RAGBRAI 2018, part 2: Lincoln Highway, roses, and Maytag blue cheese


Today was another unbearably hot day, but I loved this section, even though one of the roads was closed and the route went through very familiar territory.

I got an early start – 6:40 a.m. – and headed back to Jefferson to start my second day-trip driving the 2018 RAGBRAI route. Today, my goal was to drive THREE days of the actual bike ride: Jefferson to Sigourney.


I arrived in Jefferson (population 4,169), the third overnight town, at 7:20 a.m., and was not surprised to see very little activity, even though it was the Fourth of July. I was reminded of the Hamilton lyric – “It’s quiet downtown” – as I walked around Jefferson’s pretty square. Jefferson is the Greene County seat and has some wonderful architecture, both downtown and in its residential areas.


Jefferson’s RAGBRAI theme, “Highway to Bells,” obviously refers to the Mahanay Bell Tower in the center of the square. Apparently there’s rooftop art that can be seen from the tower’s observation deck, but of course that was closed at that hour of the day.


However, I did locate Sally’s Alley (115 E Lincoln Way), a renovated alley space with the outdoor photography of Sally White, a native of Churdan, Iowa. The alley features large bird photos and original poetry (below).


Also on the square, Greene Bean Coffee was open for business! Just off the square is a fun ice-cream place, the Twiins Shoppe (below). Jefferson is definitely ready for RAGBRAI with its super-cute bike banners.


Heading out of town, riders will be on a relatively flat section of the Lincoln Highway and will pass by the Junction Township Cemetery, established in 1874. They’ll also see a fair amount of tall corn.



The first pass-through town today, Grand Junction (population 824), emphasizes its Lincoln Highway connection with a pretty garden and a bunch of Lincoln Highway signs.






Dana (population 69) isn’t much more than a road sign.


On this stretch of county highway, I encountered a one-lane road with a pilot car, and I felt sort of bad that they had to work on the Fourth of July, especially in such ridiculous heat. I also passed a lot of wind turbines.


And then I arrived in Ogden (population 2,044), home of a memorable blue-and-white-striped water tower and some cute July 4th decorations (above).


The scenery changes dramatically as you head into Boone; this is the Des Moines River valley (above). The RAGBRAI route goes very near the famous Kate Shelley Bridge. I didn’t visit it today because I’ve seen it before (and blogged here), but if you’re interested, you should go for it because it’s pretty cool.


I’ve spent a lot of time in Boone (population 12,661) over the years, so I wanted to do something different today. I drove past the Boone County courthouse (and the now-ubiquitous Freedom Rock) and by Mamie Eisenhower’s birthplace.


Which brings me to some fun facts about Boone:

  • Mamie Geneva Doud Eisenhower, First Lady of the United States, wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was born here; Mamie Eisenhower Avenue, one of the main east-west streets in Boone, is named in her honor.
  • According to Wikipedia, the city of Boone was originally called Montana (until 1871). Seriously.
  • Boone is home to the first Fareway grocery store and Casey’s General Store (a company I love and appreciate for providing public restrooms all across Iowa).


Boone is also famous for its Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad trains, which I hate to admit I’ve never ridden.


I dropped by this morning just to see if the trains were running, and they were not, but a sign on the door said there would be one train today at 1:30 p.m. This could be a fun activity for cyclists. If you don’t want to take time to ride the train, you can visit the James H. Andrew Railroad Museum & History Center or just stop by and look at the cool locomotives.

Or stop by the Boone Brewing Co. (Roxie Red is my fave). Or go downtown Boone and check out the awesome antiques and vintage stores – another one of my blog topics.


The RAGBRAI route was originally scheduled to go through Ledges State Park, one of my favorite places to hike in central Iowa. I tried to follow the route, but the road was closed due to high water. The route has now been officially changed to bypass Ledges, so you’ll have to take my word for it – it’s a great place. (I’ve mentioned it in several blog posts, but here’s the one I like best.)

I tried a workaround and couldn’t find one, so I took Hwy. 17 to get back to the route. I didn’t bother to stop in Luther (population 122); sorry, Luther.


I was grumpy about the backtracking, but then I saw a bunch of horses in a field between Luther and Ames, and that made me happy. I stopped my car, got out, and walked to the fence. Man, they came running over to see me like I was carrying a bushel of whatever it is horses like to eat. I took a bunch of pictures and they actually let me pet their sweet faces.


So, now I’m in Ames, which is so weird, because I live in Ames. My house is practically on the RAGBRAI route, so I stopped there to use the bathroom. I mean, why not? And then I went to Provisions (on Airport Road, in the ISU Research Park) and bought an almond croissant, which I definitely recommend. Actually, you can’t go wrong with anything in the bread/pastry/dessert case at Provisions.



Ames (population 66,498) is home of Iowa State University – Cyclone country! The theme for this overnight RAGBRAI stop is “Cycling Power: Taking the state by storm;” the route will actually feature a ride through Jack Trice Stadium.


Beyond that, there’s just so much to do in Ames. There are art museums, athletics, Reiman Gardens, and the amazing Iowa State campus. Ames has awesome shops, restaurants, and bars, both in the Main Street corridor (overflowing on this day with people there for the July 4 parade) and in Campustown. If you want to eat in a restaurant, here are my suggestions: The aforementioned Provisions, Stomping Grounds (Campustown), The Café or +39 (both on the north side of town), Great Plains Sauce and Dough (Main Street, but only if you are really hungry – this is a heavy-duty pizza). Other people rave about Hickory Park. I don’t eat barbecue, but I do like their ice cream, and it’s an iconic spot in Ames. Torrent Brewery just north of Main Street might be a fun place for RAGBRAI-ers, too.

Ames also has excellent parks and an aquatic center that I’m guessing would feel pretty good to anyone who’s been on a bicycle seat all day. Also, there’s my house. I know of at least four people who will be camping in my backyard, so stop on by.


The next morning, as riders leave Ames along Lincoln Way, they’ll head to Nevada (population 6,805), the Story County seat.

In doing my research for this drive, I learned that Nevada (pronounced Na-VA-da) was named after the Sierra Nevada mountains. Huh? Um, there are no mountains here. If anyone knows this backstory, please let me know.

I also learned that there’s a place called Evergreen Lane located at 1204 H Ave. I read that it was an Italianate home with a carriage house, one-room schoolhouse, 1850 log cabin, and gardens, all on six  acres.


I had to drive around a bit, but I finally found it. A sign said the grounds are open to viewing at all times, and that it’s the private property of Nevada Historical Society. I also met a guy across the street who said he keeps up the property and gives tours.


Nevada also has a nice, historic downtown with some cute shops that I need to go back to visit.


After Nevada comes Colo (population 876), also on the Lincoln Highway. Colo is actually located at the intersection of the historic Lincoln Highway and the Jefferson Highway. The intersection is marked by the historic Reed/Niland Corner, which includes a museum/diner and a cool vintage gas station.


I spent quite a bit of time in the next town, State Center (population 1,468), partly because I enjoyed being there and partly because I got turned around and it took me forever to find the RAGBRAI route to get out of town.


State Center, named for geographical center of the state, boasts that it is the Rose Capital of Iowa. And it also has a grocery store museum (106 W. Main St), which I’ve wanted to visit ever since I started this blog (and if that makes me a nerd, so be it), but it’s only open in the summers, on the weekend, from 1-4 p.m. Today I peeked into the window and it’s just as cute as you’d imagine it to be. So, I’ll drive back over one of these weekends. It’s managed by the State Center Historical Society.



The downtown area was looking extra patriotic today since it’s a holiday, and I enjoyed peeking into the shop windows, especially the Junker Shop. Then I attempted to find the rose garden (300 3rd St SE), because you can’t be in the Rose Capital of Iowa and not go to the rose garden. It’s a pretty place for sure, with tons of different kinds of roses and a couple of small shelters, a bricked walkway, and charming statuary.





After visiting the rose garden, that’s when I got turned around and couldn’t find my way out of town, but I did find a fun mural and some beautiful old homes (below). And got stopped by a couple of trains.




I sort of bypassed Melbourne (population 820) and headed directly to Baxter (population 1,102). By now it was so hot that my glasses were steaming up every time I got out of the car. Heading out of town, I encountered the Chichaqua Valley Trail, a bike path I used to walk on a regular basis. It was like running into an old friend.



On the road into Newton, I slammed on my brakes to photograph two giant metal insects in front of a home. I have no idea what that was about, but I thought they were cool. (Here’s the grasshopper, above. I think the other one was a praying mantis.)

I’ve spent a lot of time in Newton (population 15,034) because I go there four times a year for magazine press checks. Newton is probably best known for its Maytag Dairy Farms, the Iowa Speedway, and as the former home of the Maytag Corp. plant that manufactured washing machines and such (now home to TPI Composites, which makes enormous wind turbine blades). Of those three things, the dairy farm is definitely my favorite, so I headed there as I came into town.


To my surprise, it was open! On the Fourth of July! I was shocked. I went inside and bought a wedge of their famous blue cheese and took note of a group of folks on the lawn, building a set for the Des Moines Metro Opera, which was performing Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land” the very next day. Who knew? Maytag Dairy Farms is located at 2282 E 8th St N – just follow the signs.



After that surprise visit I headed downtown. I really like the courthouse on the square (Newton is the Jasper County seat), and there are lots of murals in the downtown area, which I also enjoy (above). My favorite place to eat, Uncle Nancy’s, is on the square, too, but it was closed for the holiday. Dang! I was so hoping to get a cold drink there, or maybe even a shake. I also really like a gift shop on the square called The Farmer’s Wife.


Newton’s an overnight town on the RAGBRAI route, and its theme is “Aloha Mahalo.” Like many of the RAGBRAI themes, I have no idea why.


I will admit that after leaving Newton I was hot and tired and had less enthusiasm for the rest of the day’s route. And I’m in a car! I can’t imagine how this would feel on two wheels. But today was just out-of-control hot and humid.


I stopped in Reasnor (population 190) to photograph a pretty barn (above) and a big-ass house up on a hill, surrounded by lush lawn and grazing horses (below).


The road outside of Reasnor is a bit hilly as you head into Sully (population 819) and Lynnville (population 390), which seemed to me like one town. Even the water tower has both names on it (below). Sully has a winery, a nice city park, and the Coffee Cup Café.


I came upon Ponderosa Lake before arriving in Montezuma (population 1,462). There was boating activity and other water sports on the lake, which seemed like a good idea, given the heat.


Montezuma is also home to Diamond Lake Park and the Montezuma Country Club and golf course. There’s a pretty city park and quite a nice downtown, with the Poweshiek County courthouse at the center of the square.




I learned, after my visit, that Montezuma’s downtown is a National Historic District; it’s also part of the (eternally confusing) Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area. Banners on the square proclaim that the town is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2018. Way to go, Montezuma!


I was amused by the abundance of street signs in tiny Deep River (population 269). Apparently a river named Deep River flows nearby, but I never saw it.


Keswick (population 240) has a sad-looking business district (below). I did a little research on Wikipedia to see what might be interesting about this town and learned that the Burlington, Cedar Rapids, and Northern Railway built a 66-mile branch to What Cheer via Keswick in 1879.



Also, the town is named for Keswick, England, the home town of a local woman who had offered lodging to the track-laying crew. Okey dokey.


At long last I made it to Sigourney (population 2,059), the fifth overnight town on this year’s RAGBRAI route and the last town I planned to visit today. Sigourney has sort of an adorable town square with some nicely restored storefronts, an antique mall, restaurants, The Garden Gate shop, and remnants of some recent patriotic event on the lawn of the Keokuk County courthouse – there was very festive red, white, and blue tissue confetti all over grass.


Sigourney is named for poet Lydia Sigourney, whose portrait is in said to reside in the foyer of the courthouse. The overnight town’s theme is “Where Pigs Fly.” Of course it is.


It took me more than 12 hours to drive this three-day section of the route, from the time I left my house in Ames to the time I got back there. It rained on me, driving home, and the temperature dropped 20 degrees.

Next up: The last two days of the 2018 route – Sigourney to Davenport!


RAGBRAI 2018, part 1: Loess Hills and Donna Reed


It’s July, so that means it’s time for my annual drive across the state along the RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) route.

This year’s route goes smack through the center of the state and right through the town where I live: Ames. So, this year I was able to drive the route in three day-trips: Onawa to Jefferson, Jefferson to Sigourney, Sigourney to Davenport. Much of the route was familiar to me, but, as always, I discovered some new places and explored lots of previously unknown roadways. Here’s my first day’s drive, which covers the first TWO days of the actual bike ride:


The first overnight town, Onawa (population 2,998), is known for two things: having the widest Main Street in the continental U.S. (above) and being the home of the Eskimo Pie. Yep, the Eskimo Pie was reportedly created by a local ice-cream-shop owner in 1920. Onawa is also the Monona County seat and has a stunning courthouse (below). There’s also an arboretum.


Onawa’s RAGBRAI theme is “Riders Assemble!” This is some kind of superhero theme (see the window art at top) that I don’t really understand, but when I drove through a few weeks before RAGBRAI, Main Street was already decked out, so cheers to that.



Heading out of town, cyclists will get to experience a brief but stunning taste of the Loess Hills (above) as they head toward Turin (population 68), a tiny town said to be named after Turin, Italy. Though the hills are on either side of the route, the road itself is relatively flat.



Today is hot and terribly humid, and it looks like a storm is coming. The Little Sioux River is out of its banks.

In Soldier (population 174), there’s a veterans’ memorial and a large number of motorcycles in the small downtown area. The town was named for nearby unmarked grave of a soldier.



The road out of Soldier is especially scenic, with pretty farmland and rural homes.



In Ute (population 374), I followed the signs to the city park and had a picnic lunch. I was expecting bugs – there were none – but instead I got my feet and backside damp from the wet grass and wooden swing. Ute has an excellent welcome sign for RAGBRAI-ers (below).



Charter Oak (population 502) is an adorable little town, with a strikingly pretty arboretum. A centennial mural sets off a small pocket park in the business district. (All shown below.)





It’s hard to believe that I’m now already at the first overnight town: Denison. With a population of 8,298, Denison is a much larger town than the others on the route so far. The town has a Hy-Vee and a Wal-Mart, McDonalds and Pizza Ranch, and the other usual fast food options on the outskirts of town. But the downtown area is where Denison really shines. Five buildings (including the Crawford County courthouse, below) and a bridge are on the National Register of Historic Places.



Denison is the hometown of actress Donna Reed, so downtown you’ll also find the Donna Reed Performing Arts Center. The Center is housed in a 1914 German opera house building and includes the Donna Reed Heritage Museum and Theater. Next door is a Bake Shop and Hollywood Café. All of this looked intriguing but everything was unfortunately closed.


Denison’s RAGBRAI theme is “Bacon – It’s What We Smoke Here,” and I assume this is a reference to the town’s meat-packing plants (Denison is home to Smithfield Foods and Quality Food Processors, both of which process pork.)


As I leave downtown, I note the cute kids’ artwork in downtown shop windows and snap a few photos of the majestic older homes. And then I get rather lost. Lots of highways converge here, and it takes me a few tries to get on the correct RAGBRAI road.



Riders beginning the second day’s route will almost immediately encounter rolling hills as they head toward today’s first town: Manning.


Manning (population 1,500) is a delightful little German town. I found a number of things to enjoy here. First, the town’s theme is “It’s Refreshing!” What’s not to love about that? They have an awesome “IOWA” sign …


… and a cool old railroad trestle bridge …


… and the first of many little free libraries I would come across on the route. (If you’ll look closely you’ll see that there are not one but TWO Bill Cosby books and a children’s bible story book. Oh, and the Babysitters Club.)


I like Manning’s downtown area, with its German architecture, fun bike decorations, a coffee shop, and cute stores.



Manning is probably best known for its German Hausbarn Heritage Park. Its 1660 hausbarn was constructed in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, dismantled, shipped to the U.S., and reconstructed in 1998. I wrote a blog about this in 2012.


Today I opted not to pay the entrance fee since I’d been there before, but I spoke to a woman running the place and she seemed really excited for RAGBRAI. She told me about some country music entertainment and special German food they were planning on the site.


Also in Manning are the Carroll County Freedom Rock (above), painted by ISU grad Ray “Bubba” Sorensen II , and a John Deere mural titled “Transitions,” by artist Clint Hansen, also an ISU grad, which contains 45,000 pieces of glass (detail below).


Just down the road is Templeton (population 349). It’s a tiny town but has an interesting business district with nice storefronts, a huge grain elevator, a pretty Catholic church, and nice older homes.





Templeton is best known as the home of Templeton Rye, and I was disappointed to see that their visitor center was closed for remodel.



When I arrived in Dedham, I had an observation: the smaller the town, the bigger the sign. And the smaller the town, the most signs announcing the name of the town. This holds true throughout most of Iowa.



The day remained oppressively hot when I arrived in Coon Rapids (population 1,261). There’s an interesting sculpture at the town’s entrance.


In the downtown area, I snapped some photos, including a mural by artist Chad Elliott (enamel on steel, 2013).


On my way out of town, I stopped at the Whiterock Conservancy/Garst Farmstead and wandered around a bit. This is a fascinating place to explore, with opportunities for hiking, biking, horseback trails, canoeing/kayaking, fishing, camping, and cottage rentals. You can also stay in the Garst Farm House, site of the 1959 Khrushchev visit, or in the Oak Ridge House or Woodland retreat.





Just down the road I encountered the Bur Oak Visitors’ Center and more trails. I keep saying I need to spend a whole day here, but I just haven’t taken the time to do it yet. And today was definitely not the day.

Outside of Coon Rapids I stopped to photograph a pretty farm…



…and then I was in Scranton (population 532), whose welcome sign boasts that there’s “No Place Like Home.” I didn’t find much to do there, and the thunderclouds were building up.


I had planned to spend some quality time exploring Jefferson, the next overnight town (RAGBRAI theme: Highway to Bells). But just as I stepped out of my car on the town square,  thunder boomed and some mean-looking storm clouds roll in. So I called it a day and headed home.


Next up: Jefferson to Sigourney.

Yankee Doodle Pops 2018


Happy 4th of July! I attended my second Yankee Doodle Pops concert last night. Held on the west terrace of the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, this was the 25th annual pops holiday concert.


I went for the first time last year and learned a few things. First, people walk around the whole time, so I learned not to sit right behind a sidewalk or you’ll have your view of the stage blocked pretty much from start to finish. I also learned that people talk during the concert. So, my expectations were lowered. One last thing I learned: where to sit to see the fireworks. That was a big takeaway from last year.


Last night we arrived much later than the previous year, so we didn’t have as much time to kill. We’d already figured out that it’s easier to get out of downtown if you park your car far away and walk to the Capitol grounds; we parked in the parking garage at 5th and Keo (yes, I know this is like a mile away, but it works for me).

Last night’s concert was grand. The Symphony played all the right music (“Stars and Stripes Forever” is my favorite); Simon Estes performed; and the fireworks were spectacular. Even the weather cooperated. I am now in the mood for tomorrow’s holiday.


National Parks of North Dakota


When we enter North Dakota on Interstate 29, the first thing that happens is a really bad noise that sounds like some huge, angry vehicle following us. But, no, it’s us making the really bad noise. We have a flat tire.

Well, crap. This is no way to start a vacation.

We pull to the side of the interstate and take a look. Rear passenger tire flatter than flat. I guess it could be worse: It could be raining. Or dark. Or we could be in a really remote location.

So, OK. We will deal with this. My husband Dave makes a valiant attempt to change the tire while I call AAA and try not to freak out that one of the many semis blowing past us will crash into my tiny, injured Prius.



AAA to the rescue! The dispatcher finds our location and sends help. A guy from a nearby tow service arrives in record time, changes our tire, and we’re back on the road to Fargo. Twenty years of paying our AAA dues has finally paid off. (Meanwhile, we experience a true-life example of North Dakota Nice when a woman and her son heading southbound on I-29 spot me and my car and, thinking I’m alone, turn around and come to my aid. My faith in basic human kindness is still intact.)



We decided to visit North Dakota for the primary reason of checking more National Park Service locations off of Dave’s NP list. But our first stops were actually the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan near Washburn, about four hours west of Fargo (not in the National Park Service purview). These historic locations tell the story of the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery with a special focus on the group’s winter stay with the Mandan and Hidatsa nations.




The interpretive center is especially nice. It had great displays with more than 100 artifacts and nice-quality art galleries. We even saw the artwork of ISU alumnus Charles Fritz, who specializes in Lewis & Clark illustrations.




Fort Mandan (above) is where Lewis & Clark stayed during the winter of 1804-05. The replica fort, built in 1972, was OK, but forts are not really my thing. The interpreter on site was a hippy-dippy stoner dude; I’m pretty sure he had been smoking something, or maybe he was just naturally strange.


After touring the fort (yawn), we walked along the riverbank and then came upon a giant statue of Seaman, the Newfoundland dog who accompanied Lewis & Clark on his trek, and that was basically the highlight of that particular stop.


Our next stop was the Knife River Indian Villages near Stanton, about 60 miles north of Bismark. This is a National Historic Site run by the Park Service.  I liked this place a lot. There was a reconstructed earth lodge that I could actually imagine living in, furnished with replica artifacts.



We took a nice hike along the River Villages Loop Trail that went through a grassland and along a river and through the site of the Awatixa Village, one of the Northern Plains tribes.



Most of the village sites in this area have been destroyed by erosion and river channel shifting and modern farming. The village site we hiked through was once home to as many as 400 people from the late 1790s to 1834.



From Stanton, we headed to Medora for a quick drive through the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I was super excited to re-visit this park; we wanted to explore the south unit more thoroughly and to experience the north unit, which we hadn’t seen before.

As you drive along Interstate 94, you can actually see the park to your north, and at one point the highway cuts through the lower edge of the park. The first place to stop, even before you have to pay to get into the park itself is the Painted Canyon Visitor Center. There’s a spectacular, breathtaking view of the park’s Badlands right off the interstate. It’s really amazing:





After Painted Canyon, you drive into Medora, a little tourist town famous for its Medora Musical (“the rootin’-tootinist, boot-scootinist show in all the west”), Pitchfork Steak Fondue, Medora Gospel Brunch, and all the fudge and taffy you can eat – all within about five blocks. We drove through town without stopping and headed for the park entrance gate (which is right there in Medora. Really, you can walk there from the fudge shop.)

It was already late afternoon when we started the 36-mile scenic drive that takes a really long time because you have to stop for bison on the road and to stop and watch the adorable prairie dogs and to stop and take pictures of wild horses and scenic overlooks. This is truly a spectacular park, just filled with wildlife and virtually no cars. I mean, there were some people there, yeah, but it’s nothing like Yellowstone or some of the other national parks where it’s just bumper-to-bumper. This park feels really wild, and it’s just wonderful to experience it in relative silence.

We saw this herd of wild horses (below) when we first entered the park. Feral horses, descendants of ranch stock, roam all over the south unit, just like they did when Teddy Roosevelt first came to this place.


So, like I said, we followed the road through prairie dog towns and scenic overlooks, stopping at every one of them because they’re so awesome.



Our first bison sighting was a pair, one on each side of the road. One was happily scratching its shaggy head on a trailhead post. We were joined by just a couple of cars while we watched in awe as the huge animals walked within just a few feet of us.




We saw more bison that afternoon, but no big herds. Just this guy, below. We finished the loop before dark and headed off to our overnight lodging and dinner at the Brick House Grill in Dickinson.


The next morning we arrived early to retrace our drive in the South Unit and to hopefully do some hiking (though the forecast was calling for rain). We were again greeted by a herd of wild horses (maybe the same ones as we’d seen the day before), this time within just a few yards of the road. They were so beautiful! There were even a couple of babies; I couldn’t get enough of watching them. It was a great way to start the day.



Our first “hike” was at the Skyline Vista overlook. It’s not really a hike, just a quick walk to the overlook, but it’s pretty and worth the stop:


The prairie dogs were out enjoying the sunny morning, so we stopped and photographed them again:




And we spotted this next big guy walking away from us as we drove along the loop road:


Our next stop was a real hike along Ridgeline Trail. It wasn’t super long, but it was a workout, with a ton of steep stairs and views along a high, grassy ridge.





Back in the car and we spot another guy in a picturesque setting, so we can’t pass up the photo op:




Our next hike is to the Old East Entrance, a .8-mile flat walk through a prairie dog town with Badlands in the distance. It was hot and sunny by this point, and I was glad I wore a hat. We saw one group led by a park ranger, but no other people. The prairie dogs kept us company with their high-pitched chatter.









Back in the car, and around another bend, we came across this craggy, old bison, all alone:


We passed by the Coal Vein Trail because the road to get to it seemed too muddy. By now we were about a third of the way around the loop, and we stopped at Buck Hill to climb to the top for a 360-degree view of the southeast portion of the park. Here I am at the top:




Our next bison sighting was different: Several of them were climbing along a ridgetop. We snapped a few pictures before they disappeared around the side:


One of our favorite views the day before was the Boicourt Overlook, but it was raining when we were there and the light wasn’t so great. So we were happy to get some good photos today and hike along the Boicourt Trail. The main trail is a quickie, just about .3 miles, but we found that the trail continued, so we took it and experienced some of the best views we’d seen by climbing along the narrow ridge. This was my favorite part of the South Unit.








The last hike we took was the Wind Canyon Trail, and it was different from anything else we’d seen, with views of the oxbow of the Little Missouri River. It was also the toughest, with steep up-and-down scrambles, and while we were there the storm clouds came rolling in. We narrowly finished our hike and were back in the car before it began to rain.


On our way out of the park, we had one final view before taking shelter in the visitor center until the rain let up:


The rain followed us as we drove the 50 miles north to the park’s North Unit. This was new territory for us, and how I wish the weather would have cooperated because I was so looking forward to taking a longer hike there. But it was not to be; it rained the whole time we were there.

We were mostly undeterred. We drove the 14 mile scenic drive to the far end, turned around, and drove back (it’s not a loop). We stopped to photograph a herd of longhorn steers, a historic demonstration herd that harkens back to the Badlands cattle industry. The North Unit also has bighorn sheep, but we didn’t see any.


Our next wildlife viewing was a good one: a large herd of bison, with many offspring, on both sides of the road. And on the road itself. In the pouring rain. I got really wet but couldn’t stand not to take pictures, they were so awesome. We noticed that a couple of them had tracking collars, something we hadn’t seen in the South Unit. We watched them for a very long time until we decided we’d better move on.







The other highlight of our visit to the North Unit was the River Bend Overlook. Here we encountered a large number of young visitors traveling by tour bus. It was raining and muddy and the trail was slippery, but the view was spectacular and I actually think the rain made the colors more vibrant. This is the area in which I was hoping to do a 4-mile hike along the Caprock Coulee Trail…but I wasn’t counting on the rain, so it was not to be. We had to be satisfied with the iconic overlook and the small shelter built by the CCC.




At the very end of the trail is the Oxbow Overlook, another view of the Little Missouri River Badlands. The rain had let up by this point, but the clouds were really low and just added to the beauty of the place. According to signage, the river here makes a hard turn to the east even though it used to continue north to Hudson Bay. During the most recent ice age, continental glaciers blocked its path; hence the turn.




As in the South Unit, our drive back was peppered with scenic overlooks and picturesque bison sightings…and a view of some longhorn steers relaxing (or hiding?) in the tall grass.




I hated to leave this place. It’s really remarkable, and I can’t say enough about its rugged beauty. If you ever get a chance and don’t mind the long drive across North Dakota, I highly recommend a visit. And don’t just go to the South Unit like so many people do…the North Unit is definitely worth the extra drive.



We stayed in Williston overnight. Williston is at the epicenter of the recent oil boom. The small city has been featured in the New York Times, Forbes, The Guardian, ABC News, and other media outlets, and not with the kindest coverage. Here are a few headlines from stories I’ve read: “An Oil Town Where Men are Many, and Women are Hounded,” “In North Dakota, Boom, Bust and Oil,” “Built Up by Oil Boom, North Dakota Now Has an Emptier Feeling.” This last one, from the NY Times, is worth a link so you can read the whole story, but let me just share the lead: “WILLISTON, N.D. — The ‘man camps’ sprang up from the prairie, rows of trailers and modular steel boxes that housed thousands of workers chasing their fortunes in North Dakota’s oil fields. But these days, the man camps are missing something: men.”

Yeah, so we stayed in an interesting town. We saw the “man camps” and the industry that’s popped up alongside the drilling rigs and the businesses that are already closed down. But, hey, we stayed at a perfectly nice Hampton Inn. And ate dinner at a mostly empty and overpriced Italian restaurant.

The next morning we had to search for decent coffee before hitting the road. Our final destination: Fort Union Trading Post, another National Historic Site managed by the National Park Service. It’s southwest of Williston, and it’s right on the Montana border. In fact, when you enter the site you momentarily enter Montana, but then you’re right back in South Dakota. Anyway, this is a reconstruction of a non-military fur-trading post from the 1800s, and I was not too excited about going. But it’s actually pretty cool. There are some teepees set up, with a pretty backdrop, and the trading post itself is a full-scale reconstruction built on the exact location of the original structures.





Fort Union was the most important fur trading post on the upper Missouri River from 1828 to 1867, longer than any other post on the frontier. Congress in 1966 designated the site to commemorate its significant role in the development in the American West.

The displays are nice (with actual pelts, if you enjoy that kind of thing), and the setting is pretty. But watch out for mosquitoes. I had to run away and barricade myself in the car.

And then we drove 13 hours (give or take) back to Ames. But at least we didn’t have a flat tire.

On the North Shore: Water, water everywhere


You’re probably tired of reading about my northern Minnesota obsession. I love going up to the North Shore of Lake Superior, mainly to hike the Superior Hiking Trail. I promise this will be brief! I just have to share a few photos of my most recent trip. These first few are from Tettegouche State Park, with views near Shovel Point, plus a short hike to Baptism River falls:









We did those hikes on Friday on our way up the shoreline. The next morning we took an 8-mile hike just south of Temperance River State Park. The hike took five and a half hours, and it rained for the first three hours. But it was still awesome! All the waterfalls are extra spectacular this year, because this area had a very snowy winter. Here are images of Tower Overlook, the trail, Cross River, and Temperance River, in that order:












A southern Iowa sampler


When you think of the top tourist destinations in Iowa – bridges of Madison County, Field of Dreams, the scenic northeast part of the state, and all that Des Moines has to offer – the southern tier of counties doesn’t immediately spring to mind.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth exploring. I love the Villages of Van Buren County, the Amish farms, the entire Hwy. 2 corridor, and the southwestern Loess Hills. I’ve visited these areas in the past, but my husband, Dave, had not. So, when I put together the itinerary for our Memorial Day weekend getaway, I included some of my favorite areas and added a few new places for us to explore.

Our first destination was the American Gothic House in Eldon. But first, we stopped in Pella for breakfast pastries at Jaarsma Bakery. I nearly always choose a Dutch letter, but I decided to branch out and opted this time for an almond caramel pastry (sticky and so delicious); Dave was boring and got a blueberry muffin.


After our sugar fix, we continued on with our travels. I love all things Grant Wood; I did a 3-part blog about his life and art back in 2011-12. The American Gothic House in Eldon (above) is a must-see for Grant Wood fans and all Iowa tourists. There’s an American Gothic House Center that features Grant Wood art, tells the artist’s life story and the story of his most famous painting, and shows a gazillion parodies of American Gothic – from Ronald Reagan to Rosanne Barr. There are even costumes and a pitchfork with which you can recreate the scene. (Dave said no thanks.) The American Gothic House is located at 300 American Gothic Street (take Hwy. 16 to Eldon and follow the signs).


From there, we headed south to Keosauqua and took an abbreviated tour of the Villages of Van Buren, visiting Bonaparte, Bentonsport, Cantril, and Milton.


In Keosauqua, we enjoyed a quick stop to view the Hotel Manning (above), the historic inn on the banks of the Des Moines River. We drove through Lacey-Keosauqua State Park but didn’t stop for a walk (though there are 13 miles of wooded trails) because by now it was already 90 degrees and also terribly buggy.


Continuing along scenic J40, we drove through Bentonsport without stopping and hurried to Bonaparte; we wanted to eat at the Bonaparte Retreat Restaurant, and it stops serving lunch at the early hour of 1 p.m.


When we got there, it was a busy place. We waited patiently for other diners to finish their lunch before we snagged a table. The restaurant is housed in an old mill that’s now a National Historic Site. The décor is heavy on antiques and the menu is definitely old-school (the lunch special was creamed chicken on biscuits with a side of corn).


There wasn’t much in the way of vegetarian options – not even my old standby: a grilled cheese sandwich – so I ordered a wedge of lettuce with blue cheese (Dave had a $3.55 cheeseburger with a $3.70 side of onion rings) followed by coconut pie for dessert. The setting and service definitely make this restaurant worth a visit.


Bonaparte is a fun, historic town to explore, especially if you like antiques. There’s an interesting pottery workshop (below) that was established in 1865. We were given an impromptu tour by the owner’s sister, so we got to see some of the 1870s clay molds and learn about the history of the pottery operation located on the bank of the Des Moines River as well as visit the pottery-filled gift shop.




We doubled back to Bentonsport (the two towns are only about four miles apart). I love walking across the old river bridge built in 1882 (below) and poking around in the shops, including the historic Greef General Store that’s filled with antiques.


From there, we headed to Milton Creamery, located in a not-historic building right on Hwy. 2. Milton’s Prairie Breeze and Prairie Rose cheeses are well known in Iowa; you can purchase them at many grocery stores, and they appear on a number of good-quality restaurants’ cheese boards. It’s fun to visit the creamery because you can sample the not-so-famous cheeses, such as quark (a spreadable cheese that tastes like goat chevre but made from cow’s milk) and flavored cheese curds. We bought a tub of quark, some chive curds, and a chunk of Prairie Breeze, all delicious.


Our final stop in Van Buren County may have been the highlight of the day. I wanted to visit Dutchman’s Store in Cantril. I love this place! It’s truly one-stop-shopping for just about anything you’d ever want, but unlike Wal-Mart, it’s an adorable, authentic Amish market. You can buy work boots and what appeared to be a frozen side of beef; bulk candies and bolts of cotton fabric; jars of pickles and bottles of old-fashioned soda pop. My favorite items are the Amish clothing: white shirts, black jackets, and black or straw hats for men; bonnets and aprons for women. We bought more cheese, some pumpkin butter, noodles, and pretzels — all for way less money than you’d spend in most grocery stores.


And then, still in Cantril, we parked at the Waubonsie Park Trail and hiked the 1-mile loop. This place is such a great discovery! From the road, you’d think it was no more than an RV park, but once you get on the trail you’re rewarded with a picturesque pond (above), secluded woods, and THREE covered bridges (above and below). I loved this place!



The afternoon heat nearly did us in – by now it was about 98 degrees and sunny – so we headed toward our evening destination: Honey Creek Resort. We stopped briefly in Centerville (below) to walk around the square (it’s the largest town square in Iowa, so, you know, you gotta stop there). Centerville also boasts 119 buildings on the National Historic Register.



Traveling north on Highway 5 and then west on J18, we finally reached Honey Creek Resort and checked in. The place was hopping, with lots of golfers and an engagement party. Our well-appointed room was located on the third floor, with views of the lake. We were ready for a beer, so we quickly changed out of our sweaty clothes and went down to the bar.


The only other time I’d visited Honey Creek Resort was in February 2015, and I had such a good experience in the bar and restaurant. The service was really warm, friendly, and professional, and the food was great. This time, I have a lot of complaints. First of all, it seemed like much of the staff was brand new. Maybe they added a bunch of new staff on Memorial Day weekend, but these folks did not appear to be very well trained (or trained at all?). We sat at the bar and waited a very long time for a server to ask us what we’d like to drink – despite the fact that there were three people behind the bar and very few customers. After drinking a cold beer – which definitely hit the spot after our long, hot day – we moved to the dining room, where we had another terrible server. She was not knowledgeable about the menu and had absolutely no personality. I had to remind her that I’d ordered a glass of wine. Plates were cleared without comment. The check was dropped and away she ran. Was this her first day? I sure hope so, because if this is a seasoned employee, this restaurant is in trouble.

I will admit that both of our meals were quite tasty. But the vegetarian options on the menu were few and far between. I ordered a build-your-own pasta with pesto sauce and portobello mushrooms, which is kind of funny because when I was here three years ago I had a portobello mushroom with cheese and pesto sauce. The menu is good for meat-eaters but not at all creative for those of us who aren’t.

So, I was disappointed in our evening meal and disappointed that it was too blasted hot to sit outside to enjoy an after-dinner drink. (There were tables and chairs on the patio, but no umbrellas, and it was still mighty warm outside.)

The next morning, after a comfortable night’s sleep, we went back to the restaurant with high hopes for breakfast. Again, I was disappointed. When I was here before, a breakfast buffet was available but you could also order off the menu. This time, the buffet was the only option, and I really hate that. With a buffet, I end up spending more on my meal and getting less of what I really want – because I don’t eat the bacon and sausage or the biscuits and gravy. I really wanted pancakes or an omelet. At least the buffet price wasn’t too out of line at $11.95. I ate a scoop of so-so scrambled eggs, a scoop of good-tasting hash-brown potatoes, a tiny blueberry muffin, and some fruit. The server brought me a cup of coffee but never offered to refill my cup.

One last complaint about Honey Creek Resort: Our room cost $249 plus 12% tax and a conservation fee, and when we left they also added a $10 resort fee, which sort of irritated me. So, beware of hidden charges when you book a room here.


Our plan on Sunday was to hike at Honey Creek State Park or nearby Lake Wapello State Park, but it was already so hot that we just headed home. Our last stop was at the delightful town of Albia (above and below). I adore this town square – it may be my favorite in all of Iowa. It has more than 90 buildings on the National Historic Register, and somebody’s definitely put a lot of love and money into this downtown.


Springtime in central Iowa


Ahhhh, springtime in central Iowa. Winter lasts forever, and once spring finally arrives, it lasts for about 5 minutes before we are into full-blown summer.

We had snow up until April 18 this year ­– not an errant gasp of winter in mid-April, but serious, hard-core winter weather throughout March and well into April. Here’s an example from my own backyard, the first photo taken on April 15, the second on May 6:



I’ve made it a practice for many years to travel to Pella the weekend before Tulip Time to see the flowers without the crowds. This year that plan backfired; one week before Tulip Time there were stubby green stems and leaves, but very few tulips nodding in the sunshine (see the one bed that was blooming, below). A week later, during the actual event, I’m told the flowers were in full bloom. What a difference a week makes!


I visited Reiman Gardens in Ames last weekend, and the tulips there were magnificent, just a riot of color. I loved the multicolored beds this year.



It was a warm, sunny, windy day – a perfect environment to view the Gardens’ Wind, Waves, and Light kinetic sculpture exhibition (below). The sculptures, created by George Sherwood, are made of highly reflective stainless steel, and they reflect the sunlight as well as moving in mesmerizing patterns in the wind. See it this summer or fall – it will be on display through Nov. 3.




Then, these little sweeties popped up in my front yard a couple of days ago. I love their little faces.


This week I visited McFarland Park (in Story County, just north of Ames) for the first time in more than a year. I used to hike there regularly; I’m not sure why I don’t drive up there more often. The park has some of the best spots for wildflower viewing in the area. This spring’s crop is the best I’ve ever seen. The bluebells are real little overachievers, blooming in incredible numbers all over the woodland floor. There are also wild violets and other yummy little flowers in a rainbow of colors.








Go soon! Spring is over in the blink of an eye.


Snow! On the North Shore


Ah, the lure of deep, fluffy snow on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior. I’ve dreamed about seeing this for years, but I’ve always been too nervous to book a weekend getaway nine hours north when winter weather is so unpredictable.

Once, eight years ago, I decided to bite the bullet and go North in March. But I was disappointed that there was no snow on the lakeshore, and even though there was snow on the hiking trails it was already warmer up there than in Iowa, making it feel more like spring than winter. Plus, I saw about a hundred deer on the roads up there, which made me super fearful that I’d hit one with my tiny car.

But I took a chance a couple of weeks ago and booked a cabin at my favorite getaway, Cascade Lodge, for the weekend of March 10-12. The 10-day forecast was decent, and the Cascade Lodge folks were tempting me daily with beautiful snow photos on their Facebook page.

My drive north on Saturday was without incident, unless you count a very brief snowstorm near the Twin Cities and a scary wreck on the side of the road on Hwy. 61. Both made me slow the hell down and focus my eyes on the road in front of me.

I stopped twice in Two Harbors (about 20 miles or so north of Duluth), first to buy six-packs of my favorite new beer – Castle Danger Cream Ale – that you can’t buy in Iowa, and then to eat a late lunch (okay, pie and ice cream) at Betty’s Pies.


I arrived at Cascade Lodge at around 4:30 in the afternoon and got settled into Cabin 11 – not my normal choice but it’s really the sweetest little cabin you ever saw (above). Cascade Lodge is under new ownership, and the best thing they’ve done is upgrade all the mattresses from rock-hard to pillowy softness, with new duvets and Faribault Woolen Mills blankets thrown in for good measure. Heavenly!


The North Shore was, indeed, covered with white, fluffy snow, though not quite as deep as I was hoping. Some of the piles were taller than me, but the snow on the ground was more like 8 inches, even though they got three feet of snow in one 10-day period just a couple of weeks ago. Here’s my little car parked next to my cabin:


I spent the first night eating a bowl of potato-leek soup and drinking a pint of Cream Ale (on tap!) at Cascade Restaurant, which is located right next to the lodge. It was Friday night, and they had a good band playing. Later I built a fire and started reading a new book in my cabin.

The next morning, after eating pancakes and drinking a whole lot of coffee, I bundled up and took off for a snowshoe hike. It was cold – my feet and fingers were absolutely frozen just walking over to the diner – so I brought a whole arsenal of outerwear with me: stocking cap, earmuffs, two pairs of gloves, scarf, coat, and down vest, in addition to the fleece-lined leggings, pants, hiking boots, two pairs of wool socks, and fleece and flannel shirts that I was already wearing. I drove the 12 miles south to my turn-off at Onion River Road and headed inland, where the snow was visibly deeper. I parked in the large parking lot near the Oberg Mountain Loop (and two other trailheads) and geared up. The parking lot was covered in thick ice, so I put ice cleats on my hiking boots, grabbed my snowshoes and poles, and headed for the trailhead (part of the Superior Hiking Trail).


It didn’t take long before I realized that I was seriously overdressed. I knew this would happen – it always happens – so I brought a backpack in which to stuff the extra layers as I peeled them off. First came the heavy gloves, and then the coat. I ended up doing the hike in two shirts, a vest, earmuffs, scarf, and light gloves. I could have survived with less.


I’ve hiked this trail many, many times. You basically take an easy switch-back trail up the “mountain” – really, more of a big hill – and then walk the loop trail that goes all around the top, with incredible views of Lake Superior and inland overlooks with trees and smaller lakes. It’s spectacular in the fall and very pretty in the spring. With about two feet of well-packed snow on the trail, it took a bit longer to hike and looked completely different than I’d ever seen it before. You could see THROUGH the trees for once; the valleys below looked like a black-and-white photo; and the lake and sky converged into one steel-gray vista. I loved it.



I saw very few people at the top. I wanted someone to take my picture, so I asked a couple if they would mind, and that resulted in this photo:


You will notice that I have snow on my legs; that’s because as I was changing directions on the trail to turn and face the camera, my snowshoes became entangled and I fell into a deep drift. Not my finest moment. Other than, that I had no other mishaps.


The rest of the time I spent on the North Shore was either in my cabin or in Grand Marais (nine miles north of Cascade), above. I ate veggie chili at Gunflint Tavern and a wild rice pizza at Sven and Ole’s. Since I had a little extra time to kill, I also spent an hour or so reading and sipping a latte in Java Moose. The afternoon was cold, windy, and snowing, and it felt good to hunker down with a good book and warm coffee. The evening was perfect for a long bath, flannel jammies, and a fire in the fireplace. I headed home the next morning.

I’m already looking forward to my next (non-snowy) trip to the North Shore in June.

Anne Frank exhibit at the Pella Opera House


I learned this past week that an Anne Frank exhibit was on display at the Pella Opera house, so I took a quick drive down there on Friday.

I’ve visited Pella many times, but I don’t remember ever being inside the Opera House, which was built in 1900. Back in the day, nearly every town in Iowa had an “opera house” – really, they were theatres and very rarely housed opera performances – but of the 1,500 or so built in Iowa, only about 300 remain.


I’m sure you know the story of Anne Frank, the young Jewish German girl who moved with her family to Amsterdam during World War II to escape the tyranny of the Nazis. Anne’s story is famous because of the detailed diary she kept while her family – sister Margot and parents Otto and Edith – hid in a secret annex above her father’s former warehouse.


The exhibit tells the story through a series of panels consisting of photos, quotes, and historical information, with the larger WWII story being told on the top of each panel and the story of the Frank family below, in a corresponding timeline. It’s an interesting and enlightening way to view the parallel stories. Although the display itself isn’t anything fancy, the photos and quotes were well curated – many of them were quite rare. A 30-minute video was also available for viewing.


Before the family left Germany, Otto Frank said, “When many of my fellow countrymen changed into hordes of nationalistic, cruel, anti-Semitic criminals, I had to face the consequences, and though this hurt me deeply, I realized that Germany was not the world and I left my country forever.”


Anne and her sister, Margot, went to school in Amsterdam, made friends, and lived a happy life, even for a time after the Germans invaded the country. And then, of course, Hitler made it impossible for Jewish families to stay in their homes and also impossible to safely leave the country. Rather than face certain death in the concentration camps, the family hid.

The display includes actual photos of the annex and this drawing of the interior:


A revolving bookcase concealed the entrance to the annex. During the day, when staff members were at work at the office below, the Franks and the others who were in hiding in the annex, had to be completely quiet. Anne spent her time studying, playing quiet games, and writing in the diary that she was given on her 13th birthday. Anne hoped to grow up and become a writer and journalist.

In her diary, Anne wrote letters to an imaginary friend, Kitty. “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support,” Anne wrote on the first page of her diary in June 1942.


The family was found by the Nazis, and both Margot and Anne died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in February 1945. Their mother died in Auschwitz. Only Otto Frank survived.

Anne’s diary has been translated into more than 60 languages.

The Anne Frank exhibit ran at the Pella Opera House Feb. 3 through March 3. Although the exhibit is gone, the building is still worth a visit. You can take a self-guided tour of the four-story structure, which reopened in 1990 after being closed for many years. The building was bought and sold many times (22 times between 1900 and 1918 alone!) and housed a variety of businesses, from a skating rink to a hardware store to a bowling alley. Today the great hall serves as a reception center and meeting hall, and it’s available for rental.


A winter escape to Florida


When we planned this trip to Florida (Feb. 2-7) several months ago, we had no way of knowing how truly awful the weather was going to be here in Iowa while we were away. In south Florida, while we were basking in sunny, 75- to 80-degree days, all hell was breaking loose back home: below-zero temps, heavy snow, and a freakish 50-car pile-up on I-35 right outside of Ames.

We just sighed and put on more sunscreen. I mean, what can you do?

Our trip began on Friday. We flew into the Fort Lauderdale airport and drove to Miami. We had booked an Airbnb in Miami Beach for a little mid-winter getaway. Neither Dave nor I had ever spent much time in Miami, and we thought it would be fun to explore the area, go to a couple of national parks, and enjoy the warm weather.


Our one-bedroom apartment was on the third floor of an older building (above, just behind the palm tree) on Collins Ave., a main road that runs the length of Miami Beach’s north and south beaches. I liked our location; we were surrounded by small restaurants, food markets, and drugstores, and the beach was just a block and a half away. Parking was free – if you were willing to park in the residential area a few blocks from the main streets. We found a Greek open-air patio, a Cuban restaurant, upscale Mexican food, and a great pizza dive all within about six blocks. We shopped for breakfast food and snacks in a small grocery store. Everything was really convenient.

Now, if I had to do it over again, I probably would have, instead, booked a small boutique hotel in South Beach, just a few miles down the road. (How much would that cost, I wonder? I didn’t even consider it.) South Beach (below) was a lot of fun.








We walked past block after block of pastel Art Deco architecture, strolled on the public beach, and ate lunch outside at one of the many, many sidewalk cafes along the pedestrian Española Way, below. (We shared the most amazing porcini mushroom pappardelle pasta dish, with crusty Italian bread, a fresh mozzarella salad, and wine.)


That afternoon, we ventured into Miami and took an art walk in the Wynwood Art District, below. As you can see, the area mostly features graffiti-based murals. I would have enjoyed this more if it hadn’t been raining.





We also drove through Little Havana, which was a really intriguing area, below. We parked our car and walked along one of the main streets, stopping for coffee in a cute Cuban coffee shop and enjoying the lively music that seemingly came from every shop, bar, and restaurant. We would have stayed longer, but it began to rain heavily, and the wind was fierce, so our umbrellas were no help at all. (But at least it was a warm rain!)



On our second full day in south Florida, we drove to the visitor center at Biscayne National Park and boarded a boat that took us on a three-hour tour of the park.


Biscayne is about 95% water, so a boat is definitely necessary if you want to see much of anything. We booked our $39-per-person tour on the Pelican Island Skipper through the Biscayne National Park Institute. There are mangroves and reefs and a series of small keys in the bay; we stopped at one of them – Boca Chita Key – and took a short hike, climbed to the top of a lighthouse, and enjoyed the beach and the yachts in the small harbor.






The institute offers other experiences as well, including snorkeling and paddling. (A bonus surprise: A hazy view of the distant Miami skyline, below.)


As we were fairly far south already, we decided to visit Key Largo, because that seemed like a cool thing to do. We did absolutely no research (except looking at the map), and we were disappointed when we got there. We didn’t find much to like, but we did find a small café with an outdoor patio, where we were entertained by tiny lizards. And, of course, I ordered key lime pie.



This put us a little behind schedule, because we were hoping to drive through the southern part of Everglades National Park. I’ve wanted to see the Everglades forever; I wasn’t sure how much damage the park sustained during the recent hurricane season, so I was happy to see that most of it appeared to be pretty much unscathed.




We took the park road near the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. Every few miles along this 38-mile drive, you can turn down a small road and end up at a trailhead that takes you on a short loop hike. It was already late afternoon, so we only made it about halfway down the main road. Some of the hikes are as short as .2 miles. The longest one we took was .8 miles. All are easily traversed; most are boardwalked.










All of the walks were lovely, although the Anhinga Trail (all pics above) was by far our favorite. There we saw birds, alligators, and fish in the freshwater marsh, and, eventually, the soft colors of sunset. We would have stayed longer, but it got too dark.


The next day we hit the northern part of the Everglades, driving along Hwy. 41 to the Shark Valley Visitor Center and walking the Tram Trail and Otter Valley Hammock Trail.




Alligators greeted us with toothy smiles all along the Tram Trail, and we saw egrets, herons, ibis, and other awesome birds. We also heard the constant splash of the walking catfish, but we never actually saw one.










I could have stayed all day. On our way out of south Florida we drove through Big Cypress, a designated national preserve, where we saw more gators, below.


Later, we took a quick hike on a palmy, ferny trail through a Panther Preserve, below. It occurred to me, while we were hiking, that putting human trails inside a panther preserve might not be the best idea, but I assume it’s safe? We obviously didn’t get eaten.



We didn’t have a lot of time to explore during this leg of the trip, because our destination was Orlando, and it’s a long drive to get there, no matter how you do it. I was the navigator, and I was trying to take the most direct route straight north, as opposed to going to the east or west side of Florida, where the interstates are very much out of the way. The road we were going north on most of the day (Hwy 29) was SLOW and went through a lot of little towns and through orange groves and I thought we’d never, ever get there.


When we finally arrived at our destination – one of the many Hampton Inns in Orlando – we made a quick change and then hurried to Disney Springs for dinner and some shopping. Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) has changed a lot over the years, and it was barely recognizable to us with its new parking garages, high-end shopping, and new bars and restaurants.


We snagged a table at House of Blues with no waiting, and then we dropped over a hundred dollars on a tiny bag of gifts at the huge Disney store.


We had a little free time the next day, so we decided to visit Epcot, a Disney park we’ve grown to love. We got there so early that we didn’t even have to take the tram from the parking lot; we purchased tickets and were in the park before it actually opened. Once we were in, we headed directly to the Soarin’ ride. We knew it had recently been updated from a “flight” above the California coastline to a “flight” around the world. I always enjoyed it before, but now it’s a gazillion times more amazing. You dip and glide above Sydney Harbour, Iguazu Falls, and the Great Wall of China, soar above polar bears and whales, and swoop over the Taj Mahal and Eiffel Tower. We loved it.

After riding Soarin’, it was still a good hour before World Showcase would open, and we didn’t have anything else we wanted to do in Future World, so we decided to ride Test Track – in hindsight, a stupid mistake. There wasn’t a wait time listed at the standby entrance, and the line didn’t look very long, so we hopped in. We finally boarded the stupid car an HOUR after waiting in a ridiculously slow-moving queue. Honestly, I wouldn’t have minded standing in line for an hour, but I didn’t even want to ride this damn thing. I kept looking for an exit, but once we were in, we were stuck. I became very grumpy. And very glad to finally get out. (Oh, by the way, the last 20 seconds of the ride is pretty fun. The rest is meh.)


After that, I didn’t have the patience to stand in another line. The only other thing I really wanted to ride was “Frozen Ever After” in the Norway section, and the line was consistently running 45 minutes or more. I decided I could live without it.




Instead, we ate pizza and drank wine in Italy, shopped in Germany and Mexico, ate ice cream in France, and drank a beer at the Rose & Crown in the UK. We watched little kids meet their favorite Disney characters. It was a gloriously warm, sunny day, and we spent much of the afternoon just strolling from country to country.



And now we’re back in Iowa, where it snows every freaking day. I am ready for spring!