Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Grand Canyon of the Pacific

Stunning view from the Waimea Canyon Lookout

Every single person I know who visits Kauai, the oldest of the Hawaiian islands, can't help exclaiming over what a gorgeously scenic place it is. Of all the sites, Waimea Canyon is a standout. Nicknamed "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific," it is about 10 miles (16 km) long and 3000 feet (900 m) deep. The photo above doesn't do justice to this panoramic view. When in the midst of something so massive, a person can feel like just a speck. 

Gazing out from the lookout, I was in awe at the bevy of contrasts. Lush green vegetation is interspersed with bare areas revealing Kauai's trademark red dirt. Instead of the one long channel that I was expecting, it was a mix of numerous peaks and valleys.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Missiles, Mammoths and Mount Rushmore

Jefferson and Roosevelt are hiding from me

Have you ever been to Rapid City, South Dakota? Have you even heard of Rapid City? I only found out that this place existed when I began researching where we should stay while visiting the iconic Mount Rushmore. It turns out that it's a great base for a three-day exploration of some rather incredible sights from Ice Age mammoths to Cold War missiles.

Day 1

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

In sharp contrast to this year's headlines questioning why Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are so chummy with each other, step back in time to the Cold War era when the USA and USSR had nuclear missiles pointed at each other in a strategy called "Mutual Assured Destruction" (MAD). Translation: Whoever launches their missiles first dies second. 

Gazing down at a deactivated nuclear missile

Driving across the prairie, I would have never guessed at how much lethal power — the type that would bring catastrophe upon the human race — was hidden away from sight from 1963 to the 1990s. We took exit 116 off of I-90 and drove about a half mile to small, unassuming area surrounded by a chain link fence. A glass dome topped a 12 foot wide, 80 foot deep silo made of reinforced concrete and a steel plate liner. Inside it sat one of the 1000 Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that were once spread across the plains.  Don't worry. It no longer contains its 1.2 ton nuclear warhead. If you want to do more than run out and snap a photo, there's a sign listing a phone number to call to listen to a recorded audioguide.

A visitors center is located on I-90 by the eastern edge of Badlands National Park. If you want to visit the underground Launch Control facility, you must make reservations ahead of time online or by phone.  Same day tours are not available.

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is an otherworldly landscape that will make you feel like you're exploring some planet other than Earth. It was strange how the terrain was seemingly unremarkable and covered in grassland, then suddenly plunged down to reveal layered rock formations.

The Door Trail is an easy hike with a spectacular view.

Our first stop was the Ben Reifel Visitors Center to learn more about the area and see some of the fossils visitors have discovered while visiting the park. The Door Trail and Window Trail are both very easy hikes with the big payoff of a spectacular view. For lunch, we stopped at the Cedar Pass Lodge where I dined on hearty Sioux Tacos made of fluffy Indian fry bread, refried beans and bison meat. Afterwards, we slowly drove the 23-mile Badlands Loop Trail to the Pinnacles Entrance, taking time to stop at the many scenic viewpoints. If you see cars pulled over by the side of the road when there's no official viewpoint, they have probably spotted some of the park's wildlife including bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope and adorable prairie dogs.

To read more about our time at Badlands National Park, see Great Day in the Badlands and Badlands Door Trail: Short Hike with a Big View.

Wall Drug

It's hard to miss the numerous roadside signs pointing passerbys to quirky Wall Drug, an 80-year-old highway rest stop that now encompasses a whopping 76,000 square feet. This was our kids' reward for being good sports during our Badlands visit. My daughter's friends thought this place was a tourist trap, but my family liked it so much that we visited twice. 

Sit astride the jackelope

Cool off with ice cream or grab a goodie from the bakery.  If you want something more substantial there's burgers or pizza as well as a cafe restaurant. An animatronic T-rex roars to life every 15 minutes, and during the summer months, youngsters can splash in the Train Station Water Show. Pan for gold, try your hand at the shooting gallery or play the games in the video arcade. Most of all, there are more souvenirs than you can possibly imagine.  

For more information about Wall Drug, read Wonderfully Wacky Wall Drug.

Day 2

Mammoth Site of Hot Springs

How exciting would it be to watch paleontologist unearth a woolly mammoth from the ground? How about if it was 61 mammoths? That's why I call this place "The Old Mammoth Burial Ground." Go back in time at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, located about an hour drive south of Rapid City. (Note: Do not confuse this with Yellowstone's Mammoth Hot Springs).

How many tusks can you spot? I see at least 3 pairs. 

Searching for fresh water and vegetation during the last Ice Age, animals were drawn to this 60-foot deep pond which was fed from below by a hot spring. Its steep sides trapped the animals within the pond where they died and were buried over the years by the sedimentation that eventually filled in the entire pond. While excavating for a housing development in 1974, people stumbled across these ancient bones. Now, the entire pit is sheltered by a climate controlled building. Active excavations take place every June and July, although the dig site is open year round for guided tours. The Exhibit Hall contains lifesize replicas of the different animals discovered at the Mammoth Site, and the laboratory has windows in the hallway so you can watch the scientists at work. There are also a limited number of spots in the Junior Paleontologist Excavation Program for kids 4-12 years old as well as an Advanced Paleontogist Excavation Program for people 10 years and older. If you're not doing the excavation program, allot 1-2 hours for this visit.

For more information,  see their website at

Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave got its name from the wind that either blows out of or sucks into the cave opening due to changes in barometric pressure. This large cave is unusual because of its rare boxwork cave formations. While you can do the above ground hiking trails and nature walks on your own, entry into the cave is by guided tour only. 

Rare boxwork cave formations (Photo credit: National Parks Service Photo)

For more information, see the National Parks website. 

Needles Highway

Want to see cool rock formations without going underground? Take SD-87 North through Custer State Park (vehicle entrance fee required) to where the road turns west and starts twisting and turning. The 14 mile long Needles Highway has pig-tail shaped bridges, narrow rock tunnels and towering granite pinnacles with names like Cathedral Spires and Needle's Eye. At the end of the scenic highway, we did an easy hike around Sylvan Lake.

Top: Narrow crevasses and the Needle's Eye
Bottom: Cathedral Spires

While in Custer State Park, we spotted numerous bison both off in the distance as well as walking along the road. Blue Bell Lodge, located just after the park entrance, is a rustic log building where we had a nice lunch. This is your chance to try Rabbit & Rattlesnake sausage. (Confession: No one in my family ordered it.) 

Bison herd in Custer State Park

Fort Hays Chuckwagon Supper

We ended the day at Fort Hays Old West Town and Dinner Show. Have you seen the movie Dances with Wolves? Many buildings from the original  film set are located here. We arrived around 5PM to give us time to stroll through the film set as well as visit the workshops in the Old West Town. We watched guys press tin rounds into pie plates, pound metal into knife blades and twist twine to make rope. My girl always likes getting pressed pennies as a souvenir. This is the first time we've seen it done with a belt-driven line shaft from a steam engine, though.

Holding a tin round in the 100-year-old lathe to transform it into a pie plate. 

Doors open to the Dining Hall  at 6:15PM. We were seated at long tables and served a traditional chuckwagon dinner on tin plates. Afterwards, the musicians took the stage for an hour long show. 

They play both kinds of music... country AND western. 

It seemed like there were a hundred tour buses here, but the place did a good job of serving everyone quickly. For more information, see their website.

Day 3

Outdoor Art in Rapid City.

I was really surprised to stumble upon Art Alley which was filled with the type of street art I'd expect in a big, urban city. Every accessible surface seemed to be covered with art. Hopefully, people don't ruin it with random graffiti tagging. 

The city also has an official public art project called City of Presidents. Life size bronze statues of all the US Presidents are placed around downtown Rapid City.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Finally, the main reason why people are drawn to this part of the country... the iconic Mount Rushmore with its 60-foot tall heads of remarkable US Presidents. You can see it from miles away.  

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln immortalized in stone. 

At the very least, park your car, pay the entrance fee and grab a photo of you on the Avenue of Flags with Mount Rushmore behind you. 

If you have one or two more hours, make a stop at the Visitors Center to get an idea of why Mount Rushmore was built and the methods that were used to precisely blast the stone before chiseling in the details. The Needles which we had seen the previous day were the original proposed site, but the sculptor rejected it because the stone was too eroded. Construction ran from 1927 to 1941 and involved more than 400 workers. Mount Rushmore was originally supposed to include the presidential torsos, but there was not enough funding to complete the project as planned.

Afterwards, walk along the 0.6 mile Presidents Trail to see the monument from different angles. At one point on the path, it seems like Jefferson and Roosevelt are hiding (see first photo in post).  I really enjoyed the Sculptor's Studio and seeing the small scale models used by Gotzum Borglum to determine what the the massive sculpture would look like. In fact, I think my husband may have the same bone structure as ole Abe Lincoln.  

Rushmore Tramway Adventures

When traveling with kids, it's a good idea to add a little fun to the activities.  Rushmore Tramway Adventures, located just a couple of miles from Mount Rushmore, perfectly fit the bill. We took the chairlift to the top of the mountain and walked around for a bit before taking the 2000-foot-long Alpine Slide back down. Afterwards,  two of the kids raced each other on the 800 foot inclined zipline. 

Chairlift, alpine slide and zipline at Rushmore Tramway Adventures

A two hour zipline tour, a jump tower and an aerial ropes course are also part of the adventure park. Too bad we didn't have more time to spend here.

For more information, see the Rushmore Tramway Adventures website.

Crazy Horse Memorial

One of the controversies surrounding Mount Rushmore is that it is built on what was traditional Lakota Native American tribal land. A Lakota chief campaigned to have the likeness of Crazy Horse, a Lakota warrior, included among the presidents. Obviously, he did not get his way. 

The chief eventually invited sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski who had be working on Mount Rushmore to carve a separate memorial to Crazy Horse on the sacred Thunderhead Mountain located 17 miles (27 km) from Mount Rushmore. This privately funded project began in 1948 and still continues. In fact, it looked very, very far from completion. When finished, it will be the world's largest sculpture. The eyes themselves are 17 feet wide. In contrast to the hundreds of workers for Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial only has a few people at work on the mountain. 

Top: The incomplete Crazy Horse Memorial today
Bottom: A scale model of the sculpture, and an image of the final sculpture superimposed upon the mountain

Even though it is unfinished, this memorial still has a million visitors each year. The Visitors Center includes the Indian Museum of North America, Ziolkowski's home and studio, a restaurant and a marketplace where I bought some handmade jewelry and an ocarina. 

For more information, see the Crazy Horse Memorial website.


We stayed at the Hotel Alex Johnson near the town square of Rapid City. Just as construction began on Mount Rushmore, Mr. Johnson had the foresight to build a fine hotel for the hordes of tourists he knew would visit the monument. Furthermore, this place is haunted. Channel your inner ghostbuster by booking Room 812 where ghostly activity is said to occur.

Top: Lobby of the Hotel Alex Johnson
Bottom: Stone decor on the outside of the building

Book a room at

Have you visited Rapid City or any of these places?

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Time I Drove a Horse-Drawn Wagon and Other Pioneer Tales

Mama horse and her newborn foal

I was a bookish kid who was completely enthralled by The Little House on the Prairie series written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. While there was also the TV show based on the novels that depicted pioneer life, it was the books that kept drawing me in. Laura's storytelling is so vivid that my young mind was convinced it was an autobiography, not made up tales based on her childhood in the American frontier. I wanted to be just like Laura.

I remember pulling out my student atlas, flipping to the page for South Dakota and finding De Smet on the map. There it was. A tiny dot that represented the little town where the last few books of the series are set. And I'd sit there and wonder what that town looked like. When we started planning our Great Big Western USA roadtrip, I explained to my husband that De Smet was "only a four hour detour" from the Badlands/Mount Rushmore stop on our itinerary. I begged. I pleaded. I explained how we were never going to be that close to Laura's little town on the prairie. I channeled all the stubbornness that my inner-Laura could muster. So, that's how I finally found my feet firmly planted in the real life, 21st century De Smet, South Dakota. It's still a small town of only 1100 people, and a visit there is like being transported back in time.
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