Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Autumn in Texas

Ah, the cool crisp days of Autumn. . . they must be happening somewhere, but certainly not around here!

We've been in the humid 80's and 90's every since returning home in mid September.

Some days it's been nice enough to do this. . .

And mow the yard and trim the weeds. . . . .

. . . and other days it did this . . .

 All that rain has been great for the plant life, and wonderful for the fireflies. They are usually a spring only phenomenon, and a real treat to watch. This year we have had so many they soon became commonplace.

Things have been dryer the last few weeks, so we aren't seeing them anymore, though I did see a straggler last night. Along with the fireflies, the butterflies are enjoying all the late-blooming wildflowers.

Common Mestra
We have, literally, hundred of  Common Mestras. They hover over the grass and open gravel areas all day. The boys and the dogs all like to run among them and see if they can catch one. They are a delicate little butterfly with pale coloring, so when flying they look dull white, but when they finally sit still they have a very nice pattern.

We've seen several butterflies we've never had in the yard before, like the Zebra Long Wing. We have a wild clematis blooming, and it's the preferred host plant for the Long Wing, so that must be what attracted it.
Zebra longwing on clematis vine
Butterflies come from caterpillars of course, so the downside of butterflies is that the caterpillars have attacked most of the plants in the vegetable garden, and they now look like skeletons! The spiders have been pretty active too, and we had a huge one guarding the back porch - he really set the tone around Halloween!

It's a good thing we've had the butterflies to watch from the porch, as the birds haven't really shown up like they usually do. We've had a few stray ones, but not the huge numbers that usually show up right after we return from the summer travels.

The fall weather has held so well that I decided I'd get brave and plant some peas. Raylan helped, and so far they are looking pretty good. I hope we don't get any sneak freezes before we get some kind of a harvest.  More photos of plants and wildlife here - with captions.

On our way to inspect the hog trap
In mid-October we had a chance to take a weekend camping trip to the Krebs' hunting lease over near Pipe Creek (between Boerne and Bandera.)

For those not familiar with Texas-style hunting, it's a bit different than the west coast. There's very little public land here, so hunting on BLM or forestry land isn't an option.

walking down Fossil Lane, as Jax calls it
People "lease" an opportunity to hunt on large landholdings and ranches. Some landholders lease to so many people that you might as well be in a public campground. In this case only the three Krebs men are on the lease, so there are no crowds to worry about.

The area is interesting, full of fossils, and a variety of wildflowers and varied terrain. We had a great time just visiting with the kids, taking the boys for walks and sitting around the campfire at night.  Skot did a little hunting but it was mostly just a fun time to relax and visit.

Album with more photos of that trip here.

In late October friends from Nevada visited for a week. They hadn't been to San Antonio for years, so we headed down there, stopping first at the Alamo and then to the Riverwalk for lunch. It was a really nice day, and the crowds weren't bad at all.

 Just as they left we geared up for the AMVET Post Chili Cook-off. It was combined with Halloween event this year, so costumes were in order - pirates for us.

We won first place with the chili and the theme! Another award for the cookporch and some cool goodies.Yeah!!!

Cook-off album here.

The boys had different costumes for their trick-or-treating, so they got to celebrate Halloween twice!

And now, all of a sudden, it's November, and our to-do list is longer than ever. At least we are never out of entertainment!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Trip Planning Resources

I’ve been asked by folks how we plan our trips and find the campgrounds that we stay in. I use a multitude of online resources to accomplish the planning that goes into a trip. It takes a lot of time to evaluate locations and campgrounds. Everyone travels differently and what works for us may not work for you.

Basic considerations
We like space around us, and nice, natural scenery. We prefer to stay in Corp of Engineer, Forest Service, and State Park campgrounds. The Federal Govt. campgrounds are a good value as we get 50% off fees with our senior card. We usually only stay in private RV parks when nothing else is available, or when we are making a “pit stop” to do laundry and replenish supplies. We maintain an Elks Club membership as several of the lodges throughout the country have RV parking, good food, cheap beer, and good conversation.

Our truck and trailer outfit is equipped to allow us to “dry camp” or “boondock” for several days at out-of-the-way locations. I have a solar system and batteries and a generator. We have a large water tanks and sewage tanks so we can stay for up to 8 or 9 days without difficulty without utility hook ups. This gives us a lot of freedom in choosing the types of places we can visit.

Another consideration in the selection of spots is our dogs. We try to be mindful of the temperatures and when it is predicted to be above 85 or 90 we try to get electric hookup so we can run our air conditioner. We like spots where we can exercise them off-lead and let them swim occasionally. Unfortunately during the summer you have to plan ahead in tourist-heavy area and make reservations to guarantee a spot.

After we determine the general destinations for the summer I began to look at potential routes. Our general style is to only drive 150 miles (more or less) on the days we travel. We sometimes travel 200 and almost never over 250. Depending on the schedule we try to stay at least two days in a nice spot and when we reach a destination will spend a week or more in the area.

Planning Tools
My truck has a built in GPS that I use as a general navigation tool. For my primary GPS I use my smart phone and Google Maps. I also use Google Maps on my computer to evaluate campsites and plan our route.

I start building a trip using Google maps and a purchased program RV Trip Wizard. It is expensive ($39.00) a year but saves a lot of trip planning time as it sources a multitude of campground types.

When choosing a site for a reservation I’ll take a look at the campground on maps in a satellite view if possible (some campgrounds have so many trees you can’t see the ground) and will usually pick a site on an outer loop with large spaces between sites if one is available.

I also use:
Ultimate Campgrounds
US Campgrounds Info
RV Park Reviews
I also use Delorme paper map books as part of my search process. They can be purchased online or in many outdoor supply stores.

I also go to individual states State Park web pages and use: Recreaction.gov and Reserve America.
Unfortunately no one source is complete and sometimes we will find a hidden gem of a campground and occasionally one that’s not so perfect . We have been for the most part lucky and we are pretty adaptable with what is available.

Wheeling It is blog that I enjoy for travel planning . They are full timers but travel in a similar manner to us and I rely on their evaluations.

When checking out campsites look at what hook ups are available. Not all campgrounds have electricity, water, or dump facilities available so plan ahead so you can have water on board or have a follow up location to dump the holding tanks. Also make sure the site is an appropriate size for your type of recreational vehicle. Evaluate site length, space for slide-outs and ease of access whenever possible.

In spite of all the planning weather and wildfires often cause us to alter our plans. We keep a sharp eye on the tracking sites and the local news, and re-route around potential problems. We’ve learned that, as a friend says, plans must be “firmly cast in Jell-o”. All the links mentioned here, in addition to others we have found useful, are in the side-bar to the right on the blog. Please let us know if any of them don’t work for you, and Happy Trails!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Heading for Home

The trees are turning toward fall colors, the days are cooling a bit, and the shadows are definately getting longer. We've been on the road since early June and are ready to get "back to the ranch", so to speak. Our next few days will be pretty much driving a direct line home, with few stops. We generally only do about 200 miles a day, even under these circumstances, but we won't be doing much sightseeing. The biggest challenge under these conditions is getting enough exercise for the dogs. Fortunately they like looking out the window too, and just getting in and out of the truck takes a good long jump, so they won't be too rusty by the time we get home.

Tuesday, September 6
We left Beatrice, Nebraska, a few minutes after 9 this morning, Kansas bound, bucking gusty head-winds all the way. The scenery is pretty much what we'd experienced the day before. . . farm fields of corn, soy beans, and occasionally sunflowers, and acre sand acres of perfectly mown grass. In one tidy little town after another, everyone has a HUGE front yard, and it's always freshly mowed. We've decided the farmers must be frustrated mid-season that they aren't riding their tractors, so they mow the grass . . . every other day by the look of it.

It only took about an hour to make the Kansas border, and then we made a brief stop in the little town of Winfield so I could visit Field of Fabric, a quilt shop (surprise!). I'm trying to get one of the little fabric license plates from each state we visit, and this shop fit nicely in our route.

Winfield is typical of so many of the towns we've gone through, with beautiful ornate brick buildings and other historic structures in their downtown area. I'd love to do a walking tour in some of these older downtowns.

I got the license plate and a few pieces of fabric for a quilt I've been planning for several years (and not a stitch sewn yet!),and we were off. Sort of a fly-by shopping experience.

Our stop for the evening is El Dorado State Park, just outside El Dorado Kansas. The Corp of Engineers developed the dam and reservoir, but the camping etc. is now managed by the Kansas State Park system. We selected a site in Big Oak loop, as this area of the park has the most trees, and with the heat climbing we wanted shade, and power for the air conditioning. Campsites in many sections of the park have no services.

We hate to make disparaging comments about parks, but this one needs help. Considering the price ($27, $5 to get into the park, and then $22 for the site for electric and water, no sewer) the place is woefully neglected and sad looking. Many of the gravel parking pads are very unlevel, and in many cases the gravel has sunk into the mud and is barely visible; the fire rings are rusted out, and the most frustrating thing for us, the registration system is very confusing!! They have a strange system of pricing things which isn't clear, and where/how/who to pay isn't clear as you get a different answer from everyone you ask.

At any rate, we did find an adequately long, level spot, in the shade. The host showed up around 6 PMso we registered with him. 'Turns out, he had been working in Eugene at the time we lived there! He's a radio engineer, and moved here recently - working for I Heart Radio.

One component to the pricing/quality situation here, I'm sure, is that there aren't a lot of other options in the area. We basically had the campground to ourselves for the evening so the crowds definately "thin" after Labor Day.

Tomorrow, it's on to Oklahoma!

Wednesday, Sept. 7
The morning sky was cloudy, though it was hard to tell with such deep shade from the trees. 'Still warm, but definately more comfortable than yesterday.  We departed early and made it into Oklahoma by 9:30, pausing again to visit a little shop in Stillwater.
At the the Sew and Sews shop I picked up their Row-by-row pattern, which has a military theme, and their license plate of course. The theme of the Row-by-row pattern designs this year is "Home Sweet Home" and it's been interesting to see the various interpretations.  The purchases all securely stashed in the rig, we proceeded south, down hwy. 77 and then 177 south to our home for the evening.

Much of this part of Oklahoma reminds me of hill country in Texas. Rolling limestone covered with trees and grass. It seems strange that it's all so green this late in the summer, but late rains have rejuvenated the plant life everywhere. You can see new growth in grassy patches that had been scorched by roadside fires earlier this summer.  There are even wildflowers along the road. It looks like early summer!

Our destination today, the little town of Purcell. Steve had found a little city park in Purcell with RV spaces mentioned in one of his many online database resources.

Upon arrival we found the spaces all occupied with folks that obviously had been fairly permanently settled it.

Steve checked at the golf course, where they manage the sites, and they said we could park on the grassy area just below the other sites. There was electricity available for the air conditioning, so that's all we needed. Bingo!

This really worked out better than one of the other sites would have, as the dogs had lots of grass and there weren't any close neighbors for them to bother. The really enjoyed a dip in the little lake, and then we all relaxed for the evening and enjoyed the grass and the view.

Thursday, Sept. 8
Another quilt shop is on the top of the list. I found this one listed in the Row-by-row participants and it seemed just too interesting to pass up. We planned our departure from Purcell so we reached the shop in Ardmore, Oklahoma, just as it was opening. The shop, Key Grocery and Quilts , is located in what used to be a grocery store, but now has very minimal food items, and is primarily quilting fabric and related items. They have a few garden seeds and some tools, and a few other items. It's a very interesting place, with lots of nooks and corners to investigate.

I picked up the license plate, of course, and some interesting fabric designed to be used like the currently popular adult coloring books.

The shop owner, Alicia Keys, was very generous with her information about how the technique works, and showed me a few examples. I can't wait to try it!

The little shop is housed in a building that used to also be a feed store, and the outside wall still carries the painted sign. A block away is the Ardmore train depot, which is in beautiful shape. The town has many beautiful old brick buildings, and clearly a lot of history. 

From Ardmore it was a straight shot to our destination for the evening, Waco  Lake, a Corp of Engineers Campground. We stayed here a couple of years ago with friends and loved it. The campground we stayed in then has been flooded out, due to the heavy rains last year, so we're on the other side of the lake.  

The dogs went for a swim as soon as we had made camp. It was in the 90's and after being in an air conditioned vehicle all day the heat really hit them once they were outside. I'm sure the water felt good.  Our site is mere steps away from the edge of the lake, so we had a perfect view. 
Everyone took a brief afternoon nap, and then after dinner we sat outside and watched a heron fish at the edge of the lake. He had company, there were several fireflies flitting about. I couldn't believe it, but Steve had seen some in Kansas too. The late summer rains have really benefited the little critters. 

In the morning we'll be heading home, so this is the last stop for this summer's adventures. We'll be posting any local travels over the fall and winter here too, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Iowa and Nebraska

Stone Park, Sioux City, Iowa
This is an interesting, old time park, with an even more interesting history. The entrance immediately sets the tone.

Throughout the park there are beautiful red stone buildings, some are offices and some are available for large group gatherings.

The campground, in spite of all the space, is fairly small and cramped. It was clearly laid out in times when everyone camped with a tent or very small trailer, so getting today's rigs shoehorned in is "interesting". Several of us managed, and it turned out, we were all here because of the need to make reservations at the last minute over a holiday weekend. . . everything else was booked up.

In spite of the space constraints things worked out pretty well. There's lots of green space, and some extra parking available.

This park is a good example of how experiences can be very different depending on the time of year.
Another blogger reported that during their stay here in August the mosquitos were so bad they had to stay indoors the whole time they were here. Now, in September, we only saw 2 mosquitos! Bugs in general weren't bad at all. We had a different problem.

There are trails everywhere, which a month ago would have been perfect for exploring with the dogs. However, as it's fall now all the weeds/wildflowers are busy ripening their seeds, walking a trail is a hazardous proposition. We took one of the 'nature trails' our first day here, and the dogs brushed a few plants as we were walking. They got such horrible stickers in their coats that the fur was being pulled into little bunches. Watch thought he'd been attacked and jumped around, in the weeds, like a rodeo bronc, making the situation much worse.

I finally got both dogs back to camp and it took Steve and I, working together, about 30 minutes to get the burrs out of the dogs and their leashes. No more trail hiking while we're here! Half way through the de-burring process this tussock moth caterpillar landed in my lap, presumably from the tree I was sitting under. As some of these soft-looking critters are irritating to touch I just shooed him off with the dog comb I'd been using. That was enough 'Nature' for one day for me!

Two days later we decided to visit the Nature Center that is part of this park. It's at the edge of the park, out on hwy. 12. It is a wonderful experience, especially for children. Lots of hands-on fur, feather, fossils and live creatures, etc. We even watched a kestrel as he ate his little mousie breakfast. . . not everyone's cup of tea, I know!

Our neighbors in the campground turned out to be the friendliest folks. 'Dairy farmers from MN, she's a quilter and a sped teacher so we had lots in common. The second night some of their relatives were there too and they taught us a new card/board game. As we don't play games like that often I'm sure we were challenging students, but we all had a good time.

Rain the last couple of nights made a bit of mud, but we were ready to pack up and go anyway, so no biggie.

Monday, September 5
We departed shortly after 9 AM and bucking rather strong, gusty headwinds made it to our destination, Beatrice, Nebraska, by about 2:30 PM.

Chautauqua is the name of the campground. If you've never heard the term, here's the story behind it.  It's a really nice city-owned campground on the river.

The park is large, with multiple features. We found tennis courts, a duck pond, several playground areas, restrooms, and large group shelters. The camping area has 20 spacious sites, most with picnic tables, all with concrete pads, and the grass is beautiful! The dogs loved it! ($18 a night for full hook-ups didn't hurt the experience one bit!) Beatrice has an interesting history, and this whole area bears a repeat visit.

The campground has lots of green space, much of it devoted to a frisbee golf course. The wind made frisbee golf a bit difficult, so we had no conflicts walking the dogs along the shrubby river bank.

There's a little stream next to the campsites too, that feeds into the river. The geese seem to like that area. It's called a duck pond, but we never saw a duck! There are several benches along the water's edge, so there's always someone feeding the birds, whoever shows up.

Movin' on to Kansas. . .

album here

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Union County and environs - South Dakota

It's a leisurely drive from the Snake Creek Recreation area to Yankton, where we're booked for four days at Cottonwood, an Army Corp of Engineers campground on the Missouri River.

Monday Aug 29
Enroute to our campsite we toured the little town of Geddes, (pop. 208 in 2010) where my Great- grandmother Martin was living when she died in 1924. There isn't much left there as far as active businesses.
The old bank is still standing but empty and vandalized inside. I've no idea where her farm was, but it's interesting to see the area nonetheless.

We also looked into Avon, another little village where there were brief family connections - not much going on there either. This is the story of most little agricultural communities these days.

We meandered around the surrounding area to get a feel for the environment. All the little burgs are focused around a grain elevator, on the railroad. The sole reason for the settlement obviously being to help the farmer get his crop shipped out. Farming is still the main industry, with field after field of corn and soybeans being the primary crops in this area.

The campground we're staying in is nice. Huge spaces, right on Yankton Lake, just off the Missouri River, below Gavins Point Dam.. There are large areas where dogs can be off leash or play in the water, and plenty of 13 lined ground squirrels popping up all over the area to provide entertainment otherwise.

Tuesday Aug 30
We spent the morning checking out Utica, (pop. 65 in 2010) another little town where my dad's family lived for a few years. It's just north of Yankton and, again, there's not much left from those days.

There were more homes than we had anticipated, but little in the way of original buildings. This interesting little brick structure caught our attention though.

It looks as if it might have been a bank vault. It now sits in a vacant lot across from a lumber yard. If it was the bank vault, this would have been part of the main street business district. You'd never know that now!

Next stop, the big city of Yankton (pop. 14,591 in 2013) for a quick trip to a quilt store - they were out of license plates! Yikes! I guess that's a risk when shopping this late in the summer. I did pick up a couple of bits of fabric, so it wasn't a wasted trip.

This is the biggest city for several miles so business is booming and there are some very nice neighborhoods, especially along the river.

We've followed the Missouri River off and on for much of the trip, sort of doing the Lewis and Clark Discovery Expedition in reverse. Believe me, everyone takes advantage of the "Lewis and Clark were here" bit of history. The visitor center here at the recreation area is especially nice, with large, unique windows especially designed to frame two views of the river.

Wednesday, Aug 31
Today we visit one of the main reasons for our visit to this part of South Dakota - Elk Point. This is where my paternal grandmother and my father and his sister were born.  We drove around the little town (pop. 1,963 in 2013) to see if we could find a match to four photos I have of relevant buildings.

Columns and other decorative items from the old courthouse 
I'd already pretty well determined the old courthouse was gone. It was the setting about 1910 for the photo of my grandfather and all the other letter carriers gathered on the front steps.

That courthouse has been demolished and a portion of the entry has been incorporated in the entry to the new courthouse.

The train station, where my uncle was a conductor, is gone, replaced by grain storage silos and other agricultural equipment.

My great grandfather's meat market, which was a wooden building, is also gone. I can picture it though, tucked somewhere in between the existing brick buildings on Main Street.

We drove through residential areas hoping to find his house, where my grandmother and both her children were born, but couldn't locate it. At the suggestion of a deputy Sheriff we stopped on the street we stopped in to an antique store to talk to the owner. 'Turns out he's head of the local historical society. He couldn't help us with a location for the old Strobel house, but was very friendly and interested in the family history. He connected us with an 80+ year old history buff, Fern, who offered to meet us at the Union County Museum, where she is the curator, when it opened in just over an hour.

We hurried down the street a block or so and had a great Mexican lunch at Los Amigos (who would guess, in a little town in South Dakota?) and then headed to the west end of Main Street where the Union County Historical Society Museum is housed in the beautifully restored Charles Murtha House.

With Fern's help we searched an antique map and found Great-grandfather Abraham Strobel's homestead, in Civil Bend, which is just a smidgen east of Elk Point. She was so enthusiastic about seeing the few photos I had on my iPad I promised to send her the files of those and several others.

A quick visit to the cemetery was all it took to locate great-grandfather and great-grandmother's marker, and then we headed back to our campsite in Yankton to rescue the dogs from the trailer. I think we woke them up, but they were happy to see us.

All in all it was a successful visit. 'Good to see the little town still surviving, and many of the older homes and business buildings still standing. I'm glad to find a place to share many of the photos and documents I have too, as they consider my great-grandfather to be one of the really historic residents, and he was!

This area wasn't a state yet when he settled here in the 1870's. I can't imagine the hard, primitive lives the farmers lived then. Folks here are still farming, as the silos everywhere attest to, and all the fields are full of good-looking crops . . . the great American Heartland at its best!    

A few more pics here

Exploring South Dakota - The Badlands

Those old everyday chores have to be done some time, so we headed back to Rapid City to take care of them. We'd enjoyed the Elk's club there as a one night stop, so moved in again, and had another friendly pub-style dinner while chatting with other members and travelers.

The next day, errands and chores completed, we took drove south into Badlands National Park. There's a nice loop tour, which suited the situation pretty well. As it was very cloudy, and slightly rainy, we weren't in the mood to do a lot of sightseeing on foot. So we spent some time checking out the visitors center.

This is the BEST visitor center we've seen on this trip. Not only are the displays really well done (kids will love the way they depict the dinosaur era animals that lived here) but they also have a fossil lab open to visitors where you can watch technicians clean specimens, and pack them for shipping. There are several specimens on display, and we discovered while talking with the ranger who was stationed in the room at the time that she was a graduate of the University of Oregon. We had a nice chat with her before moving on to drive through the remainder of the Badlands .

The formations in the park are amazing. Dramatic spires topped with dollops of whipped cream, mesas with unbelievable erosion, and stripes of colorful soils. Even with little sun the shadows created by the many layers are fascinating. It's rugged country and one can only imagine the challenge of navigating it on horseback or in a wagon.

As the afternoon wore on the clouds thinned a bit and by the time we reached the park boundary we actually had a little sun. Good timing.  It's an impressive area in spite of the clouds, and bears further exploration.

The Badlands under stormy skies

Beautiful downtown Wall
We planned to spend the evening at Sleepy Hollow Campground in Wall, which is only about 8 miles from the park boundary. As it turned out the location was perfect. We did a quick tour through the Wall Drug area of the town, and a couple of other shops, sampled a local brew while chatting with a couple who are full-timers and had just recently been in Eugene, OR. We returned to camp just in time to fix a quick dinner and walk the dogs before a fairly blustery thunderstorm hit. (No, we didn't get a free glass of water, but yes, we did get donuts!)

Hoping he'll tell me where his mine is!

It's that time of year. Days are noticeably shorter, evenings cooler, and overall it's beginning to feel like winter. Time to head south!

Aug. 28 Saturday - Sunday
Guess I spoke too soon! The sun is out, so we decided to make a swing through The Badlands again, so we could catch it in a different light. The sun does make the colors a little brighter, and the shadows sharper. It was good to take a second look.

For two days we're camped at Francis Case Lake, Snake Creek Recreation Area, on the Missouri River, and the weather has turned to summer again!

We had a great view of the lake
It's a beautiful area, and the lake is huge, as is our campsite. We've got plenty of room for the dogs to play, privacy as we're in an end site, and there are areas on the beach where they can play in the water. What a find!

We drove both camping loops to look over the layout and sites, and they are all large, though some have better views than others. The little cabins are mostly right along the shoreline so have excellent views of the lake.

It took some doing, as things are pretty overgrown this time of year, but we found a couple of trails around the edges of the campground. Signage is a little on the short side, but you can find a map of the area on line. There are four different maps at the bottom of the page I linked to above.

Now for the remainder of touring in South Dakota, on to the little towns where some of my family settled and lived for many years.
We had beautiful sunsets most nights at the lake

The album is here.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Custer State Park part III - The Black Hills underground

There is so much to see aboveground in the Black Hills, and Custer State Park in particular, that it's easy to miss the other half of the scenery here. Fortunately there are two sites that make it easy to experience.

Neither of the caves that are open for tours are in the state park, but both are within easy driving distance. Neither of these caves features the "classic" stalactites and stalagmites that one often sees in photos of caves, but each has their own unique "claim to fame".

Wind Cave National Park is just south of Custer State Park. Discovered by settlers in 1881, it became our 7th national park in 1903.

We've heard from other campers that road to the cave is a favorite place for Elk to hang out in the early morning and late evening hours. We didn't see any elk, but they aren't always predictable and we were probably out a little later than their preferred grazing hours.

Wind Cave, so named for the blast of wind that sometimes moves out of the very small opening, which was originally the only opening, is regarded as sacred by several Native American tribes, and is considered by some to be the origin place for the human race. Many Native American tribes' origin stories involve people coming up from underground, through a small opening. It makes one wonder when the same story occurs in so many cultures. This tiny opening was the only access point when the cave was discovered, and remained so during much of the early work in mapping the cave's chambers and passageways.

There are over 100 miles of mapped passageways, and researchers know from barometric studies that they have only explored and mapped a small percentage of what exists. Estimates of the mapped area indicate that it's about 5% of the total area the cave covers. This means, in short, that the entire area is honeycombed with caves. It's amazing that the whole surface doesn't collapse!

About 60 million years ago the geologic force that uplifted the Rocky Mountains also uplifted the Black Hills, producing large fractures and cracks in the limestone layers that had formed over the area. Over millions of years water slowly seeped through those cracks, dissolving the limestone, to produce the cave's passages. Later erosion removed the softer stone, leaving the harder calcite deposits that had been left behind in cracks in the soft limestone. These thin, honeycomb like formations are called "boxwork".  It seems this is actually a fairly rare formation, and about 90% of the known boxwork in caves is located here.

Passageways in this cave are very narrow, and though the Park Service has placed limited lighting in areas that assist visitors in seeing the depth of side tunnels and some of the formations it's difficult to really get a perspective on just how deep some of the side rooms and channels are.

The narrow passageways make the tour a bit of a challenge. When you look up, you may hit your head on the wall behind you, if you turn around to take a photo, your elbow may brush the wall - all things to be avoided by the way, to avoid contaminating the atmosphere and damaging the formations.  Not for the claustrophobic, to be sure, but an interesting tour none the less.

The Wind Cave geology driving tour brochure does a great job of explaining the geology of formations seen throughout the park.

Jewel Cave National Monument - the third longest cave system in the world, to the west of our camping area, was our second experience with the underground wonders of the Black Hills. By the time we reached this park we'd already climbed so many stairs, and hiked over so many steep hills, that we opted for the short tour.

Calcite crystals in the wall
The cave "room" in which we gathered to hear the ranger's presentation was lined with calcite crystals and limestone flows. It was spacious and well lit, so photos were a little easier to take, and there seemed to be, in this one area, a greater variety of forms. The tour included an informative presentation by the ranger and lots of time for questions and discussions.  It came up during the discussion that there is a distinct possibility that this cave is connected, somewhere, to Wind Cave.

So much of each cave remains unmapped it's hard to know. It does look as if they are both impacted by the same aquifer, so research continues.  It was a short tour, but not a disappointment. If we're here again we'll definately come back for a longer tour.

The entrance is at the end of the path, on the right
After leaving the cave proper we drove a mile up the road to Hell's Canyon, where the original cave entrance is located. After parking near the historic ranger cabin we followed the trail from the parking area up to the cabin, over the hill, down steep stairs, and along the edge of a cliff to the entrance which is protected by an iron door. This entrance is still used by some of the most strenuous tours.

While walking to the entrance there was an opportunity to view several places where the crystals and formations are visible along the path.

This entrance was used  from the time the monument was established in 1908 until 1972. The current entrance is through the visitors' center, which is the most informative of any we have visited in the Black Hills area. The center has displays and information on the cave, of course, but also other natural history of the area.

More photos of the caves.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Custer State Park part II - Touring in the Black Hills

August 16-25

We took the first day in Custer State Park to do some driving and get oriented to the park. Much of this park can easily be experienced from a vehicle as the road system was designed so as to highlight the scenic features.  There are three major routes, Iron Mountain Road, Needles Highway, and the Wildlife loop, and during our stay we enjoyed all of them. Here, the name of each route is linked to additional information specific to the route. Each is worth a full day to experience, as there are so many pull-outs and short trails to explore it's doing the area an injustice to rush through it all.

We spent quite awhile on the Wildlife Loop Drive, the first of three major routes, stopping at the historic State Game Lodge and the main Visitor Center, which focuses mainly on the buffalo.

The State Game Lodge is a beautiful structure, with an atmosphere of solid but rustic elegance. It first opened in 1921, then burned to the ground 72 days later. It was rebuilt and opened again in 1922.

It must be comfortable as it became the "summer White House" for President Calvin Coolidge when he visited 1927. He intended to stay for 2 weeks, but it turned into 13. . .  I guess he liked it here! The lodge is still serving visitors with a restaurant and lodging rooms of several types.

We mosied along the road admiring the scenery and the animals, and also stopped at the Wildlife Station Visitor Center, one of those beautiful stone structures built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) in the 1930's.

The CCC crews were instrumental in building most of the stone structures in the park. It's amazing how many years it has been, and still their handiwork stands, strong, sturdy, and beautiful for all of us to enjoy. In addition to the stone buildings the CCC projects also included work on some of the roads, tunnels, and the many bridges that were needed to complete the routes through the park.

Our second long drive was the Needles Highway, which is well is well named. The road artfully wends its way through tall spires of granite, through two amazing tunnels which were specifically
designed to highlight the view as one passes through.

There is a small parking area at the Eye of the Needle's Eye formation for the convenience of visitors who want to photograph it. Of necessity the road is very narrow, and the tunnels are even narrower, towing anything through one of them is not recommended.

The views along all the drives are spectacular and the geology amazing. The roadsides literally sparkle with the coarse grained granite outcrops and the finer grained mica schist, as well as veins of pink feldspar. I've tried every camera setting available and nothing can quite capture just how reflective all this stone is, but picture some coarse glitter sprinkles over a boulder, on a really sunny day, and you'll be close.

The granite in some cases has mica flakes as big as 3 inches square, so they act as large mirrors, then the pink feldspar, while not quite crystals, has flat surfaces that shimmer in the sun. It's amazing!

Iron Mountain Road and Needles Highway were planned by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck, who marked the entire course of the Needles Highway on foot and on horseback.

He specifically designed the tunnels so as to frame certain views, and he was the driving force for much of the work done in the park. The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway is a 66 mile double loop that honors him, and includes all or portions of each of the three individual scenic drives within the park.

Exploring the roads he designed is a treat. The tunnels, the "pigtails", and the artistry in the development of the bridges enrich the scenic experience. (The pigtails are loops that cross over themselves, as a way to move the road down, or up, a severe slope while keeping the grade fairly gradual)
Tunnel at the Needles Eye
Most of the tunnels are one lane only, so though some have a bypass, drivers must be careful and observant, taking turns and using pull-outs as needed.

When you toss in random wildlife crossing the road, and weather, there's a good reason for the 25 mph recommendation in most areas. In some places going even slower makes sense. We had a spot of rain during this stretch, and then there's always the odd deer that decides to make a mad dash across the road, not to mention the occasional tourist who decides to stop in the middle of the road to snap a photo.

Norbeck himself recommended 15 MPH as a good speed at which one could travel the road and enjoy the views. I think he knew what he was talking about. Buffalo, if they are in your way, make a serious dent in the radiator!

We really did see a lot of wildlife - a buffalo herd and a few solitaries, a few antelope and deer, the ever present and always chubby prairie dogs, and wild donkeys.

Well, they aren't really very "wild", to watch them in the parking lot. We had turkeys and deer right in the edge of our camp and meandering through the campground on several occasions. After a while the dogs got used to them as visitors and didn't bark (much).

There are signs everywhere warning people not to approach the buffalo. We saw in Theodore Roosevelt NP how "tame" they seem, so it's understandable that people get overconfident. The ranger in the Wildlife Station told us a woman visiting this park was gored this spring when she got too close to a buffalo and then reached out to touch it. Personally, I'm happy to look at them from a distance, or through the screen door!

While walking with the dogs over a little-used-much deer trail a great horned owl swooped over my head, then landed on a branch where he looked down at us without blinking.  As rare as it is to see an owl in the afternoon, he was among the few birds we saw. There were a few blue jays, and a young hawk being encouraged to flight by his parents, but not as many varieties as I would have expected. The dogs bouncing around in camp probably had something to do with that.

There are a few must-see, man-made attractions here, and Mt. Rushmore National Memorial is certainly one of them.
Mt. Rushmore has been on Steve's bucket list for years, and now we've done it! We set out on Iron Mountain Road fairly early as we wanted to beat the heat. Consequently the day was rather cloudy and dim for the first hour or so, and then the clouds thinned and we had beautiful blue sky with a few decorative clouds to set off the amazing granite structures in the distance.

Many of the distant formations are actually the backside of the Needles structures we saw when we drove the Needles Highway.

The monument is visible from a good distance on the highway and it was a challenge to catch glimpses of it as we wended our way through the forest. Of course, very impressive when viewed from a closer vantage point. The visitor center presents the history of the sculpture in a variety of ways - videos, signs, displays, and an audio tour.

There are displays of artifacts and documents used during work on the monument, photos of work in progress, and a short ranger presentation delivered right next to the model used to determine the measurements for the final sculpture. A trail around the complex and under the sculpture affords a variety of perspectives and lots of photo opportunities. It's pretty much a full day activity. This project was truly an amazing undertaking, and a national treasure.There's some fascinating information on how the carvings were done, with dynamite, and jack hammers, here.

We'd heard the evening program, in which the sculpture is illuminated, was worth seeing, so we made a return trip. The program was scheduled to begin at 8 PM, so we planned to have dinner in the cafe there, and this was the only down-side to the visit. The food was pricey and totally "below par", so to speak. The only bonus out of the deal was the can of beer we picked up to accompany the meal.

A local brewery, in Hill City, worked with the staff at the monument to select four brews to name for the four founders depicted on the mountain.

We selected Honest Abe Red Ale, which was pretty good, and informative! On each can the label includes several historic facts about the person the brew is named for. Did you know that Abraham Lincoln is the only president who was also a licensed bartender? In his younger years Abe and a partner owned a store/drinking establishment in Salem, Illinois.

The evening program was very enjoyable. A short movie along with a presentation by a ranger made up most of the program, then all military service members were invited on stage.

It was a huge group, and each was introduced along with their branch of service. At the end of the program several service members, including Steve, assisted the ranger in taking down the flag and folding it.

The lights on the mountain, as well as other areas of the visitor center make the night display very dramatic, and we were glad we took the opportunity to go back for the second visit.

The following day we decided to explore some of the areas beyond the park boundaries, and since we had enjoyed the Honest Abe Red Ale we decided to look up one of the brewery's tasting rooms. They have one in Custer, but er ended up in Hill City, at the brewery/winery joint tasting room and restaurant. We checked with the staff and they were perfectly fine with the dogs joining us on the patio, so we had a light lunch and shared a sampler.

Hunting around on their shelves later we found a four pack of the four brews named for the founders, so Steve has the set for his label collection shelf! (I'm not sure who's going to drink that lemon grass/mint beer the park people selected to represent Theodore Roosevelt!)

Hill City is also home to the South Dakota State Train Museum - known as the 1880 Train. There are several antique rail cars in varying states of restoration displayed on the grounds. We didn't tour the museum, we'll leave that for the next trip through here.
This post covers so many days that the photos are divided up into multiple albums. If you want to see more pictures here are the links.

Custer State Park - History (buildings, roads, etc.)
Custer State Park - Flora and Fauna
Custer State Park - Scenic Geology

When viewing the photos, click on the little "i" at the top right to see the descriptions.

All good things must come to an end, so the touring comes to a close and we're on to other adventures. We'll head back to Rapid City to catch up on chores, and then work our way east.