Ever since I moved to the Denver area, I had started plans for a quick road trip to explore the three national parks within the Dakota states. I had already had the opportunity to visit the most famous Dakota site on a major road trip I had done with my mother in 2003 – the Mount Rushmore Memorial, but this was my chance to visit Wind Cave National Park, Badlands National Park, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As the ten day weather report finally showed a period of seventy degree temperatures in the week leading up to the Memorial Day weekend, it seemed like a perfect time for me to make the trip.
I started out at midday and headed north to Hot Springs, South Dakota, a town just south of Wind Cave National Park. I spent the night at a local motel, then headed up to the park in the morning. Just inside the south park entrance, I and a few other visitors came upon a small bison herd enjoying the hilly grasslands around the visitor center. One male bison decided to take a stand on the road, delaying the small line of cars heading both ways on the road. It was a perfect opportunity to take pictures. Once past the bison herd, I headed up to the visitor center in time to take the first tour of the morning.
Wind Cave is one of the longest cave systems in the world. However, its passageways were one of the thinnest and tightest I had ever been through. In fact, the natural entrance that our tour was shown would barely allow a baby to pass through and looked more like a rocky rabbit hole. It was because of this feature that Wind Cave got its name. Inside the cave system, the lack of large openings to the outer world was instrumental in the cave being able to maintain a steady air pressure within its passages, but at the small openings where the cave connected with the external atmosphere, the normal changes in air pressure from high and low weather systems outside would cause the cave to “breathe” in or out. In order to maintain this standard pressure within the cave, the manmade entrances that were built to allow tour access have a double door system, an outer door to allow access into a gathering room, then once this outer door was sealed, the inner door was opened to give the tour group access to downward steps into the lower lit passage. The unique geology of the cave provided interesting wall features like popcorn and boxwork, but large stalagmites and stalactites were not evident in these tight cave passages. At one point, the ranger guide turned off the lights to give our small tour a chance to truly witness absolute darkness. Wind Cave is definitely not for the claustrophobic, even mildly.
After exploring Wind Cave, I headed north towards North Dakota. Just a few miles from Wind Cave, I stopped at a rest stop and took a photo of the Crazy Horse Memorial, still being sculpted in the Black Hills. During the 2003 road trip with my mother, we had stopped to examine the memorial and visit the adjoining visitor center and museum after viewing the Mount Rushmore Memorial nearby. The sculpting of the Crazy Horse Memorial had begun in 1949, but as it is being funded through a nonprofit system, the main progress was just the face and general shape of the mountain sculpture in 2003. Now, looking at it in 2016, I could only see minor progress in the memorial project.
Continuing on into North Dakota, I was able to reach I-94 by around five in the afternoon. I thought I might try to slip into Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit for a quick run-through, but discovered that the visitor center was closed by four-thirty. I was able to stop at the Painted Canyon Overlook just off the Interstate and get some afternoon shots of the striated rock and grassland landscape. My reasoning behind trying to get into the park at this time was due to the somewhat unique outlay of this national park. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is actually divided into two major units with a third small unit between them. What is especially unique about this is the distance between the two units of over sixty miles, basically a two hour round trip between the two units. The North Unit could only be reached from one US route, so I could not just check out this unit along the way to the next national park. I checked into the local hotel in preparation of exploring the South Unit in the morning.
I entered the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park the next morning and stopped in at the visitor center. Behind the visitor center was the Maltese cross cabin that Theodore Roosevelt lived in shortly after his wife and mother both died on the same day in 1884, an amazing historical structure. At the visitor center, I asked about what I would see at the North Unit and was told by a ranger that the environment, although basically the same, was more rugged and had a wonderful view of the Little Missouri River along the viewing road. Roosevelt also had another home in the North Unit, but it was no longer there. I spent the rest of the morning exploring the South Unit on its loop road, checking out bison herds, prairie dog towns, some feral horses, hiking trails along badland hills and grasslands, and panoramic overlooks, including one next to a section of the Little Missouri River. As I finished the loop, I debated whether the two hour round trip to the North Unit as well as the potential hour or so traveling the overlook road would add much more to what I had seen. I decided I had explored and come to understand the landscape that Theodore Roosevelt had come to love within the South Unit and decided to move on to the next location where I had motel reservations near Badlands National Park.
To be continued…