Sunday, July 3, 2011

Making the [National Park] Rounds

At some point, I came to an odd realization: I've seen more of the natural wonders of places like Mongolia, Argentina, Nepal, and New Zealand than I have of our very own U.S. of A. This didn't seem right - there's no shortage of natural wonders to see in this country of ours ... so, over the past twelve months, I've started making a conscious effort to check some of the more famous American outdoor sites off the list.

Let's begin in upstate New York just under a year ago - the Niagara Falls:

Iguazu's still bigger, but Niagara is mighty impressive

Traversing this grand country of ours (by rail) for a couple of days brought me to the Great Plains, and pretty soon, I was staring at one of the grandest man-made outdoor sites in the world:

South Dakota's Mount Rushmore

Which brings up some philosophical quandaries - it surely is an outdoor site, but it's not exactly natural... I say as long as it's a National Park, and is one of the more heavily visited of American sites, it belongs on this list!

So, moving right along - likely the single best known of America's natural wonders, and certainly the grandest (no pun intended) is Arizona's Grand Canyon. This one, I'd actually been to once before, but that was all the way back in '99, when I was such an un-seasoned traveler that I didn't even have a digital camera. All fixed on the visit this past March:

The Canyon was glorious and snow-covered shortly after sun-rise on this early spring day

So, Niagara, Rushmore, Grand Canyon... how to round that bunch out? Right - Yellowstone! You don't get a lot more authentic with your outdoor sites than the gigantic tract of land comprising the world's first National Park. So, early June, just under a year since having started this latest journey of discovery at Niagara Falls, I landed in Yellowstone to join my parents for a week of sightseeing at this grand national park.

Yellowstone, looking positively other-wordly with geysers smoking all around

The geysers are constantly going off - this one is simply [and appropriately] named "The Grand," seen sending a powerful spray of water up here

When not exploding, the thermal features are busy smoking (a bit menacingly) and creating an astonishing array of bright colors. The Grand Prismatic Spring pictured

I didn't have much time to research Yellowstone before arriving - it's huge, there's a bunch of geysers, a lot of wildlife - no shortage of sites to see. The details of these sites we learned en route - none disappointed. Yellowstone is actually amazingly vast and diverse, it's not just Old Faithful and the rest of the geyser bunch - traversing the park puts you through an ever-changing cavalcade of scenery: the geysers and the hot springs give way to the lakes, waterfalls, and rivers, which merge into the Canyons, which lead you to Lamar Valley - "America's Serengeti," dubbed so for its wide mixture of wildlife out easily in view. And then, there's the Mammoth step springs up in the North-Western corner of the park, which simply defy classification altogether. Click here for a hundred or so pictures of the best of the park, but a few more of the highlights:

A pair of buffalo playfully fighting early in the morning... all of 20 or so feet away from the road

Mom, dad, welcome to the blog! The three of us at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone - not quite the Grand Canyon, but pretty Grand nonetheless!

And eventually, you might start thinking, "you know, one thing that's missing here? That's some big ol' mountains - up close and personal! There's snowy peaks off on the horizon, but couldn't they have planted them a little closer!?" Well, never fear - just drive South for two or so hours (and the one thing that annoys me about American National Parks is that you do absolutely have to drive everywhere) and you are surrounded by those snowy elusive peaks, smack in the middle of the Grand Teton National Park, dominating the valley of Jackson Hole:

The Teton Range

The mountains rising up above Jenny Lake on a beautiful, sunny day out in the park

And at this point... I think it's safe to say my American National Parks are beginning to catch up to all those other far off lands. Sure Yosemite, which I'm yet to see, makes a strong argument for being in the top five (and it remains high on the list), along with Alaska's Denali, Hawaii's big volcanoes, Florida's Everglades, Montana's Glacier National Park... who knows what else! But a few at a time, and so far, over these past twelve months, I'm off to a good start. Mt. Rainier, right here next to Seattle, continues to beckon to be climbed as well, and that may well be the next piece of American Nature to conquer, as I keep hoping/planning to summit this year... If I can get there before July 24th, it'll even fall within a year of Niagara!

So pretty... so beckoning! Not even nearly as tall as the mountains in Nepal, Bolivia, Peru... it must and shall be conquered!

Still not convinced about the variety of natural wonders to be seen in this vast land of ours? A few more picturesque destinations from the year past:
The Tulip Fields in Washington's Skagit Valley
Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada and the Rocks of Sedona, Arizona
The Mountains of Utah
A different perspective of Mt. Rainier, still just outside of Seattle
The Playa of the Burning Man festival... one of the most spectacularly amazing settings
Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Bay - did you know it too is now the domain of the National Park Service?
Victoria Island and its Burchart Gardens are in Canada, but I'm willing include the great land up North in this little exhibition!
Devil's Tower, on the great plains of Montana (you're gonna have to scroll down some)

And a couple more natural sites of note rewinding another year back in the way back machine: Lake Tahoe and Crater Lake.