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Thursday, May 27 - Drive to Logan, UT Via Star Valley & Bear Lake - Springhill Suites by Marriott
Valley, located in the midst of National Forest, is adjacent to National Parks and nearby
resort areas with altitudes ranging from 5,600 feet to over 10,000 feet. This
valley is fed by seven mountain lakes, three major rivers and numerous pure
water springs, creeks and streams flowing into a twenty mile long lake. As one
fellow says, "When you take a drink of water in this valley you're the first one
to use it."
The free breakfast at the hotel was good, as usual. The "featured" item today was French toast. We've been impressed at every meal that they keep everything fully stocked until the last minute. This morning they came over and asked if we wanted anything else before they put it away, which was very nice.
It is sunny and warmer today, but the forecast is for rain later in the afternoon. A pet peeve of ours is when housekeeping starts knocking on the door to find out when you are leaving on check-out day. Our Do Not Disturb sign was out and she knocked on the door at 10:30am to see if we had left yet (check out time is noon). We'd still recommend this hotel because we were extremely comfortable here, but there were several little things that annoyed us (air conditioning didn't cool the room well, not quite squeaky clean, the check-in to the missing drapes issue, maid knocking early, etc.)
We left the hotel around 11:30am for our drive on the Oregon Trail Scenic Byway toward Logan, UT. The total drive time was about four hours, but the drive was easy, there was no traffic, and the scenery was interesting. First we traveled through the local mountains, then down into a wide valley full of ranches and farms.
Just about every tiny town along the way had delusions of developing into tourist destinations. There was an unfinished tract of vacation homes or lots where it was obvious nothing had been sold in quite a long time. The closer we got to Bear Lake, the more delusional the developments became. A gated community in the middle of nowhere? Who thought that was a viable idea? Most of the towns we passed have populations in the low hundreds. Some are cute little towns, but a few looked very down and out. The town of Afton boasts an archway made of antlers over the roadway. Paris has a historic tabernacle.
The weather was fine for our drive, overcast, no rain.
We made a brief stop at the Lender Cut-Off, the summit of the mountains where the covered wagons had to find a way over the mountains. The valley view from here is spectacular.
The big draw in this area is Bear Lake, but most of the shoreline appears to be private. All of the areas we passed that looked like there might be lake access said "Members Only". This area had many unfinished second-home developments. The lake itself, once we found a place to actually see it, is a beautiful bright blue due to the mineral content in the water. We stopped at an overlook that had explanations for the water's color and other facts about the area.
At Bear Lake we turned onto the Logan Canyon Scenic Byway and it certainly was that. The road follows a narrow canyon passing towering volcanic cliffs while zig zagging over a rushing river. The scenery is beautiful along the entire route, so the time passed quickly and we found ourselves in Logan, UT at 3:30pm.
The hotel we are staying at for the night is a brand new SpringHill Suites in a development so new that Trish didn't have a clue, but she got us close enough that we found it with no problems. This hotel is similar to the one we stayed at in Provo, but this one has a more upscale decor package. Instead of lime green and trendy lobby furniture, this one is done in sophisticated earth tones with very upscale furnishings.
We were immediately greeted by the friendly woman at the front desk. She acknowledged that we are using points to pay for the room. When she said, "You are in a room with two queens," it was all we could do not to laugh out loud. We expected to get the worst room in the house since it is free, but we received the type of room we requested on the top floor. We even have a nice view of the hills. After we were in the room for a few minutes, the front desk called to be sure everything is OK.
The room layout is exactly the same as the Provo version except for the more upscale furniture and decoration. We were happy with the first one, so we are thrilled with this, especially for free (the regular price is very reasonable, about $120). There is a sitting area with a sofa, chair and desk, plus a large LCD TV that swivels to be viewable in bed also. The bedroom has two queen-sized beds, plus the split bathroom arrangement all SpringHill Suites have.
The woman at the front desk told us about the restaurant attached to the hotel, Elements. We had read about it in TripAdvisor reviews, so we expected it would be good, so we went there for dinner. The decor is upscale and trendy, but it is a casual restaurant. The menu has many interesting items. The entrees include a choice among three salads, all of which are more than just a plain lettuce salad. We ordered the Thai Chicken Wrap appetizer. It was a huge portion and came with three different sauces. It was good, but way too messy and a lot of effort to eat. We wouldn't order it again.
For our entrees, we ordered the Sweet Cola-Glazed Meatloaf and the Gorgonzola Steak Pasta. Both were outstanding and huge portions. The Black Forest Cheesecake was a disappointment. It was OK, but sort of tasted like it had been in the refrigerator too long. The service was extremely friendly and polite. We would definitely return here if we have the chance.
Back in the room, we have no plans except to watch the premiere of 'So You Think You Can Dance', and that's exactly what we did.
Friday, May 28 - Drive to Salt Lake City - Visit Eccles Dinosaur Park - Hilton Garden inn-Downtown
George S. Eccles Dinosaur Park the
dinosaurs are so up close and personal you can almost smell their hot breath on
your neck...the smell of intensity. When you’re at the dinosaur park you’ll get
an up-close look at creatures like the fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex or the
gazelle-like Dryosaurus. These bad boys look REAL...sometimes...TOO real.
Plus with a working paleontology lab, hands on exhibits, and over eight acres of
life sized dinosaurs in a natural outdoor environment, it’s a super-sized dose
of cool for dinosaur junkies of all ages.
We had to get out of bed earlier than we would like because the free breakfast at this hotel ends at 9:30am. It was the same as the one at the previous SpringHill Suites. Fine, but nothing worth talking about.
It is supposed to rain this afternoon, but in the morning it was just slightly overcast. Temperature is about 68 degrees. We hung around in the room until 11:00am because the drive to Salt Lake City is just over an hour, so we don't want to arrive too early to check in.
We drove about forty-five minutes to the George S. Eccles Dinosaur Park in Ogden. We didn't expect a whole lot from this place since the admission charge is only $7.00, but it didn't even meet our lowest expectations. We can't imagine anyone, including those with little kids, coming back to this place a second time. The ads say that they have a large display of animatronic dinosaurs in the entrance building. Well, if you consider two very crudely animated dinosaurs "large", then you might be happy.
In the same building, they have displays of dinosaur bones, fossils, gemstones, petrified wood and such. The bones and fossils are purported to be authentic, but they looked very artificial. We'll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they are coated with something to preserve them.
The remainder of the park is outdoors and consists of life-sized statues of a variety of dinosaurs posed among the foliage. This part would be OK if the statues were in better repair. Most of them are faded and need a new paint job. Others have bird crap all over them. The setting is nice though with the mountains as a backdrop. The crowning glory of kitsch is the phony volcano. We could do better in our backyard using papier-mâché.
It started to rain in large drops as we were walking outside, so we did a quick walk-around the park, then jumped back in the car to continue our trip toward Salt Lake City. The rest of the drive only took about forty minutes on the freeway. There was some traffic due to construction, but it didn't delay us much. We arrived at the Hilton Garden Inn-Downtown at around 1:30pm.
We used a "Point Stretcher" offer from Hilton to get all three days of our stay here free. That entitles us to a regular room, of course. When we were checking in with a very friendly front desk clerk, Dave asked nicely if we could upgrade to a suite. He offered to pay the difference ($20), but she said she would be glad to upgrade us at no extra charge. Wow, what a deal. We also get free cooked-to-order breakfast and two bottles of water for being Gold Members.
The suite is fantastic! A separate living room and bedroom with a large LCD TV in both. The furniture is upscale and comfortable. There is no view to speak of only because the hotel isn't located in the best part of town. There are mostly old factories in the area, but it is starting to be re-developed with chain hotels all along the street. The Hilton is the last hotel on the row, so all we can see is rusting old buildings and silos. In the distance we can see snow-capped peaks though. We're certainly not complaining considering all of this is free.
After we settled in we went down to the "Pantry" and bought some chips to hold us over until dinner time. The hotel's restaurant has a much larger menu than the previous Garden Inns we stayed in, so we plan to stay here for dinner tonight. The lobby layout is about the same as the other Garden Inns with a large fireplace by the front desk and lots of comfortable seating. We looked at the indoor pool and it is very nicely done with a high ceiling and plenty of space.
The menu for the hotel restaurant seemed interesting, so we went downstairs for dinner rather than bothering to go out. We were very happy with the food. We split an order of the spaghetti with meatballs and a meat-lovers pizza. Everything was very good and the server was friendly. The price was quite reasonable for a hotel, also.
On the way past the front desk, we picked up some cookies and asked the clerk if there is anything in Salt Lake City we shouldn't miss. He was baffled and tried to come up with something to suggest, but pretty much shrugged his shoulders. He was very nice though and did try to find something interesting to do. Everyone working here is extremely helpful and nice.
Saturday, May 29 - Salt Lake city, UT - Hilton Garden inn-Downtown
It looked stormy this morning, but the weather quickly cleared up and it turned out to be a beautiful day in the high 60's. Breakfast is served until 11:00am here on the weekends, so we slept in until 9:00am, then went down for our free breakfast. The dinner menu at this Garden Inn is more extensive than the others, and the breakfast continues that trend. The cooked-to-order menu has things like Eggs Benedict in addition to the usual items. The Lumberjack Breakfast is a choice between French Toast or Pancakes, bacon AND sausage, and a large portion of scrambled eggs. You also get to select items from the buffet where they have juices, yogurt, pastries, toast, bagels and fruit. If we didn't have the freebie deal, all of this would only cost $10.95, so it is a good deal for a hotel restaurant.
On the way past the front desk the friendly woman who checked us in yesterday (we think she is the hotel manager) asked what we are planning to do today. So, we asked the same thing we asked the guy last night, "Is there anything we should see here?" She had even fewer suggestions than the guy did. We agree that most of the "attractions" mentioned in the local guide book are contrived just to make it look like there are a lot of options, but there are a number of things we are willing to go look at.
We decided to drive to Antelope Island State Park about half an hour north. It is the largest island in the Great Salt Lake and is used for recreation and conservation purposes. The only access to the island is via a miles-long causeway. There is a charge of $9.00 per car for the entire day.
The Great Salt Lake is the U.S. equivalent of the Dead Sea. It is five to eight times saltier than the ocean, so the only life forms it supports are brine shrimp, brine flies, and a few kinds of algae. At the toll booths there is an electronic sign announcing, "BUGS!!!!! They are BAD today!!" There are biting gnats and other things that thrive on the marshy shoreline until the temperature gets above 90 degrees in the summer.
We stopped at a viewpoint and walked out a bit toward the end of the rocky outcropping. The views all around are beautiful. People were wandering across an expanse of sand down below in a bay area. We didn't have any encounters with bugs at this point, but we'd imagine down on the shore they would be awful.
The next stop is at the Visitor Center. There are swallows swarming the rafters right outside the entrance building nests. The nets installed to prevent this obviously aren't working! The birds were of great interest to the tourists, but the mess they cause won't be any fun if all of them succeed in building a nest here. We bought a souvenir to add to the travel tree and got stuck listening to the ranger talk about his days in the navy in San Diego (he had asked where we are from). He told us to be sure to go to the ranch because there is some sort of festival going on there today.
There are weird metal bison statues all over the island, each painted by a different artist. We never did figure out what the point is, but they were at every major stop on the island. We followed the road to the Bison Corrals where the guide book said you will see bison for sure. Not a bison in sight at the corrals. We've seen our fill of them anyway, so we didn't care.
The drive along the coast facing Salt Lake City to the ranch is about eight miles. It is scenic enough, but it all looks the same after a mile of so. We arrived at the ranch and found the parking lot completely full, but someone left as we made a second trip. The ranch is the historic Garr Ranch that has been in use since time began. Well, almost, but we didn't pay all that much attention to the information. You are supposed to start by walking through a barn containing old ranch equipment and such. We followed the sign that said, "BEGIN HERE".
Passing through the displays, we ended up in a big barn where someone was on stage reading "Cowboy Poetry". People seemed interested in it, but we kept moving. Outside on a picturesque grassy area there were a few (less than ten) tents set up selling extremely bling-encrusted cowboy belts, purses, saddles and such. They were selling food at one location, but we didn't see what it was. It smelled good though. The view was nice, but that's about all we can say about the experience.
It was around 3:30pm when we started the drive back toward Salt Lake City. We decided to get one of the city sights out of the way today, so we let Trish direct us to Liberty Park. The park is in an older part of the city, but it is well-kept and there were a lot of people wandering around or jogging. There is a lake full of all sorts of ducks and seagulls and a fountain depicting a falcon. The big thrill here is a fountain called the Seven Canyons Fountain that represents all of the rivers that flow into the Great Salt Lake. We would never have guessed that if we hadn't read about it, but it was popular with little kids playing in the water (which is encouraged according to the brochure). It didn't look very hygienic to us, but what do we know.
There is also an aviary, but we never found the entrance to it (nor did we care to), some kiddie rides and a carousel. A little farther down the promenade is another small duck pond and a water play area for kids. We didn't bother to walk all the way to the end though.
Back in the car, it was just a few minutes before we were back at the hotel. Thank goodness for Trish or we'd never figure out the weird street names they have here! We finished off the pizza we saved from last night and basically killed time until we decided to go down to the hotel's restaurant for dinner again at 7:30pm.
Tonight's dinner was good and a huge quantity of food. We shared appetizers of potato skins and chicken fingers. Our entrees were sandwiches. One was a Chicken Hawaiian Burger and the other was a Cowboy Sandwich that was roast beef with bacon, grilled onions and cheese. The choice of sides was onion rings and fresh fruit. They offer ice cream from Cold Stone Creamery for dessert (among other things). The waiter brought out a tray of various flavors of ice cream and you choose whichever one you want. The mint with Oreo cookies was very tasty.
On the way back to the room we stopped by the business center to make reservations for our stay in St. George. We have enough points to get two more free nights at a Hilton Garden Inn, so that's what we booked. Hilton requires you to bring a printed copy of the reward certificate with you, so that's why we had to use the business center.
We were back in the room around 9:00pm and done for the day.
Sunday, May 30 - Salt Lake City, UT - Hilton Garden inn-Downtown
The weather is nice today, mostly sunny and 68 degrees. We had another wonderful breakfast at the hotel (we still can't believe how generous the portions are!)
We weren't very motivated to do anything today, but we forced ourselves to leave the hotel around noon. Our first destination is the Clark Planetarium in the Gateway Shopping Center. It is just around the block from the hotel, but the streets are one-way, so it took about five minutes to drive there.
The exhibits at the planetarium are free, so from that standpoint you do get your money's worth. We bought tickets for the next showing in the IMAX 3D theater, "Under the Sea". Why they are showing an undersea movie at a planetarium is anyone's guess. We had about an hour to kill before the movie and figured that the exhibits would fill most of the time. Wrong. It took all of about fifteen minutes to see everything, so we ended up sitting in the lobby doing nothing for forty-five minutes. Why anyone would buy a membership or come back to this place more than once is a mystery.
We wandered upstairs to the theater about ten minutes early, but it was already open for seating. The theater itself is nice enough, but plain. The geeky guy at the door gave us 3D glasses. The movie itself was fine. The 3D effect was very good and the picture extremely clear. The constant theme of global warming was tedious, but most movies like this have some sort of agenda to sell.
After the movie we bought some interesting balls that expand when they are thrown. We saw a little girl playing with one earlier and Bill had to have one (so he bought two). At this point it was about 2:00pm.
We were about to give up for the day when we checked with Trish for the drive time to see the biggest hole in the world. You wouldn't expect us to pass that up would you? She informed us that it would take 38 minutes to get there, so we bit the bullet and started driving.
The huge hole is really the Kennecott Bingham Canyon Copper Mine and actually is the largest man-made excavation in the world. It is so big it is visible from space. We can also see it from our hotel because it has removed most of a nearby mountain peak. The only thing left is a snowy peak at the very top. The rest of the mountain has been rearranged several times.
Our drive was easy and took us through several brand new suburbs. Unfortunately, the economy must have tanked before someone caught on that they don't need a new shopping center on every corner. Some of the centers had only one tenant and others were full of out-of-business shops. There was even a brand new Sonic Burger that closed and is now for sale.
Turning toward the mine, the mountains of tailings are evident up ahead. They are kind of interesting in the variety of colors in the rocky soil. These are made of the rock that has to be removed to get to the ore-bearing rock. An entire mountainside has been altered by these huge terraced hills. A few miles away is a huge processing plant for the ore. It arrives there via a seven-mile long conveyer belt that travels from inside the mine, through a tunnel, and eventually is dumped in a pile for transport to the smelting plant elsewhere.
There is an admission fee of $5.00 per car that is donated to charity according to all of the information everywhere from Kennecott. The visitor center is four miles from the entry point following a road that winds to the top of the man-made mountain. Signs warn visitors not to stop for any reason.
The Visitor Center is perched on the edge of the enormous pit mine. There is a plaza out front with displays of various old mining equipment used when the mine was underground in the 1890's. Now the mine is an open pit 2-3/4 miles across the top and is 3/4 mile deep. Two Sears Towers stacked up wouldn't reach the top. It is hard to grasp just how huge this pit is. The tiny toy trucks at the very bottom are actually enormous electric shovels that weigh 3.2 million pounds each!
There was an announcement that a video was about to begin, so we went in and took a seat in the theater. The movie is mostly propaganda about how environmentally conscious Kennecott is and how much they contribute to the local economy, but what else would you expect from a place like this. The information about the mine was interesting enough. There are also displays explaining how the mine works and models of the topography over the years. By 2015 the mine is expected to be 500 feet deeper than it is now.
We were surprised at how interesting this place is and glad we finally found something worth looking at in Salt Lake City that doesn't involve religion.
The drive back to the hotel took less time than getting there because Trish wasn't quite as confused as she seemed to be on the way there. All of the new roads and housing developments actually caused her to stop announcing turns at one point, but she recovered after being re-set when we reached larger roads.
The SUV was extremely filthy by now, so we stopped at an automated car wash to rinse of the dirt. Surprisingly enough, the wash actually did clean off most of the dirt, so we're not quite as much of an eyesore on the road anymore.
We arrived back at the hotel around 5:00pm. Even though we were tired and hungry, we waited until 7:00pm to go to the hotel restaurant for dinner.
When we arrived at the restaurant there were no employees to be found. No waitress, no cook, just one table of people eating. We seated ourselves and waited for someone to show up. The cook was outside smoking and saw us through the window. He ran in and gave us menus, then went to look for the waitress who came right over and apologized for the wait. We didn't mind, we're not going anywhere.
When Bill ordered the Chicken Parmesan the cook asked if he really wanted it because he hates making it because it takes so long (he was joking). Dave ordered the Chicken Alfredo. Both meals were outstanding. The waitress was very friendly as everyone has been so far. We were happy with our meals.
Back in the room, we did nothing else for the rest of the evening.
Monday, May 31 - Drive to St. George, UT - Hilton Garden Inn
St. George is known as "Utah's Dixie"
because of its temperate climate. Mild winters make it ideal for golf year-round
- 10 of Utah's best courses are located there! The city is the business and
cultural center for SW Utah, and is a major gateway to nearby Zion National
After another great breakfast at the hotel, we gathered up our stuff and drove off toward St. George. This is the longest stretch without a stop so far this trip, about four and a half hours.
The weather today is lightly overcast and around 70 degrees. The drive was uneventful with only one brief pit stop. We didn't stop again until we arrived in St. George. The scenery went from mountains to scrubby forests to farmlands and finally to desert. The temperature was about 80 degrees for most of the drive. When we descended from the higher elevations into St. George, the temperature shot up to 95 degrees!
The city of St. George looks very prosperous with many new, huge houses all over the hills. There are shopping centers everywhere. Of course, the housing boom has ended here like is has everywhere, but this looks like a pleasant small city. The surrounding countryside resembles Sedona with red-rock cliffs and bluffs.
The Hilton Garden Inn here is in a new part of town just off the freeway, but far enough away that we can't hear the traffic at all. It is the same basic design we have become familiar with except the decor is a lighter "desert" style and the pool is outdoors. We were greeted promptly, as usual, and given a room on the highest floor (the fifth), as requested. So far, using HHonors points hasn't penalized us at all for the room assignment. We received our free bottled water and coupons for breakfast. The only disappointment here so far is that the restaurant isn't open tonight, although room service is available.
We weren't all that hot to go out to dinner, but with no choice we let Trish choose something that sounded reasonable. There is a motel on every corner and two restaurants on every block, so there are plenty of options available. The two restaurants across the street, Cracker Barrel and a sports grill weren't appealing for different reasons. Trish came up with Claim Jumper Steakhouse (no relation to the chain we have at home). It is only a few minutes away on the other side of the freeway.
When we drove up we weren't convinced we made a wise choice. It is located in the parking lot of a dumpy budget motel and there were only two cars in the parking lot. However, looks can be deceiving, so we went in anyway. It is indeed a bit of a dump, but the service was friendly and the steaks we had were the best we have had in a long time. They were perfectly cooked, huge, and had no fat on them at all. The meals include a big bowl of salad to share, bread, and a choice of a huge baked potato, fries, mixed vegetables or rice. Everything was very good and just what we needed after a long drive.
We stopped next door to the restaurant to fill up with gas and got to see a homeless guy smoking crack on the steps of the office building next door.
Back at the hotel, we stopped to buy some ice cream in the "Pantry". Garden Inns have thought of everything to make for a comfortable, easy stay. They don't have valet parking or bell service, but we don't use those services anyway. The regular room price is only around $90, which is an incredible bargain for such pleasant surroundings.
We chatted with the very friendly woman at the front desk and asked what is the big draw here that there are so many hotels and restaurants. She said it is skiing in the winter and Bryce Canyon in the summer, but they also have lots of convention business. The Convention Center is just up the street. She also said they roll up the sidewalks at 9:00pm and the shops close by 7:00pm.
Our two-night stay here is another one on HHonors points. We have a regular room here, which is what we expected. We even have a view. The room is essentially the same as the bedroom of the suite we had at other Garden Inns, so it has everything we need...comfortable beds, refrigerator, microwave, desk, comfortable stuffed chair with ottoman and free internet service. We had to wait quite a while for a box of Kleenex to be replaced, but they did eventually bring it without being reminded, so no big deal.
There was quite a commotion next door with the maintenance man trying to open the door, but after that stopped it was quiet again.
Tuesday, June 1 - St. George, UT - Hilton Garden Inn
The weather is pleasant today, hot, but nice. We went down for our free breakfast, as usual. This hotel has the same general arrangement as the other Garden Inns, but there are no menus. You tell the waitress what you want and hope for the best. They seem to have anything within reason and it is all included. We were offered additional servings of French toast, eggs, whatever we wanted. The buffet here is lacking though. The pastries are packaged Sara Lee rolls, not bakery items like they have been at the others. The juices are watered down, not fresh. It was all OK, but nothing special. The cooked to order items were fine and generous portions. Service was extremely friendly and efficient.
It is fairly obvious that this Garden Inn is offering only the bare minimum of what is required of the brand. All of the previous ones were exceeding the requirements and it showed. The housekeeping isn't the best here either. The carpets have some stains there is something sticky spilled on the air conditioner. We're still trying to convince ourselves that the stain in the bottom of the toilet is rust, but we're pretty sure it isn't.
While we were at breakfast, a note was slipped under our door saying that housekeeping skipped us because the Do Not Disturb sign was out. Skipped us? At 10:00am??? So now it is the guest's responsibility to ask for housekeeping if they aren't out of the room by noon? When we told the woman at the front desk she said, "That's pretty rude. I'll take care of it." The people at the front desk have been very friendly and helpful, so no complaints with them.
We asked at the front desk if there is anything here we should see and were directed to Snow Canyon nearby. It is only about fifteen minutes away through some decidedly upscale housing developments. The gated communities around here have some very attractive landscaping and water features out front. We still can't figure out what all these wealthy people do for a living. There doesn't seem to be any large business around here, although there are dentists and plastic surgeons on every corner. We passed another out of business Sonic Burger and the nearby Jack in the Box looks like it used to be a Sonic also.
The approach to Snow Canyon is very attractive. There is a small fountain/fishing pond on the way. People were actually fishing in it, but it looked more like a fountain than something you'd fish in.
The canyon itself is a state park and is beautifully maintained. There are numerous pleasant places to picnic and camp. The area resembles the red rocks of Sedona with the added attraction of black lava flows. At the north end of the park the red rocks transition into white stone topped off by a huge mountain of white stone. There are areas of red, petrified sand dunes, places to hike, amazing canyons, sculptured stones and dry riverbeds. Parts of the park were closed for tortoise habitat, but we weren't here to hike the backcountry anyway. We really enjoyed the drive through the canyon.
Our next stop we already knew about, the Dinosaur Tracks Site Museum. The site was discovered by accident a few years ago when the landowner removed the topsoil along the road. When we reached the bedrock, he decided to remove the slabs of sandstone to sell. One of the slabs fell from the tractor upside down, revealing dinosaur tracks preserved in the now-petrified mud of an ancient lake. The museum building was constructed over the stone so it could be left in place. Adjacent landowners have donated huge slabs with other tracks and they are still working to preserve additional deposits.
There are tracks, fossil plants, animals, skeletons, insects, etc. The discovery was a turning point in understanding the environment the dinosaurs lived in. It is presented simply, but it nonetheless interesting and far more so than the phony dinosaurs we saw in Ogden a few days ago.
Next door to the hotel is a wildlife museum, but we weren't really in the mood to look at dioramas today. When we asked about it at the front desk the woman said she has never been there and doesn't know anyone who has. We're not kidding, the museum is literally next door. We decided to pass since Bill isn't feeling 100% today and we're kind of tired of looking at "stuff" we're not really interested in just to kill time.
We stayed at the hotel for the rest of the afternoon. Apparently we were both tired for some reason because we immediately conked out for a few hours upon returning to the room.
Around 8:00pm we called for room service. It was delivered promptly and everything was good, but the menu is the most limited we have seen at a Garden Inn. The Crispy Chicken Sandwich was very tasty. When we asked what the soup of the day is, the woman on the phone turned to the cook in the background and said, "I've asked you three times what the soup is! When are you going to tell me?" That was amusing for us. It was Chicken Tortilla and was very good, by the way. We are supposed to get 700 HHonors points for ordering over $25 worth of food with the coupon from the hotel.
Nothing else happened today. We debated about driving straight through to home tomorrow, but ultimately decided to stick with the plan and stay overnight in Barstow tomorrow. We wouldn't want to get stuck in rush hour traffic for the last two hours of a very long drive.
Wednesday, June 2 - Drive to Barstow, CA - Hampton Inn & Suites
Barstow was settled in the late 1840s, it's
roots tied deeply to the rich mining history of the Mojave Desert. Our hotel in
Barstow is centrally located in the western Mojave Desert at the entrance to the
Mojave National Preserve. It's also near the U.S. Army National Training Center
at Ft. Irwin, Marine Corps Logistics Base and NASA's Goldstone Deep Space
Today's weather is the same as yesterday, very hot and sunny. We had breakfast as usual, then packed up and prepared to drive toward Barstow. Before we could leave though, housekeeping knocked on the door to find out when we are leaving well before check-out time. Knock off one star from our TripAdvisor ratings! We hate that!!
This Garden Inn didn't quite measure up to the others we stayed at. It was OK, just nothing memorable about it. The woman at the front desk during the day and the waitresses at breakfast were the best part of the entire stay. We'd probably stay here again, but we might try the Courtyard first. There wasn't really anything terribly wrong with it, but the little things added up...carpet needed cleaning, stains in the toilet, uncomfortable mattresses, dingy grey white towels, etc.
We drove out at around 11:45am. The total drive time was about 4-1/2 hours with two brief pit stops along the way. The scenery looks entirely different driving in the opposite direction, so it was interesting. The only traffic was on the stretch through Las Vegas and it didn't slow down much (the speed limit is 80 until Las Vegas). There was a short back-up at one point in the desert when a car flipped over in the median. It was being turned right side up by a tow truck when we passed. It was over 90 degrees the entire time and ended up at 96 in Barstow.
We are staying a somewhat new Hampton Inn next door to the newer Tanger Outlets and a string of chain restaurants and fast food places. Trish had no problem finding the hotel where we arrived around 4:30pm our time, 3:30pm hotel time.
While we were checking in, someone in the back office shouted, "OH SHIT!" rather loudly, but other than that there was nothing memorable about the process. Our studio suite on the third floor is enormous with a sitting area and two queen-sized beds. The decor is boutique-ish and nice. This hotel is overpriced for the brand, but it is definitely the nicest option in Barstow. The staff is OK, nothing special. Our HHonors amenities were waiting in the room...a bottle of water and a package of cookies. We finished those off before going back downstairs for our luggage.
The elevator we entered stayed stuck on the third floor, so we waited for the other one to come up. We reported it to the front desk and they seemed concerned, but it was doing the same thing later in the day.
We drove next door to the Tanger Outlet mall to look for some Rockport shoes. They had a buy one, get another pair half off (or something like that), so we each found a pair we wanted. At check-out there was some other deal that we'd get by adding $11 more to the total, but we passed. When the clerk noticed Bill's AAA card in his wallet, he gave us another 20% off. We looked around the Nautica store next door, but didn't think the prices were low enough.
The original Barstow Outlets mall across the street is much larger, but 90% of the stores are out of business. It was so creepy we didn't get out of the car and went directly to Chili's for dinner. The service was very friendly as it usually is at Chili's. We had the Fajita Trio and a rack of ribs, plus a new appetizer, Chili Cheese Fries. Everything was very good. The manager came over three times to see if we liked everything. We took a piece of cheesecake to go for later because it is still so early. We were back in the room and done for the day by 6:30pm.
Thursday, June 3 - Drive to Bonsall, CA
With the extra hour due to the time change, we were up early with no problems and went down to breakfast. The complimentary breakfast at this hotel is a buffet, but is much more generous than the ones at SpringHill Suites. They had scrambled eggs with steak and cheese, bacon, bagels topped with melted cheese and chopped bacon, pastries, several kinds of cereal, two kinds of hot cereal, hard boiled eggs, breads for toast, bagels, fruit salad, yogurt, and make-your-own waffles.
There is plenty of seating in an attractive dining area with very nice chairs and decor. We were the only guests there the entire time we were there (we arrived at 9:00am). A meeting let out of an adjacent room, but no one came into the dining area.
Back up in the room, we dawdled around until we felt like leaving. That was around 11:00am, as usual for us this trip. It isn't quite as hot today, only around 86, but not a cloud in the sky. We were happy with the Hampton Inn and would stay here again if necessary. The amenities provided are not quite as nice as at the Garden Inns, but the rooms are decor are equivalent. It is surprising that Hamptons are more expensive than Garden Inns in most of the cities where we stopped because Garden Inns are clearly superior in every way.
The drive was uneventful except for some slight traffic in the construction area along the 215. That part of the freeway is a mess as they are reconstructing several bridges to widen the lanes. Even so, the drive home only took about two hours. We were extremely glad that we stuck to our plan to stop in Barstow because this drive would have been a nightmare in rush hour traffic.
As we descended from the mountains the smog/haze layer was gross. We don't know how people can live in the part of the valley where the on-shore breeze pushes the pollutants inland. It was so hazy we couldn't see the mountains or surrounding hills at all. It didn't clear up much until we reached Temecula.
We made it home by 1:00pm to find two very happy dogs waiting for us.
Our ultimate destination of Yellowstone National Park far exceeded our expectations. There are no words to describe how fantastic it is and we'd go back tomorrow if we could. If you haven't been, GO! You won't be disappointed. We bought a National Park Annual Pass ahead of time to save the hassle of buying admissions at each place we stopped. It works at Historic Sites also. We just about broke even on the cost just with this trip.
Let's sum up our experiences in the various cities, hotels, and such that we passed through during our 3,295 miles of travel.
We rented the lowest-priced SUV offered by Hertz and received a free upgrade to a Ford Flex full-sized SUV. It was FANTASTIC! We might have to get one of these cars. Really, it was that nice. So comfortable and easy to drive. It was huge and not much to look at on the outside, but boy was the interior comfortable. It was quiet and the seating was wonderful. All of the features were well thought out and there were lots of places to store things. We loved it. The total price with a AAA discount (this was by far the best deal...the Amex Platinum and Marriott codes we tried were not worth considering) was 15% off plus 50% off the Sirius satellite radio. So, for a month long rental of a full-sized SUV, we paid only $1,353.95. We rented the car from Mossy Nissan in Oceanside and the staff at both ends of the rental was very friendly and polite. Definitely recommended.
Our hotel stays, where possible, were either Marriott or Hilton brands because we had reward points with both. We got more bang for our buck with Hiltons by getting an Amex HHonors credit card ahead of time. It costs $65 a year, but we got FIVE free nights, free breakfast and other complimentary items by being upgraded to the Gold VIP level. We figure that it saved us more than $1,000 overall. In general, it is easier to earn points with Hilton because you get points even for stays paid for with points. With Marriott, if you pay with points, you get nothing for that stay. At Hilton you get both base points and credit for the nights stayed. We earned enough additional points along the way with Hilton that we were able to get two more free stays at the end of our trip.
Our favorite hotel brand was the Hilton Garden Inn. Although we weren't travelling on a budget, these hotels met our needs and exceeded our expectations in every regard. We don't need a lot of extra services like bellman and valet parking, so not having those things was fine with us. All of these hotels offered free internet, parking, and pools. Breakfast was free because of our HHonors Gold status, but even if paying it was only $9.95 for an elaborate all-you-can eat hot breakfast, so it would still be a good value. The rates at these hotels is so low that we booked suites in all except the one paid for with points. The rooms were huge, comfortable and an amazing value. We were very fortunate to be upgraded to an enormous suite even when paying with points in Salt Lake City. Ask nicely and turn on the charm and you can get almost anything.
Our second-favorite hotel brand this trip was SpringHill Suites by Marriott. We stayed at two using points to pay for them and still received a room on a high floor with a view, so we were not penalized for being there for free at all. This brand costs slightly more than the Garden Inns and the breakfast is basic, but free. The rooms are well thought out and nicely decorated. We would definitely choose this brand in the future.
We only stayed at one Homewood Suites by Hilton, but it is another brand we would choose again. It was really nice to have a free dinner included as well as breakfast.
As you know from reading the blog, the in-park hotels at Yellowstone run by Xanterra are barely tolerable. They are a rip-off plain and simple and Xanterra should be ashamed. They are a disgrace. Unfortunately, there is no other choice if you want to stay in the park, which you should do. So, we would stay at the Snow Lodge again, but only if we could book at cabin so we might avoid the elephants walking on the ceiling.
Let's rate the towns and attractions we visited:
Calico Ghost Town: How many Californians have been driving by this place all their life and never stop? We were two of those, so we made a point to stop this time. It is well worth the money ($6.00 a carload), but it isn't a place you'd go to as a destination. We spent a few hours here and enjoyed it, but we probably wouldn't visit it again. We do recommend the stop if you are passing by on the way to Las Vegas. Get out of the car and wander around...it makes a nice break from the road.
Las Vegas: What's to say about Vegas? It is crowded, gaudy, fun, noisy, whatever you can think of. We'd go back, but it isn't a priority. There are so many things to do that you'd have to stay for years to cover it all. The Venetian hotel was very nice, HUGE, but nice. We would probably choose it again in the future, but we would try someplace else first, maybe the Bellagio or Mandarin Oriental. The prices for all three are comparable.
Cedar City, UT: Cute small town with snow-capped mountains all around. We're not sure there is much of a reason to stop here except for an overnight rest stop, but it had lots of dining choices and the people were nice. We stayed at the Abbey Inn here, which was incredibly inexpensive for what they offered. We would definitely stay there again.
Provo, UT: Nice, upscale college town. It is close to mountain activities, although we were only staying there as an overnight stop. The SpringHill Suites here is brand new and very nice.
Golden Spike National Historic Site: This is where the railroads met for the first time. It is in the middle of nowhere, but the drive is pleasant and the roads are fine. There was only a handful of other people there with us, so it was quiet and pleasant. We had the steam engines outside to ourselves because it was cold and drizzling. Worth the time and detour to visit if you are in the vicinity. Our park pass worked here, but the price is only $6 without it, a very good value.
Twin Falls, ID: We enjoyed our two nights here. It is a small town with very friendly locals. The big attraction is Shoshone Falls which is worth looking at. We wouldn't go out of the way to pass through here again, but we liked it when we were there. We had the best Subway sandwiches here that we have ever had. The Hilton Garden Inn we stayed in was fantastic.
Shoshone Ice Cave: This is probably the definition of kitsch, but we liked it. It was only $8.00 for the tour, which was very interesting. The guide was gorgeous and very friendly, so that's a plus, but you might not be that lucky and get the crotchety old man instead. Hope for the best. This isn't something you'd repeat, but it was fun for a one-time visit.
Craters of the Moon National Monument: If you have been to the Hawaiian volcanoes then you have seen the same thing there, but it is worth a stop if you are passing by. We got bored with it though and wouldn't go back. We saw it, so we're done. The visitor center is pointless, but the self-guided driving tour is nice and there are lots of interesting things to explore if you are so inclined.
Arco, ID: A creepy little town with nothing at all to offer. The D-K Motel we stayed in overnight was only passable for one night because it was very cheap. The nearby restaurants, both of them, are adequate at best. Unfriendly locals suggest a sort of zombie horror movie set. We can't imagine why anyone would live here, which might explain why the town appears to be dying. Our advice, keep driving for another hour until you reach Idaho Falls!
Idaho Potato Museum: Another kitschy, but ultimately interesting place to visit. The admission fee is only $2.50 with AAA or $3.00 without and you get a free carton of hash brown potatoes with it. We'd recommend stopping here if you are passing by. It isn't a destination, but for what it is we'd say it is worth it.
Idaho Falls, ID: Another nice small town with friendly inhabitants. There is a pleasant greenbelt park along the river to the historic downtown and the "falls". The falls are manmade and honestly not a big thrill, but it was OK for a couple of nights to rest up. The Hilton Garden Inn here is fantastic with a very nice staff. Lots of restaurants to choose from along the river strip of hotels.
Earthquake Lake, Montana: Worth the detour on the way to Yellowstone if you are passing this way. The scenery on the way to and from is stunning, it is an easy drive, and wildlife was right by the road. The lake was still partially frozen in May.
West Yellowstone, MT: Very touristy town, but if you can't stay in Yellowstone itself this is a reasonable alternative. There are lots of cheap motels, but not any that are more than budget level. The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center is worth a short visit, but we felt it was overpriced for what it has to offer. There is an IMAX theater next door if you are into that and lots of restaurants to choose from.
Yellowstone National Park: We've already covered this in the blog, but we'll say this much again...GO THERE! The hotels and restaurants are terrible, but the park is so wonderful it is worth putting up with them.
Jackson, WY: We wouldn't go back here unless we had to. Very touristy and VERY expensive. The people were pleasant and there isn't anything wrong with it, but there isn't much to do unless you are there to hike or ski. The Homewood Suites by Hilton we stayed in was very nice, but as overpriced as everything in the town. The drive to and from the town is very scenic. We drove out of town through the Bear Lake Valley and through the mountains to Logan, UT, and would definitely recommend that route. The drive is easy and the scenery is varied and interesting.
Grand Teton National Park: The mountains are breathtaking, the drive is easy, and there are a lot of scenic stops. It takes just a few hours to do the tour. In the off season there isn't much to do other than the drive, but it is enjoyable. If you are into hiking or river rafting, this is the place for you. The admission fee of $25 per car for seven days is pricy, but you can use the same admission for Yellowstone. We used our pass, so it didn't make any difference to us what the price was.
Eccles Dinosaur Park, Ogden, UT: A waste of money, don't bother. Luckily it is inexpensive, so no big loss.
Logan, UT: Another pleasant college town. The SpringHill Suites here was more upscale than the previous one, but they were pretty much the same. Proximity to the mountains is a plus and if you are into exploring them this is a good base to start from.
Salt Lake City, UT: We ran out of things to do very quickly because we were determined not to include anything religious in our plans. However, the Bingham Canyon Mine was amazing and well worth a trip. We'd go there again. The Clark Planetarium downtown was another waste of time and money. The Hilton Garden Inn here was the best of the bunch. Highly recommended and an incredible value. The food was fantastic in their restaurant and the service overall was amazing.
St. George, UT: The area resembles Sedona with fantastic red rocks and other geological formations. The Dinosaur Tracks Museum here is worth a visit. The clerk at the hotel recommend we drive through Snow Canyon State Park and it was a highlight. Very nice, easy to see, and offers hiking opportunities galore if you are into that. The town is very upscale, but not overpriced. The Hilton Garden Inn here was acceptable, but did not stand out from the others.
Barstow, CA: Depressing. The original outlet mall is 90% vacant, there is nothing to do in the area. The area where we stayed (by the outlet malls) has several newer hotels, including the Hampton Inn where we stayed. The hotel was very nice, but overpriced for a Hampton. However, they are the best option in town and they probably know it. We'd stay there again for a pit stop, but this definitely isn't a destination.
So, that about sums up the trip. We encountered no problems on the road, everyone we encountered was very friendly, and overall the food was pretty good for where we were. Visiting Yellowstone was surprisingly similar to going on a cruise because there was a weird sense of camaraderie with people saying "hello" and chatting with strangers. It was quite pleasant in that regard. We were VERY glad we visited in the off season even though a good percentage of the park was still closed for various reasons. The crowds in the summer must be horrendous and it would take so much more time to see the sights. The weather was different every day ranging from pleasant and sunny to snowy and freezing cold. Be sure to take a variety of clothing so you are ready for anything. We did and it worked out fine.
Our Magellan GPS, Trish, was a godsend. Having that device made the trip so much easier. We worship the gods of technology for making road trips so much more pleasant! Look for another adventure soon, we'll be working on it shortly.
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