Alaska Adventures – part 2

Below please enjoy the follow-up post by my guest blogger, and son, Mike Malecha. Continuing to see more of Anchorage and experience one of Alaska’s 664 named glaciers – Washington is the state with the next closest number of named glaciers at 186.

Enjoy Alaska Adventures – part 2 by Mike Malecha:

 

Wednesday
Wednesday began nice and early with a workout at Body Renew, the gym where Tara does some personal training. It was (almost) effortless to get up early and head to the gym already surrounded by light that made it feel like mid-day. A few hours of sleep somehow felt like an eternity in an Alaskan summer. What a great feeling to be back at the house having coffee by 8 with an energizing workout (and a long stretching session which my body needed after a few days of climbing and hiking) already in the books. With the rest of the morning to myself to catch up on some reading, I set out to grab a little breakfast at the local McDonalds (just to make sure it’s the same in Alaska as everywhere else;) – and it is!) and then spent the morning with my nose in a book and doing the tiny bit of work I reluctantly allowed myself to bring on the trip.

Once Ryan had finished up at work himself, we kept the activity and adventure theme going and hit the road for another hike. One of the ‘must-do’ items on my list was to see a  glacier, and that was the item of the day. Ryan and I drove about an hour south to a town called Whittier, a very small water-side community tucked into a gorgeous river-valley between the mountains. The drive also included a 2-mile stretch directly through Maynard Mountain via the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel! We set out on the Portage Pass Trail, up over a saddle between two peaks which took us to a glacier-viewing area. On the way up, we had a view of the pristine Portage Lake running through the valley behind us the whole way, and the sight only became more beautiful and expansive as we climbed upward.

Maynard Mountain with road/train tracks lead into the 2 plus mile Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel.

This way to glacier viewing!

I requested several stops along the way up, to turn around and embrace the scenery (and just maybe to catch an extra breath or two, but that was a very secondary reason ;). Once we made it over the saddle, the view of a hanging glacier, Portage Glacier, between the upper slopes of two mountains nearly stopped me in my tracks – truly one of the most awe-inspiring scenes I have ever witnessed. The pictures below can do the glacier more justice than my words can, and the pictures aren’t nearly enough. Truly something that must be seen first-hand to be appreciated. The magnitude of nature’s power became overwhelmingly apparent while in its presence. Witnessing the masterpiece created by such monumental forces, which over immense periods of time, came together to form this natural wonder was a humbling experience.

From the road – the destination of the Portage Glacier looks daunting.

Portage Glacier slowly melts into Portage Lake as viewed from the Portage Pass Trail.

And it was worth the effort!

Dinner that night was at Moose’s Tooth Pizzeria, a staple in Anchorage. Lines extend out the front door and fill the waiting area on a daily basis at dinner time, and for hours thereafter. We went at about 8:30 pm and still had to wait over a half an hour. Fortunately, the place brews a number of its own beers, so we patiently sat on the patio and each enjoyed our pick of their home-made Broken Tooth brews while waiting; my Raspberry Pale Ale was terrific. The pizza was every bit worth the wait – easily understandable why the place has become such a staple. Aside from the food quality, an ever-bustling family style atmosphere filled the place, not a person in the restaurant without a smile on their face. It’s the kind of place I’m sure has kids jumping up and down and shouting in joy when their parents agree to take them out for pizza.

Checking out the different brews at Broken Tooth Brewing while waiting to get in for pizza at Moose’s Tooth.

Big surprise, Ryan and I decided to do another hike on Thursday afternoon once he was off work, and today we wanted to focus on physical intensity more than the scenery. So, we set out on a two and a quarter-mile trek, pretty much directly upward from the base of Alyeska Ski Resort (about a half hour south of Anchorage) up to the resort’s winter lodge. Up until now, we hadn’t had to worry much about wildlife encounters, but as this outing took us through more raw wilderness, we were sure to equip ourselves with bear spray and Ryan’s firearm.

Our destination is the Alyeska ski lodge at the top of the hill.

Ran into a big snow-patch about halfway up the mountain! Forgot to bring our snowboards unfortunately!

As fortune would have it, about 10 minutes into the hike, a woman passed by on her way down saying there had been reported sightings of a mother black bear and 3 cubs not far up the trail. Rather than a quick discussion of whether we should go forward, Ryan simply said, “Well that’s Alaska for you, better get used to it!” and proceeded to take his gun out of his pack to keep it close at hand, and we continued right on up the hill – and I had my bear spray at the ready. I thought I would feel much more fearful in such a situation, but I knew we were properly prepared and the initial fear honestly faded quite quickly. We made sure to make a racket as we went to alert any nearby critters of our presence, which basically resulted in a non-stop clapping, singing and whistling fest most of the way up the mountain – not a noise level that was much out of the ordinary for the two of us.

We made it to the top without a sighting of any wildlife, only with a couple of spent pairs of legs. The hike was a real kicker, but the satisfaction upon reaching the top was of course worth every second. Another Alaskan mountain conquered! A nearly 360 degree view of the mountains, valleys, bowls and the ocean off in the distance was yet another breath-taking setting. The views may not have been the focal point of our day, but they delivered nonetheless.

Alyeska Ski Resort sits at the base of what is called a deep steep slope.

After 4 hikes and some mountain biking under my belt in my short time in Alaska, I could see exactly why even residents would never get sick of outdoor activities day in and day out. To make sure we completely gassed ourselves and earned what we planned to be a final day of total R&R tomorrow, we finished up with another rock climbing session. We accomplished our goal of over-exhaustion, and I managed to move up one level from V2 to V3!

Round 2 at the rock climbing wall!

As planned, our final day was devoted to rest, relaxation, and a little reality TV – had to take in an episode of “Alaskan Bush People” while we lazed on the couch for the first few hours of the day. The rest of the day didn’t get much more exciting than that, and mostly involved working ourselves up to actually getting off the couch, playing with Hank, and packing at the last-minute in my patented fashion. My sore muscles thanked me for asking very little of them all day. Ryan, Tara and I enjoyed a wonderfully fresh seafood dinner, an absolute must when in Alaska, at the Southside Bistro before they took me to the airport. A trip that was 3 years in the making had gone by, as expected, in a blink.

Dining at one of Ryan and Tara’s favorite seafood restaurants. Most vehicles are either SUV’s or trucks.

Finishing my trip with a little R&R, fun and games, with my two hostesses with the mostesses! Thanks Ryan and Tara for an amazing trip!

My trip to Alaska was, in many ways, exactly what I expected it to be: a week devoted to experiencing nature like I never had before, and to be blown away by the scenery I saw all along the way. But there was more to the week than just mountains and glaciers. The most interesting thing I took away from the trip was how unassuming it all was. There I was, closer to Russia’s east coast than I was to home or any of my other family in the lower 48, in a highly functioning, North American urban setting, and it just felt right – even surrounded by all the natural rugged beauty one associates with Alaska. And it should, because it is very apparent that Alaskans greatly appreciate the many unique qualities the state has to offer, and are willing to battle through the harsh winters and long nights to live in this amazing place. Coming back to experience those 23-hours of darkness has now moved up near the top of my bucket list!

Check out more fantastic pics from Alaska in the Global Gallery.

Alaska Adventures – part 1

In years past I have had ‘guest bloggers’ share an amazing trip they experienced. This was well received, so I’d like to continue that trend and add a post done by my son, Michael – sharing his personal insight and pictures while he explored the magnificent state of Alaska.

My first Alaskan Adventure, by Michael Malecha – July 1-8, 2017

I had hoped my descent into Anchorage, Alaska would yield a progression of stunning mountain views, but with a full cloud cover in effect, there wasn’t much to view from above. It must have been karma, as I was flying out of Canada (I presently live in Regina, Saskatchewan) and into the U.S. on Canada Day, July 1st. Ryan (my cousin) and Tara (Ryan’s finance’ and native Alaskan), my hosts for the week, shared their sympathies upon picking me up and admitted I had missed out on a great vantage point of this amazing state – but there was still hope for the flight out.

Ryan, Tara and Hank – my gracious hosts for my visit to Alaska.

Even so, I was fascinated by what scenery was still available to me. The clouds and mist gave the atmosphere an alluring and mysterious vibe, and that was fitting with the sudden awareness I had just touched down in one of the far corners of the map. However, Ryan and Tara were persistent in their claims that everything I was seeing and feeling would pale in comparison to the experience on a clear day; these claims I did not doubt to be true.

Naturally, as soon as we got back to their house and dropped off my bags, the first order of business was to hike to the top of a “popular” nearby trail, Flat Top Mountain –  which in Anchorage means you see other people while you are hiking. I had requested our itinerary for the week occur almost entirely outside or involve physical activity, and being the adventurous and active couple they are, Ryan and Tara were ready to hit the ground running. Or hiking, or mountain biking, or rock climbing. I was briefly introduced to Hank, their pitbull-bulldog-mix that I had been anxiously waiting far too long to meet, before the whole crew saddled up and made way for the trail.

On our way up to the top of Flat Top Mountain, where we spotted an opening of blue sky.

The view from atop Flat Top Mountain – Anchorage in the backdrop.

Just a few hours into my introduction to Alaska, I had conquered my first mountain, and as fortune would have it, the sun peeked out on the way up! The views I had been waiting for shattered my expectations, and the snow-capped mountains rising right up out of the ocean shore were a spectacular sight. I wasn’t worried about seeing a plethora of wildlife during the week, but we got off to a quick start anyway as we passed by a moose on the way down the mountain! I quickly felt the sense that such encounters would be even more common than I had experienced in other locales dominated by nature.

Snow-capped mountains serve as a backdrop to the ocean, as viewed from our trek up to Flat Top Mountain.

My first Alaskan moose sighting!

My first evening in Alaska was spent in the usual fashion when Ryan, Tara and I get together: hours of laughing, fun and games (drinking, board and otherwise). They say time flies when you are having fun, and although true, I would argue that time REALLY flies when the sun never goes down – a lesson I learned on my first day/night (not sure what to call it when it’s 11pm and you still don’t need the indoor lights on) in Alaska. Even though going into the trip I knew I was in for an inordinate amount of sunlight, that didn’t prepare me for how it felt when night just didn’t quite come.

Looking for an indoor activity as a result of the continued gloomy weather, Ryan and I spent the following afternoon at the Alaska Rock Gym. I can’t nearly keep up with Ryan, who draws oohs and aahs from onlookers on a regular basis. On the universal difficulty ranking system, he is capable of doing V9’s and V10’s or better, while for reference I wasn’t able to complete better than a V2, with a vastly longer reach and body than Ryan has; the increase in difficulty from one level to the next is not slight either. Rock climbing is a great full body workout that tests your physical strength, flexibility and mobility, as well as your mental strength – making it through a climb entails strategic planning beforehand and quick improvisation while on the wall. It is not any wonder it is a sport that Ryan has found a passion for! Planning ahead and critical thinking are regular tasks for Ryan as an engineer. On the way home we took a short drive down to the local mountain water fountain – and had to wait in line for a cool refreshing sip!

Ryan climbing up the rock wall in the Alaska Rock Gym in Anchorage.

Nothing like a cool refreshing sip from an actual mountain spring.

Waking up to another drizzly day, I spent Monday morning reading while Ryan went to the office to get a little work done. Although I had wanted to be outside and doing activities in the wilderness as much as possible, sitting on the deck with a book was wonderfully relaxing. To the same effect, I also spent some time thinking about exactly where I was on the globe and how remarkable it was to be so far removed from the usual aggregation of the human population – Alaska is the 3rd least populated state in the union. “Getting away” really had meaning here, and came with a slightly more satisfying feeling of detachment from the world one usually seeks while on vacation.

I went to visit Ryan at work in the afternoon, and met a few colleagues of his – including the very generous J.P. who allowed me to borrow his Fat Tire bike so I could ride some mountain trails with Ryan. The ride that followed initially looked like a little more than I had bargained for, but a few minutes in and I was feeling comfortable cruising through the trails at a moderate pace and riding off some small drops with confidence – although I left the actual jumps to Ryan! It was an exhilarating ride through the forest and hills nonetheless, and another great workout.

Riding Fat Tire bikes up the paved paths eventually into the heavily forested dirt trails.

Ryan, gingerly making his way by another big moose before hitting the steep trail full of jumps.

Ryan showing Mike how it’s done on the bumps and jumps of a mountain trail. Ryan used to ride professionally, but he eventually decided it was time for a more subdued career after multiple collar-bone breaks from over-the-handlebars crashes.

On our way back up the mountain toward our vehicle, we came across a Moose on the side of our path, casually grazing. He must have been something of a local celeb as Ryan had seen him around the trail before and others walking by commented the same. He clearly wasn’t bothered by riders and hikers strolling right next to him one after another. It was almost hard to be afraid of the huge animal seeing how docile he was around the traffic, but the rational part of my brain strongly reminded me otherwise. We cautiously strolled by and he paid us no more mind than the trees he was standing in.

People making their way past a moose that stands only feet off the trail.

Tuesday, which was the 4th of July, we spent a bit of time with Tara’s family at her aunt and uncle’s house, which took us about 45 minutes out of the city. We still wanted to get some activity in for the day, so we set out on another hike in that area. Driving into a mountain range toward the starting point of our hike, we were already consumed by the clouds before we began, and couldn’t see further than a lob wedge in any direction. The Gold Cord Lake Trail, which would take us past an abandoned mine site and a lake at the top, was our elected route. Not a long hike, but an enchanting one on this day. The fog resting on the surface of the lake made it feel like an empty and endless abyss; eerily still, yet so peaceful at the same time.

The remains of the abandoned mine site seemed straight out of a thriller movie. It was dead silent too, aside from the few remarks we whispered to each other, almost like we were afraid to disturb the silence. We may have disturbed it more than a little when Hank had eaten enough grass to throw it all back up, and we couldn’t contain our laughter. A few patches of snow still remained, so we decided to toss a couple of 4th of July snowballs (how often does one get to do that?) and make our way back down the trail. We were about 10 minutes from getting towed out of the parking lot on our way out, so thankfully we didn’t lollygag up by the lake or hike any further than we did! Might not have been the most relaxing place to spend the night.

Old abandoned mine on the Gold Cord Lake Trail on a very misty eerie morning.

Who’s up for a little snow ball fight on the 4th of July??

Now, the really odd-seeming part about the day was there was very little emphasis on 4th of July fireworks, which finally made sense when bedtime came for everyone who had work tomorrow and it still was as bright as mid-afternoon – not the most optimal backdrop for fireworks! Our day wasn’t any worse for it though, being away from the desk and with family was our only to-do list item.

Hank making sure you aren’t going anywhere. Check back soon for part 2 of Alaska Adventures.

Check back soon for part 2 of Alaska Adventures with an added photo gallery!

 

Oz is ‘oz-some’ but Kansas (and Missouri) ain’t bad either!

After an eye-popping, jaw-dropping, mind-blowing trek through Oz – Dorothy and Toto realize, “There’s no place like home!” After clicking her ruby red slippers (blinged out Mary Jane shoes), Dorothy, clutching Toto to her chest is transported back home to Kansas. A place that to most is a snoozy flat state full of wheat fields, tucked smack dab in the middle of the country and usually on the way to somewhere, not the destination. But as it turns out, Kansas has plenty to offer – especially in the burgeoning metropolitan area of Kansas City and its surrounding suburbs.

Kansas isn’t all wheat fields – this lush pond filled with lilypads is in Leawood, a southern suburb of KC.

My husband and I lived in Kansas some 30 years ago, and our daughter was born there almost 27 years ago. At the time we were told to keep our outings to the suburbs or to the famed Country Club Plaza just southwest of downtown area which at the time was not worth visiting and not particularly safe. Fast forward 30 years and downtown and its surrounding areas are the ‘in’ place. A resurgence of great restaurants (i.e. Michael Smith Restaurant, The Reiger, & Nara), boutique shops and event venues has lured many to make downtown KC their living quarters. From high rises with a modern cosmopolitan vibe to old warehouses transposed into industrial style living quarters, downtown is a great place to live if you don’t need/want the upkeep of a yard.

Old train yards and depots, like the Freight House, now house great restaurants – i.e. Lidia’s, Jack Stack BBQ, and Grunaur. Across the railroad tracks at Union Station, the currently running Mummy Exhibition and permanent Science City and Planetarium are must visits. The train station is an active station for Amtrak and an architectural beauty itself after being restored in the mid 1990’s. The station renovations included creating windows into the guts of the working train station – showing some of the engine rooms with their original equipment.

Beautiful renovated inside of Union Station in KC.

My beautiful nieces out front of the revitalized Union Station and the Planetarium.

A few months ago my husband and children went to see a museum just south of downtown Kansas City, on the Missouri side and raved about it. I did not rush to see the museum in my subsequent visits. It was always on my ‘To Visit’ list, but in my naivety I assumed it would be ‘nothing to write home about.’ I stand duly corrected – the Nelson-Atkins Museum rivals any museum I have visited in New York City, Paris, or London. Who woulda thunk?

Separated into three very distinct layouts, the museum has something to offer everyone. Upon arriving at the site, the main museum building sits atop a hill at the end of a long expanse of grass – a very grand entrance. Inside this main building is housed original works of art from Renoir to Monet, Caravaggio to Gaugin, Rembrandt to Van Gogh. Exhibits ranging from China to India, mummies to sculptures, architecture to decorative arts. The building itself is a neoclassical architecture work of art that serves as a perfect place to house the classics of the art world.

The lush green lawn leading up to the original building of the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

In 2007 the new addition Bloch (think H&R Bloch) Building was opened. This contemporary arm of the museum houses more modern works of art, like the present Jackson Pollock installation. It is rumored you can see chards of glass from wine glasses Pollock shattered on the canvas of some paintings during his days battling alcoholism. This new museum space is clean, open, and stretched out into a stadium style design that stair steps down the terrain of the landscape it sits on. Each section showcasing a different style of modern art: from Pollock to Warhol, contemporary diverse media to modern expressionism, and photographic exhibits rotated on a regular basis.

A large Jackson Pollock is a focal point to the newer modern arm of the museum.

Be sure to visit the museum during good weather – the outside sculpture exhibit is worth the walk around the beautiful grounds. Walk a maze that isn’t a maze, but a labyrinth – “…a place in which we lose ourselves to find ourselves…” says the director of Curatorial Affairs. Or dream of climbing the 56′ stainless steel leafless tree by Roxy Paine – who asks, “…the viewer to think about how nature and technology coexist.”

A 50′ x 50′ glass labyrinth at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in KC.

A stainless steel leafless tree sculpture by Roxy Paine.

Or stand tall against the 18′ high shuttlecocks that dot the museum grounds, imagining as the husband wife sculptor team that the museum is the badminton net and the expansive lawn is the playing field. It would take a being of epic proportions to bat these 5,500 pound shuttlecocks up and over the net (museum), but they are a sight to see.

A giant shuttlecock (one of three) sits on the front lawn of the Nelson-Adkins Museum.

A little southeast of the museum is the well-reknowned Country Club Plaza.  I have touched on this area in past posts, but it is always worth another mention. The best time of year to visit the Country Club Plaza is closer to the holidays, because the unique Spanish architecture of this whole shopping mecca is outlined in lights, so at night it becomes a work of art all its own. During the rest of the year, the quality of shopping and restaurants are worth the effort. Grab a Starbuck’s and take the beautiful walk up and down the 20 or so blocks of boutique shops and restaurants.

With fall right around the corner head south of the city into the Kansas countryside to Louisburg for a supply of apples, apple cider and pumpkins. This cider mill has been around since 1977 and grown into a local tradition to get your fall fix of smells and tastes, although the cider mill is open year round. Grab a large cup of hot cider and mosey down the road to the Overland Park Arboretum and take in all the vibrant fall colors of the trees, shrubs and flowers while walking the paths interwoven throughout the waterways and ponds on this beautiful track of land.

Louisburg Cider Mill is a great place to spend a fall afternoon.

All kinds of great buys inside the gift shop at the Louisburg Cider Mill: soups, ciders, candies, scented candles, fun kitchen wares.

Maybe Kansas/Missouri and the KC area aren’t necessarily bucket list destinations, but if you find yourself in the area you won’t grow bored with all this region has to offer.

Montana – parade, rodeo and hot springs

After our extended stay in Big Sky, Montana it was time to venture further east to find other hidden treasures in the state often labeled the ‘treasure state.’ Once a hot bed for mining of gold, silver and sapphires back in the mid-1800’s, this state’s other ‘treasures’ lay in the natural beauty of the landscape – from the towering Rocky Mountain ranges to the low-lying running waters of cool rivers to hot springs and all points in between. Montana is a true destination no matter what direction you travel in this massive state.

We headed northeast out of Big Sky to Bozeman, home of the Montana State University Bobcats. Population is around 40,000, but it has the feeling of a small town that never lost touch with its old west roots. The main street is filled with boutique shops, restaurants, galleries and a great one-off ice cream spot selling our favorite huckleberry ice cream out of the back of an old airstream rv.

Main Street in Bozeman gives this city of 40,000 a quaint small town feel with a western vibe.

Bozeman is also home to another great ski area, Bridger Bowl, where I first skied ‘out west’ back in 1970 – during some of the worst winter weather I have ever encountered (and that’s saying a lot having grown up in Minnesota). This was so long ago I still had wooden skis. On our first day out skiing I was coming down a run my brothers built a ski jump on. The snow was swirling so much I couldn’t see the jump until I was right on top of it. I miscued, tumbled off the side of the jump and came down cockeyed breaking my skis. My Dad marched me right into the ski shop at the base of the hill and bought me my first set of fiberglass skis. Talk about making lemonade out of lemons!

Once again I digress – back to the summer road trip through Montana. We continued our trek into the eastern prairies of lower Montana to the largest city of Billings (pop. 110,000), where my niece and her family live. This was 4th of July weekend, and two of the biggest traditions in this part of Montana this are the Red Lodge 4th of July Parade, followed by the Home of the Champions Rodeo.

We all got duded up in our cowboy hats and cowboy boots and headed to the little one-horse town of Red Lodge. Nothing cuter than watching a parade through the eyes of little ones. My great-niece was 2 and in her glory watching all the floats, beautiful horses, marching bands and of course running after the hordes of candy thrown to the streets. Red Lodge is also the site where Sundance Kid and the Wild Bunch botched a bank robbery back in 1897. Reminiscent of the botched bank robbery of Jesse James and the James Gang in 1876 in Northfield, Minnesota – the town where I grew up, and where they hold an annual 4-day Defeat of Jesse James Days to commemorate this foiled robbery attempt.

Getting all duded up in our cowboy hats and boots for the Red Lodge 4th of July parade.

Watching the Red Lodge 4th of July Parade through the eyes of little ones.

Foiled again – Sundance Kid and the Wild Bunch failed miserably in trying to rob a bank in Red Lodge, Montana back in 1897.

The rodeo was the real highlight of the day. After making our way up into the wooden stands that circled the rodeo arena we settled into watch the amazing acrobatics of man and beast: bull riding, saddle bronc riding, calf roping, and most entertaining was ‘mutton’ bustin’ where the youngsters try to ride a sheep. And of course and appearance by the infamous cowboy monkey ‘Whiplash‘ who rides his trusty steed Boogie, a Border Collie, and shows how to properly round-up a herd of sheep around the arena.

Bronco buck riding at the Home of Champions Rodeo over 4th of July weekend in Red Lodge, MT.

Bull riding at the Home of the Champions Rodeo during 4th of July weekend in Red Lodge, MT.

Whiplash, the Cowboy Monkey makes as appearance at the Red Lodge Rodeo.

The next day we ventured out for some much-needed R&R after a day spent in the hot, windy, dusty conditions of summertime in the west, to search out a couple of the highly acclaimed healing hot springs – of which there are apparently 61 in total throughout the state. On our way to the hot springs we consistently saw herds of upwards of 50 head of elk and/or antelope in several different spots. It had been a rainy spring and the prairies were lush green, which enticed these herds to come down out of the higher country to frolic and graze in these farmers crop lands and pastures.

One of multiple herds of Elk we came across on our drive from Billings to Red Lodge.

The re-mastered western town of Gardiner is where we gained access to one of the hot springs, but it is also the northern and only year round entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Our first stop was at Bear Creek Springs – an area left in its untouched natural state where the hot springs bubble up from underground and run into the parallel waters of the cold running Yellowstone River. The key is to find where these diverse waters intertwine creating the perfect bath water temp. If you veer too far right the waters will chill you to the bone and turn you blue. If you veer too far left you will get scalded by hotter than hot tub waters and turn red. They are called ‘hot springs’ for a reason. It was interesting to watch how many people had to test just how hot is hot. A lot of burned fingers and toes went home that day – but luckily none in our group.

The gateway to the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Montana.

Gardiner, Montana – a remastered old west town right down to the dirt roadway. Try and ignore the line-up of vehicles and imagine instead a line-up of horses.

Navigating the slippery river rocks that separate the cold running Yellowstone River from the hot springs bubbling from the underground.

A little further back up the road, working our way back towards Billings, there is a place that has harnessed the natural hot springs into an easily accessible pool setting – Chico Hot Springs. A great little resort and spa with a large pool that is easy for any age or ability to navigate. After a nice long soak in the healing waters of the natural hot springs we stayed on at the Chico Resort to eat at their highly acclaimed fine dining restaurant. Known for using local produce, we wined and dined on bison and trout and huckleberries and garden ingredients grown on the property.

The pool at Chico Hot Springs Spa and Resort filled with the hot waters that run from the nearby underwater springs.

For a state that is better known for its mountainous regions like Big Sky and Whitefish, and it’s stunning National Parks like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, there are plenty of hidden gems to search and add to your bucket list.

Check out more photos in the Montana – parade, rodeo & hot springs photo gallery in the Global Gallery link.

Montana – Big Sky

Montana, known as “Big Sky” country is aptly named. Even with all of the Rocky Mountains ranges that dot the skyline of this expansive state, the ‘sky’ itself invokes a majesty all its own. The experiences in Montana are as vast as the sky, so I will break up our 10-day road trip to Montana into multiple postings to properly capture the highlights of the trip. Our trip began in Arizona, and we made our way up through Utah, Nevada, Idaho and into Montana. Any one of these states can and will garner a need for their own post – but for now my focus is on Montana.

When you arrive into Montana, it’s like a calm settles over you – your heart rate drops and you breathe easier. People who visit and live here, choose this destination to inhale and enjoy what nature created over the centuries. Montana by land mass ranks as the 4th largest state, but ranks 44th in population. Montana’s largest city, Billings, comes in at 110,000 people – leaving an awful lot of land preserved in its natural state, allowing for wildlife to populate in numbers not seen in many places and lots of room for people and that wildlife to co-habitate together peacefully.

We entered Montana in the southwest corner of the state, driving by the very western edge of  Yellowstone  National Park. This stretch of Hwy 191 is beyond gorgeous. The two lane road winds through lush green forests of pine and birch, and low-lying meadows dotted with ponds and running streams – a perfect setting for some big Montana moose, but sadly we never spotted one. The air was as fresh as the setting was serene. Smiles settled in on our faces, as life’s stresses melted away the deeper we made our way into this beautiful state.

Our first stop in Montana was in Big Sky – a ski resort town, about a 30-minute drive south of Bozeman, that we had visited many times in the 7 years we lived in Montana back in the late 80’s and late 90’s. We were initially drawn to the area for the skiing because it has remained un-commercialized and un-congested unlike its Colorado counterparts i.e. Vail, Beaver Creek, Aspen. But the area shows its raw beauty even more in the summer months with no shortage of things to do: hiking, golfing, biking, fishing, rafting, horseback riding, tram and chairlift rides, zip lines, rock climbing, and the list goes on and on.

The pathway leading up into the hiking trails along the ski runs at Big Sky.

The zip line comes out into the open below the chair lifts on the backside of the Summit Lodge.

River rafting down the Gallatin along highway 191 between Big Sky and Bozeman.

The entrance of Big Sky intersects the famed Gallatin River (think ‘A River Runs Through It‘) known for its great fly-fishing and white water rafting. Or in our case the place, some 20 years ago, where our chocolate lab puppy decided to test out her water dog skills. My husband was out fly fishing on the Gallatin and our new puppy so wanted to be near him, she jumped into the water, but the water was too strong for this little 8-week-old 12-pound puppy and she went swirling down the river. I never saw my husband move so fast through a fast running river, up onto the bank and down the river bank until he got ahead of where the puppy was in the water and reached down and yanked her out of the water like a fish on the end of a fly fishing pole!

Big Sky is separated into distinct topographies – the lower village (6,800’ elevation) or ‘meadows’ where some great golfing, shopping, galleries and lodging exists. And the upper village (7,500′ elevation) or ‘mountain’ where some of the best skiing in the US exists and most of the main resorts. The highest point of Big Sky is atop Lone Mountain Peak, boasting a tram that takes you across a wide bowl to its highest point at an elevation of 11,166 feet. Not for the faint of heart – this area above the tree line is double-black diamonds to get down the peak to were the bulk of the ski hill lies.

Lone Mountain Peak looms above Lake Levinsky and the blue Lake Condos at the entrance of Big Sky Mountain Village.

The runs at Big Sky show bright and green in the summer sun.

In the winter we went as far as taking the high-speed chairlift to the base of the tram. From there we pointed our skis downward into the single black diamond bowl before you ascend into the tree-lined slopes. Our last trip to Big Sky was to ski. Our son, 8, was a fearless snowboarder, taking black diamonds, through the trees, over jumps. Our, 10, daughter stuck with skiing and on one of our last runs she took off in front of us down into the bowl. In an instant she was tumbling ass over tea-kettle. Our hearts in our throats as we raced to where she had come to a stop – skis going in every direction, body in an upside down pretzel position. Instinctively my husband grabbed her around the waist to gently lift her up out of the contortion of body parts fearful to find our dainty daughter unconscious. Instead, a howl of laughter broke from her lips. She said that was the most fun she’d had all week and can we do it again! Suffice to say our mind was on a bottle of wine to calm our jangled nerves after that escapade! Kids!

But I digress – this trip (and post) is about our summertime fun at Big Sky – some 14 years later. We stayed at the rustic Summit Lodge – replete with log furniture, deer antler chandeliers, and bear skin rugs. With the lodge at the base of ski hill, we had easy access to trek up the mountain to access the hiking trails that meander up and through all the ski runs, over mountain creeks usually hidden by several feet of snow, and along logging trails that double as catwalks in the winter . Reaching some of the higher ridges, it was once again evident as to how the state and this specific ski resort acquired it’s title of ‘Big Sky’. The vistas are breathtaking and sky has no end in sight.

The Summit Lodge at the base of the runs at Big Sky Mountain Village.

A large deer antler chandelier in the Summit Lodge.

About halfway down the mountain, between the upper and lower villages, is a rustic but high-end resort, Lone Mountain Resort, where you can rent log cabins of multiple configurations and sizes. The restaurant is one of the best in Big Sky and is worth a stop for anything from a great brunch to a fine dining experience. As well as horse back riding in the summer, or sleigh rides in the winter.

The entrance to Lone Mountain Ranch midway between upper and lower villages at Big Sky.

Log cabin accommodations at Lone Mountain Ranch.

A little closer to the lower village is another great area for hiking, called Ousel Falls Trail. It doesn’t have the breathtaking expansive views as the hikes up on the ski hill, but the lush beauty of trekking your way along the fast running South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River and take a breather for a picnic with the Ousel Falls for a backdrop is equally enticing.

Ousel Falls Trail head just above the lower village in Big Sky.

A great picnic spot along the Ousel Falls of the South Fork River.

Down in the meadows of the lower village is an Arnold Palmer designed golf course. As well as multiple galleries showcasing many local artists, our favorite being Harry Koyama. My husband so fell in love with one of his paintings that served as the back drop to the reservation desk at the Summit Lodge, that I commissioned Harry to replicate the same picture (in a much smaller size) for a surprise birthday present for my husband and serves as the backdrop of his home office.

Original painting by Harry Koyama, behind the reception desk at the Summit Lodge in Big Sky, called ‘Bruins of Lone Mountain.’

Interspersed between galleries and gift shops are a multitude of great restaurants. Most taking local flavors – such as elk or bison meat, huckleberries (my personal favorite), or fresh trout from the Gallatin River – and putting their own spin on recipes to satisfy even the pickiest palates.

Enjoy more beautiful pics of the very scenic Big Sky area in the Global Gallery under Montana.

 

Golfing gals hit Napa!

Napa may be a hotspot for couples, but this gang of golfing gals from Arizona needed a getaway while our home golf course was being taken over by the men for their final golf event of the year in mid-April. Our second love is wine – so Napa was a natural fit. Sorry hubbies – you’re a close third!

Golfing gals do Napa!

After a 90 minute flight from Phoenix to San Fran, followed by a 90 minute chauffeured drive we arrived at our accommodations at Silverado Resort on Silverado Trail in the eastern side of the Rutherford township in the middle of the Napa Valley. Since golf is our first love, we played two days of golf sandwiching a day of hitting wineries.

Entrance to Silverado Resort, off of Silverado Trail in Rutherford, Napa Valley.

As we waited for our rooms to be ready we hit the links at the Silverado North Course, host to the PGA Safeway Open (first tournament of the FedEx Cup season). The benign conditions did not offset the challenge of the heavily tree-lined, narrow fairways lined with thick sticky rough, finishing off on crowned greens that ran fast. One of our gals recently moved to Santa Clara, a 2 hour drive south of Napa. She surprised us with a car filled with wine, beer and snacks. You da best crazy girl!! After a very long day of travel and challenging golf, we indulged in all the above, along with some intensely heated matches of bocce ball and corn hole. Then early to bed to ready ourselves for a day of wine tastings.

Can you guess which one likes to push us over the line and which keeps us toeing the line? 🙂

Testing our tossing abilities after a day of wine tasting with the corn hole toss at the Silverado Resort.

Bocce ball courts at Silverado Resort – a great place to wind down after a day or golf or wine tastings.

The rooms are spacious, each with a private outside entrance, and possible wild life sightings – see pic below. With a Starbucks onsite it was nice to get our days started with a much-needed jolt of energy. My roomy and I traded turns for the morning jaunt to Starbucks – but she wins extra points by spoiling me with a turn down service of 4 Advil to ease the pains of a day of golfing and/or drinking.

A couple of deer made their way through the inner courtyard area outside our patio at Silverado Resort.

Our winery tour day began with car service by Damon of Bliss Wine Tours – pick-up at 9:30 am. The studly and sweet Damon took great care of us gals all day long and we would highly recommend his services! He had a cooler full of water to keep us hydrated between wineries (we aren’t ones to waste a single drop at the wine tastings); he was highly knowledgeable about the area and the wineries; he was prepared with a wine opener and tracked down extra cups for us to enjoy a newly purchased bottle of wine to have with deli sandwiches we pre-ordered from the historical Oakville Grocery.

We started our day of winery visits at Robert Mondavi Winery – the first winery I ever visited some 30 years ago when there were only a couple of dozen wineries compared to over 450 wineries today in the Napa Valley. Mondavi has matured into one of the pinnacle wineries of the Napa Valley. The Mission-style winery sits on a 35-acre vineyard and we were treated to a full tour of their beautiful, lush, expansive, extremely clean winery while becoming informed about the wine business as a whole.

Robert Mondavi Winery.

The gals experiencing the first wine tasting of the day, 10 am, at Robert Mondavi.

After lunch it was off to a very unique winery – Raymond Vineyards. A beautiful setting with a large garden area replete with a mini-animal farm with goats and chickens. A fairly nondescript entrance is an offset to what lies behind several doors; The Red Room – reminiscent of a speak-easy highlighted in hues of red from the furniture to the lighting; the Crystal Cellar – we playfully dubbed the S&M room with fuchsia lighting flooding the ornate cases of cut crystal ware, animal skin covered wine barrels, and mannequin swinging from a trapeze – oh the parties that must go on in this room; and the more subdued Library – walls lined with rows and rows of bottles instead of books and a library ladder to reach them all. Be sure to check out the Corridor of Senses. Sadly the Raymond wine did not pass our tastebud test, but the winery itself was worth the visit.

Mannequins hanging from a trapeze in the Crystal wine tasting room at Raymond Winery.

The mini-animal farm at Raymond Winery. The whole scene is a real head scratcher, but oh so entertaining.

Our winery tour day was on a warm spring day and after a couple of wineries we were ready to mix it up a bit with a couple of beers. On cue Damon scored a few more brownie points knowing right where to take us for one of the coldest beers we have ever tasted – and that’s saying a lot! We played a few games of pool at this no-name dive bar, enjoying our cold beers, while Damon tracked down another great winery for us to properly fill out our wine tour day.

Truly a ‘no name’ bar for the gals to take a breather from the wine tastings.

A little billiards and ice-cold beer at the no name bar in Rutherford.

Goosecross Cellars was not on our original line-up of wineries, but when we found ourselves with a little extra time before our final wine tour, Damon made a call and got us into this family owned Yountville winery. The recently built ‘hospitality’ structure has a nouveau rustic look and feel with a relaxing back patio overlooking their expansive vineyard. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wines – reds were bold, but smooth and the whites were crisp, but refreshing. Not a bad little find. Thank you Damon.

Goosecross Winery.

Our day finished with an opportunity to meet Sue McNerney, owner of Le Chanceux, a boutique winery consisting of a 1 acre plot of cabernet sauvignon grapevines. What she has been able achieve with that micro plot has earned her high accolades in a very short period of time (nee’ 2002). Sue is a genuine soul who ran with a dream and made it a reality. Her cabernet sauvignon, grown from French root-stock, can hold its own against some of the long-standing heavy hitters from the Napa Valley. I have found over the years I often get a headache from lesser quality cabernet sauvignons – but am happy to report no headaches from Sue’s premium variety.

Sue McNerney, proprietor of Le Chanceux winery – ‘One Woman, One Wine’!

Our third day in Napa had us back at the golf course – the South Course at Silverado Resort. After a day of being plied with great wines, we all apparently loosened up and a more enjoyable day of golf than we did on the North Course. The South Course is a more open course and with a more consistent feel hole to hole and green to green with a level of beautify that we all felt eclipsed the North Course.

Approach into the beautiful 13th hole from the center cut of the fairway.

One of our group was not able to join us in Napa in time to take in the winery tours, so on our way back to the San Fran airport for our trip back to AZ we searched out one last winery to share what Napa is all about for this winery virgin. We struck out on our first two attempts at Domaine Carneros – apparently a great place for a champagne tasting, and Del Dotto Vineyards, specifically their Napa Historic Winery and Caves . They were listed as having walk-in tastings available, but by the time we arrived at 10 am on a Saturday morning both vineyards were so full they could not accommodate any more walk-ins. We eventually found a quaint little winery down the road from Domaine Carneros called Madonna Estate. They were able to accommodate us and show this group of golfing gals a good time, finishing our golf/wine outing in true Napa style.

Golf/wine gals wind-up the Napa weekend at Madonna winery. We shall return to expand our search for more Napa wine and golf!

Check out more fun pics from trip ‘Napa Gals Trip‘ in the Global Gallery tab.

I’m back!! After a 3 1/2 year journey!

After a very long hiatus to give full attention to the building our family’s forever dream home, I am back to my writing, most importantly the writing of my travel blog.

But what a journey it has been. The home build was a year in the design process and another 2 1/2 years in the construction process. As much as the home build was a labor of love, it became a full time commitment in the final 18 months and I chose to put my writing on a temporary hold to give the build my full undivided attention.

In those 3 1/2 years I’m sure I logged enough road miles to earn AAA elite status – if there is such a thing! We chose to build on top of hill – but to accomplish our desire of building a one level home we had to excavate 25 feet deep from the highest point of the hill to the lowest point of the foundation. But after 6 plus months of digging, and exporting over 1200 truckloads of unusable material (325 of those were boulders alone), we had our flat lot. Now we can stay here until we are old and can race up and down the hallways with our walkers with no worries of stairs!

Luckily I somehow managed to fit in some very special trips during this busy time!

My last post was May of 2015. The following places are where I’ve been since then: Big Sky and Billings, Montana; Sedona (twice), Scottsdale and Wickenburg, Arizona; Napa Valley (twice), California; Vancouver, British Columbia; 4 different trips to Brooklyn and Manhattan, New York; Palm Springs, California; Sao Paulo, Angra dos Reis and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and a few other jaunts betwixt and between these amazing trips.

I will also reprise my monthly food blog. My need to fill my foodie desires never wavered during the home build project. Had to keep that strength up!

As much as I love to travel, there is no place like home and nothing like coming home. Especially when home allows me views that equal any I’ve ever experienced in my travels. Rugged red mountain ranges, hawks soaring through the open skies, lush green golf courses and orchards dotting the saguaro laden desert landscape, owls and coyotes making their presence known in the dark of night with their hoots and howls .

But…this is a travel blog, and there are many more amazing destinations on my bucket list to see and experience. So time to get back to my nomadic living and narrate!

Enjoy!