Badlands, Wall, Spearfish, Devils Tower

We had planned to take our time covering the 200 miles from the campground at Badlands to our next stop, Devils Tower National Monument.   First there was a leisurely putter through about 20 miles of the Badlands Loop Road with several stops at the scenic pullouts.   Then we paused in Wall, SD for the obligatory visit to Wall Drug, where we browsed the bric-a-brac and took in some milkshakes and ice cream.   (Try the pumpkin flavor, it’s great.)

Next stop was for lunch and groceries in Spearfish SD, and because we didn’t rush it was about two hours later that we were finally back on I-90.   By this point it was past five o’clock, and I realized we’d pushed our leisurely day a little too much.   Our arrival at Devils Tower was projected as 6:45, just about sunset this time of year.

dsc_2482.jpgThere are several reasons I don’t like to arrive that late in the day.   First, it was Friday night of a weekend with absolutely fantastic weather in the forecast, and we thought there was a risk that the national park campground would be full.   (Turns out that’s not a concern at Devils Tower — the campground offers no hookups and no dump station, which encourages people to stay at the nearby KOA. More on that in a moment.)

Second, trying to get into a campground before dark encourages speeding, which is never a good idea with a big trailer behind you.   This risk is complicated by the fact that a dusk the deer are out.   We spotted many mule deer in the last 20 minutes of our tow, and had to slow down to about 20 MPH at one point to avoid a group that was crossing the road.

Third, if something goes wrong, you’re solving the problem in the dark.   I mean problems like a flat tire, a full campground, taking a wrong turn, or backing into a tricky campsite.

And finally, it’s not fun to arrive at a campsite exhausted and grumpy after a long drive.   Fortunately we arrived in a good mood.   The drive across western South Dakota and into Wyoming was relaxing, with beautiful Black Hills scenery, late-afternoon sun lighting up the red outcrops, and the Airstream chasing us along the gently twisting roads.   The campground here was unexpectedly nice, and we pulled in with 20 minutes to spare before the evening ranger talk in the amphitheater.

dsc_2472.jpgIt’s hard to believe this is the last weekend for ranger talks in this park.   Conditions are just perfect: sunshine, cool nights, warm dry days. The old aspen trees that give the campground partial shade are just starting to turn yellow. The campground features big pull-through sites that are well-spaced in two loops, neatly kept and a bargain at $12 per night.   We can see the Tower from our site, and even hike right from the campground up to the trails that circumscribe it.   Best of all, it is peacefully quiet most of the time.   We had budgeted two nights but I could easily be persuaded to spend three, even at the price of skipping Wind Cave on Monday.

We are in “full boondock” mode, meaning that the refrigerator is running on propane rather than electricity, we get our heat from the catalytic heater rather than the inefficient and power-hungry furnace, the stove and oven take over jobs that would have been done by the microwave, and we rely on solar energy to replenish our batteries.   We haven’t plugged into power since we left Mitchell SD on Wednesday morning, and may not see a power outlet for several more days.

Power is no problem as long as the sun shines (and it looks likely to for a while), but we do need regular replenishment of liquified propane gas. In this mode of camping, propane becomes a mandatory supply like fresh water.   Without propane we would lose our refrigeration, heat, hot water, and cooking capability all at once. I normally check the propane before each tow as a matter of routine, but this time of year I’ll check it daily because we can use up a tank (7 gallons) every week if the nights are freezing.

Our first freezing night may be as soon as Sunday.   We are at 4,400 feet, and from here on in we are going to be at higher altitudes until we get to southern Arizona.   It’s hard to be bothered by freezing nights when the days are so spectacular.   Fall in the west can be even better than summer.   Scenic places are less crowded, daytimes are not scorching hot, summer thunderstorms are generally ending, and the hiking can be fantastic.   I wish it could last longer.

Badlands National Park, SD

We were so inspired by Bert Gildart’s article in the latest Airstream Life (Fall 2009) that we decided on this trip we finally had to make a visit to Badlands National Park.   That’s a big part of why we chose to go west across South Dakota rather than dipping south first. And it has been worth it.

Every fall we come back west and the first taste of the west we usually get is when we drop in on a national park.   It puts us right back into the western mood, and that gets me thinking of desert camping, rodeo events, prickly pear cactus, Rocky Mountains, and brilliant sunny days where you can see to the horizon.   Badlands has had that effect.   Suddenly we’re talking about extending the trip and not returning to Tucson until “later.”   No decisions yet, but now that we’re out here in the crisp fall weather, it seems a shame to head back to home base already.

In the Badlands campground we met up with a couple from the United Kingdom who just bought a 1966 Caravel at P&S Travel Trailer Service and are traveling for six months across the United States with it.   Rather bravely, or insanely, depending on how you look at it, they are doing this with a three-year-old and a four-month old child.   That’s a lot of people in a 17-foot vintage trailer with no gray tank, but they seem to be doing just fine and I applaud their effort. We joined them last night for some tea and then a look at the sunset over the Badlands, which is spectacular.

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A note about the campground options here.   Just north of the park by I-90, and south of the park in the tiny village of Interior, are several RV parks with hookups.   These are very convenient to the park itself, so if you want amenities they are the way to go.   We chose the park’s Cedar Pass campground, which has no hookups but does have bathrooms, water, and a dump station for $10 per night plus $1 per dump.   Amazingly, Verizon cell phones work here sometimes, although they don’t in other parts of the park. I’ve chosen to pretend I can’t get online or make phone calls for a couple of days, so we can all relax.   (Posting the blog tonight is the sole exception — because I know a few people are wondering where we are!)

dsc_2379.jpgBadlands National Park is long and narrow, with only one paved road through the park and a handful of short trails.   We were able to hike most of them in half a day, starting with an 8:30 a.m. ranger talk. Most are easy, with no major elevation changes.   The only significant hazard is the unevenness of the terrain.   Even the local prairie rattlesnake is very timid and nearly impossible to spot before it slithers away.

Despite looking rather forbidding, the park is actually full of living creatures.   Once upon a time there were grizzly bears here, but not any more.   There remain: mule deer, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets (nocturnal), ground squirrels, cliff swallows (and many other birds), lots of insects, and other things.   It’s not desolate at all, although it lacks potable water for humans.

The big story of this park is fossils — lots and lots of fossils, and more appearing with every heavy rain.   The Visitor Center has a great exhibit about the geological history of the park, and the rangers hold daily fossil talks.   No dinosaurs, because this part of South Dakota was part of the ocean in the dinosaur era, but they did have one heck of a giant swimming thing that looks like a cross between a T-Rex and an alligator.

dsc_2415.jpgThe park is rapidly eroding (in geologic terms), and in about half a million years they say it will be gone.   So plan your trip soon, and keep an eye out for bones of some giant titanothere sticking out of the clay. I recommend the hikes, if you want to get a good feel for the place.

Stopping in Mitchell for two nights before coming here was definitely the right move.   We waited out some truly lousy weather (50’s, rain, wind) in full-hookup comfort and got a bunch of work done, then arrived here just in time for spectacular fall weather.   (We also got 14.0 MPG on the drive over, now that the horrible headwind is gone.)   It is perfectly gorgeous now, and in a couple more days things will go downhill again, so the timing was perfect.

The only downside of this is that we can only give Badlands just two nights, which is really not enough time to see everything, because we want to get to Devil’s Tower for the weekend.   This is the end of the season in this area and that means ranger talks, guided tours, and evening campground amphitheater talks are becoming scarce.   Those things add a lot of value to the park experience, so we’re going to try to take in as many as we can before it’s time to start migrating south.

Blue Mounds, diesel, and The Corn Palace

dsc_2265.jpgNew Ulm was good for the weekend event celebrating Hermann but disappointing for the lack of German cars.   “Over 100” were projected by one flyer we saw, and in reality eight showed up. Oh well.   We still got to eat bratwurst, listen to traditional music, and watch the battle reenactment. The local paper was headlined, “Romans Will Lose Today — Again.”

We also went back to a used bookstore in town where we’d bought a few books on Friday, and dropped off about a dozen books to free up some shelf space in the Airstream.   That gave us $21.50 in trade credit, and so of course we picked up another eight or ten books.

dsc_2310.jpgAs I promised myself, we are done withe killer long drives, so on Sunday it was a relatively short 130 miles to Blue Mounds State Park in the southwest corner of Minnesota.   Blue Mounds features a bison herd, which wasn’t in evidence when we visited, but our real destination was Pipestone National Monument about 20 miles north.   Eleanor and I visited this park a couple of years ago without Emma and we wanted her to experience it — and of course do the Junior Ranger program, which she did.

dsc_2327.jpgThe campground at Blue Mounds is very nice, although I never did find out what the Blue Mounds were.   For Sunday night entertainment we thought we’d visit the “historic downtown” of the nearby town of Luverne.   Unfortunately it’s one of those rather dead downtowns that are found everywhere in the midwest, and on Sunday night they roll up the sidewalks early.   Entertainment for the evening was limited to “burrito night” in the trailer and a Scooby Doo movie on DVD — and finding diesel fuel.

When we switched to diesel power I knew that we’d face a greater challenge in finding fuel.   That’s OK, because the extended range of the diesel more than makes up for the difference.     We can tow 380 miles, which is over 100 miles further than we could with the Armada. And not towing, our range is 600-650 miles!

What I didn’t know was how tricky fuel stations can make diesel.   There are two types of pumps, for cars and for big rigs.   The big-rig pumps are sometimes labeled “truck diesel” and sometimes the car pumps are labeled “auto diesel” but not always.   The problem here is that the big-rig pumps use a huge nozzle that won’t fit into the car, and which pumps fuel at such a tremendous rate of speed that using it would likely mean a backup in your filler and a giant mess.   When we go to the diesel pumps we have to hunt out the nozzles that will fit. Sometimes the nozzle on only one side is for autos, which can be hard to get to when we have the Airstream in tow

Then there’s the #1 and #2 trick.   This got us in Wausau. Diesel was advertised at $2.62 per gallon, but after I started filling I noticed I was actually getting charged $2.85 per gallon.   Why?   The left diesel pump was subtly labeled “#1” and the right pump was labeled “#2”.   The #2 pump was the cheap one.   Surprise!   (Difference between #1 & #2 diesel.)

Using either fuel is not a problem as long as it is Ultra Low Sulphur Diesel (ULSD), and both were labeled as such.   Across Canada and the US the conversion to ULSD is complete, so this is not a problem anymore, but last I heard there were still stations in Mexico delivering the older formulation of Low Sulphur Diesel (LSD).

In Luverne we learned a new trick.   The station had two diesel pumps, one dispensing “B5”, which is code for fuel that is 5% biodiesel, 95% dinosaur diesel.   I was half-done filling with the B5 before I noticed the little sticker that identified my pump as the biodiesel pump (and 3 cents per gallon more expensive).   Fortunately, Mercedes has rated the engine for B5 fuel.   Still, I’m getting wary of diesel pumps.

This morning we hitched up for another 100 mile drive, this time to Mitchell, South Dakota.   There was some temptation to just plow through to Badlands National Park, which is our next major destination. But that would have been 340 miles of driving, through what turned out to be fairly poor weather.   We were facing a stiff headwind on I-90, which reduced our towing fuel economy to the worst we’ve ever seen with the GL320:   a lowly 11.5 MPG. At Mitchell we gave up and found a campground.   Instead of battling the weather, we’re going to park ourselves here for a couple of nights and work instead.   I’m finalizing articles for the Winter 2009 issue (due out in November), and Emma needs to get hustling on her fourth grade work.   By getting our work done in a couple of intense days, we can all go to Badlands and drop off the grid for a couple of days with clear consciences.

Mitchell is well known for two major attractions:   The Corn Palace, and Cabela’s.   We’ve actually spend a night at the Cabela’s in the past (it even has a dump station, which attracts RVs like flies), but never dropped in to find out what the heck a Corn Palace is.   Turns out it is a sort of civic center/auditorium that is annually re-decorated with murals made of 13 colors of corn on the cob.   It isn’t actually made of corn, which in this climate is definitely a good thing.   A fire at the Palace would be an interesting thing.   You bring the salt, I’ll bring the butter.

The nearby downtown of Mitchell is suffering the fate of so many others, but it is still alive for the moment.   It needs an injection of creativity and boldness if it is to survive. With the Corn Palace nearby, it at least has a chance. I see these places and I think of the differences between the ones that have deteriorated to nothing but trash and decaying buildings, and the ones that are still vibrant (like Burlington VT’s “Church Street Marketplace”), and I realize that often the key is somebody being entrepreneurial and aggressive.   When the old formula doesn’t work anymore, it’s time to invent a new one.   I hope somebody figures that out in Mitchell.

Hot hot hot Springs National Park, AR

dsc_0423-1.jpgI take it back — I can see why we had no trouble getting a campsite at Gulpha Gorge this weekend.   The peak season was probably a few weeks ago, when the heat/humidity combination hadn’t yet hit.   But there’s a nice little creek running past the campground that, while shallow, seems worthy of a dip on hot days such as we have been having.

Being Sunday, the campground cleared out and now we are sitting mostly alone, which feels more comfortable for us. We’ve typically traveled in the off-seasons and are used to mostly vacant campgrounds. I like the extra peacefulness of empty campgrounds.

We decided to take it easy all day, since we’re facing several more days of intense driving.   The first stop was The Pancake Shop, a popular downtown restaurant.   Of course, we all had omelettes.   I’ll warn you that the cheese omelette   does not mislead in its description.   I think I ate enough cheese that I’m now well prepped for a couple of weeks among the Wisconsin cheese-heads — a useful acclimation, since we are indeed headed to Wisconsin this week.

dsc_0389.jpgdsc_0408.jpgThe historic district of Hot Springs does have lots of little attractions, including an Arkansas Walk of Fame, several water-jug filling stations, the Grand Promenade, some tiny parks, outdoor sculpture exhibits, and (as I mentioned before) quite a variety of architecture.   A fair warning to those who are seeking a cool drink:   the water fountains produce cool-ish water, but the filling stations come right from the springs and are hot.   We wandered around, sipped the water, and saw it all, and then dropped back into the blissfully air-conditioned interior of the National Park Visitor Center for the Junior Ranger Program.

dsc_0419.jpgThis has to be one of the easiest badges to get.   Today’s program was simply to make an insect out of colored pipe cleaners.   They don’t seem to go in for heavy history lessons here.   Emma chose the most difficult insect to make, a praying mantis, and the result was pretty good.   The Hot Springs park also offers the best arrangement of kid swag I can recall: a badge, a button, a patch, and a certificate for every Junior Ranger.   There’s no relationship between the difficult of the program and the quality of the goodies at national parks, but I suppose that teaches a life lesson of sorts: Life is like a box of chocolates.   Or something like that.

Today promises to be rather dull.   We have nothing on the agenda except to cover a lot of miles.   I don’t know how far we’ll get but we aren’t off to a promising start since it is already 9 a.m. and the trailer isn’t ready for towing.   We will drive until it seems like it’s time to stop, and there we’ll be.   This is why we usually take a month or two to get from coast to coast.   The fun is in getting there, but only if you’ve got time to stop.   I’m very much looking forward to arriving in Wisconsin, when we will finally be back on the original schedule and able to hang out for about 10 days.

Hot Springs National Park, AR

At long last, we are back in a National Park, Hot Springs in Arkansas.   I really feel like these are the places we belong.   They are all different, yet every one feels like home.

To get here we had a relatively mild drive along I-30 through quiet parts of east Texas, then a winding scenic drive of about 30 miles through the hills and lush green forests of Arkansas.   I’m still on edge about the mechanical things, so the slightest lurch or squeak got my attention, and when we exited the highway for the back roads we began to hear strange clunks and thumps from the hitch.   The noises had no particular pattern except that the only occurred when we were turning, and then the sound varied from a light thump to a series of clunks.   It sounded as if stress was building up in some part of the Hensley hitch and then being released unevenly.   Naturally, my first thought was that somehow our newly-reinforced receiver had developed yet another crack, but upon inspection in the campground (with a flashlight), all of the welds appeared perfect.   My presumption at this point is that the Hensley is making a bit more noise than usual because we’ve got the strut jacks tighter than we did with the Armada.   I’m going to try a little silicone spray on the stinger and upper connections to the strut jacks to see if this quiets the hitch.

That niggling issue aside, everything else is great.   The campground at Hot Springs (called Gulpha Gorge), is shady and attractive, nestled in a river gorge with newly renovated full-hookup sites.   There are only about 30 sites, and 1/3 of them are still undergoing renovations, yet we had no trouble getting one on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. on Father’s Day weekend.   I can’t understand why it’s not more popular.   For anyone visiting historic Hot Springs in an RV or travel trailer, this is a great place to stay.

dsc_0320.jpgdsc_0356.jpgOn the other hand, Hot Springs is filled with historic hotels and bathhouses, and the variety of architecture in and near downtown is fantastic.   We dropped into the Arlington Hotel just for a look.   It would be fun to spend a night in it or one of the other hotels in town.   The buildings seem to fall into three general styles:   late Victorian, Art Deco, and 60’s modern.   On the fringes of the downtown area a lot of the architecture is in disrepair, and I get the sense that this area is just aching for a massive preservation movement and revitalization.   As it is, the Central Street area is pretty lively, thanks largely to the historic hotels that are still active and the presence of the national park service.

dsc_0336.jpgdsc_0362.jpgThere is of course the usual tourist stuff (amphibious boat tours, wax museum, various “gift” shops), but it is easily ignored if you don’t care about that stuff.   Take a walk on the brick-paved Grand Promenade walking path instead, just above downtown and behind the regal bathhouses that line the north side of the street.   There are thousands of hot springs on the Hot Springs mountain, and you’ll see them all capped by green boxes (to preserve the water source), but a couple of them are left open for viewing purposes so you can imagine how the mountain looked when all the springs ran wild.   You’ll only see this if you get off the shopping trail and up on the elegant walking path.

dsc_0342.jpgFrom the campground it is about three or four miles by car to downtown,   or you can hike up and over the Hot Springs Mountain in about 2 miles.   But even though we love hiking, there’s no chance of that this weekend.   It’s too hot and humid for enjoyable hiking, even in the early morning.   The humidity helps keep the heat in place, and so it never seems to cool off here.   We wake up in the morning and it’s still 80 degrees with humidity that slaps you like a hot wet blanket.   The next time I hear a Tucsonian complain about how hot it is in the summer, I’m going to buy them a one-way ticket to Arkansas or Missouri.   Tucson is much nicer this time of year.   At least it is dry, and it cools off overnight so that we have refreshing early mornings.

I will give this area credit for not having hordes of mosquitoes.   I don’t know why, but I have yet to see a biting insect since we arrived in the Land of the Humid a couple of days ago.     Being from the northeast I fully expect to be riddled with bug bites whenever I’m near a forest this time of year.   I won’t question it — just roll with it.   I’ll donate blood to somebody’s larvae later this summer anyway.

Since we are on a schedule (groan) and still hustling to make up for two weeks of delay, we can’t stay long.   But since this is the first time since we began our trip that we are spending two nights in the same location, we’ll relax today.   Emma will do the Junior Ranger program at the NPS Visitor Center, we’ll walk in town a bit, and drop in on some place for a leisurely lunch.   I doubt we’ll do much more than that.   After 1,200 miles of driving in four days, we all feel the need to decompress a bit, and in my case (since it’s Father’s Day) I expect that may call for an afternoon of reading with the air conditioning turned down to 72 degrees.