August 3 - I don't normally blog the travel days, but we had a really neat one yesterday. We had an inauspicious start - it took three hours to go the 100 miles from our campground near the south entrance of Yellowstone, through the park and out the east entrance, to the town of Cody. In addition to regular park traffic, there was a bad accident in the Park (I now know what an overturned camping trailer looks like, and it ain't pretty), and western Wyoming seems bent on "improving" huge stretches of road by turning perfectly good asphalt into chip-seal. Then we got sidetracked by the Sierra Traders store in Cody. Years of getting their catalogs and we had no idea they had real stores. Rob got a few things (I met my personal shopping quota the day before in Jackson). Anyway it was after 3 by the time we left Cody. Nonetheless, we opted out of "the shortest route to the Black Hills" and took the scenic route over the Bighorn Mountains, and it turned out they are a really neat place. Climbing up on the west side, we stopped at a waterfall, then we came up to the pass and turned north to follow along the spine for a while. Amazingly, we saw a moose up there-- after scanning every wet meadow for 50 miles from YS through Teton, we saw one next to the road at the top of the mountains. The mountains themselves are a really interesting combination of forested areas, canyons, open meadows (the only down side was that we saw some Forest Service grazing allotments with waayy too many cattle), and rocky buttes, some of which look like stone circles perched on the tops of the hills. To top it off, a big storm rolled in while we were up there, which gave the whole thing a really mystical appearance. The whole place was also a geologist's Candyland as well, with a whole bunch of roadside signs naming and dating the multitude of rock formations.
Continuing on, we eventually made it all the way across Wyoming and to Devil's Tower right as it was getting dark. Fortunately, the Park Service campground still had a couple spots open when we got there, otherwise we were looking at the tourist trap KOA (a blot on the landscape visible and audible from the NPS campground), or about a 25 mile drive to find anything else, all without cell service.
August 4-- Obviously, first on our list this morning was Devil's Tower, which rises about 800 feet above the surrounding landscape. Anyone who's seen "Close Encounters" is familiar with the site, but maybe not its geology. It's an igneous intrusion into older sandstone, which later eroded away. Again, the different colors of sandstone at the base are themselves almost as interesting as the Tower. And there was a huge prairie dog town at the base; that was the first time I've seen prairie dogs.
I've learned a couple new things these few days as well. The first was when Rob offhandedly remarked that we might have planned badly and could be walking right into the middle of "Sturgis." I had never heard of Sturgis, which amazed Rob, but there you go. Turns out it's the world's biggest biker rally, and it takes place in the Black Hills - starting in just a few days. (I fancy myself a biker chick, but of the DIY engine variety.)There are already a lot of bikers in the area, but it's not too jammed, and we made haste to get a campsite as soon as we got to the Black Hills today—we might have had some trouble if we had waited till evening to look like we usually do. And we are lucky not to be trying this part of the trip next week.
I also learned that the reason the Black Hills are called that is that they are covered with trees, which from a distance do look black. I was expecting entirely open country with basalt bedrock. So the vast stretches of pine forest were a pleasant surprise. I never expected to say this about South Dakota, but I really like it here. The Black Hills are incredibly beautiful. And there is a lot of variety in the landscape; namely, there are also massive stretches of grassland. Our first stop once we got to South Dakota was Jewel Cave. Their tours were sold out for the day so we went on to Wind Cave, where we got a tour with no problem. It's an interesting cave, the fourth longest in the world (Jewel is second, it turns out), not much in the way of formations except for one type: boxwork, which I had never heard of before. It is a lattice, letterbox sort of formation; in some places it reminded me of purple marten houses. The cool thing about boxwork is that the formations are older than the cave. When the Black Hills uplifted starting about 320 million years ago, cracks formed in the limestone and these eventually filled in with calcite, which is somewhat harder than limestone. Later on, larger fissures in the rock filled with standing water (ie, an aquifer), and there was enough carbonic acid in the water to dissolve the limestone, leaving the framework of calcite boxwork on the walls and ceiling. The cave has never had running water through it, so there are no stalactites or other drapery type formations, but 95% of all the boxwork in the world is found here.
After the cave tour we explored the above ground area and things got even better. This whole area is the aforementioned massive stretches of grassland. The first awesome thing is that we spotted burrowing owls in one of the prairie dog areas. We drove north through Wind Cave and into Custer State Park along the "wildlife loop." Believe it or not, we saw more pronghorn (55) and bison (over 400) than we saw in Yellowstone, as well as deer, elk, burros (I don't know what's up with them being there, but they were very popular) and a coyote, plus prairie dogs past numbering. I wished I had found out if there are black footed ferrets there-- that would have really been a topper.
Tomorrow, we are hiking the highest of the Hills and hopefully we can squeeze in a late tour at Jewel Cave.