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Posts Tagged ‘California’

Looking UpHappy Earth Day week! In honor of wonderful planet Earth we are going to highlight National Park areas this week that examine the glories of conservation, preservation, and sustainability. There’s one man that immediately springs to mind when those topics are mentioned: environmentalist pioneer John Muir. It also just so happens that Monday was even his Muir’s birthday. He would have been 170 years old, a fraction of the lifespan of one of his beloved Giant Sequoia trees

Muir’s home and ranch isn’t the only National Park named in the conservationist’s honor. Across the bay in Marin County stands a grove of redwoods that were saved by a local businessman in 1905 from the rabid saws of loggers and named after John Muir. They are one of the area’s last remaining ancient groves.

It’s hard to imagine anyone would ever want to cut down these magnificent trees or how anyone would dare remove their magical powers and stately magnificence from the world. But profit has always triumphed over beauty; the monetary always means more than the spiritual. It takes a special person to stand up in favor of conservation and battle the unbeatable big businesses. John Muir was one of the first but, as the Muir Woods story shows, successive generations have seen his admirable struggle and continued his dream of preserving beauty and preserving life.

Click Here to Read More about Muir Woods National Monument.

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Yosemite FallsDid you leave your house last weekend? Then you’ll completely understand this week’s theme: most crowded National Park Sites. First up is the crowdiest of them all: Yosemite.

Over 3,000,000 people pack into Yosemite NP every year, most of them visiting only the Yosemite Valley, home to all the marquee attractions. In addition, the tourists come primarily between the spring snowmelt and the first snow of the fall. Odds are it will be very crowded when you come to Yosemite Valley.

The large crowds are a double-edged sword. First the good: Everybody is happy and having tons of fun. Kids are excited and smiles are everywhere, you might as well be at Disneyworld.

Now the bad: The large crowds necessitate advanced planning, especially if you want to spend the night. There are no same day openings from April through October. You NEED to book a campsite five months in advance. Yes, FIVE MONTHS IN ADVANCE. Everyone from Rangers to tourists to the birds above repeated this planning mantra. Since we have not had to plan at any other National Park Site we refused to believe in Yosemite’s exclusivity. Now we believe. Book your lodge and hotel rooms well in advance too.

Do not expect to find you own secret hiking spot in the Yosemite Valley. All ten trails are full of people with varying levels of hiking skills and perfume amounts. Even the very strenuous Half Dome hike (up over 4,000 feet in 9 miles) is full of people, most of them greeting you with warm hellos. Michael first gained his love of hiking here, mostly because of the kind nature of his fellow hikers.

Click Here to Read More.

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Ghost Pier at Port ChicagoIn honor of Veterans Day, today we are remembering a forgotten set of American servicemen, the 200 that were killed by the 1944 explosion at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine and the 50 seamen who were then wrongfully charged with mutiny and, over 50 years later, offered a pardon by the President of the United States.

The story goes like this:

On July 17, 1944 an ammunitions explosion that blew up two ships parked side-by-side on a loading pier exploded and killed over 300 men. Port Chicago was the largest stateside disaster during World War II. Over 200 of those killed were enlisted African American seaman, 15% of all WWII African American deaths.

Many factors led to the incredible tragedy of Port Chicago: a segregated military force, no training for ammunition loaders, the loaded ammunition was live and two ships were loaded simultaneously side-by-side. The Navy addressed all these problems within years of the explosion largely because of the lessons learned at Port Chicago.

However, Port Chicago’s pull on our American psyche does not end there. The Port Chicago disaster holds great historic significance because it has been effectively erased from our collective national memory. It is not a story we repeat about our greatest generation.

The African Americans at Port Chicago had enlisted in the Navy with the understanding that they would be fighting overseas. Instead, the Navy sent them to Concord, California to load live ammunition.

Immediately following the disaster, other African American regiments spent the next weeks cleaning up the destruction, taking in the loss of their fellow seamen. The devastation caused by 5,000 tons of explosion was removed in just three weeks. At that point, the seamen were ordered to begin loading ammunition again, in the same way and in the same place where their fellow seamen had fallen.

Three divisions, 328 men, agreed to keep working but refused to load the dangerous ammunition. They were all taken into custody, 258 of them imprisoned on a floating barge and charged with mutiny. The threat of firing squad dwindled the number of resisters to 50.

50 Years in the MakingThe Court Martial began in September of 1944, the judgment coming soon after: dishonorable discharge and 8 to 15 years in jail. Future Supreme Court Justice and then NAACP attorney, Thurgood Marshall, watched the trial and was disturbed by its “obvious racism”. He argued for the seaman’s benefit before public officials and for the press. President Truman agreed and released the men once the War ended. The Court Martial and the explosion are often cited as the reason Truman desegregated the military in 1948.

The Navy has never taken responsibility for the disaster. They have always blamed the soldiers. Racism sears through their argument. The families of the fallen African American seamen have never been compensated. In contrast, the Navy immediately compensated the families of white Officers who died in the blast.

The memorial to the fallen seamen took 50 years to build. The remembrance saw the light of day only because of the tireless ten-year lobbying of a local Congressman and a president with a sympathetic ear. Five years after the memorial’s dedication, in 1999, President Clinton pardoned the 50 mutineers. Only one of the soldiers accepted the pardon, the others still believe they had done nothing wrong.

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Aaaaaaah!In recognition of the 8.3 million Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows books sold last weekend, this week at we are looking at National Park Sites that honor authors. First up is the only American playwright to win the Nobel Prize for Literature: Eugene O’Neill.

Harry Potter rumors and spoilers are everywhere and have elicited scores of questions. Is it really the last book? Which characters die? What will happen to Harry? Well we’ve wondered what would The Deathly Hollows be like if it were written by O’Neill…

It’s been years since we last saw Harry struggling through his troubled adolescence. He’s just attended Dumbledore’s funeral and has decided to leave Hogwarts. Flash forward 15 years. The Hog’s Head, Hogsmeade. Harry’s at the bar. Head down. Full of despair. He’s here every day. An alcoholic, mired in depression. His youthful dreams now seem so distant so out of reach so naive.

He enjoys it here. The dirt floor, the smell of goat. He especially enjoys the darkness…and the company. Soon Uncle Damocles Hickman, the traveling potion salesman will be coming. His visits bring joy, free drinks, and escape. The other patrons discuss their service in the Second Wizarding War. One, a Death Eater, insults his Order of the Phoenix friend. Their discussion never ends. Their side was right, their motivations were pure. They always will be.

In the meantime Harry thinks of his past, how it all went wrong. His scar, the constant pain, the reminder, the torture. He waits. He wonders.

Click Here to Read More

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near Mineral, Calif.
Visited: July 5, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 210 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Twisty RoadWHAT IS IT?
Mount Lassen erupted in 1921, making it the site of the second most recent volcanic eruption in the continental United States.

BEAUTY (8/10)
Lassen Volcanic NP is a pristine Sierra Nevada alpine wilderness. Glacial lakes, snowy mountain peaks and glimmering blue skies. Admittedly, we did not realize the absolute beauty of the Park until we had left. Pictures do not lie, do they?

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
Mount Lassen was America’s volcanic touchstone until the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980. Since then, the California peak’s fame has waned. The volcano awoke from a 200,000-year dormancy in May of 1914 and continued to spit fire for a full year.

CROWDS (5/10)
The remaining July snow pack limited our hiking options and we were reduced to the venerable National Parks experience: the auto tour. Lassen Volcanic NP’s narrow, tortuous road makes for slow, careful driving and can lead to anger between the tailgating of behemoth trucks and the slow pace of nervous drivers.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
The Park’s northern entrance is 50 miles east of Interstate 5 at Redding, Calif. along CA Route 44. The Park’s southern entrance is 50 miles east of Red Bluff, Calif. along CA Route 36 and then north for 8 miles on CA Route 89.

Route 89 twists, turns and climbs its way through the Park for a long 20 miles, connecting the northern and southern entrance. The road is closed for much of the year because of snow. Check ahead to see if the road is passable. This year it opened on June 1. The fall snow could come as early as late September, early October.


Danger
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (2/5)
Signs at nearly every overlook as well as the front page of the Lassen Volcanic NP newspaper proclaim that a new Visitor Center is on its way and will be located at the Park’s southern entrance. “On its way” means spring of 2007 at the earliest. Meanwhile, visitor services and concessions inside the Park seem to have taken a backseat. We were not impressed by the small book selection at the northern Visitor Center.

Auto tour brochures are available upon entry for a steep $6. The booklet looked nice and was full color but six bucks was too costly for us. A topographic hiking map is on sale for the same $6 price. Do not bother getting the map in June or early July because most of the higher elevation trails are snow covered.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $10 per vehicle, free with the National Parks Pass.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
The northern Visitor Center was packed with Rangers. One giving a 2 p.m. talk on animal tracks; at least three behind the desk. Thing is, we were on our way out of the Park by the time we found where the Rangers live.

If you enter Lassen from the north, you will find the Park well-staffed. If you are driving in from the South, you will probably wonder ‘where the heck is everyone?’

Old and New Rocks
TOURS/CLASSES (5/10)
We were too miserly to purchase the $6 auto tour guide, relying instead on the roadside pullouts to tell us what we were looking at. So we drove and drove until we reached the northern Visitor Center and Museum.

One worthwhile stop was the self-guided trail in the “Devastated Area”. This short, mostly paved walk gave us a crash course on the area’s turbulent history. The Devastated area, once green with trees and grassy fields, was swept clean (denuded says the Park pamphlet) by lava flow and onslaught of rocks spewed from the volcano. Interpretive panels explain how B.F. Loomis not only alerted the rest of the area’s inhabitants of the erupting volcano but also found time to photograph and document the event. The Site’s museum is named after him.

At the Loomis Museum, Daily Ranger talks are offered summer afternoons. There is a film shown on request, a few displays and a slight bookstore. We could have spent more time at the Museum and VC but, like we said, we were pretty much finished with our Park experience by the time we arrived.

FUN (5/10)
Lassen Volcanic National Park provided a scenic drive between Aunt Martha’s house in Paradise, Calif. and our last chance to have an In-N-Out Burger in Redding, Calif. It was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but we were hard-pressed to find a reason to spend more time since most of the signature trails were still snow-filled and inaccessible.


Mt Lassen
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10)
Lassen Volcanic NP contains all four types of volcanoes found in the world today. It also provides insight as to how an area recovers after a volcanic eruption. If volcanoes are your thing, you will find Lassen fascinating.

TOTAL 41/80

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Danville, Calif.
Visited: June 17, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 204 of 353
NPS Website

Aaaaaaah!WHAT IS IT?
Home where Eugene O’Neill, our country’s only Nobel Prize-winning playwright, wrote his last six plays which included Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh.

BEAUTY (5/10)
Eugene O’Neill and his third wife, Carlotta, designed their house in accordance to both Taoist principles and their own personal fancies. The O’Neill’s so-called Tao House is more interesting than beautiful.

Taoist influences include outdoor paths and indoor hallways that turn sharply at right angles. There are false doors, protruding walls and colored mirrors, all designed to keep the bad spirits outside. Some personal touches include recessed windows, spine-tingling masks and dormitory-like white brick walls. It is hard to remove Eugene O’Neill’s soul grabbing black mirror and his frightening devil masks from our consciousness.

The Tao House sits atop the East Bay hills overlooking the San Ramon Valley. The House’s grounds offer beautiful views of Mount Diablo, the area’s highest point.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (5/10)
Eugene O’Neill is undoubtedly America’s greatest playwright but his plays were much more personal than political. His focus was his own inner demons. The tour goes into great depth about O’Neill’s troubling past and fails to analyze his plays and their impact.

CROWDS (8/10)
There are no casual walk-in tourists at the Eugene O’Neill NHS. The mandatory advanced reservations stop that. Instead, everybody on the tour has some sort of interest in Eugene O’Neill. One woman on our tour had been to O’Neill’s house in Connecticut. Her personal knowledge of the playwright enhanced our experience.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5)
O’Neill’s Tao House is located in the Oakland Hills very close to the quaint town of Danville. You cannot drive to the site because it is located within a gated community. As a result, you must arrange your visit ahead of time. The phone number is (925) 838-0249.

A Ranger leads tours of the house twice daily. Meet at the Danville Park and Ride, located just off the I-680 Sycamore Valley Exit, and pile into the NPS minivan. The Ranger chauffeurs you through Danville and up to the House. There are no tours on Monday and Tuesday. Tours fill up; plan accordingly.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
Good but not great. Copies of all O’Neill’s plays are for sale as are a few DVD’s and videotapes of his plays’ performances. We wish the bookstore carried plays and/or books written by his contemporaries. We felt lost in a literary sense during our entire stay because of the tour’s emphasis on O’Neill’s life. A more comprehensive bookstore would have helped us place O’Neill among his peers.


Here the Demons Will Be Confused
COSTS (5/5)
Eugene O’Neill Tao House must be visited via a guided Ranger tour. Both the tour and entry are free.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
The same tireless spitfire of a Ranger does both the Eugene O’Neill NHS and Port Chicago Naval Magazine N MEM tours. She is amazing and seems to be the only Ranger on educational staff at both sites. Because the tours’ numbers are limited, she is able to avoid being completely overwhelmed.

TOURS/CLASSES (7/10)
First, we must embarrassedly confess to never having read an O’Neill play. Before our visit to this Site, our perception of O’Neill was limited to the fact that he had won a Nobel Prize and colored by Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of him in Reds.

NPS assumes, and not unjustly, that if you have gone through the trouble of securing reservations, getting yourself to a Park and Ride lot and allow yourself to be shuffled into a shuttle van that you have at least a cursory knowledge of the man whose home you are about to visit for the next two hours.

By the time the O’Neills built and moved into the Tao House, 35 of Eugene’s plays had been published; three Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize had been won, O’Neill’s greatness as a literary figure well-established. This is the starting point of the tour.

We wandered the gardens and toured each room of the house, learning a little more about O’Neill’s parents, his relationship with Carlotta, his children and his vices with each step. Touring the Tao House gives you an introspective look at the man behind the pen in the setting where he wrote his five most famous and autobiographical works. We learned a lot; we would have learned more had we done a little homework before the tour.

Since Michael occupied the front seat in the van, he used the ten-minute ride both to and from the site to fill in some blanks. Why have O’Neill’s plays declined in popularity over the years? “Well, it’s not fun stuff. Nobody really wants to be depressed, do they?” was the Ranger’s frank response.

Where The Iceman was WrotethFUN (6/10)
Two of O’Neill’s sons committed suicide. He disowned his only daughter because she married an actor, namely Charlie Chaplin. He suffered from a laundry list of unrelated but serious illnesses. One of these, a rare degenerative disease similar to Parkinson’s disease disabled him from the physical act of writing. O’Neill, being an impossibly stubborn man, refused to write at all once he could no longer transfer his words from “head to hand to paper”. He produced nothing in the last ten years of his life. Not exactly fun stuff.

What was fun was the chauffeured drive through a lovely town and up the hills into a gated community, a guided tour of a quirky house whose inhabitants interpreted Tao philosophy to suit their decorative needs and the opportunity to see the writing space and into the psyche of one of America’s greatest artists. Did we mention it was free?

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10)
Are you interested in the life of Eugene O’Neill? If you are not, then a tour of his house might not be a day well spent. If you are an admirer, then you owe yourself a visit.

TOTAL 50/80

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near Merced, Calif.
Visited: May 24, 2005
Second Visit: August 11, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 199 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website; Bookstore Website

Rainbow at Vernal FallsWHAT IS IT?
A stunning Sierra mountain valley immortalized by Ansel Adams’ iconic black and white photographs. The valley holds the largest concentration of waterfalls in the world. After the winter melt, the granite valley becomes alive with cascades.

BEAUTY (10/10)
The Yosemite Valley is one of the most beautiful places in the United States. Its signature landmarks are numerous, stunning and contained in such a compact area; the Park feels more like a planned outdoor amusement park than a natural wonder. Its attractions carry names that are indelible to the American outdoor conscience, from the tremendous granite behemoths El Capitan and Half Dome to the graceful beauty of Yosemite Falls, North America’s tallest waterfall.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
A small reconstructed village behind the Visitor Center indicates that Native Americans inhabited the Yosemite Valley for as long as 8,000 years. Aging exhibits display the crafts and ornaments of these people, but offer little more in historical insight. A small woman quietly sat among one of these displays weaving a new basket, similar to the ones behind the glass. We might have asked her, had we not been so taken by surprise.

An 1864 Act by President Abraham Lincoln granted the Yosemite Valley to the State of California as a public trust. The area encompassed by Yosemite NP was the first piece of land set aside by the federal government solely for protection and public enjoyment. As a result, the Yosemite Valley has been the inspiration for photographs, paintings, sketches and other art forms for well over a century.

Gab on Top of the FallsCROWDS (4/10)
Over 3,000,000 people pack into Yosemite NP every year, most of them visiting only the Yosemite Valley, home to all the marquee attractions. In addition, the tourists come primarily between the spring snowmelt and the first snow of the fall. Odds are it will be very crowded when you come to Yosemite Valley.

The large crowds are a double-edged sword. First the good: Everybody is happy and having tons of fun. Kids are excited and smiles are everywhere, you might as well be at Disneyworld.

Now the bad: The large crowds necessitate advanced planning, especially if you want to spend the night. There are no same day openings from April through October. You NEED to book a campsite five months in advance. Yes, FIVE MONTHS IN ADVANCE. Everyone from Rangers to tourists to the birds above repeated this planning mantra. Since we have not had to plan at any other National Park Site we refused to believe in Yosemite’s exclusivity. Now we believe. Book your lodge and hotel rooms well in advance too.

Do not expect to find you own secret hiking spot in the Yosemite Valley. All ten trails are full of people with varying levels of hiking skills and perfume amounts. Even the very strenuous Half Dome hike (up over 4,000 feet in 9 miles) is full of people, most of them greeting you with warm hellos. Michael first gained his love of hiking here, mostly because of the kind nature of his fellow hikers.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
You can approach Yosemite Valley from three cities situated along California Route 99 and America’s agricultural center, the San Joaquin Valley. From the north, the Yosemite Valley is 118 from Modesto via Calif. Route 120. Merced is 78 miles west via Calif. Route 140 and Fresno is 90 miles south via Calif. 41. The Park is a feasible day trip from Sacramento (180 miles away) and the Bay Area (about 180 miles away, too).

Measures to make the park accessible to visitors (the shuttle bus, day use parking and advanced reservation campsites) did not help us. The shuttle bus is superfluous at best. Cars can and do travel on all park roads. The loop drive is all idling cars all the time. Our shuttle was packed with people but covered the slow roads at a crawl, two miles in 45 minutes.

Yosemite FallsUntil you get onto the trails, the Yosemite Valley experience is chaotic. Dust and construction line the pathways. Access paths and roads are unmarked. There are few Rangers and volunteers armed to help. We had no idea where to go and what to do. We were not the only ones. A British couple pleaded to us, “we’re just trying to figure out what’s here to do. Seems a bit disorganized, innit? Especially for being in America. Usually you guys have everything in order.” After we concurred with their judgment, they felt relieved. “Well then, it’s not just us. Good luck.”

We could not help but compare Yosemite NP to Zion NP in Utah. Both are situated in a valley, both have shuttle buses and droves of tourists. In contrast to Yosemite NP, cars are not allowed on Zion NP’s loop road. Shuttle buses run every 5 minutes and everything moves smoothly. Unlike Yosemite NP, Zion NP has numerous outdoor exhibits that explain what to do at the Park.

The Zion NP Visitor Center stands alone, a few steps from day use parking, and serves as a visual center and meeting place. The Yosemite NP VC is hidden in a cluster of independently owned restaurants, concessionaires and bookstores, collectively called Yosemite Village. The VC is also a two-mile walk from day-use parking.

Nothing about Yosemite NP is accessible or easy. You need to plan all aspects of your trip ahead of time. This flagship National Park deserves better.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5)
Yosemite Valley counters its lack of organization with an overwhelming glut of concessionaires. If you go hungry, cannot find the right book, Ansel Adams picture or souvenir then you have not looked hard enough. There are 12 restaurants in the Yosemite Valley, an Ansel Adams gallery, a well-stocked (if not pricey) backpacking specialty store, a terrific (and reasonably priced) supermarket, at least four bookstores and one store dedicated to all things black bear. Unbelievably, all these places were crowded on a pre-Memorial Day Tuesday afternoon.

COSTS (1/5)
Park entry is $20 per car.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5)
There did not seem to be any Rangers at Yosemite NP, only volunteers surrounded by questioning tourists. We felt lost at Yosemite NP.

There can be no excuse, funding or otherwise, for a dearth of Rangers at Yosemite NP. The other Parks in the National Parks pantheon, Yellowstone NP, Mt. Rushmore N MEM and Grand Canyon NP all had sufficient staffing. Yosemite NP should not be an exception.

TOURS/CLASSES (2/10)
Yosemite NP feels like it is in the late stages of a transition from the classic National Park to a privately run nature-based theme park. The NPS presence is minimal at best.

NPS offers two tiny, decaying museums and an introductory film. We searched for the theater but could not find the entrance. We visited on a Tuesday in May along with tens of thousands of other people. There was only one Ranger talk that day. We missed it. In May, when the Park’s waterfalls are at their most stunning, there is never more than one Ranger talk per day. Yes, even on weekends.

Your tour-led Yosemite Park learning and discovery must be done through the Yosemite Mountaineering School, the Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts Division, the Sierra Club or the Ansel Adams Gallery. Most of their offerings are fee based.

Nevada Falls at Full BlastThe Yosemite NP brochure and newspaper rank among the NPS’ least helpful. You are on your own.

FUN (9/10)
Yosemite NP beauty is overwhelming. We found it difficult to believe our surroundings were real. Take time to breathe everything in. Bicycle around the Valley. Hike up the edge of waterfall on the Mist Trail. Stare forever at the countless plummeting cascades. Humble yourself in the awesome mass of El Capitan and Half Dome. Lose yourself in the energy of this magical place.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10)
Even with its lack of Rangers and post-renovation logistical challenges, Yosemite NP remains a must-see American attraction. Were we disappointed? Well, yes. But all of our grumblings were drowned out by the roar of snow-fed cascades and the shrieks and laughter of visitors getting soaked as they got closer and closer to the subjects of their photographs. Have we seen anything more beautiful than the Yosemite Valley? Nothing comes to mind.

Looking for a free guided tour or a place to pitch your tent on a spur-of-the-moment camping trip? Keep looking. Yosemite NP is neither cheap nor user-friendly. Still, a full day in this magical place and a few miles up and into the mist of Vernal and Nevada Falls were all we needed to confirm the legendary beauty of the Yosemite Valley.

TOTAL 47/80

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