Pacific Northwest Road Trip – Part 4

Here it was the afternoon of the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend and the fifth day of my grand road tour of the Pacific Northwest in which I had experienced the perspective and wonder of four major national parks from Glacier NP in Montana to Washington’s diverse trio of North Cascades, Olympic, and Mount Rainier, but after I had exited Mount Rainier National Park, I had attempted to drive southward on a weather-beaten road to reach Mount St. Helens National Monument, a protected environment under the US Forest Service, which was created a few years after the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens in May of 1980 had decimated the surrounding area. However, twenty miles down this pot-holed, rocky, and gravel-roughed road, I was suddenly stopped by a sign and roadblock indicating the road beyond was still closed by winter snows. I pulled into a nearby campsite parking area and pulled out the printed computer itinerary I had created for the trip. Within the line details of the route, I noticed that I was supposed to take a southbound local road from another town to the west of the town where I had followed the road sign. The road I was on headed down the eastern side of Mount St. Helens, away from the western entrance where the informative visitor center was located. However, if I drove back up to the main road and tried to find this other unmarked local road, I realized I could find it difficult to stay on course. I could hear my friend’s voice in my head telling me that this is what a GPS app was for. Of course, I could take the main road back to Interstate 5, then drive south to the Mount St. Helens exit, then drive back east to the visitor center, but this would add a couple of hours, if not more, to the day, and it was already the mid-afternoon. I decided that I needed to pass up Mount St. Helens and move on. I had accomplished the main goal of checking off four national parks from my trip bucket list and the remainder of my itinerary was to visit a couple of national monuments on the way back to Colorado.

I put my car through the suffering of going back up the rough twenty miles to the main road and headed for Interstate 5. Once on Interstate 5, I headed south to Portland. I had thought it might be a good idea to drive through downtown Portland, but the earlier delays of the day made me decide to take the 205 bypass around Portland to connect with Interstate 84 and head east to the small town of Pendleton, where I had made my motel reservation.

The next day, Memorial Day, I got up early and headed back onto Interstate 84 towards Idaho. I had commented in part 2 of this multi-part blog post that this trip had another goal of upgrading Idaho on my bucket list. I had first visited Idaho in the spring of my first year of college when I had visited my birthplace of Burns, Oregon, and had taken the bus to Boise to catch a plane back to Los Angeles. This was before I had a decent camera to record my trips. About fifteen years ago, I had driven a half hour through a small corner of southeast Idaho on my way to Jackson, Wyoming, and Yellowstone National Park without stopping. On this current trip, I had driven through the upper Idaho panhandle between Montana and Washington, but I had stopped to eat dinner in a small Idaho town. Now, I was going to complete the upgrade by visiting the Craters of the Moon National Monument in eastern Idaho, taking pictures of a stark landscape.

Craters of the Moon National Monument is a small protected area of dark rocks, cone hills, and fissures along the Pioneer Mountains. To many, it may look like a stretch of moon landscape, which is how it received its name, but the landscape is really the result of past lava flows in a volcanic fissure. Its proximity to Yellowstone just to the east gave me a wonderful perspective of the volcanic activity lying below this fissure. I walked around a small trail and hiked up a nice black cone to get my pictures before driving on.

Paisley Cone, Craters of the Moon National Monument

I headed south into Utah to reach Brigham City where I had made my motel reservation. Brigham City is also next to an important historical location where east and west rails came together to form America’s first transcontinental railroad, bridging the two coasts. The final connection was done with a golden spike in a bold historical display. I had planned to make a quick stop to check it out. However, as I drove down to Brigham City, the clouds darkened overhead. Since it was getting late in the day, and I wasn’t sure how the site would look in the rain, I headed straight to the motel and checked in for the night. I figured that I would have a chance to slip over first thing in the morning before moving on. However, when I got up the next morning, the clouds were still around and threatening. I was glad to be near the important historical site, but I felt I could pass up this little side trip under the current weather conditions.

I was now on my way to my final stop before heading home, Dinosaur National Monument. The preserved environmental monument straddled over the Utah-Colorado border with most of the land being on the Colorado side. The park is mainly known for the dinosaur fossils that were discovered within the park, making it a very scientific perspective of archeology to explore, so I had planned the itinerary to visit the Colorado side on my way home. However, as I did my research on Dinosaur NM before starting the trip, I discovered that an important dinosaur gallery was on the Utah side, so I added the Utah entrance as well. Now, as I headed east on US 40 coming close to the Utah entrance, I was glad to see the dark clouds staying behind to the west. I turned onto a local road and headed up to the entrance.

I parked next to the visitor center and went in to explore. From the visitor center, a shuttle took me and other visitors up the hill to a building constructed against a quarry wall where loads of dinosaur fossils were visible within the rock. At one spot, visitors were allowed to actually feel the bones in the rock. When visitors were finished viewing the fossils and other exhibits, they had the option of taking the shuttle back or walking the outdoor trail down to the visitor center. Of course, I chose the trail which showed stretches of the geologic strata where the dinosaurs were found. Clam fossils were prevalent and a dinosaur backbone was visible on a rock wall along the way. When I reached the visitor center, I asked one of the park ranger about what fossils I would see on the Colorado side. I was surprised to discover that there were no fossils on display in Colorado. The park was mainly natural views of the canyon created by the Yampa River with recreational activities. Since there was no connecting road within the park, I would have to drive out to the main road, cross the border, and then drive back up to the Colorado entrance. I had thoroughly enjoyed the dinosaur perspective I had just immersed myself in, so I decided that I did not need to visit the Colorado side.

Dinosaur Fossils on Quarry Wall in Quarry Exhibit Hall, Dinosaur National Monument

I headed back through the Colorado Rockies on my way home. It was a glorious way to finish up this road trip. I had accomplished this trip in seven days and seen a lot to increase my perspective. It was a wonderful adventure to experience.

 

Pacific Northwest Road Trip – Part 3

The first half of my Pacific Northwest road trip had already taken me to two mountain range national parks situated up against the US/Canadian border, from a quick zip into Glacier National Park in Montana to an open crossing through North Cascades National Park Complex in Washington. Now, I was on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound at the start of the Memorial Day weekend, wondering if I should try to slip on a ferry to the Olympic Peninsula that had all of the advanced reservations booked into the afternoon or head back off the island and drive a couple of hours circling around through Seattle and come up into the peninsula from the south in order to visit one of the most diverse and popular national parks, Olympic NP. As I got up early at the motel on a Saturday morning, I decided that it would not take that much time to drive over to the ferry port and just check out my options.

The drive over to the ferry dock turned onto a two lane road that had very little traffic that early in the day. It appeared the port was coming up just to the left, but a center divider wall came up between the two lanes and a sign directed me to head straight for the ferry. About a mile up the road, a sign directed me into a roundabout that led me back to the entrance I had passed earlier. I drove up to the entrance gate and asked the attendant about the possibilities of reservation cancellations, and he informed me that even if I didn’t get on the first ferry, I would probably make the second. I paid and was directed to a center-right lane in the port waiting area behind a couple of cars. As I sat and waited in my car, I noticed more and more cars coming in and lining up in the lanes to the left of me, starting with the farthest left lane. The two farthest right lanes filled up with long vehicles. I suddenly realized that the roundabout spur was to handle a backup of vehicles that usually occurred at the entrance gate. After the ferry arrived and the vehicles in the left and far right lanes had loaded on, there was room for the cars in my lane to board as well. As I discovered, not all of the available space was covered by advance reservation, as the ferry had to leave some space for last minute arrivals. Going early put me in that last minute available space. I got out of the car and went to the top deck to take pictures of the trip over Puget Sound.

View of Puget Sound lighthouse from Port Townsend ferry

Once I drove off the ferry in Port Townsend, I headed straight for Port Angeles, the closest entrance to Olympic National Park. The park covers most of the Olympic Peninsula and is encircled by US 101. The size and diversity of the park is the reason I dedicated this day to just exploring the park at many entrances. I drove to US 101 and turned toward Port Angeles. When I arrived, I stopped at the park’s main visitor center to grab an information pamphlet and check out the gift shop. It was madness inside the center as Memorial Day visitors were lining up for hiking and camping passes, but since I didn’t need a pass, I got out of there quickly with my pamphlet and a deck of cards. Then, I headed into the park toward the Hurricane Ridge overlook, only I did not get too far. About a mile into the park, I suddenly came to the end of a line of cars waiting to move forward. Knowing that my main interest was in the rain forests on the western side and checking the pamphlet, I decided to skip the mountain ridge area and turn back. When I got back to Port Angeles, I went west on US 101 and continued around the park. US 101 entered the park boundary around the northwest corner next to Lake Crescent, where I was able to stop on a couple of overlooks and take pictures of the lake. I drove on as US 101 turned south and traveled along the western side of the park. As soon as I saw the sign to the road to the Hoh Rain Forest entrance, I turned and headed for the prime attraction of Olympic National Park. Suddenly, as I was getting close to the entrance gate, I found myself stopped in another line of cars. The line wasn’t as long as Hurricane Ridge line, but it was not moving. It turned out that the parking area was full, and the park ranger at the entrance gate could not let a car through until a car left the parking area. It took about 45 minutes before I was able to enter through the gate, but in a bit of karma, the open parking space waiting for me was the first one next to the visitor center.

Once I had made my stop at the visitor center, I went out on the short circular Hall of Mosses Trail within the forest. Olympic National Park protects the northernmost rain forests on the planet. The yearly rainfall and high humidity, even in the cooler latitude, created a forest with colorfully green ponds along the roots and hearty mosses draped over limbs. It was a relaxing beautiful hike, and I came to respect the luscious environment. One of my Facebook friends commented on my posting about visiting Olympic NP that I needed to plan more than one day there, and I could see why, but I took in what I could in the time I was there. After I completed my hike, I drove out of the rain forest, giving my parking space to the next person in line at the gate, and headed back to US 101. I had planned to slip into another rain forest entrance in the southwest corner of the park, but as I drove along US 101 up against the Pacific coastline, signs quickly informed me of something that was not evident on general maps, that much of the coastline, even though separate from the main park, was a part of Olympic National Park. I stopped at an overlook parking area at Ruby Beach and headed over to enjoy the northern Pacific coastline, another facet of the diversity of this national park. It was getting late in the day, and I realized that I didn’t need to see the other rain forest, so I headed onward to my motel in Olympia-Tumwater.

Lake Crescent, Hoh Rainforest, and Ruby Beach montage from Olympic National Park

My next day plan was to drive down on Interstate 5, then exit east to Washington’s third national park, Mount Rainier. When I had planned my itinerary, it seemed from the computer map that the southeast entrance would provide me the better views of the epic peak, so I planned to enter on that side and take in the view, then head back out and take a local road down to visit Mount St. Helens National Monument. Now, as I drove east, I passed by the road to the southwest entrance, then further passed by a sign next to a road directing me to Mount St. Helens, until I reached and turned north to the southeast entrance. After I had entered the southeast entrance gate with another car, I checked the information pamphlet I had been given and discovered that there was a road traversing the south side of the park between the two entrances. It was a no-brainer to just travel through the park on this road, observing more of the majestic views of Mount Rainier, then circle back to the road to Mount St. Helens. The views were majestic, including the visitor center midway through where visitors still had a small snow slope to sled under the view of Mount Rainier. I was impressed. I took my pictures, then headed west for the southwest entrance. I soon discovered that my decision to go to the southeast corner was sheer genius, as I passed several miles of cars waiting to enter the southwest gate on my way out.

View at Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center, Mount Rainier National Park

I circled back to the sign directing me towards Mount St. Helens NM, then turned down the road south. The road had suffered severe winter damage and was full of cracks, potholes, and rough gravel. I suffered over this road for twenty miles, until I came to a sign stating that the road was closed at this point due to remaining winter snows. There was only one way to go, back over the same rocky road for twenty miles.

To be continued…

 

Pacific Northwest Road Trip – Part 2

I had started this Pacific Northwest road trip with one long day of driving just to get close to my first target, Glacier National Park in Montana. Then, on the next day, having discovered that most of the Going-to-the-Sun Road which traverses the park was still closed because of snow, I was restricted to entering only one side of the park for a short distance, and I chose the western entrance next to Lake McDonald, which proved to be a fine natural representation of the national park. After some hiking and picture taking, I headed back out on the road, going west. I stopped for dinner in the Idaho panhandle, officially raising Idaho’s status on my trip bucket list, then moved on for my overnight stay in Spokane Valley, Washington, raising Washington’s status to an officially visited state. However, it was now time to go deeper into Washington and head for the first of its three national parks, North Cascades National Park.

When I started off from Spokane Valley, I soon left the interstate highway and headed northwest to connect with State Route 20, which is the road that crosses the park. I did not expect to come upon anything of particular interest until I reached the park border, but I was wrong. The route I took came right up to the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River. The dam, completed in 1942, is one of the largest power stations in the country, and it was a very impressive sight to experience. I took a few pictures from an overlook, then headed onward.

When I got on State Route 20, I was surprised not to see any signage regarding miles to the park entrance. I passed by some wide farm plain spreads, then suddenly found myself rising into a pass that led into a sharp valley between snow covered peaks. The road turned into a pass which led to some overlooks where I stopped to take photos. I passed a few tan roadside signs along the way, then passed a more prominent sign that seemed very similar to most national park entrance signs. I was still wondering if I had actually entered the park when I came upon the small town of Newhalem, which had the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center in it. Inside the center, I was informed that I had entered the park much earlier, near the valley with the snow covered peaks. Didn’t I see the entry sign, I was asked? According to the park staff, North Cascades National Park has no entrance fees, so it has no entrance stops. When one includes the small town surrounded by the park, this is very similar to Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, which makes sense. Also since State Route 20 is a vital business path when it is cleared of snow, North Cascades NP is also like Smoky Mountain National Park, which also does not charge fees because of the major US route that connects western North Carolina with eastern Tennessee. It was an enlightening visit. I picked up the park pamphlet and drove on, passing many cars coming in from the Seattle side of the park.

Peaks, Pines, and Flows in North Cascades National Park Complex


At the time, I was happy to check off North Cascades NP from my national park bucket list, but later, after I had returned home and had a chance to look at the park pamphlet I had picked up, I noticed an interesting detail. When I was planning the trip and doing basic research on the park, the atlases and maps I had seen of the park had shown a border that resembled an eastward pointing boot, but the pamphlet map showed inner borders within the boot that separated two national recreational areas – Lake Chelan National Recreational Area and Ross Lake National Recreational Area. According to the pamphlet map, the Ross Lake NRA actually surrounded State Route 20 and divided North Cascades NP. Did I actually enter the boundaries of North Cascades National Park? According to the pamphlet, I did not, but rather stayed totally within Ross Lake NRA. In fact, according to the pamphlet map, no vehicle roads ever enter the national park boundaries, meaning one would need to do a major hike in order to enter the actual boundaries of the park. However, the National Park Service website does not separate the two national recreational areas on the Washington state list like it does on the other states list, and reading closely, it talks about the North Cascades National Park Complex, which includes the two national recreational areas. For this reason, I am counting my drive through the park complex as a true visit to North Cascades National Park for my bucket list.

My next target was Olympic National Park, and according to the highlighted line on my computer generated itinerary map, my path would take me over a small connecting bridge to a long vertical island in Puget Sound, then over a longer bridge to the Olympic peninsula. When I had searched for a motel near the park the night before, I noted that my best deal would be on the island, Whidbey Island, and I made the reservation. It turned out to be lucky choice. As I drove onto the island, I began to see signs about using a special three digit phone number to call for reservations on the Port Townsend Ferry. I recognized Port Townsend as the city on the peninsula side of the long bridge on the itinerary, so when I reached the motel, I quickly checked the itinerary printout. Even though the highlighted dotted line looked like a bridge to cross, a single line on the list of route directions confirmed that the dotted line was actually a ferry path, not a bridge, and the route time calculation was based upon reaching and getting on the ferry almost exactly at the time of its departure, a very unlikely occurrence. As I was checking into my room, I mentioned needing to catch the ferry in the morning, and the desk clerk strongly recommended that I make a reservation online, especially since it was the Memorial Day weekend. I took the web address from the clerk and went online as soon as I got to my room, but I quickly discovered that all of the available reservations were booked up until early afternoon. The clerk did feel that a last minute cancellation might be possible on the earlier crossings, but she was not that up on the ferry process. Because of Puget Sound, my only other option to reach Olympic National Park would be to drive back off the island and drive down Interstate 5 through Seattle in order to circle around the south side of the park to get to the west and north entrances of the park, a trek that would cover several hours. So, do I take a chance with the ferry or trek through half of the next day just to get to Olympic National Park? I started to debate it within my mind.

To be continued…

 

Pacific Northwest Road Trip – Part 1

When it came to deciding which road trip I should take this year based on my travel bucket lists, my choice was down to two options: a Midwest circuit around Lake Michigan and a broad circuit around the Pacific Northwest. The Midwest trip was designed to visit the last two states in which I had never stepped foot and one of the two states where I had only visited by changing planes in a major airport. It would also add two US national parks to the list I had visited. The Pacific Northwest trip would only visit the other of the two “changing planes” states on my list and upgrade an asterisk-visited state, but would add four US national parks to my visited list. The Midwest trip also appeared to be a simple short trip when I threw in a round-trip airfare to Chicago and the use of a rental car, as opposed to a long mileage trip in my own car from my home in the Denver area. I also had to consider that unlike last year when I had a friend join me on my trip, I was undertaking this trip solo. In the end, I decided to take on the greater challenge with the grand tour around the Pacific Northwest. To add to the challenge, due to other planned commitments, I had to schedule this tour around the heavily traveled Memorial Day weekend.

The first stop on my planned trip was Glacier National Park in Montana. I had experienced Montana fifteen years before during a Rocky Mountain road trip which had included exiting Yellowstone National Park out of the Montana entrance, then traveling eastward to the Little Bighorn National Battlefield; however, Glacier National Park, connected to its Canadian neighbor, Waterton Lake National Park, is basically the premiere tourist spot of Montana and one of the most popular of the US National Parks. Its position in the northwest corner of the state bonds it well with the three national parks on Washington in forming the core of this road trip. In my initial computer mapping, the route programmed me to the western entrance of the park, but the main feature of the park is the Going-to-the-Sun Road which goes over the continental divide as it travels between the eastern and western entrances. This led me to plan a longer trip to the eastern entrance in order to drive the entire route to the western entrance. Now, it was time to start the trek to get there.

Based on the computer map calculations, driving moderately in eight hour days, it would take me two days just to drive from the Denver area to the park entrance. Knowing that interstate highway speed limits were higher in the west and deciding that I could drive a longer day, I decided on Butte, Montana, which is only hours from Glacier NP, as the first overnight stopping point. I booked a motel online the night before my start, filled an ice chest with three days of pre-made lunches, then set out north early the next morning. The long drive through Wyoming was basically uneventful, and I made my way into Montana by mid-afternoon. However, a warm day and an emerging front brought heavy thunderstorms as I headed west in Montana. By the time I had reached my motel in Butte, the skies had cleared, and I was looking for a relaxing evening before setting out for my first visit. As I was checking in, I mentioned to the manager about my plans to drive through Glacier National Park on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and he responded that the road is never open before July because of the time it takes to plow out the winter snow. In my room, I went online and confirmed his information on the national park service website. Because this was a standard annual issue for Glacier, it wasn’t even a top alert on the site. The Going-to-the-Sun Road was only open twenty miles in at each entrance. I adjusted my route to head for the western entrance and enjoy Glacier as far as I could go in from that point.

The next day, I reached the western park entrance just before midday. After stopping at the Visitor Center, then taking a short detour, I started driving up the Going-to-the-Sun Road as it bordered on Lake McDonald. I stopped and took photos of the mountain range on the other side of the lake, although clouds did cover some mountain peaks. At the eastern end of the lake, there was a lodge and cabins with parking, which is where the main road was closed to vehicles. However, the Going-to-the-Sun Road was still clear for a distance, so it was opened for exploring bikers and hikers. I was able to hike down the road and pop in the woods for a bit, even meeting a curious deer at one moment, in order to get a sense of the northern mountain environment. I may not have been able to experience the sharp mountain ridges and glacial valleys at the continental divide and center of the park, but I truly savored the natural section I was able to experience. After enjoying the hike and picture taking, I drove back out of the park and headed back south to the interstate, where I turned westward.

Glacier National Park montage from the Lake McDonald area

I crossed into the Idaho panhandle and stopped for dinner. Prior to this moment, I had only consciously experienced Idaho twice. When I first came out to attend UCLA, I used my first spring break to fly up to Oregon in order to see my birthplace. On the way back, I took the bus to Boise and flew back to LA from there. This was before I had a decent camera to properly record any travel. Later, during the Rocky Mountain road trip, I crossed into the southeast corner of Idaho for a half-hour on my way from Salt Lake City to Jackson, Wyoming prior to visiting Grand Tetons National Park and Yellowstone National Park. Because it was just a half-hour crossing, I felt this only gave Idaho an asterisk for my more recent travels. Now I had stopped in a town and was actually enjoying a meal in Idaho, finally allowing me to remove the asterisk off my trip bucket list accounting. However, I had more planned for Idaho later in my trip.

Finally, after dinner, I headed on into Washington where I had reserved my night stop in Spokane Valley. The only other time I had been in Washington was when I changed planes in Seattle-Tacoma Airport on my way to a land tour in Alaska sixteen years ago. Now, I was going to truly experience Washington by visiting its national parks over the Memorial Day weekend. My excitement was growing.

To be continued…

 

Central Plains Road Trip – Part 4

Our road trip had taken us through three of the four central plains states which was the main theme of this trip, along with quick stops across the Mississippi River in Illinois, Memphis, and Tupelo. The focus of our journey became an in-depth perspective of history from a native pre-American culture, western expansion sites including an iconic memorial, two presidential libraries, a national park centered around historic bathhouses, and the birthplace of an iconic singer and entertainer. Now, we were heading west into the last state to visit on this tour, Oklahoma.

After we had finished scraping around a dirt field looking for diamonds at Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas, we got in the car and headed west along US Route 70 to Oklahoma. My map planning program had set up a schedule to head south to Interstate 30 West, which would take us into Texas and then connect us to Interstate 35 North up into Oklahoma. However, even though interstate traveling would be consistently faster, it tends to be more disconnected to the cultural perspective around it. The US 70 route led us directly into Oklahoma and allowed us to stop so that my friend could get pictures of himself next to the state line welcome signs between Oklahoma and Arkansas. After that, we had a more distinctive perspective of Oklahoma’s rural aspects. Time was not a major factor since we had a motel reservation in Ardmore, near our first planned Oklahoma visit location. We reached our motel with enough time to find a restaurant in the center of Ardmore, giving us another perspective of the nearby railroad lines which bolstered Oklahoma’s ranching industry.

The next morning was the start of our final day of exploration. In my initial planning of the trip, I had looked up Oklahoma sites on the National Park Service website and found the Chickasaw National Recreational Area. It provided a chance to experience the nature of Oklahoma, and it was the only Oklahoma stop I put on the schedule. I foresaw a potential chance to find a hiking trail and take a quick stroll through a lakeside environment. Our motel was basically just a half hour south of the National Recreational Area, so that morning we headed off for some early recreation. A half hour later, we exited the interstate and headed east towards the National Recreational Area. A few minutes later in the town of Sulphur, we saw a sign directing us south to reach the recreational area. Another sign next to it informed us that this road was also the way to the Chickasaw Cultural Center. As we headed down the side road, we noted the multi-building cultural center as we passed, raising our interest in checking it out on the way back. We reached the entrance into the recreational area and drove in. The road led to a small roundabout next to an open field and a small forested stream in the western corner of the recreational area. If we had traveled just a little farther through Sulphur, we would have come upon the main entrance into the recreational area. However, we still got out of the car and explored the field and stream area. We met a park ranger at the stream who was taking water samples and measuring water levels. She told us that a wetter-than-normal spring season had increased water levels. Our conversation gave us a nice perspective of the nature of the Chickasaw National Recreational Area.

A flowing stream within Chickasaw National Recreation Area, OK

As we drove out of the recreational area, we followed up on our improvised interest and drove into the Chickasaw Cultural Center. What we discovered was a major preservation and informational center about the cultural aspects of the Chickasaw tribal society past and present. We did not have time to go through the main museum exhibits or enjoy the theater, but we were able to check out the art gallery featuring hand-weaving designs among other exhibits and the traditional village spread out on a broad field bordering the Chickasaw National Recreational Area. Displays within the village buildings added to the perspective of a major Native American culture.

Village meeting ground at the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Oklahoma

Even though the Chickasaw stops completed my initial schedule list, the reason we were pressed for time was because of an additional stop my friend had requested be added during our trip planning stage. As I noted earlier, my friend is an avid lover of history, and he remembered a history class discussion about a western outpost in Oklahoma named Fort Sill, which was now preserved as a national historic site. Even though I could not find it on the National Park Service website, it was easy to find on my map planning program just sixty miles west of the Chickasaw National Recreational Area. I was also able to track it on my iPad Map App before we headed toward Lawton and Fort Sill. As we reached Lawton and its intersection with Interstate 44, I noted on the iPad Map App that the Fort Sill site was just a few exits north of us and I drove onto the interstate to reach this exit. As I reached what I felt should be proper exit, I saw the exit sign did not identify the street and had a smaller sign indicating proper ID was necessary. I surmised that this was not the proper exit and that I had misread the map app, so I drove on. However, when the next exit proved to be a few miles beyond, I realized that I had judged wrong and exited. As it was around noon, we decided to stop for a quick bite, then we headed back to the other exit. When we got off at the other exit, we found ourselves heading to a military gate. What we discovered from the guard at the gate was that the Fort Sill Historical Site was in the middle of a current US Army base. At one time, US citizens were allowed to enter the base with standard photo ID to visit the historic site, but since 9/11, potential visitors now had to go to the visitor center in Lawton to have their IDs checked before being allowed to enter the base and visit the historic site. Throughout this trip, my friend had razzed me about being passé about using maps, even in digital format, to guide us, when everybody uses GPS on their cell phone to direct them. So now, my friend searched the visitor center address and entered it into GPS Siri. After a roundabout path, Siri guided us to a corner farm machinery storage area, a far cry from the visitor center. By this time, we figured it was time to move on.

Since there were no more scheduled stops and my friend’s flight was scheduled to leave Denver the next day, there was no reason for us to worry about staying at a motel along the way home. We drove north on Interstate 44 through Oklahoma City, where we transitioned onto Interstate 35, then continued north into Kansas, passing through Wichita. When we reached Interstate 70, we got off for dinner, then jumped back onto 70 West towards Denver. It was about eleven thirty at night when we reached my home. We crashed for the night and I drove my friend to the airport the next morning.
It was amazing just how many sites we had explored in the center of our country within a single week. We had covered a lot of history, experienced the nature of the plains region, and had sampled some iconic barbecue flavors. We also experienced the wonderful assets and occasional limitations of our modern technology to help guide us through this trip. It was also amazing to experience this trip with a longtime friend.

Central Plains Road Trip – Part 3

Our road trip journey had already taken us through two central plains states, Kansas and Missouri, with a chance to see some western expansion history, two presidential libraries, the preservation of a Native American culture, an iconic national memorial, and a wonderful taste of Kansas City barbecue. Now, our trip was heading into the southern part of our Central Plains Road Trip. Even though the focus was on Arkansas and Oklahoma, the two states remaining on my pre-age two visited states’ bucket list, I had added a quick shot into Mississippi to view a couple of sites in Tupelo. I had only visited Mississippi consciously once before when my family drove me from Florida to Los Angeles just before I started college at UCLA. There was no stopping along the way for most of this trip, so even though I was at a conscious age, I still listed Mississippi as a state I needed to revisit and experience. Tupelo was just an hour away from Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee.

When I first explored taking a quick zip into Mississippi, I went on to the National Park Service website and looked for historic sites near the Mississippi-Arkansas border and found the Tupelo National Battlefield. This appeared to be a worthy historic look at some Civil War history, so I marked it on my mapping program. I noticed on the program that Elvis Presley’s boyhood home was nearby and marked this as a stop as well. I expected that Elvis’ home would be a quick tour through a small home, so I planned it as the first stop before going over to view the major battlefield. I was in for a major surprise.

My friend and I left our Missouri motel stop and headed south into Arkansas. An hour later, we turned east towards the Mississippi River and Memphis. We circled around the south side of Memphis and went southeast towards Tupelo. When we reached Tupelo, we headed for the park where Elvis Presley’s boyhood home was located. What we found was more than just the two room house where Elvis grew up in. Next to the visitor parking lot, there was a decent size museum and gift shop where we bought our tour tickets. The tour included not only a walkthrough in the two room home and the museum displays, but also a tour and presentation inside the small church where Elvis and his family were members. The film presentation was a church service where the preacher encourages a young Elvis to perform with the choir. The museum tour was not only full of photos and memorabilia from Elvis’ childhood, but also items and photos that the older and more famous Elvis provided to his longtime childhood friends. In the adjoining park, a walkway took us to a memorial circle with a statue of an older performing Elvis standing spread eagle over a younger guitar-holding Elvis. It was quite a display of the life of Elvis Presley. Fully impressed, we headed over to the Tupelo National Battlefield, only to find it was just a white marble memorial surrounded by two cannons in a small corner lot park. There were no National Park center, just a small pamphlet holder next to the memorial. Within the small park, there were a couple of labeled cemetery markers that identified the final resting places of a couple of soldiers and a scattering of unmarked stones where unidentified soldiers died and were buried after the battle. This small park was just a representation of the full-scaled battlefield that extended around and beyond Tupelo during the Civil War.

Amphitheater statues and wall at Elvis Presley birthplace in Tupelo, MS

It was now time to head back to Memphis. My original thought in the planning was that after seeing Elvis Presley’s boyhood home, we would compare this to Elvis’ celebrity home at Graceland. However, we had taken up a lot of time at the boyhood home and had discovered a far greater perspective of Elvis’ full life within the adjoining museum, so we decided that we needed to drop Graceland from the schedule. Yet, according to friends, we did have to experience the Memphis music scene and take in the Memphis style barbecue by stopping at Beale Street in the downtown area. The famous section of Beale Street is within a single block, just two blocks from the Mississippi riverfront. When we got there, we found this section blocked off for a motorcycle rally, so we found street parking close by and walked into a street brimming with music. On the corner, we found BB King’s Blues Club and decided to try the Memphis barbecue there. It was a stroke of luck for us that Memphis Jones and his band performed live various blues and pop classics that were actually written and performed in the recording studios in Memphis, while we were eating. It was a wonderful dinner.

Motorcycle Rally on Beale Street, Memphis, TN

After Memphis, our next scheduled adventure was the only designated national park on the trip, Hot Springs National Park. Since Hot Springs was about a half hour off the interstate, I had suggested to my friend that it would be best to set up our motel reservation just before the exit heading off to Hot Springs, but he felt that we would have no problem driving on into Hot Springs, and I reserved our motel in Hot Springs. After our wonderful blues dinner, we headed off into Arkansas and drove towards our destination. By the time we got to Little Rock, the sun was setting. I recognized the hotel I had suggested as we passed before exiting the interstate and driving a northern arc up towards Hot Springs. There was no lighting on the US route into the city and we took the wrong turn off. We temporarily got lost, but thanks to my iPad map program, we finally tracked down the motel and settled in for the night.

The next morning, we drove up Central Avenue in Hot Springs to reach the national park. From what I understand, Hot Springs National Park is the smallest national park and the only park where one can take a taxi to visit, so I did not go up to the NPS website and download the official PDF map of the park. Instead I used my iPad map program to direct me to the park entrance. According to what I saw on the map program, the park boundaries covered the small mountain ridge surrounding the northern neighborhood of Hot Springs. The program marker directed us to a spot on the east side of this ring where Central Avenue turns left after entering the boundary ring. As we headed up Central Avenue, we noticed a national park service visitor center sign outside one of the buildings along the street, but there was no available street parking to make a quick stop, so we went on to reach the park entrance. However, as we turned and headed east, we never came upon a gate entrance into the park. After a few miles, we stopped and checked the map program, discovering we had already gone through the park. We drove back, found a sign pointing off to a campsite within the park, and turned down the road toward it. We passed the campground as we looked for trailhead parking, but the road led back to Hot Springs and Central Avenue. We drove back up past the visitor center and turned down a side street next to a corner park a half block away where we fortunately found an open parking space on the street. We got out and walked down to the corner park where a national park ranger had set up a small table display. What we discovered from the ranger was mind-blowing. Even though park boundaries had been mapped out, protecting the mountain ridge around the northern neighborhood of Hot Springs, the very focus of this national park was the hot springs themselves and the preserved bathhouses that tapped into those springs along Central Avenue. Much of the park was within the city limits of Hot Springs, so no park entrance gates or entrance fees. All of the park service employees were stationed in the buildings on this block of Central Avenue.

Hot Water Cascade Spring, Hot Springs National Park, AR

As we saw on the table display of expedition paraphernalia, the springs were explored by a small expedition sent by President Jefferson. The steamy waters were considered to be very healthy and curative, attracting many people. In 1932, Congress and President Jackson “reserved” the waters for the benefit of all, many years before Yosemite was the first protected land set aside by Congress under President Lincoln, and Yellowstone was officially protected as a national park some years later. However, this “reservation” did not set aside official land boundaries, so in 1921, the National Park Service convinced Congress to turn Hot Springs into the 18th National Park. After my friend and I listened to the history from the park ranger, we walked over to one of the open springs nearby and stuck our hands into the steaming waters. Then, we walked along a ridge path behind the bathhouses, taking in the surrounding natural greenery, before heading down to the visitor center, which was one of the major bathhouses that Hot Springs grew from. Inside the visitor center, we took the small tour to see how the popular spa treated its customers and clients. Of the 41 national parks that I have visited, Hot Springs is unique in its preservation of the business of natural relaxation and health.

After finishing up our visit with Hot Springs, we drove out of the city and headed southwest to another iconic location in Arkansas, the Crater of Diamonds State Park. Arkansas is the only state in the US where diamonds have been found and mined, all because of an ancient volcanic vent that brought many crystallized minerals up near the surface around the current town of Murfreesboro. When a farmer discovered the first diamond on his farm in the early 1900s, a diamond rush occurred in the area. In the 1950s, attempts were made to open sections of the diamond field to the public, but it was in 1972 when the state purchased the land and protected the land for the public. Once visitors pay the park admittance fee, they are allowed access to the plowed ground field to search for diamonds, which are still being discovered. The “finder’s-keeper’s” rules allow visitors to keep whatever potentially valuable gems they uncover. Serious gem hunters can rent digging and screen sifting tools from the visitor center, but for me and my friend, it was just interesting to walk along the dirt ridges and kick up some stones. We didn’t find any diamonds, but I did take an interesting conglomerate stone I found as a souvenir. After an hour of kicking dirt, we got back into the car and headed west for Oklahoma.

To be continued…

Central Plains Road Trip – Part 2

My one week Central Plains road trip with my friend through Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma had just begun in Kansas with a quick look at a preserved western town in Dodge City and a walk-through look at Fort Larned National Historic Site, a major western military location on the Santa Fe Trail, but now, on our first full day of travel, we were attempting to visit two major presidential libraries in the same day in order to give my friend’s suggestion to add Hannibal, Missouri to our schedule a chance. We reached Abilene, Kansas around lunchtime and stopped off for some subs before heading over to the Eisenhower Library.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum was designed to preserve and honor the life, work, and history of the 34th president of the United States for both general tourists and historical researchers. Abilene was Eisenhower’s hometown, and the location of the museum and library was chosen to include his original boyhood home. We were able to take a tour within his house, viewing original preserved furniture and a family bible. The house, museum, and library surround a long, grassy courtyard, and at one end of the courtyard is a church-like Place of Meditation, which houses the final resting place of President Eisenhower and his wife. On the other end of the courtyard, a statue of Eisenhower in his general’s uniform, surrounded by honorary pylon plaques, looks down toward the Place of Meditation. We went into the museum and traveled through a maze of rooms that took us through historical objects that demonstrated Eisenhower’s childhood, his early military service, his military leadership during World War II, his presidential campaign, and his accomplishments during his terms as President. The library, which is reserved for serious historical research, was not a part of the tour.

Eisenhower memorial at Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, KS

After taking in the perspective of the Eisenhower administration, it was time to try and zip over to Independence, Missouri and see if we can check out his predecessor’s library in the same day. Independence is basically a connected suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, so the distance wasn’t far. However, not only did our time at the Eisenhower Library and Museum take a lot of time in the afternoon, but the Truman Library and Museum was not readily near the interstate, so we arrived at the museum at its closing time. I really did not expect to visit both museums in the same day, so I was fully prepared to calmly inform my friend that we had no time to add Hannibal to the schedule. We checked in at the motel where I had made reservations, then headed back into Kansas City to find a good barbecue meal. Kansas City is one of a select group of cities known for its unique barbecue style of cooking, and just before we started the road trip, a neighbor of mine gave me four top barbecue places to choose from. For our dinner, I selected the place closest to our motel, unaware of its longtime reputation. Arthur Bryant’s is housed in a brick building in a bare industrial section of the city, and diners get their food through a fast food buffet style line before paying a cashier and finding an empty table with their food, but a quick taste of the barbecue meats quickly shows why the walls are covered with pictures of celebrity patrons including former President Obama. It was a perfect example of Kansas City barbecue.

The next morning, we headed back up to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. The Truman Library was smaller than the Eisenhower Library, since it was did not have extra historical buildings like a boyhood home or meditation chapel. Both the library and museum were in the same building which wrapped around a small garden. In the garden were the gravesites of both Harry and Bess under flat stone markers. Just like the Eisenhower Library, the Truman Library section was reserved for serious historical research, but the museum portion which took up most of the building covered Truman’s life from childhood and starting life running a haberdashery to being elected to office, being selected as FDR’s final Vice President, and having to take over the Presidency after FDR’s death near the end of World War II. Of course, this led to Truman faced with having to make the decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan. The museum included a reproduction of the Oval Office during Truman’s administration and his home office after leaving the Presidency. After our tour of the museum, we were given directions to Truman’s home in Independence. We did not have time to find the separate location of the visitor center in order to get tickets to tour inside the home, but we did stop to take pictures of the quaint two story house before heading on to St. Louis.

Harry and Bess Truman’s grave sites at Truman Presidential Library in Independence, MO

St. Louis is mainly known as the home of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, otherwise known as the Gateway Arch. However, just fifteen minutes across the Mississippi River in Illinois is a World Heritage Site, protected as an Illinois State Park, which is known as Cahokia Mounds. Since my research showed me that the Arch would be open a lot later than Cahokia Mounds, my schedule was set up to zip over to the Mounds first and come back to the Arch. By mid-afternoon, we parked in the lot next to the visitor interpretive center and cultural museum. The Cahokia Mounds were large mounds of earth constructed by a Native American culture that flourished around Europe’s Medieval Age and declined just before Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Although more natural in construction with wood and earth, the mound structures and surrounding village features were very reminiscent of Aztec culture. The site had many miles of nature trails within the surrounding woods, but we just had time to walk the short trail around the Twin Mounds near the interpretive center, then go across the street to the large double mound structure called Monk’s Mound. A wide set of stairs has been built into one side of the Monk’s Mound, enabling easy access for visitors to climb to the top. From there, we were able to see urban and natural landscapes around us, including the nearby Gateway Arch and downtown St. Louis to the southwest. We got back into my car and drove back to St. Louis.

Monks Mound close up at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, IL

The Gateway Arch is nestled up to the west shore of the Mississippi River and anchored in the heart of downtown St. Louis, which means getting to the Arch and finding parking brings up the same obstacles one would find navigating any central downtown area. We wound up finding street parking, but luckily, since it was late in the day after normal work hours, we were not bound by parking time limitations. We were also within a few weeks of the first day of summer with daylight savings time hours, so we still had plenty of sun to view the memorial. The visitor center is in the nearby Historic Old Courthouse, which is where we had to go to get tickets for the tram car to the top of the Arch. The scheduled time for our tram access was an hour away, so we went across the street to an Italian restaurant for dinner, then we walked over to the Arch. Renovations were currently in process around the Arch which had temporarily closed the north tram, so all visitors were lined up for the south tram, a set of claustrophobic cubicles that transported us to the top of the Arch. The low hanging sun may have made looking down at St. Louis somewhat difficult, but seeing the shadow of the Arch stretched out across the Mississippi and toward the east was amazing.

Looking across the Mississippi River into Illinois from the top of the Gateway Arch (Jefferson National Expansion Memorial) in St. Louis, MO

From St. Louis, it was now time to head south. In order to get us closer to the southern loop through Arkansas and Oklahoma, with jaunts into north Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee, I had set up a reservation at motel close to the Missouri border with Arkansas. It was late at night when we got there, but we would be prepared for the next day’s schedule.

To be continued…

Central Plains Road Trip – Part 1

In one of my earlier posts from a few years ago regarding the accounting of my travel bucket lists, I noted that I ranked the states I had checked off on the “US states visited” list in several categories. These categories were based on when in my lifetime I had visited these states and the quality of the visit. The lowest category was marked for those states I had visited before the age of two. It refers to the earliest period of my life when my father had a job maintaining military radar installations across the country, which resulted in our family packing and moving three times across the country until we moved to Florida where my father changed jobs, allowing us to buy a home and stay put during the rest of my childhood. Since that time, several of my travels had led me to come back and explore many of the states that I passed through during these early pre-conscious period moves, thereby allowing me to upgrade the visited states to a higher category. At the time of my earlier post, there were five states left in this category, but last year’s road trip upgraded Nebraska from this category, leaving just Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. This year I planned a road trip to focus on these four bordering states in the Central Plains of North America.

I began planning my trip last year, setting out a general course and looking for interesting sites to visit within or near these states. Around the holidays, I called a longtime friend back in Los Angeles to wish him well and mentioned my summer road trip plans. Almost immediately, he asked if he could come along. It felt great to consider having a travel partner to share a trip. However, he was limited to one week and had a set flight schedule in and out of Denver, restricting our capability to adapt the basic road trip for improvised added stops, but my friend seemed very eager to suggest new additions to my original stops list as the time for the road trip neared. Finally, as June arrived, he flew in to join me on a trip through the Central Plains.

On my original base trip, I had only one stop to represent Kansas, Fort Larned National Historic Site, which I found on the National Park Service website. It was just an hour south of I-70, making it a quick stop along the route. One of the first suggested additions from my friend was the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, also just off of I-70. It reminded me that the Truman Presidential Library was in Independence, Missouri, also just north of I-70, so to keep the trip politically balanced, I suggested adding this as well, which he excitedly accepted. Then, with about a month before the trip was to begin, he added another suggestion for Kansas, stopping in Dodge City, where a portion of the original Western town had been preserved. Looking at the map, Dodge City proved to be a major side trip off the interstate, so to please my friend and add Dodge City to the itinerary, we had to forgo the one day rest and prep following his early morning flight into Denver and drove off right after lunch to our first stop. Unfortunately, our arrival in Dodge City was just as the Boot Hill Museum, which preserves the original western town buildings, was closing for the day. There was no time to come back the next morning, so we took pictures of the town buildings through the surrounding fence and picked up a few souvenirs from the gift shop before it closed. Then, we headed to our motel.

Old wagon alongside the officers’ buildings at Fort Larned NHS, KS

The next morning we drove from Dodge City to the Fort Larned National Historic Site, which provided us with an interesting perspective of the US Cavalry during the western expansion and settlement during the post-Civil War period. Because this was a major fort positioned where the Santa Fe Trail crossed the Pawnee River, one’s initial impression would be that it would be surrounded by a tall protective wall, but there was no wall. The fort’s barracks and quarters were built in a rectangular fashion around an open field, but there were no protective defensive barriers around the buildings. As we discovered, this was unnecessary, as Native American tribes within the central plains region realized the futility of attacking a major military installation full of armed soldiers. Conflicts came about when troops were sent out to defend settlers or remove Native Americans from lands now claimed for a rising new country. After a quick hour of gaining this new understanding of American history, we set off northeast toward I-70 and onward to Abilene, the home of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Museum and Library.

Just about a week before my friend flew in to begin our journey, he had sent me a suggestion to add Hannibal, Missouri to the schedule. As one can readily surmise, my friend has a very big love of American history and gaining a close-up perspective on American literary legend Mark Twain was exciting for him. However, his pre-set one-week flight schedule was already putting a strain on our current scheduled stops and planned travel loop, and Hannibal would expand that loop off the interstate by several hours. In addition, our next two scheduled stops at two major presidential libraries were major time fodders for history buffs. I told him that the only way we would be able to fit Hannibal into the schedule was if we were able to reach and go through both presidential libraries in the same day. It was still morning on our first full day of travel as we headed towards Abilene, Kansas. Could we see two presidential museums in the same day?

To be continued…

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…