The goal for today was a 400+-mile drive north from Torrington, Wyoming to Dickinson, North Dakota – mostly miles and miles of wide open spaces. Heading north from Torrington, Wyoming on US85 I couldn’t help but remember that there was a time when I would have traveled through this country complaining that it was desolate and boring.
Perhaps it is living in the West for more than 50 years, keener observation skills or enhanced appreciation but today I find something of interest or intrigue in every mile traveled. The Southeastern Wyoming landscape is dotted with tiny clusters of ranch buildings – some active, some weathered with only wind-blown memories. What hardships did the first settlers endure? Or even earlier, how did the land appear when tall, native grasses waved across the prairie disturbed only by thundering herds of buffalo.
Sunflowers wave from the shoulder of the highway as we pass. We crossed the dry bed of Raw Hide Creek more than half-a-dozen times. Our eyes follow it’s course marked by tall aged cottonwoods and edged in flowing, narrow ribbons of green grasses along its banks. At some crossings we note evidence of previous flash floods. Today, I love driving through the land where the deer and the antelope play.
North of Newcastle the route winds into the western edge of the Black Hills. We see signs for Calamity Gulch, Devil’s Bathtub, Cleopatra Place – what’s the history behind these names? Not long after crossing into South Dakota we enter scenic Spearfish Canyon, a narrow split in the rocky walls bordering Spearfish Creek. The pullout at Bridal Veil Falls is probably the most popular stop along the Scenic Byway.
We leave US85 at Belle Fource to spend the afternoon following state highways to Dickinson. Although sparsely populated there are always signs of man’s habitation: a rusted windmill, a rutted dirt lane, fenced pasture land, a complex of ranch buildings on yonder hill. Except for a slim strip of Custer National Forest, trees are almost non-existant. We wonder how far ranch children have to travel to a school. What must the early settlers have thought of these wide open plains?
When the road narrows for bridge repair we’re amused that instead of a flagman or temporary light signal there’s simply a sign saying, “Take Turns.” Rarely an issue in these wide open spaces.
“These wind-swept seas of grass and wildflowers – four million acres in all – have witnessed the pageant of the frontier, the Dust Bowl, and the dramatic recovery into a great national treasure. Come visit the 20 publicly-owned National Grasslands administered by the USDA Forest Service.”
From the America’s National Grasslands brochure and website
Four million grassland acres in 20 designated areas stretching across 13 states yet only a single visitor center is dedicated to the National Grasslands. The center is located in Wall, South Dakota surrounded by the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.
On this trip alone we’ve passed through six of the Grasslands so it seemed logical to make a stop at the visitor center. A 25-minute video, “America’s Grasslands,” gives a historical perspective and explains their mission.
Exhibits feature plants, wildlife and history of the Great Plains, recreational opportunities and use management. Hands-on activities encourage interaction and we note youngsters at work on their Jr. Ranger program. We are pleased to identify some of the specific grasses and plants we had noted and left with a greater appreciation of grasslands conservation.
With a wet spring and early summer this was a very good year and time of year to visit the northern plains. Through Nebraska, North and South Dakota the rolling hills are a vibrant green often edged with sweet yellow clover. Grasses leaning with the wind to a horizon unbroken by fences give a sense of the possible scene two centuries ago, truly a national treasure.
When You Go: The National Grasslands Visitor Center, 708 Main Street, Wall, South Dakota, 605-279-2125, www.fs.usda.gov/nebraska.
If your idea of vacation fun is jostling elbows with humanity intent on exploring every shelve of tacky tourist souvenirs don’t miss Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota. Indeed if you’re traveling within a hundred miles of Wall it would be hard to miss. At every opportunity a Wall Drug Store billboard has been constructed. Imagine – Free Ice Water, Cafe That Seats 530, Donuts, Ice Cream, 5 Cent Coffee – on and on. Wow, can you stand the anticipation?
Dorothy and Ted Hustead purchased the only drug store in Wall, SD in late 1931 (in the midst of the Great Depression). Struggling to make a go of the venture in 1936 Dorothy came up with the idea of offering free ice water. The advertising campaign begun. The Hustead family still runs the business; and, gives out thousands of glasses of free ice water each day.
The large indoor structure is divided into individual retail spaces similar to an indoor mall. it’s all Wall Drug. Jewelry, moccasins, shot glasses, books, Western art, or perhaps you’re in need of a ceramic rooster – whatever your heart desires. And, yes there is a drug counter.
Personal Disclaimer: We went to Wall Drug Store on a hot July day after exploring Badlands National Park and having a less than satisfactory lunch experience in a local eatery. Wall Drug was packed, I was tired, grumpy and still had things to do and miles to drive before we slept that night. Perhaps at another time I would find the store fascinating, after all they’ve expanded and stayed in business for 83 years.
I will admit to bellying up to the ice cream counter for soft serve with caramel topping so it wasn’t all negative. I bet if I’d looked hard enough I could have found a “Wall Drug – Been There, Done That” t-shirt. After all, two million visitors a year can say, “Been there, done that.”
When You Go: Wall Drug Store, 510 Main Street, Wall, South Dakota (not a chance you could miss it), 605-279-2175, www.walldrug.com. If you can’t make it to Wall you can always shop online!
On sage advice we approached Spearfish, South Dakota via the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, a 22-mile route along ALT US14. A stop at the Natural History and Cultural Center in Savoy gives a good introduction. Englewood limestone, one of three major dominant rock layers found in the canyon, adds color to the walls soaring as much as 1,000 above the road.
Rushing waterfalls, thick ponderosa forests and towering limestone walls highlight the scenic journey. Roughlock Falls is located west of Savoy a couple of miles up Little Spearfish Canyon. Bridal Veil Falls is probably the most popular stop along the byway. To fully experience the region travelers need to spend some time out of the car, taking time to watch for wildlife, search for wildflowers and breathe in the fresh forest air. Plus, be thankful for the sage advice.
When You Go: The Spearfish Canyon Foundation website, http://spearfishcanyon.com, includes an online self-guided tour with mileage notations and an interactive tour map.
For those with limited time, short attention span or physical limitations the Discovery Tour at Jewel Cave National Monument offers an introduction to the world’s third longest cave system. The 20 minute, ranger-led tour includes tales of the cave’s discovery and current exploration efforts plus a visit to the Target Room to see the “jewels” of Jewel Cave – two special calcite crystals known as dogtooth and nailhead spar. Descent 240-ft. below the surface and return is via elevator. Even wheelchairs can be accommodated on this tour.
Other tours options are the moderately strenuous 80 minute Scenic Tour, a Historic Lantern Tour, and a 3-4 hour strenuous adventure on the Wild Caving Tour. I highly recommend the Historic Lantern Tour, we did this many years ago and our sons still remember the sense of adventure.
To qualify for the Wild Caving Tour one must fit through the space in this concrete block. It’s beyond my imagination to ever want to, not that there is any danger that I would pass the test.
At cowboy poetry gatherings performers frequently recite the works of Badger Clark, South Dakota’s first poet laureate. His writings reflected the American West and were widely published during his lifetime: many have become legendary. Bob Dylan set Clark’s poem “A Border Affair” to music; the resulting “Spanish is The Loving Tongue” has been recorded by numerous artists through the decades.
The cabin Clark built in his beloved South Dakota Black Hills is located within Custer State Park. Visitors find the secluded home, named Badger Hole, where Clark spent the last 30 years of his life a short drive down Badger Lane off US16A. During the summer season volunteers give informal tours of the four room cabin much as Clark left it, complete with many of his furnishings, library and prized processions.
The day we visited the volunteer was very knowledgable about Clark’s history and writings. She played recordings of Clark reciting some of his works just as he did throughout the United States when he spoke on “the circuit”.
The next time I hear a Badger Clark poem recited I’ll picture Badger Hole in my mind, the natural beauty surrounding the cabin in the woods and the quiet solitude.
Sixty-One and counting – the number of individual mammoths (58 Columbian and 3 woolly) found at this site in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Covered for 26,000 years the first bones were exposed in 1974 as the the land was being excavated for a housing development. Time for Plan B. Today a climate-controlled building covers the massive collection of Ice Age fossils in-situ (left in place, as they were found).
A visit to Mammoth Site starts with a 7-minute video explaining how this occurred. A spring-fed sinkhole became a death trap for mammoths, camels, llamas, giant short-faced bear, wolves, coyotes and more. The sinkhole banks would give way as animals fed around the rim, after falling in they were unable to climb up the steep sides.
Work continues on the “dig”. Jr. and Advanced Paleontology Programs offer hands-on experiences (advanced registration required). Earthwatch and Road Scholar programs provide more intensive volunteer experiences.
The 30-minute tour around the sinkhole is narrated by guides. After the tour visitors can spend more time observing the site or enter the Exhibit Hall featuring full-sized replicas of mammoths.
We found the exhibits and explanations wide ranging and well done. A painting of a giant short-face bear hangs behind the assembled skeleton helping us image meeting the long-gone mammal coming down the trail. No thanks!
I was intrigued with the replica of a mammoth bone house, similar to ones found in the plains of Ukraine, Poland and Czech Republic. Some of the dwellings date to 27,500 years ago, about the same period as activity at the Mammoth Site sinkhole. This replica is constructed of 121 mammoth bone castings including 74 jaws and covered with eight bison hides.
Video, tour, exhibits – we spent twice the amount of time we expected, finding Mammoth Site worth every minute.