Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site

Overview

Bent’s Old Fort on the Arkansas River on the prairie of eastern Colorado has been painstakingly reconstructed to its appearance of 1845.  It was originally built in 1833, long before Fort Larned and Fort Union announced the U.S. military presence on the 1,200-mile-long Santa Fe Trail.  Historical reenactors are happy to talk to visitors about the site and its famous inhabitants and visitors.

Highlights

Reconstructed fort, film, living history

Must-Do Activity

The “old fort” was originally built with the financial backing of the two Bent brothers from St. Louis and a Taos trader named Ceran St. Vrain.  It was a huge success, bringing a period of peace to warring tribes on the Great Plains, particularly after William Bent married a Cheyenne woman.  Things changed once Texas was annexed by the U.S. in 1845 and the military moved in, spurring a move to Bent’s New Fort 38 miles downstream.  

Best Trail

The parking lot is less than a half-mile walk from the fort, yet we found that approaching on foot added to the historic experience, as did speaking with the reenactors roaming inside.  Closer handicap parking is available.  Another trail leads to the banks of the Arkansas River on a 1.75-mile loop.

Instagram-worthy Photo

In 1975, the adobe fort was reconstructed on its original foundation in southeast Colorado based on drawings by Lieutenant James Abert, a topographical engineer stationed here in 1845 and 1846. 

Peak Season

Summer, but watch for afternoon thunderstorms.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/beol/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$3 per adult except $5 during June 8-9 Santa Fe Trail Encampment, September 15 Hispanic Heritage Day, October 20 Native American Heritage Day, and the December 7-8 Traditional Holiday Celebration. America the Beautiful pass accepted, too.

Road Conditions

All roads paved, although they can be closed due to spring floods on the Arkansas River.

Camping

There are private campgrounds in nearby La Junta, Colorado and a public one run by the Corps of Engineers at John Martin Reservoir (27 miles east on Highway 50).

Explore More – What combination of factors led William Bent to burn the original fort and build a new one 38 miles down the Arkansas River?

Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve

Overview

In the remote southwest corner of Oregon, this marble cave system has been federally protected since 1909.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked extensively on the trail system and chateau-style lodge in the 1930s.  In 2014, an additional 4,000 acres were added to preserve the surrounding old-growth forests, the most biodiverse conifer-dominated ecosystem in the world.

Highlights

Cave tours, Oregon Caves Chateau, Big Tree, Mt. Elijah

Must-Do Activity

The Oregon Caves Chateau is currently closed for renovation, but is scheduled to reopen to guests in 2021.  That means the main reason to visit is to take a tour inside the cave, but bundle up because it remains a brisk 44°F year round.  The standard tour is 90 minutes, has a height requirement of 42 inches, and includes 500 stairs, which can be strenuous at 4,000 feet in elevation.  In the summer, a candlelight tour, off-trail “wild caving” tour, and family-friendly tour (for those with small children) are also offered.

Best Trail

The Bigelow Lakes-Mt. Elijah Loop Trail covers 9.2 miles and gains 2,390 feet in elevation while providing the best views of the surrounding mountains.  At a minimum, you should try to hike the Big Tree Trail 2.6 miles roundtrip to the largest diameter Douglas-fir tree in Oregon.

Instagram-worthy Photo

After your cave tour exits far uphill from its entrance, continue on the Cliff Nature Trail for a great view of the lush Siskiyou Mountains.

Peak Season

Summer, since cave tours are only offered from late March through November.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/orca/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

There is no entrance fee to the park, but there is a charge for all cave tours (which can be reserved in advance).

Road Conditions

The paved entry road is winding and climbs steeply.  Most surrounding Forest Service roads are unpaved and one climbs to provide access near the top of the Bigelow Lakes-Mt. Elijah Loop Trail.

Camping

Cave Creek Campground is located 4 miles from the cave entrance.  Trailers are only permitted at Grayback Campground, further down the hill.

Explore More – Which native conifer tree provided the siding for the Oregon Caves Chateau?

Top 10 Caves in National Parks  

Some of our favorite units in the National Park Service system include caves, from lava tubes to highly decorated caverns. This is a list of our 10 favorites.  Check out our page dedicated to all of our Top 10 lists.

10. Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park (Hawai‘i)

Thurston Lava Tube is an electrically lighted half-mile walk through a high-ceilinged cave.

9. Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve (Oregon)

A marble cave surrounded by a beautiful old-growth forest.

8. El Malpais National Monument (New Mexico)

Short lava tubes are open to the public if you pick up your free cave permit at a visitor center.

7. Great Basin National Park (Nevada)

Lehman Caves is only 0.6 miles long, but it is full of beautiful formations, like Parachute Shield.

6. Wind Cave National Park (South Dakota)

Boxwork is an uncommon cave formation and 95% of the world’s known quantity is right here (see photo at the top of page).

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5. Mammoth Cave National Park (Kentucky)

The many tour options will keep you coming back to this wonderful park.

4. Timpanogos Cave National Monument (Utah)

Start by hiking switchbacks up 1,092 feet, then your ranger guide will show you the gravity-defying helictite crystals.

3. Jewel Cave National Monument (South Dakota)

The Wild Caving Tour here is reportedly the most difficult in the entire National Park Service System.

2. Lava Beds National Monument (California)

Pick up a guidebook and chart your own course through dozens of unlit lava tubes.

 

…and finally our #1 cave in a National Park!

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1. Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico)

Visit this incomprehensibly huge cave during the summer to witness the Evening Bat Flight Program.

 

Honorable Mentions

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (Kentucky)

Reservations are recommended for the ranger-guided two-hour tour of Gap Cave.

Sequoia National Park (California)

Crystal Cave was the first cave Scott ever entered in 1988.

Scott and his older brothers in 1988

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Overview

Carlsbad Caverns in southeastern New Mexico is the most spectacular cave in the United States (and #1 on our Top 10 List).  Exploring the Big Room at your own pace is a great option, but you can add to your experience with guided tours of off-limits sections.  The King’s Palace Tour is short but scenic; and Left Hand Tunnel was historically used for movies.  Lower Cave Tour requires the use of ropes and ladders to access unlit portions of the cave.  Slaughter Canyon Cave tour requires an extra hour drive, but visits some astonishing formations.  “Wild caving” tours include Spider Cave and the Hall of the White Giant. 

Highlights

Big Room, Walnut Canyon Desert Drive, Rattlesnake Springs Picnic Area, Bat Flight Program

Must-Do Activity

To enjoy the evening Bat Flight Program (where cameras are prohibited) you must come during the warmer months.  Brazilian free-tailed bats migrate to the cave from the south and around sunset exit from the Natural Entrance in clockwise circling swarms.  You will swear there are like a “Brazilian” of them, but the actual number is closer to 500,000.  For an experience you will hear more than see, come back before sunrise as the bats zip by your head down into the cave for their day’s rest.

Best Trail

For your first visit, we recommend taking the self-guided trail from the Natural Entrance down a steep, paved passage into the heart of the cave, since you can always ride the elevators back up to the surface.  After being surrounded by the natural cave formations, it was a bit jarring to come upon a modern restroom and cafeteria 775 feet underground. 

Instagram-worthy Photo

Nothing can prepare you for the immensity of the Big Room, which is big enough to fit eight football fields with a ceiling that rises up to 255 feet.  It defies belief that this cavity could have formed naturally.  Perhaps the best part of this section of cave is that you can take as much time as you like admiring the formations.  For the best photographs, we recommend using a tripod.

Peak Season

Summer, though it can be hot outside the 56°F cave.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/cave/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

No entrance fee, but there is a charge for each guided cave tour.

Road Conditions

Main entrance road is paved, but Walnut Canyon Desert Drive and much of the route to Slaughter Canyon Cave are not.

Camping

There are no campgrounds within the park, but there is a private campground near the park entrance in Whites City, New Mexico.  Just down the highway in Texas, the National Park Service offers camping at Pine Springs within Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  Free permits are required for backcountry camping, with Rattlesnake Canyon off Walnut Canyon Desert Drive being a popular destination.

This design we created to celebrate Carlsbad Caverns National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – Historically, what was mined from the Natural Entrance and Slaughter Canyon Cave?

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Top 10 National Historic Sites

There are 77 National Historic Sites managed by the National Park Service and several others that are affiliated sites.  Similar to the list of our Top 10 National Historical Parks, these choices represent our experience and not the significance of a place in the annals of U.S. history.  In fact, most of these spots we never would have heard about when sitting next to each other in Mrs. Williams’ AP American History class back in high school.  Check out all of our Top 10 lists here.

10. Grant-Kohrs Ranch (Montana)

All things “cowboy” are remembered here

9. Golden Spike (Utah)

Colorfully reconstructed train engines daily evoke May 10, 1869

8. Weir Farm (Connecticut)

Borrow art supplies to create your own memory of this artist colony

7. Ford’s Theatre (Washington, D.C.)

Live theater is still performed at this infamous assassination site

6. Brown v. Board of Education (Kansas)

Thought-provoking exhibits on segregation fill the classrooms of an old school in Topeka

5. Bent’s Old Fort (Colorado)

Costumed reenactors take you back in time on the Santa Fe Trail

4. Minuteman Missile (South Dakota)

A great museum and guided tours recall the Cold War era

3. Tuskegee Airmen (Alabama)

Civil Rights pioneers are celebrated at this site created in 1998

2. Manzanar (California)

The U.S.A. is a great nation because it remembers the shameful parts of its past

…and finally our #1 National Historic Site!

1. Andersonville (Georgia)

Visiting the National Prisoner of War Museum is a powerful experience

Honorable Mentions

Little Rock Central High School  (Arkansas)

Learn about integration kitty-corner from this architectural beauty

Christiansted National Historic Site (Virgin Islands)

The yellow walls of this seaside fort are great for photographs