South Dakota’s Original 1880 Town – Murdo, SD

What started as a movie set slowly grew into the attraction now known as 1880 Town. The majority of the historically correct buildings were relocated to an 80 acre lot owned by Richard Hullinger to add to the attraction, which consists of a long main street with a church at the end, as well as train tracks just ‘outside of town’, with a collection of old steam engines.

The entrance is a museum with a wonderful collection of 1880’s memorabilia, and you thread your way through this before you reach the entrance to the town. Upstairs is also an exhibit of sets from Dances With Wolves. It was a rainy day, so I opted to take pictures with my iPhone instead of the Nikon this time, so the images aren’t as crisp as usual.

It was a fun tour, albeit quick, due to the weather.

[here’s the full run of pics]

Higway Oddities

America is famous for having some of the weirdest highway attractions, and I eagerly try to get to the ones that intrigue me the most.

This being said, so far, I’ve been to:

THE BIGGEST BALL OF TWINE (in [Darwin], Minnesota)

Your Hostess in front of the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota

Your Hostess in front of the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota

Made further famous by the Wierd Al song, the twineball itself is quite a thing to witness. Francis A. Johnson spent four hours every day for 29 years wrapping his dream, a twine ball 12 feet in diameter that currently sits in a specially constructed gazebo.

I trucked out there with a friend one night after work, but we’d gotten there too late to actually get into the museum or the tourist shop.

Oh, for a keychain with the biggest ball of twine on it! 😦

THE CORN PALACE (Mitchell, SD)

The Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD

The Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD

(otherwise known as ‘The World’s Only Corn Palace’), is easily the oddest marketplace/arena I’ve been to so far. The outside walls are covered in decorative corncob murals that depict various patriotic and/or religious scenes. The inside is a lush, full-on Americana tribute to the biggest cash crop that the US has to offer.

The citizens of Mitchell celebrate this intriguing structure with a citywide festival each year, and the external corn murals are apparently replaced and redesigned every year with different themes. Ah, the adoration of corn. Inside, there are several displays of all of the things one can make with corn, as well as several pieces of farm equipment – and within the arena/theater itself, when there aren’t either sporting or other events, there are a rather alarmingly large collection of corn themed tourist geegaws for sale.

I was surprised to find full pheasant pelts for sale for ten bucks each. I picked up two. I have my reasons.

WALL DRUG (Wall, SD)

'Our Heroine' astride the mighty Jackelope at Wall Drug

‘Our Heroine’ astride the mighty Jackelope at Wall Drug

A shopping mall full of multiple gift shops, an apothecary and eateries, Wall Drug is advertised for hundreds of miles in almost every direction throughout South Dakota. It’s a veritable wonderland of bizarre trinkets. I lost track of the numbers of billboards for the place while rolling down the highway.

In the courtyard between stores within the complex, sits an enormous fiberglass jackelope with a saddle that children could climb up on so that their parents could capture the proud moment when their child rode into battle on the back of a mighty rabbit with horns.

Unable to resist this magical photographic opportunity myself, I asked one of the ladies nearby to get a picture of me astride this majestic cryptozoological creature.

The resultant image has captured one of my finer moments, I think.

While I was there, I also picked up a jackelope head for a good friend back east that had been wanting one since he was a kid. It pleases me greatly that I was able to help fulfill a childhood dream for him. 🙂

AHLGRIM FAMILY FUNERAL SERVICES (Palatine, IL)

Sadly, I didn’t really have time to hit this one. Ahlgrim boast a feature that I don’t think any other funeral home in the company has – a festively death themed mini golf course in the basement. Maybe next time I’m out in Illinois.
Well, that’s it for this installment of roadside wierdness.

Until next time!

Pictograph Cave State Park – Billings, MT

Ghost Cave and Middle Cave

Ghost Cave and Middle Cave

Pictograph Cave State Park in Billings, Montana, went on ‘the list’ recently. I think it was while I was in either Wisconsin or Minnesota that I discovered it and wanted to check it out.

On the drive there, a rather copious amount of rain fell throughout the area. It was a deluge that only lasted for a short while on the road, but apparently it was voluminous enough to do some dangerous damage to the park. When I arrived in the evening, I was told that the entire park was closed due to flash flooding. Because so much water had fallen, the park staffers wanted to ensure that chunks of rock didn’t separate and drop on tourists while they were drying out, so it was a ‘better safe than…” move, which I can respect.

Pictograph Cave

Pictograph Cave

Even if a little frustrating. So, I ended up going to see World War Z that night, then crashed out in a local KOA campground. (it’s cheap, and there are toilets. That’s all I care about on the weekends.)

The next morning I rose, bright and early, and headed out to the park. Ghost cave and Middle Cave were still closed, as was most of the path headed towards it, but Pictograph cave was open, so up the hill I went. I ran into one of the staffers that was already hard at work trying to clear out debris and clean up the area.

As to the features of the park itself, tall, sandstone bluffs peppered with pine trees here and there rise out of the brush and grass, little holes pockmarking the surface of the stone. The trail to Pictograph cave is paved, but the others are gravel, and they’d washed out in the flood. Above both Ghost cave and Middle cave, it almost looks as if waterfalls used to cascade over the openings; the rock was definitely worn in a U shape above them.

yuccaUnfortunately, many of the original ancient drawings in Pictograph cave have faded over the years, due to the elements and vandalism of the site.

Along a railing inside the cave itself is a sign that details all the original pictographs that were catalogued initially, but most of them were really light and difficult to see. Large chunks of rock were missing, and the images with them. Even so, the cave itself is very nice. It’s more of a large stone mouth opening in the sandstone than a cavern that goes back with any depth.

I still wish I’d been able to get into the Ghost cave.

South Dakota Highway 87 – Needles Highway

Needle's Eye  South Dakota Highway 87

Needle’s Eye South Dakota Highway 87

Snaking through the Black Hills of South Dakota, Highway 87 winds through both Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. Custer State Park itself is worth the visit, but I didn’t have much time to stick around and check it out, unfortunately.

I’d just visited Jewel Cave National Monument, a little over half an hour to the southwest, and had been wanting to make my way along Needles Highway to see the eye of the needle that nature had carved out of solid rock. The road has very sharp turns, low tunnels and is fairly narrow, but I figured I could manage it.

I’m glad I ended up being right.

It’s a very beautiful drive, with large, pointed spikes of rock poking dramatically out of the treeline along the way. The location of Needle’s Eye itself is a large paved, almost circular parking area, and there are spaces where you can pull off along the roadside in order to wander throughout the ‘needles’ themselves. There are many somewhat safe capering opportunities among the tall, pointy rocks, and it’s pretty fun to roam around checking the area out.

It’s a fantastic spot for photographs as well.

Needles Highway

Needles Highway

Traffic comes into the parking area fairly slow, due to the fact that there’s a very sharp turn to get to the only other passage out of the area, without turning around and heading back the other way. It’s a tunnel with a surprisingly low looking ceiling. Matilda can usually fit through anything over 8′, so keep that in mind if you’re interested in making your way to check this spot out. You may not want to take an enormous RV through there.

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park – Montana

Inside Lewis and Clark Caverns

Inside Lewis and Clark Caverns

This was easily one of the most grueling treks I’ve taken to get to a cave. Unlike most of the other commercial cave systems I’ve been to throughout the country – where you enter the cave from the inside of a building, Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park has a 3/4 mile walk outside, throughout the mountains from the visitor’s center up to the cave mouth itself.

I was on the first tour of the day, shortly after 9am, and it was already getting really hot out. No clouds in the sky, and the hateful sun was doing everything it could to ensure that I expired on my way up the trail. I kept being surprised that the trail kept going, and going… and going. Ah, yes – my workout for the day.

It’s all uphill, with a collection of switchbacks, but the view during the walk is stunning. You have a fantastic panorama that dips steeply into a canyon with several hills and mountains throughout. One of the couples that I met along ‘the long walk’ was from Hollowtop Mountain, just across the way – they pointed it out, and it looked as if it was an old mini caldero.

caveywavey2After the walk, from which most of the tour group was breathing heavy, we finally found ourselves in the cave mouth itself. Just inside was a small colony of bats that our tour guide, a very cool, laid back guy named Demetrius, pointed out with his flashlight. In the first portion of the cave, there is a skylight in the form of the initial entrance to the cave, which had been barred up to keep people from utilizing that entrance.

At one point years ago, we were told that a rickety, wooden spiral staircase was placed in the caverns – in the spiral stairway shaft that led down to ‘the bottom of the pit’.

There are many ‘low bridges’ throughout the caverns, and to get through some passageways, some creative maneuvering is needed – at one point, there’s a smooth rock slide that’s about fifteen feet long that you have to slide down.

There are many stairs, both up and down, throughout the cavern, and there are a fair number of places where you need to either duck down a little, or duck walk to get from one section of the cave to the other.

The upswing? The walk back is not at all challenging, for which I was very grateful.

The entire place is completely beautiful, and it’s actually one of my favorite cave systems now, for sheer beauty. The first is still Cave of the Mounds in Wisconsin.

If you dig commercial caves and you’re in the area at some point, GO. It’s SO worth it.

[Here is the full run of pictures]

Yellowstone National Park

Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic Spring – Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone is a marvel of geothermal activity. The park is enormous (3,468.4 square miles (8,983 km)), and with two days of exploring, I still didn’t see anywhere nearly as much as I wanted to. Coming in from South Dakota, I ended up taking the East entrance, from Cody, Wyoming on a sunday afternoon. There were a number of gorgeous waterfalls cascading down the rocks on the side of the road throughout the ride in. It was fantastic. Lots o’ canyon, lots o’ waterfalls. Just how I like it.

The drive is a little steep in parts, but is a visually brilliant drive. After awhile, the road winds around Yellowstone Lake (The Yellowstone Caldera – which is currently full of Yellowstone Lake, is apparently the largest active supervolcano on the continent). The visitor’s center in Fishing Bridge is nicely shaded, and has decent looking camping areas that fill up quickly. Here, I was able to fill up on some more water and get something to eat.

From there I headed down around West Thumb, and on to Old Faithful.

Sapphire Pool - Biscuit Basin - Yellowstone

Sapphire Pool – Biscuit Basin – Yellowstone

I was lucky to have arrived at the Old Faithful viewing area about ten minutes before the geyser erupted, so yay for not having to stand around in crowds for 90 minutes in the heat! 🙂 It was pretty spectacular to see a large steaming waterspout shoot up out of billowing clouds of steam that were simply pouring out of the ground moments earlier. People crowded around the viewing area, everybody with their cameras out.

I then checked out the Artist Paint Pots, then headed on to Madison – heading out to West Yellowstone to camp for the week. All in all, I spent about three hours in the park that day.

erupting geyser - Yellowstone National Park

erupting geyser – Yellowstone National Park

The following friday, I headed back to the west entrance, then dipped down to check out Grand Teton National Park, before backtracking and again camping overnight in West Yellowstone. On this trip, I tried to check out the points along the route that I wasn’t able to hit the previous sunday.

As it turns out – the Midway Geyser basin is easily one of my favorite parts of the park. The various brightly colored springs, pools and mud pots are fascinating. The major features, Grand Prismatic Spring, Excelsior Geyser and the Turquoise Pool are phenomenal. Several of the springs had waters easily as blue as that surrounding the Florida Keys. Out of all of these, I think the Grand Prismatic Spring is my favorite. It’s also one of the most well known images of the park, other than Old Faithful. The areas around the springs fairly reek of sulphur, and when the wind shifts, blowing clouds of steam towards you, it can get almost choking. My sunglasses fogged up, as did my camera lens.

one of the bubbling mud paint pots - Yellowstone National Park

one of the bubbling mud paint pots – Yellowstone National Park

There’s also a bubbling mud pit that’s so overly eager that you can see where far flung splatters of boiling hot mud show up in dots all along the railings and boardwalk.

Saturday, I finally started heading north, through Norris, Mammoth, and swinging around to see Tower Falls.

I did run around in the Norris geyser basin a little bit, but again – the sun was trying to kill me (as it always does), and there’s NO shade at all as you make your way along the wooden walkways throughout the area in the Porcelain basin. The Norris geyser basin is apparently the hottest geyser basin in the park. I could only do so much walking around before I started feeling dizzy and weak. I really should visit the park sometime in spring/fall. There was a great deal more to Norris that I just couldn’t explore because of the heat.

one of the roadside waterfalls - Yellowstone National Park

one of the roadside waterfalls – Yellowstone National Park

As I made my way along the trails (boardwalks, really) throughout the geyser basins, I stayed very aware of the danger in the marked fragile thermal areas, making sure to stay on the boardwalks. I had no desire to take any detours onto the actual ground anywhere near the geysers and springs, and several times saw signs stating that there have been many visitors scalded to death throughout the years. Apparently the ground can be quite thin around some of these areas, and I have absolutely no desire to plant a foot down and have it crack through, only to have my foot cooked off, thank you very much.

Mammoth Hot Springs… my god, this place was so beautiful, it almost made me cry. I adore waterfalls, and watching boiling hot water flowing over the various travertine terrace levels here was just… I was actually stunned. The tiers are so white that it almost looks like snow, and the stone drips down from the terraces in a manner that almost looks like icicles – but you can see the steam wicking off the falls as they trail down the levels. The terraces are just as lovely when viewed from the parking lots below, and there’s a little village area there, as well as a visitor’s center, that you can run around in – getting food/drink/etc.

Tower Falls - Yellowstone National Park

Tower Falls – Yellowstone National Park

It was then on to Tower falls. While driving through Mammoth, there was a full herd of elk just hanging out, eating grass in one of the roundabouts. People were parked along the sides, capturing the moment for posterity with their cameras. I just drove through, having seen elk before, and really being more interested in the landscape than the fauna.

The road to Tower Falls is currently under construction, so traffic was kind of a pain in the ass, but the view of the falls is completely worth it. Seeing the falls from the platform a short walk behind the Gift Shop is fantastic – but there’s a rather strenuous path that switchbacks all the way down to the river at the bottom – where you can catch a full view of the falls from there. Unfortunately, I was only able to make it halfway down this path before I knew I couldn’t go any further and then successfully make my way back up without having a major medical episode. I really need to get back into shape, dammit. Someday I’ll make it down and back up in the same day. On the way back to Mammoth from Tower Falls, there was a bear cub romping around in the grass. There were a surprising amount of people out of their cars, taking pictures of the cute baby bear as it cavorted with whatever it was grasping in its paws. Although it really was adorable, I shuddered, wondering where the mother was. Yeah, I’ll stay in my car, thanks anyway.

Mammoth Hot Springs - Yellowstone National Park

Mammoth Hot Springs – Yellowstone National Park

Along any of the roads throughout the park, people will simply stop driving entirely – not bothering to pull over at all, to take copious pictures of wildlife – buffalo, elk, bears, etc. It’s kinda insane. Every once in awhile, I’d run into a ‘nature induced’ traffic backup. I even snapped a pic or two of buffalo while stopped in the conga line of ‘making memories’. Eh, when in Rome…

I spent as much time as I could checking everything out – even though, being especially heat sensitive, the last thing I should be doing is trotting around an area full of active geysers and hot springs in the middle of summer. The sun in this area of the country seems particularly brutal, coupled with the inhospitable, but sometimes really colorful, looking landscape around the geysers and springs. Dead trees with extensive, wonderfully creepy looking root systems were upended everywhere against an almost bleached backdrop in places. Fluffs of flowers would crop up, as if giving the finger to the barren ground in defiance. It’s completely wonderful.

Mammoth Hot Springs - Yellowstone National Park

Mammoth Hot Springs – Yellowstone National Park

I’m really kicking myself about not being able to find suitable camping space so that I could romp around inside the park at sunset. Each day I spent hours walking around in the heat, ending up exhausted well before 6 or 7pm and having to pack it in for the night. At some point in the future, I’d really like to get out there for a week or so and just take my time with exploration. There’s so much more to see that I wasn’t able to get to. When I go back at some point in my life, I’ll be going early in the morning – bunking off during the hottest hours of the day, then back out to catch the sunset colors as they dance across the hills.

[Here’s the full picture set]