Central Plains Road Trip – Part 4

Our road trip had taken us through three of the four central plains states which was the main theme of this trip, along with quick stops across the Mississippi River in Illinois, Memphis, and Tupelo. The focus of our journey became an in-depth perspective of history from a native pre-American culture, western expansion sites including an iconic memorial, two presidential libraries, a national park centered around historic bathhouses, and the birthplace of an iconic singer and entertainer. Now, we were heading west into the last state to visit on this tour, Oklahoma.

After we had finished scraping around a dirt field looking for diamonds at Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas, we got in the car and headed west along US Route 70 to Oklahoma. My map planning program had set up a schedule to head south to Interstate 30 West, which would take us into Texas and then connect us to Interstate 35 North up into Oklahoma. However, even though interstate traveling would be consistently faster, it tends to be more disconnected to the cultural perspective around it. The US 70 route led us directly into Oklahoma and allowed us to stop so that my friend could get pictures of himself next to the state line welcome signs between Oklahoma and Arkansas. After that, we had a more distinctive perspective of Oklahoma’s rural aspects. Time was not a major factor since we had a motel reservation in Ardmore, near our first planned Oklahoma visit location. We reached our motel with enough time to find a restaurant in the center of Ardmore, giving us another perspective of the nearby railroad lines which bolstered Oklahoma’s ranching industry.

The next morning was the start of our final day of exploration. In my initial planning of the trip, I had looked up Oklahoma sites on the National Park Service website and found the Chickasaw National Recreational Area. It provided a chance to experience the nature of Oklahoma, and it was the only Oklahoma stop I put on the schedule. I foresaw a potential chance to find a hiking trail and take a quick stroll through a lakeside environment. Our motel was basically just a half hour south of the National Recreational Area, so that morning we headed off for some early recreation. A half hour later, we exited the interstate and headed east towards the National Recreational Area. A few minutes later in the town of Sulphur, we saw a sign directing us south to reach the recreational area. Another sign next to it informed us that this road was also the way to the Chickasaw Cultural Center. As we headed down the side road, we noted the multi-building cultural center as we passed, raising our interest in checking it out on the way back. We reached the entrance into the recreational area and drove in. The road led to a small roundabout next to an open field and a small forested stream in the western corner of the recreational area. If we had traveled just a little farther through Sulphur, we would have come upon the main entrance into the recreational area. However, we still got out of the car and explored the field and stream area. We met a park ranger at the stream who was taking water samples and measuring water levels. She told us that a wetter-than-normal spring season had increased water levels. Our conversation gave us a nice perspective of the nature of the Chickasaw National Recreational Area.

A flowing stream within Chickasaw National Recreation Area, OK

As we drove out of the recreational area, we followed up on our improvised interest and drove into the Chickasaw Cultural Center. What we discovered was a major preservation and informational center about the cultural aspects of the Chickasaw tribal society past and present. We did not have time to go through the main museum exhibits or enjoy the theater, but we were able to check out the art gallery featuring hand-weaving designs among other exhibits and the traditional village spread out on a broad field bordering the Chickasaw National Recreational Area. Displays within the village buildings added to the perspective of a major Native American culture.

Village meeting ground at the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Oklahoma

Even though the Chickasaw stops completed my initial schedule list, the reason we were pressed for time was because of an additional stop my friend had requested be added during our trip planning stage. As I noted earlier, my friend is an avid lover of history, and he remembered a history class discussion about a western outpost in Oklahoma named Fort Sill, which was now preserved as a national historic site. Even though I could not find it on the National Park Service website, it was easy to find on my map planning program just sixty miles west of the Chickasaw National Recreational Area. I was also able to track it on my iPad Map App before we headed toward Lawton and Fort Sill. As we reached Lawton and its intersection with Interstate 44, I noted on the iPad Map App that the Fort Sill site was just a few exits north of us and I drove onto the interstate to reach this exit. As I reached what I felt should be proper exit, I saw the exit sign did not identify the street and had a smaller sign indicating proper ID was necessary. I surmised that this was not the proper exit and that I had misread the map app, so I drove on. However, when the next exit proved to be a few miles beyond, I realized that I had judged wrong and exited. As it was around noon, we decided to stop for a quick bite, then we headed back to the other exit. When we got off at the other exit, we found ourselves heading to a military gate. What we discovered from the guard at the gate was that the Fort Sill Historical Site was in the middle of a current US Army base. At one time, US citizens were allowed to enter the base with standard photo ID to visit the historic site, but since 9/11, potential visitors now had to go to the visitor center in Lawton to have their IDs checked before being allowed to enter the base and visit the historic site. Throughout this trip, my friend had razzed me about being passé about using maps, even in digital format, to guide us, when everybody uses GPS on their cell phone to direct them. So now, my friend searched the visitor center address and entered it into GPS Siri. After a roundabout path, Siri guided us to a corner farm machinery storage area, a far cry from the visitor center. By this time, we figured it was time to move on.

Since there were no more scheduled stops and my friend’s flight was scheduled to leave Denver the next day, there was no reason for us to worry about staying at a motel along the way home. We drove north on Interstate 44 through Oklahoma City, where we transitioned onto Interstate 35, then continued north into Kansas, passing through Wichita. When we reached Interstate 70, we got off for dinner, then jumped back onto 70 West towards Denver. It was about eleven thirty at night when we reached my home. We crashed for the night and I drove my friend to the airport the next morning.
It was amazing just how many sites we had explored in the center of our country within a single week. We had covered a lot of history, experienced the nature of the plains region, and had sampled some iconic barbecue flavors. We also experienced the wonderful assets and occasional limitations of our modern technology to help guide us through this trip. It was also amazing to experience this trip with a longtime friend.

Central Plains Road Trip – Part 3

Our road trip journey had already taken us through two central plains states, Kansas and Missouri, with a chance to see some western expansion history, two presidential libraries, the preservation of a Native American culture, an iconic national memorial, and a wonderful taste of Kansas City barbecue. Now, our trip was heading into the southern part of our Central Plains Road Trip. Even though the focus was on Arkansas and Oklahoma, the two states remaining on my pre-age two visited states’ bucket list, I had added a quick shot into Mississippi to view a couple of sites in Tupelo. I had only visited Mississippi consciously once before when my family drove me from Florida to Los Angeles just before I started college at UCLA. There was no stopping along the way for most of this trip, so even though I was at a conscious age, I still listed Mississippi as a state I needed to revisit and experience. Tupelo was just an hour away from Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee.

When I first explored taking a quick zip into Mississippi, I went on to the National Park Service website and looked for historic sites near the Mississippi-Arkansas border and found the Tupelo National Battlefield. This appeared to be a worthy historic look at some Civil War history, so I marked it on my mapping program. I noticed on the program that Elvis Presley’s boyhood home was nearby and marked this as a stop as well. I expected that Elvis’ home would be a quick tour through a small home, so I planned it as the first stop before going over to view the major battlefield. I was in for a major surprise.

My friend and I left our Missouri motel stop and headed south into Arkansas. An hour later, we turned east towards the Mississippi River and Memphis. We circled around the south side of Memphis and went southeast towards Tupelo. When we reached Tupelo, we headed for the park where Elvis Presley’s boyhood home was located. What we found was more than just the two room house where Elvis grew up in. Next to the visitor parking lot, there was a decent size museum and gift shop where we bought our tour tickets. The tour included not only a walkthrough in the two room home and the museum displays, but also a tour and presentation inside the small church where Elvis and his family were members. The film presentation was a church service where the preacher encourages a young Elvis to perform with the choir. The museum tour was not only full of photos and memorabilia from Elvis’ childhood, but also items and photos that the older and more famous Elvis provided to his longtime childhood friends. In the adjoining park, a walkway took us to a memorial circle with a statue of an older performing Elvis standing spread eagle over a younger guitar-holding Elvis. It was quite a display of the life of Elvis Presley. Fully impressed, we headed over to the Tupelo National Battlefield, only to find it was just a white marble memorial surrounded by two cannons in a small corner lot park. There were no National Park center, just a small pamphlet holder next to the memorial. Within the small park, there were a couple of labeled cemetery markers that identified the final resting places of a couple of soldiers and a scattering of unmarked stones where unidentified soldiers died and were buried after the battle. This small park was just a representation of the full-scaled battlefield that extended around and beyond Tupelo during the Civil War.

Amphitheater statues and wall at Elvis Presley birthplace in Tupelo, MS

It was now time to head back to Memphis. My original thought in the planning was that after seeing Elvis Presley’s boyhood home, we would compare this to Elvis’ celebrity home at Graceland. However, we had taken up a lot of time at the boyhood home and had discovered a far greater perspective of Elvis’ full life within the adjoining museum, so we decided that we needed to drop Graceland from the schedule. Yet, according to friends, we did have to experience the Memphis music scene and take in the Memphis style barbecue by stopping at Beale Street in the downtown area. The famous section of Beale Street is within a single block, just two blocks from the Mississippi riverfront. When we got there, we found this section blocked off for a motorcycle rally, so we found street parking close by and walked into a street brimming with music. On the corner, we found BB King’s Blues Club and decided to try the Memphis barbecue there. It was a stroke of luck for us that Memphis Jones and his band performed live various blues and pop classics that were actually written and performed in the recording studios in Memphis, while we were eating. It was a wonderful dinner.

Motorcycle Rally on Beale Street, Memphis, TN

After Memphis, our next scheduled adventure was the only designated national park on the trip, Hot Springs National Park. Since Hot Springs was about a half hour off the interstate, I had suggested to my friend that it would be best to set up our motel reservation just before the exit heading off to Hot Springs, but he felt that we would have no problem driving on into Hot Springs, and I reserved our motel in Hot Springs. After our wonderful blues dinner, we headed off into Arkansas and drove towards our destination. By the time we got to Little Rock, the sun was setting. I recognized the hotel I had suggested as we passed before exiting the interstate and driving a northern arc up towards Hot Springs. There was no lighting on the US route into the city and we took the wrong turn off. We temporarily got lost, but thanks to my iPad map program, we finally tracked down the motel and settled in for the night.

The next morning, we drove up Central Avenue in Hot Springs to reach the national park. From what I understand, Hot Springs National Park is the smallest national park and the only park where one can take a taxi to visit, so I did not go up to the NPS website and download the official PDF map of the park. Instead I used my iPad map program to direct me to the park entrance. According to what I saw on the map program, the park boundaries covered the small mountain ridge surrounding the northern neighborhood of Hot Springs. The program marker directed us to a spot on the east side of this ring where Central Avenue turns left after entering the boundary ring. As we headed up Central Avenue, we noticed a national park service visitor center sign outside one of the buildings along the street, but there was no available street parking to make a quick stop, so we went on to reach the park entrance. However, as we turned and headed east, we never came upon a gate entrance into the park. After a few miles, we stopped and checked the map program, discovering we had already gone through the park. We drove back, found a sign pointing off to a campsite within the park, and turned down the road toward it. We passed the campground as we looked for trailhead parking, but the road led back to Hot Springs and Central Avenue. We drove back up past the visitor center and turned down a side street next to a corner park a half block away where we fortunately found an open parking space on the street. We got out and walked down to the corner park where a national park ranger had set up a small table display. What we discovered from the ranger was mind-blowing. Even though park boundaries had been mapped out, protecting the mountain ridge around the northern neighborhood of Hot Springs, the very focus of this national park was the hot springs themselves and the preserved bathhouses that tapped into those springs along Central Avenue. Much of the park was within the city limits of Hot Springs, so no park entrance gates or entrance fees. All of the park service employees were stationed in the buildings on this block of Central Avenue.

Hot Water Cascade Spring, Hot Springs National Park, AR

As we saw on the table display of expedition paraphernalia, the springs were explored by a small expedition sent by President Jefferson. The steamy waters were considered to be very healthy and curative, attracting many people. In 1932, Congress and President Jackson “reserved” the waters for the benefit of all, many years before Yosemite was the first protected land set aside by Congress under President Lincoln, and Yellowstone was officially protected as a national park some years later. However, this “reservation” did not set aside official land boundaries, so in 1921, the National Park Service convinced Congress to turn Hot Springs into the 18th National Park. After my friend and I listened to the history from the park ranger, we walked over to one of the open springs nearby and stuck our hands into the steaming waters. Then, we walked along a ridge path behind the bathhouses, taking in the surrounding natural greenery, before heading down to the visitor center, which was one of the major bathhouses that Hot Springs grew from. Inside the visitor center, we took the small tour to see how the popular spa treated its customers and clients. Of the 41 national parks that I have visited, Hot Springs is unique in its preservation of the business of natural relaxation and health.

After finishing up our visit with Hot Springs, we drove out of the city and headed southwest to another iconic location in Arkansas, the Crater of Diamonds State Park. Arkansas is the only state in the US where diamonds have been found and mined, all because of an ancient volcanic vent that brought many crystallized minerals up near the surface around the current town of Murfreesboro. When a farmer discovered the first diamond on his farm in the early 1900s, a diamond rush occurred in the area. In the 1950s, attempts were made to open sections of the diamond field to the public, but it was in 1972 when the state purchased the land and protected the land for the public. Once visitors pay the park admittance fee, they are allowed access to the plowed ground field to search for diamonds, which are still being discovered. The “finder’s-keeper’s” rules allow visitors to keep whatever potentially valuable gems they uncover. Serious gem hunters can rent digging and screen sifting tools from the visitor center, but for me and my friend, it was just interesting to walk along the dirt ridges and kick up some stones. We didn’t find any diamonds, but I did take an interesting conglomerate stone I found as a souvenir. After an hour of kicking dirt, we got back into the car and headed west for Oklahoma.

To be continued…

Central Plains Road Trip – Part 2

My one week Central Plains road trip with my friend through Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma had just begun in Kansas with a quick look at a preserved western town in Dodge City and a walk-through look at Fort Larned National Historic Site, a major western military location on the Santa Fe Trail, but now, on our first full day of travel, we were attempting to visit two major presidential libraries in the same day in order to give my friend’s suggestion to add Hannibal, Missouri to our schedule a chance. We reached Abilene, Kansas around lunchtime and stopped off for some subs before heading over to the Eisenhower Library.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum was designed to preserve and honor the life, work, and history of the 34th president of the United States for both general tourists and historical researchers. Abilene was Eisenhower’s hometown, and the location of the museum and library was chosen to include his original boyhood home. We were able to take a tour within his house, viewing original preserved furniture and a family bible. The house, museum, and library surround a long, grassy courtyard, and at one end of the courtyard is a church-like Place of Meditation, which houses the final resting place of President Eisenhower and his wife. On the other end of the courtyard, a statue of Eisenhower in his general’s uniform, surrounded by honorary pylon plaques, looks down toward the Place of Meditation. We went into the museum and traveled through a maze of rooms that took us through historical objects that demonstrated Eisenhower’s childhood, his early military service, his military leadership during World War II, his presidential campaign, and his accomplishments during his terms as President. The library, which is reserved for serious historical research, was not a part of the tour.

Eisenhower memorial at Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, KS

After taking in the perspective of the Eisenhower administration, it was time to try and zip over to Independence, Missouri and see if we can check out his predecessor’s library in the same day. Independence is basically a connected suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, so the distance wasn’t far. However, not only did our time at the Eisenhower Library and Museum take a lot of time in the afternoon, but the Truman Library and Museum was not readily near the interstate, so we arrived at the museum at its closing time. I really did not expect to visit both museums in the same day, so I was fully prepared to calmly inform my friend that we had no time to add Hannibal to the schedule. We checked in at the motel where I had made reservations, then headed back into Kansas City to find a good barbecue meal. Kansas City is one of a select group of cities known for its unique barbecue style of cooking, and just before we started the road trip, a neighbor of mine gave me four top barbecue places to choose from. For our dinner, I selected the place closest to our motel, unaware of its longtime reputation. Arthur Bryant’s is housed in a brick building in a bare industrial section of the city, and diners get their food through a fast food buffet style line before paying a cashier and finding an empty table with their food, but a quick taste of the barbecue meats quickly shows why the walls are covered with pictures of celebrity patrons including former President Obama. It was a perfect example of Kansas City barbecue.

The next morning, we headed back up to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. The Truman Library was smaller than the Eisenhower Library, since it was did not have extra historical buildings like a boyhood home or meditation chapel. Both the library and museum were in the same building which wrapped around a small garden. In the garden were the gravesites of both Harry and Bess under flat stone markers. Just like the Eisenhower Library, the Truman Library section was reserved for serious historical research, but the museum portion which took up most of the building covered Truman’s life from childhood and starting life running a haberdashery to being elected to office, being selected as FDR’s final Vice President, and having to take over the Presidency after FDR’s death near the end of World War II. Of course, this led to Truman faced with having to make the decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan. The museum included a reproduction of the Oval Office during Truman’s administration and his home office after leaving the Presidency. After our tour of the museum, we were given directions to Truman’s home in Independence. We did not have time to find the separate location of the visitor center in order to get tickets to tour inside the home, but we did stop to take pictures of the quaint two story house before heading on to St. Louis.

Harry and Bess Truman’s grave sites at Truman Presidential Library in Independence, MO

St. Louis is mainly known as the home of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, otherwise known as the Gateway Arch. However, just fifteen minutes across the Mississippi River in Illinois is a World Heritage Site, protected as an Illinois State Park, which is known as Cahokia Mounds. Since my research showed me that the Arch would be open a lot later than Cahokia Mounds, my schedule was set up to zip over to the Mounds first and come back to the Arch. By mid-afternoon, we parked in the lot next to the visitor interpretive center and cultural museum. The Cahokia Mounds were large mounds of earth constructed by a Native American culture that flourished around Europe’s Medieval Age and declined just before Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Although more natural in construction with wood and earth, the mound structures and surrounding village features were very reminiscent of Aztec culture. The site had many miles of nature trails within the surrounding woods, but we just had time to walk the short trail around the Twin Mounds near the interpretive center, then go across the street to the large double mound structure called Monk’s Mound. A wide set of stairs has been built into one side of the Monk’s Mound, enabling easy access for visitors to climb to the top. From there, we were able to see urban and natural landscapes around us, including the nearby Gateway Arch and downtown St. Louis to the southwest. We got back into my car and drove back to St. Louis.

Monks Mound close up at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, IL

The Gateway Arch is nestled up to the west shore of the Mississippi River and anchored in the heart of downtown St. Louis, which means getting to the Arch and finding parking brings up the same obstacles one would find navigating any central downtown area. We wound up finding street parking, but luckily, since it was late in the day after normal work hours, we were not bound by parking time limitations. We were also within a few weeks of the first day of summer with daylight savings time hours, so we still had plenty of sun to view the memorial. The visitor center is in the nearby Historic Old Courthouse, which is where we had to go to get tickets for the tram car to the top of the Arch. The scheduled time for our tram access was an hour away, so we went across the street to an Italian restaurant for dinner, then we walked over to the Arch. Renovations were currently in process around the Arch which had temporarily closed the north tram, so all visitors were lined up for the south tram, a set of claustrophobic cubicles that transported us to the top of the Arch. The low hanging sun may have made looking down at St. Louis somewhat difficult, but seeing the shadow of the Arch stretched out across the Mississippi and toward the east was amazing.

Looking across the Mississippi River into Illinois from the top of the Gateway Arch (Jefferson National Expansion Memorial) in St. Louis, MO

From St. Louis, it was now time to head south. In order to get us closer to the southern loop through Arkansas and Oklahoma, with jaunts into north Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee, I had set up a reservation at motel close to the Missouri border with Arkansas. It was late at night when we got there, but we would be prepared for the next day’s schedule.

To be continued…

Dakota National Park Tour – Part 2

Halfway through my Dakota trip, I had the opportunity to explore the tight confines of Wind Cave National, checked up on the status of the Crazy Horse Memorial, and had explored what had inspired Theodore Roosevelt to highly promote the national park system during his time as president in the national park named after him. Now, I was heading east away from South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park on I-94 in a loop that would take me down to Badlands National Park. As I drove, the clouds darkened above me and the afternoon sun behind me created a marvelous arched rainbow against these clouds. Perhaps I saw it as a good luck charm. I-94 took me through the capital of North Dakota, Bismarck, but there wasn’t much to see from the highway. A few miles east of the capital, I exited I-94 and headed south towards South Dakota and its capital, Pierre (which I am told is pronounced like pier by the locals). Pierre is one of the few state capitals not connected or serviced by an interstate highway, so my US route took me straight into the center of the city. I wound up stopping for a Chinese buffet dinner just a few miles from the capitol building. As I left Pierre and headed south to connect with I-90, just a few miles east of the motel I had made reservations near Badlands National Park, the clouds began to darken again. I was able to reach the motel in time before the thunderstorm opened up. I was beginning to experience and understand the severe weather that builds around the Great Plains at this time of year.

The next morning, skies were clear, and I headed towards Badlands National Park. At the interstate exit to the northeast entrance to the park, I noticed the visitor center to an interesting and important historic park, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Even though I decided not to stop because of the tight scheduling of my tour, it reminded me how this country was able to use the open spaces of the plains to hide a major part of our country’s defense in the modern era. I headed south into Badlands National Park.

Southwest panoramic view from Bigfoot Pass.

Southwest panoramic view from Bigfoot Pass.

Badlands geology is interesting to view, sedimentary strata of mainly white and red rock that is exposed on hills and canyon walls, with a section of yellow rock mounds in one part of the park. It was created by the huge sea that used to exist down the middle of North America until the land rose up, draining the sea and creating the Great Plains. I had viewed this badlands geology in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. However, within Badlands National Park, the geology was sharper with craggy spires and a higher contrast between the red and white strata colors. In one section, a hiking trail explored a section where fossil remnants from prehistoric creatures are still being uncovered. Badlands does support the same types of bison and groundhogs that I saw in Theodore Roosevelt National Park; however, during my visit, I only came upon one deer hiding behind some shrubs on a trail. The canyons and mounds of Badlands appears to be closer to the expansive great plains to the east than the Black Hills to the west, as I was able to view long open stretches of vibrant green grass fields heading away from the canyon bottoms and out from the tops of the canyon rims along the loop road. The road that traveled along the badlands walls was called a loop road because it somewhat paralleled I-90 to the north with two park entrances on either side of this road section that connected back up to I-90. This allowed me to exit the park at this west entrance, then loop back east on I-90 to the exit that led to the eastern entrance. Only I passed this exit and took the next exit south, heading down towards Scottsbluff, Nebraska.

As I traveled down the state routes towards Nebraska, the severe weather patterns of late spring that I had begun to experience in previous afternoons along this trip suddenly demonstrated their greatest fury when I found myself driving through a thundering hail storm. It didn’t help that I was stuck behind a semi-trailer at the time the storm struck. However, my faithful car persevered, and I passed through the storm before arriving in Scottsbluff. This was the last stop on my road tour, and I checked into my hotel in preparation of my final day of the tour.

Pioneer wagons at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Pioneer wagons at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

The small city of Scottsbluff grew up in the Platte River valley next to a major landmark the early pioneers used as they made their way along the Oregon Trail, a large rocky bluff named for an early fur company employee that mysteriously met his death near this bluff in 1838. The bluff and the pass between it and the neighboring Wildcat Hills are protected within Scotts Bluff National Monument. In the morning of my final day of my tour, I stopped at the visitor center within this pass next to the bluff and walked a short trail up to a point where the Oregon Trail officially snacked its way westward. Some representative covered wagons presented the history that brought pioneers here on their way west. I walked back to my car and drove up a road that snaked up through a few tunnels to the top of the bluff. From the top of the bluff, I was able to see a broad landscape both east and west, showing why this rocky bluff was such a major landmark in the expansion of America. After enjoying this perspective of history, I headed back down the bluff road, got on the interstate, and headed back to Denver. I was home in time for lunch. This tour was a short trip, but it was also an impressive tour of history and geology.

Road Trip to Denver – Part 3

In four days, I had headed out from Los Angeles in a southeast path to visit Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson, Arizona and Guadalupe Mountains National Park in the Texas panhandle, then turned north to explore the heart of New Mexico, starting with Carlsbad Caverns National Park, then off to stops at White Sands National Monument and Petroglyph National Monument, before reaching the art community of Taos, New Mexico. Now, it was time to head into Colorado and my main destination of Denver for the wedding of my friends’ daughter. I had one stop before reaching the hotel in Denver.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was only recently designated as a national park within this century, being upgraded from national monument status in 2000. Rising up from the San Luis Valley range to the west and pushed against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east, the Great Sand Dunes are North America’s tallest sand dunes. What was amazing to me about these sand dunes was the almost artistic coloring of the dune field. As I was driving up to the dunes with the mountains towering behind them, I felt I was viewing an impressionistic oil painting, rather than a natural reality. To walk on the dunes, one needs to cross a wide, shallow, but swiftly-flowing stream. Since I did not feel I had the appropriate shoes to make the crossing, I was content to take pictures of those who braved the crossing and were enjoying walking up the dunes. Anyway, it was time to head to Denver.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind the Dune Field, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind the Dune Field, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

I had arranged to spend three days and four nights in the Denver area. The first day was to get situated and prepared, the second day would be dedicated to the wedding, and the third day would be an opportunity to check on a nearby national park, Rocky Mountain National Park. However, as I drove toward Denver watching distant lightning strikes in the plains alongside of me, I knew I would have to adjust my schedule. When I discovered that my spare day was forecast to be rainy all day, I thought that Rocky Mountain National Park would be a no go. However, when I discovered that the wedding was scheduled for the late afternoon on the second day, I decided to slip Rocky Mountain National Park into the morning before the wedding.

Rocky Mountain National Park is a large park with a third of its area above the “treeline” of 11,400 above sea level. However, the park’s main road, Trail Ridge Road, which is the highest major highway in North America, was mostly closed for the winter and spring due to snow. Therefore, I knew my visit would be restricted to just inside the northeast entrance at West Horseshoe Park, just west of Estes Park. It took me just an hour and a half to get to this entrance, which gave me enough time to marvel at just a portion of the Rocky Mountains, the very backbone of North America. Fresh snow was present at the scenic stops along the road, making me update a common spring adage just for the Rockies, “April snows bring May flows.” It was some spectacular views that I captured before I raced back down the mountains to get back to my hotel in time to get ready for the wedding.

West Horseshoe Park View, Rocky Mountain National Park

West Horseshoe Park View, Rocky Mountain National Park

The wedding was wonderful, and it was great reconnecting with some old friends. The bride and groom had arranged a champagne brunch for the guests at the hotel, so the extra day worked out for me. However, it was now time for me to head back to Los Angeles, and I did not plan to make any extra stops along the way. The rainy day in Denver presaged a snowy morning over I-70 through the Rockies, which actually presented some wonderful views as I got past the snowfall. It took me a day and a half to get back home, and several days to get back into the swing of things in LA. I had another great road trip under my belt.

Road Trip to Denver – Part 2

On the first two days of my road trip, I had driven a lot of miles and had the chance to explore two national parks, Saguaro National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park. I had also ended the second day zipping into Guadalupe Mountains’ more well-known sister park on the New Mexico side and finding out when the main attraction would be open. Now, at 8AM on the third day of my trip, I was entering the visitor center at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, preparing to enter the caverns. Realizing that temperatures in the cavern were significantly lower than the upper desert region, I bought a zippered hoodie sweater in the gift shop and put it on over my short sleeve t-shirt. Now, I was ready to investigate the cave.

Stalactites in a Grotto, Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Stalactites in a Grotto, Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The main body of Carlsbad Cavern is the Big Room, 755 feet below the surface, and there are only two ways to reach it. One is by an elevator that was built down directly from the visitor center to one end of the Big Room, where the comfort of visitors superseded nature with the installation of restrooms and a lunch counter. The other avenue to the Big Room was by walking down through the Natural Entrance and following the paved path down. I had time so I went by way of the Natural Entrance. The paved asphalt path with hand rails swaybacked down a nearly vertical shaft to a small open area where bats congregate during the day in the summer months. Since I did not see any bats, it is possible that they had not yet migrated from their winter Mexican home. The path then wound down slowly through a section called the Main Corridor, passing by interesting formations like the Whale’s Mouth or the Witches Finger. It is at the Iceberg Rock that the path entered the Big Room and headed over to the Big Room Trail. All along the way, lighting had been wired into the cavern walls in such a way to allow visitors to see the cave structures without disrupting the subterranean ambiance necessary to understand the natural processes at work. The Big Room Trail circled around in a cross pattern within a somewhat open cavern full of decorative columns, stalagmite giants, stalactited grottos, and small spring pools. One massive stalagmite named the Rock of Ages looked at one part of the trail like a dragon about to spew fire on the defenseless rock creature spread out before it. I was told at the visitor center that it would take me three and a half hours to walk the full trail on my own, but I was able to do the two miles in two and a half hours, more in line with the pamphlet’s estimate. I was also proud that I was able to hold still and take some very good pictures without flash, something I was able to show the park ranger who rode up in the elevator with me from the Big Room. Why didn’t I walk back up the Natural Entrance Trail? That trail was set up as one way only, making the elevator the only way out of the cave.

Soaptree Yucca, White Sands National Monument

Soaptree Yucca, White Sands National Monument

Once I had finished exploring Carlsbad Cavern, it was off to Alamogordo and White Sands National Monument. I headed north, then cut west over a mountain pass to get to the Tularosa Basin. After stopping off at the visitor center for preliminary information, I drove down the ten mile Dunes Drive into the Heart of the Sands. The white starkness of the sand was amazing to view and created some amazing images in my camera. Usually, white gypsum is rarely found as sand because it dissolves quite easily in water and is quickly carried off to oceans or seas, but the Tularosa Basin has no access to external rivers, so the gypsum remains when mountain water runoff quickly evaporates in the arid conditions. The result is white sand dunes. After getting my pictures, I headed back to Alamogordo to check into my motel.

Macaw Petroglyph, Boca Negra Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument

Macaw Petroglyph, Boca Negra Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument

The next day, I headed north to Albuquerque to explore Petroglyph National Monument. This protected rocky section on the westside of Albuquerque features some amazing early Native American communication art. Because the rocky terrain was formed by volcanic outflows over 200,000 years ago, Native Americans discovered that they could scrap the darker exterior of the rock, revealing a lighter rock underneath, thus forming the image and message to others. Many of these images are nearly 2000 years old and are considered sacred to many American Indians. The visitor center directed me to the Boca Negra Canyon trail as one of the best viewing spots. A small rocky trail up to a shaman’s circle gave me a chance to view many petroglyph images, a stark view of the five volcanic cones to the west, and a wonderful overview of Albuquerque to the east.

After enjoying the petroglyphs, I headed north to Taos, the small art community town up in the mountain foothills of north New Mexico. The town is well-known as a haven for local artist as I found out when I checked into my motel and found a small gallery of art in one of the lobby hallways. In front of the motel was a genuine Frederic Remington statue. I walked down the small main street and went into one of the local galleries to enjoy some amazing artwork for sale. Unfortunately, all I could do was admire, not buy. After enjoying the creativity, it was time for sleep, ending the New Mexico portion of my trip. Tomorrow, it would be off to Colorado.

To be continued…

A California Mini-Tour – Part 3

In just two days, I had headed north from Los Angeles, visited the newest national park, Pinnacles, checked out the interesting Winchester House in San Jose, and explored the hydrothermal elements of Lassen Volcanic National Park at the southern end of the Cascades. Now, it was time to head back around towards Los Angeles. But I had a few small stops planned for the way back.

I headed east from the Chester Best Western early to connect with US 395, which runs north-south through the eastern Sierras. Going south, I slid into Nevada, driving through the heart of Reno and Carson City, where I found some bright autumn colors along the Sierra foothills to capture in a few pictures. US 395 crossed back into California, climbing into a high pass through the Sierras. As the noon hour approached, I came upon the turn onto the road spur to my next stop, the historic ghost town of Bodie.

Methodist Church on Green Street, Bodie SHP

Methodist Church on Green Street, Bodie SHP

The first ten miles of Bodie Road is smooth black asphalt, lending a false sense of security to the visiting traffic until it comes upon the tortuous last three miles of rocky rills into the town. At 7000 feet on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, Bodie lies in stark contrast to the high desert landscape around it. Only five percent of the buildings remain of the town that arose after its founder, Waterman (William) Body, discovered gold in 1859. By 1879, its reputation for lawlessness was unmatched in the West, leading one young girl, whose family was moving to Bodie, to write in her diary, “Goodbye, God. I’m going to Bodie.” The gold and the town hung on long enough into the next century for the automobile and electricity to make an appearance, but as the gold output shrank, the town lost its population. As I walked along the streets, taking pictures of the homes, church, schoolhouse and firehouse, I thought about how the former residents survived within this isolated location. In a way, the town has become a homage to man’s persistence at civilization in the harshest environments, and how modern man is now able to turn these periods of persistence into museum stops.

Devils Postpile National Monument

Devils Postpile National Monument

After enjoying a few hours exploring Bodie, I braved my way back over the road to US 395 and headed south to my next planned stop. I passed by Mono Lake, stopping for a few vista shots, and within an hour was turning off into the Mammoth Mountain resort area. On the western side of Mammoth, I reached the entrance to the small protected stretch of canyon with a wall of volcanic columnar basalt, Devils Postpile National Monument.  It was amazing viewing how nature could create the nearly straight and symmetrical columns, rivaling some of the best man-made constructs in the world.

Remodeled Model A with Half Dome in background, Olmsted Point, Yosemite NP

Remodeled Model A with Half Dome in background, Olmsted Point, Yosemite NP

I drove back past the Mammoth Ski Resort, which was still waiting its first major snow of the year, and stayed in a nice little bed and breakfast in Mammoth Lakes. When I left the next morning, I turned north on US 395, instead of south, in order to experience another route I had missed during the grand California tour of 2006. During that tour, the plan was to get to Yosemite Valley via the Tioga Pass, but the heavy snows over that winter had kept the pass closed well into June, forcing me to use the farther north I-80 pass to reach Yosemite Valley. Now I had the chance to experience the high elevation views along the pass within Yosemite National Park. The views were amazing, but the highlight was Olmsted Point where I could almost look down on Half Dome. While I was at Olmsted Point, a Korean War vet and his wife drove in to the parking area in a uniquely-designed remodeled 1927 Model A truck, instantly attracting the attention of the Australian and Austrian tourists whose tour buses had made their scheduled stops. It was an interesting contrast between human and natural creativity.

From Yosemite, it was a direct shot home to Los Angeles. I had set aside four days to explore three national parks, a national monument and two historical sites and had accomplished it efficiently and economically. The keys were to do the necessary research, avoid over-planning, and maintain flexibility during the actual trip. Not a bad four days.

A California Mini-Tour – Part 2

The first day of my four day mini-tour had gone well, exploring both Pinnacles National Park and the Winchester Mystery House. My plan for the second day was to focus on exploring only one stop, Lassen Volcanic National Park. I got an early start from the San Jose Motel 6 and headed north.

I had already checked Lassen Volcanic off my national park bucket list, but the check mark had an asterisk next to it that I wanted to clear. In late May of 2006, I had visited Lassen as part of grand Californian road trip I had planned for my mother and her friend. However, the previous winter had been a very wet season, leaving a very heavy snow coverage at the higher elevations that extended deep into spring. The resulting road closures kept us from being able to circle the northern side of Crater Lake, to enter Yosemite over the scenic Tioga Pass and to only go two miles within the southern entrance of Lassen Volcanic. We were able to experience the steam vents of the Sulphur Works which had powered their way through the heavy snow drifts, but this was only like putting a foot within the door of the wonders of Lassen. To fully check Lassen off my bucket list, I felt I needed to revisit and explore deeper within the park.

I got to the southern park entrance shortly before noon and discovered a four year old visitor center just beyond the gate, which was sorely lacking during the 2006 grand tour. Unfortunately, because of the time of year, the main gift shop was not open during the week and the rest of the center was lightly staffed. I shot some landscape views from the rear viewing area, then I ate my packed lunch in a small open-air lecture arena next to the center. I could envision park rangers giving nature lectures to visitors in this arena during the busy summer months. After lunch, I drove north along the park road and made my first stop at the Sulphur Works, revisiting the only location I had explored on the first tour. It was interesting seeing the steam vents without the snow. Then, I drove on to discover the full experience of Lassen.

Bumpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic National Park

Bumpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic National Park

It didn’t take long before I caught my first sight of Lassen Peak, one of the largest plug volcanoes in the world and the high point of the caldera rim of an ancient composite volcano. Lassen is not dormant. It last erupted over a three year period from 1914 to 1917, prompting Congress to create a national park around it. I knew I did not have time to hike up to the 10,415 foot peak, but I did have time to hike from the Lake Helen parking area to one of Lassen’s most notable hydrothermal spots, Bumpass Hell. Even though it is 8,000 feet in altitude and wraps around a sharp drop-off into Little Hot Springs Valley, the Bumpass Hell Trail is even and easy to walk, providing magnificent vista views into the caldera, and the elevated walkways at Bumpass Hell allows park visitors a safe, close-up view of the scalding hot springs and bubbling mud pools. After exploring Bumpass Hell and hiking back to the car, I drove on to Summit Lake, the halfway point of the road through the park and my planned turnaround point. Enjoying the alpine lake with just a handful of fellow visitors was amazingly restful, but it was now time to turn this tour back toward home. I retraced my route south back out of the park, then turned east to the small mountain town of Chester, where I had my second night motel reservation at the local Best Western.

Traveling during the off-season has many advantages in being able to avoid crowds and traffic, but it does have the occasional drawback like my discovery that most of the cafes and restaurants in Chester were closed for the season. Still, the microwave in my motel room and a packaged burrito from the nearby food mart proved to be a very cost-saving dinner. It was two wonderful days down, with two more days to go.

To be continued…

A California Mini-Tour – Part 1

Back in July, I posted about my travels and my bucket lists for future traveling. One of the main bucket lists I had focused on was the opportunity to visit every designated national park in the US. I mentioned that the newest national park, elevated from national monument status, was practically in my backyard. A little over a week ago, I took my chance to visit this park, Pinnacles, as well as add a few more stops in a quick four day road trip in California. Taking advantage of the off-seasonal and cooler autumn period of late October allowed me to avoid crowds and make my off-the-cuff travel planning work. I jumped in the car early on a Wednesday morning with plans to be back home that Saturday evening. I was looking forward to a very exciting trip.

The key to making this trip work was to get an early start on Wednesday, so by 6 am, I was in my car and off to the first stop, Pinnacles National Park. There are two entrances into the park, but there is no road that transverses the park, so I decided to head to the eastern entrance as park maps seem to indicate more choices of trails to explore from this side. With my gas tank down to a quarter full, I made it to the east entrance by 10:30 am, noticing that the nearest city and gas services from this exit was 30 miles away in either direction. Entry fees are collected in the visitor center, although my annual park pass precluded me from having to pay anything. After gathering the informational brochure and seasonal park paper, I drove to the day use parking at the end of the east entrance road.

Bear Gulch Rock Wall, Pinnacles National Park

Bear Gulch Rock Wall, Pinnacles National Park

In some ways, our national parks can be grouped into the famous parks that are identified by an iconic image or environment, like Yosemite’s Half Dome, Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Geyser, the massive multi-striped gorge of the Grand Canyon or even the Everglades’ extensive sea of grasses; and the less iconic, but just as informational parks. Pinnacles fits into this second category. The rough hewn rocky peaks of the Pinnacles ridge line may not be recognized or immediately bring wonder to travelers around the world; however, they do have a major story to reveal about the San Andreas Fault that lies along it eastern foothills. This is a land of coastal uplift along the grinding of two major tectonic plates, and the boulders and rock columns I passed along the two trails I hiked revealed the amazing erosion patterns on the brittle volcanic walls. I hiked up to one of the cave trails in the park, created not by underground water cutting through rock, but rather by falling boulders that fell into the gulch and formed a rough tunnel over the gulch. Even though I could have hiked through the full length of this cave to another exit, I decided to just explore the one entry, then hike back to the day use area to eat my packed lunch. After lunch, I hiked up the Condor Gulch trail to an overlook on the trail, just below the high peaks ridge, which gave me an expansive view of a southeast panorama of ridges. Pinnacles is not a high mountain range as its highest peak is just a little over 3000 feet, which makes it a very accessible park to hike in. However, based on the information in my brochure, I chose the best time to enjoy the hiking trails as temperatures in the Pinnacles can reach over 100 degrees during the summer months. I say good planning on my part.

My day wasn’t over yet, as I quickly set out, stopping once for gas, to make it to San Jose in time to catch the final tour of the Winchester Mystery House. The house is well-known for stairways to nowhere and doors into walls, as the common history states that Mrs. Sarah Winchester kept the mansion under constant construction to confuse the spirits of the victims of the guns manufactured by her husband’s family business. However, Sarah never left any written evidence for her motives behind her construction plans as the tour guide was quick to start the hour long tour with a proclamation that her motives could have been psychic beliefs or poor architectural skills. Still, the séance room with three exits, but only one entrance, and the prolific integration of 13 within the design of the rooms gives high credence to the psychic belief explanation. What is known is that after the death of her baby girl and her husband, wealthy Sarah Winchester left New Haven, Connecticut and moved across the country into a small unfinished farmhouse in the Santa Clarita region of California, which she kept in a constant state of construction until she died 38 years later. The tour is interesting and amazing, but I’m not sure amazing enough for the $33 fee for the tour. What I find even more amazing is that this mansion, which was surrounded by acres of fruit groves and fields, is now engulfed within the bustling city of San Jose, which is probably doing a better job of scaring away the ghosts of the Winchester victims.

With reservations at a Motel 6 a few miles away, the day was over. It was planned as the longest day of the trip, and since it worked out perfectly, I was very confident in my plans for the next three days.

To be continued…

Bucket Lists and Road Trips

I love traveling, exploring the vast complexities of this little orb circling a massive globe of energy in a little section of infinity. I am fascinated by the artistry of this constantly changing natural world and the amazing interaction of our species within this world in such a short span of time. Constantly flowing currents of air and water carve rock, transform landscapes, fluctuate temperatures and transport life on this spinning globe. Amazingly, here I am with the ability to move faster around this earth than my ancestors and the technology of a camera to freeze and record these wondrous sights for the temporary span of my lifetime. However, I am a part of this eternal miracle and responsibility comes with the gift of my life within the tapestry.

For some, travel means finding another place different and exotic from the regular patterns and flows of their home turf, then returning to this place year after year to enjoy a different regular pattern and flow. For me, it means more to uncover a new pattern and perspective with each trip I take. Sometimes, this can be accomplished within my own home backyard by hiking a different trail or checking out a local community or historical site previously unvisited. However, to really expand my perspective, I need to look beyond and see how natural elements and cultures fill in the mosaic. The best way for me to do this is to examine the adventures of those before me and to create a plan of adventure for myself. The first step is to create a series of bucket lists to set out as goals. In my case, my bucket lists are more places to see and experience, rather than activities to accomplish.

My bucket lists begin with the main list of hoping to set foot on every continent. On this list, I can check off North America, Europe and, nominally, Africa. Branching off the main list, I have lists to visit every country in Europe and to explore listed wonders worldwide both natural and cultural, but my longest bucket lists are set within the United States. One reason is obviously the proximity and ability to explore more with less resources. There is a large area to investigate and admire without crossing international borders. I have created three bucket lists to explore this country – to visit every state, to visit every US national park, and to visit an ever-growing list of US cities and sites (currently 141 items). Officially, I can state that there are only three states I have never been in. However, there are five other states in which I was younger than 2 years old when my parents drove through them and two other states in which I changed planes at a major airport, so I only count 40 states as actually visited and experienced. Of those 40 states, I have marked 12 that need to be re-visited since I feel the experience to be more cursory on the first go-round. On the extraneous list of 141 cities and sites, I have checked off 72 items as having been visited and explored. Quite a feat, but still only halfway through the list.

I placed the US national parks in a separate list. It was America that first decided to separate, protect and maintain nature’s grand displays, allowing people from around the world to gain the perspective of the forces that nourished this earth. Other countries have followed America’s example and many of their parks are on my international lists. There are 59 officially designated national parks in the United States and its territories. The newest national park is Pinnacles National Park which was elevated from national monument status in January. I have checked off 32 of these parks from my list. I am not sure which will be the hardest to visit on this list, American Samoa National Park or the Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska, but I am going to do my best to visit them all.

Most of these parks I have visited and explored in the last ten years through the most American type of travel, the road trip. The advent of the automobile brought about a vast network of asphalt and concrete that turned months of harsh travel to go from ocean to ocean into days in air-conditioned comfort. Modern mapping technologies and Internet reservations allow one to plot a general route and organize reservations on a day-to-day basis in order to travel economically while maintaining flexibility in the overall schedule. It allowed me to plan a Rocky Mountain circuit, a grand Californian tour, an Arizona parks tour, a southwest Nevada to Colorado trip and an Eastern parks tour. An $80 annual entrance pass covers my vehicle entrance fees into the national parks along the way, and in the process, I gain a greater appreciation for the geologic forces that shape this planet from the volcanic geysers of Yellowstone and the sea of grasses in the Everglades to the uplifting forces that allowed the Colorado River to carve a Grand Canyon. This country hosts the tallest living things (Redwoods), the largest living things (Sequoias), the oldest living things (Bristlecone Pines), the longest cave system (Mammoth Caves) and the tallest land-based mountain (Mount McKinley, also known as Denali) in the world. Getting to experience these wonders hopefully prepares me to find a way to experience the rainforests of the Amazon, the great bio-diversity of the Great Rift Valley of Africa and the largest sandstone monolith known as Ayers Rock in the Australian desert. Some day…