5 ways to make college tours more fun

Some people view college tours as a chore — an obligatory part of sending a child into adulthood — but they don’t have to be.

Here are five things to do to make them more fun — during the heat of summer or any time of year.

This is an update to a blog post I wrote last year, after visiting five California universities with my niece. This post focuses on my observations from five recent university tours (in Colorado, Idaho and Washington) with my nephew.

1. Local food: Some universities, especially land grant schools with large agricultural programs, may offer products made on campus and/or made with ingredients grown by students. A visit to Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., is not complete without a stop at Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe on campus. Ice cream flavors, including Caramel Cashew, Huckleberry Twist and Cougar Tracks, are made with campus products.

This single-serving bowl of two flavors — Huckleberry Twist and Caramel Cashew — cost $2.20 at Ferdinand’s. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Ferdinand’s also sells WSU’s cheese in a can, with the most popular being Cougar Gold. That stemmed from WSU research in the 1940s to find a way to store cheese in tins. At least 10 years later, the creamery began making milk and ice cream products for students. Today, Ferdinand’s is open to the public.

Off college campuses, try regional products at restaurants, such as a lentil burger (Paradise Creek Brewery) in Pullman, Wash., or dried garbanzo beans (Nectar and Lodgepole) in Moscow, Idaho (home of the University of Idaho). Lentils and garbanzos are grown in the surrounding beautiful Palouse area.

2. Local activities: Find out what a town or area is known for and do it. Look for activities that interest you. Is there a bicycle trail, such as the Bill Chipman Palouse Trail between the University of Idaho in Moscow and Washington State University in Pullman, a climbing wall or community theater? Research can be done beforehand or on the fly via an Internet search, a stop at the local visitor center or asking a local.

Cyclists ride by golden fields of wheat on the 8-mile (one way) Bill Chipman Palouse Trail between Moscow, Idaho, and Pullman, Wash. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

3. Bookstores: College towns still have quirky brick-and-mortar bookstores. Boulder, Colo., has at least a half dozen. Not only are they cool places to hang out, but they usually have a local or regional section to learn about the area and culture or find local authors.

Don’t forget to check out campus bookstores, too. Some schools include a coupon in their information packet (it was 20% off at the University of Idaho and Washington State University). It might be a good opportunity to load up on gear from your favorite school or sports team. They also have a good selection of new books, including books by their professors.

4. Museums: Still on my list from last year is to find campus museums, a trend in recent decades helped by alumni funding. When I recently visited Washington State University’s small and manageable Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, it offered engaging works by Louise Bourgeois, Jacob Lawrence and Robert Rauschenberg. In Golden, Colo., the Colorado School of Mines’ Geology Museum is a find for gem and rock lovers; it has two moon rocks. The University of Colorado Boulder has the Museum of Natural History and the University of Oregon in Eugene, Ore., has the Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

These are just some of the minerals, gems and fossils displayed at the Geology Museum at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

5. Explore the town or city. Some college campuses dominate their small host towns, others are located in or near big cities, such as Boston or Seattle. Take the time to walk, bicycle or drive around the town or city closest to campus to see what it has to offer. Eat, shop or watch a movie. Stay overnight if you can to get a true cultural immersion.

Here’s a related tweet from Wednesday, Aug. 7, about five college trends I’ve noticed while on 10 university tours in four states in the last year:

The featured photo at top by me is art by Louise Bourgeois at Washington State University’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.

Boise, Idaho’s train depot and bell tower are not to be missed

Like a sentry, the stately, Spanish-style tower watches over the city of Boise, Idaho, from its perch atop a hill south of downtown.

Still, I may not have noticed the modest spire if I hadn’t been staying in that part of the city. And that would have been a shame.

The stunning view of the Boise skyline and its foothills from its 90-foot bell tower is not to be missed.

View from the Boise Depot tower
The view from the Boise Depot tower. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

It’s one of the many grand old train stations that have been renovated across the country.

Railroads helped the nation’s westward expansion, creating much of the network of roads and towns we have today. Many depots closed as autos and planes replaced trains for transportation. Some depots — including those in Denver; Kansas City, Mo.; New York City; and St. Paul, Minn. — still are used for Amtrak and/or a local commuter rail system. Others have been renovated for other uses, such as apartments, retail and event space. And some have been demolished or sit vacant and crumbling per a recent New York Times article.

I have visited a dozen renovated train stations across the country, including seven in the Midwest. I’m no train nut by any stretch, but I appreciate architecture and history.

In Boise, New York architects designed the city’s depot for Union Pacific Railroad. Guide John Devries told me construction began in 1920, with the first train rolling through five years later.

Boise Depot's Great Hall
The Boise Depot’s Great Hall, or lobby, was a cavernous room with a 44-foot high ceiling. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

At the time, the depot was called “the most beautiful structure of its kind in the West.”

“At the depot’s height, there were six trains coming through daily,” Devries said. “There was Amtrak passenger service until 1997, but now the only passenger rail access is in Sandpoint,” Idaho (420 miles or nearly eight hours to the North).

Ceiling in the Boise Depot
Spanish trusses and rafters in the 44-foot-high “Great Hall” lobby are painted in original colors. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Construction company Morrison Knudsen Co. (known in these parts as MK) bought the building in 1990 and restored it. The $3.4 million renovation was unveiled in 1993.

The renovation opened the bell tower to the public for the first time as MK installed an elevator and stairway. The tower’s four bells used to play music; today, only one rings on the hour.

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Inside, a large 1945 train schedule graces part of a wall. The old retail counter houses Boise Depot and Union Pacific memorabilia, such as matches, pins, sugar packets and train time tables. (See photos taken by me below.)

In 1996, the city of Boise bought the depot, which is operated by the Boise Parks and Recreation Department.

The Boise Depot is open to the public for free from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays and Sundays. Otherwise, you can rent it for an event.

Idaho offers extraordinary road trips

Idaho is a pretty state, and driving on U.S. Highway 95 in that state has to be one of the prettiest road trips.

I’ll add it to my list of favorite road trips, which I wrote about in July.

US 95 goes from the United States’ border with Canada south to Mexico. Within Idaho, it stretches vertically for more than 538 miles along the state’s western edge. The most stunning sections — traversing rivers, lakes, farm land and meadows — lie within the 304 miles between Sandpoint in the Panhandle south to New Meadows near Boise.

Map Sandpoint to New Meadows, Idaho

You’ll pass through two time zones without ever leaving Idaho. This description of US 95 is driving north to south:

  • As you leave the laid-back city of Sandpoint, you must drive over the Long Bridge, which stretches for nearly 2 miles across large Lake Pend Oreille. The bridge offers stunning views of the sapphire-blue lake and surrounding peaks, which can be dusted with snow from October through May.
Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho
U.S. Highway 95 cuts straight across Lake Pend Oreille for nearly 2 miles in Idaho. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)
  • South of Sandpoint, you’ll pass through farmland and meadows and the city of Coeur D’Alene. You’ll note a large lake here, one of several waterways along US 95.
  • Around Moscow and south to Lewiston, you’ll drive through the beautiful Palouse region of rolling hills (blond in fall/winter and green in spring). The area is a major producer of wheat and lentils as well as other crops. One theory is that the name Palouse comes from French-Canadian fur traders changed the name of the local Palus American Indian tribe to the French word pelouse, meaning “land with short and thick grass.” (See my featured photo at top.)
  • The city of Moscow, home to the University of Idaho is worth a stop for good cafes, art, vintage stores and a campus walk.
Lewiston Hill, Idaho
This is one of the 64 curves on Lewiston Hill, or the Old Spiral Highway, as it drops 2,000 feet in 10 miles. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)
  • Heading into the city of Lewiston, stop at the overlook for panoramic views of the intersection of the Clearwater and Snake rivers and surrounding hills. Opt to drive Lewiston Hill, or the Old Spiral Highway, if you can stomach a drop of 2,000 feet in 10 miles and 64 curves.
Road sign on Lewiston Hill, Idaho
It’s recommended to take some ess curves on Lewiston Hill, or the Old Spiral Highway, at 15 miles per hour. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)
  • After Lewiston, US 95 follows the stunning Salmon River from south of White Bird to Riggins, with many places to stop to camp, fish or just take in the view along the way. Just before Riggins, you’ll leave the Pacific Time Zone and enter Mountain Time Zone as the road crosses the Salmon River.

Two alternative roads off  US 95 in Idaho also are worth a drive for their spectacular scenery.

State Highway 97 near Coeur D’Alene: Starting near Wolf Lodge on U.S. Highway 90, the road meanders along Harrison Slough and some small lakes. Continue to Plummer or loop back on State Highway 3.

State Highway 55 at New Meadows: This road shadows the Payette River, with especially pretty sections at Cascade, Smiths Ferry and Banks.

Payette River, Idaho
Idaho State Highway 55 offers views like this of the Payette River and surrounding mountains. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)