The Twelve Mile Circle feeds my on-the-ground experiences and my experiences loop-back and feed 12MC. It’s a great circle of activity, although I mention that with apologies for the analogy. A reader comment brought John Day to my attention, which resulted in an article, which resulted in some fascinating places to visit during my Oregon trip.
I’ve been tripping across John Day repeatedly ever since.
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This is the approximate route for the John Day portion of the journey, although not all in a single day. We’re using Bend, OR as a base camp and making day-trips into the countryside from there, having driven down from the Tri-Cities area of eastern Washington earlier.
I began with a drive-by of the Columbia / John Day River confluence along Interstate 84, on the Oregon side of its shared border with Washington. The John Day dumps into the much-larger Columbia right at the railroad trestle farther back in the image. I could have stopped at Le Page Park, situated directly at the confluence, but that would have required an admission fee and I’m cheap. I wasn’t going to pay just to take a photo as much as I love the 12MC audience. Sorry.
We checked-in with John Day a bit more dramatically at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument a few days later. It’s truly in the middle of nowhere and all of the park rangers appeared to be in their mid-20′s. I think John Day may be a form of newly-hired ranger hazing. I can imagine the parks superintendent saying something like, “So, you want to work at Yosemite, do you? Well, put in about 20 years and maybe we can make that happen. First, let’s start you off at John Day and see what you’re made of.”
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The satellite image makes John Day look bleak. That’s deceptive. It’s absolutely stunning and gorgeous at ground level.
The National Monument has three units and we visited two of them. It’s headquartered at the Sheep Rock Unit named, appropriately enough, for Sheep Rock. You’re looking at Sheep Rock right now.
One can visit the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center and the nearby James Cant Ranch in quick succession. This part of the park has the only true amenities (e.g., genuine flush toilets). My wife felt it was important to note that for the more demure members of the 12MC audience. It’s apparently a big deal. There are also a variety of short-hike opportunities with spectacular scenery nearby too.
Notice the trickle of water in the foreground of the image. Yes, that’s the same John Day River that will dump into the Columbia more purposefully another hundred-or-so-miles to the north. Much of the flow down here gets diverted for agricultural purposes. Water rights are strictly apportioned and enforced. Farms could not exist in the High Desert without careful water management. My favorite trivial tidbit from an interpretive sign at the ranch:
Just as the Cant family did before us, the National Park Service is dedicated to continuing the tradition of working this land by farming and cultivating an annual hay crop. In fact, to manage this operation, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument employs the only full-time farmer in a national park.
I can now say I saw the only full-time national parks farmer puttering-along on his tractor.
The Sheep Rock unit is slightly over the Grant County line, approaching from the west. My wife pointed out the sign to me as we crossed the border. I felt a sense of accomplishment, that she’s finally acclimated to my county counting fixation albeit she never truly understanding it. I also felt a sense of bemusement that she didn’t seem to realize I’d mapped and planned this county capture well ahead of time, and in fact, it was a contributory reason for trekking all the way out to the Sheep Rock unit in the first place. I give her a look of mild surprise, and responded “oh, isn’t that interesting?”
The kids enjoyed the fossils at the Sheep Rock unit most of all. My wife and I favored the scenery of the Painted Hills Unit. There was something for the whole family to appreciate. I call that success.
I cannot even begin to describe the Painted Hills and the photograph doesn’t do it justice. The colors, if anything, were even more vibrant. A passing shower created additional viewing opportunities, changing the entire nature of the scenery. Yes, apparently I have the ability to bring rain to the desert. Call it my special gift. I can’t have a vacation without rainfall. It passed quickly and didn’t spoil the day, so no harm done.
The Painted Hills are located in Wheeler County, which is the Oregon county with the smallest population (1,441 residents in 2010). It also covers 1,715 square miles, making it one of those rarefied counties with more land than people. What does more land than people look like? Empty. Really, really empty. As in, make sure you have a full tank of gas before you arrive because it’s going to be a long time before you get another chance, empty. Do you want to live completely isolated in a stunningly beautiful place? Wheeler County might be your choice.
I didn’t get to the town of John Day or Dayville, both named for the John Day River rather than directly for the man himself, because they were further down the road and the kids would have mutinied. I did, however, stop by this odd Shoe Tree between Dayville and Mitchell.
We stumbled upon this completely by accident although I found it listed on Roadside Americana after we returned. I guess it’s famous, sort of, or whatever. A beat-up pickup truck stood by the side of the road when we pulled over. Two middle-aged guys, looking like they’d been plucked right out of the 1840′s Mountain Man era complete with ZZ Top beards, were throwing old shoes onto the tree. They explained that it was a tradition started by local high school kids, and alcohol may have been involved.
Actually they looked at us like we were the odd ones. "You don’t have shoe trees where you’re from?" Um… no, can’t say that we do.
Other articles in this travelogue:
I continue to mine many of the suggestions offered by 12MC reader "Scott" who provided me with a boatload of National Park trivia last summer. With that, I’m going pursue an angle that isn’t particularly well know, or at least unknown to me. One often thinks of everything associated with National Parks as perpetual. After all, their goals include conservation and preservation. Once a park, always a park, one would conclude if understanding the conventional wisdom. That’s not always true, however.
It sounds counter-intuitive and perhaps mildly shocking, but some properties in the NPS inventory have been disestablished. Twenty three sites have been transferred away from NPS administration for a variety of reasons.
Sometimes properties were disestablished because the original acquisition never made much sense to begin with, such as with a concert hall.
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
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The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC is world-renowned for theater, ballet, orchestral performances and arts eduction. It’s a great home for the National Symphony Orchestra but does it have the qualities of a great national park? No, and that’s why it was moved to a public-private partnership under the direction of the Kennedy Center trustees in 1994.
Father Millet Cross National Monument
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons in the public domain
The Father Millet Cross National Monument has to be one of the more unusual former NPS properties. It’s located on the grounds of Old Fort Niagara. The former monument commemorates a rescue mission at the original French fort in 1688. Father Millet was part of the rescue party that reached the sick and starving soldiers at the garrison. He erected a wooden cross at the site and the later National Monument served to commemorate the original commemoration, if that makes sense. It is reputed to have been the smallest national monument ever established at a mere 0.0074 acres or 320 square feet.
The National Monument was eventually disestablished and transferred to the state of New York to include within surrounding Fort Niagara park. The Father Millet Cross is but a mere speck on that property. It didn’t meet the definition of what should be considered a National Monument.
Sullys Hill National Park
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Most of the disestablished properties were National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, and the like. It’s rare for a full-blown National Park to lose that status, and even more unusual for one to be removed from the NPS roster altogether. Sullys Hill National Park in North Dakota certainly doesn’t have the name recognition of Yellowstone or Yosemite, and indeed that’s one of the reasons it no longer exits.
President Theodore Roosevelt himself established the park in 1904 which is pretty significant considering his contributions to the conservation movement and his role in the history of the system of national parks in the United States. Nonetheless, Sullys Hill was transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service about thirty years later and demoted to a game reserve.
Castle Pinckney National Monument
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Chances are you’ve heard of Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor in South Carolina (my visit) if you have even a basic understanding of U.S. History. It brings to mind an important time and place in the United States at the dawn of the Civil War. How about Castle Pinckney? Well, probably not so much. That was the primary issue with Castle Pinckney National Monument. It was part of the defenses of Charleston Harbor — just like Ft. Sumter — but to a considerably lesser extent.
Anyone who’s visited Charleston and gazed upon the harbor has likely seen Castle Pinckney without realizing it. The excursion boat that took me to Ft. Sumter sailed directly past it and the guides actually pointed it out. Castle Pinckney seemed to be seriously eroded with vegetation growing through it, sitting on a shoal that’s gradually being absorbed into the harbor. Granted, it doesn’t have the name recognition of other Charleston sites however it probably doesn’t deserve this fate either. It’s gone from National Monument to neglected ruin.
I mentioned 12MC reader Scott a couple of weeks ago in reference to the Park You Cannot Visit. He also set me up with a lot of other National Park Service trivia that I’ll cover from time-to-time as I’m able to work it into the publication schedule. As an example, he wondered if I’d ever noticed that some of the parks have an unusual appendage to their names, such as "Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve."
I’d glanced over that distinction somehow even though I’ve visited Glacier Bay. I guess I though a park was a park, right? Actually no. In the parlance of the NPS, a park and a preserve are two completely separate and distinct units even when they share the same name. Their Glacier Bay map shows this difference quite clearly. Someone who wishes to document a visit to every NPS property would have to travel both to the park and to the preserve.
SOURCE: National Park Service in the public domain, with special thanks to Scott for the link
Naturally, I had to know more about the difference since I’d been totally unaware of it up until now. Fortunately the NPS shares its nomenclature and it’s easy to understand.
- National Park: "These are generally large natural places having a wide variety of attributes, at times including significant historic assets."
- National Preserve: "National preserves are areas having characteristics associated with national parks, but in which Congress has permitted continued public hunting, trapping, oil/gas exploration and extraction. Many existing national preserves, without sport hunting, would qualify for national park designation."
So, put very simply, a preserve is a park with gunfire. When a preserve and a park share the same name — as with the case in Glacier Bay — hunting is confined to a specific geographic area.
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The NPS and the State of Alaska manage resources of Glacier Bay’s preserve jointly. It is not an easy place to reach and when hunters do arrive they are on their own. However, Grandma on her cruise ship won’t have to worry about stray bullets whizzing by as she floats along the Inside Passage watching glaciers calve. The preserve is far removed from the touristy areas of the park.
[It] is accessed by air, and involves a 50-mile air taxi flight from Yakutat. There are no scheduled flights. The NPS maintains two airstrips at the Public Use Cabin and another near the rafter take out and Ranger Station. Several small airstrips and beaches provide other landing spots… There is one big game hunting guide authorized through concession contracts to operate within Glacier Bay National Preserve.
That’s going to be one tough park stamp to earn.
I also wondered if National Preserves were common, and how often they were appended to National Parks. There are eighteen in total. Half of them are combined with other properties. I also noted that many of them were located in Alaska which I guess makes sense.
- Aniakchak, Alaska*
- Bering Land Bridge, Alaska
- Big Cypress, Florida
- Big Thicket, Texas
- Craters of the Moon, Idaho*
- Denali, Alaska**
- Gates of the Arctic, Alaska**
- Glacier Bay, Alaska**
- Great Sand Dunes, Colorado**
- Katmai, Alaska**
- Lake Clark, Alaska**
- Little River Canyon, Alabama
- Mojave, California
- Noatak, Alaska
- Tallgrass Prairie, Kansas
- Timucuan Ecological and Historic, Florida
- Wrangell-St. Elias, Alaska**
- Yukon-Charley Rivers, Alaska
* National Monument and National Preserve
** National Park and National Preserve
National Preserves are a relatively new phenomenon within the National Park Service inventory. The first two, Big Cypress and Big Thicket date only to 1974. By contrast the first National Park, Yellowstone, came into creation a century earlier.
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Big Cypress was supposed to have been part of Everglades National Park but the land was owned privately and money wasn’t available at the time to purchase it. They are both large swampy areas of South Florida with a key difference: Big Cypress has a slightly higher elevation so it’s marked by considerably more tree hammocks. They also have different water sources and drain towards different directions. The preserve is massive — the size of the State of Delaware.
It became a preserve instead of a park due to the heated debate at the time of its creation.
National Preserves also provide adequate flexibility to try new types of management and partnerships that don’t fit within the traditional National Park model. Such is the case with Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas.
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Tallgrass Prairie is one of the newer NPS sites, gaining its authorization in 1996. The unique aspect of this preserve is that the vast majority of its acreage is actually owned by the Nature Conservancy. That is why there are websites available from the both organizations, the NPS and the Nature Conservancy. The land is managed cooperatively. In return Tallgrass Prairie gains legitimacy and an additional level of protection under the auspices of the Federal government. It is believed that this may become a model for future parks and preserves.
Administrative Note. Totally unrelated to today’s topic: I finally got the redirect working on the Complete Index, the interactive map of all article I mentioned back in June. A couple of you asked when that might happen, so now it’s done. You can either select the link at the top of the page or on the sidebar and it will take you to the same place directly.
Also, a special thank you to the person who gave the Complete Index a Google +1. As I’ve noted before, it does seem to make a difference and since I get lots of article ideas from totally random Google queries you can see how it cycles back into improving the website.