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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: Rapid City Oddity

Day 4: August 8, 2016

When you think of a gas station and convenience store, I bet you are like me and think about a place to fill the tank, and perhaps pick up some snacks for that long drive you have ahead of you.  You know…  Diet Dr. Pepper, coffee, licorice, pretzels… something to hold you over until you get your next meal (yes, I am a bit food focused, in case you were wondering).  But I bet it isn’t often that you think of that gas station convenience store as a place to view a whole host of stuffed animals from around the world.  And I don’t mean the cute, cuddly plush stuffies – I mean a collection of taxidermy animals!

This odd Taxidermy Gas Station, as I came to call it, is located in Rapid City, South Dakota inside a Mobile gas station.  It has an actual name – The Call of the Wild Museum, but Taxidermy Gas Station has a much better ring to it, in my humble opinion…

I knew about it before our trip, having stumbled upon it while I was researching things to do on TripAdvisor. I put it on the list as an interesting potential, but wasn’t convinced that we would make it there because there were so many other things we wanted to see in the area.  In the end, we just kind of ended up at the intersection and decided to make the stop as we were heading home from our busy day at Badlands, among other places…

I have mixed feelings on big game hunting…  I am sure others have different opinions, but I don’t think that anyone should be permitted to hunt endangered animals.  I think if you are going to hunt common animals, you should be hunting it to eat it.  But regardless of your views on hunting, this place is here, an exhibit showing the ‘kills’ of a hunting family that needed a large display room.  The Taxidermy Gas Station was born…

The exhibit is free – a big room attached to the convenience store, and it contains dozens, maybe even over a hundred taxidermied specimens.  Common animals and exotics from all over the world.  Lions, an elephant, a polar bear, an alligator, a wolverine, a Canada goose, a few different species of prairie dogs…  You name it, and you can likely find it there.  Well, now that I think about it, they didn’t have a manatee – that’s a good thing.

The taxidermy on these animals is very well done, and it is morbidly interesting to walk through the room checking out all the different animals.  However, it is also sad.  I will leave you to decide for yourself…

 

Thoughts?

After the Taxidermy Gas Station, we wrapped up our drive back to Custer, South Dakota, traveling through Custer State Park after dark.  I will tell you more about this wonderful park in another post!  Winding through the park after dark was a surreal experience, especially since at one point I had to slam on the brakes to narrowly avoid hitting a large male bison, who was standing in the road, in the fog, staring directly at us…  Creepy…  My heart jumped into my throat!  But after we stopped the car, he lazily walked by the side of us, without a care in the world…


Distance for the Day:
Custer, SD – Minuteman National Historic Site – Prairie Homestead – Badlands National Park, SD – Wall Drug – Call of the Wild Museum – Custer, SD (4 hrs, 45 min, 254 miles)

Hotel for the night: Mystic Valley Inn – Custer, SD
Gas – $2.19 / gallon

Free Ice Water at Wall Drug!

Day 4: August 8, 2016

Is there such a thing as a trip to the Badlands without a stop at Wall Drug? This iconic store, originally a pharmacy, has become an American legend, due to the road signs that line I-90 for miles in both directions. Additionally, they give away free bumper stickers and people erect signs in far off places announcing how many miles it is to Wall Drug.  These marketing strategies have absolutely aided in their success.

Wall Drug was opened by Ted Hustead and his wife in 1931; they were looking for a small town with a Catholic church where they could establish their pharmacy business. Wall is currently in the “middle of nowhere,” and I can only imagine that it was even more remote over 85 years ago. His wife Dorothy deserves the credit for its ultimate success. Mount Rushmore had just opened, and she had the idea to offer free ice water to tourists traveling west to see it during the hot, dry summer. The idea brought lots of people in and the store took off!

The Famous Wall Drug Store

Wall Drug is basically a shopping mall where you can buy all sorts of kitschy souvenirs, including a mounted “jackalope,” which is a jackrabbit with antlers.  I have no idea how this thing ever took off, but I guess I need to remember that we have a long history of venerating mythical creatures, and why not – it is fun!  Apparently in Douglas, WY, where the first taxidermy jackalope was created in 1932, they have an “official” jackalope hunting season, which occurs for only one day.  In case you are interested in bagging your own jackalope, the season occurs each year on June 31 (a nonexistent date as June has 30 days), from midnight to 2 a.m. The hunter must have an IQ greater than 50 but not over 72.  Permits are available from the Douglas, WY Chamber of Commerce.  I think that would be pretty awesome to get one!  But I digress…

Mom and I combined our visit to Wall Drug with dinner.  I had a buffalo burger, which was good, but somehow I neglected to snap a picture…  We decided to forego the ice cream for dessert, although it did look really delicious.  Instead we took a bit of time to go find the rideable Jackalope out back!  Because a trip to Wall Drug is not complete without sitting astride a 10 foot tall fiberglass Jackalope!  The stirrups were too short for this equestrienne, but I tried to make the best of it with my long remembered equitation skills.  Mom even played along and climbed up there too.

The Wall Drug Cafe – I got to stare at the ice cream counter all through dinner!

 

Me riding the Jackalope

 

Mom riding the Jackalope!

We also found a stuffed bison to pose with – she had seen better days – I imagine she’s been petted by millions over the years. And we checked out an exhibit on gold mining, where you can pan for gold for a fee, but it was closed when we were there.  The mall has a Western art museum as well that would have been cool to check out if we had more time – it is free to visit.

Me with the stuffed bison – up close and personal

In the end, we departed with full bellies but passed on purchasing the mounted jackalopes or other Wall Drug souvenirs, and got on the road towards home (Custer, SD, that is…).  We still had a fair bit of driving and one more, very odd, stop to make…

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!