The date of departure was August 26, 2004 following a very busy summer at home, so happy trails, time for a break. The flight was lovely. My seat was in the very last row and no one was sitting with me, therefore I had three seats to myself and stretched out the entire trip. Fabulous.
The airport in Las Vegas is right in the middle of the city. The strip was close by. I have to think the city grew up around the airport. My college friend from Houston arrived shortly and we caught a shuttle to our hotel. That evening we hopped on the Monorail (our hotel was off the strip) and went to the strip. Our wanderings took us to Caesar's Palace and the Bellagio Hotel, among others. The sculpture at Caesar's was impressive and the Bellagio fountains are not to be missed. Between the beginning and end of the trip I watched them at least six times.
The next day our bus tour left Vegas and headed northeast. Our first major stop was at Zion Canyon in Zion National Park for views of cliffs of sandstone in various colors, monoliths, and a drive through a tunnel built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) program. Bryce Canyon was our next stop. What an amazing place. It is my favorite place of the entire tour. Our tour director pointed out that Bryce is a series of amphitheaters, rather than a canyon. The hoodoos were fascinating and the colors fantastic.
Moving on, we arrived in Salt Lake City, a beautiful city. We were toured around Temple Square and the visitor's center by two Mormon sisters, very sincere young women. The Mormon Tabernacle, home of the famed choir, is a separate, Quonset-type building near the temple and I was surprised to learn that only Mormons may enter their temples.
Continuing to travel north, we drove through lovely Idaho, golden wheat fields and lava fields, to arrive at Jackson (Hole), Wyoming, for our evening stop. The countryside is beautiful and approaching Jackson the view is breathtaking. At the Million $ Cowboy Bar the bar stools are saddles with stirrups. Mounting was a cinch, but the dismount was a bit shaky. Jackson is a fun town, touristy and western. Entering Jackson I saw a road sign:
NOISE ORDINANCE ENFORCED
NO ENGINE BRAKES
The town where I live needs a couple, three of those signs! And someone to enforce it!
We get a bright, brisk morning to take us to the Grand Teton National Park, jagged peaks and glaciers. We hike to Jenny Lake for photos. Driving through the park we stop for lunch at Jackson Lake, where I try a buffalo burger. It was good, a bit dry, but flavorful. Behind the lodge where we ate, I video taped a large moose grazing on the marshy grassland. Thrilling. If I could figure out how to hook my video camera to my computer (USB cable? S-video?), I could publish a picture of him on my web page. Didn't get a still shot of him. Blast! Later in the day we arrive at Yellowstone National Park to visit hot springs, thermal pools of various colors, and see tremendous new growth of pine trees in the park, the aftermath of the fires in 1988. Our hotel was on Yellowstone Lake.
We spent the entire next day in Yellowstone, traveling to several sites within the park. Dragon's Mouth had hot, bubbling pools with roaring sound. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a gorge with falls, Upper and Lower. The Lower Falls were higher than the Upper Falls! Park Headquarters where the Mammoth Hot Springs and the limestone terraces are located. We drove along the Gibbon River and visited the Fountain Paint Pots for a walk around the mud pools and hot springs there. Next stop was at the Old Faithful Inn and, of course, the famed geyser. We stayed to see two eruptions which were quite thrilling. Upon return to our hotel, we walked to a lodge for dinner and returned for our evening of rest and believe it or not, had a 2.7 earthquake. It was noisy which surprised me. It reminded me of a giant falling out of bed (the noise and shaking) and then stumbling around (the continued shaking and noise.) or the end of our building being hit by a large steam engine, with the percussions traveling the length of the building. Can you tell this was my first earthquake? My lasting impression of Yellowstone will be to remember there is much, much more to it than Old Faithful.
Traveling out of the park we spotted a grizzly bear and were able to stop for photo shoot. Heading east to Cody, Wyoming we then had a three hour stop at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. It had five different museums, well worth the visit. I especially enjoyed the bronze sculptures. Downtown we saw a massive cherry wood bar at the Irma Hotel given to Buffalo Bill by Queen Victoria.
Driving into Billings, Montana for our overnight stay we saw a dust storm, rather like our white-outs in the winter only gray. Next day we visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana. On to Deadwood, South Dakota for a tour of the town and a visit to Kevin Costner's Tatanka : Story of Bison, a larger-than-life bronze sculpture featuring 14 bison being pursued by three Lakota riders. Impressive. The overnight was in Rapid City, SD. City center finds bronze sculptures of our presidents on the street corners. Sixteen are there and four per year will be added until they're completed. JFK is holding a young John, Jr.'s hand. Ike is in uniform. Online I quite enjoyed this display.
The Crazy Horse Memorial was the first stop next morning. The carving in the mountain, once finished, will be the world's largest mountain carving. The visitor center complex includes an Indian Museum, Cultural Center, Sculptor's Log Studio Home, a 1/34th Model of the carving, Nature Gates, and several other places of interest for the visitor. The carving will be magnificent when it's done. The day continued with our visit to Mount Rushmore. Oh my, very moving and impressive. We then went to a drive-through wildlife park, featuring bears, deer, mountain sheep, and a nursery of young wolves and bears. In the evening we returned to Mount Rushmore for the very moving illumination ceremony. The lightning in the background added to the experience.
The next day was overcast and more or less a road trip, from Rapid City to Denver. We drove through grasslands of South Dakota, grasslands of Wyoming, and saw coal trains (long) and antelope(fast). I took very few pictures on this day.
A most enjoyable part of the next day was our climb up a mountain, into the snow, through the Eisenhower Tunnel at 11,013 feet at the entrance, 33° F., crossing the Continental Divide, and down the mountain, out of the snow. Such great fun and the snow was beautiful on the pines. Our first stop out of Denver was at Vail, Colorado on a drizzly morning, a quaint little town and not at all what one expected. Our drive took us through Glenwood Canyon. Shortly after lunch in Clifton, Colorado, we entered Utah and soon arrived at Arches National Park. Glorious formations. The Navajo (white) and Kayenta (very red) sandstone is incredible. The bus drove up the side of a mountain to reach the arches. They are formed by erosion, rain, wind, and are gradually changing over time. In the evening, following a lovely dinner, we boarded a boat for a nighttime ride and lightshow through Canyonlands.
Making a left turn, back into Colorado, we climbed a mountain to 8000 feet, which brought us to the top of the mesa where the cliff dwellers farmed and built their homes in the cliffs just below. Called the Anasazi, they arrived about 1400 years ago and left mysteriously in the late 1200s. The cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde were mind boggling. It's amazing that people chose to live there.
Our visit to the Navajo Indian Reservation, where we stayed overnight in Kayenta, included a visit to Monument Valley. We were driven by a Navajo in a truly rattletrap bus into the park. The monoliths are beautiful and very familiar, since many films have been made at this location, also many automobile commercials! At lunch we saw a marvelous WWII Navajo code talker display of information at a local Burger King. Moving on we drove through the Painted Desert, colorful rock formations. Our next stop was the Grand Canyon. Our first view of this vast incredible place was at Desert View, then Mather Point and finally Bright Angel, where there was direct access to the rim from the lodge. After dropping off our luggage, we had supper, and went back to the rim (South) for the sunset over the Canyon. Awe-inspiring. We saw some small fires across the way of the North Rim. Later that evening we went to an IMAX theater to see the Grand Canyon film. 'Twas my first IMAX and I swear the room moved and I know I was hanging onto my chair! Great fun.
Early the following morning a very few of us on the tour went to the Tusayan airport to board a small plane (me) or a helicopter for flights over the Grand Canyon. I'm so happy I did this, for you truly see how vast this magnificent sight is from the air. Heading west, nearing the end of our journey, we stopped in Seligman, Arizona on Route 66 for a break and then in Kingman for lunch. Mohave Desert was on our route and we reached Laughlin, Nevada to see the 'blue' Colorado River, cleansed of mud by Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam. Following a long day, we arrived back in Vegas to check in to the Aladdin for a short stay. On the strip, conveniently across from the Bellagio, I was able to watch the fountain show again.
Next morning we were picked up for our raft trip on the Colorado through the Black Canyon. We embarked from just below the Hoover Dam, a great sight. The ride was comfortable, hot sun, and our air conditioners were cloths wet with cold river water, draped across the back of the neck, very refreshing. We saw female and young mountain sheep on the canyon walls. We stopped at a sandy beach for our box lunch and were warned to watch for rattlesnakes and scorpions, but more than likely the scorpions were dug in, due to the heat. Rain clouds appeared but we were spared the rain. We landed at Willow Beach and drove over the Hoover Dam on our way back to Vegas. A highway is being built for all traffic and vehicles will not be allowed to drive over the dam, once the new road is completed. Security is very high, checking all truck loads, buses, cars, etc. Our bus was boarded and inspected by a police officer as we approached the dam. That evening we ate some very nice Chinese food and then went up to the Paris Eiffel Tower observatory where I video taped the, are you ready, Bellagio fountains.
Our last day, we wandered the strip, checking out the various casinos and visited the Monet exhibition at the Bellagio. The paintings were from The Museum of Fine Art, Boston, lovely. I bought a couple nice prints at the gift shop. We had a terrific burger lunch at the Harley-Davison Café. Then we walked through The Desert Passage, a circle of smart shops at the Aladdin. Relaxing, lovely day. That evening we joined a tour with Showtime which took us to shows at the Tropicana and the Rio, the Bellagio fountains, chandelier, and conservatory, the Freemont Street light show, terrific 99˘ shrimp cocktail at the Golden Nugget, and finally the Stratosphere observation decks, inside and outside for spectacular views of the city. I watched the rides up there, too, and admire those with the courage to do it. Unbelievable.
On 9-ll, we caught a cab for a fast ride to the airport, quick good-bye to my friend, and following uneventful plane rides, arrived home to crash (in bed) about 1 a.m. The memories of this tour are indelible, such marvelous sights in our country and such a nice variety of activities.
The pictures of the Parks, Western USA, 2004, trip are on my website:
Joyce N. Church
Written October 2004
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