Podcast Episodes

The Black Canyon

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by Jason Epperson, with narration from Abigail Trabue.

Listen below, or on any podcast app:


The Black Canyon of the Gunnison:

The deep Canyons of the west enchant us today as much as they did those who dared to explore them for the first time. They’re all unique in their own ways, as nature seems to brag about the incredible might of its gem-cutting rivers. But one Colorado canyon, in particular, is like none of the rest. It exposes you to some of the steepest cliffs, oldest rock, and craggiest spires in North America. Over two million years, a river has sculpted this vertical wilderness of rock, water, and sky that, in parts, only receive 33 minutes of sunlight a day due to its steep, narrow split — giving it an ominous name, The Black Canyon.

The Black Canyon is only 40′ wide at its narrowest point at the base. Its cliffs are nearly flat vertical, and their dark stone is set off with extensive, light-colored rock veins, like a marble edifice. It’s foreboding walls strike the imagination of all who stand in its presence, including its earliest explorers.

John Williams Gunnison:

John Williams Gunnison was born on November 11, 1812, in Goshen, New Hampshire. At the age of 18, he traveled to Massachusets to college, and after one term moved on to become a teacher at a local grade school. During his years as a teacher, he prepared himself to enter West Point Military Academy, where he would go on to graduate in June of 1837 second in his class.

Gunnison began military service later that year when he was ordered into active duty under General Zachary Taylor. Violent battles had been brewing in Florida between the Seminole Indians and white settlers. As peace talks were initiated, Gunnison was ordered to explore unfamiliar lakes and rivers in search of provision routes south to Fort Besinger. Although the assignments were challenging and there were many opportunities for adventure, the heat and humidity of the South took a toll on his health.

In 1838, Gunnison received a transfer to the Corps of Topographical Engineers. His new job would offer many adventures, the first of which was his marriage to Martha A. Delony in 1841 and the births of their children in the years to follow. In the summer he was married, he received his first western assignment to do a standard survey of the unexplored, wild country of the Wisconsin-Michigan border. Over the next 8 years, Gunnison would leave his family behind for periods of time, as he and his survey crew mapped much of the borderland, the western coast of Lake Michigan, and the coast of Lake Erie.

Gunnison’s first sight of the western lands came as a member of Captain Howard Stansbury’s Utah Territory Expedition of 1849, which was tasked with surveying the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Having recently been promoted to Lieutenant, Gunnison was assigned as second in command.

After a long, yet beautiful journey through the Great Plains and southern Wyoming, they arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. They explored and mapped the Great Salt Lake region and gathered scientific information about their surroundings.

The winter that followed was unusually hard and the expedition was unable to leave the valley, so Gunnison took the opportunity to befriend some Mormons and study their church. An uprising broke out between American Indians and the Mormons near Salt Lake City. Gunnison negotiated between the two parties, winning the admiration of his peers. The experience led him to believe he could be a successful mediator. When he finally returned to Washington, DC, he wrote a book titled “The Mormons or Latter-Day Saints, in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake: A History of Their Rise and Progress, Peculiar Doctrines, Present Condition.”

Although relatively inexperienced, Lieutenant Gunnison was promoted to Captain on March 3, 1853 largely due to his successes in Utah and the Great Lakes region. Though happy to be spending more time with his family in the east, he longed to begin a new adventure and to return to the Western United States that he had come to relish. He wouldn’t have to wait long.

The new Captain was selected to lead the search for a Pacific railroad route along the 38th and 39th parallels. He bid his family farewell, sure to return to them when the expedition was over. The search took him through the Great Plains, over the Rocky Mountains, and into the Grand River Valley.

On September 7, the expedition came to a relatively tame section of a Canyon at Lake Fork. The official report described the area as “a stream imbedded in a narrow and sinuous canyon, resembling a huge snake in motion…To look down over…the canyon below, it seems easy to construct a railroad; but immense amounts of cutting, filling and masonry would be required.” Even then, these experienced explorers understood the geologic processes that created such an obstacle – an uplift of the earth, volcanic activity, and the power of water.

Gunnison rode into the canyon several times during that first day and deemed the land “the roughest, most hilly and most cut up,” he had ever seen. Though the party never ventured further downstream, their report contains the first official description of the formidable Black Canyon.

Gunnison and his men decided to navigate around what is now known as the Black Canyon and follow an easier route west through the present day town of Montrose. When the expedition finally reached Utah, they beheld the destruction left by Paiute Indian raids on Mormon settlements. Local residents reassured the expedition that the attacks were not a serious concern because peace talks had just taken place.

The weather was beginning to turn cold and raw, and Captain Gunnison sought to speed up mapping before returning to winter quarters. After a trip for provisions to the town of Fillmore, he divided the troops to make up for lost time. He went ahead with a crew of soldiers and guides, and camped along the bank of the Sevier River. An attack came during the early hours of the next morning. Only four men of his party survived. John W. Gunnison never returned home to his family.

Reports of the incident stated that it was an act of retribution by the sons of a Paiute leader who had been killed by some emigrants heading west. Utah Governor Brigham Young noted that Captain Gunnison underestimated the tension between the tribes and settlers, and Gunnison apparently tried to resolve the situation.

But rumors began to circulate that the attacks took place by a secrete Mormon malitia, dressed as Indians under the direction of Brigham Young. It wouldn’t be the first or last time Young used this tactic.

It was claimed that leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were concerned that the railway would increase the influx of non-Mormon settlers. However, the Utah Legislature, dominated by LDS officials, had repeatedly petitioned Congress for both a transcontinental railroad and telegraph lines to pass through the region. When the railroad finally came to Utah, LDS leaders organized legions of Mormon workers to build the railway, welcoming the income for the economically depressed community.

But Martha Gunnison maintained that the attack was planned and orchestrated by militant Mormons, based on the many letters Gunnison sent her throughout the expedition. She wrote to Associate Justice W.W. Drummond, the 1855 federal appointee to the Supreme Court of the Territory of Utah. Drummond sided with her, after hearing from informants and witnesses. He cited numerous reports by whites and natives of white attackers dressed up as Indians during the massacre.

In 1854 Lieutenant Colonel Edward Steptoe was sent by the War Department to investigate the attack and determine the truth. He did not uncover evidence of Mormon involvement, and, as a result, eight Paiute men were charged and tried for the attack. Three were convicted of manslaughter.

Although remembered largely because of the massacre, Gunnison had the heart of an adventurer, and uniquely understood the wild country beyond the Mississippi River and the tradeoffs that must be made in order to experience such places. It was in his honor, The Grand River was renamed the Gunnison.

Know Before you Go:

The Precambrian gneiss (pronounced “nice”) and schist layers that make up the majority of the steep walls of the Black Canyon formed 1.7 billion years ago during a metamorphic period brought on by the collision of ancient volcanic island arcs with the southern end of what is present-day Wyoming. The entire area underwent uplift between 70 and 40 million years ago. During the Tertiary period that followed, large volcanic episodes buried the area in several thousand feet of volcanic ash and debris.

The modern Gunnison River set its course 15 million years ago as the run-off from nearby mountains. Another broad uplift 2 to 3 million years ago caused the river to cut through the softer volcanic deposits. Eventually, it reached the Precambrian rocks below. Since the river was now entrenched enough into the earth to be unable to change its course, it began scouring through the extremely hard metamorphic rocks at the rate of 1 inch every 100 years. The extreme hardness of the metamorphic rock along with the relative quickness with which the river carved through them created the steep walls that can be seen today.

This certified International Dark Sky Park offers two campgrounds – one on each rim. There is also a campground at the bottom of the canyon called East Portal. Although accessed through the park, East Portal is within the boundary of the neighboring National Recreation Area.

Trails of all difficulty levels hug the rim of the canyon, along with a scenic drive that offers stunning views of the dark chasm. Those who seek the rugged experience of venturing into the Black Canyon’s depths will be rewarded with an experience like no other, but it requires skill, experience, and preparation. The inner canyon is also a designated wilderness area and requires a permit to enter.


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For great American road trip destinations, give us a listen on the See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one. If you are interested in RV travel, find us at the RV Miles Podcast.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

Podcast Episodes

The Great Prarie Highway

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by Jason Epperson, with narration from Abigail Trabue.

Listen below, or on any podcast app:


I’m standing on the Powder Mill Pedestrian Bridge, which spans Interstate 435 in southern Kansas City, Missouri. I’m looking south at the confluence of I-435, I-49, I-435, I-470, U.S. 50, and U.S. 71. Over 250,000 cars a day pass through here, making —which is known to the locals as Grandview Triangle—one of the busiest interchanges in the country. In fact, this has been one of the most traveled stretches of road since before there was a road.

The Grandview Triangle officially goes by another name — the 3-Trails Crossing Memorial Highway. Two hundred years ago, about 15 miles north of this spot, wagon trains set out on their journies along one of three routes towards the largely unknown West.

For about 50 miles, the trails were one before they diverged. This bridge I’m standing on is, in fact, part of the 46-mile 3-trail corridor, as it’s now known. It was erected specifically to allow people to walk or bike the 46-mile journey before the trails separate, through the concrete jungle of Kansas City, passing many historic sites, until it reaches beyond the edges of town, where green grass fields still show the wagon ruts from 19th-century pioneers looking for a better life.

The upper route headed towards Oregon and the middle route to California. The Oregon and California trails were the pathways to the Pacific for fur traders, gold seekers, missionaries, and emigrants. For almost 30 years, beginning in 1841, more than 300,000 emigrants followed this route from the Midwest to fertile Oregon farmlands or California gold fields—trips that took five months to complete.

But the lower route was another matter altogether. It was an international road for American and Mexican traders, until 1848 when the Mexican-American War ended, and New Mexico joined the United States. It became a national road for commercial and military freighting, stagecoach travel, emigration, and mail service.

History of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail:

On June 10, 1821, a 31-year old saltmaker named William Becknell published a notice in the Missouri Intelligencer newspaper soliciting participants for a trip “to the westward for the purpose of trading for Horses & Mules, and catching Wild Animals of every description, that we may think advantageous.” Becknell was bankrupt and facing jail for debts, as Missouri fell under the grip of a devastating depression.

Becknell left Franklin, Missouri, for Santa Fe in September of 1821 with five other men, the first to journey on this particular route to the almost mythical city of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Spain jealously protected the borders of its New Mexico colony, prohibiting manufacturing and international trade. Those that journeyed to Mexico before Becknell had been arrested by Spanish soldiers and hauled south toward Mexico City to serve lengthy prison sentences. Those that made it back told of a land starved for manufactured goods and supplies. Becknell was pleasantly surprised to find upon his arrival that Mexico had overthrown the Spanish, and the new Mexican government – unlike their predecessors – welcomed outside trade.

Not surprisingly, others got into the trade soon after Becknell returned, and by 1825 goods from Missouri were not only being traded in Santa Fe but to other points farther south as well. Some traders used the so-called Mountain Route, which offered more dependable water but required an arduous trip over Raton Pass. Most, however, used the Cimarron Route, which was shorter and faster but required knowledge of where the route’s scarce water supplies were located.

From 1821 until 1846, the Santa Fe Trail was a two-way international commercial highway used by both Mexican and American traders.

Suspicion and tension between the United States and Mexico accelerated in the 1840s. With the American desire for territorial expansion, Texans raided into New Mexico, and the United States annexed Texas. The Mexican-American War erupted in 1846. General Stephen Watts Kearny led his Army of the West down the Santa Fe Trail to take and hold New Mexico and upper California and to protect American traders on the trail. He marched unchallenged into Santa Fe.

After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war in 1848, the Santa Fe Trail became a national road connecting the more settled parts of the United States to the new southwest territories.

Commercial freighting along the trail boomed to unheard-of levels, including considerable military freight hauling to supply the southwestern forts. The trail was also used by stagecoach lines, adventurers, missionaries, wealthy New Mexican families, and emigrants. The Santa Fe Trade developed into a complex web of international business, social ties, tariffs, and laws, passing goods from as far as New York, London, and Paris.

Movies and books often romanticize Santa Fe Trail treks as sagas of constant peril, with violent prairie storms, fights with Indians, and thundering buffalo herds. In fact, a glimpse of bison, elk, antelope, or prairie dogs was sometimes the only break in the tedium of 8-week journeys. Trail travelers mostly experienced dust, mud, gnats and mosquitoes, and heat. But occasional swollen streams, wildfires, hailstorms, strong winds, or blizzards could imperil wagon trains.

At dawn, trail hands scrambled in noise and confusion to round up, sort, and hitch up the animals. The wagons headed out, the air ringing with whoops and cries of “All’s set!” and soon, “Catch up! Catch up!” and “Stretch out!”

Stopping at mid-morning, crews unhitched and grazed the teams, hauled water, gathered wood or buffalo chips for fuel, and cooked and ate the day’s main meal from a monotonous daily ration of 1 pound of flour, 1 pound of bacon, 1 ounce of coffee, 2 ounces of sugar, and a pinch of salt. Beans, dried apples, or bison and other game were occasional treats. Crews then repaired their wagons, yokes, and harnesses, greased wagon wheels, doctored animals, and hunted.

They moved on soon after noon, fording streams before the night’s stop because overnight storms could turn trickling creeks into raging floodwaters. At day’s end, crews took care of the animals, made necessary repairs, chose night guards, and enjoyed a few hours of well-earned leisure and sleep.

Westward from Missouri, forests gave way to Kansas prairie. Long days traveling through seemingly endless expanses of tall and short grass prairie, with a few narrow ribbons of trees along waterways, evoked vivid descriptions. “In spring, the vast plain heaves and rolls around like a green ocean,” wrote one early traveler. Another marveled at a mirage in which “horses and the riders upon them presented a remarkable picture, apparently extending into the air. . .45 to 60 feet high. . . At the same time, I could see beautiful clear lakes of water with. . .bulrushes and other vegetation. . .” Other travelers dreamed of cures for sickness from the “purity of the plains.” As the route was mainly commercial, once most wagon trains made it to Santa Fe, they turned around and headed right back.

As void of human presence the prairie landscape might have appeared, the lands the trail passed through were the long-held homelands of many American Indian people. Most early encounters were peaceful negotiations centering on access to tribal lands and trade in horses, mules, and other items that Indians, Mexicans, and Americans coveted. As trail traffic increased, so did confrontations, as the travelers disrupted more and more traditional ways of American Indian life. Mexican and American troops began providing escorts for wagon trains.

In 1862, the Civil War arrived in the West. The Confederate plan for the West was to raise a force in Texas, march up the Rio Grande, take Santa Fe, turn northeast on the Santa Fe Trail, capture the stores at Fort Union, head up to Colorado to capture the goldfields, and then turn west to take California. They pushed up the Rio Grande Valley into New Mexico. Albuquerque and Santa Fe fell. But the tide turned at Glorieta Pass, on the Santa Fe Trail. In the most decisive western battle of the Civil War, Union forces secured victory when they torched the nearby Confederate supply train. The Confederates abandoned any hope of reaching Fort Union – and with it, their foothold in New Mexico. The Union Army held the Southwest and its vital Santa Fe Trail supply line.

The close of the Civil War in 1865 released America’s industrial energies. The railroad pushed westward, gradually shortening and then replacing the Santa Fe Trail. Within two years, rails had been laid across central Kansas, and by 1873, two different rail lines reached from eastern Kansas into Colorado. As lands were parceled out for railroads and the bison were hunted nearly to extinction, Native people were pushed aside or assigned to reservations.

Because the Santa Fe Trail hauled primarily commercial goods, the railroad expansion meant that the trading caravans needed to traverse increasingly shorter distances. During the early 1870s, three different railroads vied to build rails over Raton Pass in order to serve the New Mexico market. The winner of that competition, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, reached the top of Raton Pass in late 1878. In February 1880, the railroad reached Santa Fe, and the trail faded into history.

The Santa Fe National Historic Trail:

For nearly 60 years, goods were exchanged on the Santa Fe trail, as well as knowledge and culture. It’s no accident that there are towns in Missouri named Mexico and Santa Fe.

The Santa Fe National Historic Trail spans 900 miles of the Great Plains and traverses five states. The route was commemorated in 1987 by the National Park Service as the Santa Fe National Historic Trail. A highway route that roughly follows the trail’s path through the entire length of Kansas, the southeast corner of Colorado and northern New Mexico has been designated as the Santa Fe Trail National Scenic Byway. Museums, interpretive centers, and historic sites pepper the journey today – places like Fort Dodge, Fort Union, and the Cimmaron National Grassland.

The National Trails website on NPS.gov does a fantastic job of showing the hundreds of sites along the route, and you can find a wealth of information at SantaFeTrail.org, the website of the non-profit Santa Fe Trail Association. For more information about the 3 Trails Corridor, visit 3trailscorridor.com.

If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our America’s National Parks Facebook group.

Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.

Pick up your own “From Sea to Shining Sea” gear in the America’s National Parks Teespring store.

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For more great American destinations, give us a listen at our new See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one.
If you are interested in RV travel, find us at the RV Miles Podcast.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

National Park Service News

News from the Parks | December 2019

By Jason Epperson

Welcome to the December 2019’s “News From the Parks,” our new monthly series where we round up for you the latest info about happenings in America’s Greatest treasures.


Welcome our 62nd Park:

It’s official: The United States now boasts 62 congressionally designated National Parks. New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument became White Sands National Park. On Friday, December 20, the President signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, which includes a provision that re-designates White Sands. White Sands National Monument was established on January 18, 1933, by President Herbert Hoover. In addition to containing the world’s largest gypsum dunefield, the park is home to the globe’s largest collection of Ice-Age fossilized footprints.

Entrance Fees on the Rise:

Entrance fees and individual park annual passes are set to increase at many parks across the nation on January 1, including White Sands where an annual pass will go up from $40 to $45. Most seven-day vehicle passes to enter national parks will be increased by $5 or $10. The increase was first proposed back in 2017.165 National Park Service sites charge an entrance fee; the other 254 national parks remain free to enter.

The nationwide America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass and Lifetime Senior Pass will remain $80 in 2020. The Access Pass for people with disabilities remains free. For a breakdown of all the annual pass options, check out our “National Park Passes Explained” video on the RV Miles YouTube Channel. We’ll provide a link in the show notes.

2020 Fee Free Days:

The Park Service has also announced fee-free days for 2020:
January 20 – Martin Luther King Jr. Day
April 18 – First Day of National Park Week/National Junior Ranger Day
August 25 – National Park Service Birthday
September 26 – National Public Lands Day
November 11 – Veterans Day

A Grave and Immediate Threat:

America’s national parks are facing a grave and immediate threat: invasive animal species.

The National Park Service has asked a group of experts to help chart a course to handle the problem of invasive species, and those findings were recently published in the journal Biological Invasions. Invasive animal species can be found in more than half of all national parks. Of the 1,409 reported populations of 311 separate invasive animal species, there are management plans for 23 percent and only 11 percent are being contained. They include mammals, such as rats, cats, and feral pigs; aquatic species like lake trout, and reptiles like the Burmese python in Everglades National Park where pythons that can reach 23 feet in length were found thriving and reproducing twenty years ago. The result has been huge declines in native mammals.

Currently, the National Park Service has no comprehensive program to reverse or halt the trend of invasive species, but the study was a first step towards a national strategy.

Assisting Wildfire’s Abroad

The United States is sending 21 wildland fire personnel from the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service to assist in fighting the devastating wildfires currenty plaguing Australia. About 100 fires have been burning for weeks in drought-plagued New South Wales, with half of them uncontained, including a “mega-blaze” ringing Sydney, covering Australia’s biggest city in a haze of toxic smoke.

An extended drought combined with hot and dry weather conditions have elevated wildfire risk, and fire activity is expected to continue for the next several months.

Human Remains Found at Joshua Tree:

On Thursday morning, December 19th, authorities at Joshua Tree National Park were alerted of evidence of skeletal human remains found while analyzing photographs of the park taken last summer. The discovery is in a remote, rocky, steep location away from any trails.

Law enforcement rangers hiked to the reported location where they found the remains, along with the belongings of the victims. There was no personal identification with the remains, which appear to have been in that location for some time. An investigation is currently ongoing, led by National Park Service law enforcement and San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department investigators. At this time, the identity of the bodies has not been confirmed, and the manner of death is undetermined. There are no initial indicators of foul play.

National Park Service Seeks Public Assistance:

The National Park Service is seeking the public’s assistance to develop a list of national park lands that would benefit from new or increased access routes. The Park Service and other federal land management agencies are developing a priority list of lands with no or restricted public access. These lists will help the park service priortitize future access projects such as roads and trails.

Public comments will be accepted through January 4, 2020, on the Park Service’s Planning, Environmental and Public Comments website.

Dark Skies at El Morro:

The International Dark Sky Association has named New Mexico’s El Morro National Monument as an International Dark Sky Park. The certification recognizes the exceptional quality of the park’s night skies and provides added opportunities to enhance visitor experiences through astronomy based interpretive programming.

International Dark Sky Park certification promotes public education and astronomy based recreation in parks while improving energy efficiency and reduced operational costs through outdoor lighting upgrades.

The International Dark Sky Places Program was founded in 2001 to encourage communities, parks, and protected areas around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting polices and public education. El Morro National Monument now joins more than 100 locations that have followed a rigorous application process that demonstrates robust community support for dark sky certification.

El Morro National Monument features one of the most impressive and accessible records of Southwest history, which is exposed on a single rock. Inscription Rock, a sandstone promontory rising 200 feet from the valley floor has more than 2,000 inscriptions and petroglyphs of many cultures along its sheer cliff face. Monument visitors can gaze upon original markings of pueblo residents, Spanish explorers, early surveyors, and pioneers in symbols, signatures, poetry, and prose right where they were originally carved.

Protecting The Narrows at Zion:

The iconic Narrows Trail at Zion National Park, is now permanently protected from closure and development. The route follows the Virgin River into a deep slot canyon with sculpted sandstone walls soaring more than a thousand feet overhead. For much of the 16-mile trek, the canyon is so narrow that hikers are literally immersed in the river, with nowhere to walk but in the rocky streambed itself.

Part of the route has always crossed private land. Public access to the Narrows has depended on informal agreements with local landowners. The Trust for Public Land has guaranteed public access to both private properties forever. They won a conservation easement for the Simon Gulch ranch, guaranteeing permanent public access to the last at-risk section of the Narrows Trail.

Internation National Park News:

In International National Park news, beginning on Jan. 1, 2020, foreign and national tourists who visit many of Costa Rica’s national parks will be covered by an insurance policy. It’s a new way to help convince tourists to follow the rules through positive reenforcement. Visitors who enter the national parks through the official entrances and adhere to posted rules will be covered in case of injury or death. Vehicles parked in official lots will also be covered for damage or theft.

The insurance policy will be automatically included in the price of the ticket for all visitors. The parks will also improve signage throughout protected areas in order to adequately inform visitors of the areas they may or may not visit within the park, and if rules are not adhered to, the tourist will be at their own risk.

A New NPS TV Drama:

Last month we told you about a new TV drama in development about National Park Service rangers, well now, there’s another. Kevin Costner is developing a one-hour drama titled ISB that will focus on the Park Service’s Investigative Services Branch for ABC. ISB will follow elite special agents who end up having to solve some of the most complex and heinous crimes committed within the National Parks of the ISB’s Pacific West region.

A National Park-themed Bar:

Nashville Tennessee is about to get a National Park-themed bar. It’s called “Camp,” and it will feature a national park-inspired setting involving indoor trees, boulders, a fish tank, and elaborate drinks, including cocktails served in terrariums named after 10 different parks. Drinks will come with pamphlets featuring information about the corresponding park. At month’s end, the bar will donate to each park according to number of each drink sold.

Happy Birthday to Sleeping Bear:

Finally, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2020. The park is planning a year of honoring the past, celebrating today, and planning for the future, starting with a kick-off celebration on Saturday, January 18.

Sleeping Bear Dunes hugs the northeast shore of Lake Michigan. The park is known for the huge scalable dunes of the Dune Climb and its two islands, beaches, farmsteads, and forests.


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Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #BeanOutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

Podcast Episodes

Valley Forge

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted and written by Jason Epperson, with narration from Abigail Trabue.

Listen below, or on any podcast app:


On December 19, 1777, 12,000 weary revolutionary war soldiers and 400 women and children marched into what would be their winter encampment. They began to build what was essentially the fourth largest city in the United States, with 1,500 log huts and two miles of fortifications. Lasting six months, from December until June, the encampment was as diverse as any city, with people who were free and enslaved, wealthy and impoverished, speakers of several languages, and adherents of multiple religions. Concentrating the soldiers in one vast camp changed the face of the conflict, leading to the long-fought independence the colonies so desired. 

American Indians occupied the area in and around what is now known as Valley Forge National Historical Park over 10,000 years ago, enjoying the abundance of food and shelter offered by the river valley. Europeans began to settle the region in the late 17th century and gradually displaced the indigenous people. 

The land was cleared for agriculture, and 18 landowners established fairly prosperous farms on the choice agricultural soils. Along Valley Creek, an ironworks named Valley Forge was established, and a small industrial village, including charcoal houses, a sawmill, grist mill, and company store grew up around it.

The slopes of Mounts Joy and Misery were wooded and were frequently cut over to supply wood to fuel the iron forge. By the time of the soldiers arrived during the Revolutionary War, it was an open, rolling landscape divided into many small fields and pastures by fences and hedgerows. Woodlands and charcoal hearths blanketed the mountains, and there was a smattering of structures in what was now the Village of Valley Forge. The forges themselves laid ruined—burned during a raid by the British three months earlier.

It’s perhaps American legend that a rag-tag team of misfit militias defeated the King’s Army, but in reality, the war was a massive, multi-national conflict, and the colonies needed to build a traditional military to force the British from America. 


By the time of Valley Forge, most Americans realized that the Revolution would be a long, drawn-out affair. The nature of the war changed in July 1776 when a large contingent of troops reached America’s shores and sought to crush the rebellion. By the fall, the British had pushed

George Washington’s unevenly trained and outnumbered force to the brink of defeat and established control over New York City and the states of New York and New Jersey. Only Washington’s bold Christmas night 1776 crossing of the Delaware River and subsequent victories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, saved the cause from disaster.

In order to put the Army on firmer footing, the Continental Congress allowed George Washington to recruit soldiers for longer enlistments, beginning in 1777. The men of this establishment formed the bulk of the professional force that would fight the rest of the war. After wintering at their stronghold in Morristown, New Jersey, Washington’s forces prepared to meet the British with renewed zeal in the spring of 1777.

British strategy for the third year of the American Revolution included a plan to capture the patriot capital at Philadelphia. To accomplish this objective, the British Commander-in-Chief, Sir William Howe, set sail from New York City in July 1777 with nearly 17,000 of His Majesty’s finest troop. The expeditionary force landed at the head of the Chesapeake Bay. 

To oppose Howe, General Washington marched his 12,000-man Army from New Jersey. On the journey south, He paraded them through Philadelphia to impress citizens with the prowess of the patriot force. No longer a rag-tag bunch of inexperienced fighters, the Continental Army was battle-tested and capable of standing up to the British. One observer of the march stated that the men, “though indifferently dressed, held well-burnished arms, and carried them like soldiers; and looked, in short, as if they might have faced an equal number with a reasonable prospect of success.”

In the two key battles of the Philadelphia campaign, Brandywine and Germantown, the Americans fought with skill and courage. Though they lost both battles, as well as the capital at Philadelphia, the Continental Army emerged from these experiences with the confidence of an underdog sports team that had thrown a scare into the champion:

“The experience has served to convince our people, that when they make an attack, they can confuse and Rout even the Flower of the British Army, with the greatest ease, and they are not that invincible Body of Men, which many suppose them to be.”

-George Washington

Yet work remained to be done. The Army had difficulty executing complex large- scale maneuvers such as the orderly retreat. As a result, retreats could turn into panicked flights. In fact, General Nathanael Greene believed that the troops had “fled from victory” at Germantown. 

As the campaign wound down through the months of November and December, Washington maintained strong offensive pressure on the British in the city. With the British ensconced in Philadelphia, Washington and his general officers had to decide where to encamp for the winter. As he chose a site, he had to balance the congressional wish for a winter campaign to dislodge the British from the capital against the needs of his weary and poorly supplied Army. By December 12, Washington made his decision to encamp at Valley Forge. 

From this location 18 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Washington was close enough to maintain pressure on the enemy, yet far enough to prevent a surprise attack on his own troops. From here, the Continental Army could protect the outlying parts of the state, with its wary citizens and precious military stores, as well as the Continental Congress, which had fled to York, Pennsylvania.

Washington and his men marched into camp on December 19, 1777. The soldiers, while not well supplied, were not downtrodden. They exuded the confidence of men who knew that they had come close to beating the British in battle. They were cautiously optimistic about the future and resigned themselves to the task of establishing their winter quarters.

The romantic image that depicts the troops at Valley Forge as helpless and famished, at the mercy of winter’s fury and clothed in nothing but rags, renders them and their commander a disservice, but constant freezing and thawing, and intermittent snowfall and rain, coupled with shortages of provisions, clothing, and shoes, did make living conditions extremely difficult. Rather than wait for rescue, the Army procured supplies, built log cabins to stay in, constructed makeshift clothing and gear, and cooked hearty meals. 

During the early months of the encampment, the soldiers received an average daily ration of one-half pound of beef. But by February, they went without meat for several days at a time. In early March, the Army listed 3,000 men as unfit for duty due to a lack of proper clothing. 

One of the most immediate remedies against the weather and lack of clothing was the construction of log shelters. Valley Forge was the first winter encampment where many thousands of soldiers had to build their own huts. The officers formed them into construction squads and instructed them to build cabins according to a 14-foot by 16-foot model. The Army placed the 2,000-odd huts in parallel lines, and according to one officer, the camp “had the appearance of a little city” when viewed from a distance. Most agreed that their log accommodations were “tolerably comfortable.”

In addition to the huts, miles of trenches were constructed, five earthen forts, and a bridge based on a Roman design over the Schuylkill River. The picture of the encampment that emerges from the army records and the soldiers’ own writing is that of a skilled and capable force in charge of its own destiny.

Once the bridge spanning the river was complete, the Army made full use of the land on the other side as a vital supply link. The farms located on the north side could sell their produce to the Army. The bridge connection also made the camp more secure as patrols could range the country to the north and east to check British movements and intentions in that quarter.

But establishing a winter base so close to the enemy caused additional hardship. Instead of being able to focus on building the camp and obtaining much-needed rest, the troops had to expend energy on security operations. They spent extra-long shifts on duty patrolling, standing guard, and manning dangerous outposts. Washington recognized the strain that this situation placed on his men and rewarded them with two months’ hardship pay.

Perhaps the most notable suffering that occurred at Valley Forge came from a factor that is not frequently mentioned in textbooks: disease was the true scourge of the camp. Men from far-flung geographical areas were exposed to sicknesses from which they had little immunity. During the encampment, nearly 2,000 men died of disease. Dedicated surgeons, nurses, a smallpox inoculation program, and camp sanitation regulations limited the death tolls. The Army kept monthly status reports that tracked the number of soldiers who had died or were too sick to perform their duties. These reports reveal that two-thirds of the men who perished died not during the harsh winter, but during the warmer months of March, April, and May, when supplies were more abundant. The most common killers were influenza, typhus, typhoid, and dysentery.

The scale of the Valley Forge encampment was impressive. The number of soldiers present ranged from 12,000 in December to nearly 20,000 in late spring as the Army massed for the campaign season. The troops who came to camp included men from all 13 original colonies and regiments from all of them except South Carolina and Georgia. The encampment brought together men, women, and children of nearly all ages, from all walks of life, of every occupation, from different ethnic backgrounds, and of various religions. The women included approximately 400 enlisted men’s wives who followed the Army year-round and a few general officers’ wives who came on extended visits. 

Valley Forge was demographically, militarily, and politically an important crossroads in the Revolutionary War. A mix of motives was at play, particularly in the minds of men who enlisted in early 1777. Some of served out of patriotism, but many served for profit, or for individual liberty, as in the case of enslaved, indentured, and apprenticed people. Others were coerced, as most colonies introduced conscription that year.

The participants had different values and different ideas about what words such as liberty, equality, slavery, and freedom meant. The ideals held dear by Americans today were not forged at Valley Forge, but rather contested – not just between patriots and the British – but also among different Americans. Valley Forge and the Revolution put the United States on a long road to defining those ideals in ways satisfactory to all – a process still in the making.

Despite the difficulties, the continental Army matured into a professional force at Valley Forge under the tutelage of Friedrich Wilhelm Baron von Steuben. Baron von Steuben assessed the Army and recognized that Washington’s men needed more training and discipline. At the same time, he realized that American soldiers would not submit to harsh European-style regulation. He did not try to introduce the entire system of drill, evolutions, maneuvers, discipline, tactics, and formations into our Army. “I should have been pelted had I attempted it, and should inevitably have failed,” he said. Instead, von Steuben demonstrated to the men the positive results that would come from retraining. He provided hands-on lessons, and Washington’s independent-minded combat veterans were willing to learn new skills when they saw immediate results. As spring wore on, whole brigades marched with newfound precision and crisply executed commands.

The Commander-in-Chief’s professional reputation also got a boost at Valley Forge. Two events that occurred during the encampment strengthened George Washington’s authority. The first was the emergence of a group of critics who denigrated General Washington’s leadership ability. The proponents of this movement, which became known as the Conway Cabal, suggested that General Gates, the victorious leader at the Battle of Saratoga, was perhaps more fit for the top command. This splinter group of officers and congressmen blamed Washington for having lost the capital to the British and argued that he put the war effort in jeopardy. As winter wore on, the so-called cabal dissolved, bringing disgrace to and ending the careers of several of its leaders. Washington’s authority was strengthened as loyal supporters rallied to defend and exalt the Commander-in-Chief.

A second event that consolidated Washington’s control was his successful campaign to have a congressional committee visit camp. The general lobbied Congress to confer with him in person in order to resolve some of the supply and organizational difficulties that had plagued the Army during the 1777 campaign. The committee emerged from the Valley Forge meeting with a better understanding of the logistical difficulties Washington faced and more sympathetic to the Army’s requirements. The army reorganization was one of the most far-reaching consequences of the committee’s work. Almost from the war’s outset, Washington had argued for a large professional army. The public’s disdain for standing armies limited his ability to raise a sizeable force. The reorganization of 1778 represented a compromise between civilian and military ideals. Realizing that the Army existed at only a portion of its authorized strength, Congress consolidated regiments and created a more streamlined force. 

At Valley Forge in the spring of 1778, the Army joyously celebrated the formal French recognition of the United States as a sovereign power and valuable alliance with this leading European nation. Though it would take years to bear fruit at Yorktown in 1781, the alliance provided Washington with the formidable French naval assistance and additional troops he needed to counter British marine superiority.

In mid-June, Washington’s spy network informed him that the British were about to abandon Philadelphia. The Commander-in-Chief rapidly set troops in motion: a small force marched in and took possession of the city. The majority of the Army swiftly advanced from staging areas on the north side of the Schuylkill River and southeast of camp toward the Delaware River and New Jersey. On June 28, at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, Washington’s men demonstrated their new battlefield skills, as they forced the British from the field. Monmouth hurt the British in the short term and provided the Americans with a long-term boost in confidence.

Washington could claim that the war effort was going well. The Army’s decision to occupy Valley Forge and maintain strong offensive pressure on the enemy was a wise one. After they abandoned Philadelphia, the British had little to show for all of their past year’s efforts.

Thanks to the contributions of von Steuben and others, the Continental Army was more unified than ever before.


Many regard Valley Forge as the birthplace of the American Army. The concepts of basic training, the professionalization of the officer corps, and the rise of the Army’s distinctive branches, such as the corps of engineers, all got their start here. The symbolic importance that Americans have attached to Valley Forge both complicates and enriches its authentic history. The establishment of Valley Forge as a memorial provides a place where generations of Americans have had the opportunity to discover and admire the Continental Army’s sacrifices and achievements and to participate in commemoration of this history. 

The 3,500-acres of monuments, meadows, and woodlands honor and celebrate the ability of citizens to pull together and overcome adversity during extraordinary times. 

Valley Forge National Historical Park is located just 18 miles west of Center City Philadelphia and is easily accessible from New York City, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Here you can step back in time and re-live that winter of 1777 and 1778. 

The Muhlenberg Brigade Area is the site of a brigade encampment led by General Peter Muhlenberg. Consisting of nine log cabins called huts, facing a gravel company street. This is the main site for Valley Forge’s Living History program. Rangers and volunteers dress in 18th Century attire to show visitors glimpses of life at the Valley Forge encampment.

The Artillery Park Commemorates the cannon batteries led by General Knox with three rows of cannons and is a great place to get a long-distance view of the National Memorial Arch – erected to commemorate the arrival of General George Washington and his Continental Army.

Washington’s headquarters, also known as the Isaac Potts House, has the distinction of being the structure General Washington used as his headquarters during the encampment.

On December 14, 2018, the National Park Service opened a new 5,760 square-foot Visitor Center within the park. This new, temporary facility will enable construction to begin on a $12 million renovation to the current Visitor Center (built in 1976).

On Thursday, December 19, visitors can witness a reenactment of the March-In of the Continental Army.

This annual event is a full evening of festivities at Valley Forge. Take a candlelit walk to the Muhlenberg Brigade huts, encounter reenactors at a living Continental camp, meet George Washington, and enjoy eighteenth-century music. Warm-up in the Visitor Center with holiday drinks and treats, see historic chocolate making, and more.


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For more great American destinations, give us a listen at our new See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one.
If you are interested in RV travel, find us at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and me as we travel the country with our three boys at Our Wandering FamilyParagraph

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

National Park Service News

A Prescription for Fire

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by Jason Epperson, with narration from Abigail Trabue and video’s from the National Park Service. Links are provided below for all videos used in this episode.

Listen below, or on any podcast app:

From a seed no bigger than one from a tomato, California’s coast Redwood may grow to a height of 367 feet and have a width of 22 feet at its base. Imagine a 35-story skyscraper in your city, and you have an inkling of the trees’ ability to arouse humility.

Some visitors envision dinosaurs rumbling through these forests in bygone eras. I’m Jason Epperson, and this is California’s Redwood National Park.

It turns out that picturing dinosaurs roaming through the forest is a perfectly natural thought. Fossil records have shown that relatives of today’s coast redwoods thrived in the Jurassic Era 160 million years ago. And while the fantastic creatures of that age have long since disappeared, the redwoods continue to thrive in the right environment.

California’s North Coast provides the only such environment in the world. A combination of longitude, climate, and elevation limits the Redwoods’ range to a few hundred coastal miles. The cool, moist air created by the Pacific Ocean keeps the trees continually damp, even during summer droughts. These conditions have existed for some time, as the redwoods go back 20 million years in their present range.

Exactly why the redwoods grow so tall is a mystery. Theories continue to develop but proof remains elusive. The trees can reach ages of 2,000 years and regularly reach 600 years.

Resistance to natural enemies such as insects and fire are built-in features of a coast redwood. Diseases are virtually unknown, and insect damage insignificant thanks to the high tannin content of the wood. Thick bark and foliage that rests high above the ground provides protection from all but the hottest fires.

The Redwoods’ unusual ability to regenerate also aids in their survival as a species. They do not rely solely upon sexual reproduction, as many other trees must. New sprouts may come directly from a stump or downed tree’s root system as a clone. Basal burls — hard, knotty growths that form from dormant seedlings on a living tree — can sprout a new tree when the main trunk is damaged by fire, cutting, or toppling.

The coast Redwood’s environment recycles naturally; because the 100-plus inches of annual rainfall leaves the soil with few nutrients, the trees rely on each other, living and dead for their vital nutrients. The trees need to decay naturally to fully participate in this cycle. 

But while these trees enjoy robust and hearty features, they have been threatened by humans. 

When Euro-Americans swept westward in the 1800s, they needed raw material for their homes and lives. Commercial logging followed the expansion of America as companies struggled to keep up with the furious pace of progress. Timber harvesting quickly became the top manufacturing industry in the west.

When gold was discovered in northwestern California in 1850, the rush was on. Thousands crowded the remote redwood region in search of riches and new lives. These people were no less dependent upon lumber, and the redwoods conveniently provided the wood the people needed. The size of the huge trees made them prized timber, as redwood became known for its durability and workability. By 1853, nine sawmills were at work in Eureka, a gold boom town established three years prior. Large-scale logging was soon underway, and the once immense stands of redwoods began to disappear by the close of the 19th century.

At first, axes, saws, and other early methods of bringing the trees down were used. But the loggers made use of rapidly improving technology in the 20th century that allowed more trees to be harvested in less time. Transportation also caught up to the task of moving the massive logs. The locomotive replaced horses and oxen. Railroads became the fastest way to transport the logs to mills.

Land fraud was common, as acres of prime redwood forests were transferred from the public domain to private industry. Although some of the perpetrators were caught, many thousands of acres of land were lost in land swindles.

By the 1910s, some concerned citizens began to clamor for the preservation of the dwindling stands of redwoods. The Save-the-Redwoods League was born out of this earnest group, and eventually, the League succeeded in helping to establish the redwood preserves of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

But still logging continued in those parts of the forests that were privately owned, accelerated by WW II and the economic boom of the 1950s. By the 1960s, logging had consumed nearly 90 percent of all the original redwoods. It wasn’t until 1968 that Redwood National Park was established, which secured some of the few remaining stands of uncut redwoods. In 1978, Congress added more land that included logged-over portions of Redwood Creek. Today, these lands are undergoing large-scale restoration by the parks’ resource managers. Logging continues on privately-held lands nearby and throughout the redwood region.

That’s Eamon Engber, Fire Ecologist at Redwood National Park. He stands in front of a park emergency vehicle with a map taped to it, planning the day’s job as he addresses the crew that will carry it out.

Fire is the life-blood of conifer forests and paries. But as modern development encroaches on these lands, fires have become more dangerous, and too big to rebirth plands without killing others. Forest fires have always been caused by lighting, meaning that they happen during or after rainstorms, and otherwise moist times of the year, keeping their impact minimal, usually towards the forest floor and away from the canopy. When humans cause fires during dry periods, they spread rapidly, consuming everything in their path. 

Using a “drip-torch”, fire crews begin to burn the edges of the planned boundary. This occurs after a small test burn has been competed, and only when the temperature, humidity, wind direction and fuel moisture are within strict parameters.

The burn is accomplishing its task. The next time a massive forest fire comes through, there will be less fuel available to it, but more importantly, invasive species are removed, and small trees that choke the forest are eliminated. This forest will continue to thrive because of prescribed burns. 

Redwood National Park is actually managed as Redwood National and State Parks, a string of protected forests, beaches and grasslands along Northern California’s coast. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park has trails through dense old-growth woods. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is home to Fern Canyon, with its high, plant-covered walls. Roosevelt elk frequent nearby Elk Prairie. Giant redwood clusters include Redwood National Park’s Lady Bird Johnson Grove.

 For thousands of years people have lived in this verdant landscape. Together, the National Park Service and California State Parks are managing and restoring these lands for the inspiration, enjoyment, and education of all.

Here, banana slugs, gray whales, Douglas-fir, black bears, and sea anemones are equally at home with redwoods.

Congress protected lands adjacent to the three California state parks in 1968 with the creation of Redwood National Park. In 1994, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the National Park Service agreed to manage the four-park area jointly for maximum resource protection.

Today, visitors will find not only old-growth redwood groves but open prairie lands, two major rivers, and 37 miles of pristine California coastline. 

Cabins and developed camping are available through the California State Parks system, and plenty of commercial lodging surrounds the area. 

It’s a large area, with several individual groves to explore, so you’ll want to plan well. Scenic drives, hiking, and biking trails abound. 



Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.

Pick up your own “From Sea to Shining Sea” gear in the America’s National Parks Teespring store.

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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Redwood Area History: https://www.nps.gov/redw/learn/historyculture/area-history.htm

About the trees:  https://www.nps.gov/redw/learn/nature/about-the-trees.htm

The Three Redwoods:  https://www.nps.gov/redw/planyourvisit/upload/ThreeTrees-2014-508.pdf

Prescribed Fire Videos used in the episode: 

https://www.nps.gov/redw/learn/photosmultimedia/firevideos.htm


For more great American destinations, give us a listen at our new See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one.
If you are interested in RV travel, find us at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and me as we travel the country with our three boys at Our Wandering FamilyParagraph

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

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