Thursday, October 8, 2015

Mt. Rainer National Park

Washington's Mt. Rainer National Park became our fifth national park in 1899. Mt. Rainier, at 14,410 feet in elevation (fifth highest in the lower 48), is the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states, is the headwater for six major rivers, and is still an active volcano. It comprises 236,381 acres (almost 370 square miles.)  228,480 acres (97% of the park) are designated wilderness. Over 35 square miles of permanent ice and snow glaciers cover the mountain, among them Emma's Glacier the largest at 4.3 square miles in size, and Carbon Glacier which is both the longest at 5.7 miles and the thickest at 700 feet.

There are 260 miles of maintained trails and 147 miles of roads within the park. Between 1.5 million and 2 million visitors arrive every year, about 10,000 of whom attempt to scale the peak, though fewer than half generally succeed.

It is a relatively young volcano at 500,000 years old, contrasted with the surrounding Cascade Mountain Range which is over 12 million years old. The latest active period was between 1820 and 1894 when observers reported 14 eruptions.

The Paradise area is famous for its glorious views and its wildflower meadows. When James Longmire's daughter-in-law, Martha, first saw this site, she exclaimed, "Oh, what a paradise!" The park's main visitor center, the new Paradise Jackson Visitor Center, is located in the upper parking area. Paradise is also the prime winter-use area in the park, receiving on average 643 inches (53.6 feet) of snow a year. Winter activities include snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and tubing. The road between Longmire and Paradise is plowed throughout the winter. Paradise is considered the snowiest locale on the planet where snowfall is regularly measured, with a record high of 1,122 inches (93.5 feet) in the winter of 1971-1972. The photo below is of Paradise Inn Lodge the year I stayed there and had a room looking out at the mountains. The elevation here is 5400 feet.

The park contains 25 named glaciers across nine major watersheds, with 382 lakes and 470 rivers and streams and over 3,000 acres of other wetland types. The park is part of a complex ecosystem. Vegetation is diverse, reflecting the varied climatic and environmental conditions encountered across the park's 12,800-feet elevation gradient. Approximately 58 percent of the park is forested, 23 percent is subalpine parkland, and the remainder is alpine, half of which is vegetated and the other half consists of permanent snow and ice.

Some alpine heather communities have persisted in the park for up to 10,000 years. Species known or thought to occur in the park include more than 964 vascular plants, including hundreds of species of wildflowers. The Carbon River Valley receives between 70 and 90 inches of rain a year, and this abundant rainfall and the mild temperatures have created an inland temperate rainforest. Archaeologists at Mount Rainier have determined that humans have inhabited the mountain area for at least 9,000 years, from prehistoric people to the history of the current park.

Birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and fish are abundant, and of these, three species of fish are federally listed as threatened, while two bird, three bat, three amphibian, and one insect species are federally listed species of concern.


I love the colors in these flowers and also their name -- Avalanche Lillies -- a distinct alpine and sub-alpine, Northern Cascade and Olympics flower whose corm (underground stem) was a food source for the indigenous Northwest tribes.

One of the most iconic views of Mt. Rainier is as seen from Reflection Lake, just three miles from Paradise Inn.  There is a nice three mile trail here with an elevation gain of 850 feet.

Here's a photo I took as I hiked on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2004 while backpacking and participating in a volunteer trail project in the Goat Rocks Wilderness. As I turned and looked to my right and behind me from this point, I also had glorious views of Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams. What a great day that was!

The Wonderland Trail is the park's premier hiking trail at 93 miles in length as it completely encircles Mount Rainier. It is a very strenuous hike with ups and downs over side ridges totaling over 22,000 feet of elevation gain and loss as it takes you through lowland forests and valleys and into high alpine and sub-alpine areas. The trail was built in 1915 and it was designated a National Recreation Trail in 1981.  This photo is a shot above Summerland.

An estimated 200 to 250 people a year complete the entire trail, with several thousand others doing shorter sections of it. The average time taken to complete the entire trip is 10 to 14 days. The trail is entirely within the national park and as the trail circles the mountain, hikers see different faces of Mount Rainier. This photo is at Indian Bar.

The trail is considered strenuous as it is almost always climbing or descending the ridges around the mountain. The highest point reaches 6,750 feet at Panhandle Gap. There are many river crossings on the trail including two suspension bridges though many of the rivers are crossed on primitive log bridges which can wash away during heavy rain or when there is a lot of snow melt in the rivers. For example, most of the bridges washed away during a Winter storms of 2006-07 so the trail was impassable and closed to hikers through most of 2007 until park crews could rebuild the crossings. The next photo is at Ohanapecosh Park.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico began as Carlsbad Caverns National Monument in 1923 and was elevated to national park status in 1930. In 1978, Carlsbad Caverns Wilderness was established to protect the area above the caves. Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 known caves - all formed when sulfuric acid dissolved the surrounding limestone leaving behind caverns of all sizes.

The Natural Entrance was created by erosion above ground within the last million years, and exposure to the surface has allowed for the influx of air into the cavern. Self-guided and ranger-led tours of Carlsbad Cavern are available daily. A general admission ticket must be purchased for access to two self-guided trails. Ranger guided tours reservations may be made in advance or purchased at the park. Carlsbad Caverns sees an average of 407,211 visitors every year. The highest attendance seen in a year was 876,500 visitors in 1976. As of 2011, a total 41,654,278 visitors had entered the park

The entrance trail is a steep 1¼-mile descent equivalent to about 79 stories, from the cave entrance to the Big Room. This walk is recommended only for those in good physical condition. Big Room Trail may be also accessed from the elevator. The trails are steep, so wear sturdy, closed-toe shoes.

Carlsbad Cavern begins in a large cave chamber called the Big Room, a natural chamber that is almost 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 255 feet high at its highest. It is the fifth largest chamber in North America and the twenty-eighth largest in the world. The Big Room is easily the most visited at Carlsbad Caverns. Heavily decorated with cave formations, wide-open spaces, and relatively flat, it is a must-see. The 1.25 mile trail winds around showing off areas like the Hall of Giants, Bottomless Pit, and Crystal Spring Dome. A short-cut is available that cuts the length and duration of the Big Room Trail in half. Photos can never fully capture the grandeur of the Big Room -- it's a place you need to see to believe! Allow one to two hours to walk the entire Big Room Trail.

Carlsbad Cavern is 56°F year round, so a light jacket or long-sleeved shirt is recommended. The trails and cave features are electrically lit, but bring a flashlight if you like. The cave is very humid, so bring your inhaler if you use one.

Carlsbad Cavern is one of over 300 limestone caves in a fossil reef laid down by an inland sea 250 to 280 million years ago. Twelve to fourteen thousand years ago, American Indians lived in the Guadalupe Mountains and some of their cooking ring sites and pictographs have been found within the present day boundaries of the park. In 2003, a park employee found a piece of a stone scraper within view of Carlsbad Cavern's entrance that goes back to Ice Age Indian hunters. In 2004, archeologists found fragments of two spear points of the Midland-style Paleo Indian projectile points of some 10,000 years ago.

By the 1500s, Spanish explorers were passing through present-day west Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Spain claimed the southwest until 1821 when Mexico revolted against her and claimed independence. Mexico, fighting the westward expansion of the United States in the late 1840s, lost the southwest to the US. In 1850, New Mexico Territory was created and for the next 30 years the cultural conflict between American Indians and the US government continued. Eddy, New Mexico, the future Carlsbad, was established in 1888 and New Mexico became a state in 1912.

Native Americans who lived in the area for centuries and early local residents knew about the cave. We credit Jim White for being the first "explorer" of the cave in 1898. While a young boy, he explored the cavern with his homemade wire ladder. When he grew older and told of his adventures, there was considerable doubt as to whether the caves actually existed. He named many of the rooms, including the Big Room, New Mexico Room, Kings Palace, Queens Chamber, Papoose Room, and Green Lake Room. He also named many of the cave's more prominent formations, such as the Totem Pole, Witch's Finger, Giant Dome, Bottomless Pit, Fairyland, Iceberg Rock, Temple of the Sun, and Rock of Ages. 

The 120 caves of Carlsbad Caverns National Park were not carved out by running water and streams like many limestone caves in the world, but rather was dissolved along cracks and faults in the limestone rock by sulfuric acid.

The limestone was laid down about 250 million years ago as part of a reef complex along the edge of an inland sea. Seventeen to twenty million years ago, the ancient reef rocks that had been buried under thousands of feet of younger rocks began to lift upwards. Tectonic forces pushed the buried rock layers up and erosion wore away softer minerals to expose the ancient reef as the Guadalupe Mountains.

Deep in the basin, a brine originating from oil and gas deposits and rich in hydrogen sulfide was forced into the limestone at the edge of the basin. When this brine encountered oxygen-rich rainwater moving down through the rock, it created sulfuric acid. This acid dissolved the limestone creating cave passages. As the Guadalupe Mountains continued to lift up, the water drained out of the cave allowing fresh water to percolate through and leave minerals on the ceiling, walls, and floors that we know as cave decorations.

Above the ground in the Chihuahuan Desert, high ancient sea ledges, deep rocky canyons, flowering cactus, and desert wildlife all thrive. Approximately two-thirds of the park has been set aside as a designated wilderness area to ensure no future changes will be made to the desert and mountain habitats, because what is on top of the caves is directly responsible for what happens to the caves.

These caves were dissolved by very aggressive sulfuric acid. Once rainwater trickles down through the soil and picks up carbon dioxide gas, it creates carbonic acid, the acid dissolves the limestone, and then re-deposits it in the cave as calcite decorations.

Scientists call the cave formations "speleothems." The carrot-like ones clinging "tight" to the ceiling are stalactites. Stalagmites form on the cave floor and "grow" up toward the ceiling. Different formations of speleothems include columns, "Soda straws," draperies, Helictites, and "Cave popcorn."  Changes in the ambient air temperature and rainfall affect the rate of growth of speleothems, as higher temperatures increase carbon dioxide production rates within the overlying soil. The varied colors of speleothems is determined by the trace constituents in the minerals of the formation.

One of the special events hosted by the park is the viewing of a bat flight. Nightly programs are given in the early evening at the amphitheater near the main entrance prior to the start of the bat flight, which varies with the sunset time. Flight programs are scheduled from Memorial Day weekend through the middle of October. Optimal viewing normally occurs in July and August with the arrival of the bat pups in addition to the normal migratory bats. Morning programs are also hosted pre-dawn to witness the return of bats into the cave.  Nearly 400,000 Brazilian Free-tailed bats call Carlsbad Cavern home in the summer, and all they want to do each night is eat bugs, several tons of them!

Until 1932, visitors to the cavern had to walk this switch back ramp-sidewalk that took them 750 feet below the surface. The walk back up was tiring for a lot of visitors. In 1932 the National Park opened up a large visitor center building that contained two elevators that would take visitors to the caverns below. The new center included a cafeteria, waiting room, museum and first aid area. Located in the Big Room at the head of the Left Hand Tunnel, it contains a cafeteria that was built in the 1950s and is where the elevators from the visitor center exit into the cave.

Lechuguilla Cave was known until 1986 as a small, fairly insignificant historic site in the park’s backcountry. Small amounts of bat guano were mined from its entrance passages for a year under a mining claim filed in 1914. The historic cave contained a 90-foot entrance pit which led to 400 feet of dry, dead-end passages. The cave was visited infrequently after mining activities ceased.

In the 1950s, cavers heard wind roaring up from the rubble-choked floor of the cave. Although there was no obvious route, people concluded that cave passages lay below the rubble. A group of Colorado cavers gained permission from the National Park Service and began digging in 1984. The breakthrough led into large walking passages on May 26, 1986. What followed has become some of the world’s most exciting cave exploration in one of the finest known caves on the planet.

Since then, explorers have mapped 138 miles of passages and have pushed the depth of the cave to 1,604 feet, ranking Lechuguilla as the 5th longest cave in the world (3rd longest in the United States) and the deepest limestone cave in the country. Cavers, drawn by unexplored passages and never-before-seen beauty, come from around the world to explore, map, and study this beautiful underground wilderness. Access to the cave is limited to approved scientific researchers, survey and exploration teams, and NPS management-related trips.

Below is one of the new areas called Chandelier Ballroom.

Mammoth Cave National Park

Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park is the world's longest cave system with over 400 miles of caves already explored, mapped, and surveyed, and hence its name -- Mammoth -- which was given to it in the early 1800's because of the size of its chambers and avenues.  It became a national park in 1941. Over 2 million visitors come to the park annually and half of them take cave tours. As many as 7000 visit daily during the summer months.

Mammoth Cave's miles of hollow halls were already thousands of years old when the first human beings came on the scene. Native Americans of the Early Woodland period gathered minerals from Mammoth Cave between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago, and objects they left behind – slippers, cane torches, gourds, and mussel shells – remain perfectly preserved in the cave.

An ancient sea that covered the central United States 325 million years ago laid down over 600 feet of soluble limestone here which was then covered by a sandstone and shale cap deposited by an ancient river. The sea and the river disappeared, and erosional forces eroded the cap until about 10 million years ago when cracks and holes began to expose the limestone underneath. Rainwater worked its way underground in the form of sinking streams which began hollowing out the cave as underground rivers. This photo from the park service shows a ranger leading a tour group just after entering the cave.

The national park was established in 1941 to protect the unparalleled underground labyrinth of caves, as well as the rolling hill country above and the magnificent Green River valley. Since then, ongoing study and exploration have shown the park to be far more complex than ever imagined, hosting a broad diversity of species living in specialized and interconnected ecosystems. The park's challenge is to balance these remarkable and sometimes fragile living networks with the public's enjoyment of them.

The park contains several species of endangered plants and animals, including Eggert's Sunflower, the Eyeless Cave Shrimp, and several species of river mussels, among others. Creatures that spend their entire lives in Mammoth Cave adapt to the dark world. Some types of cave fish, for example, do not grow eyes – supporting these extra unnecessary organs would consume precious energy in their nutrient-poor environment. Mammoth Cave National Park is home to over 70 threatened, endangered, or state listed species. These species include birds, crustaceans, fish, gastropods, insects, mammals, mussels, plants and reptiles. The park was declared an International Biosphere Reserve in 1990.

In 1841, cave owner Dr. John Croghan believed the cave air might cure his patients suffering from tuberculosis. He brought 16 patients into Mammoth Cave that winter and housed them in stone and wood huts. After some perished, they left the cave, for of course the cave air offered no cure.

Stalactites grow downward and seem to hang "tight" to the ceiling, while stalagmites grow upward, and in the future, they "might" reach the ceiling someday.

Mammoth Cave's formations include many types of calcite formations, but even without the world's longest cave system, the land encompassing the ground above Mammoth Cave would merit its national park status due simply to its extraordinary density and diversity of plant life. While the country's acknowledged "showcase of vegetation" is Great Smoky Mountains National Park which has approximately 1,500 flowering species in its more than 500,000 acres, Mammoth Cave National Park supports more than 1,300 species in only one-tenth of that acreage.

Visitors to the park hike and ride horses on more than 70 miles of surface trails, fish and canoe in the Green River, camp, and picnic. In fact, I have backpacked for four days through its magnificent wilderness, and even though it was spring vacation and the flora had not blossomed out yet, it was still a beautiful locale to explore. Below are two photos from that backpack trip, and the trip report is here.

The Green River and the valley it flows through are quite lovely even in the winter and early spring months.

I also remember visiting the cave in 1962 with my mom and sister as well as my aunt, uncle, and two cousins. We took a tour that included a boat trip on an underground river. Decades later when I returned, I discovered the tour no longer was offered. The Echo River Tour was discontinued in the early 1990s because the introduction of daily human traffic down in the river levels of the caves was causing harm to aquatic creatures that live there. Also, keeping the lower passages (which flooded frequently) open for the public was prohibitively expensive. I understand that in season, they still do offer the River Styx Tour which allows visitors to get a glimpse of the underground rivers. I also found this photo below, which was taken of entire tour group back in 1962. My family and I are in the front two rows.

Voyageurs National Park

Minnesota's Voyageurs National Park occupies the heart of the North American Continent, a checkerboard of land and water, sitting right at the Canadian/American border, a place of interconnected waterways that flow west and eventually north as part of the arctic watershed of Hudson Bay. It's a place of transition between land and aquatic ecosystems, between southern boreal and northern hardwood forests, and between wild and developed areas. It is a place created and transformed by earthquakes, volcanoes, and glaciers. The resulting ecosystem has been altered by fire, wind, logging, invasion by non-native species, and climate change.

Voyageur is French for "traveler." The voyageurs ruled these interconnected waterways 250 years ago, paddling their huge trade canoes as they established a 3000 mile route to market their furs. The park was created in 1975 but it protects 10,000 years of human lifestyle and culture, honoring the Native Americans, fur trappers and traders, homesteaders, loggers, miners, and fishermen.

The park is a predominantly a haven for boaters, paddlers, and fishermen since the park is accessible mainly via water, except in winter when snowmobiles, snowshoes, and skis reign. In fact, over 344 square miles of water are within the park.

The park does have 50 miles of hiking trails, a few on the mainland but mostly on the peninsula.

I was in upper Minnesota for a volunteer trail project in the Boundary Water Wilderness Area, so I visited International Falls, stopped in two of the park's visitor centers...

...both of which have wonderful exhibits on the history, culture, and fauna of the park...

...and managed to get in two hikes on lovely mainland trails in the park.

The first occupants arrived during the Paleo-Indian Period nearly 10,000 years ago as glacier ice receded. Hunter-gatherers roamed the area between 8000 and 100 B.C. From 100 A.D. to 900 A.D., the Woodland Period, the occupants began cultivating rice and fashioned ceramic projectile points for hunting. Over 220 archaeological sites have been documented in the area.

The earliest European exploration of this area is believed to have occurred about 1688 when French explorer Jacues de Noyon wintered along the Rainy River. The European demand for beaver pelts brought fur traders into the region. The voyageurs paddled large birch bark canoes carrying trade goods and furs between the Canadian northwest and Montreal.

The voyageurs were prompted by competition over the diminishing supply of furs in the east and were the first Europeans to explore the northwest territory and engage the indigenous peoples in the trade of furs on a commercial scale. The Cree, Monsoni, and Assiniboin tribes were the primary inhabitants of the region at the time of initial European contact. However, by the mid-18th century they had largely abandoned the Rainy Lake area, leaving the region open for settlement by the Ojibwa. By 1780 the Ojibwe had become the primary residents of the border lakes region, and they played a key role in commerce as suppliers of food, furs, and canoes. They were also guides during the fur trade era and their intimate knowledge of the geography and resources was crucial to the European fur traders.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Wind Cave National Park

South Dakota's Wind Cave National Park is 41 miles from Mt Rushmore, located beneath a remnant island of intact grassland prairie totaling 33,851 acres. The cave, one of the longest and most complex caves in the world, derives its name from the barometric winds at its entrance. In 1881, as the story goes, Jesse and Tom Bingham were attracted to the cave by the whistling noise of air bellowing out of the cave entrance with such force that it blew Tom's hat off his head. A few days later when Jesse returned to show this phenomenon to some friends, he was surprised to find the wind had switched directions and his hat was sucked into the cave. Today, we understand that the movement of the wind is related to the difference in atmospheric pressure between the cave and the surface. The Lakota people who traversed this area were aware of the cave's existence and spoke of this as a sacred place that blew air and was the site where their ancestors first emerged from the underworld.

In the photo below, a park ranger points to the original hole that attracted all the attention.

Wind Cave is explored by experienced cavers who volunteer their time to map, inventory, assist with biologic, geologic, and hydrologic studies, and participate in restoration of areas disturbed by human activities. The photo below shows some cave exporters mapping new sections of the cave.

In the 19th Century, several mining claims were established at Wind Cave, most noteworthy one by the South Dakota Mining Company in 1890. J.D. McDonald was hired to manage the claim. The mining was unsuccessful, but McDonald and his family realized they could make money by giving cave tours and selling formations from the cave. They filed a homestead claim over the opening and worked on improving a manmade entrance and enlarging passageways for tours. One of J.D.'s sons, Alvin, spent much of his time exploring and mapping the cave, faithfully keeping a diary and making a map of his findings. On January 23, 1891, Alvin wrote that he had "given up finding the end of Wind Cave."

Visitors to the national park can take cave tours that are ranger-guided and leave from the visitor center. Tickets are sold on a first-come, first-served basis, and during the summer months long waits may be encountered.

On January 3, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill creating Wind Cave National Park. It was the eighth national park created and the first one created to protect a cave. The park land above the cave at that time was small and there were no bison, elk, or pronghorn, all of which came later as the park boundaries expanded. In 1912, the American Bison Society was looking for a place to re-establish a bison herd. Because of the excellent prairie habitat around the park, a national game preserve was established bordering Wind Cave, managed by the U.S. Biological Survey. In 1913, the animals began to arrive: fourteen bison from the New York Zoological Society, 21 elk from Wyoming, and 13 pronghorn from Alberta, Canada.

Interest in the wildlife attracted more visitors to the park and additional improvements were necessary, first in the 1920's but the major work was accomplished by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930's. In July of 1935, the game preserve became part of Wind Cave National Park. During the early years of the preserve, the animals were kept in small enclosures but eventually it was realized that the bison, elk, and pronghorn needed room to escape from predators. With the help of the CCC, fences within the park were removed, and in 1946, 16,341 additional acres were added, enlarging the park to 28,059 acres. Currently there are 400 to 450 bison in Wind Cave National Park, grazing the grasslands.

Below you can see the walkways that visitors use to safely see the cave's formations...

The mission of Wind Cave National Park is to preserve and protect the natural resources, both the grasslands above the caves and the caves below the ground, because what occurs above the caves influences the caves' health. Because of its relatively small size, park managers must take an active role in helping the ecosystems function as they might have in the past. This requires understanding how everything in the park relates and how the naturally operating system would have functioned. Park rangers work with researchers to replicate that natural system using prescribed fires, bison round-ups, and biological control of exotic plant species. Fire is an important factor in protecting the prairie. Historically, fires burned across the prairie every 4 to 7 years. Fires burn the small trees that would otherwise march across the prairie and turn the grasslands to forest.

Some of the most extensive boxwork deposits in the world are found in Wind Cave.  Boxwork is commonly composed of thin blades of the mineral that project from cave walls or ceilings and intersect one another at various angles, forming a box-like or honeycomb pattern. The boxwork fins once filled cracks in the rock before the host cave formed. As the walls of the cave began to dissolve away, the more resistant vein and crack fillings did not, or at least dissolved at a slower rate than the surrounding rock, leaving the calcite fins projecting from the cave surfaces.

Small, knobby growths of calcite on the cave walls are called cave popcorn. Popcorn commonly forms in one of two ways in the cave: where water seeps uniformly out of the limestone wall and precipitates calcite; or, when water drips from the walls or ceilings of the cave and the water splashes on the floor or on ledges along the walls. This splashing action causes loss of carbon dioxide and the subsequent precipitation of calcite.

Delicate needle-like growths of calcite or a related mineral, aragonite, are called frostwork. In places the frostwork may grow on top of cave popcorn or boxwork, but the origin of frostwork is controversial. In Wind Cave, it seems to concentrate in passages with above average airflow where, it is thought, evaporation plays a role in its formation.

Where the deposition of calcite is concentrated along cracks, calcite is deposited as flowstone or dripstone. Dripstone includes such features as stalactites and stalagmites, speleothems common in many limestone caves but relatively rare at Wind Cave. The comparative scarcity of these features in Wind Cave is another puzzle for geologists. Perhaps a lack of water would explain it. Alternately, the difference may be the way the water passes through the rock. Rather than just flowing along cracks, much of the water which enters Wind Cave today passes more-or-less uniformly through the rock by seeping between pore spaces. Consequently, when the water reaches the cave it coats the cave walls with a frosting-like layer of calcite rather than concentrating the calcite only along cracks.