Chris & Rhonda’s Western Adventure September 4 - 28, 2007
Our 2007 adventure began early on Tuesday morning Sept 4. We left Cripple Creek at 7:20 headed to Knoxville, Tenn, and then went north on I-75. We had a picnic lunch at the Kentucky Visitor center and arrived at Mammoth Cave Nat’l Park north of Bowling Green around 3:15 (2:15 central time). It was hot - around 93 degrees. It was a very nice campground; neat and plenty of space between sites. It was right on top of a good part of the network of caves. We waited awhile before putting up the tent. Mammoth has approximately 360 miles of known cave. We had a 10 o’clock tour scheduled for the next day that lasted about two and a half hours. It began by a 250 ft almost vertical decent into the cave on some metal stairs that were uniquely fitted into a interior crevice.
After the cave tour, we had lunch in the park and headed north out of Kentucky by way of Henderson and Owensboro and then drove north and just east of the Indiana/Illinois state line to campground south of Terra Haute, Indiana. The campground was a Sullivan county facility and really wasn’t well suited for tent camping. We had a very poor site and were the only ones in that area of the park. The yellow jackets were so bad that we had to cook quickly and eat in the tent. The next morning we opted for The Golden Arches in town since there was a light shower coming down and we did not know what time the yellow jackets got up.
We arrived at Mirror Lake State Park in Wisconsin northwest of Madison around 4:30 and set up camp. It was a very nice facility. After exploring around a few miles from the park, we found it was an extreme tourist area (maybe like Gatlinburg). It centered around the Wisconsin Dells (a beautiful natural area of sandstone cliffs on the Wisconsin River).
During the early hours of the morning (3 am), we experience some very heavy thunderstorms with several inches of rain. The series of mini storms lasted for about 2 hrs. Even though we were keeping dry in the tent, it was somewhat unnerving amidst all the thunder and lighting with nothing but two layers of nylon between above us and tall pines all around. After breakfast, we browsed some shopping areas waiting for some clearing, then had lunch back at camp. That afternoon, we went over to Reedsburg to bike the 400 trail (named for the passenger rail line which had ran 400 miles between Chicago and Minneapolis). This section ended in Elroy where the Sparta-Elroy Trail took up. After driving pass the trail, we went up the street a short distance and used a corn processing parking lot to turn around. As I approached the street from the parking lot, I noticed an ear of corn in the shucks lying next to the curb. I asked Rhonda to jump out to get it, figuring it would make a nice addition to whatever we were having for supper. Rhonda rode a third of the 22 miles and then back tracked to get the car and meet me in Elroy.
Saturday, we took a 12 mile guided boat tour through the Wisconsin Dells on the Wisconsin River. It was a very beautiful natural area of sand stone cliffs and formations. On the way to our next stop, we stopped at a cheese factory store, bought some cheese and had lunch under one of their trees. It was the first time I had tried cheese curds. We found a good campground in Norwalk, one of the trail towns between Sparta and Elroy. After setting up, we drove down to an Amish community about 15 miles away. When we returned, we found a group of boy scouts were setting up camp and wondered if we would have a peaceful evening. Fortunately, they were very well behaved and were subdued well before the quiet hours posted.
We arose early, ate pancakes and sausage, broke down camp and headed for Elroy about 18 miles away. This is where the Sparta-Elroy trail begins (or ends). After about 5 hours of biking, I arrived in Sparta around 2 pm.. The distance was about 34 miles, but I took my time and stopped to read historical signs. There were a couple of dark tunnels that required cautious riding. Rhonda met me half way and we rode about 6 miles together and then she drove on to Sparta to meet me (she rode 12 miles total). Since it was still early in the afternoon, I decided to ride on another 10 miles on the LaCrosse River Trail to the town of Bangor. Rhonda shopped for some groceries and picked me up in Bangor.
There was a prediction of rain again that night, so we made our first stop at a Microtel motel back in Sparta and ate our 3rd meal out. The next day it was on to Minnesota and with more trails on the horizon. The first being the Root River Trail system. It included 60 miles of rail trail, but some of the eastern portion around Houston and Rushford was closed due to damage and debris from recent flooding.
On Monday, it rained most of the morning and was overcast most of the afternoon. We arrived in Preston, Minnesota, got some gas, scouted out the trailhead and looked for a campground. The clouds began to clear about 3:30, but it was very windy. The forecast was for a cold clear night. The Valley View campground on US 52 was just out side of town and had been recently converted from a cattle farm. The next day we got a ride with our bikes from a guy staying in the campground to Fountain and rode the twelve miles back to Preston. We then drove to Harmony where I rode the 12 miles back to Preston, while Rhonda spent some time looking in shops and purchasing some things from the Amish community there. After meeting up again in Preston, we did laundry and then drove to Lanesboro where we biked to the junction leading to Preston and then returned to Lanesboro (a 11.5 mile round trip).
On Wednesday, Sept 12th , we arrived Clearwater, Minn at a very nice campground. They had wireless internet so we sat out in the car near the campground office just sending and receiving up a storm. We had left Preston that morning after thawing out from a frost that coated the car. We went over to Canyon Falls and rode the Canyon Valley Trail to Red Wing, Minn on the Mississippi. It’s the town that makes Red Wing shoes and boots. The trail ended right behind one of their factories. After we left there, we went downtown St. Paul and drove by the Fitzgerald Theatre where the Prairie Companion is broadcast when they aren't on the road. We've been looking for Lake Wobegon, but can't seem to locate it.
The next morning, we headed for Baxter and the state park there where the Paul Bunyan Trail begins. Our plans were to do about half of the 102 mile trail and then head over to the Dakotas. On the way, we stopped at a Target so Rhonda could exchange the full body bunny suit she bought to wear as pajamas when the sleeping bag alone did not do the job. The pair she bought in Red Wing was a little to short. (kids size). We arrived in the Baxter - Brainerd area about 11:30 on Thursday morning and I was on the trail before 12 am after eating a quick lunch from the car. Rhonda went on to Pine River to park the car and begin riding back toward me. It had rained a little earlier, the temperature was around 57 degrees and the wind was gusting to 15 to 20 mph. The wind, at times, made it feel like going up hill. I met Rhonda 6 miles out of Pine River and ended up with a little less that 32 miles. The trail runs through a lot of resort and tourist areas around the many lakes in the area. My riding mileage up to that point added up to around 132 miles.
The rain was a part of a cold front and the night’s low was predicted to be in the high 30s. That with the fact we were having trouble finding a close campground and there was light sprinkle, made the decision to stay at a $49 motel, much easier. The motel had some age on it but it turned out to be a good find. The unit had two rooms. The front room had a sitting area and a small kitchen. It was ideal for a couple of campers. We had checked for vacancies at the large casino hotel, but they were filling up fast due to a big poker tournament and the room rates were more than we wanted to pay.
Friday was a much nicer, still cool but clearing. We left Walker and headed west for the North Dakota border . Just out of Walker, I spotted a bald eagle along side of the road feasting on some road kill. We turned around to get a picture, but by the time we got back, he was gone. We stopped in Fargo at the visitor center to get information on the state. During the morning we passed large fields of sugar beets, sunflowers and of course, corn and soybeans. We camped at a very nice state park (Fort Abraham Lincoln) on the Missouri river south of Bismarck. It had great camp sites and a new heated bathhouse. This was the area where Lewis and Clark were helped by the Mandan Indians and where they connected with Sacaquewea and her French- Canadian husband. Mandan was just outside and a little northwest of Bismark. In the park,there was several replicas of the “on-a-slant” village earthen lodges uses by the native American of that area” This was also the site of home base of the 7th Calvary. Custer’s home is a part of a historic part of the park.
One of our planned side trips was to the Enchanted Highway; so we headed south from the state park. The Enchanted Highway is a 32 mile strip of highway with a collection of the world's largest collection of scrap metal sculptures. It extends north from Regent to Gladstone at I-94. The creator began the project in 1989 and it now contains eight sculptures (the tin family, Teddy rides again,pheasants on the prairie, grasshoppers in the field, geese in flight, deer crossing, and a fisherman's dream).
On the way, we stopped at Fort Rice Historic site to check out a trail, but discovered it was not well developed (rough in otherwords). We did get our first sighting of prairie dogs; dozens of them making kind of squeaking noise as they retreated into their holes. After leaving Fort Rice, we turned west. It was a short time later that we came across a number of pound packages of frozen hamburger; of which we collected two and stashed in the ice chest. It appeared that some farmer or rancher had a cow butchered and a box of the packaged ground beef must have fallen out of his vehicle. Saturday afternoon we arrive in Medora in the Dakota Badlands just outside the Teddy Roosevelt Nat’l Park. We toured the park and got our first close up of a bison (buffalo). We had hamburger for supper.
Sunday morning, we left early, heading for Montana and the Little Big Horn. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon after driving through a Crow Indian Reservation. We spent some time driving the park road that goes across the battlefield. It was about 5 miles long. There was a great presentation in the museum recounting the battle. We left there trying to get as close to Yellowstone as possible before camping. We stayed at a city camping area on the Yellowstone River in Columbia, Montana. It was free and very basic with only a couple of other campers there.
On Monday morning we got up just before light, ate some cereal, and headed down the road. We stopped in Livingston, to get a few groceries, get some money from an ATM, and have the oil changed in the car. Livingston was the exit of the highway that leads into Yellowstone, about 60 miles south. We arrived at the north entrance of the park before noon, paid the $25 entrance fee, got some information on camping in the park and headed south toward the Norris Basin area to claim a campsite. On the way, we stopped at Monmouth Hot Springs and several other points of interest, having a picnic lunch along the way.
After dropping off the trailer and setting up the tent. We spent the afternoon driving the northern loop, stopping numerous times to view the scenery, take pictures, and read about the geology and nature of the park. We found out that we could get showers at the Yellowstone Hotel for $3.75, we took the opportunity since there were no shower facilities at the campground. When we returned to the campground, we found the full sign had been hung out. It was good we had not waited until then to get a site. During the night, we discovered that there were showers at the campground, the kind that fall from the sky and not from a shower head. Even though it rained several times during the night, we stayed cozy and dry in the tent.. Thank goodness it stopped just after daylight. We got up and fixed a delicious Canadian bacon, egg, and cheese on square bagels and broke down our camp. We had to bag the tent fly separately due to its wetness. We went through a light snow shower as the headed over to see a magnificent view of the Yellowstone River gorge and the falls.
During the morning, we visited several more points of interest and then made our way to Old Faithful. It was scheduled to do its thing at 12:27, plus or minus 10 minutes . It spewed steam and water pretty close to the scheduled time. After lunch, it was on to the Grand Tetons. It was overcast and sprinkling, so we decided to keep moving.
From there, we went through two separate national forest to the very interesting town of Dubois, Wy, where we got a room in the Trails End motel. We weren’t sure about the rain for the night, so we played safe. It was in area called Painted Valley (the pictures I took were good but did not really do it justice). We ate two good meals at the Cowboy Café right on the main street of downtown. The sidewalks were wooden and most of the building had that old west look. At breakfast, we shared a table with a couple from Seattle who spent six months of the year in Coral Bay, St. Johns, VI. We told them about our volunteer gig down there, exchanged information and made plans to visit them when we are in St. Johns this coming spring, then we were off to Custer, SD.
We arrived outside Custer after 6 pm after driving all day. It had been some of the best scenery that we had seen. We crossed one mountain pass at bout 9600 feet. We found a great campground and quickly set up and made supper. Rhonda cooks great at home and she just about matches it camping; especially considering she is using one burner and a couple of pots. The next day, we headed out to ride some of the George Michelson trail. It runs from Deadwood south through Custer for over 100 miles. I rode 28 miles and Rhonda rode a little over 12. It was a great day for riding, except for being windy. We arrived back in camp about three o'clock and spent some time cleaning out and organizing the car. On Friday, I rode another 32 miles on the Michelson Trail from Dumont up near Lead and Deadwood to Hill City (best scenery yet). The northern section passes through a beautiful area of the Black Hills National Park
We left Hill City heading east pass Rapid City on I-90 and stopped at Wall. It had evolved into a tourist trap from the days that Wall Drug store advertised as the place to stop and get cold ice water. For miles prior to getting to the exit, there were signs much like Burma Shave ads or the JR's, telling of the things you could see or purchase. With its fame as a renowned tourist attraction, we just had to stop. Amongst all the souvenirs was an very fascinating exhibit of black and white photos of Native Americans posing in their natural surroundings and with some of the western folk of that day. Most were taken around the turn of the century and some earlier.
We stopped for the day at a camping facilities just off the interstate in a place with the very western name of “Cactus Flatts. It not very developed as campgrounds go, but it was along the way. While we were eating supper, a big motorhome park near us and a short time later a man came out and set up archery targets and began to practice. He told us he was on the way from Texas to do some hunting in Montana. We never could determine if he was alone or had someone else with him. We did not see anyone else outside. We thought that it sure would be lonesome and an expensive way to travel if it was just him.
The next morning we stopped a large tractor museum with twenty or thirty restored tractors and other farm equipment. It was put together and maintained by just one man and his family.
We arrived in Mitchell, South Dakota about lunch time and decided to get some Mexican fast food at Toco John's and use their wifi to check email. We also wanted to see the famous Corn Palace. It was a civic center decorated in murals made of corn. It was redone each year. Someone has called the world's largest bird feeder. It was very well done and a real art piece. The street in front of the Palace had a car show; three cars wide and seven blocks long.
We drove from Mitchel to Sioux Falls and then turn south on I-29 and in arrived in a campground south of Sioux City, Iowa (Lewis & Clark State Park). As usual, Saturday night was the busiest time for campgrounds. On Sunday, we rode 12 miles on the Homestead Corridor Trail south of Lincoln, Neb. Katy trail in central Missouri was our next stop, if it doesn’t rain us out. Just before leaving Nebraska and crossing the Missouri river, we stopped to take a picture of an old riverboat along the river and realized the a rail trail called the Steamboat Trace ended close by. We put it on our list for the next year.
The rain held off. We rode the KATY Trail on Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning starting in Franklin. I did a combined 60 miles. Rhonda did somewhat less. The trail had some very interesting areas and history; especially since it ran along the Missouri River and there was a lot of Lewis and Clark interpretation. The small communities long the trail was also interesting. After we left the trail, we went into St. Louis and stopped at the riverfront, went to the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the Mississippi waterfront. The Arch was build as a monument to western expansion It opened to the public in June of 1967. It's official name is of the park is the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. They had a terrific museum under the arch. We did not go up in the arch because of time. We wanted to get out of the city before the traffic got heavy
We stayed in a motel near Independence for the night since it is expected to rain overnight and most of the day Wednesday. We were planning to go on to look for more trails depending on the weather, visit Louisville and be back at home by Saturday.
Chapter 6 (Final Chapter)
It rained most of the day as we traveled across the state of Illinois and Indiana. We had checked websites on the internet, but did not find any trail in our vicinity; they were all well north and south of I-64. It would’ve been likely that it would not have been conducive to riding anyway. We stopped at the home of Abby Press and at a disappointing glass blowing “factory”. Since we were passing by Louisville, we decided to ride through down town. As we have traveled, we have found out that a number of cities have used the art form that Raleigh did a few years ago. That is, taking an object, usually an animal statute (a wolf in Raleigh’s case) and having artist paint scenes on it. In New England, last year it was the moose, in Blacksburg it was a turkey, in Custer, the buffalo, in Louisville, guess what it is, a horse.
We stopped by Frankfort, KY and visited Daniel Boone’s grave. We were staying just ahead of the rain and were trying to decide whether to stay in a motel or camp. Finally, we decided to head for the Fort Boonsboro State Park. It was a fairly nice campground, but we found our the bathhouse closest to where we pitched our tent was out of service. The tent camping area was somewhat primitive, but adequate. It appeared that they had spent more time on decorating for Halloween (quite a light display) than cleaning up the tent area. We had a good nights rest and just as we were finishing packing up to leave, it began to sprinkle.
We made a stop at a Kentucky artisan shop in Berea, Colonel Sanders original restaurant in Corbin and just before lunch, we made a quick visit to the Cumberland Gap National Park. The museum had a good display on the history of the gap and the use of it by wildlife, the Indians and early frontiersmen and settlers.
We made it home by 6 pm after being gone for 24 days, traveling 5840 miles in 14 states by car, 298 miles by bike and camped all but 5 nights. We are looking forward to our next US trip to either the northwest or the southwest.