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Posts Tagged ‘touring US’

I have been doing tours in Colorado for years but for some reason have never been to Rocky Mountain National Park.  The park is only a 2 hour drive from Denver but it is to the north and we don’t usually go that direction.   However we have recently changed one of our tours to include this park and I was really excited to get a chance to visit.
A popular summer resort and the headquarters for Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park lies along the Big Thompson River. The town has a population of just over 6,000 and it’s elevation is 7,522 feet.
There is early evidence of Native Americans living in the area for hundreds of years. In the 1850s, the Arapaho spent summers camped around Mary’s Lake, where their rock fireplaces, tipi sites, and dance rings are still visible. They also built eagle traps atop Long’s Peak to get the war feathers coveted by all tribes.  They battled with the Apaches in the 1850s, and also fought with the Utes who came to the area to hunt bighorn sheep.
Whites probably came into the Estes Park valley before the 1850s as trappers, but did not stay long. The town is named after Missouri native Joel Estes, who founded the community in 1859. Estes moved his family there in 1863.
Griff Evans and his family came to Estes Park in 1867 to act as caretakers for the former Estes ranch. Recognizing the potential for tourism, he began building cabins to accommodate travelers. Soon it was known as the first dude ranch, with guides for hunting, fishing, and mountaineering.
In 1884, Enos Mills (1870-1922) left Kansas with his family and came to Estes Park, where his relative Rev. Elkanah Lamb lived. That move proved significant for the area because Mills became a naturalist and conservationist who devoted his life after 1909 to preserving nearly a thousand square miles of Colorado as Rocky Mountain National Park.
Mills was a sickly boy and he believed he gained strength form the pure mountain air.  He opened an inn and led many hikers through his beloved mountain range.  Between logging and a chance encounter with John Muir (the “Father of the National Parks”) after Muir died in 1914, Mills began lobbying Congress to save the land as a National Park. He succeeded and the park was dedicated in 1915.
Today, Estes Park’s outskirts include The Stanley Hotel, built in 1909. An example of Edwardian opulence, the building had Stephen King as a guest, inspiring him to change the locale for his novel The Shining from an amusement park to the Stanley’s fictional stand-in, the Overlook Hotel.
The town was also the site of the organization of the Credit Union National Association, an important milestone in the history of American credit unions.
Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved highway in the United States, runs from Estes Park westward through Rocky Mountain National Park, reaching Grand Lake over the continental divide.  It is a forty-eight mile road and you reach the summit where the Alpine Visitor Center is located at 12,183 feet.  Wow…talk about cold and windy but breathtaking.
The park is one of the most visited and with it’s location so close to Denver one can understand why.  There are 56 mountains over 14,000 feet in Colorado and as you travel through the park you can see Long’s Peak to the south; the northernmost “fourteener” as those mountains are called, at 14,259 feet.
One third of the park is above timberline and that makes sense with over seventy 12,000+ foot high peaks in the area.  As you drive the Trail Ridge Road the first stop is Horseshoe Park, full of wildlife, especially elk.  And the Bighorn Sheep feed regularly at Sheep Lake.
There are many places you can stop to hike or camp but just driving the road can also be exciting.  Once you get past timberline you can see the importance of this park in protecting the fragile alpine tundra, where trees can not grow due to such very harsh conditions.  Over three hundred very hardy alpine plants make up this area.  Twenty fiver percent of these plants can also be found in the arctic.  This is also a wildlife sanctuary for the many Bighorn sheep who are a symbol of the park.
After you reach the summit, the road descends to Grand Lake and the Colorado River.  The river starts in the park and if you travel on I-70 you can follow it to Grand Junction where it turns south to the Grand Canyon and beyond.
If you are interested in reading more about Colorado be sure and check my two part articles called “Colorado by Trains.”  Colorado is truly an exciting state to visit.  Although it is not known as “The Mountain State”–that title belongs to West Virginia–it is truly a wondrous mountain state.

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        I recently wrote an article on the Oregon Lighthouses so I thought I would do something on the Atlantic Ocean.  The problem is you could write a book if you started talking about the East Coast lighthouses so I decided to concentrate on one important area in North Carolina.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore has a lot to offer.  It extends more than seventy miles on the northeast part of the state.  It includes three islands: Ocracoke, Hatteras and Bodie Island. These islands are connected by a free bridge and free ferry service.
Actually the first two Bodie Island Lighthouses were on Pea Island, an area now underwater.  The first one, built in 1847 was abandoned due to a poor foundation.  The second, built in 1859 was destroyed during the Civil War.  The current lighthouse was built in 1872 and is 156 feet tall.  Currently the public is not allowed to climb it.
After your visit, it’s time to move on to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse with a climb up the 257 steps to the top if you are adventurous.  This area has always needed a lighthouse because of the shoals in the area.  There are two ocean currents in this area, the cold Labrador and the warm Gulf Stream.  And when these waters collide, they cause ever changing sandbars which means lots of shipwrecks.
The funds were given in 1793 but the structure at Hatteras wasn’t finished until 1802.  Over the years they kept making modifications, especially when they realized the light wasn’t strong enough to warn ships of the dangers of “the Graveyard of the Atlantic.”  The 208 foot brick lighthouse was finally moved to its present location in 1999.
Next we take a ferry to Ocracoke Island.  Native Americans have lived on this island for a long time and European presence started in 1719.  This island has a lot of history, including pirates, and recently many artifacts have been found from its past. The original lighthouse was built in 1794 adjacent to the island but was obsolete in thirty years since the main channel changed and then lightening destroyed the structure.
In 1823 a new lighthouse was built on the island and is 75 feet tall.  The walls are solid brick 12 feet thick.  There is an octagonal lantern at the top which houses the light beacon.  This is the second oldest operating lighthouse in the nation.
If you have time you could also journey to Kill Devil Hills to the Wright Brothers National Memorial.  There is a Park Ranger program and Visitor Center that exhibits information on the brothers background and the development of the gliders as well as the 1903 Flyer.
Just west of the camp buildings is a large granite boulder commemorating the take-off point.  And you can climb Big Kill Devil Hill for a breathtaking view of the area from the sound to the sea.  On top of the hill stands a 60 foot Pylon, the site where Wilbur and Orville conducted their glider experiments.
From sea to shining sea there are so many incredible sights to explore in our country.  Whether you live on the East Coast, the West Coast or points in between now is the right time to visit these sights.

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Last summer I did a tour of the Pacific coast from California to Tillamook, Oregon.  We stopped at two lighthouses but if you are traveling by auto it would be fun to see all nine of the surviving lighthouse stations since they have been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Seven of the lighthouses are available to visit during the summer months, many manned by volunteers.  Over two and one half million people stop each year at these extraordinary links to the past.
All of the structures have been unoccupied since modern technology took over in the 1960s which allowed for installing automated beacons.  The lighthouses are built on prominent headlands near major rivers where commercial fishing and shipping is prominent.
I will tell you a little about each one so if you cannot see them all, you can at least pick and choose which ones sound the most interesting.

Staring from just north of the California border the first one is Cape Blanco.

This lighthouse stands 256 feet above the ocean and is located nine miles north of Port Orford off of Highway 101.  It is the oldest standing lighthouse on the Oregon Coast.  It was commissioned in 1870 because of the gold discoveries and lumbering going on in the area.
Two miles north of Bandon in Bullards Beach State Park is the Coquilee River Lighthouse.  It was commissioned in 1896 to guide mariners across a dangerous bar.  It was decommissioned in 1939 but restored as an interpretive center in 1979.
Cape Arago Lighthouse is twelve miles south of Coos Bay and North Bend.  It stands 100 feet above the ocean on an inlet.  It is the newest of the lighthouses, illuminated in 1934 but is not opened to the public.  However if you visit, there is a very unique foghorn you might hear.
Next up is the Umpqua River Lighthouse located three miles south of Reedsport  above the entrance to Winchester Bay.  This is the second lighthouse on this spot.  The first one fell into the river four years after it was built in 1861.  This one sits sixty five feet above the ocean overlooking sand dunes.  It took 240,000 bricks to construct the lighthouse tower and if you mention this you will get a discount on the tour cost.
Heceta Head Lighthouse located twelve miles north of Florence has a sixty five foot tower that sits 205 feet above the ocean.  It was first illuminated in 1894 but today the beacon can be seen for twenty one miles, making it the brightest light on the Oregon Coast.  The lightkeepers house built in 1893 now operates as a bed and breakfast.

This lighthouse has been undergoing renovation since 2012 and is closed to the public but just below it is a wonderful beach with parking.  This is where I stop on the motor coach so everyone gets a chance to wade in the Pacific Ocean if so desired. Also it is very near the Sea Lion caves.  There is a charge to see the caves but it is a pretty awesome sight and worth the visit.
You can find two more lighthouses near the Newport area.  One is the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse and the other is the Yaquina Head Lighthouse.  The one on the bay is the second oldest lighthouse in the state.  It has a ninety three foot tower and stands 162 feet above sea level.  There are a lot of seabird nesting sites around this lighthouse and I also like to stop here when I can.
As you continue driving the Cape Meares Lighthouse is ten miles west of Tillamook and US Highway 101.  It stands 217 feet above sea level. This structure was first illuminated in 1890 and automated in 1963.  There is a trail that leads from the parking lot to the lighthouse and there are viewpoints people like to stand on to see sea lions or also for whale watching.
Finally the last one is the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse just south of Seaside.  It stands 133 feet above sea level on a rock islet.  Because it is exposed to fierce storm waves it was given the name “Terrible Tilly.”  There is no public access and was placed here just south of the Columbia River.  However it is visible in a nearby state park.
Even if you don’t get to one of the lighthouses, which would be a shame, just driving the Oregon Coast is an awesome experience.  At any turn in the road you can see waves pounding the shore or the giant monolith rocks that stand like sentinels in the water close to the shore.  It is a truly amazing sight to behold. To me this should be another great area to add to your bucket list.

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While traveling the Pacific Coast last summer we went inland to Portland, Oregon and then up I-5 towards Seattle.  On our journey we stopped in the Mount St. Helens area.
Mount St. Helens, 8364 feet high, is in the Cascade Mountain Range in southern Washington.  There are several volcanoes in this range with four alone in Washington State.
Up by the Canadian border, north of Seattle, is Mount Baker,  Next comes Mt. Rainier, a majestic mountain over 14,400 feet high.    Mt. Rainier is full of glaciers and if it blows, the catastrophe, because of the ice particles and amount of people living in the area, will be much worse than the Mt. St. Helens’ eruption.   Behind Rainier is Mt Adams.
When you fly into Seattle you can see all these volcanoes from the air.  And even if there is cloud cover the cones are always sticking out which is a rather surreal sight.
It is hard to believe that it has been over thirty-five years since the eruption.  It was May, 1980 when the mountain blew its top 1,313 feet off and much of the bulging north face.  In March, 2 months earlier, the mountain showed signs of waking up after a 123 year old sleep.  However many people did not believe something that catastrophic would develop.
But when it did, the mountain shot a plume of smoke and ash 80,000 feet into the air and caused a mile wide avalanche that raised Spirit Lake over 200 feet.  Although there was devastating destruction, scientists learned a lot, and that event even caused them to rethink how the Grand Canyon might have been formed.
In 1982 President Ronald Reagan named the region a National Monument.  The area is managed by the U.S. Forest Service with the roads only opened from the end of May until the end of September.
Five miles after you exit the interstate, you will come upon the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake.  It opened in 1987, and is maintained by the Washington State Park System unlike the rest of the area.
The exhibits there include the area’s culture and history, as well as the natural history and geology of the volcano, and its eruption.  The Center had a gift shop, naturally.  But there is also a theater with an excellent overview film of the eruption and the way the region looked afterwards.
In the three years after the centered opened over one and a half million people stopped there on their way up the mountain.  Obviously it is a very popular place.
After stopping at the Visitor Center you begin the over fifty mile drive to The Johnston Ridge Observatory which is at the end of the road up the mountain. The exhibits there focus on the geologic history of the volcano, eyewitness accounts of the explosion, and the science of monitoring volcanic activity.
As you continue up the mountain you can stop at the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center, the Forest Learning Center, and various pull-offs where you get different views of the volcano.  There is another road that goes south and east around the volcano that you can take from Portland but there is no way to get to the Johnson Ridge Observatory since Spirit Lake is in the way.
But it is definitely worth the drive to Johnson Ridge.  There are ranger-led programs available every hour, as well as, a half-mile trail with views of the lava dome, crater, pumice plain, and landslide deposit.
There is also a totally awesome movie.  It tells the story of the eruption on a big screen with curtains on each side.  When the movie is over the screen is raised up and the curtains opened to big picture windows.  And right in your line of sight is the volcano.  You won’t soon forget the surprised reaction you feel, nor the gasps you can hear around the room as the volcano is revealed in front of everyone.
So if you find yourself in the Pacific Northwest in the summertime a trip to this volcano should definitely be on your bucket list.

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I recently did a tour up the coast of the Pacific Northwest and there is so much beauty in that area it inspired to write about a few of the wonderful sites I saw.  First up is the giant Redwoods of California.

Along the coast of Northern California is Redwood National Park as well as several Redwood State Parks.  Starting north of San Francisco as you go over the Golden Gate Bridge you will be astounded by Muir Woods.  As you walk through the grove of Redwoods over one hundred feet tall, you can’t help but marvel at the old growth forest

If you have been to Yosemite National Park, which I have written about in a previous article, the trees living there are the giant sequoias.  They are slightly shorter but more massive than the trees in Muir Woods and along the coast.

The trees in Muir Woods and as you travel up the California Coast are called Coast Redwoods.  These trees grow in the moist climate of this area with winter rains and summer fog.  They keep so much water in their trunks that even a fire won’t burn them down.

About 120 miles south of Crescent City, which is close to the Oregon border, is where all the Redwood Parks begin.  Coming from San Francisco the first park you enter is the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, the largest remaining old growth forest in the world.  This park has a road that parallels Highway 101 for 32 miles and is called “The Avenue of the Giants.”

If you have all day you can make many stops but if your time is limited I would recommend two stops.  A third stop you might want to consider is where you drive through a giant redwood tree.  I have never been able to do that because I always go through the area on a motor coach and it can’t fit through the tree.

A very important stop in this area is the Humboldt Interpretive and Welcome Center where Charles Kellogg’s “Travel Log” is on display.  Kellogg was a vaudeville performer who imitated bird songs.  He later campaigned for the protection of the California redwood forests.

Kellogg constructed a mobile home, called the “Travel Log”, out of a redwood tree, and drove it around the country to raise awareness of the plight of the California forests. Its maximum speed was 18 mph.  Looking at it you can just picture the man driving around in his log.

There is also a lot of other information about the redwoods at this visitor center and a short but very nice trail you can walk through just across the street.

I also like to make a stop at “The immortal Tree.”  It is so massive and has been hit with lightening and floods but just keeps on growing.  There is also a nice gift shop there where you can actually purchase Redwood products.  There are several other stops you may enjoy but with our limited time, these are the two stops I make.

Coast Redwoods are the tallest known tree species in the world.  They can average from 150-250 feet tall and some are even over 350 feet tall.  They can have diameters of 12-20 feet.  Sometimes it’s fun to take a picture of several people around one of these massive trees.  I not only do this to show the height but especially to see how many people it takes to form a ring around the tree.

These trees can live several hundred years with some even living over 2,000 years.  The bark can be over one foot thick and has resin making for a strong resistance to disease and fire.  However the shallow root system grows latterly rather than down so they are susceptible to high winds and flooding.

Lightening can cause the trees to hollow out and I stood in one once that was totally hollow but standing over 100 feet tall.  It was a very unique experience.

Redwood has a rich red bark and is easy to work with and resistant to rot.  With the lumber industry so important in this area it is amazing there are so many groves left today.  Thank goodness the state of California preserved these giant wonders by creating so many state parks.

So if you are ever out in San Francisco or anywhere in northern California take a detour up the coast to see these giant wonders. It will definitely be worth your while.

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Last summer I did a tour to the province of Alberta in Canada with the highlight being the 103rd CalgaryStampede which takes place every year in July.

Dubbed “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” it is similar to our state
fairs.  It also includes a world famous rodeo where the toughest Wild West cowboys and cowgirls show off their skills.

We took the Amtrak train, the Empire Builder, to Shelby, Montana where we boarded our motorcoach to take us overnight to Lethbridge.    Located on the Oldman River, this is the largest city in southern Alberta and the fourth-largest in the province.  Because the Canadian Rockies are nearby this contributes to the city’s cool summers, mild winters, and windy climate.

As we journeyed through the plains, we could see the mountains looming ahead.  The Blackfeet in Montana called the area “the backbone of the world” and it looks like a backbone as you drive towards them.

To understand the Plains area, you need to know about the people who lived there. I could do a whole article on the Plains Indians but for now you should know these Native Americans were nomadic, lived in tepees and followed the great buffalo herds for their survival. Natives in Canada are treated much better than their American counterparts and are known as The First Nations.

There are many mesas out on the plains (think mountains that look like large tables) and some of them were used as buffalo jumps in the old days.  The Natives would creep up behind the herd and stampede it onto a mesa where they would run to the end and fall off the steep cliffs.  Native women and children waited below ready to help with the process of preparing the buffalo for their food, clothing and other essentials they used from the dead animals.  The Natives even said a prayer of thanks after they had a good hunt.

Our first stop on the way to Banff was Head-Smashed-In Buffalo
Jump.  It looks like any other Canadian Rockies foothill area, but this is a UNESCO World Heritage site that contains 6,000 years of Native history beneath its grassy surface. Head-Smashed-In
Buffalo Jump is the best preserved of these type of sites. The five-floor interpretive center, which is cleverly disguised in the hillside, is considered a Canadian Signature Experience for how it guides visitors chronologically through the area’s rich history.

From there it was onto Banff.  Funny how climbing to what feels like the top of the world can make you feel so small. The Canadian Rockies are a wonderful place to find peace of mind.  You know you are definitely in a different world.

I have had travelers ask me if there is a difference between the American Rockies and the Canadian Rockies.  The answer is a definite “yes.”  The Colorado Rockies are a second set of mountains.  The first ones eroded down to nothing and were replaced by the granite mountains we see today.  Earthquakes and volcanoes created those mountains.  Naturally this did not happen overnight.

Another difference is Colorado has fifty-six mountains over 14,000 feet.
But they don’t look much taller than their Canadian counterparts because often in Colorado you are already six to eight thousand feet when looking up at the summits.

The Canadian Rockies are still the old limestone mountains and have eroded into beautiful shapes creating the difference in the way the two sets of mountains look.  Also, even though they tend to be only five to
six thousand feet high, you are most often on a valley floor looking up at them so they seem as tall as the American ones..

As we left the Plains, our overnight destination was located in Banff National Park situated in the heart of the Canadian Rockies.  The beauty of the natural wonders of this area is unbelievable.  You can see lush forests, mighty fast flowing pristine rivers, emerald
lakes, and immense glaciers while crisp mountain air surrounds you.

But be prepared.  This is the great outdoors. Not only is this home to wildlife such as elk, deer, sheep, black bears, and grizzly bears, but seasonal weather—including flash floods and falling trees—can make some areas dangerous.  That is why an escorted tour is so great.  You have a guide who not only describes what you are seeing but also takes you to all the important places safely.

Next blog:  More on the Canadian Rockies and Calgary Stampede.

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With the new year, Lent will be coming and that means one thing in the South–Mardi Gras. And the biggest one happens in New Orleans.

Recently my company developed a new tour that goes to New Orleans.  I have been to that city many times and it’s a fun place to visit, especially if you like to eat and drink.  You’ll find bowls filled to the rim with gumbo, late nights in dark jazz clubs, and strolls through historic neighborhoods.  There are many festivals throughout the year, including the most famous one, Mardi Gras.

New Orleans is one of the world’s most fascinating cities and home to a truly unique melting pot of culture, food and music.  The people who came to the city arrived from Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa.

There are Cajuns and Creoles.  The difference?  Mainly it has to do with how they migrated since both groups are strongly influenced by French culture.
The Cajuns came from Acadia in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and
New Brunswick regions of Canada. The British were worried they would rise up
and fight on the side with the French during the French and Indian War so they expelled them from the region

The Creoles are made up of people from Spain, Africa, the Caribbean and many other regions. Their cuisine is different as to spiciness and they tend to include
elements of African, Native American or Caribbean culture into their music and
faith. Cajuns usually use a jazz or blues style and lean toward Catholicism.

New Orleans is a major United States port and the largest city in Louisiana.  The population in the city is approximately 344,000 with over a million in the greater metro area.  Since the city is on the Mississippi River and the river bends, the town is also called Crescent City.

After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 the city grew rapidly with influxes of Americans, French, Creoles, and Africans. Later immigrants were the Irish, Germans, and Italians. Sugar and cotton produced on large plantations outside the city helped the economy grow.

The city’s expansion was due to a drainage plan designed to drain huge tracts of swamp and marshland and expand into low-lying areas. However over the years these newly populated areas declined to several feet below sea level, leaving the city like a bowl.  Even today when we are on tour there, buses are no longer allowed into the French Quarter.  They fear the streets could crack under the weight of these heavy vehicles.  Instead we have to stay on the perimeter and then walk in to the Quarter.

During Hurricane Katrina the levees tipped over and Lake Ponchatrain spilled in decimating much of the city.  However the French Quarter and St. Charles
Historic district remained intact with little flooding since they are on much higher ground.

There is very distinct old architectural style found in the French Quarter.   When
you see balcony buildings with lots of wrought iron you are probably in the
city. Remember the town is several hundred years old and is also in the humid South.  I had one traveler who was very disappointed when he saw the French Quarter for the first time.  He thought it was dirty and run down.  But that is New Orleans.

People drink and eat on Bourbon Street every day and at night they close the street to vehicle traffic.  The partygoers throw their garbage and cups in the street.  Every morning the trucks come in and sweep up the garbage and then they hose the street down.  I know that sounds yucky but it works.

There is a lot to do around the city.  On our tour we go to the National World War II Museum which is an excellent attraction.  We also have a step on guide who takes us all over the city.  But if you are not on an escorted tour you
can ride the trolleys and see the famous St. Charles Avenue with all the famous
mansions.  This street is also part of the Mardi Gras parade route and months later you will still see Mardi Gras beads hanging from trees and electric wires.

We also go to a cemetery to better understand the unique burial system in the city.  You’ll never see any movie or Television show with New Orleans as the setting without seeing one of the famous cemeteries.

It is best to take some type of tour or trolley to become familiar with the city.
They don’t call it “The Crescent City” for nothing.  Streets can bend in all kinds of weird directions.  On top of that the Americans and French did
not get along very well back in the 1800’s.  So they built many boulevards where they could meet since this was considered neutral ground.

And the main thoroughfare leading to the French Quarter is called Canal Street.
It is one of the widest streets in America due to the fact it separated the two cultures.  Here all the streets have different names when they cross Canal.  One side is the American named street and the other, the French named street.  So when St. Charles Ave gets to Canal Street, the name is changed to Royal.  And,
Bourbon changes to Carondelet.

If that gets too confusing for you, don’t worry.  Get to historic Jackson Square
and find a restaurant that serves Gumbo, PoBoys or Muffalettas.  For dessert
you’re off to Café du Monde for beignets and coffee as you watch the street
people and artists selling their wares.

After that if walking the Quarter doesn’t do much for you take a horse and buggy ride or have a bicyclist ride you around.  After all you need to save yourself for serious partying that evening.

That is why the city is called “The Big Easy.”

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