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Celebrating National Parks

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Happy birthday to our National Park Service.  One hundred years ago this week, Congress created the National Park Service.  There were national parks before the park service was created.  The park service became the agency that managed the national parks.  In the last few weeks we have visited four parks.  At each park we found amazing views, exciting experiences and crowds of people enjoying their heritage.

Our first stop on the way west from Denver was the San Luis Valley of Colorado and Great Sand Dunes National Park.  The dune field at GSD is located on the east side of the San Luis Valley.  Winds picking up sand particles from the dry lake bed of the San Luis Valley drop them when they encounter the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  We've seen and walked dune fields before but these are unique for several reasons.  The highest dune in the field is over 600 feet high.  You can rent sand boards to surf the dunes and many people climb all the way to the top to do just that.  Younger sand surfers were busy learning on the lowest dunes.  But before you reach the dune field, you have to cross Medano Creek.  In the spring, Medano Creek carries large amounts of sand from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the southwestern edge of the dune field.  Choked with sand, the stream periodically experiences blockages and then breaks them creating pulses of water that people surf on.  In mid-summer the stream flow becomes more docile and it is filled with young children with buckets and shovels who enjoy a great cooling sandbox.  Shortly after we reached the dune field, the wind began to pick-up and we were treated to the marvel of dune formation.  Sand grains began dancing around our bare feet.  With each gust of wind the sands around us began to flow along the ground toward the dune field.  Our footprints in the sand were quickly turning into mini-dunes. 

Moving on toward southwestern Colorado we stayed at a campground across Highway 160 from Mesa Verde National Park.  Mesa Verde is a very large park and features hundreds of cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people.  There are overlooks to view many of the cliff dwellings but the real highlight is to actually tour some of the dwellings.  There is currently one that can be toured on your own.  Another that was open to touring is currently off limits because of potential rockfall.  Ranger guided tours are available for three others.  To manage the size of the audience, you purchase tickets for each tour.  The ticket specifies the time of the tour.  Tours involve walking and climbing stairs or ladders.  To walk the ground where the Pueblo people lived and learn about their lives and their history in this area is an amazing experience.  There are also museum exhibits with some of the artifacts from the park.  A recent series of fires on the mesa has exposed hundreds of archaeological sites on the mesa surface.  Prior to the cliff dwellings, the population lived on the surface where they farmed.  The cliff dwellings are the final phase of their history at Mesa Verde.  After about 100 years living in the cliff dwellings they were abandoned as the Pueblo people moved on to other locations.

In northeastern Arizona is Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Shey) National Monument.  A National Monument is designated by Presidential proclamation, National Parks are created by an act of Congress.  Canyon de Chelly is an example of a national monument.  It is administered by the National Park Service but has limited visitor information.  There are cliff dwellings at Canyon de Chelly but none are open to visitation.  There are places to view them from a distance.  One can be viewed up close by hiking two miles down into the canyon and back out.  We made that trek one afternoon.  Along the trail we encountered many Navajo people on their way to visit the cliff dwellings.  Near he site we witnessed a religious meeting of the Navajo people.  In fact, the national monument is located on the Navajo reservation and many of them live within the national monument.  Access to the canyon floor is limited to Navajo escorts at all other locations.  Jeep and horse tours are available.  The canyon itself is quite spectacular in its beautiful formations.  Sandstone layers were formed by ancient sand dunes that migrated over the area many millions of years ago.  The cross layering within each layer tells the story of the passage of another dune.

From Canyon de Chelly we traveled to the granddaddy of all canyons, Grand Canyon National Park.  It had been a long time since either Louise or I had last visited the Grand Canyon.  Needless to say, things have changed.  Louise had been there as a young teen (no year given :lol:), I was there in the late 70's.  While the experience was different, the park service is doing a wonderful job of managing the crowds and keeping the canyon accessible to all.  Visiting the south rim, large parking lots at the visitors center are the starting point.  There are shuttle buses, tour buses and a train to bring you to the park in addition to your own private vehicle.  Yes, they do have an RV parking lot.  Parking becomes difficult to find early in the day during the peak summer season.  Once at the visitors center, a bus system will transport you around the central park area and out to the viewpoints which are scattered along the canyon rim.  Walking part of the Canyon Rim trail gives you a constantly changing view of the canyon.  You can also ride the shuttle bus from one major viewpoint to another.  As interesting as the canyon was the amazing variety of people visiting the canyon.  Foreign languages were as common if not more common than English.  The story of the formation of the Grand Canyon is the story of Earth's history.  Along the rim trail there is a timeline of Earth history.  Markers on the trail about every 30 feet mark the passage of 10 million years. 

Our national parks are a national treasure.  Our Senior Pass allows us free entry to these parks.  When we got our lifetime pass to these parks we became members of the National Park Foundation, a private foundation which assists in funding the parks.  It is a way for us to continue support of our parks while we enjoy our Senior Pass.  Find a park near you and drop by to visit this week. 

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