Thursday July 11th - Day 39
After nice hot showers in the morning (it is quite funny how different they all are, from drizzling to this one which felt like the water was being shot out of a canyon), a stop at the post office (yes, I am a post card sender) and gas of course (7.5 miles to the gallon, we do that a lot) we headed East again.
The first part of the drive was beautiful over a mountain range at one point . Just as we were about to descend down the mountain, we saw a hand glider setting up his gear at a look-out point. We decided this was as good of a point as any to have lunch, so I began to prepare lunch as Arnie walked Henry and struck up a conversation with the gentleman. A large crowd ended up gathering to watch him take off in the end, and Arnie ended up driving his van down the mountain for him. We left it where he told us, but we couldn't find him anywhere (in the air or on the ground).
The rest of Wyoming was not so picturesque. It looked much more like Utah than Colorado, dry and dessert like, and lots of shades of brown/tan. We were excited to get to S. Dakota and the Black Hills it was a great change of scenery. We had not really planned out our last week until mid-way through the trip, and even with that it was "where" we wanted to be each night, but not the specific RV park. We booked Cody 2 days before and still had nowhere for tonight. During our last elk viewing we got talking to a nice family from Boston. It ended up she used to live in Cincinnati, in Anderson where we live, what a small world. They said "they wished they had stayed at the KOA near Rushmore", so we thought, heck lets try there. We had not stayed at KOA at all so far, they are the most expensive because they have the most amenities, but we mostly are staying at places to sleep and take a shower, not to "vacation." But this place you could have spent a week at - the had a water slide, 2 pools, jumping houses, climbing wall, jump mat, water park where it sprays on you, a "mining" area for kids, candy hunts at night, a pub, ice cream shop, horse stables for rides, you could rent golf carts and more. There were over 500 RV sites, plus hundreds of cabins, it was a small village and the kids were in heaven. The problem was we pulled in around 7:30. We still got in some put-put, giant checkers, candy hunt, bouncing around and basketball. Here are some pics.
The best part is that it was only 6 miles from Mt. Rushmore. We got there at 9am and were very excited. You could see it from the road, which surprised me, not sure why. It also surprised us that you had to pay for parking, and there was no park admission, but yet our National Parks pass didn't work, it was annoying for sure. Not sure why the gov't would give up money TWICE - for parking (it was privately owned) and for entry...god knows they need it and 3MM people a year go there. The monument was breath-taking, truly amazing. I can not imagine how the person imagined it, or how they did it, even after watching the video. And this was done 80 + years ago. The history lesson was great for all of us, I am sure I am going to get this wrong, but the four Presidents were picked because they represent Liberty (Washington), Freedom (Lincoln), Growth (Jefferson) and Prosperity (Roosevelt).
After the video we did the loop walk down to get a closer look. While on the path they also had more detail on each President. I had no idea that Jefferson lost so many children at a young age, it was quite sad really, and his wife died with the last childbirth (only two children lived past toddler age, and one past 25 - his first daughter). Also am curious how Lincoln became a lawyer when he had no formal education, I wish they had routes like that today, would save a ton of money for sure. I loved getting a more up close perspective from below of the carvings, made me even more in awe.
After a great few hours it was time to head out, this time South down to Custer State Park. We were a bit bummed as we could not do the Needles highway through the park. This was recommended by everyone who came into Yellowstone from S. Dakota. But, there are plenty of tunnels and the RV was too big, and because we didn't pull a car, we didn't have any options. Oh well. We also decided to skip Crazy Horse. The head is finished and you can see it from the road, and we really wanted to see more wildlife in Custer and get down to Wind Cave national park (that we didn't even know existed prior to this trip).
Custer is a beautiful park in the Black Hills. Besides Yellowstone, they are the only park with a Bison population. They were re-introduced here in the early 20th century with help from Yellowstone and the Bronx Zoo and they flourished, so there are a ton of them. We pulled off at a nice lake to have lunch. It was really hot here, upper 90's which we had not been in since the dessert, so the kids were having a hard time. They had a great time playing in the little beach there, and just hanging out building a volcano in the sand.
The bison here were slightly different here, in the fact that they were smaller in size than Yellowstone, and the herds stay close together and close to the road. Check out these pictures, it was unreal how many and how close they were. The signs were the same as in Yellowstone, saying how dangerous they are, but yet people still walked around close to them.
There was other wildlife in the park as well - we saw tons of prairie dogs, a wild donkey (I forget the right name and Arnie is on the phone right now), and pronghorns. The prairies were quite beautiful, and certainly reminded me of watching Little House on the Prairie for sure.
From Custer we headed down to Wind Cave national park. When we left Cincy we had no plans to go to Wind City, because we didn't know it existed. I bought a National Geographic book on the national parks back in CA at one of the bookstores, and we saw it in there, as well as on the map of the Black Hills that our friend Allan gave us. Also, Ranger Patrick from Yellowstone does winters at Mt Rushmore and he said it was awesome, so off we went. We pulled into the parking lot at 4;15 and had no idea if we could do anything. The kids were sleeping so Arnie ran in and got us tickets for the 5:30 tour. We went in and watched the video at 5pm and then headed off with Ranger Mary Beth for our tour.
Wind Cave is the 7th oldest national park - who knew? It was discovered by two brothers in the late 1800's who were gold prospectors. But the real person who made the country aware of it and led to it becoming a national park was Alvin McDonald - he had discovered 9 miles of cave in his time exploring. Today there are 130 miles known to the parks service, but they think this may only be about 5% of the total cave based on some wind studies they do. It is called Wind Cave because of the strong wind that comes out of the hole above. This is how it was found, the brothers heard a noise coming out of the mountain and found this hole, and it is windy. Strongest wind clocked was 70 miles an hour coming out of it.
There are three "levels" to the cave, top, middle and bottom. So you can be walking above or below someone. The tour we did was the middle level and it ended with us 220 feet below ground. There is an elevator that brings you back up. It is about 55 degrees underground. The cave is so unique, like nothing I have ever seen. It is very dry, so no stalactites or stalagmites. Instead they have what they call boxwood formations which were so cool. I am sure my pictures don't do it justice, so for sure google it to get some great looks.
all in all it was a great visit and we wish we had more time to explore but that was the last tour and we are off to Badlands tomorrow, our last park :(