A partial recap of my “Roadside Oddities of the Prairielands” roadtrip via twitter

One of the benefits of tweeting your trip is that it automatically creates an archive of sorts. Here’s all of the #ontheroadinthemiddleofuckingnowhere tweets from my trip.

But first, a couple of notes. One, I’m a bit bummed that the photos I attached to foursquare checkins aren’t autodisplayed; so if there’s a place that sounds interesting, click over to foursquare to see the shot I snapped. Also, since I was #ontheroadinthemiddleoffuckingnowhere, I also didn’t always have cell coverage, which meant that I didn’t get to check in or post to twitter. Nonetheless, it was fun to keep folks updated on my trip progress.

Continue reading A partial recap of my “Roadside Oddities of the Prairielands” roadtrip via twitter

Roadtripping the national parks in my Forester

Since its purchase in 2006, my Subaru Forester—named Betsy—has been a constant companion in my quest to visit every national park unit. The vehicle has transported Kim and I on some of our best road trips, whether that’s our Great American Roadtrip in 2007, our wedding post-wedding roadtrip in 2008, or many others. There have been a great many memories produced in the vehicle—the mystery rodent that chewed through our backseat fabric in Glacier, attempting to sleep on far too thick of air mattresses in the back of the vehicle at a random rest stop somewhere in California, or enduring a gauntlet of 70mph wind, dust, rain, hail, and snow on a drive to Utah with my kayak strapped to the roof for the very first time, to name a few.

Last week, I took what is probably my last national park road trip with Betsy: a long overdue visit to Chaco Culture National Historical Park—one of the first places we had intended to go once we got it. It was a last minute change of plans that had me take the Forester on that trip, but it was great to bring her out one last time, and especially to a remote park that requires a significant drive on dirt roads to access.

With 175,000 miles on her, and several significant repairs I’ve been delaying, and only one long national park road trip to the Pacific Northwest remaining (I’ll fly to the northeastern parks from now on), she’s likely finally retired from her road trip career. While I’d love to do some more long roadtrips with her, I’m also happy shuttling around my kayak and mountain bike around the state. Thanks for all of the lifelong roadtripping memories.


Caves I’ve visited

One of the natural features I often enjoy visiting on my travels are caves. I’m not a caver, but I seem to find myself in many places that have caves and cave tours, and it’s rare for me to pass up an opportunity to explore yet another one. In fact, I’ve been to more than 20 of them—including most of the public caves in the National Park System. In no particular order, here’s the list:

  • Bear Gulch Cave, Pinnacles National Monument (California)
  • Crystal Cave, Sequoia National Park (California)
  • Mammoth Cave National Park (Kentucky)
  • Russell Cave National Monument (Alabama)
  • Wind Cave National Park (South Dakota)
  • Peppersauce Cave (Arizona)
  • Fort Stanton Cave, Ft Stanton-Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area (New Mexico)
  • Timpanogos Cave National Monument (Utah)
  • Jewel Cave National Monument (South Dakota)
  • Lehman Cave, Great Basin National Park (Nevada)
  • Kartchner Caverns State Park (Arizona)
  • Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark (County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland)
  • Sea Lion Caves (Oregon)
  • Grand Canyon Caverns (Arizona)
  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico)
  • Colossal Cave (Arizona)
  • Mitchell Cavern, Providence Mountains State Rec Area (California)
  • Lava tubes, Lava Beds National Monument (California)
  • Oregon Caves National Monument (Oregon)
  • Lava tube near Flagstaff (Arizona)
  • Lava tubes, El Malpais National Monument (New Mexico)
  • Lava tubes, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (Idaho)
  • Lava tube, Mojave National Preserve (California)
  • Thurston Lava Tube, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (Hawaii)

The links above are to photos I’ve taken at each place—though mind you, it’s not always easy to take good snapshots inside a cave. I have several more albums to post, and I’ll update the links once I get those photos up.

My favorite caves include Carlsbad Caverns (there really isn’t one that can compare to it), Kartchner Caverns (Arizona’s best state park), and the Sea Lion Caves (great childhood memory and my only sea cave). I enjoy the occasional lava river tube, but I’ve seen enough of them now that each new one is less and less exciting. Of all of them, I think I was most disappointed with the world’s longest: Mammoth Cave. I attribute that to high expectations and the fact that we took a 4-mile, 4.5 hour tour where we only saw great formations in the last 200 yards or so. Several of these caves are less than spectacular, but still make for a fun stop if you’re driving by.

I have the distinct pleasure of working with the folks at the Fort Stanton Cave Study Project on the Fort Stanton-Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area (an area of the National Conservation Lands) and there’s some great science happening there.

Note that several of  these parks—particularly the ones with lava tube formations—have several separate caves that I’ve wandered through, but I’m only counting them as one for this list.

What’s your favorite cave? Which one should be on my list?

National Parks I visited in 2010

The National Parks I made it to in 2010

2010 was an uncommon year for me in my national park quest. For years and years, Kim and I would have gone on several trips each year, all with the sole purpose of marking dozens of parks off of our list.

This year, things had changed. Even so, I was able to make it to a bunch of new parks—eight to be precise—and also made return visits to 10 other ones.

Most of the return visits occurred during personal time extended onto existing work trips. All but one of the new visits happened during my summer roadtrip. It was great to be able to mark off a bunch of parks — I’m looking at you Manzanar and Devils Postpile — that I had driven past before but was never able to stop and see.

Return visits

First visits

  • Aztec Ruins National Monument
  • Manzanar National Historic Site
  • Devils Postpile National Monument
  • Whiskeytown National Recreation Area
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park
  • Lava Beds National Monument
  • WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument (Tule Lake unit)
  • Oregon Caves National Monument

I considered ranking the parks I’ve seen this year, but it’s always difficult to choose amongst such cool places. Each is in their own way special, whether it’s because of the terrain or the memories you create there. However, a few of this year’s experiences stick out.

One of those moments was seeing the bat show at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Another was finally—finally!—visiting the north rim of Grand Canyon National Park. Or being part of some amazing sunset light at White Sands National Monument. Or collecting wild blackberries by kayak in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. Or exploring Fern Canyon in Redwoods State and National Parks. Or spending several days kayaking through Canyonlands National Park.

There were certainly other moments, special moments, and others that are more forgettable, but each unique and special in its own way.

I’ve been particularly bad about posting photos and trip summaries from the trips I’ve taken this year. I’m hoping to start getting those up in the next few months.

So what are my 2011 National Park goals? I’m not sure yet—I suspect that it’ll be a relatively lean year, but I’m definitely hoping to mark off a few more. Do you have any national park trips planned this year?

How the Arizona Hiking Shack made me a repeat customer

Local businesses can really rock sometimes. Case in point: the Arizona Hiking Shack.

The Arizona Hiking Shack is what you might expect from an independent outdoor retailer jammed into an awkward, ill-conceived corner of a strip mall dedicated to antiques and other worthless items. Once inside, you’ll find the trend continues. No sexy display racks, ADA compliant pathways, and not much effort given to displaying or stocking merchandise—just plain and simple, like your uncle’s attic. They don’t have much of a selection, and the items they do have seem more expensive that you might otherwise find them.

They clearly don’t compete with REI for the trendy gearhead crowd.

[Side note: I overheard the REI new employee training the other day, and distinctly heard them encourage employees to recommend the AZ Hiking Shack: “We’re a Co-op, we’re here to help our members, even if it that means passing along a sale to what others think is a competitor.” I love REI.]

Nonetheless, they are genuinely friendly and laid back, and they rent kayaks for cheap. And that’s what had brought me to the store, which is conveniently located just a couple of miles from my house.

Single-person inflatable kayaks—including pfd, pump, paddle, and throw bag—are $25 a day. Well, kinda. The rental also includes a “travel day” for getting to and from your destination, so it’s in effect a 3-day rental.

For only $25.

That’s one helluva deal. They also have two person kayaks (more commonly referred to as “divorce boats”), rafts, and other outdoor gear for rent.

But that’s not the only reason that I’ll return as a repeat customer.

I had planned to spend last Sunday kayaking up at Barlett Lake. It was finally my chance to bring my kayak out for its inaugural voyage. I rented an inflatable for my friend Laura who was joining me on Saturday (and will be joining my other friend Tiffany and I on a river trip next week). Unfortunately, I had some significant trouble getting my kayak secured on the Forester, even after trying multiple carrying systems. The morning was quickly disappearing, and we ended up bailing on the outing.

I showed up to return the kayak and gear—which never even left my vehicle—on Monday and was asked the obvious question of how my paddle had gone. I explained that I had to cancel, and without hesitation, the guy said that he wouldn’t charge me.

I had the kayak and gear for three days, but he wasn’t going to charge me because I didn’t get to have any fun with it.


And that’s why I’ll be back to the Arizona Hiking Shack the next time I need to rent a kayak—even if it’s going to just sit in my vehicle all weekend.

Phoenix Mountains to be closed on Mondays & Tuesdays

A walk in the Phoenix Mountains with my Mom last week

I took a walk with my mom in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve on Monday. It was a gorgeous day and even though we only had time for about an hour of walking, it was refreshing and an enjoyable way to start the day.

I walk pretty frequently in the mountain park, usually just for an hour or so, starting at the 40th Street trailhead just down the street from the house.

The sign that tipped me off
One of the things I enjoy most about living in the northeast valley is the proximity to the mountains.

Unfortunately, I was a bit surprised to walk past a sandwich board sign on Monday explaining that the trailhead may soon be affected by city-wide budget cuts. Deep budget cuts.

On the trail, I overhead some other hikers say something about the trailhead being closed. When I got home, I checked out the details. Sure enough, the proposed budget would close the trails on Mondays and Tuesdays:

Reduce park rangers assigned to mountain parks and preserves, further reducing hours at mountain parks and preserves to 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

Shit. I often hike past 7pm during the warmer months, and I frequently use the trail on Mondays and Tuesdays throughout the year.

Now, I’m well aware that the city’s budget shortfall is monstrous. And I’m equally aware that there are no easy decisions and that every department and service is tightening its belt. There is no magic wand to fix the problem, and everyone will feel the pain.

But this is also the time to get involved. First, check out all of the proposed cuts. Attend a community meeting and ask questions. Or just call or email your councilperson, as I just did. Or contact the Phoenix Parks and Conservation Foundation and see how you can support the city park system as a whole.

Just get involved. Don’t let such a major decision—one that affects the lives of all Phoenicians—to be made without any input from yourself.

For what it’s worth, here’s the full listing of cuts in the Parks and Rec Department alone. Scary stuff.

Parks and Recreation Proposed funding cuts — 15.1%

Eliminate funding for the Latino Institute for special events, and reduce funding by 50 percent for Cinco De Mayo, Pride and Martin Luther King events.

Reduce frequency of contracted palm tree pruning from every year to every other year on 14 major streets and Enchanted Island at Encanto Park.

Eliminate equestrian patrol program used on trails at South Mountain Park, the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, the Sonoran Preserve, Papago Park and flatland parks.

Eliminate a deputy parks director, eight recreation coordinators, a management assistant I and two secretary II positions that provide support for volunteer coordination, youth and adult sports programs, and public information services.

Close Cortez Pool. Because recent inspections found damage that will require repairs to the pool shell and gutter system estimated at a cost of $900,000, the pool will be closed indefinitely.

Close Shemer Art Center and Museum and seek public/private partnerships in an effort to restore some services. Revenue generated from this program is estimated at $9,000.

Eliminate Daring Adventures, River of Dreams and support for Special Olympics. Revenue generated from this program is estimated at $8,000.

Reduce staff and programs at the Pueblo Grande Museum, including custodial services, and archaeological review of public and private construction projects.

Reduce maintenance and supervision at Papago Park, Rio Salado Restoration Area Project and South Mountain Park.

Eliminate seven park rangers, resulting in closing mountain parks and preserves and gated trailheads at 7 p.m. daily. Facilities with gated access will not be open for summer holidays.

Close Phoenix Center for the Arts. More than 16,000 patrons use the facility, which generates $26,000 in revenue annually. The city will seek public/private partnerships to assist in restoring the center’s operations.

Reduce hours at Desert West Softball Complex, including closing it during the week and at night on weekends. Annual revenue is estimated at $30,000.

Reduce citywide street landscape maintenance by more than 32 percent. Maintenance frequency for major arterial areas will be driven by citizen complaint and emergencies, and it will take up to a week to respond.

Reduce neighborhood and community park maintenance.

Close Arizona Horse Lovers Park, North Mountain and South Mountain Visitor Centers, and Rio Salado Customer Service Center. This will eliminate all community use of the horse arenas and maintenance of the 18 mile trail system. Estimated revenue from these facilities is $39,000.

Eliminate citywide softball program and part-time maintenance staff in the Northwest and Northeast divisions. The citywide softball program serves approximately 10,000 participants and generates $43,000 in revenue. The program will end in July 2010 at the close of the current season.

Eliminate recreation programming and staff supervision at the Rose Mofford and Encanto Park sports complexes. The facilities will be open to the public but activities will be unsupervised. Annual revenue loss is estimated at $74,000.

Significantly reduce staff for special facilities and events at Margaret T. Hance and Civic Space parks, including the Japanese Friendship Garden and the Irish Cultural Center. Hance Park activities generated more than $14,000 in revenue, and Civic Space Park activities generated $4,000 in revenue.

Close Tovrea Castle Park and increase span of control in the Natural Resources Division. The thousands of plants at Tovrea Castle will receive minimal care, and the building and grounds will deteriorate. Tours of the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area will no longer be provided.
Close Camp Colley, an outdoor adventure camp located in northern Arizona that provides structured, supervised recreation opportunities for young people.

Reduce maintenance and programming at the Reach 11 Soccer Complex and the Diamondbacks Field of Dreams Baseball Complex.

Eliminate the Phoenix Afterschool Centers (PAC) summer program and funding for the Boys and Girls Club program, impacting 2,200 children at 16 locations. Reductions include staff and $249,000 in estimated revenue. This will reduce support to the Homes and Gable Boys and Girls teen programs.

Close eight neighborhood recreation centers that are open only in the summer. Neighborhood recreation centers offer 8-week summer recreation programs and activities for youth ages 7-17 at Barrios Unidos, Central, Grant, Holiday, Smith, South Phoenix Youth Center and Thunderbird Teen Center. These seven centers had more than 24,000 user visits last year. The Housing Department will now fund the programs at the three recreation centers located at city-owned housing sites (S.P Osborn, Foothills and Luke Krohn). The center located at Coffelt, which is owned by the county, will be closed.

Close seven year-round neighborhood recreation centers and eliminate West Phoenix Revitalization recreation programming. The Sunnyslope Youth Center, and Verde, University, Playa Margarita, Marc Atkinson, Hayden and Harmon recreation centers have 251,000 user visits annually and offer free programs for youth and adults. Grant-funded programs for adults with developmental disabilities, and violence prevention education can no longer be supported if these centers close. This represents a loss of $327,000 in grant funds. West Phoenix Revitalization recreation programming serves hundreds of youths annually, and the city will no longer be able to fulfill its part of the West Phoenix Revitalization Plan.

Close Desert West, Rose Mofford and Papago softball complexes. These facilities serve approximately 330,000 participants annually and revenue is estimated at $221,000.

Reduce park rangers assigned to mountain parks and preserves, further reducing hours at mountain parks and preserves to 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. City-sponsored, public and private events such as National Public Lands Day and the Pueblo Grande Indian Market will no longer take place.

Eliminate the Phoenix Afterschool Centers (PAC) school-year programs. This will result in the closure of 36 general-funded sites, 14 revenue-supported sites, and five full cost-recovery sites, impacting 2,300 children. This reduction includes the loss of $200,000 in revenue and $353,000 in grant funds for the Nutrition Education and Training program.

Close 5 of 13 large community centers: Deer Valley, Desert West, Devonshire, Mountain View and the Washington Activity Center. Reduce operating hours from 65 to 40 hours per week at eight remaining community centers. Senior center operations at shared facilities will not be impacted by this reduction. Reductions include 38 full-time and 23.5 part-time positions, and revenue of $42,000.

Reduce citywide street landscape maintenance by an additional 43 percent.
Further reduce neighborhood and community park maintenance.

That’s a tremendous number of cuts. Do your part—get involved.

A short guide to park passes

When someone hears about my national park quest, they often ask me if I’ve visited a particular place that they have enjoyed. As often as not, the location they mention is not part of the National Park System.

That’s not particularly surprising. There are a wide variety of land management agencies at the national, state, and local level—each of which have different purposes, rules, and fees. Unless you’re really paying attention, it’s easy to get confused.

If you’re inclined to buy an annual park pass—which I hope you’ll consider doing—it’s important to understand what you’re getting. I’m using metro Phoenix as the example here, so your local passes may vary.

So in the interest of clarity, here’s a quick rundown:

Maricopa County Parks

This includes just the 10 or so regional parks in Maricopa County, Arizona. The big question is whether or not you’ll be boating at Lake Pleasant—there’s one annual pass for the lake, and a separate one for the rest of the parks. Other counties or metro areas may or may not have their own park systems and annual passes.

Arizona State Parks

This includes the state parks that are still open. Again, you’ll need to decide if you’ll be doing a lot of boating. The standard pass doesn’t include the river parks on weekends (Friday-Sunday) or holidays, while the premier pass does. All states have a state park system, but their rules for annual passes varies.

Arizona State Trust Lands

This includes state trust lands (which are not considered public lands) and is actually a permit, so be sure to read the fine print as they include some important restrictions. You won’t find any visitor services here. Most Western states have their own systems of state trust lands; their primary purpose is not recreation, so don’t expect park-like amenities or rules.

Federal lands

This includes National Parks, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, and Bureau of Land Management lands where you pay an entrance fee. If it has the word “national” in the name of the area, it probably fits under this heading. There’s a single pass called the America the Beautiful: the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass that is supposed to cover entrance fees for all of these.

A very important note here. Some National Forests, including several in Arizona, now exclude some very popular fee areas from being covered by this pass. They call some of these sites with “enhanced amenities” and others are technically operated by a private permittee or concessionaire, but you and I might not notice the difference. Yes, this is total bullshit that’s still a better-than-nothing attempt to deal with the inadequate budgets Congress appropriates for our public lands. These areas also often have their own local Forest pass (Tonto Pass, Red Rock Pass or Grand Red Rock Pass, and the Coronado Pass are Arizona examples) with daily and annual options which vary with each national forest.

You can also get a highly reduced or free pass if you are:

A few additional tips

  • You can usually buy these pass at any staffed entrance station or visitor center.
  • Many places have annual passes for a specific park location.
  • These passes usually admit a carload but don’t cover any additional fees—like camping or tour fees.
  • Areas managed by a concessionaire aren’t covered in the federal pass, even for basic things like parking or entrance fees.

Speaking of park passes, don’t you think we should have an America the Beautiful pass for kids?

State parks I’ve visited

Pronghorn in Custer State Park, South Dakota

On the heels of news of more state park closures, I figured I should out myself as a mediocre park visitor. The truth is, despite being a native Arizonan, I’ve only visited about half of our state parks. In my defense, I’m not a boater and have thus avoided water-related parks, and our national park quest has kept me plenty busy. Nonetheless, several state parks have been on “to-see” list for quite some time. In particular, I’ve unsuccessfully tried to schedule daytrips to the Yuma parks, Riordan Mansion, and the Patagonia/Sonoita Creek area. Having recently taken up kayaking, I also thought I’d get to a few more of the state parks to do some paddling. I guess I’d better hurry the hell up.

Arizona State Parks I’ve visited:

  • Boyce Thompson Arboretum
  • Catalina
  • Fort Verde
  • Homolovi Ruins
  • Jerome
  • Kartchner Caverns
  • Lost Dutchman
  • McFarland
  • Picacho Peak
  • Red Rock
  • Slide Rock
  • Tonto Natural Bridge
  • Tubac Presidio

I would be hard pressed to choose my favorite Arizona state park. It might be Lost Dutchman, simply because the front range of the Superstitions hold such personal meaning to me. Picacho Peak is also on that list – even though I’ve only been to the park once, it’s been a constant and important landmark (the way Chimney Rock was to Oregon Trail travelers). I’ve been to most all of the national park caves, and Kartchner Caverns truly is world-class. I have a ton of great childhood memories of Tonto Natural Bridge. Hmm, tough call.

Favorite state park: (tie) Tonto Natural Bridge/Kartchner Caverns/Lost Dutchman
Most surprising state park: Homolovi
Last state park visited: Catalina

Out of state parks

In our roadtrip travels, we’ve also hit quite a few out of state parks. I’d have to do some research to list them all, but I’m guess there’s at least another forty or fifty or so (including more than 20 in California alone).

Favorite out of state park:  (tie) Big Basin (California), Custer (South Dakota)
Most surprising out of state park: (tie) Louisiana Purchase (Arkansas), Oregon Trail Ruts (Wyoming)
Last out of state park visited:  Poverty Point (Louisiana)

Arizona State Parks: What’s open and what’s closing

The Arizona State Parks Board, responding to a budget raid by the Arizona Legislature, voted on Friday to begin the closure of most state parks. It’s a sad and ultimately short-sighted development. There aren’t any easy answers to our budget woes, but this clearly does not sit well for our future.

The Arizona Heritage Alliance, which works diligently to protect the Heritage Fund, posted this excellent summary of what’s still open and what’s closing.

The Arizona State Parks Board voted to keep nine parks open and close the remaining thirteen State Parks in a phased series of closures starting February 22, 2010 due to six different State Parks funds being swept of $8.6 million. In addition, four parks remain closed due to previous budget reductions.

The nine parks that will remain open are ones that generate the most revenue back into the parks operating revolving funds. The parks that will remain open include Buckskin Mountain State Park in Parker, Catalina State Park near Tucson, Cattail Cove State Park in Lake Havasu City, Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood, Fool Hollow Lake Recreation Area in Show Low, Kartchner Caverns State Park in Benson, Lake Havasu State Park, Patagonia Lake State Park and Slide Rock State Park in Sedona.

The remaining parks will be closed in a phased sequence starting on February 22, 2010 and include Homolovi Ruins State Park in Winslow, Lyman Lake State Park in St. Johns, and Riordan Mansion State Historic Park in Flagstaff.

The next park closings will occur on March 29, 2010 and will include Fort Verde State Historic Park in Camp Verde, Roper Lake State Park in Safford, Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park, Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park, and Tubac Presidio State Historic Park.

The final phased closings will occur on June 3, 2010 and will include Tonto Natural Bridge State Park near Payson, Alamo Lake State Park in Wenden, Lost Dutchman State Park in Apache Junction, Picacho Peak State Park, and Red Rock State Park in Sedona.

The remaining parks will continue their agreements with other entities or will be passively managed by an adjacent park. These include Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park in Superior, Sonoita Creek State Natural Area, Verde River Greenway State Natural Area, and Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park.

Four parks would remain closed. These include Jerome State Historic Park, McFarland State Historic Park in Florence, Oracle State Park, and San Rafael State Natural Area.

If you haven’t been to any of these parks, note the day and make the effort to get there before they close.

My first kayaking adventure

Well, I’m not sure it technically qualifies as much of an adventure, but I still had a blast during my first kayaking outing. I’ve wanted to go kayaking for years but Kim hasn’t, so I had never gotten around to it until Rebecca organized this short excursion. We spent just a couple of hours out on the water at Lake Pleasant, kayaking out to a cove with a floating bridge, where we do a little swimming. Lake Pleasant isn’t exactly pleasant for kayaking – there are plenty of motor boats and jetskis around – but it was close enough to give us a taste. It certainly whet my appetite – I’ve been seriously considering buying my own kayak. We’re talking about an overnight trip to Prescott next; I’m looking forward to paddling around the Granite Dells of Watson Lake.