Our national parks are geological gems
“I will be back” is what I said a year ago when California shut down and I had a few hours to exit Joshua Tree National Park. It was my first visit with plans to spend a few days exploring its wonder and hike a few of the 8,000 rock climbing routes in a park aptly named for its twisty, spikey Joshua trees that dot thousands of scrubby-landscaped acres. As if that isn’t enough geographical eye candy, towering jagged mountains frame a valley filled with granite-like rock formations that look hallucinatory, mythical, and paranormal at once.
My return trip last month to “desert Disneyland” was a spectacular success. Captivated by the indescribable boulder configurations with names such as Skull Rock and Wall of Horror, I couldn’t even fathom how these geological creations reportedly began more than 2 billion years ago. Instead, I was happy to let my imagination run wild while scrambling over oodles of stone shapes resembling melted candle wax and at the same time hoping that the massive teetering boulders, stacked like dominoes or pickup sticks, didn’t move.
A fan of national parks since childhood, I purchased the America the Beautiful lifetime senior pass for $80. In addition to 63 national parks, free admission includes federal recreation lands such as national forests. Cleveland National Forest is in our backyard with plenty of nearby hiking trails and surrounding areas to discover.
Last year, national parks had a total of 331 million visitors who explored 84 million acres. Twenty-six states have at least one national park; Alaska and California each have the highest with 8. Geographical varieties include parks with arches, caves, canyons, and waterways. Ten parks feature volcanoes and Lassen Volcanic National Park has four different types: shield, composite, cinder cone and plug dome. Not surprising since the U.S. is home to more than 10% of known active and potentially active volcanoes on Earth.
If you’re looking for new online “armchair traveling” destinations, this may be your ticket. For those interested in being up close and personal, nearly half the national parks are convenient to southern California with drive times of one or two days. It’s even possible to see several on one road trip. Naturally, the one that piqued my attention isn’t exactly around the corner—Great Smokey Mountains National Park in Tennessee. Home to over 1,500 types of flowering plants that bloom year-around, this most-visited park has 100 tree varieties—the highest of any park. Whatever your mode of transportation, whether it’s in person or digital, these geographical gems are worth visiting.
Originally published in the Orange County Register, May 13, 2021