Friday, September 30, 2016

Best national park trails to enjoy autumn

Cuyahoga Valley's Brandywine Falls in autumn.
Photo courtesy of Cuyahoga Valley NPS.
The following article originally was written for and appeared in the September 2016 Coach-Net newsletter.

Ah, autumn – the world appears to have been repainted, as red, gold and sienna orange leaves contrast with the blue sky. For many travelers, fall is their favorite time to hit the road.

But there’s more to see than the leaves. As those they fall to the ground, the landscape opens up, allowing you to spot interesting geological features or terrain that summer’s green foliage keeps hidden. More animal sightings also are possible as birds migrate while mammals gorge in preparation for winter’s cold. As the foliage no longer is as thick, seeing them is easier.

America’s national parks offer a number of great places to experience autumn’s beauty. And with summer vacation over, many of the parks will be less crowded.

Six national parks particularly deliver great autumn experiences for travelers.

Cuyahoga Falls National Park
Brandywine Falls ranks among the most popular of the Ohio park’s several waterfalls. The area surrounding the falls is gorgeous in October beneath autumn leaves, and the Brandywine Gorge Trail to it is shaded almost the entire way by red maples and eastern hemlocks. With a combination of segments from the Stanford Road Metro Parks Bike and Hike Trail, the gorge trail loops 1.5 miles to the falls then back to the trailhead with several crossings of Brandywine Creek.

Great Sand Dunes National Park
Most people visit this Colorado park for the sand dunes soaring 60-plus stories in the sky. There’s more to the park than dunes, though. The Montville Trail provides an excellent sample of that as it heads into the surrounding mountains. The 0.5-mile loop partially runs alongside a creek, where the golden canopy of cottonwood and aspen trees sends you to an autumn wonderland.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The 1-mile round trip Clingmans Dome Trail heads to the highest spot in the national park and Tennessee and the third tallest east of the Mississippi. Autumn leaves on the road to Clingmans Dome usually change about mid-October, offering a spectacular red, orange and yellow display. At the dome’s top, views of those swaths of harvest colors can stretch for up to a hundred miles in all directions.

Hot Springs National Park
Though hardly thoughts of as a backcountry wilderness experience, the Arkansas park does offer a number of forested trails to enjoy. The best in autumn is the Hot Springs Mountain Trail. Heading through a beautiful mixed hardwood and pine forest, the route offers a gorgeous fall leaf display – and cooler temperatures than during muggy summer.

Shenandoah National Park
Spectacular autumn color views await day hikers on the Stony Man Trail, a segment of the famous Appalachian National Scenic Trail. At the trail’s top, you’ll be rewarded with an expansive view of the Shenandoah Valley and the Massanutten and Allegheny Mountains beyond, their trees alit in harvest colors, as you breathe in clean, crisp air.

Death Valley National Park
OK, there’s no autumn leaves here at all – but September’s cooler temperatures ensure you actually can stand leave an air conditioned vehicle for a lot longer than a minute to experience the forbidding desert landscape. Among the best places in the California park to visit is the Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail, where you can learn to read rocks that tell the tale of how a lake once here vanished.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Country Today runs article on hiking books

The Country Today ran a great article and set of pictures in this week’s edition about my hiking books. While focusing on my recent release of “Day Hiking Trails of the Chippewa Valley,” the article also tells how I came to write hiking guides, the first hike my son Kieran and I took together, tips for hiking with children, and why the Eau Claire-Menomonie-Chippewa Falls-Durand region is a great place to day hike. You can read a copy of the article and see the pics online; if you pick up a copy of the newspaper, the full-page spread is on 7B.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.

Six Great National Parks to See Wildlife

Bison can be found on Yellowstone National Park's Lamar Valley Trail.
The following article was written for and originally appeared in the August 2016 newsletter:

America’s national parks are known for their great vistas and fantastic rock formations, but they also preserve another treasure: wildlife.

In fact, national parks rank among the best places to see interesting and rare wildlife. Late summer marks a particularly good time for wildlife viewing at many parks as most mothers bring out their young by that time of the year.

Given the breadth of national park locations, there’s also the opportunity to see almost every kind of North American wildlife, from those that live on mountains, in marine environments, and in the tropics to those that make their homes on prairies, deserts, and in temperate forests.

Travelers can explore the “Serengeti of North America” on the Lamar Valley Trail at Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park. Like the mountain-ringed African plain, Lamar Valley serves as home to the classic megafauna that define North America. Bison, elk, grizzlies, black bears, wolves, coyotes, eagles, osprey and more all can be found at this high elevation. Coyotes also can be seen wandering about, looking for a meal while bald eagles and osprey grace the skies. Grizzlies reside in the hilly woods, but they and the area’s other big two predators – black bears and wolf packs – prefer to remain under cover than be seen.

You can encounter an array of marine wildlife on the Beach Trail at Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park. Low tide also provides an opportunity to see intertidal life. As the waters retreat into the ocean – and water levels here can fall 25 vertical feet, among the greatest extremes in the world – a number of animals and plants are exposed. Don’t be surprised to spot starfish and snails on the sands and grasses. On shore, a variety of sea birds gather and fly over, often nabbing exposed intertidal creatures for a meal. During those first moments of sunlight, watch for humpback whales, harbor porpoise, puffins, sea otters, and Steller sea lions, frolicking and feeding in the mouth of the bay. Bring binoculars. If lucky, you’ll also hear the blow of humpback whales.

Tropical wildlife can be safely seen from the Anhinga Trail at Florida’s Everglades National Park. The trail’s boardwalk takes you over open water where you can watch for alligators peeking out of a river, as well as turtles, herons and egrets. Winter marks the best season to see the most wildlife. A number of birds spend their time in the Everglades after migrating from a northern clime. Among those you can spot are the double breasted cormorant, great egret, great blue heron, snowy egret, tricolored heron, white ibis and woodstork. Turkey vultures congregate in the marsh during the early morning hours.

North America’s largest mammal – the bison – freely roams North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and the Buckhorn Trail is an excellent place to spot them and other Great Plains wildlife. The trail includes a prairie dog town that stretches for about a mile. You’ll be able to spot them barking from their burrow entrances as they keep an eye out for predators. Hawks, coyotes and rattlesnakes are among the creatures hoping to make an unsuspecting prairie dog its dinner.

Four desert ecosystems can be found in North America, and the park closest to a major metro area offers among the best spots to see wildlife of these dry climes. Outside of Tucson, Ariz., Saguaro National Park’s Douglas Spring Trail crosses the Rincon Mountain District (Saguaro Park East), providing the chance to see coyotes, roadrunners, jackrabbits and quail. All four of those creatures thrive in the Sonoran Desert, which stretches across Arizona and northern Mexico, as well as good portions of the continent’s other three desert ecosystems.

Temperate forests
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, though stretching across the Appalachian Mountains, offers the opportunity to see many of the animals that reside in temperate forests covering much of the continent east of the Mississippi River. The Deep Creek/Indian Falls trails in the park’s North Carolina section sports Eastern cottontail rabbit, groundhogs, river otter, and white-tailed deer. Also present but much more elusive, as they keep to themselves, are black bear, bobcat, coyote, red fox, red wolf, and wild boar.

Rob Bignell is the author of several hiking guidebooks, including the bestselling Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Six must-see beaches at our national parks

Enderts Beach, Redwood National Park, courtesy of Redwoods NPS.
The following article was written for and originally appeared in the July 2016 newsletter:

It’s summertime, and there’s almost no better place to be than the beach. The warmth of the sun upon your face, the sound of waves splashing against the shore, the blue water stretching into the horizon…Let’s go!

Among the most beautiful beaches you can visit are those in national parks. Thousands of miles of shoreline around lakes and along oceans are protected in our parks, and just like the wildlife and rock formations you’re apt to find in most of them the beaches won’t disappoint either.

Here are six must-see beaches at our national parks that can be reached via an RV.

Ocean Path Trail
Acadia National Park
Cobble beaches and hard bedrock make up most of the shoreline for the Atlantic Ocean that surrounds the Maine park’s many islands. A rare exception is the 4.4-miles round trip Ocean Path Trail that heads from a sand beach to sea cliffs.

Convoy Point
Biscayne National Park
This boardwalk trail is flat and easy, running along the Florida mangrove shore known as Convoy Point. You’ll follow the blue-green waters of Biscayne Bay and be able to spot some small, mangrove-covered islands. Bring a lunch; there’s a picnic area below palms overlooking the bay. Part of the boardwalk also takes you out over the water. As the bay is shallow and quite clear, you’ll have no trouble spotting the bottom.

Swiftcurrent Nature Trail
Glacier National Park
The first 0.6 miles of the trail at this Montana park heads through an evergreen forest with several short spur trails leading to beaches along Swiftcurrent Lake. Meltwater from Grinnell Glacier feeds lake, making for an crystal clear albeit cold water.

Leigh Lake Trail
Grand Teton National Park
Several alpine lakes perfect for a family outing sit at the Wyoming park’s central String Lake Area. The 1.8-mile round trip trail heads around a shimmering blue lake through green pines with gray Mount Moran soaring in the background. During summer, enjoy a picnic on the beach and then a swim in the cool waters.

Ruby Beach Trail
Olympic National Park
The Washington park’s Pacific Ocean shoreline features gushing sea stacks, piles of driftwood logs, and colorful, wave-polished stones. To enjoy all three, take the 1.4-mile Ruby Beach Trail. Some of the driftwood here has floated in from the distant Columbia River.

Coastal Trail
Redwood National Park
With more than 40 miles of pristine Pacific Ocean coastline, the northern California park is the perfect place to see tide pools and sea stacks. The latter are visible from many highway vistas but to get close up to a tide pool – a small body of saltwater that sustains many colorful sea creatures on the beach at low tide – explore the 1-mile segment (2-miles round trip) of the Coastal Trail at Enderts Beach south of Crescent City.

Rob Bignell is the author of several hiking guidebooks, including the bestselling Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Tour heads to Badger State’s largest cave

Crystal Cave, Wisconsin's longest cave.

Half-mile hike
heads 7 stories

Day hikers can explore Wisconsin’s longest cave near the village of Spring Valley.

The Crystal Cave tour runs about 0.5-miles round trip through 1,300 feet of passageways. Several deeper passages are closed to the public. The cave is a commercial venture, so a fee is charged to be part of a tour.

To reach Crystal Cave, from Spring Valley take Wis. Hwy. 29 west. In about a mile after ascending the hill, turn left/south onto the cave entrance road. After parking, go into the gift shop to purchase tour tickets.

In 1881, a teenage boy discovered the cave when pursuing a squirrel that disappeared down a sinkhole. The next day, he and his brother returned and with rope and lantern explored a small portion of it. During the early 1940s, a businessman had the clay and rock debris removed from the sinkhole and opened the cave to the public for tours; it was named for the quartz crystals that appear throughout the cave’s walls.

The cave runs through a chunk of dolomite, a type of limestone, that formed about 485 million years ago when this part of the world was a covered by a shallow sea; two fossils of nickel-sized snail-like creatures can be seen in cave’s floor. It is seven stories deep and 4000 feet long.

Your tour leaves from the gift shop, descending down stairs through the sinkhole discovered in the 1880s. Ramps then pass man-made pools that cleverly control the water draining into the living cave.

In short order, the tour enters the Ballroom, the cave’s largest chamber. Following that, several passageways head past stalactites, stalagmites and rippling flowstone.

The cave is home to several bat species; both big and brown bats hibernate there in winter. Usually a bat or two can be spotted sleeping above you in a passageway.

Among the tour highlights is the Spook Room, where the tour guide turns off the lights to show just how dark the cave is. The darkness actually feels impenetrable.

From there, the tour heads to the Story Room, where a humorous story of Cave Man Charley is presented. Among the last stops is the Wish Room, whose walls are filled with coins; the rock walls contain a large amount of illite, a mineral used for a variety of disparate purposes, including cosmetics, dam repair, and medicine.

The cave remains a constant 50 degrees, so when visiting always wear a sweatshirt and pants, even on summer’s hottest days. Crystal Cave generally is only open from April through mid-October with slightly longer hours in late spring through summer.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Trail heads to quiet beach at Wisconsin Dells

Birchcliff Beach, courtesy Amy Bayer, Flickr.
Topo map of Chapel Gorge Trail.

Chapel Gorge Trail
loops to river
near Upper Dells

Day hikers can head to a quiet beach in the gorge that makes up the Wisconsin Dells.

The Chapel Gorge Trail runs 2 miles through what may be Wisconsin’s most visited state natural area. Neighboring Wisconsin Dells is a major tourist destination, and the popular boat rides into the Dells of the Wisconsin River State Natural Area always generate pictures of the river gorge and its fantastical slot canyons, particularly Witches Gulch. The 1300-acre area is an oasis of Mother Nature in a region that is more akin to Disneyland meets P.T. Barnum.

The natural area’s cliffs are closed to rock climbing and the side canyons closed to hikers. The best way to see them is via one of the commercial boat tours. Still, one official trail does cut through the natural area, offering access to portions of the dells that most visitors don’t know even exist.

Ice Age flashfloods
To reach the hiking loop, from Wis. Hwys. 13/16/23 in downtown Wisconsin Dells, go north on River Road. After passing the Birchcliff Resort entrance road, turn left/west into a parking lot. The trail leaves from the lot’s west side.

The loop’s stem first crosses a hardwood forest then goes under a power line and back into a woods. After veering south then west, the trail splits. Go left/southwest, following a former service road.

Eventually the shaded path descends steeply down the cliff side and reaches the south side of small secluded Birchcliff Beach on the Wisconsin River. The beach marks a sandbar on a river bend.

From the beach, you can can see the sandstone cliffs to the north where the river enters The Narrows. The beautiful rock formations were formed when glacial meltwater at the end of the last ice age roared through the sandstone, which originally was sediment at the bottom of a shallow 500-million-year-old sea that hardened into rock over the eons.

Rare plants
Thanks to the range of exposure to sunlight and moisture availability, the gorge provides for a number of unique micro-ecosystems. Indeed, the cliff cudweed – a tiny aster – is found only in two places on Earth, and one of them is the gorge. Among the other rare plants are the fragrant fern, Lapland azalea, maidenhair spleenwort, round-stemmed false foxglove.

The sandy uplands above the gorge ecologically are a bit more like the rest of Wisconsin in the plant species it supports, but even here a range of forests can be found. Among them are dry oak/pine forests, an oak savanna, and a northern mesic woods that boasts hemlock, red oak and white pine.

After taking in the views, walk to the beach’s northern side and head northeast back into the woods. The trail climbs to the cliff top and at the Upper Dells swerves east.

Upon reaching the junction with the stem trail, go left/east onto it toward back to the parking lot.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

North Country segment passes hemlocks

Map of Chequamegon Hardwoods State Natural Area, courtesy WI DNR.
Day hikers can explore a northern Wisconsin forest with massive old growth hemlock trees on a segment of the North Country National Scenic Trail.

The segment runs 2.2-mile round trip through the contiguous Chequamegon National Forest and the Chequamegon Hardwoods State Natural Area. Stretching from New York to North Dakota, the North Country Trail crosses seven states over a 4600-mile course.

To reach the trail segment, from Mellen, Wis., drive west on County Road GG. Once inside the Chequamegon National Forest, turn right/north onto Forest Road 187. Then turn right/northeast onto Forest Road 188, which as veering east becomes Hanson Road. After passing the Beaver Dam Lake Road intersection, watch for where the North Country National Scenic Trail crosses the road. At the crossing, park off the side of the road and take the trail northeast.

The trail heads through a northern mesic forest in which basswood, red oak, sugar maple, white ash and yellow birch dominate. Below it grow alternate-leaved dogwood, beaked hazelnut, and mountain maple. Beneath that shrub layer, more than 80 plant species can be found, including blue cohosh, green adders’-mouth, lesser purple fringed orchid, nodding trillium, spikenard, and spotted coralroot orchid.

At about 0.4 miles, the trail unceremoniously enters the state natural area’s southeast corner. Though originally logged off in the 1930s, large old-growth hemlock and big-tooth aspen both still can be found here; some old-growth hemlocks boast a diameter of five feet. Scattered gabbro rock outcroppings, some of which are up to 50 feet high, also can be found in the state natural area.

The trail departs the state natural area in a little more than 0.1 miles. You’ll know you’ve left, as the route passes a wet area once you’ve re-entered the national forest.

Black ash, red maple and white cedar common on this wet-mesic forest portion of the route. Amphibians, including the red-backed salamander and wood frog, are here as well.

The rest of the trail is dry as it runs east through the northern mesic forest. The variety of trees in this second-growth forest makes for a colorful walk in autumn.

About 0.3 miles from the wetlands are a pair of knolls that mark the two high points along the trail. They top out at 1535 (the westernmost knoll) and 1538 feet (the easternmost) above sea level.

The trail’s crossing of North York Road marks a good spot to turn back. Alternately, this makes a great point-to-point hike if you have a driver disinterested in hiking.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.