Monthly Archives: June 2014
North American National Park #27: Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan
Grasslands is an extremely overlooked park.
It is not near any major population center, as the nearest major city, Regina, being a four hour drive away. It has no mountains, canyons, waterfalls, lakes and not even many trees.
Nonetheless, Grasslands is a great park and one which everyone should try to visit if you are in the region one one simple reason: it is one of the few places left in North America which is untouched prairie.
Prairie once covered an enormous part of the North American continents. Today, almost all of it has been plowed over to create farmland.
Grasslands National Park is one of the few remaining places in the world where you can see what the original prairie was like.
Once you get there, you will have almost the entire park to yourself. I was there on a Canada Day weekend, which is one of the busiest of the year. I went hours without seeing another person. Only 3 of the approximately 20 campsites were used.
You will easily see bison and prairie dogs in the park and any storms can be seen coming from miles away, which is a sight in itself.
The park is open 24/7. There are no fees or permits required to enter. There is a visitor center in the nearby town of Val Marie, which is about 10km from the park entrance. It does take a bit of effort to get to Grasslands, but it is an experience that you will not find anywhere else.
North American National Park #26: Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba
Until I began my quest to visit all the national parks in the US and Canada, I had never heard of Riding Mountain. I am guessing that most people reading this haven’t heard of riding mountain either.
Many national parks have some big ‘thing’ which is the main attraction. Mountains, canyons, waterfalls, volcanoes and geysers are all attractions which draw people. But that doesn’t mean that you need to have some big, sexy geological feature to be a park.
Riding Mountain lies a boreal forest. There are lots of trees and lots of small lakes. It is also one of the best places to see wildlife native to the region. While I was there I saw a moose, an elk, 15 bears and the herd of bison in the park.
Riding Mountain is also a very recreational friendly park. There are ample spots for camping as well as plenty of locations to land your boat.
The name Riding Mountains comes from the large escarpment which the park sits on. If you enter the park from the south, which most people do, you won’t even notice the rise in elevation. If you come in through the north or east, however, you can see just how high up the park actually is.
Riding Mountain is approximately a 3 hour drive from Winnipeg, which is the location of the closest major airport. In addition to camping there are also several cabins and motels located inside the park in the village of Wasagaming.
North American National Park #25: Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Voyageurs National Park shares several things in common with Isle Royale National Park. Both share a similar northwoods ecosystem. Both have water as a major component of the park. Both are the closest national park to each other.
Where as Isle Royale is mostly wilderness, Voyageurs is very much recreational park which allows motorboats and fishing. In fact, there are still several resorts on the lake which are throwbacks to before the park was established in 1975.
Voyageurs is about a 5 hour drive from Minneapolis or a 10-30 minute drive from International Falls, MN, depending on which visitor center you go to.
The best way to visit the park is probably by kayak or canoe. There are many campsites around the park as well as trails used to portage your canoe.
If you visit the park without a boat, then I highly suggest taking the Kettle Falls tour. This is a 5.5 hour boat tour run by the park service which takes you through the park to Kettle Falls. Kettle Falls is the location of a hotel which was built in the early 1900’s and is one of the few places where you can stand in the US and look south into Canada!
Given the odd nature of the border with the US and Canada in this area, you will almost certainly technically cross into Canada briefly on the way to Kettle Falls.
Unlike the really popular national parks like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, the visitors here were almost all American. This is truly one of the hidden gems in the national park system.
North American National Park #24: Isle Royale, Michigan
A few facts about Isle Royale:
- It is the least visited national park in the continental United States.
- It is one of the only national parks in the US which totally closes in the winter, which explains why it gets so few visitors.
- The average length of stay in the park by visitors is the highest of any US national park: 3.5 days. This is due to the large number of people who go backpacking in the park.
- 99% of the park is considered wilderness area.
- It is one of only a small number of US national parks which you cannot drive to, which contributes to the low visitor numbers.
While Isle Royale isn’t horrible difficult to visit, it does require a bit more planning than most national parks do, as you can’t just drive up to the gate.
You have to travel to Isle Royale by boat or sea plane. Private boats and planes can visit, but the vast majority of visitors arrive via one of the ferries.
The ferries come from three different locations:
- Grand Portage, Minnesota. This is the closest American port to the park. Ferries here take about 90 minutes. The cost for adults is $60 round trip.
- Copper Harbor, Michigan. This is a 3 hour ferry ride from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Round trip is $130.
- Houghton, Michigan. This is a 5-6 hour ferry trip. Fare is $106 round trip for adults.
Once you are on the island, you only have a few options. A day trip, camp out in the woods or get a room at the one hotel on the island at Rock Harbor. A room at Rock Harbor runs about $250/night.
If you take a day trip (which I did) you will be limited to how much of the island you can see and explore. You will be limited to walking distance from the visitor center for the time you are on the island, which is about 4-5 hours.
One of the features of the island which grabs people’s attention is the population of wolves and moose. Neither animal lived on the island prior to 1900. Both naturally found their way to the island by swimming (moose) and/or walking when Lake Superior froze over.
The population of both species goes up and down in inverse relationship with each other in classic textbook fashion.
It is a very different sort of park, but one which draw those who love the wilderness and remote places.
2014 North American Road Trip Update – Week 1
Greetings from Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba!
I’ve been on the trip now for a full week, have driven over 1,300 miles and have visited 3 national parks:
- Isle Royale, Michigan
- Voyageurs, Minnesota
- Riding Mountain, Manitoba
The theme of the first week has been water. Water in the form of Lake Superior, water in the lakes of Voyageurs, water in the flooding the region has experienced and the water in Clear Lake in Riding Mountain NP.
Where there is water in the north, mosquitoes are also not far behind. I made a stop in southern Manitoba near Lake of the Woods where I found the mosquitoes to be the worst I think I have ever experienced, both in size and quantity.
North American National Park #23: Gwaii Haanas National Park, British Columbia
If there is one park I’ve visited which I would would call a ‘hidden gem’, it would have to be Gwaii Haanas National Park. Few people are even aware of its existence, let alone the fact that it is one of the most stunning parks in North America.
Getting to Gwaii Haanas isn’t easy. First you have to get to Haida Gwaii, which are the islands off the northern coast of British Columbia. Flights aren’t cheap and getting there via car requires a ferry trip from Prince Rupert. The park consists of the southern half of the islands and they can only be accessed by boat. You can’t drive to the park and there is little in the way of hiking trails.
The effort required to get there is well worth it, however. The views are stunning and you get to experience not only the fantastic islands, but also the abundant sea life as well. Gwaii Haanas is also a marine reserve which covers over 5,000 km2. It is one of the few places on Earth which is protected from the tops of the mountains the bottom of the sea.
Here you can spot black bears, humpback whales, sea lions, puffins and jellyfish.
Even if you visit in the middle of summer, you have to be prepared for cold weather. I traveled for four days on a zodiac and the wind blowing off the water as you travel will chill you quickly.
After this project is over and I create a top 10 list of North American national parks, I’m pretty sure Gwaii Haanas will have a spot on the list.
North American National Park #22: Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Technically speaking, Bryce Canyon isn’t a canyon. It’s an amphitheater.
That being said, whatever you call it, Bryce Canyon is incredible. It isn’t the biggest national park, but the Bryce Canyon Amphitheater is an incredible thing to experience.
If you visit Bryce Canyon, I’d recommend waking up to watch sunrise over the amphitheater. Afterwards, you can spend the morning walking along the hoodoos. The area is small enough such that you can easily get a good park experience in a single day.
A visit to Bryce should also be paired with a visit to Zion, which is within driving distance.
North American National Park #21: Zion National Park, Utah
Zion National Park seems to be a favorite of almost everyone who has visited the park. The heart of the park is Zion Canyon which was cut by the Virgin River. The result is a stunning landscape created by the combination of mountain, valley and river.
One of the things which makes Zion so popular is that it is easily accessible from Las Vegas, which is only a 2 hour drive away. In fact, you could visit Zion on a day trip from Las Vegas and there are several companies which offer such trips.
I visited Zion as part of my 2011 travel photography tour with G Adventures. We only spent a day in the park and I would love to return to spend more time photographing the Zion Canyon.