Tuesday, July 15 – Jackson and Grand Teton National Park

 

Got up early today (7 am) and put things on that could get wet before we took off for our whitewater rafting trip with “Mad River Rafting,” a company Mark remembered using for a trip like this 24 years ago, when he spent some time in Yellowstone and environs. The trip started with a breakfast–muffin, egg & ham wrap, coffee, juice, and then we were off, with just five of us (the trip wouldn’t have made if we hadn’t booked it late yesterday; the other three were an Australian dad and his 12- and 14-year-old kids). The van ride took about 30 minutes and there was some fog, but then we were off on an 8-mile trip down the Snake River that took about 1 1/2 hours and was loads of fun, all in sunny weather (at about 65 degrees). We all had to help paddle, but Mark and the Australian, Matt, sat in front, so they got much wetter than we got (we all got wet, of course–I was glad we spent the extra money for a wet suit rental, because that kept me pretty warm, except for my feet!). Part of the trip was pretty calm water and wildlife watching–we saw THREE bald eagles, one of them in flight, and a few small critters like a marmot and some ducks–but part of it was really quite bumpy and fun–there was a famous spot called the lunch table that has a long stretch of whitewater to get through; some other places were also fun, at least for rookies like us. I had never done anything like this before, so it was a blast. The ride back in the van was a little bit boring, but at least we got a chance to warm up a little bit while the van driver talked about her beloved jeep. 

We stopped at the full-size Albertson’s on the way back to the hotel to pick up a few more groceries, and then dried off and changed clothes. We had yesterday’s leftover pizza for lunch, with a scone/turnover for dessert. After a bit of puttering, we left for our short but still wonderful adventure exploring the Grand Tetons. We basically took a loop through the National Park (which isn’t that big, as far as drivable roads are concerned), and stopped at the Taggard Lake trailhead, where we took about a 2-hour hike to the lake and back. It was very nice — not steep at all and almost effortless compared to our last hike (less altitude, and less elevation change), although we went almost 5 miles. The view of the Grand Teton and the adjacent mountains was beautiful, and again, we were very happy to see lots of water–not just the gorgeous lake, but also a creek and a small waterfall. At about 3 pm we were back in the car and then just got out at various viewpoints for a few minutes: at Jenny Lake, then at a small mountaintop that we could drive all the way up–it was called Signal Mountain, and we joked that we should have a good cell phone signal up there, only to find a huge cell tower with serious cables sticking out right near the top! We also briefly stopped at Lake Jackson, at the small dam that makes Jackson Lake as enormous as it is and allows them to control flow into the snake river, and at a historical marker of an old cabin. Everywhere, there were beautiful views of the Tetons and of the valley to the other side, with its sage brush and its wetlands around the Snake River, and some of the “light effects” as the clouds moved in and as rain was obviously coming down elsewhere in the park were spectacular. Only the wildlife viewing was a bit disappointing–a baby moose and his mother were almost completely hidden by the trees they were resting under, the bison we saw were really far away and never lifted their heads, and the birds of prey we saw circling over the river were very far away! But we’re confident we’ll see more tomorrow on the way to and then in Yellowstone. 

We were back in town around 6 pm and eventually decided to go back to the same restaurant as yesterday, the Lift–but this time, to the downstairs area, which has a different menu. We got to sit outside, which was lovely, and we split a big pasta meal and a salad, which was just about right. Admittedly, we did look around town a bit for some interesting dessert, but since we couldn’t find anything we liked and it started to rain, we simply picked up a couple of 80-cent-packages of “factory cookies” and had those with the hot chocolate from packets that were sitting alongside the coffee packs in our hotel room while listening to the downpour outside. It’ll be an early night, especially for me, since I woke up very early, but we did have another great day. 

       

Wednesday, July 16 – Jackson to Yellowstone

 

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This was our first Yellowstone day! We left our hotel near Jackson early (around 7:30 am) and drove the 55 miles through the Grand Teton National Park and the little bit of National Forest that follows (with only one photo stop to look back at the Grand Teton range across Jackson Lake), to get to Yellowstone before it got truly crazy. This was a good idea, because when we pulled into the parking lot at Old Faithful, probably the biggest attraction in the park for 100 years, there were still plenty of spots–and OF was about to go off! We stayed, of course, and watched it spout water high up in the air and spew steam. It was fun, but it was the long walk through the entire geyser area and to a hot, polychromatic pool called Morning Glory that I thought was truly impressive–not so much the individual geysers (although we waited for one other predictable geyser to go off–Riverside geyser, which was quite fun as well, and spewed water much longer) but the sheer number of different geysers and the variety of colors, shapes of rims and scaffolding all over the area. Our round trip walk was about 3 miles and at least two hours, and no description would do it justice. Some of Mark’s photos do, though! I am however not surprised that the first explorers who reported the features of the area back to “civilization” were thought to make things up or hallucinate! It is a truly amazing area, and the idea that there is so much thermal activity just below the surface in this region is baffling. 

  

When we got back around to Old Faithful, we got our lunchbox out and had sandwiches, fruit, and taffy in the shade while watching the hundreds and hundreds of people that were milling around the area; we then took off and visited a couple of additional spots that are on this southwestern quadrant of the loop through the park and feature more geysers and other hot springs. First, we stopped at Biscuit Basin and marveled at the features of the very blue pools there; and because there was a hike to a nearby waterfall area, we decided to go on a second hike–and when we were by the waterfall and had checked out the little hot spring right near its top, we decided to go back on a loop trail, so we ended up making another 3-mile round trip, this one with lots of ups and downs and switchbacks. But the waterfall (Mystic Falls) and the views were beautiful, and the trail wasn’t so overrun, either, so we had a good time. Then, we also stopped at the Midway Geyser Basin, where the “Grand Prismatic Pool” is, which is truly enormous, and again features all these different colors associated with different kinds of growth possible depending on the heat of the pool. We also saw a couple of those geysers where the water is just broiling when it comes to the surface, and these amazing sulfur-colored runoff trails, as the water makes its way to the Firehole River, whose flow we mostly followed as we drove on. By now, it was almost 5:30 and we wanted to make sure to get out of the park and find a hotel for the night, so we made our way to the West Entrance–but had to make one more stop, as we saw elk splashing in the river near the road going west. It was a beautiful sight, and the first wildlife viewing today (apart from two ospreys earlier that we saw in flight, but that were gone in the blink of an eye). What a perfect ending to our Yellowstone Day 1–especially since we had glorious weather, sunny, clear, and not too hot (upper 70s, mostly). 

Once we were out of the park and in West Yellowstone, it didn’t take us too long to find a motel that was basic but just what we needed, and cheaper than we had counted on–plus, in walking distance from the main shopping/restaurant area of the town. So we decided to stay here for a couple of nights and explore Yellowstone from here before we head out either the East or Northeast exit. I actually like West Yellowstone a whole lot better than Jackson–a little grimy, a little rundown, with cheap, somewhat red-necky bars and stores, but much more down to earth and more openly tourist-oriented. None of that snooty super clean look that attracts the superstars to Jackson Hole and makes the real estate prices completely ridiculous (we looked at the pictures and prices just for kicks last night)–this is not Eddie Bauer and Starbucks, this is bars called “Bullwinkle” and Best Western motels. We had some wonderful, simple, and not outrageous Chinese food and some ice-cream from a hole-in-the-wall ice-cream booth. Then we walked back to the hotel and settled down for the night–the room is basic, without mini fridge or air conditioner, but just what we need to sleep and take showers! We won’t last long tonight, but the plan is to again leave very early in the morning and beat the crowds by at least a little bit. 

                 

Thursday, July 17 – Yellowstone

 

 

Surprise! Another early start into a day full of adventures. We were out the door before 7:30, with gas station coffee & orange juice, and back off into Yellowstone. Today, our goal was to do the upper half of the “grand tour” of the park, and boy, did we ever see a lot of things that were just wildly different from each other. For the first half of the tour (and a little less than the first half of the day) we were still in volcanic country. We looked at several more geyser spots, including the “artist paintpot” and the Porcelain Basin, where the steam vents and superheated springs (in which the water boils explosively once it comes to the surface) were making these lovely early morning steam billows–as were several of the hot rivers in the area, which we could see from the road because of the steam. Again, we saw gorgeous pool colors–but this time also the kind of opaque springs that turn the rock around them to clay and bubble slowly (like thick white paint). We finally ended our tour of “volcanic Yellowstone” at the second must-see place after Old Faithful, the Mammoth Hot Springs, which have these incredible terraces of travertine because of the kind of stuff that’s in the limestone through which the hot water runs here. Many of these springs have dried up, and then the travertine first looks chalky white and then dirty gray, and that wasn’t so great. But the active ones, across which the water still flows, look amazing, with whites and oranges and occasional yellows–and the travertine builds up very fast, up to a half-inch a day, so that we saw animal footprints that were already calcifying over with new buildup. We took a nice long walk in this area, and Mark got a few very good pictures of this alien landscape. 

After Mammoth Hot Springs, we drove a little further on the loop, now heading east, and found ourselves a picnic spot by a stream for our daily picnic. This was the first time in days we needed the bug spray, but we really did need it. We then continued on to Roosevelt Arch and to the Falls right past it, which were very cool to see. But what amazed us most about going (clockwise) down the northeastern quadrant of the loop was how much the landscape changed. All of a sudden we were back in rolling alpine meadows, with gorgeous wildflowers, some like carpets of yellow on the mountain meadows, and with several fantastic views of the canyon that the Yellowstone River has carved through the park. At one spot, one could see this amazing vein of octogonal formations among the layers of rock; it looked like someone had carved an ornamental border alongside the entire canyon! The peaks are not nearly as high as the Rockies, and it was a pretty hazy day, but there were also several snow-capped peaks a little ways in the distance. 

We stopped several times on the way down to Canyon Village, but getting there and looking at the Upper and Lower Falls in the Yellowstone Grand Canyon was our big ambition for the afternoon. Around 3 pm, we got to the parking lot on the South Rim Trail where one can see the upper falls and then hike further to see the lower falls and a huge portion of the Canyon, and started on our hike. The falls are massive and impressive, as is the river down in the Canyon and the sheer cliffs with their oranges, reds, and greens from intermittent vegetation. We hiked the way up from the Upper Falls lookout to Artist Point, but our plans to also go down to the bottom of the canyon on another trail were foiled by the weather. It started to grumble, and then, when we had made it almost to Artist Point, to drizzle; by the time we made it to the only shelter, the roof between the bathrooms, it was raining buckets. So we had to wait it out a while, and after waiting for about 20-30 minutes for the thunder to move away and the rain to stop, we walked back, with a very wet couple from Kentucky, who eventually declined the ride we offered them from “our” to “their” parking lot, since it was already clearing up. This is the first (and pretty minor) bad weather tussle we have had the whole trip! We then drove back up to the North Rim, and went to the brink of the upper falls, which is a very cool spot, and to another spot on the rim called Inspiration Point, where one could see the falls and the river at the bottom of the Canyon a long ways back. Our plans is to hike a bit more in the Lower Falls area tomorrow, when we come back through the area. 

It was after five by now and we drove back through the “shortcut” that turns the loop into a figure 8 right through the middle of the park–and apparently missed a major animal event, a couple of bears feeding on a bison, by a few minutes. But we had seen some animals over the course of the day, the two most striking ones in these ridiculously close-to-civilization moments–a couple of elk playing lawn ornament right in the middle of Roosevelt, and a pair of bison who were using the road as a walkway for convenience, so that the people behind just had to form a parade, while we got to drive by within mere feet, which was rather nervewrecking. There was also a slowdown on the way out the west entrance, but again, we never did see why the cars in front of us slowed down. We got back to West Yellowstone by about 6:30, had a mediocre diner meal (hamburger / chicken strips with fries, meh) and wrapped up our day rather early again. I hope this journal and the photos help us remember at least a fraction of what we saw today–it was so much and the sights were so wildly different from each other! 

                  

Friday, July 18 Yellowstone & Beartooth Highway to Billings

 

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We got up even earlier than the previous day, and Mark thought it was a record early departure, about 7:15–especially given that we got packed up and checked out by that time. So that’s how our last Yellowstone day began, with another drive in from the West, but then South at the loop to backtrack through the Old Faithful “quadrant,” with stops in places where we had not stopped before. So we stopped at the Black Sands Basin, just before the Old Faithful area, and that was fabulous–another couple of great pools, and bubbling, steaming waterholes–the strangeness of a volcanic landscape just remains fascinating, no matter how often we see it. And Mark had a very good time shooting short videos that showed the bubbling and broiling of these geysers and springs. We had more of that when we went to the last of the geyser basins, at West Thumb, which is where our exploration of the last, i.e. southeast, quarter of the loop began. West Thumb is a bay of the enormous lake Yellowstone that was created by a volcano some 174,000 years ago, and the rim still has all these hot springs and mudpots and other volcanic features. We walked around on boardwalks including right along the lakeshore, and saw some springs that were so close to the edge that it really is surprising they stay intact rather than “merging” with the lake! We then drove up the lake for a bit and got out at a picnic area where we could get to the shore where it makes a little peninsula, Gull’s Point. The “sand” is almost black, but the lake was beautiful and still very peaceful–all in all, our morning was wonderful because the park was simply not so full yet, and we had a couple of walks to ourselves. The last bit up the loop before we got to the part we already knew was the Mud Volcano area and the Sulphur Springs. The Mud Volcano area was interesting because the volcanic activity has changed there so much over the last one hundred and even the last twenty years. Apparently, in the 1990s a whole bunch of smaller earthquakes changed many of the activities, so that even Mark remembered some of the geysers and springs as different. One of our favorites was the Dragon’s Mouth Cave, where the steam and roiling water inside a little cave causes these really spooky noises. The area was made extra fun by the fact that two bison really thought that the extra heat of the ground near the springs was very comfy, so we (and two zillion other tourists) got these great close-up shots of bison right by the springs. 

Once we were past this area and the “shortcut” west, we found ourselves a parking lot to have a picnic in, and by studying the educational displays realized that the entire lovely valley between the edge of the lake and the Yellowstone canyon, with its rolling hills and the river still moving along more slowly, is the bison’s home turf in all but the deep winter. We managed to spot a few more after we learned more about them, and it was also not surprising to encounter more “animal jams” and slowdowns in traffic on this stretch. We finally made it up to the falls, though, and, as planned, walked the North Rim of the Yellowstone Grand Canyon, including two heavy-duty up-and-down points, one right over the lower falls (we had done the upper the day before) and one called Red Rock Point, from which one could look at the lower falls from a distance. We also stopped at EVERY OTHER outlook point on the way, and had a great time with this little hike, which took about 2 hours, and according to Mark’s GPS, was about 5 miles all in all. This time, we had fabulous weather the whole time, and truly got some great views of the canyon with its many colors and shapes. The emerald-green river running through this red, yellow, orange, and beige rock just kicks the colors up a notch, and the views were spectacular. 

By the end of our hike, it was about 3 pm, and we decided to head as directly as we could out of the park and on to find a place to stay in Montana, outside of the park. But the “directly” turned out to be harder than we thought. Although traffic finally settled down a bit inside the park once we were on the road off the loop to the northeast exit, we kept stopping for beautiful views and especially animal viewing. There was a large herd of buffalo, and later also an osprey in his nest, and it was hard not to keep pulling over to take in the view. Then we got out of the park and were in for even more of a surprise. Because it was only 4 pm, we decided not to look for a place to stay in either of the two little towns right outside the park (it would have been hard, anyway), and went on along the Beartooth Highway, which had come recommended by both the Yellowstone map and by our whitewater rafting guide in Jackson as very beautiful. But we were in for an absolutely stunning drive up into a mountain range we didn’t know existed, up these fabulous switchbacks, with canyons, bluffs and then snowcovered peaks. The pass itself goes over the a part of the Beartooth mountains that is very high for this area (10,900 feet), but the surrounding mountains are not any higher. That makes driving through feel like you’re on the very top of the world, with the world spreading out below with beautiful alpine lakes and meadows while above you is nothing else! It was really breathtaking–although I think that I got more out of the incredible alpine wildflower meadows, of whih I made Mark take several pictures, whereas he was more excited about the crazy guy who snowboarded down an incredibly steep slope on some of the many patches of snow that we kept seeing all over! I guess the truly wild animal is still always a human being with nutty ideas. He did okay, and his family was actually watching from where we were, too, but it did make me a bit nervous! 

Our descent from Beartooth pass was also beautiful, but at the end, when we got to Red Lodge, MT, where we were hoping to find a place to stay or at least to eat, we had a somewhat unpleasant surprise. Yes, there were plenty of places to stay and to eat, but the town was packed from end to end with thousands of motorcycles and their riders, because this, as it turns out, is the weekend of the “Beartooth Rally” where three different routes through this areas are used for fun motorcycle riding. So we drove on, although we were pretty hungry and rather tired, because clearly every camp ground and hotel in the area was just packed to the rafters. We found a very nice “locals eat here” restaurant a couple of towns further on, which had just what we wanted, namely breakfast for dinner, and then we drove on all the way to Billings in hopes of a cheap freeway motel, which turned out to be impossible–both the state fair and some softball thing are going on, and almost everything was booked. So we got an expensive room instead (just for the one night), and frankly, I can’t wait to get out of Billings tomorrow. After all the beautfy of the mountains and then the very pretty bluffs on the way in, the industrial landscape and the classic Interstate wasteland makes me want to run far, far away from here! Which is the plan for tomorrow, anyway. 

                         

Saturday, July 19 – Billings to Hot Springs via Little Big Horn and Devils Tower

 

 

This morning, we did a bit of logistics before even getting up–we did a bit of geography review and hotel availability research and I decided, with a bit of hesitation, that two nights in a town called Hot Springs, not too far from the various places we wanted to see in South Dakota, would be good, even though the town’s website made me think it was going to be hideous. But the price at the Super 8 was right at $ 85 per night, and so I booked them on Expedia, even though it meant driving about 400 miles today. Mark said that would be doable, and what we wanted to see on the way was pretty minimal. That mission accomplished, we had another mediocre hotel breakfast, and took off around 8 am. We started by getting gas and were very proud to find out that we managed to get 56 mpg out of our last 7 gallon’s worth of gas, thanks to the slow driving in Yellowstone and lots of regenerative breaking while rolling downhill. 

Our first stop was not far from Billings, only about an hour Southeast–it was the Little Bighorn Battlefield, where we walked around for about half an hour. I have to say that mostly it made me really angry and really sad, so I was glad when we left. I know it’s possible to see it as a victory day for the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Sioux in their battle against a complete idiot of a commander who sacrificed 276 men & himself in his arrogance about the number of enemies he was facing. But of course, mostly it’s part of the horrific loss that the Native Americans sustained as they were first corralled into the reservations, and then stripped again of whichever one of these suddenly seemed valuable to white people again, as happened with the Black Hills in the 1870s, when gold was found and the Laramie treaty was rendered invalid. And yes, the national park people have tried to rectify the history of Little Bighorn in recent years by putting red stone markers where Indian warriors fell, alongside the white marble all over that marks the dead white soldiers (and their Crow Indian scouts), and by building a warrior memorial complementing the soldier memorial. But the warrior memorial was only completed in 2013, and the markers were only begun to be placed in 1999, and it is still appalling to me that it’s taken this long for the history of the “losers” to be addressed in some way or another. I do have to say though that the site is beautiful, and the fact that three free-ranging horses walked by the site as we were at the warrior memorial made it almost okay to be there. Nonethess, I was glad when we continued on our way. 

We then drove for quite a while, stopping briefly to have fast-food lunch (our first, I think–we’ve been very good about the picnics) in Gillette, and then driving on to Devils Tower (no apostrophe due to a clerical error). That particular stop was more impressive than I thought, and I am glad we stopped and walked the 1.3 mile trail around this massive thing, which might have been one of three geologic phenomena–a vulcanic plug, or one of two types of other magma formation, which stayed behind because of its extreme resistance to erosion, after the mile-high layer of sandstone around it had eroded away. Like the Giant’s Causeway and the formations we saw in part of the Yellowstone canyon wall, the whole thing consists of mostly hexagonal columns, and is enormous–over 800 feet up, with a huge boulder field of fallen columns around it. It’s sort of nature’s Cologne Cathedral–you look up and up and can’t believe how high it is. Even the boulderfield is like the trim that keeps breaking off and falling down from the cathedral–except of course much, much more impressive than anything humans could build. Of course, humans try to conquer it anyway–in this case, the technical climbers, who love to scale the huge columns. We saw a good dozen at various spots, and over the course of a year (mostly in the summer) it’s about 5,000 climbers. It was fascinating to watch and photograph them–they really clarified the scale of the whole tower, which really does look like the stump of a giant tree, complete with a slight twist at the bottom as if the trunk had roots. 

We spent a little over an hour at Devils Tower, and then drove out of Wyoming, down state routes through the Black Hills into South Dakota. It was beautiful driving through the Black Hills, but they are not spectacular where our route took us–nice foresty areas with a bit of bright red sandstone in between, but apparently elsewhere the formations are much more impressive. So we’ll see some of that tomorrow. For today, we just drove on until we were in Hot Springs, at about 6 pm, and found our Super 8. We then went out to dinner and were in for a surprise. The town was not at all what I thought it was, even through its outskirts are all ugly hotels and big touristy restaurants with cheesy names like Woolly’s (for the Mammoth fossils that are on show here, and that we’ll check out tomorrow). The downtown is from the 1890s, when the crazy for healthy waters attracted ritzy hotels, spas, and sanatoriums, including a V.A. hospital built in the early 1900s for soldiers with TB, and today used for V.A. drug rehab and PTSD patients. The buildings are massive and remarkably uniform red sandstone buildings, and up on top of the cliffs, a number of adorable Victorian gingerbread houses. We were absolutely gawking at this stuff, especially since there are these grandiose stairs going up to the V.A. hospital, also on top of a cliff. Sadly, though, this is not bringing tourists for some reason–they sleep here and then drive up to Mount Rushmore or the Black Hills, all north up here–and the town is dying, with many of the sandstone buildings on the main street in disrepair or for sale, while apparently there is a threat that the V.A. hospital will be closed–surely the last straw for this beautiful little town. We had lovely Mexican food in a restaurant that clearly closed right after we left as the last guests, and even icecream in a little shop owned by Floridians that put a Manatee outside their store. We came home from our walk surprisingly lovely walk at about 8:30, did laundry and again called it an early night. 

         

Sunday, July 20 – Black Hills, Wind Cave, Mt. Rushmore (not really) and the Badlands

 

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Wow. I think this day took the cake as far as exhausting, overfull travel days are concerned. It was a combination of “let’s do the interesting-looking travel stops” and major driving day, because the distances between seemingly close places in Western South Dakota are really quite daunting. So: We started the day out with a 7:30 hotel breakfast (again, nothing to shout home about) and a visit to the Mammoth excavation site right next door to the hotel. It boasts that it is the largest covered in situ excavation site, but we thought that Ash Falls, otherwise rather different, is just as large. It was, however, impressive, although the guided tour was a bit on the boring side (supposed to meet everyone’s needs from 5-year-olds to 95-year-olds). The site is a former sinkhole in which primarily mammoths (Wooly and Colombian) and a few other animals died because they couldn’t get out, and they have found remains of 61 mammoths so far–some of them astonishingly complete. The work is still going on, and they have a summer volunteer program (through Earth Works and Road Scholar) so that every “excavation season,” they have plenty more to catalog and work on all year long. 

After our brief stop at the Mammoth site, we drove to Wind Cave National Monument, and got a tour within the hour (quite a feat, given the many people that were milling around even at 9:30 in the morning, and that the tours are all first-come, first-serve). Wind Cave was astonishing to me, even though it doesn’t have any of the usual beautiful features of a classic limestone cave. It is an almost completely dry cave, and so there are no stalagmites or stalagtites etc. But it is absolutely massive–one of the longest, and of the most complex cave systems in the world, with 142 miles of connected cave trails and tunnels and rooms explored so far–and walking around in just the teeny bit that we got to see in the 1.5 hours of our tour was very cool. Lots of side “branches” all over the place, and most notably these fascinating formations called “boxwork,” which is really the patterns of the material that used to be the water (mixed with whatever made it calcify) in the cracks within limestone that has long since eroded. The guide explained boxwork very well by comparing them to mortar being left intact if you could melt the bricks in between, and pointed out that 95% of all the world’s boxwork is to be found in Wind Cave. Its spiderwebby patterns are really beautiful, but it’s hard to photograph. We got out of the cave at about 11:30, and then drove the short distance to the next nice picnic spot in Custer State Park, to have our picnic lunch, this time enhanced by some trail mix we bought at the nearby park gift & convenience store. We then checked out a panorama point in the park, near a fire tower–it wasn’t a very clear day, but with Mark’s tele, we could spot Mount Rushmore from a sideview (Washington only) and also the half-finished Crazy Horse monument). We then drove the beautifully scenic route toward Mount Rushmore through the park because several people had recommended it highly; it is called the Needles because of the needle-like formations near the highest point of the road, including one called the Needle’s Eye for obvious reasons (see photo), although the tunnels that were on the route could also have been seen as the eyes of needles through which several bigger SUVs barely fit! The route was as gorgeous as advertised, and showed both the foresty and the interesting-formation aspect of the Black Hills. But I have to say that beautiful landscapes tend to pale a little after what we saw in Yellowstone! We passed Mount Rushmore around 1:30 pm, and, as planned, didn’t actually get out and clamber around. I was very glad–it was beastly hot (95, 96 degrees) by now, and I have to say I think that the whole concept is a bit ridiculous and that I didn’t care much for the whole monument–but we did stop at a pull out and took a photo from afar, and I was surprised that the profiles are actually smaller than I thought they would be. All I could think of was how Cary Grant and Grace Kelly climb around on them in “North by Northwest”–there was actually a big marker reminding us of this fact right outside of the monument! 

From Mt. Rushmore, we drove up to Rapid City to reach the Interstate (I-90) and take the fastest (if rather long) route to the Badlands, which we reached in about 2 hours’ time by about 5 pm. We took the driving tour, the so-called Badlands Loop, which weaves in and out of the Badlands “Wall” that separates the higher and lower layer of prarie land, and because it was still 98 degrees, we only got out for short walks at various panorama points and interpretive trails. It is a stunning landscape, not only because it is so vast, but also because it is so obviously always in (slow) motion, since the badlands formations are so soft and crumbling away constantly–even worse, I would think, than in Bryce Canyon. Obviously, it was basically pointless to NOT walk around in the formations, because every rainfall reshapes them and creates more runoff, so unlike in other National Parks, we were clearly free to clamber around everywhere. It was neat to see the different layers of the different geological periods; given that some layers are apparently very fossil-rich, we were a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see any fossils, just fossil replicas and other educational material like that. But the views were beautiful, and given that it has rained quite a bunch more here (just as in Yellowstone and Colorado) than in the past 20 or so years, I am sure that the prairie in between the different Badlands layers was much greener than it usually is. At the end of the loop, we added on a bit of gravel road and got to see some antelope (we think) as well as a couple of additional outlook points, but we eventually had to backtrack rather than to add the suggested gravel road loop because a small herd of buffalo had decided to hang out right across the road, not showing any preference for either the left or the right side. We watched them for a while from a distance in the beautiful evening sunlight, but eventually drove back the way we came rather than trying to wait until they had cleared the road. 

For dinner, we chose a ridiculous road-attraction cafe that is part of the “Wall Drug Store,” which advertises for miles and miles around with huge billboards that it has 5-cent coffee and free ice water (its gimmick since it was opened in the 1930s, before the interstate was even there) and that it is the biggest drug store ever. Well, they served perfectly fine hamburgers and had a huge collection of knick-knacks and touristy stuff, and we were there just before they closed at 8 pm, so we were happy. Then we drove the long two hours back to Hot Springs and wrapped up our day very late, compared to our normal bedtime. Tomorrow, we begin our trip back to Nebraska, albeit with vacation stops. 

               

Monday, July 21 – Hot Springs to Valentine, via Agate Fossil Beds and Fort Robinson

 

We left Hot Springs this morning shortly before 8, and drove the 2+ hours to Agate Fossil Beds, a bit Southwest of Chadron, to continue on our geology and paleontology kick and see the fossils (mammals, from about 19 million years ago) there–we had no idea that the 29, the road we were on is sometimes called “Fossil Highway” because there are so many fossil-related stops on it! It was a nice visit all in all, and since it was only about 10:30, it was bearable, in terms of temperatures, to take the little 1 mile walk out to spots where you can see the so-called Devil’s Corkscrews (Daemonelix), which are really just prehistoric roden burrows that have a fascinating spiral shape. However, all in all there wasn’t much to see at this particular National Monument, because most of the fossils were taken to other sites. That made it all the more fun to stop also at the teeny “Trailside” museum at Fort Robinson, where some of the fossil finds of the general area, including some fossils from the Agate site were displayed–most dramatically, two mammoths who died locking their tusks in fight, and who are pretty well preserved. We didn’t look at anything else at Fort Robinson, but did learn enough to make it all connect back to a) the Little Big Horn battlefield and various other historical markers along the way about the war with the Sioux in the 1870s, and b) to the interesting “Indian connection” at the Agate site, which used to be a farm owned by a man named Cook who was actually very friendly with the Indians and got many artefacts from them, while also serving as a liaison / ambassador for them when the Laramie Treaty was broken and when the Cheyenne in the Fort Robinson area were mistreated by the troops just before the final surrender of the Black Hills. It’s such a sad story, but it was good to read about Cook, who also brought in the first paleontologists, so that his son also became one and was part of various teams that excavated at the Agate sites. 

We also had yet one more picnic lunch at the Trailside museum (now we’re really down to raisins, almonds, and a few tortillas for wraps), and then we drove the long, quiet route through the Sandhills from Crawford through Chadron and on to Valentine. It is beautiful rolling countryside, with the occasional sediment butte or cliff sticking out, but I have to say that I wasn’t as impressed as I was the last time I drove through the lower (more southern) Sandhills–and I am not sure whether it was because that route is prettier or because the Rockies, Yellowstone, and all the dramatic sights we’ve seen were so much more sensational. We are probably also getting a little burned out on driving–at any rate, we were glad to arrive at the Valentine Super 8 a little after 4 central time. We unpacked, had an early dinner at a perfectly nice restaurant called the Peppermill, and stopped to pick up some sandwiches and some towels for our trip tomorrow. We also thought that the beastly temperatures (106 was the high today!!!!) warranted some Goodrich ice cream! We cooled off in our hotel until it was a balmy 102 and then decided to explore the Niobrara a little in search of a swimming hole. But the road to the Wilderness refuge nearby is being redone, and so the access that we were told would exist wasn’t readily apparent–and it was still very hot and sticky. So we drove back and tested the hotel pool instead, and called it a night soon after that. 

  

Tuesday, July 22, The Drive Home

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This morning, we took off after a slightly later breakfast (we switched back to Central Time, so “sleeping in” was actually an illusion) and checked in with the canoeing and tubing outfit where we had booked our canoe tour; then, we drove to Smith Falls State Park, which boasts Nebraska’s tallest waterfall (at 63 feet/19 meters), and checked out the falls, which are (if not very tall compared to others we’ve seen) very picturesque. They don’t “fall” right into the Niobrara, but actually are part of a little tributary, of which they are about 200 on the south side of the Niobrara–where the harder formation underneath the “sand” that makes up the sandhill will resist the usual erosion that shapes this area of Nebraska. We then backtracked a few miles from Smith Falls to get back to the place where we were instructed to park our car, while a van with a canoe attachment took us to the launching spot right inside the Fort Niobrara Wilderness Area. We got our canoe, and some paddles and life vests (which the outfitter stressed we would probably NOT need, a surprising remark at first), and we were off. We figured out pretty soon why the life vests were optional — I don’t think we came across more than three spots where our paddles didn’t hit bottom within 3 feet, and most of the river is wadeable without getting one’s swimsuit wet. We actually got stuck on a couple of rocks and sandbanks that we didn’t spot fast enough. It’s not very fast moving, so that this does not cause any whitewater at all, and so rafting is not very exciting, at least in this portion of the river. It is, however, beautifully quiet (or quietly beautiful?), and the natural course of the river goes past some impressive white and red sandstone cliffs and lots of mature trees. We really lucked out in terms of the temperatures–they had dropped down from yesterday’s high of 106 to the mid-80s, and I think it didn’t get worse than 90 even in the early afternoon. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any animals except for some birds, but since the trip didn’t start until 11 am, that’s not very suprprising. We canoed for about 2 hours total, alternately paddling and floating, and even had our picnic right on the river; we only got out once, to check out another little sideways waterfall. Then, at about 1:30, we reached Brewer Bridge, where our car was parked, and started the long but uneventful drive to Hastings through the Sandhills. We got there at about 6 pm, picked up pizza for everyone, and had dinner with Kati, Krynn, Alyssa, and Tom, our housesitting crew. I repacked a little so I would have everything I needed for my Santa Cruz trip next week, and we picked up the mail both at home and at the office. Then, with Mark’s last little bit of driving energy, we got ourselves home to Lincoln. We got home just before 10 am, and although the last three days have been a LOT of driving (over 300 each day, I believe), we were sure glad to have pushed a little and be home now. 18 days was a good length, and I think we were both ready to stop living out of a suitcase and a cooler by now!