Happy Birthday NPS!

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The National Park Service was celebrating its 100th anniversary on August 25th and we were looking for a place to celebrate with them. At Teddy Roosevelt South they were having a celebration to release the TRNP quarter, but since we didn’t feel like sticking around there for another 5 days we had to make a different plan. Looking at my trusty map of National Parks we had just a few options within a reasonable distance and not too far off our route. And so we ended up at Wind Cave National Park. Yes, I know we already learned that I don’t do caves, but it’s right near Mt. Rushmore National Monument which is run by the park service and they were supposed to be having cake and ice cream for the anniversary. So from the badlands of North Dakota we dipped down into South Dakota.

Getting another early start we saw deer, pronghorn and coyotes in the fields on the drive south. We drove through Sturgis (thankfully the big motorcycle gathering was a couple of weeks ago) and on to Rapid City. Heading south we entered the Black Hills and the views changed as huge chunks of granite appeared.

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In Elk Mountain campground in the park we found lots of open sites. Most of them were small tent sites or narrow pull offs on the side of the camp road, but we picked one in the back of a loop with some afternoon shade and a little privacy and set out to make camp. Well, 45 minutes later we were still trying to get the trailer level. We tried putting the trailer more to the left, more to the right, further back, further front. Seemed like no matter what we did we couldn’t get it to work. The site was just too far off level and we couldn’t back up onto the huge stack of blocks required. (Seeing the other trailers who came while we were there and talking with the hosts, it seems this is a common problem for this hilly campground.) Well, it was hot and we were getting cranky so it was time to find a new spot.

We ended up in a site on the side of the entrance road. To it’s advantage it had a nicely mown, green grassy area right outside the door and some afternoon shade. It was just a bit disconcerting when a car or trailer zoomed by just a couple of feet from the window. Luckily this was a pretty quiet campground so it didn’t happen too often. As a bonus we had bunny friends nibbling away at the grass every day as well as deer in the campground one evening.

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While we didn’t take a cave tour, we did view the exhibits and check out the buildings made by the CCC. We hiked to an old fire lookout with great views.

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We drove into the nearby town of Hot Springs for lunch and groceries and spent lots of time relaxing at the campground. One day we watched the rain come down, continuing our streak of bringing rain with us wherever we go.

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Mural in Hot Springs

This place brought back memories of a trip to Mt. Rushmore with our daughters in our very first travel trailer and we enjoyed reminiscing as we looked at the old photos. I was in awe of the monument then, and still am now. There’s something about it, perhaps it’s the way the eyes stare out so seriously, or the grand scale of it, or the amazing detail carved out of the rock, but it is awesome.

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On the 25th we were surprised to find free parking at the monument (there is no entrance fee, but parking costs $11) and light crowds. We spent a couple of hours walking the Trail of the Presidents, enjoying the views from different angles, reading about the Presidents, watching the movie and walking through the museum. It was all really cool, but we never did see that cake! Still it seemed like a fitting place to be for the 100th anniversary.

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An amazing display of “paintings” of National Parks done all in duct tape!

Back at the campground I noticed a sign for a special evening program. The Friends of Wind Cave was sponsoring an actor who portrays Seth Bullock, US Marshall of the Dakotas, friend of Teddy Roosevelt and the first supervisor of Wind Cave National Park in 1902. His show was part story and part song, with a good dose of humor thrown in. It  turned out to be informative and enjoyable and they had cake! A nice way to cap off the 100th anniversary and our last night here.

Good and Bad in the Lands of North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park – South Unit
Nights: 4
Hikes: 1
Bug Bites: 0
Meals with family: 1

After loving the north unit we were a little disappointed by the south unit. I kept trying to put my finger on what was different and I’m not sure I ever figured it out entirely, but I think the north unit just felt more personal.

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In the north, you got to get up close to the rocks and the valley was narrower so you felt like you were right in the badlands. The South unit was more vast. It gave you better far reaching views of badlands cliff after cliff, the best of those from the Painted Canyon visitor center on I-90, a worthwhile stop for anyone in the area. In the north the eroded cliffs appeared pyramid-like and more dramatic, while in the south they were more rounded mounds.

Then there were the campgrounds. We loved the quiet, peacefulness of Juniper Campground in the north. The sites were laid out around a grassy oval. Although many sites on the outer edge were in the trees and dark, we had lots to pick from and ours came with grass and views. Our site at Cottonwood in the south was more the dusty, dirt in the trees type. Although to be fair there were a few sites in the campground with great views, especially some of those in the tent area, but since half the sites are reservable and it was busy here you had to take what you could get. It probably didn’t help that it was really hot when we arrived, and there was a huge storm that night with thunder, lightning and hail that kept me awake, but we just didn’t like the south unit as much as we liked the north.

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Still we did manage to find some interesting things. We drove the 24 mile scenic loop and climbed to the high point for a great view. We hiked to the original entrance station (more cool Civilian Conservation Corps handiwork) and to a spot where a coal vein burned continuously for over 20 years.

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Again we saw lots of bison here. In fact one day I looked out the trailer window to see the tail end of a bison running through a nearby campsite. But by now bison are so old hat that when a family told us there were bison near the campground entrance we sarcastically replied “Oh, great.” I later felt bad that perhaps we rained on the kids’ excitement.

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The south definitely is the place to go if you want to see prairie dogs. On the scenic drive you go right through 4 different prairie dog towns. They didn’t do much for me, but it was cool to see a badger popping his head out of a burrow in one of the towns.

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At the visitor center we enjoyed seeing the Maltese Cross Cabin which was originally built for Teddy Roosevelt at the nearby Maltese Cross Ranch. This was the first cattle venture Roosevelt was part of and the log cabin is where he stayed while he split his time between the Dakotas and New York before he built his own ranch at Elkhorn. Inside they have his original writing desk and trunk. In the visitor center they had more of his belongings, including his riding gear.

The visitor’s center and park entrance are in Medora. My niece has worked the last 4 summers in Medora, but I never really knew where it was or what it was all about. The town was started in the 1880s by a French Marquis who named it after his bride. In the 1960s an entrepreneur  turned it into the thriving old west tourist town it is today. It is famous for it’s nightly musical show and pitchfork fondue which, along with most of the town, is run by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation.

While we aren’t much for tourist attractions, we did walk around town a little and enjoy a nice dinner while catching up with our niece. We have the distinction of being the only family to ever visit her here!

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You can just barely see the yellow “weather” rope on the right. My niece knows nothing about its occasional disappearance 🙂

And so, that winds up our time in the badlands. Some good, some not as good, but I can’t really say any of it was bad.

Bears Oh My!

It was our first day at Glacier National Park. We had arrived at the crack of dawn (well, ok, 8:30, but it felt like dawn), circled the campground like vultures and scored a sweet campsite. Some of the sites are just parking spots on the side of the road, but we managed to find a big pull through site with a nice outdoor space and a bit of view through the treetops up to the sky and tree covered slope beyond. We set up the trailer, cleaned the dust off the solar panels from that awful Tally Lake dirt road, ate lunch and read the park brochure they handed us at the entrance.

Figuring the visitor’s center would be a good place to start exploring, we jump on our bikes and head for the bike path. On the signpost is a bear warning sign. Hmmm, wonder what that’s all about.

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Arriving at the visitor’s center, we happen upon a ranger doing a presentation on wildlife encounters. Hey, I wanted to listen to this one. Little did I know I would really be needing it.

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The ranger tells us to stay 100 yards away from bears and explained that the yellow sign on the path means a bear has been spotted in the area. In fact about 15 minutes ago a bear was seen on the very same bike path we had just ridden down. He told us the best thing to do is make noise when you are moving through bear areas. You don’t want to surprise them. A bear bell isn’t enough, you need to talk loudly or clap. Bears usually avoid you if they hear you coming.

But what if you do see a bear? Talk softly to it, give it lots of space and watch to see what it does. Usually they will move away. The chances of being attacked are about the same as winning the Powerball (really???). Do not run because that triggers the bear’s chase response and carry bear spray just in case.

So as we ride back to camp (no bear spray in our possession yet) I’m asking Chuck, how are we supposed to see the bear 100 yards away through all these trees and curves in the path? Well, I’ll just make a lot of noise and hope for the best!

A few days later we decide to take the bike path into West Glacier, just outside the entrance to the park. We overheard the clerk at the rental place tell some folks it was a good ride and you could stop for pie at the restaurant there and I’m always up for pie :). It’s about 2.5 miles of paved path in each direction so we figured it wouldn’t be too bad for our down day recovering from a recent hike. Turns out that when it’s hot out and you have a bit of adventure along the way it can really take it out of you.

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We ride the path which heads through the pines, greenery sprouting up below and sun peeking through from above. The shade feels good and even though there are a few ups and downs we’re creating our own breeze on this hot afternoon and it’s not too bad of a ride. We arrive at the entrance sign and snap our official picture. Then in West Glacier we check out the Alberta Visitor’s Center, mail off some postcards, look through a couple of little shops and decide we’re ready to head back (being good we decide against pie).

First off, there’s a steep hill climbing up from the river’s edge to the main path. Surely that should have earned me some pie! Then as we’re riding through the woods Chuck says he saw something next to the path up ahead and to keep an eye out. So my heart is pounding more as I’m looking but we see nothing and he says it must have just been a shadow. Then all of a sudden he stops and  I nearly ram into him as I squeeze the brakes hard and my rear wheel flies up and my whole bike nearly tips over into a little ditch as he points to the bear about 15’ off the path from us. Back up he’s saying, and I’m trying to get my bike upright so it will go backwards without making too much commotion as the black bear is staring right at us. Hmmm, that ranger said always stay 100 yards away from bears. Now what?

Well not really remembering what the ranger said to do we are frozen and staring right at the bear totally forgetting we’re supposed to talk quietly to him and not stare directly. Another couple on bikes stops behind us. “Whatcha looking at?” she says loudly. Shhh! “A bear,” I whisper. We stay still and he moves just a few more feet into the trees. Chuck decides it’s time to take off. I see him leaving and decide he’s got the bear spray and I’d better follow!

It all happened so fast I really didn’t have time to be scared, but later as we’re talking about it is when I feel my heart start racing. Whew, that was a close one. Forget pie, I deserve a drink!

Virgin Mojito

Into a tall glass squeeze several lime slices (about 1/4 lime) and drop them in the bottom. Add 10 or so mint leaves. You can add a teaspoon of raw sugar if you want. Use the end of a wooden spoon to smash and muddle it all together. Add ice cubes or frozen watermelon chunks. Fill half way with club soda and the rest of the way with filtered water. Stir and enjoy! If you have recently come face to face with a bear and need something a bit stronger, add a shot of white rum. 🙂

National Park #1

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North Cascades National Park – Newhalem Campground
Number of Nights: 5
Hikes: 3
Bikes: 2
Bug Bites: 6

This was an easy first stop for us as it’s one of our favorite places to camp in the summer. Since a wildfire burned parts of the park last summer, one loop of the campground is closed and the remaining sites are all reservable. Now the chances of snagging a spot without a reservation are unlikely on a weekend. Luckily we made our reservation in advance, but could only get 5 nights before the park filled for the 4th of July weekend. Still we packed our time with activities.

On our first full day we took the short walk from the campground through the woods to the visitors center. It’s a worthwhile stop with a kid-friendly display on wildlife in the area, a movie, and a small gift shop. Since we’ve seen all this before our main purpose was to check out nearby hikes and find out about the yearly National Park pass. Before heading back, we walked out the back door and down the short boardwalk to the viewpoint. There we found a ranger with a viewing scope focused on the ice peeking out from the snow on the distant ridge. We took a quick photo before following the the trail back past the campground to a nice view of the rushing Skagit River. If it hadn’t been closed due to the fire damage we probably would have continued on to the Rock Creek Shelter trail.

IMG_1166There are plenty of hikes in the area if you’re willing to take a drive. We have enjoyed Sauk Mountain, Thunder Creek, Diablo Lake, Ladder Creek Falls and others in the past. This time we hiked up Thunder Knob (3.6 miles, 425’ elevation gain). The hike starts out cross a rushing river and then switchbacks through the woods, past a small pond, and up to a rocky outcropping. At the top we found stunning views of snowy peaks in every direction, as well a a view down to Diablo Lake. Another day we took the trail to Lake Ann (3.4 miles, 700’ elevation gain). About half way up we crossed a boulder field with incredible views of peaks all around and wildflowers trailside. We encountered a few areas where the trail was covered in snow or mud or water, but we found our way to this beautiful alpine lake and were rewarded with views of four different waterfalls from the snow melt making it’s was down to the lake. A fellow hiker carried some kind of fishing float on his back and was soon out on the lake paddling with flippers underwater as he fly fished his way across the lake. We could only imagine how cold the water must have felt!

We also got a chance to test out our new bikes with several rides around the campground. After cycling through the loops we followed the dirt road from the campground to the Pump House (interesting signage explains it’s function) and on through the gravel lined “Trail of the Cedars” to cross the bridge into Newhalem. There we rode over for a view of the dam before heading back. Feeling ambitious we biked on to Goodell Campground across the river. We had to follow a faint footpath through the brush and navigate some deep, loose gravel that made the pedaling tough but we made it to this shady “no frills” campground. On this sunny day it didn’t look as dreary as we remembered and we even found a few spots that would have fit our trailer. Given the varied terrain we covered I think our choice of bikes is going to be perfect for our adventures!

This was a nice first stop—comfortable for us and a way to ease into this adventure, but I’m looking forward to getting over the hurdle of finding our first boondocking spot. There is a bit of anxiety that comes with heading into the unknown, but as we conquer each new challenge I’m sure it will quickly fade. Already we feel our stress melting away.

America here we come!

On June 26, 2016 we will pull out of Bothell to start our grand adventure. We’ve sold the house and given away most everything we don’t need or can’t take with us. Our whole life is now contained in our 30′ Airstream International Serenity. Our plan is to explore our National Parks. Along the way we’ll be stopping to see small towns, natural beauty, and anything else that strikes our fancy. It’s bound to be interesting!