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Niobrara National Scenic River

Overview

When most folks think of Nebraska they imagine endless dusty prairie scenes of the Oregon Trail, yet between the wide Platte and Missouri Rivers also runs the 535-mile long Niobrara River.  The Niobrara cuts across the 100th Meridian of Longitude that roughly divides in half the continental U.S.  This special area is home to species representative of the eastern forests, Rocky Mountains, boreal forests, and prairies; consequently it has high biodiversity.  The motto on the National Park Service (NPS) signs is “Public Waters, Private Land.”

Highlights

Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, Fort Falls Trail, Smith Falls State Park, canoeing, tubing

Must-Do Activity

The 76-mile section of river designated the Niobrara National Scenic River in 1991 begins within Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge where the first 4.8 miles are closed to the public.  The 22-mile section starting from Cornell Bridge is the most popular portion for canoers, tubers, and people who float downstream in round metal cattle troughs.  The Niobrara River has a few big Class IV rapids, but nothing more than Class II through the first 27 miles.  We floated to the portage at dangerous Rocky Ford Rapid at high water in May and encountered only Class I rapids and a few strainers along the shorelines.

Best Trail

Pull off the river around Mile 15 in Smith Falls State Park to take the short boardwalk to a 63-foot tall waterfall.  The waterfalls along these cliffs are interesting because instead of pouring off a cut bank they develop a prominent ledge that grows as the limestone is dissolved and redeposited (like a cave formation).  You can also drive to the state park and walk over the Niobrara River on the Verdigre Bridge, originally built in 1910 and relocated here in 1996.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Do not miss the opportunity to drive the dirt road through Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge to see the bison herd, especially in May when the bison calves are born.  The refuge also contains the short Fort Falls Trail, which forms a loop with views of a 45-foot tall waterfall.

Peak Season

Summer, though water levels drop after June.

Hours

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

Fees

None for the river, but there is a $1 per person launch fee in Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge and entry/camping fees at Smith Falls State Park.

Road Conditions

The dirt roads in Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge and Smith Falls State Park are well-maintained and passable to all vehicles.

Camping

Camping options are limited since most of the river banks are privately owned, though Smith Falls State Park offers a campground ($6/person/night) and other private campsites are marked on river maps.

Related Sites

Missouri National Recreation River (Nebraska-South Dakota)

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument (Nebraska)

Scotts Bluff National Monument (Nebraska)

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Cape Cod National Seashore

Overview

Northernmost of the ten National Seashores in the National Park Service (NPS) system, Cape Cod National Seashore includes 40 miles of shoreline on the narrow glacial deposit that sticks out of Massachusetts like a fishhook.  Its 44,000 acres are interspersed with towns that manage (and charge for) many of the beaches along the coastline.  Watch for gray seals playing in the surf, which attract predators like great white sharks to the shallows.  Even if you want to swim in the chilly ocean water, if you see gray seals it is best to go somewhere else so you are not confused with food.

Highlights

Nauset Light, Three Sisters Lighthouses, Old Harbor Life-Saving Station Museum

Must-Do Activity

The best place to start your visit is Salt Pond Visitor Center, which has a museum run by the NPS.  Located right off Highway 6, it is also a great place to stretch your legs on the Buttonbush or Nauset Marsh Trails.  From there, it is a short drive to Coast Guard or Nauset Light Beaches that offer tram service when parking lots are full.  Lifeguards are on duty at specific beaches from late June through Labor Day, which should give an indication of the short season when it is actually warm enough to enjoy the water.

Best Trail

There are 12 self-guided trails within Cape Cod National Seashore, plus three bicycle trails up to 7.3 miles long.  Our favorite was the one-mile Beech Forest Trail near Race Point Beach at the tip of Cape Cod.

Instagram-worthy Photo

If the red-striped Nauset Light looks familiar that is because you might have seen it on a bag of potato chips at the grocery store.  While there, take a walk over to the Three Sisters Lighthouses that have also been moved inland from their original eroding clifftop locations.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

$25 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All roads are paved and a permit from the Oversand Station at Race Point is required for those wishing to drive on designated sand routes.

Camping

No camping is offered through the NPS, but there are several private and state-run campgrounds, plus countless motels and vacation rentals.

Related Sites

Salem Maritime National Historic Site (Massachusetts)

Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area (Massachusetts)

Fire Island National Seashore (New York)

Explore More –Who was the famous Italian inventor that transmitted transatlantic radio signals from massive antennas on Cape Cod in the early 1900s?

Haleakala National Park

Overview

On the tropical island of Maui, Haleakalā National Park is accessible by two memorable roads.  One road climbs from sea level up to 10,023 feet overlooking Haleakalā Crater, which has almost no vegetation.  To the east, a lush tropical rainforest thrives in the Kīpahulu District located at the end of the winding road to Hana.  Both districts offer great hiking opportunities and free campgrounds. There is much more information about this park in our National Park guidebook, available on Amazon.

Highlights

Haleakalā Crater, Sliding Sands Trail, Hosmer Grove, ‘Ohe‘o Gulch pools, Waimoku Falls

Must-Do Activity

The thing to do at Haleakalā National Park is drive up the curvy entrance road in the pitch dark to catch a sunrise from 10,000 feet.  Haleakalā translates to “the house of the sun” so it is kind of a big deal here.  It is like a party atmosphere in the chilly air waiting for the guest of honor.  Of course, we were up there one morning, though we thought the sunsets were prettier and much less crowded.  Several tours drive visitors to the summit for sunrise then provide bicycles to coast back down the switchbacks outside the park boundaries.

Best Trail

In the Kīpahulu District, we hiked the two-mile Pipiwai Trail to the 400 foot cascades of Waimoku Falls in a steady downpour.   The trail offers some protection from rain under sprawling banyan trees and incredibly dense bamboo thickets.  Like many of the plant and animal species found throughout Hawai‘i, the banyan and bamboo are not native to the islands, but have thrived on this isolated landmass 2,400 miles from the nearest continent. 

Instagram-worthy Photo

Silversword (‘ahinahina) plants grow all along the Sliding Sands Trail that accesses the bottom of the 2,000 foot deep crater.

Peak Season

Year round, though summer might be slightly warmer at 10,000 feet in elevation.

Hours

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

Fees

$30 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All roads are paved, but the road to the summit is full of switchbacks and bicyclists.  The curvy road to Hana is well known for its one-lane bridges, of which we counted 53 before we reached the Kīpahulu District.

Camping

The two National Park Service campgrounds here are free, a big savings in a place that can be expensive to visit.  There is a lottery for three hike-in cabins and permits available for wilderness backpacking campsites.

Related Sites

Kalaupapa National Historical Park (Hawai‘i)

Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park (Hawai‘i)

Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park (Hawai‘i)

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

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Missouri National Recreational River

Overview

Forming the border of Nebraska and South Dakota, the Missouri National Recreational River was originally designated in 1978, but only 300 of its 34,128 acres are managed by the National Park Service (NPS).  Its lower segment runs 59 miles from the Gavins Point Dam to Ponca State Park.  More than a decade later, a 39-mile stretch was added from the Fort Randall Dam to Niobrara State Park, and includes 20 miles of the Lower Niobrara River (which is itself designated a National Scenic River upstream).  The section of river in between is a 29-mile long reservoir known as Lewis and Clark Lake, named for the explorers that led the Corps of Discovery up this section of river in August-September 1804.

Highlights

Lewis and Clark Visitor Center, Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery and Aquarium, boating, fishing

Must-Do Activity

Most visitors come for the boating and fishing opportunities along the Missouri River.  If you are well-prepared, canoeing can be a fun way to experience these two relatively free-flowing sections of river.  The NPS and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) manage the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center near Yankton, South Dakota, which, in addition to dam tours, offers the Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery and Aquarium.

Best Trail

The 4,400-mile long Lewis and Clark National Historical Trail tracks through here, but since the Corps of Discovery used the Missouri River as their path, there is no hiking trail to follow.

Instagram-worthy Photo

There are several great museums along the Missouri River section of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Trail.  Our favorite is the NPS headquarters for the trail in Omaha, Nebraska, which has the beautiful Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge across the river connecting to Iowa.  If you drive over to Council Bluffs, do not miss the free museum at the Western Historic Trails Center.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

None for the NPS unit, but the state parks charge admission.

Road Conditions

Roads to the state parks and visitor centers are paved, but there are many dirt roads that access boat launches along the river.

Camping

Niobrara State Park and Ponca State Park both have more than 100 campsites with running water.  The COE also operates campgrounds near its dams.

Related Sites

Niobrara National Scenic River (Nebraska)

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site (North Dakota)

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park (Oregon-Washington)

Explore More – In the aftermath of several devastating floods, when did Congress enact the Flood Control Act to construct five dams along the Missouri River?

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?