Our Great Alaskan Road Trip: Custer State Park, South Dakota

A view from The Needles Highway, Custer State Park, South Dakota

A view from The Needles Highway, Custer State Park, South Dakota

We caught some sunshine between rain clouds and drove the Needles Highway to the Sylvan Lake area of Custer State Park. The highway is only about 18 miles long, but the scenery is outstanding!  The road traverses the high land and has two rather tight tunnels  cut through the rock formations. The Needles Eye is adjacent to a tunnel and sits almost on the highway. It is the featured image for this post, but if you are driving the highway and watching the narrow switchbacks, it is easy to miss it!

Once we arrived at Sylvan Lake we let Woolly Bear out of the car and set off on the easy hike around the lake. Dogs are allowed on the trails, but not on the swimming beaches. The lake water was high as South Dakota has had quite a bit of rain in the Black Hills area, so some of the trail was under water. After completing the easy mile long hike we continued on some of the other trails until Woolly began to tire. As those of you who follow this blog know, he had both knees operated on less than a year ago, and he is still not quite up to par. A mile or two is about all our exuberant Airedale can handle at one time.

We decided to have a picnic on the Wildlife Loop watching the bison and the wild burros.

Wild burros at Custer State Park

Wild burros at Custer State Park


Bison having lunch with us at Custer State Park

Bison having lunch with us at Custer State Park

Friday we drove the Iron Mountain Scenic Highway and visited Mt Rushmore in the morning. This highway consists of a series of pig tail log bridges, the road spirals up the mountain and has a series of circles, bridges, and narrow stone tunnels. There is one particular tunnel that gives you a look at Mt Rushmore as you exit it. We stopped at several look offs, let Woolly Bear stretch his legs, and reminisced about our time at Custer State Park and Mt Rushmore 30 years ago! We can’t figure out why it has taken us so long to visit again. Custer State Park is a very special place!

Our Great Alaskan Road Trip: The Black Hills of South Dakota

Bison at Custer SP

Bison at Custer SP

We left the Badlands and drove to Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This state park is a “must visit”!!! It is set between Wind Cave National Park and Mt Rushmore, but rivals those two as a phenomenal destination in itself.

We camped at Blue Bell Campground at site 22E. It is a spacious, wooded site that lies adjacent to the tenting area and backs up to the woods. The only small downside to it is the difficulty we had trying to get the camper level. We finally decided it was close enough and that as long as our refrigerator worked we weren’t going to fuss with it anymore.

The camp hosts are a delightful couple who go out of their way to be kind and helpful to incoming campers. They showed us where to fill our water tank prior to setting up, as each site has electric, but no water at it. After we set up camp we hopped in the Jeep to traverse the Wildlife Loop. We saw BigHorn Sheep, hundreds of Bison, mountain goats, pronghorns, deer, and lots of Mountain Bluebirds. Charlie was in his glory, taking hundreds of bison pictures. At one point we were surrounded on the road by about 50 bison, several way too close to the car for my comfort! Woolly Bear was well behaved, and only whined at the critters instead of barking loudly.

Too close to the Jeep for comfort!

Too close to the Jeep for comfort!

The second day we drove the Needles Highway through interesting rock formations. We planned on hiking in the Sylvan Lake area, and brought a picnic lunch. Just as we exited the second tunnel the skies opened up and rain and hail hit the windshield. The thunderstorm lasted until we had returned to our camp, and we decided to do the hike the following day. Once again we drove the wildlife loop, and then we headed to Wind Cave National Park, which is adjacent to Custer SP. this National Park offers hiking both above the ground and on guided tours through the cave.

We are spending 5 days in the Black Hills and my next post will show some of the amazing scenery on the Needles Highway!

Prairie Dog

Prairie Dog

Pronghorn at Custer SP

Pronghorn at Custer SP

Our Great Alaskan Road Trip: Badlands National Park

The Badlands National Park, South Dakota, is a place we had driven through on two previous trips, but we never had the time to really stop and explore the amazing rock formations, the wildlife, birds, and trails. This time we decided to camp here for several days and experience more than a quick drive-by. Once here, we realized that we really need to devote more than a few days to this magnificent park so we have put it on our ” must visit again” list.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The weather was cooler than previous times,  it had been 114 degrees back in August of 2011 when we stopped on our way back from Yellowstone, and it rained steadily on Sunday. We took advantage of the rare opportunity to see water and erosion at work in the park. The White River was close to flooding, rivers ran in the clay floor of the Badlands carving new pathways, and the colors were just beautiful!  All of the flowing water was the color of coffee with cream, a light tan.

We took full advantage of our time in the Badlands: driving the Badlands loop several times in the Jeep, visiting the Fossil Exhibit Trail, every scenic overlook, and the Big Pig Dig site ( actually not a pig fossil at all, but a small hornless rhinoceros), and the Ben Reidel Visitor Center. Hiking and biking were limited because of the rain and the muddy conditions.

We went into Wall on Memorial Day and visited Wall Drug Store and Wounded Knee: The Museum. Of the two places, I preferred the museum, and was fascinated by the history of the December 29, 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. There were lots of historical photos and documents, and several multi-media presentations. Charlie preferred Wall Drug, though he kept his wallet in his pocket!

Two Big Horn Sheep in Badlands National Park

Two Big Horn Sheep in Badlands National Park

Wildlife was abundant in the Badlands, especially Meadow Larks and Big Horn Sheep. I saw one small snake  on Monday, but no rattlesnakes. We are heading to the Black Hills tomorrow, provided the roads are not affected by flooding.

Our Great Alaskan Road Trip. Minnesota: Blue Mound State Park

Bison grazing at Blue Mound State Park

Bison grazing at Blue Mound State Park

Charlie and I left Indiana Dunes State Park with the promise of a return visit, and headed the camper West. Our next noteworthy stop was in Minnesota at Blue Mound State Park. The Park is located on the southwest side of the state, six miles north of Route 90  and Luverne. The park entrance is off of U.S. 75.

Blue Mounds State Park contains 1500 acres of prairie grasslands filled with wild flowers, birds and animals. We saw white tailed deer, lots of birds, and the resident herd of 60 bison. Coyotes also are reported to live in the park, but we did not run into any on our hikes.image

There are miles of hiking and biking trails to take you along the quartzite cliiffs. The trails are actually mowed into the prairie grass and look like a path of manicured lawn meandering around the creek bed. There is a wildlife viewing platform with high powered scopes for watching the bison from a safe distance.

Our campsite was $28 for electric, and considering it was the start of the Memorial Day weekend, we were grateful to get it without having made reservations. The campsites you might want to reserve have a view of  (28, 29, 30, 31, 32e) the river in the B loop, but all sites were spacious and very well maintained. We definitely would have stayed another night, but all sites were reserved for the weekend. The lady acting as Campground Host was very friendly and helpful and even invited us to sit by her campfire. Most of the campers were from Minnesota and staying for the holiday weekend.

Site 24, Blue Mound State Park

Site 24, Blue Mound State Park

The Great Alaskan Road Trip: First Stop Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and State Park

Day 1 of Great Alaskan Road Trip at lunch stop.

Day 1 of Great Alaskan Road Trip at lunch stop.

We left home Sunday morning, May 17th, at 4:30 in the morning. We avoided much of the heavy traffic and soon found ourselves on the hills of Pennsylvania.

We had practiced towing the car on some hills in Connecticut, but knew the Pennsylvania hills would give us our first accurate assessment of how our Blue Ox tow set up would work. The camper has a Ford F53 Chassis and a 460 V10 engine. My Dad, brothers and nephews know much more about trucks than I do, and they had assured me that our new camper was a workhorse and would easily tow the Jeep. They were correct! The camper kept up with traffic easily as we travelled Route 80 through the Pennsylvania countryside. It remains to be seen how well it will tow in the Rockies, I’ll keep you posted.

We stopped every two hours or so to let Woolly Bear stretch his legs, and ended our first day at the KOA in Mercer/ Grove City PA., near the Ohio border. Our second day of travel brought us to our first destination: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and a campsite at Indiana Dunes State Park. It feels good to be back on the road!

Campsite 93, Indiana State Park

Campsite 93, Indiana State Park

We camped at site 93, a spacious site with lots of room for our chairs and screen house. $20 per night with electricity. Our site is adjacent to the Nature Trail that leads to the shore of Lake Michigan. Woolly and I hiked the mile to the lake early this morning, and surprised a very healthy looking red fox coming down the trail. Of course, WB jumped into his protective mode, or his ” let me at the fox” mode, so I was too busy holding the dog back to get any pictures. We brought Charlie on the trail to the lake later in the day, and once again had the entire beach to ourselves!

Chicago in the distance, Lake Michigan

Chicago in the distance, Lake Michigan

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Later on, we took the camper for a quick repair at Camp Land RV Center. The water tank fill lever had broken, and the service people at Camp Land were great, coming out to the rig and assessing the problem, then installing a replacement lever for the valve.

The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is a thirty mile stretch of lakeshore and sand dunes situated along Lake Michigan’s southern shore between Gary and Michigan City. According to the National Park brochure,  the National Park Service was only a month old when its first director Stephen Mather tried to save the Indiana Dunes from development in 1916. World War 1 derailed that, and Indiana Dunes State Park was created in 1926. The National Seashore was not created until 1966, when the Port of Indiana was created as part of a compromise to save the natural sand dunes and the 15,000 acres now protected.

Charlie and I had always just driven through Indiana on our way West, not knowing that such a beautiful place was minutes away from the congestion of Chicago. In addition to camping, hiking, and canoeing/kayaking, bird watching is huge in this area!
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The campground is very well kept and extremely dog friendly. Woolly Bear is allowed on all trails and beaches until swimming season starts on Memorial Day week end. But even then, there are many beach areas where dogs can run and swim. If you haven’t thought of Indiana as a destination, you might rethink that!!! It is simply magnificent here.

Plans in place, ready to roll!!!!

Life has a way of changing our carefully made plans! We had expected to travel south to Florida in March and unexpected ice/snow and other things kept us home bound in New England. So finally, after what seems like a very long time, we are ready to ramble!!!!

Here is a look at where our previous two years of travel have taken us!

Our map from previous camper.

Our map from previous camper.

Now we are putting a blank map on the new Winnie, and will have to start all over again! Tough job, but someone needs to do it.

We expect to leave on our Great Alaskan Road Trip on May 17th, and will take our time and enjoy the journey over the next few months.  We have studied maps,  weather, and road reports; and are currently wrapping up all the mundane details that need to be taken care of when you are on the road for an extended time. Minor details like mail, canceling cable and internet, cleaning out the fridge,  vehicle registrations, property taxes, and the like!

We are excited to be towing our Jeep this trip! The Blue Ox tow bar and the Patriot braking system have been installed and tested. We have actually practiced hooking, towing, and unhooking the Jeep Wrangler.

Charlie has built a bicycle carrier in the back storage area, has a solar suitcase to supplement battery power while boondocking off the grid, and has the rig in tip top condition.

Looking at the bicycle compartment from the back of the camper.

Looking at the bicycle compartment from the back of the camper.

Bicycles ride safely inside!

Bicycles ride safely inside!

We really are ready to ramble!!!

Oregon Coast, Washington and Life Interfering!

P1070113We drove along the Oregon Coast and camped for several days at Tillicum Beach Campground, a National Forest Service Camping facility.  It had to be one of the best campsites we have ever had! And the best was that we had the beach to ourselves for the first two days, then the weather warmed and the campers filled the place.

Tillicum Beach Campground

Tillicum Beach Campground

View from the camper

View from the camper

My sister Wendy had camped here last year, and had told us about it, Otherwise we would have ended up at one of the nearby state parks. We were at site 29, and it was wonderful for the first two days. Then a lonely neighbor moved to the site adjacent to us and decided to join us on the beach, at our campfire, and anywhere else we went! While I understand that he was lonely and looking for company, I selfishly wanted the beach and my two guys all to myself!

Sea Lion in Oregon

Sea Lion in Oregon

We drove to Portland for a Freightliner service appt and to purchase new sneakers for the bus. An entire day was devoted to these  ” going to Alaska” preparations. Oregon is dog friendly and, to my surprise, Woolly Bear was allowed in both the Freightliner and the Tire waiting rooms. I somehow do not think that would be allowed in Connecticut.

We drove up Route 5 to Washington State after our brakes were checked, oil changed, and sneakers installed. It was at a small county campground that disaster struck.

Woolly Bear snuck under my arms and out the camper door while I was bringing in his dog bed. He has been on a leash since the start, and has a wild dog spirit. He smiled and began to run his crazy eight, butt tuck zooms that he so loves to run. We were laughing at his delight when we saw him leap a gully, yelp in pain, and fall to the ground. He has hurt his left hind leg badly. A trip to the Ocean Shore Vet Hospital and an early May 2nd sedation and X-ray led the Vet to believe it is either a hurt ACL or an injured Meniscus. The Vet encouraged us to return to Ct and get him consistent medical care, probably surgery, to fix the problem. So, even though we were on the edge of our Alaskan Road Trip, we pointed the bus toward the East on Saturday morning. We will be home in Connecticut Wednesday, despite nasty crosswinds. Our goal is to have Woolly Bear healed, and then we will ramble on to Alaska as planned.P1070247

By the way, northern Idaho is beautiful! We didn’t have time to investigate as we need WB home as soon as possible, but we have put Idaho on our ” must return to” list.

Thanks is for reading our blog!

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Yosemite and Snow!!!

P1070091After spending time at Sequoia NP we drove a bit north to Yosemite. We were fortunate to be able to secure 3 nights camping in the park, as reservations often fill minutes after the availability opens. At first it looked like we would need to move camp each day, but once in the park the Reservations desk ranger helped me find a site for two nights, meaning only one move during our stay. We camped at the Upper Pines Campground in sites 102 and 112, no electricity or water and $20 per night.  Of the two sites, 102 was the best as it backed up to the woods and had plenty of space for WB. Site 112 was also spacious, but the adjacent campsite, with a family with two small wandering children, had their campfire within 20 ft of our camper. A bit too close for my comfort!

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John Muir, Ansel Adams, and Teddy Roosevelt were all correct about Yosemite being a very special place  in need of preservation!  It is one of the most beautiful places we have ever visited. And, because of the snow, Tioga Pass and Glacier Point Roads were still closed. But the valley itself is magnificent, Yosemite Falls, Vernal Falls and Bridal Veil Falls were all surging down to the valley. The meadows were beginning to bloom, and I had my coffee each morning while watching the sun progress over Half Dome!

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Yosemite is also one of the most dog friendly national parks we have visited. Woolly Bear was allowed just about anywhere on the 12 mile paved bicycle loop that traverses the valley. He could also walk on paved paths to the lower falls, and we did take him on dirt paths that did not forbid dogs. Yosemite has a kennel in the summer for pets,  but it was still in the 50’s most days, so he could safely stay in the camper while we hiked.

There is a free shuttle bus for hikers, and a for fee bus from the nearby commercial campgrounds and hotels. It is very easy to get around the Yosemite Valley.

P1070025Our visit came to an abrupt end on Thursday evening when we overheard the Ranger telling another camper that  6 to 12 inches of snow was expected the next morning! We have no desire to drive in that type of weather, and we knew we could not get another day’s campsite, so we left that evening and drove to a KOA 23 miles outside the park, but at a much lower elevation. Friday morning we had a cold, steady rain, and the Yosemite to Sequoia area got the predicted snow.

Yosemite is a very special place that we need to return to at a time when the mountain passes are open and we can truly appreciate the entire park! Maybe mid July some year??? With reservations made well in advance!P1070039

 

Sequoia National Park

P1060971Sequoia National Park was a great place to spend the Easter weekend so far away from home. The weather was beautiful, both sunny and warm. We spent several days checking out both Sequoia and Kings Canyon and driving the steep and winding roads. We had tried to rent a car so that we could spare our Winnebago the hilly workout, but both of the area rental car businesses had no cars left due to the holiday weekend. This took us by surprise, but we dealt with it and drove the long way around to avoid the really steep section of highway 198.

The pictures don’t begin to show the magnificence of the General Sherman Tree or the other ancients. The campgrounds were not all open yet, nor were all the roads, but we managed to see the majority of the parks. We both agree that Sequoia NP is a place we would like to visit again, a bit later in the season, so that all roads have opened.

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