Monday, December 30, 2013

One Million Dollars

One of the most beautiful drives I've ever made (and my personal favorite) is the drive between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado. This stretch of Highway 550 is affectionately known as the Million Dollar Highway by locals and tourists alike. It was originally given the moniker by the local miners, who claimed that was the value of the ore that was mined in the valley. Today, the name is more appropriate for the million dollar views one sees when driving along this highway. 

Seriously... gorgeous.

The Million Dollar Highway is part of the San Juan Scenic Byway - a loop that starts and ends just north of my hometown in Durango, CO. This 233 mile journey travels through many of my favorite Colorado mountain towns including Rico, Telluride,  Mancos, Ouray, and Silverton. 

You start gaining elevation pretty quickly once you head north out of Durango. The lush green valleys start fading as you reach timberline (about 10,000'), but the views don't fade with the green. The ore-rich mountaintops change from purple to orange and yellow, the perilous climb turns from a relaxing cruise to an attention-holding lesson in defensive driving. 

No guardrails!!!

One of the gentler, less terrifying curves.

A lot of my friends don't believe me when I describe this road. Steep cliffs, few guardrails, hairpin curves - this drive isn't for the anxious. For the few who decide to brave it, however, the views are well worth it! 

No photoshop here!

As you make your way north, closer to Ouray, the curves get tighter, the lanes narrower, and the cliffs more dramatic. I wish my camera could convey the beauty of this place! The valley cut by this road was mined for minerals (mostly silver and gold) in the late 1800's, the evidence of which is still shown in the mineral deposits and abandoned mines you see along the way.

As beautiful as this drive is, my favorite part has always been Bear Creek Bridge (about 1.5 miles south of Ouray). This historic bridge crosses over a waterfall (!) at one of the scariest parts of the highway. I crossed over this bridge countless times in my childhood, and never realized how perilous it was. The bridge was constructed in 1883, but hadn't been improved since the 1960s. In fact, it got a terrifyingly bad safety rating in 2008. Some of the bridge was still held by the wood of the original! Yikes!

Bear Creek Bridge

Luckily, the Colorado Department of Transportation agreed that this was not ok. In 2010, CDOT started work on a two-phase process to repair and improve the old Bear Creek Bridge. You can read more about this amazing engineering feat here. I knew about the construction project, but had no idea they were including one new detail....

A new overlook!

Because of the precarious placement of this new overlook, I had a great deal of difficulty getting a good picture that shows you how it looks. (You can sort of see it better in the first picture on the link I posted above.) Suffice it to say - it's kind of terrifying! And mostly amazing - the views are spectacular. This new, unique vantage point not only gives you a great view of the new bridge, but also of the beautiful waterfall that flows beneath it. It's not for the faint of heart, however - the overlook places you over 200 feet above the canyon below. 

Brother and I on the overlook at Bear Creek

If you have a bucket list, I highly recommend you check out San Juan Scenic Byway. If you can't commit to the long drive, at the very least you should try to do the Million Dollar Highway span of it at least once in your lifetime. It's remote so many do not know of it. Heck, I know people from my own hometown that have never driven it! But it's truly awe-inspiring. Hope you enjoyed seeing a bit of it through my eyes! 

PS - I know this post is half a year late. I am trying my best to get y'all caught up before the New Year. 2013 ended up being one of my most well-traveled years since 2008. It's been a lot of fun, but a little time consuming. Resolution for 2014? Maintain this blog! Ha!

Until next time...

--- Becks

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Rocky Mountain High

Oh, how I miss my mountains! I grew up in a small town near the New Mexico/Colorado state line. My childhood weekends were spent driving and hiking through the southwestern Colorado mountains, and growing up I never thought there would come a day when I wouldn't live within a drivable distance to them. Alas, move away I did, but my love for the mountains never changed. Luckily, my family still lives there so I get to visit my beloved Rocky Mountains almost every time I visit home. 

Every Fourth of July for as long as I can remember, my family packs up into a couple of cars and takes what we call "the loop." This is a daylong drive that takes us from Durango, Colorado through Cortez - Rico - Telluride - Ouray before circling back down through Silverton and ending back in Durango. It's an absolutely gorgeous drive, but one that really takes a lot out of you if you don't get an early start. This year, we were a little pressed for time so we settled for the shorter drive to Ouray and back. 

Our first stop was in my favorite little one house town, Silverton. This small town was established in 1874 as a mining camp for the several silver mines that were scattered around the nearby mountains. It's one of the highest towns in the United States, sitting at just over 9,300 feet above sea level.

The nearby mines have been long abandoned, but Silverton still attracts people from all over the world because of its connection to the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. In operation since 1881, the narrow gauge originally functioned to deliver supplies to the miners in Silverton while transporting the minerals and silver from the mines back down to the more cosmopolitan Durango. While it has always served to some extent as a passenger train, these days it almost solely serves to take tourists and locals for a scenic trip through the beautiful mountains. We were lucky to arrive just as the trains were departing, which gave my young nieces a thrill! It also cleared the town out for us - no waiting in line for lunch for this family! Yay!

Speaking of lunch, how perfect is this menu? You know you're near my hometown when you find references to green chile, elk, and buffalo all on one page! YUM! It's one of the few restaurants in town, and definitely my mother's favorite. My dad is less enthused (I think he just misses his sopapillas). ; )

One fun fact - Silverton becomes very desolate in the winter months. The highway is usually impassable, rendering its residents sometimes stranded until the snow melts or is cleared. Olympic gold medalist, Shaun White, took advantage of the fresh powder and isolation by making Silverton his home as he prepared for the 2010 Winter Olympics (for which he took home the gold). Pretty cool claim to fame, little Silverton. You can read more about Shaun's secret half-pipe and watch the video here.

More to come about my day trip to the mountains!

Until next time ---

--- Becks

Saturday, October 12, 2013

California Girls - Part Two

If one word could be used to describe my niece's last weekend in California, it would be STUDIOS! The kid loves the movie business as much as her dorky auntie does, and was beyond excited that we were going to Universal Studios that weekend. She was even more excited to learn we would also stop by Warner Brothers and Walt Disney Studios (albeit just the outside) during that day too. It's so much fun to see things that bring this kid so much joy!

My favorite part of Universal Studios is hands down the studio/backlot tour. Now, if we're going to be picky, I'd much rather go on the Warner Brother's studio tour but considering that Universal offered us both the tour and rides for my niece, I settled for the latter. Niece wasn't much for taking pictures that day (and I can't believe she wore the same outfit!), but no matter - we still had fun. 

While most of the tour includes visiting various current and old film locations, the park has done a great job showing off its movie magic prowess. While I was sad to learn that the old King Kong set was destroyed by a fire, the new King Kong in 3D site was incredible! It was by far my favorite part of the day. The special effects are amazing, although I still miss the original King Kong puppet myself.

Niece didn't really know about many of the films mentioned during the tour (GOD, I'm old!), but she was super stoked to see that the set from How the Grinch Stole Christmas was still there. She was amazed out how small it was, especially when compared to how big it had appeared on screen. Unfortunately, niece wasn't really up for taking pictures so although we had fun on the other rides, we didn't take a lot of pictures that day.

Once we had our fill of Universal, we headed east into Burbank to check out the famous Warner Brothers Studios! We didn't have time to take the tour, but niece really wanted to see it anyway. Warner Brothers Studios, built in 1926 by First National Pictures, has been the home of thousands of movies and television shows. I went on this tour a couple of years ago, and loved the history and the set designs. Today, it is still a working studio that has a huge footprint in Burbank. I've heard no two tours are the same, so I hope to get to go again one day.

My niece was really excited to see the water tower. As any good kid from the 90s remembers (and many of their children now know), the Warner Brothers water tower is home to the Animaniacs - also known as Yakko, Wakko, and Dot! Unfortunately, they seemed to be hiding on this particularly cloudy afternoon ; ) You can visit the gates of Warner Brothers studios (which features ample free street parking) if you go to 3495 Warner Blvd. (Warning: This parking is all 2-hour parking only. Do not park on the street for the VIP Tour.)

Our next stop in Burbank was my niece's favorite - Walt Disney Studios! Located at 2303 West Alameda, the gates to Walt Disney Studios feature a grand cartoony palm entrance with Mickey-topped gates. A little known fun fact is that if you look closely, you can see that Snow White's seven dwarves hold up the building behind my niece. It is super cute. Built in 1940, Walt Disney Studios is one of the few that doesn't offer public tours, but I can see why. I see people standing outside these gates all the time trying to get a peek at the magic of Disney!

My niece was a huge Disney fan a few years ago, and often talked about one day being a star on one of their family friendly shows. When I noticed the Disney themed shuttle stop just outside the gate, I told her she might as well get used to it for when she becomes famous one day! She loved it, and thought it was cool to be standing where Disney employees often stand to catch the shuttle.

Although my niece's visit to the Golden State was short, we packed in a lot of fun. I look forward to next summer when she makes her way out for another visit. Well, I gotta run. Lots more blogging to catch up on - I promise!

Until next time...

--- Becks

California Girls - Part One

My oldest niece comes to visit me at least once each year, and she usually stays for a couple of weeks during the summer. My horrific work schedule during the summer of 2012, however, didn't permit that to happen so I promised her we would find a way for her to stay with me in 2013. She just turned 13, and has become so much fun! 

My niece has had a really tough life, but you'd never know it. She's smart, capable, and extremely talented. And she LOVES California - possibly even more than I do! Before moving to CA, I took her and my mom out to Los Angeles for my niece's birthday, and she's vowed ever since to live here one day. Knowing her, I'm sure she will! That kid has a ton of determination. My dog loved having her here, and the two of them enjoyed our daily walks around the neighborhood (pictured above).

When asked what she wanted to do while she was here, my niece didn't skip a beat and immediately asked to go to Hollywood! Despite coming out many times before, she had never seen the Griffith Observatory or the Hollywood sign up close. My colleague joined us and we went off on an adventure to Lala Land. 

Our first stop on the tour was breakfast at my favorite place - Bea Bea's in Burbank, CA. They have the BEST French Toast I have ever had in my life. Seriously. And my niece had heard that it was the favorite of some of her favorite Disney stars, so we figured it wouldn't hurt to try it again. SO GOOD. And they have a Gluten Free menu, so I can come here with some of my celiac friends! Yay!

Our next stop was the famous Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park. Constructed in 1933 on top of Mount Hollywood, the Griffith Observatory is arguably the most famous observatory in the United States. It has been featured in over 30 televisions shows and more than 20 movies - the most famous of these being Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean. The observatory hosts various science and space exhibits, and is the home of an antique Tesla coil! I love going to the observatory, and enjoyed watching my niece visit it for the first time.

Our next stop that day was at the famous Hollywood sign. The Hollywood Sign is the most famous landmark in Hollywood, and one of the most famous in the entire world. It has a long, storied history that includes drama, scandal, and even death! It is also a huge symbol of hope, fame, and dreams, and is the first place many wannabe and soon-to-be stars visit when they visit the City of Angels. Niece was SO excited to see this up close - we took about a dozen pictures here alone. : ) (Disclaimer: The official Hollywood Sign website will not give you the best/closest view location on their "where to see the sign" page. I put the address for the true "best view" on an earlier blog post that you can see here.)

While winding our way over Mount Lee (where the Hollywood Sign actually sits), we made our way to Burbank to visit this blogger's other favorite view - the Universal Studios backlot. Knowing that I planned to take my niece there the very next weekend, I thought it would be fun to give her a preview here before telling her we were going. She thought it was really neat. This is another spot I've already blogged about (see here), and I'm sure I'll take many other friends as they make their way out to CA for a visit. It's just so cool. (Another big shout-out to Lindsay Blake for cluing me in to this little gem!)

Our last stop of the day wasn't really for my niece - it was more for my colleague and me. We became huge fans of The Client List after meeting Ms. Jennifer Love Hewitt herself while waiting get our nails done at a salon in Burbank, and we were super excited to find that my new friend Lindsay had blogged about some of the filming locations on her blog. Although set in Sugar Land, TX (a suburb of my former city, Houston), the filming for most of the show takes place all the way in California. For those of you had seen the finale, you may already know the fate of The Rub... so imagine our surprise to see it not only still standing, but still set up like the actual store! Although it is actually the offices of Calvert Studios, a lot of the interior and exterior appeared exactly as it does on the show. It - was - so - cool!

Well, I have more picture to share, but this post is getting long. Another blog to immediately follow!

Until next time ---

--- Becks

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Here Comes the Sun

Earlier this summer, my mom and brother drove in from New Mexico to drop off my oldest niece for a two week visit. While they were only here a couple of days, we decided to capitalize on my central location so they could visit two of California's finest tourist traps in one long weekend (it's a good thing I live within driving distance to both!). 

Our first trip was a long day trip to one of my favorite California cities - San Francisco! I first visited the city by the bay back in 2004 during a road trip with one of my best friends, and I instantly fell in love! I talked about it often with my family, so it was nice to finally show it to them. 

Brother, mom, and niece just outside of Pier 39. We had fantastic fish & chips for lunch here!

The famous Fisherman's Wharf, where my mom unsurprisingly spent a lot of time looking for souvenirs.

The beautiful Golden Gate Bridge!

Never noticed this door before... brother went in for a closer look.

Holy crap! It opens! And people went inside (including a teenage girl... Is this a tour? How do I go on it?)

Sutro Bath Ruins near the Cliff House. Stunning.

The Painted Ladies of Alamo Square. These are commonly referred to as the Full House houses, but the Tanner house was actually located elsewhere. I love these houses, but parking is nearly impossible here.

Following our trip to San Francisco, my mom really wanted to visit a warmer beach in Los Angeles. Her favorite is Venice Beach - I rented us a condo on the beach here on vacation a few years ago (before moving to CA), and she has loved it ever since. She also wanted to visit Olvera Street in downtown LA, a place she hadn't seen in decades. So we packed up and headed south to the City of Angels for the day.

On the way to LA, we came across my favorite SoCal lake - Pyramid Lake. It's so beautiful!

Despite visiting several times before, mom had never seen the Venice canals (also known as the Venice Canal Historic District). She loved it!

Brother was more excited about seeing the life sized Transformers on the Venice Beach boardwalk.

Historic and beautiful Olvera Street, the oldest area in downtown Los Angeles.

Mom had visited Olvera Street as a kid and was so excited to be back. She even bought me a painted piggy bank like she had as a child! Niece enjoyed it too, almost spending all of her allowance while she was here.

While their visit was short, we packed in so much fun! I really enjoyed having them here, and am excited to see mom again in October for my birthday. I know we'll pack in even more adventure when she gets here. This has certainly been a busy year for traveling, but I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. 

Until next time...

--- Becks

Thursday, August 22, 2013

I found my thrill... on Capitol Hill...

One of the most surprising things I discovered about myself on my trip to Washington, DC earlier this summer was the tremendous fascination I had with the Capitol Building. Sure, I had always thought the building appeared to be lovely, but pictures always made it seem somewhat uninviting and stale. When I first came upon the building during a quick drive through DC with N, I found myself strangely attracted to the building. I wanted to know so much more about it... When was it built? How is it organized? What are its secrets?

Lucky for me, my well-prepared coworker started working with her senator from her home state of Louisiana to get us tours for various venues well in advance of our trip. (Thanks, girl!) While our tour was given by a very young, very cute Senate staffer, we did get to randomly run into Rand Paul on our visit which was pretty neat. Our staffer met us at the Hart Building, and brought us to the Capitol through an underground tunnel via a tiny subway (pictured above). The tour was amazing! I could go on and on about all the stuff I learned, but I'll let you take a tour and see for yourself. In the meantime, I thought I'd share a few of the pictures of some of my favorite parts of the tour so I don't totally spoil the visit : )

When it was originally constructed, the Capitol Building was going to be the center of Washington, DC. These kids are standing at the exact center of the building, which would have been the center of the city if the city designers had stuck with the original plan. It is also the spot where George Washington had originally been planned to be interred.

The Capitol Building houses a gift of a golden Magna Carta. This was given to the United States from the British government in celebration of America's bicentennial anniversary of its independence from British rule. Kind of interesting, no? One of the original four drafts of the actual Magna Carta can be viewed at the National Archives.

The Capitol Rotunda was our next stop, and was very impressive. Standing at 180 feet, the rotunda is used for major ceremonial events. Notice anyone familiar in the painting? Yes, that's George Washington! Random, right?

The rotunda houses several large statues of busts. These are primarily statues and busts of former presidents (including George Washington), but other prominent figures (such as Martin Luther King, Jr) appear there as well.

The old Senate Chamber was one of our last stops. Used from 1810 - 1859, this chamber witnessed various fierce debates on topics such as slavery, territorial expansion, and economic policy. It was the compromises made here that kept our then young country from going to war before the Civil War.

Our eyes were treated with a view of this gorgeous chandelier upon exiting the Old Senate Chamber. Our tour guide didn't offer much insight into this beautiful piece, but a simple Google search answered my questions (and dispelled the myths) regarding the history of it. Surprisingly, the chandelier was not present during the time the Old Senate Chamber was active... it wasn't added until 1965.

Hope you enjoyed these posts about my visit to Washington, DC. This has been such an amazing summer - I really don't want it to end. More posts to come about my other adventures! Stay tuned!

Until next time...

--- Becks