Worthwhile in Wyoming

I’m frequently asked whether a place I visited was worthwhile.  If it’s worth the time, effort, or money expended, it’s worthwhile.  For me, this is true in all things travel.  For example, I’ve been a member of AAA for many years.  Some of you are likely thinking, what’s that?  AAA stands for American Automobile Association and they offer emergency roadside assistance.  Having used roadside assistance very little in all those years, you may think it’s not worthwhile.  But, they also provide travel services including TourBooks and maps, and that’s where I believe I’ve gotten my money’s worth.   You can purchase AAA TourBooks on Amazon for $7-$11 so getting them free with my membership is definitely worthwhile to me.  In addition, TourBooks are updated every couple of years so each time I visit an area, I get the new edition.  As part of my travel planning within the United States, I order the TourBooks and maps for each state before I visit and use them to begin planning.  Of course, with the internet, that’s really no longer necessary.  You can search any location and find exhaustive information for your planning purposes.  BUT, when I was in Yellowstone with no connectivity on my smart phone and no wi-fi in the hotel, the old stone tablet, aka paper books and maps, came in VERY handy.  And even outside the park, reception was spotty in Wyoming.  Apparently, ATT has some room for improvement in the western U.S.

Upon leaving Jackson, Wyoming, just like in the old days, my husband drove while I read out loud from the TourBook about every town and attraction along the route and some off the route in case we found something worth a side trip.  We decided to head to Thermopolis, Wyoming, by way of the Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway.  Our first stop, however, occurred when we spotted some hunters on the side of the road.  Thinking maybe we’d see some wildlife, we pulled over.

Hunter with his dismembered moose

Hunter with his dismembered moose

Since this was the only moose I’d seen on this trip, I snapped a picture, even though he was no longer in one piece.  I told the hunter I’d really like to see a grizzly bear and he said to come back in the morning to the “gut pile” and I’d likely see one.

By this time, it was late in the afternoon so locating accommodations for the night was our first priority.  The TourBook also contains accommodations so I quickly found a good rate at the new Wind River Hotel and Casino in Riverton, WY.  We’re not gamblers but we like a bargain and this hotel owned by the Northern Arapaho Tribe fit the bill.  By the time we got our AAA discount and all the other perks including gambling dollars and meal vouchers plus some extras because it was my birth month, we figured our room cost around $40.  I found it ironic that no alcohol was allowed anywhere on this property although smoking and gambling were plentiful.

The next morning, we headed straight to the Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway.  The varied terrain and vast rugged beauty is breathtaking.   The photos below are actually in the order taken showing the rapid changes in scenery.

Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway

Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway

Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway

Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway


Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway

Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway

Arriving in Thermopolis, the northern endpoint of the byway, at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center & Dig Sites  when it opened at 10 a.m. allowed us to see all the exhibits before the school children arrived on a field trip.  We were reminded of our own children when they were school age years before.  They would have loved Jimbo, the Supersaurus, and Stan, the T-Rex as well as the Triceratops on display at this delightful museum.

Today, the real draw to this small private museum is the famous Thermopolis Specimen, a fossil of an Archaeopteryx.  It is one of only 10-12 specimens in the world and the only one on display in North America.  It is also considered the second best specimen in existence.  The specimen was discovered in Bavaria and sold from a private collection to an anonymous donor who put it on display at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in 2007.  What a treasure!

"Thermopolis Archaeopteryx" by incidencematrix - DSC_0034. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thermopolis_Archaeopteryx.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Thermopolis_Archaeopteryx.jpg

“Thermopolis Archaeopteryx” by incidencematrix – DSC_0034. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thermopolis_Archaeopteryx.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Thermopolis_Archaeopteryx.jpg

This town of 3000 inhabitants has more to offer than just the dinosaur museum, however.  It is home to the world’s largest mineral hot springs with over 8000 gallons of water heated to 135 degrees flowing each day.  Hot Springs State Park, the first state park in Wyoming, is adjacent to Thermopolis with a free public bath house for mineral springs bathing and swimming year round.  In addition, boating, fishing, and hiking are available, and a herd of bison roams through the park.

Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

Tepee Fountain, Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

Tepee Fountain, Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

A visit to Thermopolis was definitely worthwhile and I highly recommend spending some time there.  As we headed for home, one last beautiful photo of Wyoming begged to be taken.

Leaving Thermopolis, Wyoming

Leaving Thermopolis, Wyoming

Our AAA TourBooks and maps aided us in another worthwhile adventure.  And, we were happy to get out of Wyoming and South Dakota just a day ahead of more than 12 inches of snow in late September.


Based on events from September, 2013


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Blank Park Zoo

I don’t know about you but I am conflicted about zoos.  I understand the ethical concerns about restricting animals to false environments but I also realize that zoos engage in important conservation efforts.  Like most ethical dilemmas, there is right and wrong on both sides and people have strong opinions on the subject.  So when my son, Michael, an animal lover since childhood, wanted to visit Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines before his return flight to Europe, I admit I was surprised and ambivalent.  But with fond memories of our trip to this particular zoo when my kids were little, I agreed.

Blank Park Zoo

Blank Park Zoo

Blank Park Zoo is the only accredited zoo in the state of Iowa and it’s small with 1000 animals overall.  It takes only a couple of hours to see it at a leisurely pace.  The morning was beautiful and we arrived early because we’re Iowans; we get up early and get going.  I commented that maybe it wouldn’t open until 10:00, checked my smart phone, and found that it opens at 9:00.  Of course.  Don’t you just love it?

Here’s a map from the website to get an overall idea of the grounds.  I’ll cover just a few of the highlights although we did see it all.


Immediately inside the entrance, we stopped for a photo-op of Michael and the bald eagle.  Accustomed to seeing bald eagles soar high above the river in my own neighborhood, I was somewhat disturbed to observe this magnificent bird caged in such a confined space.

Michael and Bald Eagle

Michael and Bald Eagle

Somehow Michael and I skipped right past the red pandas by the entrance but my husband, Jim, made a quick stop.  We later regretted our haste when we circled back to see them and they were inside and we could only see their adorable little faces peering out at us.  With fewer than 2500 remaining in the wild in China, they’re endangered.  Consequently, they are part of a species survival plan which is a program to manage the breeding and conservation of endangered species to ensure the survival of a healthy population (Blank Park Zoo, 2014).

After a quick stop at the river otter exhibit, we headed to Australia Adventure where we enjoyed 15-20 wallabies on the loose.  The wallaby mob (group) consists of boomers (males), flyers (females), and joeys (young).  Australia is on my “must see” list of countries to visit so I particularly enjoyed this exhibit.

Wallabies on the loose

Wallabies on the loose



I didn’t know the kookaburra is called the bushmen’s watch because they typically emit their laughing call around dusk, according to the educational signage nearby. I also learned this bird, a carnivore that feeds on lizards, snakes, and small mammals, is as common in Australia as crows and starlings in Iowa.  There were lots of other birds in this area including a parakeet aviary and black swans in a pond and at the back of the area you will find the depot to catch a ride on the little train that circles the zoo.

We, however, headed to the Aldabra tortoises.   These large tortoises come from the Seychelle and Aldabra Islands in the Indian Ocean.  They are currently threatened with extinction in the wild due to loss of habitat.


Aldabra Tortoises

The oldest tortoise, Barnaby, age 75-85, has the distinction of being the longest tenured animal in the zoo.  I remember this fellow from our visit many years ago and I can tell you either he or the female emits a VERY loud grunting noise while mating because we witnessed it and thought our young children would be traumatized but they don’t remember the experience at all.  Thankfully.

When we were in South Africa earlier this year, they told us the big cats are called lions because they’re always lyin’ around.  That’s how we observed this male and female until the female languidly rose and sauntered off while we watched.  They are also threatened in their natural habitat in Africa.

Our most disturbing observation at the zoo was while watching the behavior of the snow leopard.  This cat paced back and forth repetitively along the fence row while we watched.  Observe the worn path along the fence.

Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard

The snow leopard, from Asia, has been hunted nearly to extinction for its beautiful pelt, with only 4400-7500 remaining in the wild today.

The Siberian tiger is the largest of the cats and the most critically endangered.  Interestingly, no two tigers have the same stripe pattern, kind of like human fingerprints.

Siberian Tiger

Siberian Tiger

There are currently only 400 Siberian tigers remaining in the wild and 560 in captivity.  In the wild, their hunting territory ranges up to 1600 square miles which gives me great cause for concern about their mental health in captivity.

Like many people, I love to watch primates.  I spent considerable time attempting to get photos of these monkeys but frankly, they refused to cooperate and studiously refrained from looking my way.  I persevered and here’s the best that I got.

Called Japanese macaques, also known as the Snow monkey, from Japan, they are protected by the Japanese government but threatened, nevertheless, due to loss of habitat.

I was surprised and excited to find two black rhinos at Blank Park Zoo, knowing how endangered they are.  We never saw a black rhino while we were in South Africa last February although we did see the white rhino.  The black rhino is somewhat smaller and a browser, whereas its relative, the white rhino, is a grazer.  What’s the difference?  Browsers eat trees and bushes while grazers eat grass.  The lip of the black rhino is pointed or hooked in order to pluck leaves from trees and bushes and the lip of the white rhino is squared or blunt to easily reach the ground for grass.

Black Rhino

Black Rhino

They have been hunted close to extinction in the past for the prized horn which is thought to possess magical medicinal properties particularly in Asian cultures.  Currently, the black rhino population is around 5000 but poaching, if unchecked, could rapidly reduce those numbers again.  I’ve posted this on my blog before, and if this is an animal you want to help save, go to Save the Rhino  or Rocking for Rhinos to learn more.

One of my favorite exhibits was the Magellan penguins, named for the explorer Ferdinand Magellan who first recorded sighting  them in South America in 1519.  I’m fascinated watching their awkward, lurching gait approaching the water, then they dive and glide through the water with the grace of synchronized swimmers.

Magellan Penguins

Magellan Penguins

Magellan Penguins

Magellan Penguins

This breed is only 18 inches tall unlike the Emperor penguins in Antarctica that stand 4 feet tall that I fell in love with watching the documentary, March of the Penguins.  In both species, however, the males help with incubating the eggs.  I love a good dad.

We missed several animals on our visit.  The sea otters weren’t out because the tank was being cleaned and we didn’t see the giraffes either although I didn’t see any explanation of their absence.  To compensate for missing the giraffes, Michael took a picture of Jim and me with the giraffe sculpture.

Giraffe Sculpture

Giraffe Sculpture

After our visit, I learned 7 animals at Blank Park Zoo are part of Species Survival Plans—the Amur (aka Siberian) tiger, snow leopard, red panda, Japanese macaque, ring-tailed lemur, golden headed tamarin, and Panamanian golden frog (Blank Park Zoo, 2014).  This valuable work ensures the survival of animals that are threatened with extinction in their natural habitats. Despite my discomfort with constricted environments of zoo animals, I support these conservation efforts.  Please join me and do all you can to support efforts to save our animals before it’s too late.






Blank Park Zoo (2014). Retrieved from http://www.blankparkzoo.com

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Escape to Siesta Key

If you’re looking for a great escape from cold and snowy winter weather, Siesta Key, just off Sarasota on the gulf side of Florida, has to be a strong contender.  You may think it’s a little early to plan now for winter but I just made my reservation for March, 2015, and it was already a challenge to find a place.  Everything is booked!  Well, not literally everything but it seemed that way to me.  This will be my fourth spring break at Siesta Key and by now, I believe I’m somewhat of an expert.

With sand as soft and white as powdered sugar, this wide beach proclaims itself the #1 Beach in the USA and I wholeheartedly agree.  Just look at that sand.  It’s 99% pure quartz which explains why it’s soft, white, and cool underfoot even when temperatures soar.  They know what they’ve got here, too, so don’t expect any deals during March.  It’s pricey but some places are worth it.

Siesta Beach, March, 2014

Siesta Beach, March, 2014

Every year I meet my childhood bestie, Gail, at the Tampa airport and we drive south in a rental car to spend a week on this idyllic island.  Last year we discovered La Siesta Condominiums, stayed there, and now we’re hooked.  We wanted to book again for 2015 but due to some miscommunication, it looked like that wish might be thwarted.  In the end we got it resolved happily and while we don’t have the condo we had last year, we are still in the complex.

The location of La Siesta Condominiums on Beach Road across from public Siesta Beach is perfect for us.

La Siesta Condominiums

La Siesta Condominiums

The public beach is well-kept; it’s cleaned and raked every morning with big motorized vehicles nicknamed sandbonis.   Lifeguards on duty year round ensure a measure of safety for swimmers, not that I spend much time in the water.  The beach is popular and the parking lot is full by 10 a.m.,  so it’s great to just walk across the street and not have to fight for a parking place.  We noticed construction underway of an additional parking lot last spring, however, so that problem may be alleviated for next year.  I’ll keep you posted.

Siesta Beach

Siesta Beach

Siesta Beach

Siesta Beach

Many amenities other than swimming and sunbathing are available at Siesta Beach.  There are restrooms, showers, a concession area, picnic areas, and shady places to escape the sun.  We attend pilates, nia, and yoga classes in the morning right on the beach and they have a drum circle on Sunday evenings an hour before sunset.  The sand volleyball courts get a lot of use especially by the young people.  This location is close enough to walk into the village for coffee or groceries or you can just walk the beach for exercise or pleasure.

If we don’t want to go to the beach, we can always enjoy the pool at our condo complex.  The pool is never overly crowded and the other guests seem to be mostly retired couples from Ohio and Michigan.

La Siesta Condo Pool

La Siesta Condo Pool

The screened in lanai off each condo is a perfect place to have breakfast and lunch and keep an eye on the action below at the pool or get a sliver of a view of the gulf across the street beyond the beach.

View to lanai from living room at La Siesta

View to lanai from living room at La Siesta Condos

Aside from just hanging at the beach or pool, there are rentals around Siesta Key for boats, kayaks, and paddle boards.  Last year we tried paddle boarding and found Dan from Siesta Key Paddle Boards to be very helpful and accommodating.  He met us at Turtle Beach with the boards, gave us a lesson, and provided a map and directions to navigate the canals lined with mangroves to another beach and back.  Dan was there waiting to take the boards upon our return.  I’ll warn you, however, mastery was much easier than recovery.  I had no idea how hard I was working until my lats killed the next day… and the next.

After all that exercise, a girl’s gotta eat and there are plenty of good restaurants on Siesta Key.  Gail is a bona fide foodie so I usually trust her with restaurant decisions.  One of my favorites for local grouper, however, is Turtle Beach Pub.  I can get my fish grilled or blackened and avoid the gluten in the fried grouper.   Also gluten-free, in 2014 we discovered Vertoris Pizza House in Bradenton.  They make the best gluten-free pizza EVER.

Gluten free pizza

Gluten free pizza from Vertoris Pizza

But my new favorite restaurant has to be Owen’s Fish Camp in Sarasota.  “Owen’s Fish Camp is southern country-style restaurant set in a cool, comfortable, urban setting,” according to their website.  (I think they forgot the word “a” before southern but maybe that’s a southern thing.)  My roots are southern so I was immediately intrigued but Gail was doubtful, not being a fan of southern cooking.  In the end, we decided to give it a try, and the non-foodie (me) scored one.  We both loved it along with all the other people who crowded into the place. Fortunately, they had live music to entertain us while we waited to be seated and The Cadillac Grainer String Band played foot stomping hillbilly blue grass string band music that was a whole lot of fun.

But let’s face it, restaurants are ultimately about the food and the food at Owen’s Fish Camp is excellent.  I had the market fish of the day (it was local but I don’t remember what it was), blackened, with two sides.  I chose cheesey grits and collard greens.  Mmmm, good.


Entree at Owen’s Fish Camp

So, I told you I think I’m somewhat of an expert on Siesta Key.  Here’s what I know.


  1.  Book early.

  2.  Most vacation rentals give first preference to last year’s return renters.

  3.  Rental websites are not always reliable so give them a call.

  4.  Turtle Beach on the south end of the island sand is not the soft white quartz.  It’s brown, coarse, and ordinary.  Siesta Beach and Crescent Beach are quartz sand.

  5.  Rentals only provide one roll of toilet paper (2 if you’re lucky) so plan ahead and don’t get caught short.

Lagniappe:  A few extra views from Siesta Key


Siesta Key, FL


Siesta Beach, FL


Siesta Key, FL


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The Mystery of Jackson Lake at Grand Teton National Park

I was startled by my initial view of Grand Teton National Park as we entered from the north on the John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  Memorial Parkway in late September, 2013.  “What happened to the water?”, I asked my husband.   Here’s what we saw.

Grand Tetons

Grand Tetons

Jackson Lake definitely didn’t look the way I remembered it but it was years since we’d been in the Tetons and my memory isn’t perfect.  And, as we drove on, the views of the Tetons framed in stunning fall foliage were so breathtaking that I forgot my initial impression.

Mt Moran

Grand Tetons

Grand Tetons, September, 2013

Teton, a French word meaning teat or breast, was used by French trappers in the early 19th century to describe the peaks in the youngest mountain range of the Rockies.  I’ll let you be the judge.  Nevertheless, the name stuck and today they are called the Grand Tetons.

Grand Tetons, 2013

Grand Tetons, 2013

Grand Teton National Park was established in 1929 to protect the mountains and expanded in 1950 to include the surrounding area amid great controversy and political wrangling during the intervening years.  Today, the park comprises 485 square miles (nps.gov).  Within the area there are over 200 miles of trails to hike, along with opportunities for fly fishing and rafting on the Snake River, not to mention photo opportunities galore.

Jackson Hole, as the valley is called, and the town of Jackson were named for Davey Jackson, a trapper in the area in the 1820’s. The town of Jackson is outside the confines of the park and today has fewer than 10,000 full-time residents.  Hosting 3-4 million tourists each year keeps the town hopping, however.

Jackson, Wyoming

Jackson Town Square

Shopping and dining options in Jackson abound.  I was on the hunt for neutral colored clothing suitable for our upcoming African safari and we found an excellent end of the season outdoor clothing sale at Snake River Angler and Scenic River Trips.  The staff was especially knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful.  If we ever decide to try our hand at fly fishing, this operation will definitely be our outfitter.  But shopping is seriously hard work for my husband and we were famished by the end of it.  (Look at  Jim holding the shopping bag in the photo above.  Does he look like he’s having fun?)  When we asked for a restaurant recommendation, we got the name of Bubba’s Bar-B-Que Restaurant so off we went to assuage our hunger with delicious and abundant barbecue.

As I reviewed my photos preparing to write this post, I was reminded of my first view of the obviously exceedingly low water level in Jackson Lake.  With a little research I discovered that Jackson Lake Dam was built in 1906 and rebuilt in 1989 to provide water to southern Idaho, 800 miles away.  More water is released as the need increases which was the situation in the summer of 2013.  Idaho is increasing its growth of corn, alfalfa, and hay to feed the cows in its growing dairy industry.  By the time we were there in late September, the water level was anticipated to be at 18% of capacity (Koshmrl, 2013).  Although low levels are not unusual in Jackson Lake, they may become more the norm if this pattern continues.

Mystery solved!



Grand Teton National Park.  Retrieved from http://www.nps.gov/grte/index.htm

Koshmrl, Mike. (2013) Thirsty Idaho Draining Jackson Lake. Jackson Hole News and Guide.  Retrieved from http://www.jhnewsandguide.com/news/top_stories/thirsty-idaho-draining-jackson-lake/article_9dbd2f1b-034e-5a39-96c4-c3fec6aad2c8.html






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Do you have a favorite national park?  Which is it?  Please join the fun by voting in the poll below.

Without question, my vote goes to Yellowstone National Park.  To see the absolute best that mother nature has to offer, you simply must see Yellowstone.  It has everything– the most amazing landscapes with mountains, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, canyons, forests, valleys, all teeming with wildlife, and geysers, mudpots, and fumaroles thrown in for good measure.  In fact, Yellowstone has more geysers than everywhere else in the world combined, according to the ranger that led us on a geyser walk at Old Faithful.  Established in 1872 and dedicated by President U. S. Grant, Yellowstone was the first national park in the United States and in the entire world.  It’s that remarkable.

Yellowstone is the eighth largest national park in the U.S. (the top 6 are in Alaska and number 7 is Death Valley), 63 miles long from the north border to the south and 54 miles from east to west, and 3472 square miles.  Just the drive in and out each day from hotels outside the park takes considerable time. I tried to find accommodations in the park months before our trip with no success. On a whim, I called the reservations number the morning of our arrival in September, 2013, and the Lake Yellowstone Hotel had a room for 2 nights. What serendipity! The oldest operating hotel in the park, the Lake Hotel was built in 1891 and is on the list of national historic places.  It’s currently in the process of a massive refurbishment and we were fortunate to get a room in the yet unrefurbished section for $200 per night. They told us the rate would be $339 per night after renovations are complete, which is outside my travel budget so we’re lucky to have stayed when we did.

Lake Yellowstone Hotel

What a great experience to stay in this iconic hotel with such historic and elegant ambiance.  I loved having no television but admittedly suffered with no internet.  We took the free tour of the hotel and because it was just days before the end of season, we were the only two people on our tour.  We hit it off right away with our guide, a retired woman from Oregon who tried to recruit us to work in the park before the tour was over.  The tour essentially covered expansions, additions, and renovations to the hotel but we were particularly interested to hear about the recovery of one of the historic touring cars.  The 11 passenger touring car with a removable canvas top was produced by White Motor Company replacing the stagecoach or surrey to provide tours within the park. Private vehicles were allowed in the park beginning in 1915 but use was strongly discouraged and the admission cost was prohibitive.  Today the restored touring car is used once again to provide tours allowing the guest to focus on watching wildlife rather than the road.  With over 3.6 million visitors each year, that’s a good thing.

Touring car at Lake Yellowstone Hotel

Touring car at Lake Yellowstone Hotel


Today, there are 67 species of mammals in Yellowstone and all species of large mammals that were present when Europeans first explored this territory have been restored to the park.  Wild bison have inhabited the area continuously, the largest concentration of elk in the world is here, a large grizzly bear population is protected in the park, and the gray wolf was reintroduced in the area in 1995.  We saw plenty of bison and elk and even saw a bear but the pictures I took couldn’t capture it so far back in the trees.

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Girls Getaway: Near Nature, Near Perfect

Anyplace makes a good getaway if you’re with the right people.  A good place with the right people is even better.  And, having a friend in a great getaway location is the best yet.  So, my friend, Lori, and I reserved a time to visit our friend, Lu, who lives in Spokane, Washington, and has a cabin in the panhandle of Idaho close to the Canada border.

After an evening flight and a night in Spokane, we headed out to our first stop in Spokane, the Arbor Crest Winery.  This lovely venue, located atop a 450 foot cliff, is open for events of all kinds but we were there for wine tasting.  Washington State wines are actually very tasty and they certainly rival California wines.  In fact, Washington is second only to California in premium wine production in the United States with over 800 wineries (http://www.washingtonwine.org/wine-101/state-facts/).  The wines we tasted were very good so we bought several.

We were soon back on the road to Priest Lake, called Idaho’s Crown Jewel, where Lu and her husband have their cabin.  Unfortunately, some of the incredible views of Priest Lake were somewhat obscured by smoke.  We later learned that wildfires caused by lightning in central Washington destroyed 100 homes and there were some 50 separate fires burning in Washington causing the acrid smell and hazy conditions we experienced.  In spite of the smoke that drifted in, northern Idaho is incredibly beautiful and Lu’s cabin is as welcoming and comfortable as she is.  We enjoyed seeing wildlife –rabbits, deer, and hummingbirds, and we were just as happy not to have encountered any bears, coyotes, or wolves on our walks.  I would have liked to see a moose, however.

Priest Lake has about 500 year round residents but in summer  the population swells to around 2500.  Development on the lake is controlled and very limited which helps to maintain a remote, uninhabited flavor.  There are several resorts on the lake with great views and amenities, good restaurants, and a scenic golf course is nearby.  We ate at Elkin’s Resort one day and Hill’s Resort the next, enjoying local huckleberry drinks at both.  We observed the popular game of pickle ball, a combination of tennis, badminton and ping-pong without learning the rules; walked the #48 Beach Trail; and visited the Priest Lake Museum and Visitor Center.  The log cabin that houses the museum with exhibits of local historical significance, was a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project built in 1935.

I would be remiss not to mention a little more about huckleberries, the official state fruit of Idaho. This luscious berry grows wild around these parts and they are truly delicious. They look like a smallish blueberry but the taste is sweeter. My research tells me that domesticated growing and mechanized picking haven’t been very successful (www.huckleberry.xenite.org) which of course keeps the cost high (currently $42 per gallon) but if you’re in the area, you must try them.

Huckleberry bush

Huckleberry bush

Leaving Priest Lake, we headed south to Sandpoint, an attractive small city on Lake Pend Oreille, in time for the local farmer’s market.  For a town with a population barely over 7,000, it was quite an impressive event with produce, local handicrafts, and music.  We sampled and bought some jalapeno goat cheese for later consumption and considering I normally don’t care for goat cheese, when I say it was excellent, you can believe me.

The town of Sandpoint is separated from the lake by a narrow isthmus occupied by Interstate 95 and Amtrak.  A well camouflaged walking trail below the road and railroad gives walkers access to the beach by way of an underpass.  This trail is part of the larger trail system of Lake Pend Oreille Walks and Trails that surrounds the lake and offers many opportunities to explore the pristine shoreline.

After our stop in Sandpoint, we had just an hour’s drive to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, arguably the best known summer lake resort area in Idaho.  Because it’s better known, it’s also bigger and busier.  Or maybe because it’s bigger, it’s better known.  Without a doubt, however, its proximity to Spokane, Washington, has certainly stimulated growth.  The population is around 40,000 but located just 34 miles from Spokane, it’s essentially part of the Spokane metro area corridor.

The longest floating boardwalk in the world at 12 feet wide and 3300 feet long was a brand new experience for me and quite an impressive one at that.  The views were outstanding in spite of a little lingering smoke.   After a light lunch, we dipped our feet into the lake, tried not to stare at a guy sunbathing in a thong Speedo (major fashion mistake) and then headed back to Spokane where Darrell cooked a delicious, healthy dinner for us.

Spokane, a Native American word for Children of the Sun, was first inhabited by the Spokane Indians.  It became the first white settlement in what is now the state of Washington when a trading post was established in 1810 (www.spokanecity.org).  Today, it is the second largest city in Washington and the largest city between Seattle and Minneapolis.  The city’s motto is, “Near nature, near perfect.”  I like the motto although I heard it’s been the object of some ridicule.

The Spokane River Centennial Trail is a 37 mile long paved recreational trail that starts at Sontag Park in Nine Mile Falls and runs all the way to the Idaho border.  We walked just a mile of it but it was time well spent.

The Centennial Trail also passes through Riverfront Park in the heart of downtown Spokane.  Riverfront Park was built around the Spokane Falls on the river for Expo ’74 (the World’s Fair) by cleaning up the river area and tearing down the old rail yards and depot.  It comprises 100 acres of green space, walking trails, views of the river and falls, flowers, sculptures, and wildlife.  The Expo ’74 Pavillion, the 1902 Clocktower from the old train depot, the 1909 Looff Carrousel, the Rotary Fountain, and an IMAX theater are also on the grounds.  Among the sculptures, the Garbage Eating Goat is not to be missed.

The thing about a getaway is it’s temporary so, of course, you have to go home until the next time.  It’s always good to get together with friends and old friends are best.  This was a great girls getaway that I would call near nature, near perfect.

Friends Forever

Friends Forever



Washington State Wine. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonstatewine.org

Huckleberry Wild, Where to Find Huckleberry Products.  Retrieved from http://huckleberry.xenite.org

City of Spokane.  Retrieved from http://www.spokanecity.org



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Deadwood to Devils Tower

We made a quick stop in Deadwood then drove the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway on our way to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.  Although the comprehensive website, www.deadwood.org, invites visitors to come see what’s new in historic Deadwood, I only wanted to see what’s old.  Having been there before, I remembered that Deadwood sprang up when gold was discovered in 1874 and that Wild Bill Hickok was shot and killed there in 1876 while playing poker.  What I’d forgotten is that the town was destroyed several times due to fire, the first time in 1879.  Consequently, historic buildings burned down and weren’t necessarily rebuilt where they stood previously.  Such is the case with the saloon where Wild Bill was shot.  Saloon No. 10 is now located across the street so there are signs to show where Wild Bill was actually shot and where his killer, Jack McCall, was captured.

Although Saloon No. 10 is not in its original location, the main attraction in the new site is still the shooting of Wild Bill.  Well, maybe the main attractions are drinking and gambling but this historical event does get attention.  The chair where Wild Bill sat with his back to the door, against his better judgement, is encased here along with a display of the cards he held at the time of his death, forever dubbed the Dead Man’s Hand.  There is agreement that he held black aces and eights but the fifth card is in question.  Although the display case in Saloon No. 10 contains a nine of diamonds, other accounts list the fifth card as a jack of diamonds or an unknown card.

There are lots of great things to see and do in the Black Hills but we selected just a few this time because of time constraints.  In previous trips we visited Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, and Mammoth Site.  My husband and younger son did a father son bonding trip several years ago and went trail riding at Country Charm Cabins and Corrals.  I highly recommend all of these places.

The Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway is a beautiful drive with several worthwhile stops along the way.

It’s just 2o miles long but it packs some great scenery into a short drive.  We were intent on finding the campsite in the canyon where we camped in our youth and we actually found it quite easily along with a film site from the final scene of the movie, Dances With Wolves.  We also stopped at Roughlock Falls and Bridal Falls before ending the scenic drive at the town of Spearfish, S.D. just 60 miles from our next stop at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.

By chance, however, traveling along Interstate 90 we spotted a sign announcing Vore Buffalo Jump just off the freeway, so a short side trip was in order.  Vore Buffalo Jump is a natural sinkhole used by the Plains Indians to trap bison.  The Indians would stampede the bison in the direction of the hole and the bison tumbled to their death.  The bison were then used for food, shelter, clothing, tools and even medicine for the Plains Indians.

Although the visitor’s center was closed for the season, we were able to walk around the area and read the signs.  The site was discovered in the early 1970’s when Interstate 90 was constructed.  Sinkholes are inherently incompatible with roads because of their tendency to settle further and swallow up cars, so the route for the road was altered.  Soon thereafter, archeologists from the University of Wyoming began excavating the area.  In 1989, the Vore family donated the area to the University of Wyoming and in 2001, the Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation was created (vorebuffalojump.org).

Devils Tower was the first national monument in the United States, established in 1906 by proclamation of President Theodore Roosevelt.  Called Bear Lodge by Native Americans, the igneous intrusion was named Devils Tower by Colonel Richard Dodge in 1875 when he led a military expedition to investigate claims of gold in the Black Hills.  The first ascent of the column occurred in 1893 and if you look closely, you can still see remnants of the wooden ladder on the side of the Tower.  Today, around 5,000 rock climbers come from all over the world each year to climb the monolith (Devils Tower Official Map and Guide).   Several trails of varying length offer outstanding views of the landmark and surrounding landscape, as well as the abundant wildlife.  You’ll also notice Native American prayer bundles around the area with signs directing that they not be disturbed.  The prairie dog town just outside the monument entrance is a fun stop for kids of all ages.

By the way, did you wonder if Devils should have an apostrophe?  The official proclamation in 1906 mistakenly omitted the apostrophe so they kept it that way.  If you haven’t been to Devils Tower, add it to your list.  Even if you’re not a rock climber, it’s a great place to visit.



Vore Buffalo Jump,  retrieved from http://www.vorebuffalojump.org

Devil’s Tower Official Map and Guide, brochure, (n.d.) National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior

Based on events of September, 2013


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Black Hills and Mt. Rushmore

For the past several years, my husband and I have celebrated our anniversary while traveling.  In September, 2013, we were in the Black Hills for the occasion. For me, the main attraction in the Black Hills is still Mt. Rushmore and, although this was my fifth visit since childhood, it never fails to impress and inspire me.

The idea for a monument in the Black Hills originated with South Dakota State Historian, Doane Robinson, to attract visitors to the state but his idea was to carve sculptures of western personalities. The sculptor he contacted in 1925, Gutzon Borglum, preferred instead to include four significant U.S. presidents, each representing an important period of American history. President George Washington embodies the birth of the nation; Thomas Jefferson symbolizes expansion with the Louisiana Purchase that more than doubled the size of the U.S.; Abraham Lincoln stands for preservation of our union through the Civil War; and Theodore Roosevelt represents our nation’s development with construction of the Panama Canal.

I would be remiss not to add a caveat here and mention that Native Americans, particularly the Lakota Sioux, opposed this project as a desecration of sacred Indian lands and Mt. Rushmore was known to the Sioux as the Six Grandfathers.  For more information on the Native American viewpoint, check out this link.

Borglum and four hundred workers earning $8 per day, blasting the mountain with dynamite and carving into Harney Peak granite, completed the project in 1941, after 14 years including weather and funding delays for a total cost of just under $1 million.  The resulting colossal memorial is 185 feet across and 150 feet tall; the faces are 60 feet from the top of the head to chin; each eye is 11 feet across; the noses are 20 feet long and the mouths are 18 feet across.

With nearly 3 million visitors per year, there have been necessary improvements and changes over the years to the facilities.  The Avenue of Flags, with the flags from all 50 states and 6 territories, was added in 1976 as part of the American Bicentennial celebration and an outdoor amphitheater that holds 2,000 people opened in 1997.  Today, there is a parking ramp that charges a fee (currently $11), but entrance to the national memorial itself is free.

Each time we visit, I learn something new.  I don’t know why I never wondered how Mt. Rushmore got its name, but it was interesting to find out it was named for Charles E. Rushmore, a New York attorney who visited the area in 1885 regarding some mining claims.  When he asked the name of the granite mountain, he was told it had no name but it would be called Mt. Rushmore thereafter.  When the mountain bearing his name was chosen as the most suitable location for the project and work commenced in 1927, Rushmore became a large contributor.

After hearing this information and more at the History of the Carving Talk conducted by the park rangers in the Sculptor’s Studio, we walked the new Presidential Trail.  It’s just a pleasant half mile loop among the pines with beautiful views of the monument.

Upon leaving the memorial, we drove to nearby Hill City for a totally different activity.  We visited three wineries and enjoyed a wine tasting at each.  This was obviously a concession on my husband’s part in honor of our anniversary because wine tasting is not something he would ordinarily enjoy.

After a highly recommended but unremarkable anniversary dinner at a restaurant that shall remain nameless, we returned to Mt. Rushmore for the evening lighting ceremony.  Along the way, we spied a group of mountain goats, a common sight climbing the hills around here.  Mountain goats are not actually native to the Black Hills.  The original six were a gift by Canada in 1924 to Custer State Park but they escaped their pen and today there are about 200 in the area.

Mountain goat

Mountain goat

Soon after seeing the mountain goats, we observed another kind of climbers– rock climbers of the human variety.  Although climbing is prohibited on the sculptures at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial  (understandably), other areas of the memorial allow rock climbing.  The Black Hills are very popular for this sport and there are many granite walls and pinnacles available for climbs.  This is not on my bucket list.

Rock Climbers in the Black Hills

We arrived early at the memorial and had our choice of seats in the amphitheater but it soon began to fill in.  Beginning at 9 p.m., rangers conduct a program with music, video, and a lighting ceremony.  The program, entitled Freedom: America’s Lasting Legacy, includes participation of military and veterans that is especially moving.

Mt. Rushmore

Mt. Rushmore at night


Do you spend your wedding anniversary somewhere special? Leave a comment to tell us about it.


Mount Rushmore National Memorial (U.S. National Park Service), Retrieved from http://www.nps.gov/moru/index.htm

Based on events of 9/18/13

Categories: Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

My Bad. Badlands.

My Bad.  I’m guilty of giving short shrift to this incredible natural wonder located in South Dakota just 560 miles from my home, a relatively short drive in the U.S.  I admit I haven’t really gone TO the Badlands as much as I’ve gone THROUGH the Badlands on my way to somewhere else, namely Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills.  So, in an effort to rectify my travel transgression, I wanted to spend the night in this national park and take some time exploring the area.  That’s easier said than done because accommodations in the park are few and far between and normally booked WAY in advance.  Within the park, there’s Cedar Pass Lodge and that’s it.  Seriously.  Cedar Pass Lodge is the only place to stay in the park.  OK, you can camp but we’re past that stage of life so I’m talking about places with real beds.  As I write this, I checked the website for Cedar Pass Lodge and currently there is limited availability in July and August, but September is still wide open.  That was not the case, however, in September, 2013, when we visited.

There were no available rooms at Cedar Pass Lodge but they kindly referred me to a bed and breakfast, the Circle View Guest Ranch.  (You can check it out by clicking on it.)  Luckily, they had a room available.  Although the ranch isn’t technically in Badlands National Park, it’s within several miles so you have essentially the same views.  The room was comfortable and we even had extra bunk beds which would be great for a family.  The views from Circle View were 360 degrees as promised and the friendly burros were a nice addition, too.  I admit we didn’t take advantage of any of the other working aspects of the ranch because we stayed just one night and we were anxious to get on our way.  We had a generous breakfast, served in the kitchen at long communal tables, where we visited with our neighbors while we chowed down on eggs, bacon, pancakes, potatoes, fruit, juice, and coffee, then off we went to explore Badlands National Park.


The Badlands are the product of erosion at its best.  It’s hard to believe this remarkable 60 mile swath of sedimentary ridges, buttes, and pinnacles, called the wall, was carved by erosion that began 500,000 years ago and continues to this day at about one inch per year.  At this rate, the Badlands are projected to erode away completely in another 500,000 years.  There are also mammal fossil beds found here, among the world’s richest, that are 26 to 37 million years old.  The Badlands, established as a national monument in 1939 and designated a national park in 1978, receive 1 million visitors per year.  A seven-day pass per vehicle costs only $15, but if you’re at least 62 years old, you can get a lifetime pass for only $10 that gets you into all U.S. national parks.  Now that’s a deal!

We stopped at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and saw the award-winning video about the Badlands, then viewed the exhibits within the center and learned that there are big horn sheep, American bison, mule deer, coyote, swift fox, and black-footed ferret within the 244,00 acres of the park. After leaving the visitor center, we did see big horn sheep on the hills but none of the other animals.  We pulled over at several of the numerous viewing stops along the Highway 240 Loop Road to take some photos and enjoy the views and ended at Wall Drug, the iconic retail outlet that still offers free ice water.

Welcome to Wall Drug

Welcome to Wall Drug

So, in the final analysis, did I give the Badlands its due attention?  In all honesty, for me it’s still a stop along the way to points further west but at least I feel that I gave it a fair share of my attention this time around.

Categories: Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

Scenic Serbia

Few countries exist entirely in their capital cities and Serbia doesn’t exist solely in Belgrade.  Touring the Serbian countryside with its natural beauty and unique historical sites expanded our overall understanding of the country.  The towns, villages, and surrounding countryside helped round out our impressions and fill in the details for a more complete cultural picture. Traveling to the north, east, and southeast along the Danube, we barely scratched the surface of rural Serbia but it gave us a taste for more in the future.


Topola, the birthplace and home of Serbian hero, Karađorđe Petrović (Black George), lies just 80 km south of Belgrade.  We took a bus to Topola with our son, Michael, who is knowledgeable about all things Karađorđe, and all things Serbia, for that matter.  Karađorđe was elected to lead Serbia in the First Serbian Uprising (1804-13), fighting for Serbian freedom from the Ottoman Empire. A tower, the only remaining section of the fortress that once dominated the town, houses displays of Karađorđe’s personal effects, including a painting that depicts his beheading by order of Prince Miloš Obrenavić in 1817. Attached to the tower is the Church of the Holy Mother, Karađorđe’s home church.  The mausoleum of the Karađorđe family in St. George’s Church is found at the end of a lovely shady walk up Oplenec Hill.  Karađorđe Petrović and others of the family are entombed in this beautifully ornate church filled with mosaic frescoes.  After our explorations, we enjoyed a memorable moment in this picturesque, historic town when we stopped for refreshment and a wandering cat climbed uninvited onto Jim’s lap and made herself at home.

Golubac Fortress

Golubac Fortress is a 14th century castle built into the precipitous cliffs along the Danube River where it narrows at the entrance to the Iron Gates.  The fortress is deteriorating today because the hydroelectric dam that was constructed in 1967 has raised the water level sufficiently to creep up the castle walls.  The electricity generated at the hydroelectric plant, however, has been shared equally between Serbia and Romania across the river, to the benefit of both nations.  Previously, damage to the castle occurred when a single lane tunnel was cut to allow traffic through it.  Fortunately, today there is a reconstruction project underway to restore the fortress.  When we were there in 2011, we were fascinated to watch as a truck got stuck in the tunnel then tried to back out causing a traffic jam for at least an hour.

Lepenski Vir

150 km east of Belgrade along the Danube River is the important mesolithic (middle stone age) archeological site of Lepenski Vir.  This remarkable discovery uncovered a settlement that existed for hundreds, if not a thousand or more years, somewhere between 6500-5500 B.C. It shows evidence of city planning, use of cement for foundations, and carved stone sculptures (Wernick, 1975) millennia before these developments occurred in other areas.  This site may be Serbia’s best kept secret because we encountered very few visitors the day we were there.


Silver Lake

A popular recreation area, Silver Lake, is only 120 km from Belgrade.  You’ll find sand beaches, a campground, picnic areas, resorts, vendors selling food and souvenirs, a paved boardwalk along the lake, and swimming, boating and fishing in crystal clear water with views of the Carpathian Mountains in the background.  We visited on a pleasant day in October which is off-season but we enjoyed a walk along the lake, nevertheless.

Lagniappe (a French word meaning a little extra)

Here are a few additional pictures of lovely and interesting views in the countryside of Serbia.

Next time we travel to Serbia, I’d like to head west from Belgrade.  Do you know Serbia is the number one exporter of raspberries in the world?  Actually, this distinction varies from year to year based on production but suffice it to say, it’s in the top five.  Raspberries are my favorite fruit and I’d like to visit the town of Arilje in western Serbia, called the raspberry capital of the world.

References: Wernick, Robert, (1975). Lepenski Vir: A Mesolithic Paradise.  Retrieved from http://www.robertwernick.com/articles/LepenskiVir.htm



Categories: Serbia, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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