Thursday, November 18, 2010





Why South Dakota do you ask? Well, visiting Mt. Rushmore has been on my bucket list for years. Also, it complimented my earlier August river trip following the Lewis and Clark expedition since they passed through here and viewed the bison herds from the Missouri River.
As with any vacation one day is lost traveling to and from your destination. Prepared for this Kathy and I are up for a crack of dawn flight from San Diego to Rapid City, SD via Denver. CLUE: They day after Labor Day is a great day to travel since everyone has already completed vacation travel prior to this. Being retired teachers we try to do this annually just because WE CAN! Do we call everyone still working to rub it in? Of course! Arriving in Rapid City at 5:00 P.M. I remark, "Oh, no, we are going to be right in the middle of rush hour traffic." Ha, ha-joke's on me. The tiny airport was almost abandoned and while driving on Route 16 we see all of @5 cars on the highway. Toto, we are not in California anymore. Kathy never lets me live this down. Our destination, 32 miles away, is Keystone, the home of Mt. Rushmore and a great base for exploring the surrounding sites.
Keystone is VERY touristy, filled with hotels, shops, and restaurants. Be aware that the town literally closes at the end of tourist season in late September. I do mean closes-hotels, shops, etc. so plan your trip with that in mind. The population is only 311 without tourists. Historically, gold was discovered here on Battle Creek in 1876, and the town boomed until the early 1900's. Luckily, our hotel, the KBarS Lodge, is secluded away from all this in the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve. While lots of hotels claim Rushmore views, few actually have them. From our upstairs balcony we can definitely see Washington and Jefferson (after a little spotting help initially). We were so anxious to see them that we imagined their faces everywhere. We love this tranquil lodge for its beautiful lobby with huge rock fireplace, 24 hour coffee, free internet in the rooms, and a free fabulous breakfast served in a beautifully enclosed gazebo overlooking a lush meadow where wild turkeys

and deer stroll by. I highly recommend it to everyone After settling in we follow our host's recommendation for dinner at the Holy Smoke Restaurant. No California prices here--dinner with cole slaw, baked potato and ribs for $8.95. Such a deal!.
Then we race to the free nightly lighting ceremony at Mount Rushmore National Memorial held nightly at the outdoor amphitheater at the base of the sculpture. This 30 minute program consists of a very well done ranger talk addressing the four 60 ft. busts of the American presidents who are carved into this shrine of democracy. George Washington, chosen because he was the father of our country, represents our struggle for independence, our Constitution, and our liberty. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence was chosen for his stand on representative government and for the expansion of our country through the Louisiana Purchase. Teddy Roosevelt was selected because he saw the completion of the Panama Canal linking the oceans and opening the connecting waters of the East and West. Finally, Lincoln was chosen both for preserving the Union through one of America's darkest hours and for the ideals of freedom and equality for all.The ranger calls for all current and past veterans to come on stage and be recognized for their service while the audience applauds. The Star Spangled Banner is sung, the colors retired, and then the most awe inspiring spectacle of all.... the dark faces are illuminated. So dramatic! How could one not love and be proud of our country. Very moving--THIS IS A DO NOT MISS! Summer hours are at 9PM but September is 8PM. These lights stay on well after 11PM.

Despite a busy day yesterday we are up at 7:15 for breakfast ready to return to Mt. Rushmore in depth. Entry to the park technically is free, but there is a parking fee of $10 good for unlimited visits. It is open every day of the year except Christmas. Most visitors begin with a stop at the Orientation Plaza directly in front of the parking area where there is an information desk, hand held audio tour rentals, and sign ups for ranger walk/talks.
We stroll down the impressive Avenue of Flags from 56 states and territories lining the sides of the walkway from the Concession Building to the Grandview Terrace where the best viewpoint is. Even after seeing pictures of Mt. Rushmore, the largest monument in the world, actually being there is astonishing. First, the scope of these faces is amazing. The vision and planning involved in its creation, accomplished during a time of great national hardship, The Great Depression, is unbelievable. Second, there is such detail in the faces that it truly a work of art. Placement so that the sun's passage creates ever changing shadows brings both mobility and fluidity to the mountain. At the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center and Museum we linger over the exhibits and view several 14 minute orientation films. I recommend walking the 0.6 mile Presidential Trail because it offers the closest viewpoints of Mt. Rushmore. Kathy takes some great pictures, even better than the commercial postcards. Near the end of the trail is the Sculptor's Studio, another good viewpoint housing the original models of the presidents.
For your planning I advise A MINUMUM of 2 hours here. We found plenty to keep us here for 4 but we are avid history buffs. On that note I will give you a brief (ha ha-did I say brief? Most of you complain that it takes too long to read these blogs)history of the monument. Senator Peter Norbeck and Doane Robinson imagined this sculpture and contacted Danish born, 57 year old Lincoln Borglum. In September 1924 exploring was done for a site with work commencing in 1927 using photographs, portraits, life masks, and descriptions of the presidents as aids. The figures were to be 465 ft tall i.e. each nose is 20 feet long, eyes 11 ft wide, mouths 18 ft wide. Lincoln's mole alone is 16 ft. Each head is as tall as a 6 story building. More than 800 million lbs. of stone was removed during the carving. Each face is as tall as the entire Great Sphinx of Egypt. These faces would block the falls of Niagara if they stood in them as its waters splash only around their ears. They would have to stoop to read by the dimming light of the Statue of Liberty-Can you imagine! The 400 workers had to climb 506 steps daily just to get to the top of Mt. Rushmore and hang from bosun chairs on cables. Unbelievable, there were no deaths and only two minor accidents. 14 years and $1 million later Borglum did not live to see its completion. His son, Lincoln, spent another seven months refining it. In case you were wondering, there are no plans to add another face as there isn't enough suitable rock left.
Kathy and I were going to take one of the helicopter tours up close and personal , but we decided it ruined the reverence of the mountain by being too invasive and commercial. These are available for about $59.
With reluctance we pull ourselves away and head 15 minutes down the road to the Crazy Horse Memorial located on US 16/395 between Hill City and Custer. The Crazy Horse Memorial is open daily featuring the Welcome Center where the film "Dynamite and Dreams" explains its history and purpose. On the grounds is a North American Indian Museum showcasing tribal artifacts, hand-on activities, historic Edward Curtis photographs, a Native American Educational and Cultural Center, sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski's log house and studio, and the usual restaurant and gift shop.
After Chief Henry Standing Bear and other Lakota Sioux chiefs saw mt. Rushmore developing they too dreamed of carving a sculpture into a mountain to show that "the red man has great heroes also." So they invited Korczak, another immigrant sculptor and assistant to Borglum, to honor Crazy Horse, the famous fighter at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. He had defended his people and their way of life in the only way he knew against broken treaties and treacherous officials. This carving is not so much a lineal likeness, but more a memorial to his spirit. His left hand is thrown out pointing in answer to the derisive question asked by a white man, "Where are your lands now?" Crazy Horse replied, "My lands are where my dead lie buried."
Korczak started work on June 3, 1948 at 40 years old with only $174. After his death in 1982 the project continued using his detailed plans with the held of 7 of his 10 children and his wife. When completed this 563 ft. tall carving will dwarf even the four presidents on Mt Rushmore. Still not completed the workers are now blocking out the 22 story high horse's head, 260 ft. below the head of Crazy Horse. For an additional fee we rode a bus to the foot of the mountain to see it more closely.
Why is it still not done you ask? A firm believer in free enterprise ,Korczak felt that Crazy Horse should not be built using taxpayer money. Today philanthropists and the interested public are part of the making through their admission charge. His wife, Ruth, says this "just proves that you can do anything in this world that you want to do if it's a good cause, your heart is in it, and you don't stop because you have challenges." Don't you love it!
Legends in Light, a laser light storytelling, is presented nightly , but we decided that it couldn't be as impressive as Rushmore so we opt out.
Another ten minutes finds us in picturesque Custer City, the oldest town in the Black Hills named for you guessed it, Lt. Custer. Since we have some time to kill before the restaurant opens, we walk around downtown. Drawn by a quaint brick faced building called A Walk in the Woods Gallery and Gifts, 506 Mt. Rushmore Road, we are happy shoppers. Lots of cute home decor and gifts, a fab clothing shop above, art gallery in the back, and a candy shop by its side. Oh, oh... we'll need to make room in the suitcases.
Each year artists from around the area transform life sized fiberglass buffalo and tabletop buffalo into one of a kind works of art. These are displayed on each street corner and in some shops from Memorial Day through the end of September. Since this might be our only opportunity to get up close and personal with a buffalo, we race around, cameras in hand posing. During the Custer Stampede Auction Weekend (this year Sept. 24,25) each piece is sold to the highest bidder.
FOODIE ALERT!!! Following a lead from an Internet reviewer we dine at the Sage Creek Grill, 611 Mt. Rushmore Rd, Custer City, 605-671-2424, Darling contemporary bistro with rustic breads, premier wine and beer, nightly dinner specials, SD certified beef, and what we came for -buffalo raised naturally and locally. The tomato/artichoke soup starter was YUMO and a harbinger of what was to come. The romaine/balsamic dressing salad very healthy, and the buffalo burger supreme! Burger with soup or potatoes is $9. Service was great and best of all though we didn't know it at the time the premises is unusual because it is SMOKE FREE!! Unfortunately, most of SD isn't. Looked like they had evening entertainment also.
Shops close up in this town after summer about 5:30 or 6. Street lights are pretty non-existent around here so we head for the hotel after a very full day.

85+ degrees, our usually daily temp, finds us evaluating our suitcases and off to Custer State Park via the 17 mile Iron Mountain Scenic Highway. Extending between Mt. Rushmore and the junctions of Highway 16A and SD 36, this road is a credit to Governor and U.S. Senator Peter Norbeck, who wanted to preserve the natural beauty of the area with easy accessibility for as many people as possible. He did just that. With his engineers the grandest views were selected, but in 1919 the "diploma boys" said his route was impossible to build. Luckily for us he refused to listen, consulting instead with his engineers who said that with enough dynamite it could be done. Two years and 150,000 lbs. of dynamite later three scenic highways were completed. First, Kathy drives on the Iron Mountain Road with its three tunnels connecting and framing Mt. Rushmore. This corkscrew spiral road lifts the traveler from one level to another without adding miles using what's called the Pigtail Bridges-a definite must see.
Custer State Park was established in 1912 as a State Forest and Game Preserve. Norbeck's dream was both to reintroduce many of the wildlife species that had once dominated the landscape such as buffalo, elk, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep and provide recreation and lodging for guests. There are 4 distinct lodges, each with its own personality in these 71,000 acres of natural beauty. The Blue Bell Lodge (rustic, housekeeping and log cabins), Legion Lake Lodge (family style cabins), the State Game Lodge (former Summer White House for President Calvin Coolidge), Creekside Lodge, (30 units on the grounds of the State Game Lodge), and Sylvan Lake Lodge . Of course there are also many campgrounds, . Activities range from hiking, fishing, Buffalo Safari JeepTours, horseback riding, rowing, paddle boats, hydro bikes, mountain biking and a good old fashioned hayride complete with chuck wagon cookout. In the summer many interpretive activities are provided by the rangers like gold panning demos and guided nature walks. I would love to come back one day for the Buffalo Roundup held annually at the end of September. State employees and volunteers coax the park's herd of 1,500 buffalo over the ridge, down the hill, and into the corrals for sorting. It is one of the ways that the herd size is kept at a manageable level through the winters. During the round up, the herd is moved into a system of corrals . Once corralled the handlers test, vaccinate, brand, and sort the bison. Most are released back into the park while others remain in the corrals until the annual auction. Ever want to see how far you can throw a buffalo chip? You can do that during their contest. Did you know that these were used for both fire fuel AND diaper powder...eeeewww.
Our visit starts with a stop at the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center where we learn about the history and geography of the area. Driving on our second scenic drive, the Wildlife Loop Road, for 18 miles we are transported from prairie grasslands to forests with wildlife viewing along the way. Since there is virtually no traffic we can stop whenever we want, but we always keep our eyes peeled for the buffalo. First, we spot mule deer, then a group of white tail deer. After passing the Stampede corrals we almost hit a couple of wild burros, not native to the area.They are descendents from the herd that hauled visitors to the top of Harney Peak. When these rides were discontinued the burros were released into the park where visitors now stop to pet them and take their pictures. In so doing these burros have become trained to be beggars. They have no fear as demonstrated by one sticking his head into our window.
After driving for miles through grasslands where buffalo should be roaming, we have just about given up on seeing any. Suddenly we are in the middle of a whole herd-bulls, feeding calves, and I mean hundreds of them!!! Wowsa!!! We are in heaven. Of course we take millions of pictures especially of two characters who are standing in the middle of the road holding up a car and caring less about moving. Another joins them and in passing is so close to our car that we can literally reach out and touch him. Bravely, we open the doors and get out, but refrain from any touching (which we could do they were that close). What I found incredible is the variety and volume of the noises they make-purring, grunting, snorting, grinding, bulls butting each other. We consider ourselves lucky because another hotel guest said he only saw two the day before. After an hour we finally tear ourselves away and stop briefly at Legion Lake to stretch our legs. In 1913 this lake was leased by the American Legion when Custer was a game preserve. Amazingly there are only man made lakes in this park.
Ever onward we take the third scenic loop, The Needles Highway, more hairpin turns and narrow tunnels... go Kathy! One tunnel is so narrow we watch a bus back up and try four times to get in with only inches to spare. This road is 14 miles through a maze of granite formations that look like needles, organ pipes, and spires. Needle's eye, looks exactly like its namesake, the "eye"having been formed by wind. Cathedral Spires is another great formation that we stop to take a photo of. Next stop-Sylvan Lake Lodge, the park's "Crown Jewel" created in 1881 when Theodore Reder built a dam across Sundry Gulch to create the beautiful lake. After opening in 1895 on its banks, it burned to the ground in 1935. Rebuilt again on a site selected by Frank Lloyd Wright it reminds us of the Ahwahnee in Yosemite though not as grand. We enjoy our lunches..buffalo steak tips with asparagus on a salad for me... yum.
The last stop for Today is Hill City, the second oldest town in the Black Hills, founded in 1877 during the Gold Rush. Oddly enough there is an award winning winery here, PrairieBerry. What? A winery in Hill City you say? How could this be? Well, in 1876 the Vojta family started making wine from the "prairie berries" that grew in the area. Today it produces more than 50,000 gallons a year still made from fruit of the prairie-rhubarb, crab apples, plums, buffaloberries, chokecherries, currents, etc. Grapes from Europe and Yankton are also imported. They have won many awards in international competitions for 40 of their wines earning them recognition even in Napa. Weather is now an issue for as when we entered the winery a few sprinkles have now turned into torrential rain pounding loudly on the winery's tin roof. What a great place to be to wait out the storm with its booming thunder! Tasting of five wines from oak aged reds and crisp whites to sweet, fruity wines is complimentary. Our gal pours freely as we find our favs which include the Red Ass rhubarb with raspberry overtones. Taking some to go we dash out before the storm worsens and night falls. For us the only other attrraction of interest in Hill City is the historic 1880 steam engine train that runs early May through early October. Reduced service occurs in September with special holiday excursions in Nov. and Dec. It is a 2 hour round trip between Hill City and Keystone (the end being at the turnoff for our hotel) that we wanted to do but never coordinated the time with its schedule.
As it turns out it is a good thing that we left Hill City when we did because for the next few hours we have thunder, hail, rain, and monstrous lightning flashes. Despite the storm at the appropriate time George is lit up in all his dramatic glory.


The storm has passed so we continue with today's plans driving about an hour on Hwy I-90 through RapidCity to the Badlands National Park, www.nps-gov/badl/index.htm so named by both the Lakota Sioux,"mako sica" meaning bad land and the 1800's French fur traders because "it was a bad land to cross." When you come here, SE of the Black Hills, try to do so in the early morning or late afternoon for best lighting.

How was this area formed? About 65 million years ago weather patterns shifted, and the land was lifted and transformed by geological forces. The black muddy floor of an ancient sea was compressed into a band of 2,000 ft. thick rock. Forests flourished and then withered away. Volcanoes laid down a thick layer of ash, and rivers flooded the area depositing sediment. Wind and rain erosion (continuing even today)have created deep gorges and jagged sawtooth ridges of rock layers in gold, green, and rose. Paleontologist Thaddeus Culbertson said, "Fancy yourself on the hottest day in summer in the hottest spot of such a place without water-without an animal and scarce an insect astir-without a single flower to speak pleasant things to you, and you will have some idea of the utter loneliness of the BadLands". Our first impression is how very different it is from the familiar Grand Canyon.

People visit this 244,300 acre park for various reasons. Some love the unusual rock formations. Others are photographers and painters who find beauty in its uniqueness. Paleontologists come to study fossil remains beause it contains one of the world's richest Eocene/Oligocene Epoch fossil beds. Concentrating on the most known and easily explored areas, we drive on the 22 mile Badlands Loop Road with its fourteen scenic overlooks, roadside exhitibs, and developed nature trails.

Our first stop is to walk the Fossil Exhibit Trail, a National Scenic Trail with a pamphlet/guide that interprets the fossils enclosed under Plexiglass domes. Our next stop is the Homesteaders Overlook. We can't believe how early settlers could have survived in this environment, but some descendants still live on ranches running herds of cattle and sheep. So far the only wildlife we see is a turkey vulture. We stop to photograph the awesome colors in the Yellow Mounds Overlook.

The Ben Reifdel Visitor Center, named after the first American Indian to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, contains a park orientation film, murals of past and present, interactive animations, and souvenirs in its bookstore. While the Badlands wilderness is the largest remaining expanse of wild prairie in the NPS system, it is not as much of a draw for us as the other places we have seen on this trip. Clouds are rapidly building up, so we attempt to beat them home thereby missing the biggest prairie dog town.

We have been prompted by a million road signs touting free ice water and nickel coffee not to miss Wall Drug Store, , the largest drug store in the U.S. or was it the world? Located off of I-90, north of the Badlands in the city of Wall, is the eight block long emporium. Very clever marketing has made it a vast, corny, definite tourist trap. Founded in 1931 it features Western shops, a cowboy orchestra, museums, an art gallery, LOTS of kitsch, and definitely NON spectacular, overpriced food (burgers are served without lettuce or tomato or much else) in its restaurant. Do NOT eat here unless desperate-too little for too much-grab the 5 cent coffee and run having said you have been there, done that.

Back at the hotel we are eating locally and because there are still some daylight hours we set off again with our limitless energy (ha ha) on the self guided, 19 stop walking tour of historic Keystone. This section of town is located below the current tourist section. Gold was discovered here much later than in the other areas. Settlers ranged from speculators to miners with homes varying from rustic log cabins to the elegant. A huge 200 ft. flume began from the present post office and ended at the Big Thunder Mine. Sections of town burned and were rebuilt three times. Being retired teachers we have to stop at the log cabin schoolhouse and on down the road the newer, three story Victorian schoolhouse turned museum where Ingalls family memorabilia can be seen. Carrie Ingalls Wilder came to Hill City and then Keystone around 190 where she met and married miner, David Swanzey, one of the party who escorted Charles Rushmore through the town. The rest is history. Every August 3, Carrie's birthday, visitors dress up to learn the lessons and games their ancestors grew up with. We were disappointed that the museum was closed.

Transitioning from past to present we stroll the shop and restaurant laden town en route to the Ruby House Restaurant, . The turn of the century decor with its old west atmosphere and music from the saloon next door is marred by the lack of non-smoking regulations that we are so used to. Disappointingly the cuisine (I did get to try the state fish, Walleye, which was good) did not match the uniqueness of the decor. We have been spoiled by other excellent restaurants with great prices and food.

NOW we are tired and head for home, waving and saying , "Good Night, George" and "Good Night, Tom" for the last time from our balcony.

We leave our hotel bound for Deadwood . In another life Deadwood (named because of the dead timber on the surrounding hills) was a lawless town run by infamous gamblers and gunslingers. Full of bars, brothels, and gaming halls legendary characters like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane called it home. While men like Sheriff Seth Bullock tried to tame the town, the outlaw spirit never really died. Today, when you stand on Historic Main Street, you are transported back to a wilder time where whiskey ruled and people of all stripes and persuasions flocked into the gulch hoping to make their fortune. Today, it is South Dakota's entertainment mecca with 86 gaming halls.

The entrance to the city the Old Deadwood Interpretive Site gives you an idea of how the town used to look. At the Adams Museum, 54 Sherman St, you will see a replica of the poker hand held by Wild Bill when he was shot-aces and eights (Dead Man's Hand).

The first thing to do is to park the car. After meeting up with Kathy's cousin from Wyoming, Sandy, we started across from the Tin Lizzy to the Celebrity Hotel, a cross between Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe where costumes and props from movies are displayed along with guitars from different rock stars. Also, Norm's Garage, free admission,is where Magnum's Ferrari, Herbie the Love Bug, Bond's Aston Martin, and the car from Smokey and the Bandit are parked.

No visit to Deadwood is complete without an open air trolley tour. There are many to choose from and most load up on Main Street. We chose the 90 minute Boot Hill Tours, Inc., 605-3758 because it is run by school teachers rather than Kevin Coster's more commercial company. Our most knowledgeable guide regaled us with the history of Deadwood's 1876 Gold Rush, its current gold mining, the historic Main Street buildings, Chinese Deadwood, the trial of Jack McCall, the legalization of Deadwood gambling in 1989, and much more. Stopping at "Boot Hill" also called Mount Moriah Cemetery we saw the gravesites of such historic characters as Madam Dor DuPran, Potato Creek Johnny,Preacher Smith, Colorado Charlie Utter, and Seth Bullock. We walked around to photograph the burial sites of Hickok and Calamity. Upon tour's end we moseyed over to Saloon Number 10 for the free reenactment of Wild Bill's shooting and a tasty lunch before the performance. Audience volunteers are recruited for the pokeer game and the bartender. The star did an excellent job posing for a snapshot with us after. They repeat this act several times daily. This is another DO NOT MISS.

Apparently this town is host to Kool Deadwood Nites in August, a Deadwood Jam music fest in Sept , and Days of 76 in July as well as rodeos, shows, and pageant. A little last minute shopping (lots of end of season sales-another reason to travel at this time) then we are en route to Sandy's 40 acre rance in Wyoming, about 90 minutes away.

Finally, we have a day to sleep in and awake to see antelope drinking from the small lake on her ranch. Off Sandy goes on her mini tractor to feed the horses, the silence broken only by the dogs barking. No neighbors, no traffic... can you imagine? Soon, Bobby, her daughter, Shawna, and friend, Cassie, drive up with their horses trailered and we saddle up. Kathy and I warm up in the corral. Being in the company of barrel riding rodeo queens we are, shall we say, less than proficient. These horses are so well trained. After lunch everyone is departs and we become ladies of leisure once again. A short venture into the nearest town for dinner and day is done.


The Black Hills are not exclusively in South Dakota. A portion of the mountain range spills west into Wyoming. If you continue north and then veer west on I-90 ,you'll cross the border where U.S. 14 will put you on the path to Devil's Tower, America's first national monument, It is an igneous intrusion once thought to be the core of an ancient volcano. The rock ridged tower is known as Mato Tipila or Bear Lodge to the Lakota. Along the drive glimpses of the 1,267 ft tower stand out as there is nothing else in the Belle Fourche River Valley is that height. Open year round the pillar is about 1,000 ft. in diameter at the bottom and 275 ft. at the top , making it the premier rock climbing challenge in the Black Hills. Over 5,000 climbers come here every year from all over the world choosing one of its 220 routes. On July 4, 1891 William Rogers and Willard Ripley made the first ascent using a wooden ladder for the first 350 feet the remnants of which are still there. We are fortunate today to see climbers on its sheer granite side.

According to the legend the tower's ridges are the claw marks of the great bear, Mato. Disappointed after the Creator helped two boys escape his hungry attack, Mato wandered off to the east. A painting depicting this legend hangs over the fireplace in the visitor's center where we stop before attending a ranger's introductory talk. This landmark has spiritual significance for the Native American tribes as can be seen by offerings placed in the trees along the trail around the rock. The three of us set off on the 1.3 mile self guided Tower Trail that encircles the base. Tromping through the forest we stop often for pictures and to see the progress of the climbers then head back to the ranch.


Packed and heading for the airport we drive by Sturgis, of the famous motorcycle rally fame. That's where hundreds of thousands of biker dudes and babes rumble into town from all corners of the globe with everything else that goes with the event. It is a week long party with thousands of Harleys, etc. WHATEVER YOU DO DO NOT BOOK A TRIP TO SD WHILE THIS ANNUAL EVENT IS GOING ON!! Check for dates before you book ANYTHING!

The Black Hills is truly an awesome area. There are SO many activities that we either did not have time or choose to do, but families would and could easily spend longer than a week here. For example you can ride the rails, see stories in stone, relive history, find an old mine, hike a trail, step back in time, climb some rocks, pan for gold, ride a horse, hunt game, catch some fish, sample regional foods, see animals in the wild, cowboy up, visit national treasures, go underground (caves), learn about Native culture, sample wine, hit the links, and most importantly SAVOR LIFE! We found the food to be both reasonable and varied, the accommodations from camping to elegant and tons to do and see. What more could one want on a vacation? For us the weather was perfect, if not too warm and the lack of crowds fantastic. Seven days, assuming your arrival is Rapid City, would be the minimum for most people though we condensed our activities into five fab packed days.

What absolutely made the trip so outstanding for us were the tremendous awe-inspiring visions of men whether it be immigrants, natives, or residents who followed their dreams and accomplished so much despite staggering odds. What courage and patriotism they had ! What an example for us to follow! I urge you to make this trip.

Thursday, September 2, 2010



Most of you are probably familiar with ocean cruising, but if you have never tried a river cruise I urge you to do so. They are my favorite vacation for several reasons. There are the usual perks of having to unpack only once, having your food, entertainment and lodging all under one roof, getting to meet new people, and seeing new places. HOWEVER, there are some significant and positive differences.

First, a river cruise is about the destination itself. Some of the world's greatest cities lie along rivers especially in Europe where their rivers are much like our freeways. They run right through the center of town giving you the freedom of getting off and on the vessel as frequently as you like since you are docked centrally. There is NO waiting in line to go ashore and NO tenders. With this independence you will be able to experience a sense of being part of the local scene by talking to local people and having more freedom. Shore excursions from an ocean vessel are time intensive because one is usually transported via bus or van to central points in towns often hours not minutes away. The time constraints imposed on you by adherence to the ship's sailing schedule gives you less freedom. The new mega liners are often the destination itself.

Second, there are no long stretches of ocean cruising between ports on a river cruise. Passengers on the river have a chance to watch landscapes go by instead of just waves.

Third and perhaps best of all there are NO rough waters so NO seasickness, yay!

Next, on a river cruise local entertainment is brought on board many nights. For example local vintners host wine tasting, flamenco dancing, chamber music, and vocal ensembles are brought on the ship as well as local culinary treats. Sometimes as on the Douro River cruise you are docked alongside an outdoor stage and cafe enabling you to view multigenerational fests without leaving the ship. Often locals serenade and wave while you cruise past their homes and farms.
Also, the atmosphere on a river cruise is more relaxed and informal . Because of the small passenger capacity of 90-150 passengers verses 6,100 on the newer, larger cruise ships, attention and service from the staff is excellent.
All cabin categories on a river cruise state at water level and are rated from the water up. There are NO inside staterooms. Staterooms are ALL outside with river views. They are comparable in size boasting sliding glass doors or large windows. Open seating for all meals gives you an opportunity to get to know your fellow passengers if you choose. Often free internet is available with flat screen tvs in the cabins.
Finally, you are not nickeled and dimed to death as on many cruise lines. Walking tours are usually included in your fare for each city as well as other unique shore excursions. Uniworld hosted a dinner in a historic monastery one night. Passengers also have the option to sight see on their own.
My favorite line for value and itineraries is Uniworld. My cruises with them include the Douro River beginning in Porto, Portugal to Salamanca, Spain and back. I have also done from Amsterdam to the Black Sea and back. Avalon is another excellent company. I loved my cruise from Budapest to Prague along the Danube. Pre and post packages are also available. There are many itineraries offered with cruises offered in China, Egypt, and Russia as well as Europe. Food and wine themed cruises are popular as well as holiday sailings visiting Europe's famous Christmas markets.
For this river vacation I chose to experience an American river cruise with Cruise West. This journey will take me through three states, three rivers, and eight locks with terrain changing from western coastal temperate rain forest to eastern dry, high plans and sagebrush. So let's begin!


Up at 4AM and out the door for OC airport-destination Portland, OR, 65 miles from the Pacific Ocean and 30 miles west of the Cascade Mountains. Cruise West greeters find us in baggage claim and we are bussed to the hospitality suite at the Embassy Suites Hotel, just 3 blocks from the Williamette River. The Bite of Oregon is being held within walking distance as well as the Portland Saturday Market, the largest continually operating outdoor handcrafted arts and craft market in the nation ! Wow, can't miss that can we! Shoppers alert! It stretches from one side of the railroad tracks to the other ending at the river. Not familiar with the logistics we started the the Import section displaying goods from India and Tibet, stopping for something to eat at the International Food Court. Did you know that Portland has more brewpubs and breweries per capita than any other city in the US?
After crossing the tracks we find the quality and uniqueness that we were expecting. Glass swirled wave necklaces, decorative hydrating beads for plants and vases, hand painted flower pots, recycled silverware masks and ornaments, scarves, art etc. are only some of the items that tempt us. The biggest find is a handmade vest for travelers holding everything needed i.e. passports, Ipods, glasses, maps, and more thus eliminating the need for a purse. This definitely facilitates TSA check in and thwarts unsuspecting pickpockets. The area we are in is a juried show so wares must pass a certain level to be shown here. Shopped out and out of time we walk past the outdoor entertainment and head for the hotel where we meet fellow passengers and bus to our ship at 3:30 "The Spirit of '98". Fred, our steward, introduces himself and shows us to our cabin on the second deck. We are pleasantly surprised with the cute headboards, armoire and plenty of storage. As on any cruise we don our life jackets for the emergency drill in the lounge while we cruise through the downtown area beneath the city's historic bridges connecting the east and west sides of the north flowing river.
After dinner our guides, Debbie and Chandra, promise us that we will be rewarded with historic sites and native history as we explore some of the route traveled by Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Both of are reading the book Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose for additional background. It is rich with their journal entries and drawings.
Bonneville Dam & Multnomah Falls
Early this morning we awake cruising in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area dedicated by President Reagan in 1986. The 80 mile long gorge is a sea level route through the Cascade and drains our West, BC, and Alberta. These mountains rise up to 5,000 feet. I am up for the early morning self-serve breakfast and coffee in the lounge. Regular breakfast is at 7:30 where we meet more of our fellow passengers.
We see Beacon Rock before Bonneville, one of the largest basalt formations of its kind at 846 feet. We watch our crew lasso the floating cleats and secure our ship to the lock chamber as we go through our first lock. The concrete door closes behind us and by force of gravity water is piped into the chamber lifting us @55 feet. Once filled the lock chamber is level to the water above and the front door opens allowing us to proceed and dock at Bonneville. This dam was named for Army Captain Benjamin Bonneville, credited with charting most of the Oregon Trail. The lock was originally built in 1938 then updated in 1993. Wages for the laborers on this dam were considered exorbitant back then at 50 cents per hour for unskilled and $1.10 for skilled. Can you imagine?

After breakfast we board buses at 8:45 to meet our U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Interpretive Guide from the Bonneville Dam Visitor Center. He does an excellent job explaining the workings of the lock. We learn about the life cycle of the salmon, how they were affected by the dam construction, and observe these fish navigating the fish ladder from underwater windows.
Next stop Multnomah Falls, the most visited natural landscape feature in Oregon. The falls are 620 feet and remind me of Yosemite Falls. You can get up close and personal using the hiking trail to a bridge midway between the two falls. I have visited these falls previously hosted by my cousin living in Vancouver a road trip. She treated us to brunch at the scenic restaurant at the foot of the falls. The Lodge is on the National Register of Historic Places....beautiful.
Back on board we are treated to a BBQ lunch but are unable to sit on the sundeck because of windy conditions. We resume cruising through the Gorge watching forests changing to sandy colored buttes not unlike central CA. This are is a natural wind tunnel with TONS of sailboats (a race is in progress as we pass. Suddenly our windows are filled with the sail from one of the boats-a near miss). The wind is a brisk 40mph and can get up to 100 mph, one of the reasons it is the site of international wind surfing competition. Watching from the sundeck through the binoculars provided for us in our cabins we see these daredevils come as close to the ship as possible. The second lock at The Dalles Dam raises us @85 feet. Narration is proved by an onboard geologist from the area as we cruise along. Choices..... nap time or the warm, gooey chocolate chip cookies that come out of the oven every day at 4PM . Hmm... which do you think I chose/?? More narration from the geologist for the evening entertainment after dinner... or not.
I beat the wake up call at 7AM and head for coffee in the lounge. There are many of us early risers. We're docked in the remote town of Umatilla, Oregon, made famous by gold seekers and riverboats bringing supplies to a now grain and wheat shipping port. Soon we board the motor coaches for Pendleton, a Wild West town where the annual Pendleton Round-up (rodeo)is held in September. This town named after U.S. Senator George Hunt Pendleton became a commercial area in 1851 when a trading post was established. It had a booming Chinatown from the 1880's until 1920. As a result of discrimination the Chinese were forced to both live underground and conduct their business there. We walk through underground passageways recreating their baths,laundry facilities and brothels.

Being in the first tour group we have time to hop a shuttle and tour the famous Pendleton Woolen Mills. Unfortunately the looms are silent for maintenance but these blankets are a rainbow of colors!

Everyone meets back in town at Hamley's Old West Saloon above the store of the same name which is famous for its high quality saddles sold for up to $5,000. Live cowboy ballads serenade us as we munch. At 1:30 we leave for the Tamastslikt Cultural Center, the only Oregon Trail interpretive center that gives the Native point of view including the Cayuse, Umatilla , and Walla Walla nations. Native artifacts, art, videos, demonstrations, and the outside Naami Nishaycht culture village comprise this center. It was very well done.
Boarding motor coaches again we have a short ride back to the ship while viewing a video about Cililo Falls. Geology lecture AGAIN this evening.....history is when???
Well today we had a very different wake up call. At 3:30 AM we were literally JOLTED awake and almost out of our beds. Teddy jumped up saying "Let's pack. We have to evacuate!!" Hearing voices outside I got dressed to find all my neighbors in their pajamas talking and pointing at a concrete wall of the lock we were in. Apparently whoever was steering the ship hit a knuckle and crashed into the wall of the lock. As the first mate walked by I asked if if he was going to tell us what happened and if the captain was in charge. All he would say was that the captain "was up there". The hit which was on our side dented the metal side of the ship, wrenched free the bolt of the disembarking gate,separated the ladder from its position and buckled a support pillar. Needless to say no one went back to bed and made the conversation at breakfast. Apparently the crew had set the table for breakfast the night before and all the dishes crashed. The captain made an appearance and gave the explanation that we caught "a tail wind and were going too fast" etc. ,reassuring us that there wasn't a hole in the boat and that we wouldn't sink .We made it to our next "scenic" port on our stop which turned out to be a big junkyard of crushed cars. The Coast Guard would not let us continue until repairs were completed which went on until midnight that night.

After our breakfast we enjoyed a presentation by Angel Sabotta, a Nez Perce native about her tribe's culture and history. In the fall of 1805 the Lewis and Clark party camped at the junction of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers during their overland journey to the Pacific Ocean. Here they rested and were cared for by the Nez Perce. The twin cities of Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston WA began on opposite sides of the river.
From just south of Clarkston and upstream for 100 miles the Snake winds its way through the deepest gorge in North America with a maximum depth of 7,900 feet. This canyon separates the Blue Mountains of NE Oregon from the Seven Devils range of Western Idaho and is loaded with wildlife such deer and big-horned sheep. Man has a long history here as witnessed when we stopped to see ancient rock petroglyphs along the riverbanks. On the slopes above are the remains of old Nez Perce horse trails where in 1877 Chief Joseph led his band of 250 warriors and 500 women across the water to their supposed destination of the Lapwai Reservation. They were pursued on their trek across 1,400 miles of this rugged terrain as they tried instead to reach Canada for a rendezvous with Sitting Bull and his people. They were stopped just 40 miles before their goal.

Armed with cameras and binoculars we transfer from our bus to a large, covered jet boat. Our captain lives on the primitive Idaho side of the river and knows the rapids well. Our lunch stop is at Beamers Heller Bar. Fortunately, we get to see big-horned sheep frequently as well as some white tailed deer by the river and on the slopes. Bird watchers would love seeing the Osprey and Heron. Going over the rapids in our jet boat is great, but along the way we pass many river rafters in inflatables. Now that would be awesome! We depart Clarkston for the ship only to find thewelding still on-going (until midnight actually). Our evening entertainment is a video about York, Lewis and Clark's slave who went along on the expedition. We retire wondering what tomorrow will bring-what a day!


Because of repairs we have lost half a day so our lunch stop has been cancelled and out visitations shortened. While on our 45 minute drive to Fort Walla Walla we pass fertile farmlands over 750 in this county with 1/4 of them over a 1,000 acres of wheat. Remember the sweet Walla Walla Onion? In 1977 the first winery was established and over 100 vintners followed thus thousands of acres are grape producing.

I am excited to see Fort Walla Wall because it houses a pioneer museum of five exhibit halls with military exhibits, pioneer artifacts, dioramas, and a pioneer village of 17 original buildings -doctor's office, barber, shop, schoolhouse, settler's cabin, jail, livery stable etc. Reminiscent of the Pioneer History Center in Wawona, Yosemite National Park where I volunteer I check it out carefully . The village is only manned by docents on the weekends.
Next stop is a tour and tasting at a local winery. The town of Walla Walla is older, quaint, and very much like Main Street USA with its candy and ice cream store. We have 45 minutes to sightsee then back to the ship where it anchors for the evening in Richland, next to a beautiful park. Boaters are out on the river enjoying the warm weather. After our all you can eat Dungeness crab dinner we walk it off through the park checking out all the hotels etc. We find that the tourists prefer staying here rather than Walla Walla because it is newer. Back on board by 10pm and off we sail.
The comedy of errors continues I am afraid. The ship overshot the next port so we have to turn around and go back-this is a crazy cruise. Who's at the wheel? Today we have a full day of leisurely cruising as we head back toward the way we came. Once again we pass The Dalls. Originally the town was a Wasco Indian Village called Win-quatt "place encircled by rock cliffs". The falls that were here before the dam was a place for Native tribes to gather followed by becoming a stopping place for Lewis and Clar, the first white men to visit. Their campsite was named Rock Fort but was renamed by French Canadian fur traders "Les Grandes Dalles de la Columbia" or The Great Falls of the Columbia . About 12,000 people live here now. Narration is ongoing throughout the day as we observe wind surfers and kit boarders from the sun deck again. Everyone is enjoying a leisurely day . Once again we pass through our final lock at Bonneville, whew!


This is going to be one of my favorite days! After docking in Rainier some of us take an excursion to Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument , but we opt for a short bus ride to Fort Clatsop where the Corp of Discovery spent a dismal winter in 1805-6. Lewis and Clark prepared for their return trip by working on their journals. After a video in the visitor center we out outside to the replicas of the fort buildings. Captain Lewis was suppposedly awed by the size of the trees here which include Sitka Spruce. Old dugout canoes are on display as you walk along a 1/2 mile trail past the landing through the forest. We are constantly reminded on this trip of how tough and courageous these explorers were. Outside of the fort living history is going on(yay!) as two docents effectively demonstrate the loading and firing of the early rifles. Wow, the audience is impressed by the volume of the shot and amount of smoke.

The museum back at the visitor center has artifacts, dioramas and an excellent selection of books re Lewis and Clark. Lewis and Clark left this wet and stormy area (but not on our day here)with no regrets but after a picnic lunch we leave with regrets with so much to see and so little time.
Next stop, Astoria, named for John Jacob Astor who built Fort AStoria to support his fur trading company. Located just within the Columbia River entrance it was a perfect location for fishermen and 49'ers to load up on supplies. On a mission I ask my new friend, Rose, to accompany me on my quest to visit an 1898 Victorian home that the brother of my friends from La Quinta, Pam and Doug, took 9 years to restore. Abandoning the group,we head up the hill to 11th street where Eric graciously gave us a tour. This home was FABULOUS- beautifully decorated and worth the trek. Part 2 of my mission is to find a special kind of coffee called "Working Girl" that Pam loves. Not to be since it is not within walking distance. Instead, we discover the Astoria Coffeehouse and Bistro with AWESOME pastries 3 inches high and a roast they call "Hairbender" that I am sure Pam will love.
We race back through town to the Columbia River Maritime Museum to meet up with the group and watch the short video about the treacherous waters where the river meets the Pacific Ocean. This museum is the only nationally accredited maritime museum on the NW coast of the U.S. housing over 30,000 unique artifacts and 15,000 photographs of the maritime industries and stories.
Because it is our last night on board everyone is saying goodybe and taking pictures. In the lounge we gather to view a CD available for purchase of candid photographs that our tour director, Chandra, has taken all along our voyage. What a great idea! Ugh.... we must pack a true signal that the journey is over.
Luggage is out and marked for either airport, hotel or independent travel and outside the door. Even though our flight is not until late afternoon we debark at 9am and head for the airport which is an hour away. Some passengers are taking a city tour and then light rail on their own to the aiport. At the aiport we spend time with new friends, Conrad and Rose, eating lunch and finding goodies at Powell's Book Store, the largest independent bookstore in OR.