In which we round out the National Parks tour with Rocky Mountain and Wind Cave

Whew – we made it to Minneapolis! Since our stuff does not get here until next Monday we’ve been camping out in the living room and exploring our little neighborhood before work starts next week. To round out our National Park tour:

On Monday we left Boulder and headed to nearby Rocky Mountain National Park:

7th National Park and it's its 100th anniversary!

7th National Park and it’s its 100th anniversary!

The park has great vistas across meadows to the Rockies beyond.

The park has great vistas across meadows to the Rockies beyond.

Since it's so close to a major metropolitan area and summer is the high season we were stuck behind a lot of cars.

Since it’s so close to a major metropolitan area and summer is the high season we were stuck behind a lot of cars.

Our only stop was to Bear Lake, which turned out to be more nature trail than hike. The parking lot was full when we got there and we only ended up grabbing a spot because they opened up some later ones as we were leaving - talk about lucky!

Our only stop was to Bear Lake, which turned out to be more nature trail than hike. The parking lot was full when we got there and we only ended up grabbing a spot because they opened up some later ones as we were leaving – talk about lucky!

We didn't see any bears :(

We didn’t see any bears 馃槮

Lovely conifers

Lovely conifers

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Reminds me of higher elevation version of Cades Cove in the Smokies

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Since the park was so crowded, we decided to see if we could make it to Wind Cave the same day and cut the next day’s driving to Minneapolis down.

Forgot we needed to get through Wyoming to get to South Dakota - so here we are picking up a bonus state: #7!

Forgot we needed to get through Wyoming to get to South Dakota – so here we are picking up a bonus state: #7!

Starting in Wyoming and continuing through South Dakota we kept running into motorcycles, both of the individual and gang variety. It came to a massive slowdown in Custer and we creeped along through the sea of them at 5 mph. Apparently the world-famous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was happening in two days and we were caught up in the beginning of it.

State #8

State #8

And done: National Park #8

And done: National Park #8!

Most of Wind Cave National Park, is as you could probably guess, in a cave. There is a lot of the park aboveground however and it preserves vast swaths of natural grasslands:

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We looked, but did not see any bison.

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The cave part is only accessible by a ranger led tour and we were fortunate to catch one of the last ones of the day:

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Our only option was the Natural Entrance Tour which is the usual one. Other tours explore slightly different areas of the cave or use only candles like early explorers.

Our only option was the Natural Entrance Tour which is the usual one. Other tours explore slightly different areas of the cave or use only candles like early explorers.

Golden ticket

Golden ticket – no selfie sticks!

Stairs down into the cave.

Stairs down into the cave. It’s a good tour – well lit, easy to walk.

Taking pictures in a cave is weird. Bare with me on these next few.

Taking pictures in a cave is weird. Bare with me on these next few.

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Wind Cave is the 6th longest cave in the world and the densest maze-type cave (measured by passages per cubic mile).

Our tour had about 30 people on it and the ranger was great about telling stories of the cave's earliest explorers.

Our tour had about 30 people on it and the ranger was great about telling stories of the cave’s earliest explorers.

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Those rocky lines are known as boxwork formations. 95% of the world’s known boxwork is in this cave.

It was the first cave to be designated a national park in the world.

It was the first cave to be designated a national park in the world.

My cave photography sucks.

My cave photography sucks.

The flash makes it better

The flash makes it better

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More boxwork.

The cave responds to barometric pressure and so

The cave responds to barometric pressure and so “breathes” with whatever the weather is doing outside. Hence the Wind part of the name.

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After learning聽out about the Sturgis rally and finding no hotels under $500 left in southwest South Dakota, we made the decision聽to drive as far as we could towards Minnesota after the tour. It made for a long day, but we grabbed the last room between Rapid City and Sioux Falls in Oacoma, SD (and shared it still with plenty of motorcyclists):

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643 miles, 3 states, 2 parks, and 1 motorcycle rally

We understandably slept in the next morning and made it to Minneapolis聽in the early evening (another 6 hours away):

Hard to get a shot of this sign as it was past the exit ramp of a rest area.

Hard to get a shot of this sign as it was past the exit ramp of a rest area.

I hope to do a re-cap of our adventures, just in case anyone else is stupid crazy enough to try this. For now, we’re settling into our new home and awaiting the arrival of our things.

In which I’m excited to look around

I have some vacation coming up on Friday and even though we’re not going anywhere, I’m pretty pumped about a four day week. Due to the nature of my program and the need to schedule vacation 6 months in advance I’ve sprinkled my remaining time off throughout these next few months. A few days here, a few days there of some needed rest and wanderings. Seattle is still so new to us, so I’m using this stay-cation as a great opportunity to explore our new corner of the world.

Picture from our road trip, somewhere in Wyoming.

Picture from our road trip, somewhere in Wyoming. Text from one of my favorite hymns.聽

 

Inspiration for the above picture I made from here via Pinterest.

Drive from across Wyoming

The drive across Wyoming deserves its own post – what a varied country!

Distance from Gillette to Yellowstone via scenic Route 16: 541 miles

From outside of Gillette we could see the Rockies in the distance approaching. As someone whose experience with mountains rarely sees them snow covered in summer, I was enchanted and even made Jeff pull off the road once or twice to take pictures.

Rockies in the distance

We crawled up through Powder River Pass (elevation 9666 ft) and found snow!

And then we slide down this huge gorge:

to a flat area of land I can think to give no other description than it looked like it was straight out of the Xbox game Red Dead Redemption:

A very dry and stark contrast to the lush green we had just traveled through.

We reached Cody, WY – home of the rodeo, but didn’t stop to see a show because we still had another hour and a half of driving through Buffalo Bill State Park to get to the Eastern entrance to Yellowstone. The entrance to the State Park features a huge dam built in 1905 that has created a huge lake in the mountains. That and the large rock faces along the road made for a very scenic drive into Yellowstone.

Drive into Yellowstone

In the tiny enclave of Wapiti I got pulled over for speeding where the limit had dropped down from 65 to 45 for a brief stretch. The officer was really kind when we explained we were moving across the country and not only didn’t give me a ticket, but wished us a good trip in Yellowstone! Whew!

Sorry this has been mostly pictures of landscapes, but it serves as justification why you should try to drive across the country at least once in your life. This beautiful land is so diverse, even within one state!

Sightseeing

North Platte, NE -> Gillette, WY

We did a lot of sight seeing across the midwest and Black Hills today! Fortunately the weather forecast of “abundantly sunny” at the hotel in Nebraska was dead on. We started off in North Platte at the world’s largest train yard.

Entrance

You could go up in the “Golden Spike” and get a 360 degree view of the entire area.

View from the top

Something like 139 trains and over 14,000 cars pass through here daily. We were impressed by the shear scale of the thing – one train was continuously going through while we were there and we never saw the end of it.

From there we headed north (if the little directional display in the Jeep says either N, W or NW on it – we’re doing things right) through the hills of northern Nebraska. This is what several hours looked like:

Mostly these were grazing lands and they looked like the small mounds on the edge of some golf courses. Our course took us on what can still be considered highways, but not interstates. If you’ve got the time to make it across the country I suggest taking these “back roads” – in which you still get to speed down around 75 miles per hour, but you get to see more than you would taking I-90. You will be out in the middle of nowhere though so anytime you see a gas station you should fill up (even if you’re at half a tank or so) since you never know when you’ll see the next one. I’m not sure even AAA can save you out here.

We crossed into South Dakota:

And spent the better part of several hours traveling through the Ogala Sioux Indian Reservation. I’m not a hundred percent sure that’s where we were, but there were a lot of signs for “Sioux Indian Fund Housing” and “Sioux Food Distribution Site” – again, things you’re not going to witness barreling down an interstate. Several small clusters of buildings advertised “Authentic Native American Artifacts and Souvenirs!” Well I’m pretty sure most of those “authentic” pieces were made in China…

Finally we hit the Badlands, a place I’ve always wanted to visit since seeing my grandparents’ pictures of their trip twenty years ago. On one wall in their living room they had a spectacular picture of these weird formations eroded out of the prairie and we found that exact spot!

From the same spot where my grandmother took her picture!

Such a weird, cool area! As were were driving out of the park towards Mount Rushmore we saw a lot of people at this roadside stand. We had passed it up originally thinking it was a place for more “authentic souvenirs” but then saw what they all were looking at. Prairie Dogs!! They are ridiculously cute. 聽You could buy peanuts to feed them but we settled on trying to entice them with their native meal of dandelions. Jeff got some great video I’ll figure out how to post later. 聽I know they’re just glorified rats, but in his words, “The rule is if you have a furry tail: cute. If you don’t have a furry tail: you get hit with a shovel. Sometimes there just has to be a dividing line. That’s life”.

Adorable!!

After the cutest detour ever we headed to Mount Rushmore.

The place kind of rips you off in that it is $11 to park and you don’t get to use your America the Beautiful pass (which gets you into all the National Parks for a one time $80 fee for a year). If all goes according to plan in my life I hope I never have to drive across the country in an unairconditioned car again, so $11, while steep for parking, is a small price to pay so I never have to say “Well yeah, we drove across the country and saw all these cool things. Except Mount Rushmore, we just thought the parking was just too expensive”. 聽Plus, the whole point of building it was to get people to come see it, right?

I’ve started to notice the air here is much drier. When we were hiking around the Badlands I wasn’t sweating as much as I should’ve been for 87 degrees and at Mount Rushmore it was cool and pleasant to be outside. Yay for no humidity!

Our planned itinerary was to stay in Keystone, SD near Mount Rushmore. One look at that tourist trap hell hole that made Cherokee, NC and Gatlinburg, TN seem quaint and wholesome and Jeff and I decided we’d rather sleep in the car. We drove to the next town of Custer. Same thing, but campier (there was a life sized Flintstones themed hotel/amusement park where a bright neon orange color palate was liberally used). The next town was an hour away in Wyoming, so we kept driving.

Rain clouds coming in.

To call Newcastle a dot on the map is generous and the one hotel looked like it harbored one too many bedbugs for Jeff and I so we decided to try once more in Gillette, another hour away.

Driving through Wyoming after the rainstorm

We lucked into an actual town and settled down for the night. Sightseeing has worn us out, but at least we’re two hours closer to Yellowstone tomorrow!