Above Wind Cave National Park

I find it sad that a majority of people who visit Wind Cave miss out on half the park. They come for the caves, which are fantastic and not to be missed, but there’s this other half above ground full of wonderful wildlife and stunning scenery.

Surrounded by a Sea of Grass

Surrounded by a Sea of Grass above Wind Cave

Scenic Drive Loop

On our second day of visiting Wind Cave, we started our driving tour just 4 miles north of the Visitor Center and headed north on South Dakota Highway 87. This stretch of paved road goes on for about 7 miles, but the first half is full of pullouts that provide views of mixed-grass prairie that roll to and from hill top to hill top. Here we spotted prairie dog villages and scattered bison bulls.

Wind Cave Bison

All Wind Cave Bison are descended from a seed stock of 14 bisons from New York

Beaver Creek Bridge

At the 2 mile marker, the road then passes over Beaver Creek Bridge. The bridge was built in 1929 to accommodate traveler access to Custer State Park, which is also north of Wind Cave. We got a pretty good view of it from a pullout near the Centennial Trailhead.

Beaver Creek Bridge

Beaver Creek Bridge – deck arch bridge built of concrete and steel

Pigtail Bridge

3 miles into the drive, we got to see our first spiral bridge. Called Pigtail Bridge by the locals because of how cars first go straight over the bridge and then around and under it. This bridge is one of several constructed by the South Dakota State Highway Commission during the development of Custer State Park. Designers decided to use local pine for its construction, in keeping with the park manager’s desires to blend into its natural surroundings.

The Pigtail Bridge

The Pigtail Bridge – one of a series of bridges constructed by the South Dakota State Highway Commission during the development of Custer State Park

Pegmatite Pullover

Just a few miles past that, we reached Reaves Gulch where a healthy riparian ecosystem thrived. If you’re observant and lucky you might catch a glimpse of wild turkeys or elk at the forest fringe. We were not lucky.

At one of the stops, I spotted an area that looked like it had been glitter-bombed. It turns out there was a deposit of Granite Pegmatite. These pink rocks formed about 1.7 billion years ago as a part of a large molten magma intrusion into an ancient mountain range.

I found this site particularly cool because there were large inclusions of crystals. Some of the prettiest formations of glassy quartz (quartz crystal that is clear as glass!) are found within Pegmatite. Mica can be also found in Pegmatite. The mica at this found within this pegmatite formed during a slow cooling process. So it looks like sheets of thin plastic fused together. If you’re careful you can peel sheets of mica apart into thin flakes, such that light can pass through it.

Incidentally, mica flakes are used in craft arts as kind of glitter, and high-quality ruby mica is used in capacitors. Yes, I know I’m geeking out about rocks, but they’re cool rocks.

Granite Pegmatite

Granite Pegmatite contain exceptionally large crystals and they sometimes contain minerals that are rarely found in other types of rocks.

Rankin Ridge Nature Trail

At mile five, just beyond the Reaves Gulch, is a short spur drive up to the Rankin Ridge Trailhead. This is an easy interpretive trail every bit worth the hike. It has several stops at irregular intervals, so I really suggest downloading the PDF guide before going on the hike.

Rankin Ridge - View of Southern Black Hills

Rankin Ridge – View of Southern Black Hills

The trail is a 1-mile loop, which starts on a trail that winds up the hill and through a ponderosa pine forest. Just before the trail takes a moderately steep climb, there’s an outcrop of rocks which provides a great view of the southern boundary of the Black Hills.

Rankin Ridge

Hitch climbing up to Rankin Ridge Proper

Once we reached the ridge, we were rewarded with a spectacularly beautiful view of a valley and hills rolling away into the distance. Above there is a decommissioned fire lookout tower, which was once open to hikers but is now closed. From the tower, it’s an easy walk down an old service dirt road, back to the parking lot.

Amazing view of From Rankin Ridge Trail

Amazing view of From Rankin Ridge Trail


Into the Highlands

The forest line then broke open to more rolling hill and plains, and at mile 7, we turned right onto Highland Ridge Road, also known as NPS 5. This is a gravel road which gives visitors access to the less explored northern and eastern areas of Wind Cave National Park.

Black Tail Prarie Dogs love to Yip and Yap

Black Tail Prarie Dogs love to Yip and Yap

Much of Highland Ridge Road is surrounded by Black Tail Prairie Dog Villages, and for a good 3 miles, we had to drive very carefully lest we ended up with praise dog pizza. The prairie dog colonies here are so large you can see them in satellite mapping images.

Lesser Chipmunk

Lesser Chipmunk – a small and common resident of Wind Cave

Four miles from the turn-off, we stopped at Highland Ridge Overlook. here we got a great view of golden grass fields. Here is where herds of buffalo, pronghorn and elk like to roam, but today they evade us.

Highland Hills

Highland Hills – Watch for roaming herds of buffalo and pronghorn

Red Valley

A few miles past Highland Ridge, the dirt road changes name and becomes Red Valley Road, so named for the Red Valley it winds through. Surrounded by cliffs of Opeche Shale, composed of red to maroon shale at the bottom and then topped by lavender mudstone and siltstone. Here we caught glimpses of prairie falcons and meadowlarks

Pronghorn roaming among the grass

Pronghorn roaming among the grass

Back to Wind Cave

Red Valley Road comes to a “T’ at 7-11 road, so we turn right back toward the Visitor center. This road is outside the boundaries of Wind Cave National Park and doesn’t intersect with that land until it meets up with US Highway 385. At highway 385, we turn right and pass Gobbler Ride and Bison Flats before returning to the Visitor Center.

I should mention Bison Flats is another great area for spotting bison, pronghorn, and elk. At the visitor center, there are kiosks describe how these animals were reintroduced to the park. Back before it gained its National Park Status, Wind Cave was a National Game Preserve. So the government shipped fourteen bisons from the New York Zoological Society in 1913. In 1914, fourteen Rocky Mountain elk were delivered from Yellowstone National Park, along with thirteen pronghorn antelope from Alberta, Canada.

Wind Cave Bison Flats

Wind Cave Bison Flats

Best of Both Worlds

There is a lot of stuff packed into this small park, and it’s hard to believe that there could be so much in only 28,000 acres: 140 miles of caves underground, several trails and wildlife above ground. I certainly enjoyed my time at Wind Cave and wished I had more.

Rolling Hills of Wind Cave

Rolling Hills of Wind Cave

Another view of the Black Hills

Another view of the Black Hills

On Highland Ridge Overlook

On Highland Ridge Overlook

Another view from Rankin Ridge

Another view from Rankin Ridge

The post Above Wind Cave National Park appeared first on The Adventures of Trail & Hitch.

One year of living in an Airstream

It’s now been more than a year since we moved into our Airstream. It seems like a good time for a little reflection on where we are today, how life has changed, and how I have changed.

Trailer Life

Living in an Airstream has simply become the new normal. While it always has its own challenges, I don’t feel any day to day regret for giving up a big house and lots of stuff. Nor do I feel like I am dramatically free of materialistic burdens. After all the initial factory issues were discovered and dealt with in the early months, the Airstream has held up great and given us very few hassles. When challenges do come up, we typically have a ready solution based on the experience we’ve built up. I keep thinking it should feel strange, crampt, or weird. But it just feels like normal life.

Our Aiirstream

Home sweet home!

Travel and Adventure

Unlike domestic life in the Trailer, this part of the adventure doesn’t get routine. Nearly every day brings exciting new adventures and experiences. It’s a constant source of delight and fulfillment. From time to time I feel myself get a little jaded but time and time again I get surprised and delighted by something utterly new and fascinating. Travel is simply a great way to spend your time. Because our home is with us wherever we go, we don’t get homesick. Whether in a desert, mountain, river valley, or cemetery we are at home.

Mr Chipmunk eats a nut.

Mr. Chipmunk thinks adventure is great, but nuts are better!

The Blog

Working on this blog has been one of the constants of our journey. This post will be #238 or #239 that we have published. For a while, we were doing a post every day, but we’ve dialed it back a bit. The audience has grown steadily over that time though it’s far from a blockbuster success. We have a few regular readers beyond friends and family, though most of the activity is from people googling for information about Airstream trailers.

Our most popular post by far is Picking a Tow Vehicle for your Airstream. It gets more reads than nearly the rest of the site put together. It turns out there just weren’t many other articles out there on that specific topic. I’m happy that the articles that are most popular are actually getting read. People spend an average of 5-10 minutes on each of them and we’ve gotten a lot of feedback that the advice has been helpful to folks. We are slowly retrofitting some of our other articles to tailor to an Airstream specific audience.

We are making a little money on the Blog through our Amazon Affiliate links. Every month is a little better than the last though its’s still nothing remotely resembling “making a living.” None the less I’m happy with slow and steady progress at this point, and I feel both Trail and I have greatly honed our writing and editing skills in the process of writing these articles.

Glacier National park was chock full of picture perfect scenery.

Glacier National park was chock full of picture perfect scenery.

Making a Living

This is the area where I have done the most soul searching over the course of our journey. A year in and we still don’t have a steady source of income. That is not to say we are on hard times. I have considerable savings and our life on the road is incredibly inexpensive compared to life in Seattle. Our expenses for the year are in the range of 3oK (not including all the initial investments of course).

A year ago, I’d have said that by now, I’d either be making a full-time income on the road or be forced to stop and take up an hourly job. It turns out neither is the case. I’m making only a meager income but still have a pretty big financial cushion compared to our expenses. Ultimately what I ended up doing was taking a long sabbatical from working for money, and pursued working for pleasure while vacationing.

What it seems I want to do is write. Since setting out I’ve written quite a lot. I’ve got a 30K word strategy guide that’s almost done, this blog, two other blogs (though less prolific), and lord knows how many long winded facebook posts and debate board articles. There is also my novel, though that has stalled out at around 8K words for the last couple of months. I think my greatest improvements as a writer have been in self-editing. I’ve gotten much better at reading my own work and finding ways to improve it.

Hot pool in Yellowstone shows vivid yellow and green colors.

Sights like these always make you go Wow! The bacteria here are master painters.

While I’ve written a lot, I’ve done very little to make any money at it. I seem to lack a certain entrepreneurial spirit. We’ve had quite a few money making ideas, but when push comes to shove we have let them go, often making a conscious decision not to commit to a dramatic change, and instead keep on the path of exploration first, making money second in a catch as catch can fashion.

Is that OK? Well, that’s the soul searching part. I have no regrets about having the time of my life exploring America nor do I expect I ever will. The only real concern is that I want to keep living this lifestyle of travel as long as I can muster and I know that means I’ve got to find a way to make an income. I have always been a person who bides his time and then makes a dramatic leap at an opportune moment. I’d like to think all my writing is building up skills and assets which I will cash in on when I truly need to. It’s pretty much my MO.

But none the less, I have doubts and worries. I’ve not lived up to my own expectations, even if those expectations were perhaps out of character with my past behavior. Will I truly suddenly find some kind of financial success? My gut tells me I will, that when needs arise I always find a way to not only survive, but excel in some fashion. But I know it’s not going to happen until I have the motivation to “spring into action.” So when will I do that and what will trigger it, and will it work? It all seems a bit mad, but looking back on my life, it’s always how I’ve done things and it’s always worked out. Do I trust myself too much? Do I simply love the drama of creating a challenge and then overcoming it? Perhaps.

A mysterious grotto in jewel cave.

Traveling, there is never a shortage of things to see. The earth is filled with wonders like this.

Personal Changes

The journey has definitely been good for my health. I am a sedentary creature by nature, but this life of exploration requires some effort. Between hitching and unhitching the trailer and the regular hikes we take, I’ve gotten in markedly better shape. My back hurts far less often and I have at least a bit more stamina than I once did. It’s not especially dramatic mind you. I don’t sprint up mountains without breaking a sweat. We took a 6.5-mile hike up and down a mountain side that left me feeling utterly beaten despite going at a snail’s pace at the end. Yet in the past, I’d have been sore and miserable for days after that. Now, after an hour of rest and cool drinks, I feel just fine.

My weight hasn’t budged, though that doesn’t surprise me. I initially got fat biking miles to and from work every day. Whatever extra calories I’m burning, I’m just putting back on while eating. Trailer life can encourage junk food dining. Long hikes give me serious carb cravings. I also have a habit of putting on muscle mass easily so all the exercise is likely trading one kind of bulk for another. Trail, on the other hand, has seen some real weight loss in our travels and she’s quite pleased with it.

I think that travel has helped me grow as a person, especially in the sense of becoming more knowledgeable about people and places I visit. That is one of the reasons people do it after all. I feel like I’ve come to better understand rural life and sensibilities to some degree. I’ve also gotten a much better sense of what places really “feel” like, not just what they look like. I’ve learned a good bit of American history and had a lot of time and opportunity to ponder the relationship between the US and Native American tribes as well as to learn about the tribes themselves. I realize it’s only a scratch on the surface, but over time I’m sure more and more will sink in. More than anything, I think new knowledge is the ultimate agent for change in life.

Steaming geysers in Yellowstone.

The more you get out there, the more “things” will happen for you. Allow for opportunity.

Social Connection

When setting out I’d envisioned that I’d have more interactions with people we meet along the road. While we do encounter a lot of different folks, the interactions tend to be very surface level. We travel to places that get a lot of tourists and the people we meet are used to talking to tourists. It tends to make the interactions a bit route and routine. I’ve had a few deeper conversations with folks who I can strike up a common chord with, a lot of people react to my Dungeons and Dragons shirts. The bottom line is that as a traveler, you aren’t going to be around for long so making real friends or getting to know people on an intimate level.

I also underestimated how big a role Social Networking would come to play in my day to day life. I knew it would be one of the main ways of staying in touch with friends back in Seattle, and that I’d use it to promote our business activities. What I really underestimated is how it would become my main outlet for casual conversation and interaction with other people. Because it is ubiquitous, the on-line community is now my social center, pretty much my emotional hometown. There has always been a bit of that in my life, but it was at least 50/50. Now, aside from Trail, it’s about 95% of my social life.

The other 5% is when we manage to visit desperate friends on the road. Early in our journey, we did a lot of this. As we’ve delved deeper into the heartland and acquaintances are fewer and far between we’ve slacked off on it. I’ve missed a few folks I really wanted to stop and visit. I need to make the effort to get a formal list of people I want to visit and where they are located so I can take advantage of the opportunities for face to face encounters.

It's especially fun when friends come out and share our adventures. Come on out,, good times to be had!

It’s especially fun when friends come out and share our adventures. Come on out,, good times to be had!

What Hasn’t Changed?

Despite spending lots of time outdoors and in beautiful national parks, and really enjoying most of my time doing so, I’m still fundamentally a cave dweller. I read a lot of murals about the outdoors lifting your wings, fulfilling the void in your heart, and making your spirit soar. Not me. It’s nice, its pretty, it’s peaceful, and it’s fascinating, but I don’t get a huge emotional boost or sense of relief from the rat race being in nature. I more or less “live” in my own head, and I mostly really like it there. While it’s great being in these places and they are inspiring, it just doesn’t light me up the way it does for Trail. I’ve never seen her happier than when we are exploring a new park. That alone makes it all worthwhile for me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great way to live and I love it. But it’s not something I was “missing” in my life before.

Gaming also remains a constant for me. I’d thought perhaps all the adventures and writing would perhaps blunt my time spent playing games. Not so much. It has changed how I play, fewer board games and RPGS, more computer games. Also more casual mobile games and a bit less PC gaming. But overall, it’s about the same. Anytime I’m not doing something else, I’m gaming or thinking about gaming. It remains my life’s great passion and I suspect always will.

Great Horned Owl

I was delighted to discover this fellow while walking in the San Luis Valley.

The Bottom Line

Life is good. I love what I’m doing and have absolutely zero regrets. This feels very much like what I should be doing. More than any time in my life I’m following my heart and that’s a real pleasure. I was feeling a little stale in my day to day life and that has been 100% remedied by this grand adventure. Other than marrying my wife, it’s the best and most gratifying decision I’ve made. I just need to find a way to bring some fiscal balance to this endeavor and sort out how I pay my way forward. I am confident I will find it, but I’ll need to look harder before that happens. Stick around and we’ll find out what happens next together. 🙂

The post One year of living in an Airstream appeared first on The Adventures of Trail & Hitch.

Wind Cave National Park

Bison, elk, pronghorn, and prairie dogs frolic among the tall grass and rolling prairie coated hills, meanwhile below and hidden from the sun, a complex labyrinth lies in mystery. On our visit, the clouds are swollen with rain, and the atmospheric pressure low. Nearby, there is an eerie howl coming from a small rocky opening into the ground. The strong wind coming from this earthen orifice is what gives this subterranean natural wonder its name: Wind Cave.

Wind Cave Natural Entrance

In Lakota culture, history is passed down to new generations through the spoken word. There are many different versions of the Emergence Story, varying from band to band and family to family

Native Origin Stories

A key part of why I travel is that I enjoy listening to stories. I particularly enjoy historical accounts, mythologies, and theologies. When listening to the rangers describe the Lakota’s spiritual ties to Wind Cave, I was enthralled.

Native American tribes throughout the Great Planes have known about Wind Cave for generations. For the people of the Sioux nation and especial of the Lakota, who hold Wind Cave as a sacred place, it is the central location for their world creation beliefs.  Near the visitor center, there is a placard marking the natural opening to Wind Cave as the place of emergence of their people. According to the Lakota Emergence Story, the Pte Oyate or “Buffalo Nation” came out from the opening and to the surface at that exact location. The cave itself represents the interior of a buffalo, covering internal organs, meat, and medicines. After the Pte Oyate emerged from the underworld, they saw the Black Hills as the shape of the buffalo’s exterior, laying down, its head pointed northwest, its tail south, but facing eastwardly.


Black Hills and The Buffalo

A rough diagram which correlates places in the Black Hills with the Buffalo. Wind cave is considered the “Womb.” From “The Black Hills as Sacred Ground: The Chronology and Controversy” published in 2011


Cave Settlers

About five years after the Great Sioux War settlers began moving into the Black Hills in force, and Wind Cave saw its first non-natives visitors in 1881 with Tom and Jesse Bingham. According to Tom, he looked into the opening and his hat blew right off his head. Seven years later, the South Dakota Mining Company filed a mining claim for Wind Cave and then installed J.D. McDonald as manager in 1889. Alvin McDonald, the manager’s son, started recording his exploration trips into Wind Cave with only string and candle light. Alvin’s diary describes the explorations in Wind Cave from 1891-1893 by members of the McDonald and Stabler families, and by people who came to visit the cave.

In 1893, Alvin died of typhoid fever after a visit to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. After his death, both the McDonald and Stabler families fought for years over full control of Wind 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. The lands around the cave were withdrawn from homesteading altogether in 1901.

Alvin’s story captivates me: imagine being a 20 years old and cave exploring caves with only a box of matches, a few candles, and string to help guide you back. I have my high-powered LCD headlamp which puts out 400 lumens, that’s 30 times more light than one of Alvin’s candles!

Alvin McDonald

Alvin Frank McDonald – an early American caver and tour guide at what became Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, the sixth longest cave system in the world, from 1889 to 1893.

National Park Status

In the years leading up to its full National Park status, the U.S. Government decides to survey Wind Cave. In 1902, the survey team logged less than 5,000 feet, but a bill was set in motion to Congress. Finally, in 1903, the legislation passes and is signed by President Theodore Roosevelt. The park includes over ten and a half acres and is the first cave to become a National Park.

Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park – On January 3, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill creating Wind Cave National Park

Modern Cave Exploration

By the time Wind Caves becomes a national park, only 5 miles of cave passages were explored and mapped. A majority of Wind Cave’s modern maps were completed thanks to professional cave explorers and volunteers in the 1960s and later. Over 140 miles of explored cave make it the 6th longest cave in the world, and the densest (most passage volume per cubic mile) cave system in the world. Today, it takes days to explore Wind Cave. Modern rangers and volunteers who require the use of base camps which contain stocked provisions and even a landline telephone.

Wind Cave Map

A 2009 map of wind cave. In the visitor center, there is an up-to-date interactive touch-screen map. (click to view larger map)

Touring Wind Cave

Wind Caves offers five tours, but since we arrived a few days after Labor Day, we could only go on two. Timing is everything with Wind Caves, because after the summer season, your options are limited. According to the rangers, the best time to visit is June through August, because then we would have access to the following tours:

Fairgrounds Tour – For about 1.5 hours, the tour takes you through the upper and middle levels of Wind Cave and covers only 2/3 miles and 450 steps. This is the tour I really wanted to go on, due to the fine specimens of frostwork and gypsum flowers found on this route.

Candlelight Tour – With only a candle, you get to walk around in near darkness for about 2 hours for nearly 2 thirds of a mile. No cameras or electronics are allowed on this tour.

Wild Cave Tour – Of all the tours I regret missing, this is it. According to the ranger, we would have easily made it through the passages, even at our size. The tightest spot is roughly the same as the underside of a car. This is a 4-hour tour that requires a lot of crawling, some squeezing, and lots of stooping.

We decided to go with both of our final options since both tours explore a different part of the caves.

Garden of Eden Tour – For 1 hour and a third of a mile we got to examine beautiful cave decorations such as cave popcorn, flowstone, frostwork, and boxwork. The best room we viewed was the Eastern Star

Natural Entrance Tour – On this tour, we learned much about the history and religious significance of the Wind Cave. We viewed a lot of boxwork formations. The rooms we saw on this tour were Blowhole, Post Office, Devils Lookout, Cathedral, Model Room and Fallen Flats

Wind Caves Tour Map

Wind Caves Tour Map – tours change depending on the season, check frequently to see which tours are available.

Cave Decorations of Wind Cave

As you know by now, cave formations are why I love caves so much. Some deposits look like creepy flesh, while others look like gems that sparkle when you shine the faintest of light. With Wind Cave, there is less active water flow creating some decorations unique to just this cave. Without water, there are fewer dripstone formations, but that also means different kinds of crystal formations can occur. In addition to the kinds of formations found in Jewel Cave, Wind Cave is home to some special kinds of cave decorations:

Boxwork – This formation is rather rare elsewhere in the world but in Wind Cave its common. To give you an idea of the difference in occurrence, over 95% of the world’s known boxwork is found within Wind Cave.

Wind Cave Ceiling

Wind Cave Ceiling – Boxwork is commonly composed of thin blades of the mineral calcite that project from cave walls or ceilings that intersect one another at various angles, forming a box-like or honeycomb pattern.

Vugs – These are pockets within the limestone cave walls. Iside of these pockets are crystals that vary in size, shape, material, and color. They’re hard to spot, but they can be found on all of the tours.

Wind Cave Vug

Wind Cave Vug – A small to medium size cavity inside the rock, which is partially filled by quartz, calcite, and other secondary minerals.

Moonmilk – If you find cottage cheese or cream cheese splattered on the walls, you have found moonmilk. Sadly it’s not made of milk or cheese, moonmilk consists of some kind of carbonates such as calcite, aragonite, or hydromagnesite. And moonmilk most assuredly not from cows, celestial or otherwise; the current theory is that moonmilk is secreted by, or created in conjunction with, bacterium.

Wind Cave Moonmilk

Moonmilk – may be the result of bacterial action rather than from chemical reactions.

Calcite Rafts – Although most calcite forms in lumps, calcite rafts are thin sheets that float on water. The form on the surface of very still cave pools. When a speck of dust lands on the water, calcite crystals begin forming around that grain in a thin sheet. If the calcite becomes too thick or the water is even slightly disturbed the rafts sink. Really the only way you might see this formation is on the Wild Cave Tour and if the ranger guides decide to take you there, but you might see some small ones where pools use to be.

Wind Cave Calcite Rafts

Calcite Rafts – found either floating on cave pools or on the ground where a pool use to be.

I really enjoyed visiting Wind Cave. I find it amazing that the birth of this cave system started as limestone deposited in a warm shallow sea about 350 million years ago and is composed mostly of fragments of calcium carbonate seashells. According to air pressure differential measurements, brave explorers discovered and mapped roughly 5 to 6 percent of Wind Cave, much of which took place in the last hundred years. This means there are mysterious wonders still waiting to be discovered in this awesome interminable network of hollow rock and earth.

The post Wind Cave National Park appeared first on The Adventures of Trail & Hitch.

Colorado Gator

As we drove into the San Luis Valley we started to see a series of large handmade signs advertising the presence of Alligators in this part of Colorado; a place called Colorado Gator. The amateur and run down appearance of the signs gave us some pause. It smelled like a tourist trap for sure. Later, while picking up some groceries I spotted a kind of newspaper they put out. I picked it up while waiting for Anne to finish checking out and looked through it. It promised you could get your picture taken holding a Gator, described some of the reptiles they had, and explained that the place was a kind of wildlife refuge where they took in abandoned pets and cared for them. It actually looked kind of fun and worth supporting. I decided we should check it out.

As advertised, here we are with Chip, who was surplussed by an unscrupulous pet store for getting to big to sell.

As advertised, here we are with Chip, who was surplussed by an unscrupulous pet store for getting too big to sell.

How it got started

The story behind the place is pretty amusing. In 1977 a couple had heard that the San Luis valley had a naturally hot water aquifer and decided it would be the perfect place for a Tilapia Farm. The whole notion is pretty funny since the Valley is a high elevation desert in Colorado, not the kind of place that screams “fish farm.” But sure enough, the naturally hot water lets you raise fish outdoors all year round. The farm was a success but they had an excess of fish guts and waste. Their solution; obtain 100 baby alligators and fed the fish guts to them.

Soon enough people heard about all the alligators and wanted to see them. The owners also became fond of the alligators and became interested in saving those that people had taken as pets but could no longer take care of them. Pretty soon they had all kinds of refugee reptiles and exotic critters at their fish farm out in the Colorado Desert and became a popular tourist attraction in addition to being a working fish farm.

One of the indoor fish pens is home to this serious looking snapping turtle.

One of the indoor fish pens is home to this serious looking snapping turtle.

First Impressions

I really wasn’t sure what to expect heading out there but what we found makes sense. It is both a functioning farm, and a tourist trap, and a kind of reptile charity house all rolled into one. If you haven’t been to many small farms but have been to a lot of zoos, it might seem sketchy at first. Everything here is more or less hand made, including the buildings. There is a lot of dirt and rust and cobwebs and it smells like a farm, aka it smells like there is a lot of pooping going on. The overall feel is homespun and ramshackle, improvising as they go to accommodate the needs of fish, reptiles, and tourists.

Admission is $15 per adult. Kids are less, and many local businesses offer free kids tickets if you buy adult admissions. You can pay extra for such entertainment as alligator wrestling lessons and they have a few snacks and plush alligator toys you can buy. At this point we were still reserved on whether this was a good idea.

I spent some quality time with Durango here, just a really cool animal. Super cool shell and amazing skin, like a walking tank.

I spent some quality time with Durango here, just a really cool animal. Super cool shell and amazing skin, like a walking tank.

Hello Reptiles

Heading into the compound we went through an open area and a young guy said to us “Hey, Durango’s right over there if you want to pet him.” Looking around we spotted Durango who is a Sulcata Tortoise wandering around the yard. He’s about 50lb and the size of a small dog. I was immediately fascinated to be able to get a close up look and gently touch his shell. I’m not sure you can really pet a tortoise or that they’d appreciate it much. They have amazing skin and all kinds of cool bony protrusions. A real armored wonder. We watched him a good while and followed him as he wandered into the main “exhibit hall”.

Here we found all manner of reptiles inside terrariums ranging from small fish tanks for small critters to ten-foot square enclosures for enormous constrictor snakes. While I was struck by how dusty and cobweb-ridden the outsides of the enclosures were, the insides all looked to be well maintained and clean, or as clean as suits the animals living inside them. All the animals looked healthy and well cared for and their enclosures seemed well-suited size wise. There was quite a range of animals and many had some kind of information posted about them. Some detailing the individual animals story of how it came to be there.

This snake is in an old dresser made into an enclosure. Like a lot of them, the outside is grimy but the inside is very clean and well maintained.

This snake is in an old dresser made into an enclosure. Like a lot of them, the outside is grimy but the inside is very clean and well maintained.

Along with the animals was information informing the public that these animals typically make terrible pets and that you shouldn’t try keeping them because they can both be dangerous and most people don’t have the expertise to care for them. Only a few small turtles and lizards were marked as making good pets. Here I began to appreciate that these folks really did care about these animals and were using the money they made to care and feed them rather than make the place look fancy for tourists. At zoos I often feel uncomfortable with the enclosures animals like big cats, elephants, and other large mammals are kept in, they clearly look bored and stressed. With reptiles, I don’t get that impression. They seem pretty content and calm if a bit lethargic.

It’s Gator Time

It’s here that you get offered a chance to get your picture taken holding a young alligator. I love to touch things I’ve not touched before so I was stoked to get my hands on one. The young man pulled him out, told us his name and instructed us on proper handling. I gently took the young gator and we posed with him. After Trail also picked him up. We both marveled at how amazing he was to look at up close. Just an absolutely gorgeous critter. The handler gave us a certificate of bravery and coaxed the gator into biting it for us as a kind of signature. I asked the handler how long he’d been working here. He told me, all his life as he’s the grandson of the founders and it’s still a family run enterprise.

This is one of the camen at Colorado Gator. I love this guys face, great eyes, lovely teeth.

This is one of the camen at Colorado Gator. I love this guy’s face, great eyes, lovely teeth.

Moving along we got out into the area where most of the young gators are, and there are a lot of them. They live outside in pools made from the hot water aquifer so they are warm all year round. Apparently, alligators are pretty resilient to cold so long as they can get back to somewhere warm before too long. Thus despite the cold winter weather, they thrive at the farm. What I was surprised by is that all the gator pools also serve as fish ponds. So in with the gators are innumerable tilapia. All the animals looked healthy and as happy as a gator can look.

After that, we toured the fish farm proper where huge pools of fish at various ages were kept. In addition, they were growing lots of plants here, especially fig trees and bamboo. A hand written sign explained they try to re-use everything and keep a kind of full ecosystem going. The fish water and waste is used as fertilizer and the heat and humidity from the water kept the barn/greenhouse perfect for raising the plants. More and more I appreciated the thought and care that went into the place and how it really was a working farm first and foremost. They even explained what they did when alligators got sick or died. Apparently, most of their casualties are from alligator on alligator violence.

Bruce Almighty, the largest Alligator known west of the Mississippi.

Bruce Almighty, the largest Alligator known west of the Mississippi.

Coming out of the greenhouse you get to meet the real monsters of the park, their oldest and largest gators who get their own pens. One, Bruce Almighty is 12 feet long and weighs more than 600lb. He’s a big fat beautiful monster to be sure. Out here we also encountered roaming chickens, a pen with 3 Emus, and a couple of friendly farm cats that clearly must be Gator savvy to have survived the place.

Finally, you get to meet some of their more special gators. This includes albino alligators and a gator that was once used in a number of Hollywood movies but who is not too big and ornery to continue his career. They also keep some nice camen and a few crocodiles in this enclosure since they don’t fare as well outside as the regular gators do.

These are gorgeous in person but hard to get a good photo of. Note all the fish hanging out in the gator pool.

These are gorgeous in person but hard to get a good photo of. Note all the fish hanging out in the gator pool.

Famous Last Words

All in all, I was delighted. It was kind of pricey but I felt like the money was supporting thoughtful care and feeding of animals that other people carelessly acquired and then had to abandon. It was clear to me the family that runs the place cares about their critters and works to discourage folks from trying to keep these animals as pets. They are not breeding or farming them (except for the tilapia), just giving them a home and letting people get a look at them. I don’t fault them for making tourism a part of their business. When I learned they are dedicated to recycling and re-use the hokey handmade signs they use to advertise are actually quite admirable rather than hokey. I recommend you visit if you get the chance.

Do you have any certifications?  Why yes, I do indeed!

Do you have any certifications? Why yes, I do indeed!


The post Colorado Gator appeared first on The Adventures of Trail & Hitch.

Santa Fe Skies RV Park

We spent 2 nights at Santa Fe Skies RV which means it was just a stop-over for us between Great Sand Dunes in Colorado and White Sands in New Mexico. While our stay was short, I was very impressed by the park, one of the most beautiful and well cared for I’d seen. We were less excited about the price, one of the most expensive we’ve stayed in. If you are looking for something upscale, this is a good pick.

Nights: 2
RV Park Cost: $97 ($48 /night)
Discounts Used: Good Sam
Address: 14 Browncastle Ranch  Santa Fe, NM 87508
GPS: 35.588810, -106.042891
Website: www.santafeskiesrvpark.com


  • Pretty grounds including lots of art
  • Friendly Staff
  • Full hookups
  • Nice Location
  • Amazing clubhouse and bathrooms


  • No Pool
  • High Price
  • Huge Speed Bumps
I thought this motorhome was especially impressive! Great colors and lines on it.

I thought this motorhome was especially impressive! Great colors and lines on it.

The Details

As we settled into our spot here, the first thing I noticed was that we were surrounded by very expensive motorhomes. Most places we go have a mix of the old and new as well as many different styles. This park was packed with gleaming diesel pushers. I immediately asked Trail (who does all our booking) how much this park was costing us. “It’s not cheap,” she replied. And it’s not. Because we arrived at the tail end of a balloon festival, our first night was $55 while the second was $46. After a Good Sams discount it averaged to $48 a night before taxes, and there were a fair bit of those.

Unlike some parks where we have paid a premium, it was clear the folks who owned this one put a lot of the money they made back into the park. Despite the arid desert landscape, they park has a lot of native plants on display and feels relatively lush. Every site has a concrete patio and furniture along with all the usual hook ups. Each appears to be custom landscaped with both plants and unique pieces of art. Every inch of the park was occupied by either attractive sculptures or well cared for antique cars and farm equipment.

Finally a bathroom worthy of a picture in a review. Trail reports the ladies room includes a sit down hair dryer.

Finally a bathroom worthy of a picture in a review. Trail reports the ladies room includes a sit-down hair dryer.

The Clubhouse and bathrooms were likewise stunning, on par with what you might find at a nice hotel or resort. Both men’s and women’s bathrooms had a long row of modern showers, not to mention beautiful tile work and art on the walls. The clubhouse included a wonderful sitting room with fireplace, as well as a full kitchen, patio, and bar. We weren’t there long enough to take advantage but if we’d been staying a week I’d be in the sitting room and patio quite a lot. It’s just a really nice environment to hang out in.

Where this park is a bit weak compared to others in its price range is a lack of a pool or playground for kids. The place has something of an adult vibe to it, great for us, but I could see kids getting a big bored here on a long stay. One thing about the grounds that did bother us where the rather large speed bumps on the main drive. Our rig scraped them hard once coming in, and once going out. No real damage done as it was our hitch that made contact, but they were just too big for an RV park drive.

The location is very nice. The scenery is not spectacular but its back a fair bit from the road so it is quite and peaceful. That said, Santa Fe proper is not far off so there is plenty of shopping and some fantastic food within a short drive. We didn’t do a lot of exploring but it seemed like a great city and a place I’d love to come back to and spend some time. It’s no bargain, but I feel they are doing a good job providing value for the price they charge.

This is the park office, chock full of interesting stuff like so  much of this RV park.

This is the park office, chock full of interesting stuff like so much of this RV park.


The post Santa Fe Skies RV Park appeared first on The Adventures of Trail & Hitch.

Sand Dunes Swimming Pool and RV

Sand Dunes Swimming Pool and RV is aptly named. This place is much more about being a swimming pool than an RV park. That said, both Trail and I very much enjoyed our stay here. It goes to show that there is more than one way to make an RV park a worthwhile place to stay. I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Nights: 10
RV Park Cost: $283 ($28/night)
Discounts Used: None
Address: 1991 Co Rd 63, Hooper, CO 81136
GPS: 37.779339, -105.856391


  • Lots of animals in the park
  • Discount on really great swimming pool
  • Nice Laundry Room
  • Very decent Wifi
  • Nice on-site grill and snack shop


  • No Sewer Hookups at sites (only single dump station)
  • Poor directions for new campers
  • Must pay for extra for swimming
  • Pay showers in RV bathrooms
The Laundry was in this cool cabin along with the restrooms. Coin operated but relatively inexpensive.

The Laundry was in this cool cabin along with the restrooms. Coin operated but relatively inexpensive.

The Details

As RV parks go, this place is like no other we’ve been to. Its primary business is being a local swimming pool / resort but it has camp sites for tents and RV’s as well as a few cabins on the property as well. It is located in a desert but there is a large aquifer located deep underground that supplies them with naturally hot water they have used to make the place something of an oasis. The water comes out of the ground at around 98-110 degrees and they use it not only for the pool but also to irrigate the property, to create ponds, and as the camp water supply. This means your water hook up is also very warm water.

Arriving, we had a few initial disappointments. When you arrive, you need to check in at the swimming pool where they will assign you a space. The problem is they don’t hand out maps or give you any parking instructions. This is a problem because there is a good way to get parked here, and a bad way. The bad way is what the signs tend to lead you to try first. I had to back up my 52′ rig quite a long ways past propane tanks, rocks, and ditches to get back on the right track to park it. While staying there I had to waive off a number of other campers from making the same mistake.

The other big disappointment was they didn’t have full hookups. Sites have power (up to 30′ amps) and water, but no sewer. You have to use the central dump station if you want to flush your tanks. Since we arrived with empty tanks we managed to hold off until we left but if you are there a while you will need to hitch up to flush which is not much fun. They only have 10 sites with water, and 10 more offering only electricity.

Here we are on a windy day at the park. The trees in the park help keep it from being dusty.

Here we are on a windy day at the park. The trees in the park help keep it from being dusty.

The grounds are fairly nice. The warm water allows them to make a number of ponds on the property that host a great many fish and frogs all year round. Trips to the dumpster were always fun as you could stop and watch the frogs squeak and scatter on your arrival. The small ponds are practically choked with fish and tadpoles. Ducks and other birds have also taken up residence there. Much to Trails horror, the place is just about crawling with cottontail Rabbits. The water supply also means they have lots of trees and grass on the site despite its desert location. It’s not a gorgeous site, but it’s fairly pleasant.

The Laundry and bathrooms appeared to be quite new and thus were also clean and in good condition. Outside the laundry was a nice porch with chairs and make a lovely place to sit while waiting for the laundry. Because the park doesn’t have a lot of campers, the Wifi was unusually good, fairly fast and usable at just about any time, day or night. The bathrooms were private which is great, but the showers were coin operated which is less great. There were also only two, and because there are no sewer hookups, they were popular and often occupied.

Not only do you go here to swim, but you also register here when you arrive.

Not only do you go here to swim, but you also register here when you arrive.

Pool Time

What leads me to recommend this park is the Pool and its various amenities. You do have to pay to use it, but you get half off admission and they have various discount packages you can take advantage of. We got a punch card such that we could both go every other night we were there. The pool has a lot to offer and is well worth the price they charge.

The main attraction is a very large outdoor pool, deep enough for diving and wide enough for lap swimming. They have it divided up into three sections, shallow for play, medium for laps and lounging, deep for swimming and diving. It’s warm all year round as it’s fed by the underground water source. There is also a separate kiddie pool inside and a special therapy pool inside as well. The therapy pool is kind of like a really enormous hot tub. Inside there is a snack shop that sells a really impressive array of candy, soda, and other treats. They also rent pool toys of various kinds. Beyond the pool is a nice lawn with picnic areas, a stream, and a small waterslide for kids only.

If you get hungry or thirsty, they have the Mile Deep Grille, which offers a pretty huge array of foods and drinks. You can get Pizza, Hamburgers, Tacos, Salads, Sandwiches, Spring rolls, Pretzels, Shakes, Sundays, and on and on. The prices are pretty decent and the food is surprisingly good. Everything we ordered was very tasty and generous for the price. I was left wishing I could have tried out more items from the menu.

Best of all is the Greenhouse. If you pay an extra $5 ($2.50 for campers) you can go to the adults only area located inside a greenhouse off the main pool. It has a full bar where you can order not only drinks but also freshly baked cookies made to order. True to its name, it’s filled with various tropical and desert plants. It has 3 different hot tubs, a small sauna, and a long shallow pool running down the length of the building for lounging in. Tables and Deck chairs abound and the whole environment is really relaxing and fun. After a long day wandering the desert, playing in sand dunes, or looking at alligators an evening in the greenhouse is simply fantastic.

These ducks appeared to be long term residence. There are also tons of frogs, rabbits, and fish to look at.

These ducks appeared to be long term residence. There are also tons of frogs, rabbits, and fish to look at.

Summing Up

I really liked staying here and would do so again. What it lacks as an RV park it more than makes up for as a swimming resort. There is also quite a lot to do in the San Luis Valley so it makes a good base of operations in the area. The price is reasonable, especially if you take advantage of the pool discount. If you have no interest in swimming or eating at the grill you may enjoy your stay as much as we did.

The post Sand Dunes Swimming Pool and RV appeared first on The Adventures of Trail & Hitch.

Black Hills National Forest

In the western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming, there stands a forest covering over a 1.2 million acres of hills and mountain lands. Rugged rock formations, streams, lakes, caves, canyons, and grasslands intersperse themselves into this amazing ecosystem. This wilderness of thick forest of pine and spruce trees is the Black Hills National Forest.

Pahá Sápa: Hills that are Black

Humans first came to the Black Hills over 10,000 years ago, when people of the Clovis culture, who are considered the ancestors of most American cultures, came to the area. By AD 1500, the Arikara arrived, followed by the Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, and Pawnee. The Lakota arrived via Minnesota in the 18th century and drove out the other tribes, who moved west. The name comes from the Lakota (today known as the Sioux Nation) name Pahá Sápa, which means “the hills that are black,” and pretty much describes how the hills look back then and today.

Cement Ridge Lookout

The Black Hills Forest from Cement Ridge Lookout

European Traders and Settlers

In the 1800s, European fur traders and trappers explored and mapped the area. In 1874, General Custer led an army exploration into the area and discovered gold, which then led directly to the influx of white settlers and miners. Eventually, the conflict between natives and settlers lead to the Great Sioux War or Black Hills War of 1876. The war lasted for a year and lead to a series of surrenders from the tribal bands, then the death of famed Oglala leader Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse Memorial - within the Black Hills

Crazy Horse Memorial – within the Black Hills

Land Claims

Today, the Sioux Nation continue to advance their efforts in an ongoing conflict with the United States Federal Government to have their traditional hunting and religious lands returned.

The land of the Black Hills is home to six national parks: Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Badlands National Park, Devils Tower National Monument, Jewel Cave National Monument, Wind Cave National Park and Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. While a Native Americans presence is represented by the Crazy Horse Memorial.

Although the case is still pending between the Sioux Nation and the United States Government, in 2012, a United Nations representative recommended that some of the lands be returned to some of the tribes, including the Black Hills to the Sioux, in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

In the northern half of the Black Hills Forest is a stretch of road about 22 miles long, and traverses from the city of Spearfish along Alternate Highway 14, through the Spearfish Canyon, and then ending at Cheyanne Crossing at Highway 85.

As we weaved along the highway, we gawked at high limestone walls overhead. Ponderosa pine seemed to cling to the rocks with tenacity, while buckbrush and oak brush flourished along Spearfish Creek.

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway – twenty miles upward through natural beauty and unique scenery

We saw several fly fishermen in hip-waders, casting their rods for some of the best rainbow trout the area can offer. We found Dippers and Belted Kingfishers swooping along the waters.

We took a short stop at Bridal Veil Falls, one of three falls found in Spearfish Canyon. The name of this 60-foot waterfall is evident from the shape of the water as it falls in thin veils over limestone rock layers like Victorian lace.

Roughlock Falls

We then split off toward the right toward Little Spearfish Canyon. This side canyon belongs to the State of South Dakota and is officially called Roughlock Falls State Nature Area.

The trail that leads to Roughlock falls is super easy and runs along the creek. There are two trail heads, one that starts near a lodge and parallels the dirt road. The other trailhead starts above the falls and winds down to the falls.

Base of Roughlock Falls

At the Base of Roughlock Falls

Roughlock Falls is a spectacular place to view and photograph. There is ample bird watching, wildlife viewing, and fishing. It also happens to be one of the few places in the Black Hills to observe the rare American Dipper, a bird that can both walk and swim under water.

The water is crystal clear and we could easily spot brook and brown trout. At the base of the falls, moss seemed to invade nearly every crevice while grasses, reeds, and flowers grew so perfectly that it seemed like a well-planned garden.

Cement Ridge

Having had our fill of serene waterfalls, we decided to take the long route back to Wyoming. From Little Spearfish Canyon we took road 222, which is a dirt road through Schoolhouse Gulch, and toward a side road up to Cement Ridge Lookout. The whole route is very scenic, with bucolic birch tree groves, the occasional rustic shack, and wandering doe-eyed cattle.

The view north from the summit toward Crow PeakAt 6,647 feet, Cement Ridge Lookout is Wyoming’s highest peak in the Black Hills. Cement Ridge has 574 feet of prominence and gives clear views of Crow Peak, Inyan Kara Mountain, Spearfish Peak, Terry Peak, Old Baldy Mountain, and Custer Peak, as well as views of Rattlesnake Canyon, Wagonwheel Canyon, and Wyoming’s Grand Canyon.

Cement Ridge Lookout Tower 1940

Cement Ridge Lookout Tower built in 1940

The area around Cement Ridge contains rich deposits of Minnekahta limestone and is a key ingredient in manufacturing cement, and thus probably lends its name this fact.

Since Cement Ridge holds such a commanding view of the area, a fire lookout cabin was built in 1912 upon the summit. In 1921, the cabin was upgraded to a 2 story wooden tower, which was then replaced by the stone tower in a 1940 upgrade. That tower still stands today and is one of eight towers manned each year during fire season.

Cement Ridge Lookout

Cement Ridge Lookout

After Cement Ridge, we took road 804 through Rattlesnake Canyon toward Sundance, Wyoming. We saw a few wild or feral turkeys from the roadside and what looked like a Ferruginous Hawk perched on a simple fence.

As we left Black Hills Nationa Forest proper, we got a gorgeous sunset over the grasslands of Black Flats. The perfect way to end our little adventure through the Black Hills.

Roughlock Falls Trail is a 2 mile moderately trafficked out and back trail. Roughlock Falls Roughlock Falls - Looking Down from Above blackhills-roughlockfalls-moss2 Roughlock Falls Roughlock Falls Lower falls of Roughlock Falls Looking back at Little Spearfish Canyon blackhills-roughlockfalls-lower Looking back on Little Spearfish Canyon & Spearfish Creek Cement Ridge Lookout Looking back at the access road Cement Ridge Rocks Pano from Cement Ridge Cement Ridge Lookout

The post Black Hills National Forest appeared first on The Adventures of Trail & Hitch.

Jewel Cave National Monument

Nestled within the Black Hills of South Dakota, hides a place of wonders deep within the dark bowels of the earth. Brilliant colored rocks and crystals line the walls of tunnels and cavernous spaces. Even in dim lamp light the many of the rock formations shimmer like gems, giving this cave its name: Jewel Cave.

Platform Entrance to Jewel Cave

Platform Entrance to Jewel Cave

Into the Dark

In 1900 on Halloween Day, Frank and Albert Michaud filed a mining claim within Hell Canyon, providing us with the earliest written account of Jewel Cave. Thinking they had found quartz crystals, the brothers then dynamited the entrance, since the original opening was too small for humans. Upon further detailed inspection, they discovered that the formations were common calcite crystals. They then decided to develop the cave as a tourist attraction. They built a lodge on the canyon rim and organized a “Jewel Cave Dancing Club” in 1902. Unfortunately, lack of population in the area and the long travel time made it a tourist venture failure. Regardless, Frank continued his exploration and assessment of Jewel Cave.

The Historic Lantern Tour is Near the Cabin.

The Historic Lantern Tour is Near the Cabin.

Jewel Cave National Monument

On 1908 of February 7th, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Jewel Cave as a National Monument due to the efforts of locals who lived in the area. The brothers sold their lands to the government and moved away.

In 1928, the Jewel Cave Corporation provided tours to the public for about four years. Then in 1933, the National Park Service began administering the monument, then started tours six years later after building several improvements to accommodate tourists. In 1956 he National Park Service finally sunk a 300-foot elevator shaft to a remote cave area, then built concrete walks and metal stairs with platforms creating a half-mile loop.

Jewel Cave Tour

The Scenic Tour is moderately strenuous and lasts 1 hour and 20 minutes.

Cave Crawlers

By 1959, only two miles of Jewel Cave had been explored. That same year, Herb and Jan Conn, local rock climbers, began investigating, and within two years had mapped 15 miles. By 1979, Herb and Jan discovered, named, and mapped more than 64 miles of passages before retiring.

It now takes several days for modern cavers to explore the tunnels. According to our ranger tour guide, they can spend no more than four days in the cave at a time. Four days worth of human waste and garbage is about how much a person can hold before it becomes difficult to move around in the tight passages.

Today, Jewel Cave now has 181 miles of mapped passageway thanks to its volunteer cave explorers, which makes Jewel Cave the third-longest cave in the world after Mammoth Cave System in Kentucky and Sistema Sac Actun in the Yucatán Peninsula.

Jewel Cave Test

Jewel Cave Test – Can you fit in an 8.5 x 24 inch opening?

Jewel Cave Guided Tours

On the day we visited Jewel Cave, we quickly learned that you can’t make reservations; tours are first-come-first-served and must be bought the same day. There is a tour you can reserve, but it sold out months ago. There are four ranger guided tours:

The Discovery Talk – a 20-minute lecture about the cave’s geology and history. It’s really intended for those who can’t climb the stairs or don’t have much time to visit.

Historic Lantern Tour – for almost 2 hours, the ranger in period costume guides you through the old historic entrance and into passages with only an oil lamp in your hand. Sounds exciting, but alas all the tickets for the day were sold out.

Wild Cave Tour – This tour is for small, skinny, 16-and-older, brave-of-heart tourists. For up to four hours, the rangers guide you through twisting tunnels as you crawl, shimmy, and squeeze along the “trail.” At the front of the visitor’s center, there is a cement structure with an opening 8 1/2 inches tall and 24 inches wide. If you can fit through space, you can go on the Wild Cave Tour. We, of course, do not fit.

Scenic Tour – Our final and only option, we take this tour and prepare ourselves for 1.5 hours of fun in the dark and 723 steps.

Yup. Sig doesn't fit in the opening.

Yup. Sig doesn’t fit in the opening.

Cave Decorations

After a quick primer on the cave rules (no food, no drinks, no gum, and no touching, what is white-nose ), our ranger takes us down 300 feet in the elevator to the platform. Outside the weather was rainy and the barometric pressure low, so as she opened the door we got a gust of wind.

The discovered areas in the cave account for only about 3 to 5% of the estimated total air volume of the cave. The volume can be estimated by measuring the amount of air that the cave “exhales” when the outside air pressure drops and “inhales” when the outside air pressure rises.

Jewel Cave a long Drapery Formation

Jewel Cave a long Drapery Formation, sometimes known as “Cave Bacon.”

Much of the lecture included history, but occasionally we would stop and talk about my favorite subject and the reason why I like caves so much: cave formations!

The mineral decorations here in Jewel Cave are composed of calcite crystals, and unlike most of the other mineral decorations, were presumably formed under water. This means at one point and time, much of Jewel Cave was submerged and underwater.

Here are some of the unique formations found in Jewel Cave:

Dogtooth & Nailhead Spar – A calcite crystal layer often appears as large as knobs, accentuating the differential solution of the cave walls. The sharper crystals are generally referred to as “dogtooth spar” and the blunter ones as “nailhead spar.”

Dogtooth and Nailhead Spar Calcite Crystal formation

Dogtooth and Nailhead Spar Calcite Crystal formation

Speleothems – The most common kind of formations found in Jewel Cave are speleothems. Probably the most common types of speleothems are the various forms of travertine. Travertine speleothems are calcium carbonate deposited by dripping of flowing water. They include the familiar stalactites, stalagmites, domes, columns, flowstone, and draperies.

Flowstone and Draipery

Flowstone and Drapery

Frostwork – These are needle-like crystals usually found in radiating clusters for as much as three or four inches. The crystals may be clear, white, or tan in color and may be coarse as broom straw or finer than human hair.

Frostwork Jewel Cave

Needle-Like growths almost always composed of aragonite (a polymorph of calcite) or calcite replaced by aragonite.

Gypsum Flowers – Water containing calcium sulfate slowly evaporates and forms Gypsum crystals in long parallel structures. These formations are rare and only form in caves that are dry and are usually small and hard to spot.

Jewel Cave Gypsum Flowers

Jewel Cave Gypsum Flowers

Popcorn – This common pale colored cave formation resembling popcorn, and can be made out of calcite, aragonite, or gypsum.

Jewel Cave Popcorn

Popcorn calcium on the walls of Jewel Cave

There are more wondrous cavern decorations found within Jewel Cave, but they can’t be seen unless you go on the Wild Cave Tour. I really enjoyed our visit to Jewel Cave. It is awe-inspiring to stand in a place that took millions of years to form, buried in darkness, and unvisited by man until only the last hundred years. It is thrilling to know that down in the dark beneath the earth there are vast labyrinths yet to be discovered, chambers holding new wonders that brave explorers can view for the very first time.

The post Jewel Cave National Monument appeared first on The Adventures of Trail & Hitch.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Park

Sometimes while traveling you find the side trips are just as amazing as the destination you had in mind. We decided to visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Park on our way out to the South Dakota Badlands. I grew up during the height of the nuclear arms race, though in a time when most of the world had grown accustomed to the nuclear threat. This gave me a more personal connection to the subject of the site than many others we visit. None the less, both Trail and I were deeply impressed and moved by the visitors center there.

The New Visitors Center

The visitors center has only just opened this year. From the outside is attractive but unassuming despite the monumental significance of what it represents. The plains of the midwest were once home to some 1000 Minuteman II missiles, 150 of which resided at the site where the Historic Park is located. While not the most powerful weapons ever developed, each dwarfed those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in power by tenfold. As part of the world’s overall nuclear arsenal, this unassuming grassland in the heart of the US could destroy much of human civilization. No longer an active site, the land now stands as a monument to these weapons, the cold war period, and the ongoing use of nuclear weapons in the modern world.

While not very big, the visitors center is incredibly well thought out and has an impact way bigger than you might expect. It is clear that very careful thought went into its design. Outside the three columns supporting the entry way represent the land, air and sea components of the US nuclear arsenal. A stone engraving features a chillingly prescient quote attributed to Sun Tzu. Inside is an information desk and gift shop where you can buy Atomic Fireball candies along with other atomic-themed items both sober and whimsical. More than any other gift shop this one really focused on the subject of the park itself.

Sometimes the best way to cope with impending doom is to make a candy out of it.

Sometimes the best way to digest impending doom is to make a candy out of it.

Down the Rabbit Hole

From the gift shop you can enter the museum section of the center, and it is here you really fall down the rabbit hole. Every artifact and every display is rich with information and heavy with impact. Up front, you are faced with a re-creation of a nuclear control console and chair you can sit in. A video describing the life of those tasked with manning the missiles plays in front of you while the question is posed, could you turn the key? The whole thing not only teaches you the history of the nuclear arms race but challenges you to make a personal decision about it: what it meant then, now and in the future.

Next, you encounter a corner dedicated to the propaganda of the early cold war. A black and white TV plays newsreels and clips of Bert the Turtle telling kids to Duck and Cover in the event of a nuclear attack. You can look through evacuation plans and other official government documents of the time. Here the displays prompt you to consider if survival was truly possible or just a means to comfort people. Further on propaganda from the Soviet Union adorns the walls, the images strikingly beautiful, the messages often bone-chilling.

Sometimes humor is the only most poignant way to highlight the darkness of war.

Sometimes humor is the only most poignant way to highlight the darkness of war.

As you move into the largest room you are faced with a historic timeline of the nuclear age. A colorful display spanning the room shows the respective yields of the US, Soviet, and overall world nuclear stockpile alongside the significant events that of the time. Large displays detail the growing destructive power of nuclear weapons as well as information about the systems themselves. In dark kiosks along the wall, you can stand and watch videos detailing different periods of the cold war, one focusing on the build up of tension and distrust, another on the gradual disarmament of the modern era.

One area features the doomsday clock and a subtly disturbing account of those moments when the world came closest to open nuclear war. In one famous instance, a Norad technician ran accidently ran an unscheduled simulation of a full-scale Russian attack. Forces were scrambled, missiles prepped, and the president alerted. Fortunately, a check of the satellite data revealed something was amiss and disaster was averted.

Trail reviews the timeline of the cold war. While the subject is dark, the colors are bright.

Trail reviews the timeline of the cold war. While the subject is dark, the colors are bright.

In addition to the text, video, artifacts, and great visual presentation there is some excellent audio content. Many stations feature “red phones” like those used to call in nuclear orders. You can pick these up and listen to a range of historical recordings. Some are from those who’s work was to maintain the arsenal, others are from historical figures of the time, and others are common people giving their perspective on the cold war era.

More to See

In addition to the visitors center, you can go on a tour of the silos and get a look at one of the Minuteman II missiles that once stood at the ready to defend the country. You can also take a tour of one of the command centers and control rooms and get a first-hand look at the work  and lives of those who were stationed here. Unfortunately, when we arrived all the tours were booked for the day so we didn’t get the opportunity. If I ever find myself in the area again I will absolutely make the time to come early and get reservations. If they are half as interesting as the visitors center they will be well worth the time.

A Minuteman II missile in its silo.

A Minuteman II missile in its silo, death and destruction incarnate.

My Thoughts

I spent a good hour in a place no more than the size of a modest apartment engrossed in the displays and in reflection of its meaning. While the cold war is now history, nuclear weapons are not. Humanity still has the power to nearly annihilate ourselves and while we have stepped back from the brink, we remain close to the cliff and if the winds blow the wrong way we could find ourselves looking over the edge once more. As American’s we collectively hold half the key to that potential doomsday and an enormous responsibility. Something we should all keep in mind come election day when we can choose who has these weapons at their command.

My own reflection is that this risk and danger may well be a kind of salvation and that Sun Tzu’s vision of a warrior to end all war is close to the truth. The threat of these weapons is such that no rational actor can risk the use of them or any action that would justify their use. Only sheer ignorance of what they can do and what they mean could lead someone to think there was something to be gained by escalation to the nuclear threshold. Of course, so long as they exist there remains a possibility of utter disaster. Do we keep these doomsday weapons to dissuade war between the superpowers of the world, or do we seek to remove the possibility of utter destruction but open the door to the possibility of world conquest by those with the ambition for it?



The post Minuteman Missile National Historic Park appeared first on The Adventures of Trail & Hitch.

Pueblo KOA – Pueblo, Colorado

Once again our stay at a KOA park was a disappointment. Thankfully our reservation at Pueblo KOA was only for two nights as we travel through Colorado to Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s a decent park with all that you need as a traveler, but the environment was a bit dismal and for this price I expect a lot more.

Nights: 2
RV Park Cost: 90 ($45/night)
Discounts Used: None Available
Address: 4131 Interstate 25 North  Pueblo, CO 81008
GPS: 38.410009, -104.616496
Website: www.pueblokoa.com


  • Numerous amenities
  • Full hook ups


  • Roads in poor repair
  • Expensive
  • Unattractive grounds
  • No 50amp hookups
  • Train and road noise
The small pool looked clean. The gazebo in the back is a hot tub.

The small pool looked clean. The gazebo in the back is a hot tub.

The Details

I’ll start by saying that the park is reasonably clean and the staff friendly. If you need a place to park for a while it has the essentials and then some. There are bathrooms, showers, power, water, sewer, a store, large pull through spaces, a small playground for kids, a small pool, and even an on-site pizza kiosk in the office. While none of these things were outstanding, they were all quite decent.

But for $45 a night I expect more than Pueblo KOA has on offer. The most troubling issue at the park was the state of the roads between sites. Some are fine, but others have very large pot holes and dips which I’d never want to drive my trailer over. All of them are narrow and tricky to navigate. Maintaining a safe path for trailers is an essential for a good park. It appears they are in the process of making some improvements judging by the equipment scattered around but it was pretty bad while we stayed there.

Most of the land here is brown sand and gray gravel. It is dusty and looks kind of like a gravel pit construction site. It is located in a scrub desert with no water source so the lack of greenery is understandable. I imagine more could be done with native desert plants or stone to make the park look nicer than it does. The area around the office is decent, but the lots themselves felt grim and ramshackle. The soundscape was likewise dismal. Despite its remote location, noise from the highway and a nearby train track thundered through the trailer all night long, even with all the windows closed.

There are trees on site, but they seem out of place in the desert and it yet it still felt kind of barren and dull.

There are trees on site, but they seem out of place in the desert and it yet it still felt barren and dull at our site.

Another disappointment was that they have no 50amp hookups. This isn’t uncommon in some older parks but it is a negative factor for us as it limits our use of AC in the Airstream. While the park was clean enough for me, it wasn’t nearly as clean or well appointed as many other parks charging the same or lower prices. The park facilities look old and don’t seem to have had much investment put into them over the years.

One bright spot is the operators have a Hunt Brothers Pizza franchise in the main office and you can order pizzas and hot wings there during lunch and early dinner hours. The price is reasonable and they will bring it to your trailer. We tried both and for the price the quality was decent enough.

Again, this is not a bad park, just a very mediocre one at a premium price. It seemed safe and has the basics. But I would not stay for any length of time nor recommend it based on the price and the dismal environment. So far this has been the pattern with KOA campgrounds we have visited: over priced and under performing. Its a small sample but it’s led us to start thinking about specifically avoiding their parks in the future.

The post Pueblo KOA – Pueblo, Colorado appeared first on The Adventures of Trail & Hitch.