Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Mount Rushmore and Devil's Tower

by James Walker

Day 6 - Sunday, June 24th, 2012

It's a long drive from Denver to Mount Rushmore and then to Devil's Tower in Wyoming. It was also another day of dramatic landscape changes and three different states. We left Colorado, took a quick drive through South Dakota, and camped out in Wyoming. It was pretty great.

After a few hours we made it across the border to Wyoming and stopped in Cheyenne to take a quick break. It surprised me how small the town was, considering it is the state capital. My expectations for such a place is based on cities like Sacramento and recently Denver and it doesn't really compare. While Cheyenne is the capital and the most populous city in Wyoming, at 56,466 people, it is tiny compared to Sacramento's 472,000. Nevertheless, Cheyenne is quite charming. The buildings are understandable older and have a lot of character. Probably because it was Sunday and all the government buildings were closed, there weren't many people downtown and it was easy for us to drive around and take in the scenery.

We had quite a ways to drive that day, so we didn't stay for too long. At this point, we were basically sitting on the northwest edge of the America's Great Plains, so most of our views consisted of vast expanses of flat farmland, with a barn and a windmill here and there and the faint suggestion of mountains in the distant north. We came across what looked like a rodeo, a fake cowboy sitting on top of a bluff, and lots and lots of big, blue sky.

After many hours of driving, we turned east and began our adventure in South Dakota where we finally started seeing more hills and eventually the farmland of Wyoming turned into the Black Hills of South Dakota. Our route to Mount Rushmore took us past the Crazy Horse Memorial, which you can spy from the highway, but we weren't planning on stopping. We kept on driving through more mountainous roads and only got a little lost. I remember neither of us being too excited about Mount Rushmore. It was really just an item to check off our list of things to see in America. It seemed silly to not to see it if we were going to drive thousands of miles across America anyway, so we put it on our list. However, as we got closer to the mountain and could almost see the tips of their noses through the trees, we began to get excited. I had to focus on the road, but Erinn would say things like "Ooh! I just saw George Washington!" and I would try to sneak a peek. The next thing I knew, we had turned the corner to park and there it was, one of the most famous American landmarks: Mount Rushmore! There's something truly grand about the place that simply cannot be conveyed through the countless pictures, postcards, calendars, and whatnot that I had seen before. It's a place that has to be experienced firsthand to really understand why it remains such a popular work of art. Put simply, it's a large stone sculpture of four American presidents, and that doesn't sound impressive by itself. But sit yourself in front of it and you can feel the sheer magnitude of the place. It was impressive.

There's a long walkway from the parking lot to the observation area with gift shops and bathrooms and the walkway itself is called the Avenue of Flags and each state and the year it was admitted into the United States is etched into a pillar along this walkway. The observation area provides the view most people are familiar with. It's a perfect spot to see all the presidents from, but there is a path that goes much closer to the base. From here you can see up the presidents' noses and appreciate even more how large the sculpture is. The path to the base also leads to the Lincoln Borglum Museum and sculptor's studio, which has a number of different small versions of the presidents that were used to aid in the carving of the mountain.

After taking lots of pictures, we popped into the gift shop to find a Mount Rushmore t-shirt. Our plan for the trip had been to get a shirt for each state we visited and we even had extra money set aside so we could do this, but it was just too hard to find a shirt that wasn't horrible. I was even prepared for my shirts to be super touristy and silly, but most of the ones we came across on our trip were horrible. When it came to Mount Rushmore, we were both determined to get something, but we were again disappointed. The gift shop had hundreds of different shirts, but we just couldn't get ourselves to buy any of them. If you wanted Dale Earnhardt Junior driving on top of Mount Rushmore with the American flag waving in the background, they probably had it, but if you were looking for something simple like a picture of the mountain with "Mount Rushmore" written underneath it, you would be out of luck. I settled on a sweet pocket knife with Mount Rushmore carved into it and we got back on the road.

Although we had already driven six and a half hours, we still had a while to go, but we quickly got lost again. We were following directions from our car's GPS and it was determined to take us on some sort of short cut through the woods. From Mount Rushmore we were supposed to go back the way we came and then go north through Rapid City, SD, but the GPS first took us to a parking lot for a campground/trailhead which definitely had no road going through it. Next it tried to get us to go through a Kampground Of America, insisting there was a road that went directly through the center of it. While the GPS was wrong, it was still fun to come across this KOA. It was massive; certainly the biggest one I had ever seen. There were several stores in a sort of Disneylandish old-country style, a pool, a huge park, bike rentals, a small water park with water slides and kiddie pools, and acres of land for RVs and tents. We stopped for a while, picked up some beef jerky, and continued to Devil's Tower.

The land slowly changed from small mountains to hills to sloping farmland and it was quite beautiful. Some of the hills reminded me of those Charles Wysocki puzzles you can buy from Target with iconic country houses, barns, and farmland all over the place.

The sun was close to setting by the time we finally made it to Devil's Tower, Wyoming. If you've seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you'll know the place. If you haven't seen that movie, you'll probably recognize it anyway. Devil's Tower was almost as big of a surprise to us as Mount Rushmore. Our stop at Devil's Tower came more from a need to find a place to sleep that night than it did from of a desire to see the place, but once we got there, we were sure glad we picked it. We were still many miles out when we first spotted Devil's Tower and we got pretty excited. We were coming up over a big hill and there was Devil's Tower, rising up from the mist of the farmland. Over the next few miles we watched as the rock disappeared beneath another hill and then reappeared even larger over the next hill. This continued for the next fifteen minutes or so until we reached our KOA, which was almost at the foot of the tower. This particular KOA wasn't nearly as much of an amusement park as the KOA we passed outside Mount Rushmore, but it had tons of room for camping and the view was fantastic. We set up camp in the shadow of Devil's Tower, made a dinner of sausages, squash, and soup, and enjoyed sunset beneath the massive rock. Aside from the bugs, we had an easy night of camping and I really enjoyed being so close to Devil's Tower.

Our route:

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