Tag Archives: national parks

America’s Great Open Spaces Filling Up Fast

Hiking in Yosemite National Park. National and state parks are in high demand as families look forward to gathering together again after a year of separation © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Canyonlands National Park, Utah © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.cominquiries@tracks-trails.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:

An oasis in Death Valley: The historic Inn at Death Valley, one of the Xanterra Travel Collection hotels in national parks © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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/.

Other sources for lodging for DIYers: hotels.com, booking.com, koa.com, glampinghub.com, vrbo.com, airbnb.com,

Tour Companies Enhance Experience

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.

Among them:

Grand Canyon, hiking the South Kaibab Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Natural Habitat Adventures expedition leaders guide exclusive small groups to the most remote parts of America’s famed nature sanctuaries. https://www.nathab.com/us-national-parks-tours/ 800-543-8917

REI Adventures offers hiking-oriented trips in Great Smoky Mountains, Utah, Alaska, Yellowstone and Grand Tetons, Olympic, Rocky Mountain, Big Bend, Yosemite, Grand Canyon national parks (https://www.rei.com/adventures/p/national-parks/a/hiking, 800-622-2236).

Sierra Club Outings, the Sierra Club’s tour operation, offers a variety of active experiences in national parks (content.sierraclub.org/outings, 415-977-5522)

Zion National Park, Utah © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

National Geographic Expeditions (www.nationalgeographic.com) has trips and private expeditions to Alaska; Denali to Kenai Fjords; American Southwest National Parks Private Expedition; Arches, Canyonlands & Mesa Verde National Parks Private Expedition;  Glacier National Park private expedition; Yosemite Private Expedition; Grand Canyon, Bryce & Zion; National Parks Family Journey: Yellowstone & Grand Teton, and Discover American Canyonlands, (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/expeditions/destinations/north-america/national-parks/, 888-966-8687)

Country Walkers www.countrywalkers.com), renowned for well-crafted itineraries for guided walking and self-guided walking that highlight local cuisine, authentic accommodations, and immersive cultural experiences  has programs in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons (www.countrywalkers.com/tours/wyoming-yellowstone-grand-teton/, 800-234-6900).

Escape Adventures (www.escapeadventures.com) operates adventure travel vacations catering to the full spectrum of active traveler, from road cyclist to mountain biker to electric biker, hiker, and multi-sport enthusiasts, and from first timer to friends and family groups of all ability levels, in the Grand Tetons & Yellowstone (https://escapeadventures.com/tour/grand-tetons-yellowstone-road-bike-tour/) and Zion and Bryce Canyon other national and state parks (800-596-2953).

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/

Red Reflet Ranch, a 28,000-acre luxury guest ranch in Wyoming.

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/

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© 2021 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Road Trip: Hitting the Highlights of Death Valley National Park

Hiking into the Artist’s Palette, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Eric Leiberman, Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Tourism began in Death Valley in 1926 with the opening of the first hotels. It became a national monument in 1933 and was elevated to a national park as recently as 1994 with the expansion of 1.3 million acres. It is mind-boggling to realize Death Valley is the largest national park outside Alaska, at 3,422,024 acres – twice the size of Delaware.

A basin below sea level, there is drought and extreme heat, but towering peaks, rising as high as 11,000 feet that ring the basin, get snow. There is even a waterfall. Periodic flooding over millions of years has carved and smoothed ragged rock – a cautionary tale of nature’s power and unpredictability – while oases provide refuge for wildlife and people. Most surprising of all is the diversity of life that has adapted to this harsh location, no more surprising than that there are people here at all – indeed, the Timbisha Shoshone American Indian tribe are repopulating the area around Furnace Creek.

Death Valley is a land of extremes and constant surprises that excite the senses and force you to pay attention. You are never merely a casual observer, but an active participant, often getting to test new skills.

Because Death Valley National Park is so vast, so massive (nearly 1,000 miles of paved and dirt roads, with gasoline and water as much as 78 miles apart) and conditions that can be fairly treacherous, you are advised to research and plan out what you want to do not only to maximize what you see but for safety’s sake.

Driving in Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Among the important safety considerations: especially in summer, you are advised not to start hiking a trail after 10 am (take into account the distance and estimate the amount of time you need – my rule of thumb is one mile per hour); make sure you have sufficient water (allocate a gallon of water per person per day, which you should buy before you arrive); have hat, sunglasses, sunscreen. You are advised not to hike certain trails after a rain or if rain threatens because they can be treacherous. The weather can change dramatically – indeed, you can see where floods have come through and etched the rock – canyons can turn into rivers quickly. The ground temperature in summer can actually be 80 degrees hotter than the air temperature – a temperature of 201 degrees F was actually measured; ground temperature on the valley floor is 40 percent higher than surrounding air temperature. And yet, it can also get very cold – the lowest temperature recorded on the valley floor was 15 degrees F in 1913.  (The best time to hike in Death Valley is from November through March.)

And though you may well see other hikers on the trail (masks!), what stays in your mind is how few, how remote; in four days, we never saw a park ranger on the road. This is no amusement park with pretend thrills. But this sense of the possibility of danger is thrilling.

Hiking the Golden Canyon Trail, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We research the most popular hikes (alltrails.com is a great source) and highlights of Death Valley, set them into geographic areas, calculated an estimated amount of time to visit, mixed hiking with less strenuous touring, and driving time (there is no public transportation in the park) and took into account the time of day and season – you don’t want to be at the far end of a trail when the sun has already begun to set.

So we had cleverly notched one of Death Valley’s most popular highlights, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, timing are arrival in the late afternoon the day before, and on our way back into the park  on our first morning from our Air BnB in Beatty (20 miles away), we explored Rhyolite Ghost Town, which was also high up on our list of “must-sees.”

For our first full day in Death Valley, we’ve etched out hiking the Golden Canyon trail, 20 Mule Team, Badwater Basin, Artist’s Palette, and finishing with the sunset at Zabriskie Point.

Golden Canyon Trail

Red Cathedral off the Golden Canyon trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our first hike, Golden Canyon trail, is the most popular in Death Valley and for good reason. It hits on all cylinders: the absolutely dramatic landscape, patterns and colors of the rocks, but also, the trail itself. The section between the Red Cathedral (really gorgeous) and the turn-off to the spur trail to Zabriskie Point is particularly exciting – you walk a narrow cut in a rounded rock and then over a formation we dub the “Stegasaurus” – like a dinosaur’s back. The full loop is 4.5 miles, winding past Manly Beach and Gower Gulch, just about every step pure joy. The morning sunlight brings out the golden hues in the eroded badlands, contrasting with the red stone cliffs of Red Cathedral. (The hike takes us from 10:30 am to 1:30 pm).

Golden Canyon Trail, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Golden Canyon Trail, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The section of the Golden Canyon trail we dub “Stegasaurus” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Golden Canyon Trail, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Golden Canyon Trail, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Golden Canyon Trail, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Golden Canyon Trail, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Feeling absolutely exhilarated after the hike, we drive through the 20 Mule Team Canyon – driving it actually does feel more like an amusement park ride. There is a narrow, winding, looping, rolling one-way only road that takes you through. You are reminded that this place used to have mule teams hauling out borax. It’s perfect after the hike – a 15-minute drive through.

Driving through 20 Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We drive through Artist’s Drive to Artist’s Palette, where we have a picnic lunch (planning!), but decide to return later in the afternoon when its famous colors will be more pronounced.

Driving the loop-de-loop of Artist’s Drive, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Badwater Basin

Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Then on to Badwater Basin, probably one of the most famous sights in Death Valley. Spanning 200 square miles, this extraordinarily expansive, giant salt flat doesn’t look it but you can walk 7 miles across, ringed by mountains. At 282 feet below sea level, when we stand here we are standing at the lowest point in North America. The basin consists of sodium chloride (table salt), calcite, gypsum, and borax. 

Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Though named “badwater,” the water is not actually bad but salty, and despite the name, “Death Valley,” it is remarkable to learn that many organisms thrive in it. The pool is home to an endemic snail naturally found only at this location, and its rim is dotted with salt tolerant plants, such as pickleweed. This was once a large inland lake which evaporated over thousands of years, leaving concentrated salt deposits behind that form fascinating geometric polygon shapes.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The pool and boardwalk are easily accessible from the parking lot off Badwater Road, but for the best views of the salt polygons, walk out onto the salt flats a half mile or so. Look behind you to the cliffs of the Black Mountains to the east, where there is a sign high above marking sea level. From here, you can also see Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range to the west; at 11,049 ft, this peak is over two miles above you. “Nowhere else in America can you see such a dramatic vertical relief over such a close distance.” (https://www.nps.gov/places/badwater-basin.htm)  (Eric gets to hike up Telescope Peak on his return a month later on his adVANture; see ad-VAN-turing, Newest Travel Trend)

It’s 4:30 pm and there are long shadows bringing out the interesting formations and patterns in the salt. Here, we are famously 282 feet below sea level.  (In summer, it is not advised to walk out on the salt flats after 10:30 am).

Artist’s Palette

Artist’s Palette, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We drive the nine-mile loop-de-loop roller coaster of Artist’s Drive to Artist’s Palette, to see the richer color of the cooler, late afternoon  sun, and scamper across the rolling ridges, literally into the multi-colored palette itself – yellow ochre, burnt umber, sienna, rust, rose, copper.

Artist’s Palette, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Artist’s Palette, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Artist’s Palette, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Artist’s Palette, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Artist’s Palette is one of the most popular places to watch the sunset, but we decide to go to Zabriskie Point instead.

Timing the sunset can be tricky because of the peaks, the day of the year, also. You need to get wherever you want to see the sunset a half-hour before, when the colors begin to deepen. The actual sunset is over in a few minutes, so you have a very short window for the best images.

And so we miss the sunset at Zabriskie Point by five minutes. Even so, it is a gorgeous sight as the rocks take on warm colors, there is a pink rim to along the mountain ridges, and a full moon rises.

Sunset at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Sunset at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Moonrise at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Sunset at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Sunset,at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Moonrise at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Fortunately, we will have the opportunity to see the sunrise and sunset on our next day. Indeed, that’s why we decided to book two nights at the Ranch at the Oasis, just a short drive away from Zabriskie Point, instead of driving 45 minutes each way to the Designed to Death Air BnB in Beatty, Nevada, where we stayed on our first night.

We check into the Ranch at Oasis, order out dinner from the menu and sit outside on the lovely terrace adjacent to the restaurant (which also has outside dining, properly spaced). It is sheer perfection (as was the steak with an espresso rub, fantastic!).

Dining al fresco at the Ranch at Death Valley © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We drop our things in our hotel room (Laini has made sure to get a first-floor room at the end of the hall, close to the door, so we would have minimal time in a public space, and was assured that the rooms are thoroughly cleaned and left for 24 hours before the next guest). We immediately go to the Olympic-sized pool – absolutely magnificent, naturally warmed to a constant 87 degrees by hot mineral springs. The water feels silky, and as we swim we delight in the stars overhead. (www.oasisatdeathvalley.com)

The biggest surprise of all is how diverse Death Valley is – low valley floors, salt flats, rugged mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet, deep and winding canyons, rolling sand dunes, oases. The landscape is not a monotone at all, but a riot of colors, textures, contours. Each hike we take, each highlight we explore is spectacular in its own way, exciting and thrilling, exacting surging emotions and senses – the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the Golden Canyon, the Badwater Basin salt flats, the 20 Mule Team Canyon, Artist’s Palette, Zabriskie Point – and it’s only been a day and a half.

The next morning, we get up before sunrise to get to Zabriskie Point (about a 7-minute drive away) to watch the brilliant display as the rocks seem aflame with sunlight.

Death Valley in art: “Golden Canyon,” by Laini Nemett (2021, 12 x 9 in, oil on linen on panel). Visit www.laininemett.com

See also:

ROAD TRIP: DISCOVERING DEATH VALLEY’S TREASURES, RICHER THAN GOLD

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© 2021 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Road Trip: Discovering Death Valley’s Treasures, Richer than Gold

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Laini Miranda, Dave E. Leiberman & Eric Leiberman

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

In the quest, so very popular in these days of coronavirus, of finding open spaces to become renewed, revitalized, revel in nature and contemplate one’s place in the universe, there is no better place than Death Valley National Park, spanning California and Nevada.

Our four-day trip to Death Valley has an overlay of planning that goes beyond planning for hiking in a vast desert: the coronavirus pandemic. It impacts our route, where we stay (an Air BnB at the outskirts and the Ranch at Death Valley in the park, having double-checked their COVID-19 protocols), how we organize food and water to take with us (and ice chest) to cut down on the need to eat out.

And our itinerary is designed to pack as much as possible from such an expansive landscape into such a limited time. In the process, we discover that we are very much following in the footsteps of the miners who came before seeking the treasures in these landscapes. For us, the treasures we find are not the material kind, but even more enriching.

With an eight-hour drive ahead of us, we calculate when to depart in order to get to Death Valley in time to begin our exploration. With meticulous planning and organization that the Army would be proud of, we pull away from Sonoma at 5:39 am, taking an interior route, east toward Tahoe, then south, passing the eastern side of Yosemite National Park.

The fall scenery all along the way is breathtaking, going from wilderness, through these little Western towns and ranches.

We pass the ski resorts at Lake Tahoe, where the road takes us up to an altitude of 8,000 ft. and temperatures as low as 19 degrees, and by the end of the day, down to 275 feet below sea level at Death Valley. As we drive out of Tahoe, we watch the thermometer ticking up a degree every mile, until reaching the 80s. Actually, the weather is quite cool and comfortable for Death Valley, which is the hottest place on the planet, with ungodly temperatures that reached 130 degrees this summer, but can also get frigid in winter. Our visit, in October, is actually a terrific time.

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Preserve

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Preserve, Lee Vining, California © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Laini plots our route so we would stop at Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Preserve, in Lee Vining, California, where we have a picnic lunch. The first sight of Mono Lake from the highway above is astonishing: a stunning, ethereal scene with its brilliant aquamarine color and striking tufa formations. We stop at the overlook and then drive down along the shore to the parking lot. The visitors center is closed (because of COVID-19 restrictions), but we go into a trailhead that leads to a short boardwalk to the lake edge.

California created the reserve to protect these spectacular “tufa towers,” calcium-carbonate (limestone) spires and knobs formed by the chemical interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water. The reserve protects the lake surface as well as the wetlands and sensitive habitat for the 1 – 2 million birds that feed and rest at Mono Lake each year.

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Preserve, Lee Vining, California © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Covering 65 square miles, Mono Lake is ancient – over 1 million years old and one of the oldest lakes in North America. Freshwater evaporating from the lake each year has left the salts and minerals behind so that the lake is now about 2 1/2 times as salty as the ocean and very alkaline. “The extremely high salinity and alkalinity of Mono Lake has created a rare ecosystem, supporting a complex food chain of green algae, brine shrimp and alkali flies, and more than 80 species of migratory birds.” (www.parks.ca.gov)

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Preserve, Lee Vining, California © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

(Highway 395, 13 miles east of Yosemite National Park, near the town of Lee Vining, California, 760-647-6331, www.parks.ca.gov; also www.monolake.org).

We stop off at Carroll’s Market (probably the last one we will see), which actually gets high ratings on Yelp, especially for its blue cheese dressing, and has become its own attraction. We buy a dozen gallon jugs of water and stop off to fill up at a gas station.

Death Valley National Park

Father Crowley Vista Point view over Rainbow Canyon, a colorfully striped canyon created by ancient volcanic activity, nicknamed “Star Wars Canyon” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After a long flat stretch with mountains in the distance, we drive the winding mountain road (make sure you have a full tank of gas), entering the park at Panamint Springs. We stop at the Father Crowley Vista Point for the view over Rainbow Canyon, a colorfully striped canyon created by ancient volcanic activity. Nicknamed “Star Wars Canyon”, it’s where the military practices Star-Wars type of flying. The wind today is so intense, it practically throws us over.

(Nearby is Darwin Falls, a seeming oxymoron in this desert place, quickly turning from a gravel canyon to a lush oasis of cottonwoods and willows, creek crossings, and finally 20-foot waterfalls, a two-mile roundtrip hike, which we have marked down for a return visit.)

We stop at the historic Stovepipe Wells Village – like something out of a Western movie – that links back to the very beginning of tourism in Death Valley. In fact, long after mining gold, borax and talc had collapsed, tourism has been the enduring enterprise in Death Valley.

Stovepipe Wells General Store evokes the earliest days of tourism to Death Valley © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Herman William “Bob” Eichbaum effectively invented Death Valley’s tourism industry here, believing its “beauty, mystery and history” would attract tourists. Indeed, since 1915, motion pictures, automobile companies and writers weaving tales and promoting advertisements sparked interest (early social influencers) in visiting. In 1925, Eichbaum built a 38-mile toll road over Towne Pass and 20 tent-style bungalows, a restaurant, general store and filling station. He opened the Stovepipe Wells Hotel in 1926. Just a few months later, the luxurious Furnace Creek Inn was opened by the Pacific Coast Borax Company, setting off an intense rivalry. Most enthralling is that both places are still around and give you this sensation of stepping back in time. (Open year-round, deathvalleyhotels.com, 760-786-7090).

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s only a short drive from the village to reach Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, a little after 4 pm, giving us at least one hour before sunset. We have just enough time to play on the dunes and watch the colors (and temperature) change with the setting sun. People bring cardboard sleds, using the sand like snow.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is an extraordinary setting:  sprawling over 14 square miles, ringed with mountain peaks, the contrast of colors, shapes, contours is just stunning.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In late afternoon, the sand is cool enough to take off shoes and feel remarkably soft granular sand on toes. We climb the dunes –as much as 150 feet high- wowed in the colors of the golden hour as the sun descends.  All the pure joy you had playing in a sand box when you were four comes bursting through.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The best time to visit is the early morning or late afternoon; on a dawn hike, the notes say, you might see tracks of nocturnal animals and if you hike at night in the warm months, they warn, be alert for sidewinder rattlesnakes (I’m still thinking about the tracks of nocturnal animals).

Designed to Death

We drive on, reveling in the scenes of the road disappearing into the far distance, headed to our Air BnB, with the intriguing name, Designed to Death, in the small town of Beatty, about 20 miles outside the park’s eastern border (Las Vegas would be about 1 ½ hours beyond). Though the name evokes Agatha Christie, it is breathtakingly beautiful, cozy luxury, with a bit of a Western vibe – easily explained because the hosts are interior designers and the house is a showplace for their talent.

Preparing dinner at Designed to Death AirBnB, Beatty, Nevada © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are here for too short a time to fully enjoy all that the house affords. Set on an isolated stretch of high desert, the 1,200 sq. ft.,  three-bedroom, two-bath vacation home was designed by Peter Strzebniok to incorporate the vistas, providing stunning views while making the desert part of the interiors – merging the inside with the outside. What we do thoroughly enjoy though, is the large open kitchen, dining room, living room, that opens onto a 900 sq. ft deck with hot tub. The Presidential Suite at a five-star hotel would not have been any nicer or more comfortable.

Our Designed to Death Air BnB hosts are Karen McAloon, an interior designer who works in San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and Joshua Tree, who was an HGTV host and her partner was her producer. (They have two sister properties, Hip Modern cottage of Amazingness in Lake Tahoe, @hipmoderncottageofamazingness, and Too Pool for School in Joshua Tree, @toopoolforschooljtree.)

They provide excellent notes – like the nearest place for supplies would be at Family Dollar, but the nearest actual grocery is 70 minutes south at Pahrump. They also supply tour information of nearby ghost towns, museums, attractions and of course Death Valley National Park. There is an interesting note about the wild burros that we might see (there is even a traffic sign like a deer crossing), which are descended from burros abandoned by miners a century ago. “Don’t feed them, they can be destructive. They tend to be down at the creek in the morning and wander into town at night.”

We take full advantage of the gorgeous kitchen to prepare dinner (we brought food for dinner and breakfast).

Rhyolite Ghost Town

Rhyolite, a Death Valley ghost town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.

The next morning, we pack up quickly and head out early morning with a plan to stop off on our way into Death Valley to visit an actual ghost town, Rhyolite.

It is so fascinating to try to piece together what this town might have been like and to realize how big it was – most surprising, really (especially when you see the context) is what’s left of a hotel and casino. A casino! “100 years ago, Rhyolite was the largest city in southern Nevada with more than 10,000 residents. Yet after only a decade, the town became a ghostly remnant of itself” – a classic boom and bust story, with all sorts of lessons about the transitory nature of success in the span of history. It is tremendously exciting to wander about these ruins, so dramatically set.

Rhyolite, a Death Valley ghost town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.
Rhyolite, a Death Valley ghost town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.
Rhyolite, a Death Valley ghost town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.
Rhyolite, a Death Valley ghost town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.
Rhyolite, a Death Valley ghost town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.
Rhyolite, a Death Valley ghost town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.
Rhyolite, a Death Valley ghost town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.
Rhyolite, a Death Valley ghost town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.

In its heyday, between 1905-1911, Rhyolite had two churches, 50 saloons, 18 stores, two undertakers, 19 lodging houses, eight doctors, two dentists, a stock exchange and an opera.

The ruins that remain today include the Bottie House, the train depot (there is a caboose there), the remains of a three-story bank building and the jail.

It is one of several ghost towns that are scattered through Death Valley, “the silent ruins of broken dreams.”

Death Valley in art: “Rhyolite Bank Window,” a Death Valley ghost town, by Laini Nemett (2020, 12 x 9 in, oil on linen on panel). Visit www.laininemett.com

Next: Hitting the Highlights of Death Valley National Park

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© 2021 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

ad-VAN-turing, Newest Travel Trend

adVANturing in a Moterra camper van © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter,

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!).

In place for first chair at Heavenly Mountain Resort Base © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Summit of Telescope Peak Hike, Death Valley © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Gorgeous sunset on the drive from Death Valley to Zion © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Driving through the wintery scenery in Zion National Park © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Near the top of Angels Landing, Zion National Park © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Zion National Park © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Preparing lunch after a hike in Zion National Park © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com


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.

Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
White Domes Trail, Valley of Fire State Park © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Arch Rock Campground, Valley of Fire State Park © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com
White Domes Trail, Valley of Fire State Park © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Arch Rock Campground, Valley of Fire State Park © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

The Moterra camper van is self-sufficient. You don’t need to plug in for electricity or water, so you can follow your wanderlust © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Enjoying a bottle of wine on the camper van roof and getting set for star-gazing; solar panels provide enough power to keep the heat going all night © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Death Valley © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Zion National Park is featured in Moterra’ pre-packaged 13-night/14 day Mighty 5+ Grand Canyon trip © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Moterra Camper Vans, 1565 Berger Lane, Jackson, Wyoming 83001, 307-200-7220,

info@gomoterra.com, gomoterra.com.

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© 2021 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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

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

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

Here are some vacation ideas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yellowstone National Park © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

Old Faithful Lodge (June 8-Oct. 4)

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

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

Lake Yellowstone Hotel (June 17-Oct. 4)

Lake Lodge (June 17-Sept. 2)

Canyon Lodge (June 19-Oct. 12)

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

Madison (June 15-Oct. 18)

Bridge Bay (June 17-Sept. 7)

Grant Village (June 17-Sept. 13)

Canyon (June 19-Sept. 20)

Fishing Bridge RV Park will remain closed through fall of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Backcountry Shuttle Boat (June 17-Sept. 13)

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

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

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

Mammoth Hotel (June 1-Oct. 12)

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

Old Faithful Lodge (June 8-Oct. 4)

Lake Yellowstone Hotel (June 17-Oct. 4)

Canyon Lodge (June 19- Oct. 12)

Lake Lodge (June 17-Oct. 4)

Madison Campground (June 15-Oct. 18)

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

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

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

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

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

Arches National Park, Utah has reopened.


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

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


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

Moterra Luxury Camper Vans

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

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

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

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

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

Moterra luxury camper van.

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

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

All-inclusive packages consist of:

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

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

Biking through the Badlands is Voyage of Discovery Millions of Years in the Making

Badlands National Park, South Dakota is 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires and the largest, protected mixed grass prairie in the United States. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

My first look at Badlands National Park is not anything I expected or visualized. The Pinnacles entrance to the national park, where the Wilderness Voyageurs guides have taken us for our first ride of the six-day “Badlands and Black Hills” bike tour of South Dakota, is aptly named for the spires that form this otherworldly landscape.

Badlands National Park is 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires and the largest, protected mixed grass prairie in the United States. The Badlands Wilderness Area covers 64,000 acres, where they are reintroducing the black-footed ferret, the most endangered land mammal in North America. Just beyond is The Stronghold Unit, co-managed with the Oglala Sioux Tribe where there are sites of the 1890s Ghost Dances. But as I soon learn, Badlands National Park contains the world’s richest Oligocene epoch fossil beds, dating 23 to 35 million years old, a period between dinosaurs and hominids.

Badlands, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The name “Badlands” was intentional, for the earliest inhabitants and settlers found the extremes of climate and landscape extremely harsh. The American Lakota called this place “mako sica,” or “land bad” and early French trappers called it “les mauvaises terres a traverser,” both meaning “badlands.” Those very same French trappers would be the first of many Europeans who would, in time, supplant the indigenous people, as they were soon followed by soldiers, miners looking to strike it rich with gold, cattlemen, farmers, and homesteaders recruited from as far away as Europe.

We get our bikes which our guides – James Oerding and John Buehlhorn – make sure are properly fitted, and outfit us with helmet, water bottle, Garmin. They orient us to the day’s ride – essentially biking through the national park on the road (“Don’t stop riding as you go over the cattle guards”; when the van comes up alongside, tap our helmet if we need help or give a thumbs up otherwise). We will meet up at the 8.2 mile mark where there is a nature walk and the van will be set up for lunch. 

Setting out on our Wilderness Voyageurs bike trip through Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And then we are off at our own pace down an exquisite road (the cars are not a problem). That is a mercy because the vistas are so breathtaking, I keep stopping for photos. And then there are unexpected sightings – like bighorn sheep.

At the 8.2 mile mark, we gather at the van where James has set out a gourmet lunch.

There is a boardwalk nature trail (I note the sign that warns against rattlesnakes and wonder about the kids who are climbing the mounds with abandon). I realize I am in time for a talk with Ranger Mark Fadrowski, who has with him original fossils and casts of fossils collected from the Badlands for us to look at and touch. We can see more – and even scientists working at the Fossil Prep Lab – at the Visitor Center further along our route.

Badlands, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“There are no dinosaurs here,” Ranger Fadrowski explains. “This area was underwater when dinosaurs lived.” But these fossils – gathered from 75 million years ago and from through 34 to 37 million years ago (there is a 30-million year gap in the fossil record), fill in an important fossil record between dinosaurs and hominids (that is, early man). Teeth, we learn, provide important information about the animal – what it ate, how it lived – and the environment of the time.

Ranger Mark Fadrowski gives a talk on the fossils found at Badlands National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Pierre Shale, the oldest layer when this area was under a shallow sea, is yielding fossils from 67-75 million years ago. He shows us a fossil of a Mosasaur, giant marine lizards, an ancestor of the Komodo dragon, and one of the biggest sea animals.

 “We don’t have fossils from the 30-million year gap – either the sediment was not deposited or it eroded.” Indeed, we learn that these tall spires of rock with their gorgeous striations, are eroding at the rate of one inch each year, and will be completely gone in another 100,000 to 500,000 years. But the erosion also exposes the fossils.

The environment changed from a sea to a swamp during the Chadron Formation, 34-37 million years ago. “That was caused when the Rocky Mountains formed, with a shift in Teutonic plates. That pushed up and angled the surface so water drained into the Gulf of Mexico.” It was formed by sediments carried by streams and rivers flowing from the Black Hills, deposited in a hot and humid forest flood plain.

Alligators lived during this time. The alligator fossils found here show that the animal hasn’t changed in 30 million years. The alligators migrated when the environment changed, so survived.

During the Brule Formation, 30-34 million years ago, this area was open woodlands, drier and cooler than during the Chadron Formation; in some areas, water was hard to find. Animals that lived here then include the Nimravid, called “a false cat” because it seems to resemble a cat but is not related. The specimen he shows was found by a 7-year old girl just 15 feet from the visitor center and is the most complete skull found to date (imagine that!); there are two holes in the skull that show it was killed by another Nimravid. Also a three-toed horse (now extinct); and a dog.

Many hikers in Badlands National Park have found fossils right on the trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In fact, it turns out it is not at all unusual for visitors to the park to come upon important fossils (there is a whole wall of photos of people and their finds just from this year). In fact, one visitor, Jim Carney, a photographer from Iowa, found two bones sticking up and reported the location. “They thought it would be a single afternoon. It turned out to be a tennis-court sized field, now known as the Pig Dig; the dig lasted 15 summers and yielded 19,000 specimens, including the “Big Pig.”

Fossil of “The Big Pig” is displayed at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It was found at the beginning of the Brule Formation, when the area was drying out. “We believe it was watering hole drying up. Animals caught in the mud were prey for other animals.”

This is a place of Archaeotherium, Oredonts, Mesohippus, Subhyracodon, Hoplophoneus, Metamynodon, Cricid and Paleolagus.

The Sharps Formation, 28-30 million years ago, is where they have found Oreodont fossils. “The name means ‘mountain teeth’ because of the shape of its teeth, not the environment.” Fossils are identified mostly because of teeth which are most common to survive and reveal clues about behavior and what the animal ate, which speaks to the environment.

He shows us the fossil of an Oviodon. “It is weird, there isn’t anything alive like it. The closest relative is camel – like the weird cousin that no one knows how related. It is the most commonly found fossil – which means it was probably a herd animal.” And a Merycoidodon (“ruminating teeth”), which he describes as “a sheep camel pig deer”.

“The Badlands are eroding, so will reveal more fossils. Fossils are harder than rock, so won’t erode as fast.” Interestingly, only 1% of all life is fossilized. “We have to assume there are missing specimens.”

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

The Badlands “is particularly lush for fossils – because of the types of sediment that preserves them well.– 600,000 specimens have been collected from the Badlands since paleontologists first started coming here in the 1840s. Just about every major institution in the world has specimens that were originally found here, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

They provide clues to the “Golden Age of mammals – half-way between when dinosaurs ended and today – horses, camels, deer.”

I had no idea.

I’m so grateful that John (elected the sweeper for today’s ride) has not rushed me away and, in fact, waited patiently without me even realizing he was there.

Wilderness Voyageurs lunch stop on our ride through Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I continue on, stopping often to take photos of the extraordinary landscape with its shapes and textures and striations. I barely miss a dead rattlesnake on the road (I think it was dead) and am too rattled to stop and take a photo.

I get to the Visitor Center which has superb displays and an outstanding film (must see). Again, no one is rushing me away, so I stay for the film, “The Land of Stone & Light”.

Native Americans have been in this area for 12,000 years; the Lakota came from the east around 1701 following buffalo, their culture was so dependent on buffalo. “They would pray for the buffalos’ well being” rather than their own.”

Treaties were signed that defined the borders, but they were broken. The white settlers demanded more and more of the Indian land, especially after gold was discovered in the Black Hills. (I later learn it was William Custer, the famous General of Custer’s Last Stand, who discovered the gold.)

Buffalo were at the center of Lakota culture © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The buffalo – so precious to the Lakota – were hunted nearly to extinction. The white men put up fences for their ranches and farms, preventing the buffalo from migrating. “What happens to the buffalo, happens to Lakota” – they were forced to cease their traditional life, settle down and farm or ranch. Resistance led to tragedy (Battle of Wounded Knee). (There is a photo of the Wounded Knee Massacre at the Trading Post.)

By the turn of the 20th century, the federal government was inviting homesteaders to come out and settle the West – they would get 160 acres if they could last five years on the land. They advertised abroad, enticing immigrants to “the luscious plains in the Dakotas.”

Lumber and stone was rare in the Badlands, so the settlers built their shanties of sod, called “sodbusters.”

“Living was hard; small-scale farming couldn’t succeed. They endured blistering summers, cruel winters, extreme wind. Many left” especially in the Great Depression. I think how ironic.

“Before the Lakota, before the dreams of homesteaders ended, paleontologists came here 150 years ago.” The layered landscape of the Badlands told the story of geologic change, of climate change, that is still continuing. The Badlands are eroding fast – at the rate of one inch per year, “so in 100,000 to 500,000 years, all will be gone. The earth is a dynamic and changing system.”

Badlands National Park is 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires and the largest, protected mixed grass prairie in the United States © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The ecology is complex. This is a mixed grass prairie – it may look dry, but the tangled roots store nutrients. Animals help sustain it –the bison churn up the soil, mixing the moisture and scattering seeds; prairie dogs are critical to the ecosystem, too – they also stir up the soil, and the burrows they dig are used by other animals like owl and ground squirrel. The black footed ferret lives in abandoned burrows and also eats prairie dogs.

The farmers’ attempt to eliminate prairie dogs resulted in the near-extinction of black-foot ferret. They have been reintroduced; also swift fox, bighorn sheep.

Coming upon longhorn sheep during our ride through Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“The mission of National Parks is to preserve and restore – but we can’t restore the biggest animals that once were here – the prairie wolf and grizzly bear.”

I’m about to leave when I stumble upon the Paleontology Lab, which is open to the public, where we can watch as two paleontologists painstakingly work to remove sediment from bone – their efforts magnified on a TV screen.

Visitors can watch as a paleontolgist works painstakingly to release fossilized bone from rock at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“I am working on a Merycoidodon, an oreodont, which is a group of hoofed mammals native to North America,” the sign says in response to what must be the zillionth time a visitor asks. “Although they have no living relatives in modern times, oreodonts are related to another native North American mammal: the camel. Oreodonts are sheep-sized and may have resembled pigs, but with a longer body, short limbs and with teeth adapted for grinding tough vegetation. The skulls of Merycoidon have pits in front of the eyes, similar to those found in modern deer which contain scent glands used for marking territory. Oreodonts lived in herds and may at one point have been as plentiful in South Dakota as zebras are in the African Serengeti.”

But the paleontologists are happy to answer questions, too. One tells me she has part of an ear canal (very unusual) and ear bones. “It’s unusual to have the upper teeth. This is a sub-adult –I can see wisdom teeth and unerupted teeth.” She is working on a Leptomerycid – relative of mouse deer – an animal the size of house cat.

It has taken her 170 hours to extract teeth from rock.

“This is the second time anyone got an upper row of teeth for this species. It may change scientists’ understanding. We’re not sure if it is a separate species – it has a different type of tooth crown. But having a second fossil means we can compare.”

Visitors can watch as a paleontolgist works painstakingly to release fossilized bone from rock at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just then, the senior paleontologist, Ed Welch comes in and tells me that because teeth are used to determine species, the work being done could prove or disprove whether this animal is a separate species.

Welch says it so far looks like a species that was named in 2010 based on the lower teeth. “Now we have upper teeth and part of the skull. The difference could be variation by ecology (for example, what it ate). It was found at same site so would have been contemporary. We looked at several hundred jaws. This one could be an ‘ecomorph’ – just different because of what it ate.”

The Badlands have some of the oldest dogs ever found, and the most diversity. In the display case is one of only eight specimens ever found – the other seven are at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City but they are not displayed; this is only specimen that can be viewed.“It is the oldest one of its kind,” 33-32 million years old – and was found by a college student from Missouri.

He says the seven-year old girl who found the saber cat fossil that the Ranger showed, came back this year, now 16 years old.

“We ask visitors to leave the fossil where it is and report to us, give us photos, a GPS, so we can locate. Some of the fossils were found right on the trail, not even in remote areas.

Probably the most famous – a hero around the lab – is photographer Jim Carney of Iowa who found two bones that ended up being a big bone bed that so far has yielded 19,000 specimens.

Judging by wall of photos of visitors and their finds just in 2019 it would seem that people have great odds and probability of finding important fossil. Add fossil hunting to the hiking or biking adventure.

Dramatic scenery in Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The fossils collected here since the 1840s are in every major institution. While fossils of dinosaurs and early man might get everyone excited, these fossils – the middle of the Age of Mammals – are important to fill out that story of ecological and evolutionary change.

“The Badlands is in the middle of the earth’s transition from Greenhouse to Ice House – and the fossils found here show how animals responded to the ecological change: “adapt, migrate or go extinct.”

Welch made the decision to open the paleontology lab so people can see scientists at work. “We decided to do more than a fishbowl, to make it a great education tool.”

The Fossil Preparation Lab in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is typically open from 9 am – 4:30 pm daily from the second week in June through the third week in September.

Badlands National Park is open year-round.

(More information on Badlands National Park at www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm, www.nps.gov/badl/planyourvisit/events.htm)

During our ride through the Badlands National Park, I spot the major animals that are resident here: bighorn sheep; American bison, pronghorn (also called antelope), mule deer and black-tail prairie dog. The one I miss is a coyote (yet to come).

The breathtaking scenery as we bike through Badlands National Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We have 12 miles further to bike to our accommodation for the night, the Circle View Guest Ranch, which proves to be an amazing experience in itself.

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

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

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

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

Cycle the Erie: At Fort Stanwix, Rome, Time Travel Back to America’s Colonial, Native American Past

National Park Ranger Bill Sawyer (right) and two other reenactors bring Revolutionary War-era history to life at Fort Stanwix, Rome © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Fort Stanwix, in Rome, New York, is a revelation. Hardly anyone knows of it – it doesn’t even seem to merit a footnote in history – but it played a role in two incidents, one during French & Indian War and one during Revolutionary War, that proved pivotal for American history, like a tiny peg in the giant cogwheel of history.

A National Historic Site, Fort Stanwix also offers one of the best presentations of tribal Indians and European settlers in the colonial and Revolutionary War period. Indeed, the Erie Canal was built across what was the Oneida Carrying Place, vital to the earliest traders. This fort is where the British negotiated and signed the 1768 treaty with the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. I suspect this area is also where Melinda Gage drew upon what she learned of the Oneida Indian women to form key planks of women’s rights movement.

The presentation here (in contrast to how pitiful the Womens Rights National Site in Seneca Falls is) is fantastic, both in the exhibits and the commentary. Engaging, informative, dramatic, thoughtful. Also, the park rangers are in period dress so you really feel as if you have stepped back in history. You wind up speaking to these people as if it was 250 years ago.

This part of the eight-day Cycle the Erie bike tour, 400 miles from Buffalo to Albany organized annually through Parks & Trails NY, takes us back to the very beginning of the United States, to its native American origins, European colonization and its emergence as an independent nation. It is 400 miles and 400 years of history.

Cycle the Erie riders set up tents just outside the fortifications of Fort Stanwix, in downtown Rome, a reconstruction of the 1758 fort, now a National Historic Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome (where the 750 of us actually camp out outside the fort, making it look like an army bivouac), we are put squarely into the drama of the American Revolution. Interpreters in period dress take on the roles of American soldiers and British prisoners in period dress – creating such realism that you appreciate so much more the context and the conditions. Most surprising, is that it also tells the story of the Native Peoples, almost entirely forgotten as having an equal stake in the Revolution. (It didn’t go well.)

The reconstruction of Fort Stanwix comes alive through the personal stories recounted inside the fort. You get to experience the American Revolution and the Siege of Fort Stanwix through the eyes of soldiers and their families, American Indians and traders. This is accomplished through the realistic recreations (especially of the fort), the costumed interpreters, outstanding markers, artifacts, the art, portraits and graphics, and superb videos. They create characters who are composites of actual people, and you hear their voices in a context.

It’s humbling to realize how little you actually know about Colonial America and the American Revolution.

The Fort puts the competing interests of the Patriots, Loyalists and Indian peoples into balance. You have empathy for each. (Especially the Native Americans, who were dragged into the fight, upsetting a long-standing peace among the Confederacy of Iroquois nations, found their whole society upended, and were literally screwed by every European and American they dealt with. George Washington, shockingly, even betrayed the Indians who were allied with the Patriots). But you also understand better the Loyalists, whose property was being seized by the Patriots, and the Patriots, who were not necessarily British subjects, but German and Dutch colonists – whose property was being burned by the Loyalists.

The National Park Service is keeping the fort open late for us and hosting tours, and is keeping the visitors center open all night (the indoor camping location, though, is off-site at a local YMCA).

We arrive at Fort Stanwix after biking 50 miles from Syracuse, a good chunk of our Day 5 ride in drenching rain. I set up my tent (fortunately, the rain stopped just as I came into Rome), grab a shower, and race over to the visitor center to join a guided tour. I am so lucky to attach myself to the same Park Ranger as I toured with two years ago, on my first Cycle the Erie tour.

Fort Stanwix as we see it today literally rose out of ash heap of history – reclaimed from earthly grave.

At one point, the fort was the reason Rome developed at all, but ultimately Rome grew up over its ruins, from fire and neglect. Then the city Rome went through a decline. But in 1960s, as part of urban renewal, planners wanted to redevelop the dilapidated downtown. A grassroots movement grew up to excavate the fort; meticulous archaeology unearthed some 400,000 artifacts. (Visitors can actually get a back-stage view of the archaeology being done during summer tours.)

The National Park Service was faced with a quandary – its mission at the time discouraged reproduction or re-creation of a historical site. But there were strong arguments in favor of reconstructing the fort: they found the original fireplace (the only part of the fort that remains of the original, which we get to see); had the original plans (obtained from British archives); plus papers and drawings so they could reproduce it accurately; and letters of soldiers so they had a better idea of what happened here.

Reenactors patrol the ramparts at Fort Stanwix © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The location of this fort is significant. It sits along “Six Miles that Changed the Course of America,” reads the National Park Service brochure. “For thousands of years, the ancient trail that connects the Mohawk River and Wood Creek served as a vital link for people traveling between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Ontario. Travelers used this well-worn route through Oneida Indian territory to carry trade goods and news, as well as diseases, to others far away. When Europeans arrived, they called this trail the Oneida Carrying Place and inaugurated a significant period in American history – a period when nations fought for control of not only the Oneida Carrying Place, but the Mohawk Valley, the homelands of the Six Nations Confederacy and the rich resources of North America as well. In this struggle Fort Stanwix would play a vital role.”

The British built the fort in 1758 with the permission of the Oneida to protect their commerce, but abandoned it to cut back on spending after the French & Indian War (taxes imposed by Britain to recoup their expenditures is what incited the American Revolution).

The fort was never put to the test, because the French were defeated elsewhere. But though Fort Stanwix fell into decay, the site was still important for trade and relations with the Six Nations.

Map of the Six Nations territory, according to the 1768 treaty negotiated by Sir William Johnson © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is here at Fort Stanwix, in 1768, after the Europeans had spread into “empty” spaces and fought with the Indians, that Sir William Johnson, Indian Supervisor, negotiated a treaty with the Six Nations of the Confederacy, basically laying out the terms that everything east of the fort would be for Europeans, and everything west would be for Indians.

“Over 3,000 American Indians from the Six Nations, Shawnee, Delaware, Mingo and other dependent tribes attended the treaty negotiations,” the notes read. “Ignoring British Crown instructions, Sir William Johnson encouraged the Six Nations to draw a new boundary line favorable to their mutual interests. Rather than settling tensions, frontier strife between colonists and American Indians increased.”

“I can never look upon that (Proclamation of 1763) in any other light… than as .. temporary expedient to quiet the mind of the Indians,” land speculator George Washington wrote to surveyor William Crawford, 1767. “Any person… who neglects the opportunity of hunting out good lands…for his own, in order to keep others from settling them, will never regain it.”

Reenactors patrol the ramparts at Fort Stanwix © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Meanwhile, British attempts to govern the growing colonies from afar and the associated costs led to strained relations. Hoping to defray the cost of colonial administration, the British parliament taxed many goods arriving in North America. But growing independence and identification as Americans caused many colonists to question British rule. Tensions steadily increased until American “Patriots” declared their independence in 1776.

The exhibit gives me a new perspective: a good number of colonists were not British – they came from Germany, Holland and other places. I realize that becoming a Patriot would not have been such a hard choice as for those with British ties.

“For colonists living on the frontier, the issues included British imposed restrictions on trade, limits on settlement, and continuing violence with American Indians. As war approached, many colonists had to choose between remaining loyal to the King or joining the movement to American independence.” Each side considered themselves “patriots”. But those who stayed loyal to the Crown became known as “Loyalists,” while those who sought independence called themselves “Patriots.”

In 1775, Patriots and Loyalists began struggling for control of the New York frontier. The British invaded the Mohawk Valley in 1777. Their strategy was to capture an important east-west supply route, deprive American soldiers of food grown in the valley, and strengthen Six Nation and Loyalist Alliances, and slice the colonies.

British General John Burgoyne led an invasion of New York from the north and west. His army advanced from Montreal towards Albany. A second force commanded by General Barry St. Leger invaded the Mohawk Valley. Strategically, St. Leger aimed to control the Oneida Carrying Place, create a diversion to split Patriot forces, and reinforce Burgoyne. Politically, he wanted to rally support among American Indian allies and Loyalists.

Patriots had taken over Fort Stanwix in 1777 and renamed it for General Schuyler. The fort was under the command of Col. Peter Gansvoort when it came under siege by the British. Some 2,000 British troops set up a blockade, helped by Indians allied with the British, which went on for months.

General Nicholas Herkimer assembled an 800-man militia to come to the fort’s aid, but was betrayed (by Molly Brant, a Mohawk woman allied with the British, and the second wife of Sir William Johnson). Herkimer’s militia was ambushed along the way at Oriskany. This became one of the bloodiest battles of the Revolutionary War, in which 600 were killed in a matter of hours. General Herkimer, himself, was fatally wounded, dying 10 days later. (Later in our trip, we pass Herkimer Church where he died, and his home.)

The British surrender at the Battles of Saratoga removed the threat of a British invasion in northern New York. Few realize how the Patriot victory was a ripple effect of events at Fort Stanwix © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

But the Indians allied with the British, hearing that the Americans had plundered their encampments, left the fort to go to their families’ aid. Fearing that more American reenforcements were on the way, the British retreated, handing the Patriots their first victory (of sorts) of the Revolutionary War. This, critically, boosted the Americans’ morale, and helped set the stage for the Patriots’ victory at Saratoga (under General Benedict Arnold).

This, then, is what changed the course of the war. Because of the victory at Saratoga, which was the unanticipated consequence of what happened at Oriskany and Fort Stanwix, Americans won the critical support of France (long time enemy of Britain), without which, the Americans could not have defeated the British and the British were forced to fight a world war.

In 1778, the British again attempted a formal invasion of New York, planning to burn the Mohawk Valley fields of grain that supplied the Continental Army.

The last battle here took place in 1780, when a work party outside the fort was ambushed by British-allied Indians and Loyalists.

National Parks Ranger Bill Sawyer guides us through Fort Stanwix © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But for most of the Revolutionary War, “It is frustrating for the troops to be here, the backwater of the Revolution,” Park Ranger Bill Sawyer, who is dressed in the uniform of the 3rd New York regiment, tells us. The men were upset because they were far from the fighting. But “Washington was vindicated in his decision to keep it fortified because the British refortified Fort Ontario. Washington wanted to block the British.”

And I am certain that those disgruntled soldiers confined to Fort Stanwix never appreciated that as a result of these events at Fort Stanwix, the British grand plan to slice off New York from the rebelling colonies and cut off the Continental Army’s source of food, failed.  Instead, the Americans had the critical support of France.

Fort Stanwix: Living History

After this introduction in the Visitors Center, Park Ranger Bill Sawyer, walks us into the Fort, where we are greeted by costumed interpreters dressed as American soldiers. A couple of teenage boys (summer interns at the fort) patrol the ramparts of the fort. You are immediately transported back centuries.

The fireplace is the only part of the original 1758 fort that remains at Fort Stanwix. The fort was rebuilt to original plans retrieved from British archives © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This fort is a nearly complete reconstruction on the original foundation – the only thing original is a fireplace (that can be seen in one of the rooms). Over the decades, Rome was built up on top of the fort. Archaeological excavations conducted in 1970-73 uncovered the site, but all the artifacts were removed, the site completely cleared, and the fort rebuilt with new materials.

The fort held 800 soldiers (twice the number the fort was built to hold); families of soldiers (who couldn’t afford to maintain them in their homes) camped in the ditch outside the wall; women would try to get jobs within the fort. People died of disease and winter cold.

By February 1778, the soldiers’ clothing was reduced to rags, they hardly had any bedding left or blankets. They would have been stationed here for anywhere from 4 months to 2 years. Morale was terrible.

We see the harsh living conditions. Artillery men, though, had somewhat better accommodations, because they were specialists. “They had to have knowledge of math and the use of measuring tools to calculate the trajectory of cannon and mortar. They had better pay and living conditions.”

We visit the different rooms for the junior officers, a family quarters, the officers’ lodging, the orderly room, the surgeon’s day room. The Commandant’s HQ had a fine room befitting his wealth and high station and had a private assigned.

National Parks Ranger Bill Sawyer guides us through Fort Stanwix © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

On my first visit, two years ago, I was able to see an outstanding film that depicted life in the fort and how the soldiers suffered. “The walls imprisoned them, supplies cut off. They were overcome by boredom and hunger. They wanted to go fight. Five men deserted, headed to Canada. Gansvoort sent out a band of Indians to recapture them. They were executed as an example to the rest….It was a forsaken place. Finally, they were sent to war.”

On my first visit, one of our cyclists, Peter Reeve, was British, though living in Maryland since 1981, and gave me the British perspective:  “The British people didn’t care to keep America,” Reeve told me. “They didn’t want to spend the money fighting the Revolution. Most British generals were against the tax acts. General Howell supported the Americans’ grievance.”

While major battles took place in the South, minor battles and guerrilla-style warfare characterized the fighting in New York. General Washington lamented that crops that were being destroyed in these raids were needed to feed his army surrounding New York City. These raids and counter-raids were waged by Patriots, Loyalists, American Indians, British and British-allied Germans, alike, often against civilians, and were among the most brutal of the war.

The fort served as an isolated outpost for another four years after the siege. The inaction drained morale and the constant shortage of food and munitions made the soldier’s life insufferable. Regular petitions for transfer and increasing desertions reflected the wretched conditions.

By 1779, British strategy changed and they invaded the other colonies. Though Britain won most of the battles, they failed to destroy the Patriot army. Outmaneuvered, the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, bringing an unofficial end to the war.

Following their 1781 defeat at Yorktown, the English saw little value in continuing large scale war in America. Two years later, war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris by the US, France and Britain. As the British Army withdrew, Loyalists migrated to Canada and elsewhere.

American Independence Voids Treaty with Indians

The 1783 Treaty of Paris officially ended the war – at least between the British and the colonists. However, no terms of peace were negotiated for the American Indians. In later years, American Indians negotiated their own treaties with the Patriots (who tossed out the Treaty of 1768.)

The focus at Fort Stanwix on Indian history is very clear from the first display that greets you as you enter the Visitors Center – of trappers trading with Indians.

American Indians’ history, NPS Ranger Sawyer says, “was long ignored. Now we interpret to include it.”

Fort Stanwix also offers one of the best presentations of tribal Indians and European settlers in the colonial and Revolutionary War period © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, Fort Stanwix offers one of the most interesting and informative presentations about American Indians outside of the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC.

I am most surprised to see that the Indians lived in villages, with a grid street plan; they wore western-style shirts and many had European names. They had many of the same household goods as the colonists – an indication of how well-developed trade had become, and in fact, how dependent the Indians had become on trade.

The constant theme in the history between the Indians and European settlers, though, was how the Indians were constantly betrayed.

The Indians wanted no part of the Revolutionary War and tried to stay neutral. That changed with the Battle of Oriskany, though.

Centuries of Peace Upended in One Day © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Revolutionary War split the Iroquois Confederacy (“Iroquois” was the French name for the Haudenosaunee, “People of the Longhouse”). Mohawks led by Joseph Brant (the brother of Molly Brant who triggered the ambush of Herkimer’s militia at Oriskany) adhered to their long-standing allegiance to the British, and eventually most Cayugas, Onondagas, and Senecas joined them. But Oneidas and Tuscaroras sided with the Americans, owing in large measure to the efforts of their Presbyterian missionary Samuel Kirkland. The Revolution became a civil war for the Iroquois, as Oneidas clashed with Senecas at the Battle of Oriskany in 1777. (“Centuries of peace upended in a single day,” the notes read.) Iroquois suffering was compounded in 1779 when General John Sullivan, on orders of General Washington, led an American army through their lands, burning 40 towns and destroying crops.

Iroquois suffering was compounded in 1779 when General John Sullivan, on orders of General Washington, led an American army through their lands, burning 40 towns and destroying crops © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Both sides practiced a scorched earth strategy. “Raids by Loyalists and British-allied American Indians in 1778 destroyed Patriot settlements in Pennsylvania and New York. In 1779, General Washington ordered Generals Sullivan and Clinton to retaliate and destroy Six Nation towns, homes and food. Soldiers from Fort Stanwix tricked Patriot-allied Oneida warriors into raiding the British supply depot at Oswegatchie before leaving to destroy Onondaga towns. These raids and counter-raids continued until 1783.” Afterwards, General George Washington was given the name “Town Destroyer” by the Seneca people.

The Americans, who always wanted to take over Indian lands (another sore point that led to wanting independence from Britain), nullified the treaty of 1768 as soon as they won independence in 1783, claiming it was negotiated with the British and did not apply to the new nation. The Americans voided the treaty with the Cayuga, Canandagua and Mohicans claiming that these nations sided with the British, and pushed them further west.

In 1784, Governor George Clinton (uncle of Dewitt Clinton who launched the Erie Canal project), who was not a supporter of the federal Constitution, decided to make his own treaty. The new treaty, negotiated at Fort Stanwix with the Oneida who allied with the Patriots, effectively relegated three Oneida Indian nations to a measly 32 acres, in which they were surrounded on all sides by settlers. (The Oneida tribe had already split, with half moving to Wisconsin).

“Now, for first time in history, the Indian nation is relegated to a reservation, surrounded by Europeans (whites),” Sawyer tells us.

By the 1790s, houses were built by the fort; by the mid-1800s, the fort was demolished and the city of Rome built on top of the ruins. In 1935, a national monument established, though by then the site a commercial district with no trace of the fort.

By the 1960s,a grassroots urban renewal effort was underway to revitalize the downtown and restore the fort, but this required the National Park Service to go against its long-standing policy: “We protect, preserve, interpret any natural thing, but nothing was left of fort.” But political pressure mounted to create a new Revolutionary War “themed park” to open in time for the bicentennial in 1976.

Household items, among the 400,000 items excavated from the Fort Stanwix site, would have been similar between Indian and settler homes © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A massive excavation got underway by local volunteers and in the process, 400,000 artifacts were uncovered in three years of archaeological work.

They had a the foundation plus they had the original plans (from the British museum) and maps, clothing and receipts, enough to reconstruct the fort exactly as it would have looked.

Ranger Sawyer, who tells me his interest in becoming a park ranger was ignited during summer internship at the fort when he was a teenager and got “hooked”, says that the 400,000 artifacts are housed in a cultural conservation center in the Visitors Center.

In summer, on Wednesdays & Thursdays, at 11:15 & 1 pm, they open up back area to guided tours to see archaeologists working with the artifacts.

Our Cycle the Erie encampment at Fort Stanwix © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am literally the last person out of the fort when they close at 9 pm, and walk a block to get some pizza for dinner (this is one of two nights when we are on our own for dinner and the city of Rome has provided a list of eateries.)

The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.

The entire Erie Canal corridor has been designated the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000, www.eriecanalway.org.

More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov.  

Next: Cycle the Erie, Days 6-7: Erie Canal Promotes Rise of America as Global Industrial Power 

See also:

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

Cycle the Erie, Day 2-3: A Sequence of Charming Canaltowns, Pastoral Landscapes, Punctuated by City Birthed by ‘Mother of Cities’

Cycle the Erie, Day 4: Seneca Falls to Syracuse, Crossing Halfway Mark of 400-Mile Biketour

Cycle the Erie, Day 5: Deep Dive into The Erie Canal: ‘Mother of Cities’, Empire Builder, Wonder of the World

 

_____________________________

© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Yosemite National Park: Surprising Diversity, Dramatic Scenes Hiking Chilnualna Falls Trail, Wawona

The Chilnualna Falls Trail brings you close to dramatic cascades several times on the way to the top © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Eric Leiberman, Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s our second day in Yosemite National Park.

I am surprised at how much we could cover on our first day in Yosemite National Park, spent hiking in Yosemite Valley. This is the most popular and iconic part of this vast park, the size of Rhode Island, but the three trails we chose – Mist Trail, John Muir, Mirror Lake – haven given us a really good sense of the park, despite its size. Since we need to leave the area for San Francisco, 200 miles away, by 4 pm, we cleverly find a hike (thanks to the Tenaya Lodge concierge) that starts from just inside the South Gate, in the Wawona section, thereby cutting out 1 ½ hour drive each way jut to get into Yosemite Valley at the center of the park. We plan this out very well: the Chilnualna Falls Trail is just about 6 miles from the Tenaya Lodge, and is much, much, much less crowded – and yet, we meet some wonderful people from Australia and other places.

It is also sufficiently long hike to take about five or six hours – exactly the amount of time we have, and, we discover, offers dramatic, close-by views of the cascading Chilnualna Falls, the sweeping vistas of the southern  Yosemite, and wonderful diversity of the landscape, as the trail winds through a variety of terrain and habitats. Our choice proves brilliant.

We start out in the village of Wawona (you pass a general store so if you need supplies, this would be a great place), turn onto Chilnualna Falls Road and park at the trailhead (there are restroom facilities here).

Hiking the Chilnualna Falls Trail, Yosemite National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This hike is billed as strenuous – mainly for a fairly steep, nearly mile-long beginning, that includes narrow, high stone steps (with the reward of a gorgeous cascading waterfall). Then it is a steady upward (though mostly gradual) climb for about 4 miles, with a 2,400-foot elevation gain to an altitude of 6,600 feet – that’s what makes the hike tough.

The Chilnualna Falls Trail hike is billed as strenuous – mainly because it is a steady upward climb, with the steepest part at the beginning © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Chilnualna Falls, which fortunately for us is one of the less known and visited falls (and not accessible by car), consists of five large cascades that slide through and over large granite rock formations – almost like the ruins of a fort, parts of which we get to climb.

At various points we come across the cataracts, up close, and each time, the sound and view is dramatic.

Hiking the Chilnualna Falls Trail, Yosemite National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Finally, we come to a beautiful scene where the Chilnualna Falls comes to a ledge before going over a ridge. Here, we sit along some flat rocks right beside the water, and look over the forest and distant mountain peaks of the southern Yosemite and the Wawona Dome.

Peaceful contemplation alongside the Chilnualna Falls, Yosemite National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From here, you can continue on to get to the top of the fall (as well as connect to several other trails that go all the way back to into Yosemite Valley), but considering our time schedule (and looking out at rain clouds flowing in), we head down after a lovely picnic along side the cascading Chilnualna Creek.

Most of the trail is along the ridge so you have dramatic views of the creek or valley.  Some of it crosses through meadow, so there is wonderful variation. The views of the rushing water and waterfalls are surprising and dramatic.

One of the nicest aspects of this trail, as compared to yesterday’s hikes on the Mist Trail, the John Muir Trail and the Mirror Lake Trail, are the opportunities to appreciate some magnificent trees and flowers. After about a half mile (and the first cascade), the trail leaves the creek and heads up switchbacks through manzanita, oak and mixed conifer forest. In the spring, the hillsides are full of Mountain Misery – a spreading plant with beautiful white blossoms, which we get to see. In among the Mountain Misery you may well see Hartweg’s Irises, Indian Pink, Golden Yarrow, Narrow-Leaved Ceanothus, Utah Serviceberry and several more showy flowers. Some of the side seeps might be blooming with Seep Spring Monkeyflowers and perhaps Sunflowers.

In the spring, the hillsides along the Chilnualna Falls Trail are full of Mountain Misery © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The upper cascades of Chilnualna Falls are quite beautiful in high flow, and in the early season they will be flanked with Azaleas, Mountain Pride Penstemmon and Dogwoods, Pussypaws and others.

We don’t necessarily realize it, but we are also passing through territories of deer, coyote, mountain lion, and black bear. There are birds, as well, but we are a bit early to see the western tanager which can be spotted from May through September.

Hiking the Chilnualna Falls Trail, Yosemite National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Finally, as we near the top, we have views over to Wawona Dome and finally of the falls themselves.

We have to climb down a little from the trail to these broad slabs so we have a beautiful view of the falls. It is a perfect place for our picnic lunch.

Coming back is much, much easier – basically a gentle downward slope, and you are looking out at the scenery. Even the obstacles are no concern because we have already done them.

We are down to the steep part when it begins to rain. There are a couple of obstacles – like leaping over flowing water (thank goodness for my hiking sticks!).

We make it all the way back just in time for it to rain in earnest, adding to our feeling of physical satisfaction and accomplishment. All in all, an 8.2 mile hike that takes from 10 am to 3:40 pm.

Eric climbs to get a closer view of the Chilnualna Falls © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

What I love most, after completing this trail, is how different the experience has been from the previous day’s hike in Yosemite Valley – the vegetation, the meadows, the general landscape – and how surprisingly gorgeous the falls and the creek, and especially, the peacefulness without the crowds.

Preparation: bring enough water (2 water bottles) and prepare for changes in weather: bring rain poncho and plastic bags to cover cameras from rain or mist; rain poncho; snacks, moleskin for blisters, hat, sunglasses and sunscreen, camera, extra memory card and battery, cell phone, an extra layer in case it gets cool. I have also found hiking sticks extremely helpful.

For non-hikers, non-DIYers, Tenaya Lodge offers a Yosemite Tour Package, via mini-bus, that includes lunch and narration, and guarantees waterfalls and wildlife and seeing the most popular sights of Yosemite. (Offered May 1-Nov. 30; from $575 spring, $685 summer, $555 fall; call 888-514-2167 or Tenaya Reservations directly at 559-692-8916).

Tenaya Lodge, 1122 Highway 41, Fish Camp, CA 93623, 800-722-8584, tenayalodge.com.

To plan your visit to Yosemite National Park, https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/basicinfo.htm, https://www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm. 

Great information for planning your hike at these sites: http://yosemiteexplorer.com/trails

https://outsidehow.com/yosemite-hiking-tips.html

See also:

Yosemite National Park: Best Valley Hikes for First Timers

Tenaya Lodge Provides Luxury Lodging Resort Experience at Gateway to Yosemite National Park

Muir Woods is San Francisco’s Cathedral to Mother Nature

____________________

© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Yosemite National Park: Best Valley Hikes for First Timers

Yosemite National Park, Calif.

By Karen Rubin, Eric Leiberman, Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Yosemite National Park – America’s first – has been on my bucket list for years, so I am beyond excited when we arrive at the Tenaya Lodge, in Fish Camp, just two miles from the South Gate, and immediately start planning for how we will tackle the park the next day. I am intimidated at first by how vast Yosemite is – the size of Rhode Island I am told – and how to organize the logistics if I am going to see for myself the places that are etched in the images in my mind in only two days.

We spend a lot of time with the Tenaya Lodge concierge to get suggestions of where to go, which trails to hike, where to park (there is a bus shuttle system but during our visit, at the very beginning of spring, it wasn’t operating very well).

Because it is so early in the season, some of the areas (like Glacier Point) aren’t even open yet. But it also means that the waterfalls are at near maximum of their cascading flow: all the sound and the fury, the feel of the cool spray, the moist smell. On the other hand, as it happens, we are here on the weekend of National Parks Week, when admission is free, coinciding with Easter, so the park is likely to be especially crowded.

Coming through the mile-long tunnel into Yosemite National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But we pick out the trail for the day: Mist Trail – which is also one of the most popular (we discover) for good reason, especially this early in the season. In one trail, it seems to encapsulate the entire Yosemite experience of a reasonably vigorous hike over a good distance (3 miles roundtrip to Vernal Fall, with 1,000 foot elevation gain, taking about 3 hours), sensational views, proximity to a fantastic waterfall (Vernal) with views of the Nevada Fall (which would be a further 1.3 miles up Mist Trail from Vernal Fall).

Indeed, it is a shock to learn that though the Tenaya Lodge is a mere two miles from the South Gate entrance into Yosemite National Park, it is another 45 minutes drive (30 miles) just to get to the famous Tunnel View, then another 45 minutes drive to get to Curry Village where we will fnd parking for the Mist Trail.

The concierge prepares us well. We know that just outside of the mile long tunnel, to look for the parking lot for the iconic Tunnel View. “Take the first spot” she has advised.

The Tunnel View lookout place, in one image, offers a spectacular view of the quintessential Yosemite sites: Bridalveil Fall, Half Dome, Clouds Rest, El Capitan.

The Tunnel View lookout place, in one image, offers a spectacular view of the quintessential Yosemite sites: Bridalveil Fall, Half Dome, Clouds Rest, El Capitan © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, the biggest surprise for me is how accessible the iconic features of Yosemite National Park are from the road – I expected them to be more remote, reached only after long, difficult hikes through the wilderness.

And so I shouldn’t have been surprised by the steady stream – wall to wall in some spots – of people, just like us, seeking out the solace and majesty or our natural, national heritage. Indeed, last year saw a record – 331 million visitors to America’s 417 National Park Service sites (contributing $34.9 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016), 5 million alone to Yosemite (Grand Canyon got 6 million).

Yosemite’s falls are most dramatic in early spring © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just a half mile beyond Tunnel View, you come to Bridalveil Fall – which has to be the second most visited place in Yosemite – and it is just a quarter-mile walk to the waterfall (a key reason it gets MASSIVE crowds that converge in this small spot; I even meet someone who had just been at a wedding right there). The famous Yosemite Falls, also, is visible from the road (we see it on our way out, when it is already getting dark), and the Lower fall is an easy one-mile loop (half of it is wheelchair accessible).

One of the spectacular views as we set out for the Vernal Fall on the Mist Trail © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But we are here to hike! And the trails we have picked out are perfect for the level of physical exertion (and satisfaction), photographic opportunities, and the general appreciation of Yosemite that we are seeking today.

We have set our sights today on the Mist Trail which takes us alongside the Vernal Fall. The trail is both moderately challenging and an ideal distance (not too short, not too long), and unbelievably gorgeous, especially this early in the season, with the fall at maximum flow (especially after a winter where they had twice the normal snowfall; prepare to be sprayed). It is a steep hike beside the waterfall on a series of stone steps – narrow and very crowded, with most people walking up but some people trying to come down this way. (It is better to continue down on the John Muir Trail, which is not as steep or crowded and has fantastic views).

The Mist Trail is one of the most popular in Yosemite, for good reason © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The trail starts off with an .8 mile hike up to the Vernal Falls footbridge (there are restrooms and water fountains here which you should definitely take advantage of before continuing on); and then another mile hike up to the top of Vernal Falls. Along the way, we see a rainbow in the spray at the bottom of the falls.

The Vernal Fall lookout – a series of relatively flat slabs – is about 1000 feet above where we started and is extremely popular spot for picnicking, relaxing and taking selfies. We do the same.

From here it is a short walk up to Emerald Pool which, so early in the season is a rushing torrent rather than the calm pool it will become by late summer.

Top of Vernal Fall, Yosemite National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is so scenic and seems so benign, but there are warnings signs not to be so foolhardy as to go near the water or (perish the thought) swim. People are warned to watch out for their children.  The rocks are slippery and this has been the scene of many accidents. I learn that in the summer of 2005, a hiker walked out into the water a bit to fill his water bottle, slipped, got caught in the deceptively strong current and was swept over the falls.

The John Muir Trail gives a wonderful view of the Nevada Fall and Half Dome, © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At this point, you can continue to hike another two miles to the top of the Nevada Fall, but we decide to hike down 3.5 miles along the less-steep John Muir Trail (versus coming back down on the Mist Trail). The John Muir Trail gives us a marvelous view of the Nevada Fall and Half Dome; much of the trail follows along a ridge that opens up to purple mountain majesty.

Views of purple mountain majesty from The John Muir Trail, Yosemite National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s still early enough in the afternoon when we get back down to the base – delighted with how perfect the Vernal Fall hike was (altogether, we’ve hiked six miles, and climbed 1885 ft. in elevation) that we are excited to try another. We look over the list we have been given for a shorter, easy hike and set out for Mirror Lake.

Mirror Lake, Yosemite National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Mirror Lake hike is supposed to be two miles round trip (taking one hour), but this is apparently if you just walk along the road. Instead, we take the trail that is apparently part of a five-mile loop around the lake which has more obstacles than I had bargained for. But there are some dazzling scenes along the way, and a stunning scene of the lake, so flat and still that it is literally a mirror reflecting back the stunning backdrop, and affords a closer view of the face of Half Dome.

To walk back by the road, Eric and Sarah scurry on a log across a narrow point which they imagine is a short cut to a road (the option is to hike around the lake). I’m not the scurrying-across-a-fallen-tree type, so I opt to backtrack along the same trial, which turns out to be fun, now that I know what the obstacles are (and that I can do them).

Finally meeting up with everybody in the car (after a MUCH longer walk back from the trailhead toward the parking lot, without seeing a single shuttle bus), which turns out to be a feat because cars are restricted, we set out to return to the Tenaya Lodge.

A view of Yosemite Falls © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

On the way out of Yosemite, we find ourselves crossing Sentinel Bridge which is supposed to be one of the best photo spots to capture Half Dome over the Merced River (the dusky light doesn’t cooperate, but that’s the element of serendipity that comes with every visit).

Then, the one-way road back to the South Gate passes by Yosemite Falls, agonizingly close (just a quarter of a mile), but it is too late to hike up to it in the fading light. We get a fleeting shot – I am surprised that it is so “exposed” to the access road – I imagined it was tucked inside.See https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/valleyhikes.htm

Preparation: bring enough water (2 water bottles) and prepare for changes in weather: bring rain poncho and plastic bags to cover cameras from rain or mist; rain poncho; snacks, moleskin for blisters, hat, sunglasses and sunscreen, camera, extra memory card and battery, cell phone, an extra layer in case it gets cool. I have also found hiking sticks extremely helpful.

For non-hikers, non-DIYers, Tenaya Lodge offers a Yosemite Tour Package, via mini-bus, that includes lunch and narration, and guarantees waterfalls and wildlife and seeing the most popular sights of Yosemite. (Offered May 1-Nov. 30; from $575 spring, $685 summer, $555 fall; call 888-514-2167 or Tenaya Reservations directly at 559-692-8916).

Tenaya also offers an itinerary you can take on your own to hit Yosemite’s highlights in a single day: Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Fall, Mariposa Grove, Glacier Point, Wawona, Royal Arches, Turtleback Dome, Three Brothers, Leaning Tower, Ribbon Fall, Cathedral Spires, Yosemite Chapel, Vernal and Nevada Falls. In summer, you have to park and use shuttle buses to get around.

Tenaya Lodge, 1122 Highway 41, Fish Camp, CA 93623, 800-722-8584, tenayalodge.com.

To plan your visit to Yosemite National Park, https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/basicinfo.htm, https://www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm. 

Great information for planning your hike at these sites: http://yosemiteexplorer.com/trails

https://outsidehow.com/yosemite-hiking-tips.html

Next:

Yosemite National Park: Surprising Diversity, Dramatic Scenes Hiking Chilnualna Falls Trail, Wawona

See also:

Tenaya Lodge Provides Luxury Lodging Resort Experience at Gateway to Yosemite National Park

____________________

© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Muir Woods is San Francisco’s Cathedral to Mother Nature

Walking through Muir Woods National Monument you feel so small © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is quite amazing to me that just 35 minutes drive from downtown San Francisco, the fabulous urbanized city with some of the tallest structures man has devised, are the Muir Woods, with some of the tallest and most ancient trees Mother Nature has produced.

The peace, the serenity, the sheer awe and majesty envelopes you from the first steps into the national forest.

There are many tour companies that make it easy for tourists to visit, as well as various means to get you there on your own (but if you use Uber, you have to be aware that there is no cell service there).

I took Extranomical Tours’s Muir Woods Expedition which offers an excellent program, well organized, and that gives you some extra added treats: a stop in scenic Sausalito and another stop for a “unique” view of the Golden Gate Bridge (in fact, an unusual vantage point that most tourists would never have), as well as an animated, well informed guide (Jake on the tour I took), who points out the sights, relates San Francisco’s history and gives good historical and naturalist background to prime you for your visit to Muir Woods National Monument.

The Extranomical tour to Muir Woods begins with a pick-up at convenient locations – I was picked up at the Hyatt Regency Embacadero, in a smart van (flooding has wiped out part of Highway 1, so you have to take a small, winding road up to the entrance which the big buses they normally use can’t take).

Jake, a filmmaker originally, is our guide and gives pleasant commentary on the drive that orients us well when we arrive.

Muir Woods National Monument offers a serene retreat so close to San Francisco © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Muir Woods is a national monument, established on January 9, 1908 by President Roosevelt using his powers under the Antiquities Act, to protect an old-growth coast redwood forest from destruction.

Jake explains us how these woods were saved from lumbering and development by William Kent and his family. Redwood Creek contained one of the Bay Area’s last uncut stands of old-growth redwood, Congressman William Kent and his wife, Elizabeth Thacher Kent, bought 611 acres for $45,000 in 1905. To protect the redwoods the Kents donated 295 of the land to the Federal Government and, in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared it a national monument. Roosevelt suggested naming the area after Kent, but Kent wanted it named for the pioneering conservationist John Muir responsible for saving Yosemite as America’s first national park.

Since Muir Woods is a national monument, Jake can’t escort us through and we pay our $10 fee to enter. But he has oriented us well and tells us the best way to explore in the two hours we have here.

Walking through Muir Woods, you find yourself constantly craning your neck upwards, just as if entering a cathedral © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Two hours proves sufficient to get the highlights of Muir Woods and hike the most popular trails (there are numerous hiking trails, some of which hadn’t opened yet for the season). The main trail is paved, flat, and can accommodate wheelchairs. This trail puts you at the base of these mammoth trees so you can the full appreciation of just how massive they are (and how small you are). You find yourself constantly craning your neck to see to the top.

And when you walk in, you do feel like you are entering a cathedral – that craning of the neck to see the treetops making an arch over the narrow path, as if looking up at the high arching roof of a Gothic cathedral like Notre Dame.

Indeed, perhaps because it is so close to San Francisco and offers such a contrast to a congested urban area, Muir Woods is very much a “cathedral” – there is even a Cathedral Grove, with a sign that says “Shhh… Quiet Refuge.”

You hear birds, the gurgling of the Redwoods Creek that flows through.

You feel small, a speck in time and space.

You feel grateful to man who saved these woods.

You are overwhelmed by the sense of awe and majesty, from your first steps through the wooden threshold.

Walk among Redwood trees as old as 800 years in Muir Woods National Monument © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The trees, as if elders, range in age from 400 to 800 years – that means they were already well on in years when Columbus first discovered the New World – their height up to 250 feet.

These aren’t as thick as the famous Giant Sequoias which are further inland; but these coastal redwoods are the tallest trees in the world. Even more remarkable because they grow from a tiny seed that bursts from a small pine cone that is heated by fire.

In the light gaps beneath the redwood trees are red alders, California big leaf maples, tanoaks, and Douglas fir. The forest floor is covered in redwood sorrel, ferns, fungi, duff, and debris. Wildlife includes the endangered coho salmon fingerlings that live in the lovely creek that flows through, Pacific wren, woodpeckers, owls, deer, chipmunks, skunks, river otters, and squirrels.

You walk among old growth coast redwoods, nurtured in the fresh water of Redwood Creek and by the fog.

I cross the fourth bridge over the Redwood Creek and take the Hill Top trail back -a narrow dirt path at a higher elevation – which gives a different perspective.

The Visitor Center at the Muir Woods entrance has exhibits and a vast selection of literature and information on Muir Woods. A cafe and gift shop is also located near the park entrance.

Walking back along the Hill Top trail gives a different perspective of the Muir Woods © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are other ways to get to the Muir Woods on your own such as using a bus service (though it is temporarily out while they repair Highway 1; and if you use Uber or ride-share, you need to pre-arrange a pick-up because there is no cell service).  Coming on your own, you can organize your visit to miss the busiest crowds during midday (best to arrive before 9 am or after 4 pm). The park opens every day at 8 am and closes at 8 pm (after March 18).

Muir Woods is open 365 days of the year, though hours vary with the season.

Muir Woods National Monument,1 Muir Woods Rd. Mill Valley, CA 94941, 415-388-2595. 

Extranomical Tours has a small luxury van © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The advantage of the Extranomical Tour is certainly the convenience of the pick up, plus the enhanced experience of a brief stop at Sausalito and (on our trip) the Presidio for jake’s “unique” view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Jake gives us a narration about the history of San Francisco and points out attractions on our way (like the tunnel, recently renamed for comedian Robin Williams, which is painted with a rainbow).

A ‘unique’ view of San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Extranomical Tours also includes a visit to Muir Woods National Monument in other tour offerings, such as one and two-day trips to Wine Country; and a trip that combines Muir Woods with Sausalito and Alcatraz.

Extranomical Tours, 866-231-3752, 415-357-0700,  www.extranomical.com, contact@extranomical.com. Facebook (www.facebook.com/extranomical), Twitter (www.twitter.com/extranomical) 

For more help planning contact San Francisco Travel. 415-391‑2000, www.sftravel.com.

See also:

San Francisco Throwing Year-Long 50th Anniversary Celebration of Summer of Love – Be Prepared to Be Blasted into the Past

San Francisco Goes All Out With Special Events, Exhibitions Marking 50th Anniversary of Summer of Love

Biking is Great Way to Tour San Francisco’s Must-See Attractions

A Day in San Francisco Revisiting the Past: Plucky Cable Car Epitomizes City’s Grit, Determination, Innovation

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