Category Archives: National Parks

Bull Moose at Dawn in Rocky Mountain National Park

A bull moose stands in Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, at dawn.

A bull moose stands in Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain Park at dawn in late September 2019. The moose seems to be posing for the many photographers who lined the lake. I was lucky to be one of them, thanks to my friend Lynn who drove me there. She also took some great photographs.

Moose (Alces alces) are the largest members of the deer family. On average, an adult moose stands between five and seven feet high at the shoulder. Large males can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds while females are roughly three-quarters of this size.

National Park Service: About Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Where to see moose in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

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Elk Photo Shoot

Here are three of the seven bull elk that lounged and grazed in a neighborhood where friends and I stayed in Estes Park, Colorado.

My husband and I visited several U.S. National Parks in the last year and a half, and we didn’t see one large mammal — even in Yellowstone National Park, where you can always see bison.  I’d seen plenty of elk, moose and bison a few years earlier, but I had entered an animal drought. I was determined to see some elk on our trip to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in early November 2018.  We stayed just outside of the park in the town of Estes Park.   I was very eager to shoot a few elk with my new camera.

We’d visited RMNP in August, and I only saw a large ground squirrel in the park.  During that visit, we’d hoped to see bighorn sheep at Sheep Lakes, where we’d seen a herd in a visit a few years ago, but the ranger report this year indicated that the sheep hadn’t visited in a week.  We waited for two hours, anyway, before giving up.

This “I Saw an Elk in the Rocky Mountains” hand towel was a gift from friends who knew how excited I was to finally see some elk.

We were returning from our second no-elk trip from RMNP, when friends texted me that there were seven bull elk lounging right outside our condominium building! My friends seen one or two elk before, but the elk had always eluded me. On our way to the condo, we saw a large herd of elk — females led by a big bull elk. They were so magnificent.  There were elk all over the town of Estes Park!  We went from visual famine, to visual feast.

The elk or wapiti (Cervus canadensis) is one of the largest species within the deer family, Cervidae, in the world, and one of the largest terrestrial mammals in North America and Northeast Asia.

This bull elk groomed himself after rubbing his antlers against a tree near a condominium parking lot in Estes Park, Colorado, in early November. The rutting season was over, and this guy missed out on romance, but he’s keeping himself in shape and looking good. Maybe next year he’ll find success. In the meantime, he’s hanging out with his other male friends.

In early November, the rutting season was over, but these two bull elk decided to spar a little. They apparently didn’t attract any lady elk this year, but it doesn’t hurt to practice for next year’s mating season.

In Estes Park, Colorado, elk graze in neighborhood yards and freely travel the streets and highways. In the lower right photo, a bull elk bugles to his herd of females to follow him.

A herd of female elk, plus one bull elk, rest on a traffic island in Estes Park, Colorado. I took this photo through the car window, so it’s not that great, but it does give you an idea of how much the elk feel at home in the town.

 

Bull Elk Bugling, Estes Park, Colorado Photo Print

Bull Elk Bugling, Estes Park, Colorado

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Strangler Fig in Big Cypress Nature Preserve

Strangler Fig, Big Cypress Swamp, Florida Poster

Strangler Fig, Big Cypress Swamp, Florida.

In the photograph above, a strangler fig embraces a cypress tree in Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida. The strangler fig is (Ficus aurea) one of the most striking plants in the Big Cypress swamp in Florida. It grows around the host tree, actually strangling its host over time.

The strangler fig is an epiphyte, a plant that grows on another plant but is not parasitic, such as the numerous ferns, bromeliads, air plants, and orchids growing on tree trunks in tropical rainforests. However, the strangler fig is the only epiphyte that will affect the host in which it grows. The strangler fig grows very slowly as it matures, extracting water and nutrients directly from the atmosphere. As the plant gets larger, it may grow both up and down the trunk of the host tree. Eventually, the strangler fig will reach the ground and start growing more rapidly. The strangler fig encircles the roots of the host tree, eventually killing it. As the host tree rots away, a hollow void is left with the strangler fig standing alone.

Each of the 750 fig tree species found throughout the world are pollinated by a wasp specific to each fig, according to the Big Cypress National Preserve official website. The fresh waters of the Big Cypress Swamp, essential to the health of the neighboring Everglades, support the rich marine estuaries along Florida’s southwest coast. Protecting over 729,000 acres of this vast swamp, Big Cypress National Preserve contains a mixture of tropical and temperate plant communities that are home to a diversity of wildlife, including the elusive Florida panther.

Big Cypress National Preserve official website.

History of Big Cypress Swamp

The Fascinating Strangler Fig of Florida. 
Click on the thumbnails to see a full-size photo.

David Attenborough, BBC Wildlife:

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Galapagos Giant Tortoise

Galapagos Islands Tourists

Tourists at a Tortoise Sanctuary in the Galapagos Islands.

A Galapagos Giant Tortoise retreats into his shell as tourists in another group gather in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos Islands to learn more about this magnificent creature.

I visited the islands with my family in April 2015, and we toured the highlands was our first day.  It was truly thrilling to see these giant tortoises in their natural environment. I remember seeing one in a zoo when I was a child. Children even rode them (I think I even did), which is a bad idea, and of course no longer allowed. They aren’t afraid of humans, but do make a chuffing noise if you startle them.

The nasty little fire ant has invaded the Galapagos Islands.  Here's a fire ant hill in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island of the Galapagos.   The ants found me before I found them, unfortunately.  There are efforts in the Galapagos to rid the islands of invasive species, which have caused great damage to the native animals and plants.

The nasty little fire ant has invaded the Galapagos Islands. Here’s a fire ant hill in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island of the Galapagos. The ants found me before I found them, unfortunately. There are efforts in the Galapagos to rid the islands of invasive species, which have caused great damage to the native animals and plants.

The tourists in the pictured group are wisely wearing rubber boots. Our guide offered us boots, too, but I was happy wearing my comfortable “sporty” flip flops, relieved to let my feet breathe after a long trip.  Bad idea.  I successfully evaded puddles and tortoise poop, but I stepped right onto an ant hill teeming with fire ants, an invasive species in the Galapagos. This was within two hours of my arrival on the island of Santa Cruz. I got about six painful, itchy stings on my toes. I’m no stranger to fire ants, so I know enough to wear closed shoes in grassy areas in Texas, but I wasn’t prepared for the little devils in the Galapagos.

Galapagos is an old Spanish word for tortoise. The signs at this ranch warn visitors not to feed or touch the “galapagos.” The tortoises are now more commonly known as “tortuga” in Spanish. (At the bottom of this post is a link explaining how the islands were named.)  The Galapagos Island archipelago has been described as one of most scientifically important and biologically outstanding areas on earth, according to UNESCO in 2001.  My week there was amazing, wonderful and incredible, despite fire ants (and various other mishaps.)

Galapagos Giant Tortoise Poster

This Giant Galapagos Tortoise paused to give us a questioning look as he crossed the road in front of our car in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos Islands. He is king in this place! (Or perhaps she is queen!)

Baby Galapagos Giant Tortoise Postcard

A yearling baby Galapagos Giant Tortoise, being raised at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos Islands. Introduced predators threaten the eggs and young of the Giant Tortoise, so tortoise eggs are gathered, hatched and reared at the station.

Galapagos Giant Tortoise

Wise old Galapagos Giant Tortoise.

About the Galapagos Islands.

How the Galapagos Islands Were Named.

The Difference Between Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins.

About Lonesome George.

GIANT TORTOISE FACTS: The Galapagos tortoise or Galapagos giant tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra) is the largest living species of tortoise and the 14th-heaviest living reptile. Modern giant tortoises can weigh up to 5oo pounds (250 kg); even larger versions, now extinct, roamed every continent except Antarctica and Australia. Today, they exist only the Galapagos Islands, and Aldabra in the Indian Ocean. The tortoise is native to seven of the Galapagos Islands, a volcanic archipelago about 620 miles (more than 1,000 kilometers) west of the Ecuadorian mainland. With life spans in the wild of over 100 years, it is one of the longest-lived vertebrates. One of the most famous was “Lonesome George,” who died in 2012, the last Pinta Island Tortoise.

Shell size and shape vary between populations. On islands with humid highlands, the tortoises are larger, with domed shells and short necks – on islands with dry lowlands, the tortoises are smaller, with “saddleback” shells and long necks. Charles Darwin’s observations of these differences on the second voyage of the Beagle in 1835, contributed to the development of his theory of evolution. Tortoise numbers declined from over 250,000 in the 16th century to a low of around 3,000 in the 1970s. This decline was caused by exploitation of the species for meat and oil, habitat clearance for agriculture, and introduction of non-native animals to the islands, such as rats, goats, and pigs. Conservation efforts, beginning in the 20th century, have resulted in thousands of captive-bred juveniles being released onto their ancestral home islands, and it is estimated that the total number of the species exceeded 19,000 at the start of the 21st century. Despite this rebound, the species as a whole is classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

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Bighorn Sheep in Colorado

A bighorn sheep ewe, on the right, prepares to lead the herd on its trek across a highway in Rocky Mountain National Park. The ewe waits until most of the herd members line up and then she begins the procession. The sheep make the journey each day to and from two lakes in a meadow in the park.

Not far from Estes Park in Colorado, bighorn sheep graze in a meadow near two lakes, “Sheep Lakes,” in Rocky Mountain National Park. The herd makes its way to the lakes from the mountainside each morning and then returns to the mountainside in the late afternoon. It’s a beautiful commute. Park rangers and volunteers manage the tourists and the cars on the narrow highway to allow the sheep safe passage.

When the bighorn sheep are ready to cross the highway, park rangers and volunteers clear the road. The sign says no walking, but it also means no parking. This Hummer driver was confused!

My husband and I were among the gawkers in early August for the sheep’s late afternoon procession back to the mountains. I joined the paparazzi jostling for a view from the packed parking lot. Because we had to stand well away from the sheep, I envied photographers with big lenses. One woman pointed to a female sheep hurrying back across the meadow to the herd at the closest lake. Where had the ewe been? What had she been up to? Her lamb ran out to her and then trailed after her. “Mommy, where did you go?”

In the mid-1800s, thousands of bighorn sheep lived in the Estes Valley, but their numbers were decimated by hunters, by degraded environment and by diseases introduced by domestic sheep. At one point it was thought only about 150 sheep lived in the park, high in the mountains. The bighorn sheep in the low-lying areas were gone. It wasn’t until recent decades that through conservation efforts and reintroduction of new bighorn sheep that the population started to increase. About 600 bighorn sheep live in the park now. The herd near Sheep Lakes seemed to be all female adults and their offspring. You can read more about the RMNP bighorn sheep in a link below.

I saw one sheep move up the hill from the lake, and a few stood behind her. Soon, most of the herd was behind her. She waited there, alert, watching us silly humans in the parking lot. Even though we were probably a hundred yards away (I’m bad at estimating distances), she was wary. The rangers and volunteers make sure humans stay back because sheep can be easily stressed. However, later, we saw bighorn sheep grazing by the side of the highway along Big Thompson River, butting heads and knocking each other into the road. They didn’t seem bothered by the traffic at all. I was worried for them!

Eventually, the entire herd at Sheep Lakes gathered behind the lead ewe and then the sheep made their way across the road, where traffic had been cleared. Of course, just as with humans, one grazing sheep was oblivious to the departing herd. She looked up, saw she was alone, and then bolted to catch the herd.

You can click on all of the photos to get a better look. You’ll need to backspace to return to this page.

A bighorn sheep lamb nurses from its mother as the herd lines up and prepares to return to the hillside after a day in the meadow.

Bighorn sheep graze at Sheep Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park.


A crowd gathers to watch and photograph the bighorn sheep as they graze at Sheep Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park. The most popular time is when the sheep migrate to and from the hillside over the meadow, which they do once a day.


On the left, a ewe hurries back across the meadow to the herd. In the upper right, her lamb rushes out to greet her. “Mommy, where did you go?” In the bottom right, the lamb follows after its mother.


Bighorn sheep graze on the hillside along the Big Thompson River in Colorado.


About Bighorn Sheep in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Here is a section of a map showing the Sheep Lakes area, where a herd of bighorn sheep graze every day.

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Living at the Edge of an Active Volcano

Offering to Pele, HawaiianVolcano Goddess Postcard postcard
This bouquet of anthurium and ginger flowers  is a gift to Pele, the Hawaiian Goddess of fire, lightning, dance and volcanoes.  The bouquet was left at the edge of the summit caldera of Kīlauea in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Kīlauea is one of the Earth’s most active volcanoes and is considered one of its most dangerous. Kīlauea and its Halemaʻumaʻu caldera were traditionally considered Pele’s sacred home, and Hawaiians visit the crater to offer gifts to the goddess.

My husband and I visited Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park in February 2011, but we were a month too early for the latest big show at Kīlauea when a crater floor collapsed in early March.  Scientists reported lava blasts 65 feet high in the volcano, and more than 150 small earthquakes have hit the region since the collapse.

The Big Island of Hawaii's Pu'u O'o crater is seen on Sunday, March 6, 2011. The crater floor collapsed on Saturday causing new eruptions along the east rift zone. (AP Photos/Tim Wright)

Despite the danger, or perhaps because of it, Kīlauea is the most visited tourist site in Hawaii.  From the house where we stayed in Hilo, we watched a new cruise ship arrive every day full of  tourists who were bussed to the volcano for a quick visit.

Steam rises from the summit crater of Kilauea Volcano in early February 2011. This is a view from the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum observation deck.

The crater appears harmless from the observatory deck at the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum, but the volcano can erupt suddenly as Hawaiians discovered in  1790 when a group was caught in an unusually violent eruption. Many were killed and some of their footprints in the lava can still be seen.

Plants take hold in a relatively recent lava flow west of Kalapana, Hawaii. This lava moved into a neighborhood of houses, destroying some and isolating others. You can see a plume of steam from the volcano in the background.

The Pu’u O’o cone now erupting so spectacularly has been continuously erupting in the eastern rift-zone since 1983, making it the longest rift-zone eruption of the last 200 years.

Lava surrounded this house, leaving it intact, but it has been abandoned.

When we visited Kīlauea, we didn’t see any activity other than a little steam in the summit crater, a hint of red in cracks on the crater floor and a parade of steam vents along the road. There was a faint whiff of sulfur in the air.  (If you want really sulfurous air, you need to visit Yellowstone National Park.)  Okay, I was disappointed.   I was hoping for a quivering red-hot river of lava. I wanted spurting fountains.   I’m sure any area with active eruptions and toxic gases would be kapu (forbidden) to tourists.  I was hoping for a sudden lava spurt before rangers herded the tourists to safety.
One of the roads in the park was closed because of recent lava flows, and now with the most recent eruptions more of the park is closed.  The closed road used to continue to another entrance to the park near the town of Kalapana, but that part of the road is now covered by a lava flow.

We drove to Kalapana, where lava has flowed into neighborhoods as recently as a month earlier, destroying some homes.  Steam rose from the most recent flow. Homes are surrounded by the mounds of black lava flows, some are still inhabited, others abandoned.

Bouquets of orchids adorn every table at this Kalapana cafe, set in a lush tropical forest. Just a few miles away, lava has destroyed the forests and 200 homes in recent years.

Just a few miles away from the area of damaged and lost homes, people live in the lush tropical town of Kalapana. You can sit among the palm, banana and mango trees, surrounded by hibiscus shrubs, without a hint that Kīlauea rages just beyond the treetops.  What is it like to live in paradise with the possibility of destruction — literally hellfire and brimstone — so real?
The Kalapana area gained notoriety when the 1990 Kīlauea lava flow from the Kupaianaha vent destroyed and partly buried most of the town and some nearby subdivisions. The lava flow that destroyed Kalapana erupted from the southeast rift zone of Kīlauea. Along with the destruction of Kalapana were those of the nearby town of Kaimū and Kaimū Bay, both of which now lie buried beneath more than 50 feet of lava. More than eight miles of highway and at least 200 homes and other structures have been destroyed by lava since the mid-1980s. The lava flow also created a new coastline. Since 1983, several hundred acres of new land has been added to the Big Island.

People live at the edge of the lava flow from Kilauea.

Hawai’i Volcano Fast Facts:
Kīlauea is one of five shield volcanoes that form the island of Hawaii, which is the youngest of the Hawaiian islands.  The volcanoes erupted somewhat sequentially, one overlapping the other. These volcanoes are (from oldest to youngest):

  • Kohala—extinct (northernmost)
  • Mauna Kea—dormant
  • Hualālai—active but not currently erupting (Last erupted in 1801 and is expected to erupt again.)
  • Mauna Loa—active, partly within Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, the world’s most massive volcano.
  • Kīlauea—active, has been erupting continuously since 1983; part of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park and one of the world’s most active volcanoes. (southernmost)

Kīlauea is the second youngest of  the volcanoes that have created the more than 100 islands in the Hawaiian archipelago, as the Pacific Plate moves over the Hawaii Hotspot.  Lōʻihi Seamount is the newest volcano in the chain.  It lies 22 miles off the southeast coast of the Big Island at 3,000 feet under sea level.

A couple walks on a trail near the Thurston Lava Tube in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. The terrain in the park ranges from lush rain forest to shrub land to dry almost desert-like conditions.

Kīlauea means “spewing” or “much spreading” in the Hawaiian language, referring to its frequent outpouring of lava.  About 1,000 gallons of molten lava flow out of active vents every second.  Nearly 2 billion cubic yards of lava rock have come from Kīlauea since its current eruption period began in 1983.

Video of Kilauea Volcano erupting in March 2011.

Kīlauea Iki trail traverses Kīlauea Iki Crater.  Click on the photo to get a full-size view of the crater, taken from Kīlauea Iki Overlook.  You can see a glowing red vent issuing a plume of steam on the crater floor.

Hawaiian Islands Map.

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It’s Grand!

Rock squirrel at the Grand Canyon

This rock squirrel hangs out at a scenic outlook at the Grand Canyon. He's got his eye on another vista -- your backpack full of snacks.

We made a detour to the Grand Canyon on our drive home in September from California (Yes, I’ll be wringing posts out of that trip for some time to come!)  It was well worth the four hours’ deviation from our dash (just ask a certain highway patrolman in New Mexico) back to Kansas City, even though we’d visited the Grand Canyon before.   We visited the South Rim, which is about 80 miles north of Flagstaff, in northern Arizona. The North Rim is where that transparent walkway juts out over the canyon. You will not be getting me on that!

Backpack thief!

Rangers caution against giving the rock squirrels any food. It isn't good for them, and they can bite. This rock squirrel (Spermophilus variegatus) thinks he can sneak in, grab a granola bar and scamper away.

You feel very small and insignificant standing near the edge looking out at a vast display of millions of years of erosion.  One of these days I may actually make the grueling hike to the bottom.  My sister and her family have done it.  Others I know have rafted the Colorado River, which looks like a skinny ribbon at the bottom. It’s supposed to be a spectacular trip.  If you’ve done either, please comment below and tell me about your experiences. If you’ve been to the rim of the Grand Canyon, please comment.  If you’ve never been, add your thoughts. If you think it’s a just an overrated ditch, let me know, too. 

Here’s what the Grand Canyon National Park has to say about the Grand Canyon:

A powerful and inspiring landscape, the Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size; 277 river miles (446km) long, up to 18 miles (29km) wide, and a mile (1.6km) deep.


While standing at the edge of this breath-taking sight, I got a cell phone call from my son.  I’d forgotten my phone was even on, and even though I was glad to hear from him, it didn’t seem quite right to be talking when I should have been deep in contemplation. But that didn’t stop me from getting an update on his job search. (He got a job!)  I was one of the few speaking English there, too. There were probably a dozen languages being spoken.   Five million tourists visit every year. I was thrilled to be among that number.

Link to the National Park website: Grand Canyon National Park   Part One of the California Road Trip Saga is Surf’s up.

Tourists at the Grand Canyon.

Tourists at the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon. Everywhere you look, it's grand!

Pronghorn antelope.

Pronghorn antelope graze near the Grand Canyon.

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