Archive for July, 2004

St. Louis, Mo.
Visited: July 28, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 68 of 353
NPS Website

Gateway ArchWHAT IS IT?
A handful of structures in downtown St. Louis dedicated to preserving the legacy of American westward expansion. Most notable among these structures is the 630-foot high Gateway Arch.

BEAUTY (7/10)
The Gateway Arch is stunning. We could not take our eyes off it from our approach on Interstate 64 to our departure two days later to the south. The Arch beckons the traveler to pass through its doorway and head west. While in its shadow, the Arch’s shape seems to warp into impossible angles while its peak reaches unattainable heights. Eero Saarinen’s graceful creation deserves its spot among the pantheon of American landmarks.

If we had not ventured into the Arch’s underground museum, our score would have been a 9 or a 10. From the outside, the Arch challenges the imagination and inspires the tourist. From the inside, it frustrates and annoys. We were immediately struck by the stench, confused by the poor layout and dreary from its dark colors.

The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (JNEM) represents America’s push westward and the vision of our 3rd president.

CROWDS (2/10)
Too many people in a poor use of space. The situation underground was manic, loud, smelly and vexing. We did not purchase a ticket to ride the elevator to the top of the Arch. Severe claustrophobia was the deterrent. If we had, we would have stood in line for at least a half hour. People inside did not seem happy. They shared our bewilderment and reluctant obligation. As the Midwest’s most famous attraction, we do not think the crowd ever abates.

Outside was another story. People sun-bathed, tossed footballs and had fun on the grassy lawn.

The Site’s central location and accessible paths wage battle with an impenetrable Museum, large crowds and burnt out, hard-worked Rangers.

Exterior assumptions are deceiving at the JNEM. This score should be a 5. There are two bookstores: one sells knickknacks, T-shirts and books; one is dressed like an old pioneer store and sells spices, candies and other period specific items. The modern store has a good book selection weakened only slightly by spreading itself thin. The Arch-related kitsch and the pioneer goods are cool as well. However, the low ceilings and jam-packed aisles forced us into a frenzy. We could not browse in peace and could not ask the pioneer clerks what we were looking at. Even the buckets of spices could not erase the smell of crowded sweat. Great selection, bad experience.

COSTS (1/5)
The JNEM was the first Site out of nearly 100 to charge us for its Park Brochure. We paid our $0.25 but left the bookstore angry.

Below is the cost breakdown from the Site’s website:

Adults(17 & up) Youth(13-16) Children(3-12 yrs.) National Park Passport
Tram: $8.00 $5.00 $3.00 $5.00
Movie: $7.00 $4.00 $2.50 $4.00
Riverboat: $10.00 $10.00 $4.00 $10.00
Tram & Movie: $12.00 $9.00 $5.50 $9.00
Tram & Riverboat: $18.00 $15.00 $7.00 $15.00

The tram is the elevator to the Arch’s apex. We have no idea what the Riverboat is and can’t find any reference to it on the website. The Site’s $3 entry fee is collected only when you purchase a movie or tram ticket. There are also two movies shown in separate cinemas, one about the Arch’s architect and one about Lewis and Clark. We are not sure if your movie ticket is good for both. Our cost confusion factored into our hastened exit.

Parking at the Site’s lot costs $6. Local parking garages cost more.

Rangers are everywhere, but most are hard to approach and some are surly. Upon entry, we approached the Info desk, waited a few minutes in line and then asked for a Park Brochure. An ornery, “We don’t have any, we’ve run out” was the response. Scared, but resolute, we asked for the National Parks Passport Stamp and received a curt “it’s in the bookstore.”

Behind the desk at the bookstore, we saw the supposedly spent Brochure… on sale for a quarter. Why couldn’t the Ranger have just told us it was for sale? Our second Ranger encounter was on a Museum Tour about the history of the Horse. We wandered into her just-started lecture and were met with an agitated, “are you here for the tour, you’re late.” We moved on.

To be fair, our third Ranger was very sweet and helpful. We were confused by the Museum layout and needed aid on where to start. She led us in the right direction explaining that the Museum has little direction at all, find your way, explore. She added that there was a tour starting in just a bit that helps explain the Museum’s nebulous ways. She felt our perplexity.

The Museum of Westward Expansion operates on the same thesis as the arch: immerse the visitor in the idea of the West, create understanding through symbols, emotions and an absence of barriers. The rooms are open; a standard motion and pattern through the exhibits not defined. The rooms are organized vertically and horizontally. Time is horizontal, moving from 1803 in the entry point to 1900 in the museum’s rear. The western themes of explorers, farmers, soldiers, Indians, and more are represented vertically. They progress in time as you move up and back. If you move left to right, you stay in the same time period but move through themes. You are supposed to wander as you’d like. We gave it the old college try, but soon wandered out.

We respect the idea of open education but sadly acknowledge that in practice it falls short. The JNEM feels like a relic, a noble sixties experiment that sounds good but works poorly and inspires only frustration.

FUN (5/10)
Yes from the outside, no from the inside.

It is hard not to recommend the Gateway Arch, despite its many shortcomings. It is an American icon whose glistening elegant essence represents our westward dreams. See it from the outside. Let it relax you, let it inspire you.

TOTAL 40/80


Read Full Post »

in southern West Virginia from Fayetteville to Hinton
Visited: July 27, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 67 of 353
NPS Website

New River GorgeWHAT IS IT?
53 miles of protected river that cuts a profound gorge into the mountainous countryside. The New River boasts both excellent fishing and challenging whitewater. Alongside the river’s borders lie the remains of once great railroad towns and abandoned coal mines.

BEAUTY (10/10)
The most beautiful place we have ever seen in the eastern United States. The trees are lush; the water is a warm 75°, the gorge dramatic, the river intense. Mist hovers above the water, exposed sandstone rock juts out from sheer cliffs, every bend in the river brings a stunning view. The New River Gorge Bridge, America’s second highest bridge crosses the canyon just south of Park’s northern River border. The man-made structure spans the River with a regal presence.

The New River Gorge feels like the tropics. Our entire boat vocally wondered if we were in a jungle. Maybe it was the three inches of rain the previous night or perhaps it was the inch that fell during our trip’s first two hours. It could have even been the hundreds of vultures sunning themselves in trees alongside the riverbank or even the intense greens of the flora. For us it was the smell, a smell of sticky growth and untold excitement. We all felt like we were in an adventure movie and a treasure was just around the corner.

Reminders of King Coal emanate everywhere along the River. You see abandoned mine shafts and black veins on the exposed gorge rocks. Still-working coal-carrying trains roar through the valley on the river’s edge. A once-thriving resort town and coal center, Thurmond, lies within Park boundaries. The town’s grand brick structures stand in ruin along the banks lending an eerie historical charm to the adventure.

The New River also enjoys a significant natural significance: it is the world’s second oldest river, junior only to the Nile.

CROWDS (9/10)
On the ride to the departure spot, a river guide stressed to a busload of eager rafters, “Get to know the person next to you. Make friends. They could be the one pulling you out of the water.” Once we launched into the New River, our guide, Wriston, introduced our boat of nine whitewater neophytes to the basic rafting techniques and to each other. Both introductions were equally important.

Over the course of our six-hour trip we would get to know each other real well. We paddled together, worked through difficult technical rapids together, ate together, swam together, pulled each other out of the boat together and after the trip was over, drank soda and beer together.

Our nine ranged from ages 13 to 60 with wide ranging geographical and life experiences. We quickly bonded as a team, faced difficult challenges and had a rip-roaring time.

Can You Sense the Fear?EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
The Park, while close by Interstates 64 and 77, is demonstrably prohibitive. To fully experience the River, you need to be on it. Unless you are an experienced kayaker, the difficult Class III through Class V Rapids (VI being the most difficult) must be tackled with an outfitter and on a whitewater raft. If you are just fishing, road access to the New River’s banks is challenging. Once you leave U.S. Route 19, the roads pare down to a narrow tortuous unmarked one lane. Be very careful if you are driving at night.

Scenic views from above do exist at and around three of the Site’s four Visitor Centers.

The NPS bookstore was not too unique.

COSTS (1/5)
20 different whitewater outfitters operate nearby the New River. Full-day trip prices range anywhere from $75 to $95 per adult. We stumbled upon a $62 Tuesday-only rate from Appalachian Whitewater and left ecstatic with the product we received. If we were to return, we would use the same company. Half-day trips are available from some outfitters.

The National Park Service takes a backseat to the many outfitters at the New River Gorge. It is probably for the best. There is no way that the federal government could offer a whitewater rafting excursion. This is not to say that the Park Service exists sight unseen at the New.

There are four Visitor Centers which provide information and give cursory explanations of the New. Our biggest complaint about the NPS Visitor Centers is their hours. They are all open from 9-5. Sounds fine, right? Sure, if you are just driving through the area and only want to look down into the Gorge. However, the full day rafting trips take place roughly from 9-5, making a VC visit impossible.

The NPS offers free camping at four separate campsites. We stayed at the Stone Cliff Campsite, a few miles from any VC. We arrived at 5:30 and were dismayed at the lack of any Ranger presence, especially since we were along the New’s riverbanks, it rained over three inches, there was no cell-phone service, the roads to and fro were extremely narrow and we were in the middle of Appalachia.

If the Visitor Centers stayed open a few more hours, they would greatly increase the numbers of people who need to use their services.

We could not have asked for more from our Tour Guide, Wriston. He gave us a great trip, a comprehensive West Virginia and New River Gorge history, plenty of corny jokes and an intensive lesson on how to whitewater. Our safety and well-being lay in his hands and on his commands. We never felt in danger.

We have gained a burning desire to whitewater again as well as the confidence to attempt more difficult waters. Like the nearby (and much more difficult) Gauley River in September. It is a National Recreation Area and consistently rates among the Top 5 whitewater trips in the world.

New River Gorge BridgeFUN (10/10)
Non-stop, roller-coaster, keep coming back for more-fun. And not just the rafting. We jumped off 15 foot high rocks, swam through a Class III rapid and relaxed in the 75° water underneath the New River Gorge Bridge. Here’s another example:

Wriston asked for a volunteer. Of course Gab blindly offered her services. Her mission: Sit on the front of the boat through a Class IV Rapid, hold on with one hand while waving with the other. Pretend you are riding a bull. She succeeded, screaming and yelling through the entire thing while the entire boat wished they had volunteered first.

Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes.

TOTAL 58/80

Read Full Post »

West Branch, Iowa
Visited: July 12, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 65 of 353
Presidential Library Visted: 2 of 12
NPS Website; Presidential Library Website

Herbert Hoover BirthplaceWHAT IS IT?
The original birthplace cottage, small-town neighborhood, Presidential Library and Museum and gravesite of Herbert Hoover, our 31st president. The Site also includes over 80 acres of re-introduced tall grass prairie.

BEAUTY (6/10)
The entire site is beautifully manicured. Hoover’s birthplace cottage sits in its original location next to what used to be a main street through town. The Park Service has relocated a Quaker meetinghouse and a one-room schoolhouse, West Branch’s oldest building to the small neighborhood which is now accessed by pedestrian-only walkways.

Past the tree-shaded neighborhood are picnic pavilions and, at the time of our visit, a traveling exhibit entitled The Moving Wall. Further along the path are the graves of Herbert and his wife, Lou. The site is bordered on the South and West sides by flowering tall grass prairie.

Prior to our visit, we did not have the best opinion of Herbert Hoover. His stubbornness was responsible for the Great Depression. After our visit, we were not so sure. Hoover was obstinate but he also led a fascinating life. Born in a small cottage in small town Iowa. His mother was a Quaker minister and a border state abolitionist. Both his parents were well known for their sense of humor. They both died shortly after Herbert turned 10.

Soon after, Herbert moved to Oregon where he lived with relatives. After graduating with a geology degree from Stanford, Herbert took a job searching for gold in Australia. By the age of 23, he was a multi-millionaire living in China with the reputation as the world’s pre-eminent and most financially successful geologist.

In the succeeding years, Hoover achieved many humanitarian goals. He fed Europe and then the United States during World War I. He evacuated thousands of American citizens with his own money during the Great War. He was loved throughout the world for his giving spirit. When elected president, America believed Hoover’s promises to end poverty. No other president had ever been more prepared to help. The Great Depression proved otherwise.

Michael’s Elementary SchoolCROWDS (5/10)
Who goes to the Herbert Hoover NHS? More people than we expected. There was a good crowd of visitors strolling the grounds and looking through the Visitor Center. They did not impact our visit. A few women were louder than necessary in the Presidential Library. Gab kept a distance and as a result did not get to see the later exhibits before the Library closed.

Herbert Hoover NHS is just a stone’s throw from Exit 254 of Interstate 80. West Branch is in the eastern portion of the state, about 10 miles east of Iowa City and the University of Iowa.

There are two different parking areas in the 187-acre site, one for the Visitor Center and one near the Hoovers’ graves. If you do not care to drive the short distance between lots paved walkways take you past immaculately manicured lawns, a canopied picnic area and a few restored buildings. The Site is fully wheelchair accessible. Even the tall grass prairie, forbidding from a distance, has a grass path blazed through it and cared for as if it were a golf course fairway.

The bookstore at the Presidential Library stocked a definitive selection of mostly obscure Herbert Hoover-related books in addition to lots of fun and expensive items. Dozens of magnets, reproductions of the Hoovers’ famous oriental vases and serving dishes, hollowed out pencils with the inscription ‘Be a Geologist!’ and filled with crystals, prints of the Grant Wood painting of Herbert Hoover’s Birthplace, Iowa history books and presidential history books. The bookstore caters well to both the casual tourist and the serious Hoover enthusiast. The only negative was that the gift center closed at 4:30, a half hour prior to the museum itself.

Country Spire COSTS (4/5)
The Site costs $4 per person, $2 with a National Parks Pass. The charge is due to the Presidential Library and Museum, which is not administered by the National Park Service.

The National Parks Visitor Center provides the tourist with a nice gift. We gladly accepted a pen and ink drawing, on nice paper to boot, of the charming Hoover Birthplace Cottage.

A few Rangers staff the Visitor Center and the restored village. The Presidential Library and Museum has no Rangers but is fully self-guided. We left the Site with a few questions unanswered, more Ranger could have helped.

The Presidential Museum does not shy away from Hoover’s misgivings and mismanagement. The Site not only describes what happened during Hoover’s life, it aims to show why decisions were made and why Hoover failed to act more decisively during the Depression. The Museum is rare in that it puts its subject’s life in a broad context, dedicating rooms solely to the political and cultural history of America.

History has largely forgotten Hoover’s extraordinary life pre-Presidency. The Herbert Hoover NHS has not. We entered the Presidential Museum at 3:00 p.m. By 5:00 p.m., we had seen only about 2/3 of the Hoover exhibits when we the museum guards asked us to leave. We wished we had gotten to the Site earlier. The Museum is terrific.

The Visitor Center film is well done. It focuses primarily on Herbert’s life in Iowa and raises lots of questions; most of which are thoroughly addressed at the nearby museum. The restored buildings in the Site’s West Branch neighborhood are well marked and staffed by rotating Rangers. Official Ranger-led tours take place a few times a day,

FUN (6/10)
Surprisingly, we did enjoy our visit. We wished we had more time. More Rangers posted at the buildings would have helped, but the Rangers we did encounter were friendly and knowledgeable, particularly the young Ranger stuck without air conditioning in the hot birthplace cottage.

We took a lovely stroll through the grounds and had there been more time, probably could have spent two more hours in the Library and another hour walking through the tall grass prairie. Once again, a site that we thought would take an hour to visit filled our afternoon and left us wanting more.

Lovely IowaWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10)
We arrived at the Site expecting to be alone and were surprised to find a half-full parking lot. As our visit stretched over the three-hour mark, we understood why: The site welcomes visitors to wander the grounds at their own pace. Shaded pavilions and an ample number of benches and tables make picnicking here a real possibility, not just an afterthought mentioned in a tour book. The tall grass prairie trail, not mentioned in the park pamphlet, invites visitors not only to look but to walk through the park’s efforts to restore the land to its natural state.

We were touched at the gift of the pen and ink drawing of Hoover’s home. We probably won’t frame it, but one could. It is not a shoddy souvenir.

The Presidential Library, although not officially part of the National Historic Site, does add tremendous value to the visit, particularly if you are interested in learning more about a president who often does not receive more than a few disparaging sentences in the history books.

If you have no interest in Herbert Hoover, the Library may still add some insight to the 1920s and 30s in America. If the history of this period is not your cup of tea either, you can skip this site with no remorse.

TOTAL 49/80

Read Full Post »

Springfield, Ill.
Visited: July 13, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 66 of 353
NPS Website

Pick Me a WinnerWHAT IS IT?
The house Abraham Lincoln and his family lived in for 17 years, from 1844 to 1861; the only house Abe ever owned. The Site also includes four blocks of buildings restored to their 1860 appearance.

BEAUTY (5/10)
The tree-lined shady streets are pleasant but not spectacular. Lincoln’s home is large but modest. Other than the brass nameplate on the door, little sets it apart from the other reconstructed homes on the street.

Lincoln and Springfield are intertwined. Abraham Lincoln practiced law here, married here, raised his family here, prepared for the Presidency here. Springfield wept when Lincoln left to take Office, but has grown now as a thriving town because of his residency. In Springfield, it’s all about Lincoln.

FYI, Abraham Lincoln still holds the record for number of cases tried before the Illinois Supreme Court.

CROWDS (2/10)
A lot of people visit Lincoln’s Home in Springfield. House tours are frequent. We went on the 9:50 a.m. tour. There was also a 9:45 and a 10:00. Lincoln’s house was packed. The narrow hallways ballooned with our 20-person tour group. We were unable to squeeze into half of the rooms during the Ranger talk. Even though the Ranger encouraged questions, our enquiries had to be screamed over the crowd’s din and answered while we swiftly moved to the next room. We had to clear the way for the next group. Our visit was severely hindered by the Site’s inability to control its large crowds.

Springfield, Illinois lies in the center of the state at the intersection of Interstates 72 and 55. Signs point you to the “Lincoln Sites”. We were confused because the entire city is a Lincoln site. Nothing pointed us specifically to the Lincoln Home NHS. The streets’ overwhelming tendency to be one-way did not help.

The Lincoln Home had narrow hallways and steep staircases. We were uncomfortable during our entire tour. We were rushed through the rooms and had little time to take in and appreciate our surroundings.

Our tour guide told us that Abraham Lincoln is the most written-about person in American history at nearly 10,000 books. The Site bookstore did not have many of them. The store’s cramped space made browsing difficult among the many visitors.

Just Like Abe KnewCOSTS (3/5)
The Lincoln Home NHS is free; however, the NPS parking lot is $2 per hour. We parked on the street about three feet from the parking lot entrance for $0.50 an hour.

There were four Rangers working themselves ragged giving back-to-back-to-back high-speed tours through the Lincoln Home. We saw them during our entire stay but never without a tour group. The questions that we did not sneak in during our tour were left unanswered.

We entered the Visitor Center and were immediately asked if we wanted to join the next tour of Lincoln’s home. Of course! Our tour was scheduled for 9:50 a.m., just a few minutes away. We were told to go wait by the sign in the middle of the road. We wandered over and saw not one, but two clusters of people – one kind of near a sign, but another sitting in the shade with a Ranger already speaking to them. Were we late? Did the tour start early. Through whispers with a kind woman near the edge of the group, we learned that this was the 9:45 group. She thought the 9:50 might be over in the opposite direction.

One tour at 9:45 and another at 9:50? That should have been our first indication that it would be a busy day.

Our Ranger came rushing over, almost breathless from his previous tour which must have ran late. He didn’t even pause to take a breathe before he asked the group the time and what time our tour was supposed to begin. Looking at his watch and seeing it was 9:50, he wasted no time telling us about Lincoln and his life and career in Springfield. We waited outside to give the 9:45 tour some room, but not much. We crowded into the small foyer and tried our hardest to stay on the carpeted runners that led through the preserved house.

The Park Service has done an admirable job restoring the house and retrieving items belonging to the Lincoln family. We wish we had more time to appreciate its work. Because of size and time constraints, each group was led through the house by Rangers who knew their lines by heart. Not to say our Ranger wasn’t knowledgeable. He was. But he was also very aware of the time of his next tour.

The video in the Visitor Center is a rehash of the Ranger-led tour through Lincoln’s home. We actually saw things closer in the video than we did in the house. However, the costumed guide in the video is currently in first place (by a large margin) for the Worst Acting in a NPS Film for this month.

FUN (4/10)
The heat, the crowds and the confusion weighed down this score. Once we left the small four-block area of the National Historic Site and wandered through the rest of Springfield, our spirits lifted. The Old State Capitol was lovingly restored by the city of Springfield. We talked at length with a historian there who gave us the time and the answers that the Park Ranger was unable. Down the road, we peeked into the windows of the almost-ready Lincoln Presidential Museum where, pamphlets announce, “no expense has been spared.” We felt privileged to get a sneak preview of what will undoubtedly be one of Springfield’s, perhaps Illinois’, primary attractions.

Mr. Lincoln I PresumeWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10)
Michael’s grandfather loved Abraham Lincoln. Our trip to Springfield was a pilgrimage not only to see Lincoln’s home, but to honor his grandfather’s memory and his hero. When his grandparents traveled to the Site over 25 years ago, he knew through their retelling that they felt closer to Lincoln. We did too. Our feelings came primarily from the nearby Old State Capitol and especially Lincoln’s Tomb and sadly, not the National Park Site. Springfield exists as both the Capitol of Illinois and a shrine to our sixteenth president. Our recommendation is for Springfield more so than the Lincoln Home NHS. Next year a massive modern Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum will open two blocks from the Old State Capitol. We might have to find our way back to central Illinois.

TOTAL 39/80

Read Full Post »

Bayard, Neb.
Visited: July 9, 2004
NPS Site Visited: Not an Official Site
NPS Affiliate Site Visited: 9 of 26
NPS Website; Local Website

Chimney RockWHAT IS IT?
Famous 500-foot high rock formation. Chimney Rock was an important geographical landmark for the thousands of pioneers traveling west along the Oregon Trail.

BEAUTY (6/10)
Chimney Rock is unmistakable. Its willowy, fragile spire dramatically rises from its cylindrical base. The rock is a revelation after hours of driving through the dull monotony of the flat Nebraska plains. Chimney Rock still amazes, despite the erosion that has significantly shortened the spire since the time of the pioneers.

Chimney Rock stands as a powerful landmark and an evocative reminder of the travails and emotions of the hardy 19th-century pioneers. We have experienced westward expansion through museums, books and even the venerable computer game Oregon Trail. The vision of Chimney Rock brought a remarkably more profound historical understanding. The pioneers all passed here, most camped in its shadow, their diaries all comment about it. They were nearing the west. Their trek across the Great Plains was nearly over.

CROWDS (6/10)
Our visit was not altered by the sparse but steady crowd at Chimney Rock. A female English tourist dressed in full pioneer regalia intrigued us, but we left without asking her any questions.

Chimney Rock is located along Nebraska Route 26, a two-lane road that skirts the Platte River. While the landmark can easily be viewed from the Route 26, the road is over 40 miles from Interstate 80 and a round trip circuit to Chimney Rock from the Interstate will cost you over 100 miles.

A nice, if unremarkable, selection of books about both pioneer and Nebraska history.

COSTS (2/5)
Admission into the Chimney Rock museum cost $3 per adult. The Site is run by the Nebraska State Historical Society and not the National Park Service. Because it is an affiliate site, the National Parks Pass is not valid.

There are no Rangers and no guides at the Site. The museum is fully self-guided.

Chimney RockTOURS/CLASSES (4/10)
There is a small selection of exhibits to the right of the Receptionist’s Desk and a short 15-minute movie which runs on a loop. We did not see anything that compelled us to pay the $3 since we spent the morning at Scotts Bluff National Monument. Much of the material was similar. Instead, we perused the bookstore and went outside to view the Rock itself.

FUN (3/10)
There is not much to do aside from view Chimney Rock from a distance. We entertained ourselves hamming it up and picture taking creatively using the grazing cows and Chimney Rock. The costumed Briton was curious. It helped that our friend Bruce was along for the ride. We wouldn’t go so far to say that Chimney Rock is fun.

Chimney Rock shares the same historical significance as Scotts Bluff NM, which can also be reached via Route 26. If you are traveling across Nebraska, this is a nice alternate route, particularly if you are impatient to see the Rockies and want some diversion from the flat, flat landscape.

TOTAL 41/80

Read Full Post »

Gering, Neb.
Visited: July 9, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 64 of 353
NPS Website

Hiking up ScottsbluffWHAT IS IT?
Large rock formation near the North Platte River in the Nebraska panhandle. One of the few distinctive landmarks for early settlers and travelers on the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails and riders of the Pony Express.

BEAUTY (6/10)
The stark range of high sand hills jutting above the Plains does impress. The towns of Gering and Scottsbluff spread out below the Bluff, as do Eagle Rock and Sentinel Rock. If you look closely, Chimney Rock is in the distance. Our rattlesnake anxieties kept our eyes focused downward, so we were also able to appreciate the numerous varieties of prairie grasses and flowers around the Bluff.

Driving from Omaha across the very flat state, we could appreciate the significance of the Bluff and empathize with the families and individuals in search of something in the west. With the exception of Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff National Monument is one of the few things that break the monotony of the long, long drive. What took us six hours would have taken early settlers at least eleven days. In some areas, ruts from prairie schooners and wagons are still visible. These remnants of the Oregon Trail have lasted due to erosion and water running through and packing down the well-worn trails.

Scotts Bluff was named after Hiram Scott. The injured Scott was left behind by the rest of his Expedition Party and eventually perished on the bluff. We joked that even though Scott wasn’t liked enough to be saved by his group, someone liked him enough to name a hunk of rock in his honor. Go figure.

CROWDS (6/10)
A small but vocal group of senior citizens watched the Monument’s video with us. Their not-quite-whispered comments were more amusing than annoying. A few people wandered around the bookstore. Once we started walking to the top of the Monument, we passed one family and one individual. That’s it. Given that it was at least 90 degrees, we assume that most visitors opted to drive up to the top or take the free shuttle.

Trail RutsEASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
The Scotts Bluff NM can be seen for miles. The Visitor Center is not far from the town center of Gering, Nebraska off State Road 92. The Center itself is an older building, one story, but a little cramped inside. Bathrooms are in a separate, more accessible building. Water fountains are placed in several locations since the weather is often sunny, dry and hot.

Scotts Bluff NM now offers a free shuttle van up and down the Bluff for visitors who would like to see the top but would rather not walk or drive themselves. We took advantage of the shuttle for the trek back down the bluff. Since there were few visitors to the site, we were able to call from our cell phone and the van was there in minutes. On busier days, the shuttle will run 2-3 times an hour.

Not great. There was not a wide selection of books. None of the souvenirs appealed to us. The Tour Guide that we bought was not at all what we thought it would be.

COSTS (2/5)
Entrance to the Monument is free with the National Parks Pass, five dollars per vehicle good for seven days without it. Five dollars seems steep given that there are no Ranger-led tours or modern facilities at the site.

Scotts Bluff NM is clearly short staffed. We were reminded of this every time we asked for information and volunteers scrambled to find the one Ranger that was on duty during our visit.

We visited Scotts Bluff NM with a Gering native. He confirmed that the displays, photographs, even the dioramas had not changed since the last time he visited the site – over twenty years ago. The exhibits definitely show their age.

We purchased a tour guide for 50 cents without reviewing its contents. Bad move. What we had thought would be a step by step explanation of the hike to the top of the Bluff turned out to be just a listing of the short walks one can take at the top of the Bluff. The guide offered no information that was not present on signs at the beginning of each walk.

When we asked if there were any interpretive talks offered, staff at the desk seemed flustered, as if they didn’t know what exactly we were asking. They called upon a Ranger who explained that no talks were offered today since the other Ranger was out to lunch and they were short staffed. She suggested that we stop by the next morning when she would give a short talk near two reconstructed wagons and explain their contents.

After watching the film and walking to the top of the Bluff to examine the scenery below, one question was nagging us so much that we had to return to the Visitor Center and search for an answer: why didn’t followers of the Oregon Trail just cross the Platte River and utilize the much easier North bank of the river like the Mormons did? The Platte is not overly wide. It was no deeper then than it is now. To us, it did not seem impossible to cross and the end result would have been a much less treacherous pass across the sand hills.

We did find a Ranger and she told us that although the Platte is not wide, it has no solid bottom. In other words, stepping into the silty water would feel like stepping into quicksand – something one wouldn’t want to do with their livestock and wagon in tow. In fact, the shallower the water, the more difficult it may have been to cross. The Mormon’s starting point in Nauvoo, Illinois placed them on the North side of the Platte and offered them the (relatively) easier trail.

The Scorching PanhandleFUN (5/10)
We enjoyed the mildly strenuous walk up the Bluff on a beautiful day. While we were disappointed with the contents of the Visitor Center, we were moved by the natural wonder of the Bluff and the portions of the Oregon Trail that still remain.

Seeing the ruts, experiencing the drive and the relief of finally coming upon a recognizable land marker connected us with generations of American travelers. If you are making the drive across country, it makes sense to stop here.

TOTAL 41/80

Read Full Post »

Sioux City, Iowa
Visited: June 30, 2004
NPS Site Visited: Not an NPS Site
Local Website

Love That DogWHAT IS IT?
One of many Interpretive Centers that have recently sprung up along the Lewis and Clark Trail in anticipation of the ongoing bicentennial celebration of the explorers’ journey. The Center in Sioux City, Iowa focuses on the portion of the trek that took place along the Missouri River from outside St. Louis and into southwestern South Dakota.

BEAUTY (3/10)
The brand new facility sits on the bank of the Missouri. Mixed grass prairie is being cultivated around the building. A huge 15 stars, 15 stripes flag flies outside next to a handsome statue of Lewis, Clark and their dog Seaman. What the building lacks in pizzazz on the outside is made up for inside with a good design and pleasant use of space.

It is hard not to be fascinated by the Corps of Discovery. We know, we tried. Before we started the USA-C2C journey, we were unfazed by all the Lewis and Clark bicentennial hoopla. Now every brown trail sign, the ones where either Lewis or Clark points you on your way, makes us excited. Every site along the Trail holds historic significance. This Site marks a place of tragedy, the only instance during the two-year trip where someone died: Sergeant Floyd.

CROWDS (8/10)
We were not the only ones having fun at this site. Also giddy was a 40-ish woman with her teenage daughter, a few elderly couples, a 30-something man, little kids, everybody. We all stamped our L&C workbooks, traced with crayons and laughed at the animatronic Newfoundland and prairie dog. What a great time. Even though the site was crowded we had never waited to experience any of the numerous interactive displays.

The L&C Interpretive Center sits right off Interstate 29 near downtown Sioux City, Iowa. The Site is next door to the Iowa Welcome Center. The building is one story and is completely accessible to people in wheelchairs.

We cite this bookstore as the place where we finally admitted to having the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial fever. The small gift store had an amazing wealth of L&C items. We purchased a charming children’s book for Michael’s kindergarten teacher mom that tells the story from the perspective of Lewis’ Newfoundland dog. We were tempted to buy everything else in the store, including: the largest selection of L&C books, a stuffed Corps of Discovery canoe, a stuffed Newfoundland dog with collar reading “World’s Greatest Traveling Dog”, a shrink wrapped L&C T-shirt, bookmarks hand-drawn by local elementary school students, patches, mags, pins and so much more.

Beached WhaleCOSTS (4/5)
This wonderful Site is free.

There were no Rangers on site. The Interpretive Center, while a part of an NPS Historic Trail, is not administered by the NPS. The volunteer working at the bookstore was a local middle school teacher and was available to answer questions. He told us that there are frequent lectures and craft demonstration done at the Site.

When you enter the site, pick up a little blank booklet. Just as Lewis and Clark documented their travels along the Missouri, so can you. In the first display, enter what you believe to be your three strongest traits and a computer screen recommends at which position you would be most useful for the Corps of Discovery: private, cook, scout, sergeant, etc. For our visit, Gab was Lewis; Michael was Clark.

Numerous types of interactive displays walk you through guard duty, ask how you might react to situations on the road and at camp, invite you to match illnesses to their contemporary cures, test your observation skills and much more. After each activity, stamp your journal page and write a journal entry if you like. At the end of your journey, visit the wall which lists all members of the Corps of Discovery and see how they (you) fared during the rest of the expedition and afterwards.

Had there been a staff person at the site dedicated to answering questions or posted in the exhibit area, this site would be near perfect.

There was a film, which we skipped. We were having far too much fun moving around.

Prairie in ProgressFUN (8/10)
Stamp books are fun. Interactive learning is fun. Huge animatronics Newfoundlands that shed are fun. We had far too much fun in the fantastic bookstore. It was very hard to leave with just a small bag of goodies. The display area was well planned, visitors could move through events chronologically or not. This allows one to go directly to the least crowded display and walk around unrestricted by a strict path or design. Explanations were clear, understandable and interesting and staff were very friendly. This site was thoroughly enjoyable.

Most definitely. Even though the site focuses on one of the more tragic periods of the Corps of Discovery adventure, the overall tone is upbeat and optimistic. One truly gets a flavor of life on the expedition. The site is easily reached by a major interstate and sits next to the Welcome Center for the state of Iowa so you can accomplish multiple tasks at one exit. The facility is new and offers nice amenities plus the price is right. Free.

TOTAL 56/80

Read Full Post »

Council Bluffs, Iowa
Visited: June 30, 2004
NPS Site Visited: Not an NPS Site
Local Website

Trail MapWHAT IS IT?
An NPS-affiliated site that commemorates the four cross-country trails that both began and/or passed through or around Council Bluffs, Iowa: the California Trail, the Lewis and Clark Trail, the Mormon Trail and the Oregon Trail.

BEAUTY (3/10)
The Center’s entranceway is striking. You exit the highway and immediately turn onto a long one-way road made all the more narrow by steep tall-grass sprouting along its edges. We think it is safe to say that we exceeded the speed limit driving through this cool prairie tunnel. The pathway from the parking lot to the museum is paved with bricks etched with the names of the many people and many Indian tribes and nations involved in the story of the American West.

To the right of the path is an impressively horizontal granite sculpture whose right edge reads the Mississippi River and left the Pacific Ocean. Mile markers are notched and the sculpture rises and falls with the changes in altitude moving east to west. The gradual climb of the Great Plains to the sharp ascent of the Rockies to the rapid decline where the Trails meet the Pacific Ocean. We sure have a long way to go.

The Museum doubles as an Iowa Welcome Information Center and the building plays the part well. Non-descript would be generous. The museum’s interior design is confusing and detracts from the learning experience. We had a great deal of trouble figuring out which way to go.

Historically, Americans have traveled for many reasons. Religious freedom (Mormon Trails), economic promise (California Trail), discovery (Lewis and Clark) and a new life (Oregon Trail). It is easy for any traveler to understand the history of the Trails.

CROWDS (3/10)
There were a surprisingly large number of people at the Site, perhaps because of the proximity to the highway, maybe due to the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Trail. We had difficulty viewing the exhibits. There were always many people in front of them.

Just off Exit 1-B on Interstate 80 in Council Bluffs, Iowa. As a Welcome Center, the ease of access is almost a given.

Lots of books, lots of Lewis and Clark stuff and lots of Iowa knickknacks. Despite the large selection, the store’s organization was lacking and much of the merchandise was hidden away in the room’s corners.

COSTS (4/5)
The Site is free.

No Rangers, just an Iowa Welcome woman working the desk, asking people to sign the registry book.

The Path WestwardTOURS/CLASSES (4/10)
The Museum’s thesis is interesting, evocative and one that has appeared on our website already: the transient nature of Americans and the oneness today’s travelers share with those of the past. The interactive light-bulb map is the first thing tourists see. The map not only lights up the historical trail routes, but also highlights the modern day Interstates. We found it amazing, but completely believable, that our roads faithfully follow the traditional routes.

The film stresses the same concept by interspersing quotes, still pictures and videos of all eras. One hears a Lewis and Clark quote about packing foodstuffs while watching a modern-day family load a Volkswagen minivan to the gills. The video is an abstract adventure that neither has a center nor explains anything at all. What did the video teach us about the historical trails? Nothing. We learned that we have a lot in common with the past, a point much better demonstrated by the electric map.

Two exhibit panels rise above the jumbled nature of the rest, a trails timeline located behind the map and a right to left (very confusing until you realize it’s meant to go east to west) journey along the trails, situated in the back of the museum.

FUN (4/10)
If you have a National Parks Passport Book, the Center has five, yes five, stamps for your book. We were so giddy about the stamp bounty and subsequently unable to concentrate that we had to return to the Site a few days later. Our return was disappointing. In our short first time stay we had already seen the best parts of the museum, the brick pathway, the granite sculpture and the electric map. The film, the remainder of the museum and even the well-stocked bookstore were all under whelming at best. Once was enough.

If your journey across country involves Interstate 80, the Western Historic Trails Center is not a bad place to stop. It could frame your visit historically; you are just following tradition.

Even if you are not a quixotic NPS passport stamp collector, the Site has handy National Park Trail maps for the four trails discussed.

TOTAL 38/80

Read Full Post »