Tag Archives: backpacking

Rocky Mountain National Park

Overview

This truly is a National Park for all seasons.  In the summer, it is worth the extra time it takes to drive eleven miles up the unpaved curves of one-way Old Fall River Road to Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet.  Elk bulls spar and bugle in the autumn, when aspen trees briefly turn the mountainsides gold.  Winter is a wonderful time for outdoor recreation if you come prepared for the cold and snow.

Highlights

Bear Lake, Dream Lake, Trail Ridge Road, Adams Falls, Ouzel Falls,

Must-Do Activity

From the famous Trail Ridge Road, you do not even have to get out of your car for amazing panoramas.  If you want to walk, the one-mile Toll Memorial Trail at Tundra Communities Trailhead is paved and flat enough to not be too strenuous at 12,000 feet in elevation.  Elk, pikas, and yellow-bellied marmots frequent the parking area around Rock Cut. 

Best Trail

If you are looking to climb straight up the side of a mountain, there are plenty of options, including popular Flattop Mountain and the strenuous climb up Longs Peak.  For a less busy trail, head to Ypsilon Lake and continue up the hillside, scrambling over boulders all the way to spectacular Spectacle Lakes.

Instagram-worthy Photo

In Grand Lake on the west side of the park, hiking or snowshoeing past Adams Falls up the East Inlet Trail is breathtaking in all seasons.

Peak Season

Summer is the busiest, but winter brings opportunities for snowshoeing.

Hours

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

Fees

$35 per vehicle ($25 for one day) or America The Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

Almost all roads are paved; one-way Old Fall River Road is gravel and only open a few months in the summer.

Camping

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

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

Explore More – How do the winter survival strategies differ between pikas and yellow-bellied marmots?

This photo from Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park is for sale on Imagekind

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Dinosaur National Monument

Overview

As its name suggests, Dinosaur National Monument was first created in 1915 to protect an archaeological dig.  The 200-foot long wall of unexcavated fossils at Dinosaur Quarry outside Jensen, Utah is still the park’s main attraction.  A major addition of 200,000 acres was added in 1938, stretching into the neighboring state of Colorado.  More than 90% of the National Monument (click here to see where it ranks in our Top 10) is managed as wilderness and is best explored by whitewater rafting the Green and Yampa Rivers.

Highlights

Dinosaur Quarry, Harpers Corner Road, Fremont pictographs, Jones Hole Trail, whitewater rafting

Must-Do Activity

Whitewater rafting trips on the Green River can last a few hours or multiple days depending upon where you put in.  We highly recommend a three night trip starting at the Gates of Lodore with Adrift Dinosaur or one of several other outfitters.  They also offer multi-day trips down the Yampa River, which is undammed and only navigable during the spring snowmelt.  If you do not feel like getting wet, simply enjoy a quiet picnic on the shoreline at easily-accessible Split Mountain (or take a high-clearance vehicle down the rough road to scenic Echo Park).

Best Trail

The 4-mile long Jones Hole Trail is accessible to rafters on the Green River and from a fish hatchery at the end of a paved road near the Utah-Colorado border.  It provides access to Ely Creek Falls and the Deluge Shelter pictographs, which are approximately 800 to 1,400 years old.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Dinosaur Quarry may be the only mountainside in America surrounded by its own glass-enclosed, air-conditioned building.  It contains thousands of fossilized bones of giant creatures sitting in the same place they have been for the past 148-million years.  It is a completely different experience than seeing dinosaur skeletons reconstructed in a museum, although they have those, too. 

Peak Season

Spring and summer

Hours

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

Fees

No entrance fees for the Colorado side, but $25 per vehicle to enter the Utah side to view the Dinosaur Quarry.

Road Conditions

There are many dirt roads in the National Monument, some of which are impassable when wet, so check at a visitor center before entering.  The roads to the Dinosaur Quarry, Jones Hole Trailhead, Deerlodge Park, and Harpers Corner are paved.

Camping

There are several campgrounds within the park accessible by paved or unpaved roads, as well as numerous backcountry campsites located along the Green and Yampa Rivers (plus, one on the Jones Hole Trail). 

Explore More – Who was the one-armed Civil War veteran that led the first exploration of the Green River (and named the Gates of Lodore after a poem) in 1869?

WONDON WAS HERE

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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Shenandoah National Park

Overview

At one time Shenandoah National Park was entirely private owned, then in the 1930s the government of Virginia went about “procuring” the land for a grand National Park in the east.  These mountains are renowned for their colorful fall foliage, which peaks in October, when 18% of annual visitors arrive.  If you are looking to avoid traffic in a park only 70 miles from Washington, D.C., we recommend coming in February when almost every park amenity is closed.

Highlights

Skyline Drive, Stony Man, Limberlost Trail, Dark Hollow Falls, Rapidan Camp, Old Rag Mountain

Must-Do Activity

Skyline Drive runs 105 miles to form the backbone of this narrow National Park.  Driving at the posted 35 mile-per-hour speed limit, it takes 3 hours to drive in its entirety if you do not stop once.  But with 75 overlooks and 513 miles of trails to choose from, who would want to do that?  Skyline Drive is paralleled by 101 miles of the famous 2,185-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Best Trail

The trailhead for Old Rag Mountain is located east of the park off Highway 231 (not Skyline Drive), but it is the most popular hike.  The challenging route over slick rock faces and narrow corridors provides wonderful views of the ridgeline that comprises Shenandoah National Park.  Due to the number of hikers, it is recommended you complete a 7.1-mile loop by connecting Ridge Trail with Saddle Trail. 

Instagram-worthy Photo

Throughout the park there are numerous trails to waterfalls, though some may run dry in the summer.  The shortest hike, at 1.4 miles roundtrip, leads to 70-foot tall Dark Hollow Falls. 

Peak Season

Summer, plus mid-October for fall foliage

Hours

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

Fees

$30 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

The park’s paved backbone Skyline Drive is occasionally closed after major snowstorms.  Located at Mile 32 (measured from Port Royal, Virginia in the north), the 670-foot long Mary’s Rock Tunnel allows a maximum vehicle height of 12 feet, 8 inches.

Camping

There are four seasonal campgrounds located along Skyline Drive and backpacking is allowed with a free permit.  West of the Shenandoah River Valley, George Washington National Forest also provides camping opportunities.

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

Explore More – What percentage of the 199,218 acres in Shenandoah National Park is designated Wilderness?

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Denali National Park and Preserve

Overview

At 20,320 feet above-sea-level, Denali is the highest point in North America.  It is also the tallest mountain on Earth measured from base to summit.  Mt. Everest starts from a 13,000-foot plateau, while Denali’s base is only 700 feet.  The park is also home to an incredibly diverse array of wildlife, including our favorite, the hoary marmot.

Highlights

Denali peak, Sled Dog Demonstration, Mt. Healy Overlook Trail, wildlife

Must-Do Activity

The summit of Denali is only visible 10% of the summer, so flightseeing is the most successful option to the see the peak.  While in the park, it is better to focus on the wildlife, so bring a good camera with a zoom lens for moose, caribou, Dall sheep, gray wolves, and brown bears.  Your best chance to see wildlife is to buy a shuttle bus ticket online or at the Wilderness Access Center.  We recommend you only take the eight hour roundtrip to Eielson Visitor Center (Mile 66) and spend some time hiking the tundra, instead of going all the way to Wonder Lake (Mile 85).

Best Trail

Most of the park is managed as wilderness so there are no trails, but around the park entrance there are a few.  We recommend climbing as high on the steep trail up Mt. Healy as you can for unsurpassed views of the mountainous area.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Even if the summit of Denali is hidden, the tundra scenery here is incredibly colorful, especially around the bus stop for Polychrome Overlook (Mile 47).

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

There is no admission fee; however, visitors can only get past Mile 15 of the Park Road on a tour bus or with campground or backcountry reservations.

Road Conditions

The Park Road is paved to the Mile 15 Savage River Check Station, past which personal vehicles are not allowed.  The dirt road is groomed, but it can get bumpy in the back of the bus.

Camping

Riley Creek Campground is open year round, a rarity in Alaska.  A reservation at Teklanika River Campground allows you to drive your own vehicle to Mile 29 partway into the park.  


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

Explore More – How many earthquakes are recorded annually in Denali National Park and Preserve?

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