Wildlife Alert! – Black Hills, South Dakota

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Several of you who have been to the Black Hills and recommended that we make it a “must-do” while in South Dakota would agree with me that it’s a great place for fun, outdoor adventure and to be surrounded by the delights of nature.  Naturally we spent our days there in the outdoors, either driving the scenic byways, gazing at the monuments or hitting the trails.

Custer State Park

It was while doing these activities that we learned how rich the area is with wildlife in their natural habitat.  I snapped so many pictures of them that I thought they deserved their own post.  So I hope this “wildlife alert” will be entertaining for all you lovers of wild animals, as it was for us.

Let me begin with a regular guest at our campsite.  Unlike Sparrows, the White-winged Juncos didn’t hang around and “bogart” the feeder.  They just came by now and then for a little snack, then went on their merry way.  So we had to be ready to enjoy and photograph their snack sessions:

White-winged Junco

A White-winged Junco with his eye on our feeder

We encountered the biggest snake of our travels so far.  It wasn’t a rattlesnake, but it was big enough that we wanted nothing to do with it:


Steve estimated it to be 3 1/2 – 4 ft. long

Are these guys eligible for Thanksgiving dinner?  If so, they’d better go into hiding soon!

Wild Turkeys

Prairie Dogs are common here.  They’re social rodents that group together and build their own little “towns”.  They get their name from the bark-like call that they make to each other.

Prairie Dog

Why did the Prairie Dog cross the road?

Prairie Dogs

To get home for dinner before his wife yelled at him!

These Yellow-bellied Marmots are a type of large Ground Squirrel, and they’re also known here as Woodchucks, Groundhogs or “Whistling Pigs.”  I thought they were eyeing us, but it turns out they don’t have good eyesight.  They do have excellent hearing and smell senses, though.


One early morning we heard a rustling in the woods along highway 16A and looked up to see a large herd of Elk…

Herd of Elk

Elk Herd

…and this handsome specimen led his harem into the forest:

Elk Bull

The paparazzi were waiting outside Needle Rock Tunnel for some celebrities to appear:

Needles Highway Tunnel

But these stars weren’t ready for the limelight until they finished licking minerals off the tunnel walls.  This family of beautiful Mountain Goats were introduced into the Black Hills in 1924, and are part of a group of about 400 that live here now.

Mountain Goat

They’re not true goats, but close relatives.  They are more properly known as goat-antelopes.  A female is called a nanny, a male is a billy, and young are known as kids.

Mountain Goats

Folks finally got tired of waiting in the tunnel, and someone had to shoo these guys away so traffic could pass:

Mountain Goat

One day we got up early and drove the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road within Custer State Park.  On its 71,000 acres of grassland and pine-speckled hills the park protects an array of wildlife.

Custer State Park

Our first sightings were the non-native Burros.  They were descendants from a herd that once hauled visitors to the top of Harney Peak.  These animals were released into the park where they now beg for treats from passing tourists.


A posse on the road waiting for treats


Knock-knock, do you have a snack for us?

Pronghorns get their name from the buck’s large pronged horns.  They are considered the fastest land animal in North America, running at up to 60 mph for great distances.

Pronghorns locking horns

These guys seem to be doing battle…


…while the girls stand by to watch the action

Pronghorns also like to cross the road here, but they don’t dilly-dally like the Mountain Goats:


Then there were the Bison.  The Custer State Park herd averages 1,450 animals after the calves are born, which reduces to about 950 in time for the public auction.  Every September they are rounded up and herded into corrals.  Calves are branded and females vaccinated, with some sorted out for sale at the annual auction  The remaining ones are released to the park for another year.


Happy Bison

The auction is held in November, and buyers from all over the U.S. and Canada purchase animals from the park for breeding stock or slaughter.  Duff Ranch in Kansas, where we rode with the Bison (click here for that story), turns out to be one of the buyers.


The Bison is the official logo of Custer State Park, and its claim to fame is this world-class wildlife refuge.


And that was just the wildlife!

Next up:  So much to do in the Black Hills!

Back on the road to Iowa

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Dailsy Fleabane

After Steve’s trip down memory lane we actually managed to walk two trails before leaving Yankton, SD.  The Auld-Brokaw and the Lewis and Clark trails both meandered along the Missouri River.  The town of Yankton is located on one of the last free-flowing, natural stretches of the Missouri, the longest river in the U.S.

Missouri River, Yankton, SD

A segment of the free-flowing Missouri River

Old Meridian Highway Bridge

Yankton’s old double-decker Meridian Highway Bridge, now replaced and converted into a great pedestrian walkway

Missouri River

Along the Lewis and Clark Trail

On our way out of town we crossed a bridge into Nebraska and stopped at Mulberry Bend, a high overlook where we got a good view of part of the 59-mile segment of the free-flowing Missouri River.

Mulberry Bend Outlook

Betsy takes a rest at the Mulberry Bend Overlook

This stop not only had exceptional views, but was also steeped in historical legacy.  The first known inhabitants here were American Indians who settled some 6,000 years ago.  Lewis and Clark visited the area in 1804.  However, the river we saw was very different from the one they traveled, partly due to the great flood of 1881.  That year, massive blocks of ice in the rain-thawed river created a new channel which re-routed it five miles to the south, destroying the town of Vermillion.  The entire town was subsequently re-built on higher ground several miles away.

Mulberry Bend

Although the Missouri River is the longest in the country, only one third of it is still a real river; dams and channelization have interrupted its natural process.  Two segments of the waterway’s 2,341 miles between Montana and the mouth of the Missouri that remain unchanged are located on the border of Nebraska and South Dakota.  They have been designated by the U.S. National Park Service as the Missouri National Recreational River.

Mulberry Bend, Missouri River

An untouched segment of the Missouri River

I enjoyed this quick stop, for my feathered friends flew around and presented themselves as we arrived.  After spending a few minutes enjoying the picturesque view we continued on our journey into Iowa.

Since we try not to drive more than 200 miles in a stretch, we made three stops in Iowa before finally arriving at the Grand National Rally in Forest City.  And you know you’re in Iowa when you see cornfields all the way to the horizon.

Cornfields in Iowa

Betsy takes a morning cruise through the Iowa cornfields

The first stop was at Sac City, where one thing we saw was the world’s largest popcorn ball, on display since 2009.  Perhaps a fitting monument to all of the corn they grow here?  Or maybe the locals just have too much time on their hands…


Worlds largest popcorn

A building erected just to display a 5,000 lb. popcorn ball?  I couldn’t get a good picture due to the glare and reflection

At West Bend, we stopped to check out what is believed to be the world’s largest man-made grotto, composed of nine separate “mini-grottos”, and with each portraying a scene in the life of Christ.  The mini-grottos within the Grotto of Redemption illustrate the Story of Creation, the Fall of Man, the Resurrection and the Redemption.

Grotto of the Redemption

Grotto of the Redemption, quite an amazing place

When you get up close you can’t help but think this is a collection of souvenirs on steroids!  We saw a similar grotto in Wisconsin last year, but it was nothing compared to this massive and ornate structure!

Grotto of the Redemption

Station of the Cross

Father Paul Dobberstein (1872-1954) hand-built this structure, and it took him and one helper 42 years to complete.  The sheer bulk of the achievement is startling when considering that two men did most of the manual labor, and Father Dobberstein did practically all of the artistic work himself.  The details are exquisite, and one has to walk through it to appreciate the effort and tenacity it took to complete it.

Grotto of the Redemption

Rose Quartz in the walls

It’s mind-blowing to see the precious stones, gems, petrified wood, jasper, quartz and so much more in this collection!  The total value of the rocks and minerals used in the Grotto is said to amount to over $4.3 million in today’s dollar.


Grotto of the Redemption

Judas sneaking out of the Garden of Gethsemane

Just outside the grotto was a pond with two resident Trumpeter Swans.  I think it was only the substantial fence that prevented them from taking a chunk out of me!  We played for a little bit before I jumped back in the RV to continue our trip.

Trumpeter Swan

No food?  No picture!

Our third Iowa stop was at Mason City.  We learned that it has a rich architectural heritage, including a history deep in Prairie School architecture designed mainly by Frank Lloyd Wright and many of his associates.  The highlight of our stay was joining a tour of the only remaining building that Frank Lloyd Wright created in the city.  We’d never been to any of his buildings and had only heard his name.  But our curiosity was piqued when we learned that the downtown Park Inn Hotel is the last standing hotel of the six he had designed.  It was completed 101 years ago and had recently been restored to its original appearance for a cool $20 million.

The Park Inn Hotel

Three functions in one building – on the left is the City National Bank, in the middle is the Law Offices and on the far right is the Park Inn Hotel

We learned from the docent that Mr. Wright is recognized as the greatest architect of the twentieth century, known for his credo “form follows function.”  That credo is demonstrated in this building.  The hotel is not a museum, but rather a working business.  The bank space has been converted into a ballroom, after several alterations by other owners.

The Park Inn Hotel, Frank Lloyd Wright

Original art glass windows

The only Wright-designed Prairie School house in Iowa was one built in 1908 for  Dr. G.C. Stockman.  It was originally located roughly two blocks east and two blocks north of its present location, then moved to avoid demolition.  Imagine the effort to move this whole house!  I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside, but I learned about Wright’s primary elements of design from the docent, such as the concept of “organic” architecture.

Stockman House

South side of the house showing an expanded entrance, cantilevered roof, and second floor balcony

Mason City

Here’s another house we saw during a walk that’s ready to be moved

Those tours were perfect on a rainy day, but when the sun appeared we snuck out to get our legs warmed up on a hike/walk at the open fields of Lime Creek Nature Center.  The trails wind through open fields and wooded areas along the Winnebago River.  We had a decent 5.2 mile walk among blooming wildflowers and sections of wooded areas that provided shade to hide us from the scorching sun.

Lime Creek Nature Park

These wildflowers are taller than me!

Lime Creek Nature Park

Prairie Coneflowers

Lime Creek Nature Park

A sea of Daisy Fleabane

Dailsy Fleabane

Up in a tree was this curious Barred Owl, observing us for a minute before flying away when we got too close.

Barred Owl

Who wouldn’t love that face?

That wraps up our stops in Iowa prior to the 2015 Winnebago Grand National Rally in Forest City, Iowa, that we signed up for months ago.  Steve will take over the writing duties for that next part of our adventure.


Next up:  Time to party at the Grand National Rally in Forest City!


We visit Steve’s mom’s hometown – Yankton, SD

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Yankton, South Dakota

We had two weeks to kill before the WIT (Winnebago International Travelers) Club Grand National Rally in Iowa, so we made a slight detour and pointed Betsy toward Yankton, South Dakota.  This stop had several areas of significance for us: (1)Yankton is Steve’s mom’s hometown (2)South Dakota is the 43rd state we’ve visited and (3) Betsy had finally parked in our state of residency!

Yankton, South Dakota

Steve’s parents were from South Dakota.  His dad was from Sioux Falls and his mom from Yankton.  Some of his grandparents and great-grandparents had settled in Yankton, coming from Denmark in the early 1900’s.  Great-grandma Larsen lived to 102 years old, and her daughter, Steve’s grandma McElwain, made it to 99 – passing away in 2008.  Although he hadn’t been here since then, Yankton has grown significantly.  Incredibly, both of their homes still stand:

We were also able to re-connect with Steve’s second cousin Jim, who has lived in Yankton all his life with his wife Lynn and some of their family.  Our dinner at Jim and Lynn’s beautiful log home was spent reminiscing about the family’s past.  We were excited to look through Lynn’s excellent scrapbook full of family photos and stories.  Thank you for your hospitality, Jim and Lynn!

Jim invited us to the annual Tractor Drive Parade that happened during our stay.  He drove his beautifully-restored John Deere tractor, and 200 other folks also went through downtown on their antique tractors from the participating states of Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota.


That’s Jim on his brand-new-looking John Deere. These folks are serious about their tractors!

We had “front row” seats, and Steve obviously enjoyed the show – as he does anything displaying mechanical things.  The oldest tractor we saw was a McCormick Farmall built in 1946 (and still running).  We had a great time!


This would be a good town for Betsy to get stuck in the mud!

Tractor Ride, Yankton SD

Jim and Lynn dropped by for a visit at our campground, and we shared our stories of life on the road.  They had traveled extensively for years on a motorcycle, so we had lots to talk about.

On another day we drove out to the nearby city of Vermillion, where the University of South Dakota is located.  We walked around the beautiful campus and admired the building architecture.  A couple of tidbits – Tom Brokaw and the famous Noble-prize winning physicist E.O. Lawrence both graduated from this university, and Steve’s grandma once danced with Lawrence Welk when he worked in the Yankton area!

University of South Dakota

Campus grounds of South Dakota

University of South Dakota

Old Main was built in 1883, burned down in 1889, and was ultimately restored in 1997

University of South Dakota

Steve retraces his mom’s and other famous folks’ steps on the campus

Within the university campus is a hidden gem of South Dakota, the National Music Museum. We’d heard this was a wonderful museum, so we had to check it out.  My goodness, it took us half the day to peruse the amazing array of instruments on display in this collection!  This museum is worth a significant drive if you are interested in musical instruments at all.


The museum is renowned for its collection, which includes more than 15,000 American, European, and non-Western instruments from all cultures and historical periods.  They include many of the earliest, best preserved, and historically most important instruments known to exist.  The quality and scope of the NMM has earned it international recognition.  Here is just a sampling of what we enjoyed learning about:

Harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers, Antwerp, 1643

Harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers, Antwerp, 1643

Classic Guitars

Rare guitars made by Stradivari, D’Angelico, Martin, Gibson and Fender

Ceremony Drum from Alaska

Ceremonial drum with a three-pronged Caribou antler as a handle

The self-guided tour included free use of an iPod, which allowed us to hear the sounds made by many of the instruments, as well as to learn more about them.  Awesome tour!

Beede Gallery

The Beede Gallery showcases non-Western music that includes 240 exotic instruments from diverse cultures around the world

Conch Shell Trumpet

Conch Shell Trumpet – Tibet.  Can’t say we’ve seen this before!

All in all it was an amazing museum and really worth a stop!

We really enjoyed our visit with relatives, experiencing the charm of this part of the country, and seeing things we would have missed if we hadn’t detoured here.  A great pause before our trek into Iowa!

Next up:  Back on the road to Iowa!

Where the heck is Quartzsite?

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Dome Rock Mountain

QuartzsiteWe had heard about the “biggest RV gathering on the planet” in Quartzsite since way before we even hit the road.   Most RVers we’ve met either love or hate Quartzsite, some even tried to discourage us from going. So what and where is Quartzsite?  If you are a rock hound, gem collector, snowbirder, hobbyist or somewhere in between  you may have heard about Quartzsite.

Quartzsite is a small town in southwestern Arizona, at the junction of I-10 and US95.  It is known as “the mecca” of boondocking, attracting hundreds of thousands of RV’ers every winter.  AND it is also a rock hound’s paradise.  They say that millions of visitors attend the town’s annual two-month long show and swap meet during January and February.  But the biggest gathering happens between Jan 19-27, 2013 for the RV portion, and we will go back for it. Click here for more info about the shows.

Since Quartzsite was pretty much along our route of travel, we decided to go there for a few days to “scope it out” before the big show.  It was fairly quiet when we were there, but even in early December there were 100’s of RV’s boondocking out in the desert and some vendors selling their goods in town.  Whether you love or hate this place probably depends on how you feel about camping with wall-to-wall people all around you.  We suspect we won’t like it very much, but we will go for a few days to experience it, and besides Steve says he is not going to miss the massive vendor displays for anything.

Since we are doing the “Quartzsite BLM thing” for the first time, a bit of an orientation to the area was very  helpful.  With the help of Wheeling It’s GPS coordinates we found a spot in the Dome Rock Mountain area, one of the five BLM areas offering free camping.  We spent 3 nights there and we enjoyed the peace and quiet in the desert, just look at the pic where we were parked.  There were no ATVs driving around during our stay. We know its not gonna be like this when we come back.

Dome Rock Mountain

Our little spot at Dome Rock Mountain

Dome Rock mountain is located approximately 3.5 miles west of Quartzsite and we think it’s a good area far enough from the major madness that will happen in January.  After registering with the camp host near Exit 17, we set up camp and started exploring the surroundings.

While riding our bikes in the desert, we discovered endless trails winding through the landscape.  We were reminded how vast the open lands are in the southwestern U.S.  The hiking and biking opportunities are virtually unlimited!  However, we did find an unusual golf course that is completely natural with no landscaping at all.  Just a bunch of flags, benches and thick bushes throughout.  We’d like to see Tiger Woods play this course!

We also took a long walk from our site to the vendors near where the huge show will be next month.  We bought some great jerky and other products from a South Dakota-based company – hey, our new home state!  We purchased some other goodies and then trudged back home.  One thing that amazed us is that there are only a couple of small grocery stores and other businesses in this town.  How the heck do they support over 750,000 RV’ers during the big show?  I guess we’ll find out next month – stay tuned!

If you plan to come for the show and did not make reservations to one of the 60 private RV parks or just to stay here for a while, here are a few useful references :

Dome Rock Mountain Camping >>>http://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/prog/recreation/camping/dev_camps/dome-rock.html

Free RV Camping .org >>>http://www.rv-camping.org/QuartzsiteAZ.html

Free Quartzsite BLM Camping  >>>http://www.your-rv-lifestyle.com/quartzsite-blm.html

Where to dump >>>http://www.sanidumps.com/rvdumpscity.php?citynum=3375&city=Quartzsite&cityradius=1

We continue to enjoy incredible sunsets in the desert.

Quartzsite Sunset


A whirlwind week!

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After our week at the Columbia Gorge, it  was time to take care of some “business” stuff.  This allowed us to be in three states and two countries in just a week – South Dakota, Oregon, Washington and back to BC, Canada!

When we embarked on our full-time RV lifestyle, we had the opportunity to choose any state to call “home.”   Of course, we cannot escape the realities of paying taxes and other financial matters.  In our research we found that South Dakota is an RV-friendly state where vehicle registration and taxes are not sky-high like California where we resided previously.  So, after dropping Betsy off at Dave and LJ’s RV Interior Design in Woodland, WA to have the modifications installed that we measured with them in May (new recliners and a mini-office for the blogmaster), we caught a flight out of Portland to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. This was for the sole purpose of getting our SD driver’s licenses and finalizing our residency there.  Our CA licenses would have expired in February, but we sure as heck didn’t want to go to SD in the middle of winter.  By 8:00am the next morning we had our new licenses, and after a late breakfast we were able to catch early flights back to Portland and made it before sunset.  Mission accomplished!

Sioux Falls Airport

Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Portland, OR

Portland,OR with Mt Hood as the backdrop

We picked Betsy up the next day, thrilled with our new recliners and beautiful woodwork installed by LJ.  We drove to a nearby RV park (Columbia River Front RV Park) and went to bed early so we could get up at 3:30am for our drive to Seattle.  You see, we were bummed that we had not had a chance to visit Victoria, BC on our trip through Vancouver in June, so Steve threw together a 2-day trip up there via the fast-ferry out of Seattle.  We will talk about our trip there in a future blog, but suffice to say it is a beautiful city and we had a great time there and enjoyed fantastic weather!

Dave and LJ's RV Interior Design

Dave and LJs in Woodland, WA

Dave and LJ's RV Interior Design


Dave and LJ's RV Interior Design


So that was the Lowe’s jet-set week.  Next we move on to Harrisburg, OR for a repair of the RV’s pneumatic system and then to Grants Pass for a check of the suspension upgrades to make sure everything is OK after our rough drive over the Canadian and Alaskan roads.