Hot Springs National Park sits intertwined with the town of the same name. It’s a historic landmark that doesn’t really live up to the National Park reputation. It should really be a National Historic Park, like Harpers’ Ferry, so wanderers won’t be disappointed. We visited for one very mild day in February, saw most of the park, camped at Gulpha Gorge, and felt like we saw what there was to see, even without a visit to the spa.
Hot Springs National Park is one weird place. The horse-shoe shaped park is only 8.5 square miles, which makes it the smallest park in the US, but more unusually, the park is wrapped right around the town. The town is even officially named Hot Springs National Park.
Let me just admit it, ranking things and picking bests and worsts is challenging, and addictive, plus it starts some great discussions. After visiting 15 US National Parks last summer, Adam and I came up with the OGRES Score to rank the national parks on the criteria that made for our best experiences and most recommended parks.
Now that we’ve visited and blogged about three more national parks: Mulu National Park in Malaysia and then Tongariro and Abel Tasman National Parks in New Zealand, I thought it would be appropriate to rate those parks against what we saw in the US and see how they stacked up.
Mulu National Park in Malaysia is a wild and remote adventure wonderland with some of the biggest caves in the world, karst rock formations, tropical rain forest, and tons of creepy critters, especially bats. We had a blast hiking, climbing, squeezing and swimming our way through the caves.
While on the road south, we swung by the Garden of the Gods, a small park just outside the city of Colorado Springs and we were very impressed. My mom and my aunt had recommended this park to us but it wasn’t until we heard it from other people in the area that we knew we had to stop by. The place is also one of TripAdvisor’s top attractions, period.
The park has sharp red and white rock cliffs which seem to rise out of nowhere and remind me of many of the Utah parks we visited.
It has a few miles of hiking trails and biking trails, you can rock climb with a permit, and we saw many people just walking and hanging out. The park is free, too, and the visitor’s center has a little museum with dinosaur pictures and a geologic timeline of the area, free maps, and a good view.
I would strongly recommend taking a day trip to this Natural National Landmark if you happen to be in the area!
After we left Yellowstone, we headed on to Grand Teton National Park. The park is famous for the Teton mountains, with the Grand Teton right in the middle. These mountains are estimated to be only 6-10 million years old, making them some of the youngest in the world. The valley was then further flattened over time by glaciers, so the mountains seem to rise right out of the meadows. Continue reading Grand Teton National Park and Jackson, WY
Oh, Yellowstone. You were the first true national park established in the country, beating out Yosemite. (In 1916, Yosemite was apparently a poorly-run state park, inspiring the federal government to create the NPS.) You get 4.5 million visitors every year. And while you’re beautiful and unique and worth seeing exactly once, you were a real let down.
Anyone who’s read my power rankings knows that I considered this park the least strong of the National Parks we saw this summer. While it’s great, the limited access to the volcanic areas creates tons of crowds and traffic there. If you do go, I recommend going for one day, early in the morning, and hitting as many spots as you can before it fills up. Even better, get someone else to drive you around the park. Then go see the Tetons!
In our over 10,000 miles of driving to and from 15 national parks, Adam and I have had a lot of time to consider why some parks are amazing and some parks are only great. After much discussion, we narrowed it down to five key criteria, which together, create the OGRES score to rank National Parks:
The OGRES Score
One of a Kind natural beauty. Or, alternately, does it make you go “Oh $*@&!”. Every single natural park has at a little “O”, but some have a lot more than others.
Groupability and Geographic Accessibility – High marks given for parks that are close to other great sites, near cities and airports. It also considers nearby small towns or on-site groceries and amenities and wifi.
Revisitability – Having visited, would you return to see more or go back to re-experience the park again? Some parks like Zion have hikes that would be great again, and in others, like Yosemite, I would return to see new things I didn’t get to the first time around.
Ease of Access and Activities – This component captures the variability of things to do at a park, as well as the ease with you can figure out what to do, and where to eat and sleep. The rangers and park materials are huge here.
Solitude or Swarms – At the park, is it possible to get away from the crowds and traffic to appreciate the natural beauty, or are there swarms of tourists and traffic that are too difficult to avoid.
Each park can earn up to 10 points on each segment, for a total of 50 points. These rankings will be based largely on my experience at each park, and only the parks that we visited were included. Ranking parks is incredibly difficult, because they’re all uniquely different and every one is worth a visit. Despite the official sounding name and numbers, it’s by no means an objective analysis, so let me know what you think in the comments or over a beer when possible.
First and foremost, thank you to everyone who cast their vote on my first ever reader poll. More than half the votes came in for a Power Ranking of National Parks, so that post will be coming up soon, in addition to some thoughts on Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons.
And now, on to a regularly post with the usual photos and stories of our most recent adventures.
In some of our more recent travels, we’ve had the fantastic luck to spend time visiting amazing family and new friends. In all three of our most recent stops, our hosts have had fishing gear and expertise available for us to appreciate. Adam’s caught a few little guys, and I snagged a few great photos. More importantly, we enjoyed some beautiful scenery, some good conversations before we got started, and the occasional beer. Continue reading Learning to Fly…. Fish and Reader Poll Results
After leaving Orcas Island in Washington State, we headed back east to visit Glacier National Park. It’s a sad moment in a road trip when you realize you’ve started returning, even if it’s taken you three plus months to get there. We stumbled into a fantastic backpacking loop thanks to the best ranger staff we’ve come across so far. I don’t want to spoil my power rankings, but this park is up there on our list of favorites.
Glacier National Park’s landscape has wide, flat alpine meadows surrounded by sharp, steep mountains, which formed as massive glaciers slowly wore away the sides of the cliffs. It borders Canada’s Waterton National Park, and the two parks have been managed together as an International Peace Park since 1932. In addition to stunning mountains, prairies, forests and lakes, Glacier is one of the few places in North America with large carnivores like Grizzly bears, black bears, and wolves.
Orcas Island is part of the San Juan Islands, an archipelago in northwest Washington, accessible only by ferry. These islands are known to be quaint, relaxing, areas with beautiful scenery and ocean wildlife. We skipped the whale-watching and kayaked instead, but there are tours guaranteeing orca sightings.
We were hoping to stay at least two nights, one in a state park and one at a camping “lodge”, and ended up staying four days after we realized that lodge was incredible. There, we camped in the yard but have full use of the house, including a kitchen, shower, and patio with wifi. While there, we had a blast biking around the island, visiting Moran State Park, kayaking, and trying a few local restaurants.
This stop was a unique one for us. I would recommend Orcas Island or the San Juans for someone wanting to experience a beautiful place, with a relaxing small-town feel, with some nice shops and restaurants, and who had the time and foresight to plan the trip including the ferry. We heard about bike and kayak trips around multiple islands that sounded great, as coordinating ferry logistics is a little tricky.