Mammoth Site, South Dakota

I recently discovered the Roadside America website/app (for iPhones) and it’s quickly become one of my absolute favorite references for finding weird/cool things/places to see/visit. While in South Dakota I took full advantage of my brother’s iPhone and we happened upon the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota.

The Mammoth Site is both a museum and an active paleontological site. More than 26,000 years ago, large Columbian and Woolly mammoths were trapped and died in a spring-fed pond. For centuries the bones lay buried, until discovered by chance in 1974 during excavation for a housing development when earth moving equipment exposed a fossil. Luckily, the Mammoth Site was preserved and today it is the world’s largest Columbian mammoth exhibit and a world-renowned research center for Pliestocene studies. To date, 61 mammoths have been identified, along with the remains of a giant short-faced bear, camel, llama, prairie dog, wolf, fish, and numerous other plant and invertebrate fossils.

I thought the coolest part of this site was the fact that it is both a museum and working dig site. There are programs each summer when volunteers come to the site to work – all under the curious gaze of the visiting public. It made for a rare opportunity to see work in progress and to gain a better understanding of exactly how such site are run. And, honestly, I found it way more interesting to see the bones in situ vs in a more clinical museum setting.

One of the most amusing facts of the whole tour (for me anyway) was that so far, all of the mammoths found have been male. Apparently they just happened upon this nice little water hole, thought to go for a swim, then couldn’t climb back up the slippery sides. Kind of a sad story, but for some reason it just seems like a very male scenario (sorry guys).

Overall, I definitely found this place to be worth the price of admission and a few hours of your time. If you have kids, even better!

P.S. I apologize for photo quality – the lighting here was all over the place and I only had my cell phone (rookie mistake not bringing an extra battery for the SLR – oops!).

Mammoth Site, South Dakota, archaeology

This model was totally surreal – those bones are just SO big!

 

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Devils Tower National Monument

Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming

One of the other sites on my list for this road trip to western South Dakota / eastern Wyoming was a visit to Devils Tower National Monument. The Monument was about a 2 hour drive from where we were staying in Rapid City, but the scenery made it well worth the effort. (smile)

Devils Tower is a butte in the Bear Lodge Mountains (which are a part of the Black Hills) in northeastern Wyoming. It rises quite suddenly almost 1,300 feet above the Belle Fourche River, standing 867 feet from base to summit. The area was designated as a monument by President Theodore Roosevelt (beginning to see why he made the mountainside at Mount Rushmore) in 1906.

This site is considered sacred to the Lakota and many other tribes that have a connection to the area. Local tribal names for the butte include Aloft on a Rock (Kiowa), Bear’s House (Cheyenne, Crow), Bear’s Lair (Cheyenne, Crow), Daxpitcheeaasáao, “Home of bears” (Crow), Bear’s Lodge (Cheyenne, Lakota), Bear’s Lodge Butte (Lakota), Bear’s Tipi (Arapaho, Cheyenne), Tree Rock (Kiowa), and Grizzly Bear Lodge (Lakota). The name Devil’s Tower originated in 1875 during an expedition led by Col. Richard Irving Dodge when his interpreter misinterpreted the name to mean Bad God’s Tower, which then became Devil’s Tower. All information signs in that area use the name “Devils Tower”, following a geographic naming standard whereby the apostrophe is eliminated.

Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming

According to the Kiowa legend, before the Kiowa came south they were camped on a stream in the far north where there were a great many bears, many of them. One day, seven little girls were playing at a distance from the village and were chased by some bears. The girls ran toward the village and the bears were just about to catch them when the girls jumped on a low rock, about three feet high. One of the girls prayed to the rock, “Rock take pity on us, rock save us!” The rock heard them and began to grow upwards, pushing the girls higher and higher. When the bears jumped to reach the girls, they scratched the rock, broke their claws, and fell on the ground.

The rock rose higher and higher, the bears still jumped at the girls until they were pushed up into the sky, where they now are, seven little stars in a group (The Pleiades). In the winter, in the middle of the night, the seven stars are right over this high rock. When the people came to look, they found the bears’ claws, turned to stone, all around the base.No Kiowa living has ever seen this rock, but the old men have told about it – it is very far north where the Kiowa used to live. It is a single rock with scratched sides, the marks of the bears’ claws are there yet, rising straight up, very high. There is no other like it in the whole country, there are no trees on it, only grass on top. The Kiowa call this rock “Tso-aa”, a tree rock, possibly because it grew tall like a tree. {Told by I-See-Many-Camp-Fire-Places, Kiowa soldier at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, 1897.}

Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming

These “claw marks” form hundreds of parallel cracks which makes Devils Tower one of the finest traditional crack climbing areas in North America. Hundreds of visitors each year make the climb up to the summit. (Can you find the climbers in the last two photos??)

I didn’t look at any photos prior to our journey to Devils Tower, so I had no idea what to expect. Seeing this massive butte rise out of the gently rolling hills of northeastern Wyoming was…magical. Seeing it grow as we came closer, I was struck by how odd and out of place this bit of rock was – and I can totally understand why it’s considered a sacred area.

We enjoyed beautiful sunshine during our hike around the butte. We spent some time watching the intrepid climbers and taking a hundred photos of the rock, trying to capture the mystical feel of the place. I don’t know if I succeeded in that personally, but it’s certainly a location I’ll never forget!

Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming

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Wind Cave National Park

I must admit, when I originally planned this little road trip through western South Dakota, I had no idea just how much there was to see and do. In addition to Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park, there’s also nearby Wind Cave National Park.

Wind Cave National Park, cave

Wind Cave National Park is located in southwestern South Dakota near Black Hills National Forest and Custer State Park. Established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt, it was the 8th National Park in the U.S. and first cave to be designated as a national park anywhere in the world!

Wind Cave National Park, cave

In 1881 Jesse and Tom Bingham were also attracted to the cave by the whistling noise of the air coming out of the cave. As the story goes, wind was blowing out of the cave entrance with such force that it blew off Tom’s hat. A few days later when Jesse returned to show this phenomenon to some friends, he was surprised to find the wind had switched directions and his hat was sucked into the cave. This change in movement of the wind is related to the difference in atmospheric pressure between the cave and the surface.

The cave is considered a three-dimensional maze cave, recognized as the densest (most passage volume per cubic mile) cave system in the world. It is currently the 6th longest cave system in the world with over 140 miles of explored cave passageways. An average of 4 new miles of cave are discovered each year (and if you find a new chamber, you get to name it!).

This maze of passages is home to boxwork, a unique formation rarely found elsewhere. Approximately 95 percent of the world’s discovered boxwork formations are found in Wind Cave.

Above ground, the park includes the largest remaining natural mixed-grass prairie in the U.S. Bison, elk, pronghorn, and prairie dogs abound, so drive carefully and enjoy the view from a safe distance!

This was another park I was totally unaware of until we happened to see it on the map. Being a huge fan of caves, I made sure we saw this one! The tours are guided and the guides are very knowledgeable. It is a wet cave and there are a lot of stairs, so be aware of that before you sign up. Entrance to the park is free but the tours are available for a small fee. The boxwork is pretty phenomenal and make it well worth a visit – especially if you enjoy caves!

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Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

While we were in the area visiting Mount Rushmore (my bucketlist item), my dad wanted to check off one of his own must see places – Badlands National Park.

Badlands National Park is located in southwestern South Dakota. It comprises approximately 244,000 acres (379 sq miles) of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires blended with the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the U.S. The area was established as a National Monument in 1939 and designated as a National Park in 1978.

Driving through the park you can spot bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs (who provide endless entertainment), and any number of birds. The park is also home to the black-footed ferret, once of the most endangered mammals in the U.S. In addition to these modern day animals, the park’s geologic deposits contain one of the world’s richest fossil beds. Ancient mammals such as the rhino, horse, and saber-toothed cat once roamed this area.

I admit, I didn’t really know much about this park prior to our visit (I was too busy / excited learning about Mount Rushmore). However, it was a truly pleasant surprise, particularly given the name! There was wildlife everywhere and the colors were simply stunning. It’s a particularly interesting area in that when you’re driving towards it (at least from Rapid City), you seem to come upon this area all of a sudden. Compared to the rolling grasslands surrounding it, this area does indeed seem like “bad land.” But this park is living proof that there’s good to be had everywhere, even in the “bad.” 🙂

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Visiting Mount Rushmore

South Dakota, Black Hills, Mount Rushmore National Memorial

I’m not entirely sure where the fascination originated, but for the last few years Mount Rushmore has  been on the top of my bucket list. When we landed a project in eastern Wyoming, a mere hour or so away, I knew my time had come. So last month when I saw an opportunity to extend a work trip, I took it. My dad and brother (never ones to miss out on a road trip) joined me and together we set off to see the famous mountainside.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is located amongst the Black Hills of South Dakota. It features the faces of four U.S. Presidents – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln – carved into the granite of face of Mount Rushmore (hence the name). Construction of the memorial began in 1927 and ended in 1941. Although the original design called for each president to be depicted from head to waist, a lack of funding forced construction to end.  These four presidents were selected (so the story goes) to represent the first 130 years of American history because of their role in preserving the Republic and expanding its territory.

South Dakota, Black Hills, Mount Rushmore National Memorial

I did enough research prior to our visit to know that the Mount Rushmore Memorial was relatively small (covering approximately 2 miles total), but I did overhear some other visitors who seemed a bit surprised. The National Park Service, who is in charge of Mount Rushmore, has built a lovely entryway with gift shops, a cafeteria, etc. and there are a couple of trails that lead around the mountainside giving visitors different scenic views of the sculpture. There’s also the Sculptor’s Studio, featuring a display of unique plaster models and tools related to the sculpting, which looks really neat (it was sadly still closed during our visit – it opens in June).

Overall, I was quite satisfied with our visit. It truly is an amazing sight to see, particularly when you realize just how large the heads are (60 feet!). I found it to be a fascinating feat of engineering and quite patriotic! We spent an afternoon wandering around, enjoying the trails, and stalking the wildlife for photos (smile). We didn’t make it back for the night show where they turn on the lights and have a short program, but I hear it’s pretty spectacular. The ice cream, however, is a definite must for any visit (it’s made from Thomas Jefferson’s original recipe)!

South Dakota, Black Hills, Mount Rushmore National Memorial

The memorial itself is free, but parking cost $11. Your parking pass is, however, good for a prolonged period of time in case you want to visit during the day and return at night for the lighting ceremony.

Joshua Tree Revisited

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Back in March some friends and I decided to take an impromptu camping trip over to Joshua Tree National Park. Of all the National Parks I’ve been lucky enough to visit, I’d say Joshua Tree easily makes the top 3 just by virtue of being the strangest, most surreal park of them all (which is saying quite a bit after Yellowstone). So of course I was more than happy to take the opportunity to visit – and camp – in such an awesome place – this time with a proper camera! (smile)

Joshua Tree National Park, California

If you’d like the official info on the park, I’d suggest checking out my first post on the park. This post is mostly just a photo journey through two deserts and an incredibly diverse landscape that is rumored to have inspired Dr. Suess’s The Lorax. Actually, that last tidbit there really kind of sums it up perfectly…

The Cholla Cactus Garden. Absolutely gorgeous area near sunset!

Cottonwood Spring near sunrise. We actually camped at this campsite and it was magical 🙂

This area is on the map as Barker Dam. It was a nice, easy walk and interesting to see some of the historic development.

The rocks are by my far my favorite part! It’s just so surreal how they seem to pop up out of the ground so abruptly and haphazardly. Skull rock (shown above) is a definite hot spot, but it pays to know what angle you’re looking for!

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Ready to go yet? 🙂 If you have the chance, I would definitely say go for it! (The Salton Sea and Salvation Mountain are also nearby – just sayin’.)

Climbing Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain, Imperial County, California, art, desert

I’d seen photos of Salvation Mountain for years, especially on Instagram, and had always wanted to go. I knew it was in California, but only recently discovered that it was just off I-10 on the way to L.A. from Phoenix. To think I’ve been driving right by it all these years! So when a camping trip to Joshua Tree NP came up last month, I seized the opportunity to have a bit of a weird and wonderful road trip with a stop by this lovely attraction.

Salvation Mountain is the brainchild of Leonard Knight. Located just east of the Salton Sea (and about 30 minutes south from I-10) in Imperial County, CA, this outdoor artwork is 50 feet high and 150 feet across, made of local adobe clay, and has one glorious and profound theme – love.

The mountain is maintained largely through the efforts of volunteers who show up with paint, brushes, and a helping heart. A public charity was established in 2012 to help with maintenance and preservation of this unique gem – Salvation Mountain, Inc.

You can follow the yellow brick road up the mountain and you can also wander through the connecting “grotto” to see various other works. All the colors were so vibrant even on a cloudy day, I can’t imagine how beautiful they must be in the desert sun!

Personally, I admit that I wanted to visit Salvation Mountain because it did just seem so weird and colorful and fun. It was a location that demanded to be seen and, well, photographed. What I didn’t expect was the sense of joy and peace that I felt while there. I was like a child roaming some oddly fantastical museum/playground. It’s kind of hard to describe really. It made me want to pick up a brush and help preserve this desert beauty and, frankly, if I hadn’t been on a bit of a schedule with the camping trip, I probably would’ve done just that. The people who were there doing maintenance were super friendly and more than happy to spend a few minutes talking about the history and goings on of the project. And although it is a very Christian-themed space, it didn’t actually feel overwhelming. It just felt, well, loving. (smile)

Salvation Mountain, Imperial County, California, art, desert

Havasupai Falls, Arizona

Way back in April, my friend and I scheduled camping space at Havasu Falls for September (it’s a popular spot). However, my friend, being rather tenacious, called just in time to pick up a canceled reservation over the 4th of July weekend. Cue loud cheering followed by a few expletives when we realized that left us just over a week to prepare. Oh boy…

We all scrambled around gathering camping gear borrow, rent, or buy until we had a reasonable assimilation of equipment and food for 3 days in a canyon. We knew that there was an option to have our packs taken in, but we didn’t really take it seriously until the night before – way too late to book a pack horse. Plus, you know, animal ethics and all that. Besides, we were all in decent shape, it was only a 10-mile hike, it couldn’t be that bad…right??

Havasupai Indian Tribe, Havasupai Falls, Havasu Creek, trail, canyon

View from the trailhead

A few facts:

  • The famous waterfalls are located on the Havasupai Indian Reservation and thus they are generally known as “Havasupai Falls.” Havasupai means “people of the blue green water.”
  • Supai Village, located within Havasu Canyon (a large tributary on the south side of the Grand Canyon) is not accessible yet by road.
  • The trail into Supai begins at Hualapai Hilltop. From the trailhead to Supai Village is 8 miles (one way). From Supai Village to the actual campground is an additional 2 miles (one way).
  • Visitors can carry their supplies in with them or hire one of the pack animals that make the trek. There is also a helicopter option available certain days of the week that will take you and your bags in and out.

So yeah, 10-mile hike with a 20-pound backpack (plus camera bag because duh!). No big deal. The first 2 miles of the hike into the canyon are a series of steadily descending switchbacks. The next 6 miles meander through some awesome canyon scenery and weren’t really all that bad. But oh man, that last 2 miles between Supai Village and the campground – we unanimously agreed it had to be a living level from Dante’s Inferno! It’s literally up and down and up again in sand, as in beach sand. Ugh.

We were all struggling at this point for our own reasons – one had a pack that was too heavy; one was an inexperienced hiker; and I…I had forgotten my knee brace. You see, I have a tricky right knee thanks to an old injury. It flares up from time to time but generally can be controlled with a brace and care. But in my excitement for the journey, I’d forgotten both. Rookie mistake. The discomfort started around the half-way point and the last 2 miles of sand totally did me in. Luckily I had remembered to bring hiking poles and ibuprofen…

After we finally found a spot to pitch our tents and had lunch, we all felt a bit better and ready to explore. We also unanimously agreed we wouldn’t be carrying those packs back out! So the next day it was back up to the Village to book pack animals. Worth.Every.Penny. And we made sure to give the horses a few apples we had leftover, so there’s some small token to assuage our guilt. [Note: There are mixed views on the pack animals here. Some people report seeing atrocious standards of care, but we didn’t witness that on this trip. It’s still something to be aware of though.]

When it came time to walk back out again, I truly didn’t think I could do it. But the helicopters were on a medi-vac mission and there was no guarantee of getting out that way, so I sucked it up. According to my trust FitBit, we walked well over 30 miles that weekend. And a month later I am still in physical therapy….Let’s just consider it a lesson learned the painful way! (smile)

So, was it worth it? Absolutely. We all learned a lot on that trip, about backpacking, camping, and our individual levels of endurance. But the waterfalls…oh the waterfalls were gorgeous! (smile) Of course, as my luck would have it, we went in after a prolonged period of rain so those normally pristine turquoise waters were pretty brown. They cleared up over the weekend, but I’ll definitely be going back to see them in their full glory! I mean just consider – these were taken on a “bad day”…

Havasu Falls

Havasupai Indian Tribe, Havasupai Falls, Havasu Creek, Havasu Falls

Perhaps the best known – Havasu Falls


Mooney Falls

Havasupai Indian Tribe, Havasupai Falls, Havasu Creek, Havasu Falls

My favorite – Mooney Falls


Little Navajo Falls

Havasupai Indian Tribe, Havasupai Falls, Havasu Creek, Little Navajo Falls

Little Navajo Falls


Reservations & Fees

Reservations are best done well in advance. Call the tribe to determine availability and to book.

Fees: Payments are taken at the visitor’s check-in at Supai Village. Cash and major credit cards are accepted.

  • Environmental care fee – $5 per person
  • Entry fee – $35 per person + tax
  • Campground – $17 per person, per night + tax
  • Lodge – $145 for up to 4 people + tax (rates subject to change)
  • Helicopter – Fees vary and tickets are issued on a first come, first served basis. (My quote was $85 for me and my bag to ride out of the canyon). Note: tribal members are given priority when boarding.
  • Horses – $75 (one way) – $150 (round trip) + tax. Note: One horse carried four bags, so it was whatever amount split 4 ways. Extra tags are a hot commodity around the campground, so ask around if you have an extra.

Tips & Tricks

  • Weather: The weather in northern Arizona is strangely unpredictable compared to the eternal sunshine of the lower 2/3rds of the state. Pay close attention to the weather predictions. As you are walking through a canyon with the occasional wash, the trail is occasionally closed due to flooding. There’s also not a lot of “high ground” in the camping area, so be aware of that when picking a spot – especially if there’s rain in the forecast. Another thing to note, especially if you’re planning a trip in warmer months is that it will actually be much warmer at the bottom of the canyon than at the top. All that air gets trapped down there and it can quickly catch up to you, especially if you aren’t expecting it. And finally, START EARLY. By early I mean before sunrise – trust me on this one.
  • Packing: Pack as lightly as possible. You’ll likely only need about half of what you think you do. If you are an inexperienced backpacker, there is no shame in going with alternative options for getting your bags down and up again. For clothing I suggest you bring layers, a swimsuit, good hiking shoes, and camp sandals/water shoes. Flip flops are okay, but not ideal. Other considerations – a good hat, sunscreen, first aid kit (your feet will thank you), and a head lamp (for those early starts).
  • Water & Food: Notice that water comes first here. No matter what time of year you go, you need to take plenty of water. Take way more than you think you’ll need and surprise yourself. We also took some electrolyte chews, which were lifesavers at some points. I think we did really well on food – plenty of protein and super filling foods. Don’t hesitate to get creative! There’s a fresh water station in Supai Village and a fresh water spring at the campground. Water tasted great at both!
  • Camping: There is a lodge located in Supai Village. They’re basic accommodations, but they’re there. (You still have to get through the sandy hell to get to the falls though…) The campground is an oasis of cottonwood trees along Havasu Creek. There are no assigned spots; you just pitch a tent wherever you find a good spot. We noticed that a lot of people just brought hammocks, which was brilliant. They’re lighter to carry, cooler to sleep in,  and there were plenty of trees that seemed made for that purpose. Something to consider for sure.
  • Guide: There are plenty of guided tours on offer. I strongly recommend trolling TripAdvisor reviews for further info – I mean this post (as long as it is) barely even scratches the surface! A good guide book would also probably come in handy.
  • Other: Several people brought blow up floats for hanging out in the water. Not sure I saw the necessity, but should you be so inclined… The reservation is alcohol free, so take note. A wide angle camera lens is your friend – everything is on a monumental scale. There is a cafeteria and store in the Village, but supplies there are pretty basic.
  • Attitude: And finally, take a good attitude. There were so many things that went awry on our impromptu hike, but we didn’t let it get us down. You’re doing something amazing – enjoy every minute! (smile)

 

Four Corners Monument

This past weekend my friend and I decided to escape the Phoenix heat and head north for some peace and cooler weather. We ended up in northeastern Arizona to check out some of the sites on/near the Navajo Nation, which just so happens to be one of my favorite places. (smile) It turned out to be a pretty epic road trip that exceeded all expectations! It was so nice to get out of the city and into wide open spaces – discovering new places became a bonus!

Four Corners Monument, Navajo Reservation

One of the more tourist-y stops, and I admit one I’ve wanted to visit for years now, was the Four Corners Monument. This is the only point in the U.S. shared by four states – Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. How can you resist a trip to four places all in one?! (You I can’t…obviously 🙂 )

Four Corners Monument, Navajo Reservation

Luckily, I had been forewarned that the monument was very much a tourist attraction so my expectations weren’t too high. The Navajo (who operate the monument) have built a nice venue around the formal survey marker. This venue also happens to be divided into stalls, which feature local vendors selling crafts and souvenirs. So it’s a bit of a cross between monument and craft fair. Other than the marker itself, shopping is really the only other thing to do there, so be prepared. There was a nice queue for photos with the survey marker and several bystanders were kindly filling in as impromptu photographers. It was a nice to see everyone coming together for a common cause! (smile)

Four Corners Monument, Navajo Reservation

Four Corners Monument, Navajo Reservation

The entry fee for Four Corners Monument is $5 per person. Operating hours at the time of this posting are 8am – 8pm, 7 days a week. Remember that while most of Arizona does not observe daylight savings time, the Navajo reservation does. This means that between March and November, the reservation is an hour ahead of the rest of the state, so plan accordingly. Oh and be sure to heed the signs…. (smile)