Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Overview

Usually sand dunes are associated with deserts, but in southern Colorado they sit at 8,200 feet and are surrounded by snowy mountains, pine trees, and Medano Creek where kids splash and make sandcastles.  These dunes are the tallest in North America, up to 750 feet in height, blown in grain by grain from the San Juan Mountains, 65 miles to the west.

Dunes

Highlights

Medano Creek, High Dune, Medano Pass Primitive Road

Must-Do Activity

The height and steepness of the dunes makes them a great place to try sandboarding or sand sledding, which works best when the sand is wet.  If you don’t have a homemade sandboard, you can rent one in the nearby town of Alamosa or bring a plastic snow sled (round saucers seem to work well).

Best Trail

Blaze your own trail to the top of 650-foot tall High Dune.  The 2.3-mile roundtrip climb is quite a workout at this elevation while sliding backwards in the sand, but bounding downhill makes up for it.  This park is unique because it allows dogs on the dunes, but bring foot protection for your canine on sunny days.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Stay in the dune field at sunset for long shadows on the dunes.  A major bonus if you visit in the spring or fall for a backdrop of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

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Peak Season

Due to its high elevation (8,200 feet), summer is the best time to spend the night, otherwise it can be very cold.

Hours

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

Fees

$20 per vehicle or America the Beautiful Pass, but it is typically not collected in winter months.

Road Conditions

Other than the four-wheel drive road over Medano Pass, passenger vehicles can access all trailheads.  The park provides specialized wheelchairs are available for crossing Medano Creek and exploring the sand dunes.

Camping

Pinyon Flats Campground (fee) has two 44-site loops frequented by mule deer.  Backpacking permits are free to overnight on the dunes where the stars shine brightest.  First-come, first-served campsites are available along the high-clearance Medano Pass Primitive Road.  Dispersed camping is allowed in the neighboring Rio Grande and San Isabel National Forests.

June 2013 Colorado Trip 360

June 2013 Colorado Trip 274

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Pronghorns at the dunes
Pronghorns grazing in front of the sand dunes in December.

 

Tiff with the mountains
Tiff sledding down a wet (i.e. fast) dune in October

 

Tiff heading to the parking lot
October brings fall colors to the cottonwoods

 

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Lava Beds National Monument

Overview

Near California’s northern border lies isolated Lava Beds National Monument.  There are 700 lava tubes within the monument and many of them are open for self-guided caving.  Lava tubes form when the rapidly cooling surface solidifies into rock and free flowing lava drains out beneath.

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Highlights

Skull Cave, Golden Dome, Petroglyph Point, Captain Jack’s Stronghold

Must-Do Activity

Only one cave near the visitor center is lit, the others all require flashlights, with hardhats and kneepads recommended for some of the tighter squeezes.  Explore as many lava tubes as you have time for, like Skull Cave with its wide entrance or one of several caves that contain ice year round.

Best Trail

1.5-mile roundtrip hike to top of Schonchin Butte where a fire lookout offers panoramic views across lava flows to Tule Lake, Glass Mountain, and Mount Shasta.

Instagram-worthy Photo

All you need is a flashlight to walk less than half a mile underground to Golden Dome, the most spectacular feature of the park.  The gold flecks are actually colonies of hydrophobic bacteria that thrive in this humid, lightless environment.  Other caves containing them include Thunderbolt and Blue Grotto.

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Peak Season

Open year round, but due to its elevation (5,000 feet) the aboveground surface can get a bit hot in summer and cold in winter, but it is usually nice inside the lava tubes.

Hours

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

Fees

$20 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

The entrance road from Oregon and Cave Loop Road are paved, but most are dirt south of the park in Modoc National Forest.

Camping

Indian Well Campground is located near the visitor center and Cave Loop Road.  Dirt roads in the neighboring Modoc National Forest provide free dispersed camping.

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Standing in the wide entrance to Skull Cave.

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Lavasicles hang from the ceiling inside a narrow section of lava tube.
Hydrophobic bacteria light up in Golden Dome
Group shot under the Golden Dome.
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Tiff with our guidebook in the Catacombs.
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This is what Lava Beds looks like above the surface.

Explore More – How did 60 Modoc warriors led by Captain Jack keep 1,000 U.S. troops at bay for six months in the 1870s?

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Buffalo National River

Overview

Designated as the nation’s first National River by Congress in 1972, the free-flowing Buffalo River winds 135 miles across northern Arkansas.  It is noted for its sandstone bluffs and tall waterfalls, as well as its three designated wilderness areas.  Multiple concessionaires rent canoes and offer shuttle service for those who wish to float the river during the high spring flows.  There are many hiking trails to be found in this National Park Service site and in the adjoining Ozark National Forest.

Buffalo

Highlights

Boxley Valley Historic District, Hemmed-in Hollow, elk herd, Ponca Wilderness, canoeing

Must-Do Activity

Steel Creek to Pruitt Landing is a 22-mile float through Class I rapids on the Buffalo River through the Ponca Wilderness past rock bluffs up to 500 feet tall.  Wildflowers and birds abound in the spring, the only time the upper river is deep enough to float.  Numerous outfitters provide rental gear, guides, and car shuttles.

Best Trail

A short 1.5-mile roundtrip hike from a river pulloff, Hemmed-In-Hollow is a 210-foot tall waterfall, also accessible on a much more strenuous trek starting on top of the bluff in Compton, Arkansas.

Instagram-worthy Photo

While not technically within the National River boundaries, Hawksbill Crag is an image that shows up on many tourism advertisements for Arkansas.  Go in early November for fall colors.

Tiff on the edge of the famous point in the Buffalo National Forest

Peak Season

The water flows best in the spring and is often not deep enough for paddlers in the river’s upper reaches other times of year.

Hours

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

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Many of the dirt roads are steep due to the park’s rugged backcountry nature and may require high-clearance vehicles when muddy.

Camping

Twelve campgrounds accessible by car, with Tyler Bend and Buffalo Point Campgrounds offering showers.  Backcountry sites are mostly reached by canoe or kayak.

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Explore More – Why is a river in the forests of northern Arkansas named for buffalo (or bison)?

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Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Overview

“The green desert” is home to dense stands of saguaros, ocotillos, and its namesake organ pipe cacti.  The monument’s 330,689 acres sit on the Mexican border of Arizona and were recognized as a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve in 1976.  The park has a reputation for being dangerous, which it can be for NPS Law Enforcement due to its border location, but tourists should encounter no problems while enjoying the beautiful landscape.

Organ

Highlights

Ajo Mountain Loop, Alamo Canyon, birding, earn an “I Hike For Health” pin

Must-Do Activity

The namesake cactus is more common further south and shares this landscape with 27 other species of cacti, including the famous saguaro.  To see the cacti at their best, I recommend driving the 21-mile dirt road Ajo Mountain Loop in the evening before turning in for the night at the campground.

Best Trail

The National Park Service (NPS) runs a shuttle some mornings to Senita Basin from where you can hike back to the visitor center (with an optional side trip to the abandoned Victoria Mine).

Instagram-worthy Photo

The park’s Ajo Mountains are mostly volcanic rhyolite and their jagged outlines photograph well in the twilight hours with the famous saguaro cactus silhouetted in the foreground.

Saguaros and Diaz Peak

Peak Season

Anytime but summer when temperatures regularly soar above 100°F.

Hours

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

Fees

$25 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

The highway is paved to Kris Eggle Visitor Center and Twin Peaks Campground, but most of the dirt roads are passable for all vehicles.

Camping

The park has the very nice Twin Peaks Campground (with solar showers) where you can pick up free hiker shuttles that allow for one-way trips back to your tent.  There are also a couple dry campsites (permit required) on Alamo Canyon Road.  A permit is required for backcountry camping.

Lots of organ pipes

A cristate formation on an organ pipe
An organ pipe cactus with a unique cristate formation.

Sunset on the Green Desert

Estes Canyon

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We saw unique bird species like this phainopepla, in addition to Scott’s orioles, Gila woodpeckers, black-throated sparrows, and, of course, ravens.

Explore More – Why is the Visitor Center named for Park Ranger Kris Eggle?

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Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve

Overview

At 13.2-million acres, Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest unit in the National Park Service system, but most of it is remote wilderness.  Some of the tallest peaks in Alaska and several active volcanoes are held within its borders, between Fairbanks and Valdez.  The main visitor center is located along the Richardson Highway, north of the turnoff for the 92-mile long (mostly dirt) road connecting McCarthy and Kennecott to the rest of the state.

Wrangell

Highlights

Kennecott Mine buildings, Root Glacier, flightseeing tours

Must-Do Activity

The discovery of the richest copper ore in the world led to the building of the Kennecott mining town and railroads to transport its products across the Copper River in the 1910s.  The beautifully preserved and restored town is partially owned privately and publicly by the National Park Service, and it is continually undergoing renovations.  You can only enter most of the iconic red buildings on a private guided tour (fee).

Best Trail

Take the Root Glacier Trail from Kennecott with a guide to learn the basics of glacier route-finding.  A guide company provides the crampons required for walking and detours around dangerous moulins, which can be hundreds of feet deep.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The deep blue ice of Root Glacier makes for otherworldly photos, especially if you pay for a tour into an ice cave underneath the glacier.

The ice wave and beginning of a fun s-canyon

Peak Season

Summer is the only time of year McCarthy is accessible by car instead of snow machine.

Hours

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

Fees

The park is free to enter.  We paid $110 per person for a full-day guided tour with St. Elias Alpine Guides.

Road Conditions

Two dirt roads enter the park and are passable for all vehicles when snow free: the 92-mile long McCarthy Road and the 42-mile long Nabesna Road in the north.  A pedestrian bridge is the only access from McCarthy across the Kennicott River, where you can pay for a van ride into Kennecott.

Camping

There are private campgrounds on the McCarthy Road, as well as one at Liberty Falls State Park.  No permits are required for backpacking, but it is recommended to file a trip plan with the NPS.

Scott on the footbridge over the Copper River on the way to McCarthy
Scott on the footbridge over the Kennicott River on the way from McCarthy to Kennecott
Mt. Blackburn (over 16,000 feet high) was revealed by the early afternoon
Mt. Blackburn (16,390 feet high) revealed from its usual cloudbank

Scott along the creek flowing through the ice

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Mt. Sanford, Drum, and Wrangell are visible from the main visitor center on a clear day.
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