Two Great National Park Pictures

I’ve recently come across two absolutely amazing pictures from national parks, and both are very well worth checking out:

1) NASA’s long-running Astronomy Picture of the Day blog featured a new picture from Yellowstone National Park on August 27th.  This amazing shot, taken within the last month by professional photographer Dave Lane is a stunning composition of the Milky Way arching over multi-colored thermal hot springs.   Be sure to check it out!

2) The second is a stunning photo from Dan Robinson’s Storm Highway blog of lightning striking the Gateway Arch in St. Louis – which is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.    It turns out that lightning doesn’t strike the Gateway Arch quite as often as you might think.    You can check out his stunning photograph here, or watch the video here.

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A Pullman National Historical Park in Chicago?

One of my favorite topics is following possible new additions to the U.S. National Park System.

This week there has been quite a bit of news surrounding the possibility of a Pullman National Historical Park due to a visit by National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis to a town hall meeting in Chicago on the topic.

The U.S. National Park System includes many historic places, but we don’t often think of our industrial heritage as being among those places.  The Pullman District of Chicago was a company town – founded by George Pullman’s Pullman Palace Car Company.  Pullman Cars are, of course, nearly synonomous with “railroad sleeping cars,” in the way that a hundred years later “Xerox” would become nearly synonomus with “photocopu.”  The town of Pullman was also apparently the first industrial company town – which as near as I can tell is a distinction that excludes coal mining company towns, like Blue Heron in the Big South Fork NRRA.

The Pullman Palace Car Company was founded by George Pullman in 1867, shortly after the end of the civil war.  The business model of the company was to lease its rail cars to the railroads, and to provide the staffing for those cars at the same time – with many of those employees being recently-freed former slaves.   The town of Pullman, which was then separate from Chicago, was founded in 1880 out of a combination of the Pullman Palace Car Company’s need for a new factory, and George Pullman’s belief that the industrialists of the day should use their wealth for the betterment of their workers.

Nowadays, the idea of a “company town” seems like an almost completely foreign concept – well at odds with our modern conception of freedom.   In many ways, Pullman was a remarkable feat of central planning – with the size of your house determined by your rank within the company, and a prohibition on saloons within the town.

Now, industrial heritage isn’t always the first thing that we think of when we think of national parks – but there are a few examples.   Lowell National Historical Park is generally the prototypical example, where the old cotton mills are now a successful national park and tourist destination in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Other examples of industrial heritage-themed national parks include Thomas Edison’s laboratories at Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey, and the Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California.

Along those lines,  its interesting to note that even Jon Jarvis brings up the fact that adding the Pullman site to the Passport to Your National Parks Program as one of the attractions for designating it as a national park.   There’s no question that designation as a national park immediately adds a site to an awful lot of peoples’ bucket lists.

With that being said, the national significance of the Pullman District seems difficult to question.   The area was the site of a major strike, and so was instrumental in the development of labor unions in this country.  Moreover, the Pullman Company was also the first company to develop a predominantly African-American labor union.  With 90% of the historic buildings still in tact, there seems to be a strong case that the Pullman District would be an ideal place to tell the story of how the Industrial Revolution in this country transitioned into the pre-Great War Gilded Age.

If you want the full details, you can read more about the National Park Service’s initial assessment of the Pullman District as a candidate national park by checking out their Reconnaisance Survey.  As the survey makes clear, however, ideally the Reconnaisance Survey would just be a first step on the way to a complete Special Resource Study of the Pullman District that would fully evaluate the area against the four established criteria for establishing a new national park.   Although several recent national parks have been designated by the President under the Antiquities Act without waiting for the Special Resource Study to be completed (let alone waiting for Congress to take action by designating the park and also establishing a budget for the new park), I generally lean towards wanting to let the established process play out and letting the career professionals in the National Park Service do their job.   By all accounts, the Pullman District isn’t in immediate danger of decay or development, so it seems that there is plenty of time to allow that to happen.

On the other hand, the initial assessment seems to be pretty clearly pointing towards the Pullman District being a worthy addition to the U.S. National Park System.  Indeed, it seems kind of amazing that a storied city like Chicago does not yet have a single national park site of any kind within its boundaries.   Given those considerations, and reading between the lines of Director Jon Jarvis’ comments, it seems that the Pullman District will be taking its place in the U.S. National Park System sooner rather than later – my guess would be almost certainly before another famous Chicagoan moves on to other things in 2017.

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When Is a National Scenic Trail a National Park?

The author on the Appalachian NST near Boiling Springs, PA. The Appalachian NST is one of three trails that are also counted as a national park as well.

One of the tricky aspects about visiting all of the U.S. National Parks is just identifying the list of what are the national parks in the first place.  In my first post, I mentioned that there are three National Scenic Trails in the U.S. National Park System, and I thought that I would write a little bit more about them. The list of U.S. National Parks includes three national scenic trails;

And yet, there are a total eleven national scenic trails in the United States.  So why does these three “count,” but not the other eight?   What makes these three so special?

Officially, the designation of a long-distance hiking route as a national scenic trail was established by the National Trails System Act of 1968.  Of course, the grand-daddy of them all, the Appalachian Trail was first conceived all the way back in the early 1920’s.   Not too long after that, the parallel concept of of a Pacific Crest Trail was proposed in the 1930’s, running along the Sierra Nevadas. Both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail were designated the first two national scenic trails in 1968.  Confusingly, however, the Appalachian NST became a national park site, but the Pacific Crest NST did not.   In particularly, the National Park Service was authorized to purchase most of the right-of-way for the Appalachian Trail – in that respect, at least, making it a true national park.  The Pacific Crest NST, on the other hand, largely runs through existing national parks, national forests, Bureau of Land Management land, and existing state parks.

By 1980, three other national scenic trails were designated.  The Continental Divide NST would parallel the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails by running down the spine of the Rocky Mountains.   The North Country NST, on the other hand, would turn long-distance trails on their head by running mostly east-west from Lake Champlain in upstate New York to Lake Sakakawea in central North Dakota.    Finally, the Ice Age NST would become the first single-state national scenic trail, making a long loop connecting sites throughout the state of Wisconsin. None of trails, however, authorized the acquisition of land by the National Park Service, and so none of these three trails are officially listed as national parks -even though the National Park Service is the lead Federal liaison for both the North Country and Ice Age Trails.  (The US Forest Service, in the Department of Agriculture, is the lead Federal agency for the Continental Divide Trail.)

In 1983, however, three more national scenic trails would be designated.   The Florida NST runs from the end of the Florida Panhandle all the way down to Big Cypress National Preserve, just north of Everglades National Park, and is not counted as a national park.  On the other hand, the Natchez Trace NST and the Potomac Heritage NST would both receive this distinction.  The Natchez Trace NST was designed to run alongside the Natchez Trace Parkway through Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee.  The Potomac Heritage NST was designated to run along the tow-path of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Maryland and Washington, DC, with extensions eastward through Maryland and Virginia to the Chesapeake Bay, and an extension westwards to Pittsburgh.  In this respect, both the Natchez Trace NST and Potomac Heritage NST were unique in that although the National Park Service would not be acquiring additional Federal land for these trails (as was done for the Appalachian NST), these two new trails would be running in large part through existing Federal land – indeed through existing National Park Service land.

I actually had occasion to contact the National Park Service about this issue, and they indicated to me that shortly after these new trails were designated in the 1983, the legal department at the National Park Service Headquarters made the determination that these two new trails should be counted as national parks.   Although they did not cite the specific legal rationale that was made all those years ago, I almost have to believe that the fact that these trails were largely designated on National Park Service land must have played a role in the determination.   The irony, of course, is that since the Natchez Trace Parkway and C&O Canal NHP are both already national parks, in many cases these trails become places where you can “visit two parks at once!”   Go figure!

Anyhow, its worth noting that it would be 26 years before another national scenic trail would be designated.  In 2009, three new national scenic trails were created: the Arizona NST runs north-south through the State of Arizona, the New England NST runs from Long Island Sound in Connecticut to the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border, and the Pacific Northwest NST runs from the Continental Divide NST in Montana to Olympic National Park in Washington State.  None of these three, however, are counted as national parks.

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The Best Places in Dinosaur National Monument

When starting a blog with a name like Parkasaurus, I immediately began thinking about at what point I would blog about Dinosaur National Monument – which is the only national park site dedicated to interpreting dinosaur fossils.   Fortunately, the folks over at the Destination Isolation Blog have just put up a great post on their Top 8 Sites in Dinosaur National Monument, and it is very much worth checking out.

The centerpiece of Dinosaur NM is the Carnegie Quarry Hall where around 1,500 dinosaur bones have been left in situ, in the rock, just where paleontologists would have found them. Destination Isolation’s post is a good reminder, however, that Dinosaur NM is about so much more than just gazing at dinosaur fossils and exhibits.  This park actually has more than 300 square miles to explore, including petroglyphs, desert peaks, and rafting on the Green and Yampa Rivers.   In fact, the #3 site on their list is the rock art at Echo Canyon, about which they write: “we have seen many rock art sites in our travels but this was our favorite. There are not many but they sure are unique.”   I have to agree, be sure to click on their post to see the photograph.   This will definitely be a site on my “to-do list” the next time I am able to make a return visit to northeast Utah and northwest Colorado.

For those of you in the Passport to Your National Parks program, Dinosaur National Monument has traditionally had two passport stamps to collect:

  • Jensen, UT – at the Quarry Visitor Center on the western side of the park, in Utah; and
  • Dinosaur, CO – at the Canyon Area Visitor Center on the eastern side of the park, in Colorado.

Ironically, despite the name of the town in Colorado, if you are primarily interested in seeing the dinosaur fossils, you need to go to the Utah side of the park at the Quarry Exhibit Hall.  After being closed for more than two years due to structural damage to the old Quarry Exhibit Hall, a brand new Exhibit Hall and brand new Quarry Visitor Center were opened in 2011.

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Harriet Tubman National Monument


I recently had occasion to visit one of the newest national parks, the Harriet Tubman – Underground Railroad National Monument on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. There’s very little doubt that Harriet Tubman’s profile in American History and in modern-day American imagination makes her worthy of being honored with a site in the U.S. National Park System.   There’s also no question that for years the absence of a national park site dedicated to the Underground Railroad was a surprising omission.    However, the simple truth is that when it comes to historical places,  time is not always kind.

Nevertheless, the significance of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad is beyond dispute.  Moreover, the State of Maryland was particularly eager to establish this national park as a catalyst for tourism on the Eastern Shore, which culminated in President Obama using the Antiquities Act to proclaim the area as a National Monument and the 399th unit of the U.S. National Park System in March 2013.

There’s no question that visiting a brand-new national park is much different than visiting one that has been fully established.   You won’t see many NPS Rangers in their wide-brimmed hats for one.   In fact, there is not yet an official visitor center, no scheduled ranger programs, and in fact,  there is not yet much in the way of any interpretive materials.

That doesn’t mean, however, that a visit can’t be worthwhile.   If you are interested in the Passport Program, there are currently a whopping three different cancellations to collect:

  • Cambridge, MD – This is the main stamp for the Park, and is kept at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, as many of the main sites for this park are located within the Wildlife Refuge boundaries.
  • Harriet Tubman Organization – This is kept at the Harriet Tubman Museum in downtown Cambridge.   This site has very limited hours, mostly in the middle of the day, so be sure to check ahead.   There also isn’t really much a musuem just yet, but these are the offices for the non-profit association that will be helping this new national park get off the ground.
  • Harriet Tubman Scenic Byway – This is kept at the Dorchester County Visitor Center at Sailwinds Park, which is the main tourism visitor center for the area.

To visit this Park, definitely stop at the Dorchester County Visitor Center, regardless of whether you collect the stamps.  You can pick up the official NPS Unigrid Brochure for the park here, as well as two brochures on the Harriet Tubman Scenic Byway.  The Byway will take you past severl of the places that are part of the official National Monument, as well as beyond into the surrounding areas, as  you follow the story of Harriet Tubman’s life.

Better yet, before you go, be sure to download the Harriet Tubman Scenic Byway app for your smart phone.  You will want to make sure that you do the download before you go as it requires a download of extra data once you open the app for the first time, and you’ll want to use a wi-fi connection to do that.   The app really enhances the Harriet Tubman experience, though,  bringing her story to life with all the production values of an old-school radio play.

Although there is not much to see just yet, other than the landscape which in many places is little-changed from when Harriet Tubman lived here, it is still possible to bring this story to life.

Meanwhile, progress is being made – here is what the site of the future visitor center, to be operated by the Maryland State Park Service, currently looks like:


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Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area


One of the joys of undertaking the journey to try and visit all the units in the US National Park System is coming across special places that few people on your block have ever heard of.   Unless you live in eastern Tennessee or southern Kentucky, the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area is probably just one of those areas.

A lot of factors probably contribute to the Big South Fork NRRA’s relative obscurity.  For one thing, its name, Big South Fork, consists of three adjectives desperately searching for a noun.   For another, despite my recent attempt to organize the classifications of the National Park System, this park somehow manages to be simultaneously both a national river andnational recreation area.  (For what its worth, the Big South Fork is usually included on the list of national recreation areas, and not on the list of national rivers.)  On top of all that, it is located just 100 miles away from that tourist-magnet, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is only the most-visited national park in the National Park System.

The Big South Fork NRRA is located in northeastern Tennessee and southeastern Kentucky, and preserves both the free-flowing character of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, as well as the surrounding gorges and plateaus.  Its not clear to me why “of the Cumberland River” got dropped from the official name of this park.  Then again, maybe I’m the only one who thinks that even if adding those words make the name longer, it would certainly give this relatively unknown park a stronger brand.

Anyhow, back in 2013 I was driving with my family from Mississippi back home to Maryland when we made the last-minute decision to add a swing past Big South Fork NRRA to our itinerary.  I had actually previously been to Big South Fork NRRA back in 2001,  but only for a short time to swim in the river in the southern portion of the park.  I had always regretted not having more time to explore this park, and so was excited to take this opportunity.

In one of those fortunate/unfortunate coincidences, we didn’t pay close attention to our GPS routing and found ourselves travelling northbound on Divide Road/Laurel Ridge Road, which forms much of the park’s western boundary.   Almost all of the park’s visitation facilities are in the eastern and southern portions of the park, so this was a side of the park that relatively few travellers get to see.  The western portion of the park includes a number of interesting trailheads, including the trail to Twin Arches – which is one of the top hikes in the park.  Also in the vicinity is the trail to the rustic cabins of the Charit Creek Lodge, one of the rare hike-in lodges in the US National Park System.

Our destination for this particular trip, however, was the Blue Heron Coal Mining Community.   The centerpiece of  Blue Heron is a preserved coal tippler.  Further exploration, however, will reveal that the National Park Service has created frame-reconstructions of the homes and buildings from Blue Heron’s hey-days.  The frame reconstructions show you the outlines of what the building would have looked like, only without walls and roofs.   The special treat, however, is that inside each building was an audio recording from the people who used to live here.   And because Blue Heron was an operating coal mine within living memory, the recordings were the voices of the people who actually lived here – telling the stories of growing up in a company-owned coal mining town in southeastern Kentucky in the early 20th Century.

The experience was totally enthralling.  I probably spent an hour listening to the recordings, and it wasn’t enough time to take them all in.   Nevertheless, it was a cultural experience like few others – and one that you really wouldn’t expect from a park with a name like Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

Of course there is much more to explore in the Park, including whitewater rafting opportunities down the Big South Fork of the Cumberland, and an excursion sight-seeing train that runs on the weekends.    Even more unusually, it turns out that the Big South Fork NRRA is one of the few units in the National Park System that permits hog hunting!

The bottom line for this park is that although you can certainly get a taste of it in a half-day visit, if you truly want to experience all that this park has to offer, you should definitely plan at least a full day, if not a weekend-trip for visiting this park.

For those of you who are collectors in the Passport to Your National Parks program, the Big South Fork NRRA has traditionally had three stamp groups to collect:

  • Oneida, TN – for the Bandy Creek Visitor Center at the southern end of the park;
  • Stearns, KY – for the ranger station/visitor center at Stearns Depot on the northern end of the park; and
  • Blue Heron – for the preserved Blue Heron coal mining community, which is the interpretative highlight of the park.

In August 2014, Eastern National announced two additional stamp groups for this park:

  • Historic Rugby, TN – for the gateway community at the southern end of the park;
  • Crossville, TN – which appears to be located well to the south of the park.

You can read more by checking out Chance Finegan’s write-up of Big South Fork NRRA for the National Parks Traveler Blog.

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Just What Is a National Park Anyways? And How Do You Get 401 of Them?

Whenever I tell people that I’m trying to visit all of the U.S. National Parks at least once, one of the first questions that inevitably follows is: “How many national parks are there?”

When I answer that “there’s 401 of them,” their eyes often grow big, as many people have no idea there’s so many.  That reaction is then often followed by something along the lines of “Oh, so you mean that you are trying to visit not just national parks, but also all the national monuments, and national historic sites, right?”

Well, yes and no.   There are indeed only 59 places with the designation national park,  which are places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon, which most people think of when they hear the term national park.  However, there’s nothing simple or straightforward about what are the other kinds of designations that make up the U.S. National Park System.  Its pretty much the case that there’s a list, and you just simply have to know what’s on the list.  I’ll try and give a brief overview of what I mean here, and from time to time I’m planning to come back to this topic to explain more of the details.

So, without further ado, her are the designations that make up the National Park System:

National Parks – You can’t go wrong with this one.  There are 59 of these, and not surprisingly, all 59 count towards the list of national park sites.

National Historic Sites & National Historical Parks – There are 125 of these – the most of any type.  In theory, a national historical park is simply a larger, or more-expansive, national historic site.  In practice, I find there isn’t often a clear line of distinction between the two, (as with so many things!)  In any event, the vast majority of these areas count towards the list of national park sites, but there are a few exceptions, which I’ll discuss in a future post.  The 125 sites also includes one International Historic Site.

National Monuments – Just to make things confusing, would you believe thate the Washington Monument is notnational monument? There are 75 of these.  For the most part, a national monument is an outstanding natural area or historical/archaeological area that was protected by a Presidential proclamation – although there are exceptions to that too.  A great many national monuments are national parks, but a great many are not as well.  In fact,  there are no fewer than six different Federal agencies that manage national monuments.

National Memorials – Most of these are national park sites, and many of the 29 of those that are national park sites are in Washington, D.C.   The Lincoln Memorial is one, as is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and so is the Washington Monument.

National Battlefields & National Military Parks – Quick, think of the name of a famous Civil War or Revolutionary War Battlefield.  Odds are, the place you thought of is a national park site.  There are 25 of these.

National Recreation Areas – Just like national monuments, many of these are national park sites and many of them are not.  There are 18 of these that are national park sites, and they generally come in two varieties: many of them are reservoirs created by hydroelectric dams for water-based recreation, the others are scattered areas of urban parklands that were created to “bring the national park experience to the people.”

National Seashores & Lakeshores – There are 14 of these, and they are pretty much what the name says they are.   As near as I can tell, all of them are national park sites.

Parkways – The are actually four road-based national parks, the Blue Ridge Parkway probably being the most-famous (and also being one of my favorite national parks.)   The National Park Service actually operates several other parkways – but there’s only four that count as stand-alone national park sites.

National Scenic Trails – There are eleven long-distance national scenic trails out there, but only 3 of these that are national park sites, the most-famous of which is surely the Appalachian Trail.

National Rivers – If you thought this list was inconsistent up until now, the rivers in the National Park System only add to the confusion. This category includes some places designated as wild & scenic rivers, some as scenic & recreational rivers, some as wild rivers, and some as just plain national rivers.  Whatever their designations, all are considered part of the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System to protect their wild & scenic nature, or outstanding recreational opportunities.   Many of them are managed by the National Park Service, while many others are not.   Out of those managed by the NPS,  15 have risen to the status of being full-fledged national park sites.

National Preserves & National Reserves – Most of these, but not quite all, are national park sites, a total of 20 to be exact.  These are protected areas that generally allow a greater amount of human activity, such as hunting and trapping, that generally are not allowed in other national park sites.  Perhaps most-confusing is the fact that 9 out of the 20 of these are actually part of a bigger “national park & preserve” – which is a large national park that effectively “counts twice” towards the total of 401 national parks.

Odds & Ends – Finally, there are 11 national park sites that don’t fit into any of the above categories.  Some of them are just plain unique sites.  For example, did you know the White House is managed by the National Park Service?  Many of the others are parklands around the Greater Washington, DC Metropolitan Area that just happen to be managed by the National Park Service for historical reasons.

So there you have it!  That’s how you get to 401 national parks.

Thus, if you say that you are going to try and visit all 401 national parks, you can say that you will be visiting all the national parks,  as well as all the national seashores & lakeshores, and all the national battlefields & national military parks.  You can also say that you will be visiting most of the national historic sites & national historical parks, as well as most of the national memorials, and most of the national preserves  national reserves.   Beyond that, you can say that you will also be visiting many national monuments and many national memorials, as well as many other places that don’t fit nice and easy classifications.

What you can say, however, is that almost every visit to one of the 401 national park sites in this country will be special, and will reflect that National Park Service’s special commitment to visitation and interpretation of America’s most-important treasures.


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Kicking Off

Welcome to the Parkasaurus Blog  – a blog about my love for the U.S. National Park System.    It was just more than 15 years ago when I discovered the National Park System is much more than just Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon.  There are now more than 401 National Parks, and the list includes America’s most-special places of all types. There are amazing natural places,  geological and archeological wonders, the hallowed ground of our most important battlefields, the homes of some of America’s most-famous people, and the legacies of the cultures and industries that have made America what it is today.

Since then, I’ve become fascinated with the idea of trying to visit all of the national parks at least once – and this blog will chronicle my journey towards that goal.  Along the way, I’ve also discovered that often times  return visits to parks that I have already been to once as just as exciting, if not even moreso, than visiting a new park for the first time.   My journey will cover plenty of those return trips too.

I’m marking my journey along the way with the help of Eastern National’s Passport to Your National Parks program, so there’ll be plenty about those passport stamps in here if you’re a fan of that program as well.   Additionally, the total number of parks in the National Park System is always a moving target as new parks keep getting added – I love trying to keep track of those, so I’ll be covering that as well.

Thank you for visiting, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading along with me on my journey!

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