This past summer, my husband and I visited lots of National Parks Sites: White River National Forest, Dinosaur National Monument, Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park, with long drives through Ashely, Custer and Gallatin National Forests. What can I say about National Parks in summer? Old folks in khakis and white t-shirts getting on and off ginormous buses, traffic jams among the boulders and mountains, campfire ranger talks, pushy tourists clamoring for a view of a muddy geyser, kitschy souvenir shops displaying all kinds of tacky knickknacks, general stores manned by outdoorsy-looking teenagers and crowded campgrounds engulfed in a heavy aroma of burgers and hotdogs come 6 p.m.…I love it all. Some might be turned off by the Disneyland atmosphere of Yellowstone or Mount Rushmore in summer, but it makes me feel like a kid again. I’m going to split this post into two parts: White River National Forest/Dinosaur National Monument and Yellowstone/Grand Teton National Parks.
White River National Forest
This was the first park we visited, and, in terms of sheer natural beauty, it was probably the most breathtaking. We took a scenic, mountainous five hour route passing through Breckenridge (Disneyland of ski towns) and Independence Pass (elevation 12,095) on our way, and we stayed close to the Maroon Bells at the Silver Bell Campground. The Maroon Bells are supposedly Colorado’s most photographed spot, and it’s easy to see why: The mountains are a deep maroon-terra cotta color and the area around Maroon Lake is heavily vegetated and buzzing with life. It was during this particular stop that I learned that a creek is a very different thing in the Colorado Rockies than in the Virginia Appalachians; our campsite was some 15 feet from Maroon Creek, which really looked and sounded more like a very angry river than a creek. Looking back, I wish we had stayed here a few more days because I would have liked to explore Aspen and do a few more hikes in the area. Even though the White River National Forest is the most heavily visited National Forest in the U.S., our campsite felt secluded (a little too secluded…I was terrified of being attacked by bears all night) and we were one of only a few hikers at the easy Maroon Lake
Dinosaur National Monument
But not all National Parks are created equal. Not all are conventionally beautiful, despite my optimistic opening paragraph. For example, there’s Dinosaur National Monument. I used to hear the words “God forsaken country” thrown around in old westerns and novels, but I never quite understood what it meant. After driving through the more arid parts of Colorado and Utah and visiting Dinosaur National Monument, I know exactly what these words mean. Simply put, these are places God forgot. Vernal, Utah (coincidence it rhymes with Infernal? I think not), just outside Dinosaur National Monument, for example, is a God-forsaken place of empty roads, dead beige fields and dead beige mountains. The only greenery I saw were these small, ground-hugging shrubs that looked like they were holding on for dear life, and the only bright color in town was the pastel pink dinosaur statue that welcomes you to Vernal. (Disclaimer: It’s entirely possible I was really cranky and hungry when I got to Vernal. I apologize to any Vernalites out there I might be offending with my unflattering profile. I’m sure your town is lovely once you get to know it).
Anyway, at Dinosaur National Monument, you wait around for a bus to take you to the dinosaur quarry alongside a dozen or so other overheated tourists. There you are in your safari hat and bandana, sweat dripping down your face and wondering why a dinosaur would want to live in a place like this (turns out Vernal used to be a jungle, which makes a little more sense. Actually, I’m not sure if this is true. Maybe this is just wishful thinking for the poor dinosaurs). On the day of our visit, it was nearly 100 degrees, the sun was reflecting off the colorless hills creating a high desert sauna and the air was so dry I think my nasal cavities were actually injured. After a several minute drive through more colorless mounds of rock, you get to the quarry, which houses a bunch of dinosaur outlines and is, thankfully, air-conditioned. I’ll be honest. I’m not really all that into dinosaurs. I only came here because my husband wanted to and I’m an excellent wife. At the quarry he took a few pictures of dinosaur fossils/outlines and then we got back on the bus and continued our journey north through more neutral-colored rocks and hills.