They’re Not Just National, You Know
By Jeff Salter
I have visited a LOT of parks and monuments (and reserves) over the years and, to tell the truth, I can’t recall which were “national” and which were “state.” It was sufficient for me to know that somebody was taking care of them and allowing us to share in their beauty.
In a blog from this time four years ago, I briefly describe our first family vacation in 1958, which included stopovers in several parks (large and small). With the exception of the following year, I believe we took a long trip annually until we left LA in summer of 1965. In those travels, we covered pieces of about 30 states, as I recall.
Though a few places were bland or disappointing [see my list below], most of the parks we visited were majestic and inspiring and elevated — nothing at all like the flat, humid, nearly sea level southeast Louisiana where we lived. I was so impressed by many of our tours, that I decided I wanted to be a park ranger when I grew up — I wanted to be the guy living there and conducting those tours!
As I read over my partial list, three things stick out:
** The places I most enjoyed were those which allowed us the most free rein to explore on our own.
** Since our home turf was mostly flat, I was especially fond of parks where we could climb stuff — the higher, the better.
** The parks which allowed hands-on experiences were far more memorable than those with barriers where you could only gaze upon features from a distance.
Some Of The Especially Memorable Places
One of my all-time favorite memories (and one of our earliest trips — probably fourth grade) is Bandolier National Monument (NM) — where my big brother and I scampered up rustic ladders to a partly reconstructed Kiva some 140 feet up a steep cliff. Our parents turned us loose and we had the time of our lives. In retrospect, I never would’ve let my own 9-year-old make that climb (unless I was directly behind him/her). Bandolier also had a long hiking trail which we set out upon, assuming from the posted sign that it was about 1.4 miles long. Turns out that was the distance ONE-WAY. So my young legs tired quickly and my dad had to carry me on his back for half of the return trip.
Yellowstone National Park (mostly WY) — We saw Old Faithful spout, we saw bears swarm around the lined-up cars, and I was especially intrigued by volcanic pits of bubbling whatever.
Yosemite National Park (CA) — We traipsed among titanic sequoias and redwoods and saw (in the distance) El Capitan cliff. One evening, we witnessed the Yosemite Firefall, a warm weather event, in which burning hot embers were spilled from the top of Glacier Point to the valley 3,000 feet below.
Side-by-side California parks, with enormous boulders to climb and majestic giant trees to ooh and ahh over were Sequoia National Park and King’s Canyon National Park.
Craters of the Moon National Monument (ID) — Charles and I were allowed to go exploring by ourselves and had a memorable time.
Grand Canyon National Park (AZ) — We wanted to go to the bottom but had insufficient time or $$$ (or both). Actually I saw this twice… the second time with Denise and toddler David.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park (NM) — Beautiful and spooky when they turned out the lights. Visited this twice also… the second time with Denise, very pregnant with David.
Bryce Canyon National Park (UT) — Romped all over the trails… had a great time.
Zion National Park (UT) — beautiful trails, but don’t recall any particulars.
Mammoth Cave (KY) — I visited this site as a grownup with kids.
Mesa Verde National Park (CO) — We arrived too late in the day to visit the pueblos close-up, but we could see them in the distance.
State Parks I Enjoyed
Longhorn Cavern State Park (TX) — Don’t recall how or why, but our family had the tour guide to ourselves. Not as many features as Carlsbad and not nearly the extent of its network, but it was fun to enjoy it “privately”.
Huge outdoor swimming “pool” — (Toyahvale TX) part of Balmorhea State Park. Fed by a DEEP natural spring. Billed as the world’s largest spring-fed pool (at the time), it freaked me out to swim across the deep end and see all sorts of marine life many leagues below me.
Silver Springs State Park (FL) — Not only was it beautiful, but it was legendary because most of the water scenes of the early Tarzan films were supposedly filmed there. It was also not far from Ross Allen’s Reptile Farm, another highlight of my childhood.
Dinosaur Valley State Park (TX) which had a few preserved dinosaur tracks still visible in the stone.
Parks That Were Something of a Let-Down
Petrified Forest National Park (AZ) — I had expected to see solidified, standing Triassic trees. But it was mostly partial logs and small chunks of logs / branches scattered on the ground … and they would not allow you to take souvenirs.
Painted Desert (mostly AZ) — hardly has a separate identity from the Petrified Forest. Everything was way off in the distance and it was not nearly as colorful as the brochures suggested.
Great Salt Lake State Park (UT) — Supposedly the largest salt water lake in the Western Hemisphere. Its size varies with water level, but typically covers about 1700 square miles. Yep — lake, large, salty water. Not a thrill since we’d been to Lake Ponchartrain numerous times.
Meteor Crater (AZ) [a National Natural Landmark] — Despite its importance as a geological site, the crater is not protected as a national monument, a status that would require federal ownership. At 3900 feet diameter and 560 feet depth, it was just an enormous hole in the ground. I would’ve enjoyed it more if they’d let me climb down to the bottom like Jeff Bridges (later) did in Starman.
White Sands National Monument (NM) — not to be confused with the missile range. Yep, plenty of sand and all white … and you never got it out of your shoes.
Great Sand Dunes National Park (CO) — Yeah, plenty of dunes, all sand… a great place to film a Sahara Desert movie without traveling to Africa.
Everglades National Park (FL) — near the southern tip of Florida. I’d expected a massive swamp like I’d seen in the movies, but it was more like the woods of Louisiana. We saw no animals to speak of… just a wooden pedestrian causeway through a teeny corner of the park (and skeeters… which I’d been told would guarantee us catching malaria).
La Brea Tar Pits (CA) — tiny black pit in the middle of downtown L.A. with a chain link fence around it. All the dinosaurs had already been pulled out and stuck in museums somewhere else.
Places I’d Never Go Back To
Big Bend National Park (TX) — the southernmost tip of Texas. All I remember was intense heat and thousands of gnats that aimed specifically for your eyes and nostrils. Misery… and nothing to “see”.
Other Cool Places
When we lived in Catahoula Parish LA for a few years, one of our favorite haunts was a little ( ? parish ? ) park on a hill above Harrisonburg. Fort Beauregard was one of four Confederate forts guarding the Ouachita River during the Civil War. Nothing remained of the fort itself, but the park had rocks to climb, trails to hike, and cool “stairs” (steps cut into enormous logs). It was fun to visit.
Other places we’ve lived (or visited) have had lovely parks with streams, caves, waterfalls, trails, and whatever — I’ve enjoyed them all. Most were local unheralded parks, such as the lovely ones my brother always found wherever he lived.
What about you? Which big parks have you enjoyed? Which have been disappointing?
[JLS # 293]