Hello, Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota

On my way from Scottsbluff, Nebraska to Rapid City, South Dakota, I took a stop at Wind Cave National Park, a national park a little north of Hot Springs, South Dakota. Ever since booking this segment of my road trip, I’ve been particularly looking forward to Wind Cave, as this would be the first time I would be spelunking—I regularly hike upwards onto mountains, but never downwards into the earth.

At the time of my visit to Wind Cave, it had only been one week into spring, so it was still considered off-season for tourism, and not all the ranger-guided tours were available. One of the tours that were available was the Fairgrounds Tour, rated by the National Park Service as “strenuous,” which is the one I selected.

The Fairgrounds Tour is a one-and-a-half hour walk through a large portion of the cave, allowing visitors to see many different aspects of the cave sys­tem. As of today, it is also the longest tour during which you are allowed to take photographs; the more difficult and involved Candlelight Tour and Wild Cave Tour both prohibit phones and cameras for safety reasons.

Self-guided tours are not permitted, and for good reason—Wind Cave is the densest cave system in the world, meaning it has the greatest passage volume per cubic mile, offering many opportunities to get lost and die alone without GPS or cellular signal.

Prior to the beginning of our tour, the ranger showed us a map that had extremely complex lines drawn in multiple different colors on top of each other (with the shade of color representing the vertical axis) and packed in a small space. At first, I thought that the map covered a large area and potentially even extended as far as the nearby Black Hills National Forest, but I later learned that the scale of the entire map was only one mile from one edge to the other.

We entered Wind Cave via elevator out of a special room. When we first went a few hundred feet underground, it was clearly extremely windy—the at­mos­pher­ic pressure changes causes extreme wind in Wind Cave—but once we actually entered the cave, we couldn’t feel the wind anymore.

I took a lot of photos during the tour, but note that I took them in camera raw format and heavily edited and enhanced them prior to posting them here. Wind Cave is extremely dim, which meant my camera had a lot of difficulty capturing clean, crisp images. (I took some photos with my camera’s flash on, but that didn’t really help either, because then that would just overilluminate nearby cave structures and leave far-away rocks still dark; I ended up not posting any photos from flash photography.)

Wind Cave is apparently the place with the most boxwork in the world—approximately 95% of the world’s discovered boxwork is inside Wind Cave. Ac­cording to the ranger, boxwork forms when cracks in soft rock are filled with a harder substance, and then the remainder of the soft rock erodes away, leav­ing behind the harder substance that takes a web-like shape.

Wind Cave has multiple different levels, and during this tour, we were able to see all of them. Water has extremely high erosive properties, and once we got to places where water did not have enough time to work on breaking down the rock, the cave was much smoother and had no boxwork.

We eventually made it to a resting point where the ranger told us about the history of the cave, and how the cave was originally used for mining, but was later converted into a tourist hotspot. While we were all safely seated, the ranger turned off the already-dim lights to demonstrate just how dark it is un­der­ground in a cave. She told us to hold our hand directly in front of our faces, which we obviously couldn’t see—there was literally no light, which meant that our eyes would never “adjust” to the darkness.

This area also had some nice frostwork. I tried to take a photo of it, and I captured a lot of cave popcorn, but I didn’t realize that the bulk of the frostwork was out-of-frame (except for a few growths at the far bottom). Again, keep in mind that everything was extremely dim, it was very difficult for me to see (considering I already have horrible eyesight and horrible night vision), and these photos are heavily enhanced in post-production.

As our time together came to an end, we started heading back to the elevator to return to the surface. On the way back, I snapped a bunch more pho­to­graphs of everything interesting around me, including nice rock formations and a lot more boxwork.

Exploring Wind Cave was a great experience. As if I wasn’t already aware enough, seeing things like this reminds me just how vast and complex the world is, and gives me a reality check of how unimaginably tiny my life is compared to the scale of everything else happening. It also acted as a reminder not to get complacent about my safety and the fragility of life—nature doesn’t hold your hand and help you survive like modern-day civilization does, and it’s very easy to stumble into an unfortunate situation that kills you.

 
On my way from Wind Cave National Park to Rapid City, Google Maps decided to route me through 7-11 Road because it was the fastest way to my des­ti­nation, without informing me that it was a dirt road. I was fine with it, though; my truck handled it just as well as a regular road, and I made a new friend along the way.

 

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Hello, Scotts Bluff National Monument in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska

After my stop in Cheyenne, Wyoming, my next destination was planned to be Rapid City, South Dakota. The drive is around four and a half hours, which isn’t that bad—that’s about the time it would take me to drive from Las Vegas to Los Angeles if there was normal traffic conditions after entering the Los Angeles area—but I still wanted to see if there were any opportunities to split up that drive across two days.

Upon searching for available hotels along the route, I noticed that there was a Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Upon closer inspection, I realized that the Scotts Bluff National Monument was also nearby west of Gering, a city in Scotts Bluff County. I decided to spend one night in Scottsbluff, then scheduled a stop at the Scotts Bluff National Monument on the day I drive in, and another stop at another nearby national park on the day I drive out.

Just as a quick disclaimer, I want to point out that I am not making any typos when it comes to these location names. The national monument and the county are called Scotts Bluff with a space between the two syllables, while the city name is Scottsbluff as a single word. Funny enough, Google Maps also has a point where, driving from the national monument to the city, you would take Old Oregon Trail, turn onto Nebraska Highway 92, and follow signs for “Scottebluff” … but I think that might just be an error on Google Maps, as I wasn’t able to locate any signs that replace Scottsbluff’s “s” with an “e.”

Scotts Bluff National Monument was a fairly small and straightforward national monument. Admission was free, and upon entering, you had two op­tions for exploration: you could either park at the bottom and hike your way up to the top, or you could take the Scotts Bluff Summit Road via ve­hi­cle. I decided to do both.

Because of the shape of the National Monument, the hiking route started as a paved trail that stretched far outwards to the northeast, cutting through Scotts Spring.

Around that area, I was able to find some wildflowers, though they weren’t exactly the kind of flowers you’d see elsewhere, and I also wasn’t exactly sure whether or not they were still alive.

For a bulk of the first part of the hike, I thought the trail was relatively timid, but after making it more than halfway to the summit and looking back, I realized that the path was actually somewhat carved in the side of the mountain, and the drop off the edge was a lot steeper than it felt when I was walk­ing through that area.

Eventually, I made it to a tunnel that cut through the rock and opened a pathway to the other side of the mountain.

The other side of the tunnel had a lot more vegetation and opened up views to the northern side of the mountain, which were previously hidden by the mountain itself.

After some hairpin turns and a few steeper climbs, I made it to the North Overlook at the summit and was able to enjoy nice, sweeping views to the north, specifically of Scottsbluff, Terrytown, and the North Platte River.

On my way back down the trail, I decided to snap a photo of the tunnel through the mountain. At the time of the photograph, it was so bright outside and so dark in the tunnel that it just looked pitch black in the tunnel, but I was able to extract a lot from the raw sensor data from my camera. There were three tunnels in the vehicular route to the top as well, but this hiker tunnel had a lot more interesting detail to the texture of the rock.

On my way down, I also snapped a photo of a rocky ridge that had signs instructing people to stay on the trail and avoid going off course (i.e., on the ridge) due to high risk of falling. I’m not particularly the biggest fan of randomly falling off a mountain and dying, so I heeded that warning.

After making it back down to the vis­i­tor center, I got in my truck and took the scenic drive back up to the top of the monument so I could see the three other tunnels and the South Overlook as well. I could’ve just walked from the North Overlook to the South Overlook as part of my hike, but I saved the South Overlook for my drive so I could use it as a “reward.” The South Overlook had some nice mountain views, as well as a view of the vis­i­tor cen­ter and the first loop of Scotts Bluff Summit Road leading into the first vehicular tunnel.

The walk from the parking lot to the South Overlook wasn’t recorded on my GPS, and I also started tracking a little bit late, but overall, my total hiking distance was a little bit over three and a half miles.

I’m glad I stopped by Scotts Bluff National Monument. It obviously isn’t exactly the most impressive or stunning national monument or national park I’ve ever been to, but it has its own charm with its relatively small size. As a tourist, you’d be able to see everything there is to see in one single visit of a few hours, but with free admission, I feel like this national monument is more used as a regular exercise area for the residents of Scotts Bluff County, being only about a ten minute drive from central Gering.

 

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Hello, Hidden Falls at the Curt Gowdy State Park in Cheyenne, Wyoming

I wanted to get in a hike in Cheyenne before heading out for my next destination, but I noticed that a lot of trails near the city were just greenways that connected different neighborhoods. After expanding my search radius, I came across Curt Gowdy State Park, a state park about half an hour west of the main city of Cheyenne.

I was anticipating doing a quick hike out to and back from Hidden Falls, but long story short, the quick hike ended up on the not-so-quick side.

I successfully found my way to the parking lot and the trailhead. Unfortunately, although the trails were actually pretty well-marked for off-road vehicles, they were almost not marked at all for foot hikers. Because of this, I just found a trail and started walking, and it ended up being in the wrong direction.

After occasionally taking a peek at my GPS (which was difficult, because there was extremely poor signal out there), there came a point where I realized that my trajectory was way too far off from Hidden Falls, so I retraced my steps and found a different path I could take. That path also ended up being in­correct; I made it much closer to Hidden Falls, but it took me to the foot of a mountain and Middle Crow Creek, and it wasn’t very realistic for me to attempt to cross the creek into forest and try to climb straight up a mountain without realizing where it would take me.

Eventually, I found my way onto the correct path, and after already having hiked about halfway or so down the trail, I saw a sign that said “To Hidden Falls,” even though this was now a straight shot to Hidden Falls and there was no possible way I could miss it.

Maybe if the person who nailed this sign to the tree was using both halves of their brain on that day, they may have come to the conclusion that the sign would have probably been far more useful and effective at the initial three-way fork in the road.

Once I got closer to Hidden Falls, the trail got much better. There were bridges in areas that were difficult to navigate, and even though there was a lot of snow and ice covering the path, there were enough footsteps in the snow from previous hikers trafficking the route that it was easy to see where to go next.

Eventually, I made it to Hidden Falls and realized that the waterfall was completely frozen over.

I’m actually fortunate that I wasted about an hour and a half roaming around in the wrong area, because that made it so the timing lined up where I met some ice fishermen at the waterfall. If I remember correctly, their names are Angel and Alex, and the guy pictured below goes by “Everyday Pikachu Hat Fisherman” on YouTube. Apparently the ice was extremely deep, and they actually had some success catching fish.

After enjoying the view, carefully sliding around so I wouldn’t get a concussion from slipping on the ice, and then making it back to the parking lot, I drove back onto Granite Springs Road and took a detour into the Happy Jack Camp­ground and shot a nice view of the Granite Springs Reservoir.

I’d say that, even though the hike ended up about twice as long as I was anticipating due to my poor navigation, it was ultimately a success. The scenery was great, the air was fresh, and the frozen waterfall was very intriguing. I also enjoyed meeting the ice fishermen and watching them fish—I’ve seen pho­tos and videos of people ice fishing online, but I never expected to be able to see it in-person, especially without having to go to somewhere like A­las­ka.

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Hello, Arches National Park near Moab, Utah

After visiting Canyonlands National Park, I went to the Arches National Park the following day on the other side of US Route 191.

Arches is actually the main reason why I wanted to go to Moab, and I was planning on spending two days at Arches (the day of check-in and the day of check-out at my hotel in Moab), but after I had my travel all planned out and scheduled, I learned that Canyonlands existed, so I split my Moab trip between the two national parks. This meant that I had less time to explore Arches, so I did a full scenic drive and did only a little bit of hiking spread out across the main hotspots.

I have so many photos from Arches that I don’t precisely remember where each one is from, but the route I took was Park Avenue Viewpoint, La Sal Mountains Viewpoint, Courthouse Towers Viewpoint, Petrified Dunes Viewpoint, Balanced Rock, and Salt Valley Overlook.

Afterwards was Fiery Furnace, the final stop before the end of Arches National Park Road.

My original plan was to do the full Devil’s Garden Trail, which is just shy of 9 miles and over a thousand feet in elevation gain. However, because I con­densed my Arches trip to just one day, I did a much shorter version of the Devil’s Garden hike.

The first stop was Tunnel Arch.

After Tunnel Arch, I hiked over to Pine Tree Arch, before turning around and heading back to the trailhead.

Even though Devil’s Garden is the end of the road, that wasn’t all—there are a few other side roads branching out from Arches National Park Road, which I checked out on my drive back to the entrance.

The first side road I took was Delicate Arch Road, which led to Wolfe Ranch and the Lower and Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoints. If I wanted to go see the Delicate Arch up close, I would’ve had to hike up there from Wolfe Ranch, but for the sake of time and energy, I decided instead to drive straight to the viewpoints. Some people were just satisfied with the lower viewpoint, but I climbed up to the upper viewpoint for a better view of Delicate Arch (though I wasn’t able to see the Twisted Doughnut Arch from that angle).

Upon retracing my path on Delicate Arch Road, I went further south and turned onto The Windows Road. The first stop there was the Garden of Eden.

I thought I heard voices coming from one of the freestanding rocks at the Garden of Eden. I have incredibly poor eyesight, so I couldn’t actually tell if there were people up there, but I snapped a photograph in that general direction and managed to capture some rock climbers.

Next up, at the end of The Windows Road, was the Double Arch.

And finally, as you’d expect from the name of the road, the final landmark at the end of The Windows Road was Window Arch.

Compared to the chaotic and underwhelming experience I had at Zion National Park, Arches was much, much better. There were tons of places where people could pull over to the side of the road to take in the views, and it wasn’t massively overcongested (though I assume this is considered off-season, so it might end up getting worse over the summer).

I regret only booking one day in Moab, because I feel like I could’ve spent a full three days exploring Arches National Park and still feel like I only barely got to see everything.

I also liked the contrast between Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park—it was amusing to see the massive canyons in Canyonlands, and then the massive rock formations in Arches, as if some giants used one side of the road to dig a bunch of holes, then used what they dug up to make a bunch of sculptures on the other side of the road.

Also, this might be a bit of an unpopular opinion, but I actually enjoyed Canyonlands and Arches more than I did the Grand Canyon. The Grand Can­yon is definitely an incredible national park, but unless you’re literally taking a multi-day trip to hike down over a mile in elevation to the bottom of the canyon and camping out, it’s a little difficult to truly grasp the massive scale of the Grand Canyon. Even though Canyonlands is far, far smaller than the Grand Canyon, I feel like it was easier to conceptualize—sort of like how a normal person can’t truly grasp how much money one billion dollars is, but most people know exactly how one million dollars can change their lives.

With that being said, Moab is definitely a visit-again destination. I’ve historically known Moab as the place people bring their pickup trucks for brutal off-road capability testing, and even though I haven’t really done much off-roading, it’s definitely something I would consider trying, if I ever purchase a proper vehicle (or, a more easier solution would be just to rent a proper vehicle).

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Hello, Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah

After making my way across the state of Utah, I decided to take a stop on the east side in Moab, a city nestled conveniently between two national parks, Can­yonlands National Park and Arches National Park. I decided to visit Canyonlands first.

After traveling on US Route 191, I turned onto Utah State Route 313 and took the scenic drive south into Canyonlands National Park. My first stop was at the Shafer Canyon Overlook in the Island in the Sky district.

After taking in the views and capturing a lot of photos, I noticed that it was slowly becoming more gloomy, and there were dark clouds forming in the distance. Assuming that there was incoming inclement weather, I decided to drive straight to the end of Grand View Point Road to see the summit first, as I figured it would most likely start snowing at higher elevation faster.

By the time I drove past Mesa Arch, it was on the verge of raining, and right as I was passing the Buck Canyon Overlook, it started snowing. By the time I made it to the White Rim Overlook, it was hailing, but I had already come too far, and I had to go all the way up to Grand View Point.

By the time I finally made it to Grand View Point, there was absolutely no view. The snowstorm had picked up at a breakneck pace, and the “view” I had was basically what you see in the top third of the photos below, but literally everywhere instead of just in the sky. There was no visibility, and if the paved sidewalks weren’t there, it would’ve been a very real possibility for someone to just walk straight off the bluff. Needless to say, I opted not to hike the Grand View Point Trail to the overlook.

Trying not to get a concussion from the hail, I scurried back to my truck and started driving back down. I captured some photos along the way of the calmer areas, but the snow had swept through the entire national park, and even hit all the way down to the hairpin turns by South Fork Sevenmile Can­yon. There was a decent amount of traffic backed up of other tourists who had the same idea as me and wanted to make it back down to Moab be­fore the snowstorm turned into a blizzard.

Although it was a bit unlucky that the weather was unconducive to a hike, the parts I did get to see were nice, and it was pretty seeing the desert veg­e­ta­tion peeking through a blanket of white, which I imagine most other people wouldn’t have an opportunity to see if they visit over the spring, sum­mer, or fall.

 

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Hello, Fremont Indian State Park in Sevier, Utah

Since my previous big loop around the country, I made a very important purchase… I bought a new laptop so I wouldn’t have to keep using my 8-year-old Chromebook that can’t actually run any software except for web apps (and sometimes, even that is a stretch). This affects my road trip for one big rea­son: I’m way more willing to make intermissionary stops between longer destinations.

Previously, I would only drive from major city to major city, then spend about a week (or more) at each destination. Upon arrival, I would bring in my entire desktop computer and set up my full workstation—two monitors, speakers, subwoofer, condenser microphone, peripherals, and all. Any time I did­n’t have my full computer setup meant I couldn’t work at 100% productivity and efficiency, so I avoided situations where a stop would be so short that it would be too much of a hassle to set up my entire computer.

Now that I have a Windows laptop with far greater power than a Chromebook that’s reaching a decade of age, I’m much more willing to take short stops in between major cities—and today’s hiking trip is a great example of that. Between Zion National Park and Grand Junction, I decided to make two short stops, the first being at Richfield, Utah.

Richfield is a small city just shy of 8,000 people in Sevier County, and the most populous city in central Utah south of the Provo–Orem Metropolitan Area. On the way to Richfield on Interstate 70 was the Fremont Indian State Park and Museum.

It seemed like I could just park anywhere in open space and go hiking, but for the sake of helping support state parks, I voluntarily paid the US$10 ad­mis­sion fee and checked out the museum exhibits prior to my hike. The museum was obviously fairly underwhelming compared to some of the major ones I’ve visited, but considering how limited their resources are and how “out in the middle of nowhere” this museum felt, it wasn’t actually that bad.

The first trail I did was an easy, paved one right beside the museum, called the Parade of Rock Art Trail.

After circling around, I made my way over to the Canyon Overview Trail.

On the intersection of Coyote Canyon Trail, there was a Meditation Spiral. I didn’t do any meditating because I was a little crunched on time and needed to make it to my hotel in Richfield by a certain time to attend a conference call, but I feel like walking the spiral would’ve made me dizzy anyway.

Afterwards, I connected onto the Hidden Secrets Trail. This was split into the Upper and Lower Hidden Secrets Trails, and I’m not sure which ones I hiked, but there was a ton of mud here from recent snowfall, so I scrambled around taking any path I could to make it to the end.

Once I got to the end of the Hidden Secrets Trails, I transferred over to the Court of Ceremonies Trail, a short but steep trail that had great views and a path directly back to the museum parking lot.

After my hike, I took the scenic drive on Clear Creek Canyon Road and snapped some more photos along the way.

I don’t have a GPS map of my hike because I wasn’t going to activate tracking until after the museum, but then proceeded to forget to activate it at all after seeing all the exhibits.

These photos don’t really do the view justice—the towering rocks and snow-covered mountains are an amazing sight, and this area had some of the clean­est air I’ve breathed.

I’ve always wanted to live in a high-rise condo as my main residence, but after I first started my journey across the country, I partially changed my mind—I saw how amazing these hidden areas of nature were, and at the very least, if I didn’t live out in a place like this as my primary residence, I definitely want­ed a second home in a place far away from bustling cities. Seeing more areas like this, such as the Fremont Indian State Park, is reinforcing my wish­es of wanting to spend at least half my life out in the open, nestled among trees and mountains.

 

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