Coulee City, Washington to Rapid City, South Dakota with lots of sightseeing in between – another busy month!
Coulee City: A small town south of the Grand Coulee Dam (the reason for our stop), it runs a very popular campground on Banks Lake – our stay was just before the July 4th weekend and already party-goers were celebrating. Noise control (or lack of) was an issue during our stay – no hosts were available and the town tried patrolling but some of the campers must have had radar knowing when they were around – the excessive noise was the only downside to staying at this convenient location.
Grand Coulee Dam is one of the largest concrete structures in the world, containing nearly twelve million cubic yards of concrete. With that much concrete, you can build a sidewalk four feet wide, four inches thick, and wrap it twice around the equator – that’s a lot of concrete! It is also the largest hydropower producer in the US with a total generating capacity of 6,809 megawatts.
Built by the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1933, its purpose today is threefold: irrigation, power production and flood control. Originally, power production wasn’t seen as a primary function but today it is one of the dam’s most important jobs. Because of the higher snow melt this past season, the gates were wide open with a humongous amount of water flowing over the top of the dam – it was a curtain of water – very powerful and very impressive.
Tours of the Third Powerhouse are available this time of the year so we made the noon tour. The tour is free but very security-conscious – you not only pass through a detector on the way in, an armed guard is visible at all the stops. The guided hour-tour was quite interesting – we saw two of the largest turbines in the world, including a window view at almost ground-level. The tour also takes you across the top of the dam, the only authorized way to see the dam from that view. And what a view looking down and seeing the power of all that water!
One evening, we attended the laser light show across the face of the dam, in this case, the wall of water. The show tells the story of the Columbia River and how it was harnessed for its multiple benefits to the area. There are several places to view the show but the best is the bench seating by the visitor center specific for the show – you not only see the show but hear the narrative from speakers nearby.
We did several geocaches in the area, including one from the very scenic Crown Point – another awesome view of the dam. One of the unique caches was located in North Dam Park near Grand Coulee – Emil Gehrke’s Windmill Farm. His windmills have been featured on national television as well as in National Geographic Magazine. Now called Windmill Folk Art, they were assembled in their basement using everything imaginable. We saw tea kettles, coffeepots, funnels, hub caps, washing machine agitators, plastic bowls, fan blades, scraps from old farm equipment – it was fun to walk around to identify the different items used.
Dry Falls State Park, just south of Coulee City: Millions of years ago, lava flow, up to two miles thick, flowed over a good bit of the Pacific Northwest, filling in stream valleys, forming dams that in turn caused lakes. Fast forward to about a million years ago, the most current ice age….Glacial ice was formed when snow depth increased (more snow than melting and evaporation during this time), with the ice sheet up to one mile thick near the Canadian border. The ice dammed rivers and created lakes. One especially large lake, covering a portion of northern Montana, broke through the ice dam, unleashing a tremendous volume of water rushing across northern Idaho and into Eastern Washington. As the floods raced southward, two major waterfalls formed along their course – the larger was that of the upper coulee (ravine or deep gully usually cut by water), where the river roared over an 800-foot cliff. The power of the water was so great that it eroded pieces of basalt from the precipice – the falls retreated twenty miles near what is now the Grand Coulee Dam. What we have left now is the skeleton of one of the greatest waterfalls in geologic history – 3.5 miles wide, dropping more than 400 feet. Niagara Falls, at a mere one mile wide and dropping only 165 feet, would be dwarfed by Dry Falls. If you can picture what Niagara Falls and its vicinity would look like minus water, you have a good idea of Dry Falls today.
Time to hit the road for Coeur D’Alene in Idaho and the Kootenai County Fairgrounds. Campground reservations are almost a necessity around holiday weekends – Galen snagged us a reservation at the fairgrounds. What a surprise to pull in and find no one else there and also to find out from the caretaker that they typically only allow folks to stay there during fair events. The gal making the reservations was new and may not have known to ask what event we were participating in. As it is, there was a beading event going on as well as a horse-riding/shooting competition. The caretaker kiddingly asked us what event we were with and we immediately piped up that we were ‘beaders’. An honest mistake was made and he was gracious enough to allow us to stay there. Another perk to being by ourselves was that it was really quiet in the evenings – a welcome respite after our noisy stay in Coulee City.
Our stay was short and uneventful – we went downtown one afternoon and walked on the world’s largest floating boardwalk, at 3300’ – we understand that there are so many folks standing on the boardwalk during the fireworks display that parts of it are under water. We opted to enjoy the fireworks along the shore from a different location – way less crowded. Earlier in the day, Larry and Galen attended the July 4th parade – the gals stayed home and chilled out. We did enjoy a wonderful cookout with the four of us contributing dishes – what’s a holiday without a cookout!
Next stop was Wallace, Idaho, the Silver Capital of the World. The town may be small, in fact you can probably walk its streets in a couple of hours, but it’s packed with history. We got settled into the newly refurbished Wallace RV Park with a babbling creek behind our sites, then Larry, Karen and Galen set off to bike the Hiawatha Trail, a very popular rails-to-trails path that covers fifteen miles with ten tunnels and seven high steel trestles. You purchase a permit for the trail at one of the trail heads, and then proceed to the East Portal Trailhead where you park your vehicle. It’s all downhill from there through some very scenic country. For a small fee, a shuttle bus will return you and your bicycles to where your vehicle is parked. A fun way to spend an afternoon…
Wallace, located in the Silver Valley, is part of the Coeur d’Alene Mining District – more than one billion ounces of silver over the past century has been mined there and another billion ounces to be produced in the next century. In addition, more than three million tons of lead, three million tons of zinc, two million tons of copper, and a half-million ounces of gold have been, and continue to be mined from this area - facts we were unaware of until we visited the area, and another reason we love this lifestyle – we continue to learn more about our country and its vast resources.
The Sierra Silver Mine Tour is a great way to learn more about the silver mining industry in this area. A trolley to the mine departs from the ticket office downtown every thirty minutes – reservations are recommended during the summer. This mine was initially discovered around 1900 and sporadically worked over the years – it was a bust as far as silver or anything valuable but it was used by Wallace High School in the 70s as a vocational class to teach mining techniques and mine safety skills. Our tour was led by a former mine maintenance man who added personal anecdotes and one of the tour participants was a former electrician from a nearby mine so we got a double dose of history. Scattered throughout the mine are several pieces of mining equipment, some of which our guide started up and gave us a quick demo.
You could easily spend several days in Wallace exploring the town – the entire city is listed in the National Historic Registry. The complimentary guide from the Chamber of Commerce has an excellent walking tour with description of the homes and businesses in town.
This is where we said ‘so long for now’ to Karen and Galen. (We’ll see them again in Florida next year.) They were continuing their travels east whereas we headed southeast to Dillon, Montana, where we stayed at an RV park on the Clark Canyon Reservoir. We noticed that the water level was pretty high, in fact so high, that one of the campgrounds across the lake was partially under water and temporarily closed. On our side of the pond, several trees, which used to be the shoreline, were about one hundred feet from the shore now, about eight feet under water, but the street light in this clump of trees was still operational – eerie to see lit at night. Even the boat ramp was completely under water.
We took advantage of our some down time in Dillon to complete paperwork to re-instate Lucille’s mother’s VA benefits which dried up completely after her father died in February. Most of the legwork had already been done with the original application so it was a matter of updating the information and completing a few more forms. Mission accomplished so now to some sightseeing….
Karen and Galen highly recommended visiting Bannack State Park, a nearby ghost town. We chose the scenic route to get from here to there – about twelve miles of dirt road, only seeing one other vehicle on this stretch. We opted for the paved road for the return trip – a little longer but a smoother ride and no clouds of dust behind us.
Bannack, once the capital of the Territory of Montana, is now a ghost town – what is amazing about this one is that most of the buildings are still there and look like the occupants just got up and walked away.
The town’s history began in 1862 when gold was discovered along the banks of the creek by the town. Placer gold was the easiest to work, using gold pans and sluice boxes. As the placer gold diminished, hydraulic mining was used to extract the gold, using high pressure streams of water to get to the gold deposits. There wasn’t enough water in the creek, so ditches were dug to bring in water from other areas – the longest ditch carried water from thirty miles away.
When this method of gold extraction was no longer productive, dredging began. Several dredgers, including the first successful electric gold dredge in the Western Hemisphere, were constructed along the creek, dredging the gravel below the creek.
When that dried up, hard rock mining started but the gold/quartz veins found in the solid rock were harder to extract, requiring specialized equipment. Bannack went from a gold town to a ghost town when mining declined after WW II, when all non-essential mining was prohibited. Mining eventually resumed after the war but because of the low price of gold and high cost of extraction, it never made a comeback. As you tour the town, you’ll see remnants of equipment for these four mining methods.
Some of the buildings in town are the assay office, a drug store, court house, church, saloon, general store, the jails and a couple of hotels. Most buildings are accessible to the public. All the park personnel ask is that you close doors behind you when you leave the buildings. Guided tours are available on weekends. We caught the tail end of John’s tour and later signed up to visit the gold processing mill only accessible by guided tour. We highly recommend taking either or both of these tours and if John is your guide, you’re in for a treat. He is very knowledgeable and passionate about the town and its history.
And now on to the highlight of the month – Yellowstone National Park and West Yellowstone, its western entrance. We had a short drive to get there from Dillon – the roads were pretty good. One memorable section was when we ‘participated’ in a cattle drive. Cowboys and cowgirls were moving cows from one pasture to another– we shared the road with the cows for a couple of miles. One particularly stubborn calf was almost our hood ornament, ignoring his mother’s call to move to the side. If you’re going to be slowed down by a traffic jam, it might as well be an interesting one.
We hadn’t planned very well, forgetting we’d be arriving there during their peak season – affordable (to us) campground reservations were not to be had. We did hear about Baker’s Hole, a national forest campground that is first-come, first-serve. One of their hosts gave us some tips on getting a site there, suggesting we check for available sites by ten in the mornings. We snagged an online reservation for one night (all that was available at the time) at another national forest campground, just a few miles away from Baker’s Hole. When we pulled into Rainbow Point and found our site, I asked the host there what the chances were of getting an additional night if needed. She informed us that they had just had a cancellation that day for a site that we could move to and stay there the entire week. We jumped on it and quickly moved the motor home over there and got set up. The only downside to staying at Rainbow Point was that the last three mile stretch was a bumpy dirt road – our car looked like a sand box the entire time we were there. But that’s a small price to pay for having a nice site in a quiet location and not losing any sightseeing time by moving to another campground.
After we got set up, we went into town to pick up brochures about the park and the surrounding area – there is so much to see and do here that our week got filled up quickly. We enjoyed watching a movie about Yellowstone at the Imax theater there, then made the first of several forays into the park, this one just long enough to pick up the park’s newsletter and brochure.
Yellowstone National Park moved up to the top of our list of favorite national parks – what an amazing diversity of scenery located throughout the park. Even though New Zealand and Iceland are known for their geysers, Yellowstone has far more to be seen.
Volcanic eruptions occurred here about two million years ago, then 1.3 million years later and most recently, 640,000 years ago. The central portion in the park collapsed, causing a huge caldera (basin) 30 miles by 45 miles – and that’s just a portion of the park. Magmatic heat powering these eruptions still powers the park’s geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, and mudpots. Also within the park’s boundaries are rugged mountains, waterfalls, and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. And of course, the wildlife….we never failed to see several species when we drove through the park, which we did almost daily. We spotted deer, elk, bison, yellow-bellied marmots, prairie dogs, wolves, chipmunks and squirrels. Alas, no bears or big horn sheep but others spotted them – we just weren’t in the right place at the right time.
Words cannot describe all the beauty we saw – click here to view a slide show to get a sampling of what we saw and experienced, including watching Old Faithful erupt three different times – each time just as breathtaking.
We may not have seen any bears in the national park but we did see them at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. This not-for-profit wildlife park is also an educational facility. The bears were either orphaned as cubs or too acclimated to foraging for foods around humans, even after being relocated several times. Most of the bears are paired except for one who is very shy and only let out in the habitat before the facility opens. Each pair gets scheduled playtime – we got to watch two different sets cavort. Before they are released to the habitat, which consists of pools, live and downed trees and rocks, employees scatter food around the premises – fruit, peanut butter – yummy bear treats. The snacks aren't left out in full view – they are put under logs, up trees, making it a game for the bears to find and a treat for us to watch. One innovative bear shook a tree repeatedly until the watermelon half stuck on an out-of-reach branch tumbled to the ground by his feet.
We learned the bears are very food-motivated. When their playtime is up, they instinctively know to lumber back to the gate and to their respective pens - more snacks awaiting them back there. Visiting the center was a great way to learn more about these beautiful but dangerous animals – and admission is good for two consecutive days – wotta deal!
Another place to visit that allows two consecutive days to visit for the price of admission is the Yellowstone Historic Center where we learned about the history of travel in the area and how the town of West Yellowstone was established solely to accommodate the visitors to Yellowstone National Park.
While we were still staying at West Yellowstone, we took a day trip to visit Grand Teton National Park, just south of Yellowstone National Park. We saw jagged peaks and deep canyons and beautiful lakes. Here is another park with a diversity of scenery – alpine, forests, sagebrush flats, wet meadows and lakes and ponds - all formed millions of years ago by tectonic plates colliding and massive earthquakes. The only wildlife we saw that day in Grand Teton was a large herd of elk and a yellow-bellied marmot – all others were elusive.
Time to leave this beautiful area, with one final drive through Yellowstone as we headed east. What views we had from our motor home window! We entered the park through the western entrance and exited through the eastern entrance – glad we were going in that direction because there’s a pretty long and steady climb to get into the park coming from the east.
Our next destination was Absaroka Bay RV Park in Cody – not only was the terrain really changed once we left Yellowstone, so was the weather. It was a hot and windy 95 degrees when we got to Cody. Cody is all about Buffalo Bill Cody – he created the town to be as showy as his Wild West Shows were. The Buffalo Bill Historical Center is a collection of five different museums telling you the story of Buffalo Bill, the Native Americans, Western artists and local history. We passed on going because we only wanted to visit one or two of the museums but the admission price includes all of them, more than we wanted to spend.
While in the area, we visited the Buffalo Bill Dam and Visitor Center. The dam is considerably smaller than Grand Coulee Dam but just as impressive. Built by the Bureau of Reclamation, construction began October 1905 and was completed January 1910. The total cost of the dam, in 1910 dollars, was $929,658. Its original height was 328 feet and was then the tallest dam in the world, to be replaced by the Hoover Dam. In 1993, the height was increased by 25 feet, adding additional water storage capacity and increasing power generation capacity.
The reservoir provides recreation, irrigation and drinking water for Cody and much of the Big Horn Basin. We were able to walk across the top of the dam – what a view both upstream and downstream of the dam.
Midway between Cody and Powell is the Heart Mountain Relocation Center where 10,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans were interned during WWII from 1942-1945. The self-guided walking tour (an interpretive center will be open mid-August) tells the story of this center which was once the third largest community in Wyoming.
The camp, of which only a few buildings remain, was built in three months in 1942 and included 30 blocks, with each block containing 24 barracks, two mess halls, two laundry/toilet buildings and one recreation hall. The ‘town’ also had a high school, fire and police stations, water and sewage treatment plants, power station and several administration buildings. Surrounded by barbed wire fence, armed military police manned nine guard towers with search lights.
When the internees were released, many found they had nothing to return to as their homes and businesses had been foreclosed because they couldn’t continue payments while detained. Since then, this national security measure was criticized as an overreaction. It wasn’t justified by military necessity, as our government claimed back then, but was the result of prejudice, war hysteria and failure of political leadership - sad. What we found amazing is that on one hand, the government interned them but on the other, allowed them to vote in their home elections and drafted the men for the war effort – seems hypocritical to take away one freedom but allow another, doesn’t it?
One treat we had during our stay in Cody was meeting Greg and Jan White in person. Lucille has followed their blog for quite awhile and when she learned they not only would be in Cody at the same time, they were staying at the same RV park. Because of our schedules, we managed to squeeze in a couple of hours getting to know this delightful couple the night before we left. We look forward to meeting them again – one of the perks of this fulltime, traveling lifestyle.
Next stop was the Rapid City, South Dakota area, staying at the military campground at Ellsworth Air Force Base. It was a 400 mile day, longer than we normally have but the drive was beautiful, half of which was on US Hwy 16, including the scenic Powder River Pass. We climbed from 4,000 to almost 9,700 and then back down again.
We lucked out and snagged the last full hookup site at the campground (all sites are first-come, first-serve). It was just a tad short to hold both our motor home and the car so the host moved us to a longer site the next morning. Our original plan was to stay a week but when we found out how much there is to see and do in this area – we decided on staying two weeks, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Our first sightseeing day out we visited Mt. Rushmore National Memorial and then on to the Crazy Horse Memorial.
To be able to see the four presidents’ faces for the first time as we turned a corner on the road to Mt. Rushmore is a wow moment. A few facts about the memorial….Carving took place between 1927-1941 with 400 workers at a total cost of just less than $1 million ($500,000 was originally budgeted.) Gutzon Borglum (designer of Stone Mountain in Georgia) was the architect; the main tools to carve were dynamite and the jackhammer. We wondered why these four presidents were chosen out of the many our country has had. George Washington was chosen because of birth (of the country) as its first president; Thomas Jefferson for expansion of our country with the Louisiana Purchase; Theodore Roosevelt for development (Panama Canal, trust buster, and creator of the national parks); and Abraham Lincoln for preservation, saving the union during the civil war. As to why they are lined up in that particular order – it was a function of the rock and how best to position each face based on its dimensions and size.
What was interesting to learn is that when originally approached with the idea, it was to honor those who helped develop the west – Lewis and Clark, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Red Cloud, and was to be carved in the Needles, an area nearby. Borglum suggested the Mt. Rushmore area because of the type of granite and felt it should be a memorial to the founders of our country and not limited to those in the west only.
In 1930, in trying to get children involved with the memorial, a fundraiser with hopes to raise $10,000 was started, but disappointingly, only $1,700 was collected. The reason – the yoyo had just been introduced. At a cost of 10 cents, children preferred spending that dime towards a new toy. Also interesting to learn is that the memorial wasn’t formally dedicated until 1991 by President George H.W. Bush, fifty years after its completion, because it had been on hold due to Borglum’s death and World War II.
We walked the Presidential Trail, which allows you a closer look at the carvings, ending with a tour of the sculptor’s studio. On display in the studio are many of tools he used as well as his original model. We also learned that there were no fatalities during its carving but one man’s shoes were blown off when lightning hit nearby – amazing when you see how tall the memorial is and how they hung off the mountainside to carve.
The Crazy Horse Memorial is the world’s largest mountain carving, still in progress and will continue to be a work in progress for many generations. The monument’s sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski (1908-1982) was of Polish descent but was born in Boston. He never took any formal lessons in art, sculpture, architecture or engineering – he was self-taught. Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear learned of Korczak when one of his sculptures won first prize at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Chief Standing Bear and fellow chiefs wanted the white man to know the red man also has great heroes so they invited Korczak to the Black Hills to carve Crazy Horse.
Crazy Horse was an Indian warrior who died in 1877 at age 35. He defended his people in the only way he knew, especially after he saw treaty after treaty being broken. When asked ‘where are your lands now?’ he replied ‘My lands are where my dead lie buried.’ This theme is repeated throughout the memorial.
Korczak was almost 40 years old when he started carving, doing the work by himself in the beginning. He felt it should be built by the interested public and not the taxpayer and twice turned down offers of federal funding. This project is being supported solely by visitors (entrance fees, buying from the gift shop, and donations.) He also knew the project was larger than any one person’s lifetime and left detailed plans to continue the project. Today, his wife and seven of his ten children continue the work that he started. When completed, it will be 641 feet long and carved in the round – the sculpture will be recognizable whether viewed from the front or either of the two sides.
While Yellowstone is our favorite national park, Custer State Park is our favorite state park. Covering 71,000 acres in South Dakota’s Black Hills (so-named because of the abundant black spruce trees covering the hills), the park was named for George A. Custer who led a scientific army expedition into the Black Hills in 1874.
Our first stop was the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center (named after the governor who led the effort to designate a state park), where helpful volunteers told us about the many scenic drives. We made a full day out of driving the Wildlife Loop Road, the Iron Mountain Road, and Needles Highway – every one of them extremely scenic and memorable.
On the Wildlife Loop Road, we encountered the park’s bison herd, about 1450, meandering back and forth across the road – we got caught in a ‘buffalo’ jam and loved every minute of it. Highly recommended is attending the annual buffalo roundup, this year on September 26, 2011. Viewing areas are set aside for the spectators as these magnificent animals come thundering down the hills and across the meadows to the corrals, where the herd is tested, vaccinated, branded and sorted. Most will be released back into the park (approximately 900) while others remain in the corrals until the annual auction in November. Come springtime, the herd’s numbers increase with the birth of calves.
We also spotted deer, pronghorns and prairie dogs on the loop. The begging burros were the funniest. They would poke their heads in your vehicle’s open windows looking for a handout. Even though we didn’t have anything to offer, that didn’t stop one of the burros from trying. Unfortunately, it was too close to get a good picture.
Iron Mountain Road was supposed to be impossible to build but Peter Norbeck didn’t listen. This scenic road (Highway 16A) leads from Custer State Park to Mount Rushmore with three granite tunnels framing the faces in the distance. The road twisted and turned and the tunnels were quite narrow. Local bus companies lead tours on this road and Needles Highway – the tunnels are so narrow, their mirrors are scratched, dented and dinged.
Needles Highway, so-named because of the slender granite peaks throughout, had even narrower tunnels. In fact, we got to Tunnel 5 at the Needles Eye and thought the road ended in a parking lot till we saw a 90-degree turn into the tunnel. This was the narrowest at 8’4” wide.
Well worth the mile driving up a dirt road is seeing the view from the Mt. Coolidge Firetower. Signs on the viewing platform direct you to where you can see the Crazy Horse Memorial and Mt. Rushmore – with a good pair of binoculars, we were able to see them both – yet another perspective.
Ending up the month but not our stay in Rapid City was a day trip to visit Badlands National Park. We started the loop from the northeast entrance off of I-90, exit 131. On the way to the entrance, we stopped at a local tourist attraction – a prairie dog village. The gift shop sells bags of unsalted peanuts so you can feed these little beggars – they certainly weren’t skittish at all. One little guy had more fun playing with an empty paper bag than grabbing any of the peanuts we tossed his way.
Badlands National Park is a geological landscape of buttes, spires and rolling grasslands. We actually drove through the continent’s largest grasslands – Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. We opted to drive the Hwy 240 Loop Road which technically should take about 60 minutes but took us several hours because we stopped often to look at our surroundings – amazing. The spires reminded us of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah but instead of rock, these spires are composed mainly of sandstone which are ever-changing because of erosion – rain, wind and the four seasons.
Several of the trails found along this loop have boardwalks and informative sign boards. The views from the Cliff Shelf trail were particularly scenic – we climbed steps, gaining approximately 200 feet in elevation, passing through a small juniper forest. Our timing was perfect to enjoy lunch at the Cedar Pass Lodge, not quite midway through the loop. During our drive, we spotted pronghorn and finally, some big horn sheep.
Hwy 240 Loop Road ended at the western entrance to the park and in the town of Wall, on the map thanks to Wall Drug where we stopped to take in the experience and grab an ice cream treat at the same time. This isn’t your typical drugstore. What started off in 1931 as a small drug store in the town has segued into a major attraction. After the owners tried for five years to make a go of it, they were inspired by the continuing traffic on Hwy 16A going by to offer free ice water to the travelers. Signs were made to put on the highway, similar to the Burma Shave signs enticing travelers to stop in. And the rest is history!
There is a restaurant and café on the premises, an ice cream shop, a home-made donut shop, coffee for 5 cents, a traveler’s chapel, a chance for you to pan for gold, Native American and South Dakota crafts, and rooms full of souvenirs. And yes, there is still free ice water. You can even get your picture taken with the giant jackalope in the courtyard. It’s no wonder this is called America’s Favorite Roadside Attraction.
And so ended July and our first of two weeks in the Rapid City area. Coming up: cave tours and mammoth bones and rolling thunder in the Black Hills; a few days in Sioux Falls; a quick stop in Pender, Nebraska to have our Blue Ox equipment inspected; then we’ll work our way up to Duluth, Minnesota for Labor Day weekend before we start our Lake Superior Circle Tour with Dave, Mary and Mollie.