Saturday, June 29, 2013

Wrapping It Up in South Dakota

Hermosa, SD      (Click on Pictures to Enlarge)

Wow, it's hard to believe that we've been in South Dakota for 20 days now.  First it was Sioux Falls, followed by Rapid City (actually Hermosa).  I'll have to say that we have enjoyed every day here.  We've seen a lot of things, but now have an idea of so many more things we'd like to see the next time we return.

I was looking back through our recent blogs and realized that although we've been at our present location at Heartland RV Campground for the past 12 days, I've never even talked about it or shown any pictures.  Heartland RV Campground is really nothing fancy as campgrounds go.  They have gravel roads and sites, but for the most part, all sites are level and the utilities work well.

Heartland is located about 15 miles south of Rapid City on Rt. 79.  It's out in the open and has few (almost none) trees, but it wasn't hot during our stay. Adjoining lands are used for cattle and horse ranching.

The campground allows tenting in a center, grassy area down the middle aisle of the campground.

There is also a number of small rental cabins which back up to Rt. 79.  We noticed that the cabins were usually rented for 1 or 2 nights by families passing through the area sightseeing.

The campground has a nice office-store building used for registration upon exiting from Rt. 79.  A small swimming pool, along with a newly constructed hot tub, is connected to the rear of the building.

The campground accepts Passport America, so the rates were very good for the area.  Probably the nicest feature of the campground is the convenient location to Custer State Park, Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse Monument, and the NPS' Jewel and Wind Caves.

Here's one of the nicest looking propane bottles I've ever seen.

Can anyone identify this recreational vehicle?  I had never seen one before.  The model is a Vixen 21TD. (The answer later in this blog.)

We had to get one more hike in Custer State Park before leaving the area.  This one was called Lover's Leap and was a 4-mile loop.  It is based upon a legend that a pair of Native American lovers jumped to their deaths from the highest rocky outcropping on the trail. You'll notice in this picture that I'm not getting too close to the edge.

Believe me, the drop was extreme, but the views from up here were worth the climb.

Being relatively new to hiking, we came across this area along the trail and had no idea what it was, or what it meant.  After a bit of research (very little using Wikipedia) we discovered that these rock pilings are called "Cairns". On trails they are usually erected to mark trails.

Sorry, I almost forgot to give the answer to the earlier question about identifying the Vixen 21TD. I won't go into the whole history of the vehicle, but if you go to Wikipedia it's an interesting read.  This vehicle was an RV made by the Vixen Motor Company between 1986-1989. There were only a total of 587 Vixens ever made.  The one pictured above is a 1986 model. We never saw anyone near the Vixen during our entire stay, but it had recently been plugged in to power, so I can't tell you anything about this particular rig.  Still, it was fun to view an RV I'd never seen before.

Next stop, Gillette, WY for the Escapees Escapade.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Jewel Cave National Monument (and a Buffalo sighting)

Hermosa, SD            (Click on Pictures to Enlarge)

Yesterday we drove west through Custer, SD and stopped at Jewel Cave National Monument to do some exploring. The Park Staff offers several levels of cave tours ranging from a short, orientation tour to a "wild caving" tour which takes approximately 4 hours and explores the cave by traveling off trails and is guaranteed to "get you dirty".  We decided to take the middle road here and take the Scenic Tour. That tour lasts approximately 1 1/2 hours and is led by a Park Ranger traversing through the cave via stairwells, ramps, and flat platforms.

While waiting for our tour to begin two of the "wild caving" tour Rangers gave a brief talk on the equipment needed for caving. A demonstration (using a smaller child) was shown because persons taking this tour will be required to pass through an 8"x24"  passageway. This was illustrated by the concrete structure in the center of this picture. (Another reason why we did NOT choose this tour.)

The Basic and Scenic Tours begin at the Visitor's Center.  Visitors are transported via elevator to an initial depth of 306 feet beneath the surface. Yesterday's outside temperature was approximately 80 degrees at the surface.  The cave is a constant 49.3 degrees and a jacket is strongly suggested before heading down.

Our Tour Leader was excellent. We learned something before even beginning the tour. Does anyone know the difference between a National Monument and a National Park?  A National Monument is a protected area which can be quickly declared by the President of the United States without the approval or discussion by Congress.  National Parks must be approved by Congress.  Ok, on to the tour.

The Scenic Tour traverses many stairs (both descending and ascending), metal ramps, metal platforms, and concrete walkways to explore the cave.  This tour descends to a depth of 387 feet beneath the surface.  The wild caving tour goes down to 500 feet.

Here's a look at some of the formations in the cave.  (Sorry about some the poor quality, but flash photography is prohibited in areas when the group is walking.)

For those of you who have taken cave tours back East, you'll notice that the inside of the caves and their formations are quite different.  The cave here is chiefly made of calcite, so you don't see the stalactites and stalagmites found in the eastern caves.

During the tour we learned that the discovery of the cave was made by two brothers Frank and Albert Michaud in 1900. They found a small opening too small for human entry, but used dynamite to enlarge the opening and found "jewels" glistening along the walls. The brothers thought they had found a very profitable area and filed a claim.  The glistening walls turned out to be calcite crystals which were of little commercial value.  Along with a partner, Charles Bush, the trio attempted to open the cave as a tourist attraction in 1902. This ultimately failed and the claim was sold to the Federal Government for $750 after President Theodore Roosevelt declared the area a national monument in 1908.  The brothers moved away from the area. The National Park Service began administering the monument in 1933.

The original cave opening discovered by the Michaud brothers can still be visited, but is locked unless a tour group is being led in through this opening.

Along the walk to the original opening site is an area that has a few benches and what looks like an opening into the cave.  Karen took a look inside, but decided our tour was much easier than climbing into this hole.

On our way back to the campground we decided to take another drive through the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park.  Well, we finally got lucky and saw some of the buffalo "up close and personal".  Here's a short video showing the buffalo blocking the roadway.

Thanks again for stopping by to take a look!

Drive-In Theater and Mount Rushmore

Hermosa, SD                             (Click on Pictures to Enlarge)

You're probably thinking what does "Drive-In Theater and Mount Rushmore" have to do with one another. Answer:  Absolutely nothing, other than those two places are our latest places to visit.  On Monday night we drove over to Roys Black Hills Twin Drive In Theatre, just a short 3 mile drive from our campground, to watch the double bill of "Man of Steel" and "42-The Jackie Robinson Story".  We hadn't been to a drive-in theater in a long time and it was really fun.  What's unusual about this drive-in was that it is brand new and just recently opened.  In a day when most drive-ins have closed, it was "something different" that most of the younger generation probably has not experienced.

Okay, moving on!  Tuesday we decided to drive over to Mt. Rushmore.  We wanted to get there later in the day to attend the evening lighting of the Monument which starts at 9:00 PM this time of the season. What can I say about Mt. Rushmore. It's one of the nation's iconic monuments.  This was our first view of the Monument from a distance. If it doesn't evoke a feeling of patriotic emotion, then something's just wrong.

This is a very popular spot to take a picture just before actually entering the Monument grounds from the parking area. (Soap box time for a moment. There is no admission fee to enter the Monument, but it will cost you $11.00 per non-commercial vehicle to park.  Oh well, the experience was certainly worth it.  Climbing down from the soap box now.)

This area is named the "Avenue of Flags".  Each state's flag is represented and the date the state was brought into the Union is inscribed onto the column.

Since we had plenty of time before the start of the nighttime ceremony, we took a walk on the "Presidential Trail". This is a short trail which leaves from one side of the amphitheater, allows closer viewing of the mountain from below, leads to Gutzon Borglum's studio, and returns on the opposite side of the amphitheater.

Gutzon Borglum's studio was interesting to tour.  Mr. Borglum's work began in 1927 and he was the initial sculptor of the faces on the Monument, but died before the completion of the project.  His son, Lincoln Borglum, took over the project in 1941. Original plans called for depicting the presidents from head to waist, but lack of funding forced construction to end in late 1941.

Gutzon Borglum's working model can be observed in his studio.  The model is exactly 1/12 scale of the figures on the mountain.

We returned to the amphitheater to find seats for the evening lighting ceremony of the Monument. The program begins with a Ranger giving a short inspirational talk on the U.S. Constitution, then a 20-minute film is shown encompassing the growth and ideals of the United States through the years, and a short segment on the construction of the Monument.

The program concludes by the Ranger inviting all veterans and active-duty military personnel to take the stage for a very moving rendition of the Star Spangled Banner followed by a ceremony to lower and fold the United States flag.

Although the Monument is very inspiring to visit in the daylight, it's even better at night.  The monument is slowly lit towards the end of the above described program. The faces silhouetted against the dark sky is very moving.

Even the "Avenue of Flags" looks better at night. For anyone who has never had the opportunity to visit one of our country's truly iconic and emotionally moving monuments, I would encourage you to make plans!

Thanks again for taking a look at our blog!

Monday, June 24, 2013

The "High Point" in our Travels So Far

Hermosa, SD              (Click on Pictures to ENLARGE)

Yesterday's main activity was to hike up to Harney Peak.  Harney Peak is the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Pyrenees Mountains in Europe at a summit height of 7242 feet.  Modern day use of the peak was for a fire lookout station.  The first non-native Americans to explore the area occurred in 1874 during an expedition led by General George Custer.

Fire Lookout Tower at summit
The peak was first used as a fire lookout tower in 1911 using only a wooden crate as a platform.  Later, in 1920, a true structure was built for the lookout tower. Finally, in 1938 the CCC built a stone structure to house the lookout tower.

Bighorn Sheep along Rt 16-A
We were able to spot a few Bighorn sheep and a couple of young ones meandering along the roadway as we set out through the Park today.  This is our first sightings of these animals.

Little ones being protected by Momma 

Before getting to the trailhead at Sylvan Lake, we traversed the Needles Highway within Custer State Park.  As are most of the areas in Custer State Park, Needles Highway was filled with beautiful views and unusual sights.  There are two tunnels in this stretch of the roadway.  The most interesting yesterday was the smallest tunnel which has a clearance width of just 8'4 and a height of 12'0.

Amazingly enough, as we were taking pictures a short distance down from the tunnel, we noticed quite a traffic backup on the low side of the tunnel.  I looked and couldn't believe that a full-size sightseeing tour bus was slowly squeezing its' way through the tunnel.  I really wish that I was closer to be able to get a picture of that.  The bus eventually made it and traffic resumed.  Here's how it looks as a smaller vehicle makes its' way through the tunnel.

To the left of the tunnel
Here's a few pictures near this particular tunnel.

Notice the rock separation above

Rock climbers

Pay attention to this one!

Did I mention that there is always something to see along the roads.  The signs are definitely posted for a reason in this area.

A few more looks at formations along the Needles Highway.
We finally made it to Sylvan Lake where the trailhead for our hike to Harney Peak begins.  This area is a "day use" area and it was filled today with families picnicking, fishing and boating on the lake, and hiking the trails.  The weather was absolutely beautiful and the skies very clear today.

Trail head for Harney Peak Trail
Harney Peak can be accessed via several trails, but this one was rated as "Moderate" so we decided that this would be best for our very limited hiking experience.  The trail is 3.3 miles each way and begins at about 6100 feet.  The ascent is 1142 feet.

We found the trail to be very heavily used by all ages during this time of the year.  Actually, the trail itself is not difficult to navigate at all until you reach the last few hundred yards to the summit.  Then a series of CCC constructed stairs create a rapid change in vertical climb.

Some of the stops along the trail on the way up created "photo ops" at nearly every turn.

See, we were actually there!
We finally made it to the top!  Here's a "touristy" shot of us taken by other climbers in front of the base of the fire tower.

Looking up from the pump house
The fire tower, pump house, and dam up top are all listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. This is a view from the pump house room located down from the lookout tower. It's not a climb for those with balance problems.  Notice the close-set steps with steep vertical rise and the lack of any railings or handholds.
The man made dam was created atop the summit to provide water (via the pump house) to users of the lookout tower.

As I commented on at the beginning of this blog, the summit is the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Pyrenees Mountains in Europe.  For some reason, I found that pretty impressive.

Needless to say, the views from up here are spectacular. There are no plaques or other indicators to tell you what you are looking at below, but we could clearly see the Badlands (about 80 miles east as the crow flies). The lighter areas towards the top of this picture are the Badlands, not clouds.

                     A couple of collages of the views from the top.

Lunch time on Harney Peak
Here's where we had lunch.  Now that's a "room with a view".

As it usually is, the trek back downhill to the trail head is tougher on the knees than the ascent.  Most folks were gone from the day use area by the time we returned to the bottom.  We took the Wildlife Loop Road back out of the Park, but only saw a herd of buffalo a good distance back from the roadway, and of course we saw the "friendly burros" again.

Thanks for dropping by to take a look!