clear) to 6 (war zone), the day of our visit scored a 1. Our stroll along the boardwalk trails was nearly bite-free. Had the meter climbed to 3 or higher, we cannot guarantee that we would have ventured into the forest.

Not a SwampWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (3/10)
We enjoyed our time at Congaree NP and should have taken the longer, more isolated walks. But geez, how much level, dense, tall forest do you need to see to get the picture? We arrived too late in the day for woodland birds and were disappointed at the lack of swamp-related birds and alligators. The Park means it when they say the Park is not a swamp.

Does Congaree NP merit the high-security ecological protection that a National Park distinction brings? Emphatically, yes. Should you alter your South Carolina vacation away from the Golf Coast and into Congaree NP’s interior? Not at all. Congaree NP feels outrageously out-of-place in all aspects when compared to other National Parks.

TOTAL 40/80

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south Florida
Visited: January 21, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 133 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Sunning SiblingsWHAT IS IT?
At 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. This review covers the Shark Valley area, which consists of a loop road leading to an observation tower through a freshwater slough ecosystem.

BEAUTY (8/10)
A freshwater slough ecosystem is, at its essence, a wide slow moving river. It looks like a flat, wet prairie with its tall grass, tree outcroppings and big blue sky. However, it is a River, its widest girth measuring 60 miles. This freshwater wetland environment attracts the usual suspects: American alligator, egrets, anhinga, herons, storks and moorhens. They are all here in healthy numbers just a few feet from the loop road.

South Florida is a very young land mass, appearing anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, a veritable newborn. Native Americans are thought to have crossed the Alaskan land bridge over 10,000 years ago, predating the Everglades. Since their creation, the shallow Everglades slowly meandered on its way to the Florida Bay. Human interaction was limited to a few Indian tribes until the turn of the century when full-scale settlement began in South Florida.

Since then, humans have drained the Everglades, disrupted and redistributed the water flow with canals, dumped sugar cane runoff and untold other waste products into the “River of Grass” and demolished and filled portions for development. The Everglades are in critical condition and there are no plausible solutions, only stopgap measures. Everglades NP is our most endangered National Park.

Green HeronCROWDS (4/10)
Because of its easy accessibility, large crowds flock to Shark Valley. The Park’s website recommends reserving your place on the hourly tram tours. We secured last minute spots during trips in both April and January but overflowing crowds prevented us from entering the Park during the week between Christmas and New Years; at noon a Ranger told us that no parking spaces would be opening in the next hour and that the day’s tram tours were all full.

The large crowds prevent any in-depth discussions with the Tour Guides. If you end up on the wrong side of the tram, the five-wide seating prevents opposite side viewing. The most important thing to know about the tram tour is to SIT ON THE LEFT SIDE. If you don’t you will curse the people to your left.

The Shark Valley Visitor Center is located a few hundred yards south of Route 41, the Tamiami Trail. It is 24 miles west of Miami and Route 821, the Florida Turnpike. The 15-mile loop route to the observation tower and back is fully paved and accessible via tram tour, bicycles or foot.

Not much here, save the laminated pictures of birds and wildlife of the Everglades. The small gift store next to the bike rental booth is chintzy but fun. Check out the alligator head hats.

Big Sky Florida StyleCOSTS (1/5)
Park entry is $10 per car or free with the National Parks Pass. Tram tour rides are expensive, running $13.25 per person. Bike rentals run $5.75 an hour. The loop road is 15 miles round trip. Bringing your own bicycle(s) might make the day more affordable.

We saw no Rangers in the Shark Valley Visitor Center area. Two volunteers staffed the Visitor Center and could not help us with camping information regarding other parts of Everglades NP. Private tour guides, not Rangers, lead the popular tram tours. With at least one hundred tourists per one guide, it is difficult for your questions to receive individual attention, especially if you are seated in the second tram.

The Shark Valley Tram Tour, while not affiliated with the National Parks Service, is a terrific, but expensive introduction to the Everglades. It is like an Everglades 101 class with its large crowds and basic information. We loved the tour a few years ago when we knew nothing about South Florida and bird watching but felt a little bored this time around.

There are a few Park-related exhibits in the tiny Shark Valley Visitor Center but do not expect quiet learning in the walk-in closet sized space. There is no space for an introductory film. This heavily visited Site deserves a larger and better Museum. As it stands, the National Park Service has outsourced the learning experience in the most easily accessible portion of one of its flagship Parks.

FUN (8/10)
Why oh why didn’t we remember to sit on the left side of the tram? We had obstructed views but still enjoyed the ride. The tour guide will point out all the birds flying, feeding and nesting along the way. Gators are too numerous to count – they get saved for last. We heard some of the same stories as we did the first time we took the tour, like the Italian mom who jumped in the canal and saved her son from a gator’s grasp. The punch line is still funny.

Need Shoes?WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10)
Walk along the boardwalk trail or just behind the VC to get your first (and best) glimpses of gators, herons of all sizes and colors and maybe even a purple gallinule. A bike ride or tram tour is not prerequisite for excellent photo opportunities. Much of the wildlife congregates right there along the “Gallery.” We overheard one British tourist exclaim that he had come hoping to see anything; he had no idea these beautiful species would all be at arm’s length just a few yards from the parking lot.

On that note, you might want to keep an eye on any small children. We think Shark Valley is an ideal place to take kids. Just make sure they don’t stray too far – there are no protective barriers between you and nature’s most efficient predator, the American alligator.

The tram tour is something the entire family can enjoy; nothing strenuous about hopping on and taking a ride through this river of grass. Shark Valley is an easy day trip from Miami, or even Naples. Don’t’ forget your camera or your binoculars; both will get used frequently.

TOTAL 46/80

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four nearby outfitters provide canoe rentals.

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

Large Carniverous PlantTOURS/CLASSES (7/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOTAL 50/80

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