Tag Archives: wildlife

Grand Canyon National Park

Overview

Grand Canyon National Park is generally considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world.   Billions of years of geologic history have been laid bare by the cutting power of the Colorado River.  It is cliché but true, you simply have to see this icon with your own eyes.  It can be overwhelming.  So can the crowds on the South Rim, but those tend to thin out if you hike a mile or two down a trail.  If you have the time during the summer months, be sure to drive five hours over the forested Kaibab Plateau to reach the North Rim (which is only 10 miles away as the raven flies). 

Highlights

Desert View Watchtower, Hopi House, El Tovar Hotel, Phantom Ranch, Toroweap Overlook, whitewater rafting the Colorado River

Must-Do Activity

Growing up in Arizona, Scott used to visit this park frequently, but he feels he never got to know it until he hiked to the bottom in 2016.  Even if you only go a couple thousand feet down in elevation on the Grandview Trail or busy Bright Angel Trail, it will give you a new perspective on the canyon.

Best Trail

We day hiked the 18 miles from South Kaibab Trailhead (7200 feet elevation) down to Phantom Ranch (2500 feet) where we filled up with water on the way back up to Bright Angel Trailhead (6800 feet, with multiple water stations on the trail).  Backcountry permits can turn this into a multiple day trek, but then you have to carry all your gear out.

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It is an arduous 90-mile one-way drive down a (mostly) dirt road to access Toroweap Overlook, but there is a reason photos from this fantastic overlook show up everywhere since the canyon walls are nearly vertical here.

Peak Season

Summer when it is very hot inside the canyon, though it can also be busy around the spring, fall, and December holidays.

Hours

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

Fees

$35 per vehicle or America The Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

Most roads are paved, and except for the very end of the 90-mile long graded dirt road to Toroweap Overlook is accessible to all passenger vehicles.

Camping

The park has campgrounds on both rims, but you can also find dispersed camping in the neighboring Kaibab National Forest.

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

Explore More – Was Marguerite Henry’s book character Brighty based on a real burro?

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White Sands National Monument

Overview

You might know gypsum as the white powder inside drywall panels.  Gypsum readily dissolves in water, but here it forms sand dunes because no river drains the Tularosa Basin.  The white color of the dunes does make for extra intense albedo, so be sure to bring sunglasses and carry plenty of water.  Most of the wildlife here is nocturnal, but during the day you may spot a lizard species evolved to camouflage in the sand. 

Highlights

Scenic views, sledding, Interdune Boardwalk, wildlife

Must-Do Activity

Dunes composed of gypsum make a great destination for snow sledding year round, especially after a rainfall.  It is fun to see children wearing T-shirts and shorts sliding down the sparkling white slopes.

Best Trail

Follow markers on the five-mile round trip Alkali Flat Trail that goes up and down dunes with views of the San Andres Mountains.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The white dunes take on the colors of the sunset if you decide to backpack or take the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll.

Peak Season

Spring and fall, since it can be very hot in the summer.

Hours

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

Fees

$5 per person or America The Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

Mostly paved and the packed dirt road is drivable by all vehicles.

Camping

Only backcountry camping is allowed in 10 designated sites for $3 per person, but that 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 south of Alamogordo.

Explore More – What happens to the deep root system of a soaptree yucca when the dune it is growing on blows away?

Death Valley National Park

Overview

Death Valley is our favorite of the 9 National Parks in California.  Ghost towns and abandoned mills abound throughout its 3.4-million acres, including Leadfield on the one-way dirt road through Titus Canyon.  Most of the attractions are found in and around the historic Furnace Creek Inn: watch sunrise at Zabriskie Point or sunset at 5,475-foot Dantes View; hike through gorgeous Golden Canyon or under Natural Bridge; drive to the ironic Devils Golf Course or the colorful Artists Drive; and walk into Badwater Basin, which at -282 feet below-sea-level is the lowest point in North America, even more impressive since it sits directly beneath 11,049-foot Telescope Peak. 

Highlights

Badwater Basin, Zabriskie Point, Golden Canyon Trail, Devils Golf Course, Artists Drive, Salt Creek Interpretive Trail, Titus Canyon, Telescope Peak, sand dunes

Must-Do Activity

Death Valley averages less than 2 inches of precipitation annually, yet less than 10,000 years ago Badwater Basin was the bottom of a massive inland lake, the remnants of which be found along Salt Creek Interpretive Trail.  Here tiny desert pupfish survive in the salty, hot water. The related and endangered Devils Hole pupfish can be seen at a disconnected part of Death Valley National Park surrounded by Nevada’s Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.

Best Trail

There are great trails throughout this park, but we prefer walking wherever we want on the many sand dunes.  The best are the Panamint Dunes; tucked on a mountain slope they require a three mile hike to reach.   That means when you drop your sleeping bag on top you will likely have the place to yourself.  More centrally located are the popular Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.  In the northern section of the park the steep Eureka Dunes have a free primitive campground at their base.

Instagram-worthy Photo

A dry, flat lakebed in the northwestern corner of the park provides a racetrack for rocks of all shapes and sizes.  High winds and ice crystals are the key to their movement, which is clearly shown in their wake.  Do not let the 26 mile dirt road stop you from visiting this spectacular site.  It is passable by most vehicles when the road is dry (we drove our mini-van there)and when the Racetrack is wet you should refrain from walking on it anyway. 

Peak Season

Spring and fall, with summer’s being incredibly hot except at the highest elevations.  However, it can snow just about any month of the year.

Hours

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

Fees

$30 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

The main roads are paved, but to really enjoy the park you should drive a high-clearance vehicle (rental 4x4s are available near Furnace Creek).  As of December 2018, Scotty’s Castle is still inaccessible due to flood damage on the road.

Camping

There are campgrounds, but a unique aspect of this National Park is that you can disperse camp for free along many of its dirt roads.  Backcountry camping is also free and does not require a permit.


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

Explore More – What is the connection between Death Valley, 20 Mule Team Borax, and Stephen Mather (who in 1916 became the first Director of the National Park Service)?

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WONDON WAS HERE …TWICE …THRICE …FORCE? …FIF!

Yellowstone National Park

Overview

The geothermal features here inspired the creation of the world’s first official “National Park” in 1872.   Most of Yellowstone is actually a supervolcano where the magma heats up underground water producing 10,000 hot springs, fumaroles, and mudpots on the surface, as well as 300 geysers.  Incredibly, over 50% of the geysers in the world occur within this one park, which is equally famous for its wildlife diversity, including grizzly bears, bison, gray wolves, and elk.

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Highlights

Old Faithful geyser, Norris Geyser Basin, Mammoth Hot Springs, waterfalls, wildlife

Must-Do Activity

The most famous geyser here is Old Faithful, which can shoot water up to 185 feet in the air.  Since the occurrence of several earthquakes it is no longer as consistent as its name suggests, but its eruptions can be accurately predicted every 60 to 110 minutes throughout the day.  Arrive early to get a seat or take the trail up the nearby hill to watch it from above.  Afterwards, hike the boardwalks through colorful Upper Geyser Basin.

Best Trail

A hike into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone on Glacial Boulder Trail is one way to find the solitude lacking at the drive-up overlooks (you should still hike to the Brink of Lower Falls with the crowds).  Instead of staying in the packed campgrounds, consider getting a permit to backpack camp in the canyon.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The trail is steep, but paved down to the Brink of Lower Falls on the Yellowstone River for unforgettable view of the canyon, especially on sunny days when a rainbow appears in the spray.

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Peak Season

Summer, but Old Faithful Village can seem busy in the winter with all the snowmobiles during the day.

Hours

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

Fees

$35 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

Very few roads are not paved, but the majority close for seven months in the winter.

Camping

There are many campgrounds in the park, but they fill up quickly the summer (especially at primitive Slough Creek).  The surrounding National Forests offer campgrounds and dispersed sites as well.  We have enjoyed backpacking at designated campsites in the park with a permit, especially in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Looking back at Lower Yellowstone Falls
A rim view of Lower Falls on the Yellowstone River.
Dropping down into the canyon
Backpacking into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone on Glacial Boulder Trail.

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Bison in front of Old Faithful Inn in February.
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View of Old Faithful erupting from the hill overlook.

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

Explore More – How many of the park’s 4-million annual visitors arrive in June, July, and August?

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WONDON WAS HERE …TWICE …THRICE

Big Bend National Park

Overview

The park is named for a curve in the Rio Grande which forms the international border with Mexico.  This corner of Texas is not easy to get to, so when you do decide to visit plan on staying for at least a few days.  The weather can be very pleasant in the winter months.

Bend

Highlights

Chisos Basin, Hot Springs, Balanced Rock, Santa Elena Canyon Overlook

Must-Do Activity

Located down a short dirt road from Rio Grande Village Campground, a quick walk takes you to a riverside hot springs, a great spot to relax after a day of hiking in the dry Texas desert.  While soaking there, you are literally a stone’s throw from another country.

Best Trail

From Chisos Basin it is a short two mile canyon hike to The Window for a gunsight view to the west.  This trail is especially popular at sunset.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The most popular back road is Grapevine Hills Road which accesses the short Balanced Rock Trail and passes a couple of the most accessible of the 70 primitive backcountry car campsites (which require a permit from a visitor center).

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Peak Season

Spring and fall, but we have had good weather during visits in December and early March.

Hours

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

Fees

$30 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

We found that many of the dirt roads are passable with a mini-van, but some are four-wheel-drive only, so check with a ranger first.

Camping

There are many choices of campgrounds and backcountry campsites (permit required) throughout the park, but we recommend the Chisos Basin for its roadrunners and nightly ranger programs.

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The trail to Balanced Rock is also beautiful, especially in the golden hours.

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Hot springs on the Rio Grande (with Mexico in the background)
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View looking west through The Window.

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The ruins of Mariscal Mine make for a neat place to explore.
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This design we created to celebrate Big Bend National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – What rare migrant bird do birders annually “flock” to see in this park?

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WONDON WAS HERE …TWICE


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