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Confessions of a National Park Ranger

By Beth Collins
April 2, 2012
park ranger
Hemis.fr / SuperStock
Each year, Grand Canyon National Park sees close to 5 million visitors. From wildfires to helicopter rescues to lost tourists, a park ranger dishes on what really goes on behind the scenes at a national park.

ALL THAT FRESH AIR COMES AT A PRICE

There's a saying about park rangers: "You get paid in sunrises and sunsets." That's really true. You don't do this job for the pay. Sometimes you have to wonder why we work so hard to get these federal positions. The people who are attracted to the job are outsiders—they enjoy solitude, they enjoy nature. It's the most unlikely group of people you'd expect to want to work with the federal government. And you have to give up a lot. It's extremely difficult to have a family or meet someone. You work seasonal positions for years until you finally get a permanent spot, only to realize you like a seasonal girl who's not going to be around in six months.


TWO PARTS ACTION-ADVENTURE FLICK, ONE PART OFFICE SPACE

I've had moments where the job is as exciting as anything you can imagine. You're fighting wildfires, getting lowered from helicopters on a rescue, chasing someone down with a gun on your side, going out on a manhunt. Then sometimes you're directing traffic or dealing with the bureaucracy of the federal government. 


LOST FROM THE GET-GO

It doesn't matter which park you're working, people are like deer in the headlights. They're totally out of their element, they don't know where anything is, and half the time they haven't done any research before their trip. At the Grand Canyon, people will show up on the North Rim only to find out they're on the wrong side—and then they're shocked that they have to drive all the way around the canyon to get to the South Rim. I had one lady bawling when I told her it was a five-and-a-half-hour drive to the other side. She was like, "There's no bridge?!"


NO COMMON SENSE

There's no shortage of stupidity when it comes to what people will do. They'll sit right at the edge of the canyon, where there are no guardrails and it's a 1,000-foot drop. And people forget that they're at 8,500 feet. They wonder why they're having chest pains. They think they're having a heart attack, and we have to remind them it's the altitude. Then there are always people who hike down into the canyon and are totally unprepared—no water, no idea how long it will take. They don't realize there's a big change in temperature and conditions when you drop from 8,500 feet to 2,200 feet. That's one of our most common rescues. They always say they were so in awe of the beauty that they didn't realize how far they'd gone.

PEOPLE WILL DO ANYTHING FOR A PICTURE

It's absolutely astounding what people will do just to prove they saw something. They'll jump from rock pillar to rock pillar—nothing below—just to get the right angle for a shot of the canyon. Sometimes someone's camera falls over the edge and they're crawling over to try to get it. Or they'll stop in the middle of the road, with cars behind them, just to get a picture of a deer (you know, we've all seen deer, but these are deer with the Grand Canyon in the background).

AMERICANS ARE THE WORST

I've seen far more interest from foreigners in our national parks than by Americans. You'll be talking to someone from New Zealand and they're asking you about the geography, the culture, the history. And then an American asks you where the burger stand is.

I'll LET YOU IN ON A SECRET—MAYBE

People are always asking where the best place in the park is, or where they should go to watch the sunset. If I can tell someone is really interested, I'll probably tell him. But if it's some entitled jackass who rushes up to me like, "Hey, man, I got 20 minutes in the park. What's the absolutebestspot?"—no way. And then sometimes you do share, and it backfires. Someone once told me I ruined his vacation because I gave him the wrong place to watch the sunset.

BEING A MEMBER HAS ITS PRIVILEGES

In any profession, you're going to get certain privileges, but I try not to take advantage of my position. But yeah, there have been times when I've gotten pulled over, and I made sure my badge was right next to my driver's license so the cop sees it. There's kind of an understanding.

WHEN THE MOMENT IS RIGHT...

There's something about national parks. You're in an unbelievably romantic place. It gets your juices flowing, creates a spark. Things happen. There are definitely times when a ranger has to approach a car because the windows are a bit steamy. But sometimes we turn a blind eye to it. We're all human.

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Adventure

10 Most Beautiful Waterfalls

Few things in nature are as mesmerizing as a waterfall—the thunderous roar as water spills over cliffs, the light glistening off the spray, the sheer force of it all. We found the 10 most enticing cascades on the planet. Some are obvious choices (who could resist the honeymooners' classic Niagara?), others are more obscure (ever heard of Langfoss?), but they all share an important quality: One look, and you're bound to be transfixed for hours.   1. NIAGARA FALLS New York and Canada The most powerful waterfall in North America, Niagara straddles the international border between Canada and the U.S., near Buffalo, New York. It is divided into three distinct cascades: The 167-foot-high American Falls and the 181-foot-high Bridal Veil Falls sit on the U.S. side; the 158-foot-high Horseshoe Falls drops on the Canadian. People debate which country holds the better view, but the truth of it is, the best vantage point isn't from either shoreline. It's from the water. The Maid of the Mist ventures to both sides along the Niagara River. The 600-passenger vessel gets so close to the action, in fact, that guests are outfitted with rain ponchos to keep them dry from the torrential spray. If you do take the half-hour ride, you'll join the company of former passengers Theodore Roosevelt and Marilyn Monroe (open April through late October, $13.50 per person). Closest major city: Niagara sits 17 miles north of Buffalo; from there, the falls are an easy 25-minute drive along I-190. Best time to go: Summer crowds can overwhelm, so visit during the shoulder seasons instead. You can't go wrong in May, June, and September.   2. HANAKAPI'AI FALLS Kauai, Hawaii Hanakapi'ai calls to mind the prehistoric, untouched beauty of the landscapes in the Jurassic Park films (minus the dinosaurs, of course). The thin veil of water plunges 300 feet from volcanic-rock cliffs cloaked in tropical rain forest. Better still, to get there, you follow the famously scenic  Kalalau Trail, which traces the lush, green Na Pali Coast for 11 miles along the northern coast of the island. You can access the trail from Ke'e Beach. You don't need a guide for the hike—the trail is clearly marked and well trod—but remember to pack water because the sun can get pretty hot here and the hike is strenuous in a few sections. En route, you'll pass through bamboo forests and cross a freshwater stream; two miles in, you'll reach a quiet inlet of Ke'e Beach, where it's not unusual to spot pods of dolphins playing in the surf. Closest major city: The trailhead at Ke'e Beach is a quick 15-minute drive north from the town of Hanalei, Kauai. From there, the hike takes two to four hours round-trip, depending on your fitness level and how long you linger at the beach and the waterfall. Best time to go: You'll find the best deals on flights and hotels from mid-September through December, and from January through May. Avoid hiking the trail in August, when temperatures can climb into the 90s. Be sure to get an early start; the parking lot at Ke'e Beach fills up by mid-morning.   Related: World's Most Beautiful Lakes   3. PLITVICE LAKES  Croatia If the Grand Canyon were covered in Technicolor green moss, spotted with 16 lakes across its base, and laced with thousands of falls along its walls, it would look a little something like Plitvice Lakes National Park in southwestern Croatia ($15 entrance fee, per person). The color of the water is intensely turquoise, thanks to the unique mix of minerals and organisms in runoff from the Dinaric Alps. The Plitvice National Park Service offers three-hour tours, starting at $130 for groups, but it's more fun to explore at your own pace, stopping to duck under waterfalls when you need to cool off. Allow a solid two to three hours to poke around, and be sure to take in the view from the first entrance to the park. The perch, high above a series of caves, overlooks all the lakes. Maps for sale ($4 each) at the tourist information booths, located at each of the park's two entrances, will help you navigate the park's labyrinth of trails and boardwalks. Closest major city: The park is 80 miles south of Zagreb and an easy two-hour drive by car. Best time to go: The weather is reliably warm and sunny from May through September.   4. IGUAZÚ FALLS  Argentina A network of 275 falls that spans nearly two miles across, Iguazú is so striking in its immensity that when Eleanor Roosevelt first saw the falls, she remarked, "poor Niagara." The water plummets with such intense force that the spray almost looks as if it's shooting up from the pools below. One of the most popular sections is Devil's Throat, a horseshoe-shaped waterfall that's 269 feet wide and 2,300 feet long. You could visit Iguazú on your own, but you'll see more with an experienced guide. The full-day excursion with Viator takes you by bus to Devil's Throat and the falls' Upper and Lower Circuits and also grants you access to the Train of the Forest, a railway system that travels through the park and to the footbridges overlooking the falls ($35 per person). Closest major city: Iguazú is 670 miles (and a 90-minute flight) north of Buenos Aires. Best time to go: For the best prices and warm temperatures (75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit), go in October. Avoid January, February, and Easter vacation, when Argentines and Brazilians flock to the falls. And stay away during May and July, the two rainiest months.   Related: World's Most Beautiful Castles   5. YOSEMITE FALLS  California A poster child for the American West, this three-tiered fall stretches 2,425 feet from top to bottom. The waterfall itself is gorgeous, but it is the surroundings-granite cliffs and Giant Sequoia trees-that make it one of the most striking sights in the country. The falls are visible from many places around Yosemite Valley, particularly near Yosemite Lodge. From the lodge's parking lot, you can get even closer by taking one of the  National Park Service's free, 20-minute shuttle bus rides to stop no. 6, where a one-mile loop trail leads to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall. Closest major city: Yosemite National Park is 195 miles (and a four-hour drive) east of San Francisco. Best time to go: The falls are at their most spectacular when the winter ice and snow are melting, from March to June. Peak flow is in May.   6. VICTORIA FALLS  Zimbabwe and Zambia More than twice as high as Niagara Falls and about a mile across, the absolute mass of this gusher is mind-boggling. The force of the water falling into the pool below is so great, in fact, that on clear days you can see the spray from as far as 30 miles away. The local populace is equally impressive: Baboons, elephants, and hippos are often spotted along the shores of Victoria. Safari Par Excellence can set you up with everything, whether you're looking for a simple rafting trip on the Zambezi River leading up to Victoria (from $135 per person for a half-day) or a helicopter ride to view the white rhinos in nearby Mosi-oa Tunya National Park (from $120 per person). Closest major city: Livingstone, Zambia, is about eight miles from Victoria Falls. Most visitors fly into Livingstone International Airport and then take a shuttle to their hotel, where tour operators pick up guests and transport them to the falls. Best time to go: The perfect window is from February to May, when the rainy season has just ended but the falls are still gushing.   Related: World's Newest Natural Wonders   7. SUTHERLAND FALLS  New Zealand Set on the southwestern tip of the South Island, Fiordland National Park is perfectly calibrated to create cascades: The rugged landscape gets a steady supply of rain 300 days a year and has hundreds of falls to show for it. The true masterpiece of hte bunch is Sutherland. Its water drops 1,904 feet and shifts to the right at one point and then back to the left at another, forming three distinct sections. The best way to see the trio is by hiking a three-mile portion of the Milford Track, one of New Zealand's most popular trails. You can access the Milford near the town of Quintin, at the Quintin Hut, then follow the trail south for approximately 45 minutes to the base of the falls. Closest major city: Fiordland National Park is about 280 miles southwest of Queenstown. Most visitors rent a car to make the drive, which takes about five hours from Queenstown. Best time to go: Go during New Zealand's summer, December to February, when the days are long and the temperatures hover around a comfortable 70 degrees Fahrenheit.   8. GULLFOSS FALLS  Iceland Located on the southwest coast of Iceland, this is one of the most unconventional-looking waterfalls around. It's two-tiered, and even though neither drop is particularly high, together they make for an incredible sight. The first fall cascades to the right, the water churning around before hitting a sheer cliff, where it turns to the left and drops again. Viator Tours operates a half-day trip that stops at Gullfoss and two more of Iceland's biggest attractions: Geysir, which can spout water up to 230 feet high, and the Kerid volcanic crater ($88 per person). Closest major city: Viator Tours provides transportation to and from Reykjavik. The bus ride is 75 miles and takes about an hour and a half. Best time to go: Go during June, July, and August, when the ice has melted and temperatures are at their warmest (ranging from 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit).   Related: Top U.S. Water Parks   9. ANGEL FALLS  Venezuela The tallest waterfall in the world at 3,211 feet, Angel Falls is so high that some of the water evaporates before it even reaches the pool below. When you look up from the base, the waterfall seems to come from nowhere. Unlike most falls, this one isn't fed by snowmelt, a lake, or a river, but by rainfall from the tropical clouds. Getting to and from Angel Falls on your own is logistically tricky, so it's necessary to see this cascade with a guide. The three-day tour from Akanan Travel & Adventure includes airfare from Caracas, Venezuela's capitol, to Angel Falls; hammocks to sleep on; all meals; and insider access to the falls, including hikes, canoe rides, and a dip in a hidden pool at the base of the waterfall ( $450 per person). Closest major city: Angel Falls is located in  Canaima National Park, which has an on-site airport that connects visitors to and from Caracas. Best time to go: Akanan's tours run from July through November, when the waterfalls flow is at its heaviest.   10. LANGFOSS WATERFALL  Norway Instead of falling in a straight drop like most waterfalls, Langfoss slips down a cliff, maintaining contact with the rocks the entire way down, before spilling into Akra Fjord. Langfoss isn't the biggest waterfall in Norway, but its combined height (2,008 feet) and width (205 feet) are an impressive combination. The mountainside in the background turns bright green with new vegetation in the summer, providing a striking contrast to the whitewater of the falls and the charcoal-gray rocky outcroppings. It's one of the few waterfalls in Norway that hasn't been tapped for hydroelectric power and is still in its natural state. The  Langfoss Waterfall Fjord Cruise travels past tiny farms and rugged mountains on its way to the gusher ($45). Closest major city: From Oslo, you can drive the 246 miles (about five hours) to the small town of Etne, where Langfoss falls; you can also fly from Oslo directly into Haugesund airport and then drive 43 miles to Etne. Best time to go: The weather around Langfoss is at its best from June through September.   See more popular content: 10 Islands to See Before You Die Top Budget Destinations for 2011 9 Must-Visit Caribbean Islands Top 10 Most Travel-Inspiring Films of the Year

Adventure

"We Love the Outdoors and Just Have to See Alaska"

Ken and Cathy Robertson of Springdale, Ark., take at least one major vacation per year with their triplet sons, Brock, Connor, and Quinn. They've been on cruises and to big cities, but the majority of their adventures have involved the great outdoors--the Everglades, a Colorado guest ranch, and Yellowstone, to name a few. "When the boys got old enough, I put together several options and we voted on where to go," says Ken. "It's become a tradition. Every year when we return from a vacation, I have a list of possibilities for future trips ready." Once a consensus is reached, Ken starts compiling information on flights, hotels, and sights in a spreadsheet. The boys usually help out with the planning, poking through guidebooks and brochures and weighing in. Alaska has been on the family's wish list for years, and this summer Ken and Cathy are finally going to make it happen. "There's so much we want to experience, but it's all so expensive," said Ken, who works in the Sam's Club division of Wal-Mart and knows a thing or two about saving money. "We're struggling to find the best value and the best combination of things to do. I know it's not going to be cheap. I just want to get my money's worth." They've allotted two weeks for the trip. Their first idea was to start with a one-week cruise, but they were worried that it would eat up too much time, and that the boys might grow bored after a few days. We suggested that they fly to Anchorage for a land-based trip that still includes some time on the water. There's no getting around the fact that Alaska is pricey, especially in the summer, so we put together an itinerary that balances the bargains and the splurges. We recommended a loop from Anchorage: down the Kenai Peninsula, a ferry ride across Prince William Sound to Valdez, and then a leisurely drive to Denali National Park before heading back to Anchorage. Such a trip can be hurried through in a week, so the Robertsons should have plenty of time for fun and flexibility, which Cathy will surely appreciate. (Ken tells us that he sometimes plans things a little too tightly for his wife's liking, "as she often reminds me.") On the way south to the Kenai Peninsula, the first stop is the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge--specifically Potter Marsh, where there's a boardwalk for viewing moose, waterfowl, and spawning salmon. Less than 15 minutes farther is Beluga Point, a playground for whales. At high tide, there are sometimes two dozen 13-foot beluga whales right offshore. We reminded the boys to periodically look up at the land side of the road, because the steep rocks are a favorite spot for Dall sheep. The Robertsons wanted to get on the water, so we pointed them to a day cruise in Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords with Native American-owned Kenai Fjords Tours. This is the Cliff's Notes version of Alaska: enough glaciers to make you feel as though it's the Ice Age, as well as puffins, seals, sea lions, and maybe even humpback whales. "The boys are super-excited to try dog sledding," says Ken. "They think it looks like the coolest thing in the world." They're right. A single 50-pound dog can haul a 500-pound sled by itself and still wag its tail the entire time. In Seward, a company called IdidaRide takes customers on two-mile wilderness runs (the sleds are on wheels because there's no snow, but it's a fun ride nonetheless). The boys should also end up happily covered in dog fur after touring the kennels and playing with the puppies. One of the first things that got all of the Robertsons jazzed to go to Alaska was the chance to see the salmon run--and the dozens of bears fishing--in the streams at Katmai National Park. "The whole family is really into wildlife and nature," says Ken. The problem is that no roads lead to Katmai, and the cost for a seaplane and tour is very, very steep; even day trips run more than $500 per person. But there are less-expensive alternatives. Traveling in July, the Robertsons will likely see bears by the roadside, at streams, and throughout Denali National Park. Talon Air Service flies out of Soldotna, on the west coast of the Kenai Peninsula, to a remote area where bears feed on spawning salmon. There's a near guarantee of encountering a grizzly bear. The six-hour tour is just under $300 a person. Gwin's Lodge, in Cooper Landing (roughly in the middle of the Kenai), is a good base for exploring the peninsula. The kids will love the loft beds; Mom and Dad can hike up to Russian River Falls to watch leaping salmon and maybe spot a moose. Cabins big enough for the family are $199 in peak season. The Robertsons opted out of a full cruise, but they can still hit the open water on the Alaska Marine Highway. We warned them that advance reservations are essential, especially since they'll be taking along a car. They'll hop on the AMH at Whittier and cruise across Prince William Sound to Valdez, a journey of roughly five hours. From Valdez, the family will drive past the waterfalls of Keystone Canyon to the Glennallen Junction. There they have a choice of heading north along Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, one of the largest protected wilderness areas in the world, up to Fairbanks and the chance to look over reindeer, caribou, and shaggy musk oxen at a farm run by the University of Alaska; or going west past Matanuska Glacier and the Chugach Icefields (nearly the size of New Hampshire) back to Anchorage. Either way, it'll take at least two days on the road from Valdez to reach the centerpiece of the trip, Denali National Park and Mount McKinley, the continent's tallest mountain. There's no telling when they'd want to stop, so instead of making reservations, we told the Robertsons to find a motel or campsite whenever it felt right. Private cars are only allowed in a small part of Denali, so to really see the place, it's necessary to get on one of the park's converted school buses. Kids under 15 go free on most tours, including the all-day trip to Wonder Lake (note: reserve early). The drive is filled with jaw-dropping landscapes of glaciers and tundra, and there are chances to spot Toklat grizzly bears, caribou, and wolves. From the lake, the mountain is so big it looks like a wall--when the weather cooperates, that is. Only about a quarter of visitors ever actually see Mount McKinley, which is so massive that it makes its own weather; it seems particularly fond of clouds. The Robertsons still wanted more excitement, so we told them about Nenana Raft Adventures. Based right outside Denali, it runs rafting trips on Class III and IV rapids--not unlike combining a cold shower with a roller coaster. "It's probably gonna cost me, but I've gotta get the boys up in a plane for the scenery," says Ken. K2 Aviation, in Talkeetna, gives a reason to splurge: The operation's Denali Grand Tour route loops all the way around Mount McKinley and includes a glacier landing. The cost is $265 a person, but worth every penny. Back in Talkeetna, the family can feast on moose or caribou burgers at the West Rib Pub & Grill. In summer, the sun doesn't go down until after 10 p.m., so there'll be plenty of daylight left for more adventures. Have an awesome time! How was your trip? Last fall we coached six members of the Red Hat Society on a trip to London for shopping, sightseeing, and pub hopping. Here they are with the faux Fab Four at Madame Tussauds. "We came back with fantastic memories," says Lucille McCaie, one of the ladies from Fitchburg, Mass. "Your tips were helpful. There was just too much to do--we ran out of time." Alaska Transportation Alaska Marine Highway 800/642-0066, ferryalaska.com, Whitter to Valdez $85, car from $102 Denali Park Reservations 800/622-7275, reservedenali.com, bus ride to Wonder Lake $32.50, kids under 15 free Lodging Gwin's Lodge Cooper Landing, 907/595-1266, gwinslodge.com Denali Grizzly Bear Cabins and Campground 907/683-2696, denaligrizzlybear.com, family cabins $188 Food West Rib Pub & Grill 100 Main St., Talkeetna, 907/733-3663 Attractions Kenai Fjords Tours Seward, 800/478-8068, alaskaheritagetours.com, $129 K2 Aviation 800/733-2291, flyk2.com IdidaRide Seward, 800/478-3139, ididaride.com, $49, kids $24 Talon Air Service Soldotna, 907/262-8899, talonair.com, $295, 12 and under $275 Large Animal Research Station Mile 2, Yankovich Rd., Fairbanks, 907/474-7640, uaf.edu/lars Nenana Raft Adventures Mile 238, Parks Hwy., Healy, 800/789-7238, raftdenali.com, from $75 Resources Alaska Travel Industry Association travelalaska.com

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