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Posted by Jay on April 13, 2016

National Park Cliff Notes: Rocky Mountain NP – Colorado



Positioned high atop the Front Range Rockies of central Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park protects a vast area of mountains, tundra, and forest. The continental divide separating the Pacific and Atlantic watersheds jogs directly through the park following a string of peaks in excess of 13,000 feet. (more…)

Posted by Jay on April 10, 2016

National Park Cliff Notes: Great Sand Dunes NP – Colorado



Great Sand Dunes National Park is geologic curiosity of the American West.


At over 700 feet (213 m), these dunes are the tallest in North America, but it’s their location, not their size, that makes them so interesting. Without a desert environment to belong to, the dunes occupy a six mile wide pocket nestled into the foothills of the Sangre de Christo Mountains. It’s believed that snowmelt and rain water washed the sand down from the mountains only to have strong winds from the southwest sweep it back up there. These competing forces collected the sand into one big heap which, from first impression, seems sorely out of place.


Must See:Great Sand Dunes Loc

Medano Creek runs between the sand and mountains forming the eastern border of the dune field. Its soft shallow bottom makes it ideal for kids to play around in. The creek also exhibits a rare hydrologic condition called “pulse flow” where waves of increased flowrate travel downstream.


Off the Beaten Path:

Backpacking is permitted in both the mountains and the dunes. I appreciate the sense of solitude I get when camping in dunes. Unfortunately, the wind whipped up in the early morning before sunrise, and since I was camping without a tent I had to stumble awake and relocate.


Next Time:

Attention Off-Road Vehicle Owners: Medano Pass Primitive Road is an outrageously scenic northern access route which connects down to the parks visitor center in the south. This is the only thru road in the park. High ground clearance and 4WD required – consider timing your visit with the Fall color change during late September / early October.


For more information on my visit, check out my post.


Park Information:

National Park Service Website / Map


Google Maps Location

Medano Pass Primitive Road


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Posted by Jay on April 8, 2016

Destination Alaska

In a month and a half I am flying up to Alaska to work for a bush plane company operating out of Wrangel St. Elias National Park and Preserve (map / wiki).


When I visited Wrangel St. Elias National Park last year it made a lasting impression on me. (more…)

Posted by Jay on March 29, 2016

National Park Cliff Notes: Acadia NP – Maine




Established in 1928, Acadia National Park is the oldest national park east of the Mississippi River.


The park protects approximately half of Mount Desert Island (more…)

Posted by Jay on March 24, 2016

Camping on the Colorado River



Last weekend my sister, her boyfriend, and his sister drove out to the Colorado River for a weekend of boating and floating.


Posted by Jay on March 23, 2016

National Park Cliff Notes: Shenandoah NP – Virginia



Shenandoah National Park protects a long range of the of the greater Blue Ridge Mountains in northern Virginia.


In fact, where the famous Blue Ridge Parkway ends, Shenandoah NP picks up and continues north. It’s interesting to note that much of the land that would become Shenandoah was methodically acquired by the Virginia Commonwealth against the will of many local residents before the park was officially established in 1935. Skyline Drive follows the complete length of the park, creating a 105 mile backbone from which most of the hiking trails are accessed. Paralleling Skyline Drive is 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail. The fall color change between late September and mid-October is amazing.


Shenandoah Loc

Must See:

Skyline Drive is the park’s main attraction. Annually over 2 million visitors cruise its length. There are no stop signs and no traffic lights – only bliss.


Off the Beaten Path:

Hiking trail networks extend down from Skyline Drive. I recommend doing 30 minutes of research to find the right length, difficulty, and crowdedness. That being said, South River Falls Trail (moderate, 3.5 mi), Doyle River Trail (moderate, 7.7 mi), and the popular Old Rag Mountain Trail (Strenuous, 9 mi) caught my attention.


Next Time:

To put it simply, I’d like to see the Shenandoah during its Fall color transition. There are 75 scenic overlooks along the Skyline Drive, and while the roadside vistas I stopped at were great, I’m told they are nothing short of spectacular when the landscape is flush with autumn’s warmth.


For more information on my visit, check my post.


Park Information:

National Park Service Website / Map


Google Maps Location

Trail Information:

Old Rag Mountain Trail



Appalachian Trail.

Low clouds.

Rose River Loop Trail.




Posted by Jay on March 21, 2016

National Park Cliff Notes: Great Smokey Mountains NP – North Carolina & Tennessee



Straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smokey Mountains National Park protects a serene section of the greater Appalachian Mountain Range.


The Smokies get their name from the low lying clouds which frequently flow through their valleys an pulse over their peaks. The interior of the park is accessed by driving the winding New Found Gap Road which vertically divides the park between east and west. If you’re feeling charitable, keep an eye out for Appalachian Trail hikers who need a ride in to Gatlinburg to resupply. I gave a seasoned hiker named Ryan a lift into town, and the stories, sights, and smells made for an engaging sensory experience.


Great Smokey Moutains Loc

Must See:

Detour from New Found Gap Road to Clingman’s Dome for an elevated 360 degree view over the sweeping mountain landscape.


Off the Beaten Path:

Consider hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail. For instance, Charlies Bunion is a popular 8 mile round trip hike, or if you can coordinate being picked up, take a 3 night backpacking trip from Newfound Gap northeast to Big Creek.


Next Time:

I’d like to drive the less traveled roads in the park such as Balsam Mountain Road and Little River Road.


For more information on my visit, check my post.


Park Information:

National Park Service Website / Map


Google Maps


Smokemont Loop Trail river crossing.

Bradley Fork Trail.

Elk off of Newfound Gap Road South.



Bradley Fork Trail.

Tree bark.

Bradley Fork Trail.
Posted by Jay on March 17, 2016

National Park Cliff Notes: Congaree NP – South Carolina



Located in South Carolina’s central wetlands, Congaree National Park protects the largest group of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern US.


The area is relatively flat and continually inundated in shallow water. The local variety of trees are well adapted to these conditions, Their roots don’t rot and they are able to grasp the sopping wet soil well enough to reach heights in excess of150 feet (47 m). The slow flowing Congaree River creates the southern border of the park, and it is known to flood its banks frequently between November and May. There are no roads through the park, but much of it can be seen by kayak or canoe.


Congaree Loc

Must See:

Take the 2.4 mile elevated boardwalk loop to get a great lay of the land without ever getting your boots muddy.


Off the Beaten Path:

Hike the River Trail out to Congaree River (10 mile, 16 km round trip), and find a flat spot near the water to camp. There are no designated backcountry campsites in Congaree.


Next Time:

I’d like to kayak the 15 mile (24 km) Cedar Creek Canoe Trail. The creek is over hung with branches and fallen trunks; You essentially paddle through the forest. Inquire about the water level ahead of time. Free ranger guided canoe tours are also offered for shorter distances.


For more information on my visit check out my post.


Park Information:

National Park Service Website / Map


Google Maps Location


Bald Cypress.

Weston Lake.



Happy Fungi.

Tree tops.

The small knotty peaks are called “knees.” They grow up from tree roots and their purpose is yet determined.
Posted by Jay on March 13, 2016

National Park Cliff Notes: Dry Tortugas NP – Florida



Isolated in open water 70 miles (113 km) west of Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park encompasses 100 square miles of shallow reefs and sandy sea floor punctuated with seven small islands.


On the largest of the seven stands the imposing Fort Jefferson. The park is accessible by ferry ($175), seaplane ($555), and private boat. The vibrant reef and overgrown shipwrecks provide excellent snorkeling and SCUBA diving opportunities.


Dry Tortugas Loc

Must See:

Fort Jefferson is a huge three story brick fortification, and it’s almost completely open for visitors to explore. I recommend walking the perimeter sea wall and making a lap around the third story roof pathway.


Off the Beaten Path:

Snorkel rental is included with the ferry ticket which makes it hard to pass up. While walking around the fort keep an eye out for the home made Cuban refugee boats called “chugs” that landed on the island and are now on display.


Next Time:

Overnight beach camping on the island is permitted by reservation only ($15 per site). Reservations are required, and during winter peak season campsites should be reserved months in advance.


For more information on my visit, check out my post.


Park Information:

National Park Service


Google Maps


Ferry Booking –

Seaplane Booking –


*I not affiliated with either of these companies.



Arriving by ferry.



Perimeter pathway.

Fort Jefferson self-guided tour.

Chug boat from Cuba that landed in Dry Tortugas and is now on display.

Exposed engine on the chug. A trip from Cuba to Dry Tortugas would takes days in a boat like this. I was fascinated to see it up close, and it makes me more aware of the conditions faced by refugees from the Middle East.

Second story hall.



Low level lighting in the stairwell.


Rounded coral and brick beach cover.

Posted by Jay on March 10, 2016

National Park Cliff Notes: Everglades NP – Florida



Everglades National Park is an expansive wetland area covering the continually inundated southern tip of Florida.


The uniqueness of the area is widely recognized. It is one of only three sites in the world to be declared an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Wetland of International Importance. Everglades National Park was the first national park established to protect not just a specific species, like sequoia trees or bison, but an entire ecosystem, including the American crocodile, manatee, Florida panther and bald eagle – all of which rest precariously on the Federal Threatened or Endangered Species List.


Everglades Loc

Must See: Alligators and turtles sunbathe along a 15 mile (24 km) looping pathway that leads south from the Shark Valley Visitor Center. Tram tours are offered (2 hours, $24), but the pathway is open to bike traffic as well.


Off the Beaten Path: Consider taking a ranger guided cross-country hike through knee deep wetlands and cypress groves. Known as “slough slogging” these hikes are reputed to be the only way to really experience the Everglade wilderness. Keep an eye out for gators.


Next Time: I’d like to see the interior of the park better by booking an airboat tour ($20), or by driving the 38 mile (61 km) road through the heart of the park to Flamingo Visitor Center.


For more information on my visit, check out my post.


Park Information:

National Park Service


Google Maps


Short trail in Shark Valley.

Gator near the Shark Valley bike path.
An uneasy standoff.

Shark Valley observation tower. They are pointing at the same gator that is in my first picture.

Big Cypress National Preserve. The preserve is adjacent to Everglades NP.

Big Cypress National Preserve.

The park ranger led a group of 20 right past this gator. I was shocked.