How Theodore Roosevelt Saved the Grand Canyon

Theodore Roosevelt’s bold Grand Canyon move

Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.

—Theodore Roosevelt

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What makes the United States special? Not everyone agrees. A growing number of people think that it is not special at all. But in at least one respect, they are dead wrong: America is home to unique land formations of unparalleled beauty. These sacred spaces used to embody the essence of what it means to be an American—and in the eyes of many, still do.

Most of the annual visitors to the Grand Canyon probably count themselves among this number. It is difficult to gaze into the seemingly limitless, mile-deep ravine and not feel a sense of awe mixed with pride. But were it not for Theodore Roosevelt, it is unlikely that millions of people would be able to have this experience.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Beginnings of Conservation

While the Grand Canyon has a long geological history, the political side of its story begins in 1872. In that year, two things happened: President Grant inaugurated Yellowstone as the first national park and he signed the General Mining Act declaring all mineral deposits on federal public land to be “free and open for exploration and purchase.” These two pieces of legislation set in play contradictory aims of conservation and economic extraction that, to this day, remain unresolved.

The Grand Canyon was one place where these competing ambitions clashed. Some gazers beholding its breathtaking rock strata reflected dollar signs in their eyes. In the 1880s, Senator Benjamin Harrison tried three separate times to introduce legislation naming the Grand Canyon a national park. On each occasion his bills were defeated by private interest groups. After becoming president, Harrison was able to name the site a forest reserve in 1893.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Establishing this was problematic, though, since the Canyon’s only forests were located on its rim. Furthermore, having Forest Reserve status did not offer sufficient protection against mining claims or even loggers or ranchers, all of whom simply ignored the new law.

Arizona politicians and businessmen had a vested interest in both extracting natural resources and developing the area around the canyon for tourism. Ironically, it was the encroachment of the railroad that aided the goal of furthering the site’s protection.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A New Champion

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt took a cross-country trip by train. One of his stops was the Grand Canyon. Peering over the edge of its rim, he fell silent with awe. Then in a speech, he delivered before a large crowd, he stated, “I shall not attempt to describe it, because I cannot.”

He admonished his audience to “Leave it as it is. Man cannot improve on it; not a bit. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children and your children’s children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see.”

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roosevelt’s words carried weight. He had a reputation for being a great outdoorsman. Though asthmatic and frail as a child, Roosevelt cultivated athletic prowess and later explored the Dakota Badlands. He witnessed firsthand the closing of the frontier, the exploitation of the West for economic gain, and the disappearance of species (admittedly contributing to this latter effect through his own big game hunting).

In his chosen career as a politician and statesman, he developed a vision of promoting the public good over personal profit. While Harrison was president, Roosevelt played his part by founding a club dedicated to championing laws protecting America’s beautiful spaces. He even helped get the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 passed.

When Roosevelt accidentally became president after McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Big Business had a new enemy in the White House. Although Roosevelt was a part of the emerging progressive movement, this term had a somewhat different meaning than it does today.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like the present-day conservative movement, the progressives saw the political philosopher Edmund Burke as their great precursor. Roosevelt went so far as to quote Burke in his Fifth Annual Message to Congress in 1905, to the effect that “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.”

Roosevelt had a hard time reining in corporate appetites, though, despite his forceful personality. He created five new national parks but like Harrison failed to add the Grand Canyon to that number when he encountered the same entrenched opposition. Something more would be needed to safeguard it.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Antiquities Act

Conservation laws took a giant leap forward in 1906 when Roosevelt signed into law “An Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities.” It classified a new type of public land, the national monument. This classification was made necessary not only due to industrial exploitation but also because thieves were plundering ancient archeological sites in search of valuable relics. Local and state organizations were ineffective in their efforts to stop them.

The meat of the Antiquities Act is the clause opening Section 2 where it states that the president is authorized “to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments…the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Antiquities Act gave the president unprecedented domestic powers in a way that no other law has before or since. While he could designate national monuments without resort to Congress, it took an act of Congress to abolish the proclamation. He named Devil’s Tower the first such monument in September of that year. It did not extend far beyond the rock formation itself and clearly corresponded to the Act’s scope of keeping a designated space “confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management.”

Within the first six months of signing the act, Roosevelt designated four other monuments. Archaeological sites like the Gila Cliff Dwellings of New Mexico were unambiguous antiquities that could easily be classed as “objects of historic or scientific interest.”

The Grand Canyon was a different case entirely. Fortunately, it contained prehistoric ruins that were of historic interest. But the canyon itself, though, lent scientific interest by virtue of its unique geology and was much more than a mere archaeological site. The landscape was larger than the state of Rhode Island extending for nearly 2,000 square miles. How could such a vast area be managed?

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Under Roosevelt’s tenure, the Forest Service had been created in 1905 as a way of managing the 150 national forests he established. Another agency would be needed to manage national parks and monuments. For the time being, this function would be carried out by the Department of the Interior. But neither Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the Forest Service, nor any administrators of the Interior Department, had any clear idea of how to appropriately deal with these landmarks.

Roosevelt was not one to allow legal terms or procedures to get in the way of realizing his vision of America. Specific methods could be worked out later. He interpreted the vague scope of the clause in a loose manner when, on January 11, 1908, he declared the Grand Canyon a national monument.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Consequences and Influence

Despite the far-reaching powers the Antiquities Act gave Roosevelt, his decision met with predictable opposition from the usual suspects. The most vehement enemy of Grand Canyon National Monument was Ralph Henry Cameron, a party boss and mining investor who became an Arizona Senator. Well into the 1920s, he filed lawsuits against the U.S. government to assert his supposed property rights. It was a blatant use of public office for private gain and fortunately, he was not successful.

Roosevelt’s expansive interpretation of the Antiquities Act was adopted by later presidents. They have used it almost a hundred times. Critics have pointed out that the Act concentrates power in the executive branch to a degree unintended by Congress, even claiming that it grants the president a level of authority approaching European monarchs. But though one may question some of the later selections for monumenthood, the early ones that Roosevelt established are uncontroversial public treasures. His use of the law as a tool of preservation has made it one of the most influential pieces of legislation in American history.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After Roosevelt left office, the National Park Service was created in 1916 to provide competent management of America’s new landmarks. Then, only a month after Roosevelt’s own death in early 1919, Grand Canyon National Park became a reality. Although he did not live to see it receive full protection, his vigorous and shrewd actions made it possible.

In 1932, Herbert Hoover proclaimed a second Grand Canyon National Monument adjacent to the park. Following that, Lyndon Johnson established Marble Canyon National Monument in 1969. Both of these sites have since been merged into the current national park. Finally in 1979, the Grand Canyon was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As one of America’s foremost cultural icons, the Grand Canyon is a self-evident source of wonder and majesty. Less obvious but more profound was Roosevelt’s belief that this beauty was also a source of virtue—that beholding splendor could inspire one towards noble action. This is what he meant when he said, “keep it for your children.” A hundred years after his death, Americans have admirably upheld this aspect of Roosevelt’s vision.

Worth Pondering…

In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world.”

—Theodore Roosevelt

National Parks Inspire Love of Nature

National Parks inspire life-changing love of nature by taking people out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary

Teddy Roosevelt was on to something. It’s been 149 years since the former president set aside 3,500 acres in Montana and Wyoming for Yellowstone National Park. Now, there are 6,000 similar parks around the world and more than 400 national parks and monuments spread across all 50 U.S. states. The first 10 U.S. national parks were all in the West, and include Yellowstone (1872), Sequoia (1890), Yosemite (1890), Mount Rainier (1899), Crater Lake (1902), Wind Cave (1903), Mesa Verde (1906), Glacier (1910), Rocky Mountain (1915), and Haleakala (1916).

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the park service manages 63 national parks including iconic parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains. These spectacular parks are some of the most famous destinations in the U.S. They’re iconic and beautiful, and deserving of their stellar reputations.

But there are 423 parks, monuments, preserves, reserves, seashores, recreation areas, and other units under the protection of the National Park Service.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From golden sand dunes to hardwood forests, from historic sites and iconic monuments to the winding trails that crisscross the U.S. Encompassing mangrove forests, massive glaciers, active volcanoes, and towering mountains, these protected areas provide visitors with a firsthand look at the unique beauty of the untouched American wild.

Related: How National Parks Saved Us?

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Famously called “America’s best idea” by historian Wallace Stegner, the national park system offers families a wonderfully affordable way to visit these cherished and beautiful landscapes, view wildlife in their natural habitat, learn about geological and cultural history, and appreciate the great outdoors. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many parks have interpretive exhibits and dioramas in the Visitor Center, and often movie theaters. They’re always well worth the time, and you’ll gain a greater appreciation for the park.

The park rangers and volunteers are a huge resource as well. Chatting with one of the staff will often yield insider knowledge about the best places to visit at that time. If you have a specialized interest such as birding, photography, hiking, or history, let the staff know and they’ll point you in the right direction.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most parks have self-guided tours and hiking trails. Hike as much as you can. There are often hidden treasures of the park that can only be discovered on foot.

Related: These National Parks are ALWAYS FREE

The following National Park Service sites are just a sample of the hundreds of other worthwhile destinations in America.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The amphitheater of multi-hued rock at Utah’s Cedar Breaks National Monument is shaped like a massive coliseum. Filled with hoodoos, spires, fins, arches, and columns, these intricately shaped sculptures were formed by wind, rain, ice, and streams. More than 2,000 feet deep and 3 miles across, the huge bowl is sculpted along the steep west-facing side of the 10,000-foot-high Markagunt Plateau.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest gypsum dune field in the world is located at White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico. This region of glistening white dunes is in the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert within an “internally drained valley” called the Tularosa Basin.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountain National Park has one of the world’s best-preserved deciduous forests, the oldest mountains in the United States, and more annual visitors than any other national park in the country. The 33-mile long Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) bisects the park, stretching from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina with incredible views. Clingmans Dome is just past the “gap,” commonly referred to as “pass” in other parts of the country.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia’s largest barrier island, is full of untouched maritime forests, beaches, and marshes. Visitors can find solitude while camping under the stars in the 9,800 acres of a designated wilderness area or can see one of the many historic sites and structures such as Dungeness (an abandoned mansion that was originally built as a hunting lodge in 1736). Access to the island is by ferry out of St. Marys.

Related: Why America Needs More National Parks

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway lazily meanders through the Appalachian Highlands in Virginia and the Blue Mountains of North Carolina. Some of the parkway’s most spectacular stretches can be found in North Carolina, south of Asheville.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the most unusual places in California, yet is relatively little visited. Lassen is spectacular. It’s the only place you can see several volcanoes that all have a different type of cone. Lassen is renowned for its volcanic past and its massive eruptions from 1914 through ’18, and as a destination for its lava-plug-dome volcanic peak, geothermal areas, great day hikes, and wilderness, including a section of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is no symbol more emblematic of the American Southwest than the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)—standing tall with arms reaching out from the trunk toward the sky. And if you want to spend the day with these goofy, prickly characters, Saguaro is one of the easiest national parks to visit. It’s separated into two sections, each of which can be easily tackled in a day: East (also called the Rincon Mountain District) and West (aka the Tucson Mountain District). In between are I-10 and the city of Tucson so getting here by the interstate is pretty straightforward.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in southern West Virginia, the New River Gorge National Park offers something for everyone. New River, estimated to be over 250 millions year old, is the second oldest waterway in the world after the Nile. Its meandering course through the Appalachian mountains hides many natural wonders that appeal to every type of outdoor enthusiast.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Few National Parks boast the mythical and mystical quality of Joshua Tree. Massive boulder piles, bleached sand dunes, and Dr. Seussian yucca forests spread across hundreds of square miles of the desert are an otherworldly sight to behold. The good news for RVers is that the majority of campgrounds near the park are RV-friendly. The key is to call ahead to confirm any maximum length restrictions before you arrive. Like many National Parks in the Western United States, there are plenty of free dispersed camping options on BLM land nearby.

Related: How Much Time Should You Spend in Nature?

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a perfect refuge in the midst of the Southeast: Congaree National Park, a 41-square-mile patch of old-growth forest. Congaree is the last stand of a forest ecosystem that was long ago cleared to supply timber and to make room for farmland and development.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although the words “badlands” and “petrified” evoke harsh landscapes devoid of life, the Petrified Forest National Park is both beautiful and bountiful. Located about 110 miles east of Flagstaff,  the park’s badlands and petrified wood (the world’s largest concentration) are composed of bands of blue, white, and purple which come from quartz and manganese oxides. See fossilized trees and crystalized wood up close on the 0.75-mile Crystal Forest Trail or 3-mile Blue Forest Trail.

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

Sculpted By Water: Natural Bridges National Monument

Situated high atop Cedar Mesa, Natural Bridges National Monument illustrates the power of water in shaping a high desert landscape

Natural Bridges National Monument covers a relatively small area in southeastern Utah. It is rather remote and not close to other parks and as a result is not heavily visited.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since natural bridges are formed by running water, they are much rarer than arches which result from a variety of other erosion forces. Natural bridges tend to be found within canyons, sometimes quite hidden whereas arches are usually high and exposed as they are often the last remnants of rock cliffs and ridges.

Unlike Arches National Park with over 2,000 classified arches, there are only three natural bridges here. The area also has some scattered Indian cliff dwellings, pictographs, and scenic white sandstone canyons.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pinyon and juniper covered mesa is bisected by deep canyons exposing the Permian Age Cedar Mesa Sandstone. Where meandering streams cut through sandstone walls, three large natural bridges were formed. At an elevation of 6,500 feet above sea level, Natural Bridges is home to a wide variety of plants and animals. Plants range from the fragile cryptobiotic soil crusts to remnant stands of Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine. Hanging gardens in moist canyon seep springs and numerous plants flower in the spring.

Animals range from a variety of lizards, toads, and an occasional rattlesnake, to peregrine falcons, mountain lions, bobcats, and black bear.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Naming the Bridges

Several names have been applied to the bridges. First named “President,” “Senator,” and “Congressman” by Cass Hite, the bridges were renamed “Augusta,” “Caroline,” and “Edwin” by later explorer groups. As the park was expanded to protect nearby Puebloan structures, the General Land Office assigned the Hopi names “Sipapu,” “Kachina,” and “Owachomo” to the bridges in 1909. Sipapu means “the place of emergence,” an entryway by which the Hopi believe their ancestors came into this world. Kachina is named for rock art on the bridge that resembles symbols commonly used on kachina dolls. Owachomo mean “rock mound,” a feature atop the bridge’s east abutment.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three natural bridges. Moderate hiking trails, some with metal stairs or wooden ladders, provide closer access to each bridge. An 8.6-mile hiking trail links the three natural bridges which are located in two adjacent canyons.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Experiencing the Bridges

To make the experience even more breathtaking, each natural bridge is accessed by a steep hike down to the base of the bridge and then back up again. Starting down the trail to Sipapu Bridge, we arrived at the first rough-hewn Navajo-looking log ladder and scampered down. The trail to the Sipapu Bridge hugs a massive overhanging rock wall that Mother Nature has painted in wide swaths of black, orange, and pink. Considering the forces of wind and water that shaped these rocks, we couldn’t help but imagine the ancient people who once sought shelter here.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sipapu Bridge is the second largest natural bridge in the world (only Rainbow Bridge in Glen Canyon is bigger). In Hopi mythology, a “sipapu” is a gateway through which souls may pass to the spirit world. After admiring the bridge for a while, we made our way back up along the striped rock wall to the wooden ladders and on up to the loop road that winds through the park.

The second stone arch, Kachina Bridge, also requires hiking down stairways that have been carved into the sandstone by the National Park Service and clambering down log ladders as well. Unlike Sipapu, however, Kachina is a thick and squat bridge that crosses a large cool wash filled with brilliant green shade trees.

A massive bridge Kachina is considered the “youngest” of the three because of the thickness of its span. The relatively small size of its opening and its orientation make it difficult to see from the overlook. Along the flanks of this bridge we saw the faint etchings of petroglyphs that were pecked out of the rock eons ago. We were intrigued to learn that some of the cliff dwellers from the Mesa Verde area 150 miles away in Colorado had called this place home around 1200 A.D. We got our workout once again as we huffed and puffed up the ladders and staircases back to the loop road.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Owachomu Bridge is probably the most spectacular and also the easiest stone bridge to reach. The trail into the canyon underneath the bridge is a short distance from the overlook. It is the oldest bridge in the park and rock falls have reduced the thickness to only 9 feet, so it may not be here much longer. Needless to say, walking on top of the bridges is not allowed.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Current Status

Natural Bridges’ roads, trails, campground, and restrooms are open. The visitor center remains closed. When open, the visitor center has a slide program, exhibits, publications, and postcards. A 13-site campground is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History

People repeatedly occupied and abandoned Natural Bridges during prehistoric times. They first began using this area during the Archaic period from the year 7000 BC to 500 AD. Only the rock art and stone tools left by hunter-gatherer groups reveal that humans lived here then. Around 700 AD, ancestors of modern Puebloan people moved onto the mesa tops to dry farm and later left as the natural environment changed.

Three hundred years after their ancestors left, the farmers returned. They built homes of sandstone masonry or mud-packed sticks, both on the mesa tops and in alcoves in the cliffs. South facing caves provided passive solar heating and cooling. The farmers often chose sites near seep springs where water could be found.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Styles of masonry, ceramic decoration, and other artifacts suggest that the people here were related to those of the Mesa Verde region to the east. Influences are clearly evident from the Kayenta region to the southwest and the Fremont culture to the north. Like these people, the inhabitants of Natural Bridges left this area for the last time around 1270.

Navajos and Paiutes lived in the area during later times, and Navajo oral tradition holds that their ancestors lived among the early Puebloans.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 7,636 acres

Visitation: 52,542 (2020)

Established: April 19, 1908

Entrance Fee: $20/private vehicle, valid for 7 consecutive days

Camping Fee: $15

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

—William Shakespeare

Stephen C. Foster State Park: Rich in History and Isolation

This remote park is a primary entrance to the legendary Okefenokee Swamp—one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders

Entering the enchanting Okefenokee Swamp—one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders—through Stephen C. Foster State Park presents an incredible display of diverse wildlife, unique scenic views, and rousing outdoor adventure.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canoeing or kayaking through the swamp is the park’s main attraction. It’s an otherworldly experience gliding through the reflections of Spanish moss dangling from the trees above. Turtles, deer, wood storks, herons, and black bears are a few of the countless creatures you may see here but the most frequent sighting is the American Alligator. Nearly 12,000 are estimated to live in the area.

Daytime, nighttime, and sunset guided boat tours of the swamp are available and you can rent canoes, kayaks, or Jon boats at the park office.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stephen C. Foster State Park is a primary entrance to the legendary Okefenokee Swamp, a peat-filled wetland in the southeast corner of Georgia. Though the park is only about 120 acres, it is a prime access point to the 700 square mile Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and its most famous island―Billy’s Island. The name “Billy’s Island” has a bit of a legendary history. Some claim that it came from the famous Native American chief―Chief Billy Bowlegs―of the Seminole Indian wars. Others claim there was a man named “Indian Billy” that lived there in the early 1800s and was murdered by some cattleman.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That aside, the most famous residents of the island, which then and now is only accessible by boat, were the Lee’s. James Lee started living a self-sufficient lifestyle with his family in the 1860s. His family had livestock and crops and they hunted, fished, and had everything they needed.

As is the case in most American stories, modern technology comes in and completely uproots, literally in this case, the frontier way of life. In 1907, a logging company moved in and introduced modern society to this contented family. In the next two decades, the company would clear 425 million board feet, the vast majority being old growth cypress trees, all the while setting up a movie theater, a cafe, a whole little town on Billy’s Island to support the operation.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Think about what it was like being the Lee’s. You are living with nature, utilizing its resources and all of a sudden this company brings other people from other places and destroys your way of life. As most adaptable families do, sons and grandsons of James Lee worked for the logging company, helping the swamp-foreigners to navigate and survive in the hostile environment of the swamp.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When the logging company left, so did the town and the rest of civilization. As with all things in the swamp―the water, roots, and mud overtook the town and all that remains of its past is some rusty fences and a few gravestones. Descendants of the Lee’s still remain in the area, along with other swamp families.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, Billy’s Island, along with the swamp, is the way it has been for thousands of years―a black water reservoir, filled with islands, black bears, alligators, waterways, and little remnants of the people who try to survive there. As it is, what most would call, an undesirable place to live, there have always been outsiders and people seeking refuge from whatever is haunting or hunting them.  

Escaped slaves have passed through as it is a great place to hide. Native Americans―the Seminole tribes―have made the swamp home at various times throughout history, most recently in an effort to escape forced exile in the 1800s.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Surely a place so rich in history and isolation has its share of ghost stories. There are various reports of mystical hazes, ghosts, bigfoot, and alien abductions that are easy to find and hard to substantiate, but there is an interesting story that come out of the swamp that, at least, comes from reliable resources.

The story is relatively recent and returns us to Billy’s Island. In 1996, a former park ranger from New York was visiting the swamp and disappeared. A search party looked for him for several days and weeks. Then, 41 days later, the ranger was found leaning against a tree with tattered clothes and bug bites everywhere. He claimed he got lost and survived on what the island gave him.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some folks are skeptical of his story, due to Billy’s Island only being 4 miles long by 2 miles wide and there was no evidence of him trying to get help, however the facts of him being discovered 41 days after disappearing are true and the story was widely published at the time of it happening.  

All the historical richness and vastness of the swamp is at the fingertips of Stephen C. Foster State Park. They have all sorts of activities―star-watching (and alligator watching!) at night, canoeing, hiking, movies, and more. Stephen C. Foster is Georgia’s first International Dark Sky Park. So you can gaze up at the stars and see the Milky Way with minimal light interference. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a meteor dashing across the sky.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park offers 66 RV and tent campsites as well as nine two-bedroom cottages that can hold 6 to 8 people. Stays at the Suwannee River Eco Lodge are also popular, with full kitchen cottages that have screened porches and beautiful views of the forest. 

Worth Pondering…

Way down upon the Swanee River,
Far, far away
That’s where my heart is turning ever
That’s where the old folks stay
All up and down the whole creation,
Sadly I roam
Still longing for the old plantation
And for the old folks at home

—Stephen Foster, 1851

Scientific Wonders at National Parks

From ancient rivers to a sleeping volcanoes take in scientific wonders at national parks

Interest in national parks is booming, with crowd-wary Americans drawn to wide open spaces and natural beauty. But the preserves are also a great place for learning, fantastic laboratories for getting up close to the natural world. Here are some of my favorite sites.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come for the Great Diversity of Life: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Steady rain and a long growing season have created a dense forest in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Variations in elevation, rainfall, temperature, and geology in these ancient mountains provide ideal habitat for over 1,600 species of flowering plants including 100 native tree species and over 100 native shrub species.

Palm Oasis in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See Where Earthquakes Begin at the San Andreas Fault: Joshua Tree National Park, California

The geological formation responsible for many California earthquakes passes by the south side of this desert park and connects with many of the region’s faults. Visitors can see evidence in small fan palm oases which formed when seismic activity dammed groundwater and forced it to the surface. When you see water, it’s the result of massive underground activity.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Climb a Grand Staircase: Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, Arizona and Utah

The Grand Staircase is an immense sequence of sedimentary rock layers that stretch south from Bryce Canyon National Park through Zion National Park and into the Grand Canyon. In the 1870s, geologist Clarence Dutton first conceptualized this region as a huge stairway ascending out of the bottom of the Grand Canyon northward with the cliff edge of each layer forming giant steps. What makes the Grand Staircase worldly unique is that it preserves more Earth history than any other place on our planet.

Painted Desert in Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be Transported into a Painting: Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this preserve comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transformed into colorful slabs of stone. A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See Ancient Rivers and Mammal Ancestors: Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Not only is the geology and scenery dramatic at this park, but so is its fossil history. The area includes the remains of an ancient river system. This is one of the richest fossil assemblies on the face of the planet. You can walk down almost any trail and if you can see little bits of fossils everywhere, lots of fragments and teeth.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go Birding and See Cave Swallows: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Carlsbad is famous for its nightly bat emergence, but the mammals aren’t the only ones who call the grotto home. Cave swallows living just inside the cavern can be seen swooping around during the day, but must get home before the bats crowd the cavern on their way out. You can easily see them in the warmer months. And 750 feet underground, the stalactites hang from the ceiling and the stalagmites rise up from the ground.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike 500 Miles of Trails: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Stretching more than a hundred miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, Shenandoah National Park offers a patchwork quilt of wilderness and pastoral landscapes. Skyline Drive rides along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and through the heart of the park. Along the 105-mile stretch which climbs to 3,680 feet above sea level, you’ll have the opportunity to pull off the road at 75 scenic overlooks and take part in an array of recreational activities—from hiking, horseback riding, and rock climbing.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come for the Turbulent Landscape: Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

The active but sleeping volcano is the high point of a lively wilderness environment. Across 160,000 acres, elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape decorated by jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and of course, volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area as well from where bubbling activity still appears, reminding us of the region’s stormy past.

Worth Pondering…

There is something very special about the natural world, and each trip outdoors is like an unfinished book just waiting for you to write your own chapter.

—Paul Thompson

Visual Marvels: America’s Seven Natural Wonders

The Seven Natural Wonders of America are a list of the most astonishing natural attractions

Ever since the list of the Seven Wonders of the World was first inked by either Antipater of Sidon (second half of the 2nd century BC), Philo of Byzantium (c. 280–220 BC, Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC), or Callimachus of Cyrene (c. 305–240 BC)—depending upon which ancient historian you believe—all manner of “Seven Wonders” lists pop up from time to time including the New Seven Wonders of the World, of the Natural World, of the Modern World, of the Architectural World. Well, this could go on for a while.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But it is that original collection of wonders, now referred to as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—the Great Pyramids of Giza (the only one that still exists), the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus, the Temple of Artemis (at Ephesus near the modern town of Selçuk in present-day Turkey), the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (in present-day Turkey), the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Lighthouse of Alexandra—that sparks the imagination, stirs the soul, and stokes the curiosity. These are the finest creations of the ancient world and at the very least inspire wonder in their sheer archaeological greatness.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That much can be said of any wonder, whether natural or manmade, and then add into the mix the almost obsessive need for the world to categorize and break down everything into parts. That’s how these types of lists came to be in the first place. Often for reasons to promote tourism, numerous countries have tallied their own wonders as have almost all the United States.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon

One of the world’s great natural wonders, the Grand Canyon is a true marvel of nature. John Wesley Powell said it best, “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself.” A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A deep gorge carved by the Colorado River about seventeen million years ago, the Grand Canyon stretches for more than 250 miles and is up to 18 miles in width and more than a mile deep in some areas. Just about everywhere you look the views are amazing and the sheer size of it can be overwhelming. One look over the edge and it’s easy to see why it’s considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.

Great Smoky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park.

Great Smoky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This exceptionally beautiful park is home to more than 3,500 plant species, including almost as many trees (130 natural species) as in all of Europe. The park is of exceptional natural beauty with scenic vistas of characteristic mist-shrouded (“smoky”) mountains, vast stretches of virgin timber, and clear running streams.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

The horseshoe-shaped, russet rock hoodoo formations of Bryce Canyon National Park are a true sight to behold. This is one of the world’s highest concentrations of hoodoos and their colors alternate between shades of purple, red, orange, and white.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sunset, Sunrise, Inspiration and Bryce viewpoints are the spots to hit for the best views in the shortest amount of time. There are several easy trails located near the rim of Bryce Canyon to hike as well as ranger programs that take you on guided hikes through the park.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee Swamp

The Okefenokee, whose name means “Land of the Trembling Earth” in the Creek language, is now part national wildlife refuge, part privately-owned park (Okefenokee Swamp Park) that is widely known for harboring an incredible cache of biological and ecological wonders. The swamp’s dark, coffee-colored tannic water is the base for a living jumble of pine, cypress, swamp, palmetto, peat bog, marsh, island, and sand ridge.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A hodgepodge of animal and bird life, among the hundreds of species are black bear, alligators galore, snakes galore, deer, anhinga, osprey, and sandhill crane call the swamp home.

Arches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches

Arches contains the world’s largest concentration of, yes, sandstone arches. There are more than 2,000, all of which took millions of years to form via erosion. And the arches are just one of an infinite number of absolutely jaw-dropping formations within the 120-square-mile park—Devil’s Garden, Balanced Rock, Fiery Furnace, Landscape Rock, The Windows, it goes on.

Arches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches is one of the most distinctive, alien-looking landscapes in America, and you should take advantage of the hiking trails like Devil’s Garden to really get the full experience.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black Hills

Driving through the Black Hills takes you through some of the most rugged, distinctive, and beautiful land in America. It’s hard to stick to the main road in this rugged land of canyons, cliffs, and caves.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills are home to some of the most majestic scenery you can imagine from the winding Spearfish Canyon to the mountain lakes that surround Mount Rushmore—rivers, mountains, caves, and more make it ideal for hikers and climbers and everybody in between.

Carlsbad Caverns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns

The Chihuahuan Desert, studded with spiky plants and lizards, offers little hint that what Will Rogers called the “Grand Canyon with a roof on it” waits underground. Yet, at this desert’s northern reaches lies one of the deepest, largest, and most ornate caverns ever found.

Carlsbad Caverns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 limestone caves that are outstanding in the profusion, diversity, and beauty of their formations. Most of the formations—or speleothems—found inside Carlsbad Cavern today were active and growing during the last ice age when instead of a desert above the cave, there were pine forests.

Worth Pondering…

We carry within us the wonders we seek without us.

—Thomas Browne