Nature News from GYE #31

Dec 9, 2021

NPS Arrowhead symbol

What is the main purpose of National Parks? … In the US, national parks protect areas of natural beauty, historical significance, diverse ecosystems and provide access, recreational opportunities and educational programs for people to learn about these natural habitats. National Parks protect the dream and ideology that we, as a country and including Canada, as a continent, will continue to have these areas that are signficant to us humans for spiritual and physical renewal. National Parks protect archeology, culture, stories and much more. The United States has 63 national parks, which are Congressionally-designated protected areas operated by the National Park Service, an agency under the Department of the Interior. The National Park Service is responsible for other federal lands in the US, including National Seashores, National Scenic Trails, National Recreation Areas, National Historic sites and National Battlefields, National Monuments and National Wild and Scenic Rivers. A few more designations exist, but all tolled right now we have 423 units managed by NPS.

Roosevelt Arch built in 1903 by the US Army symbolizes the mission of the National Parks at the north gate of Yellowstone National Park
Me as a YACC intern assisiting in a release of Golden Eagles in 1980.

Yellowstone is the first Federally Protected and managed National Park in the US, and technically in the world. It draws millions of visitors each year, and an extraordinary amount of information comes from research in Yellowstone by many scientists of diverse specialties. This was why my dream as a new college graduate in 1978 led me to finding a place like a National Park where working outside was possible and could perhaps find work with my new BS in Biology. I was fortunate to do this through and internship-like program with the Young Adult Conservation Corps. Through this program I was able to work with the “Research Office” at the time ( now called the Yellowstone Center for Resources) and “get my foot in the door”.

Many fellow residents in communities in and around Yellowstone have similar stories of following a dream that included adventure and the natural world. They are still part of the communities where have lived and worked after decades of being in and near Yellowstone. Imagine over 60 national parks in this country and the number of lives touched! Most of you will have a story of visiting National Parks with your parents or grandparents or kids that made an impression on you and how you think abou the natural world now..

So, for this Nature News I want to share with you 3 National Park Service managed areas, Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, Canyon de Chelley National Monument and Petrified Forest National Park. Together with good freind, Pat Musick, we took a road trip starting in her home town of Colorado Springs with the intention of immersing ourselves into this region of the 4 corners and catching up with each other. Our first detination was Chaco. The road approaching this park includes 13 miles of rough dirt road and can be tricky depending on the time of year. We were in Pat’s high clearance 4WD vehicle so managed to access the visitor center. We based out of the campgound for 2 nights.

Doorways in Chaco Canyon

Chaco is a step back to between 1250 AD and 850 AD. Thousands of people lived here at times. Others passed through on trade routes or gatherings that included governing, social, and spiritual gatherings. Many crops were grown in this region as well. Massive buildings of the Ancestral Puebloan ( at one time referred to as Anasazi) people still stand. This is testimony to the organizational and engineering abilities . One is mystified and transported back in time imagining the bustling scenes and activity of this time. The nights skies here are the best you can find. Stars and galaxies are visible so clearly, it keeps a morning person like me awake for many hours of darkness.

Leslie above Pueblo Bonito ( photo by Pat Musick)
Pictographs ( may represent super nova from 1054) and swallow’s nests at Chaco Canyon

Our next stop was Canyon de Chelley National Monument. The landscape is a huge canyon system resulting from millions of years of sedimentary deposition, uplifts and stream cutting. Sheer cliff walls and the canyon bottoms of Canyon de Chelly are home to and have sustained families for thousands of years.. The Ancient Puebloans found the canyons an ideal place to plant crops and raise families.

Our Shadows llooking into Canyon de Chelley

The Navajo eventually settled this area between the “four sacred mountains”. The Navajo, or ‘Dine’ as they call themselves, raise families and plant crops just as the “Ancient Ones” had. Today corn and peaches are plentiful. The Navajo Nation spans much more than this region, but includes families residing within the park boundaries. The National Park Service and the Navajo Nation continue to work in partnership to manage this special place. Pat and I hired an amazing guide to take us on a walk/hike into the canyon. Her name is Elsie, 73 years old. She grew up in the Canyon and told us many stories of her family and life in this amazing place. We enjoyed our time with Elsie and learned so much about the history of her people from her perspecive and life. She continues to lead trips into the canyon (many are somewhat strenuous, but she has a good sense how to chose the right trail for anyone’s ability). Next summer she will run an ultra marathon in the canyon in early July! Not bad for a woman who has lived over 7 decades!

Pat and Elsie in the Canyon
Canyon de Chelley ruins

A spot we stopped along the northern rim allowed us to walk to an overlook into Canyon del Meurto. In 1823, the Navajo people took refuge from Spanish soldiers in this Canyon, but women and children were mercilessly killed here.. Many of these canyons and alcoves were stocked with food and water and fortified with defensive walls where Navaho took refuge from attacks not only from the Spanish but from the Utes and eventually the US army. Eventually, exhauted and beaten, their surrender led to the 300 mile forced march referred to as the Long Walk. Many Navajo stories tell of this time and rock art on the walls narrate the Navajo’s endurance.

Layered dunes, notice dark petrified logs at base of dunes

From there we traveled through many miles of beautiful landscape to Petrified Forest Antional Park. This park is another gem. It is not large in size, and has no campgounds or lodging, but so much to offer. 200 million years of geology are exposed in parts of this park and even if you don’t know alot about this science, it’s quite obvious you are visiting a chronicle of time. From the Painted desert to the volcanics of the Bidahoci formation to the petrified trees it is a spectacle of color and texture. In addition is the archological evidence of “those that have come before”.

Petrified Logs in Painted Desert photo by Pat Musick
Petryglyphs in Petrified Forest National Park

Does eveyone need to go to these places? My answer to that is not really. Lots do, but it takes planning, long drives and the willingness to go without all the eminities of home. Are these places valuable and worth it? …yes, yes and will become more valuable in time as we lose wild places around the planet.

My life has been infinitly blessed with these National Parks and wild places. Many of us will not get to these places but knowing they are out there and knowing they are set up legally, to be protected, helps me sleep at night.

Wishing you all peace in your hearts for this solstice/holiday season. Thanks for your interest in these wild places. Will be in touch again next year! 2022….Leslie

Sunset in Chaco Canyon


  1. Kathryn Staley

    Great post, Leslie. I want to go there sometime with you. I feel I’ve missed a window on something deeply important. Merry Christmas! Hope to see you in February. love, Kathryn


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