This designation has been given to some of the United States’ most naturally important places, from sea to shining sea.
By Mildred Jailer-Chamberlain
What do the Pygmy Forest in California, the Clifton Gorge in Ohio, and the Bigelow Preserve in Maine share in common? They are three of approximately 600 sites scattered across the United States that have been designated by the Secretary of the Interior as significant natural areas and are now looked to as National Natural Landmarks.
The designation is not new, but many travelers may not have heard of it. To warrant this status, each of the sites was deemed one of the best examples of a type of biotic community or geologic feature in its physiographic province.
Not all sites so designated are open to the public. Rugged or unimproved terrain makes some of them unapproachable. Some are on privately owned land, while others are set aside strictly for research. But National Natural Landmarks open to the public are well worth a visit, often for their beauty and, surely, for their unusual natural characteristics.
Following is a sampling of National Natural Landmarks that can be explored by visitors. State travel offices can probably lead the way to others.
Ready to feel tall? Head for the northern California coast. Five miles south of Fort Bragg is the Pygmy Forest, consisting of trees that may be more than 100 years old, yet they stand only 6 to 12 feet high. It’s an amazing contrast to the adjacent redwood forest (the tallest conifers in the world). Self-guided tours of the Pygmy Forest begin at the Jug Handle State Preserve, located along State Route 1.
Here, the action of the rising and falling ocean together with glacial activity over the past million years or so created five terraces, or benches (the newest is believed to be 100,000 years old), cut into hard sandstone and covered by beach sands or, in some places, by sand dunes. The mini trees that grew on the benches include Bolander and Bishop pines and slender cypresses.
Nearby, Jackson Demonstration State Forest lures visitors who like to hike. Three demonstration trails educate visitors about the ecology and management of redwood forests, and hiking trails abound. For example, the Forest History Trail, a 4-mile loop, is divided into redwood ecology, American Indian uses, early logging history, and modern forest management. The short (1/4-mile) Chamberlain Creek Waterfall Trail leads downward into a grove of large old-growth redwoods and a small waterfall.
The 48,652-acre state forest is within 1-1/2 miles of the Pacific Ocean and extends 20 miles inland on the ridge separating the coastal slopes from the inland valleys. The terrain is flat on the marine terraces and is rugged on the east at elevations ranging from 300 to 2,100 feet.
Bicycling is popular on the logging trails, as is hunting for deer and quail in the fall, and mushroom picking (permit required) after a fall or winter rain, when chanterelles, boletes, and matsutakes are plentiful. For more information, contact the Forest Manager, Jackson Demonstration State Forest, 802 N. Main St., Fort Bragg, CA 95437; (707) 964-5674; www.fire.ca.gov/php/rsrc-mgt_jackson.php.
Another American coastline experience is treasured at Point Lobos State Reserve, 10 miles south of Monterey, California, on State Route 1. It has been described as a significant example of terrestrial and marine environments in close association.
Bird-watchers will enjoy seeking out many types of shorebirds, including the California brown pelican. Plant-watchers will want to note that this is the only known spot where the extremely rare Gowan’s dwarf cypress tree grows, as well as the last remaining natural grove of Monterey cypresses. One of the world’s rarest plants, the variegated Brodiaea, is found only in the reserve.
Visitors also may glimpse harbor seals, sea otters, and California sea lions; have a picnic, and try some of the hiking trails. But please be aware that it may be best to visit this park in a towed vehicle. RVs more than 20 feet long are not permitted to enter on weekends, school vacation days, holidays, or between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Motorhomes towing a vehicle are not permitted entry at any time.
For more information, contact the reserve at (831) 624-4909 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
A bird’s-eye view awaits at Crown Point in Crown Point State Park, Oregon. From this vantage point, approximately 725 feet above the Columbia River, the panorama includes rugged mountains to the east, rolling hills to the north, and the plains to the west. Each makes its own distinctive contribution to the magnificent overall vista.
Crown Point is the site of Vista House, completed in 1918 as a monument to early pioneers of Oregon and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The stone octagonal building, with its copper dome, is very distinctive. Inside the dome are eight carved panels with botanical motifs. The building, with its museum, displays, and gift shop, has been closed since August 2001 for extensive restoration. At press time, it was learned that the building is slated to reopen in March 2005.
Admission to the site is free. Crown Point and Vista House are 24 miles east of Portland, Oregon, on a portion of the old Columbia River Highway (U.S. 30) that is maintained as a scenic route. Access is possible at several interchange points along Interstate 80. For more information, visit.vistahouse.com or phone (800) 551-6949; (503) 695-2261.
This whole region is full of top-notch scenery. The Columbia River Highway passes wonderful waterfalls “” Latourell, Bridal Veil, Horsetail, and the popular Multnomah Falls “” that plunge over basalt ledges into the valley.
See what’s below the Texas Hill Country outside San Antonio, Texas, at Natural Bridge Caverns. Travel northeast of San Antonio via Interstate 35 toward New Braunfels; take exit 175; and proceed on FM Route 3009 north to view what are billed as the largest caves in the state. And, indeed, they are among the top two or three noteworthy caves of the Balcones Fault and Edwards Plateau area of Texas. What’s more, the 60-foot natural limestone bridge that spans the entrance to the sinkhole is an awesome sight that promises an even more thrilling experience below ground.
The well-protected, multilevel living cavern holds more than 10,000 different formations. Some are only 2 inches in diameter and as much as 10 feet tall; others are 8 to 10 inches in diameter and 30 feet high. Formations take the shape of a chandelier of tapering ribbons and vibrant colors; a “bomb burst” that billows up and out and seems to grow larger as it is studied; and a 50-foot “watchtower,” the tallest formation yet found in the caverns. The feasts of underground nature are further enhanced by a swirl of colors described as “35 flavors of ice cream,” rocks almost as translucent as fine porcelain, and rooms the size of football fields.
On the ground’s surface, visitors will find a quiet picnic area, a snack bar, and an interpretive center. Texas’ largest mining sluice, which may turn up fossils, gems, and colorful minerals, is on-site, and the findings are for sale. This National Natural Landmark is privately owned. An assortment of cave tours is offered at prices ranging from $14 to $25 and up for adults and slightly less for seniors over 60. The caverns are open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. in fall, winter, and spring, and from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. between Memorial Day and Labor Day. For more information, phone (210) 651-6101 or visit www.naturalbridgecaverns.com.
Where the Wisconsin River joins the Mississippi River, near Prairie du Chien, is Wisconsin’s Wyalusing State Park. This park harbors the Wyalusing Hardwood Forest, which achieved its National Natural Landmark status for its biological diversity “” namely, nine major vegetation types, several rare plant species, and an abundance of wildlife, including endangered species.
The 2,628-acre park has a forest rich with tall-rising cherry, ash, hickory, elm, maple, oak, and other hardwood trees. As a wildlife refuge, the preserve hosts a wide variety of birds and animals ranging from wild turkeys, woodpeckers, and a colorful number of songbirds to high-flying bald eagles, hawks, and turkey vultures. At foot level, visitors are apt to discover dazzling arrays of spring wildflowers, lush summer greens, and brilliant fall colors.
Explore the area by canoe if you like (rentals are available), or try bicycle and walking trails. The 2.6-mile Walnut Springs Trail skirts the Wyalusing Wilderness Scientific Area and passes through a pine plantation, open fields, bush lands, and maple hardwood forests. The 3.2-mile White Tail Meadows Trail is a gently rolling, grassy walk that follows along the border between open meadows and woodlands. A total of 23.7 miles of trails await visitors.
Fishing and swimming are available, too, in summer, and ice fishing, cross-country skiing, and other activities beckon in winter. The park’s campground is open year-round, and reservations can be made through Reserve America (888-947-2757), www.reserveamerica.com. For more information, contact the park at (608) 996-2261.
As it drops into the narrow, stone-walled slot of 3-mile-long Clifton Gorge, the Little Miami River plunges over rapids, rushes over boulders and rocks, and seems to never come to rest. Ferns; columbines; and tall, straight trees reaching for the sunlight far above lend special appeal to the breathtaking and riveting scene few will want to bypass. Clifton Gorge earned its current national importance as a classic example of interglacial and postglacial cutting into the dolomites of the Niagara Escarpment.
Clifton Gorge is located in west-central Ohio on State Route 343, 10 miles south of Springfield, adjacent to John Bryan State Park. Parking is plentiful in the park, where trails follow the half-mile Nature Preserve Trail to the gorge. Overlooks are provided at the gorge, together with a rim trail and a gorge trail that meanders near the river. Camping is available at the park.
While in the area, you might wish to visit the Clifton Mill, one of the largest water-powered gristmills still in existence. The mill is in operation daily and open for tours. A popular restaurant, which is open daytime hours only, is located on the site as well. Clifton Mill is in the little town of Clifton, upstream from the gorge just west of State Route 72; phone (937) 767-5501 for more information.
The tide, the wind, and all of Mother Nature’s power are the only forces that affect Florida’s Reed Wilderness Seashore Sanctuary. It has basically remained untouched by man. The 173-acre preserve borders Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge. It is located on the northern portion of Jupiter Island, a barrier island on Florida’s east coast, eight miles south of Stuart.
The sanctuary’s shell, sand, and quartz beach is narrow and uneven, accented by sand dunes. As the beach extends into the mangroves, more vegetation appears, with names such as pigeon plum, sea grape, red bay, and lancewood. Vines and smaller herbaceous plants also can be seen. The large Atlantic loggerhead turtle uses the sanctuary as a nesting place. The sanctuary is open during daytime hours. Self-guided tours of adjacent Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge are offered. Fishing is permitted.
More hiking with great mountain and lake views is promised at Bigelow Preserve, located in west-central Maine, approximately 40 miles north of Farmington. This 36,000-acre tract encompasses the entire Bigelow Mountain range, including 4,150-foot West Peak, plus 21 miles of frontage along 20,000-acre Flagstaff Lake.
Extensive hiking and cross-country skiing trails wind through the preserve. Hikers will be rewarded with views of ponds and marshes, heavily forested lowlands, and barren alpine areas.
For details, call the preserve at (207) 778-8231.
Rhododendron Natural Area was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1982.
The 16 acres of beauty has a universally accessible trail winding around it. It boasts one of the largest stands of the flowering shrub north of the Alleghenies, with some bushes standing as high as 20 feet. The flowers appear in mid-July.
Mountain views and picnicking are other features to be enjoyed in the surrounding Rhododendron State Park, a 2,723-acre preserve located 2-1/2-miles off State Route 119 in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. Phone (603) 239-8153 for more information.