Colorado National Monument and More

Although the distance through Rocky Mountain National Park from Estes Park to Grand Lake is just 48 miles, it took us the better part of the day. When we exited the park at Grand Lake we continued on two-lane roads until we returned to Interstate 70 at Silverthorne, then drove 263 miles further to Grand Junction, Colorado for the night. The total miles logged for the day was just over 300 but we saw plenty of scenic beauty at a fairly leisurely pace.

Dinner at the Ale House was a real treat for Jim featuring elk and a treat for me featuring outdoor seating plus fish tacos and sweet potato fries. The place was busy– a good sign– and the food was well-presented and tasty.

We were up and out of our hotel early the following morning and made straight for the east entrance to Colorado National Monument. Rim Rock Drive is a 23-mile paved road through the park from Grand Junction in the east to Fruita at the west entrance with many stops along the way to enjoy majestic awe-inspiring canyon views.

Immediately inside the east entrance, we stopped to hike a portion of historic Serpent’s Trail, dubbed the crookedest road in the world when it was completed in 1921. With 16 switchbacks, it was part of the main road until it was replaced in 1950 by Rim Rock Drive. Today it’s strictly a hiking trail, but I bet in its day the drive struck fear in many a heart.


Hiking Serpent’s Trail, Colorado National Monument


View from Serpent’s Trail


View from Serpent’s Trail

We encountered few vehicles on Rim Rock Drive and even fewer people on the trails. If you seek a spiritual experience without human interruption or just want to get “far from the madding crowd,” this place is for you. Each scenic overlook and trail offered inspiring views of red rock canyons, towering rock formations, and contrasting colorful vegetation that soothed and fed the soul.


Parking at Red Canyon Overlook


View from Red Canyon Overlook



Panorama View of Ute Canyon



View from Artist’s Point


Independence Monument


Window Rock

A herd of about 40 desert bighorn sheep live within the confines of Colorado National Monument. Seeing them is a rare experience because they avoid human contact. We were surprised and gratified to spot this group on the side of the road. Jim believes they didn’t hear the Prius because the electric engine was engaged so the vehicle was silent.


Desert bighorn sheep on Rim Rock Drive in Colorado National Monument


Desert Bighorn sheep


Autumn Aster wildflowers in Colorado National Monument

As we left Colorado National Monument, we had a conversation with a ranger that changed our entire trip through Utah. The result was a sublime experience. She suggested we get off I-70 and take Utah State Route 128 on the east side of Arches National Park rather than SR 191 on the west side of the park. That began our adventure along the back roads of Utah that were far more scenic and interesting than the interstate highways. We didn’t take another freeway until we reached Kansas on our way back to Iowa.

Jim was doubtful when we first exited I70 and saw this. He feared I’d misguided him but we were indeed on the right road.


I assured him we had taken the correct road and we soon saw the Colorado River.


The Colorado River along Utah SR 128


Utah SR 128


Driving SR 128 in Utah

Many of the old western movies from the 40’s and 50’s used these canyonlands as a film location. SR 128’s designation as the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway is definitely deserved.

Based on events of September 2015.


Categories: natural history, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rocky Mountain High

Our 10th national park in the United States was created on January 26, 1915, when President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Rocky Mountain National Park Act. While the Utah national parks were our planned destination, how could we possibly miss Rocky Mountain National Park when it was on the way and it was their 100th anniversary? Well, we couldn’t.


Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park

One of the world’s longest ranges, the Rocky Mountains extend more than 3000 miles from Alaska to New Mexico and some of the highest peaks in the United States are found in this range.  Rocky Mountain National Park comprises just 415 square miles of this remarkable range but it is one of the most visited national parks in the country and contains some of the most spectacular scenery. RMNP is the highest national park in the U.S. with elevations from 7860 to 14,259 feet and 77 peaks above 12,000 feet. Thus, the popular slogan “Rocky Mountain high” refers to the elevation, not the recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado.

Entering the park from Estes Park, we followed Trail Ridge Road, the “highway to the sky.” I was immediately entranced by the fall color.  I especially love autumn and the aspens expressed it beautifully with a nimiety of yellow. Seeing them, we understood how Aspenglen Campground got its name. I took way too many photos but here’s just one. You get the idea.


Aspens in full fall color

And here’s one looking back at Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved road in the U.S.


Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park

We decided not to hike any of the 350 miles of trails in the park but we stopped often to take photos of the breathtaking views.



Rocky Mountain National Park



Rocky Mountain National Park


Rocky Mountain National Park

When we reached the tundra, we were above 11,000 feet in elevation and the temperature dipped to 46 degrees Fahrenheit. Our car, like our bodies, had to work harder at the higher elevation with less oxygen. Thankfully, the electric motor on the Prius came to the rescue as we climbed and we were surprised that our gas mileage didn’t suffer.

One-third of RMNP is alpine tundra, a harsh, windy biome where only the hardiest plants and wildlife survive. It’s a fragile environment that is easily damaged and requires care and management to ensure its survival.


Rocky Mountain National Park


Donning the jackets for windy cool temps in the tundra


Tundra is a delicate and vulnerable biome

Then we headed to a lower elevation at 10,759 feet and stopped at Milner Pass where the Continental Divide passes through.


The Continental Divide at Milner Pass

We stopped for a throw together picnic lunch on the west side of the park at one of the many picnic areas. What better way to enjoy our surroundings than to spend some time feeding our bodies and souls simultaneously?



Picnic lunch featuring baby carrots, cherry tomatoes from our garden, grapes, and bananas


As we neared the end of our drive through Rocky Mountain National Park, we were treated to yet one more delight, Shadow Mountain Lake, in the southwest corner of the park. This man-made reservoir is a major recreation area, allowing boating, fishing, jetskiing, camping, hiking, and other activities with a backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.



Shadow Mountain Lake


If you have a day, a week, or more, a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park is worth your time. Check it out.


Based on events of September 2015.

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Westward Ho

Regular readers of my blog know about my goal to visit the national parks. We bought an American Eagle Pass for $10 when Jim turned 62 which allows us entry into all national parks during his lifetime and we’re definitely getting our money’s worth! Each September we try to do a road trip within the U.S. coinciding with our wedding anniversary. In 2015, that road trip was to Utah because they have 5 national parks in close proximity to one another. While I thought we’d previously been to at least one, I couldn’t remember which one. It turned out we’d ducked into Zion National Park briefly, but we’ve now fixed that omission.

One of the great things about a road trip is stopping along the way. It’s not just about the destination. And one of the great things about retirement is we’re not hampered by a schedule. We can take as much time as we like.

Our first stop was the Strategic Air & Space Museum in Ashland, Nebraska. Well, actually our first stop was in DesMoines to see our kids as we drove through but other than our awesome sons and a decent breakfast while we had the oil changed in the car, there was nothing particularly noteworthy to report. Anyway, if you’re a fan of military aircraft and history, the SAS Museum is for you. I’m not especially fond of military aircraft but I do love history. Jim, on the other hand, is a big fan of this place. This was our third visit.


Atlas ICBM in front of Strategic Air and Space Museum


View of Hangar A

My favorite was the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders exhibit. On April 18, 1942, a group of 80 volunteers led by Jimmy Doolittle took WW2 to Japan’s homeland for the first time on a daring mission to bomb Tokyo and other cities. The object was to show the Japanese they were not invulnerable after their attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The successful mission raised American morale tremendously.


B-25N “Mitchell” bomber like the ones flown in the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo


Life magazine showing FDR pinning the Congressional Medal of Honor on General Jimmy Doolittle and photos of some of the 80 heroes from the bombing of Tokyo

The nose cone from a nuclear-tipped ICBM caught my eye because it looked like a pencil.  The U-2 plane like the one flown by the American spy, Gary Powers, also intrigued me having just seen the movie, Bridge of Spies, about swapping spies with the Soviets.


Nose cone from nuclear-tipped ICBM


U-2C “Dragon Lady”

I can’t tell you the maximum speed of the world’s fastest aircraft, the Blackbird, because it’s still classified, but the cruising speed is 1320 mph. Lockheed built just 32 of this craft  to replace the U-2 for high-altitude strategic reconnaissance, i.e., spying.


SR-71A “Blackbird”

After traveling 530 miles on the first day, we spent the night in North Platte, Nebraska. The following morning we made straight for Chimney Rock. Along the way, we discovered a historical mile marker at Windlass Hill Pioneer Homestead and stopped for a look about.


Windlass Hill Pioneer Homestead

The first scenic landmarks we spied were Courthouse Rock, named for the courthouse in St. Louis, and nearby Jailhouse Rock.


It’s no wonder Chimney Rock was the most famous landmark for pioneers traveling the Oregon, Mormon, or California Trail. With a height of 325 feet from base to tip, you can see it for miles. It marks the end of the prairie and the beginning of more mountainous terrain ahead. When I saw Courthouse Rock, I thought, “Is that it?” But when I saw Chimney Rock, it was unmistakable and it would have been for pioneers, too.


Our first view of Chimney Rock in the distance


Nearby campground with Chimney Rock in the background


Chimney Rock and Visitor Center


Yikes! This gave me pause for thought.


Jim at Chimney Rock

Believe it or not, Chimney Rock was originally called Elk Penis by early Native Americans.  Here’s a photo of the actual explanation at the visitor center for doubters.


Sign at the Chimney Rock Visitor Center


Say goodbye to the prairie

Our plan was to stay in Estes Park, Colorado and get an early start the following morning  driving through Rocky Mountain National Park. This was the first of several challenges looking for accommodations. After numerous calls and internet searches on my smartphone, the closest city with a vacancy was 33 miles away at Longmont, Colorado. We took it.

We chose The Rib House for dinner. What a find! With outdoor seating in a lovely residential neighborhood on a beautiful evening and a feast of tasty BBQ, we left full, restored, and ready to take on the mountains the following day.


Jim approaching The Rib House, Longmont, CO


Outdoor seating at The Rib House, Longmont, CO


Josh’s Sampler Platter (we shared)


Post dinner sunset with our next stop in the distance

Based on events of September 2015.


Next time: Rocky Mountain National Park












Categories: Food, History, natural history, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

My Favorite New Travel Hack

Who doesn’t like a good spreadsheet? I’ve been thinking for some time that I wanted to create a spreadsheet to track my travel expenses so that at the end of a trip, I’d know the total cost to the penny for the trip. With my budget travel brand, it’s nice to be able to share the cost with readers to demonstrate that travel really can be affordable.

I tried to create something in Numbers on my Mac and rapidly encountered frustration. Then I thought, am I recreating the wheel? I looked at apps to see if someone had already created just what I needed. Low and behold, Abukai is just what I wanted.

I downloaded the free app on my iPhone. You won’t believe how simple it is. (I am not getting any remuneration for this testimonial!) You simply use the app to take photos of your receipts and if you have an expense without a receipt, you can manually enter that, too. It even accepts receipts in foreign currency.  Then at the end of the trip, you hit “process expense report.” That sends you an email with the spreadsheet.

The first time I encountered problems getting the report so I emailed tech support. They responded quickly and efficiently to fix my problem.

Below is a reduced-size copy of the spreadsheet for a two week trip to Utah. I had a total of 50 expenses that I recorded as we incurred the expenditure. The total cost was $2880.63 for gas, food, lodging, etc. That’s about $200 per day which I don’t think is too bad.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 8.49.53 AM

I plan to continue to use this app for all future travel to record my expenses and have a report at the end of the trip. How do you keep track of your expenses? Do you have a similar method? I’d love to hear from you.

Based on events in September 2015.

P.S. I’m currently in Mexico with slow internet which hampers my ability to post. See posts from February 2015 for more information on my current location. I’ll let you know how well Abukai handles pesos.

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

Wrap Up in Anchorage

We wrapped up our epic journey to Alaska in Anchorage, the largest city in the state.  With a population exceeding 300,000, nearly half the state’s residents call Anchorage home. Our hotel, the Westmark, included in our cruise package and owned by Holland America, was well-located downtown. We arrived early in the evening before an afternoon flight out of Anchorage the following day allowing us time for just a brief look around.


Panoramic view from our balcony at the Westmark Hotel, Anchorage

Dinner at Humpy’s came with outside seating made more enjoyable after the brief shower ended. Jim especially liked his caribou sausage but I had seafood again. Thankfully, salmon and halibut would soon be delivered to our door so it wasn’t my last meal of Alaskan seafood.


Jim and Sheryl outside Humpy’s

The following morning we got an early start to make the best use of our time. Anchorage plants more than 80,000 flowers in 270 flower beds throughout the city and we were happy to encounter more than a few on our walkabout.


One of the many flower beds planted around Anchorage each year

Our visit coincided with the Slam’n Salm’n Derby on Ship Creek, an annual fundraiser for the Downtown Soup Kitchen. I was intent on seeing this event so we headed straight for the creek. We overshot the mark, however, and ended up further upstream and found ourselves in a seedier neighborhood than we intended. In retrospect, if we had simply walked directly to the Information Center, we could have explored the area from there. The upside of getting off the beaten path, however, was seeing the Streambank Restoration Project to protect salmon habitat.


Ship Creek Trail


Fishing for salmon on the bank of Ship Creek for the Slam’n Salm’n Derby


More derby fishers at the Bridge at Ship Creek


Derby fisher weighs his catch

I later read the Derby winner for 2015 was a woman who caught a 37.55 lb king salmon early in the 10-day event.

We visited the nearby Ulu Factory and watched a craftsman work on a traditional ulu knife. With a history over 3000 years old, this tool was fashioned and used by native Alaskans and is still used today. We bought one for ourselves and one for a gift. I especially like it for chopping herbs since I don’t skin many seals.


Craftsman working at the Ulu Factory


My Ulu with cutting bowl


The Ulu Factory and Store


Jim with a dogsled displayed outside the Ulu Factory

A quick stop at the Visitor’s Center told us there was plenty more than we had time to see, and we would have to be content with the briefest of tours.


Anchorage Visitor Information Center


Downtown Anchorage

We decided to spend some of our precious time on an exhibit and video presentation of Dave Parkhurst’s photographs of the aurora borealis.  Photography of his work in the exhibit wasn’t allowed but you can check out his images on his website, The Alaska Collection. We once viewed the northern lights in northern Wisconsin and Jim saw them another time while driving in Iowa on I-35 but this show was phenomenal. As a result, I now want to see the aurora borealis in either Alaska or Iceland.


Video presentation of images of the Aurora Borealis by Alaskan photographer Dave Parkhurst

Then it was back to the hotel to grab our luggage and catch a taxi to the airport. As we said goodbye to Alaska, we were treated once again to views of Mt. Denali. What could possibly provide a more lasting impression of Alaska?


Mt. Denali


Mt. Denali




Based on events of June 2015.



Categories: Anchorage, cruise, Denali, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

McKinley Explorer

If you’ve followed my posts about Alaska, you’re aware that the name of Mt. McKinley officially changed back to Mt. Denali in September 2015. One of the few remaining references to President McKinley is the McKinley Explorer, the dome railway which we rode from Denali National Park and Preserve to Anchorage, Alaska. I wonder how long it will be until they change the name of the train?


The McKinley Explorer



Our Conductor and his assistant



Selfie and view of the dome car

It was a comfortable ride through the wilderness of Alaska with endless spectacular views and majestic scenery with wildlife sightings of moose, black bear, and beaver. The train crew was more like bartenders hawking specialty drinks and Holland America merchandise but we enjoyed their friendly banter and tour commentary.


View from McKinley Explorer


View from McKinley Explorer


View from McKinley Explorer

And then, we experienced day 3 of Mt. Denali Revealed. Despite a surfeit of superlative scenery, I believe we all continued to feel awe and reverence at every sight of this majestic mountain. I know I did.


Mt Denali peaking through the trees


Mt Denali from the McKinley Explorer


Mt. Denali


Mt. Denali

Our continued sightings of Mt. Denali were all the more remarkable considering the ongoing smoke from the Sockeye Fire north of Willow. As we approached the area of the wildfire, we saw many acres of burned trees and ground cover, continued smoke in the air, and fire-retardant along the tracks.


Effects of Sockeye Fire near Willow, Alaska


View from the train of the Sockeye Fire


Sockeye Fire effects


Sockeye Fire, Willow, Alaska


Firefighter as seen from the McKinley Explorer

At one point, our train stopped and we weren’t sure we’d be able to continue. There were firefighters on either side of the tracks and the fire had jumped the tracks. No announcements were made so it was purely speculation on our part but we suspected danger. We heard that the day before they had to turn off the air conditioning through the fire area and the train cars got unbearably hot. Sheryl later met a woman who told her while traveling on the train the day before us, they were transferred to buses, then transferred back to the train again because the road wasn’t safe. They saw blazing fires and lots of smoke along the way. As I wrote in my previous post, Scenes from the Bus to Denali, the Sockeye Fire, caused by negligence, destroyed 7220 acres and 55 homes at a cost of $8 million.

We finally arrived unharmed in Anchorage but our luggage was not as fortunate. Some of the bags were dirty and seriously damaged. The luggage was transported separately by truck and HAL staff explained that they had to take gravel roads to avoid fire areas. This was an adventure we’d all just as soon have missed but I hope everyone learned the lesson. Do not leave fires unattended.

Based on events of June 2015.







Categories: Anchorage, cruise, Denali, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Do Not Miss Denali

I have very few travel regrets. I traveled to Belgium and I didn’t visit Bruges. I went to South Africa and I skipped Cape Town and a side trip to Victoria Falls, Zambia. Every time I hear about these places I think, “Why did I miss that?” As a result, I now do better research to find the “do not miss” places in the vicinity of my travel destinations. Do not, I repeat, do not go to Alaska and skip Denali. It was, without a doubt, the highlight of the trip for me. I only wish I had spent more time there.

The original name of the highest mountain in North America was Denali, a Native American word meaning high one or great one. It was renamed Mt. McKinley by William Dickey in 1896 when gold was discovered and William McKinley was running for President. The 2 million acre tract of land was named McKinley National Park like the mountain when it was established in 1917. Then in 1975, Alaska restored the name Denali to the mountain but the federal government continued to call it Mt. McKinley. In 1980, Congress expanded the park to 6 million acres and changed the name to Denali National Park and Preserve. Finally, in September 2015, the name of the mountain was also restored to Denali at the federal level by executive order. Confused? Needless to say, all of this was mired in politics but suffice it to say the name of the mountain has been restored to the original Native American name and the national park is named after it.


Entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve

In spite of the distance to Alaska and the relatively small state population, Denali National Park and Preserve hosts over one-half million visitors each year. To reduce traffic and emissions, the park restricts traffic beyond mile 15 to shuttle and tour buses. Green shuttle buses are the hop on hop off variety but there is no narration provided. Fares vary from $27.50 to $52.50 based on time and distance.  The tan tour buses provide a narrated tour with a box lunch. Prices range from $70.75 to $165 also  depending on time and distance.  We were scheduled and assigned to the Tundra Wilderness Tour by the cruise line as part of our package. If you visit the park on your own, reservations are not required but you can schedule your tour ahead of time here.

Our tour started in the afternoon so we hiked some of the trails and checked out the Denali Visitor Center in the morning. Free courtesy shuttles provide transportation from the hotels to the entrance of the park where various hiking trails begin. We chose the Horseshoe Lake Trail which was moderately difficult but people in worse shape seemed to handle it and the spectacular scenery was definitely worth it.


Jim and Sheryl setting off for a hike


Our first view from above on Horseshoe Trail. We climbed down then back up on the hike.



Nary a bear to be found but I was alert, nevertheless


Quiet, peaceful beauty of the trail


Horseshoe Lake


Nenana River


Horseshoe Lake


Horseshoe Lake


Jim on Horseshoe Lake Trail


Sheryl on Horseshoe Lake Trail


After the return climb from Horseshoe Lake Trail

After hiking the 3.2-mile loop, it was on to the Denali Visitor Center to check out the informational materials they had to offer. The displays were beautifully presented with lots of mounted animals that are found within the park.


Denali Visitor Center

The only bear I saw happened to be outside the Visitor Center welcoming visitors. I joined the kids in getting a photo.


Laura and the bear

After a bite to eat in the cafeteria we caught our tour bus that would take us further into the national park.

Our tour guide, a trained interpretive naturalist, was engaging and well-informed, providing us with natural history details galore while keeping an eye out for wildlife.


Our tour guide

The “big five” in Denali are bears, Dall sheep, caribou, moose, and wolves. We hoped to see them all and the sign below raised our hopes even further.


Sign on Park Road

Our first wildlife sighting was of Dall sheep high on the far-off slopes but they are just white dots on my photos. Tip: take a good camera with a telephoto lens if you really want to get the shot.


White dots on the ridge are Dall sheep

Fortunatley, the driver had a telephoto video camera that he showed on a screen in the bus.


Video screen on the bus to see distant animals

We saw lots of caribou. I can’t tell you exactly how many we saw but by the end of the tour, most tourists didn’t bother to look when one was spotted. The first views were exciting, however. Our naturalist told us that mosquitoes relentlessly torment the caribou. They are literally covered in mosquitoes and they look for snow or mud to bury themselves to escape the misery.




Caribou laying in the dirt trying to avoid mosquitoes

Try as we might, we didn’t see any bears, wolves, or moose but we did see  beautiful scenery. Many of us tried to capture a bit of it from the bus and each time we stopped.


Denali National Park and Preserve from the tour bus


Denali National Park and Preserve


Denali National Park and Preserve


Denali National Park and Preserve

And then we saw this. The second day of clear, pristine views of Mt. Denali. Our enthusiasm was not dampened in the least by continued views of this spectacular moutain.


Mt. Denali (aka Mt. McKinley)


A shuttle bus on the Park Road with a view of Mt. Denali


Selfie with Mt. Denali


Mt. Denali



Mt. Denali


Based on events of June 2015.


Categories: Denali, History, natural history, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Scenes from the Bus to Denali

Our cruise ship docked at Seward where we boarded a motor coach to begin the land portion of our Alaskan adventure. The 364 mile bus trip to Denali took all day but the scenery and the narration by our driver made the trip most enjoyable. If you read my previous posts about Alaska, you may think this day was less impressive than previous days. Not so, and you’ll soon see why.

We began our road trip on the Seward Highway, a 125 mile scenic byway which crosses the Kenai Peninsula from Seward to Anchorage.


Kenai Peninsula


View along Seward Highway on the Kenai Peninsula



View from Seward Highway on the Kenai Peninsula


View from Seward Highway on Kenai Peninsula


While it was great to leave the driving to someone else and concentrate on capturing the beautiful scenery by photo, one of the distinct disadvantages was not being able to stop when we wanted. I usually take a picture of a nearby sign to tell me where my photos were taken which wasn’t possible from a moving vehicle. Consequently, I can’t tell exactly where many of my photos were taken and I can’t label each mountain and lake.

We did hear the story of Moose Pass, however, and I snapped a photo from the bus. The sign on the side of the road next to the waterwheel and grindstone announces, “Moose Pass is a peaceful little town. If you have an axe to grind, do it here.”

IMG_4016 (1)

Waterwheel and grindstone on the side of the road

We took a break at a rest area with picnic tables and hiking trails that was especially photogenic.


Jim enjoying the spectacular view

Near the end of the Seward Highway, we drove along Turnagain Arm. In 1778, when Captain James Cook sought a northwest passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans, he named the estuary he found Turnagain River because he was forced to turn around there. Captain Vancouver called it Turnagain Arm in 1794 when he explored the area.

There are two fascinating features of Turnagain Arm. First, one of the largest bore tides in the world occurs here. So what is a bore tide? defines a tidal bore as, “an abrupt rise of tidal water moving rapidly inland from the mouth of an estuary.” Translated, that means while the water in the Turnagain Arm is flowing out to sea, the tide rushes into the estuary from the ocean. The resulting waves are high enough that surfers actually ride them. For more information and to see a video, check out Alaska Public Lands Information Centers.

The other feature is the mudflats which are composed of glacial silt that act like quicksand. The suction created when the mud is displaced is virtually impossible to break without help. Warnings advise hikers to steer clear because getting stuck in the mudflats with the tide coming in is a recipe for disaster.


Mudflats on Turnagain Arm

After a quick stop for lunch at a restaurant at the edge of Wasilla, we continued toward the town of Willow on Parks Highway where we saw two more amazing sights. First, we got our first glimpse of Mt. Denali, then called Mt. McKinley. Second, we saw smoke. These two sights would dominate the rest of our Alaskan adventure.


Smoke rising in Willow with snow covered Mt. Denali to the right in the background

Let me tell you first about Mt. Denali. We knew we would be very lucky to see the elusive highest mountain peak in North America. It’s more often obscured by clouds than not which is why people lucky enough to see it are called the 30% club. When we got our first glimpse, I started taking photos and didn’t stop. I have pictures taken from far enough away that you wouldn’t know it was Mt. Denali; I have photos of Mt. Denali barely visible behind other mountains; I have pictures taken through the bug-covered windshield of the bus. When I experience a rare event, I capture every minute with great enthusiasm before it disappears. Little did we know we would see Mt. Denali four days in a row. I wonder if there’s a club for that?

Here are a few more views from day one of Mt. Denali.


Mt. Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley)


Mt. Denali


Proof we were there


Mt. Denali


Mt. Denali

The other sight was the fire. We would see and hear more about this event, called the Sockeye Fire, throughout our stay. The blaze was reported at 1:15 p.m. on Sunday, June 14, 2015. The seven photos I took as we drove through the area were taken at 1:16 and 1:17 p.m. By early the next morning, the blaze was out of control, Willow was under an evacuation order, and the road we had traveled was closed. We heard the fire was the result of fireworks but the cause was later determined to be an unattended illegal burn pile. In the end, 55 homes were destroyed, 7220 acres were burned, and the cost to fight the fire was $8 million. We would see more results from the Sockeye Fire when we left Denali.

We arrived at the McKinley Chalet Resort late in the afternoon and found our assigned room in the Cottonwoods Building.


McKinley Chalet Resort



Sheryl and Jim outside our hotel building

After exploring the grounds and grabbing some dinner, we were ready to call it a night and prepare for our tour of Denali National Park the following day. Thankfully, we had room darkening draperies because it never really got dark at all.


Based on events in June 2015.

Categories: cruise, Denali, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Glacier Bay, Alaska

One of my travel goals is to visit as many national parks in the United States as possible. The National Park Service offers a lifetime Golden Eagle Passport to seniors at age 62 for just $10. The pass admits the holder and all passengers in the vehicle to all national parks and monuments for the lifetime of the owner. Expect to show ID so the ranger can confirm the identity of the cardholder. I repeat, it’s a one-time $10 fee. I recently saw a website that said it was $10 per year which is incorrect. That’s why I linked to the national park website above. Click on Golden Eagle Passport above to check it out for yourself.

Another travel goal of mine is to visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites whenever possible. “The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.” ( There are currently 1031 properties on the worldwide list, 23 of which are in the United States. The overwhelming majority (75-80%) are cultural sites with the rest made up of natural sites and some that are a combination.

These two goals coincided in a rare opportunity on our visit to Glacier Bay, Alaska, both a U.S. national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can get there only by air or sea so a cruise is the perfect way to see this spectacular natural site.

It’s difficult to capture and convey the immensity of the experience but the photo below of a cruise ship ahead of us in the inside passage helps. The ship looks like a small dot compared to the surrounding landscape.


A cruise ship in the inside passage of Alaska heading toward Glacier Bay

We entered Glacier Bay at 6:45 a.m. and the park rangers embarked at 7 a.m.


Glacier Bay National Park rangers arriving at the Oosterdam (photo by Sheryl)

We spent the entire day in Glacier Bay with park rangers narrating throughout the tour. Cruise ships don’t dock anywhere in Glacier Bay but the slow leisurely passage allowed ample time to appreciate the spectacular and inspirational scenery.



Entering Glacier Bay



Entering Glacier Bay



Glacier Bay


Glacier Bay is all about nature. There’s not a lot of history here; in fact, in geological terms, Glacier Bay is very young. A product of the Little Ice Age, just 250 years ago the bay didn’t exist at all. One enormous glacier filled the area, reaching it’s maximum size around the year 1750. When Captain George Vancouver surveyed the area in 1794, the glacier had retreated just 5 miles but by the time John Muir came in 1879 the retreat had reached 40 miles more leaving the bay in its wake. Today, that glacier has retreated further north leaving behind around a dozen smaller tidewater glaciers some of which are visible from the bay (Glacier Bay National Park brochure).

The first glacier we saw was Rendu Glacier.


Rendu Glacier

The Grand Pacific Glacier wouldn’t have been recognizable as a glacier at all to me without ranger narration. It looks gray or black rather than the distinctive blue ice because of the amount of moraine debris it has gathered.


Grand Pacific Glacier

Nearby Margerie Glacier, on the other hand, displays the distinctive blue ice that we expected. Unfortunately, we missed a picture of calving on Margerie Glacier. Calving is when chunks of ice break off the glacier and crash into the water.


Margerie Glacier


Margerie Glacier


Jim and I at Margerie Glacier

Before leaving Tarr Inlet where Grand Pacific and Margerie Glaciers were located, the captain turned the ship a full 360 degrees and then another 180 degrees so that everyone could get enough of the beautiful views. We spent enough time in the area that we even had lunch with the view.


Lunch with a view of Margerie Glacier

Then, as we proceeded back down Glacier Bay, we also saw Johns Hopkins Glacier, Lamplugh Glacier, and Reid Glacier.


Johns Hopkins Glacier


Lamplugh Glacier


Reid Glacier

We didn’t see a lot of wildlife but I read that humpback whales are often seen in Glacier Bay. We were excited to see some seals which Sheryl captured and allowed me to share.


Seals covering small islands in Glacier Bay (photo by Sheryl)


Seal resting on ice (photo by Sheryl)

Every day on this cruise exceeded the previous day in amazing scenery. Glacier Bay was both inspirational and unforgettable. Whether Glacier Bay was created by God or by chance, it was an experience of the highest spiritual nature.

Based on events of June 2015.


Glacier Bay (brochure). National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior.

World Heritage. UNESCO, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.



Categories: cruise, inside passage, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , | 6 Comments

All Aboard in Skagway, Alaska

The White Pass Scenic Railway is Holland America’s most popular excursion in Alaska and it was the one I was most keen to take. It’s also one of the few excursions that costs essentially the same price whether you book through the cruise line or privately, so I booked through HAL. (Otherwise, I often book privately to save money.) Passengers board the train just steps from where the ships dock in Skagway in front of the graffiti wall where cruise ships have recorded their maiden voyage to this port since 1917. A three hour roundtrip ride to the summit of White Pass is fully narrated while you climb to 2865 feet of elevation in just 20 miles.


View of the train and graffiti wall from our verandah on the Oosterdam

The railroad was a direct result of the Klondike gold rush. When gold was discovered in 1896 at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers in northwestern Canada, stampeders flocked to Skagway and nearby Dyea by the boatload. But the trip from there to the gold fields was long and arduous. The route from Dyea, along the Chilkoot Trail, was shorter but the Golden Stairs, a 1,000 foot vertical climb in a quarter mile, was a definite drawback. The White Pass Trail starting at Skagway was 10 miles longer but less steep. When prospectors factored in the transport of a ton of supplies to last a year as required by the Canadian government, the White Pass Trail was the preferred route. Skagway became the Gateway to the Klondike.


Display of 1 ton of supplies required by the Canadian government for each prospector to ensure their survival at the gold fields

Although the White Pass Trail was somewhat less treacherous, it was not without danger and hardship. The trail became a muddy quagmire resulting in the deaths of 3,000 horses and the nickname of Dead Horse Trail. The 21 year old then unknown writer, Jack London, who sailed to Skagway in 1897 penned, “The horses died like mosquitoes in the first frost, and from Skagway to Bennett they rotted in heaps.”

Building a railroad was the logical solution to move men and supplies to the gold fields and this capitalist venture commenced in 1898. The project was a remarkable engineering achievement. A narrow gauge track was employed due to the tight curves required by the terrain as well as plenty of steep grades, tunnels, and trestles. The project was completed in 1899 at a cost of $10 million with the construction efforts of 35,000 men.

In 1994, the White Pass and Yukon Railroad received the designation of International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, an honor shared by the Panama Canal and the Eiffel Tower.


Conductor on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad



Looking back to Skagway from Inspiration Point to see the cruise ships in the harbor


View of the Skagway River from the train


Another view of the Skagway River from the train


Views from the train


View of the terrain and the train


View of one of the tunnels from the train


View from the train


White Pass Summit, official border between U.S. and Canada


White Pass Summit, mile 20.4, elevation 2888 ft.


The old trestle that has been replaced


Jim reading and Sheryl enjoying the view from the train

After our train ride, we explored the restored gold rush town of Skagway, Alaska. By 1897, after gold was discovered in the Klondike, the population swelled to about 20,000 but today there are only around 850 year-round residents.


Restored gold rush town of Skagway, Alaska

We especially enjoyed Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park which is integrated into the town with information and historical displays in several buildings. The photo above of the 1 ton of goods is one such display. There were also many photographs from the time period and lots of explanatory material. It was a history lover’s gold mine of information.

All that history can bring on a powerful thirst and a good place to quench it is the Red Onion Saloon. When it first opened in 1898, the Red Onion served alcohol on the main floor with a brothel above. Today it is listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks and a popular site in Skagway. We stuck to the main floor but for $10 a madam will talk dirty to you (in a guided tour of the brothel museum.)


Red Onion Saloon


Our server at the Red Onion Saloon

After a fun-filled day on the train and exploring Skagway, it was back to the Oosterdam in time for our departure.



Based on events of June 2015.


Categories: Canada, cruise, History, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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