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 , , , | 4 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

What’s a Letch Worth, Anyway?

Bad puns aside, it’s worth quite a bit to a guy looking to reconnect with his home region’s natural heritage.

I had last visited Letchworth State Park (AKA “America’s best state park“) two years before, almost to the day. And like that previous Memorial Day weekend, there was a sadder reason for my visit to the Southern Tier. Then, I was visiting for the first time after my family’s beloved cat had died. This year, the extended family gathered together on Sunday to bury my grandmother’s ashes in a small memorial after her departure in December. She and my grandfather now lie side-by-side in a small spruce grove on their old property.

But the previous day, Saturday, was given over to our explorations—and a lot of driving. We reached Letchworth in mid-afternoon after leaving the DC area early in the morning. The overcast skies never really followed through on their promise of rain, which must’ve been a nice respite for the locals. Perhaps fittingly for a park that showcases the effects of water (and time) on geological features, the words of the day for us could’ve been ‘mud’ and ‘puddles.’ Days of rain and residual spray from the three main waterfalls had joined forces to turn the park’s stone viewing paths and numerous staircases into sticky, gray obstacle courses of clay mud. On the plus side, though, all that water meant that the river was flowing high and powerful.

The Middle Falls (below) are the most accessible to all visitors, and arguably the best-known and most often photographed. On this day, the Upper Falls were largely off-limits due to trail closures and rehabilitation work in the southernmost reaches of the park.

The Middle Falls viewed from the lawn overlook at the Glen Iris Inn

The Middle Falls, seen from the adjacent viewing path

Thick mist suspended over the Middle Falls’ plunge basin

A seasonal waterfall spills over the edge of the concave plunge basin at the Middle Falls

While my parents paused to sip mojitos on the porch of the Glen Iris Inn, C. and I detoured up a short path to one of the park’s historical attractions. Mary Jemison was a Scots-Irish settler captured from her family as a girl during the French and Indian War, and raised among the Seneca in Western New York. She assimilated entirely, bore seven children among the Iroquois, and rose to become the wife of a clan chief and an elder in her own right. She’s buried on a hillside above the Middle Falls, at a site that also features her relocated Genesee Valley cabin and a Seneca council longhouse.

A relocated, rehabilitated Seneca council house

The Glen Iris Inn was originally built by William Pryor Letchworth as a residence

The Lower Falls, about a mile to the northeast of the Middle Falls, are most easily viewed by descending a long series of stone stairs into the gorge. A few hundred yards below the falls, an arched stone bridge crosses the river at one of the narrowest sections of the gorge.

The Genesee River gorge narrows dramatically below the Lower Falls

A view of the narrow gorge south to the Lower Falls

Another view to the south, from the stone bridge

A stone outcropping sits at a bend where the river exits the narrow gorge

A few to the northeast from the upper canyon rim gives a full sense of depth

After leaving the park, we drove to Corning, where my sister (recently returned from living in Saint Croix) is working at one of the town’s cooler restaurants. She waited on us and we enjoyed the house beers and burgers on the rooftop while Glassfest revelers passed by beneath us, walking between bars and restaurants or in the direction of Centerway’s outdoor concert.

All in all, it was a great weekend of exploration. Sometimes, though, the nicest feelings come from reacquainting oneself with the intimately personal. There’s a little curtain waterfall near the old house that long-time readers of my blog might recognize; even after a long time living in the DC area, I feel like I know every layer of crumbled slate and patch of moss. It’s there for me in every season, too, much like home and family.

And that’s worth quite a lot.

Posted in Family, History, Narrative posts, Nature, Place, Rural, Science, Upstate New York | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

The Rural Bait-and-Switch

One of my earliest posts on Bridging the Gap examined a measure of affluence in Upstate New York, finding that affluence largely clusters in towns with access to good jobs—especially suburban areas. The most recently available data shows the same patterns (darker blue more affluent, darker red less affluent).

I might have more to say about this map on a later day, but one takeaway in particular is relevant to this post. Geographically, the largest clusters of poverty in a region like Upstate New York—and indeed, across America—are in rural areas isolated from urban/suburban jobs or natural amenities like lakes or mountain resorts. With the decline of rural industries and labor-intensive agriculture, these areas have withered both economically and demographically. The people that remain are generally lucky enough to hold either white-collar positions (nurses, teachers, lawyers, etc.) or scarce remaining blue-collar jobs, or they’re supported by some kind of government funding. The latter can range from in-kind payments, to Medicaid/Medicare, to farm subsidies, to vocational education or (re)training.

Many programs and services intended to benefit rural populations, especially those who are older or poorly educated, are funded directly or indirectly by the federal government. For example, the US Department of Agriculture funds the Rural Housing Service, Rural Utilities Service, and Rural Business-Cooperative Service to “bring prosperity and opportunity to rural areas.”

Elsewhere, the federal government partners with states on the three rural development agencies. The most famous of these is the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), founded in 1965 to make long-term, sustainable investments in economic development within the Appalachia region. This region includes 14 counties in Western New York’s Southern Tier, 13 of which voted for President Trump—in many cases by large margins.

Now, let’s get to my bigger point.

Trump dominated in America’s rural areas due to a fairly complex set of cultural and economic factors (not to mention a healthy dose of desperation and gullibility). In speaking directly, if disingenuously, to rural populations who often feel neglected by policymakers, Trump offered what felt like a last hope to many voters. He never meant to keep his promises, though, and his proferred federal budget offers one of the biggest clues to the con.

(Granted, President Trump’s budget proposal to Congress takes a sizable ax to the usual Republican demons—cities, mass transit, the poor and minorities, public broadcasting and the arts, government-funded medical research, etc.)

This budget goes a step further, however, to aggressively target programs and funding streams that explicitly benefit the president’s rural voter base. For example, the budget would completely eliminate America’s three rural development agencies—including the ARC, covering counties where Trump garnered a stronger vote share than anywhere else in the country. Also on the chopping block: the Essential Air Service, which subsidizes scheduled commercial flights to small rural airports where they might not otherwise be economically feasible; and the Community Development Block Grant program, which (via states) funds such boondoggles as Meals on Wheels.

Meanwhile, the president continues to take frequent golf trips to his resort in Florida. At about $3.5 million a pop to taxpayers, he sure seems to have his priorities straight.

In many ways, Trump’s voters did something unforgivable. Back in November, I predicted that Trump would make things worse for the voters who had believed in his empty transformational promises.

Massive tax cuts for billionaires on top of pledges for huge infrastructure projects (some worthwhile, to be sure, but also the promise of a wall to keep out the only demographic actually moving to rural America these days)? Vindictive trade wars that may preserve an American job or two for another year, but that will also raise prices on cheaper imported goods—including those sold by big retailers disproportionately catering to small-town residents? … it’s an amazingly successful long-con by Donald Trump.

I’m still pissed at these voters who foolishly placed their petty hatreds higher than the interests of both marginalized populations and their own communities. But this—this vicious proposal to gut the lifeblood from the people who believed in something, no matter how misguided—is cynicism beyond anything I could have ever expected from an American politician. Nobody deserved this.

Posted in Demographics, Politics, Rural, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

How We Protect Our Natural Heritage

My last post explored a landscape abused by resource extraction but slowly returning to nature. Today, I’ll look at three different models for how unique natural features can be protected to conserve an ecosystem or restore it to health. My examples come from stops made on a recent trip to visit my parents in Western New York, and each site represents a different mode of preservation and/or renewal. It goes without saying that this is far from a comprehensive list: even a private landowner who keeps their property pristine for less than altruistic reasons (as a for-profit game reserve, for example) can be considered a preservationist.

The recreational public park

Public park lands are generally set aside to showcase a natural feature for recreational purposes. Stony Brook State Park, located in the far northwestern corner of Steuben County, featured prominently in my youth, although I hadn’t visited in at least a decade. Much like its more famous cousins, Letchworth and Watkins Glen, Stony Brook is situated at the “fall line” where the Allegheny Plateau drops off to a lower-elevation glaciated landscape. New York’s state park system contains a number of similar sites where streams or rivers carve deep gorges and cascade over spectacular waterfalls.

Prior to being purchased by New York state in the early 20th century, both Stony Brook and Watkins Glen had been ailing private resorts. In entering the public realm, these natural wonders were opened to the appreciating public while also being preserved from exploitative development. There are potential downsides to the public park model: large crowds may form during the summer peak season, putting pressure on natural features and habitats.

For our visit, unseasonably warm weather (60s in Upstate New York in February!) had failed to melt the slick ice along several trails, resulting in their closure. Still, our short, pleasant walk through the recreational portion of the park brought back some nice memories.


The mouth of Stony Brook’s gorge, with the waterfall inaccessible beyond the bend.


In the summer, the gates are closed across the dam to create a “natural” swimming pool.


The Poet’s Picnic, held in this Civilian Conservation Corps cabin, was an annual event for my family during my childhood.


A bridge across Stony Brook is built with stone slabs and wood planks.

The public preserve

Two neighboring public properties protect Keeney Swamp, a wetland about 15 miles southwest of Stony Brook in northeastern Allegany County. The Keeney Swamp State Forest and Wildlife Management Area (WMA) are not parks. These sites are largely undeveloped for recreational purposes; humans, while welcome to visit, are not their primary concerns. Together, they protect an extensive wetland area and a rare woodland habitat for balsam fir trees in Western New York.

The WMA also highlights the important role that activists can play in preservation. After four major beaver dams were breached in the early 1990s, a birding group in Allegany County noticed a significant decline in the diversity and abundance of water bird species. My dad (the Rivertop Rambler) and other members of the group extensively documented the effects of wetland habitat loss, submitted evidence to the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and urged the DEC to reconstruct a wetland in the WMA. Today, a series of earthen levees and dams have recreated an ideal ecology for many species of native and migratory birds.


The open wetland created by the levee in the foreground is surrounded by forested hillsides.


The nonprofit conservancy

20170219_144136The Pfeiffer Nature Center, near Olean in southeastern Cattaraugus County, is an example of a private, nonprofit foundation that seeks to preserve the area’s natural and human history. The center’s Lillibridge Road property, where C. and I hiked with my parents, is home to a rare stand of old growth forest (never harvested for lumber) in the eastern United States. Hiking northeast from the parking lot, dense stands of forest give way to sweeping views from a ridge top in Western New York’s Allegheny plateau.

There’s no state or municipal interest in the Pfeiffer properties. If the political winds change and elected officials or a public agency decide to devalue parks, forests, or other preserves, Pfeiffer and its mission will (theoretically) stay true. However, while parks and other public lands are likely to be spared from development—at least in a state like New York—in perpetuity, the future of privately held lands may depend on the passage of ownership from one responsible hand to another.


Pfeiffer’s old growth forest stand contains beautiful hemlocks, white pines, and oaks.


The view to the north, while marred by utility lines, is spectacular.



I’ll leave my readers with a gratuitous shot from near the top of Western New York’s highest peak: the 2,548-foot Alma Hill in southern Allegany County. While Western New York isn’t generally known for its rugged terrain, Alma Hill and its surrounding environs are truly impressive.


Posted in Analysis, Environmentalism, Nature, Rural, Science, Upstate New York | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Back to Beauty

C. and I decided to spend inauguration weekend far from the adulatory crowds gathered in Washington, DC to cheer on their favorite orange-haired strongman. I tipped my hat to the brave marchers and demonstrators who stood tall for a kinder America, and we headed out of town into north-central West Virginia for a long weekend honeymoon. Our home base was a bed and breakfast in the ghost town of Douglas, two miles down a winding road from Thomas, in Tucker County.


Tucker, once home to booming coal and lumber industries, has just 6,966 residents remaining (after peaking at 18,675 in 1910) and voted for Trump by a 50+ percent margin. We weren’t overwhelmed by white desperation and resent, though—far from it. Sure, we found some raggedy towns and saw the scars left by exploitative resource extraction industries, but we also found friendly locals, a thriving artist colony, and an amenity scene kept lively by hipsters, ski bums, and temporary DC expats.

(Stick with me: lots of pictures here!)


Thomas (pop. 565; 2,354 in 1910), a former coal town incorporated as West Virginia’s smallest city, has a terraced street network extending up the steep sides of the North Fork Blackwater River valley. The lower street of the business district (pictured) represents the gentrified portion of downtown and features art galleries, music venues, cafes, and organic food stores. The upper main street still faces neglect and decay.


The Buxton and Landstreet Gallery sits where Thomas gives way to hardscrabble former coal patch towns, including Coketon and Douglas. The building once housed the administrative headquarters of the Davis Coke and Coal Company.


Ruined coke ovens dot the banks of the North Fork Blackwater River like abandoned hobbit holes. The North Fork is still reeling from the effects of acid drainage from coal mines, although liming efforts are underway to raise the water’s pH and bring back aquatic life.


Davis (pop. 658; 2,615 in 1910) was a major center of the region’s lumber industry. After the virgin forests of the Allegheny Mountains were clear cut, fires swept across the high plateau resulting in permanent soil loss. Today, only boreal (Canadian taiga) vegetation can grow in some areas, although spruce and hemlock forests have recovered in others.


History meets crass modernity in Parsons, the Tucker County seat (pop. 1,431; 2,077 in 1940). Parsons is further removed than Davis or Thomas from the spending power associated with Canaan Valley ski resorts and second-home owners. While its population never dropped as precipitously, its modern-day economy seems much weaker and poverty is more in line with rural West Virginia norms.

The people and businesses were great, but those weren’t the big draws for us. At nearly every turn, we found landscapes of epic beauty in the “high Alleghenies.” Average elevations exceed 3,000 feet and the traditional spruce and hemlock mountain forests compete for space with boreal ecosystems defined by wind-swept heaths and bogs.


Southwest of Thomas, US route 219 overlooks the Cheat River Valley before descending near Parsons. From this vantage point, massive windmills loomed up hundreds of feet barely a quarter-mile to our right. Wind turbines are prevalent in the area, although the coal industry is a shadow of its past. The remaining mines are strip mines that seem to employ more heavy machinery than miners; mechanization across the industry makes it unlikely that Trump will bring back mining jobs.


State route 72 is a roughly east-west “highway”–in reality, a switchbacking paved road that seems to narrow to one lane at the most terrifying possible moments–connecting the Parsons area to just south of the Canaan Valley. It passes by several farms and through stunning high-elevation meadows.


Route 72 offers this view of Canaan Mountain (a relatively uneroded portion of the high plateau) to the north.


A barn in the foreground of Canaan Mountain gives a sense of scale.




The Blackwater River–named for the dark tannins imparted by spruce, hemlocks, and bogs within its watershed–drops 62 feet from the plateau into the Blackwater Canyon.


For close to three miles between the town of Davis and the falls, the Blackwater is considered prime catch-and-release trout water, despite being heavily stocked and dependent on liming at Davis.


Shay Run, in Blackwater Falls State Park, is also a blackwater stream. Its smaller size allows hikers to get up close and personal as it runs through boggy flats.


A sphagnum bog sits at the edge of Shay Run. Many bogs on the plateau and in the Canaan Valley feature wild cranberries and Canadian blueberries.


Shay Run boasts a series of picturesque falls before it leaps over the edge of Blackwater Canyon.


A miniature spruce forest plays at the feet of the big boys, just feet from the canyon rim.


There are great views of Blackwater Canyon from near the park lodge, barely a mile below the falls.


The canyon becomes downright majestic just another two or three miles below the lodge overlook. Lindy Point offers a 270-degree view of the Blackwater (pictured here to the southwest) and two tributaries–including the North Fork, which was audible outside our window at the bed and breakfast.

Back home, I thought more about the people who live amid such natural splendor. I can certainly sympathize with folks whose livelihoods have melted away, even if they channel their frustrations in non-constructive ways. But as an environmentally minded outsider, I’m glad to see the natural order reasserting itself to heal the scars left by destructive mining and lumber industries.

I’ve reflected on the history of the mining industry previously in this blog. Douglas, our quiet home base, was once a smoldering, treeless hellscape where mine employees owed their lives and souls to distant overlords. I tried to imagine the miners’ elation when the company bosses announced a great commitment to their employees’ futures, and sold them all the homes they’d lived in for years. The next day, ownership shut the mines down completely and fired each and every person there who’d toiled to enrich someone else.

It’s good to see nature return to such a place.

To close, here’s a great band we saw perform live in Thomas, at a cool little place called the Purple Fiddle. They’re a five-piece outfit from Ann Arbor called The Ragbirds.

Posted in Community, Environmentalism, History, Nature, Place, Rural, Science, Traveling | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments