Travels With Brenda

Dear SPT Readers,

At last a long overdue travel blurb is ready for your read.  My travels this past year have taken me mostly throughout the USA so I have some great family travel tips for you for some fly/drive or driving vacations. My daughter Monique was married this past May in a gloriously beautiful outdoor ceremony at the foothills of the Rockies. And I am pleased to announce a Single Parent Tour to Ecuador and the Galapagos in early August 2011. Please email me at and I will send the itinerary and pricing.

We are holding a block of cabins on the deluxe expedition ship, Galapagos Explorer II, so it is first come-first served. Plus we have planned some exciting pre and post cruise Ecuador family adventure excursions. That said, let’s hit the road…

South Dakota

Last summer we drove from Denver to the Badlands for a long July 4th weekend.  I had not visited this area since my kids were little and so much had changed! The Wall Drugstore in Wall, SD is no longer a big restaurant with a large western store. It has become a complete entertainment center with little shops surrounding it.  But they still offer free ice water! The car parking line to enter Mt. Rushmore on the 4th of July extended well over a mile by 9:00am so we gave up and enjoyed the local museum and the attractions in the town instead. If it is a holiday, you had better be parked by the crack of dawn.

From there we headed to the Crazy Horse Memorial and took the little open air jeep ride around the memorial. This amazing carving, several times the size of Mt Rushmore, will continue for generations to come and will be something your kids can take their kids to see, and marvel at the progress. Deadwood is a fun tourist town with lively outdoor action as actors dressed up in western duds re-enact some of the famous shoot-outs of the Wild West. Nearby Badlands National Park, a former hideout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is a great place to hike through some very eerie landscapes.  Start early in the morning to avoid the blistering summer sun and bring lots of water.

On our way home, we stopped overnight in Hot Springs to enjoy three excellent family attractions – Evans Plunge and the natural hot springs – great family fun plus a visit to the Woolly Mammoth Excavation Site (inside a building and a definite must-see) and lastly – one of our favorite excursions of the trip – a two hour tour of the Wild Mustang Preserve.

I recommend advance reservations for the mustang visit as it often sells out.  The open air mini bus takes you up and around this vast ranch with frequent stops near groups of beautiful wild mustangs.  You cannot touch the horses, but the horses will allow you to come within a few feet of them, if you are standing near the bus. We took dozens of photos of baby mustangs next to their mommies and proud daddies standing guard nearby. Much to my surprise and delight, this ranch has been the site for many movies and TV commercials. Most of the Marlboro Men ads were filmed here as well as scenes from several well known movies. Remember the scene from “Hildalgo” where Viggo Mortensen says good-bye to his faithful mustang and sends him off to join the nearby herd of wild horses? Yep, we stood on the hill where that scene was shot.  That same hill was used in the opening scene of “Open Range” with Kevin Costner and Robert Duval.

Oregon Coast/San Francisco

Last October we hit the road again for a one week fly/drive starting in Portland, Oregon. I wrote about this area in my book, “The Single Parent Travel Handbook.” The book is out of print, but I still have some copies left if anyone wants to order one ($10.00 including shipping). Just email me for a copy –   On this trip we started off our touring in Astoria, across the river from Washington State. A lovely historic city, it offers great little seaside restaurants along with an outstanding museum called The Columbia River Maritime Museum.  Adjoining it on the dock was a floating lighthouse ship which you could board.  The waters are treacherous here, and coastal rescue was a big part of the museum exhibits – very interesting and educational.

On the way back down from Astoria we visited the Lewis & Clark National Historical Park, a peaceful enclave with a recreation of their small fort.  Stand where this Corps of Discovery stood and camped when they first sighted the Pacific Ocean.

A must- do is walking out to the monolith on Cannon Beach to watch the action of the tidal pools and enjoy the starfish and other sea creatures of every color and shape and size.   South of Cannon Beach are two attractions in the little coastal town of Tillamook.

The famous Tillamook Cheese Factory, open to visitors and the Tillamook Air Museum, the largest freestanding wooden building in the world, which houses 30 restored vintage WWII planes. Stepping into that building is like stepping way back in time, even the background music is from the 40’s. Other well known attractions along the coast include the Sea Lion Caves near Yachats  and the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, which hosts a giant octopus with an arm span (or should I say tentacle span) of 20 feet.

We headed south to Redwood National Park and cut through the rugged California coastal area to Mendocino for an overnight stay.  Wow, once was enough on that drive!

What we thought would be a two hour drive turned out to be a twisty, turning, tiring drive of many hours which ended up in dark mist with deer crossing the road until we finally, gratefully, reached our motel. Definitely NOT a single parent excursion, unless you start in the morning and allow plenty to time to crisscross this rugged Northern California coast.

In San Francisco, we stayed at a wonderful moderately priced B & B in the Presidio area called the Ocean Beach B & B. Rooms were clean and neat, safe street parking, and families welcome. It is only a few blocks walk to a superb  restaurant known only to the locals, called Pacific Café on 7000 Geary Street.  It is a bit on the expensive side, but worth it for the food and the experience. Chalkboard menu and no reservations. You stand outside and wait for a table while the owner fills (and refills) your glass with complimentary wine.  During our half hour wait, we made friends with a local author, a young local couple, and two local businesswomen celebrating a birthday. Our final day in San Francisco was spent visiting Alcatraz (a must-do and tickets should be pre-booked), Strolling Fisherman’s Wharf, eating Dungeness crabs and taking the ever popular cable car ride up the steep hills of this enchanting city.

The Four Corners Area

Our final trip in 2009 was a one week early December driving trip that circled the “Four Corners” Area. This area was also covered in my book. The six hour drive from Denver to Moab is one of the most beautiful and varied in the American West. You start off in the high Rocky Mountains, passing over the Continental Divide.  Then you enter an immense canyonlands area as you speed along on Interstate 70. Just before leaving Colorado you begin to see the Red Rocks appear in the distance and right off I70 is the Colorado National Monument. Take the exit! This one hour scenic drive is simply stunning and rarely visited.

After entering Utah the scenery immediately changes into a strange and eerie vista of barrenness and buttes.  There are two exits for Moab. The first one is a bit tricky as you have to wiggle around some back roads to get onto the road to Moab. Once you find your way you will be rewarded with a beautiful (and easy) ride through canyons.  The second exit is a straight shot to Moab, faster and easier to find.   Once at Moab, we donned our hiking boots and hit the ground running, in time for a late afternoon hike through the Windows area of Arches National Park.  It was sunny but very cold, quite a change from  the blistering summer heat of this desert area.  There were several inches of snow which offered a stunning contrast to the brilliant red rocks, so colorful in the late afternoon sun.

The next day we headed to Canyon de Chelly (pronounced SHAY) by the locals.  This remote Navajo land in the northeast corner of Arizona is accessible only from the north or the south.  A former Navajo stronghold during the Indian Wars, much has been written about the area and this time we hoped to get the Indian version, which we did. Canyon de Chelly is like a mini Grand Canyon, a beautiful valley surrounded by steep sided red rock walls. You definitely should hire a Navajo guide for a half or full day jeep tour. Not only is the canyon a labyrinth, but after the rains, there are areas of quicksand.  We were fortunate to secure the services of Leon Skyhorse Thomas, a full blooded Navajo, documentary filmmaker, and nephew of one of the original Navajo code talkers in WWII.

I highly recommend his services. His home phone is 928-674-5433 and his cell is 928-349-1600. He often acts as a consultant for western movies so it is best to call ahead in case he is out of town.

So what is so exciting about Canyon de Chelly? Well, first of all, it is an untouched remote area, where local Navajos live much the same way they did centuries ago. The nearby town of Chinle had several heads of steer roaming through the parking lot of the local shopping center, which gave new meaning to the phrase “free range cattle.” The Navajos had trucks parked in open lots, selling and buying hay. The canyon itself is filled with ancient petroglyphs, beautiful and peaceful scenery, lots of history and relatively few tourists.

We stayed at the Thunderbird Lodge, adjacent to the canyon. When we entered the cafeteria for lunch, we were surrounded by the guttural sounds of the Navajo language. As I gazed at the bronzed and chiseled faces before me, I saw in the background a twinkling Christmas tree, a tribute to the upcoming holiday.  It was one of those magical moments in travel, where you feel transported, even if only for a few brief seconds.  My reverie was broken when a friendly voice called out, “What’ll you have?” Easy choice. Indian fry bread with beans.

So let’s go back a moment to the Indian version of history.  For years I have read many books on western history and its colorful characters. One famous battle talked about how the Calvary, led by Kit Carson, rousted out the Navajos from Canyon de Chelly, during the Indian Wars. Our guide Leon, gave us a somewhat different version.  Knowing the white man was coming, the Navajos gathered up food and water supplies to the top of a high mesa, and prepared themselves for a long winter’s siege.  They built ladders into the rocks (still visible today) and everyone climbed up to safety.  When Kit Carson led the Calvary to the entrance of Canyon de Chelly, he turned and left.  The Calvary set up camp at the foot of the mesa.  The winter turned out to be an exceptionally dry one, with little snow or rain, and the Navajos began to run out of water.  They built long ropes of hemp and on one moonlit night, they formed a human chain and lowered buckets of water into the river below and fortified themselves with weeks’ worth of water.  When spring came, the Calvary gave up, broke camp, and left and the Navajos resumed their lifestyle. Have Leon tell you the story.

From Canyon de Chelly, we headed south to Window Rock, capital of the Navajo Nation, where we visited the local Navajo museum and learned more about the code talkers of WWII.   From there we headed east on Route 40 to New Mexico and took a side trip to El Morro National Monument – a “must-see”.  Besides being a backdrop in many western movies, this rock outcropping has acted like a memorial for passing Spanish conquistadores and pioneers, many of whom etched their names and dates into the rock.   Next was a visit and some hiking in El Malpais National Monument, a vast area of bizarre formations and a former hideout for Geronimo, the famous Indian warrior.

Our final overnight was in Albuquerque, where we had breakfast in the Old Town, at our favorite Church Café, behind the church at the Old Town Center. Shopping is great here, moderate prices for lovely creations by local artisans.

In my next installment I will cover the areas I visited in 2010 – northern Wyoming, some  attractions in the Denver area, and my most recent trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos – my third trip to this amazing place!

Until then, Happy Trails!


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