Tag Archives: wildlife

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Overview

The tallgrass prairie formerly covered 170-million acres of North America, but today only 4% of that exists in a few isolated pockets due to conversion to agriculture.  The Flint Hills of eastern Kansas were too rocky for tilling, so this was an ideal place to create Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in 1996.  Occasionally, land managers utilize fire to support fire-adapted native grasses against invasive species. Before our visit in November 2014, large areas were burned.  The bison that live here enjoy eating the fresh green grass that sprouts following a fire and wildflowers thrive with the release of available soil nutrients.

Echo at Tallgrass Prairie

Highlights

Spring Hill Ranch, Lower Fox Creek School, bison herd

Must-Do Activity

After reading the interpretive panels at the visitor center, walk around the buildings next door at the historic Spring Hill Ranch.  The 1881 ranch house is open for tours seasonally.

Best Trail

There are many trails that wander through the 10,894-acre preserve that is jointly run by the Nature Conservancy and National Park Service.  Many loop options are possible, but no backpacking is allowed, possibly due to the bison herd.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Just down the road from Spring Hill Ranch is the one-room Lower Fox Creek School which was open from 1884 to 1930.  Its walls are made of local limestone.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

Chase State Fishing Lake has 10 primitive campsites two miles outside Cottonwood Falls, Kansas.  Several U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds surround Council Grove Lake, which is located 20 miles north.

Explore More – At first the grasslands may all look the same, but how many species of plants are found within Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve?

Devils Tower National Monument

Overview

Devils Tower was named the United States’ first National Monument by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1906.  Legend has it that its deep stripes were made by the tearing claws of a giant bear attempting to climb after seven girls who were saved when the rock grew from three feet high to its current 867 feet.  You can see the girls today as the constellation Pleiades.  The bear came to rest in Bear Butte State Park in South Dakota.

Highlights

Tower Trail, Joyner Ridge Trail, Prairie Dog Town

Must-Do Activity

Devils Tower is a distinctive 50-million-year-old volcanic plug, whose steep sides have been an irresistible challenge to rock climbers for years.  Watch for them as you complete the 1.3-mile loop trail around the entire tower, as it looks different from every angle.  Also look for the colorful prayer cloths left by Native Americans, many of whom would prefer this sacred site be renamed Bear Lodge National Monument.

Best Trail

Joyner Ridge Trail provides a unique view of the tower and forms a 1.5-mile loop or connects to the longer Red Beds Trail that circumnavigates it.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Visit in late September for fall foliage: golden quaking aspens and red chokecherry bushes.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

$25 per vehicle or America The Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

Long vehicles must park just below the visitor center and hike a short ways up.  The short West Road to Joyner Ridge Trailhead is a good dirt road.

Camping

On the prairie below Devils Tower, a 50-site campground is located within a grove of cottonwood trees, with running water available May through October.  A private campground with RV hookups is located near the park entrance.

Explore More – How is park connected with the classic 1978 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind?

Padre Island National Seashore

Overview

To experience the natural side of this semitropical region, make a trip to Padre Island National Seashore south of Corpus Christi, Texas.  Unlike touristy South Padre Island, this barrier island offers 65 miles of undeveloped beaches for exploration by foot and 4-wheel-drive vehicles. 

Highlights

Malaquite Beach, Grasslands Nature Trail, Bird Island Basin

Must-Do Activity

This wild island attracts a lot of wildlife, like white-tailed deer, a variety of shorebirds, and, unfortunately, Portuguese man-o-wars.  Keep an eye out for sea turtle patrols that drive up and down the beach all day seeking females laying eggs, including the endangered Kemp’s ridley.  Head further north for more bird watching, as Aransas National Wildlife Refuge typically sees a few overwintering whooping cranes, an extremely rare species.

Best Trail

Take a walk on a boardwalk through the sand dunes on Grasslands Nature Trail to find white-tailed deer and maybe even a crested caracara.  Also look for caracaras along the roadside since they will eat carrion.

Instagram-worthy Photo

On the bay side of the barrier island, you can camp and watch kitesurfers at Bird Island Basin where herons and egrets are a common sight.  We also saw white pelicans in the spring.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

$20 per vehicle or America The Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

Roads are paved to Malaquite Beach visitor center and from there you can drive most of the beaches with a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. 

Camping

Primitive camping is allowed on the beaches, but there is also a nice campground with water and showers near Malaquite Beach visitor center.  If you cannot find a campsite at Padre Island National Seashore, try up north at Mustang Island State Park.

Explore More – Currents in the Gulf of Mexico bring significant amounts of floating trash to the shoreline; how can you help during your visit?

Cabrillo National Monument

Overview

Cabrillo National Monument is named for a Spanish explorer that sailed the California coastline in 1542 before mysteriously dying in the Channel Islands.  Located on Point Loma peninsula west of San Diego Bay, the steep cliffs offer great overlooks of Coronado Island and the city beyond. 

Highlights

Cabrillo statue, 1854 Old Point Loma Lighthouse, tidepools

Must-Do Activity

To find out more about the history of Spanish exploration in this region, check out the museum and talk to one of the costumed actors (it is southern California after all).  The national monument is a great place to imagine life at the Old Point Loma Lighthouse or learn the military past of the strategic defense post Fort Rosecrans. 

Best Trail

Follow the road downhill to the Pacific Ocean side of the peninsula to a great spot to explore tidepools.  Watch for migrating gray whales in the winter and the many unique bird species that migrate up and down the coast.  There is also the 2.5-mile roundtrip Bayside Trail.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Old Point Loma Lighthouse was built in 1854, but due to that famous California coastal fog it was retired from service in 1891.  Climb its circular stairs for a unique photo that looks like the inside of a seashell.

Peak Season

Year round, but less likely to be foggy in the winter.

Hours

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

Fees

$20 per vehicle or America The Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

Mission Trails Regional Park off Highway 52 and other private campgrounds are located nearby.

Explore More – You would expect that Spain purchased the statue of Cabrillo, but which country actually did?

Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park

Overview

On the dry western side of the Big Island of Hawai‘i, south of bustling port city Kailua-Kona, Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park is home to a reconstructed village that provides a glimpse into the daily life of the indigenous people hundreds of years ago.  The National Park Service (NPS) offers a visitor center, picnic area, and a festival held annually in July.

Highlights

Hale o Keawe temple, kōnane game table, fish ponds, Ki‘ilae village

Must-Do Activity

Adjacent to the popular snorkeling area dubbed “Two-Step,” this park sees its share of sea turtles.  Though these green sea turtles nest 800 miles to the northwest in the French Frigate Shoals, the well-known hula dance actually imitates the digging motions of a female turtle laying her eggs.  In the winter, watch for migrating humpback whales that spout and jump just offshore. 

Best Trail

Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau was a “place of refuge” for vanquished warriors, noncombatants, and kapu (taboo) breakers to be absolved by a kahuna pule (priest) so they could return home in peace.  It was separated from the Royal Grounds by a 10-foot wall built in AD1550, which can be seen along the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail that runs through the park to access Ki‘ilae village.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Carved wooden ki‘i are guardians of this place of refuge and stand next to this reconstruction of a temple and mausoleum that held the bones of 23 ali‘i (noble chiefs).  Ho‘okupu (offerings) were placed on the lele (tower) next to them.

Peak Season

Open year round

Hours

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

Fees

$15 per vehicle or America The Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

County and state parks on the leeward west coast of this island are great places to camp and relax under palm trees listening to the waves break.

Explore More – What was the most severe punishment for breaking a kapu, such as letting your shadow fall on Royal Grounds?