Thursday, June 24, 2010


1. Overall the self drive road trip entailed the following:
(1) Over 30 days, from 18 May to 16 June 2010.
(2) Traveled a total of 6 812 miles, or 10 963 km, driving only in the day, alternating between Weiping and I.
(3) Visited or passed through 10 states - Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa; and 11 states if we include New Mexico where we were at the Four Corners National Monument site for 15 mins.
(4) Visited 7 national parks - Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Arches, Bryce, Zion, and Grand Canyon; 2 national monuments - Mt Rushmore and Four Corners; and 2 state parks - Custer and Dead Horse Point State Parks.

2. Car used was Weiping's 2 year old Hyundai Elantra. As roads traveled were generally very good, a normal saloon car like this was good enough. However, some roads in the national parks are unsealed, for instance in Glacier, Canyonland and Arches, which we would have loved to explore if we had a 4 by 4. Overall, not a serious handicap, but a good to have. And of course, we are talking about summer.

3. What if the car breakdowns during the trip? Weiping's car insurance provides for some breakdown service. We didn't have to use it, luckily. At worst, we recognised that we may have to scramble a little to get the service of local workshop.

4. We should have considered weather changes more seriously. As we were starting out in mid-May, going into June, we assumed it was summer. As it turned out, it was still cold, and raining, in Glacier; and we had unexpected snow fall in Yellowstone. Rather than starting in the North, it could have been better starting in the South and traveling Northwards to Glacier instead. We cannot be certain about weather, but it probably would give us a better chance for better weather.

5. The US National Parks' Annual Pass, at US$80 per car (passengers included), is great value. With entrance fee at mostly US$25 per car at the National Parks, we had saved quite a bit, in addition to the use of the pass for the remaining part of the year.

6. With a little more time, and if we were not parks fatigue by then, there are other interesting parks that we could have included. For instance, there's Dinosaur National Monument at the border of Utah and Colorado which would have been a small detour and would have been interesting based on what we read. Also, one fellow traveler told us we must go and see the Crater Lake National Park in Oregon which was too much of a change to the original plan. We used "Thousand places must see before you die" and later Fodor's Complete Guide to The National Parks of the West for planning the trip. With more research and more time for the trip, a different itinerary could have been conceived.

7. Less the cost of the car, we spent a total of US$5 800 which included cost of accommodation, food, petrol, tour tickets. That worked out to be about US$200 a day, for 3 persons, or about S$100 per person per day; about the cost per person per day for the 2 earlier ASEAN trips.

8. Average cost for accommodation was about US$100 a day (US$3226/30 days). Typically, we booked into rooms with 2 beds, preferably with a kitchenette, and we cooked dinners whenever time permitted. Our favorite is Candlewood Suite. It's clean and fairly spacious and the rooms come with free laundry and Wifi and with a kitchenette with good inventory of cooking utensils.

9. During the trip, we saw many Americans traveling in camper-vans (or RV), carrying their bicycles and/or kayaks, and sometime towing their cars, visiting the parks. RV parks are quite generously provided for in the parks but they require prior booking. This is one way of traveling - could save on accommodation cost, roughing it out a little more, but could be more interesting and flexible. I can imagine what's like waking up to the stunning scenery in the parks. Alternative is to stay in the lodges in the parks. They are beautifully designed, steep in history, but prices are not unexpectedly on the high side though not unreasonable taking into account their excellent locations. I understand prices charged in the parks are regulated by the US National Parks. But, given their popularity, booking ahead is essential, but this means tying down the travel plan. In the end, it comes down to individual preferences.

10. Overall, a trip like this is quite doable for most people. All it takes is to have an outline plan and say go, and be prepared to accept some surprises from time to time.

Photo Credit: Weiping, taken without my knowledge, circulated to my family without my permission with caption, Story of Papa's life.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


1. Its 11 June, Day 25. We had breakfast at Brickhouse, a charming Victorian house in Durango, before heading towards Silverton along Highway 550. It looked like a family run business, obviously popular with the locals. Its outdoor tables were full.

2. The Million Dollar Highway is generally considered as the 25 miles stretch of Highway 550 in W Colorado between Silverton and Ouray. It's unclear how the name, "Million Dollar Highway" came about. One version attributed it to the high cost. Whatever the reason was it does not matter. The drive has million dollar views. Traveling North, the route also took us closer to the Rocky Mountain National Park.

3. North of Durango, the highway runs along the Animas River, enters the San Juan National Forest, goes past lakes, as it winds up and down the mountain passes before reaching an overlook with a great view of Silverton. We made a brief stop at the visitor centre before continuing our journey Northwards. The highway leaves Silverton and proceeds up Mineral Creek Valley before ascending to Red Mountain Pass. The highway then goes through a series of steep grades and hairpin turns before reaching Ouray Lookout Point with a great view of Ouray.

4. After our packed lunch at Montrose we continued our journey North. Soon, weather started to turn bad. Clouds started to cover the mountains, sky turned grey and soon rain came. We were now more concerned about driving safely than enjoying the scenery. Speed of travel slowed considerably. It soon became clear that it would be too much of a stretch to try to reach Estee Park at the East Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park before dark. We decided to break journey at Idaho Springs and book into H & H Hotel for US$ 97 a night.

5. That evening, heavy rain continued. Television reported tornado warning in the vicinity of Denver, in addition to flood alert for areas that included the Rocky Mountains. The weather situation remained bleak the next day (Sat, 12 June, Day 26). In order not to risk getting stuck in the Rocky Mountains, we decided to drive into Denver and stay there for 1-2 days to see if the weather would clear up. It was a wet drive all the way. In order to be nearer to the Rocky, we booked into La Quinta Inn for US$93 a night at Westminster, on the NW outskirt of Denver.

6. After checking in, we took a drive to see downtown Denver even though it was drizzling as none of us had been to Denver other than transiting at the airport. After parking the car in a nearby car park, we took a stroll along 6th Avenue Mall and made a brief stop at the Visitor Information Centre. We were impressed with the pedestrian-friendliness of 6th Avenue. Cars are not allowed into 6th Ave (not sure about taxis though). Only public buses ply up and down 6th Ave at very regular intervals and public can travel on these buses free of charge. The buses work much like a tram service. Without cars, public space is more generously provided in the middle where there are chairs for the public to sit and relax, and watch the world goes by. It was clear that the street was designed for pedestrians, not cars.

7. Through the internet, Weiping found Pho 95, a Vietnamese Restaurant, for lunch. The restaurant was packed with Asians and Caucasians, mostly locals we guessed. We loved the pho. It was as good as some of the better ones in Vietnam. We went back for lunch again the next day.

8. In the afternoon, we found Wax Trac, along 14th Ave, that sells new and old vinyls. Its corner shop sells CDs and a small section on vinyls. While I browsed through the vinyls, a live band had just started playing to a small gathering. It was loud. As I picked up 6 pieces, Weiping came and told me that the shop has an adjacent unit with a much bigger collection of vinyls. I carried the 6 pieces to the cashier to pay. I could not believe my ears when he told me that they were free, no charge. I asked to confirm and just to be sure I got the message he provided a paper bag for me to carry the 6 vinyls out. Given the price tags on the vinyls, that was worth US$18 and they were in fairly good condition. Not sure its good or bad but I went next door and spent US$ 80+, for another 20 vinyls. At home, I had started to play my vinyls after a lapse of many years and expand my collection of vinyls.

9. On the flip side, the weather outlook was discouraging. The bad weather would continue into Monday and would only clear up on Tuesday. Rather than waiting, we decided to abort the plan to go to Rocky Mountain National Park and head back to Madison, Wisconsin. As we were comfortable with time, we decided to take it easy and cover 200-250 miles each day. In the end, we made night stops at North Platte (13 June, Day 27) and Lincoln (14 June, Day 28) in Nebraska and Des Moines (15 June, Day 29) in Iowa before arriving back in Weiping's university at Madison, Wisconsin.

10. We found Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska, to be a pleasant city. Streets were clean and brightened up by flowers. Could see that great care was taken to make the city look good. No reason why the fire hydrant must look all red. Also, bicycle could be put to more than one use.

11. Next morning, we went looking for the Sunken Garden, which was graded as one of the Top 300 gardens in the US. We first found the beautifully manicured and landscaped rose garden across the road. Many ladies were busy tending the garden. One of them told me that they were all volunteers, typically coming to the garden twice a week. Can see that they were doing a great job. Across the street, Sunken Garden was another well manicured garden. Apparently, work on the garden was started in the 1930s as part of the job creation effort during the years of recession. Today, after 80 years, it is still thriving, with strong support from the community and volunteers. We caught this bee busy at work too.

12. Old Market Place in Omaha was another interesting place we visited on the way from Lincoln to Des Moines. A few streets of old brick buildings were creatively converted to shops, restaurants, art galleries and etc while keeping their authentic charm. We had lunch there, at Indian Oven. It seemed Indian food was still not popular with the Americans. Before this trip, the only thing I knew of Omaha was Warren Buffet.

13. While traveling through Iowa, we were impressed with the quality of the rest areas. They are located in tastefully designed buildings. Toilets were clean and spacious and Wifi provided free of charge. Here is one, just completed and landscaping work in progress. Iowa clearly has the best rest areas in our 30 days of travel through 10 states.


1. Just got back to Madison, Wisconsin at 4 pm today, June 16, Day 30. Yes, we were on the road for 30 days. Here's the 2 drivers, posing happily beside Weiping's Hyundai Elantra, back in his university. Happy because the car did not give us any trouble at all for 6 812 miles. Other than requiring a thorough clean up the car did not sustain a single scratch, and other than a warning from a friendly traffic cop and a speeding ticket from a less friendly cop we had a clean record. Over 30 days and 6 812 miles, things could have easily turned out less pleasantly.

2. We set out to do about 4000 miles but ended up doing a much bigger loop, all the way to Grand Canyon National Park. We were comfortable with the pace and decided that we could do more. Conversations with fellow travelers also tempted us to stretch ourselves. With hindsight, there were things we could have done differently. But, this is the subject for other posting.

3. For a change, I am happy we do not have to drive tomorrow. Will have a few free and easy days -catching up with blogs, reading and walking the town- before helping with Weiping's shift to Chicago. Should be back in Singapore 1 July.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


1. At about 150 miles away, we reached Page at about 6.30 pm and as it was getting late checked into Holiday Inn at US$125 a night. The next day, 9 June, Day 23, on way to Mesa Verde National Park, we decided to make a brief stop at Carl Hayden Visitor Centre to see Glen Canyon Dam and lunch at Lake Powell.

2. Behind the Glen Canyon Dam, water of Colorado River and its tributaries are backed up 185 miles to form the very scenic Lake Powell. Completed in 1966, the dam fulfills its goal of water storage and power generation, as well as providing recreation opportunities. With the advice of the Duty Ranger, we had lunch in Rainbow Room of Lake Powell Resort and Marina, with an excellent view of Lake Powell. It's interesting how it was possible to allow all the recreational activities in the water (saw water skiing and jet boating while we were lunching) while maintaining the quality of the water.

3. After lunch, we continued our journey to Cortez, near Mesa Verde National Park, first along Highway 89A, then Highway 160. We planned to stay the night at Cortez before visiting Mesa Verde the next day. Along the way, we planned to make a fun stop at the Four Corners National Monument. Here, if you could arch into a push-up position, you could be in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, all at the same time. To reach the point, we have to get in and out of New Mexico momentarily. Unfortunately, the monument was closed for renovation. We decided to follow the crowd and go in anyway. It was a work site and work was on-going. We didn't miss much.

4. It was more than 200 miles from Page and we reached Cortez at about 5.30 pm and booked into Ute Mtn Motel. We had dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant and had an early night.

5. Next morning (10 June, Day 24), before leaving Cortez for Mesa Verde, we had breakfast at a charming little shop which served great coffee called Let It Grow. I can't really say what kind of business the shop is as it sells many things - flowers and plants, gardening tools, toys, old books, gifts, and etc. I suppose the proprietor may have intended the merchandises to revolve around the theme of "growing". What differentiated the shop was its friendly intimate atmosphere, its coziness and its bright colourful flowers. We enjoyed the relaxing breakfast in a nice environment.

5. Mesa Verde National Park, 23 miles from Cortez, about 0.5 hr drive, in SW Colorado, was created in 1906 to preserve the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Puebloans (APs), both atop the mesas and in the cliff dwellings below. The park includes over 4 500 archeological sites, of which 600 are cliff dwellings. They were built by the APs between 800 to 1400 years ago (around the time of Tang/Sung Dynasty in China and Angkor Wat of Cambodia). For reason which is still unclear, they abandoned the dwellings in late 1200s. Mesa Verde was only discovered by cowboys some 600 years later.

6. Unlike other parks, Mesa Verde's visitor centre, Far View Visitor Centre, is located deep inside the park, 15 miles from the park entrance. It is open only from mid-May to mid-Oct. It was teeming with visitors when we got there and we joined the line to book an organised tour. In Mesa Verde, there are 3 key attractions ( Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House) that could only be accessed by joining paid organised tours. In order to leave time to see other sites, we decided to join the tour to the Cliff Palace only, at a very reasonable rate of US$3 each.

7. Cliff Palace is the largest of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. It was discovered by 2 cowboys in 1888. It is located 7-8 miles further inside the park and when we reached there many visitors were already gathered at the overlook, all ready to begin the tour at 1 pm. Two restless kids were climbing up and down trees while waiting for the ranger to arrive. The ranger leading our tour was a very jovial Tom Wolf - a seasonal ranger here, he was very engaging, who interspersed jokes with information about the history of the APs and the Cliff Palace and got us all regularly laughing, not bad for a heavy subject like history.

8. To get to Cliff Palace, it was down a ladder and a steep flight of steps, and occasionally squeezing between vertical rocks before reaching the dwelling. Some may have difficulty passing through. According to Tom, it was unclear why the APs moved from staying up in the mesas (plateaus) to the cliff dwelling but he suspected that it was for defence against their enemies. I am inclined to agree with him. The attacking soldiers have to be trim and fit. As the APs left no written records and many things had perished since then, it was difficult to establish what actually happened.

9. However, it was clear that over hundreds of years, the APs had become more skillful and sophisticated, moving from staying in small pithouses to 3-4 storeys cliff dwellings, from nomadic life to settled living, and from small groups to organised community. As the largest of the cliff dwelling, the Cliff Palace has 150 rooms and 23 kivas. One source indicated that this dwelling supported a community of 200-300 people. Kivas are circular sunken community space which could seat 10-12 people around the circumference, probably for spiritual purposes. Each cliff dwelling would have its water source; in the case of Cliff Palace from the rock wall at the back of the dwelling. Tom said that this had since been diverted. Building materials were sandstone, mortar and wooden beams.

10. Tom controlled the tour group tightly, moving it along at a good pace to make way for the group behind. It was a busy day. Here, barriers prevented us from loitering into any of the room or kiva. End of the tour involved climbing a steep flight of steps back to the surface. It was over in about an hour.

11. After a quick lunch at Spruce Tree Terrace, we hiked to see Spruce Tree House, third largest of the cliff dwellings but considered the best preserved. About 90% of the site is original, as it was discovered in 1888. Here we could take our time, as its a self guiding tour attraction. Built between 1200 and 1276, the dwelling contains 114 rooms and 8 kivas into a natural overhang measuring 216 ft at its greatest width and 89 ft at its greatest depth. It is thought to house about 100 people. One of the kivas had been restored to allow visitors to descend into it and have a closer look. Its 6 ft down the ladder.

12. After Spruce Tree House, it was a steep hike up to the surface to Chapin Mesa Museum. A must visit to the park, the museum contains various artifacts about the life of the APs. Light condition was not good enough for my camera.

13. Before our departure, we decided to do the 6 miles Mesa Top Loop in our car. Highlights were:

(1) Square Tower House Overlook. Here, the APs had progressed to build structure 4 storey high.

(2) Sun Point Overlook. This location gives a great view of a number of cliff dwellings, communities organised in a larger community, making best use of the geographic features. Steps carved out of the rock surface could be seen in the picture on the right that allowed APs to move from one cliff dwelling up and down to another.

14. What we saw at Mesa Verde National Park was a tiny bit of life in America before Christopher Columbus accidentally discovered it in the 15th Century. Mesa Verde tells us that they were fairly advanced societies, quite contrary to the nomadic half naked Indians superficially depicted in cowboy films.

15. Leaving Mesa Verde National Park, we headed for Durango, about an hr drive away, to stay the night. From there, we would head for the scenic Million Dollar Highway the next day on our way North to the Rocky Mountain National Park. We reached there before dark and booked ourselves into Siesta Motel for US$ 93 a night.