I really, really needed this trip. I needed to get out of town, to put on my pack and walk into the woods. I needed to spend a few hours in the car, music up and windows down. I needed to be alone in the woods, to take myself to dinner, to drink new beers, to catch up with one of my oldest friends. I just needed to go.
Ugh, you guys, Death Valley is so good. It's so good I cried on the way into the park. It was so pretty, so breathtaking, so different and so brilliant that it brought fat, literal tears to my eyes, tears so fucking big they rolled down my cheeks.
This is surprising to me because I've always thought of myself a forest creature, but here I am, spending all my vacation time in the desert, scaring lizards from their sun-soaked perches, guzzling water by the gallon, talking to cactus friends and falling madly, deeply and truly in love with America's deserts.
Shenandoah is, in a way, my home park. I was born in the mountains that it protects and I grew up driving up and down the Skyline Drive, but I think I took it for granted and, as a kid, I was restricted to whatever the adults wanted to do, which mostly wasn’t hiking. Plus, I’m a very different sort of explorer than I was growing up, and so, I’ve promised myself I’ll be better about visiting Shenandoah this year, that I’ll hike more and explore and just do more.
When I first planned this adventure, way back in February, my aim was to see waterfalls. After some brief internet investigating, I decided to follow the advice of Hiking Upward and hike a 6.6 mile loop that started from the Brown’s Gap parking area and included part of the Appalachian Trail, the Jones Run Trail and the Doyles River Trail, which is also listed here as the Browns Gap Hike.
the APPALACHIAN TRAIL
The Appalachian Trail is a 2,200 mile public footpath that follows the Appalachian Mountains from Maine all the way to Georgia. Finished in 1937, it was built by private citizens and today is managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a bunch of state agencies and thousands of volunteers. It’s a National Scenic Trail and, along it’s many miles, it winds through a total of nine states.
More than 500 miles of the A.T. goes through Virginia, including 104 miles that cuts through Shenandoah National Park. Secretly, I want to hike all of those miles, but on this particular adventure, I settled for starting my hike with 1.4 miles of the A.T, which I picked up on the other side of the Skyline Drive from the parking lot at Brown’s Gap.
The A.T. is white-blazed and easy to follow and I spent the mile and a half of my hike along the A.T. thinking that yes, this whole hiking thing is a thing I want to do more of and maybe I might even be convinced to carry a bunch of shit on my back across many, many miles just for the chance to go further and deeper into the wild.
the JONES RUN TRAIL
From the A.T., I turned left to head downhill on the blue-blazed Jones Run Trail and, after following Jones Run for a while, I hit the first set of falls after 1.6 miles, followed by the main falls in another tenth of a mile.
I can’t explain the magic of waterfalls. There’s a draw there, obviously, or people wouldn’t trek miles and miles just to catch a glimpse of one.
After the waterfalls, I followed the trail for just over half a mile as it ran alongside and then crossed Jones Run. Shortly after the crossing, I turned left and headed up-hill and away from Jones Run onto blue-blazed Doyles River Trail.
the DOYLES RIVER TRAIL
1. THE GLACIER NATIONAL PARK BEAR.
Y’all, I’m obsessed. At Glacier National Park there is a bear. A black bear who lives in a cottonwood tree. This bear was first observed on March 23rd as it slowly woke up from the deep slumber of hibernation. Knowing that sometimes a bear hibernates in this tree, the incredible folks at Glacier set up a webcam in advance of bear-waking-up season and so now you can watch this bear participate in bear shenanigans 24/7.
For a good part of the day, the bear lazes about, sometimes out of sight inside the den. It hasn’t left the cottonwood tree yet, but it does frequently frolic among the branches of the tree, sometimes even getting in fights with sticks. The bear has also been spotted making worried faces at a visiting bird, licking snow off the edges of their den, yawning, stretching, making den renovations, staring down at the ground which is very far away, and also just being a bear and doing bear things.
I’ve seen a few bears in the wild, in both Alaska and Virginia, and I’ve seen bears in the zoo, but this is a totally different sort of thing. It is a for-real wild bear living its best bear life doing bear things and it’s maybe the best thing the internet has ever given me.
I acquired a cold over the weekend and spent Sunday and Monday on the couch in full recovery mode. It was the first cold I’ve had in a really long time – months, for sure, maybe even more than year. The cold was over pretty quickly and it never reached the most awful level, and I’m going to go ahead and give the credit to the Zicam Fruit Drops I popped at the onset. I take them whenever I travel and whenever I start to feel a tickle in my throat or a sniffle in my nose and I swear they’re a big part of why I’ve been so healthy this winter.
I know I’m late to the party on this, like always, but I watched every single episode of GLOW – which stands for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling – while I was sick, and, you guys, IT’S SO GOOD. I’m just sad I now have to wait for the next season because I NEED IT.
4. DOG WALKS.
One of the things I wanted to be better about this year was taking my fake wolves for walks, and with spring weather here for a few days, me and the pups have taken some delightful walks this week. I think we made it out three times, each time walking for a few miles. They love it, I get my steps in and being out in the sun was a welcome change after feeling so shitty over the weekend.
5. THE HIKE I FINALLY GOT TO GO ON.
I’d ended up there by chance. The original plan had been to fly roundtrip from Phoenix, spending a night or two there before heading north to Flagstaff for the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest and some of the smaller national monuments in northern Arizona. When rental car prices topped $400, I called foul and starting exploring other options, like flying into Tucson and out of Phoenix, and, amazingly, car rentals from Tucson to Phoenix were less than half of what a roundtrip car from Phoenix would have cost.
So I bought the plane tickets, booked the hotel rooms, the car and redesigned my itinerary to include Tucson and, most importantly, Saguaro National Park, which sandwiches Tucson between the Tucson Mountain District in the west and the Rincon Mountain District in the east.
HISTORY OF SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
In 1933, President Herbert Hoover established Saguaro National Monument, then just a portion of what is today the Rincon Mountain District of the park. Talk of creating a place to preserve the iconic saguaro cactus plants had started in 1920, with members of the University of Arizona’s Natural History Society. When Hoover established the national monument, it didn’t get much notice, but it was a big deal for the people of Arizona who worked hard to protect the saguaros.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt transferred management of Saguaro to the National Park Service later in 1933, and the Civilian Conservation Corps built the Cactus Forest Loop Drive along with additional infrastructure. The national monument open to the public in the 1950s.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy added 16,000 acres to the monument, including what is now the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro. In 1994, Congress combined the two districts and redesignated Saguaro as a National Park with a total of 91,716 acres.
RINCON MOUNTAIN DISTRICT: SAGUARO NP’S EAST SIDE
I visited the east side of Saguaro National Park first, mostly because it was closest to my hotel. I was there just after the park opened at 7 a.m., and immediately jumped on the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, a paved one-way, eight-mile loop that circles the western side of the Rincon Mountain District. The drive includes numerous pull-offs, trailheads for short and long hikes, picnic areas and countless opportunities to get up close and personal with saguaros.
For an easy introduction to the desert, the Desert Ecology Trail highlights some of the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert, is paved and just 1/4 mile in length. Leashed dogs are allowed on the trail, and it’s also wheelchair accessible.
The park includes around 195 miles of trails, so whether you’re looking for a quick scamper or a wilderness hike, Saguaro has it. Part of the Arizona National Scenic Tail, which runs for 800 miles from the Mexican border to Utah, also cuts through the park.
After I drove the Cactus Forest Loop, I stopped in at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center to pick up a park patch and get some hiking advice. From there, I headed north, to the start of the Douglas Spring Trail and followed it to Bridal Wreath Falls, located about 2.7 miles down the trail. The path was rocky and gained about 1,000 feet in elevation by the time I got to the falls, but it was well worth the effort and provided some absolutely stunning views of Tucson.
TUCSON MOUNTAIN DISTRICT: SAGUARO NP’S WEST SIDE
After my hike I took a taco break, checked in to my hotel & headed to the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park. Depending on traffic, the two park districts are about 45 minutes apart. The east side of the park is slightly bigger and the includes a paved road, but the west side felt denser, more populated with visitors and, allegedly has a denser population of saguaros. That said, both sides include many miles of trails, large wilderness areas and an enormous saguaro population.
That first night I stuck to the main road leading into the park and wandered through the Desert Discovery Nature Trail as the sun set. Like the Desert Ecology Trail in the Rincon Mountain District, this is a short, paved loop that’s easily accessible and dog-friendly.
The next morning I headed first to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It’s not part of Saguaro National Park, but it’s right on the border of the park and provides an in-depth education on the Sonoran Desert and the plants and animals that live there. It’s part zoo, part museum and part desert botanical garden and houses 230 animal species and 1,200 plant varieties.
After the museum, I headed back into Saguaro National Park, stopping first at the Red Hills Visitor Center and then heading out to drive the unpaved six miles of the Bajada Scenic Loop. Like the loop drive in the eastern district, the Bajada Scenic Loop includes several scenic overlooks, trailheads and picnic areas.
During the drive, I stopped at almost every opportunity to take in the desert views, including at the Valley View Overlook Trail. The trail is short, steep and rocky and leads through two washes and then up a ridge to a view of the Avra Valley.
I also trekked the easy quarter mile out and back to Signal Hill, where you can easily see dozens of petroglyphs. I saw petroglyphs for the first time in New Mexico last year and seeing these remnants of past civilizations continues to impress and amaze me.
Both sides of the park are really, really incredible. I’m a Virginia girl and seeing the saguaros and the rest of the pricker-covered plants of the desert felt like entering a different world. The forests I walked through at Saguaro National Park are a totally different kind of forest than I’ve ever walked before and I’m so glad I ended up in Tucson and was able to explore this incredible place.
If you’re planning your own adventure to Saguaro National Park:
- drink a lot of water and then after you think you’ve done that, drink a bunch more.
- wear sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat to keep the sun off your beautiful face.
- get off the road and hike, either on one of the park’s many short trails or on a longer, bumpier, rock-filled and cactus-lined trail.
- stop for tacos and a Sonoran hot dog to keep you fueled for adventure time.
- explore both sides of the park; they’re different and similar and even after thinking about it for a week, I’m still not sure which one is my favorite.
- mind the weather, as summer temperatures can make the park unbearable in the afternoon hours.
Saguaro National Park’s Tucson Mountain District is open to vehicles from sunrise to sunset daily and the Rincon Mountain District is open to vehicles from 7 a.m. to sunset daily. You can walk or bike into the park 24 hours a day. Visitors centers are open 364 days a year (closed on Christmas) from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Admission is free with an American the Beautiful pass, or $15 per vehicle, $10 per motorcycle and $5 per person entering the park on foot or on a bicycle. To ensure you arrive at your intended park district,
use the addresses listed here
In New Mexico, I visited my two favorite parks on the same day. I started at Valles Caldera, arriving just after the gates opened at 8 a.m., snagged a pass to drive the preserve’s bumpy, pocked road and then let myself go. I danced in the middle of the road, sang at the top of my lungs and howled at the mountains, streams and fields. Then, I went to Bandelier National Monument to put myself back together.
Bandelier is very different from Valles Caldera. It is more established, with screaming children, confused tourists, a snack shop and a large gift store, all contained within the visitors center compound. At Valles Caldera, there’s a ranger station with a few t-shirts and magnets for sale and little else. I relished the solitude I found at Valles Caldera, but I wasn’t without it at Bandelier.
Due to limited parking, summer visits to Bandelier require visitors to ride a shuttle into the park between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., so I, being a sassy asshole, waited until 3 p.m. to enter the park. I stopped first in the visitor center where a very patient and kind volunteer was on the phone trying to explain all the park had to offer to what was a decidedly confused tourist. From there, I set out on the Main Loop Trail, the park’s most popular and accessible trail.
The Main Loop Trail is just 1.2 miles long, well-maintained and partially-paved with a few narrow stairways and ladders along the route that allows visitors the opportunity to climb into cavates, or small human-carved alcoves that once served as homes of the Ancestral Pueblo People who carved the cavates between 1150 and 1600 A.D.
I was there in early October, late in the afternoon, and the trail was somewhat crowded. I waited at the bottom of each ladder for my turn to climb into the cavates, standing there sheepishly while couples and kids climbed the ladders, posed for a kiss or a goofy look. At first, I felt silly taking my own turn in these spaces while groups waited for me to finish my own experience. But I wanted my own turn to climb the ladder, to peer out at the canyon floor and the ruins of the civilization and it occurred to me, as I squatted in one of the cavates that my enjoyment of the place and my right to experience it was not diminished just because I was alone.
While the Main Loop Trail provided an excellent introduction to Bandelier National Monument, the real magic came later, when I started on the half-mile trail to the Alcove House.
For starters, I met a tarantula.
The Alcove House sits 140 above the canyon floor and was once home to around 25 Ancestral Pueblo People. It’s accessible via four wooden ladders and a handful of stone steps.
I climbed up and up and up and again I was surprised at how difficult the effort felt. I’d been in New Mexico for a few days at that point but the elevation – around 7,000 feet above sea level – was still kicking my ass.
Plus, ladders are sort of scary.
At the top, there was one other group loudly exclaiming over the view. I took a group photo of them when they asked and then they headed back down, their chatter disappearing almost as soon as they did, and then I was alone, standing 140 feet up in an alcove that someone used to call home before America was even a thing.
I could see people on the trail below me and I knew I wasn’t really alone, knew that there were surely other guests making their way up the ladders to the Alcove, but for those few minutes, I felt alone in the best sort of way. It’s hard to capture it, that perfect, good sort of alone-ness. It isn’t lonely, not at all. It just feels right, like you’re there, alone, exactly as you should be.
As I left the park and headed back to my Airbnb llama farm in Santa Fe, I decided I hadn’t had enough. I wanted more of Bandelier. So, I woke up early the next morning and trekked back out there, before the sun was even up. I didn’t go back to the main part of the park. Instead, I went to Tsankawi, located about 12 miles before the main entrance right on State Highway 4. There’s a parking lot there and a 1.5-mile loop trail that opens at dawn.
Tsankawi, like the other sites at Bandelier National Monument, was home to Ancestral Pueblo People and was probably inhabited from the 15th century to the late 16th century. The trail there follows an ancient path, one worn by hundreds of years of foot traffic. It winds up to the top of a mesa, past a few cavates and over the ruined remains of hundreds of pieces of pottery.
At Tsankawi, I was completely alone and it seemed astounding to me that in our busy and complex world I could still stand in the middle of a hundreds-year-old footpath carved by the bare and sandaled feet of a people who lived there while Christopher Columbus was sailing around and getting lost. I stopped on the top of the mesa, trying to imagine what the village could have looked like, scouring the ground to look at pottery fragments, trying to imagine the bustle of a long-gone community.
I thought, going out there, that it would feel haunted, but it didn’t, not in a spooky way. It felt alive still, like the ground still remembered what life there was like, like the spirit of the place was still very much alive and present.
Bandelier National Monument is open dawn to dusk and the visitors center is open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Backcountry camping and exploring is available with a permit. Admission to Bandelier National Monument is $20 per vehicle and that pass is good for a full seven days. If you’re planning to visit a few National Parks in a year, consider purchasing an annual pass for $80 which will grant you access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, or, if you’re a member of the military, pick up your free annual pass.
On Thursday I pulled up the trip planner for Great Smoky Mountains National Park and gestured to a list of waterfall hikes.
“Pick one,” I said.
“That one,” he said, pointing to the short description of the hike to Ramsey Cascades which listed the waterfall as one of the tallest and most spectacular in the park. The 8-mile roundtrip hike, the guide proclaimed, was strenuous with a gain of more than 2,000 feet in elevation along “rushing rivers and streams” and “through [an] old-growth cove hardwood forest.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, a little surprised by his choice.
“Yes,” he said. “If we’re going to hike to a waterfall, we should hike to the best waterfall.”
“Okay,” I said. “Deal.”
Before the hike, we went to the visitor center, picked up a jar of local honey, a Ramsey Cascades patch and a walking stick for him.
At the checkout counter, the cashier asked if we’d done the Ramsey Cascades Trail. We told her we were about to, that we were headed there next.
“Now?!” she asked. “Are you sure? What time is it?”
It was just after 10 a.m., not late by any real standard, but once we told her the time she launched into a series of questions, asking if we had flashlights, if we had crampons to help us navigate through the ice that she was sure we’d find at the top of the trail, ice that could, she said, prevent us from making it to the waterfall.
“It’s eight miles, right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “The hardest eight miles of your life.”
We walked back to the car mostly silent and then, as I put my seatbelt on, I asked him if we should still attempt the hike. She’d rattled me, that lady, and I was nervous.
“Yes,” he said. “Of course we should.”
We stopped for snacks, loading his pack with water, pop tarts, beef jerky, gummy bears, almonds and bugles and then turned into the park at the Greenbrier entrance, winding our way down 4.7 miles of bumpy road to the trailhead.
At 11:20 a.m., we stepped off and started our hike. I was still nervous, but he reminded me of our collective fitness and the 34 years of combined military experience that have launched us through all sorts of terrain and tribulations.
“We’ll be fine,” he said.
The first mile and a half of the Ramsey Cascades Trail was easy. The trail led us down an old jeep road, slowly gaining in elevation and while the path was rocky, it was wide and easy to navigate.
“Maybe she was crazy,” I said, careful not to explicitly contradict the cashier’s dire warnings and half-convinced that any shit-talking would irreversibly jinx us into an unnavigable trail of doom.
We kept walking, me stopping periodically to talk to the moss, to marvel at the brilliance of life that springs from a downed tree, and he to wait for me to take pictures of tree bark, baby pinecones and the river.
After the 1.5-mile mark, the path turned steeper and rockier and became laced with tree roots. It was harder, for sure, but not nearly as hard as we had been led to believe. The trail wasn’t consistently difficult and it seemed that every time I’d almost need a break to catch my breath, the path would even out.
Plus, it was beautiful. We crossed bridges and walked past some of the biggest and oldest trees in the park and the trail followed the river all the way to the cascades.
The last half mile was the hardest. The trail was steep and it wound through, around and over several large boulders, causing us to scramble and hop our way over them.
“Look,” I said, mid-scramble. I’d caught my first glimpse of the waterfall, barely visible through the trees, and I didn’t want him to miss that first look.
As we reached Ramsey Cascades, the only other couple there was preparing to leave and within minutes of our arrival, we were alone. He dropped the pack and together, we sat, putting our butts on the layers we’d shed during the hike while rifling through our snacks, tearing open packages and taking bites of nearly everything.
While the trail was free of ice, the waterfall wasn’t and as we sat, munching our snacks, a chunk of ice fell from the falls and crashed into the water below. The sound was enormous and we both froze, eyes locked on the ice falling from the waterfall right in front of us.
When the noise stopped, we exhaled, looked at each other, laughed. It felt significant, watching the ice fall, like the cascades had put on a show just for us.
We sat for maybe 20 minutes until our bodies cooled and we started to shiver. We layered back up and headed down the trail, turning once or twice on the way down to catch a few final glimpses of the waterfall.
“I’m so glad we did this,” I said. “I was scared.”
“I know,” he said.
We spent the return trek scoffing at the cashier’s warnings, grumbling about the “hardest eight miles” of our lives, kissing on bridges, linking pinkies and holding hands. We saw a raccoon, briefly, and maybe a dozen other hikers, but mostly we were alone.
By 4 p.m. we were back at the car, tired, but happy. We hadn’t spoken much about this trip in the weeks leading up to it, hadn’t spoken much at all, but being there felt like the right place for us to be, like maybe an adventure in another state was the right way for us to say goodbye to our relationship and to each other.
We got a lot of things wrong, me and him, but we always excelled in love and adventure.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina and is one of the nation’s most visited national parks. Admission is free and the park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. For more information on the Ramsey Cascades Trail and other hikes in the Smokies, click here.
Two days after being released from the clawed paws of the U.S. Army, I visited my first National Park unit of the year, in New York City, and then spent the rest of the year dreaming of future park visits, driving across Virginia to visit close-to-home parks and generally annoying nearly everyone with my incessant National Park chatter.
It was a good year, at least for National Park adventuring.
2017’s NATIONAL PARK ADVENTURES
1. THEODORE ROOSEVELT BIRTHPLACE NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
Jan. 16, 2017, in New York, New York
I always knew Teddy Roosevelt was a badass, but this park added a bit of depth to his legend.
2. JEAN LAFITTE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK & PRESERVE
Feb. 9, 2017, in New Orleans, Louisiana
This visit almost doesn’t count, as we just had enough time to visit the park’s visitor center in the French Quarter.
3. CHATTANOOGA NATIONAL MILITARY PARK
Feb. 10, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tennessse
While driving from Houston, Texas, back to Richmond, my travel companion and I pit-stopped here for some military history and, later, some top-notch BBQ.
4. GOLDEN GATE NATIONAL RECREATION AREA
Feb. 18, 2017, in San Francisco, California
Golden Gate National Recreation Area is one of the largest urban national parks in the world and includes around 25 different locations, spread throughout the city of San Francisco and into Marin and San Mateo counties. One of my favorites is Alcatraz Island, which was the only part of the park I visited on this trip.
5. CABRILLO NATIONAL MONUMENT
Feb. 22, 2017, in San Diego, California
This was my first trip to San Diego and other than meeting some seals in La Jolla and eating tacos for almost every single meal, tide pooling at Cabrillo National Monument was my favorite part.
6. FORT MONROE NATIONAL MONUMENT
Jul. 23, 2017, in Hampton, Virginia
Nicknamed “Freedom’s Fortress,” Fort Monroe was a bastion of freedom for enslaved blacks during the American Civil War.
7. CEDAR CREEK & BELLE GROVE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
Jul. 31, 2017, in Middletown, Virginia
I pit-stopped at Cedar Creek on my way to West Virginia for work and managed to arrive just in time for a ranger-led tour. It was just me, the ranger and a retired couple and was probably the height of this year’s national park nerdery.
8. HARPERS FERRY NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
Aug. 2, 2017, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
On the way back from West Virginia I stopped here to explore the place where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers come together and to learn a little more about the history of the place.
9. MAGGIE WALKER NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
Aug. 19, 2017, in Richmond, Virginia
I took friends from Washington, D.C., here, to the park closest to my home.
10. MANASSAS NATIONAL BATTLEFIELD PARK
Sept. 3, 2017, in Manassas, Virginia
One of the first major battles of the American Civil War was fought at Manassas, with tragic and occasionally ridiculous results.
11. GEORGE WASHINGTON BIRTHPLACE NATIONAL MONUMENT
Sept. 16, 2017, in Colonial Beach, Virginia
George Washington was born in what is today Virginia’s Northern Neck. It’s a beautiful spot, but the sheep are exceptionally unfriendly.
APPOMATTOX COURT HOUSE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
Wolf Trap, as it’s full name suggests, is a venue for the performing arts. It’s an outdoor venue, with its main season running April – October, and it hosts a variety of performers, from musicians to dancers, symphonies to comedians. Wolf Trap’s main stage, the Filene Center, is an amphitheater, with room for 3,800 in-house, including 88 pit seats, plus additional space on the lawn. In total, the Filene Center can accommodate 7,000.
A few times a year, during Wolf Trap’s off-season, the park offers guided tours of the Filene Center. Along the way, you get a glimpse into the dressing rooms and the musician’s lounge, the backstage area and finally, the curtain comes up and you get to stand on a stage that’s hosted performers including Ringo Starr, Ke$ha, Elvis Costello, ZZ Top, Billy Idol and a whole host of Grammy-award-winning performers.
WOLF TRAP’S HISTORY
In 1930, a woman named Catherine Filene Shouse, of the same Filene family who founded Filene’s Basement, started buying up land in an attempt to create for herself a refuge from Washington, D.C. She first purchased 53 acres at $100 an acre and by 1956, she’d acquired 168 acres. She used the property as a working farm where she bred horses and dogs, raised crops and other critters.
Years later, as Northern Virginia grew, development started to make her farm less of a refuge. Mrs. Shouse wanted to preserve her land, to turn it into a cultural landmark. She wanted something uniquely American, but also to create something new.
Mrs. Shouse first approached the National Symphony Orchestra to see if they might be interested in developing her land as a venue. They passed, so she went to the National Park Service, straight to the Secretary of the Interior, and in 1966, she donated 100 acres of her land to the federal government.
Wolf Trap was, essentially, an experiment by the National Park Service. They figured if the whole National Park for the Performing Arts thing worked, they’d build more. But that idea never materialized, despite the success of Wolf Trap over the past 50 years.
At the same time the park was created, a nonprofit, the Wolf Trap Foundation, was founded to assist in running the park. Together, the park and the foundation make Wolf Trap work, with federal dollars paying for grounds maintenance and park staff, and foundation money and support managing the performances.
A few years later, in 1971, the Filene Center hosted it’s inaugural performance, featuring Van Cliburn, Julius Rudel with the New York City Opera, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, the United States Marine Band and the Madison Madrigal Singers.
Then, on April 4, 1982, the Filene Center burned to the ground. It happened in the middle of the night, was likely started by an overheated piece of equipment, and wind gusts helped fuel the fire. Nearby residents reported that dinner plate-sized pieces of ash floated down into their backyards.
After the fire, millions of dollars came in from more than 16,000 donors from 47 states and five foreign countries, and included support from President Ronald Reagan and former Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.
Despite the fire, the Wolf Trap Foundation said the season would go on, and it did, in a big-ass tent in a nearby meadow, called the Meadow Center.
The new Filene Center opened in 1984 and Mrs. Shouse herself was in attendance to witness the dedication of the new building.
Our tour lasted about an hour and a half and started at the Stage Door, where staff are responsible for getting an autograph from each and every performer who passes by. We learned about the history of the park, about Mrs. Shouse and the first and second Filene Centers. We explored a dressing room, complete with a private outdoor area, and the musician’s lounge, then headed backstage to learn about how the venue works. We learned about the fly system, about the way different parts of the stage are used and moved to accommodate different types of performances, then the park ranger raised the curtain and we headed out onto the stage.
From the stage, the seats feel impossibly close and the view is great. The Filene Center is beautiful, built from Douglas Fir and Southern Yellow Pine and there’s not a bad seat in the house.
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts is open every day from 7 a.m. to dusk, except on New Years, Thanksgiving and Christmas. In addition to the venues, the park includes several walking trails. For a schedule of upcoming events at Wolf Trap, visit wolftrap.org.
What remains of New Mexico’s Fort Union today is adobe walls worn down by time and weather. When I was there, it was hot and windy. The sun was out, the sky was huge as it often is in New Mexico and the clouds were perfect. I saw one rabbit and numerous signs warning me of rattlesnakes. The place was mostly empty, with only a few other visitors. When I left for the day, I was outnumbered four to one by park staff.
Between 1851 and 1891 there were three Fort Unions, each built for a slightly different purpose.
THE FIRST FORT UNION
Following America’s war with Mexico, in 1851, Lt. Col. Edwin Sumner commanded Military Department No. 9, which included the New Mexico Territory. He was ordered to revise the defense of that territory and relocated the department’s headquarters from Santa Fe to a location closer to the eastern frontier. The site chosen became the first Fort Union, at a junction of the Santa Fe Trail, which was then a significant transportation route connecting Independence, Missouri, with Santa Fe, New Mexico.
At the time, the Quartermaster Department usually built frontier posts, but Sumner instead assigned the job to his Soldiers. Having been built by an unskilled labor force, the place started falling apart almost as soon as it was built. Soldiers often opted to sleep outside on the parade field in good weather, rather than in their quarters.
Despite the shitty conditions, the first Fort Union remained in use for ten years.
THE SECOND FORT UNION
When the Civil War started, in 1861, the threat of rebel expansion into the southwest pushed federal forces to create a second Fort Union, this time one mile to the east, in a spot less vulnerable to enemy artillery. Over the course of the war, around 3,500 New Mexicans volunteered for federal service, many of them Hispanic. The first of these recruits helped build the second Fort Union.
Instead of the usual frontier fort with structures built around a parade field, this second fort included earthen walls, gun and infantry positions and bunker-style living quarters. It was built by volunteer troops, who worked around the clock to get it done, mostly because the threat of Confederate action seemed imminent.
In early 1862 the fort was finished and by that same summer, Confederate forces abandoned their campaign in the southwest. Still, attacks by Indians were frequent and Fort Union’s location was strategic, located right on the Santa Fe trail. With the second fort turning out to be almost as shitty as the first, the U.S. Army planned for a more permanent solution.
THE THIRD FORT UNION
The third fort included Fort Union, the Fort Union Quartermaster’s Depot and the Fort Union Arsenal. Civilian laborers built the third Fort Union, out of lumber, adobe and stone. Finished in 1867, the final Fort Union cost more than $1 million to build. It’s the remains of this fort, the third one, that’s most easily explored today.
Eventually, the railways made the old trails, like the Santa Fe trail, obsolete, and Fort Union was abandoned in 1891. After that it was left to elements. Looters took everything of value, like the lead window panes, and it wasn’t until 1956 that Fort Union National Monument was established.
Fort Union National Monument is about an hour and a half east of Santa Fe. It’s an easy drive, one that can take you through Las Vegas, New Mexico, where Teddy Roosevelt recruited a significant number of his Roughriders. The road to Fort Union is mostly empty. I even spotted a small herd of pronghorn antelope on the way out. I stopped in the middle of the road for maybe ten minutes to stare at them and didn’t see any other cars. In fact, the only other car I saw on the way out was a van that was driving very slowly behind a kid on a bicycle.
Fort Union is beautiful and weird. It’s a relic, leftover in the Wild West of America’s former frontier. I don’t know if it was the site itself or its history that made me label it creepy, but it still feels almost accurate. There’s a haunting vibe there, for sure, and the place withstood a lot, from decades of abandonment, to Indian raids, Civil War anxiety and the usual rigors of life on a remote Army base in an expanding nation.
Admission to Fort Union National Monument is free. The park is open 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. Labor Day through Memorial Day, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day.