Tour of the Great Western USA
Below you will find a daily diary of where we stayed, where we dined and where we shopped. Some place we just 'passed through' but in many we enjoyed our experiences and will share them with you here!
Ive posted links to relevant picture and slide shows but here is the main picture index.
If I don't mention the hotel/motel, it was pretty ordinary and not worth mention.
Day 1 - August 27th - Ft. Walton Beach -
Mostly passing through and ate in our hotel room at the Fairway Inn.
Day 2 - August 28th - Lafayette Louisiana -
Mostly passing through. We stayed at a Howard Johnsons
overnight and had a nice dinner at Masala Indian Kitchen.
Masala Indian Kitchen
- We had a lovely meal and the service was excellent. We had a bit of difficulty explaining what a 'vegan Indian meal' would consist of but they were able to accommodate us. When dining at Indian style restaurants, not all are vegetarian/vegan because they use a significant amount of dairy with yogurt dressings etc. So always ask. Also, some Indian Restaurants will 'Americanize' their menu to contaminate it with not so healthy ingredients. Our meal was a bit expensive but not all that bad!
Day 3 to 5 -August 29th to September 1st. - Houston Texas -
visiting Skip's friends of over 40 years. Houston was HOT and dry, very unusual weather for Houston which is normally warm and humid this time of year. We stayed with our dear friend Karen.
Green Seed Vegan
- This is a lovely small purely vegan establishment on the outskirts of Downtown Houston. We found it with Happy Cow and it was lovely, quaint and the food excellent. Very reasonably priced and service was great!
Thai Spice Cafe
- Located in the 'underground' of Houston's vast underground tunnel system under Two Shell Plaza, this lovely Cafe is a great place to find excellent vegan fare, mixed in with other not-so-vegan dishes. Food wad delicious and reasonably priced. Great place to stop while you explore (and maybe get lost) in the maze that is underground Houston.
- We ate several times at the Sweet Tomatoes just of the Katy Freeway in Houston. It was close to our friend's home where we stayed for several days. Thanks Karen!!! We found Sweet Tomatoes to be pretty consistent with their food but they will have variations depending on the part of the Country you are in. For instance, they had a wonderful black bean soup in Ft. Myers but it was not available in Houston. Houston did have several fully vegan selections which were all delicious!
Field of Greens
- We had an excellent lunch and vegan desert(s) here. They prepare everything fresh and it was delicious. Service is good and the venue lovely. Also, next door is a wonderful tea shop where you can select from hundreds (at least) of wonderful teas; they also have an internet cafe atmosphere at both locations.
- They are part of the Darden Restaurants group. They have a nice vegan sub-menu that changes with the season and availability of fresh ingredients. Perfect for dining with the non-vegans in your life. We had a lovely dinner with our host Karen and Skip's dear friend Phil. Phil is definitely not vegan (but we are trying) but Karen is working on it! <smile>!
Day 6-7- September 1st - Austin Texas -
We stayed at the Quality Inn
off highway 35 as it was on our route. I do not recommend this place. No luggage cart and little or no service. It was very loud and noisy all night as we didn't sleep well. they tried to put us on a upper level and with no elevator that was a definite non-starter. We made to but were happy to be out of there the next morning!
Mother's Cafe & Garden
- We again found this lovely resturant not far from our hotel with Happy Cow. What a wonderful place this turned out to be. We had both lunch and dinner here because it was so delicious and pleasant!
After a dreadful night at the Austin Quality Inn, we visited with Skip's dear/old friend of over 40 years Joe Schramm. Joe lives on the edge of Austin out in the beautiful country!
Day 8 - September 2nd - Abilene Texas -
just passing through. We stayed at the Abilene Country Hearth Inn,
which could use some work. It was ok but nothing to return to. The best feature was it's location right next to Natural Grocers!
- We arrived in Abilene a bit late in the day and were very tired. As I pulled into the hotel parking lot, Nancy exclaimed about the Natural Grocery right next door. We had never heard of this chain of groceries but soon after we unloaded and checked in, we visited this wonderful store. The selection of vegan items are extensive as are the fresh selection of vegetables and non-GMO products. We spent a lot of time talking to the manager, assistant manager and other employees and found them knowledgeable and extremely friendly and helpful. Great place to shop if you find you in your city/town!
We diverted due West to hit Roswell for a visit on our way to Santa Fe. I had originally planned to do a day trip from Santa Fe, but this seemed a more effective way to visit. If you think you will find that Roswell Alien Cafe, you won't; it is just a Hollywood concoction! We did visit the UFO Museum
in Roswell for a few hours. It was interesting, well kept and fun to see! We continued our travel up to Santa Fe!
Day 9 -12 - September 3 - 7 - Santa Fe New Mexico -
on our way, driving through West Texas and New Mexico visited Roswell New Mexico (aliens among us!).
- One of the best things about this pleasant hotel is that it is literally next door to a Natural Grocers! We were able to dine in most evenings and still enjoy delicious meals and deserts. Convenient location to all the local sites and easy access to freeways to see the outlying area.
Museum Hill Cafe
- Easily found on Milner Plaza between multiple world-class museums on Museum Hill. First you must visit the museums and the botanical gardens just across the way. The food here is good but selections are slim for vegan. We did have a delicious gazpacho soup for lunch.
- Again we found ourselves just down from, our now favorite, grocery store! We ate several meals in our room due to the closeness of this wonderful grocery (literally next door).
Oleacae Olive Oil
- Located just off the main plaza in downtown Santa Fe, this store is a MUST see place. We had never encountered such a wondrous selection of balsamic vinegars and oils; ever! The store offers tastings that you can explore for hours with the hundreds of available selections of finest Olive Oils, Balsamic Vinegars, and Sea Salts from the world over.
El Milagro Herbs
- Wonderful selection of herbs, ointments and oils. All natural and organic. Milagro Herbs wild harvests & cultivates quality medicinal plants from the deserts & mountains of the Western United States. We make quality organic and ethically wild crafted herbal extracts & body care products. We bought some natural bug repellents for our hiking journey.
- This lovely cafe had several wonderful vegan selections; but you have to ask for them to be prepared vegan. All fresh ingredients and delicious. Located on Canyon Road along the path of the marvelous art studios up/down Canyon Road. A must visit area of town to marvel and admire the beauty and artistry that is in Santa Fe.
Kakawa Chocolate House
- Historic drinking chocolates include traditional Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Mayan Aztec drinking chocolates; 1600's European drinking chocolates, Colonial American and Colonial Mexican drinking chocolates. ALmost next door to El Milagro Herbs, you must visit and partake of one/several of the deliciously drinks they have to offer. We bought several packages to keep with us on our journey and will order more from their web site.
San Miguel Church
- Not a tourist trap, instead just a wonderful old Catholic Church. No gifts shop but it IS the oldest church structure in the USA. Built by Tiaxcalan Indians from Mexico under the direction of Franciscan Padres. The church was built in 1610 with high windows and an altar screen. The screen was erected in 1798 offering more than just an amazing architectural feature, but also something one does not often see from history. There is a 780 pound San Jose bell which is located inside the church. The bell was cast in Spain in 1356 and later moved to Santa Fe. Among the other items to see at the church are the buffalo hide and deerskin Bible paintings. These things were used in Franciscan missionaries in the 1630's to teach Native Americans.
- A lovely old church near downtown Santa Fe. Unfortunately it was purchased by a commercial enterprise and is more of a tourist trap/attraction attached to one of the downtown hotels. San Miguel Church is much more impressive in it's simplicity as well as it's poverty.
El Santuario de Chimayo
- This lovely old church is just North East of Santa Fe. It is an easy stop on the way back from Taos through the National Forests. El Santuario de Chimayo was built in 1813 in the small community of El Potrero just outside of Chimayo. It was built in response to the discovery of a crucifix, Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas, in 1810 and subsequent miraculous occurrences. El Santuario de Chimayo is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world.
As you can see, we truly enjoyed our stay in Santa Fe and plan to return again!
The entire area is just wonderful to drive through. So much to do and see we wanted to return for a brief visit. One day, we will spend more time in the area. One of the things to see near Camp Verde is the Montezuma Castle National Monument,
one of the best preserved cliff dwellings in North America.
The drive south to Campe Verde then looping back North through Sedona is a wondrous drive. The 'red rocks' abound and are breathtaking to behold.
I will not attempt to describe the grandeur of the amazing place. Suffice it to say that the day started out cloudy/rainy but we decided to try to explore what we could. Driving up to the South Rim Visitors Center
was not hopeful. It was cloudy and we were told as we left our hotel, that there was nothing to see as the Canyon was totally covered in clouds. Well we went anyway and low and behold the clouds parted as if by magic and we spent the next several hours walking the Canyon rim and taking lots of pictures. The view was grand and was accented by the lovely cloud formations. We were able to watch into the afternoon as dense clouds once again flowed into the canyon and obscured it like a blanket of white/gray fluff. What a wonderful day we had! So never give up!
Grand Canyon Squire Inn
- While this is the most expensive accommodation we encountered it is a lovely hotel and has excellent service. Rooms are very large and accommodating. We ate in our room with supplies we carried with us. We found no vegan establishments in the area; but that isn't to say there aren't any.
Day 15 - September 10th - Las Vegas Nevada
The Riviera Hotel
- Taking a step back in time with this grand old hotel. You might imagine bumping to Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack in the hallway or casino. Still well kept, there are great deals to be had here. Many of the valet's were working there during it's heyday. It speaks well for a company who retains employees this long and well! That being said, checking in can be disastrous. The line was interminable and they did not have sufficient people working the desk; even if you had a prepaid reservation. Luckily, I spied an 'ATM-like' machine and while Nancy held our place in the long line, found that it was an automatic check in that would confirm your reservations and spit out fresh keys to your room. Why they don't let people know is beyond me but look to the immediate left of the check-in desk!
- Located just a couple blocks away from the Riviera, this is advertised as one of the best places to dine for vegan fare. The Sinatra Resturant
in the Winn Hotel, used prepackaged Gardein
products, tossed some sauce over them and sold the meal for 10 times what it costs in the grocery store for the same ingredients (we DO use Gardein
products frequently). The service was excellent and the staff very accommodating so if you are looking for ambiance rather than good food, Sinatra meets the requirement.
Zion National Park
- I cannot say enough about Zion. It is beyond description in its beauty and grandeur. You just have to see it, walk the trails and smell the scents. It is now one of our favorite places on Earth and we cannot wait to return!
We only had time to do one hike up the side of the mountain and behind the water falls but it was terrific!
Day 17 - September 12th - Salt Lake City and Temple Square
Royal Garden Inn - Downtown Salt Lake City
- We stayed here just one night. It is a much older property and in need of repair or refurbishment. After we were there for a while, we found out that downtown Salt Lake City was a bit notorious for gangs
. While we didn't have any problems at all, I think next time we will select a more reputable place to stay.
Temple Square and the Mormon Tabernacle
- I hadn't been back to Salt Lake City and Temple Square since about 1976. I had done a major Information Technology project for the LDS Church (Mormon Church) and had the opportunity to work and befriend a great number of wonderful people. Temple Square is much as I remembered but the old grand hotel, Hotel Utah
, where I stayed is now an office building. There are many more new buildings including the very impressive Conference Center
. The Salt Lake City Tabernacle
should definitely be on your list of stops. If you are lucky, you will get a chance to hear a full rehearsal of the fabulous Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Well, I hadn't really planned on visiting Jackson Hole but we missed a turn and figured, what the heck, lets go there! Yea we were heading North from Salt Lake City and I had intended to Stay in Idaho Falls but we kept going and ended up in Jackson Hole. I naively thought we could just find a nice little place but boy was I wrong! Turns out we were in the middle of the hiking season in the Tetons and everything was totally booked; well not the $1500 dollar a night places but everything else! Things looked bad; spending a night in our Smart Car was not in the plans.
I stopped at a Chevron station just on the outskirts of Jackson Hole and after checking our Smart phone apps found little we could afford. I bought some gas and a bottle of water and talked to a really nice guy behind the counter. He basically wished us luck but then mentioned a place he had worked and his sister worked right in Jackson Hole and suggested I call them and they might be able to refer us (I know this is long but worth it!).
We drove into the town; it was wall to wall cars and people along with a lot of major road construction. We found a quaint coffee shop to sit while I tried to figure things out. I call the place suggested, The Elk Country Inn. I talked to the manager and he apologized that they and everyplace was booked. Then as we chatted I mentioned it has just been our 28th wedding anniversary a few days prior (while we were in Las Vegas) and he commented that he recently also had an anniversary. Then he asked if we only needed a place for one night, I said yes and he said that he had a reservation but since it was now 4PM and no one had shown up he offered us the room. I grabbed it at $169/night!
Well, as it turns out, this was not only a room but a suite! Yea beautiful with a full kitchen, living room separate bedroom and great bath. They even gave us a box of candy at the check in! It was GREAT. So if you plan to stay in Jackson Hole, book EARLY and check out the Elk Country Inn
We didn't find any Vegan restaurants listed on Happy Cow so Nancy cooked in the lovely kitchen. The next morning when checking out, I mentioned this to the young folks at the front desk and there were able to provide a local newspaper with lots of listings for places that could server Vegan fare. Well next time, we will check them out!
After a lovely night and morning at the Elk Country Inn, we packed up and headed north into Yellowstone. We passed by the Tetons all along the way. We wanted to explore but time was the enemy; so next trip! We DO plan to return to Jackson Hole and The Elk Country Inn!
The drive through Yellowstone was lovely but the weather was a bit cool and cloudy. We had hoped to see a lot of wildlife but didn't see too much. We did see a heard of Elk in the distance but not too much close up.
We made the traditional visit to Old Faithful
and stood in the cold drizzle awaiting this historic site erupt once more; right on time!
We basically took a looping tour from Idaho Falls to Jackson Hole up through Yellowstone and back down the other side, returning to Idaho Falls for the night. We stayed at The Guesthouse Inn & Suites
Day 20 - September 15th - Baker City Oregon
On our way West to Oregon, we passed a sign on the road that pointed to something called Craters of the Moon national Monument. Well, we had never heard of that one, so we decided to explore a bit more! It was mostly on our way so why not!?!
Well, we learned a lot, not having realized that most of the Western USA is volcanic in origin and continues to be very active to this day; scarry huh? This park is not huge but has several caves to be explored by experienced spelunkers; not for the faint of heart. Be sure to bring your own flashlight! We attempted one cave but there was a major rock slide that you had to climb over and we were not dressed, equipped or prepared for that. We got down into the cave and up the the 30ft pile of rocks blocking the entrance to the back end but we opted for the safer route and backtracked.
The walkways through the park are paved and well marked. It makes for an interesting hike of a couple of hours or more. It gets HOT on those lava beds so bring plenty of water; especially in the summer. We were there in the fall and cool weather but the sun was out and hot and it gets sucked into the paved trail and lava flows.
After a long but rewarding drive we finally made it into Oregon and stayed overnight at The Knights Inn
. It was clean and pleasant but the room was quite small. Ground floor so that was nice and the managers were lovely and helpful!
We found a Safeway that had a lovely variety of fresh vegetables, fresh baked bread (no dairy) and we stocked up. We fixed dinner in our room as there was no Vegan dining to be had.
Day 21 - September 16th - Driving to Cannon Beach Oregon
The next morning we visited the Starbucks (inside Safeway) and filled up with gas for our final push to the West Coast.
Here, I have to make a comment. I thought I was going to be shot when I stopped at a gas station, got out and reached for the pump handle. I thought is really strange that the pumps looked like the same ones I had use in the 1960's but paid no attention. Well that is until the manager (turned out to be the owner) came running out yelling for me to get away from the pump!
Turns out that in Oregon, it is illegal to pump your own gas
. Remember those ancient Texaco commercials? Well it is like that in Oregon; they clean the windshield, pump the gas and sometimes check the tires (or offer to). Kind of stupid and wastes a LOT of time waiting but it is their State!
Leaving Baker City Oregon, we drove along Interstate Highway 84 which follows the beautiful Columbia River,
an experience in itself. We stopped at Bridal Veil Falls
, and walked up to the falls and spent a bit of time. This is a definite 'must see' stop if you are in the area. Beautiful dual cascading falls are breathtaking. Parking is across the way, under the railroad tracks and to the well furnished visitors center.
We pushed on leaving the Columbia River to Portland; driving straight though and missing much of the city traffic congestion. Portland is a nice city but we were here to see the Country! We had both had enough city stuff! We arrived at our destination, The Pacific Ocean at Cannon Beach!
During my trip planning and research I had sought out a place on or near the Pacific Ocean beaches. With some map research I found a small little town that looked perfect, Cannon Beach. I booked a reservation for a couple of nights hoping for the best; having no idea of what the area was like.
We struck GOLD at Cannon Beach and it is now one of our favorite places! Haystack Lodgings is a multi-property rental group. I booked at Blue Gull Inn
and found the place to be quaint, clean and just lovely. Our room was one of the smaller accommodations and we stayed only two nights. The place was fully booked so we had to move across the street to a larger and more fully equipped room with a full kitchen, the Sand Castle Inn.
Both were just a block off from the beautiful Cannon Beach and Haystack Rock
We had no idea of the beauty of this area, the Pacific Coast. We walked the beach every single night at sunset and took some marvelous pictures. The weather was grand, except for our last day. We took the opportunity to do a bit of laundry and cook some meals, make sandwiches and plan for continuing our journey back towards the East.
Dining and Exploring near Cannon Beach
Vegan fare is rare and not easy to find in/near Cannon Beach. We loved being able to cook/prepare our own meals and the luxury of a full refrigerator to store our vegetables and some vegan ice cream was great. We found a Safeway grocery store up the coast at Seaside Oregon
as well as Seaside Health Foods
. We shopped at both several times the week we stayed at Cannon Beach.
As we walked all over Cannon Beach, we would step in and review menu options in the many restaurants. Few had any vegan dining options. The one cafe that featured vegan choices was already closed for the season.
Adjacent to the North of Cannon Beach is a lovely State Park. It features well marked hiking trails and beach access for surfers (who don't mind the cold waters). We were extremely fortunate that on our way out of the park, a herd of Roosevelt Elk
were grazing in a clearing. A big Buck with a beautiful rack was nearby watching out for his herd. They were calm and allowed me to take some marvelous pictures up close and personal (well not that close).
One of our day trips out of Cannon Beach took us up the coast to Astoria and the Lewis & Clark National Park.
You can see the fort and river areas where Lewis and Clark ended their westward journey and explored the surrounding areas. There are nice trails to walk and river view.
The drive South down the coast from Cannon Beach to Manzanita is wonderful. There are numerous hiking trails (we didn't have time to check them out) that seemed to be well marked. There are several convenient coastal parking areas to view the magnificent Pacific Coast Beaches.
This friendly and family owned general grocery and deli is in the heart of the city of Manzanita. It is suprisingly well stocked with vegan friendly condiments and more. Naturally the deli was off limits and there wasn't anything in the 'dessert' catagory but some of our favorite salad dressings were available.
If you are driving South from Cannon Beach, be sure to visit. While the Manzanita Grocery & Deli is nice, Mother Natures Natural Foods is fantastic. Not a big selection of vegan cheese but a great variety of vegan choices. Great organic coffee bar with wide variety of drinks to choose from.
The only thing vegan on the menu was the portabello mushroom dish. We decided to give it a try. Lucky we did, it was amazingly delicious. Served in a large, very large, bowl the grilled mushrooms were topped with a large variety of sauteed vegetables (lots of garlic). The meal was just delicious. Unfortunately there was nothing on the desert menu that was even remotely vegan.
Walking around the shopping area, we couldn't help but smell the lovely scent of fresh baked pizza dough. We peeked in and checked the menu but as expected there was nothing remotely vegan. The next day, after shopping at the Seaside Health Food store and picking up some vegan mozzarella 'cheese' we went back and asked if they could prepare a vegan pizza with OUR cheese. They were a bit hesitant, not having a clue what we were talking about but agreed to try as long as the cheese package was still sealed (wise precaution!). Nancy went back to the kitchen and explained how and what ingredients to use and we enjoyed a quite delicious vegan pizza! If you stop by, bring your own cheese, they may remember us!
Leaving Cannon Beach was difficult to do; we loved it so. But we had to be moving on as there was so much more to see and do. Our last day at Cannon Beach was rainy and cool but it gave us a change to do laundry, prepare meals and sandwiches for the next few days. We didn't expect to find too many vegan restaurants for the next few days.
We too the Pacific Coast Highway (101) north to Astoria Oregon and crossed the bridge over to Washington State.. We headed East along the North side of the Columbia River on State Road 4, until we reached Longview Washington and 'The 5' and headed North.
On the North side of Lewis & Clark Washington State Park, we headed East on Washington 12, then North on 7 to Eatonville Washington for the night at the Mill Village Motel.
Eatonville is pretty much at the base of Mount Rainier. Unfortunately for us, it was rainy, cloudy and overcast while we were there so we never saw the majestic top of Mount Rainier.
The next morning, we got an early start with our lunches packed. While it was rainy and cloudy, we learned from our previous experience to not let that stop us. We persevered along the winding mountain roads seeking the upper reaches of the mountain. The road up the side of the mountain was very narrow in spots and we wondered how some of the big motor homes we had seen would have made it. But in our Smart Car we had no issues.
When we finally arrived at the Jackson Visitors Center, well up the side of the mountain, it had started to rain harder, mixed with a little sleet. We went inside and brought our sandwiches, which we ate with a cup of hot coffee from the visitors cafeteria. We watched a nice movie about the Mountain and talked to the very friendly park rangers. They advised that the upper reaches were expecting a lot of snow and advised us to proceed with caution. Well, since the weather and visibility was so poor, we decided to return to Eatonville and return another day. The drive back down the mountain was a bit harrier than the one up but we made it fine.
The next morning, after a good nights sleep, and on a rainy cold morning we departed and headed towards Glacier National Park. We stayed overnight in Spokane Valley, WA at a lovely Comfort Inn & Suites. I was able to enjoy the pool and hot tub that was realizing after an all day drive.
I had checked several times to determine if the road over the Glacier was open. The road was usually closed by October due to weather conditions. The USGS web site assured me that, while the road from East to West was closed, the way over the Glacier from West to East was open and clear.
After a long drive from Spokane Valley, we stayed overnight at the Travelodge in Kalispel. The road to Kalispel from Spokane was washed out in one place and it was a treacherous drive through mud and rocks over the partially open road; all the while large construction equipment was in operation. Only one lane of traffic through the area was allowed and there was a 'Follow Me' labeled car to escort one way traffic around and through the washed out area. This was one time I wish we had a 4 X 4 but our little trusty Smart Car had no trouble at all! Amazing really.
We finally arrived in Kalispel, safe but covered with mud. After checking in to our motel, I went to a do-it-yourself car wash I spied on the way into town. I managed to get most of the red clay/mud off the car so we could at least, once again, ascertain it's color! Our room was nice and just outside was a stacked washer/dryer we took advantage of to do some laundry. We found many of our accommodations along the way had convienient laundry facilities which encourages us to take much less on our next adventure!
The next morning, we awoke early to a fine drizzle but not too bad. We departed to head up the side of the Mountain to Glacier National Park. Our plan was to travel the 'Going to the Sun Road' over top of the Glacier and then South towards Butte Montana. When we arrived at the visitors center at Glacier National Park (near a lovely glacier lake), we found that the remainder of the road over the Glacier was closed early due to inclement weather. BUMMER. Nothing to be done but head back the way we came and pick up 83 South at Columbia Falls South to Butte Montana where we checked in to another Comfort Inn Suites.
Unfortunately, BOOKING.Com got our reservations messed up and it took a while to get things re-organized when we checked in. After a bit if 'fixing' we got a nice room and settled in for the night.
We didn't explore the area much but Butte seems like a nice town. When we arrived the previous night, I found a Safeway market. We had found that Safeway, out in the more Western States at least, had a nice variety of vegan choices in breads and fruit/vegetables. Butte, not so much. I guess the demand just isn't as prevalent to eat healthy in Montana.
We were suprised in the morning when we awoke to find it had SNOWED overnight. About 2 inches or so of fresh/wet snow had accumulated in the parking lot and all over our little Smart Car. We were not prepared for winter weather at all; even though we had purchased jackets in Oregon. No gloves so I about froze my fingers removing the snow from the car and our trailer/hitch/platform before loading up for the drive East. COLD it was but the roads were clear.
I have to say the early morning drive East from Butte was breathtaking. Cloudy/overcast with light snow flurries made the drive wonderful When we finally got down from the mountains a bit the weather cleared and warmed up but we were tempted to reverse course and drive back to the pristine white snow-covered trees, lands and mountain around Butte. We continued East passing through Billings Montana and Sheridan Wyoming to Rapid City South Dakota.
While we were on our drive towards Rapid City, a Face Book Friend asked if we were going to go to Devils Tower. Now I knew of this place from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind but didn't really know where it was and hadn't realized we were almost driving by (well 75 miles or so diversion) so we decided to divert so we could see what there was to see. So glad we did, it is pretty amazing and a unique geologic feature.
Day 31 - September 26th - Rapid City South Dakota
When we arrived at the Best Western Town & Country Inn, in Rapid City, there was not a microwave or refrigerator in the room as expected. When we mentioned this, the desk clerk grudgingly agreed to accommodate us. Not one of the better places to stay so I wouldn't recommend it. The room was clean but small and cramped. and we had to use the only table to hold the very small refrigerator and microwave they supplied. We didn't let this deter us, onward and upward. In the morning we were up early with a very full day ahead!
We arrived early, around 09:30 to Mount Rushmore. There was a parking fee of $11.00, but the parking garage was nice and multi-leveled adjacent to the Visitors Center. The place is pretty spectacular, once you get past all the shops and tourist traps. The stores are nice, clean and merchandise arranged nicely with friendly clerks to assist. Just as you walk in the entrance, to the right, there is a Park Ranger building where you can get your park stamp/stickers and information from the wonderful Park Rangers stationed there. Post cards are cheaper here too!
Needless to say, the views are spectacular and the information center has multiple theaters that show, almost continues movies, of how the monument was built/constructed. Amazing stuff how they blasted an entire mountain and carved Our Presidents images on it's face!
The weather was beautiful and we stayed a while to admire the view, but you can only stare at the mountain so long and take pictures. It was off to our next destination for the day: Custer State Park
This is a wonderful and huge State Park. We drove all the way through and it was marvelous. The 'Buffalo Roundup' was the day previous to our visit, so it was pretty calm and empty. The day was beautiful and we stopped many times along the way to take pictures, see the wildlife (buffalo, deer, antelope, wild turkey and more). The wild donkeys were not afraid of anything; one tried to kiss me through the window but I managed to roll up the window in time! Yea, it happened! We stopped at the buffalo pens where the roundup and corralled the park buffalo for vaccinations or whatever. While we were driving through a park ranger stopped and asked if we had seen a stray buffalo as there seemed to be a few missing. Well, we found them a bit later, roaming by the side of the road close enough to touch (but we didn't!... these guys were huge!). The road has a tunnel carved through one of the mountain passes that is one lane, so Honk before you enter! It is a glorious drive that we highly recommend!
This is a must see and totally awe inspiring. The grandeur and scope make Mount Rushmore pale in comparison. Once completed this will be a true Wonder of the Earth and is a sight to behold. It is TOTALLY NOT Government funded and depends on donations to keep the work going. Be sure to see the video/picture history of the site. The visitors center is great, well planned out and beautiful. Lots of great merchandise and you can even help yourself to a 'piece of the rock' just outside. There are plenty of smallish rocks from debris made by the blasting of the mountain. We kept a few! In 15 years, Crazy Horse's head should be completed so we plan to return then, if not before!
We did our best to get here before the last tour but missed it by 20 minutes. While we are not big on enclosed spaces, we wanted to try to see a cave on this trip. The one we attempted at Craters of the Moon National Monument
didn't go so well. We visited with the Park Rangers who explained a bit of what there was to see. It sounded great but we will have to try to return another day.
Day 32 - September 29th - Hot Springs South Dakota
After a very long, long day, we finally arrived at Hot Springs, South Dakota and our motel for the night, a Super 8. Nothing special about Super 8 but they were accommodating and a nice clean laundry facility and pleasant support staff!
The only notable about Hot Springs is the Mammoth Site
. After we packed up we decided to continue on and explore the Mammoth Site another day.
Day 33 - September 30th - Kearney Nebraska
Driving across Nebraska is long, flat and frankly pretty boring. The vast fields of corn and other crops sway in the breeze but for sightseeing, unless you are big into agriculture, not so much to see.
Day 34 - September 31st - Kansas City & Independence Missouri
I wanted to drop in to see an old friend so we went through Independence Missouri. Unfortunately, due to health reason my friend was unable to see us so we continues on to Branson Missouri by way of Hyw 7 through the beautiful hills/mountains of the Ozarks. It is a beautiful but winding up/down drive through small towns/villages.
We headed almost due South from Kansas City and drove through the beautiful Ozark Mountains. It was a winding and sometimes slow trip but well worth it. We traveled through small towns/villages on this two lane road. The forests and greenery were lovely.
We stopped for a short picnic lunch in Lake of the Ozarks. I had been there over 40 years previously when driving to Houston for College. Man, it has changed a LOT, all built up and no longer the small/quaint village on beautiful lake waters. We continued on South to Branson Missouri; a place we had talked about visiting for a long time.
We had booked ahead into the Surry Grand Crown Resort
. We got an amazing deal on a time-share apartment in this beautiful resort. Remember when you are in a tourist area, these time share resorts often have open rooms that they rent (sometimes free if you sit through a sales pitch!). Our room was terrific with a full kitchen, separate bedroom/bath and living room. It even had a stackable new washer/dryer (with soap!).
While we were there we found a pretty nice grocery store, Country Mart
, with nice fresh vegetables. Branson is much like many other entertainment cities but here it just is more down to earth and American. Vegan/Vegetarian food is scarce so like most other places, prepare to fix your own meals.
While walking around 'The Landing' in downtown Branson, we found a 'gourmet Mexican' resturant, Cantina Laredo. When we asked about a vegan meal, they really had no clue what we were talking about but upon looking at the menu, we saw an Enchilada De Avocado, which was an Avocado and artichoke enchilada topped with tomatillo sauce
on bed of spinach; we asked them to hold the cheese. Well it was really delicious but only one on the plate. A bit pricey for one enchilada we thought, but that's what you get when you eat in a tourist area!
We managed to see The Texas Tenors
( who almost won America's Got Talent a few years back) who are just really fantastic. They are talented and friendly. We stuck around and got their autograph and picture and they were just really nice young men! What a nice change from the horrors of those Hollywood types.
The next day, we did a double header. For the afternoon matinee, we saw the Twelve Irish Tenors
. Good singers and a decent show but nothing I would go back to see again.
That same evening, we went to see Soji.
We were told by several friends that we should see him and his theater. He is just not a performer but owns the theater too. The Men's room is something to behold (see pictures). While I don't usually take pictures in men's rooms this one will blow you away. A full billiard parlor adjoins with attendant! The bathroom is gaudy, functional and very large. The show wasn't bad either.
Day 38 - October 4th - Memphis Tennessee -
Nancy and I (especially Nancy) have been Elvis fans since we were kids so entering Tennessee, it was a must to stop in Memphis and visit Graceland
! We booked a nice room with Homewood Suites that had a small but functional kitchen.
Be prepared for possible lines and a pretty expensive entry fee. But, you only need to go once! It is a grand old mansion. The front grass really needed some tending too but it may have just been the fall weather. The house is pretty much as Elvis left it. No admission to the upstairs is allowed to anyone; no special tours. The place is large but gaudy by today's standards. Full of, what are now, antiques the place is well maintained and interesting.
This was pretty much the end of the trip except for the drive home.
Day 39 - October 5th - Montgomery Alabama
The drive was pleasant and mostly interstate highway. We stayed at Home Inn & Suites for the night before continuing on to Gainesville, Florida and the University of Florida to visit Jacob Peek
, our oldest Grandson.
Day 40 - October 5th - Gainsville Florida
On our way home, we wanted to stop by the University of Florida (Gainsville) and visit our oldest Grandson, Jacob Peek
. He is a freshman and living on-campus in a dorm. He always needs a few things and we wanted to see how he was doing!
We booked a room at Extended Stay America, just off the Univeristy of Florida campus. The place was older and could use some work but it was reasonably clean and at least close to where Jake was in his campus dorm. It is located across from a Publix grocery store so we could pick up a few things to leave with Jake and for ourselves. Our supplies were low but we would be home soon!
Day 41 - October 6th - Home Again - Orlando Florida
The drive from Gainesville to Orlando seemed longer that it truly was but MAN, was it good to get home!!
The END? Not Really - Just the Beginning!!!