A Guide To Planning a Trip To Alaska For Any Time of the Year

A Guide To Planning a Trip To Alaska For Any Time of the Year

When I think of Alaska, I think of The Simpsons Movie. I can’t help it – it’s one of my kids favourite movies and we have seen it many times. In the movie, Homer and his family flee to Alaska after accidentally polluting their hometown of Springfield. Even before seeing the movie, going to Alaska has always been a bucket list item for us.
I would love to take an Alaska cruise with the kids which several of our friends have already done. When Lonely Planet put it on their must-visit regions to visit in 2018, I knew we would have to visit sooner rather than later. Planning a trip to Alaska though is a daunting task. Luckily, I have met with the Alaska tourism board at a trade fair recently and I’ve solicited the advice of some travel blogger colleagues to get ideas for an Alaska itinerary together.
A Guide To Planning a Trip To Alaska For Both Summer and Winter | best time to visit Alaska | going to Alaska | Alaska Railroad Tours

Alaska is beautiful in every season not just summer.

Planning a Trip to Alaska

 The biggest gating factor for a planning a trip to Alaska seems to be revolve around the best time of year to visit Alaska. The best time to go to Alaska seems to be when you can get there!!

Summer in Alaska

 I automatically assumed summer would be ideal. You get long days with about 20 hours of sunshine (the so-called Midnight Sun like in Iceland) and milder weather with high temperatures around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
A Guide To Planning a Trip To Alaska For Both Summer and Winter | best time to visit Alaska | going to Alaska | Alaska Railroad Tours

Ship Creek Fishery supports Chinook Salmon and Silver Salmon runs in the heart of Anchorage

The downsides? We are talking peak season prices from about mid-June to mid-August. AND, rain. Coming from England I cannot cope with a rainy summer. After all, it’s why we escape England every summer in the first place. July and August are cloudy and rainy.
Did you know that there’s over a 50% chance of rain in Anchorage in August??
 And you get mosquitoes! I assumed it was too cold for mozzies. Nope. There are over 35 types of Alaskan mosquito all waiting in swarms to feast on some sweet human blood. So bring your DEET infused repellent. None of that namely-pamby organic insect repellent for these hardy mosquitoes.
So when is the best time to visit Alaska? There seems to be a sweet spot during the early weeks of June where the daylight is plentiful, the rains haven’t started and swarms of mosquitoes aren’t ravaging the land.  Similar to what we heard in Iceland though, the weather in Alaska is very variable.
A Guide To Planning a Trip To Alaska For Both Summer and Winter | best time to visit Alaska | going to Alaska | Alaska Railroad Tours

Native Alaskan culture

Winter in Alaska

Or, you can visit in Winter (pretty much the rest of the year that isn’t considered summer). Winter is traditionally not considered the best time to visit Alaska but there is still plenty to do! You can see the world-famous Iditarod sled dog race, hunt for the Northern Lights or enjoy winter sports like snow-shoeing ice-skating, skiing and snowmobiling.
A Guide To Planning a Trip To Alaska For Both Summer and Winter | best time to visit Alaska | going to Alaska | Alaska Railroad Tours

The Aurora at Eagle River

Popular Events

In Fairbanks, every March there is the World Ice Art Championship which reminds me of the preview of the Harbin Ice Art festival we saw in Washington D.C.. At the Fairbanks Championship though, you have tens of thousands of visitors who come to see the work of 75 teams of ice artists.
The Iditarod Sled Dog race starts from Anchorage in March of every year. It is one of Alaska’s biggest sporting events and a test of endurance for man and dog alike. There are two routes the race takes (a Northern route and a Southern route) which gets alternated annually. Each route covers about 1000 miles of frozen Alaskan landscape. The mushing teams can take up two weeks to finish the race.
A Guide To Planning a Trip To Alaska For Both Summer and Winter | best time to visit Alaska | going to Alaska | Alaska Railroad Tours

The Iditarod dog sled race starts in Anchorage

Also in Anchorage in February you get the annual Fur Rendezvous festival (the Fur Rondy). Over the course of 10 days, there are a  lot of activities, a carnival, a running with the reindeer (based on the famous Running with the Bulls in Pamplona), snowshoe softball and an Alaskan Native Blanket Toss and tribal dancing.

The Alaska Railroad

If you love a good rail tour, check out Alaska Railroad’s Aurora Winter Train. This train goes from Anchorage to Talkeetna, through the Denali National Park all the way to Fairbanks.
A Guide To Planning a Trip To Alaska For Both Summer and Winter | best time to visit Alaska | going to Alaska | Alaska Railroad Tours

The Alaska Railroad may be more expensive than driving but you will be able to enjoy the scenery!

If you time it right, you can do the Hurricane Turn Train which runs the first Thursday of the month. This train goes from Anchorage past Talkeetna into the back country which seems to be another 55 miles north to the town of Hurricane. You can either stay on the train or get off and go hunting and skiing. Perfect for mixed ability families like ours – my daughter and I would stay on the train and drink hot chocolate while my son and husband can go skiing in the near-Arctic.
A Guide To Planning a Trip To Alaska For Both Summer and Winter | best time to visit Alaska | going to Alaska | Alaska Railroad Tours

The Alaska Railroad runs regularly in both summer and winter.

 The Alaska Railroad Tours people can even arrange for you to have a guided day tour from Fairbanks of Denali National Park. These tours run on Saturdays. You will get to experience the 6 million acres of Denali with few people but lots of wildlife and snow. Note that unlike Yellowstone and other national parks, Denali National Park doesn’t allow private cars on its one and only road. You have to take the tour buses (with an option of tour lengths and narrated/non-narrated).

An Alaska Itinerary

By far the most popular way to see Alaska  is on a cruise ship. In fact, about a million visitors a year visit Alaska on a cruise. We would love to do an Alaska cruise with kids one-way but would definitely want to tack on an extra week (at least!) to explore the state.

Getting to Alaska

Getting to Alaska usually involves getting to Anchorage.
  1. There are plenty of flights in and out of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
  2. As discussed, you can take a cruise into Anchorage itself which is a fantastically picturesque way to enter into the city.
  3. If you feel like being adventurous, the Alaska Marine Highway has state-operated ferries that run along the coast. You can take your ferry (with your car) from Bellingham, Washington State up to Anchorage.
  4. For the ultimate road trip, take the Alaska Canada Highway which runs more than 200 miles from the British Columbia border to Anchorage. Built in 1947 as part of World War II defines efforts, it was said to be an engineering marvel to rival the Panama Canal.
A Guide To Planning a Trip To Alaska For Both Summer and Winter | best time to visit Alaska | going to Alaska | Alaska Railroad Tours

Anchorage has a beautiful setting surrounded by water and mountains.

5 Popular Things To Do in Alaska

  • Wildlife Viewing – You are spoiled for choice if you enjoy watching wildlife such as moose, beaver, bear and wolves. For guaranteed wildlife spotting, you have the Alaska Zoo located in a forest near Anchorage, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a conservation centre a bit further from Anchorage and the Alaska SeaLife Center, a marine research facility in Seward.
A Guide To Planning a Trip To Alaska For Both Summer and Winter | best time to visit Alaska | going to Alaska | Alaska Railroad Tours

Watch out for wildlife on the road in Alaska!

  • Explore the National Parks – From Anchorage you have access to five national parks – Kenai Fjords (see whales and otters), Katmai (get your fill of bears), Lake Clark (bear viewing and hiking, kayaking and rafting), Wrangell-St. Elias (see giant glaciers) and Denali (home to America’s tallest mountain).
  • Enjoy all that water provided by the lakes and glaciers with rafting tours,  jet boat safaris, kayaking and canoeing tours. If you are into fishing, Anchorage is considered one of America’s best fishing spots. Grab a wetsuit, even stand up paddle boarding (SUP) is becoming a popular activity.
  • Festivals and Events – The summer has lots of festivals happening like the Alaska State Fair. In winter, you get events like the Fur Rondy mentioned above.
  • Flightseeing – Alaska is a massive state but has only 10,000 miles of road. You can charter a small plane to take you into the wilderness and the flight itself is the real trip not the destination. It’s expensive but worth it!
My husband is one of those people that will not do anything without checking it out on TripAdvisor.  Here’s a link to TripAdvisor Alaska if you, too, need to know what conventional wisdom recommends for planning a trip to Alaska.
 For your amusement, here are the Simpsons going to Alaska:

Collective Wisdom: Planning A Trip To Alaska

I have asked four of my well-travelled colleagues for their recommendations on going to Alaska. I hope these travel bloggers ideas help you plan an unforgettable Alaska itinerary.

A Birthday Trip to Remember

My husband’s 50th birthday gift was a trip to wherever he wanted. Finally, after a couple of years, he made his decision: Alaska. Over the course of ten summer days that year, we were able to taste the monumental experience that the Last Frontier gives to first-time and repeat visitors alike.
There is no describing the primal grandeur, the vast sense of elemental wildness and space, and the hale and hearty practicality of Alaskans, who refer to everywhere else as “Outside.”
Follow our lead and base in Anchorage for a couple of days. Rent a car and drive up toward Fairbanks. On your way, stop in to pay your respects to “The Great One” – Denali. Head back south toward the Kenai Peninsula. Make time away from “combat fishing” in the streams to head out on big water from Seward or Homer. Tromp around a glacier, see puffins and silver salmon, look for the Big Five: grizzly, moose, wolf, caribou and mountain Dall sheep. Wander into a roadhouse for drinks, gullet-sticking grub and the particular form of verbal interplay that Alaskans call “bullchitna.”
You always leave Alaska wishing you’d had more time.
– by Betsy Wuebker who writes at Passing Thru; find her also on 
Kenai Alaska landscape

That glorious Alaskan landscape (Photo credit: Betsy Wuebker)

Alaska is the perfect destination for travelers who love nature and have a sense of adventure. Whether it is kayaking alongside whales, hiking through its many parks, or checking out Gold Rush history, there’s plenty to do and lots of gorgeous views to enjoy.
True Grit and a Prairie Homestead Museum in South Dakota

True Grit and a Prairie Homestead Museum in South Dakota

The miles of flat dusty prairie stretched out ahead of us.  In our car with digital radio and air conditioning, we could admire the vastness of the American plains without any of its attendant discomforts.  It was easy to pin the hopes and dreams of a young country on this unending horizon and believe your luck could be as expansive as the countryside.  The early settlers carved their homes from the ground burrowing deep for shelter against a merciless landscape. Although many of the sod homes have collapsed back into the earth from which they were dug, a prairie homestead museum in South Dakota stands testament to this long-gone way of life in this part of the world.

visiting the prairie homestead museum in south dakota's Badlands

Prairie Homesteads and the Homestead Acts

I had heard of prairie homesteads from history class and, of course, the Little House on the Prairie books.  The Ingalls’ family prairie homestead is long gone because these sod homes usually just caved  into the elements.

The very well preserved Prairie Homestead, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is today a museum offering a glimpse into the hardscrabble life of the early pioneers in the Western United States.

prairie Homestead in South Dakota

A homestead in the Dakota Territory

South Dakota was one of the last areas in the USA to be homesteaded.  Originally this area was set aside for the Native Americans because the Badlands were sacred to they Cheyenne tribes that lived here.  There was ongoing trouble though between the Native Americans and encroaching Americans looking for silver and gold. Finally the US government went back on their word and just annexed the area.

The Homestead Acts were a series of US Government laws that let people stake their claim on government land if they could build a home and farm it for a minimum of 5 years.  The government got people to settle on new lands and create a stable community.  The homesteaders realised their dream of owning property if they could just stick through the hardships.

prairie Homestead in South Dakota

You may remember the Hollywood version of The Homestead Acts in practice in that (awful) movie Far and Away with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.  That movie ended with the two main characters staking their claim to land. The real story though would have been that their hardships would only have just started.  That part of the story though would not have been glamorous enough for Hollywood.

The Prairie Homestead of South Dakota

I wondered how the landscape must have seemed for the pioneer homesteaders who made their way here in the early 20th Century though.  They would have driven their wagons filled with their few earthly possessions into unknown territory.  They headed far away from home fuelled by wanderlust and the promise of a better life.  Tenacious and hardy, the early pioneers pitched their claim and created prairie homesteads much as the Ingalls family did in De Smet in South Dakota.

visiting the prairie homestead museum in South Dakota with kids

The Prairie Homestead Museum is located near one of the entrances to the Badlands National Park

The Prairie Homestead in South Dakota was built in 1909 by Ed Brown who had travelled out west from Iowa with his wife and son.  They homesteaded 160 acres in 1909.

prairie Homestead in South Dakota

This facade hasn’t changed since Mr. Brown built it.

Mr. Brown used cottonwood logs to make his home.  The house still retains these original logs and beams.  The upper walls of the house was buffalo grass sod laid in tiers.  The grass sod had incredibly dense roots and were cut into strips and laid like bricks.  The grass would then grow and reinforce the house walls.

prairie Homestead in South Dakota

The sod bricks peeking out above the wood wall.

He dug into the bank to create a cave which worked as a refrigerator in the summer and a place to store food in the winter.

prairie Homestead in South Dakota

Behind this kitchen is the cave which served as a pantry.

Mr. Brown hand dug this well for water.  Towards the end, you could only get about 8 buckets of water a day from it.

prairie Homestead in South Dakota

The hand-dug well

Mr. Brown only needed to work 5 acres of his 160 acres in order to stake his claim.  After 18 months, he was allowed to pay a total of $80 and get the rights to all of his land.

prairie Homestead in South Dakota

Some meagre possessions

Think this was a good deal?  Not really. It was incredibly difficult to survive by farming the land in the Great Plains.  Although 160 acres sounds like a lot of land, conditions were so tough that it would only provide enough grazing land for 8 cows.  The lawmakers who wrote the Homesteading Acts didn’t really understand the arid conditions of the Great Plains.

prairie Homestead in South Dakota

A cozy domestic scene

Mr. Brown died at the Prairie Homestead in 1920.  His wife moved later to California to be near her daughter.  Her daughter wrote about her parents:

“They loved the place, the country and all the people.  Mother was so happy to be there, even though she worked hard.”

When Mrs. Brown moved to California, she rented the homestead out to a George Carr who himself had come from Iowa.  He lived in the Prairie Homestead until 1949.  So, despite the hardships, for many people a homestead was a dream come true.

prairie Homestead in South Dakota

A tattered copy of the Bible – the pioneers needed faith of all kinds in this harsh environment.

Visiting the Prairie Homestead Museum in South Dakota

The Prairie Homestead Museum is located off South Dakota Highway 240 near the Northeast entrance to the Badlands National Park.  Admission fees for adults are $7 and children under 9 go free. The Prairie Homestead has a large and well-stocked gift store.  Do check out its website for hours because they are seasonal.

5 Indoor Activities Near Hot Springs South Dakota

5 Indoor Activities Near Hot Springs South Dakota

So you’ve been awed by Mt. Rushmore and wondered at the tenacity of the sculpting family behind the Crazy Horse Memorial.  You’re ready for fresh air and the beauty of outdoor activities of South Dakota.  You definitely have great options to enjoy nature in the Badlands, Black Hills, Custer State National Park and the Mickelson Trail, to name a few. In the intense heat of the South Dakota summer sun, though, you may want some indoor time.

Activities in Hot Springs South Dakota

When you are visiting the gorgeous Badlands and Black Hills nearby, you will pass through or near the town of Hot Springs in South Dakota.  Here are 5 indoor activities you can do in South Dakota when being outside gets too much for you (or the kids).

What to do in Hot Springs South Dakota

Mammoth Site

The Mammoth Site is open year round as a museum and a working archeological dig.  It has the largest collection of mammoth bones in the world. The area used to be a watering hole nearly 26000 years ago and the occasional mammoth would fall in. So far, they have found 61 mammoths’ remains. Amusingly, we were told all these mammoths were male.  I’d like to think the female mammoths were too smart to fall in the pond and not be able to get out.

Activities in Hot Springs South Dakota

The different sizes of various mammoths

My children thought the exhibit was fascinating.  The Mammoth Site runs a summer camp and, if we lived any closer to Hot Springs South Dakota, I would definitely send my kids off to be junior palenteologists.

Activities in Hot Springs South Dakota

Giant Mammoth Tusks

Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary

The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary is also located in Hot Springs, South Dakota.  Our tour of the sanctuary turned out to be a private one because we were the only people there. The guide was local and really knew her stuff.

wild horse sanctuary in Hot Springs South Dakota

The Wild Horse Sanctuary

We saw all 4 different types of mustangs – American, Curly, Spanish and Choctaw.  Some of the mustangs came right up to us and we  even got to feed some of them.  Once again, my kids were enthralled at getting so close to the mustangs.

I know this activity is technically mostly outside but being driven around with the fresh wind in our faces in a jeep was a refreshing change from hiking up and down hills.

Evans Plunge

My kids are BIG fans of thermal pools and so, of course, we had to try the hot springs for which Hot Springs was named.

Evans Plunge sign

Evan’s Plunge claims to be the oldest tourist attraction in the Black Hills.  It’s somewhat dated but for a quick play in the pool, my kids were happy. There are a couple of water slides as well. I joined a local water aerobics class that was happening while my husband played with the kids.

Think of it as a large community centre pool and you won’t be disappointed. It is definitely not as clean, sparkling and shiny as the Icelandic and Austrian thermal pools we’ve been to.  The water is more warm than hot but Warm Springs doesn’t have much of a ring to it, does it?

Wind Cave National Park

You can take guided tours of Wind Cave National Park which was the first cave to be designated a national park in the world in 1903.  The wind that the caves are known for are due to the difference in pressure between the cave and the surface.  Wind Cave is sacred to the Native Americans who lived in the area.

Wind Cave National Park

Image Credit: Julie Falk

We were part of a fairly large group.  The tour guide was excellent though and we had no problems keeping up with him. Wind Cave is part of a large and complex cave system much of which is still not explored.  On average four new miles of cave are discovered each year!!

Pioneer History Museum

The Pioneer History Museum is in the centre of Hot Springs and housed in what used to be an elementary school. It’s got a mixed collection of historical memorabilia.  You get a sense of pioneer life with its display of everyday items.  It was good for my children to see how much they take for granted nowadays!! The museum is open during the summer months and is free for the under 12 set.

Hot Springs South Dakota

The Hot Springs Jail which saw quite a bit of action in its day.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this round up of fun indoor activities near Hot Springs South Dakota.  Our favourite would have to be the Wild Horses Sanctuary because we are horse-crazy in my family.  What would be your pick?

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This post is linked up with Weekend Wanderlust and The Weekly Postcard.

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The Selim Family Raasta

 

 

The Old Faithful Inn Provides History With A View

The Old Faithful Inn Provides History With A View

If you are visiting Yellowstone National Park, you should definitely visit (or maybe even stay at) the Old Faithful Inn which overlooks the famous Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone. This hotel is a national treasure and the largest log hotel in the world.

Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone

The Old Faithful Inn is the largest Log Hotel in the world.

The Old Faithful Inn History

The Old House section of the Old Faithful Inn was finished in 1905 by Robert Reamer, an architect with the Yellowstone Park Company.  Reamer’s design became the standard for U.S. National Park architecture.  In fact, the style came to be called “National Park Rustic.”  Intentionally asymmetric, Reamer made the Inn from log and stone and designed to harmonise with the landscape.

Reamer and his team collected the materials for building the Old House from the area surrounding the hotel.  This ethos reflects the Arts & Crafts tradition in architecture which emphasised handcrafted work and locally sourced materials.  It’s all pretty impressive especially considering Reamer was only 29 years old when he built this Inn.  Moreover, Reamer was a self-taught architect so everything you see he learned on the job.

Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone

The Old Faithful Inn overlooks Old Faithful Geyser and is a national treasure.

I absolutely loved the beauty of the staircase rails made with naturally-occurring timber shapes.  Reamer and his team would painstakingly search the local area for the right pairings of logs to create a primitive yet sophisticated look.

Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone

The architect and his team found all of the logs in nature and painstakingly matched them to each other.

Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone

The bannisters are found wood polished to a sheen.

The lobby is spectacular with its massive three-story ceiling.  There is a 500 ton giant volcanic stone fireplace with a large wood and iron clock above it.  The lobby has 2 sets of galleried landings going around it.  In the middle there is a ‘crow’s nest’ where in former times musicians would play for the audience gathered below.

Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone

The entire inn is made from lumber found in the nearby area.

Old Faithful Inn Accommodation

When it was first finished, this hotel was considered luxury accommodation catering to the rich and famous.  Several Presidents have stayed at the Inn including both Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt.  It was one of the first hotels in the USA to use electricity for lighting.

Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone

The ceiling timbers are likewise polished to a gleam.

Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone

Dormer windows let in light into the cavernous interior.

A stay at the Old Faithful Inn gives you front row viewing seats of the Old Faithful Geyser which is considered one of the most predictable geothermal phenomenons in the world.  Erupting about every 90 minutes, it is not the largest or the most impressive geyser in Yellowstone National Park but definitely the most consistent. The eruptions last about 5 minutes and on average the boiling water shoots up about 145 feet.

Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone

The terrace area overlooks the geyser fields.

Details:

The Old Faithful Inn is open from May through October.  You need to book well in advance if you are considering staying at the Inn because it is the most requested accommodation at Yellowstone.  Be forewarned, there’s no insulation and so expect noise and cold.  In addition, there is also no air-conditioning, television or WiFi.  Some of the cheaper rooms also have the old-fashioned shared bathroom situation as well.

Even if you are not staying at the hotel, there are free daily tours of the hotel by its staff.  I found the one hour tour really fascinating and a great explanation of the history of the Old Faithful Inn.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

In the days before photography, there were only landscape painters who could convey the grandeur and beauty of a place.  The works of one such landscape painter helped created the very first national park, Yellowstone.

Art Makes A Difference

In 1871, American government geologist, Ferdinand Hayden, was sent to explore the area in Wyoming consisting of what is now Yellowstone National Park.  His expedition was made up of mainly scientists – a botanist, mineralogist etc. who could determine if there was anything of value in the land.  Hayden, however, also had the foresight to  take with him a landscape artist and a photographer to document the expedition.

The landscape painter, Thomas Moran, had been born in England but immigrated as a child with his family to Pennsylvania. When he was apprenticed as a teenager at a wood engraving firm, he began also to draw and to paint.  Moran’s images were instrumental in capturing the imagination of the US Congress and prompting them to declare Yellowstone a national park.  For the first time, the American public could also see what they had only heard about from news reports.

A National Treasure

In 1872, a little over 1.2 million acres was designated as the first national park, Yellowstone National Park, preserving its natural beauty for generations to come.  Although Yellowstone was granted protected status, Congress did not actually go so far as to set aside any money for its upkeep!

Public funding was to come later.  After all, during this time of American Westward expansion, it was pretty remarkable that anyone thought about protecting land at all.  Congress probably thought the Yellowstone land was useless for development and so agreed to its protected status.

Yellowstone was the first national park in the world and inspired the conservation of public lands in both the US and in other countries in future years. It was also one of the first batch of UNESCO world heritage listed sites to be named such.

The Grand Canyon o the Yellowstone

One of Moran’s most famous paintings is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone located in Canyon Valley.  It was purchased by Congress for $10,000, a fairly unheard of amount in those days.  The painting is kept by the Smithsonian in Washington D.C..  It depicts the Yellowstone River flowing down from Canyon Falls through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Thomas Moran painting

Thomas Moran’s painting, The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

When we were at Yellowstone this summer, I took a photograph of Canyon Falls at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone that Moran used for his inspiration.  Pretty amazingly similar isn’t it?

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

In Moran’s version, there are 2 small explorer’s staring in the foreground.  My photograph has been carefully positioned to avoid the hundreds of tourists milling around the area!  Nonetheless, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is stunning beautiful.

Aren’t you glad this natural beauty was preserved for us to enjoy?

the grand canyon of the yellowstone

the grand canyon of the yellowstone

 

 

Wild West Style Justice at the Wyoming Frontier Prison

Wild West Style Justice at the Wyoming Frontier Prison

My family and I are standing outside a gas chamber on death row at Wyoming Frontier Prison. The whole thing is made of stainless steel (the better to hose it clean with) and the original chair with its leather restraints sits isolated in the middle.

Inside the gas chamber

When the guide asks if anyone would like to sit in the chair, my 8 year old son is game.  He has barely hopped onto the chair when I see his face crumple into tears.  A teenager who is also on the tour has slammed the steel door shut locking him in the gas chamber.  I go into mama tiger mode and quickly rescue my son.  It was only a few minutes but I could have killed that older kid.  In doing so, I would have joined a long history of murder and mayhem at the prison.

The Town of Rawlings

The town of Rawlings in Wyoming is a small town with not much going for it in terms of tourist spots.  It’s main claim to tourist fame is that it is a very good stopping point halfway between other places that you may want to visit – Denver International Airport to the South and Yellowstone National Park to the north.

 

Wyoming State Penitentiary

Rawlings was famous for being the home of the Wyoming Frontier Prison from 1901-1981.  During its 80 years of existence, the prison was housed some of the roughest, toughest men in Wyoming.  Unlike the Philadelphia prison we visited which was based on Quaker principles of penitence and reform, the Wyoming Frontier Prison was all about meting out punishment.  The unrenovated prison really gives a sense of the stark conditions faced by the prisoners.

The Wyoming Frontier Museum

The prison is now a museum and listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.  We stayed in the charming historic Ferris Mansion B&B nearby and thought we might as well visit this piece of frontier history.  The museum gets approximately 15000 people visiting annually.  It was a completely fascinating look into the lawlessness of the Frontier.

Wyoming State Penitentiary

Our tour guide, a local high school kid, relished in telling us about the prison’s dark past.

  • The architect who created the prison also designed Alcatraz in California.
  • The original cells were small and dark.  There was one line of cells that had no natural light either day or night.  Can you imagine? It was luck of the draw who was put into those cells.
Wyoming Frontier Prison

The guards stood watch on walkways on the top right.

  • There were nine men executed by gallows at the prison using the do-it-yourself Julien Gallows mechanism.  Basically, the condemned would stand on a trap door which would open due to his weight and the man wouldfall down and break his neck.  The last man to be so hung did not weigh enough to break his neck.  They added weights to his feet but that still wasn’t heavy enough.  Finally one of the guards had to hold his legs and fall down with him to provide the necessary weight.
    Wyoming Frontier Prison prisoner

    At a mere 112 lbs, this man didn’t weigh enough for the gallows to work effectively.

  • After this travesty with the gallows, a gas chamber was installed.  Five men were executed using poison gas until this procedure too ended in tragedy.  The final round of men condemned to death row had been secretly digging themselves out of the building at night using matches for light in the dark.  They formed a line where they would pass the dirt that was dug out and hide it in the building’s ceilings.  Unfortunately, one night the man digging the hole hit the gas line and they blew up in spectacular fashion.
  • The guides will let you sit in the actual chair of the gas chamber if you so wish.

The gas chamber

  • The prison held 13,500 prisoners over the years including 11 women.  The women were not segregated from the men.
Dining Hall at the Wyoming State Penitentiary

Someone tried to cheer up the dining hall with painted walls.

  • The most severe punishment was being put in “The Hole” – a small windowless cell which was so small the prisoner had to stand for days.  The prisoner was given enough food to survive but otherwise left naked in the dark to stew in his own bodily functions.
The Hole from Wyoming Frontier Prison

The ultimate punishment in an already harsh regime.

  • The prison is supposed to be a hotbed of paranormal activity filled with the restless sprits of all the unhappy people who lived and died there.  In fact, it is in the top 10 of the most haunted places in the USA.
Wyoming Frontier Prison

The solitary confinement cells

  • The 1987 low-budget horror movie Prison was filmed at the Wyoming Frontier Prison.  It was one of the earliest roles of Viggo Mortenson before he found a better use of his talent  in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BzLzCJk7f0Y]

Details:

The Wyoming Frontier Prison is located at West Walnut Street in Rawlins, Wyoming.  Open 8-5 daily during the summer, you are allowed inside only on a guided tour.  There is no minimum age requirement for children to go on the tour.  Use your discretion with children because the place is spooky.  Our tour guide wouldn’t tell us some of the gorier stories because we had children on the tour.