Friday, March 5, 2021

Six reasons to visit Easter Island

Getting to Easter Island, a speck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean requires determination. It’s the farthest island from any populated land on the planet—the most remote inhabited island in the world. And that’s a large part of the attraction.

View the famous Ahu Tongariki, 12 ancient stone sculptures called moai.

Also called Rapa Nui, Easter Island is a five-hour airplane ride from Santiago, Chile. But once there, you’ll find plenty to do and like about the island. Plan on staying 3-5 nights.

Here are six reasons to put this tiny, remote island on your bucket list:

·       See Ahu Tongariki, the largest ceremonial structure on the island, with 15 moai (ancient stone sculptures) still standing on the original platform. At least 288 of these moai once circled the island in an almost unbroken line. Nearly all are carved from volcanic ash and are believed to represent ancestors of the original inhabitants.

Look down into Rano Kau volcano, site of ceremonial festivals.

 ·         Stand on the edge of a volcano. Rano Kau volcano is located in the World Heritage Site of Rapa Nui National Park. Look down into its impressive crater; then take in panoramic views of the sea and surrounding area where ancients held ceremonial festivals.

·         Sunbathe at a sandy beach in the shadow of one of the finest cultural sites on the island. Ahu Nau Nau, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean from a small hill, features moai that had been buried under sand and are remarkably well preserved as a result.

Despite a very rough shoreline, there are a few beaches for catching sun rays.

 ·         Visit the quarry where much of the stone used in carving the moais came from. See original statues in various stages of completion, and marvel at the ingenuity of the natives who moved these massive structures to other parts of the island.

Marvel at scattered moais in various stages of completion--
and wonder how ancient peoples moved
these massive structures around the island.

 ·         Hike to the highest point on the island (just over 5,000 feet) for spectacular views of farms, cliffs, ocean, and towns.

 ·         Stay at Explora Rapa Nui, an all-inclusive resort where one of the amenities includes guides planning and leading daily activities tailored to each visitor’s interests and abilities. 

Beverly exits a previously unexplored cave with our guide.

In addition to hikes, we explored caves, sipped champagne while watching waves crash on the rugged coastline, dined on fabulous meals, relaxed at the pool, and ventured into the town of Hanga Roa to see ancient artifacts in the museum and attend a show featuring native dancers.

If you travel anywhere near Chile, consider adding Easter Island to your journey. Especially in Covid times, this fascinating destination is perfect for exploring outside at safe distances.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Native folk art and crafts of Peru

Peru is known for its world-class folk art.

From pre-Inca times to the present day, handmade arts and crafts have provided a visual expression of Peruvian culture. The nation’s skilled artisans have forged one of the most highly developed and diverse folk art traditions in the world, working in a variety of mediums and styles.

Pre-Hispanic designs and symbols often fused with art forms from colonial Spain in works of art as beautiful as they are utilitarian. From quirky masks to complex woven textiles, from hand-painted pottery to intricately carved gourds, from hand-crafted instruments to elaborate wood carvings, Peru’s distinctive handicrafts are an excellent way to bring home an authentic reminder of the country’s vibrant traditions and culture.

This is the first of a two-part story about different kinds of Peruvian handmade crafts.

 Woven Textiles

Hand-woven textiles are an ancient art.

Beautiful hand-woven textiles are among Peru’s most famous native crafts. They’re also among the most ancient: The oldest fabrics discovered in the country date to about 10,000 B.C. Using traditional backstrap or horizontal ground looms just like their ancestors, artisans today weave fibers of prized alpaca and vicuña wool, as well as cotton and linen, into colorful designs that reflect local customs and motifs. Bold, bright designs range from intricate geometric patterns to revered native animals, which show up in yards of fabric that you can buy as tablecloths, table runners, placemats, rugs, tapestries, and blankets.

Alpaca Wool

Highlands people tend their llama flocks.

Hardly anyone leaves Peru without buying something made of alpaca wool such as sweaters, hats, tote bags, super-soft scarves, and traditional ponchos and blankets. After all, these Andean camelids have been a key part of Peruvian life for centuries. Lightweight, breathable, and hypoallergenic, alpaca is insulating and non-itchy. Baby alpaca items, made from the fleece of the first shearing, is supremely soft. Rarer and softer still — with a price tag to match — is the ultrafine wool of wild vicuñas, from which alpacas are descended.

Larry bought an alpaca sweater, and I 
have a soft creamy vest.
But beware: While many products are advertised as 100% baby alpaca, chances are they’re blends of alpaca wool or even synthetic acrylic fibers. If you want to guarantee the real thing, shop at national brands such as Kuna or Sol Alpaca stores where the prices will match the quality. Or buy alpaca in Cusco at the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco, a non-profit collective of hundreds of weavers, or in Arequipa, a thriving textile center.

Embroidery

Colorful yarns are used in hand embroidery on garments and home accents. 

Another millennia-old fabric tradition is hand embroidery, which often served ceremonial purposes in ancient times. Today, it reflects the cultural identity of each region or village, which has its own unique style. You’ll find vibrant, patterned embroidery on local women’s skirts, handbags, men’s vests, jackets, and other traditional garments. Pillowcases with brightly colored floral accents or elaborate wall hangings stitched with scenes from daily life add a pop of color to your home. Known as bordados, these hand-dyed, alpaca-yarn narratives are embroidered on a wool cloth background.

Appliqué Fabric

I have this amazing wall hanging that depicts scenes from 
daily lives of people living on the floating islands of Uros.

Gorgeous wall hangings of another sort are Peru’s distinctive quilted appliqués on cotton fabric called arpilleras (meaning "sackcloth" or "burlap"). These hand-stitched, three-dimensional patchwork panels typically depict pastoral scenes of daily life, such as villages, markets, landscapes, or carnivals. Two biblical themes, Noah’s ark — with requisite llamas— and nativity scenes are also popular. The women who make these elaborate tapestries attach scraps of fabric including vinyl, felt, or straw fibers to the cloth background to tell the stories of their lives.

Wood Carvings

I love this colorful puzzle from Peru.

From religious figurines and masks to portable altars and toys, Peru has a rich wood-carving tradition derived from Spanish religious sculptures and carved furniture made for colonial churches and convents. In Cusco, expert sculptors carve classical religious figures such as the infant Jesus, angels, and Virgins that are often gold-leafed, as well as kings, magicians, dancers, and soldiers. In the town of Molinos, near Huancayo, artisans make a variety of wooden objects from kitchen utensils and toys, painted animals, and mythical beasts. In folklore-rich towns like Paucartambo in the Cusco region and Puno, on the shore of Lake Titicaca, elaborate carved and painted masks of fanciful creatures and stylized characters are produced for popular festival days.

Retablos

The most remarkable of Peru’s wooden folk art are its unique brightly painted retablos, or small portable altars. Originally used by Spanish priests to teach indigenous people about the Bible, these colorful diorama-like boxes depict everything from intricate religious or historical scenes to simple scenes of everyday life in the Andes. Originating in Ayacucho, the boxes are elaborately hand-painted with typical Ayacucho flower designs adorning their hinged flaps. Inside the boxes, artists fill multiple levels with hand-carved figurines of people, highland animals, and both Christian saints and pre-Columbian gods, a unique blend of religious traditions. Typically, the upper level symbolizes heaven with saints, sacred Andean animals, or nativity scenes, while the lower level portrays life on earth, such as a hat shop, a cantina, or a musical group.

Information courtesy of Angela Tuell, Percepture, atuell@percepture.com

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier and free sources.

 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Canada bans cruise ships until 2022

For many Americans who are ready to be on the move again, an Alaskan cruise seems like the ideal way to jump back into traveling—not too far away, beautiful scenery, and a destination that is still part of the United States. Cruise lines have been offering great deals, and ships have been filling up in recent months for the season that runs from May through September.

The Alaska cruise season is effectively cancelled for large cruise ships
that sail in Canadian waters.


But Canada has other ideas. Our northern neighbor is not being friendly to cruise ships and the many towns and cities in Alaska that depend on tourism for a large part of their economy.

On February 4, 2021, Transport Canada, the Canadian government’s transportation department, banned cruise vessels with more than 100 passengers from sailing in Canadian waters until February 28, 2022. A few small ships will still be allowed to sail.

So, just skip Canada and go straight to Alaska?

Scenes like this are not likely in summer 2021.

Well, there’s a maritime rule in effect called the Jones Act that requires foreign-flagged ships that sail in U.S. waters to stop in at least one foreign port when sailing between U. S. ports. That includes almost all of the larger lines that go to Alaska, so they typically include a port stop or embarkation point in Canada, such as Vancouver.

The ban affects more than Alaska vacation cruises. It also prohibits all adventure or pleasure craft and passenger vessels from entering Canada’s Arctic waters, thus eliminating itineraries of even smaller expedition vessels scheduled to go there in 2021.

What’s more, prohibiting ships from sailing in Canadian waters affects cruises along the east coast and Great Lakes as well as. The fall 2021 New England to Canada cruise season is effectively killed because of the long time frame set for the ban.

Many businesses in Alaska port towns
like Skagway are really feeling
economic effects of no tourists.
Transport Canada says cruise lines that don’t comply with the order could face penalties up to $25,000 per day, a jail term of up to 18 months, or both. This new regulation comes on top of Canada’s already strict requirement that arrivals from abroad must furnish three COVID test results—one taken prior to arrival, a second COVID test as they self-isolate in a hotel after arriving, and then a third test after quarantining at home.

What if you’ve booked one of these cruises already?

As of now, no cruise lines have officially cancelled their 2021 Alaska or New England cruises. Stakeholders in the tourist business are trying to have good-faith discussions with Transport Canada officials, but so far without success. Transport Canada does say that the ban could be rescinded if the pandemic improves sufficiently to allow the resumption of cruise activities. But it’s doubtful if that will happen in a timely manner to save summer and fall cruises.

If you already have a cruise booked that docks at a port on either the west or east coast of Canada, you may just have to wait to see if you’ll actually be able to travel as planned. Don’t be surprised if you’re left in limbo for a long time.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier



Thursday, February 11, 2021

Texas caves worth a visit

Whether you’re feeling the cold of winter or the heat of summer, caves provide steady, comfortable temperatures year round. More than 3,000 caves are scattered throughout Texas including many “wild” or undeveloped caves.

But Texas has a variety of “show” caves, too. Here are four popular Central Texas caves that I encourage you to visit. Since COVID is still a factor, be sure to check availability of tours and any special requirements before heading out—or save this information to use in a couple of months post-pandemic.

Natural Bridge Caverns near New Braunfels, Texas
Natural Bridge Caverns 

Billed as Texas’s Largest Underground Adventure, Natural Bridge Caverns has been attracting visitors since it opened to the public in the 1960s.  During the  90-minute Discovery Tour visitors travel to a depth of 180 feet and walk along winding paths at a pleasant 72 degrees. See ancient formations that are still growing including stone monuments, colorful rocks, and glistening crystals. Since 2008 guides have led tours to a second cavern discovered at the site which features special lighting to showcase rare and delicate formations.

Ropes Challenge is fun for kids 
and adults.
For a day-long family excursion, check out the gardens, Canopy Ropes Challenge, four zip lines, and mining activities.  Located 30 minutes north of San Antonio near New Braunfels, Natural Bridge Caverns is open year round. www.naturalbridgecaverns.com

Inner Space Cavern  

Longhorn Cavern is near
Burnet and Inks Lake State Park.

Hidden for more than 10,000 years, Inner Space Cavern was discovered in 1963 during construction of the state’s first major highway. A drill suddenly broke through solid limestone and revealed an enormous cavern system directly below the intended path.  Located 20 miles north of Austin off I-35, it is one of the best preserved caves in Texas.

Today visitors walk 69 feet below ground to view a variety of dramatic geological formations in large, eerie caverns.  The Adventure Tour departs every 20 to 30 minutes, no reservation required. On the Hidden Passages Tour follow a guide to an undeveloped trail in a newly opened section —flashlight provided—or become a true spelunker on the Wild Cave Tour through undeveloped sections. Although humidity hovers around 98 percent, the constant 72 degree temperature makes the cave pleasant even on scorching days. https://innerspacecavern.com

Longhorn Cavern  

Unlike other Texas caves, Longhorn was created by rivers surging through cracks and holes millions of years ago. Left behind are unusual rock formations, domed ceilings, sinkholes, sparkling crystals, and petroglyphs carved in rock.

Spectacular formations are hidden in 
these caves.

Fossils dating to the Ice Age have been discovered in this prehistoric place of shelter, and evidence suggests Comanche Indians inhabited the cave at least 400 years ago. The Confederate army used bat guano to secretly manufacture gunpowder during the Civil War, while popular legends claim outlaws used the cave for a hideout.

The walking tour covers 1.25 miles round trip and takes about 90 minutes. On the Wild Cave Tour you’ll crawl through tight spaces using a headlamp. Learn about unexplained happenings on the Paranormal Tour, or book up to three hours of photography time in the cave. Located in Longhorn Cavern State Park near Burnet, cave temperature holds at a cool 68 degrees. www.longhorncavern.com

Cave Without a Name


Located in the Texas Hill Country, 12 miles from Boerne, this beautiful cavern is filled with stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, cave drapery, and gorgeous flowstones. Tour six major rooms in 66-degree comfort. Easy walkways and brilliant lighting add to the unforgettable adventure in this living cavern.  Tours depart throughout the day and last about an hour, entering on a stairwell that spirals down the original sinkhole opening and ending beside a clear subterranean brook. www.cavewithoutaname.com

Cave Without a Name has great acoustics for live music performances.

Other notable Texas caves

Cascade Caverns, 14 miles northwest of San Antonio, the first show cave of Texas to be discovered. www.cascasecaverns.com

Caverns of Sonora on I-10, halfway between San Antonio and Big Bend National Park, considered one of the world’s most beautiful caves. www.cavernsofsonora.com

Wonder World Cave, near San Marcos, the nation’s only true earthquake-formed cave. www.wonderworldpark.com

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier and free sources.

 

 

 

 

Thursday, February 4, 2021

We went to see bears--and got a bonus with the Northern Lights


Larry and I are sound asleep when we hear noises in the hallway of our hotel. Then there’s a brisk knock on our door. Sure, we had put out the “
Do Disturb” sign before retiring, but we really didn’t expect that to happen.

It’s 12:45 a.m. and the Northern Lights are visible.  Aurora Borealis.  In October.  We jump out of bed, throw on the clothes laid out for morning, and rush outside to the waiting van.

It’s Halloween, but there are no goblins tricking us. Tonight it’s all treat.

We only have to go about four blocks to find a spot with open views of the sky. Stars twinkle in the clear night air—and it’s really cold, at least for us Texans. But cold, clear weather is the right condition for seeing the Northern Lights. Thing is, that usually doesn’t happen in until January or February.


We are in Churchill, Canada—almost 1,000 miles north of Winnipeg—to see polar bears. Our first full day on the tundra in a Polar Rover yielded about 20 bear sightings. We saw bears sparring (play-fighting) on their hind legs, mama bears with cubs, and a variety of sleeping and strolling bears that have migrated to Hudson Bay.

If we did not see another bear, I would consider the trip successful. But we see even more the following day. This is the middle of polar bear season, a six-week period when the bears congregate in a rather tight area while waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over so they can hunt seals and fatten up before winter. We feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to observe bear behavior and to photograph these magnificent creatures.

But we hit the jackpot. A gleaming green curtain of light illuminates the sky. I’m amazed by the spectacle. Then I turn around—and realize that the green streak reaches from one horizon to the other. The Big Dipper sparkles just above a portion of the emerald streak. 

A natural phenomena, the Northern Lights are caused by large numbers of electrons that stream from the sun towards the Earth along a magnetic field and collide with air particles in our sky. The resulting light, most commonly green, is colored by gases in the atmosphere.


We stand in the dark for half an hour, watching the green glow as it changes subtly with the winds—fading slightly then reappearing in full force. I try to take photos, but I don’t have a tripod and my point-and-shoot camera can’t capture the brilliantly moving light against a dark background. So I just try to etch the scene on my memory and remember how lucky we are to see this remarkable sight.

Now, I’m contemplating a trip to Alaska in the winter, when such things are allowed, to view the Northern Lights through the fiberglass roof of an igloo-shaped cabin. I can only imagine how amazing such a sighting would be as I lay in my warm, cozy bed!

Photos by Larry Burmeier

 

 

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Norwegian Air discontinues international flights

Popular low-cost carrier Norwegian Air recently announced that it will now focus on operating a European short haul network with narrow body aircraft. Like other airlines, its fleet is now mostly grounded as the pandemic has caused a near-total halt to global travel. The plan affects Norwegian’s flights to the United States and means it will cut its fleet from 140 aircraft to about 50.

You never fly on discount carriers? So that doesn’t matter to you?

It should. Scott Keyes, founder and chief flight expert at Scott’s Cheap Flights, explains what Norwegians decision could mean for other airlines. He explains the situation:

Woke up to sad news that Norwegian Airlines is ending US to Europe flights. I'm not here to eulogize the airline—I flew them once, it was fine—but rather to explain how they helped usher in what I call the Golden Age of Cheap Flights.

Until recently, budget airlines only flew within one country (think Spirit) or one region (think Ryanair). But in 2014, Norwegian did something pretty revolutionary: long-haul budget flights. US-Europe flights used to average $900+. Norwegian started selling them for $300. Price is the number one factor when travelers choose which flight to buy, and it's not close.

Before Norwegian, transatlantic flights were quite expensive because they faced no competition from budget airlines. After 2014, US-Europe fares went into freefall on *all* airlines. Delta knew that if they continued to charge $900 for a flight Norwegian was offering for $300, they would get their lunch eaten.

Instead, Delta (and all legacy airlines) began competing with Norwegian on price, regularly dropping their US-Europe fares to $300/$400. So let's all pour one out for Norwegian, the pioneer that helped us all enjoy cheap long-haul flights these past 5 years. Even if you personally never fly budget airlines, the fact that they drive down fares industry-wide is why they're still great for you."

What’s ahead?

Scott’s Cheap Flights also recently published results from surveying members in its second annual report. Here are some of the highlights:

2021 will be a big year for travel, as long as it’s safe. Although travel was curtailed in 2020, the collective wanderlust of travelers is still front and center. People are excited to get back out there, and they hope to do so safely. The vast majority expect to travel both domestically and internationally in 2021 but will often chose locations with Covid safety in mind.

Price is still the biggest factor in where people go and why they choose flights, along with recommendations from family and friends.

The deals will keep coming.


While the pandemic did bring about a decrease in prices on many flights, it didn’t lower prices on all flights or for all routes or destinations. The real story is more complex. Prices fell for some routes and travel times (summer, holidays), but more Mistake Fares seemed to pop up. Prices actually increased for some destinations. Despite those fluctuations, Keyes believes we are still in the Golden Age of Cheap Flights—and he doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Now is a great time to start planning travel for 2021 and 2022. Hopefully, you can catch a super deal on air and start dreaming of your next trip. Anticipation is good for the soul!

Information courtesy of Andrew Hickey, Senior Public Relations & Social Media, Scott’sCheap Flights. Disclosure: I am not a member nor do I receive special consideration from this business.

Photos from free sources.

 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Best way to view polar bears in the wild

Magnificent polar bears at Churchill, Canada

Just inches from my feet, two shiny black eyes stare up at me through the metal mesh floor of our Polar Rover. A bear cub lifts his button nose as if to check out the scent of my heavily padded boots. I’m furiously taking pictures, camera in burst mode, in hopes of capturing a few good shots of this incredible moment.

A cub peaks up from the outside grate of our Polar Rover,
 right where I'm standing.

We’re in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada—1,000 miles north of Winnipeg--on a polar bear expedition, hunting with our eyes and our cameras. It’s polar bear season, a six-week period during October and November when hundreds of polar bears migrate to this area on their way to Hudson Bay. When the sea freezes over, seal-hunting season begins.  After fasting during spring and summer, bears are ready to hunt (and eat) seals to fatten up before they again enter a period of living off their fat reserves.

Mother and cub walk over the slushy ice of Hudson Bay, not yet
frozen over.

Why Hudson Bay?

Hudson Bay is the first place that gets iced over each fall. Located in the middle of the North American continent, this region has no coastal waters to moderate temperatures. Also, the Churchill River, which drains from the Rocky Mountains, flows into Hudson Bay. Being fresh water, it freezes at a slightly higher temperature than salt water.  Aided by strong counter-clockwise currents, the bay can freeze very quickly forming prime hunting grounds for bears-in-waiting.

Journey to the Far North

We’re traveling with Natural Habitat, a leading tour company that partners with World Wildlife Fund to offer a variety of 6- and 7-day environmentally responsible wildlife excursions. While this is my favorite adventure tour company (we have gone on numerous adventures with them), other tour companies also provide similar itineraries in Churchill.

We overnight in Winnipeg where we are issued right-sized parkas and snow boots. These are snuggly warm and comfortable, eliminating the need to cram-pack or carry bulky items while traveling.

 An informative dinner introduces us to our guide, Drew Hamilton, whose photos and commentary whet our appetites even more for the experiences we’re about to have. Because no roads go into Churchill, the following morning a charter flight whisks us to the outpost town of 800 residents. The other option would have been a 52-hour train ride.

Bears are curious. This one checks out the 6-foot tires
on the specially-built Polar Rover.

Polar Bear Capital of the World

Although more than 14,000 visitors are expected during the peak season, the number of vehicles allowed each day on the government-owned 26-by-7-mile tundra region where polar bears congregate is highly regulated.  With only 16 people in our group, everyone has a comfortable window seat from which to observe the bears and take photos. On the back of the specially-built Polar Rover is an elevated outside observation deck. This is where I come face-to-feet with the bear cub.

Adventure in the tundra

Our first tundra excursion starts shortly before sunset. In the dimming light we soon cross paths with a polar bear family—mom and two cubs about eight or nine months old—that we watch slosh through semi-frozen puddles and muddied snow. We see tracks of an Arctic fox but no sign of the elusive camouflaged animal.

Male bears practice sparring skills that may be needed later. 

At dusk we come upon a group of three male bears. One is sleeping and uninterested in bear society, but the other two put on an amazing show of sparring, bear form of play-fighting. Raring up on hind legs, they nip at each other with open mouths, exposing long sharp incisors that could do plenty of damage under other circumstances.  Pushing and shoving each other with their huge paws in a pseudo-wrestling match, these enormous animals practice skills they may need later.

Sunset is a fiery feast of red hues.

Just before nightfall, streaks of scarlet red, orange, and yellow spread upon the clouds turning the horizon into a fiery blaze. Reflections on not-yet-frozen pools and dazzling snow-tipped vistas broken occasionally by scrubby reddish willows or brown boulders reveal a splendor unique to tundra landscapes.

Our first full day on the tundra yields about 20 bear sightings, with an equal number the following day, and more on our evening excursion—all observed from the comfort of our Polar Rover bus.  Male bears enchant onlookers with their sparring antics, mama bears keep watchful eyes on wandering cubs, and one male bear shows dominance by approaching another bear in a way that causes it to retreat.  Numerous bears sleep or stroll across thin ice, while others meander close to the Rover, poking around and climbing on the six-foot tires to check out their surroundings.

Polar bears are fascinating to observe in the wild.

Bears in the wild

Viewing these magnificent animals in their natural habitat is an incredible experience, but we’re constantly reminded that they are wild creatures. On the tundra we never leave the Polar Rover. Signs throughout town, where we stay in a basic but comfortable hotel, warn locals and visitors that this is bear territory. If an unruly bear wanders into town, it is captured and held for several days before being helicoptered back to the tundra.

Push comes to shove in good-natured fun.

Almost half the world’s population of polar bears (estimated numbers range up to 40,000) lives in northern Canada. Warmer temperatures from climate change may affect their natural habitat as ice starts to form later, allowing less time for bears to hunt and build up stores of fat. In the U.S. polar bears have been considered threatened since 2008, although they’re not endangered.

If you're craving a nature adventure that's extraordinarily inspiring, I suggest an expedition to Churchill to view polar bears in the wild.

A version of this story first appeared in NowU in 2014.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Driving Colorado's San Juan Skyway

For a spectacular spring or summer drive, map your course on the 233-mile (a little more with detours) San Juan Skyway in Colorado. This road trip will take you around half of the largest mountain range in Colorado.

Wildflower meadows surrounded by majestic mountains.

The loop can be driven in less than seven hours, but plan at least a long weekend to enjoy all the sights and activities along this famous highway. Take time to explore abandoned mining sites, scenic trails for hiking or biking, jeep tours over mountain passes and through wildflower meadows, natural hot springs perfect for soaking in glorious views, and Old West towns along the way.

Jeep ride to mountain pass from Silverton

Journey overview

Start your tour in Durango, stop at Silverton (48 miles by car), then head to Ouray (23 miles), Ridgway (another 10.5 miles), and on to Telluride (39 miles) or nearby Mountain Village, which is exquisite in summer. Continue on the western portion of the San Juan Skyway to Cortez (75 miles) and then return to Durango (46 miles).

Durango

Fish, float, or raft on the Animas River which runs through Durango.

Durango is well-known as the starting point for the historic Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. But with the free-flowing Animas River running through town and the rugged San Juan Mountains in view, it has become a gateway for outdoor activities in southwestern Colorado. In addition to the beauty of its natural setting, Durango’s Old West history and Southwest-inspired shopping and cuisine make it a top travel destination.
Stay at or visit the renowned Strater Hotel in Durango.

the haunted 19th century Strater Hotel, a prominent landmark in downtown, or at least take a tour. For a special treat, feast on a sumptuous breakfast at The Rochester Hotel and Leland House. Take a jeep tour into the mountains, play golf on a hillside, ride the train, or tube in the Animas River. 

 Ouray

Take the train or drive to Silverton, an Old West mining town.

Drive to Silverton, where you’ll think the time machine has zapped you back a century. Then continue to Ouray via the Million Dollar Highway (U.S. 550), a scenic mountainous stretch of hairpin curves.

The Million Dollar Highway is a spectacular drive.

Although it’s only 25 miles from Silverton to Ouray, this road, which was rebuilt in the early 1920s at considerable cost (hence the name), requires navigating narrow lanes on the edge of steep cliffs. Allow time to gasp at the crimson mountains of Red Mountain Pass as you navigate this breathtaking road.

Waterfall in Box Canyon
at Ouray

Called “Switzerland of America,” Ouray is the perfect base camp for exploring peaks and valleys of the San Juan Mountains, as well as remnants of mining towns,  by jeep, bike, or on foot. Fish or raft in the Uncompahgre River. Dip into the soothing hot springs, watch a glassblower at work, and marvel at the waterfall in Box Canyon.

Telluride

In addition to summer festivals, 
Telluride's red rock landscape is
fun to hike--this one to a waterfall.

A famous ski resort in winter, Telluride becomes a city of festivals in summer—bluegrass music, yoga, arts, and mountain biking. Stay in town to be close to activities and shopping. The entire town has been designated a National Historic Landmark District with all construction promoting its Victorian image.

Alternately, stay at beautiful Mountain Village, just a free gondola ride up the mountain, where panoramas viewed from 9,500 feet include magnificent peaks of the San Juan Mountains and plenty of outdoor adventure for all skill levels.

A free gondola take visitors between Telluride and Mountain Village.


Mesa Verde

Spend a day at Mesa Verde National Park for an historic look at how the Anasazi tribes lived and worked long before “civilization” came to this part of the country. Explore the cliff dwellings to learn about ancestral life in one of the most preserved archeological sites.

Mesa Verde National Park features Anasazi ruins.

For a less crowded look, check out Ute Mountain Tribal Park near Cortez, only open to the public with Ute guides navigating visitors into the wilderness adjacent to Mesa Verde's southern boundary. With only 1,300 visitors per year, Ute Mountain is a quiet spot where you can hike narrow trails and climb steep ladders onto high ledges.

Hieroglyphics are visible at Ute Mountain Tribal Park.

Complete the loop by returning to Durango. Follow up with activities you might have missed the first time here, or just savor your memories of this spectacular journey.

Try a game of golf when you return to Durango.
TIPS:                                      

  • The byway passes through five million acres of both the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests.
  • Recreational activities are also available along the Byway at Mancos State Park and Ridgway State Park.
  • For more information: www.coloradodirectory.com/maps/skyway.html

This article originally appeared in Dallas Morning News.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Friday, January 8, 2021

Bargain-priced adventure



Visit national parks for free

Arches National Park in Utah is a geographical delight.

National parks have been called America’s Best Idea for good reason. To encourage people to visit these special places, every year the National Park Service designates days when fees to explore nature and the great outdoors are waived. On six days on 2021, you can visit parks that have a charge (many national park sites do not) for free!

Green is the dominant color in Olympic National Park in Washington.

The next fee-free day is January 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and there’s no better time to enjoy our country’s history and natural beauty.

Additional days for fee-free entrance are April 17, the first day of National Park Week, and August 4, the one-year anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act.

Also mark your calendar for August 25, birthday of the National Park Service, September 25, National Public Lands Day, and the final fee-free day on November 11, Veterans Day.

Driving toward Mt. St. Elias, which dominates the landscape
of Wrangell-St.Elias National Park in Alaska.

Fee-free days make parks accessible to more people and provide a great opportunity to visit a new place or return to an old favorite, especially if your favorite park is one that normally charges an entrance fee. It’s good to note that only 108 of 419 National Park Service sites have an entrance fee, ranging from $5 to $35. Eliminating the entrance fee is a significant savings for popular parks including Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Olympic, and Acadia National Parks. Or you might discover a new favorite among less-visited national parks like Shenandoah, Sequoia, and Guadalupe.

Take a raft trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.


Note that fees such as reservation, camping, commercial tours, concession, and fees collected by third parties are not included in the waiver.

 Special passes

Any fourth grade student, including home-schooled learners who are 10 years old) can get a free annual pass through the Every Kid Outdoors program, Paper passes can be obtained by visiting the Every Kid Outdoors,  and these can be exchanged for the Annual 4thGrade Pass at federal recreation sites that charge Entrance or Day Use Fees.

Active duty military and citizens with a permanent disability can also get free passes.

Rafting and Hiking are popular activities in Big Bend National Park
in Texas, one of the lesser-visited parks.

If you are age 62 or older, the best travel bargain you can find is the lifetime national park senior pass for $80. Alternately, you can purchase an annual senior pass for $20 that is good for one year at all national park sites.. The senior pass allows all persons traveling in your car to also enter parks for free, up to four adults (Children under age 16 are always admitted free).

Many sites also offer discounts on amenities like camping, swimming, boating, tours, or shopping with the senior pass. You can purchase Senior Passes at a national park, online, or through the mail with an added processing fee. Contact https://store.usgs.gov/recreational-passes If you have a lifetime pass purchased under the previous $10 fee, it is still valid; but if you lose it and have to replace it, you’ll pay the higher fee. 

Waterfall in Yellowstone National Park

For $80 anyone of any age can buy an annual pass that allows unlimited entrance to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas year round. For more information about discounted passes, visit America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass.

If you love America's national parks as much as I do, you’ll be happy to know that funds from all Senior Passes purchased in a national park go to a National Park Foundation Endowment.

What are you waiting for? Mark your calendar and go explore your national parks for free!

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier