Eight Days On The Ground
We flew into Jackson, Wyoming, one evening, with plans to leave early in the morning out of Rapid City, SD, a few days later. In total, we had 8 full days on the ground, plus a late evening the day of our arrival. One aspect of our trip that most families will not be able to duplicate is a late in the season arrival, specifically a week or two after most schools had started. If you can find a way to do this, I highly recommend it, as the crowds were much less than we had heard about.
We had rented a car online from National, one of the larger car rental companies, with the assumption that the car rental place was at the airport, which is usually the case. Bad assumption. The car rental facility was in Jackon, a 15 to 20 minute ride from the airport. As if that was not bad enough, it took a solid half hour for the shuttle to arrive. Yet worse, when we called the local office, nobody answered! So there we were, in a dinky little airport, standing around with fellow customers, hoping to God the shuttle would show up. Just about the time we had decided to get a cab or check with another company, the shuttle arrived.
On the plane, and then in the car, I drove my wife crazy with a little song I made up. Our kids, ages 5 and 7, loved it, however, and my wife eventually came around to it. It is sung to the tune of the Johnny Cash song “Jackson”, complete with the deep drawl, and goes like this:
Eagles, bison, grizzlies,
Coyotes, wolves, and elk.
Geysters spewing bubbling,
Fun fun all around.
I’m going to Jackson,
And then to Yellowstone.
I’m going to Jackson,
Where the buffalo roam.
A great thing about the pace of this song is that it is easy to make up new versions. Over the days, especially while in Yellowstone, we likely sang 50 versions of this.
Although our plane arrived at before 6:30 PM at Jackson, by the time we had dealt with all the car rental nonsense, it was after 7:30. We had already booked a room at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park, approximately a 2 1/2 hour drive from Jackson. Nevertheless, knowing it would add up to a late evening, and a long day, we elected to dine in and walk around Jackson.
If I could do over, I would have scheduled the first night in Jackson. I can’t tell you what was so great about it, other than it was simply pleasant. At dinner we struck up a conversation with a local architect, hanging out with his 2 dogs at a local café. The conversation was great and the surroundings were awesome. What can I say? Nevertheless, we had an agenda, so off we went.
We drove into Yellowstone just before midnight, almost hitting an elk as we rounded one of the first bends. We were frightened, then delighted. The wildlife in Yellowstone is tremendous.
We were quite impressed with The Old Faithful Inn. Friends had told us great things about it, and online reviews were very positive. I’ve never been any place in the world quite like it. If you are going to Yellowstone, do your best to stay at least one night here. Note that if you call and it is booked, keep checking. Rooms come available at the Yellowstone lodges all the time.
The Old Faithful Inn has the world’s largest log cabin atrium, a site in itself. As I approached the hotel, I could just see Old Faithful erupting by the moonlight. Timing is everything.
Early in the morning, we enjoyed a buffet breakfast at The Old Faithful Inn. Meals at this lodge were some of the best in the park. Don’t try to find anywhere else. You’ll just drive half an hour or more to find inferior food at another lodge. Note that there is also a coffee, snack, and ice cream shop just off the lobby. If all you want is a quick snack, this is a good option. I recommend, at some point in your stay, enjoying a coffee or ice cream from here, carrying it up to one of the atrium balconies to enjoy. There is ample seating; and it is a one of a kind experience.
The first thing we did after breakfast is walk the 200 yards or so to Old Faithful. Of the geysers, unless you are exceedingly lucky, this will be the most dramatic of the geysers you will see, and it will not disappoint you. There are benches around it to wait and then view. All the seats are great.
Next we went on a 5 mile or so hike of the Upper Geyser Basin (map), named “Upper” given that it has the highest altitude of the major geyser basins. On our hike we went from Old Faithful to Black Sand Basin, and back again. All in all, this was a perfect hike, allowing us to see a variety of types of geysers. With more than 50% of the worlds active thermal features, Yellowstone does not disappoint. Thermal features are everywhere. The wildlife in this part of Yellowstone is less abundant, although we did walk parallel to a coyote for a while.
After the hike, we returned to the Old Faithful Inn for a hearty lunch buffet. Excellent. Again, take advantage of the Old Faithful Inn amenities, as they are the best in the park.
Later in the afternoon, we started up the road to visit the Midway Geyser Basin. We were fortunate to see the eruption of a geyser that apparently only erupts every few hours, which was pretty spectacular. This basin was worth seeing, and had a great little Junior Ranger program that our kids quite enjoyed. The whole family sat in on a talk about the different uses the Plains Indians had for buffalo/bison dung. This was more interesting than you would imagine. Really.
At this point, evening was fast approaching, and our hotel room this given evening was at Lake Lodge, a solid 45 minutes away. Off we went for Lake Lodge. Of the three places we stayed in Yellowstone, this was the most disappointing, lodging wise. The beds were uncomfortable, their was no real view from the window, and the dining options were not great, although they were not terrible, either.
This lodge has two dining options, a quite nice restaurant that is generally overbooked, and a lake front café with fairly good pan style pizza, a miserable pasta bar, and a pretty good Caesar salad to offer. Again, it was not bad, but it was no Old Faithful Inn, either. If we could do over, we would have stopped at The Old Faithful Inn for dinner as we were driving by it.
The next morning we fired out of our room at 5:45 AM, intent on beating everyone else to the wildlife. We wandered up to Mount Washburn, where we viewed thousands of bison at a time. At times, we were right in the middle of a herd that extended as far as you could see. On the side of the road, we stopped to see what was happening with a noticeably large group of wildlife spotters. We found people to be extremely friendly, and quite sharing with their binoculars, etc. On one of these stops, we managed to see a wolf in the wild through some friendly stranger’s scope. We never would have seen it on our own.
We had cafeteria style breakfast at Canyon Village, which consisted of a miserable tasting cheese and ham omelet and coffee, for me. Around the corner we discovered, too late for breakfast, a diner inside the gift shop, in the style of the old drugstore diners, that looked pretty good. We never had breakfast there, but did have lunch there on a different occasion. The food quality was much better than the cafeteria for lunch, and given how the plates of food looked at breakfast time, I think the breakfast fare was also superior. At Canyon Village, skip the cafeteria, go straight to the diner.
Following this we drove toward Lamar Valley, in the Northeastern part of the park. Lamar Valley is known for wildlife, and this was obviously a wildlife day for us. Although we heard stories from people about sighting bears and wolves in Lamar Valley, it never happened for us.
On the way to Lamar Valley, we stopped at Tower Falls. There is a nice hike down to a closer view of the falls, although the end of the trail was closed when we were there. I recommend the hike. The exercise breaks up all the driving, and the view is great.
As we were leaving Lamar Valley, we took a short side trip to a petrified tree. This is only a mile of two off of the road, and then a short walk from the parking area. We had a bit of special treat here as a couple of coyote were trotting along about 30 feet from the parking area. The petrified tree consists of a petrified tree trunk, still standing straight up, a few feet tall. I recommend it, simply for the scientific curiosity.
Following the drive through Lamar Valley, we stopped for lunch at The Roosevelt Lodge. Lunch here was pretty good, and the dining room ambiance was pleasantly and appropriately rustic. I would consider this one of the better dining options, nothing real fancy, but not bad food.
It was here, that we began the second musical aspect of our journey. While awaiting my wife and daughter to return from the powder room, my son and I began sampling music at the counter. We ended up buying “Gunfighter Ballads & Trail Songs” by Marty Robbins, with great oldies including “Big Iron”, “El Paso”, and others. Our kids made us play certain songs over and over, and then over again, which drove us parents a bit crazy. Consequently, I’d almost classify this purchase as a mistake. All in all, however, it was great. Our kids were singing along in the back seat. Good stuff.
From there, we decided it was time for daddy to knock out the rest of the thermal features. The wife and kids were (and I quote) “thermal featured out” from the day before, but dad (that’s me!) did not want to leave Yellowstone without getting his fill. So, off we drove toward Mammoth Hot Springs.
On the way to Mammoth, we noticed large lava flows, hills of volcanic rock, on the side of the road. We got out of the car for a bit to explore this, which was interesting. Be careful, however, if you do the same, as I believe this material can be sharp, as well as not so stable to climb on.
Mammoth is known for its white, terraced pools of hot water. It looked great in the photos, but in person I found it a bit anti-climatic. It is worth seeing, but keep your expectations a bit low. Make sure you walk the entire path if you start at the bottom, as the more interesting parts are all the way at the top and then down the other side a bit. Note that, if you want to do this in an easier way, there is a road that goes up, which provides for some scenery on the way, and which leads to parking around the top of Mammoth Hot Springs.
From there, we dashed to the Lower Geyser Basin. This was by far the least impressive of the three geyser basins. Frankly, I would skip it. If you must see all the geyser basins, visit this one first, as it will otherwise be very disappointing after the grandeur of the others.
That evening we had dinner at the what seems to be the most elegant venue in the park, the restaurant at the Lake Lodge. The food and service here was great, even city like. I recommend dinner there one night. The prices are higher here than anyone else, but nevertheless a fairly good value for what it is.
The next morning, once again, we were on the road at 5:45 AM, once again intent to see lots of wildlife. Today would be a very successful day for us, in terms of wildlife viewing, but not when we expected it. That’s Yellowstone. It comes to you, if you will only just wait.
We did some early morning driving around the Mount Washburn area. A grizzly and cubs had been spotted there rather regularly. We were hoping to catch a glimpse. That morning, it was not to be. We saw lots of bison, elk, a moose, etc., but no bears.
Following a bit of morning driving, pulling off the road a few times to do short hikes or wildlife watching, we went back to Canyon Village for breakfast. Regretfully, my kids liked the French toast at the cafeteria, so we had another miserable breakfast there. I think they were able to taste how non-nutritious their particular version of French toast was, so we could not pull our kids away from it, and frankly did not have the desire to be too disciplined on a family vacation. Learn from me, don’t let your kids try the French toast at the cafeteria. Go straight to the diner in the gift shop.
After breakfast, we went to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. This sight has a couple of trails you have to do. The first is a stairway hike on the south rim called Uncle Tom’s trail which leads down to the base of the upper falls. This is a fairly rigorous hike, but seemingly OK for anyone in reasonably good shape, as long as you take your time. It is not necessary to be a super athlete, you just need to pace yourself.
We also did a very easy hike, more of a short walk actually, along the north rim of the canyon, and I mean along the north rim. Watch your step here, or you’ll become part of the scenery below. This is a nice walk with great views.
After the canyon, I finally got to eat at the diner in the gift store in Canyon Village. Consistent with their décor, they served fifties style burgers and fries. I’m not a fast food guy, but I appreciate a good burger, and these were good, especially for park fare.
The gift shop itself was somewhat interesting, and I don’t generally like gift shops. This one, however, has a well organized variety with something for about everyone. If you are looking for good gift shops, try this one, as well as the one in the Old Faithful Inn. They were the best, as far as I could tell.
That evening, we had booked a chuck wagon dinner, which was just up the road, past Mount Washburn, at the Roosevelt Lodge. As we were driving up the road, we noticed a large number of parked cars as we were approaching the Mount Washburn hiking trail parking area. We stopped to check it out, and thankfully so. A couple of minutes later, we were blessed with the sight of a grizzly bear and 4 cubs about 120 feet above us on a hill. Even more interesting, according to the ranger on site, 2 of the cubs were adopted, which is apparently very unusual for the species. This was one of several highlights in our 8 days on the ground.
The chuck wagon dinner was a bit disappointing, not terribly authentic, in particular, although I’d nevertheless recommend it. It involved a fairly short and gentle chuck wagon (actually a horse pulled unauthentic thing with a bit of chuck wagon like characteristics) ride to a location out of site of roads, etc., where a barbeque was served complete with a bit if live country music. Again, I recommend it. In our case, regretfully, our guide was a bit of a bore, and we expected a bit more authenticity in the chuck wagon itself. Regardless, it is a great experience if you’re city slickers like us.
That evening, we booked at the Canyon Lodge, which once again was to take us past Mount Washburn, where again we were to be treated, this time to viewing a black bear and a cub, from only about 30 feet. Unlike with the grizzly earlier, there was no ranger around for this time, and it made a noticeable difference in the sensibility of people’s actions. There were a couple of Brazilians that were walking up to within 10 feet of the bear and cub, laughing and posing for pictures. All I could think was “buffer”, as in “food to slow down the bear” before it can get to us!
Several people in the park recommended a book to us called “Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park”. We’ve yet to read it, but assume it is interesting given the number of people that mentioned it. Reading it prior to a trip would be even better, it seems.
Another topic to bone up on before the trip is super volcanos, of which Yellowstone is one. There are a few documentaries that air on The Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel. I recommend you watch one of them, buy a book, a video, or something, before you go. This aspect of Yellowstone is very interesting. A related book I would recommend, but only for those that like somewhat quirky science readers, is Ghosts of Vesuvius by Charles Pellegrino. I liked it so much I read it twice.
The next day, early in the morning, we left Yellowstone to head to Cody, Wyoming, a western town founded by and named after William Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill. Yeehaw!
As we were driving out of Yellowstone, I felt a bit surreal, as if I was saying goodbye to something really incredible, one of the great wonders of the world, and a tie to the earth’s volcanic past, perhaps to never return again in my lifetime, and perhaps for our kids only to return with theirs. I’m not a religious person, but the best way to describe it is to say it is like saying goodbye to God.
“Thanks for letting me stop by. Nice to finally meet you. See you later. I’ll never forget this.”
Yellowstone is a wonderful and special place, a place of which we now have fond memories, but alas it is not easy to get to, and there is a whole world to explore.
The drive out of the East Entrance of Yellowstone is quite beautiful Drive, and known for wildlife. We saw a good amount of bison, elk, and deer, as we headed East.
A few miles out of Yellowstone, and about half an hour before Cody, we stopped at Crossed Sabres. This was a personal thing, as I’ll explain, but it touches on cultural observations and trends in this area.
Crossed Sabres was a camp, in our case a place where numerous cousins, brothers, and sisters of my wife had stayed before. It is an old style camp where one grows up as they get in touch with nature, rugged style, by way of horseback riding, rafting, hiking, etc. But it was closed, foreclosed on by the bank, and vacant as we approached it.
There was a fireman on site preparing it for a forest fire that was feared to be heading that way. We talked about how times are changing, how people do not choose to do these types of things anymore. Apparently, in this particular case, the owners had made a couple of errors along the way that contributed to their fate. Regardless, we had heard about this place for years, and were sad to find it no more.
We also talked to the fireman about all the dead trees we were noticing. He told us it was due to a type of weevil, or something like that. The interesting thing about this, however, is that he, and several others we talked to on the trip, referred to it as simply nature running its course, perfectly natural. They seemed to harbor no regret at the loss of foliage, a loss that will likely last for their lifetime. Nature rules out here. Perhaps they have learned from the Indians, don’t mess with Mother Nature.
By the time we made it Cody, we were hungry for breakfast. We moseyed our car up beside a couple of local looking types and asked them where the best place in town for breakfast was, to which they replied “The Irma. That’s where we’re headed. Yeehaw!” OK. I added the “Yeehaw” part, but they would have said it if they thought of it, I just know it.
As far as I could tell, The Irma was the only place in town to have any type of reasonable breakfast. We had read about The Irma already, knowing it to be a hotel with history, having been originally built by Buffalo Bill Cody. Breakfast was a hearty buffet, pretty good, consistent with the ambiance, and a fair price. I recommend breakfast at The Irma.
We ended up staying the The Irma, as well. This seemed to be the nicest hotel in town, which is dominated by budget hotels. It is an interesting thing about this area, it is void of first world tourism, although full of discount roadside motels, a bit like stepping back in time. Clearly the people that normally fly to places hardly ever come to this part of the world. What a shame.
As for The Irma, we were quite pleased with it. The room was comfortable and well appointed. Additionally, we enjoyed the history and authenticity of it.
Cody is best know for The Buffalo Bill Historical Center, a well respected set of museums often referred to as the “Smithsonian of The West”. Although we kept reading and hearing about this set of museums, until our second day in Yellowstone we had planned on skipping Cody and these museums, thinking it would simply be “here’s the saddle he rode on and here is his actual holster” type of stuff, boresville, we were afraid.
Thankfully, after about the 100th person told us we simply had to go, we decided to work Cody and The Buffalo Bill Historical Center into our schedule. Not only were we pleased, it was one of the highlights of our trip, as was Cody in general.
The Buffalo Bill Historical Center consists of 5 museums, The Buffalo Bill Museum, The Whitney Gallery of Western Art, The Plain Indians Museum, The Draper Museum of Natural History, and The Cody Firearms Museum. Additionally, there was a significant display of Western art on display for an upcoming auction, which was like a separate museum in itself. We arrived at the opening, and left as it closed. We really rushed our visit, and thought of going back a second day, but just could not get ourselves to go back into a museum after a full day before, regardless of how spectacular it is. And it is spectacular.
Each of these 5 museums is worthy of an article itself, but let me herein give a brief review. The Buffalo Bill Museum is somewhat what you would think it would be, and it is a lot of “here’s the saddle he rode on and here is his actual holster” type stuff. However, it is extremely well done. This museum teaches much about Western history and the value of myth within its culture, and for that matter of the United States in general.
I grew up enjoying Western novels, like those by Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey, and Western movies with Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, etc. I believe I was attracted to the independence and generally resolute character of the main players in these movies. My city slicker family, however, had not had this same exposure, so they did not share the interest whatsoever.
This entire trip allowed me an opportunity, not at all thought out in advance, by the way, to share this interest, and in an engaging manner. I believe that much of what makes up the American character comes from the pioneering spirit that settled the west, and for that matter the myths and legends that came out of it. The USA is a risk taking, ass kicking, “just do it” country. Going across the country in a wagon, not knowing behind which tree awaits a hostile native, not sure of where you are, having no idea of how you’ll survive, when there is a perfectly good concentration of civilization behind you, is something that would only be done by opportunity minded people.
God bless America.
Looking at the founders board at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, which I did early on in our visit as I was curious how such a substantial set of museums could be located essentially in the middle of nowhere, makes me think this opinion is shared by industrialists within our great country. The list is a who’s who of industry, with the founder apparently being a Vanderbilt that married a Whitney, two major business families.
The Whitney Gallery of Western Art is a fantastic art gallery. Frankly, until this museum I was a bit turned off by the whole art thing. Perhaps I’d seen one too many times a person at a modern art musueum or display looking at a piece and saying something ridiculous like “Oh yes, I can see the artist’s pain in that simple blue square”. Give me a break.
This museum, however, had no such nonsense. Every piece of art was substantial, real, and beautiful. I enjoyed it as much as any art museum I’ve ever been to. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a lot more art, and more notable art, I suppose, but in terms of percentage of art that I truly enjoyed, this was much better.
The Plain Indians Museum highlights the history and travails of the Plains Indians, pulling no punches with regard to the role of European settlers in the area. Once again, it is extraordinarily well done, interesting, and educational.
The Draper Museum of Natural History does a fantasic job of educating its visitors about local nature. The displays are first class, with separate pods for each of different environments. Some of the displays are grand, huge displays hanging from the ceiling, etc. Clearly no expense was spared in these museums.
The Cody Firearms Museum claims to be the world’s largest display of firearms. I do not doubt it. One case after another, with 20 guns per case or so, each with explanations of why it is interesting and how it contributes to the museum, line the floor of the museum. All in all, as I recall, there were 3,000 or so firearms on display, a large percentage of which are quite rare. Also well done was a mock up of a gun manufacturing plant, a bear hunters (I think that is what is was) tent, and and old store selling gun and knife parts. If you like guns, you’ll love this place. Even if you do not like guns, unless you’re just outright disgusted by them, you’ll appreciate a walk through.
The original home of Buffalo Bill, an authentic log cabin, and some incredible sculptures, the most prominent of which was made by the founder, we were told, are located on the grounds of the museum properties. There is a great café inside, with a nice selection and reasonable prices. I recommend eating lunch there to minimize down time, as we did. There is much to see.
An additional treat, at the time we were there, was a display of art for a fund raising auction. Consisting of art from some of the most prominent western style artists, we were told they had raised $25 million dollars the year prior, and expected to raise even more in the one coming up. For us, it was like a bonus museum.
We left the museum at closing time, heading back to the Irma to check into our room and then go downstairs for the gunfight. Yes, gun fight.
Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickock, and some outlaw characters have a little gunfight each night outside the Irma. They mixed in some education on what it meant to be a bullwhacker, gun safety, etc. This is good fun, tasteful, albeit loud. There is a great little coffee shop just across the street from the Irma (not on the main street, but the other one, I forget the name of the street) which serves great coffee and smoothies in case you would like to enjoy a little beverage during the show.
That evening, upon learning that the gunfight characters would be strolling around the dining room, we decided to dine, once again, at the Irma. The food was buffet style, reasonably priced and reasonably good. Having Buffalo Bill sit and talk for a bit was also nice.
After this, we left for the Cody Rodeo. This rodeo is held every night during the season, and does a great job of educating the high proportion of rodeo novices that attend this particular rodeo. When in Rome, due Roman stuff, when in Cody, go to the rodeo after the gunfight. Make sure to work this into your schedule.
We had such a great time in Cody, we decided to stay another day and night, quite an upgrade from a city we were not even going to stop in. The plan was to knock out some more of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center the next day, as we had clearly rushed it the day before. The next morning, however, we decided to loaf around, then went rafting instead. Having been rafting before in Squamish, just north of Vancouver, we found this to be a bit lame. The kids, however, preferred it as it was not as intense as Squamish had been.
After that, we went to Old Trail Town, a collection of authentic Western buildings that someone had moved to Cody as an attraction. This was interesting to us, and likely interesting to the true enthusiast, but it should be skipped by most travelers. We met the owner on site, who was a delightful man and clearly one with a passion for these things. Although it pains me, I have to be honest; it was boring. Do yourself a favor and skip this one.
By time time we made it back, it was time for another gunfight, followed by dinner, then another evening at the rodeo – all as fun the second time. For dinner, we went to La Comidas, a short walk from the hotel, which had apparently been written up in Bon Appetit or some other prominent dining magazine. We could only assume someone has a relative at the magazine as the food was absolutely miserable. Imagine your college chums making Mexican food and you’ll not be far off. Nothing was good, of the few things we had.
The next morning, early yet again, we were off to Thermopolis, Wyoming, to The Dinosaur Center. At the last moment, specifically the night before, we tried to book a spot in the daily dinosaur dig. As a participant, you go out and participate in a dig for the day.
We could not get in, as hard as I tried. In hindsight, we were thankful. It seemed like it would have made for a long day. Doing the tour to the dig sight itself was enough.
Although this site is apparently rather significant, and although we are very interested, as a family, in this sort of thing, it was a bit unclimatic. The center sits in a large metal shed off of a side road in a small town. The whole time we were there, in the middle of the day, there were only a couple of other groups there. And in the end, a dinosaur dig is lumpy mud. The lumps are 100 million year old bones, but they are lumps in mud, nevertheless. If we could do over, we would have skipped this part of the trip. We had a lot of driving. Taking out this couple of hours would have been welcome.
In Thermopolis, a couple of people told us about the beautiful drive down into a canyon just a few minutes south of Thermopolis. Given that it was so close, we decided to check it out. It was beautiful, and unique, but not worth the extra half hour. Again, we would have skipped this as we simply had too much driving already.
This is a good opportunity to complain about the Subway in Thermopolis. When I suggested that 3 pieces of pepperoni were insufficient for a pepperoni wrap, the owner snapped at me, told me she would be charging me for extra meat, then told me I could call the home office if I had a problem with it. All I could think of was that perhaps she forgot that a town with 3,000 people in it might not be a good place to open a Subway. If you are in Thermopolis, stop by and say hello. She clearly needs the business. Her personality certainly isn’t pulling them in.
Leaving Thermopolis, we drove, and drove, and drove. Then we drove some more. After that, we drove, after which we drove a while. What a long drive. Wyoming is a big state.
Our next stop was Gillete, Wyoming, a destination decided on when we got to it. The driving was beautiful, high mountain passes, gentle country praries, miles and miles between towns with populations under 100, etc. By the time we made it to Gillete, it was late, we were exhausted, and we realized we could decide in the morning whether to do a side trip to Devil’s Tower and that regardless, we were less than an hour away from our next (certain) destination, Deadwood, South Dakota.
In Gillette, we stayed at the Comfort Inn & Suites. The room rate of $149 was more than I expected to pay in this part of the country, but after so many hours of driving I was in no mood to bargain, and certainly in no mood to begin driving around. I would think one could Priceline this city and get a pretty good deal.
At the Pizza Hut next door, while having dinner, we discovered something about Gillette we did not know, not that we knew anything about it, for that matter. Gillette is home to the world’s largest producing coal mine. Tours are offered during the season, but regretfully they had stopped a week or so before our arrival. This is the downside of a late in the season trip. The crowds are very low, but things are beginning to shut down.
We hit the road early, heading East toward Deadwood, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We had decided that the hour or more out of the way to Devil’s Tower was too much given all the driving the day before. We were all tired of driving. To our surprise, we discovered that for a brief stretch along I-90 you can see Devil’s Tower in the distance to the north. Given this, we were even more pleased we did not take the side trip. Keep your eyes peeled to the North as you travel East out of Gillette, as you can only see it briefly.
A couple weeks later, we heard that were were only a few miles away from a buffalo jump, which I now know to be the Vore Buffalo Jump in Sundance Wyoming. A buffalo jump is a cliff that Native Americans would stampede buffalo off of in order kill them for their meat, fur, etc. I can’t say whether this site is interesting or not, but I’m told it is. If we would have known about it in advance, we would have stopped.
After finding out that Deadwood had become a casino town, we questioned whether to even go. We are not casino people, although I know others like it. Our interest in Deadwood centered on the history of it, which had been renewed by the HBO series called Deadwood. Once we found out that it had become a casino town, we were afraid it had been permanently ruined, at least for our purposes.
We knew, however, that the most productive gold mine in the history of the world is located there, the Homestake mine, which went along ways toward building the Hearst fortune, and we were interested in taking a tour of it.
We did not know that the Homestake Mine is not located in Deadwood, but instead is located a few miles away in Lead (pronounced “leed”). As we discovered, the activity over time had transferred to Lead, with Deadwood largely dying out. In the past few years, however, Lead was dying out due to the closing of the Homestake Mine, while Deadwood is in the process of revitalization due to all the casino activity.
As you might guess from the prior couple of paragraphs, we discovered Lead to be what we were looking for, and Deadwood to be more for casino types. Casino types are idiots, as far as I’m concerned. I simply do not like to be around them. Lead, however, turned out to be quite enjoyable. I highly recommend the tour of the Homestake Mine. Regretfully you do not get to go underground, but they do a great job of discussing the mine and the historical sites around the area on their tour bus.
Afterward, we had lunch at the Stamp Mill, a building left over from the Homestake mining operations, since converted to a dining establishment. This was a great place to have lunch, good food, good prices, nice people, and in a historical structure.
After our inquiry into the history of the area, the waiter followed us out of the restaurant to introduce us to a gentleman that is leading the process of recovering the opera house next door, which had been the victim of fire years earlier. Interestingly, it had built by the wife of Mr. Hearst, who worked hard to improve the quality of life of the employees, it seems. The original opera house also had an underground swimming pool and bowling alley. Not too shabby. This gentleman was nice enough to give us a private tour and talk. I’d like to recommend this to you, but this is a difficult one to reproduce. Nevertheless, our experience says a lot about this city, which is friendly and interesting.
From there, we went to Deadwood. All we had to do was look around to realize it was not for us. The casinos have ruined it, in my opinion. We did, however, go into the Adams Museum and House, which was not too bad. All in all, however, Deadwood is a drive through, unless you like casinos. If you like casinos, it seemed like it had some really nice options, mixed in with some historically significant locales.
Following Deadwood, we drove the half hour or so South to Mount Rushmore. We had not expected much from this, frankly. We figured it would be sort of like that scene with Chevy Chase in Vacation, where you bob your head, say “well there it is”, and then leave. It was much more than that.
We found Mount Rushmore to be a class destination, quite tastefully done, interesting, educational, and patriotic. We were fortunate to arrive as night approached, as each evening is an event. It begins with a talk by a ranger, in our case a talk about Wounded Knee and the sadness around it, followed by a film on a screen in a big outdoor arena in front of Mount Rushmore, followed by the lighting of Mount Rushmore while patriotic music is blasted through the loudspeakers. Very nice.
There is a nice dining facility at Mount Rushmore, with comfortable indoor dining and outdoor dining on a terrace overlooking the Mount Rushmore area. The food here was quite good, and quite reasonably priced. I highly recommend having dinner here, but you’ll need to schedule yourself to have dinner before the evening events as it closes as these are beginning. Also note that there is a great ice cream shop off to the side, which our kids enjoyed. An ice cream cone at Mount Rushmore quite simply makes you happy to be an American.
Another great thing about Mount Rushmore was the visitor center, generously staffed with knowledgeable, friendly rangers ready to assist you with travel tips and recommendations. It was here that a significant part of our trip was cast.
While discussing (with a ranger) travel destinations in the area, I mentioned that my wife was dying to have a Native American experience, specifically that she was interested in going to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and Wounded Knee, but that everyone she mentioned it to told her not to go as there is nothing interesting, it is depressing, and perhaps even dangerous. The ranger instead lit up, noting that we were only the second person in a year that had asked about it and that it was sad that this piece of history had seemingly been forgotten, and told us we had to go. Later he was the one that gave the talk about Wounded Knee. We clearly had hit his hot button.
That night we stayed at another suite type hotel, this time in Rapid City. This would be our last hotel of our stay. Then in the morning we hit the road on the trail recommended by the ranger. The ranger gave us a map with no scale. Eyeballing it, I figured it was 3 or 4 hours of driving all the way around his recommended path through the badlands, down to Wounded Knee, down to the city of Pine Ridge, which is party headquarters, a few miles south out of the reservation to White Clay, Nebraska, then West to Jewel Cave in the Black Hills. In the end, however, we spent 8 ½ hours on the road, making this a bit of a trail of tears for us. However, this was worth it, as perhaps I’ll make clear.
On the way toward The Badlands, we kept seeing billboards for “Wall Drug”, claiming to be the world’s largest drugstore, and I mean lots of billboards, as in 50 to 100. So here we were, headed toward a city that is just a small dot on the map, quite a few miles away from any concentration of population, yet apparently toward the world’s largest drugstore. It did not seem possible. We simply had to stop.
Wall Drug was worth the stop. It is much more than a drugstore, however. There are elaborate play areas for the kids, art stores, jewelry stores, clothing stores, restaurants, etc. It is definitely worth the stop, and seemed like a good place for a country breakfast. Regretfully we had already eaten.
The Badlands National Park is worth the drive West out of Rapid City. If the 8 ½ hours of driving scares you, rest assured that The Badlands can be reached in under an hour, and is very worthy of the drive. The scenery is beautiful, almost like a martian landscape. I strongly recommend at least a side trip to The Badlands. Make sure to look out for prarie dogs, which are concentrated in one area a few miles into the park from the North.
Driving into Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was hardly noticeable. Apparently this is the poorest county in the United States, and this was evident, but rural poverty is not nearly as intimidating as urban poverty. It is simply a trailer with some junky cars, 3 miles of highway, then a trailer with some junky cars, and on and on.
Wounded Knee, for me, was a significant highlight of the trip, but because it is so abandoned.
I know Wounded Knee, now officially referred to as the Wounded Knee Massacre Site, as one of the most significant historical sites in the United States, certainly one of the most significant with regard to the plight of Native Americans. I expected a monument of signifance, perhaps with granite or bronze, lots of placques, and quite official looking. Instead there was a wooden sign with wind worn paint that described the site and a couple of tomato stand looking structures selling dream catchers with a nice local behind one of them that had a fairly comprehensive scrapbook put together in a binder that looked like it was about to fall apart.
Wounded Knee, if you do not recall, was the site of an ugly event in late 1800s. The cavalry came into Wounded Knee to quell what was considered to be an uprising in development, related to a Ghost Dance becoming prevalent on reservations. With the Ghost Dance, the Indians would dance for days, believing that this would result in the departure of the white man and the return of the buffalo, i.e. a return to the way things were. They also believed that the shirts they wore as part of this Ghost Dance were impenetrable, even by bullets. Mistake.
As the cavalry was rounding people up, the situation escalated, eventually resulting in someone firing a shot. In the end, many were dead on both sides, but on the Indian side it was several times more, and not just soldiers but also women and children, counting almost 150 in total. A big snowstorm came in that evening, delaying discovery of bodies. A couple of days later, one of the discoveries was an infant, sucking on the breast of its dead mother.
It was here that the Indians discovered that the shirts in fact were not impenetrable, that the promises of the Ghost Dance were false, and that things were never going to return to the way they were. In short, this is where the Indians were broken. Their heart was broken. Their spirit was killed. This is the spot where it ended.
As Americans, we are particularly remorseful about our “victory” in the American Indian Wars. We have a silent respect for their independence and their respect of nature. Additionally, their blood is largely mixed in with ours. Time has made us forget the sentiment of those days, such that now, in retrospect, we simply feel sad, guilty, or both.
On the hill above the site is the mass grave, which was again interesting because so little is there. There is a 5 foot or so step going to the site itself, with about half of the stop broken away. As you enter, there is a wooden set of 2 posts with a posts across the top, leaning a bit to the side, a worn out looking archway, if you will. Then the mass grave itself is simply a long piece of land with a chain link fence around it, like you would see in any normal backyard. There is a small monument behind the fence on the side that notes the names of those buried there.
Get the picture? This place has been forgotten, and sadly so. For me, the fact that so little is there, and that what is there is in such poor condition, was a very powerful experience.
While there, we purchased a couple of dream catchers for the kids. The price quoted was a bit high, but after her sharing of the story of Wounded Knee, I did not have the heart to suggest a lower price. These are hanging in our kids rooms. Of all the places in the world to buy a dream catcher, this has to be the best.
The lady from which we purchased the dream catchers from mentioned something I did not understand until we had returned from our trip. When the borders for the reservation were originally created, it encompassed an area including that where the Homestake Mine would later be located. Imagine, the world’s most productive gold mine ever, right in the middle of an Indian Reservation.
I’m not sure of the exact details, but apparently a Federal Court ruled in favor of the Indians in the late 1900s, saying that the land was inappropriately taken from them, and awarding them a substantial amount of money. I believe the amount is now $600 million dollars. I say now as the money has not been claimed by the Indians. They refuse to take it, apparently, as they believe it would communicate agreement. They want the land back. After speaking with the lady selling the dream catchers, I think they actually want the land, that they do not want the money, and that it is not a negotiating tactic. They really want the land. It is amazing to me that this instinct remains after so many generations.
It was a lot of trouble to get to Wounded Knee. Upon leaving, however, I had the distinct impression I had been to hallowed ground, and that I was in rare company. I recommend going, but expect nothing. That is what you are going to see.
We then left toward the West, back toward the Black Hills and Jewel Cave. On the way, we took a quick side trip out of Pine Ridge, a few miles south to White Clay, Nebraska. The ranger had directed us to this. White Clay is known for selling lots and lots of alcohol, sitting just outside of Pine Ridge, which itself is dry. With a population of 14 (yes, 14, not 14,000, but 14), it sells 4 million cans of beer per year. With pervasive alcoholism and diabetes, this has been a source of friction between White Clay and Pine Ridge, as you might guess. For us, it was a drive through a small town of wandering drunks. It is only a few minutes out of the way, and educational in its own way. I do not recommend stopping, however. This is a drive by.
Alas, we arrived at Jewel Cave too late for our tour, and could not talk our way into the later one, which was fully booked. I did my best.
On the fly, we decided to instead go to the Rushmore Cave, a privately owned cave a few miles away from Mount Rushmore. This turned out to be perfect. The cave is a nicely guided walk though tour, about 30 to 45 minutes in duration. We were pleasantly surprised by this, and would recommend it. Jewel Cave may be more significant, but this is a cave nevertheless, easy, close to Mount Rushmore, etc. Regretfully, I can’t comment on Jewel Cave, as we were not able to go. It seemed like this was the top choice of people we spoke to, however.
And that was it.
We were surprised at how many things there were to do in an area so absent of people. In our 8 days on the ground, we were busy all the time. I highly recommend a similar trip for anyone, but especially anyone with grammar school age kids.