Saturday, March 7, 2009

Appomattox Court House, Virginia

First, a history lesson. The surrender of General Lee's army to General Grant in 1865 did not take place in a court house. Appomattox Court House is the name of the little town, where legal disputes were settled in Appomattox County. Appomattox itself is a few miles down the road.

The surrender itself took place in the McLean house, an easy walk from the Courthouse itself. Wilmer McLean was something of a war profiteer, and his house happened to fall in the area of the decisive spot. It was a good spot for the final negotiations, such as they were.

The place where the surrender itself was signed might be the second most important room in American history, behind only Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Pictured is the McLean House itself. The structure was rebuilt by the National Park Service on its original foundation according to original specifications. Lee and Grant would recognize the place. (It was tough to take a single picture of the room itself that worked.)

The area around it looks like a typical Civil War battlefield of the area, with plenty of grass fields and crisscrossed fences. Visiting is a surprising moving experience.

Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia: Joe Louis Gravesite

The story of Joe Louis is a compelling one. He was generally fine when he was inside of a boxing ring, but had his share of problems before and after. Considering his uneducated roots, it's a wonder that he rose to a position in which he was a hero to millions as heavyweight champion. Then after his career was over, he spent his life dodging tax problems.

Louis should have had a happier ending. He is buried in Arlington National, and probably deserves more attention than this relatively small gravestone gives him. Nevertheless, we still remember him.

Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia: John F. Kennedy Gravesite

The most famous location in Arlington Cemetery has to be President Kennedy's gravesite. It is marked by the eternal flame, shown above. That idea took no time at all to capture the public's attention, and still draws large crowds. He is buried next to his wife and two children. By the way, Robert Kennedy's gravesite is nearby, and is also well done.

Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia: Tomb of the Unknowns

It's an interesting idea, when you think about it. The remains of a solider from World War I weren't able to be identified, so they were transported to Washington and made a symbol for all of the dead who make the ultimate sacrifice for the nation. He is joined in the "complex" by soldiers from World War II and the Korean War.

The honor guard watches over the grave, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. The guard is changed at regular intervals, including every two hours over night. The tomb was one of the largest pieces of marble in the world before it was carved. The entire effect is quite moving.

Charlottesville, Virginia: Monticello

That's right. The one that's on the nickel.

Thomas Jefferson remains one of our most fascinating founding fathers, a man of intelligence, curiosity and contradictions. His house just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, reflects that. It's on top of a small mountain with a fine view, and has some other buildings and gardens that come with the tour.

Visitors park about a half-mile away, pay for tours -- change is given in $2 bills, the one with Jefferson on it -- and head to the complex. It might be worth it to walk back, passing Jefferson's grave along the way. As you probably remember from school, he died on July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after the founding of the country and on the same day as John Adams' death.

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, Virginia

Say, where did the rest of this bridge go?

Underground, of course.

For those wanting to get from Norfolk to the Eastern Shore of Virgina as well as Maryland and Delaware, the Bridge-Tunnel is definitely the way to go. It goes 20 miles across the Chesapeake. Most of it is above the water surface. Then, it goes underground a couple of times for a mile each to allow ships, etc., to easily go from one side of the road to another.

Above is a picture of the point where the road first goes under water. Be sure to stop at the gift shop for some food, drink and souvenirs. It's a nice place to stop on a sunny day.

The structure opened in 1964 and was instantly acclaimed as an engineering marvel. A twin was completed in 1999.

Sure beats driving through Washington D.C. on the way to Philadelphia.

Jamestown, Virginia

The year 2007 was a good year to visit Jamestown. It was exactly 400 years before that when the first permanent settlement was established on United States territory. While the Queen of England wasn't around for our visit, it's still a very interesting place. The park service welcome visitors with a guide who pretends as if she is welcoming new residents in 1619; it really makes the place feel more real.

Here is a picture of the fort, which until fairly recently was thought to have eroded away into the sea. After a little digging, scientists found that the location of the fort was still on the shore. Several artifacts, including a full skelton, were found that are displayed in a museum nearby.

Jamestown Settlement, which is not controlled by the National Park Service, is nearby. It's said to be more of a theme park atmosphere with reenactors walking the streets.

Lexington, Virginia: Lee Chapel and Museum

Those who visit the campus of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., to pay their respects to General Robert E. Lee are in for a slight surprise. The campus is extremely attractive, and you'll be tempted to sign up for a semester or two while visiting.

The Lee Chapel & Museum is the main attraction here. General Lee became president of the university after the Civil War. His final resting place is downstairs in the chapel, surrounded by other family members. A striking statue of Lee is in the very front of the chapel. Lee's office also is in the building.

Lee even has an old friend nearby. Traveller, his horse, is buried right outside the chapel. Traveller spent 1862 to 1865 at Lee's command, and the horse lived until 1871 -- a year past Lee's death.

Luray, Virginia: Luray Caverns

Go see enough caves, and they start to sort of look alike. This one, though, is a good one. Luray Caverns in Virginia has some unique features.

Take the above picture, for starters. It looks like the bottom is merely cloudy, when actually it is a pool of water reflecting what's above it. Makes for an interesting shot.

Mount Vernon, Virginia

Remember the first rule of Revolutionary War history: It's easier to be a Founding Father if you have some money in the bank and aren't preoccupied with paying the rent.

George Washington certainly remembered that rule. Here's the view of his nice little place, taken from the vantage point of the Potomac River. The view in the other direction is pretty spectacular; Washington certainly knew about the location rule of real estate.

The complex goes well beyond just this building and also includes his tomb. A space was made for Washington's casket in the U.S. Capitol, but he wanted to be here. Can't say I blame him.

Orange, Virginia: James Madison's Gravesite

James Madison and wife Dolley are resting in an estate called "Montpelier," around Orange, Virginia. The facility has dozens of buildings, designed to take visitors back to the 1820's. There's also a museum.

You don't have to take the guided tour to see James and Dolley, though. They are in a nice little area separate from the grounds. James is shown at left.

Richmond, Virginia: Monument Avenue

It's the most famous street in Richmond, and for good reason. Not only are the houses beautiful, but some local heroes are honored at the major intersections.

The Arthur Ashe monument is the latest one. It caused a bit of controversy, as Ashe of course had no connection to the Confederacy, unlike the rest of those honored. And the statue of Ashe is small compared to the others on the street. Still, Ashe is a worthy role model for everyone, and it's nice to see him included. The "tennis racket in one hand, books in the other" approach is a nice touch.

Down the street are statues of General Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis and Matthew Maury (an oceanographer).

Richmond, Virginia: Confederate Soldiers Gravesite

Hollywood Cemetery (named after the Holly trees) is only a few blocks from downtown Richmond, right along the James River. It's a classic old inner-city cemetery, filled with history and beautiful old trees.

One of the most interesting sections comes in a corner. A pyramid was constructed shortly after the Civil War to honor the Confederate soldiers who died. In fact, about 18,000 are buried near the pyramid.

Meanwhile, several of the soldiers in the area have the same week of death - early July, 1863. That's right -- they were shipped from Gettysburg. It's almost haunting to see the graves in a line.

Richmond, Virginia: Jefferson Davis' Gravesite

The only President in the history of the Confederacy won't be forgotten any time soon, at least in Richmond.

Davis lived in Richmond for much of the Civil War, had to flee right at the end. He died in 1889, a bit of a sore loser about the War until the end of his life. Davis was first buried in New Orleans but was later moved to Richmond, where most of the town came out to see him laid to rest.

The Davis family has an impressive circle in Hollywood Cemetery, and Davis is described as "a martyr to principle" and "defender of the Constitution."

Richmond, Virginia: James Monroe's Gravesite

As a place to spent the foreseeable future, James Monroe is in an odd-looking structure. It's a beautiful cast-iron structure.

Monroe was originally buried in New York City, but was moved to his native state after the anniversary of his 100th birthday. There's a modest inscription inside the bars of the structure.

And not a word of his doctrine anywhere around.

Richmond, Virginia: John Tyler's Gravesite

You'd think John Tyler would get his own circle in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. But no, he has to share one with James Monroe. Not fair. And no flags for either of then.

Tyler was a vice president on Inauguration Day in 1841, when William Henry Harrison gave his speech on a frosty day. Harrison supposed became ill and soon died. That elevated Tyler to the top job, the first vice president to do so.

Tyler tried to sort out the issues in the Civil War, but didn't have any luck and voted for Virginia to leave the Union. He was elected to the Confederate version of the House but died before taking a seat.

The statue shown above goes up several more feet, but this is a better look at the text honoring him.

Richmond, Virginia: Richmond Dairy Apartments

As seen in Roadside America.

Otherwise, how would we find such a place?

The Richmond Dairy used to be on this site. However, that company left in the 1970's or so. It held artists' studios for a while. Now it holds some apartments.

What's more, they are quite convenient to downtown. And the street isn't too busy on a weekday, as people can park on the side of the road, jump out of the car and snap a picture easily.

Richmond, Virginia: Museum of the Confederacy

The South shall rise again ... in the midst of a hospital.

The Museum of the Confederacy and the Confederate White House are located right in the midst of the Virginia Commonwealth University medical center. That can make parking a little tricky. But if you find a spot in the ramp, you can visit an odd place in history.

Above is the place where Jefferson Davis lived and worked while he was President of the Confederacy. A tour of the place takes less than an hour. It's not too big or fancy. Once Richmond fell in April 1865, Abraham Lincoln spent an afternoon working on Civil War details out of Davis' library ... and it's great to stand in the same room. The tour guide knows plenty of details about Davis and his life. Who knew that he was actually elected to office, albeit without opposition?

The Museum is tucked next door. There are a variety of exhibits about the Confederacy; during our visit the Navy was profiled.

Northerners may find this to have a different approach to history, since there are no apologies for the South's actions here. It's simply presented the way it was at the time.

Richmond, Virginia: Capitol Square

Workers were busy in the spring of 2007 finishing up renovations to Virginia's Capitol in Richmond. The Queen, you see, was coming. Therefore, you'll have to look elsewhere for impressive pictures of the inside of the building. This was the best we could do.

The outside looked pretty good even with some construction tape and vehicles around. The grounds are well-maintained, and there are a few statues about to give the area a little historical feeling.

Staunton, Virginia: Woodrow Wilson's Birthplace

Driving one day in Western Virginia, we were surprised to see an exit sign marking the route to Woodrow Wilson's birthplace. Wilson usually is associated with New Jersey, where he was Governor, but he spent his early years in Virginia.

The city of Staunton is proud of that landmark, and has a fine tribute to Wilson. There's a museum dedicated to him there, located next to Wilson's first house that shows how his life was when he was born in the pre-Civil War days. There are lovely gardens on the grounds as well.

Williamsburg, Virginia: Presidents Park

Here's something you don't see every day, Chauncey. Head-and-shoulder statues of all the Presidents extending 16-to-18 feet into the air.

It must be Presidents Park, another attraction of the Williamsburg area. It doesn't get the publicity of Colonial Williamsburg, but it's just as unique in its own way.

Above is a look at the "first half" of the park. That's Jefferson on the right in front, with Madison, Monroe and Jackson on the right. The blue patch that looks like a plane is a replica of Air Force One, which adds to the Presidential atmosphere.

Anyone would expect Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt or a recent President on a page like this. Not here, though. Below on the left if Millard Fillmore, who is rather anonymous except in Buffalo, where he is buried. On the right is Franklin Pierce, who is pretty anonymous everywhere.

The park also has a Palm Beach County voting booth from 2000, and some replicas of First Ladies gowns. You can pay to have your picture taken in a replica of the Oval Office. But the Presidents are the star attraction. Each President, including George W. Bush, has a sign with facts about him and his Administration. (Don't know how fast they can get Obama up and ready.)

The owner even asked us how we enjoyed our visit. They didn't do that in Jamestown.

Williamsburg, Virginia: The Courthouse

This building looks important, and it is. It's the Courthouse for Colonial Williamsburg, right in the middle of the Main Street. Petty crimes and civil cases were tried here on a regular basis, with the bigger crimes tried down the street at the Capitol. It also was something of a gathering place; important announcements were read from the front steps.

The main room is right inside the front door, with seats for spectators in the back of the room so they can have a good view of the legal proceedings. Today, visitors receive a crash course in Colonial-era justice mechanics.

Williamsburg, Virginia: The Capitol

Colonial Virginia needed a new place for legislation when the Jamestown Statehouse burned down in 1698. The location was moved to what is now Williamsburg, and the Capitol was constructed. Here's a look at the middle of the building. The Court was on one side, the House of Burgesses was on the other.

The Virginia legislature still meets in the room once every couple of years as a salute to tradition.

Visitors now get a standard tour of the building until they reach the Burgesses' chamber. The tour guide there not only reviews the history of the room, but starts an unexpectedly fascinating discussion about the rights of the governed as perceived by Colonial Williamsburg. The kiddies might be a bit bored, but the man knows what he's talking about. Might have been the best part of the visit.

Yorktown, Virginia: Battlefield

Someone thought long and hard about what to call the area pictured, the site of the British surrender to American forces in the last major battle of the Revolutionary War. Then that person came up with "Surrender Field."

There's a painting of the scene. with this area filled with soldiers on both sides, in an exhibit on the site. So you can really get the idea what it was like.

The battlefield is open fields now. The visitor center has the details on how Yorktown was won. It's a short walk from there toward town, where a statue marks the American victory. The town is very quaint, and it is attempting to add a little economic vitality to the waterfront district with some shops.

Maryhill, Washington: Stonehenge

No, not that Stonehenge. The one in Maryhill, Washington. The one you've never heard of.

This version was put in place as a tribute to those from the area who were killed in World War I. This really is in the middle of nowhere and is one odd tourist attraction. On the other hand, there's a general store nearby with friendly staffers and some unique souvenirs.

Mount Rainier National Park, Washington: Grove of the Patriarchs

Pictures of trees often don't work in this sort of format, because it's difficult to gain a perspective on just how big they are. Take it from someone who has been there, these are big trees.

The trail at Mount Rainier is called the Grove of the Patriarchs. It's an easy walk on the southeast side of the park, maybe a mile or so round-trip. The trees are estimated to be about 1,000 years old, which means they were 500 years old when Columbus stopped by. Some of them are so wide, it would take about five people standing side-by-side to cover them up.

Mount Rainier National Park, Washington: Paradise Entrance

Mount Rainier is beautiful ... when you can see it. It gets really cloudy there at times; I couldn't see the top from halfway up the mountain.

The Mount Rainier area is only about 1.5 to 2 hours away from Seattle. There are some nice waterfalls (Christine Falls is pictured) and outlooks on the road, and some great hiking trails. Hiking also is the best way to see the abundant wildlife in the area.

Mount St. Helens, Washington: Helicopter Ride

This is as close as I ever want to get to an active volcano. This is what the inside of Mount St. Helens looks like from a helicopter hovering around its active side. You can see the snow, there year-round, and the steam from the middle.

This can be an expensive trip -- more than $100 per person, depending on your departure spot -- but it meets the description of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Save your money, and hand over your Visa card.

An amazing experience.

Mount St. Helens, Washington: Johnson Ridge

Johnson Ridge is the last stop on the road to Mount St. Helens. It's about 50 miles east of Interstate 5. Any closer, and you have to walk ... and you still aren't allowed to get too much closer. There is smoke coming out there (as of 2005), after all.

Mount St. Helens blew sideways in 1980, sending enough ash in the air to give every human being on earth 15 buckets of the stuff. The advantage to the sideways explosion is that visitors can look into it now.

The scope of this mountain is beyond belief, seemingly close enough to touch even from five miles away. It's one of the most impressive sites in the country.

Olympic National Park, Washington: Hoh Rain Forest

You wouldn't expect a rain forest to be particularly accessible. That certainly is the case with the Hoh Rain Forest in the middle of Olympic National Park.

The road to it is impressively windy and underconstructed; it's also wet and dark. It takes about 15 or 20 miles of driving to get there, but it's a very unusual place once you get there. The United States is not exactly filled with rain forests; the one in Olympic, in fact, is unique.

There's a small visitors center at the end of the road, which is a good launching point for further exploration. There are a couple of quick and easy trails that start and end there. It's a good place for some pleasant exploration. The more adventurous can take longer hikes or even head for the mountains.

You'll like the of the simple trail. And there sure are some big trees in there -- the 140 inches of rain per year apparently doesn't go to waste.

Olympic National Park, Washington: Hurricane Ridge

Hurricane Ridge is the best place to see the snow-capped mountains of Olympic National Park ... even on a foggy, rainy morning.

The road to the Ridge goes more or less south from Port Angeles for about 19 miles. It's also more or less straight up -- something like a mile. We weren't optimistic about the view for about the first 4,000 of those feet, even though the ranger at the entrance said we'd be above the clouds. She was right. You can see the clouds dancing below the mountains in the photograph below. You could take three of these photos side by side to get the full, panoramic effect of looking out at the range.

By the way, bring a coat for this drive. It was 39 degrees the morning we arrived, a drop of almost 20 degrees from sea level.

Olympic National Park, Washington: Second Beach

Sometimes a top attraction can blindside a tourist when he or she is least expecting it. Such was the case with Second Beach.

Olympic National Park is divided into two distinct regions. The main one, in the middle of the Olympic peninsula, has the mountains and rain forests. There's a separate region, though, along the coast. The guidebooks said to check out one of the isolated beaches, so we did.

We walked about a mile along a very green trail, finally dropping down to ocean level. We were greeted by sea stacks, shown above. It looked like Monument Valley had been dropped into the Pacific Ocean, and the effect was breath-taking. You can see the trees on top of the stack above, and birds were obviously nesting there as well. This was our favorite part of the park.

By the way, there are sea stacks just off the coast at Rialto Beach, which is only a short distance from the parking lot for Second Beach, and they require less walking to see them. But our way seemed more dramatic, and thus better.

Renton, Washington: Jimi Hendrix's Gravesite

The first stop on any tour of the Seattle area should be a visit to the grave of legendary rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix. For starters, it's fairly close to the airport (10-15 minutes, tops) in Renton.

The memorial is located in Greenwood Memorial Park Cemetary. It is set off to the side a bit with parking space for several cars. Jimi's gravestone is in the middle of the above site, while his stepmother is located in the outer rim of the circular area.

When we were there, some 20's-ish people were trying unsuccessfully to trace the markings on the gravestone to tissue paper. It didn't work. Bummer, man.

Seattle, Washington: Pike Place Market

Pick up a tourist brochure of Seattle, and you are bound to see this sign. It's for the Pike Place Market, which has enjoyed a rebirth over the last couple of decades. The market actually dates back to 1907, and was briefly headed for demolition before it was preserved. Now it's thriving. It has an assorted of shops and restaurants, and people flock to see the fish salesmen display the day's catches. It's always great to see big crowds downtown on a Sunday.

Seattle, Washington: Space Needle

The Space Needle is Seattle's signature building. You see a shot of it in the skyline, and you know where you are immediately.

The Space Needle was built for the 1962 World's Fair, and has the usual observation deck and restaurant. On the deck, guides point out buildings as well as tell stories about Seattle's past and present. By the way, the souvenir stand at the bottom is extremely large for this sort of attraction.

This is a good way to introduce yourself to the city -- you can see how it is laid out and figure out what you might want to see. Besides, it's right in the middle of Seattle Center, which has an amusement park, the Experience Music Project, and Key Arena.

Toppenish, Washington: Downtown murals

What do you do when your town's main factory closes down? If you are Toppenish, Washington, you get out the paint brushes.

Toppenish calls itself the City of Historical Murals. Virtually every building in the downtown area has one, all honoring some part of the city's past. In fact, once a year a bunch of artists pitch in to create one in a single day. It's definitely unique if you are in this part of the world, which is near Yakima. The town also has a Hop Museum that sadly was closed when we passed through.

By the way, the picture below is also a mural. Well done, Toppenish.

Winlock, Washington: World's Largest Egg

OK, it's actually the world's largest statue of an egg. It's not like a chicken laid this the other day, and the city fathers of Winlock, Washington, got the paint brushes out.

Even so, that's some egg. It's also a reason for the traveler to drop into Winlock. For those of you planning a trip to the region, Winlock is only a few miles off Interstate 5. (If you go east, you'll wind up at Mount St. Helens.) Go west into town, and look to your right from the main road. The egg is in a small park a block away. There's no explanation for the egg, and it's fenced in.

We didn't spend any money in Winlock, but we did visit it ... so the egg's mission was accomplished.

Charleston, West Virginia: State Capitol

West Virginia had a great idea for its state office complex. It is designed something like a college campus, with buildings connected by grass and sidewalks and the parking left on the outside rim. The State Capitol, the highlight of the area, is right on a river. Nice job, people.

The Capitol dome was bandaged up for repair when we were there, so that picture isn't too charming. Much better is this inside look at the dome itself. The chandelier hanging from the top is quite magnificent, even though I wouldn't want to clean it.

The building has a Governor's reception room, complete with tourist information, a working fireplace (even on 80-degree days) and free pens with the Governor's signature on it.

Clarksburg, West Virginia: Stonewall Jackson's Birthplace

Every town in America wants some sort of claim to fame. Otherwise, it wouldn't get an exit on the Interstate.

So welcome to Clarksburg, West Virginia, a nice enough place in the middle of the state. It's not long on entries in the AAA TourBook, though. Here's the birthplace of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson; it's right on Main Street in the middle of downtown. It's easy to ask why a Northern state is marking the birthplace of a Southern general, but the answer probably is in the first paragraph of this page.

By the way, there's a fine divided highway from the Interstate through Clarksburg that runs for a few miles. We couldn't figure out why they bothered, but no doubt the place has Senator Byrd to thank for it.

Huntington, West Virginia: Pink Elephant

Travel long enough in a car and you're bound to see some strange things. In this case, it was a pink elephant.

This is located just east of Huntington, West Virginia in front of a commercial building containing a few businesses. It's a few miles off the Interstate, and it's a fine silly photo opportunity -- ask Mrs. Bailey.

My thanks to Roadside America for finding this attraction.

Milton, West Virginia: Blenko Glass Factory

Hope you aren't reading this on a hot summer day. The Blenko Glass Factory is in Milton, West Virginia, and it is one of several stores along this line in the town. As you can see, visitors are welcome to watch glass-blowing take place in the factory.

The company also has a small museum, and -- you guessed it -- an extensive store filled with a variety of its merchandise. Milton is just up Interstate 64 from Huntington, and Blenko is only a few minutes off the road.

New River Gorge, West Virginia

The New River in West Virginia actually is quite old. It used to flow through Midwest and empty into the Mississippi. This national river is right in the middle of whitewater country, with navigators sprinkled throughout the region. All are willing to take you on a ride down the body of water shown above.

In the old days, a ferry was needed to get across the river. Then, in 1977, the world's biggest single arch steel bridge was completed. It's a pretty impressive sight ... even if Shanghai, China, has put up an even larger single arch steel bridge. You see the West Virginia bridge quite often in magazines and on television shows.

There is a welcome center on the north side of the bridge just off U.S. 19, and it's well marked. Worth a stop, I'd say.

White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia: The Greenbriar

Welcome to the big leagues.

The Greenbriar is about as good as it gets when it comes to resorts. If you don't have a good time while visiting here, it's your fault and not the Greenbriar's. There are three golf courses, tennis courts, bowling alleys, gardens, a spa, shops, etc. First class doesn't describe the place adequately.

There's one feature that we missed but also is something of a star attraction. At the height of the cold war, a bomb shelter was built here in order to house the nation's top government officials. As Roadside America said, you might prefer the accomodations be a little less plush for those making life-and-death decisions.

Here's a view of the main building, which has spectacular lobbies. It's easy to imagine this might be a spectacular place to spend the December holidays; a worker said live Christmas trees are in every room of the complex.

White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia: The Coal House

Here's an idea that didn't really catch fire: a house made of coal.

This building, on the eastern edge of White Sulphur Springs near the Interstate ramp (be careful you don't drive by), opened in 1959 as a visitors center. Then it turned into a casino/lounge. Now (as of 2007), it's closed. So, 30 tons of coal sit there, waiting for a new occupant. (Thanks to Roadside America for the data.)

By the way, the house next door is also made of coal, and is a perfectly normal residential house.

When you do visit, please -- no smoking.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Aladdin, Wyoming: Abandoned Coal Mine

Aladdin, Wyoming is about the last town in the state on the road from Hulett to Belle Fourche, South Dakota. Here's a look at its historic site. During the area's boom times about 100 years ago, it was used for coal production. The area has an interpretive sign that reviews the history of the place. It's pretty impressive that the structure is still standing, although it's tough to say how long we'll still be able to say that.

Aladdin's population is listed on the street sign as 15. There is a general store in the center of town, and it has an exhibit on the mining life of days gone by.

Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming

Now this is an entrance.

Devils Tower is America's first national monument, so designated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. According to the park brochure, it rises 867 feet from the base and 1,267 above a nearby river.

It also received a huge shot in the proverbial arm in popularity in the late 1970's, when it was the centerpiece of an alien visit from the movie, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." I'm told that the KOA campground shows it outside on summer Friday nights, which is an absolutely terrific idea.

There is parkland surrounding the tower, and you can take a 90-minute hike around it on a paved trail. In fact, you can even get close enough to touch it in spots.

Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming: Prairie Dog Town

The prairie dog is one of nature's clowns. The residents at Devils Tower live in a meadow in the park area below the Tower, with dozens of their holes connecting below the surface. Quite frequently, the dogs take a good look around their residence.

When visiting, don't try to feed them (they could die eating human food) or even approach them (they bite!). Just enjoy the show, as they hop around the grounds and then scurry back into holes every so often.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

What is it about snow and mountains? There's something about snow-covered peaks that always looks appealing.

If you like that look in a mountain, Grand Teton National Park definitely is the place to go. There is snow on the peaks almost all the time. There's also plenty of wildlife ("Say, isn't that a moose?"), hiking trails, mountain climbing and a variety of fabulous views.

The mountains here are some of the youngest in North America, and erosion hasn't worn them down yet. So come here and see them in the prime.

By the way, I usually crop out the clouds from these pictures. But the ones shows above seemed to add to the shot.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming: Snake River

It's tough to take a bad picture in the Grand Tetons. Aim, shoot, print.

One possible adventure is to take a ride down the Snake River within the park. A couple of outfits offer a variety of packages -- the short one was good enough for me, since it provided good views of the park and mountains but still left time for exploring.

One warning: it can get cold at almost any time. Our trip was delayed by a day because of snow ... in June. So pack an extra sweater, no matter when you are going.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming: Jackson Lake

If you are driving in Grand Teton National Park, head up for the road for Signal Mountain. Once you reach the top, get out a walk a little on the trail ... and then walk a little more south on an area that obviously has been trampled down a bit by the tourists. We're only talking 50 feet, and it's quite safe. Then look to the west.

Or, just look at the picture above. Better in person, but still breathtaking.

Jackson Lake takes up a good chuck of the northern part of the park. It was carved out by glaciers. In a park filled with great views, this was my favorite.