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You Leave Her Alone For Just a Minute…

Day 5: August 9, 2016

In my last post on the West trip, my mom and I went on the Fairgrounds Tour at Jewel Cave National Park.  After we left there, we had plenty more touristing to do for the day, so we got on our way.  We planned to find a picnic area to have our picnic lunch, and see if we could spot any wildlife.  Jewel Cave has bison, elk, and a host of other critters, and it is right next to Custer State Park, which deserves a couple of posts on its own…

But anywhoo…  Looking for bison…  We saw a scenic viewpoint that looked out onto a grassy field, so we stopped so I could walk over the rise and see if there were any bison.  It was already hot that day, and mom didn’t want to go with me, so I left the car running so she could use the air conditioner.

I head off, trek over the rise, spot no bison, take a few photos of the view, and head back up the hill to the car.  I was gone less than 5 minutes.

I get back to find my mom, standing outside of the car, staring at it.  And the car has jumped the curb and is no less than 1/4″ from one of those solid, CCC-built rock walls with a lovely interpretive sign on top.  My first thought was, “Seriously, WTF are you doing Mom?  I just left you alone for a minute!”  It took me a couple more seconds for things to sink in.  Blame it on sleep deprivation…

This is mom’s version of events.  I popped out of the car, and head off over the hill, at which point the car starts to roll backwards toward the road.  So, she turns it off.  At which point, it starts rolling forward again, and slowly rolls toward the wall, jumps the curb and stops, miraculously, right before hitting the wall.  At which point she gets out and assesses the damage, and then meets me upon my return.

It was a rental car, so this could have been bad news, but even still, remember at the beginning of this trip log, I told you that our rental Subaru had already been beat to hell by a hailstorm right before we arrived?  I wonder if a few bumper scratches would have been any cause for concern.

Publicly, I am sticking to my story that nothing happened that day at that viewpoint in Jewel Cave National Park.  Mom made up the whole thing… Because we all know that if you have no photos, it didn’t happen.  There’s nothing to see here, folks…

The scenic view at Wind Cave.  No bison…  No cars…

West 2016: Wind Cave NP

Day 5: August 9, 2016

We had a lot planned for the fifth day of our road trip, so we got up, headed out early, grabbed some breakfast stuff and a picnic lunch at the grocery store, and made our way the few miles over to Wind Cave National Park.

Me posing with the Entrance Sign

We wound our way up to the top of the hill, headed into the Visitor’s Center, and purchased our tickets for The Fairgrounds Tour!  The Fairgrounds Tour is the most strenuous of the regular tours, and to be honest, I was a little surprised that I got my mom to agree to it (I may have “forgotten” to tell her exactly how many stairs there are…).  This 90 minute tour goes into both the upper and middle sections of the cave, and has 450 stairs along a 2/3 mile route.  The hardest part is a stairway – of course leading up! – with 89 steps.  At any rate, mom did fine… The tour guide walks really slow and there is a lot of stopping to look at different features of the cave.  Sadly though, being so far underground meant my FitBit didn’t record my steps…  So, now to the good part…

We headed down into the cave by elevator, 19 stories below the surface.  The tour begins in the middle section of the cave, and we were greeted by intricate boxwork in a honeycomb pattern in the first areas of the tour.  They don’t really know how boxwork forms, but one theory is that it is the result of intensely fractured limestone which gets filled in by calcite that is carried by groundwater.  Over time, the remaining limestone gets washed away, leaving the calcite boxes.  Boxwork is extremely fragile, so you aren’t allowed to touch it – the cave could literally break off in your hands.

Boxwork on the ceiling of Wind Cave

 

A closeup of the Boxwork

During our tour, we then moved into the upper section of the cave, which looks quite a bit different than the middle section.  There really isn’t much boxwork here – instead there is chert, which is like flint in that it is composed of silica, but it isn’t as grainy (but you don’t know that by touching, because remember, touching is not allowed…).

We also saw areas with lots of cave popcorn, which looks like fluffy puffs of popcorn – and is a more common feature of many caves.  We were also treated to the Fairgrounds Room, where there are benches in front of the Frostwork Ledge.  It gave us an up close and personal view of the frostwork in Wind Cave, which are crystal formations of calcium carbonate that are formed when water slowly seeps out of the walls of the cave and then evaporates.  The frostwork is beautiful!

Cave Popcorn

 

A closeup of the cave popcorn, with frostwork

In the Fairgrounds Room, our tour guide turned off the lights, so we could experience the absolute pitch blackness of the cave.  You can’t see a thing, and your eyes won’t get used to the darkness, because there is no light to pick up on.  Imagine trying to explore the cave with only candlelight!  The Fairgrounds Room was discovered in 1892, so explorers at that time really were making do with just a candle or a dim lantern.

The last portion of the cave tour is downhill once again, before ending back at the elevators for the ride back up!

Again on the surface, we went through the gift shop for postcards and my National Park Passport stamp.

I also took a short walk over to see the natural entrance to the cave, the one that was discovered by Tom and Jesse Bingham back in 1881.  They have built a little rock wall around it, but otherwise it is basically the same as it was 135 years ago – a small hole in the ground, giving away nothing about the wonders that lie beneath.

The natural entrance to Wind Cave

We had to get on our way, as we still had plenty that we wanted to do with our day, but what a fantastic visit!

Have you been to Wind Cave – what did you think?

Costs and Fees: No charge to visit Wind Cave National Park.  The Fairgrounds Tour is $12 per adult, and $6 for seniors.  Photos are allowed in the cave, even with flash, but be courteous and make sure you aren’t using your flash in people’s eyes…

Wind Cave NP History

There are very few cave systems managed by the National Park Service, and Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota enjoys bragging rights as not only the first cave to be designated as a National Park within the United States, but it is also the first in the entire world!

Me posing with the Entrance Sign

Wind Cave has been known for centuries by the Native Americans, especially the Lakota, who consider it a sacred place. The Lakota believe that the cave’s entrance is the site where their people first emerged from the underworld after the creation of the world.

Despite its being known, it is not believed that any humans entered the cave until after 1881 when Tom and Jesse Bingham first noticed the wind rushing out of the entrance of the cave – it was forceful enough to blow the hat off of Tom’s head when he peered into the hole.  The wind blowing out of Wind Cave is a result of the large cave system combined with the small entrance opening; as the air pressure seeks to equalize both inside and outside of the cave, air blows either into or out of the cave, depending on the air pressure outside.

The natural entrance to Wind Cave

After Tom and Jesse “discovered” the cave, the South Dakota Mining Company did some exploring to determine whether there was valuable ore at the site (there wasn’t), and hired Jesse McDonald to oversee their claim.  It was Jesse’s family that was instrumental in the development of the cave as a tourist attraction.  His son Alvin began entering the cave with a candle and a long spool of string, and mapping out the many paths and caverns in the cave.  The family started offering tours for $1 (that’s a lot of money at the turn of the last century!), which involved quite a bit of crawling through small passages.  But even back in the day, people got greedy, and a dispute over cave profits led to court, and the government ruled that no one had an ownership claim in the cave and withdrew the land from homesteading.

Further cave exploration in the 1960s led to much of the knowledge we have about Wind Cave today.  Currently 123.09 miles (according to the NPS’s Wind Cave website) of the cave system have been explored, with a few miles more being explored each year.  It is the sixth longest cave system in the world.  There are several large rooms within the cave, as well as tiny passageways that are much too small for a person to fit through.  The cave has six known lakes, about 500 feet beneath the surface.  There is a belief among scholars that the Wind Cave network actually connects with the network of passages in Jewel Cave nearby, and that the two cave systems are actually one, even larger cave.  However, to date, there has not been confirmation of this theory, although it makes sense because both caves are known to be very large, and the two are only about 5 surface miles apart.

Wind Cave is known for its boxwork and frostwork. Boxwork is made of thin blades of calcite that project from cave walls and ceilings, forming a honeycomb pattern. They intersect one another at various angles, forming “boxes” on all cave surfaces.  Approximately 95% of the boxwork in the world’s known caves is in Wind Cave.  Frostwork is intricate, needle-like growths on the cave – it is unknown how it forms, but evaporation is thought to play a role since it occurs in areas of Wind Cave where there is more air movement.

Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation creating Wind Cave National Park on January 9, 1903. Currently Wind Cave National Park has 33,851 acres, with bison, pronghorn, coyotes, deer, elk, prairie dogs, and the endangered black-footed ferret (which were reintroduced to the park in 2007).

The above-ground view at Wind Cave

My mom and I visited Wind Cave National Park in August 2016, and toured the cave while we were there.  I will post about it next!

West 2016: Badlands NP Wildlife

Day 4: August 8, 2016

Do you have any idea how long I have been trying to get a decent photo of Bighorn Sheep?  I was thwarted in Colorado at Colorado National Monument, got the faintest glimpse of them at dusk on the drive to Great Sand Dunes National Park, got blurry pics of them at Pikes Peak, and then missed them again at Joshua Tree

But Badlands National Park did not disappoint!  We saw Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep for the first time that day at the Burns Basin Overlook.  There were three of them.  Two were resting on the rocks, and one was walking unhurriedly.  My mom didn’t get out of the car at first, so I had to go back and drag her out to make sure she got to see them too.  Of course, I did make sure to get some photos first.  I was so excited!

Bighorn Sheep at Burns Basin Overlook

I spotted some pretty little songbirds, but couldn’t really tell what kind they were because they were silhouetted against the blue sky.

They might be Mountain Bluebirds, but I couldn’t tell for sure…

We decided to drive down the Sage Creek Rim Road, a gravel road that is supposed to be where the bison and the bighorn sheep often hang out.  There is also a prairie dog town a few miles down the road.  We didn’t see any bison that day, but we were not disappointed because we had already done some fabulous spotting at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and Yellowstone National Park was still coming up later in the trip!  Soon we happened upon a huge herd of animals grazing in the field in the distance.  At first glance, we both thought they were deer, but after watching them for a few minutes, I figured out that they were bighorn sheep!  We took some photos and continued on, because they were pretty far away.

Soon we came upon a bunch of sheep hanging out right by the road, and often, in the road!  There were a lot of babies too!  I had so much fun just watching them and taking photos.  They were stunning and so close!  They weren’t bothered by us at all.

Baby Bighorn Sheep!

Not even this guy, who was too lazy to even stand up all the way to re-position himself for better grass!

This guy… I have no words…

It was tough to pull away from the bighorns, but we headed the rest of the way to the prairie dog town.  These prairie dogs didn’t want to pose as nicely for us though…  I did get a nice shot of a Western Meadowlark though!

Prairie Dog! He was on a mission…

 

Western Meadowlark at Badlands

We did so much wildlife spotting that it was starting to get late, and we wanted to grab some dinner.  We returned the way we came, stopping for some more photos of the bighorn sheep, before heading out of the park.  Just outside, we found a lone pronghorn posing beautifully, so I got some photos of him too!

 

Is this not the cutest trio of butts ever!

 

A stately Pronghorn, just outside of the park

It was a great day for wildlife!

 

West 2016: Badlands NP Scenery

Day 4: August 8, 2016

Badlands was one of the places I was most excited about on our trip.  I love desert landscapes, and was really looking forward to seeing the spectacular colors of the eroded buttes and the prairie grasses.  Badlands National Park did not disappoint.

Mom and me with the Badlands Sign! Can you tell by my hair that it was windy?

Mom and me with the Badlands Sign! Can you tell by my hair that it was windy?

After arriving at the park, and snapping the obligatory poses with the entrance sign, my mom and I stopped at the first viewpoint – the Big Badlands Overlook.  The views here were amazing, with the buttes showing all their beautiful colors and the grass down below (pictures don’t really do it justice).  We were able to get some great photos of the scenery and enjoy our first looks at the park.  But wow, was it hot!  It was hovering between 95 and 97 degrees!  Wow!  So of course, I have a very red face in all my photos that day, from the heat!

Mom and me - Selfies overlooking the buttes

Mom and me – Selfies overlooking the buttes

 

Piddles enjoying the view of the Badlands

Piddles enjoying the view of the Badlands

We stopped at the Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center and had a picnic lunch outside.  The picnic tables have space-agey sun covers over them to protect you from the heat – you do have to be careful about pinning your stuff down so it doesn’t blow away though!  There was a bit of a breeze the day we were there, which of course made the heat slightly more bearable.  Then we went inside and watched the park movie and checked out the exhibits in the Visitor’s Center.  They had a great exhibit on the pre-historic animals and fossil record within the park.

Some of the spires towering above the prairie grasses

Some of the spires towering above the prairie grasses

After the Visitor’s Center, we headed out to see more of the park.  We stopped at lots of the viewpoints and I did some short hikes.  I hiked up the hill at the Saddle Pass trail head while my mom waited at the car, doing some sketching and journaling.  It was a short but very steep uphill climb to some great views, made much more challenging by the fact that the terrain was loose scree, so I slid back down a little bit at several points.  I didn’t end up going all the way up the hill, but I managed to get high enough to enjoy the scenery, and for the car to look like a little dot in the distance below.

The view from near the top of Saddle Pass - our car a speck in the distance

The view from near the top of Saddle Pass – our car a speck in the distance

Mom and I also walked the 1/2 mile Fossil Walk.  It is a flat boardwalk trail that has interpretive plaques showing the types of fossils that have been found in the park.  It was neat seeing what is buried underneath the layers here, and getting a close up view of the colors in the landscape.  Fossils found here include dogs, alligators, rhinoceroses, and ammonites.  There were lots of kids climbing on the buttes here – they had a lot of energy for such a hot day!

Me on the Fossil Walk

Me on the Fossil Walk

The Yellow Mounds Overlook and the Pinnacles Overlook were fairly self-explanatory.  Although they did promise rattlesnakes, and the only one we saw all day was one that was dead and flat in the road (sorry I didn’t get a photo…).

The Yellow Mounds at Badlands - yellow indeed!

The Yellow Mounds at Badlands – yellow indeed!

 

They promised! But Badlands did not deliver

They promised! But Badlands did not deliver…

As sad as it was though that we didn’t see any rattlesnakes, we did see plenty of wildlife at Badlands – I’ll be posting about them next!

 

Badlands National Park History

Badlands National Park is a picture of contrasts.  While seemingly a harsh desolate environment made up of eroded buttes, spires and pinnacles, it also contains the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the United States.  A prairie that teams with life.

Badlands began as Badlands National Monument on March 4, 1929 when it was authorized by Herbert Hoover, although it wasn’t established until January 25, 1939 (Franklin Roosevelt was President by then).  It was re-designated as a National Park on November 10, 1978.  The park protects 242,756 acres of land, of which 64,144 is designated wilderness.  The park had 966,263 visitors in 2016 – my mom and I were two of them!!

A stunning badlands view...

A stunning badlands view…

The park boundaries are brimming with fossils; it actually contains the richest deposits of Oligocene mammals known.  It sort of boggles the mind to imagine mammals roaming around on this land 33 million years ago, but there they were.  The fossil remains in the park include camels, three-toed horses, oreodonts, antelope-like animals, rhinoceroses, deer-like mammals, rabbits, beavers, creodonts, land turtles, rodents and birds.  There are also a fair number of marine animals in the fossil record here, including ammonites, nautiloids, fish, marine reptiles, and turtles.

Badlands has known human habitation for approximately 11,000 years.  The paleo-Indians, although little studied, are the inhabitants who arrived after crossing the ice bridge from Eurasia in the late Pleistocene period (“i” before “e” except after “c”, or in Pleistocene, apparently…).  Stone tools, including projectile points, have been found in the area, as well as charcoal from ancient campfires.  Later came the Arikara, and then the Lakota, who used the elevation of the Badlands Wall to scout for herds for hunting, as well as approaching enemies.

At the end of the 19th century, homesteaders and gold miners moved into the nearby area, and the U.S. government forced the tribes onto reservations, including one called the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.  Many of the Oglala Sioux in the area fought the orders to move to reservations, and instead chose to defy the order, following the prophet Wovoka.  From this movement, the Ghost Dance was born.  The Sioux believed that the Ghost Dance would restore their land and force the white settlers and government agents to leave, and that the Ghost Shirts that they wore would be impervious to bullets.  Well…  This didn’t end up panning out, and sadly the ghost dancers, being pursued by government troops in 1890, ended up seeking refuge on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Gunfire erupted as the soldiers were attempting to disarm the group – as the story goes a deaf man named Black Coyote was reluctant to give up his rifle, since he had paid a lot for it.  On December 29, 1890, what became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre killed over 300 Native Americans and 30 soldiers.  It was the last big clash between Plains Indians and U.S. troops in the series of clashes that became known as the Indian Wars.  The Pine Ridge Reservation now contains the Stronghold Unit and the Pine Creek Unit of Badlands National Park within its boundaries.  Although the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre is not within the boundaries of the park, it is nearby and open to the public.

Badlands has lots to do – there are hikes of all levels, from a 0.25 mile flat traverse over a raised boardwalk to a 10 mile back-country hike.  The trails range from easy to strenous, but you do need to plan accordingly for extreme temperatures and weather (both in summer and winter).  You can back-country camp, cycle on the roads (paved, dirt or gravel), and there is a night sky program.  Wildlife viewing is also popular at the park, with prairie dogs, bison, deer, pronghorn, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, badgers, coyotes, bobcats, and black-footed ferrets being just some of the species found in the park.  67 species of birds are known to nest within the park and over 200 species have been documented there.  There are also reptiles, amphibians and butterflies present there.

I have been excited about visiting this park for a long time, and I was finally going to be able to visit!  Posts coming soon!

 

 

West 2016: Missiles and Sod…

Day 4: August 8, 2016

We began our day with a trip to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in Philip, South Dakota. It was on the way to Badlands National Park, which was our ultimate destination for the day.

We didn’t actually tour the Launch Control Center, as that is a few miles down the road and we didn’t have time with our busy agenda for the day.  There are a limited number of spaces on tours each day, for a small per person fee.  The Launch Control Center was active between the 1960s and the mid-1990s, when most of the nuclear missiles were deactivated.  The United States during the peak of the Cold War had about 1,000 active nuclear missiles, and each control center controlled 10 missiles.  So, you can do the math – this was not the only control center.

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Even without going on the tour though, the Visitor’s Center was well worth the stop. Exhibits covered the length of the history of nuclear armament, from the dropping of the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cold War, the tense periods with Cuba and Russia, and the eventual agreements to move toward disarming nuclear weapons around the world. Several years ago, I toured the Titan Missile Site in Sahuarita, AZ, near Tucson, so I was able to translate that experience without seeing this silo site.

When I toured the Titan site in AZ, I was amazed by the technology that existed in the construction of the silo. On my tour there, a volunteer was asked to try to open a blast door that weighed several tons. It was so well balanced and constructed that it moved very easily on its bearings.

The Minuteman Missile Visitor’s Center had a piece of the Berlin Wall that visitors could touch.

Mom, with a piece of the Berlin Wall

Mom, with a piece of the Berlin Wall

They also had a genuine missile silo toilet – a historic toilet for my collection! You know I had to get a photo of that!  Sadly it was damaged (probably by other historic toilet photo collectors) so I didn’t get to pose properly for the photo.  This one will have to do…

 

A genuine historic toilet! Unavailable for posing on...

A genuine historic toilet! Unavailable for posing on…

After the Minuteman site, we went just down the road to the Prairie Homestead – a South Dakota State Historic Site. There were two draws to the site – the first was the sod house, built in 1909 by the Ed Brown family. The home also had a later wooden addition; another home that was moved from its original location, and which doubled the size of the original house. It would be difficult to live in sod, which had bugs who would move through it and drop into the home (yuck), as well as the fact that sod walls make for a damp environment and tend to sag over time.

The Brown family sod house - the sod portion on the left was built in 1909

The Brown family sod house – the sod portion on the left was built in 1909

 

The bedroom in the sod house, showing the sod walls.

The bedroom in the sod house, showing the sod walls.

There were also several outbuildings on the site, including an outhouse, but I’m not sure if the outhouse was original or reconstructed. That didn’t stop me from getting photos of the historic toilet and its perpetual guest. There is a root cellar, and an old well.  The barn has animals, including chickens and goats, which I’m sure would keep the kids busy and entertained if for some crazy reason they got bored watching the more famous four legged residents.

I met a new friend in the Prairie Homestead's double outhouse...

I met a new friend in the Prairie Homestead’s double outhouse…

The other big draw of the Prairie Homestead is that they have white prairie dogs! Staff indicated that these prairie dogs are a separate species, but they aren’t.  They are actually leucistic black-tailed prairie dogs, meaning they don’t have the pigment in their skin, but do have pigmented eyes, so they aren’t albino.  Many species of animals have leucistic individuals, including other mammals (white lions and tigers), reptiles and birds.  These prairie dogs were certainly lighter in color than others that we saw during our trip, and they didn’t have the typical black-tipped tail of other members of their species. The fact that these prairie dogs interbred among themselves causes the genetic mutation to continue.

These guys are so cute!

These guys are so cute!

I loved watching them, and took lots of photos of them popping out of their burrows.  They are so adorably cute!

Which way do we look?

Which way do we look?

 

A White Prairie Dog (otherwise known as a leucistic Black-tailed Prairie Dog)

A White Prairie Dog (otherwise known as a leucistic Black-tailed Prairie Dog)

These white prairie dogs were moved to the site in partnership with the Oglala Sioux tribe, but if you aren’t interested in seeing the sod house, you can see the white prairie dogs for free just down the road from the gas station.

Look! Three of them in one photo - triple the cuteness!

Look! Three of them in one photo – triple the cuteness!

By the time we left the Prairie Homestead it was lunchtime, but we had so much left to do in our day!