This year is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS), and the ARRL is helping celebrate with a year of National Parks on the Air.
Much like SOTA, NPOTA offers both chasing and activating. “Chasing” means making a valid exchange with a ham operating from within a NPS entity. “Activating” is rather similar SOTA activations, but the station must be fully within the boundaries of a NPS property (exceptions discussed below). The similarities and the differences between the two programs makes for some interesting joint activation possibilities.
The NPOTA program has been a great success. Currently, the leader board shows about 900 hams participating as activators, many who have undertaken multiple activations. Chasers number close to 10,000.
There are 486 entities in the NPOTA list. The National Park Service has numerous types of properties, so there are more than just National Parks, including National Battlefields, Historical Sites, Historic and Scenic Trails, Monuments, Preserves, Recreation Areas and more. Each NPOTA entity has a 4-character designator. For example, Mt. Rainier National Park is designated NP41, and the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area is RC12.
Activating an NPOTA entity can be quite simple. Hike, bike, bus, boat, fly, or drive into the entity, set up a station fully within the boundaries, and let the pile-ups begin. For example, you can drive up to Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park, sit in the parking lot and undertake an activation from your vehicle using a screwdriver antenna and a KW amplifier. Of course this drive-in strategy doesn’t quite work for SOTA….
As an aside, the “drive-in” strategy doesn’t work for National Scenic and Historic Trails, either, where the “SOTA Principle” must be applied: you cannot operate from your vehicle or with any station component attached to a motor vehicle. Rather, you must hike some distance from your car to set up a station. Trails are an exception to the rule in another way. You must operate “as close as possible,” to the trail, but within 150′ for National Scenic Trails or 100′ for National Historic Trails. In some case you might even be outside the National Park Service property, either on public lands or private land with the owner’s permission. For all other entities, you must be fully inside the boundaries.
For SOTA enthusiasts, doing a joint SOTA/NPOTA activation is an interesting possibility. The rules for each activity makes this pretty easy, although there are important considerations to ensure valid activations under both programs.
One major difference between the programs is that, under NPOTA, you can activate an entity multiple times for points. Each activation requires you to leave the entity for 24 hours. This means, for example, that you can activate Mt Rainier National Park numerous times this summer as you activate the summits contained within the park boundaries. At the same time, multiple SOTA activations within the Park on the same day counts as a single NPOTA activation.
But there is an interesting twist on this: some geographic spaces fall within two National Park entities. For example, Ruby Mountain (W7W/WH-051) is located in the Ross Lake National Recreation Area (RC16). It is simultaneously within the North Cascades National Park (NP43). So you get two NPOTA credits and a SOTA activation out of a single trip to the summit.
The two programs differ in QSO and logging requirements. For NPOTA, 60m QSOs don’t count; they do for SOTA. SOTA requires working four unique calls; NPOTA requires ten. NPOTA requires exchange of the entity identifier(s); SOTA doesn’t.
This last requirement makes it a bit awkward for CW activations. The norm in SOTA is to not repeat the summit identifier each QSO once spotted. But the NPOTA identifier must be given for each QSO. My solution is to send the exchange like this: “TU 57N 57N SOTA ES NPOTA NP41 BK.” Of course, until I know I’ve been spotted, the reference is included after “SOTA.”
Another major difference between the programs is logging and crosschecking of QSOs. SOTA uses its own logging system that does not cross-check logs. NPOTA QSOs must appear in both logs be valid, and this happens through Log Book of the World (LOTW). If you are already a LOTW user, then it’s a piece of cake. Otherwise, you will need to go through the effort of setting up and becoming a verified LOTW user. Because of the log cross-checking, it is bad form to delay submitting your logs beyond about a week. And be sure to submit every valid QSO. If you leave someone out, they will not receive NPOTA credit for the QSO, unlike SOTA. The full requirements for valid QSOs and confirmations can be found in the NPOTA rules on the ARRL web site.
Planning a joint SOTA/NPOTA activation is easy. Christiaan Adams, KJ6WEG, and his collaborators have put together a very impressive mapping tool that shows SOTA summits within NPOTA entities.
SOTA users post alerts at sotawatch.org. There is a (roughly) similar service for NPOTA. Alerts end up on the ARRL’s “registered activations” page. When posting a NPOTA alert, mention your SOTA activation and point to sotawatch.org for spots. This will clue chasers in that you will be QRP, that your timing isn’t precise, and it will help NPOTA chasers find you through sotawatch.org.
I’ve done a few joint SOTA/NPOTA activations this year. The first one was out of Joshua Tree National Park (NP32) in southern California on February 28th. This was part of a four-day hiking trip with my buddy, David. The primary purpose of our trip was to activate SOTA summits. After a couple of days activating summits in the mountainous state parks east of San Diego, we turned to Joshua Tree National Park and identified a pair of unnamed peaks that were fully within the park. An internet search yielded past trip reports that provided information on how to find and get to the summits. Both of our SOTA activations would be part of a single NPOTA activation of NP32.
We loaded maps, driving directions, and hiking information onto our phones. I posted a SOTA activation alert and registered the NPOTA activation. The next morning we arrived at a desolate parking lot and began our desert trek to a summit simply known as Pt. 5352 (W6/SD-044).
There was no trail for this summit. The plan was to simply work our way up a steep gully on terrain made up of loose rock and soft soil, all the while keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes. Just as we started climbing upward, Dave realized that he had no water in his pack on account of a bad water bladder seal. He went back to the car for bottles of water and suggested I continue on and that he would catch up with me at the summit. He took this photo on his way back to the car.
I got to the summit in good time and went to work assembling a 4-element WA5VJB “cheap yagi” for 2 meters, and putting up a 54’ longwire antenna for HF. The HF antenna was vertical for 18’, supported by a telescoping fishing rod, and then tied off by cord to a small tree some 50’ away. A 14’ counterpoise wire was added as well. A 9:1 UNUN completed the antenna system. For HF, I was carrying a KX3 with its incredible internal antenna tuner.
I immediately had a pile-up on HF. In the middle of it, I heard a station break the squelch on the HT set to 146.52 MHz; I thought I heard “on the air” mentioned. I sent “QRX 2” on 20M and spun the yagi to peak the signal of Eric, KD6GGJ. He was also on a summit in Joshua Tree National Park. In fact, he was on Pt. 5540 (W6/SD-039), the very summit that was next on or activation list!
After finishing up with a few more QSOs on 20m, I worked nine stations on 40m, for a total of 28 stations in a 45 minute activation.
Or next destination was a trail head some 20 minutes away that led us to Pt. 5540 (W6/SD-039). This hike was considerably easier, with more vegetation, firmer ground, and a boot path to follow. The elevation gain was only about 100′. From the NPOTA perspective, this was a continuation of our activation, even if it was a new summit for SOTA purposes.
The HF part of the activation was all CW on 20m, 40m, 30m and 15m. Among the 15m QSOs was VK4RF and VK4HA. Not bad for 12 watts and long wire antenna thrown over some tree branches. In all, I made 34 QSOs from this location.
On May 30th, I did a joint activation of Mt. Rainier NP (NP41) and Elizabeth Ridge (W7W/RS-049). This previously unactivated summit required bushwhacking up the east ridge starting near Mowich Lake. The first task was to get near the lake, and that required snowshoeing about 5 miles up the closed road. The summit itself was relatively easy because I found a clear snow field up the side of the ridge and worked my way up about 400′. Once I gained the ridge, the activation zone was 100′ higher.
It was 22:10, about an hour past my announced activation time, when I got started. Then I spent 25 minutes making VHF and microwave QSOs. Even with these delays, I made a respectable 34 QSOs in the 45 minutes I spent on 20m. After the band went dry, I decided to pack up and leave to ensure I had plenty of light for the return trip. A detailed report is here.
About a week later, on May 6th, I stopped at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (NM21 and PV05) and simultaneously activated the two NP entities and Big Cinder Butte (W7I/CI-126).
The hike to the summit itself was not difficult, but required finding boot paths and game trails to avoid trampling vegetation. The summit offered spectacular views and was spacious and comfortable for the activation. There were just enough trees to support a telescoping mast. Although I didn’t write an activation report, I did put together a short video from the adventure:
The 50 minute late-afternoon activation resulted in 43 QSOs, mostly on 20m with a handful on 30m. Something to keep in mind for joint activations: you will likely have sizable pile-ups. Of course, pile-ups add to the fun, but you must be prepared.
In my experience, NPOTA is an enjoyable addition to SOTA. But the NPOTA program only exists through the end of this year, so start planning your joint SOTA/NPOTA adventure now!