Or in my case: When life throws a deer in front of your car, fly to Acadia National Park.
It just didn’t make sense to hang out in Wisconsin for a week while I waited for my car to get fixed. Hotels were pretty pricey, and I knew that I would be going stir-crazy lingering in a city.
I crunched some numbers. When I calculated the cost of gas, lodging during the drive, and tolls, taking a last-minute flight to Maine didn’t seem like such a bad decision.
So I spent a glorious 2 days on Mt. Desert Island, the largest and most popular part of Acadia.
I drove my sweet rental car, a Jeep Cherokee, along the coast, marveling at the rugged rock meeting the Atlantic Ocean. I laced up my hiking boots and explored the mountains and unique ecosystems, the sound of the crashing sea in the distance.
On one occasion, I decided to do a quick 0.4 mile hike to a lookout point. I soon realized that the majority of the hike was iron ladders, and that the “trail” was really more of a nontechnical rock climb.
It was fun.
Even though flying is a pain, I’m happy that my impromptu decision will save me hours in the car in the long run.
Now, my trip is officially back on track. One more park to go!
Complete darkness. My eyes fought to find something to focus on; my ears something to target. Thankfully the lady next to me inhaled deeply, leaving me grateful for the brief respite from the disorienting sensory paralysis.
I sat in an alcove with twelve other strangers, united by our collective experience of this outright blackout. After a couple of minutes, our guide began to talk about the delicate balance of preserving the cave while at the same time allowing visitors access to this underground wonder.
Before arriving at Carlsbad Caverns, I expected it to be like the other three caves I had visited thus far on my trip. Of course there would be eye-catching stalactites and stalagmites, and perhaps a couple of other cave features that would draw my attention. I wasn’t prepared for the sheer magnitude of this subterranean space, nor was I ready to be captivated by the diversity of speleothems (a fancy word for cave decorations).
The guided Lower Cave tour that I signed up for took me even further into a frontier that is just beginning to be understood. Though not as rigorous as my Wild Cave Tour in Mammoth Caves, I got my share of exercise descending/ascending ladders and traipsing across uneven ground.
In one underground pool, hundreds of feet below the surface, I witnessed a parasitic worm preparing to lay its eggs. The young larvae will use cave crickets as a host, eventually busting out of the gut like something from a sci-fi film. Gruesome? Yes, but fascinating all the same. You can watch a video here, but not before eating.
I also walking through history, witnessing the place where Amelia Earhart stood on her VIP tour years ago. I reveled in the fact that Carlsbad Caverns has been around for such a long time. I also said a silent prayer that humans will get their act together and work on preserving such marvelous masterpieces.
At the top, the bright sunlight made me squint and miss the soft light from my headlamp that highlighted cavern features. I’ll never be an underground dweller, but visiting every now and again is a pretty special treat.
The thunderstorm the night before was disheartening. I was planning on kicking off part II of my journey with some epic climbing at a world class crag in Tennessee. I lay awake in bed picturing rain-soaked sandstone that would hinder upwards movement. Nevertheless, there was some promise of sunshine the following morning, so my brother and I loaded up our gear and headed on our merry way.
Though not an official national park, the Obed is considered a national wild and scenic river, falling under the same jurisdiction as my beloved park services. After minutes of hiking along the upper ridge, I began to settle into a familiar rhythm. Outside air, river sounds, soggy leaves underfoot… Home.
The climbing was good, but the day was even better. Sitting on a rock, chatting with strangers, and munching on trail mix brought me into a relaxing sense of freedom. My brother did most of the hard work, leading routes while I belayed at the bottom, watching the birds of prey circle overhead.
And then I thought, “This is only day 2 of part II – there is much more to come. This world is so big and longs to be explored.”
I let out a sigh of contentment before I scarfed down a Clif bar.
Many people have asked me what my favorite park is. Answering that question is difficult; I’ve felt connected to most of the national parks I’ve visited and struggle choosing simply one that takes the cake.
Ask any parent who their preferred child is and (hopefully), they’ll respond “all of them”. After all, each child has his/her own merits and unique attributes. While there have definitely been some parks I haven’t enjoyed as well as others, I have decided to give awards to some of my most-liked places.
“I hope you’re not scared of heights, cuz I’m going to assign you one of our tallest mules.”
“That’s fine. Will I be riding that one over there?”
“No, yours is in a separate corral. She needs to be isolated from the other mules.”
And that’s how my mule riding adventure at the Grand Canyon began (not the most comforting thought to be told you’ll be placing your life in the hands of an ornery animal who has social issues). Yet mule riding and the Grand Canyon go together like peanut butter and jelly, milk and cookies, and other food-related famous duos. How could I not ride on the back of one of these stubborn, sure-footed creatures overlooking one of the most famous canyons in the world?
My ride was fabulous. Cher ended up being a little bit of a handful, but didn’t launch me off the edge, so I was happy. Each turn along the trail brought another view of the canyon’s sheer expansiveness.
Nope, that’s not a typo. There’s a district within Capitol Reef national park named after the plentiful fruit orchards planted by Mormons in the late 1800’s. It’s a spectacular place, full of lush greenery due to the confluence (that’s a fancy word for junction) of a creek and river. The surrounding desert region protects this little pocket of productivity making it a cozy little haven amid the sandstone cliffs.
And let’s talk about these cliffs for a moment, shall we? Before arriving to the park, I found its name, Capitol Reef, somewhat odd. Apparently the term reef denotes a barrier, since early explorers felt that this geological fold of rock was impassable. Capitol refers to the white dome-like structures of Navajo sandstone. Personally, I think they look more like scoops of vanilla ice cream.
But back to Fruita.
Visitors are allowed to pick their own fruit and eat whatever they like while within the park boundary. This means that each day I visited, I would snag a juicy apple for a pre-hike snack. The mule deer hang around, yearning for me to throw them a morsel. For those wishing to take apples out of the park, there’s a self-pay station based on the honor system. The best part? It’s only a dollar a pound! That’s cheaper (and fresher) than the grocery store varieties.
I think all national parks should have some sort of edible goodness available. Just sayin’.