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.
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.
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.
Mount Rainier, just outside Seattle, Washington, is the most prominent mountain in the lower 48. It’s 14,411 feet high, but it has 13, 211 feet of prominence, (more than K2!) and it towers over the surrounding area. This stratovolcano is part of the Cascade Range and was protected as the country’s 5th national park in 1899. When we visited, we were still slightly shell-shocked from our Olympic adventure, so we car-camped and planned to ride our bikes around to a few day hikes and then take it easy in the afternoons, drink a few beers, and celebrate ‘Merica. Here’s some details on Park Basics and Fun Facts, camping and fees, and our day hikes.
Well, here’s the other part of the story of Olympic National Park. After a lovely day hike and camping experience in the Sol Duc, we felt ready to take on a 55 mile loop, starting with the Graves Creek Trail, going up over Anderson Pass and then the First Divide, and then traveling along a primitive (un-maintained) trail up over the Six Ridge Pass and back to the trail head. Before our adventure, this post also includes some basics on backpacking at Olympic and bear canisters/wires.
Before I get into the story, let me give you a few basics about backpacking at Olympic. Permits were easy to obtain and cost $5 per person per night. On the June Thursday we went, there was availability everywhere. One interesting thing about Olympic is that most camping is not truly dispersed. Many areas have one or more small campsites, some even with pit toilets. We saw a lot more families and teenagers out on these trails, probably in part due to the more organized nature of backcountry camping. Trails are well marked and most large streams have nice bridges.
It’s hard to believe we’ve been on the road for three and a half months by now. We’ve driven over 6,000 miles, hiked over 200, and done our fair share of train riding, bike riding, and kayak riding, too. We’ve visited 11 national parks, 6 state parks, 3 “special” national park areas (like national volcanic monument, national seashore, and national historic parks), plus countless other campsites, trails, and wilderness areas.
Even I’m having a hard time keeping it all straight! So, I made a map of all the national parks we’ve visited (the green tree markers) and all the other places as well (the blue and other markers):
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Where We\'ve Been (And Blogged!) : 37.971690, -100.872662
We have also been very, very lucky to stay with many wonderful friends and family along the way. Everyone who has hosted us so far has been kind, thoughtful, generous, and gracious, and I really feel honored to be a part of the lives of so many amazing people. Thank you all again, we wouldn’t have made it this far without you. I won’t embarrass anyone by associating them further with the blog but I am sincerely hoping to return the favor sometime in the future!