Tag Archives: National Parks

National Park Week: A Visit to Yosemite

The week of April 18- 26, 2015 is National Park Week. Entrance fees to all the 400 national parks are waived during opening weekend Week, Saturday, April 18 and Sunday, April 19! That’s a good deal so be sure to visit one.

One of the best senior travel bargains anywhere is a low-cost lifetime national park pass that admits seniors free of charge to most U.S. national parks, forests, refuges, monuments and recreation areas. U. S citizens or permanent residents who are at least 62 years old can purchase a Senior Pass for a one-time processing fee of $10. This Senior Pass to national parks and lands offers benefits to you and your traveling companions.

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Nat Park

After a lifetime of wishing to see Yosemite National Park in California, I finally got there back in December. I drove in so early, the entrance gates were not even manned. (I own a Senior Pass.) I then stopped in the Mariposa Grove, the southernmost area, to see a preserve of giant sequoia trees. This area becomes quite distant once you make it down into Yosemite Valley and the center of the park. Talk about feeling small and humble…these behemoths are magnificent megatrees, a species whose trucks soar skyward nearly 300 feet and boast a base circumference over 90 feet. Their branches don’t begin to sprout until high overhead and seem undersized by comparison. The grove makes a grand statement and you find yourself wanting to stop. As I took it all in, I listened to the forest and it surely has much to say.

Bachelor and the Three Graces
Bachelor and the Three Graces


Stroll along and pass the Bachelor and the Three Graces whose roots are all intertwined before reaching the Grizzly Giant, a tree that’s probably 2,000–2700 years old. It’s one of the largest in the world. A sign shows a photo of President Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and others in front of the tree in 1903.

A little further on, you come to the California Tunnel Tree- cut in 1895 to allow stagecoaches to pass through and as a marketing scheme to attract visitors. No vehicles are allowed today, but it is fun to walk through the opening in the tree.

California Tunnel Tree
California Tunnel Tree

I returned to my car and drove further into the Park gaining elevation on a very windy stretch until I passed Glacier Point Road, and saw a “sneak peek” of El Capitan. The road continues through the long Wawona Tunnel and my excitement grew. I parked after I exited and found myself standing at the famous Tunnel View vista: the spot where the first Euro-Americans “discovered” the valley, and one of the most photographed places in the world. Woo-hoo! Ahead, I could see the entire valley, the sheer rock wall of El Capitan and the renowned Half Dome. I’ve found when I actually come to a place that I’ve seen photos of for years, I’m rarely disappointed. There is something special about being there and this is one of my real joys in travel. I pinched myself and marveled at the view.

Tunnel Vista View
Tunnel Vista View

Afterward, I continued driving down into Yosemite Valley and spent the next two days trying to capture waterfalls rainbows, and reflections. I managed to catch a rainbow in the upper section of the falls one morning. That evening, I hiked a trail to the bottom of the two-tiered Yosemite Falls and as I was returning and nearing the meadow, the top quarter of Half Dome was ablaze in what is called Alpenglow: an optical phenomenon that occurs when is sun is just below the horizon and reflects light upward. It’s surreal and gorgeous.

Rainbow at Yosemite
Rainbow at Yosemite
Alpenglow at Yosemite
Alpenglow at Yosemite

Unlike Yellowstone, wildlife is not the main attraction in this National Park. Visit Yosemite to stand in awe of nature. Its beauty inspires contemplation of your place in the universe, similar to peering into the Grand Canyon. You’ll also feel the presence of so many who have previous trod the sacred grounds.

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park

If possible try to book lodging within Yosemite Valley as the drive in and out takes over an hour on difficult terrain – especially difficult for those prone to motion sickness. The granddaddy of National Park resorts, the Ahwahnee Lodge is a jaw-dropping luxury, if you can afford. I couldn’t but made a reservation and enjoyed dinner there.

Early December was an ideal time to visit as snow had not yet fallen, but the summer crowds were gone. I suspect early November might be even better to catch some of the lingering fall foliage.

I flew in and out of Fresno, California which requires a drive of two hours – one to Oakhurst and one more within the Park. Two days and nights is not enough to keep a photographer happy but certainly allowed me time to appreciate the splendor of this historic National Park.

A Visit to Fort Mantanzas

Fort Matanzas National Monument

The Spanish built and manned Fort Matanzas (1740-42) to ward off British attacks on St. Augustine.
Visitors need to understand that the fort is located 14 miles south of St. Augustine (along A1A). The area, now Fort Matanzas National Monument,  is run by the National Park Service and located on Anastasia Island. The park is situated near the site of the killing of nearly 250 French Huguenots in 1565 by the Spanish, an act that gave the river and inlet the name Matanzas, Spanish for “slaughters.”
Upon arrival (free parking) watch the eight-minute film to learn about the fort and the area’s history. Then, take a Park Service boat over to Rattlesnake Island, a less than 5-minute boat ride. Rattlesnake Island, a barrier island is left to wildlife, except for official trips by the Park Rangers. The public may boat and fish the waterway, but are not permitted to use the fort’s dock.

Costumed Soldiers at Fort Matanzas

Fort Matanzas measures only 50 feet on each side with a 30-foot tower; so a visit becomes a quick exploration. If possible go on a day when the soldiers are in costume.

Here is a soldier near the Garita or sentry box.

.This is the soldier’s quarters.The officer’s quarters are a level above.Officer’s Quarters

A Spanish flag flies from the observation deck. You’ll also find a chimney for the hearth below.The powder magazine was build into the land-based side of the fort’s walls.

A cistern for water storage lies below the canon deck, but is not open to tourists.

When the soldiers fire the canon, all visitors must evacuate the structure.  Park Rangers gather them outside, and then explain the procedure and answers questions. The location allows only a side view of the canon from below, so you can’t see much of the soldiers’ participation in the activity.  As one of the reenactors said, “If you really want to watch a canon firing, go to the big fort- Castillo de San Marcos.”

The Spanish landed in St. Augustine in 1565, claimed it and built a settlement.  Francis Drake raided the town in 1586. Afterward,  the Spanish erected Castillo de San Marcos for their protection, a massive coquina fort still standing in the city (completed in 1695). In 1740, Governor James Oglethorpe and his British troops from Georgia blockaded the St. Augustine inlet or harbor. The Spanish held Castillo de San Marco during the 39-day siege, which was halted when hurricane season arrived and Oglethorpe withdrew.
To prevent the British from attacking via the Matanzas River (a weak point in the city’s defense at the  rear) the Spaniards constructed an outpost –Fort Matanzas. Oglethorpe returned in 1742 with 12 ships, but the soldiers drove off the attack with the little fort’s canon. Fort Matanzas was never attacked again.

Like Castillo de San Marco, Fort Matanzas was built of coquina stone and covered inside and out with white lime plaster. Usually, only one officer, four privates of the infantry and two gunners manned the fort. Soldiers were assigned there as a part of their regular rotation among the outposts and missions near St. Augustine. The tour of duty at Fort Matanzas was one month.

What happened to the fort?
As part of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, signed to end the French and Indian War, all property in Florida was transferred to Britain. After the American Revolution, a second Treaty of Paris returned Florida to Spain. Fort Matanzas continued to be staffed but was not maintained. When Florida became a state in 1819, Spain transferred the land to the US. The fort had become so badly deteriorated that soldiers could no longer live inside. All that remained were two eight-pounder Spanish cannons originally mounted in 1793. They remain to this day. The US took possession in 1821 but never occupied the site.
Military personnel were later sent to examine the ruins. They determined that Fort Matanzas had only historical value as the exterior surfaces were overrun with vegetation and its walls had cracked.

History lovers gained Fort Matanzas on July 18, 1916, when $1025 was granted by Congress for the repair of the historical structure. On October 15, 1924, using the power granted in the Antiquities Act, President Calvin Coolidge named five sites, including Fort Matanzas and the Castillo de San Marcos, as national monuments. On August 19, 1927, he issued another order, assigning all the lands around the fort, not included in the national monument to the Department of Agriculture, as a bird refuge.

Riding the Grand Canyon Railroad

Grand Canyon Railroad departs from Williams, AZ

Imagine stepping back in time and arriving at the Grand Canyon the same way travelers did more than 100 years ago- on the iron horse.

I recently experienced this journey starting in the heart of downtown Williams, Arizona, a frontier “Main Street” town along the legendary Route 66.  Williams retains much original architecture and road-side appeal from the era when car travel was king and roadside cafes dotted the rural towns along fabled Route 66.

In Williams, every morning begins with a Wild West shootout. Of course, I expected a lot of cheesy humor from a scripted show, but the costumed actors were surprisingly good and the banter was honestly fun. The audience got into the moment.

Shoot-Out in Williams, AZ

Afterward, the crowd walks to the diesel-powered train as the conductor barks out, “All-aboard!” My first-class ticket provided entree to the “luxury” cars with sofas and tables, an attendant, food, drinks and even a strolling banjo player. What a relaxing and stress-free journey. During the two and half hour ride, I walked from car to car and stood on the rear platform to capture some incredibly exotic “Kodak” moments with my camera.

Before the railroad opened for business in 1901, visitors arrived at the magnificently chiseled Canyon via four-horse-team stagecoach. Tickets cost $20 for that arduous bumpy ride compared to $3.95 for the new-fangled choo-choo. No wonder steam powered trains instantly became the desired choice of public transport. However, as automobiles grew in popularity, rail travel slowly dwindled. In 1968, the tracks went quiet and lay dormant for twenty more years. Then, in 1989, the line was renovated, providing children and adults an opportunity to savor a most romantic mode of travel.

Grand Canyon Depot

Banjo player on the Grand Canyon Railroad

My sojourn ended in front of the massive, yet cozy Grand Canyon Depot, an incredibly  picturesque log-framed station. Back in 1905, the Santa Fe Railway built the El Tovar Hotel across the tracks. The El Tovar reigned as one of the most luxurious hotels of its day featuring hot and cold running water, electric lights, art galleries and plush dining rooms. The original dark timbered structure still beckons and I walked in to take a peek.  Moose, deer and buffalo heads adorn the lobby along with large paintings of the Canyon. Most US Presidents through the 20th Century have stayed there. Sadly, I did not.

My first look at the Grand Canyon truly overwhelmed me- it’s stunning, awesome, terrifying– yet glorious. My heart raced and tears formed in my eyes. Grand is not the right word; there simply are no apt words to capture this national treasure should be high on everyone’s bucket list. It does not disappoint.

Ample and safe parking for autos is available in Williams near the train station. Riding the rail relieves the Grand Canyon of some 50,000 cars annually. In addition, arrival by train bypasses tollbooth backups and eliminates the need to utilize shuttle bus transfers from remote parking to the Grand Canyon Village and South Rim.

View upon arrival at the Canyon- The South Rim