Sunday, March 18, 2018

Spotlight: San Antonio - Tower of the Americas

Spotlight: The Tower of the Americas is the second tallest observation tower in the United States, and was the tallest from 1968-1996 (when the Stratosphere in Las Vegas was built). The tower was designed by architect O'Neil Ford as the theme structure for the 1968 World's Fair, HemisFair '68, and remains the tallest building in San Antonio. The top of the tower has a rotating restaurant, a lounge and an observation deck. The restaurant is currently leased by Landry's Restaurants, which manages the property.

Location: The Tower of the Americas is located at 739 E Cesar E. Chavez Blvd., San Antonio, TX, in what is known as the Hemisfair Park.

Cost: Adults - $12, Seniors and Military - $10, Children (4-12) - $9; Parking is $8 (Mon. - Fri.), $11 (Sat & Sun)

Time: The tower is open from 10 am - 10 pm (Sun - Thurs.) and 10 am - 11 pm on weekends. Plan on spending 2-3 hours.

Description: As the tallest structure in San Antonio, the Tower of the Americas offers beautiful 360 degree views of the city. Photographic displays inside the observation deck help visitors identify key landmarks around the city, as well as allow visitors to compare images from the past with the present. The exhibit includes historical overviews of Texas including the history of its six flags, the Battle of the Alamo, and its Spanish roots.

     At the base of the tower, visitors can experience the 4D Theater ride "Skies Over Texas." The ride allows visitors to "fly" over Texas and explore its vast environmental and cultural diversity through the lenses of 3D glasses while experiencing the events through its 4D technology. Visitors get to experience what it feels like to: be a rodeo clown being chased by a bull, look a rattlesnake in the eyes or watch astronauts prepare for launch at NASA. It was very well done!
     The tower is located within the ground of the Hemisfair Park, where the World Fair was held in 1968. While most of the buildings no longer exist, the park has been beautified with a variety of statues, fountains and trees that make it one of the most popular city parks in the state.

Rating: 4 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Things You Should Know: - Ticket prices include unlimited access to the observation deck, Flags over Texas and the 4D Theater Ride.
- The observation deck is enclosed, but there is an open air walkway around the observation deck that is "enclosed" with metal wires. It is safe, but be prepared for high winds.

- From June through October, the city sponsors Free concert Friedays from 7 pm - 11 pm. The concert offers great family entertainment with food, drink, a bounce house and more.

Nearby: Institute of Texan Cultures, the River Walk, San Antonio Museum of Art, the Alamo

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Spotlight: San Antonio - River Walk

Spotlight: The San Antonio River flows through the heart of San Antonio, providing the life blood for the seventh most populous city in the United States. The most popular section of the San Antonio River is the famous River Walk - a city park located one story below the level of the streets of downtown San Antonio. The park consists of a series of cypress-lined walkways and stone bridges that border and cross the river. The walkways are lined by restaurants, tourist shops and public artwork. If you go beyond the crowded River Bend Section, the River Walk connects five historic missions that were constructed during San Antonio's colonial period as part of the Spanish Empire.

     The River Walk was the brain child of architect Robert Hugman. Following the disastrous flood of 1921, there was a movement to build a dam upstream and pave over the River Bend that flowed through downtown San Antonio in order to put in a storm drain. Although the Olmos Dam was built, and a bypass channel constructed, the River Bend was saved due to the efforts of the San Antonio Conservation Society. In 1929, Hugman provided a solution to the River Bend dilemma when he submitted his plans for a downtown park that would bring in tourists and capitalize on the city's Spanish heritage. The River Walk provides the perfect backdrop to many of San Antonio's most popular restaurants, which allow guests to dine on southwest cuisine while enjoying views of people strolling up and down the river in boats, bicycle or on foot.

Location: The River Walk is a section of the San Antonio River in downtown San Antonio. It generally refers to the Section known as the River Bend.
Cost: Anyone can stroll along the River Walk for free. Narrated tours aboard one of the famous river boats run about $12/adult with discounts for seniors, military, children and local residents. Or you can hop on a Rio Taxi for as little as $5 for a one-way trip or $10 for a 24-hour pass.

Time: The River Walk doesn't close, but Rio Taxi service runs from 9 am - 9 pm. Narrated tours run about 35 minutes.

Description: Ever since I first saw views of the River Walk while watching Spurs games on TV, I wanted to cruise the river on one of the Rio Taxis. When I finally got to experience the River Walk for myself, I was impressed by the simple, natural beauty of the area that encouraged you to slow down and just enjoy the ambiance. Since we went in June, the Rio Taxi was a bit crowded and hot, but it was fun to get the inside scoop on some of the historic buildings along the river.

     Afterwards, we strolled along the River Walk on foot. This was actually more enjoyable, because we were shaded by the cypress trees that lined the route. We ate dinner at the Lone Star Cafe which was delicious. My daughter claimed that her hamburger was the greatest one she'd ever tasted.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Things You Should Know: - The best time to go is from September to May when the temperatures are much nicer and the crowds a bit more manageable.
- River Taxis can be accessed at several different locations along the River Walk.

Nearby: Briscoe Western Art Museum, La Villita Historic Arts Village, The Alamo, Tower of the Americas

Monday, March 5, 2018

Spotlight: San Antonio - The Alamo

Spotlight: The Battle of the Alamo (February 23 – March 6, 1836) remains the most famous event in the Texas Revolution. For centuries, Texas had been part of Spain's empire in the Americas. Shortly after Mexico gained their independence from Spain, they tried to increase the population of the area by inviting American colonists to settle in the area. Unfortunately for them, the new colonists retained allegiance to the United States rather than their new government. After years of internal strife, the Texan settlers revolted in 1835, creating an army under the command of Sam Houston. In early 1836, the Mexican troops laid siege to the Alamo Mission near San Antonio de Béxar. On March 6, the Mexican troops attacked, killing all of the Texan defenders, including the famous frontiersmen James Bowie and Davy Crockett. The battle became a rallying cry for the Texan Rebels, who were buoyed by reinforcements and a desire for revenge. On April 21, 1836, the Texan Army won a decisive victory at the Battle of San Jacinto, ending the revolution. Although Texas immediately applied for statehood, it would be another nine years before it was admitted into the Union.

Location: The Alamo is located at 300 Alamo Plaza in downtown San Antonio.

Cost: Entrance into the Alamo is free. However, guided tours run about $12-$15 per person.

Time: The Alamo is open from 9:00 am - 5:30 pm daily with extended hours (9-7pm) during the summer. Plan on spending about 1-3 hours.

Description: The Alamo is one of the most famous landmarks in the nation. The mission was the site of one of the most famous battles in the history of the United States. Today visitors can tour the grounds including the Alamo Church with memorials to those who died and the Long Barrack Museum, which houses authentic artifacts that remain from the battle as well as many interpretive displays describing the fort, the living conditions of its residents, the battle and other related material. The grounds also have additional displays and occasionally host various family-friendly activities.

Rating: 3 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Things You Should Know: - San Antonio is very hot during the summer, so make sure you have enough sunscreen and water.
- The Alamo was built as a Spanish mission and as such is considered a religious building.
Photography is not permitted inside the Alamo Church or Long Barrack Museum.

Nearby: Guinness World Records Museum, Ripley's Believe it or Not Odditorium, the Riverwalk, Tower of the Americas

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Travel Tip #58 - Don't Drive if You are Sleepy

     A number of years ago, I was driving out to a dry lake bed with some friends for a camp out. It was hot and I was getting a bit drowsy. I saw a rest area coming up and decided to stop and stretch my legs. I then saw something that woke me up fast. An SUV rolled over right near the rest stop area. I immediately pulled over as did the other car I was travelling with. Being first on the scene, we jumped out and assessed the situation. The body of a ten-year old girl was lying to the side of the road. One of my friends checked her vitals. She was bleeding from the mouth and didn't have a pulse. I ran up to the SUV and found a man and his son strapped in their seats hanging upside-down. The son was able to get out of his seat belt and climb out the window. Meanwhile, the father frantically asked about his daughter, and I answered his questions honestly but withheld my personal assessment of the situation since I was unsure of her exact status. Meanwhile, other cars were pulling off and began helping where they could. I went back to check on the girl’s status while talking to 911 and reported that someone was performing CPR. When I was done, the man had me call his wife, which I did. She was even more frantic than her husband, and I tried to both prepare her for what was ahead and alleviate her concerns to the best of my ability. It was one of the hardest phone calls of my life. While I was talking to her, the paramedics arrived and I told her which hospital they were headed to. Meanwhile, with the help of new arrivals, we were able to extricate the man from his vehicle. It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.
     While I don't like to dwell on this event, there are times that it is thrust into the forefront of my mind. There are two major lessons I took away from the encounter: 1) Never drive if you are sleepy! The man admitted that he had fallen asleep behind the wheel. If you are drowsy, pull over right away and wait until you are no longer sleepy before driving again. You may be in a hurry or don't want to delay getting home, but it isn't worth it! If you drive while sleepy, you might not make it home at all. 2) Always wear your seat belt! The two people who were buckled in escaped with only minor injuries. The one who wasn't probably died as a result of her injuries. It might be inconvenient to put on your seat belt every time you get into a car, but it could be the difference between life and death - or at least severe injury. So don't risk it.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Spotlight: Utah Olympic Park

Spotlight: The Joe Quinney Winter Sports Center at Utah Olympic Park is home to both the Alf Engen Ski Museum and the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games Museum. Yet the Sports Center isn't just a memorial to the past, it is still in continuous use to train current athletes for the next Olympic Games. Visitors can peruse the exhibits, watch athletes train and even participate in various activities throughout the year. The most popular (and expensive) activity is the Bobsled Run, but other winter activities include various rope courses. During the summer, guests can further explore the parks hiking and mountain bike trails. Other summer activities include: tubing down ski jumps, the alpine slide, zip lines, the Freestyle Show and the ropes courses.
Nordic Ski Jump ramps

Location: Utah Olympic Park is located at 3419 Olympic Parkway; Park City, UT

Cost: Bobsled Ride - $175; Gold Pass for winter/spring activities - $45/adult, $30/youth; Single Course tickets - $20; Guided Tour - $12/adult (13+), $7/child; virtual experience rides - $5 each; parking and museums - free

Time: The facility is open daily from 9:00 am - 6:00 pm. Winter activity day passes are open from noon to 4:00 pm Wed.-Sun. Check site for summer schedule. Plan on spending 2-4 hours if you are participating in any activities.

Description: The Alf Engen Ski Museum has exhibits on ski related equipment as well as interactive exhibits relating to snowfall, avalanches, and even a virtual reality ride in which visitors can get a feel for what it is like to ride a bobsled, ski downhill, or attempt the ski jump.
Virtual Reality rides

     The Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games Museum holds a collection of authentic items from the 2002 Winter Olympics including a torch, medals, items used in the Opening Ceremonies and equipment used by the participants. Each exhibit also has an interactive monitor that shows highlights or provides additional information.

     The Bobsled track is one of only two in the whole country (the other is at Lake Placid, NY). Visitors can ride the Comet bobsled from a point about 3/4 the way up the track. Rather than do a running entry like they do in the Olympics, riders do a sitting start behind the professional driver who pilots them to the bottom in about 47 seconds at speeds exceeding 65 mph. The ride is a thrill for adventure seekers, but hard to enjoy completely since you are cramped inside the sled trying to keep your back straight so that you don't get jostled around too much. Non-riders can watch the sled's progress from monitor screens at the bottom of the track.

     The Winter/Spring Gold Pass gives visitors unlimited day use of different ropes courses: Discovery Course (beginners), Canyon Course (intermediate), Summit Course (advanced) and Drop Tower. A different set of activities are available in the summer.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Things You Should Know: - Honestly, the experience of riding the bobsled is not worth the price. It is a once-in-a-lifetime type of experience to check off your bucket list. I'm glad I did it once, but now that I've done it, I'd never pay near that amount to do it again. So, unless it is something you've always wanted to do, it probably isn't worth it.
- You shouldn't ride the bobsled if you have any pre-existing back or neck injuries, have recently had surgery, are claustrophobic or are expecting.
- The winter bobsled ride runs from December until the beginning of April. During other months, they have a summer bobsled ride. It follows the same track, but the sled is on wheels instead of blades on ice. If you choose to go, make sure you get tickets ahead of time because they often sell out. Riders must be 16+ and weigh 100+ lbs.
- If you want to watch athletes train, check the site for schedule of training events. The Nordic ski jumps have a pool at the bottom where aerial skiers can practice their moves during the summer.
- Guided tours are one hour and include a shuttle ride to the top of the world's highest Nordic ski jumps. They start daily at 11:00 am, 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm.

Nearby: Canyons Village, All Seasons Adventures, Park City Mountain, Deer Valley Resort

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Spotlight: Salt Lake City - Anniversary Inn

Spotlight: If you are looking for a unique place to take your bride for your honeymoon, celebrate your anniversary, or even just a weekend getaway, you might want to try the Anniversary Inn. The Anniversary Inn is a bed and breakfast style inn famous for its uniquely themed rooms. For example, the one we went to on South Temple Street in Salt Lake City had the following decorated rooms: Secret Garden, Hayloft, Capitol Retreat, Phantom of the Opera, Mountain Hideaway, Mississippi Serenade, Kahn Mansion Suite, Anniversary Inn Suite, Jungle Safari, Mysteries of Egypt, Sultan's Palace, Savannah Nights, and the Enchanted Forest. The other Anniversary Inns each have their own unique rooms to explore. To preview the rooms, visit their official website.

Location: There are currently four inns run by the company. They are located at:
460 South 1000 East, Salt Lake City, UT
678 East South Temple, Salt Lake City, UT
169 East Center Street, Logan, UT
1575 South Lusk Ave., Boise, ID

Time: Check-In time is 5:00 pm; Check-out time is 12:00 pm (noon)

Cost: Ruby Suites start at $159/night (week nights) and $179/night (weekends)
     Emerald Suites are $209/night (week nights) and $229/night (weekends)
     Diamond Suites are $259/night (week nights) and $279/night (weekends)

Description: The Anniversary in on South Temple Street in SLC, is located in an older mansion that has been refurbished as an inn with themed rooms. The building itself has a rustic quality about it, with narrow staircases, a gabled roof, uniquely shaped rooms, and real keys. We stayed in the Enchanted Forest room on the third floor. The bed was a "four-poster bed" placed between the trunks of four "trees" with a leaf-top canopy. Tree roots served as steps to climb up onto the raised bed. The walls were painted to look like a forest complete with deer. From the bed, you looked into a "cottage" that housed the rest of the suite: a small table with two chairs, a clothing closet, a full sink area, a toilet closet, and a Jacuzzi/shower combo. The Jacuzzi tub was small and fairly old, but it was in fine working order. The shower looked old, but was heavenly. A halo of water came straight down from the hanging shower ring (about 1 foot diameter). An angled flat screen TV was on the roof of the cottage. The TV could be used to listen to romantic music, watch Direct TV, or a DVD/Blue-Ray. The accommodations were comfortable, clean, and cozy.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5) - mainly because the Wi-Fi didn't work in our room

Things You Should Know: - The Anniversary Inn gives tours of its suites from 1:00 pm - 3:00 pm daily.
- A small fridge is provided in each room, with two pieces of complimentary cheesecake for an evening snack. You are also provided with a complimentary bottle of sparkling cider on ice. The water bottles, however, cost extra.
- Breakfast is served at the hour of your choosing. You simply choose an entree and two drinks (per person) and turn your order in to the front desk by 10:00 pm the night before. It will be delivered on a tray outside your door at the appointed hour. The selection was somewhat limited (6 items), and the portions small, but the food was good. You could also order extra entrees for a reasonable price ($3).
- The front desk had a selection of DVDs that we could borrow (free) for the evening.
- My wife forgot to pack her toothbrush. Luckily, the front desk provided a cheap one (new) that she was able to use free of charge.
- All suites are designed for two people. Children and pets should be left home.
- No open flames are allowed in any of the suites (including candles and cigarettes). LED tealights are allowed.
- The inn we stayed at only had one internet router, so not all of the rooms were able to pick up the Wi-Fi signal.
- You can purchase additional packages to make your stay more enjoyable. These are popular honeymoon gifts. To review the list of options, go to:
- We were able to purchase a $100 gift card (for ourselves) at a reduced price ($70 at Costco).

Nearby: Temple Square, This Is the Place Monument State Park, Hogle Zoo, Snowbird Ski Resort

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Spotlight: The Uintas - Red Castle Lake

Spotlight: Red Castle Lake is a beautiful lake hidden in the High Uintas. There are actually 5 lakes in the area as well as about a dozen other smaller ponds. Red Castle Lake is the largest lake, and the most popular. Upper and Lower Red Castle Lakes can also be accessed along the main trail, but East Red Castle Lake and Smith's Fork Pass Lake are along the Smith Fork Pass Trail. The main activities here are hiking, camping, and fishing.

Location: The trail to Red Castle Lake begins at China Meadows. From there you take the East Fork Smith Fork Trail (Trail #110) all the way to Red Castle Lake.

Time: 2-5 days overall. It takes about 6-10 hours each way, depending on how much you are carrying, and how fast you hike. You probably want to have one day to hike in, one day to hike out, and another day or two to rest in between.

Cost: variable (gas, food, supplies)

Description: The trail to Red Castle Lake and back covers a distance of 25 miles. The trailhead starts at China Meadows, and gains almost 2,000 feet before reaching Red Castle Lake (11,300 feet). We did the entire hike in 3 days.
our pack horses

     The first day, we hiked from China Meadows to a campsite east of Lower Red Castle Lake. The East Fork Smith Fork Trail (#110) runs due south all the way to Red Castle Lake. It follows along the river the entire way, crossing it a couple of times. The bridges across the river are very sturdy. Although you are almost continually climbing, the incline is very gradual. The trail is usually shrouded with pine trees, with meadows opening up from time to time. Keep an eye out for moose or deer. After about 4 miles, the trail to Lake Hessie (later joining the trail to Kings Peak) juts off to the east; but chances are you won't even notice it until on the way back. A little further on the trail again splits. This time there is a large brown sign indicating which trail to take (stay left toward Red Castle). After passing along the spacious Broadbent Meadow, the trail heads up a series of switchbacks. Be careful, because it is easy to miss the first switchback, so if the trail starts to peter out, go back and check. Shortly after the switchbacks, the trail is joined by the Bald Mountain Trail. Immediately after, you can either continue on south to Red Castle Lake, or turn east across the bridge. We crossed the bridge and followed the trail to a series of secluded campgrounds to the east of Lower Red Castle Lake (the second largest lake in the region). We found a nice spot in the trees next to a pond and a large meadow about half a mile above the lake. Our campsite had a gorgeous view of Red Castle Butte. Overall hiking for the day was about 6 hours.

     The second day, we took day packs and fishing gear up to Red Castle Lake. The hike from Lower Red Castle Lake to Red Castle Lake is more strenuous, and you have to cross several small creeks by hopping from rock to rock, but at least we didn't have our heavy packs. The trail passes a series of ponds and even a beautiful waterfall before the steep climb up to the plateau on which Red Castle Lake is located. The lake dominates the plateau with Red Castle Butte on the east and Wilson Peak to the south. On the far side of the lake, up a slope of shale, is Upper Red Castle Lake. There are lots of fish in both lakes. Unfortunately, the day was really windy; so while some of our group caught several fish, others struggled with the wind and didn't catch any. Fortunately, even if you didn't catch any fish, there was plenty of beautiful scenery to enjoy. The hike from our campsite to Red Castle Lake and back was about 90 minutes each way.

     The third day we packed up our campsite and headed back down the same trail. The main differences is that our packs were a little lighter, and we were heading downhill so we didn't need to make as many breaks. This time the main fork we had to worry about was the one that broke off to the east (right) toward Lake Hessie and Kings Peak. The hike from our campsite back to the trailhead was a little over five hours.

Rating: 4 stars (it would be five if the wind and rain didn't wake me up several times each night)

Things You Should Know: - The Uinta Mountain range is the only major mountain range on the continent to run east to west instead of north to south.
- There are a couple of different campgrounds at China Meadows where you can camp in order to get an early start. Each campsite costs $14/day, and holds up to 8 people and one vehicle. Campsites are available on a first-come first-serve basis.
- The trailhead has about 50 parking spaces and horse corrals. There are also clean pit toilets.
- Dogs and horses are allowed on the trail, but must be on a leash.
- This is a moderate hike for experienced backpackers. However, it is difficult for novices. Even though we had horses packing in our tents and food, several people in our group had a rough time with it. It would be a good idea to train those who haven't gone backpacking before by having them do some practice hikes (wearing their backpacks), and teaching them the proper way to pack and carry their packs.
- The trail is well used, and easy to follow when clear of snow. Unfortunately, trail conditions are generally muddy, particularly due to the horses. There are small wooden boardwalks over some of the worst mud holes, but there are many other spots (including right before or after the bridges) that are just as bad.
- An alternate trail to the lake if via the Bald Mountain Route. This route is more scenic, but is less popular because it is much more strenuous.
- When going on a backpacking trip, make sure you have at least one experienced backpacker in your group. People can die in the back country if they don't know what they are doing.
- The best camping spots are near Lower Red Castle Lake since Red Castle Lake is above the timber line.
- The meadows are marshy due to the frequent rain. The weather is very unpredictable and can change suddenly from sunshine, to heavy winds, to rain in a matter of minutes. Be prepared for each possibility even if going on a short hike.
- Although there is plenty of fresh water, it should always be treated by one method or another to avoid contracting giardia or another water-born illness.
filling up our water bottles
- Kings Peak is the highest mountain in Utah. The trail to Kings Peak veers off to the east about four miles south of the trailhead. Kings Peak can also be accessed from several other trailheads.
- If there are people in your group who aren't used to high altitudes, they can be prone to altitude sickness. Keep an eye on them, and make sure they drink plenty of water and take frequent breaks.
- The trail to Red Castle Lake is usually covered in snow from November - June. The best time to hike to Kings Peak is in August and September. For current conditions, call the Evanston Ranger District at (307) 642-6662.

Nearby: Kings Peak, Fort Bridger, Mirror Lake, Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area