Posts Tagged ‘Geology’

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


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near Carlsbad, N.Mex.
Visited: March 5, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 165 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Rock of AgesWHAT IS IT?
Your idealized image of a subterranean wonderland. Carlsbad Caverns is the cave by which all others are judged. You may know it as the place where the classic science fiction film, Journey to the Center of the Earth was filmed.

BEAUTY (10/10)
Overwhelming and dramatic. The Carlsbad Caverns Natural Entrance is a giant imposing gaping hole that descends straight down into blackness. FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed all of the Caves pathways, including one that dives 200 feet down from the Natural Entrance to the Bat Cave and winds back and forth over dozens of switchbacks.

The CCC boys also built an amphitheater at the Natural Entrance where, from spring to October, tourists enjoy the evening flight of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats leaving their daytime home to hunt insects.

The hike down from the Natural Entrance enhances the amazing Carlsbad Caverns experience. Unlike other caves, the descent is on foot rather than in an elevator. You are able to gather a sense of your depth. The cave even seems more real; you have not been transported to another place via machine, you have walked there yourself, 829 feet below surface elevation.

The breathtaking formations, stalactites, stalagmites, popcorn, flowstone, soda straws and draperies appear in astounding abundance. In other caves, Rangers shine flashlights around corners to point out rare shapes. At Carlsbad, these same rare formations are everywhere. Every step down through the Main Corridor is stunning and unbelievable but still does not prepare you for the grandeur of the Caverns famous Big Room.

The Big Room goes on forever in all directions. There is no claustrophobia at Carlsbad Caverns. The vistas are horizontal as well as vertical. The Big Room is 8.2 acres, well lit with a winding paved passageway. It takes at least an hour and a half to walk through its supernatural features.

Explorers have named notable formations the Caveman, the Temple of the Sun and the Rock of Ages. Countless more are left unnamed and free to your own imaginative skills. Every turn at Carlsbad is unimaginable and incredible.

Natural EntranceHISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (3/10)
An area resident, Jim White, then a teenager, discovered Carlsbad Caverns at the turn of century. Even though White led small groups of tourists through the Cave, it did not become an attraction until pictures were published in 1915. Isolation and skepticism protected it from the throngs until National Geographic ran a 1923 story announcing it as a new Wonder of the World, akin to Yellowstone and Yosemite. Congress declared it a National Park in 1930 and its discoverer, Jim White, became its first chief Park Ranger.

CROWDS (8/10)
Elementary school aged girls, their parents, retired RVers, Harley riders, skate boarding teens, Japanese tour buses and spring breaking college students all felt the same astonishment and the same giddiness. Everyone is here and excited. It is a great atmosphere.

Despite the immensity of the Cave, things could get crowded in the summer. Even though we arrived 10 minutes after the Park opened, tours of the King’s Palace were already sold out. We got the last spot on the Left Hand Tunnel tour. If you want to take a guided tour, make your reservations ahead of time. Do not be disappointed.

Carlsbad Caverns NP is located in southeastern New Mexico, not near any population centers. In fact, it is 18 miles from the small town of Carlsbad, N.Mex. The closest city is El Paso, 150 miles to the west. The Caverns are a destination location.

Nonetheless, the paths around the Big Room are paved and wheelchair accessible, an amazing feat for a subterranean wonderland. If you do not want to walk down the strenuous Natural Entrance, an elevator will drop you off at the underground lunchroom and picnic area located near the Big Room passageway.

You have to love a place that has shelves dedicated to all things bat. Stuffed bats, bat identification books, bat T-shirts, bat-crossing signs and more.

There are two stores in the small Visitor Center area, one handles books (great selection) and the other sells an incredible array of mementos.

A third concessionaire is in the Cave itself and sells T-shirts, hats and lunchtime snacks. You can send postcards from here marked with a stamp reading sent from 755 feet underground.

Carlsbad InteriorCOSTS (2/5)
The Entrance Fee is $6, age 16 and over, and $3 for ages 6 to 15. This charge is to get into the Cave, itself, and is good for the self-guided passages down the Natural Entrance and around the Big Room. This fee is waved if you have a National Parks Pass.

Ranger-led tours of the Caverns take you to areas not covered by the self-guided tours and cost an additional fee. The King’s Palace Tour cost $8 per person. Five other, wilder Cave tours range from $7 to $20 per person and require reservations. Check for the tour schedule before you come.

Two rangers led our lantern tour which was limited to 15 people. We saw several Rangers wandering the cavernous Visitor Center before and after their tours. AND we saw no fewer than five Rangers in the caves posted strategically along the self-guided route to assist with any and all questions about the Caverns.

Carlsbad Caverns offers several guided tours daily. They range from a Ranger-led stroll through Kings Palace to a lantern-lit exploration of Left Hand Tunnel to a series of wild cave tours that will dirty your knees and test your tendency towards claustrophobia. There is something for everyone; however, most tours limit the number of participants. The arrival of a tour bus could significantly reduce your options.

Reservations are highly recommended, especially in the summer.

We chose to see Left Hand Tunnel the old fashioned way – by candlelight. We paid $7 for a two hour tour of a lesser known portion of the park.

FUN (10/10)
“Whoa! Over there!”
“Hey! Look at that!”
“Oh my gosh, check it out!”
“Wow! Wow! Wow!”

This isn’t a transcription of a couple of 5 year olds running through the Caverns; these are the phrases that Gab kept saying over and over again as we descended down the Natural Entrance and through the Main Corridor. And that’s before we even saw the Big Room.

Every corner held a giant formation, a new and strange shape or colonies of delicate crystals. Our oohs and ahhs did not cease the entire morning. They combined and joined with everyone else’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed, smiling stares as we slowly glided along, entranced by the wonders of water and rocks.

Another Spooky InteriorWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10)
This is the cave by which all others are compared. Every cave tour that we have taken has mentioned the Caverns, either as a point of comparison or a disclaimer; “If you were expecting rooms like Carlsbad’s (formations like Carlsbad’s, bats like Carlsbad’s…) you might be a little disappointed; things are a little different here…” And then the Ranger will go on to discuss the special features and superlatives (longest, largest, oldest, etc.) that relates to the cave being toured.

Carlsbad and Mammoth Cave NP in Kentucky are the only American caves to be named UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Tellingly, the NPS brochure that highlights the World Heritage Sites mistakenly labels a shot of Carlsbad’s entrance as Mammoth Cave thus removing any photographic representation of the Kentucky Park from the pamphlet. Even the proofreader sees Carlsbad as the one and only cave.

Carlsbad Caverns NP boasts the nation’s deepest limestone cave, the fourth longest cave and one of the world’s largest underground chambers.

Carlsbad Caverns is the granddaddy of all caves and a must-see American attraction. A road trip through New Mexico is incomplete without a stop here.

TOTAL 63/80

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northern Arizona
Visited: October 1, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 105 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

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Click Here to Begin Our Six-Day Grand Canyon Adventure

The Mighty Colorado WHAT IS IT?
The guts of the Grand Canyon. The 277-mile long Colorado River, beginning in Lees Ferry, Arizona and ending at Lake Mead. Whether you whitewater raft in or hike or ride a mule down from the North Rim or South Rim, your experience is going to be much different than if you chose to stay on the Rims. The views, the Canyon’s colors and the River itself become a part of you. You are inside the Grand Canyon!

BEAUTY (10/10)
The rocks at the rim are 260 million years old. By the time you have reached the bottom, you have passed ten different exposed layers of geological history and have traveled back to rocks formed 1.7 billion years ago. You see the change; the multiple hues, the physical composition and the dramatic horizontal lines. Heady stuff. The ruggedness is strikingly beautiful.

The bottom is both a peaceful oasis and a still-furious river. Trees bloom, streams rush, temperatures soar and emerald nooks like Ribbon Falls enchant. It is a different world along the Canyon floor.


When we crossed the narrow swinging bridge across the Colorado the water was that famous brownish-red stew of swift moving trouble. The same color that John Wesley Powell saw when he raced down the River, the last mysterious and unmapped place in the continental United States. Dams have changed the River’s flow and demeanor and most of the time they have changed the color as well. Nowadays the Colorado is a more mundane clearish blue. We were lucky. Rainstorms had stirred up the murky bottom. We were transported into the past. Once we left the bridge we passed a 10,000 year-old ruin of an Indian habitation. Powell saw the same ruin in 1869, next to the same red raging River.

CROWDS (8/10)
There is a special feeling of camaraderie amongst those going to the bottom. Conversation starts much easier, everyone is polite and smiles abound. You are all in this together. You are going up the same Canyon. We spoke to a couple the eve of our Canyon exit. We sat together at Plateau Point and watched the beginning of the sunset. They were both 75 years old, married to each other for 50 years and could not wait to get started on the hike out.

Ribbon Falls Oasis EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
The most difficult access hurdle may not even be the Canyon, it could be getting your hands on a Grand Canyon Backcountry Permit. We never thought we would be able to get a permit. We were not willing to set a specific date and hope for a winning lottery ticket. 30,000 requests are made each year for permits, 13,000 are issued.

Little did we know that the Park Service holds out a few first-come, first-served permits every day. If you are flexible with your schedule, quickly get yourself on the waiting list and arrive at the backcountry office before 8 am your chances are good (at least in October). Everyone we talked to that got a permit ahead of time did not get the itinerary they requested. Getting a permit is a hit or miss prospect but it is not as hard as you might think.

From the North Rim, the only marked and maintained path is down the North Kaibab Trail. It is 14 miles to the Colorado River and a descent of nearly 6,000 feet. And you have to go back up. Not too accessible.

There are two maintained paths and two other trails that lead from the South Rim down. The distances of the four trails vary but the descent to the River is going to be 5,000 feet. We hiked on both maintained paths, the South Kaibab Trail (down) and the Bright Angel Trail (up). We much preferred the Bright Angel Trail. Better views, more shade and not nearly as steep. Again, not too accessible.

The maintained paths going from the North Rim to the South Rim are collectively called the Grand Canyon Corridor. There are three campgrounds on the Corridor: Cottonwood, Bright Angel and Indian Garden. All three have toilets, emergency phones, potable water and Ranger Stations. Most of the hiking permit requests are for the Corridor. First-come, first-served trips are limited to three nights on the Corridor, ahead of time requests have no bounds. If you are willing to hike in the Threshold, Primitive or Wild Zones (Canyon hiking experience highly recommended in all three) securing a permit might be easier.

Getting to the North and South Rims is another story. See their separate reviews for more information.

Mule Train’s Coming The boat option may not be as taxing to your legs, but the Colorado may well be the most treacherous white water in the world. We say take your chances with the mules. Most of the people we saw going down looked petrified. Spots on the both the boats and the mules book months even years in advance.

Regardless of your choice, it is going to be fun.

The mere fact that there is something at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is reason to celebrate. The Phantom Ranch canteen serves affordable meals, an array of candy bars and cans of beer. They also sell Phantom Ranch logo hats, shirts, patches, pins and more. Buy ‘em while you can, because as an added bonus they’re only for sale at the bottom. You will have proof for all your friends that you made it.

The Phantom Ranch, as well as a host of rest stations along the way down the maintained Grand Canyon Corridor, has water pumps dispensing potable H2O. You don’t have to carry days worth of heavy fluids on your back and a water purifier is unnecessary. Incredible stuff if you think about it. Check with a Ranger Station before your descent to make sure the water pipes are working.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $20 per vehicle, or free with the National Parks Pass.

Backcountry permits cost $10 per permit plus $5 per person per night camped below the rim. Our three-night stay cost a total of $40. Not bad for a four-day, three-night stay at the bottom of one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Nights at the rustic Phantom Ranch, located nearby the Colorado are not expensive. Cabins cost up to $92 per night and a dorm room bed goes for $26. Not such a bad price when you consider you do not have to lug your tent and sleeping bag back up the Canyon.

On the other hand, mule rides down and up the Canyon can get pricey; they start at $130 per person. The full 277-mile, two-and-a-half week trip down the Colorado can get exorbitant, ranging anywhere from $2,800 to $4,500 per person. Both need to be booked well in advance.

Rangers are posted in the backcountry. This is a first for us. Two plus one volunteer at Bright Angel (Phantom Ranch), two at Indian Garden and er none at Cottonwood. It may be a foolhardy thought, but along the Corridor you always feel that official help is nearby. At Bright Angel, the Rangers that come around and check your backcountry pass are extremely talkative, average about 10 minutes of conversation per campsite.

Plateau Point TOURS/CLASSES (7/10)
We were too tired to attend either, but there are two Ranger-led talks a day at Phantom Ranch. We repeat, two Ranger-led talks per day at the BOTTOM OF THE GRAND CANYON! Maybe they are really good, who knows. This rating is pure speculation.

The Grand Canyon Institute offers numerous fee-based backpacking trips/classes into the Canyon. If this sounds like your sort of thing, click on the link above for more info.

FUN (10/10)
Hiking the Grand Canyon has become Gab’s official answer to, “What is the best thing you’ve done on the trip?”


If you have the ability to hike out, do it. If you can afford the white water, do it. If you have nerves of steel, go down on a mule. The experience is out of this world. The October weather was perfect, the hike was spectacular and we easily got a permit. We had the time of our lives.

Try not to go in the summer. The temperature at the bottom rises above 110 degrees. There is no way we would like to carry a pack in that weather.

TOTAL 63/80

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northern Arizona
Visited: September 30, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 105 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Want More?

Click Here to Begin Our Six-Day Grand Canyon Adventure

South Rim View WHAT IS IT?
Uh, it is the Grand Canyon. 277 miles long and ten miles wide of Colorado River carved amazement. The South Rim is the most visited area of the Park, the most accessible and by far the most tourist-friendly. Oh, yeah, the views from the South are pretty spectacular.

BEAUTY (10/10)
Absolutely overwhelming. Your mind cannot comprehend what it is looking at. The Canyon is so big and so deep that it feels like an abstract. “I cannot be looking at what I think I am looking at.” And even after you have stared for hours from different overlooks and myriad angles it still does not make sense. The Grand Canyon cannot be captured on camera, it must be seen and experienced.

We did not get the historical feel up top that we get down below. The Colorado River seems distant, like you are not even in the place where John Wesley Powell rafted through.

On the other hand, from here it is easy to empathize with Coronado, the first European to see the Grand Canyon. Legend has it that while looking for the seven cities of gold he got to the Canyon and turned around dejectedly, believing it to be impassable.

The most visited archaeological site in the National Park System, the Tusayan Ruin, stands along the South Rim, about 20 miles east of Grand Canyon Village. A walking loop wraps around the stone ruins while panels explain what once stood on top of the remaining base.

CROWDS (4/10)
It is crowded here. Regardless of the season, you are going to run into swarms of tourists. Fair enough, it’s the Grand Canyon. The shuttle buses do their best to alleviate the traffic problem that is created by the street’s confusing layout.

The people at the South Rim are not nearly as friendly as their counterparts along the Canyon switchbacks and even those at the North Rim. Our hellos were often met with rude looks. Tourists cut in front of us and some nearly ran us over even though we had just hiked out of the Canyon and still toted 40-pound backpacks. Maybe they forgot that they were no longer in Las Vegas.

People do crazy things at the South Rim. For a photo opportunity, a family of Japanese tourists posed their seven and ten year old girls next to a squirrel and had them pet the nasty little rodent. Who knows what happened. We put our heads down, kept walking and tried to forget what we just saw. The precipitous ledges and their 3000-foot sheer drops also do not deter people from hanging over the edges, risking life and limb. No wonder the newly reintroduced California condor has chosen to make its nest just below the South Rim. Those wily scavengers are not stupid.

Desert View Overlook EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
The South Rim Visitor Center is a straight 60-mile shot from Interstate 40 up Arizona Route 64. The Park is only 80 miles from Flagstaff, Arizona. If you can’t find lodging at the Grand Canyon, there are plenty of options along Old Route 66 in delightful downtown Flagstaff.

The Park Service operates three shuttle bus routes along the South Rim. The Red Line that travels from Grand Canyon Village to Hermits Rest is the only mandatory shuttle. Automobiles are allowed in all other portions of the North Rim. Parking should not be much of a problem.

The Rim Trail is paved for five miles from Pipe Creek Vista to Maricopa Point. Much of the remainder of the Rim Trail is a easy flat hike along a dirt pathway. You could spend all day walking along the South Rim. Trouble is that you are sure to have an urge to go down into the Canyon. Then things get tricky so see our Grand Canyon (Canyon Floor) review.

If you want anything Grand Canyon-related, books (T-shirts, hats, jigsaw puzzles, you name it) and don’t find it at the South Rim, you haven’t looked hard enough. There are fifteen bookstores/gift shops along the Rim, many of which are found in Grand Canyon Village. It is not only knickknacks. The Hopi House, Verkamp’s Curio, the Desert View Trading Post and maybe a few others specialize in southwest Indian art: woodcarvings, pottery, kachina dolls and jewelry.

The South Rim may as well be a small bustling town. The services are plenty and in general centrally located. There are 10 places to eat including the expensive El Tovar Dining Room. We preferred the menu selection, prices and views of the Grand Canyon North Rim lodge to any of its counterparts in the South.

Most welcome at the South Rim is the General Store, an affordable priced, well-stocked supermarket. If you have forgotten anything for you hike or want to have a picnic alongside the Canyon Rim everything you need is here. And they have a great selection of powdered Gatorade mix so you don’t have to drink the Grand Canyon’s piped in potable water straight.
Other services at the South Rim include a kennel, a National Parks library, a bank, a dentist, an auto repair shop, a judge (for marriages we presume) and a post office.

COSTS (2/5)
Entry is $20 per vehicle, or free with the National Parks Pass.

There are an astounding number of lodging options along the South Rim. 363 campsites ($10-$15), an 80-site RV village ($25) and six Hotels ($49-$286). Of course, plan ahead, especially in the summer. Only the 50-site Desert View Campground operates on a first-come, first served basis. We had no trouble getting a campsite at the 313-site, more centrally located Mather Campground.

Grand Canyon NP keeps the South Rim stocked with Rangers. There are many Ranger-led talks and plenty of people to answer your questions. We asked a Ranger, “where should we leave our car while we hike to the bottom?” She told us Parking Lot E, then take the Hiker’s Express shuttle to South Kaibab Point.Not only is the ride there much quicker, but when you emerge from the Canyon, your car is only a few hundred yards away.

After telling us what a nice route we had planned, she and another Ranger started talking about different routes down and their experiences in the Canyon. They both spoke so passionately about where they work. We excused ourselves from the conversation and they kept sharing interior Canyon stories. We left even more excited about the hike to come.

In the off-peak month of October, there are 18 Ranger talks a day, an incredible number. We are sure that the number swells come summer. The degree of walking difficulty ranges from a strenuous Ranger-led 3-mile hike down the South Kaibab Trail to a leisurely nature walk along the paved Rim Trail. Topics include Grand Canyon geology, the invasion of non-native plants, the early photography of the Canyon, a Ranger’s choice lecture, Shakespeare and the Park (we don’t know either) and the successful reintroduction of the California condor.

We attended the terrific condor talk. After it was over, we walked along the Rim with the Ranger, as did half of the tour group, and spotted birds. The Ranger had an extensive knowledge of the Park’s birds. When we asked what raptors we might see on our hike, she rolled off a list of fifteen explaining their migratory patterns and habitat. Much to our delight, we did spot a California condor high above us while we hiked in the Bright Angel Canyon.

The Ranger also told us that throughout fall, members of HawkWatch International spend all day at both Lipan and Yaki Points. They count migrating raptors and are more than eager to help the amateur birder.

Future PathThe South Rim has two (maybe three) museums. The Tusayan Museum showcases southwest Indian artifacts in an incredibly cramped and dark room. Spend a few minutes, but don’t expect to learn much. The Canyon View Information Plaza is more of an outdoor, exhibit-aided trip planner. In that sense, it serves its purpose well. The Kolb Studio we guess is a museum. Inside are paintings done of the Canyon as well as a traveling exhibit: photographs of the Navajo Nation.

If you want to learn anything about the Canyon, you need to take a Ranger tour; the museums are not going to help. We much prefer the human interaction to a static museum. We like the educational route that the South Rim has taken.

FUN (9/10)
Don’t expect quiet solitude at the South Rim. Excited people are everywhere. It is still possible to lose yourself in the power of the Canyon views.

Uh, it is the Grand Canyon and the South Rim boasts the classic panoramas. A must-see American destination.

TOTAL 62/80

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Lower Geyser Basin, Old Faithful, West Thumb, Grant Village, Fishing Bridge, South Entrancenorthwest corner of Wyoming
Visited: September 16, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 84 of 353
NPS Website

Yellowstone National Park is a diverse natural wonderland roughly twice the size of the state of Delaware.

We have broken our Yellowstone reviews into three separate entries: the North, Central and South because of the Park’s immense size and staggering variety of experiences..

Old FaithfulWHAT IS IT?
The South portion of Yellowstone National Park offers a wide array of tourist activities. It lies almost entirely within the Yellowstone caldera. The caldera is a remnant of tremendous supervolcanic explosions. It is the depression left behind by the reverse impact of the supervolcano’s debris. The supervolcanoes’ still active magnetic heat is partially responsible for the geyser fields and hydrothermal activity.

The South’s prime attraction is the incredibly active Lower Geyser Basin, which includes the Fountain Paint Pot and the Great Fountain Geyser. The Upper Geyser Basin is home to five predictable geysers including the Park’s poster child, Old Faithful. 70% of the Park’s geysers and hydrothermal activity occurs within this small area.

The 17-mile road east of the Geyser Basin crosses the Continental Divide twice before arriving at the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. The nearby Grant Village Visitor Center tells the story of the 1988 fires that swept through this area, burning over a 1/3 of the Park’s acreage. The blue expanses of Yellowstone Lake provide stellar fishing, bird watching, hiking and paddling.

The wildlife-rich Hayden Valley, the stretch of the Yellowstone River going upstream from the Lake to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is also home to two malodorous geothermal sites called Mud Volcano and Sulphur Canyon.

BEAUTY (10/10)
Yellowstone NP’s wide array of colors is absolutely dazzling. The thermal fields produce oranges, blues, whites and greens in indescribable hues. They combine with the yellow meadows, the changing leaves and a crisp blue sky to create masterpieces. Cameras cannot capture Yellowstone. Boiling water falls into creeks. Steam bellows off rivers.

Lone Bison bulls sit by the road. Bald eagles and osprey swoop overhead. Waterfalls roar from all directions. An eternal mist lingers and then rushes from above the earth’s vents. The cold blues of Yellowstone Lake stretch for miles. Youthful lodgepole pines sprout everywhere. This place teems with life. It is nature. It is beauty. You need to see Yellowstone to believe it.

In 1872, Yellowstone became the world’s first National Park, the first time land had ever been set aside for public use. Yellowstone NP served as the initial model for the conservation of our precious landscape.

The flight of the Nez Perce in 1877 took them from their Idaho homeland to their defeat at Bear Paw Battlefield took them through this section of Yellowstone NP. A few tourists were taken hostage and one was even killed.

CROWDS (8/10)
What a difference two weeks make. In late August, there are still lots of kids at Yellowstone NP. When we returned in early September, the diverse crowds remained but the kids were conspicuously missing. Now we were the young whippersnappers.

Michael was out-of-control giddy in the Upper Geyser Basin, speed walking from place to place hoping to catch every explosion. The many people he passed invariably commented, “do it while you can, young one,” or “when I was your age…” We loved it.

Despite the cold, calmness pervaded over some of the elderly vacationers. They slowly walked hand in hand with content smiles, not caring about Old Faithful scheduled explosion, just amazed at the beauty around them. Others were eager to see the geyser bursts, but none perhaps more unruly than Michael.

Both the South Entrance and the East Entrance lead into the South portion of Yellowstone NP. The East Entrance is 52 miles west of Cody, WY via U.S. Route 20 and not near any Interstate. The South Entrance incorporates the John D. Rockefeller MEM PKWY and leads directly into Grand Teton NP.

Waiting for Old Faithful While getting to remote northwestern Wyoming may pose problems, the Park, itself, is very accessible.

Numerous pull offs and picnic areas allow the motorist to see oodles of wildlife. The entire eight-mile stretch from the Lower Geyser Basin to the Upper Geyser basin is virtually connected with boardwalks, paved walkways and accessible trails. Yellowstone NP’s Rangers’ herculean efforts ensure the visitor an optimum experience.

The Yellowstone Association operates four bookstores in the South and eight in the Park as a whole. All eight have distinct National Parks Passport Stamps. Gotta get ’em all. Gotta get ’em all.

There are seven restaurants/cafeterias in the South, three at Old Faithful, two at Lake Yellowstone and two at Grant Village. The food looked a bit over-priced, but, geez, what can you do, the Park is bigger than two States.

COSTS (3/5)
A $20 vehicle entrance fee is good for a week’s stay at Yellowstone NP and Grand Teton NP’s combined 2.5 million acres. Entry is free, free, free with the National Parks Pass.

Xanterra Parks and Resorts runs three of the four campgrounds in the South. The small city sized 432-site Bridge Bay and 425-site Grant Village Campgrounds are available through Xanterra. The 346-site Fishing Bridge RV Campground cost $31 per night and is an RV-only campground. These three accept reservations.

We stayed at the charming 85-site, tent-only NPS-run Lewis Lake Campground. First-come first served baby. That’s what we’re about.

Lodges are plentiful in the South, three in the Lake Yellowstone vicinity and three nearby Old Faithful. Xanterra Parks and Resorts runs them all.

The South boasts three large Visitor Centers all within 38 miles of each other. Grant Village and Fishing Bridge are well staffed, easily accessible and helpful.

In the summer, Ranger-led tours occur at the VC’s with ridiculous regularity. Fall and winter aren’t as active.

If you come in fall (like us) go inside! Museums a plenty. We loved the The Fishing Bridge Museum’s wide variety of stuffed birds; mounted and on display as far back as 1931.

The Grant Village Museum’s 1988 fire-themed displays showed how the American citizenry vilified the National Park for letting the fires rage. Rangers steadfastly averred that they must let nature take its course. Things will be OK. No one believed them. We remembered being so sad that we would never be able to see the grandeur of Yellowstone.

Well most of us were wrong and the Park Service was right. Throughout the Park, 10-foot high and growing lodgepole pines stand underneath their scorched ancestors. The dead trees will soon fall with millions poised nearby to take their place. The cycle of life is very beautiful.

Turbulent WatersFUN (10/10)
Picture us scampering from geyser to geyser just waiting for them to burst. Hear us oohing and aahing so loud that we felt uncomfortable…for a second. Then we sighed in amazement some more. Yeah, this place is fun.

If you come to Yellowstone NP, you have to see Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin. It is as simple as that. If and when you do come, plan ahead and spend some time here. Yellowstone is so large and offers so much. Don’t just drive the 166-mile Figure Eight auto tour. You can’t see everything in one day.

Spend some time in the Park. Get out of your car. and hike the 1,000+ miles of trails accessible to all skill levels.

A Ranger told us, “everything is better in the backcountry.” She was right. The beautiful thing is that almost all of Yellowstone is backcountry. Walk twenty feet from the road and you are in a natural state. The Park is wonderful. Yellowstone NP is one of America’s crown jewels.

TOTAL 71/80

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Arco, Idaho
Visited: September 15, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 93 and 94 (We don’t understand either) of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

A Crater of the MoonWHAT IS IT?
Remnants of over 60 recent lava flows, the latest of which occurred only 2,000 years ago.

BEAUTY (6/10)
The landscape at Craters of the Moon NM certainly is distinct, but our 5 Rating might be a stretch. The subtleties were lost on us; we thought it looked like a gravel pit. The dark, fragile and sharp rocks decorate every flat horizon while cinder cones pop up every now and then. Sinewy curves run through the rocks, remnants of the fiery lava rivers that carved the land.

Not much. A foolish band of Oregon Trailers once tried to detour through the Craters of the Moon but rethought their route through the lava fields after their wagons and their feet were severely damaged.

CROWDS (4/10)
The crowds did not bother us; they were all smiles. We had problems with the small Visitor’s Center and its stuffy Museum. The Museum was our only chance to learn anything about the weird and foreign landscape we were in, but we had few occasions to read the exhibits. Too many people in too small a place.

Michael was especially disappointed not to take in the 70’s-era diorama explaining the pathway of the hot spot that now sits underneath Yellowstone National Park and created the Rift Zone of Craters of the Moon NM. After 15 minutes of trying to force his way through a phalanx of well-behaved 13-year olds receiving instruction from the Site’s one Ranger, we decided to start hiking.

Craters of the Moon NM is not as remote as Idaho’s five other National Parks Sites, but it’s close. U.S. Route 93 provides access from the west and U.S. Routes 20 and 26 from the east. The Site is 90-100 miles from the Gem State cities of Twin Falls, Idaho Falls and Pocatello. Craters of the Moon NM also falls along the scenic path that leads from Boise to Yellowstone NP and is nearby to the resort town of Sun Valley and the Sawtooth Mountains.

The few accessible parts of the Site are very accessible. A newly paved seven-mile loop takes you to six different lava field overlooks. The overlooks and the trails that sprout from them are mostly paved or on boardwalks.

We saw no books specific to the environment of the Site. The generic selection of bird and geology guidebooks was no different from the base stock at every other Park or at the Borders™ around the corner.

Freezing GabCOSTS (3/5)
The Site costs $5 per car to enter. We believe entry is free with the National Parks Pass. No one was checking during our visit. The Park’s 51 campsites are absolutely free. The National Parks Guide stresses that you bring a sturdy ground cloth as you are camping in the middle of a lava bed field. We saw a few pitched tents and would have camped had it not been so cold. The campground looked really nice.

There was only one Ranger and one volunteer in the smallish Visitor Center to deal with over 35 tourists, including a group of 20 middle school students. There were no posted Ranger talks or guided hikes, they only happen from Memorial Day through Labor Day. We would have appreciated the Site more had we been able to both learn from and question a Ranger. Given the large amounts of visitors we encountered in mid-September, the NPS should heighten the Ranger presence throughout the months of May and September.

There were no guided tours of the lava beds. The mimeographed self-guided tour pamphlets were $0.50 and available only at the Visitor Center and not at the trailheads. Especially vexing since the 7-mile car tour is one-way. We had little idea what we were looking at. Troubling, since Craters of the Moon has been described, the free Park Pamphlet tells us, as “an outdoor museum of volcanism” and “the strangest 75 square miles on the North American continent”.

The Visitor’s Center introductory video is helpful but not nearly enough. The remainder of the museum had limited exhibits that looked to be from the Mission ’66-era that we could not even read because of the large crowds.

FUN (3/10)
There is not a lot to do here. The fragile rock restricts access to all but the few paved and permissible trails. You see the same tourists at every overlook and trail. By the end of your stay you know the make and model car of everyone you have said hello to.

The Way AroundWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10)
We left with the feeling that we had arrived after the party was over. Instead of oozing lava, there were just flat fields of rock. Since the lava flows occur every two thousand or so years, the Great Rift field under the Craters of the Moon is due. The fun should happen again within the next few hundred years. Keep your eyes open, this place will soon be alive again.

TOTAL 31/80

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Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower-Roosevelt, Lamar Valley
northwest corner of Wyoming
Visited: August 22, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 84 of 353
NPS Website; USGS Website

The Roosevelt Arch. Welcome to Yellowstone NP. For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People Yellowstone National Park is a diverse natural wonderland roughly twice the size of the state of Delaware.

Because of the Park’s immense size and staggering variety of experiences, we have broken our Yellowstone reviews into three separate entries: the North, Central and South.

Yellowstone’s northern tier exists outside of the Yellowstone caldera and, as a result, enjoys a much greater variety of plant and animal life. Herds of bison roam the expanses of the Lamar Valley, joined by wolf packs, pronghorns and elk.

Most of Yellowstone’s easily accessible mountain peaks are here in the North. Nearly all of the Park’s bighorn sheep live in the alpine terrain just south of Tower Fall around Mount Washburn.

The North’s most famous attraction is Mammoth Hot Springs. This extensive system of multihued cascading hot springs is very similar in geological development and appearance to the interior of spectacular caverns like Carlsbad and Mammoth. At Yellowstone, nature has been turned inside out.

The Mammoth Hot Springs exist outside the caldera and bubble and flow from the heat generated by the slow northeastward movement of the Jackson Hot Spot; the same Hot Spot that ten of thousands of years ago created the lava fields at Craters of the Moon NM and the rich potato-growing soils of southern Idaho.

View From Mount WashburnBEAUTY (10/10)
The North was the most beautiful part of the Park, especially the Lamar Valley. More wildlife, more diversity, higher mountains and supernatural hot springs.

In 1872, Yellowstone became the world’s first National Park, the first time land had ever been set aside for public use. Yellowstone NP served as the initial model for the conservation of our precious landscape.

The area also boasts of a long and important Native American history. The obsidian found throughout the Park was the most widely traded good in North American for thousands of years. Indians ranging throughout the continent fashioned arrowheads almost exclusively from materials mined here.

CROWDS (9/10)
Everybody in the North was so happy. We encountered so many different and excited people many of whom gave us indelible memories. There is much space and a wide array of activities nearby: fly fishing, auto touring, wildlife watching, hikes along paved walkways and boardwalks, moderate hikes through valleys, strenuous hikes up mountains and little used backcountry trails.

As soon as you venture away from the road, you see few people. The Beaver Ponds Loop Trail begins and ends in the heavily trafficked Mammoth Hot Springs area. Once we started hiking, we saw more elk than humans. Solitude is possible but hardly necessary given the giddy joy on all faces.

North Yellowstone can be accessed from Interstate 90 in Montana via U.S. Route 89 and U.S. Route 212.

Route 89 travels 58 miles south from Livingston, Mont. to Mammoth Hot Springs. This scenic route follows the Yellowstone River the whole way and enters the Park underneath the imposing stone Roosevelt arch at the Park’s North Entrance.

Route 212, the Beartooth Highway, is a 124 mile drive from Billings, Mont. It is one of America’s most scenic drives. Starting in Red Lodge, Mont., it climbs tremendous heights, eventually crossing the Wyoming border at the 10,947 Beartooth Pass. The road passes through the Custer and Shoshone National Forests and is every bit as stunning as the Going-to-the-Sun Road at Glacier NP. Understandably, it weather often makes it impassable.

On the Way to the Visitor CenterRoute 212 enters the Park at Silver Gate, Mont., the Northeast Entrance, and travels 29 miles through the Lamar Valley before reaching the Yellowstone Figure Eight Driving Loop at Tower-Roosevelt. The Lamar Valley is home to much of the Park’s wildlife and is seldom traveled because it is outside the standard auto tour loop.

The North section of Yellowstone NP forms the ? portion of the Figure Eight Driving Loop.

Once you get to Yellowstone, the Park is very accessible. Numerous pull offs and picnic areas allow the motorist to see oodles of wildlife. Mammoth Hot Springs can be closely viewed due to an extensive boardwalk system that is constantly being rebuilt. Yellowstone NP makes incredible efforts to ensure the visitor an optimum experience.

The Yellowstone Association runs eight different (and all outstanding) online bookstores in the Park. The Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center hosts their only store in the North.

Two full-service dining rooms, one at the Roosevelt Lodge and one at the Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge offers meals and full Verizon cellular service.

COSTS (3/5)
A $20 vehicle entrance fee is good for a week’s stay at both Yellowstone NP and Grand Teton NP, an incredible bargain given the sheer amount of things to see in the Parks’ combined 2.5 million acres. And it’s all free with the National Parks Pass!

The North has five campgrounds and 237 campsites; all NPS-run and first-come, first-serve. Mammoth campground is Yellowstone’s only year-round campsite. These are some of the Park’s most popular car camping sites and often fill up early.

Loungin’ Near the Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center There are Xanterra-run lodges, cabins and hotel rooms at both Roosevelt and Mammoth.

Backcountry camping is free. If you’re the worrisome type you can make ahead of time reservations for $20 per trip.

Rangers are everywhere and they do a terrific job. Amidst the madness of the heavily touristed Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center, Gab received day hike brochures covering six of the Park’s major areas. The Ranger took the time to pick out her favorite hikes on all six and explain that she has made a concerted effort to try them all. Her picks were all stellar.

A zoologist Ranger spots wolves along the Lamar Valley road nearly every day. Her stories of the wolf pack soap opera-esque saga are legendary.

Yellowstone NP offers so many Ranger Programs that it distributes an 8-page newspaper handout to everyone entering the park regarding these tours. The number of programs tapers severely as the seasons change and the weather turns nasty. Take a tour here. The Rangers are great.

We took the Mammoth Hot Spring Terrace Walk during what was technically summer. The cold rains came and our delightful Ranger immediately made sure to put the plastic weather guard on her signature straw hat. The weather did not deter our tour, but it was nice to linger in the warm steam of the Hot Springs.

Mammoth GabWe gained a good understanding of the tricky geological notions of calderas, supervolcanoes, hot spots and travertine formations. Her talk was a remarkable introduction to the mystical steaming world of Yellowstone.

For $0.50 a pop, the Yellowstone Association provides helpful glossy, color self-guided trail booklets for nearly every sub-section of the Park.

FUN (10/10)
The Mammoth campground hosts were greeted by us every morning as we extended our stay “just one more day”. This happened three times. Rangers told us that the best hikes in the Park are in the North. We have no reason to argue.

The North also felt less crowded and more off the beaten path. The outsourced lodges, campsites and gift stores have less of a presence. If it hadn’t been for the crazy weather we don’t know if we ever would have left.

On Top of WashburnWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10)
Oh my heavens yes. Yellowstone NP is the classic National Parks destination. Much to our delight the Museums, tours, staffing and bookstores are all equal to the stunning natural surroundings.

Everything here is done right.

We loved the North and would love to spend days, if not weeks, in the backcountry here sometime soon.

TOTAL 74/80

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Florissant, Colo.
Visited: August 12, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 75 of 353
NPS Website

The Florissant Fossil BedsWHAT IS IT?

Remnants of an ancient lake, now a golden meadow, where 35-million years ago a volcanic eruption instantly fossilized insects, leaves, cones and spiders that were at the waters’ surface when the explosion’s dust descended. The fossils provide a rich snapshot of a late Eocene era Redwood forest.

BEAUTY (7/10)
Little imagination is necessary to picture the missing lake. Because their roots cannot penetrate the volcanic rock, modern trees shape an invisible shoreline. The flowering meadow rolls and sways with the wind. The Rocky Mountains provide a dramatic backdrop to this quiet spot.

Petrified sequoia stumps, distant relatives of the California variety, take center stage on the shortest of the nature walks. The Monument’s amphitheatre is built around a cluster of three fossilized redwoods. Along every trail and walkway are dozens of wildflowers, most still in bloom. Each was named with a small sign, a very nice touch for those of us who are (very) amateur botanists.

“When the mountains are overthrown and the seas uplifted, the universe at Florissant flings itself against a gnat and preserves it.” – Dr. Arthur C. Peale, Hayden Expedition Geologist, 1873.

Fossils were so well preserved at Florissant, scientists are able to review details as minute as hairs on a wasp, compound eyes on a fly. It is a treasure chest of scientific information which practically doubled the catalogue of known insects.

Despite this wealth of information and a movement towards making Florissant a protected area, land developers wanted wealth of their own. Plans to build roads and houses over the fossil bed nearly destroyed this site. Our Ranger told us that a local group of well-to-do-women, the Friends of Florissant, positioned themselves in front of the bulldozers to hasten the process of preservation. Florissant was named a National Monument shortly after in 1969.

CROWDS (6/10)
If we felt a little rushed during our visit, it was not because of others. We, like several others at the Monument, assumed that it was open until 7 p.m. According to our AAA Colorado Guidebook and the Official Guide to the National Parks, it was. However, when we arrived late afternoon, we learned that due to severe budget cutbacks, gates to the Park area now close at 5:30 p.m.

The other visitors to Florissant Fossil Beds did not affect our stay positively or negatively.

Good SmellsEASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5)
Florissant Fossil Beds NM is about 40 miles west of Colorado Springs. The Site is on Colorado Route One, two miles south of U.S. Route 24. There are two self-guided nature trails on site. The ¼-mile A Walk Through Time loop is fully paved and not too steep. The one-mile long Petrified Forest loop goes along a partially paved, part gravel travel. There is an all-terrain wheelchair available for use in the Visitor Center.

The bookstore has an excellent selection of local Colorado history books, nature books and books specific to the fossils found nearby. The store has a Smithsonian-published coffee table book, written by an on-site paleontologist, which includes hundreds of full color pictures of the fossils found at Florissant.

The Rangers at the Park have typed up personalized recommendations of their favorite books for sale at the store. We had yet to see this friendly and helpful touch at any of the Sites’ bookstores. The recommendation cards made us feel closer to the Park and its lifeblood, the Rangers.

COSTS (3/5)
Admission is $3 per person. Children, defined here as 16 and under, are free. There is no entry fee if you have the National Parks Pass.

Two women ran the show here. Both seemed to be experienced Rangers who prided themselves on the individual attention visitors receive at Florissant. There was a volunteer who greeted us when we first arrived and urged us to attend the next Ranger talk which was occurring at the amphitheatre in minutes. We are glad he did.

One visitor disputed the classification of a plant on one of the walks. Rather than just politely agree, the Ranger eagerly sought the botanist on loan from the Bureau of Land Management to help answer her questions. Florissant is also lucky enough to have a resident paleontologist.

As if a dedicated staff was not enough, Florissant Fossil Beds NM also hosts summertime day-long seminars featuring experts in ecology, geology and history. Educators attending these seminars can receive graduate credits from a nearby community college – well worth the $35 fee ($25 for current Friends of Florissant).

Our time at Florissant was shorter than we would have liked. In the time we were there, we attended a Ranger talk, took the two most popular self-guided walks, browsed the Visitor Center and chatted at length with both of the Rangers. It was a full afternoon.

The Ranger talk was a hands on explanation of how fossils were formed and the current landscape was shaped at Florissant. The Ranger took her time and had plenty of pieces of cap rock, flint, fossils, petrified wood and photos to share with her audience. The talk is held right next to some of the largest petrified sequoia stumps – good props themselves.

4.57 Billion Years AgoThe pamphlets that accompany each self-guided nature walk are nicely written. You can purchase them: 50 cents for one; $1 for the other. Or just borrow them and return them at the end of the trails. At the tail end of the one mile Petrified Forest trail, there are wooden signs spaced apart, marking major life events, such as the introduction of mammals, the first indication of vertebrae and the lifespan of dinosaurs, in the earth’s history. Every two inches equals one million years. A cool visual learning tool and nice way to finish up our visit.

FUN (7/10)
If only the park were open later! We enjoyed the walks we took. There are 14 miles of hiking trails in the park. We are sure they are all beautiful. We enjoyed our time with both of the Rangers, but much of their time was taken up reminding people that the parking lot would close at 5:30 p.m. Menacing rain clouds also sped our steps across the meadow. Lightning out here is no joke. Despite our time constraints, we took pleasure in every minute we had at Florissant.

Florissant Fossil Beds NM definitely qualifies as a hidden gem. Problem is, it is so hidden, that you might miss it. Especially if budget cuts continue to whittle away at staff and operating hours. It is not far from Colorado Springs, Colorado, but the roads are not interstates. Be sure you know which roads are paved before you plan your route.

TOTAL 53/80

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in south-central Kentucky
Visited: May 11, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 42 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Frozen Niagara at Mammoth Cave
To date, 365 miles of mapped passageways, the largest cave system in the World.

BEAUTY (9/10)
Every room and every passageway has a unique and striking beauty ranging from overwhelming awe to subtle grace and including everything in between. Each turn brings a different world more incredible than the last. Both tours we took followed a natural dramatic plot that built towards a breathtaking climax. They were epic movies that revealed unknown worlds. Their beauty was so unbelievable that we frequently had to remind ourselves that we were not on a movie set or on a ride at a theme park. We were underground. Incredible.

Native Americans explored the caves for gypsum, which they used to make paint and perhaps had other medicinal or ceremonial uses. Parts of Mammoth Cave were converted into saltpeter mines between 1810 and 1814. Mammoth Cave was one of many caves that supplied the United States with most of their raw material for gunpowder during the War of 1812. Thomas Jefferson’s embargo had made gunpowder importation from India and China impossible.

Mammoth Cave is one of America’s oldest tourist attractions. Stephen Bishop, a slave, became known as one of the best guides, exploring and naming most of the rooms and tunnels still visited today. Local businessmen would purchase land around Mammoth Cave and search for sinkholes which could signify new entrances to caves which they could convert to money-making attractions, drawing tourists from their original destination of Mammoth Cave. Today’s Cave City carries on this tradition.

CROWDS (7/10)
The National Park Service puts a limit on the number of people that can go on each guided tour. We went on two tours, the 2 ½ hour ‘Making of Mammoth Cave’ was full at 60 but the 4 ½ hour ‘Grand Avenue Tour’ was nearly empty with only 25 out of a possible 118 tourists. The size of the ‘Grand Avenue Tour’ was a joy but the ‘Making of…’ tour’s size did not detract from our visit. We had no trouble asking either of the two Rangers a question.

Be forewarned. A Park Ranger told us that come Memorial Day, most tours sell out. A summer visit to Mammoth Cave requires planning. Reservations can be made in advanced for all Cave tours. You do not want to travel the whole way to southern Kentucky just to find out that there is no way for you to go into the Cave.

Unfortunately, if you use a wheelchair or have any sort of difficulty walking, you will not have much opportunity to enter Mammoth Cave. There are tours of varying lengths and catered to various physical abilities, but none are accessible to individuals with physical disabilities. Ages ago, the National Park offered a “wheelchair tour” using the elevator to the underground cafeteria, but due to liability concerns, those tours ceased.

The Park is not required to offer accessible tours of the caves since the Visitor Center and one of the walking tours is.

For the first time in the Ratings, we are also reporting on the ease of use of campgrounds located in a national park. We tent camped in the most central campground, located just ¼ mile from the Visitor Center and Mammoth Cave Hotel. There was ample space at the grounds which hosts both tents and RVs. We were allowed to take a look around and choose which site we wanted for our two nights. We ended up going to the site the Ranger recommended. The campgrounds are clean and bathrooms with potable water are within short walks of all sites. The whir of RV generators was the only annoyance. We should probably get used to it.

The bookstore is great. It takes up about a quarter of the Visitor Center and is filled with books on the history and geography of Mammoth Cave, spelunking and orienteering, the War of 1812 and the mining of saltpeter.

COSTS (1/5)
You can only go into Mammoth Cave on one of 10 different guided tours. Each guided costs a different amount, ranging from $10 to $45 dollars a person. Seeing the Cave could get pricey.

There seemed to be Rangers everywhere. They do a terrific job of making themselves accessible. We were amazed.

The tours we went on left with two Rangers. The ratio of two Rangers to 60 visitors on our tour seemed overwhelming but proved otherwise. The Rangers are skilled guides and found a way to answer everyone’s questions mainly during the long walks from place to place.

We saw the maximum 14-visitor, 6 ½ hour long ‘Wild Cave Tour’ leave with three Rangers. The ‘Wild Cave Tour’ costs $45 a person and is a get on your hands and knees pull yourself through small passages full-on spelunking tour. Next time.

We did not go on the any of the Tours that max out at 120 visitors. We believe that they also leave with two Rangers but we are not sure.

Skip the two 10-minute introductory videos on the Park and get in line to buy tickets for the Cave Tours. Everything covered in the videos will be covered in the tours.

The tours’ emphasis can be split into two categories: 1) Geology and 2) the Cave’s Cultural and Commercial History. While it is best to take one of each, the Guides will touch on both sectors. Information repetition between tours is more than likely.

Two different areas of the cave are also covered in the tours: 1) the area near the Historic Entrance and 2) the area near the Frozen Niagara entrance. Tours do overlap areas but most will show you at least one thing another tour does not cover.

We chose the ‘Making of Mammoth Cave’, a geological tour showcasing the Historic Entrance area and the ‘Grand Avenue Tour’, an historical tour that took you to all points from the Carmichael Entrance to the Frozen Niagara Entrance. We do not regret our choices. Next time we will go on the Violet City Lantern Tour, an historical journey done with only lanterns. It sounds like a lot of fun.

Weather isn’t a factor for the Cave Tours. Temperature inside the caves remain a cool 54 degrees year round.

The River StyxFUN (9/10)
We had a wonderful time. It felt fantastic to finally camp and cook outdoors, even in the rainstorm that swept over Kentucky our last day and night. The Tours were expensive but worth every penny.

Absolutely. Our tour groups were all ages. Everyone seemed to really enjoy the tours. Rangers pepper their talks with anecdotes and bad jokes. They do a good job at keeping the group together and entertained. Camping made the trip more affordable and enjoyable for us.

If your image of cave interiors is filled with stalactites and stalagmites stretching from the floors and ceilings, you might be disappointed. Cave sculptures are present in parts of Mammoth Cave viewed by the Frozen Niagara Tour and final few minutes of the Grand Avenue Tour, but are absent in most of the Cave. What Mammoth Cave does offer is a striking range of passageways, some cavernous, some a little snug for larger folks. The ranger-led tours are filled with historical and geographical facts but by no means dry. We weren’t joking about the doing the Wild Cave Tour next time. We are definitely coming back.

TOTAL 60/80

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