Nesting in the belly of a beagle, in the cabin of a sternwheeler or in a granary surrounded by flower gardens can give you not only a unique night of lodging, but also a chance to explore the American West and have something to talk about when you get back home.
In my quest to find some beds that are a little out of the ordinary, or in locations that are truly historic, I started on the Northern Plains at the Pipestem Creek Bed and Birding near Carrington, North Dakota, where lodging is in restored granaries (one is a 10-sided structure). The real attraction is the opportunity to explore 700 acres of prime bird habitat and private gardens. This is rural living, with an atmosphere where you can literally listen to the birds sing and smell the flowers. Among the rare bird species you may see while staying here are Baird’s Sparrow, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Sprague’s Pipit, Le Conte’s Sparrow and Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow.
Just five miles from Pipestem Creek you can have more birding opportunities at the Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a 40-minute drive from Pipestem Creek, boasts the largest white pelican population in North America.
Pipestem Creek Bed and Birding owner Ann Hoffert has a lifelong knowledge of birding on the Northern Plains and, as president of Birding Drives Dakota, can give great advice on species and where you might see them. Room rates start at $70 per night for two people. (701-652-2623 or 701-650-9002)
Relaxing in a Tipi
Heading west, Browning, Montana, beckons. Here I found accommodation in a Blackfoot camp at Darrell Norman’s Lodgepole Gallery & Tipi Village. Norman is an artist, and he cooked me a fresh trout dinner while an eclectic group of friends and artists popped in and out of his gallery and home. Then he took me down to my accommodations for the evening. The tipi where I stayed was one of several at the site. Inside was a small fire pit, and since it was a chilly, fall evening, with wind sweeping across the plains, Norman started a fire and shared some Blackfeet stories with me before departing to head up to his house.
I had the lodge to myself, and with only the light of the small fire, I found it relaxing and inviting. I lifted back the heavy buffalo robe and settled into the “bed,” which was a camping mattress and sleeping bag on the ground. (You can take your own sleeping bag and mattress, or rent one at the site.) The Crow’s Nest, just up the hill from the tipi camp, is a guest lounge and dining area. A shower room is also located up the hill from the tipis.
This site gives you a view of north-central Montana’s plains to the east and south, and of the striking peaks of Glacier National Park to the west. Lodging prices start at $75 for two people; meal prices range from $12 to $30. (406-338-2787)
The works of Blackfeet, Choctaw, Cree, Arikara/Hidatsa and Kiowa-Apache artists, including that of the lodge owner Darrell Norman, are available in the gallery. Various art workshops are held on site, and you’ll have opportunities to see Spanish Mustangs and take a horseback ride or an herbal walk with a Blackfeet guide.
To learn more about Blackfeet culture and history, you should visit the Museum of the Plains Indian, in nearby Browning, or attend North American Indian Days, held the second weekend in July.
Sleeping in a Dog’s Head
My route takes me across western Montana to Cottonwood, Idaho, home of Dog Bark Park Inn, which has an oversized beagle, Sweet Willy, as the main lodging facility. Stairs lead to a private deck and the dog’s belly, which is the main bedroom. The bathroom is, appropriately, in the dog’s rear end, while the head of the dog has a small loft with a sleeping pad (which is ideal for a single person or particularly for kids). The park itself has other oversized objects, a hiking trail and is located adjacent to the chainsaw artist studio of Dennis Sullivan and Frances Conklin.
You might think this entire place has gone to the dogs, and to a certain degree it has. While Sullivan and Conklin create items with a wildlife, fish or Lewis & Clark theme, by far most of their art has a connection to dogs. There is, of course, Sweet Willy, and a smaller canine companion, Toby, who is only 12 feet tall. In the gift shop are a variety of other wooden canines. You can even have Sullivan and Conklin make you a personalized replica of your own dog (beagles are particularly popular). (208-962-3647)
A Captivating Riverboat
I don’t much like boats and rivers, but I will say that the Delta King on the Sacramento River, permanently docked at Old Sacramento, California, totally captivated me. The Sacramento River was the conduit for this riverboat when the sternwheeler was in service from 1927 to 1940, and it served as a troop transport on San Francisco Bay during WWII before falling to derelict status. The vessel is now permanently docked at Old Sacramento.
Although some of the 44 cabins are quite small, others have nice amenities (desks, comfortable chairs and views of either Old Sacramento or the Sacramento River). The Captain’s Quarters, which encompasses two stories and includes the site of the original wheelhouse, will set you back at least five big bills, but it is one-of-a-kind lodging that has a private veranda, wet bar and a queen-sized bed along with a living room. (916-444-5464)
The secondary benefit to staying on the Delta King is its location in Old Sacramento. It is a short walk of just a block or two to reach sites such as the California State Railroad Museum, the Wells Fargo History Museum, the California State Military Museum, Sacramento History Museum and the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum.
The Delta King has two restaurants, Delta Bar & Grill and the Pilothouse, giving you a choice of casual dining or something quite elegant. You can also enjoy your meal out on the deck like I did, watching a continual flow of folks ranging from those boating on the river to bridal parties using the Delta King as their wedding site.
Jousting for a Good Time
The Excalibur in Las Vegas, Nevada, is a castle-like fortress that scoops you in, deposits you in a casino and then seeks to separate you from your money. But of course, there is much more to the Excalibur than gambling, such as the opportunity to enjoy an evening watching the Tournament of Kings.
The standard rooms are, well, standard, but you can upgrade to a widescreen room with 42-inch plasma TVs, or better yet, a suite that has a built-in spa or a parlor suite with living and dining areas, guest bathroom and a marble spa. But even with that luxury, the reasons why you’ll want to stay at the Excalibur are: it’s 1) on the Strip, 2) reasonably priced and 3) the site of the Tournament of Kings where you get dinner and jousting!
Don’t expect this dinner to be white tablecloths and fine china. Instead, you will use just your hands to enjoy the three-course meal of “dragon’s blood” (tomato soup), potatoes and a roasted game hen. The real enjoyment is the show performance led by Merlin the magician who introduces the action. The knights on their Morgan, Arabian and Fresian steeds fight the battles and engage in jousting. This entertainment engages the audience, which entails learning a drinking song (led by Merlin) before downing a tankard, stomping your feet and pounding the tables to cheer the King and the Knights as they take over the arena.
With horses, a dusty arena and pyrotechnics, this is not a show for anyone with breathing difficulties or asthma, but it certainly will entertain you. Plus, since it is located at the Excalibur, you won’t have far to travel to return to your room for the evening. Of course, there will be distractions along the way—casino gambling or the arcade area, to name two of them. (702-597-7777)
Happy Birthday, Strater
The Strater Hotel in Durango, Colorado, is celebrating its 125th Birthday this year. That is reason enough to stay at this grand hotel named for Henry Strater, the Cleveland pharmacist who took the position that if the town were to truly prosper, it needed a fine lodging establishment. You’ll find 93 rooms all decorated with Victorian antiques, which makes staying here an adventure and a bit of a history lesson. The Strater is located within easy walking distance to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. (970-247-4431)
A Bargain for History
When trains rumble through the small town of Medicine Bow, Wyoming, the vibration shakes the town, including the historic Virginian Hotel, which is just across the road (U.S. Highway 30/Lincoln Highway). One can imagine the buildings also shook when Owen Wister, author of the Western novel and creator of the iconic character for whom this hotel is named, came to Medicine Bow.
The Virginian Hotel is one of the greatest bargains in historic lodging I’ve ever encountered. The two-room Owen Wister Suite has antique furnishings including a rolltop desk, marble-topped side table and photographs of Wister. The smaller Scott Suite, which I have stayed in more than once, is named for the owner’s ancestors. It has a small attached bathroom and tall windows that give you a view of the Medicine Bow Depot across the road, which is now in use as the Medicine Bow Museum.
My great-grandfather helped in the construction of the Virginian, which began in 1901 and was completed in 1911. Some rooms in the Virginian are simple sleeping rooms with a water closet down the hall, just the way the structure was built originally. Rates range from $43 for a sleeping room to $100 a night for a suite. Downstairs you’ll find the restaurant and dining room, plus the Virginian Bar, where you are likely to encounter a character or two ready to share some stories about Medicine Bow Country. (307-379-2377)
Candy Moulton once in a while actually hangs her hat at her home near Encampment, Wyoming, but honestly, most of the time she is on the road.