Great Plains Vacation
Chicago, Black Hills, Yellowstone, Calgary
Summer 2005 (5-13 August)
Version: Version 1.1
Date issued: 17 Oct 06
Table of Contents
List of Figures
I’ve always enjoyed the vastness of the Great Plains of North America since living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan as a young boy. The Great Plains are a vast prairie region extending from Alberta and Saskatchewan and Manitoba in Canada south through the west central United States and into Texas. This was the area inhabited by the plains Indians.
The Great Plains with their wide open spaces, the uncrowded towns, wonders of nature and unique history are a magnet to me. I’ve always wanted to see the Devils Tower and to revisit Yellowstone National Park since my first trip there with my parents. As well my parents live in Calgary. Since Donna, my travel partner, had not visited the West, the Great Plains was a good destination for the summer of 2005 vacation.
The flow of the trip was rather self-evident given the places to be visited (Figure 1). We left Ottawa on Friday, 5 August 2005 and returned on Saturday, 13 August having driven some 10,000 KM. We returned to work on Monday, 15 August. Three weeks instead of just two would have been better to avoid the long days of driving.
The return trip (shown in blue on Figure 1) was completed in 2 days with 36 hours of non-stop driving between Calgary and Cobalt, ON.
Figure 1. The 10,000 Km trip route via automobile
On the trip to Calgary, we camped out overnight except for one night in Tomah, WI. In total, the trip cost about $2,000 including gas.
This trip report is written to remind us of the trip that we took, the sights that we saw and why the places that we visited are of general interest. Without the later understanding, the sights are little more than interesting features of nature that are unconnected to our heritage.
I've tried to illustrate our trip mainly with our pictures, supplemented by other photographs freely available on the Internet. Apart from describing our experience, I've included the history of many of the sights as found on the Internet. I hope that I've given credit to any material taken from the Internet in the list of references.
We drove out west in my Ford Escape XLT 2002 (Figure 2). This is quite a comfortable vehicle with cruise control and air conditioning that paid out at times driving the Interstates under the hot summer prairie sun (Figure 3). Fortunately there were no mechanical problems so it was just a question of putting in some very long days at the wheel.
During the trip, the price of gasoline had spiked and seemed high, however in light of 2006’s prices, they now seem reasonable.
The only close call that we had on the road was coming down the hilly Highway 191 from Yellowstone into Bozeman. A deer burst out of the trees beside the road and crossed right in front of us. I had to swerve heavily into the oncoming lane to avoid a collision. Fortunately there was no vehicle in that lane.
Figure 2. Ford Escape XLT 2002
Figure 3. The long road ahead under an endless blue sky in Wyoming, outside of Casper
2 West via Chicago
After leaving Ottawa in the early afternoon, we drove to west of Toronto and camped at the Bronte Creek Provincial Park off on Highway 407 between Burlington and Oakville. This is a nice park that is surprisingly rural despite being in a heavily populated area.
The next morning we drove west on Highway 402 and crossed over the border at Sarnia, passing through Flint, MI and Battle Creek, the home of Kellogg’s. We stopped 50 miles southeast of Chicago at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore campground but alas the campground was full. Instead we drove inland about 10 miles and stayed at a private campground which was less than satisfactory as we were next to a swamp with the sewage outfall.
We spent some time on the beach along the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (Figure 4). This park stretches 25 miles (40 kilometres) along the south shore of Lake Michigan and includes ecologically sensitive beaches, sand dunes, bogs, wetlands, and woodland forests.
Figure 4. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
Parking was difficult due to the crowds and the local police. Early in the morning we packed up our tent and drove down to the lakeside at Beverly Shores and parked at a gazebo to have breakfast. There were “no parking without permits” signs but as it was early there was no one least there. We started our breakfast and soon a police car drove up told us that we had to move or we’d be ticketed. This police action seemed completely unwarranted but clearly the parking was for locals only and not the hoi polloi.
After leaving Chicago, we stayed overnight in the Super 8 Motel in Tomah, Wisconsin. This was a good, clean motel. Unfortunately I left my digital camera in the room and drove off. We drove through downtown Sioux Falls and saw the Sioux Falls on the Big Sioux River in the apply named Fall Parks. The falls are wide but only about 10 feet high so not overly impressive. Sioux Falls seems like a nice community to grow up in.
It wasn’t until arriving in Mitchell, South Dakota and going to photograph the Corn Palace (Figure 5) that I realized the camera was missing. I phoned the motel and they went to the room and found the camera and agreed to mail it to me in Ottawa. Unfortunately this meant that we had to rely on el cheapo disposable cameras for the remainder of the trip.
The Corn Palace is a popular tourist destination, visited by over 500,000 people each year. It consists of a building that is decorated with murals and designs made from corn, grain, grasses, wild oats, brome grass, blue grass, rye, straw and wheat each year. “Life on the Farm” was the theme for 2005. The Corn Palace, built in 1921, serves as a multi-use center for stage shows, as well as sports events.
Figure 5. Corn Palace in the Mitchell, South Dakota
Continuing west along the I-90 we decided to camp at the Cedar Shore Resort at Oacoma in the west bank of the Missouri River across from Chamberlain, South Dakota. This was a very nice campground and we had a campsite right on the shore of the Missouri River (Figure 6). Apart from the great campsite, we were allowed to use to hotel’s pool so we were in heaven after a hot day of driving.
Figure 6. Cedar Shore Resort – campground (left), hotel (center), pool (right)
2.2 Museum Campus Chicago
The Museum Campus Chicago sits on Lake Shore Drive next to Lake Michigan. It is a 57 acre lakefront park in Chicago that includes the Adler Planetarium, the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum of Natural History and Soldier Field, the home of the Chicago Bears of the NFL.
Figure 7. Field Museum (left), Shedd Aquarium (right)
Soldier Field serves as a memorial to American soldiers who died in wars, hence its name (Figure 8). It was designed in 1919, completed in the 1924 and completely rebuilt in 2003. The original design was modelled on the Greco-Roman architectural tradition with Doric columns rising above the stands. However the remodelling dropped in a modern structure that now dwarfs the columns. Critics have said that Soldier Field now looks like a "spaceship hit the Parthenon."
Figure 8. Dedication wall (left), Soldier Field (right)
From the Museum Campus Chicago, the view of the Chicago skyline and boats moored on Lake Michigan is very impressive (Figure 9).
Figure 9. Lake Michigan and Chicago skyline (left), Segway tour group (right)
We wanted to visit Sue in the Field Museum. Sue, the largest, most complete, and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex fossil yet discovered. Sue is 45 feet long, stands 13 feet high at the hips and is 67 million years old. The fossil was named Sue after the palaeontologist who found it — Sue Hendrickson. Sue's body is located on the main floor in the Stanley Field Hall (Figure 10). Her head was too heavy to be mounted on the rest of the body, so it is located on a second floor balcony.
Figure 10. Sue the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the Field Museum
The fossils of Sue were discovered at Faith, South Dakota in 1990 and a long custody battle followed. Finally, Sue was sold at Sotheby’s auction house in New York on Saturday, October 4, 1997. The bidding began at 10:15 a.m. and just eight minutes later The Field Museum had purchased Sue for nearly $8.4 million – the most money ever paid for a fossil. [Ref M]
Looking at the fossil, one can easily see that Sue did not have an easy life. For example, Sue has two broken ribs that healed; there are holes in the jaw likely caused by disease or infection.
3 Black Hills Area
3.1 West of the Black Hills
Driving west in South Dakota on the interstate there were numerous signs for Wall Drug over hundreds of miles. Many of these signs offer free ice water, which seems a pretty good draw on a hot prairie summer day. It is claimed that over a million people stop at Wall Drug every year, 20,000 on a good summer day, a we were a couple of them.
Wall, just north of Badlands National Park, is a small town of 900 residents, a third of which work for Wall Drug. Wall Drug is a sprawling cowboy-themed shopping mall/department store consisting of a drug store, gift shop, restaurants and various other stores. There were many bikers at Wall Drug participating in the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
Figure 11. Motorcycles at Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota
3.1.2 Badlands National Park and Wounded Knee
We drove south from Wall into the Badlands National Park. This park preserves 242,756 acres (982 km²) of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires blended with the largest protected mixed grass prairie in the United States.
For eleven thousand years, Native Americans used the Badlands area for their hunting grounds. However toward the end of the 19th century as homesteaders moved into South Dakota, the Indians were stripped of much of their territory and forced them to live on reservations. In the fall and early winter of 1890, thousands of Native American followers, including many Oglala Sioux, became followers of the Indian prophet Wovoca. His vision called for the native people to dance the Ghost Dance and wear Ghost Shirts, which would be impervious to bullets. Wovoca had predicted that the white man would vanish and their hunting grounds would be restored. One of the last known Ghost Dances was conducted on Stronghold Table in the South Unit of Badlands National Park. As winter closed in, the ghost dancers returned to Pine Ridge Agency. The climax of the struggle came in late December, 1890. Headed south from the Cheyenne River, a band of Minneconjou Sioux Indians crossed a pass in the Badlands Wall. Pursued by units of the U.S. Army, they were seeking refuge in the Pine Ridge Reservation. The band, led by Chief Big Foot, was finally overtaken by the soldiers near Wounded Knee Creek in the Reservation and ordered to camp there overnight. [Ref D]
The terrain is very varied throughout the Badlands. The colours of rocks are vivid with a mixture of whites, pinks and reds. Unfortunately our el cheapo disposable camera was not up to capturing the colours (Figure 12). There were many motorcycles touring the Badlands either coming from or going to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
Figure 12. Fascinating erosion in Badlands National Park
The Badlands Park, both the North and South Units are surrounded by the large Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the home of the Oglala Sioux. We left the North Unit of Badlands National Park and proceeded west until turning south at the tiny hamlet of Scenic. Scenic has several businesses operating out of very old looking wooden buildings. We visited an antique shop but the most interesting business was the Longhorn Saloon (Figure 13) which was doing a brisk business serving the touring bikers.
Leaving Scenic, we continued south in the heart of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It is a barren countryside akin to portion of the Southwest USA. After Scenic, we did not see any more bikers until we were approaching Custer State Park.
Figure 13. Queen of the bikers in front of Longhorn Saloon in Scenic, South Dakota
The Wounded Knee Massacre was the last major armed conflict between the Lakota Sioux and the United States, subsequently described as a "massacre" by General Nelson A. Miles in a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. It is popularly considered as the last major clash four hundred year struggle between the Indians and the people of European origin for control of North America.
Figure 14. Sign altered to describe Wounded Knee as a massacre and not a battle
On December 29, 1890, five hundred troops of the U.S. 7th Cavalry, supported by four Hotchkiss guns (a lightweight artillery piece capable of rapid fire), surrounded an encampment of Minneconjou Lakota with orders to escort them back to the railroad for transport to Omaha, Nebraska. The commander of the 7th had been ordered to disarm the Lakota before proceeding and placed his men in too close proximity to the Lakota, alarming them. Shooting broke out near the end of the disarmament, and accounts differ regarding who fired first and why. By the time it was over, twenty-five troopers and one hundred and fifty-three Sioux lay dead, including sixty-two women and small children. Many of the dead on both sides may have been the victims of "friendly fire" as the shooting took place at point blank range in chaotic conditions. Around one hundred and fifty Lakota fled the chaos, of which an unknown number are later believed to have died from exposure. [Ref C]
Figure 15. Cemetery with Wounded Knee Massacre monument
There is not much to serve as a monument to the tragedy of the events at Wounded Knee. In the cemetery on the hill overlooking the site of the massacre, there is an eight foot tall monument listing the names of the Indians killed (Figure 15). Apparently the US government and the Oglala Sioux have never been able to come of an agreement as to how this event should be commemorated.
There are two old signs that were put up by a highway department employee years ago – one about the massacre/battle and one about Crazy Horse. Both these signs have been slightly defaced by Indian supporters. On the sign about the events at Wounded Knee, the original title of “The Battle of Wounded Knee” has been altered to read “Massacre of Wounded Knee” (Figure 14). I seem to recall that on the sign about Crazy Horse there were several alterations in black marker – the word “dream” was replaced by the word “vision” in a sentence about Crazy Horse having a dream that motivated his actions to fight the actions of the US Army.
Leaving Wounded Knee, we drove west through the towns of Pine Ridge and Oglala and then north into Custer State Park.
3.2 Custer State Park
Custer State Park is a state park and wildlife reserve in the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota. The park covers an area of 71,000 acres (290 km²) of hilly terrain and is home to many wild animals. It is home to a famous herd of free roaming bison. Elk, mule deer, white tailed deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, mountain lions, and feral burros also inhabit the park. The park is famous for its scenery, its scenic drives (Needles Highway and the wildlife loop), with views of the bison herd and prairie dog towns.
In 1775, the Oglala and Brulé also crossed the Missouri river and in 1776, they defeated the Cheyenne as the Cheyenne had earlier defeated the Kiowa, and gained control of the land, including the Black Hills, which became the center of the Lakota universe. Their society centered on the buffalo hunt with the horse. [Ref F]
We camped for two nights in the center of the park at the Legion Lake Campground just down the turn off to the Needles Highway. This is a nice open camping area with more trailers than tents. There were only a couple of bikers camping when we were there.
Interestingly one evening we hear a noise and looked up to see a B-1 Lancer bomber from Ellsworth Air Force Base (located about 15 miles east of Rapid City flying overhead.
Figure 16. B-1 bomber overhead
Figure 17. Bikers and the buffalo
Just down the road from our campsite, we came across some buffaloes crossing the road. The large bull was crossing amongst a group of bikers who probably did not appreciate that they might get to see the buffalo up much closer than they envisioned (Figure 17).
Figure 18. The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway in the Black Hills (Ref E)
The Needles Highway is a 14-mile drive through granite outcroppings known as the Needles. The drive features spectacular scenery with great views of Custer City, the Needles, Cathedral Spires, and the Needle's Eye (Figure 19). The opening in the Needle's Eye has a span of 3 feet and a height of 30 feet. I climbed up on the rock behind the Needle's Eye to take a rear view photograph with the Cathedral Spires in the background.
Sylvain Lake on Needles Highway is well worth a visit as it is a very pretty area with granite monoliths forming part of its shoreline.
Figure 19. Needle's Eye front view (left), rear view with the Cathedral Spires in background (right)
Figure 20. Coffee at Sylvain Lake on Needles Highway
The Iron Mountain Road is the most scenic route to Mount Rushmore and connects Mount Rushmore with Custer State Park. The tunnels along that route were aligned to frame Mount Rushmore in the background (Figure 21). These tunnels are narrow so we passed through them with care to avoid oncoming traffic. Most of the traffic was motorcyclists partaking in the 65th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
Figure 21. Mount Rushmore framed in the distance by a tunnel on Needles Highway
3.3 Mount Rushmore
Tourism is South Dakota's second-largest industry. Mount Rushmore is the number one tourist attraction of South Dakota. In 2004, over 2 million visitors traveled to the memorial. Doane Robinson, a historian, conceived the idea for Mount Rushmore in 1923 in order to attract greater tourism to South Dakota. In 1924, Robinson persuaded sculptor Gutzon Borglum to go to the Black Hills region to ensure that the carving could be accomplished. Borglum, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, was then involved in sculpting a massive bas-relief memorial to Confederate leaders on Stone Mountain in Georgia.
Borglum selected Mount Rushmore as the site of carving for several reasons. The rock of the mountain was composed of smooth, fine-grained granite. The granite was very resistant, eroding only 1 inch (2.5 cm) every 10,000 years, indicating that it was sturdy enough to support sculpting. In addition, it was the tallest mountain in the surrounding terrain at a height of 5,725 feet (1,745 m) above sea level. Because the mountain faces the southeast, the workers also had the advantage of having the sunlight for most of the day.
Between October 4, 1927 and October 31, 1941, Gutzon Borglum and 400 workers sculpted the 60 foot (18 m) colossal carvings of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln to represent the first 150 years of American history. The entire project had cost $989,992.32 and no workers died during the carving.
Mount Rushmore is controversial among Native Americans because the United States seized the Black Hills area from the Lakota tribe after the Black Hills War in 1876–77 following the discovery of gold. The Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) had previously granted the Black Hills to the Lakota in perpetuity. The Lakota consider the hills to be sacred, although historians believe the Lakota also gained control of the hills by force, displacing the Cheyenne in 1776. The Black Hills War included the annihilation of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. [Ref P]
Figure 22. Mount Rushmore National Memorial (left), George Washington in profile (right)
The Crazy Horse Memorial (Figure 23) is a mountain monument in progress in the Black Hills of South Dakota that when complete will be the world's largest sculpture. It is named after the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse. It was begun in 1948 by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who had worked on Mt. Rushmore under Gutzon Borglum, who claimed that several Lakota chiefs requested a counterpoint demonstrating a Native American hero. The sculpture portrays the warrior Crazy Horse, who led the Oglala Sioux (now Lakota) at the battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. [Ref Q]
Crazy Horse resisted being photographed, and was deliberately buried where nobody would find his grave. Ziolkowski, however, envisioned the monument as a metaphoric tribute to the spirit of Crazy Horse and Native Americans. "My lands are where my dead lie buried", supposedly said by Crazy Horse, is the intended interpretation of the monument's expansive gesture. However, some traditional Lakota and Native Americans oppose this memorial as a desecration of the landscape.
The face of Crazy Horse was completed and dedicated in 1998, with a view to aiding fundraising. The monument is being built with no public money and is primarily supported by visitor fees (more than one million people visit annually).
Figure 23. The Crazy Horse Memorial – Pointing to the lost lands of the Sioux
I timed our trip to the Black Hills to coincide with the 65th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally held in Sturgis, South Dakota. It was started on August 14, 1938 by the Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club which still own and operate the tracks, hillclimb, and field areas that the rally is concentrated around. The attendance was estimated at 525,250 in 2005 which meant that there were motorcycles on the roads for hundreds of miles around Sturgis.
Figure 24. Sturgis 2005 logo (left), $30K Arlen Ness chopper
During the rally, the main streets of Sturgis are lined with motorcycles (Figure 25), mainly Harleys. The shops are fully of rally and motorcycle-related merchandise. As well there are plenty of vendors in temporary booths selling the same type of merchandise. The more interesting booths are those of the custom motorcycle builders. For example, Arlen Ness had a booth there selling custom choppers starting at about $30K. Coincidently Arlen Ness paid a visit to his booth when we were checking out his choppers. Most of the custom motorcycle builders offer on-site financing for bike purchases.
Figure 25. Motorcycles parked along one of the two main streets in Sturgis
Figure 26. Motorcyclists riding along one of the two main streets in Sturgis
We drove up to see Lead (pop. 3,000), pronounced "leed", some 45 miles NW of Custer State Park. The town was officially founded in 1876 after the discovery of gold. It is the site of the Homestake Mine, the largest and most productive gold mine in the Western Hemisphere before closing in 2001. The giant open pit mine looks like a piece of modern art with its terraced sides and curvy haul road out of the pit.
Figure 27. Lead abandoned Homestake open pit mine
We drove down the steep hill to Deadwood (pop. 1,400). This town has been restored to look like the frontier town is was in the past as a cost of over $170 million. It now attracts more than two million tourists annually.
Deadwood's origins lie in the announcement of the discovery of gold in the Black Hills by the George Custer expedition in 1874. This triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush and gave rise to the lawless town of Deadwood, which quickly reached a population of around 5,000. It attained notoriety for the murder of Wild Bill Hickok, and remains the final resting place of Hickok and Calamity Jane. Wild Bill was a legendary figure in the American Wild West who after fighting in the Union Army during the American Civil War became a legendary army scout, and later, lawman and gunfighter. [Ref R]
On August 2, 1876, while playing poker at Nuttal & Mann's "Saloon No. 10" in Deadwood, Hickok could not find an empty seat in the corner, where he always sat to protect himself against attacks from behind and instead sat with his back to the door. He was shot in the back of the head with a .45-caliber revolver by Jack McCall. The motive for the killing is still debated. McCall may have been paid for the deed or it may have just been the result of a recent dispute. Of course Wild Bill was holding the infamous "Dead man's hand" of pairs of 8s and Aces when he was killed.
We visited the site of Saloon No.10 (Figure 28) and then walked up the steep hill to Mount Moriah Cemetery to see Wild Bill's gravesite. According to the guide we listened at the cemetery, Calamity Jane cared a great deal for Wild Bill but the reverse was not true. In any event as Jane died with Wild Bill, she was able to ensure that she was buried next to Wild Bill (Figure 28).
Figure 28. Buffalo Bill lies next to Calamity Jane (left), site of Saloon No.10 (right)
4 West to the Tetons and Yellowstone
4.1 Devils Tower
Leaving Custer State Park, we drove to see the Devils Tower which was a popular day trip for the motorcyclists from Sturgis (Figure 29). Devils Tower is a monolith or volcanic neck located in eastern Wyoming, above the Belle Fourche River. It rises dramatically 1267 feet (386 m) above the surrounding terrain to a height of 5112 feet (1558 m) above sea level.
Figure 29. Motorcyclists from Sturgis nearing the Devils Tower (left), Ponderosa pines at base (right)
Every since I collected stamps as a boy and saw the US 3¢ stamp of the Devils Tower issued in 1956 (left, Figure 30), I wanted to visit this marvel of nature. It is part of the first United States National Monument, established on September 24, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. The Devils Tower played a prominent role in the 1977 film, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” starting in the scene when the Tower is carved from a pile of mashed potatoes (center, Figure 30) and culminating in the scene of the alien mother ship landing at the film’s climax (right, Figure 30).
Figure 30. Devils Tower US 3¢ stamp (left), Tower in potatoes (center), mother ship over Tower (right)
The polygonal columns (mostly hexagonal in cross-section) so visible on the side of the Devils Tower are very similar to those that we saw at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and at Sheepeater Cliff in Yellowstone National Park (left, Figure 54). An explanation of how the columns formed is provided at the site (left, Figure 31) as are three interpretations of the Tower's geologic history (Figure 32).
Figure 31. How the columns formed (left), Devils Tower in the distance (right)
Figure 32. Three interpretations of the Tower's geologic history
Although proper grammar would indicate that the monument should be called "Devil's Tower", all information signs and references indicate "Devils Tower". The apostrophe was omitted due to a clerical error on early governmental papers, and the version without the apostrophe became its legal, and therefore official, name. The Lakota Sioux called it the Bear's Lodge and their legends tell of how two Sioux boys wandered far from their village when Mato the bear, a huge creature that had claws the size of teepee poles, spotted them, and wanted to eat them for breakfast. He was almost upon them when the boys prayed to Wakan Tanka the Creator to help them. They rose up on a huge rock, while Mato tried to get up from every side, leaving huge scratch marks as he did (left, Figure 33). Finally, he sauntered off, disappointed and discouraged but leaving behind lots of claw marks (right, Figure 33).
Figure 33. Mato the bear clawing the Devils Tower (left), results of clawing of the Devils Tower (right)
The Tower did not disappoint – it was well worth the 45 year wait to see it in person. Had I visited it 30 years ago, I would have climbed the Tower rather than just circumnavigate its base.
4.2 On to the Grand Teton National Park
Leaving Devils Tower, we drove southwest and decided to overnight at a campsite outside of Casper that was shown on our map south of Casper. This campground turned out to be high on a Casper Mountain (8,000’) south of Casper near the site of the Hogadon Ski area. Although the mountain looks like an impressive long ridge, it does rise up impressively above the plain. Hence the drive up Casper Mountain offers spectacular views as the road hugs the side of the mountain. After checking out the campground, we decided that the potential of a bear encounter warranted returning to the KOA. The KOA campsite was a couple of miles north of Casper on I-25. There was a terrific prairie thunderstorm during the night that passed overhead and apart from the tremendous thunder and lightning show; the downpour caused leakage into the tent.
Figure 34. Road up Casper Mountain (left), view of prairie from road (right)
Casper (pop 50,000) is a nice city which began as a ferry site on the Oregon Trail in 1847, when a group of Mormon emigrants, who were camping here, realized that there was money to be made by boating travelers across the North Platte River. In 1860 an 810 feet long and 17 feet wide toll bridge was built at a cost of $40,000. The toll for wagons to cross was $1.00 to $6.00 determined by the height of the river. An additional toll was charged for animals and people. The bridge was used until Fort Caspar was abandoned in 1867.
Figure 35. Map of route through Western South Dakota and Wyoming
Departing Casper the next morning, we drove a bit and stopped at Independence Rock to climb up and see the names carved 150 years ago (Figure 37) and see the view from the top. Independence Rock was the most-noted landmark on the emigrant trails west of Fort Laramie. It is used as both a message board and a progress marker. Emigrant wagon parties bound for Oregon or California usually left the Missouri River in the early spring and attempted to reach the rock by Independence Day (July 4) in order to reach their destinations before the first mountain snowfalls in autumn.
Figure 36. Four National Historic Trails passed through same route in central Wyoming [Ref B]
Four National Historic Trails passed through same route in central Wyoming (Figure 36) so Independence Rock was well visited. Thousands of emigrants left their names inscribed on this turtle-shaped mound of solid granite; the Mormons even stationed stonecutters nearby to help travelers make their mark, at five dollars a name. [Ref A]
Figure 37. Name carved into Independence Rock 155 years ago
It is an oval outcrop of granite rock, 1,900 feet long, 700 feet wide and rises to 128 feet above the plain. The rock derived its name from a party of fur trappers who camped there and celebrated Independence Day in their own style on July 4, 1830. Independence Rock became one of the great bulletin boards of the Oregon-California Trail - a place to look for word of friends ahead or leave messages for those coming behind. On July 26, 18 49, J. Goldsborough Bruff "reached Independence Rock . . . at a distance looks like a huge whale. It is being painted & marked every way, all over, with names, dates, initials, &c - so that it was with difficulty I could find a place to inscribe it." [Ref B]
It is interesting that we found a carving dated 1825 during our climb over Independence Rock (Figure 38). If this date is accurate then it would be a very early carving as Robert Stuart's expedition in 1812 is supposed to have been the first to inscribe their names on the rock.
Figure 38. Views from the top of Independence Rock across the land of the big blue sky
We continued southwest along Highway 220 from Independence Rock and shortly, a great cleft in a prominent ridge came into view (Figure 39). This is Devil's Gate, a 370 foot high, 30 foot wide and 1500 foot long cleft, carved over the centuries by the Sweetwater River. It was a major landmark for those on the emigrant trails that provided a pleasant change for weary travelers coming across the rough, dry country from the North Platte River, a four day trek from the east. Later it was the site of a Pony Express station.
Devil’s Gate was of course known to the Indians. According to Shoshone and Arapahoe legend a powerful evil spirit in the form of a tremendous beast with enormous tusks ravaged the Sweetwater Valley, preventing the Indians from hunting and camping. A prophet informed the tribes that the Great Spirit required them to destroy the beast. They launched an attack from the mountain passes and ravines, shooting countless arrows into the evil mass. The enraged beast, with a mighty upward thrust of its tusks, ripped a gap in the mountain and disappeared through Devil's Gate, never to be seen again. [Ref G]
Figure 39. Devil's Gate in the distance (left), Devil's Gate on the Sweetwater 1870 (right)
Turing onto Highway 287, we drove northwest towards the Grand Tetons, passing by Lander and the Wind River Range. Most of this area is part of the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Figure 40. Wind River Range near Lander
We encountered a very interesting abstracted metal sculpture of a buffalo (Figure 41). This sculpture was very impressive and captured the strength associated with a bull.
Figure 41. Metal buffalo and tepee in Lander
Leaving the Wind River Indian Reservation, we drove through Dubois (pop. 1,000) and were surprised by the storefronts of many of the businesses (Figure 42). They looked like a town from an old western movie. Coincidently in The Amazing Race 8 (Family Edition), which aired after our return in September 2005, the teams went to Old Faithful in Yellowstone and then proceeded to Dubois to the Turtle Ranch. It is enjoyable to be able to relate on a personal level to shows that we enjoy.
Figure 42. Dubois’ Old West style storefronts
Figure 43. Map of the Grand Teton National Park
Figure 44. The Tetons
4.3 Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park was established as a national park on February 26, 1929. The park covers 484 mi². As part of the Rocky Mountains, the north-south-trending Teton Range rises from the floor of Jackson Hole without any foothills in a 40 mile long by 7 to 9 miles wide system. In addition to the 13,770 foot (4197 m) high Grand Teton, another twelve peaks are over 12,000 ft (3660 m) above sea level. The Tetons were named by French explorers who called the three highest peaks of the range Les Trois Tetons (the three breasts). In the 18th and 19th centuries, Caucasian fur trappers and fur traders called deep valleys rimmed by high mountains "holes." One such fur trapper was named David Jackson and his favourite place to 'hole-up' was named after him in 1829.
Figure 45. View of Tetons from the top of Signal Mountain
When we arrived at the Grand Teton National Park, the view of the Tetons was enthralling (Figure 44). The picture does not do them justice. We drove up the narrow, windy road to the top of Signal (7,600’) to see the vaunted view of the Teton Range from there - it did not disappoint (Figure 45).
We drove down Jackson Hole to see the town of Jackson (pop 9,000). Just outside of Jackson is the National Elk Refuge, but there were no elk to be seen. Jackson itself is a typical ski resort town with lots of trendy and expensive shops. The square in Jackson has a number of elk antler arches (Figure 46). The arches are supposed to be made of the elk antlers shed annually and collected by the Boy Scouts.
Figure 46. Elk antler arch in Jackson
Driving from the Grand Teton National Park to Yellowstone National Park on the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. National Memorial Parkway, we came upon a traffic slowdown caused by an accident and the assisting emergency vehicles.
Figure 47. Accident on John D. Rockefeller, Jr. National Memorial Parkway
4.4 Yellowstone National Park
In Yellowstone National Park we had a campsite reservation at the Grant Village campground in the south of the park (Figure 49). This was a nice campground, with lots of distance between campsites. We purchased firewood to have a nice evening fire (Figure 48).
Figure 48. Campfire at Grant Village Campground in Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is located in the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Yellowstone is the first and oldest national park in the world (created in 1872) and covers 3,470 square miles (8,980 km²), mostly in the northwest corner of Wyoming. The park is famous for its various geysers, hot springs, and other geothermal features and is home to grizzly bears, wolves, and free-ranging herds of bison and elk. It is the core of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the largest intact temperate zone ecosystems remaining on the planet. [Ref I]
The fascinating geothermal features in Yellowstone are the due to past massive volcanic eruptions left a huge caldera 43 miles by 18 miles (70 km by 30 km) sitting over a huge magma chamber. Yellowstone has registered three major eruption events in the last 2.2 million years with the last event occurring 640,000 years ago. Its eruptions are the largest known to have occurred on Earth within that timeframe, producing drastic climate change in the aftermath. For that reason, the Yellowstone volcano has been called a super volcano.
Figure 49. Roadmap of Yellowstone (Ref H)
Figure 50. Dragon's Mouth Spring (left), Churning Caldron (right)
We drove from our Grant Village campsite northeast and have breakfast on Yellowstone Lake near Bridge Bay (Figure 52). It was a sunny day through it was windy and cool. We proceeded north and stopped to see the Mud Volcano area. This area has a number of thermal heated pools that differ in their degree of mud density. One of the features is a cave called Dragon's Mouth Spring (Figure 50) that is rhythmically issuing forth steam and making a breathing type sound. Apparently the Indians named for it was “breathing buffalo” which is very descriptive and appropriate but unfortunately it didn’t fit in with the cutesy names that the explorer insisted on slapping on most features.
Figure 51. Buffalo in Hayden Valley (Yellowstone)
Down the road was the buffalo herd in the Hayden Valley (Figure 51). The buffalo were not to far off the road and like the buffalo elsewhere in Yellowstone they were quite unconcerned with either traffic or people. They sauntered around parking lots quite aware that people won’t touch them (Figure 58).
Figure 52. Central Yellowstone (Ref J)
Figure 53. Lower Falls from Artist Point (left), Lower Falls from South Rim Trail (right)
Figure 54. Climbing up Sheepeater Cliff (left), a pair of elk (right)
We drove on to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River stopping at Artist Point. From Artist Point there is a good view of the canyon towards the Lower Falls. The canyon is multi-coloured due to the various chemicals leaching out of the canyon walls. The Lower Falls are 308 feet high, so they are quite impressive. We were lucky enough to take a ranger guided walk along the South Rim Trail starting from Artist Point to the parking lot near Uncle Tom’s Trail. This parking lot was being paid a visit by a herd of buffalo who wandered about the parked cars.
Next on the agenda was a visit to the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces in the northwest corner of the park. On our way there we saw some elk in a field (Figure 54) and stopped for lunch at Sheepeater Cliff. Sheepeater Cliff is composed of columnar basalt. The long vertical columns of the cliff are bounded by cooling fractures that formed as the thick lava flow cooled forming a regular set of joints perpendicular to the cooling surfaces at the top, bottom, and sides of the flow. The flow of Swan Lake Flat Basalt erupted sometime between 320,000 and 640,000 years ago. [Ref K]
Figure 55. Northern Yellowstone including Mammoth Hot Springs (Ref J)
The cliffs rise up to 30-40 feet at their highest and they were easily climbed as the broken columns of rock serve as stepping stones (Figure 54). In the summer of 2006 we visited the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland which looks very similar although on a bigger scale.
The Sheepeater Cliff was named by explorers for the mountain-dwelling Shoshone Indians (the Sheepeaters) who were the park's only Indian inhabitants when they arrived.
Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces were well worth a visit, especially if walking up the trails to see the terraces up close (Figure 56). Once again our el cheapo disposable camera did not do justice to the colours of the Minerva Terraces.
Figure 56. Mammoth Hot Springs - Minerva Terraces (left), Palette Springs (right)
Mammoth is a large hill of travertine that has been created over thousands of years as hot water from the spring cooled and deposited calcium carbonate (over 2 tons of calcium carbonate flows into Mammoth each day in a solution). Although these springs lie outside the caldera boundary, their energy has been attributed to the same magmatic system that fuels other Yellowstone geothermal areas. The hot water that feeds Mammoth comes from Norris Geyser Basin after traveling underground via a fault line that runs through limestone and roughly with the Norris to Mammoth road (the limestone is the source of the calcium carbonate). Shallow circulation along this corridor allows Norris' super-heated water to cool somewhat before surfacing at Mammoth, generally at about 170° F (~77° C). Algae living in the warm pools have tinted the travertine shades of brown, orange, red and green. [Ref L]
We took a ranger-lead walking tour through the Upper Geyser Basin. This was a very interesting tour as this basin, approximately two square miles in area, contains the largest concentration and nearly one-quarter of all of the geysers in the world. A variety of thermal features exist here: spouting geysers, colourful hot springs, and steaming fumaroles.
The Upper Geyser Basin is the home of Old Faithful, the most famous and celebrated geyser in the world. The 1870 Washburn Expedition camped near Old Faithful and discovered the geyser had frequent and regular eruptions over 100 feet. They dubbed the geyser Old Faithful. It erupts once approximately every 45 to 90 minutes, depending on the duration of the previous eruption. We checked the predicted eruption time in Old Faithful Inn and went over and sat in the bleachers to await the coming eruption. The eruption (Figure 57) occurred close to the forecasted time and was interesting but not overwhelming.
Figure 57. Old Faithful Geyser (left), waiting for Grotto Geyser to erupt (right)
During our walk, Grotto Geyser was threatening to erupt (Figure 57). However the eruption intervals vary between 3 hours for short mode and 9-13 hours for long modes so we didn’t see it. The height of a typical eruption is only 20-30 feet. The 1870 Washburn Expedition named this unusual feature for the "winding apertures penetrating the sinter." It is an unusual shaped formation nearly 8 feet high. The club-shaped pillar and two adjoining arches formed from fallen trees. The accumulation of sinter from eruptions and evaporation has changed their original shape into eerie formations. The eruptions consist of a series of powerful splashes, steam and the discharge of nearly 150 gallons per minute. Deep gurgling and splashing sounds are constantly emitted from the vent. [Ref N]
Figure 58. Buffalo in parking lot
Figure 59. unknown geyser erupting (left), unknown geyser erupting (right)
We witnessed the eruption of a small geyser in the Upper Geyser Basin that reached a height of some 30 feet (Figure 59). Unfortunately the name of this geyser is unknown to us.
We walked around the Lower Geyser Basin (Figure 60) which at nearly 12 square miles, is much bigger than the Upper Geyser Basin but its thermal features are not as concentrated nor as spectacular. The Lower Geyser Basin possess a large variety of thermal features, including mud pots, geysers, pools, springs, and fumaroles.
Figure 60. Imperial Geyser (left), view across Lower Geyser Basin (right)
Imperial Geyser was boiling and churning (Figure 60). This geyser became active in 1927. In 1929 a contest among visiting newspaper men named this popular new thermal feature. The eruptions during that year were so violent—reaching 80 to 150 feet high— that its plumbing system may have been damaged creating steam and pressure leakage. The geyser went into dormancy until 1966 when it began a near constant eruption. In 1985 Imperial again went into dormancy. The 75x100 feet alkaline pool is known for its clear, blue-colored water. The discharge has been estimated at 500 gallons per minute. In 1988 a wildfire swept through this area and even burned logs, projecting from the pool, to the water line. [Ref O]
We also visited the Norris Geyser Basin which is the site of Steamboat geyser, the world's tallest geyser at 100-380 feet. Unfortunately it wasn’t doing much which isn’t surprising given that its eruption interval is days with periodic dormancy.
The drive along the Firehole River Drive, south of Madison, was worthwhile. The Firehole River, warmed by hot water from springs and geysers along its course, flows through the meadows and along the main road before dropping into a canyon with nice waterfalls. Due to the hot geothermal water, there were people swimming in the river.
4.5 On to Calgary and Home
We left Yellowstone via the Yellowstone West entrance and drove non-stop to Calgary and stayed at my parents’ home (Figure 61). While in Calgary we also drove to Lake Louise to see Donna’s son (Figure 61) who was working at the Chateau Lake Louise.
Leaving Calgary, the return trip (shown in blue on Figure 1) was completed in 2 days with 36 hours of non-stop driving between Calgary and Cobalt, ON. We overnighted at Donna’s mother’s house and then drove on to Ottawa and returned to work on the Monday.
Figure 61. Mum and Dad in Calgary (left), Donna and Kevin at Lake Louise (right)
In summary I highly recommend visiting the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain areas with their natural beauty and fascinating history associated with the settlement of the west.
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