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?

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)

We need an America the Beautiful pass for kids

Some of our previous National Park and America the Beautiful passes
Some of our previous National Park and America the Beautiful passes

For the ninth or tenth straight year, Kim and I bought an America the Beautiful Pass (or its predecessors, the National Parks Passport and Golden Eagle Passport). For $80 a year, it’ll get you and your family into every National Park unit and the other federal land management agency lands for free. Given the fabulous list of places that includes, it’s an incredible steal.

Most years, it pays for itself early in a roadtrip. This winter, it only saved us $8. Vicksburg National Military Park, of the 11 total national parks we visited, was the only one1 that charged an entrance fee. Unlike the majority of sites in the West, we’ve noticed that Southern units rarely charge an entrance fee. Even so, we’ll probably break even later this year.

In addition to the regular America the Beautiful pass, there’s also an America the Beautiful Senior Pass, an America the Beautiful Access Pass, and an America the Beautiful Volunteer Pass.

The Senior pass, formerly called the Golden Age Passport, is a one-time $10 (now) $803 fee and covers US citizens ages 62 and up. That’s quite a deal. The Access pass, formerly called the Golden Access Passport, is an even better deal – it’s free for anyone with a permanent disability. Mind you, these passes cover the entrance fee for you (and your family) into any national park for rest of your life. The Volunteer Pass, however, is awarded only after 500 2502 cumulative hours of volunteer work and is good for a single year from that date.

Now, I realize that many seniors and people with disabilities may have limited and/or fixed incomes which make it difficult to enjoy our national treasures. But at the same time, we’re not asking for income tax returns at the entrance station—if your drivers license says you’re 62, you get a lifetime pass…even if you’re Warren Buffett. I understand that getting seniors to the parks is a laudable goal—and that as a voting block, they could be particularly helpful in ensuring adequate park funding.

But I think we’re missing the real opportunity here: getting young kids to the parks. Instead (or rather, in addition to) the existing passes, there should be a youth pass. It should be valid until the age of eighteen and function similarly to the senior pass.

We should call it the Golden Eaglet Pass.

Yes, kids under the age of 16 are already admitted for free. But that’s misleading. If you’re driving to a place like, say, Grand Canyon National Park, you’re going to pay $25 $30 a carload whether or not it contains a 12-year old. But if grandpa was asleep in the back seat, you’d get the entire car in for free.

There are already very compelling reasons for why we need to get kids outside more often – whether it’s combating obesity, connecting them with the wonder of the natural world, or giving them a chance to learn first-hand about our natural and cultural heritage. We all know and agree that it’s important.

We also need them to become lifelong advocates for public lands, helping to ensure that the special places they visited remain for their own children to experience. Providing an incentive for families to make sure that happens is a good idea.

As a final comment, I’d also love to see the volunteer pass dramatically lower its service hours requirement. 500 250 volunteer hours is roughly an entire quarter of full-time work and would be valued at more than $10,000 $5,000. That’s a ridiculously high amount of volunteer time for an $80 pass and essentially ensures that only retirees will meet the requirement in a single year (and hell, they can already get a lifetime pass for $80). That total should be dropped to 50 hours or less. After all we should be doing a better job of rewarding those who donate their time, energy and skill to protecting and interpreting our special places that help make this country great.

Note: You can buy any of these passes (well, except for the youth pass I’ve proposed) at virtually any National Park Service unit that charges a fee, or basically any federal fee area that’s staffed. By the way, the unit at which you buy it receives an additional cut of the fee, so keep that in mind. In the past, we’ve also seen them for sale at REI.

Also, most federal sites have “fee-free days” several weekends a year.


[back to post] Poverty Point National Monument, while technically a unit of the National Park System, is owned and run by the State of Louisiana and charged its own $2/person entrance fee that’s not covered by the pass.

[back to post] The Volunteer Pass requirements have been dropped to 250 hours, which is still far too high.

[back to post] The National Parks Centennial Act passed in early 2017 is raising the price for the Senior Pass from $10 to $80 for the lifetime pass. Still an amazing deal.

This just in: John Madden has terrible taste

John Madden's table and shrine at Chuy's in Van Horn, TX

We’ve stopped in Van Horn, Texas on a few occasions before. Each time, we managed to hear or read about the local Chuy’s restaurant, which is rather infamous. Apparently, the restaurant attracted the attention of John Madden years ago, who has said it’s his favorite place to eat. And Chuy’s has naturally exploited the hell outta it. For his part, Madden seems to have played along, at least initially.

How he ever decided to stop and eat there, we’ll never know.

Chuy’s is the name of a chain restaurant that Kim and I used to eat at nearly weekly for 2 years. We had received a set of 24 one-free-meal-a-month coupons for each of three windshields replaced in a 6-month time span. [Thanks Empire Glass!] And with all those free coupons, we made the most of it as we could. I never did really enjoy the food there. Well, ok, I guess I did like the chili – I’ve actually returned as a paying customer in the last few months to order it.

So as we were in need of dinner about the time we’d be in Van Horn, we figured we should give it a try. Besides, I was craving some of that chili. Of course, the Chuy’s isn’t the one we’re thinking of; it’s just an independent, family-owned Mexican restaurant. That’s ok, so we enter.

The menu’s pretty plain but was sure to make mention of Madden. The  food wasn’t any better, and the service was lacking. The restaurant has an area reserved for John Madden, but we were seated on the other wing of the place so we couldn’t even ogle the shrine. Besides the photo of the sign and the roadtrip memory (“Hey, remember that time we ate at that ridiculously indescript Mexican restaurant that John Madden loved?”), the stop was definitely a disappointment.

So I’m here to confirm the obvious: John Madden has terrible taste.

Thoughts on New Years Eve in the French Quarter of NOLA

I was fortunate to have an opportunity to bring in the new year from New Orleans. To qualify the following random thoughts, I’m not a partier, not much of a dancer, not a drinker, and I was here with my wife as part of a much-larger national park roadtrip.

As a nondrinker, many of the festivities of a New Year’s Eve celebration are lost on me. I only partially understand the dominant drinking culture, and usually choose not to participate, so overpaying to get so wasted that I can’t remember the night I was celebrating just doesn’t do it for me. The most annoying and disgusting part of the evening were the byproducts of this drinking. First, New Orleans needs far more bathrooms; it was hard to find a doorwall or planter that wasn’t leaking pee onto the sidewalk or street. I won’t even comment on how this comes to be, and how girlfriends are often charged with covering for this kind of behavior. We’ll skip the vomit and spilled drinks – and even the horseshit from the mounted police forces – and focus just on the litter problem. After just an hour or so of the party, there’s a heap of trash pushed to each edge of the street. It’s a huge pile, and it’s covering the streets. Everything is filthy, trashy, and a clear hazard. You occasionally wonder if you’re wandering through a third-world country.

Nonetheless, the atmosphere of Bourbon Street was definitely festive, and it was fun watching both girls and guys scream for beads from the balconies that made it memorable. In general, it was pretty crowded but not as crowded as I expected. Most of the girls had definitely dressed up for the night: some wore short tight skirts, some ballgowns and dresses, but every one of them featured as much cleavage as possible. Some couldn’t flash for beads given their outfit, but others stepped for them to substitute. One young woman wore no top, for instance, allowing an unzipped leather jacket to casually and only occasionally cover her nipples and chest. Given the Sugar Bowl, many beads were being tossed to guys chanting a fight song. For as much effort goes to getting the beads, you’d think that they contain mini-diamonds or something.

There was some live music, but the main stage shut down before 12:30a, and it seemed like only a few venues had any additional live music. The best part of the evening was the fireworks display, which was centered over a barge floating in the Mississippi River. It lasted longer than I assumed it would, so I was pleasantly surprised.

All in all, it was definitely one of those “you have to do this at least once in your life” moments. I’m glad that I did, and I definitely had fun.

Pleasant surprises in the national parks

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about my national park quest is that it pushes me to visit places I wouldn’t otherwise visit. It encourages me to step outside of what I know and am interested in to at least dabble in something new. I may not come away with a deep appreciation of that topic, but at least I’ll know a little bit more about it. Or, at the very least, know more about how I feel about it.

There have been a few of these places along the way. George Rogers Clark National Historic Park’s huge granite memorial, which clearly deserved to be the central attraction of a major city but was instead plopped down seemingly nowhere. The visitor center at Brown vs Board of Education National Historic Site, which stands as the most emotionally moving I’ve seen. The incredibly high tree canopy of Congaree National Park, the largest remnant of an old growth floodplain forest on the continent, which seems tucked away in South Carolina. And so forth.

Add to that list Vicksburg National Military Park. Well, at least two components of it. I was greatly impressed with the Illinois Monument, which reminded me a bit of both the archives building and the George Rogers Clark memorial I mentioned above. And I was completely caught off guard by the USS Cairo (pronounced KAY-row). I remember seeing a picture of an armor-clad Civil War battleship back in school, but had no idea that we were going to see one until we turned the corner on the driving tour. Both unleashed those unexpected fleeting moments of excitement when you first realize that there’s something much cooler to this place than you had anticipated. The thrill of discovery, you might call it.

Touring the national parks has focused our attention on learning more about the country in which we live; experiencing, at least within a narrow focus, some of what it’s meant to be American or experience a bit of America. There have been a few disappointing parks we’ve visited, but it’s always because we wanted to learn more than the park has resources to provide. And even in those disappointments, we gain a new understanding of the natural or cultural heritage that we must continue to protect. But most of the time, we walk away excited and awed by some magnificent fact or memorable experience of a place we may not ever had taken the trouble to see. It’s these kinds of pleasant surprises that energize me through the year in protecting a new set of worthy places.

More thoughts on Big Thicket, Cane River Creole, Poverty Point, and Vicksburg

Today we visited Poverty Point National Monument (or rather, State Historic Site) and Vicksburg National Military Park. For all the details, check out my post on Beyond the recap, I wanted to toss out a couple more thoughts about our trip so far.

First, we’ve seen two units – Big Thicket National Preserve and Cane River Creole National Historic Park – that really whiffed on interpretation opportunities. I’ve never seen a less useful trail guide – the numbered signs seemed completely unrelated to the booklet descriptions – in Big Thicket. Isn’t wasn’t like the trail guide didn’t have any useful information; the book just didn’t mesh with what you were looking at on trail.

While I admittedly missed the tour of the main house at Cane River, the rest of the buildings lacked any sort of context of its inhabitants. There were so many times when we thought, “I’d love to know more about this,” but there was precious little to read or listen to. I know it’s a new unit, but it’s sorely lacking.

Second, cell phone tours are for real. Both Cane River and Vicksburg utilize the new technology, which entails you dialing a dedicated phone number for a park and then entering a stop number to listen to a prerecorded blurb. I’d still prefer to see more written information, but it’s a good start – as long as you have cell coverage, of course.

Along those same lines, I’d love to see parks like Vicksburg provide a more detailed CD and MP3 driving tour for free or even for rent. The park offered a CD for $12 and a CD-ROM for $30. There’s not enough interpretation along the way (the cell phone tours were decent, but the interp signs were among the worst I’ve seen). Check out Lyndon B Johnson National Historic Park for how to do this.

Poverty Point is one of those National Park Service units that shouldn’t be one. If the state wants it, that’s fine; but it shouldn’t be called a National Monument or be on the NPS official unit list if there’s absolutely no mention of the park service or its national monument status. Also, nice job on recreating in model form near the visitor center, but I would have loved to see the site from the observation tower you apparently had at some point in the past. Note: if you’re going to tear down something like that, please update your brochures so I don’t know what I’m missing.

Finally, in a slightly unrelated note, I’d like to pass along the lesson I’ve come to on several recent trips but always seem to fail to live. Don’t skimp too much on hotels. Sometimes, just a few dollars can make all the difference in how much you enjoy your trip. Instead of trying to save the cash, spend it. Just make sure you always overestimate hotel costs when you’re doing your trip budgeting.

An inauspicious start to the roadtrip

I’ve been dying to go on another national park roadtrip for months now, so I’ve been anxiously awaiting this morning’s departure. I knew today was all about driving as far as we could get into Texas. I assumed it would a pretty boring day.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. We started out the day four hours later than expected – and with us both utterly exhausted. That doesn’t make for a great start, but the kicker happened just a third of the way through today’s drive:  our car battery died. At a nearly vacant rest area. In a small podunk town, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.


Read more about today’s driving adventures over at

Roadtripping without our Forester

Our Forester in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

It feels like we’re being unfaithful.

In less than 72 hours, Kim and I will be departing on another of our national park roadtrips. It’ll be the first time we’ll be roadtripping sans Forester since we got her. It feels a little weird.

It’s the right decision to leave her at home – she’s in need of new tires, struts, and her check engine light has been blazing for a month or two now. And we’ll save some serious gas money on the trip, too. But we’ve created enough memories with her that it’s odd to plan a trip in a different vehicle.

Not that it’s been uncommon for us to take a trip in a borrowed vehicle. Our first trip together, to Las Vegas in March 1997, featured us rolling down Las Vegas Boulevard in my dad’s Cadillac (we didn’t even own a working car back then). We borrowed Jessica’s old – well, I forget what it was, but it was old – car to get to Mt Rainier National Park in 2002. And we’ve put nearly as many highway miles on my mom’s Highlander as she has. We enjoyed roadtrips in our Altima years ago, but even then, we often opted for my mom’s SUV.

This time, we’re borrowing my dad’s Prius (thanks Dad!). It’ll save us about $300 in gas on the trip, and well, its check engine light isn’t on. But it won’t be without its challenges. Our favorite cooler doesn’t fit in the trunk, and I’m not even sure our backup cooler will. It doesn’t have an auxillary jack for the iPod, or amazingly, even a cd player (I guess we’re back to using those cassette tape adaptors). It “features” golf-related bumper stickers. Worst of all is that we won’t be able to add to our (incomplete) collection of photos of the Forester in national park units. Or capture a shot of the odometer as it digitally rolls over to 130,000 miles. Or…well, you get the picture.

It’s funny how attached you can get to an old friend…

Brownie, the traveling bear. Or boot.

The original Brownie, the traveling bear

Kim and I have several traditions on our national park roadtrips. We get our passport stamps. We take our picture from my outstretched hand. We take a picture of the Forester in front of the park entrance sign. We get a separate shot of the entrance sign, too.

But on the eve of our wedding, we thought it made sense to add yet another ritual to our list.

Meet Brownie, the traveling bear.

Brownie was born when we purchased him from a gift shop in Yosemite National Park. He’s our contribution to the internet meme of capturing one object in a series of travel photos. His first duty came during the above picture, taken just minutes after our wedding ceremony. We faithfully included him – sometimes in a hand, sometimes sitting in the background – in pictures from each of the parks we visited after the wedding. Brownie was quickly becoming a fixture in our daily park routine.

Until, that is, we visited Davy Crockett’s birthplace in Tennessee. As I walked over to take a photo, Brownie slipped from my pocket and landed on the edge of a concrete pathway. It was a painful fall, and two of Brownie’s legs cracked off, though they remained stuck to the base. We attempted to superglue him back together again; but like Humpty Dumpty, it just wasn’t meant to be.

Brownie would never be the same.

During the rest of the trip, we continue to use Brownie – bad legs and all. But when we arrived in Texas that winter on another roadtrip, we decided that it was time to redefine what it means to be Brownie. We decided that any object we employ towards this goal automatically becomes a Brownie. We quickly settled on a Texas boot for this trip, and Brownie the traveling boot was born.

Brownie II, the traveling boot

Brownie II hasn’t been dropped yet and is still in great condition, but it’s also unclear if or when he’ll be replaced. Will we get a bayou-inspired Brownie on this winter’s trip? It’s hard to say at this juncture. Either way, Brownie will live on – in some form or another.

Do you have your brownie? Tell us about it in the comments.