Saturday, May 28, 2016

Sheridan and the Big Horn Mountains

Leaving the Black Hills, we headed west to the base of the Big Horn Mountains and Sheridan, one of our favorite stops. Wyoming Ridgeline We settled into Peter D’s RV Park for a few days of exploring along U.S. routes 14 and 16 which cut through the towering mountains to the west.  The foothills this time of year are a brilliant green that often contrasted with the dark skies as thunderstorms developed in the mountains and moved through the plains. 
We’re always interested in the history of the West, and so our first stop was Fort Phil Kearny, a state historic site where one of the most memorable incidents involving the Army Fort Phil Kearnyand Indian tribes occurred in 1866.  Ten years before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, members of the Lakota, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes, angered by the influx of settlers and the building of Army Forts to protect them, decided to act.  On the morning of December 21st, a wood-cutting party came under attack about four miles from the fort.  Captain William Fetterman, a Civil War veteran who boasted “Give me 80 men and I can ride through the whole Sioux nation"  (you know this is going to end badly),  left the fort Fetterman Monumentwith 80 men, mostly infantry.  Instead of following orders not to pursue the enemy, he and his men chased a number of Indian decoys over the ridge seen behind the monument.  There, over 1000 warriors waited – and within 20 minutes all 81 were dead.   Captain Fetterman would probably be more widely known if, ten years later, Custer had not led his troops into even a bigger debacle. It’s an interesting story of poor judgment and finger pointing – you can read more here.
Two routes cross the Big Horn Mountains, 14 to the north of Sheridan and 16 to the South.  Of the two, Route 14 is the one with the most difficult climbs, and most RVers use Route 16.  Route 24 climbs quickly and then levels out with wide meadows and distant mountains.  There are plenty of dirt roads to explore and they gave us great views of fast-running streams and distant snow-covered mountains.Bighorn Mountains2
Bighorn Mountains
We passed this interesting formation called Mirror Buttes – you can guess why:Mirror Buttes
Observation PointWe didn’t do any hiking on this trip; maybe because the temperature was in the low 40s and windy but also because of the altitude.  Just before the highway dives down into a valley as the mountains end, we stopped at this observation point, which wasn’t the highest point of our day, but may have been the coldest at 34 degrees.
We didn’t see any interesting wildlife on Route 14, but the next day on Route 16, which is more heavily wooded, we came across these Mule deer, still shaggy from their winter coats:Bighorn Deer
And not much farther down the road, we came across this pair of moose, one a mature bull with just the stub of his growing antlersBighorn MooseBighorn Bull Moose
We always enjoy a stay in Sheridan.  The town is just the right size with ample shopping and dining, but without traffic jams or pollution.  And how could you not be in a good mood walking around town with the friendly people, rolling green hills in the distance, and snow capped mountains on the horizon?Bighorns Above Sheridan
We’re still traveling – check back and see where we’ve been!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A Day in the Black Hills

We’ve been staying at Ellsworth AFB, one of our ususal stops while we catch up on doctor visits and RV maintenance.  The weather has been typical for a South Dakota spring – cool, dreary, and windy.  So when we finally had a sunny day forecast, we headed into the Black Hills for a visit.
We traveled for years, never stopping here, because after all, what kind of mountains could South Dakota have?  Well, the answer is incredibly beautiful mountains with every type of terrain, from rolling hills and green forests, to towering granite spires.  We headed for Custer State Park, a large park that is famous for its Buffalo (Bison) herd.  About 1300 Bison roam the park, and this is the time of year to see the 400 or so calves born this spring. Buffalo Newspaper Picture This season kicked off with the all to often “pet the Bison incident”, when a woman approached a large bull and stretched out her hand to pet its head.  She ended up becoming airborne; first by the Bison, then by a Lifeflight Helicopter.  (Picture from Custer Country Emergency Management).  Each year, despite posted warnings, videos, and advice from rangers, a number of tourists end up being hospitalized after trying to pet or get a “selfie” with a 2000 pound wild animal that can move faster than a horse.   Oh, and has very large, sharp horns.
We started our visit at the one-week old Visitor Center, a new facility with great interpretive exhibits and an amazing wide-screen, high definition theater.  The movie is comparable to an IMax with amazing clarity and sound, and is narrated by Kevin Costner, who has been involved in Black Hills projects since his movie “Dances with Wolves”.
Custer SP BisonAfter the visitor center, we headed for the Wildlife Loop, an 18-mile paved road that winds through the hills, meadows, and forests.  It didn’t take long to find the Bison, and as long as you stay in the car they don’t seem to mind  it you pull up close as they graze.  This part of the Black Hills is an area of rolling hills that stretch to the horizon, and in the distance we could see small groups of Bison and their young:Black Hills Vista
Bison w YoungFurther on, we came around a corner to find this Pronghorn relaxing in the sun. Often mistakenly called an Antelope, the Pronghorn is North America’s fastest land mammal and can sustain speeds of around 60 MPH. They’re truly a beautiful animal, and this guy seemed happy to show off. A bit farther we found one of his harem, a pretty female with unusual horns.Custer SP Pronghorn
Custer SP Female PronghornWe stopped at a Prairie Dog village and watched as the pups ran around under the watchful eyes of their mothers and while the males stood guard like little Meerkats. Prarie Dog w PupBlack Hills Vista2Eventually we left the Prairie Dogs and the Wildlife Loop behind, and headed for the Needles Highway. As we drove, the terrain started to change from the rolling hills to granite mountains. Climbing higher, we stopped often to take in the great views of the mountains and valleys.
Needles HighwaySoon we entered the “needles”, an area of tall granite spires, sharp curves, and one-at-a-time tunnels. Driving this 14-mile stretch is a real test of will and patience during the summer months when it’s Tunnel Warningbumper to bumper. Drivers of large pickups and RVs often fail to read the signs, and when one of them realizes they can’t get through the tunnel it creates chaos as they try to turn around in the middle of a frenzy of cars lined up to get through the tunnel and parked helter-skelter. The tunnels are narrow enough that even smaller cars have to be careful not to scrape their sides; a large SUV can barely fit without leaving its mirrors behind. clip_image009 Finally passing through the last tunnel, the challenges aren’t over – the switchbacks continue on:  clip_image011
We spent most of two summers exploring the Black Hills while volunteering in Spearfish but didn’t scratch the surface of all there is to see and do. And this is a place that you can live the tourist mode by visiting all of the commercial sites, or you can drive the back roads, hike, or fish great trout streams. It’s a magical area, and Rapid City is a great town – so if you haven’t visited, put this on your list!
Finally, we always stop at Sylvan Lake. Another reason for visiting this time of year is that the lake is quiet; during the summer it will be one of the busiest areas in the Black Hills.  We’ll be leaving the area soon and heading West, so sign up on our email list or check back, there’s more to come! Sylvan Lake

Monday, May 09, 2016

Nevada Backroads Part 2–Pioche & Cathedral Rocks

Boot Hill SignTwenty-five miles north of Caliente is the former mining town of Pioche (Pee-oach).  Once a boom town of over ten thousand people and 72 saloons, it’s now a quiet little village of just over one thousand.  Pioche Boot HillThe history of Pioche is fascinating; it’s said that 72 people were murdered before the first natural death occurred, and in the years 1870-71, Pioche accounted for 60 percent of all the killings in Nevada.  Tombstone was more like Mayberry R.F.D. compared to this place!  Our first stop was “Boot Hill” an area next to the current cemetery.  Here, grave markers, with a boot on each one, are lined up with a brief explanation of the person’s fate.  Boot Hill
Mines Above PiocheAbove Boot Hill is an impressive reminder of the mining days, the cables and cars of the aerial tramway that transported the ore from above the town to the mill, across the highway and about one and a half miles away. Pioche MillPioche TranwayThe tram operated on gravity – the weight of the fully loaded cars going downhill brought the empty cars back up. Looking up above the town, you can still see the tailings from the mines, and with just a short drive, we were at the top next to the tramway loading area. Far in the distance, we could make out the smoke stack of the mill. Although a hundred hears old, the cable, cars, and towers look like they could be put back in service today.
Pioche HotelThere are a number of original buildings that still stand today; the opera house, the bank now open as a bar, and the Mountain View Hotel, built in 1895.  Next to the hotel is the “Million Dollar Courthouse”.   In 1871, the county contracted to build the courthouse at a cost of $26,400. In order to raise the needed money, $25,000 worth of bonds were sold at a discounted rate of $20,000. Million Dollar CourthouseBy the time it was completed a year later, costs had escalated to more than $88,000 because of alterations, cost overruns, mismanagement and kickbacks. To finance payment, of the courthouse, the Board of Commissioners issued certificates of indebtedness at a high rate of interest, and by the 1880’s the debt had risen to $181,000. By the end of the century it exceeded more than $670,000. The final payment was made in 1937; four years after the building had been condemned. The total cost of the Lincoln County Courthouse was nearly $1,000,000.  An interesting story and an equally interesting town – much more authentic than  Tombstone and its Disneyland appearance!
A few miles south of Pioche is Cathedral Gorge State Park, an amazing area of fairyland spires, slot canyons, and hiking trails.  Our first stop was the overlook, which gave us a glimpse of the gorge and reminded us of a miniature Bryce Canyon. Cathedral Gorge State Park The formations are the result of soft bentonite clay (like that means anything to us) and easily erodes from wind and rain.   Cathedral Gorge State Park2
Driving past the visitor center (closed for renovations), we stopped at the self-pay station to pay our $7 fee and continued into the park.  The bottom of the gorge is perfectly flat, and the formation walls rise high above:Cathedral Gorge State Park4
You can disappear into one of caves or slot canyons and work your way to top, like this hiker who gave us a great view of the scale of the formations:Cathedral Gorge State Park5
Some of the formations looked like castles complete with turrets:Cathedral Gorge State Park3
Entrance to SlotThere are entrances every few yards into the formations.  Inside, the walls are almost perfectly vertical and have different surfaces, from smooth to textured.  Once inside, the temperature drops significantly .  Since the canyons open to the sky, there was enough sun during our visit to navigate our way through the labryrinth.  If you enjoy visiting a “corn maze” during the fall, you’ll love this place!  But probably not so much if you’re claustrophobic….

Brenda in Slot Canyon

Slot Canyon

Vertical View
This trip taught us once again that some of the most beautiful places are those seldom visited and out of the way.  We’re so glad we spent time here, and will mark it as a place to come back to.  But leave we must, and so we headed north to Ely to once again try and visit Wheeler Peak and the Great Basin National Park.  And for the second time we were shut out by rain, snow, and low ceilings.  But the view from Ely’s Main Street was pretty.Downtown Ely
We’re at Ellsworth AFB just outside Rapid City visiitng friends, finishing up medical appointments, and enjoying the great shopping and restaurants.  The Black Hills are warming up, so we’ll be back with more adventures!

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Nevada Backroads–Caliente

Caliente MountainsLeaving Las Vegas, we traveled northeast on I-15 for a short time then turned north on US 93.  For many miles, the terrain resembled a lunar landscape, but after 60 miles we entered the Pahranagat Valley, a spring-fed ribbon of green grass and lakes.  We visited here last October and wrote about it here.  We were impressed with the area around Caliente, and decided to spend a few days at Young’s RV Park and explore the area.  Caliente Train DepotCaliente is a town of about 1300 that was once a major division line of the railroad, and where ranches furnished hay for the mining camps north of town.  Although no longer a major rail terminal, the most imposing building in town, the train depot, remains and is used as the community center and library.  Downtown CalienteThere’s a small downtown area, a few scattered businesses, and a quiet neighborhood of row houses built for railroad workers.  All of this is surrounded by tall, colorful mountains.  We wondered why the Hot Springs Motel, that advertised mineral spring baths in each room, was boarded up and closed.  It seems that it was owned by the  Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS)  and used by the self-proclaimed prophet Warren Jeffs to perform wedding of teen age girls to older men of the sect.  You can read about it here.
A few short miles from Caliente is the entrance to Rainbow Canyon, a 20-mile drive through a wonderland of multi-colored rocks, towering cliffs, and a Cottonwood lined stream. At the entrance, there are ranches with fields of Alfalfa, but the canyon soon narrows with just a few wide spots that are home to ranches. At each turn in the road, the rock formations and colors seemed to change:Rainbow Canyon1
Rainbow Canyon 6
Rainbow Canyon5
Rainbow Canyon 4At the end of the drive, the canyon widens and the road disappears:Rainbow Canyon End
In the evening, the setting sun turned the canyon walls into brilliant colors.  Driving along a wide, open area in the road,  we were surprised by a small herd of wild horses being pushed across the road in front of us by a white stallion. Unfortunately, they didn’t wait until I could grab the camera, but at least we could admire the changing colors of the rocks high above us:Rainbow Canyon2
Rainbow Canyon3
On another day, we visited Kershaw-Ryan State Park, located in a side canyon just inside Rainbow Canyon. The beauty is amazing, and the facilities are far beyond what we’d expected in a location so far from large cities. The park, a former ranch built next to a spring, has a wading pool, volleyball court, picnic area, hiking trails, and even a Koi pond. All this surrounded by towering canyon walls covered in wild grape vines and shaded by large cottonwoods. The staff plants over 500 flowers in the spring, and there’s a nice, no-hookup campground below. clip_image010
Finally, we’ll leave with this picture of a Long-eared Owl, settled into the crook of a tree, probably getting ready for her young:
We’ve more to tell you about this area, so check back soon!