Day 17 – Western Nebraska to the East – Nebraska Sand Hills

After a good night’s sleep in Scotts Bluff, we headed out to continue our trip eastward towards home. The purpose of coming further north in Nebraska before heading east was pretty much two-fold. First, it gave us a chance to explore the western reaches of the Platte River valley; generally, our trips back and forth between Sussex and Colorado stayed close to the interstate, which swings away from the river at Ogallala. Second, I really wanted to drive through an area of Nebraska called the “Sand Hills”.

As I researched the region, it became more intriguing. I always thought of the “Sand Hills” as simply a rolling countryside, similar to what you might find in central Wisconsin. Wrong! The region, relatively large (covering over one fourth of the state of Nebraska), is essentially a natural area of grass stabilized sand dunes, probably the base of a huge inland sea that used to cover the great plains in prehistoric times.

I initially expected the area to be a huge farming area, but I found the region was long considered effectively a desert. There are reports that most of the Sand Hills have never been plowed. In the late 1800’s cattlemen started to discover the region as good rangeland; it’s still a large, productive cattle ranching area today.

It was an interesting drive despite being a somewhat desolate area. Knowing that the rolling hills were grass covered sand dunes gave the scenery a whole different context.

Along the way there were a few things that caught our attention. Apparently, the Sand Hills were an important pot ash source during the first world war.

A desolate, near forgotten, family grave yard also caught our eye.

Unlike our typical trips across Nebraska on the interstate, where trucks and cars were our constant company, the bulk of our company through the Sand Hills were the coal trains from the Wyoming coal fields that snaked along the rails that bordered the highway.

We quietly traversed the state through the Sand Hills, pulling into Grand Island late in the afternoon. Our route gave us an opportunity to see a side of Nebraska that we had not seen before, and a new appreciation for the vastness of the Great Plains

After a good night’s sleep, we’d be back on the road to Wisconsin via our typical route along the interstate through the rest of Nebraska and Iowa. We’d wrap up our inaugural retirement trip with almost three weeks on the road and a taste of the traveling we could plan now that we didn’t have time constraints.

Scotts Bluff Nebraska – Learning More About the Trails of Westward Expansion

I’ve always preferred driving to and from Colorado on I80 through Nebraska. The road, at least to my liking, is a bit more scenic and the towns do have some history to explore if you take the time to really visit.

One of the reasons for the history is that the Platte River valley was a virtual highway for the westward expansion of the United States. Several major trails, notably the Oregon and Mormon, followed their path west along the Platte before they broke across the continental divide in the South Pass region of Wyoming. The route was also a major westward route for the Pony Express system.

The Scotts Bluff area is especially interesting because there are two major rock formations that provided early frontier travelers major visual milestones on their trek west. Both Scott’s Bluff and Chimney Rock, with their iconic shapes and size, provided the travelers evidence that they were closer to their goal of passing over the continental divide and entering the western frontier.

Scott’s Bluff National Monument gave us a chance to get another stamp in the National Park Passport as well as see the bluff exactly as early travelers would have seen it as they passed on the trails at its base.

Just east of Scott’s Bluff is the other icon that early westward travelers watched for: Chimney Rock, now a National Historic Site operated by the State of Nebraska. The roughly 300 foot tall spire juts from the plains and provides an easily identified trail marker.

Both of the park facilities had newer museums that provided an in-depth view of the early trails and the life of the early travelers as they made their way west in wagon trains. We also found several interesting trail markers commemorating those who made their way west on those early trails.

Overall, our side trip to the western edge of Nebraska was an interesting look back at our heritage of westward expansion.

Day 16 – Pawnee National Grasslands to the Platte River Valley

Our normal route on the road home from Colorado involves zipping through the scrub ranch land of eastern Colorado on I76 to join I80 as it catches the southern edge of the Platte River valley in southern Nebraska and follow I80 pretty much all the way through Iowa before swinging north into Wisconsin.

We’ve made the trip more than a dozen times, and it has gotten a bit “ho-hum”. I still like the scenery and we do occasionally find some new things along the way (for example the use of the Platte valley as a resting place during the spring Crane migration and one of the largest rail classification yards (Bailey Yard) in North Platte), but I wondered what else could be found in northeastern Colorado and a bit further north in Nebraska.

After delving into maps and possible routes to go northeast from Longmont, we settled on a route up through the Pawnee National Grasslands and then due north through the western edge of Nebraska to the Scotts Bluff National Monument. Our though was to maybe do some bird watching in the grasslands and pick up another stamp in Kathy’s national park passport at the Scotts Bluff Monument,

The route also set us up for a trip east through Nebraska along part of the Platte we hadn’t traveled and into an interesting area of Nebraska called the Sand Hills that I found intriguing.

On our last morning with the kids in Longmont, we had a nice breakfast with them. After helping with cleanup, we hit the road intending to get to Scottsbluff Nebraska by the evening.

It turned out to be an extremely windy day in the grasslands, with sustained winds easily 30-35 MPH and gusts as high as 45 MPH. We did travel the bird watching route anyway. It was a slow trip because of gravel roads, but the overall ride and scenery was awesome.

I’ve not been in an area so open and hilly, with no trees but thick prairie grasses flowing with the wind as far as you can see. We drove on the gravel roads alone, no other cars, no people, just the sight of the tall grasses running to the horizon and meeting the clear blue sky, the only sound the wind whistling through the grass.

Again, I was impressed by the vastness of the US, the open land. And then I thought of this land how the Indians likely found it, studded by thousands upon thousands of hulks of brown buffalo fur, to them an apparent endless supply of sustenance for lifetimes and generations. Now gone, none to be seen.

But still, there’s the land

On one hand, the vision is enriching and it inspires awe. On the other it’s sad, almost gut retching, considering how the land is almost wasted since the destruction of the natural resource that the land supported.

We left the grasslands and cruised just about due north along the edge of Nebraska towards Scotts Bluff, where we planned to spend the night.

Day 7 and Beyond – On to Colorado To Visit the Kids

We left Sundance the next morning for the last leg of our extended journey to Colorado to visit the kids in Longmont. It had been a good and enjoyable trip out, but it was going to be nice to get to Longmont to visit our expectant daughter and son-in-law. First, though, we had to get through Wyoming and the northern part of Colorado along the front range.

Leaving Sundance, it didn’t take long to hit the landscape that I associate with the word “Wyoming” – generally flat, few if any trees, wind torn brush, and only an occasional sign of life. “Barren” is the word that comes to mind, land that looks useless and of no real value except to exist and fill space.

I know better…this is cattle country with a huge economic value…but it still looks barren and forlorn and seems to go on forever. Maybe I just need to get to know the state better, visit more often and spend time investigating it’s good side and what it has to offer.

Once we crossed the Colorado state line and drove about another 25 miles into the state, we started see more development and some green farming (thanks to water runoff from the mountains and irrigation). We also made our mandatory stop at the state visitor welcome center in Fort Collins to pick up information on attractions.

(The stop at the first visitor center we find in every state we travel through is an old habit that hasn’t quite died; when we traveled with the kids as youngsters, we always stopped at the welcome centers to collect brochures and maps for places to go and things to do. I know it’s really not necessary in today’s internet age, but, like I said, old habits die hard and this old man still likes the look and feel of a glossy travel brochure).

We got to the kid’s house in Longmont later in the day and settled in for our somewhat extended stay.

The Visit With The Kids

Since we were retired now, we could stay a bit longer that we may have otherwise. In all, we visited for eight days (nine nights). It was a great opportunity to visit and talk to the expectant parents and help them a bit with some of the “getting ready” steps. Dave’s parents also stopped for a couple of nights on their way home to Atlanta, so it gave us a chance to renew our acquaintance with them since we hadn’t seen them since the wedding in July of 2016.

We also had a chance to get down to Denver so Kathy could visit her favorite stitching store. We also discovered that Longmont was home to about four different RV centers, giving us a chance to see many different trailers to consider as options for future camping trips.

The weather during our stay was generally great, cool but clear and sunny, except for a surprise early fall snowstorm one day that dumped about four to five inches of snow along the front range. It was short lived, though, melting quickly by the next day.

The nice weather allowed opportunity to get out for a nice walk around McIntosh Lake with Dave and Becky and Liz and Wayne (Dave’s parents) the weekend we were all at the house together. Located in northern Longmont not far from the kid’s house, the lake and surrounding green space provides fantastic walking opportunities with great mountain views and bird watching.

Kathy was elated to go on shopping trips to help Becky buy things for the arrival of the little one. At Becky’s request, I kept myself busy for a day or two measuring and charting out the backyard to help them tackle landscaping in the spring. We also busied ourselves with leap frogging the guest room furniture from one spare room to another, opening up one of the bedrooms to become the nursery. Once the guest room furniture was moved, Kathy helped by doing some trim painting and moving some new baby furniture into the new nursery.

Overall, we had a great, relaxing visit with the kids. It was a nice introduction to retirement and an even nicer chance to share in their enthusiasm and joy of preparing for parenthood.

But, alas, ultimately, we had to move on and head home. Still, we had decided to take a little longer on our return trip and do some sightseeing in Colorado and Nebraska on the way home.

The Wyoming High Plains and a Stop at Devil’s Tower

When laying out our trip plan, I noticed that our route took us close to Devils Tower and we could include a quick visit by heading west into Wyoming via I90 out of Spearfish. We planned to make our stop at Devils Tower and then spend the night in Sundance Wyoming before heading south to Colorado.

Little did I know that this stop would end up being my favorite of the trip!

My knowledge of Devils Tower was pretty much that it was a big rock formation sticking out of the Wyoming plains that was most significant as the setting for the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Based on the movie, I also knew that it looked kind of cool when modeled out of mashed potatoes, especially when the modeling was done by Richard Dreyfuss.

We cruised into Wyoming through the wide flat plains that separated the northern and southern units of the Black Hills National Forest, and turned off the interstate on to US 14 just past Sundance to head north to Devils Tower. The scenery was pretty but not special – rolling hills, generally grass covered with clusters of pine trees.

As we came over the crest of one of those rolling hills, we caught our first glimpse of the Tower.

I had to admit, the tower looked kind of cool sticking up in the middle of nowhere.  It was especially interesting because I always thought of it as a butte, yet the rocks weren’t typical of buttes – too columnar. We got back in the truck and kept driving closer.

About three miles out from the park, there was a pull off with a state historical marker that had a bit more of the Devils Tower story.

I found the history of Devils Tower fascinating, especially the volcanic origin of the formation and its age, greater than fifty million years old. Most interesting, though, is that the rock was exposed by wind and water erosion only one or two million years ago. Again, the power of water and wind is astonishing when you consider that the rock formation we admire today was once subsurface.

With this new knowledge of Devils Tower, we continued to the National Monument Visitor Center and Store, getting our first up-close view of the Tower.

I must tell you that I’m a bit old fashioned and I happen to think that the word “awesome” is grossly overused in today’s lexicon. Despite that, there was only one word that came to mind as we stood at the base of this magnificent rock – awesome! This iconic monolith, jutting almost 900 feet above the surrounding plains, has captivated and awed ancestral generations; it’s not difficult to understand how Native Americans came to consider the formation sacred. Devils Tower was named a National Monument in 1906, the first National Monument dedicated under the authority of the Antiquities Act.

One thing that I found interesting is that the park is actually open 24 hours a day, which allows a lot of freedom for taking photos of this magnificent formation under a variety of lighting conditions, including night time.

Even though the park is open 24/7, the Visitor Center and Store has limited daily hours, so we went into the visitor center straight away on our arrival since we got to the park late in the day. We did spend a fair amount of time getting a better understanding of the tower and learning more about it and the hiking options in the park.

Even though it was later in the day, one of the hiking options was a walk around the base of the Tower, about one and a half miles in all. One of the Rangers in the Visitor Center suggested that we’d have more than enough time to follow this trail and he advised it would give us some get views of the tower under the late afternoon light. We set off for the trail.

As we started the trail through the Ponderosa Pines on the northwest side of the Tower, we saw many cloths and bundles tied to the trees. Signs explained that many of these were Native American prayer cloths, representing the sacred and spiritual connection that many tribes have with the Tower, and asking visitors to refrain from touching or disturbing the prayer cloths.

Another treat we had by taking the hike was the chance to get some views of climbers on the Tower. Before we left the Visitor Center, the Ranger had suggested we keep our eyes open for climbers on the Tower. He said there were three to four groups climbing that day and we were likely to see some in action, which we did.

The Park Service states that at least six thousand technical climbers visit Devils Tower annually to use their skills to climb the near vertical walls along almost 220 named climbing routes. The Visitor Center also has a great display on the interest in climbing the Tower and some of the tools and techniques used by climbers. This was all very interesting since we now have a technical climber as a son-in-law; I’d find out later when talking to Dave about our visit that he did in fact climb Devils Tower several years ago.

The hike around the base of the Tower was pleasant and afforded us with some great views, not only of the Tower but also the Belle Fourche River valley west and north of the Tower.

We got back to the truck with the sun just setting to the west. Night fell as we drove back to Sundance to spend the night. The lower clouds on the horizon broke up just a bit to allow a look at the full moon that was rising that evening. The glow of the moon light made me think about what Devils Tower would look like with the moon rising behind it. We just may have to get back here sometime for an extended stay to find out!

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

To some extent, Custer State Park could be considered the heart of the Black Hills and, because of the rough topography, there are limited routes in and out of the region. One of the prettiest routes is to the northwest through Spearfish Canyon, our choice for heading on our way to Colorado.

The approximately twenty mile route is designated a scenic byway by both South Dakota and the National Forest Service and it’s a beautiful ride on a road laid out alongside the Spearfish Creek as it flows down from Cheyenne Crossing to Spearfish, dropping nearly 2000 feet in elevation.

The canyon is not extremely narrow, but at generally less than a mile wide the walls are close enough and high enough to give a sense of perspective. The road is curvy (but not at all narrow) and provides ample pull offs to stop and enjoy the scenery.

As we got to the start of the drive down from the Black Hills, I decided I wanted to enjoy the scenery and offered Kathy the chance to drive the route. It didn’t take long before we got to some pretty driving.

Historically, Spearfish Canyon was an important element to the mining history of the Black Hills. In the later 1870’s, gold fever hit the Black Hills, and the canyon became a route for the rush of miners and supplies as well as a major source of hydroelectric power that fostered development of the mines.

Today, the byway provides a scenic introduction to the Black Hills, including a couple of scenic water falls.

The first of the falls was Spearfish Falls at Savoy. We pulled off in the small resort town and found an excellent trail to the base of the canyon that provided a great view of the falls. The falls was only returned to its status as a premier falls in 2003, when the last of the flume diversions for hydroelectric generation were closed to restore full flow of the creek.

After our short hike, we continued down the canyon towards Spearfish, with one more quick stop to take a peek at Bridal Veil Falls.

This route out of the Black Hills was a refreshing change from the more commercial routes around Rapid City and a highly recommended alternative if you have the time.

Day 6 – Breakfast with Betty Boop and On To Wyoming

With our stay in Custer at an end, it was time to get back on the road to visit the kids in Colorado. Under normal “hurry up” conditions, we would have cut down directly to Cheyenne and then picked up the Interstate to Colorado. But we’re retired now – so we planned a bit of a side trip, a more leisurely and scenic drive.

But first things first – we needed a good breakfast for the road.

Because we were camping and a good breakfast makes for a lot of clean up, we opted for a local restaurant conveniently on our route. It had been recommended by the camp ground host when he stopped by our campsite the night before we left.  He said it was a good local diner in Custer that was famous with the locals for their breakfast. He couldn’t exactly remember the name of the place (“It has ‘Place’ in its name”), but he said it was on the main drag through town on the block just past the food store.

The information was sufficient. Just after passing the food store, we saw the small orange and black clapboard sided restaurant just off the corner, the sign out front announcing “Our Place – Good Food, Good Friends”. It was obviously a locally owned establishment and, based on all the cars and trucks parked nearby with South Dakota plates, a favorite in town.

We parked the truck and went on in. Greeting us at the door was a large Betty Boop statue. Little did we know that the statue was setting the tone for the overall decorating theme.

As we stepped inside, it became apparent the place paid homage to anything Betty Boop, Harley, and Dead Head rock.

Even past the morning rush, the restaurant was busy with only a few tables open. A waitress rushing by took a few moments to give us a friendly welcome and point us to a table. She came back shortly with waters and menus, promising to come back shortly for our orders. We ordered our food and Kathy used the wait time to take a tour of the restaurants collection.

Although Betty Boop was the primary decorating theme, things Harley and Dead Head Rock weren’t far behind, and sometimes they all came together in a glorious mix of memories.

Besides the entertaining décor, the food was classic diner fare, very good, with healthy servings. If you get to the Black Hills and find yourself in Custer State Park in need of a good local place for breakfast or lunch, we can definitely recommend Our Place!

With a good hot breakfast in our bellies, we headed out to Wyoming by going north in South Dakota along a scenic byway through the Spearfish Canyon and then cutting west towards Wyoming to make a stop at Devils Tower.

Touring the Custer Area – Iron Mountain Road

After our brief visit to Mount Rushmore, we headed out to the head of Iron Mountain Road just east of the Memorial.

The last of the tourist drives that Peter Norbeck helped develop, Iron Mountain Road is more art form than transit.  Like Needles Highway, Norbeck was instrumental in picking the route of the road in 1933 as Mount Rushmore was being carved. The route for the road was selected to provide a showcase approach to Mount Rushmore from Custer State Park. The road winds up to near the top of Iron Mountain and then down in it’s approach to Rushmore. Along the way, the road twists and turns through rich forests, around three “pig tail” bridges, and through three tunnels.

Driving the road in reverse, we found a small turn off just after going through the first tunnel. There was a historical marker at the location to honor Doane Robinson, who is considered the “father of Mount Rushmore”. We decided the spot was just right for a small picnic lunch and a chance to get out and enjoy solitude and beauty of the route, which was almost more enjoyable after the hustle and bustle of our visit to Mount Rushmore.

Just before leaving, I decided to go back to take a look through the tunnel that we had come through. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it provided a majestic frame for Mount Rushmore going in the other direction.

Refreshed with our light lunch, we continued our drive back to our campsite in Custer State park along the very scenic Iron Mountain Road.

If I were to do it again, I think I’d be tempted to do Iron Mountain Road in the opposite direction, watching for turnouts and places to stop and reflect on the inspiring significance of Mount Rushmore in the beauty of its natural setting in the Black Hills.


Touring the Custer Area – Mount Rushmore

As we got closer to the National Monument, it became apparent that there had been huge changes in the park since the last time we visited (probably 25 years ago). The surface parking lots have been replaced by multi-level parking structures and the gift shop, dining area and visitor center are all relatively new. The last time we visited Mount Rushmore, the Avenue of the Flags was still a relative novelty and was the path you had to walk to get to the visitor center and viewing area for the memorial.

The map near the newer entrance pretty much tells it all; items 1 through 4 were all pretty much added in a major expansion that opened in 1994 to help facilitate the more than 3 million visitors annually.

Even though the attendance the day we stopped was probably only a fraction of what it would likely be in the middle of summer, the place was extremely busy compared to the other places we’d been in the last few days. We stopped at the visitor center to get the passport stamped, made a quick stop at the gift shop, took the obligatory pictures of the monument, and then decided to get back to nature and away from the crowds.

Touring the Custer Area – Needles Highway

We started our morning with a visit to the Custer State Park Visitor Center, just a few miles down the road from our camp site. The visit was worth the stop. They had a great movie about the park (narrated by Kevin Costner) that provided a good background on the history and development of the park. There was also a small area with interactive displays about native wildlife (mostly buffalo) and early exploration. Before leaving, we looked over a large 3D topographical map of the park and immediate vicinity.

We knew that we were going to drive both Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road – both headed generally north towards Mount Rushmore, one to the west side of the park, the other to the east side of the park. The problem was that to expedite our day, we needed to take one out and the other back when both we designed to showcase scenery going out of the park. With no particular rationale, we opted to go to Mt Rushmore on Needles Highway (State 87) and then return to the park on Iron Mountain Road (US 16A).

Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road and the Wildlife Loop together form the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, named to honor the former South Dakota Governor (1917-1921) and US Senator (1921-1936). He was critical in founding Custer State Park, initiating the concept for Mount Rushmore, and laying out the routes for the roads to bring tourists to the sites he founded.

Needles Highway was initially deemed impossible to construct, but Norbeck persisted, coaxing road engineers to get creative  and ultimately create  a road through the Black Hills that effectively followed horse trails, fourteen miles of narrow roadway, sharp curves, narrow tunnels that necessarily have to be driven slowly so everyone traveling has a chance to experience and enjoy the ruggedness of the Black Hills. The road was completed in 1922 and hasn’t changed much since the day it first opened.

Shortly after we made the turn onto 87, we found a buffalo grazing just off the road.

The road was relatively wide with smooth, easy curves early on. About 5 miles into the ride, though, it started getting a bit more rugged, with granite outcroppings alongside the road. Around one of the turns, we found a small parking turnoff called “Hole In The Wall” picnic area. We pulled off the road to get a few pictures and give Tyler a chance to exercise. He wasn’t too interested in exploring the small cave, but he did enjoy following the short path alongside the granite wall.

Just after the stop at the picnic area the road started getting more curvy and narrow as the rock outcroppings got larger. In short order, we were climbing and started catching sight of the granite “needles” that gave name to the highway. Along the route, we rounded a curve to see a mountain goat grazing by the side of the road.

As we reached to highest point on the road (about 6400 feet), we found some fantastic views that helped us get perspective of the Black Hills as a large, tall, rocky island in the middle of the high plains.

The road traveled along a ridge that cut through the needles, including some narrow tunnels along the way that the road is famous for. We also passed through some woods at the high elevation that had some snow accumulation from the precipitation the night before. Having camped down in the park, we knew well enough that it had rained all night. Apparently, the only thing that separated us from snow was the 1500 feet in elevation that we climbed along the highway.

As we left the park, we passed the peaceful Sylvan Lake Lodge and the road opened to a wider two lane highway that would carry us to Mount Rushmore.