Badlands National Park.

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Back in June we planned on taking the boys to South Dakota. We planned for late September, which  usually lends great weather for traveling.

Our first stop was Badlands National Park. It was directly on the way to our campground and a nice break in a full day of driving. While heading through the park, Little Fella started begging for the camera. He clicked that thing off like a wild man! I never had so many shots on one disk!

We saw two goats, no other animals. We drove through mid-day and it was pretty hot. I’m not surprised the animals weren’t roadside. Still, the boys enjoyed the new terrain, compared it to Minecraft, and shot loads of photos.

We spent enough time to entertain ourselves and scooted along for our destination.

Colorado National Monument, Fruita, CO.

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After a beautiful drive through the Rocky Mountains, we pulled into Fruita, CO, home to Colorado National Monument. Oddly, we’ve never been, although we used to make the drive from IL to Las Vegas annually for a trade show. We made it happen this drive.

We got off the exit and saw a small state park with camping. We figured we’d stay there and head to the monument in the morning. However, when the state park employee said the monument campground was only six miles away, we figured we’d just go for it. He told us we’d fit through the tunnel no problem, but to straddle the middle anyways.

We climbed, went through two rock tunnels, thanked our decision to go Airstream because of the tunnels, and trolled the Saddlehorn campground for a spot. There were few left, aside from “reserved” sites that air camped in that night. (It’s quite frustrating to frequently see loads of national and state parks campsites “reserved” but vacant. It’s a tough situation, because we also very much appreciate the ability to reserve sites ourselves.) We found something that sort of worked, slept, and moved very early in the AM to the thankfully level picnic area.

From the picnic area we ate breakfast and hung out until we hiked to the visitor’s center, a short 1/2 mile. Little Fella decided he’d start his own drawing journal to capture the things he loves most on our trip. He drew three scenes that short hike, the canyon, a carved rock, and something else I unfortunately cannot recall. I adore that he came up with that on his own and I am excited to see it develop.

Both boys became Junior Rangers by completing five activities in their books and hiking a trail (the one we took to the center.) The book focused on canyon formation, hiking safety, and so on. They completed them quite easily. We hiked back and took the boys to a dino museum down in Fruita that afternoon.

One crazy thing that struck me at the canyon is the silence. I mean, no sound, not a peep, not a cricket or flapping bird wing silence. The campground and picnic area were so void of noise it was remarkable. I soaked that in as I shot photos over the void. It’s a replenishment I often don’t get.

Russell Cave National Monument, AL.

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Down few winding roads, on a lovely spring day, we stopped to visit Russell Cave National Monument. The beautiful setting looks like a lovely spot for a picnic and a nice spot to linger, and I suppose that must be what many, many, many generations of people before us thought as well. Russell Cave is just this, a spot many chose to stay and live from prehistoric times through early Native Americans. We are talking 10,000 BC to 1650 AD. Excavations reveal ample tools, supplies, and details to the daily lives of many on these very grounds.

As always, the boys participated in the Junior Ranger program. We ran into a fellow Junior Ranger-er who had a vest chock full of badges. Thumbs up gal! What we did find was this was one of the most detailed, intense booklets we’ve encountered yet. I suppose with SO much history they wanted to cover it all, but phew, the boys were getting a bit restless with this one. In fact, said Junior Ranger gal’s mother and I were puzzling and pouring through our pamphlets trying to assist with downright detailed questions. I did mention this to the Ranger, and of course it’s no harm done. We just feel we really earned those badges this time.

The spring dogwoods were blooming, the caterpillars were everywhere, and the water was flowing. It was such a peaceful place, but the Ranger told us there will be much activity soon. They intend to excavate again, now. We were just shy of their start date. I’d love to have seen that in progress, but again, the quiet we enjoyed was so appealing, too.

 

Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, MS.

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I learned a lot about the Civil War while volunteering at Stones River National Battlefield. I’m not so great at recalling exact maneuvers, tactics, or names. Instead it’s the stories of survival that stick with me. I’ve read about a soldier so weary from battle and bad weather, he went inside an old house to sleep. Wondering why those inside didn’t argue him off for lack of space, he awoke to find them all dead. I read a story of a soldier so excited to find a chicken, he stashed it while fighting, elated to return to it and cook it for dinner. Also of a soldier running by an enemy soldier who stopped and tried to repair his battered legs and return his boots to his feet for protection from the cold. It’s those singular stories that stick with me.

Vicksburg National Military Park had more of these stories. The civilian stories were memorable here for me. There are stories of women and families who relocated to nearby caves to avoid getting hit from cannons and debris. Families who stood on a town road overlooking the river in fear of attack. Those who starved for lack of supplies.

This park is quite different from Stones River in that it has stone monuments along a long driving path from each state commemorating their soldiers’ service. We stopped a bit longer at the Illinois Monument (the white dome photographed) which had a reflection for peace engraved around the top exterior, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, let us have peace.”

We also visited the USS Cairo which was about halfway through the drive. It is an iron clad steamship that was sunk trying to pass Vicksburg during battle. Did you read that final photo? Sunk in 12 minutes and none aboard perished? Intrigued? It was built in a few short months during the Civil War, sailed down the Mississippi with a few other sister ships, sunk, sat underwater until about 100 years later when they raised and eventually reassembled and made museum worthy. Inside the museum features loads of recovered artifacts as well.

We enjoyed half a day at this park and ship museum before heading north some more.

Congaree National Park, SC.

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Large. I just don’t know how to express this besides, large, huge, mega, something along those lines. Congaree National Park has this little entrance and little signage, but when you enter you start getting this picture, it’s one of feeling really small. Or that your surroundings are really big.

The visitor’s center has a fabulous movie that made me feel even smaller. They have helicopter footage flying over their immense park and it’s just prehistoric looking. Then they show researchers climbing the trees and your jaw just drops. Sadly, it’s a kind of feeling I get where my eyes glaze over and I can’t grasp the size. Like when I think about space or how deep the Grand Canyon is. Still I tried. In this location where trees max out due to the nutrient rich swamp and flood plains, where champion trees are made and found and still being found, where you can walk along boardwalks and feel tremendously small and peaceful, our family looked UP and UP and UP.

Loblolly pines reach 100 feet, Cypress trees are WIDE, and even the echo of the singular owl we heard while hiking seemed huge. Ironically, Congaree was owned by a logger who kept it in case he needed to harvest it. Due to the consistent flooding it was too difficult for this. And it grew. And it was saved. And my boys and Dear Husband and I could look up and up and up and remember what a spectacular thing an untouched wood could be.

Mammoth Cave National Park and Visiting Stephen Bishop’s Grave.

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Last month we finished up Journey to the Bottomless Pit: The Story of Stephen Bishop and Mammoth Cave by Betsy Mitchell. The boys and I were fascinated by Stephen Bishop’s discoveries in Mammoth Cave. We were intrigued by the owners of the cave before it was a National Park. We loved hearing about the excursions, visitors, and news in the 1800s. Finally, when we read he was still buried in a little cemetery at the park, I thought it would be crazy not to go one last time and see it.

Last week’s warm Friday provided the perfect chance for a visit. We arrived around noon and spent time surveying our National Park passport options. Our first book is weathered and needs to retire. We thought new books for this road trip was in order. The boys settled on the blue passports (they have different kids versions or larger more elaborate versions) because they have ample stamping room and are pocket-sized. Each fella got his own book to stamp as he wishes at all the National Parks (and probably State Parks) we’ll encounter. The store employee was incredibly helpful and instrumental in helping us decide.

We then met up with some school friends for a hike to the grave site and around the grounds. It was a quick walk to the site and with clear signage we located his stone placement easily. We headed just a bit further to Sunset Point and looped down and around to the natural entrance. Little fella kept breaking off icicles in large sections. Dear Husband and my older son walked ahead at Mack’s (our dog) pace.

After the hike, we meandered into the museum. I was thrilled to catch a short movie about Stephen Bishop and his two fellow guides Mat and Nicholas. It spoke to their adventurous spirits and contributions to Mammoth Cave. I watched it through and then found the boys and watched it with them as well. I’ve not seen this movie at the museum before and wonder if I just didn’t notice it or if it was new. Either way, we enjoyed it.

Feeling satiated, we headed back for the evening. Passports in hand, their first stamps and National Park clicked off, we were ready for another National Park the next day.