Tag Archives: geology

Yosemite National Park

Overview

Given its 4-million annual visitors, it can be hard to practice social distancing at Yosemite National Park.  In the summer, it can even be difficult to find parking in bustling Yosemite Valley.  The legendary valley is home to El Capitan and Half Dome, rock formations known around the world, as well as countless waterfalls.  For more ideas on what to do during your visit and how to avoid the crowds, check out our National Park guidebook, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).

Highlights

Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point, Tuolumne Meadows, Mariposa Grove

Must-Do Activity

When entering Yosemite Valley on Highway 41 from the south, your first sight of the valley is stunning upon emerging from a long tunnel.  You simply have to stop at the iconic Tunnel View parking area.  Although the forest here is denser than in the past, the scene has not changed much since President Lincoln signed the bill to preserve this area in 1864.  While the Yosemite Valley can get incredibly busy during peak tourist season, hike a mile up a trail and you might find a solitary place to enjoy one of the numerous waterfalls.

Best Trail

Formerly a paved tram route, the trail through the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees is a major highlight outside Yosemite Valley.  We especially enjoyed snowshoeing there in the winter.

Instagram-worthy Photo

From May to November, you can drive up to Glacier Point for great views into Yosemite Valley from the cliffs above.  We chose this overlook for our original logo of Yosemite National Park (see below).

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

$35 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All roads are paved, even the one that goes over 9,945-foot high Tioga Pass, which crosses the Sierra Nevada and is closed in the winter (as is Glacier Point Road, though it remains open to cross-country skiers).

Camping

There are multiple campgrounds within the park and some take reservations, but there are no RV hookups except outside the park.

Related Sites

Sequoia National Park (California)

Devils Postpile National Monument (California)

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area (California)

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

Explore More – John Muir wrote extensively about the Yosemite Valley and Sierra Nevada, but many of his readers do not know he was an immigrant to America; in what country was he born?

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.

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Overview

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument outside Flagstaff, Arizona is worth a closer look than a drive-by on your way to Grand Canyon National Park.  As its name suggests, this thousand-foot high cinder cone is stained red as though in perpetual twilight.  Volcanic activity last occurred here in the year 1180 AD, but even though geologists consider this area dormant, it is just possible that a new cinder cone might start erupting at any time.

Highlights

Lava Flow Nature Trail, Bonito Lava Flow, Lenox Crater Trail, O’Leary Peak

Must-Do Activity

A 35-mile loop drive through Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument to neighboring Wupatki National Monument passes through ponderosa pine forest and sunflower-filled meadows on its way to an arid, rocky high desert region that is dotted with ruins.  From the road you can see the San Francisco Peaks rising to the west, as well as a series of cinder cones outside the monument’s boundaries.  Several of these mini-volcanoes are accessible by roads, including our favorite: S.P. Crater.

Best Trail

To experience the black cinders you have to get out of your car and hike through them, but take your time as the elevation is around 7,000 feet.  Lava Flow Nature Trail provides interpretive signs along a partially paved one-mile loop.  You cannot climb to the top of Sunset Crater, but you can summit nearby Lenox Crater on a steep one-mile trail.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Sunset Crater and the Bonito Lava Flow are especially eye-catching when viewed from atop 8,900-foot O’Leary Peak, accessible by hiking to a fire lookout tower in adjacent Coconino National Forest.  The awe-inspiring vista will make you glad that movie producers were stopped from dynamiting Sunset Crater in 1928.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

$25 per vehicle, which also covers entrance to neighboring Wupatki National Monument.

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

The U.S. Forest Service runs the Bonito Campground across from the Sunset Crater visitor center from May through October.  Dispersed camping is allowed in portions of Coconino National Forest.

Related Sites

Wupatki National Monument (Arizona)

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (Idaho)

Capulin Volcano National Monument (New Mexico)

Explore More – How many millions of years of volcanic activity have occurred in the area around Flagstaff, Arizona?

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

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve

Overview

If you seek an otherworldly experience right here on Earth, look no further than Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in southeastern Idaho.  In the 1800s, this massive lava flow proved an obstacle to avoid for immigrants on the Oregon Trail.  In 1969 it truly earned its lunar label by serving as a field school on volcanic geology for NASA Apollo astronauts. 

Highlights

Boy Scout Cave, Indian Tunnel, cinder cones, tree molds

Must-Do Activity

The 7-mile loop road is paved and provides parking at several trailheads, including the wheelchair-accessible Devils Orchard Nature Trail.  Cinder cones, lava tubes, and tree molds are some of the unique volcanic features seen from the trails.  If you come here in the winter the loop road closes due to the amount of snow they receive at 6,000 feet elevation, but you can still explore on snowshoes and cross-country skis.

Best Trail

If you cannot make it to the incomparable Lava Beds National Monument in northern California, you can explore a couple of short lava tube caves here.  To explore Indian Tunnel you will need a free permit, but you do not even need a flashlight.  That is not the case inside the pitch black Boy Scout Cave.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Unlike the moon, there is life here despite its blackened, rocky appearance.  Hearty syringa bushes and limber pine trees sprout from cracks in the lava providing food and cover for sage grouse, pika, and other animals. 

Peak Season

Summer, but it can get very hot on the black rocks without any shade.

Hours

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

Fees

$20 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

The 7-mile loop road is paved, but other all roads into the monument require a heavy-duty 4×4 with excellent tires.

Camping

There is a first-come, first-served campground near the visitor center off Highway 93 that provides water, but no RV hookups.  Backpacking is allowed in the wilderness area.

Explore More – In what year did the nearby town of Arco, Idaho became the first community in the world to utilize nuclear power?