Aug 21

Grand Canyon Helicopter Tour

Many years ago (or in 2003) on a family trip to Las Vegas, My Mom, Dad, sister and I took a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon. That trip was from McCarren Airport, flew us by the Hoover Damn and down to the Grand Canyon, I believe the north rim.  We flew around inside the canyon a bit and then headed back.  On the trip back we did a nice sweep of the strip.  I think that trip was an hour and a half in the air.  It was absolutely fabulous.

When I returned to Las Vegas last year I had the option of taking another helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon, this one even included lunch (or brunch in our case) in the canyon.  I decided that after 9 years, and a different experience it was worth it.

This tour was quite a bit different though.  First we went from Boulder Airport, which meant two things: we had a longer driver to the airport and we were not going to see the strip on this trip.  Not seeing the strip was a bummer and something I would tell others to seriously consider this when picking a helicopter tour.

But, we had a shorter flight to the Grand Canyon. At the airport everyone was weighted and asked if there was anyone they had/wanted to fly with, then everyone was assigned to a helicopter and pilot. And then we waited, our group had 6-8 helicopters so it did take a little while to call all the groups and load them up.  My helicopter was one of the last to depart.

We flew into the canyon, flew for a bit and landed. Our landing area reminded me a bit of a scene from M*A*S*H.  Our lunch/bunch consisted of sandwiches, chips, soda, water, and champagne.  Lunch felt a little bit rushed being the last helicopter, it might have been in my head, but I felt like the earlier groups might have had a big more time.  Either way we had enough time to eat and take photos, about a half hour.


 Then we boarded up and flew back home, the good thing about being the last helicopter was that we were able to watch all the other helicopters take off from inside the Grand Canyon, made for some great photos.

Overall this was a great tour, and I highly recommend a helicopter tour to anyone who is visiting Vegas and wants to see the Grand Canyon with limited hassle.  The question is did I prefer a tour where I saw The Strip instead of the lunch?  Well, they’re both very different things and both were cool. If you’re more of a nature person, then lunch in the Grand Canyon might be better.  If you like the bright lights and big city, or just the overhead view of a city – then the fly over the The Strip is the way to go.

Jun 19

Zion National Park

We finally left Kanab, the location of my falling and cutting my leg going to the POOL!   We were headed to Zion National Park on the way to Las Vegas.  Yes, this park is an easy 1-2 hour drive from Vegas, incase you feel the need to exercise some of sin city out of yourself.

 

Unlike Bad Lands, Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon, our primary point of visiting Zion National Park was from the floor of the park, not from the top.  While Zion wasn’t quite as beautiful as Bryce Canyon or as grand as the Grand Canyon, the vantage point from the base gave it a different feel.

Most of the tour group did a hike to a small waterfall, most had planned on going further, but the trail stopped there due to construction so it was the end of the line.  We got some great photos and headed back to the visitors center there for some shopping and snacks.

On the way to the hike I noticed our coach driver and tour manager inspecting one of the tires, it turns out we had developed a leak in one of the tires.  What’s a tour to do when that happens?  Go to the main visitor center so the driver can find the National Park bus driver guys and try to get the tire fixed.

 

The only problem with this is that when you’re waiting for your bus to be fixed and you already have seen a nice piece of the park, you don’t really have time to do much more then shop at the bigger store and soak in the experience. Oh, and don’t go to far incase the tire is fixed sooner then you thought.

As I recall, it took less than an hour and then we were on our way to fabulous Las Vegas!

May 22

Grand Canyon’s North Rim

Our visit to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon started with an early drive from our hotel in Kanab and a time change. Of course we were staying in Kanab that night so our return from the Grand Canyon would include a time change.
At the North Rim there is a nice visitors center that includes facilities, maps, a restaurant and beautiful views.
From the visitors center there are some shorter walks along the ridges (they’re perfectly safe for the average person) and offer AWESOME views. If you’re visiting this area follow the trails to the Bright Angel Point.
If you’re looking for something more strenuous you can do the Bridle Trail, which I did.  The good thing about the Bridle Trail is that it is shaded and easy for the average visitor. The bad things is that most of it has absolutely no view.  So why do it? It leads to the trails that go into the canyon.
I opted not to go down into the canyon because I was afraid it would be too much for me and I would find out too late. But I hear the trail was not one of the nicer ones we would have done in the National Parks due to the donkeys.  Apparently the trail was not as clean and pristine.
Instead I opted to relax and take a nap inside the visitor’s center while looking out at the Grand Canyon.  I’ve got nothing against the outdoors and all that nature stuff, but sometime it’s better to sit and be in it rather than doing as much as possible. Today was that kind of day.

We did have lunch in the restaurant, it was a bit pricey, but it was good.  And after I had just enough time to take my favorite wildlife photograph ever!

Nov 07

Mount Rushmore And All The Presidents Heads

After Badlands, Wall Drug and the Corn Palace we finally moved on to one to one of the more anticipated stops of our trip, Mount Rushmore and 2 whole nights in the same hotel.

We headed out early in the morning for Mount Rushmore, only a 10 minute drive from our hotel in Keystone.  The setting is absolutely gorgeous, and we had a great day.  Sadly, we only had about an hour and a half at Mt. Rushmore, which wasn’t quite enough time.

We started out in the visitors center, which gives nice views of the mountain from the inside (handy if you’re visiting in bad weather).  Inside the visitors center they show a short film about the making of Mount Rushmore, it’s a great little movie and will make you appreciate the lengths they went to in creating this. it was all done with dynamite!  There is also a series of displays about the making of Rushmore and a small shop.  There is a much larger shop at the entrance to the park.

There is a lovely trail at the site that goes around the amphitheatre and gives some different views of the Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt.  It also has some museum like stops where you can see some of the models used in the design of Mount Rushmore.  The trail takes about a half an hour and if you start on the left the end of the trail involves walking up a lot of stairs.  Not fun when you have to meet the bus!  But the walk is worth it on a nice day to get a little closer and see the presidents heads from a different angle.

Amphitheater

Mount Rushmore was a great stop, one I was quite excited about on this trip.  It has a beautiful setting, and was where my tour did our group photo.  I also got the opportunity to kill someone in our assasins game on the tour.  Of course I was assasinated shortly after, but it was fun while it lasted.

Oct 10

Corn Palace and Wall Drug

In the state of South Dakota we managed stop and soak in some cheesy america at the Corn Palace and Wall Drug in one day, the excitement of Contiki. I know you’re jealous.

I had never heard of the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD of course since going there I have heard it mentioned a few times on TV.  I have to say I’m still not 100% sure how to describe the Corn Palace.  There is a museum, which we didn’t visit and then there was a market inside, that’s where I bought popcorn flavored lollie pops.  I don’t suggest them, even my popcorn loving newphews didn’t like them.  But the cool thing here was the designs they made with corn:  fantastic, artistic, inspirational!  They really were cool, but I’m not sure they’re worth going out of your way to see.  But if you need a break from driving, it’s better then just stopping at a Walmart, McDonalds, etc.

Wall Drug started out as a simple drug store, when business was slow they posted a sign on the highway offering “free ice water”.  It is now a cheesey american tourist trap, but a fun one.  Wall Drug actually takes up an entire block and has a restaurant, shops, and childrens play areas.  It’s actually a fun place where you can spend a few hours, excercise your cranky kids and do some shopping.  We made this our lunch stop and we all had bison burgers, they were actually very tasty considering they were made in a fast food type environment.  I would say it was a step up from a McDonalds as they were each cooked to order.  I think there was also a regular restaurant, but we didn’t have time for that. As a bunch of adults who had been stuck on a bus we wanted to eat, shop and explore.  The shopping varied from touristy T-shirts, and magnets to full cowboy/cowgirls outfits to fudge and everything in between.  And of course they still have free ice water.

Oct 03

The Great Sioux Falls!

I actually know someone from the internet who lives in Sioux Falls, SD and although I don’t know him well enough to visit with him, I was curious about the place.

It’s a cute little town, it has that small town feel, but also was more sprawling then I pictured.  I thought it would be a main street or two with some houses coming and going from town and then kinda rural when you got a mile or two outside of the town.  I also didn’t realize that it had a waterfall.  It’s not Niagra Falls, but it was set in a pretty park and was a nice size.

Other then seeing the falls we didn’t do too much that is uniqe to Sioux Falls, we had mexican food, it was ok and then went to karaoke.  I did get to meet a real adult cowboy, he was just up from Dodge, ya know as in “get out of Dodge.” I qualify this because he was the kind of guy you could have a converstion with about life in the midwest, he had lived in the area his whole life and knew all the good rodeos.  We had a nice chat and knew we were headed to a good rodeo in Cody, WY.

On our drive to Sioux Falls our Contiki Tour Manager started the game of “assasin” we were all given a card with a name of someone on our tour, you had to “kill” that person, this invovled not getting caught saying “1, 2, 3 you’re dead without anyone else hearing.” I wasn’t going to play, but after I finally figured out who the person on my card was I figured what the heck.  I killed her, as well as my roommate (the card I picked up when I killed the first girl). From there I was sucked into this game!  As cheesy as I thought the game was, I got to know a bunch of people by playing it.

After hour adventures at karaoke, which included a drunk and innapropriate cowyboy, we stopped at IHOP for pancakes.  We had the nicest waitress there who put up with several tables of drunk young people who didn’t know what they wanted.  I tried the red velvet pancakes, which were just ok.  I liked the CINN A STACK pancakes much better.

So what’s my point with this post.  Sioux Falls seems like a nice place to live, but avoid the drunk cowboys, eat CINN A STACK pancakes.  And, it’s easier to “kill” people in loud bars full of drunk people.

Aug 01

Contiki Northern Adventure Hotels

I’m not going to review each of the hotels we visited on the Northern Adventure as many of them were similar, instead I’ll go with some broad generalizations.  I will exclude the hotels in Las Vegas and Chicago though as they were a bit different from the typical hotels on this tour.

The hotels were generally hotel/motel style.  The best one was a Comfort Inn in Salt Lake City and the worst was in Kanab, UT.

A few hotels did have pools – Keystone, SD; West Yellowstone, WY; and Kanab, UT.    

All hotels had free Wifi, but the wifi in Kanab was terrible – slow and constantly disconnecting you.  Some required passwords (usually provided with your keys at check in), others were open wifi. 

The quality of the hotels varied, some were modern and new, others were old but had character, like wood carved beds.  No promises that they were hand carved, but they looked like it.  But the beds and pillows were comfortable, rooms were clean and with one or two exceptions, the rooms were spacious for two people and their luggage.  Some had elevators, others did not.  We were usually on the first or second floor and I only had to carry luggage up and down the stairs once. On more then one occasion I did have the very last room in the hallway. 

In Chicago we stayed at the Best Western, Grant Park.  The location was EXCELLENT if you wanted to go to Museum Campus.  It was also only 2 or 3 blocks from the “L.”  The immediate area did not have much, but there was a Walgreens and a restaurant within 2 blocks.  The hotel itself was old and a little sad looking.  But, the beds and bedding were new and comfortable, along with the bathroom.  The hotel did have wifi and I think it also had a pool, though I never saw it.

In Las Vegas we stayed at Harrah’s, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Las Vegas, Harrahs is centrally located on the strip, but is an older hotel.  The Casino wasn’t as nice as the newer hotels, but the rooms were very nice, especially after staying in all those motels along the way.  They did NOT have wifi, they only had wired internet and it was very expensive.  They did have a pool, but the one time I went there is was crowded and there was no shade and not many misters for 100+ temperatures.

Overall the hotels on this tour were pretty good.  None were fancy, but they were clean and provided all the amenities you needed.  Many hotels also had the shower/toilet separate from the sink which was nice when getting ready in the morning and at night.

Jul 25

Contiki’s Northern Adventure

Over the next few weeks I plan to go through my Contiki tour in great detail, but in the meantime I wanted to give an overall review of Contiki’s Northern Adventure.  This tour starts in Chicago and is the second half of the Grand Northern tour offered by Contiki.

The tour is a 14 day tour of the Northwestern United States, here is the rough itinerary:
Chicago to Madison
Madison to Sioux Falls
Sioux Falls to Mt Rushmore
Mt Rushmore
Mt Rushmore to Cody
Cody to Yellowstone
Yellowstone to Jackson Hole
Jackson Hole to Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City to Kanab via Bryce Canyon
Grand Canyon
Kanab to Las Vegas via Zion
Las Vegas
Las Vegas
Las Vegas to Los Angeles

The first few days of the tour are heavy bus days, with the occasional stop at a Wal Mart, rest stop or a tourist trap.  After that we split our time with shorter bus days, and more time hiking in National Parks, a good mix of relaxing and seeing the sites.

As for the tourist traps, think Spam Museum, Corn Palace and Wall Drug.  It’s not as bad as it sound, but it is a slow start to the tour. 

Nightlife at the start of the tour wasn’t terribly exciting either – Hooters, Karaoke at a local bar, more local bars, hotel pools, and the hotel parking lot…  Then we hit Las Vegas where most people went clubbing every night.  Overall though it was a mix, some stuff was better then other stuff.  If you wanted a quiet night you could have had one almost any night and if you wanted to stay out late and party, you could do that. 

As for the under 21 year olds, they fared a bit better then I expected.  They did manage to get served at several bars and even got into a club or two in Las Vegas.  I still don’t suggest US tours for those who are under 21, you basically had to rely on luck that the person checking your ID wasn’t really paying attention when they looked at your ID. 

That National Parks we visited were really nice; Yellowstone was my favorite.  We had a few hours at each of them, enough for at least one decent hike, sometimes with multiple stops. 

One disapointement is that we didn’t have much time in the cities.  The only thing I saw in Madison was a buffet and a Hooters.  However, in Salt Lake City we did have a few hours to see the city.  But more often we only saw a restaurant and a bar in the cities we visited.

I enjoyed this tour with Contiki, as with every vacation I have taken there is never enough time to do and see everything I want to.  But the pace of this tour was pretty good, after the first few bus days the bus days were shorter and broken up more with different activities and sites to see.  I would recommend it as a good tour for those who are interested in seeing the National Parks and making new 18-35 year old friends.