If we spied a new slickrock canyon and half of us said, “Wow,” the scene earned a Wow Factor 5. If a certain quality of light caught almost everyone’s eye, it received a Wow Factor 7. The ultimate scene left us all slack-jaw and amazed: Wow Factor 10.
National Parks, it seems to me, are the Land of Wow.
Most national parks aren’t designed around rivers. They are built around geologic features such as Yellowstone’s geysers or Yosemite’s granite, or historic sites like Gettysburg or Little Bighorn battlefields. Still, our finest rivers-those with the highest Wow Factors-flow through our national parks.
Every summer, millions of us launch our own personal adventures, heading for these select parks. RIVER Magazine has compiled a list of some of the best National Parks for river lovers. And if you go without a canoe or kayak atop your car, or without packing your flyrod … well, don’t blame us for the “wows” you miss.
Glacier Park is more accurately Glaciated National Park. The spectacular peaks and lush mountain cirques were sculpted by ice long ago. The actual glaciers you see are just remnants of their former selves and, alas, are melting fast.
But as they melt, glacial flour mixes with frigid runoff, tinting local rivers a striking, aquamarine. It looks like a photographer’s trick with colored filters. That hue is what adds character to the Middle Fork of the Flathead, the river which forms the southern boundary to Glacier Park.
The Middle Fork is an official Wild-and-Scenic River, blessed with Class III rapids and favored by day-tripping rafters and kayakers. The river is flanked on one side by U.S. Highway 2, which provides easy access. Beyond, the forested mountains of the Great Bear Wilderness provide a rugged backdrop. The scenery attracted Meryl Streep and her film crew when Hollywood shot portions of “The River Wild” here. Watch for mountain goats which lick minerals from an escarpment above the river.
Fishing in the Middle Fork is regulated by the state of Montana. Until recently, the stream was reliable for native cutthroat and bull trout. Recent declines have prompted new restrictions, including mandatory catch-and-release for cuts.
The tumbling McDonald Creek, with water so clear it looks distilled, drains the park’s interior. And on Glacier’s eastside flow three shorter rivers: the Belly River, the Two Medicine, and the St. Mary. These are too small for floating, but they are sparkling companions for hiking and great places to see elk, bears, and other creatures.
Wow Factor? Water from Glacier Park flows into three of the world’s four ocean drainages: The Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic. One may climb atop Triple Divide Peak and stand above three drainages at once. Wow.
Superintendent, Glacier National Park, West Glacier, MT, 59936. Phone: (406) 888-7800.
Some five million visitors gaze into this chasm every year. But only a tiny fraction of them-perhaps 100,000 souls-actually visit the Colorado River itself. The Colorado flows through 227 miles of Grand Canyon National Park. Most visitors peer off the south rim, see the tiny trickle a mile below, and then rush to the Imax Theater in Tusayan to see the river on the big screen.
For those who prefer reality, there are three ways to visit the “inner gorge”: by foot, mule, or raft.
Walking is arguably the best way to appreciate the depth and timelessness of the Grand. It’s also the most physically demanding. There are people who have hiked down and back in a single day, but rangers strongly discourage it. The hike demands a 5,000-foot elevation change each way, often in blazing heat with no water. Good sense dictates hikers take at least two days. Look at it this way: It took a few hundred million years to build this canyon, so why rush?
Riding a mule is demanding in a different way, but still an adventure. The mule trains are a canyon tradition, dating to the days Teddy Roosevelt rode a particularly stout mule to the bottom. Phantom Ranch, on the river’s edge, is a main destination for an overnight stay, via Bright Angel Trail from South Rim.
Each year, 20,000 people raft the Grand Canyon. About two-thirds of those are clients in commercial groups and one third are private boaters. For many, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River is the ultimate rafting experience.
The trip can take weeks and includes mighty whitewater. However, demand for permits far exceeds supply, particularly if you don’t hire an outfitter. If you start applying for a permit right now, count on waiting 10 years or more before you’re rewarded. With the Grand Canyon’s global reputation, don’t expect the wait to get any shorter. A commercial trip eliminates the wait, but can cost $300 per person per day.
Wow factor? Watching a meteor shower zip from rim to rim on a moonless night while listening to the roar of a downstream rapid.
Contact: Superintendent, Grand Canyon National Park, Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ, 86023. Phone (520) 638-7888.
Pack your boat, plus your bikes. The slickrock of Canyonlands National Park is a Mecca for mountain bikes. But two great rivers converge here as well: the Colorado and the Green.
The Confluence Overlook trail is a classic Canyonlands hike. From that promontory, visitors gaze down at the merging Green and Colorado.
The two rivers have distinctly different colors-like a river of tea flowing into a river of milky coffee. From the overlook, one can see the distinct line as the waters merge and the two rivers share one channel. But the overlook offers only a small glimpse of the rivers themselves.
The Green River offers a route into the Maze District. This sandstone labyrinth is an Ed Abbey paradise: one of the loneliest, loveliest and most rugged places in the lower Forty Eight.
One popular float is from Mineral Bottom, on the Green, to the confluence of the Colorado. Mineral Bottom is at the end of a crumbling cliffside road left over from the uranium boom (which is an adventure in its own right.)
Allow at least five days on the river for time to explore the side-canyons through red slickrock. The flat water is suited to sea kayak or canoe, although the headwind can be brutal.
Commercial jetboats run the Colorado from Moab to the confluence and will shuttle your gear back to Moab. Also, the Colorado around Moab offers mild-mannered day floats with a chance to see desert bighorn sheep
.If you can’t bear to leave your mountain bike behind, four-wheel-drive roads lead to both the Colorado and Green rivers and are gear-straining, all-day rides through the full-range of desert stratifications.
Wow Factor? Hear the sweet, flute-song of the canyon wren greeting the warmth of another sunrise.
Contact: Superintendent, 2282 S. West Resource Blvd., Moab, UT, 84532-3298. Phone: (435) 259-7164.
The Canadian Rockies national parks are known for just that: the Rocky Mountains. Here, the earth’s crust has smashed and twisted into jagged vistas, with icefields and glaciers still grinding away at this enormous sculpture.
The rivers born of these peaks-the Bow, the Athabasca, the Maligne and the Saskatchewan-match the mountains. One of the finest days of my life was a clear winter morning, cross-country skiing on the frozen Saskatchewan River. I cut a fresh set of wolf tracks, following them where the animal led me all day long.
The Bow flows from Banff National Park, through the Bow River Valley, and across the plains to Calgary. The Bow River Valley is a major wildlife corridor for large animals moving up and down the Rockies. The Bow offers canoeing and trout fishing near the Banff townsite.
The Athabasca River flows north from Jasper, a braided stream of cobble bars and flooded willow flats. Moose and beaver, and occasionally black and grizzly bear, can be found there. The Athabasca has a decidedly “northern” feel to it. Guide services based in Jasper townsite offer scenic boat trips down the Athabasca, as well as whitewater on the nearby Sunwapta, Fraser, Canoe, Whirlpool, and Kakwa rivers.
Runoff usually peaks in June or early July and water flows generally remain plentiful through August. Every summer, colorful harlequin ducks return to Jasper’s Maligne River to breed and raise young before spending their winters on the coast of British Columbia. These birds are shy and are best watched from a distance through binoculars or a spotting scope.
Jasper and Banff have the disadvantage of a major highway running through their center. This highway runs right along the major river valleys and can be jam-packed with tourists during the summer months, but an alternative is to visit during the off-season. Cross-country skiing is good through March and a series of youth hostels offers inexpensive shelter. Wildlife watching reaches its apex in September and October, after the crowds taper off. River running, however, is not generally a shoulder-season activity.
Wow Factor? Floating past the baleful glare of a grizzly bear on shore, or even floating down a river knowing that a grizzly bear is out there, somewhere.
Contact: Banff National Park, PO Box 900, Banff, Alberta, Canada, T0L 0C0. Phone: (403) 762-1550. Jasper National Park, PO Box 10, Jasper, Alberta, Canada, T0E 1EO. Phone: (403) 852-6176.
I always thought the Everglades was a swamp. Turns out it’s a river. A wide, shallow river. To be specific, the Kissimmee River.
I have a friend from Florida who now lives in Montana. Whenever we’re on a river and see a likely sandbar, she says: “That looks like a perfect place for an alligator.” Only in Montana, we don’t have alligators. She misses them. The Everglades has both alligators and crocodiles. In fact, it’s about the only place in the world with both. It also happens to be a great place to explore with a canoe.
At 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is the largest sub-tropical wilderness in the lower 48 states. The park service maintains a network of paddling trails, including the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway. (The name’s a bit deceiving, since motorboats are allowed.) The trails include backcountry campsites, including floating platforms called “chickees,” which are patterned after a design by the indigenous Miccosukee Indians. Other camps are on ancient earthen mounds built by prehistoric tribes.
The native peoples of the Everglades built entire islands by hand, including Sandfly Island. Sandfly was later taken over by whites as a tomato plantation. Now, under the hand of the National Park Service, the island has reverted to a “natural” condition.
The Kissimmee River is fifty miles wide and only a few feet at its deepest point. The waters of the coastal Everglades are affected by the tides, requiring skill at reading tide tables and nautical charts. But the rewards of exploring mangrove estuaries and sawgrass flats are nothing short of astounding.
The Everglades are home to some 350 species of birds. And uncounted billions of mosquitoes. Those are both the main reasons winter is a prime time to visit.
Wow factor? Being astonished when that log on the other side of the channel suddenly moves… and materializes into an alligator.
Contact: Superintendent, Everglades National Park, 40001 State Road 9336, Homestead, FL, 33034-6733. Phone: (305) 242-7700.