Welcome to our Adventure!

Al and I are thrilled that you have found your way to our blog. We hope you enjoy reading our journal and viewing our photographs of the natural wonder of our United States of America. Let's hit the road together!
Homer, Alaska

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

It's Tiring being a Tourist!

We've spent the last several days visiting as many sights in the Black Hills of South Dakota as we can in the few days we have in between jobs, and let me tell you I don't know how we use to have the energy for doing this back in our previous life!

Monday was very chilly here, cloudy and in the 50's all day, so we delayed our plans to drive Custer State Park, and went to do some inside activities. We first drove to Hot Springs, S.D. to visit the Mammoth Site. On the way there, we found a few big guys hanging out on the side of the road.

The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs is the world's largest mammoth research facility. More than 26,000 years ago, large Columbian and woolly mammoths were trapped and died here in a spring-fed pond near what is now the southwest ledge of Hot Springs, S.D. The bones lay here undiscovered until a developer bought the property in 1974. While excavating the land in preparation for a housing development, the bones were discovered and fortunately, not ignored. To date, 59 individual mammoths have been identified, with countless more waiting to be discovered. The excavation site is now enclosed, and paleontologists from around  come to assist at the dig and further research into these huge animals.

The sinkhole, called a "karst" formed over 26,000 years ago, was 65 feet deep and approximately 120 feet by 150 feet in size. The walls were steep sided, and the animals, enticed by the warm water and pond vegetation, came down into the karst but then found themselves unable to get back out.

Trapped in the pit, the animals eventually dies of a combination of exhaustion, starving and drowning.

The watering hole, active for about 350-700 years, slowly filled with layers of drying silt, sediments, and dying mammoths. The mud, which had aided in trapping the mammoths, now entombed and preserved the mammoth remains.

Eventually the sinkhole filled, and the artesian spring diverted to the lower elevation of Fall River, as the river cut deeper in the valley floor. Over thousands of years, the "hardened mud plug" inside the dried-up pond has remained stable. The surrounding dirt, the soft red Spearfish shale, ultimately eroded, leaving the sinkhole a hill.

Today's visitors can view the dig itself on a 30 minute tour, given by one of the guides in the research area. It was very interesting. These skeletons are not petrified, but actual fossils, and takes a painstaking amount of preparation and care for them to be discovered, cataloged and researched. There is also a short movie on the history of the site, and many recreated exhibits inside the museum area. It was definitely a worthwhile excursion and we enjoyed it very much.

After having some lunch, we drove to our second adventure for the day, Wind Cave National Park. On January 3, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill creating Wind Cave National Park. It was the eighth national park created and the first one created to protect a cave. The parklands at that time were small and there were no bison, elk, or pronghorn. They came later as the park boundaries expanded.In 1912, the American Bison Society was looking for a place to reestablish a bison herd. Because of the excellent prairie habitat around the park, a national game preserve was established bordering Wind Cave. It was managed by the U.S. Biological Survey. In 1913 and 1914, the animals began to arrive. Fourteen bison came from the New York Zoological Society, 21 elk arrived from Wyoming and 13 pronghorn came from Alberta, Canada.

Driving through the parklands to the visitor's center we saw a few of these fellows! At he visitor's center, we signed up for the 3:30 cave tour, and in the meantime, while waiting for the tour to start, took the dogs on a mile walk along the Prairie Ridge Trail...this National Park actually allowed you to walk the dogs on a trail!

The prairie vistas were beautiful...looks just like scenes from "Little House on the Prairie!"

Some curious deer followed our progress down the trail.

There is a faint trail leading through the grasses!

After securing the pups in the truck...in the shade, windows down, water bowl available...it was a cold day so they were fine!...we arrived for our tour. We were taken first to the only natural human-sized entrance to the cave. This is the entrance that Jesse and Harold Bingham found in 1881. They had been attracted to the area by a whistling sound, and upon discovering the entrance, found it by having their hats blown off their heads by the force of the wind coming out of the hole. Upon returning a few days later to show the phenomenon to their friends, they were  shocked to find the wind had reversed, and this time sucked their hats INTO the cave.

The McDonald family bought a mining claim in 1890 that contained this land, and as the claim never amounted to anything, they discovered they could make money by giving tours of the cave and selling some of its unique formations. Alvin McDonald, the son, at 16 years old, spent much of his time exploring and mapping the cave, faithfully keeping a diary and making a map of his findings. On January 23, 1891, Alvin wrote that he had "given up finding the end of Wind Cave". In the summer of 1891, business was improving and more modifications to the cave were needed. A man known as "Honest John" Stabler formed a partnership with the McDonalds. The two families created the Wonderful Wind Cave Improvement Company. Cave passages were widened and wooden staircases were installed. A hotel was built near the cave entrance and a stage coach provided rides to the cave.During the fall of 1893, J.D. and Alvin McDonald went to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago to advertise the cave. On the trip Alvin caught typhoid fever and was never really well again. He died that year at the age of 20. Shortly after Alvin's death, things began to go sour for the Wonderful Wind Cave Improvement Company.

The McDonalds accused the Stablers of keeping profits for themselves and demanded additional money.
Meanwhile Peter Folsom had gained control of the mining claim on the cave. Folsom and the Stablers joined forces against the McDonalds in court with both sides trying to prove that the other party had no claim to the cave. In December 1899, the Department of the Interior decided that since no mining nor proper homesteading had taken place, neither party had any legal claim to the cave. In 1901, the land around the cave was withdrawn from homesteading. It was two years later that President Roosevelt signed the papers creating it as a National Park.

The cave tour is about a mile and a quarter long, and takes a little over an hour to do. Its very different in that it never really opens up into large rooms like most caves do. The passageways are all very thin corridors. There are currently 138 miles of passageways mapped out in a very small space, with unknown numbers still left to be explored and mapped.

Small, knobby growths of calcite on the cave walls are called cave popcorn. Popcorn commonly forms in one of two ways in the cave: where water seeps uniformly out of the limestone wall and precipitates calcite; or, when water drips from the walls or ceilings of the cave and the water splashes on the floor or on ledges along the walls. This splashing action causes loss of carbon dioxide and the subsequent precipitation of calcite.

The most famous and prominent feature of the cave is called boxwork. Boxwork is made of thin blades of calcite that project from cave walls and ceilings, forming a honeycomb pattern. The fins intersect one another at various angles, forming "boxes" on all cave surfaces. Boxwork is largely confined to dolomite layers in the middle and lower levels of Wind Cave. When Alvin McDonald started taking people on tours, they also broke off these fins and sold them as souvenirs, figuring they would grow back quickly. Not so, Sherlock! So they stopped doing that, fortunately, and today we still have beautiful examples of it in this cave system.

Close up view of the boxwork

After our tour ended, we retrieved the pups from their nap, and took another hike in the park, the Elk Ridge Trail. Another beautiful walk through the rolling plains.

On the way home we found a few buffalo!

A couple were nice enough to pose near the sign so we won't forget where we were :-).

Traffic comes to a complete halt...not a good idea to hit a buffalo!

One last shot, up close.

It was a fun day, and a late dinner by the time we got back to the campground. We popped into bed early, as we had a spectacular drive coming up the next day....the Wildlife Loop, Iron Mountain Road, and the Needles Highway, as well as the first sighting up Mount Rushmore along the way. So come on back for the next installment :-). 


  1. Great pics! Isn't it amazing the slower pace of life in this lifestyle? Absolutely love it! I really liked Little House on the Prairie when I was growing up. :-) Have fun!

  2. Great photos and you sure make me want to visit the Mammoth Site.

  3. Looks like the sights were worth the energy expended:) Custer State Park is one of our all time favorite places.

  4. Nice to have a chance to see some of the parts we missed in the Black Hills. You are right, there is so much to do there and it would take more time than we had available. I am amazed at how much the color of the landscape has changed just since we were there in late July. Looks like fall is coming to the hills. Thanks for a great story.

  5. Isn't it beautiful there? Save some for next time :)

  6. Custer State Park is one of my favorites too. The Mammoth site is now on my list for my next visit. Great information about both Karen. I think we could stay a month in that area easily and not exhaust all there is to see and do.

  7. Great pictures! Can't wait to see it ourselves next summer!

  8. What is a tourist? Lauree asked me yesterday if the folks that live up north travel south for the winter are called Snowbirds. Then what are us Texans called that travel up north for the Summer? Tourists? Nah. Probably just Texans.

    We have not been to South Dakota, but since they have caves I'm sure we will go someday.

  9. Nice tour- interesting info on the mammoth site.