Top North American rodeos to check out this summer

North American rodeosIn honor of the approaching National Day of the American Cowboy, which I wrote about earlier in the week, I wanted to highlight some of the best rodeos North America has to offer.

Even city slickers can enjoy a rodeo; it is, after all, a sporting event. With a lot of beer. And grilled meat. And a lack of giant foam fingers and face-painting (not a bad thing, I might add).

In all seriousness, rodeos are great family fare. There are usually parades and drill team exhibitions, down-to-earth people, great camaraderie, and you can watch some truly amazing human, equine, and bovine athletes perform in independent and team events. At day’s end, you can always count on a big barbecue, live music, and a dance. The below rodeos are all located in places of great historic interest if you love the Old West or Americana. Git boot-scootin’.

Calgary Stampede
It may be surprising to learn that Canada has a cowboy culture, but Alberta does, and is home to this world-famous event, which is an integral part of the community. Critter lovers should note that the Stampede places extreme emphasis on animal welfare, which you can read about here (FYI, the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) also has strict animal welfare regulations in place, so contrary to belief, livestock are not being tortured for the sake of entertainment). Events ranging from steer wrestling and women’s barrel racing to junior steer riding will be happening July eighth through the 17th.

[Photo credit: bronc, Flicker user Bill Gracey;North American rodeosSheridan WYO Rodeo
Located in the heart of Yellowstone Country at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains, Sheridan has no shortage of pastoral pleasures to go with its Western heritage. Rodeo Week–July eighth through the 17th–kicks off with a parade, and night rodeos are held the 13-16th. Part of the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour, Sheridan WYO also features events like the Indian Relay Races (Those of you who are offended by the non-PC-ness of the name…remember we are not in Berkeley, and there’s a $25,000 payout prize), and a public Boot Kick-off event featuring live music, food vendors, and more.

Cheyenne Frontier Days
Know as the “Daddy of Em All,” the world’s largest outdoor rodeo has celebrated the American West since 1897. From July 23rd to the 31st, crowds from all over the world gather to watch arena events. You can also visit Cheyenne’s excellent Old West Museum, tour historic homes and “Behind the Chutes(don’t miss if you want to see what goes on before that gate swings open and bulls and broncs cut loose),” and attend Western Art Shows, concerts (Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow headline this year), a carnival midway, an Indian Village handicraft/historic recreation, and more.

Days of ’76 Rodeo

Held in one of the Old West’s most historic and notorious towns, this Deadwood, South Dakota event has been named Best PRCA Small Outdoor Rodeo four times, as well as PRCA Midsize Rodeo of the Year since 2004. This, the 89th year, runs from July 26-30th, and features two parades and lots of local Native American culture. The entire city of Deadwood is a national historic landmark located in the Black Hills Territory, so be sure to plan on an extra day or two for exploring.

Pendleton Roundup
Eastern Oregon is at the heart of the state’s cowboy country, and Pendleton is one of the ten largest rodeos in the world. Have a last-days-of-summer trip September 14-17th, when the weather is hot and sunny (it does happen in the Pacific Northwest, really). Bareback and saddle bronc riding, team roping, bull riding, Indian relay races, wild cow milking, children’s rodeo, and parade: it’s all here. Trivia: Pendleton is one of the first rodeos to have women officially compete. In 1914, Bertha Blanchett came within 12 points of winning the All-Around title.

[Photo credit: team roping, Flickr user Al_HikesAZ]

Fat Tire Festival comes to the Black Hills

Mountain biking fans looking for a new destination to ride should set their sights on the Black HIlls of South Dakota at the end of May. The scenic, and historic, Rapid City area will serve as the host of a unique and action filled weekend, running the 28th through the 31st, which will include a variety of races, live music, barbecue, and much more.

The 4th annual Black Hills Fat Tire Festival will feature more than 30 different rides and six races that will appeal to riders of all ages and skill levels. Those races include the Cowboy Hill Sprint Climb, which will test the riders’ legs against the surrounding Black Hills and the Fat Tire Trail Challenge which will put all of their riding skills to the test.

The weekend isn’t just about the rides and races however, as there are a host of other activities on tap as well. Those activities include a bike swap to raise funds for local trails, a geocaching scavenger hunt, a pub crawl, and film festival with categories such as “The Big Dawg” and “Best Crash”. The entire weekend wraps up with an awards ceremony that includes live bands and real western barbecue on Sunday.

For a full weekend of events in the amazing Black Hills, plan on hitting Rapid City and the Black Hills Fat Tire Festival at the end of May. Whether you’re planning on riding or just coming to enjoy the show, you’re sure to have a great time.

5 reasons why you should try a Bed & Breakfast

We’ll just come right out and say it: far too many travelers and vacationers give far too little thought to where they’re staying. Maybe we’ve just been trained to assume a nondescript hotel is the only option when it comes to spending a night away from home, but whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure, things get a lot more interesting when you deviate from the norm. Not that we’ve any particular issues with hotels — in fact, we’re downright in love with some of them — but if you’ve never given consideration to a bed & breakfast, you should. Immediately. If you’re the type who prefers to get more ingrained in the culture of wherever you’re staying, personal service, homemade breakfasts and travel tips from locals who know the ins and outs of wherever you are, a B&B may be perfect for you and yours. Join us past the break as we seek to show you what you’ve been missing out on.
Cultural beauty

Okay, so maybe it’s more like culture and beauty, but either way, you get a good helping of both when you select a Bed & Breakfast. Way more than at your average hotel, that’s for sure. In our experience, most B&Bs are somewhat off of the beaten path, which means you’ll be surrounded by fewer stoplights, automobile horns and stray Segways. All the while, you’ll likely be surrounded by more natural beauty, trees, streams, etc. We recently had a chance to stay at the magnificent Hisega Lodge in South Dakota, and while it was only ten minutes or so from Rapid City, it was completely enveloped in the Black Hills, sat next to a babbling brook and miles away from our nearest care in the world. Our stay at the Arrowhead Head in Durham, North Carolina has a similar story; it’s just minutes from the rigors of town, but once you’re on the property, you’re whisked away into a world that knows only rose gardens, tree-hung swings and private walking paths through the forest. There’s just something special about residing in a place that you’d visit anyway just to see the surrounding beauty, and the vast majority of B&Bs offer this very perk.

Personal service and expert tips

If you’re lucky, your local corporate hotel chain will have a bookshelf stacked with pamphlets about local attractions, which you’re free to take and investigate yourself with all that free time you’ve surely got. Some hotels have a staff that’s willing and able to help you plan a day or three worth of activities in the local area, but that’s definitely the exception rather than the rule. Hotels are designed to run as well-oiled machines, and you asking for half a hour of someone’s help to book activities isn’t part of said plan. A B&B, however, is there to do exactly that — cater to your every curiosity, and to get you headed in the right direction once you finish up a hearty breakfast. Most B&Bs and inns are owned by a couple (plus a few extra helpers if necessary) who genuinely love their guests; they love the company, the love to see others traveling, and they obviously love whatever part of the country that they’ve chosen to set up shop. At a B&B, you aren’t apt to feel as if you’re a nuisance for asking about awesome Italian eateries, the best horseback riding tour in town or the best ice cream shop within a half-hour’s drive. Oftentimes, these suggestions from seasoned locals can turn you onto things you would’ve never found on your own, and hey, who can say no to service with a smile?

Fellowship

Argue all you want, but hotels are lonely. Even if you’re there with a raft of kids, no other guests go out of their way to mingle with whomever else is staying during the same time. Ever noticed that? At a B&B, fellowship amongst the guests isn’t just encouraged, it almost comes naturally. Most venues have all of their guests down at around the same time for breakfast, and for budding extroverts (or the outgoing among us), the setup is primed for enjoyment. Meeting someone from Asia enjoying America for the first time, seeing a honeymooning couple from Barrow, Alaska and toasting coffee mugs with a foursome of newly graduated college kids from NC State? It’s all possible at a B&B, and even if you don’t make a lifelong pal, chances are you won’t soon forget the shared travel stories from those who have ended up in the same inn at the same time as you. When’s the last time you met Mr. Interesting at the Hotel John Doe down by the airport?

Exquisite breakfasts

Speaking of joining the group for a morning meal, we should probably mention just how important breakfasts are to bed & breakfast facilities. As you may expect, it’s a pretty vital part of the experience, and every owner we’ve ever encountered takes it very seriously. To say that B&B meals are likely to be some of the best you get on the road is a severe understatement; during a stay at the charming Rose Cottage B&B in Portland, Oregon, we were treated to a four-course breakfast that was prepared by hand in front of our eyes by one of the most spunky grandmothers we’d ever seen. Every bite was better than the last, and a year later, I’m still talking about it. To boot, getting the opportunity to converse with the B&B owner as they serve you is a truly rewarding and enriching experience, particularly for curious travelers who can never hear enough tales. Seriously — those gratis cereal and fruit buffets at Holiday Inn Express, and particularly those $30 room service pancakes, can’t hold a candle to the grub shown above.

B&Bs represent a fantastic value

It’s a common misconception that a lodging venue that provides personal service, a homemade breakfast, a relaxing atmosphere and more surrounding beauty than most hotels could dream of providing is markedly more expensive than the more traditional options. Fact is, most folks don’t even do the research and compare the prices. In Portland, Oregon our B&B stay was just over $150 (including tax) per night; the room was comparatively huge, the breakfast would’ve cost at least $40 – $50 if sourced from an upscale restaurant, and the fellowship / relaxing atmosphere was simply priceless. Try finding a decent hotel in the Portland area for less, with a comparable level of service, room amenities and breakfast. Chances are, 4- and 5-star hotels will cost you just as much as a stellar B&B, and oftentimes much, much more. In markets saturated with hotel options, the delta may be greater, but many owners are willing to work with you on pricing — particularly if you inquire about rates during the off season. Still, if you’re looking to splurge on a stay, there’s no better way to do than at a B&B; in our many experiences, it has always been money well spent.

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

Road Trip Tips: make lodging part of the journey, not just a place to stay

Spring’s upon us, and those summer months you’ve been desperately waiting for are nearly here (in this hemisphere, anyway). We can’t help but say that anytime is a perfect time for a road trip, but the prime months for hitting the highway are just ahead, and that leaves you precious little time to prepare. In haste, many road trippers tend to overlook, or simply brush aside, one critical aspect of their journey: lodging. For whatever reason, lodging has become more of a hassle and unsatisfying expense than anything else. Call it the empty calories of a road trip, if you will. Trust us — it doesn’t have to be that way. One of the best aspects of exploring America (or any nation, for that matter) by road is the near limitless amount of options you’ll have when looking for a place to rest your weary soul at the day’s end. Join us after the break as we explain just how vital proper lodging research is to a fulfilling road trip, and how to find yourself in a venue that’s not only close to attractions you’re after, but that integrate seamlessly into the region you find yourself in.Be a historian

So, now that you’ve settled on a destination for day 1 of your road trip (or any successive day), you’ll need to figure out where you’ll be tucking yourself in for a night of well-deserved rest. We will say that camping is always an option, and if that’s your cup of tea, we couldn’t encourage it more highly. For the purposes of this article, however, we’ll be focusing on slightly more sophisticated options — hotels and bed & breakfast venues, namely. Let’s say you’ve settled on staying somewhere in the wild, wild west of America for a few days. To get more specific, let’s focus our attention on one of the wild’s most adored locations: Deadwood, South Dakota.

Obviously, Deadwood is coated in history. Wild Bill Hickok was gunned down on the very streets that tourists from all walks of life come to visit. The old architecture still covers the town, and the gorgeous Black Hills that surround it assist in ushering you into an era that still thrives scores after the west was won. That’s fine and dandy during the day — you’ll have no issues finding a copious amount of things to do in the area while the sun’s up — but what happens when the moon sets up shop, your gambling budget is whittled down to nothing and your entire family is clamoring for a place to rest? For many, they simply wheel over to the nearest hotel with a “Vacancy” sign lit, plop down a credit card and call it a night. Essentially, the lodging is not only an unimportant part of the experience, it’s one that’s immediately forgotten once check-out time comes.

There’s a better way, and it’s to find a venue that enhances one’s stay in an area. Believe it or not, finding a place that does this is far easier than you might imagine, particularly with the Internet putting a world of knowledge just a few clicks away. If you’re in a historic town, one of the easiest ways to find a venue that ties in with the surroundings is to search for historic hotels, B&Bs, hostels, etc. Something that’ll take you back in time and give you a better grasp on where exactly you’re at. In the Deadwood region, there’s no shortage of lodging options that have been standing for decades, and by and large, few have changed. But on our recent trip to the area, we wanted to see if a modern player could integrate itself into the landscape in a way that would be transparent to the traveler. We wanted to feel as if we were in Deadwood, but with all the amenities of a hotel that opened its doors to the first guests just a few short months ago. It’s not an easy thing to accomplish — numerous hotels in the area looked markedly out of place given the aged surroundings, but The Lodge at Deadwood caught our eye.

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Built atop a hill just a mile or so outside of downtown Deadwood, this mega-hotel just screams Deadwood 2.0. Going in, we wanted to experience a venue that was Deadwood through and through, enabling us to feel as if our hotel was just as much an attraction as the region’s own Chubby Chipmunk chocolate factory (to die for, by the way). Why pay for a lodging venue that adds no value to your trip outside of providing a shower, bathroom and bed? Your road trip is likely to be one of the more memorable things you do — you might as well select a venue that’s memorable and relevant to where you’re staying, right? That’s the goal we sought to accomplish while staying at The Lodge, and in short, we felt they nailed it.

Unlike some of the historic downtown hotels, The Lodge is set just outside of town. Still surrounded by the gorgeous Black Hills, the venue was established to be all-inclusive if you’d like. There’s a full scale casino on the property, a restaurant, meeting rooms and plenty of opportunities to mingle with other travelers. The good news is that a car still isn’t required to enjoy Deadwood proper; a trolley makes its way out to the property on a regular basis, though we certainly appreciated the ample (free!) parking available given the whole “road trip” thing. We never felt detached from downtown Deadwood even though we were a mile away, and that’s precisely the point.

The design of The Lodge at Deadwood was carefully chosen; the deep wood timbers that make themselves visible are indicative of the region, and the gorgeous views continually remind you of the special place that you’re in. Unlike some of the older options in the area, though, everything here was supremely modern. From the HDTV nestled on the wall to the high quality, western-themed bedding to the deep brown / black color schemes to the exceptionally clean gaming floor, there’s little question that this place has delivered modern day touches to a place steeped in history, all without losing touch with what makes Deadwood, well, Deadwood.

Get with the times

Now, let’s say your headed to a place with just a few more locals than Deadwood. Like… Minneapolis. No question, the city positioned between NYC and LA has a deep amount of history behind it, but what makes this city so special is just how modern it is. It’s artsy, it’s edgy, it’s sophisticated, and it’s continually relevant. Regardless of whether you keep with the latest fashions and trends in your home town, you can totally get away with posing in a place like this, and let’s face it — half the fun in a road trip is doing your darnedest to become a local in as many places as possible. To that end, we sought out one of the most lauded boutique hotels in the downtown area to reside in for 24 hours, and if you’re looking to plant yourself right smack dab in the middle of everything, there’s hardly a better place to head than Le Méridien, Chambers Minneapolis.

Of course, staying at a place like this will require a larger-than-average outlay of cash, but who said city living was cheap? We’re trying to find places that integrate with the feel of the locale, remember? It only took about ten steps through the door for us to feel immediately more cosmopolitan, surrounded by downright astounding works of art (many seen in the gallery below), a gorgeous eatery and dozens of viewpoints into the city streets below. Located on Hennepin Avenue, we were able to dash our car for the evening and enjoy the best The Mill City had to offer, and honestly, your night’s stay effectively includes a pass to a modern art museum. The installations that were scattered about during our stay were nothing short of jaw-dropping, and even the LCD-based piece above the retro-styled cigarette machine demanded a few moments of your time just to take in its simplistic brilliance.

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The room itself felt like a direct reflection of the bustling, chilly city below. Adorned in white and red accents, the highlight of the room was a bathroom that included its own LCD, twin white sinks and a massive shower, the latter of which featured a rainfall head that was utterly magnificent to stand beneath. And the art doesn’t stop at the lobby; the actual shower protrudes out into the room on one side, with a coated glass that looks like a continually changing rainfall painting from the outside looking in. Again, a touch of brilliance you won’t find at your everyday chain hotel. The basket of fresh fruit was also welcoming, and the bed was undoubtedly the most comfortable I’ve personally ever slept on. Yeah, it’s $300+ a night, but at least you’ll encounter a few things that are quite literally nowhere to be found at more mundane establishments.

It’s all about the culture, man

Not in the mood for historic nor modern? You’re not quite out of luck. Another aspect to seek out when selecting a lodging venue that’ll consistently be remembered as an integral part of your trip is to find one dripping with culture. Many times, these places will indeed have been around awhile, but more often than not, they’ll be off the beaten path and of the bed & breakfast variety. One key element that B&B owners can control more readily than hotels is culture, design elements and accessories. When looking to spend a few days deep within the Black Hills of South Dakota, we stumbled upon a hundred-year old facility that had been hosting families, workers and wandering bodies for decades upon decades: the Hisega Lodge. Overlooking a babbling brook some ten miles (by road; it’s more like 40 by any other measure) from Rapid City, this warm and welcoming B&B was decorated with images from its early days and dressed up with age-appropriate furnishings by its proud new (since 2007, anyway) owners.

The Hisega Lodge has room for 22, but it’s just as intimate with only a couple. Providing a quiet respite from a long, activity-laden day on the road, we immediately forgot our cares and escaped into a world far, far away from this thing we know so well as “reality.” The inn was carefully maintained as to not remove the old world charm, and all the quirks of a century-old mountain home aided in the experience: gently creaking floors, sloping porches and unpredictable ceiling heights were all here, and all helped to make it one of the more memorable B&Bs we’ve had the opportunity to stay at. The lodge was originally built as a vacation home to be used by multiple families at once, all looking to escape to the beautiful Black Hills. Suffice it to say, it’s still succeeding in doing what it was built to do. The homemade breakfast feast was astounding in both taste and beauty, and moreover, we were made to feel like family by a couple who adore the Black Hills just as much as anyone lucky enough to meander through them.

Stop staying with no purpose

In case you’ve missed the message, there’s simply no reason to not think carefully about the places you choose to stay when you head out on the road. With a small amount of research into the history, culture and “known-fors” of a given location, you can easily find hotels, hostels, B&Bs and other lodging options that do more than simply provide a bed. Unless you’re a hardcore nomad, you’ll be sleeping somewhere reasonable each and every night of your road trip — shouldn’t you make each night count just as much as the days?

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The venues mentioned here offered complementary media stays, but the views expressed and venue choices are entirely my own; images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

Get a “vacation makeover” and visit Mt. Rushmore this summer

The Black Hills Visitor Industry and Kodak are joining forces to give five lucky travelers a “vacation makeover” this summer, sending them on a South Dakota adventure. All they have to do to win, is share their best vacation story ever, and we all know we have great travel tales to tell.

The Vacation Makeover: Destination Mt. Rushmore contest is designed to bring out the travel writer that is lurking inside all of us. The contest organizers want to hear are absolute best travel stories, whether they’re hilarious, adventurous, or just plain tragic, they want to hear them all. Better yet, they’re going to post the stories on BlackHills.travel for everyone to enjoy and comment on.

Contest chairman Brian Boyer says, “Over the years, we in Black Hills tourism have heard great stories from our visitors about their road trips, family vacations and outdoor adventures. We thought it would be fun to gather great tales like these into a single website. He goes on to add, “And no matter what your story, we think the Black Hills can give you a more memorable travel experience. That’s why we’re offering a Vacation Makeover.”

Visitors to the contest website will vote on their favorite stories, with the top four storytellers winning a trip to South Dakota. As a bonus, everyone who casts a vote will also be entered into a sweepstakes, with a fifth name being drawn to join the trip. Those five winners will be off to the Black Hills later this year. All five winners will be able to document their journey on a brand new Zx1 Pocket Video Camera courtesy of Kodak, and when they head back home, they can edit their vacation movies, with the best one being shown on the Kodak Jumbotron in New York’s Time Square.

So, head on over to the website and share your best travel story. If it is good enough, you could end up on a Black Hills adventure of your own this summer.