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Posts Tagged ‘Western states’

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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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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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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Do you know the least visited National Park?  While the Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited park in the US, Olympic National Park in Washington State is the least visited.  If you are staying in Seattle there are two ways to get to the peninsula.  You can drive south towards Olympia and take Highway 101 or you can take the ferry to Bainbridge Island.  Then follow Hwy 112 to Hwy101.  Along the way you will cross over the Hood Canal.  This is the longest fjord and floating bridge in the US.  After crossing the bridge you continue driving to the park’s visitor center in Port Angeles.

Olympic National Park has tremendous natural diversity and breathtaking beauty with over 922,651 acres of preserved wilderness. Little has changed since it first became a home for Native American tribes.  In the 1500s European settlements appeared. President Grover Cleveland designated the area as the Olympic Forest Reserve in 1897 and in 1938 President Franklin Roosevelt signed the act establishing the area as a National Park.  Finally in 1981 the area was named a World Heritage site in recognition of its exceptional natural beauty and outstanding diversity of plants and animals.
If you go in early summer the green grass and white & yellow wildflowers along the highway seem to go on forever.  The park contains the only rain forest type flora in the contiguous U.S—265 inches of rain per year and sometimes even more than that. The peninsula is home to the only rainforests in the Continental United States. These forests are among the rainiest places in the world.
Bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean, on the east by the Hood Canal and on the north by the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the peninsula has as a backdrop the majestic Olympic Mountains.  At 7,980 feet, Mount Olympus is the highest peak in the park and is easily spotted.
It is also the site of the restoration of the upper reaches of the Elwha River–the largest dam removal project in the U.S. The last of the two very illegal and century old power dams on the Elwha will finally be removed.  This should restore fish habitat and what had been a legendary salmon run of five to six foot King and Sockeye salmon might even have a chance to return.  Although if this happens the salmon will probably not be the size nor numbers of the past.  Both dams were illegally built on the Elwha with no fish ladders. The city of Port Angeles will also benefit from this project with safer drinking water.
Spectacular waterfalls as well as herds of Roosevelt elk are found in this area.  Just passed Port Angeles is a pristine 10-acre natural lake over six hundred feet deep called Lake Crescent.  The first time I drove by the lake, the beauty took my breath away.  It is a glacial lake and the deep blues and greens are amazing.
The way you can always spot a glacier lake is by its colors.  What happened was as the glaciers moved the ice scraped against the surrounding stone.  This stone became ground up into a fine silt called “rock flour.”  As it entered the rivers and streams the silt of the rock flour was suspended in the water.  The reflection of light off the particles eliminates all the colors of the color spectrum except for the beautiful blues and greens. In the Canadians Rockies you find lakes such a beautiful emerald green it literally takes you breath away.
Just passed the lake is Marymere Falls.  If you visit in the summer you will notice large Western Red Cedars and fields of grass loaded with daisies stretched before you.  Then you can take a short but steep one and a half mile hike to the viewing bridge. The waters of Falls Creek drop nearly 90 feet from a cliff into a small plunge pool near the trail below.  And if you are lucky and the sun hits the water just right you will see rainbows.
If you continue west you arrive at Neah Bay.  At this point the road turns south.  When I traveled to that town I drove straight for two miles and ended up on a dirt road for another five miles.  When the road ended I was at the overlook of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  I could see Tatoosh Island in the distance.  This is where the waters of the Pacific Ocean meet the waters of the strait.  I had arrived at the Northernmost spot in the contiguous US.
Whether you like hiking, backpacking or just enjoying the scenery this area should be on your bucket list.  There are so many things to do and see in the area and pictures do not do justice to the incredible sights.  This next summer I will be conducting a tour to this area in July.  If anyone is interested, email me at kileenp@gmail.com for details.  And don’t forget to check out “Journey Beckons” on Amazon to read more about this area.

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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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Tucson is the second largest city in Arizona (next to Phoenix) but it has more of a small town atmosphere.  The population in the city is a little over 400,000 and over 750,000 in the greater metro area.  The city boasts that it has 3,800 hours of sunshine a year and although hot in the summer, it is usually a little cooler than Phoenix.  There are mountains nearby you can drive to and get cool when the heat is too much in the summer.

The University of Arizona is located here and the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, and aircraft storage facility.  Because the air is so dry, they ship lots of old airplanes here because they won’t rust, and there is a  a wonderful museum.  Hughes Aircraft and IBM also have a presence so the city has a good economic base.

            Tucson is in a high desert valley and was once the floor of an ancient inland sea.  It is surrounded by four mountain ranges.  Because the Santa Cruz River runs through the area, they can trace human habitation back 12,000 years.
            In 1700 a Jesuit priest, Father Kino, established the San Xavier Mission when he laid the cornerstone of his church.  Today you can visit the newer church that took fourteen years to build starting in 1783.  There are twin towers and the one on the right was purposely left unfinished.  The prevailing theory is at the time you didn’t pay taxes on uncompleted buildings.  There are very poor Indians who live in this area, and you can find many of them sitting around the church yard during the day selling frye bread and other items to earn a living.
            At one time, Tucson was on the stage route between San Antonio and San Diego and offered a safe haven against the feared Apaches.  By the 1950’s dude ranches brought many wealthy people to the area.
            There is definitely an Old West flavor to the area and not too far away are Tombstone, where the famous shoot-out at the OK corral and Boothill Graveyard are located.  Another little town tucked in the mountains and close to the Mexican border is Bisbee.  It is about 90 miles from Tucson and known for its mining history.  Today you can still see the beautiful Victorian homes and businesses that were built with the gold, silver, and eight billion pounds of copper that were mined in this area.  The town’s elevation is 5,300 feet so you don’t get the heat like you do in the other nearby desert areas.
            If you are driving around this region there is another town you may want to visit.  About 45 miles south of Tucson and right next to Nogales, Mexico is the oldest European settlement in Arizona.  Tubac, established as a presidio in 1752, is a pretty little area with old adobes, studios, galleries, and shops.  There are over 120 stores and Kevin Costner filmed the golf movie, Tin Cup, here so you can also find a golf course to play.
            If you are staying in Tucson there are plenty of things to do right in the town.  You can visit Old Tucson, where many movie sets still stand when they made all those old Western movies.  And there is a National Park that sits right on the edge of the city, Saguaro National Park.
            The Saguaro are protected in Arizona.  You may not realize it but these cacti only grow about 1/2″ a year.  When you see the tall cacti they are at least 50 or more years old.  And if they have arms, those don’t start growing until somewhere between 50-75 years.  There are hundreds of these cacti in many shapes and sizes growing in this park and I love driving through the area.
            You may also want to visit the DeGrazia Gallery.  He was a famous artist who died in 1982 and his paintings are very distinct.   Being fascinated with the desert colors and cultures, he is famous for his portrayal of Indians with big black eyes, sticky hair and round faces.
            Finally Sabino Canyon is another must go to place in the area.  The canyon is in the foothills northeast of Tucson so it’s always cooler there.  In the 1930’s CCC workers built bridges and a 3.8 mile road up the mountain.  You can take a narrated 45 minute shuttle ride and get off and walk around, visiting saguaro up close and personal.  But I need to warn you to be careful.   One time I had a driver who was standing outside the door of the bus waiting for our return when he heard a rattle.  He was smart enough not to even look around.  He jumped up the stairs of the motor coach and closed the door.  It wasn’t long when he saw a rattlesnake slither by the front of the coach.
            But then again, that is all part of the adventure when you are in the desert Southwest.

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      Did you know there are only 7 bridges in a 750 mile section of the Colorado River?  This is because the terrain is so harsh.  After 9/11 they started building another bridge next to the Hoover Dam (but far enough away so a large vehicle would not contain a bomb and blow up the dam).  They started in 2002 and finished in 2012.  That gives you an idea how hard it is to build in the area even with today’s technology.
       Everyone knows about the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead that backs up to it.  But farther north is Page, AZ and there the Glen Canyon Dam (only 16 feet shorter than Hoover Dam) backs up Lake Powell.  Lake Powell was named after John Wesley Powell, a one-arm Civil War soldier who was the first known white man to boat down the Colorado River to the Grand Canyon.
        The Colorado River is extremely important in the desert Southwest.  It supplies much of the water to Arizona and California.  Therefore they have built the dams for water supply and flood control, and down by my son’s home in Yuma, AZ irrigation makes Yuma the winter vegetable capitol of the US.
        It took years to fill Lake Mead and Lake Powell and they are several hundred feet deep.  Obviously the depth depends on the Colorado winter snows and is crucial for providing water to the desert areas.
         A lesser know dam is the Davis Dam, backed up by Lake Mohave, which is just south of Las Vegas.  This is where the town (if you can call it a town) of Laughlin, NV sits and across the river its sister city Bullhead City, AZ (often called the hot spot of the nation–because of the summer heat).
          One more “dam” fact.  If you continue south you will get to Lake Havasu which was created by the Parker Dam.  Lake Havasu is not only a great recreational area but is also famous for London Bridge.  Yes, they brought London Bridge here and assembled it piece by piece in 1964.  And there is even a quaint English village with shops and restaurants found under part of the bridge.
          All of these areas including Lake Powell, Lake Mead, Lake Mohave and Lake Havasu have rocky cliffs, sandy beaches, and blue/green water.  It is perfect for boating, swimming, hiking and all types of recreational pleasures.
          I recently drove from Wisconsin to Arizona and made a stop in Laughlin to meet my brother.  There are several large casinos that sit along the banks of the river– some with over a thousand rooms.  I think they wanted the area to become a mini Vegas but that was only a dream when Don Laughlin started the Riverside Casino back in 1964. — You can read a history of Don Laughlin and his casino if you goggle him.–
          Laughlin started out serving chicken dinners for ninety eight cents and the rest is history.  Due to the recreational activities in the area the town has survived.  They were badly hurt when Indian gaming started in Arizona and California but today they have reasonably priced entertainment–Jay and the Americans were there when I was– and during the week you can get rooms for $20 and not much more on weekends.  (I paid $21.00 for Harrah’s on a Sunday night).
           There are quite a few places to visit when you are in the area.  You don’t want to miss London Bridge or the town of Oatman, an historic gold mining town.  There is a classic car collection at the Riverside Casino and you are a hop, skip and jump from Kingman, which is on Route 66.  You can follow Route 66 east (actually along I-40) up to Williams and either drive or take the train to the Grand Canyon.  In the winter the train runs a Polar Express to see Santa with cookies and hot chocolate provided as well as the reading of the Chris Van Allsburg classic story of the North Pole.  The amazing thing in this area is you can go from winter snow to warm desert in just a few hours.
             As you continue back towards Kingman don’t forget to stop for lunch in Seligman, AZ.   I stopped on tour with my motorcoach once.  We had a great lunch at “The Roadkill Café.”  Oh so much to see and do in this area.

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