Custer, SD. Oct. 9
From the top to the bottom. The last three days have seen us go from Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado to Jewel Cave in South Dakota. From mountains over 14,000 feet to a cave 700 feet below ground. Quite a contrast, but at least all three days have been great weather-wise.
After breakfast on Friday the 7th, we said our goodbyes to Jude, Bernie, and Tony (and Lacey) at Crags Lodge in Estes Park around 9:30 AM and we all headed to our homes via different paths and timelines. Our timeline will be the longest. The road out of Estes Park goes down US 34 along the Big Thompson River. This river has flooded several times in the past decades as it goes through a narrow chasm carved through the rock walls, causing great devastation. Most of the residents seemed inured to its past and future destruction.
Supposedly there were two Dunkin Donuts along our route but they were hidden so we had to suffer without a morning food break. The drive up I-25 was busy but with the speed limit normally 75 or 80 mph, the miles flew by. Our first stop was at the Wyoming Visitor Center just inside the border. Normally I don’t comment on these centers but I have to comment since I admired this one. The Visitor Center is only 6 years old and is a stunner. It had the clean bathrooms, etc. one expects; it also had probably the best educational display I can recall observing in any previous travel visitor center. The displays were both educational and entertaining. There was a fine display of travel literature. Finally, the building, while not LEED certified-which costs money-it has incorporated enough features to qualify for silver level LEED. I was most impressed by their use of rammed dirt construction. This is an updated technique that takes natural materials including dirt, and under pressure creating building walls. The walls at the Visitors Center were particularly attractive.
The State of Wyoming has the highest average elevations across the state. As we ventured north and east, we left I-25 for secondary two lane roads. We passed five or six Union Pacific trains backed up waiting to move their loads of coal to other places around the county. This northeastern portion of Wyoming roughly corresponds to the Powder River coal basin; even with the reduction in the use of coal, this is still a large coal mining region. Mining, ranching, and transportation are all key economic drivers in Wyoming.
In these trips, we are observing the vastness of the United States, state by state. In this area, we observe pronghorn antelope co-existing with cattle. The area between Estes Park and Custer SD is forest, ravine, and grassland teeming with life. It is not the urban scene of large cities with craft breweries, artisan restaurants, night spots, art museums, etc. that many travelers prefer to experience.
Our lodging for three nights is at Sylvan Lake Lodge in Custer State Park. The park is in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Black Hills are an area sacred to the Native Americans and had been protected by treaty rights as belonging to them. However, some gold was found in the Black Hills and those treaties were ignored and the European settlers soon had posssssion of the Black Hills which continues to this day.
Our first night at the lodge was interesting. The TV did not work, the HVAC was off, and the bed was really soft. The first two issues were quickly resolved, the last one was resolved on Saturday when we switched to a different room. Chris and I had been here years ago, we remembered great breakfast buffets with delicious bacon. Unfortunately, the breakfast buffets are only during prime time and we are just days away from the lodge closing.
On Saturday and Sunday, we visited two different caves operated by the National Park Service; Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park. I think the best way to describe it is to compare the two caves. They are similar in some aspects, and vary in others. For instance, they are similar in that both were first “discovered” by non-Native Americans when settlers noticed a great rush of wind coming from small holes in sides of ravines. Both started as tourist attractions before being brought under the National Park Service umbrella.
Jewel Cave has tunnels that are wider and taller. Jewel Cave is deeper, and a tour visitor takes an elevator up and down to the tour area. Wind Cave tunnels are narrow, with low ceilings and tight pinch points. In Wind Cave, one walks down a series of steps that takes the visitor to 200 feet below the ground but we get to take an elevator back up. Wind Cave has 95% of the world’s caves formation of “boxwork”. (See the photo description.) Jewel Cave has more flowstone and stalactites and stalagmites due to its greater wetness.
Wind Cave has 30 times as much land area as Jewel Cave. The extra land area at Wind Cave is used as a preserve for wild animals. The combination of prairie, forest, and ravine is excellent sourcing for bison, pronghorn, prairie dogs, deer, etc. Both caves are extremely long; Jewel Cave is the third longest, Wind Cave is the sixth longest in the world.
Finally, scientific studies estimate that both caves may be only 5-10% explored. There may be hundreds of miles left to explore. Since these caves are relatively close to each other, maybe they will find a connection linking the two. Both caves have visitor facilities that were constructed during the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. In Wind Cave, the stairs were constructed with concrete carried in 40 lb sacks by CCC workers. They are still being used. The CCC workers had no access to elevators at that time, but they made the elevator shafts where elevators were later installed for use by visitors.
On both days, we drove several of the scenic tours in the Black Hills. On the Needles Highway, the road drives through several one lane tunnels along curve and switchbacks. The road passes through spire like rock formations. On the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, the road goes through pine forests as it rises to higher levels. This byway also has one lane tunnels but, uniquely, it has one tunnel that frames a view directly of Mount Rushmore. We drove by Mount Rushmore but did not stop in having visited there before.
The Wildlife Loop Road goes for 18 miles through Custer State Park. It took several miles before the animals started appearing but once it began, the animals were constant. The pronghorn are graceful animals. The bison are stunning, magnificent creatures. It was a great 90 minute drive through the prairie and the ravines.
But the best animal highlight occurred on the Norbeck Scenic Byway after passing Mount Rushmore. Two mountain goats were on the side of the road, our only view of any on this trip.
Besides hiking through the caves, we hiked around Sylvan Lake, a small lake with towering rock cliffs on several sides on Saturday. On Sunday, at Wind Cave we hiked out onto the prairie and up to Rankin Ridge. Both views provide vistas all the way to the Badlands including hills, prairies, and forests. Tomorrow we leave to get a closer look at the Badlands, starting a new geologic and geographic view.
Ed and Chris