Happy 100th Birthday, National Park Service!

Today the United States National Park Service (NPS) turned 100 years old.  Although our oldest parks have their roots in the 1870s, it was in 1916 that the Organic Act created a centralized, coherent agency within the Department of the Interior to oversee all aspects of America’s growing number of national parks. Since then the NPS has carefully balanced the protection of our most spectacular natural and historic places with the needs of the people who want to experience them.

Today the NPS manages 59 official “national parks” as well as over 300 other sites of superlative natural, historical, and cultural importance. August 25, 2016 marks the centennial of the National Park Service, and public interest in experiencing these amazing locations is at an all-time high.  Visitation has been steadily increasing over the last few years, and this year is setting all-time records.

If you’re unfamiliar with the history of the National Park Service, I strongly encourage you to watch “The National Parks:  America’s Best Idea.” This Ken Burns miniseries provides a great wealth of historical information as well as breathtaking photos, anecdotes, and personal stories about our national parks.

Beyond that, all I can offer is a link to all my posts related to national park visits.  I feel fortunate that I’ve managed to see 47 of our 59 national parks at this point.  I hope to not only see the remaining 12 but revisit all of them whenever I can. All of them represent some of the best features the United States has to offer the world and posterity.

The author at the South Entrance. Photographed 09/05/2014 at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

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Happy Sixth Anniversary

6 years
11.7 GB of photos
745 posts
0.34 posts per day
182,610 views

95 mammals
86 birds
18 reptiles
10 amphibians
12 fish

288 insects
18 arachnids
3 gastropods
1 cephalopod

362 plants
106 trees

48 of 50 US states
8 countries
47 of 59 national parks in the United States
3 other national parks in Taiwan, Spain, and Canada
262 travel topics

664 comments

*Fanfare*

Gotta be honest…after doing this for six years it has only become more and more difficult to find new things to photograph and write about. I keep hitting these stretches of a month or two where I’m just not feeling it any more.  Although I know I’ve only seen a fraction of the organisms and places on earth, there are times when I just keep seeing the same old stuff day after day.  Then one day I come across something crazy and different, and I get a new sense of enthusiasm. If new posts continue to be sporadic in the future, this is why.

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Random Insect: Tiger bee fly

Tiger bee fly photographed 07/29/2016 near Palmyra, Michigan.

Tiger bee fly photographed 07/29/2016 near Palmyra, Michigan.

This summer I have been noticing quite a few of these distinct large flies hanging out around my house in southeast Michigan. At first glance I thought they were in the horse fly family (Tabanidae) but they are actually in the bee fly family (Bombyliidae).  Specifically they are tiger bee flies (Diptera: Bombyliidae: Xenox tigrinus).

These flies are parasitoids of large carpenter bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Xylocopa spp.). Their relatively sudden abundance in my neighborhood may suggest a local infestation of carpenter bees.

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Seeking Solitude at Great Basin National Park

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Wheeler Peak and the Snake Range from the desert to the east. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Great Basin National Park is located in east-central Nevada and is one of our country’s least-known and least-visited parks. Back in 2013 my wife, her friend and I drove a few hours north of Las Vegas to get a taste of what this remote wilderness outpost had to offer. We visited in early April and at that time abundant snowfall in the mountains limited what we could see and do. I vowed to come back for some more extensive exploration, and last month I finally returned.

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Basin and range topography from the mouth of Snake Creek Canyon. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

First a little background information. Great Basin National Park protects over 120 square miles (310 square km) of prime wilderness in America’s basin-and-range province. Geologically this region is characterized by crustal extension and block faulting that has occurred over the last 17 million years. This activity has created roughly parallel and alternating sequences of dry valleys and narrow snow-capped mountain ranges throughout most of Nevada and parts of neighboring states. Although the Great Basin Desert is arid, the higher elevations present isolated and vastly different plant and animal communities that are representative of sky island ecosystems.

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Main park entrance at sunrise. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Part of the reason why I wanted to return to Great Basin is that I love our most remote and least-visited national parks. Traffic and crowds are sparse, allowing visitors to get maximum enjoyment from the serene wilderness. You can hike for miles without seeing another person. You can stop on the side of the road and photograph wildlife without anyone else coming along to scare it off. You can camp far from others, avoiding the noise that disrupts the peace and quiet. If you enjoy solitude in nature the way I do, visits to such remote places are profoundly rewarding.

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Eagle Peak campsite along Snake Creek. Photographed 05/18/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Over the last few years, however, national park visitation has been skyrocketing. A lot of this is because of increased promotion in anticipation of the National Park Service Centennial in 2016. Even the isolated Great Basin has not been immune to this effect. Visitation here in 2013 was around 90,000, and this year it is projected to be around 120,000. That’s about a 30% increase in just three years. By national park standards these are still tiny numbers, but Great Basin can only hold so many people. This presented some cause for concern.

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View of the Snake Range along Snake Creek. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

I knew by visiting in mid-May kids would still be in school and inclement weather would scare some people off, but this far into spring visitation would still be relatively high. I knew I wanted to tent camp two nights to explore as much as possible, but camping here is somewhat limited. Of the five developed campgrounds near the heart of the park, Wheeler Peak was still closed for snow and Upper Lehman Creek was closed for repairs, leaving only Lower Lehman Creek, Baker Creek, and Grey Cliffs. After flying into Salt Lake City from Detroit and driving four hours, I knew I would get here in the late afternoon. Not a great time to arrive at potentially congested campgrounds.

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View of the Snake Range from Snake Creek. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Luckily Great Basin has two remote and primitive camping areas for the more adventurous. Strawberry Creek at the north end of the park has about ten sites, and Snake Creek at the south end of the park has maybe twelve sites. Both camping areas are several miles away from the heart of the park and can only be reached by dead-end gravel roads. Their remoteness and ruggedness keep RVs and travel trailers away, making them attractive only to those with tents or small campers. In addition to being delightfully isolated, these campsites have the added bonus of being free.

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View of the Snake Range from the mouth of Snake Creek Canyon. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

While the campsites at Strawberry Creek are sort of clumped together, the campsites along Snake Creek are spread far apart. After learning all of this beforehand, I knew exactly where I wanted to go. I flew out to SLC, drove four hours across the relaxing empty roads of west-central Utah, and around 5pm finally made it to Great Basin just inside the Nevada border. From here I made a beeline to the south end of the park and right up the lovely rugged dirt road leading up Snake Creek Canyon.

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Heading up the rugged road along Snake Creek Canyon. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Although I knew I was headed into one of the most remote area of the park I was still concerned with finding a campsite at 5pm. To my pleasant surprise I found that only two were occupied, so I took my pick of what was left. I found myself at a campsite called “Eagle Peak,” consisting of three distant sites with a pit toilet near the center. Although one other site was occupied that first night, I hardly saw or heard anything from the other camper.

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Eagle Peak campsite along Snake Creek. Photographed 05/18/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

After a quiet, lonely evening of grilling hamburgers and photographing plants and insects, I crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep under the myriad stars.

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Retro sign near the Lehman Caves Visitor Center. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

I was again bright-eyed and bushy-tailed by 5am. With some enthusiasm I headed out to visit the high points near the center of the park before the riff raff got up and going.

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Sunrise over the basin and range. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

On my way out of Snake Creek Canyon I was kind of surprised to see that all of the campsites here were full. Sometime between my arrival at 5pm and sunset a number of other campers had come along to completely fill up this remote camp area.

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Driving the rugged road up Snake Creek Canyon. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

I thought I would investigate the other campgrounds in the park, but I wanted to see some of the landmark features before the traffic and crowds ruined the experience. I first headed straight up the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. This road winds up the 13,063 foot (3982 m) Wheeler Peak, the second-highest point in Nevada. On my last visit this road was closed for snow at Osceola Ditch, not far up the mountain. This time around it was open all the way up to Mather Overlook, about halfway up the mountain.

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Wheeler Peak from Mather Overlook. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

I loved hanging around this spot for a while right after dawn. There wasn’t a soul around, leaving me free to wander around, take photos, and take in the absolute silence of the mountain air. After almost an hour another car showed up, and that was my cue to leave.

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Wheeler Peak from Mather Overlook. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

I then headed down to the Lehman Caves Visitor Center. I didn’t get to see the caves on my last visit, so I wanted to get there early to get a cave tour ticket before they sold out. These tickets can be reserved online but I wanted to be flexible with my plans. The 9am tour was sold out but 11am was available. This gave me a couple of hours to kill, so I thought I would check out the other campgrounds to see where I wanted to sleep that night.

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Looking out at the basin and range from Mather Overlook. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

My first stop was the Lower Lehman Creek Campground. Of the 11 sites only one or two were vacant, and they weren’t very attractive. These sites are all clumped close together and many of the sites were occupied by RVs. I’m not a fan of RV campers. RV camping isn’t really camping, it’s like having a mobile apartment. In my humble experience RV campers tend to love their noisy generators, TVs, radios, air conditioners, slamming doors at all hours, and it just makes for a relatively unpleasant outdoor experience when near them. While driving along here I did see a large male turkey strutting around, so that was kind of cool.

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Wild turkey near the Lower Lehman Creek Campground. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

My next stop was the Baker Creek Campground. The 38 mostly-occupied campsites filled with RVs made this feel like a small city, with each campsite butted firmly against the others around it. The high-altitude road leading to this spot wasn’t all bad, however, since it lead through some serious marmot territory.

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Young marmot along Baker Creek Road. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

The abundant wildflowers along Baker Creek Road were also pretty attractive.

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Wildflowers along Baker Creek Road. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

I then stopped at Grey Cliffs near Baker Creek. This area seemed promising and there were a number of sites available. Most of the campground is for reserved group camping, however, so I moved along.

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View along Baker Creek Road. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

My final stop was along Strawberry Creek at the north end of the park. The primitive campsites here were my second choice after Snake Creek, but after seeing them in person I decided they were still a little cozy for my taste. At that point I knew the only place I wanted to be on my second night was back up Snake Creek. I did hike a bit along Strawberry Creek, however, and in this remote spot the only thing that disrupted the quiet beauty was a clucking turkey hen with about a dozen peeping chicks behind her.

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Looking out into the basin and range from Strawberry Creek. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

By now it was time for my appointment with Lehman Caves. These marble caverns are adorned with a wide variety of stalactites, stalagmites, and other cave formations. Their beauty earned them protection as Lehman Caves National Monument in 1922, long before being incorporated into the larger Great Basin National Park in 1986.

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Flowstone and dripstone of Lehman Caves. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Although I wanted to take the 90-minute “Grand Palace” Tour, availability had me settling for the 60-minute “Lodge Room” Tour. Although shorter, this ranger-lead hike through the cave was still pretty spectacular.

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Flowstone and dripstone of Lehman Caves. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Of all of the gorgeous formations in this cave, the most famous are the cave shields. Lehman has over 300 of these relatively rare formations, one of the highest concentrations in the world.

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Cave shield in Lehman Caves. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

It’s thought that these formations begin when groundwater rich with dissolved calcite moves through fractures between beds of limestone. The water leaves behind calcite that builds up over time, filling the fracture with a round disk shape. Eventually the surrounding rock dissolves or collapses, leaving behind only the calcite formation. As calcite deposition continues, shields often become adorned with stalactites or draperies.

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Cave shields in Lehman Caves. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Other noteworthy formations in Lehman Caves include cave popcorn…

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Cave popcorn in Lehman Caves. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

…as well as cave bacon:

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Cave bacon in Lehman Caves. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

For some reason all of this was making me hungry, and before long I was back outside having lunch. I was glad I went on this cave tour, however, because it was one of the most beautiful I have seen.

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Flowstone and dripstone of Lehman Caves. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

After getting a look at most of the park I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon back up Snake Creek Canyon. Based on my experience the night before I knew the dispersed campsites here would fill up sometime after about 5pm, so I wanted to be close to snag one when the time was right.

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Delightfully empty trailhead along Snake Creek. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Snake Creek happens to be an ideal place to explore. The park has recently spent a great deal of time and money in this remote area developing trails, creating new signs and parking areas, and improving the general infrastructure and experience. Most visitors have yet to learn about this spot, however, and it’s a great place to visit if you want to avoid crowds. I hiked up and down various trails for several hours and never saw another car or another person. The solitude here was to die for.

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View down Snake Creek Canyon from one of the trails. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

By 5pm I headed back down the canyon to look for a campsite. I skipped over Eagle Peak since I had already been there, and instead stopped at the next site down the road. Like Eagle Peak, “Squirrel Springs” had three dispersed campsites and a pit toilet at one end. At this lower elevation there weren’t as many large trees, but the scrubby pines and junipers offered some isolation. This spot also had the benefit of having a large rock outcrop next to it, which I of course had to climb.

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Squirrel Springs campsite along Snake Creek. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

The climb up this hill was a little sketchy. The metamorphic rocks that made up this outcrop were pretty solid, but the weather was of some concern. Dark clouds were approaching, giving rise to sporadic light showers and rumbles of thunder. The top of an exposed hill is the last place you want to be when there’s lightning around. I took a quick photo of the Squirrel Springs campsites below, just to show how remote they are. Then I got back down to camp to grill.

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Looking down on the Squirrel Springs campsites along Snake Creek. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Random light showers, heavy wind, and some thunder and lightning continued through the night. This seemed to keep most people away, because when I left in the morning only two of the other sites along the entire road were occupied.

I imagine that one day Snake Creek will be as busy as other areas of the park. That’s kind of a shame because it’s such a great hidden gem and I kind of want to keep it a secret. On the other hand national parks live and die by public support, and promoting this area would really go a long way to increasing visitation and enhancing visitor experiences.

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Wheeler Peak just after dawn from Mather Overlook. Photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

I’m glad I made it back to Great Basin, and I’m glad I gave this park two full days for exploration. I could have stayed here for a week or longer, and I would gladly return to see what more this remote and relatively unknown national park has to offer.

Posted in Botany, Culture, Ecology, Entomology, General, Geology, National Parks, Vertebrate Zoology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Random Plant: Manzanita

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Manzanita photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Found throughout large areas of the North American west, manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp., Ericaceae) are common inhabitants of chaparral and other arid shrublands and woodlands. Made up of dozens of species, these woody plants grow as bushes or small trees and can be found all the way from British Columbia down through Mexico.

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Manzanita photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Several key characteristics make these plants easy to identify. They feature smooth reddish-orange bark and small but thick evergreen leaves. In late winter and spring they produce dense clusters of nodding pink flowers.

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Manzanita photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

After insects pollinate the flowers they develop into small seed-bearing fruit. Manzanita is Spanish for “little apple,” something the ripe red berries resemble. The fruit of most species is not only edible but palatable, making it a desirable summer food source for a variety of animals including humans.

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Random Insect: False Blister Beetle

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False blister beetle photographed 05/18/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

True blister beetles (Coleoptera: Meloidae) get their common name from their ability to produce cantharidin, a substance that can cause chemical burns. They produce this compound to ward off potential predators, including humans. A person who touches one of these beetles can suffer blisters on the affected areas of their skin, and ingesting them can be fatal.

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False blister beetle photographed 05/18/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Similar to the true blister beetles are the false blister beetles (Coleoptera: Oedemeridae), and one particular species is shown here. Many species in this family look superficially similar to true blister beetles, and some species even produce cantharidin. Overall, however, false blister beetles are generally harmless.

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False blister beetle photographed 05/18/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

These beetles are widespread throughout the world, with nearly 100 species in North America and around 1,500 species worldwide. They are most common near coasts and in wet wooded areas. Their young larvae live among moist decaying wood and roots, and the adults feed mostly on pollen and nectar from flowers.

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False blister beetle photographed 05/18/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

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Timpanogos Cave National Monument

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American Fork Canyon from the trail up to Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Photographed 05/21/2016 southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Of all the caves administered by the National Park Service, a visit to Timpanogos Cave National Monument requires a bit more effort than most. Located in American Fork Canyon southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah, this particular cave happens to be situated in a cliff far above the canyon floor. A cave tour here can only be had by hiking 1.5 miles (2.4 km) of trail up 1100 feet (335 m) of elevation.

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View up American Fork Canyon with Timpanogos Cave National Monument highlighted in red. Photographed 05/21/2016 southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Although this park is within a thirty minute drive of the nearly two million people in the Salt Lake City area, the inherent challenge of the trail seems to keep crowds manageable. I visited on a Saturday afternoon in late May but parking and cave tour tickets were still available.

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Trail map to Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Photographed 05/21/2016 southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.

The hike up to the cave is as beautiful and fascinating as the cave itself. The trail starts off with a relatively modest grade as it winds gently through dense conifers, oaks, maples, and verdant ground cover.

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American Fork Canyon from the trail up to Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Photographed 05/21/2016 southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Before long the grade gets steeper and rocks overtake plants as the dominant feature.

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American Fork Canyon from the trail up to Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Photographed 05/21/2016 southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Rockfalls are common on these steep canyon slopes, and there are a number of especially dangerous spots where hikers are not supposed to stop for anything.

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Rock fall warning sign. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

The National Park Service has helpfully painted striped lines in these hazardous locations, letting visitors know where they should not linger.

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Steep trail up to the cave. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

Among the hazards there are endless gorgeous views of American Fork Canyon.

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American Fork Canyon from the trail up to Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Photographed 05/21/2016 southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Farther up there are three tunnels that have been blasted through the canyon walls.

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Tunnel blasted through metamorphic quartzite rock. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

The rocks along the trail are sedimentary in origin.  From roughly 400 to 300 million years ago this region was low and flat, bordering an extensive salt-water sea. Over millions of years sand, mud, and coral reefs each occupied this area, and along the way each environment left behind its own unique sediments. The lowest and oldest deposits are beach sands followed by shale and then several different limestones. Over the last 60 million years these rocks have been uplifted along the Wasatch Fault to form the Wasatch Range.

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American Fork Canyon from the trail up to Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Photographed 05/21/2016 southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Under the weight of overlying limestone and the heat and pressure of faulting and uplift, the lowest and oldest beach sands have undergone metamorphism. Over millions of years they have transformed from sandstone to quartzite. In some places faults created by Wasatch uplift are visible in these older rocks.

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Trail blasted through metamorphic quartzite rock with a fault. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

Above the quartzite hundreds of feet of younger limestones dominate the rock walls. These sediments were deposited in deeper water where billions of marine organisms bearing calcite shells once lived. Over millions of years as these animals lived and died they left behind the mineral components of their bodies, and this calcite gradually accumulated into thick deposits of dark gray limestone.

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Trail blasted through limestone. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

Near the top of the trail the steep switchbacks reveal how thick these limestone layers really are.

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Switchbacks across the limestone near the cave entrance. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

Faulting, uplift, and mildly corrosive carbonic acid formed in groundwater have together lead to cave formation in this massive limestone. At the end of the long, beautiful, fascinating hike up the canyon visitors are finally greeted by the entrance to the cave.

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Entrance to the cave. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

The cave tour here actually takes visitors through three different caves, each connected by man-made tunnels. The first cave is also the oldest, named Hansen Cave after its discoverer in 1887.

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Reflective pool inside Hansen Cave. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

While reflecting pools of standing water make this cave rather attractive, this particular spot was heavily looted by early explorers. Many of the stalactites, stalagmites, and other calcite formations were broken loose and stolen. In spite of this much of the flowstone remains intact and is rather beautiful.

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Flowstone inside Hansen Cave. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

The second cave is Middle Cave, and the deep dark passageways here are some of the tightest and most challenging to navigate.

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Deep, dark passageway inside Middle Cave. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

The final cave is Timpanogos Cave itself which harbors a variety of interesting features. The first is the Great Heart of Timpanogos, a big heart-shaped stalactite stained an orange-pink color thanks to contamination by iron and manganese.

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The Great Heart of Timpanogos. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

Right next to this formation is cave popcorn stained green by aragonite and nickel.

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Green cave popcorn. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

Throughout the depths of the cave are some of its most famous features, known as helictites. These delicate dripstones grow out randomly, formed by calcite-laden water driven by capillary action evaporating in any direction.

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Helictites photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

Once out of the cave visitors are greeted with a gorgeous view down American Fork Canyon with South Salt Lake in the distance.

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Looking down on South Salt Lake through American Fork Canyon. Photographed 05/21/2016 at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah.

Although this seems like a really long post and I have gushed on and on about the virtues of Timpanogos Cave, I really had to cut a lot out of this to keep it relatively brief. It’s funny to think that I almost did not visit this location, thinking its proximity to Salt Lake City would make it a crowded, unpleasant place to visit. I was honestly surprised by its relative remoteness, beauty, and abundance of fascinating nature features. I am glad that I had an afternoon to kill and decided to visit this spot on a whim. If you ever find yourself in Salt Lake City with a few hours to spare, Timpanogos Cave is definitely worth a visit.

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