List of National Parks that are Open During the Shutdown

As most people are well aware at this point, the vast majority of the parks within the national park system are closed due to the government shutdown. A few states have worked with the government and they have decided to reopened a few parks with state funds. It’s important to note that just because a state has decided to reopen some parks within their state, that doesn’t mean that all of the national parks sites within their state are open. The number of sites open is still only a small percentage of the 401 sites that make up the national park system. Below is the current list of sites that are currently open, along with the dates that they are scheduled to remain open:


grand canyon national park arizona

Grand Canyon National Park (currently scheduled to be open from October 12 to 18)


rocky mountain national park

Rocky Mountain National Park (currently scheduled to be open from October 11 to 20)

New York

statue of liberty

Statue of Liberty National Monument (currently scheduled to be open from October 12 to 18)

North Carolina / Tennessee

national park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (currently scheduled to be open from October 16 to 20)

South Dakota

mount rushmore

Mount Rushmore National Memorial (currently scheduled to be open from October 14 to 23)


Arches National Park

All Utah parks are currently scheduled to be open from October 11 – 20

Arches National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park
Canyonlands National Park
Capitol Reef National Park
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Natural Bridges National Monument
Zion National Park

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

Sex in National Parks: Where People Are Having It Most

It seems that nature lovers are doing more than admiring nature at our national parks, at least according to a press release survey from which claims that 1 in 5 travelers have enjoyed sex on America’s public lands. Zion National Park was crowned the top place where couples have done more than explore nature based on the survey of 8,500 traveling singles.

Brandon Wade, Founder & CEO of the website that conducted the survey notes in the press release that “Mother Nature inspires people to shed their inhibitions and give in to their primal urges. At a National Park, there are lots of secluded areas off the beaten path, and it wouldn’t be too difficult to find a quiet, romantic spot for two people to be alone together.”

While the one in five number may at first appear rather high, it’s important to remember that there are some national parks that have hotel lodging and camping within the park. Below are the top 10 parks where people are having sex according to the survey:

Number 1: Zion (Utah)

Zion national park
Photo: Jeffrey Strain

Number 2: Dry Tortugas (Florida)

Dry Tortugas national park
Photo: Richard Lopez

Number 3: Redwood (California)

redwood national park
Photo: Jeffrey Strain

Number 4: Mammoth Cave (Kentucky)

Mammoth Cave national park
Photo: Jeff Kubina

Number 5: Arches (Utah)

Arches national park
Photo: Jeffrey Strain

Number 6: American Samoa (American Samoa)

American Samoa national park
Photo: eutrophication&hypoxia

Number 7: Biscayne (Florida)

Biscayne national park
Photo: Bruce Tuten

Number 8:Big Bend (Texas)

Big Bend national park
Photo: Robert Hensley

Number 9: Congaree (South Carolina)

Congaree national park
Photo: Hunter Desportes

Number 10: Great Smoky Mountains (Tennessee)

Great Smoky Mountains national park
Photo: Carl Wycoff

Route 66 Petrified Forest National Park

As you drive through Petrified Forest national park in Arizona, you’ll reach a highway overpass which separates the painted desert section of the park from the petrified forest area. To the north of this overpass is an unexpected displays on the side of the road which celebrates old Route 66. The old Route 66 used to travel right through Petrified Forest national park, and this small display is a recognition of this part of the park’s past.

There are several parts to the display. The first one you come across is a bench with the back side displaying the bumper and tail lights of an older car:

route 66 car bench bumper

The front side of the cement bench has the Route 66 logo / sign etched into the sitting area:

route 66 car bench

Probably the most prominent part of the display (which seems to catch most people’s eyes as they drive by) is an old, rusted-out car.

route 66 car

route 66 old car

While the bench and the old car are what most people seem to focus on when visiting this display, for me the most interesting part of it was the long, abandoned line of telephone poles. Looking at them shows exactly where Route 66 once ran (if you click on the photo to enlarge it and look closely at some of the distant poles, you can see some still have the glass conductors used for the lines on them)

route 66 telephone poles

This is what the informational sign at the display says:

You are standing near old Route 66. The line of the roadbed and the telephone poles in front of you mark the path of the famous “Main Street of America” as it passed through Petrified Forest National Park. From Chicago to Los Angeles, this heavily traveled highway was not only a road, it stood as a symbol of opportunity, adventure, and exploration to travelers.

A trip from Middle America to the Pacific Coast could take about a week — no interstate speeds here! For many, the journey was not just across miles, it was across cultures and lifestyles — from the most mundane to the exotic. Of course, getting to your destination was important, but the trip itself was a kind of reward. From the neon signs of one-of-a-kind motels to burger and chicken fried steaks of the multitudes of restaurants, from the filling stations that served as miniature oases to gaudy tourist traps, these more than 2,200 miles of open road were magical.

While it’s the unexpected beauty of Petrified Forest national park which makes it one of my favorite parks, I think it’s well worthwhile making this quick stop to learn a little about the history of the park as it relates to those traveling across the US.

20 Room Dwelling Montezuma Castle National Park

If you’re heading either way between Phoenix and Flagstaff Arizona on Highway 17, it’s well worth your time to stop to visit Montezuma Castle National Monument. It’s only a 15 minute drive from the main highway, and it’s one of the smaller national parks which I have visited meaning that it’s possible to see the entire park in about an hour. Even thought it’s not the biggest park in the system, it’s a pretty impressive sight that’s well worth the little time it takes to visit.

The main building is the incorrectly named “Montezuma Castle” which is neither a castle or have any relationship to Montezuma (early settlers incorrectly assumed that the dwelling was Aztec, gave it the name which stuck even after it was established that southern Sinagua farmers began building it over 700 years ago). It’s a five-story, 20 room building which sits about 100 feet above the valley floor and it’s quite impressive when you round the corner to see it for the first time:

montezuma castle national monument

Montezuma castle national park

montezuma castle

The information sign below the dwelling gives the following information:

Montezuma Castle invites us to pause in wonder at the ingenuity of the people who began building it over 700 years ago.

Ancestors to today’s Puebloan peoples built and occupied the Castle. We can only speculate why they chose to build here and how they lived in this magnificent cliff dwelling.

Both “Montezuma” and “Castle” are misnomers. In the 1800s, European Americans were fascinated with Inca, Maya and Aztec civilizations and gave southwestern sites exotic names, in this case for Emperor Motecuhzoma II — who lived long after the Castle was constructed.

The Yavapai call this place “the home of the protectors of the Yavapai.” The Hopi refer to it as both Sakaytaka, “place where the step ladders are going up,” and Wupat’pela, for “long, high walls.”

Due to looting, by the early 1900s much of what the Castle’s residents left behind was gone. Damage to the building increased as visitors climbed ladders to walk through the rooms. Now the dwelling is only accessed for inspection, maintenance, and research.

While I would certainly leave yourself a minimum of a full hour to enjoy this park, don’t skip it if you’re in the area and short on time. While I think it’s better to take the time to read a bit about the history and see the displays at the visitor’s center, if all you have is an extra 10 minutes to see the Castle, definitely do it.

Devil’s Golf Course Death Valley National Park

One of my favorite places in Death Valley is the Devil’s Golf Course. A lot of people skip this area because they’re in a hurry to reach Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the continental US at 282 feet below sea level (and all the temporary graffiti that is unfortunately there). While Badwater certainly shouldn’t be missed, taking some time to go down the half-mile dirt road which leads to the Devil’s Golf Course is well worth the time.

One of the most surprising aspects of this area is that the bigger salt crystals aren’t easily broken (there are more delicate crystals which can be found hidden in the crevices which are fragile). From a distance, the large crystals look delicate, but as soon as you touch one you know why this area received the name it did. Not only are they hard, they are sharp and pointy. It’s no coincidence that there are warning signs all around the area letting people know that “a fall cold result in painful cuts or even broken bones.”

devil's golf course

death valley devils golf course

salt flat devils golf course

death valley national park

This is how the information sign in the area describes the Devil’s Golf Course formation:

Crystallized salts composed the jagged formations of this forbidding landscape. Deposited by ancient salt lakes and shaped by winds and rain, the crystals are forever changing.

Listen carefully. On a warm day you may hear a metallic cracking sound as the salt pinnacles expand and contract.

The Death Valley saltpan is one of the largest protected saltpans in North America. Salt continues to be deposited by recurring floods that occasionally submerge the lowest parts of the valley floor. Delicate salt formations are hidden among the harsh and rigid spires. Close inspection may reveal the tiny salt structures. Take care — one curious touch can cause them to crumble.

So if you’re visiting Death Valley, be sure to set aside a little time to visit this area. You won’t regret it.

Is Rock Stacking Graffiti?

I wrote recently about people feeling free to scratch their names into the salt beds at Badwater in Death Valley National Park and whether we should be ambivalent toward this “temporary” graffiti. Even if nature can eventually erase it, doesn’t it just encourage others to mark more areas of our national parks with their names where it’s not nearly as easy for nature to remove the graffiti?

Here is another one of those questions that I recently began to wonder about with a recent trip to Yosemite National Park. Just beyond Mirror Lake to the left is a large area that has been completely taken over by rock stacking. There are literally thousands of rocks which have been stacked and balanced by people completely transforming this are from its natural state:

rock stacking near mirror lake

rock stacking mirror lake

rock stacking Yosemite

The first reaction from most of the people who stumbled across it was the thought it might be a cemetery of some type, but it quickly becomes apparent that people simply decided to begin stacking rocks and continue to do so. While many would not consider this being nearly as disruptive as people scratching their name into sandstone or spray painting their name on walls, isn’t rock stacking nothing more than another way of leaving a type of graffiti in our national parks by moving nature into unnatural arrangements? Just because it looks better than a name written on a rock, does that make it OK to do?

What do you think? Is rock stacking fundamentally different from other types of graffiti and therefore OK, or is it something that should be discouraged just as much as what we would consider typical graffiti?

Temporary Graffiti Death Valley National Park

One of the unfortunate things and growing problem that I see much too often at national parks is graffiti. I really don’t understand why people feel it’s necessary to come to an amazingly beautiful place, and they feel the need to leave a mark so that it isn’t quite as beautiful for the next person that comes around. In fact, some national parks have resorted to putting up anti graffiti fine signs in an attempt to keep people from marking up sites within national parks. During my recent visit to Death Valley at Badwater, one thing that you couldn’t help but notice was the large amount of graffiti etched into the salt while walking out into the valley:

badwater graffiti death valley national park

badwater salt flat graffiti death valley

death valley national park graffiti

Not only was there a lot of it, people were openly carving their preferred graffiti into the salt without a hint of anything being wrong in doing so. I stopped to ask a few people who were carving their names into the salt why they thought it was OK and they gave two basic answers. First, they said that everyone else had done it so one more person doing it wouldn’t really matter. The second reason was that the graffiti wasn’t really “permanent” since water would at some point flow over it and wash it away in time. They likened it to writing something on a beach where the waves would eventually come in and wash whatever was written in the sand away.

The problem with the first justification I think is obvious to all. Just because someone has done something doesn’t make it right and OK for others to do. The problem with the second is that the process of eliminating the salt graffiti would take a much longer period than the waves washing away things written in the sand. The graffiti etched into the salt was likely to stay there for months at a minimum.

While I was disappointed that so many people felt the need to write their names into the salt, the second justification does bring up an interesting question. In your opinion, is temporary graffiti acceptable in any instance in national parks?

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.