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West 2016: Eagle Butte Coal Mine Tour

Day 7, August 11, 2016

Our first activity of the day was to tour the Eagle Butte coal mine. The mine is an open pit/surface mining project and the mine is a small to medium sized mine in Gillette, Wyoming.  The Eagle Butte mine employs slightly less than 200 employees.

The tour we went on was a partnership between the mine and the tourism bureau – it was $5 per person and we met at the Visitor’s Center. We got on the bus with our guide, a local teacher who was off for the summer, and had previously worked some summers at the mine, and drove out to the site. On the way out, we saw land that had previously been mined.

The company basically removes the top 24″ of dirt from a section where they are mining, and they pile it off to the side (they cover up the piles to prevent the topsoil from blowing away). Then they dig out all the dirt below to find the coal seam, extract the coal and then put the dirt back on top. The coal seam in this area is about 120 feet thick, so when the dirt is put back after a section has been mined, the land is about 120 feet lower. Regulations require that the land must be replanted with native grasses and shrubs, and to be honest, I couldn’t tell that the areas that had already been mined had ever been disturbed. The only reason we knew was because our guide told us as were were driving by.  There were pronghorn out grazing on those areas of land.

The tour showed us the pit, with trucks and equipment that looked pretty small from far away but are actually huge. The truck tires are 12 feet tall! You can only tell how large they are when looking at the trucks next to normal sized pickups; otherwise it is hard to tell when you are watching them from far away as you have nothing to compare to for scale.

A close up of a dump truck loaded with coal

 

One of the dump trucks, with a regular full size pickup truck for scale. They are huge!

 

A 12 foot tire at the Eagle Butte Mine.

Our tour stopped at an area where we could stand in a bucket for an excavator and next to one of the big equipment tires. The bucket there is actually a very small one, holding only 23 yeards of dirt.  The smallest bucket the mine now uses holds 52 yards, but typically they use 70-90 yard buckets.  I suppose they no longer have much use for the 23 yard bucket that was on display! But it seemed pretty big to me.

Mom and me, standing in a 23 yard bucket. The mine uses buckets that hold 70-90 yards now…

Then we headed over to the area where the coal is loaded onto trains. Our guide explained the loading process, and the shape of the coal on the coal car – it is very specifically shaped to limit blow-off of coal dust. She also explained that the company sprays sealant on the coal, depending on where the coal is being shipped. Our guide asserted that that sealant basically does nothing, because the coal does not blow off train cars, but they put the sealant on in order to make people feel better. You, dear readers, can debate that last point amongst yourselves; I wasn’t quite sure what to believe.  Depending on where the train is going – each train has between 110 and 140 cars.

This contraption loads the coal in the coal cars and shapes it to limit blow-off

 

The car’s coal is being coated with a sealant. Our guide told us it really does nothing, as the coal dust does not blow off, but eases people’s minds.

 

A close picture of the loaded coal train.

 

I loved this pretty landscape picture with the coal train.

I know a coal mine tour isn’t going to be on everybody’s bucket list (see that pun I did there…?), and I wasn’t sure how much I would get out of it to be honest.  But all in all, I did find it to be really interesting.  Living in the Pacific Northwest, where there is a lot of anti-coal sentiment, it was good to get another perspective.  I thought it was well worth the price and a couple of hours of time.

If you are interested, you can find more information about it here – they only do it during the summer.

 

 

West 2016: Devil’s Tower NM

Day 6, August 10, 2016

After Jewel Cave, we were on our way – our next destination was Devil’s Tower National Monument. Devil’s Tower is a laccolithic butte made up of igneous rock that rises 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River and 5,112 feet above sea level. If you are like me, you have no idea what that means.  Basically, it is where magma pushes up and creates a dome or mushroom shaped form on a flat base.  Scientists don’t know how it occurred but Devil’s Tower is a very distinct type of laccolith; the tower is made up of many columns that are all smooshed together into one big column.  Kind of like a whole collection of many sided pencils held together by a rubber band.

A view of the Tower in the distance.

The tower is part of the Native American creation story. According to the Kiowa and the Lakota, the tower was formed when a group of girls were chased by several giant bears. To escape, the girls climbed onto a rock and began praying to the Great Spirit. The Great Spirit lifted the rock from the ground and as the bears tried to climb the tower to get to the girls, their claws left the marks in the sides of the tower that are visible today. When the tower reached toward the sky, the girls became stars in the sky above.

A closer view of the Tower

The monument was designated by Theodore Roosevelt on September 24, 1906; it was the first monument designated under the recently passed Antiquities Act.

When we arrived, we discovered we had re-entered Sturgis biker heaven – the place was crawling with bikers. They did have parking attendants at the monument though, directing cars and bikes to two different parking areas.

We checked out the monument from the front, and I wanted to walk around it – it is a 1.3 mile walk and you can see the monument from many angles. My mom didn’t want to walk around it, so she settled in to listen to a ranger talk about the tower in Native American stories. Devil’s Tower is a sacred site for many tribes in the area, so there are beautiful prayer bundles tied in the trees around the base of the monument; it was powerful to reflect on the spirituality of the place.

Prayer bundles at the base of the Tower

Around the back of the monument, there is a historic ladder that ascends up the crevice between two of the columns. It was interesting, but unless there was a lot more to it back in the day, I wouldn’t have been willing to climb that ladder!  The backside of the monument was nice; there were hardly any people who walked around to the back, and I was also treated to views of climbers scaling the monument.

The historic ladder at Devil’s Tower. No Way…

 

Climbers on the back side of Devil’s Tower

I did enjoy the walk, even though it was pretty hot that day, and I got a few different ladies to take my photo with the tower. However, as I learned later, apparently I needed to clarify that I wanted the tower (or the WHOLE tower) in the photo as well. Live and Learn!

This lady took a picture of me AND the tower

When I got back from my walk, I was able to catch the last bit of the ranger talk. She shared many interesting stories, highlighting the importance and spiritual nature of the place from the Native American perspective.

Also of interest at Devil’s Tower National Monument is a – you might have already guessed – prairie dog town! You know how I feel about these adorable little critters! Of course we stopped to watch them and take photos. I really could not get enough of the prairie dogs on this trip, if that wasn’t already obvious. How can you resist those cute faces?! And the short little tails!

Prairie Dog! Look at those claws!

 

Look! They are kissing!

 

Prairie Dogs Playing

After Devil’s Tower, we made our way to our hotel for the evening a La Quinta in Gillette, Wyoming. Gillette was really a stopover town on our way to Yellowstone and Cody, but we did have a bit of time to explore the cute little downtown area.

Downtown Gillette, Wyoming. I would have liked to see this!

We had dinner at Fiesta Tequila Mexican restaurant and I had some of the best fajitas I have ever had! They were so delicious! Mom really loved her arroz con pollo too, so if you find yourself in Gillette, check out this restaurant!  We had some time to relax before bed too; we couldn’t stay up too late, we had another big day the next day!

 

Costs and Fees: $15 per car at Devil’s Tower National Monument; free with an annual pass.

Distance for the Day: Custer, SD – Jewel Cave National Monument, Custer, SD – Devil’s Tower National Monument, Devil’s Tower, WY – Gillette, WY (3 hrs, 172 miles)

Hotel for the night: La Quinta – Gillette, WY

West 2016: Jewel Cave NM

Day 6: August 10, 2016

On the sixth day of our vacation, we went to Jewel Cave National Monument. It is only a few miles away from Wind Cave National Park, and some researchers actually believe that the two cave systems are connected.

Jewel Cave was discovered by local prospectors Frank and Albert Michaud in 1900. The entrance wasn’t large enough to accommodate a person, so they blasted it with dynamite! Theodore Roosevelt designated it as a National Monument on February 7, 1908. The Civilian Conservation Corps developed the natural entrance in the 1930s and after it was taken over by the National Park Service, tours were begun in 1939.

Jewel Cave National Monument

In 1959, only about two miles had been mapped, then rock climbers and cave explorers Herb and Jan Conn began exploring the cave (they mapped a lot of Wind Cave too). The National Park Service created an elevator shaft eventually in order to access a part of the cave that was previously remote, and then began the Scenic Tour in 1972. Today, there are over 181 miles of mapped passageways. Based on research of air flow, it is estimated that only 3-5% of the cave is currently mapped.  If you consider Jewel Cave and Wind Cave as two separate caves, Jewel Cave is actually much larger. It also has much different formations.

Jewel cave contains all of the common types of cave formations, including stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone and draperies.

Popcorn and draperies

Draperies in Jewel Cave

I went on the Scenic Tour of Jewel Cave; mom decided to sit this one out so I was on my own.  My tour was 90 minutes, and had 723 steps.  It descends, through an elevator and walking, to a depth of 370 feet into the cave.  I didn’t find it particularly difficult, but again my Fitbit didn’t record my steps since we were underground.  Jewel Cave is a much different cave than Wind Cave; I thought it was much prettier. Jewel Cave is aptly named, in that it is very sparkly and glittery – this comes from lots and lots of cave popcorn, which is made from calcite and is very, very sparkly.  One of the most intriguing formations is called Cave Bacon, and it really does look like bacon!

Some of the walkways on the tour

 

So many pretty sparkles

 

All that sparkles

 

Do you see the cave bacon? It was easier to see in real life. Pictures don’t do it justice.

Back on the surface after the tour, I found my mom, who had done the 20 minute Discovery Talk, which just goes into the first large room of the cave but does not require a lot of walking or stairs. We checked out the little exhibit, and then headed outside into another sunny, gorgeous day. There we watched a group getting ready to go on the Wild Caving Tour, and the ranger was making sure they could all fit through the tightest spaces. I would like to do that tour one day, and it made me glad to be little! It was certainly a tight squeeze between those cinder blocks!

Could you get through there?

We couldn’t spend too much time dawdling though, as we still have plenty to do for the day!

Costs and Fees: No charge to visit Jewel Cave National Monument itself, there are fees for the tours.  The Scenic Tour is $12 per adult; the Discovery Talk is $4, or free with a Senior National Park Pass.

West 2016: Mount Rushmore NM

Day 5: August 9, 2016

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a unique park within the National Park System. What makes men decide to carve the faces of four Presidents into a mountain?

Mount Rushmore was originally devised as a way to draw tourists into the Black Hills area. Doane Robinson, a South Dakota historian, wanted to depict famous people of the Black Hills area on the Needles Mountain.  He was able to drum up support for the idea, but Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor for the project, rejected the Needles because of the poor quality of the granite and because of strong opposition from Native American tribes. Mount Rushmore had better exposure to the sun too, that would better show the finished sculptures.  Borglum also thought the characters chosen for the monument needed to have a broader appeal, so he picked four Presidents; Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

Mount Rushmore is unique because instead of bringing an existing national treasure into the park service portfolio, this one was created specifically for inclusion.  The National Memorial was designated on March 3, 1925.  The project began in 1927 and the faces were carved between 1934 and 1939. Each face was 60 feet tall. Over 400 workers were on the project, and miraculously for a project of this size and complexity, no one died.  Except, I guess for Borglum, who died in 1941 from an embolism, and his son Lincoln took over after his death. The monument was originally supposed to include the torso of each President as well, but with the United States’ entry into World War II, funding for the project ended early and the monument remains unfinished.  Since George Washington was the first President carved, he has some rudimentary clothes, although even those are unfinished.

A close up of Mount Rushmore

We walked through the Avenue of the Flags and of course had to find our WA state flag. I wasn’t sure how they had them organized, but found out later on the internet that they are arranged alphabetically, with the A’s beginning at the entrance and the W’s at the end closer to the mountain.  I thought their date of entrance into the United States would have been better, but whatever…  From the flag plaza, we walked out to the viewing area and saw the monument – it really is beautiful. Each face has a lot of detail. We posed for pictures and got photos of the monument from different angles.

Me with the Avenue of Flags

The Avenue of Flags, with Rushmore above

Then we went downstairs, where there is a very informative museum that has exhibits on the history of the monument, and the engineering and sculpting techniques that were used to create the monument. And, of course, the obligatory movie… There were videos of the construction of the monument too! There is also a very good bookstore that has quite a few relevant books; it is a better bookstore than the one by the entrance, by the way.

Me with the mountain

There is a 0.6 mile trail that gets you closer to the monument, but I was feeling a bit fizzled out at that point and so was mom, so we didn’t end up doing it.  We also didn’t end up staying for the evening light show, although one day I want to make it back for both the walk and the light show. We had a long day at that point and it looked like a thunderstorm was rolling in, so we headed out for the day just as some big fat raindrops were beginning to fall.  We did stop at a viewpoint just outside the memorial to get a few photos of George Washington from a different angle – in profile.

A profile view of George Washington

On our drive away from Rushmore, we were treated to a pretty rainbow; there is nothing like it to lift one’s spirits and enjoy something beautiful.  We ended up back at the Buglin’ Bull in Custer for dinner again – this time I had the Greek salad with iced tea. It was delicious! After dinner we headed back to our little motel, and got to sit outside and soak up a bit more warmth. Then we went inside before the rain returned and were treated to a wonderful thunder and lightning storm. I lay in bed with the curtains open and watched the storm before I fell asleep.

The rainbow we saw at the end of our day.

 

Costs and Fees: No charge to visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial itself, but there is a $10 per car parking fee.

Distance for the Day: Custer, SD – Wind Cave National Park – Custer State Park – Crazy Horse Memorial – Mount Rushmore National Memorial – Mystic Valley Inn – Custer, SD (1 hr, 46 min, 80 miles)

Hotel for the night: Mystic Valley Inn – Custer, SD

 

West 2016: Crazy Horse Memorial

Day 5: August 9, 2016

Crazy Horse Memorial is an interesting place. It was designed as a Memorial to Crazy Horse, a Chief and respected elder of the Oglala Lakota tribe, by Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish American sculptor who worked on the nearby Mount Rushmore,  It was commissioned by Henry Standing Bear, another Lakota elder, who wanted to honor a tribal warrior.  We drove over to see it after we drove the Needles Highway.  Fun Fact: Ziolkowski shares my birthday – I hope I don’t need to clarify we share month and day only, not year…

Crazy Horse was a war leader of the Oglala Lakota tribe – the Oglala Lakota are one of seven sub-tribes of the Lakota Nation, which are also a part of the larger Sioux Nation. Crazy Horse fought against the United States government and the encroachment of the white man on Sioux territory and the tribe’s way of life. His most famous battle was at the Battle of Little Bighorn. He was killed by a military guard after surrendering to U.S. troops in 1877.

I liked this statue of two fighting stallions; it was tucked away near a service entrance

The planned dimensions of the Crazy Horse Memorial are huge – 641 feet wide and 563 feet high; his head alone will be 87 feet tall. It is way bigger (or going to be) than Mount Rushmore, where the Presidents are each 60 feet high. Crazy Horse was begun in 1948, and there is no real idea on when it will be completed.

Me with the Crazy Horse Memorial

The memorial has become a family project, with most of Ziolkowski’s immediate family working on it, as well as some other family members. The vision includes the monument, as well as an education center and scholarships for tribal members.  They received a $2.5M donation a few years back that seems to have breathed new life into the project, so perhaps that will get things moving a bit faster on the sculpture.

When we visited, we started out watching the movie. It explained the history of the monument, and the fact that proceeds go to scholarships to help tribal members get their education. Once the movie was finished, we made our way outside to see the monument. I felt like they intentionally tried to create a maze – you can’t get outside without winding your way through a ton of vendors and gift shop stuff.  That was frustrating.

Outside, we checked out the model of the finished monument, and posed for photos. Admittedly, if they ever finish it, it will look really cool. The actual monument is huge. It is crazy to imagine how large it really is up close, because it looks really large from far away.

The model of what the finished memorial will look like

It was an interesting monument to a great tribal leader, but it really didn’t take much time to see. I had hoped that there would be a museum or exhibit with more information about Crazy Horse and the history of the campaigns the Oglala Lakota and other tribes fought with the U.S. government. To be honest, I was less than wowed. It felt like there was a less than subtle request for donations throughout the experience, and after spending $11 per person for admission, well… Other than the movie (which had its own fundraising vibe) and the mountain itself – there wasn’t much to see or do.

The memorial, as it looked in August 2016

 

A closer view of the face

All in all, I was glad I went, but unless there is considerably more progress on the monument itself – particularly the horse part – I don’t feel I need a return visit.

 

Costs and Fees: $11 per person up to 2 in a car, includes parking.  $28 per car if more than 2.  There are some other prices for bicycles, kids, active military, Native Americans, etc., so check the website.

West 2016: Custer State Park

Day 5: August 9, 2016

Both before and after we went to Wind Cave, we made our way through Custer State Park. Custer State Park was basically right on the way, since you have to drive through the park in order to get to Wind Cave. So, just for the sake of full-disclosure, this post covers multiple times that we were in the park; early morning, mid-day and evening too.  It doesn’t matter for the sake of the post, but just know that you are more likely to see some of these animals if you go early, or at the end of the day.

Me – Sign Posing

Custer State Park is a huge park, with lots to offer. It has camping, lakes, scenic drives, and when we headed to Wind Cave, we took a little time before to check out part of the Wildlife Loop since it was early morning, and we hoped to see wildlife! We weren’t disappointed!

Right after entering the Wildlife Loop, we saw pronghorn! A small herd of them! They were just hanging out, and there were young ones along with the herd. I loved seeing them. We took some photos – even one with a peeing pronghorn! I can’t help it – animals doing more than just standing there is fascinating to me – yep, that’s me…  I am weird.  Historic toilets – peeing animals…

Pronghorn

 

Even better – peeing pronghorn!

After watching the pronghorn, we found a prairie dog town. They were quite active then, scampering around and eating grass. They were darker in color than some of the other prairie dogs – I liked seeing the color variation.

Custer State Park’s prairie dogs had darker fur. I am becoming quite the prairie dog connoisseur.

We saw wild turkeys too! There were about a half dozen turkeys roaming around in a few different places in the park.

Wild Turkeys!

As we continued on the way to Wind Cave, we saw a couple of deer, more pronghorn, and then we saw a coyote too! Even though I see coyotes at home from time to time, even in my own neighborhood, it was a treat to see one out in the wild.

An early morning coyote sighting

After Wind Cave, which I posted about here, we headed back out into Custer State Park, and decided to do one of the scenic drives – the Needles Highway. The highway is a crazy, windy road, with a ton of switchbacks and several one lane tunnels. They had people who directed traffic through the tunnels, allowing travel in one direction and then the other. The whole highway made my mom nervous, but I enjoyed it! I would have like to stop at some of the viewpoints, but there were so many Sturgis bikers on the road that it would have been difficult to pull over easily.

One of the tiny tunnels on the Needles Highway

Later in the day, we headed back into the park and traveled on the part of the Wildlife Loop that we hadn’t seen before. We found bison, lots and lots of bison. Custer State Park has about 1,500 bison at the peak each year; they manage the herd through round ups and sales. We watched them for a while; I never got tired of them.

 

A bit further on, we found the other famous animals of the park – feral donkeys! There was a group of them hanging out right in the parking lot, begging for carrots from the tourists, despite all the signs that say you shouldn’t feed them. Apparently they are known as the Begging Burros, and there are about 50 donkeys in the park.  There was another group of donkeys that kept their distance, and it was fun to watch them playing out in the field and being more wild.  I think the donkeys were my favorite of the animals we saw in the park – well, if you don’t count the peeing pronghorn…  Nope – I’m still going with the donkeys as the favorites…

 

 

 

We didn’t do any of the other recreational activities that Custer State Park has to offer, but it would certainly be a great place to camp, and spend some time. It was a worthwhile park!

A bison just hanging on the road in the evening.

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 Wind 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 Wind 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…