Loading...

Follow Wandering Rose Travels on Feedspot

Continue with Google
Continue with Facebook
or

Valid
Denali and Talkeetna Wilderness

We’d thought about Alaska over the years. And then decided to stop wondering. So we booked a weeklong cruise into Glacier Bay National Park and, with some hesitation, added an extra week by land with the same tourism business.

Why the hesitation? We’ve always planned our own vacations to national parks and wilderness destinations. And while we generally like people, we’re not fans of groups on vacations – we covet our solitude.

But Alaska is big and wild. And its national parks are less accessible than those in the lower 48 states. So we felt more comfortable “sampling” the land of the midnight sun and letting someone else do the planning and guiding.

This article covers the land package. Look for a follow-up post about the cruise portion.

UnCruise Adventures arranged our railroad trip from Anchorage to Denali.
We chose UnCruise Adventures

I can’t begin to counsel you on all the options available to cruise and explore Alaska by land. I can, however, tell you about our choice.

We wanted an eco-cruise type experience and a smaller ship that could explore areas inaccessible to the larger cruise lines. As far as the land portion, we prioritized more hiking, outdoor recreation and less traditional sightseeing.

We chose UnCruise Adventures based upon our goals and enthusiastic recommendations by friends and fellow travellers. To start our trip, we traveled by rail from Anchorage, stopping along the way to enjoy the Talkeetna Wilderness and both Denali State Park and Denali National Park & Preserve for five days. And we returned to Anchorage via luxury bus.

We chose UnCruise Adventures for our land trip because of its outdoor activities.
Outdoor exploring with guides

 Our land vacation included outdoor activities arranged by UnCruise. After spending a half-day on the train, hiking guides picked us up and we trekked a few miles on the Talkeetna Lakes Trail, learning about flora and fauna. My highlight included a goldeneye duck lifting off from one of the lakes, circling and then gliding right past us in the forest into a tree cavity, where it was nesting.

During all of the activities, our tour group of 30 split into smaller groups to make the experiences more intimate. I liked that, especially when we kayaked on Byers Lake with clear views of Denali on the horizon. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re not boat people, or kayakers, but this outing was special. We also hiked in Denali State Park to fantastic views of the Alaska Mountain Range, taking a break with a provided snack lunch that included caribou sausage. Nice touch!

Our land trip emphasized outdoor activities, like this hike in Denali State Park.
We saw a lot of moose, like this young male grazing near Denali.
Heaven opens up in Denali

 We joined the 10% club during our visit to Denali. That’s the percentage of tourists who get to see Denali and its 20,310 feet unobstructed by clouds. Approximately 30% see part of the mountain, which makes its own weather and apparently prefers overcast to clear. Luck was on our side and we enjoyed great views for two days.

The mountain wasn’t in view on the day we entered the national park via bus as part of an excursion that mainly promised wildlife viewing.

Denali National Park is truly a wilderness and government agencies manage it that way. Very few trails exist for hikers. That’s why most people enter the park by sightseeing bus, on the only road into Denali. Buses can be transit only or narrated by a naturalist, the latter being our tour. I liked having an expert talk during the drive – we learned a lot during her narration.

We saw a variety of wildlife: caribou (same as reindeer), bald and golden eagles, Dall sheep, moose and grizzly. But the sightings were sparse. That can happen on trips like this – it’s no one’s fault. Wild is wild!

A passenger thwarted our best sighting. We were leaving an overlook stop along the road and a huge grizzly walked right in front of our bus, about 25 yards away. We were all getting our cameras ready when a lady yells hysterically, “I left my cellphone outside at the turnout!” Like, who cares – there’s a grizzly photo opt of a lifetime in front of us. But the bus driver backed up so she could find her phone. She got off the bus and it began to hail on her, which I thought was funny at the time. Then someone on the bus yelled, “Her phone is right here on her bus seat!” She got back on the bus and took the “Walk of Shame” all the way to the back. We then drove forward but the grizzly had vanished down the hillside, along with my dream of a National Geographic cover photo!

Alaska Native Heritage Center - YouTube
Alaska Native Heritage Center

 We made a couple of ‘touristy” stops along the way that also purposed as mealtimes and restroom breaks. The Alaska Native Heritage Center proved to be much more than a curiosity. It moved and humbled us.

We toured native dwellings that introduced us to life dating back 10,000 years. We watched demonstrations of native games and dance. And students served as tour guides and shared their culture with enthusiasm and pride.

The heritage center also features exhibits, demonstrations, theater with a variety of films playing throughout the day, local artisans, cultural gift shop and café.

Other trip observations
  • Our rail cars were top shelf with glass domes, dining area, bar and outdoor viewing platforms.
  • Mosquitos like Alaska. Timing is everything. We arrived in early June and the flying vipers were just starting to harass people.
  • It’s the land of the midnight sun. None of our accommodations came with light-canceling blinds or shades. The evening light interfered with sleep for a while. But “hey,” it’s Alaska. No wimps allowed.
  • Viewing wildlife from a moving train and luxury bus is nice but, if you’re a photographer, you might get frustrated.
  • Our UnCruise tour guide, Annie, and bus driver, Jerry, exceled. We learned a lot from them about local history and culture. And their customer service was a perfect 10.
Denali National Park is famous for its wildlife, like this caribou.
Will we return to our 49th state?

Yes. Now that we’ve sampled Alaska, and learned a few things, we’re planning to go back, only next time we’ll start with an UnCruise sea excursion and then carefully plan our own land vacation.

We loved the land part of this past adventure. It’s a guilty pleasure to have someone else do all the planning, transfers, arrangement of side-trips and restaurant choices. We never had to check-in to a hotel registration desk or touch our luggage — it was always waiting for us in our room. Hmmm? On second thought, maybe we won’t plan our own land vacation.

Our only major disappointment? No one greeted us when we returned to our North Carolina home, unpacked our luggage and served us cocktails. That’s going on the satisfaction survey!!

The post Sampling Alaska with pre-cruise land trip appeared first on Wandering Rose Travels.

  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 
Boat across the world’s clearest lake

Crater Lake sinks 1,943 feet deep and holds the world record for water clarity. It’s fed only by snowmelt and rain; no water flows in or out. And you can spot an object called a Secchi disk, used to measure lake clarity, up to 134 feet below the surface, which qualifies as “spectacular,” even though that’s not a scientific term.

The only time I’ve witnessed a park ranger dip her cupped hands and drink right from a natural water source was from this incredible lake and national park. And I experienced the most exhilarating form of “awe” the first time I hiked to the rim of Crater Lake National Park.

Carefully plan your trip

Mountain peaks in this park reach 8,900 feet. Crater Lake receives a lot of snow and some areas are inaccessible until mid summer. We’ve visited three times, once in late June when only a small section of the Rim Road was open and most of the park was inaccessible, including the lake’s surface. But we could still walk near the lake’s rim and take in the incredible snow-covered views.

During our other two trips, we arrived in early August when all roads, boat service and trails were open. So there was more to do.

Forest fires enhanced this sunset from Garfield Peak, a trail starting right by our lodge.
Lodge views may be unmatched

I’ve stayed in enough national park lodges to make this statement: Crater Lake Lodge provides guests with the best view in America.

My second highest rated view would be from the dining room of Many Glacier Lodge in Glacier National Park, MT. Others may rival these two, but we’d have to arm wrestle to decide the winner. And fair warning, I’ve recently been hanging out in the weight room.

My enthusiasm for the lodge refers only to the “view.” As far as accommodations go, it’s “okay.” Like many national park lodges, you normally have to rely upon convenience of location and historical significance when rating them. For instance, hiking trails start right outside the doors of Crater Lake lodge, which we valued.

The only way to see this view of Phantom Ship is by boat.
Two words: “boat trip”

We’re not boat trip people. We prefer to hike. But everyone should experience floating across the surface of Crater Lake. It was exceptional. Just pay close attention to your trip’s timing to better guarantee that the park’s boat service is operating, usually late June to early September.

To get to the boat dock, you have to hike one mile down into the crater on Cleetwood Cove Trail. This route is well groomed. And keep in mind that the hike back up gains 700 feet.

Summer wildflowers paint the approach to Plaikni Falls.
Discover more than a majestic lake

Most people absorb the great views of the lake and move on to another park or destination. However, I encourage you to take a day or two and explore other interesting parts of Crater Lake.

We stopped at Vidae Falls and walked the nearby Castle Crest Trail around its beautiful meadow of wildflowers. Reaching Plaikni Falls involves an easy 2-mile hike. And we hiked the more strenuous 3.4-mile round-trip trail to Garfield Peak to glimpse a sunset, using my headlamp on the way back down just to be safe.

Hikers love the 5-mile trek to Mount Scott and back. Don’t skip the Kerr Notch roadside pullout and its overlook of Phantom Ship. And one afternoon, we drove to Pinnacle Valley and took a short walk to view the spires.

There’s more to see at Crater Lake, such as the Pinnacles.
Add other national parks to your trip

We’ve always flown to San Francisco and worked our way up to Crater Lake, usually including in our vacation plans Lassen Volcanic National Park, Lava Beds National Monument and Redwood National Park. Of course there’s always Yosemite to consider if you have more time. Starting in Portland is another good option – we’ve not tried that route.

Crater Lake is special. I could photograph it for days, resting to navigate around tiny marshmallows while sipping hot chocolate from the patio lodge chairs, while imagining the moment when the Mount Mazama volcano collapsed into what’s now the most beautiful lake in America.

The post Peer into Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park appeared first on Wandering Rose Travels.

  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

For a single night’s stay, our lodging criteria are simply a safe, clean place to lay our heads with comfy pillows and mattress. But when our travel plans include spending more than one night, we prefer small boutique properties with the owner on-site so that our lodging becomes part of the travel experience.

This might be a bed and breakfast situated in a historic home, cabins on the side of a mountain or in the case of Big Sky Nelson Eco B&B, a purpose-built home with one level occupied by the owner/host and one level dedicated to guests with two private bedrooms with private baths and a shared breakfast area with outdoor deck.

Big Sky is the vision of Avner Nahmias, designer and builder of the retreat just north of Nelson, New Zealand. Perched on a hillside 1,000 feet above Tasman Bay, the eco design stresses the view and natural surroundings. The terraced hillside includes organic gardens and fruit trees with paths for walking and places for contemplating. What Avner does not grow on the property, he sources locally. Our milk and cream came from a nearby farm. Fresh fruit, produce and cheese all came from within a 20-mile radius.

Big Sky Nelson Eco B&B sits on a hillside 1,000 feet above the Tasman Sea.

A short 15-minute drive north from Nelson, the property is far enough away to offer a serene relaxing time-out yet still close enough to scoot into town for lunch or dinner. Big Sky Nelson was our base to explore the nearby wine country and national parks, including the famed Abel Tasman.

Now, the first time you climb up the road to Big Sky may be a bit daunting for those not used to New Zealand’s roads. But you quickly get used to the steep hairpin curves and the view at the end is worth the drive. You will also fully appreciate Avner’s mantra for his place: “altitude, attitude, gratitude.”

Avner is all you could wish for in a host: welcoming, attentive and passionate about each guest and their experience on site and beyond. He knows most of the local restaurants and attractions, insightful at matching his advice to the individual guest or group.

View from the deck at Big Sky Nelson. No better place to watch the sun set while sipping a glass of wine.

After a day of local sightseeing, it’s amazing to spend the late afternoon with a bottle of wine and local cheese watching the stunning sunset.

We were traveling with another couple so we had the place to ourselves. Being American, with personal space concerns, I wondered if it would be awkward sharing the kitchen and deck with a stranger. Avner claims that this not only works, but was a deliberate consideration in the design – like the inns of long ago, a place where fellow travelers meet people they might not otherwise encounter. In fact, he claims in all the years he’s run Big Sky, guests have always gotten along and often left as friends.

Many tourists pass through Nelson on the way to Picton or the West Coast without stopping. We recommend you do plan a few nights in Nelson. It’s a charming small town with great food and activities for every taste – from art to beaches, biking to hiking. And nights spent at Big Sky take your visit to a higher level – literally and figuratively.

Our breakfasts at Big Sky Nelson were always a yummy treat.
Want to know more about the Nelson/Tasman region of New Zealand?

We loved the Nelson area, and wish we had stayed longer. We asked Avner to write about the Nelson region and why this should be on your itinerary next time you visit New Zealand. Read about Nelson – New Zealand’s often overlooked destination.

The post Big Sky Nelson Eco B&B: So much more than just a place to lay your head appeared first on Wandering Rose Travels.

  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

Cruising silently towards Nelson in my fully electric car on Queen Elizabeth Drive I still, 18 years later, mumble to myself, “We live here!” Every single time. On my left is Tasman Bay, crowned by the Western Ranges on the opposite side, an endless ever-changing sky reflected in its waters. On my right are the northern suburbs of the city, perched on gentle green slopes. Approaching town I consciously appreciate the parks and the clever plantings of clusters of native trees and shrubs, through which the city reveals itself in glimpses – a perpetual tribute to a visionary landscape designer of long ago.

We can live anywhere we want, yet we live here. A “deliberate Nelsonian” I call myself, having chosen Nelson for its size (just right), climate (sunshine capital of New Zealand), man and nature’s offerings: a perfect medley of sea, mountain, walks, food, and art. In short, a concise collection of everything the country has to offer, all within an hour’s drive.

For the traveler, all this translates into a comforting sense of arriving, of home. Our guests would pop into town on their first day, and the next day they already feel at home, oriented and familiar, know where they’re going. And loving it.

Sunset over Tasman Bay near Nelson, New Zealand.
The Nelson region is iconic New Zealand

The New Zealand you see in your mind’s eye is probably the South Island – nature in all its glory wide expanses of majestic scenery, mostly unspoiled and big skies. The stuff of legends, movies, and postcards. Divided lengthwise by the Southern Alps, with mountain passes far between and served by relatively few roads, this “real New Zealand” invites you to explore it taking a circular route – east coast, west coast and in-between.

Our region, the “Top of the South”, spans Tasman Bay and Golden Bay, three national parks, beaches, rivers, walks, many diverse landscapes, both the Nelson and Marlborough wine countries, and of course lovely Nelson city itself.

While boasting the country’s fourth busiest airport, Nelson is often not the traveler’s point of arrival, but rather a stop in the circuit. By the time they arrive here by car, however, they realize one important thing: that driving in New Zealand is different – it takes longer and can be tiring. By now   they crave a rest. And what a place to stop!

Queens Garden is a park within Nelson.
Old St. John's Church is a beautiful piece of Nelson history.
Nelson: A compact town of perfect size

Nelson received the title “city” through the technicality of having a cathedral. In fact, it is a compact town of perfect size, exhibiting all the dynamics of a vibrant, diverse community with a good dose of expats bringing in their own tastes, abilities and standards. Fresh, seasonal local produce, meat fish and dairy, make way to our tables to satisfy any palate These are complemented by a rich offering of local wines and craft beers, freshly roasted coffee and other precision gourmet products.

Art galleries abound along with leisurely city and river walks, markets and festivals. And then there are those places and things to do not found in guidebooks and websites. These include day trips combining two or more complementing activities, like cycling from Nelson to Mapua and enjoying a good meal at the wharf, visiting a winery on the way back, or our “very own” Cable Bay walk which takes one through three distinct landscapes in less than three hours.

School holidays are from mid December to February. This means more locals on the roads, tracks, and beaches. February tends to be peak season for overseas tourists, and again – crowded.

But guess what? If you want to avoid the crowds (a very relative term, by the way, there’s always room for everyone), you can easily come earlier or later. Nelson weather is balmy and comfortable. October offers a month-long arts festival replete with world-class music and shows, a destination in itself. March and April are also lovely. And if it’s a Northern Hemisphere scorching summer you want to escape, our winters are mild, with crisp blue skies and snow decorating the Western Ranges in the distance (yes, you can even ski at Rainbow a couple of hours away). That’s the beauty of the Nelson region!

So whatever it is you’re seeking on your New Zealand adventure – you’ll find it in Nelson, any time of the year! I invite you to share our discovery, get more with less driving, and make the most of your trip. Welcome home.

About the author: Avner Nahmias is a consultant, writer, artist, and “lifestyler” living just north of Nelson. He runs Big Sky Nelson Luxury Eco B&B, an ongoing creation which he designed and built.

The post Nelson – New Zealand’s often overlooked destination appeared first on Wandering Rose Travels.

  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

Nature photography is challenging, but with these few simple tips and techniques, you’ll be shooting dazzling photos soon.

Our definition of “nature photography” includes geology, plants, flowers and animals in their native environment. We’re ignoring landscape photography, choosing to cover that in a separate blog soon.

What is our single most important tip for great nature photos?

Barnacles on driftwood are made beautiful by the warm color and soft shadows of "golden hour" light.
It’s all about the light! Get up and out early and stay out late

Generally, nature photos look best when taken in morning or evening, especially during the golden hours just after sunrise and before sunset, when light has a softer, warmer quality.

Your subjects illuminate more evenly, without the harsh shadows common midday. Cameras can only capture a limited range of detail between the lightest and darkest areas. That’s why your eye views a midday scene with beautiful blue sky and dark green leaves, but the camera likely captures this scene with the sky an expanse of white nothingness and the leaves completely black. By eliminating the dark shadows and harsh highlights, you’ll capture the beautiful detail your eye sees.

Sometimes you can’t control time of day. In that case, use your camera’s HDR setting. HDR (High Dynamic Range) extends the ratio of detail between light and dark by capturing three different exposures and combining them via processing software. Presto! What once was the magical realm of pros and serious amateurs (who did this meticulously in editing software) is now a tool for all to use.

Get out early or late... that's when most animals are out and active.
Other advantages to shooting early and late

There are other advantages to shooting in the early morning or late evenings. Popular areas are less crowded, especially high-traffic state and national parks. We tried twice to visit Banff National Park’s Lake Louise during the day last summer, only to be turned away for lack of parking. We returned at 6 p.m. and had the place to ourselves. Being July, the sun did not set until nearly 11 p.m., so evening arrivals became our plan for seeing popular park areas if we missed the early morning alarm. Midday we hiked in more remote areas, enjoyed lunch and shopping In Banff, and napped on occasion.

If animal photography is your goal, aim for mornings and evenings. You’re more likely to score a great shot because generally animals are more active morning and evening, becoming harder to find during the heat of the day.

What lenses do you need for nature photography?

You don’t have to invest in specialty lenses to get great nature photos, but if nature is your thing, you will ultimately want to branch out with a wide angle, macro or telephoto lens. This does not eliminate those who prefer shooting with their phone. Many phones come with a separate telephoto lens built-in. It’s rumored that Apple will release an iPhone this fall with a wide angle lens. And many phones offer macro (extreme close-up) capability.

For DSLR shooters, a telephoto lens is likely your first purchase when acquiring nature photography gear. They have two big benefits: First, a telephoto lens gets you closer, allowing you to capture nature and animals from a distance without disturbing them. Zoom lens work great for this. Thorny’s go-to lens zooms 18 (wide angle) to 140 (telephoto) mm. If we’re shooting animals and need more reach, we’ve got lens that go up to 600 mm. They are a beast to carry but deliver dramatic images not possible otherwise. Second, telephoto lenses have less depth-of-field (amount of area in focus) than standard lens. This helps nature photographers separate their subject from its background. More on this later.

You can use digital zoom on your phone or point-and-shoot camera to get closer, but as you zoom the image quality degrades because essentially the software is just cropping. For decent quality, optical zoom is always best. Extend the capability of your current phone with third-party lens attachment. They are cheap and pretty good quality.

Try different angles. We plopped down on the ground to get eye level with this cutie.
Point and shoot cameras for nature photography

 Phone and DSLR cameras get the most attention, but point-and-shoot cameras can be great for nature photography without breaking the bank.

We use some combination of phone, point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras to capture nature images, depending on weather, weight considerations and what else we might be doing on a particular trip. For our winter trip to Yellowstone we loaded up the heavy camera and big telephoto lens. For hikes where we want a camera in case we see something worthy, but photography is not the primary goal, we rely on point-and-shoot.

The disadvantages over DSLR are a slight lag between the time you press the shutter and the image records and difficulty seeing the screen in bright daylight. The advantages – lightweight, waterproof, shock resistant – often make this our go-to camera for hiking or a city walk day. Another consideration: point-and-shoot cameras are inexpensive compared to DSLR. We’ve bashed our nice cameras into rocks more than once, and cringed as we assessed at the dents and dings.

We love the Olympus TG5 for point-and-shoot. In addition to the benefits already listed, this camera is great for underwater snorkeling photos and extreme close-ups of flowers and insects with the focus stacking function. The camera alone is less than $400. There’s a great kit on Amazon that includes wide angle and telephoto accessory lens and much more for just a few more bucks.

Do you need a tripod?

Most things we read are a resounding “yes” to carrying a tripod for nature photography. Our advice: only when necessary. We like to shoot multiple angles. A tripod tends to lock us to one spot. And we’re minimalists when in nature with regard to bulk and weight. Experiment with pushing up the ISO (sensitivity of the image sensor). Lower ISO is better quality, but we’ve pushed it to 3,000 and above in low-light to avoid motion blur. Experiment at home to determine what your tolerance is for high ISO versus quality. Thorny is okay with low-light images looking bit grainy. It reminds of the days of film (his youth). Others deplore any grain and would use a tripod to avoid pushing the ISO too high.

When a tripod is essential

  • Pre and post-sunrise photos that require long exposures
  • Daytime long exposure shots such as blurring the water in a stream or waterfall.
  • Video. One day we will purchase a handheld camera stabilizer. Meanwhile, a tripod is helpful to avoid video so shaky it causes motion-induced nausea. Because video does not have to be absolutely still, Thorny carries an Amazon tripod that weighs a mere pound and collapses to 16.5 inches.
Look for a contrasting background to separate your subject from its environment.
Separating the subject from the background

Nature photos often feature a plant, animal or flower as primary subject. Separating these from the background means the difference in ordinary photos versus magnificent.

There are several ways to achieve this:

  • Move around until there is contrast between the elements in your frame. Maybe you need the sky as the background or maybe find a darker or lighter spot in the tree canopy.
  • If possible, create distance between your foreground and background.
  • Use a wider aperture (lower f-stop) such as f/2.0 or f/2.8. Focus on the subject. The wide aperture should yield a soft, blurry background. For point-and-shoot cameras without manual settings try the sports mode or action setting. Many phone cameras offer portrait mode. This accomplishes the shallow depth of field through software.
  • Use a telephoto lens. They inherently have less depth of field than normal and wide-angle lenses.
  • Game animals blend into the landscape, so be careful about your background. Wait to shoot a deer, for example, until it is outlined against the sky or a distant light-colored field.
Go slowly, softly. Stop and observe.

When it comes to nature photography, let these words of Ralph Waldo Emerson guide you: “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” Patience is something that most of us don’t do well. We rush to see “everything” and walk right by the most amazing things.

It’s best not to disturb animals in their habitat, so be patient to get your shot. Waiting a few extra minutes can really be worth it. Study the animal or do research before you go out to better understand its behavior.

We’ve encountered a lot of birds and mammals when we paused, sat on a stump, listened and surveyed our surroundings. Many times, a movement or sound will reveal an animal’s location.

Small-scale photos: Moving in closer

It’s easy to get swept up in the majesty of all that surrounds you, but don’t neglect the small details. Each rock, leaf, petal or tide pool offers opportunities to photograph the minutiae. Be patient and soon, you’ll begin to notice all manner of interesting details.

There is a whole new world waiting for you when you get closer. This is where nature photographers differ from many other disciplines. When photographing details, try different angles to find the most interesting composition.

Moving closer for amazing nature photos.
Capture your subject in their natural context

If you’re going to shoot nature photography, try to keep everything in the shot natural. There’s nothing wrong with taking a picture of the bird on a power line or spider on the side of your house. But if you’re after a powerful nature photo, photograph animals and plants in their natural habitat.

What else should the nature photographer carry?

On the photography side, a waterproof bag with extra cards and batteries are a no-brainer. Study the weather in advance and wear appropriate. It may not seem like weather for a jacket, but once you get in the woods the weather can change. Dress in layers. Hats, gloves and proper shoes can all prove useful. Don’t forget your sunscreen.

What about navigation? Don’t depend on your phone. Bring a current map and a compass, and learn how to use them.

Don’t ignore mobile duck and wildlife blind

In addition to hiking, we drive wilderness area roads meandering between ponds and fields. When visiting national parks, we hike during the day and take an evening drive looking animals. So, why is this important? Your vehicle acts like a mobile duck and wildlife blind. Most wildlife is conditioned to vehicles; it’s humans they’re more concerned about. Several of my favorite wildlife photos have been captured from our SUV. Drive with your windows down to increase the chances that you’ll hear wildlife before you see it.

Don’t get discouraged

Patience is key for nature photographers. Photographing animals or the right moment in nature can be frustrating. With lots of practice, you will start to notice improvements in your photos. We still learn every time we’re in the field!

Good luck out there!

Parting thoughts

Nature is incredibly vast and abundant for photographers. Having a sense of curiosity, adventure and willingness to get dirty all contribute to capturing magnificent nature photos. Respect for nature is paramount, however. It may be tempting to trample over vegetation to get just the right angle, but a good nature photographer leaves things as they were found, and never, ever feeds the wildlife.

Bring bags to take any garbage or other trash with you, even if you think an item is biodegradable. An orange or banana peel can take two years to decompose and eating these may condition animals to seek out human food.

The post Tips for better nature photography. Shoot like the pros! appeared first on Wandering Rose Travels.

  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

Nature photography is challenging, but with these few simple tips and techniques, you’ll be shooting dazzling photos soon.

Our definition of “nature photography” includes geology, plants, flowers and animals in their native environment. We’re ignoring landscape photography, choosing to cover that in a separate blog soon.

What is our single most important tip for great nature photos?

Barnacles on driftwood are made beautiful by the warm color and soft shadows of "golden hour" light.
It’s all about the light! Get up and out early and stay out late

Generally, nature photos look best when taken in morning or evening, especially during the golden hours just after sunrise and before sunset, when light has a softer, warmer quality.

Your subjects illuminate more evenly, without the harsh shadows common midday. Cameras can only capture a limited range of detail between the lightest and darkest areas. That’s why your eye views a midday scene with beautiful blue sky and dark green leaves, but the camera likely captures this scene with the sky an expanse of white nothingness and the leaves completely black. By eliminating the dark shadows and harsh highlights, you’ll capture the beautiful detail your eye sees.

Sometimes you can’t control time of day. In that case, use your camera’s HDR setting. HDR (High Dynamic Range) extends the ratio of detail between light and dark by capturing three different exposures and combining them via processing software. Presto! What once was the magical realm of pros and serious amateurs (who did this meticulously in editing software) is now a tool for all to use.

Get out early or late... that's when most animals are out and active.
Other advantages to shooting early and late

There are other advantages to shooting in the early morning or late evenings. Popular areas are less crowded, especially high-traffic state and national parks. We tried twice to visit Banff National Park’s Lake Louise during the day last summer, only to be turned away for lack of parking. We returned at 6 p.m. and had the place to ourselves. Being July, the sun did not set until nearly 11 p.m., so evening arrivals became our plan for seeing popular park areas if we missed the early morning alarm. Midday we hiked in more remote areas, enjoyed lunch and shopping In Banff, and napped on occasion.

If animal photography is your goal, aim for mornings and evenings. You’re more likely to score a great shot because generally animals are more active morning and evening, becoming harder to find during the heat of the day.

What lenses do you need for nature photography?

You don’t have to invest in specialty lenses to get great nature photos, but if nature is your thing, you will ultimately want to branch out with a wide angle, macro or telephoto lens. This does not eliminate those who prefer shooting with their phone. Many phones come with a separate telephoto lens built-in. It’s rumored that Apple will release an iPhone this fall with a wide angle lens. And many phones offer macro (extreme close-up) capability.

For DSLR shooters, a telephoto lens is likely your first purchase when acquiring nature photography gear. They have two big benefits: First, a telephoto lens gets you closer, allowing you to capture nature and animals from a distance without disturbing them. Zoom lens work great for this. Thorny’s go-to lens zooms 18 (wide angle) to 140 (telephoto) mm. If we’re shooting animals and need more reach, we’ve got lens that go up to 600 mm. They are a beast to carry but deliver dramatic images not possible otherwise. Second, telephoto lenses have less depth-of-field (amount of area in focus) than standard lens. This helps nature photographers separate their subject from its background. More on this later.

You can use digital zoom on your phone or point-and-shoot camera to get closer, but as you zoom the image quality degrades because essentially the software is just cropping. For decent quality, optical zoom is always best. Extend the capability of your current phone with third-party lens attachment. They are cheap and pretty good quality.

Try different angles. We plopped down on the ground to get eye level with this cutie.
Point and shoot cameras for nature photography

 Phone and DSLR cameras get the most attention, but point-and-shoot cameras can be great for nature photography without breaking the bank.

We use some combination of phone, point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras to capture nature images, depending on weather, weight considerations and what else we might be doing on a particular trip. For our winter trip to Yellowstone we loaded up the heavy camera and big telephoto lens. For hikes where we want a camera in case we see something worthy, but photography is not the primary goal, we rely on point-and-shoot.

The disadvantages over DSLR are a slight lag between the time you press the shutter and the image records and difficulty seeing the screen in bright daylight. The advantages – lightweight, waterproof, shock resistant – often make this our go-to camera for hiking or a city walk day. Another consideration: point-and-shoot cameras are inexpensive compared to DSLR. We’ve bashed our nice cameras into rocks more than once, and cringed as we assessed at the dents and dings.

We love the Olympus TG5 for point-and-shoot. In addition to the benefits already listed, this camera is great for underwater snorkeling photos and extreme close-ups of flowers and insects with the focus stacking function. The camera alone is less than $400. There’s a great kit on Amazon that includes wide angle and telephoto accessory lens and much more for just a few more bucks.

Do you need a tripod?

Most things we read are a resounding “yes” to carrying a tripod for nature photography. Our advice: only when necessary. We like to shoot multiple angles. A tripod tends to lock us to one spot. And we’re minimalists when in nature with regard to bulk and weight. Experiment with pushing up the ISO (sensitivity of the image sensor). Lower ISO is better quality, but we’ve pushed it to 3,000 and above in low-light to avoid motion blur. Experiment at home to determine what your tolerance is for high ISO versus quality. Thorny is okay with low-light images looking bit grainy. It reminds of the days of film (his youth). Others deplore any grain and would use a tripod to avoid pushing the ISO too high.

When a tripod is essential

  • Pre and post-sunrise photos that require long exposures
  • Daytime long exposure shots such as blurring the water in a stream or waterfall.
  • Video. One day we will purchase a handheld camera stabilizer. Meanwhile, a tripod is helpful to avoid video so shaky it causes motion-induced nausea. Because video does not have to be absolutely still, Thorny carries an Amazon tripod that weighs a mere pound and collapses to 16.5 inches.
Look for a contrasting background to separate your subject from its environment.
Separating the subject from the background

Nature photos often feature a plant, animal or flower as primary subject. Separating these from the background means the difference in ordinary photos versus magnificent.

There are several ways to achieve this:

  • Move around until there is contrast between the elements in your frame. Maybe you need the sky as the background or maybe find a darker or lighter spot in the tree canopy.
  • If possible, create distance between your foreground and background.
  • Use a wider aperture (lower f-stop) such as f/2.0 or f/2.8. Focus on the subject. The wide aperture should yield a soft, blurry background. For point-and-shoot cameras without manual settings try the sports mode or action setting. Many phone cameras offer portrait mode. This accomplishes the shallow depth of field through software.
  • Use a telephoto lens. They inherently have less depth of field than normal and wide-angle lenses.
  • Game animals blend into the landscape, so be careful about your background. Wait to shoot a deer, for example, until it is outlined against the sky or a distant light-colored field.
Go slowly, softly. Stop and observe.

When it comes to nature photography, let these words of Ralph Waldo Emerson guide you: “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” Patience is something that most of us don’t do well. We rush to see “everything” and walk right by the most amazing things.

It’s best not to disturb animals in their habitat, so be patient to get your shot. Waiting a few extra minutes can really be worth it. Study the animal or do research before you go out to better understand its behavior.

We’ve encountered a lot of birds and mammals when we paused, sat on a stump, listened and surveyed our surroundings. Many times, a movement or sound will reveal an animal’s location.

Small-scale photos: Moving in closer

It’s easy to get swept up in the majesty of all that surrounds you, but don’t neglect the small details. Each rock, leaf, petal or tide pool offers opportunities to photograph the minutiae. Be patient and soon, you’ll begin to notice all manner of interesting details.

There is a whole new world waiting for you when you get closer. This is where nature photographers differ from many other disciplines. When photographing details, try different angles to find the most interesting composition.

Moving closer for amazing nature photos.
Capture your subject in their natural context

If you’re going to shoot nature photography, try to keep everything in the shot natural. There’s nothing wrong with taking a picture of the bird on a power line or spider on the side of your house. But if you’re after a powerful nature photo, photograph animals and plants in their natural habitat.

What else should the nature photographer carry?

On the photography side, a waterproof bag with extra cards and batteries are a no-brainer. Study the weather in advance and wear appropriate. It may not seem like weather for a jacket, but once you get in the woods the weather can change. Dress in layers. Hats, gloves and proper shoes can all prove useful. Don’t forget your sunscreen.

What about navigation? Don’t depend on your phone. Bring a current map and a compass, and learn how to use them.

Don’t ignore mobile duck and wildlife blind

In addition to hiking, we drive wilderness area roads meandering between ponds and fields. When visiting national parks, we hike during the day and take an evening drive looking animals. So, why is this important? Your vehicle acts like a mobile duck and wildlife blind. Most wildlife is conditioned to vehicles; it’s humans they’re more concerned about. Several of my favorite wildlife photos have been captured from our SUV. Drive with your windows down to increase the chances that you’ll hear wildlife before you see it.

Don’t get discouraged

Patience is key for nature photographers. Photographing animals or the right moment in nature can be frustrating. With lots of practice, you will start to notice improvements in your photos. We still learn every time we’re in the field!

Good luck out there!

Parting thoughts

Nature is incredibly vast and abundant for photographers. Having a sense of curiosity, adventure and willingness to get dirty all contribute to capturing magnificent nature photos. Respect for nature is paramount, however. It may be tempting to trample over vegetation to get just the right angle, but a good nature photographer leaves things as they were found, and never, ever feeds the wildlife.

Bring bags to take any garbage or other trash with you, even if you think an item is biodegradable. An orange or banana peel can take two years to decompose and eating these may condition animals to seek out human food.

The post Tips for better wildlife photography. Shoot like the pros! appeared first on Wandering Rose Travels.

  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

In the collection of our nation’s protected natural resources, this place lies hidden inside a fog bank of obscurity. Even residents in other Great Lake states may look puzzled at its mention. But what a surprise! Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is one of our all-time favorite destinations that wasn’t on our bucket list, followed closely by Dinosaur National Monument on the border of Utah and Colorado.

Located near Munising in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, this national park unit is America’s first designated national lakeshore. In conversations about Michigan destinations, Picture Rocks can be slighted by more high profile places such as Isle Royale National Park and Mackinac Island.

I hope to convince you to find a way to visit this northern gem. It’s loaded with beauty and outdoor activities.

Pictured Rocks Cruises provides visitors great views looking into shore.
Pictured Rocks Cruises on Lake Superior

In general, I prefer to look up at cliffs versus staring down from them. I know, that’s a little quirky, but I could have weirder tendencies. To really soak up this national lakeshore’s geological wonders, you should view Pictured Rocks from the shore. You can glimpse them from hiking trails and scenic overlooks; however, you’ll get robbed of viewing the expansive, etched tapestry along this 40-mile stretch of Lake Superior’s shoreline.

Pictured Rocks Cruises offers a variety of daily options including a sunset trip. I’ve seen Lake Superior before but these views topped anything I experienced in the past. I was overwhelmed by the textures and colors of its 200-foot cliffs and weathered rock monoliths. While our cruise narrator lack enthusiasm, the overall experience was worth every penny. The boats depart from the harbor town of Munising, where we stayed.

You can also views the cliffs from sea kayaks, if the weather cooperates. We saw a lot of kayaks when we visited in August. The National Park Service website includes a section on water safety, so be sure to review it if you’re interested in seeing the cliffs while paddling. Local outfitters may be a great option for you.

Pictured Rocks offers a great hiking trail network including a trail to Miners Falls.
Hiking and exploring

Pictured Rocks includes 100 miles of hiking trails ranging from short and easy to long and challenging. We hiked to several waterfalls within the national lakeshore’s boundary: Chapel and Miners. Of the two, Miners Falls was more scenic and easier to view. We also hiked to several other falls near the national lakeshore, including Munising and Wagner. Both of those involved short walks and I’m glad we included them during our trip.

Other highlights include lighthouses, dunes and fishing. Two iconic rock formations draw tourists: Miners Castle and Chapel Rock. We saw both from the cruise, which is the best way to view them. You can also hike to Chapel Rock, about 10 miles round-trip. And you can drive to the Miners Castle overlook and take in Lake Superior from the viewing platform.

Trumpeter swans nest at Michigan’s Seney National Wildlife Refuge.
Nearby Seney National Wildlife Refuge

I always search for national wildlife refuges near our main vacation destinations. They can be a great “add-on” to a trip. I carefully research refuges to make sure they’re accessible and to gauge if wildlife might be prevalent during the season we visit.

That led us to Seney National Wildlife Refuge, about 45 minutes from Pictured Rocks. The refuge features a self-guided auto tour around the ponds and through the forests – we drove slowly and occasionally walked to take in the scenery. We saw trumpeter swans and loons with chicks, sandhill cranes, eagles, hawks, cedar waxwings, American bitterns, wildflowers and other marvels of nature. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff at this refuge visitor center were engaging and fun.

Minerals seeping from the rocks produce a geological tapestry.
What the heck is a pastie?

When the culinary experiences are unique, I like including them in my articles. My family and I ate twice at the Swedish Pantry in Escanaba, a city we passed through on our journey from Wisconsin to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The first stop resulted from good online reviews. The second meal resulted from the Swedish Pantry hitting a home run during our first visit when several of us tried the meatballs. They were spheres of deliciousness! So were the Swedish pancakes with lingonberries. And the perch were oblong spheres of tastiness. Okay, I’m done using geometric shapes to describe our food.

Have you ever paid to eat in someone’s garage? We did, at The Fish Basket in Munising, which served people from its food truck and hosted them right next door in a garage with tables and summer Christmas decorations. Great food, especially the fried whitefish from Lake Superior. I like “ quirky” and this qualified as a memorable dining experience.

I heard of “pasties” growing up in northern Wisconsin. They sounded vile to the “kid me.” After this vacation, I wish I hadn’t waited so long to try one. They’re dough pockets filled with vegetable and meat magic, offered in several varieties. We ate at Muldoons Pasties in Munising where takeout food was flying out the door during our visit. Several of my relatives created makeshift coolers so they could transport pasties back home. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a “pastie maker,” but I want one for my next birthday.

Take the autumn tour

During our visit to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, we already started daydreaming about a return during the peak of autumn colors. And while it’s tucked away in the northern United States, Picture Rocks National Lakeshore is oh-so worthy of your bucket list no matter where you live.

The post Pictured Rocks: Michigan’s hidden jewel along Lake Superior appeared first on Wandering Rose Travels.

  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 
Exploring nature, reefs, distilleries and cuisine

We’ve always enjoyed Caribbean cruises because they allow us to sample the islands. However, after 15 or so cruises, we’ve moved on from sampling and now prioritize gorging ourselves on one island at a time.

We first experienced the Dutch island of Bonaire as a one-time stop from our weeklong cruise itinerary. We signed up for a beach and snorkeling excursion, so we disembarked from the ship right onto a small tour boat and spent our entire day on the water, never actually setting foot on the island.

The coral reefs and sea life overwhelmed our visual senses that day – some of the best snorkeling we’ve ever experienced. After that single day, we vowed to return to Bonaire for a long vacation. We’ve fulfilled that promise twice in the past two years.

Sea turtle spotting is popular in Bonaire’s coral reefs.
Bonaire snorkeling, diving and beach combing

On an island with a mega reputation for great diving, my wife and I enjoyed snorkeling over Bonaire’s great coral reefs. We snorkeled from our hotel’s beach, from roadside beaches such as 1,000 Steps and Wayaka II and from a catamaran trip along the nearby island of Klein Bonaire.

On average, we snorkeled twice a day – I have shriveled prune-toe photos if you’d like me to post those images. Go ahead, dare me! The ocean sea life impressed us each time: hawksbill and green sea turtles, varieties of coral including staghorn that look like elk antlers, sting rays, midnight parrotfish, large schools of mesmerizing blue tang and surgeonfish, illuminated filefish and a variety of others. See my list of additional sightings below from our hotel’s beach.

We also signed up with Woodwind Tours for an afternoon catamaran sailing and snorkeling excursion, our second trip with them. They provide a great crew led by Dedrie. The staff offer an impressive variety of snorkeling equipment at no extra cost, including wet suits, full face masks and numerous prescription vision masks. We saw lots of sea life and an impressive coral reef that we rate at the top of our list. And they garnished our excursion with a great island pasta/salad plate and drinks that included more than the routine rum punch and soda. Bottoms up!

We enjoyed spotting this trupial at Slagbaai National Park.
Exploring Washington Slagbaai National Park

We set aside a day to visit Bonaire’s national park. We purposely rented a four-wheel drive vehicle because Washington Slagbaai and its roads are rough and unpaved. But the drive matched the scenery which was much more wild than the rest of the island.

You can visit lighthouses, watch blowholes, photograph flamingos and other exotic birds, snorkel or dive from shore, hike among the cactus and floral, picnic along the beach or just enjoy the scenic drive.

There’s lots of ocean life close to the Harbour Village Beach.
Harbour Village Beach Club

After our first weeklong vacation to Bonaire, there was no question about where to stay again: Harbour Village Beach Club resort. Bonaire has few sandy beaches but the best one is perhaps at Harbour Village. There’s something relaxing about stepping out of your room onto the warm sand and into the ocean breeze. It’s the main feature that drew us back to this resort. Staff keep the private beach and resort grounds well groomed and the service is excellent.

I normally don’t single out accommodations in my WRT posts, but this resort deserves the accolades. The La Balandra Bar & Restaurant in the resort juts out into the ocean and lights illuminate sea life while you dine at night. Sea birds can be pesky in this open-air restaurant, but overall we enjoyed the charm of having gulls, parrots and other feathered guests squawk at us while we dined. And we enjoyed the guilty pleasure of ordering restaurant food and drink from our beach hammocks.

Our biggest surprise at this resort? The abundance of sea life we encountered while snorkeling just 40 feet from the resort’s shoreline. There’s much more beautiful coral around other parts of the island, but the resort added rock piles off shore and is growing coral, which draws a colorful variety of ocean life. Here’s a sampling of what we encountered: octopus, four varieties of eels, schools of tarpon, spotted drumfish, sea anemone, numerous parrotfish and giant French angelfish.

The resort accommodations are somewhat on the high end of our price point, but we won’t stay anywhere else. Time of year matters, so check out their seasonal rates.

Dive shop staff helped me identify this midnight parrotfish.
Onsite dive shop

Great Adventures Bonaire is the resort’s onsite dive shop, a PADI five-star Instructor Development Center. Bonaire boasts a lot of dive shops, approximately 25, but only a handful currently participates in coral restoration efforts. Click here for a related story about the resort’s impressive eco and sustainability efforts.

We attended an evening talk about coral reefs hosted at the resort, presented by the dive shop’s manager, Christine Ball. Informative plus inspiring!

The dive shop staff take guests out daily on dive and snorkel trips. Resort guests can also use the dive shop’s paddleboards and kayaks free of charge during daytime hours. And you can check out its underwater research reef cam for live action.

I tried iguana stew in Bonaire, but I sampled this one with my camera.
Enjoying spirits and cuisine

Liqueurs made from cactus? Why not. We’re on vacation and motivated to try something new every day. The Cadushy Distillery provided that opportunity along with tastings and drinks from other Dutch islands. We sipped (one of us slurped) drinks in their courtyard filled with island birds. It’s a great stop if you’re near Rincon or touring the nearby national park.

Our favorite island restaurants included Italy in the World, Between Two Buns and the Dash Kitchen food truck with its homemade doughnuts, breads and cuisine. I also tried iguana stew at a restaurant serving local fare.

Other tidbits about Bonaire
  • The official currency of Bonaire is the U.S. dollar. The island made the switch in 2011.
  • From Charlotte, we connected in Miami and then flew direct to Bonaire.
  • Some people enjoy visiting the Donkey Sanctuary, home to sick, wounded and orphaned donkeys. It’s a great resource, just not a beautiful destination on the island.
  • We rented a truck for two days because we wanted to explore the island, offshore snorkeling sites and Slagbaai National Park with its bumpy roads. They drive on the same side of the road as Americans and getting around was easier than we expected.
  • We each had to purchase a $25 ocean park pass. It’s a requirement for anyone who enters the waters around Bonaire, where every inch of coastline is designated a national marine park. Well worth our investment.

We’ll cruise again in the future – we’re headed to Alaska this summer. But we’re currently moored in our “island siesta” lifestyle, happy to arrive on a Caribbean island and anchor our bodies for a relaxing week.

The post Bonaire sparkles in the Caribbean appeared first on Wandering Rose Travels.

  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

When I’m on vacation, I don’t like to think a lot, especially about topics that make me think. But I’m grateful to the dive shop and its staff at Harbour Village Beach Club resort on Bonaire.

My wife and I attended an evening talk in the open-air restaurant presented by the dive shop manager, Christine Ball. And we walked away with a head full of knowledge and an admiration for people and businesses that invest in their environment’s future.

The Harbour Village dive shop joined the Coral Restoration Foundation Bonaire in 2014 and then established the Harbour Village Reef Foundation in 2017. Their main goal is to help restore coral reefs around the island.

Bonaire's Harbour Village founded a local chapter of Teens4Oceans.

If you follow eco-news, even sporadically, you know that our planet’s coral reefs are in peril. It’s estimated that we’ve lost 30 percent of all reefs and that 60 percent of the remaining reefs are in danger. The reasons include disease, hurricanes, loss of sea urchins, coral bleaching and rising sea temperatures.

The dive shop crew is active in reef restoration, which is obvious when you snorkel off the resort beach and hover over staghorn coral tree nurseries that resemble old TV antennas strung with coral pieces. You also notice coral pieces glued to rocks in an effort to establish new growth on the ocean floor.

The resort dive shop also helped found a local chapter of the international Teens4Oceans. We’re on a path to hand over a damaged environment to the next generation of leaders, so it makes sense to energize young people who will inherit challenges such as restoring coral reefs. The dive shop also works with international school groups doing field research.

The Harbour Village Foundation sponsors turtle nests.
Check out the online underwater reef research cam.

Most species of sea turtles are endangered and suffer from poaching, exploitation, habitat destruction and accidental capture in fishing nets. These threats are why the dive shop and the foundation sponsor turtle nests. Last year, two of those nests hatched.

My wife and I learned a lot more during the evening presentation. As soon as we returned to our resort room, we checked our sunscreen to make sure it didn’t contain oxybenzone, an ingredient that kills coral by damaging its DNA and causes coral bleaching. Side note, our sunscreen label boldly stated “oxybenzone free” and we plan on only buying that type of product in the future – it’s an action everyone can take to help preserve our ocean ecosystem.

Thanks again to Christine and the Harbour Village Reef Foundation for contributing to Bonaire’s tourism while also devoting time and resources to the future of our oceans. Let’s hope more businesses embrace the same commitment.

The post Caribbean dive shop prioritizes the “future” ocean appeared first on Wandering Rose Travels.

  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 
The superintendent of America’s most visited national park wants you to know these things

What U.S. location has more species of trees than all of Europe? Where have more than 1,000 species new to science been discovered? What was the most visited national park in 2018 with 11.4 million visitors? The salamander capital of the world is where?

 You’re right if you answered Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the North Carolina/Tennessee border. Leading hundreds of staff and thousands of volunteers who watch over this national treasure is National Park Service Superintendent, Cassius Cash. We recently asked Cash to share his perspective on GSMNP and making your next visit the best it can be.

Wandering Rose Travels (WRT): If you could chat with a newcomer to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), what would you want them to know?

Cash: Most people are not aware that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is among the most diverse ecosystems in the world. You can visit the same location multiple times and have a different experience, depending on the time of year or even just on the time of day.

Equally important is the park’s heritage and history. Visitors can see preserved churches, farm buildings and homes of European settlers and learn how they lived off this land before the national park was established.

GSMNP is also a great place to view wildlife. Our focus is “keeping the wild in wildlife.” Visitors can help by watching their trash and food scraps. You might think leaving an apple peel on the ground is harmless because it is biodegradable and will just go away. But did you know that bears can become habituated to food that humans eat? Just like the potato chip ad says, you can’t have just one. Once habituated, bears associate the apple peel with humans, which may pose a health and safety risk to other visitors on trails or even in campgrounds.

I would remind visitors to keep their distance from our animals. Regulations say park visitors must stay at least 150 feet from wildlife. Some of our visitors have never been in national park and seeing an elk or bear can be a life-changing event. Some people want to become one with nature and lose perspective that these are wild animals. That worries us. I want to get the word out how to have a good time while staying safe and respecting the animals.

The park abounds with wildlife, but keep a safe distance to protect yourself and the animals.

WRT: What’s your advice to help visitors get the fullest possible experience during their visit to GSMNP?

 Cash: People look for different adventures. Discovering the park by car is the experience that some people want. Others want to hike 5-6 miles for a vista more beautiful than anything they’ve ever seen. Active and passive users both have their place. Our visitor centers are a great resource for making the most of your Great Smokies visit. Park staff and volunteers can assess your wishes and capability and recommend hikes or drives or places to spot wildlife.

Trip planning plays a major role in the experience. This is not a city park where you get off on a trail and see where it takes you. Many people come to the park unprepared, making their visit uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. If you want to hike, have trail maps, proper shoes and water. Recognize how elevation plays a role in temperature and be prepared for rain. If you don’t have the right gear and understanding, your visit can become dangerous.

Every year people become lost in the park’s backcountry. It’s the reason I stress hiking with a map. Let people know where you are going and when you are expected back. How quickly we mount a missing hiker search can determine life and death.

Hiking accidents happen. You can’t prevent that. Twisted ankles are a usual case. Most accidents happen because hikers end up where they should not be. Or their gear is improper. People overexert themselves. They may come to the park with a goal of repeating a difficult hike they did years ago and along the trail their body reminds them they are not 21 anymore.

Superintendent Cash addresses school group during a visit to the park

WRT: What things surprise people the most about GSMNP?

Cash: The park’s level of biodiversity. Some 1,000 species new to science have been found here. We have more tree species than all of Europe. The park includes habitats representing north Georgia to Maine. We’re called the salamander capital of the world. People are fascinated when they hear these things. All this is within an eight-hour drive for half the U.S. population.

WRT: What makes you proudest about GSMNP?

Cash: Our employees and volunteers. I wish visitors could meet and have conversations with them. Several employees have been here 30-plus years and many volunteers have given this park over 15,000 hours of their time.

They are here because they cannot envision themselves anywhere else. No matter how underfunded the park is, they still give 110 percent.

The National Park Service (NPS) is America’s storyteller. We’re making a Herculean effort to build the next generation of national park supporters and advocates. We brag about being the most visited national park, but I think the measure for our next century of service will be measured by “who” is visiting the Smokies. We strive for a diversity of users. We educate people in urban areas to understand what a national park visit does for the soul and mind. We bring school kids from nearby Knoxville and Asheville into the park for educational experiences. Many of these kids have never been to the Smokies even though they live close by. We teach them how to have a great experience in an unfamiliar environment. You can start small and work to bigger goals: Go to city park; then plan a day hike and perhaps work up to an overnight experience. We encourage students to commit to a relationship with the outdoors. Our rangers have great success working with schools.

We talk a lot about biodiversity, but human diversity is important also. We teach about the early European settlers and Native Americans who lived off the land and we are expanding our story about African Americans who lived in the park. Most people don’t know the park contains several African American burial sites.

 

WRT: What role does NPS staff play in enhancing the visitor experience and how can people take advantage of that?

 Cash: Everyone in green and gray has their role in enhancing a visitor’s experience. Our people don’t care whether they are giving interpretative talk or emptying the trash. We take pride in providing service at the highest level. We engage people on multiple issues: How to find the best trail; where the bathroom is; or tips on viewing the park by car.

When we ask staff, “Why did you become a park ranger,” nine out of 10 go back to a national park family vacation from their youth. They remember encountering a park ranger and that experience sparked an interest. As park staff, you never know if you just spawned that aspiration in a young person that leads them to a career with the National Park Service.

An invasive insect has killed hundreds of thousands of hemlock trees in the park

WRT: What park visitor behavior frustrates you?

 Cash: We spend an enormous amount of money paying people to pick up litter. Visitors can help us utilize our limited staff resources more efficiently by not littering. Hikers remember: if you pack it in, pack it out.

Feeding wildlife has consequences. Bear becomes habituated to the food and lose their fear of humans. We unfortunately have to put those bears down if they later become a threat to visitors, because they are simply trying to replicate an experience from a previous visitor feeding them. I have to believe that no one wants to see these icons of the Great Smokies put down. The consequences of that one marshmallow lingers long after you are gone.

WRT: Unlike most national parks, there is no entrance fee for GSMNP. What are some options if a visitor wants to contribute to the park?

Cash: A couple of organizations come to mind; first, The Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains (FOTS), our philanthropic arm for the park, has donated to the park more than $65 million over 25 years. FOTS mission is to preserve and protect the Smokies by raising funds and public awareness. Anyone interested in contributing to park projects can reach out to them for more information. The other organization that supports the park with research and educational needs is the Great Smoky Mountains Association (GSMA). GSMA supports the scientific, historical and interpretive activities of the park. And we’ve received more than $30 million from the GSMA. Without the support from these two organizations, we could not get as much done as we do.

GSMNP is at a disadvantage because we don’t collect entrance fees. Our workforce is down 20 percent in recent years because rising inflation cost, while the park’s visitation has climbed 25 percent. The inflation cost reduces our spending power on average by $300,000 annually. That equates to 3 to 4 positions a year. Parks that are experiencing the same financial and visitation realities, are, for the most part, able to offset their “erosion of the base” with the entrance fees collected.

WRT: What activities do you wish your rangers had more time for?

Cash: More interpretative talks. Some campgrounds have amphitheatres where we used to host fireside chats. I would have more people in law enforcement to help manage increased vehicle traffic. More people in visitor centers. More people in the field looking at the health of park and the impact of invasive insects and plants. Currently there are hundreds of thousands of dead hemlock trees in the park, victims of an invasive insect. Through research and science we are slowing or stopping this insect from damaging our trees. We want to keep this park the way people remember it when they were a child.

WRT: How many staff and volunteers operate GSMNP?

Cash: 180-185 permanent staff; 80-85 temporary summer staff; 2,800 volunteers and 20-25 internships.

WRT: As park superintendent, what keeps you up at night?

Cash: The safety of my staff. Preventing employee injuries keeps me up at night. We send staff out to start their day with the instruction, “make sure you always go home the way you came.” Our team has a lot of exposure to danger. For example, the National Park Service has lost employees at other parks by being struck by vehicles during roadside mowing operations. We have that same exposure here at the Smokies in addition to other risks like repairing old historic structures. This sort of work requires construction equipment and different types of machinery, which is potentially hazardous. We’re big on requiring that proper personal protection equipment is used every time. Little things add up. I am always striving to stay ahead of the curve. You can’t lose focus, even for a moment.

Superintendent Cassius Cash

WRT: If you had more budget, what would your priorities be?

Cash: More rangers and more maintenance employees to take care of facilities. Due to heavy use, the shelf life of our infrastructure is much shorter than less used facilities. We have deferred maintenance on projects totalling $235 million. We are self sufficient within the park. This includes roofs, paint, water and wastewater systems, roads, signs, you name it. It is like running a city, with 11 million people coming in it each year.

In 2016, 300 million people visited a U.S. national park. That’s more than attend NFL, NBA, MLB, NASCAR and Disney put together. And we manage those parks on the same budget as the city of Austin, Texas.

WRT: As superintendent with a lot of administrative duties, what do you do to simply relax and enjoy nature?

Cash: I like to hike. Depending on the trail, sometimes hiking here can feel like you are in the most visited park. But those times I am looking for solitude, I can find it. With 845 miles of trail, it’s easy to explore less traveled routes.

We appreciate the time, knowledge and thoughts Cassius Cash shared with us. Let’s all do our part to be good stewards of our parks. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a true treasure to be respected in its history, science, beauty, wildlife, and in its future.

The post Enhancing your visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park appeared first on Wandering Rose Travels.

Read for later

Articles marked as Favorite are saved for later viewing.
close
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

Separate tags by commas
To access this feature, please upgrade your account.
Start your free month
Free Preview