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!




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








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!


Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: Boneyard

Mammoth site, South Dakota, Hot Springs, black and white, bones, excavation, preservation

These guys were massive!

Mammoth site, South Dakota, Hot Springs, black and white, bones, excavation, preservation

An American Columbian Mammoth (well, except for a missing skull…)

Mammoth site, South Dakota, Hot Springs, black and white, bones, excavation, preservation

How many tusks can you spot??

This week’s topic is “open topic,” so I thought I would share a couple of shots from our exploration of the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota. Instead of excavating the site all at once and moving the discoveries off site to be studied, the archaeological team uncovers the bones and leaves them open (and preserved) for public observation. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can tour an active dig site! I’ll share more in a later post, but I couldn’t resist sharing a sneak peak today – this stop was definitely one of the highlights of our trip! So cool! 🙂

Cees BWPC Badge

Weekly Photo Challenge: After the Scaffolding

While I understand scaffolding is one of those classic case “must get worse before it gets better” scenarios, I still find its presence to be a bit of annoying. Once in a while, however, I get to return to the scene to see the changes that necessitated the scaffolding in the first place. Usually the changes are pretty subtle, but in historic preservation, I guess that’s pretty much what you’re going for. (smile)

This week’s photo challenge is “change.”

The Bridges of Union County

Here’s a confession for you: I totally have a thing for covered bridges. I have no idea why I’m so attracted to them (maybe it’s the movie), but if there’s one in the area I have to check it out. So while in Ohio (home to well over 100 covered bridges), visiting a few of these bad boys was definitely on my list. There’s this awesome website that shows you where to find them should anyone else be interested. As crazy as this sounds, I would love to go back and photograph these in the snow…or maybe just the fall. (smile)

Covered bridges can be found throughout the U.S., but primarily seem to be back east. The bridges were covered in order to protect the wooden trusses of bridges so they would last longer and/or to provide a refuge for animals and people from the elements. Some of these bridges have been around for over a hundred years, others for less than a decade. It wasn’t until this little adventure that I realized that new covered bridges are still being built! I’ve included a few of my favorites from this visit below.

Big Darby Bridge (2006)

Bigelow Bridge (1873) (aka Axe Handle Road bridge)

Culbertson Bridge (1868)

 Pottersburg Bridge (1868) (relocated in 2006)

Spain Creek Bridge (1870s) (aka my personal favorite)

Have you ever seen a covered bridge? Where’s your favorite??

Solstice at the Serpent Mound

I realize I’m likely going against popular opinion here, but the summer solstice has become my favorite day of summer – simply because it marks the descent back into darkness. A decade ago I would have given you the look if you’d dared to suggest I would ever write that sentence, but that’s what 7+ year in the desert will do for ya! I happened to be in Ohio for the summer solstice this year (June 21st) and thought it’d be interesting to see if there were any local celebrations for the event. It’s a big deal in some areas of Arizona (e.g., Sedona) so I figured it was worth a shot. I was a bit disappointed in the options until I came across the celebration at the Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio.

serpent mound ohio

The Serpent Mound is 1,348 foot prehistoric effigy mound in the shape of a (you guessed it) serpent that appears to be swallowing a round object (argued to be an egg, the sun, the world, etc. depending on who’s talking). Designated as a National Historic Landmark, the site is maintained by the Ohio Historical Society. The dating of the design, the original construction, and the identity of the builders are all debated as hotly as the identification of the round object. One speculation is that the Serpent Mound is a type of astronomical site, with the head corresponding to the summer solstice sunset and the coils of the tail to the winter solstice sunrise. Another is that the figure mimics the stars composing the constellation Draco.

There are many interesting theories surrounding the site, but none have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. As we were to learn, one of the majors reasons for this is historical disturbance. As part of the solstice festivities, there were a couple of different guided tour options – one historic, one new age. Seeing as how he’d been a good sport about the whole thing up til this point, I decided to cut my brother a bit of slack and went for the historic tour. It was both fascinating and appalling to hear how much the site was changed through various uses – including farming and archaeology.

serpent mound ohio


Coming from the west where the tribes hold so much power over sacred sites, I was floored to think that this site was largely unprotected and unclaimed for so long. This is especially true given that the one point everyone can agree on is that it is most definitely a sacred site. Luckily, recent archaeological interests at the Serpent Mound have trended more towards preservation and conservative ground investigations. However, the Serpent Mound itself has been largely altered by previous archaeological efforts, so it’s up to old photos and speculation to aid “mound theories.”

serpent mound ohio


I actually found the historical tour to be surprisingly engaging. However, I overheard a bit of the new age tour as the two groups converged at the head of the serpent and I must say, that the other option sounded equally fascinating! There were several people scattered throughout the grounds meditating, praying, etc. and I noticed a few people had left offerings along the mound. If you’re deeply interested in the solstice celebrations, I would say there’s no reason you should be shy about fully indulging if you make it out during these festivities (except any nude fire-dancing maybe).

The Serpent Mound is free to visit, but there is a fee for parking ($8). In addition to the serpent shaped mound, there are also surrounding burial mounds, hiking trails, and a small museum dedicated to the history of the site and surrounding area. We found all of the park employees to be incredibly friendly and knowledgeable, so don’t hesitate to ask if you have questions! For the solstice, there was a faire of sorts with local vendors, historical speakers, and even various workshops for attendees. It’s a 3-day event and the park stays open until sunset for the summer solstice. However, the park has several special events scheduled throughout the year, and I highly recommend you check one of these out if possible. I think they lend a little extra something to an otherwise small – albeit mysterious – park.

panoramic view of Great Serpent Mound, Ohio

Panoramic viewpoint


Cuyahoga Valley National Park

I recently spent a week visiting my brother in Ohio and I won’t lie – I wasn’t super excited about it at first because, well, Ohio. But adventure is what you make it and after a 7 year boycott, I owed my brother and the state another visit. So I snooped around Pinterest, TripAdvisor, and the Weird Ohio website and got busy making a list of the weird and wonderful to be found in the Buckeye State. Turns out there’s plenty of stuff to see and do, all outside of museum walls – including the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

I originally found this park while looking up distances from my brother’s place to another attraction on Google maps, but once I saw the words “National Park,” there was no doubt we were visiting! A bit of research brought me to the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, which runs through the park itself, and which pretty much sold my dad and brother on the adventure. (smile)

Cuyahoga National Park, Towpath Trail, Cuyahoga River

The Cuyahoga Valley National Park is located a short distance from Akron and Cleveland, Ohio. The area is named for the Cuyahoga River, which is unique in that it flows both north and south in a large U-shape – hence the name Cuyahoga or “crooked river.” The park itself is just over 20,300 acres and was formally established as a National Park in 2000.

The park has seen much use through the years – a portion was once part of the Ohio – Erie Canal, the railroad was used commercially, and there was even a superfund site! The canal has been dismantled although you can still see parts of the locks along the Towpath Trail, which is a multi-purpose trail that runs through the park along the river. We walked along a part of this path and it was absolutely gorgeous! There were several trailheads that connected to the Towpath as well as historical information signs. Bicycles are hugely popular along the trail, so if on foot stay aware!

The railroad began operations in 1880 transporting coal and people. After a decline in demand for both freight and passenger services, the line was renewed in 1972 as a scenic excursion route through the park. It’s a great way to see the park from a different angle and a ticket allows you hop-on-hop-off access throughout the day. There were both conductors and park volunteers aboard, all of which were more than happy to share their knowledge of the park and surrounding area. We got on at the Akron Northside Station (ironically the most southern stop) and made the round trip in just about 3 hours. The railroad has different options and programs, which entitle you to seats in different cars. You can buy tickets ahead of time through the website, at the station, or once aboard the train. If you’re going on a particularly busy day, I definitely recommend purchasing them ahead of time to ensure a seat.

Cuyahoga National Park, Towpath Trail, Cuyahoga River, Bird

Cuyahoga National Park, Towpath Trail, Deer

The National Park Service acquired the Krejci Dump in 1985 to include as part of the recreation area. After an EPA analysis of the site revealed extremely toxic materials, the area was designated as a superfund site and closed in 1986. Cleanup began in 1987 and is ongoing, although most of the area has been restored to its original state as wetlands.

Cuyahoga National Park, Towpath Trail, Cuyahoga River

Overall, I found the park to be very…different than most of the National Parks I’ve visited. It’s small, irregularly shaped, and closely intertwined with surrounding civilization. Along the rail you could clearly see homes that back up to the park; a couple of the stops are in real towns (as opposed to those created specifically for park visitors); and there’s clear evidence of past industry throughout the area. However, once you’re in the actual park, you feel as though you’ve been transported to a different place entirely! Everything was so green!! Although I would definitely love to see it in the fall – all the colors – I was pretty happy with the green break from my brown desert. (smile) There were tons of animals frolicking about and on the whole, it was an incredibly peaceful place. There’s no admission to the park, just the rail fee if you choose to ride (coach tickets were $18/adult). I could totally see this being the perfect place to escape from the nearby urban jungles for a relaxing weekend by the river… If you ever visit, I encourage you to throw all expectations out the window and just enjoy. It’s not Yellowstone, but the Cuyahoga Valley is, in its own way, just as beautiful. (smile)

Cuyahoga National Park, Towpath Trail, Cuyahoga River