Monday, June 20, 2011

Black Hills - June 10-19, 2011

It was time to get the camper out for the first trip of the year. I was eager to find out if I had gotten it winterized correctly last fall and if it had survived the very cold weather we had in January. I got a bit worried when the electrical system wouldn't work after I had re-installed the batteries but then I remembered there was a battery cutoff switch that I hadn't reset. After that, everything was fine. I drained the antifreeze from the water lines and filled up the freshwater tanks. I couldn't find any leaks so everything seemed good to go.

It is recommended that I wash and wax the camper to protect it from the sun so I did that. It took a long time since there is quite a bit of surface area on the thing. Then I loaded up my gear and headed out.

The first stop was only a few hours away. I was planning to meet my brother for lunch in Colorado Springs the next day so I only went about halfway up at first and boondocked north of Tres Piedras near San Antonio mountain. The elevation is over 8000 feet up there so it was quite chilly that night. I set up my generator to run the microwave and cooked up a hot meal.

The view of San Antonio Mountain from my campsite.

The next morning I headed up through Alamosa and then east to Walsenburg to I-25. I met up for lunch and then took I-25 through Denver to I-76 and made it up to Sterling, Colorado where I stayed at a campground. That made for a decently long day's drive.

At Sterling, Colorado.

Next was the western part of Nebraska where there were two stops to be made. First was the Scott's Bluff National Monument. This spot was an important point on the Oregon Trail - the wagon trains had been traveling through a featureless expanse of grasslands for many weeks and these bluffs were the first landmarks they came across. There was a nice museum there and I learned an interesting fact. After the first couple of years of the wagon trains, there was a recommendation that new immigrants not bring anything like tools or heavy items with them. They could collect all the things they needed along the trail from the items that previous wagon trains had left behind. A lot of people also died from disease along the way, there was an estimated 4 graves per mile along the trail.

The second stop in Nebraska was the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. The site is best known for the large number of well-preserved Miocene fossils, many of which were found at dig sites on Carnegie and University Hills. There was a severe drought which brought lots of animals to a few waterholes where many died and left hundreds of fossilized bones behind. There wasn't a lot to see at this site other than the small museum.

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument - headquarters.

Leaving Nebraska behind, I made it up to the southern part of the Black Hills of South Dakota. The first stop was Wind Cave National Park. I got there in time to take a guided tour of the cave that lasted about an hour. Wind Cave is currently listed as the fourth longest cave system in the world with more than 135 miles of passages mapped. It is a very complicated system with all of those miles encompassed in an area of about 1 mile square. It would not be a good place to get lost in. The cave got its name because there is only one entrance, a hole about 15 inches across. The sound of the wind whistling in or out depending on atmospheric pressure is what led to its discovery.

The main claim to fame in this cave is a type of cave formation called Boxwork. This is formed when water flows into cracks in the base limestone and deposits Calcite in them. Later, the limestone is dissolved away as a cave is formed but the Calcite remains. The formation is pretty rare and Wind Cave has 95% of the known Boxwork formations in the world.

That evening I stayed at a campground there in Wind Cave National Park. I had to wait for about 30 minutes to register due to a strong thunderstorm that rolled through.

Boxwork formations - not the easiest thing to see since they're pretty small.

My campsite in Wind Cave National Park.

The first stop the next morning was another cave - Jewel Cave National Monument. Jewel Cave is listed as the second longest in the world at 150 miles. I took another guided tour, this one a bit more strenuous with more than 750 stairs to climb up and down. There was several areas where the Calcite crystals had formed on the surfaces and left a nice sparkly finish. Overall, the formations here (and in Wind Cave) weren't as impressive as those in Carlsbad Caverns.

Near the end of the tour, the guide told about how exploration was continuing. They had an advance camp set up deep inside but to get to it you had to go through an area called the Miseries on your hands and knees for about 1100 feet. Then you went through the Mini Miseries on your belly for another 700 feet. Finally, you had to make it through the area known as the Calorie Counter where the passage is only 7.5 inches high. The ranger asked for volunteers to help with the exploring, but, strangely, nobody raised their hand.

Heading north, I stopped next at the Crazy Horse Memorial. This statue is being carved out of the mountainside similar to Mount Rushmore. It has been under construction since 1948 but stagnated for quite a while. Work has picked up again now and they've finished the face and are working on the horses head. Once completed, it will be the largest statue in the world. Funding for the work comes mostly from the tourism it generates and there were quite a lot of people there to spend their money.

Crazy Horse Memorial showing the finished face.

This is what it will look like if they ever get it finished.

Not far from there is Mount Rushmore. It is certainly an impressive sight and a lot of people were here, as well. I listened to a park ranger give a talk on the history of the memorial. The original plan was for each of the presidents to be depicted from head to waist but the original sculptor (Gutzon Borglum) died and in 1941, with World War II looming, the project was declared complete with just the heads completed.

The day was getting long so I drove on up to Deadwood and found a campground to stay in. The next day, I headed north and west into Wyoming to see Devil's Tower. The National Monument headquarters is right at the base of the mountain and had spectacular views. It was raining, though, so I didn't take the walking tour around the base. I had been hoping to see the alien landing strip but had no luck with that. (From Close Encounters of the Third Kind for those pop-culture impaired folks.)

My campsite in Deadwood.

From there I decide to visit the Theodore Roosevelt Nation Park up in North Dakota. I probably wouldn't ever be any closer to it than now so I took an extra day to drive up there. I stayed at a campground in Medora, North Dakota, which is right on the southern border of the park. Roosevelt had built a ranch in the area and spent some time there before he became president. He solidified his love of the outdoors and conservation while in the area.

I toured the museum there and learned something new. I hadn't realized that Teddy Roosevelt had been shot - he was getting ready for a campaign speech when a saloonkeeper shot him in the chest. Roosevelt didn't think it was too serious so he insisted on giving his speech, anyway, with blood dripping down his shirt front.

There was a nice scenic loop drive through the park which I took. I saw some wildlife; buffalo, several large prairie dog towns, deer, and some wild horses.

There was a lot of beautiful, rugged country in the park.

I couldn't get a good picture of the wild horses before they ran off.

This guy wasn't looking too friendly.

The rest of the day was spent driving back south to Rapid City where I stayed the night. In the morning, I drove east and south to stop at the Badlands National Park. This is an area with a lot of eroded bluffs, pinnacles, and spires. It has some spectacular scenery. I learned that this area was the first to be called a 'badlands'; since then other spots around the world have used that name as well.

Badlands National Park

Another long drive along I-90 east got me to Sioux Falls where I spent the night. The following morning I drove down to Sioux City, Iowa and had breakfast. I saw some of the flooding problems they are having along the Missouri river - I had to take a detour because I-29 had several spots that were under water. Then, I headed south back into Nebraska - the eastern part of the state this time. In the southeastern part, south of Lincoln, is the Homestead National Monument.

This area celebrates the homesteaders that took advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862 and the free land it provided. Their museum showed the difficulties the settlers faced trying to get a start in unsettled country. It was hot and humid outside, but I walked down to take a look at a restored homesteaders house, anyways. Afterwards, I headed farther south to Salina, Kansas for the night.

Homestead National Monument Visitor's Center

Restored homesteader's house. This was home to a man, his wife, and his 10 children.

There was some excitement that evening in Salina. I had the stereo on in the camper and they interrupted the music to give a severe thunderstorm warning for McPherson county. I looked at the atlas to see where that was and saw it about 20 miles south of where I was staying. A couple of minutes later, they came back on and said the storm had turned north and was headed up I-35. My campsite was a few hundred yards off of I-35 so I started getting worried.

The radio station also had a web site where they had some real-time videos going of the storm as it came into Salina. The reporters were talking about quarter-sized to ping-pong ball sized hail as it went through town. I was just north of town and was getting a bit nervous. The rain started, and then I could hear hail - probably only marble sized from the sound of it. A minute later and I heard (and felt) some larger hailstones banging against the roof. I was watching the skylight over the bed area to see it was going to be broken open or not. Fortunately, the big hail quit after about a minute and there was only heavy rain for a while.

In the morning, I inspected for damage but didn't see any. I was partially sheltered under a tree which might have helped some. Nobody else in the campground seemed to have any damage, either, so we missed the worst of it. In any case, I headed south on I-35 to Oklahoma City.

My original plan was to stop in Oklahoma City and visit their zoo to break up the long drive. Once there, though, my truck's thermometer was reading 101 degrees at about 12:30 in the afternoon. There was a nice science museum right next to the zoo so I elected to visit that, along with their air conditioning, instead. It was quite a large museum and since it was Saturday, there were a lot of families there. There were quite a lot of hands-on exhibits, as well.

I drove on a little further before stopping near Elk City to camp. The last day of the trip was spent fighting a strong headwind all the way back to Albuquerque which really sapped my gas mileage. Over all, though, it was a fun trip.

Total miles driven: 3241
Average Gas mileage: 9.3 (It was over 11 at Deadwood, SD, and then I got into more windy weather.)

Places crossed off my list:
3 National Parks
5 National Monuments
1 National Memorial

States visited: New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, North Dakota, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas.