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June 25, 2017

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Chiricahua National Monument.

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Centennial views

Six lesser-known US National Park destinations that make a big impression

In the world of North American travel, “centennial” always grabs headlines. In other parts of the planet, a century barely registers on the timeline. But here, in the New World, 10 decades is a great big deal.

For the US National Park Service, 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Act of Congress that preserved the nation’s pristine landscapes. There are now more than 400 sites protecting historic and prehistoric structures, threatened and endangered species, and fragile environments.

The service is offering 16 days of free admission (nps.gov/planyourvisit/fee-free-parks.htm) to celebrate so the big ones — Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Monument Valley — will be even more packed than usual.

For Canadians travelling south when the weather cools, there are plenty of lesser-known gems that deserve a visit. Unfold your map, start on the left and follow west to east across the US with a sampling of destinations that may have evaded your radar.

Hawai‘i, Haleakalā National Park

It’s like another planet. In the Hawaiian language they call it kua mauna: “the land above the clouds.” There is one main roadway to the dramatic crater summit of the world’s largest dormant volcano. According to Hawaiian mythology, the demigod Maui climbed the peak with a special net to catch the sun and slow its track across the sky, prolonging daylight.

The thin air is heady, but that doesn’t deter a smattering of bicycling enthusiasts who tackled the brutal grind to the top (many more opt to whiz down the mountain with uphill transport provided by local outfitters). They come to gape into a crater so expansive it could swallow all of Manhattan and to snap Instagram shots with arms slung over the 3055-metre elevation marker.

The summit of Haleakalā, which means House of the Sun, is a cinder desert: an otherworldly landscape of muted rust and ink-black volcanic lava and ash well above the tree line. Much of the park’s protected fragile flora and fauna is found nowhere else on earth.

For astronomers, Haleakalā’s clean air makes it the fourth best viewing conditions on the planet. There is a cluster of observatories on the peak, including a NASA telescope that can track basketball-size objects more than 32,000 kilometres away. The summit weather changes quickly. Sun one minute, a blanket of clouds below the next. The mountain’s microclimate traps moisture, feeding the valley’s streams and waterfalls while nourishing the windward side rainforest.

California, Joshua Tree National Park

What makes Joshua Tree National Park distinct is not that it formed the photo backdrop for the first album by the Eagles (although there is that), but that it’s the point where the high Mojave and low Colorado deserts converge.

In desert ecosystems, elevation is everything. Desert plants and critters are extremely sensitive to the slightest change. The park’s upper half — the Mojave Desert section — is a jumble of boulders beloved by rock climbers and an arid “forest” of wild-armed Joshua trees, which are not trees at all but enormous yucca. The towering boulder piles — formed through volcanic activity and erosion — were once hideouts for cattle and horse rustlers. The park is encircled by rugged mountain ranges.

On the park’s north-south road, elevation drops with the transition to the lower Colorado Desert. The park’s namesake disappears, replaced by creosote bushes, palo verde, spindly ocotillo and prickly jumping cholla cacti. In springtime, it’s a blast of colourful wildflowers.

Joshua Tree is perfect for a little driving tour, a few hiking stops, a picnic in the shade or a ranger-guided talk. An eight-kilometre side trip leads to the outlook at Keys View, with a panorama over the Coachella Valley, including the menacing San Andreas Fault.

Camping at Joshua Tree is especially sweet; when darkness falls the stars pop out, tumbling right to the horizon. The rustic campgrounds offer a true desert experience, complete with seven species of rattlers, coyote, bighorn sheep, and the elusive and endangered desert tortoise. Load up your iPhone with the Eagles album and listen to Glenn Frey and Don Henley Take It Easy.

Arizona, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

The first thing you notice about Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is how out of the way it is. Halfway between Yuma and Tucson, turn south at Gila Bend and continue through 95 kilometres of Sonoran Desert until almost to Mexico. The park abuts the borderline.

Organ Pipe Cactus fulfills a lot of wish lists. For birding enthusiasts, more than 270 species make it a stunning display of Sonoran Desert birdlife. The Sonoran Desert is known for its biodiversity (the park is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve), home to some 30 types of cacti including saguaro, cholla, ocotillo and the rare organ pipe. It’s the only place in the US where you can see large stands of organ pipe cacti growing in the wild.

More than 95 percent of the park is wilderness. Desert hiking is best in the cooler morning or evening, and there are even ranger-led full moon hikes and night sky talks. Camping at the park’s Twin Peaks Campground means constellations at night and the calmness of the desert after sundown. The Tohono O’odham people, whose lands border the park, view the stars as cornmeal strewn across the dark fabric of the night sky.

The land is a mix of craggy mountains and arid, cacti-dotted scrublands. A 34-kilometre graded dirt road along the scenic Ajo Mountain Loop crosses the Diablo and Ajo Mountains through dense “forests” of thorny ocotillo, giant saguaro and organ pipe cactus. The road is narrow at points and there are stretches of teeth-chattering washboard, but the two-hour trip is a plunge into the diverse life community of the Sonoran Desert. There are picnic pull outs along the way, marked hiking trails and… peace and quiet.

Arizona, Chiricahua National Monument

To park ranger Suzanne Moody, Chiricahua is a secluded park of “significant natural and cultural significance.” Tucked into the southeast corner of Arizona, the mountains and fantastic rock formations rising above the surrounding grasslands seem to attract nicknames: “island in the desert” and “wonderland of rocks.” The Chiricahua Apache and their ferocious leader Geronimo found ample hiding places in “the land of standing-up rocks” during their conflicts with the US Army.

“It’s a wonderful pioneer story as well as a natural story,” explains Moody. “Out here you either made do, made it up or did without.” That pioneering spirit is frozen in time at the park’s log cabins and large homestead Faraway Ranch. Chiricahua’s landforms were created millions of years ago when gigantic volcanic eruptions left the area covered in compacted ash, which was lifted by forces and sculpted by wind and water. The result is an unearthly scene of balanced rocks, columns and pinnacles that stand as monuments to the power of nature.

Although the area holds an important place in the history of expanding frontiers, it’s Chiricahua’s natural crossroads that place it under National Park Service protection. The straw-coloured grasslands meet the upland forests of Douglas fir, aspen and endemic Arizona cypress. The Sonoran Desert meets the Chiricahuan Desert, creating a wide range of habitats, flora and fauna.

The park has trails for everyone, from a wheelchair-accessible nature trail to all-day hikes through complicated rock formations. This is one park where getting into the car is a must: the 13-kilometre scenic drive to Massai Point is a days-end favourite, when the setting sun leaves an afterglow on the rocks of the sky island.

Alabama/Mississippi/Tennessee, Natchez Trace Parkway

The Natchez Trace Parkway is a journey along a historical timeline. The blissfully commercial-free, 715-kilometre roadway links Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, honouring the storied Native American and pioneer trail stretching from Natchez to Nashville. It’s a no-pressure way for travellers to experience history and nature at a leisurely pace.

This natural travel corridor once bisected the traditional homelands of the Natchez, Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes. In the early 1800s, northern farmers floated crops and livestock on wooden flatboats down the Mississippi River to the ports of Natchez and New Orleans, sold their goods and then travelled the land route homeward to the north. The paved route is also a National Scenic Byway and an All-American Road.

The landscape continuously changes, from forest to meadows. It crosses through distinct ecosystems — bayous and swamps, limestone caves, deciduous woodlands — providing protection as a “habitat corridor” for animal life. In the south, it’s alligators and armadillos; in the north, fox and white-tailed deer.

There are hiking, biking and opportunities for history buffs all along The Trace. Soldiers in the War of 1812 marched along the route. There are Confederate gravesites and national battlefields dating to the American Civil War. Restored plantation homes and old mine sites are glimpses into the era of the Old Southwest. One of the most visited stops is the gravesite of trailblazer Meriwether Lewis — of Lewis and Clark fame — whose explorations opened the west. Lewis died on and is buried along the Tennessee portion of The Trace.

Florida, Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

It has stood a long time. Longer than the United States has been a country. The massive stone fort in St. Augustine was built in 1672 by the Spanish to strengthen their place in the New World and to defend Spanish “treasure fleets” returning home. When Christopher Columbus found new lands in 1492, it sparked four centuries of European rule in parts of the Americas. The Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, Danes and Dutch wrestled for territorial control, often attacking and looting each other’s vessels. The Castillo de San Marcos was crucial to early Spanish endeavours, serving as a base to patrol the shoreline, looking for pirates and salvaging wrecks. For 235 years, St. Augustine was the centre of Spanish power and control over a vast geographical territory.

As a monument, the Castillo tells a story. It has never been conquered, but changed hands through treaties — from the Spanish to the British, back to the Spanish and then, in 1821, ceding Florida to the United States. The fort holds re-enactments and visitors can tour vaulted powder magazines, guardrooms, storage areas, a chapel and gundecks. It is the nation’s oldest (and best preserved) example of a Spanish colonial fortification.

A wooden fort first stood on the spot, but was replaced by a masonry fortress made from coquina, a porous, naturally occurring stone that would not shatter when hit by a cannonball. The walls are four metres thick at the base, with ramparts at the top lined with cannons pointed out to sea. From this fort, troops and their armaments faithfully stood watch over the land Ponce de León named “La Florida.”

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