Thursday, October 29, 2015

California's Pinnacles National Park

California's Pinnacles National Park was first set aside as Pinnacles Forest Reserve way back in 1906 to preserve the beautiful and unusual rock formations for which it is named, and two years later in 1908 it became a national monument. The park is located between Highway 101 and Interstate 5 about 75 miles south of San Jose in the southern portion of the Gabilan Mountains, one of a series of parallel northwest-trending ridges and valleys that make up the Central Coast Range. Originally only 2,060 acres in size, Pinnacles was gradually enlarged in bits and pieces and now protects about 26,000 acres. In January of 2013, President Barack Obama signed legislation passed by Congress that upgraded it to national park status.

The park represents bad timing to me. I drove all the way from my home in Chicago to the west coast both in 2011 and 2012 for the express purpose of visiting all of the marvelous national parks of the west coast. Then a mere four months after returning home, Pinnacles was upgraded to national park status. I had just driven near the park two years running! Had the upgrade occurred just a few months earlier, Pinnacles would have been my 52nd park visited of the 59 in our country. Bad timing! (Click to enlarge the official park map.)

Pinnacles are rocky spires that remain from an ancient volcanic field. Millions of years worth of volcanic activity, tectonic plate movement, and erosional forces have created the rugged landscape we see today. Three million years ago, multiple volcanoes erupted, flowed, and slid to form what is now Pinnacles National Park, creating this unique and enchanting landscape. Travelers journey through chaparral, oak woodlands, and canyon bottoms, and hikers enter rare talus caves and emerge to towering rock spires teeming with Peregrine falcons, Golden eagles, and California condors.

A few million years of powerful explosions, lava flows, and landslides created the 30 mile wide volcanic field that forms the foundation of Pinnacles National Park. This field of fire was then split down the center by the San Andreas Fault and the west side traveled 195 miles north at a rate of three to six centimeters each year, all the while being worn away by water, weathering, and chemical erosion. Hence this picturesque and peaceful landscape enjoyed by today's hikers and climbers was created eons ago by violent and dynamic geological events.

That same fault action and earthquakes created the talus caves that are another of Pinnacles' attractions. Deep, narrow gorges or shear fractures were transformed into caves when huge boulders toppled from above, wedging in the fractures before reaching the ground. These boulders became the ceilings of the talus caves that now entice not only people, but also several kinds of bats.

Visitors can explore two systems of talus caves which are formed by massive boulders wedged in ravines and widened by water and erosion. Rocks the size of houses will hang over your head as you make your way through a cool, dark environment that provides a home for Townsend big-eared bats and red-legged frogs, as well as other creatures.

Pinnacles is primarily a hiking park. If you are short on time or have difficulty walking on uneven terrain for even short distances, you may opt to visit the west side of Pinnacles where you can get an easy view of the Pinnacles' High Peaks from the Chaparral Ranger Station parking area. The two cave trails are not your typical nicely paved trails. Rather, they meander in between giant volcanic rocks, and huge boulders block you as you try to make your way in pitch darkness where flashlights are required. In some places you need to get down on all fours to be able to pass under some rocks.

There’s no more impressive trail building in the national parks than the work of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps where workers carved rock steps like those cut by Ancestral Puebloans and installed steel railings for the faint of heart.

Today, these rocks give many species of plants and animals a place to call home, including the endangered California condor. Pinnacles is one of four sites where captive-bred condors are raised and then released to live in the wild, and many of these birds live out their lives flying between Pinnacles and the Big Sur coast. California condor numbers are now on the rise after reaching a low of only 22 birds in the early 1980s. Thirty-plus years of captive breeding, careful monitoring, and exhaustive preservation efforts have brought that number to over 400 birds, 200 of which fly free in California, Arizona, and Utah. On any given day, more than 60 birds may be flying in and around the park.

The topography of Pinnacles is not all spire and crag. Elevations range from 824 feet along South Chalone Creek to 3,304 feet atop North Chalone Peak, and much of the park consists of rolling hills. Pinnacles has a Mediterranean climate of hot, dry summers and cool winters with moderate rainfall. Although the park is only 40 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west strongly modify the ocean influence before it reaches inland to Pinnacles. Consequently, while on the coast summer temperatures might be a fairly steady 60 degrees Fahrenheit, at Pinnacles the temperature can swing from 50 degrees at night to 100 degrees in the day. Similarly, due to the absence of the ocean’s warming effect, winter temperatures at Pinnacles often drop below freezing while coastal temperatures remain moderate. Average rainfall is 16 inches per year, falling mostly from January through March. Snow occurs in small amounts at higher elevations almost every year between mid-December and January.

While condors and magnificent rock spires are certainly what draws many visitors to Pinnacles, they are by certainly not all there is to see at the park.  If you prefer to stay in the sun, you can hike the 32 miles of trails which are decorated during the spring months with California poppies, bush lupine, mariposa lilies, and a variety of other wildflowers. These flowers are pollinated by the park's 400 species of bees, a higher density of species per area than any other known place in the world. You may also see bobcats, coyotes, black-tailed deer, lizards, snakes, tarantulas, and perhaps even a mountain lion. Below is a map of the available hiking trails (click to enlarge.)

Anthropologists believe Pinnacles was intermittently occupied by groups of Native Americans for over 10,000 years based on evidence in the form of arrowheads and bedrock mortars discovered within the park, and only a small percentage of the park has been archeologically surveyed. Today, the descendants of the Chalon and Mutsun Tribes are reconnecting with their traditional territories, reviving cultural traditions, and working to re-gain federal recognition, and the park has a growing and mutually beneficial partnership with these two tribes. Pinnacles staff and tribal members are working to cooperatively manage culturally significant resources, to enrich the park's understanding and interpretation of Native American history, and to value the deep relationship between native people and their historic territory. 

The Spanish had a dramatic impact on the Native Americans who inhabited the area. They traveled into California from Mexico and eventually established 21 religious missions between 1769 and 1823, stretching from San Diego to Sonoma. The mission closest to Pinnacles was built in Soledad in 1791. Willingly or not, many of the Chalon and Mutsun people became baptized mission workers, though their way of life was devastated. A combination of diseases brought by the Spaniards and harsh changes to their way of life killed many Chalon and Mutsun people and damaged their cultures. In 1770 the Indian population in California, which was already dropping from the effects of European diseases, was estimated at 300,000. By the mid-1800s, it was cut in half. 

In 1891, Schuyler Hain, a homesteader from Michigan, arrived in the Pinnacles area, and during the next twenty years he became known as the "Father of Pinnacles" as he led tours up through Bear Valley and into the caves. Hain spoke to groups and wrote articles urging preservation of the area and acted as unofficial caretaker for many years. His efforts proved fruitful with the establishment of Pinnacles first as a 2000 acre national reserve, and then two years later in 1908 as a national monument created by President Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps established a camp in what is now the Old Pinnacles trailhead area. From 1933 to 1942, during cooler winter months, the CCC accomplished many projects. The dirt road up to Bear Gulch was widened, paved and completed in 1934. The CCC improved many of the trails that had been established by the early homesteaders, including the exciting steep and narrow trail that winds through the High Peaks. They constructed the dam that forms the Bear Gulch reservoir and improved the trail into the caves, adding concrete steps and guard rails. Beginning in 1936 the CCC boys guided visitors through the caves using lanterns. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Alaska's Lake Clark National Park

Alaska's Lake Clark National Park and Preserve offers stunning beauty with volcanoes that steam and craggy mountains that reflect off turquoise lakes, where salmon run and bears forage, and where local people and culture still depend on the land and water for their livelihood.  The area was proclaimed a national monument by President Jimmy Carter using the Antiquities Act on December 1, 1978, and its status was upgraded to national park and preserve in 1980 by Congress in order to protect the area’s spectacular natural beauty, abundant wildlife, and prolific fisheries. About two-thirds of the park's expansive 4,030,015 acres is designated as wilderness.

It remains one of the least-visited parks in the U.S. National Park System because no roads lead to it. Reaching it entails boat or floatplanes. A one to two hour flight from Anchorage, Kenai, or Homer will provide access to most points within the park. In addition to air taxis which provide drop-off services, a variety of guide services offer trips throughout the park.

Lake Clark National Park is located on the Alaska Peninsula and is part of the Pacific “Ring of Fire” and experiences among the highest frequencies of earthquakes in the world. It is across Cook Inlet from the Kenai Peninsula and is about 100 miles southwest of Anchorage. It is so large that it runs from about the latitude of Homer north to the latitude of Anchorage (click to enlarge map.)

Two major mountain ranges, the Alaska and Aleutian Ranges, collide in the Lake Clark region to create the Chigmits, known for their jagged mountains, vast glaciers, and two active volcanoes, Mount Redoubt and Mount Iliana. Redoubt is still active, erupting most recently in 1989 and 2009. The national park contains 50 mile long Lake Clark and many other pristine lakes and free-flowing rivers.

Continuously inhabited since early prehistoric times, the Lake Clark region nevertheless remains sparsely populated by humans. Alaska Natives settled in this region some time after the close of the Last Great Ice Age 14,000 years ago. Dena'ina, Alutiiq, Yup'ik and other groups have interacted with one another over the centuries through warfare as well as trading and peaceable exchanges. Today, six Resident Zone Communities are identified for Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, the major community being Port Alsworth on Lake Clark in the southwestern corner of the park. The five other settlements are populated mainly by Dena'ina natives.

Prior to the park's establishment isolated cabins were scattered around the region, the most notable belonging to Richard Proenneke whose films documenting his solitary life at Twin Lakes were made into the movie "Alone in the Wilderness" in 2003, an inspiring and informative video.

Richard Louis Proenneke (1916-2003) embodies humanity's fascination with wilderness. Born in Iowa, he worked as a farmhand and rancher before joining the Navy the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In 1949, he made his first visit to Alaska at the invitation of a friend. Two decades later, he set off on a life of struggles and triumphs in the wilderness. Now the centerpiece of a National Register Historic Site, Proenneke built this cabin pictured above and below starting in 1967. Though his cabin is neither the first nor the largest ever built in the Alaskan Bush, it stands out for two reasons-- his remarkable craftsmanship in building it, and the fact that he filmed the entire construction process on an early-technology movie camera. In addition to watching his spellbinding video, I have also read the book One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey, which will amaze you with his courage and determination as well as impress you with the skills he had and the skills he developed to survive in such harsh conditions.

He built the cabin using only hand tools. He brought in a few steel parts but made all the cabinets, furniture, and furnishings by hand with local wood. When tools broke, he repaired them rather than buy new replacements. He is an example of self-reliance and independence, and only a person of extraordinary energy and stamina could have successfully lived this lifestyle for three decades as he did. Most of his material needs and food were acquired locally, though some things from Sears were flown in by a bush pilot friend.

Despite his remote location, he maintained many friendships and wrote back to anyone who sent him a letter. He saw his correspondence, films, and journals as a way to share a life untethered to the commercial world. Though fiercely independent, he was not a hermit. Both his book and his video give a complete account of his first year at Twin Lakes as he built his cabin and developed his routines for isolated bush life. His journals form the basis of several other books and videos.

The cabin remains at Twin Lake and is available for visits. Inside, you'll be able to get an up close look at Proenneke's celebrated wood workmanship and even the desk where he penned his journals, and remember that he made just about everything by hand in the middle of the wilderness! The National Park Service website for Lake Clark includes virtual tours of the cabin and views of the lake.

According to the NPS website: "Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is a place where natural processes dominate. Salmon pass through tidal estuaries on their way to spawning grounds in mountain lakes, chased by hungry seals and brown bears. Two active volcanoes - Mt. Iliamna and Mt. Redoubt - tower above the landscape. Glaciers wind their way down into valleys where the Alaska and Aleutian ranges join. Dall sheep share treacherous mountain slopes with delicate alpine wildflowers."

A variety of recreational activities may be pursued in the park and preserve year-round. The park includes a variety of features not found together in any of the other Alaska Parks: the junction of three mountain ranges, a coastline with rainforests along the Cook Inlet, a plateau with alpine tundra on the west, glaciers, glacial lakes, major salmon-bearing rivers, and two volcanoes.

The wide variety of ecosystems in the park mean that virtually all major Alaskan terrestrial and marine animals may be seen in and around the park. Salmon play a major role in the ecosystem and the local economy. The Kvichak River is the world's most productive watershed for sockeye salmon. Large populations of brown bears are attracted to feed on the spawning salmon Silver Salmon Creek and as a result bear viewing is a common activity in the park.

While both sport and subsistence hunting are permitted in the national preserve lands, only subsistence hunting by local residents is permitted within the national park.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Hiking Fel-Pro RRR Preserve

Fel-Pro Corporation was an auto parts manufacturer. The family that owned the company bought this property in 1983 as a private park for its 2800 employees and their families to provide RRR -- Rest, Relaxation, and Recreation -- in the form of picnic areas, volleyball, fishing, summer camp for the kids, and day excursions. In 1998, Fortune Magazine ranked the company as the fourth-best place to work in the country! When they sold the company in 1998, they donated this 7.5 million dollar property to the McHenry County Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy, and Metropolitan Family Services. The MCCD now operates the entire preserve.

The preserve sits just west of the Fox River in Cary, Illinois, and encompasses 277 acres of prairie, savanna, sedge meadow, spring-fed lakes, wetlands, a fen, rolling hills, nature trails, and tall kames. The two entrances and parking areas are located on the north side of Crystal Lake Road, west of South Rawson Bridge Road and east of Silver Lake Road. (The address for your GPS is 1520 Crystal Lake Road in Cary.)

Picnic tables are scattered about and two rentable pavilions are available, along with a 9 hole disc golf course, sand volleyball courts, basketball courts, a baseball diamond, horseshoes, a swimming pool, hiking, and fishing.

There are two paved loops, one starting at each of the park entrances, leading to mown grass paths that will take you to much of the rest of the preserve. All the trails are groomed in the winter for cross country skiing.

The next two photos show two of the lovely lakes...

...and a cascading waterfall falling from one lake to another...

Trails meander through the preserve and take you to all the various habitats. We hiked 3.5 miles and didn't hike every available trail, most of which are loops, allowing you to create a hike of whatever length you desire. Here's a map of the preserve and a link to the map (click to enlarge.)

140 of the acres are dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. Here we pass over the wetlands area on a bridge...

... and here we climb one of the kames... we passed through lovely oak savannas...

...and came upon a relic from the past...

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Biscayne National Park, Florida

Florida's Biscayne National Park is within sight of downtown Miami, yet worlds away. The park protects one of the most extensive coral reef tracts in the world, the longest stretch of mangrove forest on the east coast, the clear, shallow aquamarine waters of Biscayne Bay, the emerald islands of the northernmost Florida Keys, and 10,000 years of human history, from pirates and shipwrecks to pineapple farmers and presidents.

Originally proposed for inclusion in Everglades National Park, Biscayne Bay was cut from the proposed park to ensure Everglades' establishment. It remained undeveloped until the 1960s when a series of proposals were made to develop the keys in the manner of Miami Beach and to construct a deepwater seaport for bulk cargo, along with refinery and petrochemical facilities on the mainland shore of Biscayne Bay. Through the 1960s and 1970s, two fossil-fueled power plants and two nuclear power plants were built on the bay shores.

A backlash against development led to the 1968 designation of Biscayne National Monument. The preserved area was expanded in 1980 when it achieved  national park status.

Elliott Key is the park's largest island, the largest key north of Key Largo, and the first of the true Florida Keys. It was used for millennia by the Sequestra tribe and later by fishermen, pirates, and escaped slaves. Elliott Key and other islands in Biscayne National Park were settled under the Homestead Act of 1862. This law gave free land to settlers willing to live on and farm a piece of land for five years.

For 50 years, four generations of the Sweeting family thrived on Elliott Key, raising pineapples and limes, salvaging wrecked ships, going to school, worshipping, and playing at the northern end of Florida's Keys.  Following the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Elliott Key was used as a training ground for infiltrators into Fidel Castro's Cuba by the Central Intelligence Agency and by Cuban exile groups.

Elliot Key is formed from fossilized coral reef while the islands farther north in the park are transitional islands of coral and sand.

Unlike many units of the National Park system that can be fully experienced in a car or on foot, Biscayne National Park has 95% of its 172,000 acres covered by water and thus boating is the best way to experience the park. Visitors with boats have full access to most of the park, although the shallow nature of the bay and reefs can preclude larger vessels. The offshore portion of the park includes the northernmost region of the Florida Reef, one of the largest coral reefs in the world. The green line shows the borders of the park and reinforces how the vast majority of the park is water (click map to enlarge.)

Biscayne National Park protects four distinct ecosystems: the shoreline mangrove swamp, the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay, the coral limestone keys, and the offshore Florida Reef. The shoreline swamps of the mainland and islands provide a nursery for larval and juvenile fish, mollusck and crustaceans. The bay waters harbor immature and adult fish, seagrass beds, sponges, soft corals, and manatees. The keys are covered with tropical vegetation including endangered cacti and palms and their beaches provide nesting grounds for endangered sea turtles. Offshore reefs and waters harbor more than 200 species of fish, pelagic birds, whales, and hard corals. It is habitat for sixteen endangered species, including Schaus' swallowtail butterflies,  Smalltooth sawfish, manatees, and Hawksbill sea turtles. Biscayne also has a small population of threatened American crocodiles and a few American alligators

The people of the Glades culture inhabited the Biscayne Bay region as early as 10,000 years ago before rising sea levels filled the bay. The people occupied the islands and shoreline from about 4,000 years before the present to the 16th century when the Spanish took possession of Florida. Reefs claimed ships from Spanish times through the 20th century, with more than 40 documented wrecks within the park's boundaries.

While the park's islands were farmed during the 19th and early 20th centuries, their rocky soil and periodic hurricanes made agriculture difficult to sustain. In the early 20th century the islands became secluded destinations for wealthy Miamians who built getaway homes, social clubs, and elaborate private retreats. The amphibious community of Stiltsville was established in the 1930s in the shoals of northern Biscayne Bay, taking advantage of its remoteness from land to offer offshore gambling and alcohol during Prohibition. Below is Boca Chita Key with downtown Miami in the background...

If you only have a short while, or cannot go out on a boat, the Convoy Point area offers a variety of land-based and indoor opportunities to get to know the park. The park's Dante Fascell Visitor Center may be reached from the Florida Turnpike or from US-1.

A boat trip over the park's coral reef can be a great experience, but to really see the reef, get in the water. It's not only fun, but you'll also be able to see things folks up on the boat can only imagine! This Tiny Starfish was spotted in Jones Lagoon... was this upside-down jellyfish...

Israel Lafayette Jones purchased land on Porgy Key at the southern end of Biscayne National Park in 1898. He, his wife Moselle, and their sons Arthur and Lancelot carved out a life for themselves by farming pineapples and key limes, eventually owning most of the land surrounding Jones Lagoon. That initial $300 investment in land led to total resale value of nearly $1.5 million, making them millionaires. Jones Lagoon is a remote area in the Southern part of Biscayne National Park with beautiful mangrove-bordered waterways to explore as seen in this photo...

John Muir wrote of this area: "However orderly your excursions or aimless, again and again amid the calmest, stillest scenery you will be brought to a standstill, hushed and awe-stricken, before phenomena wholly new to you."

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Texas' Guadalupe Mountains National Park is the world's premier example of a fossil reef from the Permian Era (299 to 251 million years ago) which was the last period of the Paleozoic Era. The Permian (along with the Paleozoic) ended with the largest mass extinction in Earth's history in which nearly 90% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial species died out. It would take well into the Triassic for life to recover from this catastrophe. In fact, recovery of the ecosystems took 30 million years.

The Guadalupe Mountains, located east of El Paso, reach their highest point at Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas with an elevation of 8,749 feet. The park also contains El Capitan, long used as a landmark by people traveling along the old route later followed by the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach line. Visitors can see the ruins of an old stagecoach station near the Pine Springs Visitor Center.

Although the establishment of the park was proposed as early as 1923, the idea did not become reality until Wallace Pratt, a geologist for the tiny Humble Oil and Refining Company (now Exxon) became involved. He was one of the early explorers of oil and in 1921 was captivated by the geology and beauty of McKittrick Canyon and began buying land in the canyon. He built two separate homes in the canyon that were used as summer homes by Pratt and his family up until 1960.

Pratt's generous contribution of nearly 6,000 acres of McKittrick Canyon became the nucleus for Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Another 80,000 acres was later purchased by the government to complete the parcel. Congress passed the necessary legislation in 1966 and by 1970 the land transfer was complete. In 1972, Guadalupe Mountains National Park was dedicated and formally opened to the public. The national park covers 86,000 acres and is almost completely inaccessible by road. The entire place is wilderness area, and there are no roads, facilities, or services in the interior of the park. It is a backpacker's paradise, renowned for its extensive hiking and backpacking in pristine wilderness with over 80 miles of hiking trails. The trails range from short, paved trails of moderate difficulty, to strenuous, all-day or overnight backcountry hikes.

The hike to Guadalupe Peak is 8.4 miles round-trip with an elevation gain of 3000 feet. It generally takes six to eight hours and winds through pinyon pine and Douglas-fir forests, offering spectacular views of El Capitan and the vast Chihuahuan Desert. This photo shows the upper reaches of the trail.

Below is the back and top of El Capitan as seen from the trail up to Guadalupe Peak.

The McKittrick Canyon Trail is 4.8 miles round-trip to Pratt Cabin or 6.8 miles round-trip to the Grotto and it is especially popular during fall colors change season.  It takes three to five hours to hike the canyon.

The Devil’s Hall hike takes three or four hours and is 4.2 miles round-trip, and the Smith Spring Trail, which starts at Frijole Ranch, is a 2.3 mile loop trail and takes less than two hours.

About 265 million years ago, a vast tropical sea covered much of the region. Within this sea, calcareous sponges, algae, and other lime-secreting marine organisms along with lime precipitated from the seawater, built up and formed a reef that paralleled the shoreline for 400 miles. After this sea evaporated, the reef was buried in thick blankets of sediment and mineral salts and was entombed for millions of years until uplift exposed massive portions of it. Today, geologists and scientists come from around the world to study this phenomenal example of a fossilized reef.

From the NPS website: Millions of years of geological transformation formed the Guadalupes, while timeless persistence of powerful winds and the equally powerful forces of water carved its intricate character. This is a rugged mountain range, with deep, sheer-sided canyons, steep slopes, high ridges, and limited but dependable seeps and springs. The complexity of the geography allows unique life zones to shelter a staggering number of plants and animals. One needs only to walk a short distance into the park to recognize that the diversity is outstanding. Thousands of species, well equipped to tolerate the extremes of climate and topography, not only survive but thrive in near perfect harmonious balance.

Over 1000 species of plants have been found in Guadalupe Mountains National Park and their variety reflects influences from the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, and the Chihuahuan Desert. The variation in elevation (3600  to 8751 feet) and the plant life make the area difficult to classify. Many scientists recognize four or five generalized habitats ranging from succulent and shrub desert in the lowlands and south facing slopes, to semiarid grasslands above 5,000 feet, to mixed coniferous-deciduous woodlands and coniferous forests at the highest elevations.

The mountains are also home to thousands of fossils from marine animal and plant life living. This photo is from the national park service...

There are many species of non-poisonous snakes in the park and five species of rattlesnakes, though most are seldom seen by visitors. All wildlife is protected in the park and should not be disturbed or harmed. Mountain lion and bear are seldom observed by either visitors or staff.  More than 300 bird species are known to frequent the park, and there are more than 40 species alone that nest in McKittrick Canyon, making the park a birder's paradise. It is also home to three species of horned lizards, the Mountain Short-horned Lizard, the Roundtail Horned Lizard, and the Texas Horned Lizard.

For over 10,000 years, the Guadalupes Mountains have witnessed a constant stream of human history. The earliest inhabitants were hunter-gathers who followed available game and ripening vegetation and lived in and among the many caves and alcoves common throughout the range. Scattered evidence of their existence, including projectile points, baskets, pottery, and rock art has been found throughout the park.

Since then, many different groups have moved in and out of the area, including the Spanish who arrived by the mid-1500’s. There is little evidence of any attempts on their part to penetrate the Guadalupes and no large-scale settlements have been located. Their influence was significant though, because they introduced horses into the area.

Those horses quickly became an invaluable asset to the nomadic lifestyle of the bands of Apaches who roamed freely over much of southern New Mexico, west Texas, and northern Mexico. The Mescalero Apaches followed game much as the earlier peoples had done, and they also harvested the agave (or mescal) for food and fiber. Agave roasting pits and other remains of Mescalero campsites are common in the park.

They were followed by settlers, military,  entrepreneurs, ranchers, geologists, and conservationists. The history also includes bloody conflicts between Mescalero Apaches and Buffalo Soldiers, the passing of the Butterfield Overland Mail, and finally the making of a national park. Today, the settlers' history is preserved at the Frijole and Williams Ranches and at the ruins of the Pinery Station. In many instances, there is little evidence of their stay and we must carefully piece together the circumstances of their lives. But for many, the historic structures, ruins, remnants, and written record vividly recount their existence in this majestic landscape.

New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns National Park is also in the Guadalupe Mountains and is located 42 miles from the Headquarters Visitor Center at Pine Springs.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park contains 241,904 acres in Utah's slickrock country, a hidden treasure filled with colorful cliffs, twisting canyons, soaring spires, massive domes and bridges, stark monoliths, and graceful arches extending almost 100 miles within a wrinkle or fold of the earth called a geologic monocline. "Waterpockets" are basins that form in sandstone layers as they are eroded by water and they are common throughout this folded monocline, thus giving it the name "Waterpocket Fold." Erosion of the tilted rock layers continues still today.  In 1937, Capitol Reef was established as a National Monument was elevated to national park status in 1971.

Early settlers noted that the white domes of Navajo Sandstone resemble the dome of the Capitol building in Washington, DC. Prospectors visiting the area (many with nautical backgrounds) referred to this 100-mile long ridge in the earth's crust as a reef, since it was a formidable barrier to transportation, and thus its name, Capitol Reef.

The earliest records of Paleo-Indians in Utah date back to 12,000 years ago. Archaeologists believe these people arrived during the Pleistoscene (last Ice Age) by the Berring Land Bridge and were the very first North Americans.

The area of Capitol Reef has been a homeland to people for thousands of years. From 7,000 to 500 B.C., Archaic hunters and gatherers migrated through the canyons hunting game that is still common now, namely bighorn sheep, deer, elk, and pronghorn. From 300 - 1300 A. D., the Fremont were hunter-gatherers who supplemented their diet by growing corn, beans, and squash. They lived in pit houses dug into the ground and covered with a brush roof.  Petroglyphs etched in rock walls and painted pictographs remain as sacred remnants of the ancient Indians' saga that can still be found along Highway 24 and on the Capitol Gorge Trail, 700 to 1,000 years later. Below is a representation by the park service, and the photo below it is one I took of some of the artwork.

Mormons and other settlers arrived in the 1800s, settling in what is now the Fruita Rural Historic District. They planted and nurtured orchards of apples, pears, and peaches. The orchards remain and are managed to preserve their historic character. In fact, they are still watered with an irrigation system essentially in its original condition. Visitors can pick and eat fruit in the orchards in season and purchase fruit and nuts to take home.

Iron causes the colors in Capitol Reef's rock layers. Oxidized iron results in red coloring and indicates a dry paleo-environment. Reduced iron, produced in swampy or boggy conditions, gives the rock a green tint. Both oxidized and reduced iron produce different chemical reactions that result in the different colors.

Capitol Reef is an excellent place to see many of the geologic strata that make up the Colorado Plateau. White Rim sandstone 275 million years old is at the base of the Fremont River Gorge. Dark red Moenkopi siltstone and mudstone have formed the beautiful Mummy Cliffs. Sheer Wingate sandstone cliffs soar over Utah Highway 24 and are capped by domes of Navajo sandstone. Entrada sandstone has formed spectacular fins in the Cathedral Valley.

Click to enlarge this national park informational sign.

A desert receives less than 10 inches of rainfall per year. Capitol Reef averages about 7 inches per year in combined rain and snow, but the park is classified as a step-shrub plant and animal community. With its wide variety of microhabitats, its cold desert ecosystem supports an extraordinarily diverse combination of plant and animal species because of its variety of habitats such as pinyon-juniper, perennial streams, dry washes, and rock cliffs.

Biological soil crusts are found throughout the world. In arid regions, these living soil crusts are dominated by cyanobacteria, and also include soil lichens, mosses, green algae, microfungi and bacteria. These crusts play an important role in the ecosystems in which they occur. In the high deserts of the Colorado Plateau (which includes parts of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico), these knobby black crusts are extraordinarily well-developed, and may represent 70 to 80 percent of the living ground cover.

Cyanobacteria, previously called blue-green algae, are one of the oldest known life forms. It is thought that these organisms were among the first land colonizers of the Earth's early land masses and played an integral role in the formation and stabilization of early soils. The earliest cyanobacteria fossils found are called stromatolites which date back more than 3.5 billion years. Extremely thick mats of these organisms converted the earth's original carbon dioxide rich atmosphere into one rich in oxygen and capable of sustaining life.

Unfortunately, many human activities are incompatible with the presence and well-being of biological soil crusts which are no match for footprints or machinery, especially when the crusts are dry and brittle. Air pollutants, both from urban areas and coal-fired power plants, also harm these crusts. Tracks produced by vehicles or bicycles are especially damaging, creating areas that are highly vulnerable to wind and water erosion.