If you follow these pages, at all, you know I am a passionate lover of the public lands and National Parks in the West. I haven't been to all of them but I've been to the most popular and well known and some of them several times. I am not a "Park Counter". It's more important to me to freely explore and revisit the places I've found that I love than to check them off a list to say, "I've been there". No offense to those who do that- it's a fine goal but it's inconsistent with my "process not product" beliefs...life is about quality not quantity.
Moreover, the National Parks are certainly not the be all and end all of the best places to visit and explore in the United States. Each of these places were around before they got this "status". I encourage you all to find other public lands to investigate and you could start with visiting the National Monuments and Wildlife Refuges as well as typically serene Bureau of Land Management areas.
I have thought about this blog post for awhile. In particular, what would be the criteria for choosing my favorites? This personal criteria, like the Parks themselves, has definitely changed in the last 40 years. The Parks are now being overrun and it's not easy to find the peace many of us associate with wild settings. For years of my life Arches National Park was my "home away from home". No longer...
The following are my criteria for an ideal National Park:
1. Scenic splendor
2. Places for solitude and reflection
3. Flora and fauna
4. Regional setting
Scenic splendor is MY idea of what is visually pleasing. Only wildlife, I suppose, is mildly objective in terms of numbers. (My next blog will probably be favorite animals and that is certainly a matter of personal taste). Regional setting is simply what I think of the surrounding area. "Feeling" is the most wildly subjective and personal and combines several factors but, in the end, is what we beatniks used to refer to as "vibes" back in the day.
I will preface my list by reiterating this list is evolving. So, in order, these are my favorite five (or six) National Parks:
Number 1. Big Bend Big Bend is remote and still feels wild. Three distinct topographies are found here; desert, mountains and river which create seemingly endless possibilities for exploration. Miles and miles of trails and dirt roads allow for more solitude and reflection. Big Bend, because it's so damn far away from urban centers, is relatively uncrowded and it's easy to lose yourself here both literally and figuratively.
Mountains your thing? The Chisos are beautiful and imposing. Of course, prior to National Park status the mountains were abused by loggers and some areas, nearly 80 years later, are still recovering. Nevertheless, the mountains are picturesque and sharply rise up off the desert floor to provide an alpine oasis for camping, hiking and photography.
Desert Rat? Then you will find the heart of the Chihuahua delightfully all around. When I visited in March 2015 the desert was alive. Yuccas were blooming crazily, creosote and mesquite was everywhere and the desert wildflowers were blooming. Magnificent.
The Rio Grande makes a "big bend" here in southern Texas and is the namesake of the Park itself. Even though, thanks to the water hoarder engineers in the USA, the river is now often dry in Las Cruces and El Paso it flows here year around thanks to the Mexican River, the Rio Conchos. I've spent a few hours on the river banks - completely alone - and the serenity is as good as it gets in today's National Parks. River lovers rejoice...
The flora in Big Bend is, as you might expect, extraordinarily diverse. With mountain, desert and riparian areas well over 1000 species of plants are found here. Trees like the Texas Madrone, Juniper, Mesquite, Cottonwoods, Oak and Ash dot the park. Cacti is, of course, abundant (46 species!) and for a cactus lover like me it's a paradise. Wildflowers are typically found in Spring and Fall. If you have Southwest tastes here are the Sotol, Lechuguilla, Ocotillo, Salt Cedar, Creosote, and magnificent Yuccas.
Wildlife thrives here and spending your days here birdwatching would easily fill your hours. One of my the best mornings I've spent in recent years was while watching a mother and father Gray Hawk feeding their young in a large Cottonwood tree by the Rio Grande. Roadrunners are ubiquitous. Coyotes, javelinas, mule deer, and jackrabbits are easily seen. Bears, badgers and foxes are also here but a bit more reclusive. While not for everyone I suppose, the desert reptiles are here but best seen at night.
Big Bend is my number one favorite National Park. My hunch is, if you asked people, they have probably not heard of it (unless they are Texans!) and it does not crack their list of best National Parks even if they do...That's one of the main reasons it's number one.
If you love the Southwest it doesn't get better anywhere else.
On a scale of 1-5:
Scenic Splendor 4
Flora and Fauna 4
Regional Setting 5
Number 2. Yellowstone. The Granddaddy of them all. There really is no place else like Yellowstone.
Sometimes referred to as the "American Serengeti" the wildlife here is unsurpassed and in higher concentration than anywhere else in the continental USA. I've been fortunate to have spent 3 weeks in the Teton and Yellowstone wildernesses and in one trip alone I saw beavers, eagles, bears, moose, grouse, osprey, falcon, geese, badger, bats, bobcat, coyote, chipmunk, rabbit, bison and elk. It is a wildlife lover's nirvana.
Lots of folks think that the thermal features are the biggest attraction. Iconic "Old Faithful" is found here as well as literally hundreds of other geysers, mudpots, fumaroles, hot springs and even travertine terraces. On a trip there in 2013 I hung out with several "Geyser Gazers" who make an annual pilgrimage to the thermal basins and wait, sometimes for days and weeks, for an eruption. That actually doesn't sound like such a bad life does it?
The scenery? Well, come on... Let's start with the Grand Canyon of the mighty Yellowstone River. There is also the "Falls District" and Hayden Valley and Yellowstone lake and well, forget me trying to describe it- you just gotta go. It is sublime.
Ok- so...if Yellowstone is so great why isn't it number one? You guessed it. People. People everywhere unless you get off the roads. It seems that some of the biggest fools of America like to visit the park. Cars simply stop when they spot a bison and there are hundreds of bison everywhere. I've seen cars stop, doors fly open, and people run, camera in hand, right at the bison (or elk, or moose or anything that moves). It's maddening. Fortunately, Yellowstone is massive and getting out on the trails can get you away- really away - from people.
The area? It's adjacent to stunning Grand Teton National Park and a day's drive to splendid Glacier National Park. Enough said.
Scenic Splendor 5
Flora and Fauna 5
Regional Setting 5
Number 3. Grand Canyon. I'm sure some will think I've rated this too highly but that's because; a. haven't been there or b. don't remember their first glimpse of it or c. they're clueless (which could be common- have you seen the presidential polls lately?).
Arriving at Grand Canyon NP, say at the ever popular South Rim, is pretty but does not prepare you for your first glimpse into the Canyon. My favorite experience in any National Park is to take someone to the Grand Canyon for the first time and listen to them audibly gasp and then see their facial expressions when they view it. It is so large and complex and beautiful it boggles the mind. Think of how many places you could sit for weeks on end and never get bored...the GC is one, for sure.
The mighty Colorado River - red in spring (hence its name) and green in the late summer and fall runs the length of the canyon of course. It rumbles, meanders, courses and slides through the canyon. The opportunities for hiking or playing on the river here are literally endless.
It is crowded. The South Rim can be overrun and feel like an amusement park. The North Rim is not open year around but offers better choices for solitude. The best idea though is to find spots away from the popular places and explore on your own. So finding privacy is possible but demands a bit of planning and work (like most of the parks).
The GC is its' own environment and there are some species that can only be found here. Several fish are native but the number, sadly, has significantly decreased over the years. Bird watching is a great treat and there is tremendous diversity in the bird population. The Kaibab squirrel is seen here and is rare. Of course, coyotes, mountain lions and other southwest mammals make their home here.
I love this part of the country. Southwest and Colorado Plateau beauty surrounds the Grand Canyon. Four Corners is within a day's drive. Often on my trips coming back from Colorado or New Mexico or even Utah I find a way to stop by- if only for a day or so. It's always worth it.
Scenic Splendor 5
Flora and Fauna 3
Regional Setting 5
Number 4. Yosemite. Yosemite is, arguably, the prettiest place on the planet and if scenery was the ONLY criterion I was looking at then Yosemite is number one. The granite walls and rock formations and the waterfalls are spellbinding, mesmerizing and leave one speechless. This is the heart of John Muir's "Range of Light". To the best of my fading recollection this was the first National Park in which I camped (Redwood National Park was the first I actually visited). This is a rock climber's mecca and the legends and the ghosts of the legends are everywhere here...
The grizzly that once roamed this magnificent park have long ago vanished. The Yosemite black bears are around and used to be quite the nuisance before measures were taken to limit their opportunities for food. Of course, deer and coyotes are ubiquitous as are small varmints of many kinds. Still, the wildlife viewing is limited compared to Yellowstone or Glacier.
Unless you get very far off trail there is little solitude to be found here.
It's in California, of course and it's proximity to Sequoia and King's Canyon is a good feature but it's too close and too well known to the major population centers.
The feeling here? Stand beneath El Capitan or Half Dome and tell me how you feel. It's a religious experience.
Just writing this has spurred me into considering an early spring camping trip on the valley in my little trailer. March looks good- chilly but good...
Scenic Splendor 5
Flora and Fauna 4
Regional Setting 4
Here is a link to a Yosemite Guide.
Number 5(Tie). Arches For many years Arches National Park was my favorite place on the planet. I literally had an out of body experience when first I visited and I've never quite recovered (nor hope to...). After that visit I read Edward Abbey's masterpiece, "Desert Solitaire" in my thirst for more information about the place and, of course, my world, (literary and otherwise!) was altered completely. I'd found a kindred soul who understood that place and had the skill to explain its' sublimity. That was nearly 35 years ago.
The last 35 years have not been good to Arches just as Abbey dourly predicted. I don't fully understand the reasons for the denigration of Arches - It could be the stupid promotions like "Find Your Park" by the NPS or the state of Utah's ubiquitous and tawdry advertisements for the "Big 5" National Parks but the place has damn near been ruined.
Delicate Arch, the icon of the Southwest was, in the 80's, a popular hike. You might see 20-30 people as you walked the 3 miles there. When you arrived about the same number would be hanging out and having lunch or taking photos. Those days are long gone, vanished, history, forget it...Delicate Arch is a zoo. It's a citified experience. I was there in October 2014 and there was a SOLID 3 mile line to the Arch. When you got there? Dozens of people were crowded around the arch, pushing, yelling, arguing, and jockeying for position to photograph it. If you want to compound your misanthropic tendencies (or create some!) just hike to Delicate Arch at dusk.
The one campground (Devil's Garden) is always full and the entrance road to the park, Highway 191, gets backed up for miles on long weekends. In short, it's a mess and it breaks my heart. Words cannot adequately describe my despair about this, for me, deeply spiritual and sacred place.
Given what I've said above is it even worth visiting? Well, if you haven't been there, it is an unequivocal YES. It is, after all, still amazing Arches and it's not the fault of the land that it's being overrun. The red, desert varnished, geologic formations are, if you can imagine it without the hordes, remarkable and delightful and simply stunning. So, go, go, go. If you happen to be there on some frigid December or March morning you might run into some bespectacled bearded older fella huffing and puffing with a Nikon around his neck on a walk in the Fiery Furnace. Go ahead and say hello but you might just get a grunt in return...
The surrounding area is, of course, crazy beautiful and the great Canyonlands National Park is only a few miles down the road. If you're looking for quiet and solitude- go to the Maze district there. Moab, the town, next door to the park is one of the coolest in the West. Your proximity to the entire Four Corners region and the Colorado and Green Rivers also makes it a gem and a wonderful spot for river activity.
One typically doesn't go to Arches for the wildlife, per se, but it's there if you get away from the people. Look for it. Deer, coyote, fox, bobcat, mountain lion and lots of rabbits and smaller creatures abound.
Scenic Splendor 5
Flora and Fauna 2
Regional Setting 5
Number 5 (Tie). Olympic. Given my predilection for the desert it may be surprising that I list this glorious spot but it's too wonderful and diverse to leave off the list.
Olympic, like Big Bend, has three distinct and marvelous topographies. First are the Olympic Mountains with Mt. Olympus towering over the entire area. The mountain hiking here is, in my opinion, is equal to the Rockies and Sierra. Lakes, rivers, peaks, lush and healthy forests, and simply water everywhere makes time and worry fall away when you visit.
Then, there are the Hoh and Quinault Rain Forests. These are certainly not, given the latitude, tropical rain forests. Instead, they are "temperate" rain forests and trees and moss and huge ferns are everywhere. I've never seen any place like it. Just writing this has me planning my next trip. It's been too long.
Then, if you love the sea, you've found your shangri la. Huge sections of beaches - with no one on them- stretch for miles. Trees and rock formations are adjacent and then there are the sandy beaches with an ocean smell that will send you instantly into the present moment. Having lived within a few hours of the beach my entire life I can report that, on the west coast, this is, I believe, the best beach walking, wandering and combing I have experienced.
I haven't been to Olympic in a number of years but I note from the interwebs data that Olympic is the number 6 on the most visited parks with 3 million visitors annually. Since there are no roads across the park from west to east unless you travel the northern edge of the park the people will be found concentrated in certain places. Here is the map. That means, of course, crowds. It also means miles of space for backpacking and like all these parks getting out of your car is a must. Still, it sounds too damn crowded. October might be the right month to go although it will be getting cold in the mountains.
Like other mountain ranges in the West the grizzly is long gone from the area but it is still rife with wildlife- deer, elk, black bears, cougars, otters and the snowshoe hare are here among many others. On the ocean side you'll find harbor seals, river otters and sea lions. At various times of the year you can also see porpoises and whales from the shoreline.
Scenic Splendor 5
Flora and Fauna 3
Regional Setting 4
So, there you go. My top 5 (or 6) National Parks. There are probably dozens of legitimate reasons to call this list bogus. First and foremost is its' subjectivity but, I suppose, when you're comparing these places, in the end, after reviewing all the data - it still comes down to which park appeals to you at a highly personal level. For example, here are a only a few of the wonders I left OFF the list:
Note these don't even include Alaska or the eastern parks!
I look forward, in about 5 years or so, to reviewing modifying and adding to the list after I visit other parks and get to Alaska. In the meantime, I offer you these places to consider as a traveling man and a lover of the natural world.
Lastly, it would be remiss of me not to express at least some gratitude to the National Park Service, on their 100th Anniversary, for doing a damn fine job of keeping these places as pristine as possible. I'm not a fan of authority and armed Rangers with nasty attitudes but, fortunately, I've only run into a few of those types. In general park personnel has been helpful and smart and they must have to exercise tremendous patience to deal with some of the idiots who grace our national treasures with their presence. They do this on an absurdly tiny budget. To me this is everything wrong about America - spend trillions on weapons, defense and billions on putting people in jail while we decimate the budgets for our National Parks. The NPS budget is a national disgrace.
When it comes to the future of the parks I'm glad the Park Service has stopped feeding the Grizzly among other not too smart ideas. I hope that they dump the "Find Your Park" promotional garbage and soon. The parks are slowly being ruined by the number of visitors that descend upon them annually and these promotions are, in my opinion, destructive. Limits must be placed on the number of visitors NOW.
I understand that from a political perspective the Park Service needs the population to support them but at what cost? More and more visitors? There is tragic irony in trying to save them by ruining them.
I hope you enjoyed reading about a few of our precious national gems.
Go on now! Get out there!
(In the off season.)
"Beauty is and always will be blue skies and open highway".
I grew up in Southern California in the 1960's. I suppose, to some extent, everyone who grows up in the West has a permanent mark left on their psyche from our "car culture".
I remember loving to drive anywhere with my parents in 1965 so I could count the Ford Mustangs on the local roads. Conversations with other boys in school invariably ended up with sports or cars. "Which is your favorite?" "What size is the engine?" "Chevy's suck!" "NO WAY- Ford's suck" "Four on the floor" "Three on the tree". "Mooneyes or Mags?" STP stickers were all the rage. If you didn't know who Big Daddy Garlits or AJ Foyt or Parnelli Jones were or the difference between a 283 and a 389 then, well, you were completely lost and ran the risk of being laughed off the playground.
What is the cliche? The "lure of the open road"? It had us all firmly in its' grip and we were all too young to drive. There was (and is!) romance in asphalt, steel, chrome and the freedom it represents. I have spent many hours trying to determine why I craved and still crave the open road. It's a spiritual, mystical and oddly ethereal concrete symbol for getting the Hell out of my head and out of here.
I fantasized before retirement about just hitting the road as soon as I could...
THAT dream has become a reality. I have been traveling the highways about half the time since June of 2013 but I have been loving highways my entire life.
Recently, on Twitter, I asked my followers to tell me some of their favorite highways. I was surprised at the number of responses I received. It's obvious that I'm not the only one who is in love with the road. Of course, were it not cut into pieces the "Mother Road"- Route 66- might have been on everyone's list. While I appreciate the efforts to preserve or re-create that route, I've done bits and pieces and it's a puzzle to even find it at times and much is gone in favor of the interstate system. So, we won't include that here which is too bad.
So what criteria did I use to determine my favorites? In two main ways- how the road makes me feel and whether I'd recommend it. That's not too subjective, is it? Well, of course it is but it's also very simple...
Here's the list:
1. California State Route 1 Growing up in SoCal this one was king. Commonly called PCH it stretches from San Juan Capistrano in the south to Leggett in the north- encompassing some of the world's most beautiful scenery and vistas. Big Sur and environs is typically considered the most beautiful part of the drive but there are little stretches - from it's southern terminus to it's northern end that are emblematic of everything that represents the "California culture". The drive from Santa Monica to Oxnard is an example...waves, surfers, sand, seafood, fishermen and the shaka sign.
2. Highway 101 is also known, in places, as "PCH". This, if I had to pick, is the highway that I think I've loved more and longer than any other. As a young man I read and was captivated by John Steinbeck and his descriptions of the land (I still am). Highway 101 (one oh one) traverses the heart of what I think of as "Steinbeck Country"; the rolling hills with large oaks that are shimmering green in the spring and golden in the autumn. The world changes as you approach the Gaviota Pass and I cannot describe how glorious it feels to go through the Gaviota tunnel heading north - I simply leave all the Southern California bullshit behind me, get out of my overthinking mind, and embrace the visual poetry of the drive.
There have been times, I'm not ashamed to admit, when the stretch between Santa Barbara and the Bay Area has literally brought me to tears. It's also known, of course, as "El Camino Real" and even that name, as a child, filled me with romance as I pictured Californios walking the Royal Road. I feel more "connected" to the 101 than any other Highway.
Now that I've taken up photography as a passion I'll be traveling more on 101 in Oregon. Most of the highway skirts the Pacific there and the sights are as peaceful and stunning as these eyes have ever seen. When I met my wife Lupe one of the first places I wanted to show her was the Oregon coast.
3. Highway 395 - this highway, lesser known than the coast routes is a gem. The granitic Sierra Nevada, sloping and gentle on the western slopes is completely different on the eastern side. On the western side you see the mountains off in the distance, on 395 they rise seemingly straight up, off the valley floor. I believe that I will probably spend more time on this highway than any other in the next few years. In fact, next month I'll be fishing with my sons in the Bishop Creek area and then I'll be exploring the Alabama Hills in October.
Of course, this is a federal highway and runs to the Canadian border from the Mojave Desert but I do not know the Oregon and Washington sections very well having only traveled them a few times. I believe in the next few years I'd better correct that.
4. Highway 89 - Strong arguments could be made that this is simply the best highway in the West and, therefore, the entire USA. If someone were to ask me to "show them the West", I'd head right for Highway 89. Highway 89 used to run from the Mexico border to the Canada border but that was changed in 1992 and now there are two sections.
Remarkably, Highway 89 links seven National Parks. In addition, 14 National Monuments are located close to this route. It is mind blowingly beautiful.
Here is a list of highlights:
Saguaro National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, and near Casa Grande National Monument and the Hohokam Pima National Monument. There is Tuzigoot National Monument, Walnut Canyon National Monument, Sunset Crater National Monument, and Wupatki National Monument.
Zion National Park, Bryce National Park. Two sections of U.S. 89 in Utah have been designated Scenic Byways. The Kanab to Mt. Carmel and Long Valley Scenic Byway is a designated Utah Scenic Byway. From Logan to Bear Lake is designated as the Logan Canyon Scenic Byway by the National Scenic Byways project.
This stretch, bordering Utah, does not have a National Park nearby but it's pastoral and enchanting as it goes through Montpelier and you know you're getting closer to the mountains and grandeur of Wyoming's National Parks.
Here you go. Highway 89 leads to Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park which is, of course, the gateway to Yellowstone National Park - the granddaddy of National Parks and subject of my next post.
The highway winds through the state, with breathtaking scenery along the way, to magnificent Glacier National Park.
My friend, Eric Temple, who I've mentioned previously, is the creative force behind Highway 89 Media. Our man knows how to name things...
If you have the time you'd be smart to put this road first on your list.
5. US Route 550. I was on this highway two years ago and it is an unforgettable and spectacular drive. It is known as the "Million Dollar Highway" as it stretches from Durango, CO to Montrose, CO. The road goes through and around some of the most impressive mountains in the United States. It is glorious and if you have not been on this road, as I suspect a few of you have not, I encourage you to make plans to see it post haste. I guarantee you will not be disappointed- just check the weather forecast. You can see some of the sights on this road if you scroll down my Trip Review Page to September 2014.
6. Utah Highway 12. While Highway 395 was my inspiration for this blog the first other highway I thought about was this dramatic road. It's only 125 miles from beginning to end but what an irresistible stretch it is. Starting at Bryce Junction (off Highway 89) and ending at Capitol Reef National Park it captures Southwestern Utah and its' uniquely sculptured magnificence. It travels through some of the most picturesque country in the West. Red Rocks, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and Kodachrome State Park are along the way. While Highway 89 may be the highway I would recommend to "See the West" it is a long route. If you have limited time then get yourself over to Highway 12 and check out its' wonders. I offer a 100% money back guarantee that you'll love it.
7. Beartooth Highway. Many people consider this the most beautiful drive in America (including none other than Charles Kuralt according to the always reliable Wikipedia page). This is the Northern Rocky Mountains at their very finest. It leaves Yellowstone and then twists and turns and switchbacks all the way to Red Lodge, Montana. I've only been on this road four times but I can remember each drive...the clouds and sky...where I had lunch and those breathtaking mountains. It's that unforgettable. It is notorious for its' unpredictable weather and summer snowstorms, while rare, are not unheard of. I have a dream of doing this drive some early September morning and stopping every few miles along the way. It's a nice dream. I hope to make it a reality quite soon.
There are other roads that I must mention even if I don't give them the words they deserve. I drove Interstate 93 through Massachusetts and New Hampshire about 15 years ago in October which started and ended my career as a "leaf peeper" but I'd go back in a heartbeat. My teen years and first years of driving were on the "Rim of the World" Highway 18 in the San Bernardino Mountains and I still think about it often...I drove it for 20 years in my career as well from the little town of Running Springs to Lake Arrowhead through every possible kind of weather and I'll always love it. On those rare clear days you can still see Catalina Island. A current favorite is Highway 70 in New Mexico that runs by the Organ Mountains and White Sands National Monument in New Mexico along the way to Alamogordo Going over the La Veta Pass on I-25 from Pueblo, CO to Santa Fe, NM is another fave.
So, there you have it. My top 7 American Highways and some honorable mentions. My hunch is lots of folks would disagree with this list and that's great. Educate me (but be gentle). I know that my eastern US knowledge is fairly weak and I probably missed some great roads in the midwest too. I also know there are many local highways that may provide for your escape and, perhaps, your inspiration too. The terrific photographer Alex Kunz mentioned, for example, California Highway 78 which runs from the beach to the desert and is an underrated heavenly drive that has inspired much of his remarkable work. Tell me about yours and I'll put it on the list of my future travel destinations...
I plan on sharing more of my "favorite places" in the coming months. Next up will be my favorite National Parks and, I guess, I'll try and limit that to seven as well... it won't be easy.
See you on the road...
This will mostly be a journal of my travels. I may include other items that interest me. Feel free to join in.