Thursday, August 28, 2014

Wrangell-St. Elias: America's largest national park

Mountains loom larges on the way to Wrangell-St. Elias

Covering more than 13 million acres and larger than the country of Switzerland, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska stretches from one of the tallest peaks in North America, Mount St. Elias at 18,008 feet,  to the Pacific Ocean. Yet within this wild and remote landscape, people live off the land just as they have been doing for centuries. Subsistence fishing and hunting are allowed for the hardy folks who live in or near the park.
After a typical--but magical--Alaska cruise, we rented a car and drove for a week to destinations off the beaten path. The challenge of finding and exploring lesser-traveled areas of Alaska led us to this starkly beautiful region. 

If you look for adventure when traveling, this park should be on your bucket list of places to visit. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is a designated and managed wilderness area, largest in the U.S. National Park system.

On September 3, 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Wilderness Act which established the National Wilderness Preservation System and set aside millions of acres of wildlands for the use and benefit of the American people. Now at the half-century point, it is fitting that the U. S. park system has chosen the theme "50 Years of Wilderness" to celebrate in 2014.

Mountains reflect in the windows of Copper River Princess Lodge
With weather the main consideration, the primary season for visiting Wrangell-St. Elias is early June through mid-September. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve has no entrance stations or gates and never actually closes; however, winter arrives early to interior Alaska and by September 15th, available services and facilities have greatly diminished.

Two roads go into the park, the Nabesna Road and the McCarthy Road. Both roads are maintained by the state of Alaska and are open year-round but may not be maintained regularly during the winter. So driving into remote sections of the park (which is most of it) can be quite risky.
A good place to start your visit is at either the Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center on the Richardson Highway in Copper Center, which is open Monday-Friday year-round or Kennecott Mill Town, located at the end of McCarthy Road. 

Getting to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve takes most of a day driving from Anchorage. It's not on the way to anywhere else, so be sure that's where you want to end up. Of course, the scenery along the way is spectacular, so that’s worth the drive itself.

Hikes can lead to flowing waterfalls
When you finally arrive, there are endless opportunities to explore and discover. Start by viewing the park movie in the theater at Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center where you can enjoy the exhibits, stroll the short nature trail to view the Wrangell Mountains, and get oriented with the large 3-D interactive map display. Rangers are also on hand to offer advice and suggestions for outdoor activities.
For spectacular views, drive 55 miles on the Edgerton Highway to the historic town of Chitina. Along the way, stretch your legs on the Liberty Falls Trail and enjoy the park's high peaks. After exploring Chitina, which surprisingly is home to several artists, drive over the bridge to the Copper River. In summer you can watch indigenous people harvesting salmon with fishwheels and dipnets right by the beach.

Bridge over Copper River
If you’re spending several days in the park, consider hiking or kayaking. The Nabesna Road takes you to remote corners of the park with great camping, hiking, and wildlife viewing. The McCarthy Road allows for leisurely explorations of a rural Alaskan town and the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark. An easy hike on the Root Glacier Trail brings you right to a river of ice. Hikes that are more strenuous lead to the mountainside Bonanza and Jumbo Mines. 

Pipelines cross this sparsely populated section of the state

The backcountry of Wrangell-St. Elias offers excellent wilderness experiences, if you’re experienced in these activities. A flight on an air taxi from Glennallen, Chitina, Nabesna, or McCarthy can transport you into the heart of the park—but this is not for novices. The wilderness can be harsh if you don’t know what to expect and how to get along in extremely remote areas. For those less adventurous, a guide/outfitter service can take you safely on glacier hikes, walking tours, float trips, and flightseeing excursions. 

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Eclectic art displayed at The Ahwahnee in Yosemite

The Ahwahnee's outstanding location in Yosemite
Among the must-see icons of YosemiteNational Park, which is known for its unbelievably picturesque landscapes including mountains, waterfalls, and giant trees, is The Ahwahnee Hotel. The original accommodation in the park (after Curry Campsite) was an apt place to attract wealthy potential investors as well as visitors looking for a luxurious experience in a rustic park.

Besides the scenery of Yosemite Valley surrounding this National Historic Landmark, The Ahwahnee also boasts an amazing art collection that complements the architecture of the hotel. Art Deco, North American, Middle Eastern, and arts and crafts influences combine seamlessly within the interior of this grand hotel. Effects can be seen in stenciling, woodwork, light fixtures, china patterns, and wall hangings.

The Ahwahnee displays one of the greatest Persian rug collections in the world. Geometric patterns found in kilims, soumaks, kalamkars and other Middle Eastern rugs blend in seamlessly with the unmistakable design motifs inspired by Native American patterns.

The hotel’s original decorators, Dr. Phyllis Ackerman and Dr. Arthur Upham Pope, were experts in Persian arts and selected a variety of Persian rugs for the hotel’s public spaces since there wasn’t enough time before the grand opening to have Navajo rugs created. The Ahwahnee required fifty-nine rugs in total at opening and they were purchased in New York in 1927, ranging in price from 48.75 to $93.75 for a total of $5659. Today, many of the original rugs (or remnants of fragile pieces) are displayed mounted on the walls in the hotel’s public spaces.

The Great Lounge
A favorite gathering place, the Great Lounge features large fireplaces at either end of its 77-foot length. Ten floor-to-ceiling windows with original hand-stained glass filter light from the outside. Hand-woven North American baskets provide a decorative display, and wrought-iron chandeliers complement the eclectic design. In the Mural room one wall is covered with depictions of flora and fauna in Yosemite while a shiny copper-hooded fireplace brightens up the space.

Intricate stained-glass designs top 10 windows in the Great Lounge.
Throughout the 99 rooms, parlors, and suites of the hotel impressive art surrounds the visitor. Yet, for me, the greatest art is what nature has created outside, and this is not neglected. Trails to walk and chairs to relax with a view of Yosemite Falls and more entice patrons to spend time appreciating the beauty of the location.

Part of the mural wall depicting nature in Yosemite
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Giant sequoias--another incredible attraction in Yosemite

Just the base of this sequoia dwarfs Larry.
Until you stand beside (or inside) a giant sequoia, it’s hard to imagine the enormity of these trees. In terms of sheer volume, they are the largest living things known to humans.
It’s these masterpieces of nature that we’ve come to admire in the Mariposa Grove of GiantSequoias. Located in the southeastern part of Yosemite National Park, the grove contains more than 500 mature trees, some estimated at 3,000 years old, up to 378 feet high, and more than 300 feet in diameter—quite an awesome sight!

We arrive at Mariposa in time to take the first tram tour at 9:30 a.m. ($26.50 for adults). With our earphones and radio sets, we hear commentary while riding in the open air tram and learn that the creation of Yosemite as a national park was instigated after Mariposa Grove was first designated as a protected state reserve.
Branches of Grizzly Giant are larger than many tree trunks
The tram takes visitors past the Fallen Monarch, a massive sequoia with spread out roots, suspected to have fallen centuries ago. The Grizzly Giant of one of the largest (and most gnarly) trees in the grove and is estimated to be 1800 years old. Looking up we see a huge limb that is almost seven feet in diameter—larger than the trunks of many other tree species.

California Tunnel Tree is still alive and growing.
Just beyond the Grizzly Giant is the California Tunnel Tree, cut in 1895 to allow horse-drawn stages to pass through; today visitors can stroll through its mid-section and take photos from inside a tree. You may have seen pictures of cars driving through the famous Wawona Tunnel Tree. Visitors were actually able to drive through it from 1881 when the tunnel was cut until 1969 when the tree collapsed under a heavy snow fall.

Another anomaly is the Faithful Couple, two large trees that have fused together at their bases but remain separated higher up. Faithful Couple is perhaps the largest, although we see the formation several times as we ride, and later walk, through the grove.

Wildflowers decorate the ground beside the trees.
We ride the tram to the Mariposa Grove Museum, a cabin that contains exhibits on the ecology and history of giant sequoias. At that point we leave the tram to walk two miles on the Outer Loop Trail back to the starting place. Beautiful purple and yellow wildflowers fill open spaces surrounding the trees.
Fire damage has given the Clothespin Tree its
unusual shape.
Other notable trees to see include the Bachelor and Three Graces, four trees that share root systems (if one falls, all will) and the Clothespin Tree, which features a natural tunnel wider than a car created by repeated fires. Fire doesn’t destroy sequoias, but you often see a black triangle on the trunk indicating damage. However, as long as the outer bark is okay the tree will survive.

The sequoias’ resistance to fire, disease, insects, and decay has allowed them to endure for many centuries. Thanks to Galen Clark, the naturalist who initially drew attention to and urged protection of these trees, Mariposa Grove was incorporated into Yosemite National Park in 1906. It’s truly one of the most magnificent forests anywhere.
Photos by Beverly Burmeier

Monday, August 18, 2014

Two tours worth taking in Yosemite National Park

Trees in Cook's Meadow frame mountains in
Yosemite National Park
Flowing waterfalls and abundant hiking trails are big draws for visitors to YosemiteNational Park in  northeastern Mariposa County, California. As one of the most beautiful places in the world, Yosemite has a great variety of opportunities to admire nature at its finest.

During a recent visit, we also participated in a couple of tours that may be under-utilized but which allowed us to enjoy different aspects of what the park has to offer.
Photography Tour

Pink and purple star-shaped
flowers of milkweed decorated
Cook's Meadow.
On our first morning in the park we took a photography tour guided by Christine, a ranger/photographer who absolutely loved being in the park and sharing spectacular views with visitors. Leaving from Ansel Adams Gallery (be sure to peek inside at the beautiful works of art there) near the Visitor Center, we spent an hour and a half walking through Cooks Meadow. Noted as the best place in the park to see wildlife—mostly towards sunset—the meadow was sprouting with a variety of wildflowers and grasses in early July.
Our first look at Upper Yosemite Fall.
Since we had arrived after dark the night before, this meadow walk yielded our first views of famous Yosemite Falls and Half Dome. Christine knew the best places to take pictures, and directed our attention to scenic spots. The Falls were flowing in a steady but thin stream, but because of little snowfall during the winter, Christine estimated that they would be dry within ten days. During our five-day stay, we watched the water level diminish, although it was still flowing somewhat when we left the park.

The free tour follows an established, level path and is suitable for most people. Take water, as the Valley can be hot during the summer.
Glacier Point Stargazing Tour

Half Dome at sunset
In the evening we chose the Glacier Point Stargazing Tour, which left at 7:00 and returned around 11:00 p.m. We rode a bus for the hour-long journey to Glacier Point passing forests of California black oak trees and the slow-moving Merced River (again from lack of snowfall). We saw wind blow remnants of Bridal Veil Fall and viewed Fern Spring Fall, the smallest waterfall in the park at just 18 inches—but it runs year round.
Panoramic views from Glacier Point of
Vernal and Nevada Falls,
which are still flowing well.
Reata, our driver, provided narration of Yosemite's diverse natural and cultural history. She pointed out the original stagecoach road and told how stages going up had to dismantle and move aside so the one going down could pass on the narrow road. We learned about the efforts of Gaylen Clark to have Yosemite named a national park, about fires in 1990 that closed the park for 10 days, and about animals that inhabit the park.

Upon arriving at Glacier Point (after a series of sharp turns and switchbacks) we wandered for 45 minutes admiring views of mountains and waterfalls. As darkness descended, our group gathered at the amphitheater for an hour-long program by Jennifer, a ranger and astronomy expert.
She told stories from mythology on how the constellations were created and used a laser to point our specific stars. Shooting stars streaked across the sky several times, and we saw lights on Half Dome and by Yosemite Falls, possibly from hikers or rock climbers spending the night on the boulders.

As the sky went from dark to black, stars popped out brighter and clearer that I’ve ever seen, and the Milky Way spread across the sky. Without light pollution interfering with the view, we could appreciate how glorious the universe really is—and how infinitesimal we humans are.
Actually, all of Yosemite is a lesson in humility--and respect for nature's enduring landscapes.
Make prior reservations for this tour, which costs about $40.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Take the Discovery Tour at Natural Bridge Caverns in central Texas

Last week, with family visiting from Michigan, we drove to Natural Bridge Caverns near New Braunfels, Texas, about one and a quarter hours from Austin.  The largest public cave in Texas was discovered in the early 1960s when a group of college students asked the landowners if they could explore on the property. It was suspected that a system of caverns existed, but no one had really attempted to find what lay underground.

This post includes a series of pictures taken inside the caverns, showing some of the beautiful formations that have been developed and preserved for future generations. Still owned by members of the original ranching family, the caverns (and surrounding area)provide one of the most popular attractions for visitors to central Texas, especially with the addition of new family-friendly activities in recent years.
We went on the original guided Discovery Tour, which takes visitors along the path taken by the first explorers.  Established paths are easy to navigate these days as you view Sherwood Forest, Castle of the White Giants, and Hall of the Mountain King, a room the size of a football field.

During the 75 minute three-quarter-mile tour, we viewed gigantic limestone monuments in beautiful chambers 170 feet underground. Unlike some caves that tend to the cool side, Natural Bridge Caverns (yes, there is a natural stone bridge over the opening—hence the name), the temperature was about mid-70s throughout.

A few years ago the Hidden Passages tour was also opened, giving visitors a choice of tours. It features spectacular glistening formations highlighted in unique ways.  If you’re really adventurous, check out the three-hour “wild cave” tour where you negotiate obstacles through mud or on your tummy and climb up a 25-foot mud-covered slope. 

After the tour, plan to hang around, so your family can enjoy other attractions at the site including a challenging ropes course, four zip lines, a mineral exhibit and panning opportunity, and of course gift shops and food venues. You can also bring your own picnic to enjoy on the grounds.
Tours leave every 40 minutes, sometimes more often in summer. Purchase tickets online or at the caverns.
Photos by Beverly Burmeier

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Canon introduces new Powershot cameras

A large part of the pleasure from traveling comes from recording sights and adventures, both to share with friends and family and to enjoy reliving the good times later. Both my husband and I have used Canon cameras for many years, including point and shoot varieties and DSLRs. Yes, we’d love to get new cameras whenever these are introduced (not practical, however!), but I’m happy to pass along information to readers who may be in the market.

Canon has two new compact, super-zoom cameras that will be available soon: the PowerShot SX520 HS and the PowerShot SX400 IS digital cameras.  Designed to give users the versatility and telephoto reach they need to capture subjects from far distances, these cameras are packed with impressive features.

“Our goal is to provide people who are passionate about photography with the imaging tools they need to capture the moments that inspire them,” said Yuichi Ishizuka, president and COO, Canon U.S.A., Inc. “The PowerShot SX520 HS and PowerShot SX400 IS digital cameras offer users features that help produce high quality-images and video with ease allowing them to capture their most creative shots.”

The PowerShot SX520 HS Digital Camera is ideal for active families that want to take high-quality close-up shots of their children’s soccer game or dance recitals. In addition to featuring a powerful optical zoom range, the SX520 HS digital camera is excellent for low-light situations.
Canon Powershot SX520 HS

The camera features a dedicated movie button so users can easily record 1080p Full HD video utilizing the camera’s full 42x optical zoom capability. The camera also features an enhanced grip for added handling comfort.  Additionally, the camera automatically chooses from one of eight modes to help optimize image stabilization for virtually shake-free images.

Other features include high speed auto-focusing; zoom framing assist for locating the main subject by zooming out and then zooming back in quickly and automatically; and smart auto technology that selects 32 different pre-defined scenes for still shots and 21 scenes for video without the need to switch modes, so you can take images and video in a variety of situations.

Another feature families will appreciate is the Hybrid AUTO mode that creates a beautifully stabilized HD video clip (up to approximately four seconds) every time a user shoots a still image, then compiles the clips into a single movie that forms a “highlighted reel” for the day.

Available in September for about $400, this camera is equipped with a built-in mini-HDMI port that makes it easy to connect to an HD TV set so everyone can enjoy viewing the footage.

 The PowerShot SX400 IS Digital Camera is more compact but packs a powerful 30x Optical Zoom range with Optical Image Stabilizer.  The 16 Megapixeli CCD sensor and DIGIC 4+ image processor combine with Canon’s Intelligent IS system to provide users with outstanding functionality, while the updated grip design improves handling comfort.  With Smart AUTO, the camera identifies an ideal image setting by intelligently selecting from one of 32 pre-defined modes for still shots and 21 scenes for video.
Canon Powershot SX400 IS

The camera has a dedicated movie button to easily stop and start recording 720p HD video. The camera’s High Speed AF, upgraded from the previous model, helps to reduce lag time so that the perfect shot can be captured quickly. Available in August in black or red, estimated price is $250.

Photos provided by Canon USA, Inc.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Win a dream vacation during Central Market's anniversary contest

This year marks the 20th anniversary of I-E-B grocery chain’s specialty stores called Central Markets. The first Central Market opened in Austin, Texas in 1994, and the unique food emporium quickly gained popularity as a destination for everyone from novice food aficionados to expert culinary veterans. Or maybe, like me, you just enjoy wandering the aisles in search of new and unusual items to try.
After 20 years, Central Market continues to foster a passion for food through its world class cooking school, open-flow European-style layout, bountiful produce department, and 80-foot seafood case with selections from around the world, hundreds of cheeses, 2,500 wine labels, and specialty grocery aisles with delights from every continent.

As part of its 20th anniversary celebration, Central Market is holding a customer contest, with one lucky winner receiving a culinary adventure to taste and toast their way through Florence, Italy and Paris, France.

The eight-day/seven-night trip includes everything from wine tasting in Tuscany to dining on a river cruise in Paris. From pizza and gelato making to Champagne tasting, this trip will appeal to aspiring and experienced foodies alike. Also included are excursions, guided tours and meals, and a $500 gift card.
To enter, participants must submit either a video (30-60 seconds) or essay (500 words or less) describing how Central Market has helped guide them on their culinary journeys. A panel will judge entries based on creativity and originality, reflection of theme, and overall execution. Contestants must be 21 years of age on date of entry and legal residents of Texas.

If you’re a Central Market fan and frequent shopper, this may be your chance to vie for an awesome prize. For entry details and official rules, visit The contest ends at midnight on August 31, 2014.
Photos by Beverly Burmeier