Posts Tagged ‘Vacations by Rail’

With Fall just around the corner here is a great place to visit during that time of the year.
I was once playing a trivia game and the question was, “What state is called The Mountain State?”  Naturally I started thinking Wyoming or Colorado, but I was wrong.  The correct answer which shocked me was…West Virginia.
The state is nestled in the Appalachian Mountains which are the oldest mountain chain in North America.  Because of that you don’t see a lot of tall mountains.  The average is probably 3,000-5,000 feet with a few over 6,000.
But what makes West Virginia “The Mountain State”?   They say they have more mountains in their state than any other state east of the Mississippi.  This state has had its share of troubles from Civil War battles, mountain feuds, and coal mining labor disputes.
But today its scenic beauty, especially in the fall, has made it a haven for skiers, white-water rafters, hikers and anyone who loves the outdoors.  There are covered bridges, caves, and an extensive railway system that was once used for transporting lumber and now carries passengers who want to enjoy the state’s scenic wonders.
And that is the reason I am writing this article.  I wrote a previous piece on West Virginia Autumn Foliage and that is truly a wonderful time to visit the state.  But our new tour, with Mayflower Tours, runs both in the summer and fall.
The tour is called “West Virginia Mountain Rails and Trails” and you are treated to four different train rides in the state on this seven day adventure.  You fly into Pittsburgh which is another Eastern city that has made a turn around and is quite beautiful.
From there you transfer to your hotel in Morgantown.  We ride a prototype people mover around Don Knott’s hometown and see all the sights where he grew up.
Later that day we have dinner aboard the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad.   This excursion follows the South Branch of the Potomac River through a scenic valley and steep mountains filled with evergreens.  You may even spot a bald eagle along this journey.
The next day is on to the Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area and later we board the Cass Scenic Railroad for a journey up the mountain to Whittaker Station and a logging camp.  Old steam Shay or Heisler locomotives, that once hauled the logging trains, will take us on this adventure.
The Greenbriar with the Bunker is one of my favorite places to visit.  This stop awaits us the next day.  I wrote about this place extensively in my other West Virginia article if you would like to read more about this stop.
We continue on to the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine where we travel underground in authentic mining cars.  The New River Gorge, one of America’s newest National Parks, is our next stop.  We even ride a covered jetboat on the river.
Finally our last day is full of adventure.  First up we ride the steam-powered Durbin Rocket along the Greenbriar River.  A Climax 1910 steam locomotive takes us on a 10 & ½ mile 2 hour journey with both scenic mountain, as well as river views.
Next up have a hobo lunch while we climb Cheat Mountain aboard the Salamander and finish the day with dinner at the Railyard Restaurant and ending with an evening of live entertainment at the American Mountain Theater.  At the theater we are treated to a mixture of country, gospel, bluegrass, pop, and patriotic music.
There is definitely a lot of adventure on this tour as well as scenic beauty that will take your breath away.  Whether you take an escorted tour or make up your own with Fall nearly here you may want to definitely consider visiting the “The Mountain State.”

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In Part 1 I talked about a recent tour to the province of Alberta in Canada with the highlight being the 103rd Calgary Stampede 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.
When we arrived in Banff we were early enough to take the Gondola Ride to the
peak of Sulphur Mt.  When you reach the top you have panoramic views of the village and valley below.  We also made a stop at Bow Falls.
Bow Falls is a wide river waterfall situated in the backside of Banff.  We strolled along a walkway to see this waterfall which gave us views from above the falls as well as the rapids and cascades further upstream. Whenever we looked downstream from the falls we would see the river twisting its way before tall mountains including the oddly sloped Mt Rundle. If you remember the movie “The River of No Return” with Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum this is where the movie was filmed.
We spent two nights in Banff with an excursion the next day along the Icefields Parkway, North America’s most scenic highway. Each year millions of visitors come to Banff to marvel at the emerald waters of Lake Louise and drive beneath the towering jagged peaks lining the Icefields Parkway.  There are hundreds of breathtaking sights including a series of emerald-green alpine lakes fed by nearby glaciers. Pictures do not do justice to the awesome colors of these lakes.
Our first stop was the Columbia Icefield for a ride out onto the Athabasca Glacier in a specialized Snocoach.  The Athabasca Glacier is part of the Columbia Icefields, located at the Continental Divide.
The first time I visited the Icefield and living in a Northern state, driving and walking on infinite layers of ice did not seem like it would be that big of
a deal to me.  However as they began explaining about the definition of a glacier it became interesting.
To be considered a true glacier the ice has to be at least 25 acres wide and 100 feet deep.  And it has to move.  In this area we could see areas where the ice was over 400-500 feet thick.  When you realize what you are driving on, it makes the experience much more fascinating.   Some of the ice we travelled over was created by snow over 400 years old.
Being on the glacier, I felt like we were on the surface of the moon. The crevices and craters revealed beautiful streaks of electric blue.  When we got out I
filled my water bottle with water from the gurgling stream.  It was very crisp and refreshing and they claim very pure.
As we walked around, we had to watch out for the crevices and fissures.  You
definitely wouldn’t want to fall in.  The ice on the glacier is said to be as deep as the Eiffel Tower is high.  The first time I stood on the white-blue ancient ice of the Athabasca Glacier fulfilled a lifelong dream I never knew I had.
If you have a bucket list, you definitely want to put this experience on it. A word of warning:  I was here about five years previously and it is scary how much the ice has shrunk.  This is something you may want to see sooner rather than later.
Our next stop and another highlight was a visit to beautiful Lake Louise and its famous Chateau. The setting is one of the most picturesque in the Rockies with the hotel set against the backdrop of the deep emerald waters of the lake.  Staying here can be extremely costly but visiting and having “high tea” is a wonderful experience.
Chateau Lake Louise is a Fairmont Hotel on the eastern shore of Lake Louise.  The original Chateau was built in stages at the end of the 19th and the beginning
of the 20th century by the Canadian Pacific Railway.  It is a “kin” to its predecessor, the Banff Springs Hotel.
Just as Hill and the Great Northern Railway built the hotels and chalets in Glacier National Park to lure Easterners out to visit the park, the Canadian Pacific did the same thing in their Park.  If you see pictures of Chateau Lake Louise you will understand how stunning the place looks.
Lake Louise was named Lake of the Little Fishes by the First Nations and is a glacial lake.  It is located about three miles west of the Hamlet of Lake Louise and the Trans-Canada Highway 1.  The lake is named after Princess Louise
Caroline Alberta, the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria.
As you look at the lake you can see the surrounding mountains reflected on the emerald green waters of this glacial fed lake.  It is truly a sight to behold.
I am not going to talk about Jasper in this article although that is another famous town in the area.  This tour I was on did not go there so I will
save that for a future article but that town is even more remote and animal sightings are common rather than rare.
We had free time the next morning in Banff before boarding our motorcoach for the one and half hour trip out of the Rockies and back to the Plains where Calgary is located.
We were headed to the Stampede.  From the chuck wagon races and bull riding to the music and the midway, the Stampede is an annual Calgary event not to be
missed. With over one million visitors per year, you can expect crowds at this
ten-day event.
The event is so popular that the city nicknamed itself “Stampede City” and, affectionately, “Cowtown”.   There’s a tournament-style rodeo with professional athletes; horse racing with a $1.15 million dollar prize; famous pop, country, and rock musicians; water shows; fireworks and rodeo games for all.
After checking into our hotel we headed to the GMC Rangeland Derby and  Grandstand Show. The Derby is the world’s premier chuckwagon racing event complete with 36 drivers, 288 horses and their teams of outriders vying for the over one million dollars in prize money. This is the Stampede’s most renowned event!
The Grandstand show at the end of the evening features the Volte. This stunning program includes a rock opera musical score and gravity defying sights as well as fireworks and performing black stallions.
Organized by thousands of volunteers and supported by civic leaders, the Calgary Stampede has grown into one of the world’s richest rodeos and one of Canada’s largest festivals.  It is a significant tourist attraction for the city. The rodeo and chuckwagon racing events are televised across Canada and you can even find American film stars sitting in the bleachers.
The next day we were free all day to explore the rodeo on our own.  We saw displays, attractions, and events including the Art and Lifestyle Showcase, nonstop entertainment on the Windsor of the West Stage, and many creative arts and crafts.  We also visited the Co-Op Kitchen Theater where some of the world’s top entertainers performed.
Finally our last day in Calgary arrived with the morning free to continue our exploration around the Stampede.  That afternoon we concluded our Stampede visit by experiencing the thrill of one of the world’s all-time greatest rodeos. The six major events we saw were Bareback and Bull Riding, Barrel Racing, Saddle Bronc, Steer Wrestling and Tie-Down Roping.  These events are the backbone of the Stampede Rodeo.
All too soon our time in the area was over.  That evening we boarded our motorcoach for the trip back to Lethridge and the next day we were once again on the Empire Builder headed back to Chicago.  The Canadian Rockies and Calgary Stampede…what an awesome adventure!

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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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Summer is fast approaching and that means many people are thinking about their summer vacations.  Traveling by train can be a very fun experience if you have the proper expectations.

Riding trains can be an awesome experience.  There is a definite romance with riding the rails. And, you encounter many train buffs along the way who have fascinating stories of vintage trains and travel in the olden days as well as today.

In the U.S., Amtrak is the major means of cross country travel.  When dealing with Amtrak you have to sit back and enjoy the ride and scenery, but expect issues can happen. I believe if your expectations are not too high, you can much more appreciate the journey.

Amtrak is a government owned corporation with the rails primarily owned by freight companies. Passenger trains must yield to freighters and if they become delayed for any reason, they have to pull over and let the freight trains go by. Sometimes this can cause delays so if you are in a hurry, don’t take the train.

You meet very nice people when traveling by rail. The dining car contains booths that seat four. If there is only one or two of you, expect to be seated with others. The conversation can be very stimulating as you wait for your meal to arrive.  On the long distance trains, the food is prepared on board and it is usually enjoyable.

If you can afford it, a sleeper (with bathroom) or even a roomette (bathroom down the hall) is the way to go. You have all your meals included since this is considered 1st class and coffee, water, juice and ice are available all day. A morning newspaper is delivered after the first morning stop each day.

Sitting up can be a little tiresome and there is no privacy. Nevertheless, if you cannot afford a room, this type of travel is an option. If you need to use the bathroom, you have to go downstairs. Small pillows are provided but no blankets. The seats however are roomy and recline so if you know ahead of time what to expect, it is not quite so bad.  This is especially true if have experienced a long overnight flight. You have much more room in coach on a train then on a plane.  It is all about the spirit of adventure and going to new and sometimes, remote places.
The 1st class passengers get the initial choice of dinner times so if you are in coach expect a later meal, especially in the summer when popular trains have several sleeping cars that have to be accommodated first. I know many seniors tend to dislike eating late but there is a snack bar to hold you over while you wait for dinner or as a substitute for the dining room. And, another option is to have your coach attendant bring your meal to your seat if you prefer not to wait for a late dinner time.

A lot of us have a misconception of train travel as displayed in the old movies, like North by Northwest, which showed traveling on trains as a glamorous experience.   It is important to get past these old images of leather seats and meals with fine china as portrayed in the movies. No longer is there a club car with waiters bringing your drinks.  Now you go downstairs in the lounge car to purchase your beverage and either sit in the observation car or go back to your room or seat to drink it.   But it is still fun to watch the scenery unfold as the train sways and clickety clacks along the rails while you are sipping an evening cocktail or glass of wine.

There are many who travel all over the US by Amtrak. Just remember to make reservations in advance, especially for summer travel.  This is the busiest season for Amtrak and trains can be full with people.

I think sometimes we can get spoiled by our fast paced world. At one time, train travel was a luxurious way to travel. It still can be lots of fun, if taken with a spirit of adventure.  Sitting back and letting the scenery unfold in front of you is a great way to relax and unwind from a hectic life.  Remember it is the journey, not the destination.

Next month we’ll look at some different train routes you may enjoy.

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Reno, “The Biggest Little City In The World” as it bills itself is a fun area to visit.  It doesn’t have the glitz of Las Vegas but it is at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in a high desert.  Because of this, winters are somewhat mild and although summers can be hot, it always cools down at night.

The population is a little over 225,000 making it the second largest city in the state.    My brother used to live in both Carson City and Reno and we would visit him.  It was always amazing that he could keep his windows opened with no screens.  There were no bugs in that semi dry atmosphere.  But just to the west of Reno are the mountains and they are quite spectacular which makes this area a fun place to visit even if you aren’t interested in gambling.

The University of Nevada–Reno is located in the city and although there are some big gambling resort hotels, with the advent of Indian gaming in nearby California and Oregon, Reno lost its reputation of a gambling mecca second to Vegas.

There also used to be dude ranches and many women came and stayed for 6 weeks to establish residency to get divorces.   That practice no longer exists.    There are still some glitzy gambling places downtown on the main drag but the large casinos that were a block off Virginia Street, have now been converted to condos.  And the condos along the Truckee River can be quite pricy since there is a brass and marble Truckee River Walk with a park for entertainment as well as a budding arts district with many boutiques.

You can also find the National Bowling Stadium which brings in conventions as well as the National Automobile Museum.    But, to me, half the fun of Reno is the surrounding cities.  Not far from the city is Lake Tahoe, the second deepest lake in the US and 16th in the world.

As you drive the interstate west you come to the town of Truckee, an old Western railroad town with lots of charm.  But what makes Truckee well known is the Donner Memorial State Park only two miles away.  This is where the 89 person party died and were eaten to survive by the remaining people during the winter of 1846-47.

From there it is just a hop, skip and jump to the north end of Lake Tahoe.  There are a few casinos here but mostly people come for the winter and summer sports.  My favorite place to take my travelers as we drove around the lake was the Cal Neva.  The resort is now closed for renovation but this place was owned by Frank Sinatra and in its hey day the Rat Pack partied hard here.  You could even see Marilyn Monroe’s old cottage when the place was opened.

I liked taking passengers in to the Cal Neva for two reasons.  If you went to the back bar you saw the outside swimming pool.  A line ran through the bottom to indicate Nevada and California sides.  You could just imagine the Rat Pack partying around that pool.  Also there is another room with a large fireplace where the two state lines went through.  I would have my travelers straddle the two sides and take pictures of them standing in the two states at the same time.  The renovation is going to take over a year and I look forward to the reopening of this historic place.

South Lake Tahoe is where the majority of people go.  You can take a cruise on the lake to Emerald Bay and see a castle called Vikingsholm, a 38 room reproduction of a 9th century Norse fortress.  To visit the castle you have a steep one mile walk, however.  But most people come to this area for the water sports and in the winter the excellent nearby ski runs.

From South Lake Tahoe, you can go north and East and you will find yourself in the Capital, Carson City. (Note: you can leave Reno and head south and west, too.  Either direction will get you to Lake Tahoe.  Although the way in to the lake from Carson City is a pretty steep mountain road.)    Carson City was founded in 1858 and became the capitol in 1864.  At the time Nevada did not have enough population to be a state but Lincoln overroad this.  He was fighting a war and needed the silver for bullets that was coming out of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, fifteen miles northeast.

The federal government established a mint for coining the silver and even the Capitol has a silver dome.  If you visit, the Nevada State Museum is also an interesting stop on your journey.    When you are in Carson City you will be traveling on Highway 50.  This road starts past Salt Lake City at the Nevada border and parallels the interstate somewhat.  It was once part of the Pony Express Trail and with towns only about 100 miles apart US 50 has been dubbed “the Loneliest Road in America.”

It’s 588 miles from Salt Lake to Carson City and I drove it once.  I saw no humans but about four so-called towns and one coyote crossing the road in this desert area called “The Great Basin.”

If you visit the area don’t forget to stop in Virginia City.  In the 1870’s with almost 30,000 residents, more than 100 saloons, many banks, churches, theaters and the only elevator between Chicago and San Francisco, this mining metropolis near the Comstock Lode ran 24 hours a day.  Mark Twain and Bret Harte worked as reporters for the newspaper.

Today if it wasn’t for tourism, Virginia City would be a ghost town.  But many of the buildings have been preserved and you can visit the Delta Casino and Saloon where you can see Suicide Table, Comstock Fireman’s Museum, Mackay Mansion, Piper’s Opera House, the Bucket of Blood Saloon, and the Silver Queen Saloon and Hotel.  On display there is a 15 foot tall dress made of 3200 silver dollars and a belt made of $5 gold pieces.  It is a climb in and out of the mountains to get to Virginia City, but well worth the trek.

Actually the whole area is worth seeing.  You can go by car or fly or even more fun, you can take Amtrak.  No matter how you get there, I think you’ll agree, the Reno area was well worth your visit.

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This last February my brother and I took the train to Yosemite National Park (well sort of…).  We got on the Pacific Surfliner
at 8:00 a.m. from Oceanside, California to L.A.   The ride from Oceanside to San Juan Capistrano was awesome.  We followed the Pacific Ocean sometimes high up on bluffs and other times right down next to the beach.  We saw a lot of surfers with pelicans circling around them

San Juan Capistrano was a mission established in 1776 and the swallows used to come back every year on March 19th on their migration from Argentina.   Unfortunately since 2009 the swallows now migrate a little further north.

After the train stopped at Capistrano, we headed inland towards L.A.   There we boarded our thruway bus to Bakersfield.  Then it was another train, the San Joaquin, up to Merced, the gateway to Yosemite.   We arrived at 4:30 p.m. and picked up our rent a car before going to our hotel for the next two nights.

The next morning we were up early because we had a lot of miles to cover.   The area we stayed in is referred to as the Valley and many of
California’s fruits and vegetables are raised in this area.  The land is very flat and we drove the long way south to Madera before cutting over towards the Sierra Nevada Mountains where Yosemite is located.

Our plan, in order to see as much of the park as possible, was to drive in the south entrance and drive out the west entrance.  Yosemite’s elevations start at just under 3,000 feet and are as high as 13,000 feet so we had a steep climb from the valley floor to get there.

First protected in 1864, Yosemite National Park is best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, beautiful meadows, ancient giant sequoias, and a vast wilderness area.   Over 95% of the park is wilderness with the main part of the action in Yosemite Valley where hotels and campsites are located.

Designated a World Heritage Site in 1984, Yosemite is known for its geographic and biological diversity.  Most of the trees are the Western Red Cedars (the Sequoias) and Ponderosa Pines.  The Ponderosas were so round and tall I thought they were 200 years old (since they tend to grow a foot a year in most areas) but a ranger told me they were 300 hundred years old.  There are not many places left in the U.S. today that you can see old growth forests like we saw in Yosemite.  There are also two rivers, the Tuolumne and Merced rivers, that begin in the park and flow west to the Central Valley.

For tens of thousands of years humans have lived in this area. The Ahwahneechee lived here for generations, followed by the arrival of Europeans in the mid-1800s. The rugged terrain challenged many of these early travelers who came by horseback or stagecoach.   By 1907, construction of the Yosemite Valley Railroad from Merced to El Portal eased the journey, thereby, increasing visitation.  Historic mining sites remain from miners who came to the Sierra to seek their fortune in gold.  And, today 3.5 million people enter the park every year to explore.

John Muir helped spark the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890.  He was also instrumental in getting Sequoia and the Grand Canyon named as National Parks.   In 1869, Muir landed a job as a shepherd which gave him the opportunity to study the flora and fauna.  When he saw that the grazing sheep were destroying the area, he lobbied for a National Park.

Yosemite was also a favorite place for photos by Ansel Adams and you may want to read more about both Adams and Muir since space here is limited.  A third person important to the area if you would like to read more is Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service. He used his wealth and political connections to take the national park idea in important new directions when he saw how poorly the parks looked in 1914.  He even hired staff to help him and paid them out of his own pocket.

When you arrive in the valley area you see El Capitan, the 3,000 foot monolith and it is one of the world’s favorite challenges for rock climbers.   You can only climb up because it is way too dangerous to go back down so the trail must be taken.  And right by El Capitan you can gaze upon the 2,425-foot Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America.  Across from El Capitan there are some other granite monolith rocks, like Half Dome.  These rocks were carved out by the glaciers that came through the area.   But I am getting a little ahead of myself.

We drove for almost an hour after we entered the south entrance and it truly was wilderness.  The only bad thing was it was February and we were over 5,000 feet and there was no snow!  That does not bode well for this summer’s fire season.  Finally we entered a tunnel.  The tunnel was constructed by the WPA in 1933 but as people came out of the tunnel there were so many accidents and the Overlook was a very dangerous place to pull over.  So the Tunnel View Overlook was renovated and re-dedicated in 2008.

The Tunnel View scenic overlook is a historic site, and has beautiful views of Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, and Half Dome. Both the Wawona Tunnel and Tunnel View were determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 because of their exemplary designs.  The overlook is such a popular site that there is an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people who visit every day during the
height of the tourist season.  But even more special to us when we pulled off onto the Overlook was the sun was positioned in such a way it created a huge rainbow on the distant Bridalveil Falls that was an incredible site to behold.

If you ever get to a National Park there is a book about the great lodges of the West.  I have written about the lodges at both Yellowstone and Glacier.  Whenever I get to a new Park, I always try to visit the famous lodge built there.

The lodge in Yosemite is called the Ahwahnee and is quite unique since it was Mather who lobbied for it to be developed.  Many of the
other famous lodges were built with materials found in their areas.  But all natural resources in National Parks are protected now and building materials cannot be used from the parks any more.  Since the lodge was not built until 1926, trucks had to haul all the building materials in over primitive roads seven days a week.  The lodges in Glacier and Yellowstone used existing timber and stone but that can no longer happen.  The primary building materials were steel, granite and concrete and then the outside of the granite and concrete was stained to look like redwood.

There is a central tower several stories tall and three separate wings with huge fireplaces.  The west wing has a dining room that seats 350 people.  The room is 130 feet long, over 51 feet wide and the ceiling reaches 34 feet.    It is a massive room and very beautiful.   During World War II, the Ahwahnee was a rest and relaxation hospital for the Navy.  Over 90,000 troops rested there and almost 7,000 patients were treated at the lodge.

Not too far from the Ahwahnee is Curry Village where you can rents tents and Yosemite Lodge where you can also stay.  There are also little towns just outside the park with lots of hotels and motels so you have a lot of choices when visiting the park.

As the sun was setting we drove down out of the park and back to our hotel in the Valley.  The next day we headed home and that also turned into an adventure.  Our Amtrak train was late; almost an hour by the time we got to Bakersfield.  We were rushed onto out thruway bus to LA.  Our driver was excellent and took several back roads in LA to avoid rush hour.  We actually made our train back to Oceanside with ten minutes to spare!


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I am visiting my son in Yuma, AZ for the  winter so I thought I would write about a few places out in this area, especially since I come here on tour quite frequently.

            First up, Palm Springs, CA.  But before we talk about this city, a little bit of knowledge about the Southwestern deserts is probably in order.  There are four deserts that comprise what we call the Southwestern Desert region and so in no particular order…
            First up, The Great Basin Desert encompasses most of northern Nevada, western and  southern Utah, the southern tip of Idaho, and a bit of eastern Oregon. It’s the  most northern of the Southwestern U.S. deserts and is know as the “cold desert.”   This desert has mountains, valleys, lakes and,  of course, basins.  Some of the plant life found here is mountain mahogany, juniper, quaking Aspen  and many types of pine. In addition to plant life, the Great Basin also has a  variety of animals, including jackrabbits, mule deer and mountain  lions.  This is where you find the fabulous National Parks of Bryce and Zion, some of my favorite to visit.
            Just below this desert is The Mohave Desert which includes southeastern and central California, southern portions of Nevada and Utah, and  northwestern Arizona. The Mojave is home to many popular areas, including  Las Vegas, Death Valley and Los Angeles
            Many cacti plants live in the Mojave as well as the desert lily and star,  juniper and prairie clover. The Mojave also has a variety of lizards and  snakes, as well as coyotes, jackrabbits, tarantulas and bighorn  sheep.
            Another desert, The Chihuahuan Desert, encompasses a small part of southeastern New Mexico and  western Texas, and extends south into Mexico. This is the second  largest desert (after the Great Basin) in North America.  Common plant life in the Chihuahuan includes agave, peyote and mesquite and is also know for its yucca.  If you are not sure of what yucca looks like, think small palm tree.  The animals found here are the scorpion, kangaroo rat and  the elf owl.
            The fourth desert, The Sonoran Desert, is located just south of the Mojave Desert. The Sonoran covers  large sections of southern California, Arizona, Baja, California and parts of  northwestern Mexico and Palm Springs is located in this desert.
            It is the hottest desert in North America and it would take two countries of England to fit into it.  It is home to the only Jaguar population in the U.S.  Other animals of the Sonoran Desert include: the tortoise, kingsnake, desert  iguana, coyote and 350 species of bird., including hummingbirds. The desert is also home to the saguaro cactus,  prickly pear and bur sage.
            When people think of deserts, they always think of the giant saguaro cactus with it’s protruding arms, but these cactus are only found in the Sonoran desert and I’ll talk a little more about them in my Tucson article.
            Palm Springs has been a fashionable resort and its mineral springs have attracted visitors for years.  It’s population is only around 45,000 and because of its smallness, Hollywood stars have always been attracted to the area.    I had an area guide tell us that locals will walk down the street and not pay any attention to the celebrities they see.  Because of this the rich and famous are comfortable hanging out here.
            Perched high on a mountain is Bob Hope’s home.  It was a second home for him and is now on the market for only $50 million.  I would always look up and see the house when on the motor coach and wondered about all the people and parties that went on there.
             The 23,366-square-foot home was designed in 1973 by the California Modernist architect John Lautner. It was built to resemble a volcano, with three visorlike arches and an undulating concrete roof, a hole at its center opening a courtyard to the sky. The roofline has been described as one of the most distinctive works of architecture in the area. The house has also been likened to a giant mushroom but it also looks like a UFO. Its has 6 bedrooms, 10 bathrooms, 3 half baths, indoor and outdoor pools, a pond, putting greens and a tennis court.
             Frank Sinatra has a home in the mountains for sale for about $4 million but you can drive right by his first home.  It is very unpretentious and is now in line for historic landmark designation.  You can imagine all the wild happenings that went on in that house, especially during the JFK heyday.  You can also wind through the streets and see Elvis’ house, Marilyn Monroe’s, Peter Lawford’s, Liberace’s and the list goes on and on.
            You can visit the Palm Springs Air Museum or take a ride 2 and 1/2 miles up the San Jacinto Peak on the Aerial Tramway.  You will be over 8,516 feet when you get to the top.  This is a really fun ride because the floor of the tram slowly revolves 360 degrees on its journey up the mountain which gives you views of the mountain and desert floor below.
            The Living Desert is another great attraction where you will find desert plants and animals and can even ride a camel.  And, don’t forget to stop at a date farm for a nice cold date shake.
            No trip to Palm Springs would be complete without going to the Fabulous Follies.  However after 23 years of entertainment, sadly this is the final year.   So I guess you better put Palm Springs at the top of your travel list, and if you want to venture further, both San Diego and Los Angeles are a hop, skip or jump away.

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       Continuing with my series on cities, I have always been intrigued by Salt Lake City, or abbreviated as SLC.  The first time I visited this city back in the 1980’s, I could feel the history as I walked down the streets.

The Mormon pioneers came here and worked hard to turn the desert into productive farm country, giving the state the nickname “The Beehive State”.  This stands for industriousness and hard working.  There was not a single indigenous tree in the Salt Lake City Valley when the pioneers arrived and now it is a lush valley irrigated by the melting snow in the mountains.

The southern half of Utah has terrain carved by water and wind into surreal shapes arrayed in dramatic vistas and red rock canyons.  There are a dozen national parks & monuments in that area.  It is a beautiful area to visit but the northern part of the state where SLC is located has a lot of beauty in a different way.

I have written an article about the National Parks of the Southwest you can read if interested in southern Utah but this article is about SLC, and that is where I want to focus.  As you come out of the Wasatch Mountains on the western side of the Rockies, you can see desert stretched out for miles and miles all the way into Nevada..

To understand this city, you need to know a little background on Mormonism.
When Brigham Young came out of those mountains with the first hardy pioneers (after traveling from the Omaha area), he looked down and said “This is the place” and I am sure those first 148 settlers thought he was crazy.  But they quickly begin building irrigation paths from the mountains and the snow up there helped bring water to the valleys.

The city was founded on July 24, 1847 by Mormon pioneers (members of the Church of Latter-day Saints—LDS Church).   They wanted to practice their religion free of hostile mobs and persecution since they had left New England and had been driven out of Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois.

On the very first day of arrival, they began tilling the soil and planting crops, turning the desert and sagebrush area into a green valley in just a few months.  In 1848 more emigrants came to the valley but a late frost, drought, and a plague of grasshoppers almost destroyed the harvest.  One bright sunny day millions of grasshoppers darkened the sky & descended the fields devouring everything in their path.  Then a miracle… First one and then in pairs, flocks of seagulls flew down and ate all the grasshoppers.  A statue to commemorate this event is inside Temple Square and the Seagull is Utah’s sate bird.

Construction on the temple started in 1853 and took 40 years to build.  The granite blocks

were hauled by oxen and wagon to the site until the railroad came through.  SLC and Provo are only about 50% Mormon.  When silver and gold were discovered in the mountains north of those cities, immigrants with great fortunes, who were not LDS, moved into the bigger cities.  But the other areas in the state, especially the farming communities, are 90-100% Mormon and the LDS church controls the politics.

By the 1960’s the suburbs were becoming the place to live, as happened all over the U.S.,  so the LDS church invested $40 million to develop the ZCMI Center Mall downtown—Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution.  This was a retail store started in 1868 and it was the first department store in the country.  In the 1980’s and 1990’s many buildings were restored & expanded such as the Salt Palace Convention Center & Delta Center.  Before hosting the Olympic winter games in 2002, the state did more face lifting and it is a beautiful city today where you can sense the history as you walk the streets.

Since SLC is the major base for the LDS Church, Mormons from all over the world come to visit the city.  Because of that everything downtown is free to get into and even the buses and light rail in the downtown area are free. And, did I mention the flowers in planters and baskets everywhere?  Truly beautiful.

So much to see and do here…  First up Temple Square.  Oxen hauled granite blocks fifteen miles down a canyon and across the valley to the building site.  Since hardwood was not available, they painted the Tabernacle wall panels by hand to resemble oak, which they had learned from their New England days.  The walls are 16 feet thick & 16 feet deep.  The highest spire is 210 feet & is topped by a 12 ½ foot copper with gold leaf statue of the Angel Moroni, who according to Mormon doctrine, appeared to Joseph Smith, the Church founder.

In Temple Square there is the Temple (which only Mormons of good standing can go into), a couple of visitor centers, Assembly Hall, and the Tabernacle which took twelve years to build and seats 6,500.  Legend says Young came up with the unusual design after seeing an egg shell cracked lengthwise.  He wanted the roof to be self supporting without pillars or posts to obstruct views.  The domed roof was created by using steam to bend massive beams like a bridge.  The organ has 11,000 golden pipes made from hand carved Utah lumber and ten pipes from the original organ still work.  The acoustics are remarkable.  You can sit in the back & hear a pin drop from the podium.  This, of course, is where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs.

Don’t worry about trying to get yourself around.  When you go into the Square there are tours going on throughout the day to guide you to the important areas.  And also in the Temple Square area is the Joseph Smith Building (the old Hotel Utah) where many presidents stayed.  There is a rooftop restaurant and if you go up to the top, there are picture windows overlooking Temple Square that you can take pictures from.

There is a very nice History Museum building and, of course, Beehive House which was one of Brigham Young’s homes.  The Church of the Madeline, Catholic, near the Square has awesome stain glass windows, and don’t forget the Capitol, one of the more beautiful ones in the country. There is an interesting pioneer women’s museum.  The woman all brought a good pair of shoes with them on their journey so they would have a nice pair to wear after they got to their destination.  However, after the long trek on foot, none of the ladies could fit into the shoes and they are now on display in this museum near the Capitol.

Since SLC lies on an earthquake fault a lot has been done around the city to shore up buildings and 16 feet walls will help the Temple survive a major quake.  There are also several new or redone malls in the downtown area with lots of places to eat.  If you go farther afield, there is the University, where many of the Olympic venues took place, Fort Douglas, and “This is the Place” Heritage Park.

I could go into detail about a lot of these things but I would be writing for pages.  And if you have a car, Park City is not far away where skiing is the thing and more Olympic venues were held.  And don’t forget a trip out to the Great Salt Lake and Bonneville Salt Flats or the Kennecott Copper Mine south of the city.  Bet you didn’t know there are only three man-made places that can be seen from space of which the copper mine is one.  The other two are the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Wall of China.

As I said before, so much to see and do here in SLC, one of my favorite cities to visit in the US, no matter what your religious persuasion.   And the mountains are close by, beckoning you to Jackson, Tetons and Yellowstone if you desire or Highway 50, dubbed “the loneliest highway in America” taking you west to Reno and Lake Tahoe.

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 I wrote a previous article about a tour I take to Glacier National Park but since this is one of my top favorite parks in the US, I wanted to give a little more information about the lodges in the park.
Glacier is in Montana right next to Alberta, Canada, so it is not the easiest place to get to.  It is called the “Crown Jewel of the Continent” and the native Blackfeet called the area, the backbone of the world.  If you saw the mountains rising up out of the plains, you can easily understand why the Native Americans used this expression.
It wasn’t until 1889 that a pass was found over the mountains in this area that was not too steep for a train.  Once J.J. Hill and later his son, Louis, began building the track for the Great Northern Railroad, both Hill and the US Government began an attempt to promote tourism in the West.  The slogan the railroad used was “See America First” and the massive log and stone lodges were built to lure the wealthy to this area.
Two camps were set up at what we now call East Glacier and West Glacier and the railroad was built.  From 1911-1913 Glacier Park Lodge was constructed in what is now called East Glacier so tourists had a place to stay when they arrived by train, which they still do to this day.
A crew of 75 men basically took two years constructing the building by hand.  When the travelers walked across the grass from the train station to the lodge, they could see the cedar trees that were used in the outside construction.  But it is the inside that is even more spectacular. A total of 60 logs 36-42” in diameter that had been cut from Douglas Fir stands that were from 500-800 years old, line both sides of the lobby.
Meanwhile roughly 90 miles to the west on Hwy 2, is Lake McDonald which is located in the area we now call West Glacier.  A lodge did not need to be constructed there.  In 1895 George Snyder built the small Snyder Hotel. Ownership passed to John Lewis and he built cabins in 1910 (the year Glacier was named a National Park) and added the present lodge structure in 1913 operating as Lewis’ Glacier hotel.
Mr. Lewis was a furrier and furnished all the hunting trophies still in display in the lobby.  He wanted the mounted animals to give the place a “hunting lodge” atmosphere.  The huge fireplace adds to the hominess of the lobby and legend has it that Charles Russell scratched the pictographs that you see in the base of the fireplace, although this has never been proved.  There is a beautiful log dining room and both the dining room and bar look out at Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park.(FYI: Anywhere there is a decent sized lake in the park, you may also find the old 1920’s era wooden boats to tour on).
Hill also built several chalets throughout the park. The idea was that after you came into East or West Glacier, every chalet would be a day’s horse ride away.  In those days the rich would come for a month to tour the park and they would stay at each lodge or chalet for several days.

Today only two chalets remain but both you have to hike into to get to and they aren’t real big.  One is the Granite Park Chalet which is a 7 mile hike to get to and the other is the Sperry Chalet that you also hike to that is half way between Lake McDonald and Logan Pass on the “Going To The Sun Road.”
There are two more great lodges in the park but I do want to mention one other place first.  Half way between East and West Glacier on Hwy 2, just outside the park, is the Izaak Walton Inn.  The Inn was built in 1939 as a residence for the railroad workers and is opened year round.  And, Amtrak stops right in the front yard here if you come by train.  The rooms are charming and cozy and there are even caboose cottages.  There is a full service restaurant and this is a popular place for fishing in the summer and cross country skiing in the winter. You can even catch the famous “Red Bus” tours from the Inn during the tourist season.  I have never stayed here but many people tell me it is a fun place, especially staying in a caboose.
The next lodge which was started in 1914 & finished in 1915 (although the annex wasn’t completed until 1917) took 400 men to build.  It is called Many Glacier and looks like a Swiss style building sitting on the banks of Swift Current Lake.  This place is so remote, they needed their own sawmill and kiln.  The hotel and the hot water are steam heated and sometimes you can hear the clanging in the pipes as the water heats or cools from the boiler.   But once again, that is part of the charm of these lodges that have all been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The last lodge is in Waterton, in Canada with a year round population of only about 50 people. This is a very unique looking building although the rooms are similar to the other two lodges, Glacier Park and Many Glacier, since Louis Hill and his railroad men built all of them.The building sits “high on a windy hill” in front of Waterton Lake and the building is known to sway in high winds.  But what a gorgeous place and you can even get afternoon tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel (the POW to locals).
The hotel has 86 rooms and only took a year to build starting in 1926.However, it took Hill 13 years to get the land leased from the Canadian government, which he started working on in 1913.  Much of the original furniture was built on site from British Columbia cedar. The hotel stands at the North end of Waterton Lake surrounded by mountains and the beauty will take your breath away.
Waterton/Glacier National Peace Park.The first peace park in the world shows how two countries can work together in peace to preserve so much of nature’s beauty that can be experienced in this favorite park of mine.
Wouldn’t it be great to have the time and money to spend a month there exploring this wonderful area.

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Another excursion Vacation by Rails has is their tours to Yellowstone & Glacier. This article will focus more on Glacier (one of my favorite parks) since I discussed Yellowstone in depth in previous articles. Besides Amtrak, who is now starting their own escorted tours this year, only one other tour company offers a tour to these two places on the same trip. Vacation by Rails has 2 different tours covering these parks. One is a 14 day tour that takes the Empire Builder to Glacier (which also includes going to Waterton in Canada and the POW—Prince of Wales hotel for lunch). It runs backwards from the shorter tour and after Yellowstone and Salt Lake continues to Moab where you visit Arches & Canyonlands National Parks, and Dead Horse Point State Park (see my article on National Parks of the Southwest for info on Moab and these parks). From Moab, UT it is a hop, skip and a jump to Grand Junction, CO where you catch the Zephyr back to Chicago. (Since I don’t want to repeat myself you can read my article on Amtrak for info on these trains).

The tour I enjoy doing is an eleven day tour called “Yellowstone and Glacier Adventure”. On this tour, you board the Zephyr in the afternoon and the next evening you are in Salt Lake, where you are transferred to an all suite hotel with a hot breakfast each morning and free evening cocktails. The next morning you are off on a guided tour of SLC founded by Mormon pioneers and Brigham Young. (Did you know Loretta Young was an ancestor?) The most famous site is Temple Square, where the Gothic spires of the Salt Lake Temple rise up. You’ll also see Utah’s State Capitol, the Great Salt Lake, and sites from the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. After the tour, it is lunch at Lion’s House one of Brigham Young’s residences. Everything that can be, is made from scratch—think yummy yeast rolls and berry pie and what looks like tea is an excellent fruit drink (no caffeine allowed here).

The next day we head to Montpelier, Idaho for a visit to the National Oregon/California Trail Center, where you learn firsthand about this historic pioneer route and experience a simulated wagon train ride. Afterwards, it is on to Jackson, Wyoming for one night and a ride through Grand Teton National Park before continuing to Yellowstone for 3 nights. We fondly bid farewell to Yellowstone as we continue our journey to Glacier where we check into Glacier Park Lodge for two nights.

The natives (The Blackfeet) called this area “The Backbone of the World” and if you ever get there, you will know why as the motorcoach heads to its destination. The natives aggressively guarded their hunting grounds. Lewis and Clark came near Glacier, but because the weather was overcast it blocked their view of Marias Pass which would have simplified their journey. From then on, the Native Americans guided many visitors over safer but steeper passes and it wasn’t until 1889 that John Stevens finally figured out where Marias Pass was located. This pass had a lower altitude and easy grade for trains to cross the Continental Divide. Once the pass was discovered, two work camps were set up in East Glacier (where Glacier Park Lodge was built) and in West Glacier (where Lake McDonald Lodge was constructed).

Louis Hill and the Great Northern railroad built Glacier Park Lodge between 1911-1913. It was Hill’s attempt to develop the West, especially the tourism industry. Since there were not enough workers in the area, bridge and trestle crews were used. If you ever get to these lodges you’ll see the construction influence from these railroad crews. (By the end of September, the weather in this area gets so cold, that the lodges close and in winter there are times that food has to be brought in by helicopter to the Blackfeet who live in nearby Browning). 60 logs were used in the interior. These logs were from 500 to 800 year old when they were cut. Just sitting in the lobby you have to marvel at how this work was accomplished in those early days.

Meanwhile over in West Glacier, a small hotel had been built in 1895. Lake McDonald was a great hunting area and in 1913 Hill bought the hotel and expanded it, turning it into the lodge you see today. It still retains its hunting atmosphere and legend has it that the pictographs etched on the massive fireplace were done by Charles Russell, who had a summer home and studio nearby.

The next morning, it is off to the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road across the Continental Divide. We board vintage red open-air red buses, driven by jammers, for a tour deep inside the park. This road, which crosses Logan Pass, opened the area to millions when it was built in the 1930’s. As you cross over the pass, you see the great “U” shaped valleys that were carved by the glaciers, thus giving the park its name. The pass opens towards the end of June until mid-September and the views on this ride will literally take your breath away.

Although we don’t see them on this tour, there are two more great lodges connected to the park. One is the POW—Prince of Wales in Waterton, Alberta, Canada. It’s hard to describe this weird shaped lodge that sits high on a windy hill in front of Waterton Lake. This lodge sways when the wind blows hard, which it often does. This area is so remote that it only has 100 year round residents. Although the lodge has a unique shape, all you have to do is walk inside to know that this was also built by Louis Hill and his railroad crews.

The last of the great lodges connected with Glacier Park is Many Glacier. If you guessed it was named for the many glaciers in the area, you are correct. Many Glacier is half way (roughly) between Glacier Park Lodge and Waterton and the site was chosen for the waterfront as well as the views of the glaciers on the opposite side. Hill had 400 men working day and night from May to September in 1914. The building opened July 4, 1915 and the annex was completed in 1917. If you ever get to see this lodge, you can’t help but marvel at how it could be built in such a remote area (no trains come anywhere near here). The workers had to construct a sawmill and their own kiln on the grounds to accomplish their work.

Unfortunately it is now time to return home. Just a short ride (or walk) across the front lawn of Glacier Park Lodge, is the Amtrak station. After a group photo we board our motorcoach to catch the iconic Empire Builder, naturally once part of the Great Northern Railroad. Hill considered this a 1st class train and Amtrak continues the tradition. If you are in roomette, as you cross through the badlands of eastern Montana and western North Dakota, you will be invited to a wine tasting party in the diner. What a great way to savor the sites you have just visited on your way back to Chicago.

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