Archive for the ‘Notes from the Road’ Category

I’ve thought about staying in Salt Lake City on past trips up and down Interstate 15. But I always seem to be on the fast track to WY or CA, depending on which direction I’m headed. In addition, my tendancy is to jog off to the backroads and skip cities, looking for historic log cabins or off-the-beaten-path country inns, so I usually bypass cities altogether.. This time, I was determined to force myself off the freeway and find some sort of unique lodging in Salt Lake City itself. I found exactly that at the Armstong Mansion.

Built in 1893 by Francis Armstrong, the Queen Anne mansion was a gift to his wife, Isabel (or Isabelle, or Isabella, depending on various historic references,) as he had promised her when they married in 1864. The magnificent home served as a popular gathering place for guests, as the Armstrongs hosted many social events. Impressive in itself for its grandeur, it was also one of only three houses in Salt Lake City at that time to be able to boast a luxurious new amenity for its day – indoor plumbing.

Francis Armstrong was born in Northumberland, England, moving later to Canada and eventually to Salt Lake City after converting to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He worked his way up from employee at several lumber and flour mills to mill manager at Little’s Lumber Mill. Eventually he purchased the mill, as well as numerous other properties and companies, developing them with tremendous success. He also became a prominant political figure in the community, holding positions on the school board and city council and eventually serving two terms as Mayor of Salt Lake City. By the time he passed away in 1899, his wealth was second only to that of Brigham Young. Isabel continued to live in the Armstrong Mansion until her own death in 1930.

The massive size of the mansion would have come in handy, as Francis and Isabel had twelve children. Conflicting historical reports also state that he took – or didn’t take, depending on the account – a second wife, Sarah Carruth, with whom he had six additional children. Only two of the six survived beyond childhood, with Isabel raising those two after Sarah passed away in 1883. Additional, contradictory research states that he did not practice polygamy, but hid polygamists in his attic when they were being pursued by U.S. marshalls.

And that’s exactly where I found myself, tucked away in the attic, in the “Cherished Years” room, a cozy nook under the eaves. The smallest of the B&B’s rooms, it had everything I needed as a solo traveler – a queen bed, private bath and a small sitting area with a window that looked out over the front garden. Much like the rest of the mansion, it was decorated in dark, Victorian colors. I found the room comforting, even for a gal not running from the law.

I’d checked in on the ground floor, helping myself to a treat from a plate of homemade cookies offered to guests upon arrival. After climbing several meandering staircases to reach the top floor – I would take a elevator the next few times – I dropped off my overnight bag, camera equipment and laptop before heading out in search of food. Walking distance from the inn I found Sawadee, a Thai restaurant. I ordered a Pad Thai Tofu dish that was excellent. Saving half for lunch the following day, I headed back to the mansion to enjoy the ambiance of the inn for the evening.

As with many historic structures, there were many years of disrepair between Isabel’s death in 1930 and a complete restoration in the 1990’s. But every inch of the mansion now is exquisite. It would be worth a visit just to view the extravagant woodwork throughout the structure. Intricate carvings highlight many walls, ceilings and stairway bannisters. It’s not hard to imagine the gala events held in the late 1800’s.

The current “Mayor’s Parlor” on the main floors now offers guests a casual place to rest, read, visit or enjoy Internet access. The same room undoubtedly served the same purpose for the original inhabitants and visitors. Minus the free wi-fi, of course. “Isabel’s Dining” room, opposite the parlor, is the morning location of a delicious breakfast offered by the inn. Under a high ceiling and amidst elegant decor – lush, burgundy brocade curtains, matching tableclothes and floral decorations – I helped myself to sundried-tomato quiche, fresh fruit, apple cobbler, cinnamon rolls, fresh juice and coffee. OK, I confess, I had a few bites of berry cobbler, too. Just to be able to report on it, naturally. And it was heavenly, as was everything else.

There are rumblings about the Armstrong Mansion being haunted, as Google searches will show. It will disappoint readers to learn that I didn’t hear mysterious footsteps in the middle of the night. Nor did I witness lights dimming or voices whispering as I walked the halls. I drifted off to sleep with ease. Yet, I will say there was…a feeling…something that cannot quite be described. Maybe it was the dark, authentic Victorian interior or the knowledge of the grand home’s rich history. Whatever it was, there was something undefinable that evoked a subconscious dip into the past.

Stepping out into the sunshine after checking out, I was immediately reminded that it was now the 21st century. There were no horse-drawn carriages to be seen, only shiny blurs of metal passing by. I threw my overnight bag into one of the latter, cranked it up, found the Interstate and headed north, Wyoming bound.


Read Full Post »

I arrived in Cedar City early enough to enjoy a blaze of late afternoon sun on the red cliff backdrop that borders the east side of the city. In a most unusual manner (by olden day standards) I knew – from Facebook! – that there were two rooms open at The Iron Gate Inn that evening. I called ahead from St. George and booked one. I was not disappointed.

Built in 1897, the current owners, Susan and CR Wooten, have performed magic with this Second Empire Victorian building. From the original three bedroom, one bath house, a massive remodeling project in 2001 created an eight bedroom, nine bath bed and breakfast establishment, with a cottage artfully placed in the back garden, for good measure.

I was given the Emma Jane room on the second floor, spacious and elegant. The inn’s own description “Not too cluttered, not too frilly…just beautiful,” is spot on. It was perfect. The pale yellow, eggshell and taupe decor was soothing and the bed alluring with the promise of comfort. I find it hard to draw myself away from a delightful room like this, but hunger pulled me out for a bite to eat. At Susan’s recommendation, I strolled around the block to the Pastry Pub in search of a salad. I found exactly what I wanted – the Pub Salad, with romaine lettuce, chopped carrots, mushrooms, bean sprouts, French feta, assorted other cheeses and avocado, topped with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing. It was so outstanding that I would end up going back for another one the following day for lunch.

Back in the Emma Jane room, I curled up in the heavenly, comfortable bed and read until the cushy bedding pulled me into a deep sleep. Breakfast was served as a buffet in the dining room, with the option of eating outside in the garden patio. The morning offering – a sun-dried tomato/egg quiche with home baked apple-cinnamon muffins – proved to be delicious.

Cedar City is home to the Utah Shakespeare Festival, with an expansive schedule of daily plays. For that alone, it would be worth a trip to this area. For the experience of staying at The Iron Gate Inn, it’s worth making it a vacation destination or a honeymoon.

I didn’t have time to catch a play, tempting as it was. But I did manage a side trip up to Cedar Breaks National Monument, an easy 21 mile drive to the east. It was well worth the extra time to see the dramatic views into a red rock “amphitheatre.”

This is an area that calls for more than a brief pass-through, but that’s all my time allowed. My recommendation to visitors: Plan a few days, at least. Time your visit to coincide with the Utah Shakespeare Festival. (Incidentally, the Iron Gate Inn is a mere block from the theatre center – an easy walk.) A drive up to Cedar Breaks National Monument is also an excellent activity.

And for lunch or dinner? I’d head back the casual Pastry Pub and grab the same exact salad. Or maybe the fresh citrus salad….or maybe…well, obviously I need to go back soon.

Read Full Post »

After a year off the road – following a nasty hiking accident last summer – I’m finally headed out again, at least for a few days. I’m Jackson Hole bound, heading to that magnificently beautiful area that continues to draw me in like a magnet.

I left Los Angeles around 8AM, heading across Pearblossom Highway to avoid city traffic. From Victorville, I took Interstate 15 northbound, passing through Barstow and Baker, across the Mojave Desert and finally into Nevada. A quick step out of the car in Las Vegas landed me in 111 degree heat. I lost no time getting back on the road, grateful for a full blast of A/C.

The stretch of landscape north of Las Vegas is scenic, the highway winding uphill, surrounded by rock formations that tower high above the comparably minute vehicles below. St. George, Utah is a feasible stop along Interstate 15, but I was in a driving mood and continued on.

Pulling into Cedar City, UT, I stumbled upon a Bed and Breakfast just a block away from the city’s well-known Shakespeare festival and here I sit this evening, wrapped in luxury and a guest of wonderful hosts. More on this in the next post…

Read Full Post »

Driving back from Scotty’s Castle, I could feel the fatigue creeping into my bones. The daylight was almost gone and we were both tired and hungry. The Wrangler Steakhouse was beginning to feel like a regular end-of-the-day haunt for us, so we headed there almost out of habit. It was our last dinner at Furnace Creek and we were rewarded with excellent service and another delicious meal, mine built from the salad bar and Dad’s designed by adding grilled chicken to a spinach salad with dates, glazed almonds and goat cheese. It was just what we needed before turning in for the night.

I set my alarm for five thirty a.m. and drove out to Zabriskie Point, hoping for a few photographic opportunities, but the sun didn’t cooperate. There were other tripod-toting figures there, equally disappointed. But it was worth the early morning visit just to see the views another time before leaving.

On the way back, I stopped at Furnace Creek Inn to check it out. It was smaller than I had expected, having compared it in advance to other upscale national park lodges – the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite and Old Faithful Inn in Yell owstone, for examples. Yet it exuded a desert peacefulness that was in contrast to the active atmosphere of the ranch resort. Given the right bank account and a desire to hide away, it would be a good lodging choice.

I returned to the ranch, loaded up our bags, checked out and headed west, stopping only at Father Crowley Vista Point to look back out over the winding road below. We left Death Valley with many sites yet unvisited: Racetrack Playa, Mosaic Canyon, Natural Bridge, Charcoal Kilns, Mesquite Sand Dunes, Titus Canyon and Ubehebe Crater. But it never hurts to have reasons to revisit outstanding destinations. Death Valley National Park certainly warrants another visit. Or two or three.

Leaving Death Valley behind, we headed north on Hwy 395, stopping for a quick fast-food lunch in Lone Pine, a town known for its proximity to the Alabama Hills. Used as a location for over 300 feature films, John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Clint Eastwood and Spencer Tracy all came to Lone Pine long before our quick visit. We didn’t hear the clattering of horse hooves or the commotion of The Lone Ranger’s ambush, but we did get a look at the wall mural outside the Museum of Lone Pine Film History.

From there, we drove on to Manzanar;, a former WWII war relocation center, now a National Historic Site. The Interpretive Center on the property is exceptional and the guides behind the desk very knowledgeable. The award-winning, 22-minute film, “Remembering Manzanar,” is shown every half hour, so it wasn’t difficult to fit it into the visit. It was educational and emotional, as well.

Pushing on, we weathered some snow between Lee Vining and Bridgeport. Dinner was casual at a Carson City Applebee’s, after which we found a fairly amazing room at the local Courtyard Marriott. Richly decorated in rust and ivory tones, the room was spacious and absolutely gorgeous, not to mention a bargain at 89.

It was tempting to linger a second night in Carson City, simply because the room was so delightful. But we managed to pull ourselves away, grabbing an early breakfast in the lobby before checking out.

Fueled on by dramatic pre-storm lighting, we took a side trip to Virginia City, NV, for a little photography. I had been there recently, but had not had the opportunity to visit the town cemetery – actually a cluster of small, independant cemeteries. Under threat of rain, I wandered from headstone to headstone, feeling the interconnectedness of the lives of those buried there. It felt eerily as if I were walking through the pages of Spoon River Anthology. A small world, even in the hereafter.

Retracing our steps out of Virginia City, we stopped in at the Gold Hill Hotel, located just a mile outside of town. Built in 1859, this hotel is the oldest in Nevada and has been on my “wish list” for some time. Though it wouldn’t be possible to stay that night, I was allowed to tour open rooms and took notes for future visits. We took advantage of their Sunday Brunch to enjoy homemade tomato herb soup and sandwiches in their Crown Point Restaurant before hitting the road.

Our last night’s destination took us up and over Hwy 50, around Lake Tahoe and down to Placerville, where we checked into the Historic Cary House Hotel, an impressive red brick building in the heart of town. Originally built in 1857 and later demolished and rebuilt in 1915, it served as a stage stop during the gold rush heydays. For us, it served as a perfect last night stopping point for the end of our trip. Typical of old hotels, the rooms were not large, which was fine for me, but felt a little too small for Dad’s liking. It was nicely restored and conveniently situated for our needs. Parking was complimentary and a continental breakfast was included with lodging. It would work well for the night.

We followed the recommendation of the front desk clerk and had dinner at Z Pies, an easy half block walk from the hotel. The menu was clever and unique, offering delicious pot pies in a variety of hip flavors. My choice was Spicy Black Bean with Tofu, while Dad opted for Lamb with Rosemary. It was a fitting and hearty meal for weary travelers, just the right touch for the end of a long day. We returned to the hotel to read, edit photos and prepare for our final re-entry into normal daily life.

I’m always torn at the end of trips – half tired and ready to be off the road, yet half wanting to continue the journey. These were my feelings as we loaded up the car the next morning. Travel is tiring, yet it is also energizing. The trick, I think, is to think of it all as travel. In that sense, the trip never really ends. Just as we stop a few days at a hotel, we can stop a few months at our own house before moving on. With this thought in mind, my conflict was resolved. I let out a sigh of relief, started the car and headed for home.

Read Full Post »

“Death Valley Scotty” was born Walter Scott in 1872. From a young age he sought adventure, running away from his Kentucky home at age 11 to his brother’s Nevada ranch. After working a variety of jobs, including some in Death Valley, he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as a cowboy.

Though he stayed with the traveling group for a period of twelve years. a new career was on the horizon for Scotty. In a clever and ingenious plan, he convinced numerous eastern investors to finance a gold mine that he had discovered out west, promising to split the profits with them. As proof of his discovery, he displayed an impressive hunk of gold-laced ore. It was a great plan, with just one catch: there was no mine and the ore specimen had been purchased by Scotty on a trip to Colorado. No matter, the investors believed the convincing story.

The funds intended for the mine allowed Scotty to live in wild fashion, spending the “earnings” from his lucrative mine at fancy hotels and saloons. So convincing was his flamboyant character that the charade continued for years, until the investors began to be concerned about the profits from the mine, which were missing in action.

As investors backed out, one important financier remained. Albert Johnson, an insurance magnate from Chicago, came out west and decided the beauty of Death Valley was more valuable than mining returns. He, along with his wife, Bessie, formed a lifelong friendship with Death Valley Scotty.

In 1927 contruction began on Death Valley Ranch and the impressive building that would come to be known as Scotty’s Castle. Though actually financed by Albert Johnson – to the tune of nearly two million dollars – the quiet insurance man went along with his colorful friend’s story that the castle was being built by Scotty himself, from his gold mine’s profits.

The details of the 32,000 square foot Spanish-Mediterranean main building are mind-boggling. Natural springs above the Grapevine Canyon property were used to provide electricity by using a Pelton water motor. A Leonard electric refrigerator was installed in the kitchen -a modern luxury that impressed many a guest – and cooking was done on a natural gas stove. Indoor waterfalls kept common rooms cool. Handcrafted tiles, wrought-iron chandeliers and European tapestries filled the “castle” in palatial style. A Welte pipe organ with over one thousand pipes was installed in a 37-ft-long upstairs music room.

With such opulence, as well as Scotty’s aptitude for self-promotion, stories of the “castle in the desert” began to spread. The Johnsons and Scotty became hosts to overnight visitors who arrived to see the extravagant building and surrounding desert and to be entertained by Scotty himself. Lodging fees were charged and the castle’s library was turned into a dining room. Custom dinnerware was imported from Italy.

The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression brought a quick halt to finishing the ranch’s construction. Albert Johnson no longer had the means to pour money into the project. In addition, an error in the original survey and homesteaders’ filing on the property revealed that Death Valley Ranch had actually been built on government land. All construction stopped, leaving the 270 foot swimming pool and numerous other features unfinished.

Johnson managed to straighten out the legalities of ownership and acquired the land, but it passed to the non-profit Gospel Foundation of California upon his death in 1948. The National Park Service purchased it in 1970 and continues to maintain the grounds and buildings.

Park rangers in 1939 period dress do an excellent job explaining the history of the ranch. The stories of Death Valley Scotty and Albert and Bessie Johnson seem very real while ambling through the doorways of the rooms they once inhabited. And seeing is believing when it comes to the many luxuries and technological advances that helped create Scotty’s Castle. Indoor tours are offered hourly from 9-5 daily, with additional underground tours available at varying times. Though it’s possible for visitors to wander the grounds on their own, the only way to see inside Scotty’s Castle is to purchase a tour ticket. It’s well worth it – a Death Valley experience that is not to be missed.

Read Full Post »

We continued north to the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail, a winding boardwalk that follows Salt Creek’s warm, salty waters. Though water here is saltier than sea water and can reach temperatures over 100 degrees, tiny “pupfish” are able to survive. Impressive, considering Salt Creek Pupfish have a lifespan of less than one year and a maximum size of 2.5 inches.

Seeing the ruins of Harmony Borax Works was next on the agenda. Built after borax was discovered in the early 1880’s, the plant only operated for five years, closing in 1888. During that time three tons of borax were produced daily, hauled to Mojave by the much romantized mule teams that became a symbol of the borax industry. A one-way drive through gold-hued Mustard Canyon led us back to the highway.

We found dinner again at the Wrangler Steakhouse, where a basket of fresh, hot bread sliding onto our table was a welcome sight. Roasted glazed chicken got Dad’s vote for the meal, while I ordered up a Greek salad with kalamata olives, feta cheese and citrus-herb vinaigrette.

The following morning required a room change, as we’d added a third night after arriving and it necessitated moving to a standard accommodation. The room was not as desirable, and there were a few mix-ups involved in the transfer. But it did give us an opportunity to continue our stay. For that, we were grateful. We lugged our bags over to the new room and prepared for another busy day.

A little more exploration to the south was in order, so we headed out on Hwy 190 again. Turning left at Furnace Creek Wash Rd., we continued to Dante’s View Rd., where we took a right turn and maneuvered the twisting, steep terrain thirteen miles to a ridge on top of the Black Mountains. Situated 5500 ft. above sea level, the vistas from Dante’s View are nothing less than spectacular. In one glance, visitors can see both the lowest and highest points in Death Valley: Badwater Basin, at 282 ft. below sea level and Telescope Peak, at 11,049 above. From the parking area, trails lead off to both the south and north, giving additional vantage points to enchanted visitors and eager photographers.

Doubling back, we took a side loop through 20 Mule Team Canyon, which gave our car a slow, bumpy journey and gave us close-up views of rock formations. I made a note to myself to advise future visitors to take advantage of the side loops offered in various areas of the park. They allow a closer view of Death Valley’s wonders, both literally and figuratively.

Zabriskie Point was next on the list, conveniently located just west of the 20 Mule Team Canyon loop. The astonishing views of canyons, ridges and rock formations were so dramatic that I would go back a second time before our trip ended. Breathtaking scenery stretched out in every direction. Not surprisingly, photographers were staked out all along the edges of the viewing area. There would be even more when I returned during early morning hours.

After a quick lunch of leftovers back in the room, we changed direction and headed north. Though we now faced a driving distance of over one hundred miles round trip, it was our chance to see inside the mind of one of California history’s biggest characters.

Read Full Post »

It didn’t take long to realize the obvious: It would not be possible to see all of Death Valley National Park in three days. The three million acre expanse was not going to be conquered in seventy-two hours. We would need to make choices.

We entered from the northeast, driving in by way of Rhyolite, a ghost town just four miles outside Beatty, NV. The drive from Las Vegas had not been difficult, but I’d attended business meetings in the morning, picked up my father at Las Vegas’ McCarren International Airport and then trekked a fair distance. It was with a sigh of relief that we finally checked into our lodging for the night.

We knew immediately we had made a wise choice in reserving a deluxe room at the Furnace Creek Ranch Resort. It was a sizeable accommodation, newly remodeled in soothing earth tones, decked out with high-class bedding and accented with artistic, framed prints of Death Valley scenery. Located in a single story building, the vaulted ceiling made the room feel even more spacious. A refrigerator, coffee maker, plush towels and upscale bath amenities made it a comfortable home away from home. Added to all this was a private patio that looked out over the lawn, pool and tennis areas. Parking was at our doorstep. At half the price of the prestigious Furnace Creek Inn just a mile down the road, it was perfect.

Once settled into our room, we headed eagerly for the nearest grub. This we found at the Wrangler Steakhouse, one of several eateries on the property. Dinner was excellent – filet mignon for Dad and spinach fettucini with portabella mushrooms, white wine, roasted tomato, and garlic for me. Delicious.

Over post-meal coffee, we discussed options for the next day. Sites within Death Valley are spread out and require travel – twenty miles to this one, thirty miles to that one, etc. We grouped our intended destinations into general directions, made a tentative outline for our explorations and returned to the room for a good night’s sleep.

Morning brought good weather and we loaded up camera equipment and headed out, stopping at the ranch’s casual 49er Cafe for an easy breakfast. Our first goal: salt flats.

Badwater Basin sits at 282 ft. below sea level – the lowest point in No. America – and derives its name from the undrinkable salty water of its spring-fed pool, located near the parking area. Visitors are treated to a stunning vista across the basin to Telescope Peak, which hovers 11,049 feet above the valley. I hiked cautiously out on the muddy trail towards the ocean of white salt, a result of the area’s rapid evaporation of rainfall. While I admired and inspected the rugged crust, Dad stayed behind to take photographs on the main boardwalk area.

Backtracking along the highway, we veered off the main road to follow the Artist’s Drive loop to Artist’s Palette, a colorful, rocky display caused by oxidized metals. Nine miles in length and situated along Badwater Rd, this drive is an easy addition to a trip to Badwater Basin.

After a brief rest at the ranch, we stopped in at the Death Valley Visitors Center to pick up an official park map and gain a little more insight into the area. The National Park Service is always good about staffing its visitor centers with knowledgeable rangers. We left there armed with new information.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »