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Posts Tagged ‘Hiking’

near Gatlinburg, Tenn.
Visited: October 26, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 271 of 353
NPS Website

Tranquil CreekWHAT IS IT?
Wonderfully vast and diverse Appalachian mountain park that boasts over 500,000 acres and more plant species than the continent of Europe. This wilderness playground is home to many superlatives including our most visited National Park and our most polluted.

BEAUTY (10/10)
Newfound Gap Road, the two-lane highway that bisects the Park, gets our vote for one of the most scenic roads in the United States. Even though Great Smoky Mountains NP has hundreds of thousands of acres which can only be explored by trail, the casual visitor can get an astounding sensory snapshot of what the Park has to offer and hardly has to leave his or her vehicle.

Appalachian cottages are clustered near the north and south entrances of the Park. In between, the Newfound Gap Road travels aside the Oconanluftee River, winds through five distinct forest types and climbs up to meet the highest point of the Appalachian Trail. Changes in elevation guarantee that the landscape, fauna and flora will vary from start to finish. Waterfalls, stone bridges and small animals appear when you least expect them. We found it impossible to drive farther than a few miles at a time without stopping to admire the scenery around us.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (6/10)
Great Smoky Mountain NP is designated both as an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site, meaning it is recognized as a core area that preserves and protects both biological and cultural resources.

The cultural resources protected by the Park include Appalachian homes, mills and artifacts from the 19th and 20th centuries left behind as the Park was assembled through the acquisition of private lands.

Great Smoky Mountain NP is one of the first National Parks east of the Mississippi as well as one of the first patch-worked together from private lands.

On Top of Old SmokyAlthough not without opposition, activists in the 1930s convinced the states of Tennessee and North Carolina to protect the Smokies from commercial logging, purchase the land and donate it to the federal government. What is amazing is the amount of land the National Park Service has been able to manage and preserve one-half million acres?! To set aside that amount of land on the East Coast and protect it from urban and commercial development unfortunately seems like an unattainable dream today.

CROWDS (4/10)
The Great Smoky Mountains NP is perpetually packed, as in no room to walk or even breath packed. In 2005, 9.2 million people visited the Great Smokies. In the same year, 10.5 million combined people visited Grand Canyon NP, Yellowstone NP AND Yosemite NP!

We approached the Park from its southeastern entrance at Cherokee where the crowds were modest but steady. Once we crossed the Blue Ridge and entered Tennessee, there were cars and people everywhere.

The Clingman’s Dome overlook parking lot overflowed while no less than 100 professional photographer types (sturdy tripods, high-end Canons, bulging camera bags, multiple light filters, old press passes hanging from their necks and cigarettes dangling from their mouths) lined the parking lot’s ridge at sundown prepared to get the perfect sunset photo.

The descent towards Gatlinburg means more and more people and constant traffic lines along the Park’s narrow, tortuous two-lane roads. Luckily, there are ample places to pull over and take in the ethereal scenery.

The Perfect SunsetWe avoided the Park’s signature drive (we’re blushing in shame) the Cades Cove Loop Road. Evidently, the 11-mile loop takes between 2 and 4 hours to traverse because a) all the cars and b) bear jams. Black bears hang out on the road, people take pictures and traffic stops. Makes sense to us. The Cades Cove Loop is “the most heavily visited destination within the most heavily visited national park in the U.S.”

Despite the swarms of people, the Park feels like a place where, if you wander of the beaten path, you will be rewarded with tremendous scenery and some peace and quiet. Nearly the entire Park is wilderness and inaccessible by car; there cannot be people in these places, can there?

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (5/5)
The Park’s only accessibility downsides are the large crowd deterrence and twisty roads. But heck, this is what an appreciated National Park looks like: lots of people and smoggy sunsets.

Unlike Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion and the Grand Canyon, megalithic-sized tourist towns have sprung up around Great Smoky NP. If you cannot find a cheap hotel room here, you are not looking hard enough.

Gatlinburg is a quaint, Swiss-chalet-ish town with narrow streets, kitschy cute shops and a Dukes of Hazzard-tribute restaurant owned by the actor who played Cooter. Pigeon Forge is eight lanes of traffic (Route 441) sided by go-cart tracks, bungee jumping towers, motels and themed restaurants. Route 441 is numbered with mile-markers as if it were a beach town. Pigeon Forge’s most famous denizen is Dolly Parton and her amusement park, Dollywood.

Who’s That Girl?If Dollywood isn’t your speed, the Park is within 40 miles of both Knoxville, Tenn. (to the west) and Asheville, N.C. (to the east). These two quirky, growing college towns both boast prominent literary sons (James Agee and Thomas Wolfe) and desirable downtowns.

If you want to stay in the Park, there are over 1,000 campsites in 10 campgrounds. 500+ of these sites can be reserved ahead of time. Backcountry permits are free and probably the preferable way to get away from it all.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5)
On sale are hundreds of books raging in topic from local history to Cherokee heritage to mountain ghost stories. The store is also generous with the stuffed animals; we were partial to the Plush Turkey Vulture. We think those soaring omnivores are super cuddly and endearingly clumsy. The bookstore hands out an eight-page glossy flier called “Smokies Gift Ideas” which can be very helpful amid the overwhelming selection.

COSTS (5/5)
The Great Smoky Mountains proudly stands in the pantheon of American National Parks and remarkably charges no entrance fee. Perhaps that is why it is our most crowded and most visited National Park.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5)
Great Smoky Mountains NP gets mad props for manning each Visitor Center with a throng of Rangers and volunteers to direct, recommend, and manage its seemingly unmanageable number of guests.

TOURS/CLASSES (7/10)
How do you deal with 9.2 million people coming through your Park every year?

A) Offer a high-definition introductory movie in a large theatre playing on what seems like a continuous loop at Sugarlands, the most popular VC; B) Showcase your cultural exhibits outside in historic villages like Cades Cove and living history museums like Mountain Farm; and C) Publish an excellent array of supplemental booklets and brochures that visitors can purchase for a nominal fee at self-serve stations at every VC.

Climb at Your Own RiskUsually we wince at having to pay extra for trail maps or guides to scenic drives. That was before we peeked inside these wonderful, thick-papered pullouts produced by the Great Smoky Mountain Association. These single-subject supplements to the official park brochure and the park newspaper are filled with detailed information on everything from birding to backpack loops, to favorite long and short hikes. Scenic drives, wildlife, waterfalls and wild flowers also get their own specialized treatment. Priced from 50 cents to a dollar, we found these to be well worth the cost. We emptied our pockets of change and left with several.

It is hard being so well-liked. The Park’s film, newspaper, and pretty much all of its official materials highlight the challenges created by the steady stream of people and cars through the protected lands. More than an explanation or an excuse, the publications invite the public to join in the stewardship of the Park. That gets another thumbs up.

Not officially part of the Park, the newly renovated Museum of the Cherokee Indian just south of the Oconaluftee VC highlights the Trail of Tears and ten thousand years of Cherokee history.

Just before the north entrance of the Park, the Southern Highland Craft Guild operates one of their Craft Shops. As beautiful as any gallery or art museum, the Shop warrants a stop, if only to browse and admire.

FUN (10/10)
A road closure on the Blue Mountain Parkway and its mandatory detour gave us a later start in the Park than we had hoped for. We still managed to traverse Newfound Gap Road before dark, stopping frequently to climb down into creek beds, gaze up at foliage, stretch our legs and just stare.

We even took a non-mandatory but highly recommended detour up to Clingman’s Dome. Because of the altitude, we have a feeling this road leads to a winter wonderland almost any time of the year. We happened to drive up it before the road closed for the winter but after an early winter snow storm which left everything in a coat of white sticky snow.

He’s a WaterfallCan you picture how gorgeous this is with the late afternoon sun streaming through the pines? If you can’t hundreds of photographers were there to capture the moment on film.

Because of our late morning start and meandering drive, we experienced the blinding glitter and glam of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge at night. The unending commerce of Pigeon Forge makes the protected peace of Great Smoky Mountains NP all the more appreciated and quite frankly, unbelievable. We found a place to rest our heads and returned to the Park the next day to do it all again.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10)
Absolutely, emphatically, yes. There is a reason, in fact many reasons, why 9 million+ people make the pilgrimage here every year.

TOTAL 67/80

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near Enumclaw, Wash.
Visited: July 26, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 223 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Rainier’s Wildflowers

WHAT IS IT?
Standing 14,410 feet, Mount Rainier is the tallest and most imposing of the Cascade Range’s volcanic peaks.

BEAUTY (10/10)
On a clear Seattle day, she hovers omnipresent in the background like a lurking flying saucer. Her base is broad, her dome a perfectly symmetrical mound. She is cloaked by a permanent haze and appears to be a dirty yellow. Only rain and mist remove her from her keen watch over the Emerald City. When the sun returns, she does too, grander than ever.

As you drive towards her, she never disappears from view; she sees in all directions. Closeness inspires awe. There she stands with stern majesty. Glaciers and snowfields encapsulate her rounded dome. She is monolithic. She is power.

Her aura changes when you get closer and bask in her shadow. The meadows are swathed in a rainbow array of wildflowers. She is now delicate. Blues, oranges, reds and yellows stretch as far as the eye can see. She remains in the background framing every picture, providing water and life to the beauty below.

Tiny dots flicker above amidst the endless fields of white. They are hikers and climbers, every day numbering in the hundreds, aiming to scale her volatile sides and achieve personal goals. But she is unconquerable. We live with this sleeping giant, on time borrowed from her. She will not be dormant forever.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
British explorers named Mount Rainier for one of their own. Local residents have since made unsuccessful attempts at renaming the peak Mount Tahoma, its Native American moniker.

Mount Rainier became a National Park in 1899 and the first to admit cars in 1907. The National Park auto tour vacation had officially begun. The 1908 entry fee was $5 per vehicle. In almost 100 years, the fee has gone up only $5. Not too shabby.

CROWDS (8/10)
Mount Rainier easy proximity to the Seattle metropolis brings big crowds, especially in the Park’s Paradise section. If you wish to avoid the throngs and still enjoy the wildflowers and stellar mountain-view hikes, then Sunrise would be a great choice. Still, the hikers at Mount Rainier were some of the friendliest and most courteous we have found in all the National Parks.

The Park has enough trails and backcountry opportunities to make seclusion a viable choice.

We took the Nisqually Vista Hike with about 40 other people. We were the youngest by far. Everyone our age had strapped on their mountaineering boots and was heading up the snowfields. Maybe next time we will act our age and make the hike to Camp Muir.


Gab and the Volcano
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (5/5)
Hard to believe that such a stunning and accessible wilderness mecca is within a two-hour drive for so many people. At the same time, when this volcano blows, a lot of people are going to be in trouble.

The Paradise and Sunrise sections of the Park include easy trails that take you very close to glaciers. Mt. Rainier NP’s hundreds of miles of hiking trails are mostly accessible and subsequently real to the average visitor, unlike the bloated mileage numbers of so many other National Parks. The 93-mile Wonderland Trail, which people have been hiking for almost 100 years, sounds too wonderful for words.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
Each VC carried a small selection of books, nature guides and maps. The Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center split its offerings into two separate shops.

One store is dedicated to Mount Rainier captured in print, large framed photographs, video and DVD. The second store caters to all of your apparel and souvenir needs. Pretty standard NPS fare, with the exception of some cleverly named food products and “Ashware,” plates and pottery created from Mount Rainier’s more volatile neighbor, Mount St. Helens.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $10 per vehicle, free with the National Parks Pass. Campsites are priced affordably, ranging between $10 and $15 per night. A mountain climbing permit runs $30, rental gear will bring this cost up.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5)
Plenty of Rangers at all three Visitor Centers. Gab especially enjoyed her talks with a young female Ranger at Sunrise. The Ranger recognized Gab’s B hat, she had just graduated from Brown University! She gave us great hiking advice. The next day was her day off. Her plans: climb Mount Rainier. Wow.

TOURS/CLASSES (6/10)
Our first stop in the Park was the Sunrise Visitor Center near the Northeast entrance. We made a half-hearted attempt to browse through its wildlife displays, but Mt. Rainier in all its glory was beckoning us outside. After our chat with Gab’s fellow Brunonian, we skipped past the introductory panels and ran on the trails to experience the Park firsthand.

The Henry M. Jackson Memorial VC shows two films in a comfortable theatre. Its historical overview of the Site is more interesting than others we have seen, but we were still lured outside by the blooming meadows.

Mount Rainier recognizes that most of its guests have a hard time staying indoors and offers Ranger walks on a variety of subjects starting from each of its Visitor Centers. There are at least three daily strolls leaving from the Paradise and Sunrise VCs. We chose the Nisqually Vista Walk and were finally able to combine our quest for knowledge with the fresh mountain air.


Alpine Tundra
FUN (9/10)
Mount Rainier NP is a wonderful day trip. It makes an even better destination for a two or three day trip. Does any circuit hike sound better than the 7-14 day, 93-mile Wonderland Trek around the mountain?

This Park, as well as our other incredible outdoor experiences in the area, made us sincerely consider relocating to Seattle. Then we remembered that we had been frolicking around live volcanoes. The floods, blizzards and high humidity of Central PA suddenly do not sound that bad.

Michael thinks Mount Rainier is going to erupt before the Seahawks or Mariners win a World Championship. Will anyone give him odds?

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10)
Wholeheartedly. Mount Rainier is an accessible mountain, free of ski lifts and full of tremendous hiking opportunities and easy scenic walks. Heavy snowfall closes the Park down to casual tourists for much of the year. We recommend coming in July so that you can experience the vibrant shades of its countless wildflowers.

TOTAL 62/80

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

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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 Jackson, Wyo.
Visited: September 17, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 96 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Want More? Click Here for our Grand Teton Hiking Story

View of the TetonsWHAT IS IT?
A thin spine of magnificent mountains, twelve rising over 12,000 feet, which stand, unobstructed by foothills, over glacial lakes and rippling meadows.

BEAUTY (10/10)
When we easterners imagine the splendor and the romance of the Rocky Mountains, we are picturing the sharp-toothed peaks of the Tetons. The mountains are never an abstraction; you never have to guess their height. You see everything, their base, their steepness and their snowy peaks. The landscape, from the Snake River to Jackson and Jenny Lake, to the wet meadows, to the sagebrush flats to the naked mountains is extraordinarily beautiful.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (3/10)
We did not learn much history during our stay at the Park. If you are looking for historical fulfillment, the often geographically out of context Indian Art Museum might quench your thirst. John D. Rockefeller helped ensure both the Park’s protection and eternal public access by purchasing a great many acres that are now part of Grand Teton NP.

CROWDS (9/10)
At midday, the lower altitude trails around Jenny, Bradley and Taggert Lakes were all full of hikers, but most greeted us with pleasant smiles and warms hellos. We were all so happy to be hiking in such an astonishing place on perfect weather days.

We started the 13-mile round trip hike to the Forks of Cascade Canyon late. When we reached the 7.5-mile turnaround point, two twentysomething girls were resting near the directional sign leaning on their stuffed-for-a-few-more-backcountry-nights packs. They warmly greeted us; we warned them of the incoming snowstorm. They had not heard of the weather pattern, leading us to believe that they had not seen many people at all during the three days out on the Teton Ridge Trail.

They were so nice and looked so happy and content that we both immediately thought, “we have got to get out in the backcountry soon and away from the easy joys of car camping and day hiking.” We turned around inspired. When we reached Inspiration Point on the return, there was no one else there. We enjoyed the peaceful view of Jenny Lake by ourselves.


Hello, Mom
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5)
Grand Teton NP is a destination site and not particularly close to a large population center or an Interstate. Idaho Falls, Idaho, as well as Interstate 15 is 90 miles to the west of the South Entrance. The faux western, nouveau riche and wildly expensive resort town of Jackson, Wyoming is the portal to the park. It stands at the south entrance and has an International Airport.

The east entrance is a long way from nowhere and the north entrance leads only into Yellowstone National Park.

Once you find your way to the Tetons, the Park is accessible. There are numerous lodges on Site and roads take you to the foot of the mountains. Overlooks abound and hiking tails take you everywhere.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5)
Whoa. The Visitor Center bookstores, especially at Moose, have oodles of Grand Teton-related books. The kids section takes over ten shelves. A large and extremely lifelike raven puppet enamored Michael and a female octogenarian just off a bus tour. Both placed their hand in the puppet, made raven sounds and pestered their spouse with the toy’s leather beak. Fun in bookstores.

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 in the Parks’ combined 2.5 million acres. Entry is free with the National Parks Pass.

The National Park Service operates five campgrounds in Grand Teton NP, a total of 913 campsites. All Sites are $12 per night. The Park literature warns that all but the 372-site Gros Ventre campground normally fills by 2:00 p.m.

We stayed at the popular 50-site, tent-only Jenny Lake campground. This Site normally fills by 8:00 a.m. and was at capacity during our stay despite sub-freezing nighttime temperatures and a snowstorm threat.

Alpine LakeRANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
There are three well-manned Visitor Centers along the Park’s 51-mile north-south road. The Colter Bay Visitor Center included a refreshingly ebullient Ranger working the Backcountry Permit window who eagerly inundated us with more hiking information than we could handle.

During the summer months, there are numerous Ranger-led hikes along the lakes and mountainsides, talks at the Visitor Centers and nighttime campfire programs at the lodges and campgrounds. Planned activities drop off considerably the rest of the year.

TOURS/CLASSES (7/10)
The Colter Bay Visitor Center includes an Indian Arts Museum. The Museum has a tremendous amount of moccasins, beadwork, clothing, you name it, on display. The exhibits show the personal items and artistry of many different Indian tribes, some of which never resided anywhere close to the Tetons. We found it confusing and overwhelming. We find it easier intellectually to travel to Site’s and Museums dedicated only to that areas indigenous tribe. But if you don’t have the luxury of time, the Colter Bay Indian Arts is not a bad alternative.

The Jenny Lake and Moose Visitor Centers center around dinner table-sized topographical maps of the Park. We attended only one Ranger talk, at Moose, which took place around that same map. It was a pointer on hard plastic introduction to the Park and it was crowded. We tried hard, but failed, to nudge our way in to get a view of the map. So we left. We had already spent a few days at the Tetons so we probably were not the aimed demographic.

We did not attend the Ranger classes because we were having such a great time hiking the mountains. We were ably assisted by terrific (and free) map and trail guides provided by the Park. You just have to ask for them. The pamphlets explain many hikes, point of wildlife tidbits and give surprisingly detailed topographical information. The Taggert and Bradley Lakes map even shows the correct number of switchbacks on the way to Amphitheater Lake! While on the hike, Michael eagerly counted down all fourteen.


Roadblock
FUN (10/10)
As if watching the majestic Teton peaks getting closer and closer as we drove straight down from Yellowstone wasn’t exciting enough, by the time we finished talking with the Backcountry Ranger at Colter Bay we were nearly falling over ourselves rushing to get a camping spot, dump our stuff and head right into our first hikes. We found one of the few remaining sites at the beautiful Jenny Lake campground, set up camp and set out while the sun was still shining.

Each walk we took had what Gab likes to call, a “payoff.” Something beautiful that can only be reached by foot: justification for your trek into the canyon or up the hill, a good reason for why you are out of breath. Hidden waterfalls, glacial lakes and a bald eagle were among our payoffs here.

This place is magical. We felt renewed and re-invigorated with each hike and reminded that it was high time to head into the backcountry after talking with the two young girls nearing the end of their trip. We tried to cram as much as we could into the sunny days preceding the ominous weather forecast, but still find ourselves eager for more time in the Park, especially the Teton Ridge Trail.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10)
Yes. Yes. Yes. Grand Tetons NP is not as well-known or as crowded as its northern neighbor, but it is just as accessible, just as beautiful, and just as unpredictable when it comes to weather. We strongly recommend checking the forecast before heading into the Tetons. We may not have been so enthralled had the road out been closed because of snow.

TOTAL 63/80

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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.

Bubbling MudHISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (10/10)
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.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
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.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5)
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.

RebirthRANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
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.

TOURS/CLASSES (8/10)
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.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10)
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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northwest Montana
Visited: August 29, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 85 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Glacier NPWHAT IS IT?
1,000,000 acres of Montana wilderness. The numerous ruggedly steep U-shaped canyons that the Park is famous for were created by centuries of glacial erosion. Glacier NP lies at an ecological crossroads and boasts a dazzling diversity of plant life, birds and mammals.

BEAUTY (10/10)
Even the most cynical visitors (sadly enough in Glacier’s case, us) cannot help but be astounded by the mountains’ jagged peaks, the shimmering blue lakes, the majestic lumbering of grizzly bears and the thick dirty white expansiveness of the dying glaciers.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (2/10)
We found the Park’s historical pull to be dubious at best. We took a tour of the rustic Many Glacier Hotel and learned that the Park became famous though the promotion and inn building of robber baron Jim Hill. A few anecdotes about railroads and lodges, that is about it.

CROWDS (5/10)
We presume that the September Glacier crowd is much different from the July and August crowd. We imagine that summer brings families, college kids and the average American vacationer. They were not in Glacier in September. We found mostly older, erudite easterners who were very vocally in awe of their surroundings.

So many people stopped us along the trail with “this is the most beautiful place in the world” and “you’ll never see anything as gorgeous as the view around the corner” that we progressively grew a chip on our shoulders despite the Park’s splendor.

Still, Glacier NP’s magnificence is hard to argue, especially when the sun is shining, the glaciers sparkling and every turn of the corner could find you face to face with a bear or moose. Most of the time the thing around the bend was a tourist; the hiking routes were very crowded. Crowd avoidance is difficult for two reasons: a) the backcountry treks simply connect the popular day trips and b) the warm weather visitation window runs only for a few months.

Red Buses at Glacier NPEASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5)
While remote, Glacier NP is accessible to the many different types of travelers. For the high-end visitor, there are historic rustic lodges in Lake McDonald, East Glacier and Many Glacier. There are affordable “Motor Inns” at both Rising Sun and Many Glacier. Thirteen campgrounds provide over 1,000 sites to pitch your tent. Some even allow for reservations. Two backcountry chalets are available for the overnight hiker who does not want to carry a tent.

Despite the proliferation of overnight opportunities, finding a place to stay is difficult due to Glacier NP’s short season and legendary popularity. Snow melts in June and returns in late September. You have three months. July and August are manic and September weather hugely unpredictable. We chose the first few days of September and were rewarded with the “nicest weather we’ve had in weeks”. They last week of August was so rainy, cloudy and miserable that no one was able to even see the peaks.

Even though the September crowds were low, we still could not freely pick and choose a backcountry trek. The requisite campgrounds along the popular hiking routes were all reserved. If you want to backcountry hike, plan ahead, know your route and spend the $20 reservation fee. We had no trouble getting a car camping site at midday, but they did fill by nightfall. If we had not gotten a campsite we would have been out of luck; the rustic lodges were full.

Getting to Glacier NP is a trek. Technically, the nearest airport lies 25 miles away in Kalispell, Mont. but most of the people we talked to had flown into either Missoula or Great Falls and rented a car. Missoula is 150 miles to the south of Glacier’s western entry point, Apgar, while Great Falls is 150 miles to the southeast of the Park’s east gate, St. Mary. Choose your poison.

The road from Apgar to St Mary is the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road. The road is stunning and provides vehicular access to the Park’s forbidding peaks. Be careful. The road is difficult driving and is subject to rockslides, flooding and constant repairs. Two days before we arrived, collapsed rocks closed down the road. Glacier NP’s website provides daily updates.

Your car must be less than 21 feet in length to travel on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. No RV’s allowed. One night we camped next to a Pennsylvania family that had rented a 24 feet RV unaware of Glacier NP’s restrictions. As a result they detoured over 100 miles around the southern border of the Park to get from one end to the other where they took the famously retro red-car tour of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. They seemed pretty bummed.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (4/5)
Glacier NP bookstores focus on Glacier specific titles with much success. Between the myriad coffee table photography books and ‘where to hike’ titles, there is room for little else. The lodge-run gift stores fill in the blanks with stuffed animals, t-shirts, sweatshirts and knickknacks.

Just Feet From Our Campsite COSTS (2/5)
Entry is $20 per vehicle, but free with the National Parks Pass. Campgrounds are moderately priced at $15 per site. Backcountry permits run $4 per person per day. An advanced backcountry reservation inquiry costs an additional $20. Lodging costs range from $71 at the Apgar Village Lodge to $155 at the Glacier Park Lodge. A spot at the backcountry Sperry Chalet runs an unbelievable $255 per night. That place must be nice. Boat tours along the Park’s lakes are available for a modest charge. The Hiker’s shuttle that runs along the Going-to-the-Sun Road costs a surprising $8 per leg. If you want the convenience of the shuttle and your trek takes you to scenic Many Glacier it’s going to cost you $24 per person. We balked at the steep price.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5)
Glacier NP is well staffed. Our questions at all five Ranger information stations found quick and responsive answers. Ranger-led tours are numerous and popular. Three leave per day from Many Glacier. Two last all day, one going 10 miles to Iceberg Lake and the other traveling 8.5 miles to Grinnell Glacier. The tours that we attended and/or passed on the trail all included over 40 people. If there were more hikes, they would undoubtedly find eager participants.

TOURS/CLASSES (7/10)
We found refuge on our first rainy night at the Many Glacier Hotel. After we sufficiently warmed by the fire, we joined a Ranger tour of the hotel which promised to discuss the history of the hotel and its present day renovation.

At one point, the group entered into a fascinating discussion about who really owns the hotel, how public/private partnerships with hoteliers work and how our tax dollars are or are not being used to fund renovations. Sadly, this was cut short by one tour participant who, unlike the dozen or so people actively participating in the conversation, felt that we were straying too far from the advertised topic. “I’m not interested in politics; I’m interested in the history of the hotel.” The Ranger conceded, but offered to continue the conversation with anyone interested after the walk was officially over.

Meditating MichaelOver the course of several days, we encountered a number of Ranger-led walks on the more popular trails near Many Glacier. It was not unusual to see at least 30 people on a tour, and more than one Ranger. We stopped to chat with some participants of a day-long Ranger-led hike to Grinnell Glacier. They were tired, but very pleased. “He (the Ranger) told us everything about everything. It was cool. It was kind of like school,” was the evaluation of one of the hikers. This group had been led out on to the glacier by the experienced Ranger, a feat that we were too timid to try on our own.

Visitor Centers at Apgar, St. Mary’s and Logan Pass did not carry much in terms of museums or displays. There is no need when it is all outside. The Logan Pass Visitor Center rests on the Continental Divide, halfway across the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Trailheads to several easy walks begin here. It was too crowded to spend any amount of time there. We took our obligatory photo next to the Continental Divide sign and continued down the road.

FUN (8/10)
We were reluctant to enter Glacier NP for a number of reasons. We were unsure of what accommodations would be available, we didn’t know if summer crowds had subsided just yet and clouds were still ominous as we drove through East Glacier. The ice storm we had encountered at Yellowstone was still fresh in our minds and we weren’t sure if we were in the mood to camp in bad weather again. Glacier had a lot to prove to this set of bad attitudes.

As the days went on and the sun stayed shining, we couldn’t help but be won over by Glacier’s landscape and residents. Friendly conversations with other people on the trails enabled us to focus on getting to the top of Swiftcurrent Pass where steep ledges and unobstructed views of the valley below were both beautiful and a little dizzying.

Trails at Glacier range from easy to strenuous. We had no trouble finding ways to keep busy, especially during our stay near Many Glacier, our favorite part of the park. The campground at Many Glacier was comfortable and conveniently located next to one of the Motor Inns, a camp store, and trailheads to two of our chosen hikes.

The Going-to-the-Sun road is as beautiful as advertised. However, we couldn’t help thinking how beautiful Glacier’s wilderness would be if it were more wild.

 Glacier NP WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10)
The park’s namesakes will not be there forever. As we were hiking to the Grinnell Glacier, one of the largest remaining in the park, we passed a set of young geologists who had kayaked out to the base of the glacier to measure it. It has shrunk almost 300% in the past three years. At this rate, Glacier National Park is anticipating its final glaciers to melt within 25 to 40 years. There is a bit of urgency if majestic ice forms are what you aiming to see.

Only at Yellowstone and Isle Royale National Parks have we come as close to the large wildlife we saw here. One morning, a black bear surprised our campground using it for a leisurely shortcut on its way to the woods. We surprised a large bull moose and two of his female friends that same morning as we were hiking towards Iceberg Lake. Glacier was full of pleasant surprises for us, the most pleasant being that we enjoyed it. We entered Glacier National Park thinking, “this had better be spectacular…” To our delight, it was.

TOTAL 54/80

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