Cataract Falls, Colorado

I would not recommend anyone making a special trip only to see Cataract Falls. The lower falls, which is the only area that is really accessible to most people, is nice but nothing spectacular. An exception might be for those with children who want to see a waterfall in the Vail, Colorado area (it’s about an hour drive from Vail in White River national forest in the Eagles Nest wilderness area) or simply don’t want to do a moderate to strenuous hike which is required to see other waterfalls in the area. It’s not the biggest falls around, but it’s easy to get to (only about 1/4 mile off the road). There is a small bridge below the falls where you can get a nice photo (the first photo below was taken from it), and there are areas where you can sit on rocks to enjoy a snack or meal.

cataract falls

I made the trip in late Autumn (mid October), so there was a bit of snow on the ground and the waterfall was beginning to ice up:

Ice forming on Cataract waterfall, Colorado

The is a way to get to the top of the falls, but it’s much steeper than the trail there with a lot of loose gravel on the trail. I wouldn’t recommend it for small children or anyone who isn’t confident with their balance. This is a shot from the top of the waterfall:

The top of Cataract Falls in Colorado

From the top of the fall, the trail disappears, although you can still climb to see an upper falls area. This is quite difficult and I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone but well experienced hikers. I made it about half way up, but stopped due to the snow/ice on the ground. I’m not sure it would have been any easier without the snow on the ground. This photo was partial way up:

Upper Cataract waterfall in Colorado


Take Interstate 70 West to exit 171. Upon exit, turn right (south) on U.S. 24. You will drive 15.4 miles when you’ll see a national forest gate and dirt road on your left. This is the North Entrance to Camp Hale. Drive until the road ends (not far — you can see the end from U.S. 24) and turn right. Drive about a mile until you reach a fork in the road (there was a “Road Closed Ahead” sign at the fork when I was there). Stay left (the road closed side). Drive until you reach the “Road Closed” barrier (I’m not sure if this is permanent or not, but was there in October 2013):

road closed sign

The trailhead is 100 feet before the barrier (you passed it if you reach the barrier) on the left side marked with two large wooden triangle posts.

Aspen at White River National Forest

The Autumn colors are out in Colorado. I took a hike today at White River national forest in the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area where the Aspen were sparkling with a golden yellow. Below are a few of the photos from the hike.

amazing aspen trees

aspen changing color

aspen grove

aspen on trail

aspen tree golden

aspen trees

beautiful aspen tree

golden aspen closeup

National Park Free Days 2013

At the time of me writing this post, there are 398 parks within the national parks system. While many of the most popular national parks charge an entrance fee, there are a large number of parks within the system that are free of charge year round. For the parks that charge an entrance fee, the national parks service designates certain days throughout the year when they waive this fee and offer entrance into all of the parks at no charge. This includes all national parks, as well as the lesser know national monuments, national seashores, national preserves and national recreation areas. The free entrance days vary from year to year. For 2013, National Parks free days have been designated on the following eleven days:

Yosemite national park meadow

January 21 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day)

April 22 – 26 (National Park Week)

August 26 (National Park Service Birthday)

September 28 (National Public Lands Day)

November 9 – 11 (Veterans Day weekend)

In addition to all the units within the national parks system, other federal land units such as national forests and national wildlife refuges also participate on these days. This brings the total number of places you can visit for free on the above days to over 2000.

For those that are planning trips, it’s important to note that the free days apply only to entrance into the parks. Other park fees for such things as camp sites, reservations, tours and concessions still apply on these days. It’s definitely worthwhile checking with any destination you’re planning to visit since hotels and tour operators will often have special deals and discounts to coincide with the free entrance days.

2014 national parks free entrance days should be announced in late October or early November. As soon as the official dates are announced, we will post them. For those trying to plan ahead, there’s a good chance that they will be similar to the days announced for 2013. National parks free days 2014 will likely include the following days:

Martin Luther King Jr. Day or birthday weekend
National Parks Week
National Park Service Birthday
Public Lands Day
Veterans Day Weekend

While national park free days allow for no cost entrance to everyone, starting in 2012 the national park service began offering a free annual pass to active duty military members and their dependents. This pass can be obtained free of charge at most visitor centers or at park entrances. The pass will allow free access to all national parks 365 days a year. There is also a similar free pass for people with disabilities.

While not free, the America the Beautiful National Parks Senior pass for those 62 years of age and older only costs $10 (this is less expensive than the entrance fee to some of the most popular national parks) and it’s good forever (there is no expiration date) so it can be used year after year. For the general public, there is an annual America the Beautiful National Parks pass that costs $80, but it’s still a great deal for anyone that visits national parks often.

Purple Sand Beach

I really enjoy finding unique beaches. A prime example is sea glass beach in Fort Bragg. I managed to stumble across another one this weekend when I traveled to Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur California.

I actually have been to Pfeiffer Beach before (with direction on how to get there), but didn’t realize that it had a little secret — it’s one of the few purple sand beaches in the world. I missed this because the main part of beach doesn’t have much purple sand (if you look closely, you can see little bits here and there, but if you weren’t specifically looking for it, you wouldn’t notice it — at least I didn’t on my first visit).

To really see the purple sand, you need to walk beyond the main beach area toward the north. The father up the beach you head in this direction, the more purple sand that can be seen. The easiest place to spy the purple sand is at the base of the hills, but there will be certain areas of the beach that also have purple sand patterns woven into the mix. For those who go to the beach expecting that the entire beach will be purple, they will be disappointed. The vast majority of the beach is white sand like any other beach. There are, however, areas where purple sand mixes with the white sand (usually with black sand as well) to make some wonderful patterns:

purple sand

What is amazing is that each time a wave comes up the beach and washes over the purple sand, the pattern changes making it like a constantly changing giant sand painting:

purple sand beach

Due to the numerous rock outcroppings just off shore, you can see California Coastal National Monument from Pfeiffer Beach as well:

Pfeiffer beach

The purple sand is the result of manganese garnet deposits which are found in the hills surrounding the beach. For anyone that enjoys seeing the unexpected and interesting phenomenon at the beach, scheduling a day to explore the purple sands at Pfeiffer Beach is definitely worth taking the time to do.

National Park Free Days 2012

Update: The national park service has announced National Park Free Days 2013

Many people don’t realize that most parks within the National Parks system don’t charge any entrance fee at all. That being said, some of the most popular National Parks do charge entrance fees. While these fees are applicable most times of the year, National Parks, National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, National Preserves, National Seashores and National Lakes designate several times a year when they offer free access days. The National Parks free days for 2012 are as follows:

the wave
The Wave

January 14 – 16 (Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend)

April 21 – 29 (National Park Week)

June 9 (Get Outdoors Day)

September 29 (National Public Lands Day)

Nov. 10 – 12 (Veterans Day weekend)

The 2012 National Parks free days are quite similar to the 2011 fee free National Parks days with the one major change being that Get Outdoors Day has replaced the first day of summer as a fee free day in 2012.

The 2012 fee free National Parks days apply to entrance fees, commercial tour fees and transportation entrance fees. While the fee free days don’t apply to other park fees such as reservation fees, camping fees, tour fees, or concession fees, many times the businesses operating within the National Parks (hotels, restaurants and tour operators) will create their own promotions which will coincide with the free entrance fee days. Even with the entrance fees National Parks are considered a great value, but National Parks free days make them even a better value.

Here is the official National Park Fee Free Days 2012 press release.

National Park Wilderness Photo Contest For National Park Service

If you have quality photos from your recent National Park trips, the National Park Service would love to take a look at them for possible inclusion for an upcoming wilderness section of Park Science. The beauty of the National Parks wilderness has inspired millions of people who have visited them, but it’s often difficult to capture the spirit of wilderness in words. The National Park Service is hoping to capture wilderness in photos to share in an upcoming issue of Park Science.

Photographers of the winning wilderness photos will receive full credit for their photo and their photo will be featured in a four-page color spread in the center of the Park Science edition. Winning photographers will also receive a handy item which can be used in the wilderness such as a trowel.

For those interested, you should attach up to three wilderness photos for consideration to Christina Mills at [email protected] in TIFF or JPG format by Friday, September 16, 2011. You should also include your name, where the photo was taken (what National Park System wilderness area), the date the photograph was taken and your contact information along with a short description of your thoughts when you took the photograph.

Photo Contest Rules

1. All photos must be digital.
2. All photos must be 3 MG in size or larger.
3. All photos must be in either TIFF or JPG format.
4. There is a submission limit of three photos per photographer.
5. Submitted photo must have been taken in a National Park System wilderness area.
6. Submitted photo must not have been retouched, optimized or had filters applied.
7. The photographer must license unrestricted use to the National Park Service if the submitted photo wasn’t taken on official National Park Service duty.
8. Photos should be emailed as an attachment to Christina Mills at [email protected]
9. Deadline for submission is Friday, September 16, 2011.
10. Please contact Christina Mills at (202) 513-7124 or email [email protected] with any additional questions.

Pfeiffer Beach National Forest

Pfeiffer Beach (run by the National Forest Service) is a hidden gem where you may be able to escape the crowds clogging up all the other beaches and state parks along highway 1 in the Big Sur area of California. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, the Pfeiffer Beach isn’t marked with a sign along highway 1 so you would drive right on by it unless you knew exactly where to turn. Coming south on highway 1, it is 0.5 miles past the US Forest Service Ranger Station. You make a tight right turn when you see the yellow “Narrow Road” sign (which you need to be looking for because it’s hidden a bit too — there is no sign for “Pfeiffer Beach”). About 100 yards down the road you will get confirmation that you are one the correct road when you see this sign:

The second reason that less people go to this beach is that the next two miles of road down to the beach are mostly one lane so that campers and RVs can’t make it down it. Combine the lack of marking and the no RVs and you have a beach that, although beautiful, gets a lot less traffic than the other beaches in the Big Sur area.

The beach has plenty of sand with a number of rocky outcrops just offshore, many with arches and tunnels within them:

There is a small creek that runs down the beach and empties into the ocean. Sea lions playing in the waves just offshore when I was there and the many rocks outcroppings (which also make Pfeiffer beach part of the California Coastal National Monument) were the home of sea birds and resting sea lions. There is a $5 fee to enter. If interested, here are more photos of Pfeiffer Beach. It’s definitely a beach to visit, especially when the crowds at the other main stops are beginning to get to you.

Living Tree Stump: Rogue River Gorge

One of the things I enjoy most about stopping and wandering in new areas I know little about are the unexpected finds. While returning from Crater Lake National Park (OR), I stopped to see the Rogue River Gorge (part of Rogue River – Siskiyou National Forest) to find a living tree stump:

living tree stump at Rogue River Gorge

So, how does a tree stump heal itself and survive after the tree has been cut down? An informational sign explains:

The Living Stump

Here on the flat surface of the lava flow, away from the Gorge wall, the trees live as a group rather than as individuals. The roots of these Douglas-firs have grown together, providing each other with nutrients and water. Before it was cut, the roots of this tree had grafted onto those of a neighbor. because of this, the stump continues to live

Explanation of how the living tree stump is able to survive

One of the greatest aspects of our National Parks is their ability to show us how the impossible is possible in nature.