We recently had a Tuesday Quiz about northernmost U.S. cities. Now that we are traveling on the west coast of the United States, try your skill in naming the westernmost U.S. cities in this week’s quiz. Take the quiz here.
We recently had a Tuesday Quiz about northernmost U.S. cities. Now that we are traveling on the west coast of the United States, try your skill in naming the westernmost U.S. cities in this week’s quiz. Take the quiz here.
In the 18th century, French Canadian adventurers, known as voyageurs, traveled by canoe on today’s boundary waters between the United States and Canada. They were primarily fur traders transporting beaver pelts, known as “soft gold,” between the northwestern portion of Canada and Montreal. From there, the pelts were shipped to Europe, where beaver hats were the rage. Today’s Voyageurs National Park, established in 1975, encompasses 56 miles of the former trade route. In order to best experience a park whose primary access is by water, we arranged to be dropped off on the Kabetogama Peninsula and make our way into the backcountry for 50 hours by foot and paddle.
Upon arriving in Northern Minnesota, we set out to learn more about the voyageurs by visiting Grand Portage National Monument. The name refers to an 8 ½ mile portage between Lake Superior and the Pigeon River that the voyageurs made with their canoes while carrying up to 90 pound packs. Grand Portage was also the site of the largest fur trade depot between 1784 and 1803. Sixteen wooden buildings stood inside a palisade wall, including a business office, warehouse for furs, and living quarters.
While at Grand Portage, we learned more about the fur trade and the successful partnership between the local Ojibwe, the Scots who owned the North West Company, and the French traders. For example, the Ojibwe brought their expertise in building lightweight birchbark canoes to the partnership. These watercraft allowed the voyageurs to travel up to 60 to 80 miles a day. We toured rebuilt warehouse, kitchen, and Great Hall buildings, staffed with living history volunteers who made the area come alive. It was a great glimpse into history for us.
Northwest of Grand Portage, in the waterway separating Canada and the United States, lies four large interconnected lakes within Voyageurs National Park. From east to west, Sand Point Lake, Namakan Lake, Kabetogama Lake, and Rainy Lake were once routes for travel and trade. There are also many smaller inland lakes in the park. The inland lakes are primarily located on the 75,000 acre Kabetogama Peninsula, where we ventured for two nights in the backcountry, reserving both a lake campsite and the use of a canoe.
There are over 200 designated campsites throughout the park, all requiring boat access, on more than 500 islands and 655 miles of lake shoreline, as well as on the inland lakes of the Kabetogama Peninsula. Because of the boat-only access, Voyageurs receives fewer visitors. In 2016, 241,912 people visited the park, placing it 45th out of the 59 total.
After camping for the night at Woodenfrog State Forest Campground, located on the shore of Kabetogama Lake, our 50 hour adventure began at 9:00 am on Friday morning. We met Craig at the Woodenfrog Marina dock and boarded his 18 foot motor boat for a prearranged 10 minute water taxi ride across the lake. It was windy and the water was choppy, making the boat trip feel more like an E ticket ride at an amusement park.
The boat slowed as we reached the dock on the Kabetogama Peninsula and the start of the Locator Lake Trail. After confirming with Craig that he would meet us 50 hours later, at 11:00 am on Sunday, we waved goodbye and began hiking towards Locator Lake, 1.9 miles away. The trail alternated between a path through dense forest and climbs to rocky plateaus. We had our backpacks on but no walking sticks with us. This was to keep things simple in getting items in and out of the canoe that we would be using in the internal lakes.
There was boardwalk installed in several places, which kept us out of the trail’s mud, but the wood surface was rather slippery. We slowed down and took our time walking on the sections.
After a little over an hour, we reached the end of the trail at the edge of Locator Lake. To the left of us were a rack of canoes. Locator Lake is the first of a chain of four internal lakes, and to go any further we needed to unlock our canoe with a key that we obtained at the visitor center. Each of the four lakes had a designated campsite; ours was at the second one in the chain: War Club Lake.
After unlocking the canoe and carrying it to the edge of the water, we loaded our backpacks in the center and launched the boat, with Darren in the back and me in the front. We had only been canoeing a handful of times before, and we knew it might be challenging for us to paddle 1.8 miles through Locator Lake and into the adjoining War Club Lake. Fortunately, the wind was at our back so it only took us about 30 minutes to cover the distance.
While paddling, we passed thick forest on both sides of the lake, containing a variety of pine, fir, spruce, cedar, maple, birch, aspen, and oak trees. We kept our eyes on the north shore of War Club Lake to locate our campsite, about two-thirds of the way down the lake. Soon we saw a sign and a place to land our canoe.
The War Club campsite was located a few feet up from the water’s edge, providing a nice view of the lake. There were several logs in place for sitting and cooking, a tent pad, bear pole for hanging food, and an outdoor toilet.
We settled in and relaxed for most of the afternoon. After dinner we took the canoe out for a short trip around our end of the lake. A rain shower had just moved through, and we were treated to a rainbow just ahead of us as we paddled. We also saw several loons around us. Its speckled black and white body uniquely identifies the bird, but what sets the loon apart from other animals is its eerie call, sounding more like a coyote to us.
Except for three people who were locking their Locator Lake canoe back up as we were accessing ours, we had seen no one else the entire day. As dusk fell, I began to realize that we were truly alone in this remote place. Before we went to sleep that night, I asked Darren to make extra sure that the canoe was fully out of the water and tied to a tree. If something happened to it, we’d be in serious trouble, as there was no path through the dense forest to connect us back with the Locator Lake Trail.
In the morning, canoe still there, we set off on a half-day excursion to the next lake in the chain: Quill Lake.
To journey to Quill Lake we needed to paddle to end of War Club Lake, passing a couple of beaver dams, and through a small channel until the rocks impeded any further progress. From there we had to portage the canoe about a quarter mile to the edge of Quill Lake, similar to what those voyageurs of long ago would have done as they moved between bodies of water. It was not easy to lift the bulky canoe and carry it, especially in a swampy section full of mosquitoes, but we made it work.
Once at the edge of Quill Lake, we launched the canoe and paddled around the entire body of water. A unique feature of Quill Lake was an island. The campsite was located there, and because no one was staying, we landed the canoe and ate a snack while sitting on the logs. To get to the last of the inland lakes, Loiten, would require an even longer portage than to Quill Lake, so we decided not to proceed any further.
We retraced our steps back to War Club Lake, including the reverse canoe portage. As we ate a late lunch back at our camp, I mentioned to Darren that we hadn’t seen much wildlife, except for a weasel on the Quill Lake shore. A minute later, a bald eagle majestically flew above the trees on the opposite side of the lake from us. We savored the moment. Shortly after it began to rain, and we quickly cleaned up and escaped into our tent.
It rained most of the afternoon, but we had clear skies long enough to cook our dinner. Just after we got into the tent for the night, we heard a loud thud in the lake to the right of us. As we got out and tried to determine where the sound came from, we heard it again. Then we saw the source of the noise. Swimming right by our campsite were two playful river otters, who had both just jumped into the water. It began to rain right after they were out of sight, and it didn’t stop for the rest of the evening.
The rain continued to fall as we woke up early on Sunday morning. Quickly, we took down our damp tent and loaded our backpacks. We launched the canoe for the final time away from War Club Lake and began paddling towards Locator Lake. About halfway into our journey a brisk headwind came up, slowing our progress. But we made good time and reached the Locator Lake landing after about 45 minutes of paddling.
After we took the canoe out of the water and locked it, we walked a few steps to a picnic table and ate breakfast. It was still lightly raining as we began the 1.9 mile hike to the dock and our rendezvous point with Craig. The almost continual precipitation of the prior two days made the trail even muddier than before. We had allotted two hours to cover the distance, so took our time to pick our way around the slickest areas, especially since we did not have our walking sticks with us.
We were about two-thirds of the way down the trail when we reached several sections of boardwalk. It was precarious to walk on, and I concentrated carefully on every step so as not to slip. One section in the shade was especially slick, and the boardwalk had individual steps every few feet as the trail sloped downhill. As I put my right foot out to step down one of the steps, both my feet went out from under me, and I fell hard with my tailbone directly hitting the corner of the step. Darren came rushing over to help me up. For a few moments I wasn’t sure how serious the fall was, but thankfully I ended up just being really sore for a couple of days.
We were glad to finally reach the dock about 35 minutes before our scheduled pickup. With no cover, we stood on the dock as it drizzled and a brisk wind blew on us. I kept pacing back and forth to stay warm. Just before 11:00 am, we saw a small boat in the distance. It was Craig, and a few minutes later we were back at the Woodenfrog Marina. The rain had stopped, and we gladly changed into a set of dry clothes that were waiting for us in the car.
After dropping off the canoe key at the visitor center and beginning our drive south towards Minneapolis, we discussed our experiences at Voyageurs National Park. We agreed that our camp on the Kabetogama Peninsula was probably the most remote place we had ever stayed. Even though the weather had been cold (in the 40s and 50s F) and rainy, we enjoyed the challenge of paddling through the inland lakes and portaging the canoe.
While a little scary to be so alone (we saw no other people except for those three on the first day), there was also a sense of peacefulness from sitting at our campsite, viewing the vibrant green forest, and hearing the gentle lap of the water on the lake’s shore. And we got a small taste of life for those voyageurs of long ago. Our 50 hours in Voyageurs National Park by foot and paddle were a time that we (and my tailbone) would soon not forget.
Next, our travels take us south from the U.S. and Canadian border to Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
This week’s quiz is all about flags. For each state in the ten-question quiz, you will have four flag design options to choose from to find the correct one. Good luck on this week’s Tuesday Quiz!
Lake Superior is the northernmost of the five Great Lakes. The largest freshwater lake in the world by area, it seems more like an ocean or an inland sea, measuring 350 miles wide and 160 miles long. In its northwest corner lies Isle Royale, the largest island in Lake Superior. It is part of Michigan, 55 miles away, but even closer to Minnesota and just off the coast of Ontario, Canada. Its remote location and winter park closure makes it the least visited national park in the lower 48 states. Isle Royale’s total 2016 visitation of 24,966 people is less than the number of visitors that Yellowstone may get in a day. And only three Alaskan parks (Lake Clark, Kobuk Valley, and Gates of the Arctic) received fewer visitors last year than Isle Royale.
The 571,000 acre park includes Isle Royale and 400 smaller islands and is designated as 99% wilderness. There are just two developed areas on the 45 mile long and 9 mile wide island itself: Windigo on the southwest end and Rock Harbor on its northeast side. The remainder of Isle Royale is comprised of numerous ridges and 165 miles of hiking trails along its coastline, forest, bogs and lakes.
There are only two ways to get to the island, either by seaplane or ferry. The closest ferry crossing is from Grand Portage, Minnesota, so we booked the 22 mile boat passage from there to Windigo. The ferry left at 7:30 am, meaning that we were up early in rainy weather to make our final backpacking preparations before boarding the Voyageur III. Along with us were travelers staying at the one hotel in Rock Harbor or at some of the cabins in Windigo, as well as a 20 person Boy Scout troop backpacking an island loop for several days.
Two hours later the ferry docked at Windigo. After the boat’s 40 passengers received a ranger orientation on the dock, most of them disembarked to either camp, backpack, or stay in the cabins. We and a few other people walked to the visitor center to pick up our backpacking permits.
We listed our planned itinerary with the ranger, and armed with our paperwork, we re-boarded the ferry. Upon request hikers can continue past Windigo to more remote island drop-off points. As the Voyageur III traveled along the northern shoreline, the rain subsided, giving us clearer views of the island.
After three hours, the ferry entered into an inlet and arrived at McCargoe Cove, located about 2/3 of the way down the island, or about 36 miles by water from Windigo. Ten people, including us, left the boat there. As soon as the backpacks were unloaded, the Voyageur III resumed its journey, having two more hours to travel before arriving in Rock Harbor for the night.
When we disembarked on to the dock, a NPS volunteer was present to answer any questions. I asked him about the trail conditions as the boat left. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice that I was missing a water bottle from my pack’s side pocket until the ferry was gone. We still had several others, but I was frustrated that I didn’t check my pack more carefully when we first disembarked.
We had four days before our reserved ferry left Windigo for Minnesota, and we planned to backpack primarily on the Greenstone Ridge Trail. The longest trail in the park, Greenstone Ridge runs 40 miles along the island’s highest ridges from one end to the other. It passes several points with views of the island and Lake Superior, including the highest point on Isle Royale at 1,394 feet. We didn’t have time to complete the entire trail, but planned to cover about 25 miles of its total distance.
Along the island’s trails are designated campgrounds, with pit toilets, spaced out at about three to ten mile intervals. The sites at each campground are first-come, first-serve, but since we were there before the most popular months of July and August, we generally had our choice of campsites.
When receiving our permit we specified that we would spend our first night at McCargoe Cove, but after sitting so long on the ferry, we decided to hike 2.7 miles to the next campground on the west side of Chickenbone Lake. It was sunny and humid as we walked. We followed the narrow Indian Portage Trail out of McCargoe Cove, and soon we were walking along the edge of Chickenbone Lake.
Right way we found the trail to be muddy in places, making our hiking slow going. The mud also attracted groups of mosquitoes that hovered around us. We had decided to spray our hiking clothes, gaiters, and hats with permethrin before we left and were glad that we did, as we noticed a difference in the number of mosquitoes that actually landed on our clothes. Several spots on the trail had boardwalks installed, keeping us out of the mud.
As we walked along the edge of the lake we saw several frogs.
After a little over an hour of hiking we reached the campground at Chickenbone Lake. We found a site with two different tent pads and set things up on the location with the best view of the lake. As we were unpacking, Darren realized that he had forgotten our stove. Since it had been raining when we got up early in the morning, we had not bothered to thoroughly double check our packing.
We did have fuel, because I carried an extra canister. So we reasoned that if we could just borrow a stove from another camper, we could use our own fuel to boil water for our dehydrated dinners, making it less of a pain for them. Rather than have to borrow a stove for both dinner and breakfast, we also made the decision to make ice coffee each night before going to bed and reallocate some bars to eat for breakfast, rather than the oatmeal we had planned for a couple of meals. With this approach, we had little trouble borrowing a stove each afternoon, and actually were able to meet more people along the way.
As if losing the water bottle and forgetting the stove were not bad enough, we had another issue on our first day. While eating dinner, we saw two turtles walk by us. One of them went into the bushes, but the other kept pacing back and forth right outside of our tent. At one point he tried to crawl underneath it. We thought we had been diligent in checking the tent pad for any sign of animal holes, and had seen none. So we didn’t understand why the turtle wanted to be there.
We shooed the turtle away and thought we had seen the last of it. A little later we got ready for bed and went inside the tent. As I was sitting inside reading, I heard a noise and was startled to discover that the turtle had actually gotten underneath the tent right next to my sleeping bag. There was no telling if it would be back again, so we got up and moved our tent about 20 feet away to the other pad as dusk fell. We didn’t see the turtle after that.
After a good night’s sleep, we got an early start. The forecast called for rain, and my research told me that the day’s stage was regarded to be the most difficult of the entire trail. After a short steep climb, we joined the Greenstone Ridge Trail and turned west towards Hatchet Lake.
We hadn’t walked but a short distance when we heard a crashing sound to the left of the trail in the forest. There was a moose moving among the trees, but it ran away after hearing Darren open his camera pouch. Nevertheless, we hoped that seeing it was a harbinger of some better sightings to come.
The path alternated between dense forest and steep ascents to rocky plateaus. As we hiked inland from the shoreline, we also noticed the trees changing from a boreal forest of spruce and fir to more maple and oaks, which prefer warmer temperatures.
At the first of those plateaus, we began to see views of the island.
After about an hour of hiking, the rain began to fall, becoming hard at times. We kept hiking, but stopped at one point in a forest of birch trees to wait for the pouring rain to taper off. As we stood under a canopy of trees, we ran into two guys who were hiking in the opposite direction. We traded trail stories, and they took a picture of us.
The rain soon became lighter and we set off again, passing by some stunning flowers along the trail.
The trail became bushy and dense with ferns as we walked through another forest section.
After 7.9 miles we arrived at Hatchet Lake, in what we termed as a moderate day of hiking. Typical of all the places we camped on Isle Royale, the beginning of the campground displayed a map of the group and individual campsites, as well as the location of the outhouses. At Hatchet Lake we camped at individual site #2, with a partial view of the lake. Campsites also tended to have nice logs, making it a little more comfortable to sit while eating.
On day three of our backpacking trip, the rain had stopped, but it was a cold overcast day. Almost immediately the trail climbed to a plateau with another great vista of the island and Lake Superior. We had to keep reminding ourselves that we were looking a lake and not an ocean around us.
We also saw several more beautiful flowers, a butterfly, and mossy forest along the way.
In the early afternoon, we had our first view of Lake Desor. We camped on its south side after hiking 8.1 miles.
Our campsite was a large area with a group of logs to sit on and a view of the lake. A steep path took us down to the water where we saw loons swimming by us.
It was raining when we woke up the next morning, and we took our time packing up in the hope that it might stop before we began hiking. At about 9:00 am the rain ceased. We quickly broke camp and got back on the trail. Because of all the rain, the trail was extremely muddy. My shoes became slick and it was difficult to walk without slipping. The path was also bushy in several areas, sometimes coming up to my shoulders.
The trail was not as steep, meaning that there were few viewpoints, but the lack of vistas were made up by the stunning forest scenery that we encountered as we hiked.
We made good time on the flatter trail, so decided to combine the final two stages into one to complete 11.3 miles and arrive at Windigo a day early. As we ended our time on the Greenstone Ridge Trail, the path steeply climbed down off the ridge to a sign announcing that we had arrived back at Windigo.
The large campground at Washington Creek had a waterfront site open, so we set up camp there. While I put up the tent, Darren walked a short distance to the Windigo store and came back with a bottle of wine for us to celebrate the completion of our 30.3 mile backpacking trip. Washington Creek turned out to be our favorite campsite, with a unobstructed view of the water and a picnic table to relax on as we enjoyed our wine and last dehydrated dinner.
With no hiking to do the next day before our ferry left at 2:00 pm, we woke up and had a leisurely breakfast. As we ate, we reminisced about our time on the trail and all the beauty we had seen. After that first moose sighting early on our second day of hiking, we had not seen another one, and were a little disappointed to be leaving without a clearer view.
As we talked, we saw a canoe go by with two people in it who had been on our ferry and were staying at the Windigo cabins. A short time later we heard another noise from the creek, and figured it was the canoe coming back the other way. We were stunned to see a female moose just a few feet away from us along the creek bank. We watched silently as she slowly waded across the creek. It was a magical experience for us.
Now fully satisfied, we broke camp and walked back to the visitor center to turn in our permit and attend a couple of ranger talks designed for the day trippers who had arrived earlier in the day for four hours on the island. We found the talks to be a great complement to what we had just seen over the four previous days.
One talk gave us some insight into the island’s history prior to becoming a national park in 1940. We learned that the Native American Ojibwe people populated the area up to 4,500 years ago. The United States took possession of the island from the French in 1783. Subsequently, copper mining and fishing took place on and around the island. By the early 1900s wealthy families from Chicago and St. Louis vacationed in the area during the summer months.
Another talk told us about the moose and wolves on the island. Both animals arrived on Isle Royale during the last hundred years, with the moose appearing between 1905 and 1912, and the wolves inhabiting the island in the 1950s. One theory for their population movement is that a land bridge would form between the island and mainland in the winter months. Today, temperatures are too warm to create the link to the mainland, making the ecosystem a closed environment. In fact, it is the only known place where moose and wolves coexist without the presence of bears. Isle Royale’s unique ecosystem also made it an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980.
The predator-prey relationship between the moose and wolf populations has been studied over the past 50 years by scientists. Every year researchers spend several weeks counting the animals by air. The numbers of both the moose and wolf have fluctuated during recent years. For example, in the 2006-2007 winter, about 385 moose and 21 wolves were counted; in the spring of 2008, approximately 650 moose and 23 wolves were tallied. The most recent count stands at about 1,600 moose and only 2 wolves, due to inbreeding issues. The park service is currently debating whether to introduce more wolves into the Isle Royale environment.
After the last talk ended, we boarded the Sea Hunter III ferry with the day trippers, our canoe friends, and the same Boy Scout troop to begin our journey back to civilization. As we pulled away from the dock, the sun came out as the rangers waved goodbye to us.
Even though we had a series of unfortunate events with our missing water bottle, forgotten stove, and turtle “encounter” on our first day, we so loved our time on majestic Isle Royale. Seeing the forest, flowers, vistas, and wildlife while backpacking was an incredible experience for us on our national park journey. As the ferry traveled back in the wide open inland sea of Lake Superior, we talked of returning to venture to Rock Harbor and perhaps hike some of the island’s other trails.
We will be going into the backcountry again at our next stop, Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, as we explore the area by foot and canoe.
At the beginning of our NPS Journey, we published a quiz that tested your knowledge in naming a U.S. National Park from its picture. Here is part two of this quiz: you have another six minutes to correctly identify 20 parks. Enjoy this week’s Tuesday Quiz!
Ohio’s 85 mile long Cuyahoga River flows between Akron and Cleveland and into Lake Erie. Meaning “crooked river” in the Mohawk language, the river area was home to Native Americans, and later, European explorers and trappers. Homesteaders followed to further settle the land. By the 20th century, the Cuyahoga River became one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. The sad state of the river culminated with it gaining national attention when it caught on fire in 1969. This incident contributed to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Water Act.
As cities grew around it, citizens pushed to limit development of the area. In 1974 the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area was created by Congress to establish urban recreation areas for those living in cities. River water quality also improved, and the Cuyahoga River was designed one of 14 American Heritage Rivers in 1998. In 2000 Cuyahoga Valley was elevated to national park status.
In addition to protecting the river, Cuyahoga Valley National Park also preserves the history of the Ohio and Erie Canal, part of it built next to the Cuyahoga River. The Erie Canal, linking the Hudson River with Lake Erie, was opened in 1825. At the time, Ohio was a sparsely populated area with no easy way to get crops to market. Spurred on by the construction of the Erie Canal, work began to build a canal in Ohio spanning 308 miles from Cleveland, on Lake Erie, south to the Ohio River.
Opened in 1827 and fully completed in 1832, the Ohio and Erie Canal opened up Ohio to the rest of the eastern United States. By 1850 Ohio was the third most populated state in the country. However, by the 1860s, railroads replaced river travel as a track built through the valley resulted the canal’s eventual demise.
Today the Ohio and Erie Towpath Trail follows a former stretch of the Ohio and Erie Canal for 20 miles through the national park. Our goal was to follow history and nature by hiking a section of the Towpath Trail. In essence we would be walking along the same path that mules used long ago to tow the canal boats loaded with goods and passengers.
We started at the Canal Exploration Center, where a restored lock is located. We saw a demonstration of the lock, the only one still functioning of the 44 originally built in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park area of the canal. Volunteers in period costumes demonstrated the operation of the lock.
From there we hiked south on the Towpath Trail, seeing remnants of the canal and occasionally following the Cuyahoga River. The trail meandered through forest, meadows, and wetlands. Along the way we observed a duck and her ducklings in the water and spied a turtle by the side of the trail.
Our plan was to hike one way and catch the train back to our starting point at the Canal Exploration Center. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway runs several times a day between Cleveland and Akron, and in addition to providing narrative tours of the area, the railway offers a Bike Aboard! Program where passengers can bike or hike one way and ride the train the other for only $3.00 per person. To board at a station that doesn’t have a scheduled stop, I needed to wave both arms above my head to flag the train.
We kept an eye on the train schedule as we hiked and ended up turning around between stations to ensure that we didn’t miss the oncoming train, as it was a three hour wait for the next one. We arrived at the station with about 10 minutes to spare. In all, we hiked 8.5 miles along the Ohio and Erie Towpath Trail.
We couldn’t leave Cuyahoga Valley National Park without one last stop to visit Brandywine Falls. The 65 foot tall waterfall is the second highest in Ohio, and the observation deck provided several vantage points to view the cascading water. We left Cuyahoga Valley National Park with a real sense of the history of the canal and an appreciation for the restoration and natural beauty of the river.
Our travels take us north to reach the next park on our journey, Isle Royale National Park in Michigan.
We are traveling through Minneapolis, Minnesota, which lies on the Mississippi River. This week’s Tuesday Quiz tests your knowledge of U.S. Rivers and the cities that lie on their banks. Can you match the correct city with its river?
In 1604 French explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed along the coast of today’s central Maine and noted an island that he called “Isle des Monts Deserts” because of the barren appearance of its mountains. Craved by glaciers, the granite mountains looked devoid of any vegetation from a distance. Today, Mount Desert Island (pronounced “Dessert” as in cake) is the centerpiece of Acadia National Park. Different from the wide open spaces we were used to seeing in the national parks of the west, we found Acadia not to be a barren place, but a delightful patchwork of forest, mountain, lake, and seashore.
Before visiting Acadia, we spent three days at the Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts. We based ourselves on the northern portion of the cape, in North Truro, where we camped within walking distance of the Head of the Meadow Beach. The Atlantic Ocean facing beach was almost deserted, and we spent leisurely mornings eating our breakfast there while watching seals frolic in the waves in front of us.
We also made it a priority to visit the four lighthouses in the area. The Highland Light was a short walk from a parking lot, but the other three involved hikes along the beach. We walked to the Race Point Light from Race Point Beach and visited both West End Light and Long Point Light (on the very tip of Cape Cod) via a hike from Herring Cove Beach.
There was also time to visit the town of Provincetown and enjoy the food at a couple of excellent restaurants, including a delicious lobster dinner.
Our drive from Cape Cod to Acadia took us along the coast of Maine to Mount Desert Island. Interspersed with quaint towns and villages, about 60% of the island has national park status. In the mid to late 1800s Mount Desert was a playground for the wealthy, who built what they called “cottages” (in essence small mansions) in scenic places.
By the early 1900s some residents began to work together to preserve the area from any further development. Among those were New England textile heir George Dorr, Harvard President Charles W. Eliot, and wealthy philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The land that they and others donated to the federal government provided the basis for Lafayette National Park, established in 1919 as the first park east of the Mississippi River. Changed to Acadia in 1929, in honor of the former French colony that once included Maine, the park continued to acquire land, growing to its present size of 50,000 acres.
Even though we visited Acadia before the peak summer season, we knew that it would still be crowded. In 2016, Acadia had 3,303,393 visitors, ranking it 8th out of the 59 national parks. We timed our visit on the weekdays and tried to get early starts to our hikes in the busier sections.
Sand Beach is a popular swimming destination (even though the water temperature rarely rises higher than 55 degrees F), and the hike to Otter Cliff was an easy walk of 1.5 miles each direction along the coastline. We started early and saw just a few people as we walked. Numerous short spur trails provided us with the option of rock hopping along the pink granite cliffs to see some of Acadia’s 40 miles of rugged coastllne. About halfway down the trail we reached Thunder Hole, which makes a roaring sound when water flows in to and out of a cavern during high tide. It was a couple of hours after high tide when we arrived, but we still observed some of the effect.
The glaciers that sculpted Acadia’s rocks also caved narrow valleys filled with lakes and created ocean inlets. Jordan Pond is another highly visited portion of the park. Beginning at the end of June a free shuttle bus takes visitors around the island. But since it wasn’t running yet, we drove. We arrived there in the early afternoon and had to spend a few minutes to find a parking spot. But as soon as we began to hike around Jordan Pond, we left the crowds behind. The 3.2 mile loop took us past the Bubbles, two small mountains that rise above the pond. As we reached the south side of the pond, the level forest hike turned into a scramble along the rocks and then a walk on a boardwalk for the remainder of the path.
At the conclusion, we rewarded ourselves with popovers with butter and jam at the Jordan Pond House, a tradition dating back to the 1890s.
Another popular destination in the park is Cadillac Mountain, Acadia’s tallest mountain at 1,530 feet. Our plan was to hike one of the trails to the top, but the weather turned windy and rainy, so we opted instead to drive up the curving road. And it was windy up there; a couple of times we thought we might fall over as we walked. But even with the gusty conditions, we still had spectacular views of the park and the Atlantic Ocean islands to the east of us.
After two days camping on the eastern side of the island, we drove to the less visited western portion of Mount Desert. Our drive took us around a long inlet called Somes Sound that looked like a fjord without the steep cliffs around it. We camped at the Seawall Campground and completed several hikes.
Two of our hikes originated at Long Pond. One took us along the pond and up and over a notch, providing us with nice lake and forest scenery.
The second Long Pond hike took us in the opposite direction to Beech Mountain (elevation 839 feet). An extremely rocky and steep one mile path had us huffing and puffing to the top of the mountain. It was well worth the effort, as we could see both the Atlantic Ocean and Long Pond from several different viewpoints. Darren climbed up some stairs of a closed fire tower to get even better views.
Another hike up to the top of Flying Mountain gave us a clear vista of Somes Sound and some of the villages on the western side of the island. We combined a couple of trails together to create a 1.4 mile loop, taking us down to the water at Valley Cove before ending up back at our car.
Our final hikes were back on along the shore, and provided us with the opportunity to observe the ocean at low and high tide. The Ship Harbor and Wonderland paths took us out on the rocks, where we sat and stared out at the ocean. It was relaxing to close our eyes and smell the sea spray while listening to the waves lapping on the rocks.
In addition to our hikes in the forest and mountains and along the ponds and seashore, we also took some time to visit the towns of Southwest Harbor on the west side and Bar Harbor on the east side. And we couldn’t resist exploring one last lighthouse on the Atlantic Coast, Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, built in 1858. It is the only lighthouse on Mount Desert Island.
As we left Seawall Campground for the final time, we turned our Toyota 4Runner west, leaving the easternmost park we will be visiting on our journey. Over four days we had explored the vast majority of the park on Mount Desert Island, yet we left wishing we had more time to visit the other two smaller sections of Acadia, on the Schoodic Peninsula and the Isle au Haut.
Our 19th national park and next stop on our Trekking the Planet NPS trip is Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio.
Here are some panoramic photos that we took of the national parks that we visited, from the Everglades to Shenandoah. Click on any of the pictures for a larger view. Enjoy!
The Tuesday Quiz this week focuses on the physical side of geography. You must identify 13 different geophysical regions of the United States by selecting the correct area on a map. Best of luck on this week’s quiz!
On the mountain top the views can be awe-inspiring and humbling, making you feel on top of the world in one moment and insignificant compared to your surroundings in the next. Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park sits on the top of the Appalachian Mountains’ Blue Ridge Range. Skyline Drive runs for 105 miles through the park along the crest of the Blue Ridge, and the views from its 75 overlooks are more like those seen from a plane than a car. The popularity of passenger cars was a factor in the national park’s creation, allowing automobile travelers to see views from the mountain top before air travel was common. We spent four days in the park being awe-inspired and humbled by the views while hiking several trails, with a focus on Shenandoah’s waterfalls.
We arrived via the Blue Ridge Parkway, which connects Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Shenandoah. The parkway follows the Appalachian Mountain chain, and we took 2 ½ days to travel the 469 mile road from North Carolina to Virginia. There seemed to always be something to see along the way as the Blue Ridge Parkway has over 200 overlooks, 26 stone tunnels, 168 bridges, and six viaducts, with elevations ranging from 649 feet to 6,047 feet.
As we drove on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we were surprised to see pristine forests and isolated valleys, but then turn off the road to be almost immediately back in civilization. Not only did we see stunning vistas from the overlooks, but we stopped at several historic sites. Our favorite was Mabry Mill, built in 1910, with a working waterwheel and an idyllic pond next to it. With the exception of two years, the Blue Ridge Parkway has been the most visited of the entire 400 + national park system units since 1946. Being late spring, we were fortunate to share the road with few other cars, making our experience even more relaxing.
Shenandoah National Park boasts over 500 miles of trails. The weather during our time was cool, foggy, and rainy. It wasn’t the most conducive for hiking, but we were still able to complete treks in several sections in the park. Just as was the case with Great Smoky Mountains, the Appalachian Trail (AT) traverses through Shenandoah, in this case for about 100 miles.
Our first steps in the park were on the AT as we hiked to Chimney Rock in Shenandoah’s southern Riprap section. The 3.4 mile hike took us to a viewpoint and a formation called Calvary Rocks before arriving at the pink-toned Chimney Rock. The sheer drop-offs into the valley below gave us commanding vistas from both our vantage points.
While in Shenandoah, we based ourselves at the Big Meadows Campground, located in the middle of the park. We learned about the park’s history at the visitor center. Motivated by a desire to create an eastern park on par with those parks already popular in the western U. S., Shenandoah was built from over 1,000 privately owned tracts of land. Some people sold their land voluntarily, while others left against their will. By the time the park was established in 1935, the protected land stood at 199,000 acres. Home site remnants can still be found throughout the park, as well as structures built by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. Shenandoah was the 17th most visited national park in 2016, drawing 1,437,341 visitors.
From Big Meadows, we decided to focus our hikes on waterfalls, which were at their best with the cool and wet weather. From our campsite we could walk right on to the AT, which ran behind us. One day we went to the right and walked north on the AT to the beginning of the Rose River Loop. The trail traveled through a section of dense trees to the Rose River Falls (67 feet high). The foggy conditions made the forest around us feel mysterious.
The path became steep, and we made our way slowly to a fire road marking the intersection with the Dark Hollow Falls Trail. A series of switchbacks took us to an overlook and a view of the 70 foot waterfall cascading down a series of black rocks. We hiked up hill from the falls to a trailhead and then back to the campground, completing 6.6 miles in all.
The next morning we headed out the opposite direction from our campsite on the Appalachian Trail to hike south to the Lewis Falls Loop. It had rained quite a bit the night before, making the trail slick and muddy in places. However, the hike was well worth it as we arrived at the observation point to view the 81 foot tall waterfall peeking out from a mass of trees. Best of all, the 4.5 mile trail was not crowded, and we only saw a handful of other people.
Later, a short drive took us to the Skyland portion of the park. We had lunch at the lodge and then hiked the Limberlost Trail. The 1.3 mile loop took us past many blooming flowers.
Our final hike in Shenandoah took us on the AT for a short distance once more as we trekked to the Overall Run Falls in the northern Mathews Arms area of the park. At 93 feet it is the tallest waterfall in the park and arguably the most difficult to reach. We hiked downhill (steeply at times) and lost 1,300 feet in 3.1 miles to arrive at the falls viewpoint. Blooming laurel greeted us along the trail as we walked.
The waterfall was spectacular, as it majestically flowed down from the sheer gray rock. We agreed that it was one of the best falls we had ever seen while hiking. The 3.1 mile return trip hiking up 1,300 feet was made better by the cool weather. We were fully satisfied with our 21.9 miles of Shenandoah hiking as we reached our car, taking our final steps on the Appalachian Trail.
As we drove towards the park’s northern entrance, the sun came out. We stopped at a final viewpoint along Skyline Drive to look down into Shenandoah Valley to the east of us.
Even though most of the weather was foggy, rainy, and cold, we enjoyed our visit to Shenandoah National Park. While there, we hiked to a variety of waterfalls and learned more about the unique composition of the park. And the feeling we got from the mountain top views will stay with us for a long time.
We continue our travels up America’s East Coast to our next national park: Acadia in Maine.
This week we are traveling through Michigan to Isle Royale National Park. Since we are in the Northern U.S., here is a quiz to test your skill in determining the northernmost city among four options. Take this week’s Tuesday Quiz here.