Archive for the ‘US/Canada national parks’ Category

Towering trees keep us grounded

April 22, 2013

In honor of Arbor Day, we salute a handful of our country’s notable trees.

Dogwood at Matthis Family Cemetery in Clinton, NC

Dogwood at Matthis Family Cemetery in Clinton, NC


One of the largest dogwoods in the country, measuring 31 feet tall with an average branch spread of 48 feet and a trunk circumference of 114 inches, this tree heralds spring from Matthis Family Cemetery in Clinton. I wrote a full story about it a couple years ago. Love that tree!

American elm at the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum

American elm at the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum


Despite being heavily damaged, this American elm, more than a century old, survived the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, and is now part of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. Its saplings are distributed on the bombing’s anniversary.


The Captain Bangs Hallet House in Yarmouthport is famous for the photogenic beech in its back yard, which is more than 60 feet tall and estimated to be between 150 and 200 years old.

Morton Oak in Nebraska City, Nebraska

Morton Oak in Nebraska City, Nebraska


This survivor of an old oak savanna remains a beloved spot at Arbor Day Farm, a 260-acre historic landmark and visitor attraction on the original property of J. Sterling Morton, a journalist who encouraged tree planting and who started Arbor Day in Nebraska City in 1872.


This giant sequoia at Sequoia National Park commands the world’s attention. By volume it’s the largest known tree in existence and is thought to be about 2,300 years old.


St. Croix gets under your skin

January 18, 2013

Sitting here in North Carolina on this dreary, wet, chilly evening makes me yearn for St. Croix, where we were a few weeks ago. We chose the lesser-known US Virgin Island because it has so much variety, which means we were going nonstop to see everything, but that’s us. Below is the story I wrote for the Boston Globe, along with photographer Lina’s favorite photos. I couldn’t believe the paper didn’t use one of the iconic sugar mill. We spent more than an hour there shooting. And so it goes. I received several notes of appreciation from Crucians, who are so proud of their island.

By Diane  Daniel

Ruins of a sugar mill near Cane Bay

Ruins of a sugar mill near Cane Bay

CHRISTIANSTED, St. Croix — Even before I was able to see daylight’s gift a sea shimmering in a crayon box of blues from turquoise to midnight my hands told me I’d made it to the Caribbean the night before, their rough, wrinkled winter skin showing just a hint of the smoothness to come.

My partner, Lina, and I decided to visit the largest of the US Virgin Islands (84 square miles) because it offered a little bit of everything: plentiful beaches, green hills, lively town centers, and historic sites. St. Croix has the reputation of being the poor relation to glitzier St. Thomas and lusher St. John, but we found a rich culture here, born of the island’s Danish past, its once-mighty sugar trade, and its cordial Crucians, as the native islanders are called. Add to that pristine islands to visit, water sports, and even a rain forest to explore and you can see why we were hard-pressed to squeeze everything into a week’s stay last month.

A rooster wanders the grounds of Fort Christiansvaern in Christiansted, built in 1738

A rooster wanders the grounds of Fort Christiansvaern in Christiansted

We based ourselves in a centrally located, budget-friendly waterfront apartment along “condo row” in Christiansted, the larger and more tourist-driven of the island’s two towns. With hens and roosters wandering all over, the countryside never felt out of reach. Our street, lined with palm trees and a rainbow of bougainvilleas, also led to working-class neighborhoods and public-housing developments, daily reminders of the poverty here. We never felt unwelcome or unsafe, but for those who prefer more upscale and tropical settings, mid-level to pricey beachfront resorts and villas cover the island.

Strike up a conversation with a local or a fellow tourist and you’ll immediately be asked, “Have you been to Buck Island yet?” Put St. Croix’s jewel on top of your list. Surrounding the uninhabited island, a 30-minute boat ride from Christiansted, lies the underwater Buck Island Reef National Monument, a protected reef system that includes a short marked trail. While some of the coral is in tough shape, the clear water nonetheless offers the area’s best snorkeling. Unless you have access to a private boat, you’ll need to use one of the National Park Service’s six concessionaires. Unfortunately, no outfitter allows enough opportunity to also experience the island’s hiking trails.

A sailboat departs Turtle Beach at Buck Island

A sailboat departs Buck Island

After an hour in the water, we climbed back aboard and compared notes. I sought out Oliver Martin, 15, from Marion, Pa., who, with his dad, were the only people near me when I witnessed a heart-stopping sight.

“I knew it was a shark right away,” Oliver said proudly. “It had that fin on top. I was a little nervous, but not too much.”

I agreed. With the help of a deckhand, we concluded it was a lemon shark, probably about 5 feet long. We also were treated to sightings of a large school of shiny blue tang, iridescent parrotfish, long-bodied trumpetfish, and camouflaged Nassau grouper. Apparently I was the only one to see a barracuda flash its teeth.


Lincoln heads up new attractions in Washington

December 3, 2012

What’s new in DC? Funny you should ask.

201212_01c_Washington DC_Lincoln

The original pistol that John Wilkes Booth used to murder President Abraham Lincoln is on display in Ford’s Theatre

Ford’s Theatre, where President Lincoln was shot (you can even see the gun!), has expanded just in time to keep up with the demand thanks to the new Steven Spielberg movie “Lincoln.” The boringly named Center for Education and Leadership is actually an interesting exhibit across the street that covers the fallout after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. A highlight is the tower of tomes surrounded by a spiral staircase winding down to the gift shop.

Over at the Newseum, up through Jan. 27 is a fascinating exhibit called “Every Four Years: Presidential Campaigns and the Press.” (And aren’t you glad ours is over for another four?) Highlights are the microphone from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” and Tina Fey’s “Sarah Palin” costume.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is the newest feature on the Mall

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is the newest feature on the Mall

Of course you know that the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is the newest feature on the Mall and our 395th national park. But you don’t have much longer to see the controversially truncated “I Was a Drum Major for Justice, Peace, and Righteousness” quote that remains in the stone. According to the park ranger I spoke with there, it’s due to be replaced with its unedited version by MLK Day 2013, which is Jan. 21.

At the National Zoo, “Elephant Trails,” is a breeding, education, and research program to help scientists care for elephants in zoos and save them in the wild that also is expanding visitors’ viewing opportunities.

In Columbia Heights,the renowned Howard Theatre reopened after a 32-year hiatus, featuring expanded seating, state-of-the-art acoustics,and a gleaming 1910 facade.

Tackling Moab’s twists and turns on two wheels

May 19, 2012

My story on mountain biking (with trepidation!) in and around Moab ran in the Boston Globe travel section on May 13.

Diane rides her mountain bike on the family-friendly Bar M trail

MOAB, Utah — “Do you know the trails here?” a woman called out from a station wagon with Colorado plates and three bikes strapped to its rear. She motioned to the start of the Moab Brand Trails, a series of mountain bike loops a few miles north of town. A man sat behind the steering wheel and a young girl slumped in the back seat.

“Just the loop we’re going on — the Bar M,” I said.

“It looks kind of . . . ,” and then she whistled a cheery melody as if to say cycling here would be a walk in the park.

“Yep, it’s supposed to be pretty soft core,” I said reassuringly. “That’s why we’re doing it.”

“Oh, OK, I guess we’ll go elsewhere,” she said, rolling up her window.

Here in this internationally known road-bike region, it’s all relative. One person’s tame is my death defying.

Mountain bikers conquer the roller-coaster Slickrock Bike Trail

The truth is, mountain biking scares the bejeebers out of me. I’m a pavement-preferring cyclist. I rode here before, in 1995, and even nervously pedaled a short slab of the expert roller-coaster Slickrock Bike Trail — 12 miles of two-wheeled torture that ignited the mountain-biking craze in Moab in the mid-’80s.

But if anything can coax a “roadie” back on fat tires, it’s the scenery in southeastern Utah, where reddish-hued rocks gleam against brilliant blue skies and fantastical palaces of sculpted sandstone appear to have been deposited by Martians. On a mountain bike, you can be a part of the landscape instead of an observer.

I was more interested in placating my fears than conquering them, so I studied up on the “easiest” trails by searching online and asking bike shops about “family friendly” rides, not mentioning that I, a fit and family-free 54-year-old, was the timid one.

The good news is that in the past four years, Grand County has more than doubled the number of its mapped and marked dedicated bike trails of all levels, from 43 miles in 2008 to 95 miles today, with 30 more on tap next year, said Marian DeLay, executive director of the Moab Area Travel Council.

Another big change, which I would have told the adventurous Coloradan had I known, has been the formation of multilevel trail systems, of which “the Brands” is a perfect example. There, hairier routes loop off a gentler main path, in this case Bar M.

“Look, we’re even on a plateau,” said my wife, Lina, a more-confident rider, as we headed out, the shocks of our Giant Trance X1 XC Full Suspension rentals absorbing every bump. “It’s as flat as a pancake,” she added in a tone hinting at disappointment.

“Excellent!” I shouted, relaxed until we rounded the first corner. The path narrowed, dropped, then rose quickly, with scattered rocks along the way. Already, the young girl in the family ahead of us had gotten off her bike to climb the hill. I made it up one crumbly incline, then lost my nerve on the next and dismounted. Lina, ahead of me, became smaller and smaller.

Lina and Diane at the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park

In the end, I rode about 80 percent of the trail. I grew especially fond of the pocked and crevassed “slickrock” sandstone, which when dry, as it was on this April day, provided a cement-like grip. Walking wasn’t so bad either, as it gave me a chance to admire the view — unending rock, scrubby evergreens, flaming red paintbrush blossoms, and even the jagged outline of Arches National Park in the distance.

“I’m just going to take the little Circle O loop and catch up with you where the trails intersect,” said Lina, eager for more action. After I waited 45 minutes for her at our appointed meeting spot, she arrived breathless.

“OK, now I feel like I’ve really been mountain biking,” she said. “It was all rock, with just a brown line that you follow. It took a lot longer than I thought.”

I had enjoyed the chance to rest and ponder how I would fare on our afternoon outing to the three-year-old Intrepid Trails at Dead Horse Point State Park, another family-friendly destination suggested by Chile Pepper Bike Shop, where we rented our rides.

Diane pushes her bike on the Big Chief Loop in Dead Horse Point State Park

At Dead Horse, 30 miles southwest of Moab, three connecting singletrack loops range from 1 to 9 miles. An online guide had said that “most of the trail can be ridden with a single-gear bike,” but when I asked the ranger, he said, “easy to moderate.” Uh-oh. Nonetheless, I let Lina talk me into the longest option, Big Chief. Thanks to steep pitches, tight turns, and sand, my walking-to-cycling ratio doubled from the morning, which also meant more time to appreciate the overlooks onto the Colorado River and Pyramid Canyon.

Walking on jelly legs after the ride, I chatted with fellow travelers in the parking lot. Sabrina Gosselin-Epp, 11, and her brother, Liam, 9, from Alberta, Canada, had just finished the 4-mile Great Pyramid loop with their parents and were ready for more.

“I had to walk some, because of the sand and where it was steep, but it was fun,” said Sabrina. “We might come back and do the longer one.”

Fred and Susie O’Connor, recently of Thayne, Wyo., and former longtime New Hampshire residents, had tackled the Pyramid trail on a whim on their suspension-less bikes and frequently needed to hoof it.

“Do you mountain bike often?” I said.

“We didn’t really know we were mountain biking,” laughed Susie, 65. “It’s like skiing. Don’t be afraid to take off your skis and walk.”

Ready for rest, Lina and I took in the famed sunset at Dead Horse Point Overlook, where we witnessed the walls of the east-facing canyon radiate orange and red.

Steep, narrow hairpins of the Shafer Trail lead down to the White Rim Trail

After carbo-loading in town at Moab Brewery, which offers nine brews and a complete dining menu, we plotted our next rides. We would sample the 100-mile White Rim Trail, a technically fairly easy Jeep road, and attempt the 10-mile Klondike Bluffs trail, rated moderate but featuring irresistible dinosaur tracks.

Naturally, both options held surprises. We started at Canyonlands National Park, exploring on foot and by car. We cycled toward White Rim on the Shafer Trail, a passable twisting dirt road with harrowing vertical drops hundreds of feet. I gasped when we reached the Shafer Switchbacks, a series of steep, narrow hairpins leading down to White Rim. “No way,” I declared, and even Lina concurred.

A dinosaur footprint along the Klondike Bluffs Trail

We fared better at Klondike Bluffs, near Arches, though Lina had to urge me on after a series of dismount-worthy rocky and sandy climbs. My rewards here were a dozen Jurassic-period paw prints and a couple of rigorous but thrilling miles of undulating slickrock.

Klondike is one area receiving a wider variety of trails this year, said Sandy Freethey, chairwoman of the county’s Trail Mix committee, which has a small staff and a team of volunteers working to expand the mountain bike network from beginner to advanced.

“Our young hard-core riders from the ’80s now have children and even grandchildren, and we want to give them all some place to ride,” she said. “We have about 10 more new miles coming right now, most easy.”

Whatever “easy” means, I told her, I would be back to check them out.

Starry, starry nights amid Indian culture in NM

November 1, 2011

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is in a remote region of New Mexico

We’ve been home from our eight days in northern New Mexico for a month now and I have two strongly lingering images – our meals and our night of camping at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

I’ve already written my piece on chile peppers, with a recipe, for the Boston Globe food section (to be published soonish), but could not sell anyone on the idea of a story on Chaco. Which is crazy! But it was just as well because that meant I could enjoy myself instead of run around interviewing people and taking notes about everything I saw.

Instead, I inhaled it all in slowly – the history, the breathtaking terrain,  the up-close petroglyphs, the unbelievably intact Indian ruins and, oooohhhhh, those dark star-saturated skies.

See the blue dot straight ahead, near the canyon wall? That's where we camped!

Thanks to Southwest Airlines’  humane luggage policy, we each got two bags for free, so used our extras to stash camping gear for our one night at the park, at Lina’s urging. (Thank you, my ever-adventurous mate!)

We loved almost every minute of our 20-hour blitz. We arrived midafternoon, enjoying the minor thrill of the eight-mile-long dirt road that leads to the park. (Take the north entrance if you don’t want to get stuck.) First we picked out at campsite in the tent-only area, amid boulders and backing up against a cliff. Heaven!!

Pueblo Bonito is famous for many things, including its intact walls and doorways

Next we high-tailed it to 2 p.m. tour of Pueblo Bonito, a Native American “great house” that was lived in from the mid 800s to the 1200s. It once towered four stories high, with more than 500 rooms and 40 kivas and is one of the most excavated and studied sites in North America, as well as one of the most intact. Although our guide went way over the scheduled time, he was fantastic and brought the history alive, and the archeology history was as interesting as the Indian history.

We toured a few other sites and then reached the petroglyphs just as the late afternoon sun was spotlighting them. They were the most intact and closest I’ve ever seen!

Up close and personal with petroglyphs

We had just a little time to set up camp and share a beer before we zipped over to the visitor’s center for what we thought would be the dark-sky talk and a chance to look through the telescopes. Chaco is the only national park with its own observatory. Well damned if the astronomers weren’t at a conference – um, thanks for letting us know? A ranger gave an interesting presentation on the Civilian Conservation Corps’ involvement in the park in the 1930s and ‘40s, but we were feeling very pouty and whiny about the whole star thing. Until….

We returned to the campsite around 8 p.m. and the sky seemed to go from dusk to black within minutes. I looked up and – WAM, BAM, LOOK AT THOSE STARS, MA’M! I told Lina, who needs astronomers? Of course I would have liked a walk-through of the skies, but wowie, zowie, they were amazing — Milky Way, of course, and shooting stars and dancing constellations. We each laid down on a bench of the picnic table, wrapped up in our blankets, and watched in awe.

Lina's "just one more," Kin Klatso great house

That night we heard the eeriest sound. The only reason I knew it was coyotes is because a ranger had warned me. Wow.

After visiting a few more ruins in the morning (“Just one more” is Lina’s motto in life), we were back on the long dirt road, headed back to the big city.

Rocky Mountain high (tea)

February 6, 2011

This was first published April 4, 2010, in my Boston Globe column “Where they Went.” I love the trip’s multigenerationalness (is that a word?).

From left, grandparents John and Cathy Looney, daughter Delaney, Christine Hennigan, and son Riley at Lake Louise

WHO: Chris Hennigan, 40, with her children, Delaney, 8, and Riley, 10, all of Woburn, and her parents, Cathy, 68, and John Looney, 69, of Winchester.

WHERE: Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.

WHEN: Nine days in July and August.

WHY: To take the Appalachian Mountain Club trip “Family Hikes in the Canadian Rockies.’’

WOW FACTOR: Chris Hennigan wanted her children to enjoy hiking as much as she does. “I thought I’d wow them with the Canadian Rockies,’’ she said. “I’ve been hiking since I was 2; my dad used to put me in his backpack. I hiked until I was about 18 and stopped until I was in my mid-30s. The AMC was trying out these family trips, so I asked my parents to go along, too. Hiking isn’t really my mom’s thing, but she was excited because the kids were going.’’

Three Generations, Delaney, Christine, Riley and Cathy, at the bottom of the falls fed by the Daly Glacier

ALL AGES: The group of 25 hikers, ages 2 to 81, including four leaders, met in Calgary and traveled in three minivans. They stayed in private rooms at two hostels for four nights each, the Banff Alpine Centre and then Lake Louise Alpine Centre, both run by Hostelling International. Several children were on the trip. “It was a good mix,’’ Hennigan said. “The older ones could look out for the little ones and motivate them. They had a blast.’’

MINOR CHANGES: Each day three trips of varying levels were offered. “In the original itinerary, the easiest trips were far too difficult for a kid or older person. The first day’s hike was a good six hours and the kids were in tears.’’ The leaders adjusted the schedule, and “after that it was great. We got up later, had a leisurely breakfast, and didn’t feel pressured to keep moving.’’

Christine Hennigan and her daughter Delaney at Bow Lake

WHAT A VIEW: ’’It was unbelievable scenery,’’ she said. “When my kids keep saying, ‘Mom, look at that glacier, look at that cliff,’ you know it’s spectacular. What really got to them was the color of the water, this deep blue green.’’ One day they drove the Icefields Parkway, where visitors can walk on a glacier. “It’s like walking on ice with crunchy snow on top of it.’’

TEA TIME: They knew the final day of hiking, to the Lake Agnes Teahouse above Lake Louise, would be the hardest. “It was switchbacks the entire way up,’’ Hennigan said. “It was a tough climb on everybody. But once we got to the top it was one of the most unbelievable places I’ve ever been. You sit on a porch and have tea and homemade bread with this unbelievable vista. The kids thought it was neatest thing. Before we got back home from Canada, they told me they were already planning to go on the family trip to Colorado next summer.’’

‘Twilight’ fans bite into Forks

January 28, 2010

New Moon, the second film in the Twilight series (copyright Summit Entertainment)

What a difference a few months make. I keep reading with fascination how Forks, Washington, has become a tourist destination, filled with young,  mostly female fans of the “Twilight” novels. The wildly popular vampire-themed young-adult novels, filled with teen angst and romance, were written by Stephenie Meyer. Of course the Hollywood films have followed.

The Hoh Rain Forest is the real star here

Wessel and I stayed in this rather dreary and depressed (at least then) logging town of about 3,200 people in April 2008, just before the “Twilight” boom. Forks is the closest town to the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park, a moody, rainy, green, wet place of stunning beauty. We were there to interview and photograph Gordon Hempton, of “Once Square Inch of Silence” fame.

With Forks being so close to this well-visited park and also near Olympic Park’s ocean site, Rialto Beach, I was very surprised the town hadn’t embraced tourism. Instead, it was living, or perhaps dying, on its lumbering past.

The In Place sits on Forks' main drag

That’s not to say we didn’t appreciate the place. It was small-town Pacific Northwest at its best. Pickup trucks, down-home restaurants, and unpretentious people. Now the streets are filled with visitors from around the world, to see where fictional characters did imaginary things. We stayed at the  simple but fine Forks Motel and crossed the street morning and night for basic grub at The In Place.

But then “Twilight” settled in on Forks. Stephenie, who almost named her book “Forks,” has this to say on her website about locating the series there:

“For my setting, I knew I needed someplace ridiculously rainy. I turned to Google, as I do for all my research needs, and looked for the place with the most rainfall in the U.S. This turned out to be the Olympic Peninsula  in Washington State. I pulled up maps of the area and studied them, looking for something small, out of the way, surrounded by forest…. And there, right where I wanted it to be, was a tiny town called ‘Forks.’ It couldn’t have been more perfect if I had named it myself.”

La Push Beach is wild and magnificent

During her research, she also discovered La Push Reservation, home to the Quileute Nation, an American-Indian tribe settled there. We visited that also-depressed area when we went to La Push beach to interview Gordon while he body surfed. (You pay the reservation to park at the beach.) I’m pleased to hear the tribe is thoughtfully dealing with the Twilight publicity instead of changing itself for its 15 minutes of fame, though who knows how that story will unfold.

We hope visitors are behaving here

Forks, on the other hand, has totally embraced all things having to do with Bella, Jacob and Edward. Well, good for them, as well. Get it while the gettin’s good. In a town that had no, I mean no, trace of “Twilight” in April 2008, only four months later had “Twilight” tours, themed dinner specials, themed hotel rooms, T-shirts, and more. Now there’s even a store, Dazzled by Twilight, that arranges tours, sells mugs, magnets, and so much more. And a film documenting the town, called “Twilight in Forks,” is due out March 10.

I’m very thankful we visited before the transformation, but I’m not begrudging Forks its fame. Still, I hope it will later turn to eco-friendly travel pursuits when the fairy dust wears off, for what’s really magical here are the forest and sea, not an imaginary vampire tale.

Big reward for little effort at Great Smokies

October 13, 2009
Buildings at Mountain Farm Museum

Buildings at Mountain Farm Museum

October is a peak season at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most heavily visited national park in the country, with more than 9 million visitors a year. Despite all those people milling about, it’s still amazingly easy to get away from them. Some, of course, don’t leave their cars, and others don’t venture down trails. With only a few hours to spare, we did both, and were majorly rewarded for a minor effort.

Great Smokies 75th anniversary

Great Smokies' 75th anniversary

We started our afternoon at the park at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, two miles north of Cherokee. It being July Fourth weekend, the place was packed. After a tour of the fascinating outdoor Mountain Farm Museum, a collection of preserved historic log buildings gathered from throughout the Smoky Mountains, we were itching to take a walk, but didn’t want to drive for an hour to reach some of the more remote trailheads.

A ranger told us about the Kephart Prong Trail (a prong is a bend in the river), a four-mile roundtrip hike that crosses the Oconaluftee River six times. Perfect! Oddly, the trail isn’t marked from the road nor is it on the basic park maps, which probably contributed to the fact that we passed only a few other people during one of the park’s busiest weekends.

Tree pose on footbridge for beginners

Tree pose for beginners on footbridge

The trailhead is only seven miles beyond the visitor center. Look to the right for a small parking area on the right, and a footbridge, the first river crossing. The other river crossings were not really bridges but logs, some more secure than others, but all with a railing, so not too much balance was required. That’s a good thing, because no matter how many times I do an erect “tree” pose during yoga, get me on a log over water and I’m like jelly.

Bright red bee balms are found along the Kephart Prong Trail

Bright red bee balms are found along the Kephart Prong Trail

The wooded hike, mostly along the river, was just lovely, and I wish we could see it this month when the leaves start to change. The trail is an old road-bed, so the walk is quite easy, with only 800 feet of elevation gain, most of it on the way in. It’s an up-and-back, not a loop. Along the trail in the woods are a few remains of a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp, there from 1933-42. Turnaround is at a nice backcountry shelter. No one had set up there, so we stretched out on the platforms for a little contemplation of nature. Wessel was snoring in no time.

Water flows down a millrace to the mill

Water flows down a millrace to the mill

On the way out of the park we stopped at Mingus Mill, a 1886 grist mill that uses a water-powered turbine to power all of the machinery in the building. The mill is operated daily from mid-March through mid-November, with a miller demonstrating how corn is ground into cornmeal, which was for sale there. In a break from tradition, the corn was shipped in from the Midwest. I can think of only one word to appropriately express my disappointment. Shucks.

In the Smokies, a magical hike through time

August 10, 2009
Cook Cabin in the Cataloochee Valley

Cook Cabin in the Cataloochee Valley

A “step back in time” is such an overused phrase accompanying many a historic town or exhibit. But in the Cataloochee Valley of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, it’s truly possible.

The descendants of Cataloochee, who have their annual reunion every August, have a rare blessing and a curse. Remnants of their ancestors’ community are frozen in time, preserved as they were when the government in the 1930s-40s displaced more than 1,200 family farms to create the national park, uprooting some 7,000 people. Over the years, descendants have acknowledged that the land would likely have been developed if not for the park, but that is of little solace to the people directly affected.

Diane walks the Little Cataloochee trail

Diane walks the Little Cataloochee trail

For the visitor, Cataloochee, accessible only by foot, is a marvel. Wessel and I spent a few magical hours there last month. While nature has altered the landscape and buildings, those changes have been gentle, unlike those brought about by highways and bulldozers.

The drive to the trailhead requires some effort. We entered through Little Cataloochee (as opposed to Big Cataloochee) because reaching the buildings we wanted to see is easier at that end. But the road is rougher — about eight miles of winding dirt roads too narrow for two cars to pass. It was quite the adventure, but doable even in our low-slung 15-year-old Honda Civic.

Wessel at Cook Cabin

Wessel stands in front of Cook Cabin

Ours was the only car parked at the trailhead on a Sunday afternoon. Using the map in the Cataloochee pamphlet we’d bought from the park service, we headed up the main wooded trail, no doubt a main drag back in the day. We first passed Hannah Cabin, built in 1864 and occupied until national park days. Amazingly, the intact cabin has not been vandalized, at least not to our eyes. We also visited Cook Cabin and Messer Farm, which once housed the apple house for storing the apples that brought valley families much prosperity. (The apple house now stands at the park’s Mountain Farm Museum.)

The 1889 Baptist Church sit on top of a ridge

The 1889 church sits on top of a ridge

The most amazing building here is the Little Cataloochee Baptist Church, built in 1889 on a ridge top and painted white with a gingerbread trim. This is there the annual reunion is held. Cobblestone steps lead to a plain interior, painted white, and guests are welcome to poke around. A Bible at the front was opened to the Book of Daniel. Was this a sign for me? Visitors are allowed to ring the 400-pound bell in the belfry, which, of course, we did, the sound floating off through the woods.

Diane rings the church bells

Visitors are invited to ring the church bells

Next to the church is the cemetery, one of several scattered throughout the park and maintained by the park service. Of course the names Hannah and Messer appeared on some of the gravestones.

As we left the woods, we thanked the park service for tending to this sacred ground while sympathizing with the families displaced, as they have been here and during the creation of many other parks in our nation and beyond. Is their loss worth our gain?

A joy ride, complete with pain

July 23, 2009
See why it's called Blue Ridge?

See why it's called Blue Ridge?

At 74 years old, our beloved Blue Ridge Parkway has its problems. But it is still a glorious 469-mile joy ride along the Appalachian Mountains, from Virginia to North Carolina. Next year, during the 75th-anniversary hoopla, there will be the usual long list of media events and celebrations, but the best way to appreciate the Parkway is in silence from an overlook or during a hike or, for Wessel and me, a bike ride.

Diane races downhill during a ride in 2007

Diane zips downhill during a ride in 2007

Recently, near Waynesville, N.C., we took our 10th ride together on the Parkway, since moving to North Carolina in 2003. (But don’t forget, y’all, that I’m a native, which is why I can say y’all.) 

Though Wessel and I are woefully out of shape, with me sitting on my derriere in the car half the summer while researching “Farm Fresh North Carolina,” we rose to the challenge. And I do mean rose. During only 20 miles of riding, we climbed a total of 2,900 feet!

View on parkway from the Waterrock Knob Overlook

View of Parkway from Waterrock Knob

I’m glad I hadn’t known that ahead of time. The only thing I insisted on, because I did know from our elevation map in “Bicycling the Blue Ridge” that this would be a grueling-up and screaming-down ride, with no in between, was that we would end the ride going down. That’s just a little obsession of mine.

Wessel at the Waterrock Knob Overlook

Wessel at the Waterrock Knob Overlook

It was July Fourth, and the weather was perfect. Surprisingly, the car traffic was very low. As always, the “other” biker traffic was quite high, as the Parkway is a magnet for motorcyclists. Only at the end of our ride did we see other bicyclists. The highest peak we reached was Waterrock Knob Overlook at 5,718 ft (milepost 451.2). We could have walked half a mile to the summit lookout, at 6,400 feet, but we didn’t want to tax our legs even further.

The Parkway is famous for native flame azalea

The flame azalea is native to this region

While air pollution has diminished the views from the lookouts by some 80 percent since the Parkway first opened, they’re still something to behold. The summer haze, as well as the pollution, gives the mountain ranges a dreamy gray/blue wash. Sadly, some of the overlooks have been closed because they’re totally overgrown, one of the many problems brought on by the park’s $250 million maintenance backlog. (Some of that will be erased by the $14 million in federal stimulus money approved for the Parkway this year.)

Wessel and I still have a lot of ground to cover on the Parkway. We’ve ridden 274 miles on it, but that’s always up and back, so we’ve explored only 137 miles on our bikes. Here’s to the next 332!