The time had come. We had to leave Yellowstone. It’s bittersweet leaving a place. There is always more to explore and experience. It takes but moments for the longing of return to well up inside. But on the other side, there is so much to see! There is an excitement that comes with adventuring forward. To seeing something new.
We got up before dawn to pack up, enjoy a quick bite of yogurt and granola, and get ready to leave. This included an unexpected pre-sunrise siting of deer in the meadow – the perfect way to end our time at Bridge Bay Campground. By 7 AM we were headed East. With a quick stop in Cody, Wyoming to stock up on groceries, we enjoyed the 3 hour drive through the mountains of Yellowstone up into the Big Horn Mountains – an the site of the Big Horn Medicine Wheel. The Medicine Wheel was a site that I came aware of after watching a mini-series called ‘Into the West’ a few years ago. In 2011 when we drove through Ray and I stopped her with a hope of seeing the wheel at the top, but there was too much snow in July and it was inaccessible. This was a “must-see” for Ray, and so we returned, 3 years later, and this time in August, and the weather was more in our favour. The walk is 3 miles round trip, and the road straight up. The parking lot is at 9600 feet. I was pretty confident that the elevation and my lack of athletic abilities made it the wrong hike for me, so I stayed in the car, took a short nap, and let the athletic savants to their run up and down the hill. They were gone 40 minutes. I barely closed my eyes.
When we went in 2011, it took hours and hours of searching to find information on the internet about this place. Even now, there is only a small ranger hut, and a single pit toilet. But it as the status of a National Historic Landmark. And there is a wikipedia page. According to them: “For centuries, the Bighorn Medicine Wheel has been used by Crow youth for fasting and vision quests. Native Americans also go to Bighorn to offer thanks for the creation that sustains them, placing a buffalo skull on the center cairn as a prayer offering. Prayers are offered here for healing, and atonement is made for harm done to others and to Mother Earth.”
After the 40 minute mini-hike, it was 5 more hours behind the wheel – leaving Wyoming behind and crossing into South Dakota. While there are numerous gems to see in southwest South Dakota, we were there for the least glamorous one….the 8th annual Bat Festival. No. I’m not kidding. When we were planning for our trip we were googling weird and quirky things to see and do in the midwest. And we stumbled on a Bat Festival. And I laughed. And Ray got super excited. So Bat Festival it was! We stopped quickly at our campground to set up our tent, made a speedy pot of mac and cheese, and then down the road to the Bat Festival at the Game Lodge Campground in Custer State Park. And if you ask Raymond – IT WAS AMAZING. In fact, he hasn’t stopped talking about bats since. Sigh. You want to make him annoyed now, tell him bats cause rabies (total lie – but as the man who thinks bats are now cute and cuddly, he will have no one talk poorly about them!)
So yes. we drove 5 hours into South Dakota….for some bats. I can’t even say that aloud.
But you know wha else they have in South Dakota? ROCKS! Lots of rocks. Specifically the kind that dissolve with exposed to water and air and stuff – making CAVES!! There are Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument – and we only have time for one, so we went to Jewel Cave – mostly because of the famous CAVE BACON (rocks that look like Bacon). Now this puts us back in Meg’s territory. Ray and Meg did the 1 hour 20 minute scenic tour – down 700+ steps into the cave, where as I took the 20 minute mini-tour into the cave. I wasn’t scared of the steps – just the total and utter claustrophobia. So I stand behind my decision. There are very few people in the world who explore caves – and they can only do so 3-7 days at at time. For this reason there is still very little known about the caves. However, there is a possibility that Wind and Jewel Caves may actually be connected. If this is true, it will be the largest cave system in the world (Jewel is currently #3, Wind #5). It was very very cool – I think even more so to the geology nerd in the group.
When we wrapped up at Jewel Cave (which was 10:30 AM), we began the world’s boringest drive south towards Colorado. Now South Dakota – awesome. Colorado – awesome. West and North Wyoming – awesome. But driving South down the eastern side of Wyoming – NOT awesome. 5-6 hours through “fun” little towns such as Lurk, Guernsey, Wheatland, Chugwater and Little Bear Community (where everyone’s bed is toooooooooo soft). Just when we thought it wouldn’t end, we arrived in Cheyenne. Sounds like a good country town, right? Legit country, home of the Wrangler store and Rib fest, and giant cowboy boots on every street corner. Also known as….boring. Overpriced boots, sequinned jeans, cowboy hats made in china, and a rib fest that was in attendance by 20 people and one random guitarist. It was a let down. So our 1.5 hour stop turned into a 30 minute stop and we headed to a 3:45 dinner at Terry’s Bison Ranch. Great time for dinner if you are trying to avoid a crowd. Decent overpriced food. I had bison steak – my first time ever! It’s possible that Cheyenne could have been more interesting – but we were hot, and tired, and had been driving for the better part of the last two days. So we were happy to finally cross the Colorado state line and get a fresh start (and 3 nights in the same place without having to drive much in the next few days!)