Calfornia or Bust – 2018 Driving Vacation
We usually travel to California by air but this year decided to plan an epic driving vacation to see all of the sights between Iowa and California that we could possibly pack in. In the last several years we had traveled to Yellowstone via the Black Hills and seen a big chunk of the western landscape. Last fall we planned a trip to the Grand Canyon and parts of the southwestern states on the spur of the moment. This time we hoped to see some of the places we had missed on those two trips. A highlight would be meeting up with Wendy and her family at Yosemite National Park, definitely a site on our bucket list with the added bonus of enjoying it with the Copleys. Unfortunately for that last part, the California Ferguson wildfire was threatening Yosemite and ultimately the park was evacuated. Before that even happened we decided to cancel our reservation there. Still on the bucket list but maybe another time.
While looking forward to a vacation is always exciting, this time we had some worries about a car trip of such a length. We shall see how our rather creeky joints will weather a car journey. Onward!
Monday, July 23 – Heading to Grand Island, NE
We got the car packed and left Cedar Rapids at about 9:30am. We knew that today was going to be one of the longest and most uneventful drives of the trip. We started our first audio book, “Scandal in Skibbereen” by Sheila Connelly. We had listened to her first book in the series on our Grand Canyon trip last year. It was a great way to pass the time and we didn’t stop for a break until we crossed the Missouri into Nebraska. We arrived in Grand Island and checked into our hotel at about 5:00pm.
We chose a Hispanic restaurant specializing in seafood that got good online reviews. It turned out to be an adventure because the menu was all in Spanish and the waiter didn’t speak much English. We got the job done and we both enjoyed our dinner.
When got back to the hotel we had a FaceTime session with Ben. Butch had sent him a map with all our stops and our itinerary of activities and attractions so he could keep track of our travels. In spite of a so-so connection we had a good chat. The rest of the evening was spent with catching up on our journal and relaxing.
Tuesday, July 24 – Grand Island to Scott’s Bluff, NE
After a hearty hotel breakfast buffet, we got an early start for Scottsbluff. Before our trip, our friend Patti, who grew up there, gave us some great advice about sights to take in so we had a plan for the places we wanted to see. From the beginning we had decided that we would not plan a strict interstate route. Even though we have a lot of ground to cover our purpose is seeing the country. We traveled across Nebraska first along Hwy 30 and then on other state highways that would take us north to Scottsbluff. We ended up driving the scenic byway through Sandhill country. It is best known for the gathering of Sandhill Cranes in the springtime. It seems that up to 500,000 cranes stop off in this area to feed and fatten up. That, of course, was not going on as we passed through.
However, the hills were unlike anything we had seen before and were quite beautiful. They are low with soft rolling folds, some with distinct peaks, and others that formed long ridges. They were covered in soft green grass with just a few trees. Bare spots reveal light sandy gravel sized rocks and soil. They look a lot like dessert or beach dunes except they are green. They are dotted with lots of small lakes and marshy areas which may also be attractive to the cranes.
Early settlers traveling to Oregon or California considered Scottsbluff as the end of the prairies and the start of the hard mountainous journey ahead.
A lot of the sights we visited had to do wth pioneer landmarks like Chimney Rock, pioneer graves, and the Scottsbluff National Monument. At the latter, we drove the twisty road to the top of the bluff to enjoy the view and then checked out the visitor center for exhibits and a short movie.
It turns out we are not so good at picking restaurants and tonight we had a mediocre but expensive dinner before heading to our hotel. Resting up for tomorrow is our goal.
Wednesday, July 25 – Cheyenne’s Frontier Days Rodeo!
We set an alarm for this morning which rankled but we wanted an early start to get to the rodeo at Cheyenne’s Frontier Days.The motel we stayed at had a deal with a little diner that was right next door. We went there for breakfast which was ok but not great. I include this picture for all middle century boomers who almost certainly remember formica counter and tabletops with the distinctive pink and gray boomerang pattern.
On the way into the diner we saw a really strange racing boat. It was still there when we came out and I took a picture of it. The guys with the boat were just coming out and I asked one of them how fast it went. He said 210 miles per hour, but you couldn’t do it in the ocean, it had to be run on a calm lake. This was in the morning and he said they had to be in Washington State the next day. We were in western Nebraska. Good gravy.
We had looked at the forecast for today and saw there was an 80% chance of rain. There was a Dollar General near our hotel so we zipped in to buy some ponchos before we got on the road.
Our route was again on two lane roads and we enjoyed the beautiful scenery along the route. We had a long stretch of prairie again and then started to climb into foothills. The road wound between hills and rocky formations but was smooth and we made good time. We continued to listen to our audio book and finished it up.
We had decided to park in the shuttle lot on the advice of the ticket agent who sold us our admission. Since got an early start we got on a shuttle bus and arrived at the Frontier Days grounds. Everyone we met was super nice and helped us arrange a golf cart ride from the gate and a scooter ride up the ramp to the top of the arena. Our seats were in a shady covered section overlooking the bull and horse pens and the chutes for the riders. Unfortunately they were in the very topmost row so we had a long trek up scary steps to get there.
Neither of us had ever been to a rodeo and it was so much fun. There was a great opening ceremony with galloping horses and fancy riding. Right at the end they drove in about 20 horses that ran full speed around the arena. It was rather thrilling. Since our seats overlooked the chutes, we had a great view of the riders and crew getting ready and coming out.
We saw bare bronc riding, cattle throwing, bull riding, junior bull riding and cattle tying. It was all totally amazing and it is a wonder those young men can walk normally. It is certainly a punishing sport. Apparently it is well paid for those who consistently win. They had some world champion riders who had earned in the millions over their careers.
Butch took some wonderful action photos of the events. I tried to take some and was so slow that I missed their whole ride so I decided to watch and enjoy. Plus I get to look at his pictures.
When we left the rodeo grounds we drove to Walton, CO for the night. Frontier Days is such a big deal that we couldn’t find any hotel near Cheyenne. We ended up driving 116 miles to find a place to stay. We ate buffalo burgers and had some beers at the Moose Creek Cafe before going back to our hotel for the night. What a wonderful day.
Thursday, July 26 – Dinosaur National Monument
We had breakfast in the same place we ate dinner last night. That was the first dinner we had that was acceptable. Why mess with a sure thing?…and breakfast is a meal lots of places can get right. We do not have particularly good luck picking restaurants while on vacation. The available fare is usually burgers, sandwiches, or “country style” places often described as American Comfort Food, with less than tasty or fresh offerings. We are hopeful we can fine a nice restaurant in Salt Lake City.
Anyway, we got away and again drove two lane highways heading toward Dinosaur National Monument. The terrain changed dramatically as we traveled along. Green, tree covered mountains, high passes looking down onto lakes, a 7 mile descent with edges that went straight down, and then arid rocky landscapes as we drove into Utah. Today’s drive was about 4 hours which is our favorite distance, though actually the sights we want to see determine how far we go. We are good for about one attraction per day for the most part. That counts for driving, seeing the attraction, then driving the rest of the way to our night’s stop.
The monument has a couple of parts and the most famous and accessible is the Dinosaur Quarry Exhibit Hall. The site was first discovered just after 1900 and has yielded an incredible assortment of complete fossils and individual bones. The exhibit building was built around a massive wall of fossil bones that have been revealed and prepared by scientists. It is still being worked on and new discoveries of skeletons are still being made. Chances are, if you have ever visited a major museum that has dinosaur bones, some of them have come from this site. There is a long ramp that leads to a viewing balcony and on the ground floor you are allowed to touch the fossil bones still in the rock wall. They think that when the dinosaurs that contributed the fossils died, it was a particularly dry period. Something, a flash flood perhaps, killed many dinosaurs in the dry riverbed. That flood or a later one pickup up the carcasses and wash them down stream where they were stopped, lika a fossil log jam.
The hall was air conditioned but the day was very hot and our car thermometer said 101 as we left.
Finally, we hit the dinner jackpot tonight. We went to The Vernal Brewing Company in Vernal, Utah. They are a micro brewery and served delicious food. I had red trout from Idaho and Butch had chicken skillet pie. Both were delicious and made from real, fresh ingredients.