June 2018 Badlands and Beyond, Part I


June 1, 2018 –  Phil and I are very fortunate to have careers that give us a lot of time to travel.  Having made reservations at campgrounds in the Black Hills, Yellowstone, Glacier National Park and Banff, Canada back in January, we climbed aboard our classic 1992 Vandura Conversion van and headed west.  All of the tools necessary for camping and hiking were stowed in our pull-behind trailer (another classic), or in totes under our bed in the van.   Phil had taken out the two captains chairs, bench seat and constructed a platform for a queen-sized bed with storage space underneath.

I must admit I was a bit hesitant on spending four weeks or more in such tight quarters, but Phil had his packing strategy down to a science!  After leaving our home in southern Michigan to explore parts of the beautiful western States we know and love, then proceed into the great unknown, we spent our first night at a Best Western in Davenport, IA.

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June 2, 2018 – We got an early start and arrived in Murdo, SD around dinner time.  Securing a room at one of the very few motels, we bought sandwiches at the local Subway and then proceeded to drive around looking for interesting places to explore. 

We chose the main road that led north out of Murdo, drove past one small farm and into the vast rolling, grass-filled plains.  The sun was setting and we were the only people on that quiet, gravel road.   Driving on, we happened upon a small lake lined with cottonwoods and fields of waving, green grass all around us.  Pheasants were crowing loudly in every direction! 

Later that evening, we learned from the manager of the motel that this area of South Dakota was known for this beautifully-colored bird that is very plentiful and brings much-needed revenue…  Pheasant hunting is big business for this mostly rural state.  Phil set up his tripod alongside the road to get some sunset photos.  Such a peaceful, tranquil evening it turned out to be.

 June 3, 2018 – Woke up bright and early and made our way to the Badlands.  I never get tired of seeing this alien-appearing landscape that juts out of nowhere, smack dab in the middle of the rolling plains.  We were arriving earlier than most people with the sun just rising, shining on the many shades of tan and orange pillars that towered above us. 

Sunrise is the best time to travel through the Badlands as the temperature is cooler and there are few people to share the sights and sounds with.  Meadowlarks were singing all around and we watched two coyotes prowling around for rodents, while bighorn females and their newborns lazed about on the rocky outcroppings.

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After taking many photos, we drove on to Oreville campground in the Black Hills.  The campground wasn’t bad as far as privacy goes, but it was right along a main highway so the traffic couldn’t be ignored. 

We dropped the trailer at the campsite and then took a drive to Crazy Horse Memorial where we found out after arrival that we had just missed the yearly Volks March… by 40 minutes!  The first weekend of every June, people are allowed to hike to the top of the stone carving of Crazy Horse.  We will definitely put this on our future “to do” list!

After watching a very colorful, handsome Oglala Sioux couple dance and sing at the memorial, and doing some shopping at the gift shop (LOVE Native American jewelry!), we got back in the Vandura and drove down the Wildlife Loop through Custer State Park.  Bison were numerous and we had the privilege of seeing a mother Pronghorn antelope with her very newborn twins.

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Just off the Wildlife Loop was an interesting looking road called the Needles Highway.  The name sounded familiar from all of the research I’d done planning the month-long vacation.  We decided to explore this road and we were not disappointed!  The views were breathtakingly spectacular and we saw many mountain goats, especially around the Needles Eye Tunnel.  Holy Mountain Goat jam, Batman!!  There is a mineral that trickles down the rock-lined tunnel and the goats just can’t seem to get enough of it.

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After the scenic tour, we drove into Hill City which was a short jaunt from our campsite and had a delicious dinner of rainbow trout, gravy fries and spinach-romaine salad at Desperados Steakhouse.  This endearing restaurant has a cowboy theme throughout, from the widely popular Rustler burger to the jackalopes mounted on the walls.

June 4, 2018 – Today we hike!  There were several hikes I had researched and we were hoping to get at least a couple of them completed for posterity.  Once we started on the Cathedral Spires trail, one led into the other until seven hours later, we had hiked all three! 

It was a warm, dry day, in the low to mid 80’s.  We like it cooler when we hike but we persevered and plodded up the Cathedral Spires, Little Devil’s Mountain, and Black Elk trails.  The sandy, pebble strewn trails sparkled like gold dust! There is a mineral called “mica” sprinkled along the trails and formed within the boulders that reflects the light just like a jewel or precious metal. 

The Oglala Sioux may have been right when they called the Black Hills the center of the world!  It is a very magical, spiritual place that possesses an otherworldly beauty and I feel blessed to have experienced such magnificence.  Black Elk was a spiritual leader of the Oglala Sioux tribe and the highest mountain between the Rockies and Europe is named after him.  It is a holy place for the Native Americans where they go to place prayer cloths all around the mountain peak.

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Our hike into the Cathedral Spires
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Looking down into the Cathedral Spires area
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Cathedral Spires trail
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Phil and I entering Black Elk Wilderness
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Top of Little Devil’s Mountain
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Lamar sitting in front of the lookout tower, Black Elk Peak
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Prayer flags at Black Elk Mountain

June 5, 2018 – After hiking in the heat for seven hours and over 10 miles the day before, we decided to take a day off from strenuous activities and investigate Hill City’s treasures.  Phil bought a Black Hills Gold/diamond engagement ring for me (love the colors in the Black Hills Gold! Reminds me of the stunning brilliance of the rocks and trails we saw on our hike), stuffed bighorn and mountain goat for the grand kids, then sought refuge from the 90 degree heat in an ice cream shop. 

Phil took care of some business while we had wi-fi and we discussed cutting our Black Hills vacay short and heading for the high country… the Bighorns!  Went back to our campsite, hooked up our trailer and drove west to the snow-covered mountains of Wyoming in search of crisp, cool air! 

The Bighorn Mountains are unique in that one can pull off to the side of a back country road and camp anywhere in the National Forest area.  We found the perfect camping spot along Powder River Road where we parked the van and trailer and called it home for the night.  Gorgeous mountain views, no bugs and best of all NO PEOPLE! 

First on the agenda was taking a hike, filling our water bottles, and exploring the area.  We walked up the side of a mountain, over a rocky ledge where we spotted a downed tree that looked like a good place to sit in silence and watch for wildlife.  Not more than 10 minutes after sitting there, we heard movement in the woods less than 100 yards away.  A mother elk and her gorgeous bay-colored yearling calf came out of the treeline and walked towards us until they were 30 to 40 yards away!  They grazed and kept watch for predators, which put us in quite the predicament.  Do we give ourselves away by scratching the itch on our nose, or shifting our weight to ease the pain in our back and neck? 

Unfortunately we didn’t have our cameras on us, but even if we had, they were so close and so wary that we would have scared them away with any sound or movement.  After watching them for awhile, a mule deer came trotting out of the treeline to join them.  The elk pair didn’t mind her company at all.  After about 30 minutes of watching them, we HAD to move!  Momma elk let out a snort-shriek that was so loud it made us literally jump!  They trotted away, then stopped and looked back over their shoulders at us, sizing up just who the intruders might be. 

Our cover blown and the sun beginning to set, we thought it wise to hike back to our van and start a campfire, settle in for the night and watch the stars… listen for night sounds. They were brilliant as they came out, one by one!  With no artificial light to dim their brightness, we witnessed a spectacular canopy above.  A lone screech owl was the only wildlife sound we heard, along with a bird we couldn’t identify.  No coyotes, no wolves, no bears, no mountain lions, just total peace and tranquility…

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June 6, 2018 – Woke up to a beautiful, sunny morning.  Had a quick meal of cereal and coffee because we needed to make some repairs on the trailer… damage caused by rough roads.  After the repairs were made, we hiked through a pine forest dotted with piles of snow, picked our way over snow-melt rivers and climbed to the top of a rock-strewn mountain.  We saw a lot of elk scat and tracks, but thankfully, no signs of big predators.  When we hiked above the treeline, we set up for a photo shoot.  Phil had brought his tripod so that we could get pics with both of us. 

Before hiking back down the mountain, we ate our trail snacks and hydrated with Bighorn snow-melt filtered water.  After getting back to our campsite, we said goodbye to the Bighorns and started our drive to Cody, WY where we had a date with a rodeo. Yee Ha! 

On the drive there, just west of Emblem, WY, we had the privilege of seeing two separate herds of wild horses off in the distance.  Too far out for any decent photos but it is always thrilling to see wild horses in their element! 

Made it to Cody and found a room at the Super 8.  ($145 per night for a Super 8???)  Highway robbery but a necessary expenditure since we hadn’t showered in several days, lol!  We asked the receptionist for recommendations on a good place for dinner.  She recommended several places but the Irma Hotel sounded like a great place to see and experience.  This is the first hotel Buffalo Bill built and he named it after his daughter. 

I had a very tasty salad with a salmon filet but Phil’s burger wasn’t worth the money.  The historical ambiance was worth the price of admission even if the food wasn’t.   After dinner was over, we drove through Cody and out to the World Famous Cody Rodeo!  What a fun time we had there!  I got my picture taken on Mongo, the monstrously mellow Brahma bull. 

Going to the rodeo in the middle of the week was a good move on our part… not many people there.  This was Phil’s very first rodeo EVER and he enjoyed it immensely!  The highlights were the clown and the all girl flag team that performed a routine on horseback.  Both were hysterically funny!  Oh, and the half-time kids’ game that had 30 plus kids chasing two calves with ribbons tied around their tails.  A crowd pleaser and we were glad we took the time to experience the World Famous Cody Rodeo! 

Mongo and me

Tomorrow we would be on the road to destination YELLOWSTONE to see our old friends, the bison, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, grizzly and black bears, and if we were lucky again… the wolves of Yellowstone.  🙂

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