Archive for June, 2004

northeastern Nebraska
Visited: June 29, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 63 of 353
Second Visit: Sometime Soon
NPS Website

National Wild and Scenic Rivers are nebulous things. Not the rivers themselves, but deciphering which areas around them actually constitutes park land. We did cross the Missouri at one point in (an unsuccessful) search of a passport stamp in Yankton, S.D. We probably should have taken a picture.


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Wall Drug

Wall, S.Dak.
Visited: June 28, 2004
NPS Site Visited: Not an NPS Site
Local Website

5 Cent CoffeeWHAT IS IT?
America’s most famous tourist trap due to its ubiquitous billboards, traveler-rich location, shameless self-promotion and free ice water.

BEAUTY (2/10)
Wall Drug is a drugstore on drugs. It takes over an entire city block and has grown over the years to include souvenir shops, a cafeteria, ice cream shop and a courtyard of overgrown fiberglass creatures like dinosaurs and jackalopes. One might call it an eyesore. We call it delicious fun. We don’t think anyone would call it beautiful.

Wall Drug’s history is a story of how one good idea – free ice water for hot and weary travelers – saved one family’s fading business. A little more innovation in the shape of roadside billboards and signs across the U.S. and the world put the family’s store on the map. Wall Drug now employs one third of the workforce in Wall, S.Dak. We saw several young international workers there, too.

CROWDS (7/10)
The place was packed. On a good summer day, over 20,000 people will visit Wall Drug. Know what? Everyone we saw was happy – except for the petrified three-year old (see FUN).

All signs lead to Wall Drug. They are impossible to miss. All areas in Wall Drug are accessible. Larger bathrooms are located through the Courtyard in back of the main building. You may find some aisles in the gift store a little cramped.

Really quite excellent. A great selection. Good prices. Each of the Wall Drug top ten best selling books would have a nice home on our bookshelf (if we still had bookshelves). Wall Drug did not skimp in its offerings of books, magazines, books on tape and video cassettes. That lightweight paperback you wanted for the beach, the recipe book you’ve regretted not picking up back in North Dakota, the guide book you wish you had three hundred miles ago – they are all here.

COSTS (5/5)
Wall Drug is free and they give you free things. Perfect.

No Rangers. No guides.

Fun at Wall DrugTOURS/CLASSES (1/10)
Aside from the pamphlets explaining the history of Wall Drug and a few framed newspaper articles on the wall, there is little in the way of classes or educational opportunities at Wall Drug.

FUN (7/10)
Good clean fun. Not only did we help ourselves to some free water and bumper stickers, we treated ourselves to 5 cent coffee and some delicious doughnuts. The ice cream looked too good to resist as well. It seems that the Hustead’s plan works perfectly. Come for the freebies. Enjoy the kitsch. Buy some stuff while you’re there.

We watched the animatronics cowboy band with a banjo player that looked eerily like the late Ronald Reagan. We took pictures of each other and other tourists as we sat next to Poker Alice and other crusty looking cowboy types and climbed on the structures outside that perhaps were there for the kids. We laughed as a three year old turned and sprinted, wide-eyed, silent and determined, as the fire-breathing Tyrannosaurus Rex came to life in the Backyard. His parents laughed too. In fact, I’m giggling remembering the scene.

Now if only that little girl would get off the jackalope. Where’s her mom?

There is a huge bulletin board on the way to one set of bathrooms where people can leave notes for the international workers. There are at least forty languages and nations represented on the board.

Imagine yourself a young student from overseas lucky enough to have a work visa for the summer. Your first introduction to the United States is the wacky world of Wall Drug in the middle of nowhere South Dakota. What assumptions would you make about the rest of our nation based on your time there? Hopefully your memories are of tourists of all shapes and sizes laughing and having a good time despite their better tastes.

Wall Drug is the very definition of a tourist trap. Doesn’t mean it’s not fun. Take a break from the dusty road, get some free water and a 79 cent doughnut. You probably need to buy more sunscreen anyway.

TOTAL 42/80

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Badlands National Park

Interior, S.Dak.
Visited: June 28, 2004
Second Visit: August 19, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 62 of 353
NPS Website

Badlands Shadows

Stark, unearthly rock formations, canyons and pinnacles ostensibly, but mistakenly, devoid of wildlife and very hot. The Site contains one of the world’s richest mammalian fossil beds.

BEAUTY (8/10)
Badlands NP is harshly unwelcoming but strangely beautiful and undeniably awesome. The rocks’ contours, spires and shapes are under steady attack from erosion’s forces. The badlands have a mystical presence whose attractiveness is oddly fleeting. Its inspiration is dry; the place does not teem with life. We were amazed but did not want to stay.

Geographically, the Badlands are babies and they will be gone in 500,000 years. The Badlands are a blip in time. See them while you can.

The Badlands contains layers and layers of fossils, exposing mammals from a different age, native to climates and environments completely inconsistent with the present day Badlands area.

Lakota Indians flourished in this seemingly hostile environment for over one hundred years, hunting bison and adopting horseback riding to better navigate the landscape. Fur trappers, miners and settlers pushed on the Indian population and eventually forced them into reservations after the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. The Badlands NP preserves the location of this sorrowful event.

CROWDS (6/10)
Most people we saw at Badlands NP looked to be having a good time. Both kids and adults excitedly climbed on the rocks, scurrying in and out and up and down their huge natural playground. The park service seems to have designated a few formations as sacrificial rocks.- buttes near scenic overlooks and parking lots which host the majority of the climbing. The badlands formations exist in a geological blink of an eye; erosion will soon reduce them back to flatlands in a few ten thousand years.

Our tour group, while large, was filled with people asking intelligent, thought-provoking questions. Questions that Michael could not even imagine coming up with but whose answers somehow allowed him to understand better the complex geological forces that created the badlands anomaly. If we had more tour groups like these, learning would be much easier.

Our CampsiteOn the negative side, the Visitor Center crowds were overwhelming and the proliferation of campground RV’s a little hard to take. Badlands NP quiet hours are shorter than most parks, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Imagine, it’s 9:00 p.m. the stars are beginning to come out and the full moon is perched behind rugged buttes. But nearby, we are surrounded by behemoth RV’s. Their satellite dishes are working and The Game Show network is on as we can slightly hear the “No Whammies, no whammies, no whammies” chant over their generator’s roar.

We are not against RV’s in National Parks; we just wish the campgrounds would follow Theodore Roosevelt NP’s lead and separate the RV campers from the tent campers. It is an easy solution that would alleviate a lot of stress.

Location, location, location. If you are traveling westward along Interstate 90, Badlands NP is located just eight miles south of exit 131. You can take the 22-mile scenic drive west through the stunning scenery where you meet S.Dak. route 240. An eight-mile drive north returns you to Interstate 90’s exit 110 and you can continue your travels into the Black Hills. The scenic drive includes many overlooks that provide just as good a view as a hike into the rough terrain.

The book selection looks large sprawled across seven topic-sorted bookshelves until you notice that many of the books are the same. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee appears on six of the seven shelves; it presumably does not contain astronomy information. The store does include the cutest prairie dog stuffed animal to date as well as neatly designed NPS patches. The stores direst problem is that its ample amount of merchandise is stuffed into a very small area. Lots of customers + small area = shopping nightmare.

COSTS (2/5)
Park entry cost $10 per vehicle, free with the National Parks Pass.

In our two-day mid-June stay at the Park, we saw zero Park Rangers. We encountered the same Park volunteer working the bookstore during the day, at the campfire talk that night and on the nature walk the next morning. The reason, budget cuts. Because of the lack of Rangers, the tour groups were extremely large, the Visitor Center a cacophonic mess and Park-related questions unanswerable. It is a travesty that one of our nation’s most visited and most famous travel destinations cannot afford to hire additional Park Rangers during the height of tourist season.

Peaks of the BadlandsTOURS/CLASSES (5/10)
Our learning experience at Badlands NP was characterized by extreme high and lows.

The 5 rating comes only as a result of an extraordinary Park Volunteer-led nature walk along the Door Trail through the Badlands. He has been the first person we have ever met that made geology make sense. The other 60 or so people on the tour seemed to agree. After finishing, a long set of applause was followed by copious thank you’s and over 20 minutes of questions. Our opinion of Badlands NP changed during the course of our talk. We were not alone.

Every other Park experience disappointed. The Visitor Center’s displays, while informative, had not been changed since 1959! The Fossil Exhibit Trail’s displays seemed just as old. No self-guided nature trail pamphlet was available. We were forced to guess what we were looking at and imagine its significance. Signs advertised a nighttime Nature walk but reality proved different. The evening walk no longer exists, a victim of budget shortcomings.

The film was boring and dated. The Park’s theater was outside and despite the shade, provided only a bit of respite from the heat. The films’ soundtrack had to compete with the slamming of bathroom doors nearby and the loud chatter of people entering and exiting the Visitor Center.

We chose not to go to the Pig Dig Archeological Site, an eleven-year-old project that has collected over 8,000 bones and greeted over 50,000 visitors even though it has traditionally been open to tourists only from mid-June to August. The Park newspaper told us that the Dig is in its last year “due to the difficulty in obtaining funds.”

Even though all of the self-guided nature trail boxes were empty, our volunteer guide assured us that a pamphlet existed, you just had to ask for it at the Visitor Center. He added that it was not very good. He was right. The pamphlet’s closing paragraph bid goodbye to the tourist with a stunningly threatening ultimatum. We are not going to elaborate.

Hot GabbyFUN (6/10)
The vistas are amazing but things got a little repetitive on our 11-mile hike on the Castle and Medicine Root trails. Besides these two easy trails and the more difficult but very short Saddle Pass trail, there are no other marked routes through the Badlands. Backcountry is always an option, but all water must be carried with you. That gets heavy. It looked hot and barren. It did not inspire us to pack up the tent and set out into the soft rock. We weren’t sure how long we wanted to stay at Badlands. For us, one night was plenty.

Yes, make it a part of your South Dakota vacation. Descent into the rocky terrain after hours spent driving across the flatness of the plains is both an fantastic experience and a stalwart of American travel. Unless you are especially moved by the Badlands, take the scenic drive and continue on to Wall Drug.

TOTAL 50/80

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Keystone, S. Dak.
Visited: June 26, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 59 of 353
NPS Website

Mount RushmoreWHAT IS IT?
60+ foot profiles of four American presidents carved onto the southeast side of a granite mountain.

BEAUTY (9/10)
Awe-inspiring. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum has captured the essence of his subjects: George Washington’s strength and determination; Jefferson’s aloofness; Roosevelt’s fighting spirit; and Lincoln’s pensive sadness. The dramatic granite pillars and ponderosa pine of the Black Hills provide a perfect setting. The park’s recent $60 million renovation is a stunning companion piece to an already impressive memorial. The renovation highlights include marble pathways, a boardwalk that leads to the base of the mountain and a gorgeous amphitheater.

In the 1920’s, South Dakota State Historian Doane Robinson had an idea. He wanted western heroes carved onto the sides of various Black Hills spires. His motive: Bring in Tourists. Four years later a process began to create something much grander in scale: the United States’ answer to the Pyramids of Giza, an eternal remnant of our civilization. The sculpture is carved on such strong granite that it will last for thousands of years. It is our message to future generations. These are the people who have created, expanded, preserved and developed our great nation.

CROWDS (7/10)
There were thousands of people at Mount Rushmore when we visited. Our Ranger-led tour included at least 100. We had expected the worst, crowd-wise, but were pleasantly surprised. The Site is impeccably designed with numerous trails, museums and activities. We were never rushed, crowded or denied a view.

Goat-like IntruderEASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
Mount Rushmore N MEM is a bit out of the way, a 50-mile round trip along winding Black Hills roads from Interstate 90. The new renovation has created a completely accessible memorial. The entrance is a short walk from the five-level parking garage. The Site even offers a Braille version of the official Park brochure.

There are three separate bookstores, one of which is the size of a small supermarket, that shelve a plethora of Mount Rushmore souvenirs. An incredible choice of coffee cups, magnets, T-shirts, stuffed animals, shot glasses, Black Hills Gold, Native American trinkets, sweatshirts, patches and much more. The stores were an overwhelming fun mess because their products were so cool. The book selection was quite good except for the surprisingly poor set of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln books.

COSTS (3/5)
Entering the Site itself is free, BUT parking is $8 per vehicle. As the brochure explains, “No federal funding was used for (the parking garage construction) project. Thus, federal passports such as the National Parks Pass, Golden Age, Golden Access and the Golden Eagle are not applicable for parking.” Your $8 parking pass is good for one year.

Even though there are hundreds of people per Ranger at Mount Rushmore, the Park Service has skillfully distributed each Ranger and leaves no guest without a professional information outlet. Guided tours of the memorial as well as talks at the Sculptors Studio start every half hour.

The Ranger-led tour was tremendous. Through the Ranger’s skillful teaching, we gained awe and respect for the carvers, the sculptor and the four presidents. Michael most enjoyed the section of the tour where the group looked at the sculpture and described the character trait evident in each presidents’ visage.

At the tours start, the guide was inevitably asked if Ronald Reagan would be added to the mountain. His response, “Would you paint a smile on the Mona Lisa? Gutzon Borglum wanted no one to touch his masterpiece. For that reason he used up all available rock. So, no.” That’s when we realized that we were looking at art just as epic and brilliant as Da Vinci’s lady.

The Sculptor’s Studio talk was also a great learning experience if only for the setting. The Ranger gives her lesson a few feet in front of Borglum’s scale model. An in-residence working sculptor is also available nearby to answer questions about the artistic process.

Anything You Can Do...The newly remodeled Museum has many wonderful displays and interactive features. We especially enjoyed the Mount Rushmore in Popular Culture video as well as the T-bar dynamite detonator whose compression coincides with a dynamite blast clip.

Don’t watch the film. It was completed in 1985 and discusses nothing not already covered by either the Rangers or the museum.

FUN (8/10)
We came expecting the worst. Large crowds, high security and bad views. Michael had been to Mount Rushmore twice before and was less than impressed. Boy, were we wrong. The renovations have enhanced and dramatized the older views. The new Presidential Trail takes you right underneath the sculpture, a place we never imagined we would be able to go. What fun.

Of course, see it at least once in your lifetime. The Site is first class, a fitting tribute to our Memorial.

TOTAL 68/80

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Our education about Native American culture has really just begun. After months of historical sites in the Northeast which made reference to people indigenous to North America only as enemies or problems for early settlers, we arrived in North Dakota and Minnesota to three wonderful sites.

The Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site and Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site in North Dakota and Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota have all offered windows into a world that I know far too little about. Each of these places offer hands on teaching about the way certain tribes lived and in some cases continue to live in the Plains.

Coffee at Fort UnionWe spent an hour inside a recreated earth mound at Knife River, touching buffalo hides, smelling the hot coals on the hearth, and holding the bison scapula hoe that Mandan and Hidatsa would have used to tend their extensive gardens.

At Fort Union, we drank coffee in the Indian Trade House with a Ranger acting as Clerk. He invited us into conversation and allowed us to browse the goods, just as he would have done with a Chief or representative of one of the several tribes who would have traded with the American Fur Company.

At Pipestone, not only could we watch a fifth generation carver sculpt beautiful pipes from the red stone, we could pick up pieces of the stone and cut and scrape and file to our hearts’ content. We could feel firsthand what made this substance so valuable and this quarry so sacred.

These experiences bordered on overwhelming as we tried to take in every detail, use every sense to increase our knowledge. These places really got it right.

I wish I could say the same for Devils Tower National Monument. Unlike Pipestone National Monument, which reminds you gently, solemnly and frequently that you are on sacred ground, Devils Tower does little to deter disrespect. Once you wade through the throngs of kids (behaving badly for the most part) in the Visitor Center and on the Tower Trail, you may find some signs asking you not to touch prayer offerings left on trees. That’s about it.

How did this formation get its name? What significance does it hold for Plains Indians? Answers to these questions are tucked underneath large signs which boast about the Site’s Voluntary Climbing Closure in June.

During the month of June, climbers are asked to refrain from scaling the sacred rock. June is a time of increased religious ceremonies for Indians at the place they know (and would like others to know) not as Devils Tower, but as Bear’s Lodge, This voluntary program has reduced climbing during the month of June by 85%, something the Park Service is clearly very proud of. Signs announcing their success obstruct views of other museum displays and take center stage in the Visitor Center.

Bear’s Lodge (Devils Tower) If the Park Service is so pleased with its cultural sensitivity, why does it allow rock climbing on Devils Tower at all? More importantly, why does it still refer to the formation as Devils Tower and not Bear’s Lodge?

Some rock climbers care so deeply about their unrestricted access to Devils Tower that they used legal means to ensure their climbing time. A local multiple use group and individual rock climbers sued the NPS in December of 1996, only a few months after the Park Service first enacted the voluntary closure period. The suit made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court by March of 2000.

Climbers argued that the one-month voluntary climbing closure infringed upon rights guaranteed to them by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court dismissed the case, saying that climbers failed to specify how they were harmed by the climbing closure. The climbers appealed, arguing that the judgment violated the Constitution’s separation between church and state. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal because the climbers could still climb whenever they pleased; the ban is voluntary.

So, NPS continues to ask nicely that people refrain from scaling Devils Tower for the 30 days of the year that Plains tribes hold this place, to them Bear’s Lodge, most sacred. We did not see any climbers during our visit. On the whole, they honor the closure. This forum on rockclimbing.com highlights this interesting debate.

The Lakota Sioux and the Cheyenne call it Bear’s Lodge. The Arapahoe call Bear’s Teepee, the Crow call it Bear’s House. That was this place’s name before 1875. At that point, Colonel Richard Dodge, commander of the military escort, named it Devil’s Tower. The Park Service suggests that translation problems led to the erroneous moniker; Dodge thought the Indians believed it to be the place of the bad god.

Why can’t the name change back to the more historically accurate and respectful Bear’s Lodge? Explanations in the woefully small Visitor Center seem to suggest that public familiarity and name recognition is the reason the name has stuck since then and will not change.

NPS fails to recognize that baseball stadiums, huge athletic events, major sites in every city change their name frequently due to adjustments in corporate sponsors or political will. We can handle it. Minute Maid Park in Houston was once known by a now unpopular name, Enron. Hoover Dam was, for a time, not Hoover Dam. NASCAR fans will probably call the Nextel Cup the Winston Cup for a while. It doesn’t happen overnight. But it can happen.

These four national historical sites and monuments offer windows into indigenous cultures. Devils Tower received 396,266 visitors last year, compared to the 142,629 that visited the wonderful sites of Knife River, Fort Union and Pipestone combined. One would hope that one of the most visited National Monuments, America’s first national monument, would rise to the occasion and give guests a proper introduction to the revered site and the people who consider it such. Devils Tower, sadly, falls flat.

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Devils Tower, Wyo.
Visited: June 23, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 58 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Why Such a Bad Score?
Click Here for Gab’s Thoughts on the Bear’s Lodge that Became Devils Tower

Devils TowerWHAT IS IT?
An 867-foot high rock, or as the NPS calls it, an igneous intrusion.

BEAUTY (8/10)
Devils Tower rises out its breathtaking Black Hills setting with a substantial and imposing demeanor. From a distance, its distinct symmetry and aura of importance is unmistakable and magnetic. While in its shadow, the rocks striations, subtle yellows and myriad crevasses become evident and beg to tell stories.

Devils Tower NM was the United States’ first National Monument, dedicated in 1906. The Park Service makes cursory mention of the sacred nature of the Tower to Plains Indian tribes in its horribly lacking Visitor Center museum. The Kiowa legend describing the creation of the Tower is tucked in a corner and no explanation is given of the religious ceremonies that occur throughout the month of June. We felt the history and we sensed the grandeur through the Tower itself but not through any Park Service explanation; hence the low-ish grade.

You may also know Devils Tower from its important role in the 1979 Steven Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

CROWDS (2/10)
Screaming kids everywhere, hostile bickering married couple next to us in the campsite, kid pointing fake guns at us while stopping traffic in the middle of the parking lot, an incredibly small and darkly lit Visitor Center with scurrying kids, overweight parents and, as a result, nearly inaccessible exhibits, know-it-all fat lady loudly disparaging Native American customs and so much more. It could not have been much worse.

We had traveled to the Monument in June, the month of Native American ceremony and veneration in regards to the Tower, which they call Bear Lodge. A few vanloads of Kiowa Indians had made the pilgrimage back to their ancestral homeland of the Black Hills from their reservation in Oklahoma. We were walking behind a Kiowa gentleman when he turned to his female traveling partner and remarked while fighting tears, “I wasn’t expecting such a religious experience.” Somehow, he was able to tune out the extraneous noise and commotion and connect with the Tower. We were not so strong.

The Monument is an easy 50-mile detour from Interstate 90. The roads to the Monument can be closed in the winter. The Tower is so large and so prominent and can be experienced from many different angles. There is a paved trail that skirts the base of the Tower. Do not be fooled, the paved path is in bad condition and was slicker and more slippery than our portage of the Little Missouri River a few days prior. A good many corpulent tourists also had trouble with the path’s initial steep uphill climb.

The bookstore was small with a miniscule selection of Native American-related books half of which were on display at foot level wedged between the store’s back corner and the makeshift cashier dais. The cashier, herself, was loudly talking on the phone with a fellow teenage friend during our entire 10-minute sore look around. She took umbrage at our request to exchange a $50 dollar bill. We needed smaller bills to pay for the campsite.

Bear’s LodgeCOSTS (2/5)
The Monument is $8 per car, free with the National Parks Pass. $8 may not seem like a lot, but you get nothing for your dollar except a closer view. The museum is useless, the paved trail treacherous, the parking lot small and the crowd unbearable. Campground sites are $12.

No Rangers at the Visitor Center and no Rangers around the Tower. The Visitor Center was manned by teenaged summer volunteers who had little knowledge of the Tower, its legends, and its wildlife. We heard one say that the Tower’s eaglets have probably hatched because the sparrows in Wisconsin hatched in April. Huh? We asked a different volunteer about the specific contents of the 9:00 p.m. Ranger lecture at the campsite. His response: “It’s posted right there, isn’t it?”

Devils Tower NM is one of the few NPS sites we have visited without a video! There are only a few explanatory panels and some are just duplicates. The Park Service egregiously emphasizes the rock-climbing history of the Tower over the far more substantial Native American traditions and history. The Park Service has done an atrocious job of teaching at Devils Tower NM.

FUN (1/10)
We had fun leaving.

If you are driving I-90 to Yellowstone National Park (or anywhere else) you should take the short detour and see Devils Tower. You don’t need much time. Just take some pictures and move on.

TOTAL 30/80

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near Medora, N.Dak. (South Unit) and Watford City, N.Dak. (North Unit)
Visited: June 22, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 57 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Wild HorsesWHAT IS IT?
Rugged badlands, renewed mixed-grass prairies, meandering rivers and creeks, abundant wildlife, wild horses, a birdwatcher’s paradise, petrified forests and altogether stunning scenery. The Park exists on and around lands where Theodore Roosevelt had an open-range ranch. TR’s conservation ethic is celebrated here.

BEAUTY (10/10)
Our jaws dropped the second we stepped out of the car and took in the vistas of the Painted Canyon Overlook. Fives days later we were still in awe.

The exhibits and Ranger talks emphasized that the inspiration for TR’s conservation ethic came while hunting bison (among other things) during his ranching days in the North Dakota badlands. Teddy himself said that his days in the Dakotas made him a man and that without the time spent there he would never have been president. Without his North Dakota badlands muse, perhaps the National Park System would never have come to pass.

CROWDS (9/10)
Close to perfect. The campgrounds were nearly full but spots were available. Rangers insisted that the only time sites fill up is on July 4th weekend. We felt a collective sense of wonderment and quiet appreciation. Even the RV’s did not seem too loud and overbearing. Quiet hours are from 8 to 8. The Cottonwood Campground in the South Unit even separates tent campers and RV users. A nice touch.

The scenic drives were not too crowded and the overlook parking almost always empty. Once we started hiking, we saw hundreds of bison, plenty of wild horses, towns of prairie dogs, a few golden eagles and no people.

Who, Me?
Theodore Roosevelt NP is in western North Dakota which is by definition remote. Still, the South Unit entrance is less than a mile from Interstate 94 making it, in that regard, one of the most accessible National Parks. The scenic drives and frequent overlooks allow anybody to see a great deal of the Park. The self-guided Nature Trails are all easy hikes on a paved surface.

All three Visitor Centers had a good selection of Theodore Roosevelt books. We purchased a new paper back edition of David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback, an edition that was not available at the three eastern TR sites. We were tempted by a teddy bear Teddy Roosevelt complete with spectacles and a furry mustache. All of the bookstores also included a good selection of Plains Indians books, geology books and North Dakota history books.

COSTS (4/5)
$10 per car, free with National Parks Pass. Backcountry camping is free. Sites at the campgrounds are $10. The value you receive for your $10 entry is exponential.

Our first impression was a Ranger posted at the Painted Canyon Overlook armed with binoculars to share and explanations. We had not yet experienced this simple consideration. The charm did not end. The Rangers never stopped trying to make us feel welcomed. They even stopped by our campsite to answer any questions we might have and to invite us to their 9:30 p.m campfire talks every evening.

Petrified WoodTOURS/CLASSES (7/10)
Theodore Roosevelt NP offers many different learning opportunities. Ranger led nature walks take place twice a day. Ranger talks occur both in the afternoon and in the evening. There are five self-guided nature trails. Three Visitor Centers have interactive displays, movies and touch-me tables.

Highlights included a North Unit Ranger-led hike where we learned to identify the seven different types of sagebrush and the alien and native grasses found in a mixed-grass prairie. The hike meandered through badlands buttes, over beaver dams and through the cottonwoods. Our Ranger had worked at the Park for 30 years and was able to identify the Site’s birdlife by ear; a godsend for us confused neophyte birders.

We also loved the South Unit exhibit that showed what Teddy Roosevelt was doing exactly 100 years ago. The display followed his interactions during June and July of 1904. If you are wondering, he was accepting the Republican nomination for president, an overwhelming affirmation of his two years of presidential service.

Sadly, not every class impressed. We were bored by our Ranger talk on the environmental legacy of Teddy Roosevelt; a topic that we think is endlessly interesting. The Ranger kept repeating that it was her first time giving the lecture in between reading the entire speech from a prepared script. We should have been prepared, as we had overheard her wondering aloud why she, a wildlife specialist, had to give a class on history. The reason: short staffing as a result of budget cuts.

FUN (10/10)
We woke up to a band of seven wild horses walking within feet of our tent. A herd of at least 50 bison roamed in and out of campsites only yards away. Our tent sat on a small ridge overlooking the Little Missouri River. Badlands buttes rose in the horizon and we went on a 16 mile hike to a petrified forest along trails blazed by the previously mentioned bison and horses. Uh, yeah, we had fun.

Equally fun was the charming small town of Medora, N.Dak. with its clean old west fun and the famous Medora, the Musical, which we did not see. The bird watching was spectacular and the prairie dogs were infinitely funny. We had a great time.

Wholeheartedly. Theodore Roosevelt National Park was close to ideal. The views, hikes, classes, Rangers, people, lack of people, wildlife, weather, campsites, accessibility and drives neared perfection. TR is an American treasure.

TOTAL 68/80

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near Williston, N.Dak.
Visited: June 20, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 56 of 353
NPS Website

Entrance SignWHAT IS IT?
A reconstructed version of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company’s upper-Missouri Outfit Trading Post.

BEAUTY (5/10)
The reconstruction is well done and quite accurate due to the frontier paintings done by Karl Bodmer, George Catlin and John James Audubon, among others. Despite appearing in many pictures, Fort Union is not beautiful. The high gray-white walls are ugly but contrast nicely with the immeasurably large blue sky. The interior of the Fort looks much more hospitable. We were dubious about the mural above the entrance of the traders and the Native Americans shaking hands until we learned about the Site.

The Fort Union Trading Post encapsulates and interesting and forgotten period of western trade relations; a mutual relationship of trust, diversity, trade and acceptance. Fort Union was, despite the name’s confusion, a store located near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. The Post prospered from its building in 1828 to around 1850 when both the westward expansion and displacement of Indian tribes slowed business. Business was at its strongest until 1837 when the first wave of smallpox hit the area. Fort Union was dismantled in 1867 and the wood used to build a military post three miles downriver.

In the small window of prosperity, the white traders, mixed blood hunters, craftsmen, voyageurs and Natives worked in harmony to everyone’s advantage. Goods were traded, languages learned and people generally got along. As time passed, however, things changed.

CROWDS (6/10)
A few others made the trip to northwest North Dakota and we were able to talk for a half-hour with a costumed Ranger without distraction.

Big Sky CountryEASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5)
This Site is remote. The roads are two-lane, straight and close to nothing. Use a map; the route is circuitous and there are no signs. Viewing the Fort is easy and accessible to people in wheelchairs.

Over 200 different titles ranging in topic from Lewis and Clark to Frontier Art to the History of Trade. Everything you need to know about this part of the world is here at the bookstore. Gab bought a coffee table quality book about the foods eaten along the trail by Lewis and Clark entitled Feasting and Fasting.

COSTS (5/5)
The Site is free and we were given coffee. Coffee that was being heated over a hearth, then poured with a ladle and served in a tin cup.

There were three Rangers, one costumed, who were able to answer every one of our questions.

We received an introduction to the Fort and an explanation of trading practices between Native Americans and the American Fur Company as soon as we walked into the first room. The Ranger welcomed us, gave us some coffee then showed us just about every article in the trading office. What’s this? Why is this here? The Ranger/Trading Clerk really knew his stuff.

The Ranger at the bookstore seemed occupied and wasn’t as inviting as our friend the Clerk, but was still very knowledgeable regarding the books that filled the shelves. Browsing the bookstore offerings was nearly as good as viewing the small exhibit room also in the Bourgeois House.

The exhibit and self-starting video are showing their age. Neither are remarkable. What is, is the fact that nearly the entire reconstructed Fort is open to the public. You can explore wherever you like and around nearly every corner seems to be a Ranger supplied with answers to your questions.

What we learned is that Fort Union was an important liaison point – A space where for a brief period, very different cultures were able to engage in mutually beneficial trade. “Between exploration and exploitation” is how the Ranger/Trading Clerk defined that time. Fort Union was also a stop for the Corps of Discovery as Lewis and Clark traveled up the Missouri River.

Inside the FortFUN (6/10)
We enjoyed talking in the trading office. Bringing home a new book is always a treat. We had fun trying to remember everything we learned about voyageurs and the fur trade from Grand Portage NM and about Plains Indian culture from Knife River and Pipestone. Fort Union Trading Post was one of those places where bits of information we have been gathering along the way start to fit together like pieces in a puzzle. We love it when that happens.

We were just a few days late for the Fort Union Rendezvous, a reenactment of an annual trade gathering (that never actually took place at Fort Union). But we bet the Rendezvous was a good time anyway.

If you find yourself in western North Dakota and don’t mind a drive, Fort Union is a pleasant destination. It will take you a while to get to the site, but it is one of the nicer stops on the Lewis and Clark Trail.

If you are visiting the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Fort Union Trading Post NHS is an alternative way to spend a day. We packed up our camp in the South Unit, found a new spot in the North Unit, then took a day trip up to Fort Union. By the time we made it back to Teddy, the air had cooled enough to take a pleasant hike and Gab had a new book to read after supper.

TOTAL 51/80

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Corn Palace

Mitchell, S.Dak.
Visited: June 19, 2004
NPS Site Visited: Not an NPS Site
Local Website

Corn PalaceWHAT IS IT?
An otherwise non-descript rectangular building topped by painted minarets and onions domes and adorned on its sides by murals made entirely from corn. The very definition of a tourist trap.

BEAUTY (4/10)
Beautiful, no. Cool, an emphatic yes.

The Corn Palace’s gaudy exterior and “corn-ceptual art” attracts the tourists but we found the building’s interior to be just as interesting. We expected to find a chintzy museum but instead found a fully functional gymnasium/auditorium decorated with, of course, corn art.

The Corn Palace changes its exterior “ear-chitecture” every year. This year’s theme is the travels of Lewis and Clark who, ironically enough, declared in 1805 that the Mitchell, S.Dak. area was “suitable only for buffalo”.

CROWDS (7/10)
We parked in a lot that was nearly full, mostly of minivans filled with vacationing families. But we saw people of all ages giving into and enjoying the building that was created simply to pull them off the highway and into Mitchell, S.Dak. A nice lady took our picture in the cardboard corn cutouts and we returned the favor for her and her little girl. Friendly crowd. Friendly place.

The Corn Palace is just off the well-traveled Interstate 90. You can’t miss it. Billboard after billboard tell you the correct exit in numerous punny ways. Once you leave the interstate, every sign in Mitchell points you in the right direction. There is a plethora of free parking and the site is completely accessible.

The floor of the Corn Palace’s basketball court is transformed in the summer months to a large bookstore where you can find just about anything you could have every imagined emblazoned with a Corn Palace logo.

COSTS (5/5)
Free, free, free. The Corn Palace gets a 5 (and not a 4 as have every other free site) because they give the tourist free popcorn upon entry. And samples of fudge are yours for the asking. What a place.

There were a few high-school aged kids giving tours every half-hour about the Corn Palace. If the tourists had had questions, they would have been overwhelmed. As it were, no one was too inquisitive.

Corn MapTOURS/CLASSES (4/10)
There really isn’t too much too discover. The kids giving the tours try but learning really isn’t the point. Corn art. Neato.

FUN (8/10)
This is definitely one of the corniest attractions we’ve seen so far. But you know that before you even leave I-90. You wouldn’t be taking the exit into Mitchell if you didn’t want a little bit of kitsch to brighten your day. Free makes things fun, as does free popcorn and very affordable refreshments and souvenirs. Just wait until you see the hat we got for you, Christy.

Heck yes. Interstate 90 is a long and dusty road across South Dakota, a long and dusty state. Why not get out of the car, stretch your legs, eat free popcorn and wander around the Corn Palace? Signs point you to the bastion and free parking and get you back on the highway just as easily. Sure it’s a tourist trap, but there is no charge for looking and it definitely made us smile. From the looks of other tourists, eating ice cream and browsing through corn paraphernalia, no one was apologetic for getting reeled in.

TOTAL 51/80

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Pipestone, Minn.
Visited: June 18, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 55 of 353
NPS Website; Bookstore Website

See the OracleWHAT IS IT?
Active quarry where unique soft red stone is mined. The pipestone quarry is sacred Native American ground and the stone it produces can only be used to make pipes.

BEAUTY (6/10)
Pipestone NM looks nothing like it did when the first white man arrived to the quarry in 1836. Trees now engulf the red rock cliffs. The Winnewissa Falls are not as high as they once were; farmers dynamited its former ridge to create more farmland. Buffalo no longer roam the prairie and freshly painted barn-like souvenir shops loom in the background of the Three Maiden boulders.

While historically different, there is much beauty in the striking red cliffs, the roaring waterfall and the serene prairie. Through controlled fires, the National Park Service is making efforts to return as much of the park’s 282 acres to its tallgrass prairie roots. The amount of birds in the park attests to their good job.

Pipes carved from this unique stone were and are used as ceremonial instruments and objects of trade. Some specimens of stone pipes date back over 2000 years and have been found across the United States. The quarry, the sole source for the soft yet durable stone, has been controlled by the Dakota Sioux since at least 1700. An 1858 treaty gave the Yankton Sioux free and unrestricted access to the site. They sold the rights to the area to the federal government in 1928 to protect it from exploitation and development.

Even though the federal government owns the land, Pipestone National Monument is still considered sacred ground. Only individuals of Indian ancestry can quarry for stone.

CROWDS (7/10)
Pipestone NM was more crowded than we expected. The site opens at 8:00 a.m. When we arrived at 8:30, at least 20 people were already there. A steady stream of people toured the site during our stay.

Path of PipestoneEASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
The town of Pipestone is not very big. If you find your way there, which is easy enough by following routes 75, 23 or 30 through the Southwest part of Minnesota, you will not miss the Monument. The detour off Interstate 90 is about 50 miles, the same distance off I-90 it takes to see Devils Tower NM in Wyoming.

There is a large parking lot and a single story Visitor Center which is accessible to all individuals. Most of the Circle Trail to the Quarry and waterfall is paved. During our visit, the Northern section of the Trail was closed due to heavy rain. Sadly, we only saw a small corner of the Falls.

The Pipestone NM bookstore is a living museum where native artisans cut, mold and file the delicate red stone into intricate pipes. The subtle, complicated pipe-making skill has been passed down through the generations. We talked to a fifth-generation carver whose work we could buy just a few feet away.

Nearly 100 handcrafted pipes hung on the walls for sale and can be purchased online here. There was a larger selection and better prices in the bookstore as compared to online. The bookstore shopping was intimate. Each pipe was marked with the name of the artisan. Careful inspection of the pipes revealed a distinctive style for each artist.

The bookstore also includes a terrific selection of Plains Indian related literature and other pipestone products such as earrings, necklaces and other small jewelry. Be careful, the stone is very fragile and will break if dropped. Ask Gab. And yes, it is OK to use the pipestone to make small jewelry. We asked. When the pipe pattern is carved from the rectangular stone piece, there is excess rock. No stone can go to waste, so jewelry is fine.

COSTS (3/5)
$3 per person, $5 per family. Free with the National Parks Pass.

We saw at least two Rangers each time we visited Pipestone NM – we arrived late in the afternoon and decided to return the next morning to give ourselves more time to explore.

Two CarversTOURS/CLASSES (8/10)
Both Rangers recommended that we begin our visit with the slide show… so we did. Although the projection area could have been better, the content was clear: we were on sacred ground. This stone and the pipes that are carved from it retains a valued place in Plains Indian culture.

Exhibits frame the movie room. Although small, they are easy to understand and follow. More exhibits, including a “Touch Me” table and pictographs are in the larger back room of the Visitor Center. Ornate pipes were on display both in a museum-like room and in cases at the Gift Store.

Not only can you watch a fifth-generation carver create pipes from the red stone in front of your eyes, but you can actually pick up a piece of the clay-like rock and try your hand at the art. There are small pieces of pipestone, a file a small saw and an invitation for visitors to test the texture of this special substance.

A nature loop trail takes you through the tallgrass prairie to the quarries and a waterfall. You can purchase a booklet guiding you through the trail at the front desk for fifty cents, or you can just borrow one if you promise to bring it back. Unfortunately, the northern half of the loop was closed due to heavy rains and flooding. We could hear the waterfall, but couldn’t see the cascade.

FUN (7/10)
This score may have been higher if we could have finished the loop trail and seen the waterfall. So close, but so far away! As at Knife River Indian Villages NHS, everything about this day was new and different for us – the tallgrass prairie, the cliffs of red stone and the cultures which hold the pipes in such high esteem. How nice to be reminded that learning can be fun.

We enjoyed our visit to Pipestone – both to the Monument and the town.

TOTAL 59/80

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