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.
I sent my friend a text, asking if she had plans for the afternoon, explaining that yes, I definitely did have time for a birthday beverage or adventure and that I would love to see her if we could make the timing work.
“What parks do you need here?” she responded, knowing I’m on a quest to see all 417 National Park Service units. “Is Frederick Douglass House one of them?”
“No, I haven’t been there yet,” I said, doing a quick search to check their hours, tour times and parking options. “Let’s go!”
So we did.
I picked her up in D.C. and we scampered our way across the Anacostia River to Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, which preserves the house where abolitionist Frederick Douglass lived for the final 17 years of his life.
The house, called Cedar Hill (and sometimes Cedarhill), includes approximately 70% of the home’s original furnishings. As the name implies, the house sits on a hill, overlooking the Anacostia River and the District of Columbia.
Frederick Douglass is one of those incredible historical figures I learned about way back in high school history class. Before visiting his home, I remembered only a few details from his life, mostly that he was a former slave and, later, an outspoken abolitionist. So, in visiting his home, I had a lot to learn.
One of the best parts about visiting the homes of these legendary historical figures is they fill in the details of a life lived, showing you the china patterns they ate from, the desks they worked at, the pictures that covered their walls, the books they referenced. These incredible spaces add color and texture to the flat figures we paged past in school.
WHAT I LEARNED (& REMEMBERED) AT FREDERICK DOUGLASS NHS
1. HE ESCAPED SLAVERY.
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
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.
Alcatraz Island is just one piece of Golden Gate National Recreational Area. In total, the GGNRA includes around 25 National Park Service-administered sites spread across San Francisco and Marin and San Mateo Counties.
To get to Alcatraz Island, you have to take a ferry. It’s a short ride, with indoor and outdoor seating. It offers incredible views of both Alcatraz Island and the San Francisco skyline and occasionally, on clear days, the Golden Gate Bridge. The ferry has snacks, including wine, beer and soft pretzels, but anything you purchase, other than water, must be consumed on board the boat as no food or drink is allowed on the island.
Once you get to Alcatraz Island, a park ranger gives a brief rundown of the rules, mostly that no food is allowed, not to wander off the marked paths and when the last boat of the day leaves, along with an overview of what there is to see and do on the island, where the bathrooms are and where to get water. After that, they send you off on your adventure, to wander the prison island known as “The Rock.”
Once you make your way up the hill, past the old officer’s quarters and gun positions, you’ll come to the prison. There, staff will ask your language and hand you an audio device with headphones and then you’re free to tour the prison at your own pace.
The tour is narrated by former prisoners and guards. They recount what it was like to live and work there, what some of the more infamous inmates, like Al Capone, were like, what solitary confinement was like and how lonely it was on New Year’s Eve, when prisoners could hear the sounds of revelers welcoming in the new year on boats outside their island prison. As the story is told, the narrator directs you through different parts of the prison, down different prison blocks, through the mess hall, into the offices where prison staff worked.
You get a lot of stories on the tour, a lot of details about significant events at the prison, but my favorite is the 1962 escape attempt.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was designed to house the worst of the worst, the prisoners with no hope for rehabilitation and who had caused problems or trouble at other prisons. It was notoriously rough and, allegedly, impossible to escape from, mostly because it’s a rocky island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay.
Still, 14 escape attempts were staged by 36 inmates during the 29 years Alcatraz served as a federal prison. Most were recaptured and six were shot and killed. Two drowned and a few others were never found, but were listed as missing and presumed to have drowned.
In June of 1962, three men – Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin staged an incredible escape. They’d been digging for six months, slowly widening the ventilation duct in their cells with tools that included spoons they’d stolen from the dining facility. They concealed the holes with well-painted cardboard and shook the excess dirt from their pant cuffs during their time outside.
When the time came to escape, each inmate put a papier-mâché-type head on his pillow, well-painted and complete with full heads of hair and eyebrows, made from hair clippings they’d stolen from the floors of the barber shop. They piled towels and clothing on their beds to mimic the shapes of their bodies, snuck out of their self-dug tunnels into a forgotten corridor they’d used as a workshop and gathered their supplies. They’d managed to accumulate around 50 raincoats, which they’d sewn together to make rafts.
From there, the men climbed the ventilation shaft to the roof, slid 50 feet down a kitchen vent, climbed two 12-foot perimeter fences and inflated their rafts when they reached the water. According to tests conducted later, the rafts were so well-made that they would float indefinitely.
Allegedly, the three were heading for Angel Island, some two miles away.
Their escape wasn’t detected until the morning, when a 10-day search was launched. Authorities found a paddle, a wallet that belonged to the Anglin brothers and some shreds of a raincoat, presumably the remnants of a raft. But that’s it. No human remains were ever found and after a 17-year investigation, the FBI closed their case, ruling that the prisoners probably drowned in the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay. The U.S. Marshals didn’t give up so easily, and their case is still open and will remain so until the men are either found or until their 99th birthdays.
Chances are they drowned, but maybe they didn’t. The Anglin brothers were excellent swimmers. In their teens, they spent summers in Michigan, picking cherries with their family and swimming in the lake while ice still floated on the surface.
Over the years there’s been speculation on whether or not the men could have survived, with shows like MythBusters testing the feasibility of their escape.
A few months ago I listened to an episode of the podcast Criminal that talked about the Anglin brothers and their sister, now 82-years-old. She and the rest of the family still believe the brothers are alive, that they survived the escape and made it to Brazil.
Personally, I’m a sucker for a good mystery. There’s a certain amount of magic in the idea that these men escaped the most fearsome prison in America, made their ways to some far away land and are living out their old age in a tropical paradise somewhere.
Outside the prison there’s more to explore. There’s a whole garden club that keeps the vegetation looking lovely and the island is a happy home for a variety of bird friends. There’s a gift shop, too, and a video that goes into the full history of Alcatraz, beyond its use as a federal prison.
Once you’re done exploring, you’re free to leave on any available ferry. Even though the ride is short, I’ve made it a tradition to get a wine on the ride back, to quickly sip as I ponder the possibility of prison escapes.
Alcatraz Island is accessible by commercial ferry at Pier 33 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Tickets go on sale 90 days in advance and have been known to sell out, especially in the summer and during holiday weekends. Tickets range from $37.25 for a day tour to $44.25 for an evening tour, with other tour options and programs available seasonally. Alcatraz is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day.
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.
Petroglyph National Monument is an urban park, with four units spread around the outskirts of Albuquerque. Of the four, three offer petroglyph viewing. There’s also the visitor center, where I stopped first. I asked the ranger on duty for a suggestion on where to go and she gave me a brief lesson on petroglyphs before giving me directions to Piedras Marcadas Canyon, one of the four sites. She said I’d be able to see between 300 and 500 petroglyphs along the 1.5 mile trail loop, told me to fill up my water bottle before I left and then sent me on my way.
Put simply, petroglyphs are rock carvings. They’re found all over the world and Petroglyph National Monument contains an estimated 24,000 petroglyphs spread along 17 miles. Most were made by the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived in the area between AD 1300 and 1680, but some were made by the Spanish in the 1700s and a few are estimated to pre-date the Pueblos by as much as 3,000 years.
Volcanic eruptions left basalt in the area and, turns out, basalt is pretty great rock for making petroglyphs. It’s light gray in color but develops a “desert varnish” over thousands of years of sitting in the sun that’s sort of glossy and almost-black. To make the petroglyphs, the Pueblos chipped away at the top surface of the rock, the desert varnish part, to uncover the light gray of the rock.
There’s no for sure reason why the petroglyphs were made, not exactly. They’re more than simple rock art and they aren’t like hieroglyphics, but they are culturally important symbols. Some of the petroglyphs show tribal or clan markers, others seem to show who came into the are and many are still a complete mystery, which is a good thing, according to the Pueblo people of today, who say sometimes it’s not even appropriate for us to interpret the meaning of these images. Regardless of their perceived or actual meaning, the petroglyphs site is still considered sacred by today’s Pueblo people.
At the visitor center, the ranger told me the Pueblos believe the petroglyphs only show themselves to those who are deserving or who have good intentions. Shadows also play a part in how many you can see at any given moment, as does the movement of the clouds. The glare of the sun will hide or highlight a few too.
I don’t know how many petroglyphs I saw while I was there. I wasn’t counting. Mostly I was in awe of how big and close the sky felt and how each and every petroglyph siting felt like finding hidden treasure.