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Gliding Through Everglades

This is definitely the coolest park sign we’ve seen so far



Summer kicked off with a trip to southern Florida to visit the parks there. We started off in Everglades, which is a park I was not all that excited about. From what I’ve heard of Everglades, it’s basically a giant swamp with some really awesome animals. After visiting the park, however, that’s not at all what it is and it’s now one of my favorite parks.

The first day we were there we went on a boat tour (not an airboat, just a normal boat) with the hope of seeing manatees. We not only saw several manatees, but we also saw a bald eagle! When we saw the manatees I think I got the most excited I’ve ever been about seeing wildlife in the parks. The tour guides on the boat told us that when you’re looking for them, you need to keep an eye out for what looks like coconuts floating in the water. What you’re actually seeing is the manatee coming up for air, but it looks just like coconuts. It took me a while to see them at first, but soon we were seeing some right beside our boat. They look like really big rocks until you realize they’re actually moving.

Manatees! They swam right under our boat.

We did an airboat tour on the second day in the park. This was probably what I was looking forward to the most about Everglades, and I was not disappointed. The airboats are very loud, but we’re planners and bought earplugs ahead of time. The company would give you cotton balls for your ears but I’m guessing that with how loud it was with earplugs, the cotton balls would not have done much good. We saw a lot of alligators on the tour, which was a little scary. They were very calm, but they look like they could eat you in one bite. After the tour was over, I got the chance to hold a baby alligator. He was not slimy like I’d been expecting, but was cool and smooth.

This was the little baby alligator I got to hold. I was so nervous but it was really cool!

Our last day in Everglades we went on a tram tour that took us out to an observation tower. We learned that the little oasis-looking areas in the park are the results of alligators wallowing down, which fosters plant growth and attracts birds. At the bottom of the observation tower was a pool that had twenty-seven alligators in it (that were visible!). I was thinking there were probably a ton more that were just in the shadows and hard to see. We also saw a lot of turtles, including one kind that had a pig nose. On the way back to the visitor center, we saw a huge (I mean gigantic) alligator sitting beside the road. A group of cyclists rode by and stopped to take pictures. While they were doing this, he opened his mouth and stood up (we all started gasping and backing to the opposite side of the tram). We thought he was going to chase the cyclists, but instead he pooped and sat back down. We had the unfortunate seating location that was facing his rear end.

Everglades turned out to be so much more than a swamp. I learned so much there and am so glad that people like Marjory Stoneman Douglas fought to get the land protected.

This alligator is the one who got up to poop.

The Smallest Park

This was the hot spring you could see and burn your fingers in.

Spring Break is not long enough to go too far away and we’ve done a lot of the parks east of the Mississippi River, so for this break we decided to drive to Arkansas to visit Hot Springs National Park. I’d never seen the Mississippi River before, so it was very cool to check that off my list. This was another park that was unusual because it is in the middle of civilization. The hot springs themselves feed into bathhouses, and there’s only one spring you can walk up to and see (yes, I touched the water and yes, I burned my fingers).

Hot Springs is my least favorite park that we’ve visited so far. I tend to like the parks with more nature and less civilization more than the ones that butt up to a town or city. We also went in early March, so the trees didn’t have leaves which makes a big difference in how a place looks. However, it was cool to have a spa day and visit one of the bathhouses. My favorite part about the park was the observation tower that had a little museum in the top of it with the history of the area.

On the way back home we stopped in Memphis and had lunch on Beale Street before walking around the shoreline of the Mississippi River a little. I’m not sure I would go back to Hot Springs, but it was a cool experience anyway.

Park sign!





Great Basin and Arches

2017’s ski trip to Utah took us to two parks, Great Basin and Arches. Of course, I’ve been to Arches before, but I definitely wasn’t going to turn down the chance to return to my favorite park!

The obligatory park sign photo!

Our first stop was Great Basin National Park, a little park in eastern Nevada (almost Utah). I think that of all the parks I’ve visited, this is the most remote one. The park ranger told us that the closest towns with decent grocery stores were Cedar City, Utah (near Zion, about 2.5 hours from Great Basin) or Las Vegas (4.5 hours away). Getting to this one from Salt Lake City was a long process, but absolutely worth it. The road to the park is Nevada Highway 50, which was referred to at the gas station on the state line as “The Loneliest Road in America”. I can absolutely believe it. The roads in that area were the epitome of what I think of when I think of the west–mountains in the distance and huge, flat plains in front of them. It was absolutely incredible. We left shortly after sunset, and the sky was so pretty when we left.

The sky made this view so different from the first time we went!


I was excited to visit Great Basin. It’s home to bristlecone pines, which I learned about in my horticulture class last year. Unfortunately, going in the winter means that the road going up the mountain is closed. I’m still sad about that, but it just means I get to go back! We did get to do a tour of the Lehman Caves, though, and those were very cool. The caves there were much smaller than Mammoth Cave (obviously, since Mammoth is the largest cave system on Earth), but they were beautiful. We learned on the tour that Native Americans used to bury their dead in the caves and were able to see the natural entrance and the light of day when they shut the lights completely off. 

On our way back to Salt Lake City, we stopped back at Arches. I was determined to see the Delicate Arch in the snow, so we went to the visitor center to buy crampons. For the most part the hike was dry and easily doable, but there were a few steep spots that were almost solid ice. There were a lot of people trying to do it just in normal tennis shoes which looked really scary. It was worth the scary hike to return to one of my favorite places I’ve ever been!

This was the view as we were leaving the park. I made my family stop the car in the middle of the road because I thought this was such a cool shot!



Fall Break in Cuyahoga Valley

I’ve been to a lot of national parks (well, not that many, but for having started this journey less than two years ago it’s a lot!), but Cuyahoga Valley National Park was the first one I visited that was in the middle of civilization. It was a very new experience for me, and it was not one of my favorites.

Cuyahoga Valley sits right outside of Cleveland, Ohio and is very different from what you’d typically think of for a national park. It has some beautiful natural features, like Brandywine Falls, but it also has so much in it that was not natural. People still live in the park, and Interstate 271 cuts right through it.

This boardwalk goes to Brandywine Falls. The trees were so beautiful there!

We got out of the car to hike to Blue Hen Falls, and the highway was right beside the parking area. You could hear the traffic noise along the entire hike, which was just so odd to me. My experience with the parks so far has been the peace and quiet of hard-to-get-to areas.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t like Cuyahoga Valley. Its natural features are very beautiful, and I think it’s great that the people living in the area cared enough about the river and land to get it protected. I’m happy whenever there are natural features protected. I would like to return to this park in the future and see it when it’s nice and green. It was beautiful in the fall–the leaves had just started to turn, and it was a little bit windy. Every now and then a gust would blow through the trees and these amazing yellow leaves would come down like rain. I stood there for a few minutes just watching and soaking in how peaceful that looked.

Cuyahoga Valley is not my favorite park, but I’m glad I was able to go. The trip was short, but we enjoyed it!

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!


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

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).