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Friday Five: 5 Otherwordly National Parks

Happy Independence Day!

Today's Friday Five goes on an American tour as Paul Weimer takes us through five of his favourite National Parks. As well as being a Hugo Nominated podcaster for his work with the Skiffy and Fanty Show, Paul is an SF Signal contributor and genre reviewer. Track him down on Twitter as @princejvstin and his blog.

When people think of U.S. National Parks, images and thoughts of beautiful mountains, historical battlefields, and peaceful vistas are far more common than environments that you’d find on the moon, or Mars, or only in your imagination.  A surprising number of the National Parks, though,  bring you to environments that will surprise, shock and amaze you, that seem like you are on a different planet. Thus, I present a sampling of five of the U.S. parks that you should visit virtually (or even better, in person) to inspire your imagination of the otherworldly.

1024px-Kiva_Ladder_Poles_Spruce_Tree_HouseMesa Verde National Park, Colorado

From c. 600 A.D.  to around 1300 A.D., a group of indigenous people moved into some of the starkest and strangest lands in Southern Colorado. Starting with basic farming on top of the then verdant tablelands (Mesa Verde is Spanish for “Green table”), these mysterious people prospered, developing and growing their civilization. As they became a hub for trade and commerce, the Ancestral Puebloans eventually created the cliff dwellings for which they are most famous, entire towns and communities built into difficult to reach caves and openings in the mesas. 

And then, in a short time, perhaps less than 50 years, the entire culture, and all of its people picked up, and left the sites, never to return. They left their artifacts, their amazing architecture, their stark home environment, and most importantly, the many mysteries that surround them.

Mesa Verde was the first U.S. National park designed to protect a cultural landscape, of the buildings and the environment around them. At Mesa Verde, you can see the beautiful vistas, the remnants of their lost civilization, and the amazing accomplishments of their cliff dwellings.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Popular conceptions of the Great Plains, for Americans and others alike, are of a vast expanse of flat prairie.  No hills, no terrain, no features for hundreds of miles. Driving west in

South Dakota, this popular conception does indeed seem to hold. Until, that is, you reach the rents in the earth at Badlands National Park. Dry, differential erosion of the rock at Badlands National Park have created colorful buttes, pinnacles and spires. These strange formations, truly otherworldly to drive or hike through, are embedded in a beautiful prairie environment that seems ill at ease with the rock formations that sit in them.

Wildlife like buffalo, mule deer, prairie dogs and bighorn sheep complete the immersive experience. A loop road that starts and ends at the Interstate allows travelers to dip into this strange world and for a couple of hours, find themselves in a gorgeous landscape far different than the endless plains of the American West.

Apostle_Island_Sea_Cave_in_WinterThe Apostle Islands, Wisconsin

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is a beautiful water-dominated National Park in northeastern Wisconsin. Boaters and water lovers can travel to the many small islands in the region, and the beautiful views from the water

In the fell of winter, however, the Lakeshore is transformed into another world entirely. The lake freezes, turning a waterway into a walkway of ice and snow. The carved cliffs and sea caves turn into trellis and scaffolding for ice formations of every shape, size and variety. Inside the caves, the ice looks like flowstone and limestone, creating all the types of formations you’d expect in an ordinary cave--stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone. Delicate crystals and gross, large formations. Given the vagaries of winter, a visit to the ice caves is never the same experience twice.

 Never is the beauty of a winter world so better captured than in the ice caves.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

 In Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you can drive to the rim of an active volcano and see geology being born before your eyes. The crater rim road is sometimes partially closed (and is partially closed at the time of writing this) because of threats from lava, particulates, and gases. If tooling up to and around the edge of Kilauea is not enough for the intrepid traveler, there is plenty of hiking across volcanic desert (bet you didn’t think there was desert in Hawaii, did you?), roads to vistas of the more quiet volcanoes in the region, and a descent down toward the sea, ending where the road was cut off by a lava flow 20 years ago. And a field of over twenty thousand petroglyphs dating back 800 years, carved into the volcanic rock from an older lava flow.

1280px-Basalt_columns_in_yellowstone_national_parkYellowstone National Park, Wyoming

This is the one National Park to see, if you are going to see any of them. The First U.S. National Park, and the greatest. The largest active volcanic region in North America makes Yellowstone National Park a wonderland of geologic activity. Geysers, mud volcanoes, hots springs, and other steaming volcanic formations dot the park. Old Faithful and its basin of geysers, is but one of the draws here. You can find everything short of a full active volcano a la Hawaii, here, for your edification, enjoyment and discernment?

And if you get tired of geysers and volcanic features, Yellowstone offers more. A beautiful river valley and waterfalls, that volcanic terrain making the rock and soil a palette of colors that the river cuts through that you won’t find in any other river valley you’ve seen before. Or perhaps the rings of mountains around the park, help reinforce the isolated, otherworldly land you are inhabiting.  Or trip over to the Lamar valley, where pronghorn antelope, long removed from the cheetah that used to hunt them, are by far the fastest animal in a lush, wide river valley with buffalo, moose, wolves,and more. Its as if someone had dropped a landscape from the late Pleistocene into the western United States for you to discover.

Have you hiked or toured one of the great American parks? If so, let us know in the comments!

All images from Wikimedia Commons.