Monday, March 14, 2016

2016 Goal - Explore Iowa's 27 State Parks: Visit #1 - The Mines of Spain Recreational Area

Having lived in Iowa practically my entire life, I decided that it was time for me to explore the natural beauty this state has to offer. As most of my friends will tell you, when I set out to do something, I usually have a goal, and I complete that goal (I suspect that's the "engineer" in me). 

So, for 2016, I have set the goal to visit and explore all 27 of the Iowa State Parks. Yes, that works out to averaging about one park every two weeks for the entire year. And those of you know the Winters in Iowa will understand that if I am going to complete this goal, there will be several weeks when I will be checking out more than one park!

To begin my quest, I decided to select The Mines of Spain State Recreational Area, just south of Dubuque. The earliest known inhabitants of the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area were the Mesquakie Indians. From this site, the Indians carried on a fur trade with French voyagers, and worked the lead mines for many decades dating back to before the Revolutionary War. Julien Dubuque, credited as being the first European to settle on what is now Iowa soil, received a land grant from the Governor of Spain who resided in New Orleans at the time. The grant gave him permission to work the land owned by Spain, and specified the 189-square mile area to be named as "Mines of Spain". (Julien Dubuque eventually married Potosa, daughter of the Mesquakie Indian Chief, Peosta).

The park offers fine settings for a family or company picnics. Visitors can also enjoy the outdoors, experience the E.B. Lyons Nature Center, hike the many trails and enjoy the natural vistas at the park, overlooking the Mississippi River. 

There are two entrances to the Park, The North side entrance is accessible from Hiway 61S using the Grandview Ave. exit and Julien Dubuque Drive to Mines of Spain Rd. I chose the southern entrance which is also accessible using Hiway 61S, but travelling a few miles further, turning on Hiway 52 South and exiting on Olde Massey Rd..

Entering on the south side gives you the opportunity to drive thru the "prairie" section of the recreational area, scoping out the various trails and natural sites available to explore. My first stop was at the Julien Dubuque Monument, grave site of Julien Dubuque. Located on a edge of the bluff above Catfish Creek and the Mississippi River, this historic location provides insight into the 1st European to settle in Iowa, and incredible views of the City of Dubuque and the mighty Mississippi River. I picked a great day, as the sky was clear blue, and little to no breeze.

Hoping to hike the park from one end to the other, I found the 1st (and closest) trail - The Julien Dubuque Trail. Recently constructed, this trail was only 0.6 miles long, but with a steep descent from the monument to a parking area and bike trail from the City of Dubuque. The trail, was a bit muddy and rocky, but easy to navigate. I had hoped I'd find another trail head at the bottom, but no such luck. So, I retraced my tracks back to the top of the bluff, and hopped back in the car to find my next trail. 

A short drive down from the bluff, I came upon the Catfish Creek Canoe Access point and the Catfish Trail. This trail followed along side Catfish Creek for approximately a mile before climbing up the hillside to some wooded bluffs overlooking the Creek. This trail would follow along the top of the hill, until eventually dropping back down to the start of the trail and the parking area. The 1st mile was a simple, quiet stroll along the Creek, while the last portion, climbing up to the bluffs, "burned a few calories" and convinced me to stop at the top to enjoy the view (and catch my breath).

By now, the crisp morning had turned into a perfect day - temps in the low 60's and a light breeze. Time to shed a layer, and move on to my next trail - The Horseshoe Bluff Nature Loop. Looking to do some climbing, and check out the great vistas from these bluffs, I headed up the North end of the Loop (fairly steep initial climb), and was greeted with another great view of the City of Dubuque and the Mississippi. Behind me, looking to the South, was Horseshoe Bluffs. This was a really interesting area. There was a huge bluff overlooking the river, and another bluff to the West, which looked down to the parking area, the wetlands, and the picnic areas along the road. In between was this amazing "canyon", which opened up on the South end to the Wetland Trail and Observation Deck, at river level.  I descended to the canyon floor, wandering through a "mini-forest" of evergreens, and surprisingly, a small amphitheater in the middle. While down there (only one in the canyon), some hikers on top of the bluff began yelling into canyon. It was amazing to hear the loudness of the echo off  the bluff's rock walls.. pretty cool!

Reaching the end of the canyon, I came upon the wetlands area, an ideal sanctuary for waterfowl, frogs, and fish.  The trail I was on suddenly turned from rock to grass, and wandered along the side of the marsh, until ending at the base of another bluff on the south side. Rather than retrace my steps, I worked my way down to the railroad tracks along side the Mississippi, and followed the tracks back upstream about a quarter mile before connecting back to the Horseshoe Bluff Trail. (Editor's note - You never can see enough of the Mississippi River, and everything that happens on and around it!).

Rather than wander the trail along the Wetlands back to the parking area, I decided to loop back up thru the Canyon, following a different path and see if I could find a trail to the top of the Bluffs. The 1st "path to the top" I came upon looked "doable" and a good challenge. However, noting it was still a bit muddy and fairly steep, I opted to use my good sense and skip this trail.... maybe next time.

Upon reaching the North end of the canyon, and climbing back up to the observation point, I found a somewhat hidden, beaten down path leading to the top of the Western Bluff, most likely where I heard the other hikers yelling into the canyon. Time to explore!  This trail was not well used, so I was a bit apprehensive at the beginning. However, once on top and able to see the views, it was definitely worth the effort. Incredible views showing the expanse of the canyon as well as the Bluffs along the River, and the Mississippi itself.

At this point, I descended down the bluff to the wetlands trail, and made it back to the Parking area. With almost 5 miles of hiking completed (in addition to my daily morning 4 mile walk this morning), it was time to call it a day. The legs were "feeling it". 

The 1st of my Iowa State Parks visits had come to an end. Having only explored three of the Park's ten trails, I can see a return trip to Mines of Spain in my future. Enjoying a beautiful March day seeing amazing sites along the Mississippi River, learning about the history of the Mines of Spain, and getting in some great exercise without even knowing it... now that's a good visit!

Time to start planning my Iowa State Park visit #2!

(The following are other photos taken during my Mines of Spain Recreational Park visit)

Sunday, February 28, 2016

2015 - The National Parks Adventure

Let's see... in 2013 we ventured into South Dakota to explore the Black Hills, Badlands, and Deadwood. 2014 was the year of "getting our kicks on Route 66", traveling the historic route West from St. Louis and experiencing the amazing sights of the Southwest.

With many more areas of this continent left to explore, it was time to check out some of America's wonders - our National Parks. Knowing we aren't getting any younger, we decided that this was a good time to dust off our hiking shoes, and truly experience the natural wonders in the Northern Rockies.

Our itinerary was as follows:

Almost 4,000 miles behind the wheel, and ten full days of activity on the schedule. But we were ready to do it!

Days 1 and 2 - Driving West thru the Northern Plains

The 1st two days of the trip found us smack dab in the middle of the Northern Plains, and traveling almost 1200 miles through Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. Our trip was scheduled to happen 10 days BEFORE the 75th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, SD, thinking we would avoid the masses on their annual pilgrimage (Based on the hundreds of motorcycles, motorhomes, and trailers we passed enroute, the estimates of 1 million visitors for the Rally seemed to be realistic).
Not much to stop and check out along the route to Rapid City, South Dakota. On our visit to the Black Hills two years earlier we missed stopping at a tourist "mainstay" - The Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD. As we arrived, it was raining, and work was underway on the building. So we did a "drive-by", and hopped back on the road. The other big tourist attraction on I-90 on the way to Rapid City is Wall Drug. Our 2013 trip to the Badlands included a visit to this iconic location, so we kept heading West. 

Our 1st day ended with beer and pizza at the Independent Ale House in downtown Rapid City, wandering Art Alley (an alley with walls and dumpsters painted by local artists), and the obliglatory ice cream! First day totals - 900 miles and 9 hours on the road.

Day Two had us the road by 6:30. Our travels took us past Sturgis, SD early. With more than a week before the Rally, farm fields, vacant lots, most store fronts were already filling with campers and bikers.... an amazing sight!

From Sturgis, we traveled 250 miles further West and made a stop at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument east of Billings, MT. If you are ever in the area and someone who loves to learn about our Nation's history, make this stop! We grew up hearing about Custer's Last Stand, and envisioning what that must have been like. The views of the landscape and the sight of many small, white headstones located across the countryside (where remains were identified) leave a lasting impression of what the battle must have been like. The history from both Army and the Indian perspectives was amazing.

Knowing we still had another 280 miles to our second overnite in Great Falls, MT, it was time to move on. The remaining drive thru the high plains of Montana was uneventful, but with plenty of views of the wide open spaces.

We arrived in Great Falls, thirsty and hungry, so our 1st stop was The MacKenzie River Pizza Company, located on the banks of the Missouri River. Two beers, and a bowl of Buffalo Chicken Mac n' Cheese (good stuff!) hit the spot. Before heading to the hotel we did some wandering of Great Falls, including River Drive, the Black Eagle Dam, and downtown Great Falls. 2nd Day totals - 550 miles and over 9 hours on the road.

Days 3 - Headin' to the Mountains

Finally, our first vacation destination was in reach. Our early morning drive to reach Glacier National Park would take approximately 2-12/ hours (~160 miles). With rain forecast in the area our plans for the day were a bit up in the air. Additionally, we were informed that our planned drive on "Going to the Sun" Road thru Glacier National Park was out due to forest fires near St. Mary Lake. We had to at least visit the East side of the park (and road), so headed up MT 89 to the town of St. Mary, and the Glacier National Park Visitors Center (Note the haze in the background). After grabbing some photos, park literature, and of course the obligatory restroom stop, we planned our alternate Day 3 plans. Being on the East side of the park, and the fact that there are only two ways across the Park, with the Northbound route (Going to the Sun Road) being closed, we decided to take on our planned Day 2's activity - hiking around Two Medicine Lake

Another hour in the car on winding roads (and a SLOW tour bus which should NOT have been on that road), and we arrived at the Two Medicine Lake Ranger Station. The rain had not started, but the clouds were low, and temps were in the 50's. Time to do some hiking!

This was Sue's 1st time hiking in the wild, so the plan was a leisurely 7-8 mile hike around the lake. The parking lot was almost filled with cars, so we anticipated many fellow hikers. With our backpacks loaded with energy bars, water, first aid kit, and rain coats, we headed out. 

About a mile in, we ran into our 1st wildlife siting - a Mule train... Always heard about these, but didn't think they still existed... they do! They disappeared quickly, as did the other hikers that started out around us. The trail passed thru wooded areas, small meadows and wetlands. It was clear that, that the 1st 2-3 miles of the trail was heavily used. The further we hiked, the trail started narrowing, and feeling of being alone in the woods became more real. It was my type of hiking! 

Our 1st (of three) creek crossings was on a suspension bridge. I say 1st, as we would end up crossing Aster Creek three times, and the trail is intended to only cross it once... Yes, we made a "wrong turn", and not only had to cross this bridge a second time, but also crossed it via the "horse crossing trail". Thanks to a nice couple we came upon (after feeling pretty good we made it across the creek on a couple downed trees), we learned we were heading back toward our starting point!

After our 2nd crossing we got back on the trail toward the West End Boat Dock on Two Medicine Lake.

The trail became more and more overgrown - a sign that the number of hikers in this are was limited.... And alot of berry plants, which we learned were Huckleberry plants. As we passed a forest service guide, who was explaining huckleberries as a main staple of the bears in the area, the couple who got us pointed in the right direction also informed us that this trail had been closed the previous week "due to grizzly bears in the area". OK, now Sue is on alert for the rest of the hike.

The trail finally began to descended down to the Lake, and the drop-off point for the lake cruises (in the photo you can barely see the dock along the shoreline).

1st time in 2+ hours of hiking 4 miles, we  finally took a break. One thing I have learned hiking - do not stop for long periods, or you'll have a hard time getting going again!

After an energy bar, some water, and a chat with a kayaker (who earlier had kayaked from the ranger station to the West end, and who was not looking forward to the trip back due to the increased winds), Sue and I began the trek back - along the North side of Two Medicine Lake.

The 6-7 mile hike I explained to Sue was now at least 8, to get back to the car. The weather was starting to change, with some light drizzle and breeze. Our pace was a bit quicker now, knowing we had another hour or so of hiking ahead of us. The terrain was a bit more "up and down" so we definitely were getting an indoctrination into mountain hiking.

After over 11 miles of hiking (approximately 5 hours), the end of the path finally was in site. Despite some weary legs, there was a definite sense of accomplishment finishing our "1st hike". Sue was was not talking "divorce", and was actually smiling when she saw the end of the trail!

With another 100 miles of driving ahead of us, we packed our gear in the Santa Fe, and headed west to Kalispell. Not having the energy to seek out a unique dining spot, we headed to the MacKenzie River Pizza  - Kalispell. We needed our "comfort  food" - pizza and beer. Since we couldn't drive the "Going to the Sun Road", I opted for the Great Northern Brewing Company craft beer of the same name, so I could say I experienced "Going to the Sun".

Third day totals - 300 miles, 5-1/2 hours on the road, and 11 miles (5 hours) on the trails.

Day 4 - More Hiking in Glacier National Park near Lake McDonald

Our second (and last) day in Glacier National Park was a bit more relaxed than our hiking yesterday. Plans were to hike up to Avalanche Lake, and on our way back, check out the Trail of the Cedars wheelchair accessible nature trail. The day was similar to Day 1 in Glacier, with clouds and some on and off mist. But a perfect day to be hiking temperature wise!  

The hike to Avalanche Lake was approximately 5 mile round trip. The trail starts out following Avalanche Creek, with some spectacular views of crystal clear water crashing Avalanche Gorge. The trail then heads up into the forest, passing sights of past avalanches from Mt. Cannon. The trail was nearly deserted on our way up (yep, there's an advantage to those early morning starts). 

After a couple miles of hiking, the woods begin to thin, and we broke out into an opening, showing us our 1st glimpse of Avalanche Lake, and the incredible views of Bearhat and Little Matterhorn Mountains. The The end of the lake is filled with hundreds of downed trees which leave an amazing scene of past destruction. The trail continues to wind up the side of the lake, offering several spots to soak in the beauty of the surroundings. We opted to take the trail to the very end, at the Northern edge of the lake. Here we could look back over the entire valley as well as the lake. It was amazing how deep you could see into the water.
By now, the trail was coming alive with literally dozens and dozens of hikers (it was a Sunday). It was time to work our way back down the same trail. It is so interesting to see the look on the hikers faces as they huffed and puffed their way up the trail as we had done an hour or so earlier. Most were excited to see what lies ahead, but there were some who obviously were not as enthused about all this exercise they were having to partake in! Of course we had to take some photos on the way back, capturing another successful hike in Glacier National Park!

The trailhead for The Trail of the Cedars was near the start, and we hopped on the boardwalk to check it out... The trail, only one mile long, is a great hike to get the full experience of the maritime climate of the Pacific Northwest, and to see the magnificent western hemlock and cedar trees. The boardwalk also enables everyone easy access to many of the great scenes we saw on our hike to Avalanche Lake.

By noon, the park and the trails were bustling with sightseers. With our eleven miles hiking yesterday and 6 today, we figured we were entitled to some sightseeing via the comfort of our Santa Fe. The Going to the Sun Road from Lake McDonald to the Loop Trailhead had been opened, as fire containment was growing. So we headed out on the scenic drive. The views from the road were indescribable. Imagine having to traverse thru these lands back before the invention of the automobile. Simply amazing!

It was time to begin our hour long drive back to Kalispel for our last night in the area. Of course after learning about Huckleberrys while on our 1st day hike, we had to make a stop at one of the local stores to check 'em out. The Huckleberry Patch in Hungry Horse, MT had "all things Huckleberry"! Jellies, jams, chocolates, syrups, candles, and of course Huckleberry souvenir apparel. What's a vacation with out a stop at a local souvenir store!

Still having some daylight time left (and knowing the only shopping Sue had done on our trip was in a Huckleberry souvenir store), we headed to Big Fork, MT, near Flathead Lake. This small town is similar to Galena, IL, a thriving tourist town, with many specialty shoppes and art galleries to explore. Amazingly, we made it out of there with ZERO purchases!  But it was a nice place to visit!

After heading back to Kalispel, Day 4 wrapped up with dinner at a local favorite - Hop's Downtown Grille for a one of Montana's best burgers.. and some beers! This trip is becoming one of our best ever!

Fourth day totals - 130 miles, 3 hours on the road, and 6 miles (4 hours) on the trails.

Day 5 - On the Road again... to Yellowstone

The experience at Glacier was amazing! We could have explored this Park for another week and not even touched a fraction of the sites. It definitely is on our "must visit again" list. But our trip now turned to exploring Yellowstone National Park. This meant a day of driving (370+ miles) South to West Yellowstone, MT - our hotel location for the next couple days. Being one to explore, we hopped on one of the back highways leading south out of Kalispel to view some of Montana's scenery. We weren't disappointed. We took the Darryl Soltesz Memorial Hiway past Swan Lake and Seely Lake, before hopping on I-90 near Missoula, MT. With our early morning start, the colors along the lakes were amazing. NOTE: to take advantage of these beautiful back roads adventures, MAKE SURE you limit your coffee/fluids intake.... not many rest stops along this route!

Knowing we would make it to West Yellowstone early, we opted to detour to the East and enter Yellowstone thru the North Entrance, near Gardiner, MT and Mammoth Hot Springs, where the Park Headquarters and Historic Fort Yellowstone are located.  We used this stop to pick up park information on this area as well as our upcoming wanderings in the rest of Yellowstone. Mammoth Springs is also home to the the namesake hot springs terraces, This is our first exposure to the geothermal activity underneath most of Yellowstone. Incredible sights of steam, boiling water, and amazing colors from the minerals from the terraces just outside the town. 

A short drive from there we stopped at the Norris Geyser Basin for a walking tour of the area. A boardwalk lead us down to the main basin where the smell of sulphur engulfed you while taking in the steam and boiling water in several small geysers. The landscape was dotted with many dead trees and pools of water filled with microscopic life... one of the most extreme environments I have ever witnessed. 

Time to head to West Yellowstone, and get checked in for the next two days. Despite assuming a "day of driving" from Glacier to Yellowstone, we were able to witness some of the beauty of Montana, and have a taste of what was in store for us exploring Yellowstone National Park. 

Fifth day totals - 460 miles, 9 hours on the road, and 4 hours sightseeing.

Day 6 - Hikin' Yellowstone....

Day 6 was to be our "major hike" day for our time in Yellowstone. The Park has tons of hiking trails to choose from. But I was looking for a major hike to undertake so we headed to the Northeastern section of the Park, near the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and the Lamar Valley, and set our sights on Mt. Washburn. Mount Washburn (ele. 10,243 feet), offers panoramic views of about 20 to 50 miles (32 to 80 km) in all directions. During July, wildflowers carpet the slopes. The hike, which was approximately 6.5 miles round trip following the trail which starts from the Dunraven Pass trailhead.

With bear spray in (Sue's) hand, we headed off. It was a gorgeous morning - clear blue skies, mid-50's and no wind. Originally a stagecoach route, the trail prohibits motorized vehicular travel. The parking lot only had one car in it when we took off, so we knew we were pretty much on our own. 

The higher we climbed, the more spectacular the views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Hayden Valley. The trail was easy to walk, but with the elevation climb, we definitely were puffing, and warming up quickly. At the top was the Mt. Washburn Summit and one of three fire lookout stations in Yellowstone. There is an alternative route to the top - Chittenden Road, which approaches from the opposite side of the mountain. The views on this route are primarily of Hayden Valley, and not as spectacular, but will allow vehicular travel, including biking.

When we reached the top, we were greeted by a National Park Ranger, who resides in the lookout station from May until early October. The lookout had a residence quarter, and observation area (with restrooms), and the actual lookout station. We hung out there for about 30 minutes, during which we were joined by at least 5 or 6 others who had made the trek. Like us, most were happy to see the top, and recover form the climb!

About 10:30 am, we began our walk back down. As expected, it was much easier, and afforded us a better opportunity to enjoy the views. The number of hikers had considerably increased, and by the time we reached the parking lot at the trail head, cars were "waiting" to find a parking spot! 

RECOMMENDATION: Start EARLY to enjoy the peacefulness and beauty of the natural surroundings. 

With 6+ miles of hiking behind us, we decided to relax a bit and take the drive thru Lamar Valley (via the Grand Loop Road). This river valley, bookended by mountain ranges, is home to herds of elk, bison, grizzlies, several packs of wolves, and a variety of bird species. Accessible via car year-round, this valley is a prime location for wildlife viewing - especially during the early morning or late evening hours. We weren't disappointed, as on our drive we were greeted by a bison heard crossing the road. If you are looking for sights of historic Yellowstone, this is the road to take!

It was time to head back to the Southwest and checkout the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Its just as you would imagine, a huge canyon gorge that the Yellowstone River passes thru. The Park provides a walking trail and scenic overlooks which give you spectacular views of the gorge, the Upper and Lower Falls, and historic spots such as Artist's Point, supposedly the location where the famous painter Thomas Moran sketched his 1872 depictions of the falls. 

This area, by the time we reached it (~1:00pm), was filled to capacity with visitors and tour busses. After having spent a quiet morning hiking Mt. Washburn, being in the midst of hundreds of tourists took away some of the excitement of the exquisite views. But its definitely a "must see".

With the afternoon winding down, it was time to head back to West Yellowstone for much needed nourishment and some relaxation at The Buffalo Bar. We enjoyed a couple beers and loaded nachos, on their outdoor patio, unwinding after a great day of hiking and sightseeing!

6th day totals - 170 miles, 4 hours on the road, 4 hours hiking and 4 hours sightseeing.

Day 7 - Old Faithful and the Road to Jackson, Wyoming

Day 7 was our last day in Yellowstone before heading south through the Grand Tetons enroute to Jackson, Wyoming. A trip to Yellowstone is not complete without seeing "Old Faithful" and Lake Yellowstone. Our "usual" early morning start once again provided us with some amazing views of nature. Our route took us thru the Lower Geyser Basin, and past the Grand Prismatic Spring. The views, with the clear blue morning skies, and the steam rising from the geysers were spectacular!  While walking the boardwalk at the Grand Prismatic Spring a photographer was taking shots of a young lady, using the the steam plums and awesome colors of the geyser pools. Of course, I couldn't resist doing the same with "my tour guide"!

Wanting to be able to check out Old Faithful up close, we arrived early at the Old Faithful attraction a little before 8:00am. Yes, other than a handful of people, we had the attraction to ourselves!  Old Faithful, is truly that - "faithful" in its schedule of eruptions, which allowed us to explore Old Faithful Inn (constructed in 1904, and the World's largest log structure), get some coffee and find the perfect viewing area.

The actual eruption was as you have seen in many videos. What made it even more special was to feel the rumble, and the sound of spewing water... oh, and the "oohs and ahhhs" from the hundreds of spectators who now packed the boardwalk... for this 8:20am eruption.
With the wonder of today's smartphones, we captured the eruption in a video. Just think about what is going on here... this is the release of boiling water and steam as a result of  volcanic heat, from a chamber 50 feet below the surface. This occurs 17 times daily, and is one of only 1,000 that exist in the world! Pretty amazing!

After the eruption, we wandered the paths/boardwalk around Old Faithful, which allows visitors a closeup of many, many other ponds and small geysers surrounding the main attraction. Another "must see" at Yellowstone.

One last stop in Yellowstone was at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Cabins, along the shoreline of Yellowstone Lake. Opened in 1891, this Hotel has the stately lobby, complete with stone fireplace, large leather chairs and sofas, and exquisite views of the lake. Looks like a great place to kick back with a book, or just relax and enjoy the views.

Our time at Yellowstone had come to an end. Our next stop was an overnight  in Jackson, WY, but not until our drive thru the Grand Teton National Park. With our schedule, we didn't have enough time to do some hiking in the Tetons, but the drive was definitely worth the time. We followed Hiway 191 (John D. Rockerfeller Jr. Parkway, from Yellowstone to Jackson). Epic views of the Teton Mountains were abundant all along the drive. However, the best view we found was during our stop at
Jackson Lake Lodge. Overlooking Jackson Lake, with the Grand Tetons in the background, this lodge, built in 1950, offers the majestic lobby with floor to ceiling windows, and a stone patio to enjoy the view outdoors. Of course, we couldn't resist stopping and enjoying "a refreshment" while soaking in the views.

For our overnite stay, we selected Jackson, WY, a mainstay for skiers visiting Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Ski area. The town, typifies ski towns of the West, with several upscale galleries, apparel and jewelry stores. But the town also offers several great eateries and establishments to unwind with a few refreshments and a great meal. The city square is a gathering point for many visitors, with the unique "antler arches" at the entrances. Horse drawn carriage rides are also available. Its definitely a great "people watching" spot!

We ended Day 7 with a mexican dinner and a margarita (or two) at a restaurant off the Square. Another great day on our trip!

7th day totals - 130 miles, 3 hours on the road, 3 hours of sightseeing/exploring.

Day 8 - Back Roads thru the Rockies

Day 8 began our journey back toward Iowa, but not before we do some exploring of the Rockies, Estes Park and Boulder, CO. Leaving Jackson, we opted to avoid the interstate hiways, and explore some of the back roads on the West side of the Rockies. A lot of open plains for the 1st couple hours of driving (Definitely had to plan our "pit stops" during this part of the drive!). The route passed thru Steamboat Springs, Grandby, and followed Trail Ridge Road, through Rocky Mountain National Park. Since our drive was over 500 miles, our sightseeing was mostly from the car, or quick stops along the way. Probably the most interesting section was on the drive over Milner Pass, and the Alpine Visitors Center (Elev. 11,400ft). Being one of the main routes across the Rockies North of Denver, the drive over the pass became really crowded, as we came upon wildlife near the Visitors Center. But that was a good thing, allowing us to enjoy the views of the Rockies. 

Our overnight was in Estes Park, CO, home of the infamous Stanley Hotel, where the movie "The Shining" was filmed. Not being one to pass up a well known attraction, we had to check it out. To our dismay, only guests are able to access the actual hotel. So we grabbed a quick photo at the entrance.

A lot of driving for Day 8, but we were able to see the western plains of Colorado, and Rocky Mountain National Park.

8th Day Totals - 575 miles, 11 hours on the road, and 1 hour of sightseeing/exploring.

Day 9 - Rocky Mountain ATV'ing... and shopping

The last day of our vacation before the long drive back to Iowa. To end the trip with a bang, we scheduled an ATV rental, which we could use on the trails of the Rockies near Estes Park. Of course, we did this 1st thing, and were at Estes Park ATV Rentals in downtown Estes Park when the doors opened at 7:45am. After getting fitted for helmets, and watching a 10 minute safety and ATV operational video, it was time to head out to the site of our ATV experience. Located about 20 miles south of Estes Park, we joined 4 -6 other couples/groups, jumped in our 2 person ATV, and headed up the trail. The area was setup to drive any of the trails noted on our map for up to 3 hours. We were one of the 1st out of the start area, which was good, as the trails became VERY dusty with 6 ATVs on the trails. This was Sue's 1st time on an ATV on the mountains. After about 30 minutes of my driving the rocky, and rutted trails, it was time for my "tour guide" to jump behind the wheel, and "go 4-wheelin'"! Rockin' the camo helmet, after a few minutes getting used to the controls and learning how to attack the rocks and mud puddles, we were flyin' down the trails with a cloud of dust behind us. 

Our riding lasted about 90 minutes, at which time we decided we had consumed enough trail dust for the day. Once back at the starting area, we handed over our stylish helmets, and traded our ATV for our air conditioned SUV, for our journey to Boulder, CO. Time to complete the trip ... with some shopping!

Entering the downtown Boulder area, we ran into massive traffic delays. Guess what, Boulder was hosting the IRONMAN Boulder Triathlon, a qualifying race for the World IRONMAN Triathlon. The race started and ended in Downtown Boulder, and thus the traffic delays. With a little planning we were able to skirt the race route and slip into a parking space near the Hotel Boulderado, a few blocks from the downtown pedestrian mall (and the start/finish line for the Triathlon). 

To acclimate myself from all the exploring of natural wonders we had done to "shopping", we stopped to enjoy a beer on the patio at the Hotel Boulderado (can you see the excitement in my face??). After the dusty trail riding, the beer was just what the doctor ordered. 

From here, with a couple block walk, we entered the mass of humanity shopping the pedestrian shopping mall area, which also had the race finish line along side. It was mid afternoon, so we headed over to check out the scene at the finish... People were gathering, as the announcer described the race leaders locations from the finish. 

OK, I couldn't delay the inevitable... time unleash Sue on the stores of Downtown Boulder. Her 1st stop was "Fresh Produce"... not quite sure I understand the relationship of the store name and the fact that they sold women's apparel, but hey, I found a place to sit outside! I then did some wandering to kill some time. One of the interesting stores was Mile Hile Pipes - Underground, a popular place with the recent change in marijuana laws in Colorado.

After about an hour, Sue agreed that it was time for a bite to eat, and we ended our Downtown Boulder adventure with a late afternoon dinner at The Lazy Dog Sports Bar & Grill. 

Time to head out and find our hotel for the evening. Day 9 of our trip gave us one last day of outdoor adventures and ended with our transition back into civilization with some shopping! Tomorrow, its back to Iowa and the end of our 10 day getaway.

9th Day Totals - 100 miles, 2 hours on the road, and 6 hours of sightseeing/exploring.

Day 10 - The Long drive back and reminiscing...

Now anxious to get home and get our dog Chester out of the kennel, We took off at 6am and headed for I-76 East and I-80 back to Iowa. Looking back on this trip, one thing that is clear, America has amazing beauty and incredible areas of adventure. Being our 1st trip to this country's National Parks, and 1st time hiking the wilderness, we are now looking forward to exploring (and hiking) more National Parks in our future getaways. If you have never been out West to experience this natural beauty, begin planning your trip soon. Once you go, you will be hooked too!

Oh, and if you are of that "Senior" age, and qualify for a Senior Pass to the National Parks, GET ONE! They are only $10 at any National Park Entrance ($20 via mail). That's $10 for a LIFETIME Pass, and it allows entrance to any National Park, National Monument, and National Forest for the card holder AND anyone in the vehicle!  I am not a big proponent of Government programs, but this one definitely is worth it!!

Many, many photos were taken on this trip. Only a small sampling were posted in this blog. To see more, I have created an album in Google Photos. To view these, click here.