Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Yosemite National Park

High in the Sierra Nevada Mountains one finds an iconic American National Park - Yosemite. Visitors have been flocking to the sheer granite cliffs, waterfalls, and wildlife area since its discovery over 100 years ago. The land here is monstrous and its easy to feel small.

This park is frequently visited, so plan ahead when visiting to ensure proper reservations are made (including camping spots!) Weekends in the summer can create traffic jams both at the entrances and on roads heavily traveled within the park. Take it slow - you'll be sure to see more wildlife!

Springtime and early summer are the best viewing times for most waterfalls, although each waterfall seems different each year depending on the past season's moisture and amount of summer rains.

The park itself hosts several Giant Sequoia groves, however they pale in comparison to the much larger tress just south in Sequoia National Park. The Mariposa Grove is one of the biggest and most visited in Yosemite.

The visit to Glacier Point is a must for all visitors as it offers one of the most spectacular views of Half Dome and the Yosemite Valley. Getting up above the canyon walls provides a true understanding of the enormity of your surroundings.

Navajo National Monument

In the heart of the Navajo Reservation in Northeastern Arizona lies Navajo National Monument. Small in size, and often overshadowed by other nearby attractions, the monument houses three spectacular examples of Anasazi cliff dwellings. Best of all the site is free and also houses free camping.

The park has several loops and paved walk ways to view the dwellings from a distance. It's a good idea to bring your binoculars too. The hikes are fairly easy and can be done in a quick amount of time.

The visitor center is very interesting to check out and the staff was very friendly. Nice picnicking areas around the visitor center. Free day hikes to the ruins with Park Rangers are available as well.

This is a little visited gem in the Grand Circle tour. We left never forgetting Navajo National Monument.

Craters of the Moon National Monument

The dark, craggy, and desolate nature of the lava formations in Crater of the Moon National Monument near Arco, Idaho once led early explorers to speculate that this vivid landscape resembled the surface of our moon. This belief carried on for many years even leading NASA to send astronauts to the monument for training. However, it is know known that the moon is quit different from this dark rocked canvas of central Idaho. None the less, the name stuck with the monument and visitors are now blessed with Craters of the Moon National Monument.

The black volcanic lava is a surprise when first entering the monument as the surrounding Idaho mountains and prairie look nothing like the park itself. The visitor center offers great information on the violent recent eruptions that scarred the surrounding landscape. A big driving loop allows visitors to explore the rugged terrain on easy to walk black topped foot paths.

The vegetation within the park itself is most impressive. Small flowers of many shapes and sizes and strategically growing in a quadrant patten in the little soil they can find. The surprise of these flowers made the trip worthwhile.

Many cones and cinders can be visited along the looped road, and offer quick stops. The tree rings and molds stop is about a 2 mile hike back, but offer some very cool views of the bark and base molds of many ancient trees. You can literally feel the texture of the tree pressed into the volcanic lava centuries ago.

Continue along the loop road and make sure to stop at the caves and tunnels. Bring your flashlight, and make sure its a strong one. We only ventured into Indian Tunnel as it is the easiest to access and the brightest. Dewdrop Cave is more of a viewing cave. Boyscout cave looked difficult to access, was very dark and the signs reported that it was very icy and wet. We only stepped into Beauty Cave and that was amazing by itself as it was frigid cold and we could see our breath! Indian Tunnel was tons of fun, and was great to be able to explore around in.

Camping is available near the visitor center, but has little trees or shade and the black volcanic dirt does nothing but absorb the sun. Overall, we really enjoyed our time in Idaho and would certainly recommend a visit to Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Horseshoe Bend

Just outside of Page, Arizona is a beautiful gooseneck of the Colorado river named Horseshoe Bend. Below Glen Canyon dam is one of the most dramatic, nearly circular bend that is well known to the photography community.

Head south from the dam on US Route 89 and look for the signs on the right. There is a steep and strenuous half mile climb in sand and silt. This hike is best done in the early morning or late afternoon as the hike is a hot one and the sun is best late or early in the day. Take plenty of water. The best part of the visit is that its free.

Views from the edge offer amazing glimpses at the Colorado river below and it bends its way around steep cliffs. A great stop for anyone visiting Lake Powell or the surrounding Navajo nation.

Four Corners Monument

Four different states intersect in Four Corners Monument - Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Two Native American tribes boundaries meet here as well - the Navajo nation and the Ute Mountain nation (however, the monument itself is run by the Navajo). Somewhat remote in location and appearance, the Four Corners Monument is a must stop for any passing by traveler. This is a classic American road side attraction.

While not free, there is a $3 per car fee to enter. In the middle stands a large concrete monument which details in bronze the exact (or believed to be exact) location of where the four states meet. Each are represented with a state flag. Every visitor is able to stand in the middle of the monument where the four states intersect - so that they can claim to stand in four states at once.

The scenery is beautiful and the way of life in the reservation is unique. Flanking the monument is many native craft and food stands. The Indian Fry Bread from here is among the best I've ever had and you could literally taste the tradition with every bite.

The stop is a touristy one, but one that any visitor would be hard to forget. This however should represent a quick stop, not a destination.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Colorado National Monument

The Grand Plateau starts its long journey south in Grand Junction, Colorado - home of Colorado National Monument. Here the mountains meet the desert southwest with spectacular views and withered, red rock formations.

Although small in size, the monument makes up for it with deep vistas along a curvy scenic drive within the park. The park can easily be visited within a day and often is filled with bikers riding the road.

The visitor center details the diverse wildlife that lives in this hills around this semi dessert park. Black ravens can be spotted flying high over the walls of the parks main canyons.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Located in the elevated and vastly remote high country of Colorado lies Rocky Mountain National Park. High in altitude and attitude, the park is both relaxing and awe inspiring. Whether its a long hike, a sight seeing drive, or wildlife viewing, RMNP has something for every visitor.

On the outskirts of the park is the town of Estes Park, CO. A beautiful and rustic town with plenty of hotels, restaurants, and gift shops for the visiting tourist. Estes Park is home to the Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for Steven Kings book "The Shinning." The Sundeck Restaurant is a great place to stop for breakfast, although its on the pricey side. The spirit of the town is reflected in a sign inside the Sundeck "If you are in a rush, then this isn't the place for you" speaking to its laid back way of life.

The park itself is huge and offers lots of opportunities to hike. There are many Alpine and sub Alpine day hikes. One excellent hike is from Glacier Gorge parking area to Mills Lake. Mills Lake is stunning, nestled on the Western flanks of Longs Peak (a 14,000 + peak). The hike is easy, and has a quick stop at the amazing Alberta Falls. The image of Mills Lake is displayed on the Colorado State quarter.

Drive over Trail Ridge Road in the summer. It's widely known to be the highest paved road in the US, and is closed most of the year due to heavy snow. This road takes you high into the Colorado mountains at elevations over 12,000 feet. This is higher than "tree line" - the altitude that trees stop growing. The views are amazing of distant rocky peaks and sparkling mountain lakes.

Wildlife is abundant in Rocky Mountain National Park, and quiet frequently massive brown herds of elk are seen feeding. We also saw several moose and deer, in addition to marmots in the high country.

The air is crisp and fresh, and the sky is the brightest of blues. Any trip to Rocky Mountain National Park is worth the time, and not for those who rush.