Monday, August 2, 2010

Mesa Verde and a Great Restaurant

It's been raining steadily since we woke up - the first time that has happened on our trip. The weather had been wonderful, with some amazing drives through clouds and storms, but 90% sunny with gorgeous skies. Today? We'll see. Grammy's worried about 4 Corners and Monument Valley, but I predict it won't be raining there. We're in Cortez, CO, in the mountains, while those destinations are in the desert. Just a few hours of driving can make a world of difference.
Mesa Verde was a hit with the kids, with niece saying it was her favorite so far. I'm really glad they have seemed to like everything on the itinerary so far. They went down into Spruce House and took the guided tour into Balcony House. Balcony House is one of the few places here I've never done, as I've explored most of the Park in prior trips. This time the altitude just got to me, and I chose to hang out with Grammy. She saw a mountain bluebird, but I missed it.

We stayed at the Days Inn in Cortez, which is just fine. The kids and Sis loved it, though, because I booked them a 2-room suite, so they had 2 separate rooms and 3, not 2, beds. Sis had her own room with no kids, shut the door and doesn't know if they ever got to sleep (and doesn't care!). :) Last night we ate at Jack & Janelle's Country Kitchen in Cortez, Colorado (say that 5 times fast), and it was terrific! Great onion rings with fresh, home-made batter, the best apple pie ever (seriously), awesome french dip, excellent pork chops and steak. But their sandwich called the veggiewich was the topper - rosemary olive bread, cucumbers, tomato, avocado, lettuce and cream cheese. Yum! When Grams says "It didn't have mayonaise and it didn't need it," you know it was something! :)

The drive through the Rockie's was stunning, and we only took 2 wrong turns so we actually were on the road just about what I'd thought we would be. For a change. Today, onward to the dessert and some of Gram's absolute favorites! (Oh, wow, I just checked the weather in Monument Valley and it IS raining. Wow!)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Past Few Days...

Loooong drive to Mount Rushmore from Red Lodge (and I'd routed us to Red Lodge over the Beartooth Pass so we'd shorten our drive to Mount Rushmore). We arrived about 6:00 for the 9:00 PM ceremony, so we had time to have supper at the snack bar (mediocre - I didn't really eat), shop (I bought a book on Lewis & Clark), and look at the exhibits and short movie. The kids and DS took the walk up around the bottom of the mountain, on which they saw a billy goat. There were 3 goats climbing all over the mountain before the ceremony. I brought out some glow-sticks I'd packed, and while our kids enjoyed them, the 2 little girls that DS gave some to loved them. They each had a pink or purple glowing bracelet and they were delighted!  The ceremony itself was moving - a description of some of the hardships the 4 Presidents had overcome in their lives with the moral that perhaps the hardships we face shape our characters and our destinies, and that we all could learn to face life's obstacles like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and T. Roosevelt had. Then a short film narrated by Avery Brooks, and the lights coming up on the sculpture, followed by all of the veterans and active-duty military personnel being invited to the stage, a singing of the National Anthem, and a flag ceremony done by a Boy Scout troop from Arkansas. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events that I hope the kids remember; I know I will.

Thursday's drive started with a trek to Devils Tower, where the prairie dogs were the biggest hit! We watched a few climbers, but didn't really spend a whole lot of time there. I did, however, get my passport book stamp, which I'd missed the first time I was there because the Visitors Center was closed.  On the way out we saw 3 white tail buck, two 10-points and one 9-point.

After that the drive to Cheyenne, on which the highlight was the sign to the right, which really cracked us up.

Arrived in Cheyenne about 6:00 and went to a Chinese Restaurant in town - which frankly seemed like a ghost town. We wondered where everyone was. The bars were pretty busy, though. Our hotel was a Days Inn by the railroad tracks, which was very nice and not nearly as loud as we expected. The pool was great, and kids and DS spent over an hour there.

Friday was the Frontier Days rodeo - The Grand Daddy of Them All! A lot of fun - niece's favorite thing so far. Bull-riding, bareback riding, calf roping, trick riding - it was so well orchestrated. Like a Broadway musical. Each event flowed into the next, and they all knew what they needed to do and where to go. There was no waiting between events. An exceptional event. All the kids got turkey legs to eat, and we had popcorn, big lemonades, kettle corn, and beer. Well, I had the beer. :)

After a few hours at the rodeo we drove to Estes Park, where there were no elk! :( Apparently they don't come down in the summer very much, and Grammy & I had never been there in summer. But Estes Park is a wonderful town, and we had a great dinner in a steakhouse called Grubsteak, that we highly recommend (even for the vegetarians). That evening Grammy and I did something we have never done - left our hotel, the Estes Park Super 8, and found another. I hope we don't lose the money, which was prepaid through orbitz. But Grammy just knew she wouldn't be able to sleep given the firetrap the place was. It is in the woods, made of wood, and the wooden steps up to our room were rickety and falling apart. I'm going to contact orbitz to try to get our money back and urge them not to handle that motel until they make safety improvements.  We moved on to the Twin Owls Motel, named after a cool rock formation on the mountains. It was an OK place, not great, but at least not a fire trap.

The drive to Montrose, CO was LOOOONNNNG. Much longer than predicted by mapquest. We passed through Boulder, and texed Cousin who was driving out to Boulder to live, but got no response. A short while later his mom texted us that he had arrived in Boulder. We must have just missed him - bummer! We stopped in Fairplay in South Park City, where Teen got a great South Park t-shirt. They have an incredible bead shop there, that is one of the oldest businesses in town, since 1986. (Click for its web-site.) Grammy & I have stopped there before, and it's truly wonderful. The town has grown up tremendously just in the past few years.

Saturday's drive to Black Canyon of the Gunnison was, again, long! We stopped at Monarch Crest, 11,312 feet, and all but Grammy took the gondola up mountain. What a view! Several 14,000 foot peaks were visible from the top, where it was 62 degrees and we were at 12,000 feet! We continued to Black Canyon, past the Pinnacles - a rock formation by the Blue Mesa Reservoir which I just love. We arrived at Black Canyon after 6 PM, and the Visitors Center was closed, but the kids and DS took an overlook trail to the Visitors Center, and drove to several overlooks. It's a great Park, much overlooked. We saw a beautiful coyote walking across the road, and he stopped and posed for us.  Other animal highlights: long horn cattle, llamas, Clark's nutcracker, and a herd of 60-70 elk in a filed which took off in a run while we watched.

Today: on to Mesa Verde!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Yellowstone Bears

You may have heard there was a fatal bear attack just outside of Yellowstone on Wednesday. Well, we passed the Soda Butte campgrounds where it happened on our drive out of Yellowstone to Red Lodge, over the incredible Beartooth Highway. We drove through Tuesday, and the bear attacks were sometime Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. Of course, we never were camping or hiking in the back country, so the danger to us was minimal. We also saw lots of people swimming and wading in the Firehole River, where a young woman drowned. Wow, Yellowstone was a dangerous place while we were there! It is always a dangerous place, and too often we forget that the National Park Service's mission to keep America's wild places wild means that these thing do happen. How sad for the families of those affected and for the bears that will now be put down.

More to post soon about the amazing Mount Rushmore evening ceremony we witnessed Wednesday night, and our drive to Cheyenne yesterday (with prairie dog pictures!). We're off to the largest rodeo in the U.S. today, then driving to Estes Park to see the elk. Until the next post, enjoy these wildflower photos - this is an amazing time of year for wildflowers out here!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Driving throuugh clouds & touching a glacier

First, I want to clear up a couple of things. I didn't take the pictures - but thanks for the compliments. These are all taken by others on the trip, mostly my sister. The other thing I want to fix on the blog - I've been calling my sister "Aunt," although I'm more properly the aunt on the trip; I just didn't know what to call her. I'm going to call her DS from now on - the web shorthand for "Dear Sister."

We drove from Driggs back through the parks, stopping to let our brakes cool after the trip over the Teton Pass. In Grand Teton we went to the most amazing visitors' center ever, at Moose Junction. There are moving videos on the floor! The kids loved touching the animal furs, and proclaimed the lynx the softest, and the bison softer than they expected. In Yellowstone we visited the Mud Volcano, which we'd skipped the prior day. It got late really fast - how does that happen? - and we thought we'd be driving in the dark.

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Instead, again the serendipity of this trip, we hit the Lamar Valley just before sunset, and saw antelope, bison, cliff swallows flying into their mud daub nests, and lots of horse riders returning from day trips. It was beautiful. Then the amazing drive over the Beartooth Highway, through the clouds and side-by-side with glaciers! It was probably the most beautiful drive yet, and the best time of day to take it! We all (except Grammy) got out to touch a glacier. We pictured Maria running through the alpine meadows, singing. The prior time Grammy and I drove it, it was foggy and snowy, and a winter fairyland. This time it was completely different, but no less magical! Read about it here.

Then in to our hotel in Red Lodge, some time in the pool and hot tub, and a great night's sleep. Today: Mount Rushmore!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bears & Moose!

1st black bear of the day

2nd black bear of the day (& 3rd!)

this guy followed us for a while

It seems every annoying detour or bad route choice has a silver lining on this trip (excuse the mixed metaphor). After spotting a bear early in the day and then a bear and her cub late in the day, plus elk and bison, we headed out of Yellowstone, through Grand Teton, to our hotel - the Best Western in Driggs, Idaho. I'd found that the hotels in Jackson started at $200 per room for our dates, and the Driggs hotel is about 1/2 that. So being a cheapskate meant that we had to drive for-freaking-ever to get to Driggs. Don't let mapquest fool you - it's at least an hour's drive from Jackson Hole, over an incredibly steep mountain pass. The drive is beautiful, but it's tough. At the end of the trek, just before we got to Driggs, there was a large LED sign warning us to "Stay Alert" because a moose had been spotted on the highway. And didn't Tween 2 find that moose in the trees behind a parking lot?!? The kids got way too close but this moose was docile and unconcerned - at that moment. What an exciting way to end a too-long day in the car. I knew the sharp eyes of children would spot us more wildlife!

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Bear!

not a bear

Yippee! Our first day in Yellowstone and we saw a bear! There were the hastily pulled-over cars along with a Ranger, so I pulled over and the kids and aunt jumped out. Grammy & I saw it from the car. At one point it was within 30 feet of everyone. Exciting!

We left SLC late, after a good free breakfast at the beautiful Hyatt, and arrived at Yellowstone through the West Yellowstone entrance at around 3:30 or 4:00. Neither Grammy nor I were feeling very well, but we're both feeling fine this morning.

We saw Old Faithful, and took a walk around there and at the Midway Geyser Basin. And then the bear! The kids all seem to be enjoying everything, taking it all in, learning a lot. Although it drives me crazy that they talk and carry on instead of looking for wildlife, I realize they get restless cooped up in the car all day. So far it's been fun - not the "trip from Hell" that some predicted. Of course, we have over a week left! :)

We spent the night at the Super 8 in Gardner, MT, and it was nice, of course - a Super 8. Down to breakfast and then back into the Park for Day 2. We have 3 days scheduled for Yellowstone and Grand Teton. I told then that we would see a million things every day, and still have missed a million things. That's how amazing these parks are!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Zion & Bryce

I'm sitting on the couch in the luxurious sitting room area of the large room connected to the other large room in the Hyatt Place, Salt Lake City. Thanks to an sale, we got these rooms for under $100 each, and they are beautiful and worked perfectly. We used the pool and the hot tub yesterday, and that was great after a long, hot day on the road.

Yesterday, Saturday, we left Zion and headed to Bryce, a short, lovely ride and a wonderful Park experience. The kids and aunt walked up to Inspiration Point while Grammy and I waited at the bottom and admired the amazing view. At our picnic area we watched several Stellar Jays, chipmunks and a robin, plus red ants that Tween 2 insisted on killing until Teen lifted him up and carried around for a while. 
Then the drive to Salt Lake City, through Panguitch and that lovely farmland, where the day before we had seen the first elk of the trip. We also saw antelope, or rather Grammy and I did. There will be many more elk and antelope sightings to come!. The drive to SLC only took about 4 hours but we were still exhausted by the end. Grammy took a nap while the rest went to the Gateway area - a pedestrian mall with all the major stores, which I think they put in for the Olympics. We ate dinner outside at California Pizza kitchen and the adults each had a drink. Picked up a deli-sandwich for Grams, then half went shopping while the boys and I headed back to the pool.
The day before we had done Zion, which was wonderful but our first real "National Parks in the Summer" experience. I chose the road in through the tunnel, because it's a must, but it was under construction so getting into and out of the Park itself took about an hour. Then there was no parking, even handicapped parking, in the Park, so we had to park out side in overflow lots. That wouldn't have been so bad except there was no way to get back to the Visitor's Center without walking in the heat, which Grammy had trouble with. There were better ways to deal with all of this, but there were no signs explaining what to do and every Ranger and parking attendant had a different story. Zion should really hand out a sheet at the gate explaining how to drop off people with physical disabilities and where to park. Anyway... We took the shuttle around the Park, stopping to eat lunch at the snack bar. Then Aunt and kids walked up to Weeping Rock and Grammy and I took the shuttle back to the Visitor's Center. We stayed at Harold's Inn outside of Bryce Canyon, a decent little motel that could be excellent if they made a little effort. They had no continental breakfast, no hair dryers in the rooms, not enough towels, no telephone in the rooms - little changes that could make them much better. Darcy, at the front desk, was very friendly, though.
Today we're going to try to get out to at least see the Great Salt Lake, since it seems a shame to be here and not see it! Then on to Yellowstone via the west entrance - about a 5 hour drive. We'll be there in plenty of time to visit Old Faithful and get up to Mammoth Hot Springs to see the elk!