Many years ago, a great lake sat between two massive mountain ranges, a lake that fed the river that now serves as much of America’s southern border. Today, that great lake has left behind a unique desert, a field of dunes that almost seem otherworldly. The appearance of these mounds of sand isn’t the only thing odd about this area. When the wind is right, the sand seems to sing out from the valley. However, those who come here in search of singing sands and high desert will find something more than massive mounds of sand and rising temperatures. Grasslands, wetlands, pine and aspen forests, alpine lakes and tundra biomes also rise from this landscape, a quiet reminder that this magical place is actually in south central Colorado. This place is Great Sand Dunes National Park.
The Great Sand Dunes have been inspiring people for ages. Native peoples considered it an important scared landmark, a place of food and medicine. Explorer Zebulon Pike described the moving sands as “exactly that of the sea in a storm.” Settlers came west in order to find gold and attempt to farm this isolated area. Bing Crosby even wrote a song about the singing sands. Established as a national monument in 1932, it would take more than 70 years for this icon of Colorado to attain national park status, making it the second youngest national park in the country.
Less than 30 miles from Columbia, S.C., Congaree National Park is still a hidden gem among largely urban and suburban surroundings. One of the nation’s youngest national parks, Congaree has long served as a beacon of shelter for those facing oppression. It was here that the Congaree people, for whom the area is named, did their best to survive despite European encroachment. Slaves from South Carolina plantations used the swamplands as a refuge and a way to escape, making their own villages hidden in the forest floor. Even today, numerous threatened and endangered species find a nice, safe habitat within the bounds of the park.
Cuyahoga Valley is the only national park in the state of Ohio and is located between two of the state’s biggest cities: Cleveland and Akron. It may seem an odd place to stick a national park, but the Cuyahoga River the national park surrounds became a focal point of the environmental movement after the amount of pollution in the river caused it to “catch fire” at least 13 times. Today, the water quality has improved and fish have returned to the river. In addition to preserving the environmental quality of the Cuyahoga, the park also preserves the man-made ambition that built Ohio by preserving portions of the Erie Canal also located here. As a result, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a testament to both conservation and industrial progress.
The youngest and perhaps least known of Colorado’s three national parks, Black Canyon of the Gunnison has long been seen as a natural obstacle. A national park not for the faint of heart, climbing, boating and even hiking in this park is often considered dangerous and best left to those with plenty of experience. However, this remoteness and inherent danger is what has long attracted the adventurous to the canyon and part of the reason why the area is so well preserved. As opposed to the more famous, 6-million-year-old Grand Canyon, some might consider the Black Canyon young at only around 2 million years old. The story of Black Canyon of the Gunnison is still unfolding.
While native peoples, cowboys, homesteaders, miners, emigrants, and moviemakers have all passed through Joshua Tree, much of what is known about the park’s history and the efforts to conserve it are thanks to two women, early leaders in the national park movement. Today, the park is a favorite place for musicians and artists to gain inspiration as well as for stargazers to view the uninhibited night sky. Geologists and rock climbers are both drawn to the millions-of-years-old cliffs, formations and outcroppings that make up the park’s unique scenery.
A geological wonder, Death Valley stands out from other national parks in several ways. It is the hottest national park by record as well as the driest. It also reaches the lowest point of any national park in the Lower 48. While its name conjures up images of deserts and badlands, it is also home to one of the most beautiful wildflower displays each spring and is often covered in snow throughout the winter. While the heat of the day can be unbearable, the freezing temperatures of the night can be even harder to survive. Despite the rough conditions, plants, animals and humans have still been able to survive and thrive here. Those willing to overlook its name have always found Death Valley to be one of the most awe-inspiring sites in America.
Named for the Carnegiea gigantea or the saguaro, this national park is famous for being home to the largest cactus in the world. The saguaro is both a living plant, a habitat and historically a source of fruit and water in the dry desert. While the iconic cactus is the park’s namesake and most famous resident, it is far from the only thing to see here. Desert tortoises, gila monsters and javelinas roam the parklands. Native tribes, Spanish explorers, miners, ranchers, homesteaders, CCC workers, and scientists have all called this area home. Saguaro has long beckoned travelers to visit the king of the cacti in his own domain.
While the sunken treasures of shipwrecks around the island may seem the most alluring part of these islands, the Dry Tortugas are actually home to a greater wealth of sea life, tropical birds, coral reefs and history. Home to the largest brick masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere, the park is accessible only by seaplane or boat. Ferries bring visitors to the islands daily, though traversing the waters is much safer than in the heyday of pirates, privateers, naval officers and fishermen. Bordered by two marine sanctuaries and part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve with the Everglades National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park showcases the uncompromised natural beauty of the Florida Keys.
Officially known as the National Park of American Samoa, this national park has the distinction of being the only U.S. National Park south of the equator and only the second national park located in a U.S. Territory rather than a U.S. state. Located in the South Pacific, American Samoa is actually closer to Australia or New Zealand than it is to the U.S. Only slightly larger than Washington, D.C., American Samoa is only a portion of the full Samoan Islands with the rest belonging to the independent Samoa and the national park works to preserve the ancient heritage and natural beauty of these islands.
Originally preserved due in part to its extensive underground cave network, the park today contains the Basin and Range Province of the much larger Great Basin itself. Located less than 15 miles from the Nevada-Utah state line, this national park is located off the beaten path, surrounded by small unincorporated communities and ghost towns. Its nearly 300 miles to Las Vegas in the south or 230 to Salt Lake City in the northeast. However, those who venture out will have a chance to see an untouched segment of America, a place of rock arches, underground caverns, canyons, mountains, lakes, pine forests and mountain meadows.
Dedicated to all things travel, places I have been and places I want to go.