Camping & National Parks: Best RV Destinations

Families across the country are planning their summer vacations and taking their RV out of winter storage.

The Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) joins the two parks of Jasper and Banff in one of the most breathtaking, beautiful drives that anyone can travel in the world. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) joins the two parks of Jasper and Banff in one of the most breathtaking, beautiful drives that anyone can travel in the world. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canada’s network of national parks offers must-see destinations for camping, hiking, and other outdoor activities. As the summer camping season quickly approaches, Parks Canada prepares to welcome campers to national parks across the country.

Some of the best RV destinations where campers can escape from the city and connect with nature at found at Canada’s national parks. Full-service camping with water, electric, and sewer hookups are available at the following national parks:

Banff National Park (Alberta)

UNESCO World Heritage Site and Canada’s first national park (1885), Banff National Park is a not-to-be missed symbol of Canada. Valleys, mountains, glaciers, forests, meadows, and rivers make Banff National Park one of the most sought-after destinations in the world. The campsite is located 10 minutes from the village of Banff. Tunnel Mountain Campground offers 321 sites.

Who doesn’t dream of seeing the turquoise waters of Lake Louise. Big-rig friendly Lake Louise Campground offers RV 184 sites with water and electric service. Sani dump available nearby.

Jasper National Park (Alberta)

Jasper National Park combines some of the most spectacular scenery in the Canadian Rockies with ease of access
Jasper National Park combines some of the most spectacular scenery in the Canadian Rockies with ease of access and less crowded conditions than Banff © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

UNESCO World Heritage Site and Dark Sky Preserve, Jasper National Park , the grandiose, icy jewel of the Rockies offers unlimited hiking trails, incomparable wilderness, and the second most extensive dark sky preserve on the planet. Whistlers Campground (781 sites) is located on the Icefields Parkway, a short distance south of the town site of Jasper.

Waterton Lakes National Park – Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (Alberta)

At Waterton Lakes National Park, the term “majestic” makes perfect sense. The prairie grassland quickly gives way to the windswept, steep mountains. Several different ecological areas coexist in a landscape shaped by wind, fire, and water where all kinds of plants and animals can be found. Townsite Campground offers 90 camping sites.

Kootenay National Park (British Columbia)

UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kootenay National Park features a varied landscape and ecological environment that not only includes glacier-topped peaks along the Continental Divide, but also semi-arid open grassland forests in the Rocky Mountain Trench where you can find cacti, and hot springs. Located a short distance from the hot springs, Redstreak Campground offers 242 sites.

The newly opened Glacial Skywalk over the Athabasca Glacier (Jasper National Park, Alberta) lets you experience waterfalls, wildlife, fossils, and more on an exciting cliff-edge walkway that leads to a platform where glass is all that separates you from a 918-foot drop. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The newly opened Glacial Skywalk over the Athabasca Glacier (Jasper National Park, Alberta) lets you experience waterfalls, wildlife, fossils, and more on an exciting cliff-edge walkway that leads to a platform where glass is all that separates you from a 918-foot drop. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cape Breton Highlands National Park (Nova Scotia)

Breathtaking landscapes welcome you as they shape Cape Breton Highlands National Park. High, steep cliffs and deep river valleys dissect the forest-covered plateau bordering the Atlantic Ocean. One-third of the famous Cabot Trail runs through the Park along the coast and dominates the Highlands. Located near the charming village of Ingonish, the 74-site Broad Cove Campground is in a forest bordered by a long sandy beach on the Atlantic Ocean.

Prince Edward Island National Park (Prince Edward Island)

Surrounded by landscapes where dunes, archipelagos, sand spits, beaches, red sandstone cliffs, and forests endlessly follow each other, dive into the history of the people who lived there, whether Aboriginal, French, or Acadian. Offering 73 sites the Cavendish Campground is located next to a secluded patrolled white sandy beach.

Fundy National Park (New Brunswick)

The spectacular force of the tides in Fundy National Park, is a marvel in itself. Hike the magnificent trails lined with river valleys, lakes, coastal forests and beaches, and relax and admire the wonders of star clusters at night. The 248-site Chignecto North Campground is located on a large wooded lot, 10 minutes by car from the Bay of Fundy; un-serviced and fully serviced are available.

Rocky Mountain Sheep. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Rocky Mountain Sheep in Jasper National Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Riding Mountain National Park (Manitoba)

Visiting Riding Mountain National Park is the first step in the discovery of extended hills and valleys extending eastward from a dramatic rise known as the Manitoba Escarpment. The 86-site Wasagaming Campground provides access to the main beach, restaurants, golf course, hiking and cycling paths, a horse-riding trail and many other services.

Prince Albert National Park (Saskatchewan)

Discover a preserved northern evergreen forest, home to abundant wildlife including one of the few populations of wild plains bison. Magnificent scenic routes criss-cross the Park. The 161-site Red Deer Campground is located a short walk from hiking trails, a beach and a wide range of services.

Worth Pondering…

I always thought of this as God’s country.
—Jack Granatstein

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RV to Eastern Canada: 3 Great Destinations

From sea to sea, Canada is a land filled with fascinating places and amazing destinations for the RV traveler.

But, where to travel? Here are three great RV destinations in Canada.

Bay of Fundy (New Brunswick)

Hopewell Rocks. Many visitors make plans to stay for the whole day. They walk the ocean floor, then stay to watch the shift between low and high tides. It’s fun to see how quickly the tide comes in, or conversely goes out. Make sure to check the tide schedules before you go
Hopewell Rocks. Many visitors make plans to stay for the whole day. They walk the ocean floor, then stay to watch the shift between low and high tides. It’s fun to see how quickly the tide comes in, or conversely goes out. Make sure to check the tide schedules before you go. (Source: roadstories.ca)

A world-famous natural wonder, the Bay of Fundy tides are the highest tides in the world—in some areas of the bay, tides reach more than 50 feet.

Best explored at Hopewell Rocks, where you can walk around the famous “flowerpot rocks” at low tide then watch them slowly disappear. At high tide, enormous rock formations that once towered over you are now barely peeking out above the surface.

The time span between low and high tide is 6 hours and 13 minutes, meaning you can experience both in one day. Many visitors make plans to stay for the whole day. They walk the ocean floor, then stay to watch the shift between low and high tides. It’s fun to see how quickly the tide comes in, or conversely goes out. Make sure to check the tide schedules before you go.

And that’s not all—there are numerous other ways to experience the wonder of Fundy. Bike along the Fundy Trail, rappel down craggy cliffs, set up camp at Fundy National Park, head out to sea on a whale-watching excursion, or experience a billion years of Earth’s history at Stonehammer Geopark.

Ottawa (Ontario)

Changing of the Guard on Parliament Hill
Changing of the Guard on Parliament Hill (Source: cvc.com)

The centerpiece of Ottawa’s downtown landscape, Parliament Hill is the political and cultural heart of the city. The Parliament Buildings sit atop the Hill, the gorgeous Gothic-style structures overlooking the Ottawa River. Free guided tours are available daily, including a chance to head up to the Peace Tower for an incredible view of the city.

The Rideau Canal has become a defining landmark in Ottawa. The 126-mile canal, which travels south to Lake Ontario, first opened in 1832. Its 47 locks and interconnectedness with lakes and rivers is a true engineering marvel, leading to its designation as a National Historic Site of Canada and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A city landmark, the Chateau Laurier is one of Canada’s grand railway hotels. Having retained much of its glory; it features the turrets and other architectural elements of a French château, a rich, Victorian interior, yet offers modern amenities.

Other local attractions include Rideau Hall, home to the Governor General of Canada; the National Gallery of Canada; and Canadian Museum of History. Located 50 miles south of Ottawa, Upper Canada Village depicts life in a rural English Canadian setting during the year 1866.

Halifax (Nova Scotia)

Enjoy a scenic drive along Nova Scotia’s beautifully rugged South Shore to the picturesque and quaint fishing village of Peggy’s Cove. Watch the waves as they crash on the rocks in front of the world’s most photographed lighthouse.
Enjoy a scenic drive along Nova Scotia’s beautifully rugged South Shore to the picturesque and quaint fishing village of Peggy’s Cove. Watch the waves as they crash on the rocks in front of the world’s most photographed lighthouse. (Source: shoretrips.com)

Walk the ocean’s edge along the historic Halifax waterfront. Start at Pier 21—the gateway into Canada for one million immigrants—and then explore eclectic shops, some of the city’s best restaurants, and ships including the last of the WWII convoy escort corvettes.

Discover the oldest continuously operating farmers’ market in North America, and exhibits at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic including displays on the city’s link to the Titanic disaster.

End at the timber-frame and stone warehouses of Historic Properties—originally built to safeguard booty captured by legalized pirates called privateers.  Historic Properties is the first restoration project of its kind in Canada featuring three city blocks of Canada’s oldest surviving group of waterfront warehouses and some of North America’s finest Victorian-Italianate façades dating back to the late 1700s and early 1800s. Visitors can experience one-of-a-kind specialty shops, great restaurants, unique events, and boardwalk along one of the world’s largest natural harbors.

Other local attractions include the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site, a large, stone early 19th-century British fortification located atop Citadel Hill; Halifax Public Gardens, a formal Victorian garden. Enjoy a scenic drive along Nova Scotia’s beautifully rugged South Shore to the picturesque and quaint fishing village of Peggy’s Cove. Watch the waves as they crash on the rocks in front of the world’s most photographed lighthouse.

Worth Pondering…

Canada is a place of infinite promise. We like the people, and if one ever had to emigrate, this would be the destination, not the U.S.A. The hills, lakes and forests make it a place of peace and repose of the mind, such as one never finds in the U.S.A.
—John Maynard Keynes

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Top 3 Destinations in Eastern Canada

From sea to sea, Canada is a land filled with fascinating places and amazing destinations for the RV traveler.

But, where to travel? There are so many reasons to love Eastern Canada.

Niagara Falls (Ontario)

A must-do when you visit the Falls, the Maid of the Mist is a 20 minute ride on a double-decker boat that takes you as close up to Niagara Falls as you can get without swimming.
A must-do when you visit the Falls, the Maid of the Mist is a 20 minute ride on a double-decker boat that takes you as close up to Niagara Falls as you can get without swimming. (Source: APT)

Niagara Falls, Ontario, is home to Horseshoe Falls, the most powerful waterfall in North America and possibly the best-known in the world.

A must-do when you visit the Falls, the Maid of the Mist is a 20 minute ride on a double-decker boat that takes you as close up to Niagara Falls as you can get without swimming. The boat stops and lingers at the foot of the Falls, 170 feet below the brink. Be prepared to get wet; disposable rain ponchos come with admission.

A trip to Niagara wouldn’t be complete without spending time on Clifton Hill, the entertainment hub of the Niagara area, with casinos, shops, a plethora of restaurants, and lots of kid fun. Ride the Niagara SkyWheel, visit Ripley’s Believe It or Not, or play mini golf. And there’s the Whirlpool Aerocar, IMAX movie theatre, and leisurely country drives to Niagara-on-the-Lake, vineyards and world-class golf courses, cycling and hiking trails.

Québec City (Québec)

Québec City holds both European charm and sophistication alongside its unmistakable French Canadian character.
Québec City holds both European charm and sophistication alongside its unmistakable French Canadian character. (Source: savvysugar.com)

Québec City attracts more than 4.5 million visitors a year, and for good reason. This fascinating city offers an experience unlike any other in North America. Québec City’s Old Town itself is a work of art: Cobblestone walkways, well-preserved 17th century architecture, café culture, and the oldest walled city in North America—all of which is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Home to the annual Festival d’été international de Québec (Québec Summer Festival), Québec City holds both European charm and sophistication alongside its unmistakable French Canadian character. It also bears the distinction of being the place where Wolfe defeated Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham, securing Canada for the British Empire.

Home to the iconic Chateau Frontenac, poutine, the clip-clopping of horse-drawn carriages on cobblestone streets, as well as the New France Festival (August 6-10, 2014) and, of course, the world-famous Winter Carnival (January 30 to February 15, 2015), there’s always plenty to do, see, and eat in the capital of La Belle Province.

Getting around Old Town, the part that the majority of tourists visit, is best done on foot. Streets are narrow and crowded not to mention parking is expensive and at a premium.

Much of the pleasure derived from a visit to Québec City comes from merely wandering the old, cobblestone streets of Lower Town and drinking in the history, so much of which is evident in the city’s architecture.

Other places to visit include Chemin du Roy, Petit-Champlain District & Place-Royale, Musée de la civilisation, Battlefields Park (Plains of Abraham), the Citadelle, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, St. Lawrence River and Vieux-Port de Québec, Wendake, Parliament Hill, Île d’Orléans, Montmorency Falls Park, and the Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré near Mont Sainte-Anne.

All your senses agree: You’re in France. But they’re wrong: You’re in Québec.

Gros Morne National Park (Newfoundland)

A landscape like no other, Gros Morne National Park is an area of great natural beauty with a rich variety of scenery, wildlife, and recreational activities.
A landscape like no other, Gros Morne National Park is an area of great natural beauty with a rich variety of scenery, wildlife, and recreational activities. (Source: triporati.com)

The second largest National Park in Atlantic Canada, Gros Morne National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site stretching across 697 square miles on the coast of western Newfoundland as part of the Long Range Mountains.

Gros Morne National Park is dominated by two distinctly different landscapes, a coastal lowland bordering the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the alpine plateau of the towering Long Range Mountains.

A landscape like no other, the park is an area of great natural beauty with a rich variety of scenery, wildlife, and recreational activities. Visitors can hike through wild, uninhabited mountains and camp by the sea.

Boat tours bring visitors under the towering cliffs of a freshwater fjord carved out by glaciers. Waterfalls, marine inlets, sea stacks, sandy beaches, and colorful nearby fishing villages complete the phenomenal natural and cultural surroundings of Gros Morne.

Beyond its awe-inspiring scenic beauty, Gros Morne National Park is internationally acclaimed for its unique combination of geologic features, an area where the earth’s mantle is exposed, clearly displaying the process of continental drift. The rocks of the area describe eons of geologic turmoil when old oceans disappeared, new ones were created, and continents took shape. The rocks in Gros Morne have contributed greatly to our understanding of plate tectonics.

Worth Pondering…

Canadians have been so busy explaining to the Americans that we aren’t British, and to the British that we aren’t Americans that we haven’t had time to become Canadians.
—Helen Gordon McPherson

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Top 3 Canadian Scenic Drives

With its vast natural landscape, Canada offers a wide-range of scenic drives. Beginning in the west of Canada and working east, following are three of Canada’s best scenic drives.

Sea-to-Sky Highway (British Columbia)

A legendary route from Vancouver to Whistler and beyond, the Sea-to-Sky Highway is a drive with incredible sights at just about every turn. (Source: stay.com)
A legendary route from Vancouver to Whistler and beyond, the Sea-to-Sky Highway is a drive with incredible sights at just about every turn. (Source: stay.com)

Considered one of the world’s most beautiful drives, the Sea-to-Sky Highway (Highway 99) offers awe-inspiring scenery. A legendary route from Vancouver to Whistler and beyond, it’s a drive with incredible sights at just about every turn. It’s also filled with fun stops, including outdoor destinations, cultural points of interest, and historic sites.

Discover scenic ocean vistas, soaring mountains, dramatic waterfalls, bustling communities, parks, and outdoor activities. Beginning at sea level and tracing a route along the shore of Howe Sound, the route weaves deep into the Coast Mountains and then climbs through old-growth rainforests before reaching Whistler 2,200 feet (670 metres) above sea level.

It takes you from downtown Vancouver through Stanley Park, over the Lions Gate Bridge, and along the upper levels of West Vancouver into the Sea-to-Sky Corridor, which starts at Horseshoe Bay.

The amazing Sea-to-Sky Highway has several stops along the way that are often missed. From the more obvious, Brandywine Falls and Porteau Cove to the less well known, Whistler Train Wreck and Lighthouse Park.

The highway has many viewing points and interpretive storyboards (the Cultural Journey) on the history of the land and its deep ties with the Coast Salish Aboriginal People. Located about half way between Horseshoe Bay and Whistler, the newly opened Sea to Sky Gondola is a spectacular place stop to see the spectacular views of the world renowned geography of alpine mountains, great rivers, valleys, and the Howe Sound fjord from above.

Icefields Parkway (Alberta)

Glacier Skywalk Offers Stunning Views of Columbia Icefield (Credit: Brewster Travel Canada)
Glacier Skywalk Offers Stunning Views of Columbia Icefield (Credit: Brewster Travel Canada)

Named for the massive glaciers it sneaks in-between, the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) is a spectacular drive that winds its way you through Banff and Jasper national parks.

To travel the Icefields Parkway is to experience one of Canada’s national treasures and most rewarding destinations. Stretching 144 miles (231 kilometres) through the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site, this world-class journey offers access to a vast wilderness of pristine mountain lakes, ancient glaciers, and broad sweeping valleys.

“This wondertrail will be world renowned,” a surveyor predicted in 1920 when Highway 93 was only a dream. When it opened 20 years later, thanks to a Depression-era public works program, The Banff Crag and Canyon crowed, “20 Switzerlands in one.”

Stretching from Lake Louise to Jasper, the Icefields Parkway affords constantly changing views of more than 600 glaciers, six icefields, and an abundance of mountains.

Selected highlights (from south to north) include: Bow Summit and Peyto Lake viewpoint; Saskatchewan River Crossing; The Weeping Wall; Sunwapta Pass; Columbia Icefield, Athabasca Glacier, Icefield Centre, and the newly opened Glacier Skywalk; Sunwapta Falls; and Athabasca Falls.

Cabot Trail (Nova Scotia)

One of the most famous drives in Canada, the Cabot Trail makes a loop around Cape Breton Island, cutting across the top of the island and closely following the western and eastern coastlines.
One of the most famous drives in Canada, the Cabot Trail makes a loop around Cape Breton Island, cutting across the top of the island and closely following the western and eastern coastlines. (Source: cabottrail.travel)

Named for explorer John Cabot, the 185-mile (300-kilometre) -long Cabot Trail is a scenic roadway that takes you around the greater part of Cape Breton. Many visitors to Cape Breton Island set aside an entire day—or two, three, or four days—to see the sights along the Cabot Trail. Because there are so many scenic overlooks, cultural heritage sites, whale watching, and hiking trails on the Cabot Trail, spending some time planning your excursion and campgrounds will make your road trip much more enjoyable.

One of the most famous drives in Canada, the Cabot Trail makes a loop around Cape Breton Island, cutting across the top of the island and closely following the western and eastern coastlines. If you travel in a clockwise direction, you’ll be on the “inside” lane as you drive along both coasts. Because the road goes up and down steep grades and curves, the clockwise direction is better for RVers who dislike driving next to steep drops. Many of the turnoffs into Cape Breton Highlands National Park are right turns if you are traveling clockwise.

Some of the more popular Cabot Trail stops include: Margaree Harbour and villages in the Margaree River valley;  Chéticamp, the largest village on Cape Breton Island’s Acadian coast; Pleasant Bay, for whale watching; hiking trails and scenic viewpoints in Cape Breton Highlands National Park; Ingonish and the surrounding beaches; St. Ann’s, for the Gaelic College and local art studios; Baddeck, for the Alexander Graham Bell Museum, golf and summer ceilidhs (Celtic music and dance events).

Worth Pondering…

I have traveled around the globe.

I have seen the Canadian and American Rockies, the Andes and the Alps and the Highlands of Scotland; but for simple beauty, Cape Breton Island outrivals them all.

—Alexander Graham Bell

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50 Places to Discover in an RV

You might have read it or seen it on a shelf and thought, “I should pick that up.”

A highlight for most visitors to Capitol Reef is the scenic drive from the visitors center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A highlight for most visitors to Capitol Reef is the scenic drive from the visitors center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s the national bestseller, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.”

Sometimes the best adventures are those in your own backyard.

Here, in alphabetical order, are 50 things to do or see in your RV before you die:

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Much of Capitol Reef is an inviting wilderness of sandstone formations such as Capitol Dome, Hickman Bridge, and Temple of the Sun and Moon in the backcountry of splendid Cathedral Valley. The central geologic feature, the Waterpocket Fold, is a bulging uplift of rainbow-hued sandstone “reefs” and canyons.

Rock art petroglyphs are abundant and tell the story of the early indigenous people, the Fremont Culture. Close by are the orchards of Fruita, an early pioneer settlement—and now headquarters for the park.

Continue reading →

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

The Chihuahuan Desert, studded with spiky plants and lizards, offers little hint that what Will Rogers called the “Grand Canyon with a roof on it” waits underground. Yet, at this desert’s northern reaches, underneath the Guadalupe Mountains, lies one of the deepest, largest, and most ornate caverns ever found.

Water molded this underworld four to six million years ago. Some 250 million years ago, the region lay underneath the inland arm of an ancient sea. Near the shore grew a limestone reef. By the time the sea withdrew, the reef stood hundreds of feet high, later to be buried under thousands of feet of soil.

Continue reading →

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

No place else on earth combines a deep, pure lake, so blue in color; sheer surrounding cliffs, almost two thousand feet high; two picturesque islands; and a violent volcanic past. It’s the deepest lake in the U. S. and its reputation as a spot of overwhelming, sublime natural beauty—the “Gem of the Cascades”—extends around the globe.

Approximately 7,700 years ago, 12,000 foot Mount Mazama erupted and collapsed on itself, forming a large, bowl-shape caldera. Remaining lava flows sealed the bottom and, after a long period of cooling, the caldera filled with rain and snow, creating the sapphire-blue lake.

Death Valley National Park, California

Death Valley National Park gives new meaning to the word extreme. Telescope Peak, the highest peak in the Park, rises 11,049 feet and lies only 15 miles from the lowest point in the United States in the Badwater Basin salt pan, 282 feet below sea level.

Hemmed in by nine mountain ranges, Death Valley is cut off from rainfall and cooling Pacific winds, making it one of the driest and hottest places in the world. The highest temperatures in the United States are regularly recorded here with a record high temperature of 134 degrees Fahrenheit in 1913.

Denali National Park, Alaska

Denali National Park is home to North America’s highest mountain, Mt. McKinley, towering over 20,300 feet tall. The 6 million acre National Park will also give you one of your best opportunities to see Alaska’s wildlife such as grizzly bear, moose, wolves, Dall sheep, and caribou.

The main cavern is located 754 feet below the Visitor Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The main cavern is located 754 feet below the Visitor Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 90-mile road into Denali Park has restricted access and private vehicles are only allowed on the first fourteen miles. You will almost certainly want to travel further into the Park on a narrated bus tour or Park Service shuttle.

Everglades National Park, Florida

The park is at the southern tip of the Everglades, a hundred-mile-long subtropical wilderness of saw-grass prairie, junglelike hammock, and mangrove swamp that originally ran from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay.

The park’s unique mix of tropical and temperate plants and animals—including more than 700 plant and 300 bird species, as well as the endangered manatee, crocodile, and Florida panther—has prompted UNESCO to grant it international biosphere reserve status as well as World Heritage Site designation.

Please Note: This is Part 3 of an 8-part series on 50 Places to RV Before You Die

Worth Pondering…

I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.
—Susan Sontag

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Lure of the Grand Canyon

No one knows for sure how the Grand Canyon came to be.

The Grand Canyon has been touted as the Eighth Wonder of the World ever since John Wesley Powell braved the raging whitewater in its depths in 1869. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Grand Canyon has been touted as the Eighth Wonder of the World ever since John Wesley Powell braved the raging whitewater in its depths in 1869. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Much of it was formed from rocks nearly two billion years old, and it was once a seabed. Seismic shifts and wind and water erosion continue to create a kind of living work of art. At the centre of it all is the Colorado River, which threads its way through 277 river miles of the canyon, from west to east.

Grand Canyon National Park encompasses 1,218,375 acres and lies on the Colorado Plateau in northwestern Arizona. The land is semi-arid and consists of raised plateaus and structural basins typical of the southwestern United States.

Drainage systems have cut deeply through the rock, forming numerous steep-walled canyons. Forests are found at higher elevations while the lower elevations are comprised of a series of desert basins.

Well known for its geologic significance, the Grand Canyon is one of the most studied geologic landscapes in the world. It offers an excellent record of three of the four eras of geological time, a rich and diverse fossil record, a vast array of geologic features and rock types, and numerous caves containing extensive and significant geological, paleontological, archeological, and biological resources.

The Grand Canyon is considered one of the finest examples of arid-land erosion in the world. The Canyon, incised by the Colorado River, is immense, averaging 4,000 feet deep for its entire 277 miles. It is 6,000 feet deep at its deepest point and 15 miles at its widest.

However, the significance of Grand Canyon is not limited to its geology.

When hiking along one of the canyon’s rims, look down and try to spot the tiny ribbon below. That’s the Colorado River.  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
When hiking along one of the canyon’s rims, look down and try to spot the tiny ribbon below. That’s the Colorado River. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Park contains several major ecosystems. Its great biological diversity can be attributed to the presence of five of the seven life zones and three of the four desert types in North America. The five life zones represented are the Lower Sonoran, Upper Sonoran, Transition, Canadian, and Hudsonian. This is equivalent to traveling from Mexico to Canada.

The Park also serves as an ecological refuge, with relatively undisturbed remnants of dwindling ecosystems—such as boreal forest and desert riparian communities. It is home to numerous rare, endemic (found only at Grand Canyon), and specially protected (threatened/endangered) plant and animal species. Over 1,500 plant, 355 bird, 89 mammalian, 47 reptile, 9 amphibian, and 17 fish species are found in the park.

It’s believed that the first human visitors to the Grand Canyon were Native Americans who hunted here some 4,000 years ago. Spanish explorers arrived in the 16th century; American fur trappers followed in the late-1820s.

During his exploration of the Colorado River in 1869, the first successful expedition to travel the length of the river, John Wesley Powell noted in his journal, “The glories and the beauties of form, color, and sound unite in the Grand Canyon—forms unrivaled even by the mountains, colors that vie with sunsets, and sounds that span the diapason from tempest to tinkling raindrop, from cataract to bubbling fountain.”

This perhaps explains why the Grand Canyon was named a World Heritage Site in 1979.

After 1880, prospectors came to the canyon in search of copper, silver, and asbestos.

Tourism took off in 1901, once the railroad reached the canyon’s South Rim.

In 1919, the Grand Canyon was declared a national park. Today, it gets up to 5 million visitors annually.

Photo Tips

The Grand Canyon, one of the natural wonders of the world, lives up to its reputation in every way. There’s no shortage of photographic experiences in the Grand Canyon either. A photo-taker could spend days in one single spot and never get the same image twice. Wake up early to see the brilliant sunrises or stay late for sunset and watch as the canyon change colors. Stop at all the scenic overlooks as you drive or ride the tram from one end of the park to the other. Be sure to find a hike that is comfortable for you to really get into the depths of the canyon.

Water and wind erode the rock and sweep it away. It’s hard to imagine that the river was once on top. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Water and wind erode the rock and sweep it away. It’s hard to imagine that the river was once on top. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a classic shot of a Grand Canyon sunrise or sunset, head to the Hopi or Mohave overlooks along West Rim Drive on the South Rim. Remember to go early to give yourself plenty of time to find the right spot and set up.

DUDE

Grand Canyon Summed up in one word:

DUDE

D: Desposition

U: Uplift

D: Down Cutting

E: Erosion

Did You Know?

President Theodore Roosevelt said of Grand Canyon, “Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American should see.”

Please Note: This is Part 2 of a 3-part series on the Grand Canyon National Park

Part 1: The Magnificent Grand Canyon

Part 3: Arizona’s Big Hole

Worth Pondering…

We sat at this point and let our eyes wonder across the canyon. All worries seeped away into the stony stillness and there was silence.

—Gena McCaffert

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Beauty & Wonder: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Above Ground

Above ground throughout the summer, you can see hundreds of cave swallows at the mouth of the cavern.

Though there are scattered woodlands in the higher elevations, the park is primarily a variety of grassland and desert shrubland habitats. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Walnut Canyon Loop Road is an interesting 9.5-mile drive that affords views of Chihuahuan Desert vegetation, wildlife, ancient reef and lagoon deposits, and the distant Guadalupe Mountains. At the time of our last visit in November the road was still closed as a result washout conditions from heavy monsoon rains.

Bat Flight

Beneath the natural entrance is a Bat Cave that is used by nearly 400,000 Mexican free-tail bats for about seven months a year. At dusk, these bats come spiraling up out of the natural entrance in breathtaking numbers. Flying to places as much as 50 miles away, they spread out over the countryside to feed on insects.

After leaving their cave, the bats descend on the nearby Pecos River Valley to feast on insects. To find their prey, they employ a unique radar system which scientists call echolocation. As they fly, the bats emit ultra-high-frequency sounds. When these signals strike an object, they are reflected back and heard by the bats. This enables them to hone in on the smallest insects as well as avoid any object in their flight path.

Caves are fragile environments that are affected by human activities and natural processes occurring both underground and on the surface. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After a night of feasting, the bats return to the cavern at dawn.

The bat flight is a very impressive sight, and many park visitors gather at dusk to watch it and be amazed. A seated viewing area, the Bat Flight Amphitheater, has been constructed near the entrance. Evening bat-focused programs and interpretive services are provided. The exodus can take over two hours!

In late October, the bats leave the cavern for their wintering grounds in Mexico. In the spring, they return to renew their nightly spectacle.

Did You Know?
Nearly 400,000 Brazilian (more commonly called Mexican) free-tail bats call Carlsbad Cavern home in the summer… and all they want to do each night is eat bugs… several tons of them each night!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Details

Operating Hours: Open year-round, 24 hours a day

Admission: $6-20 for cave tours; all federal lands passes accepted

Elevation: 3,595-6,520 feet

Park size: 46,766 acres or 73 square miles

2010 visitation: 428,524

Location: From Carlsbad, 16 miles southwest on Highways 62/180 to White’s City, 7 miles west via paved park entrance road.

Camping: No camping facilities, but there are several campgrounds in nearby Whites City and Carlsbad

The main cavern is located 754 feet below the Visitor Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Address: 3225 National Parks Highway, Carlsbad, NM 88220

Contact: (575) 785-2232

Web site: nps.gov/cave

Note: This is the final of a three-part series on Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Part 1: Underground Wonderland

Part 2: Grand Canyon with a Roof on It

Worth Pondering…

I came to more and more stalagmites-each seemingly larger and more beautifully formed than the ones I’d passed. I entered rooms filled with colossal wonders in gleaming onyx. Suspended from the ceilings were mammoth chandeliers-clusters of stalactites in every size and color. Walls that were frozen cascades of glittering flowstone, jutting rocks that held suspended long, slender formations that rang when I touched them-like a key on the xylophone. Floors were lost under formations of every variety and shape.

—Jim White’s Own Story

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Grand Canyon with a Roof on It: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Cave Tours
Carlsbad Caverns is renowned for its cave tours, especially the Big Room Tour and the Natural Entrance Tour. While no reservations are needed for these self-guided tours, ranger-guided tours do require reservations, and some fill up quickly.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in the Guadalupe Mountains, a mountain range that runs from west Texas into southeastern New Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All ranger-guided tours can be reserved on a space available basis up to two days prior to the date of the tour. Any unsold tickets are sold at the Park’s ticket office on a first come-first serve basis.

The temperature in the caves is 56 degrees Fahrenheit year round, so you’re advised to bring a sweater or light jacket with you. You’ll do a fair amount of walking, so wear comfortable shoes with rubber soles for good traction.

Self-Guided Tours

The basic cavern entry is by way of two self-guided routes, the Big Room Route and the Natural Entrance Route.

Big Room Tour

Every visitor wants to see the Big Room, a chamber so large you could fit the U.S. Capitol into just one corner. Elevators at the visitor center take you to lighted passageways—essentially a trail system—lying 754 feet below the surface and equivalent to a 75-story building. The elevator emerges at the Underground Lunchroom, which offers restrooms and drinking fountains as well as a snack bar.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park contains more than 110 limestone caves, the most famous of which is Carlsbad Cavern. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From there you take the Big Room Trail, a one-mile trail that loops around the perimeter of the cave’s largest chamber. The trail is well lit, wide, and gently sloped; a portion is wheelchair-accessible. You can take a self-guided tour of the Big Room in about 90 minutes. You’ll end your cave tour as it began with an elevator ride.

Natural Entrance Tour

Somewhat more demanding is the Natural Entrance Route, a mile-long trek that follows the path of Jim White and other early explorers.

In a spiraling descent from the surface and through the main corridor, this route culminates in the cavern lunchroom. Along the way, visitors pass the Bat Cave, Devil’s Spring, the Devil’s Den, the Witch’s Finger and Iceberg Rock, a 200,000-ton limestone boulder that geologists believe fell from the cavern ceiling thousands of years ago.

Consider substituting the Big Room Tour for the Natural Entrance Tour. The Natural Entrance Tour (i.e. a complete cave tour) enters the cave via a natural entrance and returns to the surface via the visitor center elevators.

You’ll enter the natural entrance on a switchback trail and walk downward into the cave complex. Make sure you are capable of handling the physical demands of the Natural Entrance Tour. Considered moderately strenuous, this tour involves a 750-foot descent in about one mile and involves a number of steep descents and switchbacks. About three miles of walking is required.

Combining the cavern entry with the Big Room tour will take about 3 hours.

Ranger-Guided Cave Tours

Carlsbad Cavern receives more than 300,000 visitors each year and offers a rare glimpse of the underground worlds preserved under the desert above. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Six guided tours are available—King’s Palace, Left Hand Tunnel, Slaughter Canyon Cave, Lower Cave, Hall of the White Giant, and Spider Cave.

Reservations are highly recommended for all guided tours. For advanced reservations, call (877) 444-6777 or visit the Recreation.gov website.

Guided tours range in difficulty from walking on paved trails to walking rough dirt trails to crawling through narrow cave passages. Consult the park newspaper, the website, or check with a ranger for more information regarding difficulty and required equipment.

Note: This is the second of a three-part series on Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Part 1: Underground Wonderland

Part 3: Beauty & Wonder

Did You Know?
Most of the formations—or speleothems—found inside Carlsbad Cavern today were active and growing during the last ice age when instead of having a desert above the cave, there were pine forests.

Worth Pondering…

The beauty, the weirdness, the grandeur … absolved my mind of all thoughts of a world above. I forgot time, place and distance.

—Jim White

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NPS Status Recommended for Valles Caldera

Valles Caldera National Preserve is an ecologically rich 89,000-acre swath of land in northwest New Mexico, one with a long human history and with a spectacular history of volcanism. And it’s an area that National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) officials believe would best be served as a unit of the National Park System, reports National Parks Traveler.

Credit: vallescaldera.gov

“The Valles Caldera National Preserve is an incredible cross-section of human history and impressive geological features, and, as a new economic report on the site states, with proper management by the National Park Service (NPS) it can be preserved for future generations while also providing an economic boon to local communities and New Mexico,” said David Nimkin, the NCPA’s Southwest Region director, on Monday (October 24) when the organization released a report on the preserve and how best to manage it.

Conducted by The Harbinger Consulting Group for Caldera Action and the NPCA, the report states that such action would support 202 local jobs, nearly $8 million in wages, and $11 million in economic activity by 2016. It reinforces a legislative push in the U.S. Senate to transfer management of the Valles Caldera to the Park Service, reports Bizjournals.com. The study’s conclusions were backed by the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Audubon New Mexico, and the Sierra Club’s Pajarito Group and Rio Grande Chapter.

Currently, the National Preserve which was created in 2000 is managed by the Valles Caldera Trust. The structure was an experiment in semiprivate public land management, and the Trust was charged with making the preserve self-sufficient. But the report states the experiment has not succeeded and is unlikely to do so.

“The report from Caldera Action gives a detailed analysis in comparing the current private-public management of the site, which has failed to become sustainable, with multiple other scenarios,” said Nimkin. “And, unsurprisingly to those of us who treasure historic and natural sites, the report determines that the background, expertise, and workforce of the NPS is best suited for both preserving the site and using it as an anchor of local economic growth.”

Valles Caldera Preserve with fog in the valley. (Credit: vallescaldera.gov)

The Valles Caldera is a huge, dormant field of volcanoes that erupted between 1 million and 20 million years ago. The volcanism sculpted a magnificent and well-preserved complex of landscape features. The Pajarito Plateau (where the National Park Service’s Bandelier National Monument lies just east of the Valles Caldera) reveals orange and pink volcanic cliffs, rich with archeological sites. Many of the high Jemez Mountains formed by massive volcanic ash-spewing eruptions are contained within the Valles Caldera National Preserve and excite geologists, many of whom have called for the preserve to be declared a World Heritage Site.

This report finds that NPS management would provide more stable long-term local economic benefits, more reliable resource protection, and superior visitor experiences. Further, the report concludes that National Park Service management would better fulfill the primary purposes of the Preserve: protecting and preserving the resources of the historic Baca ranch, and providing opportunities for public recreation.

“In addition to preventing incompatible uses from marring Valles Caldera’s incredible landscapes, the report shows that NPS management will make it more accessible to visitors and give a major boost to the local and New Mexico economy, including increasing economic benefits by more than $110 million in the first 15 years,” Nimkin noted. “The report also points out that NPS management will also be able to eliminate current administrative inefficiencies by consolidating the management of Valles Caldera National Preserve and the adjacent Bandelier National Monument.”

Kevin Holsapple, executive director of the Los Alamos Commerce & Development Corp., said the Valles Caldera and Bandelier are important economic drivers of tourism for Los Alamos.

“We’ve always had an intuitive belief that the Park Service is the way to go to promote the maximum opportunities for that (economic development),” he said. “I’m glad to see that firmed up in a study that looked objectively at those issues.”

Advocates of NPS management said the Park Service brings a recognized name and infrastructure that tends to bring more visitors to sites. Michele Archie with Harbinger said her firm looked at the impact of National Park Service management on an area of the Texas Gulf Coast and found that in the first 10 years of operation under NPS, the number of visitors increased by 500 percent.

Details

Valles Caldera National Preserve

The Sierra de Toledo on the northeastern rim of the Valles Caldera is seen from Valle San Antonio. (Credit: vallescalderarim.blogspot.com)

The Valles Caldera Trust was created by the Valles Caldera Preservation Act of 2000 to preserve and protect the historic Baca Ranch of New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. The groundbreaking legislation that provided for the federal purchase of this 89,000-acre ranch nestled inside a volcanic caldera also created a unique experiment in public land management.

Website: vallescaldera.gov

National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA)

The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) is the only independent, membership organization devoted exclusively to advocacy on behalf of the National Parks System. Its mission is “to protect and enhance America’s National Park System for present and future generations.”

Website: npca.org

Worth Pondering…

If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

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Underground Wonderland: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Below the arid mountain and desert landscape of the southeast corner of New Mexico lays an underground world of awe-inspiring and dazzling proportions. It’s a magical world of mysterious passageways, colossal rock formations, crystal-clear pools of water, and giant subterranean chambers. This is the renowned Carlsbad Cavern, one of the caves protected in the nearly 47,000 acres of Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Welcome to Carlsbad Canyon National Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The enormous subterranean caverns, located 755 feet beneath the Chihuahuan Desert in southeastern New Mexico, provide a stunning glimpse into the geological evolution of a cave system that is more than 600,000 years old. Carlsbad Cavern’s painted grottos, giant domes, soda straws, helictites, stalactites, stalagmites, and other remarkable rock formations make it one of the most renowned cave systems in the world.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park preserves at least 113 separate limestone caves, including Carlsbad Cavern and Lechuguilla Cave—the deepest cave in North America.

Discovered by Native Americans over 1,000 years ago and rediscovered by settlers in the 1800s the caverns were extensively explored by Jim White, a local cowboy.

In December 1898, Jim White was mending fences on a section of range near the Guadalupe Mountains, southwest of the frontier town of Eddy, which a year later would change its name to Carlsbad. It was near sundown, and White was about to turn his horse for home when he was attracted by a distant funnel-shaped cloud rising from the desert floor.

All visitors to the park should tour the main section of the cave, the Big Room self-guided tour. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Riding closer to investigate the strange phenomenon, White was startled to find that the “cloud” was actually millions of bats streaming from a large circular opening in a hillside. In his memoirs, White wrote:

“I sat for perhaps an hour watching the bats fly out. I couldn’t estimate the number, but I knew that it must run into millions. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that any hole in the ground which could house such a gigantic army of bats must be a whale of a big cave.

“I crept between cactus until I lay on the brink of the chasm and looked down…There was no bottom in sight. I shall never forget the feeling of awe it gave me.”

A few days later and with only a lantern to light his way, White cautiously descended into the cave. He describes his first venture into the subterranean darkness:

“I entered rooms filled with colossal wonders in gleaming onyx. Suspended from the ceilings were mammoth chandeliers—clusters of stalactites in every size and color. Walls that were frozen cascades of glittering flowstone, jutting rocks that held suspended, long, slender formations that rang when I touched them, like a key on the xylophone.

“Floors were lost under formations of every variety and shape. Through the gloom, I could see ghostlike totem poles, tall and graceful, reaching upward into the darkness. I encountered hundreds of pools filled with pure water as clear as glass, their sides lined with crystalline onyx marble.”

When Jim White reported his discovery of the rock wonderland beneath the desert floor, no one would believe him. His claims were dismissed as the over-active imagination of a man who had spent too much time alone on the range.

Jim White continued to work and explore in the cavern. He was the Park Service’s senior guide until 1929, when he retired because of failing health. He died in 1946.

Designated as a national monument in 1923, Carlsbad Caverns became a national park in 1930.

In 1995 the park was named a World Heritage Site.

Early visitors to the caves were lowered, in a bucket, 170 feet to the cave floor. Apart from the natural light that filtered into the mouth of the cave, the journey through the caves would have been in almost total darkness, with only the light cast from a small miner’s lamp to guide them.

Today, it is very different. There are two self-guided tours and six ranger-guided tours from which to choose.

How the Caverns Were Formed

Guided tours of varying difficulties in Carlsbad Cavern and other park caves are available. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rainwater, carrying weak carbonic acid, percolated down through reef fractures in the limestone and ate away at the rock. Hydrogen sulfide gas from deep oil and gas deposits rose to meet and mix with this water, which formed reef-eating sulfuric acid. This acid, in turn, created the huge chambers and corridors.

Dissolved calcium carbonate deposits have formed fantastic sculptured stalagmites that rise from the floor, mammoth stalactites hang from the ceilings and delicate twisting helictites protrude from the walls. The rate of water flow determines their size and shapes.

Note: This is the first of a three-part series on Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Part 2: Grand Canyon with a Roof on It

Part 3: Beauty & Wonder

Worth Pondering…

Billions and billions of drops later, thousands of formations had taken place, and, oh, the shapes they were.

—a national park service geologist

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