Deadwood, South Dakota

I’ve written about the Bullock Hotel, but Deadwood, South Dakota deserves an article all its own. I visited Deadwood on a trip that took me to Sturgis, Custer State Park, the Badlands, Devils Tower, and Mount Rushmore, among other places. I’m a huge fan of the old West, so I loved HBO’s series Deadwood (2004-2006), even if the dialogue was ridiculous. Even today, its population is tiny, but it’s the only city in the country that’s designated a National Historic Landmark District.

It’s rare to find a city with so much history, despite surviving predominantly off tourism. Nearly every hotel, bar, and restaurant in Deadwood doubles as a casino. My friend and I visited in early spring, so it was practically a ghost town. I imagine it’s flooded with tourists in the summer, especially when people come to nearby Sturgis for its annual motorcycle rally.

We stayed at the Bullock Hotel, named for Seth Bullock, the first sheriff of Deadwood. It’s one of the most famous haunted hotels in the United States. In 1992, it was featured on Unsolved Mysteries and is reportedly haunted by a host of spirits. The hotel has an entire guestbook where visitors can share stories of their ghostly encounters, although we didn’t experience anything unusual.

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Hoover Dam on the Colorado River

The Hoover Dam is an engineering marvel, truly one of the great monuments to American ingenuity and strength. Like Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, I couldn’t help being struck by the sheer size of the dam. It was a massive project on an unprecedented scale, like the ancient pyramids. An entire city was built to house the thousands of workers.

The Hoover Dam spans the Black Canyon on the Colorado River, between Nevada and Arizona. U.S. Route 93 used to cross the dam, but a bypass was opened in 2010 to divert traffic away from the structure. The steel and concrete bridge, called the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, is impressive in itself. The bridge is 1,900 feet long and 900 feet above the Colorado River.

The dam was built between 1931 and 1936 and cost $49 million ($700 million today). It was originally called the Boulder Dam, but Congress changed its name in 1947 in honor of former President Herbert Hoover. It rises 726.4 feet and spans 1,244 feet.

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Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

My first exposure to Red Rock Canyon was in the game Fallout: New Vegas, so when I visited the real Las Vegas, I jumped at the chance to see it firsthand. It’s right outside the city, only a 10-15 minute drive west of the metro area. Thankfully, I didn’t run into any Great Khans or Cazadors. It was the middle of summer though, so it was ridiculously hot.

Red Rock Canyon, Calico Hill, and Keystone Thrust are simply breathtaking. 600 million years ago, the area was under an ocean and sediments gradually hardened into limestone. By 180 million years ago, the area became a desert and was covered by shifting sand dunes. These hardened into sandstone with calcium carbonate and iron oxides, giving the rocks, called Aztec Sandstone, a unique reddish color. They are only found in the Mojave Desert.

Like Custer State Park in South Dakota, wild donkeys, called burros (donkey in Spanish), roam the park, although I never saw one. The Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association adopted a burro and named him “Jackson.” He sometimes hangs out at the Visitors Center or south of Highway 159 where the Loop Train begins, but you’re not supposed to feed him.

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Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Seeing Mount Rushmore for the first time was almost a spiritual experience. In spring 2014, a friend and I traveled to South Dakota and parts of Wyoming, stopping at Sturgis, Deadwood, Custer State Park, the Badlands, Devils Tower, and elsewhere. While the Badlands and Devils Tower were visually magnificent, Mount Rushmore really left an impression on me. Two-dimensional media just can’t convey its size and grandeur. Photographs don’t do it justice.

Mount Rushmore, in the South Dakota Black Hills, is known as a batholith–a formation of igneous rock formed from cooled magma. The rock is smooth, fine-grained granite, resistant to erosion. Between 1927 and 1941, Gutzon Borglum and 400 workers sculpted the 60 foot carvings. Gutzon died in March 1941, and his son Lincoln took over construction. It finished prematurely in late October 1941 due to lack of funding.

The sculptures were originally supposed to extend further down, uncovering the presidents’ chests and shoulders. I think the faces peering from the mountainside look better, and apparently the National Park Service agrees. With over two million visitors annually, they could probably get the funds to finish the sculptures if they wanted. It costs $10 to park, but that fee goes toward maintaining the parking garage.

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Devil’s Tower National Monument

In spring 2014, a friend and I traveled to South Dakota and parts of Wyoming, stopping at Sturgis, Deadwood, Custer State Park, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and many other cool places. Devil’s Tower was our last stop. That region defines “wide open spaces.” In eastern Montana, the vast prairie rolls into the Black Hills. Jutting from the undulating landscape, a volcano tens-of-millions of years old left this cone of solidified magma when the surrounding sedimentary rock eroded away. You can see it for miles around.

According to Kiowa and Lakota legend, two girls were being chased by giant bears and sought shelter on a rock. They prayed to the Great Spirit to save them, and he/she made the rock raise toward the heavens. The bears dug deep grooves in the sides trying to climb to the top, but the girls escaped. There are several other versions of the tale, but giant bears are common to all. That’s why American Indians called it “Home of the Bear” or “Bear’s Lair”. Colonel Richard I. Dodge coined the name “Devils Tower” sometime in the 1870s.

In 1906, Devils Tower became the nation’s first National Monument. It rises 867 ft. Apparently hundreds of insane people climb to the top every year. I’m afraid to climb to the top of a ladder, so I enjoyed it from the ground. William Rogers and Willard Ripley were first to make it to the top, on July 4, 1893.

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Custer State Park, South Dakota

In spring 2014, a friend and I had the opportunity to travel out to South Dakota and parts of Wyoming. On the way, we ran into a freak winter storm that blew across the Great Plains. There were wind gusts of up to 64 mph in Rapid City. Thankfully, it cleared up by the time we made it to Custer State Park, south of Rapid City, and the weather was perfect.

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Custer State Park is a state wildlife reserve in the Black Hills, named after George Armstrong Custer, who died at the Battle of Little Bighorn. It is 71,000 acres of scenic countryside. You can drive the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road through gently sloping terrain all around the park. There are also hiking trails, lodges, and lakes where trout fishing is popular.

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Besides picturesque scenery, Custer State Park’s big draw is a herd of over 1,300 bison. The bison are known to occasionally block the road. We drove through a big herd and got pretty close, but luckily they stayed away from the road.

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Badlands National Park, South Dakota

In the spring of 2014, I had the opportunity to travel to Badlands National Park with an old friend. On the way, we ran into “Winter Storm Xenia,” which hit parts of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and northeast Wyoming. There were 5-6 foot snow drifts in Roseau, Minn and wind gusts of up to 64 mph in Rapid City. The storm cleared up the next day, but left a dusting of snow all over the Badlands.

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Growing up in Illinois, I had no concept of “wide open spaces.” It’s incredible to see golden, unbroken prairie stretching to the horizon under a big blue sky. At the Badlands, the earth just seems to fall away into huge rippling land forms. I got this shot of my friend (a better photographer than I’ll ever be) in action at the canyon edge.

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Badlands National Monument was established on January 25, 1939, and it became a national park in 1978. It consists of 379 square miles of land, offering hiking trails, camping sites, and  educational visitors centers. People even come to find fossils.

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