Rocks of Ages
Moab, Utah—The sandstone spires, balanced rocks, slot canyons and huge arches seem to call out to be explored. Or photographed. With its dramatic red rocks and perpetually blue skies, Arches National Park is about as photogenic as a place can be.
The surreal landscape of the 73,000-acre park is a testament to the power of the elements—and time. Like much of North America, the northeastern corner of Utah lay underwater 300 million years ago. The sea dried up and left a mile-thick layer of salt, which was eventually covered by windblown sand and other sediments, forming rocks. Salt oozed upward, splitting the rocks, and then water cracked them open further as it froze and thawed. Desert wind took care of the rest, hollowing out cliff-side caves until breaking through to create spectacular arches. There are more than 2,000 in the park, including Landscape Arch, the longest in the world at 306 feet. See it while you can. A 70-foot slab fell off the arch in 1991, and it looks fairly precarious today.
Winter is a great time to visit: temperatures drop below freezing most nights but warm up to an acceptable exploring temperature of 45 degrees or so during the day. The area can reach a pitiless 110 degrees between May and September, when pretty much the only shade in the park is underneath an arch.—Laura Helmuth
Where Eagles Feast
Haines, Alaska— Every winter, more than 3,000 bald eagles swoop down on the sandy flats of the Chilkat River, forming the world's largest gathering of regal raptors. They dive and jockey for position on the narrow shoals or perch by the dozens in bare cottonwood trees. In a feeding frenzy that lasts from October through February, the eagles feast on dead salmon.
How's that possible? The river here doesn't freeze, even in winter.
At the 48,000-acre Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, about 100 miles northwest of Juneau, runoff and snowmelt collect in an underground aquifer near the Chilkat River in spring and summer. As the Chilkat's flow lessens in winter, the warmer groundwater seeps into the river and its tributaries, which are some ten degrees warmer than surrounding waters.
As a result, salmon run later in the preserve than anywhere else in North America. Returning from the Pacific, they spawn in late fall or early winter and die. The eagles move in (some from as far away as Washington State) and devour the carcasses.
Prime viewing exists near a stretch of Haines Highway where a two-mile trail with 100 feet of boardwalk and two interpretive displays has been constructed.— Korry Keeker
Las Vegas—In the 1950s, tourists stood atop hotel roofs here to watch mushroom clouds rising from the Nevada Test Site (nts) 65 miles away. These days they'll have to settle for the Atomic Testing Museum just minutes from the Strip.
The museum's Ground Zero Theater replicates a test-site observation bunker, with concrete walls, wooden benches, red lights and a countdown clock. During a film of an actual nuclear test, a flash of white light and bursts of air fill the room as the floor vibrates.
From 1950 until all U.S. testing ceased in 1992, the nts was the major proving ground for nuclear weapons, carrying out 928 of 1,054 detonations. Scientists also studied the effects of radiation on people, animals and plants.
The museum, a Smithsonian Institution affiliate that opened in 2005, displays such nts artifacts as devices that monitored blasts and measured radiation levels; part of an underground testing tunnel; even a grain silo used for cattle-feed tests. Films and interactive videos address the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is a copy of a letter Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging him to build the nuclear bomb. A piece of the Berlin Wall represents the end of cold war tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.
"From stone tools to the present, the nuclear age stands out," says William Johnson, director of the museum. "It was a key turning point in human history." Though most Americans supported atomic power right after World War II, it had become controversial by the 1960s. A film chronicles the anti-nuclear movement from the 1960s through the '80s. "The Atom Bomb in Pop Culture" exhibition documents a seemingly more naive time, when kids retrieved atomic rings from cereal boxes and their parents quaffed atomic cocktails. —Sonya Padgett
When Hawaii Had A King
Honolulu—On a wide lawn punctuated with palms and an enormous banyan tree sits the only royal palace in the United States: the Iolani Palace, completed in 1882 for Hawaiian king David Kalakaua.
February marks the 125th anniversary of Kalakaua's coronation, which followed on the heels of his world tour. "He had gotten a taste of the pomp and circumstance of European monarchy," curator Stuart Ching says, adding that the king ordered two jewel-encrusted crowns from England. Kalakaua filled his rooms with vases and statuary from England, France, India and Japan. Portraits of European monarchs hang alongside those of Hawaiian royalty. The king also installed the latest innovations, such as telephones and indoor plumbing. The palace had electric lighting in 1887, before the White House.
Among the objects on view is a centuries-old royal Hawaiian cloak made of more than 450,000 yellow and scarlet feathers from two indigenous birds, the mamo and the iiwi. One of the most touching artifacts is a crazy quilt stitched by Kalakaua's sister and successor, Liliuokalani, during her eight-month house arrest at the residence in 1895. The imprisonment followed the overthrow of the monarchy two years earlier in a coup backed by the U.S. military. Liliuokalani never regained her palace. It came under the control of the provisional government, was later used as the capitol house and, falling into disrepair, was vacated in 1969. Since its restoration, completed in 1978, the palace has served as a symbol of native Hawaiians' cultural legacy.— Constance Hale
At Least There's No Lift Line
Steamboat Springs, Colorado—Cabin fever finds curious expression in this cowboy ski town, home to 69 winter sports Olympians over the decades: every February residents strap on skis or snowboards, harness themselves to horses and career down the town's snow-covered main street. Centuries ago skijoring (or "ski-driving" in Norwegian) was a means of transportation in Scandinavian countries, but here it's a giddy equestrian display, with mounted riders galloping their steeds to the finish line, breathless skiers in tow. The sport highlights Steamboat's annual Winter Carnival, founded in 1914 by Carl Howelsen, a Norwegian skier and circus performer dubbed the "Flying Norseman" by Barnum & Bailey. This year's carnival, February 6-10, features ski-racing, snow sculpture contests and the no-holds-barred Geländesprung, or ski-jumping, in which contestants sometimes soar the length of a football field. Skijoring itself has many variations. In one event, dogs (usually a family Labrador or golden retriever) pull kids in sleds, while in the "dad dash" fathers get down on all fours to tow the little ones. The festival ends with a parade in which costumed locals on skis hitch themselves to horses, trucks and vintage snowplows and slide through the center of town. Leading the way, as it has since 1935, will be the Steamboat Springs High School marching band. On skis, of course.—Michelle Nijhuis