A tribute to the National Park Service Rangers

by Bob Hoelscher 15. November 2012 21:14

I have often thought that if the U.S. were as well run across the board as is the National Park Service and the Coast Guard, we would have one really exceptional and responsive form of government. Wishful thinking aside, however, and recognizing that even the NPS has a (relatively small) share of the bureaucratic pie in Washington, D.C., it has been my privilege to meet, learn from, and work with literally hundreds of park rangers in the field who do an outstanding job of administering, protecting and interpreting the 398 units that are currently under the jurisdiction of our National Park Service. 

Day in and day out, these committed public servants, aided by a substantial cast of volunteers, can, almost without exception, be characterized as knowledgeable, friendly, helpful and cognizant of the fact that their jobs can be defined as working for, representing and serving us, each a part owner of the world’s greatest collection of historic, scenic and geologic treasures, rather than the other way around.          

It is sometimes difficult to imagine much in the line of real service being provided in a day when lackadaisical attitudes and “good enough” mentalities are all too frequently encountered when dealing with “service” personnel. Yet I have found that NPS employees do take their jobs extremely seriously, even when posted to infrequently visited (especially during wintertime!), lesser-known parklands in the “wilds” of North Dakota, Alaska or Oklahoma, or even to some relatively obscure NPS historic sites that are overshadowed by their much more popular neighbors. 

I am presently on a personal quest to visit all of our NPS-administered facilities, a journey than, as of this week, has reached 339 different units or just over 85% of the existing (but gradually expanding) total. By next summer, I hope to have made all 379 sites in the continental U.S., Hawaii and the Caribbean, leaving only 19 well “off-the-beaten-path” units in Alaska, Guam, and American Samoa.

This effort has been made immeasurably easier, more educational, and simply more enjoyable because of the countless fine NPS rangers that have assisted me along the way.  As we continue to approach the NPS centennial in 2016, I propose that we take the time to often doff our own headgear, whether fedoras, cowboy hats, or (in my case) baseball caps, in tribute to those exceptional ladies and gentlemen who wear their own “Smokey the Bear” ranger hats with pride, dignity and professionalism.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, SD


Travel Thoughts

A different view of Mount Rainier

by Bob Hoelscher 25. September 2012 19:44

Regular readers of my blogs are likely already aware that Mount Rainier National Park is one of my favorites among America’s great parks. However, being able to spend the entire summer in the Seattle/Tacoma area this year has provided me with the opportunity to visit a number of the area’s secondary attractions that are still of substantial interest. 

One of these is the Crystal Mountain Resort, among the Pacific Northwest’s premier ski resorts, which boasts the state-of-the-art Mount Rainier Gondola. Climbing almost 2,500 vertical feet from the base station at 4,400 feet up Crystal Mountain, the gondola passes over meadows of wildflowers and evergreen forests en route to breathtaking views of neighboring 14,411-foot Mount Rainier, as well as the Cascade Range as far away as 12,276-foot Mount Adams, over 50 miles distant.  

At the top, in addition to overlooks with panoramic views and the opportunity to choose from a number of scenic hikes, groups are sure to enjoy a lunch (or weekend dinner) at the Summit House, Washington’s highest elevation restaurant, at 6,872 feet.  Here both a large outdoor patio and indoor dining room combine fine Northwest cuisine with the backdrop of towering Mount Rainier to create an especially memorable meal. 

For a full-day trip from Seattle during the summer months, I’d recommend a late morning gondola ascent followed by lunch, then an afternoon excursion into the national park proper for an awe-inspiring scenic drive to the visitor center and related facilities at Sunrise (6,400 feet), about as close that a visitor can get to one of the nation’s most impressive peaks without an extended hike.

Magnificent Mount Rainier from atop Crystal Mountain

Dining with an incredible view 

Checking out the Crystal Mountain layout

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Around Mount Rainier National Park

A worst-case scenario

by Bob Hoelscher 25. September 2012 19:42

Last month I addressed this subject, before almost immediately became an unwitting participant in exactly what I had advised against. During a cruise to the Norwegian Fjords in early August, I decided to join the ship’s $94.95 “Hiking on the Hardanger Plain” shore excursion from the small town of Eidfjord. 

This supposed “hike” was little more than a forced march up an extremely muddy, steep hillside with much standing water and slippery terrain. The destination was a small plain without any significant importance, then a much easier descent, mostly over developed walkways and roads. No information on the flora and fauna was provided by the young, athletic-type “guide,” apparently a mountain climber, but obviously not a professional tour director. 

Although the scenic vistas along the way were okay, they were nothing special, so the hike’s real purpose (other than providing strenuous exercise) was open to question. We were given a quick ten minutes at the conclusion of the hike to view and photograph a truly breathtaking canyon with towering waterfalls.  

As an experienced hiker, I know that even this could have been a reasonably enjoyable experience had it simply been more relaxed. Nevertheless, we were led up the very primitive trail at a breakneck pace that was probably normal for the guide, but hardly appropriate for typical cruise guests sloshing through water and mud. We had no time to relax and “smell the roses,” since the only goal appeared to be getting to the top of the ridge as quickly as possible. 

The description of the trip in the shore excursion flier should have mentioned the very steep climb, as well as the substantial elevation gain along the way. One lady was injured in a fall while trying to keep up, others slipped and fell without injury, and instructions to “bring a dry pair of socks” were laughable after our shoes had been completely filled with muddy water.

On Labor Day, I made another visit to Mount Rainier, taking several relatively short hikes, none of which would be particularly taxing for the average tour participant. One this occasion, however, I did pause to closely inspect Mother Nature’s handiwork. The accompanying photographs provide some idea of the beauty I encountered along the way, sights, which I would have passed by and missed completely had I followed the example of my Norwegian hiking adventure.

Morning dew on plants beside the trail

Gray's Nutcracker

Fascinating wildflowers

Northwest Trek Wildlife Park

by Bob Hoelscher 25. September 2012 19:34

Near the Mount Rainier National Park, the Northwest Trek Wildlife Park is one of the most unusual city parks in the U.S. Yes, this Eatonville park is basically a zoo, but it is a zoo unlike any you are likely to find elsewhere.

The mission of this 725-acre wildlife park is to present only those animals that are native to the Pacific Northwest (more than 200 at present, but no elephants or giraffes) in settings which accurately recreate their natural habitats. The park also allows visitors to view them in close proximity. This is accomplished in two different areas. 

First, naturalist-guided, open-air tram tours wind through a 435-acre free-roaming area that is home to herds of moose, elk, bison, Rocky Mountain sheep and other species.  Second, an easy walking tour allows guests to stroll pathways through the forest to explore natural exhibits of black and grizzly bears, wolves, cougars, raptors and others.

Additional attractions include “Trailside Encounters” with small animals; a discovery center featuring snakes, honeybees and “hands-on” opportunities; as well as miles of both paved and primitive nature trails. Special events are scheduled throughout the summer, fall and holiday season. For example, I attended the highly entertaining, annual “Slug Fest” in June, which was billed as “sliminess, silliness and serious fun with human slug races, crafts and activities for kids, a slug hunt and more.”  

Other events include a Trek Trails Weekend, Keeper and Creature Feature Weeks, Elk Bugling and Photo Tours, Senior Month and Winter Wonderland. For a completely different addition to a tour of Western Washington, the Northwest Trek Wildlife Park earns a strong recommendation.

Our tram tour passes the elk herd

Grey wolves, as seen on the walking tour

Black bear in a natural habitat

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Around Mount Rainier National Park

On the way to Yosemite: Coulterville, Calif.

by Bob Hoelscher 29. June 2012 20:29

I know that the excitement of approaching Yosemite National Park can tend to block out thoughts of stops along the way, no matter how attractive they might be. But the small town of Coulterville is such a picturesque, interesting and unspoiled reminder of California’s famed Gold Rush that it surely merits your consideration if you are traveling to the park from Manteca or Modesto on CA 120 or 132, or from Merced on CA 140.  Located 10 miles south of Moccasin, Coulterville has somehow managed to elude the commercialism that now characterizes such other (but still very interesting) Gold Rush towns as Jamestown, Sonora and Angels Camp.

Coulterville (population 200) is the real thing; so don’t expect everything here to be neat and freshly painted. The historic Hotel Jeffery is pretty much the center of town, and is about as close of a throwback to the “Old West” that one is likely to encounter in 2012.  The Hotel Jeffery has a large, quite charming dining room, which is the place in town for a group lunch. However, don’t miss the opportunity to also at least see the hotel’s adjacent and highly traditional Magnolia Saloon, if you don’t also decide to “belly up to the bar” for a cold one. Using the hotel as a base, everything else worth seeing in Coulterville is within easy walking distance.

Right across the highway (surely not a heavily traveled route) is the Northern Mariposa County History Center. Although I have explored more than my share of dusty old museums with little to spark my interest, this facility, contained in two adjoining historic buildings, definitely does not fall into that category. The museum contains quite a few fascinating (and largely dust-free) exhibits on the Gold Rush and area pioneers, including a detailed scale model of the original Coulterville Hotel. 

Adjacent to the History Center is the small, narrow-gauge steam engine “Whistling Billy,” dating from 1897, as well as a properly weathered sign explaining the origins and history of the town, originally called Banderita in 1850 when George W. Coulter opened his store here. On the opposite side of the highway, and down the street from the Hotel Jeffery, are several interesting shops, a couple of general stores, a “Bed & Breakfast” and varied other enterprises offering selections of obviously well-worn items.  Be assured that you are not likely to mistake any of these establishments for emporiums that could be found in Beverly Hills, but you are not likely to find me in Beverly Hills, either!

 Magnolia Saloon in the historic Hotel Jeffery

Model of the original Coulterville Hotel in the Northern Mariposa County History Center

Unique shopping opportunities

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On the way to the park

On the way to Crater Lake: Union Creek, Ore.

by Bob Hoelscher 29. June 2012 20:26

Crater Lake National Park is an important component of any quality tour exploring the splendid Beaver State. Since most groups are likely to reach the park via OR 62, the historic and quite picturesque Union Creek Resort, just about a mile south of the junction with OR 230, makes for a great rest or meal stop. 

Close by is the splendid Rogue River Gorge, right off the highway and free of admission charge. So if you happen to make a day trip to the Crater Lake, you can make stops at Union Creek in both directions.

The Union Creek Resort was one of the original places where early motorists heading for Crater Lake could spend their vacation adjacent to the Rogue River and dense, old growth Oregon forests. The property, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, consists of a main lodge (be sure to see the impressive stone fireplace), general store, a variety of rustic cabins, recreational facilities and the small but charming Beckie’s Café. Beckie’s, which offers excellent meals and is renowned for home-baked pies offered in many flavors, is very popular among the locals and knowledgeable visitors. Even though the café is just large enough to handle a full motorcoach if there are no other patrons in the house, they are happy to accommodate tour groups as long as they receive advance notification, so make sure to let them know when you will be coming.          

The Rogue River Gorge is an outstanding scenic wayside administered by the U.S. Forest Service, just a short distance up the road from the resort. A flat, short and easily accessible trail leads to several viewpoints overlooking the rushing Rogue River as it cascades over an impressive waterfall and through the gorge itself.

Beckie's Restaurant

Whitewater in the Rogue River Gorge

Rogue River rushing into the gorge

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On the way to the park

On the way to Mt. Rainier: Elbe, Wash.

by Bob Hoelscher 29. June 2012 20:22

Those who remember my discussion of Mount Rainier National Park here last October already know that this is one of my favorite NPS sites. If one approaches the park from the west via WA 7 and 706, the small community of Elbe (population 30) can be found at the junction of the two highways. 

Originally settled by German-speaking Lutherans, their historic 1906 “Little White Church” (the operative word here is “little”) in the center of town is a National Historic Landmark that is open to sightseers. Immediately adjacent, however, is the depot for the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad, the attraction that brings most of Elbe’s visitors. In fact, the entire town, situated on the east end of Alder Lake, has a railroad atmosphere, with a bar, restaurant and sleeping accommodations available in a series of retired train cars, although these are not really suitable for most tour groups. Even the bell in the church steeple was removed from an old locomotive!        
As the longest continuously-operated steam tourist railroad in the Pacific Northwest, the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad offers excursions on restored vintage coaches and open cars, pulled by one of several historic steam logging locomotives. Although holiday trips (Easter, Mother’s Day, Halloween and the Christmas season) are offered, their regular schedule runs from Memorial Day through October, with multiple departures on Saturdays and Sundays, plus additional Thursday and Friday trips during the peak summer months. 

Regular excursions are attractively priced, run about two hours (just about the right length) and are quite scenic. The train travels through a succession of lush green forests and meadows, alongside mountain streams and across rivers on wooden trestles. A 20-minute stop is made at Mineral Lake, where special summertime barbecues are also served at an all-weather dining area on Fridays and Saturdays during July and August.  On clear days, Mt. Rainier can be viewed from the train en route.

The trip to Mineral Lake on the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad

The Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad engineer explains the unusual vertical cylinders of the historic Willamette steam engine

Over the river and through the woods on the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad

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On the way to the park

Yosemite National Park

by Eliza Myers 31. May 2012 22:26

While stopping a minute to look up the endless stone steps cut into the cliff’s side, I felt certain the upcoming Vernal and Nevada waterfalls would be worth the climb. I knew this not just because of the occasional glimpses of the powerful Vernal Falls, but also because I was standing in a rainbow.

Wind blasts Vernal Falls’ spray far down the mountain, giving the Yosemite hike the name Mist Trail. It felt like a sideways downpour, although looking up revealed only blue skies. The wind-blown water produced vibrant rainbows that appeared to follow me up the trail.

The sublime waterfall views that followed are typical of Yosemite. Everywhere you turn is larger-than-life scenery too magnificent to believe. You might spend twenty minutes soaking up the majesty of a waterfall before turning around and spying a towering dome filling the skies.

My favorite view, Glacier Point, allowed me to look at the landscape seemingly from the top of the world. Many of the domes, waterfalls and valleys of Yosemite lay before me in a dazzling vista waiting to be explored.

After four days of hiking every trail I could, I had already made plans to return some day. I can’t feel totally satisfied I’ve seen it all in Yosemite till I’ve climbed every mountain and looked up every waterfall.

All photos by Jeremiah Myers

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Yosemite, Big Sur and Whale Watching

Saguaro National Park

by Bob Hoelscher 2. March 2012 20:41

Only a two-hour drive south of my (happily) snowless winter stopover in Phoenix and the “Valley of the Sun” is Tucson, the state’s second-largest city and home of the University of Arizona. Tucson holds one of three exceptional national park sites dedicated to great plants of the desert: Saguaro National Park.

The larger section of the park is at Rincon Mountain District, home to the park headquarters, a traditional visitor center and the scenic 8-mile Cactus Forest Drive. To the west is the Tucson Mountain District, which has a newer-style visitor center and 12 miles of paved roads, plus a number of Native American petroglyphs.

Drives and short hikes in both districts feature impressive stands of the majestic giant saguaro and other diverse vegetation native to the Sonoran Desert, as well as views of the surrounding mountains. The saguaro cactus itself grows to a height of 30 to 40 feet, occasionally even taller. It blossoms each year in late spring and can have a life span approaching 250 years.      

Although a single admission fee admits visitors to both districts of the park, most group tours will likely have time to visit only one. I would choose the specific site to include based on the other attractions that your group is planning to include in the Tucson area, or on the specific day that you plan to make your visit to the park.

The Eastern (Rincon Mountain) District is likely to be more convenient if you are arriving (or departing) the Tucson area via I-10 from (to) the east, or if you will be visiting Sabino Canyon, the Pima Air & Space Museum or Fort Lowell, or dining at Pinnacle Peak.  Alternately, the Western (Tucson Mountain) District will be the logical choice if you are arriving (or departing) the Tucson area via I-10 from (to) Phoenix or California, or visiting the adjacent Tucson Mountain Park, home to the great Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Old Tucson Studios, or the International Wildlife Museum or Mission San Xavier del Bac. 

Bob Hoelscher, CTC, CTP, MCC, CTIE, is a longtime travel industry executive who has sold his tour company, bought a motorhome and is traveling the highways and byways of America.  He is a former chairman of NTA, and was a founding member of Travel Alliance Partners (TAP).

Well-known in the industry as both a baseball and symphony aficionado, Bob is also one of the country’s biggest fans of our national parks, both large and small.  He has already visited more than 325 NPS sites and has several dozen yet to see.  He is currently traveling the country to visit as many of those parks as possible.  His blog, “Travels with Bob,” appears periodically on The Group Travel Leader’s blogsite, “Are We There Yet”. 

Bob is available for contractual work in the industry and may be reached at bobho52@aol.com or by calling (435) 590-1553.

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Traveling through Tucson

Guadalupe Mountains

by Bob Hoelscher 1. February 2012 19:05

I decided to make an overnight stop at Texas’ Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which, although authorized by Congress back in 1964, is still one of our least known parks. In fact, my motor home was the only one there that night, although a few more hardy souls than I were camped out in their tents nearby, braving a cold winter night (daytime was quite pleasant, as desert areas warm up substantially after the sun rises).  

Although this is primarily a hiking park for those interested in exploring this splendid mountain wilderness on foot, there are several features and short walks available to groups that make this a very worthwhile stop for groups traveling from El Paso to Carlsbad Caverns. In addition to very scenic views of the Guadalupe Mountains themselves, both along U.S. Highway 62/180 and at the Pine Springs park headquarters area, there is an excellent movie and small museum at the Visitor Center, plus restrooms and picnic facilities in an area where few visitor amenities can be found.

I would recommend exploring the park beyond the Visitor Center, however, as there are several points of interest that are very convenient to the highway. At “The Pinery,” one can visit the ruins of a mid-1800s Butterfield Stagecoach Station, while just up the road is the Frijole Ranch History Museum, a complex including an original ranch house, springhouse, schoolhouse, bunkhouse and barn which tells the story of the pioneers who settled in the Guadalupe Mountains area. 

I’d also suggest taking the short (.4 mile round trip) trail, which is wheelchair accessible, from the Frijole Ranch to scenic Manzanita Spring, unless your group has the time and stamina for the more moderate (2.3 miles round-trip) Manzanita/Smith Spring Loop Trail, which I enjoyed immensely, capping off a beautiful morning.

Frijole Ranch Cultural Museum

Manzanita Spring

Desert landscape from Smith Spring Trail

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Three Southwestern National Parks

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