Q&A with Bob Howells
Writer Bob Howells answered your letters about the national parks.
Must-stops on road trip out West
Must-stops on road trip out West
My girlfriend and I are leaving Florida and planning on spending a month checking out as much of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado as we can. The only thing etched in stone is that we have a three-day raft trip through the Grand Canyon. Otherwise, we're on our own with no timetable and not much input as to what to check out. We just bought a bunch of backpacking gear and are anxiously awaiting trying to use it (grin). Any help or suggestions that you may have would be greatly appreciated. Being Florida people, we're pretty used to flat and sandy, so we don't have a whole lot of experience with mountains, etc. But, we're looking forward to learning.
BTW, I'm a charter captain here, so if you're ever in the area and want to catch fish, let me know.
Bob: What I'd really like to do is come along with you! Even if you stick to the obvious, you'll have a great time. But I have a few favorite places I highly recommend:
But you could miss every one of these and still have an incredible trip. I'll take you up on that fishing offer.
Led astray? No trees at the Petrified Forest.
I read "Parkland Incognito." At first, I was intrigued. I read through the first two parks and thought the parks sounded great. I was skeptical about the Halls Creek Narrows as a "rival to the famous Zion Narrows," but I've never seen it, so I have to take your word on it.
Then, I came upon the section entitled Petrified Forest National Park. Here's the one place I've been, and I couldn't believe you mentioned the park. When my girlfriend and I traveled across country, we went out of our way to see it. Reading from different texts, we thought it may be interesting. It was not. It's an arid, mostly flat desert, with NO forests. I'm an educated man, and I've always believed a forest to contain more than 17 rocks. It was barren. Any hike would take you directly through a sandy, unshaded, sun-beaten hike.
When I first viewed your article, I thought that you would present some viable alternatives to the big parks--similar, but less crowded. But Petrified Forest is not an alternative.
What, you may ask, is my point? This: You offer no disclaimers. The assumption is that this park is a viable alternative to the "Blockbusters." This is completely false. A simple comment, such as "you must be a desert lover," or "the dramatic formations and animal life of other parks are few and far between here." Your average reader is not a geologist, and should be warned about seeking places like this.
To quote a trustworthy travel guide, Let's Go USA, "Color postcards may make it appear impressive, but the park consists of 60,000 acres of monotonous Arizona desert sparsely dotted with tree logs that turned into rock some 225 million years ago...the park is not really worth the transportation hassle."
I have a feeling that there are some very nice people, who spent quality time and money to visit that park--under your advice--and are seeing something less then expected. And they have you to thank. From now on in, I'm going to read every Outside article with a grain of salt. A little explanation goes a long way.
Bob: Dear Ken, Gee, last time I was there the place was flourishing with lush gumbo limbo trees and a thick undergrowth of bracken ferns.
Earth to Ken: It's a DESERT. A fact apparently of no consequence to those Harvard twits who publish the Let's Go series. The desert's not for everyone, but . . .
Did you happen to go on the hike I suggested in my article, out in the heart of the Painted Desert? Did you happen to catch sunset or sunrise with the rock glowing neon, or did you see the sun re-emerge after a thunderstorm that made the air taste like spring water? Or did you spend all of two hours there taking the same hikes everyone else takes--which was the point of my story. Get off the beaten path. I agree: petrified logs hold my attention for about ten minutes. After that, it's time to hike in some of the most splendid solitude available in North America.
Oh, well. The Grand Canyon is just a big hole in the ground, eh?
Is Saguaro doomed, now that it's a park?
Bob: I don't know what's in store. I have similar concerns about Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve out here. The latter just transferred from the laissez-faire BLM to the NPS. Yes, it will receive stronger protection, but the Park Service is known for exerting a heavy hand in planning. They tell me that things will stay the same. Still, I'm a little nervous. How long can they resist putting up a visitor center with the obligatory stuffed hawk and chipmunk? Paving all the roads? Ruining views with their ubiquitous signs? Desert boardwalks so your shoes don't get sandy? Then, can soft-serve ice cream be far behind?
In search of the great Ohio Outback
Bob: Boy, if you're not willing to move, you sure limit my options, not to mention your own.
If I stay true to the theme of my article, national parks, I have nothing to offer you because Ohio doesn't have any. Even if I extend my purview to national monuments, it doesn't get much more exciting than the presidential homes of James A. Garfield and Tub o' Lard himself, William Howard Taft, father of the national income tax.
I'd head up I-75 to Michigan's Upper Peninsula--itself a worthy destination--then take a ferry out to Isle Royale National Park from Copper Harbor. It offers much the same solitude and activites as Voyageurs NP in my article. You could also head northeast to the Adirondacks of New York--though not national park, it's the closest area to you that offers the uncrowded vastness of the great, uncrowded national parks. Lots of wilderness to explore from gateways like Saranac Lake.
Secret spots near South Bend, Indiana
Bob: Not too familiar with the Midwest, but a trustworthy friend and former South Bender with good outdoor taste offers these recommendations:
First of all, west to east and within a 45-mile radius of South Bend: Traveling east on I-80 toll road take the cutoff north to Indiana Dunes State Park. It rests on the shore of Lake Michigan and is quite scenic and a great place for a day hike and picnic. Can be quite crowded during summer months. In the same general area is Holland, Michigan, a few miles north along the road that parallels the lake. In the spring is a tulip festival and the town is really decked out in color. There is also an amusement park (on an island) for kids. Some good restuarants in the area. As the name suggests, it's all a Dutch theme.
Within South Bend, a must-stop is the Notre Dame campus. There are walking trails around the lake, the grotto, and just wandering the campus. It is quite spectacular in the fall. There is a relatively good public cafeteria. Souvenirs from the campus book shop are a must. For fine dining, try the Morris Inn on campus--good and very reasonably priced.
In the summer time there is a festival at a local St. Patricks Park with some pretty decent plays, ballets, musicals, and concerts. It is in an amphitheater setting and really quite nice. There is also swimming and fishing.
There is a restored area in South Bend that is on the river. Once an industrial complex, it now includes antique and craft shops and a couple of decent restaurants. It offers riverboat rides on the St. Joseph River. There is also the river walk along the St. Joseph River the whitewater kayakers practice their skills. It is an Olympic training center for the world-class kayakers.
Of course, just east of South Bend is Elkhart (No, I am not going to suggest any RV plant tours) where a very good jazz festival draws top entertainers in the jazz world in July or August.
Finally, take the route that parallels the river going east out of Elkhart to a very scenic park called Bonnie Mill State Park. It has a beautiful old restored mill and places for picnicking. East of Elkhart, the town of Middlebury is in the heart of Amish country. There are two good Amish restaurants in the area, as well as places to buy Amish crafts and quilts.
That should keep 'em busy.
Bob: My favorite park in the Northwest is North Cascades National Park. It draws a fraction of the visitation of Mount Rainier, Olympic, or Crater Lake. The backcountry is awesome--jagged peaks and spires that contrast with wildflower-freckled green meadows. It has wilderness access via two lakes: Chelan and Ross. And even if (shudder) you only drive through, the North Cascades Highway is one of the world's great drives.
Bob: I'm a little partial to the big horizons of the West like Capitol Reef in Utah or North Cascades in Washington, both described in my article in the August issue of Outside. These parks have but one or two roads--otherwise just lots of land and air. Alaska, of course, is incredible. There's a fine article in the May issue of Outside about those little-trammeled parks.
Blockbusters busy but worthwhile
Bob: Yeah, there's a lot of visitor pressure on those parks in midsummer. That's exactly why I sing the praises of the unsung parks in my August article. The answer to park crowding lies in going to uncrowded parks, or to the marquee parks during shoulder seasons. I found myself in Grand Teton once on Labor Day. I feared the worst, but the park was uncrowded. It was back-to-school time already.
I can't agree with your comment about RVs damaging the infrastructure of a park. Lodges, inns, bars, restaurants, yes. But a self-contained RV is utterly benign. I'm sure we agree that viewing satellite television is blaphsemy in God's country. They may be making mush of their brains, but bless their souls, those RVers do little or no harm to the parks they visit.
So what gems didn't you list in the magazine?
Bob: Channel Islands National Park in Southern California takes that prize. It didn't make the short list only because Outside recently covered it. These islands are So Cal as it was before the white man arrived--pristine, with sea caves to paddle in, mountain bike trails to ride, stunning wildflowers in spring. I should say mostly pristine--there is some grazing. It's a great place to visit year round. For overnighting, you're pretty much restricted to the campground and dorm at Scorpion Ranch. Call Island Packers (805-642-7688) for information.
Shorter trips in the North Cascades?
Bob: Actually, there's a way to do Desolation Peak without such an investment in time: Take a water taxi from Ross Lake Resort and ask to be dropped at Lightning Creek. You can camp near the shore, do the round trip-climb in a day, then return the following day. Or, lug your stuff to the top and camp at the lookout. Be sure to take a copy of Desolation Angels with you.
Bob: My opinion? I wouldn't want to face ya-hoos in the woods with a biology book. I spent several summers working in parks. Not that I carried a gun, but I was sure glad I could call for backup.
Allowing dangerous sports in parks
Bob: Hey, we're talking the Feds here. They regulate things for a living. I say if it's clean, nonmotorized, and doesn't hurt the resource, it should be allowed. But I must admit, I haven't had to scrape up any paraglider residue from Yosemite granite or rescue some schmo who's gotten himself into an over-his-head fix. When you've done that a few times, it's hard to say live and let die.
Bob: Have you checked lately to see who's running Congress? National monuments can be decreed by presidential order. A new park would need Newt's blessing.
Bob: Wrangell-St. Elias NP in Alaska is six times the size of Yellowstone and gets approximately two visitors a year. Unless one of them is a fugitive from justice, you have a pretty good chance of a crime-free experience there. Actually, all of the parks in my article are a whole lot safer than your commute to work.