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?

Other cool places I visited in 2010

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

In addition to the cool national parks I visited in 2010, I also managed to make it to a few other notable places. Many of the places were part of work trips or extra days I added on to work trips—it’s nice having a job that gets you to such awesome locales.

Here’s a short list of some of the places I enjoyed visiting in 2010.

National Conservation Lands

Other cool places

It was my first time visiting Red Cliffs, the King Range, Ft Stanton-Snowy River Cave, Antelope Canyon, and Roswell.

I’ll add links to my photos once I get around to posting them.

Our Mojave National Preserve roadtrip

Sunset over Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve

It was February 2009 when Kim and I brought friends Victoria and Terry on a short roadtrip to California. Our primary destination was Mojave National Preserve, a national park unit tucked away between I-15 and I-40 near the borders of California, Nevada, and Arizona. It was a first visit for Kim and I, who had been on a quest to visit all of the national parks.

Along the way, we stopped at the Blythe Intaglios, a series of rock geoglyphs near the Colorado River. Because it had rained just before we left Arizona, some roads in Mojave were a bit rough and the park ranger suggested we stick to just a few parts of the park. We spent some time at the Kelso Depot and Kelso Dunes, and camped and hiked near Hole-in-the-Wall. We also managed a tour of Mitchell Caverns within the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area. When it was time to head home, we traveled along historic Route 66 and stopped off at Joshua Tree National Park for half a day before finishing the drive home.

It was a short trip, but we managed to see quite a bit. I’ve finally posted the photos from the trip, so please feel free to take a look and leave a comment or two.

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.

Footnotes:

[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.