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…

Road Trip to Denver – Part 3

In four days, I had headed out from Los Angeles in a southeast path to visit Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson, Arizona and Guadalupe Mountains National Park in the Texas panhandle, then turned north to explore the heart of New Mexico, starting with Carlsbad Caverns National Park, then off to stops at White Sands National Monument and Petroglyph National Monument, before reaching the art community of Taos, New Mexico. Now, it was time to head into Colorado and my main destination of Denver for the wedding of my friends’ daughter. I had one stop before reaching the hotel in Denver.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was only recently designated as a national park within this century, being upgraded from national monument status in 2000. Rising up from the San Luis Valley range to the west and pushed against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east, the Great Sand Dunes are North America’s tallest sand dunes. What was amazing to me about these sand dunes was the almost artistic coloring of the dune field. As I was driving up to the dunes with the mountains towering behind them, I felt I was viewing an impressionistic oil painting, rather than a natural reality. To walk on the dunes, one needs to cross a wide, shallow, but swiftly-flowing stream. Since I did not feel I had the appropriate shoes to make the crossing, I was content to take pictures of those who braved the crossing and were enjoying walking up the dunes. Anyway, it was time to head to Denver.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind the Dune Field, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind the Dune Field, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

I had arranged to spend three days and four nights in the Denver area. The first day was to get situated and prepared, the second day would be dedicated to the wedding, and the third day would be an opportunity to check on a nearby national park, Rocky Mountain National Park. However, as I drove toward Denver watching distant lightning strikes in the plains alongside of me, I knew I would have to adjust my schedule. When I discovered that my spare day was forecast to be rainy all day, I thought that Rocky Mountain National Park would be a no go. However, when I discovered that the wedding was scheduled for the late afternoon on the second day, I decided to slip Rocky Mountain National Park into the morning before the wedding.

Rocky Mountain National Park is a large park with a third of its area above the “treeline” of 11,400 above sea level. However, the park’s main road, Trail Ridge Road, which is the highest major highway in North America, was mostly closed for the winter and spring due to snow. Therefore, I knew my visit would be restricted to just inside the northeast entrance at West Horseshoe Park, just west of Estes Park. It took me just an hour and a half to get to this entrance, which gave me enough time to marvel at just a portion of the Rocky Mountains, the very backbone of North America. Fresh snow was present at the scenic stops along the road, making me update a common spring adage just for the Rockies, “April snows bring May flows.” It was some spectacular views that I captured before I raced back down the mountains to get back to my hotel in time to get ready for the wedding.

West Horseshoe Park View, Rocky Mountain National Park

West Horseshoe Park View, Rocky Mountain National Park

The wedding was wonderful, and it was great reconnecting with some old friends. The bride and groom had arranged a champagne brunch for the guests at the hotel, so the extra day worked out for me. However, it was now time for me to head back to Los Angeles, and I did not plan to make any extra stops along the way. The rainy day in Denver presaged a snowy morning over I-70 through the Rockies, which actually presented some wonderful views as I got past the snowfall. It took me a day and a half to get back home, and several days to get back into the swing of things in LA. I had another great road trip under my belt.

Road Trip to Denver – Part 2

On the first two days of my road trip, I had driven a lot of miles and had the chance to explore two national parks, Saguaro National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park. I had also ended the second day zipping into Guadalupe Mountains’ more well-known sister park on the New Mexico side and finding out when the main attraction would be open. Now, at 8AM on the third day of my trip, I was entering the visitor center at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, preparing to enter the caverns. Realizing that temperatures in the cavern were significantly lower than the upper desert region, I bought a zippered hoodie sweater in the gift shop and put it on over my short sleeve t-shirt. Now, I was ready to investigate the cave.

Stalactites in a Grotto, Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Stalactites in a Grotto, Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The main body of Carlsbad Cavern is the Big Room, 755 feet below the surface, and there are only two ways to reach it. One is by an elevator that was built down directly from the visitor center to one end of the Big Room, where the comfort of visitors superseded nature with the installation of restrooms and a lunch counter. The other avenue to the Big Room was by walking down through the Natural Entrance and following the paved path down. I had time so I went by way of the Natural Entrance. The paved asphalt path with hand rails swaybacked down a nearly vertical shaft to a small open area where bats congregate during the day in the summer months. Since I did not see any bats, it is possible that they had not yet migrated from their winter Mexican home. The path then wound down slowly through a section called the Main Corridor, passing by interesting formations like the Whale’s Mouth or the Witches Finger. It is at the Iceberg Rock that the path entered the Big Room and headed over to the Big Room Trail. All along the way, lighting had been wired into the cavern walls in such a way to allow visitors to see the cave structures without disrupting the subterranean ambiance necessary to understand the natural processes at work. The Big Room Trail circled around in a cross pattern within a somewhat open cavern full of decorative columns, stalagmite giants, stalactited grottos, and small spring pools. One massive stalagmite named the Rock of Ages looked at one part of the trail like a dragon about to spew fire on the defenseless rock creature spread out before it. I was told at the visitor center that it would take me three and a half hours to walk the full trail on my own, but I was able to do the two miles in two and a half hours, more in line with the pamphlet’s estimate. I was also proud that I was able to hold still and take some very good pictures without flash, something I was able to show the park ranger who rode up in the elevator with me from the Big Room. Why didn’t I walk back up the Natural Entrance Trail? That trail was set up as one way only, making the elevator the only way out of the cave.

Soaptree Yucca, White Sands National Monument

Soaptree Yucca, White Sands National Monument

Once I had finished exploring Carlsbad Cavern, it was off to Alamogordo and White Sands National Monument. I headed north, then cut west over a mountain pass to get to the Tularosa Basin. After stopping off at the visitor center for preliminary information, I drove down the ten mile Dunes Drive into the Heart of the Sands. The white starkness of the sand was amazing to view and created some amazing images in my camera. Usually, white gypsum is rarely found as sand because it dissolves quite easily in water and is quickly carried off to oceans or seas, but the Tularosa Basin has no access to external rivers, so the gypsum remains when mountain water runoff quickly evaporates in the arid conditions. The result is white sand dunes. After getting my pictures, I headed back to Alamogordo to check into my motel.

Macaw Petroglyph, Boca Negra Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument

Macaw Petroglyph, Boca Negra Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument

The next day, I headed north to Albuquerque to explore Petroglyph National Monument. This protected rocky section on the westside of Albuquerque features some amazing early Native American communication art. Because the rocky terrain was formed by volcanic outflows over 200,000 years ago, Native Americans discovered that they could scrap the darker exterior of the rock, revealing a lighter rock underneath, thus forming the image and message to others. Many of these images are nearly 2000 years old and are considered sacred to many American Indians. The visitor center directed me to the Boca Negra Canyon trail as one of the best viewing spots. A small rocky trail up to a shaman’s circle gave me a chance to view many petroglyph images, a stark view of the five volcanic cones to the west, and a wonderful overview of Albuquerque to the east.

After enjoying the petroglyphs, I headed north to Taos, the small art community town up in the mountain foothills of north New Mexico. The town is well-known as a haven for local artist as I found out when I checked into my motel and found a small gallery of art in one of the lobby hallways. In front of the motel was a genuine Frederic Remington statue. I walked down the small main street and went into one of the local galleries to enjoy some amazing artwork for sale. Unfortunately, all I could do was admire, not buy. After enjoying the creativity, it was time for sleep, ending the New Mexico portion of my trip. Tomorrow, it would be off to Colorado.

To be continued…

Road Trip to Denver – Part 1

Just last month, I was invited to the wedding of the daughter of some good friends of mine in Denver. Instead of just flying in, I decided to make a road trip out of the journey in order to check off some more national parks and sites from my bucket list. I had been fiddling around with a southwest trip itinerary on my computer for about a year and decided to incorporate these plans into this trip, one that would take me to five national parks, a couple of national monuments, and one notable art community.

I started out early on a Sunday morning and headed east on I-10. Interstate 10 is the southernmost east/west Interstate Highway that reaches coast to coast. It has always had a special significance in my life as I grew up near the eastern terminus of I-10 and am now currently living near the western terminus. I stopped for gas just east of Palm Springs and the southern entrance to Joshua Tree National Park at a small stop called Chiriaco Summit and discovered a hidden treasure next to the gas stations, the General Patton Memorial Museum. I did not have time to actually visit the museum beyond taking pictures of the statue and memorials outside the front, but it added somewhat to the significance of traveling I-10. It was the ease that General Patton had in moving US tanks across Germany on the Autobahn system at the end of World War II that convinced Eisenhower to champion the building of the Interstate Highway System during his presidency. I contemplated this as I headed east towards Arizona.

General Patton Memorial Museum, Chiriaco Summit, CA

General Patton Memorial Museum, Chiriaco Summit, CA

My goal that first day was to reach Tucson and Saguaro National Park by mid-afternoon. Saguaro National Park is somewhat unique in that it preserves two separate sections of the Sonoran Desert on either side of Tucson. During an earlier road trip around Arizona a few years back, I had visited the eastern section next to the Rincon Mountains, but had arrived after the visitor center had closed and had to be content with taking pictures in the late afternoon before the gates closed at sunset. This time I wanted an opportunity to check for playing cards at the visitor center, and it made sense to use this return trip to see the western section next to the Tucson Mountains. I was not disappointed. The saguaro forests seemed more plentiful and photogenic in this western section. There was also a special treat along the loop drive at a spot called Signal Hill. A quick walk to the top of Signal Hill revealed a small section of petroglyphs, symbols marked into the rocks by early Native American cultures, basically an archeological treasure.

Signal Hill, West Tucson Mountain District, Saguaro National Park

Signal Hill, West Tucson Mountain District, Saguaro National Park

After spending the night in Tucson, it was back onto I-10 eastbound to El Paso on the way to the next national park. At El Paso, I left I-10 and headed directly east to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The park protects a section of the Guadalupe Mountains as they extend into Texas from the New Mexico border. These mountains were formed from a horseshoe reef that grew in a tropical sea that covered this section of Texas and New Mexico hundreds of millions of years ago. As the sea disappeared, the land uplifted and exposed the now fossilized reef as the Guadalupe Mountains. The highest point in Texas is Guadalupe Peak at 8750 feet along this Capitan Reef. However, this park did not have any roadways into the mountains, only hiking trails for dedicated campers, so I was limited to taking photos from a small hiking trail around the visitor center.

El Capitan Reef and Guadalupe Peak, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

El Capitan Reef and Guadalupe Peak, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

After I finished exploring the little trail in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, I realized I had time to make a quick stop at the star highlight of this road trip, the much more recognized sister park just north on the New Mexico side of the state border, and find out when the star attraction would be opened in the morning. I got to the visitor center as the park rangers were lowering the flag for the day and got my answers, so I took exterior photos on my way back down to the nearby motel where I had reservations and had a relaxing night’s sleep in preparation of entering Carlsbad Caverns at eight-thirty in the morning.

To be continued…

A California Mini-Tour – Part 3

In just two days, I had headed north from Los Angeles, visited the newest national park, Pinnacles, checked out the interesting Winchester House in San Jose, and explored the hydrothermal elements of Lassen Volcanic National Park at the southern end of the Cascades. Now, it was time to head back around towards Los Angeles. But I had a few small stops planned for the way back.

I headed east from the Chester Best Western early to connect with US 395, which runs north-south through the eastern Sierras. Going south, I slid into Nevada, driving through the heart of Reno and Carson City, where I found some bright autumn colors along the Sierra foothills to capture in a few pictures. US 395 crossed back into California, climbing into a high pass through the Sierras. As the noon hour approached, I came upon the turn onto the road spur to my next stop, the historic ghost town of Bodie.

Methodist Church on Green Street, Bodie SHP

Methodist Church on Green Street, Bodie SHP

The first ten miles of Bodie Road is smooth black asphalt, lending a false sense of security to the visiting traffic until it comes upon the tortuous last three miles of rocky rills into the town. At 7000 feet on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, Bodie lies in stark contrast to the high desert landscape around it. Only five percent of the buildings remain of the town that arose after its founder, Waterman (William) Body, discovered gold in 1859. By 1879, its reputation for lawlessness was unmatched in the West, leading one young girl, whose family was moving to Bodie, to write in her diary, “Goodbye, God. I’m going to Bodie.” The gold and the town hung on long enough into the next century for the automobile and electricity to make an appearance, but as the gold output shrank, the town lost its population. As I walked along the streets, taking pictures of the homes, church, schoolhouse and firehouse, I thought about how the former residents survived within this isolated location. In a way, the town has become a homage to man’s persistence at civilization in the harshest environments, and how modern man is now able to turn these periods of persistence into museum stops.

Devils Postpile National Monument

Devils Postpile National Monument

After enjoying a few hours exploring Bodie, I braved my way back over the road to US 395 and headed south to my next planned stop. I passed by Mono Lake, stopping for a few vista shots, and within an hour was turning off into the Mammoth Mountain resort area. On the western side of Mammoth, I reached the entrance to the small protected stretch of canyon with a wall of volcanic columnar basalt, Devils Postpile National Monument.  It was amazing viewing how nature could create the nearly straight and symmetrical columns, rivaling some of the best man-made constructs in the world.

Remodeled Model A with Half Dome in background, Olmsted Point, Yosemite NP

Remodeled Model A with Half Dome in background, Olmsted Point, Yosemite NP

I drove back past the Mammoth Ski Resort, which was still waiting its first major snow of the year, and stayed in a nice little bed and breakfast in Mammoth Lakes. When I left the next morning, I turned north on US 395, instead of south, in order to experience another route I had missed during the grand California tour of 2006. During that tour, the plan was to get to Yosemite Valley via the Tioga Pass, but the heavy snows over that winter had kept the pass closed well into June, forcing me to use the farther north I-80 pass to reach Yosemite Valley. Now I had the chance to experience the high elevation views along the pass within Yosemite National Park. The views were amazing, but the highlight was Olmsted Point where I could almost look down on Half Dome. While I was at Olmsted Point, a Korean War vet and his wife drove in to the parking area in a uniquely-designed remodeled 1927 Model A truck, instantly attracting the attention of the Australian and Austrian tourists whose tour buses had made their scheduled stops. It was an interesting contrast between human and natural creativity.

From Yosemite, it was a direct shot home to Los Angeles. I had set aside four days to explore three national parks, a national monument and two historical sites and had accomplished it efficiently and economically. The keys were to do the necessary research, avoid over-planning, and maintain flexibility during the actual trip. Not a bad four days.