Last Stop, Palo Duro Canyon

Oct. 1-5, 2012

We’re back in Texas, a little south of Amarillo in one of our favorite state parks, Palo Duro Canyon. We often stay here on the return trip when travelling west or north of Texas. Its an excellent park to relax in, as the scenery is pretty, the campgrounds are generally quiet, cell service is poor to non-existent, and there’s not that much else to do save for the occasional hike or bike ride. It’s the perfect place to reflect on our journey and prepare ourselves for the transition back to “normal” life.

We did get out today, our last day here, to do our favorite hike in the park, the Lighthouse trail. Its about 6 miles round trip, and surprisingly seems easier and easier each time we hike it.

This is the lighthouse formation the trail is named for.

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The views from the lighthouse are pretty good.

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And the plateau at the base of the lighthouse comes complete with a built-in lunch spot.

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Tonight is our last night here and our last night on the road. They have just lifted a months long fire ban, so we will be able to celebrating our last night by burning the last of our wood supply (most of which we’ve been hauling since Denali) and finishing off the last of the s’mores makings. A fitting end to a great trip.


Texas or Bust

Sept. 28-30, 2012

It was time to get our butts back to Texas, so we pointed the Airstream south and started driving. We normally don’t like to drive more than 6 or so hours a day plus stops, so that means we have three more days of farmland.

We drove a long first day to get to North Platte, Nebraska. We needed to do some laundry and there was something to see so we hung out for an extra day.

North Platte is home to one of the largest (if not the actual largest) train yards in the US, home of the mighty Union Pacific. There is small visitor center called the Golden Spike Tower with information on the railroad and a very comfortable rail yard viewing area on the top floors. From there you get a great overview of the comings and goings of the yard. The viewing area is manned by retired rail workers who live to talk trains.

Here’s the fleet of locomotives at the ready. The building on the left houses more locomotives for service.

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Here’s where the trains enter the yard. The main holding area is flanked by two humps, one on either end. This is a major crossroads, so many trains come in with cars heading for various destinations. The real function of the yard is to sort and redistribute the cars to other trains. The way they do this is interesting, but surprisingly quite simple.

The incoming train approaches the hump. As each car reaches the hump, its disconnected and rolls slowly due to gravity onto one of dozens of parallel tracks. One by one the entire train of cars is processed onto multiple tracks, each representing a different destination. You can see a set of two cars rolling down the hump in this picture.

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These are groups of cars in the holding area waiting to be hooked up onto a new locomotive for a new destination. Periodically, one or more locomotives will pick up cars from multiple holding tracks to assemble its multiple mile long train and head out.

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I think the yard stretches about 8 miles long. Its quite the site, even for someone who is not a “train-guy”.

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The visitor center also has a corn maze for the kids, this is Nebraska after all. Its hard to tell from the first shot, but the maze is actually train themed as shown by the second picture.

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We drove, as expected, the next two days back to Texas, spending the night in Liberal, Kansas along the way. Other than getting a taste of a typical Kansas thunderstorm, the trip was uneventful.

Black Hills: Rapid City and Custer

The biggest town in the area is Rapid City, and we spent parts of two days exploring the town. We had planned on only a single day, but made the unfortunate choice of visiting on a Sunday, when just about everything was closed.

We spent the Sunday wandering the downtown area, doing some shopping, and eating lunch at the Colonial House restaurant. One of the attractions in Rapid City is the Walk of Presidents. There are life size statues of all the US presidents scattered across all the downtown intersections.

Here’s an example. If anyone can guess what president this is, I would be very impressed.


The main reason we returned a second day to Rapid City was to visit the Geology Museum on the campus of the local state university. The museum contains a large collection of fossils and an extensive assortment of rock and mineral samples. It was definitely worth the trip back.

We think this is the skull of a large tusked pig-like creature.


Reconstructed skeleton of an ocean dwelling dinosaur.


And now the educational portion of the post, everything you will ever need to know about how rocks are created and classified.


We also visited the much smaller town of Custer. After lunch at Subway, and a visit to the requisite quilt shop, we continued on to its main attraction, The National Museum of Woodcarving. The name is a little misleading as the museum is almost entirely dedicated to displaying the works of Harley Niblack, a Chiropractor turned artist. Mr. Niblack was quite a creative and prolific carver with a wide range of interests and talents. Some of his works have appeared in the Smithsonian.

Like many carvers, he did a lot of caricature work. This is one of the life size vignettes. Like most of his carvings, this one was actually animated.


A miniature vignette of a farm scene with more, albeit smaller, caricature figures. Every part of this was hand carved.  Many parts of this scene were also subtly animated.


Close up of another miniature showing the details. Yup, more animations as well.


Not satisfied with just doing the carving, Mr. Niblack also designed and built the mechanisms driving the animations, complicated contraptions of seemingly random collections of motors, gears, belts, pulleys, and cams. The work was so impressive at the time that Mr. Niblack was hired to help design the animations for a small theme park known as Disneyland. This small piece had a mirror mounted underneath to expose the mechanism.


His interests extended beyond caricatures. This is a more traditional carving.


… and how about some carved furniture.


He even dabbled in miniature steam engines.


That was one busy guy.

Black Hills: Harney Peak Hike

We managed to find a free day to go hiking and chose the Harney Peak trail. The trail climbs Harney Peak, which is the highest point in North America east of the Rockies. The peak tops out around 7300 feet, but since the hike starts out at close to 6000 feet, its actually not that difficult a hike.

The drive to the trailhead is a very scenic drive and included more of the stone tunnels and pigtail bridges. This is me driving through the narrowest of the tunnels; its only several inches more than eight feet wide.


At the top of Harney Peak is an old Fire lookout. Its no longer used but looked like it was pretty well outfitted back in the day, with electricity and everything. This is only the upper tower. There are living quarters on the floor below.


This is a view from the peak toward the Cathedral Spires (left) and Little Devils Tower (right). We’ll be hiking there on the return leg.


This view is from the peak in the other direction.


A few miles later, and we’re now on Little Devils Tower looking back at Harney Peak. Can you see the fire tower?


How about now on maximum zoom?


Panorama from Little Devils Tower.


By the time we arrived back at the car, we had clocked a very enjoyable 8+ miles.

Black Hills: The Mammoth Site

One afternoon, we took a drive south to visit a large mammoth site. A local developer was clearing land for a new home development when a piece of equipment scraped the top of a bone. The bones turned out to be from a Mammoth. Further investigation proved that there were many more bones in the surrounding area. A non-profit organization was set up to take over the site and its study. The homes were never built.

Initially, they would excavate in the summer and then recover the site in the winter to prevent erosion. Eventually, a large building was erected over the entire site to allow continuous study and to accommodate visitors. The site is about the size of a basketball court and is believed to have been a form of sinkhole which managed to trap numerous mammoths.

Most of the building is taken up by areas being excavated and there are pathways built over the dig for tours. The pit is literally packed with mammoth bones, with a few other miscellaneous animals thrown in for fun. It looks there will be decades of work documenting all the artifacts in this site.

This is a good shot of mammoth teeth. They are designed to grind up plant matter.


I believe this is a nearly complete mammoth skeleton.


Mammoth skull staring right at the camera.


The swirls frozen in this sandstone are mammoth footprints. They were created by the mammoths feet disturbing the once soft mud.


Black Hills: Wind Cave vs. Jewel Cave

There are lots of places to visit caves in the Black Hills, some touristy, some not. Two of these are public parks, Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park.

Visiting Jewel Cave turned out to be much more difficult than expected, as it took us two visits to actually get down into the cave. On our first visit, we were informed that the cave was closed because the elevator was broken. Had we gotten there just a little while earlier, we would likely have been on the tour that was in the cave when the elevator broke, and that had to walk out the service tunnel.

Supposedly, the problem was being worked on so we decided to hand around a while and take the 3.5 mile hike around the park.

Here’s Reen standing in a small cave we passed along the trail.


The Black Hills have had lots of problems with pine beetles, as well as the typical fires. Its not uncommon to see large areas with mostly dead trees.


The cave was still closed after we got back from the hike so we moved on. As it turned out, the cave remained closed for most of the week, but opened just in time for us to get in a visit a day or so before we left.

We had a very good tour guide who gave a more dramatic than usual verbal presentation. Maybe this is where drama majors get jobs.

Unlike most caves, this one was not formed by surface water seeping down from above so it didn’t have many of the typical cave formations. Instead, the cave was flooded from below, and remained flooded for extensive periods with water supersaturated with minerals. The result is a cave that is almost entirely lined with a thick layer of crystals. The formations are called dog-tooth spar and nail-tooth spar. In some areas the bumps are more crystal looking than others. In this area, things look more rounded off.


Here, a large section of the crystal layer has broken off. It was almost a foot think.


An excellent example of Maureen’s favorite cave formation, Cave Bacon! This is probably the biggest one we’ve seen, at least 6 feet tall and close to a foot wide.


Between our unsuccessful and successful attempts to see Jewel cave, we visited Wind Cave National Park. This is our tour guide showing us the original entrance that was discovered. The cave is so named because of the strong wind that flows in and out of this opening as the cave pressure equalizes with the outside. It is that small dark hole on the back wall of the pit. People actually crawled through there to get into the cave. I guess people were a lot thinner in the past.


Wind cave also doesn’t have many of the typical cave formations. The unique feature of Wind Cave is its “box work”. Box work looks like a thin delicate grid of boxes on the surface of the cave, mostly noticeable on the ceiling.


Close up view of a good example.


Beginnings of some box work. Unlike most cave formations, this is not formed directly by water. The box work is already in the rock before the cave is formed. Cracks in the rocks (typically limestone) get filled with harder minerals. Then, when the cave is formed by acidic water dissolving the limestone, some of the harder minerals in the cracks remain, revealing the box work.


While the official tour was not quite as entertaining as Jewel Cave, some of the other visitors on our tour made up for the difference. There were a half dozen or so “hipster dudes” who looked around 40 years old but were dressed and acted as if they were in their early twenties. They were accompanied by a slightly more mature acting woman. Since they all seem to be travelling together in a large van, we decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they were a travelling band looking for something interesting to do between gigs.

Black Hills: Mount Rushmore

A trip to the Black Hills would not be complete without a visit to Mount Rushmore. The trip from our campground through the hills to Mount Rushmore is an adventure in itself. The road passes through a series of one lane tunnels blasted through solid granite. Most of these tunnels are accompanied by cool old wooden pigtail bridges. You come out of the tunnel onto the bridge and then the road immediately curves back under the bridge.


This is our first view of Mount Rushmore from an overlook stop along the road.


The entrance of Mount Rushmore opens to a flag lined walkway leading to the main view point and visitor center. The visitor center was very interesting covering the construction of the monument, the story of the artist, as well as the history and significance of the subject presidents.  It was a little surprising to discover how many adjustments and modifications were made to the design during construction in order to accommodate the flaws in the mountain. The original design looked markedly different from the final outcome.


Mount Rushmore in the early evening. The big rock pile in the foreground is all the rock that was blasted and carved away to create the monument.


There is a nice, mostly boardwalk, trail to walk which takes you to the base of the monument. Reen took some close up pictures from there in which you can see some of the finer details of the carvings. You are supposed to be particularly impressed by the Lincoln’s eyes and the illusion of Teddy Roosevelt’s glasses.


Black Hills: Crazy Horse or Just Plain Crazy

The Black Hills is home to the Crazy Horse Monument, now under construction. Actually, they have been blasting this mountain away for decades already and the only part that looks like anything is the head of Crazy Horse. When, or if, its finished, it will depict Crazy Horse riding a horse pointing off into the distance.

The original sculptor started working alone in the wilderness. He died before any actual detail carving had been done. After his death. his family continued the work and now run an organization overseeing the project.

The project takes no public money, it is funded by donations and visitor fees. They have built a large museum and visitor center which has a growing collection of artifacts. The collection is somewhat random in that it is comprised largely of donated items. We saw everything from art, to Indian artifacts, to sports memorabilia, to an old stagecoach.

Crazy Horse Monument from the visitor center, about a mile or two away. The monument is very large. Supposedly, just the area behind the head is equivalent in size to all of the Mount Rushmore carvings.


We paid a few extra dollars to take a bus to the base of the monument.


The completed face. As it turns out, there are no known images of Crazy Horse, so the sculpture is based entirely on oral descriptions. The structure on the top is part of the mechanism for laying out the sculpture so they know where to blast and carve.


This is the back side. The sculpture is designed to be fully three dimensional, so this side will eventually be carved as well. Theoretically.


This is the original carving that is being duplicated on the mountain. Yup, there is still quite a lot of work to do.


Because of the limited budget, there are not that many people actually working on the sculpture, maybe a couple of dozen or so. You have to be impressed that someone was willing to take on this project to begin with, and even more so that the work is continuing. There is no scheduled completion date, but by my estimate there must be well over a hundred years of work remaining at the current pace.

Black Hills: The Great Bison Roundup

Our main motivation for skipping the Badlands and rushing to the Black Hills was to partake in the yearly Buffalo festival. Once a year Custer State Park brings in their buffalo herd of over 1000 with a good old fashioned round-up. This event draws 10-15 thousand people!

The weekend festivities include a big arts, crafts, and food fair. There were lots of booths, both chili and Dutch oven cook-offs, craft demonstrations and an auction where you could bid on one of many life size painted buffalos.

We walked around for an hour or so, had lunch, and then took in two demonstrations. One was an introduction to making pine needle baskets. Even though I had actually tried this before, Reen did a much better job with her needles than I did. The second demonstration was on yarn spinning. It was interesting to see how a bag of fur quickly turns into yarn. The very nice older woman giving the presentation explained how she got into raising llama just so she would have a supply for her spinning.

The actual buffalo round-up is held on Monday. We got the scoop on where and when from the park booth at the fair. The gates open around 6:30am, but we’re told to shoot for 6:15am and expect there will already be people waiting. Around 9, they close the gates for safety purposes, so you need to be in by then. Since we’re about 45 minutes away from the corral, its going to be an early morning.

Sunday night before the big day, we packed up everything we would need in a big backpack. The next morning we were up and on the road by 5:30am. It was still pitch black as we pulled out of the campground, but it looked like the other campers were loading up for the same destination.

With about 5 or so miles to go, at about 6am, traffic came to a halt. Yup, there were 5 miles of cars in line to see the roundup. And this was only half the crowd as the viewing is split between two areas. I don’t think we made it into the grounds till around 7:30.

The sun rises over the Black Hills as we wait in traffic.


We set up our chairs on the hill side amongst the thousands of others and waited for the show. Once situated, I headed over to the big food tent to secure our pancake and sausage breakfast.

We’re in the south viewing area. This is the view across to the north viewing area. The buffalo will be coming through that valley into the corral just out of view to the left.


Looking down the crowd on our side (and the pancake tent). The crowd actually goes much farther than you can see in the picture, down and around a corner.


Here they come! The buffalo and the cowboys come into view. Its just like the old days. well, except that there are as many pickup trucks chasing the buffalo as there are horses.


Through the trees they go.


Cowboys driving from the rear.


Here’s where things went a little odd. The “plan”, we believe, was to push the buffalo straight across to the other side of that far hill. Then as a dramatic finish, the buffalo are driven over the hill, directly toward the press cameras, for that classic shot. Unfortunately, as you can see, some of the buffalo, perhaps because they’ve done this before, turned left and slowly walked toward the corral on their own.


Eventually, they did get most of the buffalo over the hill for the final stampede performance. Here they are entering the corral.


All safely in the corral. Over the next few days they perform checks on the buffalo and then sort them so they can sell of the excess as the park can only support about 1000 buffalo over the winter. Most of those sold are used to help build up other herds.


We could’ve headed down to the corral for lunch (buffalo burgers!) and to see them start processing, but we had other sites to see. So we watched the buffalo mill about the corral from a nearby hill for a while until the crowd thinned out, and then headed out.

The Black Hills, the Orlando of South Dakota

Sept. 20-27, 2012

We’re headed west from Pierre to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Between here and there is Badlands National Park. We had wanted to stay a few days in the Badlands, but there’s some stuff going on in the Black Hills this weekend that we didn’t want to miss. 

While we didn’t get to camp there, we did detour off the highway to tour through the park. The drive through the park is very scenic and we got a good feeling for the park. These Badlands definitely out-badland the badlands in Theodore Roosevelt Park.

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Heading back to the highway, we stumbled upon what will likely be the last giant animal of the trip. I’m not sure this is the world’s largest prairie dog, but it was plenty big. Take note of the real prairie dogs worshiping at the base of their leader.

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This was in the parking lot of a little tourist trap where you could purchase food to feed to the prairie dogs… AND CATCH THE PLAGUE!

As tourist traps go, the prairie dog village was nothing compared to Wall Drug, which is essentially a gift shop spread over an entire city block.

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We eventually ended up in Custer State Park in the middle of the Black Hills where we will be spending a full week. The Black Hills really does feel like Orlando, in that there are many “attractions” spread over a fairly large area, encompassing everything from the most touristy, to the historical, to the outdoorsy, and beyond. Details to follow…