Fredericksburg, VA and the Power of History

It’s been a while since I’ve done a city or town day trip travelogue. On a beautiful Saturday in late January, C. and I took the hour-plus drive south/southwest from Arlington to the small city of Fredericksburg, Virginia, one of the state’s oldest towns, turned exurban enclave.

Taking Interstate 95 from the immediate Washington, DC area further into Virginia, one both literally and figuratively drives into the South—with all its fascinating contradictions. Much of 95 is lined with either modern suburban communities or military facilities, two symbols of the “New South,” but a truly massive Confederate battle flag flies high near Exit 133 for Falmouth and Fredericksburg. Exiting the freeway just past the flag, a busy road runs through run-down trailer parks and abandoned gas stations. Many signs proclaim President Trump’s promise to make America “great” again.

Crossing the Rappahannock River into the City of Fredericksburg, the Trump signs disappear but there’s a massive, well-groomed Confederate cemetery near the middle of town. One of the area’s many Civil War battle sites is adjacent to a nearby neighborhood, and revisionist Civil War trinket shops market gifts based on an alternative history in which Dixie stands proudly victorious.

But Fredericksburg and its nearby counties, Stafford and Spotsylvania, are no stand-ins for the sets of Dukes of Hazzard or Deliverance. Throughout much of the area, educational attainment stands far above the figure for the United States, and most measures of racial and ethnic diversity compare favorably as well. Household incomes and home values are high, and poverty generally low. Fredericksburg itself is fairly politically liberal and more southern Spotsylvania is similarly conservative, while Stafford (with DC suburbs in its north) is a Republican-leaning but more closely matched county.

Fredericksburg’s downtown manages to simultaneously cater to the city’s historic blue-collar millworker population, the Mary Washington University community, wealthy conservative suburbanites, and the city’s own growing professional community. It’s a mixed bag of businesses, and the condition of buildings reflects that diversity in much the same way. About all that most have in common is their advanced age (and those that weren’t old tended to be unsightly or nondescript office buildings).

Historic commercial buildings line many of downtown Fredericksburg’s streets.

Old meets new (and less than inspiring) in downtown Fredericksburg.

We started our day with brunch at a spot that wouldn’t be out of place in Washington’s most hipsterfied neighborhoods. The farm-to-table sausage gravy and brisket burgers were fantastic, as was the coffee and the organic fresh-squeezed juice. After departing with overly full stomachs, we wandered the downtown streets and strolled along the tidal Rappahannock River just below the fall line. Years ago, the city’s economy was powered, in part, by the mills that straddled the river where it exited the Piedmont and tumbled over low rapids.

A large flock of geese and gulls enjoys a sandbar on the Rappahannock River.

(Mary) Washington Monument

Near downtown, Washington Street showcases the city’s high-end historic housing stock. The street is named for Mary (George’s mom) Washington who, shortly before her death, resided adjacent to the Kenmore Plantation owned by her daughter (George’s sister) and son-in-law. Today, the wide boulevard is lined with stately houses; an extensive and beautifully maintained recreational park and the Mary Washington memorial complex sit nearby. (Mary posthumously claimed naming rights for the city’s university, part of Virginia’s public higher education system and, historically, the women’s campus of the University of Virginia.)

Washington Street is a divided boulevard with occasional monuments in the median.

The Kenmore Plantation house remains on a large lot on Washington Street.

To their credit, many area residents—black and white, white- and blue-collar, fat and slim—don’t seem fully content to live a couch potato lifestyle. There are miles of roadside bike trails and a great multi-use path that runs through much of the city along a historic canal. During our visit, the Mary Washington park complex was packed, dozens of residents sat quietly or conversed while their furry friends romped in a dog park, and a diverse group of anglers cast their bait into a small lake (as part of Virginia’s Urban Fisheries program).

A canal allowed boats to skirt the Rappahannock rapids; today, it’s paralleled by a wide walking and biking trail.

In and around Fredericksburg, though, the Civil War hangs almost over everything. We stopped at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and strolled along the Sunken Road, a historic pathway that doubled as a military trench for the Confederate defenders of Marye’s Heights. Wave after wave of Union soldiers were mowed down by rifles and artillery fire, many of their bodies just decaying into the ground where working class housing and university apartments now stand.

The Sunken Road gave Confederate defenders a natural trench to defend the heights (at photo right).

Over three-quarters of the Union dead buried in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery are unknown soldiers.

Open hostilities in America’s great conflict ended more than 150 years ago, but recent history has only reinforced that it’s far from truly resolved. The battle flag flying high above the freeway—and advertising Fredericksburg in a way that many area residents seem far from okay with—shows the power of proxy battles over what it means to be American. Meanwhile, much of Fredericksburg seems to be content with just living life in the 21st century.

Brompton, originally known as Marye’s House, was a Confederate command center used to defend the heights. Today, in a sign that many institutions of the Old South have been repurposed for modern pursuits, it houses the president of Mary Washington University.

Posted in Community, Demographics, History, Narrative posts, Politics, Traveling, Urban, Virginia | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

The Return of the Whiskey Walk

After a 2016 holiday season that deviated from the norm (for some compelling reasons), some semblance of the normal Franklin Christmas routine returned in 2017. The Whiskey Walk (see 2015 and 2014 recaps) proceeded according to tradition, albeit with an unusual chill in the air: during the afternoon and evening of Christmas Eve, a patch of seasonal weather gave way to a bitter cold front, bringing gusty winds and snowfall after dark.

With the Rivertop Rambler at my side, our hike began on the paved road angling southwest up the hollow. After half a mile or so, we forked left up a private hunt club lane—once a public road owned by the Town of Greenwood, but now maintained only minimally to allow the passage of heavy-duty pickup trucks up the steep hillside. Long-time readers will recall that the landowners are kind enough to provide a little directional help in the form of ironically placed road signs.

On Christmas Eve, stay straight at the fork.

Main turns left and stays just below the crest of the hill.

On top of the hill, the abandoned car’s woodland setting became uncomfortably cool. The sweat from our steep climb began to chill our bones as the wind picked up and clouds built to the west. Some flasked bourbon and beer would help. (Oh wait, the beer is cold?)

Setting up the bar

We left the car bar after downing some drinks with my uncle, proceeding east along an old farm lane that was likely part of the same public roadway as the hunt club road. This portion was once traveled by enough vehicles to merit being lined on both sides by the classic stone fences often found in the rocky Allegheny highlands. While the fence on the south side of the lane has been dismantled, with the stones seemingly becoming one with the natural surroundings, the north side boasts a remarkably intact fenceline.

The field north of the fenceline is a small, isolated property. Since the closure of the public road, the parcel is inaccessible via any public right-of-way.

At the end of this fenceline, our route turned south onto my uncle’s property, away from the relatively sheltered patch of woods on the hilltop. There, the terrain begins to slope down to the southeast and an even more bitter cold wind sheered up the grassy field.

View to the southeast

There’s a beautiful hemlock grove across a field of thick grass and goldenrod not yet pressed down by heavy snow. The stand was only ever lightly lumbered by my grandfather, more than 40 years ago. In addition to the deep green hemlocks, it includes a variety of maples, oaks, and birches, as well as ironwood, beech, and spruce. The mix of trees is probably the closest thing you’ll find to the area’s original forest mix, and its quiet, somber beauty felt primeval in the light snow and cold.

Late afternoon light fades more quickly in the beautiful, gloomy silence of a hemlock grove.

A small trickle drains a marshy corner of an overgrown field, dropping quickly amidst the hemlocks into a dramatically narrow ravine. From here, that water will travel at least 400 miles and drop a couple thousand feet in elevation to the Chesapeake Bay, closer to where I currently reside. Home to home, I guess.

I’ve always liked finding this kind of connection between my past and present, my history and my (almost) daily existence. The Whiskey Walk is a great one to revisit year after year, bridging the gaps of time and place. Its route travels a highly representative cross-section of my hometown’s natural and human history, and cuts across several important threads of my own family’s traditions and history with the land.

From Bridging the Gap to my readers, Happy New Year 2018!

Posted in Community, Family, History, Narrative posts, Nature, Photo Journey, Place, Relationships, Rural, Upstate New York | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Equity and Our National Parks

In late October 2017, the Trump Administration’s Department of the Interior announced it was considering an entry fee increase for 18* of the most popular national parks. This fee increase—from $25 or $30 for a seven-day pass to $70—would ostensibly ease the huge maintenance backlog at certain units of the National Park Service (NPS). Many critics of the administration observed that the proposal would further reduce public access to public land, and that the effect would be particularly harsh on the poor.

Is this charge deserved? As I see it, it’s complicated. While I’m generally highly skeptical of this administration’s motives—especially (as with most Republican administrations) regarding conservation and public lands—I don’t see this dramatically changing the picture for America’s poor who wish to visit NPS sites. Overall, it’s an imperfect tool that would be entirely unnecessary if our public lands were properly funded (more on that later).

It’s absolutely unfair for the poor to be left out while the upper and middle classes continue to enjoy public lands, but many national parks are already de facto off-limits zones to America’s poor. Outdoor travel destinations are often just window-shopping destinations to people without money. Given the significant overall expense of traveling to certain parks, the difference between a $30 admission and a $70 admission isn’t likely to be the deciding factor.

Take Glacier National Park, one of the units proposed for a fee increase. There aren’t many people who live within easy driving distance of this magnificent park in northwestern Montana. But if a family traveling from further away can’t afford $70 to enter the park for seven days, they’d probably find it difficult to afford spending the night. Much the same, gas money would almost certainly be a stretch. Rates are often even higher on weekends, and people who struggle financially may not enjoy employment benefits like paid time off.

Public transportation, which often helps the poor access resources in more urbanized areas, usually isn’t available to the signature national park landscapes. One-way flights to Kalispell, the closest commercial airport to Glacier, range from $600-$1,500 from major Eastern airports, and aren’t much cheaper from Western airports. (And, of course, one must return home after visiting.)

Let’s assume that someone is able to scrape together the aforementioned costs, plus the increased entry fee. Upon arrival at some national parks, it costs additional money to take full advantage of its attractions. C. and I recently hiked Old Rag Mountain (Shenandoah National Park), considered one of the most challenging hikes in the Mid-Atlantic region. Although we visited on a fee-free weekend, nearly every other hiker we saw was white or Asian. To some extent, everyone possessed specialized clothing or equipment for hiking on challenging terrain. The supplies needed to safely complete a challenging hike are expensive, and boating, rock-climbing, skiing, or even camping are pricier still.

View from Old Rag Mountain summit, Shenandoah National Park

Again, it’s not fair for the poor to bear the burden, but fewer visitors to certain parks might actually be a good thing. The NPS’ mission includes both conservation and access, but too much of the latter can act to the detriment of the former. America’s national parks are more popular than ever (especially across the portfolio of signature attractions), and some of the most popular parks are already considering draconian measures to curb over-attendance. This summer, after waiting 20 minutes traffic to enter Rocky Mountain National Park at 6:30 a.m., we found a mostly full 1,000-car parking lot further down the road—people waiting to board an endless series of shuttles to some of the park’s more popular trailheads. Other parks have it even worse. It’s hard to overstate the degree of pressure this kind of attendance puts on delicate, irreplaceable landscapes and ecosystems.

Glacier Gorge, Rocky Mountain National Park

Is there a better way forward?

Can the NPS balance its ideals of conservation and access, steer clear of policies that negatively impact equity, and even expand access to more sites? While our current national politics would likely preclude such an alternative vision, the future may be more hopeful for conservation.

First, Congress and the administration should sufficiently fund the NPS to fully allow it to act as a responsible steward of America’s natural and historical resources. This funding should allow the agency to work through its maintenance backlog, expand conservation efforts, and establish an endowment to improve its infrastructure and add to its portfolio in the future. This would eliminate the need to claim (sincerely or otherwise) that fee increases are essential for maintenance and conservation.

The truly equitable national parks that I’ve visited—where I see diverse crowds of people from all walks of life enjoying the outdoors—are minor NPS units in metropolitan Washington, DC. These parks are cheap or free to enter, easy to access, and amenable to a casual picnic or stroll. Given enough funding, the NPS should partner with nonprofits or other charitable organizations to make it genuinely easier for poor people (especially families) to visit all parks. Such an alliance could help pool resources for transportation or lodging, and teach people of modest means about their natural and historical heritage.

It’s important to remember that these fee increases impact only 18 National Park Service units out of 400-plus (and counting). In their place—and once we’ve acknowledged that an egalitarian system of national parks requires a greater effort than we’ve yet put forth—a lottery system could be applied to all NPS units where attendance exceeds the landscape’s resilience. Such a lottery would be need-blind, and would more fairly distribute demand toward lesser-known jewels of the National Park System.

I’m going to end on a fairly practical but optimistic note, and point out that the cost for an annual pass to all NPS units will remain at $80—just $10 more than the proposed entry fee to one of these high-profile parks. Rather than pay $70 to enter Shenandoah (or Rocky Mountain, or Glacier) for a week, some families may opt to save a little extra and waive further entry fees at any park for an entire calendar year.

* Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks use the same entry fee.
Posted in Analysis, Asks a Question, Economics, Environmentalism, Inequality, Nature, Politics, Poverty, Social Justice, Traveling | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Unspoiled Once More

High population growth that manifests as retail, industrial, or residential sprawl can place a variety of pressures on the natural world. Habitats disappear; pollution sickens people, plants, animals, and bodies of water; and the porous earth is paved over, worsening the risk for flooding.

Vacationing in July, C. and I enjoyed some time in Colorado’s booming Front Range Urban Corridor. The area is anchored by Denver, one of America’s fastest-growing major cities. Denver—with its high-rise downtown and many dense, walkable neighborhoods—is actually growing a bit faster than many of its suburbs. But the suburban periphery is also expanding rapidly in places. Whether this sprawl pushes into the prairie or the Front Range foothills, it’s encroaching fast into wildlife habitats and areas with other environmental risks.

In some parts of the country, though, human habitation and economic activity are in retreat, allowing some semblance of the natural order to return. How do natural ecosystems—nature’s balancing influence—return when small towns and farms stagnate or decline and suburban sprawl is just a distant frontier? In my lifetime, I’ve watched many of the hillsides that surround my tiny hometown of Greenwood, NY progress from field and meadow through various stages of reforestation. There, a remote, hilly agricultural region has endured organic economic decline, but the natural order can return in a multitude of situations, for various reasons.

The aftermath of environmental devastation: the High Alleghenies of northeastern West Virginia

Back in January, C. and I went on a short honeymoon trip to this area. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was ravaged by coal mining, coke production, and clear-cut lumbering. East of Tucker County’s Canaan Valley lies the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, a high-elevation plateau that rises above 4,000 feet in places. Portions of the Sods are defined by sphagnum bogs, stunted trees, and heath barrens—patterns of vegetation more typical of the Canadian Shield and high-elevation areas in New England or northern New York.

But the Dolly Sods wasn’t always like this. In the days when the region was America’s frontier, the plateau was covered with the densest known forest of red spruce and eastern hemlock; some trees reportedly rivaled giant sequoias in width. By the early 20th century, though, clear-cutting had decimated the tree cover and allowed wind and rain to carry away almost all of the rich topsoil. Wildfires then scorched the region to the point of desertification, with virtually all natural life destroyed. Then, to add insult to injury, the military used the area to test artillery and munitions during World War II. To this day, signs at trailheads warn hikers of the risk of unexploded ordnance.

But something funny happened in the meantime: the area became lush and wild once again. As C. and I hiked the Rorhbaugh Plains trail with my brother-in-law, the dense cove forests of oak, maple, spruce, and hemlock felt both thick and ageless. Beneath the canopy, impenetrable rhododendron and laurel brakes pressed inward on the trail, creating a (false) sense that no human could ever alter this forest from its current state.

Spruce/hemlock cove forests feature mossy floors, bogs, and rich loam.

Ferny, grassy meadows are interspersed in portions of the forest. The edges are usually remarkably distinct.

Thick groves of rhododendron are nearly ubiquitous.

We hiked for nearly three miles through varying types of thick forest. Then, suddenly, the trees and vegetation opened dramatically at the edge of a cliff and the Alleghenies’ dramatic, rugged terrain spread out before us.

View of Red Creek Canyon

The rocky ground near the edge of the cliffs supports only lichens and stunted “flag” trees.

A classic flag tree with branches only on one side

The ecological recovery of the Dolly Sods certainly isn’t complete, though. In the northern part of the plateau (a trip for another day!), the soil was permanently damaged such that full-sized trees are unable to grow. Instead, the slopes are covered with “heath barrens,” landscapes of sphagnum bogs, stunted trees, blueberry and cranberry shrubs, and mosses and lichens—a boreal ecosystem not normally found so far south. Even here, though, nature has returned to the best of its ability, creating an unusual, delicate ecosystem from the ruins left by humanity. Establishment as a federally designated wilderness area, prohibiting human-built structures and non-foot traffic, will help guide the continued recovery.

View east from the edge of the Dolly Sods plateau

Social-engineered Wilderness: Shenandoah National Park

Further east, in the northern Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, thousands of residents once lived on subsistence farms or in remote villages—”almost completely cut off from the current of American life.” In response to the desire to create a Western-style national park near the major cities of the East, the state of Virginia condemned more than 3,000 individual tracts of land to donate to the federal government. The end game was the creation of a spectacular park and a scenic road to let visitors enjoy the heady air of the summits, an accomplishment that now benefits 1.5 million visitors each year.

View of Old Rag Mountain, an eastern out-thrust from the Blue Ridge, from Hawksbill Mountain (4,050 feet), the highest point in Shenandoah National Park. The Piedmont is beyond.

Stony Man Mountain (4,011 feet) is just shy of the park’s tallest, but has the most dramatic views to the west. Here, cliffs fall away to deep valleys with the fertile Shenandoah River Valley beyond. The Alleghenies can be seen at the far horizon.

Stony Man Mountain, looking northwest

This park protects 200,000 acres of Appalachian highlands and mountain valleys. Forty percent has been designated as “wilderness” under the Wilderness Act, meaning it represents an untrammeled natural community where humans are relatively insignificant outsiders. Such areas have no roads, no human habitations or constructs, and no significant sources of pollution. While cars are restricted to Skyline Drive, 500 miles of trails connect all portions of the park.

The Mill Prong Trail leads east from Skyline Drive, into the headwaters of the Rapidan River and eventually to the Rapidan Camp (see below).

Here, the trail to the summit of Hawksbill Mountain (left) diverges from the Appalachian Trail. The Shenandoah salamander’s habitat is limited to only Hawksbill and Stony Mountain mountains.

A sea of ferns near the summit of Stony Man Mountain

A small waterfall along the Mill Prong Trail, near Rapidan Camp

Dark Hollow Falls is a 70-foot cascade, part of an even taller series of consecutive falls

Big Meadows, near the midpoint of Skyline Drive, is the largest treeless area in the park.

It’s a stunning accomplishment of preservation, less than two hours from the nation’s capital and its massive, sprawling expanse of suburban development. To the relatively powerless smallholders whose lives were uprooted for a higher cause, the majesty of Shenandoah National Park would likely be small consolation. Speaking to the overall balance, though, it would be hard to argue against the current status quo for this magnificent park.

Of course, the history of prior habitation in Shenandoah National Park isn’t just limited to the poor and powerless: Herbert Hoover built his presidential retreat along the headwaters of the Rapidan River, but its original purpose was abandoned when Franklin Roosevelt moved the retreat to Camp David.

Posted in Analysis, Environmentalism, History, Nature, Place, Rural, Science, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

The “Coloradyssey” (Part 2)

A massive spruce seems to climb the side of a cliff in Mesa Verde National Park.

My last post introduced readers to my grand tour of Colorado’s national parks, highlighting some of the spectacular scenery found in Rocky Mountain National Park and Dinosaur National Monument (partly in Utah). Part 2 highlights those parks that C. and I explored on our own after taking leave of my parents. (My dad, at Rivertop Rambles, is documenting the elders’ spectacular journey in his own series of posts.)

Broadly, C. and I turned toward the more southerly reaches of Colorado, where a casual observer might be forgiven for confusing their environs with those of northern New Mexico. Indeed, it’s a region often distinctly flavored by generations of its Hispanic or Native American occupants. In terms of its natural features, though, it’s second to none.

Colorado National Monument

Upon leaving Utah, C. and I drove east into Colorado and then headed south. After traversing 73 miles of virtually uninhabited BLM land between Rangely and the Colorado River Valley, we were antsy for something to do. It was nearing noon and we had a long day ahead of us still, but we made the spontaneous (and serendipitous) decision to detour into Colorado National Monument (CNM), just southwest of Grand Junction. With 391,075 visitors in 2016, it’s better attended than Dinosaur and even some of the state’s national parks, but we felt relatively unpressured by crowds as we drove the scenic road past jaw-dropping overlooks into red sandstone canyons.

This early overlook gave us our first real sense of the magical place we’d stumbled upon. Only minutes before, we’d been driving up the ribbon of road seen far below.

Monument Canyon and its centerpiece, Independence Monument, represent the most iconic features of the park.

While the photography doesn’t do justice, shadows cast by the fast-moving clouds worked visual magic on the canyon walls and floor.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

For whatever reasons, Black Canyon of the Gunnison (BCG) is the least-visited of Colorado’s six major National Park Service sites, with 238,018 visitors in 2016. Frankly, it’s a small park and not a heavily developed one—its only visitor center (on the south rim) is quite small and few formal trails exist. Only the south rim is accessible via paved road, although it costs nothing to enter the park from the north. The thing about parks like BCG, though, is that they’re still stunning even if no one’s around to view them.

“Several canyons of the American West are longer and some are deeper, but none combines the depth, sheerness, narrowness, darkness, and dread of the Black Canyon” (Duane Vandenbusche). The canyon approaches nearly 2,000 feet in depth in some places and, at its narrowest, is just 40 feet wide at the water level. The sides are often so deep that portions receive sunlight for only minutes each day, giving BCG its name.

It was the afternoon of a long day—we’d already visited CNM and a few hours remained in a 7-hour drive—so we had time for only a brief hike. The Oak Flats Trail gave us a nice workout and a great sampler of the park’s scenery.

The Black Canyon viewed from the visitor center on the south rim

The Oak Flats Trail is a two-mile loop that dips below the canyon rim. It’s named for the ubiquitous Gambel’s oak, but several stretches wend through stands of fir.

The trail offers several spectacular, unofficial (i.e., without guardrails or signage) overlooks into the canyon.

The Gunnison River is visible at the bottom of the canyon in this view to the northwest.

Near the visitor center, an overlook platform extends beyond the rim of the canyon and allows visitors to look straight down, thousands of feet, to the canyon floor.

Mesa Verde National Park

Although Ancestral Puebloans (commonly and erroneously known as “Anasazi”) made their signature cliff dwellings at a number of locations across the American Southwest, nowhere is more synonymous with their culture and unique architectural style than Mesa Verde. Despite being a fairly well-known park, it’s in a pretty remote area relative to major highways and airports, and attendance was only 583,527 visitors in 2016.

The mesa itself, a huge, mostly flat-topped landform near the southwestern corner of Colorado, provides fantastic views of the surrounding environs. Depending on the direction one looks, portions of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico can be seen, and visible ecosystems range from full desert to snow-capped alpine mountains.

View (roughly) to the north from Park Point, the highest location in Mesa Verde (8,572 feet)

The mesa top has been scarred by persistent drought and widespread wildfires in recent years, but the native vegetation is dominated by classic piñon-juniper woodland.

While the park is scenically beautiful, the main attractions are the reminders of the Ancestral Puebloan culture—which are sufficiently spectacular to make the national park a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ancient inhabitants built complex societies in which citizens dwelt primarily in multi-family communities built on the sides of cliffs and actively farmed the mesa top. By the late 13th century, they abandoned the area for largely unknown reasons and assimilated into the Puebloan communities of New Mexico’s northern Rio Grande Valley.

The rugged Petroglyph Point Trail climbs and crawls for about a mile beneath the rim of a canyon before reaching the eponymous petroglyphs. Hikers must then literally climb the canyon wall using crevices and rock cuts before hiking back along the flat (and hot) mesa top.

View of Navajo Canyon from the Petroglyph Point Trail

Cliff Palace boasts more than 150 rooms and is thought to have been the largest cliff dwelling in North America. Visitors can traverse the dwelling on a ranger-guided tour.

Kivas are round, sunken rooms thought to have religious significance to the Ancestral Puebloans (and their more modern-day descendants). Cliff Palace contains at least 23.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Many places in Colorado and across the American West overwhelm the imagination. The Great Sand Dunes—which rise up to 750 feet from the San Luis Valley, nestled into the Sangre de Christo (“blood of Christ”) Mountains—are one such place. (Southern New Mexico’s White Sands are another.) The San Luis Valley is America’s highest desert, averaging over 7,500 feet in elevation and receiving less than 10 inches of precipitation a year. Fierce winds carry eroded sand east from the San Juan Mountains before dropping it at the foot of the Sangre de Christos. Simultaneously, mountain streams flow from the latter range before drying on the arid desert floor, and the wind takes it from there.

As a result, visitors to this relatively obscure national park (388,308 visitors in 2016) enjoy the surreal sight of massive sand dunes rising in front of forest-clad, snow-capped peaks. Hikers are free to explore the strange world of the dunes, but are urged to use caution. The dark sand can reach 140 degrees on a hot day (thankfully, the weather remained cool during our visit) and the elevation and lack of humidity can facilitate dehydration. While the dune field extends nearly 20 miles to the north, only a handful of visitors explore beyond the high dunes within a mile of the parking area.

The southern dune field viewed from a distance of 4-5 miles

Entering the dune field

Here, we’d ascended to a mid-height ridge (probably 300 feet). Our original plan was to stop here, but the allure of the dunes kept pulling us higher.

This view was probably 450 feet above the sand flats.

This was the second place we had intended to turn around. Then we saw the line of hikers climbing ever higher (visible on the ridge toward the left) and our spirit of adventure took over.

Finally, 750 feet above the flats, we reached our sense of attainment, a truly unforgettable feeling. 70 percent of visitors to the dune field don’t make it past the flats (see below) or the “bunny dunes,” and perhaps only 5 percent ascend one of the high dunes. A few brave souls venture into the interior of the dune field. I wouldn’t recommend doing it like the guy to the left, who struck out with only a 20-oz bottle of water, his flip flops, and a nice camera.

A “river” runs through it: Medano Creek flows out of the Sangre de Christo Mountains into the dunefield. Without established banks, it frequently floods (any flow at all is unusual in late July, though) and carries sand into the valley. There, the sand dries and is deposited by wind back onto the tall front dunes.

Posted in Environmentalism, History, Narrative posts, Nature, Photo Journey, Relationships, Rural, Science, Traveling | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

The “Coloradyssey” (Part 1)

Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.

  • Horace Greeley, in the New York Times, 1865 (reputedly)

Today’s Washington has some pretty good food and I don’t often encounter dust, but the rents are obscene and the morals…well, let’s say they’ve hit the skids lately. So C. and I decided to escape to the West, for a time at least.

After a couple long delays, we landed in Denver, Colorado’s metropolitan capital (and a frightfully expensive city in its own right) located just a hair south of the city bearing Greeley’s name. [Disclaimer: Aside from the lead quote, this short series of posts has absolutely nothing to do with the man or city of Greeley.]

Part 1 will highlight the portion of our vacation that overlapped my parents’ fairly epic Western road trip. Part 2 will bring us to the state’s remaining national parks (we visited all four, plus two national monuments!). If I’m still writing at that point, Part 3 may afford me the opportunity to share some other thoughts on Colorado’s cities and culture.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Of all the parks we explored on our trip, Rocky Mountain (RMNP) is by far the most heavily visited, with 4,517,585 visitors in 2016. Explosive population growth in Colorado’s Front Range region (Colorado Springs, Denver, Boulder, Greeley, Longmont, Fort Collins, etc.), driven by transplants seeking high-paying jobs and ample outdoor opportunities, has put pressure on the park and neighboring communities. Nevertheless, RMNP’s three ecosystems (montane, subalpine, and alpine) epitomize the classic beauty of the Colorado Rockies.

High summer is definitely peak season, as the snows tend to be fully cleared from roads and tourist infrastructure by early July. Given the limited window in which visitors can experience the park’s higher elevations, especially the areas above treeline (roughly 11,000 feet), long lines of traffic wait from early in the morning at any of the park’s several entrance stations. In addition to ample hiking and other recreational activities, the park boasts Trail Ridge Road, America’s highest continuous paved road, which switchbacks across breathtaking (and dizzying views) and remains above treeline for several miles.

From the Bear Lake Trailhead, in the south-central portion of the park, we hiked 1.8 miles (one-way) along a popular trail that leads past three lakes, each with a distinct natural aesthetic. Hikers reach Nymph Lake first, where the still, placid surface is dotted with lilies and cozily nestled in a  thick spruce and pine wood. Dream Lake, one of the park’s most iconic images, comes next. There, one can see the forest giving way to the colder, rockier alpine world. Finally, Emerald Lake sits at treeline at the head of a glacial valley, fed directly by snowmelt.

The following pictures from RMNP are organized roughly by ecosystem rather than by geographic location or the order in which we visited them.

Adams Falls lies roughly one-third of a mile from a trailhead near Grand Lake, on the southwestern edge of RMNP.

Tyndall Creek flows through a classic subalpine meadow below Dream Lake, about 1.2 miles from the Bear Lake Trailhead.

Lily Lake lies on the park’s eastern edge, in one of the few non-entry fee areas accessible by paved road. Longs Peak, the highest in RMNP (14,259 feet), is visible to the left.

Another view of Longs Peak, seen from outside the park boundaries

The (very small female) moose is on the loose in the Colorado River valley in western RMNP.

Dream Lake (9,905 feet) lies about 1.2 miles from the Bear Lake Trailhead.

Emerald Lake lies at the end of a 1.8 mile hike from the Bear Lake Trailhead, at an elevation of slightly over 10,000 feet. The base of Hallett Peak (12,720 feet) rises from the western shore.

Mountains rise to the southeast of the Glacier Gorge, seen from an overlook on the Bear Lake to Emerald Lake trail.

Snow-capped mountains rise south of the deep Big Thompson River valley, viewed from the Trail Ridge Road.

Huge snowdrifts remain on the east rim of a glacial valley, seen from RMNP’s Alpine Visitor Center.

A short (half-mile) trail connects the Alpine Visitor Center to my literal high point for the trip.

Dinosaur National Monument

Leaving RMNP, we drove west with my parents to Colorado’s “loneliest corner.” There, beyond the arid ranchlands and oil fields of the very conservative northwest, is a wilderness of dramatic canyons and one of the most comprehensive paleontological hotspots in the world. Dinosaur National Monument (DNM), with 304,312 visitors in 2016, was a much quieter follow-up to Rocky Mountain. There, we met one of my best college friends and her boyfriend, traveling from Salt Lake City for a day of hiking. DNM has two main draws: the quarry itself (in Utah), from which hundreds of Jurassic specimens have traveled to natural history museums around the world; and the spectacular canyons carved by the Green and Yampa rivers.

Stegosaurus guards the entrance to DNM’s Quarry Visitor Center.

A remarkably complete Allosaurus skeleton is a highlight of the Quarry Exhibition Hall.

The park’s primary quarry site, now inactive, is now displayed indoors and highlighted with interpretive displays and lighting.

In many arid or semi-arid regions, cottonwoods can be found along bodies of water–or even dry arroyos watered only during periods of flooding (as with this spectacular specimen).

Dramatic outcroppings rise along the 3.6 mile Sound of Silence trail in Utah.

The trail climbs down a portion of this dramatic slickrock outcropping. One member of our party climbed to the top, over twice as high as this photography vantage point.

DNM’s scenic piece de resistance: the view west into the Green River canyon from the Harpers Corner Overlook, about 1.5 miles from a trailhead.

Here’s the corresponding eastern view from Harper’s Corner. The wall emerging from the bottom left obscures the confluence of the Green River and its tributary, the Yampa (seen toward the left, approaching the confluence).

Up next: Colorado National Monument, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, and Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (Part 2)


Posted in Environmentalism, Family, Narrative posts, Nature, Photo Journey, Rural, Science, Traveling | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

The Rewards of Exploring One’s Backyard

For years, I’ve driven along the eastern base of Catoctin Mountain where it curves close to US Route 15 near Thurmont, Maryland. Heading northwest from the DC area during early morning departures for Upstate New York, the mountain looms up—sometimes shrouded in fog, but often catching the first rays of the sun—just before I-270 drops down into Frederick. It’s the first outpost of the true Appalachians for travelers heading north from the nation’s capital, or for those heading toward western Maryland or Pittsburgh.

Geologically, what is Catoctin Mountain? Essentially, it’s the easternmost portion of the famed Blue Ridge, which is a gentler range in Maryland than in most of Virginia or in North Carolina, where its peaks often exceed 5,000 feet in elevation. In fact, by most standards, Catoctin is barely a mountain. Its highest point, northwest of Frederick, is just shy of 2,000 feet, leaving it almost 500 feet short of the taller “hills” where I grew up.

Nevertheless, Catoctin Mountain was always that mysterious land right off the familiar beaten path. To scratch that itch, C. and I set out to explore the unknown on two consecutive weekends.

The 78-foot Cunningham Falls is Maryland’s tallest cascade waterfall.

On July 2nd, we started at Maryland’s Cunningham Falls State Park. One of the state’s most popular parks, it was packed with families on the holiday weekend and our wait at the entrance station was nearly 20 minutes. Once parked, we made a beeline away from the artificial lake’s swimming beach and took the relatively rugged Cliff Trail to the eponymous falls.

Just across Route 77 is the state park’s federal cousin: Catoctin Mountain Park, managed by the National Park Service. It’s a less developed park with no signature attractions like waterfalls—except perhaps the off-limits Camp David—so its quieter with a 100 percent cheaper admission. We enjoyed two short hikes (0.5 mile one-way) to separate vistas on what had become a hot, humid day, even in the highlands.

The Cliffs Trail in Cunningham Falls State Park demonstrates the surprisingly rocky terrain in the Catoctins.

A small, man-made lake offers a couple of swimming beaches very popular with families of young children.

The Blue Ridge Overlook (facing north-northwest) from Catoctin Mountain Park

On the mountaintop (hilltop?), the forest is mature with tall, stately trees and little undergrowth.

Hog Rock looks to the southeast.

A week later, we returned on what was easily the summer’s most beautiful day. Skipping the crowded, expensive state park entirely, we opted for a three-mile round-trip hike from the Hog Rock parking area to the Thurmont Vista. We discovered that, beyond the shaled paths that lead from parking lots to the popular overlooks, the park’s trails can become quite rocky and steep. It was a great warmup hike before our upcoming trip out west (more on that in a few weeks!).

Thurmont Vista, 1.5 miles from the Hog Rock parking lot, also looks to the southeast.

On the Thurmont Vista trail, a beautiful sea of ferns washes against the trail.

Elsewhere, carpets of moss creep over the roots.

On both weekends, we finished our day exploring nearby towns. On the 2nd, we enjoyed a tasty Cuban lunch in Frederick (which we had explored previously). A week later, we headed south instead, to Sheperdstown, West Virginia. Home to Shepherd University, one of West Virginia’s more competitive public colleges, Shepherdstown is an island of tony historic charm amid the low-cost exurban sprawl and heroin-ravaged mill towns of the state’s Eastern Panhandle. It was yet another pleasant surprise, one to which I’m looking forward to returning.

Downtown Frederick’s signature landscape architecture park (visit 7/2)

In Shepherdstown, a garden spills onto the sidewalk (visit 7/9).


Shepherd University’s McMurran Hall


Here and below, historic houses in Shepherdstown

Incorporating nature into one’s side yard, as these Shepherdstown neighbors have done, is an enviable perk for those dwelling in towns.

Posted in Narrative posts, Nature, Place, Rural | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments