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I’m 16.6% of the Way There!

I’m 1/6th of the way through the parks y’all! This weekend we arrived in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, my 10th park. Technically, we’re a little more than a sixth of the way there, but there are 59 parks and 59 is prime. So we’re going with a sixth.

This is my 10th park sign! Only 49 more to go!

I usually go to the mountains in Boone, so I was shocked at the size of the mountains around Asheville. The Smokies are a lot taller than the Blue Ridge Mountains (the ones in northern NC) are, which I never knew. I was excited to see that the leaves are already beginning to change here. There was less of that around the bottom of the mountains, but as we climbed in elevation, there was more and more color. Most of the trees were turning yellow, but every now and then there was one that was an incredible shade of red (which is my favorite color!).

This is one of the 31 elk we saw. He was probably only 20 feet away when I took this picture.

We did one hike on the first day since we didn’t get into the park until around 1:00. It went to 2 waterfalls, both of which were huge and gorgeous. I got some great photos while I was standing on rocks in the middle of the river (or creek? Maybe it was a stream? I don’t know) with the sun coming through the trees and making the water sparkle. The second day, however, may have been my favorite day in any of the parks for a few reasons. The first is that as we entered the park in the morning, we saw a bear! Great Smoky Mountains is home to a huge population of black bears, and we’d been really hoping to see one out and about. We came up on a group of stopped cars and there was a male bear making his way through the woods. I made my dad pull the car over so I could get out and take pictures of him as he crossed the road.

We also saw a huge herd of elk. I didn’t know this, but Great Smoky Mountains is known for its elk population. We were sad as the day went on because we hadn’t seen any, but we stopped at the visitor center for wifi (State had just beaten FSU in football and we wanted stats) and saw a few of them making their way into the fields behind the visitor center. In total, there ended up being 31 elk there. They were primarily females who were sticking with one dominant male (he had 12 points on his rack), but soon there were 7 or 8 males who were there trying to find a female (it turns out it’s breeding season right now).

We did a hike on the second day, but the first night I dislocated my knee again and didn’t want to do a whole lot of walking. This trail also had some really incredible waterfalls on it. I think that waterfalls are probably a pretty big draw for that park. Overall, I liked Great Smoky Mountains more than I thought I would. Part of that is due to the amount of wildlife we saw, but just in general the park is very pretty and large. I want to go back someday so I can do some of the things we missed this time!

 

Shenandoah (The Park, Not the River)

My ninth park was Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. We went there a few weeks ago, right before school started back. This park, while small (as most of the parks on the east coast are), has the highest concentration of black bears in the country. The ranger we spoke to said that at any given time there are between 400

This park has 4 entrances. We took this on the only sunny day, when we left through the southern entrance.

and 600 bears inside the boundaries of Shenandoah. Unfortunately, we made the trek up there during a rainy weekend. Bears don’t like to get wet, so they were all under things to keep dry. My only goal on this trip was to see a bear, but that didn’t happen.

Shenandoah was one of the parks that came around in the 1930s. Much of the road that runs through it as well as the retaining walls was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which gave young men jobs during the Depression so they could help their families. All of these original walls are still there. as strong and beautiful as ever. Shenandoah is also home to Rapidan Camp, which was the presidential retreat prior to the building of Camp David in Maryland. Visitors to the park can walk through Rapidan Camp and even go in some of the buildings; others are accessible only by ranger-led tour. We didn’t visit Rapidan–it was a long walk and as I mentioned, most of the weekend was rainy.

The second most spectacular sunset I’ve seen, right behind the one in Zion.

We did hike despite the rain. I have to say that the hikes in this park were not my favorites. One of them was up a very long trail to what was supposed to be the best view in the park. It was raining the entire hike, but we were too hot in our raincoats, so we just got wet. We got to the top to see the view to find a very thick fog. I just sat down on a rock and laid my head on my knees. It was the most disappointing thing.

The second big hike we did was to a waterfall. I will never again make the mistake again of going on a trail where you hike down before you hike up. I’m pretty out-of-shape, and at one point on the way back up by heart rate was 140 beats per minute. The hike was nice and the waterfall was beautiful, but if I ever hiked it again I would need to some serious exercising beforehand. I would absolutely rather go up to a view then down to one. It was pretty steep, to the point that we would stop every 300 feet or so because we couldn’t breathe.

Shenandoah is #8. Not because I disliked it, but I spend a lot of time in the mountains already, so I think it just didn’t feel like a unique place to me. It has way more bears, but in general the views are similar and the types of hikes are as well. My next stop is Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so I’ll be interested to see if I feel like it’s just more of the same as well!

Mammoth Cave Doesn’t Have Mammoths?

My eighth national park was Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. We picked this one to visit over spring break because we could drive there instead of fly. The drive up there was beautiful–lots of rolling hills and horse pastures. It was so rustic and calm that it made me relax a little bit in the middle of a tough semester!

Another park sign picture? Hopefully someday I’ll have 59 of these!

Mammoth Cave is a national park because it is the longest cave system in the world. Yes, you read that right: the longest cave system on Earth is in Kentucky. Not only is it the largest one, but it’s still growing. The rangers there told us that they think it’s so big that the end of it won’t be found by the end of my grandchildren’s lifetime. Right now, they have found over 400 miles of tunnels and caverns within the system.

An example of the living part of the cave. These are dripstone formations!

Obviously the rangers are not going to let visitors wander the caves by themselves; there would be so many people who would get lost and never find their way out. We chose two tours, the first of which was the Domes and Dripstones tour. This tour starts off with a few hundred steps to get you down into the cave. As someone who hates heights, this journey down was scary. They were the kinds of stairs where you could see in between them, which made me super nervous. I made it down though, and the rest of the tour was spectacular. The cave has various parts that are living, dormant, or dead. Living caves are what I usually imagine when I hear the word “cave” because this is the part where stalagmites and stalactites are forming.

One of my favorite parts of visiting Mammoth Cave was experiencing total darkness. It’s really terrifying, but it’s amazing to sit there and try to see things even though you know you can’t. I’ve been to caverns before–we like to take my little cousins to Linville Caverns sometimes–but the size of Mammoth Cave is just incredible. The rooms are massive, and there are even parts where water is pouring through the ceiling like a waterfall.

Any time you leave the caves, you are required to walk across these squishy black mats that were soaked with chemicals. This is to prevent White Nose Syndrome from leaving the caves. White Nose is a disease that kills bats. It’s wiped out a lot of them across North America, and the National Park Service takes these precautions so that, if you go in a cave where White Nose is, you don’t track it out with you. We saw three little bats in the cave who were hibernating together, and from a distance they looked really cute and cuddly. I can safely say that if they’d flown at me, I would’ve felt differently about them.

These are just a few of the autographs and messages written on the walls of Mammoth Cave.

The other tour we did is geared towards handicapped people and has an elevator that goes into the cave. This tour shows you the cafeteria. Yes, a full-blown cafeteria with serving lines and everything. It’s no longer in use, but a long time ago people would take day trips into the cave. The owners would serve them lunch in the cafeteria. It was extremely creepy (it felt like a horror movie because it was so dark and quiet!). We also got to see the signatures of people who had been there long before we had. Back in the 1800s, slaves were the guides in the caves. People would write down their names and the year they visited, and some even wrote thank-you messages to their guides.

Mammoth Cave is very different from the other parks I’ve visited. It is very cool, but it ranks lower on my list at #7.

 

Olympics and Hurricanes

There was about a 5-month drought of national park visits for me. My next one came when my family took a trip to Seattle in December 2016 to celebrate my high school graduation. Our primary reasoning for going there was so I could see the Seattle Seahawks play a game in their home stadium, but a little research revealed that there are three national parks within driving distance of the city. We chose to visit Olympic National Park, which encompasses the majority of the Olympic Peninsula.

This is just one example of the huge icicles we saw.

Visiting this park in the middle of December meant no hiking. We weren’t really sure what we would be able to do here since the primary road that goes through the park was already covered with snow and ice. We made the trek out from Seattle anyway, determined to check another park off the list. Our goal was to drive the entire road called Hurricane Ridge, which goes from the park entrance up to a panoramic view of the mountains. There’s also a lodge at the end of this road where you can get food and shop a little bit.

We knew ahead of time that you had to have snow chains in your car to drive the road at this time of year, even with a 4-wheel-drive car.

We froze watching the sunset, but it was worth it!

We made a stop by Walmart to get some chains (we returned them later. We didn’t have even what we’d need to put them on) and went into the park. The ranger at the visitor center said that Hurricane Ridge was open, but that they’d already had one car slide off the road that day. We decided to go for it, and it was definitely worth it. We saw these incredible icicles and views of the mountains. I’ve seen unending views of snowy mountains before, but every time it seems new.

Part of Olympic National Park is on the coast of the peninsula, and its most famous spot is Ruby Beach. We drove back down Hurricane Ridge and out of the park (you can’t get directly to Ruby Beach from the primary part of the park. We made sure to drive through Forks (because I loved Twilight just like every other middle school girl) on the way to the beach, where we planned to watch the sunset.

My first sign with snow! I was really excited about that.

It turns out that beaches in the Northwest are super cold in December (crazy, right?). I was in my huge ski coat, but yet again I made the mistake of only wearing one layer of pants. It was cold and windy, but the beach was very cool. It was rocky, but different than the rocky beaches of Acadia. Olympic’s beach was made up of smaller stones that had been made smooth by the ocean. Most of the coastline in either direction was cliffline, which just increased the grandeur of the beach.

We only made it to one of the parks in Washington on that trip, but that just means we get to go back! The two remaining ones are Mt. Rainier National Park and North Cascades National Park. Olympic is in the middle of my list at #4. I want to go back and see it in the summer sometime!

 

The Lone New Englander

As it turns out, there’s only one national park in all of New England: Acadia National Park. By the time the first national park came into existence (Yellowstone in 1872–now you’ll know if they ever ask it on Jeopardy), a lot of the east coast had already been developed. There are very few national parks east of the Mississippi because there simply wasn’t a lot of the land available. In Maine, however, there is a lot of land that remains unused to this day. Acadia National Park is not very big, but it is a great example of the rocky mountains and coastline that New England is known for. Acadia is on Mt. Desert Island, but doesn’t take up the entire island. It’s spread out, but there are part of Mt. Desert that are privately owned.

Park Sign! Yes, that’s a fanny pack.

Acadia may be small, but in encompasses a large variety of land. It has coastline, which is very rocky and difficult to walk around on. It has a mountains, Cadillac Mountain being the most prominent, that rise up to 1,529 feet above sea level (this mountain is also the first place that the sun rises in the United States). It has lakes that have floors made up of small, smooth rocks. It’s incredible that such a small area can have so many different land features.

This is the sunset over one of the lakes. No, there’s no filter on it!

The most unique man-made feature of Acadia was funded by John D. Rockefeller: carriage roads. These are paths through the park covered in loose gravel. In their early days, the carriage roads were used primarily for carriage rides or riding horses. These days they are primarily used by runners and bikers. On our visit, we rented bikes from a place in Bar Harbor (the closest town to the park) and rode to the main restaurant in the park. It’s known for its popovers (although I got ice cream because I’m picky), which my parents said were delicious. We were exhausted from our ride, so rather than riding all the way back to town, we hopped on a bus with our bikes and rode that back. I’ve never really biked much, and I never realized how tiring it is to bike up and down hills.

I was taking a minute to enjoy the view when my dad took this picture. It’s one of my favorites from Acadia!

Did I mention that we drove to Acadia? It took us almost 22 hours to get from Raleigh to Bar Harbor. I would not recommend it.

This is the Bass Harbor Head Light! Isn’t it beautiful?

The most famous spot in Acadia is the Bass Harbor Head Light (Lighthouse). The lighthouse itself is pretty small, especially compared to some of the ones we have here in North Carolina. I would say that in size, it’s most similar to the Ocracoke Island lighthouse here. The Bass Harbor Head Light is very picturesque. It sits on right on the edge of the water, up on a small cliff. It looks like it could fall into the ocean at any minute. It’s this pretty little white building with a red roof sitting above these huge craggy rocks. It’s hard to envision, so just look at the picture of it I’m posting to see what I mean!

Acadia ranks pretty high on my list. I think I’d probably have it at #3, behind Zion and Arches. I really can’t put my finger on why I loved it so much–it was just so beautiful.

The Three-Part Park

Canyons
This is a great example of the canyons, and why they named the park Canyonlands!

The final national park we visited in Utah was Canyonlands National Park. This is the other park that’s near Moab–it’s about thirty-five minutes away to the nearest park entrance. Canyonlands is unique because it is broken up into three parts, and each section is only accessible through its entrance. The three parts are the Maze, the Needles, and the Island in the Sky. So, for example, you can’t get to Island in the Sky from the Needles. You have to go in the specific entrance for each one.

We spent our first day in the Needles section of the park. The Needles are tall rock columns that are rounded on top, similar to the fins of the Fiery Furnace in Arches. These are also easy to get lost in, so we kept our distance from them and did a hike that was on a flat area. It was a short loop, but it had interesting features in the rock. It was at this park that we learned about the symbiotic crust. Symbiotic crust is basically just little colonies of microorganisms that live on top of the soil and rock of the earth. There were signs everywhere in Canyonlands asking that you stay on the trail so that you don’t disturb the symbiotic crust. In Canyonlands, these little colonies were in dips in the rock that filled with water whenever it rained. We avoided these as best we could to keep the little guys alive!

My fifth sign picture, and the last of the Mighty Five!

Our second day in Canyonlands we visited the Island in the Sky. I was rudely awoken and made to get out of bed in time to see the sunrise in Arches, so I wasn’t in a great mood for the early part of the day. Our first stop in Canyonlands on the second day was a hike that goes to the Mesa Arch, another very famous landmark in Utah. This arch is very low but long, and it overlooks a huge canyon and is a popular spot to watch the sun come up. The rest of our day in the Island of the Sky section of the park was spent avoiding gnats. It turns out that that part of Utah has an insane number of gnats. I refused to leave the car for the rest of the day, and anytime someone wanted to get out we would scream “CLOSE THE DOOR CLOSE THE DOOR CLOSE THE DOOR!”

The third section of Canyonlands, the Maze, is only accessible for 4-wheel-drive vehicles. Our rented minivan did not have 4WD, so we couldn’t go to the Maze. The name is pretty self-explanatory, but basically the Maze is just a whole mess of pathways and canyons that you can drive around in. I don’t know how often people get lost in there, but I would think that it would happen a decent amount.

I loved these two rock formations so much I had my dad take a picture of me with them!

Canyonlands is my least favorite park I’ve visited so far, putting it at #9. I still like it, but there was just very little to do. If I’m going to visit a park, I want to be able to have some cool stories to tell when I leave. Canyonlands was just kind of okay; there was nothing spectacular about it.

The Land of A Thousand Windows

After Bryce Canyon, we made our way to Moab, Utah. Moab was our home base while we visited the two remaining parks, Arches and Canyonlands. The first stop we made after getting settled in our hotel was Arches.  If the name doesn’t give it away, Arches National Park is known for its stone arches. These arches are so famous and unique that one of them is featured on Utah license plates, the Delicate Arch.

This was my first view of Delicate Arch. It’s so incredible!

As one of the most well-known landmarks in the entire state, the hike to the Delicate Arch gets very busy in the summer. We got up extremely early to do this hike to avoid both the heat and masses of people. This hike is 3 miles round-trip, and even with an injured leg I was determined to see the arch regardless of how tired I would be. My decision was absolutely the right one. Don’t get me wrong, the trail was tough. A good portion of it is slickrock, which basically just means you’re walking on a bald, smooth rock face that gets slippery when it’s wet. Luckily, we were there on a completely cloudless day–no rain in sight!

There aren’t words to describe the feeling I got when I turned a corner and saw the Delicate Arch. It’s truly massive and is made even more beautiful by the backdrop of mountains that are snow-capped even in June. The arch is surrounded on three sides by huge drops. You can walk right up to it by going around to the fourth side, but even that walk has a steep slope and is a little scary to walk on. As I said before, though, nothing was going to stop me from getting to that arch. To this day, it’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.

This was a picture of the Milky Way from the night we stayed late in Arches.

We stayed in Arches that day until long after dark to see the Milky Way. Like most national parks, Arches is pretty far away from light pollution, making the stars extremely visible. My dad and I are amateur photographers, so we spent a lot of time trying to get good photos of the Milky Way. We got a couple that were really good, which we were really excited about!

Arches has over 2,000 natural stone arches inside the park, but they are not the only cool geological features it has. There is a group of fins known as the Fiery Furnace, and these fins have created a huge maze. Visitors are not allowed to go into the Fiery Furnace on their own; they have to go on guided ranger tours. Even on the guided tours, people have gotten lost because they’ve stopped to take photos and fallen behind their group. We did not do a tour of the Fiery Furnace, but I hope to return in the future and go in there.

Just hangin’ out with the sign from my favorite park.

My family will be going back to Arches this January. I’m very excited to see how different the landscape will look with snow everywhere. Obviously a lot of hikes will be closed, so we’ll probably just end up driving to see different arches that are visible from the roads. I can’t wait to go back! It ranks #1 on my list.

Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon National Park is a place I have heard about constantly since we visited it. This was my mother’s favorite park that we’ve visited, and she talks about it any time someone brings up a national park. She loved this park so much because of its unique rock formations, huge columns called hoodoos.

The obligatory picture with the park entrance sign!

Bryce doesn’t look like much as you’re driving into it. There’s a hiking supply store and gas station right before you enter the park, and once you’re inside it just looks like you’re driving through a forest. There’s no evidence of a canyon from the main road until you reach the end. However, once you pull off on a side road and see the canyon, your breath is taken away. The first thing you notice are these gigantic towers of rocks, the hoodoos. Beyond them are layers of mountains, blue sky, and puffy white clouds. It’s a view unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

We did one big hike during our summer trip to Bryce Canyon, the Navajo Trail. This trail goes down the side of canyon and gives visitors access to various areas on the canyon floor. Part of the trail is made up of wiggles, which really just means the trail traverses the side of the canyon so that you can walk down it. Going down is nothing. It’s a long walk, so it’s tiring in that sense, but it’s absolutely nothing compared to the walk back up the wiggles. I don’t think that any trail had exhausted me like that one did (at least up to that point!). We had to stop multiple times on the way back out to catch our breath. They looked so innocent from below, and then turned out to be evil on the way up! The other “hike” we did was really just a walk on the edge of the canyon to see the view. We ate lunch at a picnic table that overlooked the canyon and the mountains, which is one of my favorite times we spent in the parks.

These are the wiggles covered in snow. We didn’t try to hike down them in the winter!

We returned to Bryce in January of 2017 as well (my mom insisted that she just HAD to see the hoodoos covered in snow). While there are other parks in Utah that I like more than Bryce Canyon, I have to say that those hoodoos covered in snow were incredible. I thought that snow wouldn’t stick to them because they’re so craggy, but there was snow clinging to them anyway. We walked along the Rim Trail that day, which goes between two high points that jut out over the canyon. I realized on that walk exactly how cold Utah gets in the winter. I’d been there before, many times, but usually I was skiing so I was bundled up. On this walk, however, I was definitely not wearing enough layers!

This is another picture in one of those hard-to-get-to places!

Bryce Canyon ranks a little bit lower on my list. I would put it around #7. That’s not to say that it isn’t amazing and that I didn’t like it, it just goes to show that every park is amazing and I have to make choices! I’d definitely recommend Bryce Canyon to a friend (and I have).

Zion (noun): the kingdom of Heaven

The second stop on our road trip to the Utah parks was Zion. Zion was also settled by Mormon settlers, but their homes and structures are long gone. They named the canyon Zion, which means the kingdom of Heaven. The canyon is the primary draw of this park and it is full of trails and streams and waterfalls that visitors can hike to. One narrow road runs through Zion Canyon, and during the summer months the only cars allowed on this road are shuttles run by the park service.

Here’s me with the sign at the entrance to Zion!

Zion has a lot of very interesting hikes and sights. One of its largest attractions is the Narrows, which is a trail that goes farther up into the canyon than the road. It’s so popular because the trail is the river. You need special pants, shoes, and poles because the water is very cold and you are hiking against the current. You can go up to 16 miles up the river before the canyon becomes too narrow to fit through. It also has a hike called Angels Landing, which is famous partially because five people have died trying to hike it. It goes to a point that is 5,790 feet above sea level that gives a view of the entire Zion canyon. I did not do this hike, but I am planning to do it next time I’m there in the summer.

We got up early to make sure we could some hikes in before it got too hot and before the huge crowds showed up. Our first one was to the Emerald Pools, a hike up to three waterfalls. We hiked to the first two, but getting to third one meant going up a strenuous trail and no one in my family wanted to do that. As it was the hike was difficult; the waterfalls made it slick in some places and it was pretty steep in others. We decided that a break was in order after this hike because it looked like rain was on the way. We went to the lodge in the park and got lemonade to wait for the sun to come back out.

My family, however, decided that they didn’t want to wait the entire time. We left the lodge when the rain had been reduced to a drizzle and took the shuttle all the way to the end of the road, where there is a path alongside the river. I stopped a little ways in and sat down because my leg was tired, but my family continued walking. I don’t know exactly how long I was sitting there, but it was a long time and I was freezing. I’m still a little mad at them for leaving me by myself in the rain and wind for so long!

This was the most gorgeous sunset I’ve ever seen or ever will see.

We visited Zion again in January of 2017 while we were out west skiing. I had thought previously that the parks could not be more beautiful, but then I saw them with snow and my mind was completely changed. The contrast of the white snow against such red rocks was stunning. We drove the length of the road and saw mountain goats and deer searching for food. The sunset in the park that night was the most beautiful one that I’ve ever seen. I don’t think there’ll ever be one that tops it.

Zion is definitely one of my favorite national parks. Out of the 9 I’ve visited, Zion ranks #2 on my list of favorites. Next up on the road trip: Bryce Canyon National Park.

Capitol Reef and the Unending Gorge

My quest to visit all 59 American national parks began in May of 2016 at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. I was eighteen years old and getting ready to become a high school graduate (which was super terrifying to me) when my family decided the time had come to visit the five parks in Utah, known as the “Mighty Five.” We were familiar with Salt Lake City and the surrounding ski areas, but we had never driven south to see the parks. On our ski trip in January that year I had convinced my parents that we needed to do a special trip out to see the parks.

I take a picture with the sign at every park I visit. This was my first one!

Capitol Reef was my first-ever national park. The name has two parts: “capitol” refers to a formation of cliffs that are topped with white domes, similar to the dome atop the capitol building in Washington, D.C. “Reef” refers to jagged rock ridges, which this park has many of. The formation that makes this park especially unique is called the Waterpocket Fold, and it is a place in the earth’s crust that rises up out of the ground in a huge, continuous cliff line. The park has been home to people going back to prehistory and was lived in most recently by Mormon settlers.

This is one of the ridges that gives Capitol Reef the “reef” part of its name.

This was my first experience with red rock country, and it honestly seemed to me like I was on Mars. Compared to my life that has been lived completely on the East Coast, this place was otherworldly. It will always have a special place in my heart for being my first park and for showing me how incredible the earth can really be. We spent a day and a half in this park, seeing a huge canyon, hiking through the Capitol Gorge, and visiting the former Morman settlement of Fruita.

This trip came on the heels of a pretty bad knee injury for me–I’d just gotten off crutches a few weeks beforehand. So when my mom suggested hiking a trail called Grand Wash that was short and pretty flat, I was completely on board because it would be a good way to reintroduce my leg to walking. The plan was to hike partway through and turn back (the trail is 2.2 miles one way), but my dad and brother decided we were going to walk the entire thing–round-trip. So I hiked 4.4 miles on a partially functioning leg. Needless to say, that was the only hike I did that day. We drove through the park to see different perspectives of the rocks and on the way out stopped at Fruita.

I love taking pictures in hard-to-get-to places in the parks–this definitely qualified!

Fruita is a tiny little settlement that once was home to a small population of Mormons. The people grew apple trees, and their orchards are still there to this day. There’s a little store there that sells apples pies, and visitors to the park can walk through the orchards and eat as many apples as they want to. This settlement worked because a river runs through the park, allowing them to have water to survive and to grow plants.

Capitol Reef is not the most well-known park in Utah, but it is one that shouldn’t be missed. It has a very unique history and some really cool rock formations that aren’t found in any of the other parks. I’ve visited 9 national parks so far, and if I had to rank them in order of which ones I like the most, this one would probably check in at #5 or #6.