Q&A with Bob Howells

Bob Howells on the 'other' National Parks



Q&A with Bob Howells
Writer Bob Howells answered your letters about the national parks.

Must-stops on road trip out West
Led astray? No trees at the Petrified Forest!
Is Saguaro doomed, now that it's a park?
In search of the great Ohio Outback
Secret spots near South Bend, Indiana
Suggestions in the Northwest?
No really, the best parks
Blockbusters busy but worthwhile
So what gems didn't you list in the magazine?
Shorter trips in the North Cascades?
Should Ranger Rick be armed?
Allowing dangerous sports in parks
Any new parks in the works?
Which parks have low crime?


Must-stops on road trip out West
Dear Bob: Nice to know that there's an expert on the other end of this terminal. Being a rookie at both backpacking and Western protocol I'd like to know what you think I should not miss on my upcoming journey into the great unknown.

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.
Bill
102077.2206@compuserve.com

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:

  • New Mexico: Acoma Pueblo near Grants. Oldest continuous settlement in North America. Also nearby is El Malpais National Monument--weird volcanic badlands.
  • Arizona: Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "shay"), Monument Valley (Utah border--John Wayne Western country) and the Hopi mesas along Hwy 264. You'll hear Navajo and Hopi on the radio!
  • Utah: Moab, if you want to try mountain biking in God's Country. Arches National Monument is nearby. Read Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire first.
  • Colorado: Great Sand Dunes National Monument and the amazing, uncrowded south-central region.

But you could miss every one of these and still have an incredible trip. I'll take you up on that fishing offer.

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Led astray? No trees at the Petrified Forest.
Dear Bob: I've been reading Outside for a few years now, and enjoy it. The majority of the places discussed, I have never been. Most are too expensive, in time and money. Of course, from time to time, Outside will discuss some areas I've been--and I've agreed with all that's been said. Until now.

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.
Ken Piper
kpiper@Advent.COM

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.

Not.

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?

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Is Saguaro doomed, now that it's a park?
Question: Bob, I understand the Saguaro National Monument has been designated a national park. What does that mean for the marvelous desert? Are we in for a bunch of resort buildings and cotton-candy vendors?

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?

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In search of the great Ohio Outback
Question: Bob, read your article in the current Outside and found it very interesting. Since I live in Ohio I'm interested in your thoughts on something out this way. If you have any suggestions (other than move!) I would appreciate them. Thanks in advance.
Maquette@AOL.com

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.

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Secret spots near South Bend, Indiana
Question: Bob, we vacation once a year, and because of our difficulties driving long distances we travel from Chicago to a cabin in Potato Creek State Park where we have exhausted most of the known attractions. Could you suggest some secluded areas we could visit in the admittedly dreary Midwest?
udkivele@ecom3.ecn.bgu.edu

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.

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Suggestions in the Northwest?
Question: Hi, Bob. Where can I go in the Northwest states to find a great non-crowded park?
jbrenton@agt.net

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.

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No really, the best parks
Question: Where are the best parks?
Richard Teahan
teahan@thomaspublishing.com

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.

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Blockbusters busy but worthwhile
Question: I recently returned from a trip to Yellowstone and the Tetons. Both parks were very busy, but we managed quite well and had little problem finding camping sites (we made reservations or got to campsites early). I think the park service has excellent people, but they have problems with the volume at the parks in July and August. Also, some of the huge RVs do damage to the infrastructure of the parks which are a drain on time and money to repair. I think better roads and an increase in staff for the busy months will significantly improve service and visitor enjoyment.
John T. Mack
bostonjm@umich.edu

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.

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So what gems didn't you list in the magazine?
Question: Aside from the eight parks you wrote about for
the magazine story, do you have any other personal favorites? If so, why didn't they make Outside's short list?

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.

Also, every national park in Alaska save for Denali qualifies as unsung. Outside covered them in the May '95 issue. (Editor's note: Also see our Spolight on Alaska)

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Shorter trips in the North Cascades?
Question: I live in Seattle, so the North Cascades National Park is within striking distance for me. Your backcountry sampler mentions a five-day hike, but I can't take that much time off. Do you have any suggestions for good but shorter backpacking trips in that park?

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.

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Should Ranger Rick be armed?
Question: Recently there has been a heated debate in Congress over the arming of park rangers and wildlife agents. Should park rangers carry guns?

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.

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Allowing dangerous sports in parks
Question: When, if ever, will national parks ease restrictions on people pursuing dangerous sports? If they are not posing a danger to others, sign a release, and are held responsible for their own rescue and treatment, is it then reasonable to allow such things as bungee jumping?

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.

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Any new parks in the works?
Question: Are there any new national parks in the works?

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.

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Which parks have low crime?
Question: My buddy had his wallet stolen out of our car at Canyonlands NP last spring. Can you tell us which parks tend to have the least crime? Which have the most?

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.

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