Sunday, September 8, 2013

The National Atomic Testing Museum - another interesting place in Las Vegas

Located at 755 East Flamingo Road in Las Vegas, this museum covers the history and repercussions of the atomic age through multi-media, models and displays.  Like many other museums - admission is charged and there is a gift shop....but we learned a lot more about America's nuclear program here than we ever learned in school.   This museum is associated with the Smithsonian Institution.  There is an introductory video showing the reasons America pursued the atomic bomb and nuclear program after WWII.   The Atomic Age gallery includes how atomic themed ideas infiltrated education and popular culture with a detailed timeline correlating world/popular culture to nuclear testing events.

Ground Zero Theater is a multi-sensory experience that simulates an above ground test.  This may be frightening to children (and maybe some adults!).  There are displays about how the use of nuclear test sites have changed over time and how scientists found other ways to utilize them.

Interactive displays explain the challenges of nuclear waste and show the prevalence of natural radiation in the environment.  There are galleries about the human history of the Nevada test site and stories from people who worked there. 

There is an temporary exhibit hall which during the time of our visit was themed 'Area 51: Myth or Reality'.  This museum shows how the nuclear age has impacted us all and how it continues to be part of our lives.

If you enjoy science - this is well worth a visit while in Las Vegas!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Red Rock Canyon - a must see when visiting Las Vegas

Just 17 miles west of the Las Vegas strip is the national conservation area of Red Rock Canyon.  Close enough to spend a few hours - or a few days if you love to hike and rock climb!  This must see location boasts a 13 mile scenic drive loop, 19 trails (from lengths of less than 1 mile - 6 miles), scenic vistas and over 2,000 climbing routes.   The Red Rock Canyon area is one of the top 5 climbing destinations in the United States!

A great place for rock climbing

The park is open year round and does charge daily fees.  There is a $7 daily entrance, annual passes are $30 - or if you have a National Park Service annual pass you can use it here.  Camping is available for additional fees and you need to obtain climbing permits for that activity. 

Stop by the visitor center to meet the locals!

Stop by the visitor center to get information about ranger led programs, learn about the flora & fauna of the area, get tips about what trails or hikes to try and maybe do a little shopping in their gift shop.  Please make sure you are well prepared if you plan to hike in the desert area - bring plenty of water, watch for creatures that may bite, wear plenty of sunscreen and comfortable foot protection.  The trails are rocky and cactus spines are sharp!

Even if you only have a few hours to spend - tour the visitor center and take the scenic drive.  It is quite a change from the neon and pavement of the Las Vegas strip!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Vally of Fire State Park - an easy drive from Las Vegas

The entrance to the park coming from Las Vegas

When you are tired of the smoke and gambling of Las Vegas....or if you would just rather enjoy the beauty of the area - head to Valley of Fire State Park.  It is just a short 55 mile drive northeast of Las Vegas and only 6 miles from Lake Mead.  The park is the oldest and largest in Nevada, dedicated in 1935.

Movies and TV series have filmed here - this was an area used in Star Trek

Valley of Fire is named for the Red Sandstone formations in the area and includes many interesting geological features, ancient trees, petrified wood and 3,000 year old Indian Petroglyphs!   Start your tour with a stop at the visitor center where you can view interpretive displays, see a movie, pick up supplies at the gift shop and talk with the rangers about what are some good areas to see that day.

Many petroglyphs are high up on the canyon walls - take time to look around on your hikes

Spring and fall are the ideal times to visit as temperatures can be HOT in the summer (100-120!) and down to freezing in the winter.  We visited in early December and were surprised by how warm it was while hiking on the trails.  Have lots of water with you and extra in your vehicle so you don't get dehydrated. 

Wildlife in the park includes foxes, coyotes, bighorn sheep, lizards, snakes and many varieties of birds.  Take your time and look around while hiking - we missed a large area of petroglyphs while hiking down a trail and watching our footing (we saw them on the way back), so make sure you stop and enjoy the views!

There is a small entrance fee per vehicle and camping is available.  There are picnic areas with restrooms for daytime use also.  Visit for more information and a downloadable park brochure. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Selenite Crystal Digging on the Salt Plains in Oklahoma

I apologize for the delay in postings.  This Spring has been hectic - we were temporarily living in Missouri again (Dennis worked for a couple of months there) and then we headed out for a few weeks of travel.  We are now back in Indiana and plan on enjoying some of the local festivals and attractions for the summer. 

While in Missouri,  Lizz and I decided to take a few days for a trip to Oklahoma.  We had heard about digging Selenite crystals and thought this would be an interesting outing.  Dennis was unable to go due to his work schedule.   If you would like to visit this area - google Jet, Oklahoma and see just where we were.   I had never heard of the Salt Plains or a salt lake in Oklahoma before our research to take this trip.  Not much information is out there, so hopefully this blog might help a few folks deciding to explore the area. 

Entrance onto the Salt Plain - the dig site is one mile out

We camped at the state park on the lake.  They have RV spots and tent sites, a restroom with showers and all sites have water available.  Prices are reasonable and the park was clean.  We camped in April and there were plenty of spaces available - the summer could be crowded, this seems like a place where many local people swim and fish.  The only problem we encountered was the lack of instructions or staff.  Most parks we have been to have a gate, ranger or at least an instruction board.   We drove around 2 of the camp areas without ever finding anyone.  The visitor center was closed (even though the sign stated they were open for another hour).    The campsites weren't marked, so we just chose one we liked and set up camp.   A couple hours later a ranger drove by and we were able to pay for our camping.  He took my name and money, but didn't ask for ID or our car plate number.  No issues with camping (besides it was really windy at times) and there were trash dumpsters and privies close by.  We camped along the spillway from the dam and a ways from the showers, so we drove there.

Make sure you bring everything you need - no camp store is close by.  The town of Jet is less than 10 miles and has a small convenience store  if you forgot something.  The town of Cherokee is about 20 miles and there is a grocery store, hardware, motel and a few dining establishments.

Stop by the visitor center at the Great Salt Plains State Park for information about the area and also a sheet about digging crystals.  They will give you a crystal point to get your collection started!

There are NO facilities on the digging site.  Restrooms are available at the gate area where you drive out onto the flats, but it is a mile out to the dig site.  The first impression we had was that of the book/movie 'Holes'.  Big, flat, open area with holes dug here and there.  There are markers to follow - you must dig within the marked areas.  The crystals reform so the sites are rotated yearly so there are always a fresh supply.  The size of the crystals depends on the water flow during the previous years.  Wet times can actually dissolve some of the crystal and too dry can mean not much growth.  Digging is free - you can collect 10# per person, per day. 

Like previously stated - bring EVERYTHING you will need.  The basics should include - a sturdy shovel, container for your crystals (foam container, ziploc bags, small boxes), water - LOTS of water for digging, washing crystals and drinking, extra clothes, sunblock, snacks, camera....did I mention water?! 

There are NO instructions that actually show you how this is done.  It was a learning experience for us and most of the others we encountered.  Use your shovel to dig a hole - you will hear a 'crunch' as crystals are broken.  Once you have a hole, use your fingers and water to loosen the sand on the sides of the hole to expose the crystals.  Sometimes your water will stay in the hole and you can splash it on the sides, other times it will absorb into the bottom so more water is needed.  We found if there was more clay in the hole the water would stay....but the formations were small and few.  The looser sand places seemed to have more crystals, but it is the luck of the draw.  We spent an day on the area and ended up with quite a few nice specimens.  

The prize crystal is the flat blade, clear double terminated point with the 'hourglass' sand inclusion.  This is the only place in the world that these can be found.  The crystals are fragile when wet, so put them in a box or tray to dry in the sun once you have rinsed them to dry.  Some of the clusters just fall apart when you try to clean them - you will end up with multiple small points.  We gently rinsed a few that stayed together and then sprayed them with a matte sealer when dry to help hold them together.

We had one great dig day, then the weather turned cold the second day and it made digging not much fun.  Winter coats were needed and our hands were freezing after a short time.  Summer can be brutally hot on the Salt Plain, so plan accordingly.  The dig site is open April 1 through October 15 though the access to the site may be impassable if there is rain.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Winston Churchill Museum - Fulton, Missouri

Museum entrance is under the church

On the grounds of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri you will find a wonderful museum.  The National Churchill Museum is worth taking a short detour off of the highway.  The museum is tucked under the beautiful Church of St Mary the Virgin which dates back to the 17th century!  The church was not originally in Fulton, but moved from London and reconstructed stone by stone at the present site.  It was designed by Christopher Wren and features an original Wren pulpit and hand crafted tracker organ.  The facility is available to rent for weddings and other events.

Adjacent to the museum is the walk through sculpture "Breakthrough" which was created from 8 sections of the actual Berlin Wall and designed by Churchill's granddaughter - Edwina Sandy.

Winston Churchill delivered his well known 'Iron Curtain' speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri on March 5, 1946.  The exhibits in the museum will take you from his childhood years through the Cold War and beyond.  Visitors will experience sights and sounds from different periods.  Many artifacts and personal items are included in the detailed displays and rooms including some of Churchill's artwork.

The museum is open daily 10 am - 4:30 pm (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day)
Admission is $6.00 with discounts available for seniors, AAA, AARP, college students and children.
There is a gift shop, scout programs and public programs.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

While in Titusville, Florida - The US Space View Park

Just around the corner from the Space Walk of Fame museum is Space View park.  Take some time to explore this small area.  There are different sections with monuments to the space mission programs.  You can see the vehicle assembly building across the causeway - this is a great area to view a launch from.  There is a dock, restrooms and benches to enjoy the Florida sun and watch the seabirds.

The idea for this park was conceived in 1988 by a local physician to preserve the history of the US Space Program.   The city of Titusville liked the idea and the first section was dedicated in July of 1994. 

The Mercury missions area includes bronze hand prints of 6 of the original 7 astronauts and was completed in May of 1997.

The Gemini monument was dedicated in November of 1997. 

In July of 1999 (30 years after the Apollo 11 liftoff) the Apollo monument was started.  This area was completed and dedicated in July 2009.

The Space Shuttle program area is due to be completed this spring 2013. 

Take a little time to explore this park area and remember those who made our space program great!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum - Titusville, Florida

A small building that is packed with history!

Don't just drive through Titusville on your way to the Kennedy Space Center....stop and find out about the history of the space program from those who actually were part of it for FREE!!  The US Space Walk of Fame Museum is open 6 days a week, non-profit, run by volunteers and did we mention FREE?!  Staff includes space workers - engineers, managers, enthusiasts and retired pioneers of space exploration.  You will hear personal stories from those who worked behind the scenes of America's space program.  They refer to the exhibit as "the working man's museum".

The exhibits are personal items from many people - organized into mission rooms.  You will see Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle memorabilia along with items from the Russian space program and Fire/Rescue items.  There is a room filled with actual launch control consoles that are wired and lighted from complex 36A.  Kids enjoy finding the emergency switch and seeing what happens when it is used!

Take some time to talk to the workers at the museum.  They have a wealth of knowledge and great stories to tell about the space program.  There are special events occasionally and you might meet an actual astronaut.  Check out their website and favorite it on face book.

The museum is funded by donations and sale of items in the gift shop.  Buy a few souvenirs or make a donation to keep them going for years to come.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument - St Augustine, Florida

During busy times there are reenactors who talk about the history of the fort and times

St Augustine is a great city to explore in northeast Florida.  It is the oldest continuously occupied European established settlement and port in the continental United States.  Take the trolley tour to see many of the areas of interest without having to drive and park - or explore on your own the places that you like.   The fort is a must see while in St Augustine.  There is an admission charge of $7 per adult, kids 15 and under are free.  This is another opportunity to use your National Parks Pass or Golden Access pass if you have them.

Those are some tight sleeping quarters

The Castillo de San Marcos is a masonry star fort (named for it's shape) and made of a stone called coquina.  This stone is made of ancient shells bonded together - similar to limestone.  Construction began in 1672 and possession of the fort changed 6 times.  Four different governments controlled the fort during different periods of history - the Spanish Empire, the Kingdom of Great Britain, the Confederate States of America and the United States of America.

The tours are self guided and include some stair climbing and walking on uneven surfaces.  There is a short movie to watch and different rooms with displays to view.  It is hard to imagine how people lived in these close quarters.  Climb to the top of the wall to see great view of Matanzas Bay and displays of historic cannons.   There is a gift shop and restrooms available - many restaurants are within a few blocks walk of the fort.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge - Sanibel, Florida

When visiting Sanibel Island, make sure to stop by the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.  Here you will find a visitor center with displays about the flora and fauna of the island plus information about the history of this refuge.  Learn about who J.N. "Ding" Darling was and what he did to protect the wildlife.   The information counter can give you tips on exploring the refuge, copies of guides and brochures, coloring booklets for the kids and more!  There is a geocache trail with questions you answer to earn a prize (and they will loan you a GPS with instructions)!   The gift shop has a wide assortment and all proceeds are used at the refuge.  The wildlife center is free to explore and a great place to start your visit of this refuge.

  There is a wildlife drive which was fun and informative.  It is a one-way, 4 mile drive which has an admission fee of $5 per car.  You can also bike the loop for $1 per person (kids are free).  Tarpon Bay Explorers rent bikes, kayaks, canoes and offer guided tours if you don't want to do the driving.  Their information and ticket booth is in the center of the parking lot by the visitor center.   There is one rest area on the drive and no vendors - so bring your own snacks and drinks if you plan on spending some time exploring.   If you have a smart phone there are QR codes along the road to scan and you can listen to short explanations about the area and wildlife.   There are places to stop and fish (if you have the equipment and license) which seemed to popular when we were there.

The Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge is a great place to try and spot many of the different species of birds that are found on Sanibel Island. 


Friday, January 18, 2013

Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum - Sanibel, Florida

Shells from around the world

The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum is a great way to spend a few hours while visiting Sanibel.  Perhaps you would like to get out of the sun (or rain) for a while, identify your beach finds, learn about how and why the shells are formed or just look at the shells - it is a small museum packed with a wealth of information.  Admission charge is $9 for adults, kids 5-16 are $5, 4 and under are free.  Hours are 10-5 daily - they are closed on most major holidays.

Who doesn't love to find out what can kill you in the ocean?!

This museum has more than 30 exhibits of mollusks from around the world and an extensive collection of local varieties. Shells are shown in art, history and you can view specimens both common and rare.  There is a video about the life of mollusks that runs on the hour - it is interesting and we learned a lot, but watching the 'fastest' mollusk move is rather like watching paint dry.

I never knew that scallops came in so many colors!

There are exhibits showing how shells have been used in history - from tools, trade and decorations used by the native people of the area to the elaborate Sailor's Valentines that were made by men at sea as gifts for their sweethearts back home.


There is a children's hands on area with a tank of local mollusks, activities and a video to watch.  Ask when entering the museum for the scavenger hunt listing.  Kids answer questions and are rewarded with a shell specimen to keep.

A small gift shop is on site - but oddly enough they don't sell shells!  The museum is a  non-profit organization and offers some great items for teachers and classrooms at nominal costs.  Check the website for more information and enjoy your shelling on Sanibel!