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Unusual and Overlooked Parks Make for Fun Destinations


By Victor Block

Visitors to a national park in Arizona see and enjoy some of the attractions that draw millions of people each year to similar reserves throughout the country. They include dense forests, varied vegetation and diverse wildlife. At the other end of the spectrum is the Petrified Forest National Park, which is named for areas of fossilized trees, vegetation and giant reptiles, amphibians and dinosaurs that lived eons ago.

This is one park, among a number, that provide unusual -- in some cases unique -- reasons to visit. These enclaves can serve as travel destinations themselves or places to include in an itinerary for a vacation trip. The Petrified Forest is named for trees that thrived about 225 million years ago, fell and lay dormant as quartz replaced the wood, resulting in multicolored stone logs. The red and lavender sediments around the logs account for the name of the Painted Desert, which stretches from the Grand Canyon to the Petrified Forest.

Other surprising settings greet guests elsewhere in national and state parks. The bleached soil at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico would be at home on a tropical beach. Its dunes, which reach a height of 60 feet, were formed thousands of years ago, when rain and snowmelt dissolved gypsum crystals. The mineral minimountains provide a unique opportunity for sand-sledding.

The moon, rather than a beach, comes to mind for folks who check out Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve in Idaho. It encompasses three major areas of molten rock, lava tubes and other volcanic features that duplicate the surface of our closest lunar neighbor.

The cinder cones at the Craters Monument, which resemble free-form sculptures, are echoed at Dune Peninsula Park in Tacoma, Washington, which once was the site of a lead and copper smelter. A major environmental project transformed the former pollution source into a lovely park that pays homage to bestselling science fiction novelist and former area resident Frank Herbert, author of the "Dune" books. The park is landscaped with stone staircases and metal sculptures, and a walking trail leads past quotes from different volumes of the series.


Other parks also serve as places where art comingles with nature. Whimsical works are scattered about the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park, a part of Newfields, the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Many of the installations invite people to touch and even climb on them. At the "Play Patch" visitors can use sticks, stones and other natural materials they find to create art of their own.

The Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, New York, occupies a former landfill site. Today it's an outdoor gallery that hosts rotating exhibits of works by artists from around the world. The name of the space relates to the large Greek community located nearby. The park also is the venue for plays, concerts and other outdoor performances.

What might be considered art in a different form is on display at the Sign Park in Casa Grande, Arizona. Anyone approaching that location from dusk to 11 p.m. is immersed in the glow of vintage neon lights that have been collected from the surrounding area. Typical are a large Art Deco piece that identified the Goddard Shoe Store, which operated from 1945 until the late 1950s, and the sign for the Horse Shoe Motel. It includes an image of a man waving, and the light behind his moving arm once indicated when the property had a vacancy.

Then there are parks that offer more than their primary appeal. The major claim to fame of Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is that it's the site of the longest known underground system in the world. To date, more than 425 miles of its passageways have been surveyed. Lucky explorers might catch sight of some of the animals that make their homes there. In addition to rare species of bats, they include salamanders, shrimp and eyeless fish, which have no need to see in the pitch-dark surroundings.


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