Capulin Volcano National Monument

Capulin Volcano National Monument in northeastern New Mexico is significant in a variety of ways. This monument has several stories wrapped around it: geological, archaeological, and historical. Our visit was during the pandemic and the Visitor Center was not open but we took the drive to the volcano rim where we hiked. Chokecherry trees are common along the crater trails and inspired the volcano’s name. Capulin is a Mexican-Spanish word for chokecherry.

The Capulin Volcano landscape was set aside as a natural preserve as early as 1891 and in 1916 became a part of the young National Park Service.  This inactive cinder cone volcano lies in the Raton section of the Great Plains and within the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field. The eruption of Capulin Volcano – 60,000 years ago – is one of the more recent in this area.

The volcano rises to a height of 8182 feet above sea level or 1300 feet above the surrounding plains. The crater is 415 feet deep and 1450 feet in diameter. There is a winding, narrow 2-mile road to the top of the crater. In August 2019 heavy rain washed out a section of the road. When we visited in the fall of 2020, there remained a 90-yard section of the road that was one lane only. Since there was limited sight around that corner, you had to proceed slowly and hope no one was coming from the other side at the same time.

At the top of the volcano there are two trails. The Crater Rim Trial is a paved, 1 mile loop around the rim and the Crater Vent Trail is a 0.2 mile (one-way) paved trail to the bottom of the crater with an elevation change of 100 feet. From the rim, it’s possible to view four different states.

Archaeologically the Capulin vicinity is particularly important as evidence discovered by George McJunkin showed that ancient man had roamed the area 5,000 years earlier than previously believed. In 1908, a massive rain caused a devastating flood in the town of Folsom, killing 17 people and leaving ruin in its wake. McJunkin, a former slave, was a legendary cowboy with insatiable curiosity and desire to learn. Riding along Wild Horse Arroyo after the flood, he noticed white bones that had been exposed. He knew they weren’t cattle or buffalo bones and took some of them home.  He told others about his find but it wasn’t until after his death that an actual archaeological excavation was done and his find was verified. George McJunkin had found skeletons of bison antiquus, an extinct bison 50% larger than modern bison. Lodged in rib bones were found stone points, weapons of people who came to be known as Folsom Man, proving that humans had lived in North America thousands of years earlier than previously thought. It was one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century.

Historically, this area has gone through many permutations. In the time since Paleoindians roamed the landscape around Capulin Volcano groups of Native Americans, such as the Jicarilla Apache and the Ute used this region as hunting grounds. The Spanish arrived in 1541 and early explorers Don Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and Juan de Padilla passed through in search of riches and regions to conquer. Spain controlled New Mexico until 1821 when Mexico declared independence. Traders used the Santa Fe Trail and other trails through the region. The Mexican-American War erupted in 1846 and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially made New Mexico a territory of the United States. Military forts were established in the area and railroads expanded to the west. Ranching became a prime industry.

Jessie Foote Jack, a widow who assumed the responsibilities for Crowfoot Cattle Company after her husband’s death, and other local ranchers valued Capulin Volcano as a prime grazing land. In order to ensure grazing rights, in 1916 she secured the position of custodian for the monument. Serving until 1921, she was the first custodian for Capulin Volcano as well as the first female custodian in the National Park Service.

In 1921, Homer Farr would unofficially become the custodian of the monument at the request of Mrs. Jack. Farr officially took over the position in 1923 and served the National Park Service until 1955. He is credited with building the road to the rim, originally working with mules to do so. During the Great Depression he secured a Civil Works Project to stabilize the road and build retaining walls. The photos of early road-building make you wonder what motivated Homer Farr to undertake the task.

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Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area

The Bisti (pronounced bis-tie) is one of our go-to places for day hikes in the spring or late fall. (It gets really hot out there in the summer!) This high desert wilderness contains unique rock formations, huge petrified logs and plenty of opportunity to wander around and explore. The photos in this article were taken during a number of different visits. This area is so vast you can go back time after time and find new wonders every time.

Managed by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness area covers 45,000 acres of badlands just south of Farmington, New Mexico. Translated from the Navajo language, Bisti means “a large area of shale hills” and De-Na-Zin comes from the Navajo words for “cranes.”

Since this is a Wilderness Area, it is closed to motorized vehicles and mechanical forms of transportation (including mountain bikes). Also prohibited are campfires, collecting fossils or petrified wood, climbing on delicate geologic features, traveling in groups of more than eight people and trespassing on adjacent tribal lands.

There are no trails and no water sources so even a day hike requires some preparation. There is virtually no shade and the desert sun gets hot year-round so carrying an ample supply of water is crucial. The trailheads are off regularly maintained roads but those roads are not paved and can become extremely slick and impassable when wet.

This weird landscape of strange rock formations is created from interbedded sandstone, shale, mudstone, coal and silt. Hoodoos formed by the weathering of the sandstone appear in many shapes.

There are two main washes in the Bisti and both run east to west. The main parking area provides access to Alamo wash. If you stay in the main wash area, you can readily find your way back to your vehicle. Going into the hills on either side of the wash (particularly the north side) is like being in a maze. There are many dead ends and you can easily lose your sense of direction so a GPS is a good idea.

The “Cracked Eggs”, petrified logs and hoodoos within Alamo wash are the reward for a hot desert hike.

Cracked Eggs
Petrified Logs

South of Alamo wash are the Chocolate hoodoos and named and unnamed formations of all kinds.

We have hiked in the Bisti many times and were most recently determined to locate the “Bisti Wings” in the northern area.  It took us three different attempts to be successful. The first time we didn’t go nearly far enough out of Alamo wash. The second time I think we were actually quite close. However, we do pretty much know our hiking distance limit and our dog was getting tired so we headed back out.

The third time, we were really determined. It took some scrambling, and Tom, at one point, climbed up to a hilltop to get a better look around.

It seemed almost as if they were hiding, but we did find the Wings. Voila! We then had to make our way down into a wash to really get the benefit for photos.

Bisti WIngs

Heading back out, we took a couple of dead ends and had to backtrack a bit but the sense of satisfaction was well-earned.

Is this the way out? Nope, had to backtrack.

The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area is an otherworldly and fascinating place to visit.

Bisti Wings

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Posted in badlands, Bisti Wilderness, Four Corners, geology, hiking, natural arches, Nature Photos, New Mexico, rock formations, San Juan County New Mexico, scenery, Southwestern U.S., Travels in the U.S., Western U.S., wilderness | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

In real estate, the mantra is always “location, location, location” and this also holds true for Civil War battles. In 1863, President Lincoln believed that taking Chattanooga was as important as taking Richmond. Why? Because it lay on the banks of the Tennessee River where it cut through the Appalachian Mountains, four railroads converged there and the town was crucial for Confederate supply lines.

We visited Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in the fall.  Because of the Covid-19 pandemic both visitor centers were closed as was the entire Point Park unit. Fortunately the Chickamauga Battlefield unit was open and well-signed.

Established in 1890, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park was the first so designated park. It was proposed that both Union and Confederate positions be marked, making it unique and at the same time providing a healing process. (Gettysburg at that time had only the Union side represented) The Society of the Army of the Cumberland formed a committee to initiate  a movement for the purchase of the ground where the Battle of Chickamauga was fought. At their first meeting, it was agreed to invite Confederate veterans of the battle and the united committee became the Joint Chickamauga Memorial Association.

Throughout the park, there are 705 commemorative features including monuments, markers and tablets. Monuments commemorate units who fought there, blue signs detail Union positions and red signs detail Confederate. These signs are extremely helpful in visualizing what occurred on those fateful days in September 1863.

Major General William Rosecrans commanded the Union Army of the Cumberland. General Braxton Bragg commanded the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Both commanders, Rosecrans and Bragg, had problems within their commands. In some ways they were similar in personality and both apparently were difficult.

During the summer of 1863, Confederate General Bragg and his army controlled Chattanooga.  Union General Rosecrans moved his army toward Chattanooga slowly, dealing with some logistical issues. He waited for the corn to ripen in the surrounding countryside, for railroads to be repaired and bridges to be built – all based on the necessity of vast quantities of food and forage.

Bragg thought he was protected by the Tennessee River and the Sand and Lookout Mountains. Rosecrans developed a deceptive plan which convinced Bragg that the Federal crossing and assault would be above the city, while he moved troops across the river and over the mountains to threaten them from behind.

Realizing he had been outmaneuvered, Bragg abandoned Chattanooga September 8. Rosecrans entered Chattanooga and at that point a vigorous pursuit might have destroyed Bragg’s army. In this endeavor, there was miscommunication and Rosecran’s largest corps found themselves in McLemore’s Cove where Bragg saw a chance to strike a counterblow. However, orders to Bragg’s subordinates were delayed and then only tentatively followed. Even though the Confederates outnumbered the Federals 3 to 1, they lost the opportunity and on September 11, the Federals withdrew.

Both armies spent several days working to improve their respective positions south of Chattanooga in the vicinity of Chickamauga Creek.

On September 18, Confederate Brigadier General Johnson put his troops in motion and encountered Federal cavalry pickets and the Battle of Chickamauga was underway. For three days, it was back and forth, attack and counterattack. The same areas were sometimes taken several times.

At the end of day September 19, Rosecrans had three choices – attack, retreat or stand firmly on defensive. He chose to stand, hoping Bragg might retreat. Bragg planned to attack. Both generals issued orders based on inadequate information. Bragg’s sequential attacked broke down but, more significantly, a shift in Federal troops accidentally created a gap in the center of the Union line. Confederate soldiers flowed through and 15 or 26 Union cannons were captured.

Mass confusion followed and as darkness fell, few on either side knew it had ended. During the night, Rosecrans withdrew his units. Unaware that the Army of the Cumberland was gone, the Army of Tennessee bivouacked where they lay and expected to renew the fight in the morning.

Bragg’s army had lost more than 20,000 men killed, wounded and missing.

Rosecrans  had lost more than 16,000 men killed, wounded and missing.

Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland held Chattanooga and such could claim the objective of the campaign had been attained.

Bragg and the Army of Tennessee could claim a great victory at Chickamauga but were denied possession of Chattanooga.

Following the battle in September, a siege of Chattanooga followed to try and starve the Union Army into submission. November 25, Union forces, now under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant, force the Confederate troops off Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge and into retreat south into Georgia.

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Posted in American battlefield, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Civil War, Civil War battlefield, Georgia, History, National Military Park, National Park Units, Tennessee, Travel, Travels in the U.S., U.S. History, U.S. military history, U.S. National Park Unit | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Shiloh National Military Park

Shiloh Meeting-House

We visited Shiloh National Military Park in Mississippi and Tennessee in September. The Battle of Shiloh and the siege of Corinth were important engagements early in the Civil War.

“If defeated here we lose the Mississippi Valley, and probably our cause.” After the Battle of Shiloh Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard cabled this haunting prediction to his superiors in Richmond. A month later his adversary, Union commander General Henry W. Halleck, shared similar sentiments with Union Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.

Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center

Our first stop was the Civil War Interpretive Center in Corinth, Mississippi. The Center museum was well-done and provided a good overview. The order of our stops was purely based on the fact that it was a few miles less on our journey if we went to Corinth first. This turned out to be fortuitous as without Corinth there would have been no Battle of Shiloh. Looking at the chronology of events this statement seems counter-intuitive. The Battle of Shiloh took place April 6-7, 1862, the Corinth Siege was April 29-May 30, 1862 and the Battle of Corinth was October 3-4, 1862.

The importance of Corinth lies in the fact that the town of Corinth was at the crossroads of the two most important railroads in the Confederacy.

To prevent a Union advance into the Mississippi valley, Confederate forces were concentrated in and around Corinth under the leadership of  General A. S. Johnston. Union forces under Major General U. S. Grant gathered near Pittsburg Landing preparing for an advance on Corinth but were ordered to wait for  the reinforcement of General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio.

Johnston took the initiative and attacked the Union troops on the morning of April 6. The battle raged until nightfall. During this time, General Johnston was hit by a stray bullet and bled to death.

After Johnston’s death, General P.G.T. Beauregard took command.  By the end of April 6, the Union lines had been broken and they were forced back to Pittsburgh Landing, where they held the important landing under protection of gunboats on the river. Confederate troops plundered the over-run Union camps and Beauregard established his headquarters at Shiloh Meeting-House.

During the night, torrents of rain fell and Buell’s forces arrived. Grant counter-attacked in the morning. After heavy fighting throughout the day April 7 and now facing overwhelming numbers, Beauregard ordered a retreat to Corinth. There was little Union effort to follow them.

One of the costliest battles of the Civil War up to that point, Shiloh’s 23,746 casualties left in doubt the question of who would control Corinth’s railroad junction.

On the Shiloh battlefield there are five known mass graves where many of the 1,728 Confederate dead were buried. Many of the 1,754 Union dead are buried in the National Cemetery at Pittsburgh Landing.

In the beginning of the Civil War, Corinth was a frontier boomtown, with a growing population, numerous businesses, hotels, churches and a college. It was at the junction of two railroads, the Memphis & Charleston and the Mobile & Ohio. These two railroads were vital for the Confederacy, linking the Mississippi River to the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico to Kentucky.

In the spring of 1861, the railroad junction became a liability for Corinth. Corinth had become a mobilization center for the South and tens of thousands of soldiers passed through the town. The railroads were essential for the movement of Confederate troops and war materiel and Corinth was the most strategic transportation hub in the western Confederacy.

Beauregard was determined to maintain control of Corinth and the railroad junction. Following the Confederate retreat from Shiloh,  Union General Halleck’s  army of 120,000 men besieged Beauregard’s 65,000 Confederates at Corinth.

Both Confederate and Union troops built almost thirty miles of earthworks to guard the approaches to Corinth from all four directions. Several  miles of rifle pits, trenches and artillery positions still exist.

Finally forced to withdraw, the Confederates on the night of May 29,1862, secretly slipped out of Corinth by rail and Halleck occupied the town the next day.  In October, Confederate General Van Dorn tried to recapture Corinth but this effort failed and the town remained in Union hands until January 1864 when it was abandoned to supply soldiers for Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign.

The National Cemetery in Corinth is the final resting place for both known and unknown soldiers. The many small uninscribed headstones mark unknown soldiers. It’s difficult to contemplate the many families who were left not ever knowing what happened to their husbands, fathers and sons.

Both the Union and Confederate armies wreaked havoc on the town and its citizens. After the Battle of Shiloh, Corinth was nearly overwhelmed with sick and wounded southern soldiers. During the Union occupation, Corinth’s population swelled with thousands of soldiers, contraband slaves, and white southern Unionists.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, granting freedom to the slaves in the Confederate States if the States did not return to the Union by January 1, 1863.

The security offered by the presence of Union troops in Corinth attracted enslaved African-Americans who fled plantations and farms seeking freedom. The actual origins of a “freedmen’s camp” at Corinth are obscure but as thousands of destitute people poured into Federal lines after the Battle of Shiloh something had to be done. Newly freed and first called “contraband of war”, they found a temporary home in the contraband camp at Corinth. This camp, established northeast of town and beginning as a tent city, became a thriving community of homes, a school,  church, hospital and a progressive cooperative farm program. Northern abolitionist and benevolent organizations provided assistance and instruction. Considered a model of its kind, this camp provided the first taste of non-slave life for these men, women and children. Nearly 2,000 African American men who passed through the camp enlisted in the Union Army. The camp was closed and moved to Memphis a month before Union forces abandoned Corinth. All physical evidence of the camp has disappeared but the park preserves a small portion of the historic site.

Shiloh National Military Park offers visitors an opportunity to put many of the pieces together to understand the ramifications of the battles, the siege, and the immediate and long-term effects on civilian life.

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Posted in American battlefield, Civil War, Civil War battlefield, Corinth, History, Mississippi, National Cemetery, National Historic Site, National Park Travels, National Park Units, Shiloh Battlefield, Shiloh National Military Park, Tennessee, Travel, Travels in the U.S., U.S. History, U.S. military history, U.S. National Park Unit | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Booker T. Washington National Monument

Booker T. Washington was born a slave in 1856 in Franklin County, Virginia on the 207-acre tobacco farm of James Burroughs. We recently visited his birthplace. Since it was during the covid-19 pandemic the visitor center was closed but the park ranger was very helpful and the trails and historic buildings were open. Hiking the Plantation Trail Loop provided a nice overview of the layout of the plantation and the buildings.  

The buildings at this monument are reconstructions of the buildings on the Burroughs’ plantation. This apparently was a fairly typical small tobacco plantation of the period. The emphasis here at the birth-site of Booker T. Washington is on his early life and the cultural and geographical landscape of the period.

Born into slavery in 1856, Booker T. Washington lived here until being freed in 1865. His mother named him Booker Taliaferro. There is no record of who his father was. Always having been called only Booker,  when he first attended school and realized during roll call that everyone else had two names he called himself Booker Washington. Later learning that he did have a second name, he adopted it as his middle name – hence becoming Booker T. Washington.

Even though his mother, Jane, was the plantation cook, food for the enslaved people was rationed and they were often hungry. The kitchen cabin served as the cookhouse and as the living quarters for Jane and her three children, John Henry, Booker, and Amanda. With a dirt floor and very little furniture there was no real comfort. Even as small children, they worked daily cleaning yards, carrying water and taking corn to the mill.

Following the election of Abraham Lincoln in November of 1860, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. Four more states including Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, seceded in quick succession. James Burroughs died in 1861, leaving Mrs. Burroughs to manage the farm. Five of the Burroughs sons fought in the American Civil War. Billy died in 1863 in the Battle of Kelly’s Ford and Frank was captured at the Battle of Gettysburg and died of dysentery in captivity in 1864.

When the war ended in 1865, Booker remembered being called to the “big house” where a stranger made a speech and read a rather long paper  which he thought was the Emancipation Proclamation. After the reading they were told they were free.

In 1865, Booker’s family moved to Malden, West Virginia, to join his stepfather who had escaped slavery. During the time there, Booker worked in the local salt furnace and coal mines. At this point, he started attending school at night. He heard about The Hampton Institute, a school for African Americans in Virginia and in 1872 set out to get there and get admitted. He arrived completely destitute but worked his way through as the school’s janitor. He graduated in 1875, taught school there and in 1881 was hired to start a school in Tuskegee, Alabama. The curriculum focused on trades and academic subjects related to students’ experiences. Booker T. Washington fought for advancement and taught self-reliance and self-determination.

Booker T. Washington was the first African American to receive an honorary degree from Harvard University (1896), the first on a US postage stamp (1940), the first to have a US ship named after him (1942), the first on a US coin (1946-51) and the first to have a national monument in his name (1956).

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Posted in Booker T. Washington National Monument, Civil War, hiking, National Historic Site, national monument, National Monuments, National Park Units, scenery, Travel, Travels in the U.S., U.S. History, U.S. National Park Unit, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

White Sands National Park

White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico is a unique place. Established as White Sands National Monument in 1933, we were not sure that it should have been re-designated as a National Park in 2019. It surprised us and definitely exceeded our expectations.

October was the perfect time to visit. The weather was cool enough to make hiking pleasurable and there was very little wind when we were there. This trip was during the pandemic so access to the visitor center was limited but social distancing was really easy.

In the heart of the Tularosa Basin, great dunes of gypsum sand have engulfed 275 square miles of desert creating the largest gypsum dune field in the world. White Sands National Park preserves more than half of this dune field.

White Sands was surprising in so many ways.

Dunes Drive (the only road within the park) is an 8-mile drive leading from the visitor center into the heart of the dune field. Along the road are outdoor exhibits, hiking trails, picnic areas, vault toilets, and parking areas. There is no water available beyond the visitor center. We saw many families “sledding” the dunes but this sand is not as slippery as the sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The first five miles of Dunes Drive are paved and the last three are a hard-packed gypsum sand road. With the wind continually shifting the sands, this road has to be well-maintained. Driving in many places gave you the feeling you were driving through snow, the road plowed but still white and drifts piled high on either side.

There are five marked trails in the park and we did four of them the day we were there. The trail markers are definitely different than on most trails we hike.

One of the biggest and most pleasant surprises was the ease of walking in the dunes. This sand isn’t like beach sand or the sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. It is a lot more solid and stable. It also doesn’t get overly hot so one can walk barefoot – we didn’t but we did see barefoot prints in the sand in places.

Water, only inches below the surface of the dune field, ensures that the dunes remain moist during the longest droughts. The shallow water table rises to the surface after heavy rains and creates temporary ponds. This moistness also makes the sands more stable to walk on.

Part of White Sands National Park is a ”Zone of Cooperative Use.” During WWII, the US military tested weapons in the dune field beyond the park and in 1945 the first atomic bomb was detonated at Trinity Site 100 miles north. White Sands Missile Range regularly conducts missile tests and during those tests, for visitor safety,  Dunes Drive may be closed. Lake Lucero is located in this “zone of cooperative use” and is a restricted area with permits required. Guided tours are held once a month.

Gypsum is a common material used in a variety of products from drywall to toothpaste. Gypsum is an evaporative mineral which means that it dissolves in water and will recrystallize during evaporation of liquid, much like salt. This property is crucial to the formation of the White Sands dune field.

The Tularosa Basin is surrounded by the San Andres and the Sacramento Mountains. These mountains are composed of layers of gypsum. Rainfall and snowmelt dissolve the gypsum and wash it down to the basin floor which has no outlet. Water settles at the lowest point, which is Lake Lucero, and then evaporates. In this process, the dissolved minerals recrystallize and form selenite crystals which are very brittle and fragile. Wind plays its part in breaking down these crystals into sand and forming dunes.

Sand is defined as any mineral between .065 millimeters and 2 millimeters in diameter, which is about the width of a nickel. Mineral sands are formed by geological forces. Sand can be composed of any mineral so there are endless combinations of sand. Most sand on earth is quartz. The mineral that forms the dunes of White Sands National Park is about 98 percent pure gypsum sand. Gypsum sand is considered rare because gypsum is water soluble.  Even rarer is gypsum sand in the form of dunes –  4.5 billion tons of gypsum sand piled up by wind.

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Posted in geology, gypsum, hiking, National Park, National Park Travels, Nature Photos, New Mexico, scenery, Southwestern U.S., Travel, Travels in the U.S., U.S. national parks, White Sands National Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park in October was our 60th  National Park.  Unfortunately we visited during the pandemic so the only tour operating was the expanded historic self-guided tour. It was disappointing because we saw a very small portion of the cave and the tours we originally wanted to do were not open. Having said that, Mammoth Cave is certainly impressive.

Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest known cave system and new passages continue to be explored and mapped. Currently somewhere in the neighborhood of 412 miles have been documented. Scattered over the 53,000 acres of the park are more than 250 cave entrances. Some lead into the Mammoth Cave system, most do not. Of the twenty-odd entrances to Mammoth approximately one-fourth are truly natural and not modified. The most famous is the historic entrance behind the visitor center, which is where we entered.

There are at least five known levels of interconnecting passageways, each level boasting an intricate system of avenues and each connecting to the one above and below it. Even though it was formed by water, Mammoth Cave is primarily dry and, other than several decorative rooms, absent of stalactites and stalagmites. Visitors are often surprised by the lack of dripstone formations.  On our tour we were basically in a huge passageway which was formed by an ancient underground river.

These passageways were eroded through limestone. Above the limestone sits a layer of sandstone which acts as a “roof” protecting the passageways below, shedding rainwater to vertical cracks and underground “drainpipes.” An example of this layering of sandstone and limestone can be seen beside the path to the historic entrance.

Established as a national park in 1941, Mammoth Cave was well-known long before that. Archeological evidence shows that Native Americans  explored the first three levels of the cave nearly 4,000 years ago. Probably the first European to have reached Mammoth Cave was a British soldier, Thomas Hutchins, during the French and Indian War of the 1750’s.

This cave is saltpeter rich. Saltpeter was needed to produce gunpowder and preserve meats. By 1811, saltpeter extraction was quite extensive with as many as 70 enslaved men working the underground operation. Remnants of that operation are still visible today.

After the end of the War of 1812, people began to view Mammoth Cave as a tourist attraction. The cave passed through a variety of owners and in 1838, Franklin Gorin purchased the caves and surface acreage. He brought a young enslaved man, Stephen Bishop, to Mammoth Cave.  Bishop explored, mapped, and became an expert on the cave. He and two other enslaved young men, Mat and Nick Bransford, became highly-regarded cave tour guides. Most of the early cave guides were young black men. In a number of cases, guiding in Mammoth Cave became a family tradition with several generations doing so. Stephen Bishop is buried in the Old Guide’s Cemetery in the park.

In 1839 John Croghan bought the property, and set out to increase tourism. He also had several huts built within the cave with the idea that tuberculosis patients could be cured with the pure air and constant temperature. After several patients died, that experiment was laid to rest. We saw two of those huts and being confined in them underground certainly did not look appealing.

Mammoth Cave continued to pass through a number of owners and as early as 1911 efforts were made to create a national park. Congress established Mammoth Cave as our 26th national park in 1926 but it was not made “official” until 1941 and then World War II postponed the dedication until 1946.

With all the covid restrictions in place we spent most of our time in the park above ground, exploring some of the 60 miles of hiking trails. Since we only got to walk about 2 ½ miles roundtrip in the cave, we’d like to go back to Mammoth Cave and see a bit more of the 400+ miles of this natural wonder.

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A new National Park

It’s happened again! Just when we get close to completing our goal of visiting all the National Parks, a new one appears. This may be a never-ending quest!

West Virginia’s New River Gorge National River was just designated the nation’s newest national park. It is now New River Gorge National Park and the 63rd National Park in the system.

And no, this is not a photo of New River since we haven’t been there yet.😏(This is actually the Youghiogheny River.)

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Shenandoah National Park

We visited Shenandoah National Park the end of September. We were a little early for fall color but it was beautiful nevertheless. Shenandoah is a long, narrow park of mountain forest in northern Virginia.  

We stayed in two different campgrounds – Loft Mountain and Big Meadows – within the park and explored.  The weather was a bit difficult with dense fog and often heavy rain. One day it rained so hard that we spent quite a bit of time in the rv playing chess and gin rummy and only ventured out for a couple of short hikes. During one of those hikes we came across a pair of backpackers who were simply looking for a place to hunker down before it got even worse. They looked very wet and very cold and not particularly happy.

The Appalachian Trail winds along the Blue Ridge through the park and we were quite determined to  be able to say we had hiked at least a small part of the Appalachian Trail. So we donned our raingear and headed out. There is something special about being on the “grand-daddy” of hiking trails. We had the trail all to ourselves except for a deer who appeared out of the fog. She was as curious about us as we were about her and apparently didn’t feel the least bit threatened. She simply stood and studied us for quite a while before slowly moving off. Our few miles on this special trail cross off another experience on our wish list.

Shenandoah National Park was established in 1935 with the idea of giving nearby urban residents the national park experience that had become popular in the West. The park was to represent the Southern Appalachian Mountains in pristine condition. In actuality, the parkland had been diversely exploited for over two hundred years so it became an effort to return the land to nature’s ways.

Capitalizing on the new popularity of motor cars, the “greatest single feature” was to be a sky-line drive on which motorists could enjoy a leisurely drive along the crest of the Blue Ridge and experience the awe and inspiration of magnificent views. Construction on the skyline drive was begun even before Congress established the national park.

The vast majority of the annual visitors drive Skyline Drive, stopping at many of the 75 overlooks. They rarely venture far from their vehicles, even though the park encompasses nearly 200,000 acres and more than 500 miles of trails. The speed limit on the 105-mile Skyline Drive is 35 mph. As the road twists and turns and is often blanketed with fog you don’t plan on getting anywhere fast.

Before the advent of the national park, the northern Blue Ridge had been heavily used and the extent of that use varied from hunting and gathering to stock grazing, mining, timbering and total clearing. Now Shenandoah National Park, relatively undisturbed throughout 95 percent of its area, has largely reverted to forest ecosystem.

The area was used for rest and recreation long before the national park was established. Skyland Resort hosted urbanites for longs stays beginning in the late 1800’s. President Herbert Hoover and the First Lady built their Rapidan Camp as a retreat from the nation’s capital.

Depression-era CCC “boys” came in the 1930’s to build many park facilities. As part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, Congress authorized the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1933, the first CCC camp was in Shenandoah and at one time there were over 1000 CCC “boys” there. They worked on the Skyline Drive, erected stone walls, built park amenities, cleaned up the landscape, planted trees, manned fire towers, fought forest fires and did anything else that needed to be done to ready the park for visitors.

To create the park Virginia state officials acquired 1,088 privately owned tracts and donated the land to the nation. Some of these tracts were sold willingly, others not so. Ownership of some of the parcels was difficult to prove as sometimes they had changed hands many times without a true paper trail. There were also long-time tenants living in the parkland. Some of the people claiming ownership were, and had been for decades, squatters who claimed ownership by right of longtime occupation. In the decade before and during the early phases of the park opening, some 465 families moved or were moved from their cabins and resettled outside the proposed park boundaries. Some of the older mountaineers, however, were allowed to live out their lives in the park and were buried in the secluded graveyards of Shenandoah’s vanished settlements. Annie Shenk would be the last of the long-ago people living in the park. She died in January of 1979 at the age of 92.

Shenandoah National Park is very different than the vast national parks in the West, both in its history and its purpose. It was a park created specifically to approximate the precolonial wilderness of hundreds of years ago and provide a place of recreation and regeneration for urban dwellers. By allowing most of the area to recycle itself it has become a realistic representation of that wilderness.   I’ve heard it called “gently wild” and that seems accurate.

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Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Cuyahoga Valley National Park protects the Cuyahoga River between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio. As such, it is truly an urban park. A patchwork of natural areas, villages and small farms, it’s often really difficult to tell whether you are actually in the national park or in a residential development or on someone’s farm. Since we were there in 2020 there were many things closed or with very limited access, including two visitor centers and the railroad. However, we managed to explore, walk some pathways, and visit waterfalls.

In the 1960’s, local citizens and public officials became concerned that development, both commercial and residential, was threatening the scenic river valley. In 1974,Congress passed a bill creating a National Recreation Area and in 2000 Cuyahoga Valley was given National Park status.

Cuyahoga  is a native American word meaning “crooked”. Native Americans who canoed the lower Cuyahoga found it a favorable portage between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. In the 1700’s fur traders established temporary trading posts and in the early 1800’s water was diverted from the lower river for a canal. The Ohio & Erie Canal connected heartland farms to East Coast ports. Canal transport of goods became obsolete in the 1880’s when the railroad arrived.

A few decades ago, the Cuyahoga River was notoriously polluted. After extensive rehabilitation efforts it is far cleaner today. Swimming and boating are still not recommended and recovery efforts continue. As the water recovers, wildlife also recovers. Bald eagles, great blue herons, beavers and otters have re-established.

The park’s most-visited natural feature, Brandywine Falls cascades over a series of sandstone shelves.

In the Tinkers Creek Gorge, a tributary of the creek creates Bridal Veil Falls when it drops over a series of sandstone ledges.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park is long and narrow running north-south and  encompassing the river valley. The canal towpath is a popular hiking trail and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad allows excursionists to hop on and off at different points throughout the park.

Crisscrossed by roads and two interstate highways, Cuyahoga has no wilderness. This park is so different than the vast western national parks, it was a little difficult for us to wrap our heads around it as an actual National Park. It is a park that one, living in an urban area, would love to have on your doorstep.  It feels like a daily use kind of park rather than a destination kind of park.

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