The Boundary Waters Is Not A Park and Other Unremarkable Revelations from 9 days in America’s Southwest

After an exceptionally beautiful start to April, the weather turned decidedly “April-ish” right around Easter. Serendipitously, we’d planned to travel for a week and a half at the end of April and we drove to the Duluth International Airport in 34 degree weather and a light rain.

Our very loose travel plan involved flying into Las Vegas, spending the night, picking up a rental car and getting the hee-haw out of Sin City.  We’d planned to head towards one of the many (many!) National Parks within a day’s drive of Vegas. In the end, we headed west and within three hours, we were buying an “America the Beautiful” pass at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center in Death Valley National Park. 

There’s always a bit of culture shock when we roll into a National Park. Like every kid from northeastern Minnesota, Andy and I have spent a lot of time on public land – mainly land managed by the Forest Service as National Forest. We’re pretty down with the idea that there are so many places in America that are too special to belong to just  a handful of people and should instead be made available to the masses. But we’re used to the U.S. Forest Service approach to land management of “hey, here’s some sweet woods you might want to check out at your own risk” vs. the National Park Service’s more hand-holding approach of pointing out every panoramic view worth taking a photo at and their focus on accessibility. On this trip, we saw so many amazing sights thanks to the National Park Service’s preservation work, but we also realized a lot of things that we’re thankful for in the Boundary Waters. 

In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, you travel at your own risk. This can sound scary, but what’s more off-putting: having to travel a little more carefully, or having a park ranger stationed every so often along your route watching you with binoculars in case of emergency? 

In the Death Valley Sand Dunes, we walked in 94 degree heat under the watchful eye of a paramedic park ranger who scanned the horizon of the dunes with binoculars, watching for potential heat exhaustion victims. 
Death Valley Sand Dunes

For better or worse, the BWCA doesn’t emphasize accessibility. Because the National Park system does, it can sometimes feel that an element of discovery is missing in national parks – like you’re seeing the park on someone else’s terms. When we climbed into the southeastern Sierrra Nevadas in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, the large parking lots at the General Sherman Tree and Grant Grove unwittingly made it seem like some trees were worth looking at and others, not so much, even though we were surrounded by spectacular views and towering sequoias and it was all worth taking in. 

Sequoia NP

Our time in the National Parks last month also made us really appreciate the quota system that regulates visitor usage in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Say what you will about the Forest Service’s management plan for the BWCAW and the somewhat manufactured sense of wilderness it creates, but limiting the amount of people who can be in a certain area at a certain time often does translate into an elevated experience. In Zion National Park, we waited in a long line at the eastern entrance only find “no room at the inn” when we reached the visitor center parking lot. 

Zion Car Line

Zion’s been plagued with overcrowding for years now, and in an effort to combat the overcrowding, Zion implemented a mandatory shuttle bus for those wishing to visit the canyon in the peak season. However, this solution resulted in a parking nightmare at the base of the canyon, where people leave their vehicles for hours on end at the visitor center. As the day wears on, the parked cars start sprawling into the adjacent town of Springdale. Because UT Hwy 9 travels through Zion, everyone who takes Hwy 9 must pay park admission, even if they don’t plan to stop, a policy that likely inspires people to stop who initially might have been planning to just pass through. We enjoyed the beautiful sights along Hwy 9, but we never found a parking space and left feeling like Zion was a national park begging for some sort of daily admission cap.  

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But that’s not to say that every national park should pursue a daily admission cap. At the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, we were among thousands of visitors, but never had trouble parking and because of the park’s great infrastructure, were able to see every part of the South Rim that interested us, thanks to a combination of walking, shuttle bus, and car travel. 

Tourists Grand CanyonGrand Canyon NP

During our trip, we were reminded of the value of diverging off of any “travel top 10” list. While we visited a lot of very well-known national parks, our most enjoyable national park experience was in a national park I’d never heard of until a week before our trip when a random photo of a Facebook friend at Pinnacles National Park popped up on my feed. Both America’s newest and smallest national park, Pinnacles was a national monument for decades before President Obama designated it a national park in 2013. Although our visit landed smack-dab in Pinnacles’ peak season, we enjoyed a great hike through the park’s volcanic rock formations, spying condors soaring overhead and horny toad lizards hiding in the shade along the chaparral lined trail. Best of all, we felt like the park was ours to discover at our own pace. 

Pinnacles NP

Our trip wasn’t all national parks. We even managed to find a National Forest Wilderness area when we hiked into Woods Canyon south of Sedona, AZ. 

Sedona Wilderness

Perhaps some of the most rewarding time on the trip was spent on land managed by the State of California in the San Simeon area of the Pacific Coast and Hwy 1. A highlight was observing the elephant seal rookery of 6000+ seals. 

Elephant Seals San SimeonI’ve always loved touring big houses and William Randolph Hearst’s Hearst Castle atop the coastal hills of San Simeon did not disappoint. 
Hearst Castle

On the way from San Simeon to the Flagstaff, AZ area, we overnighted in Lake Havasu.

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We enjoyed Lake Havasu’s main attractions – 100+ degree heat and a great view of London Bridge. 
London Bridge Lake HavasuBy the time we reached Vegas for our return flight to MSP, we’d seen six national parks, visited 4 states, and traveled approximately 2000 miles. We made it back to Minnesota just in time to catch one final snowstorm of winter 2016-17 and prepare for the busy summer paddling season ahead. 

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5 Responses to The Boundary Waters Is Not A Park and Other Unremarkable Revelations from 9 days in America’s Southwest

  1. Tom Rettler says:

    Hi Ada & Andy,

    Agree with everything you said. It was much different 55 yrs ago when we visited almost all the spots you visited. The BWCA was also a very different place 60 yrs ago when I first visited.

    Hope to see you later this summer.

    Thanks for the comments.

  2. Douglas Green says:

    What a wonderful summary and trip – thanks! So sad to hear about Zion – one of the better parks. Sounds like the only way to get in reliably is to stay in the park, in which case (at least when we were there a few years ago) you can drive your car in and park right at the lodge. North Rim of the Grand Canyon is awesome if you ever make it, but a bit of a drive. Thanks again for your posts – I always enjoy them!

  3. Bruce spicer says:

    Thank you for your perspective on those national parks. It reminds me of how precious our boundary waters is. I can’t wait for my next bwcaw trip! Bruce S.

  4. Todd says:

    Did a similar trip last Spring. Agree that Zion is a zoo. The north rim of the Grand canyon (or pretty much anywhere below the rim) is quieter. The backcountry of Bandelier and White Sands national monuments are worth checking out, although a bit further afield.
    Looking forward to coming up again next summer. Todd R.

  5. dan cooke says:

    Hi Ada & Andy,

    We just returned from Zion, Bryce, Escalante, Moab. We were fortunate and day hiked two days in Zion. Angels Landing , Hidden Canyon and the Ponds. Lots of folks but great vistas. Bryce was amazing to hike around for a day and a ride on A horse the second day made the coming back to the rim far more enjoyable. We have good weather, it snowed after we left. It sleeted on us around Moab as we rafted on the Colorado. sleet found us not fully prepared. There is a lot to see and experience that is quite different than the BWCAW. Happy that you were able to break away and have some time away.
    Dan C.

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