Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Six must-see beaches at our national parks

Enderts Beach, Redwood National Park, courtesy of Redwoods NPS.
The following article was written for and originally appeared in the July 2016 Coach.net newsletter:

It’s summertime, and there’s almost no better place to be than the beach. The warmth of the sun upon your face, the sound of waves splashing against the shore, the blue water stretching into the horizon…Let’s go!

Among the most beautiful beaches you can visit are those in national parks. Thousands of miles of shoreline around lakes and along oceans are protected in our parks, and just like the wildlife and rock formations you’re apt to find in most of them the beaches won’t disappoint either.

Here are six must-see beaches at our national parks that can be reached via an RV.

Ocean Path Trail
Acadia National Park
Cobble beaches and hard bedrock make up most of the shoreline for the Atlantic Ocean that surrounds the Maine park’s many islands. A rare exception is the 4.4-miles round trip Ocean Path Trail that heads from a sand beach to sea cliffs.

Convoy Point
Biscayne National Park
This boardwalk trail is flat and easy, running along the Florida mangrove shore known as Convoy Point. You’ll follow the blue-green waters of Biscayne Bay and be able to spot some small, mangrove-covered islands. Bring a lunch; there’s a picnic area below palms overlooking the bay. Part of the boardwalk also takes you out over the water. As the bay is shallow and quite clear, you’ll have no trouble spotting the bottom.

Swiftcurrent Nature Trail
Glacier National Park
The first 0.6 miles of the trail at this Montana park heads through an evergreen forest with several short spur trails leading to beaches along Swiftcurrent Lake. Meltwater from Grinnell Glacier feeds lake, making for an crystal clear albeit cold water.

Leigh Lake Trail
Grand Teton National Park
Several alpine lakes perfect for a family outing sit at the Wyoming park’s central String Lake Area. The 1.8-mile round trip trail heads around a shimmering blue lake through green pines with gray Mount Moran soaring in the background. During summer, enjoy a picnic on the beach and then a swim in the cool waters.

Ruby Beach Trail
Olympic National Park
The Washington park’s Pacific Ocean shoreline features gushing sea stacks, piles of driftwood logs, and colorful, wave-polished stones. To enjoy all three, take the 1.4-mile Ruby Beach Trail. Some of the driftwood here has floated in from the distant Columbia River.

Coastal Trail
Redwood National Park
With more than 40 miles of pristine Pacific Ocean coastline, the northern California park is the perfect place to see tide pools and sea stacks. The latter are visible from many highway vistas but to get close up to a tide pool – a small body of saltwater that sustains many colorful sea creatures on the beach at low tide – explore the 1-mile segment (2-miles round trip) of the Coastal Trail at Enderts Beach south of Crescent City.

Rob Bignell is the author of several hiking guidebooks, including the bestselling Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Tour heads to Badger State’s largest cave

Crystal Cave, Wisconsin's longest cave.

Half-mile hike
heads 7 stories

Day hikers can explore Wisconsin’s longest cave near the village of Spring Valley.

The Crystal Cave tour runs about 0.5-miles round trip through 1,300 feet of passageways. Several deeper passages are closed to the public. The cave is a commercial venture, so a fee is charged to be part of a tour.

To reach Crystal Cave, from Spring Valley take Wis. Hwy. 29 west. In about a mile after ascending the hill, turn left/south onto the cave entrance road. After parking, go into the gift shop to purchase tour tickets.

In 1881, a teenage boy discovered the cave when pursuing a squirrel that disappeared down a sinkhole. The next day, he and his brother returned and with rope and lantern explored a small portion of it. During the early 1940s, a businessman had the clay and rock debris removed from the sinkhole and opened the cave to the public for tours; it was named for the quartz crystals that appear throughout the cave’s walls.

The cave runs through a chunk of dolomite, a type of limestone, that formed about 485 million years ago when this part of the world was a covered by a shallow sea; two fossils of nickel-sized snail-like creatures can be seen in cave’s floor. It is seven stories deep and 4000 feet long.

Your tour leaves from the gift shop, descending down stairs through the sinkhole discovered in the 1880s. Ramps then pass man-made pools that cleverly control the water draining into the living cave.

In short order, the tour enters the Ballroom, the cave’s largest chamber. Following that, several passageways head past stalactites, stalagmites and rippling flowstone.

The cave is home to several bat species; both big and brown bats hibernate there in winter. Usually a bat or two can be spotted sleeping above you in a passageway.

Among the tour highlights is the Spook Room, where the tour guide turns off the lights to show just how dark the cave is. The darkness actually feels impenetrable.

From there, the tour heads to the Story Room, where a humorous story of Cave Man Charley is presented. Among the last stops is the Wish Room, whose walls are filled with coins; the rock walls contain a large amount of illite, a mineral used for a variety of disparate purposes, including cosmetics, dam repair, and medicine.

The cave remains a constant 50 degrees, so when visiting always wear a sweatshirt and pants, even on summer’s hottest days. Crystal Cave generally is only open from April through mid-October with slightly longer hours in late spring through summer.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Trail heads to quiet beach at Wisconsin Dells

Birchcliff Beach, courtesy Amy Bayer, Flickr.
Topo map of Chapel Gorge Trail.

Chapel Gorge Trail
loops to river
near Upper Dells

Day hikers can head to a quiet beach in the gorge that makes up the Wisconsin Dells.

The Chapel Gorge Trail runs 2 miles through what may be Wisconsin’s most visited state natural area. Neighboring Wisconsin Dells is a major tourist destination, and the popular boat rides into the Dells of the Wisconsin River State Natural Area always generate pictures of the river gorge and its fantastical slot canyons, particularly Witches Gulch. The 1300-acre area is an oasis of Mother Nature in a region that is more akin to Disneyland meets P.T. Barnum.

The natural area’s cliffs are closed to rock climbing and the side canyons closed to hikers. The best way to see them is via one of the commercial boat tours. Still, one official trail does cut through the natural area, offering access to portions of the dells that most visitors don’t know even exist.

Ice Age flashfloods
To reach the hiking loop, from Wis. Hwys. 13/16/23 in downtown Wisconsin Dells, go north on River Road. After passing the Birchcliff Resort entrance road, turn left/west into a parking lot. The trail leaves from the lot’s west side.

The loop’s stem first crosses a hardwood forest then goes under a power line and back into a woods. After veering south then west, the trail splits. Go left/southwest, following a former service road.

Eventually the shaded path descends steeply down the cliff side and reaches the south side of small secluded Birchcliff Beach on the Wisconsin River. The beach marks a sandbar on a river bend.

From the beach, you can can see the sandstone cliffs to the north where the river enters The Narrows. The beautiful rock formations were formed when glacial meltwater at the end of the last ice age roared through the sandstone, which originally was sediment at the bottom of a shallow 500-million-year-old sea that hardened into rock over the eons.

Rare plants
Thanks to the range of exposure to sunlight and moisture availability, the gorge provides for a number of unique micro-ecosystems. Indeed, the cliff cudweed – a tiny aster – is found only in two places on Earth, and one of them is the gorge. Among the other rare plants are the fragrant fern, Lapland azalea, maidenhair spleenwort, round-stemmed false foxglove.

The sandy uplands above the gorge ecologically are a bit more like the rest of Wisconsin in the plant species it supports, but even here a range of forests can be found. Among them are dry oak/pine forests, an oak savanna, and a northern mesic woods that boasts hemlock, red oak and white pine.

After taking in the views, walk to the beach’s northern side and head northeast back into the woods. The trail climbs to the cliff top and at the Upper Dells swerves east.

Upon reaching the junction with the stem trail, go left/east onto it toward back to the parking lot.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

North Country segment passes hemlocks

Map of Chequamegon Hardwoods State Natural Area, courtesy WI DNR.
Day hikers can explore a northern Wisconsin forest with massive old growth hemlock trees on a segment of the North Country National Scenic Trail.

The segment runs 2.2-mile round trip through the contiguous Chequamegon National Forest and the Chequamegon Hardwoods State Natural Area. Stretching from New York to North Dakota, the North Country Trail crosses seven states over a 4600-mile course.

To reach the trail segment, from Mellen, Wis., drive west on County Road GG. Once inside the Chequamegon National Forest, turn right/north onto Forest Road 187. Then turn right/northeast onto Forest Road 188, which as veering east becomes Hanson Road. After passing the Beaver Dam Lake Road intersection, watch for where the North Country National Scenic Trail crosses the road. At the crossing, park off the side of the road and take the trail northeast.

The trail heads through a northern mesic forest in which basswood, red oak, sugar maple, white ash and yellow birch dominate. Below it grow alternate-leaved dogwood, beaked hazelnut, and mountain maple. Beneath that shrub layer, more than 80 plant species can be found, including blue cohosh, green adders’-mouth, lesser purple fringed orchid, nodding trillium, spikenard, and spotted coralroot orchid.

At about 0.4 miles, the trail unceremoniously enters the state natural area’s southeast corner. Though originally logged off in the 1930s, large old-growth hemlock and big-tooth aspen both still can be found here; some old-growth hemlocks boast a diameter of five feet. Scattered gabbro rock outcroppings, some of which are up to 50 feet high, also can be found in the state natural area.

The trail departs the state natural area in a little more than 0.1 miles. You’ll know you’ve left, as the route passes a wet area once you’ve re-entered the national forest.

Black ash, red maple and white cedar common on this wet-mesic forest portion of the route. Amphibians, including the red-backed salamander and wood frog, are here as well.

The rest of the trail is dry as it runs east through the northern mesic forest. The variety of trees in this second-growth forest makes for a colorful walk in autumn.

About 0.3 miles from the wetlands are a pair of knolls that mark the two high points along the trail. They top out at 1535 (the westernmost knoll) and 1538 feet (the easternmost) above sea level.

The trail’s crossing of North York Road marks a good spot to turn back. Alternately, this makes a great point-to-point hike if you have a driver disinterested in hiking.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Trail heads to Wis.’ largest natural arch

Leland Natural Arch. Courtesy of Wisconsin DNR.
Map of Indian Moccasin Nature Trail.
Day hikers can see Wisconsin’s largest natural arch on the Indian Moccasin Nature Trail.

The trail in Natural Bridge State Park runs a third of a mile round trip. To reach it, from Baraboo drive south on U.S. Hwy. 12. After passing through Bluffview, turn right/west onto County Road C. Turn right/north into the park’s entry road on Lehr Drive.

From the parking lot, take the trail across the picnic area into the woods. At the first junction, go right/north. The Leland Natural Bridge is just a couple of bends ahead.

The bridge measures 35 feet high with the opening in the arch 25 feet wide and 15 feet high. The rock for the arch began forming some 1.6 billion years ago when sediment was deposited at the bottom of a sea that covered this region. Over hundreds of millions of years, it was covered by sediment that hardened into sandstone. Pink quartzite pebbles in the sandstone came from about a half-mile to the north, where waves eroded a pinnacle or sea stack and washed them here.

Despite the rock’s immense age, the arch actually is fairly new. Repeated freezing and thawing of water in the sandstone cracks – encouraged by the rough climate when a glacier stood a mere 12 miles away about 15,000 years ago – weakened the sandstone over thousands of years until the hole widened to its current shape and size.

A rock shelter sits below the arch. Humans have used the shelter as early as 10,000-11,000 years ago. Remains of more than 50 mammal species also have bene found here with elk and mountain lion among the more exotic finds. The shelter measures 50 feet wide and goes 30 feet deep, one of Wisconsin’s few caves.

Initially just a camping site for prehistoric hunters, by about 7000 BC, the rock shelter was permanently inhabited. In the 1890s, a dance floor was constructed below the arch with a bar built into the rock shelter opening.

Modern, 21st century humans in the form of tourists can’t enter the shelter or climb on the arch; a rail fence separates the trail from the rock formation.

After taking in the sights, retrace your steps back to the parking lot. Alternately, you can continue on the nature trail, which winds into the wooded hills for another quarter mile to a pleasant vista of the valley below.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Meet the red-shouldered hawk

Red-shouldered hawk,. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Red-shouldered hawk
Buteo lineatus

Appearance: Peachy to red barred underparts, black with white banded tail, broad rounded black and white checkered wings

Song: A whistled rising kee-rah

Habitat: Tall woods near rivers or swamps

Nest: Stick nests built into the crotch of a tree

Trails it can be seen: Bear Trail; Five-Mile Bluff Prairie Trail; Ice Age National Scenic Trail at Straight Lake State Park; Lower Chippewa River State Natural Area Trail; Moose Ear Creek Trail; Snuss Trail (all trails in Wisconsin)

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Wis. trail heads into 200-feet deep gorge

Van Hise Rock near Ableman's Gorge SNA,
courtesy of Wikipedia.
Hikers can walk into Wisconsin’s ancient past through a rare 200-foot deep canyon at the Ableman’s Gorge State Natural Area.

Ableman’s Gorge Trail runs about a little less than a half-mile round-trip. The gorge stretches for nearly a mile in an L shape through this section of the famous Baraboo Hills. The state natural area is a 126-acre site.

To reach the trail, from Rock Springs, take Wis. Hwy. 136 north. Look for a small pull-off parking area next to an artesian well on the road’s side. From the parking lot, cross the highway and go left/north.

The trail runs along the cliff’s base. This leads to a former blast shelter used at a former quarry between Rock Springs and the state natural area.

In short order, the trail veers back toward the highway, passing through a wayside for Van Hise Rock. The monolithic outcropping is made entirely of the pink-purplish Baraboo quartzite.

At one time hundreds of millions of years ago, an ancient sea pounded against a cliff of quartzite here. Sediment brought by rivers from the north gradually settled at the sea bottom, lifting the waters over the cliff top. Quartzite pieces broke off and mixed with pebbles and conglomerate; all were buried beneath even more sediment at the bottom of the new, higher sea floor.

Fast forward to the end of the last ice age when the Baraboo River, swollen with melting glacial water, carved through those layers, creating the chasm.

Given the gorge’s unique geography, the plant life here is atypical of what you’d find in the surrounding area. Various ferns, the rare Allegheny-vine, the Canada Mayflower, and the Virginia water-leaf cover much of the ground. On the gorge’s north-facing slopes, a cool and moist environment support plants usually found in northern Wisconsin, including Canada yew, hemlock, mountain maple, and yellow birch.

The trail ends just as Hwy. 136 bends to the left/west. Sometimes in spring, deer trails allow you to walk further into the gorge, but by summer it’s overgrown.

There’s also a parking area on the left/southwest side of Hwy. 136 just beyond the bend. That access leads to unofficial trails that run a ways into the gorge and to the Baraboo River’s shores.

Rock climbing is prohibited along the trail and in the state natural area.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.