Rocks, water, fire: A 4,000 mile, 3-week journey through 7 national parks out west

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By Len Lazarick

For Maryland Reporter.com

Zion National Park and the Virgin River.

Zion National Park and the Virgin River.

Rocks, water and fire and how they interact over millions of years. That’s the theme I came away with after a wonderful, arduous three-week vacation in May to seven national parks out west.

Regular readers saw the notice in State Roundup that I was away and asked me where I went, which I reported on my personal Facebook page. Scores saw it there, but many folks didn’t.

Here is a compilation of some of those comments, and more importantly, many of the photos I took. I’m not Ansel Adams, but lots of these parks are better in color, even with a little Canon PowerShot.

Norris Geyser Basin where a man fell in an acid spring, and died disregarding signs to stay on the boardwalk.

Norris Geyser Basin where a man fell into an acid spring and died, disregarding signs to stay on the boardwalk.

For most of these parks the earth’s crust moved or volcanoes erupted — leaving the huge caldera (bowl) which is most of Yellowstone. There the molten rock is not far from the surface heating the water that becomes hundreds of geysers and hot springs, some of them deadly, as a man discovered a couple weeks ago.

Water in rain and rivers formed canyons and waterfalls in every park, or stayed as glaciers to wear down the rock. The fire beneath the earth is ready to erupt in many places, such as beautiful Mount Rainier, and fire helps renew the forests.

No bears

Here is some of what I saw with Maureen Kelley. It’s not a complete travelogue, just some observations at the time. What I didn’t see, but really wanted to see was a bear. I saw bears in photos, films, paintings, metal cutouts, toys, stuffed animals, and full-sized trophies in a hotel lobby, but I didn’t see an actual bear.

By the way, this is the centennial of the National Park Service, though not the centennial of the parks. The first national park in the world was Yellowstone established in 1872.

The Narrows at Zion.

The Narrows at Zion.

ZION: May 1-2 First stop after flying into Las Vegas and renting a car was Zion in south Utah; we did the Zion Canyon; three easy hikes, but the steep climb to the Upper Emerald Pool did me in.

Zion Canyon is formed by the Virgin River cutting through Navajo sandstone, producing 2,000-foot cliffs of many colors. (The cliffs are not as steep as they are in Yosemite in California, but they have far more color.)

We couldn’t go through the Narrows — hike through the shallow river — for fear of flash floods. They’ve had a lot of rain recently.

There are loads of foreigners traveling. Brits, German, Chinese, a Polish group staying at our hotel.

THE GREAT SALT LAKE: May 3 It’s a 600-mile drive from Zion National Park to Yellowstone, but at least it’s mostly straight, with light traffic and 80 mph much of the way, except for the stretch through the Salt Lake City area.

Willard Bay of the Great Salt Lake

Willard Bay of the Great Salt Lake

By chance, not plan, we stopped for lunch at Willard Bay State Park on an upper northeast branch of the Great Salt Lake. A dozen fishing boats were out as were seagulls and a pelican. The water photo is a view from the picnic pavilion looking southwest and the other is a view looking east of the mountains just behind it. Just an average day behind the wheel.

Mountains just east of Willard Bay

Mountains just east of Willard Bay

YELLOWSTONE: May 4 we saw geysers and bison in Yellowstone. There’s still snow on the ground in many places, and boo, some roads in the park — larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined — are still closed. And bears coming out of hibernation kept us off one trail.

Grand Geyser in Yellowstone

Grand Geyser in Yellowstone

But we did watch Old Faithful (with only a couple hundred people in early May) but a half-mile away in a field of geysers and boiling pits is Grand Geyser and a little cousin. Not so faithful, but lasts much longer — eight minutes maybe.

bison herd in field
Then there are bison all over, with bison droppings all over the geyser fields and meadows, and occasionally bison are in the roads to be avoided, including a herd this morning. Quite a few calves with their mamas.

Yellowstone Grand Canyon

Yellowstone Grand Canyon

Cinco de Mayo snow near the Yellowstone Canyon

Cinco de Mayo snow near the Yellowstone Canyon

Cinco de Mayo and snow May 5. Some of the roads and better trails in Yellowstone were still closed due to snow, like the trail down to the upper falls of the Yellowstone River and its Grand Canyon (yes, that’s what they call it.) One photo has Maureen Kelley walking through maybe 8-12 inches of snow still on the ground.
But weather was good and warm, bison kept to themselves, we finally saw a few elk. Got good shots of the falls and canyon. More geysers at Norris Geyser Basin. Can’t really show the bubbling mud pools at Artists Paintpots.

Half the tourists are Chinese (seriously). They are all over town and park.  Maybe because we’re still in preseason. Bus loads and cars, old and young alike.

Rush hour in Yellowstone: 4:30 p.m. on Friday May 6: Ran into our first traffic jam in Yellowstone. Cars backed up behind about 12 bison in the road. Park Service says they can run 30 mph, but on the road, it’s about 2 mph.

Bison in road

Rush hour in Yellowstone

More driving than hiking today. Part of loop opened to Yellowstone Lake as did the East entrance to the park. Why are things just opening? The lake — and most of its 136 square miles — is still covered in ICE, which would explain why the big hotel on its shoreline and the nearby marina are empty.

Yellowstone Lake still with ice on it May 6.

Yellowstone Lake still with ice on it May 6.

Avalanche Lake at Glacier at the end of a long hike.

Avalanche Lake at Glacier at the end of a long hike.

GLACIER, May 8: Where can we see the glaciers? That’s what I asked a ranger at Glacier National Park on Sunday. With the supposedly magnificent Going-to-the-Sun Road closed for much of the way, the answer was either a 14-mile hike or a 2-hour drive around the park. When the rain (and snow on the east side) was predicted Monday, we skedaddled out of Whitefish, Montana, a cute town, and drove 600 miles through rain, snow, fog and sun to Mt. Rainier in Washington.

Mt. Rainier

Mt. Rainier with almost as many glaciers as Glacier park.

MOUNT RAINIER: May 10-11: There are almost as many glaciers now on this 14,000-foot peak as there are in all of Glacier park, which had 150 in the 19th century, but has 26 today. And the snow is still six to 10 feet high half way up the mountain. The plowing poles along the road are 20 feet high. Half the roads are still closed.

Maureen Kelley with gnarly redwood.

Maureen Kelley with gnarly redwood.

REDWOODS: May 12: We had two all-day drives amounting to 1,000 miles with a side trip through Redwoods National Park, Eureka and the Pacific coast in the fog that helps nourish the redwoods. But no photos do justice to these trees that are both wide and tall and live not alone but in grand groves.

YOSEMITE, May 14-15: Do not visit the great Yosemite Valley on a beautiful weekend in May. The traffic jams were frustrating and the shuttle buses were as full as any rush hour urban equivalent. But take the trail less traveled (when the 45-minute loop is actually a 2-hour hike to the far end of the valley), and you see some wonderful sights.

Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls

Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls

Mirror Lake 3

Mirror Lake in Yosemite.

Badwater Basin Basin, lowest point in the U.S.

Badwater Basin Basin, lowest point in the U.S.

DEATH VALLEY: May 17-19: Reached the low point of our parks tour today — Badwater Basin in Death Valley, 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. Beautiful blue skies till the clouds came in, and there were sprinkles several times while at the pool — pretty remarkable in a place that gets only 2 inches of rain a year. It kept the temperature down to 88 rather than 100 in the afternoon.

Death Valley Artists Palette

Death Valley Artists Palette

Interestingly, we’ve already been to the second lowest place in North America, the Salton Sea in southern California. And 31 years ago, we were at the lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea on the border of Israel and Jordan. That’s as low you can go.

Mesquite Sand Dunes

Mesquite Sand Dunes

On May 19 As the sun slowly sets in the west over the Panamint Mountains and Death Valley below, we bid our farewell to California and seven western national parks. In our honor, it got hot that day (102 degrees) with 25 mph winds. Before the hot sandstorm we hit the Mesquite Sand Dunes that cover miles of the northern valley — Sahara-size dunes, not puny Ocean City bumps.

Sunset over the Paramint Mountains and Death Valley.

Sunset over the Paramint Mountains and Death Valley.

In the whole trip, we only had one day of real rain out of 20. Maryland had 4.22 inches.

For the northern parks, early May is way too early, especially Glacier, which is only fully open June through August. And May is considered late for Death Valley, where the old fancy inn closes at the end of April before the really hot weather. In Yellowstone and Glacier, lodging inside the parks is closed, not to open till late May or early June.

  • charlie hayward

    magnificent trip.

  • Dale

    Great trip and great writing, Len !