Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cross Country Drive (05/27/2013 – 06/08/2013) (Summary) First Half

Similar to 2008, when my wife took up a job in North Carolina which gave us an excuse to plan a cross country road trip, this time she packed up her things to move back with me, prompting another road trip in the opposite direction.

As a national park lover but more generally big enthusiast and strong supporter of the NPS, it would not be surprising that our trip was scheduled around the NPS units.  Obviously, other things famous and iconic things worthy of checking out would not be passed up.  Once again, before I have time to dedicate a blog article for each unit, a list with a brief summary account will have to suffice for now.  In our 13 days on the road, we visited 25 NPS units:

(1) Carl Sandburg Home NHS -  The "people's poet", also known for his Lincoln biography, purchased his home in Flat Rock, North Carolina so that his wife could raise her dairy goats.  These diary goats of Connemara Farms are the true attractions of this site.

(2) Cumberland Gap NHP - Before modern railroads, highways, and airplanes, the Cumberland Gap was one of the few ways people could cross the Appalachians to get to Kentucky and the Ohio Valley.  Hiking part of the Cumberland Gap leads you to the Tri-State Peak, where you can stand at the tri-point of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.

(3) Big South Fork River NRRA - Preserves the Big South Fork Cumberland River.  Was not that impressed with the river scenes.  For something a bit more remote but rewarding, visit the Twin Arches, which requires driving on 8 miles of gravel road first.  They comprise the largest natural bridges in the U.S. east of the Mississippi.

(4) Mammoth Cave NP - No mammoths here, sadly, but the title refers to the colossal size of the caves found here.  Mammoth Cave boasts the longest cave system in the world, now standing at 400 miles of connected caves, with more being explored daily.  Most of the river has changed its course over all this time, making many of them dry caves, and not forming caves with the commonly seen stalactite/stalagmite formations.  Truly eye-opening.

(5) Abraham Lincoln Birthplace NHP - Located in Hodgenville, KY.  While many places' claim to fame revolve around Lincoln, only this place is rightfully called the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln.  There's a monument of 56 steps, signifying 56 years of Lincoln's life.  On top of the monument is a historic, symbolic log cabin.  Previously thought that the logs were from Lincoln's birth cabin, this turned out to be false, or a better way to put it, "not entirely true."  10 miles away is the Boyhood Home Unit, where Lincoln lived there from 2 to 7.

(6) Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial - Roughly 2 hours away, in the aptly named Lincoln City, Indiana, lies the home Lincoln lived from 7 to 21.  His mother was buried here.  Lincoln is without a doubt, the most celebrated American president.  There are more NPS units created and/or named after him than any other president.

(7) George Rogers Clark NHP - Older brother of the more famous William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, George Rogers Clark led a successful battle in the Siege of Fort Sackville, without a single casualty on both sides.  While crediting him as the conqueror of the Old Northwest Territory and doubling the size of the American territory may be highly romanticized and greatly disputed, the memorial erected at Vincennes, Indiana is the largest war monument constructed in the U.S.

(8) Ulysses S. Grant NHS - The home Grant and his wife lived in for 6 years was actually the childhood home of his wife Julia Dent.  Named the White Haven, the house is actually green, blending well with the trees of its surrounding.      

(9) Jefferson National Expansion Memorial - Commemorates the westward expansion of the United States at the start of the 19th century.  Includes the Old Courthouse and the iconic Gateway Arch of St. Louis.  Taking the tram to the top of the arch is a must.

(10) Harry S. Truman NHS - The last president residence we visited during this trip, gives a peek into the Trumans' private and attempted reclusive life.  Truman did not want the attention and spotlight after he stepped down from office, but that proved to be difficult.  Like Grant, the home originally belonged to Truman's parents-in-law.  

(11) Fort Scott NHS - Originally established as a fort in the western frontier to protect white settlers from conflicts with the native Americans (obviously and ironically, the whites were the aggressors), the fort proved to be a strategic location in the Mexican-Americn War (another act of American expansion). The fort has several buildings and many volunteers in period costume.  It turned out to be a surprisingly interesting experience.  The town it is located in bears the same name (Fort Scott), and is a nice little town.

(12) Brown vs Board of Education NHS - Located in captial of Topeka, KS, the site that commemorates the landmark Supreme Court's ruling that made segregation in public schools unconstitutional, an important chapter in the United States' civil rights movement.  The site is located in the former Monroe Elementary School, originally a segregated African American school.  There are quite a few exhibits documenting the civil rights movement, but nothing more.

(13) Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve - Only 4% of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem remains in the U.S., when white settlers came into Kansas and plowed the remaining 90+ % of the land to use it for planting crops.  Trails are available for visitors to hike, and there's also a bus ride that takes visitors deeper into the preserved prairie lands.

(14) Fort Larned NHS - A military fort established on the Santa Fe Trail.  It is reconstructed and restored to its former state as close as possible.  Like Fort Scott, the experience turned out to be quite pleasant and much more interesting than we expected.  A re-enacting blacksmith gave us a piece of an iron chain he made on the spot as a souvenir. 

(15) Nicodemus NHS - Frankly speaking, one of the most unspectacular and out-of-the-way NPS units we've ever visited.  The NHS preserves the last remaining western U.S. town established by African Americans during the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War.  These people traveled out of the former slave state of Kentucky into Kansas in search of a new life.  The town has been in decline since the 20th century, and there are only 5 historic buildings remaining, all in very poor condition except the Town Hall, which is used as the visitor center.

(16) Sand Creek Massacre NHS - A relatively new addition to the NPS system, the Sand Creek Massacre NHS serves to commemorate a tragic chapter of U.S. history of the white - native American conflict.  A fully armed militia rode into a peace-seeking Cheyenne camp and massacred 150 people, most of them elders, women, and children.  There are eyewitness accounts written by officers who refused to participate, and the level of detail is truly gruesome.

(17) Bent's Old Fort NHS - Another "fort" we visited on our trip, although this one really stands out because it was a non-military fort.  It was, in fact, a trading post on the Santa Fe Trail, which involved trading of various goods between the whites, Indians, and Mexicans.  The reconstructed adobe fort was quite a delight to walk around, as it was filled with many stories of travelers who briefly stayed there.

(18) Florissant Fossil Beds NM - The site preserves fossils that date back 35 million years ago from the Eocene era.  The most visible fossils remnants are the petrified redwood tree stumps near the visitor center.  The monument is also well-known for many of their plants and insect fossils though since most of them are in the shale layers, these fossils can only be seen at the visitor center.

(19) Great Sand Dunes NP and Preserve - Contains the largest sand dunes in North America.  Hiking up the sand dunes is no ordinary feat, especially in the heat.  Views on the top of any substantially tall dune, however, are rewarding.  Probably had the most fun playing around in this unit, as there are endless things to unleash the child in you here.  The Medano Creek next to the dunes is the most popular destination here, as the combination of water and sand make it the ultimate playground for families with young kids and dogs.   

(20) Curecanti NRA - Unfortunately, this is the only NPS unit that we could only drive by and stop only briefly.  This unit was created when reservoirs were created by damming up the Gunnison River.  Many scenic overlooks, hiking trails, and of course, boat tours are available, but we had to skip them. 

(21) Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP - Contains one of the steepest mountain descents in North America.  Stunning views of the canyon are not to be missed.  The drive down the canyon to the river was an unforgettable experience, mainly because the 18% grade road caused our brakes to seriously overheat, producing an awful smell.  The upside of this was that we decided to stay in the nearby town of Montrose, which turned out to be the best lodging of our entire trip.  Then in the morning, we went back for more of the Black Canyon.

(22) Colorado NM - Beautifully sculpted canyons sitting on top of the Colorado Plateau.  Big rock formations allow you to see the different rock layers of geological time.   Big slabs of red sandstone indicate you are now in the American Southwest.

(23) Arches NP  - One of the most well-known and popular parks in the NPS system.  The Delicate Arch is a must see, a modest hike of 3 hours.  This arch is not only the symbol of the park but has also become the symbol of Utah itself.  Next time look closely at Utah license plates.  We had a nice chat with an elder Bay Area Californian on the return hike.  Nothing beats sharing stories with fellow stranger national park enthusiasts.

(24) Canyonlands NP - Just next to Arches, this park receives less attention than Arches but is by no means less impressive.  Rightfully named, the park has countless canyons carved out by the Colorado and Green Rivers, and it is also where the confluence (meeting of the two rivers, a word I learned this time on the trip) is.  Of the 4 districts, only two are really accessible by car, and we only had time to visit the most popular one.  Sunset at Green River Overlook was wondrous.  

(25) Zion NP - The first national park of Utah needs no introduction, being of the 10 most visited national parks of the U.S.  It's not my first time visiting Zion, so this time my mission was clear : to do the Angels Landing Trail, one of the classic must-do hikes of the park.  I meant to do this way back 6 years ago, but plan was derailed by some unexpected event.  The hike starts with a series of switchbacks, and then you notice you're midway up this fin.  As the trail become more narrow, the last part involved holding onto chains while you reach the top, when you are rewarded with breath-taking views of the canyon.  Made the right choice of hiking it in the late afternoon, otherwise the heat would have been unbearable.

That wraps up the NPS portion of our trips~~~

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