States visited: 49!

visited 49 states (98%)
Create your own visited map of The United States
Miles driven so far -
LOOP 1 (Aug 2009 - Aug 2010): 29,000
LOOP 2 (May - August 2012): 10,800

Highest altitude with camper: 11,158ft (I-70, CO)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park: Sunday, July 4th

Happy July 4th to all of our American friends.  The kids were already at the playground pre-breakfast, due to the fact that apparently I wasn’t moving at a speedy enough pace!  It didn’t help their cause that the men’s Wimbledon final was on the telly, congrats to Nadal for winning again, at least Murray can say that the Champion knocked him out; their match was much more exciting to watch.

Breakfast did eventually happen, mid-match, and all the kids disappeared back to the playground for a while until the thunder and rain began.  It made for a miserable, dark morning but gave us a chance to get everything together for a late-start day trip.

We drove directly to Custer State Park to take the Needles Highway Scenic Drive through this beautiful area.  We passed through three incredible tunnels, going directly through the rock, admiring Sylvan Lake and the amazing rock formations on each side of us: Little Devil’s Tower, Cathedral Spires and Needles Eye, although photos weren’t great due to the weather.

We passed the Blue Bell Lodge and Resort, had to get a photo of that sign; love anything 'Blue Bell', reminds us of home, and this one, with its bison picture and covered wagon was too good to ignore.

At the beginning part of the Wildlife Loop Road, there were fields of North American bison (more commonly known as buffalo – they are one and the same – as we learned in Yellowstone).  As in Yellowstone, they wandered extremely close to the car, totally unconcerned by the number of people and vehicles around.

This guy made us giggle when we downloaded the pictures, walking along the road in front of us, more than happy to make us wait and then teased us as he looked around and stuck out his tongue!

We continued down Route 87 towards Wind Cave National Park, which shares its border with Custer State Park.  On the way, we passed a beautiful pronghorn with clear signs of shedding, a number of deer, a yellow-bellied marmot (we recognized this as a groundhog) and eagle-eyed Nate spotted a couple of chipmunks (which he will insist on calling chickmunks!).

As we entered the National Park, we passed a small herd of pronghorn, Dave turned around so we could get better photos of them.  For the last week, his truck window has been broken, if it goes down, it often won’t go back up, so taking photos out of his side has been curtailed – a hassle indeed!  I’m not sure when we’re back in a busier area to try and get it replaced, not this week, small tourist towns and to be honest, too much to do and a certain lack of time!

I had read that weekends were the best time to visit this National Park, supposedly less busy.  Entering the car park, we did not get that impression; obviously holiday weekends change that statistic.  We knew in advance that there were frequent ranger-lead tours into the caves but they were not reservable prior to arrival.  We were hoping to get on the 4:00 tour as it was around 3:30, unfortunately the earliest available they had was the Natural Entrance Tour at 5:30, so we paid for that, collected Junior Ranger books, watched the movie, had a quick look at the exhibits (more pictures of pictures for Dave!), and returned to the car for ‘linner’ and JR work.

The kids had their workbooks checked and were sworn in, right before the tour started.  This was definitely one of those times that we were happy Jake works quickly and independently, his questions were tougher than the other threes and he got on with them and completed them well, learning (I think and hope!) along the way!  This Park works in partnership with Kodak and takes photos of all their new Junior Rangers and posts them online, you can check our four out at:

Our tour began with Ranger Mikala showing us the tiny natural entrance of the cave, discovered in 1881 by two brothers after they heard a loud whistling sound, the story goes that as they got closer, one of them lost their hat, the force of the wind rushing out was so great.  Depending on outside temperature and other barometric forces, wind is both sucked in and out – the Ranger did a test and it was being sucked in while we were there.

Thankfully, we were not expected to climb through this tiny gap and went in via a revolving door, down about 300 steps.  The tour took us through some narrow and low tunnels to and through larger rooms: North Room, Post Office, Roe’s Misery, Devils Lookout, Methodist Church, Model Room and Assembly Room.  An elevator returned us to the surface outside.

The most fascinating thing about Wind Cave is the boxwork, formed millions of years ago by various forces working at the time.  It is non-regenerating, once it is taken, brushed off or even touched (it is incredibly fragile), it is gone forever.  The Ranger helped us imagine how it happened by likening it to brickwork.  If the bricks were slowly dissolved over a long period of time, only the mortar would remain, that’s pretty much what happened here, leaving these open ‘boxes’ with extremely thin layers of rock creating the lattice work; it really was spectacular to look at.  95% of the world’s boxwork is found in this cave, how privileged we felt to be seeing it.

The tour was so informative; between the Ranger and the movie we got a great overview of the history of the Park.  A few years after the Bingham brothers discovered the cave, which is regarded as sacred by American Indians (and protected as the seventh oldest National Park since 1903); Alvin McDonald followed the wind and began to discover the cave’s extensive network of passageways containing boxwork, popcorn, and frostwork formations.  Alvin was only 16 when he began exploring, his family would later give tours of the caves, sadly at the age of 20, he passed away from typhoid but lives on through his detailed and extensive journals of the cave system.

It is the 4th longest cave in the world with 134 miles of cave chartered and explored on three levels, all within one square mile!  At the beginning of the talk, the Ranger used Jake and another boy to demonstrate what this would look like, using a 134 inch long piece of string, having them wrap it up and then stuff it into an inch square plastic box – wow! 

They’re pretty sure however that they’ve only explored about 5% of the cave, given the volume of air measured as it ‘breathes in and out’ (not entirely sure how that works but she sounded convincing!).  Thanks to Alvin’s journals, they know there are still areas they haven’t found that he did and vice versa.  Also, another family moved in nearby and their children would often explore with Alvin, one of the children, Katie, wrote her memoirs before she died, mentioning an amazing cave room with a rock that looked as though it had fallen from the ceiling, broken open and revealed some beautiful brown crystals.  That room has yet to be discovered.  Volunteers are allowed to explore the caves at certain times but once areas have been chartered, they are generally not explored again, opening up options instead for further exploration.

The Park was closing after we finished the tour, we just had time to briefly explore the downstairs exhibits: touching a piece of broken boxwork and checking out the 'flashlight' of yesteryear!

The Ranger had given us good info on where to view some local fireworks.  We headed towards Custer and looked around for a lot of cars!  After a DQ Blizzard (dinner/snack), we drove up to Pageant Hill (great views as the sun went down) and joined hundreds of other cars in a huge field.  It was organized chaos, clearly this is a popular event and people had come very prepared with chairs, blankets, tailgating food and drink.  The kids were running around in the open area, having a great time with multitudes of other kids also running around.  Via their new friends, we met Elizabeth and Curtis (parents of said new friends!), from Minnesota, who offered us beers; can never turn down a beer at July 4th Fireworks!

There was a live band playing while we were waiting and when The Custer Fire Department was ready to get started, they roll-called every state and asked people to cheer and honk their horns if they were from there; it was so cool, there were people from almost every state.  This is definitely a ‘go to’ vacation destination from all areas.

The fireworks were amazing, so spectacular, Dave was excited to 'play' with all the settings on his new camera.  The three younger kids sat with their new friends in their car trunk, Jake sat with his new friend, playing DS for the first 5 minutes – how they managed to focus on the screen when lights were exploding in the air, I’m really not sure!  The show went on for about half an hour and finished with the National Anthem and grand finale; we were very impressed.  Unfortunately getting out of the field area took longer than the show!


Unknown said...

Those are really neat pictures. 26,000 miles!!!! The thought almost makes me want to cry. It's just too soon since our last road trip!!!

be blessed and continue having a blast.

The Valentines said...

Thanks Tricia! Just remember, those miles are spread over quite a few months! The kids are great travelers now, 3 hours is a super-short journey to them! I love all your tips and trips and am very inspired by your blog.