Category Archives: Adventure Travel

National Parks: This Summer’s Go-To Vacation Happy Place

Grand Canyon National Park. Visiting national parks this summer could be just what the doctor ordered to revitalize © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

In a weirdly awful bad news/good news way, this year is probably the best ever to visit one of America’s iconic national parks and the national parks have never been more important to revitalize our national and personal spirit. But if ever you wanted to get some sense of how it was back-in-the-day, this is it, precisely because capacity in accommodations are limited and the millions of international visitors who come each year are not coming. The National Park Service received more than 327.5 million visit in 2019, and there will be a clamoring for Americans with a renewed vigor to See America and leave the cities for the great outdoors, which means getting a place to stay will be problematic.

“The benefits of getting into nature for a few days are just what the doctor ordered – especially now,” said Cort Wright, Manager of the Moab Adventure Center, which operates programs into Arches National Park, Utah, and on the Colorado River. “As depression and anxiety diminish, our renewed vitality gains a foothold and positive attitudes surface. It will be a joy for us this summer and fall to see our guests transformed by the activities we provide.”
 
According to a study conducted by the University of Minnesota, “being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear, and stress and increases pleasant feelings. Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, it contributes to your physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones.” (For the full report see: https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-does-nature-impact-our-wellbeing.)

Here are some vacation ideas:

Hike & Bike North Rim of the Grand Canyon: Providing gently rolling terrain of lung-expanding dimensions, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon has been long-held as sacred ground to hikers and cyclists. Escape Adventures offers an amazing 5-day tour of the North Rim that includes mountain biking, trekking and camping. Trails brimming with wildflowers lead guests to exhilarating hikes along the rim. Crossing over to the west side of the plateau, guests camp alongside one of the most scenic mountain bike paths in the world, the Rainbow Rim Trail. (https://escapeadventures.com/tour/grand-canyon-north-rim-mountain-bike-tour/)

Remote Dude Ranch Getaway: Red Reflet Ranch is a 28,000-acre luxury resort and working ranch on the west slope of the Bighorn Mountains, just minutes from the Bighorn National Forest. It is a scenic three hour drive from Yellowstone National Park. The closest sign of civilization is Ten Sleep, Wyoming, with a population of about 260. Guests stay in their own private chalets, and family-friendly activities include horseback riding, ATVing, ziplining, swimming, fishing, shooting, and indulging in gourmet farm-to-table cuisine. The ranch is open for business now. (https://red-reflet-ranch.net/)

Red Reflet Ranch is a 28,000-acre luxury resort and working ranch on the west slope of the Bighorn Mountains, just minutes from the Bighorn National Forest.

Grand Teton Tiny House Retreat:  Just minutes from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Fireside Resort capitalizes on the tiny house craze and the classic appeal of rustic cottages by offering 25 pint-size, luxuriously outfitted tiny house rental units designed by Wheelhaus. The resort is located a stone’s throw from Grand Teton National Park and the Jackson Hole ski slopes. It is a great place to post up for a ski trip or a summer getaway.  (https://www.firesidejacksonhole.com/)

Big Sky Base Camp: If outdoor adventures like hiking, mountain biking, and fly fishing are your style, look to visit Big Sky, Montana and stay at The Wilson Hotel. Located on the edge of Yellowstone National Park, the town is home to Big Sky Resort and its 5,850 acres of ski terrain, as well as shaded forests, wildflower-filled meadows, rocky mountaintops and clear, cool rivers and streams. (bigskyresort.com)

Bryce & Zion by MTB: Soaring red stone spires and ancient citadels of rich Navajo sandstone give way to haunting hoodoos and curving arches of rock  a geologist’s dream and a mountain biker’s paradise. The rides on this 6-day Escape Adventures tour offer swift lines that wind and wend through deep Alpine meadows and Aspen forests only to spill out onto yawning mesas and buttes. The world-famous trails of Red Canyon’s Thunder Mountain, Cassidy, and Casto Canyon, are but a few of this tour’s many highlights. (https://escapeadventures.com/tour/bryce-and-zion-mountain-bike-tour/)

Great Parks North: Join the Adventure Cycling Association on its Great Parks North Route. This tour follows the Rocky Mountains from Missoula, Montana, to Jasper, Alberta, exploring some the most spectacular national parks the U.S. and Canada has to offer. Great Parks North will highlight Glacier NP, Waterton NP, Banff NP, and Jasper NP. (https://www.adventurecycling.org/guided-tours/self-contained-tours/2020-great-parks-north/)

Xanterra Travel Collection Outlines Re-Opening Plan for Lodging, Dining, Services in Yellowstone National Park

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK (MONTANA & WYOMING) – Xanterra Travel Collection today announced that operations in Yellowstone National Park including lodges, campgrounds, dining and tours will begin a phased re-opening on a limited basis starting June 1.

The decision to re-open was made after closely monitoring the guidance and recommendations of public health agencies such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) as well as federal, state and local governments.

The current schedule for Xanterra operations in Yellowstone National Park has cabins with private baths, campgrounds, take-out food service, gift shops and select tours and activities available as part of a  phased approach to opening beginning on June 8. Opening and closing dates are subject to change based on future conditions and public health guidance as well as the ability to maintain a safe environment for visitors, employees and NPS staff. 

To learn more about Xanterra’s sanitization measures and ongoing efforts to keep employees and guests safe including physical distancing, ongoing cleaning, employee training, personal protective equipment and more, visit https://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/health-and-safety/.

Visitors should come prepared and follow all CDC and local health guidance including practicing good hygiene and social distancing, wearing facial coverings in public spaces, and staying home and not visiting the park while sick.

Yellowstone National Park © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

LODGING: At this time, only cabins with private baths are scheduled to open at these locations: Old Faithful Inn, Grant Village and Roosevelt Lodge are currently closed but may reopen in 2020 if conditions allow.

Old Faithful Lodge (June 8-Oct. 4)

Old Faithful Snow Lodge (June 8-Oct. 25)

Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel (June 1-Nov. 1)

Lake Yellowstone Hotel (June 17-Oct. 4)

Lake Lodge (June 17-Sept. 2)

Canyon Lodge (June 19-Oct. 12)

CAMPGROUNDS:  Xanterra campgrounds are currently scheduled to open on this schedule:

Madison (June 15-Oct. 18)

Bridge Bay (June 17-Sept. 7)

Grant Village (June 17-Sept. 13)

Canyon (June 19-Sept. 20)

Fishing Bridge RV Park will remain closed through fall of 2021

DINING:  Select dining outlets will be open with “take out” options only. Based on current public health guidelines, dining room seating and dinner reservations are not available.

Mammoth Hot Springs Area: Terrace Grill (June 1-Oct. 12)

Old Faithful Area: Geyser Grill at Snow Lodge (May 22-Oct. 25); Old Faithful Lodge Bake Shop (June 8-Oct. 4); Old Faithful Lodge Cafeteria (June 8-Oct. 3)

Canyon Area: The Eatery at Canyon Lodge (June 19-Oct. 12)

Yellowstone Lake Area: Wiley’s Canteen at Lake Lodge (June 17-Oct. 4); Lake Lodge Lobby Bar (June 17-Oct. 3)

Grant Village Area:  Grant Village Dining Room (June 17-Sept. 13)

LIMITED GUIDED ACTIVITIES AND TOURS: Tours and activities will be limited to guide boats, boat rentals, backcountry shuttle, and dock slips at the marina, horseback rides at Canyon Lodge Corral, and bike rentals at Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Road-based tours, Scenicruise tours, Stagecoach rides, or the Old West Cookout will not be offered. Pricing and other details can be found online (https://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/adventures/)

Bike Rentals at Old Faithful Snow Lodge (June 8-Sept. 7 or as weather permits, reservations not accepted)                                                        

Bridge Bay Marina/Dock Slips (June 17-Sept. 13)

Boat Rentals (June 17-Sept. 6, first come, first served, reservations not accepted)

Guided Fishing/Sightseeing Boats (June 17-Sept 13)

Backcountry Shuttle Boat (June 17-Sept. 13)

Canyon Lodge Corrals, Horseback Rides (June 18-Sept. 7)

Private Tours: Yellowstone Forever is the official nonprofit educational and fund-raising partner of Yellowstone National Park. Information about their private tours can be found here or by calling 406-848-2400. 

SHOPPING:  Select Xanterra gift stores will be open, but with controlled access to comply with distancing standards:

Mammoth Hotel (June 1-Oct. 12)

Old Faithful Snow Lodge (May 22-Nov. 1)

Old Faithful Lodge (June 8-Oct. 4)

Lake Yellowstone Hotel (June 17-Oct. 4)

Canyon Lodge (June 19- Oct. 12)

Lake Lodge (June 17-Oct. 4)

Madison Campground (June 15-Oct. 18)

For updates on the opening of Xanterra operations in Yellowstone National Park, visit https://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/health-and-safety/. For reservations, visit https://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/, or call 307-344-7311. For updates on the three-phased plan for re-opening Yellowstone National Park as well as the latest information on NPS operations in Yellowstone, visit www.nps.gov/yell.

With nine unique lodging options, including the renowned historic Lake Yellowstone Hotel, Yellowstone National Park Lodges allows you to have the ultimate park experience. Staying in the park is the best way for visitors to experience all it has to offer, including the exciting wildlife watching. Once the day-visitors leave, Yellowstone remains for the in-park overnight guests alone. Yellowstone National Park Lodges offer tours and activities guided by Certified Interpretive Guides that help create memorable experiences. For more information on lodging, tours, and vacation packages visit, yellowstonenationalparklodges.com or call 307-344-7311.

Known for its “Legendary Hospitality with a Softer Footprint,” Xanterra Travel Collection provides unforgettable experiences through its operations in national parks, including lodges, restaurants, tours, and activities, as well as through its ownership of resorts, a cruise line, a railway, and tour companies. Xanterra has operations in Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Zion, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain National Parks, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Xanterra Travel Collection also owns and operates the Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel in Williams, Ariz., The Grand Hotel in Tusayan, Ariz., The Oasis at Death Valley in Death Valley Calif., Windstar Cruises, Holiday Vacations, VBT Bicycling Vacations, and Country Walkers.  Xanterra is also affiliated with two Forbes Five-Star Resorts, The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, CO and Sea Island on the coast of Georgia.

With Reopening of Arches National Park, Moab Adventure Center Counts on Nature to Restore the Pandemic Weary

MOAB, UT– Arches National Park in the world’s favorite red rock playground of Moab, Utah, has reopened to visitors. Guided tours of this iconic park have resumed, along with a variety of half-day, full-day and overnight river rafting programs along the Colorado River.

Arches National Park, Utah has reopened.


Moab Adventure Center, a full-service resource for the adventure-minded, suggests three guided park tours to nudge the housebound into the outdoors. The company is also armed with newly instituted COVID-19 mitigation and operations protocols (see: https://www.moabadventurecenter.com/covid-19
 
Guided Tours of Arches National Park: Daily morning and sunset tours of Arches National Park help interpret the 150 million years of geology and nature that have created this masterpiece of more than 2,000 arches – the highest concentration on the planet. Tour rates are $89 for adults and $79 for ages 5 to 12. See: https://www.moabadventurecenter.com/arches-national-park-tours

Moab Adventure Center offers tours into Arches National Park, Utah.


A third tour offers a breathtaking aerial tour of the park. Departing mid-morning, the half-hour flyover views formations such as Courthouse Towers, North and South Window Arches, Delicate Arch, Devil’s Garden, the Colorado River, Fisher Towers, and Castle Valley. Youth two and under fly free on a parent’s lap. Tour rates are $109 for adults and $55 for youth 3 to 12. For details see: https://www.moabadventurecenter.com/arches-national-park-air-tours
 
Colorado River Tours: Full and half-day rafting adventures on the Colorado River along the southern border of Arches National Park can also be arranged through the Moab Adventure Center. A half-day morning tour showcases the mild to moderate rapids under a background of red rock cliffs, spires and buttes. Rates are $74 for adults and $64 for ages 5 to 12. Another half-day option comes with a BBQ lunch. Rates are $89 for adults and $79 ages 5 to 12. A full day on the river, with lunch, is a memorable seven-hour excursion. Rates are $109 for adults and $79 for age 5 to 12. (For details see: https://www.moabadventurecenter.com/moab-river-tours.)
 
As of May 1, 2020, the Southeast Utah Health Department authorized a phased reopening of businesses in and around Moab. Lodging, commercial campgrounds, restaurants and activities are now available and operating within recommended guidelines. The town is seeing quite an influx of visitors as so many now are choosing an outdoor vacation as the best escape with loved ones.
 
Moab Adventure Center is offering most of its regularly scheduled activities along with new private tours (www.moabadventurecenter.com/private-tours). These include exclusive Hummer Safari outings for up to nine people; private canyoneering adventures; exclusive Arches National Park morning tours; private stand-up paddle boarding lessons for up to six people; and private Moab rock climbing outings for up to four people.
 
Moab Adventure Center is a division of Western River Expeditions (http://www.westernriver.com/) an adventure travel company headquartered in Salt Lake City, with operations and offices in Moab and Fredonia, AZ. The company is the largest single tour provider in Moab, Utah. The Moab Adventure Center is located at 225 South Main St., Moab, UT 84532. For information and reservations call (435) 259-7019 or (866) 904-1163. The center also has a 2,000-square-foot retail space selling adventure related gear, clothing, maps and souvenirs.

Moterra Luxury Camper Vans

You’ve probably now heard of glamping – luxury camping. Now there is a novel way to experience the national parks and wilderness by luxury camper van.

With all the luxury of a 50-foot long RV, but, at 19-foot long, the size of an SUV, without the cumbersome size that makes it difficult to drive and park, and even the need to plug into electricity (the vans are powered with rooftop solar panels) or water (they hold 24-gallons of fresh water), their own sink, cooking facility, refrigerator and even their own bathroom facilities (a couple actually have its own shower and toilet, but others have port-o-potty), these camper vans give a new level of mobility. The vans can be used in tent camping spots in National Parks, so you can stay away from the noisy RV parks.

Founded by Gabe Aufderheide and Trevor James who were formerly with Backroads, the company offers these are specially outfitted Mercedes Benz Sprinters, built out by Sportsmobile, in Yellowstone, Wyoming; the Grand Tetons; Utah; Glacier National Park (Montana); and California.

These camper vans come with bluetooth audio, cruise-control and touch-screen navigation. A backup camera, blind spot sensors and lane assist technology make maneuvering a breeze. You don’t have to stay in an RV park, but can go wherever tents are allowed.

The vans come equipped with absolutely everything you need for camping, from sleeping stuff (memory foam pillow!), to cooking (marshmallow skewers) and dining, cleaning supplies, amenities like chairs and table, inflatable solar lights, even bear spray.

Moterra luxury camper van.

There are two models to choose from: The High Roof is perfect for couples- it includes a queen sized bed in the back, as well as a kitchen, sink, indoor shower and portable toilet. The Pop Top, which sleeps four, is perfect for families- it has both a double bed down below, and a double bed up top  in the Pop Top! While the Pop Top does not have an Indoor Shower, it offers a solar shower that can be used outside, and it also includes a sink and stove. Both models are rented for $319 a night.

Add-ons available include hammocks & bike racks, services such as pre-bought groceries and airport pick-ups, and packaged and customized tour itineraries.

All-inclusive packages consist of:

  • Moterra Campervan Rental and cleaning fee
  • Day-by-day personalized Itinerary with directions and destination info.
  • Pre-booked campsites, handpicked and booked in advance where possible, or GPS locations for off-the-grid dispersed camping spots.
  • Scenic Routes that take you to the heart of the action while minimizing road traffic.
  • Individualized suggestions depending on your preferences for hiking, scenic attractions, restaurants and activities.
  • A wide range of activities to make the trip your own, like white-water rafting, wildlife safaris, road biking, horseback-riding, kayaking and scenic floats.

For example, a 10-day/9-night Mighty 5: Utah’s Desert National Parks is priced from $5499, providing two-days each in Zion National Park, Bryce National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park.

A six-night/seven-day package offers the highlights of Yellowstone National Park and The Grand Tetons National Park (from $3699).

Moterra operates out of Jackson, WY, Whitefish, MT, Salt Lake City, UT and San Francisco, CA.

Moterra Camper Vans, 2950 West Big Trail Drive, Jackson, Wyoming, 307-200-7220,
info@gomoterra.com, gomoterra.com.

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Where to Go to Reclaim Summer Vacation from COVID’s Grip

Discovery Bicycle Tours, operating out of Woodstock, Vermont, is promoting private and small-group tours through uncrowded rural areas, within driving distance of Northeast’s major metros this summer © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Memorial Day typically is the start of the summer vacation season. But this Memorial Day and this summer season is anything but typical. Still, because of the opportunities to enjoy the outdoors and explore uncrowded areas, summer may be the best time over the next many months to escape neighborhood boundaries and travel. Face it, some destinations, some travel experiences are better suited than others in this time of coronavirus pandemic, and travelers need to have confidence that travel providers, authorities and communities have taken all precautions to provide a safe, healthy environment where they are traveling.

Travelers, too, bear responsibility to not become infected or inadvertently carry infection to other places: wearing masks, washing hands frequently with soap, socially distancing, and self-quarantining when not feeling well. Some localities even have 14-day quarantine periods imposed on any visitor (check), and some communities may be less than welcoming to tourists from areas known to have had high infection rates. New Yorkers, for example, may be welcomed with less than open arms, but the good news is that New York has made it exceptionally easy to get tested, so travelers can move about with a sense of confidence (recognizing that a test only reflects that moment in time).

Indeed, instead of shutting down tourism altogether – punishing local economies that depend on tourism – places that impose a 14-day quarantine might instead take a result of a test that either affirms the traveler is not carrying COVID-19 infection or has the antibodies to indicate they have already had the infection; some might even set up their own testing stations at the “border” – the toll booths on the highway or the airports – where a tourist can immediately be tested and stay over a night, rather than 14 days, for the result – much as nations require proof of vaccines. Such measures would also inspire confidence in other travelers that they won’t become exposed.

Very possibly, the most difficult part of organizing a summer vacation will be access in light of limits on capacity. For this reason, going through an experienced, well-respected tour company which can provide services with the heightened attention to wellness, has permits and accommodations, will be key.

Here are some suggestions for your summer vacation:

Austin Adventures Responds to Renewed Interest With Custom, Small-Group Programs

Austin Adventures is seeing an uptick in requests as national parks reopen.

Austin Adventures is “definitely seeing an uptick in domestic travel requests as the national parks of the west express their opening plans,” says Dan Austin, founder and CEO of the travel company. “Many want exclusive departures. We have a new program to accommodate these requests. We are using private cabins and estates and providing full service guided adventures using these properties as a base camp.

“Guides will pick up guests at the airport and provide full services by day, tucking the guests into their private retreats by night. All vans and equipment are sanitized daily per CDC guidelines and following the lead set by airline carriers. Strict social distancing guidelines will be followed in all public areas. Guest will enjoy getting out on the trails and into the backcountry away from crowds. Activities like rafting and horseback riding will all be done in a private group setting.” 

Austin is setting up scheduled small group departures, adding an extra vehicle – two vans for 12 guests – to keep group size small even while transporting guests.

Planning is made a bit more complicated because the various national parks are opening with different timelines and new regulations, each set by the individual park superintendent all based on what’s best for their park and guests, Austin says.

Austin Adventures is designing private and small-group tours ideal for families.

“Yellowstone is our top seller and while there will be limited accommodations in the park opening and lots of new COVID rules, we will be back running tours June 14.” A key advantage is that Austin is fully permitted and capable of following the strict COVID-19 guidelines.

The company also expects to operate in the Grand Tetons, Wyoming, and Bryce and Zion in Utah, as well as Alaska.

“All starting a bit later but running in some capacity   A couple of casualties of COVID is our Canadian Rockies adventure – because of strict quarantine rules [still not allowing nonessential travel from the United States across its border] and our Glacier National Park trip because of the uncertainty as to when and how it will open. Hotel openings are key and often alternates must be found outside the parks.”

Austin Adventures, Billings, Montana, 800-575-1540, 405-655-4591, www.austinadventures.com.

Western River Expeditions Draws on 60 Years Experience to Devise Protocols to Keep Families Adventuring this Summer

Where in the world – and how – will families vacation this summer?

“Given months of pandemic-driven lock-down orders, what will be attractive will be vacations that embrace fresh air and the healing powers of nature that can work wonders on family spirits and recovery,” says Western River Expeditions.
 
The company is drawing on its nearly 60 years operating top-quality river rafting vacations for individuals, families and friends to address pandemic-related challenges. Here are some of many steps the company is taking to counter COVID-19 fears. 

  • Screening Employees: Every day before work, each employee must pass both a temperature and pulse oximeter screen, and then answer a detailed questionnaire.
  • Screening Guests at Check-in: Guests exhibiting temperatures of 100.4 or higher will not be allowed to travel with Western River Expeditions at the time they planned; instead, they will receive an “Adventure Credit” which allows the guest and any members of the group who were currently living at the same physical address during any of the 7 days prior to the trip to use the full paid value of their trip as a credit for a future trip at a later date.
  • Screening while on Multi-Day Trips: All trip participants and guides will have a daily temperature and pulse oximeter checks and fill out a daily review of symptoms questionnaire. 

New protocols have been put in place should someone experience COVID-19 symptoms during a trip. In such case, steps will be taken to protect other guests from exposure during the remainder of that trip. There also will be protocols for toilet facilities, hand washing stations and social distancing (when feasible) as well as reduced number of guests per raft.
 
The company will also implement specific guidelines that address everything from life-jacket use and sanitation, to meal prep and service, use of shuttle vans, number of people per shuttle vehicle, sanitation of rafts, dry bags, cots, sleeping bags and all associated equipment. For more details on Western River Expeditions’ specific protocols see www.westernriver.com/covid-19
 

Western River Expeditions plans to offer its famed rafting adventures this summer with special protocols.

Western River Expeditions is expecting to operate late spring and summer 2020 trips, subject to the easing of government-mandated closures. Three trips in particular are ideal for families:

  • Desolation Canyon, a five-day trip through breathtaking Desolation Canyon and Gray Canyon on the Green River in central Utah. Trips are scheduled to depart June 7 through Aug. 12 with a minimum age of five years old (see www.westernriver.com/desolation-canyon
  • Southwest Sampler, a four-day adventure that includes an off-road Hummer Safari, Arches National Park tour and overnight rafting trip as well as a stay at Moab’s Marriott SpringHill Suites. Departures are scheduled May 26 through Aug. 26. If National Park closures affect the operation of the Arches National Park tour, guests will explore another stunning location in Moab (see  https://www.westernriver.com/moab-utah-vacation-sampler)
  • Grand Canyon, the three-day option still has some limited space on certain dates from June 21st through September. Conveniently departing and returning to Las Vegas, NV, this 100-mile journey is suitable for families with kids as young as nine (see https://www.westernriver.com/grand-canyon-river-trip
Western River Expeditions is recommending three family tours this summer.

Other adventures from Western River Expeditions include:

Utah’s Cataract Canyon Classic 4 Day: These should operate June 2 through August 25. This spectacular 4-Day Colorado River trip runs 100 miles from Moab to Lake Powell through Canyonlands National Park. A flight returns guests to Moab over Canyonlands.

Cataract Canyon Express 2 Day: This faster-paced 2-Day Colorado River trip runs 100 miles from Moab to Lake Powell through Canyonlands National Park. Large whitewater rapids are a big part of this adventure!

Upper Grand Canyon 6 or 7 Day: Trips starting June 14 and later are currently scheduled to operate. Select trips June through September have limited availability. The upper 188 miles of the Grand Canyon offer some of the largest whitewater rapids in North America and a plethora of side canyon attractions. 

Lower Grand Canyon 4 Day with Bar Ten Ranch: All 4 day departures from June 21sthrough September are expected to operate; limited space is available on select departures in 2020.

Western River Expeditions is an adventure travel company headquartered in Salt Lake City, with operations and offices in Moab, Utah and Fredonia, Arizona. From March through October, the company guides more people down rivers in Utah, Idaho and Arizona than any other company. It is the one of largest licensed outfitters in the Grand Canyon and the largest single tour provider in Moab, UT, through its Moab Adventure Center division (http://www.moabadventurecenter.com/).
 
Western River Expeditions, Salt Lake City, UT,  866-904-1160, 801-942-6669, www.westernriver.com.

Luxury Active Vacations from Butterfield & Robinson

Butterfield & Robinson Experience Designers have been diligently researching, collaborating with long-trusted partners to offer programs with increased safety measures, mindful activities and more flexible booking policies.

The result is a curated selection of experiences in remote locations—from rustic-chic cabins to island-perched hotels—that, when combined with wide-open spaces, create the perfect setting to start exploring again.

The luxury active vacations company is focusing on private groups of family and friends who are looking for exclusive experiences at remote high end properties or luxury camping. The price point is around $700-1000 per person, per day. The options range from guided biking and walking experiences to lodge- based single stay experiences. For example:

Venture to the Wild West for private cabin stays or full takeovers of luxury ranches like Wyoming’s Brush Creek and The Ranch at Rock Creek in Montana. Or head to Colorado and settle into a cottage at Dunton Hot Springs, where you can gallop on horseback through the San Juan Mountains and let your stress melt away in a natural outdoor pool.

Butterfield and Robinson makes it possible to venture to the Wild West for private cabin stays or full takeovers of luxury ranches this summer.

In California’s wine country, innovative winemaking techniques fuse with fresh, farm-to-table food. Pair with properties like the sophisticated SingleThread or the dreamy Auberge du Soleil.

In the rust-colored desert expanses of Utah, choose how you interact with the landscape, whether it’s a stay at the sleek and restorative Amangiri resort or a private houseboat charter (complete with a private chef!) on Lake Powell. Elevate the experience with luxury camping on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for a secluded moment in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Say aloha to paradisiacal beaches, active volcanoes and sky-high waterfalls for some adventure further afield in Hawaii. Check in at the Mauna Lani on the Kohala coast and fill your days with water sports, epic hikes or a round of golf before kicking back in the evening with Mai Tais.

Butterfield & Robinson, Toronto, Ontario, 866-551-9090, http://butterfield.com/

Discovery Bicycle Tours: Yes You Can Bike This Summer

Discovery Bicycle Tours, operating from Woodstock, Vermont, is resuming operations in destinations that have reopened for outdoor adventures, with important new health precautions in place. The company is also highlighting its small-group active vacations and can customize private tours (https://discoverybicycletours.com/private-tours)

The trips are organized to bike through rural places where you can leave the crowds behind and bike freely, and with fewer inn transfers.

“Our small tours are carefully crafted to provide personal choices for your comfort. You have options to dine with a small group, outside or in your own room. Each inn and restaurant on tour has new protocols to comply with local health rules,” writes Chief Customer Officer Thistle Cone, who recently bought the bike tour company with Scott Cone.

“Our leaders are adding extra cleanings of vans and bikes and will provide more social distancing for van transfers. Bring a comfy mask — and we will have extras.”

Idyllic country scenes greet Discovery Bicycle Tours cyclists just outside Woodstock, Vermont (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Among the July and August six-day tour offerings now booking:

Crater Lake & Scenic Bikeways: July 26-31, Aug. 9-14
Lake Champlain Islands: Aug. 16-21, Aug. 30-Sept. 4
Coast of Maine: July 19-24, Aug. 16-21, Aug. 23-28
Idaho Trails: July 5-10, Aug. 22-27
Great Allegheny Passage: Aug. 30-Sept. 4

“Looking for an East Coast getaway that’s a short drive from the major metro areas? Stay tuned to our website for more Vermont tours to be added soon … most in August through October.” 

Discovery Bicycle Tours, Woodstock, Vermont, 800-257-2226, info@discoverybicycletours.com, discoverybicycletours.com.

New Jersey’s Beach Mecca The Wildwoods Reopens

The Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement & Development Authority (GWTIDA) has been tirelessly working with the Greater Wildwood Hotel and Motel Association, Wildwood Business Improvement District (WBID), the Wildwood Special Improvement District (WSID), the Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce and area businesses to set up initiatives such as enhanced sanitizing protocols, as well as expanding seating in restaurants out onto the sidewalks and adjacent parking lots for al fresco dining, enhanced sanitizing and spacing on amusement rides and all surfaces, social distancing procedures in ride queue lines, sanitizing of rental bikes, boats, jet skis, kayaks and of course promoting the wide spacious beaches where visitors can stretch out and relax with plenty of room to practice social distancing. 

“We are pleased to report that the Wildwoods are open for business for the 2020 summer season,” said Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority (GWTIDA) Executive Director/CFO John Siciliano. “Health and safety is a top priority for the Wildwoods, and every precaution is being taken to assure that all who visit feel safe and comfortable,” he added.

The famous beaches of The Wildwoods, New Jersey are reopened this summer.

North Wildwood and Wildwood beaches and boardwalk has reopened to limited activity; the cities’ parks and bike paths are reopened and Wildwood Crest beaches, parks, bike paths, and sport courts for non-group play are open. In addition, hotels, motels and short-term rental properties are scheduled to begin reopening in Wildwood and North Wildwood on May 26 and Wildwood Crest properties will reopen on June 1.

Short-term rental properties, like all aspects of reopening the Wildwoods for the summer, will take measures to meet social distancing guidelines by initially opening at 60 percent capacity. Increased sanitizing and cleaning protocols, especially in high-touch areas, will be encouraged to ensure an optimal visitor experience. Additional measures may include having later check-in times to allow additional time for guest room preparation and enhanced sanitizing.

The Wildwoods offer 11,000 room accommodations – including 8,000 hotel and motel rooms, and 3,000 vacation rentals. The mid-century themed hotels/motels throughout the five-mile island developed during the era of burgeoning automotive travel of the 1950s – which is making a comeback in this New Normal.

 “The designs and architectural features pay tribute to the post-war pop culture. Their architecture continues to memorialize the bold spirit of a newly restless society, while motel names conjure up tropical paradises and other exotic destinations.”

Visitors must adhere to the social distancing guidelines set forth by Governor Phil Murphy; all activities are subject to the orders of the Governor.

Walking, running, fishing and sunbathing are welcomed on the beaches. Physical activities such as biking, walking and running may take place on the boardwalk. Boardwalk establishments offering takeout-only food, will also be open for business. Municipal parks and playgrounds will be open; however, playground equipment will remain closed. Everyone is encouraged to use best practices for social distancing, including wearing masks while enjoying the beach and boardwalk. Sitting and gathering in groups is prohibited.

The Wildwoods’ five-miles of free white-sand beaches serve as the ideal location for visitors to clear their minds and enjoy the calming benefits of ‘Beach Therapy’. The beaches offer an award-winning and spacious stretch of sand to relax, recharge, and reunite with friends and family. In addition to being the perfect place for relaxation, the beach gives visitors a wonderful opportunity to exercise freely and spend quality time with family.

Another way to recharge, get physical exercise and enjoy the beautiful summer air – all while keeping a safe distance from fellow visitors – is taking part in the Wildwoods’ ‘bikeability’. Take in the breathtaking views of the Wildwoods, starting at the far southern end of the island along the Dunes Bike Path in Wildwood Crest, up onto the Wildwoods’ 2.5-mile Boardwalk, and through North Wildwood’s Muhlbury Bike Path to the North Wildwood Sea Wall – a scenic, leisurely 12-mile round trip route. You can also ride bikes-only lanes through downtowns and around the entire island.  

Golf courses can be found all across Cape May County – from Cape May National to the south to Shore Gate Golf Club to the north – and offer a variety of playing levels from beginner to scratch golfer.

Known as the ‘two miles of smiles,’ the iconic Wildwoods Boardwalk is pure sensory overload with three amusement piers with 100 rides and attractions, carnival-style games, flashing arcades, shops and irresistible food. The Wildwoods food & beverage establishments are doing their part in abiding to safe distancing guidelines by offering curbside pick-up, delivery, and al fresco dining options.

For additional information about The Wildwoods, New Jersey, call 800-992-9732 or visit www.WildwoodsNJ.com

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© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Antidote for Cabin Fever: Road Trip to the Great Outdoors

Perfect antidote for cabin fever: Parks & Trails NY’s eight-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie biking/camping trip from Buffalo to Albany, NY (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

This time last year I was getting set for an around-the-world Global Scavenger Hunt which took me to places that I had always hoped to see – Petra, Jordan; Myanmar; Vietnam; Morocco, just to list a few. The coronavirus pandemic has made that experience impossible this year. But it just goes to show: Don’t put off experiences, especially not a trip of a lifetime.

These are uncharted waters for the travel industry, and for travelers.

With the worst of the crisis appearing to be coming under control, state governments are looking to gradually reopen and lift their lockdowns. The same is true for people venturing out of doors. People are burning with cabin fever but may be cautious.

Here is the antidote to cabin fever: I’m thinking outdoors, great open vistas, clean air. This is a great time for a throwback to the 1950s family road trip to enjoy the Great Outdoors. Instead of a station wagon, pack up the SUV and set an itinerary that revolves around national and state parks, wildlife areas, nature preserves. I’m thinking camping (koa.com) or glamping (glampinghub.com). I’m thinking hiking, biking, rafting, kayaking.

“It’s vital that people find ways to engage in physical activity during this time; the benefits to our immune systems and our mental health are significant. But it is critical that we do so in ways that will keep us safe and minimize the spread of the pandemic,” writes Ryan Chao, President, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Rails-to-Trails’ Conservancy has compiled resources, provides information on the latest on trails, walking and biking and the COVID-19 pandemic (Visit railstotrails.org/COVID19), and provides a trail-finder website and app, TrailLink.com, which is free for anyone to use to find particulars on more than 37,000 miles of multi-use trails nationwide, including trail maps, walking and biking directions to get to the trail, and contact information for local trail management organizations (visit railstotrails.org).

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn on the Delaware-Lehigh Trail (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here are more ambitious ideas:

An ideal trip (and also one of my favorite bike tours ever) which hits all of these criteria (driving distance, biking, camping) is the Cycle the Erie, an eight-day 400-mile, fully supported biking/camping trip, from Buffalo to Albany, operated by Parks & Trails NY. At this writing, the 22nd Annual Cycle the Erie was still taking place July 12-19, 2020. (they expect to make a decision on May 12; they have eased the cancellation policy and would transfer the registration at this year’s fee next year if they have to cancel.) For information on Cycle the Erie Canal, call Parks & Trails New York, 518-434-1583, email eriecanaltour@ptny.org or visit www.ptny.org/cycle-the-erie-canal.

Hopefully, other supported biking/camping rides that also support nonprofit organizations will also run, such as the BikeMaine 2020: Katahdin Frontier – a seven-night ride 340 mile-loop (17,455 feet of climbing), from Old Town, September 12-19, 2020 (www.bikemaine.org)

The next best thing is an organized bike tour – self-guided trips obviously have the fewest people to interact with, and guided – that utilize inn-style accommodations are our favorites. We have enjoyed trips around the world – the Danube Bike Trail, Greek islands bike/boat trip, Venice-Croatia, Slovenia, and Albania (Biketours.com is a great source), and I’m still hoping to take my family on a self-guided bike trip of northern Portugal in late summer – but there are fabulous trips within driving distance that can be done on rail-trails with camping, inns and airbnb.com, such as the Delaware-Lehigh trail in Pennsylvania and the Great Allegheny Passage which can be linked with the C&O trail that can take you from Washington DC all the way to Pittsburgh, PA, and the Erie Canalway.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage Rail Trail (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Wilderness Voyageurs, a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, offers many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania and Katy Trail in Missouri. Last year we thoroughly enjoyed the six-day “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour of South Dakota. Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com.

Biking the Mickelson railtrail in South Dakota with Wilderness Voyageurs (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bicycle Adventures is offering 6-day bike tours of Oregon Columbia (riding and hiking); South Dakota’s Mickelson Trail; and Washington San Juan Islands. Bicycle Adventures, 18047 NE 68th St, Ste B140, Redmond, WA 9805 (425-250-5540, bicycleadventures.com).

Tour Operators to the Great Outdoors

Tour operators are in a position not only to have access to permits and accommodations in places that are likely to be overrun this year, but are better plugged in to what is happening on the ground,  can move passengers around, adapt itineraries. Wilderness adventure travel companies so far are still offering trips this summer.

Based in Billings, Montana, Austin Adventures has spent over 35 years building an international reputation as a top provider of luxury, small group, multisport tours for adults and families to the world’s most captivating destinations. Austin Adventures has perfected the art of creating itineraries featuring exceptional regional dining, distinctive accommodations, incredible guides and exhilarating activities, all while keeping all-inclusive rates and services the norm. In addition to scheduled group departures on all seven continents, Austin Adventures has developed a reputation as the leader in customized trip planning and execution, all backed by the industry’s best money-back satisfaction guarantee. For information on Austin Adventures’ trips, cruises and distinctive accommodations on seven continents:800-575-1540, info@austinadventures.com, www.austinadventures.com.

Western River Expeditions escorts more people down rivers on professionally guided rafting trips in Utah, Idaho and Arizona than any other company and is the largest licensed outfitter in the Grand Canyon. (866-904-1160, 801-942-6669, www.westernriver.com).

Moab Adventure Center, a division of Western River Expeditions and the largest single tour provider in Moab, UT, is a one-stop resource for a myriad of outdoor adventures that take you to Arches National Park and Canyonlands and river rafting. (435-259-7019 or 866-904-1163, www.moabadventurecenter.com)

Moab Adventure Center, Utah, is a one-stop resource for a myriad of outdoor adventures that take you to Arches National Park and Canyonlands and river rafting.

Holiday River Expeditions hopes to be offering its river rafting trips from the end of June through the end of the season in October. The company, operating out of Green River Utah, offers trips on the Colorado, Green River, San Juan and out of Vernal, on the Yampa, in heart of Dinosaur National monument.

Holiday River has just put out The Complete Guide to Whitewater Rafting Trips in Utah, for do-it-yourselfers as well as people who are more than happy to use a commercial outfitter. This new resource for every kind of adventurer is offered free and online.

Here are the seven river trips chosen for inclusion in this new resource:

The Colorado River through Cataract Canyon 

The Colorado River through Westwater Canyon

The Green River through Desolation Canyon

The San Juan River in Utah

The Green River through Lodore Canyon

The Yampa River

Labyrinth Canyon

“Oar power is the most natural way to experience the river and the absence of motors makes high water trips as exciting as it gets. Rafters experience the rush of wind, a chatty raven or a churning rapid absent the drone and smell of a motorized raft,” said Tim Gaylord, Director of Operations and Holiday employee since 1978. (For information, availability, reservations or the catalog, 800-624-6323, Holiday@BikeRaft.com, www.bikeraft.com)

Rethink “Lodging”

A perfect corollary for any sojourn into the wilderness, instead of staying in a hotel, consider glamping – basically luxury camping that brings you into the most gorgeous and distinctive places, close to nature, in comfort but affording very distinctive experiences.

With the popularity of glamping surging, an array of glamping destinations have popped up around the world in recent years, offering everything from geodesic domes to Airstream RVs to tiny homes. For example:

Fireside Resort: By combining the amenities of a luxury boutique hotel with the atmosphere of a wooded campground, Fireside Resort offers Wyoming’s best glamping experience. The lodging options reflect the heritage of the valley’s original homesteader cabins, with cozy fireplaces, full kitchens, private furnished decks, and outdoor fire pits. Situated on wildlife-filled acres where moose, elk, red-tailed hawks, bald eagles and deer roam, Fireside Resort is just seven miles from Jackson’s bustling town square.

Fireside Resort offers Wyoming’s best glamping experience.

Kestrel Camp: The American Prairie Reserve in Montana is piecing together what will be the largest nature reserve in the lower 48 states, totaling 3.5 million acres, and restoring habitat and species in the process. APR’s Kestrel Camp offers five yurt-style luxury suites set around a central lounge and dining room serving chef-prepared meals, as well as a safari-style experience with special access to tour the reserve’s ecosystem with personal naturalists.

A great source to finding glamping accommodations is GlampingHub.com, an online booking platform for unique outdoor accommodations across the globe. With over 35,000 accommodations in over 120 countries, Glamping Hub’s mission is to connect travelers with nature in order to create authentic experiences in which travelers can stay in the great outdoors without having to sacrifice creature comforts—camping with added luxuries and five-star amenities. Guests can find over 27 different types of glamping accommodations to choose from on Glamping Hub from safari tents, tree houses, and cabins to tipis, villas, and domes. (glampinghub.com)

Or, think cottage on a beach (Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard are my favorites).

Rethink “resort”.

I’m thinking dude ranch: Duderanch.org lists 100 in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and such, but there are also dude ranches as close as the Catskills and Adirondacks in the wilds of New York State, like the Pine Ridge Dude Ranch (30 Cherrytown Road, Kerhonkson, NY 12446, pineridgeranch.com), Ridin’ Hy, year-round inclusive ranch resort in the Adirondacks Preserve near Lake George, Warrensburg, NY 12885, 518-494-2742, www.ridinhy.com);  and the ever-popular Rocking Horse Ranch (reopening June 12, 600 State Route 44/55, Highland, NY 12528, 877-605-6062, 845-691-2927, www.rockinghorseranch.com).

And while many will choose to venture within driving distance – biking, hiking (check out the Hudson River School Art Trail in the Catskills and camping at the North-South Campground, for example) – I will pretty much bet that traveling by air will be absolutely safe because of the regimen that every airline has imposed (going as far as to leave middle seats empty; sanitizing surfaces and utilizing hospital-grade ventilation/air purification systems). I would bet that the most dicey part of an airline trip will be getting through airport security.

Hiking the Hudson River School Art Trail, in the Catskill Mountains, Greene County, New York State (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Air Travel

Airlines are doing their best to allay passengers’ concerns – both from the point of view of health as well as easing up cancellation, change and refund policies. This from Delta is fairly typical of the major carriers:

“In the current environment, it’s important for all of us to travel smarter and more consciously. That’s why I want to personally update you on the situation with COVID-19 (the coronavirus) and the steps we are taking to ensure your health and safety in your travels,” writes Delta CEO Ed Bastian.

“For more than a decade, Delta has been preparing for such a scenario. As a global airline, we have strong relationships in place with health experts including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and local health authorities worldwide. We are in constant contact with them to make sure our policies and procedures meet or exceed their guidelines.

“Operations are our lifeblood. We’ve learned from past experience with outbreaks like H1N1 and Ebola, and have continually refined and improved our ability to protect our customers. That includes the way we circulate clean and fresh air in our aircraft with highly advanced HEPA filters, the new fogging procedures in our cleaning process, how we sanitize aircraft between flights and how we respond if a customer is displaying symptoms.

“A full report on the measures Delta is taking to help you have a healthy flying experience..outlines our expanded cleaning and disinfecting at our airports and on board our aircraft; distribution of hand sanitizer and amenity kits to help customers stay clean; and the technology on our aircraft to filter and replace cabin air.

“A command center in Atlanta has been stood up to guide our response, leading our global team of thousands of Delta professionals dedicated to this effort. That includes our reservations specialists handling thousands of incoming calls, our flight crews and Airport Customer Service (ACS) agents taking extra care of our customers, and our TechOps and operations coordination teams keeping the airline moving. This world-class group of airline employees has your back, and I have never been prouder of the women and men of Delta.

“To ensure you always have access to the latest information and guidance, we have a website on the COVID-19 situation that is continually being updated with cleaning policies and actions we’re implementing to keep you safe, ways you can stay healthy while flying, and changes to our flight schedules and waiver information. Transparency is one of our core values, and we are committed to keeping you fully informed as the situation evolves.

“While we’re committed to providing you with information you need to make informed decisions around your travel, we also understand the need for flexibility based on your individual circumstances. To make sure you can travel with confidence, we’re offering flexible waivers, and we’ve also adjusted our network in response to guidance from the State Department.

“We understand that in today’s world, travel is fundamental to our business and our lives, which is why it can’t – and shouldn’t – simply stop. I believe Delta’s mission of connecting the world and creating opportunities is never more important than at times like this.”

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© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Badlands & Black Hills, Buffalos & Bikes: Close Encounters with Wildlife in South Dakota’s Custer State Park

A herd of buffalo (bison) take over a field just outside the Custer State Park Visitor Center, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I didn’t think I could be wowed more than yesterday’s bike ride along the Mickelson Trail to the Crazy Horse Memorial. But today’s ride through South Dakota’s Custer State Park, starting on the Needles Highway, and riding the Wildlife Loop for incredibly close encounters with the state’s famous animal life, finishing at a rustic (but luxurious) lodge in the woods, is over the moon.

The Wilderness Voyageurs guides shuttle us in the van from the town of Custer to Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park to start our ride through South Dakota’s first and, at 71,000 acres, its largest state park. Like the town, its namesake is the infamous Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, who in addition to being the army commander who brutally fought Indians (meeting his master at the Battle of Little Big Horn), was an “explorer and fortune hunter”. In 1874, Custer found gold in these Black Hills, prompting a mad gold rush that resulted in the Indians being displaced from their sacred lands. But be that as it may, the park, which preserves and protects the precious buffalo (actually American bison), and so much more, seems a measure of justice.

Family goes off for rock climbing at Sylvan Lake, Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The scenery is spectacular, beginning with this first view of the enchanting Sylvan Lake. There is the Sylvan Lake Lodge (35 Lodge rooms, 31 cabins and a specialty “Cathedral Spires Cabin” that sleeps 20), one of a few lodges in the park, a superb hub for people who have come to fish, kayak, hike, rock climb or like us, bike through Custer State Park and the fabulous Wildlife Loop.

Biking along the Needles Highway, Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We bike along the Needles Highway. “14 miles of winding turns, granite spires and rock tunnels, the Needles Highway is a marvel of engineering,” a marker reads. “Peter Norbeck [South Dakota’s first governor, U.S. senator and a conservationist] walked and rode the future highway on horseback, laying out a route many deemed impossible.

“Norbeck asked his engineer, Scovel Johnson, ‘Scovel, can you build a road through here?’ Scovel answered, ‘If you can furnish me enough dynamite.’ It took 150,000 pounds of the explosive, and the highway was opened in 1922.”

Before long, we find ourselves in the midst of a section known as The Needles, with monster spires (fantastic for rock climbing).

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We ride through the Needles Eye tunnel – carved just wide and high enough to accommodate the van (they have to take off the bikes) and soon after, the Cathedral Spires. The breathtaking scenery makes you contemplate your place in the natural world.

Needles Eye Tunnel, Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

James Oerding is the guide today (while John Buehlhorn drives the van), and once again, I am last, lingering to take in the view, which means that James pretty much accompanies me. James is a master wildlife spotter and sees a pair of mountain goats on a spire and then we see their kid they are trying to convince to jump across a cavern between the spires. They seem genuinely puzzled how to get down, though I can’t figure out how they got up to this promontory in the first place.

Mountain goats, Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We find a place where we can climb down to get a better view.

James let’s me bike at my own pace and doesn’t hurry me along.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

No sooner does the landscape change completely from the tall spires to plains, than we come across a whole herd of buffalo (actually, American bison) just where we get to the Visitor Center, where John has lunch for us. Traffic has stopped where the bison have chosen to cross the road.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There seem to be a hundred bison gathered on a large field just in front of the Visitor Center, and people are casually picnicking (like us) within arm’s length – a surreal scene for a city kid.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Custer State Park Visitor Center is a stunning modern building, offering an array of exhibits, including a large interactive map, a 20-foot scale model of the Cathedral Spires and displays describing the natural world of the Park – as well as warnings about how not to interact with the bison (a bison can run 35 mph; if it lifts its tail, it is getting into fighting position; bison communicate to the herd with their tail). There is a wonderfully comfortable theater which offers a not to be missed 20-minute film narrated by Kevin Costner who reminds us that this was the very land (in fact used in the film) of “Dances With Wolves.”

“The buffalo – tatanka – are an enduring symbol of the Old West symbolizing abundance, strength, power and an enduring symbol of Indian culture.”

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In the Lakota language, the word “tatanka” is translated as “buffalo” or “buffalo bull.” But native Lakota speakers say the literal translation is more like “He who owns us.”

“The Lakota and other tribes believed that a white buffalo is the most sacred living thing on earth. … The American buffalo or bison is a symbol of abundance and manifestation.  Tatanka is the root of all life.”

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At Custer State Park, “the spirit is Tatanka,” the film intones. “71,000 acres….towering granite spires… an incredible American landscape. Choose your own path.”

The park sits between Crazy Horse Memorial at one corner, Mount Rushmore National Memorial at the other.

The park’s history dates back to 1897; but it was officially named a state park in 1919; the Needles Highway was completed in 1922; by 1924, the bison herd totaled 100. In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge and his wife spent three months at the Game Lodge. The park was expanded in the 1930s as part of FDR’s government works projects and became one of largest state parks in the United States. By 1966, the park received 1 million visitors; now, some 2 million visitors come each year.

A buffalo wallows in the dirt, creating a natural topographical depression in the flat prairie land that holds rain water and runoff, and helps mix the nutrients in the soil. Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The park has played a vital role in saving the American bison. There were 30-60 million bison roaming North America in the 1500s when Europeans first arrived; by the late 1880s-1890s, fewer than 1000 were left. In the early 1900s, the Yellowstone herd was protected; then the Custer State Park herd. In 1914, 36 bison were purchased and by 1924, the herd totaled 100. Today, there are some 500,000 bison in North America, with 400 born a year here at Custer State Park.

Each September, there is a Buffalo Roundup which this year, brought out over 19,440 visitors for the 54th Annual roundup, to watch as 60 horseback riders wrangle the herd of 1,400 bison into corrals for their annual health check. The annual roundup helps the park manage its herd; some 445 bison are sold at the annual auction. The park also hosts a three-day arts festival in conjunction with the roundup. (Upcoming Buffalo Roundups will be held on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, and Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.)

From here, we get back onto the road to bike on Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Encompassing 71,000 acres in the Black Hills, Custer State Park, is one of the best places in North America to see a range of animals in their natural habitat.

Along the Wildlife Loop, there are buffalo (bison), deer, elk, pronghorn antelope (the fastest land animal on the Continent; 12 pronghorn were brought here in 1914), burros, yellow-bellied marmot, prairie dogs, big horn sheep – native to Black Hills – unique in Custer State Park. And before the end of day, we will see just about every one.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just beyond the visitor center, where the herd has now moved on from the field, all the cars are stopped in both directions to allow the bison to cross the road. I put myself between two cars which I think will give me some protection.

I’ve never been in a situation like this, so close to these fearsome creatures without any barrier between (well except for the time I biked in tall grass in the tiger reserve in India). I am in their habitat.

Bison are the largest terrestrial animal in North America, standing up to six feet tall. A male can weigh upwards of a ton and a female can weigh 900 pounds, according to the National Wildlife Foundation. Bison fight by crashing their massive heads or horns together. Both male and female bison have short, curved, black horns, which can grow to two feet long. American bison like to live and travel in groups. For most of the year herds are divided by sex, with females and calves in one herd and males in another herd. When the breeding season begins in the summer, many males temporarily join the female herd and begin looking for a mate. 

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Standing on the road, waiting for the buffalo to cross the road, is an opportunity to study their behavior. It occurs to me as I watch, that unlike dolphin which seem to show great emotion with their expressions and interactions, the buffalo don’t seem to have the means to show emotion, except perhaps a flick of a tail or their blue tongue. I wonder how one seems to emerge as a leader that the rest follow.

It strikes me how little interest or interaction there is among buffalo – except for a mother close with her calf, the buffalo don’t seem to have any connection, communication with each other, except all facing same direction and walk almost together. They all turn in one direction and move in one direction – who is leader? How is the leader selected?  I later learn that one way they communicate is with their tails.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It turns out that bison, who are almost constantly moving, actually vote on the direction they will travel, orienting their bodies in the direction they would like to go, and eventually choosing to follow an “initiator”; they communicate through grunts and growls, from smells and hearing, I subsequently learn from Scientific American.

Prairie dogs play an important role in the ecology of the prairie. Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are also mountain lions in the park (we don’t get to see any), which are monitored with radio-collars and tranquilized for routine medical testing. James tells me that once he came upon the medical staff tranquilizing a mountain lion in order to take its vitals.

We’re going up where?? Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Now we come to the toughest ride of the trip – of the 39 miles we bike today, it seems three-quarters are uphill; there are lots of long, steep ascents and sweeping downhills too. This is the difference between a road and a rail trail. I plug through.

At one point, I lose momentum altogether and wind up walking the bike the equivalent of a city block and am annoyed with myself. But I make the remaining ascents, including the final half mile steep, corkscrew rise at mile 37 to the Blue Bell Lodge. I have a strategy of stopping where the road levels a bit, then resetting my concentration. (The van is available to drive people who choose not to bike.)

Blue Bell Lodge, Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Lodge is so beautiful – 30 gorgeous log cabins among the pines (a specialty Ponderosa Cabin accommodates 20).

I have my own cabin – fireplace, deer head, two double beds, dining table/chairs, tv, kitchenette, porch with 3 chairs. Heaven.

Blue Bell Lodge, Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Wilderness-Voyageurs makes all of this it possible – you couldn’t do this itinerary on your own because it isn’t contiguous. They shuttle us to starting and ending points so we have the best route. We aren’t carrying our own gear from inn to inn.

The guides, James Oerding and John Buehlhorn, make a big difference – their knowledge not only of the trail, the route, but the places we will experience, the animals and sites we see, down to lunch recommendations. And SOOOO helpful – like father hens.

Good humored, patient, interesting. “You’re on vacation,” they say. They don’t rush us along or show impatience if we are slow or stop a lot. And they cheer us on to get through the touch climbs. Not only in their knowledge and experience but extremely helpful, patient, kind, considerate – go out of way to help guests – which is really clear this day. Van is there to help if necessary.

The trip is organized with pit stops, snacks, breakfasts and most lunches and hosted dinners, (just one lunch and two dinners on our own) as well as the admissions to sites.

Tonight, we dine at the Blue Bell Lodge’s Tatanka Dining Room (locally known as the Blue Bell Lodge Dining Room) – a lovely western themed (obviously) room. We order what we like from the menu (booze is on our own), which has some distinct items: rattle snake and buffalo sausage (tasty!); buffalo tenderloin.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The historic Blue Bell Lodge was originally a hunting lodge for friends- named (it is believed) for the telephone company, now run by Regency Hotel Management. A nightly chuck wagon dinner is offered that goes out 5-8 pm, with a ride to the valley; live music, dinner, dancing, for as many as 100 people.

Horsing around at the Blue Bell Lodge, Custer State Park, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.

I stay behind at the lodge to look at my email when I get a call from James telling me a giant buffalo is just off the path in the pitch darkness. I see it when a car comes by and lights up the buffalo.

James offers to drive the van over to pick me up – I insist on finding a way to walk the short distance, and he tries talking me through but I have trouble  finding  the path. Finally, I find the path and see James and John walking over to rescue me.

The stars are gorgeous. I can see the Milky Way.

The lodge and Custer State Park, are open year-round. I can imagine how spectacular it is in winter.

(Open year round, Custer State Park, 13329 US Highway 16A, Custer, SD 57730, https://gfp.sd.gov/parks/detail/custer-state-park/ 605-255-4515,  800-710-2267. CusterStatePark@state.sd.us)

Day 5: Finishing the Mickelson Trail in Deadwood

I wake up early to sit on the porch of my cabin at the Blue Bell Lodge with a book and a cup of coffee, thinking this is the ultimate in luxury, but the peace of the moment is soon broken when I spy the buffalo from last night right outside. It lumbers toward my porch and takes a drink from a puddle.

Buffalo strolls by my cabin at Blue Bell Lodge, flicking its blue tongue (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

James and John – not wanting to chance any confrontation with the buffalo – call us to tell us they will drive the van to pick each of us up at our cabins at 8 am. We drive back to Custer for breakfast at a cute café before starting today’s bike ride.

Day 5 of the Wilderness Voyageurs Badlands and Mickelson Trail tour is our final day on the Mickelson Trail. We ride the last miles all the way to Deadwood, a true wild west town made famous by the murder of Wild Bill Hickok.

Mickelson Trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are shuttled back to Mystic where we left the trail two days ago, and ride 18 miles up hill, and then down the slope, for a total of 34 miles to end of Mickelson at Deadwood, at mile 109.

Mickelson Trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Coyote spotted off the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

John comes to pick us up with the van, making back-and-forth trips from the trailhead to our hotel, the Deadwood Mountain Grand Resort, which has an enormous casino (it seems fitting for a town that was born out of the gold rush and made famous by a poker game).

We are on our own to explore Deadwood and discover its many charms. Fortunately, I’ve had some tips from the Alex Johnson Hotel manager in Rapid City, and head straight out to the cemetery.

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing  and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com

_________________________

© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Discovering Marvels of Crazy Horse Memorial on Badlands, Black Hills & Mickelson Trail Bike Tour

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Crazy Horse Memorial is sensational, awesome and profound. The carved portrait in the cliff-side, which I first encounter by surprise as I bike on the Mickelson Trail between Custer and Hill City is spectacular enough, but there is so much more to discover. There is also a superb Museum of Native Americans of North America (it rivals the Smithsonian’s Museum in Washington DC) where you watch a terrific video that tells the story of the America’s indigenous people, and can visit the studio/home of the sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski. It is the highlight of our third day of the Wilderness Voyageurs “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour of South Dakota.

I rush to join a tour (a modest extra fee) that brings us right to the base of the sculpture. You look into this extraordinary, strong face – some quartz on the cheek has a glint that suggests a tear.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Only then do I realize that, much to my surprise, seeing the scaffolding and equipment, that 70 years after sculptor Ziolkowski started carving the monument in 1947, his grandson is leading a crew to continue carving. Right now it is mainly a bust – albeit the largest stone carving in the world – but as we see in the museum, the completed sculpture will show Crazy Horse astride a horse, his arm outstretched toward the lands that were taken from the Lakota.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At 87 ft 6 inches high, the Crazy Horse Memorial is the world’s largest mountain carving in progress. They are now working on the 29-foot high horse’s head, the 263-foot long arm, and 33 ft-high hand, the guide tells us. The horse’s head will be as tall as 22-story building, one-third larger than any of the President’s at Mount Rushmore. The next phase of progress on the Mountain involves carving Crazy Horse’s left hand, left forearm, right shoulder, hairline, and part of the horse’s mane and head over 10-15 years. The plan is to carve the back side of the rock face as well, which would make the Crazy Horse Memorial a three-sided monument.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

When completed, the Crazy Horse Mountain carving will be the world’s largest sculpture, measuring 563 feet high by 641 feet long, carved in the round. The nine-story high face of Crazy Horse was completed on June 3, 1998; work began on the 22-story high horse’s head soon after.

“One if hardest decisions (after two years of planning) was to start with head, not the horse (in other words, work way down),” the guide tells us.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In 71 years of construction, there have been no deaths or life threatening injuries of the workers (though there was that accident when a guy driving a machine slipped off edge; his father told him he had to get the machine out himself.)

Four of Korczak and Ruth’s 10 children and three of his grandchildren still work at the Memorial.

On the bus ride back to the visitor center, the guide tells us that Zioklowski was a decorated World War II veteran who was wounded on D-Day, but was so devoted to the Crazy Horse Memorial, he even planned for his death: there is a tomb in a cave at the base of the monument..

Back at the visitor center/museum, the story about the Crazy Horse Memorial is told in an excellent film:

The overwhelming theme is to tell the story, to give a positive view of native culture, to show that Native Americans have their own heroes, and to restore and build a legacy that survived every attempt to blot it out in a form of genocide.

There were as many as 18 million Indians living in North America when the Europeans arrived (the current population is 7 million in the US). “These Black Hills are our Cathedral, our sacred land,” the film says.

Crazy Horse was an Ogala Lakota, born around 1840 on the edge of Black Hills. He was first called “Curly” but after proving himself in battle, earned his father’s name, “Crazy Horse” (as in “His Horse is Crazy”). The chief warned of encroaching “river” of settlers, leading to 23-years of Indian wars. In 1876 Crazy Horse led the battle against General Custer, the Battle of Little Big Horn (known as Custer’s Last Stand, but Indians call it “the Battle of Greasy Grass”). It was a victory for the Indians, but short-lived. Soon after, the US government rounded up the rebels and killed Crazy Horse while he was in custody at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. (See www.nps.gov/libi/learn/historyculture/crazy-horse.htm)

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am introduced to a new hero: Standing Bear.

Standing Bear was born 1874 near Pierre, South Dakota, and was among the first Indian children sent away to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania where his name was randomly changed to “Henry.” In the school, their Indian identity was forcibly removed – they cut the boys’ hair, they were not allowed to speak their language “to best help them learn the ways of non-native.”

“As a result of attending Carlisle, Standing Bear concluded that in order to best help his people, it would be necessary for him to learn the ways of the non-Native world. Somewhat ironically, Carlisle – an institution that was designed to assimilate Native Americans out of their indigenous ways – became a source of inspiration that Standing Bear would repeatedly draw upon to shape his enlightened understanding of cross-cultural relationships, as well as to find new ways of preserving his people’s culture and history.” He honed leadership skills like public speaking, reasoning, and writing, realizing that because of the changing times, the battle for cultural survival would no longer be waged with weapons, but with words and ideas. “This realization became a driving force behind much of his work during his adult life and led him to become a strong proponent of education,” the background material on the Crazy Horse Memorial website explains (crazyhorsememorial.org).

Standing Bear attended night school in Chicago while he worked for the Sears Roebuck Company to pay for his schooling. With feet firmly placed in both worlds, he became heavily involved in the affairs of his people over the course of his life and politically astute —working with Senator Francis Case and serving as a member of the South Dakota Indian Affairs Commission. He led the initiative to honor President Calvin Coolidge with a traditional name – “Leading Eagle,” taking the opportunity for advocacy during the naming ceremony to challenge President Coolidge to take up the leadership role that had been previously filled by highly-respected leaders such as Sitting Bull and Red Cloud.

In 1933, Standing Bear learned of a monument to be constructed at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, to honor his maternal cousin, Crazy Horse, who was killed there in 1877. He wrote to the organizer that he and fellow Lakota leaders were promoting a carving of Crazy Horse in the sacred Paha Sapa – Black Hills.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Standing Bear looked for an artist with the skill to carve the memorial to his people that would show Indians had heroes too and turned to Korczak Ziolkowski, a self-taught sculptor who had assisted at Mount Rushmore and had gained recognition at the 1939 World’s Fair. Standing Bear invited him back to the Black Hills. 

Born in Boston of Polish descent in 1908, Korczak was orphaned when he was one year old. He grew up in a series of foster homes and is said to have been badly mistreated.  He gained skills in heavy construction helping his foster father.

On his own at 16, Korczak took odd jobs to put himself through Rindge Technical School in Cambridge, MA, after which he became an apprentice patternmaker in the shipyards on the rough Boston waterfront. He experimented with woodworking, making beautiful furniture. At age 18, he handcrafted a grandfather clock from 55 pieces of Santa Domingo mahogany. Although he never took a lesson in art or sculpture, he studied the masters and began creating plaster and clay studies. In 1932, he used a coal chisel to carve his first portrait, a marble tribute to Judge Frederick Pickering Cabot, the famous Boston juvenile judge who had befriended and encouraged the gifted boy and introduced him to the world of fine arts.

Moving to West Hartford, Conn., Korczak launched a successful studio career doing commissioned sculpture throughout New England, Boston, and New York.

Ziolkowski wanted to do something worthwhile with his sculpture, and made the Crazy Horse Memorial his life’s work.

“Crazy Horse has never been known to have signed a treaty or touched the pen,” Ziolkowski wrote. “Crazy Horse, as far as the scale model is concerned, is to be carved not so much as a lineal likeness, but more as a memorial to the spirit of Crazy Horse – to his people. With his left hand gesturing forward in response to the derisive question asked by a white man, ‘Where are your lands now?’ He replied, ‘My lands are where my dead lie buried’.”

There is no known photo of Crazy Horse, Ziolkowski created his likeness from oral descriptions.

He built a log studio home (which we can visit) at a time when there was nothing around – no roads, no water, no electricity. For the first seven years, he had to haul himself and his equipment, including a decompressor and 50 pound box of dynamite, up 741 steps.

Living completely isolated in the wilderness, Korczak and his wife Ruth bought an 1880s one-room school house, had it moved to this isolated property and hired a teacher for their 10 children.

There is so much to see here: The Museums of Crazy Horse Memorial feature exhibits and engaging experiences that let you discover Native history and contemporary life, the art and science of mountain carving and the lives of the Ziolkowski family.  

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

THE INDIAN MUSEUM OF NORTH AMERICA® houses an enormous collection of art and artifacts reflecting the diverse histories and cultures of over 300 Native Nations.  The Museum, designed to complement the story being told in stone on the Mountain, presents the lives of American Indians and preserves Native Culture for future generations. The Museum collection started with a single display donated in 1965 by Charles Eder, Hunkpapa Lakota, from Montana, which  remains on display to this day.  The Indian Museum has about the same number of annual visits as the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. Close to 90% of the art and artifacts have been donated by generous individuals, including many Native Americans.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The gorgeous building housing the Museum was designed and built by Korczak Ziolkowski and his family in the harsh winter of 1972-73, when no work was possible on the Mountain. The Museum incorporated Korczak’s love of wood and natural lighting, being constructed from ponderosa pine, harvested and milled at Crazy Horse Memorial. The original wing of the museum was dedicated on May 30, 1973. In the early 1980s, Korczak planned a new wing of the Museum to accommodate the growing collection of artifacts. He did not live to see his plans realized, instead his wife Ruth Ziolkowski and 7 of their children made sure the new wing was built. The structure was built in the winter of 1983-84 and funding came in large part from a $60,000 check left in the Crazy Horse Memorial contribution box in late August of 1983. The contributor said he was moved by the purpose of Crazy Horse, Korczak, and his family’s great progress and by the sculptor’s reliance on free enterprise and refusal to take federal funds

The Ziolkowski Family Life Collection is shown throughout the complex and demonstrates to people of all ages the timeless values of making a promise and keeping it, setting a goal and never giving up, working hard to overcome adversity, and devoting one’s life to something much larger than oneself. There are portraits of the couple and personal effects that tell their life’s story.

Portraits of Korczak and Ruth Ziolkowski, Crazy Horse Memorial, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Mountain Carving Gallery shares the amazing history of carving the Mountain. It features the tools Korczak used in the early years of carving, including a ½ size replica of “the bucket” – a wooden basket used with an aerial cable car run by an antique Chevy engine that allowed the sculptor to haul equipment and tools up the Mountain. Displayed in the Mountain Carving Room are the measuring models used to carve the face of Crazy Horse, plasters of Crazy Horse’s face and the detailed pictorial progression of carving the face. They also detail the next phase in the Memorial’s carving which is focused on Crazy Horse’s left hand and arm, the top of Crazy Horse’s head, his hairline, and the horse’s mane. If you stand in just the right spot, you can line up the model of how the finished work will look against the actual mountain sculpture as it is.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Crazy Horse Memorial is actually a private, nonprofit (they also have a nonprofit college and medical training center that educates Indians), and twice turned down federal funding because “they didn’t believe the government would do it right.” Indeed, Mount Rushmore (which we see on the last day of our bike tour) was never completed because the federal government stopped funding the project. The entrance fee ($30 per car, 3 or more people, $24 per car two people, $12 per person, $7 per bicycle or motorcycle) support the continued carving, the Indian Museum of North America and the Indian University of North America, which assists qualifying students get their college degrees.

Once again, I am so grateful that I am not being pushed along with an artificial time limit by the Wilderness Voyageurs guides, I wander through the vast complex trying to take it all in. I am utterly fascinated.

I buy postcards for 25c apiece and stamps, sit with a (free) cup of coffee in the cafe and mail them at their tiny post-office. There is an excellent gift shop.

The Crazy Horse Memorial is open 365 days of the year, with various seasonal offerings.

(Crazy Horse Memorial, 12151 Avenue of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, SD, 605-673-4681, crazyhorsememorial.org.)

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I’m the last one to leave the Crazy Horse Memorial, and note that the bike of our sweeper guide for today John Buehlhorn, is still on the rack, but I figure he will see that I have gone and catch up to me, so I get back on the Mickelson Trail. He catches me again when I don’t realize to get off the trail at Hill City, where we are on our own for lunch and exploring the town.

South Dakota State Railroad Museum, Hill City, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Hill City is really charming and the home of the South Dakota State Railroad Museum, where you can take a ride on an old-time steam railroad. The shops are really pleasant.

The Wilderness Voyageurs van is parked there in case anybody needs anything.

Hill City, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The ride to the Crazy Horse Memorial was uphill on the rail trail for 8 miles but going down hill isn’t a picnic because of the loose gravel – but not difficult and totally enjoyable.  We ride through train tunnels and over trestles. It is no wonder that the 109-mile long Mickelson Trail, which is a centerpiece of the Wilderness Voyageurs’ tour, is one of 30 rail-trails to have been named to the Hall of Fame by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.  We finish this day’s ride at Mystic at the 74.7-mile marker– we’ll ride the remaining miles on another day. Mystic used to be a significant town when the railroad ran here. Now there are just two buildings and four residents.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, Mystic, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I notice the sign tacked up at the shelter: Be Aware: Mountain Lions spotted on the trail toward Rochford within the last few days.

We are shuttled back to Custer for our second night’s stay at the Holiday Inn Express (very comfortable, with pool, game room, WiFi and breakfast), and treated to a marvelous dinner at one of the finer dining restaurants, the Sage Creek Grill (611 Mount Rushmore Road, Custer).

Sage Creek Grill, Custer, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing  and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

There are still a few spots left on Wilderness Voyageurs’ Quintessential West Cuba Bike Tour departing on March 21.

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com.

_________________________© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visitgoingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions toFamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Badlands, Black Hills & Mickelson Trail Bike Tour Offers Unexpected Experience on Guest Ranch

Note the slope at the end of the gravel road up to the Circle View Guest Ranch © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The steep gravel road to the Circle View Guest Ranch proves too much as I slip and slide with my hybrid bike and I wind up walking the bike a short distance (only one of us managed to ride it), at the end of our 28 mile ride through the Badlands National Park, South Dakota on this first day of our six-day Wilderness Voyageurs bike tour. The guest ranch, set on a mesa surrounded by 3,000 acres, with beautiful views, is delightful. I drop my bags in my room, wonderfully decorated in a Western motif, and go out just in time to see 11-year old Katie Kruse feeding chickens and her brother, 10-year old Jacob, being chased by an aggressive calf anxious to get at the bottle he is using to feed it.

Young guests at Circle View Ranch get to bottle feed a calf © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 A stay on a guest ranch in South Dakota, just beyond the entrance to Badlands National Park and adjacent to Indian lands, is an unexpected bonus experience of our six-day “Mickelson Trail and the Badlands” bike tour of South Dakota.

Philip Kruse was born and raised on the ranch and opened it to guests in 2000 to give visitors “a glimpse into life on a real, family run cattle ranch.” It is very much all of that.

Katie shows me where 17 eggs have been “hidden” by the hens to prevent them from being taken by the farmer so they can hatch. The secret nest had been hidden by high grass and only revealed when the grass was cut. The hen had apparently walked off to get some water, revealing the eggs. Katie lifts up one of the eggs – I can still feel the warmth.

“Sometimes they hide an egg in a tree and abandon it. Sometimes you will see one chicken with 10 chicks following. They sneak in to lay eggs that won’t be collected.” On the other hand, the hens that do hatch the chicks aren’t necessarily maternal. “They don’t show the young ones where the water is.”

I am amazed to contemplate the strategy and teamwork that these hens, which we assume are just dumb creatures, to create a collective nest, hide it from the farmer, and designate one of the hens to sit on it.

Now the farmer uses his wits to outwit the hens. “We don’t want the chickens to hatch their own because we will not have control over whether they have roosters or infertile chickens. So in the night when they sleep, we will steal an egg and replace it with a hatched chick so she will think it is hers.”

There’s a pecking order, she tells me. The older, bigger hens sleep on top; younger ones on the floor. She says that young chicks lay one egg a day; older ones lay fewer and fewer, maybe one in two or three days.

“Here, we don’t kill the hen when gets old but another lady butchers them – after she chops off the head, they can still run around for 5 minutes – she has machine that spins to take off feathers.”

I find all of this utterly fascinating.

Burros on the Circle View Guest Ranch © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I watch how aggressive the calf is chasing after Jacob who is trying to bottle feed it. The calf was born prematurely and would have been abandoned by its mother. There are a slew of chicks and peacocks all about, as well. And burros.

We enjoy a sensational dinner prepared by Amy Kruse, served family style along long tables inside and outside on the porch. Tonight’s menu is Mexican tacos, prepared with such fresh ingredients including cherry tomatoes from the garden as sweet as candy.

At Circle View Guest Ranch, see a hen defying farmer by sitting on secret nest with 17 eggs © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next morning before breakfast, I walk out to see if the hen is sitting on the nest. Sure enough. But as I walk back, my head in my notepad, I look up to see a crowd of kids frantically gesticulating at me and yelling, pointing to my right. As I move, they stop, so I keep moving in that direction. I assume they are directing me to watch them feed the chickens. No, they are warning me not to walk up the path because there is a rattlesnake that had been discovered by their dog. “That’s why we wear cowboy boots,” 10-year old Jacob tells me. “Rattlesnakes can’t bite through.”

Later at breakfast, Philip Kruse, shows me his jar two-thirds filled with rattlesnake rattles (they are only about an inch long and quarter inch wide) collected over two generations on the ranch.

10-year old Jacob bottle feeds a calf at the Circle View Ranch © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The breakfast that Amy Kruse prepares is a triumph: fresh eggs from the farm (of course), whole wheat blueberry pancakes, tater tots with bacon, white chocolate and raspberry scones (sensational), granola made of sour cherry, pistachios, vanilla yogurt.

We get to experience much of what the Circle View Guest Ranch offers – free wifi, beautifully appointed rooms, seeing the various animals, feeding chickens, including burros, enjoying scrumptious breakfast (included) and dinner, access to the guest kitchen, and the game room. But we don’t have the time to really experience all it offers longer staying guests: horseback rides, bon fires, hunting rocks and fossils, and exploring the 3,000 acres. There are also cabins including an original 1880 Homestead cabin.

Western vibe at the Circle View Guest Ranch, Badlands, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But even with this short stay, it gives us a first-hand glimpse at family life on a ranch.

The ranch is open year-round, as is Badlands National Park.

Circle View Guest Ranch, 20055 E. Highway 44, Interior, South Dakota 57780, 605-433-5582, www.circleviewranch.com, cvgrphil@gwtc.net.

Biking the George S. Mickelson Trail 

Biking the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s just the second day of our six-day “Mickelson Trail and the Badlands” bike tour. We pile into the van and are shuttled from Badlands National Park to the George S. Mickelson Trail. Over the course of our trip, we will ride the whole 109 miles of the rail-trail. Today, instead of starting at mile “0” in Edgemont and riding uphill to Custer, we start at the Harbach Park Trailhead in Custer (mile 44.5) and bike mostly down a slope to Edgemont (mile 0), where we are picked up and shuttled back to Custer for the night.

Such different landscape today from biking the Badlands – we ride through a pine forest with the smell of pine.

Scenes along the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Scenes along the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Scenes along the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Minnekahta, where we have an amazing lunch that our guide, James Oerding, pulls out of the van and sets up under a lean-to (28 miles into the ride) at the rest stop, is just off the highway that looks just like the country road in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, “North by Northwest” – that famous scene of Cary Grant running from the crop duster that is trying to kill him. There is even the same sound of silence broken by the wind and growing scream of a truck as it comes out of the distance and barrels down road. There is that long view of the road disappearing into the horizon, white clouds in blue sky, hay bales in the fields on either side (in the movie, they were corn fields). Surreal. I still wonder if this is the very location where Hitchcock filmed that scene.

Highway evokes scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” which was filmed in the area © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Lunch stop on the Mickelson Trail at Minnekahta Trailhead © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Railroads opened up the Black Hills. The 109-mile long Mickelson Trail is built on the historic Deadwood to Edgemont Burlington Northern rail line that passes through the Black Hills and was abandoned in 1983. Work started in 1991 and the full trail was dedicated in 1998. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Mickelson Trail is wonderfully maintained – mostly crushed limestone – with rest facilities and water cisterns along the way and great signage. On this first day, we are immersed in ranch land with broad vistas, dramatic cloud formations, hay bales, cows.

Custer relishes its frontier heritage © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From Edgemont, we are shuttled back to Custer, a pleasant, modest Western town, with art of decorated bison on many corners. We will be here for two nights at the Holiday Inn Express. Tonight we are on our own for dinner, but tomorrow we will be hosted at a fine-dining restaurant.

Custer relishes its frontier heritage © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next morning, Day 3 of our trip, we ride out from the hotel directly onto the Mickelson Trail at Harbach Park Trailhead (thankfully, our guide, John Buehlhorn, has caught me again going onto a wrong spur and bringing me back to the trail).

We are now in the Black Hills National Forest – a lot of trees with black bark, which I presume gives the forest its name.

From Custer, we bike along the Mickelson Trail, 8 miles up a gentle grade (one of the advantages of a rail trail versus a road which can have much steeper slopes and corkscrew turns), with lovely scenery, beautiful rock formations, grassy plain and pine trees, when all of a sudden, the Crazy Horse Memorial comes into view. I am entranced by it when John, the Wilderness Voyageurs guide, again catches me missing the turnoff for us to ride to the Memorial for our visit. (Biking up the very steep hill proves the most challenging part of the day, and I am delighted with myself that I make it.)

That first view of the Crazy Horse Memorial from the Mickelson Trail is mesmerizing © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial is a revelation.

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing  and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

There are still a few spots left on Wilderness Voyageurs’ Quintessential West Cuba Bike Tour departing onMarch 21 (yes, Americans can still visit Cuba).

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com

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© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Badlands and Black Hills, Buffalos and Bikes: Wilderness Voyageurs’ South Dakota Biketour

Biking where buffalo roam, on Wilderness Voyageurs Badlands and Black Hills bike tour of South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I find myself mere feet from a swarm of buffalo (or more accurately, bison). I am walking my bike and have wisely chosen to walk between two cars that are essentially stopped as the herd crosses a road in Custer State Park, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. From this vantage point, though, I can shoot photos from the left hill and the right field and feel reasonably protected even though there is really nothing between me and them.

Biking where buffalo roam, on Wilderness Voyageurs Badlands and Black Hills bike tour of South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This is the second encounter today with this herd – the first came as our small group biked from the enchanted Sylvan Lake to our lunch stop in Custer State Park at the new Visitors Center. The herd had parked itself right on the field outside the center, as if orchestrated by our tour operator, Wilderness Voyageurs. (I am told this isn’t necessarily a regular thing, but was a fortuitous occurrence on this day). It is only just one thrilling experience in an incomparable day, in an incomparable six-days of biking through South Dakota’s Badlands and Black Hills.

In the days before, we biked through Badlands National Park, completely surprised and enthralled by the stark scenery – essentially an ocean floor that had risen up as the Rocky Mountains formed. I had never realized that the Badlands is a gold mine of fossils from about 65 million years ago and from 35 million years ago (with a curious gap of 30 million years) – a transition period from dinosaurs (which went extinct around 65 million years ago) and mammals. Some 600,000 specimens have already been excavated just from this area, supplying every major museum and paleontology laboratory in the world. On this day, in the Visitors Center, we walk into an astonishingly fine Paleontology lab to watch two paleontologists painstakingly chipping away ever so carefully to release fossilized bones from rock.

The captivating scenery as we bike the road through Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The fossils are so plentiful – and more are being exposed with erosion – that fossil-hunting should be added to the list of activities that visitors to the Badlands National Park can enjoy. There is an entire “heroes” wall filled with photos of visitors who have made their own fossil finds just this year alone, alerting the paleontologists to their location. One of those visitors from years ago – he is a legend – was a photographer who happened on a couple of fossils; when the paleontologists came, thinking it was an afternoon’s worth of digging, they found a tennis-court sized bone field that so far has yielded 19,000 specimens over 15 years of excavation.

Biking through Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Each day of biking through the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota, the landscapes change so dramatically, along with such variety of visual and experience, from nature and natural wonders to heritage to history.

Biking the Mickelson rail trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Over the course of the six days of riding, we bike the entire 109-mile long Mickelson Rail Trail (one of Rail-to-Trails Conservancy’s “Hall of Fame” award-winning trails), taking us through ranch land and towns, ending at the historic town of Deadwood (but not all at once – the Wilderness Voyageurs guides have broken up the rides so we get the best ride and the best itinerary); we ride through Badlands National Park and Custer State Park, with the stunning scenery of the Needles Highway, and ride the Wildlife Loop giving us close encounters with herds of buffalo (actually bison).

A buffalo has the right of way outside my cabin at Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The lodgings are also distinctive: after the Badlands ride, we stay at a guest house on a ranch, and after our ride through Custer State Park, we overnight in luxurious log cabins at the Blue Bell Lodge. The attractions are epic: we hop off the Mickelson trail to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial (who knew it wasn’t finished, but that decades after the death of sculptor Korczak Ziokowski who designed and carved the head, two more generations have worked on it and it will likely take decades more to finish); and finish our tour at Mount Rushmore National Monument (who knew that famous sculpture of the presidents Washington, Jefferson, TR Roosevelt and Lincoln also was not finished but never will be?).

Coming upon the Crazy Horse Memorial as we ride along the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I love that the focus is not on racing from point A to B as fast as possible, but that our bikes are our vehicles to explore, to discover, to immerse, to revel in this glorious landscape and history – the bikes become an endorphin-making machine, filling you with exultant feelings. “This is your vacation,” our guide, James Oerding says more than once. I am so glad that most of the rides do not depend upon us all ending up at the van for a shuttle ride, so I don’t have that nagging feeling of holding up other people by stopping for photos or listening to a ranger talk, watching a film or looking at an exhibit.

“This is your vacation.” Taking a break on the Mickelson rail trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

That attitude, “This is your vacation,” follows into how they carefully the route is constructed for the best possible ride and experience. So we don’t do the Mickelson Trail end to end. We start in the middle and go in one direction, then on another day, are shuttled back to that middle starting point to go in the other direction.

The group – small enough so we all fit in one van – is absolutely delightful. After a dozen bike tours, I have found there is a certain self-selection process that goes into choosing a bike tour – bikers (and especially bikers on trips that involve camping) are welcoming, open, interested, congenial, love and respect nature and heritage.

Riding through the rock tunnel on the Needles Highway in Custer State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The six-day bike tour is spectacular in every way, and once again confirms why bike trips are my favorite form of travel: the pace you travel is ideal to really see things (even stop when you want to more closely observe or explore), but fast enough to provide unending interest. The scenery is certifiably spectacular – the idyllic setting on Sylvan Lake, the stone spires of the Needles, the tunnels cut through stone, the expanse of trees that become prairie. Then there is the wildlife – especially as you ride the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park. Plus there is that element of physical challenge that gets the endorphins going (not to mention the pure fresh air, scented with pine and the altitude).

Biking on the Needles Highway in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Not to mention the delightful places Wilderness Voyageurs organizes for us to stay – Circle View Guest Ranch and the cabin at the Blue Bell Lodge were so fantastic (more on that later), the excellent food – breakfast at the lodgings, lunch as satisfying as any gourmet feast, usually served from the back of the van on a table under a lean-to, with ingredients fresh from the farmer’s market or store, wonderfully prepared sandwiches and wraps on request, and dinners at the guides’ favorite restaurants (they sure know how to pick ‘em).

We’re going up where?? The more challenging part of the ride through Custer State Park, south Dakota (but it is really worth it) in Custer State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The guides on our trip – James Oerding and John Buehlhorn – are not only experienced and skilled, but take care of us like Father Hens (rescuing me on that dark night at the lodge when a buffalo was on the path back from the restaurant to my cabin). And then there are the companions you travel with – on this trip, there were three couples and three single women from all over the country, who contribute immeasurably to the pleasure of the experience.

Each day brings its own highlights and surprises – such variety and diversity in the experience and the visuals on top of the normal adventures of biking and travel. Biking is its own experience – you are in your own head, in control of your own transportation. Wilderness Voyageurs, a company I became familiar with as the tour operator for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourns on the Great Allegheny Passage (the company is headquartered in Ohiopyle, PA, on the trail) operates the bike tour in an ideal way – we ride at our own pace; the second guide serves as “sweeper” hanging back with the last rider (most often me!). Neither John nor James ever push me along or discourage me from stopping, exploring, taking photos.

Our lunch stop in Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We have cue sheets and a Garmin that show us the route, and can download an app that talks the directions (though there aren’t a lot of turns – I still manage to go off route three times). (This style of guided bike tour is not always the case; I recently was on a bike tour with one guide who we had to follow, no cue sheets or directions and plenty of turns; we all had to ride together at the pace of the slowest rider, and if I wanted a photo, I had to ask for the whole group to stop).They also provide wonderful meals including a few dinners at restaurants where we order off the menu. Guided bike tours are not cheap, but there is excellent value in Wilderness Voyageurs’ tour price.

Biking through Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This is a part of the country I have never been before. And frankly, it is ideal for anyone – especially international visitors – who yearn to immerse themselves in America’s mythic Western past. The combination of nature, open country, historic and heritage attractions that go so deeply into America’s psyche, is unbeatable. And on top of that is the endorphin-rush you get from biking.

A key part of the tour is riding the 109-mile long Mickelson Trail, one of 30 rail-trails to have been named to the Hall of Fame by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Also known as “The Big Mick,” The George S. Mickelson Trail (originally named the Black Hills Burlington Northern Heritage Trail), was dedicated in 1998 in memory of the late South Dakota governor who acted in strong support of transforming the former rail line into a multi-use trail.

Railroads opened up the Black Hills. The 109-mile long Mickelson Trail is built on the historic Deadwood to Edgemont Burlington Northern rail line that passes through the Black Hills and was abandoned in 1983. Work started in 1991 and the full trail was dedicated in 1998. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The trail follows the historic Deadwood to Edgemont Burlington Northern rail line that passes through the Black Hills and was abandoned in 1983. After strong activism by locals and Governor Mickelson, the first six miles of trail was opened in 1991. Another decade under Governor Jacklow and the trail was completed in 1998 with the help of the US Forest Service, SD Department of Transportation, SD Department of Corrections, the National Guard, SD Department of Game, Fish and Parks, the Friends of the Mickelson Trail and hundreds of volunteers.

There is a strong link between the very existence of this trail and the railroads, and the Crazy Horse Memorial which we will visit, which pays homage to the indigenous peoples who lived here.

Riding through one of the rail tunnels on the Mickelson Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am reminded that the railroads through these Black Hills can be traced back to 1874, when the infamous Lt. Colonel George A. Custer discovered gold as part of an exploration team. This discovery caused an explosion of miners hoping to strike it rich. Within a few years, many other towns were founded and quickly grew. But what led to the development of railroads, was not the need to transport the gold itself, but to move people and supplies.

Along the trail, we see some mining shafts and go through the towns that developed with the railroads, and will even stay in a casino hotel in Deadwood that was re-created from a slime plant (slime is the waste left when they use cyanide to decompose rock to release the gold), that was part of the Homestake Mine, the largest and deepest gold mine; it produced the most gold and was longest in operation, from 1885 to as recently as 2001.

The trail, largely crushed limestone and gravel and beautifully maintained with rest stops and water cisterns, offers wonderful diversity in landscapes as well as attractions. It travels along creeks, across open valleys, and through forests besides ranches; we ride over 100 bridges and through four tunnels. (See more at www.traillink.com/trail/george-s-mickelson-trail)

Over the course of our trip, we will ride the full 109 miles of the trail, but Wilderness Voyageurs has broken it up in such a way as to intersperse attractions and, in a word, make it easier.

Biking the Mickelson rail trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Wilderness Voyageurs Badlands trip starts in Rapid City where I cleverly organize my trip to arrive the day before, staying at the famous, historic Alex Johnson Hotel (famous on its own, but made eternally famous for the part it played in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, “North by Northwest” – an autographed caricature of Hitchcock is behind the front desk).

Indeed, the Alex Johnson Hotel is a major attraction in itself (it’s red and white sign atop the building is iconic symbol of the city) – the hotel even provides a walking tour. (Hotel Alex Johnson Rapid City, Curio Collection by Hilton, 523 Sixth Street,Rapid City SD 57701, 605-342-1210, alexjohnson.com.)

The next morning, our guides pick us up with the van at our hotels, and we drive 55 miles down the highway (following what seems like hundreds of Corvettes who have gathered in Rapid City for a convention) to Badlands National Park, for our first day’s ride and the start of our Badlands adventure. But first, we stop at Wall, a literal hole-in-the-wall town that rose up to serve the Westward-bound settlers. On this spot, a drug store opened – more of a general store – and this quaint Western-looking town has become a must-see tourist stop. Delightful. I keep seeing a sign for a museum but can’t find it before it is time to get back to the group.

We stop in Wall before beginning our bike tour in the Badlands, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing  and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

There are still a few spots left on Wilderness Voyageurs’ Quintessential West Cuba Bike Tour departing on March 21.

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com

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© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Unraveling Marrakesh’s Old City Maze Before Tackling the Global Scavenger Hunt 4-Country Challenge

The colorful stalls of the souks in Marrakesh © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bill Chalmers, the “ringmaster” and CEO (Chief Experience Officer) of the Global Scavenger Hunt, launches us our biggest, most ambitious and difficult leg of the 23-day, around-the-world mystery tour: a Par 6, in which our challenge is to get from Marrakesh through four countries – Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal with scavenges in each to win points – in five days, meeting at 11:30 am in Porto, Portugal, when we will fly out to New York, our final destination and the final and decisive leg of the competition to be crowned “World’s Best Traveler”.

“Now for your final exam, when all the skills you have learned come together while your situational awareness is peaking and the Travel IQ ready for action,” Chalmers tells us as we gather together in the lobby of the Savoy Le Grand in Marrakesh, Morocco. “The Big multi-country adventure of the Par 6 North Africa/Iberian Peninsula leg.

“There are over 150 scavenges with 19 Bonuses, 3 Team Challenges and a whole lotta good eating; six exciting days of buses, trains, ferries, camels, trams, bikes and funiculars; four diverse country stops over 1,400 km (870 miles) lay between here in Marrakesh and there in Porto. Oh yea, did I mention May Day!?”

Teams are handled $300 to cover their best-guess transportation costs and told we are required to secure our own lodgings for three nights (we are given an allowance of $200 per team per night) “all depending on your risk/reward course of action. We will see you Friday at 11:30AM in the lobby of our Porto, Portugal hotel. Good luck to everyone, be safe, be smart.”

Chalmers allows these rule changes for this climatic leg:
1) Teaming up allowed, but only in Morocco!
2) Car rentals allowed, but only once, and only within one single country where the rental must be both picked-up & returned.
3) Use of smartphones allowed.
4) Airbnb & Uber allowed.

There are some 150 scavenges in this leg (a challenge is to figure which ones to do for points and logistics), including mandatory ones like #51 (“Within the bowels of Fes el-Bali, visit the Baab Bou Jeloud gate”). It is also mandatory to complete at least one scavenge in all four primary countries: Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal. Other mandatory challenges have to do with eating, since food is such a window to culture and tradition, and also brings people together.

There are scavenges that earn bonuses. In Morocco: either camp out in the desert one night or stay in traditional riad; venture to the Atlas mountains to visit Berber villages, Ait Souka/Kasbah Dutoubkal, or Aghmat/Oureka; visit the blue city of Chefchaouen; visit Volubilis to see something old & Roman; visit nearby sacred village Moulay Idriss.

We have arrived at Savoy Le Grand  – a massive modern resort-style hotel with multiple pools, sandwiched between a major modern mall and a casino, about a half-mile from the gate to Marrakesh’s Old City – at midnight local time, about 2 am for us having come from Athens. Bill recognizes the need for a break so essentially gives us the morning off, so we can meet at 11:30 am in the lobby to launch us on the challenge he has termed “our final exam.”

Le Savoy Grand, Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The hotel is a bit garish (it makes me think of the Concord in the Catskills) but actually quite nice. Still, Bill actually apologizes that he couldn’t get us into something more “authentic”. Because of the wedding between British actor Idris Elba and model Sabrina Dhowre (former Miss Vancouver), they had to research over 50 properties before they could get us into Savoy Le Grand Hotel for two nights.

My teammate, Margo, and I are not competing so have the advantage of being able to get advice from the concierge and use hotels.com to book hotels in the places we want to overnight. Even so, it takes from noon to about 5:30 pm to work out an outline for how we will cover the distance – set up the first train ticket from Marrakesh to Fez (we give the concierge the money to buy the ticket) and book hotels in Fez and Gibraltar (another team has gotten names for a traditional riad in Fez and a hotel in Gibraltar which three teams decide to book).

Margo decides to spend an extra day in Porto, Portugal, but I set my sights on Seville, and organize a hotel there and a flight from Seville to Porto (which wouldn’t be allowed if I were competing), so we will travel together from Marrakesh to Fez to Gibraltar and then travel independently until Porto (if we were competing, we would have to do everything as a team).

By 5:30 pm, I still haven’t figured out how to get from Fez to Gibraltar and Gibraltar to Seville, but I am frustrated and angry not actually seeing Marrakesh, and drop everything so we go into the Old City. The other two teams which are following much the same itinerary are content to just wing it once we get to Fez.

Right at the gate to the old city is the famous, five-star La Mamounia Palace  hotel – a hotel since 1923, but with a history that extends back to the 12th century. Its magnificent gardens were a wedding gift to Prince Al Mamoun in the 18th century.

Koutoubia Grand Mosque, Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Margo and I walk to the famous Koutoubia Grand Mosque that so dominates the city (It turns out that everything we do could earn scavenge points).  The largest mosque in Marrakesh, the Koutoubia is not only its spiritual center but an architectural trend-setter. that was adopted in buildings in Spain (Giralda of Seville) and Rabat (Hassan Tower), which were built in the same period. 

Koutoubia Grand Mosque , Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The mosque is ornamented with curved windows, a band of ceramic inlay, pointed merlons, and decorative arches; it has a large plaza with gardens, and is floodlit at night. The minaret tower, standing 253 feet high, has a spire and orbs. The mosque was completed under the reign of the Berber Almohad Caliph Yaqub al-Mansur (1184 to 1199).

Founded in 1062, Marrakesh was once the capital of a vast trading empire that stretched from Toledo to Senegal. You get a sense of this at Marrakesh’s main square, Jemaa el Fna, which I learn, was once a medieval trading square where public executions took place (why it is called the Assembly of the Dead).

Jemaa el Fna,Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As soon as we enter the massive square, there is a cacophony of sounds, a blur of motion and color. And activity – snake charmers, acrobats, henna artists, musicians, Berbers (who demand money for photo even if you only look at them), merchants hawking every kind of item – snake-oil salesman selling men’s fertility.

Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are scores of “restaurants” – stalls, really, with long tables under canvas like picnics, with their representatives with numbered signs identifying their location, recruiting new customers – when one sits down, they serenade in triumph.

The souks radiate off the square with tiny alleyways.

Before it gets too dark, we make our way through the souks to find the Mellah, the Jewish Quarter and the synagogue (which happens also to be one of the scavenges).

We weave through the maze – asking people who point us in a direction (just as we are supposed to do under the Global Scavenger Hunt) – a kindly fellow leaves his stall to lead us down narrow alleyway to Laazama Synagogue, which is still a functioning synagogue but also serves as the city’s Jewish Museum.

The Laazama Synagogue, founded in the 16th century, in the Jewish Quarter of Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After Jews were expelled from Spain by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in 1492, Rabbi Yitzhag Daloya came to Marrakesh. He became president of the court and head of the “deportee” community in Marrakesh and founded the “Tzlat Laazama,” Synagogue of Deportees”, shortly after his arrival.

But the Moroccan Jewish community is much older than the Spanish Inquisition– dating back to King Solomon and the Roman period. Marrakesh was founded in 1062 by Joseph Ibn Tasifin, ruler of the Halmorabidim, who allowed Jewish settlement in the city. The Jewish community was “renewed” in 1269, headed by Rabbi Yahuda Jian, originally from southern Spain. The Atlas Jews remained the majority of the community even after the Jews from Spain and Portugal settled in Marrakesh.

The situation changed in the 16th century when Marrakesh became a major center for Marranos (secret Jews) who wished to practice Judaism openly. Spanish and Portuguese Marrakesh Jews lived in their own neighborhoods until all local Jews, some 35,000, were collected by order of the King, in 1557, and resettled in the Mellah (a walled community). In the 19th century, the population increased in the Mellah after refugees from the Atlas Mountains arrived, becoming the largest Jewish community in Morocco. At one time, there were 40 synagogues here.

The synagogue is beautifully decorated with tile, a courtyard ringed with study rooms, a music room, living quarters. There is a video about history of Jewish community in Marrakesh. The photos on the walls are interesting – the faces of the Moroccan Jews are indistinguishable from the Arab Moroccans.

Moroccan Jews have also left the country – the Moroccan Jewish Diaspora counts more than 1 million members in four corners of the world, “a diaspora that continues to cultivate ties to their homeland, Morocco.” Indeed, we come upon a woman with her sister-in-law and mother who left Marrakesh first for Casablanca and now lives in Paris; her brother is still a member of the synagogue’s leadership – she shows us his chair. Her grandfather is buried in the nearby Jewish cemetery.

From the synagogue, we walk to the Jewish cemetery, Beth Mo’ed Le’kol Chai, which should have been closed, but the guard lets us in.

Marrakesh’s Jewish cemetery, Beth Mo’ed Le’kol Chai, founded in 1537, has 20,000 tombs including 60 saints © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Founded in 1537, the cemetery spans 52 hectares and is the largest Jewish burial site in Morocco, with some 20,000 tombs including tombs of 60 “saints” and devotees who taught Torah to the communities of Marrakesh and throughout Morocco.

The arrangement of the graves is “unique” to the city of Marrakesh. There is a children’s section, where 7000 children who died of Typhus are buried; a separate men’s section and a woman’s section while around the perimeter are graves of the pious, the judges and scholars of the city who are believed to provide protection for all those buried.

Margo hails a taxi to head back to the hotel, and I walk back to the main square through the markets (the tricky part is less about getting lost than avoiding the scooters that speed through the narrow alleyways), and get the real flavor of this exotic place and dusk turns to darkness and the neon-colored lights come on.

Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here you can see a huge variety of Moroccan craftsmen and tradesmen, organized by profession, under a roof of reeds, hawking leather goods, fabrics, kettles, pottery. The Dyers’ Souk, has colorful skeins of wool hanging out to dry on its walls, while the Blacksmiths’ Souk (souk Haddadine) displays a wide variety of metalwork.

Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Back in the bustling Jemaa el Fna square, I see a crowd of men gathered around one fellow with a lizard, selling a miracle cure. When I ask a fellow what it is about, he grins and I get the idea. No different than the snake-oil salesmen of old.

Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s dinner time, neon lights have come on, and I go to the section of the square  where there are dozens of outdoor restaurants. Guys wave a placard with their stall number which are their ID and do a sales pitch (“Remember #1, Remember 35”, “Air-Conditioned!” they say with a grin). Then when you stop, fellows come by and sing to draw in customers. It is all very good natured. I find a stall to have dinner – seated on a bench with others who have come here from around the world and local neighborhoods.

Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It should be noted that Marrakesh has bike share, bike lanes, pedestrian crossings, is clean, with lots of police and auxiliary, striking new buildings, and the people are very helpful and hospitable.

Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Marrakesh, a thousand-year old city, has just been designated African Capital of Culture 2020, a a showcase of today’s urban Africa, highlighting the diversity of African culture.

Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next day we are up at 4:30 am, breakfast is delivered at 5 am, and we take a five-minute cab ride to a gorgeous train station, to catch the  6 am train, riding in a first-class compartment for a wonderful 6 ½ hour trip to Fez.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

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© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at      facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt 8-Hour Layover Challenge in Bangkok, Thailand

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bill Chalmers, the organizer for the past 15 years and inventor of the Global Scavenger Hunt, “a blind date with the world,” notes the rare backtracking to Bangkok from Myanmar. “Oddly, we had to fly slightly east to further our westward global trajectory…Myanmar is still hard to get into and out of with limited connections to mostly its regional neighbors…especially Bangkok and Singapore. Today we chose Bangkok as a more interesting layover in our exit strategy. Thus we a have fun 8-Hour Layover Challenge…but I am getting ahead of myself.”

We scurry about the Bangkok airport, finding a place to check our luggage for the precious few hours, finding an information counter with a map and information about how to get downtown (we discover a rail link into the city).

Besides figuring out the logistics of Bangkok without any prior preparation (because that is the essence of the Global Scavenger Hunt, an around-the-world mystery tour to determine “World’s Best Travelers”), our visit is complicated by preparations for the coronation of the new King.

Also, my teammate Margo has her own scavenger hunt going: she is trying to find chips from Harley Davidson Motorcycle dealers in every place we go. Her hunt brings us to one of Bangkok’s major urban shopping malls – every luxury and brand name in the world is represented. Harley is on a floor with Jaguar and other luxury cars. It is an amazing opportunity to view local life of Bangkok on a Sunday. (The movie, “Crazy Rich Asians,” immediately flashes in my mind.)

Harley Davidson shop in high-end mall in Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Food court at the shopping mall, Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Margo goes off to do sightseeing by the Hop On/Off Bus; I am determined to take a water taxi. But I learn that the city has already closed off river access to the major attractions and sites that are along the river, including the Palace, and there is, in fact, a giant security cordon from the Grand Palace (later I learn that the Palace was open to visitors earlier and we just missed it).  But the water taxi along the canal is still operating.

Water taxi, Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Water taxi, Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I go walking (in the intense heat) toward where I can pick up the water taxi. The time is ticking away and I have to calculate the amount of time to get back to the airport in time for our flight to Abu Dhabi. I pass interesting places, like the “Anti-Money Laundering Office”.

Anti-Money Laundering Office, Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 

It is fun to ride the water taxi and I take it to a place close to the Grand Palace where there is an important temple, the Golden Mount (Wat Saket). A very nice fellow coming off the water taxi points me in a direction to the Democracy Monument. I learn that it was commissioned in 1939 to commemorate the 1932 Siamese coup d’etat which led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in the Kingdom of Siam. Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram saw the monument as the center of a new Westernized Bangkok, akin to the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs d’Elysees in Paris.

Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I see literally thousands of police, military, and what appear to be volunteers in colored shirts, the streets decorated for a parade (the administration building is nearby)– but no people on the streets waiting for a parade. The coronation is taking place in just a couple of weeks time. I assume that they are doing a rehearsal.

Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Golden Mount (Wat Saket), Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I contemplate hiring a little jitney taxi to take me close to the Grand Palace, but looking at the time and calculating how long it would take to backtrack to the airport, I just head back to the water taxi, walk through a broad shopping boulevard (big portraits of the King and Queen), to the train to the airport.

This moment in history, in fact, becomes the theme for my Bangkok visit.

Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the end of it, though I did not get to see the Top Attractions of Bangkok, I fulfilled the essence of the Global Scavenger Hunt: I immersed myself in the everyday rhythm of this place and these people, exotic no longer.

(For more travel information, visit https://na.tourismthailand.org/About-Thailand/Destination/Bangkok.)

We are off to Abu Dhabi!

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

________

© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 3 Continues: The Enchantment of Inle Lake, Myanmar

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

My perfect day in Inle Lake, Myanmar, on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger Hunt, a 23-day around-the-world mystery tour, begins the night before, on the JJ Express bus that leaves the temple city of Bagan at 10 pm and arrives at the bus stop (literally in the middle of the street in a small village) at 4:30 am. It is complete darkness, not a sound or stirring besides ourselves as the bus pulls away, leaving us there. For a moment, we feel stranded. Then, out of the shadows, two tiny jitneys – like small tut-tut open-back vehicles – appear. The drivers ask which hotels we are bound for so we divide up based on which side of Inle Lake we are staying. We settle the fare (we are in a very limited position to negotiate) and climb in.

The jitney drops us at the Sanctum Inle Resort at 5:30 am, where the kindly hotel clerk calls in housekeeping early so we could get into our rooms by 6 am (when 2 pm would have been normal check-in time). This five-star resort makes me feel like I have been dropped into paradise.

Sanctum Inle Resort, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am traveling on my own at this point, though at least one other of the 10 teams, SLO Folks, on the Global Scavenger Hunt are here  – my teammate went on to Mandalay with another team who decided not to compete for points. SLO Folks (last year’s “World’s Greatest Travelers” GSH champion) has been scrupulous about following rules of the contest (no using computer or cell phone to make bookings or to get information; the trip is designed to “trust strangers” and engage with local people) so they arrive in Inle with no hotel, not even a decent map to start planning how they will attack the scavenges (challenges) and accrue the most points in the limited amount of time.

Indeed, this challenge, Leg 3 of our trip, is to depart Yangon (the city formerly known as Rangoon when the former British colony was known as Burma) and complete a triangle of cities (Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake), allowing only two legs by air and return to Yangon by 6 pm on Saturday, making our own arrangements for transportation and hotel (we are reimbursed $200/night/team). I had planned to go from Bagan to Mandalay with my teammate, but after hearing about Inle Lake from another team (Lawyers Without Borders, a Houston team that has done the Global Scavenger Hunt 12 times) who had been here before, I was enchanted to see it; then, overhearing SLO Folks planning to take the overnight bus, I was determined to see it for myself.

The description enchanted me: Located in the middle of Myanmar, in the Shan State, Inle Lake is set in a valley between two mountain ranges, with whole villages of wooden houses built on stilts in the middle of the lake, floating gardens, boatmen who steer standing up, wrapping one leg around a tall oar. There are 10 different Shan ethnic groups living around the lake and the surrounding hills, home to many different minorities who come down to sell their goods in the villages – like the Long Neck Ladies. Inle Lake was designated a wetland wildlife sanctuary in 1985.

Inle Lake feels like a different world to the rest of Myanmar, indeed, it seems like an enchanted Sangri-la.

The Sanctum Hotel (Maing Thauk Village, Inle Lake, Nyaungshwe, Myanmar) is on the list of suggested accommodations provided by the GSH “ringmaster” and Chief Experience Officer, Bill Chalmers, and because I am not competing, have booked on hotels.com ($101 for the night). I am delighted to find it is an absolutely gorgeous five-star luxury resort (the infinity pool on the grounds with views to the lake is breathtaking), and just being here fills me with a contented peace.  But that is only the beginning.

The kindness of the hotel manager is immensely appreciated. For me, it means I am able to take advantage of the hotel’s 8 am boat tour (that means a traditional wooden boat with the modern convenience of a power motor as well as the boatman’s long oar) because most of Inle Lake’s special attractions are literally on the lake – whole villages, in fact, are built on stilts on the lake; there are floating gardens which are really aquatic farms; floating markets; the fishermen fish in a distinctive fashion with nets and the boatmen paddle standing up, with their leg wrapped around the tall oar. The temples and other major attractions – silversmiths, weavers, boatmakers – are all reached by the boat.

Sanctum Inle Resort, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The full-day tour will take me to the Five Day Market, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, Inn Paw Khone Village, Ywa Ma Village, Nam Pan Village (where we visit workshops to see crafts – silversmithing, weaving, boatmaking), Floating Gardens, Nge’ Phe’ Chaung Monastery and Indein Pagoda – essentially enabling me to see all Inle Lake’s highlights in a one-day visit ($35), though there is so much to see, Inle Lake is worth a two or three day stay.

The Sanctum Inle Resort is situated on the bank of Inle lake – a shallow lake that’s over 13.5 miles long and 7 miles wide – and to begin the tour I have booked (because I’m not competing, I can book a hotel tour, while the competing team cannot, so they go off to find where the boatmen keep their boats), I am escorted down to the hotel’s dock where the boat and the boatman is waiting. It turns out I am the only one, so this is essentially a private tour. The boatman, a young fellow named Wei Mo, speaks only limited English – enough to tell me where I am going – but it is sufficient, I just don’t expect to get any commentary.

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is an amazing experience – gliding across the lake, the fresh air and cool breeze rushing over me, especially after the debilitating 108-degree heat of Bagan. Inle Lake is notable for the Intha, lake dwellers who have a distinctive way rowing their wooden boats by wrapping their leg around a tall oar. At first, the mechanics make no sense. But I realize it is a way of standing and using such a tall oar and keeping the weight balanced on the tiny boats.

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

During the course of the boat tour, I encounter a young fellow fishing (though you have to get out pretty much at sunrise to see the fishermen), boat people harvesting from the lake, go through an entire village built on stilts, where there are also numerous craftsmen and workshops we visit. One stop provides an opportunity to visit with the Long-Neck Ladies (actually only one), who come down from their secluded village to pose for photos with tourists for money. We also visit important pagodas and temples on the lake.

Long Neck Lady, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is remarkable to see how the Inthar make the most out of the lake – even creating farmland where none existed. They build floating gardens out of lake-bottom weeds and water hyacinth and grow crops like squash and tomatoes, anchoring them with bamboo poles. I learn that these floating islands can be cut, dragged by boats and even sold like a plot of land. Floating gardens can be found mostly in Kaylar, Inchan and Zayatgyi villages.

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I love visiting the various workshops in the various villages – it seems each has a specialty. We visit a silversmith workshop where I watch the intricate process before being led into (what else) an elaborate shop, filled with stunning creations.

Making thread from lotus flower, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Making thread from lotus flower, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Wei pulls up to Inn Paw Khone Village, famous for its weaving workshops, but most notably, weaving silk from lotus. Silk weaving in Inn Paw Khon began 100 years ago. At first, they wove from cotton fiber and then changed to silk and finally lotus fiber. and I am told that the technique of making silk from lotus was begun by a woman now more than a century old.  I get to watch how a woman delicately pulls a strand from the lotus plant which is wound on a spindle into thread.

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the boatmakers, I learn how each one is designed differently for their purpose – a family boat, a fishing boat (7.8 meters), a boat designed for the Long Neck people. “A boat lasts 25 years. Only men make the boats, they need to be strong. It takes 20 days to make a boat; they make lacquer from a tree to paint, wood powder and cotton. It takes two people to cut the teakwood,” she tells me. There are absolutely stunning wood carvings to purchase. But I must travel light.

We stop in several of the region’s most important pagodas.

Shwe Indein Pagoda Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Shwe Indein Pagoda is the most impressive of the attractions visited. You walk up a covered walkway lined with beautifully painted columns, up a hill, flanked by an astonishing 1,600 Buddhist stupas, some of stone, some intricately carved, some gilded. Many have been restored but you also see many crumbling with age and being reclaimed by the jungle.  (There is a camera fee, 500 kyat, which works out to about 30 cents).

Shwe Indein Pagoda on Inle Lake, has an astonishing 1,600 Buddhist stupas © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

According to atlasobscurba.com, “These structures date from the 14th to the 18th centuries and are typical of Burmese zedi. Like others found across the region, the stupas feature fantastical creatures like chinthe – mythic lion-like beings that protect sacred spaces. These were (and remain) sites for contemplation and meditation and many contain relics inside their bases. The first stupas at Indein were likely commissioned during the reign of King Narapatisithu, although according to legend, it was King Ashoka – the Indian emperor responsible for spreading Buddhism across much of Asia – who first designated this as a site of particular spiritual importance. Hundreds of years later, that distinction is completely obvious. The sea of ornate spires coupled with the view over the lake and surrounding calm lend this spot an unquestionably mystic, reflective air.” (www.atlasobscura.com/places/shwe-indein-pagoda) It is breathtaking to see. Inside, people are gathering for a communal feast.

Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, one of the famous principal shrines in Myanmar, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, one of the famous principal shrines in Myanmar, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We come Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, one of the famous principal shrines in Myanmar, just crammed with boats and worshippers. The pagoda houses five small Buddha images which are much revered by the lake-dwellers. Once a year, in late September-early October, there is a pagoda festival when four of the five Buddha images are taken on an elaborately decorated barge towed by several boats of leg-rowers, rowing in unison, and other accompanying boats, making an impressive procession on the water.

Ngaphechaung Monastery, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Ngaphechaung Monastery is a beautiful wooden monastery built on stilts over the lake at the end of the 1850s, the biggest and oldest monastery on the lake. The monastery is known for a collection of old Myanmar’s Buddha images from different eras.  It is also notable because the monks have taught a few of the many cats living with them to jump through hoops (that is the reputation, but I don’t get to see any cats).

I skip stopping for lunch so am able to condense the tour somewhat, which brings me back to the hotel at 2:30 pm.

Sanctum Inle Resort’s infinity pool, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I indulge in Sanctum Inle Resort’s utterly stunning pool – I would rank one of the best resort pools in the world – an infinity pool of black and silver that shimmers as you swim, magnificently set with a view down to the lake, richly landscaped, a great size for actually swimming as well as playing around. It is also one of the most magnificent places just to lounge. I meet families from around the world.

I am back in my room by 5 pm, to walk about a mile up the road from the resort into the nearby village of Maing Thauk. I am bound for the Friendship Bridge where one of the scavenges is to watch the sunset. I love to see the Burmese alphabet, with its circles and curley-cues, on signs (few have English translation, except for the Noble Aim PreSchool, my Rosetta Stone, and a traffic sign with a drawing of a parent holding a child’s hand, indicating a school crossing). I come upon a school holding a sports competition that has drawn a tremendous audience. Even though hardly anyone speaks English, we manage to chat (icebreaker: What is going on? Where is the bridge?). It’s a good thing I ask the fellow if I was going the right way to get to the Friendship Bridge I am looking for, because he directs me to turn left on the next corner (I would have gone straight).

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Bridge connects many structures and from which people can get onto the scores of wooden boats that gather here, especially to offer sunset “cruises”, as well as walk to several restaurants. The views and the evening activity are just magnificent. It’s like watching the entire community walk by.

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What I’ve noticed during this incredibly brief visit is exactly what GSH’s organizer Bill Chalmers had hoped when he dealt with a question of whether we should be in a place that has earned worldwide condemnation for human rights abuses. Travel is about seeing for yourself, but also gaining an understanding of one another, disabusing stereotypes or caricatures, and most significantly, not seeing others as “other”, which works both ways. In very real ways (and especially now), travelers are ambassadors, no less than diplomats. Boycotting destinations because of their governments, isolating people from one another, cutting off the exchange of ideas and people-to-people engagements is not how change happens – that only hardens points of view, and makes people susceptible to fear-mongering and all the bad things that have happened throughout human history as a result. “See for yourself,” Chalmers tells us.

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What I see in the people I’ve encountered is a kindness, a warmth of spirit, a sweetness among the people here. I see it in how parents hold their children, how the boatman, Wei Moi, shows such etiquette among the other boatmen, how helpful people are.  And how readily they smile.

This leg has been a Par 5 in difficulty (Par 6 being the most difficult during this, the 15th Global Scavenger Hunt) – which has entailed us going out of Yangon to Bagan, Mandalay and/or Inle Lake (many more rules on top of that, including no more than 2 flights), taking overnight bus or hiring a taxi or train, and so forth. But Chalmers devious design has worked – in just these four days, we really do immerse ourselves in Myanmar, though our itinerary most properly should be done in 11 days (there are several operators who offer such trips).

The challenge of the Global Scavenger Hunt is important to mention because Inle Lake is worth at least a two or three day stay to be completely immersed in its spell. There is a tremendous amount to do and experience.

You can reach Inle Lake by air, bus (Joyous Journey Express, known as JJ Express, provided excellent service; travel on the first-class bus geared to tourists, www.jjexpress.net), or hire a driver to Inle Lake from various other major destinations in Myanmar (Bagan, Mandalay, Yangon). The closest airport to Inle Lake is Heho airport (HEH) which is 45 minutes away from the lake.

The final challenge of this leg is to get back to our hotel, the Sule Shangri-la, in Yangon by 6 pm, and for those competing to hand in their scorecards and proof of completing the scavenges. That’s when we will learn where in the world we will go next, and where we will all compare experiences.

See more travel information, http://myanmartravelinformation.com/where-to-visit-inle/.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

________

© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures