Wait, What, Again?

A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.

~John Steinbeck

Yeah, we did it again. A mere two weeks after we returned from our first major truck camping trip, we hit the road again. This time to celebrate our birthdays (which fall one week apart, oh, and a few years difference). After celebrating with my Mom (her birthday is the same as mine, or vice versa, I suppose), we drove west, not really knowing where we would end up, although Colorado was a strong contender. Melissa created a map of our route and this link has more details of the particulars if you are interested.

Yep, we did it again…a map of our route on our latest truck camping adventure (click photos to enlarge)

This trip covered 8 states and about 4800 miles in 18 days. Once again, we were treated to some of the amazing scenery of our country and had several fantastic moments of wildlife watching. The pics below are a teaser for the next few blog posts that will give some of the highlights of this birthday bonanza…

Sunrise at our campsite on Chase State Fishing Lake in Kansas
Sunset in the Colorado mountains
Canyonlands National Park
Cow moose wading in a beaver pond in Colorado

Heading Home

Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected…

~Ann Patchett

We were up early on our last morning, hoping to get to nearby Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge at sunrise. The refuge was originally called Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, but was changed in 2017 in order to remove the derogatory word squaw from the name. This is a place we had intended to visit on our way to Nebraska for the Sandhill Crane trip last March because it is a critical stopover for many waterfowl. At times, this refuge can have as many as 300,000 to 1,000,000 Snow Geese during the spring migration. Along with that are many other species and a high concentration of predators such as Bald Eagles.

Sunrise at Loess Bluffs NWR (click photos to enlarge)
American White Pelicans

This time of year is much quieter, but it is just off the interstate, so it was an easy stop. We were pleasantly surprised. First, it is a wildlife watchers/photographers refuge with well maintained roads (and a long auto tour covering over 10 miles) that passes along prime habitats such as meadows, forest edges and lots of open water and wetlands.

Bald Eagles wishing the Snow Geese were back

We were greeted with eagles, pelicans, and a variety of songbirds in that beautiful early morning light. A few other folks drove slowly along, telephoto lenses out the window, capturing natural moments. We spent a few minutes following a hummingbird (could not tell which species in that light) as it hovered at a variety of wildflowers along a canal edge. The back-lighting with shimmering dew drops in the distance made for a very artistic scene.

Hummingbird at sunrise (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Curious fawn and wary mamma (photo by Melissa Dowland)

But our most magical moment came when we came up behind a stopped car in a tunnel of overhanging tree limbs. We slowed to see what the driver was photographing and then looked up to see some butterflies fluttering slowly across the road. Then we saw them — hundreds, actually thousands of Monarchs clustered on tree branches, with some starting to fly as they warmed in the morning sun. We got out and gaped in awe. It reminded me of my incredible trip to Mexico years ago to see the overwintering sites of millions of Monarchs. Though, obviously, not as numerous, this was still quite a display with more butterflies than I have seen anywhere else. We walked the road for awhile just taking it all in as the sun encouraged more and more butterflies to leave the roost and head for flowers in the wetlands and meadows through the trees. We both agreed that this spectacle rivaled our moonlit night with the elk herd in terms of memories that will last a lifetime.

Monarchs draped on tree limbs
Monarch cluster as sun starts to warm them up (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Monarchs opening their wings to catch the morning sun

We finally had to say goodbye to this wonderful spot and hit the road one last time. Our final night was spent back in Shawnee National Forest in Illinois. We did a quick walk at the Garden of the Gods, a spectacular geologic formation that is obviously a very popular destination for people in the region as it was quite crowded late on a Sunday evening.

Garden of the Gods in Shawnee NF – my last rock picture

The next day we drove back and stopped to see my mother. Our last drive was home, back to our house in the woods. I miss being there even though we have probably spent more time at home since March than at any time we can remember. It is comfortable, it is serene and beautiful, and it is what we know and love. We tried to do this trip in a responsible way, staying out of crowds, social distancing, wearing masks whenever others were near. It made it surreal in many ways, not being able to eat at funky little restaurants along the way, not sharing a scope with wolf watchers, and so much more, but it was worth it. Traveling by road across much of the country highlights what a diverse place we call home, the many landscapes we are fortunate to share (especially all the public lands), and the amazing variety of ways people work so hard to make a living for themselves and their families. It was refreshing to see that, to know we are part of a grand country. But, it was also disheartening to feel some of the tension whenever we were in a populated place – the political signs (a thousand to one in favor of one particular candidate) and the obvious lack of understanding or concern among some about a simple thing like wearing a mask in public. I only hope that we all learn something from these trying times and that we can make decisions that will be in the best interests of protecting our public lands, addressing the imminent threat of climate change, and bringing back a sense of decency to our government. I usually don’t mix politics into my blog, but this is too important for everything I love about this country. I know which way I plan to vote. I encourage you to do the same.

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 an 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 Sandhills 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 taken 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…).