And now, here is the conclusion of my 30 for 300 series with my Top 10 Memories from visiting my first 300 national parks!
#10) Exploring Ellsworth Rock Garden at Voyageurs National Park – July 2012
My 2012 trip to Voyageurs National Park was magical in multiple ways. This trip was one of the first camping trips I did with my Jr. T-Rex, who only 20 months old at the time. Voyageurs is also one of the best places in the country to see bald eagles in the wild, and we saw them seemingly everywhere. Then, once evening sets in, the star birds of this Park are the loons, whose haunting calls echo over the lakes in the twilight hours.
The top highlight of this trip, however, was discovering the Ellsworth Rock Gardens. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, a gentleman by the name of Jack Ellsworth from Chicago vacationed on Kabetogama Lake in the summers and constructed a vast and elaborate set of terraces, flower beds, and fanciful rock sculptures. This site is truly “off-the-beaten-path,” as it is only accessible by boat – which also means no crowds. We literally had the site to ourselves when we visited, despite being the middle of the summer tourist season. To find something this elaborate quite literally in the middle of nowhere was truly one of the most surreal experiences of my travels.
#9) Picnic Under the Cherry Blossoms at National Capital Parks
Since the Parkasaurus Family lives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC this has become an annual tradition for us – and so this is the only one of my “30 for 300” without a specific date attached to it. Yes, the Tidal Basin area gets absolutely crowded during cherry blossom season – but for good reason. There really is nothing like strolling under the cherry blossoms at peak bloom. The trees form a sea of puffy white bloosoms above you, with iconic accents provided by the visages of the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, and the other monuments and memorials around the Tidal Basin. The cherry blossoms are fleeting, though, with peak bloom lasting only 3-5 days each year. So each year we monitor the reports closely of when the peak bloom will be, and we always make sure to find time in our schedule to head downtown with a blanket and a picnic basket and enjoy the spectacular scenery of one of the Nation’s Capital’s rites of spring.
#8) Hiking to Cathedral Rock at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore – May 2006
Located way up on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is another of my favorite hidden gems of the National Park System. In fact, if it were rebranded as Pictured Rocks National Park instead of national lakeshore, it would probably get a lot more of the attention that it so richly deserves.
My visit to this Park in 2006 included one of my all-time favorite hikes. From the trailhead at the end of Chapel Road, there is a choice of two trails, one leading to Cathedral Rock and Chapel Beach, the other leading to Mosquito Beach. I must admit that I never took the trail to Mosquito Beach, but this seems like an easy choice, right?
The full loop trail to Cathedral Rock and Chapel Beach is 9 miles, so it makes for a substantial day hike. Additionally, one of the few drawbacks of this hike is that a substantial portion of those 9 miles leads you through relatively non-descript pine forest. The payoff at the end is worth it, however. After spending an hour and a half walking through the forest, the sensation of going over that last rise and seeing the pristine waters of Lake Superior and the spectacular rock formations on its coastline open up before you is truly breath-taking.
#7) Climbing the High Dune by Moonlight at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve – July 1999
Sand dunes in Colorado? This National Park certainly provides the unexpected. There are few sights that can compare to seeing North America’s tallest sand dunes nestled against the base of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado. On my trip to this park in the summer of ’99, I arrived relatively late in the evening and claimed a campsite in the Park’s Pinyon Flats Campground. I then took advantage of the full moon that evening to go out and climb to the top of the High Dune under the soft glow of the moonlight. Reaching the dunes involves crossing a shallow stream, and from there, with the benefit of the cool night air, bare feet were definitely the order of the day. While most people who visit this Park in July have to deal with the scorching sunshine and heat on the dunes, my trip was a magical mystery tour in an other-worldly landscape with cool sand under my feet and the full moon high in the sky.
#6) “Baby Moon” on the Blue Ridge Parkway – October 2010
The Blue Ridge Parkway has been one of my absolute favorite national parks ever since I drove it end-to-end in August 2001. If you love a good road trip, as I most certainly do, then the Blue Ridge Parkway’s 469 miles with no traffic lights, no stop signs, and almost never-ending series of overlooks, historic sites, and waterfall hikes is almost like a little slice of heaven. In the Fall of 2010, as Mrs. Parkasaurus and I were preparing for the birth of our Jr. T-Rex, we decided to take a “baby moon” trip together before the baby arrived. A trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway during Fall colors season, and to enjoy a corn maze in the shape of the Parkway’s 75th Anniversary logo was a logical choice. On the way back home, we happened to discover a cabbage patch growing right up next to the Parkway, which seemed like the perfect symbol for our trip.
#5) Hiking the Lamar Valley at Yellowstone National Park – August 2006
Yellowstone National Park, in my estimation, is one of the ten most amazing places in the world, and thus rightfully attracts its fair share of visitors. Away from the geysers and thermals however, and away from the traffic jams caused by the bison and the grizzly bears, there are still places in Yellowstone where you can get off the beaten path. On my second trip to Yellowstone, in 2006, that place for me was the Lamar Valley in the far eastern end of the Park. I no longer even remember what inspired me to do so, but I set off on a hike in this part of the Park without even so much as a marked trail – and just spent a couple hours taking in the grand scenery of the American West and a little quiet solitude.
#4) Finding Incredible Isolation at American Samoa National Park – September 2005
I could easily fill an entire blog post about my trip to American Samoa National Park (which for some reason is officially called the National Park of American Samoa) – and in fact, I may just try and do that sometime down the road. Suffice to say that just visiting American Samoa National Park involves travelling to what is far and away the most-remote location in the National Park System – located as it is some 4,500+ miles southwest of Los Angeles in the Southern Hemisphere. However, even within a Park like this, there is remote, and then there is really remote. Only a handful of visitors each year are able to make it out to the island of ‘Ofu. For the lucky few who make it, it is a true tropical paradise. Dramatic rainforest-covered cliffs drop down to white sand beaches, with a pristine coral reef literally almost close enough to touch. I’ve traveled to many different places, but I’ve never felt further away from the cares of the world than when I was on the island of ‘Ofu.
#3) “Ocean in View, O the Joy!” at Lewis & Clark National Historical Park – July 2005
In addition to dinosaurs, I’ve always had a soft spot for national parks dedicated to explorers. In the summer of 2004, my best friend and I decided to celebrate the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s Cexpedition by taking three weeks to travel the entirety of the National Park Service’s Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, which now marks the route. Nearly two weeks into the trip, we finally reached what was then-called Fort Clatsop National Memorial and is now called Lewis & Clark National Historical Park. Whatever you call it, the ending point of the Trail is the National Park Service’s reconstruction of the small fort that Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their men (along with Sacagawea and her family) built to pass the winter of 1805-1806. Our sense of relief at reaching the end of our road trip was of course nothing compared to the relief that Meriwether Lewis and Wiliam Clark must have felt when writing the words in his journal, “Ocean in View, O the Joy!” Still, our trip following in their footsteps, and listening to an audiobook of their journals along the way, and traveling from one end of our country to another was full of memories that are not soon to be forgotten.
#2) Interning at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument – Summer 1999
As an undergraduate, I double-majored in geology and economics. As I entered college, my dream was to some daydevelop a career studying fossils as a paleontologist. By the time my college days were over, however, I had recognized that my future calling lay in economics, rather than geology or paleontology. Still, I stuck it out and completed my double major, and before beginning a career in economics, I took advantage of my geology degree to spend the summer after graduation as an intern with the National Park Service.
It was actually that summer internship which set me on my journey of trying to visit all of the U.S. National Parks. You see, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is an absolutely incredible place, with beautiful Rocky Mountain alpine scenery and 35 million year old fossils of insects so perfectly preserved that you can still see the veins in the wing of a fossilized wasp. Yet, before taking this internship, I had never even heard of it. Thus, it occurred to me – how many other incredible places that I have never heard of could I discover if I started visiting national parks? And so the journey began…
#1) Wedding Day at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park – July 2008
If you’ve been paying close attention, you’ve noticed a pattern with my 30 for 300’s #’s 21-30 and #’s 11-20. Sure enough, 10 months after getting engaged at Harper’s Ferry, we returned to the Park to get married at Historic St. Peter’s Chapel.
We made the most of the experience, including getting Passport Stamps together to mark the special day, and then climbing the old stone steps to the Chapel’s location on the cliff above the lower town. Since the Appalachian National Scenic Trail runs along those steps, my wife can say that she hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail in her wedding dress!
Thank you very much for joining me on this trip down memory lane through some of my favorite moments from visiting my first 300 national parks. I obviously continue to love both visiting parks for the first time, and revisiting the parks I have been to before, and I hope you will continue to join me in sharing that journey on this blog.