The Alaska Railroad

Old-time train: the Alaska Railroad, originally called the Alaska Central Railway, was the first railroad in Alaska. It was built in 1903. 

New time train: the Wilderness Express dome trains were custom-built and put into service in 2001 and 2002. 

To get to Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley National Parks in Alaska's central Brooks Range, we needed to travel north of the Arctic Circle, to where all roads in Alaska disappear. Pretty certain that Wally the Airstream wouldn't fare well driving on Arctic tundra, we secured it at a spot in Anchorage and jumped aboard the Alaska Railroad to make the 12-hour trek from Anchorage to Fairbanks where we would hop on a bush flight to two of the most remote parks in the system.

The Alaska Railroad railroad was the first in Alaska, starting in the coastal town of Seward (a jumping off point to Kenai Fjords National Park) and stretching just 50 miles northward. In 1914, Congress approved its extension to reach farther north to the town of Fairbanks. While the development of the railroad was an important thing for the growth of Alaska, there wasn't enough use during those early days to make it a profitable operation. It was the heavy use of the railway during World War II that would set it on a road to profitability when military transport, resupply, and hauling needs were at an all-time high in this strategic point on the Pacific. The railway's evolution continued in the decades to follow, eventually expanding to include passenger services and luxury coaches as a complement to the booming cruise industry. 

That's just a CliffsNotes version of the railway's history. But it's not the history that entices us to trains, but the romance. 

Since the first steam-engine blew, storytellers and travelers alike have waxed poetic about the romance of train travel. Crossing through untouched landscapes, the sounds of the rails, conversations with strangers while wining and dining the whole way this mystique is very well alive in Alaska and can be fully enjoyed on an overland rail journey with stops in several of our national parks. 

Our journey was made on the Wilderness Express train, with a glass dome roof allowing for views of wild Alaska, interrupted only by exquisite meals in the dining car and offers of red wine from the bar captain who was conveniently positioned right in front of our seats. Most of the other guests on the train that day were traveling between Anchorage and Denali National Park (on the Denali Star route)—a classic way to reach Alaska's most visited national park starting in the capital city of Anchorage. Wildlife can be hard to spot as wild animals don’t generally congregate near loud locomotives, but if you’re lucky, you may see bear, moose, and caribou. What you will surely see is 360 panoramic views of Alaska from start to finish (bypassing Sarah Palin’s house in Wasilla, which you can't really see) while winding through spruce forests and atop bridges overlooking beautiful braided rivers all the way up to Fairbanks. If you want to experience historic Alaska in a really fun way, try to explore at least one leg of it by rail. Happy trails! 

On the way to Fairbanks from Anchorage on the famed Alaska Railroad! Look at those spruce trees, and that greenery, and those clouds! It was a beautiful journey the entire way.

McCarthy, Alaska—The "Pilgrim Wilderness"

Off we go on foot into the town of McCarthy. 

We’re writing about McCarthy as an aside not only because it is a necessary stop when traveling to Wrangell St. Elias National Park, but also because it was a really fascinating place to visit. After a long journey down the endlessly bumpy McCarthy Road, we felt like we had entered into an alternate universe where Alaska’s small-town civic pride bustles in exemplary form; where the process of living is the draw. It is sometimes referred to as a "Pilgrim Wilderness" originally a book title outlining the quest of a troubled homestead family who bulldozed the area to call home now a casual term for the community-driven lifestyle that thrives there. 

McCarthy represents the quintessence of small town living in Alaska. Everyone knows everyone, waving to one another in cars and on foot, each contributing in some way to help the community improve… it’s idyllic in a strange, far-flung, rusty-edges sort-of way. Unless you live there year-round (28 residents as of the 2010 census,) you will always be considered a bit of an outsider. Guides and seasonal summer residents are lesser outsiders; and one-off travelers to the area like us, while welcome, get the sense right away that they are just visitors. 

In the central area of town, you will find a couple of restaurants, lodging, historic sites, and local residents interacting along the main street that slips through town. On one side of the street is the Golden Saloon, the most popular gathering spot in the area; and across from it, Ma Johnson’s, a former brothel-turned-historic hotel that stands in its original form. Both were established when the Kennecott copper mines were operating at their strongest in the early part of the 20th century as a means to provide illicit services to miners that would not be appropriate in the more upstanding, god-fearing town of Kennecott four miles down the road. Today, Kennecott and McCarthy are connected by a free shuttle service provided for visitors to the area, and both towns are worth a visit for different reasons.

McCarthy is also home to the Motherlode Powerhouse, where the St. Elias Guide company is based. As we discussed on our Wrangell St. Elias National Park page, St. Elias Guides transported us into other worlds on a 5-day glacier/tundra backpacking trip—we stopped by to make final arrangements before starting our trek into backcountry. The Powerhouse isn’t just some office—it is a compound equipped with climbing walls, a pantry that would inspire any foodie keen on perfecting a menu of protein-packed wilderness eats, and guiding operations constantly at work with in-house field experts planning trips into the mountains. Just walking in is an adventure, and it makes you excited for whatever is next.

To get to McCarthy, head to Chitina from Anchorage and start the long, brain-shaking ride down 61 miles of unmaintained road to the end—you’ll know you’re there when you reach it. From there, you will head to the welcome office of St. Elias Guides to plan your way into the field, or to one of the designated, privately-owned campgrounds where you can set up camp and park your vehicle before setting out on foot. McCarthy is located across a footbridge (you cannot drive there without special access) across the Kennicott River.  

Starting out the road to McCarthy, AKA, McCarthy Road, from the small town of Chitina on the west side of the park. 

A note to road travelers planning to travel McCarthy Road: Expect potholes for days, occasional mudslides, narrow passages, an occasional moose or bear, and other vehicles making the pass too. The road doesn't have any sharp drops or turns, so it is completely passable in an RV or trailer if under 27 feet—just plan on taking your time. They say it takes two hours one way—it took us three. Our brave Airstream made it just fine though (with his innards slightly rearranged upon arriving) but it did get a flat tire, and we weren’t alone on the side of the road with an elevated jack.  

Our recommendation: Bring a spare tire. Actually, bring two. And be sure to check in at the National Park Visitor Center in Chitina before departing as they have the latest updates on road conditions. Along the road you may find yourselves wondering as we did on the drive into McCarthy, 'hmmm, I wonder why they don't just pave this road?!' A couple of days into your adventure you’ll understand why—to keep it wild.

Alaskan Beer and the “Magic Bus”

A self-portrait of Chris McCandless on the Stampede Trail, found undeveloped in his camera after his death. Photo credit: Wikipedia

In 1996, Christopher McCandless, AKA Alexander Supertramp, became a cult hero when his true life story was immortalized in print by Jon Krakauer in his bestselling book Into The Wild. In 2007, McCandless became even more famous when the book was adapted to film by Sean Penn (starring Emile Hirsch as McCandless.)  

If you are reading this page, you’re probably familiar with his story – for those who are unfamiliar, it goes something like this: 

Christopher abandons a life of relative privilege after graduating college in 1992 to seek out existential meaning in the wilds of Alaska. He ditches his possessions and donates $24,000 in savings and disappears north into the Alaskan wilderness, cutting off his family and friends, carrying little equipment and gear with the sole intention of living off the land. He wanted a simple life, or rather, a life with meaning. Somewhere along his 4-month journey—struggling, starving and desperate for shelter—he stumbled upon an abandoned school bus near Denali National Park, where he could seek protection from the harsh environment while waiting for help. While his diary entries and photographs later would show that finding the shelter was a huge morale boost at the time he discovered it, it would prove short-lived. His starved remains were discovered by moose hunters 4 months after his journey began, in August of ‘92.

It’s a dramatic and compelling story without a doubt… one that has captivated many and obsessed at least a few. But this write up is about the bus, and how it became as famous as McCandless. Through his own documentation in a diary and in photos found in 15 rolls of undeveloped film, he detailed his final days living in bus 142—relics that were found alongside him off of the Stampede Trail near Lake Wentitika in the Denali wilderness. Reading about his triumphs and failures, about his joys and hopes and despairs in his own words, is undeniably gripping. People identify in some way with him and many revere him.

As word started to travel outside of Alaska of the bus’s exact geographical location, people from all over the world started making pilgrimage to see Fairbanks City Transit System Bus 142, leaving behind notes, pictures, artwork, and other nostalgia to honor their adventurous folk hero. 

In 2010, tragedy struck in the outskirts of Denali again when a 29-year old Swiss woman ventured into the wild of backcountry with her boyfriend in search of the bus and drowned attempting to make a river crossing across the raging Teklanika River. It was after that particular incident (and many others of various outcomes preceding it) that residents of the area decided that something needed to be done once and for all to deter people from heading into an unknown, unpredictable, and often dangerous wilderness to visit the bus.

Enter the 49th State Brewing Company, whose owner acquired the bus that was used in the film, and dropped it in the beer garden outside of the brewery. Now anyone can safely experience the "Magic Bus" after a day in the wilderness, without having to risk their lives to see it—with a local craft beer in hand.

The "Magic Bus" used in the film Into The Wild. It is now located in the yard of the 49th State Brewing Company in the small town of Healy, Alaska, just 10 miles from the entrance of Denali National Park.

If you are intent on seeing the actual bus where Chris McCandless lived and died, you can still travel to the spot where it has always been... If this is the case, please do yourself and everyone a favor and hire a guide to bring you there (and don't forget to alert the National Park Service before heading out.) If there is one thing that makes local Alaskan’s a badass collective is that they know how to practice safety in the backcountry. If you are simply interested in this piece of Alaskan history and want to experience a part of it while in Denali, head to the 49th State Brewery and take some photos of your own. Happy and safe trails, everybody! 

Sign Post Forest, Yukon Territory

Road signs are an ultimate treasure along any great road trip adventure. Whether they are stacked on a pole showing the mileage to landmarks around the world, cautionary, or just plain kitschy, road signs are a beloved complement to auto-travel. 

One of the best places in the world to see a lot of them in one area is at the Sign Post Forest in the Watson Lake area of the Yukon Territory, where we stopped nearing the end of our four-day adventure on The Alaska Highway. This is a must-see if traveling the fabled Alcan. There are more than 30,000 signs tacked on a forest of trees from everywhere around the world, and all visitors are encouraged to participate.  

The Sign Post Forest began when the Alaska Highway was under construction  it was then that the U.S. Army of Engineers began tacking up directional signs to their camps, providing distances and directions. The tradition has long since extended on, and continues today in the Yukon. Have you placed a sign there?? We did, making due with the best material we had at our disposal, a random piece of wood!! 

Hetch Hetchy Valley, Yosemite National Park, California

The Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park before and after the Raker Act was passed. Courtesy Restore Hetch Hetchy. 

Hetch Hetchy is a grand landscape garden, one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples. As in Yosemite, the sublime rocks of its walls seem to glow with life . . . while birds, bees, and butterflies help the river and waterfalls to stir all the air into music. . . .
— John Muir, 'The Yosemite,' 1912

While we typically reserve posts on this page for stops that exist outside of our national parks, Hetch Hetchy Valley is a unique case that fits well here because it feels entirely separate from the wilds of Yosemite National Park. It is located inside of park boundaries and it always has been, though its function has changed from that of a thriving natural ecosystem to a hydroelectric reservoir providing the city of San Francisco with portions of their water supply. It is recorded that Raker Bill that would allow the intentional flooding of the valley was to be John Muir’s final heartbreak before he died—he considered the Hetch Hetchy Valley to be the perfect counterpart to his beloved Yosemite Valley. 

After spending a day at Hetch Hetchy, we knew that we wanted to share a sidebar on our site about its complicated past. To do so, we sought out a leading expert to better explain the backstory of how the reservoir came to be, the pros and cons of its existence, and steps that are being made to restore it to its natural state. 

With that, we offer our warmest thanks to Spreck Rosekrans, Executive Director of the Restore Hetch Hetchy Foundation, for taking the time to shed some light on this most special place that has deeply affected the landscape of Yosemite National Park.   

 

Jonathan Irish and Stefanie Payne (JI & SP):

When we visited Hetch Hetchy, we were struck by how similar it must have looked to Yosemite Valley in its original state. Can you give us a brief description of what Hetch Hetchy Valley looked like when John Muir first laid eyes upon it? 

Spreck Rosekrans (SR): 

John Muir and others lobbied for the creation of Yosemite National Park with boundaries that would include Hetch Hetchy Valley. As you may know, Yosemite Valley had been ceded to California in 1864 by President Lincoln for preservation – the first such action anywhere in the world, but Muir et al. thought Yosemite should be much larger. 

Muir said: After my first visit, in the autumn of 1871, I have always called it the Tuolumne Yosemite, for it is a wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite, not only in its crystal river and sublime rocks and waterfalls, but in the gardens, groves, and meadows of its flower park-like floor. The floor of Yosemite is about 4,000 feet above the sea, the Hetch -Hetchy floor about 3,700; the walls of both are of gray granite, rise abruptly out of the flowery grass and groves are sculptured in the same style, and in both every rock is a glacial monument.

 

 

JI & SP:

Today, Hetch Hetchy Valley is a dammed and flooded reservoir. How did federally protected land become appropriated for the use of a single city? 

SR:

San Francisco had been seeking an improved water supply for years. They evaluated a number of sites but liked Hetch Hetchy best, in part because it would also generate hydropower. They were denied several times, as it was in a national park. But when the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed much of the city, opposition in DC softened (including Teddy Roosevelt). Bare in mind that the city had water in reservoirs after the earthquake but pipes within the city broke. The city had been fighting with its water supplier, the private Spring Valley Water Company. So going after the Tuolumne River and Hetch Hetchy involved creating a public water system as well as the project itself.

President Taft succeeded Roosevelt in 1908, met with Muir in Yosemite and seemed to want to keep Yosemite intact. So San Francisco realized legislation was necessary. 

When Wilson was elected in 1912 (after Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican party), he appointed Franklin Lane SF’s City Attorney as Secretary of Interior and pushed hard form restoration. The Raker Act passed the house in late summer. 200 newspapers editorials were published in opposition. The Senate debated it for 6 days. Many abstained, many opposed, but the bill passed. Wilson signed the bill.

 

 

JI & SP:

What role did Hetch Hetchy play in the passage of the National Park Service Act in 1916?

SR:

A bill to create a National Park Service (NPS) had been proposed but had opposition. The unprecedented controversy over Hetch Hetchy tipped the scales and the NPS bill carried easily less than three years later.

See Clark Bunting’s essay wherein he writes: “Thanks to the heated public debate inspired by Hetch Hetchy, the Organic Act clearly stated America’s commitment “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

 

 

JI & SP:

San Francisco relies heavily on the Hetch Hetchy Valley for public water and hydropower. Restoring Hetch Hetchy would entail finding other sources for the cities' consumption. What are the alternative options?

SR: 

First, Hetch Hetchy is one of nine reservoirs in San Francisco’s (SF) system. SF’s water rights on the Tuolumne would not change. See diagram below. Don Pedro is 6 times as large as Hetch Hetchy. 1/3 of it, or twice the volume of Hetch Hetchy, is a water bank for SF. Water system reliability would still be good, but SF would need minor new plumbing fixes and to invest in additional surface or groundwater storage, water transfers from agriculture or recycling within SF and its service territory. These are all doable and are much less than what other California water agencies have done to reduce their impact on the environment. In particular, local irrigation districts could recharge groundwater basins in wet years with SF’s water, and withdraw it in dry years. The amount, about 60,000 af per year, is not challenging from a physical perspective, but would require improved cooperation with irrigation districts. 

San Francisco would lose about 20% of its Sierra hydropower – would need to be replaced with solar.

Diagram showing San Francisco water routes. Courtesy of Restore Hetch Hetchy.

Diagram showing San Francisco water routes. Courtesy of Restore Hetch Hetchy.

 

 

JI & SP:

What are the arguments opposing restoration?

SR:

  • Water supply
  • Hydropower
  • Water quality (additional treatment would be required)
  • Money
  • Emotion

Mostly they have a “we stole it fair and square” attitude. The claim is that the cost of restoration would be much larger than our estimates, but we have never been able to have a real conversation about the discrepancies in estimates. That is what we hope to have in court. 

Our petition asserts the following, which we will have to back up with expert testimony in an evidentiary hearing (which they are trying to avoid):

These are our projected costs, over 50 years. From our petition — “The cost of replacing water storage in Hetch Hetchy Valley to maintain the current levels of water service and electrical power production by CCSF would be approximately 2 billion dollars, including 199 million dollars for additional interties, 372 million dollars for water supply, 387 million dollars for water treatment, 669 million dollars in for renewable electric power, and 374 million dollars for modifying the O’Shaughnessy Dam.” 

 

 

JI & SP:

How long would a full restoration of Hetch Hetchy take? Give us a short timeline of events.

SR:

Mostly reliant on the 1987 NPS report:

·         The valley would be spectacular almost right away.

·         There is little sediment and the Tuolumne River would return to its natural bed.

·         Within a few years, grasses and sedges would be reestablished and wildlife would return.

·         The “bathtub ring” would fade as lichen would reestablish itself on the canyon walls over a few decades.

·         It would take longer to grow a mature forest. Planting saplings would speed up the process.

·         What a great opportunity for families to visit the valley every few years and what it come back to life as the children grow up.

 

Click here to read the National Park Service’ 1987 report.   

An example, under “moderate management”: 

VEGETATION RESPONSE: FIVE YEARS AFTER BEGINNING OF DRAINAGE: The entire valley would be exposed and partially planted with native vegetation. Vegetation at the upper end of Hetch Hetchy would be much Burr extensive and well developed than at the lower end. Conifers would be up to fifteen feet high and black oaks would be about six feet high in areas planted the first year. Many native herbaceous taxa would have become germinated and would have established in some areas. Non-native taxa would be common in the valley and would have achieved dominance over the natives in most areas. 

 

 

JI & SP:

How much of the restoration would be natural and how much would be man made? Other than dismantling the dam and removing the man-made structures, would the nature in the valley restore on its own or would it need help?

SR: 

That is to be determined. The NPS report considers 3 levels of management. “Moderate” makes sense. Keep invasive species out. Plant trees in accordance with historical photographs (more meadows than forest as Yosemite Valley used to be as well.)

 

 

JI & SP:

You are currently fighting this battle in the courts. What hurdles remain in getting a restoration bill passed?

SR: 

We need a leader in Congress who is not afraid of taking on San Francisco, who understands water system reliability and real solutions, and cares about the legacy of our national parks. Many are intrigued, but no one is ready to take this on—yet.

 

 

JI & SP:

How can people get involved?

SR:

People should sign up for our newsletter through our website to learn more and to stay in touch. We send hard copy 2-3 times per year and (almost) weekly email blogs. 

Restore Hetch Hetchy is also active on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

 

The Best Lobster Roll Near Acadia National Park?

No matter where we travel, we always make a point to taste the local flavor—you can learn a lot about the culture of a place by chowing on eats that you might find on a Sunday dinner table. In Maine the quest was easy: find the best lobster roll near Acadia National Park. As travelers working a photo project, we grouped it with a scenic drive that we were told by a local at the Thirsty Whale in Bar Harbor (our favorite eatery in town) was a more beautiful route back to the Interstate than its alternative, traveling about the same distance.

There is something so summery and magical about ordering off of an outdoor wall menu! 

There is something so summery and magical about ordering off of an outdoor wall menu! 

In the town of Bucksport off of route 46, we made a stop at Carrier’s Mainely Lobster, a go-to for locals and a summer favorite in central Maine. They pride themselves on having some of the freshest lobster in the area, and we can vouch -- it was as fresh-tasting as lobster can be. On the wall of the outdoor eatery are lobster nets and buoys (perfect Instax fodder), and a roster of local lobstermen who captain the lobster boats catching the daily feed. The youngest at the time of our visit was 13, the oldest, in his 70s. 

Maine lobster rolls, curly seasoned fries, crisp slaw, and a couple of sodas was the order up. It was insanely good and definitely the type of meal that is hard to recreate in a kitchen anywhere outside of Maine. 

From their website: "Our boats went out yesterday, we cooked & picked the lobster this morning, now we’re making your lobster roll, That’s fresh!”

Since we were only able to try this one place during this visit to the area, we are curious of our readers: do you have a favorite lobster roll spot in Maine?

Nevada Three Ways

We've made four main stops in Nevada this year, one while exploring the Rhyolite area of Death Valley National Park in March, and three in May: Las Vegas, Valley of Fire State Park, and of course, park 20/59: Great Basin National Park. We've both been to Nevada to visit Vegas and Tahoe in the past, but it was while exploring outward of those popular areas more recently that we started to truly embrace the beauty of lesser-known Nevada. The 36th state has draws reaching far wider than what it is best known for and we wanted to share with you some of that. And of course we will include Vegas (it would be a crime not to), an ultimate road trip destination and one of our few stops in civilization this year.

 

Vegas! (It should always have an exclamation point.)

The Strip at night.

No trip to Nevada can ever be complete without a stop in Las Vegas! Vegas—belovedly known as Sin City—is America’s favorite desert metropolis where quickie weddings, gambling, glitz, glamour, iconic hotels, showbiz, and wild nights coalesce. Aside from the hoopla, Vegas has morphed into one of the most sophisticated cities in the country drawing tourists from all over America and the world to experience 5 star-everything while still offering the mid-century mystique of leather banquettes, tables and slots, showgirls, buffets, and over-the-top light shows that made The Strip and state famous. We traveled to Vegas from Great Basin on the Great Basin Highway, Highway 93, a route where local Nevadians and tourists can check in this year (tag #DiscoverNV16) on six designated road trip stops while exploring the great state of Nevada. This is definitely the year of the parks! It's cool to see how states are participating at a local level.

Valley of Fire State Park

Nevada's Valley of Fire State Park.

Just outside of Las Vegas is Nevada's oldest and largest state park, the Valley of Fire. This prehistoric landscape was long ago underfoot of dinosaurs and today offers a sanctuary just outside of Vegas where nature buffs can experience a very unique and vibrantly textured sandstone landscape that is endlessly fascinating. We didn’t have a whole lot of time to spend there, and as it’s a beautiful place to both photograph and explore, it’s going on the “go-back-to” list that we are compiling this year as we find ourselves leaving enchanting places much too soon...  

 

Great Basin National Park

Did you know that Nevada is the most mountainous of any state in America? This is because of a process occurring in Great Basin National Park. 

There are many, many, many, many reasons to visit this park—to catch a glimpse of the world’s oldest living trees, to wander inside the subterranean environment beneath our planet's surface, to brave world-class hikes and climbs, to observe with the lens dramatic weather patterns creating even more dramatic skyscapes … Great Basin National Park is a lesser-visited national park and a place of extremes and of immense wilderness and solitude. We hope you'll enjoy our writeup on park #20, and that you'll have a visit for yourself. 

Cheers and happy trails! 

Meteor Crater, Winslow, Arizona

En route from Petrified Forest National Park to the Grand Canyon, we made an unplanned stop at Meteor Crater in Winslow, Arizona. When signs reading Site of the World’s Largest Crater Impact, Straight Ahead!! pop up, one must stop to check it out, right? At the very least, these traffic signs were to make for terrific Instax material (which they did, but are at the present moment making way through a modernized filing system known on this adventure as "Ziplock bag sorting".)   

Meteor Crater is an impact site measuring nearly 600 feet deep and more than one mile across -- the result of an asteroid crashing into Earth 50,000 years ago. Space.com says that while the impact to Earth was not as fast and hard as astronomers once believed, the meteor still came screaming in 10 times faster than a rifle bullet. In any event, the speed in which the impact came in is no match for its visually impressive size. From the viewing areas (there are two that we know of) telescopes look out onto the crater floor where real life representations of astronauts, football fields, and other size comparisons sit to offer a perspective of scale. They all look like ants, even when magnified.

It was 20 bucks USD per person to get into the museum which leads to the crater. Always on a schedule and observing of budget, we weighed whether or not this expense would be worth it. We wanted to reach Grand Canyon well before sunset, which left us with only a little bit of time to observe Meteor Crater. All things considered, it was, in our opinion, best to be considered as a short stop between point A and B and we had no fuss moving along in about an hour. This categorization shouldn't take away from the wonder of seeing a massive impact site like this, and the thoughts it provokes made for lively conversation on the way to our next park. To imagine an asteroid weighing several hundreds of thousands of tons and traveling at 26,000 miles toward the surface of the Earth is a mind-bender (and a little bit scary.)

It's worth noting that Meteor Crater was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1967 and is family owned which is why it doesn't have the Federal distinction as a National Monument. 

The Wigwam Motel on Route 66

The front entrance of the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona.

This is more of a stop ON the road...

It is known as the Will Rogers Highway, the Main Street of America, and of course, The Mother Road. Whatever you like to call it, no great American road trip could ever be fully realized without a stop on America's famed Route 66. It cannot be found on any common map and the original route between Chicago and L.A. no longer exists, though broken pieces of it can still be traveled.

This way to everywhere! Follow your dreams. 

This way to everywhere! Follow your dreams. 

The highway of dreams has enticed wanderers, travelers, explorers since 1926. During the golden age of American road travel—the 1950s—pushing westward from the industrial Midwest to sunny California was a prestigious endeavor, and Route 66 was the prestigious route to take to travel to and fro.  

We’ve found ourselves on it a couple of times this year, but at no point thus far have we had the opportunity to drink in all of the photogenic kitsch that comes along with this dose of Americana than in Holbrook, Arizona (just outside of Petrified Forest National Park) at the Wigwam Motel.

Vintage cars dress the parking lot at Holbrook's Wigwam Motel. 

As I understand it, the original Wigwam Village was designed by architect Frank Redford and built in Cave City, Kentucky (where nearby you can visit Mammoth Cave National Park) in 1937. While the design was to mimic native American teepees, Redford was not a fan of the word so he called them “Wigwams.” A developer passing through soon after it was built bought rights to the design and fashioned six additional Wigwam Villages, totaling seven.

This location is one of only three still in existence (one other in aforementioned Kentucky; and one in California.) Not surprisingly, location #7 is on the National Register of Historic Places ... and it looks every bit the part. Vintage cars parked in the lot outside are a nod to its vintage past, providing a backdrop that feels more like you are on a movie set than at an operating motel. But it is still in business—the rooms can be rented by the night and true to original form, there is no wifi, cable TV, or telephone service (a trait we are finding to be quite common while on the road this year.)

Two of America’s very different wonders just stones throw from one another… not bad, AZ.   

Can't really think of anything more iconic than Wally the Airstream driving down the "Main Street of America."

Can't really think of anything more iconic than Wally the Airstream driving down the "Main Street of America."

One is never too young to have some fun on the Mother Road. 

One is never too young to have some fun on the Mother Road. 

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, Arizona

We're sure this has happened to many travelers... You line up a side-stop at a landmark or popular attraction that you know nothing about and then it completely blows your mind. That's exactly what happened to us at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, en route to Saguaro National Park in Arizona.

Living in DC, we had the lion's share of top-tier museums that we patronized a lot. And this adventure is about parks, not so much about museums, so we were kind of in the casual "sure, let's check it out" mode when we went there. We left so happy that we went back again the following day because we wanted to explore it more... that says a lot considering the scarcity of free time we have this year.  

This isn't your typical museumit reminded us both a lot of the Smithsonian National Zoo, which was our outdoor haven while living in DC. It has 2 miles of outdoor walking paths that glide along 21 acres of natural habitat where desert wildlife thrives. Mountain lion, coyotes, javelina, grey fox, snakes, lizards, honey bees, and hummingbirdsall of which are naturally found in this biodiverse desert landscape in a slightly more concentrated area. 

A healthy looking roadrunner at the Desert Museum.

A healthy looking roadrunner at the Desert Museum.

From the museum website: …not a “museum” in the usual sense, it is an unparalleled composite of plant, animal, and geologic collections with the goal of making the Sonoran Desert accessible, understandable, and valued.

Goal achieved. In a short amount of time we easily visited, learned about, and appreciated at a higher level the natural makeup of this region. It is no wonder that this museum is consistently marked as one of the top ten best museums in the country and the top site to visit in Tucson (not to mention one of the stand out stops along our road trip this year.) Amazing!! 

Tex-Mex in Tucson: Guadalajara Original Grill

Burrito madness. Way too much food, but never there when you want it so you eat it all anyway... 

Burrito madness. Way too much food, but never there when you want it so you eat it all anyway... 

We may not know much about Tucson but we know a thing or two about great Tex-Mex food! Between TripAdvisor and Yelp we averaged one of the top-rated restaurants and gave it a try after a grueling hike and before a long overdue viewing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Review sites can't be entirely trusted, BUT, this place earned its high rating -- it was phenomenal with a capital YUM. Guadalajara Original Grill: YUM!! The service left a little to be desired in terms of speed and attention but really, with table-side salsa and guac, who really cares?! 

Table-side salsa and a vat of Margarita to share. :)

Table-side salsa and a vat of Margarita to share. :)

We sat next to a large Mexican family. They were related to the mariachi band, we think, because they sang and clapped and laughed together the way they would have at Sunday dinner. There was so much joy emanating from that table it was ridiculous. And they played with their soul -- even in the middle of a popular and very crowded restaurant -- so inspired that Stef got teary-eyed; margaritas so authentic that Jon vowed he'd never had one better. We almost missed Star Wars which we'd been clamoring to see since the year began, that's how much we were enjoying ourselves. Too long in DC with crappy options; too long of a day; whatever. It was too good. We've been hatching a route back through Tucson just to eat there again but it's not likely going to happen this year. A very delicious stop along the road. 

 

Airstream Headquarters: Jackson Center Ohio

On our way out of Cuyahoga National Park, we paid a visit to Airstream Headquarters in Jackson Center, Ohio, to update them on our progress and to ask for some guidance about the best ways to operate our new home on the road from the expert technicians who put the things together. 

Walking through the warehouse, we were intoxicated by the new fleet of Pendleton Limited Edition National Park Centennial models being pieced together by the Airstream crew. Only 100 will be built. Artistic details of our national parks are alluded to throughout the design, and the rear opens up to your proverbial backyard: America's great outdoors. The wood is rustic and warm as if it were at home in one of our forests. These are craftsman's creations... it's impossible to look at one and not say "I want that!"

Inside the lobby, the inspiration continues, with couches and tables made of modified Airstream hardware. Historical photos of NASA’s Astrovan and Mobile Quarantine Facility (used to contain Apollo astronauts for testing after their adventures to Earth’s moon) dot the walls of the entryway. Outside and around the bend is the rarest of Airstreams: "Stella's Dream Trailer", designed by Airstream founder Wally Byam himself—a golden capsule in a sea of silver bullets.

What was striking about the town where it is located, Jackson Center, is that you get a feeling from the small size of it that everybody in this town has worked, does work, or will one day work at Airstreamone team member showed us an employee roster with tenures stretching 3, 4, even 5 decades. That says a lot about a company, when the employees don’t just work there, but dedicate their lives to a brand. That’s commitment. And we are very appreciative of that commitment. We recognize that each of them have a hand in the machine that is bringing us to every U.S. National Park this year. Thank you Airstream! 

Q', Hot Springs Style

It looks how it looks but it tastes like "Stop talking until I'm done eating." 

It looks how it looks but it tastes like "Stop talking until I'm done eating." 

Between the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Texas sits another heartland of American barbecue (Q')—Arkansas—and folks there have a strong opinion about who makes the best around. In fact, we asked every park ranger and volunteer ranger we met at Hot Springs National Park where to find mind blowing Q' and they all had a different favorite place to go. One man, insisted he made the best. McClard's is the most famous because it has the endorsement of Hot Springs' most famous home-towner: President Bill Clinton. We went to Ranger Lissa's favorite place: Smokin' In Style.

Now, I don't know if this is the best in town because we have no other establishment to compare it to, but we can ring our own endorsement that it was absolutely delicious, cheap, and the company was most excellent too—all important and comforting things while eating on the road. 

Americana: Shelton Fireworks

Jonny did the Sunday morning shopping in Robertsdale, Alabama. 

Jonny did the Sunday morning shopping in Robertsdale, Alabama. 

If you've ever been to a firework warehouse, you know that it's an intense experience. Cool, dark, quiet—you can feel that with the stroke of just one match, the entire place could go up in explosive, devastate-anything-in-its-path flames. That my friends, is an intense feeling. 

And there we were, somewhere between Virgin Islands National Park and Park #5 on a Sunday morning, walking up to a building adorned with BIG BOLD signs reading, 'NO SMOKING - NO SMOKING - NO SMOKING!!'

Inside Shelton Fireworks were two employees governing hundreds, maybe thousands, of boxes filled with childhood favorites of which we grabbed up handfuls of each. Smoke bombs, fountains, killer bees, snakes, flowers, sparklers, firecrackers ... all set! 

We stayed away from the half of the store where the mortars lived—we don't need to send flaming anything into the air anywhere near our National Parks.

The Airstream looked right at home in that desolate parking lot at Shelton's, didn't it? 

Best Burgers on St. John: Skinny Legs

We weren't necessarily seeking out good eats while exploring Virgin Islands National Park, but they found us all the same. "Be sure to stop at Skinny Legs for the best burger of your life on your way to the east side of the island," we were told. Arms twisted. And on an island with only one major road, it really was on the way. Coming over a mountain S-curve smoke billows in sight and scent from a real smokehouse barbecue, charring burgers to perfection at Skinny Legs. You can't miss it.

We went in, sat at a table, ordered up two local beers and two cheeseburgers and checked out the island kitsch that decorated the walls while we waited. We chatted about what we would do that day on the second half of our multi sport adventure, a conversation that was easily derailed by the arrival of our lunch
straight-from-the-barbecue-tasting burgers amazing as they can only be when tasting like they were made at a neighborhood cookout put on by your friend-group's favorite foodie. We all have one of those friends, right? The reigning grill master?

Definitely the place to stop in Coral Bay. No muss, no fuss, just good eats on this stop along the road.


9901 Estate Emmaus, St. John, VI 00830

Papa Hemingway's House, Key West, Florida

Unless you have a sailboat, you must travel through Key West to get to Dry Tortugas National Park

Key West is home to U.S. Mile Marker 0 and formerly, to one of the greatest writers of all time (and Stef's personal favorite): Ernest Hemingway.

Hem lived in Key West while writing two of his most celebrated novels, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. The two-story house with wraparound decks isas it always has been protected by palm trees growing out from secret gardens and an army of curious cats. The feline ancestors roaming the grounds today are descendants of those who enchanted Papa Hem during his time in Florida's outpost just a stones throw from Duval Street. Hem made Key West famous, and without his residence there, it probably wouldn't matter that he was a just stone's throw from fabled Duval Street, but I remiss... 

Pet cemetery -- descendants of the many, many, many many cats whom once lived with Hem still live on the property today, Their ancestors are buried here.   

Pet cemetery -- descendants of the many, many, many many cats whom once lived with Hem still live on the property today, Their ancestors are buried here. 

 

Ernest’s friends known as “The Mob", famously fished in the Dry Tortugas for weeks at a time in pursuit of giant tuna and marlin associated with big game fishing. Everyone in the Mob had a nickname, Hemingway's was "Papa"—which would eventually stick with him throughout his life.

Visiting this house was very much like stepping back in time, particularly for those with active imaginations. Had we all day to wander those gardens crawling with cats just like it has always been, we would have stayed. But the Parks call!

The Ernest Hemingway Home

907 Whitehead Street  Key West, Florida 22040

Mrs. Mac's Kitchen, Key Largo, Florida

One of the most exciting things about road tripping is finding gem's to explore along the route. Wanting some good local eats near Biscayne National Park, we were directed to Mrs. Mac's Kitchen in Key Largo. 

I'd say it lives up to the Key Largo hype. We were told that the original Mrs. Macs is far superior to Mrs. Mac's II just down the street, but the more newly established sister location had a nice big fat parking spot suitable for a full size vehicle and our Airstream so opted to eat there  our rationale was that, we didn't know the difference, it would either be to our liking or not. Delicious blackened Mahi sandwich, diner feel, "world famous" key lime pie... What's not to love?!

99336 Overseas HWY, Key Largo, FL 33037