Monday, June 20, 2011

Best of the West's National Parks (Part III)

At last, it's here - the installment of my National Parks series and the part where I dish up the dirt (no pun intended!) on some of our National Parks.  Until now, my reviews have been fairly positive - we visited some truly great places so this part's been easy - but now it's time to let you in on a few of our disappointments.  To find out which parks were a great trip and which were just a great waste of time, read on.

This view of Cliff Palace is worth searching for!
Most Confusing/Worst Signage: Mesa Verde National Park, CO
If you like getting lost, this is the park for you. Several attractions appeared to be missing signs altogether, so be sure to pick up a map at the visitor's center - if you can find it!

These logs are impressive, but the park offers comparatively few other attractions
Least Value for Money: Petrified Forest National Park, AZ
Petrified Forest National Park sounds fascinating, right? That's a trick question, because while the petrified logs are actually really interesting, the park kind of isn't. Apparently, much of the petrified wood from this area was carted away by tourists long before the National Park Service stepped in. The best logs are located at the far end of the park, and though the drive through this portion of the Painted Desert is pretty, it looks a lot like the parts of Arizona that you can drive through outside the park - for free. You can also see petrified logs for free, at several 'rock shops' outside the park, which means that there really isn't much reason to visit the park at all. Top Tip: If you have the Annual Pass, it's worth visiting the Crystal Forest and Newspaper Rock. Otherwise, you can satisfy your petrified log curiosity at one of the rock shops along the highway, or view the smaller specimens at Valley of Fire State Park, NV.

Crazy roads on the Artists Drive, Death Valley, CA
Least Accessible: Death Valley National Park, CA
This park was one of my favorites, so I hate to put it on the 'naughty' list - but it is out in the middle of nowhere. Matt and I broke our epic journey to Death Valley in a little town called Orlancha - which is also in the middle of nowhere.

A rare bit of empty trail at the busy Zion Canyon, UT
Most Crowded: Zion National Park, UT
It's a small park and we visited during National Park Week - not the best example of prior planning on our part.  We weren't able to get a spot on one of the campsites in the park, even though there are two, and ended up grabbing one of the last rooms available in a Travelodge in Hurricane, UT. Top tip: Campsites are first come, first served so arrive early!

At least this sign proves we were in the right place!
Biggest Disappointment: Petrified Forest National Park, AZ, Capitol Reef National Park, UT and Sequoia National Forest, CA
I've already explained my issues with Petrified Forest, but Capitol Reef and Sequoia make the list for far different reasons. Matt and I drove through Capitol Reef without even realizing it - we were too busy looking for the Capitol-like dome that we never saw.  I've heard there's some good hiking to be had in the park, and there's was an interesting looking orchard just outside the gates, but after visiting Bryce, Zion and Death Valley, perhaps we're too hard to impress. Sequoia makes our list of disappointments only because we drove six hours to reach it and didn't see a single Sequoia. Sadly, we failed to fully research our trip and didn't realize that the only access road through the centre of the park (you know, the bit with all the giant trees) would still be closed in mid-April. Sadly, the Ranger we spoke with at the visitor's center didn't think to mention this fact either. Bummer.  I'm sure the trees are impressive but, sadly, we may never get to see them. Top tip: Please, please, check to be sure the roads are open before you plan your trip!

The photos were the best part of our visit!
Least Favorite: Petrified Forest National Park, AZ
I hate to say 'all-time' least favorite, because it seems so final.  Still, after all the hype surrounding Petrified Forest, our visit was pretty disappointing. The logs are beautiful and it was fascinating to watch them change colors with the changing light of a setting sun, but I'm not sure I would have been satisfied if we'd had to pay the usual entrance fee.  The Painted Desert portion, which makes up the majority of the park, is not really unique in terms of Arizona scenery and it's a little strange to have a highway running straight through the middle of the park. Sure, some of the other parks had less to offer, but most of these didn't have the reputation - or the entrance fees - that made Petrified Forest such a stone, cold disappointment.

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