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Posts Tagged ‘great campsites’

Gobble Gobble

Mammoth Cave’s Thanksgiving connection is probably lost on anyone except the usa-c2c.com team. Here’s a hint: look at the accompanying picture. Yes indeedy, Mammoth Cave is where we saw the trip’s first wild turkey. What a turkey it was! His red gullet was swinging, his large breast was fully puffed, his feathers were furled, and his strut was a sight to behold. Where are the fine lady turkeys? Surely somewhere close.

We however were still in our car and moving towards one of the world’s grandest cave systems. But the turkey wouldn’t be our only above ground experience in this underground wonderland. No siree. We were camping for the first time ever in the United States. Yes, the first time. At the campground check-in, the Park Ranger suggested a nice spot so we followed her advice and took Space #76.

All night we were serenaded by gobbling turkeys, chirping crickets, and other less identifiable but surely benign things. That is until the rains started. Rain. Nice to sleep in when it’s outside your apartment window, not so nice to sleep in when you’re in a tent and the water is seeping in. We were having shelter issues in a cave-based National Park. It’s funny in retrospect.

Click Here to Read More about the Park indoor activities.

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

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

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

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (2/10)
Not much. In fact, it was one of the last areas in the continental United States to be fully surveyed. Piute Indians lived in the oasis for over 10,000 years but their lives and place names have been literally removed from the Site. When the Park was named a National Monument in 1909, it was known by the Piute name, Mukuntuweap. Ten years later, the area became a National Park and was renamed, Zion.

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

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

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

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (5/5)
Zion NP is one of the easier wilderness National Parks to get to. It is 30 miles east of Interstate 15 in southwestern Utah and 150 miles east of Las Vegas, Nev.

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

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

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

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

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5)
The Bookstore at Zion spans the entire width of the Visitor Center. In addition to the rows and rows of books arranged by subject, there is an entire wall of framed prints of Zion’s most famous landmarks photographed at sunrise, sunset and various points in the day. Zion offers a small selection of the retro-WPA National Parks posters that we adore as well as the usual selection of shirts, totes, and souvenirs. Volume and selection earn Zion a high mark.

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

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

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

The excellent Zion Canyon shuttle bus is always free.

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

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5)
God bless any Ranger working at the Kolob Canyon Visitor Center. That VC is in the Park’s northwestern most corner, a few hundred yards from Interstate 15, Exit 40. Hundreds, if not thousands of visitors, every day, must see the brown NPS sign reading “Zion National Park, This Exit”. Technically true, but over an hour from the more famous Zion Canyon parts of the Park.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOTAL 60/80

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near Everglades City, Fla.
Visited: January 4, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 133 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Porpoises

WHAT IS IT?
At 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. This review covers the northwestern portion of the Park; the area serviced by the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.

BEAUTY (8/10)
There are two routes through the northwestern Everglades: 1) a narrow inland waterway that winds through the impenetrable mangroves and 2) one that skirts the mangroves and follows Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The inland route is mangrove monotony. The dirty brackish water never raises to levels more than five feet and the horizon stays perpetually level. Ospreys hover and shriek at every turn, wood storks fly overhead and egrets patrol the ground. We expected to paddle next to alligators but left disappointed; none appeared during our three-day canoe trip.

The coastal keys are tiny, white sand, prototypical deserted islands noted by gargantuan and intricate seashells, resourceful raccoons and porpoises diving their way through the gentle waves. We enjoyed a perfect pastel-colored Florida sunset while flocks of white ibises flew in a V-shaped formation overhead.

The route from the Keys through the Ten Thousand Islands and back to Everglades City is like being in a giant maze. The “Islands” are indistinguishable mangrove entities. Tides change the shallow waters’ navigability and create patterns and channels that differ from the published charts. Even with a map, navigation is impossible; everything looks the same. We managed to find our way home but not before paddling within yards of a perched bald eagle.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
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.

CROWDS (7/10)
Backcountry permits are issued up to 24 hours before departure. Rangers recommend getting to the permit desk early since all sites are first come, first served and can fill quickly. Backcountry campsites are limited, but there were still several options available when we inquired.

We had planned for excess people because of the holiday season and even some gators since we are in the Everglades, but we had no idea raccoons and water rats were considerations when preparing for our canoe trip. When we returned to the VC a few days later with our newly purchased hard-sided container and duct tape, we had even less of a problem securing the campsites we wanted.

Where We SleptFour other campers shared the chickee where we camped the first night. Space was tight on the two raised wooden platforms, but our fellow paddlers were pleasant and seemed as equally vexed by the winds, tide charts and sameness of the landscape as we were. We liked them.

Four other couples pitched their tents at Pavilion Key on day two. The stretch of sandy beach was long enough to leave ample room between all of us, giving us some privacy in an otherwise exposed environment. The noises we heard at night and the footprints we spied in the morning made us thankful we took an extra day to raccoon-proof our belongings.

Canoes and kayaks share the waterways with fishermen and motorboats at Everglades NP. Unlike our time at Voyageurs NP, where we were certain our canoe would tip with each speeding sportsman, fellow boaters at the Everglades seem to move at a slower, friendlier pace and didn’t affect our experience at all.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
This portion of the Everglades is completely water-based. You cannot go out there without a boat. Canoes and kayaks are available for rent. Boat tours leave often from the Visitor Center dock. The Visitor Center is about 40 miles east of Naples in Everglades City. Everglades City is located on Florida Route 29 about eight miles south of the Tamiami Trail.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
Consisting of two shelves opposite the backcountry permit desk, the bookstore is small but we couldn’t think of what else we might need. If you skip the boat tour and decide to venture into the Everglades on your own, do not leave without purchasing the water resistant Everglades nautical map. Souvenir items, postcards and some resort-priced beverages are available at the small gift shop/convenience store downstairs.

ShellsCOSTS (1/5)
There is no park entry collected at the Gulf Coast VC. This portion of the Park is water-based so you need to bring a boat, rent a boat or pay for a boat tour.

Do it yourself charges are as follows:

$5 for 7-day boat launch fee (motorized)
$3 for 7-day boat launch fee (non-motorized)
$10 for backcountry permit processing fee
$2 per person per night backcountry camping fee
canoe rentals range anywhere from $25 -$40 per day
$19.88 (tax incl.) for Everglades nautical map

An independent concessionaire located on the first floor of the Visitor Center runs two boat tours that leave the docks hourly:

Ten Thousand Islands Tour – $21 per adult, $11 per child, One hour 30 minutes in length
Mangrove Wilderness Tour – $35 per adult, $17.50 per child, One hour 45 minutes in length

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
e entered the VC on three different occasions and met with at least four different Rangers. One was even willing to answer a question while on his way to the bathroom. Michael says thanks and sorry.

TOURS/CLASSES (7/10)
The Gulf Coast VC is small, existing more for issuing permits than exhibit-based education. Nonetheless, a great many panels are stuffed in the small area. A touch me table shows you the immensity of manatee ribs.

Rangers give a half hour talk everyday at 1:00 and give 4-hour long canoe explorations three days a week. Bring your own canoe or rent one.

We did not purchase a Boat Tour. That would have been a bit redundant. We saw a few leave. They looked crowded despite their amazing frequency.

FUN (7/10)
Our time in the Gulf Coast portion of Everglades NP was challenging. Vexing tide charts, shallow water, unpredictable offshore winds, pesky thieving raccoons, water rat prints in the morning right next to our tent (aaaaaah!) and 13 miles a day of paddling through repetitive landscape. We argued a lot.

The lows were balanced by amazing highs. Once we stopped paddling, our prospects improved immeasurably. The Everglades wilderness is a mysterious and wonderful place. We camped along a Gulf Coast beach, watched the sunset by ourselves and collected shells unlike any we had ever seen along any shore. Once the sun went down the absolute blackness was interrupted only by droning wave crashes and snorting porpoises.
Our night spent in the mangroves was even better, the sounds completely unknown. We camped at the Sunday Bay chickee; a raised wooden platform tucked into a small mangrove inlet. We sat up in our tent for hours trying to figure out the impossible things occurring in the near vicinity. Herons squawked and mullets jumped endlessly but other things we could not figure out.

We know this. Something definitely died. We heard water splash, high-pitched shrieks, wings flapping, and some deep growls. Was it an alligator (do they growl) or maybe a bobcat or Florida panther (how would they get into and around the mangroves)? We asked a Ranger what it was. “Could have been anything. It is the Everglades.”

SunsetWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10)
It is true, we did argue a lot out on the water. We were disappointed by our alligator count: 0 and a little unnerved by evening marauders on the beach. Paddling is tiring and it took about a day to lose our sea legs and feelings of slight nausea. So those are the negatives.

The plusses: spending the night on a chickee is a very neat experience, as is camping on what feels like your own island. We lost count of egrets, herons, storks, pelicans and porpoises. There is a reason why thousands of amateur artists and photographers (ourselves included) try to capture the pinks, oranges and pastels of the Florida sun.

There are other options, other than a 3-day independent journey into the maze of mangroves. Those options are affordable and frequent. A Ranger leads at least one boat trip each day. If water-bound vessels aren’t your thing, the Gulf Coast VC might feel a little limiting. Don’t worry, there are more terrestrial activities further down the road at the Shark Valley VC.

TOTAL 49/80

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southern Florida
Visited: January 2, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 132 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Sunset View Over the Lake

WHAT IS IT?
729,000 acres consisting primarily of cypress forests. This large expanse of land serves as a watershed to the Everglades National Park, Big Cypress N PRES’ neighbor to the south.

BEAUTY (7/10)
The wild beauty of lurking American alligators dominates the Park’s murky canal water. These magnificent ancient beasts are everywhere. The surrounding bald cypress forests teem with sunning anhinga and every native North American wading bird. Even the wretchedly ugly and endangered wood stork soars above. The wet prairie landscapes are uneventful but therapeutically calming after time spent driving through Miami.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
Big Cypress swamp’s primary role, both ecologically and as a National Park Unit is to be an unspoiled source of water into the Everglades. It was designated a Park Unit in 1974 shortly after an explosion of land development, oil speculation and economic exploitation severely threatened Big Cypress and in return, the health of the Everglades.

Since then, the Park has been the main location of the Florida Panther’s rise from near extinction. Dozens of Panthers now roam the Preserve.

Hello FriendCROWDS (8/10)
We always feel giddy while driving on the Tamiami Trail through the Preserve. Anglers and giggly tourists line the canal. Gators and wading birds are everywhere. There is a constant air of enjoyment. Nearly everyone driving the route stops at the Visitor Center asks questions about wildlife and wonders about the mysterious Florida Panther. We found the VC as crowded as any park we have been to.

The nearby Monument Lake campground, however, was not crowded at all, amazing given that the nearby Collier-Seminole State Park campground was full and cramped to Andersonville-esque proportions. We had a lovely time at Monument Lake. Campsites along a paved road circle a modestly sized, gator-infested lake. Once the sun starts sinking, the entire campground starts walking around the road, which at this point resembles a giant running track. Smiles and light conversation abound. This was the most pleasant and friendliest campground yet.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
The Park is simultaneously very accessible and uniquely prohibitive. South Florida’s two primary east-west routes pass through Big Cypress N PRES.

Interstate 75 (a/k/a the Everglades Parkway c/k/a Alligator Alley) passes through the Park’s northern section but offers no access to the Preserve. It is a toll road, no exits are allowed and tall barbed wire fences prevent any spur of the moment excursions.

If you want to enter the Park, you must take the southern route, U.S. 41 (a/k/a the Tamiami Trail). The Visitor Center stands at the road’s halfway point, 50 miles east of Naples and 50 miles west of Miami. You can hike the Florida Trail from the VC to both the north and south. Ask ahead about how much water covers the Trail.

The Tamiami Canal parallels the two-lane Tamiami Trail through the length of the Park. The Canal provides visitors with constant bird watching, fishing and alligator spotting. A few unpaved roads provide access to more remote section of the Preserve. ORV use is allowed in parts and is the primary vehicle used for people who choose to hunt in the Park.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)

Conveniently separated into three main shelves: flora, fauna and history and children’s. Birders and those in search of wildlife get primary attention here. Big Cypress knows its audience. Also among the selection are River of Grass and Voice of the River, tributes to Florida’s wilderness written by Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Relaxing by the LakeCOSTS (4/5)

The Site is free.

Sites at the lovely Monument Lake campsite cost $16 per night. The campground is 8 miles west of the Visitor Center and only a few hundred yards north of the Tamiami Trail.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)

During our half dozen or so trips into the Visitor Center, there have always been at least two volunteers and one Ranger on duty. Often two and even three Rangers have been there to help out and answer questions. The most interesting staff member posted behind the desk was a firefighter taking a break from administering prescribed burns at the Park.

While we were stamping our National Park Passport Book, a staff member saw a Jimmy Carter NHS stamp and asked about that Site. We told the person how wonderful the Site was and how much respect we had for the president. Their response was, “well, I’m not supposed to tell you this but everyone seems to know anyway.” “What could it be,” we imagined. “President Carter is here today. He’s just a mile down the road at Clyde Butcher’s Gallery on vacation.” “Thanks.” we said as we rushed down the Tamiami Trail hoping to catch our second glimpse of Jimmy in two weeks.

But it was not to be. He was in the back having lunch. We asked the Secret Servicemen to tell the president how much we enjoyed his Sunday school lesson two weeks ago. We are sure they obliged.

TOURS/CLASSES (5/10)
We enjoyed the 15-minute introductory video shown at the Visitor Center. The film packs a strong educational punch even though it must have been made just a short time after the Park’s opening in 1974. Charts explain the watershed and short clips identify many of the Site’s wildlife. The film tells you what you will see and shows you things you are hoping to see. Michael heard loud gasps from everyone in the theater, even his wife, when the legendary ghost orchid appeared on screen. Who knew it was such a big deal?

Frequent Camp VisitorWe have found that many of the older films, Big Cypress’ included, focus on educating the public. The newer films tend to be fancy public relations-oriented pieces short on information and long on pretty pictures.

While the older films stand the test of time, the older museum exhibits do not. Big Cypress is no exception. The Museum displays are woefully inadequate given the large amounts of tourists the Park receives. We had little room to move. The centerpiece display is a stuffed Florida Panther that was tragically killed along the Tamiami Trail by a speeding car.

Rangers give sporadic talks and walks during the season. The crowds at Big Cypress N PRES are mostly transient spur of the moment visitors. The Park is not a destination Site, more of a place to break up the drive from Miami to Naples. The lack of Ranger activities is not surprising.

FUN (9/10)
The drive through Big Cypress on the Tamiami Trail is one of our favorite things about Florida. Where else does a major highway take you straight through otherwise untouchable swamps and forests? Driving through Big Cypress N PRES reminds you that despite all the development and expanding civilization, at its heart, Florida is totally wild.

When we came to Florida a few years ago for a cousin’s wedding, we took this drive almost every day. We couldn’t stay away. Little has changed this time around.

Cold-BloodedWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10)
It is the middle of winter and gators and green vegetation are everywhere basking in the sun, as are we. Do you really need convincing? When you do come, be sure to drop into Clyde Butcher’s Photo Gallery and Shop located just a mile east of the Visitor Center. Known as the “Ansel Adams of the Swamp”, his black and white photos perfectly capture the many moods of south Florida’s wilderness. You will be following in the footsteps of a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

TOTAL 57/80

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

Want More?

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.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (8/10)

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.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (2/5)
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.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
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?”

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10)

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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near International Falls, Minn.
Visited: June 4, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 51 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Our IslandWHAT IS IT?
A boreal forest ecosystem carved by Ice Age glacial action consisting of dozens of lakes and hundreds if not thousands of islands. Voyageurs NP is a water-based park. 84,000 acres of water, in fact. Hiking trails exist, but their entry points must be reached by boat.

BEAUTY (8/10)
The waters glisten, the islands charm and the skies shine a stunning blue. Numerous bald eagles soar above while one of the continent’s largest varieties of warblers sing in the background. You comment to yourself, “this place is so beautiful”. Then another motor boat loudly speeds by and rocks your canoe.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (3/10)
More so in the Park’s name. These lakes were just a traveling route for the Voyageurs, like a present-day interstate. Park videos will explain the Voyageurs to some extent, but if you are interested in the history of the French-Canadian über-trappers, go to the site of their annual rendezvous: Grand Portage NM, Minnesota.

CROWDS (1/10)
The National Park Service sites are for everyone, snowmobilers, motorists and boatsmen alike. Still, the ubiquitous presence of outboard-motored fishing boats brought our humble canoeing selves to a breaking point many a time. We wanted to experience the pathways of the voyageur, voyageur-style: in a canoe. Wrong choice on a weekend. We fought constant wakes from inconsiderate anglers. Finding a campsite was impossible given our distinct speed disadvantage, the crowded nature of the Park and the relative lack of park designated tent sites.

After entering the Park’s waterways, we slowly paddled from filled campsite to the next while our high-speed, first-come, first-served competition easily claimed the empty sites; preparing their ornate tents while we cursed our canoe, each other and motor boats in general. We eventually found a darling island, about 60 feet in diameter (not an actual campsite) where we were able to pitch the tent. Little did we know that we were in earshot of two official sites where the swearing, cribbage games (presumably), and outboard motors blocked out all natural sounds until long after 11:00 p.m.

Lest we sound too grumpy, we did have a great time. Just don’t expect peace and tranquility.

On the LakesEASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
Ranger-led boat tours start in mid-June for a fee. Until then you need to a rent or purchase a water going craft to experience anything.

CONCESSIONS/ BOOKSTORE (4/5)
We visited three of the Park’s four Visitor Centers. All three had terrific book selections ranging from Ojibwa legend and fiction, Voyageur books, and a large selection of birding information. We were tempted to buy an adorable stuffed moose but somehow relented. There are plenty of other kid-related items, nice T-shirts and a waterproof map of Voyageurs NP for $8.95; cheaper than the $10 version our canoe outfitter was offering.

COSTS (3/5)
The park itself is free, as is the backcountry camping pass. The boat you need to travel within Voyageurs is not. Plan accordingly. There are only a few outfitters nearby the Park. Most of the lodges offer boat rental but only if your staying with them.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
All Visitor Centers were staffed with numerous friendly and helpful Rangers. We suppose there are Rangers out on the water, patrolling the lakes but it’s hard to differentiate between all the boats speeding around you.

Our Private IslandTOURS/CLASSES (6/10)
There are three Visitor Centers at strategic shoreline points – each had unique exhibits and displays, as well as their own bookstores. At the Ash River Visitor Center, we had our choice of movies – one on the voyageurs, one on the formation of the waterways and one showcasing the park and its flora and fauna. We watched one on the park itself while we waited for our outfitter to come pick up the rented canoe.

The Rainy Lake Visitor Center was host to a Birders’ Rendezvous the weekend we were there. Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center was where we found out about the closest canoe outfitter and gaped in amazement at the photos of two bald eagles fighting in the Lake. The photos were taken by a Ranger getting ready to lead a boat tour.

Ranger-led boat tours do not begin until the middle of June so we had no opportunity to partake. There are additional fees for most tours.

FUN (6/10)
The first three to four hours of the first day were no fun at all. Once we got the hang of paddling the canoe together, overcame our fear of being tipped by the wake of a speeding motorboat and finally found a flat, semi-private place to camp, we had a blast.

We should have known better than to set off on one of the first hot weekends in June. The stress of finding a place to sleep was overwhelming – once we spotted our island, the worry dissipated and we were able to sit back, relax and really look at our surroundings for the first time. This place is beautiful. We sunbathed on our rocky shore. We watched the sun set for what seemed like hours. The next day, we slept in until the rain stopped, then paddled around the neighboring islands exploring and looking for wood for the evening fire.

That evening fire never happened – black skies came rushing toward us almost as quickly as the motorboats scurrying to get back to their campsites before the downpour. We had just enough time to collect our things and jump in the tent, which was being whipped by sudden bursts of wind. We held down the tent as water poured down and whitecaps formed on the lakes. Twenty minutes later, the skies cleared, the waters calmed and we had yet another phenomenal sunset. When we recounted our experience to the canoe outfitter he thought for a minute then said, “that actually sounds like a lot of fun.” It was.

Quiet TimeWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (5/10)
The Lakes are beautiful, just not peaceful. The Park seems to be unique in that it caters primarily to sportsmen. Perhaps it would be better designated as a National Recreation Area. We cannot attest to the fishing quality but there were anglers everywhere. They all seemed to be having a great time in a stunning natural setting. Who knows how many walleye, northern pike and smallmouth bass they were catching.

We would not recommend Voyageurs for a canoeing vacation. Go to the nearby motor-less Boundary Canoe Waters which are part of the National Forest System (under the Department of Agriculture jurisdiction and sadly, not a destination on our two-year sojourn).

TOTAL 41/80

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in Lake Superior
Visited: May 26, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 49 of 353
Local Website

Want More?

Click Here to Begin Our Seven-Day Isle Royale Adventure

Isle RoyaleWHAT IS IT?
The largest Island in the world’s largest freshwater lake. Isle Royale NP is a World Heritage Biosphere. Isle Royale is an incredible 99% wilderness. The 1% includes only the Rangers’ living quarters, a small lodge, two Visitor Centers and the campgrounds. The 45-mile long by 9-mile wide island boasts hundreds of moose and three wolf packs.

BEAUTY (9/10)
Spring came while we were on the Island. Wildflowers bloomed in front of our eyes; trees became a luminescent, full lime green. We thought that we had seen a newborn moose calf, but closer inspection revealed a yearling. Much of the hiking goes along the ridge and through the dense boreal forest. When the forest opens, you remember that you are in the middle of Lake Superior. Clear skies enabled us to make out the skyline of Thunder Bay, Canada, 35 miles away to the north. Nothing spoils the serene beauty here on Isle Royale. No cars, no buildings and no unnatural sounds.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
Isle Royale has mildly interesting stories of unsuccessful mining operations and dramatic shipwrecks. We found the Island to be compelling because of its veritable lack of human history. Few people have ever lived here and the forests are still virgin. Moose first migrated here in the 1900’s by swimming! A few wolves crossed the extremely rare frozen Lake Superior to get here in the 40’s. That’s cool stuff.

On the TrailCROWDS (9/10)
We found solitude at Isle Royale NP. There were very few people even on the most popular hikes. The people that we did see shared with us the same sense of personal accomplishment, detachment and amazement. There was a strong kindred spirit among all visitors to the Island.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
Perhaps the most remote National Park in the continental United States. You need to take a sturdy sea-worthy boat or a seaplane to get here. Once you are at Isle Royale you must use either its moderately difficult trails or travel by kayak or canoe through its harbors and lakes. Only one rustic hotel exists and even if you are staying there, you need to get out into the backcountry to see anything. You must hike (or paddle) and stay in a tent. There is no other way. This Site appeals to a very small and specific crowd, the willing outdoorsman.

That being said, most visitors come to Isle Royale NP for the isolation and the solitude. They would say the Park’s lack of access is its strongest asset. After a day of seeing zero people and six moose, we agree. But our rating system is not perfect and for continuity’s sake the score must be a 1.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
Both the bookstore and the lone open food store on the Island had ample selections of merchandise but very little that we wanted. The weather effectively holed us in our shelter. There were no cheap paperbacks and no selection of games/puzzles. We wanted a memento from our trip but the T-Shirts, stickers and patches all suffered from a design deficiency. We wanted a pre-packaged meal but had to settle on the salt-drenched Zatarain’s red beans and rice. So yes there is a large selection of stuff, but nothing in that group appealed to us.

On the TrailCOSTS (1/5)
The requisite boat to the Island is not cheap at $100 or more round trip. Staying on Isle Royale costs an additional $4 per day per person. Proper gear and preparation for the whims of Lake Superior will cost even more. Because of the steep transportation fee, most visitors spend at least 5 days on the Island. In fact, among National Parks Isle Royale enjoys the longest average stay per guest.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5)
Plenty of Rangers at the Isle Royale’s two Visitor Centers. No Rangers anywhere else.

TOURS/CLASSES (5/10)
Immediately after stepping off the boat, a lovely Park Ranger gave us an instructive and necessary 20-minute orientation that focused on the Leave No Trace philosophy. Everything you bring on must leave with you. She also answered all of our questions about the Isle Royale. Everyone listened intently to her “What do we do when we see a moose?” answer.

After the orientation, the Ranger issued the backcountry permits inside the Windigo Visitor Center. All hikers had to specify which campground they were to stay at on each night of their visit. We were not yet sure of our plans so the Ranger cheerfully indicated which campgrounds were the best and which vistas we should not miss. Our 10-minute talk with her was more helpful than the 175-page Isle Royale Hiking Trails book.

After leaving the Visitor Center, we felt confident in our journey. We were no longer petrified about what we were about to do. Thank you, Ranger.

Just Before the Tortellini DropFUN (8/10)
Anticipation for this particular park has been mounting for nearly a year even though we weren’t really sure what to expect. We spent over two days in Duluth and a day in Grand Marais, Minnesota preparing ourselves mentally and physically for the challenge of our first real hiking adventure of the two-year trip. This anticipation and build-up added to our fun and sense of accomplishment.

Seven days and seven nights is the longest we have ever been backcountry camping. In many ways, this was a test. Can our sedentary bodies still balance a pack? Will the novelty of pitching the tent wear out within a week? Will we get bored? Sick of each other? Answers: Yes. No. Only on a very rainy and cold day 6 and… hmm… well … No. In that order.

We felt a range of emotions on the island. Excitement, fatigue, awe, hunger (after Gab dropped the tortellini dinner), pride. It was quite an emotional roller coaster, but we laughed and smiled and dropped our mouths in wonder a lot. We nearly shed tears of joy when the sun came out on day seven and Captain Ryan arrived with the Voyageur II. Later that day we were both misty eyed as the boat sped away and we lost sight of Isle Royale.

Morning MistWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
We had a great time and were not the least bit disappointed. The beauty of the National Park was well worth the planning, the time dedication and the expense. Still, Isle Royale NP is not for everybody and Lake Superior can be a monster. You need to camp. Transportation must be done via hiking or paddling. Transportation to the Island is available only mid-April through October. Each season provides its own obstacle. If you are not fighting inclement weather, you will be fighting biting flies and mosquitoes. Our trip to Isle Royale NP was well worth it.

TOTAL 50/80

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