With geysers, grizzlies, an impressive grand canyon, and great mud pools, Yellowstone National Park in America’s west is dramatic, imposing and at times overwhelming. The world’s first national park, established in 1872, is a wonderful blend of land, water, forest, grassland, wildlife and geothermal features. It challenges your senses and stirs your soul.
The first expedition to reach here returned with accounts that were rebuffed by magazine editors and politicians who said their accounts were too far-fetched to be believed. Writers need to be careful even today. Fortunately, images and video readily available on our screens confirm today’s words.
Yellowstone is in Wyoming with small parts spilling over into Montana and Idaho. Heat and volcanic activity from the depths of Earth power this dramatic landscape which is visited by four million visitors each year. In 1978, Yellowstone was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are several different approaches that feed into the Grand Loop Road, a figure-eight highway in the middle of the park. Rather than a single focus, Yellowstone has several hubs so travelling around is essential. Most visitors do this by car but various tours are available which visit most areas. During my recent visit, I thought these were some of the park highlights.
Old Faithful Village
A highlight here is Old Faithful Inn, a masterpiece of national park rustic architecture, with the lobby containing a massive stone fireplace and soaring timber ceiling. Just outside, Old Faithfull Geyser erupts around 17 times per day to an average height of 40 metres. Wait on the wooden boardwalk built around the geyser and watch it erupt with your camera in hand. With its reliable eruption times it’s easy to plan a visit to witness a blowout.
Afterwards, the Old Faithful Visitor Education Centre explains the geology behind the world’s most famous geyser. Visitors can then easily hike the Upper Geyser Basin, home to around 60 percent of the world’s geysers.
Further north is the Norris Geyser Basin, where geological wonders like Artist Paint Pots, Roaring Mountain, and Steamboat Geyser are complemented by the indoor exhibits of two museums. Visitors can also explore the eerie Norris-Canyon Blowdown with its ghost trees, or fly fish for trout in the swift-flowing Gibson River.
Grand Prismatic Spring
Yellowstone’s largest hot spring, is in the Midway Geyser Basin and is accessible by boardwalk. It is a large turquoise pool ringed with orange and yellow with steam coming off the surface. Temperatures around the pool are high, especially during the summer. The rainbow colours are best viewed from a height so take a slightly strenuous hike up the Midway Bluff trailfor the perfect vantage point.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
This is an immense multicoloured trench that stretches 38 kilometres and rises as much as 360 metres above the Yellowstone River. Trails lead to outstanding viewpoints like Artist’s Point on the south rim and Lookout Point on the north rim, for great views of the 100-metre-high Lower Yellowstone Falls. The canyon is marked by steep white-and-yellow cliffs and its vents and spires reveal thermal activity that continues unabated underground.
The largest high-altitude lake in North America offers the park’s best opportunities for boating, fishing, and waterfront camping but it is too cold for swimming. There are rental boats, guided fishing charters, and scenic lake cruises, as well as shuttle services to remote campsites along the 141-mile lake shore.
This is the best place in Yellowstone to get a glimpse of the wolves that have been reintroduced to the park. Bison and elk also frequent the valley with its lush grasslands.
Here and elsewhere there is abundant wildlife, including elk, bison, grizzlies, black bear, pronghorn antelope, moose, and bighorn sheep. March and April are the best months to view bear, while the winter months are best for wolves and bighorn sheep. Elk, moose, bison, and mountain goats can be spotted during the summer months.
You are guaranteed to see bison. The park’s herd dwindled to just 23 animals during the late 19th century, but the population later bounced back thanks to more effective protection and now totals roughly 5,500.
Surrounded by mountain towns immediately to the north, east, and west, and bordered by Grand Teton National Park to the south, there is plenty to do not only within, but also around the park.
These hotels provide accommodation in the park. Old Faithful Inn is the world’s largest log structure with restaurants, bars and shop. Lake Yellowstone Hotel with its Greek Revival facade is the park’s oldest hotel overlooking the lake. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is a classic motor lodge with motel-style rooms and cabins, restaurant, shop, and map room.
The park has 12 developed campgrounds, including Mammoth, Canyon, and Grant Village.
Along the way, he has started a newspaper, a travel magazine, a Visitor and TV Guide, and completed a PhD in tourism. His travels have taken him to more than 100 countries and his writings have collected a PATA award, an ASEAN award, an IgoUgo Hall of Fame award, and other recognition.
He is the author of the Experience Guidebook series which currently includes Experience Thailand, Experience Norway, Experience Northern Italy, Experience Myanmar, Experience Istanbul, Experience Singapore, Experience Melbourne, and Experience Ireland. They are available as ebooks or paperbacks from amazon.com
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a highlight on Germany’s Romantic Road
Even with crowds, overpriced souvenirs, and a rather ordinary, highly-promoted pastry specialty called Schneeball, Rothenburg is still an absolute treasure.
In the Middle Ages, Rothenburg was Germany’s second-largest city, Today, it’s the country’s most exciting medieval town, enjoying tremendous popularity with tourists. There’s a thousand years of history packed within the walls that completely surround the Old Town. This is the area that you won’t want to leave.
The ancient town of turreted fortifications and winding cobblestone streets in some ways feels more like something out of a Disney film. It’s touristy, but if you want it to, it somehow manages to remain genuine.
A walking tour helps bring the Old Town alive. To learn something of Rothenburg’s history, I suggest you take the tour offered by the town’s tourist office in Market Square. Then for a thoroughly fun hour, take the Night Watchman’s Tour and follow his black cape and broad-brimmed hat as he points out places of interest and explains their place in Rothenburg’s history in a unique entertaining style.
Walking the streets of the town without a plan is my favourite thing to do here and I could spend hours just doing this but there are a few specific attractions to see. For views and a great medieval feeling, walk the top of the wall that surrounds the Old Town. This is at its most attractive before breakfast or at sunset when it is almost deserted. You can walk most of the 1.5 kilometres but this would have taken me days because I found every metre so fascinating.
Rising above the market square and the town hall stands the bell tower, the tallest building in Rothenburg. It offers a panoramic view of the entire town and the surrounding Tauber Valley. We climbed countless steps and then found the area at the top to be very confined for the 20 or so people allowed up there at the one time.
The Puppen & Spielzeug Museum has the largest doll and toy collection in Germany, model trains, stuffed animals, and other toys from the past 200 years. The most popular museum is the Kriminalmuseum. Here we found 10,000 grisly devices include iron maidens, a spike-covered chair, and much more over three floors.
History is on display everywhere in the half-timbered gables and the grooves of centuries of horse carts in the old cobbled streets. This gradually seeps into your being as you enjoy the Old Town. It is difficult to describe but easily felt.
The classic image which appears in countless promotion items for Rothenburg, is of the distinctive yellow half-timbered house sitting between the Siebers Tower and the Kobolzeller Gate. With its shutters, colourful flower boxes, and a small fountain at the front, it is picture-perfect. My wife waited until the crowds had gone then snapped away until after the sun went down.
Käthe Wohlfahrt, the world-famous Christmas store, is the home of the German Christmas Museum. It houses a permanent collection of ornaments, decorations, toys and artefacts. We learned about German Christmas traditions and history, including the fact that Germany invented the Christmas tree, prior to making our way through several rooms of exhibits.
Just outside town is an historic medieval double road bridge that spans the Tauber Valley. the structure was blown up by German troops in World War II but it was rebuilt and reopened in 1956.
When to visit
Rothenburg is great to visit anytime but there are a few special occasions. Every June at Pentecost, the city becomes a stage reflecting the events of the devastating 30 Years War (1618–1648) between Catholic and Reformation Protestant forces which ravaged central Europe. The 400-year anniversary of the outbreak of war was celebrated last year.
Then there is the Imperial City Festival in September, when historical groups perform music, there is a knights’ encampment in front of the town’s gates, and you will be able to see the royal court in their colourful attire. The impressive program also includes two evenings of fireworks and public theatrical productions on Market Square.
Rothenburg hosts one of the most popular Christmas markets in Germany from the end of November to Christmas. This is the busiest time of year for this little town.
Is Rothenburg real?
I have no doubt that Rothenburg has gone to great lengths to maintain a certain vibe and match tourist expectations. It is certainly effective in attracting hordes of tourists. This could be off-putting if you are looking for a quaint village away from the crowds, but you should still go. Instead of visiting during the middle of the day when the crowds are heavy, go in the late afternoon and evening and stay for the night. By 7 p.m. the streets are virtually empty.
Even with crowds, overpriced souvenirs, and a rather ordinary, highly-promoted pastry specialty called Schneeball, Rothenburg is still an absolute treasure. This was my third visit but I will certainly go back again.
There are non-stop and one-stop flights to Frankfurt, Germany from Johannesburg and one-stop flights from Cape Town. There are trains from Frankfurt Airport which require one change and take about three hours.
South African passport holders require a short-term tourist visa (Schengen visa) to enter the country, but the visa application process is a relatively painless one! You will need to apply at one of the Intergate Visalink Visa Application Centres in South Africa.
Exploring Transylvania for signs of Dracula
By Len Rutledge
WE ARE DRIVING along narrow, winding roads through dense, dark, ancient forests and over steep mountain passes through the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania.
Tales of the supernatural have featured in Romanian folklore for centuries and the countryside seems so right for this that we now find it easy to be caught up in the Dracula story. Certainly, Transylvania evokes powerful images of vampires and Gothic castles.
We are here now because we want to visit some sites associated with Dracula and try to sort legend from truth. When Irish writer Bram Stoker wrote his famous novel, he started something outside the country which at first was shunned by the locals but is now accepted by many for what it is; a great tourist attraction.
Count Dracula, a fictional character in the Stoker novel, was inspired by one of the best-known figures of Romanian history, Vlad Dracula, nicknamed Vlad the Impaler, who was the ruler of the Romanian province of Walachia in the mid 1400s. As we travel around, we find some physical evidence and hear many stories about him, which have vague connections with the Count.
The city of Sighisoara is at the heart of the Count Dracula legends. This was founded in the 12th century by Transylvanian Saxons, but it’s Dracula that has put the town on the map with today’s visitors. Designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the town is full of cobbled streets and ornate churches. We climb the 175-step wooden staircase leading up to the Church on the Hill, following the steps of Saxon churchgoers, students, and visitors since it was built in 1642.
Sighisoara is the birthplace of Vlad Dracula. You can visit his birth home which is now a restaurant and museum. As we climb the narrow stairs to the museum in almost complete darkness, something falls on my neck causing goose bumps all over my body. Emerging into a darkened room we come face to face with a vampire in a coffin. As we approach, his arm springs out causing muffled screams from several visitors. For one second I almost believe in vampires.
Not too many people can call vampire acting their full-time occupation!
Brașov is the largest city in this part of Romania. It is fringed by the Southern Carpathian Mountains and resplendent with glorious architecture and historical attractions. It was founded by Teutonic Knights in 1211 on an ancient site and was settled by the Saxons as one of their seven walled citadels.
We stroll around the old Town Hall Square where we admire colourfully painted and ornately trimmed baroque structures. We go inside the Black Church, the largest gothic church in Romania, named for damage caused by the Great Brașov Fire of 1689, when flames and smoke blackened its walls. The interior is impressive and it houses one of the largest pipe organs in Eastern Europe.
Part of the defensive wall, once 13-metres-high, two-metres-thick, and over three-kilometres-long, can still be seen today. So too can Rope Street, the narrowest street in Europe, at just 1.3-metres wide.
The relationship between Vlad Dracula and Brașov was problematic over a number of years. In 1460 he invaded southern Transylvania and destroyed the suburbs of Brașov, ordering the impalement of all men and women who had been captured. It is said that Brașov has the distinction of seeing more stakes bearing Dracula’s victims than any other place. Fortunately, there is no evidence of this today.
Sibiu is the other city in this region. The heart of the city is its medieval centre complete with open squares, stone wall defences, towers, and centuries-old buildings and churches. Staircases link the Lower Town with its small, colourful houses and the Upper Town, which was inside the main fortifications.
The Council Tower dates back to the late 1500s and sits in the passageway between the Big Square and Small Square. We climb the stairs for fantastic views overlooking the city. We notice the houses with eyes. They’re actually ventilation windows, however, throughout periods of political strife, locals believed they were being watched by the “eyes” to ensure they were not causing trouble.
From 1451 to 1456 Vlad Dracula lived in Sibiu yet just four years later he mercilessly raided this region and killed, impaled and tortured 10,000 of his former fellow citizens and neighbours. I wonder if Count Dracula would be impressed.
Perched on top of an 80-metre-high rock, Bran Castle owes its fame to its imposing towers and turrets as well as to being the castle Stoker used in his book.
Although Stoker never visited Transylvania, his book has encouraged persistent myths that this was once the home of Vlad Dracula. While the association with Dracula is dubious, the castle continues to hold a strong attraction for all fans of the Count, so naturally we have to visit.
Narrow winding stairways and torturous passages lead through some 60 timbered rooms. It’s easy to tour the castle on your own, but expect to spend several hours doing so and keep in mind there are always crowds. The castle is in private hands and the owners have, fortunately, resisted the temptation to add any Dracula features here.
While Bran Castle is the spooky place that inspired Stoker’s tale, it’s really Poenari Fortress about two hours west that is considered to be the real Dracula’s Castle. Poenari Castle was erected around the beginning of the 13th century then later was abandoned and left in ruins. In the 15th century, Vlad the Impaler repaired and consolidated the structure perched high on a steep precipice of rock, making it one of his main fortresses.
The ruins of Poenari Fortress are all that are left today. If you decide to climb the 1,462 stairs, you’ll be able to touch pieces of the walls and towers that are still standing.
Did we find Dracula?
We encountered a make believe vampire and learned much about Vlad Dracula and his exploits. While vampires may not be real, there is no doubt that Stoker’s Dracula has become a powerful reminder of the rich and authentic Romanian folklore, and a great tourist attraction and money-spinner for the country today.
IF YOU GO:
There are one-stop flights from Vancouver to Bucharest the capital of Romania. Transylvania is about 200 km north of Bucharest. You can reach there on package tours, by train or by rental car.
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Spellbinding red-rock desert, dramatic canyons and high-altitude forests are just a few of the wonders to discover in Zion National Park in the state of Utah, USA. A visit last month showed me a red-rock wonderland created by wind, water, and snow that is almost too spectacular to believe.
Zion is the third most visited park in the USA for very good reason. It is large, accessible and downright dramatic. The few hours I spent in the park were clearly not enough. It deserves several days of your time.
Human use of the area dates back to at least 6,000 B.C. but it was not known outside the local area until Mormon pioneers arriving in the area in the 1860s. They were so overwhelmed by the natural beauty of Zion Canyon and its surroundings that they named it after the Old Testament name for the city of Jerusalem.
In 1863, Issac Behunin built the first log cabin in Zion Canyon, near the location of the present Zion Lodge. Soon the canyon was dotted with other homesteads but these struggled to survive and were eventually abandoned.
The park is centred on Zion Canyon—24 kilometres long and almost 1,000 metres deep in places. The old riverside town of Springdale is the park’s primary gateway. The main street is flanked by scores of hotels, restaurants, art galleries, and shops, as well as outfitters and tour operators that arrange adventure activities in and around the park.
Pedestrian and vehicle bridges connect Springdale with the park Visitor Centre on the other side of the Virgin River. In addition to exhibits and information, the visitor centre is the southern terminus of the Zion National Park Shuttle, which is the only way to reach the heart of the canyon during summer when visitation peaks.
The first stop on the shuttle route is the Zion Human History Museum, which details the heritage of Native Americans and Mormon pioneers in the region. Entering the canyon, the shuttle makes seven stops, including historic Zion Lodge, a classic national park lodging opened in 1927. The park’s most celebrated landmark—the Great White Throne, a 500-metre-high rock face—can be seen from numerous places along the canyon road.
The road and shuttle route ends inside the Temple of Sinawava, a colossal natural amphitheatre. A riverside path continues to the Narrows, where the three-hundred metres-high canyon walls are sometimes just 7 to 10 metres apart.
I found Zion Canyon epic, and it is full of off-the-beaten path adventures and hidden gems, perfect for seeking out during the crowded summer high season. There are also plenty of activities other than hiking. You can choose between rock climbing and rappelling, helicopter and 4×4 tours, guided hikes along the Narrows, and tubing on the Virgin River downstream from the park.
Zion, is not without its myths and legends. The major one is that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid built a cabin hide-out in Zion Canyon but there is no evidence of this. Though Cassidy grew up in nearby Circleville, Utah, virtually all of his train and bank robberies occurred out of state, where quick hide-outs were necessary.
The park’s ecosystems support about 800 native plant species, including more flowers than anywhere else in Utah. With an elevation change of about 1,500 metres, a myriad of habitats and species thrive here. Plants vary, as fir, ponderosa pine, and aspen prefer the snowy high-country winters, while other plants flourish in the desert heat. Likewise, animal life is diverse. Tiny pinon mice, golden eagles, California condors, Mexican spotted owls, deer, bighorn sheep and mountain lions are all found in the park but I saw only a few of these.
Accommodation and eating
Historic Zion Lodge is the only in-park lodging at Zion National Park and it fills up fast. Accommodation is in historic cabins with two double beds, full bath, gas log fireplace and private porch, and in hotel rooms. All rooms have air conditioning, phones, radio alarm clocks and hairdryers. There are also three campgrounds where reservations are recommended. There are dozens of hotels near Zion National Park, ranging from family-friendly hotels with pools to exquisite bed and breakfasts in Springdale.
Non-guests can eat at the year-round Red Rock Grill at Zion Lodge and enjoy spectacular views of the surroundings, while outdoor dining is available at the seasonal Castle Dome Cafe. Before or after touring the park, Springdale is the fuelling point for quick bites and leisurely meals.
Zion National Park is located 75 kilometres northeast of St. George, 500 kilometres south of Salt Lake City and 250 kilometres northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada. Most visitors will arrive by car, either their own or a rental but there are bus tours available from Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Images: Phensri Rutledge