Thursday, October 10, 2019

There Are Golden Treasures in These Mountains!

Leaving the Black Hills, we continued our southwestern journey along the Front Range of the Rockies. Like the early pioneers who made their way west in search of adventure, religious freedom, and gold, we are excited to search out the ¨golden treasures¨ that await us as we approach the foothills of the Rockies.

We passed through Scottsbluff, Nebraska and saw our first hint of changing landscape. The large rock formations making up Scotts Bluff National Monument were important markers for the early travelers of the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails. Today visitors to the Monument can hike along stretches of the Oregon Trail, and hike/drive up to the top of the bluffs and enjoy spectacular views of the North Platte River and surrounding area.

Heading west, we came to Cheyenne, Wyoming where we found another ''golden treasure'' while staying for a few days at Curt Gowdy State Park. 

Golden hills and hiking trails surrounded the campsites along the reservoir. A beautiful sunny day beckoned us to explore the popular trail leading to Hidden Falls.

This park has miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. As we walked along the Crow Creek Trail, the leaves were just beginning to change providing colorful views as we climbed up, around, and through giant rock formations.

We passed by a number of mountain bikers and hikers of all ages. As we got closer to our destination, Hidden Falls, I saw some young hikers returning on the trail. ''Were the Hidden Falls pretty neat?'' I asked one young hiker. He looked back at me as if wondering about the sanity of this old lady. ''They are called 'Hidden Falls' so, of course, you can't see them,'' he replied matter-of-factly. Well, duh!

Yes, as we found out, you have to wade through knee-high, freezing cold mountain spring water to get to see the Hidden Falls. Too cold for Doug to venture much beyond the bend in the creek. We will just have to assume that the elusive treasure is back there just waiting for someone tougher than us to discover it. 

From there we headed south into Colorado where that cold mountain spring water is famously used to make that beloved ''golden treasure'' ... BEER. We met up with our friends, Joanne and Gary for some urban exploration that included a tour of New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, lunch at Golden City Brewery in Golden, and a tour of the Buffalo Bill Cody Museum and Burial Site on Lookout Mountain that overlooks the city of Denver.

Ride 'um, Cowgirl!

From there, we decided to give Baby Beest her first taste of mountain climbing as we drove up to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Our ''golden treasure'' was found with the aspens' autumn colors popping out amongst the forests of green pine as we hiked around Bear Lake.

The four mile hike lead us to Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake with even more spectacular colors and views. It is no wonder that Rocky Mountain National Park is a ''golden treasure'' for millions of tourists including us. Beautiful autumn days like this tend to fill up the park. Our advice for you: Either get there very early in the morning or wait until later in the afternoon if you want to attempt to get to the popular trail heads.

The roads and shuttle lots were very busy midday, but if you can get to a quiet trail, the serene beauty is worth the effort.

After finding a stealthy parking spot overnight in Estes Park (brewery parking lots are our friends), we continued our search for ''golden treasures'' by driving the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway. I am thankful for my skillful driver behind the wheel as we further tested out Baby Beest's mountain maneuverability ... they both passed! The end of this drive brought us into Denver where we connected with friends whose ''golden'' lab brought photo bombing to a whole new level!

Almost to the southern edge of the Colorado Front Range, a stop in Woodland Park, CO would show us the ultimate ''golden treasure'' of friendship.

High school buddies, Diane and I have managed to keep in touch through the years. A few years ago, cancer took her husband, leaving Diane to raise their daughters and keep up their beautiful mountain home. I am in constant awe of her resilience as well as her home fix-it skills. But upon hearing that she had run into a road-block when re-doing her deck, I decided that we needed to pay her a visit ... sort of a personal ''Habitat for Humanity'' project.

Her daughter was eager to learn some of the construction techniques that her dad had been so skilled at. So with Doug as her patient teacher, they worked together to put up the deck railing, construct the stairs, and side the edges of the deck.

Mission accomplished!

Megan and her new rescue dog, Bonnie may just be ready to follow us to our next Habitat for Humanity build!

There are ''golden treasures'' in these mountains! They are revealed in the beauty of the colors ...

... and in the beauty of friendship!

We sure do cherish these ''golden treasures''!

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Gotta Stop at the Mammoth Site!

"Let's stop and see the mammoths!" A few years ago, as we were driving through South Dakota on our way to a Colorado ski vacation with some friends, we heard this request from the back seat of our car. "We gotta stop at the Mammoth Site!" Kaleesha pleaded again. But the snow-covered mountains were calling our names, so Kaleesha didn't get her way ... that time ;-) Through the years, I have always wondered about the lure of The Mammoth Site, so when we found ourselves in Hot Springs, South Dakota last week, we decided that we ...

Gotta stop at the Mammoth Site!

The Mammoth Site and Museum is the world's largest mammoth research facility. Located in Hot Springs, South Dakota, it is a working paleontological excavation site in which the bones of 61 mammoths have been unearthed so far. The land on which the Mammoth Site is located is a prehistoric sink hole. Nearly complete skeletons of mammoths and other animals that became entrapped and perfectly preserved in the sink hole were discovered here starting in 1974.

For a $12 admission fee, we were lead on a guided tour through the enclosed excavation site where professionals, students, and volunteers work meticulously to unearth the fragile bones. The bones are carefully preserved and studied. Plastic models of the ancient bones are produced and pieced together in order to help us visualize the size of these giant creatures.

Diagrams on the walls helped us compare the size of these mammoths to their close modern relative, the elephant.

Remains of other animals including the extinct short-faced bears and American camel, as well as wolves, coyotes, and prairie dogs have also been found and studied. 

Digging up and studying fossils has never seemed really exciting to me, but visiting the Mammoth Site changed all that.

The museum and dig site provided a fascinating look into prehistoric life. How did the animals interact with each other? How were the animal bones used by humans to make houses and other necessary items? Our tour guide, as well as the videos and displays at The Mammoth Site enlightened us on what life was like during these ancient days.

I came to appreciate that this was not just a pile of bones ...

... but a complete skeleton of a mammoth providing a window into our past life here on earth. I can now appreciate Kaleesha's passion for this special place, and honestly join with her in saying ...

You gotta stop at the Mammoth Site!

Now that's a big femur!

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Beauty of the Black Hills

We have been van owners for four months, but because our summer was pretty much planned out ahead of time, we haven't really had the total "van living" experience yet. You know ... boon-docking in the middle of nowhere, going a few days without a shower, scrounging for our next meal. We have enjoyed being "spoiled" by family and friends who allowed us to park in front of their houses and opened their homes, showers and kitchens to us ... Thanks!

Being planned out for the summer meant that we haven't yet experienced the "foot loose and fancy free" lifestyle that van dwellers talk about. But that is about to change as we start our southwesterly migration. We are ready to embrace the "no RV park reservations needed" philosophy and adapt to the "wing it" mentality ... we hope!

At this point as we head west, our only "commitment" is to avoid cold temps and be in Albuquerque for the Balloon Fiesta on October 10. So many areas to explore in between Minnesota and New Mexico ... Where do we begin?? The Black Hills has always intrigued us when we drove past them on our way to ski vacations in Colorado and Montana. Time to explore the beauty of the Black Hills!

No trip on I-90 across South Dakota is complete without the obligatory stop at the World's Only Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. After a boon-docking night at Cabala's, we buzzed into town and paid our respect to the agricultural wonder. Each year a theme is chosen, and the new corn murals are created using 325,000+ ears of dried corn. Twelve different types of corn is used in order to produce the different color hues needed for the murals.

All the corn cobs are cut in half lengthwise so that they have a flat surface in which to nail them to the building. 1.5 million nails are used in the decorating process. The newly decorated palace is ready for the public in early November of each year. Area birds also eagerly await the new designs as they enjoy eating the corn. Thus, the Corn Palace is often referred to as "the world's largest bird feeder".

As we continue down I-90, the "Wall Drug" billboards keep us quite entertained. There are lots of "tourist traps" in the vacation mecca that we are heading to, but we try to avoid the "not so legit" ones. I'm glad that Doug found a "little known and totally worth it" stop at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site just east of Wall, South Dakota.

The free museum is located on the north side of I-90 near the Badlands National Park. Inside videos and displays tell the story of the Cold War years and how the South Dakota prairie became "hiding places" for hundreds of nuclear missiles always on alert to protect our nation from Russia's nuclear missiles.

Our advice ... skip Wall Drug and instead treat yourself to a history lesson where it becomes clear that "the only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used." President Ronald Reagan

Next stop ... Baby Beest's first National Park, the Badlands. After driving along the Badlands Loop Road, hiking a little, and taking in the amazing views of the peaks and valleys, it was time to try out some rougher roads.

Herds of bison greeted us as we made our way along a 12 mile washboard gravel road leading to our first "dry camping" experience at Sage Creek campground. This free campground has no water, no electricity, and only a vault toilet, but the beauty and solace that surrounded us made it all worthwhile.

This prairie dog was just "slightly" annoyed that we used one of his mounds to help level our van!

The next day, twisty roads and upward climbs greeted us as we made our way into Rapid City to seek out a craft brewery after our night in the wilderness. But first it was time to take our folding bikes out and explore the city.

As we biked along the trail that runs alongside Rapid Creek, we had another amazing find.

Here in the middle of small town America are two 12 feet tall sections of the Berlin Wall ... another sobering reminder of the difficulties of the Cold War.

As we continued our ride down the trail, I was amazed to see the vast stretches of gardens and green spaces ... and then I remembered. In June of 1972, a devastating flood wiped out a large portion of Rapid City. Modest homes, trailers, and businesses that sat close to the banks of Rapid Creek were demolished when the flood waters rushed out of the Black Hills in the middle of the night. 238 people lost their lives, and the city was forever changed.

A cross on the hillside ensures that people never forget. And the beauty of the parks, golf courses, ball fields, and bike paths help the citizens to see the beauty that can come out of tragedy.

Our next stop was Custer State Park which is a famous "home" for bison and other wildlife. We knew we were in the right place when we encountered a traffic jam of the more natural type.

Alas, the bison would not be greeting us, because they were being corralled in preparation for the upcoming "Buffalo Roundup". Each autumn the roughly 1300 bison in the park are gathered up and examined, and the herds are thinned out in order to keep a healthy balance of the wild animals in the park. The weekend festival attracts thousands of visitors, so we spent only one day at the campground and got out before the "herd" of tourists arrived.

Getting out meant a ride on the famous Needles Highway complete with massive granite spikes along the road, twists and turns ...

... and tight maneuvers through the three tunnels cut through the rocks. When this highway was designed and built in the 1920s, I am sure that they never envisioned tiny "homes on wheels" trying to fit through the tunnels. Doug did his research the evening before, and when he saw that another Hymer Aktiv owner had successfully made it through the smallest of the tunnels (8 feet 4 inches wide and 12 feet high), he knew that he needed to try it also.

I was grateful that we arrived relatively unscathed at Sylvan Lake which we were able to hike around and take in the beauty of more massive granite rock formations.

While in the Black Hills area, there are a few iconic sights that one must see. Luckily, we had visited Mount Rushmore a few years ago, because I heard that the thousands of visitors heading to the Roundup were visiting the famous presidential memorial beforehand.

Instead we visited the Crazy Horse Memorial. Started in 1939 by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, the carving on the mountain continues to progress at a very slow pace. The $12 admission to the memorial not only supports the mountain carving, but also helps with the advancement of the Indian culture by supporting the Indian Museum of North America and the Indian University of North America.

The mission of the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation is to protect and preserve the art, culture, and traditions of all North American Indians.

The promise of a brighter future shines in the faces of Lakota Indians like Starr Chief Eagle who shared with us the stories of her culture and performed a traditional hoop dance using 25 hoops.

Korczak's sculpture may be far from complete, but his motto, to "never forget your dreams" lives on with the help of the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation.

As any good tour guide should do, I need to fill you in on the craft beer status in the Black Hills area.

Sick-N-Twisted Brewery and Naked Winery in Hill City combine a number of culinary delights under one roof. Here beer and wine lovers unite and celebrate their new common ground as they feast on some amazingly good pizza. It is a winning place for all ... including those who collect coasters (Doug snagged one) and those who need a place to sleep (we had a quiet boon-docking spot afterwards in their parking lot).

I was faced with a big dilemma when we walked into Lost Cabin Beer Company in Rapid City. I love my Scotch Ales ... but I love "barrel aged" even more. I knew a flight of four was in my future as soon as I walked in the door. Doug "took one for the team" when he declared himself the designated driver and let me enjoy all four teeny, tiny and oh-so-good beers ;-) 

A 25 mile bike ride under pine forests and through granite tunnels on the George S. Mickelson Trail concluded our travels through the Black Hills of South Dakota. During our few days here, we just scratched the surface of discovering all the possible biking, hiking and nature adventures available in the Black Hills area. But hopefully we have intrigued you enough to someday seek out your own beautiful moments in the Black Hills.