Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Top Ten Parks pt 5

I had some trouble narrowing down all of the remaining parks to my final two. As a result, I've picked two, but I'll post one final blog with honorable mentions later in the week.

First up is Olympic National Park in western Washington State. Olympic is often referred to as three parks in one because of the three distinct ecosystems located within the park. The three ecosystems are alpine, coastal, and forest. Olympic is probably most famous for its temperate rainforest.

My brother and I pose for a picture while hiking through the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic.
The Hoh Rainforest has approximately 140-170 inches (12-14ft!!) of precipitation per year. The rainforest is located on the west side of the park. Hiking is obviously the main attraction here, with many miles of trails for visitors to explore one of the only temperate rainforests in the northern hemisphere.

The alpine section of the park contains the Olympic Mountains for which the park is named. Conditions are often extreme in the alpine region, with Hurricane Ridge receiving 30-35ft of snow annually. Despite the harsh climate, a variety of wildlife can be found here.

Me, my dad, and brother at Hurricane Ridge.

The park also protects 73 miles of Pacific coastline where visitors can drive and look at the scenery or hike along the beach for a more hands-on experience. The coast offers many opportunities for tidepooling where you can explore some of the Pacific's marine life. Tidepools form when the tide recedes and marine animals are trapped in small pools until the tide returns. Animals you can find while tidepooling include anemones, crabs, starfish, octupi, various fish, and many more.

For those less interested in wildlife, Olympic National Park is located just a short drive from Forks, Washington, the town depicted in the Twilight Series. The movie was not actually filmed here, although the wild Pacific coast is very recognizable. One of the more distinguishing features of the coast is the presence of sea stacks, which are columns of rock sticking out of the water near the shore. The stacks are sections of the rock that has resisted erosion.

Me and dad and my brother walking along the beach at La Push. While not technically in the park, this is a good example of the Pacific coast. Twilight fans will recognize La Push as being where the werewolves lived in the books and movies.
The final park to make it into my top 10 is...Mesa Verde in Colorado.

As I've said before, there is no such thing as a bad National Park. But to get into the Top 10, these all had something a little extra special, or unique, about them. For Mesa Verde, its the fact that, while there is great natural scenery, the park is more about people.

There are over 5,000 known Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) archaeological sites within the park, including 600 cliff dwellings. The name Mesa Verde means "green table" in Spanish, referring to the flat mesa tops where the Anasazi grew corn and other crops. They kept no written records, but is believed that they first settled in the area around 600 AD before leaving around 1300 AD. The cliff dwellings that make Mesa Verde famous were built starting around the late 1100s.

The Anasazi are well known for their pottery and intricate basket weaving, both of which can be found in Mesa Verde's thousands of archaeological sites.

Cliff Palace, thought to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America. The multi-story complex contains over 200 rooms built of sandstone, wooden beams, and mortar. NPS photo
Many of the ruins can be visited on your own through a self-guided tour, but the most spectacular are only accessible through ranger guided tours. When my family visited, we toured both Cliff Palace, pictured above, and Balcony House, below. The trail to reach Cliff Palace requires visitors to climb a series of 5 short ladders to reach the dwelling. The tour last approximately one hour, with the ranger providing interesting information on the Anasazi and their way of life.

Balcony House is much smaller and inaccessible, leading archaeologists to believe it was constructed to be easily defensible. Balcony House contains 45 rooms and is set on a high ledge. The only entrance and exit for the Anasazi is believed to have been a series of  toe-holds in a cleft on the cliff. Visitors now enter by scaling a 32ft ladder and then crawling through a 12ft tunnel. To exit the old Anasazi route is used with the help of two 10ft ladders.

Visitors tour Balcony House with a ranger. The 32ft entrance ladder can be seen on the ride side of the dwelling. NPS photo.
And with that my Top Ten Parks list comes to a close. To recap: Yellowstone, Denali, Arches, Zion, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Redwood, Yosemite, Olympic, and Mesa Verde. With that being said, there are several parks that were close to making the list as well as a few I have not been to. But, like I have said, there is no such thing as a bad park, so if you have a chance to visit one, no matter what or where it is, take it, and enjoy it. 

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