September 30, 2010

Custer State Park - Prairie Edition

Other than wildlife, the main thing we wanted to check out is the mixed-grass prairie at Custer State Park. Custer SP represents the transition zone between two of North America's great ecoregions; the ponderosa pine forests of the west and the once expansive prairies of the Great Plains.

Buffalo grazing in the prairie
So, we decided to do the 3-mile Prairie Trail Loop to check out this transition. It was a fascinating hike full of contrasts and transitions.

It starts along Jimmy Lame Creek, where a beautiful riparian forest of green ash, eastern cottonwood, and burr oak. All of these are eastern species, as is the poison ivy and sumac that is along the streamside.

Then, as you emerge into the grassland you realize, this is no ordinary grassland like we have out west. This mixed-grass prairie is incredibly diverse. It seems almost every other plant is a different species and they are not all grasses. The prairie is full of a variety of wildflowers, small shrubs, and even cactus.

Hard to capture the diversity, but look for the different kinds of plants

The mixed-grass prairie is a transition between the short-grass prairies of Montana/Wyoming and the tallgrass prairies of Kansas/Oklahoma. It also contains a variety for forbs and shrubs from the eastern U.S., the mountains of the west, and the deserts of the southwest.

The ponderosa pine are reaching their easternmost extreme over here and are fading out into scattered stands and isolated seedlings. Buffalo roaming across the prairie help keep the pines at bay, as does the constant wildfires the region experiences.

Hilina and Linda crossing the prairie
Hilina got a little tired after about 1.5 miles and it was naptime
Beautiful green ash in full autumn slendor

September 29, 2010

Custer State Park - Wildlife Edition

Today we visited Custer State Park, 71,000 acres of forest and prairie located between the Black Hills National Forest to the north and west and Wind Cave National Park to the south. It was certainly an exciting day and there is too much to say in just one blog post. So, I am splitting it up into two.

Custer State Park and the Great Plains beyond
Today's post is about the wildlife "safari" we ended up experiencing. I am not sure I have ever seen so many species of wildlife in one day. The day began with a view of an overlook across the park from a high point on the northwestern end. Here, Hilina noticed a hoof print that looked awfully similar to a buffalo print.

We told Hilina we were coming to South Dakota to see buffaloes. It was a major incentive to put up with the many hours of driving to get out here. But, as it turned out, we hadn't yet seen any. When Hilinda saw this print, she got really excited.

Then just minutes later, there they were in the forest

As we headed out toward our hike for the day, we stopped at this spot because we saw these two giant birds soaring right overhead. They were golden eagles, although I couldn't get a good shot of them. But, we quickly realized why they were there when we looked on the ground. It was a prairie dog town.

Proghorns were all over, including this male munching away

Or these female proghorns here

Along the way, we encountered a herd of wild burros. Descendants of pack animals that used to work the mines and mountains in the area, they were released into Custer State Park in the early 20th century. Well, some of them have apparently been given hand-outs, because several of them were on the side of the road sticking their heads into open windows.

Any food for me?

Custer State Park is home to about 1500 bison. To prevent over-grazing, the herds are rotated across vast tracks of prairie through the seasons. In September of each year, there is a roundup and auction to cull the herd and prevent overpopulation. Many of the other bison herds being reestablished in places like Kansas, Oklahoma, and Montana have their origins here at Custer State Park.

The roundup occurred on Monday and we arrived at the corrals to see the bison who were bought at auction and are awaiting their pickup. Beyond the fence, the remaining herds have been released to redisburse across the park.

We also encountered 4 male bighorn sheep. Man do they have some cajones!

Flock of turkeys anyone?

Jewel Cave National Monument, South Dakota

Yesterday, we visited Jewel Cave National Monument. Discovered in 1900, when prospectors walking along a canyon felt a blast of cold air coming out of a hole in the rock, it was soon discovered that almost the entire cave was covered in a thick layer of beautiful white crystals. Jewel Cave also happens to be the 2nd longest cave described to date, with over 151 miles of mapped passages and several new miles discovered each year.

These prospectors hoped that these were jewels that they could make money off of. Instead, they soon found out that they were just calcite crystals that have no real financial value. But, this cave was realized to be somewhat unique, as few caves in the world have this kind of formation in such abundance. Thus, in 1908 Theodore Roosevelt designed this cave as a national monument.

We took the Scenic Tour, which is 80 minutes in length and requires walking over 760 steps. Even though Hilina absolutely loves caves and we've taken her on a couple of cave tours already, we decided this one wouldn't work for her due to the length of time and the fact that there are no bathroom options, food or drink allowed. We decided to save Wind Cave for her. Instead, we went separately. I took Hilina for a hike on the surface while Linda went and then I went on a later tour.

Jewel Cave was form in several stages...First there was the great shallow sea that deposited the limestone about 300 million years ago. Then, about 60 million years ago, as the Black Hills were lifting up above the surrounding plains, the pressures created cracks and fissures in the limestone. As water trickled down into these fissures, it dissolved the limestone to create the cave passages that we see today.

At this stage, the cave was like thousands of limestone caves around the world. What made it special was that at some point, the springs at the bottom of the formation that drained this water plugged up and the entire cave was inundated with water supersaturated with dissolved calcite. Anyone who has had chemistry knows that if you have a supersaturated solution, the minerals will precipitate out as crystals. Thus, the calcite began to deposit onto the surface of the cave as crystals 6-18 inches long.

The cave also has a number of other really interesting and unique formations, but the 80 minute tour we took didn't take us to those. We needed to go on the "wild cave tour" which requires squeezing through some very tight spaces!

On the surface, the entire area was inundated by a major wildfire back in 2000 called the Jasper fire. it did not affect the cave and infact, the park placed all of the computers and important documents in the cave for protection in case the visitor center burned down (which it didn't).

View from Visitor Center

They have been doing prescribed burns in the area to prevent the risk of catastrophic fire in the future.

Hilina really enjoyed hiking down into the limestone canyon and looking at the pinkish-orange walls, since as she always says "pink is my favorite color". She also kept saying "This place is beuzital", her was of saying beautiful.

September 26, 2010

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota

Today was the obligatory visit to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, also known as, the "mountain with the faces" by Hilina. She was so excited about this and was really interested in how it was made. Inside the visitor center, there was a little video display where you could push a plunger and watch the dynamite blow out the rocks in different parts of the mountain from original film. Hilina must have pushed that plunger 50 times.

Then there was a hilarious moment was when we were walking the Presidential Trail at the base of the mountain. When we stopped at a spot with a bunch of women around, Hilina suddenly says "All of those faces are men, where are the girls?"

Suddenly, all these women started laughing and saying "Yeah, they need to put some women up there" and "Wow, this girl knows her stuff already". Hilina then replied "Maybe they can change one of them" and pointed at George Washington as her choice.

It was certainly an interesting story of the efforts to create this work of art and I think Borghlum made the right choices. It is hard to think of anyone who deserves to be up there more than the four presidents he chose. It is also interesting that Theodore Roosevelt was chosen just 20 years after he left office. Yet, even then his impact on America was well known.

A view of the badlands and prairies of the Great Plains
So, if given a choice of adding just one more president, who would you choose?

Linda said none of them would be acceptable, certainly not by today's hyper-partisan setting. I tend to agree, although I personally would pick FDR, because whether you liked his policies or not, you certainly can not argue that any other president has had more influence on the direction and future of the country than the policies he pursued and wars he fought. The policies he implemented still are in effect today!

We briefly stopped by Crazy Horse Memorial as well. But, we were in a bit of a rush because it was Hilina's naptime and I had some school work to do. As such, we did not go in. But, Linda said it looks exactly the same as she remembers when she visited at 12 years old. Progress is apparently slow. Oh, but they do have a new visitor center. Since they started it in 1948, at this rate, it might get finished in 2448. Sorry for the sarcasm.

September 24, 2010

Harney Range, Black Hills, South Dakota

Today was a beautiful day around 72 degrees and a great one for a hike to the highest point not only in South Dakota, but in the entire country east of the Rocky Mountains. We climbed 7,246 foot Harney Peak in the heart of the Black Hills, with views out to the vast Great Plains beyond.

I'll do a separate post specifically about the details of this lovely hike on the Hikemaster's website. But, what I want to focus on for this post is Hilina's cognition and the Mountain Pine Beetle.

First of all, Hilina had an absolute blast. She's shown signs in recent weeks of appreciating "views" and landscapes rather than just focusing on the 50 feet around her. But, today it was a different level. She was in awe of the surroundings at the summit and kept talking about the "view" and wanting to find more views. She was amazed by the rock formations and talked about the dead trees she could see in the landscape.

She thought they were dead because of fires, but when we told her that the mountain pine beetle was killing them, she was totally fascinated by that idea. She wanted to find them...

Hilina also had a recognition that the forest ended at some point on the horizon and that the tan/brown landscape beyond was the "prairie". When asked what lived on the prairie, she quickly answered "buffalo, prairie dogs, and pronghorns, but not mountain lions". Pretty good for a kid under 3, don't you think?

Anyways, the Black Hills, especially the southern portion are under seige by mountain pine beetles. They have devastated up to 1/3 of the ponderosa pine forests in the range. A combination of a hundred years of fire suppression resulting in overly packet "dog-hair" forests, drought episodes stressing trees, and global warming causing the winters to be too mild to kill the beetle eggs has contributed to this massive outbreak. They say they are desperately hoping for a really hard winter to end this epidemic.

We spoke to a couple from Iowa who come to the Black Hills every year and they said 10 years ago the entire forest was green and today, it is a very different forest.

Custer State Park and the U.S. Forest Service are involved in major salvage and thinning operations to clear the dead trees and provide space for the still living ones to be free from infestation. It is a dramatic effect, with logging operations everywhere, that they hope will return the forest to its more open, fire tolerant state.

Hilina really wants to see the "Mountain with the faces" that she's seen in brochures and billboards in the area. So, we might head on over to Mount Rushmore tomorrow.

September 23, 2010

Deadwood and Mount Roosevelt, South Dakota

Right now, I am in Rapid City enroute to Custer State Park, home of all of the main attractions of the Black Hills, including Mount Rushmore, Harney Peak, Wind Cave and Jewel Cave. It is pouring rain, but the forecast is for sunshine and 70's for the next week after today.

Yesterday, Hilina and I did a touristy stop in Deadwood. It was a bit of a bore, as it was mostly focused on casinos and nothing there for kids. Even the tourist shots were just knick-knacks for old people and not much to excite a child. You can see it was a bit dead at 9:30 in the morning.

Nonetheless, we did learn a bit about the history of the town at the local museum. Wild Bill Hickock was shot there and is buried in the local cemetary.

We also went up to nearby Mount Roosevelt to see the view from the top. It is a 1 mile roundtrip walk to the summit. It was named after Theodore Roosevelt by a friend of his who lived in Deadwood. Supposedly, you could see Theodore's ranch in North Dakota from the summit on a really clear day.

Well, a storm was rolling in, so I couldn't see quite that far. But, we did see Bear Butte, a sacred site of the Souix (the little peak in the far right distance) and much of the northern Black Hills.

Here you can see Hilina getting ready to go up to the top of the lookout at the summit