Sunday, April 29, 2012

Drive the Dinosaur Trail in Drumheller, Alberta (Part One)

I grew up in the area around Drumheller, and spent many a fine day exploring the dinosaur-saturated streets during the summer months of my youth. It was always fun to see the variety of dinosaur statues and paraphernalia that Drumheller had to offer, but I guess when you grow up with it, it isn't super exciting or interesting. I do remember a day in high school when my best friend and I took it upon ourselves to photograph one another with every single dinosaur statue in town (there's A LOT, so it took us all day to do this), but other than that, I didn't have much to do with Drum's tourist options. Yeah, I'd been to the museum (I'd even slept over inside of it when I was about ten years old) but even that was "old" to me.

Drumheller Alberta Canada, things to see in Drumheller
Yes, I wore that sweater in public by choice - I had STYLE!

Fast forward about twelve years. I have lived away from Drumheller for years, and now am seeing just how much fun this town can be for someone looking for a couple days of adventure. The "Dinosaur Trail" road that cuts through the Drumheller valley has many interesting pit-stops along the way. This post, part one, takes us halfway down the Dinosaur Trail to the Royal Tyrell Museum and the town of Drumheller. The other half of the trail will be featured in future posts. (Like this one about the Hoodoos and Suspension Bridge.)

Drumheller Alberta, Amazing Race Canada, Drumheller Badlands
Entrance to Horse Thief Canyon in Drumheller, Alberta. 

A: Horse Thief Canyon
I've already skipped the Bleriot Ferry, which takes visitors across the Red Deer River and onto the Dinosaur Trail. I've never been on it, as it runs only at certain times of the year, and sporadically at that. It's easy enough to drive over the river on the bridge, but you can hit up the ferry if you like. Once past the town of Munson, you'll notice you are headed into the valley. Before your car even dips down into a forward slant, you'll have the chance to pull off the road to a look-out point known as Horse Thief Canyon. This is a splendid introduction to the Drumheller Valley and its stunning "badlands". The hills are a singular sight: striped and layered with the paintbrush of time, they roll out across the valley in vibrant color.

Drumheller Alberta, Amazing Race Canada, Horse Thief Canyon
A shot of the colorful layers of the Drumheller Valley Badlands in Alberta, Canada.

As a kid, my dad's friend Dave used to take us out to this canyon to go hiking and search for fossils. We found one once, a fossil of an ancient sea creature. We were so excited! (Now I know Dave planted it there... The area has been picked over so much that chances of actually finding a fossil are slim to none, and it is also discouraged so that the natural area doesn't get ruined by thousands of tourists trampling here and there.) Regardless of your paleontology skills, the canyon has gorgeous views, a nice hiking trail when it isn't muddy, and is a great spot for a picnic. Last time I was there (this past weekend in fact), it was spring and the crocuses were blooming - a sure sign of the season!

Drumheller Badlands, Horse Thief Canyon, Alberta Canada
A spring crocus peeks through the grass in the Drumheller Badlands.

Drumheller Alberta, Amazing Race Canada, Drumheller Badlands
I enjoy the view of the stunning Horse Thief Canyon in Drumheller, Alberta.

B: The Little Church
Get back in your car, wave good-bye to Horse Thief Canyon, and drive a few more miles down into the valley. You will go past several gorgeous farms that are nestled alongside the riverbed, and a very unique golf course. Then, tucked into the side of Dinosaur Trail, you will see the Little Church. Don't go too fast or you'll miss it!

things to do in Drumheller Alberta, Alberta Canada, Dinosaur Trail
The "Little Church" in Drumheller, Alberta.

The church fits about six adults, and that's pushing it. It was built in 1968 and is supposedly used as a place of worship, but I can't picture someone actually going there with intentions to do anything but take wacky pictures. It is mainly a tourist attraction and that's about it. It's cute though!

things to do in Drumheller Alberta, Alberta Canada, Dinosaur Trail
Squishing myself into a tiny pew in the Little Church at Drumheller.

After the Little Church, the next stop is the Royal Tyrell Museum. I have been there several times, but have not explored it since it underwent major renovations a few years ago. I do have plans to go tour through it in May, so I will be picking up this post from there, beginning at the museum and working my way further down the Dinosaur Trail to the hoodoos, suspension bridge, Atlas Coal Mine, and more!

things to do in Drumheller Alberta, Alberta Canada, Dinosaur Trail
The Little Church in comparison to a 5'4" travel blogger!

Stay tuned for more Backyard Bucket List, but my next stop and the next post will be about my upcoming trip - to St. Louis!!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Ride the "Manhattan Express" Roller Coaster in Las Vegas

The only thing more fun than going on rides is going on rides with other people who hate going on rides. Call me twisted, but it delights me to hear their cries of fright and anguish - it makes me laugh and enjoy the ride all the more. (This must be genetic, because my mother is the exact same way, and... oh god, I’m turning into my mother!) It’s not that I want others to be hurt or in pain... it’s just funny that they are scared and I am exhilarated. While I’m letting out little, “Woo!” sounds, they are either shrieking, swearing, or praying to their deity of choice. It is entertaining, to say the least.

amusement park rides, floorless roller coaster
I love roller coasters!  Photo source: unknown.

I am a ride enthusiast. I’ve been to Six Flags, Euro Disneyland, and my local Calgary Calaway Park. I hit up the rides at the top of the Stratosphere in Las Vegas. I even love when the fair comes to town - how those rickety, constructed-in-a-day machines are so thrilling, because there is a real possibility that they’ll fall apart with you in them.

things to do in Calgary, amusement parks in Alberta
Ready to go on a fun ride at Calgary's 'Calaway Park' - at least, I am.

This is why I just had to ride the roller coaster that loops and snakes around the New York, New York casino in Las Vegas when I visited with my cousin over the March spring break. My husband and I had checked it out when we explored Vegas in 2009, but we had decided it was too much money for one little ride. This time, however, I had pre-planned to ride “The Manhattan Express” and had printed out some coupons for Marriann and myself. Instead of paying $14.00 each, we paid $10.00 each - still a bit expensive but better than no discount at all. (All I did was Google “Manhattan Express coupons” before we left for Vegas, and found several sites with printable coupons - it was quick and easy, so do it, people!)

entrance Manhattan Express, New York New York casino roller coaster
Entrance to New York New York's Manhattan Express roller coaster ride.

The line-up was relatively short, but just long enough that Marriann had time to have second thoughts about riding a roller coaster that looped around a very tall casino. She is not one for rides, especially ones that drop her straight down or spin her upside down. She began to panic. This I enjoyed. I calmed her and assured as best I could, all the while sporting what I suppose was an infuriating grin. I wouldn’t even let her read the “Warning” sign posted by the roller coaster platform, whose final line stated happily that all riders should be prepared to exit the roller coaster in case of failure and climb down extremely steep stairs to return to solid ground. I don’t think she would have gotten on if I’d let her read that first.

Manhattan Express roller coaster
New York New York casino, which features the Manhattan Express coaster.

The ride was quite fun in itself. It began with a very steep, very slow climb upwards, which revealed the south end of the Vegas strip and surrounding cityscape one rail at a time. I had a brief moment to enjoy the view, and then it was virtually straight down the first drop. I think I left my stomach somewhere at the top of that first hill. According to the website, the first drop is 144 feet down and the coaster can reach up to 67 miles an hour, and I felt every inch of it go by. Then it was back up a second hill, and another straight drop. There were two upside down flips, several corkscrews, and lots of little twists that left you banging your head from side to side on the harness (I didn’t enjoy that part as much).

New York New York roller coaster, Las Vegas roller coaster
Going up, up, up the Manhattan Express.

I left the ride with a small headache, but I can’t be sure if the headache was from banging my temples against the sides of my harness, snickering at Marriann who was screaming and swearing at me simultaneously for taking her on the ride, or from laughing uncontrollably at the poor man who was sitting behind us yelling, “AGGGGGGHHHH!” in a throaty growl verging on hysteria. For half of the ride I missed the view, because my eyes close when I’m laughing that hard. It was a very entertaining journey all around.

New York New York roller coaster, Las Vegas roller coaster
At the top of the coaster, with a great view of Las Vegas.

We did not purchase the cheesy photograph at the end of the ride. It was $20.00 for one picture, and the quality had much to be desired. There are plenty of other great photo ops in Vegas - the picture booth at the Manhattan Express is not one of them. I did learn one interesting fact about the roller coaster, however, while doing a bit of research on it: you can get married right atop the coaster at the top of the first drop (Catch Phrase: “Take the plunge and then take the plunge!” I made that up, but the casino can feel free to use it.) It is $600 to get married on the coaster in the morning, and $700 to have a beautiful and classy evening ceremony. Someone please do it, and invite me!

Take the plunge, and then take the plunge! Photo source unknown.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Zip Lining in Bootleg Canyon - Or Not...

Clear Coke. A long lifespan for the Hindenburg. Kevin Costner’s British accent in “Prince of Thieves”... just a few examples of things that were not meant to be. Add to this list my trip to Bootleg Canyon in Las Vegas for a fine day of zip lining over the Nevada desert. It began with a stumble, and as the day progressed, turned into a full-out trip down a mountainside - literally!

Las Vegas Nevada, things to do around Las Vegas
The gorgeous desert of Bootleg Canyon, Nevada.

I had been looking forward to this zip line trip for a couple of weeks, ever since I found the website and had booked the adventure over the phone. The videos on the website were spectacular, the runs promised to be long and exhilarating, and the potential for an amazing blog entry through the roof. In my excitement, I had booked the zip line trip for my last day in Las Vegas at 8:00 a.m. so that I could have the rest of the day for a bit more sight-seeing before having to catch my plane later in the evening.

 However, that morning I awoke at 8:17 a.m. (I will never forget the exact time), due to my alarm going off on silent. I am not sure how that happened, seeing as the morning before it had worked perfectly. In a panic, I reached straight for the phone and apologized profusely for not being at the rendez-vous point at the appointed time. The company, Bootleg Canyon Flights, was very understanding and re-booked me for 9:00 a.m. I ran around like a chicken with my head cut off to shower, get ready, and pack up (we had to check out of our hotel room by 11:00 a.m., and I wasn’t going to be back in time for that, so I had to pack up early.) I was down at the Excalibur meeting point by 8:59 a.m., quite proud of myself for being so efficient.

places to stay in Las Vegas
Outside our hotel / casino, The Excalibur in Las Vegas.

I waited until 9:30 a.m., and in confusion went back up to my hotel room to call the company. The lady on the other end of the line admitted that my driver had been at the hotel at 8:50 a.m., waited about 30 seconds, and then had left. I was frustrated, but since I had missed my first pick-up, agreed to wait until the 10:00 a.m. pick up and go from there. I was starting to get worried about getting back from the zip line adventure in time for my plane.

I was back down at the meeting point by 9:45 a.m., determined to catch the driver in case he was early again. I really wanted to make this zip line thing happen! I waited... and waited... and waited... until about 10:20 a.m. Angry now, I went to go back up to the hotel room to make another call, and found that my cousin had left to check out. I couldn’t find a phone in the lobby anywhere, and the concierge desk had a line-up a mile long. I was getting really desperate and upset now. Finally, I found my cousin, grabbed the key card to the hotel room before she gave it back to reception, and called the company.

 Worried that I wouldn’t get back in time for my flight, I tried to cancel since they had failed to pick me up TWICE. They wouldn’t let me, saying that I needed to cancel 24 hours before the appointment. I argued that if I had known 24 hours ago that they would neglect to pick me up for the trip, I would have cancelled. I argued that they could not force me to pay for a service that they were failing to provide me. After verbally sparring for about ten minutes, the woman promised me that there would be a driver outside the Excalibur in five minutes. I told her if he wasn’t, then I definitely wanted to be refunded, hung up somewhat forcefully, and went downstairs to wait.

Eventually the driver showed up. I sat quietly for the first ten minutes of the drive, allowing myself to fume silently and calm down enough to enjoy the scenery of the Nevada desert. Once on the road, I got excited again about the zip line and decided to forgive the company. After all, I had messed it up originally by missing my first pick-up. (Although, who knows? Maybe the driver hadn’t showed up for that one either!) It would be hard to have a good time if I was determined to be negative the whole day. I chose the higher road.

Excited to FINALLY be on my way to my zipline adventure in the desert!

Upon arrival, I was put in a group with 9 others. We suited up, went through the safety training, and hopped in the van. I rented a chest camera for $25.00 in order to capture my rush down the mountainside. We drove up to the top of the ‘mountain’ on a steep, bumpy road (coming from Canada and its majestic Rockies, I didn’t really consider what I was on a true mountain, but I didn’t want to offend the kind folks of Nevada). The views up top of Vegas, Boulder City, and Lake Mead were spectacular.

things to see near Las Vegas, zipline Bootleg Canyon
The beauty of the Nevada desert.

We had a quick hike up to the first zip line platform, and then it was time to go! I volunteered to go down first because I’m a keener like that. I was strapped in to my little harness seat, and bobbed about in the strong wind while the tour leader ensured all was safe. The wind was crazy, and I could barely keep straight. Finally, it was time to go down, and I was off with a “1-2-3”, pushed over the edge and into the wild desert beyond. The wind pushed against me with such force that water streamed from my eyes like I was watching “The Notebook”. It even slowed me down before I had a chance to apply my brakes at the end of the run. I loved it, though! It was truly exhilarating.

zipline Las Vegas, things to do in Las Vegas Nevada
Waiting to go down my first run in Bootleg Canyon.

And that one run was the highlight of my day. Upon examining the second run, which went into a gulley that funneled the wind, the tour guide decided it was too windy and dangerous to continue. The wind had pushed the brakes to the very end of the run, and would be at our backs, making us move too fast. There was no doubt we’d be hurt upon hitting the end of the zip line.

zipline Las Vegas, things to do in Las Vegas Nevada
Enjoying my zipline down Bootleg Canyon - it was exhilarating!

As disappointed as I was, I agreed with that - I didn’t want to go back to Canada in leg casts. Unfortunately, because the second platform is in the middle of nowhere, we had to hike for 45 minutes down the mountainside. I was glad I had taken their suggestion and worn proper footwear, for the hike was slippery, steep, and the path littered with sharp rocks and cacti.

Hiking UP the mountain to our first zipline platform.  

I like to hike. It is one of my favorite summer activities, so I actually didn’t mind the hike down. The scenery was nice, the sun hot but the wind cool, and the air fresh. The only thing that really brought me down was the extremely, excruciatingly obnoxious foursome behind me, whining and complaining about the hike, the wind, the abrupt end of their tour, the path, the failure of the company to notify them that weather might cause the tour to be canceled (they had, though), their shoes (they hadn’t worn proper footwear like they’d been told to do), and anything else they could possibly complain about. I asked the tour guide if I could hike on ahead, just so I wouldn’t have to listen to these uppity people gripe about the sun and everything under it. Once they were out of earshot, the hike was much more enjoyable.

Hiking DOWN the mountain after it got too windy to continue.

At the end of it all, things worked out for me. We got all of our money back (so I did get my refund, ironically!), a free video of our one run, and I got two free T-shirts for all of the confusion with the original pick-up issues. I did get to experience the zip line, no matter how briefly, and I respect the company for shutting down the tour before people got hurt.

zipline Las Vegas, things to do in Las Vegas Nevada
Almost at the end of my first run, and unbeknownst to me, my entire zipline day.

I’m not 100% sure that I would go zip lining again with Bootleg Canyon Flights. I might. Things didn’t work out for me this time around, but who is to say that if I tried again, they might not work out perfectly? Some important things I learned about this company are:

1.Be very early for your pick-up, and have their contact information and a phone readily available, seeing as their drivers aren’t 100% reliable.
2.Don’t go on a day with wind. Or rain. The day should be literally perfect to ensure your run will be safe and un-cancelled.
3.The earlier you go, the less people on your tour. Had I made my 8:00 a.m. appointment, I would have been going solo, and not with a group of whiny well-to-dos.
4.Stay positive! The runs are beautiful, the scenery breath-taking, and ultimately, the experience worth a few bumps in the road.

My zipline adventure!