National Parks News for August 2017

There is a lot of stuff going on in the National Park System this month.   Here is a taste of some of the top National Park stories this month.

  • Unless you have been living under a rock, you probably have heard about what many are calling The Great American Total Solar Eclipse happening on August 21.   The solar eclipse will cross the United States from Oregon to South Carolina and will cross over dozens of National Park sites including popular National Parks like Grand Teton NP, Smoky Mountain NP, and Congaree NP.   These parks are all expecting huge crowds to see the eclipse.
  • Joshua Tree National Park has been recognized as the newest International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.  Other National Parks with this designation include Great Basin NP, Grand Canyon NP, Death Valley NP, Canyonlands NP, Capitol Reef NP, Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP, and Big Bend NP.    Glacier NP and Canada’s Waterton Lakes NP share this designation also as they border each other.   Joshua Tree NP will be officially “sworn in” this month
  • Road Construction in Arches NP starts this month and runs through November.   As a result of the road closures, popular arches in the Windows Section will not be accessible.   The Devils Garden Campground will be closed and traffic delays are anticipated.
  • Many of the popular cliff trails in Acadia National Park have now been reopened.   They had been closed during the peregrine falcon nesting season.
  • Senior National Park Passes increase in price from $10 to $80 effective August 28th.   The Senior Pass is a lifetime pass that is only purchased once and is available to seniors 62 years and older.   If you are wanting to get a pass before the price increases, call before you visit as many National Park System locations are sold out.   These can be ordered online on the National Park website at
  • Tragedy struck in several National Parks recently.   A hiker died of heat exhaustion in Grand Canyon NP on Aug 1st after getting lost, a mountaineer died July 22nd in a fall while rappelling from Forbidden Peak in North Cascades NP, and two hikers have been missing in Joshua Tree NP for the past week.   On July 29 a near disaster struck in the Narrows in Zion NP as a flash flood nearly swept away several hikers.   Luckily quick thinking and a human chain allowed everyone to escape safely.   Unfortunately, overcrowding during the high season in the National Parks combined with extreme summer weather has created dangerous scenarios in the Parks.    Everyone try to be careful and safe out there.    rk

Spending the Day in Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park is a different kind of park than what you may be used to if you have only seen or experienced those in the American west.  There are no bears, cougars, or bighorn sheep.  No snowcapped mountains, majestic waterfalls or grand canyons either.

Another way Dry Tortugas is different is that it is difficult to get to.  To visit one of the iconic National Parks out west, all it takes is a car and depending on where you live in our grand country, 15 minutes to 30 hours of drive time and you are there.   Dry Tortugas is only accessible by seaplane or boat.  If you don’t happen to have a seaplane or boat then you must rent a seat on one from somewhere in the Florida Keys.

The other thing different about Dry Tortugas is the name.  For one thing, it’s not all that dry.  Approximately 99% of this National Park is sparkling turquoise caribbean sea.  In this case, dry refers to the lack of fresh water.  However dry could have referred to the fact that the closest rum drink is 70 miles east in Key West.  Captain Jack Sparrow would have been so disappointed. 

My journey to Dry Tortugas began with a Delta flight from the ATL to Key West.  After 3 days of doing my best to emulate Captain Jack by consuming large quantities of rum by the sea, pool, and large piles of fresh seafood, it was time to get an Uber.  Uber was kind enough to take my wife and me from the Marriott Beachside resort and drop us off right at the Key West Ferry Terminal promptly at 6:45am.  We then checked in for a 3 hour tour….

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip,
 that started from this tropic port,
 aboard this tiny ship.

The mate was a mighty sailin’ man, 
the Skipper brave and sure,
 five passengers set sail that day,
 for a three hour tour,
a three hour tour.

The weather started getting rough,
the tiny ship was tossed.
 If not for the courage of the fearless crew, the Minnow would be lost….”

Oh wait, that’s not right.  It seems a bit more accurate to say it was a 2.5 hour voyage one way, about 150 passengers, and the sea was calm and smooth as the sun rose lazily from the east.  Now that I think about it, it seems the ferry was patriotically named the Yankee Freedom and that first mate seemed to be a little more competent than Gilligan.

The Yankee Freedom – The official NPS ferry from Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park 

We finally started to board and shoved off about 8:00am.  There was plenty of seating inside the ferry, but I was content to stand at the bow and enjoy the salty breeze and watch for loggerhead turtles (saw three).   The trip passed quickly enough and on schedule we arrived at Dry Tortugas at 10:30am.

First view of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key

Dry Tortugas is the name for seven small islands clustered together.   A few of them are just small spits of sand only visited by turtles and birds.  Fort Jefferson takes up the majority of Garden Key which is where we docked.  Bush Key and Long Key sit tantalizingly close, but are off limits as nesting bird habitats.  Loggerhead Key is visible on the horizon with its lighthouse the tallest structure in sight.  

Loggerhead Key

The main activities at Dry Tortugas are swimming, snorkeling, and exploring the fort.  I decided that a quick trip around the island walking most of the way on the brick wall separating the ocean from the moat around the fort would be the best way to start.   The water was clear and you could easily see surprisingly large fish swimming right by the wall.

Fish seen from the brick wall moat 

Bush Key

I then checked out the snorkeling gear and went to the beach to begin to snorkel.  I discovered that I was a tentative snorkeler.  It didn’t help that those braver than me were gleefully sharing about their sightings of barracuda, giant stingrays, seven foot tarpons and even a nurse shark.  I found that hanging by the brick wall I was able to see plenty of colorful fish and stay near an escape route.  After I ran into some 4-5 foot long fish, I decided it was time to explore the fort.  

Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson is a 3 story fort.  The views from the top are gorgeous.  The water is so clear you can see the fish circling the island.  The second level has windows that make exquisite pictures.   The bottom level is the only consistent shaded place on the island and houses the National Park Visitor Center. 

The incredibly large and beautiful Fort Jefferson

After a glorious and quick 4 hours in Dry Tortugas it was time to board the Yankee Freedom to return to Key West.   The return trip was very different than the trip out.   The boat opened a bar and it turned into a 2.5 hour booze cruise.   Captain Jack would have approved.  By the time we arrived most everyone was passed out.  It was a great day.  rk

Sunday Hikes:  The Ubehebe Crater Trail

If you follow Scotty’s Castle Road north of the main junction of Death Valley National Park, after 33 miles you will arrive at Ubehebe Crater.  This is also where the paved road ends and if you have 4 wheel drive you can continue on to the Racetrack where you can see that mysterious occurrence of rocks that move by themselves.

However that is a story for another day.  On this fine day, along with fellow Bighornblog contributors Josh and Anya we were preparing to hike the Ubehebe Crater Trail. It was mid morning and being Death Valley, the temperature was rising quickly along with the sun in the blue sky scattered with wispy white clouds.

The Ubehebe Crater trail is a 1.5 mile loop trail that surrounds the namesake crater which is of volcanic origin.  The trail is dry black sand and only has 500 feet of elevation change.  This area is arid, treeless and bleak.  However, the views are expansive and the crater is impressive.  We went right which takes the elevation change head on.  After conquering the small incline, also to the right is the Little Ubehebe Crater Trail which adds .7 miles to make a total distance traveled to 2.2 miles.  

We took the side trip around Little Ubehebe and rejoined the main trail.  On the opposite side of the main crater we stopped to rest and indulge in some Clif Bars.  Behind us was an impressive looking canyon.   We continued around the loop and quickly arrived back at the rental car and lamented our lack of 4 wheel drive.

Ubehebe Crater is a quick fun hike.  This area is very different than the Badwater Basin area and worth the drive up here.  Have you hiked this trail?  I’d love to hear your impressions of this area of Death Valley NP in the comments.  


The Seven Natural Wonders of the Continental United States

Everyone has heard of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, right?   I thought it would be interesting to look at the Seven Natural Wonders of the United States.   Since I haven’t made it to Alaska or Hawaii yet, I will narrow this down to the Seven Natural Wonders of the Continental United States.  Each of these places is magnificent and has been protected by our National Park System

  • Crater Lake – Crater Lake, located in Oregon, is the deepest lake in the United States with a depth of 1949 feet.  When measured by average depth, Crater Lake is the deepest in this hemisphere and 3rd deepest in the world.  Crater Lake was formed when a volcanic caldera filled with water over hundreds of years.  This lake is also known for its extreme water clarity.

Crater Lake (photo credit to guest photographer and friend, Katie)

  • The Everglades –  The Everglades are the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States.  Covering 1.5 million acres in southern Florida, this area is also known as a river of grass.  The Everglades used to consist of over 3 million acres before much of the area was drained for farmland in the early 1900’s.   This area is home to alligators, manatees, and the Florida Panther.
  • The Giant Sequoias and Redwoods – These enormous trees in California are the tallest and largest trees in the world.  These two species are closely related.  The Redwoods can reach heights of 375 feet and diameters of 25 feet.  The Giant Sequoias can reach heights of 275 feet and diameters of 30 feet.  These trees truely must be seen to be believed.

Redwood trees in Muir Woods 15 minutes north of San Francisco

  • The Geothermal Features of Yellowstone – Located in northwest Wyoming, Yellowstone is an unearthly place.  The first explorers of the area brought back tales of exploding geysers, colorful pools of hot and poisonous water, and boiling mud that were not believed.  We now know that this area sits upon a super volcano that will one day destroy much of North America when it erupts again.  In the meantime, it is a beautiful and mesmerizing place to visit.

Hot spring in Yellowstone National Park

  • Death Valley – The commonly held image of Death Valley is of a swelteringly hot wasteland.  While it is true summer temps here can top out at 130*F, there is a lot to be amazed at here.  Badwater Basin in the center of the park is a giant salt flat and at 282 feet below sea level is the lowest point in North America.  Telescope Peak rises directly behind Badwater Basin to a height of 11043 feet.  The only population of the rarest fish in the world exists in Death Valley.  There are less than 200 Devil’s Hole Pupfish left.

Badwater Basin in Death Valley

  • The Arches of Utah – The highest concentration of rock arches in the world is in Utah.  Arches National Park has over 2000 arches alone with thousands more spread out across southern Utah.  Landscape Arch spans 290 feet.  Rainbow Bridge boasts a height of 290 feet.  Delicate Arch is arguably the most famous in the world.

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park

  • The Grand Canyon – The Grand Canyon is the only member of this list that is also one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.  It is located in northern Arizona and was carved over a millennia by the Colorado River.  The Grand Canyon has a length of 277 miles, width up to 18 miles and a depth of  6093 feet.  To appreciate the Grand Canyon in all of it’s glory you will want to hike or mule down to the Colorado River.

Sunrise at Mather Point in the Grand Canyon


    The Ten Best National Park Gateway Towns:

    The National Park gateway towns are more than just a place to grab a quick meal or a shower.  Many of them have become full fledged tourist destinations of their own.  Of course, as they become more hip and popular with tourists, they can lose some of the vibe that made them popular in the first place.

    Any list like this is subjective of course.  I have visits to several of these gateway towns scheduled in the next 60 days to possibly change my opinion and move up or down the list.  Without further ado:

    Honorable Mention) Key West FL:  Key West is the jump off point to Dry Tortugas National Park. This town can get overwhelmed by partying tourists from the cruise ships that stop here.

    10) Springdale UT:  Located at the west entrance to Zion National Park, this small town is as beautiful as it is congested.

    9) Gatlinburg TN: Gatlinburg is known for having the most pancake houses per capita almost as much as for being the gateway to ultra popular Smoky Mountains National Park.

    8) Gardiner MT: Located at the north entrance to Yellowstone NP, near Mammoth Hot Springs.  This small town feels more authentic and less tourist trap. I had some great pizza here once at Yellowstone Pizza Company.

    The Roosevelt Arch as you leave Gardiner and enter Yellowstone NP

    7) Williams AZ: This iconic Route 66 town is almost an hour to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. That’s a little farther than most on this list, but the Grand Canyon Railway runs daily from here to the Grand Canyon Village.


    Williams AZ on a snowy day.

    6) Port Angeles WA: This small seaside town is a great base to explore the massive Olympic National Park. Port Angeles also features a ferry to beautiful Victoria BC.

    Olympic National Park Visitor Center near Port Angeles

    5) Durango CO: This wild west town is the gateway to Mesa Verde National Park. The historic Main Street is a great place to explore.

    4) Whitefish MT: Whitefish is the gateway to gorgeous Glacier National Park. Wander Main Street and visit the many coffee shops and enjoy the lively art scene.

    3) Moab UT: Moab is not the gateway to one National Park, but two: Arches and Canyonlands. This small desert town on the Colorado River is popular with bikers and off-road jeep enthusiasts.

    My son Grant near “Tow-Mater” in Moab

    2) Jackson WY: Jackson is ideally located at the southern entrance to Grand Teton National Park. The town square with elk antler arches is a great photo op before dining in one of the many fine dining establishments.

    An arch made of elk antlers in Jackson WY

    1) Bar Harbor ME: This quintessential New England coastal town is the gateway to Acadia National Park. Combine fresh Maine lobster and the unique low tide trek to neighboring Bar Island for a great time. I love the vibe here.

    Beautiful Bar Harbor as seen from Bar Island