One of my favorite places for a driveable getaway is Sandwich, Cape Cod’s first village, settled in 1637. Sandwich is an enchanting jewel where history, exquisite architecture, fascinating attractions abound in a compact, walkable area, a short distance from the delightful Sandy Neck beach as well as the Cape Cod Canal biking trail. It is quintessential New England, an idyllic place to visit, to stay, to make your hub for exploring Cape Cod.
All through Sandwich, you see homes that bear the names of the ship captains who commanded the packet ships and clippers that made this area a mercantile center.
Many of these quaint historic houses and buildings (including a church) have been turned into charming bed-and-breakfast inns, but if you want to extend your time travel back to when the Patriots were debating revolution, a wonderful choice is the Dan’l Webster Inn and Spa, at the heart of the village. It is also is the most substantial in size, with 48 rooms, amenities and services that include a full-service Beach Plum Spa, offering the best of past and present.
The present inn sits on property that was once a parsonage, built in 1692 by Rev. Roland Cotton; in the 1750s, it was converted to the Fessenden Tavern, one of the first and most famous of New England’s taverns and a Patriot headquarters during the American Revolution (the Newcomb Tavern, just across the pond, served as Tory headquarters). In the late 1800s, the inn, then known as the Central House, hosted famous visitors including President Grover Cleveland and poet Henry David Thoreau.
In 1980, the Dan’l Webster was acquired by the Catania family’s hospitality company which operates the popular Hearth n’ Kettle Restaurants, as well as the John Carver Inn in Plymouth and the Cape Codder Resort, in Hyannis. Since acquiring the Dan’l Webster, they have restored it with exquisite taste and respect for its heritage – there are antique furnishings and Sandwich glass.
The Catania family also acquired the historic house next door. A marker outside the house tells the story: Nancy Fessenden married Capt. Ezra Nye in 1826 and moved into the house following their wedding. She was the daughter of the innkeeper (now the Dan’l Webster Inn). Nye was a famous captain who broke the speed record by sailing his clipper ship from Liverpool in 20 days, in 1829. Restored by the Dan’l Webster Inn in 1982, the house now offers accommodates four luxury suites, each named after prominent people associated with the inn, dating back to 1692.
The Dan’l Webster has become an award-winning hotel, spa and dining destination. Recognized as a Distinguished Restaurant of North America (placing it in the top 1% of restaurants in the country) it offers a choice of the casual Tavern at the Inn, the cozy Music Room or the more formal (and romantic) ambiance in a lovely glass enclosed Conservatory.
The Tavern at the Inn is an authentic replica of the two-centuries-old tap room where Daniel Webster made regular visits and which had been a meeting place for local Patriots during the Revolution.
In a village of many substantial attractions and places of interest, what truly stands out is the Heritage Museum & Gardens – a destination attraction. It hits on a spectrum of cylinders – 100 acres of magnificent grounds and trails on the banks of the Shawme Pond; the vast, stunning and notable gardens that feature internationally important collections of rhododendrons, including those created by Charles Dexter, collections of hydrangeas, over 1,000 varieties of daylilies, hostas, herb, heather gardens, and more than a thousand varieties of trees, shrubs and flowers along beautiful and easily walked paths.
Also, the JK Lilly III collection of vintage cars and folk art, and you can take a ride on a delightful working vintage carousel. There is also – imagine this – Hidden Hollow, an enchanting family-friendly outdoor adventure center where you can get a “squirrel’s perspective” of the forest. You should allocate the better part of a day to visit. (Heritage Museums & Gardens, 67 Grove Street, Sandwich, MA 02563, 508.888.3300, www.heritagemuseumsandgardens.org, open daily through Mid-October.)
What built Sandwich, though (and likely the reason that so many of its magnificent buildings reflect the prosperity of the early-1800s) was that in 1825, Deming Jarves built a glass factory to manufacture glass with a revolutionary process that made it affordable for the masses (Sandwich glass is still a thing). The factory grew rapidly to be one of the largest producers in the country with over 500 workers producing over five million pieces of glass annually by the 1850s. By the 1880s, labor strikes, an economic depression, and new factories being built further closer to natural gas fuel sources forced the factory to close.
Today, you can visit the Sandwich Glass Museum which displays original pieces created during the 1800’s and provides demonstrations of glass blowing techniques. The museum’s theater shows a great documentary of the history of Sandwich. Throughout the village there are several glass blowers and artists with open studios to visit, creating a dynamic center for contemporary glass art (Sandwich Glass Museum,120 Main St., 508-833-1540, www.sandwichglassmuseum.org).
A short walk from the Dan’l Webster Inn is the Dexter Grist Mill, a working grist mill since 1654 where you can still buy ground cornmeal, or draw fresh water from the well (as many locals do for their personal supply).
The Hoxie House, built in 1675, was lived in until the 1970s but was never modernized with electricity or plumbing. This saltbox is named after a whaling captain who owned the house in the mid-1800s. it is now a wonderful little museum house showing what family life was like in the 1600s.
Benjamin Nye Homestead & Museum, is the 18th-century home of one of the first 50 men who settled in Sandwich.
Also, the Wing Fort House, built in 1641, the oldest house in New England continuously owned and occupied by one family (63 Spring Hill Rd., 508-833-1540).
A short distance away, you can visit the Green Briar Nature Center & Jam Kitchen (6 Discovery Hill Road off Route 6A), which celebrates author and naturalist Thornton W. Burgess, who wrote the Peter Cottontail stories. There are nature programs, nature trails, a working 1903 Jam Kitchen, jam-making classes (508-888-6870, www.thortonburgess.org).
One of my favorite things about Sandwich is the proximity to the Cape Cod Canal which offers a 6.2 mile-long paved path (on each side) for biking, roller blading or just walking (the banks of the canal are also popular for fishing). Along the trail, you can visit the Aptucxet Trading Post, built by the Pilgrims in 1627 to facilitate trade with the Dutch at New Amsterdam and the Narrangansett Indians.
The Cape Cod Canal is a marvel (there is a visitor center on the mainland side that tells the history). The canal was constructed in 1914 – up until then, there were a tragic number of ships that were wrecked trying to sail around the peninsula. But it is astonishing to learn that interest in building the canal dated back to the earliest settlers: in 1623, Pilgrims scouted the area as the place best suited for a canal. In 1697 the General Court of Massachusetts considered a formal proposal to build a canal, but no action was taken. In 1776, George Washington, concerned about its military implications, studied the site. But it took until 1909 for construction to start. (60 Ed Moffitt Dr., 508-833-9676, www.capecodcanal.us).
Cape Cod also has the most marvelous network of dedicated bike trails.
Sandwich offers easy access to other marvelous places to visit on Cape Cod, like Falmouth, Wood’s Hole, Hyannis but you should spend at least a day on the other side of the Sagamore Bridge, in Plymouth, to visit a score of historic attractions associated with the Pilgrims, including the Mayflower II and Plimoth Plantation, one of the best living history museums anywhere.
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
When I finally reach the summit of Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park’s highest point at 1500 ft., having huffed, puffed and sweated my way by bike up the 3.5 mile long, ever-rising winding road, little kids come up with amazement. “We passed you on the road. You rode up here!” I must confess to beam with pride while also taking in the view. Looking down to the ocean, Bar Harbor and the Bar Harbor Inn at sea level where we started our ride some 20 miles and several hours earlier, I realize, “Wait a minute, We rode from there!” (In fact, the ride is mostly uphill from mile 12 to 20) The view is amazing, but having that physical, mental achievement is all the more satisfying.
That is what a bike tour is. The scenery, the attractions, the things you see and do are all amazing, but when you bike, there is that added component of being physically and mentally engaged.
Biking up Cadillac Mountain is the pinnacle of Discovery Bicycle Tour’s six-day Coast of Maine bike tour – and a peak of personal accomplishment – but each day presents its own series of highlights and delights. After all, this is Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, with one of the prettiest seacoasts anywhere. The daily itineraries are outstanding – each day’s route so carefully designed for a great ride, interesting attractions, gorgeous scenery.
This means we ride at our own pace, stop for photos or take a breath, take in the view, hike a trail, or just smell the roses. The guides never pressure you to keep with the group or finish the ride at a certain time. One of the two guides rides sweep to make sure everyone is okay, and the other drives the van along the route (where possible). They make every accommodation for riders, so when feasible, even shuttling some to the top of a slope, or on one day, starting three miles further. The two toughest climbs – Day Mountain and Cadillac Mountain are optional.
Another aspect of the way Discovery designs its itinerary is that it adds a lovely mix of other activities to round out the experience: a sunset sail on the historic schooner, Mary Todd; sea kayaking, a hike (we choose to walk across the land bridge at low tide to Bar Island) and on our last morning, they arrange a 4:30 a.m. drive up Cadillac Mountain in the van (you have to get a reservation to drive up Cadillac) for the sunrise, considered one of the primo-supremo experiences in Acadia. (Unfortunately for me, I miss out when my phone dies and I miss the alarm, but I awake just as the sun is rising out my window and dash down to the Shore Path.)
Both our guides, Cindy Burke and Tom Walsh are long-time veterans and particularly of this Coast of Maine itinerary, and filled us with marvelous insights into the history and people of the island, as well as point out specific parts of that day’s ride. And they have a particular challenge, having to re-jigger the rides inside Acadia after June storms forced the closure of the Eagle Lake carriage roads.
Being able to ride at our own pace is key. At the most popular Acadia sights and overlooks – like Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, Bubble Pond, Cadillac Mountain (where cars now need a timed reservation even to drive up), I can just get off my bike and strut over and spend as much time as I like, as when I wait and wait to try to get a photo of a whale’s geyser-like burst of water we spot offshore at Thunder Hole (at high tide, it is said to sound like thunder, but Cindy says most of the time it is a gurgle). Or when I just stop along the road to watch a lobsterman collect the lobsters, throwing back the ones that did not meet the rigid bigger-than-3.5-inches-and-smaller-than-5-inches regulations, and when I just want to get a better image of the stacks of lobster traps and realize Tom is waiting patiently (no judgment!) on the road until I continue the ride.
On our first day, we are encouraged to arrive by 1 pm for an orientation, getting fitted to our bikes, and then an optional 9.9-mile “Schooner Head Overlook Warm-up Ride” on the Park Loop Road in Acadia – except that it is raining. We decide to do it anyway and even when the rain becomes a real downpour, it is wonderful fun (and so fantastic to go into the Bar Harbor Inn’s heated pool and hot tub after). And it shows us, yes, we can ride hills in the rain!
For our Day 2 ride, we are ferried in the van to the start at Seal Cove Auto Museum, where they have pre-arranged our admission. I walk in and am completely enthralled. The museum has an outstanding collection that includes automobiles that are the last of their kind (a 1913 Peugeot is worth $3-5 million; a 1905 Pierce Great Arrow is very rare). But what makes the visit even more fascinating is its special exhibit, “Engines of Change: A Suffrage Centennial.”
Here I learn that Bertha Benz, inventor, business partner and wife of Karl Benz, got fed up with her husband’s endless tinkering so on August 5, 1888, grabbed her children and became the first person to drive an automobile over a long distance (65 miles), field testing the Benz Patent-Motorwagen. Her trip brought worldwide attention for the vehicle and got the company its first sales. (We actually see the 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen in the exhibit.)
The notes for the exhibit are fabulous: “In 1873, Harvard doctor Edward Clarke claimed that stimulating a woman’s brain would enfeeble her reproductive organs. Later, when automobiles were invented, it was a common belief that they were far too complicated for women to operate.”
Indeed, by giving women mobility, independence and an opportunity to demonstrate their capability, bicycles and automobiles were the “engines of change” that directly resulted in liberating women and winning the right to vote. Indeed, automobiles were even used in petition drives (we see examples of these cars and photos in the exhibit).
“Before 1900, few women would have had Bertha Benz’s access to an automobile. They did, however, gain greater geographic freedom through the invention of the safety bicycle in the 1880s…Early suffrage leaders credited the bicycle with doing more for women’s emancipation than anything else in the world. Women could more easily go beyond the limited areas where they could walk. This glimpse of a larger world appealed to many women and paved the way for embracing the automobile.”
“A girl who rides a wheel is lifted out of herself and her surroundings,” Ellen B. Parkhurst wrote ca. 1890. (Bicycles also paved the way for new, liberating fashion – bloomers, bicycle pants, and pants that converted to a skirt.)
“The bicycle did more for woman’s equality than anything” and automobiles further bolstered that. On the other hand, the notes say, “the 1917 Spanish flu almost put suffrage out of business.
Meanwhile, automobiles were designed to appeal to women – the electric automobile was clean, noiseless, and slow, versus the fast, loud, gasoline cars oriented to men. (Seal Cove Auto Museum, 1414 Tremond Road, Seal Cove, Maine, 207-244-9242, sealcoveautomuseum.org).
I spend a fair amount of time in the museum before heading out for the day’s mile ride, which takes us to charming coastal villages. A stunning scene is at Thurston’s Lobster Pound.
Another highlight is the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, the only lighthouse within Acadia National Park (one of the most photographed in Maine). I walk a beautiful trail to a rocky area below the lighthouse where you have to scramble over the boulders to get any view at all of the Lighthouse (the best view here would have been to get further down to the water, but it starts to rain again).
I continue riding, stopping to hike the Ship Harbor trail, pass by the Wonderland Trail, and ride into the scenic Seawall picnic area, where, we are told, Nor’easters have been so powerful, they spray the rocks onto the road.
Our ride ends in charming Southwest Harbor, where the van returns us to the Bar Harbor Inn.
Almost all the rides include Acadia on the Park Loop road and on the marvelous carriage trails.
Built so that horses pulling carriages would not be strained (we even see one of the carriages as it returns to the stables in the park), much like rail-trails, they are not particularly steep but are a bit steeper and hillier than rail-trails. A good portion of the rides are also on the roads which can have longer, somewhat steeper climbs.
There are 45 miles of gravel carriage trails in Acadia – the gift of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. who wanted to travel on motor-free byways through the mountains and valleys by horse and carriage. Today, the opportunity to bike through forest is one of Acadia’s special draws.
Constructed between 1913-40, the roads were designed to preserve the line of hillsides and save trees, align with the contours of the lands, and take advantage of scenic views – hence the ups and the downs. Some 16 feet wide, they are in the style of broken-stone roads commonly used at the turn of the 20th century. Tom points out the magnificent architecture of the stone bridges that span streams, waterfalls, motor roads and cliff sides (there are 17 of them), the two gorgeous gate lodges, and the granite coping stones used as guardrails that line the roads (which Rockefeller complained were too precise, not natural enough), affectionately nicknamed “Rockefeller’s teeth.”
Tom and Cindy had to re-jigger rides almost on the fly because sections of the carriage roads (notably the Eagle Lake carriage roads) they normally ride are closed for re-construction after a major June storm (but we hardly noticed, though I had to almost sneak through a barrier to get a photo of picturesque Eagle Lake). Of the 47 miles of carriage roads, Tom estimates we bike almost half. (I try to imagine how I would have figured out where to go in Acadia without their route maps that say, “Sharp left onto Around-Mountain Carriage Road, Post #14. Stay right at Post #1, right at Post #20, left at Post #19, right at Post #18, Left on Post #13, Left on Post #11, straight at Number #6”)
Day 3’s ride also begins with us being ferried to the start – on the “quiet side” of Mount Desert Island, for a delightful ride along the scenic coastal Sargeant’s Drive, passing lovely “cottages” into Northeast Harbor, a quick visit to the Asticou Azalea Gardens before we enter Arcadia National Park and ride the Carriage Roads. We get to the renowned Jordan Pond House (famous for popovers, but the crowds are ridiculous) and here we can choose to take an 8.2 mile extension to Day Mountain, with a 694-foot elevation. (No one does the extension because there is some possibility of rain.)
Wednesday, Day 4, breaks up biking with a sensational day of kayaking and hiking. National Park Sea Kayak Tours does a marvelous job. We kayak about 6.5 miles, spotting harbor seals, porpoise, loons, bald eagles, and are back just in time for low tide which lets us walk the land bridge to Bar Island. (There is something very magical about a land bridge appearing every day, then disappearing back under the water, especially so when as we return, fog rolls in, blanketing the scene.). Walking back to the Bar Harbor Hotel, you see the same image as depicted in the historic photos, from the 1940s.
Day 6 (Friday), which is the getaway day, offers a mild 10-mile ride on the Duck Brook Carriage Roads, passing beaver ponds and the scenic Eagle Lake. I take my time, really taking in the landscapes.
But before, they have organized a ride up to Cadillac Mountain for sunrise, which means meeting at the van by 4:30 am (my phone dies and I miss the wake-up, but get up on my own at 5 am for sunrise, so walk along the shore path).
We have enough time each afternoon to really enjoy the historic Bar Harbor Inn (it dates from 1887), which hands down has to be one of my very favorite places to stay in Bar Harbor – luxurious but cozy, exquisitely landscaped, a stunning (heated) infinity pool with one of the prettiest views in the world, a spa, a dining room with picture windows out to the water where we have lavish breakfasts (and a choice to have continental-style breakfast in the pool house), magnificently poised on the point overlooking Frenchman Bay and the Shore Path, walking distance to Bar Harbor’s shops and restaurants, and all our rooms are oceanfront with a balcony (www.barharborinn.com).
Bar Harbor is bustling – some say it is the busiest summer in this popular tourist town since perhaps forever with people making up for last year and not taking a chance on putting off experiences – but we just breeze passed the crowds and the line of cars. Well, maybe “breeze pass” is an exaggeration. We pedal passed at whatever speed we can muster or choose. Also, because our lodging (in the absolutely gorgeous Bar Harbor Inn) and dinner reservations are booked well in advance, we have both when it is obvious that others, traveling on their own, do not.
Cindy, who is a history buff, regales us with wonderful insights into the places we ride: The interesting, if disturbing, history of American Indians on Mount Desert, the Wabanaki (“People of the Dawnland”), consisting of four distinct tribes—the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot – who had come seasonally to Mount Desert Island for 12,000 years to hunt, fish, harvest clams, berries and sweetgrass for basket-weaving. In the early 1900s, they had encampments on Bar Island and at West Harbor and sold baskets and goods and performed as Western Indians for tourists at the hotels. “They were allowed to stay because they had stuff the whites wanted,” Cindy says. She recommends visiting the Abbe Museum, which has a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution and holds the largest and best documented collection of Maine Indian basketry and contemporary Wabanaki craft tradition (abbemuseum.org). (I regret not having the time to visit.)
And before we head out on the Day 5 ride, which starts with a turn onto Schooner Head Road, Cindy tells the story of a woman who perished on Titanic. Her house, High Seas, on Schooner Head Road, may be haunted, Cindy says, relating her personal experience.
Everything about the Discovery Bicycle tour is topnotch – on three nights, we enjoy wonderful dinners in some of Bar Harbor’s best restaurants and for two of our rides, we are provided box lunches we pre-ordered to take with us.
The ride is billed as “easier to intermediate,” but it is best if you do not expect the rides to be easy or expect that “coastal Maine” has anything “flat.” There are lots of ups and downs – mostly short – and the rides are definitely do-able if you have the right mental framework (“I can do it.”) and the guides do their best to accommodate riders’ ability.
Coast of Maine is a particularly relaxing bike tour – because as much as I enjoy inn-to-inn (or supported camping trips) so that every day you are moving forward to a new destination, this trip spends all the nights at the Bar Harbor Inn. That means we don’t have to pack up each morning to get our luggage out to the van and no matter how thoroughly wet we get, we can luxuriate and relax in a heated infinity pool and hot tub. (Boat/bike tours have the best of both worlds).
A bike tour is also one of the best ways to enjoy traveling in these times of concern over COVID-19.
Notably, Thistle Cone surveyed all the tour participants as to our COVID-19 vaccine status and reported back to us that we were all fully vaccinated (which I appreciated knowing). A bike tour also maximizes our time out of doors, socially distanced; our hotel rooms all had our own access and really, the only times we were gathered together inside was for breakfast (if we chose), the morning meeting and the dinners in restaurants, which, notably, were also following COVID restrictions of distancing and capacity.
They are also monitoring and reacting to changes in conditions, for example, recently asking guests to wear masks in the van and where social distancing isn’t practical. “The good news is that your tour deposits are completely refundable (with no penalties for changes) until the final payment date. So you can reserve with confidence.”
There are still several departures of the Coast of Maine bike tour this season.
Also, Discovery Bicycle Tours offers what may be the first to design an itinerary on New York State’s new Empire State Trail, from the tip of Manhattan to Albany (the trail continues north to the Canadian border, and connects with the 353-mile east-west Erie Canalway).
In addition, Discovery has bike tours to Cape Cod; Idaho; Mickelson Trail & Black Hills, South Dakota; Tucson & Saguaro National Park; Lake Champlain Islands; Crater Lake & Scenic Bikeways; Texas Hill Country; as well as abroad including Bike & Barge Moselle River; Catalonia Trails; Chile’s Lakes & Volcanoes; Cotswolds & Stonehenge; and New Zealand Trails.
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
There is a mystery to be unraveled, as intriguing as an Agatha Christie whodunnit, but without the murder and mayhem: How were the 26 passengers on the historic Maine Windjammer, Victory Chimes, who came from as far as California, Utah, North Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania connected? And who among us is the interloper, unconnected to anyone else? Is it coincidence or providence that brings us together?
The mystery provides marvelous intrigue during the course of the six-day cruise sailing from Rockland, Maine, among the islands of Penobscot Bay.
A windjammer cruise is as much about experiencing the thrill of the Great Age of Sail, when these mighty schooners sailed with the wind and waves to bring the timber, building stones and raw materials that built the nation – literally engines of the economy – as it is about reconnecting with the joys of simple pleasures as basic as conversation and song.
Song and storytelling, indeed, are the theme of this sailing (many Windjammer cruises have a theme or focus), which features music on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings by singer/songwriters Mike and Amy Aiken. And on another enchanting evening, several of us listen in as Mike and the multi-talented Chef Adam Travaglione (who is also a musician in addition to being a fabulous chef, raised in his family’s restaurant) compose a song honoring the legacy of the Victory Chimes. The Aikens have sailed up to Rockland on the boat they have lived on for the past 21 years from their homeport on the Chesapeake (a clue to solving the mystery).
Here in Maine are the largest concentration of these historic sailing ships in North America, nine of which are members of the Maine Windjammer Association, sailing out of Rockland and Camden.
Each has its own story, its own character. And each sailing is different, even on the same ship – the product of the serendipity and alchemy of people (passengers as well as captain and crew), weather (which often provides the drama, whether because of fog or squall), and where we wind up anchoring. There is no itinerary. The captain sets course following the wind, weather and whimsy.
Each afternoon, after we drop anchor in some cove or harbor, Captain Sam Sikkema, the newest owner/caretaker of the Victory Chimes’ 121-year legacy, gathers us around with a map, reviews that day’s route and tells us the back stories of the people and places where we have sailed. In the afternoon or the morning before we set out again, we tender to shore to explore. (Maine has some 3,000 islands and 7,000 miles of coastline.)
Deer Island; Little Island; Burnt Isle (privately owned, but we are allowed to walk a shoreline trail); Merchants Run – so named because of the deep water that accommodated the big ships carrying lumber, granite, cattle, which island residents would stockpile and sell to the bigger ships; Crotch Island – named for its notch – is half its original height because so much granite has been taken out to build buildings in New York City and federal courthouses.
We watch as fog literally rolls in and envelops the Victory Chimes anchored in Brooksville, as we tender back to the ship. Later, anchored in Pulpit Harbor on North Haven (which, Captain Sam tells us, was mentioned by the explorer Samuel Champlain in 1515 and the osprey nest on a rock that leads into the harbor), we again watch as fog rolls in, making everything around seem to vanish as if by magic.
The Victory Chimes – the largest in the Maine Windjammer fleet at 128 feet and the only three-masted schooner left in North America out of 4,000 built in the Great Age of Sail – was designed to be sailed by just three, which seems amazing considering how 10 of us line up to help haul in the line to raise the sail.
“Victory Chimes not only exemplifies the 19th and early 20th century development of large American wooden schooners intended primarily, though not exclusively, for the coasting trade on both east and west coasts, but she is the only surviving example of the ‘Chesapeake ram’ type and one of only two surviving examples of a three masted schooner in the United States.”
To give you an idea of just how big – and the challenge of keeping such a historic vessel sailing – the masts of Oregon Douglas fir are over 80 feet in height. “A straight tree 110 feet tall is required to get the necessary length a full 21 inches in diameter.”
There is a six-horsepower Sea Gear engine to raise the anchor (the same one that was installed in 1906 to replace the original donkey engine) but no propulsion engine, so now – as then – there is a yawlboat, Enoch, that pushes the ship when the wind is not sufficient. That innovation, indeed, is what made the Victory Chimes such a cash-cow for its original owner, who made back the $12,000 he paid to build her in 1900, in the first year.
Designed by JMC Moore, her stout build, simple rig and yawl boat made her one of the most profitable ships ever to sail. The Edwin & Maud (as it was originally named by its first Captain, Robert Riggen for his sons) was one of 30 “Ram” schooners – nicknamed for the way they “rammed through” the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and through the sea. Victory Chimes is the last one.
The schooner rigging – as opposed to the square rigging of ocean-going ships – was a major American innovation that allowed the vessels to be nimble and fast, and operated with a minimal number of crew for maximum profit for the owner.
Cruising each day, we get to help raise the sails, but it is really a marvel to watch the intricate ballet of the crew performing physically demanding tasks – even daring-do – such as climbing those 80-foot tall masts to repair rigging, or snapping to with agility, strength and precision, to reposition sails and rigging to sail us out of the way of a storm.
Captain Sam or Chief Mate Tripp shout commands or signal with hand gestures and the crew calls back, “Ready throat, ready peak. Mainsail halyards hoist away.”
We pull rapidly, the line flying through our hands, until the line finally strains. Then comes the order to “Heave,” to which we respond “Ho” as two crew members pull down vigorously on their lines. Heave. Ho. Heave. Ho. Then, “Throat make fast. Peak make fast.”
And finally the call to “ease up” which is our order to take two steps forward followed immediately by the command, to “drop the line”.
Things get exciting – and we passengers just stand quietly out of the way, watching in awe and fascination – as the crew races to maneuver Victory Chimes out of the way of a squall. Captain Sam shouts out with urgency: “Hard left. James start the boat. Ahead 2000. Take in the mizzen. Take in the outer jib, then take in everything else. Bring James his foulies!”
Captain Sam navigates far south, tacking to avoid the storm. “The crew mustered the hell out of that squall,” he says later with a combination of pride and relief.
I love the language of sailing – “Scandalize the fore main;” “Cast the jigger right off” – and this description of Victory Chimes’ rigging: “The traditional ‘ram’ rig was a standing jib, flying jib, staysail (also called a forestaysail), foresail, mainsail and spanker (or mizzen), which Victory Chimes carries today. The heads of the fore, main and mizzen sails are supported by gaffs and the feet are laced to booms.”
(It’s amazing how many everyday expressions come from sailing: “Above board.” “Learn the ropes.” “Know the ropes.”)
The Edwin & Maud worked carrying cargo through World War I, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression and World War II. By 1944, still sailing as a merchant vessel out of Baltimore, Edwin & Maud monitored the anti-submarine mine field at Chesapeake Bay and kept a sharp lookout for German U-Boats.
But then, mechanization of the war effort gave rise to bigger ships that made the old wood ships uneconomical. Hundreds were burned or just left to decay.
By 1946, the Edwin & Maud ended her career transporting cargo – lumber, mainly, but also salt, pumpkins, fish scrap for fertilizer or anything to pay the freight – and was converted into a new concept of “dude cruiser” by Herman Knust of Chesapeake Bay Vacation Cruises.
Originally, where the cargo hold would have been, are now 19 cabins (15 with two-berths, two with four berths and one each with a single and a triple berth) with the main saloon and galley.
In 1954, Capt. Frederick “Boyd” Guild brought the ship to the Maine coast and renamed her Victory Chimes after a Canadian coastal schooner he admired as a boy that had been launched on Armistice Day.
She survived a succession of other owners: A Minnesota bank president wanted to sail it on Lake Superior but couldn’t get certified (his own bank foreclosed). It was purchased at auction in 1987 by Domino’s Pizza and renamed Domino Effect. When Domino’s sold off its fleet, Victory Chimes was slated to be sent to Japan to be converted into a restaurant.
Captain Kip Files and Captain Paul DeGaeta, who oversaw the Domino’s restoration, purchased the vessel to keep her from leaving the country, changed the name back to Victory Chimes and returned her to the Maine windjammer trade. Maine’s Legislature welcomed her back with a special resolution.
In 1997, Victory Chimes was named an American National Historic Landmark under the Maritime Heritage Program of the National Parks Service, becoming one of only 127 vessels with that designation. (Apparently, though, historic vessels are not entitled to tax credits as historic landmarks.)
I had sailed on the Victory Chimes some years ago in the exciting annual Schooner Race with Captain Kip Files, who was her caretaker for 24 years.
Now Captain Sam Sikkema has the weighty responsibility of being Victory Chimes’ owner/caretaker. He acquired Victory Chimes in 2018 and had a great season in 2019 before being locked down by COVID-19 in 2020 – for perhaps the first year in its long history. PPP funding helped them stay afloat.
Captain Sam has had quite a sea-going career that began with sailing dinghies with his father on Lake Michigan. He has sailed around the world, on every ocean, in schooners, square riggers, training ships, yachts, fishing vessels and commercial vessels, as well as worked with maritime museums and shipyards as a carpenter and a rigger. Over the years, he sailed as crew on Niagara, Bounty, Sorlandet, Denis Sullivan, Californian, Red Witch, Nina, Robert C Seamans, Spirit of Bermuda, Alabama, Highlander Sea, Columbia, Victory Chimes and the 1841 Whaling Ship Charles W Morgan (serving as Captain Kip’s Chief Mate). He has been Captain of the sailing vessels Friends Good Will, Lynx, Tole Mour, Harvey Gamage, and the training ship Picton Castle, taking her across the North Atlantic Ocean four times. And he sailed the world with his cat, Fiji, who delights us with her antics.
“Of all the places I’ve sailed, my favorite place to sail is right here on the coast of Maine.”
“I am truly honored to be the new caretaker of this vessel and hope to bring new life to her while holding true to the authentic nature of the experience you have enjoyed in the past,” Captain Sam writes to past Victory Chimes passengers.
Cara Lauzon joins Mike and Amy Aiken for their Friday evening concert, when we are anchored in Rockland Harbor.
But on an evening when they aren’t performing, song spontaneously breaks out – starting with commercial jingles of our Baby Boomer youth, then going to popular rock and roll songs (Broadway musicals are not allowed).
For the “A” personalities on board (Sherman, who sailed his own boat up from the Chesapeake to come on this ship, crewed a sailing ship to Antarctica; Karen and Eric were next traveling to Alaska to fish, others share stories about biking trips in Europe), a windjammer cruise provides a rare luxury to just chill out. But each evening when we anchor, Sherman is first to take out the small sailboat (as is Captain Sam), Ed grabs the rowboat, and Glenn jumps into the water for a swim.
We scan the waters for seals, porpoises, birds. The photographers among us are constantly looking out for picturesque scenes to capture, reminiscent of the great seascapes of Winslow Homer and J.M.W. Turner and the Maine landscapes immortalized by the Wyeths (which we can see in the Farnsworth Museum, in Rockland).
Even in the rain it is pleasant on board – the crew puts out awnings so we can still stay on deck if we want and the Victory Chimes, the largest of the Maine Windjammers, with a capacity for 40 passengers, has a fairly large mess area, which doubles as a kind of lounge when it is not set up for dining, where it is pleasant to spend time reading in the evening. There is always coffee and tea, fresh fruit out and whatever dessert is left over from lunch or dinner.
Eating aboard the ships is one of the distinct pleasures. I can imagine a slight rivalry among the ships for best cook, and Victory Chimes cook, Chef Adam, would easily be among the winners, especially with his freshly baked everything (not too sweet or rich). Chef Adam prides himself on researching alternatives for people who have diet restrictions.
There is a routine to the day around food: coffee is brought up to the deck at 7 am; the bell for breakfast is rung at 8 am, precisely after the flags are raised. Lunch is served at noon. Appetizers are brought up to the deck at 5 pm (there is a cooler for you to store your beer or wine, but wine is served with dinner), and dinner at 6 pm. There is always coffee and tea and fresh fruit available. Meals are served family style – breakfast in the galley, lunch and dinner mostly served on deck.
While every windjammer cruise is different, there are certain constants – the feeling of being transported back into this Golden Age of Sail and the traditional lobster dinner. Some of the captains do it on a secluded beach; others, like Victory Chimes, serve on board (as elegant as eating lobster can be) but each one is an unmatched culinary experience of the freshest, most succulent and sweetest lobster in unimaginable abundance that spoils you for lobster forever.
The hours spent sailing are relaxing and chilling out – like a floating beach holiday – reading, playing games like backgammon, scrabble. A group is doing macrame (usually there are knitters or knotters). But a main activity is just chatting, which is key to solving the mystery of what brought all of us together on this particular cruise.
By the time we depart – having celebrated birthdays and anniversaries as if we have always been joined – Diana has thoroughly investigated and charted the connections, solving the mystery: Just about everybody – through college roommates, music, book club, Philly folk festival, sailing, childhood friendships, neighbors and family, is somehow directly or indirectly connected to the Aikens. Who is the interloper? Me. (See her diagram.)
You stay overnight on Victory Chimes at the dock before departing Rockland (giving me time to enjoy Rockland and an outdoor Blues festival). On return, you depart usually by 10 am, giving you time to see the sights in Rockland – the not-to-be-missed Farnsworth Museum of Art and Homestead (www.farnsworthmuseum.org); walk the three-quarter mile long breakwater to the Rockland Lighthouse, and visit the Lighthouse Museum. If you overnight in the area (there are lovely B’n’Bs like the LimeRock Inn where I stayed on a prior visit), visit the Owl’s Head lighthouse (www.lighthouse.cc/owls/) and the Transportation Museum, both in Owl’s Head.
Definitely make time to visit the Farnsworth Museum, an absolute gem of an art museum with an extraordinary collection of Wyeths – NC, Andrew and Jamie. Reopened after the COVID-19 lockdown, it is presently showing stellar exhibits (all on through December, except for “Parallel Visions”, an astonishing exhibit matching Andrew Wyeth’s paintings with George Tice’s photos, which ends in October to make room for the Farnsworth’s annual holiday display), showcasing Maine’s role in American art. Key exhibits include “Betsy’s Gift: The Works of N.C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth,” “Women of Vision,” “Betsy Wyeth, Partner and Muse,” and “Transforming the Ordinary: Women in American Book Cover Design,” (Farnsworth Art Museum, 16 Museum Street, Rockland, ME 04841, 207-596-6457, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.farnsworthmuseum.org).
For 2021, the Victory Chimes is offering 3, 4, 5, and 6-night cruises through Sept 28.
If Yellowstone National Park makes you feel you have fallen into some surreal, other-worldly, “I can’t believe this is real” state, next-door neighbor Grand Teton National Park, barely an hour’s drive away, is Mother Nature in her purest, most pristine condition.
We leave West Jackson, going through Yellowstone Park. We realize we will miss Old Faithful by just a few minutes so go straight to West Thumb again (Eric had missed it the day before), wanting to be immersed, again, in its calming Zen – with the broad blue lake and intense thermal pools. The hour of the day changes the experience, but West Thumb is marvelous.
Then we are off to the Grand Tetons. Less than an hour’s drive away, Grand Teton National Park is a majorly different landscape and different experience from Yellowstone.
Leaving Yellowstone National Park from the South entrance, we drive into the Grand Teton National Park on the John D. Rockefeller Jr Memorial Parkway, encompassing 24,000 acres. Rockefeller bought up the land to preserve it and donated 32,000 acres to the federal government.
Here, there are sweeping vistas to snow-capped mountain peaks. Indeed, the 2.7 billion year old rocks in the core of the Teton Range are some of the oldest in North America, yet the mountains are mere youngsters in the planet’s geology. Ten million years ago, the movement on the Teton fault generated massive earthquakes, pushing up the mountains while the valley floor dropped, then erosion and glacial action sculpted the landscape and created habitats for plants and wildlife.
We see this on display when we stop at the overlook to Mount Moran, which, the notes say, “reflects all the geologic forces shaping the Teton Range. Formed of a massive block of metamorphic gneiss, cut by dikes of igneous granite and diabase, capped by sedimentary sandstone and flanked by glaciers, this formidable peak dominates the park’s northern skyline. The gneiss and granite are among the oldest rocks in North America, 2.7 and 2.5 billion years old. They form the core of the Teton Range. The vertical ‘Black Dike’ of 775 million year old diabase is about 150 feet wide and juts from the mountain face because the surrounding gneiss has eroded away.”
We pick up a picnic lunch at a well-stocked market at the Colter Bay Village and drive to the Chapel of the Sacred Heart for a scenic place for a picnic (swim, also), stopping along the way for some of the iconic views of the park, like Mount Moran.
We head next to Jenny Lake, one of the most visited places in Grand Teton National Park for good reason. Tucked away at the base of the Teton Range, the lake is a centerpiece of the park. From the east shore, you have stunning views of Teewinot Mountain, Mount St. John, and into Cascade Canyon. From the west shore, you can look back across the lake towards the valley of Jackson Hole. Here you find the Jenny Lake Visitor Center, housed in the historic Harrison Crandall Studio, dating from the 1920s.
We opt for the most scenic hike, which proves to offer just the right amount of challenge, that takes us to the most impressive features – Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point (about 3 miles one way), with an option to either walk back, finish the loop (5 miles more), or take the shuttle boat (fee charged) from just below Inspiration Point back to the Jenny Lake Lodge.
The hike is absolutely gorgeous and fun – Hidden Falls, cascading 100 feet, is stunning, and the extra hike a half-mile almost straight up to Inspiration Point gets interesting with a rocky, sheer cliff as a special finishing touch to make you feel you have really accomplished something.
From here, you can connect with the Cascade Canyon trail, and we go in search of a spectacular view that is supposed to be just about the next bend, and the next bend, and the next.
Cascade Canyon, a glacially carved u-shaped canyon, passes between Teewinot and Mount St. John to provide easy access into the Teton backcountry. This out-and-back trail is a popular option with visitors who want to get into the mountains without gaining a significant amount of elevation. While following Cascade Creek, the trail provides spectacular views of the surrounding peaks, including the Grand Teton, Mount Owen, and Teewinot. This trail also provides an opportunity to spot wildlife like moose and bears (really recommended to have bear spray with you and we heard a harrowing story from a restaurant manager encountering a bear here), as well as some of our alpine species like pika. (We spot a marmot.)
The trail continues 4.4 miles back into the canyon before splitting but you can turn back, making the hike as long or as short as you like. (Cascade Canyon is accessible via the Jenny Lake Loop Trail, 14.6 miles roundtrip, or you can shorten the hike to 8.8 miles by taking the shuttle boat.)
David, Laini and Eric continue further on the Cascade Canyon trail while I return to Inspiration Point for our hike back down, deciding to take the shuttle boat back. (If you are planning on using the shuttle boat, check their hours and prices – we are told to be at the dock no later than 7 pm; tickets are purchased directly at the boat dock; you can also rent a kayak at the marina.)
We finish our day in Jackson, an absolutely stunning town that makes a great effort (and success) to keep its Western charm.
We manage to get a table on the outdoor patio at Roadhouse Brewing Co for dinner (sensational beer).
Our second day in the Grand Tetons starts with a photo safari, as we hunt for iconic photos of the Grand Tetons. Indeed, the layout of the Grand Tetons – those vast vistas with the backdrop of snow-capped mountain peaks – makes this area especially popular with photographers. (Actually, Jackson Hole is a base for one of the most iconic wildlife photographers, Thomas D. Mangelsen, who has a gallery in Jackson, Images of Nature, as well as several other marvelous galleries; you can also visit the National Museum of Wildlife Art, 307-733-5771, www.wildlifeart.org.)
So we set out to find the iconic places, pretty much following Route 89/191 before swinging back on the Teton Park Road. (Of course, the time to be here is sunrise when the colors are most dramatic, but we do the best we can with what we have.)
We head to the top photo site on everyone’s list, Mormon Row on Antelope Flats, and the most photographed barns in Wyoming, possibly the world (probably because it is billed as the “most photographed barn”): the Thomas Alma Moulton Barn with the pointed roof and John Moulton Barn with the rounded roof, in front of the towering Tetons. If you are really lucky, a bison or few may wander into view. The structures date back 1890s, built by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints homesteaders. The best time is at sunrise.
Next is Schwabacher’s Landing – absolutely so picturesque. Here I am lucky to have the river calm and reflecting the mountain range. We walk a short distance and find a lovely spot under a tree to have our picnic lunch. I spot a beaver dam which is largely responsible for setting the scene, by damming up this branch of the Snake River and creating the ponds that let us photograph the reflection of the Tetons when the water is calm.
We continue on to the Snake River Overlook, a scene made iconic by Ansel Adams who was commissioned to photograph it for the National Park Service in 1941. His famous photograph showed the Snake River meandering through a pine forest, with the Tetons in the background, but in the more than 75 years since, pine trees have blocked a lot of the river bend so you can’t re-create the scene. Nonetheless, you feel you are channeling, or at least paying homage to Ansel Adams, when you shoot your own, using the filter to change to black-and-white for better effect.
Right at the Elk Ranch Flats, we get that iconic Wyoming image of a herd of bison in front of the snow-capped mountains.
The famous Oxbow Bend provides another great reflection of the Grand Tetons and Mount Moran in Snake River.
We next head over to the Signal Mountain road, off of the Teton Park Road, for the sweeping views of the valley from the summit.From here, you can see clearly the geology that controls the park’s natural communities, from valley wetlands to mountain alpine. The NPS notes describe how Ice Age glaciers periodically blanketed this landscape, last retreating 14,000 years ago, leaving behind river channels, outwash plains, glacial moraines, potholes, deep canyons and jagged peaks. Glaciers act like conveyor belts depositing rocky debris as ridges called moraines that contain rocks ground to the consistency of flour. Rock flour retains moisture allowing lodge pole pine forests to flourish. As glaciers retreat, blocks of ice drop to the valley floor and become buried in outwash gravel and when the ice melts, the resulting depression (pothole) forms a pocket of forest or wetland surrounded by a sea of sagebrush in the outwash plain. (This place is best at sunset, but then you would have to drive back down the steep, winding, narrow road in the dark).
Of course, the best photos are taken at sunrise and sunset – but that isn’t always practical, so you do the best with what you have.
After our photo/sights safari, we want to literally get into the swim of this exquisite wilderness. We head back to the Jenny Lake Lodge area to hike along String Lake trail, just north of Jenny Lake, which connects to Leigh Lake. Again, the scenery is just breathtaking -stunning views of the “Cathedral Group,” which includes 12,325-foot Teewinot Mountain, 13,770-foot Grand Teton and 12,928-foot Mt. Owen. At almost six-tenths of a mile we pass the Leigh Lake Trailhead. From here the trail continues to follow along the eastern shore of the narrow lake. We go purposefully to take in the gorgeous view of Mt. Moran, which, at 12,605 feet is the fourth highest mountain in Grand Teton National Park. It was named for artist Thomas Moran whose landscape paintings played a critical role in the creation of Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park (as we saw when we hiked the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone trail).
On the way back, we scout a great place for swimming in the glacial water (many of the areas have communal bear boxes for you to stow your stuff while you swim; we actually spotted some very large scat on the small wooden bridge). Refreshing. Brisk. Exhilarating. And the backdrop!
The town of Jackson is really fun, and so striking. The mountains come right into town (Snow King ski resort is right there); the National Elk Refuge is there (the herd seems to spend the summer elsewhere); an incredible network of bike paths take you all the way into the national park (there are many bike rental shops, plus City Bike which Eric and David used to explore).
We finish the evening in Jackson at Figs, a Lebanese restaurant (who would imagine!) at the swank Jackson Hotel (the meal is excellent), then wander around.
You can have a western musical dinner (“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and a saloon-style dinner at the Playhouse (Monday-Saturday, 307-733-6994, www.MTIShows.com.
Check out the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, a popular place for drinks, dancing and live entertainment since 1937, with an iconic vintage neon sign of a cowboy on a bronco.
The Elk Antler Arches that mark the four corners of Jackson’s historic George Washington Memorial Park (Town Square), is another iconic feature of Jackson. A stage coach makes a regular rotation around the square.
The next morning, we get to explore the town more, before I head out to the Jackson Hole Airport and David and Laini continue their road trip in their Subaru Forester they converted into a camper van, for points west.
We loved our stay at the Elk Country Inn, delighted with the accommodations (we booked months ago) that include two queen beds plus a sleeping loft with another queen bed, refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker, balcony, parking. The hotel also has an indoor/outdoor pool, laundry facilities (really appreciated), serves a lovely full breakfast, and is walking distance to everything, and a very short drive into the Grand Teton National Park. (Elk Country Inn, 480 West Pearl Avenue, Jackson 83001 WY, 307-733-2364).
(The Elk Country Inn is one of the Town Square Inns of Jackson Hole; the others are the 49er Inn & Suites, Antler Inn and Cowboy Village Resort, 800-4-TETONS, townsquareinns.com).
We split our stay among three hotels, staying two nights in each – in Gardiner, West Jackson and Jackson – researching and booking on hotels.com and booking.com. We appreciated the ability to cancel reservations (sometimes a special rate is nonrefundable, but most bookings on hotels.com can be cancelled for free) which gives us the ability to modify our itinerary. Seeing all the “no vacancy” signs everywhere we went confirmed we were clever to book early, especially this year when travel is resurging and the national parks top the list.
Whitewater Rafting Adventure in Big Sky
Between Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton, we spend a day in Big Sky, Montana, to go whitewater rafting on the Gallatin River, with Geyser Whitewater Expeditions.
We take the half-day (three hours) rafting trip on the Lower River, which affords “the most exciting” part with class III-IV rapids. Indeed it is. There is very little floating, most of the time being splashed, bumped, soaked and generally thrilled as you go through rapids with names like Screaming Left, Straightaway, House Rock and down the Mad Mile. Much of the setting is scenic, under the rock walls, but much is also alongside the road. The rafting is really fun, and our guide, Clay Kincer, is excellent – competent (most important), funny and informative and clearly enjoying his job. They rent the wetsuit as a separate charge (usually recommended).
There is also an Upper Whitewater trip, with Class II-III rapids (not as rough but you get some good soakings), and a scenic float (class I-II gentle cruise).
The company, founded in Big Sky by Eric Becker in 1992, also offers Adventure Zipline Tour; Nature Zip Tour (a half-day rafting and a pass to the Zipline Adventure Park), whitewater kayaking, and an Ousel Falls bicycle adventure (46651 Gallatin Road, Gallatin Gateway, MT, 406-995-4989, www.raftmontana.com)
By Karen Rubin, Eric Leiberman, David Leiberman & Laini Miranda
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
What makes Yellowstone National Park so astonishing isn’t the vast expanse of pristine wilderness but the natural features that are, to be frank, other-worldly, even surreal.
There are the spectacular attractions that have existed for hundreds of thousands of years, even millions of years and are dependable – the Old Faithfuls – and then there are the serendipitous surprises that are unique, never happened and never will happen that might be around any corner. Like coming upon a bison leaping into the air to grab a bird in flight. And the utter astonishment when you first come upon the neon colors of a boiling landscape.
But even the geologic features are constantly changing. And it happens before your eyes.
Yellowstone is essentially a supervolcano fueled by a hot spot in the earth’s mantle that causes magma to be closer to the surface than normal. The ongoing thermal activity fuels the park’s geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mudspots and creates the hypnogogic colored landscapes that makes Yellowstone so unique in the world. Who knew there is more thermal activity in this relatively small section than any other place on earth?
Indeed, formed by massive volcanic eruptions– the last about 631,000 years ago when the center of what is now the park collapsed, forming a 30 x 45-mile caldera, Yellowstone National Park has the most thermal geological features of any place in the world.
You go from one “I can’t believe this is real” sight to another in Yellowstone National Park. It is a constant string of “oh my god-s” that take your breath away.
Yellowstone is so vast (and so popular) that it is beneficial to have a plan and to figure out roughly the logistics (taking into account serendipitous detours and changes) since it can take 45 to 60 minutes just to get into the park to some of these most popular features.
So we set out to break up our visit by staying two nights each in three different locations: Gardiner (North entrance), West Yellowstone (West entrance) and Jackson (South Entrance) – which we find on hotels.com and booking.com (all the in-park hotels, lodges, campgrounds were under capacity restraints and already booked). Even our plan to enter the park through the Northeast entrance, putting us into the Lamar Valley (one of the best places for early evening wildlife viewing), enables us to see a whole region of the park at an ideal time.
We depart the Red Reflet Ranch in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, in the afternoon for the five-hour drive by way of Cody through Cooke City-Silver Gate, into the Park. We choose our route – the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway – deliberately for the stunning scenery and historic importance in the Nez Perce War, as described at the Dead Indian Rock Overlook. We stop in the charming town of Silver Gate, just outside the park, to get some elk brat on a bun from a food truck, while watching a bison that has wandered right up to one of the cabins.
We drive caravan style – David and Laini in their tripped out Subaru Forester converted into a camper van which they have already driven 2200 miles from New York and will subsequently travel 8300 miles on their coast-to-coast road trip, and Eric and I in a Mazda SUV we rented at Enterprise Rent-a-Car in Casper, Wyoming (lucky to have booked months ahead since they were out of cars).
The route brings us through the steep Absaroka Mountains, following the Soda Butte Creek as it flows down to the Lamar River into Yellowstone National Park through the Northeast entrance, and through the Lamar Valley just before dusk – prime time and optimum place to see wildlife.
The Northeast Entrance, considered the “quietest” of Yellowstone’s five gateways, is historic. It was constructed in 1935 in a rustic style which “subconsciously reinforced the visitor’s sense of the western frontier… not only the physical boundary, but the psychological boundary between the rest of the world and what was set aside as a permanently wild place.”
The Lamar Valley is a distinctive attraction in Yellowstone, considered one of the best places to see wildlife when they are most active, in the early morning and early evening. It is a large, wide-open valley carved by glaciers about 21,000 years ago which left boulders and ponds that dot the landscape and attract the wildlife.
The Lamar Buffalo Ranch was established here in reaction to the near-extermination of bison throughout the West in the 1800s. It was the first effort at intensive management to preserve a wild species. Fed and bred here, as the herd grew in size, bison were released to breed with the park’s free-roaming population. Bison from the ranch were also used to start and supplement herds on other public and tribal lands.
Sure enough, we are stopped frequently as herds of bison with their new calves, assert their right to cross the road or just stop in the road, seemingly oblivious to the cars. A ranger comes along and we are amazed at how he uses his siren but also actually maneuvers his car to nudge a bison out of the way so the traffic can flow again. It is at this moment that Laini sees a bison literally leaping into the air and catching a bird in its mouth.
We settle in to our cabin at the 406 Lodge in Gardiner, perfectly situated just few blocks from Northeast Entrance, then 5 miles to Mammoth Springs, where we stay for two nights before moving on to West Jackson and then to Jackson, for two nights each.
Day One in Yellowstone
We enter Yellowstone through the North entrance at Gardiner (much less crowded than other park entrances, and the only entrance open year-round). The historic Roosevelt Arch (named for President Theodore Roosevelt, who dedicated the arch by laying the cornerstone in 1903 and was responsible for creating the national parks system) is 50 feet high and built of local columnar basalt. Within the arch is engraved the iconic statement, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” This also serves as a reminder that Yellowstone was the first national park in the United States and the world, a philosophical statement of national purpose.
The road leading into the park from this entrance leads visitors along the Gardner River and up nearly 1,000 feet to Fort Yellowstone (where the US Army was based from 1891 to 1913) and Mammoth Hot Springs, the first visitor area to be developed in the park. It offers the historic Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins, Albright Visitors Center, gas station, ice cream and general store and a lovely picnic area which also serves as a meeting area for elk.
We immediately come upon the Mammoth Hot Springs, our first “attraction” in the park. The light is fairly dull when we arrive and we consider just blowing passed, but then we decide “no time like the present” and we can return on our way back if we like.
Best idea ever, because in just a few moments, the sun comes out, causing the rocks to glisten as steam rises. The textures, rolling shapes of water-worn rock, the patterns. Astonishing.
You walk a boardwalk up and around the formation, a massive hot spring complex of travertine terraces, considered one of the world’s best examples of hot travertine deposits. It is also one of the most dynamic hydrothermal zones in the park – its characteristics are constantly changing – which means that as you walk through, you are watching the process unfold before you. Even more intriguing is that the volcanic heat source for the Mammoth Hot Springs remains a mystery: Is it the large magma chamber underlying the Yellowstone Caldera, or perhaps a smaller heat source closer to Mammoth?
A network of fractures and cracks forms the “plumbing system” in Mammoth so underground hot water can reach the surface. “Small earthquakes can keep the plumbing open,” the notes say.
Limestone, deposited here millions of years ago when a vast sea covered this region, provides the final ingredient. Interestingly, while limestone is the dominant underlying rock here, rhyolite is the dominant rock in the other large hydrothermal zones of Yellowstone.
The dramatic colors we see are produced by thermophiles – heat-loving micro-organisms – which create tapestries of color where hot water circulates between the terraces, the National Park Service notes explain. Colorless and yellow thermophiles develop in the warmest waters; orange, brown and green grow in cooler waters. The colors change with the seasons.
Most astonishing is that we are watching “living sculpture” – the terraces are being shaped by the volume of water, the slope of the ground and the objects on the way to the water. “They change constantly and sometimes overnight, but the overall activity of the whole area and the volume of water discharges remain relatively constant. Here, the rock is formed before your eyes.”
(We walk the boardwalk but there is a more extensive 3.5 mile-long Mammoth Hot Springs Area Trail.)
We head next to Norris Geyser Basin, passing by the Obsidian Cliff – a dramatic cliff of black glass formed in volcanic areas where the magma is rich in silica and the lava cools without forming crystals, which is unusual for how enormous the cliff is, 98 feet (we should have stopped). But we make a quick stop at Roaring Mountain, where steam emanates from multiple fissures. A sign says that the mountain has been heard to roar and could be heard as far as four miles away (no roaring today).
Norris Geyser Basin
Norris Geyser Basin, one of the park’s major highlight areas, is the park’s hottest, most dynamic geyser basin.
Named for Philetus W. Norris, Yellowstone’s second superintendent, Norris Geyser Basin is where you see the Steamboat Geyser, believed to be the tallest active geyser in the world, shooting water and steam more than 300 feet high during a major eruption.
The scene when you walk down from the Porcelain Terrace overlook to Norris Geyser Basin is striking.
Norris Geyser Basin has many acidic hydrothermal features and stunning colors – due to combinations of minerals and thermophiles. Silica or clay minerals saturate acidic water to create a milky white appearance; sulfur presents pale yellow; iron oxides, arsenic and cyanobacteria the red-orange colors; another thermophile glows, while another thermophile appears purple to black where exposed to sun, but bright green beneath.
We walk the 1.6 mile-long boardwalk loop through the Porcelain Basin thinking we will return to do the longer, two-mile hike through the Back Basin later (that doesn’t happen).
Porcelain Terrace Overlook: “Parts of the whitish rock-sheet before you pulsate from the pressure of steam and boiling water beneath them. A number of geysers and other features here have been born suddenly in small hydrothermal explosions. Some features are ephemeral, their activity lasting a few hours, days, or weeks. A few others have become relatively permanent fixtures in the scene,” the NPS notes.
“At Norris, geothermal ‘disturbances’ take place annually. No other thermal area in Yellowstone exhibits this phenomenon. Mysteriously, features throughout the Norris area undergo dramatic behavioral changes, literally overnight. Clear pools become muddy and boil violently and some temporarily become geysers. These disturbances often occur in late summer and early fall but have been observed throughout the year.
“Features that typically behave as geysers may display altered eruption cycles or temporarily cease erupting. New features may be created during a disturbance, although they seldom remain long-term attractions at the basin. Disturbances tend to last from a few days to more than a week. Gradually, most features revert to ‘normal’ activity.
“Why this happens is not fully understood. Further study will no doubt yield new clues that will help unravel the mystery of this phenomenon and lead to a greater understanding of the earth’s hidden geologic forces.”
The colors are due to the living organisms that thrive even in the extreme environments of the acidic hot springs. Most interesting, the notes reveal, is that “These and other microscopic life forms are links to the emergence of life on earth billions of years ago. They are also a focus of research in the fields of medicine and criminal investigation. New tools for use in such complex areas as AIDS research and DNA ‘fingerprinting’ have been developed from the microscopic thermal organisms found in Yellowstone’s hot springs.”
In contrast to the Porcelain Basin’s open terrain with hundreds of geothermal feature, the Back Basin trail is forested and the features more scattered and isolated.
At Norris Geyser Basin you can also visit the Museum of the National Park Ranger.
We have a picnic lunch in the parking lot (the Rangers caution against eating anything in the vicinity of woods because of bears).
Heading next to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, we come across a vast plain where a herd of bison are basking in sun. This is calving season and we see scores of calves with their mothers.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is absolutely spectacular. The Lower Falls are stunning – in fact, it was this scene, painted by Hudson River School artist and conservationist Thomas Moran, that, it is said, convinced Congress to appropriate funding for America’s (and the world’s) first national park.
The Lower Falls are the more dramatic, dropping 308 feet (Upper Falls drop 109 feet). We get parking here (grab it!) and walk along the North Rim Trail for breathtaking views from Lookout Point (the vantage point for Moran, and not the misnamed Artist Point on the South Rim) and Grand View, and walking down staircases at two sites to get closer to the river. We walk on toward Inspiration Point but decide to return to the car instead and drive there (the park does a miserable job of telling you distance between points).
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River extends 20 miles, is more than 1,000 feet deep, and ranges from 1,500 to 4,000 feet wide. Most striking are the color patterns in the rock – reds caused by oxidation of iron compounds in the rhyolite rock that has been “cooked” by the hydrothermal activity; yellows from sulfur. Looking down at some points, it is like a dizzying kaleidoscope.
The Yellowstone River flows 671 miles from the Younts Peak in the Absaroka Mountains, to the Missouri River, near the Montana–North Dakota border. From there, the waters travel to the Mississippi River and on out to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. The Yellowstone River is considered the longest undammed river in the Lower 48 states.
The North Rim Trail is utterly stunning at every step, taking you to multiple vantage points of both the Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls, Crystal Falls and Inspiration Point, extending four miles. We do most of the trail. Definitely do the climbs down toward the river for the views back to the falls. (For a great description of the entire North Rim hike, https://www.hikespeak.com/trails/north-rim-trail-grand-canyon-of-the-yellowstone-river/)
On the way back to Gardiner, we stop at Swan Lake Flat, for one of the famous views to the Gallatin Mountains. And at the last turn out of the park, we spot an American Eagle perched on a rock.
We are very content with our lodging in Gardiner, a cabin at the 406 Lodge. Our cabin has two queen beds, a living room and kitchenette, and is walking distance to shops and restaurants (Subway, located just across the bridge from us and open until 10 pm, is ideal to purchase the next day’s picnic lunch) and a few short blocks to the North entrance to Yellowstone (little line up here). (406 Lodge, 204 3rd St South, Gardiner, MT, 59030, 800-246-8357).
by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
With more and more people – especially those over 65 years old and the most vulnerable – getting vaccinated, Americans are chomping at the bit to get out there and reconnect with family. For many, the ideal destinations are national and state parks, where there is space and enough outdoors, plus all the experiences being in nature affords, to bring the entire family together. Not surprisingly, bookings are already skyrocketing, with campsites, RV rentals, hotels nearest the parks, still operating with COVID19 restrictions, filling up. Those who are just emerging from an isolation mindset may have awakened to find space already booked.
In fact, Tracks & Trails, which specializes in packaging RV vacations to national parks in the western United States and Canada, citing unprecedented demand, is opening 2022 reservations on April 1.
RV Vacations, Novel Lodgings Surge
RV vacations skyrocketed in popularity over this past year, giving renewed focus on the “road trip,” because they offer the freedom and flexibility of touring the country in a fully-equipped and self-contained unit that has everything needed for a perfect vacation. “Picture it as your personal cabin on wheels going to scenic places where lodges or hotels often don’t exist,” said Dan Wulfman, founder and president of Tracks & Trails, whose specialty is packaging RV vacations to national Parks in the Western U.S. and Canada – not just renting the RV.
RV travel allows friends and families to be autonomous and as private as they please while enjoying the freedom of America’s open roads. Time for lunch? Just pull off at the next scenic turnout and open the fridge. Potty stop? Easy. End the day in the natural beauty of national park campsites chosen especially for Tracks & Trails travelers.
Wulfman notes that the pandemic is turning millions of non-campers into aspiring RVers, and the trend is exploding. The RV Industry Association found that 20% of US residents surveyed are more interested in RV travel than in flying, tent camping, cruises, or rental stays amid coronavirus concerns.
“But getting in an RV and setting off without a plan can be daunting for a first-timer,” says Wulfman, who introduced the concept of packaged RV vacations in 1996. “That’s where the sage advice, travel tips, and insider knowledge of experts can make or break the experience. Because of COVID, choosing your dates 6 to 12 months in advance is now essential.”
Tracks & Trails is sold out for July and August of 2021, but trips in September and October may still be available. And due to unprecedented demand, the company will begin accepting reservations for 2022 trips on April 1, 2021.
For those savvy enough to lock in their dates early, the hard part is done. The company’s team of expert planners handles all the arrangements that make it so challenging to organize a worry-free 7-14 day, multi-destination RV trip on your own. Travelers work with their T&T Trip Wizard to select one of the 20 carefully-crafted itineraries, decide on the right RV, and pick optional excursions that suit their tastes. The company takes care of the rest: reserving prime campsites, booking guided excursions with trusted outfitters, and preparing comprehensive documentation that ensures things go smoothly on the road.
One of Tracks & Trails’ most popular itineraries is the 13-night Mighty 5: Utah & the Grand Canyon beginning and ending in Las Vegas that visits all 5 of Utah’s national parks – Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches – and the Grand Canyon. Optional excursions that can be prearranged include canyoneering, rafting, ATV riding, horseback riding, and Jeep tours. The base trip cost, which includes up to 4 people, ranges from $8,000 to $10,000 and is available from May 15 to October 15 (sold out July-August 2021). (www.tracks-trails.com, email@example.com, 800-247-0970)
Another source for RV vacations is Blacksford, a new recreational vehicle rental business with an all-inclusive pricing model that includes unlimited miles, no generator fees, bedding, bath and kitchen supplies, free Wi-Fi, free annual national park pass and 24-hour roadside assistance. Blacksford also curates road trip experiences by connecting travelers with vetted campsites, guides and other hand-picked attractions. https://www.blacksford.com.
Other sources for places to stay:
Xanterra Travel Collection (www.xanterra.com) is the management company that oversees lodgings – including the campsites, cabins and lodges – in many of the most popular national parks, including the most iconic hotels, like El Tovar in the Grand Canyon, the Inn at Death Valley, Zion Lodge and the historic hotels and lodges in Yellowstone. For information about what’s open, what services will be available, reservations as well as any travel guidelines in this post-quarantine world, go to https://www.xanterra.com/contact/national-parks/.
In many instances, the best way to experience the national parks is through a tour program with an outfitter or company that specializes in hiking, wilderness, nature, or any number of specialties. Not only do they bring an extra measure of enjoyment, literally maximizing the experience, but also have access and expertise casual travelers do not have. Tour companies range from those that are laid back, sightseeing oriented – the classic bus tour like Tauck (tauck.com) and Collette Tours (gocollette.com); find more at Escorted National Parks Tours (escortednationalparkstours.com, 800-942-3301) – to active, adventure trips, even private expeditions.
Backroads has trips to Yellowstone & Tetons, Glacier, Kenai, Olympic, Arches & Canyonlands, Bryce, Zion & Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Yosemite, Saguaro & Tucson, Hawaii, Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, Everglades, https://www.backroads.com/tours/national-park-vacations, 800-462-2848
Roadscholar, specializing in trips for seniors, offers 220 national parks trips in Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Sedona, Yellowstone, Banff, Appalachian Trail, Mt. Rushmore, Group or solo packages include lodging, meals, & expert-guided educational tours. (Roadscholar.org/parks)
Off the Beaten Path (www.offthebeatenpath.com), based in Bozeman, Montana, is an outdoor, active travel company offering guided small group adventures and private custom journeys across the globe, including national park experiences in the Rocky Mountains, Desert Southwest, and Alaska.
Western River Expeditions operates rafting trips in Grand Canyon, Utah and Idaho, 866-904-1160 (Local: 801-942-6669) or visit http://www.westernriver.com/. Western River Expeditions is an adventure travel company headquartered in Salt Lake City, with operations and offices in Moab, Utah and Fredonia, Arizona. Annually from March through October it escorts more people down rivers on professionally guided rafting trips in Utah, Idaho and Arizona than any other company. It is the largest licensed outfitter in the Grand Canyon and the largest single tour provider in Moab, UT, through its division Moab Adventure Center (http://www.moabadventurecenter.com/).
OARS (www.oars.com), famous for rafting trips through the Grand Canyon, has introduced a series of “Road to Whitewater” road trips: five itineraries that lead to at least one major rafting adventure, as well as incredible sites and experiences along the way. The itineraries are designed with Covid-19 protocols and precautions in place. Itineraries include: Colorado Rod Trip: Denver to Dino Loop in Northwest Colorado, Utah and Wyoming; the Scenic route to the Lower Salmon and Hells Canyon from Portland Oregon; San Francisco to Southern Oregon to experience national parks, wild rapids, majestic redwoods and coastal vibes; Salt Lake City to Moab, an ultimate Utah national parks road trip; Los Angeles to Yosemite; and The Tahoe to Yosemite Loop (www.oars.com/road-trips, 800-346-6277).
Novel Ways to Experience The Outdoors
With sustainably built, LEED-certified “tiny house” cabins, Fireside Resort in Jackson Hole, is nestled in a wooded setting at the foot of the Teton Range, enabling guests to get back to nature while enjoying the intimacy of a boutique hotel and the ambiance of their own cozy residence. https://www.firesidejacksonhole.com/
Guests at the Red Reflet Ranch, a 28,000-acre luxury guest ranch in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, stay in fully-stocked private cabins and enjoy farm-to-table cuisine while participating in equestrian programs, cattle branding, hiking, mountain biking, ATVing, fly fishing, shooting, family-friendly activities and cooking classes. https://red-reflet-ranch.net/
A stay at The Wilson Hotel in Big Sky, Montana, offers the opportunity to explore the surrounding mountains, rivers and Yellowstone National Park. Go hiking through shaded forests and wildflower-filled alpine meadows, float or fly fish a clear, cool river, experience the adrenaline rush of lift-served mountain biking at Big Sky Resort, or tour the natural wonders and wildlife of Yellowstone. https://thewilsonhotel.com/
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
The biggest travel trend to explode out of the time of Corona is ad-VAN-turing – basically a freewheeling adventure in a tricked out van (sleeker than an RV but with most if not all the comforts of a studio apartment on wheels). These high-tech, luxury mobile campers are designed to be self-sufficient, carrying their own water, electricity, toilet, galley kitchen, even solar panels for energy so you don’t have to plug in, but can still have enough power in reserve to run the heat at night so you have incredible mobility and freedom to explore.
In mid-December, we took off with an indefinite week-long itinerary from Sonoma, California, in a Moterra camper van which we picked up in San Francisco.
We spent our first day skiing at Heavenly Resort in Lake Tahoe, California (we stayed overnight a couple blocks away from the parking lot, which made getting first chair easy!).
From there, we drove down to Death Valley National Park, spending one night at the Panamint Springs RV park and another at the trailhead for Telescope Peak (fairly desolate this time of year). We were really impressed with how our van got us safely to the base of mountain treks without issue, thanks to the four wheel drive.
Though the mid-December days were short and the nights were cold, we were cozy and comfortable in our van with round-the-clock heat and cooking amenities. And snuggling up on the roof of the van with wine in hand made for some glorious stargazing (we lucked out our first night in Death Valley with a mind-blowing Geminids meteor shower).
After Death Valley, we made our way to Zion National Park, Utah, stopping along the way in Las Vegas, Nevada, to pick-up a quick dinner. The Angels Landing & Narrows hikes are not to be missed. And being able to pull over at picturesque lookout points for homemade (van-made) lunches made the experience in the park all the more special.
On our way back from Zion, we spent a night in Valley of Fire State Park (about an hour east of Vegas). We were shocked we hadn’t heard of this Nevada state park before. The massive red rocks and scrambly canyons made us feel like we were exploring communities and dwellings straight out of The Flintstones! We spent the night at the spectacular Arch Rock Campground.
While making our way back towards the Bay Area (by way of Los Angeles), we already began planning our next adVANture for Summer 2021 – we’re thinking the Pacific Northwest. As fabulous as it was to explore the National Parks in the off-season (we hear Zion especially can get unbelievably crowded and Death Valley is known to have some of the most extreme temperatures in the world), we’re looking forward to our next trip with warmer weather and longer days for exploring.
Moterra Luxury Camper Vans Lets You Pave Your Own Path
You’ve probably now heard of glamping – luxury camping. Now Moterra Campervans offer a novel way to experience the national parks and wilderness by luxury camper van, which also provides amazing self-sufficiency.
With all the luxury of a 50-foot long RV, the Moterra camper vans, at 19-foot long,are much less cumbersome to drive and park, and can even be used in easier-to-book tent camping spots in national parks, so you can stay away from the busy (and likely booked up) RV parks.
You don’t even need to plug into electricity because the vans are powered with rooftop solar panels and auxiliary batteries (not noisy generators); or have to plug into a water supply, since they hold between 16 and 24 gallons of fresh water, or bathroom, since they have their own sink, even their own bathroom facilities (port-o-potty; some actually have its own shower), and with their own galley for cooking and refrigerator, these camper vans provide a new level of mobility.
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.
Moterra’s fleet of specially outfitted Mercedes Benz Sprinters, tricked out by Sportmobile, are outfitted 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.
There are two models to choose from: The High Roof is perfect for couples – it includes a queen sized bed in the back, galley kitchen, sink, indoor shower and portable toilet. The Pop Top, which sleeps four, is perfect for families, with 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, you can get as an add-on a solar shower that can be used outside, and has a sink and stove. Both models are rented for $339 a night.
Add-ons available include hammocks & bike racks, and services such as pre-bought groceries.
The Moterra fleet is positioned for adventuring in Yellowstone, Wyoming; the Grand Tetons; Utah; Glacier National Park (Montana); Las Vegas (great gateway for desert adventuring) and California.
Moterra, which founded by Gabe Aufderheide and Trevor James who were formerly with Backroads, the renowned active travel company, also offers 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 13-night/14 day Mighty 5+ Grand Canyon: featuring Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Bryce National Park, Zion National Park, Monument Valley and Grand Canyon National Park is priced from $5999.
A six-night/seven-day family-oriented Yellowstone Handpicked Highlights package features Yellowstone National Park and The Grand Tetons National Park (from $4699).
Moterra operates out of Jackson, WY, Whitefish, MT, Salt Lake City, UT and San Francisco, CA.
Check the website for deals, discounts on early bird bookings, extended trips, spring 2021 discounted add-on for one-ways, and gift cards.
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Less than a half hour from Lake George Village, in upstate New York, you can discover cultural and artistic venues in smaller hamlets in the Adirondack State Park all year long without the crowds usually found in the Village. The draw to the small town shops and restaurants are in the quality of locally sourced products they sell and use in food preparation.
Check out some of the Adirondack State Park towns we discovered while driving around Lake George and following the Hudson River:
North Creek, NY – in addition to this town being the location of Gore Mountain ski resort, it is taking off as the art center of the Gore region in the State Park. To get to North Creek, we drove north of Lake George on Rte 9 and Rte 28 for about 35 minutes. The short journey took us along a shallow, yet scenic section of the Hudson River. We found glassblowing, mosaics, local artist exhibits, and regional foods – we spent a day here, but we could easily have stayed over at a local hotel to do more in town and in the surrounding mountains.
Widlund Gallery at Tannery Pond Center – also called the Adirondacks Art Center (228 Main St, North Creek, NY 12853; 518-251-2505 x128; https://tannerypondcenter.org ), runs exhibits by local artists continuously throughout the year (even during ski season). Each exhibit runs for 6-7 weeks. Check out the Center’s site for upcoming exhibits. Socially distanced, outdoor events will begin early Spring, 2021.
We toured the oil paintings of Elizabeth MacFarland whose art reflects local, natural settings. We purchased a beautiful poetry book for our granddaughter from the Center — Butterfly, Dragonfly – Poetry for Children, which was both written and illustrated by Ms. MacFarland – you can also find this book on Elizabeth’s website (https://www.elizabethmacfarland.com/).
The Center is handicap accessible, with parking spots across the street and a ramp leading up to the main entrance. The main floor contains the exhibits. A performance hall on the lower level can be reached by an elevator. Expect to wear masks while visiting.
North Creek Mosaic Project – just a couple of blocks from Tannery Pond Center, we found artist Kate Hartley working on the last major section of the 180-foot long mosaic relief along Main St. For the past 10 years, this project has been a labor of love for Hartley who conceptualized covering the retaining walls on this street with beautiful mosaic scenes representing activities in the Adirondacks. A project of this scale has drawn more than 2000 volunteers to help place pieces of tile, glass, and stone on the walls with Hartley’s guidance. Laurie is now one of those volunteers, by adding one of the last pieces to the mosaic that day. The Mosaic Project, now fully tiled, can be easily viewed from your car, but we recommend walking up to the walls to see close up the variety of materials used to build it. (For more information about this project follow https://www.facebook.com/northcreekmosaicproject/, or go to http://visitnorthcreek.org/project/the-north-creek-mosaic-project/.)
Artist-in-residence, Gregory Tomb (https://www.gregorytglass.com) – Reserve a 1-2 hour glassblowing class when Gregory returns to the region as Artist-in-Residence from late spring through late September 2021. For a private class, contact Gregory at 530-318-9413 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gregory’s temporary studio is located at the North Creek Railroad Station Complex (21 Railroad Place, North Creek, NY 12853). Gregory helped Laurie learn to use glassmaking tools to create a beautiful paperweight; Marty learned to blow hot glass and shape it into a bud vase. The building is handicap accessible with parking on a gravel lot, but no bathroom is located on premise.
Hudson River Trading Company – across the street from the North Creek Mosaic Project, the 7,000 sq. foot, multi-level store (292 Main St., North Creek, NY; 518-251-4461) is filled with items for sale which represent Adirondack life and culture. The store has souvenirs distinctive of the region, including NY State maple-covered nuts and confections, accessories and wares for every room in your house, accessories for pets, and clothing for all ages.
As we toured the store, owner Laurie Prescott Arnheiter explained to us how she preserved the original 1898 walls and floors from its days as a livery and stables and later a butcher shop. Look for the posts and numbers where the horse’s yolks were hung on the walls of the lower room. The retail store also has a kids’ section to keep them occupied while their parents shop – there is a puppet stage, a small piano, and a reading corner (note to us, bring our granddaughter next time). We purchased an Adirondack hoodie sweatshirt for our daughter, an apron for Laurie, some dog treats, local honey, and NY maple-coated peanuts and candies.
Arnheiter also owns the small gourmet shop next door — The Hungry Crow — which is also in a historic building, and offers all locally made shelf and refrigerated food, such as cheeses, ground coffee, chocolates, and pastas. She even scooped for us berry-infused ice cream freshly made from a local dairy. Check the website, https://hudsonrivertradingco.com, for spring reopening and hours.
Gore Mountain – this Adirondack ski resort offers downhill and cross-country skiing and snowboarding. Gore Mountain remains open the rest of the year for activities such as scenic hiking trails, a mountain skyride, downhill mountain biking, and nine-hole disc golf. The 2020/2021 season pass packages start from $499/adult. The pass applies to some of the summer and fall activities, and includes an additional ticket for sharing a winter activity. (793 Peaceful Valley Rd, North Creek, NY 12853; 518-251-2411, https://goremountain.com)
Bolton Landing, NY – this lakeside hamlet is just 15 minutes north of Lake George Village, as you drive along the lake. Beautiful views of Lake George and shopping in small businesses with plenty of parking was a huge draw for us to stop and spend an afternoon here. Bolton Landing is also the home of the historic luxury hotel, The Sagamore Resort.
Lake George Adirondack Winery – for a fun and educational wine tasting experience for up to four people, book online or call any of their three locations in the region: Bolton Landing 518-708-6672; Lake George Village 518-203-2597; Queensbury 518-668-9463, https://www.adirondackwinery.com/. We opted for the Bolton Landing location.
This family-owned winery uses northern New York State and Canadian fresh grapes and fruit to create delicious red, pink, white, and ice wines. Adirondack Winery also effectively infuses semi-sweet red and white wines with seasonal fruit. The Adirondack Winery shops and production facility are open seven days a week for wine tasting and shopping – confirm hours online.
For the “Original Wine Tasting Experience” (just $8/person) we each selected seven different wine samples from a choice of 32 Adirondack Winery prepared wines. We added the “Locavore Sampler” and the “Cheese Lover’s Sampler” for an additional $10/person, which allowed us to sample local Adirondack cheeses along with the wines. Our platter included a mild goat cheese, a champagne-infused cheddar which paired deliciously with Adirondack Winery’s very own “Berry Breeze wine-infused” jam, locally made chocolate truffles, and crackers and pretzels to eat with them. We finished off the wine tasting with a refreshing wine slushy of the day (additional $5/person). Masks and social distancing are still required in the wine-tasting room, even though masks may be removed when you are sitting for the tasting experience. Based on our sampling, we chose four different, full-bodied wines to take home, a block of the champagne cheese and the “Berry Breeze” jam — they were a big hit with our multi-generational family.
Adirondack Extreme Adventure Courseis perfect for a multi-generational family with over 100 obstacle courses and 15 ziplines for adults and older kids, and two courses and a playground for younger children. Whether you are a newbie to ziplining, treetop climbing and swinging obstacle courses, or an experienced adventurer, this aerial park offers something for everyone to spend a thrilling day in the wonderful mountain air and beautiful views of the Lake (5 Westwood Forest Ln., Bolton Landing, NY; 518-494-7200, https://adirondackextreme.com)
The aerial adventure park reopens in April 2021. Check the website for hours of operation, pricing of course packages, and minimum age requirements. Reservations and payment in advance by phone or online are required. Masks are required at check-in, during harnessing procedures, and walking throughout the park; masks are not required while climbing the courses. Social distance between separate groups is expected.
North River, NY – a small hamlet on the banks of the Hudson River, North River is the home of the world’s largest, commercial-grade garnet deposits found on Gore Mountain. In 1969, Governor Nelson Rockefeller officially named the ruby red Barton garnet as New York State’s gem stone.
Garnet Mine Tours – currently closed due to Covid-19 restrictions; check the web site (garnetminetours.com) to learn when they will reopen for tours of the historic Barton Mines (1126 Barton Mines Rd., North River, NY).
Garnet Hill Lodge – just 15 minutes from the center of North Creek and around 45 minutes from Lake George, this rustic, Adirondack wood lodge, high up on a mountain, boasts a scenic canyon view of Thirteenth Lake from the resort’s meadow.
The Garnet Hill Lodge is a perfect one-stop resort for four seasons of outdoor activities. During winter months, the Lodge offers 35 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails and six different snowshoe trails starting immediately outside the lodge and its Outdoor Center. Every stay at the lodge comes with complimentary trail passes. The full service ski shop assists guests with equipment, clothing, repairs, rentals, and lessons.
Throughout the rest of the year, lodge guests can enjoy the mountain’s hiking trails, the resort’s tennis courts, sign out complimentary mountain bikes, canoes and kayaks, and enjoy the Lodge’s staff-attended private beach on Thirteenth Lake. While walking around the mountain, in addition to looking out at the beautiful Adirondack mountain scenery and looking up at the beautiful clean sky, try looking down – you just might find a rock with garnets! (garnet-hill.com; 39 Garnet Hill Road, North River, NY 12856; 518-636-1652)
With continued Covid-19 flying and quarantine restrictions continuing throughout the country and world, this secluded, Adirondack State Park lodge and resort is ideal for a destination wedding. Pre-Covid, Garnet Hill was able to accommodate up to 120 guests for an outdoor or indoor ceremony and reception from June through October, and up to 80 guests between November and May.
A two-night minimum booking for guests at the Lodge included food and beverages in the lodge’s full-service restaurant and pub, the Bobcat Bar and Grill. Guests have complimentary use of the lodge’s outdoor equipment in all seasons, including the lake beach and well-marked hiking and mountain biking trails. Contact Nicole at 518-251-2444 to discuss current capacity limitations, to book a getaway, or a visit and tour of Garnet Hill Lodge for a potential wedding or other group event. Nicole will assist with planning all aspects of a destination wedding or event within state guidelines and restrictions.
Reclining in zero-gravity chairs, wearing street clothes and covered up with warm, fluffy throw covers, we took off our masks, closed our eyes, and breathed in the medical-grade salt that was being released into the room. Listening to relaxing music, we immediately fell into a deep sleep. Forty-five minutes later, owner Dawn gently woke us. We walked out of the room feeling quite relaxed, with Laurie commenting that she no longer had the acid reflux cough she came in with, and Marty left with clear sinuses. The experience was a success for both of us! We have one recommendation: the room is cool even with the warm comforter, so be sure to wear layers: long-sleeved shirt, jacket, or sweater, socks or booties, long pants.
The Wellness Center is a holistic healing arts center which also offers Swedish massage, Shiatsu, Reiki, Esthetician services, therapeutic reflexology, and other massage therapy services. Owners Dana and Greg Russell renovated a 123-year old collar and shirt mill, built out therapy rooms and the large “salt cave” room while preserving the original wood floors, brick walls, and tall windows for lots of natural light in the waiting area. Over 7,000 lbs of Himalayan salt blocks went into creating the long, beautiful, backlit wall that is the focal point of the man-made “salt cave” room. They also built out the front desk and the base of the benches with salt blocks. For pricing of services and packages and to make an appointment, visit adirondacksaltcave.com, call Dana at 518-798-2343, or email her at email@example.com. Please tell her that Laurie and Marty sent you! (11 Broad St., Glens Falls, NY 12801).
by Karen Rubin Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bike tours offer one of the best vacation alternatives in these times when people want to be outdoors in open spaces, and enjoy stunning landscapes, discover heritage and history and have that opportunity for shared experiences that travel uniquely provide. There is still time this season to take advantage of guided, self-guided and private bike tours from companies including Pocono Biking, Wilderness Voyageurs and Discovery Bicycle Tours.
Pocono Biking has space on departures this season on a supported four-day bike tour that takes you 142 miles of the Delaware & Lehigh rail trail, also known as D&L Trail.
I did this ride, anchored by the charming town of Jim Thorpe and the famous historic landmark at Washington Crossing, on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn, though with camping instead of inn-to-inn along this scenic and history-rich trail (railstotrails.org). The RTC trip also was operated by Pocono Biking, a powerhouse outdoors- adventure company in the area well known for its rafting adventures on the Lehigh River in the Lehigh Valley.
The trip, traveling through 57,600 acres (90 miles) of state park, is designed so you get to enjoy three of Pennsylvania’s award winning quaint small towns: Jim Thorpe, Bethlehem and New Hope. Essentially, we follow the route of Anthracite Coal, from mine to market, which thrust America into the Industrial Revolution. Along the way, we see the geography, the resources, and the technological innovations that made this possible, and how they affected the society, the culture, and the economy of the fledgling nation. The trail, part of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, is so historically significant that it is a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate.
Day 1 – 36 miles: The adventure starts in the wilderness of the Lehigh Gorge State Park, riding passed waterfalls and spotting wildlife (deer!), taking advantage of the newly connected D&L Rail Trail into the charming town of Jim Thorpe. The first night is spent amid mountains in the Inn of Jim Thorpe, circa 1849.
Jim Thorpe – an odd name for a town – was established in 1818 as Mauch Chunk, which means “Mountain of the Sleeping Bear,” the name the Lenni Lenape Indians gave to the nearby mountain. But it was later renamed for an Oklahoma-born Native American, the Olympic hero Jim Thorpe, who is buried there. Thorpe was born in Oklahoma in 1888 and raised on the Sac and Fox Reservation and had never set foot in the borough. But Patsy Thorpe, Jim’s third wife, cut a deal with two struggling towns in Pennsylvania, that if they would merge, rename themselves Jim Thorpe and build a memorial to honor him, she would present them his remains for burial.
The town played a key role in the emergence of the United States as an Industrial Revolution powerhouse. Here, entrepreneurs led by Josiah White formed the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company in the 1820s (you can still see the brick building), which shipped tons and tons of anthracite coal and other goods to market via the Lehigh and Delaware Canals which they constructed. The town grew in importance when it was named Carbon County’s seat in 1843.
A major attraction here is the Packer Mansion, which I was lucky enough to visit on my trip. Asa Packer’s story epitomizes the rags-to-riches-for-those-with-grit-and-a-good-idea American Dream: Born poor in Mystic, Connecticut, Asa Packer (1805-1879) left home when he was 17, setting out on foot to Brooklyn, Pennsylvania where he apprenticed as a carpenter to his cousin, Edward Packer. In 1828, he married Sarah Minerva Blakslee (1807-1882) and the couple tilled a farm they rented from Sarah’s father. But after four years, they were just as poor as when they started. So hearing that men were needed to captain coal barges on the Lehigh Canal, Asa traveled to Mauch Chunk, in the winter of 1832. He used his skill as a carpenter to build and repair canal boats. He resettled his family in Mauch Chunk and became the owner of a canal boat that carried coal to Philadelphia, then opened his own firm, A. & R. W. Packer, which built canal boats and locks for the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company.
He tried to get the company to build a railroad, but was refused. So, in October 1851, risking financial ruin, Packer purchased nearly all the controlling stock and interest for the unfinished Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill and Susquehanna Railroad (later known as the Lehigh Valley Railroad). By November, 1852, he expanded the railroad from Mauch Chunk to Easton, Pennsylvania, in exchange for the company’s stocks and bonds, and later into New York State.
He became the third richest person in the world and parlayed his business success into political success, serving as a Judge, a state representative, a two-term Congressman (1853-7), and even challenged Ulysses S. Grant for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1868. He narrowly lost election to become Pennsylvania’s Governor in 1869.
The Packers settled in their Italianate Villa in Mauch Chunk in 1861 and, to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, on January 23, 1878, held a fantastic gala (a newspaper printed in gold described it, and the man who performed their wedding attended). Asa died just 18 months later.
This quaint village is a hub for many marvelous attractions including the Packer Mansion; the Old Jail Museum (the eerie dungeon where the Molly McGuires were jailed; Cell 17 with its mysterious handprint on the wall, under the gallows on which seven of the accused Molly Maguires were put to death); the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway, St. Mark’s Church, Historic Stone Row, the Mauch Chunk Opera House, Anita Shapolsky Art Center, Mauch Chunk Museum, plus wineries and distilleries (Big Creek Vineyard and Stonekeep Meadery), biking, hiking and rafting.
Jim Thorpe Visitors Center, 2 Lehigh Ave., Jim Thorpe PA 18229, 570-325-3673, jimthorpe.org.
Day 2 – 37 miles: After a night exploring the shops, museums and restaurants in Jim Thorpe and breakfast at the Inn, cycle beside the locks and canals along the Lehigh River to the town of Bethlehem, PA. Along the way you pass the Lehigh Gap Nature Center with its protected land. There are stunning views of the Blue Mountain and Appalachian Trail. Bethlehem, circa 1741, an old Moravian settlement, has cobblestone streets, quaint shops, and history around every bend. Spend the night in the Hotel Bethlehem where Presidents and dignitaries have stayed.
Lehigh Gap Nature Center, a non-profit conservation organization at the foot of the Kittatinny Ridge, is dedicated to preserving wildlife and habitat through conservation programs such as the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge, educational programs such as the Kittatiny Raptor Corridor Project as well as research. I linger in the butterfly garden before setting out again on the trail. (8844 Paint Mill Rd, Slatington, PA 18080, 610-760-8889, http://lgnc.org/)
Along the way, we come upon what is left of the original canal locks – stone walls, wooden gates with metal latches and gears, remnants from the mid-1800s.
At Freemansburg, we find a lockmasters house, the remains of the locks and a mill, which, when I visited, was manned by interpreters in period dress. I wonder whether the village was settled by freemen and am told that it was named for one of the original settlers, Richard Freeman.
Freemansburg is a classic example of a canal town with houses and structures built up against the waterway that was the village’s lifeblood in the 1800s. Members of the Old Freemansburg Association (OFA) reclaimed a 1.5 mile section of the Lehigh Canal the Borough owns from overgrowth and debris and restored the towpath which became the D&L Trail. The OFA spearheaded efforts to protect and restore the 1829 Locktender’s House, mule barn, Lock No. 44, gristmill, and coal yard. Volunteers also reconstructed the barn using canal era tools and equipment, a project that took 10 years to complete. The multi-functional building now hosts weddings, educational sessions and interpretative demonstrations. (http://lehighvalleyhistory.com/history-of-the-borough-of-freemansburg)
Riding on, we come to an island that consists of a shuttered steel mill that today stands somewhat surreally like an abstract sculpture.
Day 3 – 47 miles: After breakfast, the group departs Bethlehem and cycles south following the path of 19th century aqueducts to the confluence of the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers. Visit the only operating mule drawn canal boat east of the Mississippi. Tour the National Canal Museum and pass through quaint river villages, until arriving in New Hope. New Hope offers bustling nightlife and cultural attractions such as the Bucks County Playhouse.
The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor interprets this fascinating period of American history in the 520-acre Hugh Moore Park through tours of the National Canal Museum and rides on the 110-passenger Josiah White II canal boat. Here you see remnants of the oldest industrial park in the region, a Locktender’s House and one of only three mule-drawn canal boats still operating in America, which plies a two-mile section of the canal that has been restored. The National Canal Museum, with hands-on exhibits highlighting 19th century canal life and technology, normally is open from June until October. (https://canals.org/)
Day 4 – 22 miles: On day four, after breakfast at the Fox and Hound Bed & Breakfast, ride along the canal trail to Washington Crossing where George Washington crossed the Delaware in 1776. You also cross the Delaware to the D&R Canal State Park and head north to Bull’s Island where the ride ends with lunch before being shuttled back to your car.
Available dates at this writing include Sept. 14 and Oct. 5 (up to 14 guests per trip, with 2 guides; the minimum age is 13; e-bike rentals are available, but the trail is easy/moderate crushed gravel trail). The cost is $995 ($225 single supplement); $90 to rent a bike, and includes the overnight accommodations, professional bike guides; sag wagon; basic bike repair (replacement bike if needed to complete the ride); rest stops with snacks and water; breakfast on three days; lunch on two days; luggage transportation to each accommodation; morning trail briefings and transportation back to your car by 4pm on the final day.
If you would rather DIY, Pocono Biking also offers daily rates and shuttle service, Big Day Out & Big Night Out (Multisport Adventures), two-day trips, and Pocono Whitewater Rafting on the Lehigh River.
“Bike touring lends itself to a vacationing style that uniquely fits these times: small groups and big open spaces! Although we understand that traveling at this moment is not for everyone and is a personal decision, our goal is to minimize the risks where possible and make traveling as comfortable as possible.”
It doesn’t take long once you arrive at New York’s Letchworth State Park to see why this vast preserve merits its nickname, “Grand Canyon of the East.” One of the most dramatically scenic areas in the eastern United States, the Genesee River roars through a humongous gorge that extends the 17 mile-long expanse of the park, over three major waterfalls between cliffs as high as 600 feet, surrounded by lush forest.
Ever since I saw a poster of Letchworth State Park while riding the Long Island Railroad, I said, “Where is that!” So when our plan to camp and hike in the Southwest fell apart this year and feeling safe staying within New York State which has so scrupulously monitored and imposed safety conditions to contain the coronavirus, we sought out a comparable adventure driving distance from home: Letchworth is just south of Rochester in western New York in appropriately named Wyoming County.
Our camping trip was made all the more special by staying in the campground within the state park that had only just reopened (private campgrounds, such as Kampgrounds of America, koa.com, are also available in the area) – so we could cook our dinner in the most spectacular settings – dinner with a view and be in prime places for the early light. (I booked our stay mere minutes after the website, reserveamerica.com, reopened reservations.)
During the two full days we were there, we hiked the most scenic, marquee trails: the Gorge Trail (#1), 7.6 miles following along the rim in the southern portion of the 17-mile long park, and the next day, the Highbanks Trail (#20), 4.5 miles along the rim and through forest in the north part of the park. Indeed, these hiking experiences were reminiscent of hiking the Rim Trail along the southern rim of the Grand Canyon.
Letchworth State Park, (voted best attraction in New York State in 2017) is a geologic wonder. Its main attractions are three waterfalls (and if you visit in the late afternoon, you may well see rainbows over the Middle Falls) in the southern section. The trails take you to the most popular, scenic overlooks, which people can drive to, so they can be bustling with visitors (when we visited, people seemed to be respectful of wearing masks and keeping distance). This is another reason why camping in the park is such an advantage – the driving tourists tend to arrive at mid-day, so you can get out early and have these spectacular scenes almost to yourself.
If you do the hike early in the morning, do it from north to south. It’s out-and-back, so to avoid doing the 7.6 miles twice (that is, 15 miles), you can leave a second car or a bicycle at the end (as we did).
The park is huge, about 17 miles long (it takes about 20-30 minutes to drive from the campground to the Upper Falls along the Park Road which is narrow, winding and rolling with dips and rises) to the Upper Falls area. Indeed, the park is so narrow that the hiking trails are just alongside the road, separated in most instances by curtains of trees.
The Gorge Trail, in the south, brings you to the most spectacular views – Upper Falls and Middle Falls in quick succession, then Lower Falls. The real surprise is coming upon Wolf Creek waterfall and a bridge with a painterly scene. Along the way you come upon these stunning stone look-outs at Inspiration Point, Archery Field Overlook, Great Bend Overlook, Tea Table lookout, which also have stone tables and BBQ set-ups.
The Highbanks trail in the north section doesn’t have the awesome waterfalls, but is very special in its own way, providing the expansive vistas that evoke awe over just how enormous and winding this gorge is (respect for Mother Nature’s power) and why Letchworth has been dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East.” Here, the hike brought us into stunning woods where the forest itself makes a painterly canvas.
We started at the absolutely stunning overlook at Hogs Back (where we parked our car for the hike), going south about 2.5 miles, then reversing and going north from Hogs Back, you walk along the ridge, sometimes almost hanging over the gorge, until you come to the Mt. Morris Dam Overlook. The treat here comes at the end, at the Mt. Morris Dam Overlook Area, where there is a delightful snack bar serving excellent ice cream.
Two of the trails that I believe was closed during our visit, but definitely recommended is the Footbridge Trail that brings you down to the Lower Falls (#6A), just a half-mile long but rated “moderate” and the Portage Trail (#6).
Altogether, the park offers 66 miles of trails (almost all rated easy or moderate, and most on the west side of the park). But for hard-core hikers, there is a 22-mile Finger Lakes Trail that runs along the entire eastern section of the park
I tried to research in advance to find the best places for sunrise and sunset photos, which of course depends on season and weather. I wasn’t able to get any sunrise or sunset photos, but the late afternoon light proved best at the Upper Falls and Middle Falls (where rainbows seem not uncommon as the sun lowers and sends its rays through the mist).
Instead of eating at the campsite (not that scenic, but very pleasant for sleeping and breakfast), we kept our food in the cooler and equipment in the car and each evening would pick out a different setting – dining on tables with slate tabletops apparently taken from these very cliffs. David would haul out his Coleman stove and tiny propane tank, his culinary tools, cutting board, and perform his culinary magic. We dined at the appropriately named Tea Table the first evening, Wolf Creek the second evening, which proved our favorite, with a virtually private view of a sweet waterfall, that we discovered on our hike. We were going to have our third night’s dinner overlooking the Upper Falls, but realized this is the most popular part of the park, and since a priority was to avoid possible exposure to lingering COVID germs, we decided to return to Wolf Creek which we again had all to ourselves.
Each evening we returned to the campsite and David and Laini made a fire (s’mores for dessert!). The peace of this place, with tall trees opening to a blanket of stars, and fireflies darting about as if they were Superflies! or shooting stars, was perfect and priceless.
Letchworth, which was voted USA Today’s Reader Choice for Best State Park in the nation in 2015, is well maintained, especially during this heightened COVID-19 health emergency. The campground restroom facility was very clean, and all the restrooms (they indicate which are open), require masks and social distancing.
Our plan for this trip was to be completely self-sufficient so we wouldn’t have to worry about getting water or food, not knowing if places would be open to buy supplies and wanting to cut down our interactions as much as possible. We took enough supplies for our three days, though we did discover that by the time of our trip, this region of New York had achieved Phase 4 reopening, so places were open though with significant limitations, including the Highbanks Camp Stores. (Concessions also were at the Dam Overlook Cafe and Highbanks Pool Snack Bar on the North end; Letchworth Gift shop, Lower Falls, upper Falls Snack Bar.)
(Indeed, for the foreseeable future, travel will involve more planning and forethought, checking ahead what will be open and under what conditions; as a general rule, some places are requiring advance reservations or timed-ticketing.)
The Highbanks campground is wonderful – six miles from the entrance, and several more miles to get to the actual camping loops for tents and RVs. There are also cabins. Several areas accommodate pets.
There are also a few cottages and lodges available within the park. For a family vacation rental experience, the Maplewood Lodge, located at the entrance to the Highbanks Camping Area, sleeps up to eight and has a furnished kitchen, living room with working fireplace, TV and DVD/BluRay player and formal dining room.
Camping was one of the attractions for us to come to Letchworth at this time (so many are choosing camping and RVing and even AirBnBs over commercial hotels), but the park also offers the charming Glen Iris Inn, scenically set right above the Middle Falls.
An inn since 1914, the historic Glen Iris Inn was formerly the country estate of William Pryor Letchworth. Completely restored, the inn offers accommodations and is open to the public for breakfast, lunch and dinner (banquet and catering services are available for special events). We see people dining on the lovely veranda, as well as in an enormous tent set up on the lawn to further accommodate those preferring to dine al fresco.
Addressing this historic moment, rooms are sanitized with an electrostatic cleaning machine and sealed for the guest’s arrival; capacity in Caroline’s Dining Room is limited to 50%. In addition to rooms in the Inn, the Glen Iris also offers some cottages (585-493-2622, glenirisinn.com).
Just across from the inn is the small stone William Pryor Letchworth Museum which tells the fascinating story of Letchworth Park, paying tribute to William P. Letchworth who preserved the land and its heritage by donating it to the state. The museum tells the history of the Genesee Valley, the canal, and of the Seneca who lived on these lands. Letchworth’s personal collection of artifacts from local Native American tribes is on view.
The museum also relates the compelling story of Mary Jemison, “The White Woman of the Genesee,” born on a ship from Europe in 1743 and kidnapped from her home in Pennsylvania in 1758 by Shawnee, then sold to the Seneca who adopted her into the tribe, becoming Dehgewanus. (Trail #2 is named the Mary Jemison Trail, the creek is named De-ge-wa-nus Creek and there is a statue of her, erected by Letchworth not long after her remains were brought back from a reservation and reburied on his estate, that Letchworth dedicated to her memory in 1910; read her remarkable story: http://www.letchworthparkhistory.com/jem.html)
We didn’t have the opportunity to visit the museum during our visit, but is one of the top items on our list for our return.
We also did not get a chance to explore the Humphrey Nature Center which in normal times, offers year-round environmental education programming and interactive exhibits highlighting the geology, wildlife, and ecology of the park.
Letchworth State Park offers many recreational facilities and activities that were just beginning to reopen at the time of our visit – including nature, history and performing arts programs, guided walks, tours, a summer lecture series. The enormous Highbanks Recreation area has a pool. And since our visit, the park opened a new $2 million outdoor Lower Falls Recreation Center offering table games, badminton and pickle ball courts, bocce and shuffleboard, as well as a fitness loop.
A half-dozen trails allow biking (I wouldn’t recommend biking on the main Park Road), and there is horseback riding as well.
Letchworth State Park is open year-round – the fall colors look spectacular, as do the winter scenes when there is cross-country skiing on most of the trails, snowmobiling on four trails, and snow tubing. Winterized cabins are available.
Letchworth State Park, Castile, NY 14427 (there are several entrances, but Mt. Morris Entrance is closest to the highway; check out the wonderful antique shops in Mount Morris); 585-493-3600, letchworthpark.com.
New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation oversees more than 250 parks, historic sites, recreational trails and boat launches, which were visited by a record 77 million people in 2019. A recent university study found that spending by State Parks and its visitors supports $5 billion in output and sales, 54,000 private-sector jobs and more than $2.8 billion in additional state GDP. For more information on these sites, call 518-474-0456 or visit parks.ny.gov.