The Detour

Sometimes, the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take.

~Angela N. Blount

Driving away from the grandeur of the Tetons, we passed through some impressive landscapes along the Hoback River valley. Once we broke out of the mountains, the landscape shifted dramatically to an almost flat, endless expanse of sagebrush.

Sagebrush flats cover huge swaths of Wyoming (click photos to enlarge)

All throughout this type of habitat, we saw oil and natural gas extraction and the occasional wind farm. Wildlife visible from the highway included numerous Pronghorn, various raptors, Ravens, and Black-billed Magpies.

A wind farm lends an a majestic, and yet alien, look to the barren landscape (photo by Melissa Dowland)

Melissa set our course for Medicine Bow National Forest in a high elevation mountain range just west of Laramie. The forecast was for more snow, so we reluctantly decided to drive across the pass and find a campsite at a lower elevation. The highest points along the road reminded us of the Beartooths, with scattered conifers, rock outcrops, and lakes set below towering peaks.

A high elevation lake in Medicine Bow NF

We found a small campground with a few campers and decided to pull into a spot next to a beautiful creek. A couple of inches of snow covered the ground and light flurries soon started to fall. By now, we were getting used to the chilly nights in the back of an open truck but decent sleeping bags are essential gear.

Our campsite in Medicine Bow
The creek behind our campsite

The next morning we hit the road again, headed out into the flat plains once more. Melissa took a turn driving and I was searching for some interesting side trip/stop for our time in Nebraska. I searched online for natural areas in Nebraska and came across their Visit Nebraska web site which I had already contacted when we were planning our pandemic-postponed trip to see the Sandhill Crane migration last March. I decided to try to call a human and ask for their input rather than searching endlessly online. I stumbled across someone with the interesting title of Adventure Travel Specialist, and gave her a call. Jenna was very helpful (and sounds like she has a great job). One of her favorite areas are the Sandhills region up around the town of Valentine. That would mean a couple of hours of detour from our eastward trend, but, after hanging up and discussing it some more, we decided to just do it. We turned north toward Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and the detour did not disappoint.

Gently rolling hills of grasses seemingly went on forever (photo by Melissa Dowland)
The Snadhills of Nebraska captured our hearts

There is something about the Sandhills that captures your imagination and heart. The Sandhills cover almost 20,000 square miles in northern and central Nebraska and parts of South Dakota. They range in height up to 400 feet and are the largest sand dune system in the United States. The soil is not suitable for growing crops, so most of this vast area still support grasslands and wetlands critical to wildlife. In the past, herds of bison grazed here, now over 500,000 head of cattle call the area home on large ranches. Melissa was particularly stricken by the desolate beauty of this place and waxed poetic about somehow acquiring 500+ acres, having a tiny house (or maybe two, one for food storage since it looks like it is a long, long way to a grocery store), and a few head of bison to maintain the prairie grasses. We’ll send you the address if that happens.

Prairie grasses bowing in the wind
The soil is really sandy
One of our favorite birds – flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds (with a couple of Yellow-headed ones in the mix)
We saw several Sharp-tailed Grouse on our sunrise drive through the refuge
A wind mill pumping water into a cistern for cattle

There are over a million acres of wetlands in the Sandhills and many lakes. This is due to the presence of the vast Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest underground water sources in the world.

Some cows didn’t seem to want to let us pass

We camped at a wildlife management area (allowed throughout Nebraska) with thousands of swallows (barn swallows?) settling at sunset into the extensive marsh grasses across the adjacent lake.

The next morning we had to hit the road as it was a long drive to our next camp in Missouri. But, we also wanted to check out some prairie preserves, so we made slight detours to visit some remnant prairies, including one that apparently has never been plowed. At the Gjerloff Prairie, we hiked a short distance, once again admiring the great diversity of native wildflowers and grasses that define these habitats.

Future headquarters of the Prairie Plains Resource Institute at the Gjerloff Prairie in Nebraska

Our final stop had us once again pulling into the small campground at Brickyard Hill Conservation Area in the loess hills along the Missouri River (we camped here on our way out). Once again, we had the place almost to ourselves (only one other camper). The small prairie hill was swarming with over a hundred dragonflies ( mostly Green Darners, I think). After this, only one more night on the road…

Back at the small prairie at Brickyard Hill in Missouri

All Roads Lead To…

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.

~Lewis Carroll

When they heard we were planning this trip, a few friends automatically said they knew where we were going. We insisted we had made no definite plans and would let the road lead us wherever we needed to go. Well, it turns out, all roads do, indeed, lead to Yellowstone (at least for us). We realized we were going to end up there about day 4 of our trip as we drifted away from the route to Michigan and turned more to the west. The magic of Yellowstone calls to us, especially this year when both Melissa’s and my scheduled trips with groups had been canceled due to the pandemic. Now, we were a bit worried about the timing of this visit as it looked like we would be arriving on Labor Day weekend and figured it might be hard to find a campsite. We came in through Sunlight Basin and tried a forest service road a few miles from Cooke City. At first, RVs were as expected – densely packed into the available sites. Then the road started getting worse and it was mainly truck or SUV campers with the occasional hardy RVer. We finally managed a spot near a marshy lake with a few free range Black Angus cows.

The sunset view from across the road at our campsite outside the NE entrance (click photos to enlarge)

This is grizzly country, and as we settled in, I pondered what I would think or do if, when I got up in the night to go to the bathroom, I encountered a large dark object nearby – cow, or bear? Oh well, I spotted neither during the night, and we were off at sunrise the next morning.

Back at our special place

We headed into the park and saw our first wildlife within ten minutes – a pair of moose! A couple of other cars had stopped, but it was quiet and the moose were not paying attention to us as they browsed.

This is one reason we love Yellowstone – the wildlife like this moose calf
Moose cow and calf as we drove in the first morning

We still didn’t know where we would stay, though we now hoped for one or two nights near the park. As we drove past Pebble Creek campground, we saw a couple of cars in line at the entrance. Pebble Creek is a place we both have always loved (beautiful creek surrounded by towering mountains and close to the heart of prime wildlife watching) but every time we have been by it in the past, the campground sign said FULL. But, Melissa knew that this is a first come, first served campground. People line up in the morning and, if sites become available, you can get in. We turned around and decided to give it a shot. Unbelievably, there were vacant sites because people had already left early that morning. We were second in line, so we had our choice of 6 campsites after the first car picked theirs. The campground host said the area had only been open a couple of weeks due to Covid closures and that might explain the lack of a larger line – people just didn’t realize it was open. On the spur of the moment, we decided to reserve it for 3 nights, realizing that on the second night things might change dramatically – the forecast called for snow!

Our lucky campsite at Pebble Creek

Our first couple of days in the park were spent driving through Lamar Valley and Little America, watching wildlife (bison herds, sandhill cranes, pronghorn, and wolves). We visited (socially distancing) our friends in Gardiner and Silver Gate and did a couple of short hikes. The park was as crowded as we have ever seen it, with huge groups of wolf watchers out in Lamar and Slough Creek (and the wolves were very cooperative).

Our favorite place – Lamar Valley
We saw wolves every day – here is a black wolf in the distance behind a few bison out in Lamar
King of Lamar
Cooperative Cooper’s Hawk
The Yellowstone River from the Junction Butte trail

We opted for what we hoped would be a less crowded route on the 6-mile one way dirt road, the Blacktail Plateau Drive. Even that was crowded, but we got lucky, and at one point saw a badger run across the road in front of us. There wasn’t a car behind us so we pulled over and got out to see where it had gone. It had a hole right next to the road and had been digging, probably searching for aestivating ground squirrels, on both sides of the dirt road. While we were standing there, the badger poked its head out and stared at us, then retreated back into the burrow. We parked the truck, grabbed our cameras, and sat down a safe distance from the hole. We spent 30 minutes or so with this guy and watched as it would come out, check us out, then run across the road (out of our sight) to dig and then run back whenever it heard another car approaching. The fact that we sat still and didn’t stare at it the whole time seemed to put the badger at ease (maybe those two are just scrawny bison) and it soon paid us little mind.

Our Badger buddy
Badgers have grizzled fur that is longest along the sides, giving it an edge of fur that looks like a hairy skirt

We didn’t want to cause a badger jam (attract others to stop and disturb the badger) so, when we heard a car approaching, we would put our cameras down and pretend to be taking selfies or landscape shots with our phones. As soon as the car passed, we would get ready, as the badger would soon pop back up, glance at us, then scurry out to hunt. We finally had to move on, leaving our furry friend alone in his beautiful back yard.

Watching the Badger along Blacktail Plateau Drive

Sunday afternoon was hot, as hot as it gets in Yellowstone. At 6 pm it was 88 degrees. The next day, with the prediction calling for falling temperatures and snow, we headed to camp early to set up and wait out the storm. By 6 pm Monday, the temperature was 38 degrees and snow and sleet was falling.

Pebble Creek Campground in snow

There was about 2 inches of snow on the ground and the temperature was 18 degrees as we drove into Lamar the next morning. What a change from the heat and humidity of home. Lamar was beautiful with fresh snow and the wildlife didn’t seem bothered. Th biggest change we saw was a group of Sandhill Cranes strolling in the flats of the valley flipping buffalo chips (poo piles). There is a large community of invertebrates associated with buffalo scat and several species (I have seen Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Clark’s Nutcrackers, and Ravens) will flip over the drying chips looking for an insect snack. The cranes methodically made their way through the garden of chips, flipping them over, and occasionally pecking at something underneath.

Pronghorn buck in Lamar

We had visited our friends, Dan and Cindy, the day before and Dan had asked if we wanted to go with him to check on some camera traps he has set up outside the park. Dan is a wildlife photographer and his stunning photographs appear in a new book called Pika Country, about how climate change is impacting one of the most fascinating small mammals of the high mountains.

Dan’s photography appears in this new book about Pikas and climate change

He is also a filmmaker and guide and is working on a new project about the Beartooths, the incredible mountains outside the northeast entrance to Yellowstone. We have had many adventures with Dan over the years, so we said sure. It turns out he had set camera traps on a squirrel midden, an area where Red Squirrels bury cones for their winter food supply. Other critters, most notably Black and Grizzly Bears, search out these middens and steal the pine nuts (especially Whitebark Pine Nuts) hidden below ground by the industrious squirrels.

Beartooth Butte

Dan had seen bears in this area and was hoping to capture some on camera. But he is wary of going into that area alone. He casually mentioned this is a little like visiting a carcass (a no-no in grizzly country), in that it is a food supply for hungry bears, so having several people (all with bear spray) is a better idea. We drove out to the site, parked, and headed into the trees, making a lot of noise as we walked so any bears in the area would hear us.

Bear excavation of a squirrel midden

The area around the midden was dug up in several places and one camera had been jostled by something, knocking it loose from its strap. When we got back to the car, we played the cards on the laptop and got footage (you’ll have to wait for his film) of both Black Bears and Grizzlies digging up the cones. And there were fresh Grizzly tracks in the snow!

The next morning was cold (15 degrees) and clear as we drove south through Yellowstone headed for Grand Teton National Park. I love Yellowstone, but the Tetons are certainly one of the more majestic landscapes I have ever seen. The Tetons seem to jump out of the flat sagebrush plains that surround it and reach for the heavens. There are 8 peaks over 12,000 feet in this range which stretches about 40 miles. One of the most iconic views is from Oxbow Bend, an old meander cut off from the nearby Snake River. We passed through mid-afternoon (it is best viewed at sunrise and sunset) and crowds were lining the pull outs enjoying the scenery and perhaps hoping for a view of the park’s iconic Grizzly mama, #399, and her four cubs. There were large flashing road signs warning drivers to use caution as this zone is a bear crossing area (never seen that one before). By the way, 399 is probably the most famous bear in the world and has her own Facebook and Twitter accounts!

The Tetons from Oxbow Bend

Now i know how most tourists feel that have only a short time in a park – so much you want to see and do, but you must keep moving. Our incentive was finding another camping spot for the night and there were a few forest service roads we needed to check out. The snowfall was heavier here and left lots of broken trees and mud on the formerly dusty roads. Luckily, we passed a forest service ranger driving in the opposite direction who kindly stopped to chat when I waved him down. He advised us to not head any further up this road as it was very muddy and some trees were down. He suggested we follow him to a nearby road he was going to check that had some marked dispersed campsites. That was a very lucky encounter as it no doubt saved us a lot of time and hassle, and the campsite we found proved to be not too shabby, especially the view!

The Tetons at sunrise from our campsite

One of my other highlights from the trip that lacks a photographic record (like the elk that night in the Bighorns) was the sky that night. Even with a little haze from wildfire smoke, the night sky was as brilliant and filled with stars as I can ever remember. At daybreak, we broke camp and turned the truck toward the East.

It’s Better in The Bighorns

Roads were made for journeys, not destinations.

~Confucius

Looking at the maps, we hoped to find another area of national forest within a days drive of the Back Hills. An article I had found online on scenic road trips had mentioned an isolated mountain range with the appealing name of Bighorn Mountains. In looking at maps on the web, Melissa saw this area has plenty of dispersed camping and some high elevations. Sounded good. As we had learned, driving past where the road is easily passable means no RVs, so we kept driving on a likely forest service road until we came into a beautiful meadow, surrounded by conifers, and with a view of a mountain range in the distance. Exactly what we were looking for.

Beautiful campsite for our first night in Bighorn National Forest (click photos to enlarge)

We had crossed a cattle guard in the fence line on top of the hill which meant we would have none of the free range cows we drove past keeping us company. That is one of the things you have to get used to in national forests in the west – they are very multi-use with grazing, 4-wheeling, camping, hiking, and hunting near the top of the list this time of year. Though there was a noticeable lack of large fauna to be seen, we did find some moose and elk scat in the woods near the truck.

Cool clouds at sunset

We broke camp early the next day after having a slight scare during the night. Melissa smelled smoke and I made a statement about someone not obeying the ban on campfires. But, as it grew stronger, we realized this was from forest fires, not campfires. For a little while, it was a bit uncomfortable breathing, and we were lucky to have just enough cell service to be able to search the web for indications of any local fires. It turned out the smoke was from fires burning far away in eastern Montana and was being blown into this region by shifting winds. Such is life in the west, especially in recent years, as climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires.

We decided to hike a short section of trail to a lake in the Cloud Peak Wilderness not far from our camp. This is part of an extensive trail system in this part of Bighorn National Forest and it was just beautiful. This looks like an area that is well worth exploring further on a future visit.

Our hike in the Cloud Peak Wilderness led to this crystal clear lake

Looking at our downloaded maps, we headed for another forest service road, this one a bit rougher right from the start. I was starting to have my doubts when we passed a “road work ahead” sign and hit a section that was freshly graded. The road was very manageable after that and we suddenly came out of the forest into a vast expanse of sage and grassland. We drove past a very scenic rock outcrop a ways off the road, then stopped and turned around. It looked like a perfect campsite. Melissa read that dispersed camping is allowed up to 300 ft off the road, so we paced it off to the top of the rock outcrop…300 feet! Down below was a babbling stream with dense willow flats all along its length through the valley. On our way in, we had passed one bow hunter on a 4-wheeler, but, besides that, there was not another human in sight.

The perfect campsite in the Bighorns – our truck is just above the line of rocks in the upper middle of photo

This was the idyllic type of spot we had hoped to find on this trip. We sat out among the boulders, admiring the views, listening to the wind, insects, and birds. As the sun set that evening, we talked it over and agreed, we want to spend another night here…

An unidentified caterpillar greeted us at camp
Our largest neighbor,a marmot (there were actually two in this crevice den)
A very busy chipmunk scurried all around us (it managed to grab one of the hundreds of grasshoppers inthe area fr a snack)
The columns of fractured rock were gorgeous in the low-angle afternoon light
A stunning sunset topped off our first night here and helped us decide to spend another

It was a chilly night and the next morning, after breakfast, we wanted to see what lay over the rocky hill across the stream. We did a leisurely hike for a couple of hours, exploring the stream, climbing the boulders, and walking through a dense conifer forest on the very top of the hill. There we found evidence of lots of use by elk and deer. I was glad to see that as it seemed the only thing this remote area lacked was the abundant wildlife I have grown accustomed to in the western mountains.

We hiked up on the hill across the creek for some great views and lots of signs of wildlife (especially elk)
Thistle art
Lichen paintings
More rock outcroppings across the hill with the first hints of fall color in the aspens
Another glorious sunset in the Bighorns

We managed a nice chilly bath in the stream that afternoon and settled in to enjoy the end of another beautiful day. The sunset was striking and an almost full moon illuminated our landscape as we drifted off to sleep under our opened sleeping bags and blanket. During the night, we had one of my highlights of the trip. Melissa raised up in bed because she heard something outside. She woke me and we listened to sounds of movement and the occasional high-pitched grunt of cow and calf elk. Then the unmistakable bugle of a bull elk not far away. We had our binoculars in the back with us (wait, don’t you sleep with your binoculars?) and looked out onto an amazing scene. It was a large herd of elk moving past us in the moonlight perhaps only 25 yards from where we slept. It was hard to tell how many there were, but there were a lot. The herd settled into the willow flats and started feeding, but the dominant bull had his hooves full trying to keep watch and bugle his cows into place. Meanwhile, a couple of other bulls could be seen and heard clacking their antlers in combat. That sight and those sounds under a moonlit western landscape was more than thrilling – it was cathartic, cleansing my brain of some of the messiness of the news and what is happening right now in our country. We sat, mesmerized, listening for quite awhile before settling back down and falling asleep. We awoke before sunrise and could still hear bugling and saw about 50 elk still in the willows with some starting to move up the hill toward the trees. I am guessing the reason we aren’t seeing the expected megafauna in these national forests is that they have had to change their typical behaviors and are more secretive (and more nocturnal) due to hunting pressure. I am so glad we decided to stay that extra night!

The elk herd passed just beyond and to the left of the truck and stayed in the willow flats (the greenish area in the low spot in the distance seen just to the left of the rocks on the right of the truck) all night

The drive out of the Bighorns took us past some incredible scenery (more rock pictures) and in the direction of one of our favorite places…

Tensleep Canyon
Beautiful colors along the highway
An incredible canyon along the Clark’s Fork Scenic River

Badlands and Beyond

My favorite thing to do is to go where I’ve never been.

~Diane Arbus

There is a lot of flat land out there in the middle of the country. And not many national forests to disperse camp in it turns out. But, after leaving IL, we drove up along the Missouri River corridor and stopped at a place Melissa had found – Brickyard Hill Conservation Area, in MO. Melissa used a variety of apps and web sites to search for good camping sites. Her favorite, and the one that led us to Brickyard Hill, is iOverlander.

Our isolated campsite at Brickyard Hill with the native prairie vegetation in the distance (click photos to enlarge)

This area is preserved because of its unique geology and plant life. It is part of a region known as the loess hills. Loess (pronounced in a couple of ways it turns out, Luss or Low-ess) refers to fine-grained sediment that is formed by the accumulation of wind-blown soil particles. The explanation for this long line of undulating hills along the eastern edge a stretch of the Missouri River floodplain is that during the last Ice Age, glaciers ground rock into dust-like particles in this region. With warming temperatures, the meltwater deposited huge mud flats along the river. As the mud flats dried out, strong westerly winds moved huge amounts of this fine-grained silt, forming large dune fields. These dunes eventually became stabilized with vegetation and have been gradually carved by erosion into the undulating, and often steep topography we see today.

We drove to the pond access and there were some fishermen and several RVs. We decided to give the other location a try even though it was a few miles away. But, we were glad we did. This camp area was located atop a hill with a circle of designated sites (all empty), a pit toilet, a small prairie grassland in the middle, and was surrounded by forest and a bit of a cornfield on one side. It was perfect (so much so that we stopped again on our way back). The circle of open area above the prairie also gave a great view of the night sky. We fell asleep that night to Coyotes yipping in the distance and a Barred Owl calling nearby.

At this point, we had decided to head toward a national park that would be new to us, Badlands National Park, in SD. Our route took us by DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge along the Missouri River. We drove the auto tour road and had a couple of brief wildlife encounters. We pulled into a parking lot and there was a group of three Wild Turkeys strutting across the pavement. One was doing more than strutting – it was pursuing and pecking at a small rodent (I think it was a vole). The turkey was zigging and zagging and stabbing at the scurrying mammal but looked up when it noticed us and its prey escaped. I have never seen a turkey go after a mammal!

Turkey chasing a rodent

The other bird sighting of note was a large flock of American White Pelicans. It is always a treat to see these giants on the wing (about a 9 ft wingspan!). We would see these magnificent birds in several other places on our trip.

American White Pelicans have the second largest average wingspan of any North American Bird, after the California Condor

Driving on, we passed through a lot of corn and flat land. Melissa had found a spot to camp just outside Badlands National Park frequented by RVs and other dispersed campers. It sounded like it was an area right along the edge of some cliffs and canyons. We pulled in kind of late and were disappointed to see a sea of campers spread out along the rim.

RVs on the edge just outside Badlands NP

As we would soon learn, however, the big advantage of our 4wd truck is that we can drive past where most RVs fear to tread and in doing so managed to secure a nice perch around the bend from most of the other campers.

View from our truck bed at the edge of the Badands

Views from our campsite were amazing, and a herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep kept us company and even bedded down less than 100 ft from the truck as we learned the next morning.

Badlands National Park is a stunning area and surprised us with a number of excellent wildlife sightings, including Pronghorn, Bison, Bighorn Sheep, and Black-tailed Prairie Dogs. We spent much of the morning driving through and taking short hikes to explore the rugged landscape. Below are some of the highlights…

The jagged terrain of Badlands NP
Layers of colors in the early morning light
Sharp features stand out in the crisp air
Bighorn Sheep lamb alongside the road on the way in (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep lamb and ewe
Robert’s Prairie Dog Town with a sign explaining that prairie dogs can carry Sylvatic Plague

One of the coolest animals we observed in the park were the Black-tailed Prairie Dogs. The park’s web site has a lot of great information on these fascinating rodents, but here are a few of the highlights:

  • Prairie dogs were once an integral part of the western landscape – estimates are that, before 1800, prairie dog populations may have been in excess of 5 billion
  • Original range has shrunk to about 5%
  • Prairie dog populations were greatly reduced by settlers that saw them as competing for forage (new research shows they improve the nutritional quality of vegetation by their trimming of grasses and other plants in their colonies) and due to the accidental introduction of Sylvatic Plague by shipboard rats into the U.S. in the early 1900’s. Plague is deadly to prairie dogs (and can be transmitted to humans, where it is called Bubonic Plague, by bites or fleas from an infected animal)
  • Prairie dogs live in colonies called towns with the largest ever recorded estimated to cover a land area greater than the size of the state of West Virginia
  • Prairie dogs are keystone species: they are important food for many predators, they enhance vegetative communities where they feed, and they provide shelter for other species (like Burrowing Owls) by digging so many burrows
  • Prairie dogs have a very complex system of communication, perhaps one of the most complex ever decoded. The park web site states they can apparently alert the colony to the difference between a dog and coyote approaching, and some speculate they may not only be able to communicate that a human is entering the colony, but they can get as specific as, “A tall human in a blue shirt is approaching rapidly!”
Black-tailed Prairie Dog, the most common species in the U.S.
This species exhibits grooming behavior (called allogrooming) as a way to reinforce family bonds and rid each other of ectoparasites
Melissa is dwarfed by the stunning landscape
Sunflower against the backdrop of cliffs

We reluctantly departed for the Black Hills, looking for future camping spots online as we drove. Since we were close, we drove by Mount Rushmore, but were disappointed in the “touristy” nature of the entrance and decided to pass by with just a look from down the road. We made a detour to see (again from the road) the Crazy Horse Memorial, the monument being carved in another mountain as a tribute to the Lakota Chief.

Mount Rushmore

We camped on an isolated dirt road in the Black Hills National Forest that night and headed out the next morning for our next destination – Devils Tower National Monument. When we let some friends know our location, we got back two cryptic (to us) notes about sculpting mashed potatoes and were a bit perplexed until we googled it (we watched Spielberg’s classic film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this week to help us better understand the reference).

Devils Tower as we approached the National Monument (it seemed more majestic and mysterious in black and white)

Many American Indian tribes of the region held this geologic wonder as a sacred site and their oral histories recount many origin stories and tales of the significance of the tower. Translations of Indian names for the site include Bear Lodge, Bear’s Tipi, Tree Rock, and Gray Horn Butte. President Theodore Roosevelt set it aside as the first national monument on September 24, 1906.

The tower is 867 feet from its base to the top, about a mile in circumference, and the area at the summit is about 1.5 acres (the size of a football field). We walked the paved trail in face masks as the park was very crowded. Signage along the way explained the tower’s formation as an igneous intrusion (hardened magma) into surrounding sedimentary rock layers some 50 million years ago. Erosion over millions of years removed the softer sedimentary rock, exposing the tower we see today.

The huge columns of Devils Tower

The rock type has the strange name of phonolite porphyry derived from two characteristics – a small slab of the rock rings when struck; and its texture, containing large crystals of feldspar. The greenish cast you see on many of the columns is from layers of crustose lichens growing on the rocks. Melissa (the geologist turned naturalist) commented that she had never seen me taking so many rock pictures…I’ll agree, this trip was especially heavy on cool rock formations.

We enjoyed a leisurely lunch in the picnic area, watched some more prairie dogs along the entrance road, and then headed west.

Getting Started

Look at life through the windshield, not the rear-view mirror.

~Byrd Baggett

Okay, now to cover some of the highlights of our journey. We had roughly 3 weeks and dispersed camping was a high priority, but, other than that, not much else was planned. We had kicked around some destination ideas and the last thing we had discussed before heading off for a stop at my mom’s in southwest VA was perhaps a drive up to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We thought about maybe WV or KY as starting points. Then the weather threw us a curve…Hurricane Laura decided to make landfall a couple of days before our departure, which meant the remnants would be bringing rainfall (perhaps lots of it) to a swath of area we had hoped to camp in. The day before we left, it looked like our earlier initial camping spots were going to be wet, very wet. So, we decided on a plan B, drive through the remnants of Laura and camp on the other side, wherever that might be. So, off we went.

We initially decided to head to southwest IL, but, as we drove and the storm changed position, we opted for a closer stop at Land Between The Lakes (LBTL) in KY. There looked to be a lot of dispersed camping and I had always wanted to check out the area because this was the source for some of the elk that have been reintroduced into our own Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We stopped at a Visitor Center for information and immediately got sidetracked by their native pollinator garden and signs of chewed leaves on an elm sapling. First wildlife find of the trip – a caterpillar (should be no surprise to those who follow this blog).

The caterpillar of one of the angle-winged butterflies, probably a Question Mark butterfly (click photos to enlarge)

Melissa mentioned in her post last time about our “incident” in trying to navigate to our first campsite – a mud hole in the road that turned out to be much deeper than anticipated, forcing a decision to abandon that road and look elsewhere. We settled on the end of a paved road that ended where the man-made lake had flooded it years ago. It looked like people had used the area a lot, but it was late, and since the rains had just stopped, we figured no one would show up to bother us. Besides, camping on the edge of a lake has its benefits in terms of critter visitors.

One of several mayflies that visited our campsite

It was a quiet night, and we hit the back of the truck (aka our bed) after an evening swim. We figured we had better “get clean” anytime we could because the long-range forecast for areas north and west looked a bit chilly. During the night we awoke to some chewing sounds (somewhat alarming given the history of mice that have found their way into the truck cab in recent months), but it turned out to be a beaver chewing on a tree on a little island not far away. The next morning, the sun was out, and birds and other critters were stirring.

A pair of Solitary Sandpipers (is that an oxymoron?) worked the mud flat near our camp the next morning
After several false starts (when I was ready with the camera), an Osprey finally completed a dive and this was all I was able to catch
The Osprey came up empty-taloned

We headed out with a stop at what was advertised as the wildlife prairie to hopefully see elk and bison. It turned out to be a bit disappointing as it is a large fenced-in area that requires another fee (we had to pay online to camp in LBTL). We saw no elk (no surprise due to the warm temps) and a few bison, all of which had open wounds for some reason. And, to be honest, we have been spoiled by large herds of free-roaming pure-bred bison in Yellowstone.

Bison cow at Land Between The Lakes

Our next stop was a relatively short (few hour) drive to Shawnee National Forest in IL. I had just googled good natural areas in IL and this was one of the places that came up and it looked promising (besides, there aren’t that many national forests in the mid-western states). We ended up staying in a Forest Service campground close to one of the popular visitor sites, Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area. The main attraction we learned is a large rock face with an easy climb to a jumping off spot into a huge deep water hole. That area was packed on a hot Saturday afternoon so we just looked from afar and then walked the trail, a much quieter destination.

One of the less crowded scenes at Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area
Dramatic rock formations all along the trail

After our hike, we were pretty sweaty and decided we need either a shower or a swim. We had been on another road leading to a smaller pool earlier in the day, so we decided to head over there. It turns out there were a series of beautiful spring-fed pools all along the trail and only a couple of cars in the lot.. We took our chairs down and had the area to ourselves for a few hours in what can only be described as one of the most idyllic swimming spots I have ever seen.

Our serene private swimming hole

After a restful night, we hit the road north (or west, or…).

Road Tripping

The open road is there, it will always be there. You just have to decide when to take it.

~Chris Humphrey

I guess we finally decided to hit that open road. The lack of posts these last few weeks is due to our first major truck camping road trip – 18 days, 11 states, 5816 miles. Melissa made a rough road map of our travels. Click this link for an interactive version of the map below.

Our general route on our first truck camping road trip

The truck was my father’s – a 2003 Chevy Silverado, for farm use with only 23,000 miles. We took the rear seat out and have done a few things to try to make it more livable and useful for long trips. More on that in a later post.

Our home away from home (click photos to enlarge)

The photo above is from our first night camping in a Forest Service campground in Shawnee National Forest, IL. This was one of only 4 campgrounds we stayed in on our journey (we spent roughly $80 on camping fees for the whole trip). The rest of the time we did was what is called dispersed camping – finding a spot on public lands (that allow it) and setting up camp wherever. Dispersed camping is free, and, if you have a 4wd like us and drive past where the RV’s can travel on the often rather rough dirt roads, you can be totally alone.

We weren’t sure where we were headed after visiting my Mom in the mountains of VA, but we turned westward and made most decisions on the fly as we drove (turns out the internet with a mobile hot spot, when available, is faster than ours at home).

The trip was a great way to see parts of this country as we drove through. In normal times, we would have explored more, eaten at funky local restaurants, and interacted with people throughout our route. But now, we tried to isolate, wore our masks whenever we were near people, and enjoyed a wonderful selection of meals that Melissa had prepared with many hours spent using our dehydrator before we headed out.

In the next several posts, we will share some of the highlights from our excursion and give some pointers on how to truck camp your way to some beautiful places across our country. We learned a few things that we might need to upgrade and are looking forward to another adventure to parts unknown in the near future.

Caterpillars and Such

When summer gathers up her robes of glory, and, like a dream, glides away.

~Sarah Helen Whitman

Though the temperatures sure don’t seem like it, I’m seeing signs that Summer is coming to a close and Fall is just around the corner. The butterflies that so many thought had forsaken us this year are now everywhere and the hummingbirds are squabbling over the feeders and flowers in preparation for their departure in a few weeks. The house seems suddenly shrouded in orb webs and a yard tour quickly turns up a host of caterpillars. And though I feel sapped of all energy every time I try to do anything outside, nature (especially in the invertebrate world) seems to be in high gear as we get ready to turn the calendar page again. Here are a few of our tiny neighbors enjoying the jungle of native plants in our slightly sunny hole in the canopy.

Black Swallowtail larva on Golden Alexander (click photos to enlarge)
Variable Oak Leaf Caterpillar
Rose Hooktip Moth larva, the only Eastern caterpillar with a long unpaired “tail”. This one is on one of several Viburnums on our property
Melissa found this Purple-crested Slug larva on the underside of a Redbud leaf
Double-toothed Prominent on elm. The jagged dorsal surface mimics the serrated edge of an elm leaf
Grasshoppers and katydids are larger and more noticeable now. I think this one is a Short-winged Green Grasshopper, Dichromorpha viridis
This is probably a male Short-winged Green Grasshopper (males are generally two-toned, green and brown)
The splayed leg Clipped-wing Grasshopper, Metaleptea brevicornis
One of several skipper species frequenting the yard now, a Clouded Skipper, Lerema accius
Always one of my favorite yard finds, a Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar with its glorious fake eyes
After mowing yesterday, I walked the edges and noticed some rolled leaves on this legume (I think it may be a Naked-flowered Tick-trefoil, Hylodemum nudiforum)
I held up one of the rolled leaves and this little guy came out – a new species of caterpillar for me, a Long-tailed Skipper!

The highlight was definitely the last thing I found on my sweaty yard tour – several rolled leaves made by early stage caterpillars of a Long-tailed Skipper. I wrote about seeing one laying eggs in the yard last week and here are the fruits of her efforts. The abundance and variety of our mini-beast neighbors continues to fascinate and amaze us.

Return to Pungo

There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.

~Bill Waterson

This past Thursday evening, Melissa participated in a Science Cafe hosted by her workplace, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. She joined a couple of other staff that had been authors of chapters in a book released this spring entitled, 30 Great North Carolina Science Adventures, edited by April C. Smith. Melissa had written a chapter on one of her favorite places, the Lower Roanoke River. I enjoyed watching the Cafe and learning more about the book from April. I had also written a chapter for the book on two of my favorite outdoor areas in our incredibly diverse state – Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges (no surprise there to any of you that read this blog regularly). For a great overview of some fabulous natural areas to visit across North Carolina, I highly recommend this book (and we don’t receive anything for plugging it as it was all done on a volunteer basis).

As it turns out, I decided a couple of days before the Science Cafe that it was high time I visited my favorite place in North Carolina again. So, I headed east to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (aka Pungo). My last trip was in late January so I was way overdue for a day in the wilds of eastern North Carolina. Summer is a great time to see bears, so I was hoping to spend some time observing them as they feed in the crop fields and as new mamas teach their rambunctious cubs the ways of the world. Melissa had to work, so it was just me, with no agenda other than to hang out and enjoy the beauty of this special place.

I didn’t get as early a start as I had hoped, so it was almost 10 a.m. when i drove into the refuge. But, it was only 5 minutes down a dirt road that I had my first bear encounter. I didn’t get a photo (unfortunate, because it was a beautiful bruin) because it was a bear that stood up across the canal as I drove by, then retreated back into the corn when I stopped.

Soon, I was seeing clouds (or maybe cloudlets) of butterflies – primarily two species, Sleepy Oranges and Zebra Swallowtails. As I have mentioned before, this refuge, and nearby Pettigrew State Park, are two of the best places in North Carolina to see one of my favorite butterflies, the Zebra Swallowtail. They are abundant here because of the large stands of their host plant, Pawpaw, in the understory.

Zebra Swallowtail on scat (click photos to enlarge)
Zebra Swallowtails on scat gathering minerals. They were also puddling in muddy spots along many of the dirt roads.

My next bear was one I spotted down the road ambling toward me when I turned a corner. It was a few hundred yards away, so I pulled over under an overhanging limb as far off the road as I could (which wasn’t that far) and got out and sat in front of the car. This was a large bear, most likely a male, and he sniffed the ground and nearby vegetation as he slowly made his way toward me.

A large bear walking down West Lake Road

When he was about 100 yards out, he suddenly realized that something was in his path (my car) and he stood up to get a better look. Impressive! The heat waves made for a slightly soft image with my telephoto lens, but I always love to see these magnificent animals stand to check things out. He did this two more times as he walked and then decided that, yeah, that is something up there, and headed into the vegetation. When viewing the images at home, I saw something I had not noticed in the field. Another bear crossed the road far behind the one I was watching, and I was so intent on photographing this big guy, that I missed it.

The big bear shows just how big it is when it stands to check me out

Each winter, I spend hours at a particular marsh impoundment on the southwest corner of Pungo Lake observing the thousands of Tundra Swans and other waterfowl that rest and feed in its shallow waters. This time of year, that area is packed with water lilies, frogs, and wading birds like egrets and herons.

Great Egret stalking its prey
There were several Immature Little Blue Herons in the wetland. They are noticeably smaller then the Great Egrets and have a dark tip to their bill. They will attain their grayish-blue adult plumage next year

The marsh and roadside canals are also home to thousands of dragonflies. I noted 6 species while driving along – Halloween Pennant, Needham’s Skimmer, Blue Dasher, Great Blue Skimmer, Eastern Pondhawk, and Slaty Skimmer.

The colorful Halloween Pennant typically perches atop a tall grass or stick
A female (or immature male) Needham’s Skimmer
One of the most abundant dragonflies at Pungo, a Blue Dasher

Around 3 p.m., I headed to North Lake Road. A fawn grazed along the roadside until I got too close, then vanished in the tall grasses. I parked and started strolling down the path that I have walked hundreds of times in the past 35 years. I was lucky, there were no other cars at the gate, so I had the walk to myself (an increasingly rare event). One of the things I like most about Pungo is the quiet, the almost total lack of human sounds (most days).

Large fawn grazing roadside grasses

The soybeans and corn are at their peak now, so a bear can easily disappear in the crops or the tall roadside vegetation. It was hard to keep an eye out for the large critters when there were so many small ones all around me on the path. Butterflies, lizards, songbirds, and even a Bald Eagle accompanied me as I walked.

Sleepy Orange butterfly
Common Checkered Skipper

After taking a few butterfly pictures using a telephoto, I looked up the road and saw a bear headed my way. I sat down as the bear stopped to scratch and look around. It was visibly panting from the heat and definitely had an itch as it would walk a few steps, then stop and scratch. It walked from side to side in the road, sniffing, scratching, and occasionally nibbling at vegetation. Finally, it wandered off the path and into the woods. I waited, hoping it would return, but, after a few minutes, I continued my stroll.

The itchy bear

I stopped to look at some tracks in a mud puddle, and when I stood back up, I saw a bear coming out of the woods behind me. I got down on my knees and the bear caught my movement and stood up. I thought it might be the itchy bear, but it stared for a few seconds, then slowly lowered itself and went back into the trees. Again, I waited…

A bear stands to investigate that thing that just moved (me)

The wind was in my favor so I was hopeful. About a minute passed, and I saw the dark head of a bear coming back out. But now, she had two little ones trailing her.

The mother bear brought her two little ones out

She sniffed, looked in my direction, and headed down the road away from me, the cubs tightly on her heels. Twice, she stood and looked back, presumably making sure that blob in the road was not a threat to her little ones. She finally led her cubs into the canal and across to the corn field and disappeared for her evening meal. Again, after looking at the sequence of images, I saw a bear I had missed seeing (the dark blob in the photo below) cross the road way beyond the mother and cubs.

Mother bear checking the scene. Notice the dark blob way down the road behind her

After that encounter, I continued down the road until I was a little over a mile from my car. I sat for about 30 minutes and watched and listened. No bears, but a satisfying peacefulness that comes from being in a wild place by yourself. On my way back, frogs started calling, and the phenomenal big sky of the flat lands of eastern North Carolina put on a colorful show as developing thunderheads were tinted pink and orange by the setting sun.

A bear pokes its head up out of the soybeans as I walked by

A couple of hundred yards from the car, I noticed something dark in the soybeans. It was the top of a bear’s head. The bear swung its head around, nose pointed up, mouth open, sniffing the air. I stood still, hoping it would stand. But, it just sat there, panting and sniffing, occasionally turning more towards me, but seemingly unaware of my presence. The air was still and I was at least partially hidden behind some tall goldenrod. After several minutes, I was surprised when another bear stood up behind the one I was watching.

Suddenly, another bear stands up

After a few looks around, it dropped and disappeared in the soybeans. Finally, the first bear stood up, glanced back and forth, and sat back down. That one moment in good light was a great way to end the day. I shouldered the tripod and camera and headed back to the car for the long drive home.

This beautiful bear finally stood up to give my last photo of the day

The standing bears and seeing the cubs were definitely highlights of the day. I ended up seeing 6 cubs for the day, 21 bears in total (I’m not counting those two I did not see until I reviewed images at home). Along with the birds, butterflies, and serenity, it was a pretty good return to Pungo. It felt good to be back.

Long-tailed Skipper

Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.

~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Went wandering in the yard this weekend and I caught a glimpse of an infrequent visitor to these parts – a Long-tailed Skipper, Urbanus proteus. Long-tailed Skippers are more common on our Coastal Plain and sometimes undergo northward and westward migrations (one-way, I presume) in late summer and fall. This is when we typically see them here in the Piedmont. I have seen them in our county once or twice every few years over the last decade or so.

Long-tailed Skipper in the yard this weekend (click photos to enlarge)

This one was a very fresh-looking individual with tails intact and a bright blue-green color on the dorsal surface of its wings.

Long-tailed Skipper on Ironweed

It was nectaring on the many Ironweed plants out front so I grabbed the camera and went out to follow it around the yard. It was mainly staying on one or two plants, but then suddenly wandered off, flitting around and alighting briefly on a variety of leaves. I recognized this as the flight of a female looking for suitable host plants on which to deposit her eggs. She will fly a lilting flight, touching down briefly to “taste” the plant with her feet (the location of some sensory cells that can detect plant chemicals). If it is not the right plant, she moves on. I wasn’t sure what the host plant was for this species so I continued to follow her as she searched. Finally, she stopped on a legume of some sort (Desmodium sp. perhaps?), tucked her abdomen for a few seconds, and flew off.

Female lays an egg on underside of leaf

I moved over, flipped the leaf, and there it was, an egg! I am admittedly surprised to find an egg of this species this far inland, but maybe it is not as uncommon as I assume. The eggs are yellow and have some slight raised ribs coming upward from the base.

Long-tailed Skipper egg

The freshness of this particular butterfly made me wonder if she had hatched from an egg here in the yard. I started looking at all the legumes I could find. I did find a couple of hatched eggs, but I am not 100% sure which species they are from, although they do resemble the general shape of those of the Long-tailed Skipper.

Hatched butterfly egg

Seeing a couple of hatched eggs gave me hope that I might find a caterpillar for this species, one I have never seen. Spotting a leaf nest got me excited (I had googled the larval form of this species and saw that they form leaf nests by stitching a couple of leaves of their host pant together). I gently pulled it apart to reveal…a larva of a relative, the Silver-spotted Skipper.

Leaf nest of caterpillar
A Silver-spotted Skipper caterpillar inside

Even though I was disappointed at not finding a new species of caterpillar, I must admit I always enjoy seeing the chunky little Silver-spotted Skipper larvae with those bright yellow fake eyes.

Long-tailed Skipper sunning with open wings

Though she stopped at a few other legume leaves, I could not find any other eggs. But, there is a good chance she laid some more so I will keep an eye out over the next few weeks to see if I can discover one of her fascinating larvae. Just before she disappeared, she stopped momentarily on a leaf in the sun, spread her wings, and soaked up a little warmth, giving me one last glimpse of this beautiful butterfly.

Woods Wandering

Forests are places where we can get back in touch with our inner selves, where we can walk on soft ground, breathe in natural cents, taste berries, listen to the leaves crackling – all the senses are awakened in the subdued light…

~Pierre Lieutaghi

I decided to wander away from the house one morning and stroll through the “back 14”. The bulk of our 14 acres of forest is on some steep terrain, with a ravine and an intermittent stream “valley” making up the lowlands. Earlier this spring I spent a lot of mornings down slope from the house cutting and painting Eleagnus shrubs to try to kill off some of this terrible invasive. I have let up on those pursuits with the onset of the sweltering heat and humidity of summer, but I thought it was time for a leisurely stroll to see what I might find. Spiders and snails dominated the scene and I found myself picking up a branch to wave in front as I walked (although I tried to step around any webs that I saw).

Arrowhead orbweaver, Verrucosa arenata
Arrowhead Orbweaver, Verrucosa arenata (click photos to enlarge)
Red-femured spotted orbweaver, Neoscona domiciliorum wrapping be
Red-femured Spotted Orbweaver, Neoscona domiciliorum, wrapping beetle in silk

Two spider species seemed to be the most abundant – the unusually-shaped (but accurately named) Arrowhead Orbweaver and various sizes of the more common Red-femured Spotted Orbweaver. The largest specimen I encountered was busy wrapping its overnight catch of a large May Beetle in silk.

Red-femured spotted orbweaver, Neoscona domiciliorum 1
The spider stopped spinning its prey and settled in for a meal

As I walked, I started paying more attention to tree leaves and what I might find on them. If I saw chewing, I flipped it over to see if I could discover the chewer. On one hickory tree, I found a cluster of neat little eggs underneath a leaf. I think these may be moth eggs of some sort, although a species of true bug eggs is also a possibility (stink bugs, etc.). But, they seem to lack the usual lid associated with eggs of the latter group.

eggs an parasitoid wasps
A cluster of insect eggs under a hickory leaf

I also noticed some other insects associated with this egg mass – tiny parasitoid wasps of some sort diligently laying their eggs. They were purposeful in their movements and spent some time with each egg they parasitized. I saw six of the wasps, so I wonder how many of these insect eggs will actually hatch out the species that originally laid the cluster.

eggs and parasitoid wasps
Parasitoid wasps laying eggs in the insect eggs

A Spicebush leaf yielded a member of one of my favorite groups of mini-creatures, a treehopper. These tiny jumpers are often adorned with strange appendages that help them mimic thorns or other features of their background, giving them both some armor-like protection and camouflage. As usual, I went to my go-to resource for this type of insect, Hoppers of North Carolina. There I learned that this is probably a female based on the long length of its horn (males have short horns). There are apparently several species in this group that look alike and may be separated primarily by host plant. Though Spicebush is not listed as a host plant, this one was next to a small Redbud tree, which is a known host plant. Right after I snapped this photo, this one leaped onto the Redbud. Another interesting tidbit is that these little hoppers can communicate by vibrating the substrate they are on. Research has shown that they communicate mating calls, food sources, and danger from predators using these vibrations (inaudible to the human ear).

Two-marked Treehopper, Enchenopa binotata complex
Two-marked Treehopper, Enchenopa binotata complex

Chewed leaves on a maple branch caused me to stop and look, leading to this discovery – one of the twig mimic caterpillars. This fairly large larva is distinguished by the dark stripes on the head capsule, the dark line on the slight hump near the far end, and the first two pair of prolegs that are noticeably reduced in size. It is the caterpillar of a really cool-looking moth, the Maple Looper.

Maple looper caterpillar 1
Caterpillar of the Maple Looper Moth, Parallelia bistriaris

As always, there were plenty of other macro surprises and delights along the way…

land snail
These small land snails were everywhere on my walk
maple seed embedded in pawpaw leaf
A maple seed has pierced a Pawpaw leaf

As I neared the house, I spotted something new to me in a patch of Microstegium – a dark-colored stink bug with prominent spines. I leaned in and saw it was missing most of one antenna. Online information said little is known about the life history of this species although it appears to eat both plants and other insects, but is not an agricultural pest like some of its relatives. What struck me most was the stark beauty of this species and its textured exoskeleton. Once again, a close look at our surroundings yields many surprises.

Black Stink Bug, Proxys punctulatus