Saguaro National Park


We visited Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona years ago before we embarked on our quest to visit all the U.S. National Parks. We happened there when the desert was in bloom and it was incredibly beautiful. With that in mind and an extraordinarily wet winter, I called the park to see if the wildflowers were in bloom, and was told that they were “popping” so we set out to see. We were somewhat disappointed in the flower display, or lack thereof, but even so we thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the park.

In 1920, interest was first expressed in preserving the “cactus forest” in southern Arizona. Members of the Natural History Society of the University of Arizona as well as academics, local businessmen and politicians worked to try to obtain land for preservation and future study.

Finally, March 1, 1933, President Herbert Hoover signed a proclamation establishing Saguaro National Monument 15 miles east of Tucson (now Rincon Mountain District). Since that time, an additional area west of Tucson (now Tucson Mountain District) has been added and in 1994 Congress officially elevated Saguaro National Monument to Saguaro National Park. It currently encompasses 91,445 acres.

Fairy Duster                                                                      Brittlebush

The saguaro is an iconic symbol of the American West. In reality, it will only grow in the Sonoran desert, primarily southern Arizona. The saguaro will grow from sea level to about 4000 feet in elevation so its range is rather limited. Further north or higher in elevation, it is restricted to warmer, south facing slopes.

Saguaro and Ocotillo

In the 1937, Tucson suffered record low temperatures and a few years later many saguaros started dying. After another killing freeze in 1962,researchers figured out that temperatures below freezing for more than 20 hours could kill saguaros. In combination with grazing and consequent trampling of young saguaros by cattle, it was feared that saguaros would go the way of the Old West and die out. In 1979 the National Park Service acquired grazing rights and halted grazing. Young saguaros began to sprout under palo verde and mesquite “nurse trees.”  In general, it seems the saguaros are younger and smaller in the east Rincon Mountain district than in the west Tucson Mountain district.

Occasionally a saguaro, rather than rising in a straight column, forms a crest in which the tip spreads outward in a large fan. These cristate (crested) saguaros are abnormal but not diseased. They are not common and no one really knows why they do this. We saw two of them during our visit.

Saguaro National Park is home to 25 species of cacti.

Engelman’s Prickly Pear                                      Staghorn Cholla & Brittlebush

Three of the young cacti (saguaro, pincushion and hedgehog) resemble each other enough that you have to look closely to discern the difference. The saguaro spines emerge from a long ridge, pincushion has fish-hook shaped spines and hedgehog has a series of knobs. They all take advantage of the shelter of the nurse trees. Other cacti are more independent.

Saguaro                                                       Pincushion (top)  Hedgehog (Bottom)

Chain Fruit Cholla                                                 Ocotillo and Teddy Bear Cholla

Staghorn Cholla and Prickly Pear                                               Fishhook Barrel

The saguaro germinates from a tiny seed and takes about twenty-five years to grow to about a foot tall. They don’t produce flowers until they are seven or eight feet tall and are fifty to sixty years old. The growth rate slows and at the age of seventy-five to a hundred years it may be twelve to twenty feet tall and arms begin to appear.  The new arms begin to produce flowers within two to three years. The arms give each saguaro its own individual identity and no two look alike.

There are a number of trails in Saguaro National Park but, since we had our dog with us, we were a bit limited as to where we could go and take him along. Some national parks limit dogs to parking lots and tethered in campsites. Saguaro does have several trails that we could take him on a leash so we took advantage of that. He enjoyed our hikes and was a perfect gentleman.

Phainopepla                                                                                   Cactus Wren

March is a nice time to visit Saguaro. Although our first day was very windy and quite chilly, the second day was sunny and very pleasant. The east and west districts of the park are about 35 miles apart with the city in between so it was nice to visit them on separate days. The variety of cacti and desert plants we encountered on our hikes provided plenty of photo opportunities. A summer visit to this park would certainly be a different experience with temperatures well over 100°.


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New National Park

They did it again! We are so close to having visited all the national parks and then a new one is designated. February 19, 2019 Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore along Lake Michigan became Indiana Dunes National Park – the 61st National Park.  So with 53 parks to our credit, we now have eight left. Maybe we’d better hurry before more pop up.

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Mesa Verde National Park

IMG_1307resizedWe’ve been to Mesa Verde National Park a number of times but this was the first time in the winter. We very nearly had the park to ourselves, the sun was shining brightly and there was only a slight wind so it was just about perfect. It was also easier without the crowds to try to visualize in your head what it must have been like to live at Mesa Verde about a thousand years ago.

IMG_3201Climbing up and down the cliffs using finger and toe holds and carrying everything needed for daily life seems like an extremely daunting task. Some water seeped into the back of some of the caves but most would have to be hauled as would foodstuffs from mesa-top plots. With our nice warm coats  our day seemed just about perfect, but it’s hard to imagine trying to keep warm during the cold winter months at over 8000 feet elevation.

Spruce Tree Houseresized                                                          Spruce Tree House

Twenty years or so ago when we visited Mesa Verde, we were told that the Anasazi lived here for over 700 years and then just mysteriously “disappeared.” With no written record, an understanding of the people who lived here is dependent upon archaeological excavation, analysis and comparison. This work is an ongoing process. These people are now called Ancestral Puebloans. They did not just suddenly disappear; in the late 1200’s they moved away and merged with other Pueblo people. The question of why they moved away is still unanswered although there are numerous theories.


Navajo Canyon Overlookresized                                                     Navajo Canyon Overlook

There are over 4700 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, in Mesa Verde National Park and many more to yet be excavated. From a non-archaeologist , it appears that there were three major shifts in living accommodations at Mesa Verde. The earliest settled inhabitants (about AD 550) built pit houses which were dug into the ground and used a stick-and-wattle type roof construction.  About AD 750 some began to build houses above ground beginning with upright walls of posts and adobe and evolving into stone masonry. Around AD 1200 the people shifted into the cliff dwellings in which they used the protected alcoves and masonry construction.

Square Tower Houseresized                                                               Square Tower House

By about 1300 Mesa Verde was abandoned. Maybe it was because of extended drought and crop failure, maybe the population had grown and depleted necessary resources, or perhaps there was social or political strife. There seems to be little evidence of outside threat but it’s possible as the cliff dwellings were much more defensive in nature than the previous dwellings.


New FIre House resized                                                               New Fire House

Local ranchers first reported the cliff dwellings in the 1888 and they have attracted attention ever since. Unfortunately for eighteen years there was no protection of the sites and with a ready market for artifacts many cliff dwellings were ransacked. Even those with an understanding of the archaeological value of the sites lacked modern scientific methods so true research was at best difficult.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt on June 8, 1906, establishing the first general legal protection of cultural and natural resource in the United States. On June 29,1906, Mesa Verde National Park was established to “preserve the works of man”,  becoming the first national park of its kind.

Cliff Palace2resized.jpg                                                                 Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in the park. Ranger-led tours allow visitors to walk the edge of this impressive structure. There are many steps down and several ladders to climb back to the mesa top. To access Balcony House, Cliff Palace and Long House, you must be a part of a ranger-led tour and tickets are available at the visitor center from late spring through early fall.

The new visitor and research center (which actually opened in 2012 so not really so new) is quite impressive. It’s located just inside the park entrance and is the only place you can get tickets for the cliff dwelling tours. The old visitor center was located 21 miles from the park entrance so you had already made a certain commitment before you even got to that center.

Driving through the park, the evidence of wildfire is ever present.  Seventy percent of the park has been burned by wildfire since its formation in 1906. Historically, over ninety-five percent of wildfires within the park have been caused by lightening. In an area with very little moisture and high elevation, it takes a long time to recover from a fire.

Chapin Mesa Fire 2006 resized                                                 Seventeen years after a fire

Mesa Verde and its mysteries are fascinating. It’s a place that begs return visits.


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Posted in Anasazi, Colorado, hiking, History, Mesa Verde National Park, National Park, National Park Travels, Nature Photos, prehistoric ruins, scenery, Southwest History, U.S. History, U.S. National Park Unit, U.S. national parks, Western U.S. National Parks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

El Malpais National Monument

img_0680In September on our way to Phoenix, we made a slight detour to visit El Malpais National Monument and National Conservation Area southwest of Grants, New Mexico. El Malpais – the “badland” – is a landscape that encompasses volcanic cones, craters, natural arches, ice caves and the “river of stone” that we explored.

img_0683El Malpais was created by lava flows from some forty volcanoes and over eighty vents and spatter cones. The most recent lava flow occurred between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago pouring out of McCarty’s Crater. All four major types of volcanoes can be found here – basalt cones, cinder cones, shield volcanoes and composite volcanoes.


For more than 10,000 years people have interacted with this landscape. Peak human occupation occurred between 950 and 1350 when this area was on the fringe of the Chaco Canyon political and economic system. Each of the native tribes living in the vicinity of El Malpais has their own distinct legend and name for the lava. The Spanish conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led expeditions in this area in 1540. When New Mexico became a territory in 1848, El Malpais was basically seen as a hindrance to travel. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s some homesteaders and sheepherders moved into El Malpais.

IMG_0738.jpgSince we had limited time, we decided to explore the eastern side of El Malpais. The Sandstone Bluffs Overlook provided a view of the broad valley which was covered with lava. Since this most recent flow area occurred about 3,000 years ago and there is limited vegetation even now, it was easy to see how volcanic activity changes a landscape for millennia. It seemed a river of lava had covered the valley and was contained by the sandstone bluffs.

La Ventana Natural Arch was a very short hike from the road and is one of New Mexico’s largest natural arches.


We took a longer hike in the Lava Falls Area. There is always something slightly eerie about hiking in lava. Many of the features bear Hawaiian names as early scientific knowledge of volcanoes was developed in Hawaii. Kīpukas are undisturbed areas that lava encircled but did not cover, thus creating islands of native plants and animals. The two types of lava present different hiking challenges. Smooth, ropy lavas are pāhoehoe and sharp, jagged lavas are `a`ā.

The trail was quite well marked with cairns but it would certainly be easy to get off trail and difficult to determine the correct path. This most certainly would not be a place to hike in midsummer with absolutely no shade to be had and heat radiating off the lava.

img_0725We enjoyed our brief visit to El Malpais and would like to return to explore the western portion, hike, and visit ice caves and lava tubes.


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New items in here2where online store

I’ve added a number of items to my online store and arranged them into the following collections: National Park, Wildlife, Wildflowers, and Scenery

Please take a look – great gift ideas.

Following are some examples:

Fireweed flower mug Canyonlands National Park ceramic ornament  Moose tote bag Bear With Me t-shirt


Posted in gift ideas, National Park, Nature Photos, Uncategorized, wildflowers, wildlife | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Isle Royale National Park


An island far from shore in Lake Superior – who had any idea it would be end up being on the list of our favorite national parks? Number 53 out of 60 national parks – the 3+ hour boat ride from Copper Harbor, Michigan, to get to Rock Harbor was not exciting us at all. It turned out to be so worth it we would go back in a heartbeat.


Isle Royale is the least visited national park in the lower 48 but has the highest percentage of return visitors – roughly a third of the visitors each year have been there before. We now understand why. In 2017 only 28,198 people visited Isle Royale. Isle Royale has a short season as it is only open April 16 through October due to extreme winter weather conditions.


The Rock Harbor Lodge complex is the only full-service lodging facility on Isle Royale. We stayed in one of the housekeeping cottages located away from the main hotel and restaurant area and overlooking Tobin Harbor.


Many of the people also arriving on the Isle Royale Queen IV were backpackers or canoe/kayak campers. Everyone who lands on Isle Royale is required to hear a ranger talk about low-impact hiking and camping. Wilderness is important here. The only “roads” on the island are narrow service roads between the dock and the lodge areas with the only motorized vehicles being a small tractor and gator. The island is roughly 45 miles long and has approximately 165 miles of trails.

People have seasonally occupied Isle Royale for thousands of years – copper mining, hunting, fishing, tapping maple syrup and, to some extent, logging. The remoteness of Isle Royale actually saved it from being as highly exploited as much of the north country. By the end of the nineteenth century it had become a tourist destination of hotels and small summer communities.


In 1926, Albert Stoll, conservation editor for the Detroit News, wrote “Isle Royale is different. It is bold, rugged, and magnificent.” Through Stoll’s work, as well as that of cottagers, resort owners and mainland advocates, the idea of Isle Royale as a roadless wilderness park was proposed. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a bill authorizing establishment of Isle Royale National Park when Michigan had gained title to all the land on Isle Royale. Michigan created a commission to raise money to purchase the private land on the island. In 1940 Isle Royale became a national park.

Defining wilderness can be a very personal thing, but wilderness does have an official definition. “Wilderness” as a place where “man is himself a visitor . . . one who does not remain” was written into law with the Wilderness Act of 1964.

On Isle Royale there are no roads, only trails and these trails are “12-inch man-ways.” They provide a means of access to various parts of the island while maintaining a sense of exploration. We hiked each day we were on the island and thoroughly enjoyed the exquisite scenery, changing terrain and the solitude.

Each evening we attended a ranger talk. In one talk we learned about loons, their habits, and their four different and very distinct calls. Another of the talks was about Visual Arts in the National Parks and the role that the arts had in the establishment of early parks, and a third was by a participant in the Artist-in-Residence program.

Humans share the island with two iconic mammals: moose and wolves. They are descendants of mainlanders that made the island an unexpected ark. Moose arrived on Isle Royale in the early 1900’s presumably by swimming to it and it is largely accepted that wolves arrived by crossing an ice bridge from Canada during the winter of 1948.


While we were on the island, a bull moose was spending quite a bit of time in the Rock Harbor area. We saw him several times near our cottage, on a back trail and in the water in Tobin Harbor. He was massive and quite impressive.

One afternoon we took a canoe out on Tobin Harbor. This was an adventure as I had never been in a canoe and Tom said the only times he had been in one, they had dumped it in the water. This did not inspire confidence. Later he did tell me the last time he had been in a canoe was when he was in boy scouts and most likely they were messing around. At any rate, I did not have waterproof containers for my camera or phone so did not take them with us. The canoe trip turned out great, we did not dump it and it was peaceful and beautiful. Especially memorable was looking to the shore about thirty yards from us and there a moose stood in the water. It would have been a perfect photo.


Currently there are about 1500 moose on the island, which, according to rangers, is too high a number for the island vegetation to maintain well. As of 2016, there were only two wolves on the island and since they are the only moose predator, there is a direct relationship to moose population. The average moose stands at a height of over six feet tall at the shoulder and weighs nearly 1,000 pounds.


The wolf population has varied from 50 animals in 1980 to the low of two since 2016. Wolf population variation is driven by availability of its primary food source of moose, the spread of canine diseases to the island (pets are no longer allowed on the island at all), and genetic inbreeding. Wolves avoid human interaction so the chance of seeing one on Isle Royale is extremely small.

The National Park Service has undertaken a wolf relocation project to increase the wolf population on the island and broaden the gene pool. Four adult grey wolves – one male and three females – from Minnesota were successfully released on Isle Royale between September 25 and October 2, 2018. This fall’s original goal was to relocate an additional two wolves from Michigan but weather halted that operation. An additional four animals from Canada may be brought in this winter. National Parks Traveler online magazine has had several articles about this project. The goal over the next three to five years is to relocate 20 to 30 wolves to Isle Royale. It will be interesting to watch the progress of this program.

On one of our hikes we met a man who had visited Isle Royale with his family as a youngster. He told us he was pleased to see that it was “just like it was in the 60’s.” He went on to say that he was very glad it was a national park that anyone could enjoy and that if it hadn’t been made a park, it would now be heavily populated with summer estates and be only a rich man’s playground.


We all need a little wilderness in our lives. According to Edward Abbey: “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.”



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Posted in Isle Royale National Park, Michigan, moose, National Park, National Park Travels, Nature Photos, Rock Harbor, scenery, Travel, Travels in the U.S., U.S. national parks, wilderness, wildlife, Wolves | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Voyageurs National Park


Water covers about 39% of Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, an area most commonly known as Boundary Waters. Voyageurs is an example of southern boreal forest – sometimes called simply the “north woods.” It contains more than 900 islands, many richly forested. This is a water-based park and the easiest way, and sometimes the only way, to get from one place to another is by water.


We quickly realized that without a boat, this 55-mile long park is next to impossible to explore. We did do several trails on the Kabetogama Peninsula near Ash River where we boarded the shuttle boat to take us up Namakan Lake to Kettle Falls. Kettle Falls hotel is the only lodging within the park itself, so we had arranged to stay in one of the villas there. The people were very friendly and accommodating but we discovered there were no hiking trails and, without a boat and not being fishermen, very little to do.


We did rent a boat for a half day and explored as far as our navigation map covered. We didn’t dare go beyond the map or we would like have gotten lost in the maze of islands and channels which look very much alike.


The Treaty of 1783 between the U.S. and Great Britain set the international boundary at “the usual water communication” through the region. But determining the “usual” or “customary” route was difficult and the final details of the boundary were not settled until 1925. The boundary of the U.S. and Canada runs right through the middle of Kettle Falls dam and, in an unusual geographic phenomenon, one can stand on U.S. soil at Kettle Falls and look south into Canada.


As early as 1891, the area was proposed as a national park. In 1975, it was actually created with its purpose “to preserve, for the inspiration and enjoyment of present and future generations, the outstanding scenery, geologic conditions, and waterway system which constituted a part of the historic route of the voyageurs, who contributed significantly to the opening of the northwestern United States.”


The voyageurs for whom this park was named actually only practiced their trading and watercraft here for about fifty years although people had been present in the area for thousands of years. Hundreds of archeological sites have been found, most temporary campsites on the shores of big lakes. Dakota, Cree, Assiniboin, and Ojibway occupied this land of rivers, lakes and islands when, in 1731, Pierre Gaultier, Sieur de la Vérendrye, was sent to establish a permanent French presence and solidify a fur trade route through Lake Superior and the Rainy River country. In 1763 the British wrested control of the country from the French and operated Hudson’s Bay Company from the shore of its namesake. Indian trappers and traders delivered goods to their doorstep. Eventually, independent traders called coureurs de bois – “woods runners” – shortcut the system, meeting the Indians on their own ground and intercepting the flow of goods. In 1779 the competition organized as the Northwest Company and thus began the era of the French-Canadian voyageur.


The voyageurs adopted many of the Indians’ tools and clothes. Unlike the independent coureurs de bois they were not freelancers but employed by a fur-trade firm. Groups of men set out every spring from Montreal with a two-ton load of trade goods bound for the interior. Their bark canoes, called canots du maître or Montreal canoes, were 35 feet long or more and paddled by about a dozen men called mangeurs de lard – pork eaters -because their primary diet was salt pork and dried peas or corn. A different breed of voyageurs took these trade goods from Grand Portage to the interior and returned to Lake Superior with furs. These were the hivernants -the winterers. If the mangeurs de lard were the apprentices, the hivernants were the journeymen, paddling 25-foot canots du nord, or north canoes, over the rugged interior routes. They routinely paddled 15 to 18 hours a day, paddle strokes beating the rhythm of their songs. Despite their size – under 5 feet 8 inches so they wouldn’t take much room in the canoe – voyageurs carried two or three packs (180 to 270 pounds) at a time when portaging.


The area now occupied by Voyageurs National Park was, except for Hudson Bay, the most important entry point to the interior of North America during the fur trade. The primary route began at Grand Portage and followed what is now the international boundary over more than two dozen portages into Crane Lake and along the park’s northern boundary. The voyageurs probably followed the border making the portage at Kettle Falls.


Beaver was prized for hat-making in Europe and was the primary fur traded. Interesting creatures, beavers have grasping hands and long buck teeth to down and limb trees, but also other adaptations. Valves in the nose and ears shut as the animal submerges and transparent membranes shield its eyes as goggles would. Its lips close behind its teeth so that it can carry branches in its mouth without drowning. Wooly underfur allows it to swim and work is nearly freezing water. The replacement of beaver felt with other materials for hat-making was devastating to the fur trade. So only a half-century after they appeared the colorful voyageurs vanished into the past.


In Voyageurs, unrestricted market, subsistence and sport hunting in the early 1900’s eliminated elk and woodland caribou and decimated the moose herd. These declines affected the rest of the ecosystem in many ways. Extensive logging began in earnest in 1909 and was carried on until 1929, during which time huge stands of virgin red and white pine disappeared. Between 1905 and 1910, a dam was constructed at International Falls for hydroelectric power and ancillary dams at Kettle Falls and Squirrel Falls were built.


Kettle Falls Hotel has a colorful past. The first section of the hotel was probably built about 1910, with the north wing added by1915. Local legend has it that a famous madam, Nellie Bly, financed the building. Written accounts affirm that ”fancy ladies” practiced their trade at Kettle Falls but the origin of the hotel had more to do with lumber than ladies. Over the years a number of colorful characters and some dubious activities made Kettle Falls Hotel a memorable place. By the 1940’s one of the most distinctive features of the hotel had developed- wavy, sloping floors. Sinking foundations threw the building off kilter and floors sloped and the middle of the 20-foot barroom was (and still is) a foot higher than the ends. This earned it the nickname of “the tiltin’ Hilton.”


At Kettle Falls, tours and private boaters arrive to take a look around, have a bite to eat and enjoy the drinks in the tilting barroom. It’s a busy place midafternoon. This is also the place boaters can portage from Namakan Lake to Rainy Lake or vice versa. Unlike the voyageurs, they don’t have to carry their boats and gear. Pickups with boat trailers do it for them. We got a kick out of seeing people sitting in their boats on the boat trailers being hauled through the woods.


Voyageurs is a beautiful national park. Our advice to really explore it would be to bring a boat and a good navigation map.


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Posted in History, Kettle Falls, Minnesota, National Park, National Park Travels, Nature Photos, Travel, Travels in the U.S., U.S. military history, U.S. national parks, Voyaguers National Park, wilderness | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment