Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Where you would least expect it, halfway between Akron and Cleveland, Ohio, lies a National Park. One of the greatest features of this park is the Towpath Trail which follows the historic Ohio and Erie canal route though the Cuyahoga River valley. The trail is fully accessible to pedestrians and cyclist to travel the same path used by mules tow the canal boats.  You can also travel through the park by steam engine, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad offers visitors one of a kind views of the park. Another park attraction is winter sports like snowboarding and cross country skiing. I went in the fall so know nothing about this but most of their trail guides also offer information of ski times and skill level. 

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Campsites 

There is only one campground in the park with only five sites, so reservations are a must. There is also lodging at Stanford House and the Inn at Brandywine Falls. These facilities are not managed by the National Park though they are on park lands so the rules are a little wonky and camping is a steep $25 a night. There is no parking at the campsites so you can backpack in or, unload and  park about a mile away at the Boston Store. The upside it the campsites are a great starting point for hiking to Brandywine Falls. 

Hikes I Hikes

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Stanford Trail - 1.5 miles - This trail takes you to Brandywine falls. You start at Stanford House and cut through the campgrounds and then travel uphill for about a mile. There are two small creek crossings which had little to no water when I crossed them in the fall. This is an easy to moderate hike through the woods and the last quarter mile is along a paved trail which ends at the Brandywine Falls.

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Brandywine Gorge Loop - 1.4 milses - I hiked the eastern portion of this trail which is paved and nearest to the falls. The whole loop will circle the gorge that is home to the Brandywine Falls and offer different viewpoints of these falls and the creek below. 

Tree Farm Trail - 2.75 miles - This was my favorite hike due to the diversity of flora, even though I never truly felt like I was hiking, due to the constant hum of traffic and town life nearby. The hike starts at the most perfect lake for picnics and then dips back into the woods. As you come out of the woods, a little more than half way, you'll get a spectacular view of a tree farm and some amazing wildflowers. After a quarter mile you're back into the woods until exiting again at the pond. 

Sites I Saw

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Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail - The towpath is open 24 hours 365 days a year and can be used to travel from Cleveland to Zoar, Ohio. This tail is amazing, the distance it speeds and its accessibility are unparalleled to anything else I've seen. Along the route are historical sites and beautiful wildlife.  

Indigo Lake - Just your average lake but what's around it is what counts. There is fishing, restrooms and a translation. All together this makes a good spot for lunch. There are also a few hiking trails nearby

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Brandywine Falls - These falls are not as grandiose as those at Yosemite or Yellowstone, but they are worth a visit. The falls can be reached by the Stanford Trail or you can drive to them on Brandywine Road. 

Ledges Overlook - This is the go to spot for the sunset. Bring a blanket and a tripod and get cozy. The Ledges Trail is 2.2 miles but if you cut South-west through the field by the parking area you can walk onto the trail at the Overlook. 

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Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad - The railroad runs through the entirety of the park and into Akron, Ohio. They're are weird rules about getting on and off so check in with the ticket office if you plan to train hop. My best advice is to ride your bike one way and take the train back the other. Bikers get a reduced fair! The full loop, Rockside to Akron and back again, is about three and a half hours. Check out their website for information about beer and wine nights and, if you're going in the winter they offer a Polar Express ride. 

Train Stations and Depots - I'll leave you with one of my favorite parts of the park, these adorable train stations a depots. There are 9 in total and they are all this great!  

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Canyonlands National Park

Stand on top of the canyons at Canyonlands National Park. Visiting this park in conjunction with Zion, or Black Canyon National Park and you will gain a greater appreciation as you stand atop the canyons. But if you haven't visited the other parks you can still watch in amazement as they span the horizon. Here you can begin to grasp the expanse of the Colorado Plateau and see how the Green and Colorado Rivers carved these canyons into existence.

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The park is split into three districts: Island in the Sky, The Maze, and The Needles. The Maze district is remote and only accessible on foot or by 4wheel drive, there are limited facilities and only primitive camping available. Island in the Sky and The Needles offer modern facilities and camping options. If you wish to visit more than one district be sure to give yourself ample time as entrance gates to these districts are over 100 miles from each other. I spent my time in Island in the Sky, but hope to update you on the other districts soon! 

Campsites

I was lucky to get the last spot at the Willow Flat Campgrounds ($15 a night) as there are only about 12 sites. If all these sites are taken you can backcountry camp or find more camping nearby at Deadhorse Point State Park. The Willow Flat site is conveniently in the middle of the park and each site has a kitchen shelter perfect for hammock hanging. 

Hikes I Hiked

White Rim Overlook - 1.8 miles - Limited parking means this hike is not over crowded and you'll maybe see 5 other people along the way. Here you'll walk out onto and east facing overlook plataue like part of the canyon. Views of the Colorado River, Monument Basin and Las Sal Mountains will await you at the end. Look directly down and you'll see the amazing White Rim Road. This primitive road is 100 miles long, with no facilities, and rides along he ridge of the canyon. (Yes it's on my to-so lit.) There is little to no shade on this hike and much of it is along sandstone with no specific path. Keep an eye out for cairns, small rock stacks, if you don't feel like wandering aimlessly toward a cliff edge or need help making your way back to the trailhead.

Mesa Arch - 0.5 miles - This trail is incredibly popular, especially at sunrise. I ventured out there about 30 minutes before the sunrise and I was about the 15th person there. I saw the arch but didn't stay for the sunrise. Instead got in my car and made my way to my next park. Maybe that tells you little something about this spot, or maybe it says more about my level of patience for crowds of people with tripods. 

Murphy Point - 3.6 miles - I took this hike hoping to reach the end just before sunset, my calculations were way off as it was an easy, mostly flat hike. The trail ends wit views of Candlestick Tower, the Green River and the White Rim Road. There were few other people on the trail and no one else waiting out for the sunset. If you would like to camp here there is one permit given per night so you'd have the spot to yourself with exclusive views from sunset to sunrise! 

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Sites I Saw

Buck Canyon / Green River / Grand View Point Overlook / White Rim Overlook

So I grouped all of these together for two reasons. 1. Go to every viewpoint because they're all equally jaw dropping and I can't even begin to rank them. 2. I forgot to label my photos and don't know which is which but who cares because all of these view points are great and offer you a new angle on an amazing landscape!  

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Death Valley National Park

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As I drove through Death Valley I wasn't certain I was in the park until just before I got to my campsite. This was due to two things: sandstorms and a serious lack of knowledge of where I was. I added this park last minute to my trip to avoid freezing temperatures elsewhere, so I had no notes or preprinted guides. There is no cell reception, so maps and notes would have been nice, especially when the winds picked up and I could no longer see more than 2 feet in font of my car.  (Note: When you you look out and see this  ahead (picture 1) maybe stop for awhile and don't drive through it and get stuck behind a long line of other cars for over and hour while you are pelted by small rocks.) This desert has all the extremes: from below freezing nights, to record highs of 130+ degrees, to sandstorms with wind gust over 50mph. (I experienced this last one first hand.) When you take this journey make sure you are prepared with food, water and gas. It is dry, it is exposed, and it is one of the few places I have ever felt truly alone, and it was amazing!

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Note: The morning I was driving to Death Valley I slipped and fell on the jagged shoreline of Mono Lake (more about this awesome place in another post) and tore up my left leg pretty badly. This meant fewer hikes and more long drives and vista overlooks. 

Campsites

I stayed at Furnace Creek, one of the only open campsites in June. Most site close in Mid May due to brutal summer temperatures. The other campsites that are open at this time are at higher altitudes and/ or only accessible though high clearance roads. Furnace Creek is open year round but runs a steep price of $22 per night. There is also a lodge on site and plenty of privately owned hotels and campsites nearby. 

Hikes I Hiked

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Badwater Salt Flats - .75miles - A must do hike because It's the lowest point in North America! 'nough said. Okay but for real, it's a short easy flat hike across what is seemingly an alien planet. There is zero shade and the ground is white so sunscreen and hats are a must.

Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral - 1.25 miles - A fairly simple out and back hike though a a passage way of canyon walls. While I hiked I was constantly worried about a rattle snake due to all the cliff hangings and little hiding spots across the rocks. I never saw one and you probably won't either. You'll find good lighting in the early morning and evenings.   

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Dante's Ridge - .5miles - This hike is a half mile walk along the edge of her Black Mountains  ascending 100 feet to spectacular views of the salt flat and Badwater Basin. If you don't feel like making the steep hike or are fearful of cliff edges the trail head at Dante's View offers similar scenes. 

Sites I Saw

Dante's View - It's a cool spot with great views at the end of windy incredibly steep road. The trail head for Dante's Ridge. 

Sand Dunes - Towards the center of the park are the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Again, this is another great place to visit at sunrise/sunset and offers little to no shade in the afternoon. I didn't spend much time here as I use my early mornings for long hikes and my evenings for sleeping, so I was there at noon and it was hot. Though I did see quite a few people walking out into the dunes and, if you don't mind sand in your shoes, it's probably a really great experience.. 

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Twenty Mule Team Canyon - This a 2.7 mile windy bumpy road that I bravely drove my Honda Civic though, I do not recommend this. It is unpaved and uneven, it is not high access rated but in my civic I couldn't drive much above 10mph and had to be extra cautions. The drive offers views of badlands that are tucked out of sight from the main roads and it doesn't take much time to complete. So if it's boiling hot out and you wan to see something from the comfort of you air-conditioned car this is the thing to do. 

Badwater - The lowest point in North America!  It lies about 282 feet below sea level and has an environment like non-other. For all you running nerds this is were the Badwater Ultra. begins and it is super cool to stand in this spot! For those of you who want to understand, when you go there just try and imagine running 13miles, then multiply that times ten. Yeah people do that, in this environment, and they are amazing. 

Artists Drive / Artists Palette - This is an amazing scenic drive (9miles one way) with plenty of spots where you can get out and hike. Honestly you can get out and hike almost anywhere on the road as there are few other people and lots of scenery. (Though I don't know how the park feels about this... Just please don't park your car on vegetation!) Artists Palette is the main attraction along this drive, due to the vast array of natural occurring color. This is a great place to get out and wander about  about endless hills. Photograph in the late afternoon for best light. Lastly, look closely for a little dude in this final photo to get a sense of scale. 

 

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon sits at the top of the Grand Staircase inside the Colorado Plateau. Inside the park are unique geological formations called Hoodoos. They sound like something from Dr. Seuss, and kinda look like it too. Like Zion, Bryce Canyon has a free shuttle through the park. There is also an excellent mix use trail (great for bikes!) through the Bryce Amphitheater that will take you to all the main attractions. 

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Campsites                                                                                  

I stayed inside the park at the Sunset Campgrounds ($20 and night). This campground had just undergone renovations when I visited, so their restrooms were excellent and the roads were well paved. There is another campground near the entrance and a lodge with a restaurant inside the park. If camping, be aware they are stringent about campground rules such as where you place your tent and park your car. This is probably not the park to try and sneak in extra campers or cars to your site.

Hikes I Hiked

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The Figure 8 Combination - 6.4 miles - This is the ultimate, I-only-have-one-day-and-want-to-see-it-all, hike. It combines three of the most popular hikes in the amphitheater (Queens Garden, Peekaboo Loop, and Navajo Loop) into one 6+ mile hike. It took me a bit longer and a few more miles because about halfway though I had already drank close to a gallon of water and needed to climb out of the canyon to pee. If you have a stronger bladder and hike at a good pace you can finish up in under 5 hours and 6.5miles. Due to the steep grades and numerous elevation changes it is labeled "strenuous". Otherwise it is fairly even land and there is no rock clambering, climbing or crawling involved. Below I've broken down this hike by the hikes within it. 

Peekaboo Loop - 5.5 miles - I began at Bryce Point and descended over 1,000 feet into Bryce Canyon. I choose this as the starting point as opposed to Sunrise or Sunset Point because I originally did not plan to do the whole Figure 8 but knew I wanted to do this loop. (Shout out to the trail friends who I meet and pushed me to be better!) From Bryce you can just do this loop or combine it with any other trail in the amphitheater. Also if you make it to the other side and feel too tired to hike back, just hop on the shuttle and ride back to your car or campsite! Along this trail you will see amazing rock formations like, the Wall of Windows, The Cathedral, and my favorite, Tunnel View. They are basically what they sound like but when you walk by them the feeling and view are nothing like what you imagined. 

Queens Garden - 1.8 miles - A short and sweet trail. This trail dips down into the Canyon but you experience less than 400 feet in elevation change. This hike is also super cool because you hit a part of the park with trees and greenery at is unexpected in a desert canyon. While I hiked I kept waiting to see a deer pop out as if I were walking through the forest. Not that deer don't live here (I saw a few around my campsite) but it was just a stark contrast to the other hikes in this area. At this point in the figure 8 you are about half way. If you need a restroom, water, or food you can climb out of the canyon to Sunrise Point and freshen up.

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Navajo Loop - 1.3 miles - Home of Thor's Hammer, Wall Street and Two Bridges. These are some of the big "must sees" of the park, though I am more partial to the formations along the Peekaboo Trail. Thor's Hammer is a Hoodoo that has a big hammer shaped formation at the top. Two Bridges is two natural bridges. And Wall Street is a "wall" of switchbacks up and down a steep grade that otherwise not really be passable. Note: I had no idea that Wall Street was or looked like. So as we were nearing the end of the loop I asked my trail friend what it was because everyone kept talking about it and I didn't wasn't to miss it. He rolled is eyes, laughed and told me we had just finished walking down it. I turned back to look at it, and I was not as impressed and I probably should have been. Oh well.  

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Sites I Saw

I listed a lot of the sites above, there are a lot more hoodoos and formations on the hikes, many unnamed.

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Inspiration Point - Go for the view. This spot got it's name for good reason, and photographs fail to replicate the view. You can also start the Rim trail here and hike to Bryce point or along a paved trail to Sunset Point.

Fairlyland Point - This spot is tucked away from the main attractions of the park so it can be a nice get away during peak seasons. From here you can see a different view of the park on the eight mile Fairyland Loop Trail. Also along this trail is the only view of Tower Bridge and the Fairyland Canyon. 

Zion National Park

As of now, Zion is one of my top three favorite parks. It has great views and amazing hikes. I also love that it is easy to navigate. There is a ton of signage and a free shuttle to cut down on traffic. Note: during much of the year the Zion Canyon Shuttle is the only way to access the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. In the two days I had, I was able to drive through the entire park and take some incredible hikes, though I would definitely suggest speeding more here time if you can.

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Campsites

I went during the busiest time of the year (June) so I did not even attempt to get a campsite in the park. While there are some non-reservable sites, I hadn't yet learned the trick for getting these spots so I found a tent site at a "resort" five miles from the East Entrance. There are a number of private camping and RV parks within minutes of the park, as well as hotels if you'd like a little more comfort. If you stay at one of these spots in Springdale, you can catch the free Springdale Shuttle and be in Zion in fifteen minutes or less.  

Hikes I Hiked

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Angels Landing - 4.4 miles  -  To begin this peak got its name when it was commented that it was so high that only an angel could land on top of it. Well, call me an angel cause I made it to the top! The hike begins at The Grotto shuttle stop and for the first half mile it is easy to think that the accent will be fairly simple. Do not be deceived, the 21 switchbacks, AKA ''Walters Wiggles" go one forever and only get steeper. This was the worst part of the hike. Once the switchbacks are over, the fun begins. With only about a half mile left, you will navigate your way across a steep, narrow, exposed ridge. (If you have vertigo or are scared of heights this is where you should end your hike.)  With only about 2 feet of clearance on either side of you, "watch your step" is an understatement.  But fear not, there is a chain to hold onto at the trickiest and most narrow spots. Wile the chain is not always needed physically, it is a great mental tool to keep you from freaking out. Also the chain is great for holding onto when the wind picks up. It gets very windy and there is no protection, as in 1.000 feet down people can see your silhouette as you make your way to the peak, kind of no protection. Once you have made it to the top of Angels Landing hang out for a bit, have a snack and drink some water. (WARNING: Keep a close eye on your snack as chipmunks are king and will steal food right out of your hand.) The hike back down goes twice as fast as the hike up and if it wasn't for the switchbacks I would have turned right around and done it again. 

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The Narrows - 5.1 miles  -  Before setting out, check in with a ranger to get a good understanding of the conditions. This hike is a river walk and is not always passable, and even when it is, it is not easy. When I went in the summer, the water temperature was still quite cold, and the deepest points reached my waist (I'm 5'6"). I suggest, along with water and snacks, you bring spare shoes or sandals , to change into at the end, and a walking stick. The trail is beautiful and full of mystery, with a new challenge at every bend. A basic knowledge of rivers is helpful for finding the easiest and shallowest point to cross. Other good tools for not accidentally stepping into a deep pocket: your walking stick, watching the people in front of you, or attaching yourself to a tour group. It is important to know your limits when taking this hike. There is no way out except back the way you came and fatigue can prove very dangerous when mixed with slick rocks and strong currents.

Canyon Overlook Trail - 1 mile  -  This hike is a fairly simple out an back. It begins with a steep climb up and leads to uneven terrain with long drop-offs. The trail is mostly fenced and ends views of the Zion and Pine Creek Canyons. The trailhead is located on the east side of the tunnel on the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and the parking lot is small and busy so slow down and use caution.

Sites I Saw   

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Kolob Reservoir  -  Technically the reservoir is not part of the park, but it's a cool spot if you're camping at Lava Point or like to fish. Also I'm fairly certain the sunrise/sunset would be amazing.              

Lava Point Overlook  -  A nice quiet spot away from the sometimes crowded park. It's a bit of a drive up to this point but there are campsites available and uninterrupted views of some Zion's main features.

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Zion Human History Museum  -  Here you can find permanent exhibits on the history of Zion, ranger programs, and air-conditioning. Outside are some of the best views of The Sentinel, Meridian Tower, and Altar of Sacrifice. 

Zion - Mount Carmel Highway  -  Take this road out of the park and onto Bryce Canyon. Along the way you will rise out of the canyon and see: a man made tunnel, The Great Arch, and the Checkerboard Mesa.