Saturday, August 28, 2010

South Dakota - The Mammoth Site

After a wonderful visit to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, we drove into Hot Springs and had lunch at a restaurant called Woolly's Mammoth Family Fun. Lynda had a bison-burger that she said was very good and much better than one she tried in Canada. If the name of this restaurant seems odd, consider that Hot Springs is home to the Mammoth Site and there are many businesses in town that capitalize on this attraction.

The Mammoth Site is the world's largest Columbian mammoth exhibit, and a world-renown research center for Pleistocene studies - visiting scientists have come from Mexico, Italy, Netherlands, Great Britain, Russia, and Germany.

In 1974, the area now known as the Mammoth Site was a soon-to-be housing development. During the early stages of preparing the land for construction, several artifacts were exposed. Fortunately for the world, the developer, Phil Anderson, stopped operations so the items could be examined. The artifacts turned out to be mammoth teeth, and then additional investigation led to the discovery of a complete skull and tusk. Donations, some made by local citizens, along with work performed by amateur and professional excavators, led to the site's status as a museum, and it was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1980.

Escavation and research has determined that a sinkhole formed 26,000 years ago which was then filled by a warm artesian spring. Numerous animals, including Columbia and Woolly mammoths, were attracted into the sinkhole by the warm water and pond vegetation, and then could not get out because of the steep sides and loose shale. Over the next 400-700 years, the sinkhole slowly filled with layers of dead animals, and drying silt and sediments; the mud which had aided in trapping the animals entombed and preserved their remains.

Eventually the sinkhole became completely filled. And then over thousands of years the hardened mud inside the sinkhole remained stable while the surrounding dirt and shale eroded, exposing the sinkhole as a hill. And it was upon this hill that excavation for a housing development was taking place in 1974.

The Mammoth Site is now fully enclosed in a climate controlled building, and the museum and dig site attracts visitors year round. The bones are displayed "in-situ" (as they were discovered)  in the now dry pond sediments. So far, 55 mammoths have been identified, along with the remains of a giant short-faced bear, camel, llama, prairie dog, wolf, fish, and numerous invertebrates. Fossils of several varieties of plant life have also been found.

We both enjoyed the Mammoth Site, although I found the young (9-11th grade) guides to be somewhat monotoned in their presentation. Nonetheless, it is definitely an interesting place to visit and you could spend several hours there, depending on your level of interest in such things.  We managed to get some pretty good photos...

And so we left Hot Springs and returned "home" to the TeePee Campground & RV Park. After being in Rapid City for a week, we're getting ready to leave tomorrow to continue our travels eastward. Lynda took care of some laundry while I cleaned the car to get rid of Badlands dust, lots of dog hair, and yucky nose smears on the windows!  We  put 900 miles on that rental car this week - it served us well.

Stay tuned!

South Dakota - Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary

Our original plan was to turn in the rental car yesterday and then drive the Trek to the Wild Horse Sanctuary and stay on one of their RV pads for a couple nights. Anyway, we had to ditch this because of the delay in getting the Trek repaired. So we extended the car rental and paid for a couple additional nights at TeePee Campground & RV Park.  If nothing else, we've learned to be flexible!

We left the dogs in the Trek this morning and made our way to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, which is about a 70-mile drive south of Rapid City.

The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary is actually part of the Institute of Range and American Mustang (IRAM), a non-profit corporation founded by Dayton Hyde in 1988. IRAM owns and manages 11,000 acres of private land dedicated to range preservation and a balanced ecosystem.

The specific purpose of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary is to provide life and freedom to unadoptable and unwanted wild horses, and to contribute herd management research for the well-being of wild horses everywhere. The sanctuary is home to more than 600 wild Mustangs, and also a mixed herd of wild American Spanish and Sulphur Mustangs. Here's a brief lesson about wild horses in America: 

Mustangs are American wild horses that are indirect descendants of Spanish horses brought to Central and North America in the 1700s. Apaches captured highly bred and well-trained Spanish horses from Mexican villages and breeding farms, and traded them northward with other tribes. Some of these Spanish horses then became lost or escaped, and many survived to roam freely across the open plains. In those early days, a feral Spanish-blooded horse was called a mesteño, meaning "stray" or "wild," and this became the root of the word Mustang.

As colonization of the Americas expanded, the English, French and Dutch also imported horses such as Morgans, Percherons, Belgians, and Clydesdales. Like the Spanish horses, some of these horses also escaped or became lost, and then they bred with the wild herds of Spanish horses. By the 1800's, the Mustang had evolved into a different animal than a pure Spanish wild horse, except for one important characteristic: hardiness. Other attributes of Mustangs are high endurance, extremely strong herding instinct, very hard hoofs, and superior agility. Herds have adapted to the conditions of their locations and so Mustangs that live in cold climates are shaggy and small, and desert Mustangs can survive on remarkably small amounts of food and water.

Over time, these wild horses multiplied until thousands, perhaps millions, roamed the American plains. The US Calvary captured Mustangs from these herds and put them into service, and so did ranchers and farmers. But the wild herds were competing with settlers for land and grass and, by the mid 1800s, Mustangs were being shot on sight and rounded up by the thousands to be slaughtered for food and other products. In 1971, Congress passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act which made the controlling and harvesting of Mustangs illegal. But then the Mustang population grew so quickly that control and management of the herds became a major concern. In response to this, the Bureau of Land Management began an adoption program that continues today.  However, not all Mustangs are good candidates for adoption and this is where the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary comes into the picture.

We arrived in plenty of time to explore the little gift shop and read a copy of the latest newsletter that was laying around. A family of four arrived and then our guide pulled up in a van to take the six of us on what turned out to be a very interesting tour of the sanctuary.  As he drove us around, our guide told us the history of the American Mustang and how carefully the sanctuary is run in order to have the least impact on the natural state of the horses.  For example, they don't have round-ups and they let nature take its course rather than treating sick horses. In times of drought, however, they do put containers out with water so the horses can drink. We were very fortunate to see a lot of horses, although we drove around for a while before we found the herd.  We made several stops and were able to get out of the van for a closer look and photo-taking. 

Shortly before returning to the visitor center, our guide took us to see the mixed herd of Spanish and Sulphur Mustangs, which occupies a bounded area separated from the regular Mustangs.

American Spanish and Sulphur Mustangs are direct descendants of wild Spanish horses and have little, if any, DNA from other horse breeds. They are highly intelligent with an innate sense of self-preservation and legendary endurance. The American Spanish Mustang comes in a full range of solid colors including black, bay, brown, chestnut, sorrel, grullo, zebra and red dun, buckskin, palomino, and cremello. Sulphur Mustangs are usually line-backed duns and grullos, but can have the color variations found in Spanish Mustang. 

In addition to seeing the horses, we also visited a petroglyph site, saw the Crazy Horse movie set (from a distance), learned more about Native American history, and saw the Sundance ceremony site that the Lakota use every summer.  Our 2-hour tour actually lasted almost 3 hours, and we really appreciated the extra time and effort our guide put in to make the experience so enjoyable.  By the time we left, we certainly knew a lot more about American wild horses than when we arrived! Click here for photos...

In today's fast-paced, money-focused way of life, I find it comforting to know there are people such as Dayton Hyde who put nature and conservation ahead of personal gain, and help keep our world in balance.

We left the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary and drove to Hot Springs for some lunch and to visit the Mammoth Site. But that's another story... stay tuned!

Friday, August 27, 2010

South Dakota - Locks, Memorials, Presidents, and a Fixed AutoPark Brake!

Well, it's been quite a day and it all started when I woke up and went to take the dogs out... and the door would not open.  That's right, the deadbolt was stuck in the locked position!  I fiddled around with it for several minutes while the dogs jumped up and down, barking incessantly to go out.  What a nice and peaceful start to a new day!

I ended up going out the window above the couch.  It was little embarrassing but we couldn't just sit inside and wait for a miracle.  I was finally able to open the door from the outside using the key. I took the deadbolt apart but couldn't find anything obviously wrong, except the damn thing kept sticking. We needed to get the Trek back over to the Chevrolet Truck Service Center by 10:30 AM and the clock was ticking on getting this lock issue fixed. So I drove over to a nearby Ace Hardware store and bought a new deadbolt.  I had to modify it a bit so it would fit but we got the Trek dropped off in time.

Then the four of us, dogs included, headed south to visit Mount Rushmore. We were both somewhat indifferent about visiting this Memorial; I'm not sure why but it did not inspire much excitement in either of us. Anyway, we agreed it would be foolish to be so close and yet not visit Mount Rushmore and so off we went. We knew we would not be able to walk around with the dogs, but had to take them anyway because the Trek was in the shop. And so we decided to do what we had done the day before at the Crazy Horse Memorial: take turns staying with Sydney and Barley in the parking lot while the other person visited the Memorial. This worked out well and we each spent about 45 minutes at the Memorial which, in the case of Mount Rushmore, was a fairly decent amount of time.

What is interesting is that by the time each of us visited the Memorial, we both decided that Mount Rushmore is interesting and was well worth the visit! Click here to see some photos...

It was still pretty early when we left Mount Rushmore. I called the Chevy place and the service manager told me they had installed the part and the AutoPark brake was working, but they were having trouble with the brake light on the dashboard - it was staying on. I told him this had not been an issue before I took the Trek in to them and he agreed they needed to fix it.

So we had some time to kill before the Trek would be ready. We drove back into Rapid City, bought some Mexican fast food, and went to a nearby park to eat and then walk the dogs. I called the Chevy place again and they still had not fixed the dashboard light issue; the service manager sounded frustrated (welcome to my world, I thought).  By now it was 3 PM and I was starting to worry they would run out of time.

Anyway, we decided to go to the historic downtown area of Rapid City and take a closer look at the City of Presidents, which is a series of life-size bronze statues of past presidents placed at city street intersections. These statues are really well done, and we had fun walking along the downtown streets; the dogs seemed to enjoy it also.  Click here to see some photos.

We managed to look at about half the statues when the Chevy Truck service manager called to say they had fixed the problem!  Yay!

So we went to pick up the Trek and, after talking with the service manager, I realized they had fixed the dashboard light problem by replacing a switch for which I had a brand-new spare on board.  They were charging me $75 for the same switch I had purchased for $34.  After some discussion, the Parts Dept manager agreed to take my brand new switch to restock his parts bin and drop the part charge off the bill. 

So after 2 1/2  months and over 9,000 miles, the AutoPark brake is finally fixed! Sad to say, the brake problem that started back in early June at Yosemite National Park cost me $2,030 and four visits to various shops to get completely fixed.  Well, that's just the way things go sometimes and there's no point dwelling on it.  I'm just darn happy the ordeal is finally over!

More adventure to follow - stay tuned!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

South Dakota - Crazy Horse Memorial and Unending AutoPark Brake Issue

Well today has been a mixed bag: we went to see the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is good, but the Trek is still not fixed, which is bad.  Let me explain...

We got up early this morning and got ready for the day - we unhooked the Trek, battened down the hatches, and went by the dump station to empty the tanks.  Then I drove the Trek to the Chevrolet Truck Service Center in Rapid City with Lynda following in the rental car.  I spoke with the service manager, who was concerned that the part they ordered was (a) the right part, and (b) the only part they would need to fix the issue.  I told him that the service manager in Grand Rapids had assured me this is exactly what needed to be done and so we should be fine.

Then off we went, including the dogs, in the rental car to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial.  I had done some research online that indicated the Crazy Horse Memorial was pet-friendly. Unfortunately, it wasn't as pet friendly as I had thought or hoped and it was too hot to leave the dogs in the car. Nor could we take them inside the Welcome Center or the Museum. So Lynda and I took turns staying with Sydney and Barley under a shade tree in the parking lot while the other person went inside for about 45 minutes. It was the best we could do under the circumstances, but I wish we could have toured the place together and taken a great deal more time to look at the exhibits.

Despite those obstacles, I loved being there! The Crazy Horse Memorial is an absolute must see, and the Indian Museum is probably the best of its kind in the US, perhaps even North America.

The Memorial itself is amazing, even in its unfinished state. And the sculptor behind the Memorial was a remarkable person. 

When Korczak Ziolkowski and Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear officially started Crazy Horse Memorial in 1948 they had hardly anything in the way of money or even projected funding. Since then, for the past 60 years, Ziolkowski  and others banded together and would not give up - they simply made it happen. In a lot of ways, I think the Crazy Horse Memorial has allowed people to be at their best, which is certainly a welcomed contrast to darker days of mistreatment and duplicity.

Although he passed away in 1982, Ziolkowski's family continues to play a major role in the sculpting and oversight of the Crazy Horse Memorial.

The Memorial is a private, non-profit undertaking financed by admission fees and contributions, and does not accept any government funding. Based on what I've read, it seems that because of excellent management and the generous contributions of thousands of donars at all levels, the Memorial is in pretty good fiscal shape, although this is apparently never taken for granted and fund-raising is ongoing.

While we were still visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial, I got a phone call from the Chevrolet Truck service manager.  Although the part I had them install was needed to repair the Trek, a second part was also needed and it would have to be ordered. The only way to get it in time to finish the work the next day, Friday, was to have it shipped over night. I have to say I was pretty aggravated... not at the hapless guy on the phone but at the sorry SOB in Grand Rapids who gave me incomplete information.

So what choice did I have?  I asked the service manager to go ahead and have the part expedited, and to ask his mechanic put the Trek back together because we had to come get it for the evening.

And so we drove back into Rapid City, picked up the Trek, and returned to the campground. We are relaxing tonight and tomorrow, once again, we'll pack up the Trek and take it to the service center. I just hope that the part comes in as ordered and they get the job finished!

We'll see.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

South Dakota - Presidents, Slides, Mysteries, and Bears

Today was another great day - there is so much to do and see around Rapid City and we really packed in a lot of activities today. I know I already said this, but I am so glad we ended up staying at the TeePee Campground & RV Park instead of Ellsworth Air Force Base; we are much closer here to most things than we would have been at Ellsworth!

We started today by driving a few miles south to the town of Keystone where we visited the Presidential Wax Museum.  It was time well spent, although some of the figures are better done than others. This museum is more than just a collection of costumed wax figures on display. Figures are carefully arranged into scenes depicting important events and you can listen to on-demand narrations about the events and/or the people. The overall experience was interesting and educational. Click here to see some photos.

After visiting the Presidential Wax Museum, we decided to go across the street and take ride on the Alpine slide.  Lynda and I have both been on mountain slides before, although its been a several years. Actually, the last time Lynda rode one of these, she was showing off and ended up shooting out of the track and breaking a couple ribs!  Today, she promised, would be different.

And so we bought a couple tickets and went on up.  I was pleasantly surprised at how nicely this place is landscaped with pretty little gardens and colorful flowers. There is also a good view from the top of Mount Rushmore, and so we got our first look at this iconic memorial from the alpine slide. Who says silly pastimes can't lead to education and enlightenment?

Anyway, after relaxing a bit at the top we went ahead and rode the slide on down.  I love these things!  In fact, I enjoy just about any roller-coaster, adrenaline-type ride there is!  I actually got down to the bottom far enough ahead of Lynda to move my sled out of the way and get the camera out. Here comes Lynda!

After riding the Alpine slide, we headed back toward Rapid City but stopped at the Cosmos Mystery Area.  We decided to check this place out because a young lady that worked in a gas station in Buffalo, Wyoming told Lynda this is a MUST SEE place.

The Cosmos Mystery Area is a place that claims to defy the law of gravity. It is a strange place where one can actually feel forces pressing against them.  How is this possible? What is the cause? Well, the Cosmos Mystery Area is situated over a a magnetic hill where the layout of the surrounding land produces the optical illusion that a very slight downhill slope appears to be an uphill slope.

Whatever the explanation, let me tell you we had some real fun at Cosmos! We were part of a group of around 15 people led by a young man who took us through a series of demonstrations designed to boggle the mind and show the awesome power of the Cosmos "force". From people changing heights on level platforms to water flowing uphill, to sitting on a wall... it was all very entertaining!

By the time we left the Cosmos Mystery Area, we were ready for lunch and so we drove past the campground and went to Ruby Tuesday's to feast at the salad bar.  And then we headed back to the Trek to spend some time with Sydney and Barley.

I have to say these two dogs have been great!  We've been leaving them loose in the Trek for longer and longer periods of time and they have behaved perfectly!  In fact, we're now up to 8 hours or so with no chewed-up cushions (or anything else), no messes, nothing bad or unpleasant.  When we leave them alone like that, we turn on the radio or TV on so they have some "company" and it certainly seems to work.  Sydney and Barley have proven to be excellent travel companions!

After spending an hour or so with the dogs and taking them for a nice long walk around the campground, Lynda and I headed back out to visit Bear Country USA, which is just a mile or two from the campground. I had read reviews on this place and they were all glowing but I still harbored the thought that is was essentially an overblown petting zoo.  I was so wrong!

First of all, the collection of animals is very impressive. We saw grizzly and black bears, arctic wolves (they look like Barley), badgers, beavers, bighorn sheep, lynx, coyote, bobcat, mule deer, mountain goats, elk, porcupines, raccoons, red fox, reindeer, river otters, skunks, timber wolves, and even a white bison! Some of these animals live in generous enclosures along a 3-mile driving route (you must keep your windows rolled up), and others live in large enclosures along pedestrian walk-ways, like you would find in a zoo.

Secondly, the place itself was impressive. It is spotlessly clean, very well maintained, and beautifully landscaped.  The animal enclosures are well built and each is generously sized according to what type animal it is housing. The animals all looked very healthy.

I highly recommend a visit to Bear Country USA if you have the chance. Children are sure to love it and so will the grown ups!  Click here to look at our photos.

And so we've enjoyed another fun day in South Dakota. We will be taking the Trek in to be worked on tomorrow and then we'll load the dogs up in the rental car and take them with us to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

South Dakota - Commodes and Horses

When we got back from the Badlands National Park yesterday evening, we discovered the commode was broken. It was late and we were tired and so we decided to deal with it in the morning... this morning.

What a fabulous way to start the day!!!

I read the commode user guide (yes, there is such a thing) and, after doing a little online research, I figured out that we needed a certain repair kit to replace cables and some other parts. I also discovered there is an RV parts supply place just a couple miles south of the campground.  So I called them to see if they had the repair kit in stock and they did - we were in luck!  Well, that is if you consider it a lucky thing to have to pull a commode apart. I won't go into detail here, but it was most unpleasant. Ugh. Anyway, I had the commode fixed and re-installed by 11 AM.  Not bad, eh?  And, after a very hot shower with lots of soap, I was refreshed and ready to go horseback riding.

We had 2 PM reservations with Paradise Valley Trail Rides in Nemo, South Dakota and so we left the campground around 1 PM to have plenty of time to get there. Uh, sure... unless your GPS is trying to navigate you over streams and up undeveloped mountain sides! Well after a while, it was evident that we were not heading the right way. So I called the stables and a very patient man gave me proper directions. Once we got going on the correct roads, it was a beautiful drive through the Black Hills National Forest - and we were only about 15 minutes late. They did not seem to mind.

Lynda and I were interested to learn that a good many of the horses in the Paradise Valley stables are mustangs that were saddle-broken by prisoners. These horses are branded with numbers that, if you know how to interpret them, will tell you where and when the mustang was captured and what prison system gentled him.  The horse that I rode was named Felon and we thought that was very appropriate, considering his origins.

Anyway, our wrangler took us on a one-hour ride through the Black Hills over some of the same territory traveled by Custer and his troops.  He was knowledgeable about the area and shared his personal opinion as to how poorly Native Americans had been treated  - he definitely has a great deal of sympathy for the Native Americans, and so do we.

Although we usually enjoy longer rides, we had signed up for just one hour  and it was a good thing! I've been having trouble with sciatica for a some time now and, although it has never bothered me before when I've been riding, it sure did today. Who knows, perhaps the girth of the horse or the shape of the saddle set it off.  Not wanting to cut the ride short or cast a shadow on our little adventure, I didn't say anything but I was very glad to get back to the stables!

And so here we are hanging out in the Trek, watching movies and eating popcorn. Lynda has done some laundry, we've had some good food for dinner, and the commode works.  I just don't know what else a person could want!

Tomorrow, we're going to visit the National Presidential Wax Museum, perhaps take a run down the Alpine Slide in Keystone, check out the Cosmos Mystery Area, and visit Bear Country USA. It's going to be a busy day - stay tuned!

Monday, August 23, 2010

South Dakota - Badlands and Wall Drugs

Well, we've already had an eventful time since arriving in the Rapid City area! Today we drove out to the Badlands National Park, which is a 180-mile round trip, and then visited the famous Wall Drugs on the way back.

The Badlands was very impressive and we are glad to have made the trip! Some factoids: this park encompasses nearly 243,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires blended with the largest, protected mixed grass prairie in the United States. Badlands National Park contains the world's richest Oligocene epoch fossil beds, dating 23 to 35 million years old, and fossils have been found here that prove ancient mammals such as the rhino, horse, and saber-toothed cat once roamed the area.

Badlands National Park also provides refuge to a variety of wildlife, including bison, bighorn sheep, deer, pronghorn, and prairie dogs.

We drove around the park (see yellow highlighted route on the map), stopping the car occasionally to walk around and take photos. Along with amazing rock formations, we saw bison, pronghorn, and a coyote.

Later in the day, we joined a ranger-led discussion about some of the fossils found in the park and that was quite interesting also.  

I think my most favorite area was the Yellow Mounds - take a look at the photos and you'll see why!  We decided to leave the park by the east entrance, intending to visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Anyway, we ended up not even stopping as the sign indicated we had missed the last tour of the day. C'est la vie!

On our way from Rapid City to the Badlands, we had passed lots of signs for Wall Drugs, which Lynda remembered from the hilarious book Queen of the Road. According to various web sites, Wall Drug was a tiny store opened by Ted and Dorothy Hustead in 1931. They were struggling to stay in business when Dorothy came up with the idea that Ted should put up a sign on the highway advertising free ice water at Wall Drug. At the time, every drug store gave away free ice water and so this idea seemed a little silly. But, so the story goes, Ted put up the sign anyway and by the time he got back, thirsty tourists were lining up for their free ice water. When Ted realized that signs could draw customers, he put up painted wood signs proclaimed "Wall I'll Be Drugged" and "Wall Drug Or Bust" in every state of the union. In fact, at their peak in the 1960s, Wall Drug had over 3,000 highway signs scattered around the nation. Ted and Dorothy's son, Bill, took over the business in the 1970s and it has grown exponentially since then.

And so, after leaving the Badlands, we decided to stop at Wall Drugs on our way back to Rapid City. To be honest, neither Lynda or I cared for it one bit. Wall Drugs is now a 200% commercialized enterprise that encompasses an entire town block and sells everything from t-shirts, to coffee mugs, to key chains, to photo-ops with a giant jackalope - they have perfected numerous ways to part a tourist from his money. Oh well, some folks love this kind of kitsch and so each to their own!  We had an early dinner at a local restaurant and then headed back to to Rapid City.

We made it back to TeePee Campground and all was well.  It had really been a good day but it was getting late and we were tired, and so neither of us was particularly happy when Lynda discovered the commode is not working properly - the trap is not opening to let the contents go into the holding tank. Our plan is to deal with this in the morning... its too late to tackle this now and we can use the campground restroom until we get the commode fixed. The only real concern is that we have horseback riding reservations tomorrow afternoon and so I'll be getting up early to get this commode problem sorted out in the morning.  Grrrreat!

Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Rapid City, South Dakota - Settling In

Our drive from Devil's Tower to the Rapid City area was only around 120 miles. We left the Belle Fourche Campground yesterday morning, August 21st and arrived at Ellsworth Air Force Base (AFB) in the early afternoon, after stopping at the Airport to pick up a rental car.

We planned to stay at the Ellsworth RV park and do our sightseeing from there - we would be in this area for about a week, seeing as much as possible and getting the Autopark brake fixed. In fact, while we were at Yellowstone I had set up an appointment with the Rapid City Chevrolet Truck Service Center to work on the issue.  I gave them the part number the place in Grand Rapids told me was needed and they had it on order. The plan was to take the Trek in on Thursday and they would do the work.

Because the RV park at Ellsworth AFB does not accept reservations, we just went over there in the hope they would have a vacancy. Well, this did not turn out as planned but, as with many other events in life, things worked out for the best anyway.

When we arrived at Ellsworth, a very uptight camp host launched into a 10-minute briefing that hammered the Base Commander's stance on safety and security. The briefing was very detailed and entirely verbal, and the host reacted belligerently when I suggested that written information would be helpful to refer to later. I was very surprised by his reaction... that guy needs to relax or he might blow a gasket! Anyway, we agreed to use the Overflow area that night on the chance a site would open up the next day. Ironically, and in contrast to the briefing’s focus on security and safety, the Overflow area is in a very unsafe environment - it backs up to an open field with very tall dry grass, which is just a fire waiting to happen in that hot, prairie-wind environment. It was like being parked on the edge of Hades... in a motor home with a 60-gallon fuel tank. Between the wind and the heat, it really was awful.  We were both quite relieved when the camp host called the next morning to say that a regular site would not become available for us that day. When he asked if we would stay another night in Overflow, on the chance something would open up the following day, I was happy to tell him we would find a campground somewhere else.

As it turned out, we found a wonderful little place called TeePee Campground & RV Park which is on the south side of Rapid City.  It is at least 4 degrees cooler than at Ellsworth and the staff are very helpful. True, we only have power and water hookups but this is not a big deal because the shower facility is close by and it's very clean and functional. So, for only $2 more a day than Ellsworth, we will spend a week at a friendly campground in a better location. And so things did work out for the best!

Once we got settled at the campground earlier today, Lynda and I drove into Rapid City to visit the Journey Museum.  This museum is set up as a journey through the history of the Black Hills, starting with the Native American creation stories, moving into the 2.5 billion years of history in the rock record with the geology exhibit, paleontology, archaeology, Native American inhabitants, and finishing up with the pioneers that traveled west. It really is an awesome place!  We could have easily spent a couple more hours there but we ran out of time. Nonetheless, I'm glad we visited the Journey Museum and I highly recommend this place if you visit the Rapid City area!

On our way back to the campground, we stopped off and had dinner at La Costa restaurant - we love Mexican food and it had been a long time since we've had any - it was delicious!

So we now have the rest of our week planned out, and we are going to be busy! Here's some of the things we expect to do over the next several days:  visit the Badlands National Park, go horseback riding, visit the Crazy Horse Memorial, see Mount Rushmore, get the Trek's Autopark brake fixed, visit the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, and see the Mammoth Site.

As you can see, we have a busy week ahead of us -stay tuned!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Devil's Tower National Monument

Here are some "Did you know" factoids about this amazing place:

Devils Tower was designated as the nation’s first national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. The tower is an remarkable geological formation that rises 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River Valley and is about 1000 feet in diameter at the bottom. The top of Devils Tower is about the size of a football field and is slightly dome shaped and rocky, with native grasses, cacti, and sagebrush. The Tower is comprised of columns of phonolite porphyry, a type of rock that is similar in composition to granite but lacks quartz. You could compare the structure of the tower to a bunch of pencils held together by gravity. This formation was once hidden below the earth’s surface, but erosion stripped away the softer rock layers to reveal the Tower.

Native American tribes tell of various legends as to the origin, meaning and purpose of the Tower. One legend has it that a giant bear clawed the grooves into the mountainside while chasing several young Indian maidens. Known by several northern plains tribes as Bears Lodge, it is a sacred site of worship for many Native Americans, who leave offerings with the trees surrounding the tower.

Devils Tower was featured in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and is a very popular among rock climbers.

Sad to say, Lynda and I essentially had only one afternoon to explore Devil's Tower.  We could not drive the Trek up to the Visitor's Center because the parking lot cannot accommodate vehicles that large. And so we decided to take one of the hiking trails from the campground up to the Visitor's Center. Our goal was to get there no later than 4 PM because the center closes at 4:30 PM and we wanted to have time to look at the exhibits.  Anyway, we set off and then made a stop at the Circle of Sacred Smoke sculpture. This sculpture represents the first puff of smoke from a newly lit pipe and is designed to help raise visitor awareness of the importance of the tower to over twenty affiliated tribes.  It actually was very peaceful and pleasant to sit by the sculpture and admire the Tower.

But then, once we left the sculpture, we managed to forget to take the trail and went the long way by road! Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous and neither of us can explain why we had such a brain cramp... perhaps we inhaled that puff of smoke?  Anyway, we practically had to run to get there before the Visitors' Center closed. In spite of ourselves, we made it in time and were able to look around.

We then rested a while before beginning our hike on the Tower Trail, which goes around the base of the Tower. Because this trail is less than 1.5 miles long and there was plenty of daylight left, we knew we could take our time and enjoy the walk. And we certainly did!  The Tower looks different from every side, and it was so interesting to see the varied and numerous offerings in the trees. Lynda and I agreed that it is perfectly clear why Native Americans hold this place sacred... it is indeed an awesome and inspiring sight!

After we made our way completely around the Tower, we decided to take the Red Beds trail back to the campground.  This is the trail we should have taken from the campground, instead of the road. Anyway, this Red Beds trail was wonderful!  The going was easy, you just had to watch your footing, and we saw lots of wildlife. At one point we were walking along, just chatting about who-knows-what when all of a sudden I realized we were no more than 10 feet away from two fawns. Well, we caught them by surprise also because they gave us the craziest, wild-eyed look and then spun around and shot away!  We were so excited about our own "Close Encounter" at Devils' Tower!

Well we kept going and came upon more fawns. In fact, we ran into several sets of half-grown deer and, what was very interesting to me, they seemed to be in sets of two: male and female. They were skittish but did not run away - they would just maintain a comfortable distance and so I was able to get some pretty good photos.

We turned off the Red Beds trail to take the South Side trail which runs alongside "Prairie Dog Town" and goes to the campground.  So, of course, we had to stop and look at the prairie dogs which are very well fed (despite the signs asking people not to feed them) and quite bold, if not exactly tame. I don't know what it is about rodents in the wild, but they sure are cute!

We got back to the campground a little before 8 PM.  Sydney and Barely were happy to see us, as always.  They had done so well being left loose in the Trek for 5 hours during our unplanned hike around Jenny Lake a couple days before, that we decided not to crate them.  And they did not let us down!

Click here for photos of our visit to Devils Tower.

We're heading to Rapid City, South Dakota tomorrow.  We'll stay in that area for about a week to do some sightseeing and (finally) get the Autopark brake fixed. Stay tuned!

Grand Teton National Park to Devils Tower National Monument

We left Grand Teton National Park on Thursday, August 19th and began to make our way to Devil's Tower National Monument. We decided to make this a leisurely trip and take two days, stopping in Buffalo, Wyoming for the night and then rolling into the Devil's Tower area early the following afternoon.

So we left Grand Teton and, once again, drove through Yellowstone which by now is an old friend.  Except this time we turned right at Fishing Bridge and kept on going until we exited the park at the East gate. Highway 16 proved to be quite steep, which worried me a little because the Autopark (emergency) brake on the Trek is still not working.  Anyway, I was extra careful and downshifted to 2nd, and even 1st at one point, and we made it to the flat lands east of Yellowstone safe and sound.

That the drive to Buffalo was interesting, to say the least!  It started out fairly  innocuously, with us leaving Yellowstone and winding our way through Cody, Wyoming and onward. In fact, we stopped in Cody to pick up some supplies from Wal-Mart.  The scenery along the way was stellar (be sure to look at the photos), but the really interesting part came when we decided to take the US Route 14 Scenic Byway to traverse the Bighorn Mountains.

There was no sign, nothing, to warn that this route is a narrow windy road with a steep grade for 20 miles or more. I am just thankful that the Trek is only 28 feet long or we could have found ourselves in a real pickle! As we drove up and up and up, we wound around craggy limestone outcroppings and went past colorful stacks of granite and sandstone that, according to signs, is filled with fossil shells. All of this was very interesting and really quite beautiful but we couldn't stop to take a closer look. In fact, I was pretty sure that if I even slowed down too much we would never get going again. Even though the engine temperature gauge on the dashboard showed the Trek was running only a little above 50% temp, I knew that if I stopped, that radiator would bubble like a Yellowstone geyser!  And so we just kept on going and that intrepid Trek huffed and puffed until she hauled us up to the highest point: Granite Pass at 9003 feet.

When we popped out at the top, we found ourselves on what seemed to be a mountain plateau with cattle ranches and beautiful meadows. It was a little surreal!  As we drove along the level road, the Trek quickly cooled down but I was anxious we would have to go down a long, steep roadway and might have braking problems. Well, as it turned out, there was no need to be concerned - compared with our ascent, going down down the eastern slope of the Bighorn Mountains was a  piece of cake!

We arrived safely in Buffalo and found the Twin Creeks RV Park with no trouble.  By 7 PM, we were  settled in for the night and laughing about our journey up and over the Bighorn Mountains. You know, it wasn't funny at the time but these adventures have a way of being pretty entertaining... after the fact.

After a good night's sleep, we set off early this morning for Devil's Tower and arrived at the Belle Fourche Campground around 1:30 PM.  We got settled in and walked the dogs around. This is a wonderful campground that lays in the shadow of Devil's Tower. The sites are very large and there are cottonwood trees everywhere. There aren't any hookups, but we're prepared for that with plenty of fresh water and empty holding tanks. The camp hosts are very nice and told us we can run the generator as needed, except during quiet hours.

Unfortunately, our visit to Devil's Tower will be very short - we have to leave tomorrow for Rapid City, South Dakota.  And so we're off now to go hiking around the Tower.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Grand Teton National Park

After leaving Yellowstone National Park yesterday, we returned to the town of West Yellowstone to drop off the rental car and then back-tracked through Yellowstone to head south to Grand Teton. 

After a very pretty drive through Yellowstone and the northern part of Grand Teton National Park, we arrived at the Colter Bay Campground around 2 PM. Compared to the crowded, unpleasant conditions at Fishing Bridge RV Park, Colter Bay was a slice of heaven!  This campground has spacious sites with a picnic table, a fire ring, and lots of trees. Although there are no hookups, we don't mind because we have plenty of fresh water, empty holding tanks, and a generator for electricity.  

When we arrived yesterday afternoon, we decided just to relax for the rest of the day, rather than try to get in any sightseeing. After a busy time at Yellowstone, we really liked the idea of kicking back, cooking dinner, and watching a movie.  Imagine our surprise when Sydney alerted us to some visitors: a Mule deer mother and two fawns! This little family came within just a few yards of the Trek and, although they were cautious, the deer did not scatter when I slowly stepped outside to get some photos.  What a nice introduction to Grand Teton National Park!

Because we only had one full day at Grand Teton, we decided to drive the Trek to Jenny Lake today and go on a short guided hike out to Inspiration Point. The dogs would stay in the motor home for the 2-3 hours we would be gone and then we would take them for a nice long walk before returning to the campground.

So we set off bright and early this morning for the drive to the Jenny Lake Visitors Center. Along with some other Park visitors, we met up with the ranger around 8:20 AM and he told us we would take a boat ride across Jenny Lake and be dropped off on the other side to begin the 1.5-mile hike up to Inspiration Point. Before getting the ticket for the boat ride, he explained, we needed to decide whether we would return to the Visitor's Center via the boat or hike from Inspiration Point, around the lake, and back to the Visitor's Center. The ranger said the return hike would be about 3 miles long, if that is what we chose to do.  Lynda and I agreed we could use some extra exercise and so we just bought a one-way ticket for the boat ride. The ranger also warned us that bears are sighted quite frequently around the lake and so we needed to take common-sense precautions and stay alert.

By 8:45 AM, our little group was crossing Jenny Lake in the boat. It was a beautiful day, the scenery was gorgeous, and the lake was like a mirror.  It was also a little chilly but we had our jackets, along with a couple boxes of frozen apple juice in case we got thirsty later on.

The first mile of the hike was very easy, including a stop at Hidden Falls. The ranger stopped frequently to point out plants and flowers and tell us about area wildlife, such as picas (AKA pikas) that live in the rocks and boulders of the area. The last 1/2 mile up to Inspiration Point was pretty steep but everyone in the group was fine with the ascent, except for the youngest children who got to ride on their parents' backs.

At 7200 feet, the view from Inspiration Point was lovely, and we took a 10 minute break to take photos and rest a bit. At this point, the ranger gathered up all those that would return via the boat and reminded the rest of us to watch out for bears.  By now, Lynda and I had decided we would go on to the entrance of Cascade Canyon; the ranger said the flowers there were gorgeous and well worth the half-mile walk. And so off we went.

Well, after walking along for about 30 minutes and covering at least 3/4 of a mile, we decided the ranger was somehow mistaken. We saw no fields of flowers or any discernible entrance or transition to Cascade Canyon. So we turned around and headed back to Inspiration Point and then, from there, found the trail that would take us around Jenny Lake and back to the Visitor's Center. To make a long story fairly short, we walked and walked and walked, and then walked some more! We actually did not mind this unplanned excursion, except we were worried about the dogs being left for so long in the Trek. And we were very glad to have that apple juice.

The situation got more interesting when we started running into different people coming from the other direction who told us a bear was on on the trail. Lovely. So, as we went along, I loudly sang silly, nonsensical things like, "Here Bear, Scare Bear, There Bear" - all in an effort not to surprise Yogi or any other bears. I'm glad to say we got around the entire lake without seeing one bear, and that was fine by me!  We finally got back to the Visitor's Center around 1 PM and those dogs were very glad to see us. We had been so worried about them but Sydney and Barley were just fine, other than being lonely!

We looked at a trail map afterward and calculated that we hiked at least 7 miles. Well, this unplanned excursion was actually kind of fun, and we'll probably laugh about it for a long time!

The four of us left the Jenny Lake Visitor's Center and went back to Colter Campground to relax for the rest of the day. I have to admit Lynda and I are worn out by all the unplanned exercise!

Click here to see our photos of Grand Teton.

Tomorrow we're heading to Buffalo, Wyoming which will be just a one-night stop on our way to visit the Devil's Tower National Monument.