Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hoover Dam: A Must-Do Las Vegas Side Trip

In March of 2012, my cousin Marriann and I headed down to “Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” for a girlie weekend. We walked the Strip until our high-heeled feet could walk no more, overpaid for some glam dresses, and even ventured into a high-roller room and got a tutorial on how to play the high-roller slots from one of the casino workers. (There were two machines “on hold” in that particular room because the people who had been playing them the night before had invested over $400,000 in each machine, and were intent on winning the jackpot. My mind boggled - who has $400,000 to drop into a slot machine? How does that even work?)

Las Vegas boulevard
All dolled up and ready to rock the Las Vegas Strip!

But the whole trip wasn’t about the Vegas Strip and hopping from casino to casino. One of the items on my travel bucket list is to stand on the top of Hoover Dam and stare down the amazingly steep drop. So Marriann and I booked a morning trip out to the Dam through Grey Line Tours (the same company I used repeatedly during my Cancun trip last Spring Break). The tour bus picked us up outside our hotel, The Excalibur. They were forty-five minutes late, but I guess this is normal in Vegas, especially for a morning trip. Most people are late getting to the pick-up site due to their, er, activities from the night before.

Standing outside the famous Las Vegas sign at the entrance to the city.

Once we were on our way, I really enjoyed myself. Our tour guide, Harriet, had a gentle, rhythmic accent that was pleasing to listen to. She knew a lot about Las Vegas and the surrounding countryside, and didn’t sugar coat anything. She was dead-honest about the financial difficulties that Vegas was going through, the potential water shortage of 2020, and the amount of houses standing vacant, never having a single owner step foot in them. She also pointed out a lot of great points of interest, such as Frank Sinatra’s old house, Steve Wynn’s giant mansion with personal waterfall, and some of the oldest casinos in the valley.

Frank Sinatra's former home just outside Las Vegas.

Before arriving at Hoover Dam, Harriet took us to the bypass bridge just a five minute drive away. The bypass bridge was built to prevent heavy traffic from destroying the Hoover Dam, since previous to the bypass bridge, all traffic had to cross the Dam to get to the other side of the valley. Now Hoover Dam is only open to tours and tourists, and if you drive across it, you have to turn around at a dead-end on the other side and cross back. The bypass bridge was just as amazing as Hoover Dam in my opinion.

The bypass bridge offers a fabulous view of Hoover Dam.

It is called the Mike O’Callaghan Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge in honor of some prestigious but dead locals. The bridge is 890 feet high, built 1060 feet across a wide valley over top of the Colorado River. It is incredible to see, and offers some amazing views of Hoover Dam. Halfway down the bridge, you can literally straddle the Nevada and Arizona state line.

Standing on the bypass bridge right outside the Hoover Dam.

Straddling the state line of Nevada and Arizona - too cool!

We spent about half an hour exploring the Memorial Bridge, and then it was back on the bus to finally get down to the Dam. We drove across the bridge so that we could say we’d been to the Dam on both the Nevada and the Arizona sides. Harriet then parked our bus and we had two hours to explore and do whatever we wanted while at the site.

Hoover Dam in all its glory.

Marriann and I began by walking across to the Arizona side to get a close-up view of one of the huge and intimidating spillway tunnels, built right into the mountainside in case flooding threatened the Dam. The hole was gigantic and spiraled down into nothing but darkness. It made me slightly dizzy to look at.

The giant overflow tunnels of Hoover Dam - they're dizzying!

We strolled along the edge of the structure, daring ourselves to look down the steep concrete face into the Colorado River far below.

The looooong drop down to the bottom of Hoover Dam.

We rubbed the angel’s feet for luck at the memorial site for all the men who worked and died during the making and running of the Dam. We stopped at the burial site of Blackie the dog, the only thing to be buried in Hoover Dam. He had been a beloved pet of the construction workers during the building of Hoover Dam in the 1930s, until he was killed when a worker backed over him with a truck. So sad!

Rubbing the statue's feet for luck - but I didn't win big in Vegas that night. :(

Part of the tour package was a ticket to tour the actual power plant inside and below the dam. During our last hour at the Dam, we went 400 feet below ground into the heart of the power plant to check out the generators and diversion tunnels. We learned about the amazing feats of engineering and construction that went into the construction of Hoover Dam. I never had thought about the fact that the entire Colorado River had to be diverted to enable the workers to build the Dam in the river’s original path. As we were standing in a tunnel listening to the tour guide describe this strenuous process, he pointed out that we were actually standing in an original diversion tunnel, and that about 75 years ago, the Colorado River had been raging through it! It was pretty cool.

Inside the old diversion tunnel - a raging river used to flow through this!

The power plant tour lasted 45 minutes, and ended with us exploring the exhibits and finding a bite to eat at the small cafe on the Nevada side of the Dam. We ate quickly, explored the High Scaler Man statue which contains the names of all the men who died during the construction of Hoover Dam, and then headed back to the bus.

Monument to all the fallen workers of Hoover Dam.

The Hoover Dam tour was a lovely side trip addition to our Vegas vacation. It was interesting, had amazing views and fascinating stories, and quite frankly, was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of busy Las Vegas. Besides, there isn’t a whole lot to do in Las Vegas on the Strip in the morning. I would recommend that if you are visiting Vegas, and you have a morning to kill, definitely book the Hoover Dam tour!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Backyard Bucket List: Bellevue Coal Mine

The countdown to Vegas is on, and with that, a trip out to see Hoover Dam that I am very much looking forward to. I have also eyed up the zipline on Fremont Street, or better yet, the zipline over the Mojave Desert, courtesy of Bootleg Canyon Flightlines (oh, the possibilities!). I hope my cousin Marriann isn’t into that little thing called ‘sleep’ because my list of things to see and do is rapidly mounting! I can’t wait to go and experience the city again - but as if for the first time. I am also excited for the interesting blog posts that will be sure to follow.

However, in the meantime, I will add another entry to the “Backyard Bucket List” because I feel the overwhelming need to write and add to “Down the Wrabbit Hole”, and I have nothing new to check off the original Travel Bucket List quite yet. Today I’m going to revisit my trip to the Crowsnest Pass in Southern Alberta, focusing on my experience in the Bellevue Coal Mine, which was very interesting indeed!

The entrance to the Bellevue Coal Mine in Crowsnest Pass.

Bellevue is located in southern Alberta in the mountainous area known as the Crowsnest Pass. The mine is not a large tourist complex, but something small, quaint, and out of the way. The official address, in case you want to visit, is 21814 - 28th Avenue, Bellevue, AB. You can call ahead for more detailed directions (403-564-4700 / 403-564-4711), but there are signs along the highway that easily direct you to the mine, which is how my husband and I stumbled upon it quite accidentally during a summer road trip to the nearby Frank Slide.

Joey all bundled up and about to enter the mine.

There weren`t many people at the mine when we visited in early September. I guess the height of the summer tourist season was over, and Joey and I basically had the run of the place. We were lucky enough to go on a tour with just the two of us and our guide, so it was very personal and detailed, and we were able to do some extra exploring that normally, the guide told us, wasn`t possible with a group of 30. So going to the mine at the end of the tourist season is highly recommended!

After we paid our $10.00 per person admission fee, we had to 'dress appropriately' for a coal mine excursion: the guide lent us some blankets to stay warm, a helmet with light attachment and battery pack utility belt, and some gloves to cast off the chill that we'd encounter deep within the mine. We sure looked stunning!

Looking super gorgeous in our hard hats.

The tour was about an hour long, and we traveled over 300 feet into the dark, dank, cold, and claustrophobic coal mine shaft. Safety was never a concern for me, as the mine shaft had been widened, leveled, and reinforced as per tourism safety standards. When we reached the far end of the mine shaft, however, our guide pointed out what the original shaft looked like: half-caved in, narrow, and supported by rickety and rotting beams. Not a place I`d like to further explore!

If you tilt your computer so that the chain hangs straight, you'll understand the angle of the mine.

Once we were down at the very end of the shaft, our guide turned off his headlamp and instructed us to do the same. It was so dark, that I held my hand not two centimeters from my eyes, and could not even make out an outline! All you could hear was the drip, drip, dripping of the water running down the mine walls. I couldn`t imagine being trapped in a mine cave-in with no light - I would go crazy!

Checking out a bank of coal deep within the coal mine.

During the tour, our very knowledgeable guide pointed out some really interesting, historical items. We saw a working coal chute, used to transport coal from other areas of the coal mine. He showed us a sulfur deposit, original coat carts, pick axes, original helmets and headlamps (not as efficient as the ones we were currently wearing) and much more. I found it very exciting and interesting at the same time.

If you are ever driving through the Crowsnest, please ensure you stop to check out this unique little side trip. I promise you that you will not regret it!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Backyard Bucket List: Corn Mazing in Rural Alberta

I have been reading and re-reading my bucket list lately - usually with big, forlorn sighs because there's so much I want to do, and so little money to do it with! Today I realized that virtually everything on my list has to be done... away. Yes, it is a "travel" bucket list, but it is also, in essence, an adventure bucket list. And as I've been adding to this blog over time, there have been several entries where I didn't cross an item off the proverbial list, but I felt as if I'd had such a great time with the experience that it deserved to be chronicled here.

I also realized that I'd been overlooking some of my best adventures, simply because I hadn't traveled (like, on an airplane) to achieve them. But for people who are not from around my neck of the woods, maybe they'd like to hear about these adventures and decide to travel to come see me!

For example...

A panoramic view of our local corn maze in central Alberta.

In Alberta, corn mazes seem to be a dime a dozen. Most small towns boast their own maze, and all the trappings that go with them. My town near Red Deer, Alberta is no different. We have a corn maze with corn carts, potato shooters, a goat walk, a giant bouncy air trampoline, mini-golf and go-carts. The farm takes pride in its petting zoo with sheep, goats, pigs, and a cranky turkey who squawks at people who get too close. I realize this is probably very common in rural communities.

The rickety goat walk at the corn maze in Lacombe.

But for my readers who live in urban centers, or in countries where corn mazes might seem exotic and bizarre, here's what you can expect and maybe add to your own travel bucket lists!

A) Don't go to the corn maze if you don't have a lot of time to waste. Typically, you will get lost in the maze and end up going in circles for the better part of an hour until a random seven-year-old shows you the way through. Or at least, you will if you're with me. I've tried using the little quiz maps that go with the mazes, but since half the time I have trouble discerning my left and right directions, I end up getting lost regardless. Hint: follow the small children that are running without maps - this means that they have probably been through the maze about 18 times and know it off by heart.

Lost in the corn maze - we hit a dead end!!

B) You can stand on the high viewing platforms all you want to try and see the way out, but it will only make you feel more lost. Especially when you DO see the exit, but immediately forget the directions the moment you climb down from the viewing platform. Do what I do... stand on the viewing platform, and call for help. Someone in a corn cart might rescue you! If not, go back to my hint in section A.

My lovely mother-in-law demonstrates how tall corn grows in the corn maze.

C) Take lots of money. I love our local corn maze, but it can get a bit expensive. There is the admission fee, snacks and drinks, money to buy chow for the goats to feed them on the goat walk, money to ride the corn cart, and money to shoot the potato gun (I love that one! At our corn maze, they have it set up to destroy an old school bus!) At the end of the summer, you should also take money to buy the great pumpkins and squashes that they have for sale to prep for Thanksgiving and Halloween!

The Lacombe Corn Maze does offer admission to the giant pillow trampoline, mini-golf, petting zoo, and playground activities within the price of the maze admission, so if you are looking to cut down the costs, have your kids (or you, whatever, I'm not judging) just play with the free stuff.  They also would like to point out that they allow guests to bring in their own food, so there is no obligation to buy food from the snack stand. 

My husband and I caught being bad at the corn maze!

D) You don't need kids. I have gone to the maze with and without kids. Both experiences offer different adventures. Getting lost in the corn maze with a bunch of adults is extremely hilarious and humbling. Getting lost with kids means it isn't so creepy when you approach that seven-year-old to ask for help getting out.

So if you live in an area where there is a corn maze and you haven't visited - GO! It is a ton of fun. And if you don't live near a field of any sort, let alone a corn maze, come to rural Alberta and enjoy yourself. This is the one time it is acceptable for me to tell you - go get lost!