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Friday, May 7 - Depart Bonsall, CA - Drive to Las Vegas, NV Via Calico Ghost Town - The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino
More than a century ago, the
town of Calico
was bustling with prospectors. Founded in March 1881, it grew to a population of
1,200 with 22 saloons and more than 500 mines. Silver was king, and the Calico
Mining District became one of the richest in California, producing $86 million
in silver, $45 million in borax and, of course, gold. After 1907, when silver
prices dropped and borax mining moved to Death Valley, Calico became a ghost
Our intention was to leave the house by 11:00am, but we didn't actually leave until around 11:45am. No big deal since there was no traffic at all. We will be taking I-15 all the way to Yellowstone, so the general directions couldn't be easier.
Our first stop was just north of Barstow, Calico Ghost Town. Click to view the Visitor Guide. Everyone from California drives past here all their life, but never stops. So, we were determined to check this one off our list. The town was saved and restored by Walter Knott in the early 1960's and donated to the county of San Bernardino as a park in 1966. Basically all that is left is one main street lined with shops full of stuff nobody in the world would buy on a bet. How these merchants stay in business is a mystery. There is also a big BBQ restaurant, several snack shops and a couple of attractions.
The attractions consist of a walk-thru of the Maggie Mine, a short train ride over the hill to view the now-vacant area where the married men with families lived, a gold-panning thing similar to the one at Knott's Berry Farm (it was supposed to be open, but wasn't), and the Mystery Shack. We would have gone through the Mystery Shack, but the ticket seller never was at her post when we walked by. No wonder they don't have any business.
We walked the length of the street going up the hill. There were more tourists here than we expected and none of them were Americans. It certainly wasn't crowded by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn't empty either. We made the mistake of walking into the schoolhouse where a woman was sitting at the desk pretending to be the schoolmarm. No exaggeration, it took us an hour to get away from her. The gist of the conversation was that she will not come in to work just one day a week and if the new manager, who is a very nice guy, doesn't give in to her demand she isn't coming in anymore because she can get a job as a nanny's assistant in Las Vegas for way more money, and she's NOT coming in here just one day a week, she just won't do it. Got that, she won't do it! Thank God someone else wandered in so we could escape! We saw her later saying the same thing to the park rangers. No wonder they stick her out in the schoolhouse!
After making our escape we walked back down the hill and did the Maggie Mine walk-through, which was worth looking at and only cost $1.00 per person. We were most interested in seeing the Glory Hole. Make up your own jokes here. Unfortunately the exit dumped us right back where we started at the top of the hill.
Next stop was the train ride for $3.00 per person. We were amused by the engineer who would yell out a spiel that was immediately repeated by the recorded announcements. You see some stone houses recessed into the hillside for cooler living, remains of the silver mines (the mainstay of Calico), the empty area where the respectable folks lived, and some mining equipment.
We wanted to have lunch at the BBQ restaurant, but it was closed for a private function even though it appeared empty. We settled for hot dogs from a snack place, which was fine.
All in all, we recommend stopping here on the way to or from Las Vegas. Apparently, only Fridays and Sundays when people are going to/from Las Vegas are the only "busy" days. The chatty schoolmarm said business is down over 50% from last year and there are some days they make almost no money, hence the reason the gold panning was closed in spite of it being advertised as open Friday-Sunday. No matter, it is a nice break at the halfway point on the drive to Las Vegas.
There was a minor stretch between Calico and Las Vegas where the traffic backed up, but it turned out to be an accident in the center median, so once past that it was smooth sailing the rest of the way. The drive through the desert was pleasant, although it isn't quite as desolate along the way as it used to be. We made a gasoline stop in Baker, which looks about like it always has. We hit the highlights...a wooden statue of the "greeter" and the World's Largest Thermometer. The latter is probably more exciting when the heat is on, but today it is only 85-ish. It took about two hours to get to Las Vegas from Calico.
Once off the freeway on Flamingo Road, the traffic was a nightmarish snarl through town. The Venetian is a left turn on Las Vegas Blvd., but there was no way we could merge over, so we went around the block instead. This freaked out our GPS who kept yelling at us to make a U-turn until it figured out a back way into the Venetian's parking structure. Getting in there was no problem and we easily found a parking place. Amazingly enough, self-parking is still free in Las Vegas for the most part.
Most of the mega-hotels in Las Vegas are a hodge-podge of add-on towers and parking structures, so finding the lobby from the parking structure was quite a feat. We had to take an elevator down to the valet parking area, another elevator to the Venetian's lobby, then walk for miles through shops and restaurants trying to find the lobby. We eventually asked someone with a name-tag where the front desk is. She immediately tried to mislead us into believing that no rooms were ready and we should "step right over here" and we could see a free show while we're waiting. Knowing this was a come-on for a time-share sale, Dave "just said no" every time the guy offered us something and he eventually gave up and told us where the front desk is.
Down an escalator and a LONG walk through the Casino and down a beautiful vaulted corridor ending in a golden orb set in a fountain, we found the front desk. There was no line when we arrived (around 6:30pm), so we were quickly ushered up to one of the 30 or so agents. We were checked in with no problem, but we did not get the American Express upgrade as far as we know. We booked the least expensive room, a Bella Suite with two queen beds, no view. That's exactly what we got except we sort of had a view of the mountains. It probably was an upgrade of sorts to be placed in the newer Venezia Tower.
Being in the Venezia Tower means TWO elevator rides to get to our room even though it is on the second floor. The first elevator, which is adjacent to the front desk, goes up to the Venezia's lobby. It it bypassing the parking garage, so the second floor of the tower is actually the tenth floor. Once in the Venezia's stunning lobby, there is a rarely used front desk (turned out is it only used for each morning's check-out rush), a small courtyard pool, Bouchon restaurant and a connection to the Venetian's original tower. Beyond a security check-point, you have to walk through a maze of corridors to get to the elevators to the suites. The first time it is really confusing, but we caught on quickly enough and it wasn't a problem finding our way again.
The room is 700 square feet with a sunken living room as are all rooms at the hotel in this category. There are larger rooms, of course, but why you'd need more space is anyone's guess. There were two large LCD TV's and a huge bathroom. The only minor issue with the room is that the carpet was a bit dingy and the furniture is showing wear. Other than that, no problem. Everything worked and the internet use is included in the daily resort fee. The huge marble bathroom had two sinks, a vanity area, toilet closet, bathtub and separate shower. The amenities are a bit skimpy for a luxury hotel, but sufficient for us.
The envelope given to us at check-in had coupons for a free lunch at Le Petite Brasserie (part of our Amex deal), $25 off at the spa which we think was a replacement for the Amex breakfast which was not provided. We were offered the 4:00pm late check-out when we arrived, but we said we didn't need it. The lunch would be available daily, which is more than Amex says you'll get, but since you have to be checked in to charge it to your room (which is required) there is in effect no way to get more than one unless you are staying longer.
It was nearly 8:00pm by the time we were settled, so we went downstairs to the Grand Lux Cafe (the hotels large 24/7 restaurant) for dinner. Again, we had to walk through the Casino to get there, but it wasn't smoky or unpleasant at all. The restaurant is huge and looked crowded, but we were seated right away.
The service and the food were fantastic! Everyone at the hotel is very friendly and courteous in a genuine way. The food came out quickly in enormous portions. Click for the Menu. Our waiter suggested the Chicken Royale, so that's what we ordered. It was fantastic. The mashed potatoes served with it were to die for. We also had salads. The strawberry smoothie was amazing. We can't imagine how most people could possibly eat all of this food, but we managed to stuff it down, but we did skip dessert.
Our waiter insisted we must be twins, which is ridiculous of course. He was nice, but we thought that sure was an odd thing to come up with. It is usually silly women running up and asking us that question.
After dinner we wandered through the Canal Shoppes and the Palazzo Shoppes. The Canal Shops have a Venetian canal complete with gondola rides running down the center. There was a huge line for the boat rides that last maybe 10 minutes, if that. We already knew this and skipped it. There must be 25 or more restaurants along this mall, all of which were packed. The shops, however, were empty. We saw no customers in any of them. Of course, there must be a Gucci, Fendi and Hermes shop in every hotel along the strip.
It was quite late by the time we finished wandering around, so the next stop was the room after we found it again. The rooms are so far from the lobby in these huge places that running back to the room for anything isn't something one wants to do unless absolutely necessary.
There was a lot of noise in the hallway from drunks coming back up all night, but that is to be expected. It isn't the hotel's fault. We heard nothing from the adjacent rooms...all of the noise came from the hallway.
Saturday, May 8 - Las Vegas, NV - The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino
Our intention was to get an early start on our walk down the strip, but we didn't get out of the room until noon-ish. We had a free lunch from American Express due to us, so we trekked down to Le Petit Brasserie in the Venetian's Restaurant Row where it is offered. We were the only guests seated in the entire place.
When our waiter arrived we showed him the coupon and he brought different menus for the free Prix Fixe offer. It consisted of a choice between two soups: Soup du Jour (Tomato Bisque) or French Onion. We had one of each and both were very good and generous portions. There was a choice among three entrees, one we have forgotten, but the other two were Rotisserie Chicken and Grilled Halibut. We both had the halibut and it was equal to or better than anything similar on a Crystal Cruise. It was presented the same way also, in a large bowl on top of green beans with a vinaigrette sauce. Dessert was a choice between Crème Brulee and and Chocolate Soufflé. Both were outstanding. The coupon said beverages were not included, but the menu offered a choice of coffee, tea, milk or iced tea. All we had to pay was a tip. The waiter was friendly and chatty, too, which was nice. Only one other couple came in the entire time and they also had the Amex coupon.
After lunch we decided to take the Monorail to the end of the strip and walk back. That is easier said than done because the closest station, while next door at Harrah's, is at the very back of the property. So, you have to walk from the front door of the Venetian to Las Vegas Blvd., down about a block, into Harrah's (oh my GOD is Harrah's dated!!) all the way through the casino, past the restaurants and out the back to the station. At least there was this funny statue in the lobby, which isn't too far off from an accurate depiction of the clientele.
The monorail costs $5.00 for one ride. The tickets are sold from machines and the trains come every five minutes, so that part of the trek was fine. However, at the end of the line at the MGM Grand, the same obstacle course through the hotel/casino ensues except the front doors of the MGM aren't on the strip, they are way down a side street. Besides that, none of the big hotels has signs pointing to the exit, so the only way out is to find the lobby and hope for the best. The MGM didn't show us much. It is just a big modern complex with no real theme evident. Did we mention that these hotels are HUGE? We can't begin to describe how big they are. And crowded, too. Well, the casino at the MGM had a lot of empty tables that looked closed for a long time. The casino at the Venetian seemed more lively.
Finally out on the strip, we crossed the pedestrian bridge to New York New York Hotel and went in to check out the interior. It is kind of dark and dreary, although the themeing is good. It wasn't as crowded as Harrah's or MGM either. People were screaming and enjoying the roller coaster that loops around the building. The details on the "skyline" of the building are impressive.
Across the side street is Excalibur, a somewhat rundown version of its former glory. It was busy enough, but very dingy. We just walked through it because the moving sidewalk forced us to.
Next door is Luxor, which was our destination. We wanted to see two attractions there, Bodies and the Titantic artifacts. Luxor's theme is well done and the property is well-maintained. The lobby is impressive with its huge pyramid-shaped atrium. It was nicer inside than we expected and seemed like a pleasant place to stay without breaking the bank. There were a lot of reasonable options for food, also.
We found the box office for the attraction tickets upstairs, waited in a long, but fast-moving line to buy them, then went off for some smoothies in the food court to revive ourselves.
We visited the Bodies exhibit first. It is made up of preserved, real cadavers in various poses to show off muscles, circulation, etc. We expected more whole bodies than they have on display, but it was well worth seeing. The rest of the exhibit consists of organs, lungs with and without smoking, etc. It gets a bit tedious after a while, but it is very interesting.
Next door and through the same ticket taker is the Titanic exhibit. It displays real artifacts from the ship along with mock ups of cabins. They give each person a Boarding Card with a passenger's name on it to check against the list of survivors at the end. Neither of us survived, by the way. This attraction was somewhat better than the other one because it flowed better. The things they had on display were interesting to view. They even have a huge section of the hull on display.
After finishing the exhibits, we took the free tram from Luxor back to Excalibur and just kept walking. We wanted to see the major hotels and take some pictures (which we will add in a photo gallery later). The new City Center development is impressive, but it was deserted. There is no way the shops in that building are going to stay in business. Our second choice of hotels was the Mandarin Oriental and it turns out it is right on the strip in City Center.
We continued walking back toward the Venetian along the strip with ten billion other people of all sorts. We were surprised how pleasant everyone was considering the diversity of people. There was no pushing or shoving and everything flowed well. There must have been twenty guys on every corner handing out trading cards featuring various escorts, their price and telephone number. The sidewalks were littered with them (the cards, not the women). Countering that were the rosy-cheeked young people handing out literature urging us to turn to Jesus. That kind of seems like a lost cause around here.
When we arrived at the Bellagio, we took the moving sidewalk for what seemed like miles to the lobby. They had an elaborate floral display in the Conservatory open for free to everyone. The lobby is beautiful and not as frantic as the Venetian's except the floral area was jam-packed. We would definitely consider staying here some other time.
On the way out, we stopped to watch the fountain show in front of the hotel. It plays every 30 minutes before 8:00pm and every 15 minutes thereafter. The first show we saw was to a contemporary pop song and it wasn't all that impressive. The shows only last about three minutes. When we made it to the street, it was time for another show, so we watched it again. This time it was a classical piece and the water show was MUCH more impressive. All along the walkway in front of the fountain are street performers trying to make a buck from the crowds.
It was dusk after the Bellagio stop, so we took some pictures of the lights as they turned on along the strip, then continued to Caesar's Palace. We didn't do much except walk through the shopping area at Caesar's and then only because we got stuck on a moving walkway that hijacked us into the hotel. We ended up watching the most God-awful animatronic fountain show on the planet. Maybe it was impressive in 1966 or whenever it was installed, but it is an embarrassment now. That is five minutes of our lives we'll never get back! More impressive is the spiral escalator at the end of the Forum Shops.
Back on the street we walked past the Mirage, just missing the volcano show. We didn't have enough energy to wait an hour for the next one. We kept walking and made it to Treasure Island just as the show out front was about to start. We couldn't work our way through the crowd, so we walked on the sidewalk to the other end, which was completely empty. The big pirate ship that sails in was there waiting to begin with its performers on board. A woman shouted out to one of the hunky pirates that she wanted a picture and he rushed over and struck a perfect pose for her. Moments later an announcement was made that the show was cancelled (it was sort of windy).
We walked to the Fashion Show Mall to take the bridge back to the Wynn Hotel and then back to the Palazzo. Since the Palazzo connects to the Venetian it was easy to find our way back through the shops. We were dead tired and hungry by this time (almost 9:00pm), so we went directly to the Grand Lux Cafe for dinner. The food was equally as fantastic as before. The prices are high, but the amount of food you get makes up for it. The service is always friendly from everyone.
On the way back to the room there was a very loud group of drunk women pimping out one of their cohorts. We're not sure what the procedure was, but it had something to do with getting a piece of candy from her crotch. This was all going on in the main corridor to the rooms. We managed to push our way past while they were occupied with the previous victims.
Back at the room, it wasn't party-central in the hallway tonight, so it was quiet for a change.
Sunday, May 9 - Drive to Cedar City, UT - Abbey Inn
Cedar City is the ideal headquarters for a
visit to Utah's Color Country. Six national parks and some of the world’s most
beautiful scenery are accessible by the major highways that intersect Cedar
City. With a short drive you can visit Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon North
Rim, Capitol Reef, Great Basin National Parks, Cedar Breaks National Monument
and Lake Powell.
Although we did set an alarm for 8:45am, we didn't notice that the clock was set 12 hours off, so it thought it was 8:45pm when we were supposed to get up. Luckily we woke up anyway and made it to the Grand Lux Cafe for breakfast.
Service and portions are still fantastic in the morning. We couldn't even eat all of our food and that is saying something for us.
Back at the room, we prepared to leave. We checked out using the system on the TV, so we didn't have to waste time at the crowded front desk. The only annoyance was housekeeping banging on the door to ask when we were leaving. It was about ten minutes to noon when they did that and we had a late checkout at noon (we could have stayed until 4:00pm due to the Amex thing).
Getting back to the car was easier than getting in, but it still took two elevator rides to get there. Then, of course, comes the traffic on Las Vegas Blvd. to get to the freeway. Once on the freeway it was smooth sailing to our next destination about three hours away.
The drive was pleasant with desert scenery first, then beautiful buttes and mountains, through a valley, along a narrow canyon that resembled a smaller version of the Grand Canyon, and out into semi-mountain scenery dotted with pine trees. We stopped once for a pit stop in St. George, but other than that we made no stops until we got to Cedar City.
We went to the Iron Mission State Park (now called something like the Pioneer Homestead). It was closed even though all of the literature says it is open daily. Apparently Sunday doesn't count among "daily" days around here. We arrived later than expected anyway, so we didn't need this time-killer to check into the motel.
The Abbey Inn is only about half a mile from the park, so we arrived there quickly. It is a two story motel, but is recently remodeled and quite luxurious for what it is, especially for just $68 per night. Our room has two queen-sized beds an 42" LCD TV on the wall, and very nice furniture. There is a nice view of the snowy mountains from the outside corridor to the room.
All we wanted to do tonight was watch the finale of The Amazing Race, so once we found out all the shows are on an hour earlier here, we had to get dinner out of the way. There is an IHOP in the parking lot, plus every chain fast food restaurant you can think off either next door or across the street. We opted for McDonalds and made it back with time to spare for the show.
McDonalds always makes us happy, so we were done for the night once we returned to the motel. Our only quibble with this motel is that the air conditioning doesn't work, which is a major requirement for us. Luckily the fan works, once we figured it out, and it isn't hot at night. We would stay here again because overall it is very nice and we're sure they would have changed our room if we had asked. We didn't realize the A/C wasn't working until very late, so we didn't complain. It is hard to beat $68 per night for such a clean and comfortable room.
Monday, May 10 - Drive to Provo, UT - Springhill suites by Marriott
The BYU Cougars make their home in Provo,
Utah. Robert Redford's Sundance Ski Resort & Village are just up the road.
Another noteworthy attraction is Timpanogos Cave National Monument. The lofty
peaks of Mt. Timpanogos tower above Utah Valley to the east.
We were up on time in spite of another hotel alarm clock not going off. Probably time to give up and start using our own from now on when time matters. The only reason we had to be up was to get the free breakfast.
The motel offers breakfast in a residential house directly behind the hotel. It was nice enough, but nothing worth raving about. There was a woman offering scrambled eggs and sausage, make-your-own waffles that were quite good, biscuits and gravy, canned peaches, whole apples, a display of sliced breads, various dry cereal and a dispenser with several different juices. It was adequate and as expected for a freebie at a motel.
We checked out around 10:30am and informed the desk clerk that our air conditioning didn't work. At first she tried to blame us for not knowing how to work the thermostat, so we had to point out that it doesn't have one. Anyway, she was reasonably apologetic and it didn't make all that much difference to us. We would choose this place again if we are passing through.
The drive north to Provo is through some high mountain valleys (up to 6500 feet). We first got on the freeway at Dead Skunk Lane and made a turn at Barney's Ass Road (that's an inside joke, but if you know what we're talking about it is an accurate description of the smell!) Anyway, the odor-fest only lasted a few minutes and the drive was quite scenic. There were pastoral scenes with cattle grazing, snow-capped mountains in the distance, and charming small towns along the way. We felt really sinful listening to Sirius uncensored comedy radio!
Rain was predicted for today, but we only encountered a few brief sprinkles a couple of times close to the destination. At our bathroom break about an hour south it appeared to have just finished with a downpour, but it never hit us directly. The temperature is in the mid 50's.
Tonight we are staying at a new SpringHill Suites by Marriott adjacent to BYU. There is a Courtyard by Marriott in the same parking lot with a TGI Friday's attached to it. A Denny's restaurant is up the street and we passed about ten different fast-food chains on the corner. The hotel decor tries a bit too hard to be trendy, but it is nice and new. The rooms are suites only because they have a desk/divider separating the beds from a sofa. There is an area with a microwave and refrigerator also. The bathroom is divided into two rooms with a walk-in closet in between. One section contains the toilet and a small corner sink. The other has a bathtub/shower combination and another sink with a counter. Both bathrooms have no towel racks, so there is no place to put used towels, which is odd. There is a nice view of the mountains from our window that can be seen from the sofa, as well.
We arrived a 1:00pm and were checked in right away. The clerk told us breakfast is served until 9:30am in the lobby. There is a nice fitness room and an indoor pool off the lobby, plus a circular sitting area with an LCD TV. This area is divided from the rest of the lobby by light green sheer curtains. Yes, it is as odd as it sounds, but it is interesting.
We napped for a few hours, then went next door to TGI Fridays for dinner. It was about as expected for a Friday's and served the purpose of filling us up for another night. After returning to the hotel we just rested up for the next day. Noisy neighbors moved in next door, constantly going in and out, slamming doors. It is so odd that it never seems to occur to people in hotels that slamming the door just might disturb other people. If we were assigning rooms in a mostly-empty hotel, we'd separate each group with an empty room if possible, but that's just us apparently.
Tuesday, May 11 - Drive to Twin Falls, ID Via Golden Spike National Historic Site - Hilton Garden Inn
May 10, 1869 the Union and Central Pacific
Railroads joined their rails at Promontory Summit.
Golden Spike National
Historic Site commemorates the incredible accomplishment of this nation's first
In spite of the door slamming last night, this hotel is probably the most comfortable so far. It was quiet during the night and the beds are very nice. The complimentary breakfast was what one would expect: Egg and sausage patties (for making an English muffin sandwich), make-your-own waffles, oatmeal, dry cereals, whole bananas and apples, two kinds of muffin, bagels, yogurt, juice, etc. We were satisfied with the buffet.
Today's weather is overcast with rain forecast for the entire day. We don't mind the rain as long as it isn't pouring. Our mid-day stop at the Golden Spike site is out in the sticks, so if it is raining too hard at that point we might skip it. We'll play it by ear and just see how it goes.
It continued to pour rain during the entire drive, but we decided to give the Golden Spike detour a shot. Turns out that the road wasn't bad, so driving there even in the rain wasn't a problem. It takes about an hour from I-15 to the site, but it is a scenic drive passing farms and tiny towns along the way. It would probably be very picturesque if it wasn't raining.
Our GPS, who we have named Trish after an ad we saw in Las Vegas for "Tricky Trisha", freaked out and couldn't find the entrance to the Golden Spike Visitor Center, but she managed to get us close enough that we could figure it out without her. It is surprisingly thorough for something way out in the sticks like this. There were about six other people there with us.
They moved the original concrete monument to the front of the visitor center after it was restored. Prior to the site becoming part of the park system, the monument was deteriorating and there was nothing else here to commemorate the achievement.
We used our National Park Pass for admission to the Visitor Center. A ranger told us that the film on the history of the area was about to begin, so we headed off to the auditorium to watch it. He also told us we were welcome to walk out to the trains on display out back that are exact working recreations of the original engines.
After watching the film, which essentially sums up all of the interpretive signs found around the site, we walked out to look at the trains up close. It was still raining a bit and nobody else ventured outside, so we had the whole place to ourselves. The trains were steaming because they use them for a steam demonstration every day at 1:00pm, but we arrived too late to see it.
Between the trains is where the golden spike was laid. One of the companies used wooden ties made in a sawmill so they are uniform and look like you'd expect one to look. The other side used hand-hewn ties, so they are rough and look quite rustic. There are some displays of original wagons and such used in the construction of the railroad.
Back inside we checked out the displays, including a replica of the Golden Spike. They also have a small room with displays of various implements and personal effects left behind by the workers.
On the drive back to the main road, there is a turnout where you can walk a trail to the "Big Fill" and "Big Cut" area where they had to fill in a long grade to comply with the regulations for construction. We didn't walk down the trail because the weather wasn't cooperating, but the views of the valley below were spectacular.
Back on the road, we kept passing signs pointing to a "Rocket Display" and cryptic signs giving directions to "ATK". There were also a lot of sinister-looking guard houses and security checkpoints all around the property. We didn't stop at the display, just slowed down to take a picture from the road.
The country roads lead us to Idaho-84 and on toward Twin Falls, our destination for today. The weather was rainy with snow falling in the nearby mountains. At one point we climbed high enough that the snow was at highway level, but it wasn't enough to stick on the pavement, so it wasn't a problem at all.
Trish directed us to our hotel, although she insisted it was on the left when it was on the right, but you can't have everything. We are staying at the new Hilton Garden Inn for two nights as a break from the road. The hotel is really beautiful with a warm, inviting lobby with a big fireplace to one side and a restaurant on the other. The desk clerk was busy on the telephone when we walked up, but she acknowledged us and actually did the right thing and told another caller to call back in five minutes.
The rate for our suite here is surprisingly low ($104) for such a lovely hotel. The regular rooms are only $89. We thought we could afford the splurge and get a suite at this price. We were given two free bottles of water and coupons for free breakfast both days because we are Hilton Honors Gold members. The breakfast usually costs $9.95 per person, so that's a nice perk. The other option was bonus points. We were told that if we ate in their restaurant tonight we could get a bonus of 500 points.
Our suite is huge with a seating area separated from the sleeping room by the bathroom and a closet. Furnishings are very upscale and are of high quality. The room is so big that it looks a bit sparse. There should probably be some big chairs in the bedroom to fill up space, but it is pleasant enough. The bedding is nice with a fluffy duvet and lots of pillows.
We decided to use the offer of the bonus points in the hotel restaurant because Dave was feeling a bit under the weather, so we wandered down to the lobby around 6:30pm. There was only one other person dining when we arrived and it didn't pick up much after that. With only one waitress and one cook, the service was very slow. During the time we were waiting, Dave started feeling like eating might not be the best option for him, so all he had was two glasses of Sprite and a salad. Of course, they were out of the salad dressing he ordered, which was shades of things to come.
When Bill's appetizer arrived, Dave decided it was time to bolt to the room, so he left Bill to wait for his dinner. Bill said that every person who ordered something ended up being told that they were out of one thing or another. His food was OK, but it took way longer than it should to get it. The waitress did pack up Dave's meal to bring back to the room.
While Bill was eating, Dave decided he probably had food poisoning (most likely from TGI Fridays because we both ate the exact same thing at breakfast). Bring on the projectile vomiting! Woo hoo!! That prompted cramping and on-and-off chills and sweats. Luckily the bed was very comfortable, so he just stayed in it for the rest of the night and was 75% better by morning.
Wednesday, May 12 - Twin Falls, ID - Hilton Garden Inn
Today's weather is better, overcast, but no rain. The temperature is in the high 60's.
While Dave is still being cautious about eating, he is fully functional this morning. So, we went downstairs to the restaurant for our free breakfast. You get to choose a cooked-to-order item off of the menu plus you choose anything else you want from a small buffet. The buffet was rather sparse, but the hot food was plenty by itself. The Belgian waffle was topped with fresh berries and came with a side of very tasty bacon. The omelet was huge and accompanied by a pile of hash browns. The service was better this morning, but there is an obvious lack of training at the hotel. Everyone is very friendly and tries to help, so that's a plus.
After breakfast we struck out to find the big attraction around here, Shoshone Falls. Trish knew where it was, so we had no problem finding it, about fifteen minutes away. The $3.00 per car entrance fee covered admittance to the Dierkes Lake area also, so we went there first. It is set up for swimming and fishing. Many families were fishing and having a good time around the lake. This park is located in the Snake River Valley that was carved out by a huge flood eons ago that dug out the volcanic rocks and scrubbed away the top soil.
Down at the bottom of the valley is Shoshone Falls itself. The flow is controlled by a dam, so sometimes the water flow isn't very impressive, but today it was flowing at full force generating a perpetual rainbow at its base. The dam generates electricity. It isn't very high because the flow of the river is great enough to sustain it without much of a reservoir.
There is a booth selling trinkets and snacks nearby, so we were able to get a keychain to turn into an ornament for our travel tree. Down a short trail is an overlook to the Snake River Valley. The trail to another overlook was too muddy, so we didn't bother.
Our next destination was the Perrine Bridge overlook, which is back toward the hotel. Trish took us to the Visitor Center with no problems. Forgive us for not remembering any of the details of the bridge, but it is an impressive sight. Other than the bridge itself, there is a statue of the builder and great views of the Snake River Valley with a golf course at the bottom. We're not sure who thought it was necessary to transform this beautiful valley into a country club, but it looks nice.
We stopped in the Visitor Center where some very friendly volunteers offered to help us. When Dave replied, "We're not sure what help we need, but you can try," the woman asked if we had been to Shoshone Falls. Another volunteer asked if the falls were flowing because someone complained that they were turned off one time. We assured her they looked just like the picture on the wall. When we asked what else we should see, she said, "In Twin Falls? That's pretty much it." Then she pointed us to the destinations we already have planned for tomorrow, so apparently we're on the right track. She did say that the weather is supposed to be perfect for the next week at least.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a Subway to pick up sandwiches for dinner. While Dave is feeling a lot better, he's not confident enough to sit in a restaurant yet, plus Bill wanted to get some laundry done. The hotel has a nice guest laundry facility off the lobby.
Nothing else happened after we returned to the hotel besides napping and doing nothing, as usual!
Thursday, May 13 - Drive to Arco, ID via Shoshone Ice Cave & Craters of the Moon NATIONAL Monument - D-K Motel
Shoshone Ice Cave is actually a lava tube that is 1,000 ft. long and varies
between 8 and 30 ft. in height. Take a tour and explore the trails, but be sure
to dress warmly, even during the summer months. Their constant 50° temperatures
do make a pleasant contrast to the often scorching summer heat—the "ice" in the
name is caused by air currents flowing through the tubes, which causes
subterranean water to freeze. These caves are one of the natural wonders of the
world. Trained guides explain the geologic, volcanic, and historical background
in these large lava ice caves. A museum contains Indian artifacts, gems, and
minerals of local and world interest.
After another nice, complimentary breakfast at the hotel, we checked out and set off for the Shoshone Ice Cave around noon. The weather today is partly cloudy, windy and in the low 50's. The cave is only about forty-five minutes from Twin Falls through scenic farmland and other rustic areas. It rained briefly a few times, but nothing that hindered our progress.
Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, the sign for ICE CAVES popped up along the road. It couldn't possibly be any more incongruous, but that's pretty much the definition of a roadside attraction. The "complex" houses some huge, hideous displays of giant Indians wearing yellow pants, junk, "antiques", a small "museum", outhouse restrooms, a gift shop/tour entrance, and some really awful concrete animals for photo ops. The day-glow green dinosaur with an Indian kid on his back has to be the epitome of kitsch.
We had to wait about forty-five minutes for the next tour, so we wandered around the tacky trinkets and checked out the "museum", all of which took about five minutes. The whole place wreaked of stale cigarettes. On the other hand, it did seem to be fairly well kept up.
When our tour time came up, we went inside, paid our $8 entrance fee and met the guide. He was a very nice young man who said he was born and raised here. His homestead and its wind turbine generator are visible in the distance from the trail to the cave. To say he was hunky would be an understatement. We both said afterward that if someone would clean him up a bit he could be a model.
The tour takes a roughly paved trail past some scary concrete Indians, past a collapsed section of the cave and down to the entrance. Years ago, someone had opened up the entrance which caused the ice to melt. At that point, the park system decided they didn't have an attraction here, so they leased it out to the guy who started the tours. He experimented with the opening until he restored the balance of the winds in the cave and the ice returned. It is now something like 20' deep along the floor of the entire cave. The walls are coated with frost that makes it look like sparkling diamonds. The guide said that if they really were diamonds he sure wouldn't be leading cave tours.
At various places water seeps into the cave and coats the rocks or hangs from the ceiling. The walkway is a wooden catwalk suspended from the ceiling. It was amazing how quickly the air temperature fell even before we entered the cave through a tiny doorway. It is always in the twenties even in the heat of summer.
The tour ends at a huge cave-in when there are frozen waterfalls in one corner. There is a pointless display of minerals lighted with UV that serves no purpose other than to give the guide something to talk about. With no one else on the tour, he was forthcoming with information about living out here in the sticks and what it takes to make a living. He seemed happy with what he has, so more power to him.
Our next stop was about an hour away at Craters of the Moon National Monument. Even before we arrived at the Visitor Center, there were scenic stops marked along the highway leading to the park entrance. We stopped a couple of times before reaching the Visitor Center.
In the Visitor Center, there was no indication of where to pay the entrance fee, so we wandered up to the ranger at the cash register. He said, "Oh, so you have an annual pass," and handed us a map. The rest of the center has a small number of displays explaining the area and local animals. We have seen large squirrel-looking animals along the road and we're told they are Golden Marmots or Rock Chucks. Whatever they are, they are everywhere and are quite a pest locally.
We followed the map to the seven-mile loop road through the lava features. The entrance booth was closed and a sign said to pay on the honor system. No wonder the park system doesn't have any money! We're not sure what the actual charge is, but we think it is about $8.00 per carload. There is a first-come, first-served campground immediately inside the gate.
There are about 8 stops along the road with extensive hiking to various remote features. The first is the North Crater Trail that shows off how huge chunks of the crater walls were broken off and deposited downstream in a subsequent eruption. Most interesting are the patterns in the lava flows as well as fantastical lava formations everywhere.
At the Devil's Garden loop trail an attempt is made to educate the public on the damage we can do when we don't follow the rules, plus pointing out mistakes that were made in an early attempt to save the pine trees. Whatever they did killed the rest of them. There were also signs explaining the colorful lichen growing on the rocks, among other things.
Next up the drive is the Spatter Cone area. There is a long trail out to several cones, but we stayed on the wheelchair accessible walkways. Yes, we're lazy, but we're tired! One trail leads up to look down into the hole left in a spatter cone that is filled with ice going down into what looks like a bottomless pit called the Snow Cone. Another trail leads up to a larger cone with a similar ice-filled cavity from which molten lava erupted 2,000 years ago. The view over the backcountry from the spatter cone is spectacular.
At this point we were getting very tired and hungry, so the prospect of hiking two miles to see the tree molds or the lava tubes wasn't very appealing (plus we have seen similar features in Hawaii). It was also very windy and very cold. So, we stopped at the Lava Cascades viewpoint, checked out the information at the above mentioned features "just in case", and made our way back to the highway.
Driving toward the little town of Arco was uneventful and only took about twenty minutes or so. The town has a sort of down and out, half-abandoned look to it. This was the first town to be 100% lighted by nuclear power. There are more nuclear reactors around here than anywhere else in the world. We'll pass through the reactor testing area tomorrow on the way to Idaho Falls.
We arrived at our destination for the night, the D-K Motel, at around 6:30pm. We knew it was just a simple mom and pop operation, so we weren't surprised by it, but we're sure some of our readers will grab their heart knowing we actually stayed at a place like this. The owner was very nice and talked to Dave for quite a while. He asked about restaurant recommendations, such as they are around here, and she confirmed what we had read on tripadvisor.com about the place down the street. She didn't come right out and tell us not to go there, but she did say that the reviews were accurate and to only go there for breakfast when the owner is there. Her advice for breakfast was to buy the breakfast burritos from the Shell station next door, but to insist they make fresh ones in front of you. Ugh. The owner said she was cooking a turkey and it smelled REALLY good!
Our room is a two-queen (how appropriate), just to the side of the office. Of course, in a place this small, all of the rooms are right by the office! It is somewhat noisy being right off the highway, but such is life. The room is small and, um, basic, but has everything we need, including free wireless internet, a TV, microwave and refrigerator. The decor could use a makeover, but it is clean and the beds are comfortable. That is if you can avert your eyes from the dusty rose color scheme of the linens. No matter, all we need is a place to sleep and what can you expect for $58 including tax. By the looks of the town, this is by far the best place to stay.
By this time, we were starving, so we drove up the road (less than a mile) to the restaurant the hotel owner recommended, the Golden West Cafe. There was only one car in the parking lot, but the lights were on so we went in and sat down. A waitress immediately brought over menus which apparently is unusual at the other restaurant a block away.
The dinners included a salad, a complete entree with mashed potatoes/gravy, and ice cream with a choice of toppings for dessert. We ordered a steak and their roast beef and both were very good. Actually, everything was just fine. Nothing to write home about maybe, but fine. The meal only cost $10.95 per person, so as long as it was edible, which it was, we have no complaints. The waitress was beside herself when we gave her a tip, so it must be unusual for locals to leave more than a quarter.
There are two "attractions" in Arco, both directly across the street from the motel. The first is visible from miles away, Number Hill. The best we can figure out, it is famous for the graffiti of graduation years of the local high school classes. The other "must see" is the Idaho Science Center (a stretch if ever there was one!) featuring the conning tower of a submarine and a torpedo, plus several monuments to the navy.
We stopped by the mini-market in a nearby Texaco station (yes, Texaco, they're everywhere here) to pick up some breakfast items for tomorrow morning. The clerk was very friendly. All we found were some Hostess Donettes and bottles of orange juice, but that should be enough to get us to our next destination, the Idaho Potato Museum.
Friday, May 14 - Drive to Idaho Falls, ID - Hilton Garden Inn
Idaho Falls (pop. 51,000) is a young, clean
city at the base of the Blackfoot Mountains. Surrounded by natural beauty, from
the lava fields of Craters of the Moon to the jagged peaks of the Grand Tetons,
"The Falls" has everything you'd expect from a major city, including baseball,
horse racing, a symphony orchestra and live theater. Idaho Falls has gained a
national reputation as a beautiful and family-friendly spot to live or visit.
If you are ever passing this way, do yourself a favor and just keep driving until you reach the next big town. Arco looks like it is on a downhill slide and the locals aren't the most friendly we've ever met. They're not hostile particularly, just not what one expects in a small rural town. Everyone at the motel was very nice, but most everyone else seemed rather wary of outsiders.
We finished off our Donettes and bottled orange juice, then struck out for our next destination, Idaho Falls, just before noon. The total drive time is just over an hour, so we stopped at every "historic site" and "attraction" we could find. We only managed to kill an hour at the most doing that, by the way.
Today's weather is about as perfect as it can get. Low 60's, partly cloudy.
Just outside of Arco we came across a rest stop that had interpretive displays about the area, so we stopped to take a look. For an un-manned rest stop, this one sure was nice. We didn't look inside, but there was a glassed-in foyer, restrooms, and a dog-walking park, plus picnic tables. The signs described the local volcanic butte in the distance, nuclear research nearby, the flora and fauna of the area, the Lost River, and how they are trying to preserve the sage brush plains. Why they care is a mystery since they extend as far as the eye can see.
There was a separate set of signs proclaiming that this part of Idaho has the biggest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world, over fifty. There is a testing facility across the road in the desolate plain where they test various models of reactor and other top-secret stuff we are probably better off not knowing about.
Just up the road a few miles is the very first nuclear power plant in the U.S., Experimental Breeder Reactor #1. It is open to the public from Memorial Day until sometime in September, so we weren't expecting to tour it. We did drive up to it for a picture of the brick building. There are two gigantic test models of nuclear-powered jet engines in the parking lot. Obviously the idea of flying nuclear-powered jets didn't get very far and the idea was dropped.
Trish didn't even know the name of the road she told us to turn on toward Blackfoot, ID, but we did arrive there safely anyway after another thirty minutes of driving. Why detour through Blackfoot you ask? To visit the Idaho Potato Museum, of course! In the distance we could see some towering snowy peaks.
Actually, it is the Idaho Potato Exposition Hall if you want to be technical about it, but let's face it, it is just a potato museum. It is located inside of the town's old stone train station, which is interesting in itself. There is a restored caboose in the parking lot. Consequently, the buildings across the street date from the beginning of the town and include what was originally a bank. We were amused by the highly stereotypical font used on the sign for a Chinese restaurant across the street.
Out front there is a huge concrete potato topped with sour cream, so this place is hard to miss. Even Trish knew where it was. Inside, you first enter a small gift shop where you pay the admission fee of $3.00 per person. The museum has a display explaining how potatoes are grown, harvested and stored. This was actually more interesting than you might think because we have been driving by countless fields trying to figure out why they are watering when it is raining (they are spraying fertilizer). There was also a display of Mr. Potato Head dolls donated by a local and a huge display of all sorts of potato mashers assembled by the local Eagle Scouts. Oh, and don't forget the World's Largest Potato Crisp donated by Pringles! Homespun charm at its best.
Back in the gift shop, we picked up a potato keychain for our collection and a T-shirt. Each paid admission gets a free sample of an Idaho potato product. In our case they were cartons of hash browns. The topper is that the carry-out bags for the goods are potato sacks. Very clever idea!
We drove around Blackfoot for a few minutes, but didn't find anything worth stopping the car for. So, off we went back on the freeway north toward Idaho Falls.
The drive to Idaho Falls is only about twenty-five minutes, so we were a little worried that our room wouldn't be ready yet. No matter, the parking lot was completely empty when we arrived at the Hilton Garden Inn. No wonder the price had been reduced two weeks ago. This Garden Inn is about the same vintage as the one in Twin Falls (in other words, brand new), but it has a lighter decor package and it has more extensive banquet rooms on the back. The layout in general is about the same with a big fireplace in the beautiful lobby.
We were greeted promptly at the front desk even though the woman was on the phone. She immediately put the caller on hold and dealt with us, which is as it should be. When Dave worked at the DoubleTree he was always required to blow off the person standing there in favor of a caller, which always irked him.
As luck would have it, our room was ready. We were given so many free breakfast vouchers we could feed eight additional people, plus a coupon for two bottles of water (both part of the HHonors Gold VIP program). The clerk gave us a map of the area and exclaimed about how lucky we are to arrive now because the weather is expected to be fantastic.
We booked the same category of room here as we had at the previous Garden Inn, a King Evolution Living Room Suite. So, we expected about the same amount of space and such. The prices here are somewhat higher than in Twin Falls (about $40 more), but what a difference in the size of the suite. WOW! What a room this is. The hotel backs up directly to the Snake River where there is a walking path. Across the river is a typically grandiose Mormon Temple reflected in the water. On top of all that, there is a private balcony with chairs, an enormous living room with a powder room, wet bar, flat screen TV, microwave and refrigerator. The bedroom is completely separate through double doors and comes with the same fantastic bedding and furniture as the previous Hilton, but the empty space is filled in by a comfortable chair and floor lamp. There is another flat screen TV in this room also. The bathroom is enormous and features a Jacuzzi bathtub with its own LCD TV on the wall and a separate shower. We're in heaven!
The location is very nice with a lot of chain and independent restaurants along what could probably be called hotel row. There are several mid-range and budget hotels along the river, but this one seems to be the nicest from the outside. There is a Marriott hotel under construction near the river that seems to have been abandoned before it was finished. Otherwise, the town looks very pleasant. The woman at the front desk gave us an access code to a gate behind the hotel that leads to a bridge over a canal and directly to the river walk park. We plan to do that loop tomorrow.
We cheated on Trish and drove up the street to Chili's for lunch without her, which was very good and didn't appear to be as sickness-inducing as the food at Friday's. In other words, it seemed fresh and the restaurant had a few customers. The service was very prompt and friendly.
After lunch we drove through the "Historic Downtown" to see if there is anything that needs to be added to our plans for tomorrow. Answer, no. Nothing wrong with it, but driving through it was sufficient. There is a big, modern Museum of Idaho that we might go to if we are in the mood. Since we didn't bring Trish along, we got lost right away, but this isn't the biggest town in the world and we found our way back soon enough. When Bill asked at the front desk where the nearest car wash is, the woman gave him the address and said, "Don't worry about finding it. If you drive around a little you'll run into it eventually."
Back at the hotel, we stopped by the "Pantry" and picked up our free bottled water. Then back to the fabulous room for rest and napping until dinner time.
For dinner we drove up the street to an Outback Steakhouse at about 8:00pm. It was packed and people were waiting outside. We weren't all that hungry, so we figured a wait wouldn't hurt us. The hostess gave us a pager and said it would be about twenty five minutes, but it was no more than ten. Outback is Outback, we both enjoyed our meals and were even happier to find the total bill to be one of the least expensive so far, not including the diner in Arco.
Back at the hotel we picked up some free cookies from the front desk and went back up to the room. The Mormon Temple across the river shines like a beacon in the night, which is probably the whole point come to think of it.
Saturday, May 15 - Idaho Falls, ID - Hilton Garden Inn
Today's weather couldn't be better...it is in the high 60's and mostly sunny with a nice breeze. This is a scheduled down day for us, so the only plans we have are to do the river walk behind the hotel (it is about 3 miles round trip).
We started off with breakfast downstairs using our HHonors coupons. The concept at this Garden Inn is the same, order a cooked-to-order item from the menu and get whatever you want from the buffet. Here though, the menu part is about half the number of items and the buffet has make-your-own waffles and toast. The price without the coupon was still $9.95 and the portions very generous. Service was prompt and friendly. We both ordered a different omelet and both were fine, nothing special, but good enough. Hot items include a side of bacon, ham (which is 1" thick!), or sausage. You can also order a la carte eggs or sides, all included in the price.
We walked out of the hotel at 11:30am to cross the footbridge across the canal between the hotel and the river walk trail along the river. On the way we passed a bunch of recently hatched ducks being herded around by four adults. They were too cute. Well, they're cute until you have to dodge the droppings that are everywhere you step.
The river walk is busy all the time with families out walking, people jogging, or kids riding bikes. We walked in a clockwise circle from the hotel, so that left the falls for last. The river panorama is beautiful and full of life with all sorts of ducks and other birds around. There is an island in the middle of the river with an old cabin on it that was donated to the city with the stipulation that it always be named after the owner (we have, of course, forgotten the name.)
At the nearby highway, we had to cross a busy bridge to get to the other side of the river, but otherwise the walk is along a greenbelt that skirts the river for about six miles on both sides. The city takes great pride in the greenbelt, as they should. Apparently the people do, too, because there wasn't any graffiti anywhere to be seen along the entire walk.
The side of the river opposite the hotel strip is where the old part of town and some nice residential areas are located. There was one house with a huge statue of an eagle out front and the windows were plastered with them as well. Just up the street some boulders were carved into a family of bears in the roadway median.
Approaching the falls from this side it looks like the rim of an infinity-edge swimming pool. The falls are manmade to power a small hydroelectric power plant for the town.
We passed several monuments to God-only-knows-who, a veteran's memorial, plaques describing the wildlife, who donated what to the greenbelt project, etc. At the main intersection by the bridge, there was a Farmers' Market going on, so we detoured through it. They had lots of nice plants for sale as well as homemade foods of all sorts. We only saw one person selling produce, so we'd say this was more of a craft fair, but it was pleasant. A vendor gave us a sample of kettle corn that almost made us go back and buy some, but we resisted.
At the main bridge there are a number of "important sites" to see. The first we came across is an abandoned fish hatchery that had something to do with the creation of the falls disrupting the native fish population. There are several of these around, but they are not used now. Adjacent to some of the falls is a big Japanese stone lantern. It was pretty, but we don't know the reason it is there, nor do we care. It sure was a popular place for wedding photos today.
Adjacent to this little park area is a recreation of Taylor's Toll Bridge that was constructed in the early days to transport freight across the river. There is also the landmark water tower here. At the other end of the toll bridge is the abandoned Marriott hotel project. Too bad it might not be completed because it is smack dab in the middle of town directly on the river. There is no way to miss it and it will quickly become an eyesore if something isn't done. It is well on its way to being one already.
Across the main street heading back to the hotel are the famous falls. As already mentioned, they are a man-made creation, so they don't look natural in the slightest. There is a low, concrete dam over which the water cascades maybe twenty feet (might be more, but the point is they aren't very high.) In some places the bedrock is exposed, so the water splashes down into the volcanic rock and looks more natural, but for the most part is it one long cascade.
At the upper end is a shorter section that creates a corner. This appears to trap the water and force it into the power plant, which must be small because unless it was pointed out on a sign we wouldn't have known it was there. We have no idea where all the huge logs and other flotsam ends up that constantly floats by. Mostly the debris appears to be brush and dead trees, but we're talking full grown pine trees floating down the river all the time. It didn't seem to gum up the works.
Back at the hotel, we picked up some beverages and went up to the room to find the maid still working on it. So, we went back down and sat in the back part of the hotel that overlooks the river for a while to kill time.
We ended up back in the room at 1:30pm with no plans to venture out until dinner time.
When we did muster energy to go out to dinner, we first went up the block to Applebee's which had a line out the door. Same scenario at Chili's across the street and the fancy dinner house on the river two blocks north. We thought we'd give Outback another shot, but being a Saturday we figured there was no way to get in there. Wrong, no waiting at all. It was busy, but not nearly as full as it was last night.
It appears to be prom night and there was a couple going in wearing matching lime-green outfits. His wasn't bad, only the cuffs of his shirt and bow tie were green. The girl's dress was a poufy hoop-skirt affair with glittery bits all over it in lime green taffeta. OK, so the color choice was weird, but we hadn't seen the upper part of the dress up close until they left. On top of the poufy skirt was a matching corset laced up with what looked like shoe string in the back. Just when we thought we had really ended up in Hicksville, a large group of prom-goers arrived wearing very attractive gowns and tuxedos, so we shouldn't generalize about the locals being too backwoods.
Our meals were very good again, as expected, and we left the restaurant completely stuffed. After filling the car up with gas and scraping off the bug carcasses from the windshield, we made our way back to the hotel for the evening.
A kids' soccer team has checked in, so there is a lot of screaming going on below our window tonight. They aren't running up and down the hallways...yet. Luckily, the air conditioning fan is so loud that it drowns out all other noise, so it is like a white sound machine in the bedroom when it is on.
Sunday, May 16 - Drive to Yellowstone National Park Via Quake Lake
Quake Lake (also known as Earthquake Lake)
is a lake in southwestern Montana, United States. It was created after a massive
earthquake struck on August 17, 1959, which killed 28 people. Today, Quake Lake
is 190 feet (58 m) deep (150 feet as of July 2009) and six miles (10 km) long.
US 287 follows the lake and offers glimpses of the effects of the earthquake and
landslide and allows access to a visitor center. The lake is mostly within
Gallatin National Forest.
After another wonderful breakfast at the hotel, we packed up and were ready to hit the road toward Yellowstone. We highly recommend the Hilton Garden Inn here in Idaho Falls. It seems to be well managed, has everything you need, is clean, comfortable, and most of all, the price is an incredible value. When our bill came this morning we found that the price had been reduced by $10.00 per night, so we had the best suite in the house for just $169.00 per night.
Our drive north was scenic, as usual, passing more and more rural farms. We left the highway at Ashton, ID. The main street through the town looked like a movie set because there was absolutely no one on the street and all of the businesses were closed. After the two blocks of town, the road meandered through farmland until we met up with the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway that leads up into the mountains.
From farmland to forest, this road winds its way up the mountain, along the Warm River valley and eventually re-joins the highway towards Yellowstone. We stopped at a turnout where people were feeding the huge fish and at viewpoint over the canyon with the Grand Tetons in the distance. Our first major stop was at the viewpoint for the Lower Mesa Falls. There is an overlook where we could look down into the canyon and see the falls far below. Even at this distance the roar of the water was impressive.
Next up was the real reason for this detour, Upper Mesa Falls. We had read that there is an admission charge, but there were signs posted that because it was off-season there was no charge. This might also have something to do with the fact that all of the interpretive signs were missing. There is a multi-level boardwalk that offers many vantage points for viewing the falls from above, the impressive volcanic canyon walls, and the falls themselves from many angles. A log was wedged against some rocks at the precipice of the falls that was directing the water against the canyon wall.
Below the falls was a ledge of lava in the riverbed that created another short falls, then some rapids. The steep canyon walls were heavily forested except where there had been landslides or the jagged talus had knocked down the trees. Talus are the jumbles of rocks that break off from the cliffs for various reasons. They actually start to flow like a glacier, crushing everything in their path.
Back on the byway, we drove through beautiful country toward snowy mountain peaks. Open prairies were surrounded by snow-topped mountains. We skirted the mountains on the highway leading us to our next destination, Slide Lake (also called Earthquake Lake) in Montana.
The drive took about forty-five minutes along a two lane road. There was still some snow in the protected areas of the land around us. Just before reaching the slide is a turnout for a view of the mountains.
Arriving at the slide is dramatic because the entire mountain slid all at once into the valley below, damming the river and killing 29 people in a campground. The visitor center is built on top of this massive pile of gravel and boulders. A spillway was quickly built to prevent the dam from breaking and causing a catastrophic flood at some later date. The slide was caused by the 1959 Hebgen Earthquake that also changed the behavior of Yellowstone's geysers for years afterwards.
Looking at the huge chunk of hillside that came crashing down is awe inspiring, but the lake it created is certainly beautiful. Dead trees still stand at the water's edge that were drowned as the water quickly rose behind the new dam. Parts of the lake along the edges were still covered in ice. The visitor center doesn't open until Memorial Day weekend, so we just parked there and took some pictures before continuing on toward Yellowstone.
Just up the road is Hebgen Dam that was damaged in the same earthquake, but didn't fail. It is currently being rebuilt. Its lake was still mostly frozen, except for a few patches here and there. In some places the wind had blown the ice into small drifts along the shoreline. By the way, the temperature outside is in the high 60's so that water must be awfully cold to keep the surface frozen.
A small herd of bighorn sheep blocked traffic for a few minutes. A couple of miles later there was an electronic sign warning of animals in the roadway for the next ten miles, but the sheep are the only wild animals we saw outside of Yellowstone.
It was still relatively early in the day, so we decided to stop at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone since it was on the way to the park. They have two packs of wolves, four grizzly bears and an exhibit hall explaining their behaviors and such. None of the animals came from Yellowstone, so it is a bit odd to be here, but they say it is to help educate the public so we'll want to protect them.
There are specific times when the bears are fed, so we were able to see them foraging for food in piles of wood and boulders. After eating they played with huge rocks we would never dream of lifting, then took a dip in the pool together. We came by later and one of them was sitting looking very goofy holding a big stone between his legs.
One pack of wolves was sleeping by the fence, but the other one was wandering around, playing, etc. They were interesting to watch, but the pens seemed too small for them. The ones who were awake were pacing around looking bored, although they did play among themselves from time to time. The center also has a mock-up of a bear den people can climb into as well as display of bear traps and bear-proof trashcans that have or have not passed the test. Of course, there is a gift shop at the exit. We wouldn't knock anyone over to go back, but it was an OK stop, although a bit overpriced at $10.50.
We wandered over to the IMAX theater next door, but the next showing wasn't soon enough for us, so we took off for the entrance to Yellowstone, literally around the corner.
This adventure continues with Part 2 - Yellowstone & Grand Teton.
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