It’s 365 days until next St. Patrick’s Day, but if you still have some partying left in you after yesterday, get yourself to the Emerald Isle for an authentic Irish cultural experience. With so many regions worth checking out, Ireland is best explored by car, either driving yourself or, better yet, with a driver-guide. Fly into Dublin in the east or Shannon in the west — clearing U.S. customs at either airport on the way home — and circumnavigate the island for an enchanting journey through the land of St. Patrick.
Visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the capital to see where the country’s patron saint baptized converts to Christianity and admire the illuminated manuscript of the Book of Kells at Trinity College. Get some fresh air in the urban oases of Phoenix Park and St. Stephen’s Green or walk in the footsteps of great writers such as Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats, or their characters, such as James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, who mused that a “good puzzle would be to cross Dublin without passing a pub.” While a computer programmer has figured out that such a thing can be done, there’s no reason not to stop in for a pint at the Guinness Brewery or Temple Bar area.
Proceeding clockwise around the island from Dublin, you’ll encounter Kilkenny and Waterford. Kilkenny is home to an 800-year-old Norman castle and eye-catching architecture from several periods, including the Tudor, Georgian and Victorian eras. It’s also known for its modern cultural aesthetic, with art galleries, design workshops and theaters making it a popular destination. At well more than 1,000, Waterford retains well-preserved sections of city walls and towers. The Waterford Crystal Visitor Centre allows tour guests to see master craftspeople shape the world-famous crystal into intricate designs. On your way west, stop at the Rock of Cashel, a group of buildings at the ancient seat of the kings of Munster.
The Republic of Ireland’s second-largest city, Cork has a much more intimate feel than the much-larger Dublin and is a great place for a walking tour. One of County Cork’s best walks is the distillery trail at the Jameson Heritage Centre, where you can learn all about the famous whiskey and sample a dram or two. In the southwest corner of the island lie the 110 miles of the Ring of Kerry, a 110-mile loop beginning in Killarney that takes you through charming villages, past castles and into ancient wilderness. Less crowded and no less beautiful is the Dingle Peninsula, a natural gem rich in archaeological sites.
Offering striking views and excellent hiking, the Cliffs of Moher rise as high as 700 feet above Galway Bay and the North Atlantic. Farther inland, the Burren is an entrancing moonscape of desolate beauty formed of the rocks that give rise to the cliffs. Dozen of large neolithic tombs are scattered throughout the area, dating back thousands of years. Continuing north, you come to the lively city of Galway, a center of traditional Irish language and music. Thanks to its status as a university town, Galway boasts some of Ireland’s best nightlife and serves a centrally located base for venturing on the 1,550-mile Wild Atlantic Way.
A mix of wilderness and quaint villages, the counties of Mayo, Sligo, and Donegal are a great way to conclude your Irish odyssey. Attractions include the mountains of Connemara National Park, Achill Island and the 2,500-foot Croagh Patrick, a pilgrimage site dedicated to the patron saint. Towns of note are the carefully designed Westport, William Butler Yeats’ boyhood home of Sligo and historical Ballina, a key site in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
It’s more than twice the size of Texas, the next largest state, and bigger than all but 18 sovereign countries. It’s the third least populous state in the union. Alaska has a lot of land and not too many people, so it’s no wonder that the state warrants its own national parks region. Alaska boasts a total of eight national parks, second only to the nine of California. These Alaska parks are worth a look.
The highlight, of course, is the 20,310-foot-tall mountain which is the highest peak in North America and gives the park its name. But over more than 6 million acres, there is much to explore. Along the 92-mile road the traverses the park, visitors can see a diversity of wildlife, including caribou and several bear species. The topography features tundra, taiga forest, lakes, glaciers, and mountains. For adventurous spirits, dog-mushing and heli-skiing are popular activities.
Visiting cruise ships spend a full day and are joined by a park ranger so passengers can get the full Glacier Bay experience, which includes icebergs and calving glaciers plus bears, goats, otters, seals, sea lions, bald eagles, and many other bird species. Those exploring by land can visit an Huna tribal house, the first permanent clan house in the area since advancing glaciers swallowed up Tlingit villages along the shore of the bay 250 years ago. The rich waters also are frequented by orcas, whales, and Pacific white-sided dolphins.
At more than 13 million acres, it’s the largest of the national parks. It has a wide range of terrain, going from the waters of the Gulf of Alaska to the peak of Mt. St. Elias at 18,008 feet. The Wrangell Mountains are a string of volcanoes — some still active — that form the spine of the park. With climate zones from tundra to temperate, there is a variety of wildlife, including grizzlies, caribou and Dall sheep on land; salmon, trout, and whitefish in the water; and terns, gulls, and eagles in the air.
Mountains, ice, and ocean meet at this park outside Anchorage. Harding Icefield is the central feature, with near glaciers surrounding ice-cold waters that the Sugpiaq people have fished for a millennium. The Exit Glacier area is accessible by road from Seward, although when the snows hit in mid-November, the road closes and cars give way to snowmobiles and dog sleds. When the weather warms, retreating glaciers yield to pioneer plans such as fireweed before shrubs and small trees such as Sitka alders rise up from the soil.
Gates of the Arctic
The name is no joke, and with no roads and a remote location, this is the least visited national park. But the 10,000 or so souls who visit each year are treated to unspoiled wilderness. Visitors fly or hike into the park, which saw the first nomadic hunter-gatherers arrive about 13,000 years ago. Not much has changed in Gates of the Arctic since, with the rhythm of the seasons dictating activity. Temperatures hover around -20 to -50 in winter before hibernating animals begin to stir in spring and birds arrive from all over the world to enjoy the endless summer days.
The Pacific West national parks region includes the West Coast of the continental U.S. plus Hawaii and territories in the Pacific Ocean. The parks of the region show off the wonders of plate tectonics and house some of the oldest living organisms on Earth.
Featuring the tallest trees on Earth, this Northern California park falls under national and state jurisdiction. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and served as a shooting location for several movies, most notably serving as the forest moon of Endor in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Several options for a scenic drive take visitors through ancient forests (including iconic drive-through trees), along the coast and into flowering prairies. The wildlife ranges from banana slugs to gray whales. The star attractions are the Coast redwoods, which live on average 500-700 years, with a few known to be 2,000 years old.
Peaking at 14,410 feet above sea level in Washington, Rainier is is a land of fire and ice. Still an active volcano, it is also the most glaciated peak in the continental U.S. The park is open year-round, featuring winter sports and ranger-guided snowshoe walks, brilliant fall colors, abundant waterfalls in the spring as the snow melts and bountiful flowers and berries in summer. Humans have lived in the area of the mountain native tribes called Takhoma for at least 9,000 years, and its modern name comes from Rear Admiral Peter Rainier, a friend of British Royal Navy Captain George Vancouver, who explored extensively around the Pacific Northwest.
In nearly 1,200 square miles, Yosemite packs quite a punch. El Capitan, Half Dome, and Cathedral Peak are among the iconic rock formations, and intrepid climbers scale just about every rock they can to take in astounding views. Birdwatchers can spot more than 250 species living in or passing through the park throughout the year, with peregrine falcons and spotted owls among the most popular. Bring your star chart for some great gazing, especially during the summer, when amateur astronomers gather at Glacier Point on Saturday nights.
The violent eruption of Mt. Mazama about 7,700 years ago created what is now the deepest lake in the U.S. Crater Lake lies in the caldera of the volcano, reaching almost 2,000 feet at its deepest, with the rim of the caldera ranging between 7,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. A cinder cone in the western part of the lake forms Wizard Island, which is accessible by boat during the summer. A legend of the Klamath people tells of a battle between the god of the below world and the god of the above world ending with the destruction of the underworld god’s home, which then filled with water.
Encompassing Kilauea and Mauna Loa, two of the five volcanoes that formed the Big Island, the park shows off many stages of the life of a volcano. Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983, creating new land, while Mauna Loa is the most massive volcano on Earth’s surface. Lava tubes and steam vents abound, providing homes to unique flora and fauna such as happy face spiders and ohi‘a trees. Visitors can drive the Chain of Craters road or go on foot, hiking to flowing lava and seeing the newest land on Earth form.
With the government shutdown over, at least temporarily, our national parks are back open. Many of them require a lot of cleanup work to get back into their usual pristine beauty. Not having them officially open for a few weeks reminded us how great our national parks are, so we thought we’d do a series highlighting some of our favorites from each region. The 60 parks are divided into seven regions: Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Intermountain and Pacific West, plus Alaska and the national capital area. We’ll start with the Northeast and Southeast.
Featuring Cadillac Mountain, the tallest mountain on the East Coast and one of the first places in the U.S. to see the sunrise each morning, Acadia is the oldest designated national park east of the Mississippi River. Covering several islands off the coast of Maine, the park is an excellent destination for birdwatchers and rewards hikers with stunning ocean views. The area was first inhabited by the Wabanaki people and later became the site of the first French missionary colony in America. To reduce summertime traffic congestion, the National Park Service is working on a new transportation plan to keep the park a beautiful and enjoyable destination.
With more than 400 miles explored, this Kentucky park is the longest known cave system in the world. Stephen Bishop, one of the first Mammoth Cave guides, described it as a “grand, gloomy and peculiar place.” Bishop and some of the other early guides who ventured deeper and deeper into the cave system were slaves, all of whom were eventually freed. Bishop opened up a huge swath of the system by being the first to cross the deep vertical shaft known as the Bottomless Pit. While many of the accessible parts of the cave are lit electronically, there are a couple tours that feature lighting only by paraffin lamps carried by visitors.
Protecting rare and endangered species such as the manatee, the American crocodile, and the Florida panther, the park covers 1.5 million acres of wetland. There is an abundance of wildlife to see, from herons to dolphins. A 65-foot observation tower in Shark Valley lets visitors take in an expansive view of the wilderness. For those wanting to go a little deeper, there are ranger-led slough slogs (wading) through a cypress dome, and camping is permitted along the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway, which takes a week to traverse by canoe.
Recovery efforts were just underway in the wake of Hurricane Irma in September 2017 when Hurricane Maria blew in, bringing further destruction. But the park, which takes up about two-thirds of the island of St. John, plus almost all of Hassel Island, presses on. There are still traces of the Taino people who inhabited the islands before European discovery in 3,000-year-old petroglyphs. There are remnants of sugar plantations. Visitors can go boating, stop at pristine beaches and even help monitor sea turtles.
Covering about 200,000 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, this park is great in all seasons. Skyline Drive is the most popular section, allowing visitors to drive 105 miles from one end of the park to the other. There are also 500 miles of hiking trails for those who want to take things a little slower. Foxes and bobcats frolic throughout the winter, which also affords an opportunity to spot foraging deer and turkeys. Birds of many feathers can be spotted in warmer weather. Breathtaking views of the Shenandoah River Valley abound year-round.
Continuing with our series celebrating the national parks, this week we look at the Midwest region, stretching from Ohio in the east to Arkansas in the south and the Dakotas in the northwest.
In Lake Superior off Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Isle Royale is an outdoor haven. The park is a UNESCO international biosphere reserve. The park is set to be the new home of 20 to 30 relocated wolves in the next three to five years after the population was reduced to one female in 2017. About 400 islands make up the park, so kayaking and canoeing opportunities are just about endless. The artist-in-residence program enables artists in all mediums to capture the beauty of the park and share it with others.
Unlike Isle Royale, which closes from Nov. 1-April 15, this northern Minnesota park stays open all winter. Visitors can explore by snowmobile, cross-country skis, snowshoes or driving along the ice road. The time-honored Minnesota tradition of ice-fishing goes on all winter. On the right nights, the Northern Lights put on a show across the sky, and in summer the August Perseids meteor shower dazzles. Lakes makeup about 40 percent of the park and are its lifeblood, becoming a highway to adventure when the ice melts.
The eponymous thermal springs have been in use for 8,000 years, and visitors can take a dip in the traditional Buckstaff Bathhouse or get a 21st-century experience in the Quapaw Baths and Spa. Direct federal supervision of this Arkansas park began in 1877, making it the oldest park managed by the National Park System, predating the system by decades. Once you pass Bathhouse Row in the National Historic Landmark District, there are 26 miles of hiking trails and campsites at Gulpha Gorge.
Covering 380 square miles of the largest undisturbed mixed-grass prairie in the U.S., Badlands in South Dakota is home to impressive modern animals such as bison and bighorn sheep, as well as fossils of some of the most fearsome and fascinating creatures such as ancient rhinos and saber-toothed cats. The South Unit of the park is co-managed by the Oglala Lakota tribe, who have inhabited the area for hundreds of years and held Ghost Dances in the 1890s.
Roosevelt, one of the champions of establishing the National Park System, came to the Dakota Territory in 1883 and found a landscape full of majestic creatures. The North Dakota park is home to bison, elk, badgers and prairie dogs among many others. Scientists in the park are studying bison DNA to gain a better understanding of how to maintain and grow the population after our national mammal was nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s. “We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune,” Roosevelt said in encouraging conservation. The park named after him is doing its part.