Tag Archives: backpacking

Update to Our Guidebook: A Park to Yourself

Since White Sands National Monument was upgraded to the 62nd National Park on December 20, 2019, we decided to update our guidebook to the parks.  If you already bought your copy on Amazon, please find the new page 308 posted below.  White Sands is one of our favorite of the many National Park Service units in New Mexico.  You can read more about the park on this blog

White Sands

New Mexico

148,558 acres

Established 2019

603,008 visitors in 2018

Dunes composed of gypsum make a great destination for snow sledding year round, especially when the sand is wet.  Gypsum readily dissolves in water, but here it forms dunes because no river drains the Tularosa Basin.  Follow markers on the five-mile roundtrip Alkali Flat Trail that goes up and down dunes and provides views of the San Andres Mountains.  Most of the wildlife here is nocturnal, but during the day you may spot bleached earless lizards that evolved to camouflage in the gypsum.  The white dunes take on the colors of the sunset if you attend the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll or backpack camp.  There is no campground and only ten backcountry campsites, and their availability is dependent upon whether the military is conducting missile tests overnight, so call ahead or check the schedule online.  Oliver Lee Memorial State Park offers a full service campground in a beautiful setting south of Alamogordo, New Mexico.

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Overview

As one of the easiest crossings of the Alleghany Mountains, Cumberland Gap saw steady foot traffic from 1775 to 1810 as American settlers moved west then sent their trade goods and livestock east.  It later became the corner where the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia all converge.  Today there is a tunnel on Highway 25E, maintaining the park’s quiet and its appearance of centuries ago. 

Highlights

Pinnacle Overlook, Tri-State Peak, Wilderness Road Trail, Hensley Settlement, Gap Cave

Must-Do Activity

All visitors will want to drive the steep four-mile long Pinnacle Road, along which trailheads lead to scenic overlooks and earthen forts dating to the 1860s.  Reservations are recommended if you want to take a tour of the Hensley Settlement or Gap Cave, which typically sell out.  Even if you cannot make it on a tour, there are 85 miles of shady trails through the park’s 24,000 acres of forest to make your visit worthwhile.

Best Trail

At Cumberland Gap National Historical Park you can follow in the footsteps of salt-seeking bison, Shawnee and Cherokee warriors, hundreds of thousands of pioneers, and Civil War soldiers from both sides.  Hike the Wilderness Road Trail to the saddle of the official Cumberland Gap, which is marked by a sign.  You will also pass the same Indian Rock that was seen by frontiersman Daniel Boone when he helped blaze the Wilderness Trail in 1775.

Instagram-worthy Photo

You can see parts of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee from Pinnacle Overlook at 2,440 feet in elevation.  With its commanding views, you can see why both sides found the Cumberland Gap strategic during the Civil War.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

None, except for the separate tours of Hensley Settlement and Gap Cave (reservations recommended).

Road Conditions

The four-mile long road up to Pinnacle Overlook is paved but steep enough to be closed to all trailers and vehicles over 20 feet in length.

Camping

The park’s Wilderness Road Campground is large and open year round.  Free permits are available for backcountry campsites.  Black bears are common in the park, so proper food storage is required.

Related Sites

Mammoth Cave National Park (Kentucky)

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (Tennessee-Kentucky)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee-North Carolina)

Explore More – Who was the Virginian who first “discovered” and named the Cumberland Gap in 1750?

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Overview

Bryce Canyon is not really a canyon at all, but instead a cliffside amphitheater eroded away into extravagant creamsicle-colored hoodoos.   Your first view from Sunrise or Sunset Point will surely take your breath away and not just because you are standing above 7,000 feet in elevation.  A portion of the main park road is only open during the busy summer season, but seeing the amphitheater under a fresh carpet of white snow makes the effort worthwhile to get here in the winter.  Learn more about the logistics of a winter visit in our first travel guidebook to the National Parks (available on Amazon).

Highlights

Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Navajo Loop Trail, Queens Garden Trail, Natural Bridge, Rainbow Point

Must-Do Activity

The amphitheater is beautiful from the overlooks, but to really experience this park you have to hike down from the rim.  Peakaboo Loop is a strenuous four-mile hike with approximately 1,700 feet cumulative elevation gain that offers up close views of the hoodoos.  It is accessed from Sunset Point or Bryce Point.  You could easily spend your whole trip in this northern section of the park and not be disappointed, but be sure to take a slow drive south with stops at Natural Bridge and Rainbow Point to complete the experience.

Best Trail

It is four miles out and back on the Under-the-Rim Trail from Bryce Point to the Hat Shop, in the quiet backcountry area where hoodoos are topped with boulders (like they are wearing hats).  Ask a park ranger about the “I Hiked the Hoodoos” program to earn a prize.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Douglas-fir trees snake their way to the light in the narrow Wall Street section of the Navajo Loop Trail.  A photograph of Tiff walking into a snowy Wall Street made the cover (see below) of our first travel guidebook to the National Parks (available on Amazon). 

Peak Season

Summer due to long, snowy winters at this elevation.

Hours

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

Fees

$35 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

The main park road is paved, but there are dirt roads that access the lower elevations of the park, though we have been warned that they are in rough shape.

Camping

The National Park Service has a campground that is open year round, but we prefer camping along the dirt roads in adjacent Dixie National Forest.  A free permit is required to camp in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Related Sites

Cedar Breaks National Monument (Utah)

Zion National Park (Utah)

Capitol Reef National Park (Utah)

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

Explore More – Who described Bryce Canyon as “a hell of a place to lose a cow?”

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area

Overview

Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area is co-managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Forest Service.  The NPS is in charge of Whiskeytown Lake, a reservoir west of Interstate 5, about 230 miles north of San Francisco, California.  Camping, hiking, gold panning, fishing, boating, and swimming are popular activities, but watch out for poison-oak.

Highlights

Waterfall Challenge, Camden House, gold panning, lake recreation opportunities

Must-Do Activity

Pick up an official Waterfall Challenge Passport at the NPS visitor center along with information on the four waterfall hiking trails.  Tower House Historic District includes the Camden House built in 1852 by a Gold Rush prospector, with seasonal tours offered by the NPS (it was temporarily closed in 2019 after the Carr Fire).  You can even pan for gold (with a $1 permit).

Best Trail

Whiskeytown Falls, Boulder Creek Falls, Brandy Creek Falls, and Crystal Creek Falls are accessible by hiking a total of 11 miles, but it may take longer depending on your choice of trails and road closures.  The trails are steep and poorly marked in some places.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Whiskeytown Falls is 220 feet tall and is accessible on a 3.4-mile roundtrip trail, but we thought the most photogenic waterfall was Crystal Creek Falls.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

$25 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

Highway 299 on the north side Whiskeytown Lake is paved and accesses Oak Bottom Campground.  Some of the gravel access roads are rough, but passable even with passenger vehicles.

Camping

There are eight campgrounds around the lake, some tent-only, but RVs are allowed at Oak Bottom and Brandy Creek Campgrounds.

Related Sites

Lava Beds National Monument (California)

Lassen Volcanic National Park (California)

Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve (Oregon)

Explore More – In what year was the Central Valley Project begun that years later formed the 3,200-acre Whiskeytown Lake?

Sample Chapter from Our New Guidebook

We wanted to demonstrate how our new guidebook (A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks) is different from this website, so we are providing a sample chapter for Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.  Here is a link to the Raven About The Parks blog post on the park.

The holidays are coming up, so order A Park to Yourself now on Amazon!

39. Rocky Mountain National Park

Colorado

265,795 acres

Established 1915

4,590,493 visitors in 2018

Overview

This truly is a National Park for all seasons.  In the summer, it is worth the extra time it takes to drive 11 miles up the unpaved curves of one-way Old Fall River Road to Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet, then back down Trail Ridge Road.  Elk bulls spar and bugle in the autumn, when aspen trees briefly turn the mountainsides gold.  Winter is a wonderful time for outdoor recreation here if you are prepared for the icy conditions, even on a short 1.6-mile trip up to Gem Lake just outside of Estes Park, Colorado.

Peak Visitation Months

July (20%) August (18%) June (16%) September (15%)

Busiest Spots

Bear Lake Trailhead, Alluvial Fan, Alpine Visitor Center, Longs Peak

Worth The Crowds

Bear Lake Trailhead is the busiest area in the park.  Its huge parking lot fills up early year round, but a hiker shuttle is available during the summer.  While the trail starts above 9,000 feet elevation, it is only 1.1 miles with a steady ascent up to stunning Dream Lake ringed by jagged peaks.  From there, you can continue on to Emerald Lake or take the long loop around to Lake Haiyaha and Alberta Falls.  Even in the winter, these trails are generally packed enough that snowshoes are not required.

A Park To Yourself

The western side of the park is generally less busy throughout the year, but even less so in the winter when it is cut off after Trail Ridge Road closes each October.  Snowshoeing past Adams Falls up the East Inlet valley is breathtaking when the snow sparkles in the sun and the river gurgles deep under foot.  There are majestic mountain views once the forest opens up into a spectacular meadow.  Better yet, there is never a fee required to park at the East Inlet or North Inlet Trailheads. 

Iconic Photograph

Around Memorial Day each year, all 48 miles of Trail Ridge Road open to vehicles.  Its high point is at 12,183 feet, the highest elevation reached by a fully-paved road in the United States.  For much of its length, jagged black mountaintops lined in pure white snow surround the visitor on all sides.  Our favorite view is looking southwest towards the Gorge Lakes and Mount Ida from the overlooks at Rock Cut or Forest Canyon parking areas.

Scott’s Favorite Trail

Starting at the small parking lot at Poudre Lake, it is a steady climb five miles one-way to Mount Ida at 12,880 feet.  After a mile, it is less a trail and more following cairns along the Continental Divide.  Needless to say, above timberline there are first-class views of surrounding mountains.  Elk and bighorn sheep are commonly spotted on the route.  From the top you look down on the colorful Gorge Lakes and far across to Trail Ridge Road.

Tiff’s Favorite Trail

The Dunraven Trailhead is in Roosevelt National Forest, northeast of Estes Park.  From there a trail drops to the canyon bottom then follows the North Fork of the Big Thompson River 4.4 miles before it enters the National Park, and backpack camping is allowed without a permit along this length.  The views open up on the Mummy Range before the trail ends around Lost Lake.  You can continue to explore the other lakes past there, but overnight stays in this area require a permit from the National Park Service.

Bonus Winter Trail

In the winter months, the road off Highway 7 to Wild Basin shuts down, but it is still plowed for those entering on foot.  Adding the two mile road length to any hiking distance makes it about eight miles roundtrip to Calypso Cascades, which continues to flow beneath the snow and ice.  Snowshoes are recommended as this trail sees much less use than those around Bear Lake.

Camping

There are multiple campgrounds within the park, but only Glacier Basin is open year round.  Several National Forests surround the park and provide opportunities for dispersed camping, although near Grand Lake it does get crowded during the summer.

Backpacking

Backpacking permits are required and designated sites are reservable, including on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.  You must still pay the National Park entry fee, but there is no additional charge to get a permit to park at the Bowen/Baker Trailhead and camp in the Never Summer Wilderness outside the park boundaries.

Getting Around

Most of the park roads are paved and the two-mile long dirt road to Wild Basin Trailhead is well-maintained.  A hiker shuttle operates from Beaver Meadows Visitor Center in the summer.  Old Fall River Road typically does not open until July, but this 11-mile long one-way dirt road makes a great loop when connected with Trail Ridge Road (open late-May to October). 

Nearby Public Lands

There are no National Park Service units near this park, but it does border Arapaho National Recreation Area on the west side.  If you are flying in or out of Denver International Airport, a short detour from Interstate 70 takes you to Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, which contains bison, white-tailed deer, pronghorns, prairie dogs, and other animals.

Insider Tip

Estes Park is the gateway town to the eastern portion of the park.  There are often elk grazing in its neighborhoods and golf courses.  While there, we recommend the ghost tour of the Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King’s The Shining.

Wildlife

In the summer, most of the elk herds head to high elevation, but other times of year they walk through the town of Estes Park and congregate near the eastern entrance stations.  Rock Cut is a great spot to watch the spastic wanderings of yellow-bellied marmots and American pikas.  Mule deer are found throughout the park, but moose are more common on the west side.  We commonly see bighorn sheep on Highway 34 through Big Thompson Canyon, but have never spotted one within the park, even at Sheep Lakes where they come to lick salt.

Journal Entry

March 2013

We never thought we would have an entire National Park campground to ourselves, but that is exactly what we found at Timber Creek one beautiful March weekend.  The ranger could not recall the last campers they had stayed there and it took some work to excavate a site from almost three feet of snow, but it was worth it.  Sitting around the campfire that night, the silence was palpable until abruptly pierced by the eerie cries of coyotes that echoed up the valley.  Snow camping is not for the faint of heart, but with proper planning we were well prepared for the 15°F temperatures that met us in the morning.  On a clear day, the winter scenery in the Rocky Mountains is unsurpassed. 

If you enjoyed reading this chapter, you can find all 50 chapters in our first National Parks guidebook!

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.