Millennium Mom

Monday, July 15, 2013

Our "priceless" trip of a lifetime

8,500 miles
14 national parks
4 national monuments
7 old friends visited
17 states passed through
32 nights in the RV
10 nights with friends
5 trips to DQ
1 swim in the Pacific
5 swims in lakes and rivers
32 loads of laundry
42 days spent with your kids, parents, and husband visiting the most beautiful places in America...


Badlands National Park - our last stop

We can't believe it has come to this, but today we will visit our last national park - #14 if you lost count, Badlands in Western S. Dakota. We stayed at another KOA last night, this time outside of Hot Springs.  We didn't go to the hot springs, given we did that in Washington state, but we did pass through downtown which is famous for its sandstone buildings (I hope I got that right).  It was quite pretty, here is City Hall.

Next we did a sight detour (if you count getting off the highway a detour) to Wall Drug.  If you have driven through S. Dakota I am guessing you stopped there, the highway signs are just so alluring - like S. of the Border on Rt 95 down the east coast (though my parents never let us stop there).  We decided to give it a go.  It was a bit of a disappointment, quite touristy, but oh well, we can say we did it.  The donuts were pretty good at least, and the picture of Sarah is priceless.

Next stop was Badlands.  Badlands got it's name because of how "bad" the folks who first saw it said the land was.  It felt like they picked up S. Utah or Arizona and plucked it down in S. Dakota.  It looks like a dessert and was hot like a dessert.  But of course this was very strange, as it is surrounded by miles and miles of prairies, and then you have these mountains in the dessert.  We entered from the NW, so there was a great drive that was "above" the mountains per se, made it look more like the grand canyon, without the canyon, just sunk down.  We saw lots of bighorn sheep females and their young on the mountain tops, it was pretty cool.  We also saw a mom from Florida fall down the mountain..not fun.  She just couldn't stop, and she scraped herself up pretty good.  We tried our best to help clean her up using water, and our first aid stuff from the motor home, but she was pretty hurt.  We ran into her later at the visitor center where she had visited the medic on staff.

The park has a northern rim drive and southern drive.  The south part is co-run with the local Indian reservation.  We did the entire north drive, stopping at various look out points.  At each one there we signs saying beware of rattle snakes...not fun, as I am very afraid of snakes, but thankfully we didn't see any...remember it was like a dessert.  Here are some different views from around the park.

These next pictures I took to give you a sense of what the surrounding area looked like.  The one with the RV in it is looking back from a boardwalk that you hike on, so you can see it is prairies across the street.  The other is as we were driving East through the park, in between the mountains you had this flat grassland area, so strange.  The rangers at the visitor center said they believe it looked like the African Savannah at some point in time, and that is why they have so many fossil remains from animals there, because suddenly something changed it all.

It was too bad that it was so hot, as there were places you could climb around.  In some ways this was good, as the kids could have gotten hurt, as they love to climb, but it was unbearable to be outside for too long.  We would even turn the generator on and run the AC for Henry that is how hot it was.  They did climb in this one shot, at least Ben and Claire and a nice boy took our pic for us at the Fossil walkway.  They had tons of fossils in cases that were found around here.  Here is a pic of one of them.

 Our last stop was the visitor center and then the "sign" to take our pic like we always do.  We didn't catch it on the way in, so had to stop on the way out of course.  The visitor center had a great video explaining the park and how odd it is really.  They also have a live fossil lab where they work to get the ground/sand off of fossils and show you, it was pretty cool.  Ben is standing next to an image from one of our hikes that shows all the animals that used to live there and fossils have been found.  While they don't actively dig the park, like all parks, if a visitor finds a fossil they will dig around it.  One time a couple found a fossil under a picnic table, and the "great pig dig" ended up lasting for over a decade, that is how many fossils they found.

So we were done, it was about 4pm and we were SAD!  I made a few phone calls as we just felt so sad to be driving home and not to another great adventure. 

I drove until dinner, where we stopped at Al's another famous S. Dakota landmark.  Then Arnie took over and we drove until midnight where we stopped in Sioux City, Iowa at the local WalMart, our first time staying at one (for those non RVers, WalMart and Sam's welcome RVs and tractor trailers in their parking lots overnight).  The next day we cruised through Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and made it home around 10:45 pm EST.  Believe it or not, this entire trip, over 8,500 miles, we did not hit ANY TRAFFIC due to construction until the West side of Cincinnati, at 10pm at night...go figure.

But we were home safe and sound in one piece. 
Tomorrow we will spend all day cleaning the RV, doing laundry, and re-packing getting ready for phase 2 of our summer adventure.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Mt Rushmore, Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park

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 :(

Yellowstone Day 4 and Cody, Wyoming

Tuesday July 9th

I realized today I should have date stamped these entries to make it easier to follow and to help our memories as we look back on our trip, better late than never.

We slept well last night, boys with us, so one less child, made going to bed easier for sure, we didn't have to make up any beds (Ben sleeps above the driver, so it always remains a bed, and it is huge so Austin slept with him).  The nights are quite cool here so it is great sleeping conditions.  We are nice and put the heat on in the morning, usually Arnie turns it on when he goes for his morning run with Henry, this  warms it up for all of us making getting out of bed a bit easier.

We have about half a day left in Yellowstone before we head to Cody, Wyoming this evening...more to come on that.  Our plan was to take a 10:30 ranger led tour of the West Thumb geysers, but that didn't quite work out.  Kelley read about a short 1 mile hike to a natural bridge down by the lake, so we detoured to do that.  It was well worth it, but definitely longer than one mile.  In the ranger station it said 2.5 miles, and we don't know if that was one way or round trip.  The hike takes you to the view from below the natural bridge, then a steep switch back takes you to the top.  The group let Sarah and I hike up and report back to them before they all headed up.

So we got some snacks in the store by the marina, and found a cool shirt (that each family bought one of) and then headed South to the West Thumb area.  But of course, animal sighting...we saw more Elk, and these guys were it was worthwhile to stop and see them.  There were 3 total, one was laying amidst dead trees which was a cool shot. You might say to yourself - "haven't they already seen elk" and the answer is yes, but these things aer so majestic and huge, you just want to stare at them all day long.  I can't begin to describe how HUGE their racks are.  I can only imagine what the moose look like (I have seen a moose in the wild once, in Main back in 1994, and I was scared to death).

We finally made it to West Thumb at 11:30, only an hour late.  We did our own tour around the boardwalk that surrounds the geysers.  What is unique about these geysers are - 1) they are clear, you can see through them; 2) they are really deep and visible to the eye; 3) some of them are in the lake!!!  It was a great little stroll and so beautiful as it was on the lake.  I was jealous of the kayakers you see in one photo, I wish we had done this but with the five of us we can't, Ben isn't quite old enough to go on his own, and three person kayaks don't exist.  Soon we will be able to do a family vacation with kayaking. 

After a picnic lunch in West Thumb we headed back to Fishing Bridge to pick up our RV and take Henry for a walk before heading out the East entrance of the park to Cody, Wyoming.  When we planned this trip, everyone said "you have to go to a rodeo in Cody."  It was by far the most frequent thing we heard.  Wyoming is the Rodeo capital of the world, and in Cody there is a rodeo every night of the week all summer long.  We bough the Cody Trifecta ticket which got us a Western dinner, Western music show and the rodeo.  We arrived in Cody around 4pm and walked around town a bit before heading to dinner at 6pm.  The show was done by a family, plus one other gentleman.  They also bussed the tables, brought drinks, showed you to your seats and more, hard working people.  They spend their summers in Cody, but are from Spokane, Washington.  The music was great, amazing fiddling and mandolin playing.

After way too much corn bread for me (a weakness for sure) we were off to the Rodeo.  We were all VERY excited for this, all of our first time.  Boy did we have a blast.  The kids (my girls in particular) didn't like the calf roping, they felt it was very unfair to the calves.  And when we explained what made the horses and bulls buck like the do, they also felt that was cruel.  I thought the boys eyes would pop out of their head when we explained it to them, was priceless look on their faces for sure.  They had all the events - calf roping, bull riding, bronco riding, pairs roping, barrel racing and the clowns of course.  A highlight was a 12 years old girl who won the girls barrel racing event (12 and under) and then also won the women's event...she was so bloody fast.  But the real excitement came three bulls into the event, they could NOT get the bull to go back into the corral after he bucked the guy off of him.  And after about 10 minutes, he jumped the fence!!!  Really did.  The announcer told everyone to stay calm.  He was in a staging area per se where the riders come out of when they do calf roping and barrel racing.  But then he jumped that fence and went into the parking lot.  You could tell the announcer was getting a bit anxious now.  They sent every cowboy from the roping events out there and it took about 10-12 of them to rope him every way but possible and "tow" him into the corral they wanted him in.  I don't have any pics of it because I was a nervous wreck.  The funniest thing is when we checked into the RV park later that evening, they guy asked us how we liked the rodeo (he knew were were going because we told him we would be there when it ended) and Arnie told him about the bull.  He is a season ticket holder and went that night, but had to leave early because his brother had a commitment, he was so jealous, he said that NEVER happens and he was bummed he missed it.

After a great night we said goodbye to the Coldiron's.  They would drive back the 2 hours back to Yellowstone and we stayed in Cody for the night.  The RV park had by far the biggest and nicest RV's of our entire trip, it was unreal.  They also had tons of washers & dryers so we decided to do 4 loads of laundry, our last for the trip here...32 in total for the 6 weeks, not so bad, and the best part is we got to do half of them at friends houses :)

Tomorrow we have a long drive through Wyoming over to the Black Hills, next stop Mt. Rushmore.