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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Great Smoky Mountains National Park


There’s a reason they are called the Great Smoky Mountains. The Cherokee described these mountains as shaconage, meaning “blue, like smoke.” During the time we were there we were often enveloped in the fog typical of this area, sometimes so dense it was difficult to even see the road.


In 2020 with the pandemic, a trip to continue our quest to visit all 62 of the National Parks had to be a bit different than we had originally planned. Late September-early October was our chosen time to head east of the Mississippi (we’d already been to all the parks west of the Mississippi). We rented a motorhome so we were pretty much self-contained. We found different national  park sites had varying degrees of access. In Great Smoky Mountains, the visitor centers were open but with a limited number of people inside at a time. Rangers controlled both entrance and exit doors and people outside waited six feet apart.  Masks were required for entry.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, located in Tennessee and North Carolina, was established in 1934 to preserve the biological and cultural diversity of this area.  This complex ecosystem covers just over a half million acres and contains one of the largest remaining virgin forests that once covered eastern America.


The Smokies are a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains and form part of the Blue Ridge. A temperate rainforest, with portions of the park getting 85 inches of rainfall per year, there are more tree species than in northern Europe, 1500 flowering plants, dozens of native fish, over 200 species of birds and 60 species of mammals. There are an estimated 1500 black bears that call the park home but we didn’t see any of them.

The “smoke” is actually fog that comes from the area’s vegetation. The millions of trees, bushes and other plants exhale a collective vapor which creates a blanket of fog.  Plants take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen but they also exhale something called ”volatile organic compounds” or VOCs. VOCs have a high vapor pressure which means they can easily form at room temperature, thus creating the “smoke” of the Great Smoky Mountains. That’s the explanation of the blue of the Smokies but the real lasting impression is the unique beauty of these mountains.

Most of the park is managed as wilderness. Highway 441, also known as Newfound Gap Road, is the  only road that traverses the park. It’s two-lane, very winding, with a 35-mile per hour speed limit which is quite appropriate.

Our first full day in the park we spent exploring and scoping out hikes we wanted to take. We traveled Newfound Gap Road, stopping at overlooks (many of which were basically gray with fog).


Near the south edge of the park, the Mountain Farm Museum offers a glimpse into farm life in the early 1800’s.

The Oconaluftee River trail called to us as it is one of the few park trails where pets are allowed.  Odin always likes to go hiking with us.


We were a little too early for a lot of color but there were glimpses and the park is beautiful. There are five distinctly different types of forest within the park, mainly dependent upon precipitation and elevation: Spruce-fir forest, Northern hardwood forest, Cove hardwood forest, Hemlock forest, and Pine-and-oak forest.

In order to hike to Laurel Falls, we set out fairly early. The trail to this 80-foot waterfall is rated as moderate in difficulty and one of the most popular in the park. Since parking is limited at the trailhead, the early bird gets the worm or, in this case, the parking spot.


It was a hiking day – we went to Cataract Falls, hiked the Gatlinburg trail with Odin, and hiked the nature trail to John Ownby cabin and back.  This park has over 800 miles of trails, many of which are backcountry.

The Mingus Mill is an 1886 grist mill with still-functional sluice, turbine and other machinery. Corn is still daily being ground into cornmeal by the miller.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the most visited national park in 2019 with over 12.5 million visitors. It’s within driving distance of a number of major cities. As a result of its popularity, many trailheads are overcrowded, it is difficult to find parking at visitor centers and, unless you go into the backcountry, solitude is scarce. Even so, this is an amazing park and an important part of our national park system.


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Hiking in the Four Corners – Summer 2020

In this, the “year of the pandemic”, Tom and I have been getting our exercise and recharging our attitudes, while social distancing, by hiking. Early in the year, we were arch hunting here in northwestern New Mexico. This summer, since it got quite hot to be hiking in the desert, we moved to higher elevations in the San Juan mountains. We generally try to find hikes that are not intense vertically as we are definitely not twenty-somethings anymore. We thoroughly enjoy getting out into nature.

Mountains, streams, and waterfalls can help restore a sense of calm and peace.

   Cascade Creek

    Colorado Trail

  First Fork Piedra


West Fork

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Four Corners, USA

When I decided to start including our adventures in the Four Corners region in my blog, I discovered that people who live here have a rather innate sense of what “Four Corners” means or maybe simply a sense of what it means to that individual. However, there is really no distinct circle you can draw on a map and say “this is it.” Four Corners Map

The Four Corners is a region consisting of the southwestern corner of Colorado, southeastern corner of Utah, northeastern corner of Arizona, and northwestern corner of New Mexico. The Four Corners is the only location in the United States where four states meet and is marked by the Four Corners Monument.


Much of the Four Corners region belongs to semi-autonomous Native American nations or is public land managed by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), the National Forest Service or the National Park Service.

Although the Four Corners region is mostly rural, rugged and arid, it does actually include diverse ecosystems encompassing forests, grasslands, and deserts. As a result, it offers a variety of exploration possibilities. Our hikes have taken us through desert canyons, up forested mountains, along rushing streams and down dry arroyos.


Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Pueblo Bonito5

Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico


Canyonlands National Park, Utah

North Window

Monument Valley, Arizona

San Juan Mountains, Colorado

La Sal Mountains, Utah             Wolfman Panel, Butler Wash, Utah

Bisti Wilderness, New Mexico

Posted in Arizona, Bisti Wilderness, Canyonlands National Park, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Colorado, Four Corners, La Sal Mountains, LaPlata Mountains, Mesa Verde National Park, New Mexico, San Juan Mountains, Southwestern U.S., Utah, wilderness | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Arches of San Juan County, New Mexico; part 2



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Arches of San Juan County, New Mexico

IMG_5304In this time of social distancing, Tom and I are fortunate enough to live in a place where there is a lot of open space. We’ve been getting our exercise by arch hunting. It feels good to get out and hike, just us and our dog. We decided it was time to share some of the photos of arches we’ve found.

IMG_5454We’ve been hunting arches on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) public land. The roads we’ve been using are oil field roads and range from poor to bad to worse. You don’t travel very fast on those roads so there is plenty of time to look around and determine where we want to start hiking.

More than 400 natural arches have been documented in San Juan County, New Mexico. A natural arch is defined by the Natural Arch and Bridge Society as “a rock exposure that has a hole completely through it formed by the natural, selective removal of rock, leaving a relatively intact frame.”

We started with a brochure ( from the Aztec New Mexico website  showing several “arch tours” with photos of arches, directions, and coordinates. Since then, we’ve moved on to hunt for additional arch sites listed on the website. We’ve also found numerous other arches in our hiking around – many quite small.

Basically, we’ve been out wandering around looking for holes in rocks. There is an added dimension to the hunt in that it depends entirely on the angle and the light at any given time as to whether you even see the arch or not. Sometimes they are hidden in plain sight and sometimes we are sure we’ve spotted another one and it turns out to be an illusion created by light on rock. Mother Nature loves to be a bit elusive.IMG_5426



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Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site


In November, we went to St. Louis to add Gateway Arch National Park to our list of national parks we have visited. While there we also went to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. The day we were there was cold and rainy and we were the only visitors. As such we had the volunteer guide all to ourselves. The site itself is very small and the Grants only lived there a few years but the museum housed in the horse barn was extremely well-done and presented a quite complete picture of Grant the man.  Hence the following “history lesson.”


This 10-acre historic site in suburban St. Louis offers a glimpse into life in Missouri prior to the Civil War. This plantation, known as White Haven, originally encompassing about 850 acres, was established by Grant’s father-in-law, Colonel Frederick Dent. This historic site tells the story of the collision of diametrically opposing viewpoints concerning slavery as well as the story of the enslaved people themselves.

One of the first questions we (and apparently most other visitors) had for the volunteer who took us on a tour was – the plantation is called White Haven so why is the house painted a very bright green? We were told that originally the house was a cream color but was repainted several times and this particular green, called Paris Green, was the color of the house during the Grant family’s ownership and Grant’s presidency. Paris Green was popular during the Victorian era and was rather expensive so could be seen as a symbol of the prosperity of the owner. As a side note, Paris Green was also quite toxic made with an arsenic-based compound.


From our history courses, we knew Ulysses S. Grant as the commanding general of the Union forces who  brought the Confederacy to surrender. We knew he was elected president after the war and was not a very effective president. We had been told that Grant was a perpetual heavy-drinker. However, in the museum we learned much more about the man himself and it was a very different perspective.


Ulysses S. Grant was from Ohio, a free state, and born Hiram Ulysses Grant into a family of abolitionists. His father, Jesse Grant, was a tanner but Hiram had no interest in that profession. At age seventeen, his father arranged for him to enroll in West Point. A clerical error there listed him as Ulysses S. Grant and, not wanting to be rejected, he changed his name right then and there.

After graduation from West Point, Grant was stationed in St. Louis where he met his future wife, Julia Dent. Julia was born and raised in the slave state of Missouri and her father, Frederick Dent, owned at least 30 enslaved African Americans, vital to the success of his plantation. Julia was raised to believe that the Dent slaves were ”family” and content in their servitude.


Grant and Julia were married in 1848. Over the next six years the couple had four children and Grant was assigned to a number of posts in the west while his family stayed in St. Louis. During that time, his fondness for alcohol seemed to become a problem and in 1854 he resigned from the army. Grant and his family moved to White Haven where he unsuccessfully attempted to become a farmer. The opposing viewpoints of Grant and his father-in-law on the issue of slavery had to make things very difficult at times. The Grants lived at White Haven until 1859 when they moved to Galena, Illinois.

A part of the story at White Haven was the story of the Dent slaves, their daily labor, struggles and longing for freedom. Slavery remained legal in the border state of Missouri and the state was exempt from Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Dent never freed his slaves but by early 1864 all of them simply fled the plantation.


Shortly after the Civil War started in 1861, Grant became a soldier again. After four long years the Civil War ended and Grant was considered a hero. In 1868, Grant was elected President of the United States.

Unfortunately, he was not nearly as good a president as he had been a general. He worked to implement Reconstruction and supported both amnesty for Confederate leaders and civil rights for former slaves. He worked for ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. However, his administration was plagued by numerous scandals and those scandals have become the best-remembered features of his time in office.

After retiring from the Presidency, Grant’s business ventures failed. After learning he had cancer of the throat, he started writing his memoir to pay off his debts and provide for his family. That memoir, published by his friend Mark Twain, ultimately did that. Soon after completing the last page, in 1885, Grant died.

The real takeaway from visiting Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in Missouri was a better understanding of Grant as a man and the characteristics that actually defined him.


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