Dakota National Park Tour – Part 2

Halfway through my Dakota trip, I had the opportunity to explore the tight confines of Wind Cave National, checked up on the status of the Crazy Horse Memorial, and had explored what had inspired Theodore Roosevelt to highly promote the national park system during his time as president in the national park named after him. Now, I was heading east away from South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park on I-94 in a loop that would take me down to Badlands National Park. As I drove, the clouds darkened above me and the afternoon sun behind me created a marvelous arched rainbow against these clouds. Perhaps I saw it as a good luck charm. I-94 took me through the capital of North Dakota, Bismarck, but there wasn’t much to see from the highway. A few miles east of the capital, I exited I-94 and headed south towards South Dakota and its capital, Pierre (which I am told is pronounced like pier by the locals). Pierre is one of the few state capitals not connected or serviced by an interstate highway, so my US route took me straight into the center of the city. I wound up stopping for a Chinese buffet dinner just a few miles from the capitol building. As I left Pierre and headed south to connect with I-90, just a few miles east of the motel I had made reservations near Badlands National Park, the clouds began to darken again. I was able to reach the motel in time before the thunderstorm opened up. I was beginning to experience and understand the severe weather that builds around the Great Plains at this time of year.

The next morning, skies were clear, and I headed towards Badlands National Park. At the interstate exit to the northeast entrance to the park, I noticed the visitor center to an interesting and important historic park, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Even though I decided not to stop because of the tight scheduling of my tour, it reminded me how this country was able to use the open spaces of the plains to hide a major part of our country’s defense in the modern era. I headed south into Badlands National Park.

Southwest panoramic view from Bigfoot Pass.

Southwest panoramic view from Bigfoot Pass.

Badlands geology is interesting to view, sedimentary strata of mainly white and red rock that is exposed on hills and canyon walls, with a section of yellow rock mounds in one part of the park. It was created by the huge sea that used to exist down the middle of North America until the land rose up, draining the sea and creating the Great Plains. I had viewed this badlands geology in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. However, within Badlands National Park, the geology was sharper with craggy spires and a higher contrast between the red and white strata colors. In one section, a hiking trail explored a section where fossil remnants from prehistoric creatures are still being uncovered. Badlands does support the same types of bison and groundhogs that I saw in Theodore Roosevelt National Park; however, during my visit, I only came upon one deer hiding behind some shrubs on a trail. The canyons and mounds of Badlands appears to be closer to the expansive great plains to the east than the Black Hills to the west, as I was able to view long open stretches of vibrant green grass fields heading away from the canyon bottoms and out from the tops of the canyon rims along the loop road. The road that traveled along the badlands walls was called a loop road because it somewhat paralleled I-90 to the north with two park entrances on either side of this road section that connected back up to I-90. This allowed me to exit the park at this west entrance, then loop back east on I-90 to the exit that led to the eastern entrance. Only I passed this exit and took the next exit south, heading down towards Scottsbluff, Nebraska.

As I traveled down the state routes towards Nebraska, the severe weather patterns of late spring that I had begun to experience in previous afternoons along this trip suddenly demonstrated their greatest fury when I found myself driving through a thundering hail storm. It didn’t help that I was stuck behind a semi-trailer at the time the storm struck. However, my faithful car persevered, and I passed through the storm before arriving in Scottsbluff. This was the last stop on my road tour, and I checked into my hotel in preparation of my final day of the tour.

Pioneer wagons at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Pioneer wagons at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

The small city of Scottsbluff grew up in the Platte River valley next to a major landmark the early pioneers used as they made their way along the Oregon Trail, a large rocky bluff named for an early fur company employee that mysteriously met his death near this bluff in 1838. The bluff and the pass between it and the neighboring Wildcat Hills are protected within Scotts Bluff National Monument. In the morning of my final day of my tour, I stopped at the visitor center within this pass next to the bluff and walked a short trail up to a point where the Oregon Trail officially snacked its way westward. Some representative covered wagons presented the history that brought pioneers here on their way west. I walked back to my car and drove up a road that snaked up through a few tunnels to the top of the bluff. From the top of the bluff, I was able to see a broad landscape both east and west, showing why this rocky bluff was such a major landmark in the expansion of America. After enjoying this perspective of history, I headed back down the bluff road, got on the interstate, and headed back to Denver. I was home in time for lunch. This tour was a short trip, but it was also an impressive tour of history and geology.

Dakota National Park Tour – Part 1

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.

A bison enjoys the grasslands within Wind Cave National Park.

A bison enjoys the grasslands within Wind Cave National Park.

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.

Boxwork formation on a cave wall in Wind Cave National Park.

Boxwork formation on a cave wall in Wind Cave National Park.

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.

Crazy Horse Memorial still in progress in 2016.

Crazy Horse Memorial still in progress in 2016.

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.

Theodore Roosevelt's preserved Maltese Cross cabin in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt’s preserved Maltese Cross cabin in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

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.

The Little Missouri River from Wind Canyon Overlook in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The Little Missouri River from Wind Canyon Overlook in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

To be continued…