Dark Skies and Cave Tours = Great Basin National Park!

Ever since I was a young girl, I have been fascinated with the night sky. My family owned a small telescope, and we would sit outside and stare up at the stars frequently. Growing up in Orlando, Florida, we were always tuned in when the shuttle launched into space, or a rocket was being tested out at Cape Canaveral. I have to say, I have a true soft spot for dark skies! The first time I truly saw the Milky Way was when I was in Death Valley. I was hooked! Looking up at the night sky, even without a telescope, is one of the joys I have each time I go camping or hiking at night. No exception for my visit to Great Basin National Park!

Great Basin – Mather Overlook

Great Basin is not only a dark sky part, it is an INTERNATIONAL Dark Sky Park and is in the Gold-Tier of this designation. The distinction is immediately clear when you visit. Even outside my hotel (I stayed in Baker, NV) I could step outside and see the Milky Way – it was that dark out! While visiting the park, we also attended an astronomy program. They have an amazing group of rangers, all of whom give their own individual program related to astronomy. Our talk was more related to the history of astronomy – I love history, so it was perfect! After their presentation, they set up huge, powerful telescopes and turn off the lights so that you can sit back and look up at the sky. Definitely check with the Visitor Center to see if there is a program when you visit. Even if it seems cloudy out – GO! The clouds cleared and we had a wonderful time. Bring a jacket! You won’t believe it, but you are at a high elevation!

Lehman Caves

Before Great Basin was a National Park, it was a National Monument created in 1922 called Lehman Caves. It became a National Park in 1986. The early history of the cave is fascinating. In 1885, Absalom Lehman led tours through the cave. Unfortunately, physical evidence was left behind in the form of inscriptions on the cave walls. When the park service attempted to clean up this vandalism, they discovered that they were doing more damage to the wall than intended. The inscriptions remain today as an example. Because the cave was not protected for years while Lehman gave tours, many of the fragile stalagmites are rounded off and dead – no longer able to continue to grow and live in the wet cave. Now, the rangers do an excellent job of not only pointing out these issues during their tour (while remaining educational), but they also discuss how the cave has evolved through the years. I was not aware that Native Americans revere the caves and will refuse to go beyond the entrance. Why? Because they buried their dead in the area. When the park service started to excavate part of the cave to create another, safer, entrance, they discovered this fascinating part of ceremonial tradition. After consulting the Native Americans, they determined that they would replace the bodies beyond the new entrance. While we walked past the area (you cannot see anything, if you were wondering!) we were asked to remain respectfully quiet until we entered the first room of the cave. I could not believe there was so much history in such a remote area!!

Camping in Great Basin, which I also highly recommend if you are able, is wonderful because of the amazing night sky. There are multiple campsites, both on recreation.gov and first come first serve, so you can decide which route you want to go when visiting. You can also book your cave tours through recreation.gov, which we did so we could make sure we had a spot. They are very popular! We had around 100 people at the astronomy talk and our tour for the cave was completely full. The park is at a higher elevation, so bring a jacket (plus the cave is COLD). Most importantly, walk around and take in the viewpoints. The park is beautiful. There is a scenic drive that if you only have a few hours to visit, you should definitely fit in. Worth the drive!

Baker, Nevada, which is just outside the park, is very small. There are only a few restaurants and one gas station. It isn’t too far to another town but be aware that there isn’t much out there! There is a cafe at the Lehman Visitor Center that is excellent – great iced coffee and they actually serve food. Have fun!

Majestic Mountains – Visiting North Cascades National Park

July brought lots of high-powered storms (including lightning!) and a surprisingly heavy monsoon season to the desert. The true relief from the blistering heat and dry air was a visit to North Cascades National Park. I have been to many parks in Washington but have not yet had the pleasure of visiting this gorgeous land. When we were there, we were treated to wonderful, sunny, beautiful weather. We were able to visit Stehekin – meaning we got to ride on a boat on Lake Chelan! – and see parts of the park that would have taken days of driving to do on my own. Sometime, working for the park service pays off!

Along HWY 20 – North Cascades

There are many different hikes and trails throughout North Cascades, and I highly recommend driving through as much of the park as you can even if you don’t plan to hike. We ended up taking Highway 20 to the east of the park – it was a scenic byway and worth the extra time it took to go around! We stopped at various forest service viewpoints and overlooks, some which required a short hike. Overall, it was a less-busy and extremely cool way to see this part of Washington state. Living in Spokane for a year with Clinton, and of course, Clinton is from Spokane, I’ve really only seen the far east and far west. Family members and work have brought us frequently to Seattle. The middle of the state is still a beautiful place to visit! The drive took about 4 hours, including our various stops, but did not seem difficult or annoying due to traffic or various road factors. As an aside – if you do find yourself in the Wenatchee area, check out a small town nearby named Leavenworth. It is a cute German town that is worth the parking fee to be able to walk through their entertainment square (they frequently have festivals and performers in the giant white tents) and their various shops. The fudge is amazing, and the bratwurst is a must-try!

Rainbow Falls, Stehekin

While we weren’t able to take the time to go on a long hike while in Stehekin, there are many beautiful places to walk for a short hike. Rainbow Falls was one of those hikes. As you get closer, the sheer volume of water falling creates a wind that showers you as you walk. It is huge – the picture simply does not do its power justice. Getting to Stehekin did involve a boat ride on Lake Chelan. The boat ride was awesome! It was a simple aluminum boat that could fit around 45-60 visitors and their luggage, but it was perfect for the lake. The seating was basic chairs that could be moved about the two stories, and most people ended up finding their spot right away and claiming it for the rest of the trip. They did not sell food or drink, so bring your own! Sitting outside is wonderful for the wind and even in the sun, the weather was perfect for our visit! I think we were lucky! If you are able to get to Stehekin, try to make it part of your North Cascades trip. There is a small lodge when you arrive across (literally) from the dock. No AC and no TV, like most lodges in the National Park, but since the weather was so nice we kept the windows open anyway. It was the middle of summer, so I can’t imagine that it gets much hotter later in the year! Stehekin is still open during the winter to those that hike the Pacific Crest Trail, as much of the park is part of that trail system. There are year round residents and a wonderful baker that I highly recommend. You can miss it – it is the only one in the area. Sit around and watch the boats from the deck along the lakeside. You can visit for just the day on the boat! The Lady of the Lake stops at multiple places before their final stop at Stehekin, with one at Lucerne that has a retreat/lodge but is also the start of multiple backcountry hikes and campsites.

One of the coolest parts of North Cascade we were able to visit during our trip was the Buckner Orchard. The NPS still maintains the orchard today, with its unique irrigation system that relies on the constant snow melt during the summer. Apples are so numerous; they have trouble using all of them during the year and end up giving away to the locals of Stehekin. They harvest the apples not just to eat, but to press into cider. You can pick any fruit you want on the NPS land – it is yours to try! This area was serene, with gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains.

Me at Buckner Orchard

Camping is huge in North Cascades, and I could see why as we continued our trip from Stehekin back to Wenatchee to start our drive on Highway 20. There are multiple places in the National Forest to stop off and snatch a campsite, and depending on how adventurous you are, many dispersed/backcountry campsites.

I learned during this trip that North Cascades National Park includes Lake Ross National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. All under the umbrella of North Cascades, I had no idea they were considered recreation areas around the lakes. It is apparent as you get closer, as the rules for recreation are definitely different between a ‘National Park’ and ‘National Recreation Area’. There were many campsites near Lake Ross and Lake Chelan, as well as multiple trails. A backpackers dream, make sure to take a few days to really explore the area when you visit! Marblemount is a small town in the mountains, close to the northern park of North Cascades. If you are unable to find lodging in the town, Burlington and Sedro-Woolly are not too far away. We stayed in Burlington and did not have any issues. There are multiple restaurants in these towns, but on highway 20 it is pretty remote. Plan to bring your own snacks and drinks, and fuel up before starting the drive around. I don’t think you’ll get stuck, it isn’t that far or that remote (it is a highway!), but best to be prepared.

Remember that North Cascades are at a higher elevation and it starts to snow around September/October. There are multiple mountain passes, such as Snoqualmie Pass, so be aware if you travel during winter months that there will be possible delays or chain requirements for your tires. I have to recommend the summer for North Cascades, but I bet if you came during late Spring or early Fall it would still be easy to transition through the large park while keeping simple. Bring a jacket!

View from the Lodge at Stehekin, North Cascades

Big Trees and Mighty Rivers – Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park

Clinton and I have had the pleasure of visiting Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park multiple times in the past, each time has left us in awe. The serenity and beauty of the giant sequoias, and the strength and magnificence of kings canyon are beyond words. This trip was for work, and I was very fortunate we stayed at the John Muir Lodge one night! I highly recommend the lodge – but be aware that there is no AC, no TV, and it is rather ‘rustic’. For me, it was perfect! It was nice and cool, even during the middle of July, so I left the windows open at night. It was incredibly dark and quiet. Sitting on the rocking chairs outside until after the sun set was a nice feature of the location of the lodge. I was able to see wildlife, deer mostly, multiple times during our short stay. While visiting the park, we stayed in Three Rivers. It is a cute town with a few places to eat – we recommend the Ol’ Buckaroo (we went here multiple times, they have great specials that change daily) and Gateway (beautiful creek side views of golden California)! It is also very close to the entrance of the park.

The park is actually a combination of both Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park. Joined officially by Congress in 1943, both Sequoia and Kings Canyon were founded separately by different acts. The land set aside to protect the sequoia trees became Sequoia National Park in September, 1890, while Grant Grove National Park was established. President Roosevelt abolished this designation and renamed it Kings Canyon National Park. When talking to the Rangers, they didn’t seem to be too concerned about their fellow employees and who was working at “Kings Canyon” or “Sequioa”, though it was fun to see that where they were located in the district was more a point of pride! Lodgepool, Foothills, Cedar Grove…all different areas. Who really knew? 🙂

View at the restaurant Gateway in Three Rivers

The first visitor center, Foothills, is a good first stop for general questions once you make it through the entrance station. There is a fee to visit the park, or you can purchase your National Park pass. We always get a yearly pass – it helps the parks in more ways than you think! Generals Highway is a gorgeous drive to get you out to your first iconic spot – the General Sherman tree. It is really a magnificent tree. I had thought there would be more evidence of the many fires that went through the area but was happy to see that there was not as much damage as anticipated. In fact, you could not see any residual effects of fire – at least at this location. The tree is heavily visited so, much like the General Grant tree up further north, be prepared for lots of people taking pictures! There is a hike to both locations – and yes, I did write both. These two trees are NOT next to each other! In fact, they are a long drive apart. Don’t plan on visiting just these two famous trees. There is the Big Stump Grove and the Lodgepool Visitor Center between the two trees that warrant at least a quick stopover. Various overlooks are worth the view as well.

After leaving General Grant, further up the road you will enter Kings Canyon National Park. Cedar Grove Visitor Center is a great introduction to the park. Down at the ‘end of the road’ is a small ranger station, but lots of trails. If you plan to camp, plan ahead. It may look like there are plenty of places to camp, but most of the park is actually heavily protected. Dispersed camping is not allowed – only designated camping. Follow the camping rules and make sure to pay attention to the bear safety signs! The area is frequented by black bears, and they are no joke. Don’t be THAT person! It is unsafe for you and the bear.

General Grant

Visiting Sequoia/Kings Canyon is always a treasure, but it is especially nice after reading about so many devastating things that have happened in California. Wildfires are frequent and have led to multiple preventative measures. I find it heartening that so many also treasure these wonderful trees and took these measures to prevent them from burning. While many trees did suffer, the destruction could have definitely been worse. Thanks to the many countless hours the fire teams provided, we can still visit these wonderful parks today! There were multiple opportunities to learn about the various plants and animals of the park. Even if you are not able to walk along a trail, the drive alone through the park is amazing. Take your time – it is windy and hard to take your eyes off the beauty!

Speaking of trails, there were many of them. Roaring River Falls in Kings Canyon is definitely worth the trip. If you do want more of a hiking experience, look up the roads end trails. The hikes to the trees are about a mile round trip and are downhill to begin with, but there are plenty of benches along the way. Take your time and enjoy the beauty of all the OTHER wonderful sequoia’s that will surround you on the trail. General Grant and Sherman just happen to be some of the largest bases but there are hundreds of other trees just as majestic.

Don’t visit California without trying to squeeze in a trip to Sequia & Kings Canyon National Park! It is worth your time!

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